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SJ Reads: Writing Down the Bones

Published November 13, 2017 by admin

This was actually one of the first writing books that was recommended to me, and one that was given to me, as well. I’ve read it a few times, though it’s been a while. Probably time to read it again.

writing down the bones

This probably works for me because it’s lined up inadvertantly with some of my own explorations into Zen, and I like the admission that both are a constant practice. The author does a wonderful job of painting specific examples to illustrate her points, often from her own life and experience. There are some great writing prompts in here, as well. Over all, she gives the reader (and writer) a lot to think about. I find myself still thinking on bits and pieces of this book when I haven’t read it, and it’s forced me to be more conscious of my own journey and daily experience.

It’s a decidedly postive, encouraging book, as well, so even if some of the information is things that you could find in a lot of writing books, it feels incredibly supportive coming from these pages. You don’t feel like it’s some high and mighty mega-bestseller writing this to fulfill a quota or to humble brag or whatever. Natalie Goldberg clearly cares about the craft and wants to share her enthusiasm for it. That alone is enough to put this book on my shelf over some others. This was the book that got me writing daily once upon a time, that got me willing to just put words down without knowing what they were necessarily for. It’s done me a lot of good over and over again, so I definitely think it’s one worth exploring.

Definitely check it out!

 

 

 

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SJ Reads: Hester

Published October 30, 2017 by admin

Time to round out the month with another nostalgic Halloween read! This week’s pick will be one of my favorites from when I was a kidlet, and likely one that only people who date back to bronze age (like me) will remember. I give you: Hester.

 

Hester

 

Hester is an alligator who’s getting ready for her Halloween party, but has time to spare. She goes out trick-or-treating, but ends up at a house that is owned by a very nice older lady and her friends. Since this book isn’t easy to find and has been out forever, spoilers ahead:

Hester totally trick or treats at a haunted house, but it’s full of nice monsters who are happy to have a visitor (and if memory serves, they let her in because she’s dressed as a witch, herself). There’s also a vignette where she helps the older lady (a witch) with some broom issues.

This is a super-cute book with some really vibrant and vivid illustrations. I remember checking out this particular title all year round as a kid, because I had a thing for exploring haunted houses (and this book is probably responsible for me thinking that any inhabitants of such houses would be a friendly delight, setting up my childhood mind to get wrecked by adverts for horror movies later on). The illustrations really give you room to explore – there’s some good detail which led to a great deal of imagining on my part as a kid.

I like this story because it’s somewhat gentle, with Hester soothing and helping out the haunted house inhabitants. They’re never really referred to as anything other than a nice old lady/nice people, so the book relies fully on the illustrations to convey the “joke.” Still, if you also look at it from the standpoint that they could very well be nice people except for the prejudices that are put on them (thanks horror genre), it’s interesting from that angle, as well.

Over all, a cute, fun, Halloween read that will give kids a lot to explore and give adults a chuckle. Unfortunately, it’s out of print, and while it’s a little easier to find than last week’s title, you’re going to end up paying for it.  I would definitely recommend checking out your local library system for it, because it is definitely worth a flip through.

 

 

SJ Reads Bonus: Tomie by Junji Ito

Published October 26, 2017 by admin

For whatever reason, I haven’t really been getting into too much that falls into the realm of horror this year, until very recently. A friend and I got talking about manga and I mentioned that I admittedly fall more into the shojo-type reader (for better or worse), and because he knew I really like horror and wanted to diversify, he recommended the work of Junji Ito. At the moment, Tomie was the first book by Ito I was able to get my hands on, so I brought it home with little expectations, figuring it might kill an evening during a stressful week.

Holy. Balls.

This book…this book…

Tomie

This book had a slightly slow start for me, but once it got going, it really sucked me in. We begin at Tomie’s funeral, where we learn she’s been hacked to pieces by a psychopath, leaving behind her grieving friend and boyfriend. And the teacher she had an affair with. And other classmates who weren’t too fond of her. And by the way, it was her class that killed her after an accident. And then she comes back to class the day after her funeral like nothing has happened.

And that’s just the first story.

The really interesting thing about Tomie, is not just that she’s beautiful, but that she isn’t what I’d call a typical horror monster. I think she’s referred to as a succubus, but I don’t think that’s a really accurate term for whatever this thing is – if there is an actual term for it. There’s also a really clever, repeated use of her name throughout, so you don’t have to name her as a creature or thing – she’s Tomie. She’s not necessarily out to suck the life from someone or anything else…if anything, she craves other people’s attention. And the more they give to her, the more she wants, until she drives them so mad that they commit murder..which usually ends up being her.

You would not think you could fill a book with stories about this, but Ito does it. And they’re unsettling, uncomfortable, and diverse. You have two hikers who find her frozen while they’re looking for the one hiker’s missing brother. You have the two girls who find the strands of Tomie’s hair that one girl’s father has kept and end up infecting their whole class with bits of Tomie. You have medical experiments, a young boy torn between Tomie and his mother, a girl who is manipulated various times by her, a strange salesman selling bits of Tomie to create a mass amount of her to infect the world, a warped plan of vengeance….it just goes on and on.

Really, that’s where it’s effective as a volume. It wears you out. It just keeps going, and you can’t stop reading. You want someone to come out on top against her and just when you think it happens…the other shoe drops.

The art is magnificent for horror manga – Ito really pulls out all the stops. I will say, having become used to shojo style art, it was a little bit of a switch for me, but very quickly the art becomes more detailed and expressive once you’re let loose on the roller coaster. This stuff is over-the-top, dramatic, gory, and monstrous. The different forms Tomie takes, the way she regrows, or reforms herself, plus the variety of her deaths as people desperately fight back…it’s a lot to take in. The sheer amount of different ways Tomie regenerates and clones herself, the different expressions of people as they lose their minds, the different ways they try to rid themselves of Tomie through terror and love…it’s intense.

And really, for me, that’s where the horror came in. Story-wise, all the ways that love is shown to grow manic, obsessive, and toxic is deeply unsettling. The people that you want to cheer for turn horrible, or you just know in the pit of your stomach that they’re going to be victims and be touched forever once Tomie shows up, because once she does there’s no escaping her. There’s no underdog awkward girl coming out on top, no one getting the last laugh. As horrifying as the illustrations are, they were almost cathartic after the tension of watching Tomie manipulate people. She’s intensely cruel and apathetic in turn, her manipulations are really uncomfortable. You’re put in the horrible position as reader as not wanting to cheer for her death, but not quite blaming the other characters when they snap, either.

I think, in horror, it’s common to try to game the story, to have in the back of your mind what you would do, how you would ‘win.’ I just don’t think there’d be any way to win with this creature and the intense, obsessive emotions she provokes just by being around people. And that is absolutely terrifying, especially considering her desire to mutiply and go out into the world – the thought that these stories may not even cover all the multiple Tomies that were made in one of the stories just makes the whole concept even better (and thinking long-term on it so much worse).

What also bothered me with this is that, essentially, the monster is a young woman whose purpose is to get killed repeatedly, so does that propel misogyny and the whole succubus/evil woman stereotype in horror? Usually I’d give an immediate yes, but with this,  I’m honestly not sure. I feel like I should have something to say on that, and yet the story really says as much or more about how other people take to Tomie, about their own inherrent monstrous qualities that are lurking below the surface, as much as whatever she’s supposed to be. Really, no one is innocent in this book, no matter how much they claim to be. Tomie may affect people, but you also get the sense that that desperation is already there, and is drawn out rather than implanted. In some ways, she does have agency – it’s just incredibly twisted.

Still, it does worry me that so much of the theme of this is violence against a woman, even if she obviously is not human and is very much drawing out the reactions of others in a calculated way (you could argue that inciting her own death makes Tomie potentially grow and multiply faster, and as long as she’s not being ignored, she’s somewhat satisfied..if she’s ever satisfied). My own reactions to the book have given me a lot to think about, and I’d be curious to know if there’s supposed to be any further symbolism or anything there, or what the thought process was. This is a book that definitely makes you consider who you are and how you’re reacting to the material, so while I found myself entranced by the story, I was also highly unnerved that I was so taken by it, too. And you get the feeling that that’s the way the character would want it, which also mildly freaks me out.

This book gets under your skin quickly and stays there – it’s definitely haunted me long after reading. A fast read, it also probably isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s not one of the most unsettling horror books I’ve read, but I think the visuals help propel it to the unnerving category much quicker than a straight novel. I definitely recommend this one, but be warned – Tomie comes back, and she likes to stick with you.

SJ Reads: Hob Goblin and the Skeleton

Published October 23, 2017 by admin

Apologies for last week – apparently it’s that time of year that my sinuses decide to rule over every other part of my life. So, that was fun.

On to the books!

This week’s nostalgic Halloween title is one that I’m pretty sure my mother randomly grabbed at the library when I was a kid. It was one that I was deeply attached to growing up, but then couldn’t remember the title for the life of me – it took a lot of enquiries, mass googling, and finally people with better recall than me to find this thing again. I reread it for the first time in decades last year and fell in love all over again. Today we look at Hob Goblin and the Skeleton by Alice Schertle

Hob Goblin lives with his friend Bones Jones the skeleton – who insists that he was the King of England and therefore shouldn’t have to help clean or do chores or any of that nonsense (ed. – I feel ya, Jonesy. Unfortunately the ‘my skeleton is nobility’ excuse has never worked for me, either). After a fight, Bones Jones leaves and Hob Goblin decides to kidnap a human slave to do his work for him.

Okay, obviously there might be some people who would rather that aspect not be in a children’s book, and admittedly I kind of blinked because I didn’t remember that bit at all as a kid. However, I mean, it seems in character for a goblin, so there’s that.

Thus begins the adventure of Hob trying to find someone to kidnap…except it’s Halloween and everyone mistakes him for a trick or treater, right down to his big sack he intended to stuff his victim in. Things come to a head when Hob is mistakenly entered into a costume contest, and he eventually meets back up with Bones, and they share his Halloween candy, though they’re not quite sure what it is (and give it all sorts of slightly gross, fun names).

That last scene is what I really remembered, but suffice it to say, the whole book really held up well to my memory. The story moves along nicely, and there’s a lot of detail, from Bones using furniture polish to polish himself to the branch Hob uses to fly with his frog to the human world.

The art is also exquisite – down to the borders on each page. There’s so much movement and expression in the illustrations, I could just sit and stare at them for a good long time – and have memories of doing just that as a kid.

While it’s a little harsher than some kids’ Halloween fair, really it’s a perfect blend of spooky and funny with a decent lesson. As an adult I enjoyed it on story alone, and the illustrations just really took me to a place where I wondered (once again) what it would be like to live in that world.

The downside is this is not an easy book to find anymore. Seriously – the lack of cover is only because I’m not even finding a legit image of it.  There’s one listing on Amazon, but given the cover shown doesn’t match the book, I’m a little skeptical of the listing. I want to say this title is circa late 70s early 80s, and it’s definitely one keeping an eye out for (if one thing my search has found, it’s that so many fondly remembered- and good- titles from my childhood are now out of print). My local library does have it, however, so definitely check yours.

SJ Reads: Harriet’s Halloween Candy

Published October 9, 2017 by admin

Alright, time to cutesie this thing back up.

You can’t have Halloween without candy, and if we’re being honest, then that’s just buckets and buckets of candy. So much candy. As a kid, I’d dream of getting enough Hallowen candy to swim in it like Scrooge McDuck in his money. I had some good hauls back in the day, and I’m ancient enough to remember when more than the ocassional person gave out full size candy bars and really special neighbors who we knew wouldn’t murder us would give us cookies and candy apples and stuff like that. My mom always had juice bottles for little kids, and through the years we made it a point to have non-food options decades before teal pumpkins were a thing.

And every year, I had to check out and read this book.

harriet

 

I don’t know if I identified with the being the older sibling aspect (which I’m not sure, because I didn’t start out life as the elder sibling – that didn’t happen til somewhat late in the game, considering). I don’t know if the detailed art just really appealed to me (I definitely loved looking at all the little details as a kid and identifying the types of candy).  Maybe it was because, for a kid’s book, Harriet struck me as a character who actually acted like the way I felt half the time.

The story is that Harriet goes trick or treating, but her baby brother is too young, so she has to share her candy. And of course she’s not going to because she worked hard for that, yo! After hiding it different places and getting worried, she decides that the only way to make sure she gets all her candy is to eat it all Right. Now.

You know where this is going.

The moment where she starts to feel sick and pivots towards sharing more is priceless – kids can see it coming from a mile away and giggle about it. The art is fun and friendly and accessible. I loved all of Nancy Carlson’s books growing up, but Harriet was my favorite character.

I got to hear her talk about her books as a teen (and she was kind and lovely.  However, by the time she got to our library for a signing she was freakin’ out of this book and I am STILL upset about that. I mean sure, I love Harriet and the Roller Coaster as much as anybody, but THIS WAS MY FAVORITE HARRIET BOOK AND A HALLOWEEN NECESSITY AND INNER CHILD SJ IS STILL SAD SHE DOESN’T HAVE A SIGNED COPY.

So obviously I learned the ‘sharing/letting other people have things you like is good’ lesson really well.

I actually checked this out last year, and like a lot of books from my childhood, I’m surprised by how short it is. I don’t know why I thought it was longer, but it seemed like this whole big thing when I read it as a kidlet. I tend to think part of it were the illustrations – I was much more prone to sprawling on the floor and immersing myself in picture books as a kid than I am now that I am…uh, not. And I think the funny moments just tickled me so much I probably just kept reading them.

So if you want a cute trick or treat down memory lane or want to see if your children learn to share better than I apparently did, definitely check out this book. 

 

SJ Reads: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Published September 25, 2017 by admin

I was going to wait until October, but since the news broke last week that it’s getting a TV option and I LOVE this series, I decided what the hey.

sabrina

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is another offering from Archie Horror, who brought us the magnificent Afterlife with Archie. A few things to keep in mind:

This is based off the 60’s comic book Sabrina, so it takes place in 1966. It has absolutely nothing to do with the 90s television series – the character went through a lot of incarnations before this point. Honestly, for me it makes it a little easier to take, because there’s less of an association with the outright familiar.

This series has much more of an existential dread vibe than Afterlife. There’s not really any humor, and between the time period and the art, there’s a nice tension throughout the story. In the intro to vol 1 the comparison is that if Afterlife is Evil Dead, Chilling Adventures is Rosemary’s Baby or Exorcist.

If you are offended/bothered by anything of an occult nature, you will not like this series. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. You can dislike that they did this, dislike that it was with this character, but there are a lot of Archie stories, so luckily you don’t have to wander into this if you don’t want to. There is no denying that the witches are malevolent in this series. The occult/satanism vibe is extremely overt, so it’s not something you can really read around if it bothers you.

This story has nothing to do with Afterlife – Sabrina, Betty, and Veronica are characters in both, but the stories don’t cross over at all, so just pretend they’re not even in the same world.

There are some similarities to the show, mostly that Sabrina is half witch/half mortal. Also, like in the show, witches aren’t really supposed to fall in love with mortals. That’s about where things end.

The day that Sabrina is supposed to be claimed by the coven as an infant, her mother rebels, which leads her being lobotomized by spell and put in a mental institution. For other reasons, her father is sent to Hell, so she’s raised by her aunts in another town. As she hits her sixteenth birthday she has to make a decision as to which way she’s going to live her life. Meanwhile, her father’s old ex, Madam Satan, has been summoned from Hell and is after revenge, and Sabrina.

So, yeah, little different.

There are a lot of interesting things going on here. The time period lends itself not only to the horror vibe, but to the subtexts of racism and gender roles, as well. You always get a sense that Sabrina is fighting to be who she is around different groups of people, which makes for an interesting read. It’s also picked up with the Betty and Veronica practicing witchcraft in secret storyline, and some other places, as well. A lot of the characters we’ve come to expect as being benign become super-interesting in this version. Hilda and Zelda, as well as Sabrina’s father, project a definite malevolence, though her aunts sort of swing back and forth. They want the best for their niece, but they also definitely want her to commit to the coven.

And by commit I mean sign her name in Satan’s book. Let’s just put that out there now so I don’t get yelled at when someone tries to read this thing. I told you, this ain’t yer 90s Sabrina. There’s also some very sixties stuff with school shenanigans and trying out for a play, and other things that are foiled when Madam Satan shows up in disguise and takes Sabrina under her wing.

Sabrina, herself, is facinating. She’s the protagonist, but she also isn’t the goody goody we’re used to seeing. She’s somewhat victim to manipulations, but she also is ready to stand firm in what she wants and believes. She’s hardly innocent and uses her powers however she wants. I think there’s even a moment where she says something like ‘I’m a teenage witch, this is what I’m supposed to do!’

Honestly, after so many seasons of seeing her as a kind-hearted goofball (and I love Melissa Joan Hart’s portrayal of her), it’s kind of awesome to see her like this. She’s still kind of at the mercy of some things, but more of her decisions (even if she’s being misguided) come more from her.

You’ll still see familiar faces – there are some from the comics that we don’t see a lot of in the show. For you 90s fans, Harvey makes an appearance (heh), and Salem is there, though in a much less comedic capacity. Ambrose, her British cousin, also shows up and ends up joining Salem as more of a sympathetic sidekick.

It’s very important to note that this isn’t Sabrina as Buffy, Sabrina as Practical Magic, Sabrina fighting evil. And honestly, I don’t want those. This is what I want. This is horror. This is dark. This is something distinctly of and for this character. This reads like a showrunner snapped after being criticized over the 90s show one too many times and decided: FINE, SEE HOW YOU LIKE THIS. (note: this is my headcanon and not the actual origin of this series. The writer and artist are amazing in their own bodies of work and deserve a ton of praise for this). This is something that absolutely should not work because it is definitely against type and uncomfortable.

And it is magnificent.

Honestly, I was shocked when I read it. I did not expect it to be good, let alone this good. Does it unnerve me? Sure. Does it make me uncomfortable? Yep. But that’s what good horror does. Seriously, if you can step back from your expectations and how you feel about the television show, if you can embrace this for what it is, it’s truly amazing how strong of a title this has turned out to be. My only gripe is that it’s super slow to release (something that I hope changes now that it’s under the public eye).

The art is also some of the most beautiful stuff I’ve seen in a horror comic in a while. It has a distinct retro/vintage feel (some of it has a straight up EC or Creepy/Eerie vibe), and with the majority of muted colors, you just feel everything knot up inside you while reading. Characters you want to like and agree with become horrifying then revert back, and the familiar never feels altogether safe. It’s easy to fall into this series based on the art alone.

As for my thoughts on the television show…I’m not sure. I think it could be amazing. I really want it to be all that’s in my head. However, I also expect that because it’s going to CW that there will be changes (there’s at least one aspect that I kind of wonder if they’re going to have to change), or be dialed down, or whatever. I hope I’m wrong, because I think there is a market for this as is, if it can overcome people’s nostalgia over the 90s show.

For what it’s worth, I loved the 90s show. I thought it went on too long and became somewhat stale and a caricature of itself, but I loved the first few seasons. It’s cute, it teaches lessons, it’s feel-good. Salem is one of my favorite characters. However, it’s been done. I don’t need the further adventures of, I don’t need soap opera Sabrina or teen angst Sabrina or whatever.

Something based straight from Chilling Adventures would give them a lot of room to build (it’s only 2 collected volumes so far, I think), plus it provides a lot of subtle social commentary. I don’t know that marketing it is going to be the easiest thing between instant knee jerking and people wanting something close to what they remember, but with Riverdale’s success, hopefully I’m wrong.

If you’re brave enough to check out the comic, you can find the first volume here. It’s absolutely not for everyone, but if you like horror and different takes on the familiar, definitely give this a try.

 

SJ Reads: 20th Century Boys

Published September 18, 2017 by admin

 

 

20thcentury

 

I want to continue the theme this month of stuff I like, because it’s still my bday month, and I said so.

Take the kid-gang aspects of It or Stand by Me and plunk them in Japan. Add some flashbacks and time jumps and a cult. Throw in germ warfare, an attempt at killer robots, some maybe-ressurections, and possible aliens (though not really).

My friends (heh), if you haven’t read 20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa, oh my gawd you are missing out.

This is probably tied for my favorite manga, definitely my favorite non-shojo manga. While so many in the form tangent and use subplots that feel like they’re buying time, this story makes everything work for it.

Disclaimer: I still have the last 2 end-cap volumes (titled 21st Century Boys), but because I don’t care about spoilers, I know the full ending, and I’m satisfied with it. I don’t know that any ending could match the immense build-up, but in this case I’m pretty at peace.

Kenji and his friends are pre-teens in 1969 Japan, and they spend a summer hiding out in their secret fort, avoiding bullies, dreaming about going to the World Expo, and making up stories about how they’d save the world from ultimate evil.

Jump to when the characters are in their 30s-40s, and they all have grown up, have typical jobs, and are somewhat dissatisfied with their lives. Kenji is running his father’s store with his mom and taking care of his niece, Kanna, after his sister dumps her off one night.

Then one of the old gang commits suicide. But does he?

And suddenly there is this person called Friend making waves and using the symbol that Kenji’s crew adopted as kids…and using their stories to slowly take over the world.

The first major arc deals with trying to figure out who is Friend, leading to a showdown on New Year’s Eve, 1999.

Time jump again, and this time Kanna is the lead, trying to continue on her uncle’s work while dealing with the appearance of strange abilities.

It’s impossible to convey in a post like this how cool this series is. For one, this is one of the rare ensemble pieces that I’ve read that really treats nearly all of the cast as equals. They all get screentime in some form. There are some bold, bold choices (Kenji, himself, disappears for a majority of the title, so a lot of what you’re learning about him is through flashbacks and people’s opinions and memories). The characters are just so good. Kanna embodies the teen girl in the apocalypse without making you want to hate her. The character of Otcho is so unbelievably badass I really want a spinoff with him. Even the typical “weaker” members like Yoshitsune get to do some awesome things. Characters that you think are just written off in the beginning show up again, you gain new insight through new additions…this is just SO well thought out I can’t stand it. Plus, the constant time-jumping back and forth between eras and past and present mean that a lot is constantly revealed and explained, so you’re never quite banking on one big reveal moment. It’s a pretty savvy move, and works well, especially in the medium.

While the way the world is conquered is unlikely to happen (and a lot is made of that, because hi, this is a group of people using the plans of 10-year-olds), it’s really fascinating to watch the motivation behind people in the Friends, and the reactions of typical citizens. I feel like the books get this so very, incredibly right in a lot of ways. And even if it’s not possible, it seems believable in this world.

For me, this does what titles like Deathnote don’t do: it keeps my attention and makes me really care about the people involved, as well as being a cool idea. You get your themes and rants and posturing, but it’s not so incredibly heavy-handed.

The only real down point to this series is that at times the pacing feels slow. I nearly put it down early on, but I’m here to tell you KEEP GOING. What really makes this sing is that all the little things that you think are slowing things down fit into important plot points later on. So it’s not necessarily a pacing problem as it is that there’s just so much IN this series.

This is also a title that really conveys the feeling of Japan at different points in time for me. I love the use of western music influencing Kenji throughout the whole thing. There’s one specific sequence where the boys are daydreaming about how they’ll be greeted at the UN for saving the world, and all you can see is their legs…if you’re familiar with the T-Rex song the series takes its title from, you can just hear it thrumming in rhythm to the panels. And then when this sequence is played out for real, the carpet is yanked out from under you in the best way. I still don’t know if it was a really sly, purposeful move or if it’s serendipity, but the first few lines of the song tell you a lot. And that’s all I’ll say.

The greatest thing for me is, though, that this is really a title about saving the world on your own terms. This isn’t more zombie fighting or a military-based fight series. These people (outside of Otcho) aren’t really action heroes, and if they are that doesn’t necessarily mean they get anywhere with those skills past a certain point. Kenji, himself, is banking on the power of his guitar and eventually finding an audience to save the world. And somehow, it all comes together.

I never would have believed this could work in a million years. I was totally proven wrong. Read this one. Trust me. It’s amazing.