Just Giblets

2013: the Year in Comics

10th January 2014
by Michael

2013: the Year in Comics

Winner

Marvel Now

Loser

DC Comics - The New 52

 

 

 

 

 

A year ago, as 2013 was starting, DC was still riding on the successes of the New 52, although the steam was starting to sputter, and the creativity that had been evident during its launch was starting to get scarce.  On the other hand, Marvel, who had spent years heading in a direction I just wasn’t at all interested in, was starting to show some promise with their Marvel Now campaign, their answer to DC’s New 52.  Who would know that in just one year, as 2014 is kicking off, I would have made such a radical shift, jettisoning many of my DC titles, and feeling lackluster about the ones I’m keeping, and embracing so many new Marvel titles… or at least enjoying the new directions that they are headed in. I’m somewhat unique when it comes to comic readers, I think.  I’m largely interested in super-heroines, and as a gay man, I’ve been enjoying the growing number of gay characters that have been popping up in comics.  Overall, I would give DC higher marks when it comes to their treatment of women and gays in comics.  That all seemed to change during 2013, when Marvel really started putting their money where their mouth is, and showcasing female characters in a really big way, putting marketing muscle behind them, and really starting to address some of the criticisms that have been dogging them:  namely that they were a old, white boys club.  2013 showed them really trying new things, and 2014 looks to be continuing the trend.

High Point of 2013

Sif

Sif from Journey into Mystery by Kathryn Immonen and Valerio Schiti.  Hands down, best comic book read in 2013, and I dare say, in the last ten years.  Smart, rollicking fun.  Too bad it only lasted 10 issues.

Journey Into Mystery 2013 saw the bulk of the short run that I have to mark as one of the best comic arcs I have ever enjoyed.  That was Marvel’s Journey Into Mystery, featuring Sif, written by Kathryn Immonen with art by Valerio Schiti.  Wow.  I remember reading an interview with Immonen before the series launched, and she talked about giving Sif some fun, sprawling adventures, filled with brawls, revelry, bad behavior, and just plain old fun.  She succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.  From Asgardian berserkers, to fighting back to back with Spider-Man in Manhattan, to cosmic, space adventure, Immonen wrote Sif as the consummate warrior who fit in everywhere.  It was truly the most fully realized the character has ever been.  Completely defined on her own, and not as Thor’s boyfriend, or Beta Ray Bill’s boyfriend, but as a warrior, as a goddess, ad a friend, and as a super-heroine.  Valerio Schiti brought Sif to life with his pencils that combined a goddess’ beauty, with the true strength of a warrior.  I never doubted that Sif couldn’t do all the mighty thinks she did, and she was beautiful while she did it.  And did I mention the gorgeous cover art by Jeff Dekal?  Blew me away every month.  But it was too good to be true, and I knew it wouldn’t last.  Still we had 10 fantastic issues to enjoy – and it was a real longshot to begin with.  I am so happy to have had such a joy to read for ten months running.

 

Other Shining Moments

Sandman: Overtures

Neil Gaiman returns to Sandman along with J.H. Williams III

The only thing better than Neil Gaiman returning to his most well-known work, The Sandman, would be having return with someone like J. H. Williams III handling the artwork.  Well, that is just what Vertigo did, and the result is spectacular.  Only a single issue has been published thus far and already the results are out of this world… literally.  Neil is crafting the story that serves as a prequel of sorts to his groundbreaking series.  What were the events that led to Morpheus’ decades-long captivity in issue #1 of The Sandman comic?  Overture  will reveal this story over the course of several bi-monthly issues. Neil’s return is fresh and welcoming. It feels both comfortable, a soft, enveloping afghan to curl up in on a snowy night, and revitalized and energized.  And other than Dave McKean, was there ever an artist more suited to visualizing the tales of the Dream-King than J.H. Williams III?  He gave us hints of this type of work in Promethea, matured to the superstar comic artist he is today with Batwoman and now turns his formidable talents to such a classic character whose visuals have been chronicled by a series of great artists.  In 2013, this is the one thing DC really did right.

 

 

 

 

 

Young Avengers

Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen.  Innovative, fresh and fun.   Smart as hell.  Too bad it’s only lasting 12 issues.

The third comics high point in 2013 has a connection with the first.  Prior to Sif taking over the spotlight in Journey Into Mystery, Kieron Gillen had a very successful run on the title featuring Sif’s fellow Asgardian, Kid Loki. In 2013, Gillen brought Kid Loki along for the ride when he launched Young Avengers, surpassing even the heights the groups’ creator, Allan Heinberg took them.  With innovative artwork and stories that truly felt like they were populated by super-powered teenagers (albeit fantastically powerful and incredibly beautiful teenagers) Young Avengers was fresh and exciting every month. Kid Loki wasn’t the only new member in the Young Avengers, a mysterious powerhouse named Miss America, Kree superhero Marvel Boy, and former X-Man Prodigy joined original members Wiccan, Hulkling and Hawkeye for some truly dimension-hopping adventures. It is notable to mention that the Kate Bishop Hawkeye has starred to not just one, but two of the year’s spotlight series.  Read more about her activities in the Hawkeye entry below. It is also notable that the gay relationship between Wiccan and Hulkling is central to the series.  Again, this series could have run much longer, but after a single year, Gillen decided to call it a day rather than lose the innovative energy that infused his first season.  It will be greatly missed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FF

FF by Matt Fraction and Mike Allred.  Full of heart, joy and spontaneity.  And you could find a better artist for this title.  Too bad it’s only lasting 14 issues.

My next entry has been a consistent high point for 2013 and is yet another title that will be ending after just over one year.  Matt Fraction was everywhere in Marvel in 2013, including taking over the Fantastic Four franchise.  In addition to the flagship title, Fantastic Four, Fraction took over FF (formerly the Future Foundation) keeping the large cast of young students at the Foundation, and replacing the Fantastic Four with the quirky  combo of Ant-man (Scott Lang), She-Hulk, Medusa, and She-Thing (Johnny’s pop-star girlfriend, Darla, in a Thing suit).  Sound weird?  Well it was, but it had originality, fun, and most importantly, heart.  It didn’t hurt that Michael Allred handled the artwork, and his gorgeous, cartoony style fit the title to perfection.

Batwoman

Batwoman proposes to maggie Sawyer.  Groundbreaking and powerful.  Too bad DC had to mess it all up afterwards.  Fingers crossed for Andreyko.

Alas, the tale of Batwoman should probably be a blog post all on its own, but it has been examined and talked over by many better writers/bloggers than me, so I will try to keep it down to a paragraph or two.  Nothing DC has put out in the last decade can compare to the excitement generated and quality served that Batwoman, first under the masterful team of Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III.  When Greg left the title due to editorial interference from DC, Batwoman fans collectively held their breath. Would their beloved title survive?  When the announcement came that the writing duties would be taken over by artist Williams III, and that he would continue to draw every other story arc, you could feel the internet sigh in relief. Personally, although I would miss Rucka, who really was an act that couldn’t be topped for this title, I was thrilled because the artist who would be alternating with Williams III was Amy Reeder, who I also loved.  Her work on Madame Xanadu was clean and fresh, but also broke convention and would be a perfect counterpoint for Williams III.  Alas, after a couple of issues, ‘creative differences’ forced Reeder off the title. Somehow Batwoman survived yet another creative shake-up, but the third, and most recent will be the make or break moment, I fear.  In a glorious moment, Williams III had Kate Kane aka Batwoman, propose to her beloved, Maggie Sawyer.  Before any follow-up could be seen in the book itself, the news broke that DC was not allowing any characters to get married (because all their characters had to be angst-ridden and miserable, which marriage prevents) and due to larger creative differences, J.H. Williams III was leaving the title.  Now that was a blow that I doubted Batwoman could survive. Yet somehow, some way, DC got one of the very few writers that might be able to take the reins successfully to do just that.  Marc Andreyko, whose amazing work on Manhunter could have been a precursor to Batwoman, has taken over the writing duties of Batwoman.  The real question is, as 2014 kicks off, can Marc rise above the editorial interference that seems to be the true enemy Batwoman must face to rise triumphant back to her former glory.  Only time will tell.  2014 will either be one more sigh of relief, or the year that Batwoman comes crashing down from the heights she has existed in since her launch.

 

 

 

Fearless Defenders

Cullen Bunn had big plans for the superheroines of Marvel in Fearless Defenders.  Too bad it only lasted 12 issues.

Cullen Bunn did something promising at the end of his Fear Itself: The Fearless miniseries a couple of years ago.  He ended the story with Valkyrie realizing that she needed to gather together a new group of Valkyries to be ready to combat evil, etc.  What followed in 2013 was a series to surprising when you think about Marvel’s track record, that the fact that it lasted 12 issues was an astounding feat that I will always treasure.  It may not have been the most innovative writing, or the most polished art, but it spoke directly to my particular fan-boy heart. Fearless Defenders was basically a forum for writer Cullen Bunn to spotlight the heroines (and villainesses) of Marvel.  It starts as an odd copule scenario, Brunnhilde the Valkyrie and Misty Knight, bionic detective coming together to combat evil.  Along the twelve-issue run we are treated to an assortment of well-known (She-Hulk, Storm, Black Cat, Elektra), fan-favorite (Tigra, Dani Moonstar, Hellcat, Colleen Wing, Thundra, Elsa Bloodston) and downright obscure (Hippolyta, Clea, Tarantula) heroines coming  together for some kick-ass adventure. Add to that a terrific new ‘human’ character, Annabelle, who gets caught up in the team’s adventures and falls for Valkyrie, who, being an Asgardian goddess, is not necessarily opposed to a relationship with another woman.  Sadly, that gets slightly derailed when Annabelle is killed and with a little help for Clea, Valkyrie rescues her soul but ends up having to share her body with her. And that’s just the start.  When I read what Mr. Bunn had planned for the longer run of this title, my soul just weeps.  Why wasn’t this title flying off the shelves!  Then, I step back and wonder, how did he sell more than a dozen copies?  I’m so thankful this title existed, and I’m so thankful that this Marvel Now initiative gave Marvel the balls to get behind it for a year.  Who knows?  Perhaps the Fearless Defenders will return?

 

 

 

 

Hawkeye

Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye is original and fun.  Surprised (and happy) that this one is still being published!

Matt Fraction has an offbeat sensibility.  And I really, really welcome it in comics.  Just take a look at FF and Hawkeye?  I’ve always enjoyed Hawkeye (Clint Barton) as a character, but since the Bendis-i-zation of all things Avengers, I was pretty much over most of them as characters.  When this new Hawkeye series was announced, honestly, what caught my attention were the fantastic covers created by David Aja.  I also read an interview with Fraction somewhere where he mentioned that both Clint and Kate Bishop – the other Hawkeye – would be appearing in this title.  My interest was suitably piqued. The rest is history.  Hawkeye is one of the most original mainstream superhero comic today.  It’s firmly rooted in the superhero world, with references to Hawkeye’s Avengers membership, and villains like Madame Masque popping in from time to time, but the stories’ focus is much more personal.  From Clint trying to protect his building’s fellow tenants from a shady landlord, Kate trying to find a job, or Clint’s dog having an issue-long adventure on his own, Hawkeye never ceases to please. And it’s truly showing in the non-comic book store world.  Collected editions of the Hawkeye comic are showing up next to Fables on the top selling graphic novel lists on Amazon. This is the way you grab an audience, people.  Not by playing it safe, but by taking chances.  Thanks, Matt.

 

 

 

 

 

Red She-Hulk

Biggest surprise of the year

Have I said this too many times already?  Surely this was the biggest surprise of the year for me.  That whole Red Hulk think was totally lost on me over the last few years, and when they started in on the Red She-Hulk?  I just couldn’t be bothered.  There was a perfectly good She-Hulk running around: Jennifer Walters, and the spotlight on any She-Hulk should be on her.  Sure, Betty Ross Banner is a character with a lot of history, and the fact that she’s got some Hulk issues of her own is vaguely interesting, I just didn’t see the need. So why did I pick up the first issues of the new Red She-Hulk comic?  I really have no idea.  Jeff Parker was the creative force behind Agents of Atlas, which I actually didn’t read, but heard good things about it.  I’m wracking my brain, but honestly, I can’t remember why I picked it up, but something about that very first issue, with the Avengers trying to hunt Red She-Hulk down, and with Machine Man of all people being the readers’ point of entry, that really clicked, and like Journey Into Mystery featuring Sif, there was something just old school and fun, while still being original, about Red She-Hulk.  Too bad it only last 8 issues.

 

 

 

 

 

X-Men

Brian Wood’s X-Men

Despite being saddled with a mutant-line crossover a couple issues after it debuted, X-Men has managed to find a nice identity and let the central characters shine.  What could have easily been a gimmick — let’s feature a team of X-Men that’s all women — very quickly became something much more organic and fun under Brian Wood’s steady hand.  It has helped that he’s had a couple of terrific artists helping him out, first Olivier Copiel, then Terry and Rachel Dodson, but the dynamic between the characters, the action sequences, the rhythm of the stories… by gosh, you might not even notice that there aren’t any guys featured!  It’s just kind of business as usual! The roster has changed slightly since the start. Kitty Pryde has left the building (sadly).  Kitty is such a mature and stabilizing presence, I would have liked to seen her play off some of the more volatile characters a bit more.  That said, the introduction of X-Factor’s Monet (M) into the mix in the last couple of issues is inspired, and should make for a nice team dynamic.   Wood has set up a little tension between Storm and Rachel, which is nice.  It’s nice to see Rachel do much of anything, actually.  And having Jubilee as the catalyst of sorts for this team was kind of nice as well.  Especially since the fact that she’s a vampire now is barely mentioned.  Maybe they’ll just forget about it.  It’s nice that the students are all running around in the background as well, interacting where appropriate.  I’m also loving the natural growth of the Sisterhood, a team of super villainesses to oppose the X-Men.  And the fact that Brian is reaching beyond the mutantverse to populate this Sisterhood with the likes of the Enchantress and Typhoid Mary is inspired.  If the writing and art stays at this level, X-Men could be around for a long time.

 

Mixed Bags

Guardians of the GalaxyBefore I get into the two major families that Marvel focuses on, let me say a brief word about Guardians of the Galaxy.  A few years ago, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning revitalized Marvel’s cosmic line of comics through a couple of major events called Annhiliation and Annihilation: Conquest.  Among the titles they launched was a whacky band of cosmic misfits, The Guardians of the Galaxy.  Led by Starlord, their roster was  a loose collection of space-faring warriors such as Drax, Gamora, Captain Marvel (Phyla-Vell), Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Moondragon, Mantis, Cosmo, Bug, and a few more.  It was fresh, it was funny, the characters were distinct and unique.  One of the best comics in the last ten years.  With the announcement last year that Marvel’s next new movie in their stable would be a Guardians of the Galaxy film, a new series was launched written by Marvel powerhouse Brian Michael Bendis.  It was a stripped down roster, Starlord, Drax, Gamora, Rocket and Groot, with the addition of Neil Gaiman’s creation, Angela.  And amazingly (not) Mr. Bendis took every ounce of character and intelligence out of the book.  The characters are the blandest batch of heroes to be found.  They took away Gamora’s inappropriately revealing costume and replaced it with ugly, clunky armor that makes her pretty generic looking.  They added in Iron Man just because.  It’s really pretty abysmal.  Not even a very brief appearance by my favorite ex-Guardian, Mantis, could perk up this blah title.  Well, I waited out Bendis over in the Avengers.  Maybe in ten years, Guardians of the Galaxy will have a new writer and I will enjoy it once again.

The Avengers

Not counting Young Avengers, which is so far removed from the Avengers family, I just pretend it’s not even related.  Marvel leaned heavily on the Avengers family of titles this year with not one, but two major events wrapped around them.  The first, Age of Ultron came and went without a whole lot of impact.  For me, the main positive moment in this event came from the prominent role played by Susan Storm Richards, the Invisible Woman.  A thank you to Bendis for including her in that role.  I barely remember the rest of the story.

Infinity

Infinity was a bit of a dud. Overlong and repetitious.

The main event of 2013 was called Infinity, and it was helmed by Jonathan Hickman.  This one crossed over throughout pretty much all the Avengers titles to varying degrees of success.  There was a whole lot of repetition, i.e. here’s the same exact story from Captain America’s point of view in The Avengers; here it is from Captain Marvel’s point of view in Captain Marvel; here it is from Spider-woman’s point of view in Avengers Assemble… you get the idea?  One thing Infinity did for me was help me come to the realization that Hickman’s Avengers is not my cup of tea.  It’s all big ideas, zero characterization.  He’s swollen the Avengers roster to about 35 members, and honestly, they are pretty interchangeable.  There are literally no defining characteristics that make one character any different from another.  Sure, Captain America spouts orders – but so does Captain Marvel.  Thor just wants to hit things — well so does Smasher.  And on… and on.  Some of the sister Avenger titles fare a little better.  Avengers Assemble written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Warren Ellis, focused more on the lady Avengers, and brought some interesting insight to their tale.  Hickman’s New Avengers featuring the Illuminati, was slightly more interesting because it was focused more tightly on a small group of characters. Uncanny AvengersThe one new title that I have been enjoying a great deal is Mighty Avengers.  While it’s too soon to tell how long it will last, or how long I will like it, it features an interesting mix of characters, including Spectrum (Monica Rambeau), She-Hulk, White Tiger, and Luke Cage, among others, and is the most diverse gathering of heroes that Marvel has put together.  Similarly, reaching back to Âge of Ultron, the one new title to emerge from that event is Avengers A.I. starring Hank Pym, the Vision, and some other artificial intelligences.  It’s intriguing and fun, and this latest issues reveal that Jocasta would be involved has me even more interested. The one major Avengers title that somehow managed to avoid the Infinity onslaught was also the best of the bunch.  Uncanny Avengers was born out of last year’s Avengers vs. X-men event.  Helmed by Rick Remender, Uncanny Avengers has taken a bold premise, humans and mutants working together quite visibly, and created a major epic storyline that doesn’t sacrifice some powerful character work.  Remender had the challenging job of integrating the Scarlet Witch back onto a team after Bendis dragged her character through the mud every way you could conceive of, and he has done so effectively and without sacrificing what came before.  He has also written the Wasp back in character, flirtatious, yet tough and capable.  He has integrated former X-Men, Havok, Rogue and Sunfire into the mix nicely… and of course, Wolverine, who was already an Avenger.  Honestly, this one took me by surprise.  I hadn’t really been expecting much.

X-Men

X-Factor

Good-bye X-Factor. We’ll miss you.

I’ve already shown the winner in the X-Men family above… and that would be Brian Wood’s X-Men, featuring a team of female X-Men.  Speaking of Peter David’s X-Factor, my #1 mutant book came to a close last year, and while it’s coming back in a different incarnation in 2014, these last few years, the title, spawned from a mini-series starring Madrox, was something really special.  Not only did it give us another fantastic gay couple, Rictor and Shatterstar, but it deftly wove together intricate stories featuring Pip the Troll and Hela, not an easy feat for mutant title.  I’m sure David’s new X-Factor will be a fun read… most of his work is… but there was something about that last X-Factor that was special.  I certainly never thought I’d like Layla Miller, and a couple issues under David’s pen, and she was a favorite. The real surprise for me has been Bendis’ All-New X-Men.  The concept, bring the original X-Men forward in time so they can see what a mess their Cylcops has made of the present, so they can go back and make sure this stuff doesn’t happen in their future, is just the kind of ridiculous claptrap that makes many people roll their eyes at comics.  Lets be clear, this was a way to bring Jean Grey back to life without bringing her back to life.  Since Alias, I haven’t really thought much of Bendis playing in the Marvel world.  In fact, his whole Avengers run is what nearly drove me away from Marvel.  So you can imagine how surprised I was when I was really enjoying his All New X-Men!

All-New X-Men

Second biggest surprise of 2013. I’m loving this.

 

DC

Other than Neil Gaiman’s return to  Sandman, the most positive thing I can say about DC is that some of their title maintained a certain level of quality.  I am in the midst of a major purge of DC titles, and their recent line-wide push, namely Villains United, hasleft me decidedly cold.  The editorial interference that drove J. H. Williams III from Batwoman was enough to put me off all on its own.  It’s a slim hope that the talented Marc Andreyko will be able to do something positive with the formerly amazing title under the current editorial regime.

Wonder Woman

The biggest surprise about Wonder Woman is that DC is letting Brian Azzarello continue to write it.  I am enjoying his fresh take on the series, but it’s truly baffling when there is another Wonder Woman starring in Justice League and Superman & Wonder Woman that doesn’t resemble Azzarello’s lead character much at all.  In fact, the Wonder Woman in those other two titles is one of the worst iterations of the character since the 70′s.  I can only imagine that at some point, Mr. Azzarello will move on to another title, and the Wonder Woman starring in her own comic will slowly (or quickly) morph into the one that more people are seeing over in Justice League.  That will truly be a sad day.

The Movement

Gail Simone’s new title, The Movement

Of course, the bright spot over at DC remains Gail Simone. She is such a talented writer that she consistently keeps me interested in Batgirl despite the fact that DC keeps dragging her into the Batman family and the stories going on over in that part of the world.  It seems that every few issues, Gail has to work in some Batman-related storyline that disrupts the flow of her own storytelling.  Gail has a second title over at DC called The Movement.  This oddball group of young super-heroes fight for the homeless, the poor, and the otherwise disenfranchised against a corrupt law enforcement agency.  It’s fresh and fun, and Gail injects it with her usual share of LGBT issues and other diversity.  That said, I don’t expect it to last much longer.  Gail will be writing her first story over at Marvel in over ten years, and it is my hope that they lure her over there to take part in the seeming renaissance that’s happening there.

Other than that, the titles that I am still enjoying over at DC include World’s Finest: Huntress & Power Girl, Earth 2 (largely thanks to Nicola Scott’s amazing artwork), Swamp Thing and Animal Man.  Trinity of Sin: Pandora intrigues me, and I always like to support female characters, but it has been so tied up in the whole Villains United story that I’m rapidly losing interest.  Same with Justice League Dark, which I find interesting because of the characters, but I wish it was off on its own and not tied up in all the goings on of the main Justice Leagues.

Vertigo’s mainstays, Fables and Fairest remain top quality books. The big problem over at DC is, as I mentioned, their Villains United initiative, where the focus for the past several months has been on villains.  I don’t read these comics for the villains, I read them for the heroes.  It’s all pretty boring, actually, and it caused me to drop a bunch of titles that I wasn’t really enjoying anyway.  And the rash of cancellations at DC of books that I was enjoying is disheartening:  Legion of Superheroes, Katana, Demon Knights, Sword & Sorcery: Amethyst, and I, Vampire.  Honestly, this is the first time I can remember that there wasn’t a Legion of Superheroes title being published, or at least in the works.

Other publishers

But there’s good work being down outside of the big two as well.  I don’t seek out a whole lot of indies, but Gail Simone got me to check out Red Sonja which she is writing for Dynamite.  Terry Moore continues his creative work on Rachel Rising.  Amy Reeder has started her own book along with writer Brandon Montclare called Rocket Girl for Image which has started off promisingly.  Colleen Doran has gotten Image to resume publication of her epic A Distant Soil, and I’m really enjoying seeing all my favorite kaiju come to life in the Godzilla titles for IDW.

So that’s it!  My year in comics.  Still reading, still enjoying them over all, although DC really is hitting a low point.  If nothing else, the comics industry is pretty quixotic, so who knows what will happen in 2014.

posted in Comics, Year-end lists | at 7:32 am | 0 Comments
8th January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 1 & 2

My top books read in 2013 is topped by an old favorite and a new debut.  Helen Wacker’s debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni is a powerfully gorgeous fantasy novel disguised as historical fiction.  Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is gorgeous, Gaiman-fantasy at its best.  A couple of really great books.

The Golem and the Jinni#2 - The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wacker

I find it interesting how wrapping a fantasy in historical fiction allows a novel to transcend genre and suddenly appeal to a wider audience. It’s a neat trick that worked for Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and if there’s any justice it will work for Helene Wecker’s lovely and highly original The Golem and the Jinni.

The setting is the oh-so appealing turn-of-the (20th) century New York City, and the protagonists are, surprisingly enough, a golem called Chava, and a Jinni called Ahmad. Both find themselves in a difficult situation with no one who truly understands their respective plights. Chava was created to serve as a wife for a Polish peasant. Despite admonitions to the contrary, the peasant awakens Chava on the journey from Europe to America, then promptly dies of a massive heart attack. The golem is suddenly alive, but without a master, and while she possesses nearly limitless strength and endurance in her body made of clay, her strange ability to sense the desires of those around her threatens to drive her mad.

In traditional jinni style, Ahmad finds himself in Arbeely’s shop after the young man begins work on a copper flask. Ahmad has been trapped in said flask for centuries, but his release only adds to his torment, for on his wrist is an iron cuff that traps him in human form, and prevents him from accessing the full range of his fiery powers. His memories of how he found himself trapped thus have been wiped clean.

Eventually, the woman of earth and the man of fire meet and form a grudging friendship. Wecker develops their relationship beautifully, and it is the interplay between Chava and Ahmad that scores the highest points with me. In fact, Chava is a fascinating character, and while archetypal, she is also refreshing and delightful to root for as the novel’s main heroine. Wecker also uses the Jewish and Syrian communities to strong effect, adding a rich cultural element to the fantastic story.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane#1 - The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is just the master of telling archetypal stories involving childhood, magic, evil, myth, and the world. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a middle-aged man returns to his childhood home in rural England and stumbles across a farmhouse at the end of the lane that sparks certain memories that he didn’t know he had. These memories spin back forty years to a terrifying time when something dark and menacing was almost turned loose on the world thanks to his fears.

Gaiman has such a talent for straddling the line between that type of fantasy the instills wonder and delight and a dark horror that works on all ages.  He taps into the terrifying things that scare both adults and children.  The monstrous caretaker in this novel taps into many of the fears we have both as isolated children and as worried parents.  Gaiman’s creativity and imagination is vivid and powerful, tapping into something we all feel from our youth, and he imbues real menace into his stories that somehow still manage to work for both kids and adults.

posted in 2013, Books, Fantasy, Year-end lists | at 7:21 am | 0 Comments
7th January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 3 & 4

Interestingly enough, the next two books on my list both employ humor to tell their stories.  I admittedly have a somewhat tough sense of humor.  I find a lot of humor to be forced and that always puts me off.  These two authors use humor so deftly, often intertwined beautifully with sadness or real heart.  Here are a couple of really great reads.

The Good Luck of Right Now#4 – The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick

Characters in novels are often flawed: they drink too much, they’re short-tempered; they flirt a little two much, but the characters in Matthew Quick’s (Q’s) novels suffer from slightly more serious cognitive challenges. What potential mental disorder Batholomew suffers from is never explicitly stated, but it certainly seems like slightly more than a socially-awkward 40-year-old who has never held a job and has lived with his mother all his life. In fact there’s a very angry man in Bartholomew’s belly who rages in frustration and belittles his host with such taunts as “retard,” when Bartholomew is faced with challenges.  As his mother succumbs to brain cancer, Bartholomew begins to channel her favorite actor, Richard Gere, in order to make her happy in her last days. After she dies, he decides to start up a correspondence with the actor, inspired by his mother’s stories about Gere’s kindess and need to help free Tibet.

The Good Luck of Right Now is a remarkable novel; each chapter structured as a letter written to Richard Gere. It’s the story of a damaged man who suddenly finds himself without the person who was his world, struggling to makes sense of what is supposed to happen next. His only help include a self-defrocked Catholic priest, a grad student therapist assigned to help Bartholomew even when she can’t help herself, a similarly troubled man named Max who can’t get over the death of his beloved Alice, and the Girlbrarian, who Bartholomew has watched shelve books at the library for months. Quick’s characters are funny and sad at the same time. They deal with challenges from within and without, and somehow seem truer and more authentic than 95% of the rest of the characters in fiction today. He writes moving prose without seems sentimental, and knows how to keep the pace quick and satisfying. I highly recommend this novel.

The View from Penthouse B#3 - The View From Penthouse B  by Elinor Lipman

Is there a better contemporary novelist than Elinor Lipman when it comes to delivering a charming, witty, modern-day novel about adults? If so, I need to be reading their books. Elinor’s The View from Penthouse B chronicles the lives of two sisters stuck in a bit of social limbo; one widowed suddenly over a year ago, the other a divorcee and victim of a Ponzi scheme. The two sisters become roommates, and take in a boarder in the form of a young gay man, also unemployed, and in his own state of limbo. While the story eventually gets around to the two sisters trying to move forward in their lives, Elinor’s observations and writing are so delightfully witty and honest that it almost doesn’t matter whether or not Gwen and Margot regain their social lives. The journey is so entertaining, so much fun to read that it’s almost enough by itself. Then add a beautifully realized plot that sees a lovely ending that actually moved me enough that I got choked up, and you realize that with deceptive simplicity, Elinor has delivered a masterpiece of contemporary fiction. I adore Elinor’s novels, and look forward to each new one with giddy anticipation.

posted in 2013, Authors, Books, Year-end lists | at 6:56 am | 0 Comments
6th January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 5 & 6

It’s a testament to the quality of books at the top of this list, that such talents as Claire Messud and Karen Joy Fowler are coming in at #5 & 6 of my favorite books read in 2013.  Claire Messud’s book is so multi-layered and complex, and Karen Joy Fowler is one of my favorite writers, never doing the same thing twice, always incredibly original.  I also love how both of these books are not for everyone, in fact, some people might be quite put off by the stories they tell.

The Woman Upstairs#6 - The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Claire Messud’s latest novel is a complex examination of a woman who becomes swept up in a relationship with an exotic family from Europe. Nora is an elementary school teacher who had always expected to become an artist. She is solitary, capable, and a well-respected teacher. But when the Shahid family, Skandar, Sirena and Reza, their beautiful son who is in her class at school, enter her life, something inside her responds and unleashes long-controlled feelings and the artist buried deep within. Messud tackles a subject that few authors do, the anger of women.  We’re not talking the histrionic, violent, over-the-top anger that you might see in a revenge movie or a soap opera.  This is the anger that many people live with every day.  The anger born out of disappointment, or injustice.  It is an anger that is not debilitating.  It is the anger that is concealed.  An anger that might lay coiled deep within the woman who teaches elementary school and you chat with pleasantly at the coffee every morning.  This is the complex portrait that Claire Messud explores in The Woman Upstairs.  It’s as unsettling, as it’s engrossing.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves#5 - We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler’s novels are a joy to read. Best known for The Jane Austen Book Club (certainly the most straight-forward of her books) Fowler got her start writing science fiction, and she first caught my eye with the complex, challenging novel, Sarah Canary. With We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Fowler tackles the challenges of a family torn apart by grief and lies, and a burgeoning animal rights movement in the 1970s. To say too much about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves would be to spoil its somewhat shocking moment revealed about one quarter of the way through. It’s enough to know that Rosemary is our narrator, one member of a family forever changed by the loss of her sister Fern. As Rosemary informs the reader, her story starts in the middle, while she is attending college at UC Davis, then leaps backwards and forwards to unspool a tale rooted in a part of our country’s recent history that was both sensationalistic and little known. But at its core, Fowler’s novel succeeds winningly as a family tale, and one young woman’s difficult difficult journey to adulthood. I love that Fowler’s novels always possess a sliver of unreality or otherworldliness even when rooted in realism. I look forward to each and every one of her books.

posted in 2013, Books, Year-end lists | at 7:30 am | 0 Comments
5th January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 7 & 8

Coming in at #’s 7 and 8 I’ve got a favorite author who has appeared on this list before in previous years, and a novelist new to me with an imaginative story that really captured my heart.  It’s so hard to rank these books in any kind of order because the best ones are all joys to read.

The Illusion of Separateness#8 - The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

With compact yet masterful prose, Simon Van Booy’s latest novel explores the connections between strangers, and how seemingly random interactions can have a profound effect on a life. Spanning decades and oceans, the varied characters in The Illusion of Separateness are all struggling with loss of a kind; loss of sight, loss of family, loss of wholeness, loss of innocence. There is love, war and family. They struggle, they feel, the move unerringly forward. And how they unknowingly help strangers whose paths they cross gives this novel its coherence and its joy. In the hands of a lesser writer, The Illusion of Separateness might have come across as gimmicky… let’s find out how this character relates to that character. Fortunately, Simon is leagues beyond that kind of convention, using words to paint images and to make the reader feel the emotions coursing through the characters. In past work, Simon’s focus has often been the love between two people, and while there is still that element in some of the individual tales in this book, he has broadened from love to life, and perhaps how one informs the other. If you’ve never read Mr. Van Booy, I highly recommend you give him a try. His short stories, Love Begins in Winter are essential, and his previous novel, Everything Beautiful Began After soars (it was my #8 book read in 2011).  . I look forward to each new work this talented author undertakes. 

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend#7 – Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Matthew Dicks has created something marvelous and original, the story of the life of an imaginary friend. Imaginary friends are limited only by… you guessed it, the imagination. Budo is lucky; he looks and acts like a real little boy. His friend Max, imagined him with a level of detail that most imaginary friends lack. Sometimes it’s just ears that they are missing, but other times they are just a hair bow with eyes, so they can’t speak, not even to other imaginary friends. Budo is special in other ways as well. He is old for an imaginary friend. Some imaginary friends only live a few minutes or hours. Some last a year or even two. Budo has been alive for five years. And he’s smart too. Max imagined him as very smart.

It’s possible that Budo has been alive for so long because Max is autistic. He has trouble interacting with people; even people he loves like his parents, and his favorite teacher, Mrs. Gosk. Whatever the reason, Budo has learned a great deal and is concerned because he has watched imaginary friends fade away when their human friends stop believing in them. He is afraid of the moment when he fades away as well. But when Max is placed in danger and there is little Budo can do to help him, he learns that there are worse things than fading away. With heart-felt creativity, Dicks tells the story of love and loss, sacrifice and heroism, all through the lens of an imaginary friend. His tale is funny. It is sad. It is suspenseful. It is exciting. It is the story of a life. It is the story of the lessons we learn and the lengths we will go to to help someone we love.

posted in 2013, Books, Year-end lists | at 9:54 am | 0 Comments
4th January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 9 & 10

As we dip into the top 10, we’ve got the last book I read this year, and the oldest book I read this year.  James Scott’s debut novel was harrowing and emotionally wrenching.  It would have been even higher on the list except that the ending, while appropriate, seemed a little rushed.  Charles de Lint is a writer of urban fantasy who has been publishing novels for thirty years.  I’ve always meant to read one of his books, and I finally did so, a book that he published in 2003.

The Kept#10 – The Kept by James Scott

James Scott has crafted a harsh tale of life in upstate New York in the late 1800′s. Elspeth works as a midwife, often on the road helping women give birth across the State of New York. At home, her husband Jorah, tends to their six children until the day Elspeth returns home after weeks away to find her family recently gunned down and left for dead. All that is save for her 12-year-old son Caleb, hidden from the massacre, yet traumatized by the violent events, Caleb and his mother must face harsh weather, serious wounds, damaging secrets and an unforgiving world as they seek revenge on the men who destroyed their lives. Both protagonists carry secrets  that manifest in a guilt that nearly causes them to make ill-fated decisions.  In fact, nearly all of the main characters  harbor anxiety producing secrets, and as any good reader of stories knows, those secrets are bound to come out.
Scott weaves an intricate tale that touches on so many issues, while keeping the story of a mother and her son at the core. The bleak landscape both without and within make for somber reading, but it’s well worth the effort to walk some miles in these tragic characters’ shoes.

Spirits in the Wires#9 – Spirits in the Wires by Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint is a prolific writer of fantasy whose books often deal with spirits, faeries, worlds just beyond our perception where all matter of magical folks live. In this novel from 2003 he posits that the world wide web has evolved into one such world where spirits have taken up residence alongside our own world as well as the Borderlands and the Otherworlds where hobs, pixies, goblins, faeries, hellhounds and other such beings lurk.

One website in particular, the Wordwood, seems to be home to a very powerful spirit, and when the site is attacked by a computer virus, the devastating effects are made manifest in our world in the disappearance of dozens, possibly hundreds of people. In fact, Christy Redding’s girlfriend, Saskia, disappears right before his eyes, her body pixellating into nothingness. Of course, Saskia isn’t a normal person. She was born of the web; a spirit cast out from the web to awaken fully cognizant with implanted memories but no actual experience in a human body.  Then there is Christiana, Christy’s shadow; all of the traits that Christy didn’t want at age seven that he cast off into his shadow. Christiana began life as everything Christy wasn’t: where Christy was male, Christiana was female; where Christy was cautious, Christiana was impetuous… etc.  After Saskia’s disappearance, Christy reaches out to a ragtag assortment of friends and allies to help him try to find her, little knowing that her best source of information would be his shadow, Christiana.

Spirits in the Wires is a rollicking adventure held on multiple fronts as a variety of fun and fascinating characters all do their part in helping the people who have disappeared. Some of his supporting characters come across as slightly stereotypical, but that might be the shorthand of the fact that many of these characters have appeared in other works that I haven’t read. de Lint handles the female characters particularly well, especially in their relationships with each other. At its heart, Spirits in the Wires is more internal story of where we come from and who we are. Saskia and Christiana struggle with their unconventional beginnings and ask whether that makes the any less human? By the end of the novel we will know the answer, but in de Lint’s skillful hands, how could they be anything but?

posted in 2012, Books, Fantasy, Year-end lists | at 11:06 am | 0 Comments
3rd January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 11 & 12

The next two books from my list were from very early in 2013.  Jennifer Haigh released a collection of short stories based on characters and locations from one of her earlier novels.  Laura Harrington’s debut was popular with libraries, and I read it because she was going to be on an author panel I put together at the Massachusetts Library Association.  They turned up at #’s 11 & 12 on my Top 15.

News from Heaven#12 – News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories by Jennifer Haigh

Not having read Haigh’s Baker Towers, the novel in which the small Pennsylvania town of Bakerton debuted, I wasn’t sure if I’d be missing something when reading this collection of stories about people tired to that tiny, former mining-community. I needn’t have worried, Jennifer Haigh is a writer of consummate skill, drawing me in and giving me just enough information to understand the context while spinning a series of tales that show how important our upbringings and our community roots affect our lives. With stories spanning the 40′s era of war to present day, all the characters in News from Heaven have ties to Bakerton, PA, and each story has subtle ties to the others, truly making the reader a feeling of community among these characters: community across generations.  The Baker Family, founders of the once prosperous Bakerton mines, are ever-present in these stories, looming over characters’ shared histories. I was concerned, at first, that most of the stories were going to revolve around timid young women who are taken advantage of in a variety of ways, but I shouldn’t have worried, Haigh would never resort to such a limiting palette. Instead she creates a variety of experiences that exhibit strength, weakness, love, bitterness and a whole host of experience. I was particularly struck by ne’er-do-well Sandy’s story; a man with a gambling problem, racing to escape his roots who comes to a possible turning-point on his 33rd birthday. We later find out what becomes of Sandy in a subsequent story, and both stories add up to something powerful and moving. One final bit of praise, I just loved the meaning of the book’s title: a lovely, poetic image.

Alice Bliss#11 – Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington

With Alice Bliss, Laura Harrington takes a fairly basic theme, the loss of a loved one, and creates a powerful coming-of-age story in a fully-realized community. When Alice’s father, Matt, enlists in the armed services and is stationed in Iraq, she is bereft. Her father is the one family member who knows her and understands her the best. Fully immersed in adolescence, Alice’s relationship with her mother, Agnes, is complicated, besides with Agnes is dealing with her own fears about her husband. Then there’s her younger sister, Ellie, who’s just too young to really understand what’s going on.

Harrington’s novel focuses on Alice, turning the loss of her father into a powerful transition to adulthood, but what is truly remarkable is the way she effortlessly slips into the minds of the many other important characters in the book who are profoundly affected by Matt’s absence. Matt leaves his family right at the beginning of the book, but his presence is overwhelming throughout. Through reminiscences Harrington brings Matt fully to life, showing how strong his ties to each of the females in his life, and how different.

Beyond the rich characterization of Alice and her family, Harrington does the same for the community they live in. Henry is the awkward boy next door, who has been Alice’s best friend practically from birth, and whose relationship with Alice is suddenly changing. Uncle Eddie is Agnes’ charismatic, devil-may-care brother who finds his role in Alice’s extended family evolving. Alice’s Gram who owns the local coffee shop must suffer her own loss while bolstering the floundering family. Even minor characters, like Mrs. Piantowski who bakes the bread for Gram’s coffee shop, or Mrs. Minty who has suffered tragedies of her own become startlingly real under Harrington’s skillful guidance. Rarely have characters in a novel come so alive for me. Harrington’s story follows a lovely arc, with the ending in particular, hitting a series of beautifully drawn notes. A truly successful debut from a talented writer.

posted in 2013, Authors, Books, Libraries, Year-end lists | at 10:51 am | 0 Comments
2nd January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 13 & 14

A book with a twist ending, and a surprise entry from a beloved celebrity trying her hand at writing make the list.  You know, about the latter, chick lit can really be a lot of fun.  I can see why it’s a popular genre.

Help for the Haunted#14 – Help for the Haunted by John Searles

I’ve read a lot of coming of age novels this year, and they’ve all been on the positive side of good. Help for the Haunted is no exception. Sylvie and Rose Mason have grown up dealing with parents who help people who are experiencing what they believe are hauntings or possession. When they are murdered on night during a blizzard, and an arrest is made, it is primarily due to Sylvie’s testimony. However, Sylvie has lied, and she is also not really sure what happened that night. By jumping between the past and the present, Searles slowly unspools the story until explaining things with a last minute reveal that is almost out of nowhere. That said, it worked well, and there were just enough obscure hints as to have it make sense. This one was a September  Library Reads pick.

 

 

The Star Attraction#13 – The Star Attraction by Alison Sweeney

As a huge ‘Days of our Lives’ fan, and of Sami Brady’s in particular, how could I resist Sami’s portrayer, Allison Sweeney’s first novel, the effervescent and good-hearted The Star Attraction. Hollywood publicist extraordinaire, Sophie Atwater, lands a major client for her agency, in the form of Billy Fox, the next Brad Pitt, on the cusp of superstardom. How could she predict that one of her biggest career coups would do thoroughly disrupt her life in a soap opera scenario reminiscent of her author’s alter ego. Thoroughly entertaining, but with real heart, and a delightfully relatable heroine in Sophie, The Star Attraction is a behind-the-scenes look at the antics of the Hollywood elite as seen through the eyes of a publicist to the stars. Allison Sweeney has created a quick and enjoyable summer read, that makes you cringe at its heroines missteps, and cheer when she surmounts the obstacles around her.

posted in 2013, Books, Soaps, Year-end lists | at 7:52 am | 0 Comments
1st January 2014
by Michael

2013 in Books. Let’s Start with #15

As has become an annual tradition, I will be counting down my top books read in 2013.  I didn’t do quite as well as last year in the number of books read:  only 24 in 2013.  I am particularly appalled because a couple of my friends have reported reading over 200 books in 2013.  What?  How does that even happen?  That’s an average of a book every day and 3/4!  I suspect there’s some skimming going on.  Anyway, despite only having read 24 books in 2013, I’ve still got a very health Top 15 to report on.  That’s right, fifteen books I would definitely recommend.

My Beautiful FailureOf the also rans, I will mention The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld, which is definitely worth checking out when it is released in early 2014, and is beautifully written, but didn’t quite make the cut.  My Beautiful Failure, Janet Ruth Young’s third novel for teens is a terrific sequel of sorts to her outstanding debut novel, The Opposite of Music.  (Janet’s previous novel, The Babysitter Murders, was my #12 book read in 2011.)  Marta Acosta’s The She-Hulk Diaries was lots of fun for a novel based on a comic book character.  Sadly, despite a couple of great stories, overall I didn’t really enjoy Tom Perotta’s latest collection, Nine Inches.  And my biggest disappointment of the year was Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, which I enjoyed, but not as much as I was hoping I would.  And now for #15…

The Death of Bees#15 – The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

Marnie and Nelly are sisters whose parents are neglectful drug addicts. But that’s all over now. As the book begins, Marnie and Nelly are burying their parents whose self-destructive tendencies have brought them to the end of their lives. The girls face nearly insurmountable odds just to grow up, but with the help of next-door neighbor Lennie, and a couple of other surprising sources, they will struggle to endure with surprising results. Lisa O’Donnell has crafted a dark coming-of-age story that shows the strength of siblings beaten down by the harsh cruelties of life and created a couple of unique voices in fiction.

posted in 2013, Books, Year-end lists | at 5:58 pm | 0 Comments
14th January 2013
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2012 – the Complete List

And now, here is my complete list of my favorite books read in 2012.

  1. Day for Night by Frederick Reiken
  2. May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
  3. Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia A. McKillip
  4. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Blunt
  5. Among Others by Jo Walton
  6. Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron
  7. The Paternity Test by Michael Lowenthal
  8. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  9. Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro
  10. All This Talk of Love by Christopher Castellani
  11. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
  12. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
  13. The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen
  14. Elza’s Kitchen by Marc Fitten
  15. Will Grayson Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
  16. Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

Two more books got a special mention:

  1. The First Time I Heard… Kate Bush, ed. by Scott Heim
  2. Kicking & Dreaming:  A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock and Roll by Ann & Nancy Wilson with Charles R. Cross

Then there were ten other books that I considered for my list of favorite books read in 2012, that for whatever reason, just didn’t make the cut.  I would say they are all good books and well worth reading.  These are listed in alphabetical order.

  • Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
  • Calling Invisible Women by Jeanne Ray
  • Canada by Richard Ford
  • The Collective by Don Lee
  • Falling Backwards: A Memoir by Jann Arden
  • Fantastic Four: Season One by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and David Marquez
  • The First Warm Evening of the Year by Jamie Saul
  • Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
  • The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Eviston
  • Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Finally, five or six more books I read that just didn’t make the cut at all.  Not that they were bad, but they just weren’t in the league of the other books I’d read.  There were really only a couple of books that I either actively didn’t like, or that disappointed me.  I will not be listing these books here.  Ask me privately if you want to know what they were.

posted in 2012, Books, Year-end lists | at 7:56 am | 0 Comments
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