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Archive for the ‘Adventure’ Category

THE BATMAN

Batman Week, Day 2. With our regular comics blogger off at Comic-Con, we implored librarian and geek culture goddess Jen to write about a favorite Batman story arc. This one comes from the library’s collection of graphic novels for adults. — Ed.

We librarians are not known for our poker faces. We’re bad liars. So what to do when a co-worker (yes, Melissa, I am pointing the finger at you) comes to you in desperate need of a blog post. And not just any blog post: would you be willing to write a Batman blog post?  What she doesn’t know is that you have an entire storage box full of classic 1980s Batman comics. You hesitate, wondering if you can get away with the lie that you know zip about Batman. She waits. After a long pause, she whips out “that’s not a no!” And there you are. Stuck with the job.

Where do you start? There is just soooo much! You can’t go into your hidden stash and pick a comic. That could take weeks and she needs this thing stat. So I did what any smart librarian would do: I went to the stacks (bookcases for you regular folks out there).  And —yay me! — found a true gem of the Batman universe.

Batman: The Killing Joke was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. When you write about Batman comics you have to come to grips with the fact that many people over the years have not only told portions of his story, but many people have been tasked with drawing it. And in my mind these sometimes undervalued illustrators are just as important as the story’s writer. Actually, to be truly honest, I feel the illustrator is MORE important than the writer. Many a time I have picked up a story and put it right back down, left absolutely cold by the illustrations. I like realism in my graphic novel world. I don’t particularly care for comic-y looking illustrations, and I have a really, really hard time with jagged line artwork (not a huge Frank Miller/The Dark Knight Strikes Again fan.) Brian Bolland does a fine job and leaves it up to Alan Moore to hit the home run with his amazing story.

The story is absolute genius. We see how a normal man, hounded by the pressures of providing for his family and the continual failures at succeeding at his chosen job, yields to temptation and has “one bad day.” Interposed with the flashbacks that make up The Joker’s bad day, we see Commissioner Gordon’s “one bad day” as provided by none other than The Joker. The Joker seems bent on proving to himself and all others that what happened to him would happen to anybody. In looking at the story deeper, Moore has sprinkled it with parallels, and we get to see that Batman and The Joker are really two sides of the same coin. Both men are created from “one bad day,” and in some ways both are insane because of it. If you like Batman and you haven’t read this story yet, I highly recommend it. If you have read it, but it’s been a while, it might be time for a reread. And while you’re reading, see if you can spot the origin of one of DC’s most amazing heroes, Oracle. And while all librarians are super heroes… some of us take it to a whole new level!

Check the WRL catalog for Batman: The Killing Joke

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batman

All week, Blogging for a Good Book honors Batman, who is celebrating his 75th anniversary this year. To lead off, Laura reviews a book that takes us back to the Caped Crusader’s early career as a detective. –Ed. 

Since the basic premise of Batman is so well known, it can be reimagined countless ways and effectively applied to a wide range of storylines. In this version, Batman is not a lone crusader; he is merely the most recent member of a longstanding roster of familiar historical detectives, including Allan Pinkerton and Teddy Roosevelt.

The action begins with events that preceded the Lincoln assassination, which set loose a devious plot by an evil faction led by a southern gentleman who looks remarkably like the Joker. Like many comic bad guys, they are pinning their hopes on a remarkably intricate stratagem. This one might be a tad on the unbelievable side, even for a villain’s plan, since it will take 74 years to come to fruition.

The time lag brings the action into the modern day, which in this case is 1929. Poor little Bruce Wayne witnesses the murder of his parents and then gets sent off to boarding school for the next ten years. Fortuitously, his travels around the globe give him a chance to study a wide range of subjects, including criminology, oriental fighting techniques, and costume design, which are surprisingly useful for his later activities (although one can imagine the despair experienced by his school’s career counselor). His talents catch the eye of others, and he is quickly enlisted by the detective group. They are known to each other only by number, and as their most recent member, he is known as Detective #27. He has a lot to learn and not much time to do it, but at least he has, as always, the loyal Alfred by his side.

Will good triumph over evil? Or will the Joker’s minions rule the day? Find out next week…or just read the book. Recommended for graphic novel readers, historical fiction readers, and anyone who has spent time in Gotham and enjoyed it.

Search the WRL catalog for Batman: Detective No. 27.

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disappearedWith a life like Allan Karlsson’s, who wouldn’t want to live to be 100 years old? Befriended by Francisco Franco and Robert Oppenheimer, creator of both the American and Soviet atomic bombs, drinking buddies with Harry S. Truman, consultant to Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, and rescuer of Mao Tse-Tung’s wife, smuggled in a Russian submarine, imprisoned in both the Soviet gulag and a North Korean prison, Bali beach bum, translator for an ambassador to France… All this because Allan had that most 20th Century of skills – blowing stuff up.

Now, at the age of 100 (having blown up his home) Allan is in a nursing home. He’s not finished with life, so an hour or so before the local dignitaries are coming to begrudgingly celebrate his centenary, Allan goes AWOL. Not that he has anyplace in particular to go -  although that’s never been a problem – but he doesn’t have any desire to stay.  He first has to get clear of his small town, so he steals an unguarded suitcase, boards a bus, and takes off into the wilderness.

To his surprise, the suitcase is stuffed with cash belonging to a motorcycle gang. The cash greases his way from one haven to the next, usually one step ahead of the bikers, until he winds up with a string of characters, including an elephant, in his wake. One, Detective Chief Inspector Aronsson, begins the case searching for a missing old man; next it appears that the old man has been murdered by bikers, then that the old man may be a murderer himself.  Across the length and breadth of Sweden the ever-increasing cast runs, until they all wind up in the same place.

Interspersed with his modern-day story is Allan’s biography. For no particular reason, at the age of 34 he set off for Spain and was caught up in the Civil War. From there, he was shunted from place to place as wars and rumors of wars made him persona non grata in some places and persona most grata in others.  After all, explosions are the best friends a politician ever had.

But that talent isn’t the only thing that characterizes him. In a world filled with competing -isms, Allan is devoutly apolitical and atheist. He is willing to let others talk endlessly about their beliefs, as long as they don’t try to convert him. He’s scrupulously honest about his indifference, but punctures cant when it conflicts with commonsense objectives, like blowing something up. And he can drink. Whoo, boy, can he drink.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is a picaresque novel, a road story in which a relative innocent disrupts the world and creates a satirical take for readers.  Some people compare it to Forrest Gump, but I don’t think that’s an apt comparison. After all, Forrest was a kind of blank slate onto which people wrote their own beliefs. Allan Karlsson is his own man, blowing whichever way events take him but always living true to his code. “Never trust a man who won’t drink with you.” As a philosophy, you could do worse.

Check the WRL catalogue for The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

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rat queensIf you liked Lord of the Rings, but wished there were more sassy, kick-butt female fighters, snag this book and dive in. This first book collects #1-5 in a series that has refreshingly strong, unrepentant, female characters that are taken straight from fantasy convention but with some definite twists.

Palisade is protected by several mercenary groups in addition to their local guard units. One of these groups, called The Rat Queens, is comprised of four females: Hannah, an Elven Mage, Violet, a Dwarven fighter, Betty, a Smidgen Thief, and Dee, a Human who can cast healing spells. They are a mix of races, sizes, and personalities that are distinct and not two dimensional. They love fighting, drinking, rabble rousing, and money, all in equal measure. They have a strong sense of who they are and they make no apologies.

This is no origin story, so we join the group right before they are sent off on a quest to help clean out a goblin threat just outside the village. You immediately feel like you know these women and have been following their story forever. Their banter throughout the book is amusing and familiar to anyone who has those couple close friends who they can say anything around. These women are not in competition with each other, and any little friendly squabbles are quickly dropped as they team up to face whatever threat comes their way. They’re not perfect, and they do get hurt, but the fight scenes are fast paced and not overly dramatic.

This first volume was published in March 2014, and I eagerly await whatever comes next for these women. One thing I know for sure, it will be a party!

Recommended for readers who like strong female characters, fantasy, and a lot of fun.

Search the catalog for Rat Queens.

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we3Positive that the war of the future should not require human casualties, Air Force researchers have been working on machines that will do the fighting in the human’s stead. But these fighters are not purely metal, they are cyborgs: coats of armor attached to implants in an animal. The three original prototypes consist of a dog, a cat, and a rabbit. Named 1, 2, and 3, together they comprise WE3. Each possesses skills that are reflective of their host animal and working together as a team they are dynamic and fearsome. As weapons, they are ruthless and programmable, but also maintain some autonomy.

I had seen this book several times, but was initially turned off by the front picture of the three animals in their mechanical suits. Convinced that it was just another book full of big robot battles and not much depth, I was judging a book by its cover and was completely wrong about the story. For at the heart of the plot, and of the suits, are the three animals. This is horror, but the terror comes not from the copious amounts of blood sprayed around the dark pages or the shock of sudden violent deaths, but rather from the slow-building dismay and revulsion you experience as the contrast between the past lives of the animals as beloved companions and their current weaponized state gains clarity. Three separate Lost Animal posters are scattered through the first part of the book, and the distress over their missing animals by their owners is conveyed in heartbreaking fashion through the personal photos that are attached and especially, in the case of the rabbit, by the childish scrawls of the unhappy young owners.

The innocence of the animals, with their vague memories of a faraway place called “home,” and their strong will to survive and be safe, clash against the efforts of the humans who are convinced that they need to be decommissioned and destroyed. At the back of the story is an examination of the morality of war and the struggle to face the ethics of what science has so ruthlessly created.

Gripping, atmospheric, and unsettling, this is a story which will stay with you for a while after you have read it.

Recommended for readers of graphic novels and horror.

Search the catalog for WE3.

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DarkEnoughtoSeetheStarsLibrarians get to see all sorts of things, but even for librarians it is unusual to have Thomas Jefferson in the library to check his email, unless of course, you are lucky enough to be located in the Historic Triangle. Our Williamsburg location is a block away from Colonial Williamsburg and we are a short drive from Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the current United States.

Based on the lives of Connie Lapallo’s ancestors, Dark Enough to See the Stars follows the life of Joan Phippen Peirce from her teen years in England to the new settlement of Jamestown. Orphaned young and with a sense of adventure, Joan Phippen set off with her husband and young daughter in a flotilla of seven ships. After a hurricane, only six ships arrived in Jamestown. Unfortunately, Joan’s husband and most of the supplies were on the seventh ship, the Sea Venture. Joan lived through the 1609-1610 Starving Time when only 60 out of nearly 500 Jamestown settlers survived the winter. Joan was a real person who didn’t leave many clues to her personality but there is no doubt that it took enormous courage to venture into and settle in an unknown and unknowable land. Author Connie Lapallo gives her a deep faith which sustained her through the many tragedies and struggles of her life.

Dark Enough to See the Stars in a Jamestown Sky is written in very short chapters with literary quotes heading each. This and the compelling and suspenseful story of survival make it a fast read. It can be distressing to think of the untimely and gruesome deaths of all these real people over four hundred years ago, but Lapallo has created a joyful portrait of a life well lived.

Lapallo says the book is based on research and records that remain from over 400 years ago and she includes many useful appendices, maps and notes. She creates a few fictitious minor characters but tries to base the main characters and their actions on what history says really happened. Acorns are listed in the historical record as a source of food during the Starving Time, so Connie Lapallo speculates that a thrifty and industrious housewife with knowledge of plants could have spent the months leading up to the winter collecting and preparing acorns against the winter ahead. The author and her daughters successfully made acorn flour to test this theory!

Dark Enough to See the Stars in a Jamestown Sky is a great book for local readers. I learned an enormous amount about the fascinating local history. It is also a good choice if you like historical fiction based on women’s lives like Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks, or The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin.

Check the WRL catalog for Dark Enough to See the Stars in a Jamestown Sky.

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Red Seas Under Red SkiesScott Lynch is in the top tier of epic fantasy writers who are stretching the genre in new directions. Red Seas under Red Skies, the second book in his Gentleman Bastards series, like the first, The Lies of Locke Lamora, combines gritty epic fantasy with a buddy story and a heist crime story line. It’s a cinematic combination loaded with great banter between the lead characters, a twisty, suspenseful plot line, and exotic settings. The series is probably best experienced in sequence, but you could read the second book alone and have a satisfying reading experience.

Master thieves and swindlers Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen have gone on the run after their exciting and ultimately tragic adventures in the first book of the series, finally landing in Tal Verrar, a city state made rich by gambling. As the book opens, we find Locke and Jean in the midst of an elaborate scheme to rob the Sinspire, a seemingly impregnable fortress of a casino with increasingly exclusive action on each higher floor. To rob the most powerful players at the top, Locke and Jean first have to run a long con, winning at enough complicated games of chance to gain access to the upper floors.

But somehow their cover is blown and they come to the attention of Tal Verrar’s powerful political leader. I won’t give away too many plot points, but he traps Locke and Jean and forces them to pose as pirates in another elaborate scheme that will solidify his tenuous hold on power in the city state. There are some great comic scenes as the landlubber thieves try to learn enough seamanship to pretend to be seasoned sea dogs. Of course things go wrong, and the ruse becomes a kind of reality as the duo play for higher and higher stakes. They’ll have to survive pirates, politics, poison, a love triangle, and more, just to get back to the city where they hope to pull off an impossible crime that becomes as much about revenge as it does money.

It’s a complicated plot, but Lynch fills his books with so many great action sequences, so much razor-sharp repartee, so much good-natured derring-do, that it’s easy to forgive any moments where the story stretches credibility. He wraps up enough of these complicated plot lines cleverly that you will be more excited than you are bothered that there are cliffhangers leading to the third book, Republic of Thieves (which was published in late 2013 and has had great reviews as well). I know I’ll be among the readers following this masterful  yarn to its conclusion.

One caution: this series is very much part of the gritty school of fantasy. These are street-toughened characters leading a violent and dangerous life, and readers should expect language and levels of violence that realistically match that setting. It’s leavened with plenty of charm and humor, but come prepared for lots of colorful cursing and bloody action.

Check the WRL catalog for Red Seas under Red Skies

Or try the story on audiobook on compact disc

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RiddleLabyrinthDo you know which event was on the front page of The Times of London in 1953, the same day as an article about the first ascent of Mount Everest? Would you believe that the translation or “decipherment” of the ancient script of Linear B was seen as newsworthy as the heroic efforts of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay?

Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code is narrative non-fiction at its best, with mystery, and high drama. I had never heard of Linear B, and don’t worry if you haven’t either. You don’t have to be a devotee of ancient languages to be sitting on the edge of your seat to find out who, how and when Linear B was deciphered. Margalit Fox’s narrative thread focuses on the American Alice Kober who was a university teacher, but who worked on Linear B in her spare time on her dining room table. The book paints a picture of the academic world in the era before computers led to instant and easy sharing. Linear B aroused great passions and rivalries among academics and lay-people, even to the extent that they hoarded ancient clay tablets and didn’t let anyone else see them for forty years.  Also, as in the best nonfiction, I painlessly learned an enormous amount about Linear B, ancient languages and linguistics in general.

Linear B was written on clay tablets in the Mediterranean area that is now Greece for a few short hundred years around 3000 years ago. The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations that used it collapsed then it was lost to the world until clay tablets bearing indecipherable text were discovered in 1900 by British Archaeologist Arthur Evans. The clay tablets and the inscriptions on them remained a mystery for the next fifty years. Many people tried to decipher them, but all failed until finally British architect Michael Ventris published his work in the early 1950s. Michael Ventris is usually the hero of this story, such as in books like The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick in 1958  and The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris by Andrew Robinson in 2002. Margalit Fox argues that the meticulous, painstaking and time consuming work done by Alice Kober was instrumental in him reaching his final conclusions. Alice Kober left behind boxes packed tightly with index cards systematically annotating and data-basing minute aspects of the known symbols.

Linear B was only used for administration. In the words of Alice Kober, “we may only find out that Mr. X delivered a hundred cattle to Mr. Y on the tenth of June, 1400 BC”, but the clay tablets still afford an unprecedented glimpse into the daily lives of people long gone. Only around 120 “hands” have been detected in Linear B tablets, which means not many more than 120 people knew how to write it. That contrasts to the huge gains in human development, because now it is estimated that 80% of the world population is literate!

Try The Riddle of the Labyrinth if you like riveting, historical non fiction with a touch of mystery about diverse topics such as The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester or The Poisoners Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum.

Check the WRL catalog for The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code.

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wrinkleThe 1963 Newberry-award winning novel, A Wrinkle in Time, was a favorite of mine as a child. There was something so gently compelling about the storyline and I could relate so deeply to main character. Teenager Meg Murry doesn’t fit in, in school or seemingly anywhere else. She’s smart but stubborn, and fiercely protective of her family, even with its complete lack of normalcy. She is especially combative when anyone speaks badly about Charles Wallace, her youngest brother, who is definitely an odd child. Their father is missing, and his unexplained disappearance haunts the family, and leads Meg to be even more belligerent as she struggles to deal with the loss and the emptiness of not knowing what happened to him.

Although it has been many years since I last read A Wrinkle in Time, I was immediately swept back into the adventures had by Meg, Charles, their neighbor Calvin, with the Misses Whatsit, Who, and Which guiding them along their journey throughout the universe to save Mr. Murry from the terrible blackness that envelops him. The story, to use the words of Mrs. Murry, requires a willing suspension of disbelief, but the relationship between Meg and her brother Charles Wallace is poignant, and the storyline flows smoothly and quickly.

This work, adapted and illustrated by Eisner Award-winning artist Hope Larson, is the first time the iconic story has been presented in a graphic novel format. The illustrations are deceptively simple, and use a limited color palette of black, white, and sky blue. The blue hue serves to soften the starkness of the images, giving a dreamlike mood to the rapidly shifting number of worlds that they visit. Night and day have no definition here, as fighting the darkness without losing yourself or those you love is the only thing that matters.

This book is appropriate for all ages, but is especially recommended to fantasy readers and anyone who wants to revisit an old favorite from their childhood.

Search the catalog for A Wrinkle In Time: The Graphic Novel

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Doomsday BookConnie Willis is a favorite of the staff here at Williamsburg Library.  She combines interesting science fiction scenarios with literary sensibilities.  Her characters are quirky but believable, and she has an eye for the odd bit of detail that helps a story rise above cliché.  Her pace isn’t for readers that need one bit of action after another, but for those who like a steady, suspense-building progression.  She mixes humor and drama well.

That’s especially true in Doomsday Book, a novel that keeps the reader in suspense about the outcome of its central epidemic-and-time-travel adventure while inducing giggles at odd bits about demanding American bell ringers, a lusty student and his overbearing mother, or an intrepid young teen navigating difficult times with a strange, fearless grace.  Then it stops you in your tracks and wallops you with an emotional finish that underlines the great heartbreak that an epidemic can produce.

The story concerns Kivrin, a young Oxford history undergraduate in an alternate near future where limited forms of time travel are possible.  Kivrin’s desire to visit the Middle Ages is somewhat exploited by a don who takes too little care with the lives of time travelers.  So as she makes her voyage back in time, it’s against the protests and warnings of Dunworthy, a more careful man who is the story’s other narrator.  Dunworthy prepares Kivrin as best he can, but as the time machine is deployed, apparently successfully, he can’t escape feelings of dread.  As a Christmas-time epidemic descends on Oxford, with the time machine operator one of its first victims, and Kivrin’s location in time cannot be confirmed, his fears grow.

The story alternates between Kivrin’s narration in the past and Dunworthy’s efforts to bring her back in the present. Epidemics figure prominently in both story lines.  I won’t say more than that to avoid spoilers, but its a well-plotted story with just enough humorous detail to add variety.  The historical detail is just about perfect, and it captures an aspect of history seldom addressed in books like this: everyday struggles of regular people, with the currents of war, politics, and violence present, but in the background, not the foreground.

If you enjoy this you might go on to some of Willis’s other time travel novels, To Say Nothing of the Dog and the duology of Blackout and All Clear.

Check the WRL catalog for Doomsday Book

Or get Doomsday Book for an e-reader

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screaming“Of the first few hauntings I investigated with Lockwood & Co. I intend to say little, in part to protect the identity of the victims, in part because of the gruesome nature of the incidents, but mainly because, in a variety of ingenious ways, we succeeded in messing them all up.”

Ever since the Problem began (in Kent), no one goes out at night, not unless they’re armed with iron and salt to guard against spirits. For the last fifty years, nighttime is when ghostly Visitors come out to lament or avenge their untimely deaths, terrorize the living, drive down real estate assessments, etc. Because the young are particularly sensitive to paranormal energies, children and teens with psychic talents are prized as field operatives for the best ghost-investigating agencies.

Lucy Carlyle, age 15, is the newest hire at a not-so-reputable agency, Lockwood and Co., a small-time outfit run without adult supervisors by “old enough and young enough” Anthony Lockwood and his colleague George. Lockwood, proprietor, can see the residual death-glows where someone has died; Lucy can hear their voices, if she gets close enough; and George does research and cooks.

When their latest case results in not only failing to rid the premises of a ghost, but also burning the house down, Lockwood’s only chance at keeping the agency afloat is to land a really lucrative client. Say, the CEO of Fairfax Iron, owner of the most haunted private house in England, epicenter of dozens of rumored hauntings along its Screaming Staircase and in its sinister library, the Red Room. All the agents have to do is spend one night in the manor… and live.

This first book in a new series from the author of the Bartimaeus books has well-paced action and good old-fashioned swashbuckling with silver-tipped rapiers. Lockwood is dashing and cheeky, a Sherlock Holmes with two Watsons who, while inspiring his cohorts to their best work, never lets them in on his thoughts or his plan. He and Lucy and George are a camaraderie-in-the-making, if only they didn’t get on one another’s nerves quite so often.

“I’m being ironic. Or is it sarcastic? I can never remember.”
“Irony’s cleverer, so you’re probably being sarcastic.”

Fast moving, witty, and nicely creepy, the series is written for a middle grade audience, but entertaining enough for any age that appreciates a good ghost story.

Check the WRL catalog for The Screaming Staircase.

You can read the first chapter online at the author’s Tumblr.

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“The Time Lord has met many aliens, cyborgs, robots, and humans on his journeys through history and across the universe.”

DoctorWhoDoctor Who has clocked  almost eight hundred episodes over thirty-three seasons. If you add in the fact that the Doctor can travel to any time in history and any place in infinity, then it isn’t surprising that it can be a little difficult to keep all the characters straight. That is where the Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia comes in very handy. With more than two hundred entries from Abzorbaloff, the greedy shape shifting humanoid to the Zygons who met the fourth Doctor, it can’t claim to cover all of time and space, but it comes close.

November marked the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who–an extremely exciting event for Whovians. Those of us without BBC America on cable would have been left waiting for the Fiftieth Anniversary Special to come out on DVD except that, for the first time I have encountered, the Fiftieth Anniversary Special was kindly shown at movie theaters. Our closest movie theater showed it on IMax 3D on a Monday night, which is not my preferred format or time, but I had to go anyway. I didn’t dress up–unlike dozens of other Whovians young and old. They varied from around ten years old to well into their fifties or even sixties which is a very mixed fan base, but is not surprising for a show that started running before the moon landing and continues to attract fans.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a well-organized book in which you can search for characters by name, or browse the Table of Contents where they are categorized by type such as “Alien,” “Companion,” “Cyborg,” or “Entity” with color coding matching their main entries. Each character gets a full page spread with a description, details about their origins, homeworld, which Doctors they met and how they fit into the stories. Sharp, bright photos, typical of Dorling Kindersley publishers clearly show the attributes of each character.

The BBC obviously saw publishing opportunity in the interest around the fiftieth anniversary and this is an official BBC publication. If this book is out, our library has other books of background for desperate Doctor Who fans, such as, Doctor Who: A History by Alan Kistler or Doctor Who Whology: The Official Miscellany, by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a must-read (or a must-browse) for Doctor Who fans. If you are not a fan and are wondering what all the fuss is about try my review of the TV series of Doctor Who and check out some of the series on DVD.

Check the WRL catalog for Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia.

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butlerWe’ve had plenty of blog posts about Robert Olen Butler’s work, and if you go check them out you’ll see the incredible range and imagination that characterizes his work.  (We don’t yet have a post about A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, the short story collection that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.  Alas, another sign that none of us can read or write about everything we’d like to.)  With The Hot Country, Butler’s narrative skill takes off in a new and wholly unexpected direction.

War correspondent Christopher “Kit” Marlowe Cobb has traveled to hot spots all over the world, but this time he’s covering one close to home. It’s 1914 and the U.S. has invaded Mexico in response to a diplomatic slight, and Kit is there to report on the heroic measures of the U.S. military. But Woodrow Wilson’s policy is to hold the port town of Veracruz, so there isn’t a whole lot for Kit and his colleagues to write about, except maybe the sporadic attacks on Marines visiting the local brothels.  (He’s still got to get that one by the censor.) Unlike his more staid colleagues, he goes out looking for material, and finds a big story that illustrates the turbulent background of Mexican politics.

Kit also learns that a German ship anchored in the harbor and reputed to be carrying arms to the Mexican army may have a dangerous cargo. Keeping in mind events taking place far away, Kit decides to dig deeper. As the nature of that cargo becomes more and more apparent, he takes it on himself to investigate further, then to act on his discovery. His efforts take him out of the city and into the Mexican hinterlands, where he barely escapes with his life. The scoop he carries is so explosive that he must cross the desert into the United States one step ahead of Pancho Villa’s men, and file from the first U.S. telegraph office he finds. But the response is far different from the one he expects.

Although the story is a genuine thriller, Butler makes Kit a dynamic character changed by the events he is part of. Although he is a war correspondent, it isn’t until his Mexican experience that Kit understands that he isn’t an immortal bystander, and the realization humbles him a bit. Kit is also the son of a renowned stage actress and readers come to understand how his upbringing has created the man he is—a restless chameleon entranced by words, capable at fighting but incapable of long-term relationships. In the course of the story, he also comes to grips with the fact that his mother is aging, and that the path she’s chosen has led her into a situation from which he cannot rescue her.

The Hot Country is followed by The Star of Istanbul, which has Kit heading across the Atlantic to cover the Great War, but getting sidetracked by historic events.  Its excellent reviews were what got me interested in reading the first of Kit’s adventures. At the same time, I’m hoping that Butler continues to allow his magnificent imagination to continue exploring the unexpected.

Find The Hot Country in the WRL catalog

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PurpleHeartMatt wakes up in a hospital bed in Iraq.  He remembers being on patrol, and he remembers an explosion, but he is blurry about what befell Ali, an orphaned Iraqi boy who had befriended him.  In the hospital he can’t remember what day of the week it is, forgets words like “trash,” and gets headaches that are a “bolt of pain.”  The medical staff tell him he has TBI (a Traumatic Brain Injury).  Usually mild cases get better on their own, and he’ll be back with his patrol in a few days. Matt struggles to remember what happened, but at the same time is terrified to recall, in case he remembers the unthinkable – that he purposely shot a child.

Purple Heart is marketed and classified as a teen book as Matt is only eighteen and enlisted straight from high school.  His hometown girlfriend writes him letters about school football games and pop quizzes.  She even says she is “sooo scared” of a bio pop quiz.  This highlights the divergence of their experiences and the disconnect between Matt’s old life and his new life.  Purple Heart is not a comfortable book and asks profound questions about war, as one of Matt’s buddies says, “We came over here to help these people and instead we’re killing them.”  And Matt thinks, “This is what war is all about.  It wasn’t about fighting the enemy.  It wasn’t about politics or oil or even about terrorists.  It was about your buddies; it was about fighting for the guy next to you.  And knowing he was fighting for you.”

Patricia McCormick says, “It isn’t an anti-war book. It isn’t a pro-war book. It’s an attempt to portray how three children ─ two eighteen-year-old Americans and a ten-year-old Iraqi boy ─ have been affected by war.”

Purple Heart asks (perhaps unanswerable) questions about the morality of war and how it changes people. I recommend it for readers of other Young Adult books about war, such as Sunrise over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers.

Check the WRL catalog for Purple Heart.

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blackstallionThe Black Stallion is one of my all-time favorite films, and it stuns me to encounter individuals who have never heard of it, which sometimes happens when I suggest it to families looking for movies that will entertain viewers of all ages.  It often shows up on lists of great movies and also on lists of films containing minimal dialogue. The film is based upon Walter Farley’s children’s novel of the same name.

Visually mesmerizing, it’s also a great title for those learning the English language. The opening segment of the film is perfectly scored to music, especially a scene where the music is timed with the patient attempts of the boy to encourage “the Black” to join him in the sea so that he can finally ascend the horse’s great height to sit on his back and ride him. The reflections of light in the tropical waters, the endless sky, contrasted with the horse’s intense darkness and the pale yet sun-freckled flesh of the lonely shipwrecked boy are unforgettable. I admit, however, that at home with my DVD it is often during this scene that I find myself drifting off to sleep due to the relaxing atmospheric quality of the cinematography. It is for this reason that I always pop in The Black Stallion if I’m having trouble settling down for a good night’s sleep. It may work wonders for your rambunctious young ones when they’re in need of being calmed.

Check the WRL catalog for The Black Stallion DVD.

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My family discovered this story a few years ago during a road-trip stop at a popular restaurant and gift shop franchise where you can actually rent audiobooks on CD then return them at another location anywhere in the country. It delighted us that this alternative take, or prequel, on the lost boys, Peter Pan, pirates, magic, plus mermaids and a jealous fairy was equally appealing to the males and females, young and old, riding in our car. No one wanted to miss a single word as our car rolled along and it really helped pass the time!  We even couldn’t wait to get up the next morning from our hotel beds to hit the road and continue listening!

My kids have since taken up the reading of the complete series of five tales that concluded publication in 2011. This first audiobook is nine hours long.  I’d say this is the best road-trip audiobook ever and have recommended it to a lot of grandparents and parents seeking something to please whole carloads.

The book has boundless high-seas adventure, a mystery, and a heroic quest complete with a strong teen female character named Molly plus plenty of swashbuckling danger. Readers will learn the origin of the stardust that enables Peter and his friends to fly, and we get to know characters who feature in the timeless J.M. Barrie story Peter and Wendy. Humorist and novelist Dave Barry is a great storyteller and has ensured that the laughter almost never stops; Ridley Pearson’s skill with fantasy and fast-paced suspense is as adept in this young adult title as in his many books for adults.

Look for Peter and the Starcatchers in print or audiobook in the WRL catalog.

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ozDoes the Wizard of Oz need a plot summary? Thanks to Hollywood, everybody knows how the story goes. For many people, the 1939 movie has become the seminal adaptation of the work: singing munchkins, ruby slippers, a yellow brick road, an evil, water-phobic witch, and those monkeys. Creepy, creepy, flying monkeys.

When I heard that there was a new graphic novel representation of the original book I picked it up with a thrill of expectation tinged with fond nostalgia. I quickly found out how little I knew about the actual story. Shanower faithfully returned to the original text, which is darker and more involved than the movie portrayal. The munchkins don’t sing and there are a lot more winged monkeys. The famed ruby slippers are also nowhere to be found, with the original silver shoes taking their rightful place in the story. But Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Cowardly Lion, and even Toto are all here, quickly joining together for their journey.

It was a daunting task for Eric Shanower and Skottie Young to take a story that has become so enmeshed in our cultural history and remake it. The introduction to this volume, written by Shanower, describes his lifelong passion for the works of Baum. This goes a long way towards explaining why he is so successful in his rendition. Only someone who so loves and respects Oz and the creatures that inhabit the world could pull this volume off. Young’s artwork is fantastic and his interpretation of the characters is both whimsical and humorous, which helps ease the scariness of some of the darker passages. The lion in particular is wonderfully puffy and squishy looking, and his face makes some of the best expressions as he vacillates between fearsome and frightened.

There are four volumes in this series so far, with a fifth being published in November. The series won Eisner awards for Best Limited Series and Best Publication for Kids. Recommended for children, teens, and any adult for whom this title is a fond link to their childhood. Especially recommended for people who didn’t like the movie’s (creepy, creepy) flying monkeys. They’re still hair-raising, but when their story gets told they are less sinister. One might even feel a bit sorry for them.

Search the WRL catalog for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

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Game“Most people like to take apart their problems, look at them in smaller, more manageable pieces. Trolls, he mused, simply take this to the extreme.”

Thirteen-year-old best friends, who describe themselves as “two lobes of the same brain,” visit an eccentric uncle at his Vermont mansion, and in the tradition of such vacations, end up in peril. Gregory, the smart-alecky one, warns his friend Brian that Uncle Max is eccentric, but it becomes obvious when they arrive and he has the butler burn all of their luggage. Uncle Max prefers that boys wear knickerbockers and speaks like a character out of Dickens.

Exploring the house, the boys discover a curious board game without any rules but with a layout that seems to correspond to the old, Victorian house and its grounds. As the boys solve puzzles, the board expands to reveal more pathways and tests. It’s no Candyland, though… more like Zork, with gruesome monsters lurking in the dark, trolls, and a mysterious stranger with a bladed yo-yo. Someone really should have taught these boys not to get involved in a magical game before they know the rules… or the stakes.

A bit like Narnia by way of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, this first book in a series has marvelously despicable villains and writing that combines a real sense of malice with a wicked, nutty sense of humor. Like Philip Reeve’s Larklight, it’s published for kids and younger teens, but there are jokes for the adults mixed in.

I liked the friendship in this book. The boys are very different, but they “get” each other; Gregory’s off-the-wall sense of humor is balanced by Brian’s quieter, deep-thinking approach to problems. They may get on each other’s nerves, but neither doubts that the other will be there when it counts.

The ending has some nifty twists and sets the story up to continue in three more books.

Check the WRL catalog for The Game of Sunken Places.

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