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Archive for the ‘Plot’ Category

JacketI just closed Descent and can still feel those symptoms of adrenaline: heart racing, shallow breathing, butterflies in my stomach, eyes and ears hyperalert, muscles twitching and ready for fight or flight. Of course, it could be the two pieces of birthday cake I had for dinner, but I’m convinced it’s Tim Johnston’s storytelling.

The best part is that Johnston manages to pull off two good books at the same time – an intense psychological thriller and an emotionally resonant story about the family that’s left behind when one of its members goes missing.

Caitlin Courtland is a tough competitor, a runner who demands everything of herself; her younger brother Sean is pudgy and shy, overlooked by his peers and her friends. Their parents have lived through personal trauma, undergone difficulties in their marriage, and are returning to a sense of normalcy. The family is on that last golden trip before Caitlin goes to college on a track scholarship. Then Caitlin, trailed by Sean on a bike, goes for a run; the next thing any of them know, Sean is in the hospital, leg shattered and in shock, and Caitlin is gone.

Over the course of the next two years, the Courtland family breaks apart. Sean leaves home in his dad’s truck, traveling the road, taking menial jobs for gas money, and encountering the dark underside of the American character. Angela, the mother, goes back to their home in Wisconsin but is devastated by the loss of her child and the ongoing uncertainty of her fate. Grant, the father, stays on in the little town near Caitlin’s kidnapping in some vain hope that she’ll know he’s close by. He also begins forming tentative relationships–and definite enmities–with people in the community.

We learn in small pieces what became of Caitlin, and what it cost her to save Sean’s life. We also come to admire just how tough she is, and what she could have become had a strange man not come hurtling into her life. But hers is not a happy story, and as the book approaches its ending we see just what kind of person she is.

Johnston uses the story to address not only family issues (and of families other than the Courtlands), but also of the blend of good and bad that exists in (nearly) everyone. That same kind of blending propels Descent to a powerful and emotionally affecting end.

Check the WRL catalog for Descent

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heroRefreshing and reinventing old superheroes has become somewhat fashionable recently, with rather mixed results. Some characters, like Batman, have seen so many iterations that it is difficult to separate them all, or find new ground to cover without being completely repetitive or utterly discarding canon. One good thing that has come out of this trend is the resurrection of old characters that never caught on, but were worthwhile for one reason or another.

The Green Turtle was a World War II superhero with a very limited run. He was created by a cartoonist named Chu Hing, who was one of the first Asian-Americans to enter the American comic book industry, a business with limited diversity, especially back in 1944. Hing obscured the face of his protagonist so that, even if he was not allowed to make his character officially of Chinese descent, there is enough obfuscation for the reader to make their own decision about his heritage.

It is this character that has been brought back to life in The Shadow Hero. Living in Chinatown are two immigrants and their son, Hank. Each parent brings with them shadows of their old life and unfulfilled expectations from their new life. Hank is the reluctant heir to a melting pot of their issues. There certainly isn’t any early indication of his superhero future, as he is quite content to work in his father’s grocery store, nursing the hope to eventually pass it on to his own son someday. But no superhero comes to being without some trauma, and his parent’s legacies eventually, violently, come to alter their offspring’s future in unimagined ways.

Gene Luen Yang, author of the Printz Award winning American Born Chinese, brings a strong sense of time, place, and culture in this story. I don’t think I’ve ever read a superhero story where family and cultural heritage is this central to the creation and continued development of the character. The people surrounding Hank encompass a wide range of types without sinking in to caricature. His mother is especially complicated, being infuriating and relatable in equal measure. Parents want what’s best for their child, but so often their view of what is best is founded on what they perceive to be missing from their own life.

Recommended for readers of graphic novels, superhero stories, and anyone with an interest in stories about family dynamics.

Check the WRL catalog for The Shadow Hero.

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giantsBarbara is a fifth-grader who lives with her big sister and her older brother. She sticks out from her peers for myriad reasons: she wears a different pair of animal ears every day; she is completely unable to interact with people in a normal manner; and she is obsessed with her quest to kill giants. She tells stories of many bloody, violent battles with the monsters, and sees signs of an impending attack that no one else notices. Armed with Coveleski, the Giant Slayer (the name she gave her war hammer), she is tough, smart, and in many ways completely unlikable. When finding herself cornered, either physically or emotionally, she lashes out with a vicious intensity.

Offsetting her brutal ferocity is Sophia, a sunny, gentle girl who is new to the neighborhood and is fascinated by Barbara’s stories of giants and the imminent war. As damaged as Barbara so obviously is, she cannot completely cast Sophia aside, and the reader gets glimpses of what looks like desperation for normalcy peeking through her façade. But Barbara is pretty expert in keeping people from hurting her emotionally, and even Mrs. Molle, the school psychologist, finds Barbara a tough case to figure out.

Heavy in the air is a secret, something so terrible that it is driving Barbara into a world of fantasy in order to find some solace. So strong is her emotional shutdown, that even people’s words are blacked out whenever the topic is mentioned. Bit by excruciating bit, her secret is revealed to the reader, as she finds herself unable to keep things contained and her raw pain is brought to the surface

Graphic novels can be a fantastic medium for delving into tough, sensitive topics, as the art can make a reader comprehend those quiet moments of complete emotional devastation better than any possible combination of words. The illustrations by JM Ken Niimura are subtle and explosive as appropriate. Joe Kelly’s writing is nuanced and tense. Recommended for readers of graphic novels, and anyone who likes journeys of self-awareness or coming-of-age stories.

Check the WRL catalog for I Kill Giants.

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legendA lot of admonishments are made about not judging a book by its cover. But as I was browsing our shelves, I came across this dark little volume and was immediately intrigued. Mimicking a dinged up, ink spattered journal, its rather grandiose title The Stuff of Legend was set above the drawing of a stuffed bear. Its face set with a sense of purpose, the bear steps towards the reader as if walking towards its destiny, glancing at the toys behind it with a look of either challenge or warning. It is an arresting image, but despite the ominous subtitle, The Dark, I picked up the book fully expecting the fluffy cuteness of the bear to be the reader’s companion through the story, juxtaposed against whatever low-level gloom the authors threw at the character. After just a few pages I realized I was entirely off base.

The story has some familiar elements: a young boy and some toys that come alive, but only when humans are not there to witness the transformation. One of the toys is even a piggy bank, but this book is definitely not a Toy Story knock-off. Set in 1941, with the boy’s father off fighting in the war, a great and unexpected evil is about to invade the world. Straight out of every child’s nightmares, the Boogeyman is in the closet. One night his nightmarish tentacles emerge from behind the door to snatch the boy, leaving the toys behind in shock. Should they venture in after him to save their owner? Or should they maintain their directive of non-interference?

Obviously, if all the toys decided that discretion is the better part of valor, this story would have ended after only a few pages. Instead we follow a few brave toys who volunteer (or get volunteered) to go into the darkness after the boy. The world on the other side of the door is truly transformational, and the long quest begins.

When I finished book 1, my only thought was that I needed to get book 2 as soon as possible. The story is gloomy, yet riveting and absorbing. The artwork is appropriately dingy in sepia with dark shadows staining every scene. So far, four books in the series have been published, and there is a promise of a fifth volume later this year. Recommended for readers of graphic novels, light horror, an adventure books.

Check the WRL catalog for The Stuff of Legends

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AvatarTheLastAirbenderI know that having children is a life-enriching experience but I didn’t expect my almost-grown children to get me hooked on an initially unappealing children’s T.V. show; Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. At first the cartoons and martial arts action seemed cheesy, but the show delivers a compelling story filled with friendship, family (good and bad), coming of age, and sympathetic but realistically flawed characters.

The story is set in a fascinating universe where certain people have an innate ability to move and control physical matter, called bending. All benders can move only one element: either earth, water, air or fire. All, that is, except the Avatar who can bend all four, and this power is meant to be used to keep balance and harmony in the world. The Avatar disappeared over one hundred years ago which allowed the Fire Nation to wage a war to take over the world. In the first episode our heroes Katara and Sokka discover that the Avatar, Aang, has been frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years as a twelve-year-old boy. The three of them set off on journeys and adventures all around the world, gathering friends and enemies, such as plump, kindly General Iroh who dispenses sage advice and cups of tea, or short, blind Toph who seems helpless, but is much tougher than everyone else. The situation often looks dire, but as Katara says in the opening sequence, “I believe Aang can save the world.”

The well-developed universe includes real martial art systems as the basis for each type of bending and buildings, costumes and cultures based on real ancient Asian cultures (although sometimes mixed). But the best invention may be the chimeric animals! Aang has a huge, furry, guinea-pig-shaped Flying Bison named Appa that you can’t possibly see without wanting one.

There are many spin-off works such as the sequel The Legend of Korra  which expands on the story of the Avatar. It occurs seventy years later than Avatar: The Last Airbender and features that show’s character’s children and grandchildren. They live in Republic City which bears an uncanny resemblance to 1920s New York City.  There are also graphic novels some of which are drawn by the same artists and include original stories that are not in the original show like Avatar the Last Airbender: The Promise.

Like Doctor Who or Spirited Away this is great for the whole family to watch together. The stories are simple enough (and active enough) to appeal to the youngest set while the geopolitical wrangling and character development is enough to keep adults coming back for more.

Check the WRL catalog for Avatar: The Last Airbender.

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Artistic rendering of Hellfighters charging into battleWhile the majority of people are (hopefully) aware of all-black regiments that have fought for America like the Tuskegee Airmen or the Buffalo Soldiers, many do not realize that there were black soldiers who fought in WWI. Highlighting a piece of our nation’s history that has been minimized, ignored, and forgotten, Max Brooks brings the story of the 369th Infantry Regiment roaring back to life. Although the account is fictional, much of the storyline and action comes directly from historical accounts. The amount of research that went into this book is readily apparent and helps ground the story in the mud-laden reality that was life in the trenches.

The first sixty pages of the story cover the forming of the regiment and their training before they are sent overseas. While this might seem like a lot of space to dedicate to inaction, it sets up the reader’s understanding of the social injustice that surrounds the men. These individuals are not just going to war, they are putting their lives on the line to help defend a country that allows them to be beaten, treated lower than dogs, and murdered without hope for justice. It then comes as no surprise that when they are finally about to go off to war, the other New York National Guardsmen, the Rainbow Division, get a parade in their honor, but the 369th are not allowed to attend because “black is not a color of the rainbow.”

Once in France, they are eventually sent to the front lines during a particularly desperate part of the war. As the narrator, Edge, explains: “while our own country didn’t want us, another country needed us.” The French called them the “Men of Bronze”, but after showing their fierceness on the battlefield, the Germans dubbed them “The Harlem Hellfighters.” Several of the characters in the book are actual historical figures, including Eugene Jacques Bullard, a pilot and veteran of both World Wars, and Henry Johnson, who was the first American, black or white, to receive the French Cross of War. The 369th spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit.

The narrative is gripping and entertaining, weaving together the current story and episodes from the individual’s pasts. The characters are concurrently honorable and flawed, but their dignity in fighting both the war they volunteered for and the war on their skin tone is moving and well-executed. The illustrations are by Caanan White, an African-American artist best known for his work on “Uber”, an alternate-ending WWII horror story. White is certainly experienced in depicting scenes of war with all the grit and the violence and intensity. I was often times glad that the art was in black in white, rather than color.

Recommended for fans of military history, civil rights history, and graphic novels.

Check the WRL catalog for Harlem Hellfighters.

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JacketIn this corner, weighing in at three pounds, with a chemical punch that rules the body is The Brain! And in this corner, managed by clueless trainers and sycophantic followers, is Everything Else! It’s the eternal match-up of Nature vs. Nurture! Tonight’s referee is Herman Koch, but there are no rules about punching below the belt, no timekeepers, and judges who can’t score the bout until it’s way too late. Ding!

OK, that’s a poor imitation of the ongoing boxing match between those who say criminals are born and those who say they are made. As a story, The Dinner is more like a tag-team wrestling event with a fundamental questions at its heart: Does a parent’s love encompass protecting their children from the consequences of their deeds?

Herman Koch has structured his approach to the question as the progressive courses of a dinner (hence the title) between two brothers and their wives. Paul, the narrator, is a teacher; his brother Serge a politician cruising to the top of Dutch political life. We see everything through Paul’s eyes, beginning with the bitter aperitif of Paul’s loathing for his pretentious brother and ending with a horrific after-dinner drink at a nearby pub. This single viewpoint frequently breaks the action up as individuals and pairs leave the table for private conversations we aren’t privy to, or we follow along as Paul does things the others don’t know about.

Over the course of the evening we learn that Paul’s son Michel and Serge’s son Rick were involved in a terrible crime. Paul recognized the boys from security footage, but the police and public haven’t, and every day brings new and more strident calls that the criminals be brought to justice. Does Paul have the courage to confront his son, to tell his wife, brother, and sister-in-law, to expose the boys and ruin both families? And does Paul’s bitterness have roots in a deeper conflict?

Koch has successfully incorporated the technology that has rendered so much other fiction out-of-date. Swapped cell phones, stolen emails, YouTube videos, and deleted voice mails all play a significant role in bringing the conflict into the open, and in offering a solution to the dilemma. But at its core, this is a story about people, ethics, and that old battle of Nature vs. Nurture. That one’s not going away any time soon.

Check the WRL catalog for The Dinner

(Coming in Summer 2015 as a Gab Bag – I’ll post that as soon as it’s up)

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