Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: My Year of Few Words

In short: for the first time in my life, I deliberately stopped writing.

I mean, I didn't stop writing. I write constantly. But I deliberately did not write any novels. I started a few short stories but didn't finish anything. I wrote 3/5 of a script for a graphic novel. I wrote 55 4-panel comic strips and a lot of blog posts. I drew constantly, mostly on my Wacom tablet, sometimes 8 or 10 hours a day. Fiction sort of went by the wayside, and my reading did too. I feel like I read a LOT of comics and graphic novels, but very little serious or adult fiction or nonfiction. Of course, books that I've previously reviewed don't get counted, even though there are books that I read every year. 

Serious books I attempted to read this year but did not complete include Thomas Pikkety's Capital in the 21st Century, which is probably brilliant but there was a waiting list and the library only lets you keep it 3 weeks and it was SO DENSE, J. Craig Venter's Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of the Digital Age, which I was more or less interested in it even though some of the science was beyond me but somehow I couldn't follow through, and Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer, which, frankly, I forgot to read. 

This year's list is disappointing to me. But here it is: 

Dragon's 2014 Year in Review

Picture Books: 18
YA/Middle Grade Novels: 25
Adult novels: 16
Fairy Tale Collections: 1
Graphic Novels: 9
Nonfiction: 7
Memoir/Biography: 3
Poetry: 1

Short Fiction Collection: 1
Not Easily Categorized: 1

Total: 82

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Diary of a Wimpy Kid 9: The Long Haul

Written by: Jeff Kinney

First line: If there's one thing I've learned from my years of being a kid, it's that you have ZERO control over your own life.

Why you should read this book: Admittedly, I haven't liked any of the previous books in this series because Greg Heffley really comes off, at best, as an entitled brat, and at worst, as a complete sociopath, but in this book he really seems like a helpless victim of his mother's completely psychotic sneak attack family road trip, which is badly planned and executed from beginning to end. It's not entirely clear where the family is meant to be going, but that's all right, since you know they're never going to get there anyway. I read this book because my stepson got it for Christmas, and he never reads anything for pleasure except gaming manuals, so it seemed like someone ought to read it.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Possible flashbacks to your own horrible family road trips.

Dork Diaries 4: Tales from a Not-So-Graceful Ice Princess

Written by: Rachel Renee Russell

First line: OMG! I have never been so EMBARRASSED in my entire life!!

Why you should read this book: Nikki, the stereotypically insecure adolescent, worries that cute boy Brandon doesn't like her, and that mean girl MacKenzie will humiliate her, and somehow this translates into her decision to perform in a charity ice skating event despite her complete lack of talent or ability. I guess these novels help girls feel better about themselves, or more normal, or simply like they're at least doing better than Nikki; I have no idea, really. My stepdaughter received this one for Christmas but it's far above her reading level and I hate to see books go to waste.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You like to cultivate your obvious talents and you don't worry about what other people think.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Jack Kent's Hokus Pokus Bedtime Book

Written by: Jack Kent

First line: In a land far away there once lived a poor boy named Aladdin.

Why you should read this book: Sweet enough for the smallest children but with a little tongue in cheek humor tucked in neatly among the familiar lines, this collection of five favorite fairy tales is accompanied by the round and smiling faces of Kent's beloved illustrations. The real humor shines through in the delightful pictures: in "Jack and the Beanstalk," we see the beloved cow sitting in a chair at the table with Jack and his mother, grinning while munching on a bowl of hay; in "The Frog Prince," the Princess's disgust is writ large in her features over a series of images. Although this volume is a bit hard to find, it's a great addition to a child's library of bedtime stories.

Why you shouldn't read this book: People falling in love too fast for the wrong reasons.

It's Just a Plant

Written by: Ricardo Cortes

First line: Jackie loved to go to sleep at night.

Why you should read this book: When Jackie walks in on her parents smoking a joint, her mom decides to take her on a educational bike ride to talk to Farmer Bob and Doctor Eden about marijuana. Jackie receives honest and factual information about some of the plant's most interesting properties, how and why people have been using it for a very long time time, and the reasons that children shouldn't try drugs, even if it OK for adults. Later, watching an encounter between the police and some pot smokers, she learns even more truths about the political reasons for marijuana prohibition and the fact that the government sometimes makes legislative mistakes, which can be rectified through the democratic process.

Why you shouldn't read this book: One time your cousin's roommate's neighbor's daughter took marijuana and her eyes exploded out the back of her head and she died and you know that the only way to protect people from danger is to prohibit the spread of any information on the subject.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Written by: Marjane Satrapi

First line: This is me when I was 10 years old.

Why you should read this book: With simple lines and strong words, this powerful graphic novel describes life under the Islamic regime that took over Iran in 1979, as seen through the eyes of the author, an intelligent, thoughtful, and increasingly angry child. Marjane believes in freedom, and while she is sometimes confused by what she hears on the radio, she knows what she believes in her heart: that she should have the right of self-expression. Surrounded by beating and bombings, disappearances and death, Marjane enters adolescence with an increasing understanding of politics and extremism coupled with a fierce love for her family, her friends, and her own independence.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You strongly believe that a man's sex drive is akin to a shark's drive to eat things, and that if a man sees a woman's hair he is literally incapable of not raping her.

Do Anything: Thoughts on Comics and Things

Written by: Warren Ellis

First line: I have the head of Jack Kirby in my office.

Why you should read this book: Two parts history, one part science fiction, one part name dropping, and one part stream of consciousness, this 48-page volume contains as many disembodied heads as an Alan Moore novel, and makes you work just as hard. Ellis's musings on the history of comics and culture somehow come together to form a perfect gestalt, despite the fact that the individual pieces, scrutinized on their own, bear some resemblance to random object pulled from that one junk drawer in your kitchen. With more parenthetical asides than paragraphs, this book is a window into the mind of a popular and future-thinking writer of exceptional comics.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You know nothing about the history of comics: this is definitely not an introductory volume, and even though I consider myself fairly knowledgeable on the subject compared to the general populace, I only recognized about half the references.

A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola

Written by: Ricardo Cortes

First line: One story about the origin of coffee is that of a goatherd, tending goats on a mountainside in Ethiopia.

Why you should read this book: Brought to you by the guy who wrote a level-headed and informative picture book for children about marijuana, this story discusses the world's love affair with stimulants, beginning with the controversial coffee bean but eventually evolving into a discussion of how the Coca-Cola company is basically the world's largest importer of coca leaves, despite the fact that importing coca leaves into America is illegal for everybody else except the people who sell flavoring extracted from the leaf to the Coca-Cola Company. Meticulously researched from declassified Federal Bureau of Narcotic files, this book is unique in both the way it constructs a social history of prohibited substances, and also in that it's still, essentially, a children's book. A perfect present for the ten-year-old skeptic/history buff in your life, the grown-up conspiracy theorist, and anyone who loves caffeine.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You refuse to believe that the government would make any decision that wasn't in the best interest of its people, or that it would ever cater to big business at the expense of the disenfranchised.

Krazy and Ignatz 1941-1942

Written by: George Herriman

First line: Double "kats"--a pretty sight, but it isn't right.

Why you should read this book: Krazy Kat adores Ignatz Mouse, whose daily practice is to attempt to brain his admirer with a brick, while Offisa Pup, outraged by the boldly sadomasochistic relationship, does his best to incarcerate the reprobate mouse. On the surface, Herriman spent almost twenty years telling this same story over and over, and yet the level of invention, the playfulness with language and imagery and the comic format, the roundabout plots and trickery, the levelheaded observations about human nature, and the general weirdness keep Krazy Kat fresh to this day, a continuing source of inspiration for no-holds-barred cartoon violence. Also, I'm now fairly certain that Krazy Kat is a metaphor for the closeted homosexuality grimly suffered by many men of the era, but feel free to argue if you disagree.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Herriman's reliance on dialect can make his scripts a little difficult to puzzle out, but native English speakers can generally parse his meaning with a small degree of effort.


Written by: Kevin C. Pyle

First line: When I heard we were moving again I don’t remember being particularly upset.

Why you should read this book: Dean is only interested in drawing and in playing World War Two soldier games in the woods near his house, and is actively opposed to learning math or being respectful in school. Over the course of the year, he begins to separate his fantasies of omnipotent American soldiers who always triumph against evil from the reality of war he sees in a book of Holocaust photos, and hears from a homeless veteran he meets in the woods. A relatable coming-of-age story that presents the big changes of adolescence as small changes in perception and maturity.

Why you shouldn’t read this book: You think war is just swell, and your side is always fighting against evil. 

Marble Season

Marble Season

Written by: Gilbert Hernandez

First line: Missed.

Why you should read this book: Huey, the middle of three brothers in a Latino family in the ‘60s, loves marbles and comic books and finds himself drawn to popular music and the Mars Attacks trading cards. This gentle, realistic story lacks a formal plot or structure, but instead paints a picture of the real world of neighborhood kids: their games, their fantasies, their friendships’ changing configurations. A faithful reconstruction of the universe inhabited solely by children, a place where adults, who cannot understand the value of neatly-stored trading cards, can never inhabit.

Why you shouldn’t read this book: You throw out your kids’ stuff whenever you feel like it, because it’s clearly not important.

In Real Life

Written by: Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

First line: Anda, wake up!

Why you should read this book: Anda is a shy and nerdy teenager who begins to develop her own self-confidence when she’s invited to play as a team member in an online game, and offered missions that pay real life money. When she comes to understand that her online “enemies” are actually impoverished Chinese teenagers, working at the most boring part of the game to create in-game value that they can then sell to rich American gamers, she begins to develop a social conscious and an interest in helping others. Anda’s attempts to unionize the Chinese gamers backfires at first, but eventually things work out for the best.

Why you shouldn’t read this book: The feel-good ending seems a bit forced and unbelievable; it works out a little too easily considering things that could potentially happen to a poor Chinese teenager.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Gentleman and the Kitchen Maid

Written by: Diane Stanley

First line: In the city there was a great art museum.

Why you should read this book: Class and space issues separate two lovely Dutch paintings, one of smiling kitchen maid and one of a stately young gentleman. They are doomed to look from afar, censure by the disapproving voices of other, more conservative paintings. At last, a perceptive art student, sensing their distress, unites them in her own interpretation of their paintings.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Love: it's not for you, and you don't think anyone else should enjoy it either.

The Hobbit

Written by: JRR Tolkien

First line: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Why you should read this book: The Hobbit never gets old, and you are never old when you are reading it. This was one of the first real chapter books I read by myself, when I was about 7 years old; I just finished reading it aloud to my stepdaughter, and, if anything, it is more magical than it was 30-mumble years ago. Bilbo Baggins, a respectable hobbit of means and comfort, contracts with a group of dwarves to help them recover their ancestral home and the fabulous treasure that lies within, and the ferocious dragon that awaits them at the end of the journey is the least of their troubles.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You are dead.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest

Written by: Gerald McDermott

First line: Raven came.

Why you should read this book: One of McDermott's faithful recreations of old trickster tales, this bold picture book relates a creation myth from the North American Pacific Northwest. Raven is a heroic light bringer, cleverly stealing the sun from Sky Chief and setting it in the sky to benefit all creatures. A truly beloved story with a strong sense of history and place.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You question how a maiden can be impregnated by a pine needle.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

On a Clear Day

Written by: Walter Dean Myers

First line: "She just stopped singing."

Why you should read this book: Extrapolating from the world of today, Myers imagines a future in which corporations control every aspect of existence, smilingly introducing new products and services while the stratification between the haves and have-nots increases. Dahlia, an orphan math prodigy, is recruited by a group of young people who still feel like they can make a difference, and somehow, they are able to throw a monkey wrench into one high-stakes machination. Sort of grim, and following the new YA aesthetic of books about terrible futures in which an even more terrible future is inevitable, despite everything that the characters do to change the outcome.

Why you shouldn't read this book: To be honest, I didn't really understand big swaths of it, why people were doing what they were doing and how they came to their information and connections, even though the books explained it; the explanations just didn't make sense to me, and having one character state that she will turn facts into data and enter them into computer projections to predict outcomes didn't really mean much to me either. Too many characters, too much plot.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Ella Enchanted

Written by: Gail Carson Levine

First line: That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me.

Why you should read this book: Her childhood destroyed by her mother's premature death and her own particular curse of immutable obedience, Ella presents the Cinderella story in a new and modern light, a tale about a girl concerned with social equality and her country's health as much as she cares about her own well-being. Ella's terrible secret is that, thanks to the world's worst fairy gift, she cannot disobey any command given to her by anyone, even her terrible stepsisters. Ella's journey to break her own curse is a delightful tale that stands up to repeated reading.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You'd have to be some kind of terrible person not to enjoy this modern classic.

Under Stars

Written by: KJ Kabza

First line: Beneath the four of us was a patch of bare earth, which Yuri had anchored into reality with a screw he'd muttered.

Why you should read this book: The short fiction of KJ Kabza is full of surprises, whether in the form of the world's shortest vampires-in-space flash fiction, the merging of the beach and punk genres, or a story set inside a dictionary, where all the characters are English words. This second collection of unusual tales breathes new life into old conventions and awakens the readers mind by presenting modern quandaries around ancient ideas. Trolls, mad scientists, unicorns, and dragons are all available for your perusal, and are all depicted as you've never seen them before.

Why you shouldn't read this book: The final section present sixty-nine kinky, nerdy limericks, which are by and large pretty filthy. If this does not sound hilarious to you, you may want to move on.

Read my complete review on In the Weird.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Danny the Champion of the World

Written by: Roald Dahl

First line: When I was four months old, my mother died suddenly and my father was left to look after me all by himself.

Why you should read this book: In some ways, it's Dahl's deepest, most complex and nuanced book for young readers, and while it is basically devoid of the fantastic magic and nonsense seen as the hallmark of his children's stories, it holds a powerful naturalistic magic, expressed in a boy's love for his father and his father's love of the boy and the natural world. At the age of nine, Danny learns that his father's one manic passion in life is poaching pheasants from the woods of their horrible neighbor, a villain with no redeeming qualities who is rude to children, kicks dogs, sucks up to rich people who also hate him, and otherwise deserves to be robbed; and Danny, who adores his father, is eager to help him embarrass this reprobate. It's a quiet story that builds up a powerful head of steam as it goes, roaring toward a satisfying conclusion that mingles wonder and loss with the perfect bond of familial love.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're a one percenter who voraciously devours the scribblings of Ayn Rand and feels that money justifies any rotten behavior.

The Baby Sister

Written by: Tomie dePaolo

First line: Tommy had a mother, a father, two grandmothers, one grandfather, lots of aunts and uncles, an older brother, Buddy, a dog named Tootsie...and lots and lots of cousins.

Why you should read this book: When Tommy learns his mom is pregnant, his artistic soul yearns for a baby sister with a red ribbon in her hair. The family prepares for the new addition to their family over a space of many months as excitement and suspense mount in the boy's mind. This book present an accurate and caring portrait of a young child's long experience of waiting out a pregnancy in the days before sonograms or chicken pox vaccines.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You don't approve of children knowing where they came from.

Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me

Written by: Eric Carle

First line: Before Monica went to bed she looked out of her window and saw the moon.

Why you should read this book: A doting dad gets the moon for a little daughter, who wants it for a plaything. Kids like the extra-huge, folded pages showing dad arriving on the moon and then climbing down the ladder. As per usual, Carle's textured collage illustrations bring the story to life.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You know that the earth is a quarter of a million miles away from the moon, and that the weight of the moon on earth would crush a small child.

The Water Hole

Written by: Graeme Base

First line: Down to the secret water hole the animals all come.

Why you should read this book: Children adore this beautiful animal themed counting book, which features cutout pages, gorgeously painted animals of all shapes, sizes, and continental origin, and a naturalist story about seasonal rains. Kids will want to count along as the the water hole shrinks and the number of animals in need increases. Includes short informational blurbs about the featured animals at the end.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're really thirsty.

Night Monkeys

Written by: Dana Simson

First line: Night Monkeys are full of mischief.

Why you should read this book: Mischievous monkeys in charge of the sunset taunt the Dreamcat who juggles phases of the moon. When monkeys steal a crescent moon, Dreamcat steals it back, replacing it with crescent-shaped bananas. Sort of a psychedelic new age origin myth.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're looking for a book that explains how earth's shadow falls across our major satellite to produce the illusion of changing shape.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Trickster Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection

Edited by: Matt Dembicki

First line: When Mother Earth was extremely young, things were not as they are now.

Why you should read this book: I adored this well-thought-out collection, which pairs Native American storytellers with the graphic artists they felt best represented their stories. These tales run the gamut from humorous to serious (sometimes both at the same time), and, as most trickster tales do, explain acceptable modes of behavior or origin stories (or both) with characters who are always trying to get something for nothing or do something that no one has ever wanted to do before. While trickster tales can also run toward adult subject matter, this collection is appropriate for children with nothing more shocking than a few humorous illustrations of animals' backsides, although I get the sense that some sexual content was edited out of the story, "When Coyote Decided to Get Married."

Why you shouldn't read this book: You hate trickster tales, or you hate graphic storytelling. Otherwise, anyone who doesn't find something to enjoy in this collection is probably a massive crank.

Monday, September 29, 2014


Written by: Lois Lowry

First line: The young girl cringed when they buckled the eyeless leather mask around the upper half of her face and blinded her.

Why you should read this book: With careful, deliberate pacing, Lowry draws her quartet to a satisfying conclusion with the story of Claire, a young woman selected as a birthmother in her community but found, after producing a single son, unfit for the job. Unlike the others in her community, Claire has never taken the medication that flattens emotion and, consumed with love for the child that was taken for her, gives up everything she has ever known, all precious possibility offered to her, and the bulk of her life in pursuit of the boy. Readers will happily re-immerse themselves in broken, but mendable, future of this final story, which ties together the stories in the previous three books.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're still grieving for Matty.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Written by: Michael Chabon

First line: In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier's greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.

Why you should read this book: In a vast epic that encompasses World War II, the birth, growth, and subsequent emasculation of the comics industry, four continents, surrealism, love, death, and art, the author breathes life into the characters of a partnership of cousins each running headlong away from his own demons. Joe Kavalier is the haunted Czech fellow whose narrow escape from Prague and talent for drawing are the stuff of legends; Sam Clay is the ambitious American whose copious ideas flow from his mind to page like water from a faucet. This book is as meticulously researched as it is imagined and written, and, like the comic books produced by the partnership of Kavalier and Clay, it presents a vision of life larger and more colorful than the mundane existence that we read to escape.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Sometimes, reading a book like this makes me angry because I know I will never write anything so good.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Ingoldsby Legends

Written by: Richard Harris Barham

First line: One the lone bleak moor, At the midnight hour, Beneath the Gallows Tree, Hand in hand The Murderers stand By one, by two, by three!

Why you should read this book: You really don't realize how old some legends are until you read them in an almost-200-year-old book of laborious poetry. People in the nineteenth century were probably really creeped out by these rhyming stories of witches, ghosts, demons, and various other dead and creepy things, although modern readers will most likely find them quaint at best. An interesting slice of the history of popular culture.

Why you shouldn't read this book: The writing is frankly tedious. Plus, unless you have a fair grasp of nineteenth century vernacular and some idea about English history, a lot of it will just be perplexing.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Bones of Faerie

Written by: Janni Lee Simner

First line: I had a sister once.

Why you should read this book: I decided to read it after listening to the author speak on a panel about world-building, but in the case of this book, it's almost as if Simner instead took the world as we know it, went through a process of world-deconstructing, and then filled in the rubble with malevolent magic. Magic, Liza has been told over and over by her father, is dangerous and must be stamped out, so when she realizes that she herself has been infected with its curse, she leaves town before her father can eliminate the problem the way he did with her baby sister. Accompanied by Matthew, who can turn into a wolf at will, her travels lead her to new ways of seeing magic, new friends, new knowledge abou the war between humans and fairies, and the real fate of those loves ones lost to powers she only begins to understand.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're pretty careful to speak no ill of the fair folk, just in case.

The Magician's Land

Written by: Lev Grossman

First line: The letter had said to meet in a bookstore.

Why you should read this book: In this smash-bang conclusion to the trilogy, disenfranchised and disaffected magician Quentin Coldwater tries a few followup careers to being the rightful king of a magic land, including professor of magic and thief of magical items, before settling on his great work of creating a new land. Meanwhile, back in Fillory, his friends make a futile attempt to stem the impending apocalypse, and somewhere or other, Alice is still manifesting as a vengeful spirit with a very real power to hurt people. Packed with intelligence, excitement, and invention, this is a page-turner of a novel keeps the reader suspended in a magical realm from page one, and a little reluctant to leave when the story ends.

Why you shouldn't read this book: It claims to be the last book in a trilogy, but the last chapter feels pretty much like the set up for a new trilogy.