Monday, January 31, 2011

Strickly Three Kiddie Book Reviews

I've been researching kids' books so that I can rewrite a middle school book of my own. Here's three titles I've recently read.

The Shadows (The Books of Elsewhere: Vol. 1)
by Jacqueline West
Dial Books for Young Readers
4 1/2 spangles out of five
Contemporary Fantasy

While waiting (and waiting and waiting) for my take-out salad at Cracker Barrel, I spun their books-on-tape carousel. It was there that I saw Meg Cabot's Insatiable, which I later went home and looked up reader reviews to, which is how I wound up reading The Boy Next Door (readers hated Insatiable, and pointed instead to The Boy Next Door). I also spotted this book, went home, read some reviews, and ordered it.

If not for Harry Potter, this would have gotten five spangles. It's just that dab of Potterishness, that speck of not quite being unique whether on purpose or by chance, that brings it down. The cover looks like Harry in drag. The Big Bad is a smoky magic user who wants to come back to immortal life, and his granddaughter is... Well, I don't want to give it away, but she reminded me of Bellatrix Lestrange, especially when we last see her.

But other than that, the book is a refreshing if often frightening adventure. 11 (and three-quarters) year-old Olive and her mathematician parents move into a spooky old house. Olive's parents are busy being mathematicians. They live and breathe math. Their endearments to each other are math-oriented. "My love for you is a monotonic increasing function of time." But they do love Olive; it's just that their professional lives take up so much.

Olive doesn't mind being alone at all. She has her teddy bear and odd paintings and bric-a-brac left from the previous owner to think about. She discovers that when she wears some spectacles she found, she can actually climb into the dark landscapes and meet the people within them, most of whom are frightened because of the potential presence of an evil man.

The house also comes with three talking cats, and a boy named Morton who inhabits one of the paintings, but who remembers being alive. The mystery deepens, Olive is betrayed, and things come to a head when her parents take off for a math convention. (Leaving an 11-YO by herself???)

Details are rich and riveting, and Olive is a wonderful character who discovers just how brave and resourceful she can be. Take that, Harry P!

Harris and Me
by Gary Paulsen
4 1/2 spangles out of five
Contemporary (well, 1950s contemporary)

It is shortly after WWII, and our 11-year-old narrator is shuttled from cousins to cousins, because his own parents are drunks of the worst sort. Our story takes place one summer somewhere, I guess, in northern Minnesota, because at one point they talk about North Dakota being just off to the west.

The farm is about as remote as it gets, and the characters that inhabit it are about fifty times stranger than any folks you'd read about in Twain or see in Ma & Pa Kettle movies. Strangest of them all is the narrator's cousin, Harris, who's about his age, (schoolbook) dumber than dirt, but with an imagination that plays havok with the farm animals, mice, frogs... you name it. The images are coarse, and some may be put off by such name-calling as "commie jap gooner," but these are conceivably what such kids would come up with at the time.

I felt sorry for the farm animals. I also wondered why these parents weren't making sure their kids got a better education, but these folks are just scraping by, up in the middle of nowhere, USA.

This is definitely a boy's book, as boys will best like the no-holds-barred action and warped logic that comes out of Harris' head. Again, this is a book of intensely-painted description, though the description here is of a harsh and ignorant world. Girls will find that if they can get beyond their squeamishness (that poor frog! I'm not even going to say anything about the mouse fur clothes.) it all begins to grow on them. Certainly they'll think about it long after they finish the book.

Best Friends and Drama Queens (Allie Finkle's Rules For Girls #3)
by Meg Cabot
Scholastic/Apple Series
4 spangles out of five

Now let's go to something that's definitely for girls, but a little younger, say, 8 years old or so. I'd been wondering how Meg Cabot's kids' books read, and here's a great little example. The focus is on a fourth grader, Allie Finkle, and her world of BFFs and school and younger brothers and such.

We pick up the story right after Christmas break, when everyone is curious about the New Girl, who comes not from another town down the road, or another state, but an entirely different country! How exotic! How cosmopolitan it is to have a real Canadian in their midst!

But this Canadian girl brings new ideas with her in which she labels the classmates who don't kowtow to her as babies. Allie is the first to feel her wrath.

Allie sees the girls in her class start to cave in to the wishes of the new girl, afraid to be thought of as childish. Then one by one, Allie's friends have to act like they're years older than they are. They have to learn which parties are the acceptable ones to attend, what's the fashionable thing to wear even if it's not sensible; they have to get boyfriends.

Through it all, Allie puzzles over life and spells out the rules as she sees them. These rules are sweet ones, never OTT but still entirely girly: "It's impolite not to bump someone's fist when they are fist-bumping you."

I particularly liked the bits about Allie's college-age uncle who goes into utter depths of depression upon being dumped by a girlfriend who has very good reasons for doing that. I also liked the completely innocent and accepting hints that one of Allie's BFFs might turn out to be lesbian. Or not. Allie's heart is only interested in who is or can be her friend.

The action is small-scale and there are no dark magicians or crazed roosters in sight, but Allie's mind is sweet, intelligent, and focused on the Things That Matter to kids. I think any young girl would get a kick out of this.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Strickly a Book Review

The Boy Next Door
by Meg Cabot
Avon Romance
5 spangles out of five
Contemporary Romance
Heat: Mild.

I thought these reviews would be of recent books in my genre, but I'm afraid I read a paranormal and got so mad at it that I needed something much lighter to remove its sour aftertaste. For some reason my first thought was of Meg Cabot (probably APDN, the All Princess Diaries Network, was on; all Princess Diaries, all the time).

What can I say? I lucked out. I began reading and saw that everything was done in email style, and figured it was some kind of silly prologue. Then the book swung into full speed and the email formatting didn't go away. I recalled that I'd heard of a book done that way; guess this must be it.

I'm not really into gimmick books, and this would probably tire quickly.

But it didn't. Instead I found myself laughing quite loudly on almost every page. (Obi was so upset he crawled out of the bed for a while.) The voices of each character are very distinct, and we quickly learn to love most of them. But oh! There are evil characters as well, and some are plotting some very nefarious things. Others are just jerks.

Mel Fuller is our heroine, a gossip columnist who would really love to be a hard news reporter (though she's really into the Hollywood scene). One day she finds her elderly, rich neighbor comatose after an attack in her unlocked apartment. Mel calls 911, and then has to take care of the neighbor's dog and cats until a nephew can be found to take over. (Personnel does not approve of her tardiness!)

That nephew is one Max Friedlander, famous photographer, ladies' man and general scumbucket who can't be made to give a fig for his aunt's condition as long as he has the chance to shack up with a hot model in Florida. So he calls in a favor from his college roommate, John Trent, to impersonate him and live in his aunt's apartment until she should revive or (more likely) die.

Hilarity, as they say, ensues.

On top of a tight plot, a rapidly-warming romance, a would-be murder mystery, family tensions, and an unforgiving personnel department, the email format is milked for all it's worth. We get jokes in people's user names, in how they approach the actual typing/presentation of their emails, and who gets copied with what.

I began to think that this would make a splendid movie, but decided against it. The email ambiance couldn't be captured on film, and without it the story wouldn't be half or even a quarter as funny. As it is, though, this book is going on my Keeper shelf.

Yep, it's that good. Read it!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Strickly a Book Review

Fancy Pants
by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Pocket Books Romance
4 spangles out of five
Contemporary Romance
Heat: Relatively speaking (romance can get pretty steamy), this would not be classified as a "hot" book. But it's not for kiddies.

Here I thought I'd read all of SEP's books (except the latest expensive ones), and what appears on Walmart's shelves? A reprint of a 1989 novel. (Amazon gives a 2005 print date, but it just showed up at Wally World last week.) It's all the rage to take a blockbuster author and start reprinting her earlier works to cash in on her name, but I've discovered that all too often those early books didn't get great sales when they first appeared for a reason.

This is not the case here. The book is an incredible 497 pages long—oy! And yes, imho it could have been cut and not lost much. But all in all, it's a fairly decent read. Certainly by the second half of the book I was in don't-want-to-put-it-down stage.

But, oh, that first half! We get detailed backstories on our heroine's mother (with a bit about her grandmother) and our heroine herself. The beginning is a flash-forward to a late scene, which in essence gives us a reason to read, because the backstory of our heroine does not portray her as likable at all. But in that flash-forward she recalls a time when she is lying on a deserted Texas road, pregnant and penniless. And THAT is the image that keeps us hoping for more from her.

Speaking of flashbacks, there are quite a few in the book, and at times I didn't know where we were in the timeline. The action also tends to skip years here and there.

But the characters are quite fascinating. There are not one, but THREE perfectly beautiful humans operating within the same milieu, something I'd ordinarily find boring, but these guys have so many flaws to work out that I forgive them. We have a hero (a golfer—yes, this is SEP!) who, despite his extraordinary skills and talent, just can't seem to win a major tournament. Our heroine is a Spoiled Rich Fashionista Beauty who has her expensive rug swept out from under her. Quite a few times. You don't think her state can get any worse until it does.

And then she stands up to the world. She determines that she'll grow a backbone. She works hard to get the life she wants. THAT'S what kept me in the book. Also wondering how she and our hero would get back together.

It's a book of surprises. I thought that our third beauty—actually a secondary character—would turn out to be someone's sister, but I was completely wrong about that. (Though I still waited for the revelation. I wouldn't put that past SEP.) Relatively early in the book our hero announces that he's going to play Pygmalion to our heroine, and in essence shape her into a real human being. I thought cool; and she'll do the same to him, and that's how this book will operate.

But it doesn't. Through our hero's horrible actions, our heroine saves herself. At the very end she does come up with a possible way to help our hero, but it's not very Pygmalion-like.

Despite all the backstories that I don't really think were necessary (though by the end they do add to the enjoyment of the book. The trick is to get through them all.), and the sometimes unclear timeline shifts, this turned out to be a "glad I read it" book. I lost a little sleep because I couldn't put it down one night, and I discovered myself thinking, "what's going to happen next?" as I was getting a cleaning at the dentist. Thus it gets at least 4 stars. If it hadn't been for the sheer length and all those backstories, it would have gotten more. Buy this book.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Startlingly Bold New Direction Eras of Wonder Woman!

This column first appeared at Comic Book on Sept. 1, 2010.

by Carol A. Strickland

So here we are, just off issue #602 of Wonder Woman, and ankles-deep into a new era. Some fans may call what we’re reading an alternate universe or Elseworlds story, but since rumors are that it’s going to last for at least 12 months and it’s presented within the main title, I think it deserves a “new era” tag.

They’re easy enough to come by, if your name is Wonder Woman.

Some fans seem to think that presenting WW within a continuity that does not match the one she’d been in previously, is something shocking. They act as if there’s never been so much as a hiccup in presentation over her almost seventy decades of publication. But Wonder Woman has seen many eras come and go. Quite a few have been mere blips on the landscape; others have lasted for years. Far too many have twisted our gal at right angles or even upside down of her usual mode of operation.

DC also likes to throw a “Bold New Direction!” stamp on Wonder Woman stories even if they’re neither so bold nor so new, because Wondie’s sales have a habit of slumping. BNDs perk things up. (They also tend to anger some fans.)

William Moulton Marston established the original “Bold New Direction” for comic book superheroes back in 1941, when he created Wonder Woman. Then in the Fifties during the furor over Seduction of the Innocent and that book’s accusations about the anti-social elements of comics, Wonder Woman gradually underwent an unheralded new direction in which she “knew her place” in the superhero world, stopped being so daring and confident, and began palling around with younger versions of herself in order to find “acceptable” venues. This lasted until July, 1965.

Even the Wonder Family couldn’t keep sales up forever, so editor Robert Kanigher came up with the first “Return to the Golden Age.” Instead of Nazis, now Diana fought fairly identical Commies, and characters were inked with hashmarks on their cheeks as an odd nod to the style of WW’s original artist, Harry G. Peter.

This era lasted about eighteen issues. The lettercols were filled with irate fan opinion from both sides. In issue 171 Kanigher said, “…I made an attempt to recreate the unique flavor of [the Golden Age.] I don’t know whether it’s possible. But I had to make the attempt. I hoped the fans would be interested.” Two issues later he announced that the Golden Age was dead and that Wonder Woman would move forward again.

Good to know that the fans back then were as vocal as they are now!

From 1967 to 1968 came a gradual evolution into contemporary superhero-style comics. Fighting super-gorillas, teaming up with Supergirl (twice!), that kind of thing. It was a time of zero surprises but at least the stories didn’t make you want to tear the issues into tiny pieces.

Still, sales were getting dangerously low, so issue #178 shouted, “Forget the Old—The NEW Wonder Woman is here!” and the Diana Prince Mod Era was born. In a desperate, last-ditch effort to boost sales and reader interest, Wonder Woman was stripped of her powers and let loose upon a world as a human. It was a part of DC’s evolution into the Bronze Age, in which many long-running characters experienced out-of-the-box changes. Most were exciting, and DC as a whole certainly was. A reader didn’t know what to expect next. Anything could happen.

The Mod Era lasted a little over four (fabulous!) years. Then after another Return to the Sorta-Golden Age (Mr. Kanigher had also returned), we got an era of Bronze Age superheroics. That lasted until 1977, when DC finally realized there was a Wonder Woman show on TV. It had debuted in 1975. Oopsie! DC switched the WW comic to Earth-2 of the past in order to mimic the show’s first-season World War II adventures (but not the second and third-season contemporary stories, which the show had switched to by that time) while the “real” Wondie landed in World’s Finest and Adventure Comics for the duration—which was a little over a year.

After that came the rest of the Bronze Age. In the midst of this, someone thought that the advent of Wondie’s new =W= emblem was enough to warrant a “Sensational New Wonder Woman!” label. Okay, whatever.

Then came 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, followed in 1987 by the rebirth/reboot of WW in the “George Perez version,” the version most comics readers know her from today. Gone was any mention of Amazon Training (besides it being classic Bronze Age-level martial training with swords and shields, since these new Amazons had no modern technology). Diana was definitely brought up to Superman strength levels, she could now fly, Steve Trevor was no longer a love interest, Diana Prince was no more, and so on. Though the original staff eventually moved on, their basic world-building remained. More or less, we can say this era lasted 23 years. Pretty good job there in creating something with longevity, George. (applause)

Within the overarching Perez era, however, we got quite a few sub-eras, each heralded on covers and promoted about as well as Wonder Woman ever gets promoted. DC tried to counter the Perez mythos (whose sales must have been falling, or perhaps was too new-reader-unfriendly in its complexity by now) as well as inject T&A into the script during the later Messner-Loebs years, which lasted about 38 issues. If you’re unfamiliar with this era, I recommend it highly up to the point when it got too schizophrenic and T&A. Go grab yourself some issues and enjoy!

Now we’d start to see new creative teams who threw out major established elements to make room for their own views of how Diana should operate. John Byrne superimposed doppelgänger versions of characters over WW’s Perez cast, plus shoved the Demon and his Kirby kohorts to the forefront. He also managed to complicate Donna Troy’s origin—bet you thought it was impossible to be any more complicated!—and proclaim Diana the SECOND Wonder Woman in the eyes of the world. This kind of thing lasted 38 issues.

After a few more staff shifts and approaches, Phil Jimenez came on board with a try at incorporating all of Diana’s eras into one cohesive story, an Amazonian Theory of Everything. Diana’s role as Amazon ambassador, teacher and extremely busy example-maker was emphasized, though she scored few victories along the way. Toward the end of this era we saw the Amazon monarchy collapse. It reorganized into the Republic of Themyscira on a completely restructured (and keen) floating Paradise Archipelago. Twenty-five issues.

But Greg Rucka came along and with one kick from Hera, did away with most of that era’s direction. Now WW joined the rest of DC’s Dark Age. Those changes affected the attitudes and mission of Diana. We now saw Diana as subservient (instead of respectful) to her gods, and she committed an “official” murder with accompanying blame and guilt, as opposed to all those other times she’s killed with little if any repercussions. This era lasted 32 issues.

DC began a number of forgettable (well, to me) Crises that did little to showcase Diana. With “One Year Later” DC tried to reinvigorate Diana’s sales with new volume/numbering and a new creative staff. Diana Prince was back, and Nemesis became a mild-mannered stand-in for Steve Trevor as WW’s romantic-ish interest. The engine was still revving up (though sputtering due to colossal scheduling snafus) as the book nosedived and crashed into Amazons Attack! in which the entire theme for sixty-odd years of Wonder Woman was derailed. This storyline oozed into other books across the DCU, spreading the word of this sickening version of Wonder Woman and her people and adding to the world image of WW being a villain.

Gail Simone took what remained and applied giant bandages to it. A few large jars of coverup were required while she strengthened Diana into a positive icon again, though one whose world wasn’t quite the one Perez had fashioned. Even so, it was a valiant attempt and lasted 32 issues.

Now we’re in a parallel past world which may or may not become canon, but is heavily hinted to affect what canon will be in a year or so. When we come out of this riff, it’ll be an even newer new era. Perhaps it will even be a bold one.

You can make a game of it: Reread your WW collection and take a drink every time a Bold New Direction comes up. By the time you’re through I guarantee you’ll be quite dizzy and confused. It comes with being a Wonder Woman fan. You learn to roll with the punches—I mean, eras.

So fans of WW can rest easy. Those who like this new era can see that other eras have lasted for years and even decades, and perhaps this will last for some time. Those who don’t like this era can tell themselves that this too shall pass.

Essay questions: What have been your favorite eras? Do fellow icons Superman and Batman get this kind of treatment? As often as Wondie? Why do you think that is?