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REVIEW: I Kill Giants

[This touching, character-driven graphic novel is a C4 Great Read.]

Writer: Joe Kellyi kill giants

Artist: JM Ken Niimura

2014, Image

Filed Under: Graphic Novel, Literary, Fantasy

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 9
Art...... 8

I think it might be more difficult for graphic novels to walk the line between the poignant and the maudlin than other media. Or maybe it’s just not something most of us have come to expect from “comics,” even those of us reared on Calvin & Hobbes. They tend to either be primarily fun, or stylish, or serious, or whatever else. My favorite stories are those, like Calvin & Hobbes, that blur the lines between imagination and reality, and if they can push the emotional envelope at the same time–without going too far toward the aforementioned maudlin or shlocky–then I’m enamored.

I Kill Giants is about a young girl named Barbara whose imagination and role playing takes over her waking life. Obsessed with protecting her home from fearsome giants and titans, she sets traps on the nearby beach and carries around in a heart-shaped handbag a tiny rock hammer which she believes capable of transmogrifying into a mighty war hammer (which she has christened Coveleski, after an obscure Phillies pitcher nicknamed “The Giant Killer”).

Barbara wears rabbit ears to school, and prides herself on being a ruthless Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master. She has friends but none particularly close, and so when a friendship buds with the her new neighbor (who is, by default, not a social outcast, and by experience not much of a geek like Barbara), Barbara struggles to know exactly how to approach the relationship. Bullies hound Barbara, and even when her new friend comes to her aid, or the school psychologist offers her authentic compassion, Barbara struggles to concede any real trust in another person.


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REVIEW: Exiles and Expatriates

Author: Eleanor Swansonexiles

2014, Hollywood Books International

Filed Under: Fiction, Short Stories

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 9

Alienation and adjustment are central themes in the dozen stories that make up Eleanor Swanson’s fine new collection, Exiles and Expatriates, just as its title implies.  Often, characters are coping with the death of a son, a sister, a fiancé, or even just a person they knew casually at work.  How the characters come to terms with their loss is the source of the tension in these stories; often there does not seem to be a resolution, just further exile and continued sorrow.

In “Solitary,” the protagonist Beth has come home to her parents in Florida from where she lives in Colorado, to tell her family that her marriage has fallen apart.  Ever since her brother Jess’s death in a traffic accident she has not been the same and this has taken a toll on her marriage – her husband has gone off with another woman.  When Beth goes to visit Noah, Jess’s best friend, who is likewise shattered by his death, she breaks down crying, but while this may be cathartic, it doesn’t seem to solve anything.  Indeed, when her husband tried to make her forget the tragedy, Beth thought: “But he’d never understood that she wanted to remember everything.”

Similarly, Katrina, the girlfriend of Pavel, the protagonist of “The Singing Mistress at the Window,” which takes place in Prague, has just broken up with him – probably because he is such a depressive.  Libby, an American who is in Prague researching a book on Kafka, sees the same haunted look as Kafka’s in Pavel’s face.  As it turns out, Pavel’s sister Martina threw herself in front of a train, and his mother, the singing mistress in the title, went mad with grief.
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REVIEW: Snowpiercer (Vols. 1 and 2)

Snowpiercer vol.1Writers: Jacques Lob (vol.1) & Benjamin Legrand (vol. 2)

Artist: Jean-Marc Rochette

2014, Titan Comics (originally published in 1984 by Casterman, France)

Filed Under: Graphic Novel, Sci-Fi

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 7
Art...... 6/9

Snowpiercer, a series of graphic novels by Jean-Marc Rochette, Jacques Lob, and Benjamin Legrand, has only just been released in English thirty years later, but its critique of late capitalism remains potent. In fact, the optimism of the premise – that humanity would find some way to survive a climate disaster, even in a compromised way – seems quaint today. Rochette, Lob, and Legrand seem to have intended Snowpiercer as a warning, but reading it now it feels more like a lament.
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REVIEW: Books of the Dead

Author: Alan CatlinCvr_BooksDead

2014, Pure Heart Press/Main Street Rag

Filed Under: Poetry, Memoir

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 9

Alan Catlin’s poignant, grim memoir, Books of the Dead, is a two-part reflection on the death of his mother in 1985 (The New York City Book of the Dead) and his father and stepmother in 2004 (The Central Florida Book of the Dead).  The total effect is sobering. Both narratives, with verse, involve heartache and reflection on the ultimate destiny that faces us all.

Anybody familiar with the small press surely has read Alan Catlin’s work.  He’s all over the place with poems, stories, essays, reviews, chapbooks, etc.  Catlin’s memoir here feels like it could have been plucked straight out of The Chiron Review, and indeed, parts of this book were published in different forms elsewhere in the samizdat press.  Which may be a clue as to what to expect.
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REVIEW: The Red Knight

red-knightAuthor: Miles Cameron

2012, Gollancz

Filed under: Fantasy

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 7

[This review contains mild spoilers regarding the premise of the novel.]

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a review, mainly because I’ve been run ragged working on my new business, Ruskin Woodshop. I have been reading, though, or at least listening to audiobooks while I work. I mentioned my bang-for-the-buck audiobook buying system in my review of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, which, like The Red Knight, is an epic fantasy novel that I bought primarily because it was long and cheap.

The Way of Kings was an amazing book, and led me to believe that I’d been missing something by not reading fantasy since my dabblings with The Sword of Shannara in seventh grade. As it turns out, I wasn’t. I’ve listened to a handful of other, highly touted fantasy novels in the months between The Way of Kings and now, but none of them have delivered the same punch.
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REVIEW: Spectator

spectatorAuthor: Kara Candito

2014, University of Utah Press

Filed Under: Poetry

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 8

Kara Candito writes within the vast context of western poetic traditions.  Her poetry demands a familiarity with forms and an understanding of historical context.  Just as her first collection,  Taste of Cherry, requires an acquaintance with Baudelaire to be truly appreciated, so in her new collection, the Agha Shahid Ali prizewinner, Spectator,  Federico Garcia Lorca  is the Vergil to her Dante.  In short, Candito’s poetry is both intellectual and sensual, and while the subjects of the lyrics are intensely personal, the themes of identity and personal destiny are universal.

The poems in the first of the four parts involve Candito’s family – begin at the beginning, right? – in an almost mythic tone.  The titles suggest this feeling of fable – “Creation Myth, 1979 (Reappropriated),” “Family Elegy in a Late Style of Fire,” “A Genealogy of the Father,” among others.   “Initiative #4: Lorca” opens the collection; in an appropriately Lorcaesque surrealistic touch, the dead poet appears at the foot of Candito’s bed (Vergil leading Dante is not so farfetched at all). 
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REVIEW: What Happened Here

Author: Bonnie ZoBellFinal-Cover-What-happened-Here

2014, Press 53

Filed under: Literary, Short Stories

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 10
Depth..... 9

As in her debut flash fiction chapbook, The Whack-Job Girls, the characters in Bonnie ZoBell’s new collection of short stories, What Happened Here, are all quirky, likable, and a little sad.  What Happened Here consists of eleven different stories, each focusing on a different set of protagonists.  Half of the stories are told in the first person, half in the third, most in the present tense, some in the past.  All of the characters have some association with the North Park neighborhood of San Diego, California, and appear throughout the stories.  Like a patchwork quilt, all of these pieces mesh together to make one consistent whole, giving this collection of stories something of the effect of a novel.

North Park has been described by Forbes Magazine as one of America’s best hipster neighborhoods, culturally diverse, “home to Craftsman cottages, cafes and diners, coffee shops, several microbreweries, boutiques and the North Park Farmers Market.”  The characters in ZoBell’s stories fit right in.  As Wally tells Heather in “People Scream,” “People get weird as they get older.  It’s too much work to keep trying to be normal, and you can’t help being weird after all you’ve been through.  It’s better to accept it and move on.”
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REVIEW: Just Drive

Author: Robert CoopermanJustDrive_Cover_front

2014, Brick Road Poetry Press

Filed Under: Poetry

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 10
Depth..... 8

My main feeling when I finished Robert Cooperman’s collection of poems about driving a taxicab in 1970’s New York?  I wished it would go on; I wished the ride weren’t over.  Just drive, Bob!  These poems are full of humor and humanity, brimming with familiar characters and the sort of everyday street adventure you might find in a Malamud or Bellow novel.

Cooperman’s work is wide-ranging, from narrative poetry of the Old West to formal verse about ancient Greece, but when he writes about New York, he writes with a sweet nostalgia – though not necessarily a fondness – for temps perdu.  Born in Brooklyn, for the past forty years Cooperman has lived all around the country – in Denver for the last twenty – but still has roots in New York.  His previous collections, My Shtetl and The Words We Used, dredge up memories and scenes about growing up Jewish in the 1950/60’s.  This collection, which spans maybe a year in the 1970’s, similarly calls upon memories of his youth.  Indeed, the Cooperman character in these poems is usually called “kid” by his elders.

Cooperman sets the scene for us, describing “Why We Drove Cabs,” “Taking the Hack Test,” “The Order of March,” in which he describes a typical shift from picking up the cab at the garage on West 57th , then heading south, taking a left below 42nd, left again on Madison, trolling Fifth Avenue, stalking the Theater district, seeking out airport fares, and finally dinner and home.  “The Taxi Rules,” “Boxing Out,” “Here’s How It Worked,” “End of Shift” likewise get us through a day in the life.

This being the 1970’s, he invokes (and evokes) the Martin Scorsese movie, Taxi Driver, in which Robert De Niro plays a New York City cabdriver – a movie that dismays the old-timers for its depiction of a sleazy occupation.  As one venerable hack puts it in “The Belmore Cafeteria”:


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REVIEW: Ancillary Justice

ancillary-justiceAuthor: Ann Leckie

2013, Orbit

Filed under: Sci-fi

Find it at Goodreads

This review refers to the audiobook version of this novel.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 9

I’d heard nothing but rave reviews about this book since its publication six months ago. When I finally started it this past week, I was immediately discombobulated. That’s because I’d heard literally nothing else but raving praise; I hadn’t heard, for example, what it was about. So let’s start there.

The main character and narrator is a sentient spaceship named the Justice of Toren. It belongs to the Radchaai, a barbaric race of people whose entire economy depends on invading other planets, killing or enslaving their people, and then laying claim to their natural resources. Of course, since the Justice of Toren is a Radch ship, the narrator finds the zombification and murder of their enemies to be a normal and not horrifying occurrence. At least, that is, until it’s forced to do something awful and kind of wakes up.

Interspersed with this storyline is another following Breq—one of Justice of Toren’s ancillaries—some 25 years in the future. The usual way of life for an ancillary (or “corpse soldier”) is that they are human bodies entirely controlled by the artificial intelligence of the ship they belong to. They think as the ship, but feel what each of their dozens of bodies feels. Breq, however, has become separated from Justice of Toren and is pursuing an ex-captain of herself (I think) along the way toward obtaining a supremely powerful gun that might or might not kill the Lord of Radch.

Got all that? I’m not sure that I do, and that’s part of my problem with this book. 
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REVIEW: Words of Radiance

[This high fantasy novel is the latest C4 Great Read. Find the first book in the series here.]

words-of-radiance

Author: Brandon Sanderson

2014, Tor

Filed under: Fantasy

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 10
Depth..... 8

[This review is entirely spoiler-free. Maybe even to a fault.]

I picked up The Way of Kings, the first book in this series, almost at random, looking for a long audiobook. The Way of Kings clocked in at over 45 hours, and after finishing it, I pre-ordered Words of Radiance, and when it came out earlier this month, I ripped through all 48 hours in eighteen days.

Sanderson is a rare talent, and this series is a rare accomplishment even for him—I’ve read the first books of two of his other series, and they don’t compare. In short, I’d recommend this book to just about anybody, but especially to those who like Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings, or any other epic fantasy. 
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