"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · fiction · Illustrator · recommend · short story · young adult lit

{comic} same difference

Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim ; (deluxe edition) First Second Books, 2011

When Derek Kirk Kim published his debut graphic novel back in 2003, it made an immediate stir. The story about a group of young people navigating adulthood and personal relationships is told with such sympathy and perception that the book was immediately hailed as an important new work.
Seven years later, it’s clear that Same Difference has won a place among the great literature of the last decade. […] Derek’s distinctive voice as an author, coupled with his clear, crisp, expressive art has made this story a classic. And this classic is now back in print, in a deluxe edition from First Second.—publisher’s comments

I was not sure what Same Difference was supposed to be about. As you well know by now, First Second is a favorite publisher, but that the comic won the Eisner, Harvey and Ignatz Awards I really couldn’t resist giving it a try. Yeah, I felt that excited, but seriously, I was worried it would be something I could only appreciate from the outside looking in, from way outside looking in. Then there is that vague description that alludes to young people angst. BoingBoing’s synopsis: “Same Difference is the story of Korean-American 20-something slackers in San Francisco who wrestle with the stereotypes and ambitions that they feel guide their lives.” I thought that might be the case. It seems Derek Kirk Kim was keeping Zach Braff company in the early 2000s (but with a different cultural twist). So I put it off like it was some kind of chore. No one told me it was going be funny.*

In an entertaining “Introduction” written by Gene Yang, he talks about how Derek Kirk Kim wanted to retire from the superhero business, “maybe try his hand at making funnybooks.”

“Why don’t you do a memoir?” I suggested. Maybe drawing little doodles of his adventures would make him realize how silly it would be to give them up. “You’ve lived a pretty interesting life, and memoir graphic novels sell like hotcakes these days.” Derek didn’t look up.  “Nah,” Brent said, mid-cartwheel. “He’s gonna do something REALLY amazing.”

and his graphic novella is. You’ll find it listed with memoirs for company, and while, according to the “Afterword” by the author, a key event was lifted from his own youth, Same Difference is something else. Which quickly brings me to the title. I use this term much to the annoyance of some who are sure I only use it to try and save face. However, there is more to it, and it is not just geeky fun to think about the title during or after the read.

I liked a couple of Urban Dictionary’s definitions for “same difference:”

Another way of saying “whatever”. It is often confused with “same thing”, but you’re really saying “OK, I admit that they’re not the same thing, but they’re not different enough for me to really care about it.”

Same difference refers to two subject matters which are not equal yet share similar values.  For instance: Apples & Oranges. Both are fruits, but are not equal.

Friends (not lovers) Nancy and Simon have plenty the same, and plenty of differences. It is where the same but different intersect that engage another level of interest when pairing characters in the story, not just Nancy and Simon, though they are our protagonists. Gender is one (and the nerd in me would love to do or read a reading on this). Nancy and Simon are both Korean American and the author slips in expectations both mutual and non-. For instance liking Pho versus Nancy lying to her mom that she is still a virgin and not being terribly delicate ala the “taking a dump” scene. Add Ian in to compare with Nancy then Simon. The novel engages the reader in considering where the hypocrisies and/or paradoxes lie. Nancy teasing Simon about his high school uniform is comedic, and provocative.

The level of comfort between Nancy and Simon is awesome. It lacks a self-consciousness that makes the story possible. And what is the story? Two “Korean-American 20-something slackers in San Francisco who wrestle with the stereotypes and ambitions that they feel guide their lives.” Nancy wants to know what the face of “pathetic” really looks like in lonely and desperate romantic terms. Simon hopes he’s moved beyond immaturity without losing too much of himself to adulthood; and when does he move from High School relationship antics to achieving a mature intimacy with a girl—without marriage (which he doesn’t like the idea of). And could he have found it, but he just doesn’t know it? If you are thinking Derek Kirk Kim would go where Braff or Hollywood would, here’s a difference.

Same Difference has the organic feel of a day in the life of two really interesting people, the kind you find in indie-films and/or geekdom. There are plenty of pop culture references, many of which should make those who were at least in their early 20s in the early 2000s smile, certainly anyone who experienced Real Science and can name the character Simon is talking about before he can. And Tom Waits, anyone? They are defined by their culture and their experiences and Simon worries that he isn’t progressing, that fear and ineptitude may be holding him back, so the references have both the trap of nostalgia and the ability to draw a generation together in commiseration. It’s lovely.

As far as the art: No fancy tricks or clever play, nothing obvious in the art and form anyway. The segues alternate between text and frame, or a combination of both during travel; the pacing steady on; the dead pan humor and self-deprecation ubiquitous. For all the text at the beginning, you miss how well the author/artist utilizes the understated until you consider how beautifully it is implemented there nearer the end. And I kept returning to those wordless sequences; Ben, in particular, was entrancing. And what a mood to leave the book off in.

Derek Kirk Kim grows his characters in a remarkably short period of time without compromising their inherent awesomeness. He paints a different image of maturity, one that doesn’t compromise or create hypocrisy for those who do not fit and refuse to conform to certain molds and expectations. He doesn’t seat his hero in an Architecture Firm for an interview replete with suit and tie at the end. He doesn’t marry his heroine off to someone else going from quirky to dinner party sophistication before it’s over. What does “growing up” look like?

When we speak of an author possessing their own voice, Derek Kirk Kim exemplifies this. One may find similarities with other works or characters thematically or illustratively, but it isn’t quite the same. It’s that difference that sets this novel apart.


*Nancy brought an old friend Victoria so vividly to mind and Simon as a younger John Cusack as if he were penned by Nick Hornby instead of the 80’s screenwriters.

**last paragraph references indie film (500) Days of Summer. I know I was talking Braff earlier, but this film came to mind here.


recommendations: ages 14 & up, due to language, and because when Simon says he felt like a dick, he looked like one… and really, why borrow this kind of angst, it’s a perfect post-High School read. Fans of American Born Chinese will have to read this one, a well as those who are skeptical of graphic novel’s storytelling power and ease. The art is accessible to most and this should be a part of all our comic-loving libraries.

of note: this edition includes concept sketches with the Afterword by the author/artist. the inclusion of the Introduction and Afterword are great, and the transparent cover with the hard cover binding? a very nice touch.

{images belong to Derek Kirk Kim, the last one from his site not the book, one I couldn’t resist including, a sketch from a Comic-Con apparently}

BoingBoing’s brief write-up, “though it’s a quick read, it leaves a lasting emotional coal smoldering in its wake.”

and I liked San Francisco Chronicle‘s blurb: “Kim illuminates the emotional bear-traps and intricate dishonesties of our everyday interactions with a clarity that should be more painful than it is.”

"review" · Children's · comics/graphic novels · recommend · short story · Uncategorized

{comic} explorer: the mystery boxes

I adore both the Flight and Explorer (for the youth) anthologies, and not because I also adore Kazu Kibuishi. These are great venues to read wonderful stories and find new Artists to pursue. Explorer: The Mystery Boxes is a collection of comics centered around a story object–a mystery box. Each of the 7 stories “represent a unique take on the idea of a “mystery box”” (publisher).

a quick note: you know I love image heavy reviews of comics, but do check out the links (click author name) to get an idea of their work. thanks!

“Under the Floorboards” by Emily Carroll

that creepy wax doll in the box may seem like a good idea at the time, but well…

  “Spring Cleaning” by Dave RomanRaina Telgemeier

why messy closets and hoarding might not be the worst thing when there are greedy wizards on the loose.

 “The Keeper’s Treasure” by Jason Caffoe

ah, the things cartographers and treasure hunters miss.

The Butter Thief” by Rad Sechrist

some house spirits can be a bit fractious when they don’t get their butter.

“The Soldier’s Daughter” by Stuart Livingston (w/ Stephanie Ramirez)

lessons captured in boxes that the most impetuous of us need to learn.

“Whatzit” by  Johane Matte (w/ Saymone Phanekham)

when nepotism, unmarked boxes, and office pranks go awry.

“The Escape Option” by Kazu Kibuishi

a brave young man makes a tough choice, but the right one.

The stylistic approaches to story differ, but there is a consistency in the color and production quality. Of course, I favored some pieces over some of the others, but there will be at least one story for everyone in the family. Sharing the read may lead to a fun activity of writing and/or illustrating one’s own mystery box story.


Explorer: The Mystery Boxes edited by Kazu Kibuishi

Amulet Books (Abrams), 2012

hardcover (library binding), 128 pages (to include a page about the contributors).

"review" · fiction · Lit · recommend · short story · wondermous

{book} you are not a stranger here

“You and all the inheritors of wealth who think life is a matter of perfected sentiment. You are wrong.” (“The Volunteer” 237)

You know those books you should have just gone ahead and read because people you trust swore by them? You Are Not a Stranger Here: Stories by Adam Haslett has been sitting on our shelves since I think 2003. It is Sean’s copy and he and our friend Kevin were the ones swearing.  In my own defense, each were wrecked by the read (in a good way) and sad was a word oft repeated in my presence. Haslett delves further than melancholy and shoots straight for deepening aches. I didn’t want to be sad then, nor did I particularly want to be sad the other day when I picked it up. But I am so glad I did.

Adam Haslett explores lives that appear shuttered by loss and discovers entire worlds hidden inside them. An aging inventor, burning with manic creativity, tries to reconcile with his estranged gay son. An orphaned boy draws a thuggish classmate into a relationship of escalating guilt and violence. A genteel middle-aged woman, a long-time resident of a rest home, becomes the confidante of a lovelorn teenaged volunteer. With Chekovian restraint and compassion, conveying both the sorrow of life and the courage with which people rise to meet it, You Are Not a Stranger Here is a triumph. —back cover.

The title is perfect even before one encounters the quote in the 5th story, “War’s End,” when Mrs. McLaggen tells Paul, “You’re not a stranger here. […] I recognized you somehow, not like I’d met you or such, but nonetheless” (106). If you escape without recognizing the characters in these stories somehow, then lucky you? To be fair, I do believe Haslett has the rare gift to make you care for his characters, even in their most raw states, even when you want to look away or ignore their existence. The reasons why a Reader might want to look away may be out of loathing, or painful recollection, or fear of what a character’s vulnerability exposes. The critical thing is how Haslett compels the Reader to remain transfixed, to see a story through—I’m not entirely sure how he does it, and so consistently.

I think Haslett tapped some desperate optimism in me. I wanted to see some sort of hopeful ending. Foolish Reader. And then there were, in other cases, naked fascination with his depictions of mental illness and the culturally tormented. Haslett employs the senses, slips in and out of memory, internal and external, lulling the Reader into a riveting pacing.

There are a lot of similar themes explored throughout but they exist in varying concoctions. So while there may be a pervasive sense of fear, alienation, and sorrow throughout the book, each story is its own. I know people approach short story collections differently, but I would strongly recommend at least beginning with the first and saving the last for last.

What follows are remarks upon each of the stories. I tried to keep it brief. (I used the goodreads star-rating system.)

1]—“Notes to My Biographer” (1-23). >5 stars< This first-person narrative follows the fractured mind and estranged life of an aging inventor who would reconcile with the only child of his three who would see him. “He has a good mind, my son, always has, and somewhere the temerity to use it, to spear mediocrity in the eye, but in a world that encourages nothing of the sort, the curious boy becomes the anxious man. He must suffer his people’s regard for appearances. Sad” (9). Apart from sexual preferences, we learn that father and son have a lot in common, but the two have different strategies for getting along; coming from different perspectives and ages.

Reconciliation is only for a father and son, but to witness a man reconciling his own beliefs and actions. We see this in how Franklin makes mental notes to his Biographer so as to get particular details correct and in his explanations for his manic behavior.  Franklin’s inner landscape is fascinating; but at what cost does he pay to maintain it? The externalized consequences give us some clue.

2]—“The Good Doctor” (24-47) >3 ½ stars< (3rd person). Having always been strongly affected by the hurting, Frank turns it into a vocation. Fresh out of school, he practices psychiatric medicine for the underserved feeling this is where he can be freer to engage in patients’ lives and therapies. He encounters a young educated mother who challenges his “goodness.” Is he more dependent upon them, then they upon him? When he medicates, that rare moment when we meet him, what is he medicating against? How does this compare to what the woman has and is suffering? What is escapable, and what is not? [expectations: for self/other, sex/gender, roots] External forces and failures and our means of coping; and what empathy truly means.

3}—“The Beginnings of Grief” (48-64) >5 stars< (1st person). This one was hard after the last, but even alone, it would have been difficult. It was the most difficult of all the stories because of the violence the unnamed protagonist draws upon himself. Just where is his sexual attraction to Gramm, his “thuggish classmate,” founded. It is good to have the early stages of grief in mind while reading about this orphaned teenaged male. The language is raw and holy hell but I hurt for the unnamed boy—and even Gramm.

4]—“Devotion” (65-88) >5 stars< “Being replaced. That was the fear” (85). Devotion is the story of aging siblings who have sort of ended up remaining in the house together. The story is aptly named as the two share mutual affections and come to grips with the sacrifices such devotion takes. There is melancholy, but there is something other and quite beautiful; it is found in the absence of abandonment; those that remain when other ties are severed.

5]—“War’s End” (89-117) >4 stars< Paul is depressed and dealing with the effects of his condition and medication on his wife and their marriage. Finding lucidity on a trip abroad (made for both their sakes), he contemplates a “weighing of needs” (105). He knows he is a burden to the woman he loves, but he is also afraid of what the medication and depression is doing to him, “the idea that so much of him was a pure and blinded waste” (94). This is a fear pervasive in the story. There is the slow decay, a wearing away and wearing down of selves, relationships, lives…  There are so many courageous individuals in this story, and incredible love and devotion. It is both very moving and very sad.

6]—“Reunion” (118-137) >3 ½ stars< James moves from order into chaos; from an image of normalcy into the ravages of his illness; and ever in pursuit of his father to whom he writes letters. The third person narrative holds the focus and cleanly frames the story. James and his relationships are touched upon, inferred, take place in dark parks, in memories, in routine, and are reflected in his and Patrick’s unfulfilled flirtation. James has his reasons for withdrawal, but the loneliness and disintegration are heart-breaking. He is focused and determined, and in a way I can’t help view as self-flagellating. He would look different from how he actually he is. He lives among the shamed, the used, in the margins. And he seems surrounded, as if the margins are quite crowded actually. It is remarkable how Haslett keeps a pitiable character from being so. How he gifts James some dignity.

7]—“Divination” (138-164) >5 stars< “You’re a perfectly normal boy” (157), his father insists rather violently. There is a fear of the abnormal and its various implications. And there is a reason to fear as the implications of Samuel’s newly discovered “gift” comes to haunt. The dread and portent are so deftly rendered in this one. I was trembling with it as I read of Samuel’s resignation that he would now live in “the quiet place, beyond the walls of the crowded dwelling” (164). The paralleling of him and his father, what they gain and lose in their respective acknowledgement and denial, is a familiar something I think we all consider more than a few times in our own parent/child relationships.

8]—“My Father’s Business” (165-193) >3 ½ stars< Daniel is bipolar. He is also a young man interested in Philosophy, like his father who has a PhD. Daniel looks back at his medical file with correspondence between different treating doctors as well as the transcripts of tapes he recorded while conducting his research: “Anecdotal Sociology of the Philosophical Urge in Young Men.” Haslett captures Daniel’s mental health condition in the swinging moods illustrated in the interactions recorded in various interviews. He also captures so much more in the interviews asking after where the urge toward philosophy began. For Daniel, he finds his origins for so many of his present-day conditions in his father. There are notable similarities between this story and the first one, “Notes to My Biographer.” And yet they do differ and it is nice to find this one late in the book for some distance. Its late placement allows for some revelation about You Are Not a Stranger Here as a whole as well.

People whose best hope for a connection to other human beings lay in elaborating for themselves an elegiac mode of relatedness, as if everyone’s life were already over. […] This idea of living your life as an elegy, inoculating yourself against the present. So much easier if you can see people though they were just characters from a book. You can still spend time with them. But you have nothing to do with their fate. It’s all been decided. The present doesn’t really matter, it’s just the time you happen to be reading about them. Which makes everything easier. Other people’s pain for instance.” (184-5)

The father suggests that Philosophers contribute to “keeping things at a remove” (185). And it is telling what Daniel does after his journey, once he gets off the train. It is significant that he sees the man with his young sons getting off the train before him. There is a lot of weight, but some humor in this one as well, and a really nice ending.

9]—“The Volunteer” (194-237) >5 stars< Elizabeth had always been fragile mentally, but she experienced a major break at one point and was institutionalized in a Home. When off her meds, she is visited by a 17th century ancestress, Hester. She is also visited by a volunteer from a local High School, Ted. She becomes, in a way, a strange surrogate (grand)mother to the boy whose lost his and could really use a woman’s advice–He has a raging infatuation for a girl at school. The echoes among the women, young, middle-aged, old, and ancient are of interest, but so is Ted who is thrown in the middle of it all, a male image that is on the brink of his predecessors (the males that pair with the women). While generalizations can be made in critique, the story is as intimate as all the others.  There are conversations about façade versus the raw underneath. There are the ideas of particular moments, their scenarios that come into conflict with an actuality, the pain and the mess and the potential disappointment. “You and all the inheritors of wealth who think life is a matter of perfected sentiment. You are wrong” (237).


You Are Not a Stranger Here: Stories by Adam Haslett

Anchor Books, 2002; 237 pages, tradepaper [own]

9 short stories; National Book Award Finalist; Pultizer Prize Finalist.

"review" · fiction · Illustrator · juvenile lit · Lit · mystery · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · short story · Tales · Uncategorized · young adult lit


The Chronicles of Harris of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales

Art & Story by Chris Van Allsburg, with an Intro by Lemony Snicket

Houghton Mifflin, 2011; Illustrations-1984; Stephen King’s The House on Maple Street-1993.

Hardcover, 195 pages + Intro & Author bios.

the 14 are: Sherman Alexie, A Strange Day in July; M.T. Anderson, Just Desert; Kate DiCamillo, The Third-Floor Bedroom; Cory Doctorow, Another Place, Another Time; Jules Feiffer, Uninvited Guests; Stephen King, The House on Maple Street; Tabitha King, Archie Smith, Boy Wonder; Lois Lowry, The Seven Chairs; Gregory Maguire, Missing in Venice; Walter Dean Myers, Mr. Linden’s Library; Linda Sue Park, The Harp; Louis Sachar, Captain Tory; Jon Scieszka, Under the Rug; and Chris Van Allsburg himself, Oscar and Alphonse.

For more than twenty-five years, the illustrations in the extraordinary Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg have intrigued and entertained readers of all ages. Thousands of children have been inspired to weave their own stories to go with these enigmatic pictures. Now we’ve asked some of our very best storytellers to spin the tales. Enter The Chronicles of Harris Burdick to gather this incredible compendium of stories: mysterious, funny, creepy, poignant, these are tales you wont soon forget. ~Publisher’s Comments.

The House on Maple Street : ‘It was a perfect lift-off.’

Who has not had Chris Van Allsburg’s Mysteries of Harris Burdick used as a writing prompt—besides Sean? N and I were kicking around the idea of checking the book out from the library when I heard The Chronicles of Harris Burdick was coming out. I told Natalya she still should write her own inspired piece, but there was no having The Chronicles in the house without her getting a hold of it. It features some of her favorite authors.

Mr. Linden’s Library: ‘He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late.’

(11 for a while now) Natalya’s response the experience? She handed the book over with a modest list of her favorites. The story by Sherman Alexie was number one, and I believe Stephen King’s was a good second (and I agree). She liked most of them, but there were a few that she couldn’t get into. After reading The Chronicles, I could see why those few failed to interest her, or were too confusing. Needless to say, I was just happy she honed in on two new-to-her authors who such phenomenal writers.

The Seven Chairs: ‘The fifth one ended up in France.’

It is a successful anthology that can host such credible diversity, and The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is one such collection. There is the “mysterious, funny, creepy, [and] poignant.” There are the sports themed, the fantastical, the science fictional, the psychological, and the classically flavored morals & tales. There are some for the Readerly, but most all are for every reader. I liked the stories that could be read on multiple levels, but not necessarily more than the ones that drew me in rather singularly and had me scrambling for the ending. DiCamillo’s channeled Kate Chopin for me, and Lowry had me thinking about Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water, the magic in childhood and a person’s potential. Everyone should find three or four stories to savor, if not more. All should honor The Chronicles of Harris Burdick’s placement of Stephen King’s story as the closer—for that lingering satisfaction in a book well-made.

Oscar and Alphonse : ‘she knew it was time to send them back. The caterpillars softly wiggled in her hand, spelling out “goodbye.”‘

It was interesting to see what the author’s took from the Illustration and how they used the caption in the story. Some were more literal with the elements, like Tabitha King’s contribution, but why the bat and no mention of the yo-yo? Another uses the image a bit more abstractly, like with Cory Doctorow’s. Many begin in one place and you can’t help but wonder how the Illustration comes in; I had to exercise a great deal of patience with Gregory Maguire’s piece. Others create the kind of suspense the Illustrations do, implications lingering, like Alexie’s, MT Anderson’s, and Allsburg’s.


A Strange Day in July : ‘He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back.’

I admit to being worried that The Chronicles of Harris Burdick would ruin The Mysteries of Harris Burdick for me. But it didn’t. I enjoyed some of the approaches, the imaginative takes on the Illustrations and captions. A few Illustrations seem impossible, but the story was good. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is fun and intriguing in a new way. If anything, may this compendium present a new kind of challenge, to perhaps out-imagine and out-write some of these amazing writers collected here.

*I find it amusing The Chronicles book ends with husband and wife.

do check out NY TimesReview by Leonard S. Marcus, “Choose Your Own Adventure.”

the video below is essentially the “Introduction” in the book, though one should definitely read the Intro in the book.

"review" · fiction · Illustrator · juvenile lit · mystery · recommend · series · short story

Guys Read : Thriller

Ten stories guaranteed to thrill, chill, and have you so far on the edge of your seat that you’re actually on someone else’s, from the following notorious authors: M.T. Anderson, Patrick Carman, Gennifer Choldenko, Matt de la Pena, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Bruce hale, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Anthony Horowitz, Walter Dean Myers, James Patterson; with Illustrations by Brett Helquist. ~jacket copy

Volume 2—Guys Read : Thriller edited (and intro) by Jon Scieszka

Walden Pond Press, 2011. Hardcover, 272 pages. Ages 8-12.

The second installment of Guys Read’s Library is Thriller, a collection of short stories that delivers “the wildest mix of detectives, spooks, cryptids, snakes, pirates, smugglers, a body on the tracks, and one terribly powerful serving of fried pudding” (Jon Scieszka, “Before We Begin…). Yep, sounds like a guys read to me. And it begins with the cover.

Brett Helquist as Illustrator would not only do his part to provide an image for each story, but he has a mystery to share as well. Sciezska begins his Introduction by drawing attention to the cover. “Why is that shady-looking character lurking in the dark alley? What’s he doing with that crowbar? Is that something in his other hand? What is he doing? What has he done?” Sciezska continues to speculate and draw definitions of ‘mystery’ and ‘thriller’ from his contemplation and leaves the story of the cover art up to capable hands, the readers’. “You will have to work out the rest of the story yourself, because that’s all we’ve got from Brett Helquist’s cover. And Brett is suddenly not talking anymore. Smart guy.”

The stories vary in subject matter and in approach, there is even a comic. Three or four at the very least should capture the reader via style/voice. I am guessing the target audience will likely find more. I found humor in every story in Funny Business, but with Thriller I was beginning to think any review I wrote would ultimately surrender to “Jon Scieszka and these authors/illustrators know their audience, they know what they are doing.” It may yet. But as it was I was a bit underwhelmed. And then I found my three or four: (in no order of preference) Pirate by Walter Dean Myers, Thad, the Ghost, and Me by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Nate Macavoy, Monster Hunter by Bruce Hale, and Ghost Vision Glasses by Patrick Carman. Okay, The Old, Dead Nuisance by M.T. Anderson was a good way to start the anthology. And undoubtedly Patrick Carman’s Ghost Vision Glasses was the perfect last story of the collection. While I don’t think one should have to read such a book of stories in order (I like to pick out my favorite authors/titles first), Carman’s story does leave the right level of excitement that makes you think the whole book was a winner.

And Guys Read: Thriller is a winner. This Library of books Scieszka is curating, editing, is a brilliant idea, and it is meeting its promise. These books and stories will entertain the most reluctant middle-grade reader, and said reader will likely find at least one author to pursue. Many of these stories would provide great writing prompts, let alone inspire a reader to write or illustrate their own Thriller. Jon Scieszka and these authors/illustrators know their audience, they know what they are doing. I can’t recommend this Library enough.


Because it is Halloween-time and I am thinking about Neil Gaiman’s All Hallows’ Read, wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could get ahold of these Thriller stories in bite sizes, each printed in slim volumes of singular stories, to purchase and place in school libraries, English classrooms, and trick-or-treat pillowcases? Well, at least for your favorite young people in your life, Guys Read: Thriller en masse is available in time for the season.

Guys Read: Thriller also makes for a good Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP) for the younger (and younger at heart) participants in Carl V./”Stainless Steel Droppings” Challenge.

"review" · comics/graphic novels · fiction · Illustrator · juvenile lit · Lit · Picture book · recommend · short story · Tales · wondermous · young adult lit

lost & found

(from The Red Tree)

Lost & Found : 3 by Shaun Tan

Arthur A Levine Books, 2011.

A Shaun Tan book is a joy for ever. Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness. [L & Keats] Yes, I’ve a grand love for Shaun Tan’s work. His words and his artwork really resonate with me. When the daughter and I were at the library for the sole purpose of checking out audio-books for our road trip this weekend, I did the habitual quick scan of the “New Releases” Shelf in Juvenile. It is right by check-out. And really, I can’t not pick up a Shaun Tan book, if only to hold it for a little while. I brought Lost & Found home.

Lost & Found is a collection of three stories: The Red Tree (2001), The Lost Thing (2000), The Rabbits (1998, words by John Marden).  As Shaun Tan writes in the “Author’s Notes:”

Each story could be said to be about the relationship between people and places, especially when that relationship is ruptured by physical displacement, an emotional disconnection, or an otherwise trouble sense of identity; a country invaded by aggressive strangers, a homeless creature, and a girl adrift in the world of her own dark emotions. They are each in their own way tales of loss and recovery, and a question about belonging in the absence of any direct language–where central characters hardly speak–as though some things are too strange, personal, or confronting for words.

Out of three stories, The Red Tree is the most difficult for me to find proper words. It feels rather personal to talk about this story, even though it was Tan who provided the words and images.

“I wanted to create something useful from what can seem to be a uselsess experience–an abject feeling of hopelessness–but more important, to simply acknowledge its reality, its strange distortions of persepctive and reason, and illuminate something that is often invisible. I intended my paintings to be honest reflections, without any didactic or moral message, and open to multiple interpretations by different readers.”

While there is an inkling of hopefulness in the symbol of the little red leaf throughout the story’s images, it is fairly swallowed up by the senses of vulnerability, of isolation. But at the end of the day, seemingly out of nowhere, hope is there and in full blossom.  It is no less impossible or improbable than anything else witnessed or felt on previous pages.

The Lost Thing is a lighter piece, more casual in approach, whimsical and fun. A young man has a story to tell about a “rather ordinary day by the beach.” He was out working on his bottle-cap collection when he “for no particular reason” looked up and saw “the thing.” This thing, not unfriendly, was evidently out of place and lost. No one was minding it, no one knew where it came from or to whom the thing belonged. After a long day of playing together (love the sand city they build), the young man takes the lost thing home.

But it can hardly stay. So using the card with suggested directions as to where to take the thing, the young man goes there. But an odd figure has better advice for the caring young man: a different place, an obscured place. And so the lost thing and the young man follow the squiggly arrow to a button, which opens a door to a fantastic place full of odd and lost things of varying degree of fancy. They said good-bye, the lost thing much more receptive to this destination versus the other, and that was it. “Well, that’s it. That’s the story. Not especially profound, I know, but I never said it was. And don’t ask me what the moral is.”

The young man gets back on his tram still thinking about the lost thing, until the thinking becomes occasional, until he stops noticing “the something out of the corner of my eye that doesn’t quite fit.” The tram, in a series of four subsequent illustrations, slowly joins the masses of trams in the dark. “Maybe I’ve just stopped noticing them. Too busy doing other stuff, I guess.” Yep, the melancholy ending to a casual outing, a whimsical find. He becomes the lost thing without it.

There are several lovely moments in this story, both sweet and haunting. One of my favorite is nearest the end, looking through the tram doors outward onto a street corner. The text below says, “You know, something with a weird, sad, lost sort of look.” On the street corner is an alien-looking creature at a mailbox. It has a small light looking into the opening. I faces it against the direction of a painted arrow on the street. You can see the thing is unusual and ignored through the multiple windows of the tram, but caught in a window frame with the thing is a man who looks to be waiting by a bus-stop pole, arm up, head down, looking at his watch. He, too, sort of looks sad and lost there in the corner of the window; a member of the story’s shift to who or what is as lost as the marvelous thing the young man finds.

Note: as with Tales from Outer Suburbia, when Tan makes the effort to illustrate a newspaper, take time to read the text surrounding the one one he has centered for you. He has a sharp sense of humor.

Just when you don’t think you can take anymore beautiful writing or gorgeous imagery, there is The Rabbits. This story has one of the best opening lines: “The Rabbits came many grandparents ago.”  The author of this piece, John Marsden, notes that he was influenced by a book called A Sorrow in Our Heart by Allan W. Eckert, a book about Tecumseh, a Native American warrior, and his people. He was drawn to think about the Native’s plight in North America, and again of the Aboriginal’s plight in his native Australia. “There [is] an obvious similarity between the humans and the animals, and it seemed to me that telling the story of rabbits–rather than people– would be a better way of illustrating the damage done by invaders and colonists.” It is told with the soft rhythms of a traditional oral tale–so lovely and so heart-breaking.

Marsden’s words met with Shaun Tan’s studies of postcolonial art and literature at university. “I was able to crystallize some of these interests around John’s enigmatic text, and build on further research into colonial history, which occasionally does read like science fiction.” Tan provides a visual context, an incredible setting that portrays a past, and a present. The science-fictional aspects create a visual relevancy–a sense of not-too-distant past and future-possibility. There is a delightfully strange mix of curving warm Tribal and angular cold Futurist. The images of doom equally excite, to disturbing effect–is it our training to respond to such imagery? There is also a bit of propaganda art? (my lack of art education showing. I really need to pair up on these reviews with the husband.)

While The Rabbits would be brilliant in any classroom history course, elementary through university, the story belongs to several other discourses as well. To keep quoting the eloquent Mr. Tan,

“The Rabbits is a story of universes collindg: one culture driven by powerful technology that transcends nature (much like our own), and another whose spirit is embedded in a an ancient ecology. The conflict between the two is, I think, a central concern of our age, one that exists far beyond the Australian landscape of deserts and billabongs that inspired my paintings and John’s words. Aside from historical issues of race or politics, The Rabbits is about a deep environmental crisis, a crisis of conscience, and a costly failure of communication. At the end the question of reconciliation is left open to the reader as it is in the real world: The future, as always, remains undecided.”

“The future, as always, remains undecided,” is an important thematic thread within the three stories of Lost & Found. For all the melancholy, the depressed, the isolated, for all the violence, for all that is lost, hope is found in the open ending, in the possibility, in that which “remains undecided.”

If you are unfamiliar with Shaun Tan’s work, remedy this. He images the most probable things in the most impossible ways, and can it look any more familiar? Shaun Tan is talented; his work, it’s beautiful.

"review" · Lit · recommend · short story · Tales

Stories: All-New Tales (pt2)

this is part 2 of my post on Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio edited Stories: All-New Tales (2010, William Morrow). Part one is here. Part 2 involves my [brief] responses to each of the 27 stories collected, and the introduction.


As I was reading Stories I kept thinking how hard it must be to not consider Gaiman your audience while submitting a piece for his anthology because Gaiman comes to mind while reading most of the stories.  Many, but not all. And not that this harms the reading experience. It just spurred the contemplation of  audiences, playlists, and filter bubbles.

I didn’t read the stories in order of appearance, though I did start with the first one first and was glad because it really does whet the appetite (though I am not sure I should have phrased it in that way). I parceled out the reading based on time, or interest (in known author and/or title), and length. The writing was good, all of it; although Grammarians may have issue as commas appear to affect some Writer’s differently. I tried to write a brief note after every story I read and what follows are they (cleaned up a bit and in order of the stories appearance): I will put a # sign if I have ever read something by the author before:

If you have not read Stories and aren’t one to consult the chart in the box of assorted chocolates, you may want to stop here.

A–The Introduction by Neil Gaiman “Just Four Words.” (1-4) I actually read this first because I’ve been trained this way. Also, I didn’t really know how this anthology was intended, especially after noting the unusual company many of the authors were keeping. Sometimes the Introduction in collections and Forewords are entertaining in themselves—and Gaiman wrote it. I like what he had to say about stories: the reference to the oral tradition, the relationship of storyteller/audience/story, and how we’ve become constrained by fear/ignorance/marketing.

1–Blood – Roddy Doyle (5-14) A man experiences a mid-life crisis in “Dracula’s city.” “He was a normal man, slipping into middle age. […] His mind was fine, but something in him had been running amok. His biology, or something like that” (12). Blood was easily one of the most entertaining reads for me. The protagonist is humorous, self-deprecating, and the story has a brilliant ending. If you like Guy Ritchie films, you find some lovely similarities in rhythm, voice, and comedy.
2– Fossil-Figures – Joyce Carol Oates (15-28) “Why two when there should be one?” …This story is gorgeously written; a deliciously weird and creepy story about twin brothers; a demon brother and the younger. This tale is atmosphere and imagery all the way, and I’m sure there is meaning and symmetry, but I was really absorbed by the first few sections. If it were being read aloud, I would have told the storyteller these four words “…what was that again?”
3– Wildfire in Manhattan – Joanne Harris # (that is, I saw Chocolat) (29-45) This urban setting is home to some old god’s in different “Aspects,” and the protagonist is one, trying to be inconspicuous and yet still his self. The conversational first-person narrative wants to please and is comfortable in the languages of myth/lore, pop culture, and young adult fiction. I was mildly embarrassed to be reading it, actually.
4–The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains – Neil Gaiman (46-69) at the end I thought, this historically set, though at the beginning I couldn’t be sure, but I think it might be. It’s just that the Fey seem so relevant and the telling feels both old and new—I guess that would be summed up as “timeless.” The confusion is in regards to the “King across the water.” Anyway, I am sure there are references in this story to lore with which I am unfamiliar; which doesn’t affect the overall enjoyment of the story at all. It is a story of vengeance—you are told this right away. You have to learn everything else along the way, along the journey and through strange encounters and carefully placed conversation. Gaiman knows how to unfold a story, I like that he doesn’t worry over the details at the beginning, telling you things as you might want to know them, revealing so as to intrigue—a proper temptress—tempter? The little phrases to keep the reader interested in the mysteries is important in this story as the journey is long and the pacing may tire about the middle (which for me might be due to being tired physically and missing some references). The vengeance part isn’t as simple as it would seem, we suspect and then we learn things, and it becomes complicated—and then quite simple.
5–Unbelief – Michael Marshall Smith (70-76) This story felt as if it were trying too hard at Philosophical and Clever. A Hitman, an Almighty, and ta-da Belief. I was thinking Terry Pratchett during this one, and felt bad immediately; I was comparing, and Smith doesn’t measure. A dull read I was determined to finish. But it is among the shorter and I am sure there is an audience for this one, it just wasn’t me. (do recall I mentioned all the writing was good.)
6–The Stars are Falling – Joe R. Lansdale (77-103) I started this one and it is so lovely. The gravity in the descriptions of place, the transitions in time, in memory. The dialog was marvelous. The conditions a soldier returns from war in and to is of interest, and while the story is set in the past, it is no less relevant. Maybe it is safer set in the past as it is painful, the terms in which the protagonist is treated (in description and action) the things that have occurred and will occur. The story is an unhurried 26 pages, volatile, and looking to resonate. This piece is inarguably Lit.
7–Juvenal Nyx – Walter Mosley (103-131) This a story involving vampires; though it takes a few paragraphs to get to that part. I thought there might be political and racial implications, and there could well be but I wasn’t titillated enough to stick around for the end of the story. I excuse myself from vampire lore, but I did appreciate the return of sexual mesmerization to the conversation of necks and biting.  And as I skipped to read the last few paragraphs, there is nice return to the story opener.
8–The Knife – Richard Adams (132-134) the shortest story in the collection is about a boy taken with fantasies, a boy tormented by a bully, a knife, and a question. The form the narrative takes creates a reliability issue and complicates the first response the reader is likely to have to said question. A nice short tale that shows what only a couple of pages can do with a familiar story.
9–Weights and Measures – Jodi Picoult This one is not to be read without tissues. And if one has a daughter, it would be best if said daughter were not in another State, staying with a moron, and days from coming home. You’ll want to hug her—a few times.  I had not read anything of the esteemed Ms. Picoult before, and I think that I shall have to now. I was so impressed with the story, though I was made sad, was haunted by it, and tend to avoid stories of loss as much as possible. The story takes on a bit of magical realism as the narrative alternates in progression between husband and wife and an ending. The wife’s part was lovely but I really enjoyed reading the husband’s side. I love how the title comes to bear on the story. This one was a beautiful piece.
10–Goblin Lake – Michael Swanwick (150-161) one would think this was just a fairytale, but it isn’t just. It is about tales and characters and readers. Imagine you were a character in a story, that the world is a stage, that there is an Author/Creator who devised you… Which do you prefer: Fantasy or Reality (as much as Reality can be defined, and really who decides what is reality, anyway)? Yes, one of those.
 11–Mallon and Guru – Peter Straub (162-167) My first response to this tale was: “What?” Is he making fun of those who go to India for spiritual guidance; especially those who are looking to validate their own Guru status pre-manufactured back home? I think I sought meaning because I didn’t find this one particularly entertaining or inspiring (writing-wise).
12–Catch and Release – Lawrence Block (168-180) I don’t want to spoil this one if you are reading the notes and have yet to read the stories. Suffice it to say, I will never look at this fishing metaphor the same way again; and Block has spoiled Luke 5:5, as well. The voice is so matter-of-fact, the telling so disturbingly well-done. Well done, Block, well done!
13–Polka Dots and Moonbeams – Jeffrey Ford (181-193) Ford really brings his setting and characters to life, and so alarmingly quick (which is good of course, because the story is short). Still, what is going on is not all that clear, except for the desire to escape from something recursive in nature…but what? And do I care? I’m ready for the next spin.
14– Loser – Chuck Palahniuk # (194-201) I was thrilled to see Palahniuk was on the roster and he doesn’t disappoint. A group rushing for a fraternity licks a Hello Kitty stamp and goes on The Price is Right. Our narrator (a hopeful member of the fraternity) recalls watching the game show as a boy sick at home from school was horrified by it even then. It is the contestants, the host, the models, the prizes… But what are you going to do? This is part of our cultural rite of passage, isn’t it? (literally or metaphorically) You feel as trapped inside the protagonist as he does in his situation. It is fantastic!!
15–Samantha’s Diary – Diane Wynne Jones # (202-215) set in the future, a young spoiled fashion model is tormented by a suitor. The diary is one to be experienced; and somewhat suffered as well. Samantha is annoying, and her ex-boyfriend isn’t much better. But the torment part is amusing because it takes a bit to catch on as to what is actually going on. Love the imagination of this one.
16–Land of the Lost – Stewart O’Nan (216-220) at the end of this one Flannery O’Connor came to mind, but I am not all that sure why. The story is oddly compelling; and what to do with that ending? The title is thankfully appropriate and helps direct the story’s thoughts a bit: looking for the lost, some purpose/meaning, the need to be right…
17–Leif in the Wind – Gene Wolfe (221-232) after I diligently scrubbed my internal audio-file of “I’m a Leaf on the Wind” (thanks Serenity) I was eager to start this one, because I’ve heard of Wolf. Sean read his Books of the New Sun. The space venture was highly descriptive and the relationships between the crew were interesting, but the story was an odd experience. If the challenge was to transport a reader into completely foreign and possibly poetic climes while entrancing both the plot-and character-driven reader Wolf wins.
18–Unwell – Carolyn Parkhurst (233-242) I adored this story! Arlette and her younger-by-18-months-sister Yvonne are in their early 70s. Yvonne is getting married to a man the two had met on a cruise and Arlette is not pleased, nor is she well. This is a deliciously demented tale. I mean, just when you don’t think Arlette could get any worse…  Humorous and poignant.
19–A Life in Fictions – Kat Howard (243-247) I read this one before Goblin Lake. This, too, is a story where fiction and reality overlap and become ambiguous. A decision must be made; questions of identity and existence; and there is an incapacitation of the protagonist by a Writer/Creator–but the treatment of the ideas/themes differ dramatically in tone, delivery and invention. Many may prefer the contemporary, light, conversational tone of this story over the other, or they might find it a bit too quaint.

20–Let the Past Begin – Jonathan Carroll (248-259) The story begins with “Eamon Reilly was handsome and sloppy,” and continues on to talk about Eamon, though the story really isn’t about him. We are introduced to the questionably sane (but most certainly obnoxious) Ava but the story isn’t really about her either. I come to the conclusion that the story is about the unreliable narrator who is Ava’s current lover and friend of Eamon who was Ava’s previous lover. Neither Eamon or the narrator know who is the father of Ava’s baby, but only one of them cares. I feel like this story is inspired by the same true events as those which inspire daytime television. It is told in a bass-ackwards sort of way where the end is where you come down to it, and where perhaps the story should have begun, and where you would have just edited out most of the first part of the story you just told. I believe it to be up the Reader to find this Cute or Inspired; I chose the third option.
21–The Therapist – Jeffery Deaver (260-292) by the time I read this I had given myself permission not to finish a story, so I didn’t finish this one. The author would insert phrases to tantalize the reader into continuing on in spite of his protagonist’s self-important didactic ramblings which narrate his current pursuit of saving a young woman in danger of being destructive to others. I think it turns increasingly creepy, but I couldn’t get past my boredom. Mr. Kobel is evidently a psychopath, or is it sociopath, I am sure he could wax eloquent on the differences, but anticipating 32 pages in length I didn’t want to be driven mad myself. I skipped to the end. I skimmed over a court procedure (not sorry to miss that). The end hinted at some interesting twists, some manipulations to further entice the reader, but I wasn’t going to go back to where I left off.
22–Parallel Lines – Tim Powers (293-303) Here are another pair of sisters (aged 73), another story with twins, and one where siblings are still modeling a dominate and a submissive pairing. However, this story has a nice paranormal angle of one sister reaching out from the grave to possess the life of the other, not unlike how she did in life. The remaining sister decides to take control of her own last; and while it may seem late at age 73 to be doing so, I was still proud of her for doing so. Really, the alternative was just too awful to think about. I really enjoyed the two stories with the non-traditional stars.
23–The Cult of the Nose – Al Sarrantonio (304-312) If you are looking for an example (outside of politics) of how to take something absolutely absurd and make it serious, Sarrantonio will show you. “Here was a sect so arcane, nefarious and secret (a kind of truly devilish Freemasonry?) that no more than widely scattered references to it remained, or had ever existed” (307). The protagonist (1st person) is telling how he came to discover The Cult of the Nose and the evidence he uncovered in order to prove their existence and the crimes perpetrated. The academic tones descend into a present tense pursuit which has the Reader suspended completely—you really think the guy is a nutter, but he is so utterly amusing that your are fascinated—and I was turning the page. What in the world? The incredulity is the best part and the ending is awesome. You can see how mental illnesses can be so convincing here—while simultaneously admitting—absolutely not!
24–Human Intelligence – Kurt Anderson (313-329)This one is science fiction, espionage, and anthropological thriller (Indiana Jones) all in one—but not. The protagonist had me curious and I was sad when the young woman was introduced; she was hardly as interesting (however necessary). I like the angle of The alien’s perspective on becoming stranded and alone in the Universe. And I was amused by the idea of going to Murdoch with the story considering all that has been going on with spying/recording etc, in the news.
25–Stories – Michael Moorcock (330-350) another one where I was wondering “Who is this story About really?” Yes, I know the first line reads “This is the story of my friend Rex Fisch who….” Unfortunately it reads more like the kind of Eulogy a narcissist would tell. Names are dropped, Literature referenced, kinky sexcapades shared, and a secret homosexual relationship exposed—involving/revolving around an author Rex Fisch, of course. If only I could get past the narrator, even as I began to skim I couldn’t get over my repulsion of his voice.  And really, I was quickly bored. I can hardly get excited about the non-fiction memoir, the blatantly admission of a fictional one wasn’t any more favorable—although I can appreciate its honesty. I mean, there is that, at least.
26– The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon – Elizabeth Hand (351-398) this one is 47 pages so I thought I would save it for last, or at least, its own sitting. I quickly became bored with it. In part I was tired, and two, I just couldn’t get interested in the story. I didn’t care about the characters or what they were doing. There is a sense of someone trying to redeem themselves, maybe as a group the men can find a glorious moment in the son, and blah blah, I have no idea what I am saying. It is a story about relationships—I think I can say that. And the aviation parts are well described so even I can grasp the images, etc, but I forgave myself the disinterest. Tell me if I missed out and I will try again. I skipped to the end in case I found a guilt trip waiting, but I couldn’t find one. Another time.
27–The Devil on the Staircase – Joe Hill (399-423) This is one of the better ones and I kind of wish I had saved it for last. That the protagonist is given the last name of Calvino is fitting. The story is set in Italy (at the right time), plays with format, and is a bit of a fairytale. The story is a dark one, and don’t expect the end to have a shine other than one turned. I think Guillermo Del Toro could do a nice short with this one.