Bookclub Review: “Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery”

35798022We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery” by Mat Johnson, Warren Pleece (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Berger Books, February 2008

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: In the early 20th Century, when lynchings were commonplace throughout the American South, a few courageous reporters from the North risked their lives to expose these atrocities. They were African-American men who, due to their light skin color, could “pass” among the white folks. They called this dangerous assignment going “incognegro.”

Zane Pinchback, a reporter for the New York-based New Holland Herald, is sent to investigate the arrest of his own brother, charged with the brutal murder of a white woman in Mississippi. With a lynch mob already swarming, Zane must stay “incognegro” long enough to uncover the truth behind the murder in order to save his brother — and himself. Suspenseful, unsettling and relevant, Incognegro is a tense graphic novel of shifting identities, forbidden passions, and secrets that run far deeper than skin color.

Kate’s Thoughts

Two years ago when Serena and I were at the annual conference for ALA, we went to a panel that talked about graphic novels and how they convey stories. One of the panelists highlighted “Incognegro” by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece, a story based on true accounts of a black news reporter who could pass for white, and would go undercover to expose racial violence in the deep South. I knew that I wanted to read it eventually, but filed it away and didn’t think about it. So when book club decided that our theme should be selections from the TBR pile, I decided that we were going to read “Incognegro”. I knew that it was going to be a very raw and emotional read, but also had a feeling it was going to be as interesting as I thought it would be.

“Incognegro” doesn’t hold back from the get go, as the first pages depict a violent lynching in graphic detail. While it is horrific and set me immediately on edge, Johnson clearly had every intention of making the reader feel abject horror at what was on the page. The injustice and violence perpetrated against black people during the Jim Crow years is something that we learn in school, but it can still get a bit lost as to just how awful it was. This book exposes all of it, and while it’s absolutely hard to read and take in, it never feels like it’s exploitative. It also shows that it was what we would potentially see as ‘regular people’ who participated in lynchings, not caricatures of racists that we may think of thanks to TV and movies. While a Klansman is the main named antagonist, it’s also ‘regular’ people who go to watch the lynchings and even get souvenirs to commemorate the murders and tortures they witness. It makes it so that the reader can’t see this as merely something only mustache twirling villains did, and that it could be anyone who held such toxic and violent ideals, including the people you’d see walking down the street or at a picnic. Johnson also has a note at the end of the ten year anniversary addition, in which he talks about how the rise of far right and white supremacist hate groups in the last few years makes this story feel all too relevant still.

Not only were the themes strong, so were the characters. It is clear that the work that Zane (who is based on a man named Walter Francis White), is doing is necessary and incredibly dangerous, and we see him as he is starting to feel his dedication run thin, not because he doesn’t believe in it anymore, but because of the various tolls it is taking. He has managed to make his job both personal, as he is a black man who would be targeted if he wasn’t able to pass, and yet impersonal, because he’s escaped the South for Harlem and is the famous ‘incognegro’ who is doing important and applauded work. But it becomes wholly personal when it’s his own brother Alonzo that could be the next target, after Alonzo is accused of murdering a white woman. I liked seeing his experience and weariness, especially when contrasted with that of the younger and less experienced Carl, someone who is probably going to be his replacement. The way that they react to the conditions that they see on Zane’s supposed last assignment show their different approaches and feelings regarding what their mission is supposed to be, and I liked that Johnson doesn’t really show either of them as being right or wrong in their ethos, but also naive in their own ways. You care for both of them, and that makes it all the more upsetting when the violence they’re meant to evade can’t be avoided.

I am so glad that I finally picked up “Incognegro”, and I urge people to read it, as challenging and upsetting as it may be. It’s a story that is still incredibly relevant, and has a lot to say about the society we are still living in.

Serena’s Thoughts

As Kate mentioned, I was at the same panel that discussed this book and was very intrigued by it. Unlike her, I was not organized enough to put it on my Goodreads TBR list and so had completely forgotten about it. Thank goodness, one of us had it together there!

I agree with every Kate has said, so I won’t repeat her on those same topics. In brief, I thought the characterization was excellent for most of the characters (there is one exception with a woman character who reads a bit caricature-ish at times, but this is a super minor point). And, while incredibly hard to read about, I too appreciated the eyes-wide-open approach to such a tough subject. There is no hand-holding or soft-selling the horrors of this point in history. And like Kate mentioned, it’s made clear that it wasn’t only “villains” the way we would like to think of them. It could be anyone. And more so, there’s a good commentary about mob mentality throughout the book. That even people who on their own might not be moved to such violence can be easily caught up in a swell of anger and hatred and then subside back into their ordinary lives, as if nothing had happened. This is the kind of anger that I think we are seeing more of today at protests and rallies. This book is a good reminder of just how far that behavior can go if not held in firm check by those reporting honestly on the issues and the unequivocal recrimination by society and leaders of society of those participating in ways that lead towards this type of hatred.

I also really enjoyed the artwork in this book. It is done in variations of black and white with some hints of browns. It does a nice job of keeping the reader focused on what is being said by the story itself, rather than being distracted by the very thing the book is discussing: the color of individuals. The art was used in a really strong way, both slapping readers in the face with some pretty tough images, but also playing well to a few comedic moments as well as portraying the action of the story and emotion of the characters quite effectively.

The last thing I want to discuss is the mystery itself. While yes, much of the book is a discussion of the themes we’ve discussed above, there’s also a compelling murder mystery at its heart. I felt that by having this plotline, the authors were able to prevent the reader from feeling too overwhelmed by the dark nature of the story. I also really liked how it pulled in the idea that Black individuals were not the only ones who were disenfranchised at this time and who might find the idea of going “incognito” as a white man appealing in order to pursue the life they want but that is denied them in their natural state.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. “Enjoyed” seems like a strange word, given the context, but I think that it is still appropriate. I did find the mystery fun at times, and the darker aspects of the book were important reminders of a period of history that often gets briefly touched upon and then quickly moved past.

Kate’s Rating 9: A raw, emotional, and suspenseful look at a dark time in our history, and a story that shows the importance of speaking up for the truth no matter what the risk may be.

Serena’s Rating 9: Excellent. A tough read, but one that speaks to a subject many would rather avoid, and one that is always relevant when we see ourselves beginning to be ruled by fear and hatred of an “other.”

Book Club Questions

  1. Were you familiar with the role that people like Walter Francis White played in exposing the facts about lynching in the South during this time period?
  2. Both Zane and Carl have different approaches to gathering intel when trying to infiltrate racist circles, and different approaches with how to approach conflict. Let’s say that Carl hadn’t been found out due to someone with outsider knowledge. Whose strategy do you think is more effective or appropriate when lives are at stake: Zanes more covert one, or Carl’s more direct one?
  3. This book has two stories about people passing for identities that they were not: Zane passing for a different race, and deputy Francis passing as a man. We know the consequences for Zane were he found out, but what do you think the risks and rewards would have been for Deputy Francis?
  4. Many people today see the concept of race as a societal construct. What are some ways that this concept is hinted at in this story?
  5. What do you make of Alonzo and Michaela’s relationship?
  6. Mat Johnson has said that he wanted to re-release “Incognegro” in the aftermath of the Charlottesville far right/ White Supremacist rally and the racial terrorism it inspired. In what other ways do you think “Incognegro” is relevant to social issues of today?

Reader’s Advisory

“Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery” is included on the Goodreads lists “History Through Graphic Novels”, and “#BlackLivesMatter Reading List”.

Find “Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Kindred” by Octavia Butler

Serena’s Review: “Black Powder War”

91989Book: “Black Powder War” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, May 2006

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Picking up where book two left off (in China, Macau) Captain Will Laurence and his extraordinary dragon, Temeraire, are ordered to retrieve and escort a precious cargo of valuable dragon eggs from Istanbul to England. They take the Old Silk Road from China to Istanbul, crossing deserts and mountains. En route to England, they help the beleaguered Prussians battle Napoleon.

Previously Reviewed: “His Majesty’s Dragon” and “Throne of Jade”

Review: Trucking along with this series! Once you get me started, there’s no stopping me! Well, the waiting list at the library for the audiobook does hold me up…mostly because I love the narrator for this book so much that I refuse to read it in any other format now. So really, it’s my own pickiness that is holding me up. But really, it’s also probably for the best, as it’s always nice to have a solid series on the back burner that one can return to if ever caught in the midst of a string of bad luck reads. That’s not the case right now, really. I just couldn’t resist.

Lawrence and Temeraire are anxious to return home to England and rejoin their fellows in the war against Napoleon. They are also tasked with picking up a few dragon eggs on their way home. After a few unfortunate events, a sea voyage ends up being off the table as means of travel, and they’re forced to prepare for an over-land expedition. Along the way they face challenges of terrain, both mountain and desert, as well as rogue dragons and shady political figures. They also eventually find themselves caught up in the war itself on the continent, pulled before dueling loyalties: their honor to the foreign allies and the urgency to deliver the dragon eggs before they hatch.

As my reviews indicate, the first two books in this series took me a bit by surprise. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting into when I started the series (many books that feature dragons have clear tropes, none of which were found here), and the second book went in a new direction even from that. But now I think I’m starting to settle in and it all comes down to a similar theme: Lawrence and Temeraire go on adventures! Not only has each book taken place in very different locations and featured very difference challenges, foes, and comrades. But within each book are a series of mini adventures that the two friends must navigate.

In this one, we have another travel adventure for the first half of the book, as the pair and their crew leave China and make their way across Asia towards their home. Along the way, they must battle the elements, getting into some dire circumstances in the mountains and in a sandstorm. I was also excited when they ran into a group of feral dragons. As the series has progressed, it’s become clear that Lawrence and many people in general, don’t truly understand dragons and what they are capable of. There have been a lot of preconceptions that Temeraire has proved false, about dragon intelligence and individuality. Throughout it all, we’ve often heard about feral dragons as those that can’t be tamed or made to work with people. I very much enjoyed the way they were worked into the story and the foibles of the mini dragon society we see here.

I was also excited to see a return to the military aspect of the story. The first book had a brief battle scene towards the end of the book, and the second one had very little in this regard. But half way through this book, we really dive into the military tactics of dragons. I like the way Novik highlighted how different countries have had different approaches to how they use their aerial corps, a detail that continues the heighten the believability of dragons fighting in the Napoleonic wars.

Further, we began to see how dragons themselves can contribute to these types of military strategies, with Temeraire putting to use his knowledge for formations and strategy for in-air battle. I also really liked the way we see Napoleon use his dragons in very clever ways, making his military brilliance transfer just as well to this fantastical element. We also see how the presence of dragons could influence the outcome of some of these historic events in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily anticipate.

The ending did seem to kind of come out of the blue, however, with things building up to a climax and then quickly ending. I’m not sure the pacing of the story overall was quite right, in this regard. But other than, I’m still thoroughly enjoying this series!

Rating 8: I particularly enjoyed the return to the military aspects of the story in this one.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Black Powder War” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Alternate History Novels and Stories” and “Dragon Books NOT ROMANCE.”

Find “Black Powder War” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Bombshells United: Taps”

40996636Book: “Bombshells United (Vol.3): Taps” by Marguerite Bennett, Sandy Jarrell (Ill.), David Hahn (Ill.), and Aneke (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, March 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The Batgirls are back…but some will be called to leave Gotham City behind. Alysia and Felicity head for Hawaii to investigate the mysterious radio signals causing trouble across the world, but they find a new voice for the revolution!

However, their findings leave the Bombshells divided! The Batgirls are determined to track down the source of their friends’ misfortunes, and their investigation leads to an eerie spit of land, where a lone radio tower projects a deadly signal that curses all who hear it.

Spinning off of the hit DC Collectibles statue line, Marguerite Bennett (Earth 2: World’s End) concludes this alternate reality where super-powered women are on the front lines fighting for justice!

Review: We’ve come to the point that I have been dreading basically since I first picked up the “Bombshells” books: the end. At first I dreaded the end because I loved the stories so very much. I remember the absolute joy I felt when reading the very first collection, “Enlisted”. I was blown away by the creativity, the feminism, the diversity, and the optimistic spunkiness, all being showcased in an alternate WWII universe. But once we got into “Bombshells: United”, and the series was abruptly cancelled by DC, my dread became less about missing the stories, and more about how much they had to wrap up in a short amount of time. And, unfortunately, my fears were not unfounded. “Bombshells United: Taps” was an unfocused and rushed mess of an ending.

But first, as always, let’s look at the positive. And there is a good amount of positive before I get to the negative, specifically the entire first half of this collection. The second to last arc of the series not only brings back The Bat Girls, but it also ropes in The Suicide Squad, Black Canary, and introduces Bumblebee! When a mysterious signal is going out over a pirate radio station, it turns listeners into violent, hypnotized automatons. The Batgirls, specifically Alyssa and Felicity, just want to know who has incapacitated their friends. The Suicide Squad has orders to take out Black Canary, as it’s her radio station AND her lover Oliver Queen has gone missing. Two scrappy side teams with very different ethos converging in Hawai’i was a very fun and suspenseful storyline, and anything that is going to showcase Dinah Lance is going to get positive snaps from me. Both the Batgirls and The Suicide Squad have different approaches on how to handle this situation, but as they all start to lose friends to the mysterious radio waves they have to find a way to work together to try and take it down. This side story was a fun one, and the solution harkened back to an older storyline, which I quite enjoyed seeing wrapped up in such a way. It felt like an appropriate send off for The Suicide Squad and The Bat Girls before this series has it’s final farewell, and a nice arc for Dinah Lance that fits her at times morally ambiguous personality.

But the last half, which is the final wrap up of the entire series, was confounding. I want to make clear that I do NOT completely fault Bennett and the other creative minds behind “Bombshells: United” for how this all went down. After all, to be cancelled so suddenly with so many open storylines and brand new ideas had to be not only devastating, but daunting. How could they properly wrap up so many things with such limited time left? It’s a monumental task no matter how you slice it. But instead of perhaps focusing on the core group of women and characters who started out the story, and giving them proper, well thought out send offs, instead it was decided that EVERYONE needs to be addressed, and that we need to wrap up the ENTIRE WAR in spite of the fact we left off in 1944, and we’ve barely addressed much outside of the Western Front! So the final wrap up jumps from Wonder Woman and her gang in one place, to Harley and Ivy in another, to Supergirl and her gang in another, AND YET STILL FEELS A NEED TO INTRODUCE NEW CHARACTERS AND THREATS, in the forms of Parademons, The Black Lanterns, and Lena Luther who happens to be an ALIEN (oh and so is LEX). Oh, and guess who else decides to show up? THE JOKER. As if it wasn’t already a bit nuts that Joker’s Daughter, whom we haven’t seen since the original Bombshells series, pops back in in hopes of snatching up Zatanna AGAIN. No, we also have to throw in THE JOKER, just so Harley can have her ‘I REJECT YOU, YOU BAD BOYFRIEND!’ moment that didn’t feel at all necessary, especially since her relationship with him was barely touched upon AND didn’t seem to have any kind of baggage remaining until this very moment. Why are you wasting time with this when there are so many Bombshells that need addressing? Oh, and The Flash even shows up for a couple of frames, and gets her own wrap up at the end for some reason in spite of the fact she for real pops in, and pops out, and everyone is like ‘who was that?’ So we are STILL introducing new Bombshells when I feel like the focus really ought to be on trying to do justice to the ones you already had, especially when you only have a couple issues to wrap up an entire war and a plethora of storylines. And so unfortunately, when you have a lot of characters and a lot of storylines that need to be wrapped up, none of them feel like they get their due, and a number of them get killed off in unceremonious berserker ways like Family FREAKIN’ Tyrell in “Game of Thrones”. But even there at least they got a send off; for some of our Bombshells that we’ve been following since the first arcs, it happens off page and barely gets a note of acknowledgement.

bombshells
This is one page. The next page does the same thing. Constant action. (source: DC Comics)

And then we get an “American Graffiti’ style wrap up with a ‘here is how they all ended up’ montage. It’s fine, but it’s a bit twee, and it is another reminder that there was so much going on, and so many characters who were barely given anything to do in the last story. It’s Selina who wraps everything up for us as she’s prepping Bruce Wayne to become a ‘space age’ superhero, while reminding him that, essentially, he ain’t shit compared to the ladies she’s seen in her day (oh and since his parents aren’t dead  he was raised with hope and love, because remember, there is nothing more powerful in this universe than the power of LOVE).

giphy-1
It was too much. (source)

Look, ultimately I am going to have fond, fond memories of “Bombshells” as a whole, because while the ending was rough, I can’t place all blame on the creators. And the entire first series was so inspirational and important. Hell, the “United” series has some solid moments as well, some of which are in this issue. I think that the unbridled ambition came back to bite it in the ass, as nothing is guaranteed in this very unfair world where you can keep rebooting tired male superheroes/villains over and over, and women characters need to be ten times more interesting to be even given a shot to keep going. It’s unfair. It’s frustrating. But it doesn’t change that the ending to this series was lackluster, and that isn’t just on the injustice of it being cancelled too soon. Goodbye, Bombshells. You will definitely be missed.

Rating 5: A muddled and frenzied end to a series that I will legitimately miss, “Bombshells United: Taps” was a bit of a mess. I can’t fault it completely, but I was very disappointed that this is how we left my beloved Bombshells.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bombshells United: Taps” is included on the Goodreads lists “2019 Queer SFF”, and “Upcoming 2019 SFF With Female Leads/Co-Leads”.

Find “Bombshells United: Taps” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “The Sword and the Dagger”

39863306Book: “The Sword and the Dagger” by Robert Cochran

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, April 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: During the time of the Crusades, an unlikely trio—a Christian princess, her affianced prince, and a Muslim assassin—embarks on a quest to the court of the most fearsome warrior the world has ever known, Genghis Khan.

A rousing tale of adventure and romance about three young people who must grapple with fundamental issues of loyalty, friendship, faith, honor, and courage against the backdrop of conflicts that still resonate today.

Review:  I placed a request for this book based on the strength of its plot description and the beautiful cover. Even though there was a massive red flag telegraphed to me with the love triangle set up, I thought “Sure, why the heck not? Who doesn’t like a good ole fun trip into the time of the Crusades?” Alas, right off the bat I struggled to get into this book, and by the last page I was more confused by the editing (or lack thereof?) of this book than anything else.

The story follows our three intrepid adventureres: Princess Elaine, her betrothed Conrad, and Rashid, an assassin sent to kill Elaine. All three are made up of a complicated mixture of the best and worst aspects of their respective belief systems, be those religious or cultural, as well as a myriad of other aspects that go to prove that no person can be defined so simply. While journeying together through various trials and tribulations, they all must learn that their fellow travelling companions are just as complex as they themselves.

As I said, I didn’t love this book. But before I get into its challenges for me, I want to highlight some aspects of the book that I did enjoy. Firstly, I liked the historical setting and the way that was tied into the book. I also really liked a lot of the broader concepts about prejudice and tolerance that our three main characters explored throughout the story. There were the obvious debates about religious disagreements came to by the Christian Conrad and the Muslim Rashid, but the story also explored gender roles with the limitations placed on Elaine as a woman growing up in a time where very little was expected, or permitted, of women. Overall, there was a nice combination of action and adventure mixed in with these larger debates in a way that allowed the book to explore some pretty big topics without coming across as overly preaching. The fast pace of the story also helped in this regard.

So those are my pros. But mixed within some of those same things that I enjoyed were also the parts of this book that I struggled with. As I said, I liked the historical setting of this book and the fast paced nature of the adventure made for a snappy read. But mixed together, it also left the book feeling oddly light and surface-level as far as its world. Our main characters jump from place to place and action piece to action piece so quickly that I never really felt like I had time to really sit back and examine the intricacies of the setting in which these events were taking place. For a book that covers of settings and ground, I never felt like I was really given any time to appreciate that fact. The plot was too busy getting from point A to point B to allow for this.

The fast paced nature of the story was also fun, but it also felt like it undercut some of the more somber moments in the story and restricted some of the character development. While overall I did like the three main characters, I also never really felt overly attached to any one of them. They often felt like the standard, expected characters for a story like this. So, too, the story they were travelling through also felt pretty expected. There weren’t any big surprises, and the few twists that there were, were exactly the ones you’d come to expect. I don’t need huge surprises around any corner, but at a certain point a sense of newness does help.

But my biggest problem came down to the writing itself and one very specific thing: the POVs would change without any indication or warning. Even in the middle of paragraphs! Even to characters who weren’t one of the main three. In the very first chapter, we’re introduced to Elaine, but then random sentences come through from the perspective of those around her commenting on Elaine herself. There’s no explanation for why we’re suddenly in this new character’s mind and then just as suddenly, we’re back to Elaine. It was incredibly distracting and quickly started to drive me crazy as we went on. I’m not sure what was going on there, but this specific aspect is where I think a good editor was needed. This is the kind of writing tic/flaw that a good editor will flag and help an author work through during the revision process. For some reason that didn’t happen and what could have been a better story suffered for it.

Ultimately, this writing issue was really the nail in the coffin of my enjoyment of this book. There are some good bones here, but for me, I couldn’t get past the distraction of this. That, plus the light descriptions of setting and sometimes too-fast nature of the story, ended up outweighing the parts of the story that I did enjoy. This could be good for fans of historical fiction, especially those interested in this time period. But we warned that if you’re sensitive to writing quirks, this one might be a struggle.

Rating 5: It had some good things to say about prejudices and tolerance, but the weird POV issue was too much for me.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Sword and the Dagger” is a newer title so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “2019 YA Historical Fiction.”

Find “The Sword and the Dagger” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

 

Kate’s Review: “Daughters of the Lake”

38927017Book: “Daughters of the Lake” by Wendy Webb

Publishing Info: Lake Union Publishing, November 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The ghosts of the past come calling in a spellbinding heart-stopper from the “Queen of the Northern Gothic.”

After the end of her marriage, Kate Granger has retreated to her parents’ home on Lake Superior to pull herself together—only to discover the body of a murdered woman washed into the shallows. Tucked in the folds of the woman’s curiously vintage gown is an infant, as cold and at peace as its mother. No one can identify the woman. Except for Kate. She’s seen her before. In her dreams…

One hundred years ago, a love story ended in tragedy, its mysteries left unsolved. It’s time for the lake to give up its secrets. As each mystery unravels, it pulls Kate deeper into the eddy of a haunting folktale that has been handed down in whispers over generations. Now, it’s Kate’s turn to listen.

As the drowned woman reaches out from the grave, Kate reaches back. They must come together, if only in dreams, to right the sinister wrongs of the past.

Review: As someone who grew up in Minnesota, I have fond childhood memories of spending summer trips by Lake Superior. Even in my adult life I try to get up to Duluth and the north shore at least once a year, as the beauty of the lake shore and the north woods is hard to resist. Because of my affection for this part of the state, I am almost always going to give Wendy Webb a shot when it comes to her books. And given that she’s a local author, the wait list at the library is usually pretty long, so unless you’re on top of the publication dates it may be a wait. When “Daughters of the Lake” came out I wasn’t on top of it, but after a few months wait it came in for me, and I was eager to start it.

Webb’s books have always managed to capture the feel and essence of Lake Superior towns and what it’s like to live there. She describes the lake itself just how it is in real life, with the beauty, power, and danger that comes with it. Her descriptions of the lake shore and the towns on it really transported me to a part of this state that I love, and that alone made it so that I was going to finish this book no matter what. The characters were plenty likable as well. Kate, our main character, is a relatable protagonist, and you believe her pain as a woman whose marriage has fallen apart due to her husband’s infidelity and lies, and her need to have a change of scenery. More interesting, still, was her cousin Simon, a sympathetic and supportive bed and breakfast owner who has turned the family estate into a cozy resort. I liked their relationship, though sometimes Simon treaded little close to the ‘supportive gay bestie’ trope, especially since it seemed his sole purpose was to play as her sidekick. I was definitely invested in both of them, though, and the mystery at hand. I also liked the moments in the past, told both through Kate’s strange psychic visions and also perspective chapters. In those sections the focus on on Addy, a young woman whose birth culminated with her literally floating on the waters of the Lake with no harm done. The supernatural aspect of her story is slowly peeled away, and I enjoyed seeing those layers peeled back.

But unfortunately, a promising plot with fairly solid characters gets muddled in the last half of the book. The first issue I had I can’t really go into much detail about, as I don’t want to spoil anything. But some of the supernatural aspects of this book seemed to work without a magical system that was sorely needed to make believable. By the time the book had wrapped up I still wasn’t totally sure that there had been a full explanation of how this twist of fate worked. Secondly, there were small hints of other ghostly elements in this book that implied they were building up to something big, but by the time it was revisited it was rushed and crammed in near the last minute. There were also a number of plot twists that were either a little too obvious, or out of left field without any sort of build up. And one of these twists was the kind that I absolutely cannot abide: the plot twist that happens in the last few pages, which completely changes the outcome of the entire story.

giphy-11
(source)

I’m occasionally willing to give this kind of thing a pass, mostly if it’s inconsequential in it’s outcome, or if it’s SO well done and so well placed that it takes my breath away. But in this case it just felt like a cheap last moment ‘gotcha’, and I rolled my eyes as it unfolded because it felt totally unnecessary. My fear about this kind of turn of events in thrillers is that authors will start to think that a well plotted story is all about the twists, and will therefore try to add twists for the sake of twists. I don’t recall Webb doing this in her past works (well, not in ALL of them anyway), so I don’t think I need to worry about her future books. But it always makes me wary.

Ultimately, while I liked the setting and the building blocks of the plot and characters to “Daughters of the Lake”, there were a few too many stumbles for me to be able to give it a really high rating. It’s an eerie gothic read to be sure, but I had wanted more from it.

Rating 6: While the plot was fun and the setting kept me interested, “Daughters of the Lake” had a few too many hokey twists and felt disjointed in the story telling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Daughters of the Lake” isn’t featured on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Lake Superior Mysteries”.

Find “Daughters of the Lake” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Come Again”

36710841Book: “Come Again” by Nate Powell

Publishing Info: Top Shelf Productions, July 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The first and only comic book artist ever to win a National Book Award returns with a haunting tale of intimacy, guilt, and collective amnesia.

As the sun sets on the 1970s, the spirit of the Love Generation still lingers among the aging hippies of one “intentional community” high in the Ozarks. But what’s missing?

Under impossibly close scrutiny, two families wrestle with long-repressed secrets… while deep within those Arkansas hills, something monstrous stirs, ready to feast on village whispers.

Nate Powell, artist of the National Book Award-winning March trilogy returns with a new creator-owned graphic novel.

Review: I have read a couple of graphic novels that Nate Powell did the artwork on, and given that one of those was the stupendous “March” Trilogy I hold him in high regard. I first heard about his new graphic novel, “Come Again”, at work, when a coworker had requested it and couldn’t remember why. When she told me what it was about and who wrote it, I requested it myself. Not only was I interested in a supernatural story that takes place on a commune in the fading days of communes, I was also curious to see what Nate Powell would do as a writer as well as an illustrator.

“Come Again” has a number of themes that it addresses, and some of these themes work better than others. I will start with the aspects that I liked, because I liked them a lot. Our main character, Haluska, has lived in an Ozark based ‘intentional community’ (or as some laymen may call it, a commune) with her close friends and son Jake for the greater part of the 1970s. The idealistic 1960s are long over, though when Hal, her ex Gus, and their friends Adrian and Whitney first started living there it was 1971, and the world seemed filled with possibility. Now we are at the end of the decade, and though the community remains it has shrunk considerably, and Hal has been carrying on an affair with Adrian that is based in an underground cave they found in the forest. Their affair doesn’t seem to have much joy or passion to it, though neither seem willing to give it up, even though they have to take it literally underground. Haluska certainly feels guilt, but not enough to end it, and her attachment to a comfortable relationship that may not be what it used to be resonates within the greater storyline. The ideals of the Love movement, and the commune itself, are fading away, and with that change comes uncertainty and the impulse to cling harder to something that may not be there anymore. There was a moment that I found to be quite powerful, when Hal and Adrian go into town to sell goods at a farmer’s market. Their somewhat strained relationship with the ‘traditional’ town has been buoyed by the give and take system they have with each other. But on this specific day, a local band has been booked to perform. They happen to be a punk band, and their angry song of rebellion angers the townsfolk, but connects with Hal in ways she may not totally understand in that moment. Knowing that the 80s are coming, and the cynical and predatory social changes that are in store, it feels like a greater reflection of what’s to come, though Hal may not know it. These aspects of this book, of isolation, and guilt, and the secrets we keep from even the ones we love most, worked supremely well for me.

It was the dark fantasy and supernatural elements that fell a bit flat. There is something living in the cave that Hal and Adrian use, a disembodied voice that sinks into the various pages. After Hal’s son Justin and Adrian’s son Shane find the cave, Shane is lost within the depths, depths that may not be there all the time. This, of course, helps feed into Hal’s guilt about her affair with his father, but then it becomes clear that something supernatural is going on that only Hal can see. While I usually really like strange supernatural elements (and am enough of a ghoul that missing people is a theme that I like), I didn’t feel that this part of the book was as strong as it could have been. We don’t know what it is that is living in this cave, we don’t know why the spell it casts manifests in the way that it does, and as we see the consequences of the disappearance and spell start to unfold, we don’t really get answers as to why or how it’s happening. I understand that ambiguity is a key component of a story like this, and I can appreciate it to a point, but in this story I was left more confused than anything else. It ultimately leads to a sacrifice that Hal has to make, and though I understood the resonance of the sacrifice it also felt a bit like a cop out when it came to her having to own up to some of her past mistakes (and the mistakes that others have made as well). I think if the story had leaned in more to the magical or supernatural system I would have liked that part more, but it could have easily functioned as a historical fiction meditation on self, secrets, and guilt.

But Nate Powell’s style is still very unique and stands out in my mind. I liked seeing how he used shades, shadows, and a semi-realistic stylization to tell this story. I especially liked how the disembodied voice of the monster/whatever was written, in ways that made it seem like it was literally floating on the wind.

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(source)

“Come Again” was a book that didn’t quite give me what I want from the premise and author. It certainly had strong moments, but overall it didn’t have to ghostly oomph I expected.

Rating 6: While I enjoyed the broader themes of isolation, secrets, and guilt, the supernatural elements left much to be desired.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Come Again” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is included on “NPR’s Best Books of 2018”.

Find “Come Again” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Wet Hot American Summer”

38749157Book: “Wet Hot American Summer” by Christopher Hastings and Noah Hayes (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM!Studios, November 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: It’s time to shut up and return to Camp Firewood in the first-ever, all-new original graphic novel for the beloved, cult classic, Wet Hot American Summer. To tell you all about it, here’s Camp Director Beth.
 
“Well guys, we made it through the first week of camp in one piece . . . except for a few campers who now are lepers. Anyway, so I gave the Camp Firewood counselors the night off to head into town to do whatever it is teenagers do and some old coot—excuse me, old sea hag whore face—called the fuzz, which led to a surprise camp inspection! Not only did they find out that we have a kid who doesn’t shower but apparently the entire camp isn’t up to code! Now we have 24 hours to clean up our act or they’re going to shut down Camp Firewood. Luckily, I have the best counselors in the whole wide world…wait, where are those little jackasses…in town still?! We are so screwed…”

There you go! Join Beth, Coop, Katie, Andy, Susie, Gene, Nancy, Victor, Ben, McKinley, J.J., Gary, Gail, and probably some other people in this unforgettably tender story of camp spirit and spreading mud on your ass written by the hilarious, deliciously irreverent Christopher Hastings (Deadpool) and illustrated by artistic dungeon master Noah Hayes (Goldie Vance). What are you waiting for? Go read it.

Review: If you were to ask me what my favorite movie was, I would immediately say “Wet Hot American Summer”. This wacky ensemble camp comedy is a cult classic, and has so many people in it who either were comedic favorites at the time (Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce) , or became comedic favorites as time went on (Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, the list goes ON). In 2015 Netflix produced a prequel miniseries called “First Day of Camp” in which almost the entire original cast came back to reprise their roles, and I loved every minute of it. They somehow managed to recapture the charm, irreverence, heart, and humor of the cult classic in spite of the fifteen year gap. Then in 2017 they tried again with a sequel series called “Ten Years Later”… And I wasn’t terribly impressed. At that point it felt forced, and like it was beating a dead horse. So when I heard about a graphic novel story about “Wet Hot American Summer”, with a whole new plot but familiar characters during the same 1981 summer, I was stoked, but hesitant. While I welcome new WHAS content, it wasn’t the original writers. Would it go the way of “First Day of Camp”, or “Ten Years Later”?

I’m happy to report my fears were for nothing. Because “Wet Hot American Summer”, the graphic novel, was mostly a delight.

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And there was much rejoicing. (source)

The plot is pretty simple, even if it’s outlandish. Which, as a WHAS story, it needs to be. A night on the town from the teenage counselors leaves a local woman scandalized, which leads to a camp inspection. Camp Firewood has one day to fix all of the problems of the camp will be shut down for good. Is there any suspense about whether or not this will happen? Of course not. Is it fun seeing various characters have a week’s worth of nonsensical misadventures in one day’s time? Hell yes. Christopher Hastings, the writer, does a fantastic job of creating ludicrous situations and tidbits that feel like any of the random non sequiturs that the original creators and writers would have done. From a long forgotten boy’s wash house of spa like proportions to a number of campers who go feral, the antics are at a very outlandish, and therefore WHAS level. And while the stakes in terms of the eventual outcome of the camp’s survival aren’t exactly high, Hastings still built suspense regarding friendships and interactions, which did keep me a little nervous and on edge. My dear sweet sweethearts Ben and McKinley are fighting?! NOOOO!

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I am far too invested in these precious, precious cuties. (source)

In terms of the characterizations of the cast, Hastings overall did a pretty good job of writing them the way they are supposed to be. Coop is still a hopeless idealistic, Susie is still a theater obsessed control freak, Andy is still a bad boy doofus, and Gene, well… is Gene. It felt like David Wain and Michael Showalter themselves brought us a whole new story, they were all so spot on. If I did have an issue with this book, it would be that the distribution of character focus was a little unbalanced. While we would get a lot of focus on Andy, or Ben and Susie, or Beth and Gene, we barely saw anything from other characters, and sadly it was mostly women, like Katie and Lindsay and Abby Bernstein. I know that you can only do so much with a huge swath of characters, all of them amazing, and only so many pages, but it was still a little disappointing that it was women who were more likely to fall to the wayside. Especially since Lindsay played such an important role in “First Day of Camp” (whether this followed the canon of “FDOC” isn’t very clear; there are some hints but nothing is said outright in reference to it).

I also should probably mention that if you have no working knowledge of WHAS and what it tries to do, this will probably seem nonsensical and insane. It is definitely written for fans of the movie and various shows, and while it nails it for the fans, if there is no familiarity of it from the reader they will almost assuredly be lost, and perhaps frustrated. There are tiny throwbacks and Easter eggs within the narrative that make it extra fun for people like me, but I can’t imagine that the completely ridiculous plot and exaggerated characters will resonate for those who have never seen the movie. And along with that, if the wackiness of the movie didn’t appeal to you, there is no way that this graphic novel would.

The illustrations, done by Noah Hayes, are the perfect design for the tone of the story. They feel like a mix of YA favorites such as Raina Telgemeier and the over exaggerated emotions of manga or manga inspired narratives that Bryan Lee O’Malley might make.

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Coop continues to be adorable, even in comic form. (source)

“Wet Hot American Summer” was a funny and heart filled revisit to my favorite summer camp. I would love it if Hastings and Hayes teamed up to bring us more stories from Camp Firewood, but even if this was it, I’d be happy with what we have.

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Show me the fever, into the fire, taking it hiiigher and hiiiiighter.. (source)

Rating 8: A fun romp of new content for my favorite movie, “Wet Hot American Summer” does a pretty great job of capturing the humor and irreverence of Camp Firewood and its staff!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wet Hot American Summer” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Books Set During the Summer”.

Find “Wet Hot American Summer” at your library using WorldCat!