Thursday, December 20, 2007

Re-Gifters by Mike Carey, Marc Hempel and Sonny Liew

Dixie is great at hapkido, a Korean martial art that she and her best friend Avril study. In fact she's probably the best in her class. Unless, of course, she's up against Adam. Or looking at Adam, or even thinking about him. She's fallen hard for him and is way off her game which is bad because there's a big hapkido tournament coming up. In a moment of weakness, Dixie spends her tournament entrance-fee money on a gift to win Adam's heart, only to find that shallow Adam hardly even notices her.

Now she needs to qualify for a scholarship if she hopes to compete in the tournament, the kids she's competing against look down on her because she's actually had hapkido training, her friendship with Avril is on the fritz because of her own spikyness, and she's been lying to her parents. But a series of accidents and chances get her into the tournament, where she has the chance to make her family proud and get revenge on Adam... if she can master her feelings for him first.

I really liked this book, although it took a little while for me to begin enjoying the art. Ultimately it grew on me. Dixie and Avril are fun and enjoyable characters and are reminiscent of the earlier Mike Carey work My Faith In Frankie. Actually the whole tone of this book reminds me of Frankie, although this one is much more down-to-earth.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Manstealing For Fat Girls by Michelle Embree

The cover and the title make this look like "chick lit" but I beg to differ. This is, instead, an 80's-esque working-class misfit teen adventure revenge story, aimed at adults. The story revolves around Angie who, at 16, believes herself to be fat and possibly ugly. She and her girlfriends are teased by the kids at school and each one of them stands out in her own way. Angie's the fat one who's been nick-named "lezzylard." Shelby is an out lesbian. And Heather has one enormous breast. "Spunky" doesn't begin to illustrate these girls' survival-instinct attitudes.

It's not until she gets hit on at a party and another girl calls her a manstealer that Angie begins to realize that she may be prettier than she thinks. Fueled by a slight boost in confidence, Angie stands up for herself against a popular girl and is then sexually assaulted by the girl's boyfriend in order to "teach her a lesson." When it looks like her friend Shelby is going to be "next," Angie fesses up to what happened and takes part in an elaborate plot to get revenge on the assaulter. In the midst of all this Angie gets her first boyfriend, loses her virginity, experiments with drugs, makeup and crash-dieting, and learns to trust herself and her friends a little bit more in the process. Not necessarily in that order, of course.

Embree's created some characters who are both plausible and a little bit out-there, and they are the driving force behind this rough, slightly weird novel. The sexual assault is graphic and there are a couple of other scenes of violence that make for uncomfortable reading, but all in all they help to effect a sense of gritty realism. There are times when I wanted to shake some sense into the main character, but chalk that up to her being an impressionable and angsty teen girl with poor decision-making skills. In the end, however, Angie comes out on top; not on top of the world, but on top of where she needs to be at that point in her life. You get the sense she's going to be ok.
This may appeal to misfits and former misfits, older teen girls, cool feminist punk boys, or anyone in for a dose of gritty warts-and-all working class teen culture.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg

Jane is less than thrilled when her well-meaning but frightened parents decide to move from the vibrant and urban Metro City to a boring and sleepy suburb. Why are they moving? Jane was a victim of a random bombing, and while her parents react to the crisis by trying to shelter and protect their daughter from the larger world, Jane herself reacts by reevaluating the things that make life interesting.

On her first day at her new school Jane has the chance to take her place with the popular kids but declines, feeling that popularity is part of her past life and preferring to make her own way. When she finds three other girls who seem to have nothing in common other than their name - Jane - she decides to take advantage of what may be a unique opportunity.

Together the Janes form a secret group that creates guerrilla art installations throughout town in the dark of the night. Their identities are secret, but their actions become popular with most of the kids at school if for no other reason than that it makes the authority figures nervous and angry. But for the Janes, their new form of expression breathes life and meaning into their otherwise quiet and dull town.

Meanwhile at home, Main Jane's mother becomes increasingly paranoid and protective, effectively sucking the joy out of their small family. Art might be able to save Jane, but what could possibly save her mother?

I quite honestly loved this story. I wanted these girls to be my friends, and I loved the idea of guerrilla art 'perpetrated' by a secret gang of girls. I thought Jim Rugg's art resembles the story itself - neither too cartoony nor overly complicated.

I feel that this story has a lot to offer readers in terms of theme and ideology, particularly with the question of how we can continue to live lives without fear in an increasingly scary world. How do we build meaningful relationships in an environment where violence is becoming a given? And yet the story was still fun and playful. I wish more graphic novels could strike that balance.
This book is aimed at teen girls but may also appeal to fans of the graphic novel or manga, or readers interested in art, alternate forms of expression, and friendship stories.

Freak Show by James St. James

Billy Bloom is Totally. Freaking. Fabulous. OF COURSE!

He is also the new kid at an ultra-conservative private school for the ultra-rich in Florida (the reddest of the red states). In such an ultra-ultra setting Billy needs to stand out in a big way if he has any hope of survival, but luckily standing out is second-nature to him. And Billy is uniquely prepared: he knows he's special, he's outgoing, smart, funny... and so he waltzes into his first day of school expecting to own it. Except...

Except. Billy Bloom is a drag queen, a gender obscurist, a glitteroid, a FREAK. He's the first of his kind, surely, or at least the first that any of the ultra-blond ultra-popular ultra-cruel kids at his school have seen. He can't be hated by EVERYBODY... can he?

After the popular boys put Billy in a coma (!) he develops an unlikely friendship with Flip Kelly, football quarterback and all-around golden boy. He also develops an all-too-likely crush (I'm sure. Wouldn't you?). Will this friendship be just the thing to save Billy, or will it put him under for good?

Billy Bloom is vibrant, hysterical and buoyant. Even in the depths of depression Billy displays his funny acid wit, and I found myself cheering him on every step of the way. This story is definitely character-driven and it's one of the best things I've read all year. What more is there to say?

This book may be good for gender obscurists and their friends and allies, folks in the mood for something irreverent, funny and uplifting, or anyone whose inner freak is crying out for a little recognition and acceptance.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Clubbing by Andi Watson and Josh Howard

Lottie is a very sharp, very with-it London goth girl. Being so sharp and with-it, she sometimes has to break the rules to get what she wants, but she's not really bad... So. Lottie is being punished for using a fake ID to get into a club, but how can you punish a kid who's got all the requisite gadgets and high-end fashion sense of a young modern urbanite? That's right. You send her to the country.

To be more specific, you send her to the country to stay with her sweet but slightly nutty grandparents who just happen to own a posh country club, complete with golf courses, caretakers, hiking tourists and lots of good English mud. How ever will City Mouse manage?

But despite feeling supremely sorry for herself she does manage, with sufficient style, wit and aplomb. She wins a cake decorating contest. She meets a strapping lad. She sabotages a crusty, leering golf shop owner. She discovers a corpse on the back 18.

Whoops! Did we forget to mention that this gothy little graphic novel is a mystery? Lottie's a far cry from Miss Marple but the quaint English setting does beg the comparison. Most clues seem to point to Lottie's own gruff-but-not-unpleasant grandfather as the culprit. The plot twists - not unpredictably - as Lottie and strapping Howard try to unravel the clues using their wits and the Internet, and what they discover leads them unwittingly into the lair of a somewhat Cthulhean cult.

I'm not sure, but I don't think Miss Marple ever had dealings with tentacled beasties.

Now, I've got a big soft spot for graphic novels, goth aesthetics and tentacled beasties. And when I find myself in the middle of reading a mystery I'm willing to give it a go, even though I don't find mysteries terribly thrilling. But even so I have to admit that, while perfectly suited as a light-hearted distraction, for me this book fell a little short of expectations. I like some of the other things that Andi Watson's done (I thought Paris was both lovely and fun) and I do still harbor some high expectations for the Minx line of graphic novels, but overall I thought Lottie could've been fleshed out a little more, perhaps made a little more 'real,' (that's not to say vulnerable. I liked that Lottie isn't overly vulnerable) by being a little less... I don't know... a little less with-it.

And to be honest, the only reason I'm even being this critical about the book is because I do have such high expectations for graphic novels. I want them to offer readers a little bit more to think about while still being fun. Having said that, there's really nothing wrong with this book as a quick, light-hearted fun mystery. This book is aimed, of course, at teen girls but may also be interesting to fans of the graphic novel, manga fans, folks who enjoy a little mystery in the English mud, and lovers of tentacled beasties everywhere.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Grief Girl by Erin Vincent

One month Erin was a normal teenage girl in Australia and the next month she was an orphan, having lost both parents (her mother instantly and her father a month later due to medical complications) to a car accident. She and her older sister are left alone to care for one another as well as for their young brother. What follows over the next few years is Erin's struggle to keep her head above water while finishing school, working, helping to raise her brother and, not least of all, trying to come to terms with this devastating loss. It's a long row to hoe and without trustworthy advice coming from any quarter Erin is hard-pressed to make it happen. Will she ever have a normal life again? Why did this happen? Is it her fault?
This is a convincingly-written memoir, and by that I mean that it is easy to see the person Erin Vincent was during this time in her life. As a person who lost both of my parents during my teen years I found myself thinking "YES! Exactly!" several times while reading this book. I also found myself shaking my head at some of Erin's misinformed decisions and phases, but I was rooting for her throughout. There are books that make you relive painful and hopeless times in your life without giving you anything new to take away from the experience, and then there are books that allow you to relive those times in a way that allows you to forgive and heal. This book is the latter. Thank you, Ms. Vincent.
This book may be good for readers who have had a large and unwieldy grief to contend with in their own lives. It may also be good for readers who are grief-curious, readers who like memoirs, or readers who are into "sad stories" or teen problem novels.

This Is What I Did by Ann Dee Ellis

Logan is a kid with a problem, and despite the strenuous efforts of his parents (they have moved the family across town and Logan has changed schools) it is a problem Logan can't seem to shake. Logan also can't seem to voice what the problem is, either to defend himself or to tell his side of the story. As a result, he spends most of the novel agonizing over the effects that his past is having on his present and being physically, verbally and emotionally brutalized by other kids at his school. Despite the rumors that have been circulating as to the nature of his involvement in this mysterious "incident," Logan manages to nurse a fledgling friendship with Laurel, another outsider with a penchant for palindromes.
It's not until the bullying gets out of hand and Logan is encouraged by his therapist to write down what happened that the reader - or anyone else, for that matter - finds out the nature of the incident and Logan's involvement in it. Logan was the sole witness to the attempted rape of a girl by his former best friend's father, and the subsequent near-deadly assault on the father by said best friend. Logan had nothing to do with what happened, but he blames himself for his own failure to do something about it at the time and it is this very paralysis that is at the center of his current predicament.
I did not enjoy reading this book. I found it painful and upsetting. This is testament to Ellis' skill as a writer for evoking uncomfortable emotions and for detailing (in an almost detached kind of way) the specifics and depths of teenage cruelty. The ending, however, is upbeat. Readers who sincerely enjoy the "problem novel" may want to give this a go.