July 21, 2021

Review: Crush + Color: Twentieth Century Foxes

Crush and Color: Twentieth Century FoxesIllustrated by Maurizio Campidelli
Available now from Castle Point Books
Review copy

I think all of Maurizio Campidelli's Crush + Color coloring books are good fun, but the Twentieth Century Foxes pun in particular cracked me up. I think this is the first book in the series not to cover a single actor. Actors not pictured on the cover include Antonio Banderas, Patrick Swayze, Pierce Brosnan, and more. All have more than one coloring page. An index might have been a nice addition to this one.

Thankfully, the actors are identified on each page just in case I didn't recognize them. Their names are always used in the short fantasy bubble that appears opposite the coloring page. Only one page in a spread is designed to be colored and the pages are perforated, allowing for the pages to be removed and either shared or used for decoration.

The art on these pages goes almost to the edges, but there is a small border. I find most of the images appealing from a coloring standpoint, with a mix of detailed areas for when I want to focus and bigger areas for when I want to zone out. I feel like Campidelli is great at laying out a coloring page. The paper is nice too, much better than a children's coloring book. I used markers on one page without bleed-through to the next coloring page.

I do think that Campidelli's likenesses vary in quality. I don't particularly like his Denzel Washington or George Clooney. But I think his Antonio Banderas and Kurt Russell are great. There is more detail to the faces than the rest of the page, which doesn't always work for me.

Overall though, I very much enjoy this coloring series and think Crush + Color: Twentieth Century Foxes is a fun addition. These coloring books have a fun sense of humor and appealing subject matter.

July 17, 2021

Review: Just Like That

Just Like That
By Gary D. Schmidt
Available now from Clarion Books
Review copy

Just Like That is a companion novel to The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now, both of which I haven't read. I thought it stood well on its own, although I did get the sense at the beginning that I was reading the sequel to a book I hadn't read.

Meryl Lee Kowalski is struggling with grief, or the "Blank," as she calls it. Every night on the news, she sees reports of soldiers killed in Vietnam who never got to say good-bye to their loved ones. She struggles to handle the weight of it and the way it mirrors her feelings about her best friend Holling Hoodhood, who died suddenly in a car crash. She never got to say goodbye to him. Her parents don't know how to handle her feelings and are secretly dealing with their own issues, and choose to send Meryl Lee to St. Elene's Preparatory Academy for Girls. 

Meryl Lee struggles to fit into the boarding school culture, which involves things like not talking to the girls who work around the school. It also requires doing a sport, which Meryl Lee had never considered before and initially fails at, until finding something strangely compelling about the violence of lacrosse. She also starts to notice a power struggle between the headmistress and some teachers with different political views.

In a parallel story line, Matt Coffin moves into a shack on the coast. He's on the run from someone, and dealing with his own grief. He starts to carve out a life for himself, a storyline that appeals to the part of me that loved rugged domestic stories like Hatchet and the first Boxcar Children. He also encounters some helpful adults that give him room to approach them - one of whom happens to be the headmistress of St. Elene's.

The eventual meeting of Meryl Lee and Matt is inevitable, but the path to that point is an enjoyable one. Just Like That is stuffed full of incident and ideas and interweaving stories. I never felt like Gary D. Schmidt had lost control of the plot, however. He masterfully balances the disparate elements of Just Like That, tying everything together with the themes of grief and the struggle to heal. Just Like That is  deeply sad novel, but also a very funny and hopeful one.

July 13, 2021

Review: U Up?

U Up?
Available now from Melville House
Review copy

I am a firm believer that protagonists do not have to be likeable. For me to be interested in their story, there must be something intriguing about them, but they don't have to be likeable. U Up? has a protagonist that tests my patience. Eve is relentlessly self-centered, judgmental as hell, and the sort of lesbian who throws around a slur every two seconds like her personal reclamation is activism. (It's a trait that made me wince multiple times a page, on average.) Reading her stream-of-conscious narration was often hellish.

This narration is only broken up by text messages. The poor decision was made, either by publisher Melville House or author Catie Disabato, to print a full-screen of text messages every time instead of just the new texts, often wasting entire pages with repeated texts. In other words, it isn't much of a relief.

In U Up?, Eve is on a rampage because it is the anniversary of her best friend Miggy's suicide and her other best friend Ezra is ghosting her after telling her that he broke up with his girlfriend the night before. Everyone they know tells her to cool it and let him lick his wounds in private, but she's determined that something must have happened to him since he's not answering her calls, and their friendship is extra special.

Oh, and Eve can talk to ghosts. The cover copy mentions that she texts her dead friend Miggy, but I thought that meant she sent texts to the void, saying things to a friend who could no longer speak back. No, she holds conversations with her dead friend Miggy, who also thinks she should cool her jets. Ezra's ex Nozlee can speak to ghosts too, and she and Eve were actually buddies back in New York before they met all their LA friends, because they met in witch school. 

Since U Up? is more literary fiction than speculative fiction, this aspect of the novel tends to recede into the background even though it is the most fascinating thing happening. It's an underbaked element that I kept wishing would be explored more, until it becomes integral to the climax.

I enjoyed the end of the novel more than beginning, partially due to the nature of story about the protagonist going on a journey means that Eve is more bearable by the end. But also because the end has a bunch of weird ghost stuff and that's the best part. 

I found Eve to be a very believable character, but she grated on me too much for me to vibe with her story. I might've enjoyed the full on crazy ghost version of this story, but the one I got dragged for far too long.

July 9, 2021

Review: Kit: Turning Things Around

Kit: Turning Things Around
American Girl Historical Characters
By Valerie Tripp
Illustrated by Walter Rane
Available now from American Girl
Review copy

Kit: Turning Things Around is an abridged collection of the final three core Kit books. (Kit also had a mystery series.) This second volume has more action than the first, but continues to be mostly character driven. These three books don't flow as smoothly together as some of the others.

The first part involves on of the most memorable characters in the series, Kit's Aunt Millie. Aunt Millie is an expert at thrifting and making the best out of what they have. As much as Kit loves her, she still lashes out when Aunt Millie demonstrates how poor she is to her classmates. In the second part, Kit and her friend Stirling visit a hobo camp with their new friend, the homeless Will Shepherd, and end up getting arrested when they ride the rails together. These two misadventures do help Kit in the climax. Her Uncle Hendrick keeps writing editorials criticizing the New Deal, so aspiring journalist Kit writes her own editorial based on her experiences with the people living and working through the Great Depression.

The aforementioned second part struck me as pretty over the top compared to everything else in the Kit books, but I probably would've loved the excitement as a young reader. Overall, this volume brings Kit's story to a satisfying conclusion. The first bit of news she writes in Kit: Read All About It! is a bratty complaint about her mother; in the end, she's using her writing to give a voice to children who are truly in need.

I do feel like abridging this set of books didn't do them many favors since the focus is so different in each that it feels like the book really hops around. At the same time, Kit: Turning Things Around is a pretty quick read with a lively heroine that I'm sure bookish young girls will love.

July 5, 2021

Review: Kit: Read All About It!

Kit: Read All About It!
American Girl Historical Characters
By Valerie Tripp
Illustrated by Walter Rane
Available now from American Girl
Review copy

Kit: Read All About It! collects what were the first three core books in the Kit series in a single abridged edition. (Kit also had a mystery series.) Kit was added to the American Girl lineup in 2000 and was the first girl whose books I never read as a child because I considered myself too old for them.

It's 1934 in Cincinnati, Ohio and the Great Depression is in full swing. So far, Kit Kitteridge has been insulated from the worst. But suddenly, her family has to take in boarders and she has to live in the attic. Her brother Charlie reveals the truth: their dad is losing his car dealership. He'd tried to hang on, not firing any employees and paying them from his savings, but now he has to close the dealership and the family must make money in other ways to keep their house. Kit is still better off than many of her contemporaries due to her family's home ownership, but they're teetering on the edge of poverty.

Kit: Read All About It! takes a dramatic period of American history and makes it personal and child friendly, as all the American Girl books did. Kit is motivated by her ambition to become a reporter, and writing her newsletter is also a good way for her to hang out with her friends. There's friction between her and her old friend Ruthie, since Ruthie's family is better off than Kit's. There's also tension with the only boarder Kit's age, Stirling, until they learn how to deal with his overbearing mother. Even though Stirling is her friend, Kit is often frustrated by all the boarders. She doesn't like the chores that come with them and wants more of her own space. Her feelings on the situation are very relatable.

The Kit books aren't as dramatic as the Abby books, but they're still fun, quick reads. Real history is woven into stories of friendship and community. There's also a short nonfiction section at the back of the book. I think this is a good read for about the third-grade level.

July 1, 2021

Review: The Eternaut 1969

The Eternaut (1969)
Written by Héctor Germán Oesterheld
Illustrated by Alberto Breccia
Translated by Erica Mena
Available now from Fantagraphics
Review copy

The Eternaut, serialized from 1957 to 1959, is a seminal work of Argentinian science fiction. The Eternaut 1969 is a reboot that never quite found its audience and was canceled and quickly finished in a few breakneck chapters. In 1976, the author Héctor Germán Oesterheld, would write a sequel to the original, shortly before his works were banned in Argentina.

I appreciate the work Fantagraphics put into this volume. There's explanatory material before and after the story to help place The Eternaut 1969 in Argentinian culture, including the political background of the story. It also discusses its place in the ouevres of both Oesterheld and Alberto Breccia, who did not draw the more famous version. (That was F. Solano López.) This material helps explain why the comic was cancelled and why it still deserves to be remembered as a work of art.

I can understand why it failed. Apparently, many of the complaints sent to the magazine it ran in (Gente) said that Breccia's art was impossible to follow. Breccia's art is often abstracted; when the aliens appear, their form is more suggestion than depiction. There's an intriguing textures and bold use of white. Artistically, it is compelling. But easily comprehensible, it is not. I'm sure the magazine printing also wasn't as neatly done as Fantagraphics' presentation.

The story of The Eternaut 1969 is quite compelling. A time-traveler (traveling through eternity instead of space) comes to tell his tell to a comic-book artist. One day, snow begins to fall in Buenos Aires. It kills. Juan Salvo, his wife, daughter, and friends survive, but soon discover that South America has been sacrificed to alien invaders by the rest of the world. Their small steps toward survival are interrupted when the military presses them into service. The Eternaut 1969 is pessimistic about both world and local governments.

At the time, it made Oesterheld controversial. But seven years later, he would become one of the desaparecidos. Over 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared by the Argentinian government when a U.S.-backed junta took over the country. It's a chilling ending to his biography that adds weight to the hastily finished, imperfect The Eternaut 1969. It's not a popular story, but it is an honest one. In the end, this graphic novel is as compelling for the story of why it failed as well as the art within.

Fantagraphics recommends pairing this work with the original The Eternaut. Their English version is currently sold out, but being reprinted. I do think it is fascinating to be able to compare the two.


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