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Originally I had intended to review something else, but this caught my attention. Read Comic In Public Day was on Sunday and rather unexpectedly, comics have entered the political arena in the States.  Maryland Senator Nancy King issued a mailout to voters that seems to imply comics harm children’s education. Links for coverage can be found here and here, as well as a comment from King’s Democrat rival Saqib Ali.

Anyway, I chose this book to illustrate why this is an important medium and not shorthand for teen delinquency & illiteracy.

Writers Mike Raicht and Brian Smith have crafted a magical tale of toys coming to life to protect their owner from the malevolent Boogeyman. Charles Paul Wilson III provides the art and it is simply gorgeous. First to the story.

Set during the events of World War II, a young boy plays with his toys and waits for his dad to return from the conflict in Europe. One night he is awoken by the family dog, a small puppy, growling at a door standing ajar in his bedroom. Suddenly his teddy bear Max is flung across the floor by an invisible force and as the pup becomes increasingly anxious, black tendrils stretch out from the darkness of the closet and snatch the boy from his bed. After a moment the toys in the room all come to life. They know the Boogeyman is responsible for this attack on their owner. The Colonel asks for volunteers to accompany him into the Dark, the realm of the Boogeyman. Max the bear, a faceless Indian Princess, a jack-in-the-box Jester, a tin fairy named Harmony and Quackers the duck agree to volunteer for the mission. The boy’s piggybank has to be coaxed by the Colonel into joining the group also, as well as the eager pup Scout (whose presence the toys barely tolerate as he is not one of them). Together they step through the closet door, which shuts firmly behind them.

On the other side of the door, in the Dark itself, the toys find themselves transformed into living, breathing beings, stranded in a world filled with hostile subjects of the Boogeyman’s. The Colonel leads them in an assault against a waiting army of soldiers from different periods of history and they succeed in forcing their opponents to retreat. A group that numbers a giant bear, a mad axe-wielding Jester and an Indian Princess fed up to the teeth with being rescued the entire time, is a force to be reckoned with. Seeing this the Boogeyman attempts a different tactic. The heroes travel onward to the strange town of Hopskotch, not realizing that there is a traitor among them, slowly wearing down their resolve.

Raicht and Smith have crafted an endearing fable that at first glance resembles the Toy Story series, but proves to be a much darker tale. The heroes suffer loss and death shortly after becoming ‘real’ and the Boogeyman is a terrifying symbol of innocence corrupted made manifest. The toys themselves also develop alarming character traits when they cross over into the Dark. Max in particular is transformed from a cuddly teddy into a savage beast. Gruff and impatient, his desperate need to rescue his owner whom he has been with the longest proves to be a weakness that the villains easily exploit. The noble Colonel can easily be viewed as a symbol for the boy’s missing father, whose stoic bravery in the face of conflict represents a child’s understanding of the realities of war. Then there is Percy the pig(gybank) who is counting down the days till his owner smashes his body to recover the money he has been saving. In the Dark Percy is a real pig and his intelligence exposes him to doubts about the rescue they are attempting. My favourite of the bunch is the formerly faceless Princess of course, with the sinister Jester a close second, both interesting inversions of their toylike forms.

The art is wonderful. The sepia colourings throughout lend a nostalgic tone to the real world scenes. However, it is the splash-page revelation of the toys’ transformation, leaping into battle against impossible odds with limbs hacked at and torsos stabbed, that proves to be an astonishing moment. Wilson’s art transforms this book, like its toys heroes, into something strange and wonderful.

I’d read this in public every day!

The air became cold, then bitter, but he kept up his painful pace, avoiding the roads wherever possible, though they would have been easier to walk than the ploughed and seeded ground. This caution proved well founded at one point when two police vehicles, book-ending a black limousine, slid all but silently down a road he had a minute ago crossed. He had no evidence whatsoever for the feeling that seized him as the cars passed by, but he sensed more than strongly that the limo’s passenger was Decker, the good doctor, still in pursuit of understanding.

When I was ten years old Clive Barker’s Nightbreed was released in cinemas. I have never seen this movie, but I can still remember how fascinated I was with the press stills released to magazines and newspapers at the time. They featured grotesque creatures, bulbous limbs and scarred faces, the stuff of nightmares. I was too young to see the film and so desperately wanted to, wanted to find out what these creatures inhabiting an underworld kingdom of Barker’s invention called Midian were. Cabal is the book that inspired the film Nightbreed. I have always thought the film had a better title, a more intriguing hook. Just what are the Nightbreed?

Boone is a young man tortured by visions of violence and death. He is a paranoid schizophrenic, who has finally achieved a kind of peace, leaving the days of endless nightmares and self-harm behind him. All thanks to Lori, a beautiful and understanding young woman, whose patience has given him hope of a life he can share with someone else. Until that is his therapist, Decker, shows him a collection of horrific photographs and tells him that he is in fact a killer.

Under hypnosis Boone apparently began to speak about things and events that only the killer of these people could have known. Decker offers to help him uncover his memories and prepare his defence. Horrified at what he has done, Boone cuts off contact from Lori and attempts to take his own life. He survives and winds up in hospital, where he meets a madman named Narcisse. The stranger whispers to him of a place called Midian, where the freaks and rejects of society are welcomed. Boone sets off to find it, pursued by the police for the eleven deaths Decker assures him he caused. After an encounter with some of the strange inhabitants of the underworld city, and a sudden death, Boone finds himself transformed into a new kind of being. When Lori finds him, he has returned from beyond the grave, more beast than man, a member of the Nightbreed. She has problems of her own though. The police are hunting her undead lover and a madman killer called Button Head is on her trail.

I am putting my cards on the table here. I found this book to be a bitter disappointment. Like the worse kinds of disappointments, this is due to Barker raising my expectations to a height, just before they come crashing down. The novel itself has a fascinating subtext relating to the oppression of homosexuality by mainstream society. Midian itself is a place where dualities thrive, male/female, life/death, beauty/horror. What’s more the characterisation of the Nightbreed as freaks is in keeping with the marginalisation of homosexuals, with numerous illustrations by Barker interspersed through the text resembling demonic Rorschach tests. The implication is clear, the tools of reason being used to oppress the most vulnerable members of society.

It’s important to note that up until very recently homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. The Guardian recently ran an article about the antagonistic relationship between the gay community and psychology. As fascinating as this is, I just wish Barker was less obvious in his symbolism and ironically more direct in his language. I found myself in the unusual position of admiring his visual imagination, yet finding the prose dreadfully dull. This could have been Michel Foucault meets The Lord of the Rings! Instead it is a thin novel stuffed with grotesque violence and underwhelming sex.

I am very sorry this was the case.

Gaiman and McKean make for a stellar team. One a master of dark, yet whimsical fantasy writing, the other an artist who introduced a post-modern, industrial aesthetic to the comic industry. During Gaiman’s seminal Sandman for DC’s mature reader’s Vertigo imprint McKean provided much of the amazing cover art and continued to do so for various spin-off titles that emerged afterward. He also interpreted the esoteric script for Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth as a Jungian nightmare that elevated DC’s Batman mythos far above its pulp origins.

The dynamic duo have moved on from comics to greener pastures, with McKean providing the credit sequence for Gaiman’s television series Neverwhere (as well as the cover for the tie-in novel). Later McKean took on directing, with his assured debut Mirrormask, scripted by Gaiman (of course) a hallucinatory vision of a rust-brown dream world, with winged gorillas, stone titans and dark queens waiting within.

With this book the pair took their inspiration from Gaiman’s daughter’s complaint about his ‘crazy hair’. The story’s narrator explains to young Bonnie just how crazy his hair really is. Featuring pirates, a polar bear, exotic birds, butterflies and even stalking tigers, it is very crazy hair indeed.

Hunters send in

Expeditions

Radio back

Their positions

Still, we’ve lost

A dozen there

Lost inside

My crazy hair.

Eventually Bonnie attempts to groom the narrator, only to disturb a mysterious voice inside the hirsute jungle. She is suddenly seized and pulled into the world of hair and has many amazing adventures.

Gaiman’s rhymes accompany McKean fantastic visuals throughout. Giant, cracked follicle seas; tentacle-like strands stretching out from the narrator to Bonnie; a comb thieving blue polar bear; and curiously lifelike merry-go-round creatures. Although one line describes – Butterflies and Cockatoos/ Reds and Yellows/Greens and Blues –  McKean’s attempt at my favourite Australian birds look more like parrots. I guess that’s the problem with living on the other side of the world.

In keeping with classic fairytales, while the story of a man with a head full of wonderful creatures seems a fanciful notion, McKean’s angular art-style and crowding shadows introduce a perfectly sinister note to the proceedings. Much like Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, this is a fairy tale that flirts with scaring the children reading it, while also letting them know it’s ok to be afraid. I attended a signing for this book some months ago in Dublin and McKean spoke about the importance of not censoring dark material in children’s books. He believes it is just as important to frighten your audience as it is to make them laugh, or cry, much like readers of any other age-group. I am eagerly awaiting McKean’s next project, a children’s book on explanations of the meaning of life, written by Richard Dawkins. From the following article

“We take thirteen questions about the world and answer them initially in the ways we have in the past – myth, religion, folk stories – and then present our best scientific answer, which hopefully proves to be even more astonishing and magical than the others.”

What I admire most about Gaiman & McKean’s approach to children’s literature is their refusal to condescend to young readers. It’s something that can so easily scuttle a story, as if kids are unable to tell when they are being lied to, or being force-fed an insipid tale of good triumphing over evil. These two creators do not pretend that there are not reasons to be afraid of the dark, but instead remind their readers that often it is more important to not spend one’s whole life running from shadows.

In short, this is a magical fable that should be enjoyed by everyone. Pick it up.

When I first heard there was a book deal on offer, I was pretty reluctant about it. I’ve learnt a lot about the value of privacy. But some arse was putting adverts in the local Swindon paper asking for stories about me and my family. He was writing a book about a person he’d never met. It pissed me off. Even though it’s my story to tell, my thoughts, my feelings, I felt quite odd about doing it. But actually it’s been an amazing experience.

Billie Piper’s life since becoming an English pop star at the age of fifteen has been lived in tabloid headlines. In the minds of the British public, there is a very defined idea of who she is. As the quote above shows, Piper is well able to speak for herself and took the opportunity to set the record straight. She’s been a heavily marketed teeny bopper; a makeshift rival to the chart dominance of Britney Spears; a hate figure for her relationship with a male pop star; a teenage wife and the onscreen companion to a time-travelling alien. Plenty of material for a biography, despite the subject at the time of writing not having left her twenties yet.

The structure of Piper’s biography is broken up by a odd timeline, opening with her swift rise in the pop charts and then telling the story of her life with her family before fame came calling. A devoted fan of Madonna from a young age, Billie hoped to imitate the American icon. Instead she found herself facing mounting debt at a young age, still at fifteen years lacking a proper parent in her life, with her management team a poor substitute. It is a bizarre world of extremes. On the one hand she is meeting with celebrities and getting sex tips from her backing dancers when living the pop star life. Then she returns to Swindon to cook fish fingers for her younger siblings and getting hits off a bucket bong with mates on the weekend. Her growing romance with Ritchie Neville from 5ive transforms the pop princess into a hate figure for the teen fan base of her celebrity boyfriend. Eventually she found herself growing further and further apart from her family and finding no stable emotional ties to anyone else in her new life. As a result she finds herself slipping more and more into anorexic behavior, euphemistically referred to by people in the entertainment industry as ‘old faithful’. With failing record sales, a well-documented reliance on laxatives and a suicide attempt while promoting her music in America, the teen star was swiftly approaching a breakdown.

Billie credits her meeting with Chris Evans for her recovery. A hugely successful British television and radio personality, the two soon married shortly after meeting. Evans caught her eye by delivering a Ferrari race-car to her doorstep. The romance that followed was not so much a whirlwind, but a retreat from the entertainment industry and glitz of London. The couple relocate their life to a cottage in the English countryside and try to find themselves. The media responds by painting Evans as a cradle-snatching pervert and bemoan the end of Billie’s music career. Ironically for her, this is the happiest period of her life to date and in leaving her pop star past behind, she reinvents herself as an actress. A return to a more controlled fame and the role of the Doctor’s companion is just on the horizon.

While this is a very honest piece of writing, the telling of it feels telegraphed throughout. In a break with tradition, Billie thanks her ghost on the acknowledgements page at the end of the book. As such there are occasional slips during the book. There is a regrettable reference to a quote from the Sopranos – with neither Billie nor her ghost writer seemingly aware the line is a parody of Al Pacino’s famous outburst in The Godfather Part III. There is little naming and shaming in the book and music promoters, studio crew and production assistants on Who are fulsomely praised. Throughout Billie pitches herself as an ordinary woman who just happens to be living an extraordinary life.

I was never a fan of Misery Lit and so found her descriptions of lonely hotel rooms and anorexia quite depressing. Nevertheless this is an intimate and winning account of a life trapped by fame.

Friends, readers, literary fiends. This week we are running a competition where you can win a home-made bookmark. Yes, this is exciting news! The bookmarks are made by Stephanie and will shortly be made available on her Etsy shop, but not before you can get your hands on one exclusively!

So, to be in the running, we ask you to post a comment on one of this weeks reviews (from Monday). And the best three comments will receive a nice surprise in the post shortly thereafter. But what is the best? Hmmm, we shall see. You can be constructive, you can be funny. At the end of the day, we just want you to contribute and to generate discussion within the little community we have created here.

Also, if you’re on Twitter then why not follow us – TalesAndYarns! Oh, and don’t forget to give us your #FollowFriday vote – we’ll return the favour down the line.

I felt like I was trapped in one of those terrifying nightmares, the one where you have to run, run till your lungs burst, but you can’t make your body move fast enough. My legs seemed to move slower and slower as I fought my way through the callous crowd, but the hands on the huge clock tower didn’t slow. With relentless, uncaring force, they turned inexorably toward the end–the end of everything.

Lady, I hear ya.

It’s almost been a year since the events of the first book and Bella Swan’s birthday has come round. Turning eighteen only serves to remind her that she is growing older, while her vampire boyfriend Edward remains seventeen. And a high school senior! So things are already not proceeding that smoothly for the ‘teenage’ couple when they decide to celebrate Bella’s birthday at the Cullen family household. Then Edward’s adopted brother Jasper is sent into a frenzy at the sight of Bella’s blood caused by a small papercut. As this confirms the worst fears of Bella’s vampire swain, he decides to leave her and the town of Forks, taking his family with him to some unknown destination.

Abandoned by Edward, Bella falls into a deep depression, only surfacing when she reacquaints herself with Jacob Black, who still nurses a crush on her. She enjoys his company and so tries to insist that their relationship is simply a friendship. Jacob proves to be extremely persistent, taking her gentle refusals with good humour and puppy-dog eyes. Still she cannot forget her passionate obsession for Edward Cullen and even begins to experience hallucinations of his presence when her life is in danger. Eventually Jacob’s warmth and affection slowly wears away her resolve and she starts to think of a life without Edward. Until one day he simply cuts off all contact. Feeling lost and bewildered she wanders into the forests surrounding Forks, only to meet Laurent, a member of the vampire pack that had hunted her the previous year. He brings her a message from Victoria. They’re going to kill her and with the Cullens gone, there is no one to protect her. Bella’s fate seems sealed, but then a pack of werewolves arrive to defend her. One of them even looks familiar to her. Are there any boys in Forks that are not mythical monsters!

Are we sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin. Perhaps my description of the plot implies that this is an exciting tale of danger. Well, it’s not. Not be a long shot. There are upswings of excitement in the narrative, but they come few and far between. I hate all the male characters. I am sick of the endless descriptions of Edward’s perfection and in this book Jacob’s muscular frame also heaves into view. The only other things Meyer seems interested in are cars! There’s a major disjunct in the story after the Cullens leave, with the plot of the first book seeming to repeat itself when Bella discovers yet another clan of fantasy creatures living nearby. As for the main character, I dislike how what little description of Bella we get show her to be a clumsy clod, a ‘magnet for danger’ and completely unable to cope without a man in her life. The religious subtext of the books also bothers me. Worst of all, Bella’s rejection by Edward leaves her an automaton, focused on being a ‘good girl’ for her dad, cooking, cleaning and keeping her grades up. She never feels any anger towards the vampire, which usually helps when you’ve had your heart broken.

On the other hand… I don’t like these books, but lots of folks do, so who am I to throw the first stone? After all I just reviewed Brandon Sanderson purely to get a bead on how he would finish up the Wheel of Time series and they are terrible books. Maybe the kids reading Twilight will grow out of them and find Jodi Piccoult. Or if they’re fans of the beefcake, maybe they’ll discover Anais Nin? Also if the Volturi are a dig at the Church of Rome, well I’m not too bothered by that. Hell it reminded me of a Bill Hicks quote. So I guess live and let live is my conclusion. I’m tired of all the obnoxious complaining about Twifans, as it only led to this.

Furthermore…Team Alice? Oh Meyer, you cad!

I have read so many books…And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading – and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu.

This novel about intelligence hiding behind an ordinary mask in a Paris apartment building, the necessity of having to disguise one’s interests for fear of being exposed as someone with ambitions beyond the norm, posed an interesting problem for me. Francophiles the world over know the average French person is just moments from a marvelous quip, or a stunning observation. They all have impeccable taste, wearing gorgeous fashions all year round and eat without gaining an ounce! They live and breathe beauty, do they not? So what makes Madame Michel and the precocious child Paloma Josse so special? It would appear our French teachers and those insipid travelogues on television have been lying to us friends. The French are just like us. Lonely, tired of having to pretend to fit in all the time, depressed at the thought of what life is all about.

Oh did I mention this is a delightful book? Sorry, perhaps I’m leading you astray.

Madame Michel is the concierge for number 7, Rue de Grenelle. She is a widow and has few friends in this world, besides a Portuguese cleaning lady who meets her for tea after cleaning the soiled underwear of the building’s tenants. The residents of number 7 are very wealthy, very cultured members of the upper class. To them Renée Michel and her friend Manuela Lopes are invisible, members of the lower classes whose sole purpose is to open their doors, check their mail and clean up their mess. Our story begins with Renée accidentally admitting to knowledge of Marx to one of the residents of the building, a pretentious student who has just declared himself enlightened after a brush with Communist theory. Before she can stop herself, Renée mentions that The German Ideology is an essential text for students of Marxism. Cursing herself, she quickly retreats into her concierge’s lodge. The role of the concierge is not to be seen, or acknowledged by her betters. She is not meant to admit to her love of literature, her dismissive assessment of modern philosophy and appreciation of Japanese cinema. If Renée were to mention Edmund Husserl, or Ozu to her employers, they would assume she was babbling nonsense. So she hides herself in her duties and lives a secret life of quiet contemplation.

Paloma is an equally intelligent and fiercely proud individual who simply wants to hide away. Her father is a government minister who likes to pretend to be an ordinary bourgeois at home, with a bottle of beer in hand as he watches the football. Her mother has been in therapy for ten years, although in actuality this translates as having been medicated for ten years. She embarrasses Paloma with her insipid observations and interfering manner. Colombe, the eldest Josse child, is a student at the École normale supérieure and enjoys looking down on anyone she deems inferior. She’s a philistine in philosophy drag. Unwilling to spend the rest of her life hiding from the world like Renée has, Paloma decides that on her thirteenth birthday she will kill herself. Until then she keeps a journal of thoughts, on the offchance that something she observes will convince her to continue living.

This is a wonderful book.  Each of the two main characters narrate their respective chapters to the reader. Renée speaks of her past, her love of literature and Ridley Scott films. Paloma writes haikus at the start of each journal entry and professes her love for Manga, in between suicidal digressions. Their shared appreciation of Japanese culture leads to a fateful encounter with a new tenant at number 7, who changes their lives.

Read the book, watch the film and fall in love with the delicate story of two lost souls finding something worth living for.

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