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Trade Paperback Review: Young Avengers, Vol. 1

Young Avengers: Style>Substance

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Jamie McKelvie
Colorist: Matt Wilson
Letterer: Clayton Cowles

Young Avengers Style Substance cover

Legacy isn’t a dirty word…but it’s an irrelevant one. It’s not important what our parents did. It matters what WE do. Someone has to save the world. You’re someone. Do the math. The critically acclaimed team of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie reinvent the teen super hero comic for the 21st century, uniting Wiccan, Hulkling and Kate “Hawkeye” Bishop with Kid Loki, Marvel Boy and Ms. America. No pressure, right? As a figure from Loki’s past emerges, Wiccan makes a horrible mistake that comes back to bite everyone on their communal posteriors. Fight scenes! Fake IDs! And plentiful feels! (aka “meaningful emotional character beats” for people who aren’t on tumblr.) Young Avengers is as NOW! as the air in your lungs, and twice as vital. Hyperbole is the BEST! THING! EVER!

I’d heard good things about this series and after being smitten by The Wicked + The Divine, by the very same creative team, I made the time to check it out. Part of the Marvel Now! rebranding initiative, the title was meant to entice new readers. So it’s something of a relaunch using existing characters but introducing a new group and storyline. I was familiar with one or two of the characters and wondered if I’d get lost, but after only a few pages I was rocking right along.

Young Avengers is a fun book, which is not to say it’s light. The teen years can be dark, full of emotion and angst and struggle. The trick is translating that to the comics page and turning it into something interesting, something with stakes.

This is something Gillen’s done quite brilliantly. Introducing the team via relationship dynamics, creating the conflict out of love and longing, and casting the villain as an invading alien parent all contribute to the intimate yet universal character of the story. Teens it turns out, are the perfect people for us against the world superheroics.
Come With Me if You Want to Be Awesome

The characters, action, and setting evolve like a mixtape. Dense, complex verses with catchy hooks and languid bridges combining toward a mood that intensifies chapter to chapter. Longtime Marvel fans will recognize familiar plot points and tertiary characters and honestly the more you know, the more clever it will all seem. But there’s no barrier to entry here. All you need is open eyes.

Use them to appreciate Jamie McKelvie’s frankly brilliant design. Propulsive eight panel grids give way to inventive two page splashes that demonstrate both what the medium can accomplish on its best days and how to keep experimental structures solidly on task. Of course this is aided by Matt Wilson’s colors. They make the right parts of every panel pop and subtly set the mood.

If you’re a Gillen fan, or a Marvel fan, or a fan of being awesome, you’ll probably like this book.


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Audio Book Review – 1924: The Year That Made Hitler

1924: The Year That Made Hitler
by Peter Ross Range narrated by Paul Hodgson

1924 The Year that Made Hitler cover

The dark story of Adolf Hitler’s life in 1924 – the year that made a monster

Before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, there was 1924. This was the year of Hitler’s final transformation into the self-proclaimed savior and infallible leader who would interpret and distort Germany’s historical traditions to support his vision for the Third Reich.

Everything that would come – the rallies and riots, the single-minded deployment of a catastrophically evil idea – all of it crystallized in one defining year. Nineteen twenty-four was the year that Hitler spent locked away from society, in prison and surrounded by coconspirators of the failed Beer Hall Putsch. It was a year of deep reading and intensive writing, a year of courtroom speeches and a treason trial, a year of slowly walking gravel paths and spouting ideology while working feverishly on the book that became his manifesto: Mein Kampf.

Until now, no one has fully examined this single and pivotal period of Hitler’s life. In 1924, Peter Ross Range richly depicts the stories and scenes of a year vital to understanding the man and the brutality he wrought in a war that changed the world forever.

Real talk. I’m not sure I want this guy on our blog. I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with him at all. But understanding post-war Europe isn’t really feasible with a big hole in the middle. So here I am. Here we are.

Smack in the middle of the decade that saw American fortunes rise, Germany existed perpetually on the cusp of revolution. Left and right wing paramilitary extremists plotted and prepared for coup attempts. Late in 1923, the Nazi party made their move.

1924 offers a condensed biography of the party’s leader and his rise to prominence in the early years of the decade. Compared to the relatively long works I’ve been listening to, this nine hour audiobook felt almost like a snapshot. Names and dates seemed to jostle for space with motivations and contexts. Overlapping timelines tended to be more confusing than illuminating.

Nevertheless, the speed and density of the narrative managed to sweep me along. Range knows his subject and has chosen to focus on a period that’s routinely been glossed over. So even for World War II enthusiasts, this will cover some new ground.

While the book seems to rush toward the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s subsequent imprisonment, treason trial, and sentencing are explored in some detail. Whereas most treason trials, particularly those ending in conviction, would mark the end of a political career, this one had the opposite effect. Providing a platform for a relatively unknown figure, it catapulted him and his ideology to international notoriety.

A light sentence in posh accommodations actually provided the opportunity to write that ideology down. Apparently Mein Kampf was facilitated primarily by this enforced period of downtime for the political agitator. Its release coincided with his and eventually made him rich.

Digging into the early twentieth century has been full of surprises, for sure. And just as full of disappointing parallels with the present. In a vacuum, this would be one of the strangest stories of the period. In context it’s the record of a tragic mistake and the making of a monster.

Paul Hodgson is an able reader with a subtle range of voices and accents. The audio is well mixed and clear.

Recommended for Jack Gladney, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Prince.


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Trade Paperback Review – Star Wars: Shattered Empire

Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Star Wars: Shattered Empire
by Greg Rucka illustrated by Marco Checchetto & Phil Noto

Star Wars Shattered Empire cover

Collects Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Shattered Empire #1-4, Princess Leia #1, Star Wars (1977) #1.

For the first time in the new Star Wars canon, journey with us into the time after the end of Star Wars Episode VI Return of the Jedi! Writer Greg Rucka and artist Marco Checchetto take us past the destruction of the second Death Star — and into the chaos of a Shattered Empire. It’s the explosive lead-in to this winter’s blockbuster big-screen Star Wars revival, and everything you need to know is right here!

Shattered Empire opens in the final moments of the Battle of Endor, quickly orienting the reader with images of Luke dueling Vader and Han setting the charges that will disable the shield protecting the Death Star. Literally and visually bursting into the story in her A-Wing fighter comes Green Four, Shara Bey, future mother of the best pilot in the resistance. During the victory celebration on the forest moon, she seeks out her partner Kes Dameron, member of General Solo’s Pathfinders, a sort of special forces unit.

We follow their stories as they deploy again and again against remnants of the now shattered empire. Through their adventures the reader gains a sense of of the scope and breadth of the Rebellion’s remit. Their lives touch and sometimes parallel those of Luke and Leia and our other old favorites, but only enough to keep longtime fans interested.

Star Wars Shattered Empire Shara and Kes

Shattered Empire sets the stage for the next generation, the personalities that will populate The Force Awakens. Shara and Kes serve and perform admirably and are adequately rewarded. The series offers an intimate answer to the question of what the rebellion fought for beyond the politics and the drama of the Skywalker family.

It’s the kind of story that deepens your enjoyment of the parent material, carving out a niche for new characters and weaving them into the primary mythology. When it ended, I found myself wanting, needing, to know more about Shara and Kes and their gestating son. Their family became a metaphor for the revitalization of the franchise.

The art is exuberant and dynamic. The characters are distinct and expressive. And there’s action even in the relatively still panels. Whether it’s the attack on the Death Star or the queen of Naboo removing her makeup, Shattered Empire is always in motion. Just like the films.

Recommended for completists, of course, but also for fans of the N-1 Starfighter and the Lambda-class T-4a shuttle.

The collection also features the first issue of Princess Leia, which follows on the heels of the events in Shattered Empire. That series is collected in its own volume as well, but it’s a welcome addition. We see Leia set herself on the path that will describe her conflict with the fledgling Republic in the new trilogy. Featuring clever, fully clothed women, I’ll definitely be checking out the trade.

And, finally, for whatever reason, they’ve included the first issue of the old seventies Star Wars comic. Clearly based on either the shooting script or an even earlier version, it’s something of a time capsule. Highlights include two deleted Biggs Darklighter scenes and Darth Vader’s relentless search for the stolen Imperial data tapes. It was worth reading just to remind myself that whenever I think a modern comic is wordy or full of exposition bubbles, I yet live in a golden age of brevity.

May the Force be with you.


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Children’s Book Review: Aaron and Alexander

Aaron and Alexander: The Most Famous Duel in American History written and illustrated by Don Brown

Aaron and Alexander cover

I’m going to do something different. I usually include the promotional text before I get into my review, but I noticed a significant difference between what appears online versus what appears on the dust jacket. I think it’s important to share both. First, here’s the online text used by botrh the publisher and retailers.

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were both fierce patriots during the Revolutionary War, but the politics of the young United States of America put them in constant conflict. Their extraordinary story of bitter fighting and resentment culminates in their famous duel. For young patriots who may not yet know the shocking and tragic story, Aaron and Alexander captures the spirit of these two great men who so valiantly served their country and ultimately allowed their pride and ego to cause their demise.

Sensational, right? Fierce, manly, timeless. I would never buy this book for my children. At least at their current ages. Now here’s the dust jacket.

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were both orphaned at a young age, and they both became successful lawyers. The both fought in the Revolutionary War. But the politics of the young United States of America put these Founding Fathers in constant conflict. Theirs is a story of passion, patriotism, and pride, which culminates in the most famous duel in American history. Despite their similarities, it seemed the world was not big enough for both Aaron and Alexander, yet the outcome of their rivalry forever links their names.

Okay, honestly, dueling isn’t an appropriate subject for our preschooler or our infant. I still wouldn’t buy this book. Not yet anyway. But it does seem more thoughtful, more teachable.

The latter is what you see browsing in the store, and to me it encourages opening the book and taking a look. The former targets the history nerd, or teacher, with something exciting to share.

Anyway, if you’ve got some basic recall of high school civics, you probably know that Aaron Burr shot, or maybe even assassinated, the guy on the twenty dollar bill. If you spent any time online or watched late night television in 2015, chances are you know a little more than that. Have you heard about the Broadway musical Hamilton? There’s a cast recording. I highly recommend it. Our preschooler asked if we could listen to it while we fell asleep the other night.

And that’s why I’m reviewing this book. I checked it out from the library in a pile of books and audiobooks related to the principals. I used to look for the best book or whatever. Now I just read everything.

Luckily I took a look inside before sharing it with our child. And luckier still the art on the cover was a turn off. I can’t tell whether the style wasn’t attractive or whether it was overly evocative. Both are true, of course, in the eyes of a preschooler. Don Brown’s muted watercolors and soft lines are worlds away from the cartoonish primaries of the Little Golden Books we’ve been reading. But just look up there. Those two people are clearly going to to try to kill each other. They are both bad guys.

That itself is a sharp contrast to what’s in the book. Inside, they’re often so similar it hurts. And this is true even if you’re reading one of the eight books cited in the bibliography. Allow me a digression. Nonfiction picture books have bibliographies. Some have footnotes. Our children don’t get it yet, and we skip over them. But some day soon I’ll get to answer questions about them. Anyway, the range of reference material is good.

So good, in fact, that what I expected to be essentially Hamilton propaganda is quite fair and balanced. I have no idea how to turn this story into a children’s book. I can barely discuss it with people who have some background. But Brown has made an admirable attempt.

In a few years, the nuance on display will provoke some interesting conversations, Right now if there’s going to be fighting there needs to be a bad guy. An obvious one like Darth Vader, or better yet Darth Maul. Not this.

Aaron and Alexander dueling

I can’t explain dueling or why “Despicable” caused one or what that was actually code for at the turn of the nineteenth century and then why that, at that time, was something negative. Just, “is that blood?” and the subsequent questions are enough to shelve this one for awhile.

But, if you’re adventurous, or interested, or Clint Eastwood, maybe you’ll give it a shot. Too soon?

Recommended for fans of Hamilton, Daffy Duck, and folks who let their kids watch R-rated movies.


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Book Review: City of Blades

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Blades cover

A generation ago, the city of Voortyashtan was the stronghold of the god of war and death, the birthplace of fearsome supernatural sentinels who killed and subjugated millions.

Now, the city’s god is dead. The city itself lies in ruins. And to its new military occupiers, the once-powerful capital is a wasteland of sectarian violence and bloody uprisings.

So it makes perfect sense that General Turyin Mulaghesh— foul-mouthed hero of the battle of Bulikov, rumored war criminal, ally of an embattled Prime Minister—has been exiled there to count down the days until she can draw her pension and be forgotten.

At least, it makes the perfect cover story.

The truth is that the general has been pressed into service one last time, dispatched to investigate a discovery with the potential to change the world–or destroy it.

The trouble is that this old soldier isn’t sure she’s still got what it takes to be the hero.

One of my favorite books of 2014 was City of Stairs, the first installment of The Divine Cities series. At the time, I wasn’t aware there would be a second. I wasn’t even sure I needed one.

The setting is rich enough for a dozen books, to be sure. But the story was complete and satisfying. I’d definitely recommend reading it before this one. However, I’m pleased to report that City of Blades is fully comprehensible on its own.

Three generations ago, the Continent’s centuries old stranglehold on world affairs was broken by upstart colony Saypur. Colony became colonizer when the Saypuri devised a method of deicide. In a blink the landscape literally changed as the miracles sustained by the slain divinities simply ceased to exist.

Turyin Mulaghesh languishes in her beachfront retirement, plagued by a past that won’t let her sleep regardless of how hard she drinks. The protagonist of the first book, now Prime Minister of Saypur, exploits a loophole in the law and perhaps another in the former General and Polis Governor’s heart. She agrees to one last job.

Yes. Really. Dragged from a deserved respite off a remote beach, even. One of the signal joys of City of Stairs was the utter devotion to generic tropes while spinning them delicately in the light to make them appear fresh again. Bennett has recreated that rare please once again.

City of Blades felt like a longer book until I realized I wasn’t reading the same thing with different characters again. Mulaghesh is haunted by the things she’s done and unsure where the meaning of it all lies. And the story itself parallels her search for answers. Set to discover the whereabouts of a missing agent and the truth behind a mysterious mineral, she seems mired in fragments of past wars and present conflicts with no clear way forward.

Mulaghesh must confront both her demons and those of both her people and their former oppressors. She’ll investigate an afterlife that should no longer exist and a future few can comprehend. Ultimately she’ll have to embrace it all in order to save the world.

But it’s the journey, cliched as this sounds, that makes it matter. City of Blades is as much a thoughtful meditation on the contract between soldier and society as it is an epic fantasy. What is the price of making war for the warrior? What are the responsibilities of the individual and the state in the aftermath?

Robert Jackson Bennet has crafted another surprisingly intense and introspective book combining fantasy, noir, military history, and theology. this one will stay with me for awhile. I’m delighted there will be a third.

Recommended for fans of A History of Violence, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and The Library at Mount Char.


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Audiobook Review: Lawrence in Arabia

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East
by Scott Anderson read by Malcolm Hillgartner

Lawrence in Arabia Cover

A thrilling and revelatory narrative of one of the most epic and consequential periods in twentieth century history—the Arab Revolt and the secret game to control the Middle East

The Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I was, in the words of T. E. Lawrence, “a sideshow of a sideshow.” As a result, the conflict was shaped to a remarkable degree by a small handful of adventurers and low-level officers far removed from the corridors of power. Curt Prüfer was an academic attached to the German embassy in Cairo whose clandestine role was to foment jihad against British rule. Aaron Aaronsohn was a renowned agronomist and committed Zionist who gained the trust of the Ottoman governor of Palestine even as he built an elaborate anti-Ottoman spy ring. William Yale was a fallen scion of the American aristocracy who traveled the Ottoman Empire on behalf of Standard Oil, dissembling to the Turks in order to gain valuable oil concessions. At the center of it all was Lawrence. In early 1914 he was an archaeologist digging ruins in Syria; by 1917 he was riding into legend at the head of an Arab army, as he fought a rearguard action against his own government and its imperial ambitions.

Based on four years of intensive primary document research, Lawrence in Arabia definitively overturns received wisdom on how the modern Middle East was formed. Sweeping in its action, keen in its portraiture, acid in its condemnation of the destruction wrought by European colonial plots, this is a book that brilliantly captures the way in which the folly of the past creates the anguish of the present.

Histories of The Great War tend to focus on Europe, on the western front, even mostly on France. This makes plenty of sense if you’re reading primarily in English and especially if you’re reading from the American libraries. The eastern front seems poorly understood and even alien in some cases, despite being at the center of the drama. And the Russian Revolution and their subsequent withdrawal from the war is often portrayed as a burden on Britain, France, And the United States.

But there was a theater in World War I that wasn’t really covered in all the hours of Blueprint for Armageddon or anything else I’ve read recently. The Ottoman Empire, The Middle East, and North Africa. When Lawrence in Arabia came up in a search, I leapt at it.

Scott Anderson’s focused research and delicate understanding just shines. Written almost as an interlocking narrative of the lives of Prüfer, Aaronsohn, Yale, and of course Lawrence, this book delivers breath and depth in an oft neglected space. The competing interests of colonial powers have never been so illuminated, the people responsible for them so incisively deconstructed.

This corner of World War I, examined in such detail, provides perspective on many of the missteps made on both sides as they ramify out to the fringes to be repeated or rejected. Seen as relatively insignificant at the time, this is where many of our modern conflicts began. If the Middle East confuses you, you could scarcely read a better book to gain a foundational understanding of how we got to where we are now.

It’s well worth a recommendation on it’s own. But it’s better in context. Getting to know the primary figures in this history prepares you for the creation of Israel, the propaganda of World War II Germany, the United States’ commercial project, and Britain’s social transformation. The twentieth century would not have been what it is had these events not happened the way they did.

Finally, since it’s mostly focused on T.E. Lawrence, this is where you want to start with him. The oughties and the teens have produced incredible scholarship on some of history’s most controversial figures. Lawrence apparently left little of his own work behind and managed to contradict himself and undermine his credibility even so. Anderson compares everything that’s come before along with contemporary primary sources to create a portait of a fascinating human being.

It’s apolitical and sympathetic everywhere it can be, giving context for people of their time thrust into difficult situations. No one comes out unscathed and yet neither are any irrevocably damned. That may come later, of course, but such only proves the even hand applied.

Lawrence in Arabia is edifying. I’m truly better off for having read it. Listened to it, rather. Malcolm Hillgartner reads clearly and consistently, displaying interest and keeping the listener engaged in a complex story with an otherwise overwhelming onslaught of information.

Recommended for fans of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lawrence of Arabia, and Aaron Burr.


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Audiobook Review: Only Yesterday

Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s
by Frederick Lewis Allen read by Grover Gardner

Only Yesterday

Prohibition. Al Capone. The President Harding scandals. The revolution of manners and morals. Black Tuesday. These are only an inkling of the events and figures characterizing the wild, tumultuous era that was the Roaring Twenties. Originally published in 1931, Only Yesterday traces the rise of post–World War I prosperity up to the Wall Street crash of 1929 against a colorful backdrop of jazz, flappers, speakeasies, the first radio, and the scandalous rise of skirt hemlines. In this span between armistice and depression, Americans were kicking up their heels, but they were also bringing about major changes in the social and political structure of their country.

Hailed as an instant classic, this is Frederick Lewis Allen’s vivid and definitive account of one of the twentieth century’s most fascinating decades, chronicling a time of both joy and terror—when dizzying highs were quickly succeeded by heartbreaking lows. It is a fond, witty, penetrating biography of this restless decade—a delightful reminiscence for those who can remember and a fascinating firsthand look for those who have only heard.

Hard on the heels of a World War I era binge, I found myself interested in what followed. Just as I’d never known much about the Great War, neither had I taken much note of the culture and art of its aftermath. I picked up a few popular histories full of pictures and bullet points, but by far the most interesting text available was Only Yesterday.

It seemed sort of too good to be true. Written immediately following the decade in question and drawing on material collected and reported during its course, the book was perhaps the most immediate and unselfconscious take imaginable. Of course, I was never going to have time to read it. Luckily, the audio was excellent.

Some reviews call it irresponsible, biased and frustratingly colloquial. That’s all true. Especially the latter. Whether reading or listening, it’s difficult to believe what’s written at first. The tone is somewhere between conversational and bloviating. It is, as we say, a product of its time. One you get past that initial distrust, however, you’re transported back in time.

Grover Gardner skirts awfully close to the forced Mid-Atlantic accent as he delivers Frederick Lewis Allen’s words and the effect is fantastic. For however long you listen, you’re immersed in a newsreel unraveling a decade of innovation and upheaval. The United States comes to grips with new social realities and its emerging position in world affairs.

I learned a lot, or at least contextualized things I’d already known. Only Yesterday provides a solid picture of mainstream culture in the 1920s. If there’s a criticism to be leveled, it’s that jazz, indeed music in general, is unfortunately sidelined. There’s ample attention to literature, mass media, sports and even party games, but the inauguration of one of the truly American art forms apparently just wasn’t something Allen paid mush attention to.

Even so, looking at the other titles I picked up, it’s clear that this is the book you want to read if you’ve only got time for one. The rest are pretenders at best and virtual plagiarisms at worst. Admittedly not a proper history, any work addressing the broader trends of the decade owes the author a debt.

Perhaps the most striking thing about it is how little our politics, press, and popular culture have really changed since the 1920s. In some sections, Only Yesterday could describe the latest news on Wall Street or our current political campaign. Reading history is cumulative. The more you know, the less mysterious your world is.

Recommended for fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald, JNCOs, and VH-1’s I Love the [insert decade]’s.