Friday, November 27, 2009

Adventure and Mystery in the Victorian Age


The Victorian Age is the perfect setting for adventure and mystery book series. It’s far enough in the past to be exotic and familiar enough for readers to relate to. It lasted a long time—Queen Victoria was on the throne from 1837 to 1901 and she brought her nation through a time of peace, progress, and prosperity. The Victorian British Empire had under its thumb Canada, Australia, areas of Africa and South America, and the entirety of the Indian subcontinent. Victorian celebrities (fictional and real) include the likes of Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, P.T. Barnum, Sherlock Holmes, Oscar Wilde, Jane Eyre, Count Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein, Buffalo Bill, and Jack the Ripper. The Victorians believed they were at the pinnacle of civilization, yet electricity, automobiles, and antibiotics were things of the future. Still, there was plenty of drama afoot as long-established standards clashed with new-fangled notions. Gas lamps glimmered through the fog of London’s streets. The rich dined well, rode well, and lived well while poor children worked in the streets as bootblacks and chimney sweeps. Society was slavishly devoted to the strict moral codes the governed the division of the classes and the restricted rights of women, but oh, did they ever love a good scandal! In short, book characters can travel the world, meet a wealth of interesting characters, defy conventions, have adventures, and solve mysteries for years and years, all the while securely under the umbrella of the glorious Victorian Age, an era of horse-drawn carriages, gossip over tea, disdain for foreigners, stiff upper lips, parasols, bustles, top hats, thrilling adventures, and chilling mysteries.

Crocodile On the Sandbank: An Amelia Peabody Mystery, Book One by Elizabeth Peters, 1992, Mysterious Press, originally published 1975 (Mystery/ Historical Fiction)


If you think the Victorian era was a prim and proper one when delicate ladies stayed quietly at home and fussed with their needlework, you’ve never met the irrepressible, indomitable Amelia Peabody. When near-spinster Amelia (she’s thirty-two) comes into a rather large inheritance, she flings off the mantle of home and hearth and sets out for faraway Egypt. Along the way she meets lovely Evelyn, abandoned by her lover with no means of support. With her typical disregard for convention, Amelia takes Evelyn under her wing and whisks her away up the Nile. Amelia indulges her passion for Egyptology at an archeological site run by the Emerson brothers. Amiable young Walter Emerson is smitten by Evelyn, but hot-tempered Radcliffe is soon butting heads with Amelia at every turn. And soon there’s a kidnapping attempt on Evelyn, a few too-coincidental accidents, and a walking, talking (well, moaning) mummy haunting the dig site. How Amelia solves these many mysteries is only half the fun. The historical details and the exotic setting add their charms, but Amelia herself is the biggest draw to this mystery series. Armed with her unflappable self-confidence, her dry wit, and her trusty umbrella, Amelia is a delightfully loveable Wonder Woman of the Victorian age. Amelia’s circle of family and friends grows over the years and there are always mysteries and murders to solve, but Amelia’s wit remains sharp, her passions always run strong, and her sense of determination never, ever flags.

1.  Crocodile on the Sandbank   
2.  Curse of the Pharaohs   
3.  The Mummy Case       
4.  Lion in the Valley       
5.  The Deeds of the Disturber       
6.  The Last Camel Died at Noon   
7.  The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog   
8.  The Hippopotamus Pool   
9.  Seeing a Large Cat   
10.  The Ape Who Guards the Balance
11.  The Falcon at the Portal   
12.  He Shall Thunder in the Sky
13.  Lord of the Silent
14.  The Golden One
15.  Children of the Storm
16.  Guardian of the Horizon
17.  The Serpent on the Crown
18.  Tomb of the Golden Bird

Flashman: From the Flashman Papers, 1839-1842, Book One by George MacDonald Fraser, 1999, HarperCollins, originally published 1969 (Historical Fiction/ Adventure)

Rogue, rake, cad, cur, blackguard, brute—you know all those great old-fashioned words for a jerk that nobody uses anymore? Well, bring them all back for Sir Harry Flashman, the Victorian Era’s most loveable scoundrel. A bawdy, jolly tale that is also great historical fiction, Flashman is a rousing, rollicking introduction to Harry Flashman’s “memoirs” and readers won’t fail to be charmed by Flashman’s candor as he gleefully sets the record straight and confesses all his past indiscretions, fabrications, and outright lies. In his first adventure, Flashman is out for little more than free drinks and fast women. A seduction-gone-wrong saddles him with a one-way ticket to Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s Armed Forces. Now Flashy just wants to save his ass, but he keeps getting flung right into the middle of every major historical event of the time, culminating in the last battle of the First Anglo-Afghan War. But Flashman is always the opportunist, making time to hone his skills as a lover, fighter, imposter, coward, and all around fascinating character. Harry Flashman is first heard of in a real Victorian novel—he’s a minor character, a schoolboy bully, in Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Over a hundred years later, George MacDonald Fraser resurrected Flashman for a twelve-book series that celebrates the escapades of this dastardly clever antihero in all his glory.

1.  Flashman       
2.  Royal Flash           
3.  Flash for Freedom   
4.  Flashman at the Charge
5.  Flashman in the Great Game   
6.  Flashman’s Lady
7.  Flashman and the Redskins
8.  Flashman and the Dragon
9.  Flashman and the Mountain of Light
10.  Flashman and the Angel of the Lord   
11.  Flashman and the Tiger
12.  Flashman on the March

The Cater Street Hangman: An Inspector Pitt Mystery, Book One by Anne Perry, 2008, Ballantine Books, originally published 1979 (Mystery/ Historical Fiction)

The Ellisons are a well-to-do Victorian family in a proper London neighborhood. Papa Ellison has a stiff upper lip and Mama is the all the right stuff Victorian ladies are made of; daughters Sarah, Emily, and Charlotte have a bit more spunk. Sarah, the eldest, is married to easy-going, easy-on-the-eyes Dominic while youngest sister Emily has her sights set on making a match of the finest quality. For Emily, it’s handsomely rich Lord Ashworth or bust, even if love doesn’t quite enter the picture. Middle sister Charlotte is the black sheep of the family. Her looks don’t compete with those of her fair, delicate sisters (darker hair, eyes, and complexion were decidedly not up to the high standards of Victorian feminine beauty), and she speaks her mind entirely too much and too easily for a young woman of good breeding. But these become minor issues when a series of murders suddenly plagues the Cater Street neighborhood where the Ellisons live. Women are being brutally strangled, and not only is this terrifying news in its own right, but murder is not the sort of event that attracts respectability. The Victorians loved a good scandal—but only, of course, when it happens to other people. Enter Inspector Thomas Pitt, an upstart of the first order who is far too scruffy, demanding, and familiar (especially with hot-tempered Charlotte) to tolorate, even if he is the police officer in charge of the case. But it cannot be denied (especially by Charlotte) that Pitt is intelligent, insightful, and even, given half a chance, sensitive. Romance has little time to flourish here, for the Cater Street Hangman is at large and the lives of the neighborhood’s fine young ladies—including the Ellison sisters—are very much in danger. Mystery writer Anne Perry pens a serious, atmospheric mystery that is rooted in historical details of London circa 1881, foggy nights and narrow alleys not to be excluded. Perry’s characters (most notably Inspector Pitt, plus a few select members of the Ellison family, not to give too much away) challenge the Victorian notions of class and gender which, of course, inspires the drama, action, and suspense that makes this Victorian mystery series one of the longest running and best loved of its kind.

1.  The Cater Street Hangman        
2.  Callander Square           
3.  Paragon Walk           
4.  Resurrection Row           
5.  Rutland Place           
6.  Bluegate Fields           
7.  Death in the Devil's Acre      
8.  Cardington Crescent       
9.  Silence in Hanover Close        
10.  Bethlehem Road           
11.  Highgate Rise           
12.  Belgrave Square       
13.  Farriers’ Lane 
14.  The Hyde Park Headsman
15.  Traitor’s Gate
16.  Pentecost Alley  
17.  Ashworth Hall 
18.  Brunswick Hall
19.  Bedford Square
20.  Half Moon Street 
21.  The Whitechapel Conspiracy
22.  Southhampton Row 
23.  Seven Dials
24.  Long Spoon Lane
25.  Buckingham Palace Garden

A Beautiful Blue Death: A Charles Lenox Mystery, Book One by Charles Finch, 2007, St. Martin’s Minotaur Press (Mystery/ Historical Fiction)


Charles Lenox is a gentleman of the highest class. Aristocratic birth and old money allow him to live a life of leisure in one of London’s best neighborhoods. For Lenox, leisure means sipping tea in front of a cozy fire, studying Roman antiquities, and—and this is what separates our Charles Lenox from the other rich but dull members of high society—solving mysteries. Lenox is an amateur detective; his wealth allows him to take pleasure in solving the crime rather than in getting paid to do so. He attracts people from the poor lower classes and, because of his status as a gentleman, the aristocracy trusts him to solve their mysteries as well. So when Lenox’s neighbor and close friend Lady Jane Grey learns that her former maid has committed suicide, she asks Lenox to investigate. The maid, Prue Smith, was poisoned, and Lenox quickly deduces that it’s murder. The poison is rare, Prue’s master George Barnard is the Director of the Royal Mint, and there’s a house full of guests who make excellent suspects. It’s a worthy mystery, but its first-time author Charles Finch’s finely-drawn portrait of the life and times of Lenox that will keep readers turning the pages. Lenox is a sleuth of the finest order and Finch gifts him with a complex character and a fully realized history. Lenox has a couple of unconventional relationships in an age where rigid class and gender roles keep gentlefolk separate from their servants and men separate from women that add complexity and charm to the already engaging story, one a sincere friendship with his butler Graham and the other a cozy camaraderie with Lady Jane. With precise writing and Victorian atmosphere a-plenty, this is a true-blue mystery series in the making. An Agatha Award nominee in the tradition of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Beautiful Blue Death is a quality whodunit to be savored slowly, preferably in front of a roaring fire with a hot cup of tea.

1.  A Beautiful Blue Death
2.  The September Society
3.  The Fleet Street Murders

The Ruby in the Smoke: A Sally Lockhart Mystery, Book One by Philip Pullman, 2008, Knopf Books, originally published 1985 (Teen Fiction/ Mystery/ Historical Fiction)


On a cold afternoon in 1872, sixteen-year-old Sally Lockhart walks into her deceased father’s London office. By the time she walks out again, young Sally is deep in a compelling mystery fraught with murder, betrayal, deception, cursed jewels, secrets from the distant past, and a whole crew of Victorian scalawags and villains. There’s more to her father’s death than meets the eye. A horrifyingly creepy old woman is out for Sally’s blood. A mysterious message warns Sally of something called the Seven Blessings. Danger lurks around every corner and Sally herself is the key to unlocking all the intertwining mysteries that threaten her very life. But Sally is nothing if not resourceful, and with a few colorful friends of her own (including Frederick Garland, a charming young photographer), our intrepid heroine sets out to right wrongs and uncover truths. Like many Victorian creations of modern authors, Sally is a very determined young woman with no intention of bowing to the conventions of her day. But Sally is also very much alone in the world, and what she really needs is a few kindred spirits who understand and appreciate her unique qualities. The reader, needless to say, becomes Sally’s ally right away. Author Philip Pullman, best known for the intricate fantasy worlds of His Dark Materials trilogy, knows full well how to create a hero who his readers will follow through thick and thin; he also knows the subtle and masterful art of spinning a good old-fashioned rip-roaring adventure story. As the series continues (and its been made into a Masterpiece Theatre miniseries too), Sally continues to build a new life for herself—and solves a whole mess of thrilling, chilling, bump-in-the-night mysteries while she’s at it.

1.  The Ruby in the Smoke       
2.  The Shadow in the North
3.  The Tiger in the Well       
4.  The Tin Princess

A Great and Terrible Beauty: The Gemma Doyle Trilogy, Book One by Libba Bray, 2002, Delacorte Books (Teen Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Fantasy/ Mystery)

When A Great and Terrible Beauty opens, Gemma Doyle is an unruly, bratty teenager throwing a bit of a tantrum—not quite the proper Victorian lady we’d expect. Gemma has grown up in India and even though the country is firmly under the Empire’s thumb, she longs to experience England. Her mother forbids this, but Gemma is about to get her wish. Walking in the marketplace, Gemma is overcome by a vision that foretells her mother’s death—a vision that comes suddenly and violently true. Guilt-ridden and bereft, Gemma is sent to Spence Academy, a boarding school in fashionable London. And not only is she snubbed by the beautiful, popular girls and her dumpy roommate alike, but mystery has followed her as well. An unknown young man from India spies on her and even more bewildering, the visions haven’t stopped. Despite her grief, Gemma is not one to shirk adventure. She knows she’s on the verge of a great discovery, especially after she finds an old diary that hints at a mystical society called The Order. Gemma makes an uneasy alliance with the most influential Spence girls and together these young ladies begin to explore the sort of power and mystery that is normally forbidden to the standard meek Victorian woman. And once Gemma and her fellows have tasted that power, they’re determined never to go back to the life of mild gentility they’ve being trained to accept. Fans of supernatural romance like the ever-popular Twilight Saga will be drawn to Gemma and to the otherworldy flavor of her adventure. Equal parts mystery, horror, fantasy, and historical fiction, with a dash of forbidden romance thrown in, this trilogy from author Libba Bray is a decidedly original take on the Victorian Age.

1.  A Great and Terrible Beauty
2.  Rebel Angels
3.  The Sweet Far Thing 

Soulless: The Parasol Protectorate, Book One by Gail Carriger, 2009, Orbit Press (Mystery/ Fantasy/ Historical Fiction)


Almost everything about Alexia Tarabotti goes against the grain of Victorian society. Her deceased father was Italian (dreaded foreigner). Her looks are swarthy, full figured, and big nosed (not a delicate English rose). Unattached at age twenty-six, she’s considered unmarriageable (spinster). Plus, she’s soulless. She still has a personality and feelings and all that, she’s just lacking a soul. This is very rare and a carefully kept secret in Alexia’s day and age, even though in this alternate history Victorian England has fully accepted the society of vampires and werewolves. Vampires live in hives and werewolves live in packs; members of both supernatural groups hold high positions in the government and in the aristocracy. So when Alexia comes across a vampire at a ball one evening, she’s not at all surprised. She is quite taken aback, however, when the vampire launches himself at her, fangs drawn, without so much as a formal introduction. Alexia defends herself with her handy parasol and ends up an accidental murderess. When Bureau of Unnatural Registry official/ Alpha werewolf Lord Conall Maccon shows up to investigate, Alexia is launched into a world of mystery and intrigue that involves newly made vampires, vanishing werewolves, preternatural powers caused by her own soulless state, and a relationship with Lord Maccon that blossoms--when the two aren’t bickering. Alexia is a delightfully fresh and funny character, wielding her parasol, sleuthing in a not-so-subtle manner, and ready to defy convention at every turn--especially if convention gets in the way of a platter of treacle tarts. Author Gail Carriger has a fine sense of humor and creates a witty parody that takes the genres of fantasy, mystery, romance, historical fiction, screwball comedy, and steampunk, shakes them up, and stands them on their head in an entirely original fashion.

1.  Soulless
2.  Changeless (due April 2010) 

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume One by Alan Moore, 2002, DC Comics (Comics/ Fantasy/ Science Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

The Victorian Age saw the creation of some of the most famous characters in Western literature: Captain Nemo, usually found in his mythical ship Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; Allan Quartermain, the adventurer who discovered King Solomon’s Mines; Mina Murray, the heroine who barely escaped from Dracula; Hawley Griffin, the original Invisible Man himself; Henry Jekyll and his alter ego, better known as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Comics genius Alan Moore collects them all here and turns them into team of superheroes who use their unique capabilities, powers, and experiences to save England from the clutches of a mysterious madman. The year is 1898, and the heroes have been gathered together in London from all corners of the globe by the head of the Secret Service. They’re a rough-and-tumble bunch, flawed and washed-up, but when a criminal mastermind threatens to firebomb London’s East End and bring down the British Empire, these 19th century characters come to life and rally to the rescue. The illustrations are as bright and action-packed as anything out of the adventures of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, or Moore’s own comic masterpiece The Watchmen. Originally published as individual comic book issues and then collected into two volumes, Moore and his fellow creators (Kevin O'Neill, Ben Dimagmaliw, and Bill Oakley) wrote two additional adventures, The Black Dossier and Century 1910. Together, the series is as chock-full of superhero-style action, danger, gore, and derring-do as it is of historical detail, literary references, and Victorian flair. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is another genre-buster that proves just how much mystery and adventure can be packed into one fantastic era.

1.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume One
2.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume Two
3.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen:  The Black Dossier
4.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen:  Century 1910

Friday, November 20, 2009

Kids Say the Darndest Things

The novels in this booklist include literary masterpieces, winners of Pulitzer Prizes, Booker Prizes, National Book Awards, classics that have withstood the test of time. They also all feature narrators who are a bit unexpected. These narrators are precocious and mischievous. They have early bedtimes. They hate vegetables. And most importantly, they ask “Why?” That’s because these narrators are children. Children, after all, have decidedly original points of view. They notice more than we give them credit for, they understand more than we think, and they’re still capable of remarkable flights of fancy and imagination. Those qualities make children excellent storytellers, even when an adult author is really pulling the strings behind the pages. Children see the world in a different way, and the results are book with refreshing changes of pace and original points of view. After all, you’re never too young to tell a good story.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 2006, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, originally published 1960 (Fiction Classics)

Maycomb is a small, old, slow-moving town. Not much happens until the summer tomboy Scout Finch is six years old. That’s the summer Scout and her brother Jem make friends with visiting neighbor boy Dill, and that leads to the idea of getting reclusive Boo Radley out of his house, and then there’s the case Scout’s lawyer father fights tooth and nail for, the case of a black man accused of the rape of a white woman. Forget reading To Kill a Mockingbird in your high school English classes. This is an adult novel too, written for an adult audience, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize and one of just about everybody’s favorite books. Not only is it a literary classic chock-full of themes of prejudice, judgment, and tolerance, but it’s a damn good story. These are unforgettable characters—Atticus Finch, equally compassionate as a lawyer and as father; irascible Dill and his inventive games; Calpurnia the motherly, no-nonsense maid; the poor, ignorant Ewell family; the secluded, elusive Radley family. Author Harper Lee, who only wrote this one book, treats the time and place (southern Alabama in the 1930s) with a realism that shows racism and class divisions as a way of life, and allows her little narrator to challenge that lifestyle. Because Scout—a boyishly charming girl clinging to her slangy speech and her scruffy overalls—is determined to understand why grown-ups think and act the way they do, and her simple curiosity and innocent demands for the truth just might be enough to change a few adult minds along the way.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 2008, Puffin Classics, originally published 1884 (Fiction Classics)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is another story of racism in the Deep South, this time in the 1840s--the granddaddy of To Kill a Mockingbird, if you will. Huck Finn is a boy who, as the son of the town drunk, is allowed to live far from the reaches of polite society. This means that he’s free to do whatever he wants—fish in the river, sleep in the woods, answer to no one. When a wealthy widow decides to adopt him, Huck gives it his best shot and tries to mend his ways, even though the widow’s misguided kindness is almost more than he can bear. But when his unsavory father shows up again, Huck knows it’s time to hit the road—or in his case, the river, the mighty Mississippi that flows to freedom. And joining Huck in an even more desperate bid for an even more tangible freedom is Jim, a runaway slave who has no choice but to pin his hopes on a mere boy who, even if he is poor and “uncivilized,” is still the product of a society that sees very strongly in terms of black and white. Huck and Jim’s journey by raft downriver brings surprises for both of them—after encounters with crafty kings, feuding families, slave-hunters, and shipwrecks, it’s impossible to remain unchanged no matter how deeply the rules of their society are ingrained. Huck Finn’s story was written over one-hundred years ago; the language (particularly where race is concerned) is true to its time and has spurred non-stop controversy over the years. Author Mark Twain’s depictions of slavery, poverty, superstition, and ignorance reveal all the injustices of the pre-Civil War south, but Huck’s gradual realizations and understandings—not to mention his utterly original down-to-earth, literal, take-it-as-it-comes, comic observations—have made The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a relevant, important, and completely entertaining work of literature.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, 2003, Doubleday Books (Literary Fiction/ Mystery)

At fifteen years old, narrator Christopher Boone may be pushing the boundaries of childhood. But Christopher is also autistic, which means he’s even more socially awkward and emotionally distant than the average kid on the verge of adolescence. Christopher screams when he’s touched, refuses to eat brown or yellow foods, and takes everything at its face value. But he also copes extremely well (usually by doing math problems to relax) and when he is falsely accused of murdering his neighbor’s dog, Christopher’s supposed disability proves to be the best deductive tool of all. Armed with his innate (and at times obsessive) sense of logic, Christopher writes a book in order to solve the case. The result is a sparkling clear account of Christopher’s life, from his parents’ failed marriage to his own compulsions to the mysteries of his neighborhood to real insights into this boy’s unusual and unique view of the world. Christopher may not be able to understand anyone else’s emotions, but readers will feel very strongly about this truly authentic, even ground-breaking child narrator and his story.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, 2009, Delacorte Press (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)

Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce is not the most loveable child. She’s sly, secretive, crafty, and her favorite hobby is concocting poisons in the upstairs laboratory of her old manor home. But Flavia is still more than capable of winning the hearts of her readers, armed as she is with an extensive vocabulary, a passion for chemistry, a knack for picking locks, and a childish confidence fostered by an unflappable determination. This means that when a dead bird with a postage stamp stuck through its beak is found on the doorstep, and a murdered man is found in the cucumber patch, Flavia is able to rise to the occasion like no detective, young or old, we’ve ever met before. Set in a small English village in the 1950s, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is peppered with characters who meet the standards of the classic mystery while adding their own bit of dash and pep to the story—the stoically amused police inspector, the devoted gardener with a mysterious past, the gossipy no-nonsense cook. Then there’s Flavia’s family—a deceased mother whose presence still lingers, a passive father who is most devoted to his stamp collection, and a pair of older sisters who cling to their own interests as obsessively as Flavia clings to her chemistry beakers and flasks. This is author Alan Bradley’s first book, and besides winning the prestigious Canadian Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is, we’re delighted to learn, only the first in a planned series of mysteries that’s set to star this highly original girl sleuth.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathon Safran Foer, 2005, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books (Literary Fiction)

In his bestselling debut novel Everything is Illuminated, author Jonathon Safran Foer told a tragic-comic tale about a dark period—World War II and the Holocaust. In his follow-up bestseller Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer does the same with a tragedy from the more recent past. His new hero, Oskar Schell, is the nine-year-old son of a man who died in the September 11th attacks at the World Trade Center. Struggling with his loss, Oskar maintains an offbeat sense of humor and an insatiable curiosity. When he finds a mysterious key in an envelope labeled “Black” in his father’s closet, Oskar sets out on a journey through New York City to interview every person with that last name—all 262 of them. As Oskar meets quirky character after quirky character, his story merges with those of his grandparents—his clinging, hoping grandmother who lives across the street and his long-absent, mute grandfather who survived a tragic event of his own. Oskar is aided on his journey by his many hobbies, including inventing, starring in Shakespearean plays, and letter-writing. He’s a brainy, daydreaming, worrywart whose story is scattered with black and white photographs, slangy kid-speak, and inventive uses of text like a two-page apology typed in numerical code. Jonathon Safran Foer is an extremely inventive and incredibly original writer, and sad though his story is at times (and there’s beauty there too), young Oskar is an irresistible narrator.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle, 1994, Penguin Books (Fiction)

Paddy Clarke is a ten-year-old kid running rampant through the streets of Dublin suburb Barrytown with a pack of like-minded hooligans. Paddy and his mates Kevin, Liam, and Aidan write their names in wet cement, play cowboys and Indians, and hold funerals for dead rats. They tease Paddy’s brother, Sinbad, since it’s a requirement that big brothers hate their little siblings. Paddy is a hard nut to crack; though he seems the typical rough and rowdy, wannabe tough-guy boy, his thoughts, dreams, and observations of life in working-class Ireland in the 1960s reveal a keen power of observation and insight. At night, after Paddy and his gang have run amuck through the neighborhood construction sites that are their playgrounds, Paddy listens for the sounds of his parents fighting. He’s grown-up enough to know that their marriage is on the outs, and still childish enough to believe that if he stays vigilantly awake while they argue, his da won’t leave his ma after all. That combination of grown-up awareness and boyish innocence is what makes Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha so charming, along with author Roddy Doyle’s infamous and by now well-loved use of Irish slang and speech patterns, use of dark humor, and his vivid portrait of a little boy’s unique point-of-view. First published in 1993 in the U.K., Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won that year’s prestigious Booker Prize.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker, 1992, Harcourt Books, originally published 1982 (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

The heroine of author Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is Celie, a young black girl in the deep south of the early 1920s. When the story begins, Celie is little more than a child, a fourteen-year-old who has already lived a life harsher than that of most adults in her time. Celie only escapes the rape and abuse of her stepfather when she is sold off as child-bride to the widowed “Mister,” a cruel man who expects her to raise his children and serve as his own private punching bag when he’s not off with his blues-singing, independent-minded mistress Shug Avery. Yes, this is a brutal story, but Celie (and the reader) find hope and comfort in the letters Celie writes, first to God (she has no one else to turn to) and later to her sister, Nettie, who’s been taken to Africa by a missionary family. The letters between the sisters form a striking contrast. Celie is poverty-stricken and writes in a limited—but ultimately expressive and hopeful—vocabulary, while Nettie has received an education and relates stories of a meaningful life in a faraway land. Words can only do so much to inspire Celie, but as the years pass, Celie is about to forge an unlikely and inspiring relationship with an unexpected friend. As Celie struggles to grow from childish, helpless victim to independent, free woman, her narrative voice becomes stronger and ultimately elegant in spite of—or perhaps because of—her natural uneducated, barely literate dialect, which Alice Walker renders in truly gracefully prose. The Color Purple is a painful story, but it’s a redeeming one as well.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Werewolves by Karen Russell, 2006, Knopf Books (Fiction/ Short Stories) 

Karen Russell’s ten short stories in this collection are narrated by children. And oh, what strange little children these are. In “Haunting Olivia,” Timothy Sparrow and his brother Waldo Swallow take turns wearing a pair of pink goggles to search Gannon’s Boat Graveyard for the ghost of their dead sister, Olivia Lark, while their parents escape from grief and marital problems by touring Third World countries. Jacob, in “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration,” is the son of a Minotaur. When his family decides to move west, they hitch dear old dad to the wagon and set out for the great unknown, where Jacob’s father performs legendary feats of strength and usefulness on the trail, and is then accused of spreading lice to the children and titillating the cows. And in the whimsical title story, the daughters of werewolves are taken from their caves, renamed (GWARR! becomes Jeanette, for example), and taught how to behave in polite society, though there’s a part of them that would still rather run and howl and bite and scratch and snarl. Odd, quirky, and fanciful, these stories are still full of all the stuff and drama of real life. Things are not easily resolved in these stories; growing up is not a straight-forward, straight-laced business after all. Russell’s children are misfits who live in macabre worlds that are part myth; the stories they tell are strange and wonderful and entirely original. Even though the tales in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Werewolves are fantastic in nature, they perfectly reveal the insightful glimmers of real life and the overwhelming imaginative powers that all children possess.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Dark Side of Twitter

I'd always assumed when I'd met people on Twitter that they were "WYSIWYG" or "what you see is what you get." People who are friendly, intelligent, funny or engaging I would imagine would be very similar in real life. On Twitter, people will either like you or not, so my feeling has always been to be yourself and let the "Tweeps*" fall where they may.

Throughout the past year I've developed actual friendships with fewer than a dozen people. These are people I consider in my inner circle, and we communicate outside of Twitter through email, phone conversations, and in some cases have even met in person. Those friendships, as those in real life, are rare, and I treasure each and every one of them.

Recently, out of the blue, I received a DM (direct message) from a follower I don't know well, warning me about one of our mutual followers. The information was disturbing. Allegedly, our mutual follower was dangerous and violent, and was wanted by the police.

Because of the friendly nature of my conversations with the allegedly dangerous person, I was a bit incredulous accepting the information at face value. I judge people through my direct interactions with them, and I'd had nothing but positive exchanges regarding work and common interests throughout our communications with one another.

The ensuing conversation with my family about this episode led to the conclusion that although the accuser's situation appeared to be dire, I couldn't become involved and should disengage. If the allegations were true and I betrayed confidences to enable someone's incarceration, who is to say I or my family wouldn't become the object of revenge?

Until now, I'd only experienced the best Twitter has to offer. I think this shows the worst.

*Tweeps: one of the many words representing people on Twitter

Friday, November 13, 2009

Draw Me Dysfunctional

Dysfunctional families, dysfunctional childhoods, dysfunctional lives: We’ve all got them. Some more than others, true, but everyone’s got a story. Whether it’s tales of surviving adolescence or illness, stories about parents or siblings, the trials and tribulations of love or war, autobiographies and memoirs have been staples of storytelling for hundreds of years. But times they changing. One of the more recent and innovative ways to share the twisted stories of our pasts is not just to write them, but to draw them as well. Memoirs told in the comic strip/ graphic style format are becoming more popular and more successful as savvy authors and readers explore unconventional ways to write and read books. And in the case of graphic novels, unconventional also means artistic, funny, and wildly creative, and full of color and life.

One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry, 2002, Sasquatch Books (Graphic Novel/ Memoir)

One day, cartoonist Lynda Barry came across an ancient exercise by a Buddhist monk that calls for a painter to practice technique by drawing one hundred little demons. So she tried it, and after she inked a bunch of critters with tails and horns, she began exorcising some her own personal demons. One! Hundred! Demons! is the result, a crafty little first-person graphic memoir (part true, part exagerated, resulting in what Barry creatively calls "autofictionalbiography") about living through the pains of everything from dating to dancing to the 2000 presidential election. Each of Barry’s “demons,” or chapters, is introduces by a full-spread page that’s a combination of squiggly drawings, multi-media collage, and old-fashioned personal photographs. Barry’s stories are often embarrassingly honest, but they’re also always relatable and never exploitive. There’s a real fondness for the mistakes and missteps of the past here, a sense of regret coupled with a nostalgia that’s impossible to resist. Barry’s artistic style is bold, colorful, almost childlike in its exuberance, and her characters--her chain-smoking mother, the hardscrabble kids in her neighborhood, her own red-haired freckle-faced childhood self--are show in all their wayward, awkward, goofy glory. And once you’ve finished cringing and chuckling your way through stories about head lice, first boyfriends, the unique smells of houses, and the ins and outs of street kickball, Lynda Barry shows you exactly how much fun you can have drawing a few demons of your own.

I Never Liked You by Chester Brown, 1994, Drawn and Quarterly Books (Graphic Novel/ Memoir)

In a Canadian suburb in the 1970s, Chester Brown is a typical teenager. “Typical” means that he’s involved in a series of detached, passive-aggressive relationships with his unraveling mother, his schoolmates (some who bully and some who flirt), and the girls next door. Chester is a skinny, artistic kid who, despite his too-cool front, is absolutely clueless. The kids in young Chester’s world try desperately to maneuver the confusing rituals of love and like. They’re awkward, wistful, manipulative, and mean-spirited. The things they do are at odds with the things they say; they want to be mature, savvy adults when they’re still petulant little kids at heart. The adult author Chester Brown depicts the moments of unease that epitomize teenhood with elegant little black-and-white line drawings, often a single panel on an otherwise blank page to really drive the home the emptiness and loneliness that is adolescence. The storyline is carefully paced; every incident is intense and focused and driving toward a strange, stirring conclusion. Chester Brown’s dysfunctional childhood is not one you’ll soon forget.

Stitches by David Small, 2009, W.W. Norton (Teen Fiction/ Graphic Novel/ Memoir)

It is suburban American in the 1950s and 60s, back when we didn’t know a whole lot about the effects of smoking or x-rays, so being subjected to both as a child might not seem to be such a big deal for young David Small, especially given the dysfunctional dynamics of his immediate family. His parents are, to put it mildly, distinctly uncommunicative. This becomes something of an issue when, at age fourteen, David wakes in the hospital after a supposedly-routine surgery to discover that a ragged scar of stitches across his throat has left him minus one vocal cord and little better than mute. “Can’t we talk about this?” takes on a whole new meaning when David learns that what he actually had was cancer, and that his parents didn’t think he needed to know about it. Now David is left to cope with these betrayals as his mother spirals downward, his father fades into the distance, and his older brother has no time for him. The adult David Small recounts these childhood traumas with stark, crisp images and, after the surgery, pages of wordless pictures that tell a raw, harrowing story filled with the kind of memories that we’ll all find eerily familiar, regardless of the amount of drama in our own pasts. There is hope here too, and recovery and healing both physical and emotional. Today David Small is best known as the award-winning illustrator of quirky, delightful children’s books like The Gardener, Imogene’s Antlers, and When Dinosaurs Came with EverythingStitches makes it pretty obvious that his own childhood was not nearly as picture perfect, but his journey from voiceless boy to critically-acclaimed artist is haunting, memorable, and un-put-downable.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, 2006, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Graphic Novel/ Memoir)

Alison Bechdel’s father was the proprietor of the local funeral home. That alone might produce some highly unusual childhood stories, but there’s more dysfunction to come. Bechdel’s family lived in an ornate Victorian mansion that her father obsessively and constinually restored, her father was a closeted gay man, and a court trial dealing with her father’s involvement with teen boys casts a shadow over Bechdel’s own coming-of-age as a woman and lesbian. That’s a lot of childhood and adolescent drama to overcome, but Bechdel handles her painfully ironic situation with dignity and humor—no easy task given the circumstances. Based in part on Bechdel’s long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and her own childhood journals and diaries, Fun Home is filled with literary references galore, moments of quiet desperation, and revealing experiences. The artwork is sophisticated with a depth that compliments the complexity of Bechdel’s relationship with her secretive father, and the episodic nature of the narrative works well with the comic strip style of the graphic novel format. Fun Home adds up to a memoir that is tragicomic indeed:  poignant, relevant, utterly engrossing.

Epileptic by David B., 2005, Pantheon Books (Graphic Novel/ Memoir)

David B. was born Pierre-François. He grew up in France in the 1960s and 70s with his mother, father, older brother Jean-Cristophe and little sister Florence. The siblings played in the alleys and streets with the neighborhood kids; life was normal. Then, one day when Pierre-François is nine years old, eleven-year-old Jean-Cristophe suffers a grand mal epileptic seizure in the street. The family is changed forever, and together they set out on an endless search for something—anything—that will cure Jean-Cristophe's epilepsy. The journey is not pretty. Not only are Jean-Cristophe’s seizures debilitating and awful to behold, but the possibilities of a genuine cure are slim. A horrific surgery is rejected for a stint with an extreme macrobiotic cult; spiritualists consult with the dead, who are supposed to deliver a miracle cure; doctors, philosophers, psychiatrists, intellectuals, and religious leaders are consulted as a last resort that can never really be the final attempt. The family is often treated with cruelty; time and time again they are filled with false hopes by quacks and charlatans who take advantage of their desperation. Ultimately nothing works, but the years of hoping and trying take their toll. Young Pierre-François protects himself from the chaos of his brother’s condition with homemade suits of armor, books about long-ago heroes of war, imaginary friends and ghosts, and epic drawings that depict scenes of ferocious and violent battles. Pierre-François’ artistic outlet becomes David B.’s masterpiece. The book is brilliantly drawn in heavy blacks and whites that go beyond mere representation to show thoughts, dreams, even metaphors. The characters are fully-fleshed out and true (subplots involve both sets of grandparents and their involvements in both World Wars) and the story is sophisticated and intense, making Epileptic a real work of art.

Blankets by Craig Thompson, 2003, Top Shelf Productions (Graphic Novel/ Memoir)

Young Craig and his kid brother share a bed in their attic bedroom. Sometimes their battle over who gets the biggest share of bed and blankets brings the wrath of their strict father down upon them. Fear of punishment is usually enough to end the sibling rivalry (though it’s always ignited again later; boys being boys and brothers being brothers), and the siblings are often united by their mutual love of drawing and the attacks by bullies that plague them both at school. Still, this is no charmed family portrait. Craig’s parents are conservative Christians who believe that their son’s penchant for art will lead him down the road to hell. The boys are brought up to fear God and to feel guilt over even the smallest and most common of boyish sins. Craig is the designated high school outcast and (lucky boy) he gets to maintain that role at summer church camp too—until he meets Raina, beautiful, spiritual, kind, and complicated. The two strike up a relationship, a romance for the ages that has clearly haunted the artist Craig Thompson well into his adult life. Thompson relives his first love in poignant and painful detail accompanied by crisp, clear black-and-white drawings that are wonderfully expressive and dramatic, but never overly sentimental. In Blankets, the clash between what you’re brought up to believe and what you come to believe on your own, through your own experiences, is dealt with sensitively, realistically, and with the kind of emotion that every reader can relate to.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood/ Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi, 2003/ 2004, Pantheon Books (Graphic Novel/ Memoir)

Marjane Satrapi had a happy childhood in Iran with loving parents, family, and friends. Then, at age ten, in 1979, Marjane’s life was forever changed by the Islamic Revolution. Her parents are intellectuals and Marjane is well-educated at a French school, but once religious rule is established, none of that matters. At first, little Marji finds it all sort of interesting. Wearing the veil is kind of fun; it makes a good ghost mask or superhero cape on the playground. But as rules and laws become harsher and with severe--even deadly--consequences, Marji’s childish innocence fades and her family realizes that little good and much danger can come from this new regime. As the years pass and the government becomes more and more oppressive, it becomes all too apparent that there is no room for even Marji’s typical teenage rebellions, and that her high spirits and sense of independence are not qualities that this Iran will cherish. The two volumes of Persepolis (published as a complete book in 2007 and adapted into an Academy Award-nominated animated film) cover Marjane’s childhood in Iran under fundamentalist rule and her teenage years in Europe, where she was sent at age fourteen to escape the danger that threatened educated young women. Seeing the Iran-Iraq war through a child’s eyes is startling; even in the midst of witnessing kidnappings on the street and hearing about torture victims, Marji has time to long for symbols of freedom like Nike shoes and Michael Jackson records. It’s a point of view that’s real and accurate and that brings the consequences of war home to the reader, as well as offering a readable historical account of a war that many Americans still know little about. The adult author Marjane draws her young self in deep blacks and whites that are ideal for depicting the horrors of war, but that are still done in a style that can be light and humorous when needed. Persepolis is expressive, endearing, striking, and stirring. Almost universally appealing, this work is certain to become one of the most important graphic novels written today.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Two-Color Figurative Illustration Suite

In Word and Image 1 we have just launched the final project. The image-oriented problem is described below:

You are to create three two-color illustrations, each of which tells a simple narrative. Each of you will receive a prompt, such as Commuter Story, or Fast Food Frenzy, to which you will be asked to respond with a set of images. In every case you will have easy access to the material called for by the prompt. Observation will play an important role in your project. You may also cast your story, and stage your narrative by using photography to create targeted reference. These two activities–onsite observation and creative staging–provide complimentary perspectives to the project.

Your images will operate as a set, but they should
not seek to provide a sustained narrative across the three. Consider the trio as an ensemble of perspectives on your particular human pageant. Please note that narrative means any action or story, no matter how small, so long as it is visible. Each of your illustrations will include at least two figures. You may include props, costumes, and setting elements, but you will not produce environments. The storytelling will be accomplished through the figures and their attributes.

This project provides an opportunity to exploit our access to the Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University. The problem you are being asked to solve corresponds to one routinely faced by magazine illustrators during the heyday of periodicals in the twentieth century.

Women’s magazines in particular were an important source of work. Publications like Women’s Home Companion and Ladies Home Journal published a great deal of short fiction. These stories relied on the use of illustrated figures to create interest on the opening spread, cued to a resumption of the story in the back of the magazine. Typically three or four such stories would appear on succeeding spreads, in effect creating a sequential competition between the illustrators to lure the reader.

In the 1930s and early 40s printing budgets typically called for a two-color illustration on the inside of the magazine. You are being asked to work in two colors to keep things simple. Two colors means black and a single hue, like red or green. You may use the full value range of both colors if you choose to do so. Pay close attention to the value structure of your work.

We went to the MGHL on Friday and looked through the wonderful Charles Craver Tearsheet Collection as well as original Al Parkers with the photo reference he shot for the same project. Thanks to Skye Lacerte, curator of the MGHL, for her expertise and efforts on our behalf!

Images: Harry Beckhoff, Colliers, April 13, 1940; Frederic Gruger, Saturday Evening Post, December 13, 1930; Earl Cordrey, Collier’s, November 24, 1946; Robert O’Reid, Collier’s, May 20, 1939; Wilmot Heitland, Women’s Home Companion, October 10, 1931; Carl Mueller, Collier’s, March 7, 1931; Harry Beckhoff, Collier's, January 20, 1940