Kate’s Review: “Forsaken”

9775490Book: “Forsaken” by Leanna Ellis

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Landmark, August 2011

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: “Hannah cannot move on.”

She pines for Jacob, the boy who saved her life when she drowned, bringing her back from the brink of death by breathing life into her.

“But Jacob is gone now, buried.”

Levi’s love for Hannah burns just as strong. But he knows how much Hannah loved his brother Jacob. He also knows the troubling event that took Jacob out of their lives. And he lives with that lie every day.

So when a stranger named Akiva comes to their community, he carries with him two secrets that will change their lives forever: he is in fact Jacob, whom Hannah had lost. And he is now a vampire.

When passions stir and secrets are revealed, Hannah must choose between light and dark, between the one she has always loved and the new possibility of love. But it’s more than a choice of passion; it’s a decision that will determine the fate of her soul.

Review: Did you know that there is not only Amish Romance, but apparently there is also AMISH VAMPIRE ROMANCE???

DID YOU!?!?!?

Because I didn’t, and the moment that I found this out I was like

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WHY IS THIS A THING?! (source)

So what did I do? I requested it as soon as I could because OH MY GOD HOW BIZARRE. I don’t know what I expected. I mean, it’s laid out pretty plainly just what this book is going to be. We have a pious and pure Amish woman who is tempted by a vampire because he’s her long lost love, so of course it’s going to be filled with over the top moments, dialogue, and nonsense. And I know that this book is SO not written for me. But….. Let’s be real, Amish Romance is a special niche of Christian fiction that lets people enjoy wholesome romantic scenes without having to worry about smutty moments. So to me, adding a vampire isn’t going to end up in any way outside of good conquering evil and goodness triumphing over the unholy. But this book gives it the ol’ college try of making the story unpredictable. As if we didn’t know that ultimately Hannah was going to choose the side of the light. Which, hey, more power to Hannah and more power to that kind of story, as some people like that kind of thing. But there sure were a lot of things about this book that rubbed me the wrong way outside of my own predilection for walking on the wild side, fiction wise.

And okay look, you’re going to get some spoilers here, so buckle up.

First of all, I was a bit taken aback by the implications that Jacob (or Akiva, as is his vampire name), the Amish boy who was so taken with travel, art, poetry, and a potential life outside of the Amish community, was effectively punished for his wanderlust by being turned into a vampire. And beyond that, he was portrayed as selfish for being intrigued by a life outside of his community, as if even deigning to imagine a life outside of it is an act punishable by vampirism. Though it seems not to happen terribly often from my limited research, Rumspringa does sometimes lead to people leaving the Amish community. So what is that saying about those who legitimately don’t fit in within the community they were born into and do want to leave it? As it was it kind of came off as judgmental and kind of shame-y, as if you were going to be corrupted for the rest of your days by choosing a different path. Or in Jacob’s case, even thinking about it, as he did, in fact, return home to be baptized! He was just turned into a vampire before he could be. So even thinking of it is so bad you’re punished in such a way? Jacob was this whole concept personified, especially since we had the contrast of his brother Levi (who is the other point in the love triangle with Hannah and Jacob/Akiva). Levi is not only a true and devout Amish man, but also the TRUE hero of the story here in more ways than one. The part that had me absolutely incensed was that when Hannah, our heroine, was younger she almost drowned, and as she remembers it Jacob pulled her out of the water she was caught up in and saved her by breathing air back into her lungs. It was actually a kind of nice backstory to their romance, in my opinion, as it displayed bravery on Jacob’s part and also affection, as well as showing why Hannah may have had a deeper connection to him outside of being essentially betrothed to him. But then, at DEFCON ONE of the climax, it is revealed that it was actually Levi the whole time that had saved her! And JACOB was panicky and scared and did nothing when she was unconscious! So Jacob, who is a freaking vampire and couldn’t even have ultimately won Hannah’s hand in this kind of gross and weird love triangle in the first place, doesn’t even get to have that act of heroism going for him, and is in fact a total coward!! Was that necessary? I don’t think so. I don’t understand why Jacob couldn’t have been more well rounded and multi-faceted, but oh well, apparently you can only be purely good (the steadfast and dependable Levi) or purely evil (the flitty-dreamer-coward-turned-vampire Jacob/Akiva). Heaven forbid there be complexity to these characters. Jacob could have been brave once in his life is all I’m saying.

I also took serious umbrage with poor Hannah’s portrayal. At one point I thought that we were getting a kind of self assured and headstrong female lead who could handle herself, as at one point she told Levi that she didn’t need him to protect her and that she could take care of herself. I’d hoped that that was going to be a theme for her throughout the book, but then it became abundantly clear that no, she couldn’t actually take care of herself and she quite obviously did need Levi’s protection and guidance. After all, Jacob encourages her to dance, drive in a car, and drink alcohol, and this is portrayed in a negative way as if he’s leading her astray IN SPITE OF THE FACT that Hannah never did participate in Rumspringa! So this could feasibly be seen as her doing what most Amish kids are encouraged to do!!! Not once is Hannah portrayed as her own person. She either belongs to Jacob, Levi, or a higher power. Never herself.

And again, I know that this is a different value system than mine, and that this book is not for me but more for them, but the moment you bring vampires into a story, it’s fair game for me. So let’s talk about the vampires. I liked that they are portrayed as more animalistic and less romantic. I liked the mythology that Ellis gave them, as limited as it felt at times. But I also felt like there wasn’t much research done into the history of vampires and how they are portrayed in literature. There was a scene with a character named Roc, a cop from New Orleans with his own personal vendetta against vampires (and a character that I actually thought was pretty okay, when all was said and done. Of course I like the hot mess abrasive cop who drinks too much). In this scene he’s talking with a childhood friend who is now a priest, and he asks if sunlight is indeed something that can hurt vampires. His friend says no. I was pretty excited, because yeah, in older vampire lore sunlight didn’t play into it, that’s a comparatively new part of the mythology. But then the priest said something along the lines of falsehoods being perpetuated by vampires and vampire sympathizers to keep their actual weaknesses hidden, to which Roc asked if that meant that Bram Stoker was a vampire or vampire sympathizer, to which he got a veiled yes.

Guys, in the book “Dracula”, Count Dracula WALKS AROUND IN THE DAYLIGHT. And by this books logic, that confirms that vampires can walk around in daylight! So how would being totally truthful make Stoker a vampire or vampire sympathizer?! I’m okay with promoting fun ideas of vampire myths being propaganda that can be twisted to what suits them, but if you’re going to do that, know which myths apply to which stories!

So yeah. This book wasn’t for me. I couldn’t even really enjoy it in a guilty pleasure ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of way. But, that said, I know that a lot of people probably would like this book, both legitimately and ironically. And so it’s with this book, “Forsaken”, that I finally get to pull out Ranganathan’s Rule Number 3 as I side eye the HELL out of it.

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Amish Vampire Fiction is not for me, but it may be for you. “Forsaken” is certainly unique, and while I didn’t enjoy it, that doesn’t mean that others won’t. Every book its reader. Just gotta keep repeating that.

Rating 2: I had high hopes for silly fun, but ultimately really didn’t enjoy this one. Some of the vampire stuff was pretty okay, but overall it didn’t do it for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Forsaken” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Amish Mysteries”, and “Magic, Adventure, Romance”.

Find “Forsaken” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Smaller Evil”

27774725Book: “The Smaller Evil” by Stephanie Kuehn

Publishing Info: Dutton Books for Young Readers, August 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: 17-year-old Arman Dukoff is struggling with severe anxiety and a history of self-loathing when he arrives at an expensive self-help retreat in the remote hills of Big Sur. He’s taken a huge risk—and two-thousand dollars from his meth-head stepfather—for a chance to “evolve,” as Beau, the retreat leader, says.

Beau is complicated. A father figure? A cult leader? A con man? Arman’s not sure, but more than anyone he’s ever met, Beau makes Arman feel something other than what he usually feels—worthless.

The retreat compound is secluded in coastal California mountains among towering redwoods, and when the iron gates close behind him, Arman believes for a moment that he can get better. But the program is a blur of jargon, bizarre rituals, and incomprehensible encounters with a beautiful girl. Arman is certain he’s failing everything. But Beau disagrees; he thinks Arman has a bright future—though he never says at what.

And then, in an instant Arman can’t believe or totally recall, Beau is gone. Suicide? Or murder? Arman was the only witness and now the compound is getting tense. And maybe dangerous.

As the mysteries and paradoxes multiply and the hints become accusations, Arman must rely on the person he’s always trusted the least: himself.

Review: This summer my husband and I went on a few airplane trips, and on one of them we were overhearing (okay, eavesdropping on) a conversation between two people in front of us. While we only got the context of their trip from this one conversation, it sure sounded like we were sitting behind a couple of members  going to a big cult meeting. We kept hoping that they wouldn’t turn around and see us and try to sell us whatever kind of nutritional supplement pyramid scheme they had gotten themselves into, and the moment that they mentioned that at the big welcome concert they had a strict dress code of all white, we looked at each other like

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Is this going to be on the news in the near future? (source)

I’m sure it was all harmless, but I did have a few fleeting moments of thinking about Heaven’s Gate and things like that. I also thought of a book I’d requested from the library, “The Smaller Evil” by one of my favorite YA authors Stephanie Kuehn. Kuehn has written some pretty intense thrillers for teenagers, thrillers that have enough appeal that I think would be pretty tempting to adult audiences if they were willing to just give YA literature a try already. I love her debut novel “Charm and Strange”, and I have had her on my radar ever since I picked it for Book Club during our inaugural session. Kuehn writes with intensity, passion, and a searing amount of pathos, as her characters are all very messed up and very alone in the world. I’m a true sucker for that. I had pretty high hopes for “The Smaller Evil”, what with the fact that it sounded like it was going to tackle the topic of cults. Because with psychopathy, child abuse, sexual assault, and mental illness, why not add something like this to her repertoire, especially since she writes on these matters with sensitivity and eloquence.

The cult storyline itself was a bit more Lifespring than Jonestown, which was not as interesting to me as I had hoped it would be. Which probably makes me kind of monstrous but eh, I’ll own it. I had hoped that there would be some really creepy scenes with group think and herd mentality, and while Beau and his followers were by no means totally on the up and up, bordering into unhealthy, I never felt like there was much of a threat from them. This made it so I wasn’t as worried about Arman, which in turn made me not as invested in him as I probably should have been. I also had a feeling about what the big reveal or twist was going to be, and then really felt it when a reference was made to a 1960s film called “Bunny Lake is Missing”, in which a mother of a missing little girl has her sanity questioned. I did appreciate the fact that it was unclear as to whether or not the main conflict, specifically Beau’s disappearance and possible death, was an actuality, or all in Arman’s head. And I think that had I not seen “Bunny Lake Is Missing” I wouldn’t have been able to figure out just what was gong on, but since I’m a cinephile with a taste for the obscure there mystery was kind of sucked out of the story for me. But then, I don’t think that it would have been so clear to me had I never seen that movie, so that is hardly Kuehn’s fault. I just wish that the conflict with the cult had been a bit more pressing, as as it was, even without knowing the connection, I just never quite bought them as totally threatening as a whole. Misguided and saps, sure. But not dangerous, and that took some of the suspense out.

However, this made it so my focus and interest could be solely on Arman and trying to figure out what makes him tick. Like I mentioned, Kuehn does a really good job of writing mentally ill characters in a realistic and gentle way. Arman suffers from very severe anxiety from the get go, and the reader is slowly shown what has happened to him in his life that has brought him to such a precarious state. He is always on the verge of an anxiety attack, and his first instinct is to run from the issues. When we meet him he’s on his way to Evolve, the compound in the beautiful backdrop of Big Sur, California, he’s stolen a lot of money from his drug dealing stepfather. Arman is searching for a father figure, as his biologial father is a criminal and his stepdad is just as dangerous. I wholly believed that Arman would find himself mixed up with the charismatic and potentially manipulative Beau, and I never questioned the choices that he made throughout this book. His mental illness also felt very real, and his anxiety never treaded into campy territory. It also always felt real enough that one could plausibly wonder if he was just a victim of his own delusions, without portraying him as a complete ranting and raving lunatic. The only aspect of Arman that I did question was his relationships to a fellow teenage member of Evolve named Kira, and his simultaneous dalliances with the beautiful and sexually aggressive camp cook. Neither of these characters were really fleshed out enough for me to really understand their motivations when it came to Arman, and it felt a bit too bad to me that the two potential love interests were kind of relegated to the sexual awakening (the cook) and the idealized but out of reach romance (Kira). The other female character at the forefront was Mari, one of the lower ranked officials at Evolve who puts the screws to Arman when Beau disappears. This book is definitely more about Arman and his journey, and while I really liked finding out what his journey was, it was kind of a shame that the ladies didn’t have as much time to shine or grow as they could have.

Though I think that “The Smaller Evil” isn’t as strong as “Charm and Strange” or “Delicate Monsters”, even a weaker story from Kuehn is still far and away some of the best writing for Young Adults out there. I am continually impressed by the stories that she tells, and I am once again going to have to wait for her next novel to come out. I really hope I don’t have to wait too long.

Rating 8: I was expecting more cult, but “The Smaller Evil” had me questioning everything that I was reading and on the edge of my seat.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Smaller Evil” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Cults, Sects, and Religious Conflict for Young Adults”, and “Can’t Wait Books of 2016”.

Find “The Smaller Evil” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Mother, Mother”

17262187Book: “Mother, Mother” by Koren Zailckas

Publishing Info: Crown, September 2013

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Josephine Hurst has her family under control. With two beautiful daughters, a brilliantly intelligent son, a tech-guru of a husband and a historical landmark home, her life is picture perfect. She has everything she wants; all she has to do is keep it that way. But living in this matriarch’s determinedly cheerful, yet subtly controlling domain hasn’t been easy for her family, and when her oldest daughter, Rose, runs off with a mysterious boyfriend, Josephine tightens her grip, gradually turning her flawless home into a darker sort of prison.

Resentful of her sister’s newfound freedom, Violet turns to eastern philosophy, hallucinogenic drugs, and extreme fasting, eventually landing herself in the psych ward. Meanwhile, her brother Will shrinks further into a world of self-doubt. Recently diagnosed with Aspergers and epilepsy, he’s separated from the other kids around town and is homeschooled to ensure his safety. Their father, Douglas, finds resolve in the bottom of the bottle—an addict craving his own chance to escape. Josephine struggles to maintain the family’s impeccable façade, but when a violent incident leads to a visit from child protective services, the truth about the Hursts might finally be revealed.

Review: It is times like these that I thank the heavens that my mother is a wonderful, funny, awesome person who raised me well with a lot of encouragement and love. Sure, my teenage years, like most teenage years, were trying for both of us, but she and I have a very good relationship now, and I know that I am lucky for that. Because there are some people who have mothers like Josephine Hurst, and that scares the bejesus out of me. Josephine Hurst is one of the most twisted villains I have encountered in fiction this year, and like the other villains that have shook me to the core it’s because of her plausibility. She is the classic narcissist parent, who coddles and smothers and brainwashes one child (the neurotic and eager to please son Will), and torments the other (the tortured and lost Violet). I had gone into this thinking that it was going to be something kind of soapy and cartoony like either Kathleen Turner in “Serial Mom” or Marcia Cross on “Desperate Housewives”, but then when it was a really upsetting and scary book about the dangers of narcissistic parenting I was a bit taken aback. Though I suppose I should have expected something along those lines from the woman whose memoir, “Smashed: The Story of a Drunken Girlhood”, was about her tumultuous teenage years on booze. Still, how I hoped for a campy Bree Van de Kamp-Hodge revisit.

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Shady lady. (source)

I will say this much, this book was super upsetting and very terrifying to me because of how relentlessly evil Josephine was, and not in a fun way. Watching her manipulate her children and husband and wage psychological warfare against them was just hard to read. It’s told from two perspectives, that of Will, the doted on and pampered child, and that of Violet, the black sheep who Josephine psychologically abuses. The overarching mystery in this book is a pretty clever one, in that you don’t realize that it’s a mystery until about half way through, and that is of the oldest child, Rose. Rose ran away from the family shortly before the events started, and Zailckas does a very good job of slowly revealing why things may not be as they seem in not just this situation, but in many other situations in this book. We get the perspective of Violet, who resents her sister for leaving, and Will, who has been convinced that his oldest sister is basically evil, and I wanted to smack and shake both of them and protect them from this horrible woman who is raising them. I’ve seen and heard about narcissistic parents in the lives of my friends and acquaintances and family, and Josephine is written very, very convincingly. Even though I wanted to shake both Will and Violet for different reasons, I not once said to myself ‘well that just wouldn’t happen’, because Josephine was incredibly real. I definitely enjoyed the Violet sections more, but that may have been because the Will sections were a bit too disturbing to me. Will is the child who is loved and praised and coddled, but you also see just how far gone he is, and how screwed he is going to be because of his connection to his horrible and abusive mother. That said, I also think that the Violet parts showed a more well thought out character, as Violet, though she rebels against her mother with her fascination with Eastern religion and philosophy, is also completely controlled and dominated by her. Violet had the strongest voice of the three children, and I really felt for her and invested in her.

However, I kind of guessed a couple of the big twists pretty early on in the story, and I don’t know if it was because I read too much thriller fiction or because Zailckas didn’t parse out the clues in a very tricky way. I had a harder time with some of the red herrings that were thrown in, as they were only there to distract but then had no explanation or payoff. I also wish that we had a little more dichotomy between Josephine and Beryl, the mother of Violet’s friend Imogene and the positive female influence in her life. We got to see Beryl a little bit, but I wanted more juxtaposition between them. I also felt that Beryl was almost too two dimensional in her portrayal, both a compassionate maternal angel and a literal martyr, as she is suffering from terminal cancer. I think that had we seen more of her and had she had more depth it would have felt more sincere. And without giving away any spoilers, I wished for more closure than we got. I know that life doesn’t always have closure, and I know that rarely do awful people really get what they deserve. But sometimes I am desperate for it, and when it doesn’t happen the way I want it to I have a harder time accepting it.

“Mother, Mother” is a solid thriller mystery and most of the characters are well thought out. But I warn you, it is very upsetting, and it tends to have a bit more emotional baggage than it can carry. Koren Zailckas captures narcissistic personality disorder very well, and should you dare read this, be ready to feel all the ick.

Rating 7: While some of the parts are hard to read and some of the plot twists and diversions are unnecessary, “Mother, Mother” paints a haunting portrait of a horribly abusive mother and her suffering children.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mother, Mother” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Narcissistic Mothers”, and “Gillian Flynn Read Alikes”.

Find “Mother, Mother” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Burn Baby Burn”

25982606Book: “Burn Baby Burn” by Meg Medina

Publishing Info: Candlewick Press, March 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous year 1977 in New York.

After a freezing winter, a boiling hot summer explodes with arson, a blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam, who is shooting young people on the streets seemingly at random.

Not only is the city a disaster, but Nora has troubles of her own: her brother, Hector, is growing more uncontrollable by the day, her mother is helpless to stop him, and her father is so busy with his new family that he only calls on holidays.

And it doesn’t stop there. The super’s after her mother to pay their overdue rent, and her teachers are pushing her to apply for college, but all Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. There is a cute guy who started working with her at the deli, but is dating even worth the risk when the killer especially likes picking off couples who stay out too late?

Award-winning author Meg Medina transports readers to a time when New York seemed about to explode, with temperatures and tempers running high, to discover how one young woman faces her fears as everything self-destructs around her.

Review: So, okay, I may be kind of cheating with this one, as I know that I am usually here to review horror, thrillers, and graphic novels. “Burn Baby Burn” is KIND OF a thriller, but at it’s heart it’s a historical fiction that focuses on family strife and societal tensions. Whatever, I don’t care, because this book did set me on edge and that’s what thrillers do. So it counts. Plus, Meg Medina is a fabulous YA author, whose wonderful “Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass” won the Pura Belpré Award in 2014, and I have been keeping my eye on her. While that book had it’s moments of suspense, “Burn Baby Burn” is constantly walking on a line of intensity that is about to explode. And given the year and the setting (1977 in Queens, New York), it’s no wonder.

The scariest part of this story, where most of the suspense comes from, is not the Son of Sam cloud that is constantly hanging over these characters (more on that in a bit). Instead, it is the fact that Nora is sharing an apartment with her brother Hector, who is turning more and more into a violent psychopath as every day goes by. When he isn’t lashing out at his mother or kicking the neighborhood mutt in the ribs (poor Tripod!!! Once you kick an animal you are DEAD TO ME), Hector is stealing pills to sell with the neighborhood drug dealer, and threatening his sister’s life. I was kind of worried that Hector was going to just be a crazed, violent antagonist without purpose, but Medina makes it pretty clear from the get go that Hector has had serious issues ever since he was a child, and that a racist and disenfranchised community he has to live in hasn’t made things better. She doesn’t not excuse his behavior, but she does make the reader see more layers to him, which makes Nora’s home life all the more tragic.

Nora is a protagonist who is both super easy to root for, but also realistic enough that she makes big, teenage mistakes that make you want to shake her. She thinks that since she’s almost eighteen that she can handle everything that is thrown her way, but it’s very clear that this is not the case. Of course, her parents haven’t made things any easier for her. Her father can’t be bothered with his first family, and her mother flips between making excuses for Hector’s sociopathy, ignoring outright, and blaming Nora. While Nora finds solace an safety with her best friend Kathleen and her family, there is always a socioeconomic and racial divide between them, unspoken as it may be, and Medina does a good job of addressing that without casting any kind of judgment towards either girl. Nora is also in a league of her own in her goals. She isn’t interested in college or academia, but does have a passion in woodworking, and is more interested in going to a trade school to master that craft. In a world where so many of the YA girl protagonists we see are writers, artists, or poets at heart, it was delightfully surprising to see one who is interested in a nontraditional vocation (one that is disappearing from our schools). And I say that as one of those artsy writer girls. Nora was a breath of fresh air on all levels.

Time and place is phenomenal in this book. 1977 Queens was filled with lots of tension, from racial tensions in the community to Son of Sam stalking couples in cars. Having this backdrop for Nora’s coming of age story was incredibly original and also very appropriate. The specter of violence and bloodshed that haunted the entire city is a fabulous juxtaposition to the specter of violence that is haunting Nora’s own home. She is more afraid of a serial killer that she is her abusive brother, or tells herself she is. And with the nods to pop culture of the time really tied this story together. Nora is into disco, she and her boyfriend Pedro go see “Star Wars: A New Hope” in the theater, and Hector wants to go to CBGBs to see The Ramones. Medina really captured 1977 without hitting us over the head with it. Though this is probably due in part to the fact that some of the themes from then (systematic racism, frustrated youth, misogyny) are just as relevant today as they were back in 1977. And as everything started to come to a boil, even though I knew what was coming, when it happened it was still incredibly nerve wracking.

“Burn Baby Burn” is probably one of the best YA novels I’ve read this year, and Meg Medina once again has written a story about a situation many of us may not think about in our day to day lives. I was tied up in knots as I read it, and think that it deserves some serious recognition and a wider audience. The nostalgia and ferocity come off of it in waves, and Nora Lopez has a great tale to tell. Seek it out!

Rating 9: Both an intense story about familial strife, and a coming of age tale during a tumultuous and frightening time. Nora Lopez is the YA protagonist we need to see more of.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Burn Baby Burn” can be found on these Goodreads Lists: “YA Set in the 1970s”, and “#ReadPOC: List of Books by Authors of Color”.

Find “Burn Baby Burn” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Dark Night: A True Batman Story”

30357924Book: “Dark Night: A True Batman Story” by Paul Dini and Eduardo Risso (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, June 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: This is a Batman story like no other-the harrowing and eloquent autobiographical tale of writer Paul Dini’s courageous struggle to overcome a desperate situation.

The Caped Crusader has been the all-abiding icon of justice and authority for generations. But in this surprising original graphic novel, we see Batman in a new light-as the savior who helps a discouraged man recover from a brutal attack that left him unable to face the world.

In the 1990s, legendary writer Paul Dini had a flourishing career writing the hugely popular BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES and TINY TOON ADVENTURES. Walking home one evening, he was jumped and viciously beaten within an inch of his life. His recovery process was arduous, hampered by the imagined antics of the villains he was writing for television including the Joker, Harley Quinn and the Penguin. But despite how bleak his circumstances were, or perhaps because of it, Dini also always imagined the Batman at his side, chivvying him along during his darkest moments.

A gripping graphic memoir of one writer’s traumatic experience and his deep connection with his creative material, DARK NIGHT: A TRUE BATMAN STORY is an original graphic novel that will resonate profoundly with fans. Art by the incredible and talented Eduardo Risso (100 BULLETS, TRANSMETROPOLITAN).

Review: I’m a lifelong Batman fan. Superman is my favorite DC Superhero, but Batman will always have a piece of my heart because I grew up with him and all the villains that came with him. Batman pajamas, Batman sheets, Batman comics, Batman school supplies (well namely Catwoman, but still), I love Batman unabashedly even if I think that he’s kind of a lunatic. Even though I grew up with Batman, I only sporadically watched “Batman: The Animated Series”, as I think it ran opposite “Bill Nye, The Science Guy” where I grew up. Apparently to me the only hero greater than Batman was Bill Nye.

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This probably comes as a shock to no one. (source)

But of the episodes I did watch, I greatly enjoyed, and Paul Dini is one of the people to give huge thanks to for that (along with “Tiny Toons” and “Batman Beyond”). We also need to bow down and kiss his feet for creating Harley Quinn. I had no idea that Dini went through a traumatic near-death experience, as how much does the average comic fan know about those who write the stories? So when I heard that he was releasing a graphic memoir of his attack and recovery, I was definitely interested. Dini is a master storyteller, and when it comes to telling his own story it’s that much more powerful.

Not only is this a story of trauma and healing, it’s also a story of self reflection. Dini had a lot of problems even before he was attacked by two random men while walking home one night. His anxiety levels were high, his self esteem levels were low, and he had moments of depression and self mutilation even before the night he was nearly killed. The way that Dini lays his anxieties out in this comic are as various Batman villains he has written for. Poison Ivy is there to torment his conceptions about his sexual life. Scarecrow is there to freak him out about medicine and the healing aftermath of his attack. And then there is the original Big Bad himself, Joker, who is used to show Dini just wanting to turn his back on his world and self destruct. These villains are the perfect representations of all the worst fears he had at the time, and they are matched up well to those fears. And then there is the Caped Crusader himself, representing Dini’s struggle to overcome these issues and fears. I liked how Dini stayed true to the nature of all of these characters, but still was able to apply them to his own personal issues at the time. They never felt shoe horned in to fit his agenda, which I was worried about when I picked this book up. But Dini is a great writer, and he knows what he’s doing with these characters.

I think that Dini is also very brave for telling this story. He is more than willing to talk about his own flaws as well as the cruelty of others, and never makes himself out to be a sad sack perpetual victim in this. He calls himself out in the moments that he was acting foolish, and is honest about when he hit rock bottom and failed not only himself, but those around him as well. He talks about his PTSD after the fact, but the near emotional breakdown he was teetering towards even before he was attacked, stemming from a childhood of being an outsider and an adulthood of neuroses. A lot of his story really resonated with me on a personal level, and as someone with her own personal Jokers, Ivys, and Scarecrows she deals with (though not as extreme as Dini’s), seeing one of comics greatest minds open up about his demons was very, very satisfying and relatable. The message I loved most from this story was his message of “When someone hurts you, you are so much more than what they took from you.” A mentality that is very hard for victims of trauma to remember sometimes. Dini certainly had a hard time remembering. But he fought to remember.

I also need to note the artwork in this book. Eduardo Risso is no stranger to amazing artwork in the comics world, as he has done the art for “100 Bullets”, “Transmetropolitan”, and other Batman stories. He’s an Eisner Award winner as well. The art in “Dark Night” is gritty and haunting, with lots of shadows, darker or muted tones, and vibrant splashes of reds and oranges and pinks for blood and panic and mania.

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(source)

But when there is hope, and yes, there is hope, the colors are lighter, less harsh, and more vibrant and welcoming. One scene in particular, with Dini’s creation Harley Quinn, has a soft and kind feel to it that made me smile, and made me feel comfortable that there is light at the end of the tunnel for him, and for others struggling with mental illness and traumatic events. Dini takes solace in his creative works, just as many take solace in them as well. It’s a lovely concept.

“Dark Night: A True Batman Story” is incredibly brave and poignant. Dini continues to amaze, but this time it’s with his own redemptive arc rather than that of the Caped Crusader. Batman fans, I implore you to pick this up and read it. It is a testament to how important Batman, and other fictional characters, can be, especially when the night is at it’s darkest.

Rating 9: A deeply personal story that explores the importance of creative works within a healing mind and soul. This is a beautifully written memoir, with Batman at his most important.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dark Night: A True Batman Story” is not on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit perfectly on “Popular Graphic Memoir Books”, and “Memoirs of Mental Illness”.

Find “Dark Night: A True Batman Story” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “DC Comics: Bombshells (Vol.2): Allies”

29429565Book: “DC Comics: Bombshells (Vol.2): Allies” by Marguerite Bennett, Mirka Andolfo (ill.), and (Laura Braga (ill.).

Publication Info: DC Comics, July 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The shadow of WWII looms ever larger as the Bombshells battle the Axis Powers across the globe.

In Gotham City, a quartet of copycat Batgirls are doing their part to protect the home front.

In Greece, Wonder Woman faces a battalion of the undead, led by the villainous Baroness Paula von Gunther.

In London, Stargirl and Supergirl learn a shocking-and dangerous-family secret, while Mera encounters a monstrous threat from the sea that not even she can control.

And in Berlin, Zatanna attempts to thwart the evil magic that’s been released into the world, while the Catwoman and Huntress rescue a captured Batwoman from the clutches of the Third Reich.

But the paths of these superheroines will converge as they face their greatest challenge yet. To defeat the undead tenebrae soldiers overtaking London, they’ll have to form a Justice League of their own!

Inspired by the popular DC Collectibles line, DC COMICS: BOMBSHELLS VOL. 2: ALLIES throws the world’s finest heroines into one of the greatest battles in history!

Review: When I originally looked into the second collection of “Bombshells” comics, it was said that it wouldn’t be published until September of this year. Which left me to have to muster up a lot of patience for it, as I loved the first collection of the series (I will link to my review of it at the end). But I put myself on the list at the library, and told myself that I was willing to wait for it. So imagine my unbound joy when, in AUGUST, I got a notification that it was ‘in transit’ to my library. August is NOT September and I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy of this fact as I was at that moment.

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BEST SURPRISE OF 2016. Book wise I mean. (source)

Now I had a feeling going in that perhaps it wasn’t going to live up to the first collection. And how could it, really? The first one laid out all of the characters, set up their stories, and gave them all a lot to do, yet not so much that they were overshadowing each other. Unfortunately this time around, we got less characters, and of those characters the focus was uneven. I am VERY sad to say that there was no Harley or Ivy whatsoever!!! Given that their shenanigans in France was one of my personal highlights from the first collection, I was pretty darn disappointed. And other characters like Batwoman and Zatanna really had few things to do this time around. A lot of the attention was on Supergirl, Stargirl, Wonder Woman, and the rise of the Tenebrae Undead Army that the Axis has unleashed.

Which is still admittedly pretty damn cool.

Nazi zombies are always a fun villain to hate, and seeing them controlled by the rotten Baroness Paula von Gunther (aka one of Wonder Woman’s recurring enemies) was a DELIGHTFUL treat. I imagine that it would have been tempting to have one of DC’s more popular, MALE villains to be in charge of them, but instead Bennett went with von Gunther and I was pretty pleased by that. There are some great moments for Diana and Steve Trevor too, as poor Steve is very clearly suffering from PTSD (and a fairly sensitive and accurate depiction of it to boot) and she is his protector. But the most important character arc was that of Stargirl (whose name is Kortni in this timeline, the Russian equivalent to Courtney), a superheroine I was not terribly familiar with before these comics, but who became one of my favorites in this series. Stargirl is dealing with the insecurity of her power being relegated to her staff, and not within herself, unlike her adopted sister, Supergirl. In an effort to find out more about herself, Kortni goes to find her biological father, which in turn makes Kara feel like she too is out of place. She doesn’t know what her background is. It’s a lovely way of showing both girls feeling the same isolation in spite of each having what the other longs for. There was also a lot of really nice homages to their Russian origins, with their flashbacks being drawn in a similar style to a lot of Russian Artwork, the kind that my Mom is obsessed with and insists on having coffee table book after coffee table book on. And you can see Swamp Thing in one of these drawings. DELIGHTFUL.

We also got to see a fun new side group back in Gotham, with the rise of the Batgirls! They are a group of (pretty diverse!) teen girls who have decided to take on Batwoman’s ‘cowl’ and take out corruption back on the home front. While it sort of felt like a weird thing to shoehorn in when there were lots of other characters to see, I did enjoy that it gave us glimpses of something a bit more light hearted. Also, Tim Drake showed up in this storyline. I’m okay with this male DC character showing up, as he’s still pretty relegated to sidekick status. Love the dudes, but this is a comic to showcase the ladies!

And then, tragedy. I won’t spoil the tragedy here, but it marked the end of one large story arc, and along with that end came the loss of a character. Given my love for all of these girls, I knew that I was going to be a mess regardless of who kicked the bucket first, but by the time I got to that plot point I was pretty much a weeping mess on the couch, in awe of how bittersweet, touching, and sorrowful it was. These stories are so well written, you guys. I love all of the Bombshells and everything hurts now. I didn’t want to say goodbye. AND WHY DID THE SEND OFF HAVE TO BE SO BEAUTIFUL AND DEVASTATING?????

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Why must you hurt me in this way, Marguerite Bennett? (source)

So while “DC Bombshells (Vol.2): Allies” wasn’t as strong as “Enlisted!”, it was still pretty damn good and filled with a lot of feelings and emotions and great plot lines. It’s probably gonna be a long wait until the next trade comes out, but I have a feeling that it will be worth it. The Bombshells are hands down my favorite comic characters out there today. And it’s filled with more Girl Power than a Spice Girls Video

Rating 9: Not as strong as it’s predecessor, and it’s too bad that some characters were absent, but “DC Bombshells: Allies” was a very good follow up. Lots of great storylines wrapping up, and lots of emotions and tears on my part.

Reader’s Advisory:

“DC Bombshells (Vol 2): Allies” is not on any Goodreads lists yet. BUT, if you like the “Ms. Marvel” comics this could be for you. Also, for more fun female superhero stuff, check out “The Supergirls” by Mike Madrid. It’s a great history on female superheroes.

Find “DC Bombshells (Vol.2): Allies” at your library using WorldCat!

Previous reviews of “DC Bombshells”: “Enlisted”.

Kate’s Review: “The Girls”

26893819Book: “The Girls” by Emma Cline

Publishing Info: Random House, June 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.

Review: When I was sixteen, I read “Helter Skelter” by Vince Bugliosi. It was summertime, my sister, cousin, and I were visiting my aunt in Iowa City, and I would stay up late at night to read about Charles Manson and his cult of followers. I know that I’m not the only person fascinated by this case; there have been movies, miniseries, documentaries, and many books about Manson and the horrific murders his group committed at his behest. Because of my fascination, it should come as no surprise that I was super intrigued by “The Girls” by Emma Cline. Emma Cline already sold the movie rights to this book before it was even released, which only further demonstrates how we as a culture can’t get enough of Manson. “The Girls” isn’t really about the Manson family, per se…. But it totally is, as there are numerous parallels between the plot of the book and what happened in the California desert in 1969, from characters to circumstances to settings. But instead of focusing on Manson (or Russell, as is the charismatic cult leader in the book), it instead focuses on fourteen year old Evie Boyd. Evie is a restless teenager: she is dissatisfied with school, has few friends, is confused about sex and her sexuality, and resents her divorced parents. I think that it was a very compelling idea to tell the story of this group through the eyes of one of the members, especially the member who is still an outsider. Evie was more infatuated with Suzanne, a cool and beautiful older girl who takes Evie under her wing. The girl who is very blatantly supposed to be Susan “Sexy Sadie” Atkins, the Manson Family member who stabbed pregnant Sharon Tate to death.

Evie is a very compelling narrator, whose life we see during her summer with Suzanne and Russell’s group, and then in a more modern day time. In the modern timeline she gets caught up with a couple of young adults, a sociopathic boy named Julian and his devoted and doe-eyed girlfriend Sasha. While I enjoyed the flashback parts of the story more, the present timeline was a great way to show that while we decry and denounce the blind devotion the Manson Girls had towards Charlie, we actively encourage this behavior by making girls in our culture feel like they need the romantic partners in their lives, no matter how dangerously flawed they are. Evie knows this, as her need to be with and excuse Suzanne’s actions almost led to her own destruction. Seeing Evie have this knowledge, and yet be unable to show Sasha the terrible path she could be on, was one of the more melancholic parts (of many melancholic parts) of this story.

But like I said, the parts in 1969 were definitely the strongest parts of this book, and it wasn’t even just the cult stuff that was intriguing. Evie comes from a broken home, with her father married to a much younger woman and her mother seeking solace and fulfillment in fad self help therapies and new boyfriends. Both of her parents are so concerned with their own pleasure and happiness that they see Evie as a non-priority. So of course the poor thing is desperate to find some stability, and therefore drawn into this cult. By telling Evie’s story, we get to see a humanized side to a group of women (though so many of them were actually girls) who have been painted merely and solely as violent and foolish sheep. Is there a teenage self centeredness and feeling on invincibility that has some motivation in what Evie does, and what many of these girls do? To be certain, and it would be dishonest to imply otherwise. But Evie is here to remind us that ultimately, she is still a teenage girl, and that the things that she has to go through, both at Russell’s ranch and even at home with her actual family and friend group, are tragic and unfortunate. She is desperate to find acceptance somewhere, desperate to be loved, and because of this she willingly spirals towards a very dangerous conclusion.

Cline did a great job of creating and building parallels between the actual Manson Murders and what Russell’s family does in this book. Most of the characters have their real life counterparts (Russell is Manson, Suzanne is Susan Atkins, and I’m pretty sure Evie is Diane Lake, a fourteen year old who was caught up with the Manson Family), and the murders have similar foundations in the book to real life (Russell is denied a music deal, and sends his girls to attack the house of the man who he thinks did him wrong, just to find someone else there who they kill anyway). As someone familiar with and interested in the history of Charles Manson and his followers, picking out the analogs in this book was quite a bit of fun. Cline did a lot of research and put in a lot of the details of the original murders, while putting her own story into them as well. Her writing style is also a shining star in this book, as it flows and evokes the sights and feelings of this time period with clarity and ease. She gives Evie such a realistic and sad voice, and she manages to make this book seem less exploitative and seedy than it could have been. It’s definitely sad as opposed to titillating, and the tragedy is all over the damn place, on both sides of it.

Some of the sadness kind of spills over into today and current events. Just recently, Leslie Van Houten, one of the women who participated in the LaBianca Murders in 1969, was granted parole, only to have Governor Jerry Brown overturn it. I have a lot of feelings about this. On one hand, she is indeed a murderer, participating in the horrific killings of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. On the other, she was high on LSD at the time, and has really, really turned her life around while in prison, having gotten both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree and has had positive reports by the prison staff. Not to mention that it was so, so many years ago, and the point of parole is to take all of these circumstances into account. Plus, he fact that a few of the dudes in the Manson group have been granted parole (ahem, Clem Grogan and Bruce Davis, both also convicted of torture and murder) kind of makes this all the more perplexing, and makes “The Girls” feel all the more pertinent. Girls who are brainwashed into devotion to a significant other (by both society and the perpetrator, in Manson’s case) are punished when they take that devotion too far. It’s just fascinating seeing Cline’s point played out beyond the page.

“The Girls” is a fabulous debut novel. Cline does a great job of not excusing the actions of a number of violent and misguided girls, while still showing the tragedy of their circumstances.  I hope that this is just the start to a long and great career for Emma Cline, because I’m on board. “The Girls” is tense and upsetting, and a must read for people who are interested in the Manson Family, if only to see a side that perhaps hasn’t been seen yet.

Rating 9: A dark and sad story of growing up, and a really well done fictionalized account of the Manson Family, specifically the women involved.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Girls” is included on the following Goodreads lists: “Cults and Communes in Fiction”, and “The Femme Buzz: To Be a Well Read Woman Reader”.

Find “The Girls” at your library using WorldCat!

I’m also going to list some resources on The Manson Family, because there is a lot out there, but not all of it is great.

“You Must Remember This: Charles Manson’s Hollywood”: This podcast about Hollywood devoted ten episodes to Charles Manson, his Family, and Tinseltown in the late 1960s to give it all some context. It’s absolutely fabulous. Start here, and then you can find the way to the next episode at the bottom of the page.

“Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders” by Vincent Bugliosi: This is the definitive book by the prosecutor of the Tate and LaBianca murders.

Flavorwire’s Charles Manson in Pop Culture Guide: A list of various Manson related materials as compiled by Flavorwire.

Biography.com’s list of the Manson Family Members: Links to Biography.com’s information about various members of the family.