SJ Reads

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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. 

 

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SJ Reads Bonus: Afterlife with Archie

Published October 7, 2017 by admin

afterlife

 

Like I said, I can’t not talk about horror in October…

I touched on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina a little while ago, so I can’t exactly ignore Afterlife With Archie. I picked the thing up because it looked so weird, I couldn’t really not read it. Even so, I left it sit around for a while, figuring that I’d be putting myself through a gag title, and did I really have time for that.

And then I opened it up.

Askfdajlfaj;dajlfdajldfs is a safe approximation of my reaction.

Seriously, it’s one of the best horror titles I’ve read in a long time, and I still don’t understand how the really good horror titles are coming out of the Archie properties. Not only are these things holding their own with other, more recognizable titles, but in a lot of cases their overall sense of story and character development is better. 

The basic premise is that Reggie hits and kills Hot Dog with his car. Despondant, Jughead has Sabrina help bring his dog back to life. Thus starts the zombie outbreak. I mean, this could easily go so many ways of stupid…but it doesn’t. There are moments of humor, but it’s definitely got its horrific side. I love how there are little moments with all the characters grasping at what’s going on and how it’s affecting their relationships, whether it’s Archie’s feelings about his dad, or Veronica’s thoughts on Betty and on and on. I’ve only read through volume one, but the thought that these kids are hiding out as the whole town falls victim to the contagion…it’s intense. And it’s never really played like ‘oh ha ha, look at these cartoon characters be victimized, pretty gross, amirite?’ There’s care taken with the different story lines. Granted, it had been forever since I’ve really delved into the world of Riverdale (the eighties cartoon series is about the extent of my knowledge), but it does a really good job of conveying the basics very quickly. I didn’t really feel like I was missing anything, and I felt like I picked up on all the subtext and things I was supposed to know about to get the full range of the title.

The art isn’t as malevolent as Sabrina, but in some ways that lends itself to a really surreal feeling. You kind of forget that you’re reading about freakin’ Archie, or you forget that this is a storyline that really shouldn’t be happening in this universe, until you sit back and it all comes together and hits you.

It’s a suprisingly good blend, and I can’t wait to see where it all goes.

Get vol 1 here

SJ Reads: Space Case

Published October 2, 2017 by admin

 

space case

 

It’s that glorious, wonderful, macabre, spooky, creepy, magnificent time of the year! And of course I’ll be reading creepy stuff all the way through it. For this month’s SJ reads, though, I thought I’d do something a little different and heap a big ol’ spoonful of nostalgia on this month’s pics (Don’t worry, I’ll likely throw in a few posts of horror stuff here and there, too, because it’s me).

Growing up, I loved Halloween books. It was hard for my mom to keep them designated to one time of year (and to her credit, she was adept at using them for bribes other times of the year). In remembering some of my favorites, it’s not that hard to see how I grew up to become the person I am. So let’s look at my cute/creepy title of the week!

Anyone who remembers Reading Rainbow should remember Space Case. I mean, anyone who was growing up in the eighties and in school at the time should remember it. This was one of the titles that my mom gave in and bought for me in the school book order program, and I was beyond ecstatic when it came.

It’s a simple story: A thing from outer space visits a boy while trick or treating. The boy passes the thing off as a friend, they get a lot of candy, and the next day the thing comes to the boy’s rescue at school. Still, the pictures are still quirky and plain fun – I found this in the basement a couple months ago while cleaning and admittedly fell into it again. There’s something really approachable about the work of Edward and James Marshall. It’s not too cutesy, it’s not mean, there’s just enough suspense for a little kid, and it’s fun. I think there is actually a follow-up book, but I can’t begin to tell you what it is off the top of my head.

I think this appealed to me because I really wanted some sort of strange adventure to happen while I was trick or treating growing up in the worst way. The thought of an alien just coming by to say hey and tagging along with me was just the greatest thing ever at the time. As an adult, it’s an admittedly quick read, but titles like this also make me slow down and appreciate the art more, appreciate the beats of the story more. I’m kind of in awe of children’s writers, because it takes a lot to tell a full story with so little. The pictures really remind me of something I’d want to be able to draw as a kid – they look approachable and not super hard (which I’m sure is deceptive), and they have a fun humor to them that invites you to sit and stare at the little details.

This title also still feels really Halloweeny to me, even with a distinct sci-fi vibe. Plus, it’s kind of cool how it doesn’t just end on Halloween but carries over into the next day – what kid doesn’t know the feeling of being tired and forgetting something at school after a night of trick or treating?

Whether you remember this from your own past or have kids, this is a super-cute, non-intense read for the season!

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SJ Reads: Natsume’s Book of Friends

Published September 11, 2017 by admin

 

natsume

Today I want to hit another of my favorite, recent titles, this time in manga. While recovering from respiratory issues this winter and trying to deal with a case of sudden existential dread, I started reading a lot of manga again. I hadn’t really gone on a binge like that in years, and I was amazed at the different types of titles I was finding. The one closest to my heart at the moment, though, is Natsume’s Book of Friends. 

It’s nice to find a shojo title that isn’t romance-centric, and I really like the episodic feel of this one, too. Although there is some plot progression through the series, the author does a fantastic job of recapping the main issues of the series at the start of each volume, so you really could pick it up anywhere.

Natsume is an orphan who has been bounced from relative to relative and doesn’t have a lot of friends because people think he’s antisocial and weird. In reality, he can see and communicate with yokai (there’s a big debate as to what this term actually refers to, but think spirits and supernatural creatures/events). At the start of the series he’s moved in with relatives who are trying to connect with him, and is being hunted by yokai that have mistaken him for his deceased grandmother. It turns out that Reiko (his grandmother), trapped a lot of yokai by their names in a book. Natsume comes to the decision that he’s going to give these names back, so most of the series is him either attempting this or running from more predatory yokai. Pretty early in the series he runs into the yokai Marada, who he calls Nyanko-sensei because he tends to take the form of a lucky cat.

I really like how the foster parents in this series really want to include Natsume, and a good portion of the stories are him trying to relate to his family and his new friends at school, some of which, as it turns out, have also had interactions with the supernatural. The whole series has a nice, slightly autumnal/melancholy feel that really hits a nice nostalgia/coming of age vibe. Everything feels temporary as Natsume learns lessons the more he interacts with different people and spirits. He’s very much between two worlds, and there’s always the silent question lurking as to whether he’s going to have to choose one.

Nyanko-Sensei is also a brilliant character who provides a lot of quirky comic relief. Parts of these books are really just so funny (without feeling intrusive or out of nowhere), and it gave me a much-needed lift. He’s definitely my favorite character, and I love the differences in his art depending on which form he’s in. There’s always a lot of great banter between him and Natsume (he’s guarding Natsume until he can get the book for himself, in theory, though they grow to be friends as the series goes along). There’s also some interesting bits as new characters like several exorcists are introduced, and the sheer different personality types of various yokai are really nice. This is less like the booga booga style ghosts we’re used to, and more like they’re just separate entities, doing what they do and trying to figure out what their lives are now.

The artwork is gorgeous, and each volume is so easy to relax into. I’m at volume 19 so far, and it doesn’t look like it’s over yet, so that makes me extremely happy.

Get the first volume here

SJ Reads: Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things

Published September 4, 2017 by admin

 

courtney crumrin

So since September is my birthday month (I will take your adulations in the form of praise, reviews, and other related worship), this month’s SJ reads will cover stories that have really reached up through the nostrils and grabbed me by the soul.

Today, we look at the Courtney Crumrin series by Ted Naifeh.

It took a few years of reading book one, not finding it again, and tracking down the actual title to read the rest of the series to really figure out what this is. And wow. Just…wow. Although its aim is a YA audience, I fell in love.

The plot is Courtney and her yuppie moves in with her Uncle Aloysius, who lives in an upscale town. She’s the typical new kid being bullied up until the moment she tries to take a shortcut through the woods and her only friend gets eaten by a goblin.

Obviously, this thing was meant for me.

You see, Uncle A is actually a warlock, and through her own explorations, Courtney learns magic, herself.  There are a lot of fun tropes explored in new ways, and a lot of heartbreaking stories, as well, like Courtney trying to protect a simple forest creature caught between the woods and Faerie, a human torn between her own life and the one her heart yearns for, and the complex relationship between Courtney and her uncle. The whole town is secretly prosperous because of the witches and warlocks who run it, and there’s a lot of internal politics that are fascinating, too. The stories are grounded in amazing folklore, from changelings to Tommy Raw-head, to Goblin Town/Faerie, to a trip to eastern Europe where we run into werewolves and vampires. Everything slowly winds things up a notch and throws the relationship between Courtney and her uncle and their abilities to deal with emotions into question.

I love that a lot of different kinds of people are represented in this. I love that Courtney is somewhat unlikeable and you still pull for her. I love that a lot of your assumptions in the first book are suddenly turned in the last. I love that there are actual high stakes and permanent consequences. I love all the little asides that you catch if you’ve grown up reading folk and faerie tales. I just plain love it.

I also love the art and if I had money would totally have Ted Naifeh draw on all my walls, because now I want nothing more than to hang out with Butterworm and run around Goblin Town. I love most of his work, but he really, truly shines when he’s illustrating his own stories. It’s just such a whole other level it isn’t even funny.

Totally recommend this for middle school on up. If all you can find is the first volume, Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things, it actually reads pretty much like it’s own thing. The other volumes run the gamut between being episodic and arcing more together as you go along.

Find the first volume here!