The B’s dead, Jim.

Dead Letters: An Anthology of the Undelivered, the Missing, the Returned edited by Conrad Williams. Titan Books, 2016. 9781783294503.

For this seventeen story horror anthology, editor Conrad Williams added a twist. Not only were his contributors asked to work on the theme of “Dead Letters,” but Williams mailed each one a sample misdelivered missive. The result is a thick collection of genre-spannning spine-tinglers from Steven Hall, Michael Marshall Smith, Joanne Harris, Allison Moore, Christopher Fowler, Pat Cadigan, Ramsey Campbell, Claire Dean, Andrew Lane, Muriel Gray, Nina Allan, Adam LG Neville, Lisa Tuttle, Nicholas Royle, Angela Slatter, collaborators Maria Dahvana Headley and China Mieville, and Kirsten Kaschock.

Each story is admirable. The most memorable included Nicholas Royle’s steadily more and more unsettling “L0ND0N” and Pat Cadigan’s uncomfortably autobiographical “Cancer Dancer.” Muriel Gray’s “Gone Away” features an aristocratic and unconscionably wealthy English family’s failure to come to terms with the relatives that turn into zombies! A personal favorite was Andrew Lane’s “Buyer’s Remorse” in which an unwitting narrator runs across a Lovecraftian jumble sale, a Vicar in distress, and badly-addressed manuscript fragments.

The story settings are uniformly British, but don’t let references to things like “jumble sales” and “the Tube” dissuade you from reading this enjoyable collection of creepy tales.

Scary Wallpaper Bark

What There Is Before There Is Anything There (A Scary Story) by Liniers. English translation by Elisa Amado. Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2014. 9781554983858. 24pp.

Argentinian cartoonist Liniers has several great books out from TOON (Written and Drawn by Henrietta is probably my favorite), and Enchanted Lion has been publishing his excellent comic strip in English since 2004 (the 4th volume of Macanudo was just published). You should read all of those. And this one, too, of course, which I was delighted to find at my local library.

It’s about that infinite black hole above a boy’s bed, after his parents turn off the light, and the things that come at night after his ceiling disappears. They’re weird little creatures, cartoonily monstrous, and then the terrifying branching darkness (the title character) appears, sending the boy fleeing to his parents’ bed. No moral, no explanation, no lesson.

I wish I’d had this book as a kid. It would have been proof that someone believed me, because I wasn’t lying about the monstrous hand that came out of the wall above the bed in my grandma’s house.

Gordon: Bark to the Future by Ashley Spires. Kids Can Press, 2018. 9781771384100. 72pp.

The 6th (or 7th?) book in the graphic novel series that began in Binky The Space Cat is as fun as the rest. F.U.R.S.T. (Felines of the Universe Ready for Space Travel) has become the more inclusive P.U.R.S.T (Pets of the Universe Ready for Space Travel), and a gadget-inventing dog named Gordon is a member. After aliens (bugs) hatched in the space station’s (house’s) walls, neutralized the cats, and made his humans flee, it’s up to Gordon to deal with the invasion. Without time for tests (he wasted it playing with a ball), Gordon uses his time machine to go back to try to prevent the invasion. But he went back too far — to when Binky was just a kitten and F.U.R.S.T. wanted nothing to do with a dog. Plus he may have just changed history for the worse.

Wallpaper by Thao Lam. Owl Kids, 2018. 9781771472838. 32pp.

This is one of those picture books that’s so beautiful, if you see it you have to pick it up. A big part of that is Lam’s cut paper artwork, which she assembles into colorful scenes full of expressive characters. Even the plain-seeming flowered wallpaper she creates is amazing.

A shy girl, alone in her house, hides when she’s noticed by three neighbor kids in a treehouse outside her window. Hiding behind her wall, she notices a small tear in her wallpaper. A single bird emerges, then a flock. When she peels it back, she finds herself in a forest, where a toothy three-eyed monster suddenly appears. But is it chasing her, or does it want to be friends? Doesn’t matter (at least at first), because it scares her, and sends her on an adventure across and into different walls that are full of textures and animals and loveliness.

Curious, Volume 3

Curious Constructions: A Peculiar Portfolio of Fifty Fascinating Structures by Michael Hearst, illustrated by Matt Johnstone. 9781452144849.

Hearst’s previous collections, Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth’s Strangest Animals and Extraordinary People: A Semi-Comprehensive Guide to Some of the World’s Most Fascinating Individuals, were two of my favorite booktalking titles in past years. Hearst has a great eye for lesser known animals and people and includes the most interesting and entertaining facts about each. Now he has a book on constructions: from the famous (Stonehenge) to the humble (various Paul Bunyan statues scattered across the US) to the odd (El Pulpo Mechanical, a massive robotic octopus originally built for Burning Man). He even includes one that’s not man-made: the cathedral termite mounds in Northern Australia. Each gets two pages: one big illustration and a description of what it is and why it’s cool, along with an occasional quiz or poem. It’s perfect to pick up and browse. Hearst has composed albums for his previous two books, I hope he’ll do one for this, as well.

Mo’ Money

Monet: Itinerant of Light by Salva Rubio (writer) and Richard Efa (art). English translation by Montana Kane. NBM, 2017. 9781681121390. 112pp.

I’m not an art expert and I don’t read many biographies — I’m a guy who races through museums, often giggling with my daughter, to find the few works that catch my attention and make me stare at them. I’ve been caught up by a few of Monet’s huge, bright paintings but know little of him or the Impressionist movement — it’s worth noting that Efa’s art and design pays homage to many of his works — but I was still surprised how much I enjoyed this beautiful graphic novel.

The book opens late in the painter’s life, in 1923, with Monet reluctantly getting much-needed cataract surgery, fearing for his vision, and then reflecting on his life. Art was the only thing that took young Monet out of his grief over his mother’s death, and his first mentor was Boudin, who helped him see nature and taught him to paint it outside. Soon Monet dropped out of school, against his father’s wishes, and moved to Paris. But the school he attended there didn’t help him realize his vision, and through many struggles (financial, emotional, internal) he had to find his way to success and acceptance in the art world. He wasn’t always the nicest guy to his family, but his single-mindedness really made me admire him.

As Rubio notes opposite the last page, this is not a history book — a lot of license was used to develop characters, and the works are not always presented in the order they were created. But it gave me a great sense of the artist and his time.

For librarians and art lovers: At the end are 16 pages of reproduced art works (not all by Monet) and the panels in the book they inspired. (If I were going to read this for the first time, I’d probably start with his section, but only because I’m unfamiliar with so many of the paintings that are referenced. But discovering it at the end of my read had me flipping back through the book and enjoying it again, which was fun, too.)

Contest of Champions

The Champions’ Game: A True Story by Saul Ramierez (as told to John Seidlitz) Canter Press, 2017. 9780997740233

One way to write a good chess book is to put the game in the background and use characters and situations instead. Saul Ramirez, a rookie middle school teacher in over his head as a chess team coach in the U.S.’s poorest ZIP code, is a great real-life character. Thanks to his past as a scholastic chess player, he is both a neophyte and an expert who puts himself and his team into tense situations: State Championships, National Championships, fund-raisers, chaperoned trips. Each chapter, from the first (“Go Big or Go Home”) to the last (“Visualize Your Win”) is titled and themed after the lessons about the game and life Ramirez tried to teach to his players.

Playing chess is more than just learning the moves. Ramirez’s troops felt overwhelmed at their first tournaments when they saw other teams had uniforms. (Ramirez scrambled to get the team t-shirts for subsequent events.) Ramirez made a beginning chess coach error when he didn’t protest his players being paired against each other. If they hadn’t been beating one another, the Henderson Middle School kids could have packed the winner’s podium. But there was one mistake Ramirez avoided: he fought for his only female player’s right to compete at State and National events, despite the extra expense of added adult supervision and hotel rooms on road trips. He also made getting good grades a requirement for team participation.

The Champions’ Game is an emotional roller coaster related by someone who was in the front seat on the wild ride.

Thanks to Robert for this guest review.

Dinosaur vs Robot

There’s nothing better than checking in on graphic novel series I loved, finding out I’m 6 books behind, and realizing they’re all excellent. This isn’t an experience I’ve ever had before, but I just checked out a stack of Atomic Robo books at the Seattle Public Library. Here are the two I read last night.

Atomic Robo Volume 7: The Flying She-Devils of the Pacific by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener. Red 5 Comics, 2013.  9780986898525. Contains issues #1 – #5 of the series.

A post-WWII pirate adventure set in the South Pacific! Starring a group of jet packing, sky ship flying badasses keeping the world safe! (Plus, of course, that Tesla-invented, atomic-powered adventuring robot we all love.) There are misguided villains, amazing rescues, and a few spectacular dogfights. It’s all totally fun.

And (really cool) all of the She-Devils are based on women working in comics who Clevinger and Wegener have met: Lee Black, Yuko Ota, Lauren Pettapiece, Lindsay Small-Butera, Elizabeth Robbins, Veronica Fish, Sara Richard, and Bridgit Scheide.

Atomic Robo Volume 8: The Savage Sword of Dr. Dinosaur by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener. Red 5 Comics, 2014. 9780986898563. Contains #1 – #5 of the series, plus the Atomic Robo Free Comic Book Day 2013 story.

This one starts on Tesladyne Island in 2013. Atomic Robo’s popularity is at an all time low, so when cryptids are sighted in Venezuela, he leads the mission, which is suspiciously close to the heart of a base for the secret Nazi space program. Back at home, there’s some trouble when a nuclear weapon is delivered to Tesladyne. And what Atomic Robo and his team find underground in Venzuela has something to do with that, too — but it’s more about a deranged dinosaur “genius” with Marty Feldman eyes, silicate life forms, and maybe the Hollow Earth theory. The dino has an insane plot to wipe mankind from existence, which is a great excuse for adventure (and a lot of jokes). Good stuff.

I’d tell you how it ends, but it seems like a bit of a spoiler. It’s kind of a cliffhanger that leads right into the next book (which I’m reading tonight).

Bald Outliers

Tsu & the Outliers by Eric Johnson. Uncivilized Books, 2018. 9781941250242. 112pp.

Tsu is a kid that never speaks, and he’s bullied by kids who call him a freak. And he’s got powers of some kind — he can either speak with or control a Sasquatch (who visually reminds me a bit of Swamp Thing). After an episode involving a crashed bus, two cryptid hunters (one is a monkey, the other is something stranger) are on his trail. It all gets weird and dangerous and action packed, and Tsu ends up the bait in a trap for his buddy.

The action sequences have a berserk energy that I really enjoyed, and I’m a fan of books like this that use only one color of ink on a page (though there are two on the cover). It’s weird and fun and a little bit groovy — everything I hope for in a small press graphic novel.

Bald Knobber: a graphic novella by Robert Sergel. Secret Acres, 2018. 9780999193518. 84pp.

Unless you’re a student of American history, you’re probably looking the cover and worrying about what sorts of sex sites you’ll pull up if you Google “bald knobber.” That’s what I thought, anyway, though the truth is weirder. The bald knobbers were a vigilante group in 1880s Mississippi who wore horned black hoods. And despite the weird headgear they were guys who mostly sided with the North during the Civil War, at least according to Wikipedia and a few other articles I read online.

If you want to know a little more about them, read this book. When Cole tells his classmates about a book he read over the summer, Bald Knobbers: Vigilantes of the Ozarks, he pulls on his own horned hood before reading his report. The report appears in title boxes as we see what happened to Cole over the summer, which starts him being shuttled between his separated parents, who are both seriously pissed off at each other. There’s also his mom’s live-in boyfriend Brad, who Cole doesn’t like, and an asshat of a neighborhood bully who talks crap about Cole’s mom while burning insects with a magnifying glass. You know: typical children of divorce stuff. (Or at least it’s all very close to what I remember from my childhood, except for the hood.) I won’t ruin Cole’s vigilante justice against Brad, but it’s hilarious. Things between Cole’s parents keep getting worse as the parallels between Cole’s story and the history of the Bald Knobbers becomes clear. The end of both stories kind of beautifully peters out, though things aren’t quite finished between Cole and the bully.

The book is full of black ink, like the fabulous Teenagers from Mars. It’s deadpan and sad and realistic, and Cole’s dad is something of an alcoholic, so I really appreciated the laughs it provides. Some teens will, I’m sure, love this book, but I unreservedly recommend it to adults whose parents were divorced when they were kids. In fact I think I’ll get my middle sister a copy for her birthday.