Kiss and kill: a review of Plague Nation

Plague NationLet me introduce you to Dana Fredsti, the creator of a smart zombie meta-fiction meets steamy gore-stained-clothes-be-damned romance called Plague Nation. It’s the sequel to Plague Town (here’s my review), which was my favorite book from last year. I thought a zombie novelization would be stupid. I was dead wrong.

Now, I love zombie movies. It’s easy to react to the horror of blood and guts when it’s splattering all over the screen. Reading about it is less visceral, in theory anyway. But Fredsti knows how to squeeze words for all their disgusting worth, and she even establishes a community with fellow film aficionados by playing off famous movies through her characters — mostly an elite class of virus-resistant fighters called the DZN, who have received a top-notch zombie education in order to do their job: picking the streets clean of flesh-hungry walkers. So they cite zombie flicks a lot. Gotta have some fun amidst all the depressing carnage, right?

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November’s comic book pick of the month: White Devil

White Devil #1

So I realized I missed both September’s and October’s comic book picks. Bad Stephanie!

If you read my open call for comics back in April, then you know I’ll be spotlighting current comic book series (in addition to my graphic novel reviews) every month or so to inspire discussion. I’m also taking requests, so please — leave a comment or drop me an email!

Check out August’s review of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER SEASON 9.

This month’s spotlight is a special pick. Thanks to writer Matt Evans for sending over his co-authored comic, WHITE DEVIL #1! And big apologies about the lateness!

I really liked this first issue (one of four to come), but readers should be aware that it has some very mature content. If you couldn’t guess from the title, this isn’t a kid-friendly comic.

Evan and cowriter Andrew Helinski introduce us to a picture-perfect housewife named Judy whose life isn’t what she expected. She makes dinner, watches the children, and serves her husband just like a good wife should, but they’re not nearly as well-behaved or doting as she is. Her husband sticks his nose in a newspaper at dinner and swears in front of the children, who are too busy making faces and flinging food at each other to notice.

White Devil #1 cover

But her humble living in small-town Alabama changes once Judy and her friend Betty leave for book night — only they’re not following the reading list. Instead, they’re turning to something much more sinister.

The woods at night are home to a cult of devil worshipers who strip naked, openly fornicate, and baptize members in the blood of a slaughtered animal. You can imagine this is where the black-and-white colored book (illustrated by Nate Burns) gets pretty graphic.

This comic is definitely out there, but I love how Evans and Helinski ease readers into the extreme rather than shove them into it. Judy is a normal woman who decides to escape her humdrum routine by participating in something crazy, but I get the feeling that her little experiment is going to cost her and the town.

As you can see from the cover, Burns applies red on top of the regular black and white — and even a little blue, as seen in the image at top. This technique works well since Burns uses these colors more heavily as the cult activity becomes more intense.

You can download the first issue for free at the comic’s website. Evans and Helinski haven’t set a date for the second issue yet, so I’ll keep tabs on when it’s available.

WHITE DEVIL #1 (by cowriters Matt Evans and Andrew Helinski and illustrator Nate Burns) released in June.

Encouragement in unlikely places: a review of The Forest for the Trees

“I think ‘taste’ is a social concept and not an artistic one,” explained John Updike in an interview reprinted in his collection Hugging the Shore. “I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves.”

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy LernerYou’d think a book subtitled “An Editor’s Advice to Writers” would be about useful editing techniques, right? Wrong — at least not in Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees, which views the process of writing and and publishing through a literary editor’s lens. This is an insider’s look at the business, with juicy secrets from within the publishing house, from an editor who fearlessly bares her soul and, by way of it, encourages her readers to do the same.

As someone who discovered the world of copy editing only a couple years ago, has made mistakes and learned what the editor-writer relationship means and should be, and has since filled both shoes at once, I expected pages of wisdom about good, hard editing. What Lerner provides is much different: I knew it wasn’t going to be Strunk and White, but I wasn’t prepared for a collection of experiences throughout the years. Lerner reveals the beautiful and the ugly sides of the industry — and the bitterness and optimism that comes and goes for editors, agents, publicists, publishers, and writers alike. These people must all work together for a common goal, but their perspectives and priorities couldn’t be more different from day to day.

First, Lerner tackles the needs and neuroses of the writer, who is simply someone, of any walk of life, who must write. It doesn’t matter whether you’re good or bad, chronically unpublished or successful. A writer is someone who writes against all hardship and commits to whatever amount of work is necessary to improve — even if that means rewriting an entire book from a different character’s perspective or surviving a storm of criticism that never seems to clear.

And as far as the phrase, “Write what you know”? Lerner says it’s redundant — all writers, by fault, write what they know.

Lerner also urges aspiring authors to write like they don’t care if their mother will read it. You’re not going to shock, awe, or inspire any other sort of emotional reaction unless you’re fearless in what you put down on the page.

But to editors, agents, and publicists, writers are like children. So easily can they stray from the well-lit path into any manner of darkness: writer’s block, desperation, jealousy of peers, an insatiable need for attention, and even drugs, alcohol, and mental illness. They’re naive and impatient, and so often the rewards of publication are built on hopes and fantasies that, once shattered, can never be repaired.

Getting published isn’t an instant miracle. Sometimes it makes the struggle harder, Lerner tells us, and she backs up what she says.

She also explores all angles of the book world and shows how the people caught up in it interact with one another. Publicists get little love. The inside of a publishing house is a brutal environment where discouragement and thrill go hand in hand. And the business is always changing — with the growth of social media and the constant yet unpredictable threat of competition. No one ever really know what’s going to sell.

But Lerner shares the little joys, too — those rare, literary wonders that you fight for, and the ones that are runaway hits and a fleeting source of euphoria for everyone who made them happen. What’s even more amazing, though, is how safe the author makes readers — and writers — feel despite the hostility and enormous chance of disappointment. She holds in her hands not a pen, but a little flame of hope that refuses to go out.

Bottom line: Not for practical applications, but contains invaluable insight into the publishing industry that any aspiring writer should take the time to read.

What I liked: The author’s swift use of language and her bravery.

What I wasn’t expecting: No concrete editing tips and advice to speak of.

For the witchy fashionistas: a review of Secondhand Spirits

Too giddy and stunned from our triumph to go to bed right away, we popped popcorn and brewed nothing more magical than hot chocolate.

Secondhand Spirits by Juliet BlackwellConfession: I usually consider the mystery section one of the “passable” parts of my bookstore browsing. That might have to change.

A couple weeks ago, when shopping with a friend, I decided to venture into the unloved rows, only to spot a colorful and fun book by Juliet Blackwell. Secondhand Spirits won me over with its gorgeous cover — an inviting blend of blues, yellows, greens, and pinks with a smoky wisp of glitter around the illustrated girl with long, wavy black hair. “Love the vintage, not the ghosts,” the tagline reads.

I was charmed.

This 325-page paperback — a great breather from the near-1000 page A Clash of Kings, which I had trouble fitting around my hectic schedule — is quickly addictive. I went in not expecting much and found myself loving every page. Blackwell knows how to keep the reader going with a cliffhanger at the end of nearly every chapter.

If you like Harry Potter, then you’ll probably like Blackwell’s first book in her Witchcraft Mystery series — not that it is anywhere near a ripoff of Rowling’s books, but Blackwell does share a few tools of the witchy trade. The main character’s familiar reminds me a lot of Dobby the house elf, and one of the plotlines deals with a screaming mandrake and how to pull it out without going insane (remember that part in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets?). Blackwell invents her own rules, too, and I adored her every time she compared real witchcraft to superstition and stereotyping within the fiction she creates. The book also explores the paranormal, and the combination gives the book so much potential and room for expansion.

I can’t recommend it enough. And not to mention, the hunky mythbusting character is named Max Carmichael. :)

The story isn’t anything particularly amazing: Lily Ivory is a witch who recently moved to San Francisco, and little by little she assimilates into a nice circle of friends and wiccans as she opens up and helps the community. She also puts others in touch with their inner fashionistas by tapping into the auras and vibes that clothes give off to a witch of her caliber, and that’s a talent that any girl knows can’t be undervalued. But what’s great about Secondhand Spirits is that there is a lot of emphasis on community, both culturally and in terms of companionship, and it’s just a heartwarming book. The quote at the top comes from the beginning of the last chapter, and it really made me smile. That’s how well Blackwell will have you invested.

Bottom line: A quick, endearing mystery for beginners or those who love to shop and dabble in magics on the side.

August’s comic book pick of the month: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 9

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

If you read my open call for comics back in April, then you know I’ll be spotlighting current comic book series (in addition to my graphic novel reviews) every month or so to inspire discussion. I’m also taking requests, so please — leave a comment or drop me an email!

Check out last month’s review of HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE #1.

A lot of you are probably fans of Joss Whedon. From The Avengers to Firefly, he rules a modest corner of the geek world. You’re also probably familiar with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but have you seen past season seven? If not, then you’re missing out on plenty of new stories that await beyond the television screen and on the pages of Dark Horse Comics. Their Buffy adaptation is no small secret in the Whedonverse.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER SEASON 8, as it’s called, was an extended run of the comics that lasted for 40 issues over four years. There were Angel and Spike books over at IDW Publishing, but now everyone’s favorite puppy-eyed and peroxide-headed vampires have relocated to Dark Horse, the home sweet home for all things Buffy in the shows’ afterlives. Faith is there, too — and even Drusilla and Harmony.

The latest run, SEASON 9, is already 12 issues deep, and can I just say … I love this cover!

Buffy Season 9 #12

Andrew Chambliss writes the return of Wolfram and Hart, the evil corporation that Angel toiled in Los Angeles to stop. Since Buffy broke the Seed, emptying the magic from the world, the demon-serving lawyers should be shut away in their own pocket of hell. But now that Buffy’s a Slayer-slash-bodyguard for the rich and powerful, she has an inside scoop on the business world — and one Internet billionaire is telling her the opposite. Wolfram and Hart wants him dead.

It’s cyber terrorism on a whole new level — well, dimension. To seal away Wolfram and Hart for good, Buffy and company must battle a Teuth demon and find which of startup Tincan’s servers to fry. But keeping the connection open could mean a last link to restoring Earth’s magic … or to righting wrongs with Buffy’s friends, including Kennedy and Willow.

Michelle Madsen provides colors, and Georges Jeanty (who designed the cover above) is on pencils. The combination is an artistic style that’s become iconic to the BUFFY series. But what’s best about this series is how believably the creators translate real-life actors in the television medium to cartoon figures in print, and how they turn near hour-long stories across 24-episode seasons into serial, bite-sized issues released across a much longer span of time. If you haven’t started reading these, now’s the time to get on board. You won’t be disappointed.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER SEASON 9 #12 (by writer Andrew Chambliss and penciller Georges Jeanty) hit stands on Wednesday, August 8.

July’s comic book pick of the month: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

If you read my open call for comics back in April, then you know I’ll be spotlighting current comic book series (in addition to my graphic novel reviews) every month or so to inspire discussion. I’m also taking requests, so please — leave a comment or drop me an email!

The ’80s are still alive, baby! New to DC Comics, HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE #1 is a blast from your childhood past.

Imagine my surprise when I opened my mail and found a radiantly glowing HE-MAN comic book hiding in my pile of new issues. And by writer James Robinson, no less! Do you know who that is? He’s only one of the coolest writers ever — he modernized STARMAN and turned it into one of my favorite long-running series. So good.

Aside from the gorgeous cover by Philip Tan and Dave Wilkins (a great eye-catcher), the first issue brings back the classic cartoon in style. Look past the first page, which poses He-Man in an awkward running stance, and you’ll fall in love with Philip Tan’s art and Richard and Tanya Horie’s and Carrie Strachan’s colors (on their respective pages).

He-Man won’t be shouting “I have the power!” anytime soon — at least not in this issue. Adam is a woodsman, “and that is all.” He dreams of swords and beasts and heroes, but when he wakes he’s back in the forest, chopping wood and caring for his senile father, who thinks he lives in a royal palace. Whatever reality has become for Adam and those around him, it’s not the stuff of legend. Robinson has given the comic a kind of FABLES vibe.

But the world is trying to make him remember. First a blue and orange falcon — Zoar. Then a monster that confronts him as soon as he leaves his home. His axe becomes a weapon; the woods his battle ground.

It might be different, but the comic still feels like the classic tale. The scene at the end, where Skeletor says “Adam must be stopped, and quickly!” is reminiscent of the cheesy kids’ cartoon. Robinson’s HE-MAN feels like a bridge between two eras … and I hope it’s here to stay for more than just six issues.

Happy 30th anniversary, He-Man.

HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE #1 (by writer James Robinson and penciller Philip Tan) hits stands Wednesday, July 4.

June’s comic book pick of the month: Adventure Time

If you read my open call for comics back in April, then you know I’ll be reviewing current comic book series (in addition to writing graphic novel reviews) every month or so to inspire discussion. I’m also taking requests, so please — leave a comment or drop me an email!

Did you know comics require a lot more brainpower to read? The right side of your brain processes pictures, while the left interprets words. Okay, moving on!

I know what you’re thinking: “Adventure Time is a show, silly!” Whoa-hoahh, hold on a sec. It’s also a relatively new comic book series from BOOM! Studios. Before you groan and turn away, believe me, I understand any misgivings you might have. Like with any crossing of mediums, television-to-comic adaptations don’t usually work so well.

ADVENTURE TIME does.

Ryan North (creator of Dinosaur Comics) pens the issues, and Shelli Paroline typically handles art. Paroline is amazing. I know actual human likenesses are harder to authentically portray in illustration, but her work rivals Georges Jeanty’s on the BUFFY line (Dark Horse Comics). I can’t tell the difference between show and comic here, honestly.

(Also, I love her reproduction of Avatar: The Last Airbender.)

I’m a strong believer that the more recognizable a comic is to its original source, the more successful it can be — especially if it has talented writers working on it. Thankfully, North captures the humor and essence of Adventure Time without missing a beat.

In some cases, it’s better. (Gasp!) While music has always been a fundamental part of the show, I know some people are turned off by all the singing. I don’t particularly care for it myself except in episodes like “What Was Missing” (and I’m not even going to go into the weird controversy there).

ADVENTURE TIME #4 is my favorite yet. It’s amazing how effortlessly North and Paroline can recreate the unique characteristics of the show in still form. Here’s a quick recap: Recently Finn and Jake and co. defeated the Lich and reformed the world, only the desert kingdom isn’t quite where it’s supposed to be. This issue calls upon some princess power to set things right again.

The secondary stories placed in the back end act as fun side adventures that feature different contributing writers and artists. And for those who like variant covers, the incentive ones for ADVENTURE TIME are rather popular. Mike “Gabe” Krahulik of Penny Arcade even prepared one for issue #5. Talk about awesome!

You can preview and buy ADVENTURE TIME #4 online at ComiXology or your local comic shop.

ADVENTURE TIME #4 (by writer Ryan North and artists Braden Lamb and Shelli Paroline) released on Wednesday, May 30. Issue #5 is now available.

My small claim to fame and fortune

So several months ago I might have mentioned that my name would be appearing in print. Well, now I can officially say it has.

I submitted a review of the film festival documentary Grandma’s Tattoos to the 55th issue (“Fame + Fortune”) of Bitch magazine — a “feminist response to pop culture.” It consists of only a few hundred words and a small section in the back, but it’s there.

If you’re interested, the magazine costs $5.95 for a print copy and $4.95 digital. My review appears on page 70.