Sunday, February 23, 2014

Review roundup (plus Lemony Snicket's trick for making your kids love reading)

1. Doctor Who: The Death Pit by A. L. Kennedy: My favorite novella to date in the ongoing "Time Trips" series. Doctor Who stumbles upon a golf resort overflowing with mysteries, including a man-eating sand trap, malevolent twin children, and an octopus-collecting recluse. But the real stars are a clever young woman and her smitten, outclassed suitor. If you like dry wit, adventure, and love among nerds, you'll devour this story. $2 at Amazon.

2. Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage: A Mystery with Hoverbots, Bristle Bots, and Other Robots You Can Build Yourself: Quirk Books continues to churn out wonderful kids books. In this ongoing series, siblings solve mysteries and build a lot of science projects along the way. And each project is accompanied by detailed instructions so the reader can try it at home. My third-grader has always loved when I read to him at bedtime, but has been very tough to motivate to read by himself. Finally, I took advice from Lemony Snicket:

One way my parents continued to get me really excited was reading aloud to me. A lot of books are just inherently fascinating on the printed page, but if you start to read them out loud, they became even more interesting. So, for many years when I was a child, at night my parents would read books to me. But then -- and here's the twist -- they'd stop at a really suspenseful part and say, "Well, now it's time for bed." I'd whine, I'd plead, but they wouldn't give in. They would put the book on the nightstand, place a flashlight on top of it, and say, "Remember, there is no reading after the lights go out."

What could I do? They would close the door and go downstairs, and I would click on the light and keep on reading. The next day, the bookmark would be in an entirely different place, and my parents would pick up from there as if nothing had happened, and stop at the next suspenseful moment. There was always a notion that this kind of nocturnal reading was forbidden, but there was also the notion that they were giving me the tools I needed to keep on going.
I used that trick with this Nick and Tesla book, and my son ended up reading about 85% himself. It worked so well, he's now moved on to reading even more ambitious books--he's reading Ready Player One in my bed as I type this. $10 at Amazon.

3. Fatale Volume 4: Pray For Rain: If you like dark, supernatural noir, then it can't get much better than this latest collection from the ongoing story by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. But it can't get much darker, either. Beautiful art, expert storytelling, sexy and surprising. But very dark. $10 at Amazon.

4. Captain America and Black Widow by Cullen Bunn and Francesco Francavilla: In this collection, Captain America and Black Widow find themselves fighting alternate dimension Avengers and Hydra troops controlled by a multiverse-spanning conglomerate. This is now the third straight collection by Francavilla I've disliked (Batman, Black Panther). His covers and pin-ups are A+. But reading an entire issue with his distinctive, garish art, is like reading an entire book of Warhol self-portraits. The problem is more pronounced than usual in this collection, since almost all of the characters are essentially clones of Black Widow and the story's chief villain. And when he does draw new characters, yikes:

$12 at Amazon.

5. Batwoman Vol. 1: Hydrology: Exhibit A for why even the very best artist desperately needs a solid writing partner. As always, Williams's art is simply on a different plane from any other comic book art--each page is like a magnificently complex work of stained glass. But unlike his prior triumphant work on the transcendent Promethea, Seven Soldiers, and original Batwoman series (written by Greg Rucka), here he's the author and doesn't have enough ideas to propel his illustrations. Every page feels like the same two-page splash-image of Batwoman punching a ghostly water spirit. A really beautiful, ornate picture, but for six issues, that's just not enough. $12 at Amazon.