"review" · juvenile lit · mystery · recommend · series · wondermous

{book} not in the least beastly or dreadful

Months later (deep, regret-filled sigh) a post on one of my favorite new books.

“A marvelously funny mystery that feels refreshingly original while yet channeling the best of Dahl’s characters and Grimm in storytelling.”-my staff rec at work.

The League of Beastly Dreadfuls by Holly Grant

Random House, 2015.

Hardcover, 294.

Wondering what could possibly follow the genius who is Kazuo Ishiguro and his novel The Buried Giant, I was slumped into Picture Books and puppy-like Juvenile Fantasies. I was contemplating the cure-all (Calvino) when I shelved The League of Beastly Dreadfuls.

“Warning This book is chock-full of DREADFUL things (Calamity! Evil plans! Attack poodles!) and is NOT suitable for Nice Little Boys and Girls. Take my advice…practice your posture instead. –Miss Drusilla Jellymonk, Etiquette Expert.” –Back Copy

“Anastasia is a completely average almost-eleven-year-old. That is, UNTIL her parents die in a tragic vacuum-cleaner accident. UNTIL she’s rescued by two long-lost great-aunties. And UNTIL she’s taken to their delightful and, er, “authentic” Victorian home, St. Agony’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

But something strange is going on at the asylum. Anastasia soon begins to suspect that her aunties are not who they say they are. So when she meets Ollie and Quentin, two mysterious brothers, the three join together to plot their great escape!”–inside Jacket Copy.

Have you noticed how difficult it is for an author to pull off the Dahl-esque; especially American authors? Holly Grant is marvelously Dahl-esque in The League of Beastly Dreadfuls. But that isn’t the only reason to pick up your own copy. Grimm came to mind, for instance. But for all the fond reminiscence of favorite childhood storytellers, Grant demonstrates an originality all her own. That expansive imagination proves rather daring (e.g. the mice are genius, as is the tragic flatulence). The pacing both in action and humor is perfect, and the narrator not too clever for its own good. You must read this one aloud.

You know those scenes where the protagonist overhears the villain murmuring about their impending demise and they fail to confront said villain about it? There is a glorious moment (on page 67) where Anastasia asks an Auntie about a strong inference muttered under the breath. Anastasia is rightly terrified by this point–and so was I, thus my pleasant surprise when Anastasia quite forcefully inquires after just what did Prim mean. The author does not imperil her protagonist comfortably and the escape attempt will have all sorts of horrible inconveniences. “Saint Agony’s Asylum for the Deranged, Despotic, Demented, & Otherwise Undesirable (that is to say, criminally insane)” is not some quaint Victorian fixer-upper. And Anastasia is not in the least casual in her observation that “every day at St Agony’s Asylum was perfect funeral weather” (59). The contemplation of the photographs of past children was chilling. And despite those delicately sipped cups of tea, the ‘weirdly dentured’ old ladies are blood-thirsty.

so good.

I’m not sure which is more deliciously wrought, the adrenaline or the ridiculous humor; maybe it is the characters (who manage to generate both). The old ladies are entertaining, in their own horrid way. The Manly Baron aka Mouse Destroyer makes me sigh, and not because of his manly presence. It’s that he is silliness incarnate. I found him and that whole plot twist charming. And the boys, with their Ballad of the Lovelorn Beluga are amusing, to say nothing of awesomely gifted.  But Anastasia is the star: clumsy and resourceful and capable of keeping her wits about her.

The League of Beastly Dreadfuls is easily one of my favorite books this year, and I’ve enjoyed some fabulous reads. I found myself laughing aloud and reading huge swathes of it to the daughter. I’m sure I read the “looney gardner” scene (in chapter 4) multiple times to multiple friends; and I may have referenced the line “Podiatrists are, in general, the most dashing of all doctors” (281) a time or three, even though too few have yet to read the novel. Friends were updated at regular intervals and subjected to the mysteries of the novel: plenty of which remain unsolved. Like who is Anastasia and why have her captors taken such a keen interest in her? It quickly becomes apparent that it isn’t just because Anastasia is orphaned by a tragic vacuum incident.

The lovely problem the reader will come to realize is that the author’s imagination could originate any sort of possibility for our increasingly mysterious Anastasia. The reader also comes to the conclusion that they won’t mind terribly much when the author artfully puts off a few questions there at the end. The reader is going to want to read book two (The Dastardly Deed).

The League of Beastly Dreadfuls is the kind of smart and entertaining everyone needs off the shelf and in their hands and reading to their favorite human (or mouse).

————–

recommendations: if you love Grimm, Dahl, Ellen Potter’s Kneebone Boy, and/or Adrienne Kress’ Ironic Gentlemen. if you like peril, laughter, and clever narrators. To be read aloud to any and all grade-schoolers (whether they suffer from tragic flatulence or umbrating-related nudity*).

*yeah, you have to read the book.

 

 

 

"review" · juvenile lit · recommend · wondermous

{book} Jellyfish & Grief & Marvelous Writing

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Little, Brown & Co., 2015

Advanced Reader’s Copy thanks to Publisher & NetGalley in exchange for a fair/honest review.

After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy was a rare jellyfish sting. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory–even if it means traveling the globe, alone. Suzy’s achingly heartfelt journey explores life, death, the astonishing wonder of the universe…and the potential for love and hope right next door. –Publisher’s Comments

I need you to know that I do not get excited about reading what I call issue-driven books. One, they tend to be Contemporary Fic of the 1st person variety, where I preference Fantasy in the 3rd. Two, so many feels! Three, you really risk the message-y-ness. When artfully done, it compels empathy, rather than outright demands it. If you can relate to any of the three anxieties, you will do more than fine with The Thing About Jellyfish. Make it one of your bi-annual issue-driven reads.

My skepticism for the early praise that would rank The Thing About Jellyfish with the absolute must-read issue-driven novels: Wonder (RJ Palacio) and Out of My Mind (Sharon Draper) faded with the first ‘chapter’ of the book “Ghost Heart.” As I read, my thoughts moved to Kate DiCamillo’s work; which is just as challenging for a debut children’s writer to confront. Because of Winn Dixie was on my mind even before Benjamin’s protagonist referenced it. These are names whose company sells a book, but I want to impart some sense of the experience of the reading. The thing is: I’m not sure I can relay just what kind of elegance or lovely progression you can expect of Ali Benjamin in The Thing About Jellyfish.

You’ve read the Jacket Copy I provided at the start. The thing is is that Suzy and Franny are no longer best friends during the fatal occurrence. And one of the most compelling arcs in the novel is the revelation as to how the best of friendships disintegrated into such wrenching, guilt-ridden grief.

Where Suzy has decided to no longer speak within the world around her, she speaks to Franny in alternating sections of the novel. Suzy recounts their history, expresses a lack of understanding, and tries to explain why and how they came to be where they would ultimately conclude. The italicized sections inform every part of the novel and, most importantly, the main character. It is so well done, so increasingly painful. And damn if it isn’t familiar: the attempts to reconcile the changes between the one you fell in love with and the person they now want to be. The risks and results to the relationship feels like betrayal; and just who is the traitor? what if no one is? what if things just happen.  As Suzy’s elder brother and his boyfriend often say: Middle School does suck; it is hard; friendship is hard.

It’s the prose writing that reminds me of DiCamillo, and the subjects of grief, brokenness and of separation, which DiCamillo is so adept at conveying. It is also in the way DiCamillo describes children who are different without being medically conditioned. Suzy is a Science Nerd; she is a constant-talker; she has frizzy out-of-control hair; she is curious; and because the story hangs on it: she requires explanations. [yeah, she doesn’t sound that “different” does she?]

Suzy’s mother’s explanation for Franny’s death, despite Franny being an excellent swimmer, is left wanting and Suzy’s imagination focuses upon the Jellyfish.

The things we learn about Jellyfish and the way Benjamin incorporates it into the story is the most marvelous thing. How Suzy’s relationship to Jellyfish shifts situation (e.g. enemy, simile, etc.) is subtle and terribly important. Relationships are dynamic; they require love, and seek understanding. Suzy and that scientific and poetic mind is seeking and learning. She is stubborn, but she is also hurting. She is real enough and accessible enough to be flawed and forgiven for it.

Benjamin draws such a fully realized character that we are reminded, beyond the 1st person narrative, that the novel is from Suzy’s perspective. She requires patience and curiosity in order come to understand where she is coming from, in order to try (as reader’s do) to anticipate where she is going, where she will end up. You become invested in her own project, to learn what happened not only to the relationship with Franny, but to Franny (and Suzy) herself.

There are other relationships being built, being tested within the novel. Their beauty is not that they merely add charm, but they contribute to the overall coherence. For instance, there are echoes of Franny/Dylan in Suzy/Justin; which isn’t to suggest romance, but how relationships can change. In time, Suzy may be able to sympathize with Franny. Another question to confront is the one Sarah poses: that of mistaking the depths of relationship based on appearances, of which cues to read. Confrontation and communication is important.

With Suzy no longer speaking, she is keenly aware of how much language is physical, how much sound is still created. How perfect to situate this conversation in a time where we become so acutely aware of our and others’ physical presences. Add makeup and costuming (as Benjamin does).

Relationships are dynamic creatures, but then, so are we. We change. We diversify and then clump back together, maybe in different configurations. Each iteration of ourself is an impression, leaves an impression. And you can see where Suzy is especially pained in her preoccupation with Franny never becoming any older than 12. The problem for Suzy is that Franny will never inhabit another impression than the last one she’d left her with. Of course, not unlike the immortality jellyfish, Suzy gives us stories of her and Franny from before that last scene. And indeed, her recollections give us more, it reinterprets things. Most importantly, there is room to redeem it, via time and experience. The problem is the impulse that is the preservation of self, and other, and the learning to let go.

The difficult thing about the novel is that it is a journey through a time of grieving. It is hard to anticipate the conclusion. The only reassurance is that there is one. And it will be a beginning. For all the lovely cleanliness of the structure and pacing and writing, grieving is a messy, fraught, business. There will be ugly-crying and screaming and hatred, but even that is quite beautiful in Ali Benjamin’s hands. While the poetic language lends rationality to the scientific, it allows the emotional content absolute reason. Benjamin successfully ratchets up the intensity, explaining Suzy even as Suzy, in turn, has no explanation for Franny. Things just happen. The coming down from that is tenuous. The scientific lends the poet a way to frame the world, to fit words to an observation, a conclusion.

The Thing About Jellyfish is structured in 7 Parts with numberless, but titled Sections within each. Each Part begins with a quote from Mrs. Turton the 7th Grade Life Science Teacher and all around bad-ass. Each quote is an explanation for different aspects of conducting a Research Project (the final part being the “Conclusion”). Each Section essentially reads like a short story. These pieces are primarily reliant upon juxtaposition (as a Literary work might) rather than the old dependable segue. All the transitions are effortless. Even the switching between two linear time-lines is done with ease.

I ramble into thoughts, but the thing about The Thing About Jellyfish is how accessible it is. The structure buoys its subjects. The brevity of the Sections and Parts ease the weight of the content. Any educational component is rendered relevant, not just geek-worthy. Where the drama (and trauma) of Middle School is a bit daunting—especially when the author exaggerates the fracturing of childhood with puberty by adding death and divorce—the science is exciting (zombie ants?!). The writing is enchanting, if not completely effortless. And the kind of courage witnessed in so many characters in the novel is inspiring. What Middle Schooler (what human) couldn’t use some sympathy and inspiration to keep moving.

“Whatever was about to happen next in that dream […] it was better than staying still. The staying still was the worst part. The waiting and not-knowing and being afraid: That was worse than anything else that might happen” (220).

Another terrible thing that might happen is missing out on The Thing About Jellyfish.

——

Of note: I do love the effortless realism of Aaron and Rocco. Aaron is Suzy’s brother; Rocco is his beloved. I adore the discovery of the photograph on the mantel. I love that the parents are present, however clumsy, but earnest. I love the contemplations on the universe and the stars. I am grateful for the blip that was blood that read menstruation and how perfect its timing.

The “Author’s Note” includes more information on events, videos, figures, etc. referenced in the novel. This book would be so great to teach. Or Book Club.

"review" · concenter · juvenile lit · recommend · series · Uncategorized · wondermous

{book} never a nothing girl

Icebreaker by Lian Tanner

Feiwel and Friends, 2015 (orig. 2013).

Hardcover 304 pages

“Twelve-year-old Petrel is an outcast, the lowest of the low on the Oyster, an ancient icebreaker that has been following the same course for three hundred years. In that time, the ship’s crew has forgotten its original purpose and broken into three warring tribes. Everyone has a tribe except Petrel, whose parents committed such a terrible crime that they were thrown overboard, and their daughter ostracised.

But Petrel is a survivor. She lives in the dark corners of the ship, speaking to no one except two large grey rats, Mister Smoke and Missus Slink. Then a boy is discovered, frozen on an iceberg, and Petrel saves him, hoping he’ll be her friend. What she doesn’t know is that for the last three hundred years, the Oyster has been guarding a secret. A secret that could change the world.

A secret that the boy has been sent to destroy, along with the ship and everyone on it…” –Publisher’s comments

I hugged the book before I read it, and you can be sure I hugged it afterward. Why? Because Lian Tanner has written one of my favorite Juvenile Fiction Series (The Keeper Trilogy) and she did not let me down in Icebreaker.

Tanner creates rather than contrives her characters and their conflicts. It takes reading the novel to realize what I mean by that difference between the creating and the contrivance. The characters experience real, important change, within the boundaries of their personality. You labor alongside them in those pivotal moments.

Icebreaker is not for those who like to anticipate the story and control every outcome. Tanner doesn’t make her adventures easy on the characters, why would she make it easy on the reader? Tanner’s characters earn their stunning heroism and heart. That Petrel would arrive to a transformative state is perhaps expected, but what of the others, and what of the winding series of events that traverse the massive and entangle innards of the Oyster? There are clues to mysteries (Crab) for the reader to guess successfully, but the overall the sensation of honestly not knowing what is coming next is marvelous.

Tanner complicates her otherworldly stories in painfully realistic ways. Both Petrel (aka Nothing Girl) and the strange boy she rescues have internalized the beliefs of their respective adult worlds—and they have to push back for the sake of everyone. Theirs is a violent and devastated world. The different factions are rational outcomes and hauntingly familiar, yet there is a fine and cutting edge of ridiculousness in the situation. So much of the violence is situated in willful ignorance and incredible egoism. Squid is a still, quiet breath of fresh air.

The presence of tribal leaders’ children in the story is notable; especially the handling of daughters (like Squid) as game-changers. The offspring represent the attitudes of their tribes as well as the opportunity for change. The Braids’ leader, Orca’s daughter, is a horrible fascination and was no doubt one of the most tenuous to write. How to convincingly affect change in relatively few pages, and can we trust it going forward? Nothing Girl and the “rescued boy” (who represent two sets of “others” or factions) are convincing actors, posing in alternate versions of themselves, playing the role survival requires of them. The reader is helped to understand that there is a lot at stake when it comes to who and when to trust—and how to prioritize needs and wants. From the get-go, the question of whether a Nothing Girl should have rescued the boy on the ice haunts the story: Is he worth it? Is she?

The harsh setting is fraught with the kind of danger that inspires courage and resourcefulness, though the survivalist Petrel would downplay such aggrandizement of her reality. Yet while she may not find herself exceptional or worthy of manning the story, the reader will see what her few friends do, worth the risk-taking. She is so earnest, so damned determined and requiring of love. She is so damned familiar.

How Tanner manages to make such a horrible moment near the end, the realization of Nothing Girl as Petrel, to be also humorous… She has great storytelling instincts. Tanner is thought-provoking in unexpected ways, reminding the reader always of perspective (that there is always more than one at play).

Icebreaker combines the most appealing traits of juvenile fiction: an exhilarating imagination and an increasingly necessary imperative: empathy.

I wrote this of Museum of Thieves way back when: “Tanner created a cast and setting of delectable proportions for which I found I was ravenous in Museum of Thieves and will sure to be again in City of Lies.” Go ahead and transpose Icebreaker and Sunker’s Deep; Tanner is a satiating must-read.

——-

Of note: Perfect for tracing the pathways of character development over the course of a plot, no “convenient” gaps to leap over here.

My reviews of Museum of Thieves and City of Lies

 

 

concenter · fiction · Lit · music · recommend · wondermous

{book} the colorless

When Tsukuru first hears Haida’s recording of Franz Liszt’s ‘Le mal du pays,’ from the Years of Pilgrimage suite ‘Year 1: Switzerland,” it is described as “a quiet, sorrowful piece that began with a slow, memorable theme played out as single notes, then proceeded into a series of tranquil variations” (68). Tsukuru asks Haida about it. Haida says, ‘Le mal du pays’ is French and is “usually translated ‘homesickness,’ or ‘melancholy’, or as precise a translation as can be managed ‘a groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart by a pastoral landscape’” (69). Tsukuru adds that the piece evokes “a calm sadness without being sentimental.” This section describes Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. Murakami transcribes a quiet sorrowful piece replete with tranquil variations.*

a delightfully well-designed cover.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: a novel

By Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel

Knopf 2014.

In High School Tsukuru Tazaki used to be part of a group comprised of five. He was one of three boys and the only of the five whose name did not include a color. The latter wasn’t the only thing to make him different, but the balance had already been struck. Like the trait that decides 5 fingers make the most harmonious human hand, the five young people found a miraculous society within and between themselves. But perhaps what they had was not as true a harmony as first believed (322).

“I’ve always seen myself as an empty person, lacking color and identity. Maybe that was my role in the group. To be empty.” […] “An empty vessel. A colorless background. With no special defects, nothing outstanding. Maybe that sort of person was necessary to the group.” (179).

Moving away  for college shouldn’t have changed things as dramatically as it had, yet suddenly Tsukuru was shut out. It is a long sixteen years later that Tsukuru is tasked with finding out why.  Murakami writes a deeply compelling mystery—in Tsukuru Tazaki.

The mystery as to what Tsukuru could have done and how all might finally find resolution is the spine and is much like rails drawing the reader along, yet Murakami is building a station with Tsukuru Tazaki that is rife with such beautiful complexity the “colorless” becomes riveting. Murakami must take pleasure in his ability to move readers through the most ordinary sequences of life in pursuit of the most poetic; and he uses the most ordinary of characters to do it.

The novel is one of those places where the figurative can be rendered quite literally, and unreality resides in simultaneity with reality. It is the perfect space, other than the dreaming and memory, for Murakami to explore his preoccupations with the waking, conscious existence of liminal spaces. Can a desire become strong enough to knock on a door an impossible number of miles away? Are evil spirits merely psychic projections? Can a mild-mannered handsome boy harbor a violent, ugly aspect and not recall it? Can he harbor a intimate desire so deep, he could mistake the real for a fantasy (and vice versa)?

Tsukuru Tazaki learns that all number of paradoxes exist, some of which are comforting, others disturbing. We can die and be regenerated inside these vessels that refuse to pass away. A musical score can transport the most vivid recollections into the present, even the presence of persons long lost (258). And we wonder at whether differences between our existence and absences are substantial enough to matter.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki also understands that some explanations are never found, sorrows never redeemed, conflicts never resolved, and there are apologies made that shouldn’t satisfy forgiveness but will—because we cling to life, stupidly, dangerously, and with a profound love for it. A few readers who are going to hate this book.

Murakami can be infuriating in the way he allows characters and storylines to drift off into inexplicable disappearance. But none of it is wasted in its contribution to the whole. His novels are annoyingly coherent. The rewards just come in unexpected ways—which is a reward in and of itself.

Murakami’s genius is in that ending. He draws us out of another one of Tsukuru’s fugue-like states, this one listing among his lovely self-reflections, when he perches us once more on that brink between life and death. Murakami presents us with a character no one should have ever doubted, not even Tsukuru himself. It is quite brutal. It is perfect.

———-

*Here is one variation, when Tsukuru is contemplating his self-characterization of an empty vessel.

“Maybe I am just an empty, futile person, he thought. But it was precisely because there was nothing inside of me that these people could find, if even for a short time, a place where they belonged. Like a nocturnal bird seeks a safe place to rest during the day in a vacant attic. The birds like that empty, dim, silent place. If that were true, then maybe he should be happy he was hollow.” (258)

When Natalya was reading Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, she found ‘Le mal du pays’ and played it for us. You’ll want to do the same.

RIP IX's Lavinia by Abigail Larson———–

of note: a Reader’s Imbibing Peril (RIP) read, there is mystery, melancholy, and allusions to devilry.

"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · wondermous

{comics} atypical

“a sweeping tale of one young family fighting to find their place in the universe.”

Saga : Volumes One & Two by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Image Comics 2012 & 2013 respectively.

from Volume 1

This waiting for the next volume to come off hold at the Library is excruciating. It isn’t that I do not have other things to read, it’s just that Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga is that entertaining. Also, they leave you with these cliff-hangers. I just checked and I am 1 of 14 on the request list for Volume 3. Volume 4 is not even out yet; not until DECEMBER! I would like to now curse those rave reviews and that striking cover on Volume 1.

cropped from cover of Volume One

Volume One: “When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring a fragile new life into a dangerous old universe” (publisher’s comments). This “fragile new life” is both their relationship/family and Hazel. And it is some future Hazel who is our narrator, telling her parent’s story, telling a story, shifting through past tenses. We get other story-lines as well, with rarely any of Hazel’s commentary: the unionized assassins, the prince whose head is a screen.

I immediately fell in love with Staples’ artwork. Visually, Alana brought to mind Pink!, which can only be a good thing. The creatures are kick-ass. The placement of panel on page, compositions, color-work, all crafty-goodness. The lettering for Hazel’s voice says young, but not childish; her sarcasm perfectly applied. The, ah, language is profane and if you played a drinking game for every penis making an appearance you’ll get a nice buzz. Saga will keep your fellow public transit commuters reading over your shoulder and/or blushing and gasping. Yeah, now I know why nearly every introduction to Saga uses “adult” in its marketing. I think the humor and relationship foibles make for an unexpected romantic comedy that will appeal to the older audiences as well. Then there is just flat-out smart, subversive craftiness of the comic. The out-sourcing of the war between Wreath and Landfall? Whatever would inspire such a notion?

from Volume 1

Honestly, this is one of those comics to experience to really believe just how excellent it is. The timing of the wit, the dead-pan delivery, the provocative and absolute irreverence… I was sitting alone in a quiet house with a dog staring at me as I laughed like a maniac–especially during Volume 2 and the reading of Alana’s bodice-ripper.

cropped from Volume Two cover

Volume Two: “Thanks to her star-crossed parents Marko and Alana, newborn baby Hazel has already survived lethal assassins, rampaging armies, and horrific monsters, but in the cold vastness of outer space, the little girl encounters her strangest adventure yet… grandparents” (publisher’s comments). We meet Marko’s parents, when he is both a child and now an adult. It is amusingly awkward, of course, and necessarily intense. We also get Marko and Alana’s “meet-cute” and Hazel’s conception. Neither does Volume 2 abandon other lines from the first volume, with an exciting introduction to a troubling twist. You’ll know with the first volume whether you want to read the next, but the second could be the clincher if you weren’t entirely sold on the series.

from Volume 2

The family drama set against the action/adventure in space is brilliantly balanced. I mean, anyone who’s had a babysitter like theirs understands why Marko has to hurry off to rescue her after his mother over-zealously banishes her to the nearest planet whereupon horrors compound.

Bibliophiles, certainly Lit Majors, will completely dig this volume. Saga could make for a good Book Club read. Saga might look like a farce to break up the monotony of high-minded literary works, but I wouldn’t underestimate its effectiveness in drawing out the deadly serious.

Volume Three: promises that “the couple’s multiple pursuers [will] finally close in on their targets.” What could possibly happen next? The way Vaughan cross-cuts action, splices the narrative together, his play is diabolical in that it is tricky to anticipate. Some techniques are classic to earthbound tales, but the situating it in sci-fi fantasy makes his storytelling more interesting. The cleverness of couching the family drama in SFF is in the opportunities it provides to play with expectation (as well as rescuing it from Lifetime). Saga‘s realm of imaginative play makes it all the more important that Vaughan and Staples are so strong in their characterizations and in reinforcing the core.

The core: the family: an affectionate narrator, a soldier who has sworn-off killing, and a security guard who reads bodice-rippers that are “boring.” Just my kind of awesome.

from Volume 2

recommendations: For those ADULTS who like or dislike rom-coms, action-adventure stories, SFF, comics, the obscene…you’ll find Saga gloriously atypical.

of note: Volume One won the 2013 Hugo award for Best Graphic Story; Volumes Two and Three won an Eisner for Best Continuing Series, Best Writer (for Brian K. Vaughan) & Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (interior art) (for Fiona Staples) 2014.

{images are Fiona Staples’)

cinema · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · wondermous

{film} Guardians of the Galaxy, 5 Reasons.

I’m sure someone will decide their means for being relevant will require them to pan James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). They’ll claim some disconnect with the director’s work in general as their opening disclaimer or some such entry wound into their “review.” I am fine–relieved, actually–to be absorbed into the clamoring for an encore. Was the film perfect? no. Was it AWESOME? yes. Look for the early-bird special if you need to, and take a friend.

5 Reasons to see Guardians of the Galaxy (in no particular order).

gotg crew
Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Raccoon (voice Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Groot (voice Vin Diesel), Drax (Dave Bautista)

# : You are a fan of mischievous heroes in space and the silliness that is sure to prevail aka Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Gamora and Nebula have siblings, can one future casting call be Gina Torres (Zoe in Firefly)? But, really, the comedy, much of which was unanticipated and then subjected to the long-joke, was fantastic. Its a film that doesn’t rely on the energy of the audience to keep you laughing. Too, that the film is based on an under-read, lower-tier-developed comic has some appeal. While this may frustrate those who like to debate which characters get cast and how terrible the reboot was, I liked going into the film with the notion that we were not wading through a lot of backstory and bickering. It is fun feeling like you are discovering a hero for the first time with a theater geeked on the SFF genre alone.

gotg pratt
Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star Lord

# : Chris Pratt, and not only to witness the musculature. The comparisons of Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly) and Han Solo (Star Wars) to Peter Quill are accurate and appealing.He is hilarious and charming, and you never once doubt his abilities to play an action star. When he plays the goofball, it isn’t because he lacks intellect or strategy. Pratt has range, and bless it, but they do not push the romancing Gamora line too far. Pratt’s comedic timing is golden. Natalya cites Quill’s dancing (near the beginning) as her favorite scene: she always thought heroes should carry their soundtracks with them. I actually like his troubled looks, like when he is subdued in the prison (just after the shirt went back on). Pratt does not suffer from the lackluster nor the over-the-top. I’m not sure the casting could have more perfect.

gotg gamora
Zoe Saldana as Gamora

# : Gamora (Zoe Saldana) as kick-ass, smart-ass, and vulnerable. Saldana finds and uses complexity in a character that could be just one idea of a female in comics or another. Yes, we were still subjected to the “male gaze.” I’m thinking of the opportunities for her to show she is not unaffected by the world around her. She isn’t a strong character because she is invulnerable, in fact, her circumstances make her courage and capability all the more impressive. The fight choreography is spectacular, though the quick cutting and cross-cutting during her fight with Nebula was frustrating in it’s lack of spectacle. Love how smart yet charmed Gamora is by Quill–and we are still laughing about the “Kevin Bacon” scenes.

gotg groot
Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel)

#: Groot. Yes, all the fuss is warranted. A bit of humor is floating around about how the production staff really only needed Vin Diesel to read a few variations on his one line. Digital manipulation would manage the actual reading for the film. Vin Diesel insisted, in what is taken as a lug-headed fashion, on reading the scripted lines as they would sound in the scene. I am having a hard time imagining what the results would have been with the original plan, but between the effects and Diesel’s reading, Groot was a flawless presence on screen.

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via David White interview; Karen Gillan as Nebula

# : The Make-Up and Special Effects. David White is the special effects makeup designer on the film, “he created the tangible, high-concept looks for Gamora, Drax, Nebula, Yondu, Korath, and the film’s numerous aliens.” You can read Scott Pierce’s interview with him on Co.Create (there are images of the process), “‘I’ve been fortunate to have been around the Marvel world for a little while,’ White says. ‘I like to think my own artwork and style has worked well within the universe’.” Indeed it does. The Kree architecture/design produced in the film is noteworthy. The ships are amazing as well. Sean favored the Black Aster, but we agreed that the ships, tech and the battle scenes were frankly marvelous.

"review" · cinema · foreign · recommend · wondermous

{film} the broken circle breakdown

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Veerle Baetens (Elise) & Johan Heldenbergh (Didier), The Broken Circle Breakdown

When Sean and I saw the trailer for The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012) some time back, we were fascinated by the idea of a Belgium film featuring blue grass. We wondered maybe that it was a Belgium film set in the American South, but no. It’s just that Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) is in love with blue grass music. Bill Monroe is his hero.

Director Felix van Groeningen’s film is about Didier and Elise (Veerle Baetens) who fall in love at first sight and, despite differences, begin to build a life together. They have a daughter Maybelle (“like Maybelle Carter”) played beautifully by Nell Cattrysse who manages both spunky girlhood and the deathly pallor of cancer. Maybelle’s condition tests an otherwise idyllic marriage, the differences surfacing in riveting explosions of rage and grief.

I described the film with a linearity it does not adopt. The transitions in and out of the present have an overall organic feel within the narrative, but are not easily anticipated (which is a praise, not a criticism). The story is easy to follow despite the time-shifts, or because of them. I can’t imagine The Broken Circle Breakdown told any other way. The simultaneity of lives being built and destroyed, the blossoming and the disintegration, is necessary to the complexity of the film and its story. Love and heartbreak are constant companions; you glimpse them in Didier’s look of adoration and fear when he watches Elise. Heldenbergh captures that sense of awe that love demands.

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The Broken Circle Breakdown is a moving and heartbreaking portrayal of a life. Didier and Elise live in a small haven with farm/ranch animals, good friends (the band), and a sense of humor about their needs. But the world intrudes, and their faith suffers heavy blows. Didier’s love for America and its ideals is particularly painful to witness in its disillusionment.

But Didier still has his music, his blue grass band adding singer/actress Baetens’ Elise as a vocalist. They harmonize well, singing the songs in their original English. They even affect the word “Alabama” with a near-perfect southern inflection. The music is used judiciously, reminding us that the blue grass is born in context, not just performed on a stage for entertainment. The songs add to the narrative texture of the film, posing as transitions, but are primarily situated as storyteller. The music and its origins are at the heart of the film. Didier explains the presence of blue grass near the start of the film as he describes his passion for it to his lover Elise. There is beauty and there is suffering.

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A lot of stories want to open at the beginning of a relationship so that you can fall in love with the characters as they fall in love. Elise and Didier’s cute meet is certainly charming, but having our first introduction in the hospital with their 6-7 year old child and years into relationship creates a startling investment as well. You are asked to appreciate the first blush and the commitment. And we need to love them at the hardest times, because that first rush of blood to the head is too easy, too common. The shift in sex scenes from their romance through the test of their commitment is moving. The shifts in body language are remarkable in the actors’ achievement. Heldenbergh has the intense gaze, but Baetens vibrates with emotion, even when she is completely still and looking away. I appreciate that the camera afforded them their bodies, the present-day impulse for innumerable close-ups resisted. Of course, the tall and lanky cowboy and the tattooed punk/rockabilly look deserve their screen time.

I never shook the strangeness of witnessing that, which to me is so essentially American, performed and set in Belgium. The foreign and the familiar cohere in a large conversation in the film as to why we have our mythologies; when they work and do harm. The idealism toward America shifts necessarily toward the benefits of living in Belgium. The music, though Didier knows it history, has a quality that is transcendent of borders, of nationalities.

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Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) w/ Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse)

A struggle in the film is in how to parse the hard surfaces of reality with its more extravagant acts of passion, etc. How and when to let go and allow the other the belief they need. The bird flying into the glass, the stars, the inked skin, The Broken Circle Breakdown establishes and explores conversations in images. You’ll note which images linger as the film whittles its way to the baring of bones. Too, we see the harsh realities (well-lit) take on the surreal in the sequences of disintegration—sequences that harbor a certain kind of joy. We’ve descended into night-scenes and rain, but the film closes in a day-lit room in white.

Didier’s lesson is one of letting go, of surrendering at key moments. Even so, The Broken Circle Breakdown settles into an acceptance and a celebration without turning up roses. But then, life is unresolved; the stories involve human beings. While we can write a synopsis in which the two protagonists are typed representational, the narrative is fairly muddied by human complexity nonetheless. The actors carry off self-possessed and memorable characters and they arrive at a decision of what they are able to abide in a relationship that is not only their own, but has their daughter ever in mind. Have those handkerchiefs ready. Listen and watch as they sing hymns amidst a disintegration of faith. The courage in the characters is marvelous. And, of course, there is the blue grass.

the trailer:

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broken coverThe Broken Circle Breakdown (2012); Director Felix van Groeningen; based on the play “Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama” written by Johan Heldenbergh & Mieke Dobbels; adapted to screen by van Groeningen & Carl Joos, Charlotte Vandermeersch collaborating; Music by Bjorn Eriksson; Cinematography by Ruben Impens; Editing Nico Leunen; Produced by Dirk Impens, Arnold Helsenfeld, Laurette Schillings, Frans van Gestel, Rud Verzyck. Starring: Johan Heldenbergh (Didier/Monroe), Veerle Baetens (Elise/Alabama), & Nell Cattrysse (Maybelle).

Flemish w/ English subtitles; Running time: 111 minutes; No-rating, there is coarse language, sex, and nudity, plan accordingly.