Library Scavenger Hunt: February

This month’s LSH challenge was to read a book with pictures in it, and since I’ve been craving Batman comics recently, I thought it’d be fun to try out some of the Gotham-based series that I’m not already collecting… There were two series in particular that I considered reading for this challenge, but although I borrowed them both (and I intend to read the second of them very soon, too), the one that I decided to review this month was…

WELCOME TO GOTHAM ACADEMY
Becky Cloonan & Brendan Fletcher
(Illustrated by Karl Kerschl)

Gotham Academy is home to the best and brightest students in Gotham… as well as a whole slew of strange secrets. Olive Silverlock just wants to get on with her life – and hopefully puzzle out what happened over the holidays that’s got her jumping at bat-shaped shadows – but unfortunately the world has other ideas, as she (along with Maps, the new student she’s supposed to be showing around) becomes drawn into investigating a series of school-wide ghost sightings.

This was a really fun read! The plotline (and the little mysteries that it presented) was both interesting and engaging, and surprisingly self-contained; though I am intrigued by the hints at a larger storyline in Gotham Academy, this first volume is quite satisfying to read as a standalone. It’s definitely lighter in tone than many of the other Gotham-based comics that I’ve read, but I found that that made for a really lovely change of pace…

The two main characters, Olive and Maps, played off one another wonderfully, with Maps’ innocent exuberance proving a nice counterpoint to Olive’s more serious character. (Maps was probably my favourite thing about this book, though – she’s just so cute! 😆) The cast of secondary characters wasn’t large, but those that we were introduced to seemed interesting, too, and I’m looking forward to getting to know them all better. And the tease at the very end of the book that Damian Wayne may be joining the Academy is another reason that I’m very likely to continue reading this series.

I also really enjoyed Kerschl’s artwork, which was incredibly expressive, super-cute, as well as consistently high-quality throughout the book.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

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Thematic Recs: The Batman Family

(One day, I will probably do a Thematic Recs post for superhero comics in general. This is not that day.) I love the Bat-family. My love for it knows (almost) no bounds, and this list compiles some of my favourite titles so far – though I’ve probably missed some great ones, as I certainly haven’t read the whole lot!

And for the record, I consider basically all the Gotham-centric heroes to be part of the Bat-family in some small way, so long as they are – or have at some point been – acknowledged by Bruce Wayne, the original Batman.

Scott Beatty & Chuck Dixon//Batgirl: Year One1) Batgirl: Year One by Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon. A mini-series chronicling the beginnings of the first Batgirl, Barbara Gordon. I only read this on a whim, but I ended up really loving it, much to my surprise – I’ve never been a huge Barbara Gordon fan.

Peter J. Tomasi//Batman & Robin vol. 12) Batman & Robin by Peter J. Tomasi. The only series on my list since the New 52 rebooted the DC universe (though I do still like some of the other New 52 titles…). This series shows Bruce Wayne teaming up with his son Damian (the fifth Robin), and having to find a balance between fatherhood and crime-fighting.

[This series is collected in seven volumes: Born to KillPearlDeath of the FamilyRequiem for DamianThe Big BurnThe Hunt for Robin and Robin Rises.]

Bryan Q. Miller//Batgirl vol. 13) Batgirl by Bryan Q. Miller. Probably my favourite comic series, this run of Batgirl follows Stephanie Brown, the third Batgirl, as she teams up with Barbara Gordon (now in the role of Oracle) in order to fight crime, and hopefully get some recognition from the Bat-family’s main players.

[This series is collected in three volumes: Batgirl RisingThe Flood and The Lesson.]

Paul Dini//Streets of Gotham vol. 14) Batman: Streets of Gotham by Paul Dini. A sadly short-lived series featuring Dick Grayson (the original Robin, now the new Batman) and Damian Wayne trying to deal with a Bruce Wayne-imposter in Bruce’s absence. The series ended up being cut short, but the storyline was wrapped up in the Batman Incorporated series.

[This series is collected in three volumes: Hush MoneyLeviathan and The House of Hush.]

Judd Winick//Under the Red Hood5) Batman: Under the Hood by Judd Winick. Bruce Wayne deals with a new, incredibly violent, vigilante in Gotham, who calls himself the Red Hood. This is one of my all-time favourite Batman storylines – the big mystery he has to figure out is the identity of the Red Hood (my favourite character in the DC universe, and an important figure from Bruce Wayne’s past). The animated film was also incredible (which was called Under the Red Hood, like the bind-up of the comics), though it presented a rather different backstory from the original comics.

Judd Winick//Red Hood: The Lost Days

+1) Red Hood: The Lost Days by Judd Winick. Just a little bonus recommendation, since this is a spin-off of the Under the Hood storyline, and serves as a prequel to it. It tells the story of the Red Hood’s time training, and his return to Gotham, and gives an interesting new perspective on the events in Under the Hood.

Review: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (Spoiler-Free)

Malcolm Polstead spends his days working at his parents’ inn, helping the nuns at the convent across the river, and tending to his beloved canoe, La Belle Sauvage. But strange things are afoot in Oxford: Mysterious disappearances; children joining the sinister League of Saint Alexander; a threatening man with a three-legged hyena daemon; talk of a flood the likes of which England hasn’t seen in decades… and the charming baby Lyra being brought to the convent for protection from the great number of people who would see her harmed.

first read His Dark Materials when I was about ten or eleven – back when I’d only just realised that reading could be fun – but despite the many great books I’ve read since then, it’s remained one of the most impactful stories I’ve ever come across, and this new entry into the series (a prequel) does a really great job of re-capturing what made the original trilogy so enticing. It’s not just the daemons, but the subtle hints of magic, too, and the constant sense of some dark, looming threat… revisiting this universe is always a delight for me. The plot is a slow-burning one, and some may find that the pacing is too slow, but it’s not really any more so than in many of Pullman’s other novels – and, to be honest, I found that it mattered very little, as the build-up to the action was just as enjoyable as the action itself.

Malcolm made for a wonderful protagonist; curious and bright and well-meaning, as protagonists are prone to being, but he really shone through his bonds with the people around him, from his daemon Asta, to baby Lyra, to his slowly-developing friendship with Alice, the surly girl who works in the kitchen at the inn… I found his interactions with Lyra and Sister Fenella particularly charming, and I loved the camaraderie between him and Asta (there was a scene near the end with the two of them that nearly reduced me to tears). The chapters from Dr. Relf’s perspective were also very interesting, and I really enjoyed the way her and Malcolm’s mutual love of learning was able to forge a genuine friendship between them despite their difference in age and situation, and the contrived nature of their first few meetings.

In regards to villains, there were a few different antagonists featured, or antagonistic organisations, but while most of them lingered ominously in the story’s background (the CCD, the League of St. Alexander, and so on) and will presumably come more to the forefront as the series goes on, the spotlight in La Belle Sauvage fell on Gerard Bonneville and his disfigured daemon. While Bonneville’s reputation seemed to precede him in Oxford, I found it interesting how the initial contrast between his own appearance of friendliness and his daemon’s aggressive behaviour was slowly inverted, until I almost found myself feeling sorry for the hyena, for being stuck with such a monstrous other half.

Since this is a prequel, it would be surprising if there weren’t a few callbacks to the original series beyond the presence of baby Lyra, but while not all of these cameos are essential to this new story (though some of them definitely are), none of them felt as though they’d just been shoe-horned in for the sake of fanservice… And they’re very enjoyable! I felt a definite thrill when I checked the end of The Amber Spyglass and realised that, yes, my hunch that Dr. Relf and Dame Hannah were one and the same was correct! 😁 And Lord Asriel’s tenderness towards Lyra in this book is a nice counterpoint to his severe countenance in much of His Dark Materials.

I also found myself surprised – and a little unsettled – while reading this book by the realisation of just how much His Dark Materials has influenced my views on organised religion… but although both La Belle Sauvage and Pullman’s original trilogy contain a lot of examples of organised religion gone wrong, it was nice that in this book we were also given a look at its more positive side, in the form of the nuns who were caring for Lyra.

Teaser Tuesday #12

THE RULES:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Open to a random page.
  • Share two “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.
    • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

At the moment I’m reading La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman, the first in his new Book of Dust trilogy, which is a prequel to His Dark Materials… I’ve been taking my time with it, not because it’s at all a struggle (it’s not), but because I want to savour the experience – and I’m also doing a month-long readalong of it with one of my friends. 😊 The story is about a young innkeeper’s son, who meets Lyra as a baby, and then gets caught up in all the intrigue surrounding her, from the shadowy and threatening CCD (Consistorial Court of Discipline) to the also mysterious (but more benign, at least to Malcolm) organisation of Oakley Street…

Teaser #1:

‘Not really,’ Malcolm said, beginning to feel awkward. He didn’t want to keep things from his parents, but they didn’t usually have the time to ask anything more than once. A non-comittal answer normally satisfied them. But with nothing else to do this evening, the matter of Malcolm’s talking to Alice became of great interest.

Teaser #2:

Pan was a sparrow chick now, so Asta became a bird too, a greenfinch this time.

[Teaser Tuesday was created by MizB over at A Daily Rhythm.]

Review: A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond (Spoiler-Free)

Claire and Ella are the best of friends, and always will be, and not even Ella’s disapproving parents are going to stand between them. But when Claire introduces Ella to Orpheus – a wanderer with an unworldly talent for music – she begins to fear that their romance may be taking Ella down a path which will separate them forever.

A Song for Ella Grey is a retelling of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, but set in the modern-day North of England, and focusing on the tale from the perspective of Ella’s (who takes the role of Eurydice) best friend Claire. I’m familiar with the original myth, but I don’t know it inside out, so I can’t comment on any specific changes Almond may have made to the narrative. From what I do know of the story, however, this seems to be a very faithful retelling (barring the modern setting, of course). I also found the choice of Claire as a narrator interesting because it gave us a somewhat sinister view of Orpheus; while Claire is not immune to the draw Orpheus seems to have over all living things (and many non-living ones, too), her admiration of him is tempered by her feeling that he poses some sort of threat to Ella…

The relationship between Claire and Ella, and how it contrasts with Orpheus and Ella’s relationship, is probably my favourite thing about this book. While the Orpheus/Ella dynamic is very clearly defined, (although it’s never outright stated) there are also strong indications that Claire’s feelings for Ella are not strictly platonic, which makes the objectivity of her narration somewhat doubtful. It’s difficult to tell how much of her suspicion of Orpheus is due to her seeing something in him that the rest of the characters aren’t able to see, and how much is just her fear that she is losing Ella. And despite the original myth being entirely about the love between Orpheus and Eurydice, Almond’s portrayal makes it clear that Claire’s love for Ella is no less powerful than Orpheus’.

I also really loved the magical atmosphere in this book; it’s nothing particularly unusual in a David Almond book, but that’s more of a compliment to all his other books than a criticism of this one. The characters talk early on about trying to bring Greece to Northumberland, and although they’re mainly talking about warmth and sunshine, I believe that they did succeed in bringing the otherworldly feeling of the ancient Greek myths there  – as is evidenced by Orpheus’ presence in the first place. Almond’s use of dialect was occasionally a little overdone, but I was mostly able to ignore it, since I was so invested in the story and the characters.

I doubt that any David Almond book will ever make me feel the same wonder that I felt when I first read Skellig and Heaven Eyes (two of my favourite books), but I will always love the beautiful way that he crafts his stories, and – flaws and all – A Song for Ella Grey is no exception to that. I’d recommend this for mythology lovers and magical realism fans, or to anyone who really enjoys Neil Gaiman’s writing, as his books are often quite similar in tone to David Almond’s (though Almond’s books tend to skew a little bit younger).

Library Scavenger Hunt: January

This month’s LSH challenge was, in honour of it now being the year of the dog, to read a book with a dog on the cover. Creative, I know, but upon consideration (and after reading a few of the suggestions on the LSH discussion thread), I was surprised by the number of books I was able to think of that fulfilled the challenge that I had already been hoping to read: The HumansThe Art of Racing in the RainSpill Simmer Falter WitherMy Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises, and so on, and so on. Sadly, my library had none of these, so my first trip there ended up with me coming home with a book that I had no interest in, and then regretting it so much that I eventually decided to just request a book to be sent over from another library. So the book I finally ended up reading (which arrived in the nick of time) was…

THERE IS NO DOG
Meg Rosoff

Ever thought that the world is far too chaotic to have been created by a sensible god with a plan? Well, that’s because it wasn’t. God, it turns out, is a self-absorbed, sex-crazed teenage boy called Bob, and after all these years, the only part of his creation that still interests him is the beautiful girls. Lucy is human, and wants desperately to fall in love. One day on the way to work, she sends out a prayer for love that she hopes will be heard – but unfortunately for Lucy, Bob thinks that the ideal man for her is none other than… Bob himself.

I’ve read three of Meg Rosoff’s books so far, and all of them are very original – distinct both from other works with similar themes, and from one another – but this is quite possibly one of the most bizarre books I’ve ever come across. It’s also really, really enjoyable, with a cast of wonderful and awful characters whose stories are all connected, but each with their own troubles. There’s Bob, of course, who causes catastrophe wherever he goes; his long-suffering assistant Mr. B; his mother Mona, seemingly the bane of Bob’s existence; and his pet Eck (a kind of sentient, penguin-y creature), who is despairing over his seemingly inevitable death-by-being-eaten; as well as Estelle, who’s on a mission to save Eck from being eaten by her father. On the less divine side of things, there’s also Lucy, an assistant zookeeper whose main concerns are finding love, and avoiding her grumpy supervisor at work; along with the aforementioned grumpy supervisor, Luke; Lucy’s interfering mother; and her godfather Bernard, a vicar who’s questioning the value of his work.

As you can see, the cast is huge, which might have presented a problem if the characters were any less memorable and entertaining (I won’t say likeable, because not all of them are, or are even meant to be), but in this case really doesn’t. The narrative moves fluidly between characters, and although their different concerns made it difficult to pin down any one main plot, I really liked all the miniature storylines that the book presents… It really comes across more as a snapshot of all these people’s lives with a potentially apocalyptic backdrop, rather than a cohesive story. (My favourite parts were probably Eck’s friendship with Estelle, any scene that involved Mr. B, and Lucy and Luke’s brief moments of bonding towards the end of the book.)

There Is No Dog is a comedy of wonderful absurdities, but I can definitely see why people would dislike it. The silliness could easily become too much for someone (even I was glad that Rosoff didn’t try to make it any longer than it is), and if you’re looking for some kind of deep message in this book, then you’re not likely to find one – unless it’s that, if there is a god, let’s hope they’re a Mr. B and not a Bob. 😅 I would also definitely not recommend this to anyone who’s super-serious (in the not-to-be-joked-about sense) about religion, as they’d probably find it more offensive than funny…

Also, for the record: This book has nothing to do with dogs.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman (Spoiler-Free)

With only one more year of school to go, Frances is more focused than ever on what’s been the goal of the last few years of her life: Cambridge University. And she’s well on her way to achieving it, with an excellent work ethic, consistently high grades, and the position of head girl, but very few friends who truly know her. One evening, however, a boy she knows drunkenly lets slip that he’s the mysterious creator of her favourite podcast, and they discover a friendship like neither of them have ever known… but this new relationship is tested by Aled and his podcast’s sudden rise to internet fame, and Frances’ feeling of responsibility over the disappearance of his sister, Carys.

The backdrop to this story is the podcast Universe City (a Welcome to Night Vale-esque narrative about somebody who’s trapped on a campus that’s full of monsters, and trying to escape), and the community that builds up around it. Frances’ love for the podcast is evident almost from the very beginning of the book, and I feel like it provides a really nice insight into an aspect of fan culture that I haven’t seen explored in YA lit before… That said, this book is not about Universe City, it’s about Frances and Aled, and Universe City is, more than anything else, the medium through which we are able to best know Aled.

Speaking of the characters, both Frances and Aled were fantastically written, with very relatable struggles, and I loved the way that it was only in finding each other that they were able to truly find their own selves, and their own voices; each of them only needing somebody who had no specific expectations of them in order to come out of their shells – and those shells were pretty thick… Frances had put so much effort into making herself into “Cambridge material” that realising that the other parts of her might be just as important became incredibly difficult, while Aled was trapped under layers and layers of hurt that he didn’t know how to (or, it seems, believe that he deserved to) escape from. That’s not all there was to the characters, of course, but part of the joy of reading Radio Silence, for me, was getting to know them both for myself, so I won’t say anything more about them except this: They’re both wonderful characters individually, and are made even more so by their love for each other.

And I don’t mean romantic love, by the way; that was another great thing about this book. I don’t think I would’ve minded if Oseman had decided to go the romance-route, because I loved their relationship so much, but I can’t over-emphasise how wonderful it felt to be reading a book (particularly a book for teenagers) that gave such precedence to friendship, with no expectation of (or desire for) it ever becoming anything else. And I say “else”, rather than “more”, because I feel that Oseman does a really great job of showing that friendship can be just as important a driving force in a person’s life as romance. Platonic soulmates is a term that springs to mind when I think about these two, though I’m not sure if the term was used in the book itself, or if I’m just projecting… There is a very well-executed romantic sub-plot, between Aled and another character, but it’s so far from being the focus of the story that I almost forgot to mention it.

Apart from friendship, major themes in this book included communication and its failure, of which there were ample examples on Aled’s part (whether its his attempts to reach out through Universe City which go unheard, or the inability to talk to Daniel about his feelings that’s making their relationship fall apart), and the feeling of being trapped by the expectations of others, which is demonstrated by Frances and Aled both – though in Frances’ case, the expectations that trouble her are ones that she’s actively cultivated, while Aled’s constraints are blatantly unfair. Both these themes do a lot to further flesh out characters who are already well developed and incredibly sympathetic.

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Carys yet, and that’s deliberate. A lot of work seems to have gone into building up her disappearance as a huge mystery, and its even implied (on the back of the book as well as in the narrative) that Frances may have somehow been involved in it – or at least knows some dark, crucial secret – but the eventual revelation is quite underwhelming, as is the solution to the (smaller) “February Friday” puzzle that’s presented in Universe City. I wouldn’t say that this is a problem with the book, exactly, as the resolution of Carys’ storyline ties in quite nicely with the rest of the book’s themes, but I do think that putting so much emphasis on it was something of a marketing misstep… There are little mysteries here and there that are interesting to see unfold, but the huge, We Were Liars-style twist that I was half expecting doesn’t exist.

I did have one problem with the book, however, and that was the extreme overuse of the word “literally”, both in Frances’ narration and the dialogue. I haven’t read Oseman’s previous book, so I’m not sure if this is just her writing style, or if it’s an attempt to accurately portray modern language (I’m aware that “literally” is a word that is often overused in real life, too), but if the former, it really should have been picked up by an editor, and if the latter, I can’t imagine why she’d choose to replicate a speech pattern that’s so irritating… Obviously, it wasn’t enough to stop me from loving this book, but extreme pedants might want to be aware of it before reading.

I only originally gave Radio Silence four stars, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and then it ended up being one of my top books of 2017! It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, and one of the most relatable books I’ve ever come across, and I would highly recommend this book to anyone who’s even vaguely intrigued by anything I’ve said about it… I feel like I was barely able to scratch the surface with this review, even though it’s already gone on for far too long, so here are some random, leftover thoughts that I couldn’t find a place for in the main review:

  • The cast is incredibly diverse, in terms of both race and sexuality. This is also one of only two books I’ve ever read that discusses asexuality, and it does it extremely well.
  • I loved Aled so much. Frances was great, too, but Aled needs all the hugs in the world.
  • The intensity of their friendship makes me miss my own best friend even more than I already did. (She lives a long way away.)
  • I wish that every YA parent was as amazing and supportive as Frances’ mum.
  • Universe City should be a real thing, even if it’s in book form rather than a podcast. It sounds really interesting. (We got Carry On, so it’s possible, right?)
  • I may add this to my favourites list…