WONDER WOMAN AT SUPER HERO HIGH

WONDER WOMAN AT SUPER HERO HIGH
Written by Lisa Yee
Published by Random House Kids

Reviewed by Marc Mason

A new series of superheroine young adult novels? An easily accessible way for the early tween set to get to know classic comic book characters? Strong characters, good role models, fun stories?

Where has the DC SUPER HERO GIRLS been all my life? I needed this for my daughter a decade ago!

wonder woman at super hero high

That said, I’m extremely pleased to see that it exists now, and the first book of the series, WONDER WOMAN AT SUPER HERO HIGH has dropped and it is a fun little tale of teem bonding, teamwork, social media, and learning how to be one’s best self, wrapped in glorious superheroic trappings.

A teenaged Wonder Woman, chomping at the bit to leave behind the Amazons and see the world, applies to Super Hero High and makes her way to a society that she does not understand and has no experience with. Here we have a Wonder Woman who is completely guileless, lacking even the basic knowledge of sarcasm as she wades into a school full of powered individuals like her. Her naiveté leads to a great deal of confusion as she navigates her new life, especially with Harley Quinn (cast as a Youtube queen here) as a roommate. And of course, traditional school cliques are in play, something else Wondy does not comprehend. What’s great about the way Lisa Yee writes it is that she manages to make Wondy’s experience universal to pretty much any kid experiencing a new school

This is a Wonder Woman who is relatable in ways we have never seen before.

Of course, you have to have genuine conflict, and there is plenty here to deal with. Jealous students trying to sabotage Wonder Woman’s success and get her expelled. A rival school of supervillains. A competition amongst schools with high stakes. All the stuff you’d want to see in this kind of story. Yee delivers in a big way as she creates this genre hybrid, truly putting together the best of both.

My one down note was that the story takes its sweet time getting moving. The first hundred pages, the pacing is slooooooooooow. But the characters are written in such a charming way that you still want to keep moving along and see where the story takes them. That’s good writing right there.

The final page ends on a “cliffhanger” though it is a harmless one. If you didn’t read the next book, you still got a complete story here. But with something this much fun, why wouldn’t you – or the tween girl in your life – want to read the next one?

9781101940594

NEW PROSE BOOKS

NEW BOOKS
Written by Various
Published by Various


Reviewed by Marc Mason

A few prose books from the major publishers have come through the inbox recently. Let’s take a look at them, shall we?

I’ve long been aware of Alexander McCall Smith’s work, but this was my first encounter with his Isabel Dalhousie series of novels. THE UNCOMMON APPEAL OF CLOUDS (Pantheon) is the ninth to feature the character, and that made me a bit nervous going into the book. However, to my surprise, McCall Smith does a fantastic job of introducing the character for new readers, setting up her life, her supporting cast, and her job in gentle, clear fashion. A philosopher by trade, she dabbles in being an amateur sleuth. In CLOUDS she is approached to help recover a stolen painting, mixing herself into the odd family dynamic of the victim. She also must deal with a number of small personal issues, as well. The prose here is absolutely lovely; McCall Smith has a gift for description that activates the senses and keeps them occupied. But the book is also rather light on actual story or plot. Nothing quite gets resolved as much as you would like it to. Perhaps that’s a nod to the open-endedness of Isabel’s chosen profession of philosopher, and if so that’s clever. That doesn’t make the ending any better or more satisfying, though.

Victoria Roberts is best known for her cartoons, as her work has been appearing in THE NEW YORKER for over twenty years. However, she branches out a bit with the illustrated novel AFTER THE FALL (W.W. Norton). The story is one of whimsy and wit; a family loses its entire fortune overnight, the next morning suddenly finding itself out of its penthouse and instead living scattered throughout Central Park, their belongings and their bodies relocated there overnight. Roberts embraces the absurdity of the instantaneous change in their lives and makes the most of it, weaving in multiple plotlines, crazier characters, and enough strange moments to launch a couple more books along the way. She executes the book in exquisite fashion, her illustrations and her words working together brilliantly, creating a crazy world that the reader can believe in and immediately develop an interest in. There never quite seems to be a point to it all, but suddenly, at the very end, Roberts hits you with the truth of her story and it sinks right down to your heart.

I still don’t quite know what to make of Mark Danielewski’s THE FIFTY YEAR SWORD (Pantheon). A story told by five different speakers, the book executes an unusual form of visual poetry. The plot deals with a mysterious storyteller who explains that he has a “fifty year sword” – a sword whose damage is not apparent until the 50th year of life of the person who has been cut by it. It won’t spoil things to say that the sword gets used and there are unfortunate results. But the tale is almost secondary, really; the star here is the presentation. The illustrations have actually been stitched, not drawn or painted. The tellers are set apart by the quotation marks that have been stitched in various colors. Their lines are intermingled with one another in a way that would do e.e. cummings proud. One of the struggles I had with the book was that the bells and whistles do tend to overwhelm the actual story at its core. It is an impressively ambitious work, no question about it. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have had it given the reader more opportunity to put focus into it.



BOOK ADAPTATIONS

BOOK ADAPTATIONS
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Various


Reviewed by Marc Mason

Comics and prose literature have had a long and fruitful relationship. Mention them together and the first thing that will spring to mind for many people is CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED. Indeed, various iterations of those books have been hitting shelves for decades at this point. But over the last few years, there has been a dramatic increase in a new type of comics-to-prose work: the adaptation of modern writers and best-selling works to sequential art format. There are generally two versions of how this works: a direct adaptation of the work or a prequel to the novel. The results have been… interesting. The manga versions of Dean Koontz’ ODD THOMAS have not only been excellent graphic novels, but actually better than the prose novel that inspired them. On the other hand, Diana Gabaldon’s THE EXILE was one of the worst graphic novels of the last five years. What it boils down to is this: who is really doing the work? Two new prose-to-comics works now hitting shelves are both easily placed in the “very good” category, in no small part because of those on the creative end of things.

SILENT PARTNER: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL adapts one of author Jonathan Kellerman’s most popular Alex Delaware novels, and it is a tasty slice of noir. Comics veterans Ande Parks (writing) and Michael Gaydos (art) take on the task of bringing the best-seller to a new audience, and they do so with a real zest for the material. Delaware runs into an old lover and the next day she is found dead, a turn of events he cannot even come close to explaining. This sets him on a trail of dead bodies, broken families, and strange pornography, all the while attempting to dig through his own past and discover who the dead woman really was and what she truly meant to his life. The trick to success here for Parks and Gaydos is that Kellerman’s work is intellectual at its core, not action-oriented; thus, deprived of huge visual moments, they use dialogue, body language, and a liberal dose of shadows to make a book that is all about mood and emotional depth. Having read and enjoyed some of Kellerman’s work previously, I was impressed with how well I felt like they brought the characters to life on the page and kept my interest in a work that is largely talking heads doing their thing. As far as straight adaptations of prose works go, this is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

The other kind of adaptation, the prequel, can be found in UGLIES: SHAY’S STORY. Comics veteran Devin Grayson worked with novelist Scott Westerfield to help bring the story of the YA series heroine’s best friend Shay to the page, and once again, having a solid pro on the case pays off. Grayson knows how to pace the story, structure the action, and keep the pages turning. Set in a post-dystopian future where every person is given plastic surgery at the age of sixteen in order to keep society equal, we meet Shay as she approaches that milestone with trepidation. Shay is more interested in exploring the outside world and joining up with others like her to pull off pranks against “the pretties” as a way to keep her individuality. Along the way, she gets in trouble, meets a boy she falls for, gets in more trouble, meets Tally (the heroine of the novels) and gets in more trouble. Steven Cummings, another longtime comics pro, handles the art, and he gives the book a fluid, dynamic, manga-like look. His version of Shay is cute, as required by the rules of manga, but not too far over the top in that direction, and he does just as well with Tally. Solid work, and exactly what it should be in order to draw interest for the prose books.




MY BOYFRIEND WROTE A BOOK ABOUT ME

MY BOYFRIEND WROTE A BOOK ABOUT ME
Written by Hilary Winston
Published by Sterling

Reviewed by Marc Mason

I was wandering the floor at ALA Midwinter this year when I walked past a publisher’s booth I was pretty certain I hadn’t seen before. I took some time to look at some of the advance reader copies they were giving away of upcoming books, when a strange looking one caught my eye: the cover featured a woman in her pajamas sipping soda from a can through a straw. I picked it up and started reading the back when a voice dripping with sarcasm boomed from behind me:

“OH, JUST TAKE ONE ALREADY! THEY’RE FREE!”

Immediately, I burst out laughing, and then spun around to find Hilary Winston signing copies of her book. Always one to appreciate bold confidence- hey, far too many authors want to play it humble, and I like a little salesmanship- I had her autograph a copy to me and wandered off with the book.

The remaining question, of course, was would it be any good. The answer: it’s better than good. It’s terrific.

Winston, an accomplished television writer (MY NAME IS EARL, COMMUNITY) finds a captivating subject in herself. The title of the book stems from an actual trauma in her life: she went to a bookstore one day, only to discover that the man she had just finished a long-term relationship with had written a “novel” that was really a nonfiction take on her and their time together. From there, she is off on a series of adventures, both high and mis-; whether it’s the insanity of the Los Angeles dating scene, the fear inspired by her bikini waxer, or lunatic “holistic” veterinarians, Winston has it covered, and in far more detail than you might have ever imagined. That’s one of the charms of this book- she never backs off the throttle, laying out her stories in brave fashion, never afraid of what might turn off or frighten a reader. Honesty, a quality lacking in L.A., is her expertise, and by the time you get through this book, you can do nothing but respect her for it.

It isn’t all humor, of course. She details the relationship and breakup with the novelist in painful detail, and uses it to dive into her earlier years and examine what has led her to so many of her emotional decisions. We also follow family health problems, as well as the sickness of her beloved cat Emmitt. But the common thread that ties every piece together is her voice- brash, bold, in command. You get the sense of a massive catharsis happening for Winston as she makes her way through this very unusual hero’s journey. It’s a trip worth taking alongside her.

GRIM REAPER: END OF DAYS

GRIM REAPER: END OF DAYS
Written by Steve Alten
Published by Variance Publishing

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Patrick Shepherd had it all: career as a professional athlete, loving wife, beautiful daughter… but he gave it all up to serve his country and came home a broken man. If he had his choice, he would live out his life in self-pity and despair. But that choice is about to be taken away. An insane scientist has just unleashed a genetically altered form of the Bubonic plague upon Manhattan, and thousands are dying. Aided by his shrink, Virgil, Patrick descends into the Hell that the city has become and faces his own version of Dante’s Inferno as he crosses the island, the only vaccine in his possession, in a desperate attempt to find his wife and child and save them (and himself) from the military’s “final solution”- perhaps the only way to truly save the world and prevent mankind from being eradicated permanently.

I’m a sucker for apocalyptic thrillers- the scarier the scenario, the better, and as far as that goes, GRIM REAPER is one of the most terrifying books I’ve read in quite some time. Alten’s premise is frightening in its simplicity- a psychotically devout American scientist decides to try and force The Rapture by unleashing the plague she’s been working on in her lab, and doing so with alterations that render the regular antidote useless. She makes her way to a vulnerable spot in the city, injects herself, and sets about spreading death.

It doesn’t take long.

Of course, to really engage the reader in even the grimly interesting scenario, you need characters that you can relate to and care about, and Alten provides those in solid amounts. Shepherd is a man we see every day deplaning from a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan- or anyone returning from a battlefield of any kind, really. He has questions and regrets about his actions and about whether or not the divine truly exists. Not just muscle, he is a walking existentialist nightmare. His journey, to find the only thing left he cares about, is something the reader can relate to. I think most of us would risk ourselves in the same way. That makes the book work.

Some readers may be put off by the overt spirituality of the book, and I was, on occasion, one of them. Alten wants to make his point and wrap it in theology, which I understand, but I think he loses balance on occasion and the book becomes polemic. When he backs off and lets the plot get rolling again, though, things fall right back into place and it becomes completely gripping. As far as the way he takes the final third of the book and turns it into a modern version of Dante, I think it mostly works. Alten’s observation of human behavior is strong and his comparisons are generally right on target.

This is potentially the first of a trilogy of books, but the author wisely gives the reader a strong ending, not leaving you hanging on important plot points. If you’re a fan of this genre, GRIM REAPER should have a lot of appeal for you, and it’s easy to recommend- it just simply works.

HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE

HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE
Written by Charles Yu
Published by Pantheon

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Time travel- a subject that’s full of pitfalls and paradoxes. In a future and universe where time travel is common, people are consistently trying to do the one thing they cannot: travel into the past and change it. When that happens, equipment fails, and time technician Charles Yu is called in to make repairs. Accompanied by his dog, which has been retconned out of existence, and his operating system, TAMMY, he does what he can to get those travelers back on the “road” with an understanding of their actions. But it turns out that Charles is hiding a few secrets of his own as he attempts to spend virtually every moment of his life in his own time machine. His mother is voluntarily living the same hour of her life over and over again. His father is missing, and Yu wants little more than to find him somewhere or somewhen in the universe. And Charles is about to meet himself in the time stream and potentially do something which cannot be repaired: commit the most bizarre version of suicide ever recorded.

LIVE SAFELY is the debut novel from the real-life Charles Yu, and it is certainly one of the most challenging and unusual pieces I’ve read in quite some time. The surface areas of the novel reside squarely in the science fiction arena, as the fictional Yu travels throughout a multiverse in space and time dealing with advanced technology and species, just as the title of the book suggests. Yet at its inner core, this novel is a simple family story, the story of a son awash in life-long regret about disappointing a father he didn’t know or understand until it was too late. Take away the glossy trappings of the genre and you have a thematic element that virtually every reader can understand.

But Yu doesn’t always make it easy to get past those trappings. There is a bunch of stuff here on the tech and the nature of realities and in how time really works to feed a philosopher’s brain. There are pages of equations and charts that attempt to “explain” something of the proof of concept for living in the minor universe where fictional Yu explores his fate, but as the story progresses they begin to feel extraneous, as though the writer isn’t quite trusting his audience to stay onboard with the emotional journey of the character.

That’s really the only serious error on writer Yu’s part. The first third of the book, almost literally nothing happens- it has no genuine plot or movement for the fictional Yu, yet what the author has created through those pages is captivating enough to carry the reader all the way through to the end. Really, as a reader, that’s what you want- a book that engages the mind and the heart in satisfying measures. Perhaps the writer was concerned that he had written a book that would go over the heads of many of the literature lovers that would be drawn to this work.

He need not have worried- HOW TO LIFE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE delivers the goods all the way to the end, and for discerning readers- the ones Yu needs to worry about most- it is a most satisfying journey, indeed.

GECKO AND STICKY: SINISTER SUBSTITUTE

THE GECKO AND STICKY: SINISTER SUBSTITUTE
Written by Wendelin Van Draanen With 30 Illustrations by Stephen Gilpin
Published by Alfred A Knopf

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Dave Sanchez seems like your normal middle school boy. He oversleeps, runs late to class, but generally does what he’s told and even works as a delivery boy after school to make a little money. But he isn’t quite as normal as he seems. That’s because he has a pet gecko that is not only sentient; it also talks to Dave, and rather frequently. Plus, Dave happens to possess a metal ingot that allows him to stick to surfaces and crawl up walls, and as of late he’s taken to dressing in disguise and playing superhero around his town.

Not. Quite. Normal.

However, Dave does his best. And it even seems like his luck, along with everyone else’s in the school, is turning for the better. The odious science teacher, Ms. Krockle, is gone, and in her place is a substitute teacher. Anarchy reigns for a little while. But even anarchy gets boring for middle school children, and suddenly the substitute doesn’t seem quite as harmless as he’s been appearing to be. In fact, he’s starting to look a little familiar. And if Dave’s gecko is right, he might just have to do the most painful thing of the young boy’s life: rescue Ms. Krockle from the clutches of something even more evil than her.

This charming prose novel, ably illustrated in a way that enhances the text rather than overwhelms it, is a marvelous piece of work angled at the younger reader. Van Draanen’s writing style is light and loose, sounding much more like a storyteller sitting in front of a room full of kids than an omniscient narrator. The characters are funny and about as real as you can get in this kind of fantasy novel. Dave is very relatable, both for boys and for girls, and the environment he lives in is vibrant and keen. The villainy isn’t so villainous that it would scare kids, and has enough humor in it to make them laugh as Dave does his superheroic best to win the day.

As an added bonus, you get an honest-to-goodness Hispanic superhero in these pages, something in woefully short supply at the major comics companies right now (Blue Beetle was cancelled a while back). Every child loves reading about heroes that look, act, and sound like them, and Dave is perfect for that. There’s also a nifty guise to some basic Spanish in the back of the book for those that want to learn a little something as they read.

SINISTER SUBSTITUTE is the kind of book I would have devoured as a kid and then went looking for more. It’s the third in a series, and I suspect that many that pick this one up would go on a quest for the first two as well. Recommended.

FROM THE NOTEBOOKS OF DR. BRAIN

FROM THE NOTEBOOKS OF DR. BRAIN
Written by Minister Faust
Published by Del Rey

Reviewed by Ericka Strole

REPRINTED FROM CWR 2.0

When a superhero is having “issues” he or she needs resolved, where do they turn? To Dr. Brain of course. She’s the psychologist to the superheroes. In FROM THE NOTEBOOKS OF DR. BRAIN, a group of superheroes have to go to counseling. Now that the fight against evil has been won, office politics are wrecking havoc on the super powered crew, young and old. The six heroes range from those who first put on the costumes to newbies, but they all have one thing in common: dysfunctionality. However, hopefully through therapy and simulations they can confront their issues and get back to being happy super friends.

On the surface, I can see where some might find this book a little on the slow or dull side, but I ultimately found it to be entertaining and built upon a very interesting concept. It’s written as a self-help book for super heroes, so it takes a little time to get used to reading a fiction book that doubles as self-help pastiche. Faust’s characters are fascinating, even if they have cheesy names like The Flying Squirrel or Omnipotent Man; there are characters that you love and ones that you love to hate, but they all hold your interest. For an easy read that is at times humorous, and which for me made me realize that even the super-powered have mental blips too, I would recommend this. As someone who has read her fair share of self-help books, it was enjoyable to see someone else being analyzed or a change.

TRAIN MAN: THE NOVEL

TRAIN MAN: THE NOVEL
Written by Hitori Nakano
Published by Del Rey

Reviewed by Ericka Strole

REPRINTED FROM CWR 2.0

Boy saves girl from old drunk on train. Girl sends boy Hermes teacups. Boy freaks out. What is a techie geeky boy to do? Turn to his comrades in arms of course. TRAIN MAN tells the story of how a sweet, gentle young man helped protect some women on the train home from work from a drunk, and how he eventually found the courage to completely change his life and win the woman he loves.

The true-to-life based novel, which spawned at least three different mangas and a smash hit feature film, is written as a log of postings from a message board; the actual message board that the real Train Man participated in during this process. It is the advice he receives from his fellow board posters in how to dress, where to take her to dine, and how to finally (gulp) tell Miss Hermes (as she becomes known on the message board) how he feels about her that propels the book (as well as the boy) forward through this heartwarming romance.

Hitori Nakano shows how the Japanese court in a relationship. For a helpless romantic like me it is filled with those “Aaaaahhhhhhh” moments that makes a girl wish American men would read this book. It took the characters five dates before they even kissed! That is most unusual to hear about, let alone think about putting in to practice. It is wonderful to see, in this charming book, how love can blossom, and how one awkward boy found himself in the position, aided by his fellow nerds, to beat the odds and get the girl of his dreams. Every girl who is a romantic at heart, and every guy who wants to be, should read this book.

MR. SKIN’S SKINCYCLOPEDIA 2ND ED

MR. SKIN’S SKINCYCLOPEDIA 2ND ED.
Written by Mr. Skin
Published by St. Martin’s Griffin

As a classic film reminds us, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid. The folks behind MR. SKIN have found that line, danced up next to it, given it a teasing wink and a smile, yet have stayed on the clever side. That they have now gone into a second edition of their massive SKINCYCLOPEDIA is living proof of that.

What is Mr. Skin? Originally, merely a website. It’s purpose: to create a comprehensive listing of films in which actresses appeared nude or partially nude. Want to know where to see 30 ROCK’s Jane Krakowski naked? Look up her entry and find out she showed her rear end in the 2004 remake of Alfie. A fan of Anna Friel and her recent turn on PUSHING DAISIES? Then you’d be pleased to know that she’s done nudity in ten different films, including full frontal in both THE WAR BRIDE and THE TRIBE.

There are listings for over 2000 different actresses.

The entries are incredibly comprehensive. Birth date and birthplace. A rating on the “Skin-O-Meter” for the level of nudity achieved, ranked from “Brief” (i.e. Krakowski) to “Hall Of Fame” (see: Cates, Phoebe). A paragraph about the actress’ career, along with a description of roles and moments in her films. That’s followed by her “SKIN-fining Moment”, which describes in luscious detail (and with a listing for how long the moment lasts on-screen) the lady’s best naked moment, and then the entry concludes with a list of all films where flesh appears unclothed and what parts are available for viewing.

A fine line between clever and stupid.

There’s no question that the entire enterprise could be seen as one massively distasteful and sleazy deal. Yet the entries are written with such wit and humor that it is patently clear that Mr. Skin is not just the work of a group of serial wankers. Instead, there’s a bit of genuine thought and awe behind it. That’s enhanced by a plethora of ridiculously funny “lists” scattered throughout the book. These top-5 sets include categories such as: “70s TV Stars Who Got Naked”; “Naked Girls With Guy Names”; “Nude With Musical Instruments”; and my personal favorite, “Madges Who Show Vag”- a list of women named Margaret that have appeared bottomless on-screen.

Whether you want to admit it or not, that’s damned funny. And that’s what keeps MR. SKIN on the side of being clever. And if that isn’t enough for you, the book is almost 700 pages long; there are hours upon hours of reading here, and the length it will add to your… Netflix list… will be impressive.

Marc Mason