Saturday, 22 November 2014

Ghostopolis: A Delightful Romp Through the Afterlife

A Review By: Amelia
I love thrift store shopping for books. Sure, a lot of what’s there are book-club copies of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (great book), and dog-earred copies of the Twilight series (not so great of books), but sometimes, I find something that I didn’t expect to find in a million years, and that’s always the best feeling. Ghostopolis was one of those books. One normally doesn’t find good graphic novels–or even bad graphic novels for that matter–at a thrift store, so it felt like winning the used book lottery when I stumbled upon a only slightly beat up copy of (what was to become) one of my favourite graphic novels!

Ghostopolis is a story that revolves around two main characters: Garth Hale, a dying teenage boy, and Frank Gallows, a government (quote, unquote) ghostbuster. Garth and Frank’s lives are forcibly mashed together when Frank accidently sends Garth into the afterlife: aka Ghostopolis. 

The author of Ghostopolis is Doug TenNapel. He’s an American animator, writer, illustrator, and musician whose work has spanned animated television, video games, and comic books. His best known work is as the creator of Earthworm Jim that was a videogame, toy line, and cartoon series.

The characters of the piece are Garth Hale, a young teenage boy with an incurable disease, and Frank Gallows, a middle-aged agent of the Supernatural Immigration Task Force, a government partition dedicated to locating ghosts amiss in the physical world and transporting them back to the afterlife, there known as Ghostopolis and separated into different kingdoms: mummies, skeletons, ghosts, etc. Garth, considering he’s dying, is a pretty mellow character. He’s come to term with his illness and is just riding things out and that makes him a pretty interesting character in my books. I found myself constantly thinking about what he might be thinking about. Or how is he feeling inside while he puts on his brave face on the outside? Whether or not the author intended for me to be thinking these things, I was, and it made his character a lot deeper. Frank was also an interesting character. He loves his job, but at the same time, he wants more. He wants to prove himself a hero–to his boss and the women he loves. Who just happens to be a ghost. Yeah. A (quote, unquote) ghostbuster is in love with a ghost. I can’t say much more, but it’s a fascinating (if not slightly predictable) turn of events for ol’ Frank.

The art style in Ghostopolis is a very loose and casual style. That being said, it’s not messy or ugly in any way. It’s as if the artist holds his pens very lightly and lets them go where they please and it is an enchanting effect. The colours are bold and beautiful and the character designs sleek. The landscapes are stunningly detailed and filled with so much to look at. The panels that lack landscape details are shadowed perfectly and, since they’re usually close-ups of characters, the characters are drawn with amazing emotion and detail.

Ghostopolis is a real gem of a graphic novel. It’s got an amazing story filled with complex and well-rounded characters. The art is beautiful, the colours superb. It’s short–maybe only forty-five minutes to read the whole thing–but what’s there is, without a doubt, fantastic.

My final thoughts on Ghostopolis are that you should read it. If you like quirky graphic novels, you’ll like this. Probably even love it. It’s a delightful romp through the afterlife–who could resist that?

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Horrible Histories Series: History Has Never Been So Horribly Entertaining

A Review By: Amelia
A truly 'horrible' series!
History can be a tough subject to get kids (or adults for that matter) interested in. Some people just don’t seem to care what the present world is built upon and, as an avid history lover, I’ve always found that distressing! However, it eases my distress that book series like Horrible Histories exist and are doing well!

Horrible Histories is a rather brilliantly designed series of illustrated history books originally published in the United Kingdom by Scholastic. They are designed to get children interested in history by concentrating on the unusual, gory, or unpleasant events in a tongue-in-cheek manner that highly contrasts to the formality of lessons taught in school. The first titles in the series, The Terrible Tudors and The Awesome Egyptians, were published in June 1993. As of 2014, there are more than 60 titles in the series and the books have sold over 25 million copies in over 30 languages.

The author of all the Horrible Histories is Terry Deary. He’s a former actor, theatre director, and drama teacher that began writing when he was 29. His books are popular among children for their disgusting details, gory but accurate historical information, and humorous pictures. The books spawed a cartoon series and earned Deary an Honorary Doctorate of Education from the University of Sunderland and the Blue Peter Award for “best Nonfiction Author of the Century” in the UK.

Each book–and there are over 60 of them–follows a different culture in certain time period. EgyptGreeceRome, the Tudors, the World Wars–there’s a book for nearly any topic in history you can think of. Each book loosely follows a set pattern. There’s an introduction, a brief timeline of the selected time period, miniature essays about things introduced in the timeline, a quiz to test your knowledge, and an epilogue. Deary knows his stuff and fills out the books with a tonne of information in his small essays. He even includes things like plays, jokes, news stories (from the time), and, of course, all the books have many small comics strewn throughout them.

Deary’s Horrible Histories are a brilliant series. The books of Deary’s series have been widely and often imitated, but never duplicated. The tongue-in-cheek humour is really very refreshing, especially if you think back to your dullest history teacher. In these slim books, history becomes interesting no matter how dull you might have found it before! And with over 60 books to choose from, there’s a time period that fits anyone’s fancies.

My final thoughts on Horrible Histories series are that it should be read by kids and adults alike. There’s a bunch of new facts to be discovered and, c’mon, if we’re all going to be honest with each other, when it comes to history, we’d all rather hear about the gory and gross parts more than anything else!

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Little Black Crow: An Adorable Lesson In Empathy

A Review By: Amelia
I have major empathy output for pretty much everyone on Earth. Stray cats on the street? Just thinking about how cold they must get in the winter is enough to bring tears to my eyes. A beautiful tree gets cut down for no reason? I can almost feel the chainsaw myself. A child gets scolded for nothing more than asking a simple question? I nearly foam at the mouth for their squashed curiosity. Honestly, I’m pretty sure that I’m 100% pure empathy. Where did my empathy come from? Where else but from reading! Books are an absolutely amazing way to grow your children’s empathy for those around them but I’ve found that a lot of books nowadays are more concerned with pushing very literal lessons upon children, instead of building a foundation for which their emotions can grow and develop. Little Black Crow was a very pleasant surprise when I stumbled upon it at my local library. It’s a book all about empathy: a real jackpot for me!

Now, what’s Little Black Crow all about? Well, it’s a simple story with simple language and simple pictures about a little boy wondering about a crow he sees flying about. He has general questions about the crow’s life and–you guessed it–empathy for the little creature!

The author and artist of the book is Chris Raschka, an American illustrator and writer. He was the U.S. nominee for the biennial, international Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 2012 and Yo! Yes? was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1994. Raschka’s most famous book is his Hello, Goodbye Window, winner of the 2006 Caldecott Medal, and in 2012 he won the Caldecott Medal again for his his book A Ball for Dasiy

Little Black Crow is a little rhyming tale about self-awareness. It’s a series of questions posed to a crow by a little boy who’s wondering about his place in the world and if other animals wonder about that too. It’s a book about wondering and being inspired to ask questions about the little things. Now, since this is a children’s book, there’s a lesson to it but the lesson of the book is included in a very clever way through the boy’s questions. Instead of cramming a lesson in through exposition, it’s subtly slipped into the prose. The little boy asks simple questions to himself about what the crow’s life might be like and in doing so, the story that shows the fun of curiosity and the often misinterpreted need for empathy.

The art style of Little Black Crow is a minimalistic style. The lettering is done with big, thick, black letters and the illustrations are done with in a small selection of hues in simple water colours. It’s done in a doodle like fashion and looks about as a child’s level which is actually brilliant: kids will indentify with it more if it looks like they could create it themselves. It really is a clever way to add in a little more subtly empathy!

My final thoughts on Little Black Crow are that it’s a brilliant little book for kids, or anyone else for that matter! The art style is cute and the story even cuter. It’ll teach children empathy for people and things around them and the more empathy that can be introduced into the world, the better I say!

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Hell House: A Hellish Good Time… For a Little While at Least

A Review By: Amelia
Ghost stories are my all my favourite. The Haunting of Hill House is my favourite ghost story ever and since reading it I’ve been searching for another ghost story that will match this truly terrifying book. When I came to Hell House on my ghostly reading list, I was pretty sure I’d found a new favourite. It seemed right up my alley and the author is more or less the defining movement in sci-fi/horror so what’s not to get excited about? Well, as it turns out–wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning with a synopsis of the story!

Can any soul survive? Regarded as the Mount Everest of haunted houses, Belasco House has witnessed scenes of almost unimaginable horror and depravity. But when Deutsch, a wealthy magazine and newspaper publisher, starts thinking seriously about his impending death, he offers to pay a physicist and two mediums $100,000 each to establish the facts of life after death. The group travel to the Belasco House in Maine, which has been abandoned and sealed since 1949 after a decade of drug addiction, sadism, and debauchery and discover exactly why the town folks refer to it as the Hell House.

Above, I mentioned the author being a defining force, and he is! Richard Matheson has been a power house in horror for as long as he was writing. His first short story, Born of Man and Woman immediately made Matheson famous. Between 1950 and 1971, Matheson produced dozens of stories, frequently blending elements of the science fiction, horror and fantasy genres. At the time of his death he’d written well over a hundred works including novels, short stories, and films. Arguably, his most commercially successful work is I Am Legend.

The story of Hell House is, as stated above, the often seen ‘people investigating a haunted house’ story. There’s nothing wrong with taking this angle as long as you’ve got good characters to back it up and Matheson does. The main characters of the piece are four people: Dr. Lionel Barrett, a physicist with an interest in parapsychology, his wife Edith, and two mediums, Florence Tanner, a Spiritualist and mental medium, and Benjamin Franklin Fischer, a physical medium. Fischer is the only survivor of a failed investigation thirty years before and because of this, he’s very closed off and unwilling to use his medium powers. He understands Hell House better than anyone and there’s a great line where he comments to the others: “the Belasco House has never minded having guests” (or something like that, I’m paraphrasing). He knows the house won’t go after him unless he goes after it so he pours himself a drink whenever he can and ignores what’s going on. Of course, that hardly means that he’s being ignored and his deliberate inaction is, of course, his downfall.

Florence, the other medium, is quite the opposite of Fischer. She’s the very definition of eager and seeks to help the spirits trapped in the house and send them to the afterlife. She’s very religious but also very sensual–an interesting mix for a medium/pastor at a church! Of course her over-eagerness is her biggest weakness and, in trying so hard to be right about the hauntings and righteous in her actions, she allows in some very sadistic evil indeed.

The last two characters are Dr. Barrett and his wife Edith. Dr. Barrett is a scientist through-and-through and is arrogant in his disbelief/disregard for spiritualism. He was mostly crippled by polio as a child and the evil in the house plays on not only his physical condition but his staunch scientific belief. Edith, emotionally, is very weak and is prone to anxiety about being alone, ridiculous personal fears and insecurities, and many pent-up desires (all of them sexual since her crippled husband is more or less unable to have sex). She’s toyed with by–you guessed it–all these sexual overtones you keep hearing about. All the characters are pretty fleshed out and seem like real people. They do come off rather exaggerated at times thought but I could never tell if it was just flashy writing or it was because of what the house was doing to them, but honestly, it wasn’t really that big a deal and it certainly doesn’t take anything away from the overall experience.

The location was by far the best part of this novel for me. Matheson creates a dreadful and foreboding location right off the bat with a house that’s seen the absolute worst of the worst, including but not limited to: deviant sex, copious drug consumption, necrophilia, gluttony, cannibalism, disease outbreaks, sadism, murder-for-the-fun-of-it, etc., etc. The windows are bricked up, the power doesn’t work, there’s a church with stained glass depicting nuns being raped and a crucifix with an erect phalli. It’s just a nasty place full of nasty things. What makes the house so very creepy is its ability to corrupt before it destroys. It gets into the minds of those who enter and makes them think and see things to suit its evil needs. The house breaks those who dare enter it by subtly undermining their sanity and that’s always an interesting take on the haunted house genre I find. But where does all this supernatural potency come from? Well, I can’t say without ruining the ending, but it’s a very interesting source indeed. My one qualm with this subtle undermining is that a lot of this evil trickery has strong sexual overtones and, while it makes sense considering the history of the house, after a while it just becomes a bore. There’s only so many times you can see the pure and innocent Edith try and have lesbian sex with Florence before you begin skimming through those parts looking for a scary bit!
Now, all that having been said, the most disappointing thing about Hell House is that it’s ending doesn’t work. I loved the location, the characters all had their place, and the history given about the house is still enough to give me chills. Then the ending comes along. I can’t say too much without giving it all away, but I can say that it gets hectic, crazy, and disgusting near the end but then–after all that setup–the climax isn’t very climactic at all! There’s also a very cringe worthy, put-the-book-down-and-think-about-puppies-to-keep-from-fainting bit near the end involving Florence and that crucifix I mentioned earlier… Normally, I can handle gore in books but that scene… it is just deeply disturbing. Especially for women.

My final thoughts on Hell House are that it’s not the best ghost story, but it is still very much worth a read. It is an expertly crafted and atmospheric location. The characters were also pretty good, albeit a little predictable. What didn’t work for me–and apparently a lot of readers of this book according to other reviews–are the sexual overtones. The house had a history of deviant sexual behaviour, but having every ‘possession’ that happens be about sex? It’s just overkill to me; especially considering how it’s not scary even once! Shocking? Sure, it could be to the right reader. But scary? Pardon the pun, but I’m afraid not. Read Hell House if you’re looking for shock value but look elsewhere if you want genuine scares.