Neil Young’s Greendale by Joshua Dysart and Cliff Chiang – A Book Review

The graphic novel Greendale serves as a companion piece to the Neil Young album and movie of the same name.  I was totally unfamiliar with both before reading the graphic novel, and, after a little bit of investigating, it seems you can enjoy the graphic novel with no knowledge of its sisters.

That being said, Greendale is an interesting book in many respects, and disappointing in others.

The story revolves around Sun Green, young woman who has inherited a mysterious connection to nature, as do all of the women in her family.  Sun is experiencing visions that she doesn’t quite understand, and when a stranger comes to the small town of Greendale, those visions are forced to become a reality – for better or for worse.

Greendale is set in 2003 and is a politically-charged, socially-relevant commentary on ecology as well as our military actions from that year on.  Joshua Dysart’s dialogue flows along nicely, and Cliff Chiang’s artwork is both pleasing to the eye and incredibly adept at conveying the characters’ moods, thoughts, and personalities.  However, the real star of this book is the colorist, Dave Stewart.  I read an advanced copy of Greendale that was mostly in black and white, but those few pages that were colored were astounding.  I can’t wait to see the final product to see the rest of Stewart’s colors.

On the other hand, Greendale is a convoluted plot that never made total sense.  There are far too many characters with similar names to keep track of, and, at times, I caught myself thinking, “What’s the point of this story?”  Yes, there is a lot of social and political criticism, but there’s also an underlying story involving mysticism that never really rises to the surface in any meaningful and satisfactory way.  I generally enjoy Vertigo’s offerings, but the plot of Greendale was a bit too heavy-handed and vague for my taste (which is a strange pairing).

The art is very pleasing, the coloring is fantastic, the dialogue isn’t bad, but the overall story failed to entice.

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton – A Book Review

The Lock Artist pleasantly surprised me.  While I realized it was a crime/mystery novel, I never expected it to have so much heart, such great characterization, nor did I imagine the plot would be so tightly woven.

The protagonist of the novel, Michael, is a young man who refuses to speak due to a past tragedy and has a preternatural talent at picking locks and opening safes.  His history is complex and rich, and Hamilton makes a point to slowly reveal those things we most want to know, and in doing so he builds the tension.  It’s worth noting, consequently, that those revelations are well worth the wait.

Hamilton presents an interesting first-person narrative style by having Michael recount his past to us, but he does so in two different phases.  One phase of his recollections are his most recent jobs, especially the one that lands him in his current predicament.  The other phase explains how and why he initially became a “box man,” a safe-cracker.  Both plot lines are engaging, and Hamilton converges them at just the right moments.  The meticulous complexity of Hamilton’s plot was a delight.  There literally is nothing in this novel that does not play an important role to the overall story.

Hamilton also impressed me by making it seem as though Michael really is a “golden boy” at opening safes.  I have no idea how accurate Hamilton’s depictions are, but they certainly were specific enough to suspend my disbelief.

But the great joy of The Lock Artist is the precision Hamilton exemplifies with his main character.  Michael is a realistic, charismatic, deeply layered character and I found myself truly caring about his plight.  The greatest compliment I can give Hamilton is that Michael now exists within my mind as a vital entity.

With a smooth, enjoyable writing style, Hamilton produced a fast-paced, incredibly well-crafted novel that not only provides plenty of excitement, but some legitimate characterization as well.  Even if you’re not a crime/mystery novel reader, I know you’ll enjoy The Lock Artist.

No Fear In My Classroom by Frank C. Wootan – A Book Review

By and large, No Fear In My Classroom offers one man’s opinion on how to deal with fear in the classroom and fearful aspects of being an educator.  While many of his points are possible, most of them are unlikely to occur and could needlessly frighten you.  As he says, though, it’s always good to plan ahead even if improbable.

I have to admit up front that I was skeptical of Mr. Wootan because he had been in the insurance business thirty years prior to becoming an educator.  I kept asking myself, “What brought him into education at such a late stage?  Extra money?  Research to write books?  Or a burning desire to enter a profession he’d always dreamt of?”  Sadly, he never directly answered my questions, though I do admire him for freely discussing his past as a businessman and often giving examples as to how it helped serve him as an educator.

No Fear In My Classroom takes a rather common sense approach to teaching, and if you’re not a first-year teacher, you probably already know your thoughts on many of Wootan’s topics.  Some of his “fear” subjects were a bit over-the-top in my mind, however, if nothing else, Wootan’s book is a good vehicle for reflection and, in some cases, even gave me new and helpful ideas.

I wouldn’t describe Wootan’s writing style as particularly dynamic, though it is easily digestible. He makes a point to offer some very interesting statistics as well as noting a few beneficial websites.  It’s written in a very businesslike fashion, which would stand to reason considering his background.

If you’re a first-year teacher, Wootan brings up several points that are probably good to think about, though most of them will never occur in your classroom.  Just try not to become overwhelmed by the possibilities he brings up.  I think if you’re a seasoned teacher and you’re capable of picking and choosing what you want to take to heart from what you read, No Fear In My Classroom is also a helpful refresher.

The Bronx Kill by Peter Milligan – A Book Review

The Bronx Kill is a graphic novel released through Vertigo’s crime imprint.  In case you’re not aware, Vertigo is a division of DC Comics, aimed at mature readers and offering mature content.  Not pornographic, mind you, just a little bit more adult-themed.  Think of DC as network television, and Vertigo as HBO.

Peter Milligan delivers a story about a young writer who opted to ignore the family’s history of going into law enforcement.  He takes his young wife to visit The Bronx Kill, a space of forlorn land where terrible things have happened to his family in particular.  She is fascinated by it, especially given his father’s past.  The writer soon leaves the country in order to research his newest novel, but when he returns, his wife—and his life—are irrevocably changed … and it has everything to do with The Bronx Kill.

I have to admit that much of Milligan’s story was predictable and well-tread.  However, he put enough suspense into it to make it an enjoyable read, and once through the first third of the book, I couldn’t put it down—despite its familiar ingredients.  Milligan did one thing, however, that really set The Bronx Kill apart.  He inserted excerpts from his main character’s latest novel, and it isn’t long before the passages begin to parallel the main storyline.  I thought this was a nice touch that really made the book feel special.  It definitely augmented the book’s quality in my mind.

James Romberger provided the art for The Bronx Kill, and he does a serviceable job.  To me, his work didn’t really stand out as especially captivating.  And while he successfully conveyed the mood, the story’s progression, and the action, his pictures just didn’t seem to totally fit with Milligan’s themes.

Overall, The Bronx Kill is a fast, enjoyable read with some moments of real originality.  If you’re a fan of crime noir and sequential art, I’d give it a try.

Valeria’s Last Stand by Marc Fitten – A Book Review

I have to admit that I only chose to read this book because I liked its cover, so nothing could have prepared me for just how much I would love it.

Valeria’s Last Stand takes place in a tiny Hungarian Village during the modern day.  It features Valeria, who is an old woman and the village bully.  When she falls for a local artisan, however, Valeria becomes a mystery not only to her neighbors, but even unto herself.

Marc Fitten delivered a smoothly written, charming, humorous, well-developed story.  The characters leapt off the page and even the surliest of them were loveable.  Valeria was particularly charismatic, though she would cringe at being described as such.

I would have called you crazy if you’d told me I would love a book about an old woman in a remote, Hungarian village giving love one last shot, but I did, and that’s a credit to Marc Fitten.

No matter what your tastes in genre, I whole-heartedly recommend Valeria’s Last Stand.

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link – A Book Review

In a recent interview, Michael Chabon recommended reading Kelly Link.  His suggestion was good enough for me, and so I quickly got a copy of the short story collection Pretty Monsters from my local library.

I think the first thing I need to note is that Pretty Monsters is a young adult novel.  Meaning that, while there is some profanity and adult circumstances, the stories largely focus upon young adult protagonists and largely investigate themes important to young adults.

However, that is not to say that you should turn your nose up at this book if you are an old adult as opposed to a young adult.  (I’m 32, where does that put me?)  Link has one of the most imaginative minds I’ve ever run across.  While her stories dealt with aspects of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, each was completely original and refreshingly weird.  I mean that as a total compliment, by the way.  Oftentimes, I feel like authors aren’t willing to get flat-out weird enough.  I’m not talking perverse—I’m just talking weird in a fun and provocative way.  Link often took her stories in unexpected directions, and if you do manage to predict an outcome to one of her stories, be assured that she meant for you to do so.

My only complaint about Pretty Monsters, though, is the fact that each story tended to end on a rather abrupt, inconclusive note.  Some people really enjoy this, but I personally prefer more decisive endings.  Link charmed me, consequently, when she addressed this issue in—appropriately enough—the final story in the collection.  Somehow the fact that she’s cognizant of her trends makes it less irritating for me.

In particular, I recommend “The Faery Handbag,” “Magic for Beginners,” “Pretty Monsters,” and, by far one of the best short stories I’ve ever read, “The Surfer.”

Bones of the Moon by Jonathan Carroll – A Book Review

I’ve read Carroll’s Land of Laughs and found his characterization very impressive in that particular book, although I felt his plot bottomed out toward the ending as it abandoned those previously established traits.

With Bones of the Moon, however, I never really connected with his protagonist, Cullen James, or her friends and family.  While they had interesting backgrounds, they simply didn’t feel real to me.  Because of this, and what I consider awkward dialogue, I couldn’t fully immerse myself in Bones of the Moon.

I would like to note that Carroll had an incredible concept.  I especially enjoyed the role of abortion in the novel and the psychological undertones that resulted.  Carroll did a remarkably nice job of leaving the specifics of the fantasy world that his main character travels to rather vague.  At one point, you think that she is slipping into Rondua during her dreams, but then you suspect that it’s just the opposite: that Cullen is sliding into our world from Rondua.  But then, just when you’ve about made up your mind one way or the other, Carroll hints that perhaps this is all simply in her head—the mind’s way of dealing with an unhealed emotional scar.  And then the end of the novel arrives, and all three of these possibilities converge, and you’re left with no answers at all.

If this sounds complicated, it is.  And, had the dialogue been just a little more practical, I think things might have been different for me.  But the dialogue tended to teeter on the edge of hyperbole, and this took me right out of the novel.

I won’t give up on Carroll, though.  The two novels I’ve read by him have had some extraordinary qualities and it’s obvious that his imagination is superb.  Perhaps I’ll try one of his more recent works and see what I think since the two I’ve read were from before 1988.

It should be noted, by the way, that Carroll had rave reviews for Bones of the Moon by none other than Stephen King himself, so take that into consideration.

Peter & Max: A Fables Novel by Bill Willingham – A Book Review

In many cases, novelists have difficulty making the jump to comic book writing just as comic book writers and screenwriters may have a rough time adapting to pure prose writing.  I’m happy to report that Bill Willingham not only made the jump to prose writing well, but he exceeded my already lofty expectations.

Okay, I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer full disclosure and admit that I am a huge Fables fan.  That doesn’t mean I automatically give Willingham a free pass, though.  I’ve written some glowing Fables reviews, but I’ve also come down pretty hard on the title every now and again.  I’m simply trying to clarify that while I may not be totally objective with Willingham, I can remain critical.

For those unfamiliar with Fables, the premise is that all of our storybook legends, nursery rhyme characters, and mythological figures are very real and lived in their own worlds.  When their homelands were overrun by an evil overlord, they fled to our dimension just as New York was being founded.  There they have lived among us ever since, always searching for a way to win back their own lands.

Peter & Max is a very well-written, tightly-plotted, astutely-orchestrated novel.  As you know, it focuses upon Peter Piper and his brother, Max, as well as Little Bo Peep.  And in true Fables fashion, Willingham is sure to deliver the scenes we’d expect from such characters, but he also makes them his own and offers some unexpected twists and turns.  I also enjoyed that the chapters alternate – a chapter will focus upon Peter and Max’s past, and then the next will zero in on the present.  This was a great way to build suspense while slowly revealing pertinent plot points.

What I appreciate the most about Peter & Max, though, is the fact that it makes sense.  Willingham lays the groundwork early on and doesn’t throw any last minute plot-changers into the mix.  While he still managed to catch me off guard, none of the resolutions struck me as, “No fair!  That came out of nowhere!”  Too many times an author plays willy-nilly with their climax and resolution, but not Willingham.  He remained consistent throughout, even if we couldn’t guess why he included certain bits of information early on.

Furthermore, while I believe a Fables fan will especially love this novel, by no means is Fables a necessary read in order to enjoy Peter & Max.  If anything, I see the novel as a gateway to the comic book, though I’m certain the comic book fans will be frothing at the mouth to pick up this book, and rightly so.

Willingham has a captivating writing style, and I like the fact that while he gives us nuanced details, he doesn’t go overboard with it.  I really can’t emphasize enough Willingham’s skill as a prose writer.

Well-written, surprising, exciting, and carefully plotted, Peter & Max will impress and delight both Fables fans and those entering the Fables world for the first time.

Do Not Deny Me by Jean Thompson – A Book Review

Do Not Deny Me is one of those rare short story collections that actually gets better as it progresses.

I must admit that I picked this book up simply because it was a short story collection and, as a short story writer, I try to familiarize myself with successful authors’ styles and subjects.  When I read the author biography and discovered that Thompson only lives fifty miles away from me, well, I automatically wanted to like the book and support a fellow Central Illinoisan.

We got off to a rough start.  The first story in Do Not Deny Me, entitled “Soldiers of Spiritos,” began promisingly enough but then fell flat as it detailed a burnt out professor and an “emo” student.  “Wilderness” was not much of an improvement as it followed the stories of two middle-aged women—friends—and their troubled love lives.  The third story was almost enough to make me put down the book; “Mr. Rat” was the typical jerk at work story focusing upon an egocentric young man.

But then, with the fourth story called “Little Brown Bird,” things markedly improved.   From that moment on, nearly all of the following stories were extremely good.  In particular, I enjoyed “The Woman at the Well,” a story about a female prison Bible study group; “Escape,” a story about an elderly man still suffering from the ramifications of a stroke trying to gain his independence again; “How We Brought the Good News,” a story about a spurned lover discovering amazing art in her workplace and hunting down the artist; and, my absolute favorite, “Treehouse,” a story about a middle-aged man who just doesn’t much see the point of anything anymore, and so he builds himself a tree house as a coping mechanism.

Thompson excels at presenting identifiable, realistic characters that will most certainly remind us of people we know (if not directly ourselves).  While few of her characters are heroic, their idiosyncrasies tended to win me over (though not always), and it’s obvious they were as real to Thompson as the keyboard I’m typing upon is to me.  Her stories are well-plotted and her craftsmanship is faultless.  She succeeds in giving us just enough detail to satisfy our mind’s eye, but she does not overindulge as so many writers are prone to do.

There are five stories in this collection that more than justify the price of this book, and if you’re a fan of character-driven, convincing, adroitly written stories that reveal the hardships of the average person, then I whole-heartedly recommend Do Not Deny Me.