Friday, December 15, 2017

The Hunting Accident: A True Story of Crime and Poetry

The Hunting Accident is a complex series of tales that are surprisingly true. Overall, it tells a series of stories about fathers and their sons, and the main narrative pertains to Charlie Rizzo and his father Matt. After the death of his mother, Charlie has to live with his dad, who is blind and lives in Chicago. Charlie did not know much about his father, but over time he learned of how he lost his sight in a hunting accident when he was a teen. He also begins to help his father in editing literary reviews and commentaries, primarily about the medieval Italian poet Dante.

Life in Illinois is much different than life in California, and over time Charlie falls in with an unsavory crowd. When he is implicated in a crime, he learns much about his father's murky past, including the real reason he went blind and also that he served time in prison. Of course, these revelations cause quite a stir. But the accounts of the truth that come from this discord are full of surprises and unexpected turns, including the strange fact that part of Matt's redemption in prison came from the circumstance that his cellmate was Nathan Leopold, a thrill killer whose exploits were once termed "the crime of the century."
Overall, this graphic novel is one that makes me appreciate reading comics. The story is full of twists and turns as well as plenty of emotion and the artwork is exceptional, with dark flourishes and nightmarish imagery, both combining to make a narrative that could only really be told via comics. I read a lot of graphic novels, and this one is impressively well crafted.

The Hunting Accident is the first graphic novel by both writer David L. Carlson and artist Landis Blair. The duo originally produced a limited run of a slightly different version of this book with a Kickstarter campaign. Carlson is a Renaissance man, and Blair is a painter and illustrator who has also illustrated the book From Here to Eternity by writer Caitlin Doughty. Carlson speaks more about his work on the book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been very positive. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it an "ambitious debut graphic novel" and added, "Blair’s exceptional pen-and-ink work, which mixes the tangible world with the psychological, brings all the strands together seamlessly and powerfully." Seth T. Hahne elaborated that this tale could have been very dry but that Carlson "twists it into something ranging and delicious, a complexity revealed by pieces and parts through visions and allusions." Oliver Sava called it a "gorgeous nonfiction tale" that "is filled with innovative layouts and stunning rendering."

The Hunting Accident was published by First Second, and they have a preview and more information about it here. There is also a separate official website devoted especially to the book here.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Spinning

Spinning is a beautiful, spare, and painful book. It is an autobiographical memoir about a young girl growing up, with one of the few constant things in her life being competitive ice skating. Also, from about the age of 5, she has known that she is gay, though she does not tell anyone for fear of being rejected or worse.

Much of this book takes place in skating rinks, but it is mostly about a search for identity and acceptance. Tillie has a few friendships, though they get disrupted when her family moves from New Jersey to Texas, where ice skating is a rarer and less popular thing. Tillie has a rough relationship with her family. She is a twin, though she does not seem especially close to her brother. He appears only sporadically in the book. Her father is a jokester who usually ends up taking her to early morning practices, but their conversations are merely functional. Her mother seems distant and moody, and what we see of her makes her seem prickly at best. 
Although she is "good" at skating, Tillie does not seem especially fond of it. She seems to be going through the motions over 12 years, skating and competing but really looking for something else. She is searching for some connection, whether it be a friend or mentor. Ironically, because she feels sad and alone, she takes part in a sport where she has to go off frequently and be alone. And cold, it's also cold out on the ice.

Author/artist Tillie Walden is the creator behind this book. Only 21 years old, she already has been nominated for two Eisner Awards, won two Ignatz Awards, and also published three other graphic novels, including The End of Summer, I Love This Part, and A City Inside. She also is working on a webcomic, On a Sunbeam. As I hope you can tell form the excerpt above, Walden's storytelling is beautifully understated. She uses a lot of negative space and very strategic dialogue to great effect. Tillie the main character appears lonesome for much of this book, and that loneliness is reflected in the artwork. Her isolation also leaves her ruminating, and I feel that is also reflected in the storytelling, as it is very calculated and thoughtful. For those interested, you can learn more about Walden's life and work in this article or this interview. I really enjoyed this interview, too.

All of the reviews I have read about this book say it is stellar. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review and summed it up as "A quiet powerhouse of a memoir." Publishers Weekly also gave it a starred review and called it "A haunting and resonant coming-of-age story." Booklist also gave it a starred review (3 for 3 here!) and reviewer Sarah Hunter concluded, "A stirring, gorgeously illustrated story of finding the strength to follow one’s own path."

Spinning was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here. I feel that this book would be appropriate for most YA readers. It features mature themes, and there is one instance of sexual violence, but I feel it will resonate with many adolescent readers.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Pashmina

Pashmina is a magic-infused tale of growing up and learning about family. Its main character is Priyanka Das, a teenager who loves to draw and is somewhat introverted. She tries her best to fit in, urging people to call her "Pri," and attempting to blend into the background as much as possible. She is a talented artist, and one of her teachers keeps encouraging her to enter a cartoon contest with some of her work.
On the home front, Priyanka is troubled because there are many things she does not know about why her life is the way it is. Her mother raises her by herself, and she is strict and somewhat overbearing. Many years ago she moved to California from India, and she refuses to talk about Priyanka's father or life in India, saying that those subjects are closed. One day, after an argument, Priyanka finds a scarf in a suitcase, and when she wraps it around herself she is transported Wizard-of-Oz-style to an idealized and dazzling India, where a bird and an elephant take her on a tour. This circumstance sates her for a little while, but when the opportunity to visit her aunt in India arises, Priyanka takes it, and there she learns much about her mother and the decisions she made.
I enjoyed the back and forth between the "real" and "magic" worlds that happens in the narrative and how the artwork fluctuates from stark black and white to vibrant, fully colored scenes to reflect those shifts in venue. I also thought that the characters and situations were very realistic. This story is a powerful one that I think many readers can relate to. I certainly found much that informed my own experiences as the son of immigrants, even if not from the same place or aided by a magic scarf. If there is any justice in this world, this book will be very popular with the YA crowd.

This book is an impressive debut graphic novel by Nidhi Chanani. She has illustrated children's books in the past, and she speaks about her work on them in this interview. She also was named a Champion of Change by President Obama, which she speaks about here. She speaks about her work on Pashmina in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of praise. Kirkus Reviews called it "both a needed contribution and a first-rate adventure tale." Michael Berry wrote that it was "Funny, wise, and moving." In a starred review from School Library Journal Andrea Lipinski concluded, "This dazzling blend of realistic fiction and fantasy is perfect for fans of characters who have to overcome obstacles on their way to growing up."

Pashmini was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more about it here.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook

I was a big fan of Joe Ollmann's Mid-Life, and when I saw he was publishing a new book, I was excited to read it. Whereas Mid-Life was a piece of fiction with some autobiographical aspects thrown in, his new work The Abominable Mr. Seabrook is a well researched, nonfiction biography. Its subject William Seabrook was a journalist, author, occultist, and traveler who explored lots of exotic locales and wrote about them for popular audiences. His biggest contribution to US culture may be his account of voodoo in Haiti The Magic Island and how that book popularized the concept of the zombie for Americans. Even though he was famous in his day and hobnobbed with lots of folks still held in high regard, Seabrook has all but fallen off the radar.
Part of the reason he faded into obscurity is the prolonged downward spiral chronicled in this book. He had penchants for alcohol, womanizing, BDSM, drugs, and pushing boundaries altogether, a horrible combination of attributes that resulted in his suicide by drug overdose in 1945. Those same attributes led him to many interesting situations, including being an ambulance driver during World War I, roaming with Bedouins in the Arabian Desert and mountains of northern Iraq, dining with cannibals in Africa, and spending months in an asylum for addicts. He was able to spin many of these experiences into prose, but as we see in this graphic novel, he was not an easy person to be around.

As you can tell from what I just reeled off, I learned much about Mr. Seabrook from this book. It is jam-packed with information from the various chapters that focus on specific moments in his life. Also, Ollmann does not pull any punches with Seabrook's life, and I have to say that authenticity was double-edged for me. First it is an impressive feat to accomplish, a mark of great craft and attention to detail. Second, it is also pretty exhausting and terrifying to see this depraved and troubled man's life in such detail. I love the obvious love, effort, and dark humor that went into this book, but I also had a tough time getting through parts of it because they were so raw. From start to finish it's beautiful, engrossing, and devastating. I'd definitely recommend it to mature readers interested in this fascinating author, and I'd also add that I would read it in installments. TAMS is not a book to plow through.

All of the reviews I have read have commented on the amount of care, research, and craft went into this book. Genevieve Valentine wrote that "the depth of research is impressive, and there are evocative beats of loneliness or connection that remind us why the graphic novel can be such a powerful medium for conveying such small, human moments." John Paul praised it as "a masterful bit of visual storytelling." Chris Mautner called it an "ambitious biography."

For those interested, Ollmann speaks extensively about his work on this book in this interview.

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more info about it here. The author also has a sizable preview excerpt here.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Witch Boy

I bought this book because I am a big fan of Molly Knox Ostertag. I love the webcomic she draws, Strong Female Protagonist, and I also very much enjoyed the sci-fi tale The Shattered Warrior that was released earlier this year. The difference with this book, The Witch Boy, is that she both wrote and drew it, so I was eager to see how it turned out. It is an impressive solo debut, and I appreciated very much how she told a nuanced tale of young people finding their way and also having to navigate their family relationships.

The narrative here follows Aster, whose family is touched by magic. All the women in the family become witches and are trained in mystical arts. All of the men are shapeshifters who learn how to fight and defend their homes and families. Aster is an outlier because he cannot seem to shapeshift, but he is highly interested in magic and sneakily learns how to cast spells and use magical objects. On top of this break with tradition, he is also quite friendly with a non-magical girl (can I call her a muggle if it's not Harry Potter related?) named Charlie.
His actions disrupt tradition, causing his parents concern and also opening him up to criticism from others. However, when strange creatures start lurking about and his boy cousins start disappearing, his in-between status might just be what is needed to get to the bottom of things. If it seems these details are vague, it's because I don't want to spoil much. I found this book very compelling and human, and I loved how the family and relationship drama was portrayed in real and complex ways. The Witch Boy is a double threat, a fun tale of magic and intrigue that has a few genuinely scary bits but also an exploration of how families can be loving, frustrating, and supportive, even when traditional roles are broken.
All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. In a starred review for School Library Journal, Andrea Lipinski summed it up as "An excellent choice for reluctant readers, fans of fantasy, and those looking for books that explore gender roles." In another starred review, Kirkus Reviews concluded "With charming artwork, interesting supporting characters, natural-feeling diversity, and peeks of a richly developed world, this book leaves readers wishing for more." Mugglenet called it "smart and fun."

Ostertag speaks more about her work and inspirations for this book in this interview.

The Witch Boy was published by Scholastic, and they have more info about it here.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Showtime

How I happen upon graphic novels is a varied thing. I read this one, Showtime, because someone I follow on Twitter recommended it as an antidote to "restricted nerd bullshit." So I decided to check it out and see what she meant by that. I have to say that this book is a pretty unique reading experience in terms of its scope, focus, and narrative. For starters, it's narrated by a rat who is pushing a can of Coca-Cola up a staircase. Secondly, it's about a weird car trip, a reclusive magician, and a trio of hitch-hikers who purport to be stranded wait-staff on the way to a gig.

The magician in question is in the mold of a David Copperfield or David Blaine, who trucks in grand public illusions, including a floating cruise ship. His works have made people question reality, which is also what this narrative does, and he is coming back for a comeback tour after years of being out of the public eye.

As you might guess from the high concept set-up, this tale is full of potential avenues for interpretation and existential exploration. It is thought-provoking and philosophical but also relatively fantastical. I will not say it is a book for everyone, but I do feel that it is expertly constructed and very satisfying to read in terms of intellectual and aesthetic experiences. It features a fascinating story and also creative and provocative lay-outs. Just check out this page:
Showtime was created by writer/artist Antoine Cossé. He has a few other works under his belt, including such titles as Harold, Mutiny Bay, and La Villa S., as well as several anthology entries. He also posts many excerpts from his various works at his blog. He speaks about his comics work in general in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Madeleine Morley called it a "richly cinematic tale." Laura S. Hammond concluded, "Dark yet ironically funny at times the sinister elements and plot twists will enchant those who have a penchant for the uncanny and weird."

Showtime was published by Breakdown Press, and they have extracts and more info about it here. For those interested, you can learn more about Breakdown Press in this interview.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Cici's Journal: The Adventures of a Writer-in-Training

Cici's Journal was an intriguing reading experience for me. It combines elements of a personal journal, picture books, and comics in following the exploits of a little girl who is curious and figuring out her way in the world. In many ways, the two stories here are quotidian, though the daily life they chronicle is full of wonder. In many ways, I felt like I was reading a graphic novel with a few sections that read more like a good elementary-aged novel excerpt. And I mean that in a good way.

The plot in this book follows Cici, an inquisitve and energetic ten and a half year-old. She is enamored with her friend Mrs. Flores, who is an author, and channels all of her energy into observing adults and trying to learn their secrets. She conducts investigations and writes them up, often with the help of her friends Erica and Lena. They act as springboards for her ideas and also they provide convenient cover stories to distract Cici's mom from what she is really up to.
In the first story (excerpted above), "The Petrified Zoo," she follows a peculiar, old man into the woods to find that he is decorating an abandoned zoo. The second story "Hector's Book" she notices an old woman who keeps checking the same book out of the library each week. And in addition to unfurling that mystery, her personal life comes more into focus. In many children's books that feature sleuthing, like Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew, the main character can become pretty single-minded and insufferable. I liked that in this book, that type of behavior gets called out. Cici's friends, mother, and even her hero Mrs. Flores all show her how her actions alienate them, and she learns more about how to balance being a decent person as well as an effective writer.

In terms of story I liked the gentle, human way that both mysteries resolved as well as the attention to the personal interactions of the main characters. But my favorite part of this book was its artwork, which is gorgeous and vibrant. The characters all are full of color and personality. The settings are all well grounded in reality but also beautifully rendered, and I loved the visual storytelling and facial expressions.Just check out that excerpt above and you'll see what I am talking about.

The two books contained in this volume were a collaboration between artist Aurélie Neyret and writer Joris Chamblain. Neyret has published work in many anthologies and magazines in France, and she shares much of her artwork via her blog. Chamblain has written various other comics, most notably the series Sorcières Sorcières (website in French). Cici's Journal was translated into English by Carol Klio Burrell, and I felt she did excellent work making this entire enterprise funny and contemporary in a different cultural milieu.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly wrote that Neyret's "delicate, finely worked portraits bring elegance" to Chamblain's "smart" stories. Sharon Tyler summed up that it "is a book that made me smile. It reminded me of Harriet the Spy in the best of ways, and still felt new and fresh. I think this will appeal to a number of readers."

Cici's Journal was published in the US by First Second, and they have a preview and more info about it here.

A preview copy was provided by the publisher.