Tag Archives: social issues

The Ogre Downstairs

Author: Diana Wynne Jonesthe ogre downstairs

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Johnny, Caspar, and Gwinny are pretty much convinced that their new step-father is the worst thing that could have happened to him; he’s grumpy, demands quiet all the time, doesn’t understand children at all, and gets angry at the slightest things. The three siblings actually call him “the Ogre” when he’s not around to hear. The Ogre’s two sons, Douglas and Malcolm are fairly high on their “worst things” list as well–stuck up prigs that they are. But there’s nothing like a good distraction to keep your mind off your troubles, and the Ogre inadvertently provides the best distraction possible: two chemistry sets (one each for Johnny and Malcolm) that have some most unusual effects. Giving the ability to fly, just for instance. . . . Soon all five children are way out of their depth, experimenting with all sorts of combinations to see what magical effects they can achieve–and trying to clean up the unexpected results!

With her classic good sense and amazing writing, Diana Wynne Jones produces another magical (in all the best senses of the word) tale in The Ogre Downstairs. Although this is an older story (copyright 1974), it’s full of the excellent characterizations, beautifully accessible writing, incredible observation of people, and neverending sense of wonder and adventure that mark, well, all of her works that I’ve ever read. I found it intriguing that, in this story, rather than the usual buildup to a huge finish toward the end, the pacing is more gradual with more seeming to happen right from the start. It actually reminds me of an Edith Nesbit story somewhat, what with the magic chemistry set providing the catalyst for all sorts of rather episodic adventures. Everything ties together beautifully though, which is something I’ve always admired about Jones’ writing. And the characters are wonderful–the kids avoid being stereotypes and are people you can relate to easily, yet each of the five has an individual personality that is kept quite distinct. Very artistically done. My sole complaint, and the one reason this isn’t a 5-star read in my opinion, is that some of the Ogre’s actions were construed, in my mind at least, as being outright abusive–as opposed to a bit ornery and unaccustomed to children but generally well meaning, which I think was the intent. Part of that is the children’s perspective, part is that this is a 70’s story and things were seen differently then, and part is that I work with kids and am trained to be unnaturally sensitive to that sort of thing; however, even with those explanations, the situation was enough to bother me, especially with the ending being what it was. Still, on the whole, even considering that issue, I found The Ogre Downstairs to be a very enjoyable children’s fantasy that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys Jones’ books (or Edith Nesbit’s or Edward Eager’s, for that matter).

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review

Embroideries

Author/Illustrator: Marjane Satrapiembroideries

My rating: 3.5 of 5

WARNING: MATURE AUDIENCE

After dinner is finished and the men have gone off to nap or whatever, Marji and the other women present settle down over a samovar of tea to gossip. Naturally, in present company, the topic turns to men, sex, and the changing roles of women in Iran as the western world gains more influence on the younger generations. Each woman has her own unique story and perspective, and these nine women are more than ready to share.

Most of you know Marjane Satrapi as the author of the acclaimed PersepolisEmbroideries is a graphic novel that could really be considered a companion volume to Persepolis, being another memoir of the authors, of a sort, and using the same unique but enjoyable art style. It truly is interesting, being invited into an incredibly intimate setting to share in these women’s conversation, and the insight provided into the roles of women in Iran is truly eye-opening. But as I mentioned in the summary, a lot of the talk is about sex, so this is definitely an adult book–I’d say 18+, although most would probably rate it more like 16+. And I’d have to say that the intended audience is primarily female, although I guess some guys might find it interesting–usually probably more like embarrassing, though. I think I’d say that for adult women who enjoyed PersepolisEmbroideries might be an interesting graphic novel to try . . . but I really would limit it to basically that group of individuals.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review

The Gift of Sarah Barker

Author: Jane YolenGift of Sarah Barker

My rating: 4 of 5

It is truly stifling to be a free spirit in a world bound up with rules and ceremony. So Sarah finds to be true living in a highly structured Shaker community where every action is watched and judged. Yet though the consequences may be severe if she’s caught, she still dares to slip away to be alone and delight in the birds and beauty surrounding their small community. Meanwhile, Abel finds himself questioning the same rigid Shaker rules, struggling to match them with both reason and with the rampaging thoughts and feelings that growing up is forcing him through. And when he encounters Sarah, when he truly notices her for the first time, something changes irrevocably in a way that would be direly condemned in their society that forbids nearly all interaction between men and women.

How should I say this . . . The Gift of Sarah Barker, based on its cover, is exactly the sort of book I hate: sordid romance made to seem more thrilling by the danger of a highly disapproving society. If it hadn’t been written by Jane Yolen, I would never have even tried reading it. I’m glad I got past the cover (gross misrepresentation, by the way) and gave the story a try. What I found within was an intriguing historical novel, told in two voices, revealing a fascinating view of a most unusual community. I found out things about the Shaker community in the 1850’s that I had never heard of before, so that was interesting. Moreover, Sarah and Abel are well developed individuals who struggle with all sorts of complex issues (ones that are actually applicable to normal people today) and who have characters that I truly enjoyed reading–not just love-struck obsessives. There is a love story involved, true, but it doesn’t take up nearly so much of the book as I had expected AND it’s actually dealt with realistically. I actually would really recommend The Gift of Sarah Barker, especially to young adult (and older) readers who enjoy historical fiction or are interested in this time period.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review

Nimona

Author/Illustrator: Noelle Stevensonnimona

My rating: 5 of 5

Lord Ballister Blackheart has settled fairly comfortably into his role as villain and arch-nemesis to his former best friend Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, enjoying some dabbling in scientific research on the side, when Nimona shows up. This young girl with her shaved head and radical ideas throws Blackheart’s routine all out of whack, claiming to be his new sidekick and quickly demonstrating that his version of villainy–one that is predictable and follows certain set guidelines–is not nearly as villainous as what she can cook up. And while not exactly willing to go along with Nimona’s crazy schemes, Blackheart does certainly find this vivacious young shapeshifter growing on him, making his life more interesting and his home less lonely. Because the truth is that Nimona might just be the most lonely one of all.

I was thrilled to accidentally discover Nimona at the library recently. This graphic novel (which gets bonus points for having started out as a webcomic) is a delight to read throughout. The style is dynamic and unique–I love the visual contrast of magical stuff, knights in armor, and such against science, explosions, and girls turning into sharks! And the characters are great, full of individuality and interesting to try to understand. The story is this great combination; it’s surprising, funny, and heartwarming, sometimes all at once. Theoretically, there’s supposed to be a lot of political/social symbolism and commentary mixed in; honestly, my brain’s too tired to really pick it all out, but it’s a great story even without all that. If you’re up for a graphic novel that’s a bit out of the ordinary in an awesome sort of way, I would definitely recommend Nimona as a great, fun read.

2 Comments

Filed under Book Review

Scott Pilgrim

Author/Illustrator: Bryan Lee O’MalleyScott Pilgrim

My rating: 4 of 5

You could say that Scott has a problem with commitments. That might be the reason why, at age 23, he’s lazing about, free-loading off his roommate Wallace, dating a high-school girl (the most recent in a long line of girlfriends), and playing in a mostly-awful band with some friends instead of actually getting steady work and maybe a consistent relationship. . . . Maybe. A lot changes in his life when he falls for Ramona, a delivery girl who he initially meets literally taking a shortcut through his dreams–don’t ask, it works. Ramona has issues with commitment too, and a requirement of their relationship is that Scott defeat all seven of her evil exes. Talk about unusual relationships!

So . . . in spite of the premise sounding definitely odd, Scott Pilgrim is actually a pretty neat graphic novel series. I mean, what’s not to love about a Canadian geeky shounen graphic novel?! And I’m very serious about all three of those adjectives. It’s very Canadian–classic Bryan Lee O’Malley with the super-neat art that entails. But it’s also emphatically more geeky than any of his other graphic novels that I’ve read so far (such as Seconds or Lost at Sea); seriously, there are all sorts of video game effects scattered throughout, especially during the fights, as though they were normal. I love it! And yes, this is definitely a shounen story: girls, fights, leveling up, and all. But in spite of being kind of cheesy at parts, this story is also a very telling picture of what it’s like to be a young adult today, of the challenges of getting from childhood to independent adulthood. And I really do appreciate where O’Malley brought the story–for a long while, I was wondering if it would ever make it. So . . . I don’t think Scott Pilgrim is for everyone, but for those with whom the very description “Canadian geeky shounen graphic novel” resonates, seriously, check it out. It’s fun!

Note: There are at least two editions of this graphic novel, one in black and white and another colored by Nathan Fairbairn. They’re both the same story, but I think the color really suits the story and adds an extra layer of fun.

Note 2: This review is for the entire 6-volume set. You probably figured that out already, but these are published a little differently that most manga in that they have separate titles for each volume.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review

A Scanner Darkly

Author: Philip K. Dicka scanner darkly

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Talk about confused identities! Fred is an undercover narcotics agent living among drug users and dealers as Bob Arctor. And Bob Arctor is a drug user himself–a user of Substance D, a drug that eventually causes separation of function between the lobes of the brain. It can also cause users to be dually (or half, depending on how you look at it) aware, with each side of the brain functioning independently, unaware of what the other half is doing. So it is with Agent Fred, who is assigned to cover a group of users including Bob Arctor . . . and who is becoming less and less coherently sure that he in fact is Bob Arctor as he takes more and more of Substance D, becoming an addict in the course of doing undercover work. Of course, there is the possibility that even that was in the plans somewhere.

A Scanner Darkly was an interesting read, but I guess mostly it just wasn’t what I was expecting. This is old-school science fiction, but it doesn’t really read like sci-fi–actually, it reminds me of Steinbeck’s social commentaries more than it does, say, Verne’s steampunk sci-fi. There are certainly some science fictional elements (like suits that make your identity indiscernible), but this book is much more a commentary on the effects of drub abuse–from someone who lived through the experience, as Dick mentions in the author’s note. It was moving and horrifying but also somewhat draggy, in my personal opinion. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had liked the characters better, although they were quite well written, and the dissolution of Fred/Arctor’s identity was effectively portrayed. Also, I have to note that the random German quotations scattered throughout were a detraction from the story for me . . . because honestly, I can’t read German, and I don’t want to take the time to find a translation in the middle of reading. In all fairness, this is the first Philip Dick book I’ve read, and I’m really not familiar with his style, so I’ll probably try to find a different book of his to read before I give up on his writing . . . but I can’t say that I would particularly recommend A Scanner Darkly except for readers who like that social commentary sort of story and who don’t mind some weird sci-fi elements mixed in.

2 Comments

Filed under Book Review

How They Met and Other Stories

Author: David LevithanHow They Met

My rating: 4 of 5

Love is perhaps one of the strangest things in the world. It’s universal, and yet so often uncomprehended, misunderstood, and frankly baffling. It can begin in the most bizarre, unexpected places and situations. It can develop along lines you’d never imagine. Sometimes it gets a little help along the way. All too often, it doesn’t work out. But when it does, it’s amazing, a real-life miracle and a precious, surprising treasure.

Throughout the years, David Levithan has written short stories as Valentines Day gifts for his friends–sounds like a much better gift than chocolate to me! Anyhow, a number of those stories have been collected here in How They Met and Other Stories. This is truly a delightful, if eclectic, short story collection featuring love in its many, surprising facets. The stories range from sweet and funny to serious and heartbreaking, but one thing ties them all together: they are all written with Levithan’s keen observation of people. It’s remarkable how he can craft even a super-sappy coffee-shop romance and not make it Hallmark-ey (ick). And some of his stories are truly deep and thoughtful. Personally, as an intentional single, I really appreciated his story featuring a girl who got to the point where she decided she didn’t need to be in a relationship to be a complete individual; seriously, singles don’t get enough credit and society pressures relationships way too much. Anyhow, sidetrack there. But seriously, How They Met and Other Stories has something for everyone (the stories aren’t even all “young adult” for what the label’s worth)–check it out!

2 Comments

Filed under Book Review

Blue

Presented by The Lenoir-Rhyne University Playmakers & The Little ReadBlue

Based on the novel by Joyce Moyer Hostetter

My rating: 4.5 of 5

WWII is raging, and Ann Fay Honeycutt’s father is going off to fight. Before he goes, he leaves her a pair of blue overalls (the same color he claims the wisteria is, despite her protestations that it’s purple!). He tells Ann Fay that while he’s gone, she’s going to have to be the man of the house and look after her mother, two little sisters, and little Bobby the baby. And of course, Ann Fay assures him that she’s up for the task–and pushes herself to fulfill her commitment, accepting no help from anyone, not even her neighbor Junior Bledsoe (who is pretty obviously sweet on her). Little did her father know when he left her in charge that folks in their small North Carolinian town were going to be facing a war of sorts of their own: an outbreak of polio that wrecked havoc on the community and even on the Honeycutt family itself. Brave and strong as she is, Ann Fay’s going to have a challenge for sure keeping her family safe and together in the face of this disease.

I had the immense pleasure of seeing this stage adaptation of Joyce Moyer Hostetter’s book Blue a few weeks ago at a local college. (Yes, I know, I’m very belated in this review. Sorry.) It was a lot of fun. They did a good job of adapting the story for a small stage–the total cast was only 8 individuals, with several playing multiple parts. I particularly enjoyed their use of live stage music, old-timey local radio, walking “car rides”, and a dream fight with a wisteria plant–all of which added a lot of character to the show and also provided nearly Shakespearean-comedy worthy humor, which was nice in a story that is at times extremely sad. The balance was good. I also really enjoyed that they chose to use a children’s book for their basis . . . usually at colleges, the plays are all overly stuffy and serious, which is fine. But it’s nice to have a more innocent and sweet story once in a while. Especially when it’s full of local history and tells a sweet, moving story. And has a strong female lead. What more can you ask for? I enjoyed the play greatly, and seeing it has made me interested in reading the original novel Blue as well.

Leave a comment

Filed under Performance Review

Wish on a Unicorn

Author: Karen Hessewish on a unicorn

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Mags has a lot of things about her life that she wishes were different. Her family’s dirt poor, living all smooshed together in a little trailer, wearing hand-me-downs. Her mom does the best she can as a single mom, but she’s always working or exhausted, leaving Mags with more work than a kid should have to do–more other responsibilities, too. Like taking care of her six-year-old brother Mooch and sister Hannie who’s a bit slow. It seems like everything changes, somehow, when Hannie finds an old, dirty stuffed unicorn in the field–one that she’s convinced will grant wishes. Well, whether or not that’s true, it’s certain that their family–and Mags’s perspective on it–changes significantly over the days following Hannie’s discovery.

Karen Hesse is a wonderful, insightful author. I first discovered her books when I read Music of Dolphins back in middle school; it blew my mind. Wish on a Unicorn is more subtle–or rather, its uniqueness is less obvious–because it deals with topics closer to home. Maybe we can relate to Mags’s situation personally; if not, I’m sure you’ve known folks in similar circumstances. Regardless of the familiarity, Hesse’s take on this story is actually rather remarkable. She draws out the individuals as well as the complexities of the emotions they’re dealing with in a very touching and believable manner. And–this is something I almost didn’t notice while reading, it’s done that subtly–she writes the entire story in Mags’s own accent and style, complete with intentional grammatical errors. I guess what I’m getting at is that, while many writers could write a story similar to this one, only a master writer could form it so skillfully and movingly. I truly would recommend Wish on a Unicorn to anyone, say, 10 and up.

2 Comments

Filed under Book Review

Konya mo Nemurenai

Konya mo NemurenaiMangaka: Kotetsuko Yamamoto

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Warning: Yaoi/Mature Audience

Rikiya has lived a quiet, reserved high-school life without being in any relationships. Now as he’s entering college, he decides to take matters into his own hands by signing up on a gay dating site. . . . And just as his luck would have it, he falls prey to the worst sorts of folks. Just when he’s in an extremely tight situation, a boy pops right out of the wall (very awkwardly!) and says he owes Rikiya a wish–saving him from the bad guys in the process. When Rikiya pure-heartedly can’t think of anything to wish for, he sends this boy–actually a powerful demon by the name of Endo–back home. Only, I’m pretty sure Rikiya didn’t mean his own home, which is where Endo ends up freeloading while avoiding his own troubles back in the demon realm. Well, it’s not all bad having some company around the apartment, even if he does eat a lot, take the futon for himself, and have an attitude.

So, for a short (3-volume) yaoi manga, I found Konya mo Nemurenai to be pretty cute and interesting. It’s one of those odd instances where I don’t find anything particularly original in it . . . like, I feel like all the major story elements are ones I’ve encountered elsewhere. But Yamamoto-san pieces these elements together skillfully and sweetly such that the story feels comfortable, familiar, and cozy rather than boring or repetitive. I know it’s technically yaoi, but it’s one of the most pure-hearted and innocent of the genre I’ve seen–there are only a few sexually-related scenes in the whole story, although do be warned that there’s one near the beginning that’s pretty bad and scary. The characters really make this story shine: Rikiya’s sweet and shy and accommodating in the extreme, while Endo is, well a demon although in the tamed-down manga sense. He’s unpredictable, relatively amoral, doing what he wants without regard to how it inconveniences others–but at the same time he’s capable of some pretty passionate defense of the things and people he cares about, which is pretty cool. Plus there are a number of other interesting characters who show up as the story goes along, just to stir things up. The art’s nice, expressive and attractive but not too overdone either–it suits the story. I guess I’d mostly only recommend Konya mo Nemurenai to those who enjoy shounen ai/mild yaoi manga, but for that group, I think this is a great read that will be much enjoyed.

2 Comments

Filed under Book Review