Thursday, September 20, 2012

20th Century Boys

Naoki Urasawa
Viz, 2009, 210 pp., $12.99
ISBN: 978-1-59116-922-2 

I'm a huge fan of comic books and graphic novels, but I have considerably less experience reading manga, the Japanese equivalent of comics.  I'm not sure why that's the case, though I attribute it in part to the fact that I grew up in the days before Pokémon and anime took hold of American popular culture.  I'm also intimidated by the never-ending array of manga titles that line bookstore shelves and make it difficult for a novice to know where to begin.  In the past, students I've taught have attempted to turn me on to manga by pointing me in the direction of popular series such as Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, and Rurouni Kenshin, but none of them have ever appealed to me.  Two years ago, however, while reading the local newspaper, I came across a review of Naoki Urasawa's Pluto, and I was sufficiently intrigued to purchase the first book in the eight-volume set.  I was immediately hooked, and finished the series in less than a week. 

This past spring, struggling to find a new graphic novel I could read, I asked a clerk at my local comic book store what he'd recommend.  Knowing that I'd enjoyed Pluto, he asked whether I was familiar with 20th Century Boys, another series by Urasawa.  I told him I wasn't, and he went on to tell me that it was popular with local high school students, so much so that the store struggled to keep the books on its shelves.  Given my interest in literature for teenagers, his recommendation struck me as serendipitous, and I purchased the first volume in the series.  Since then I've read the next twelve books, and I'm once again drawn into the visually rich world Urasawa constructs.  

Condensing a narrative that spans some twenty volumes is no small chore, and what follows cannot possibly begin to capture the complexity of Urasawa's story.  The plot of 20th Century Boys shifts between three time periods.  In one of the earliest scenes, set at the United Nations headquarters in the twenty-first century, the world's leaders have convened to honor a group of individuals credited with having rescued humanity from the brink of annihilation.  Just before their identities are revealed, however, the narrative shifts to Tokyo in the late 1990s, and readers are introduced to Kenji, a young man in his thirties who, despite having dreamed of greatness as a child, has settled for running his parents' liquor store, which he converted into a mini-mart, and raising his missing sister's child.  Though some of his childhood friends moved away, others remain in the city, settling, like Kenji, for a comfortable, albeit monotonous, middle class existence.  

Against this background we learn that a cult founded and led by a mysterious figure known only as "the Friend" has grown prominent in Japan, attracting a considerable following and exercising power in both social and political circles.  Indeed, the organization plans to extend the scope of its reach by enacting a carefully orchestrated sequence of attacks designed to culminate in the release of a deadly virus on New Year's Eve 2000, sparking mass panic and causing a global contagion that it alone has the power to halt. 

A third timeline finds Kenji and his friends as children in the late 1960s.  While on summer vacation, they construct a grass fortress where they pass time reading manga and playing games.  To entertain themselves, they also co-author a story, the Book of Prophecy, which positions them as heroes battling a band of villains bent on achieving world domination.  Only the group's innermost members are familiar with the Book of Prophecy, and they later bury it in a time capsule. As adults, Kenji and his friends recognize that the events surrounding the Friend's rise to power bear a distinct resemblance to the stories they told one another as children, and they conclude that the cult's leader must have been an acquaintance in their youth.  The remainder of the series alternates between these time periods as the protagonists fight to reveal the Friend's true identify and thwart his plans to destroy the world. 

In preparing to write this review, I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about what it is that attracts me to Urasawa's work.  As I mentioned earlier, I don't customarily read manga, though I have a great deal of respect for much of the work coming out of Japan today.  Likewise, I'm not particularly drawn to futuristic stories about the perils of abusing technology, though I do enjoy a good science fiction story on occasion.  In the end, I think my affinity for Urasawa's work stems largely from his ability to craft visually rich, compelling narratives that revolve around complex, well-developed characters.  A master storyteller, Urasawa appreciates the importance of revealing background information gradually, the result of which allows him to draw a story out while offering readers an impetus to continue reading for answers.  Equally important, he has a Hitchockian flare for building and maintaining suspense in a story, something he accomplishes through the use of well conceived page breakdowns which allow him to control the tempo of his narratives.  Most importantly, his characters ring true, no matter how unbelievable the scenes in which they find themselves. They are psychologically complex, multidimensional figures, and I invariably find them human, a result, perhaps, of the fact that Urasawa has the luxury of developing their personae over an extended period of time.  Heroes and villains alike are imperfect, and their motivations for behaving in particular ways are never easily explained.  A scientist driven by a desire to prevent disease and suffering unwittingly plays a role in developing a virus that is later used to annihilate thousands of people.  Another character, lonely and taken in by a charlatan, recognizes his culpability in abetting a series of crimes only after it is too late, and attempts to redeem himself by betraying the very figure to whom he'd pledged his allegiance.  A strong willed teenage girl, driven by the loss of her mother and uncle, risks being consumed by the fires of revenge to hold those responsible for their deaths accountable.  These emphatic characters are made all the more so because of their imperfections.

The downside to reading manga, of course, is that stories are played out over several volumes, which can make seeing a series through from beginning to end a pricey undertaking.  That said, for readers who enjoy a good thriller, 20th Century Boys is well worth the investment.  A gripping action- and suspense-filled story, it is, like Urasawa’s other work, highly entertaining and fun to read.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Gardener

S. A. Bodeen
Square Fish, 2010, 233 pp., $8.99
ISBN: 978-0-312-65942-4

Even if they're consigned to a place in the background, references to global warming and climate change are becoming more common in literature for teenagers today.  In Suzanne Collins' popular Hunger Games series, readers learn that a series of environmental catastrophes-- including fires, natural disasters, and rising seas--contributed to the collapse of society and paved the way for a totalitarian state to rise to power in what was once North America.  In M. T. Andersen's novel Feed, the world's oceans are polluted to the point that people wear biohazard outfits before even approaching them.  Jamie Bastedo's On Thin Ice explores the impact that rising temperatures have on a small Inuit community struggling to preserve its cultural practices and traditions in the Arctic, while a companion novel, Sila's Revenge, asks how, as humans, we can ever begin to tackle a problem as immense as global warming without succumbing to despair.  

S. A. Bodeen's The Gardener, a work of young adult science fiction, is also concerned with issues of sustainability--specifically, the impending threat that global warming and overpopulation pose to the world's food supply.  A sophomore in high school, Mason lives with his single mother.  He never knew his father, and the only memento he has of the man is a video he made of himself reading a children's story, The Runaway Bunny, aloud.  Unfortunately, a problem with the positioning of the camera obstructed his father's face, leaving Mason to imagine what the man might have been like.

A talented science student, Mason dreams of attending Stanford, but he recognizes that his mother's limited income is unlikely to cover the cost of tuition.  His hopes are buoyed, however, when he learns about a college scholarship he would be eligible for were he to participate in a summer program sponsored by TroDyn, a local bioengineering corporation committed to resolving problems posed by global warming.  Yet for reasons she won't disclose, Mason's mother forbids him to have anything to do with TroDyn.  Concerned that he might disobey her, she tells Mason that she intends to cover the cost of his college education by dipping into a fund that has secretly been maintained for him over the years. 

Curious to know whether she is telling the truth, Mason breaks into his mother's file cabinet and discovers that, in her youth, she was a talented scientist who worked for TroDyn.  Furious that she withheld this information from him, he drives to the nursing home where his mother works to confront her.  When he breaches security and accesses her floor, however, he is surprised to find that, rather than caring for elderly patients, his mother is in fact responsible for tending to a small group of teenagers said to have suffered brain damage as a result of their involvement in accidents.  When he inadvertently causes one of the teenagers, a beautiful girl, to regain consciousness, she begs him to help her escape before an ominous figure known only as the Gardener can find her.  Mason agrees to do so, and while on the run he learns that the girl was part of a clandestine program run at TroDyn to alter the genetic makeup of children and create a race of humans that wouldn't require access to food or water and which, as a result, could withstand a total collapse of the world's food supply.  When Mason learns that the girl is unable to sustain herself apart from her peers, he is left with no alternative but to return her to TroDyn before she dies.  His decision to do so results in his coming face-to-face with the Gardener, and he is forced to confront a series of long-buried truths about both his and his mother's past. 

I wanted to like this novel.  The issues it addresses are timely and important, and its central conceit--namely, that an over zealous group of scientists, driven by a utilitarian philosophy, might resort to genetic engineering to increase the likelihood of the human race's surviving an unprecedented environmental catastrophe—is intriguing.  Unfortunately, the story is marred by a series of flaws, not least of which is a maddening tendency on the part of the author to abandon narrative threads shortly after introducing them.  A shadowy figure presumably tied to TroDyn pursues Mason after he absconds with the girl from the nursing home, for example, yet the character inexplicably vanishes approximately half-way through the novel never to be heard from again.  There are also contradictions in the internal logic of the narrative.  Though the girl Mason rescues is clearly terrified of the Gardener, the latter character is ultimately revealed to be a well intentioned--albeit misguided--individual with whom readers are expected to empathize.  Likewise, though every sign suggests that TroDyn--which imposes its will on children by altering their genetic makeup, a procedure that calls to mind experiments conducted by Nazi scientists during World War II--should be read as a poster child for arrogant, profit driven corporations run amuck, it somehow manages to emerge as a sympathetic character in the novel, and readers are invited to view its motives as--if not noble--at least understandable.  Most irksome, however, is Bodeen's decision to assign a happy ending to a story for which there can't logically be one.  Mason might have developed feelings for the girl he rescued, but the likelihood of their finding a way to be together pushes the limits of credulity, as do many other aspects of this story.  Collectively, these and other issues interfere with the narrative’s cohesiveness, which is unfortunate considering that the issues Bodeen set out to address warrant serious consideration in a culture seemingly bent on destroying itself through unchecked consumption.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Can Novels Shape World Events? Can They Shape You?

In the video above, Jessica Wise answers the question posed in the title of this post in the affirmative.  In doing so she states:
"When we pick up a book...we're carried away down the currents of story into a world of imagination, and when we land on a shore that is both new and familiar, something strange happens.  Stepping onto the shore we're changed."
Reading Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War had a profound influence on my teenage self.  Without question, I'd identify it as a book that shaped the way I thought about the world and my place in it.  I'd put Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King on that list as well.  Are there books--young adult or otherwise--that changed the way you think about the world?  Can you point to specific books that shaped or challenged your own philosophy, and in doing so changed you?  How specifically did they do so?  Feel free to share your stories using the comment feature below.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Full Tilt

Neal Shusterman
Simon Pulse, 2003, 201 pp., $6.99
ISBN: 978-0-689-80374

--> I should begin by acknowledging that I'm drawn to novels that explore "big" questions: what's my place in the universe?  Why is there suffering in the world?  Can we ever truly know others?  I find that books of this sort stretch me philosophically and leave me thinking long after I've put them away. I should also add that, in the past few months, I've developed a predilection for horror stories.  Put the two together and it's not surprising that I enjoyed Neal Shusterman's Full Tilt, a chilling tale about a teenage boy whose retreat into the recesses of his own mind results in his confronting his deepest fear.   
Sixteen-year-old Blake's home life is anything but stable. His father walked out on his family years ago; his mother, having gone through countless boyfriends, is engaged yet again; and Quinn, his younger brother, masks his feelings of alienation and betrayal beneath piercings and defiant behavior. Comparatively, Blake's life is neatly ordered. A conscientious student, he graduated from high school a year early and earned a full scholarship to Columbia University in New York City.  He doesn't speed or take risks, and his friends turn to him for advice when they need it. Appearances are deceiving, however, and readers learn that, at his core, Blake is wrestling with his own demons, the most terrible of which is the guilt he feels for having survived a horrific accident when he was a child.  For years he's managed to suppress that memory, along with the emotions it evokes for him, but a visit with friends to a theme park one evening toward the end of summer unexpectedly brings the past to the surface.

While on the midway, Blake meets Cassandra, an alluring carnival worker with red hair, icy blue eyes, and an aura of mystery about her.  When he wins the game she is working, Cassandra awards him a prize: a ratty looking, disheveled stuffed bear.  Examining his prize more closely, Blake discovers a plain white card with an address and an otherwise ambiguous invitation to ride from midnight to dawn. When he turns to Cassandra for an explanation, however, she has vanished.  Never one to take risks, Blake returns home, but his brother, eager for adventure and angered by the news of his mother's engagement, takes the card for himself and soon after slips into a coma.  Staring into Quinn's eyes as a team of paramedics work frantically to save him, Blake is convinced that he sees the reflection of glimmering carnival lights.  Desperate to bring his brother back, he and his friends drive to the address printed on the card where they are surprised to discover a ghostly carnival rising out of the swirling mists of an abandoned quarry. When they enter the carnival, a ticket agent informs them that in order to leave they must finish seven rides before dawn.  These are no ordinary rides, however.  Instead, they are designed to probe the darkest corners of a person's mind and target their deepest fears, setting Blake on a collision course with his past, and raising the question of whether he can survive the night--mentally or physically.

Full Tilt is one part psychological thriller and one part horror story, a combination that is seemingly rare in literature for teenagers, but which is all the more enjoyable for being so.  Despite its strengths, the story is flawed at times by imperfect logic.  How, for example, is Quinn able to lose himself in the phantom carnival without leaving home, while Blake and his friends must physically visit the site to rescue him?  Still, there is a rich payoff for readers who are willing to suspend disbelief and enter the world of the story. Shusterman does a fine job of building and maintaining suspense throughout the novel, making it difficult to put the book down.  Likewise, he constructs sympathetic characters made all the more so by their flaws.  Trapped in a realm of nightmares, each of the characters is forced to look inward, and at least one is shattered by what he discovers in himself over the course of the night. 

Despite its focus on the supernatural, Full Tilt explores a number of complex themes, not the least of which is the individual's struggle to find order and meaning in a universe that is, if not hostile, at least ambivalent to both.  Over the course of the story Cassandra emerges as a metaphor for the chaos that underlies the inexplicable horrors we confront as humans--plane crashes, natural disasters, children struck down by disease. We inhabit a world, Shusterman seems to argue, governed by chance.  It is a world in which bad things happen without explanation, and those who try to make sense of them, or who search for some sort of deeper meaning, are destined to be frustrated.  Having survived one accident, Blake longs to forgo suffering, which leads him to avoid taking risks. His bedroom is adorned with posters of places he longs to visit, but doubts he ever will.  He appreciates model airplanes, but is nervous about the prospect of flying when he leaves for college.  He explains:
To be completely helpless in the face of life--powerless to do a thing--that's what I'd always feared more than anything.  It was like I'd been keeping all the edges of my life neat and clean, pretending the neatness was all that mattered, pretending life could somehow be controlled. (pp. 108-109)  
This is, of course, an impossibility, and, as he progresses through the carnivalesque landscape of horrors Cassandra has arranged for him, Blake is brought to the realization that living necessarily entails suffering.  The alternative--locking oneself away to minimize hurt and sorrow--is even less desirable, as it amounts to little more than squandering away one's life. True courage, Blake discovers, is the ability to continue living, even in the face of the absurd. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Chronic Reader 2.0

After an unexpectedly long hiatus, I'm finally ready to re-launch The Chronic Reader.  Perhaps I should call it The Chronic Reader 2.0, as I plan to unveil several new changes in the weeks to come. 

It's been awhile since I last updated the site, though I've continued reading young adult novels and graphic novels.  Unfortunately, the demands of writing for publication and work can make finding time to review books difficult.  My other responsibilities haven't exactly gone away, but I think I've managed to arrange my schedule in a way that will allow me to resume writing about literature for teens, which is what I enjoy.  In the weeks to come I also plan to solicit reviews from other contributors, which should increase the overall output on the site. Alas, there are just too many good books for one person to read, though I'm willing to try.

As always, you're welcome (and encouraged) to comment on any content you encounter on this site.  If nothing else, it's reassuring to know that someone in the great beyond is spending time on it.  And now, let the reviews begin.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Code Talker

Joseph Bruchac
Speak, 2005, 231 pp., $7.99
ISBN: 0-14-240596-5

Forced to leave home and attend a government-run boarding school for Navajo children, Ned Begay confronts prejudice for the first time in his young life. Shortly after arriving at the school, he and his classmates are made to cut their hair and exchange their traditional clothing for a standard school uniform. Even more, they are forbidden to use their native language, a punishable offense for which a student might be beaten, or have his mouth washed with soap. During the time Ned spends at the school he excels as a student, and earns praise from his teachers, who regard his work as rivaling that of an "average white student". Yet while Ned appears to constitute a model case of assimilation on the surface, he continues to speak Navajo with other students, albeit in secret, a result of his desire to preserve his identify, as well as his ties to his culture and family.

Although he is given an opportunity to continue his studies at the high school level, a rarity for Native American children, World War II disrupts Ned's education. Upon turning sixteen, he, like other Navajo men, enlists in the Marine Corps, where he is surprised to discover that the very government that once sought to exterminate his language has now recognized value in it. Faced with a need to send and receive commands in the field, and knowing that Japanese interpreters were likely to be monitoring the airwaves, the military recruits bilingual Navajos and entrusts them with the responsibility of using their native language to develop an impenetrable code. They do so, and play an integral role in contributing to the success the military experiences in the Pacific Theater. Indeed, the code talkers were active in several key battles, including those that took place at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Yet because the role they played in the war remains classified as top secret, they are prohibited from talking about their contributions for nearly thirty years. Moreover, upon returning home, they discover that while they have the opportunity to pursue an education under the G.I. Bill, they were not allowed to build or buy homes, a privilege that was extended to white soldiers. Nor was this the only injustice done them. As Ned explains:

As far as I know, not one Navajo code talker was ever raised above the rank of corporal, just as none of us were ever given any kind of official recognition or honor from the time we enlisted until the surrender of Japan. In fact, most of us never even got to wear one of those dress blue uniforms like that first one I saw on the Marine Corps recruitment poster. We were kept invisible. It was partially because our duty was kept such a secret from so many. But I think it was also because we were Indians in what was still, even in the Marines, a white man's world. It was easy to forget Indians. (p. 87)
In the late 1990s I had the opportunity to teach at a high school in Tuba City, a small town located on the Western Navajo Reservation. Driving home after work each evening, I passed a billboard for a Navajo Code Talker exhibit. Intrigued by an aspect of American history about which I knew very little, and which had never been addressed in the high school history classes that I took, I decided to visit the exhibit one weekend. After driving for approximately one hour I pulled off the highway in Kayenta and into a parking lot for a Burger King restaurant. Needless to say, I was surprised to discover that the exhibit, which consisted of various items soldiers brought home following the war, was housed inside a small display case located inside the restaurant. I recall thinking that this was an apt metaphor for a culture that has, as Bruchac's narrator suggests, remained largely invisible to white Americans. For that reason alone Code Talker, which, along with Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, represents of the few young adult novels I know of that gives voice to a Native American protagonist, and which is also written by a Native American author, is important.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sila's Revenge

Jamie Bastedo
Red Deer Press, 2010, 320 pp., $14.95
ISBN: 978-0-8899-5422-9

I begin this review with a disclaimer: I am an avowed environmentalist, and global warming is an issue that concerns me--quite deeply, in fact. I share this information because I want to acknowledge, up front, that I am predisposed to be moved by a novel that takes as its subject the issue of climate change. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sila's Revenge, which to the best of my knowledge represents one of the few young adult novels to have tackled the subject of global warming. Jamie Bastedo blends science and fiction to weave a compelling story that is hard to put down.

The novel opens with an act of vandalism: eighteen-year-old Ashley Anowiak, frustrated by the toll climate change has taken on her small Inuit community, sets fire to a trailer owned by Empire Oil. Although she initially finds satisfaction in watching the structure burn, the act does little to quell her anger. Days later Ashley is struck by lightening, a phenomenon seldom observed in the Arctic prior to climate change, and one that results in her having a vision of her great-grandmother, an individual who is said to have formed an intimate bond with the natural world. When Ashley regains consciousness she discovers that the accident has left her with the ability to hear plants and animals, which tell her of the planet's suffering.

Having been invited to play at Carnegie Hall, Ashley and the other members of her drumming group travel to New York City after she recovers, where they are introduced to Jack Masters, a wealthy executive for Empire Oil, and a figure responsible for assembling a conference on global warming at the United Nations. Interested in Ashley for reasons she does not entirely comprehend, but which are made clear by the novel's conclusion, Masters asks her to speak at the conference, and later invites her and her friends to perform at a massive concert he plans to hold in Australia, his native home, in order to direct attention to the earth's plight. All is not what it seems, however, and Ashley gradually learns that Masters is a fanatical environmentalist whose decision to work for Empire Oil was motivated by his desire to combat reliance on fossil fuels from the inside while at the same time using his position of power and privilege to promote alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power. Unable to bring about the kind of change he envisioned, Masters has long since abandoned his idealism. Indeed, he has decided that the only way to rescue the ailing planet is to trigger a catastrophe designed to reduce the human population.

Sila's Revenge is a well-crafted work of science fiction that raises a number of difficult questions, both about global warming and our response (or lack thereof) to it. If the novel has a flaw, it's that supporting characters remain largely underdeveloped. Nevertheless, Ashley and Masters are complex, compelling figures. Though he is ostensibly the novel's villain, Masters is ultimately a sympathetic figure, not least because readers recognize that his cynicism is motivated in part by his inability to save something he cares deeply about. Consumed by a live feed that delivers non-stop updates regarding natural catastrophes around the globe, Masters has long since abandoned hope, and his only remaining response is to lash out at the world in anger. In that regard he is not unlike Ashley, whose decision to burn a trailer owned by Empire Oil was motivated by a similar desire for revenge, and who sees in Masters her potential future self.

In contrast, a small group of Aboriginals who befriend Ashley during her time in Australia, including Master's wife, her brother, and her nephew, serve as symbols of hope in the novel. Like Masters, they also are concerned about the earth's suffering, yet wher
eas he resigned himself to despair, they cling to the belief that salvation is possible if people confront the problem facing them. Her relationship with them in turn leads Ashley to face a self-defining question: is she content to be a destroyer, or will she instead choose to become a creator? At the novel's conclusion, she decides that she would rather solve problems than give in to despair. The resulting message is not lost on readers--like Ashley, we, too, have the potential to act as agents for change. The question is whether or not we are willing to do so.

One of the reasons Bastedo's novel resonated so strongly with me is because I understand the anger that Ashley and-- to a lesser extent--Masters feel. Like the feed Masters follows throughout the novel, the media bombards us with information about catastrophes, natural and man-made alike, and we repeatedly hear dire warnings from scientists who caution about the perils of allowing global warming to go unchecked. Despite this, governments refuse to act, and public opinion polls show that a growing percentage of Americans are less concerned about the problem of global warming than they were two years ago. Faced with this reality, it is easy to grow angry, throw one's hands in the air, and give in to despair. It's much more difficult to find the strength needed to fight for change, which is precisely why the message that Bastedo delivers in his novel is both timely and important.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean

Sarah Stewart Taylor & Ben Towle
Disney Hyperion Books, 2010, pp.80, $17.99
ISBN: 978-1-4231-1337-9
Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean represents the most recent title in a series of non-fiction graphic narratives produced by The Center for Cartoon Studies and published by Disney Hyperion Books. Written by Sarah Stewart and drawn by Ben Towle, the book celebrates Earhart's landmark flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928.

Set in Trepassey, a small fishing village on the coast of Newfoundland, the story is told from the viewpoint of Grace, a young girl who serves as the narrator, and aspires to become a newspaper reporter at a time when men dominate the industry. Writing for a newspaper she self-publishes, Grace documents Earhart's struggle to become the first female passenger to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. When inclement weather and a run of bad luck conspire to prevent Earhart and her pilot, Bill Stultz, from leaving Trepassey, tensions mount. Faced with the distinct possibility that her competitors will complete the trip before her, Amelia races against the clock, and bravely confronts the perils that await her in her quest to make history. In the process of doing so she inspires Grace to pursue her own dreams in spite of the obstacles she faces as a female in a patriarchal society. Indeed, the story culminates with a moving scene in which an older Grace, who still dreams of becoming a reporter for a city newspaper, discovers that Earhart has disappeared while attempting to become the first woman to fly around the globe.

That it has taken me this long to review a graphic narrative is surprising, especially considering the frequency with which I read them for pleasure. I've read and enjoyed other titles in The Center for Cartoon Studies series, including a thoughtful and entertaining story about Harry Houdini by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi. As such I approached this book, which focuses on a compelling figure whose mysterious death has always intrigued me, with considerable anticipation. Unfortunately, the book fell short of my expectations. Towle's artwork, which effectively pairs black and white drawings with turquoise backgrounds, is attractive and captures both the look and the feel of a seaside village in the early twentieth century. Moreover, his simple drawing style is endearing. The story, however, is less well conceived, and though it aims to explore a pivotal moment in Earhart's voyage--namely, the days and nights that precipitated her transatlantic flight and her subsequent rise to fame--the book seldom explores its subject in any degree of depth or detail. To be sure, there are touching moments that standout for their elegance, including one in which Earhart, having walked to the edge of a cliff, silently contemplates the hull of a wrecked ship, a recurring motif that serves to remind her (and readers) of the very real dangers that await her, while at the same time foreshadowing her death. Still, these scenes are not enough to make up for the book's shortcomings.

Given the decision to present Amelia Earhart's story in graphic format, one might expect the book to have accomplished something a traditional text could not. Unfortunately, this isn't the case, and while I would recommend other titles in "The Center for Cartoon Studies Presents" series, I was not particularly impressed with this one. That's not to say that Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean is without merit. As I suggested, it is visually attractive, and it will likely appeal to younger audiences interested in learning more about Earhart. Moreover, the story focuses on a strong female figure, and as such it offers adolescent girls a positive role model, a fact that Eileen Collins, the first female astronaut to pilot the Space Shuttle, acknowledges in the introduction she wrote for the book. Nevertheless, readers who are interested in learning more about this compelling figure might profit from reading a more traditional work of non-fiction.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Steps Across the Water

Adam Gopnik
Disney Hyperion, 2010, 304 pp., $17.99
ISBN: 978-1-4231-1213-6

The adopted child of a couple in New York City, Rose loves her parents and her older brother, but resents the fact that they regard her as the "baby" of the family. Instead, she longs to be recognized as someone capable of affecting change. Though she has friends, she feels like an outsider, a problem that is exacerbated by a speech impediment that leads some of her classmates to ridicule her. All this changes when Louis, a diminutive ambassador from U Nork--a fantastically large city that mirrors the Big Apple, but exists in a parallel universe--visits Rose and tells her that the mayor of his city wishes to speak with her. Having crossed over to U Nork via a glass bridge that serves as a portal between the two worlds, Rose learns that the Ice Queen is bent on stealing a magnificent diamond on which U Nork rests. For a reason Rose doesn't entirely understand, the citizens of U Nork regard her as their lone hope, and assume that she knows what must be done to save their city from ruin. Of course Rose doesn't, but when she returns to New York she embarks on a quest to find the answer. Joined by a cast of eccentric characters, she discovers that a person is capable of accomplishing great things regardless of her age or stature.

The Steps Across the Water is written in the spirit of Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz. It features over-sized pigeons that serve as taxis, skyscrapers that extend thousands of stories into the sky, and a city whose architecture hearkens back to the 1920s. Yet despite its creativity, there are problems with the work. The story moves slowly for the first hundred pages or so, the result of which may dissuade younger readers--particularly those who are impatient--from staying with it. Likewise, conflicts are resolved a bit too conveniently, the result of which causes the plot to feel contrived at times. In short, while the world Gopnik creates in The Steps Across the Water is undoubtedly imaginative, the novel itself is not a particularly memorable example of fantasy literature.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Michael Thomas Ford
HarperTeen, 2010, 276 pp., $16.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-073758-0

Z, a novel by Michael Turner, takes place in 2032, approximately fifteen years after a rare strain of the flu virus inexplicably turned large numbers of humans into zombies. Equipped with flamethrowers--apparently one of the few defenses known to work against zombies--a band of fighters known as the Torchers successfully thwarted the walking dead, bringing about a close to what became known as the zombie wars. For Josh's parents, the memory of watching loved ones succumb to the disease remains all too painful. Their son, on the other hand, is too young to recall the event, and, in spite of their protests, he persists in playing a virtual-reality zombie hunting game that places him in the role of a Torcher whose job it is to burn 'meatbags'. When Josh unexpectedly discovers that Charlie, a fellow gamer with unparalleled skills, is a girl, he is mildly surprised. He is even more surprised, however, when she invites him to participate in a real-life version of the game, one that he naively assumes pits players against cybernetic zombies. As he delves more deeply into the underground gaming community into which Charlies leads him, however, Josh discovers that appearances are deceiving, and what began as a game quickly escalates into a battle between life and death.
Z marked my initial foray into the realm of zombie literature, and I felt no small degree of trepidation as I prepared to read it. I have to confess, however, that I enjoyed the book, as evidenced by my finishing it in a day. Upon reaching the end, I was disappointed to discover that there was no conclusion, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, the novel appears to constitute the first installment in what I assume will be a series. Then again, given the money authors and publishers potentially stand to make on series books, I suppose I should have expected that would be the case. While Z doesn't compare with some of the other titles I've reviewed in recent weeks, it is a fun read, and I suspect that readers who are interested in gaming and all-things zombie will enjoy it. At the very least, it offers sufficient gore to enthrall most adolescent boys.