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Archive for the ‘Plot’ Category

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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HookThere’s nothing so tempting to readers as the opportunity to rewrite the books they enjoy. (Even though sometimes it leads to chaos.) And how meta is it for fictional authors to give happy endings to “flawed classics?”  At their best, authors exploring fictional characters from different points of view–villains reconsidered, offstage characters allowed their own voices, principal characters followed beyond the ends of the original story–increase the reader’s understanding and pleasure in the original book.

If that’s what you’re after, don’t pick up Alias Hook. If you’re interested in a story that recasts the hero in an awful light and turns the two-dimensional villain into a grievously abused victim with a tiny chance at redemption, Alias Hook is a terrific place to go.

Gifted with magic and music, leader of boys who don’t want to grow up, recruiter of girls who take all responsibility until they ask too much, what character better represents eternal boyhood than Peter Pan? At least that’s the Pan that Hook cannot escape, despite trying for 300 years. This Pan is competitive, but only on his own rules, (which include keeping Hook alive while allowing the Lost Boys to kill his crew), controlling the environment to his own advantage, and of course ruling the Indians and mermaids that live in Neverland at his pleasure.

Granted, Hook is not that nice a guy–the spoiled rich son of a merchant, he became a privateer in the 1680’s and was imprisoned as a pirate by the French enemy. Released into the poverty and bitterness, his hatred took him on a path that led him to Neverland. He still dresses as the Restoration dandy he was, but underneath all that lace and rich cloth, he longs for redemption and an end to his captivity. With the arrival of Stella Parrish–a WOMAN! in NEVERLAND!–he may just achieve that.

Jensen leads us on a trip through Neverland, including the land of the fairies, the Indian village, and the mysterious path leading to the beautiful loreleis who lure unwary sailors to their death. In each, she shows us a rich and mythical place where wisdom and adulthood are held at bay by the mercurial boy. It is plain early on that Hook (and just how did he lose that hand?) must forge his own destiny and find a way to escape Pan’s world; but how? The answer is as simple and as mythical as it is emotionally rewarding.

Check the WRL catalog for Alias Hook

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JacketIt’s a small community, tight-knit in the ways that places get when the residents watch their children grow up together. The parents have high expectations and mostly refuse to recognize that their teens are moving beyond childhood. The teens are experimenting – drugs, hair color, sex, clothing – but there’s still pressure not to go too far outside the bounds. There’s jealousy, and memories of the kid who threw up on the school bus in second grade. There’s the long shadow of past infidelities, spouse abuse, alcoholism, and divorce that hangs over these kids, who can’t name or deal with the emotions that such trauma bring. Megan Abbott couldn’t have chosen to set The Fever in a more normal place.

Until one of the bright, talented, and popular girls has a seizure in class, followed by another at home, these kids haven’t experienced the trauma of serious illness among their peers. What better way to lose that teenage feeling of immortality than seeing a familiar face twisted in rictus and a familiar body sprawled in a tangle of desks? Add to that the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and that trauma quickly spreads across the world. Scary, right?

Then it happens to another girl, and another, and another. Now the singular tragedy becomes an epidemic and people start pointing fingers. Is it something in a vaccine? A chemical spill? Abuse by the boys? The Internet proves a goldmine of information and opinions and this normal community begins to break down in fear. Is the mystery ever solved? Yes and no – but I’ll leave the reading to you.

Abbott tells this story of growing hysteria through the eyes of the Nash family. Deenie is in her first year of high school, and it’s her best friend Gabby who suffers the first episode. Older brother Eli is a sports standout and the target of aggressive girls who want to score on the popular boy. And dad Tom is a popular teacher at the school all the affected girls attend. That should make for a cohesive family, but grouped together as they are they make a convenient target for those looking for scapegoats.

Each of the Nashes is captured in their individual voice, with the concerns and qualms of each fully articulated. The tone of the rest of the community – from the girls posting YouTube videos of their symptoms and fears to the outraged parents to the authorities trying to sift through mountains of opinion for some sensible explanation – also feels truthful. Knowing that there’s nothing they aren’t seeing on a daily basis, I wouldn’t hesitate to give this to a mature young adult reader, but it’s also worth suggesting to any adult who wants to look across the chasm of time and see what those young adults are facing.

Check the WRL catalog for The Fever

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templarMice live in the shadows, overseen by the moon, which they believe is the eye of their god, Wotan. As their legends go, in years past they were protected by a band of fierce warriors, guardians of the night: the Templars. After years of defending as a unified brotherhood, one year, for a reason yet unknown, the Templars were divided and began warring against each other. After the epic battle, no Templars were allegedly ever seen again. Now the mice have mere watchmen guarding them against all the creatures, large and small, who threaten their existence.

Karic is a young mouse who soaks in all the stories of the battles of yore with relish and loves to imagine himself as a brave fighter. His obsession with combat seems a harmless boyish phase until his village gets attacked by an army of rats. Any similarity between this story and Mouse Guard by David Petersen is quickly squashed with the first (of many) beheaded mouse in the vicious, horrific bloodbath that ensues. Karic loses contact with his mother and sister, surviving the conflict and receiving a message from the fish gods claiming that he is some kind of chosen one. He meets up with an old warrior mouse named Pilot who admits to being a former Templar living in exile. Pilot takes Karic under his wing as they begin searching for answers and a path to follow.

These mice are far from fluffy and cute. They have huge ears which display their mood, droopy when tired or sad, flung back when on the attack, perked up when focused. These same ears are often marked with notches, scarred from the ongoing battle for their fragile lives. Their bodies are thin and angular and every mouse appears exhausted, deep shadows under their eyes. They are ruled by gods and prophecy, though they fear that their god has abandoned them. And it is hard to fault them, as almost everything seems to exist as a threat to the tiny creatures, and their world quickly begins to spiral into terrible, bloody chaos.

As Karic’s journey progresses, he is forced to learn, and then unlearn, then learn again. In this land of wars and betrayal, exactly who represents the good and the right is hard to discern, as everyone has blood on their paws. Tiny as he is, even compared to other mice, it will be up to Karic to live up to his billing as the one chosen by the god Woten.

Dark and unrelenting, this title is not recommended to those who prefer lighthearted, humorous tales.

Search our catalog for Mice Templar

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riverI love mysteries. From the hardest of the hard-boiled to…well, ok, I don’t really care for cozies, but I’ve read them…but I’m especially fond of mysteries that give me a strong sense of place and people along with a good puzzle. For some reason, Italian settings seem to capture all three in style and substance. (Barry has written about Andrea Camilleri’s excellent Inspector Montalbano series set in Sicily, plus there’s the Guido Brunetti collection, Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, and plenty of other series where the protagonist visits Italy.) Christobel Kent’s series featuring Sandro Cellini (The Drowning River is the first) stands with the best.

Sandro is something unusual for Italian mysteries – a private detective. A disgraced ex-cop, he’s been ordered by his wife to hang out his shingle and get out of her hair. Resigned to sitting around an office, he’s surprised when he gets his first client: an older woman whose husband died in the Arno River. Verdict: suicide.  Cellini takes the case mostly gratis to comfort her, but discovers right away that the man’s last hours leave questions. What exactly was Claudio Gentileschi, architect, faithful husband, Holocaust survivor, doing when he wasn’t at home or work?

Then a young English art student disappears. Sandro had encountered her before and her mother hires him to be her “representative” to the Italian police while she makes up her mind whether or not she cares. No big deal, Veronica’s done it before, she’s got some mysterious guy she’s probably shacking up with, and she’ll come back to art school when her cash runs low.  Sure her instructors and her mousy roommate are worried, but Sandro will take care of it. And he does, and learns more about Claudio and the business of Florentine art in the process.

Kent keeps the puzzle intriguing and builds to a satisfying resolution. But she also builds characters the reader knows will play important roles in Sandro’s future. His wife Luisa, who has breast cancer and is struggling with her decision to have a mastectomy; Giulietta Sarto, the former prostitute who ended Sandro’s career and is the closest thing he and Luisa have to a child; his former colleagues; but most of all, Florence itself.

This is the Florence where regular folks live alongside the tourists and the art students who come to study in the Mecca of classical art training. Ordinary bars with extraordinary food and companionable bartenders, secret passages in and out of the Boboli Gardens, odd locals who are part of the daily background of any city. In this story, the rains are continuously falling and the Arno is threatening to overflow its banks in a disaster that would equal the L’Alluvion of 1966. (For a great book about the aftermath of that flood, check out Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures.)  Sandro Cellini knows Florence better than most anyone, and he leads us on an intimate tour while solving a puzzling mystery. Who could ask for more?

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