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Thursday, August 2, 2018

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The Book of M.

Peng Shepherd
William Morrow
June 2018
496 Pages
ISBN 978-0062669605


In this well-crafted debut novel, Peng Shepherd innovates the dystopian novel with surprising twists and turns. The plot is simple but hard to imagine: perfect for creating tension and chaos. When people start losing their shadows, it initiates the slow process of forgetting. Eventually, people can’t remember from moment to moment, forget to eat, forget how to do anything and they die in the chaos. For those who haven’t lost their shadow yet, there is little hope. It is just a matter of time. But there are signs and rumors that something is happening in New Orleans. As the different characters move toward New Orleans, the finality of it all closes in.


The innovation of this book is Shepard’s use of shadows to shape the devastation of the novel. The loss of a shadow is almost implausible, and it brings about the doubt, fear, and uncertainty about what is happening. And while some answers come from this novel it is left to ambiguity to add tension, fear, and loss in the novel. It is not only a stunning literary use, but it also is very imaginative. As people lose their shadows and begin to break down with memory loss, we wonder why some last longer than others, what is happening and why.


This novel is very compelling and deserves acclaim. There are times, particularly toward the end of the book, where things slow down easing a bit of the uncertainty and tension. It would be very easy to compound a few storylines and bring them together faster to bring the novel to a more succinct closing. This takes nothing away from Shepherd's well plotted, crafted novel and the complete uncertainty of what we can’t even imagine.


The Book of M contributes to the idea that subtly and desperation are sometimes complex and unknowable. When you look at the suspension and horror in The House of Leaves, it isn’t what we see in front of the characters that is so scary, but what we don’t know. We also see that kind of creepy uncertainty in The Color Out of Space by H. P. Lovecraft which takes the horror of nothing into a series of gruesome events without any real purpose. These two stories, like The Book of M. bring about chaos and tension the idea that perhaps we just can’t see what is happening to us. And in the case of these stories, these powerful things may not have a response for us. Shepherd's existential horror is based on something that we can’t quite imagine. In some ways, this keeps the novel in an imaginative plane, where we can imagine the horror, but we all see it in different ways. While this concept may be destined for a film, it feels better as an element of the reader’s own making -- a place where suspension of disbelief is easily maintained and the layers of the novel is based in abstraction, not in special effects and directorial choices.


In the end, The Book of M. is an engaging and creative dystopian novel that pushes the edges of imagination and creativity. It is important that we define this story as creative, important, and innovative outside the realm of the chaos, the uncertainty, and the dystopian elements. It is the end of the world, but it is all so stunning and vivid. Those things that bring us closer to the end, make us really appreciate living and this book does bring that power to bear.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

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I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture

A. D. Jameson 
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 
ISBN 978-0374537364
304p

Being a lifelong card-carrying Star Wars fans, this book was merely a fan pick to make sure that commentary on the film(s) was in line. What surprised me was that this book was more than just a book on Star Wars and its cultural effect, but a focused and insightful look into the culture of fandom and geeks. That isn't meant to put geeks down, in fact as Lawrence Kasdan (Empire Strikes Back screenwriter) states that Jameson takes geek culture "seriously, respects their power and refuses to hide his deep affection). Being a geek means being a fan that cares. Jameson methodically considers the dynamic elements of being a fan and a geek and why it has carried some films to fame and also broken a few. 

If you're interested in any sci-fi/superhero culture, then you should just read this book. At some point, he will stop off at some of your favorite movies, books, comics, and other references. Beneath his discussion of Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman, comics, fan culture, Lord of the Rings, and hundreds of other references, Jamieson develops significant underlying ideas that bring substance to the discussion of these cultural art forms and why they are important to the world we consume. He begins by discussing the concept of world-building, a term that dates back a long time ago, but is brought into focus by Tolkien and his work in the 1930s. This concept of creating a world that people desire to immerse into is important to fans, writers, and popular culture purveyors. It isn't that people want a completely new reality, but they want a world that has as Tolkien called it, "the inner consistency of reality." While we want spaceships, creatures, and all those glorious moments, we also want to see ourselves and something that we can find of ourselves. Jameson goes on to explain that "Geeks differ from mystics, however, in knowing that their invented worlds aren't real, even as they want their fantasies to seem as real and as believable as possible."

The next important element is bringing realism into the mix. Like Star Wars and the concept of a "used world," viewers can see a gritty and complex world that looks real, and therefore closer to something else. "This is why geeks favor realism and world-building, which impart to fiction the look of nonfiction, and the weight of historical fiction." This is part of the immersion and the believability of the story. And this is exactly some of the elements that geeks fight over all the time. There is a great discussion based on expanded universes and how these franchises sell and direct their merchandise and concepts to the true fans. This can be a gamble that pays off or fall short (think Star Wars 1-3). 

While this book has some significant concepts and relevant vision of geek culture, it moves quickly and never gets bogged down. Even books and websites I didn't know didn't change the reading. I just kept going. Often, curious about a movie or book, I found myself searching for a few titles or more information to go back and explore later. 

If you are interested in Star Wars, geek fandom, popular culture, or you just like to watch movies, this book is very satisfying. Jameson makes an important point in the book when he says, "That's why learning to read an artwork, to interpret it and evaluate it, requires study and practice, learning how to untangle the web of allusions, of conventions and associations, through which artists encode and transmit meaning. Whatever else it happens to be, an artwork is also always a text, a representation of the world after a fashion, but never the world itself." He goes on to quote Alfred Korzybski when he famously said, "The map is not the territory."

Really good book for fans and pop culture enthusiasts. It clearly explains some of the implications of being a fan, a geek, and someone who does more than just watches but lies in bed wondering what great things might be coming for our favorite heroes and archetypes. 


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

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The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War


Jane Rosenberg LaForge
AmberJack Pub.
ISBN: 978-1944995676 (paperback)
280p
Released: June 5, 2018

The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War by Jane Rosenberg LaForge is a re-telling of several Grimm’s fairy tales against the backdrop of World War I.  As a fan of World War I literature, this captures the desperation of trench warfare, the aftermath of war, and what it means to live with those nightmares. But it is this reality, this darkness, this desperation that pushes up against how and why people tell stories. This is not merely a war novel, but the war is what triggers much of the action and ideas around this novel. Miss Eva Williams is an American school teacher that comes to a small English school to teach and hide from the world. Among the small and bucolic setting, everyone has been touched by the Great War. And among the edges is a man so damaged and lost that the villagers are afraid of who he is and what he may do. Miss Williams doesn’t commiserate with the villagers and the leaders, she takes him into her life. These two lost souls begin to rebuild a life together.

This novel weaves stories. It is the function of the book, the story, the plot… everything. It is worth mentioning that LaForge brings about a compelling and often beautiful style of storytelling to the page. Her stylistic voice here is what makes this novel so compelling and profound. The style reaches beyond the well-crafted characters, the woven stories, and the stunning pace of this novel. It makes sense that a poet is a better weaver for so many intangible parts and pieces. In Kate Berhnheimer’s introduction to Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, she discusses how “fairy tales offer both wildly familiar and familiar wild terrain.” But more importantly, she considers the significance of how these fairy tales reflect back something of ourselves. “It is to look at the act of looking at ourselves inside stories, to regard the tradition and the stereotype of female reflection on self. In this, there is a power for all sorts of readers.” In many ways, LaForge is doing this within the nested stories and concepts of The Hawkman. She is restoring story, frame, morals, and piecing together the shattered ideas that are missing. That is where the innovative, creative, and visionary style does so much of the work. Miss Williams becomes the one who creates change, shifts perceptions of the world, and grounds all the fragments that seem to swirl around this novel. She isn’t the Scheherazade (the teller of the stories), but she is the force that makes all these stories possible. She is the curator of all things possible and impossible in this world.

A possible function of writing a novel is to explain how we might save ourselves with a story. In The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War by Jane Rosenberg LaForge, it is clear that these forces of reality, tales, and visionary things are not just important for the art of fiction, but crafted with haunting and beautiful effect. But it takes more than a fabulist, it takes more than a novelist. It takes a poet. The Hawkman is a stunning vision of the blurred lines between the darkest realities and the most beautiful stories, all spinning in a whirlwind of narrative, hope, and loss.

A brief retelling of this book doesn’t shed light on the beauty and the scope of this novel. It is something that you have to accumulate as a reader. The nested stories, the characters, the function of the novel itself, all serve to restore the belief that we are narrative, we need a beginning, a middle, and an end. LaForge does this through poetry, stories, and her lyrical style. Miss Williams in the novel says, “Stories should not have to be cruel.” They can be sad, they can be devastating, and they can be beautiful, but they don’t “have to be cruel.” This novel brings narrative together with a lyrical style to rebuild the lives of people who are separately and desperately fragmented. The result is this beautiful novel that is built on the tradition of fairy tales but refined in poetry and prose in a way that is vivid, inspiring, and human. Excellent, poetic, and literary in story, style, and vision. 


Cited in Review
Bernheimer, Kate, ed. Mirror, mirror on the wall: Women writers explore their favorite fairy tales. Anchor, 1998.


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

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Seconds


Bryan Lee O’Malley
Ballantine Books (2014)
ISBN 978-0345529374
336p
Available Now

If you know Scott Pilgrim, you've been introduced to Bryan Lee O’Malley, however, when someone recommended Seconds to me, I was curious. In many ways, this standalone comic is a stunning, complex, and contemporary graphic novel that is woven with great storytelling and a graphic style that appeals to a wide range of readers.

Friday, April 6, 2018

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Entangled Lives

Imran Omer
Roundfire Books
ISBN: 978-1785357848
Release Date: July 27, 2018

Jane Smiley (author of Private Life and Some Luck) said that “in our dangerous world, the freedom and empathy that fiction develops in its remains essential.” She was defining how fiction has the power to show us not only human truth, but to make us feel the power of that truth. And she goes on to explain that “reading fiction is and always was about learning to see the world through often quite alien perspectives.” And that brings us to Omer’s Entangled Lives. A novel that shows the interconnections between a journalist, a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan, and the lives that are tangled between these two main protagonists.

In the slums of Pakistan, Rasa is a poor orphan who grows up in a strict and confining madrassah. There he meets and falls in love with Perveen. In their desperation for change and a life together, they decide to flee the madrassah and the city. When their dreams of escape fail, a pregnant Perveen is sent home while Raza is sent to Afghanistan to fight as a Taliban solider.  Just before he leaves to fight across the border, he learns who his mother is, and why she had to give him up. Knowing his past, he has to survive his life in Afghanistan and return to Perveen and his child.

On the other side of the world, a journalist named Rachael Brown travels to Afghanistan to to report on the political unrest and the coming civil war. She meets Raza for a brief interview and realizes that the Taliban has filled its ranks with poor, desperate young men with no future. Through the unfolding war, these two unlikely strangers meet in an epic meeting of fate. The result is how two people from the most unlikely places can change the course of life. In a time of labels, stereotypes, and socio-politic polarization, this novel brings to focus the complexity and dynamics watching your life change in the currents of political and social change.

Novels are meant to connect more than just a telling of events, they are designed to immerse the reader into something more, to draw out empathy, character, and truth in terms of universal qualities. Jane Smiley explains it as the “reading fiction is and always was a practice in empathy” which cuts down those stereotypes, that changes are vision of the world, and shows us the universal struggles that is so easy to cast off, turn into a sound byte, or shape into political divisions. Entangled Lives is a connective novel that shifts views and shows the intersection of two worlds in face of the darkest moments in our lives. Set in the Middle East and focused about two unlikely people in the face of great odds, this novel compares to The Kite Runner and Girls of Riyadh.

Monday, March 5, 2018

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Losing the Girl: Life on Earth Book 1

Mari Naomi 
Graphic Universe 
Pub Date: Jan 1, 2018
ISBN 978-1541510449
280 Pages 
Available Now

Claudia is missing. While they wait to find out what happened (runaway, hiding, alien abduction), her friends from Blithedale High are carrying on with their teenage lives. While they struggle with love, belonging, failure, and complicated family life, these four teenagers constantly wonder why their lives are so confusing. Eisner-nominated MariNaomi has created earnest characters who face the reality of the teenage years. Emily is trying to handle surprising changes in her life, Paula is looking

The Storm

Arif Anwar
Release Date: 
Atria Books
ISBN 978-1501174506
May 2018

In this stunning debut novel, Arif Anwar weaves a complex threaded story that weaves mystery, difficult choices, and the fate of history into an epic story of three generations of Bangladeshi history. The book opens with Shahryar, a graduate student earning his Ph.D faces deportation as his visa is soon to expire leaving his daughter and ex-wife behind. He begins to ruminate on his childhood on the shores of the Bay of Bengal and begins to weave his woven fate with a historical storm and flood. This novel moves and shifts along historical moments and connections with the past and the future where honor, sacrifice, and betrayal fight history as it rushes forward. The stories include a British field physician, a Japanese pilot, and an upper-class couple caught in the midst of the Partition of India. All these characters make decisions based on making the life better for the next generation, the survivors, the future. It is a humbling vision of our personal histories - past, present, and future. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

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Roses, Wine & Murder - In the City of Steeples

Rose Young
Release: November 2018
ASIN: B0779LZPBX
316p
Available Now 

If you’ve heard the term “cozy mystery” you know the subgenre of crime fiction downplays some of the graphic elements in crime storytelling, leaving the main story to the local hometown detectives in the story. In Roses, Wine & Murder, it wraps gardening, wine, history, and tourism into the mix in a satisfying cozy mystery that puts the vineyards of southern New England into the spotlight. This debut novel is a fast-paced mystery that connects gardening, wine, and suspense into a book that would intrigue a mystery reader, but also draws in someone who has traveled through the wine tours of the North Fork of Long Island and the eastern coast of Connecticut.

Roxanne Samson is a sensible protagonist who stumbles across a dead body as she works on one of her community gardening sites. This wealthy, dead, wine connoisseur is not only connected to the local wine bistro nearby, but also to some sinister plot. 

As Roxanne shadows the police, she meets some of the locals and tries to help draw out the killer. Everyone is a suspect, from the local bistro owner to the grieving North Folk window. Each turn and twist uncovers a small piece of the complex and dark plot. The cunning manipulator is always one step ahead of the local detectives. Finally, it is up to Roxanne and her friends to close in on him once and for all. Filled with gardening insight, wine pairings, and history, this mystery carries our sanguine protagonist, the wine bistro owner and the rest of the cast on the hunt for the mystery man and his purpose in the otherwise quiet City of Steeples. Rose Young’s debut novel is inspired by her love of history and professional work in her own landscape and garden design firm.






Monday, February 12, 2018

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The Bridge: How the Roeblings Connected Brooklyn to New York

Peter Tomasi (author) Sara DuVall (Illustrator)
Abrams ComicArts
Pub Date: April 2018
ISBN: 978-1419728525
208 Pages

At a glance, we can look at buildings, memorials, and landmarks and immediately sense their place in the world. In this stunning graphic novel, The Bridge tells the story of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge through the family that made it all possible. Originally designed by John Augustus Roeblings, the Brooklyn Bridge became more than just one man’s obsession, but a family quest to see it through in a monumental vision of the impossible. In fact, it was John Roeblings son Washington who came back from the Civil War to take up this colossal municipal project. After working on the caissons and suffering from what would eventually be termed “Caisson Disease”, Washington Roeblings was bedridden with his chronic condition. Not to be defeated, he explained everything to his wife Emily who went to the site, supervised the construction, contractors, shifty politicians, and carried the weight of all those naysayers as they pushed to finish the project.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

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Gods of Howl Mountain

Taylor Brown
St. Martin's Press
Pub Date: March 20, 2018
ISBN 978-1250111777
p304
Available Now 

When it comes to protagonists, Taylor Brown has changed that paradigm in his novel Gods of Howl Mountain. Rory Docherty is a wounded Korean veteran, back home to bootleg liquor, clash with local factions, evade the law, and appease all his family. He is a gritty car guy who knows the long history of the mountain and the mill town at the bottom of the valley. While Rory is a cut-throat stock car racer and bootlegger, he also knows the mountain and people. A novel as much about place and time as it is story and conflict. 

Rory has returned with a missing leg. Living with his grandmother, in the mountains, they live among the herbal remedies and folklore that haunts the misty mountains. When Rory falls in love with the daughter of a snake-handling preacher, their world is pulled apart by violence, rivalries, love, and ghosts from the past.

Thinking that some evil has invaded Rory's heart, Granny May keeps her shotgun close and her distrust closer. She is mystical in her mountain herbal remedies and her shotgun judgments of the world. Her life as a matriarch and medicine woman draws people to her who want different cures for what ails their lives in town. She also is the link between Rory and the mother he never knew. 

Taylor Brown's prose is as mystical and lyrical as the ghosts high in the mountains. It is not always a beautiful place, but the mountain, the people, and the hard lives all resonant with a profound beauty that shifts from grace and wisdom to deceit and violence. Brown has masterfully crafted this world, grounding in the reader a sense of place and time in America, now long gone. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

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Paris in the Present Tense

Mark Helprin
Overlook Press / 2017
  • ISBN: 978-1468314762
400 Pages
Available

It has been awhile since a novel has changed the way I think about the novel. But Paris in the Present Tense is a lyrical novel that has empowered my faith in the contemporary novel. Let's face it, it has been awhile since A Winter's Tale, when we first fell into the world of Helprin's prose and imagination, and while this book isn't as mystical, it is formidable in his prose and his storytelling.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

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ActivAmerica


Meagan Cass
University of North Texas Press / 2017
Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction
ISBN 978-1574416947 / Paper / 192 Pages
Available 

ActivAmerica is a collection of short stories drawn from America's obsession with fitness, sports, and how we re-envision ourselves through sports. If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, you are probably wrong. This book is a dynamic, funny, ironic, brilliant, and often biting commentary on how we live our lives through the perception of sports. This collection tackles more than just the concept of sports but reframes the American dream in tangents and connections that often feels at once hilarious and so ironic 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

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The Mezzogiorno Social Club


Ercole Gaudioso
Guernica Editions / 2017
ISBN 978-1-77183-165-9 
Paperback/ 290 Pages
Available Now 

It should be said, right off the bat that this is a story of cops and mobsters. Crafted with characters that wear the dust and the crime on their clothes, The Mezzogiorno Social Club is a sweeping novel that carries the weight of tradition, generations, and a code of living divided by a thin line between crime and the cops who keep the peace. 


Thursday, October 12, 2017

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The Old Man and the Sand Eel

Will Millard 
Penguin Books / 2018
ASIN: B06Y62BYKZ
336 Pages
Available Now 

Fishing in simplest terms is an obsession. It is a complicated and often fluid set of skills that depend on season, weather, location, bait, technique and hundreds of other possibilities. Then there is the adrenaline rush of hooking into a fish and the battle that ensues. It is all here in Will Millard's The Old Man and the Sand Eel. Yet, this book is about something more complicated and visionary. It is about what drives and shapes this obsession to fish. And while his adventures hooking fish are exciting to follow, there is more to this book than a guided tour.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

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Black Obelisk - Classic (1923)

Erich Maria Remarque
Ballantine Books (1998)
448p. / Paperback
ISBN 0449912442
Available Now 

This classic by the author of All Quiet on the Western Front follows the post-World War I life of a returning soldier, poet, and monument seller who sees his country on the edge of change. And while inflation and a country slipping into uncertainty, it is the writing of the local people, the conversations, and the disconnect of modernism that creates this often beautiful, sad, and complex novel.

When you think of modernism in literature, it comes with a sense of change and disconnection. Think of books like Kafka's The Metamorphosis, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf's stream of consciousness writing, and the social and political uncertainty that came with devastating war, an economic depression. It is from these roots that this book carries the ideas of war and loss into a life still waiting to happen.

At times, The Black Obelisk is very pertinent and funny. At times, it feels like an old song that makes you feel sad. While managing the office at the tombstone office, this twenty-something veteran soldier also makes some extra money playing the organ at the chapel in the insane asylum. There he has fallen for one of the patients, a woman that he can't define in conventional terms. This shifting and the changing relationship is often delicate and beautiful while being frustrating and desperate all at the same time. This story thread is one of the most striking modernist ideas, showing the uncertainty of the times.

This book has been criticized for not having a defined plot, but this isn't a story of what happened next, but a story of immersion. Through this sense of moving around his social circles, we see the emergence of nationalism (that would eventually draw in Hitler), we see an economic system on the brink of failure. And men who continue to game the system and try to get out ahead. 

There is no better novel that fits the ideals of modernism than The Black Obelisk, giving the reader a sense of desperation, beauty, and humor in the face of a crushing history that we all know well. Read this book and then share with someone who likes reading novels. They will also fall headlong into this town, and fall into the desperation that life is merely what we make it, even when it changes before it turns into something tangible. Remarque writes, "But probably that's the way of the world -when we finally learned something we're too old to apply it - and so it goes, wave after wave, generation after generation. No one learns anything at all from anyone else." 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

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Body Politic

Rich Murphy 
Prolific Press Inc. / 2016 
ISBN: 978-1632750846


Language and politics have a symbiotic relationship in strange and creative ways. George Orwell knew this when he wrote about the language of politics and what that language does for our society. In Orwell's Politics and the English Language, he spoke about dead metaphors, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. The obfuscation of the real meaning and intention of politic actions are deliberately intertwined in language meant to confuse or misdirect. There was a time when I thought George W. Bush had an issue with language, and then came the Trump leadership with Tweets and strange jargon that means nothing from the leadership. Orwell mentions in his treatise that meaningless words are confusing and dangerous and "words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows the hearer to think it means something quite different." And he goes on to give the example of, "Marshal Petain was true patriot." Sounds like rhetoric I heard last month.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

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A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing

Tim Weed
Green Writers Press. 2017. 
978-0-9974528-7-7 ($24.95) 
Hardcover. 

Diving into this collection of short stories by writer and travel expert Tim Weed, you might want to pack your bags and roam the continent in search of great harrowing adventures. And in some ways, this collection delivers on that. But embedded in these narratives, is a deeper longing, a desperate, and sometimes frustrating relationship, between his protagonist’s fraught desires, fears, and dreams. The depth of emotions reveal subtle, dynamic, and often stunning revelations.  

In stories like “Tower Eight,” “Mouth of the Tropics,” “Diamondback Mountain,” and “Keepers,” Weed moves the physical world to the forefront where nature, mountains, fish, weather conditions, and the reality of nature itself become antagonistic. These stories echo the Hemingway tradition of fronting raw power and natural uncertainty as a means to test a character's fate. This can end in a lesson learned or life lost. But his complexity is not limited to this “surviving nature” theme.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Kindred

Octavia Butler 
Damian Duffy (illustrator)
Abrams ComicArts (1/17) 
ASIN: B01IDGS7BQ
pp. 248


Creating a graphic novel experience is often a balance between images (graphic) and the novel (the story) and how they work together. Adapted to the graphic novel by John Jennings (illustrator) and Damien Duffy (editor), this complex piece of speculative history is constantly serving uncertainty and twists on every page. The story takes a writer from the 1970's who is inexplicably pulled back in time to save a child. The white child named Rufus is somehow connected to her. When she returns to the 1970's she realizes that she has only been gone a short time. As she continues to be pulled back to Rufus and his life, she realizes that she is being drawn back to a southern plantation where slaves are used to managing the house and tend the crops. Dana (and eventually her husband Kevin, a white man) must find their way in this oppressive and complicated past.