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.”