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Matt H.

Harrow County

posted by: July 20, 2016 - 7:00am

Harrow CountyStrange things are happening in Harrow County. Unrecognizable shadows roost in the barns. A boy’s skin is found hanging in the woods, shed like a snake. And young Emmy is starting to remind  the townsfolk of someone they tried hard to forget.

 

Harrow County, the new series by writer Cullen Bunn and artist Tyler Cook, is a coming-of-age tale told with the moody evocations of a campfire horror story. At times both wondrous and horrifying, it centers on a teenage girl’s journey to discover the darkness and magic of the supernatural.

 

Although she doesn’t know it, Emmy is the reincarnation of Hester Beck, a powerful witch the townsfolk burned at the stake before Emmy was born. In her time, Hester created countless haints (a southern colloquialism for restless spirits) that terrorized the town but now look to Emmy for guidance. On top of that, her neighbors suspect that Emmy’s new powers mean she’ll be just as bad as Hester. To survive them both, Emmy must learn to find humanity in the creatures of the woods.

 

Tyler Crook’s vivid watercolors bring a kaleidoscopic warmth to the southern ghost story. Even his most unsettling creatures move with such character that they become sympathetic, such as the lonely minotaur the Abandoned or the Skinless Boy who is introduced as the most disturbing creature in the book but slowly becomes as friendly and approachable as a pet dog.

 

With this comic next in line for a small screen adaptation, fans of other dark comic adapted TV such as the recent hits Outcast and Preacher will want to take note. The creators have even made their own soundtrack — such is their dedication to giving readers the willies.


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In Appreciation of Darwyn Cooke: 1962-2016

posted by: June 28, 2016 - 7:00am

DC: The New FrontierThe Twilight ChildrenOne of mainstream comics’ greatest talents, Darwyn Cooke, passed away in May. His work was characterized by a nostalgia for superhero comics of the Silver Age, but with a sense of social justice and outrage that was often overlooked.

 

He got his foot in the door drawing storyboards for Batman: The Animated Series, still one of the most enduring interpretations of the character, and went on to do various critically acclaimed runs on Catwoman and Batman, the controversial Before Watchmen miniseries and his graphic adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker novels.

 

He’s best remembered for his masterwork DC: The New Frontier, which swallowed the entire DC universe in one gulp and spit it back out as a post-World War II story that didn’t shy away from the darker truths of that era. It reinvigorated the “good old days” by depicting heroes who had a harder time reconciling their ideals with the country that they fought for. He even took on the unenviable task of retelling Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and carried the torch from the master dazzlingly. Never afraid of pushing his work in new directions, his last book The Twilight Children with Gilbert Hernandez of Love & Rockets fame is a magical realist story in the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez.

 

The superhero genre offers an optimistic escape at the best of times but, Darwyn Cooke was a creator who never looked away from the world, instead showing us how to appreciate it with a rageful optimism. He will be remembered.


 
 

Every Heart a Doorway

posted by: June 2, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Every Heart a DoorwayIf you were like me as a kid and read a lot of fantasy, you probably had no trouble believing that magic mirrors, wardrobes and tollbooths were everyday objects. That Narnia or Wonderland were one right-wrong turn away at any given moment. But the part of those stories I could never understand was the part where the kids go home at the end. If you really found a door to a world where magic was real why would you ever leave? Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway asks a darker question: What would you do to get back?

 

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a school for children coping with realness. Children who returned from magical worlds and desperately want to go back again. But their reasons for wanting to go back are more compelling than just wanting to fight dragons or whatever. These worlds offered them acceptance that they couldn’t find at home, a safe place to express their gender, sexuality, their personality. Plus dragons. Who wouldn’t want to go back?

 

But now someone’s threatening the safety of everyone on campus. Someone who would do anything to return to their world, and everyone’s a suspect.

 

With this book, McGuire has crafted not just one world but multiple worlds of compelling characters and situations, all nested inside one slim novella. Fans of the novel and TV series The Magicians will appreciate this clever deconstruction and homage to the fantasy genre.

 


 
 

Miracleman: The Golden Age

posted by: May 25, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for MiraclemanAfter 30 years of legal troubles kept it from seeing print, Miracleman: The Golden Age by Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham is a lost classic that is well worth the wait. For those unfamiliar, Miracleman was the first “serious” superhero, who began the “grim ‘n gritty” style of comics in the 1980’s.This was a time when writers started asking what would happen if superheroes existed in the real world. The answer was usually violent. But for a comic that came from the same era as cynical classics like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman is surprisingly optimistic.

 

The story of Miracleman is basically about a Superman knockoff who discovers that he’s actually the product of government experiments and brainwashing. He decides to break the cycle of superhero antics by abolishing all governments and setting up a global utopia over which he rules as a god. It’s a pretty shocking concept, but when Neil Gaiman took over writing the book he did something even more audacious: he took the idea of a world without crime and ran with it. Instead of focusing on Miracleman, the book suddenly became a series of vignettes exploring how average people react to finding themselves in a utopia.

 

This was Gaiman’s first comics work and so it’s surprising that it’s some of his best. The stories in this volume are both wildly imaginative and emotionally grounded. We’re introduced to various people — a father making a pilgrimage to Miracleman to ask him to save his daughter’s life, a spy learning to live in a world without espionage and even a resurrected Andy Warhol questioning existence and getting back into silk screening — each of them trying to understand what it means to be human in a world that is suddenly (more or less) perfect. Fans of Gaiman’s Sandman series will find plenty to enjoy, and even non comic book fans will discover a book that proves comics don’t have to be violent to explore adult ideas.


 
 

Lovecraft Country

posted by: May 9, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Lovecraft CountryThere are books with racist subtext, and then there are the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Although his books defined the horror genre, Lovecraft was also an unrepentant racist who made xenophobia a major theme of his work. As time goes by, this has become harder for readers to tolerate, and his image was recently removed from the World Fantasy award trophies for this reason. But Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country explores Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos from the perspective of the people Lovecraft deplored, creating a moving story about race and the supernatural in one unforgettable novel.

 

The book begins in 1950’s Chicago, where Atticus and his Uncle George report for the Safe Negro Travel Guide, a book with real historical roots that guides black travelers through areas of the Jim Crow south where they’re likely to be harassed. The two men also share a mutual love of science fiction that the rest of their family finds hard to understand. But when Atticus’ father Montrose sends him a mysterious letter, they find themselves pulled into a fantasy of their own, a conspiracy of magic and elder gods that reaches far back into their family history.

 

Never before has a horror book engaged with race in such a thoughtful way, with supernatural evils serving as metaphors for social ones. But none of it would land if Ruff hadn’t crafted characters of such depth and complexity. I could go on about the family’s rich interpersonal relationships, like young Horace who sweetly draws his mother her own comic book series because she wants to read a story about a black woman for once, or the book club discussions between Atticus and George which could’ve filled the entire novel and been perfectly satisfying. These are characters to root for, who never back down from a challenge, whether they’re being chased by a sheriff or a shoggoth (which, believe me, are creepy). Fans of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series will enjoy this similarly pulpy piece of historical fiction.

 


 
 

Punk Skunks

posted by: March 31, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Punk SkunksChances are you've never heard of the Punk Skunks. Despite their unique sound and emphasis on positive themes such as friendship, they remain largely ignored by the music industry, perhaps because they are skunks. But all of that’s about to change thanks to the new picture book Punk Skunks by the husband and wife team of Trisha Speed Shaskan and Stephen Shaskan.

 

Kit and Buzz were two BSFs (best skunks forever) who loved skateboarding, riding bikes, spray painting (literally spraying smelly pictures with their tails) and hanging out at their favorite club, ABCDs. But what they liked to do most of all was rock out. They bonded over their love of great punk bands such as the Ratmoans, the DescendAnts and Shrewsie Shrew, and gained a cult following thanks to their catchy songs “We’re Buzz and Kit” and “BSF.” But all of that was about to change.

 

One day while jamming at their practice space, the two musical geniuses clashed. Kit wanted to sing a song about skating and Buzz wanted to sing a song about painting. The creative differences were irreconcilable, and the Punk Skunks were no more. But was this really the end? Will this dynamic duo go the way of Lennon and McCartney, Jones and Strummer, Adam and his Ants? You’ll have to read to find out!

 

Even if you aren’t familiar with the Punk Skunks, this playful homage to the days of Chuck Taylors and safety pins has enough charm to make superfans of even the most jaded punks. And you can get to know these creative critters even better through this article at The Little Crooked Cottage where they were recently interviewed by a pig.


 
 

The Iremonger Trilogy

posted by: February 29, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Heap HouseCover art for FoulshamCover art for LungdonEdward Carey’s Iremonger trilogy is a rare children’s fantasy that, like the His Dark Materials trilogy or The Chronicles of Narnia series, can transport adults as well. The books take place in an alternate 1875, where Clod Iremonger lives with his family in a borough of London called Foulsham amongst a sea of discarded items called the Heaps. The strange and prosperous Iremonger family have a mysterious relationship with the trash surrounding them, and each family member carries a “birth object” that must never leave their side. Meanwhile, an illness is spreading, the poor are disappearing and a new servant girl named Lucy Pennant seems to be “upsetting” objects in the house. Clod, who has the unnatural ability to hear certain objects speak, begins to learn that the members of his family are more sinister than they appear.

 

Without spoiling too much, the narrative switches between Clod and Lucy as they discover that the Iremongers have managed to secure their status by literally objectifying the poor. But how? And can it be reversed? Learning the rules of this world is half the fun, and each revelation suggests exciting possibilities.

 

Each book in the trilogy focuses on a different location, beginning with Heap House, the Iremongers’ secluded mansion, then moving outward into the surrounding borough of Foulsham and concluding in the greater city of Lungdon. As the locations expand, the excitement builds.

 

Fans of Edward Gorey and Lemony Snicket will enjoy the trilogy’s playfully gothic tone, which leavens even its darkest moments with quirky turns of phrase, and the author’s detailed and ink-heavy illustrations will set you firmly in a world so strange and specific you’ll never want to leave.


 
 

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

posted by: February 8, 2016 - 7:30am

Cover art for The Very Persistent Gappers of FripGeorge Saunders is an award-winning author and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient who’s made a name for himself writing dark, occasionally violent stories that satirize capitalism. In other words: not exactly bedtime material. But with his newest book, he decided he wanted to write exactly that: a story to tell his daughters at bedtime. To do this, he had to come up with a whole new bag of tricks and the resulting book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a refreshingly touching defense of tenderness.
 
The story takes place in the three shack seaside town of Frip, where a young girl named Capable lives with her father and makes a meager living producing goat’s milk with the rest of her community. Unfortunately, Frip is also home to some orange spiky baseball-shaped creatures called gappers who attach themselves to goats, stopping them from producing milk. Getting gappers off of goats is a constant chore for the people of Frip, until the gappers form a new strategy: to gang up on Capable’s yard all at once. Capable asks her neighbors for help, but, sadly, they’ve decided that their sudden gapper-free life is a reward for their good character and that Capable’s bad luck must be punishment for bad character. They offer her ridiculously impractical advice like, “Be more efficient than you’ve ever been before. In fact, be more efficient than is physically possible. I know that’s what I’d do.” In order to survive Capable will have to find a new way of life and a way to teach her neighbors the value of community.
 
As always, Saunders' prose is a comfort. Even in storybook mode he manages to be scathing and critical without sacrificing warmth, something not many writers have balanced since Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a reassuring voice, and, much like a good bedtime story, you’ll want to read this book again and again. If you have time, check out his most recent appearance on The Late Show to hear him sing a song inspired by Frip (Saunders is one of those rare guitar strumming MacArthur Geniuses).


 
 

The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School

posted by: January 7, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange SchoolWelcome to the Drearcliff Grange School, where the girls have something missing or something a little extra. In The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School author Kim Newman introduces us to the school’s most recent arrival, Amy Thomsett, who was sent hastily by her mother after she was found sleeping on the ceiling. Luckily, Drearcliff encourages this particular strangeness in its students and Amy soon finds herself at home amongst the daughters of criminal masterminds, outlaw scientists and master magicians.
 

In her first term, Amy makes fast friends with three roommates possibly even stranger than herself: Light Fingers, the daughter of criminal stage-magicians whose hands move “like hummingbird wings;” Kali, the princess of a bandit kingdom whose English is informed by Hollywood gangster movies; and Frecks, the orphan daughter of spies who’s inherited magic chainmail blessed by the Lady in the Lake.
 

Together, they discover that even a school as strange as Drearcliff has its secrets, and the four set out to uncover them. Who are the hooded strangers collecting girls in the night? Why does a snowman in the yard seem to be marching closer to the school every day? And why can’t anyone get that sinister jump rope song out of their head, no matter how hard they try? The answer is terrible enough to unite an entire school of misfits against a common enemy.
 

Just as in his Anno Dracula books, Newman has crafted a world that is overflowing with original ideas as well as allusions to classic works like Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft. Even those who don’t appreciate Newman’s imaginative world building will enjoy the novel’s fast pace and refreshing focus on female friendship. It’s the literary mash-up of Harry Potter and Mean Girls you never knew you wanted.
 


 
 

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

posted by: December 28, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes StoriesThere’s something magical about the fandom of Sherlock Holmes. For over 100 years, the fans have refused to believe that the detective isn’t real. They send him letters and marriage proposals, form historical societies around him and pay tribute with that most earnest form of flattery, fan-fiction. Otto Penzler’s The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories is the mother lode of such tributes, collecting a whopping 83 short stories from such literary heavyweights as J. M. Barrie, Kingsley Amis and P.G. Wodehouse.

 

Sherlock fans of all walks of life will find something to enjoy in this collection, because by density of volume: there has to be! There are modern classics such as Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case,” in which Holmes is barred from a crime scene due to an allergy to the victim’s cats, and Neil Gaiman’s “The Case of Death & Honey,” in which Holmes sets out to solve death itself, and succeeds astonishingly. There are also historically fascinating pieces such as the story Conan Doyle wrote for the library of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, and contemporary parodies in which such clever lines as “Elementary, my dear God!” are uttered.

 

In the last year alone there’s been a plethora of new stories about the Great Detective such as Dan Simmons’ The Fifth Heart, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft Holmes and the film Mr. Holmes, adapted from Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind. It is altogether shocking to observe the similarities between the Holmes of the 1800’s and the Holmes still captivating audiences today, and reading this century’s worth of stories will give you the humbling feeling of watching a small torch pass from writer to writer across decades. Consider giving this to anyone who’s impatiently awaiting the next season of Sherlock. And really, isn’t everybody?


 
 

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