Kris Milstead

Author's posts

Nov 15 2017

Review: The Clue in the Trees by Margi Preus

The Clue in the Trees by Margi Preus is the second in the Enchantment Lake series. Francie Frye from the first novel, Enchantment Lake, has decided to remain with her aunts in Minnesota for her senior year at the local high school.

On the night before her first day of school, France is awakened by the noise of her long-lost brother Theo sneaking into the house. While she is happy to see him, Francie can’t help but be suspicious of his sudden reappearance. First, he immediately involves her in a three-a.m. break-in during which they are chased by a mysterious figure in a trench coat. A few days later, he becomes a primary suspect in a murder. Desperate to protect her brother, Francie vows to stay away from the investigation, but decides she must solve the mystery once and for all when she herself becomes a suspect.

It is clear that The Clue in the Trees is very much a middle book. The plot advances just enough from the previous book to hold reader interest into the next book, but not enough so as to give too much of the next book away.

As with Enchantment Lake, Preus does an excellent job of setting the scene. The descriptions of places and characters will make the reader feel as if they know the setting and people. Dialogue is believable, and Preus’ characterization of Francie carries over well from the previous book. Even though she attempts every effort to avoid getting involved in the the latest murder mystery, she can’t help but be dragged along with the intrigue. Francie’s aunts, who provided a welcome whimsical factor in Enchantment Lake, appear again in The Clue in the Trees. Unfortunately, their role has been greatly reduced, and I found myself missing their presence.

Enchantment Lake and The Clue in the Trees bring up frequent comparisons to Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, and in fact, fans of those books will likely enjoy The Clue in the Trees.

Other books readers might want to explore after reading The Clue in the Trees include Bone Gap by Laura Ruby or Being Henry David by Cal Armistead. Both books contain quirky characters that are somewhat reminiscent of Francie’s aunts, and both involved mysteries that double as journeys of self discovery. Being Henry David is heavier in tone than either of the Enchantment Lake books but is still recommended for readers who enjoy the mystery genre.

The Clue in the Trees is an excellent book for middle-school aged readers looking for a bit of adventure and imagination. While readers may be tempted to give up due to the slower plot movement, I encourage them to remain. Unfortunately with any series, there is always that book which is used to advance the plot but also has to hold back in order to set up the next book. The Clue in the Trees is that book, and I anticipate that the next in the series will harken back to the same feeling of suspense and quick moving past that was found in Enchantment Lake.

Oct 26 2017

Halloween Books for Beginning Readers

Love Monster and the Scary Something by Rachel Bright is the most recent in the well known Love Monster series. Love Monster is struggling with insomnia one evening. The harder he tries to sleep, the more awake he becomes. As the night goes on, his imagination begins to run wild, and Love Monster is convinced the noises he is hearing are something terrible!

Love Monster and the Scary Something is a terrific book for helping small children understand and overcome basic fears such as fear of the dark or anxiety about unfamiliar noises at night. It is a lighthearted and amusing addition to the Love Monster collection. Bright writes well at a level that is easy for young kids to understand but does not condescend to them. I did find however, that Bright’s invention of the word “awaker” detracted from my enjoyment of the storyline. While it is tempting to create unique word choices to make stories more accessible to children, it came across as awkward in this instance.

There’s a Monster in Your Book by Tom Fletcher follows a monster who is trapped inside the book. Young readers are encouraged to shake, turn, and blow on the book to prompt the little monster along. Fletcher
has created a cute romp that young readers will enjoy though it is reminiscent of (and not as enjoyable as) The Monster At The End of this Book.

How To Catch a Monster by Adam Wallace centers around a tiny Ninja who is determined to scare away the monster he has discovered living in his closet. The two go against each other as the ninja repeatedly traps the monster who repeatedly breaks out of the traps. Finally, the ninja realizes the monster simply wants to make friends.

How To Catch A Monster employs a rhyming sequence that is jarring in places. In addition, Wallace has simplified the language to make it easier for early readers to understand, but it reads as if it has been too simplified even for the 3-5 year old age group it is marketed toward. Finally, the entire book culminates in a fart joke, which may appeal to young children but will leave parents rolling their eyes.

Sam the Most Scaredy-Cat Kid in the World by Mo Willems continues the story of a Sam, a little boy previously introduced in Willems’ book Leonardo the Terrible Monster. Sam is afraid of everything and everyone except his monster friend Leonardo. One day, however, Sam meets Kerry, the second most scaredy-cat kid in the world! Seeing that the two children are terrified of each other, the monsters conspire to help them see what they have in common and to overcome their own fears.

Willems’ writing starts out strong and does an excellent job of meeting kids on their level, however the ending is quite abrupt and readers are left without any resolution. This leaves the door open for continuing the series but, still, children will likely be left wondering “are the kids still scared?”, “what do the monsters do?”.

Bonaparte Falls Apart written by Margery Cuyler and illustrated by Will Terry, centers around a young skeleton who is literally having a hard time keeping himself together. When Bonaparte tries to throw a ball, his arm goes with it. When he tries to eat lunch, it’s rather jaw-dropping. Bonaparte is, quite simply, falling apart in the worst sense. Fortunately, he has a supportive group of friends and a surprising new companion who help him cope with the travails of being a little different.

Cuyler and Terry as a team create an adorable and clever story about insecurities and being a little different. Cuyler does an excellent job of writing intelligently and, in fact, makes use of some rather groan-worthy puns. Boneaparte Falls Apart should become a frequent rotation in the bedtime reading routine and is a wonderful story that both kids and parents will enjoy.

The X-Files: Earth Children are Weird by Jason Rekulak portrays Mulder and Scully as young children. The two alien hunters have pitched a tent in the backyard for a sleepover but are quickly bombarded by strange sights and sounds. True to their characters, Mulder is convinced aliens are behind every shadow while Scully insists there must be a rational, more commonplace source. What follows is an enjoyable story that plays nicely into the X-Files franchise.

Earth Children are Weird provides a wonderful way for parents to introduce young children to one of the most popular sci-fi shows of all time. While the television show is too intense for early readers, the book creates an entertaining side universe that will amuse fans of the series. Rekulak does an excellent job of presenting Mulder and Scully as children while keeping previously established elements of their adult personalities. Those who loved the TV show may have to indulge in a little suspension of disbelief given that Earth Children Are Weird plays a little loose with established canon.

Kim Smith’s illustrations complement the text brilliantly and her depiction of the amusing surprise ending will make readers both younger and older laugh out loud.

Jul 11 2017

Review: Superhero books for beginning readers.

The recent deluge of superhero movies has resulted in a marked increase in superhero books and comics.  Superman, The Justice League, Wonder Woman, and the Avengers are all slated to have new movies in the next couple of years.  In this vein, I decided to look at superhero books for young children.

  Good Morning, Superman, Be a Star, Wonder Woman, and Bedtime for Batman are a trilogy of books written by Michael Dahl designed to encourage kids in basic tasks such as brushing their teeth, bathing, and putting away their toys.

Good Morning, Superman starts the series by introducing the early morning routine.  A little boy leaps out of bed beginning his morning routine:  potty, getting dressed, breakfast, and finally, tooth brushing.  Presented alongside are depictions of Clark Kent/Superman going through his routine.  Beginning his day as Clark Kent, flying over the city as Superman, fighting bad guys, facing Lex Luthor armed with Kryptonite (a nice touch alongside the little boys kryptonite colored toothpaste) and finally, ending his day knowing he helped keep peace within the city.

Be a Star, Wonder Woman goes further into the school routine and tackles more complex behaviors such as conquering fears, sharing with others, and learning to write.  As with Good Morning, Superman, each of the child’s tasks is shown alongside Wonder Woman performing a similar superhero task.  Where Good Morning, Superman encourages young readers with everyday tasks, Be A Star Wonder Woman helps kids with more abstract concepts such as courage, treating others fairly, and working as a team.

 

Bedtime for Batman follows the same concept, juxtaposing the activities of the little boy getting ready for bed and Batman protecting Gotham.  As the little boy begins his nightly activities (wearing Batman pajamas of course), Batman is watching over the city by apprehending criminals such as Harley Quinn, Penguin, and the Joker.  The nightly bath is described as cleaning up the daily grime while toothbrushing is depicted as brushing aside his fears.  Even the topic of potty training is tackled in such a way that young children will relate.

Good Morning Superman, Be A Star, Wonder Woman, and Bedtime for Batman make a wonderful trilogy for toddlers and beginning readers.  The text is simple, with an easy to follow storyline, and illustrations that play off each other nicely.  Parents will likely find that any or all of these books become a nightly staple in their child’s bedtime routine but will also be granted the enjoyment of introducing a new generation to these superheroes.

Suggested companion books: Even Super Heroes Sleep, Super Heroes Have Friends Too!, Even Superheroes Have Bad Days

 

Mar 31 2017

Offbeat Almanac – April 2017

April 1:  Of course we all know today as April Fools Day, but did you know it is also Edible Book Day?  No joke!  Personally, I prefer a more figurative approach to my book devouring but hey, if literal is your thing, then today is your day!  Though might I suggest you try a hearty bowl of alphabet soup instead?

April 2: It’s National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day!  Celebrate today by cracking open a fresh jar of your favorite peanut butter and making yourself a sandwich!  Think of all the childhood memories you’ll be reliving.  Or if you’re like me and can’t have peanuts, use your favorite peanut butter substitute.  Just make sure you cut off the crusts!

April 3: Today is Don’t Go To Work Unless It’s Fun Day!  I think the celebratory method is pretty self explanatory.  Your boss might try to argue with you, but you can simply show them this article and explain that it’s a recognized national holiday.  Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll find something else soon….

April 4: I’m not sure any of us are going to want to observe today as it is World Rat Day.  I know some folks thing rats are an under appreciated animal but I have to admit, I’m not really one of them.  Nevertheless, if you are a rat lover, then today is your day.  Just don’t be too cheesy about it!

April 5:  Today we observe one of my favorite holidays with Deep Dish Pizza Day!  Who can resist a thick, crunchy, and fluffy crust topped with gooey mozzarella and pepperoni?  Celebrate today by supporting your favorite pizza place!  Order a half a dozen larges – after all you don’t want to be caught unawares if there’s a sudden pizza shortage!

April 6: It’s Teflon Day!  Don’t worry, it’s only one day and I don’t believe this holiday will really stick.

April 7:  Laundry piling up?  Dishwasher not loaded? Living room still not vacuumed?  Don’t stress as today is National No Housework Day!  Put your feet up and relax a little.  All the chores will still be there tomorrow.  (at which point maybe you can get someone else to do it for you!)

April 8:  Let the little kid in you roam free as today is Take Your Parents to the Playground Day!  Admittedly, if you’re like me and you’re in your 40’s with parents in their 80’s, this might look a little odd but are you really going to let that stop you?  I hear that merry go round calling your name!  Hopefully you won’t barf this time….

April 9:  I don’t want to alarm you but, today is National Chicken Little Awareness Day!  Don’t worry, I checked, the sky is still there.

April 10:  Today is National Sibling Day!  (Is not!) (Is too!)  (Is not!)  (Is too!)  (Moooom!)

April 11:  It’s National Be Kind to Lawyers Day! No really, you have to be nice to them today or they’ll sue.

April 12:  Today is one of my favorite holidays with Drop Everything and Read Day!  When your boss or spouse or significant other starts hassling you about spending the entire day reading, send them here.  These holidays are important after all!

April 13: Today is Scrabble Day! Be zealous, exultant, and exuberant in your celebrations!

April 14:  It’s Dictionary Day!  Use the day to brush up on some of those words you didn’t think of during Scrabble Day yesterday.

April 15:  Bet you can’t figure out what holiday today is!  Circus Day?  (Well, OK, yeah) Alien Appreciation Day?  (Nope!) Give up?  It’s Take a Wild Guess Day!  (See what I did there?)

April 16:  Today is an eggselent holiday with Eggs Benedict Day!  Coincidentally (or perhaps not so) it is also Easter.  Why not put your leftover Easter eggs to good use and make some Eggs Benedict out of them?

April 17:  Today is Blah Blah Blah Day!  Which I suspect is the noise you hear in your head as you’re reading this column….

April 18:  It’s Velociraptor Awareness Day, today!  Trust me, if I were to ever encounter a velociraptor you can be assured that I would be VERY aware of it!

April 19: We’ve celebrated this one in the past but I feel it is worth commemorating again:  it’s National Wear Your Pajamas To Work Day!  Put on your favorite footies or your Wonder Woman sleeper and head to the office!  I’m sure your boss will understand.  After all, you and HR are old friends by now!

April 20: Today is Lima Bean Respect Day.  Let’s be honest, do any of us really think Lima beans deserve any respect?  Eat a green cupcake instead.  You’ll enjoy it more.

April 21: Is Tuna Rights Day!  Honestly, I think there’s something fishy about this holiday, but I cod be wrong.  I don’t wish tuna any eel will, however, so if it’s rights they want, it’s rights they shall have!

April 22: It’s National Day of Puppetry!  Even if you have to pull a few strings to do so, I’m certain you can find a way to celebrate today!  If not, I’m sure someone would be willing to lend you a hand!

April 23:  Today is English Language Day.  It also happens to to be Talk Like Shakespeare Day!  Celebrate by throwing out words like “forsooth” and “verfily” into your conversation.  Would the Bard steer you wrong?

April 24:  Get ready to ham it up as it’s National Pigs in a Blanket Day! First mentioned in 1957 in Betty Crocker’s Cooking for Kids, this fun little pastry is also known as devils on horseback.  Somehow that just doesn’t sound quite as appetizing!

April 25: It’s International Marconi Day!  Named after Guglielmo Marconi, the 1st Marquis of Marconi, who was the first person to send a wireless transmission across the Atlantic, International Marconi Day is a virtual gathering of radio aficionados who broadcast around the world using the same radio technology Marconi used.  Celebrate like it’s 1901 and join the festivities by tuning in!  Or you can just pretend you know what you’re talking about and wish everyone you see today Happy Marconi Day.  Your choice.

April 26:  Today is a sedimental holiday for some.  In fact, on a scale of 0 to 9.5 I’d say it’s a pretty solid 7 for most.  Celebrations may leave you quaking in your boots, but don’t be shaken, I know you’ll be back on solid footing soon.  It’s National Richter Scale Day!

April 27:  – — -.. .- -.– / .. … / — — .-. … . / -.-. — -.. . / -.. .- -.– # / -.. .- … …. / — ..-. ..-. / .- -. -.. / -.-. . .-.. . -… .-. .- – . / .- -.-. -.-. — .-. -.. .. -. –. .-.. -.– #

April 28:  Look!  It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  No, it’s simply National Superhero Day.  Wear a cape and celebrate your favorite superhero today!  Unless your favorite is Wolverine in which case the whole Edward Scissorhands thing could get awkward when trying to greet your co-workers.  On second thought, celebrate on the down low today.  After all, you don’t want to give away your secret identity, do you?

April 29:  Today is Viral Video Day!  Whether you’re enthralled by the Ninja Cat or you’re angry at being Rick-Rolled, today is your day!  Sit back, relax, and YouTube all your favorite viral videos.  Just be careful and don’t let Charlie bite your finger ’cause ain’t nobody got time for that!

April 30:  Uh… What’s up, Doc?  It’s duck season!  No, it’s rabbit season!  Actually, it’s Bugs Bunny Day!  Queue up “What’s Opera, Doc?” or “The Rabbit of Seville” and relax!  Hopefully Elmer Fudd won’t find you, but if he does, just drop an ACME anvil on his head and continue your day.  Don’t worry, he’ll recover in time for his honeymoon with Bugs!

Feb 28 2017

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

With the recent resurgence of Marvel’s Thor movies, Norse mythology has become a renewed interest for many.

Neil Gaiman has held a fascination for Norse myths and legends for most of his life.  As a young boy he read a comic about the Norse god Thor.  Throughout his writing for most of his career, the theme of Norse mythology has been interwoven.  His comic Sandman uses Odin, Thor, and Loki in recurring roles and features several locations mentioned in Norse legend.  His novel American Gods also takes many elements of Norse mythology and places them in the present day.

In his latest book Norse Mythology, Gaiman goes to the core of the myths and tries to present them in an easily understandable, modernized manner.

Gaiman opens with the Nordic creation myth.  The myth states that before the beginning there were two worlds: the mist world and the fire world.  The mist world was called Niflheim and lay to the north.  The fire world lay to the south and was called Muspell.

The mist world was “colder than cold” while everything on the fire world glowed and burned.  “Muspell was light where Niflheim was gray,” Gaiman writes, and covered in “molten lava where the mist world was frozen.”

Between these two worlds was an empty and formless void called Gunnungagap.  Rivers from the mist world flowed into the void, eventually forming giant glaciers.  The glaciers in the north the glaciers were covered in fog and ice, but the embers and sparks from Muspell melted the ice in the south.  Eventually, life in the form of a person appeared in the waters and called itself Ymir who became the ancestor of all giants.  Out of the ice also came a cow named Audhumla who licked Buri, the ancestor of the gods, out of blocks of ice.

Ymir, who was neither male nor female, gave birth in it’s sleep to male and female giants one of whom married Buri.  Buri had a son called Bor who in turn had three sons:  Odin, Vili, and Ve.

The myth goes on to explain how Odin, Vili, and Ve grew into men, eventually creating other worlds and making people who Odin breathed life into – making him the all-father.

Further into Norse Mythology, Gaiman introduces the reader to other characters such us Sif (Thor’s wife) and Loki (Thor’s brother).  Many of the myths center around Loki causing trouble and Thor cleaning up his mess.  For instance, in The Treasures of the Gods, Sif wakes up with hair missing.  Thor immediately assumes that Loki is responsible because “…when something goes wrong, the first thing I was always think is it is Loki’s fault.  It saves a lot of time.”

When confronted, Loki admits to being responsible and says that he did it because he was drunk and it was funny.  What follows is a long and amusing tale of Loki nearly losing his head, accidentally getting Thor his hammer, and eventually, Sif regaining her hair.

Norse Mythology is like reading about your favorite dysfunctional family.  They are constantly at odds with each other but underneath is a tangible fondness.  Fans whose only previous exposure to Odin’s sons and the rest of the Norse gods is through the Marvel movies will find the same vexatious Loki and the same kind but slightly dense Thor.

Gaiman strips away overly complicated or flowery language and re-tells the myths in a straight forward easy to follow manner.  Well known for his characterization talents, Gaiman brings the ancient gods to life and allows the reader to believe, even if only for a moment, that the old myths are real.

Devoted fans of Gaiman will find familiar characters and themes in Norse MythologyAmerican Gods features both Odin and Loki disguised as Mr. Wednesday and Mr. World respectively.  Thor is mentioned in passing but does not feature in the main plot.

Odin, Thor, and Loki are also featured in Odd and the Frost Giants in which a young boy encounters an eagle, a bear, and a fox who turn out to be the ancient gods in disguise.

In addition, Gaiman’s comic Sandman: Seasons of Mists also features Thor, Odin, and Loki as well as a number of other characters drawn from different cultures including ancient Japanese and Egyptian mythology.

First time readers will likely enjoy Norse Mythology as it presents the stories with humor and makes them accessible to readers of different ages.  While there is some mention of sex, violence, and general mayhem, Norse Mythology is still appropriate for middle school age and older children.  Young children would likely find Odd and the Frost Giants a better introduction to Norse mythology, though both books are a good starting point for both adults and children.

Other works readers may want to investigate include Gaiman’s Trigger Warning, or D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths (previously titled Norse Gods and Giants).  While Trigger Warning does not center around any specific mythology or culture, it retains a fairy tale feel and many of the stories could easily be adaptations of cultural legends.  Trigger Warning and Norse Mythology also share the same conversational tone that is so quintessential to Gaiman’s work.

D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths is aimed at young children and will be a welcome addition to fans of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.  Filled with full page color illustrations, D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths overlaps significantly with Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.  Both tell of the theft of Thor’s hammer, the story of Balder, and the Norse creation story.  Adults who grew up on D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths will find nostalgic pleasure in D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths and may enjoy sharing it with their own children.

Other books readers may enjoy include Rick Riordan’s new series Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard.  Though less faithful to the original mythology, Riordan manages to create a world of adventure and excitement that will intrigue readers of all ages.

At just over 300 pages Norse Mythology is an easy afternoon read that will leave readers eager to learn more of Nordic culture and myths.

Rating: 

 

 

Jan 17 2017

Review: The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher is best known for her role in the Star Wars franchise as the iconic Princess Leia.  Many of us who are now adults spent long hours of our childhood pretending to be characters in the Star Wars universe.  Whether we were the snarky Princess escaping the clutches of the evil Lord Vader, the equally snarky and jaded smuggler Han Solo, or even the wise and stoic Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars left an indelible mark on our formative years.  (Except for the prequels – those don’t actually exist)

What fewer people realize though is that in addition to being an accomplished actress, Fisher was also a prolific author.  Given the impact of Star Wars on my own childhood, and the recent revelation of Fisher’s affair with Harrison Ford during the filming of the original movie, I was excited to acquire a copy of Fisher’s The Princess Diarist.  Soon after came the news of Fisher’s sudden death, making her most recent book her final book.

Fisher opens her memoir with a recap of highlights from 1976, the year she began filming A New Hope.  A number of things happened in 1976, Fisher notes.  Apple was founded, Interview with a Vampire was first published, and U2 was formed.  It was also a year of significant world events including Jimmy Carter beating Gerald Ford in the Presidential election and Son of Sam killing his first victim.  Finally, it was the prelude to the year in which Fisher feels her life radically changed forever.

Before auditioning for Star Wars, Fisher played a minor role in Shampoo.  Having grown up in a Hollywood household as the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Carrie Fisher comments that at the time the last thing she thought she wanted to do was go into show business.  Nevertheless, she auditioned for Shampoo on a lark, thinking at 17, that it would be exciting to be wanted by Warren Beatty “in any capacity at all.”  She got the role and went back to living at home, hoping that perhaps she would be able to soon move out now that she was “hip”.

Two years later, having dropped out of high school and bored with college, Fisher auditioned for Star Wars while home on Christmas break.

George Lucas and Brian De Palma held joint auditions for Carrie and Star Wars. Fisher auditioned for both – originally hoping for Carrie over Star Wars because she thought “Carrie in Carrie would be a casting coup.”

DePalma primarily led the auditions as Lucas sat mostly mute, simply observing.  After stumbling through the seemingly inane questions of “I see you were in Shampoo, how was it working with Warren Beatty?” and revealing that she would drop out of college if given either role, Fisher was convinced she had bombed the audition.  Much to her amazement, however, her agent called her a couple of weeks later with the news that she had been cast.

At the start of filming, Fisher recalls trying to remain under the radar so that nobody would notice that she had not lost the 10 pounds that were part of her casting contract.  She muses that the now famous Princess Leia hairdo may have been used in part to keep her face from looking too big.

Fisher then dives into what she dubs “Carrison”:  i.e. her three month long affair with Harrison Ford.  Fisher starts by stating that she had spent so long not talking about the affair that it was hard to know where to begin talking about it now and in fact her thoughts on it are somewhat reticent and disjointed.

The affair began, she reveals, in the back of a taxi on the same night Ford rescued her from some crew members who had purposefully set about to get her drunk as a prank.  They had intense and frequent sex on the weekends while studiously ignoring each other during the week.

Although Fisher admits she entered into the movie with the idea of having an affair with a crew member or cast mate, she was surprised that it became Ford given that he was married at the time, and she had intense feelings of guilt over that issue.

Fisher writes with a style that is conversational but rambling.  She begins passages on one thought, finds another thought in the middle, and finally, ends on yet a third thought.  While her recollections are humorous, I found her style to be rather labyrinthine and as a result frequently re-read passages in an effort to keep track.

A vast portion of the middle of the book contains transcriptions of the diaries Fisher kept during her time filming the movie.  In these, she reveals a deeply insecure young woman who was extremely conflicted about her relationship with Ford.  In one entry, she laments her penchant for inaccessible men noting previous experimentation with gay men and then men whom she knew would treat her poorly.  In another, she notes that she thinks Ford is boring which he tries to make look deliberate as if he is “the strong silent type.”  Eventually, towards the end, she admits that she is falling for him hard and muses that things might have gone better for her if she had fallen for Mark Hamill instead.

At first reading, these entries seemed like the melodramatic over the top lamentations of a teenager.  Then, thinking about it, I realized that is exactly what they were as Fisher was not quite 20 during filming.  She may have been finally telling the story as a 60 year old, but the feelings and thoughts were still that of her 19 year old self.  Given that, it was easier to understand her perspective and even smile a little bit at the heightened drama.

While the book starts off slowly, it improves as Fisher eventually figures out what she wants to say and actually says it.

Fans of Fisher’s previous works such as Postcards from the Edge or Wishful Drinking will likely enjoy The Princess Diarist.  Fisher employs the same conversational tone in each and reveals much of her struggles with poor self-image and becoming permanently tied to the role of Princess Leia at such a young age.

Some readers may be put off by her snarky and sarcastic descriptions of fan interactions, while others may cringe good naturedly and recognize a bit of themselves at fan conventions or autograph signings.

Overall, The Princess Diarist is a quick and somewhat enjoyable read with several moments which will evoke feelings of poignancy in light of Fisher’s now posthumous telling.

 

Rating: 

Nov 15 2016

Review: It Looks Like This by Rafi Mittlefehldt

The issue of bullying in teens and children has had an increase in awareness over the last few years, with countless news articles about teens or pre-teens who have been either victims or perpetrators.  Statistics show that approximately 160,000 teens skip school every day due to issues of bullying.  With those numbers in my head and a further awareness the bullied teens are nearly 10% more likely to consider suicide, I decided to review It Looks Like This by Rafi Mittlefehldt.

It Looks Like This centers around Mike, a 15 year old boy whose parents have recently moved Mike and his little sister Toby to Virginia from Wisconsin.  Mike’s father is authoritarian and religious.  His mother is equally religious but quiet and almost subservient.

The book opens after its ending.  A short chapter shows Mike recalling a memory of a time watching the sunrise with the other main protagonist, Sean.  This moment sets the stage for the second chapter which jumps back to the beginning where Mike is revealed as the narrator.

Dismayed that his son is “soft”, Mike’s father pushes him towards sports and similar activities in an effort to “toughen him up.”  Mike, recognizing that he is a misfit both at home and at school, tries to appease his father but has neither the talent nor the passion.

After Mike is paired on a project in French class with another boy in his class, Sean, things begin to change.  The two quickly strike up a close friendship and the tentative beginnings of a romantic relationship.  Unfortunately, neither Mike nor Sean can escape their fathers.  Nor can they get away from Victor, another boy in their class who has targeted Mike with his bullying.

It Looks Like This touches on issues of homophobia, cyber-bullying, and conversion therapy.  Religion is a very significant specter in Mike’s relationships with his family and friends.  Several of Mike’s friends at school are also part of his church.  His father’s mercurial temper is deeply intertwined with his religious convictions.  His is the final word in the household, and Mike’s mother is either too afraid or too conditioned to speak out against her husband.

It Looks Like This contains a good but not a great story.  Much of the blame for this lies in the characterization.  Mittlefehldt paints many of his characters with the same brush.  All the men in Mike’s church are stern and distant, while the women are meek and submissive.  The church minister is a stereotypical hellfire and brimstone preacher.  Certain characters are introduced as if they are meant to have some impact on the storyline and then dropped with no significant development.

Many of the scenarios presented in It Looks Like This fall prey to cliche and stereotype.  Mike’s sexuality is suspect due to his disinterest in sports and his strong artistic talent.  The only two characters who defy stereotype and convention are Mike’s sister, Toby, and Mrs. Pilsner, the mother of one of his friends.

Finally, the overall undercurrent of gay bashing feels suspect.  The reader, who is privy to Mike’s inner thoughts and recounting of the events, is given occasional hints that he is gay, but to the outsider, there would be no reason to suspect, other than the fact that he is not athletic and enjoys art.

Readers who enjoyed It Looks Like This might also like Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian, or The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan.  Each of these books address issues of bullying, adapting to a new environment, and first loves.

Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda specifically deals with the issue of cyber-bullying and has a far lighter tone, although both it and It Looks Like This veer toward the predictable.  Simon Vs. the Homospiens Agenda never fully addresses the consequences of the characters actions.  It Looks Like This goes slightly further yet still does not show the events as having any long term consequences for the perpetrators.  In fact, it is Mike and Sean who suffer the greatest consequence from the actions done to them.

In contrast to It Looks Like This, Cut Both Ways takes a more serious approach to the issue of bullying and creates more realistic scenarios, placing it somewhere between Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and It Looks Like This in tone.

As with Cut Both Ways, The Tragedy Paper treats the issue of bullying with a serious tone.  Like Mike, Tim becomes the target of one particular individual who seeks him out with malicious intent.   Also like Mike, Tim stands out as different and awkward, though Tim’s differences are primarily physical whereas Mike’s are that he is quiet, introspective, and uncertain of his sexuality.

Other similarities between The Tragedy Paper and It Looks Like This include a singular tragic event for which both boys blame themselves and which will shape both their futures.  Mike, however, unlike Tim in The Tragedy Paper, has a minor but direct role in the tragic event.  Also, while Tim is targeted by Patrick the jealous boyfriend of his crush, no particular reason is given for Mike being targeted by Victor other than a subtle implication of self-directed homophobia.

It Looks Like This is enjoyable, although the first half drags somewhat.  I found that the pacing increased almost exactly half way through, as I had just reached the point where I was ready to give up when the momentum increased.  As such, the second half of the book was stronger and more enjoyable than the first half.

In addition, I found the books formatting to be distracting.  Mettlefehldt does not use quotation marks to indicate who is speaking, but rather depends on line breaks and “he said” or “she said”.  While the “he said” and “she said” is standard usage, the lack of visual indicators for speakers made it difficult in places to differentiate narrative and dialogue.  This choice is based on the fact that Mike is retelling events that have already happened, but I felt that it detracted from the story and interfered with my enjoyment of the book.

 

Rating: 

 

 

 

Oct 25 2016

Review: Graphic Novels for Halloween

Halloween is on us again, and as in previous years, I thought I would do a Halloween themed review of books for kids, middle schoolers, and teens.

I recently discovered a series of classic horror literature converted to graphic novel format.  These include Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven & Other Tales.

Muted colors pervade Frankenstein, emphasizing the themes of loss and loneliness from the original text.  Characters are drawn with a perspective that creates a feeling of viewing from a  distance or being separated from the events of the story.  Frankenstein’s monster, were it not for his stitches and hallow face, could almost pass for a regular man.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde also utilizes color to emphasize theme but, in contrast to the monochromatic tones of Frankenstein, the illustrator makes heavy use of red, brown, green, and even pink.  Perspectives are closer with less depth of field, highlighting themes of chaos and madness.  Mr. Hyde is portrayed with deformed, almost caricature witch-like features.  In addition his face is marked with sores indicating disease such as smallpox or similar.

The Raven & Other Tales makes strong use of bright almost neon colors.  In one section of the book, each page is overlaid with a different bright color such as purple, turquoise, or red.  The reader is given a sense that the narrator is experiencing hallucinatory sensations.

While Dracula uses similar color schemes as Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the drawings are less detailed or refined.  In some places, sketches take on almost a satirical expression while in others there is detailed use of shadow and shading.  These may have been deliberate choices to highlight certain aspects of the story line.

Retaining the dialogue of the original text, these classics have been carefully illustrated to   retain the feel and theme of the original.  The graphic novel format may appeal to teens interested in exploring the original text in a more accessible or familiar format.  This introduction to the stories may further inspire teens to delve into the original novels.


Ghosts, a graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier, centers around the story of Catrina (Cat) and her family.  Her sister Maya has cystic fibrosis, so the family has moved to the coast of Northern California in an effort to improve Maya’s health.

BahÍa de la Luna is different from other places in that the old missions and constant fog provide the perfect conditions for ghostly visitors.  The entire town is obsessed with ghosts and as such Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is an especially grand affair.  Maya is delighted by this revelation.  Cat, however, desperately wishes it would all disappear.

As with Dracula and the other classics, the graphic novel format makes the story more accessible to younger readers or to kids who might not otherwise read a 200 plus page book.

The inclusion of the cystic fibrosis story line is presented in a positive yet realistic manner.  Cat knows that her sister’s lifespan is likely to be cut short due to her condition, and as such she is protective of her even as she finds her annoying.  The novel does not shy away from the subject of death but addresses it with a frank yet sensitive tone.  Maya’s illness has made her determined to live as full a life as possible, and feeds her obsession with the town’s ghost culture.  Cat, on the other hand, struggles with the idea that her sister might not always be around and as such, retreats more into herself and tries to reject the ghost stories.

Some readers objected to the depictions of the Dia de los Muertos celebrations claiming Telgemeier appropriated a culture that is not her own and that she presented the holiday as more of a “Mexican Halloween” than a day during which families honor and pray for those who have gone before.

Ghosts is not as scary as the title implies, but since the Dia de los Muertos holiday has come to be celebrated starting on Halloween Day it is an appropriate book for the time of year.  Children of Hispanic descent will likely enjoy a book which depicts characters who look like them and who have cultural similarities.


Peanut Butter and Brains written by Joe McGee and illustrated by Charles Santoso introduces the reader to Quirkville, a town overrun with zombies.  Reginald is a young zombie who is different from the other zombies in that instead of craving brains, he desperately wants a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  The residents of Quirkville are understandably frightened of the zombies.  After all, nobody wants to get their brains eaten.  In addition, the other zombies are confused by and skeptical of Reginald.  How can a zombie not be interested in brains they wonder?  Then one day, Reginald sees a little girl at the bus stop with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her hands.

Peanut Butter and Brains is a great book for beginning readers.  Santoso’s illustrations nicely complement the story line without being too frightening for small children.  The theme of standing out from the other zombies emphasizes the positive aspects of being unique.

Parents will be amused by Reginald’s eagerness for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and may in fact see their own picky eater within the plot lines.

Peanut Butter and Brains will delight kids and will not bore parents quite as quickly as a constant diet of peanut butter and jelly might.


I Will Not Eat You by Adam Lehraupt and Scott Magoon presents Theodore a monster who lives in a quiet cave.  Occasionally various animals wander by the cave and each time, Theodore wonders if he should eat them, but each time decides that he is not hungry.  Eventually, a little boy comes to the cave.  Theodore is getting hungry.  Should he eat the little boy?

I Will Not Eat You is a delightful book about little boys, dragons, and unusual friendships.  Illustrations are presented in large images with broad strokes and bright colors.  Young children will be eager to see whether or not Theodore eats the little boy, and parents will audibly laugh at the somewhat dark twist at the end.

I Will Not Eat You is a perfect addition to the collection of Halloween themed books and will likely become a favorite among young kids and parents.

Jul 12 2016

Review: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day is a comedic auto-biography.  Well known within the blogging/vlogging community, Day is also something of a minority, as she is a prominent female gamer.  In addition, she has gained acclaim for her web series The Guild and is noted for her accessibility within the fan community.  As part of this, Day launched Geek and Sundry, a fan-oriented community in 2012.

Day begins her book by introducing herself to those who “have no idea who the hell I am.”  She recalls an incident during which she stopped at Build-A-Bear.  Having some time to kill, she is soon recognized by a few girls from the Hot Topic next door.  As they clamor to get pictures, a mother who is also shopping there asks “Are you an actress?”  Day explains she is also a producer and writer and then realizing she is rambling says “Yes, I’m an actress.”

What follows is a surreal moment in which neither the mother, her daughter, or the sales clerk recognize her, raising the defensive ire of the “Hot Topics” as Day has dubbed them.

Extracting herself from the situation as gracefully as possible, Day heads to tour the Virgin Galactic hangar as part of a social media invite.  Such is the surrealness of her life, she reflects.

Based on those two factors, Day makes the assumption that the reader is either extremely excited to read her book (“OMG! FELICIA DAY WROTE A BOOK!”) or extremely confused (“Who the hell is this chick?”)  For those in the former category, she thanks you.  For those in the latter category she hopes you will stick around.

The first chapter, “Why I’m Weird”, details Day’s eccentric childhood.  Having attended regular schools for kindergarten and first grade, Day is sent to a conservative Lutheran school for second grade.  Her parents were not religious, but the school was the best in their Alabama community.  Day reflect that she enjoyed the school except for having to attend chapel everyday.

Due to a chapel illustration involving the burning of money, Day is soon pulled out of the Lutheran school and placed into a school that practices “unschooling.”  Day states that she does not remember much about that place except that they quickly closed, having embezzled the parents’ money.

Soon Day’s father is transferred from Huntsville to Biloxi at which point it is decided that Day and her brother Ryon will be home-schooled.  This goes well for about a week until any semblance of structure in their lives gradually ebbs.

Having just moved and not being on any official government lists, there is no one to supervise their schooling.  Art becomes something along the lines of “Can the doodles in the margins of my geometry chapter count as art?”  “Sure!”, and history becomes driving around the state visiting all the Civil War sites.  The one constant in their education is that they are expected to read constantly.

Eventually Day’s father becomes concerned, and Day and her brother are signed up for an  extensive array of lessons.  Ballet, jazz, martial arts, watercoloring, etc.  If it was available and fit into their schedule, Day and her brother were signed up for it.  Eventually Day makes her way to the end of her education and, during the writing of her book, realizes she has two college degrees but no high school diploma.

Having done some acting and modeling as a child, Day decides to return to Los Angeles after college to pursue an acting career.  Two months after moving, Day wraps up her first real acting stint and is cut a check for 90 dollars which bounces.  On follow up, Day finds out that the production company had shut down and disappeared.  She never got paid.  She does, however, decide to frame the check as a funny story to tell on Actors Studio after she is successful.

In 2005, at the peak of what Day refers to as her “auditioning for burger commercials” career, her brother invites her to play a new game called World of Warcraft.  Through the game, Day is able to connect with her brother and make new friends, but quickly becomes addicted, forgoing auditions, personal relationships, and most outside activities.  Day later draws on her experiences during this time in the creation of her web series The Guild which, in turn, is the work that finally launched her career.

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) is a fun and honest look into the early life and struggles of someone who has managed to make a career out of being socially awkward.  The Guild has won several awards for online series, and in 2009 was labeled “one of the Nets best serial shows” by Rolling Stone.  Geek and Sundry was launched in 2012 as part of YouTube’s 100 million dollar original channel initiative.

Day writes in an easy, conversational voice.  The tone of her writing belies the fact that Day is, in fact, an intense intellectual who started college at the age of 16 and graduated in the top four percent with dual degrees in mathematics and violin performance.  While her insecurities may seem off putting to some readers, Day manages to remain relatable with her comedic self-deprecation.

Readers who enjoyed Just A Geek by Wil Wheaton, or Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson should enjoy You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost).  All three books are written by celebrities who exude more of an Everyman persona.  Each of the authors is well known for their approachability and their frequent, personal interactions with fans.  All three authors have also shared intimate details their mutual struggles with anxiety and depression, allowing insight into their treatment, how these issues have impacted their careers and their creative efforts.  Finally, the three authors have developed lasting personal friendships with each other.  This has resulted in overlap in not only their books, but many of their professional endeavors.

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) is a fun and quirky read accessible even to those who have never heard the name Felicia Day.

 

Rating: 

Jun 21 2016

Review: The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

Over the course of his career, Neil Gaiman has written a number of essays, introductions, and speeches.  The View from the Cheap Seats pulls together over sixty of these pieces in one place for the first time.

For veteran fans of Gaiman, many of these writings will revisit previously seen works.  For newer fans, The View from the Cheap Seats is a rare and quite interesting look into the mind of one of the greatest modern writers.

The book’s preface sets the tone the collection with Gaiman’s personal credo: a very brief summary of the basic tenants by which he lives his life and which influence his writings.

Many of Gaiman’s beliefs seem self-evident: killing or maiming others to suppress ideas doesn’t work.  Neither does attempting to control the ideas or thoughts of others.  Gaiman argues that ideas in and of themselves are neither good nor bad – they simply exist and members of society should be free to express those ideas no matter how vile or reprehensible they seem to others.  Rather, Gaiman states, it is up to each person to counter and persuade those representing the vile and reprehensible over to their side.

From there, Gaiman jumps into a speech on the importance of libraries that he gave in 2013 for the Reading Agency, a U.K. charity whose mission is to help people become more confident readers. Gaiman admits that, as an author, he is biased towards libraries.  He also gives the reader a small insight into how libraries and librarians shaped his path when he was a child.  During the summer months, his parents dropped him at the library on their way to work and picked him up on their way home.  There he worked his way through the card catalogue looking for books on vampires, witches, detectives, and other wonders.  After he had finished with the children’s library, he began on the adult books.  During this process, the librarians nurtured his love of reading by teaching him about interlibrary loans and steering him toward other books he might enjoy.

Touching on his personal credo from the opening of the book, Gaiman later talks about Charlie Hebdo and the PEN literary gala.  Since six tables had pulled out of hosting tables and so Gaiman was asked if he would step in to host one.  He agreed and what follows is a deeply personal and touching moment between him and his wife, Amanda Palmer.  Palmer tells him he is doing the right thing and then asks “Will you wear a bullet proof vest?”  Gaiman argues that security will be tight and tries to assuage her fears by assuring her a vest will not be necessary.

“But you should wear a vest anyway.” Palmer argues.  “Remember, I’m pregnant, and our child will need a father more than a martyr.”  In the end, Gaiman does not wear the vest, but the exchange is a startling reminder of the power of ideas and words.  Comics and cartoons can viscerally offend, Gaiman argues, but that does not mean they should not be defended.  In closing, he quotes the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo “Growing up to be a citizen is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images can be shocking.  Being shocked is part of democratic debate.  Being shot is not.”

The View from the Cheap Seats is an odd mixture in both quality and subject matter.  Some of the writings are deeply personal, giving the reader a rare and intimate view into the writer’s childhood, school life, and very early career.  Gaiman shares his personal insecurities in interviewing authors he has long admired and reveals the origins of his friendships with figures such as Tori Amos, and Terry Pratchett.  Included among these is a moving tribute to Douglas Adams.

Other elements of the book are as ungainly as their titles suggest, such as “A Speech to Professionals Contemplating Alternative Employment, Given at PROCON, April 1997.”  As a reader and a reviewer that particular entry was a head scratcher.  Even in the seemingly banal, however, Gaiman manages to shine by offering an intriguing look into the publishing industry just before the Internet exploded and changed everything.

Throughout the book are numerous personal anecdotes of people famous and otherwise with whom Gaiman has formed close relationships over the course of his career.  Few though are as touching as the tribute to his wife’s late surrogate father, Anthony.

Intertwining themes of living and dying, Gaiman reveals the path of his relationship with Palmer and by extension, Anthony.  Ironically, Gaiman and Palmer meet as a result of her commissioning Gaiman to write a handful of stories and poems for her album “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?”  During their first date, she introduces Gaiman to Anthony who proclaims that he thinks Gaiman would make a good boyfriend.  Despite not yet realizing Anthony’s importance to Palmer, Gaiman is nonetheless pleased.  Anthony soon becomes not simply Palmer’s close friend but a trusted confidant and counsel to Gaiman.  Then, approximately six months after Gaiman and Palmer are married, Anthony is diagnosed with leukemia.  In the midst of this, two other of Gaiman and Palmer’s friends die unexpectedly.  Finally, the news is delivered that Anthony is in remission.  Sadly, however, a post-script reveals that Anthony in fact died from leukemia in June of 2015.  What is not revealed in the piece, but is of importance, is that three months later, Palmer gave birth to a son, named Anthony in honor of their dear friend.

Fans of Gaiman’s previous works will find themselves enthralled with The View from the Cheap Seats.  Gaiman has long had a reputation for being open and accessible to fans.  The View from the Cheap Seats, however, offers a deeper, more intimate look at Gaiman’s early life and career.  One can easily imagine from his prose a serious and quiet little Neil Gaiman stuffed into the corner of his local library.

Those previously unfamiliar with Gaiman should enjoy his conversational style and dry humor.  Gaiman is that rare mixture of both famous and unassuming.  It is clear from his writing and the stories he relates that he is exactly as he seems: a somewhat befuddled English bloke who likes to tell stories.

 

Rating: 

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