"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy

{book} castle juliet

Castle Juliet: A Fantasy

By Brandon Berntson*

Self-published, 2013.

There are a few editions.

Alice and Jacky-boy are ten years old and the best of friends. For a year they embark on fantastic adventures, most born from Jack’s relentless imagination. As each season draws to a close, another one opens, revealing its own timeless magic and mystery – things Jack and Alice could have never imagined.

Castle Juliet is a timeless tale for all ages. It will leave you mystified and enchanted. But most importantly…it will leave you wanting more.—jacket copy

Castle Juliet reads as if Peter Pan and Wendy of Neverland were subjects in Mayberry RFD or on Walton’s mountain, Goodnight Alice dear. Goodnight Jacky-boy. I was expecting the charm in that first chapter to curdle into something either satirical or cloying. It doesn’t.

This is not to say that there are occasions in which one character or another is not over-the-top. Alice and her mother Jane can be a bit too angelic ala Dickensian standards. All the women exude a tantalizing domesticity, even the late appearance of Emily Lila Patrick. The men, too, are prone to being overtaken by sentiment. Threats of swooning and tearful expressions abound. A healthy dose of sincerity and a few hints of the occasional flaw rescue the novel.

Castle Juliet is an unusual experience in how the novel relies heavily (if not solely) on the cycle of four seasons as the means to open and close the story. The story arc: building a castle for Juliet is subtly suggested now and again–and not to our irritation, but pleasant surprise. The structure of time is what moves the characters through digressions and repetitions and elongated contemplations on one thing or another. The structure reminds us of the driving force of time, and how time carves space for life to linger a while over a mouth-watering feast or a contemplation of the magic in uncomplicated emotion and unfettered imagination.

The novel is character-oriented. The heavy use of dialog in this otherwise 3rd person narrative emphasizes the individual voice of the characters. Each child is unmistakably their own. The adults’ sheer goodness is always surprising (call me jaded), but they are the only ones to slip into representational models of one value/ideal or another. Grown-ups are also surprisingly non-threatening considering they are the adulthood of the novel. But neither are the adults the focus. The threats to Jack and Alice’s desire to stay young are in and amongst themselves.

The son of a repairer of shoes and clocks, small-in-stature Jack riles against the restrictions of time. He doesn’t want the Summer of unbridled adventures to end. Academic work fails to compete with the spinning of his imagination. Indeed, most of the numbers Miss (whom Jack calls Mrs.) Appleblom writes on the board prove confrontational.

“How come the five and three look so mean and scary? […] I think they look scary. The eight does too, especially the way you write it, Mrs. Appleblom. You put that little horn on its head. Makes it look like a monster, like a sidekick of the devil’s or something to terrify the minions. Or a fat, nasty snowman. The seven looks kind of mean, too; at least, he could, if he wanted, I guess. I haven’t decided. And look at the two. He looks harmless enough. An easy guy to get along with. But I don’t like thw way the five and the three are just sitting up there on the board. They look like they’re waiting for everyone to turn their heads, so they can take over the classroom” (7).

It goes on before the teacher finally interrupts. I love that Berntson is unafraid of lengthy dialog here.

Luckily, Jack has his Wendy in Alice who begins to tutor him. His only friend, she joins him on his adventures, challenges his decision to disallow pink lasers, and pummels him in a snowball fight. She invites him over for dinner, can’t run fast in her cowgirl boots, and refuses his blushing requests for a kiss.

Alice is the princess, and not by Jack’s design. She is the doted upon only child and only girl and for most of the time the world of the book will revolve around her. But then, the story is constructing a castle for Juliet. Can Jack convince her that lingering this side of childhood is worth the while?

“Her mind reached out. She might be small, but she was far from insignificant. At the moment, she was the eye of the universe, watching it unfold, a girl on a spotted horse loving everything she saw. […] She wanted to savor this perfect day and take it at her leisure. She would still it, freeze it in time. Her goal was to make everything—including now, her memories, and Jack’s fantasies–immortal” (158-9).

Alice’s family anchors them all, but it is Jack who is driven to build, to imagine and create. He inspires the changes that build the stories in Castle Juliet.

“If Alice didn’t know any better, she’d say everyone she knew had had a hand in its construction in some way or another. […] But in every aspect, it could only be Jack who’d come up with the idea, who’d put the entire thing into execution, laid the groundwork, the planning, supervised” (221).

A believable quantity of goodness can be found in community and imagination, such as is expressed with childlike fervor in Castle Juliet; less of any sense of a return to innocence and more of a childhood reign. It is in adulthood that we find the careworn need for domesticity and its middle class stability. Both Jack and Alice (and even Tork) manage to resist slipping into adult-like proportion; Alice being the most vulnerable. Peter Pan couldn’t (and wouldn’t) rescue Wendy from growing-up, but Berntson does in his freckled and red-haired Alice. Perhaps it is because Jack isn’t all that like Peter, even if blood-thirsty tyrant does come to mind… Jack is able to change and grow without compromising that which the novel values of childlikeness: to love without complicating sexual politics, to find time for creative play and invention, to be like themselves and remain somewhat unexpected.

Berntson explores the wholesome visage of childhood, and he builds a castle of found things, pieces oft discarded and half-buried. He revitalizes the notion of what can be enchanting about the fantasy novel. The affect isn’t flawless**. But I’ll go for heart in a novel over cold precision. I’ll take imagination over stricture. And I’ll pick the castle over the picket fence every time.

——————-

Of note: It was odd having a beloved character called Jezebel, but there you go, Berntson was difficult to anticipate.

*Two: Brandon is a friend and co-worker. He told me that he wrote Castle Juliet as a bid for something more wholesome after a stint of writing Horror fiction; he succeeded. It reads like a palette cleanser for the world-weary.

**Thirdly, and to be fair: some of the flaw comes from my desire for extravagance in design, more paragraphing, corrected grammatical errors, and a reigning in of setting. These feel like nits picked compared to such an unusual and refreshing experience.

 

"review" · cinema · recommend · Uncategorized

{film} John Wick?

The tagline: Don’t Set Him Off!

When I tell you how fantastic I found director Chad Stahelski’s John Wick (2014), you’ll likely question my sanity because it really shouldn’t be all that good.

I seriously questioned my decision to not disappear up the stairs while Sean watched a film that, upon first press, reads like a Steven Seagal film of old(er times). I’d grown up on those revenge-action-thrillers. More recently, Keanu Reeves’ role as John Wick would’ve been cast with Liam Neeson or Jason Statham and I rarely sit through a one of them. The dialog, typical plot, blood-letting and tire-squealing action of these genre films rarely find me amused. I was at the edge of my seat, giddy in amusement with John Wick. Its a film that is self-aware, its tongue planted firmly in cheek, unrepentant and playful within its genre.

I was intrigued by the premise: instead of some relative (usually the wife) of a retired uber mensch being brutally murdered, Sean told me that the revenge plot stems from the brutal murder of John Wick’s dog. That was all we knew. The unfolding of just who John Wick is was worth the ignorance. It earns you that immense pleasure in the exchange between Aurelio (John Leguizamo) and Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). John Wick won me over at Tarasov’s “…Oh.”

The non-linear movement through time, the shifts, begin to stabilize chronologically as the film progresses. Disintegration takes on a new form as the violence ups its ante (think South Korean action films). There is a righteous meting out of justice for that sweet little puppy (whose death is handled as delicately as possible). There are beautiful cars, choreography, gun-reloading and martial arts. And there are quality actors.

As the film progresses, the surprising cast was one revelation after another–even as Reeves proves all the more perfect for his role. His age really works for him as John Wick, and I think he actually emotes (which was admittedly awkward for me). I am going to pause for a moment to also admire the bad-assery that is Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins). But is she punished for being a bit too greedy and a full-measure too bold in her breaking of the (male dominated) rules? Little is fair in the film, but what does one expect from a revenge-action film. One certainly doesn’t expect that ending, though we should’ve anticipated it (shouldn’t we’ave?).

Familiarity with John Wick’s predecessors add to the entertainment factor; it certainly reads like redemption for years/hours spent in the genre. However, I don’t think you need a history. What you will need is a sense of humor–and a fairly strong stomach.

——————

Director: Chad Stahelski, Screenplay:Derek Kolstad, Starring: Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Michael Nyqvist (Viggo Tarasov), John Leguizamo (Aurelio), Alfie Allen (Iosef Trasov), Willem Defoe (Marcus), Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins), Bridget Moynahan (Bridget), and Ian McShane (Winston).

Rated R for strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use. Running Time: 101 Minutes

"review" · comics/graphic novels · juvenile lit · recommend · Uncategorized

{comics} el deafo

El Deafo by Cece Bell.

Amulet Books 2014.

Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece’s class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends.

Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school–in the hallway…in the teacher’s lounge…in the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All. But the funny thing about being a superhero is that it’s just another way of feeling different… and lonely. Can Cece channel her powers into finding the thing she wants most, a true friend? —Publisher’s comments.

Besides making many of last year’s Best-Of lists, Cece Bell’s El Deafo has also been picking up significant Honors and Awards. You’ll hear it described as important, and the insight Bell is able to share from her childhood is, indeed, valuable. I love just how familiar the character Cece is, despite her bunny-like appearance. Cece is flawed and more than occasionally frustrated and frustrating.

Many will find Cece humorous; and likely charming when she begins to identify with Batman and creates a super-heroic identity all her own in El Deafo. I think I either under- or over-identified with her earnestness to be normal and befriended. The angst felt stretched and I desired a few chapters fewer. When we tell our children that it may take time, trial and error to find a good friend, we usually hope for and suggest the BFF will show up within two errors. However, it really does take a while to learn how to communicate, to read others’ lips (words/actions) and to articulate for ourselves.

 

El Deafo is really well thought-out. It wasn’t an easy read for me, entertainment-wise, but I could immediately appreciate just how well-crafted it is, how coherent it continues to be into second and third readings. I loathe to fall into the fallacy of guessing authorial intent, but the immovable yellow box of text manning the upper edges of panels had to make sense of itself. It otherwise needed to move. (And if you find it difficult to deal with in the first half, you’ll learn to adjust to it in the end.) I questioned the choice of a bunny and the adorable-ness of the artwork in a book I wanted to pitch to the upper-grade-schoolers reading Raina Teglemeier’s Smile and Sisters. I understand the genius behind choosing an animal that is all about their ears in a book about hearing. I can get how seeing yourself as different could manifest in a decision to use an ‘other.’ For readers who are moving away from perceived childishness, it reminds us that one thing that transcends childhood is fear of isolation and loneliness. Okay, that was depressing—and the book is not depressing. El Deafo is just quite realistic and in need of the anthropomorphic.

El Deafo is going to be educational. El Deafo is going to remind people that graphic novels make for great literature for young people—especially the young grade-schoolers who won’t mind this becoming a part of their summer reading lists. It is going to make us all more thoughtful about what and how we communicate with one another. We can get creative and imagine the ways and means to cope with difficult situations.

Spoilers: Cece does find a healthy friendship by novel’s end. She learns a great deal about herself and others along the way. She’s pretty special as characters go, because she is so incredibly (painfully, at times) normal.

——

Of note: “A Note from the Author” is excellent reading as well, so do not forgo it.

recommended: for readers of Teglemeier Smile and Sisters, Hatke’s Zita Spacegirl, and Gownley’s Amelia Rules!  It will likely appeal more to readers of issue-driven books like Wonder (Palacio), Out of My Mind (Draper), and Mango-Shaped Space (Mass), but I wouldn’t eliminate those leaning toward Fantasy.

{images are Cece Bell’s}

"review" · comics/graphic novels · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · young adult lit

{comics} IRL

In Real Life by Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang

First Second (2014)

 Anda loves Coarsegold Online, the massively-multiplayer role-playing game where she spends most of her free time. It’s a place where she can be a leader, a fighter, a hero. It’s a place where she can meet people from all over the world, and make friends.

But things become a lot more complicated when Anda befriends a gold farmer–a poor Chinese kid whose avatar in the game illegally collects valuable objects and then sells them to players from developed countries with money to burn. This behavior is strictly against the rules in Coarsegold, but Anda soon comes to realize that questions of right and wrong are a lot less straightforward when a real person’s real livelihood is at stake.

In Real Life is a perceptive and high-stakes look at adolescence, gaming, poverty, and culture clash. –jacket copy

irl B1sFeN9CYAAeuKx

You could pick this one up for the Introduction alone. Cory Doctorow lays the ground work for Anda’s finest impulse: to affect change in the face of a social injustice. “This is a book about games and economics,” Doctorow begins. And he closes with the reminder that it is “risk” to “change the world for the better,” but there are “principled people” (like Anda) who prove willing–and able. Like the novel itself, Doctorow’s Introduction educates and inspires with plain-speaking and zero condescension. A young Anda isn’t the only one who thinks that maybe she could try to make another’s circumstances better.

You could also pick this one up based on that cover. That Jen Wang is a talented artist is evident. But it is Anda’s real life-likeness that has me enamored and intrigued. Wang sets the visual tone as to what is real. She grounds Anda, but not in order to create a dramatic contrast with the fantasy of the on-line gaming world and the avatar there-in. Anda may strengthen her self-esteem via her gaming/community (love the red-hair dye), but her ferocity stems from a compassion and intellect. In Real Life draws two worlds that bleed into the other, not in a singular direction; note how little, if at all, the color palette shifts between worlds. Anda’s avatar is not a wholly separate entity formed completely as an other (despite the design options). And neither are the other players. Anda interacts with other gamers through a variety of avenues (classroom visit, voice, chat, skype, mediating avatars). In Real Life reminds us that life exists in/on multiple platforms.

irl page-24-of-in-real-life

We need to see some of the real life implications of gaming–for the negative and positive–and In Real Life delivers. “Coarsegold Online” has upsides and downs. The upside is argued by Anda to her concerned mother. Not everyone is a perv and connecting globally broadens horizons. A downside that the novel focuses on is in the gold farming and the desire for some of the gamers to enjoy their time without a complication of ethics. Our heroine finds camaraderie in a space that also generates millions of dollars from abusive labor conditions—I’m referring to the online game-scape, but the same is said of her life back home (e.g. Anda’s school, media), as well as our very own real life comic and gaming cultures. The very spaces that can liberate can oppress, and vice versa; the comic panel and its composition… Wang’s verisimilitude in the rendering of Anda does not go unnoticed.

In Real Life is worth the complication of the female character. So Anda can look like a waif or no, go by Anda or no, and still essentially be her self. I dig how females can be both competitive and cooperative, blood-thirsty and compassionate, a leader and follower.

The online gaming world isn’t only this ‘other’ place where real people say they play pretend. Similarly, Anda’s avatar is just another visual representation of who she really is: a resourceful young woman capable of a complex range of emotion and action. Her only limitations in the imagined setting are rules or expectations imposed by her self or others. …Hmm, sounds like real life.

Anda finds success, but not without error and conflict. What sets her apart, where she finds connection on-line, is in knowing a person exists beyond the avatar/game. Liza is real to her. Raymond also becomes real. She is real. Her father evidences a connection to an event spoken about on television. Life is illustrated in the connections made between the differing realities of media.

irl 11875504

Like most good “serious” or “important” books, the creator knows how to tell a story first and foremost. First: the choice of form. Comics are a great medium for discussing gaming, and not just for the visual familiarity, but a cultural one. Girls in comics and gaming share a conversation. Comics and gaming share a counter culture and overlap in followers.

Second: Wang is excellent in her craft. A random page-flip…6 & 7. On page 7, Liza, the game-recruiter is outside of a box (panel). Page 6: human hands direct/interact with what happens on the screen. Pages 70 & 71 wordlessly seats Anda in a classroom with maps, connecting bubbles of information on a projector, and a clock. We see her considering the time difference with China, both settings connected by a centrally located smart phone operated by thumbs. On 71, Anda begins to research gold farming, not relying on just one source of information (“Sarge”). She is curious and has/uses her resources (education, technology, peers, adults).

Just as Anda’s online persona informs her physical one, the interdependence formed and flawlessly expressed between the Writer (Cory Doctorow) and Artist (Jen Wang) of In Real Life demonstrates how the plural can inhabit a single narrative. As Anda is inspired by both physical and online situations equally, learning from both to aid her in either world, In Real Life is inspired textually and visually.

I swear that In Real Life is an accessible, entertaining graphic novel with beautiful art and an engaging story. It’s just that it is also really smart and unusual that it can’t help but be talked about in some depth. Anda digs deep. She takes risks and inspires others to do the same. She moves beyond the superficial, in perception of self and others. Maybe that is one of the things I like about Anda and In Real Life, both can be fun and serious. Both can be complicated in important and entertaining ways.

{images are Jen Wang’s}

"review" · comics/graphic novels · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series · young adult lit

{comics} no sleeping beauty

The Rise of Aurora West By Paul Pope; J. T. Petty; David Rubín (Illustrator)

(First Second Books 2014) tradepaper.

Having read Paul Pope’s Battling Boy, naturally I was eager to seek out The Rise of Aurora West. We’d met Aurora West in Battling Boy as the recently orphaned (before our eyes) daughter of Arcopolis’ Science Hero Haggard West. The Rise takes us back to a time where Pope and Petty can flesh out a bit more of the mystery not only behind the up-and-coming hero of Aurora West, but the arrival and rise of the supernatural monsters terrorizing the city. You read with dread their development of a weapon to take down the elder West. The most compelling mystery for Aurora, of course, is the death of her mother and whether her imaginary friend was really all that imaginary–or harmless.

puzzling out the pieces

The ass-kicking adventures are tempered by familial implication and what a violent life-style costs. Haggard had to come to his own decisions about the monsters that haunt them, Aurora must as well. Haggard is driven by the desire to protect his daughter and avenge his wife. How might the ending of Rise and the events of Battling Boy affect the nature of Aurora’s own career as a hero of Arcopolis?

While the characterization in Battling was sound, it was good to learn more about Aurora’s background as well as become more familiar with her own Ms. Grately. Too, Rise sets up intriguing story lines for the next volume and the next issue of Battling Boy adventures. Rise functions successfully as a prequel, but it is a complex novel in its own right–one that would be a shame to miss.

Now for the art. I hadn’t thought nor expected a different illustrator. David Rubín is obviously talented, but I prefer Pope’s rendering of Aurora and company in Battling Boy. The smaller size to the novel was nice. It made me think Archie over epic fantasy superhero, but I was less taken with the aesthetic. The black and white befitting the size. And for a narrative told from Aurora’s POV, a shift in artwork suits the shift in mode.

Rise isn’t the current adventure, but a story of what was going on before Battling Boy arrived on the scene. In a genre that frequents artistic collaborations for design purposes or necessity, I should have better anticipated another hand. Rise sets itself apart from Battling in a good way, and an important way. You’ll want this volume (the first of two) for your collection–just adjust another expectation: that the volumes are not going to fit uniformly on the shelf. Not that Aurora could fit uniformly on a shelf somewhere. Watch out female comic book heroes.

{images belong to Paul Pope; J. T. Petty; David Rubín}

"review" · Children's · comics/graphic novels · recommend · Tales

{picture book} Hatke’s creatures

JuliasHouseJulia’s House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke

First Second 2014.

When Julia’s house finds a new place to settle, she puts a sign out for lost creatures to combat her own sense of loneliness. But now a new conflict has arisen and a list of chores is her solution.

Ben Hatke, whom we have long since learned is a genius with young heroines and illustrated robots, impresses with his more earthbound whimsy. Julia’s house is charming and its inhabitants excite the imagination—and the fine digressions into lore.

Julia's Home for Lost Creatures II

julias house for lost creatures 2

The color palette, style, energy (I do love Julia’s hair)…Hatke manages a delightful picture book that is sweetly entertaining. And what caregiver will be able to resist a conversation on the way we can participate more harmoniously as family?—which is how we talk chores in our own creature-filled household. A lesson (besides “look at the mermaid doing the dishes, sweetie!”) that I appreciated was Julia’s understanding of her own limitations and abilities; which seem to frequent Hatke’s work. The house is too quiet, she opts for hospitality; it becomes too much for her, she asks for help. Hatke’s heroines are a resourceful lot. I was totally geeked to see Julia had a workshop.

Oh, and if you were a bit bummed by the idea that one of Hatke’s robots would not make an appearance? You’ll find a lovely invention there at the end.

julia's house chores

Julia’s House for Lost Creatures is a great little book about community. It is also a great place to join Hatke in the workings of the imagination. I look forward to what Hatke will have for us next. (another Zita??).

 ———–

Not to be categorized as girls only and it spans a good age range. I’m thinking about this one for a storytime and encourage listeners to draw their own creature (and what chore would suit them best?). You should also take this book as a hint to check out Zita Spacegirl if you’ve yet done so.

Hatke did a blog tour called “Ben Hatke’s Bestiary of Lost Creatures” that may interest you.

 {images belong to Ben Hatke}

"review" · Children's · comics/graphic novels · concenter · juvenile lit · recommend · Tales

{comic} revealed

Hidden : A Child’s Story of the Holocaust

Written by Loïc Dauvillier; Illustrated by Marc Lizano

Color by Greg Salsedo; Translated from the French by Alexis Siegel

First Second Books, 2014.

Ages 6-10; Grades 1-5.

 Encouraged to talk about her evident sadness, a grandmother shares her memories long hidden about her experience as a child in 1942 Paris. Opening in the late hours of evening (the dark) in the privacy of a home, steeped in themes of hiding and silence, the novel will eventually affect a catharsis that moves the reader to compassion and tears. And yet, it will be a story the reader will loathe to tuck away and forget.

The continual exchange between grandmother and granddaughter Elsa escapes the contrived as the young Elsa struggles to understand how a young Dounia Cohen’s life is upended by the horror of a mass eradication of Jews in Paris. Elsa alongside Dounia wonders at the lies adults will tell, the sudden cruelty of her neighbors or their heroics, the loss of a parent, the importance of a courageous community. The gently told story does not skirt the horror and sorrow. The portrayal of the injustice Jews and their sympathizers faced honors the intellect of a grade-schooler. The sequences are those Hidden’s young audience would understand, the fear and heartache of losing their parents, schoolroom humiliations, inexplicable displays public violence… They will find contemporary relevance in subjects of honesty, loyalty, identity, bullying, and loss. I was struck by how contemporary the novel makes the holocaust–how present. I was moved by the silence after that final narrative line at the bottom of page 68; how its said into the quiet; how Elsa sleeps in innocence.

One of the marvels of Diary of Anne Frank is how the reader connects with her youth. Elsa’s sympathies reflect her youthful audience. Dounia as young and old help them cope. She is the wise grandmother and the child witness. She shows fear and regret and incredible courage. The story reinforces what is right and good without the heavy-handed messaging.

Dauvillier understands the power of the oral historian in couching his story. He creates a connection to the present and the past not only through a framework and a paced movement from one to the other, but in reemphasizing the connections visually. Elsa is the unfreckled version of her grandmother when young. And while the story is told, Elsa is safe in the arms of the older Dounia/Simone. Hidden closes out of doors in the daylight in a tender exchange of reconciliation that forgives the silence and celebrates sharing the unspeakable.

I admit to being uncertain about the art when the book first came out, and I did find following the text a bit tricky at first. I appreciate, however, the accessibility of the cartoon work. Lizano manages the expressive without unbalancing the gentility in the narrative. He provides meaningful settings even when the image shouldn’t be rendered in anything more than words. He provides meaningful renderings when the language for child-audiences are inadequate. A lot of frames are close-ups, emphasizing subjectivity and a sympathy with the character and situation. The viewer is just as often cast as an observer of distances and emptiness, of the foreign. Lizano and Salsedo are fearless with darkening tints and shadows.

 

I was deeply impressed by Hidden. It approaches a difficult narrative with a caution that does not underestimate its young readership*. It leaves an impression that is empowering and interventionist, rather than crippling—an impression not only meant for the youngest of us.

Hidden would be a great graphic novel for intergenerational story time, and I shouldn’t think it only for educational venues or historic commemorations. Put this one on the any-day shelf.

——–

*something I see more in translated European texts.

{images belong to Marc Lizano}