Monthly Archives: August 2005

Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar

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Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar

David Lubar. Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie. Speak, 2007 (reprint). ISBN 978-0142407806 288 pp. $

Lubar excels at funny lists, so it’s no surprise that his protagonist does too. This deeply layered comic novel strings together multiple subplots and several narrative forms, including diary entries, dialogue, and lists, to a carefully plotted and believable conclusion. Scott Hudson, an ordinary guy anxious about being a freshman, somehow manages to have an extraordinary year as he tries to get Julia, the girl of his dreams to notice him by pursuing her through her extracurricular activities. With comedic timing, he’s always just a little bit off and his plans go awry. Plus, his parents drop the bombshell that Mom is expecting, and her pregnancy cravings and mood swings add another element of humor to the story.

Being a nice guy gets Scott in trouble regularly: he donates his lunch money to a thug, says “yes” to projects he’d rather not take on, and can’t bring himself to tell the freaky goth girl, school bully or an excessively verbose acquaintance to go away. His mishaps and letters to his unborn brother/sister and the rotation of Spanish language teachers, most of whom can’t speak enough English to teach Spanish, are laugh-out-loud funny. The best scene is when the gym teacher takes over the Spanish class, and makes the students take a pushup break halfway through–“But we got to count in Spanish,” says Scott.

Other high points include a point of view exercise that takes us from third person omniscient back to first person limited, and Scott (or Lubar!) breaking the rule that one never finds expository, descriptive, narrative, persuasive and writing in one spot. The information Scott imparts to his fetus sibling, the description of high school hell, the narrative of the ups and downs of Scott’s life and Lubar’s proven argument that life is a constant state of flux, begs to differ.

The very literary elements to the novel make this a perfect choice for curriculum. Scott is a reader who loves to experiment with words, and we get a smattering of poetry, some Tom Swifties, and SAT words, but always without pretension. Characters have depth that is slow to reveal; no one is who they appear to be, and they evolve throughout the novel, as does our hero, from Scott’s underachiever big brother Bobby to quirky Lee to talkative “Mouth.” Someone, awkward Scott learns the tough lesson that things change with grace as well as humor. And Lubar epitomizes coming of age milestones like the first slow dance with brilliant lines like “the dance lasted a lifetime, but it ended in an eyeblink.” Recommended for public and school library collections serving middle and high school students.

Fantasy! Cartooning by Ben Caldwell

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Fantasy! Cartooning by Ben Caldwell

Caldwell, Ben. Fantasy! Cartooning. Union Square Kids, 2005. ISBN 978-1402716126 96 pp. $

****

Former Marvel cartoonist Caldwell delivers just the right mix of instruction, basics and background for creating memorable characters in comic book style. Heroes and villains, peasants and aristocrats, fey folk, monsters and dragons are easily reproducible following Caldwell’s encouraging notes and sketches that go from rudimentary lines to smiling and snarling characters.

Not as step-by-step as Ames or Emberly, this book assumes you have some understanding already of proportion and musculature, and is recommended for the novice, but not complete beginner, cartoonist. Most illustrations are completed in just three steps:

  1. Stick figurish outline
  2. Fleshed out body
  3. Features and clothing/weaponry detail

The first pages on human-like characters focus more on basics, such as face-shapes and muscles. The first page on animals offers the basic animal face, and variations on that theme. Throughout, Caldwell illustrates how tweaking a few details, such as eyebrows, can make a character more sinister, and provides examples of how features differ depending on age (for example, shortened sleeves can make a teen seem gangly, while larger knuckles and exposed tendons make a hand look aged) or disposition (smiley wrinkles versus angry wrinkles, rounded edges for heroes and angles for villains).

Once the reader has mastered horses and humans, elements can be combined to make a centaur. And, along the way, the author gives readers a feel for the characters they are creating by providing a succinct overview of the fantasy genre and it’s accoutrements, and incorporating Greek, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Asian mythology–just enough to whet the appetite and encourage further investigation.

An index makes it easy to turn to a favorite character, and the list of recommended reading is diverse in scope and format. A list of recommended fantasy artists to check out is a nice touch. A website URL at the end of the book promises more lessons, downloadable backgrounds, and chapters on weapons and environments, but it was not up and running at the time of this review. Hopefully by the pub date (August 2005) the domain will be registered and available.

Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly edited by Jane Espenson

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Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly edited by Jane Espenson

Espenson, Jane, editor. Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Smartpop 2005. ISBN 978-1932100433 256 pp. $19.95

****

A space western accented with Chinese culture and language and peopled with solid characters had a short-lived run on Fox networks in 2002, but it spawned a crazy loyal fan base of millions, that resulted in the concept being optioned for the big screen– watch for Serenity to debut September 30 at a theatre near you. This is truly an example of the Long Tail effect in action.

Whedon’s following tends to be highly educated, and this collection of scholarly essays deconstructs the 13 episodes of Firefly and examines the role of strong women, the ship as a character, the use of music, chivalry, the sacred feminine and goddess/whore, and the Chinese influence, complete with an episode-by-episode pronunciation guide and glossary. And other themes. Comparisons to other great SF engines are inevitable – Star Wars, Star Trek–but Don Debrandt’s essay comparing Firefly to another cult classic, the Tick, is an unexpected delight. Slamming of Fox network for canceling the series is mostly kept to a minimum. Contributors include science fiction and fantasy authors, actors, fans, and scholars such as Nancy Holder, Mercedes Lackey, Keith R. DeCandido and Joy Davidson.

This title isn’t full of glory though; writers raise questions about the role of the least explored characters on the ship, Shepard Book and River Tam; trash the pilot; take Whedon to task for his (perceived) lackluster commitment to feminism; and speculate about the unexplained Reavers. Hypotheses about what the show could have become (had it not been for it’s early demise) abound. Finally, actress Jewel Staite (“Kaylee”) shares her favorite moments from each episode, demonstrating the closeness of the cast and their love for what they helped make.

Everything is pulled together beautifully by editor and episode author Jane Espenson (Shindig”), who adds context to each entry. A must have for fans, and a great introduction for those who have yet to declare their Browncoat status.

Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer by Robert Byrd

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Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer by Robert Byrd

Byrd, Robert. Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer. Dutton, 2003. ISBN 978-0525470335 48 pp. $

*****

This lavishly illustrated picture book biography of Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci paints a well-rounded portrait of the artist, inventor and philosopher who dabbled in everything from astronomy to weaponry. It is also timely; with the tremendous success of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday, 2003), Leonardo has never been a more fascinating figure.

Born in the Italian countryside, Leonardo had a curious eye and artistic hand from the start. These two qualities emerged in each endeavor he undertook, from painting and sculpting to writing observations and drawings in his notebooks to playing practical jokes and creating quirky mechanical toys for the aristocracy.

Byrd’s authority of and passion for his subject is evident in his thorough research and detailed drawings. Each themed two-page spread covers a period of Leonardo’s life, and is headed with a caption that brings all the pieces together. Small sections of quotes and additional information box in the main narrative on each page.

The wonderful illustrations have a comics styling to them. Each page is dominated by a large color drawing set off by smaller sepia toned maps, reproductions and pictures. The end papers are filed with quotes in what looks like da Vinci’s own hand.

An author’s note, annotated timeline, and extensive bibliography are appended. Recommended for public school and library collections serving students in grades 4-8; great cross-curriculum potential.

Waterwise by Jeff Orff

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Waterwise by Jeff Orff

Orff, Joel. Waterwise. Alternative Comics, 2003. ISBN 978-1-891867-82-2 128 pp. $14.99

***

Two childhood companions reconnect in the woods on the lake where one has a family cabin. Ambitious Emily is just coming off a divorce and newly-single Jim is sketching his ex-girlfriend. Just as Emily comments on the surreal-ness of reconnecting another, the comics becomes surreal as we slip without warning into a variety of flashbacks, pivotal moments from their shared history. The thick-lined artwork is dominated by of solid black backgrounds of sky and water, making the subjects stand out. Some scenes have a woodcut or batik look them. Short on plot but beautifully told, Waterwise is a worthy addition for most public library collections.

Bloodline by Kate Cary

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Bloodline by Kate Cary

Cary, Kate. Bloodline. Razorbill/Penguin Putnam,  2005. 323 pp. ISBN 1595140123 $16.99.

****

This horror novel reads like a sequel to Dracula. Set during WWI, a bloodthirsty captain falls for the sweet and innocent sister of his wounded lieutenant. Quincey Harker’s supernatural strength in battle and Lt. John Shaw’s hazy memories of military raid hint that there is something sinister about his superior–will he be able to figure it out before his sister is in love with a monster? 

All the traditional trappings are here: wolves at the beck and call of the vampire, great winged bats, wooden stakes, garlic, the crucifix. The biting scenes are blatantly seductive.

Like it’s sire, Bloodline is told through journal entries and letters, giving voice to several characters and points of view. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and Cary can be commended for her details, voice and sentence structures evoke the ghost of Bram Stoker. Dark and gothic, Bloodline will be most appreciated by those who have read Stoker’s classic.

The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan

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The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan

Levithan, David. The Realm of Possibility. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. ISBN 978-0375836572 210 pp. $6.99

***

This novel in verse is strong and diverse, with clever turns of phrase and interesting connected characters that keep it from being mediocre. The story follows a group of students through their daily lives, tinged with assorted teen angst and beauty: a dying mom, a multicultural romance, love, consummated and unrequited. Grouped into sets, each section lists the voices that contribute to the section, and Levithan deftly conveys each speaker without naming him or her.

Occassionally the experimentations with form and style detracts from the content, but Levithan hits his mark with The Patron Saint of Stoners, humorous and heart-wrenching in one swoop, and A Cue from Nature: “Run outside during a thunderstom/That downpour, that conquered hesitation, that exhilaration/That’s what unlonely is like.” Possibility, the final poem is magnificant in it’s prose-like summation and brings the book full circle – like a ring.

The full representation of the teen experience makes the book a winner. The teal blue cover and claddagh ring on the cover give it a girly vibe. Purchase for your teens to sign over the deep truth of lines like “once time is lit, it will burn/ whether or not you’re breathing it in./ even after smoke becomes air/there is a memory of smoke.”

Fifteen Love by Robert Corbet

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Fifteen Love by Robert Corbet

Fifteen

***

Corbet serves up a light contemporary romance that focuses on the difference between guys and girls, only to discover they have common insecurities. Mia Foley, a quiet and pretty violist, begins falling for tennis player Will Holland just as he is starting to fall for her. Narrative volleys from Will to Mia as they move from superficial stereotypes to distinct personalities.

The humor plus romance style may appeal to fans of Sonya Sones and Ron Koertge, although the writing and themes are not as mature.

Frankenstein: The Graphic Novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, adapted by Gary Reed illus. by Frazer Irving

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Frankenstein: The Graphic Novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, adapted by Gary Reed illus. by Frazer Irving

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein: The Graphic Novel. Perfection Learning, 2005. ISBN 978-0756958091 176 pp. $

***

This comic book adaptation of Shelley’s gothic novel stays faithful to the nested story structure, but eliminates the epistolary style altogether in favor of a simpler and more streamlined narrative about a man tormented by his actions. Captain Walton rescues Victor Frankenstein and the dying man reveals a fantastic tale of his life, and his misbegotten attempts to understand the nature of life and death by playing God. The themes of the power of knowledge, nature vs. technology, and what it means to be monstrous are explored through the narrative, but this adaptation doesn’t come close to addressing the feminist issues at the heart of the novel.

The complete exclusion of ANY direct quotes or excerpts from Shelley’s masterpiece is surprising, but those familiar with the original text will marvel at Irving’s interpretations. For example, Reed’s telling doesn’t reveal that Frankenstein’s mother’s dying wish was that he and Elizabeth marry; but the concept is conveyed with the mother gripping them by the hands, one on each side of her deathbed. Victor’s zeal for chemistry and his laboratory are minutely detailed in his increasingly thin and wan face. The monster is horrific without being terrifying and his violent acts, whether bumbling or deliberate, are not glorified.

The artwork is made up of far too many dark and murky panels–for example, in an ocean scene on page 102-103 the page is more gray than anything else. Scenes viewed through a haze of rain, wind or snow are beautifully rendered, such as the opening and closing sequences of the Archangel in the Arctic, and the storm sequence on pp. 38-40. Characters sometimes slip into grotesque caricatures, while one or two silhouetted scenes evoke the era strongly. Panels vary greatly in composition and style, making the work as a whole dynamic.

Author and illustrator notes at the end explain the creation process but don’t add much to our understanding of the text. Biographies of Reed, Irving and Shelley follow. Less sensational than the Classics Illustrated version, this version may well hook students who might not be otherwise exposed to the story, and (hopefully!) whet their appetites for the real thing at a later date

Tea Party Today: Poems to Sip and Savor by Eileen Spinelli illus. by Karen Dugan

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Tea Party Today: Poems to Sip and Savor by Eileen Spinelli illus. by Karen Dugan

Spinelli, Eileen illus. by Karen Dugan. Tea Party Today: Poems to Sip and Savor. Wordsong, 2006. ISBN 978-1590784280 32 pp. $

****

This is a charming poetry picture book. Poems are cleverly arranged in stages of having a tea party: shopping, creating invitations, preparing, brewing, and entertaining. Teatime Tips (“Teatime and Poetry make a splendid pair!”) accompany each poem, ranging from recipes to activities to placating party poopers.

Dugan’s whimsical illustrations are faintly reminiscent of Tomie DePaola’s soft rounded style, but have more color and action. The pictures, people with a multicultural cast of cheerful children, portray movement in every sense.

Spinelli’s text has trouble keeping up with Dugan’s smooth style. Some of the poems have odd rhythms due to forced rhymes, but in most cases, the desired effect is achieved, whether it be one of bustling preparation (“Pots clank/Glasses clink/Water gurgles/in the sink”) or calm lazy afternoons (“Brown sugar sand is soft and sweet/This day is good enough to eat”).

With curriculum connections potential in a variety of subjects, this book is a worthy purchase for any library serving younger elementary grade students–in spite of Spinelli’s need for a bit more polishing in the poetry department.