Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London

Here’s another post from my time at Insatiable Booksluts.  In this one, I reviewed Marshland, a collection of trippy, meta, even mythic stories and essays about the East London wilderness, a haunting world of demons and zombies and bear men and time travelers.
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Marshland-cover-188x300Book:  Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London

Author:  Gareth E. Rees; Illustrated by Ada Jusic

Published:  2013 by Influx Press, London.

First Lines:  “My first daughter, Isis, was born in Homerton Hospital in November 2008.  My parents looked after our cocker spaniel, Hendrix, while we adjusted to our new life.”

Rating:  4/5 time-traveling riverboats that consider themselves an independent micro-nation.

Recommended if you like:  the surreal, the meta, the haunting, and the occasionally grotesque.  Exploring the unusual, less tourist-trod areas of a city.

A Kindle version of this book was provided by Influx Press.

When I read the description of Marshland on inpress.com – “a blend of local history, folklore and weird fiction, where nothing is quite as it seems” – I was like

toy-story-aliens

One download later, I stepped into a world of night-wandering bear-men, haunted Matchbox car factories, time-traveling riverboats, and midnight zombie reunions.

Marshland is an ode to the East London wilderness.  The area encompassing Hackney, Leyton, and Walthamstow marshes provides a surreal and dreamlike setting where time, as Rees puts it,* is “in a perpetual remix.”  It flows forward, pulls back, curls in on itself…  Decades are superimposed on each other like waves stretching across the sand.

This is not a safe world, nor always picturesque.  Here be demons and crocodiles, buried bombs and corpses, a gritty twist on a Brothers Grimm tale, and did I mention those zombie reunions?  “How little [do] Londoners realise that, while they were tucked up in bed, battles between phantom beasts raged beneath the pylons and poplars.” **

But beware, most of all, the Old River Lea, who remembers a time before humanity — beware the day she’s strong enough to take back what she’s lost.

I love the constant dance between reality and fantasy in these stories.  The book as a whole is a mix of genres – part memoir, part literary fiction, part meta-fiction, part magical realism…  You have essays about the rise of Olympic Park and the fall of a late 19th-century sex cult, next to stories of hapless Victorians (literally) falling through time and guilty lovers trying to hide from their (literal) demons, complemented by Ada Jusic’s black-and-white illustrations that shift from simple to surreal, from eerie to macabre.  Like time inside the marshland, the book moves in multiple directions, resisting any single label.

I also liked how the stories would link to one another, in more ways than just via shared setting.  You’ll see a character or event from one story mentioned again several stories later.  A side character whose name you don’t even remember is suddenly the lead.  It’s another way the book defies genre, being neither a conventional novel, nor just a collection of unconnected stories.

A few things that lowered my rating:

  • The occasional proofreading errors — misused or missing words, two words smushed together, etc.  And there’s an error in the map of the Leyton/Walthamstow area, in the front pages – according to Google Maps, Leyton Marsh is actually southeast of Walthamstow Marsh, not southwest.  Maybe it sounds trivial, but it’s kind of sloppy, and as I said, it’s not the only mistake the red pen missed.
  • This one’s specifically about the Kindle version.  The text in the comic-form story, “The Raving Dead,” was too small for me, and unfortunately, there’s no zoom function in a Kindle book.  You can increase font size, but of course that doesn’t apply to text that’s part of an illustration. I ended up being able to just-barely read it on my laptop with the Kindle PC app.
  • The following comment from “A Walk By the River.”  Context = the narrator is describing some of the unusual things he’s seen in the woods by the Old River Lea, things he sometimes wonders if he’s imagining.  At this moment, he’s just walked past a group of African men and women performing a ceremony.

They waited silently for me to pass, smiling.  I smiled back but couldn’t think of anything to say.  I wasn’t even sure they were there.  They were figures from the dreams of another.  I had become a bit part in the dengue-fevered fantasy of a sick city. [emphasis mine]

To me, it sounds like he’s referring to this group of people — or his vision of them — as a symptom of disease.  Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne illness usually found in tropical regions, including some parts of Africa (though it’s apparently been spreading elsewhere more recently).  It usually breaks out in dense urban areas.  One of Marshland’s themes is the constant threat of urban London spreading into the wilderness… so, is the narrator suggesting that those people he saw (or imagined) in the woods — people he speaks of as other, as foreign — are part of the problem?  It’s odd, since the book expresses a different attitude three stories later, when a character seems comforted by the sight of a football game “‘played between men of all races and creeds,’” believing it represents the freedom of humanity (well, “man”) in general. 

Overall, though… 

Marshland is an excellent read, especially if you’re into meta-fiction and magical realism (if you liked Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman, for instance), and don’t mind the occasional swear word or a few graphic sex scenes.

I also recommend Rees’ blog, The Marshman Chronicles.†  The “Marsh Radio” section is especially fun – it’s a collection of super-short stories (and a slightly longer one about that time aliens tried to transform the marshes into “a giant spacecraft landing site”) matched with playlists featuring hallucinatory streams of disco, dub, techno, electronica, remixed chants, and “Hauntology”…whatever that is.  Anyone want to tell me what that is?  Sj?  Yeah, I know I could just Wikipedia it… oh.  Except, apparently, they deleted that entry?  Because they couldn’t decide if it’s actually a thing?  But there’s an archived copy of their debate (scroll to the bottom) re: whether or not to delete said entry?  Huh.  Um…

Dance Party Ending, GO!

comunity-krumping

______________________________

*  In this quote from “Death of a Fish,” Rees is referring specifically to the Middlesex filter beds, but the comment also applies to the way he sees the marshland as a whole.

**  from “Death of a Fish,” Kindle Locations 685-686.

†  The Marshman Chronicles blog has since been taken down 😦  But ten points to Ravenclaw if you see what he did with that title†† 🙂

††  It’s totally an allusion to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, right?

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Posted in fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, magical realism, meta, short stories, spooky | 4 Comments

Scary ghost stories and tales of the glories: New Year’s tales and traditions

Back in 2013-2014, I was a contributor to the Insatiable Booksluts blog, which specialized in small-press literature reviews, Reading Rages™, and other fun and snark-tastic book-related business (I never did master Susie’s particularly awesome brand of snark myself).  It’s one of the most fun projects I’ve taken part in, and I’m really going to miss working with Susie, sj, and the rest of the IB team.

Unfortunately, the site has since been retired, but I’ve decided, with Susie’s permission, to resurrect some of my posts here at Postcards (the Juv/YA-appropriate ones, anyway…the more adult ones I’ll post to my LiveJournal blog to my new adult book blog, Same Story, Different Versions) starting with a look at some New Year’s folk tales and cultural traditions from around the world.

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The Fire New Year” – A poor man and woman are celebrating the New Year, making do with what very little they have, when a weary traveler knocks on their door.  He needs a place to stay for the night, and none of the other houses would accept him.  The couple agrees, and their kindness is immediately rewarded – the traveler is really the god Miruku, who’d been searching for a place to bestow his luck.

To the people of Okinawa’s Yaeyama islands, Miruku (“Miroku” in other parts of Japan) is a harvest god and bringer of good fortune.  “Miruku parades” wind through village streets during harvest festivals, led by someone dressed as the god.  And some believe that on New Year’s Eve, Miruku – in this case known as Hotei – sails with six other “Lucky Gods” to various towns “to dispense happiness to believers.”

Miroku is also a very important figure in Buddhism – he is a version of Maitreya, the Future Buddha who will save humanity from its most corrupt state.  It makes sense, then, that “The Fire New Year” also speaks of the old couple’s faith in the future – when asked whether they’d prefer wealth or youth, they choose youth, reasoning that money can corrupt one’s mind, while youth would help them work toward a better life.  In other words, they don’t ask for instant (monetary) gratification, because they trust that their future will be happy enough.

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Konig Ambanor und das Waisenmadchen,” or “King Ambanor and the Orphan Girl” – an

tawny-owl1-300x225

Wikimedia Commons
Oh, and the “fairy godmother” is an owl. Guess why I think that’s particularly neat. *cough*hint*cough*Bowie*cough*

Armenian Cinderella tale, as translated from a late 19th-century German text.  King Ambanor must find a wife if he wants to keep his throne, so he sets up a contest for New Year’s Day.  The woman “who, at a distance of one hundred paces, can knock the crown off his head with an apple,” would be his wife.  Many women try and fail at the contest, when a mysterious girl appears, veiled and covered completely with flowers.  She throws a diamond apple and successfully hits the crown, but disappears before the king can discover her identity.

According to Marian Roalfe Cox, the Cinderella in this story may symbolize the Armenian spring goddess Amanora.  Long ago, the Armenian people honored Amanora with a New Year’s festival, during which they offered her the fruits they’d grown that year.  Other sources refer to a god Amanor, or to Aramazd.

There are actually three dates associated with the Armenian New Year:

  • Amanor, March 21st, was a celebration of nature’s rebirth at the beginning of spring.  This remained the New Year’s date until the 25th century BC.
  • Navasard, August 11th, commemorates the day when the legendary hero Hayk Nahapet founded/united the Armenian nation.  Navasard was also the name for the entire first month in the Armenian calendar; it is said that Hayk Nahapet himself named that month after one of his daughters.
  • January 1st was declared the official New Year’s date by Simeon Yerevantsi, the 18th-century leader of the Armenian Church.

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Match-Girl1The Little Match-Girl – Hans Christian Andersen.  A poor girl is sent by her cruel father to sell matches on New Year’s Eve.  She lights a few to warm herself, and with each match she has a wonderful vision.  Like a number of Andersen’s other tales, this one does not end happily…or does it?  You could say Andersen gives us two endings – one comforting and one bleak, one magical and one harshly realistic.

Or you could say that the Match Girl has the happy ending, finally entering an eternally warm and loving place, while the people who passed her by get the bleak ending.  Stuck in a cold, compassionless world, they can’t even imagine a better existence – “No one had the slightest suspicion of what beautiful things she had seen; no one even dreamed of the splendor in which, with her grandmother she had entered on the joys of a new year.”

And that’s another interesting point – each “ending” is also a beginning.  One year ends and another begins.  The Match Girl’s old, miserable life ends and a wonderful new life begins.  There may even be hope for the passersby; the story ends with someone finally noticing (or really paying attention to) the disheveled kid who maybe tried to sell them some matches yesterday.  They’re too late to help her, of course, but maybe they’ll pay more attention to other children with too-thin clothes and bruised, bare feet.  And the more fortunate children who read or hear Andersen’s stories might grow into more concerned, compassionate adults.

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Gershon’s Monster – a very old Hassidic legend retold by Eric A. Kimmel.  Gershon

Gershons-Monster-246x300

Random note: the illustrations in here are wonderfully expressive

never apologizes for his mistakes. Instead, he sweeps them into the basement until Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), when he gathers them all in a giant sack and dumps them into the sea.  A wise rabbi warns Gershon that this practice will one day harm his family, but Gershon continues to be rude, ungrateful, and dishonest.  And then the day comes when all of his inner demons rise from the sea as one giant monster, while his unsuspecting children play on the beach…

In addition to Hassidic folklore, Kimmel’s story is based on a Jewish ceremony in which people symbolically shed their sins into the sea or another body of water – but unlike Gershon’s practice, this ceremony (tashlikh) involves actual regret for those sins and desire for forgiveness.

The way I see it, the timeline surrounding the story’s climax represents the timeline of Rosh Hashanah itself.  In the Jewish calendar, New Year’s Day is followed by the Ten Days of Repentance, and then Yom Kippur – the Day of Judgment.  In the story, Gershon performs his un-genuine tashlikh on New Year’s Day.  Some time passes, during which he might avert the coming danger, if only he’d remember the rabbi’s warning and actually repent for his mistakes.  Finally, the Day of Judgment comes, when all of Gershon’s sins are presented before him (and God), and his fate is decided.

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Nian-iPad-story

There’s also an iPad app version of the story

The Tale of Nián – a Chinese New Year’s legend.  Once a year, the monster Nián comes out of its mountain prison to eat, and the nearby villagers are forced to hide in their houses or run away.  But one year an old beggar discovers a way to keep Nián out.  The monster is attracted by some red paper on the door of one house, but just as he tries to charge at it, he’s hit by lightning.  So the old man wraps himself in red cloth and uses firecrackers to simulate more lightning, which terrifies Nián right out of the village.

In another version, the old man is a god who first keeps the monster out by riding it away from the village.  Eventually the old man wants to move on, so he gives the villagers advice on how best to scare Nián – by making loud music, throwing fireworks, decorating everything in red, and having the children wear masks and carry lanterns (Nián especially likes eating children).

The word Nián means “year” in Chinese, and “New Year” is “Guò Nián,” which means to “pass over” or “overcome” the year.  So, in a sense, the story of the monster is about chasing away the old year so you can start a new one.  Maybe the demons repelled by the New Year’s celebrations are like Gershon’s demons – all the negative experiences we need to overcome before we can start a fresh year.

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What other New Year’s stories have you heard or read?  What are your New Year’s Eve traditions?

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Posted in folklore/fairy tales, picture books | 2 Comments

2017 year-end review

It’s been really good to be able to escape into fairy-tale worlds this year, where evil-doers and cranky fairies are no match for the power of love, and alternate Americas where superheroes can actually stop maniacs from taking over the government, and actual sea witches sing Little Mermaid tunes in San Francisco karaoke bars.  Who wouldn’t want to be part of that world?

Anyway, Christmas is a time to focus on the good things that happened in the past year, and for me, that’s been the funny, exciting, hope-inducing, and even spine-tingling books and short stories I’ve gotten to read.

Let’s take a look back at the best of Postcards 2017.  As always, click on each cover to see the full post.

Our Own Private Universe  King Baby  No Normal  My Lady Jane  princessbride  Dreadnought  Young Avengers  Hildafolk  Sovereign  henry-harbor-seal  Time Windows  Brightest Fell

More Favorites  

Back in March and April, I reviewed a number of versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, and Beauty and the Beast — both original fairy tale versions and twisted versions by authors such as Margaret Atwood, Jim C. Hines, Tanith Lee, and Angela Carter.  My favorite source of the latter was Angela Carter’s collection of adult, feminist fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber.

bloody-chamber

Carter’s heroines are willful and disobedient, devious and dangerous, unconventional and untamable.  They face down controlling husbands, werewolf lovers, and their own humanity to make their own way in the world.  And Carter doesn’t shy away from the adult aspects of the tales, enhancing the risqué, sexual elements implied by the original tales.

Some of my favorites were “The Bloody Chamber,” a Bluebeard tale in which the young bride is saved not by her brothers, but by a fellow woman; “The Tiger’s Bride,” a Beauty and the Beast tale in which it is not the Beast, but the Beauty who transforms in the end; and “The Lady of the House of Love,” a tale infused with several Grimm motifs and a heaping helping of Bram Stoker, a tale of a sleeping beauty in a rose-choked castle in the Carpathian mountains, a daughter of Nosferatu who sleeps by day and feeds on unwary travelers by night.

Inspired to search out more of Carter’s work, I also discovered her collection of original fairy tales from around the world.

Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales

As in The Bloody Chamber, Carter focuses on stories about women and all their bold, adventurous, industrious, clever, and even wicked ways.  These are princesses who can work as hard as their subjects, little girls who are wiser than tsars, unimpressed wives who cure boastful husbands, good girls and bad girls and witches and wild women.  And these, too, are bawdy, graphic tales that don’t shy away from body parts and sex, as well as swear words and fart jokes and other “low” humor.

Some of my favorites were “The Three Measures of Salt,” a Greek tale about a young woman who challenges her husband that she can “rub three measures of salt on his face and he be none the wiser”; “The Market of the Dead,” a West African tale about a dead mother who gets revenge on the wicked stepmother watching over her two children; “The Rich Farmer’s Wife,” a Norwegian tale about a girl who tricks an arrogant, powerful man who demands her hand in marriage; and “The Two Women Who Found Freedom,” an Inuit tale about two co-wives who escape their abusive husband by hiding inside a dead whale.

More Favorite Short Stories & Novellas

Jim C. Hines’ “The Red Path” and Tanith Lee’s “Wolfland,” two Little Red Riding Hood stories in which Grandmother herself is the wolf, using her gift to rebel against abusive men, and passing along her power to Little Red so she, too, can protect herself against harmful humanity.

Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s “The Story of Beauty and the Beast,” the original “Beauty and the Beast” tale (after “Cupid and Psyche,” of course) in which we are treated to several backstories of the Beast, as well as the fairies who cursed and helped him.  My favorite part was the story of the Happy Isle and the fairy who rebelled against her society by falling in love with a human.

M. T. Anderson’s “The Gray Boy’s Work,” one of my favorite stories in The Restless Dead, a collection of ghastly tales of the dearly departed not resting in peace.  Anderson’s story contains the most unique supernatural characters, creepy angels and singing omens who visit a family whose father left to fight in the Revolutionary War.

Seanan McGuire’s “Of Things Unknown,” a novella included at the end of The Brightest Fell, starring the cyber-dryad April O’Leary, leader of the County of Tamed Lightning after her mother and several others were killed in A Local Habitation.  April blames herself for the disaster, but there’s nothing she can do except be the best Countess she can be.  Some mistakes cannot be undone.  Some sins cannot be fully atoned for.  Or so it would seem…  Because it’s been three years, and things have changed, and the impossible has been accomplished in other places when October Daye was involved, so why not at Tamed Lightning?  It’s a touching, world-altering story that is going to have serious repercussions in future books.

. . . . .

What about you, fellow readers?  What have been some of your favorite reads of 2017?  What are you looking forward to reading in 2018?

I hope your Christmas and New Year’s are filled with warmth, friends, family, fun presents, good food, and whatever weather you like best this time of year!  I’ll leave you with this wizarding Christmas classic to fill you with Potterly joy this season.

Posted in comics, fantasy, favorites, folklore/fairy tales, year-end review | 6 Comments

Happy October-versary to me!

October costume
Of course Toby’d wear a bloody Tolkien t-shirt under that leather jacket.

Five Octobers ago, sj introduced me to a wonderful selkie novella called In Sea-Salt Tears, and thus pulled me into Seanan McGuire’s amazing Faerie-verse. Like a totally normal reader, I immediately started my October Daye adventure with Book 5 (because that’s where all the mermaids are, duh), and promptly got confused (but pleasantly so) by all the references to knowes and changelings and such, but also absolutely delighted with all the everyday details of McGuire’s world-building – the scent of each person’s magic; the way they swear using phrases like “Oak and ash” and “Root and branch” and “Oberon’s balls”; the way they blend 21st-century mortal life with the older/more timeless Faerie forms; the way the faery characters are both unearthly and totally human in their feelings and actions; the way Faerie completely accepts LGBT characters as just a natural part of society…

I love the way this world is structured, from its roots to its youngest branches, from the Big Three to the Firstborn to all the faerie races, from the purebloods to the mixed-bloods to the changelings, from the deeper realms to the Summerlands to the mortal-side San Francisco apartments. I love the urban fantasy adventures we get to go on that blend mundane mystery/adventure plots with supernatural settings and details – murder mysteries involving magical weapons, missing children trapped in half-mortal shallowings, drug rings selling goblin fruit…

These books aren’t perfect. The series, like October herself, goes through a learning curve, working out the plot holes and the characters (*cough* Toby *cough*) making stupid decisions and Maeve’s teeth the repetition and Captain Obvious comments (see my October Daye drinking game for some more fun Toby tropes). Even the newest books have a few kinks in the story thread, a few places where I went from

popcorn

to

confused

But the memorable characters and incredible world-building make up for the pitfalls, and keep me wanting to know, What happens next? Will the Luidaeg end her contract with the selkies? Will Simon Torquill be saved? Will Luna and Rayseline ever forgive Toby for waking him up?  What the freaking oak and ash is going to happen with the county of Tamed Lightning after April and Toby’s totally world-altering actions in Of Things Unknown?

So far, we’ve seen Toby avert two wars, solve a bunch of murders, find dozens of missing children, thwart a plot to turn Faerie completely digital, battle the ancient and nasty inspiration for the Snow White story, perform a few resurrections, consistently turn the male-hero-rescuing-female-damsel trope upside down, and now… and now. And now, she’s finally getting to the heart of Faerie’s biggest issues. Now she’s getting closer to figuring out why the Big Three left in the first place and locked up the deeper realms. I have a feeling we’ll be meeting Oberon, Titania, and Maeve in person by the series’ end. I’m calling it. I’m ready to place bets. I’m with this series for the long haul.

P.S.  On a totally random note, this is my mental movie cast:

jennifer-connelly-2
Toby/May Daye

Benedict Cumberbatch
Tybalt, the local King of Cats

Ziva Temptation
The Luidaeg, singing “Poor, Unfortunate Souls” at Toby’s bachelorette party.  Best moment in the whole series.

Seven_of_Nine_2376
April O’Leary, the cyber Dryad

Posted in fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, Halloween, LGBTQIA, mermaids, selkies | 2 Comments

Ghastly stories for the biggest scare-seekers

Do you keep a night light on on Halloween, just in case?  Do thoughts of the undead keep you unrested?  Or are you all about the vampire bats and the plague-haunted castles and the vengeful murder victims come back to punish the criminals?  If you’re a Halloween thrill-seeker, these next three books may be for you.

The first is a recent work of nonfiction aimed at middle-grade+ readers, while the second and third are collections of literary comics and short stories more appropriate for readers with a higher tolerance for horror.

Anna Claybourne.  Don’t Read This Book Before Bed.  Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2017.

Don't Read this Book

Scare Level:  5 out of 10 Gruesome Guinea Worms

This recent book from National Geographic Kids is an encyclopedia of the world’s spookiest subjects, from the terrifyingly true to the positively paranormal, from zombie ants to presidential poltergeists, with several creepy quizzes in between (“How Woooooooo Are You?” was one of my favorites).  The neatest thing about this book is that each subject is accompanied by a Fright-O-Meter rating that warns readers just how scary that subject is.  Those with a low tolerance for terror might want to stick to the sections on space jelly and déjà vu, while those who don’t mind more mind-bending subjects can check out the sections on scary skin-dwellers and the Tower of London.

Though, some of the Fright-O-Meter ratings had me scratching my head; frog rain gets a whopping 10 on the meter, while parasites that eat your tongue and then live on in its place only gets a 2 (well, ok, so they really only affect fish, BUT STILL!!!).  And they actually have a section on butterfly migration.  Butterflies.  Granted, that one gets an understandable 1 on the meter, but really?  Butterflies?

Manny butterflies

To each their own phobias, I guess.  (Turns out, there is such a thing as lepidopterophobia, or the fear of butterflies.  Who knew?)

. . . . .

Gareth Hinds.  Poe: Stories and Poems.  Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2017.

Poe cover

Scare Level:  6.75 out of 10 writhing, ravenous rats

For this collection, Hinds has chosen some of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous stories and poems to illustrate, from “The Tell-Tale Heart” to “The Cask of Amontillado” to “Annabel Lee.”  What I thought was especially neat was how, before each of the stories, he includes a “Poe Checklist” of the biggest themes in Poe’s work — from angels and demons to creepy animals to guilty consciences (or lack thereof).

I have to say, the art itself took a second reading to grow on me.  At first, I was a little underwhelmed by characters and scenes that looked a bit too cheerful and bright.  This is purely a matter of personal taste, of course, (and maybe a touch of snobbery) but with my reading of the mood of Poe’s stories, I was expecting something more sinister throughout, something that really captures the horror at the center of the story, even in the initial, more benign scenes that build up to the main horrifying scene or event.

For example, the walk through the catacombs in “The Cask of Amontillado” seemed too quick and too well-lit to really give you a sense of growing dread as you go deeper and deeper underground.  And in “The Masque of the Red Death,” the ball certainly looks delightful, but you don’t really get a sense of how desperately outrageous and over-the-top and dream-like it is, in contrast to the ironically simple, yet too-offensive appearance of the final visitor.  It feels like those scenes are rushed-through on the way to the main event, and so you lose the sense of dread that really builds up the scary event.

Where the art does get creepier, though, it’s pretty darn creepy.

Red Death

I will say, “The Pit and the Pendulum” was the one story that benefited from being condensed, skipping Poe’s long description of the trial before you get to the torture chamber, which I think already has enough build-up to the horrifying pit and pendulum.  And I really liked the way Hinds depicted the narrator’s exploration of the chamber in a series of wordless chalk-like images against a simple black background.

I also really liked the illustration of the raven in the eponymous poem, with its feathers that transform into skeletal hands and skulls.  That was really cool.

Raven

Overall, it’s a good introduction to Poe’s most famous stories and poems.  You get the gist of each story, and you can’t go wrong with images of swarming rats and dismemberment when you want to seriously creep out your readers; I definitely recommend going back and reading the original works, though, to get the full measure of dread and horror.

. . . . .

Deborah Noyes, ed.  The Restless Dead.  Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2007.

restlessdead

Scare Level:  8.75 out of 10 realizations that you dug up the wrong grave

II’m giving this one such a high Scare Level purely because of “Bad Things” and “Honey in the Wound,” the most gruesome stories in the collection.  You’ve got your devil worshippers, your corpse mutilation, your amputations gone wrong, your homophobic teenage guys who use the idea of being gay as an insult…what more do you need for a truly terrifying Halloween read?

These are stories of the dead not resting in peace, the dearly departed souls who want revenge, or company, or just to play some pranks or keep partying in the living world some more.

A few notable titles besides “Honey” and “Bad Things” include:

“The Wrong Grave,” by Kelly Link — my favorite part was the matter-of-fact, somewhat sarcastic first-person p.o.v. that never reveals who exactly he or she is, other than someone who knows the protagonist from school (I do have a theory), but somehow knows all the innermost thoughts and feelings of Miles Sperry, a doofus who goes grave-digging one night for his recently departed girlfriend (more specifically, for the poems he mistakenly buried with his girlfriend), only to discover he’s dug up some other girl’s grave instead, and now she wants to ditch her dirty digs and follow him around instead.

wah wah

“The Heart of Another,” by Marcus Sedgwick — This is a Poe-inspired story about a graduate student who recently had heart surgery, and who now finds she has some new abilities and personality traits, along with some really unsettling re-occurring dreams.  Unable to simply enjoy her second shot at life, the narrator becomes obsessed with finding out whose heart she was given.  Except the answer reveals something terrible she might have been better off not knowing.  This was definitely one of the spookier stories in the collection, with a twist as good as the one in “The Wrong Grave.”

“The Gray Boy’s Work,” by M. T. Anderson — This was my favorite story, next to “The Wrong Grave,” because it has the most unique paranormal characters.  Ezra and his family live in a valley visited by singing omens and angelic chariots that give news from the Revolutionary War.  When Ezra’s father leaves to serve, the family is personally visited by a pair of angels, Victory and Despair, one blindfolded and one fanged, who just sort of hang around, being mysterious and a little creepy.  And then, when the father returns, the angels bring forth another spirit, the Grey Boy, to haunt the family for the father’s sins…or maybe it’s not so simple as that.

. . . . .

What about you?  Are you a Halloween thrill-seeker, or do you prefer to let sleeping corpses lie?  What are some of your favorite literary chillers?

Posted in comics, Halloween, nonfiction, poetry, short stories, spooky | 7 Comments

Halloween board books for the youngest goblins (and anyone who likes a fun story)

Halloween Month continues with the following series of seasonal stories for the youngest readers.  Today, we are going to look at five board books perfect for getting babies and toddlers (and anyone who enjoys a fun story) into the spirit of the season.

First, an ode to a classic Halloween treat, and other things shaped like it:

candy-corn

Candy Corn is a cat who loves looking for all sorts of triangle shapes on Halloween.

candy-corn2

candy-corn3

It’s a short book, showing five triangle-shaped items before ending with a wish that “Halloween went on and on!”  Be sure to check out the other Halloween shape books by Kelly Asbury:  Frankensquare and Witch Dot.  Apparently, they all glow in the dark!

* * *

Next, the tale of a wiener dog who goes from joke butt to hometown hero on Halloween night.

hallo-wiener

It’s not Oscar’s fault he reminds everyone of an Oscar Mayer wiener.

hallo-wiener3

All the other dogs at obedience school (and the neighborhood cats) make fun of him, and his mother doesn’t help when she makes him a hot dog costume for Halloween.  Not wanting to hurt her feelings, Oscar agrees to wear it, secretly expecting this Halloween to be a bummer.

hallo-wiener4

Little does he know that tonight will be an opportunity for some Halloween heroism.

It’s an adorably funny story about discovering your talents and using what you have to help others.  Also, that dog catcher costume is the cleverest, amirite?

* * *

Third, a tribute to the Halloween tradition of Trunk or Treating:

Trunk or Treat

It’s apparently a tradition at some schools, churches and in rural areas for people to decorate their cars like parade floats, fill their trunks with goodies, and gather in big parking lots for children to trick or treat from car to car.  The book follows one girl and her family as they attend their own Trunk or Treat festival, starting their journey with a Noah’s Ark car:

Trunk or Treat2
Friendly PSA: “Native American” is a diverse group of living cultures, guys, not a Halloween costume.

And moving on through pirate cars and Wild West cars, and so on.  This book will inspire readers to find their nearest Trunk or Treat festival, or even start one of their own!

* * *

Fourth, a lift-the-flap/pop-up book full of creepy crawlies.

halloween-bugs

Halloween Bugs4

Halloween Bugs5

Who’s behind the magical door?  And the whimsical door?  And the rusty iron door?  Just lift the flaps to find out!  The story ends with all the creepy crawlies gathering in a graveyard full of funny tombstones (srsly, be sure to read each one 🙂 ).

* * *

Finally, a hilarious book about a group of chickens who apparently didn’t get the memo about Halloween.

Eek! Halloween!

“There’s a big round moon in a dark, dark sky.  The chickens are nervous.  Do you know why?  It’s because…”

Eek! Halloween! 2

Flickery-eyed pumpkins, witches and wizards, ducks with  monster feet…what could it mean?!  Silly chickens, it’s just Halloween!  This book is an awesome addition to the Boynton library of goofy animal tales.  These bug-eyed, bewildered chickens are sure to elicit plenty of giggles from your favorite trick or treaters this Halloween.

* * *

How about you, Postcardians?  Do you have any favorite Halloween board books that aren’t on this list?

Posted in board books, Halloween | 2 Comments

Enough

I really debated posting this. Is a book blog really the place to get political? Shouldn’t I just stick to the fun, uplifting posts that let people forget about the terrible things that happen in Real Life? But at some point, I can’t just look away anymore and say nothing. At some point, enough. Is. Enough.

No, we’re not the only country with this problem. PolitiFact has a great post comparing the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. versus in ten other countries.

But just because it’s common doesn’t make the situation acceptable. At some point, we have to decide that these constant mass shootings are not simply “the price of freedom” in America.

And let’s get one thing straight: talking about gun control is NOT talking about banning all guns, or preventing law-abiding citizens from owning guns. It’s NOT about denying law-abiding citizens their second amendment right to bear arms. It’s about paying attention to the first half of the second amendment – the part that says “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” (emphasis mine) – in addition to the more popular second half. It seems the Founding Fathers intended “the right to bear arms” to be a controlled, orderly business, not a free-for-all.

Now, I don’t know if universal background checks or closing the gun show loophole will prevent the next shooting. I really don’t. I just know I don’t want to wait around for the next shooting to have an honest, rational discussion about how to make it harder for the wrong people to get their hands on a weapon intended to kill as many people as possible in as short a time as possible. It’s not impossible to stop this from happening again. It’s not just something we have to get used to as members of a “free country.”

And I know. I know you can’t tell with every person. I know there will be people who show no warning signs and jump through all the legal hoops and still find a way to commit mass murder. But can we at least make it less likely for that to happen? Isn’t that a worthwhile goal?

 

 

Posted in opinion | 8 Comments

Nostalgic Double Feature: October Edition

It’s that awesomest time of year again, the month for reading spooky, paranormal stories; stocking up on snack-size Butterfingers; and putting together your kick-@$$ October Daye costume.

This month, I’m prepared with several Halloween posts featuring nostalgic middle grade titles, a series of seasonal board books, and (true) stories for the biggest scare-seekers.

Today, we take a look at two haunted house stories from the late 80s and early 90s. Both books feature a move from the “soul killing” city to a small town out in the country—a move celebrated by one protagonist and hated by the other—and historic houses haunted by long-ago tragedies that seem to be affecting the behavior of the new inhabitants/neighbors.

Wait Till Helen ComesMary Downing Hahn. Wait Till Helen Comes. New York: Clarion Books, 1986.  Kindle ed.

Rating: 3.95 out of 5 hidden graves with your bratty stepsister’s initials carved into the stone

Molly is seriously bummed when her mother and stepfather announce they are moving away from the excitement of Baltimore to an abandoned church in a sleepy small town in Maryland. What’s worse, their new home is next to a scary old graveyard. And worst of all, Molly will have to constantly watch her stepsister while the parents are busy with their art projects. Heather hates her new stepfamily, and is constantly getting Molly and her brother in trouble. But when a local ghost latches onto Heather and beings luring her away from the family, to a dangerous ruin in the woods, Molly realizes that sometimes, the most difficult people are the ones who need the most love.

Mary Downing Hahn is known for her scary stories, and this one is certainly creepy enough, with its focus on a skeletal seven-year-old ghost girl with bluish-white skin and dark holes for eyes. And Hahn builds up the creepiness in other parts of the story, like in the narrator’s contemplation of her own skeleton that would someday lie in a grave, and her eerily beautiful description of the forest, with its “unfriendly” trees that “[brood] like giants on the verge of waking from bad dreams.” [1]

About the same age as Molly when I first read the book, I could definitely feel the unfairness of the whole situation from her perspective – especially the part about her having to miss out on a creative writing class in Baltimore 😦  And I totally hated the way the stepfather, Dave, was so wrapped around his daughter’s finger and always put her interests above the other two kids’ – especially Molly’s. He’d do everything in his power to keep Heather from being upset, but he’d completely dismiss Molly’s feelings.

“Just don’t inflict your own fears on Heather, Molly. You’ve been fretting about that graveyard ever since we moved in here. It doesn’t bother anybody else, so forget it, okay?” [2]

What a jerk, right? Of course, looking back on the story from an adult’s perspective, I can better understand why Dave acts the way he does; he’s grieving over the death of his first wife, and has translated that grief into an obsession with keeping his daughter happy, to keep her from remembering the trauma she experienced. I also better understand Molly’s mother when she seems to unfairly take Heather’s side – she’s trying to be sympathetic to her stepdaughter despite the girl’s hostility, yet she also does try to understand how tough the situation is on her older kids. She sees how important Heather is to Dave, and she wants to make Dave happy, but she also wants to be loyal to Molly and Michael.

Still, even as an adult I was offended for Molly every time Dave scolded her or made fun of her concerns, or when her mother told her she wasn’t trying hard enough with Heather.

The one thing that really didn’t work for me this time was the ending. Not to spoil anything, but it doesn’t make sense, first of all, that the scene in the basement only happens now, after a hundred years. I guess maybe ghost time is a lot slower than living time? It just feels like a conflict that could have been resolved decades earlier.

And the way everything so easily gets better after the climax is a little unbelievable. Certain characters’ behavior just changes suddenly, with no need for professional counseling or anything. Yeah, it’s suggested that the presence of the ghost girl was amplifying the bad feelings between the family members, but there were issues that already existed before they moved out to the country that wouldn’t simply disappear along with Helen’s unfinished business.

Overall, though, it’s a pretty good ghost story. It probably creeped me out more when I was a middle-grade reader, but it was still pretty enjoyable now.

* * * * *

Kathryn Reiss. Time Windows. Orlando: Harcourt, 1991.  Kindle ed.Time Windows

Rating:  5 out of 5 terror-inducing waves of magnolia

Now, this was an awesomely eerie, unique haunted house story! Time-warping dollhouses, airtight hiding places, an old house that has some sort of hostile influence over its inhabitants, and all around, the nauseating scent of magnolia blossoms. Why is Miranda so afraid every time she smells magnolia blossoms? The extreme sense of unease and déjà vu build up throughout the story until Miranda finally figures out why her new house seems to have such a negative effect on the people who live there.

Miranda is thrilled by her family’s move from the overly hectic and crowded New York City to the wide-open spaces of Garnet, Massachusetts. She loves their spooky old house, and is immediately drawn to the attic, where she discovers a dollhouse that is an exact replica of her new home. And then she discovers the most amazing thing of all – when she looks through the dollhouse windows, she sees into the past, watching the lives of the house’s previous inhabitants. She soon becomes obsessed with the dollhouse, determined to find out what exactly happened so long ago that has given the house such a hostile atmosphere.

Besides the spookiness, I loved the juxtaposition of the earlier time periods with the present day attitudes toward women who work outside the home. Even the cold, cruel Lucinda becomes a somewhat more sympathetic character when you consider what a chauvinist her husband is about her wish to be a lawyer or work in business. Contrast that with the present-day inhabitants of the Galworthy house – Miranda’s mother is the one who provides for the family as a doctor while Miranda’s father stays home with Miranda.

And I really liked the history-laced setting; Garnet is a traditional New England small town involved in the Revolutionary War. Miranda lives next door to a family-owned museum that used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. She watches through the dollhouse windows as a family from the 1940s discusses sugar rationing and air raids.

And this is random, but I always like when stories describe music as something powerful, almost magical. Ok, not actually magical in this case, just emotionally magical — something that can entrance you, that can soothe or stimulate, a dream-like experience.

She didn’t know whether what happened when she played was a strange thing or not—maybe, indeed, all people experienced the same sort of thing when they concentrated on something important to them. But when Miranda played her flute, she would find herself falling into the music, into the story it told. After the first few minutes of warming up, she no longer noticed her fingers on the keys or her mouth on the mouthpiece, controlling the flow of air. Instead, she was off in some other place, listening to the music as if she herself were not playing it, but as if it flowed through her from some other source. [3]

And finally, again not to spoil anything, but the Happily Ever After makes a lot more sense in this book than in the previous one; there’s a much stronger reason things get better so suddenly.

There’s more I could say about this book, but it would be getting too deep into spoiler territory. I’ll just say that I definitely recommend Time Windows to anyone looking for a unique haunted house story.

Let the Halloween Month shenanigans begin!

________________________

[1] Wait Till Helen Comes. Pg. 73

[2] Pg. 57

[3] Time Windows. Loc. 2379

Posted in family, fantasy, Halloween, historical, nostalgic, re-reads, spooky | Leave a comment

Out of Book Experience: selkie-hunting in Maine

For one last summer adventure, my mom and I decided to travel northeast for a week, soaking up some mermaid vibes and writing inspiration in Kennebunkport, Maine.  It was also a throwback to one of my childhood favorites, the first selkie book I ever read — Sylvia Peck’s Seal Child (previously reviewed here and here) — as well as a chance to practice some (very amateur) wave watching as learned in Tristan Gooley’s How To Read Water: Clues, Signs & Patterns from Puddles to the Sea, and even to take a Seven Tears
at High Tide
-inspired trip to a local amusement park.

Gooch's Beach selkie
Yup.  I totally met a real-live selkie, posing for tourists.

I’d forgotten how cozy the mood and setting of Seal Child are, but re-reading it before the trip, I was taken back to long winter nights by the fire, drinking French-style coffee and eating hot fudge, listening to local sea lore; long summer days picking berries and making pies, taking long beach walks with your dog, buying candy sticks from the general store; summer nights spent swimming in the local pond…

Of course, my trip to Maine was a lot more touristy than Molly’s; I stayed at a hotel instead of a cottage, ordered lobster rolls and clam chowder from the famous Clam Shack instead of preparing my own meals, and spent my week partaking in such touristy activities as souvenir shopping and lobster boat touring instead of baking pies and listening to stories told by old friends.

Kylie's Chance

To be fair, my biggest reason for taking the Kylie’s Chance lobster boat tour was the promised stop at Bumpkin Island, a well-known gathering place for harbor seals.  They were kind of hard to spot that day, but they were there.  And I did ask around a bit about local seal stories, and discovered this absolutely lovely book by local artist Mimi Gregoire Carpenter, the tale of a boy who pretends to be a harbor seal for a day.

Henry Harbor Seal

The illustrations are wild and whimsical full-page images of seal pups and mermaids and sea dragons, and the story teaches good lessons for beach tourists, like which sandy treasures to leave alone (anything that’s still alive).

Another day, inspired by Kevin and Morgan’s trip to the county fair in Seven Tears at High Tide, I took a day trip thirty minutes up the coast to Old Orchard Beach to check out the beachside Palace Playland.  I didn’t go on any rides (unfortunate motion sickness as discovered on the otherwise-awesome lobster boat tour), but I dutifully spent some quarters at the arcade (I recommend the giant Connect Four and the classic Ms. Pac-Man), and stopped for a Morgan-inspired plate of fried fish ‘n chips at The Shack.

Palace Playland 3

Back in Kennebunkport, I spent the late afternoon/evening sitting on Gooch’s Beach, watching the surfers and boogie-boarders ride the waves.  I watched the foam spilling off the tops of the breaking waves like some invisible hand folding over the edges of a pie crust.  Back home, I re-read the chapter on ocean waves in Tristan Gooley’s book to decide whether I’d been watching spilling, plunging, or surging waves.

Old Orchard Beach copy
Spilling waves with spindrift (wind whipping off the crest of the wave in an airy spray)

Some non-OOBE experiences worth mentioning

Where to eat:

Those lobster rolls at the Clam Shack were worth every penny of the $20 price.  I also really liked the ones at Linda Bean’s Lobster Cafe at the Portland Jetport.  Pro tip:  order a bowl of clam chowder on the side and dunk the sandwich in periodically.  You’ll thank me.

The best breakfast of the week was at the Edgewater Inn’s On the Edge restaurant (thank you, Yelp!).  They bring you French Press coffee and a mini appetizer tray before your meal — a spoonful of polenta and another spoonful of pineapple upside-down cake in our case.  As for the meal, I highly recommend the Cove Side Benedict, with its baked polenta base, pesto, and basil hollandaise sauce.

IMG_2107

For dessert, check out Rococo Artisan Ice Cream, which boasts unique flavors like Goat Cheese Blackberry Chambord, Maine Whoopie Pie, and Sweet Avocado Cayenne, among less hair-raising options like Dark Chocolate, Honey Vanilla, and Passion Fruit with Chocolate Chips.

Coffee

Besides the French Press coffee at On the Edge, I also really enjoyed the Dirty Chai at H. B. Provisions, a general store along the main drag (Western Ave.), and the medium-dark roast Old Port blend at Mornings in Paris, a small cafe near the corner of Western and Beach Ave.  For even more coffee and coffee-related products, check out Coffee Roasters of the Kennebunks, where you’ll find plenty of French Press and Chemex coffee makers, lots of whimsical mugs, as well as variously flavored olive oils, habanero chili lime peanuts, and Korean roasted seaweed (tastes kind of like zucchini).

Where to stay

My mom and I chose the Franciscan Guest House next to St. Anthony’s Franciscan Monastery, for its low rates and Lithuanian connections.  The monastery was bought by Lithuanian Franciscans in 1947, and is surrounded by shrines and monuments, as well as a beautiful set of woodland walking paths that take you along the Kennebunk River.

Stations
Shrine of the Stations of the Cross

How about you, fellow Postcardians?  Any exciting trips this past summer?  Any Out of Book Experiences?

Posted in out-of-book experiences, selkies | 4 Comments

Sovereign

April Daniels. Sovereign. New York: Diversion Books, 2017

Sovereign

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 epic space battles involving the Hubble Space Telescope

You know what’s really fun? Reading superhero stories while listening to my Chillectronic station on Pandora. The eerie, techno, sometimes surreal strains of Tycho, Monolake, Yppah, and Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra are awesome accompaniments to superhero battles.

Sovereign begins nine months after the events of Dreadnought. Danny is officially Dreadnought #4, in charge of protecting New Port from criminals and supervillains, and she’s loving every fighting minute of it. After years of emotional abuse at home, she’s finally free, and she finally has the power.

But things aren’t perfect for the fifteen-year-old rookie hero. She may be “mightier than a battleship, faster than a jet, and so on,” but she still has to deal with the media hounding her about her private life, the transphobic Graywytch still trying to screw things up for her, the increasing tension between herself and Sarah/Calamity, and oh yeah, there’s this huge mass of “exotic matter” approaching from space that could affect the magic and superpowers of everyone on Earth.

So, there are plenty of new battles for Danny to fight, but Sovereign also does a great job following up on the conflicts it introduced in Dreadnought. Danny may be physically free of her parents, but all those years of abuse don’t just disappear. The emotional scars are affecting her in battle, and the people around her are beginning to worry that Danny is abusing her powers.

“Do you know how to make someone become a dangerously violent person?” Doc stops pacing. “It’s basically a recipe. You hold them down and treat them like shit. Destroy their self-esteem, strip away all their pride, all their self-respect. Then you give them a chance to solve a problem with violence, and when they do, you immediately reward them.” Doc takes a breath. “Does that sound like anyone you know?” [1]

This is an important part of the world-building in Dreadnought and Sovereign.  The story not only raises questions about where magic and superpowers come from, and how “capes” have to work with the regular law enforcement and abide by government regulations, but also just what happens to someone who can suddenly superpower their way out of their problems.

A few more awesome things:

  • I mentioned the world-building in terms of the philosophical and ethical questions surrounding superpowers, and the tense relationship between “capes” and the police, but there’s also the awesome fact that Danny isn’t actually the first or only transgender superhero in this world – she’s just the most “mainstream” one, and she realizes pretty soon how her rise to fame is affecting the other trans “capes” who’ve been working longer, with fewer social or political rewards.
    .
  • And then there’s also just these really awesome little aspects of this society, like the fact that superheroes have their own global convention every few years in Antarctica – a convention with vendor booths selling hypertech gadgets and “bystander insurance,” and panels on superhero involvement in social media.
    .
  • I totally called it! The good ship Calaminought is full steam ahead, and as much as I like Dreadnought for focusing on non-romantic conflicts, I’m also fully in favor of Danny/Sarah being explored in the sequels.
    .
  • This is the kind of story that can really pull off the present tense p.o.v. because it’s full of blow-by-blow action that feels even more intense in the present tense.

Some nitpicks:

  • The one thing I’m really ambivalent about is how freaking long it takes Doc to get Danny proper help after she realizes Danny might be abusing her powers. She keeps acting surprised every time Danny goes too far, and wondering if maybe she should be benched for a while, but… well, ok, I get it. There’s this life-and-death situation that really needs to be dealt with, and it seems like Danny’s the only one who can deal with it at the moment, and also Doc is dealing with her own demons that are clouding her judgment, so maybe her slowness in getting Danny help isn’t so unbelievable.  It’s just really unfortunate.
    .
  • There is one issue I wish Sovereign had picked up again from Dreadnought.  Doc Impossible briefly explained the situation between the old Legion and Calamity’s father, which raised questions about superheroes’ right and responsibility to hold the government accountable.  I would have expected that to still be a sore spot between Calamity and Doc, and between Sarah and Danny, something they’d continue to debate, but the issue was just dropped after Dreadnought.
    .
  • Ok, I can’t really talk about the final conflict without spoiling, so I’ll just say that the effects of said conflict are kind of confusing; the story could have been clearer on why some characters were affected and some weren’t.
    .
  • I don’t like the way Danny refers to her friend Charlie as “a skinny black kid” when she first introduces him to us, and comments that his mother has “a black June Cleaver vibe going on,” instead of just saying she has “a June Cleaver vibe going on.” It feels disrespectful to emphasize a character’s skin color as the first and most distinctive thing the reader should notice about them.  It might be different if race were an issue in the story, something that Danny would have reason to point out… although, now that I think about it, she did grow up with a homophobic a$$hole shouting derogatory things at her, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some pretty racist attitudes as well, which affected Danny’s view of the world.  But if that were the case, it should have been explicitly addressed as something problematic that Danny realized about herself.

Overall

From the Teen Brigade and Young Avengers, to the Jersey City super community, to the new Legion Pacifica, I’ve met some really kick-ass superheroes this summer.  Sovereign and Dreadnought are awesome additions not only to the LGBT-centric superhero sphere, but to the superhero genre as a whole, addressing age-old questions about the ethics of “beat[ing] people up for money,” how far a superhero can and should go in the name of justice, and when justice really becomes catharsis.  Basically, just because you can punch a person into next year doesn’t mean you should.

I’m not sure if April Daniels plans to continue the Nemesis series; as far as the “Nemesis” aspect of it goes, there was a pretty good sense of closure at the end of Sovereign.  But I could certainly see there being more to explore in this world (like the aftermath of that final conflict, for one thing.  It was kind of a big deal).  If Daniels keeps going, I plan to keep reading.

__________________________________

[1] Pg. 93

Posted in fantasy, favorites, LGBTQIA, music, romantic, summer of superheroes | Leave a comment