Review – The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

Title: The Sculptor

Author: Scott McCloud

Genre: Graphic Novel

Stars: * * *

Cover - The Sculptor

I have complicated feelings about Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor. I very rapidly became immersed in the narrative, so much so that I blew through 200 pages while standing around in a store. However, despite the ease at which I devoured the book, it wasn’t wholly satisfying as McCloud relies too heavily on overused tropes and fails to rise above what other writers have done, often better, before.

SPOILERS AHOY

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Nostalgic Re-Reads: Goosebumps by R.L. Stine (The Ghost Next Door, The Haunted Mask, and Be Careful What You Wish For)

Title: Goosebumps #10: The Ghost Next Door

Rating: * * *

GB 10 - The Ghost Next Door

Hannah is convinced that a ghost has taken up residence in her town. During a boring summer holiday while all her friends are away at camp, she meets a new boy who has supposedly lived next door for several years. Hannah decides that he must be a ghost as surely she would have noticed having a neighbour? As she follows him around, she realises that he isn’t the one haunting the neighbourhood, she is, and her purpose in coming back is to save him from dying in a horrible accident.

The Ghost Next Door is one of the most affecting and emotional books of the series. Its strengths lie not in the spookiness of the story, but in the emotional feelings that it inspires. It has no twist ending. Instead, the finale is heartwarming, though also bittersweet. My only issue with this novel was the cruelty of the young boys who broke into and set fire (accidentally) to older man’s house simply because he was a grump. It was a rather disturbing addition to an otherwise sweet story.


Title: Goosebumps #11: The Haunted Mask

Rating: * * *

GB 11 - The Haunted Mask

The kids at school think that Carly Beth is a giant scaredy-cat. After one particularly vicious prank leaves her in tears, she decides that she needs to find the most horrifying Halloween costume so that she can get revenge on the two boys who slipped worms into her lunch. She visits a local costume shop, and discovers the most terrifying masks in the backroom. When the owner refuses to sell one to her, she runs off with a mask anyways, and finds out quickly that her Halloween costume is something far more sinister than a piece of plastic. After she puts it on, it fuses to her skin, and she starts to develop a crueler, more monstrous personality…

The Haunted Mask is a Goosebumps classic. It’s probably the most well-known novel of the series, was the first story to be turned into a TV episode, and is one of Stine’s most remembered books. Upon re-reading, it holds up! Carly Beth is a likeable protagonist, and she changes for the better by the end of the novel. There are parts of the story that don’t make all that much sense, but overall, it’s a creepy and scary Halloween story that should feel just real enough to a kid to offer an appropriate number of chills.


Title: Goosebumps #12: Be Careful What You Wish For

Rating: * ½

GB 12 - Be Careful What You Wish For

Samantha Byrd is an awkward pre-teen who just can’t seem to catch a break. She’s constantly bullied by a fellow classmate, and all she wants is a fresh start. When she helps a mysterious woman, Clarissa, across town, she’s offered three wishes for compensation. As the title suggests, however, wishes must be carefully used. Every time Samantha wishes for something, her desires come true, but with terrible repercussions. She becomes the best basketball player when everyone else on the team falls ill. When she wishes to be left alone, everyone in the world disappears. And when she wishes that her bully was actually her best friend, she ends up with a stalker in her closet. Clarissa gives Sam one more chance, so she wishes that her bully was the one to meet the mysterious old woman. However, the bully’s first wish turns Sam into a bird, giving her a fresh start, but taking away her humanity.

The plot of Be Careful What You Wish For is not particularly innovative. The riskiness of wishes appears throughout many fables and stories, and this particular book does little to add to the mythology. However, it is quite possibly one of the first times that a young child is introduced to the trope, so it is probably best that the message remains simple. What is unforgiveable is the personality of the main character. Sam is whiny and petulant, and she never thinks before she acts. Given the fact that her first wish taught her just how dangerous thoughtlessness could be you would think that even a twelve year old would pause before using her wishes. However, Sam is not particularly talented at patience and forethought, so she suffers through a terrible series of situations, and an even worse fate.

RRRs: The Fables Spin-offs Edition

Rapid response reviews are shorter entries for books that I want to comment on, but don’t have enough time or material to finish a normal post. Given the sheer length of the Fables series, the only way I’ll ever be able to tackle most of its volumes is if I keep my comments short and sweet! My reviews for the actual Fables series are simple: go read them all! To get the whole story, readers need to finish all of the books, and even though there are 19 volumes (as of now), all of them are worth the read. Today’s RRR, therefore, is dedicated to the Fables spin-offs since they are almost as voluminous, but differ widely in their importance to the main series and their overall quality.

Title: Jack of Fables (Volumes 1-9, including The Literals mini-series)

Author: Bill Willingham

Rating: *

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Graphic Novel

Cover - Jack of Fables Series

I’m cheating a bit with Jack of Fables as I am lumping all of the books into one write-up (though I did write mini-reviews for volumes one and two here). Simply put, I hated this series. Jack of Fables is extraordinarily different from its predecessor, and very little of what I loved about Fables was present in Jack. Admittedly, the story premise is quite intriguing as these books deal with the existence of the Literals, beings that are the anthropomorphic representations of writing tools, but the titular character makes the story all but unbearable. I read the full series because there is a cross-over between it and Fables, but after trudging through these books, I am pretty sure I could have just skipped Fables 13 and saved myself the trouble. While the Literals are an interesting concept, most of the series is dedicated to showing how Jack is a terrible human being. The humour is sexist (for example, Jack sleeps with his half-sisters and this fact keeps coming up throughout the entire series as something that is supposed to be funny or admirable), the art is inconsistent, and I could not care less about any of the characters. Unless you are a diehard Fables fan, these books should be a skip. Continue reading

Nostalgic Re-Reads: Goosebumps by R.L. Stine (Night of the Living Dummy, The Girl Who Cried Monster, and Camp Nightmare)

Title: Goosebumps #7: Night of the Living Dummy

Rating: * *

GB 7 - Night of the Living Dummy

Like Monster Blood, Night of the Living Dummy is one of the central, re-occurring Goosebumps stories, but I am not a very big fan of this initial installment (though I am quite fond of the sequels). So what made this one so different? Character development is not a strong point for the Goosebumps series, but I found the main characters in this story were particularly irritating and flat. Night of the Living Dummy stars twins Lindy and Kris who find a dummy in the trash. Lindy decides to keep the dummy, naming him Slappy, and Kris becomes jealous of her ventriloquism skills and the attention that it brings her twin. To stop the two from fighting, the twins’ father buys Kris a second dummy that she names Mr. Wood. However, Mr. Wood isn’t a normal dummy, and he acts out violently, taking control of Kris’ acts. No one will believe her when she claims that the dummy is alive, so the sisters have to team up to defeat this evil marionette.

The idea of a living dummy is nerve-racking, and the Slappy and Mr. Wood characters are scary because they seem to be sociopathic, unkillable monsters. The part of the story involving the dummies doing evil things worked well because it is pretty chilling to think about strange, living dolls wandering around your house at night, destroying things and trying to mess up your life. However, I could have done without Kris. I generally do not have a problem with well-written, unlikeable characters, or young characters that act their age. Kris, on the other hand, just gives me a headache. She’s so intensely jealous of her sister, and I felt that there wasn’t enough pushback against her bad behaviour in the narrative telling her that she should just chill out and figure out her own way to shine. I know that the relationship between twins is unique, but one would think that she wouldn’t want to strive to do the exact same things as her sister. I also felt that her parents should definitely not have encouraged Kris to try and steal the stoplight from Lindy so obviously. However, if they had done that, we wouldn’t have had this story, so the awkward characterisation can be forgiven as it led to a particularly memorable villain.


Title: Goosebumps #8: The Girl Who Cried Monster

Rating: * * ½

GB 8 - The Girl Who Cried Monster

Lucy is obsessed with monsters. She’s always looking to learn more about them, and her favourite activity is scaring her little brother with monster stories. However, she talks about monsters so often that no one believes her when she sees a real one! When she stays late in the library one night, she sees the local librarian turn into a disgusting creature that eats flies! Though she tries all sorts of things to prove to her parents that the librarian is a monster, all her efforts fail, and he discovers that she knows what he is. Lucy is convinced that she’s going to get eaten when her parents invite him over for dinner, but the tables are turned rather quickly when Lucy’s parents devour the librarian before the rest of the community is alerted to the presence of monsters among them. As it turns out, Lucy is obsessed with horror story creatures because she is one!

The Girl Who Cried Monster is a solid horror book for kids. Lucy is a bit obnoxious, but within reason for a precocious twelve year old. The plot is a fairly typical one, with Lucy getting herself into all sorts of suspenseful situations trying to get proof that the librarian is a monster. However, it is the ending that really makes this particular addition to the series stand out. I did not guess that Lucy’s family were monsters, and it was a delightful creepy ending to a creepy story.


Title: Goosebumps #9: Welcome to Camp Nightmare

Rating: * * *

GB 9 - Welcome to Camp Nightmare

Camp Nightmare is a strange story, but it certainly delivers in terms of scariness. This Goosebumps stars Mike, a normal 12 year old heading off to an overnight camp for the first time. However, his trip seems cursed from the start as the bus that was supposed to take all the kids to camp drops them off in the middle of nowhere, leaving them to be attacked by strange, dog-like creatures. They are saved by the camp director, but it seems that the troubles with this camp are just beginning. One of Mike’s campmates is bitten by a snake, but the camp has no nurse to treat him, and he disappears overnight. Slowly, members of his cabin fall victim to mysterious accidents, but the camp staff don’t seem to care. Mike finally decides he has to stand up to this callousness when the camp director orders the campers to hunt through the forest with tranquilizer guns for two run-aways. With this choice, he finds out he passed the test that his parents were putting him through in order to take him along on a scientific expedition to an alien world: Earth!

The idea that a camp could exist that is so careless towards the children that it is responsible for seems pretty unlikely, and as a reader, I was trying to figure out what the catch was from the very first few pages. However, with the twist reveal at the end, suddenly the callousness and neglect makes sense, even if the plot was a bit silly. Despite the ridiculous plot, Camp Nightmare is great for scaring younger readers. Camp can be a frightening experience at the best of times, and this story plays on those fears of abandonment and danger. Camp myths turn deadly, and Mike has no adults to turn to. He must survive on his own, and stand up against those who are supposed to be protecting him. All in all, this is one of my favourite books in the Goosebumps series.

Review – Grim edited by Christine Johnson

Title: Grim

Editor: Christine Johnson

Star Rating: * * *

Genre: Fairy Tale Retellings, Short Stories, Young Adult

Thanks to NetGalley and Harlequin Teen for a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

 Cover - Grim

Synopsis

Grim is a collection of short stories based on classic fairy tales with new twists and reimaginings.

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Nostalgic Re-Reads – Goosebumps by R.L. Stine (Welcome to Dead House, Stay Out of the Basement, Monster Blood)

I was searching through books from my childhood on GoodReads when I had the whim to reread some of the old series that I used to enjoy. From things like Nancy Drew to Animorphs, there were a lot of stories that I read as a kid that were fun and short and might provide some entertainment even to me now. I was also curious to see how they stood up to the test of time and maturity. Since I had a particular love for horror novels and TV shows as a child, I decided to start with Goosebumps!

Goosebumps, the series by R.L. Stine, were introductory horror novels for children of my generation. There are 62 books in the series, and most feature 12 year old protagonists who are confronted with strange, paranormal events. While the children are often threatened, there is never much violence in these books, and the kids usually escape their enemies (though sometimes they are changed in odd and unnerving ways). There are usually at least two protagonists in each book, and at least one boy and one girl. The books often end with a silly, but creepy twist that makes the reader rethink the story, or entraps the characters in a bigger or more long-lasting problem than expected.

Rating these books is rather hard. They are not particularly well-written, but neither are they really meant to be pieces of great literature. Goosebumps is a series for entertaining and scaring kids, not necessarily expanding their horizons, or making them think about deep questions of life. However, this absence of a philosophical underpinning is perfectly fine. I have no problem with books that are really just about entertainment and silliness as long as there are also books for kids that do offer a more insightful reading experience. As a child, I loved challenging myself to see how many Goosebumps I could read in a day because even then I took them to be short tales whose sole purpose was to keep me amused for an afternoon. I also read books like A Wrinkle in Time and The Phantom Tollbooth, so the presence of Goosebumps didn’t discourage or prevent me from reading novels with a bit more substance. Thus, Goosebumps are a perfectly legitimate part of a kid’s reading diet, but they don’t tend to warrant all that many stars. Make no mistake, they are entertaining, but this is often despite their poor construction and writing. I have given most of them low-star ratings, but I have been enjoying my re-read even though they have numerous literary problems. I can definitely understand why kids devoured stacks of these books as they are often ridiculous, but scary stories that capitalise on the worst fears of children.


Title: Goosebumps #1: Welcome to Dead House

Rating: * * ½

GB 1 - Welcome to Dead House

Welcome to Dead House is where the Goosebumps phenomenon started, and it is a very standard example of what one will get with this series. The Benson family finds out that they have inherited a house from a forgotten relative, so they move to the small town of Dark Falls to start over. Amanda and Josh are our protagonists, two siblings who are 11 and 12 years old (the standard age for all Goosebumps protagonists). Right away they start making friends with some of the kids in their new town, but they soon find that things seem a bit off in Dark Falls. The kids discover that all their new friends have gravestones in the town cemetery, and Dark Falls is actually a city of ghosts that needs to sacrifice the entire Benson family in order to survive!

This first book of the series is moderately suspenseful and creepy, but it’s also not all that memorable. There are a lot of spooky house scenes, but Welcome to Dead House is a fairly standard evil ghost story. It gives kids what they want – a few scares and frights, and that’s really all Goosebumps ever aims to do. It sets the tone of the series and the general parameters of how these stories work, and was a very safe opening to the series.

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Review – Nepture Noir edited by Rob Thomas

Title: Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations into Veronica Mars

Editor: Rob Thomas

Star Rating: * * *

Genre: Literary and pop culture analysis

Note: Review copy obtained from NetGalley.

Cover - Neptune Noir

Synopsis and Background

Before I can talk about the book, I have to talk about a TV show: Veronica Mars. Long story short, go watch it. Go watch it right now! I am not generally a TV person, but Veronica Mars is one of my absolute favourite stories. It’s a noir mystery series with a spunky teenage girl as the protagonist. It’s dark, morally challenging, and has a complex and imperfect female main character that drives the show forward. The show ran for three seasons, but was cancelled in 2007.

So why talk about a TV series that was cancelled several years back? In 2013, a massively successful Kickstarter campaign was launched to fund a new Veronica Mars movie, and that movie was released on March 14, 2014 (check your local theatres!). The movie takes place several years after the series when Veronica is a fully fledged adult coming back to Neptune to help out an old friend. I went to see it on opening night, and I can guarantee that fans are going to enjoy this new addition to the Veronica Mars canon!

But what about Nepture Noir? This book is a compilation of essays written about various literary and social aspects of the series with commentary from Rob Thomas, the creator of the series. The essay authors, fans of the series themselves, explore many different aspects of the show, including the symbolism that it uses, and discussions about why the show worked so well.

The Good

If you have not watched Veronica Mars, this book is not for you (yet). But for fans, it’s an interesting addition to the series that celebrates some of the best aspects of the show.

Some of the essays are quite unique, and I really quite enjoyed Chris McCubbin’s piece on why Veronica Mars has a surprisingly big conservative fanbase, and Lawrence Watt-Evans’s character analysis of the cars used in the show. I was also a big fan of the two essays from Joyce Millman and Amy Berner on the role of fathers in the show, particularly the focus on Keith Mars who is one amazing fictional dad. While there was nothing truly ground-breaking presented in this volume, the authors caught onto little details that add quite a bit to one’s experience of the series.

The Bad

Despite my enjoyment, there are some downsides to the book. For one, the pieces were all written before the third and final season came out, so there is a lot of speculating about future development that is no longer relevant as the show moved forward. But since I enjoyed seasons 1 and 2 quite a bit more than season 3, this didn’t bother me at all.

For people looking for more critical academic work on this show, Neptune Noir is more of a lighter, analytical look at the show. This isn’t a fault unless you come in looking for something deeper than you will get, so don’t expect scholarly quality and depth. Just enjoy a series of essays produced by a bunch of articulate fans of the series.

There was only one essay that I truly did not like in Neptune Noir, and that was Heather Havrilesky’s “The Importance of Not Being Earnest”. Before I explain my discomfort, I should give readers a spoiler warning for the show and a trigger warning for content involving sexual assault. One of the most controversial plot elements of Veronica Mars is that the main protagonist is a rape survivor. It’s an integral aspect of her backstory, and part of the reason that she is so driven to root out the evil in Neptune. In Havrilesky’s essay, she concentrates on talking about Veronica as a world-weary teen that has crossed into adulthood too soon, specifically in relation to her views on love. She applauds Veronica’s maturity in understanding that love isn’t this perfect state of being, and that the people you love can hurt you. She then goes on to talk about her first high school breakup. However, this comparison is pretty tasteless when one realises that Veronica’s issues with love arise out of the fact that her first love dumped her without telling her why (and she later finds out that it’s because they might be half-siblings), shortly thereafter, her best friend was brutally murdered, the entire town then turned on Veronica and her father for attempting to solve the crime (Veronica’s dad was the sheriff at the time), she was drugged and raped at a party when she tried to fit back in with her former group of friends, the new sheriff refused to believe her when she reported the assault, and her mother ran off when her father lost his job. In short, Veronica’s views on love have been affected by some severely violent and emotionally disturbing events that are not equal to an average high school breakup. To compare to the two diminishes the severity of the harms that Veronica suffered, so the essay, despite saying some interesting things, left me uncomfortable and frustrated.

Final Thoughts

If you like Veronica Mars, Neptune Noir is probably going to be a fun and thoughtful addition to the series as you wait for what Rob Thomas is going to produce next (and fans should know that the Veronica Mars movie continues in book form with the release of The Thousand Dollar Tan Line on March 25th!).