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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: 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: Galveston

galvestonAuthor: Nic Pizzolatto

2010, Scribner

Filed under: Thriller, Literary

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 3
Depth..... 7

I don’t know what happened to Nic Pizzolatto, but I’m sorry about it.

This is the most distressing novel I’ve ever read. I don’t mean it’s the most violent, although there is some gut-churningly intense violence. I mean the effect of reading this novel is that of having a heavy weight of despair slowly suffocate you. By the end, I was emotionally exhausted and long since ready for it to be over.

That’s not such a far cry from Pizzolato’s more well-known work, HBO’s True Detective, which airs the final episode of its first season on Sunday. That show might be the finest mystery drama I’ve experienced in any medium. It features a tangled mystery at its core, but with a bleak, bizarre, and disjointed telling of that mystery. True Detective’s characters are outstanding, simultaneously unlikeable wrecks of humanity, and fascinating, magnetic alter-heroes boasting a uniqueness rarely seen in a police procedural.

While Galveston has a few of the same tics, and a lot of similarly great prose, as True Detective, its premise isn’t nearly as captivating and its ending is more devastating than satisfying or anything else.
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REVIEW: The White Rail

Author: Clarinda Harriss

2014, Half Moon Editions

Filed Under: Literary

white rail

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

Reading Clarinda Harriss’s fiction is like reading another version of Laura Lippman’s and Anne Tyler’s Baltimores mixed up together, from the genteel dilapidation of old Baltimore to the dangerous underbelly of the city’s streets. The White Rail is a slender volume, precious as a poetry collection, consisting of six stories, all set in Baltimore or nearby.

Harriss is first and foremost a poet, and her stories brim with a love of language, the sound of it, spoken by her characters (“Sista, you got some junk in yo trunk,” a random voice says in “The Vinegar Drunker.); the sounds of words together (“…lesbian sex poems whose I’s and S’s send the readers’ tongues licking and lapping like lascivious lovers.”); she wallows gleefully in their rhymes, their rhythms, the derivation and evolution of words.  Indeed, two of the stories, “In the House” and “Bone to Bone,” might accurately be said to be about poetry.  In both, Harriss considers the tension between the everyday street rhythms of spoken language and the metric requirements of formal verse.  “Bone to Bone,” a weird tale of “identity theft” regarding a Pulitzer Prize-winning black female poet, highlights the tension between vernacular poetry, its jazz rhythms, off-rhymes, and the formal verse structures of the traditions of English literature, Elizabethan sonnets, Metaphysical poetry, etc.  “In the House” might be characterized as doing the same, but with regard to Emily Dickinson and African-American poets.
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REVIEW: Dominion

dominionAuthor: CJ Sansom

2014, Mantle

Filed under: Historical, Literary, Thriller

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 7

I’m still on my audiobook kick, and I’m still sorting potential titles by length. Dominion weighs in at a solid 21 hours, or just over 700 pages in print. In an odd way, that’s its downfall: length. If this were a short novel, or better yet a short story, its side-story plot arc would be interesting, if still not worth all the world-building. As it is, this is a very well-written alternate history novel that manages to realistically document a quite boring back corner of an epic war.

The premise, or at least the advertised premise, is a great one. In 1940, in real life, when Neville Chamberlain stepped down as prime minister of Britain, Winston Churchill became prime minister, and led Britain and the free world to stand up against the Nazis.

In Dominion, when Chamberlain steps down, Edward Halifax is made prime minister instead. Halifax immediately surrenders to the Nazis and Britain becomes a territory of the Third Reich. Churchill goes into hiding and leads a far-reaching Resistance against the occupation of the Nazis. The first chapter of the book depicts that pivotal moment in history with vivid realism and gravitas befitting it.

Unfortunately, that’s almost the only time we see Churchill in the entire novel, and it’s the last time the actual action in the book matches up with the enormous scale invoked by writing an alternate history of World War II.
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REVIEW: The Alloway Files

allowayAuthor:  E.J. Roller

2013, New Stein Publishing House

Filed Under: Literary

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

Like Joseph Heller, E.J. Roller has a fine sense of the absurd.  The Catch-22 world she creates in The Alloway Files seethes with the bureaucratic insanity of a city public school system, pointless rules and procedures perpetuated for their own sake, a bleak, darkly humorous landscape against which her protagonist, Ellen Alloway, struggles so as not to sink “all the way” into it, indistinguishable as a drop of water in the ocean.

Roller sardonically describes “the dark gray of the four-lane road, the light gray of the sidewalks, the faded gray of the run-down rowhouses, the rumbling gray of the clouds above, and the ominous gray of the school headquarters behind her.”  And Ms. Alloway? “…her brain had already gone as gray as her surroundings.”  Employed by the public school system, Ms. Alloway has been banished to the “Temporary Reassignment Room,” for reasons that are unclear, even to her.   Like Captain John Yossarian before her, Alloway will nevertheless try to inject a sense of value into this world.  (Significantly, the novel is dedicated to “the un-reformed.”)
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REVIEW: Harvest

harvestAuthor: Jim Crace

2013, Nan A. Talese

Filed Under: Literary, Historical, Thriller

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

I’ve been sitting on this review for a couple of months now. That’s in part because I’ve been crazy busy, and in part because I really don’t have much to say about this book. I don’t mean that as a knock, Harvest is a quick and pleasurable read, a historical fiction quasi-thriller by a very talented author. It’s a good book, but in the end a pretty unremarkable one. So apologies ahead of time that this review is as much summary as anything.

Crace’s novel is set in a post-Medieval English barley-farming village, in the days immediately following the yearly harvest. Some youths get a little carried away in the festivities celebrating the occasion, and what was intended as a minor prank ends up burning down the barn of the property’s lord.

Their lord, however, is in the process of losing his rights to the land to an in-law’s inheritance claim, and the new guy is a Sheriff of Nottingham type, who wants to leave his impression upon the peasants swiftly and forcibly. So some drifters found on the outskirts of town are scapegoated, and punished for the boys’ crime.
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REVEW: On Love

[This philosophical, yet humorous novel chronicling the different stages of a love affair is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Alain de Bottononlove

2006, Grove Press

Filed Under: Literary

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

We’ve all been through break-ups. When a relationship ends, our response falls somewhere between shrugging our shoulders and crawling in a hole. In either case, rumination and reflection is inevitable, as massive life change demands at least a glimpse from that hole. On Love is surely the result of an extended such stint, a perspicacious novel that does a remarkable job of detailing the finer points of a nearly universal human experience through a singular example.

Exactly what this book is is difficult to pin down. It’s a novel, of course, but one that’s part humorist’s rumination, part case study, and part philosophical treatise. It’s an intellectual book, drawing all sorts of connections to philosophical thought. Yet at the same time it is grounded in a cultural reality, very much an investigation of a love affair particular to the post-sexual revolution era, one in which the power dynamic in a couple is both liberated and, perhaps in its freeness, more fractious. There’s a certain longing on display here, one which we’ve all experienced to some degree, for the type of everlasting storybook love promised us by media, or by the superficial observation of those around us, maybe even by the postwar social mores that demanded the suppression of marital discord by our grandparents’ “greatest” generation.


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REVIEW: Archangel

[This collection of historical short fiction focusing on women in science is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Andrea Barrettarchangel-2013-by-andrea-barrett_original

2013, Norton

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories, Historical

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

Quality linked story collections are a rare breed. Like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Andrea Barrett’s own previous collection–and National Book Award winner–Ship Fever, Barrett’s Archangel elegantly presents separate and distinct stories that work together to build a complete work greater than the sum of its parts. I love books like this, that artfully blur the line between story collection and novel.

There are only five stories here; each is lengthy, but not quite novella length. There is no concrete unifying plot thread, although characters (or their relatives) and locations bridge the stories, which span about 40 years between the end of the 19th century up to the cusp of World War II. Instead, the stories are woven together thematically. Much like Ship Fever, Archangel focuses primarily on women characters in scientific circles, primarily naturalism, though not exclusively.
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