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The Guns of the South

Link to this review in the form of a comic strip by billba tagged alternate historyhistorical fictionscience fiction

None of the Above

Link to this review by flemtastic tagged coming of age

Kristen is having a good year — she was just named Homecoming Queen and has supportive friends and a hot, loving boyfriend. After a painful first sexual experience, she finds out that she is intersex (previously called hermaphroditic). This causes an identity crisis for Kristen because even with all the information from her doctor and the internet, she is still wondering who she is supposed to be. Then, word gets out at school.

Why I picked it up: Done properly, a fictional book about a real social issue can be the best way to introduce students to the topic. When I saw that this one was about gender identity, and especially intersex youth, I decided to give it a try.

Why I finished it: Realism is very important to me, and this book had lots. As a teacher, I know that everyone isn’t accepted for who they are. With Kristen, it was painful to read details about how people vandalized her locker, writing hurtful things on her door for everyone to see. Overnight, she became damaged goods and her former friends ditched her. Her trials made it hard for her to allow herself to be vulnerable with those who really cared for her. I also liked how Gregorio had her acting irrationally after her diagnosis, like when she goes out to a nightclub to see if she is still attractive to men.  

Readalikes: Brian Katcher’s Almost Perfect. Both books have a character struggling with sexual identity, and they explore a potentially explosive, controversial topic with grace and humor.

Aotearoa Whispers #1: The Awakening

Link to this review by emilyjones tagged historygraphic novel

Interweaving Maori culture, mythology, and New Zealand history, this is the tale of thirteen-year-old Kahi. One day he picks up a ten cent coin off a street in Christchurch. He is struck by the British Queen’s face on one side and the Maori symbol on the reverse. Looking for answers about his own mixed heritage, Kahi visits his grandmother, whose stories help him discover his place in the world.

Why I picked it up: I was shelving graphic novels at the library and the title caught my eye. (Aotearoa is the Maori name for New Zealand.) I’ve been reading NZ authors while living here, and this was the first graphic novel I’d come across. I also really liked the idea that it’s written in both English and Te Reo (the native Maori language).

Why I finished it: I felt like I was learning something while also enjoying the story. I particularly loved the panel-by-panel breakdown of the Haka, the traditional war dance now commonly seen at the beginning of NZ’s rugby games.

It’s perfect for: Doug, who lived in Christchurch during the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. The illustrations show buildings that were damaged. While it may bring back painful memories, the story is dedicated to all the lives lost in the 2011 quake and pays respect to all cultures and people who call Christchurch home.

500 Cameras 170 Years of Photographic Innovation

Link to this review by robert tagged coffee table bookhistoryart

I’m an old man: I took my first published photo using film; I’ve shaken black-and-white 35mm film in a developing tank like I was making a cocktail; I’ve selected three or four usable shots from a contact sheet; I’ve bulk-loaded 35 mm cartridges; and I dodged and burned prints in a darkroom long before PhotoShop was an option. Even with my extensive experience using film cameras, I was pleasantly surprised by the centuries of creativity and craftsmanship on display in this lavishly illustrated book. On nearly every page, one or two pictures of cameras are accompanied by careful, easy to read descriptions of the cameras’ features and significance. The overall effect is that, after reading it, I felt like I’d visited a large museum exhibit. The parade of cameras is supplemented with occasional essays by noted figures about select topics. Steven Sasson, who built the first digital camera, writes about that new dawn in imaging. Other essays address the topics of film production and photography in space. Most of the cameras featured were of technical or commercial interest, but several also had their own distinct provenances, including the Anniversary Speed Graphic Joe Rosenthal used to capture the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima and a folder a teenaged Ansel Adams used on a trip to Yosemite. Even the organization is revealing: Gustavson, a curator at the George Eastman House, categorizes sections by either a camera’s form (for example, Twin Lens Reflex cameras have a chapter), by their function, or by their sales category (“Detective” cameras, designed for ease of surreptitious use, have a chapter).

Why I picked it up: I stopped at the branch library nearest my workplace, and was captivated by a single small display case in the lobby with three old film cameras and four recent books on cameras and photography. This one was the most recent, so I ordered a copy.

Why I finished it: The abundant creativity on display challenged my understanding of camera use and history. Before the development of roll film some designers built cameras with the rough shape and function of a revolver; instead of bullets, each chamber behind the gun-barrel lens held a small film plate. Others built cameras with a stack of film plates or sheets either in holders or stored in the bottom of the camera. In-camera processing started with the daguerreotype, and before there was color film, color pictures were created by simultaneous exposures through colored filters, with colored projection into a merged image.

Readalikes: Digital Photography FAQs by Jeff Wignall. Most of us now use digital cameras, and unlike 500 Cameras the focus of this is on better use of the equipment, with tips from the basics of composition to exposure metering minutia.

Call Me By My Name

Link to this review by diane tagged historical fictioncoming of age

In small towns in Louisiana in the mid-1960s, white kids and black kids played in separate parks and attended separate schools. When young Tater Henry walks onto the baseball field near his home during Pony League try-outs, the white boys and their coaches make it abundantly clear that he isn’t welcome — yelling “Hey, boy, nobody wants you here!” and pelting him with pebbles until he’s curled in a ball and in tears. When Rodney Boulet sees him crying, he defies his white friends and escorts Tater out of the park, reminding him that the “colored park” is across town. Flash forward four years. Tater is back at South City Park. This time his athletic skills are recognized and he’s allowed to try out. Rodney and Tater become teammates and friends, despite the objections of Rodney’s father and most of the town residents.      

When the schools are integrated the following year, Tater and Rodney end up at the same high school. Their friendship grows, and so do the feelings between Tater and Rodney’s twin sister, Angie. During football season, Tater and Rodney become an unbeatable team on the field and lead their football team to the state playoffs. With hopes of college scholarships, it looks like they are headed out of their small town and on the way to different lives. But there’s a sense of foreboding hanging over the boys, and everyone knows things are not going to turn out as they hope.

Why I picked it up: I was looking for a book about football to share with the boys at my high school.  

Why I finished it: It’s so much more than a book about sports. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of baseball and football, but the real story is in the relationship between Rodney and Tater, and the budding romance between Tater and Rodney’s sister, Angie. This is a sweet, sometimes funny, heartbreaking story full of characters that are true to life in Louisiana in the 1970s. Tater and Rodney’s story is as relevant and meaningful today as it would have been fifty years ago. Because of the important political and historical context, it’s a very memorable book.

Readalikes:  Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk, another book about sports that also deals with racism and bullying. In TJ’s small town, he stands out as the only adopted, multi-racial teen.  He’s also a world-class swimmer.  When a coach pushes to form a high school swim team, TJ responds by drafting some of the other “losers” at his school. What results is a funny and sometimes heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting novel about how society defines “normal.”

The Complete Far Side

Link to this review by geneambaum tagged humorcomic strips

These three volumes contain every single-panel The Far Side comic. Many have been colored, and there is additional content throughout including short essays by Larson on various topics (why he wrote single-panel comics, the time he chased a lizard on vacation, monsters) as well as letters from editors and readers (some in praise plus a few amusing complaints). The first volume has quite a few introductory essays, including one by comedian Steve Martin.

Why I picked it up: I love Gary Larson’s The Far Side so much I bought the slipcased hardcover edition when it came out years ago. I was excited to read it, but I only opened it once. Each volume is just too thick and heavy to read. This, the paperback edition, is broken up into three volumes, so I had high hopes that it would be readable.

Why I finished it: First, I could comfortably hold the volumes in my hand (though not all at once). This was a chance to revisit all of my favorites (A pig with his hand on a phone receiver, talking to two others. “Disgusting! … It’s just a sort of heavy huffing and puffing.”) as well as several I’d forgotten about (a man in a bookstore who has tripped and knocked down the self-help display).

I’m not going to link to any of Larson’s comics I could find online because of this letter. But I hope, for your sake, that if you’re unfamiliar with The Far Side you’ll go to your library and seek out a previous collection of the comics (or, even better, this one). They contain lots of cows, scientists, cave people, cowboys, aliens, snakes, but it’s impossible to sum them up. I guarantee reading (or rereading) them will make you a smarter, better person.

It’s perfect for: Fred, who taught English with me in Korea and now teaches it to foreign students at the University of Washington. Most of Larson’s cultural references seem timeless, and trying to puzzle out why Americans found these funny (or offensive) would make for some lively class discussions. Plus studying comics in a foreign language is way more fun than most academic textbooks.

The Art of LEGO Design Creative Ways to Build Amazing Models

Link to this review by geneambaum tagged art

An exploration of LEGOs as an artistic medium, from tools to essential bricks (and other elements) and how to use them to make everything from minifigures to larger scale characters with personality and articulation, from small animals to large vehicles and dioramas. This is a not a how-to-build book with complete breakdowns — in fact, there isn’t a single pattern inside. Instead it’s an explanation of techniques on how to create textures, shapes, and other effects with LEGOs, with photos of many eye-popping creations thrown in. There are even a few interviews with several LEGO artists.

Why I picked it up: I see several cool, large-scale statues at LEGO’s comic con booths every year, and I always wonder how they’re built. I assume there’s some kind of cheat involved, either glue or custom pieces that aren’t available to everyone. How else could anyone recreate Chewbacca and Batman?

Why I finished it: Early in the book, there were two things that told me I was going to have to finish it: “A Minifigure Rogues Gallery” that included LEGO recreations of librarian Henry Bemis and Hannibal Lecter, and an explanation of SNOT (studs not on top) techniques used to create smooth (unstudded) surfaces.

It’s perfect for: My friend Kevin, who, like me, has been obsessed with Blade Runner since we were in high school. The minifigure gallery includes many of the movie’s minor characters, including Tyrell, his synthetic owl, and even Zhora. Later in the book the example of how to hide a relatively huge battery pack is a model of the flying Spinner with working lights. It even looks like it’s hovering over its base.


Link to this review by wally tagged historybiographyparanormal

Mizuki shares tales of his youth in prewar Japan, everything from his father’s failed attempt to run a cinema and his mother’s constant pleading with him to study instead of draw, to his battles with the local boys and their ever-shifting loyalties to boy generals. The focus is on NonNonBa, an old woman who lived with Mizuki’s family off and on, and who forged a strong bond with him over their shared love of tales of the yokai. The central story woven throughout is of a nearby haunted house. A strange family moves in, and NonNonBa suspects the “parents” are slave traders who deal in young women. Mizuki befriends Miwa, the youngest girl, who seems to have a connection to the yokai that he is always trying to draw. When NonNonBa finds her speaking to one particularly fearsome monster, she knows the family will not be there for long.

Why I picked it up: Yokai figured in the graphic novels by Mizuki that I’d already read, and this one relates how he became interested in them. 

Why I finished it: Mizuki is such a wonderful storyteller. I didn’t realize how (or even if) things connected until late in the story, when he pulls together his ongoing troubles with the boy generals, his friendship with Miwa, and even the story of his father, who finally realizes the depth of his son’s desire to be an artist and supports him at a crucial moment.

It’s perfect for: Lexie, who loves mythological animals, the stranger the better. She would enjoy all the monsters shown throughout, including the ceiling-licking waaarrrgh (named after the sound he makes) and the suiko (water tiger) that guards a sea cave.

The Slug (Disgusting Creatures)
The Fly (Disgusting Creatures)
The Worm (Disgusting Creatures)
The Rat (Disgusting Creatures)

Link to this review by dawnrutherford tagged picture bookscience

Elise Gravel clearly has a love of the sort of creepy crawly creatures that many people are horrified (or at least creeped out) by.  Each volume enthusiastically introduces a group of animals (such as worms) and then narrows the focus down to the one children would be most familiar with (in this case, earthworms).  And while these books are full of (undocumented) facts, they are also full of lots of outrageous humor.  While the narrator plods along with serious topics such as Latin names, the uses of unusual body parts, and eating habits, the illustrations provide ridiculous counterpoints.  “The rat’s tail is long, hairless and very agile. She uses it to keep her balance.” The rat adds, “It’s also very useful when I want to pick my nose.”

Why I picked it up: I saw these at a library conference, instantly fell in love with their design, and knew I had to read them, if nothing else just to enjoy the great endpapers again. Those in The Slug amuse me the most, due to the fact that they all are sporting the same ridiculous open mouthed grin. (When I do this, my boyfriend calls it Muppet Mouth.) 

Why I finished it: The art in these books is so dang amusing, you forget that you are learning stuff. I guffawed like a seven-year-old when Rat picked her nose with her tail, old bearded Worm complained about kids today while sitting in a rocking chair, Slug escaped a hand by using mucus to squirt out of the grip, and Fly had a teenaged snit wearing a half-shirt and mini skirt at six days old. Maybe some of this will go over kids’ heads, but it makes them all the more fun for the adults reading aloud.

Readalikes: Want another wacky read about slugs? Check out the classic Slugs by David Greenberg, which is just as ridiculous and minimally useful for homework. I’d love to see the series paired with a non-fiction book full of photographs such as Leigh Rockwood’s Creepy Crawlies series to help kids figure out what in the Disgusting Creatures books is true (yes, slugs breathe out a hole on the side of their bodies but no, slugs do not blow bubble gum bubbles out of their breath holes).

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