And here was me hoping a kids book could make ancient Chinese history less confusing

Three Kingdoms Vol 1 by Wei Dong Chen and Xiao Long Liang

So this book recently found it’s way to our shelfs (’cause I asked it to) and I’m hopefully right because when I tried to renew it there was already a hold on it.

I guess I felt like our collections kind of lacking in cultural diversity and also this one time while I was getting my undergrad degree I took a Chinese culture course and it was super interesting, despite the prof being a terrible teacher.

So, the Three Kingdoms is based on the ancient text The Three Kingdoms which explores some semi-mystical, semi-historical events that occurred in the small kingdoms and provinces that would eventually become China. This graphic novel leans a little closer to the battling and less of the history-ing but it’s still pretty well rounded. There are paragraphs at the beginning of every chapter that summarize the events so everyone’s on the same page and helpful character guides.  REALLY HELPFUL character guides.

There’s a lot about this story that was really interesting to me. I loved the three characters who are kind of the main ones, and their sworn brother relationship. I liked the focus on the family, particular the sons. I think it did a pretty good job explaining the history in the paragraphs.

But it suffered from too many characters. Like Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time and most Shakespeare plays I felt like I needed a chart to explain who was who and who worked for who. Which kind of frustrates me.

One the one hand, I get it. You’re trying to take an old historical text that just has lots and lots and lots and lots of characters, but that’s kind of where it falls through. Like 11 main characters, most of whom are warlords makes it really hard to give them all unique, likable or defining characteristics. And without those, what’s the point really?

So it was kind of better as a historical experience and not awesome as a literary one. Which is maybe okay. Maybe that’s enough.

Last movie I watched: Still Hotel Transylvania

Last TV show I watched: V Mars I think. SO GOOD!

I’m very sorry, in advance, for the Batman binge I’m about to start

Batgirl Vol 2 Knightfall Descends by Gail Simone, Ardia Syaf, Ed Benes and Vicente Cifuentes

This delightfully fun, very shiny graphic novel has three stories in it all about Barbara Gordon (Batgirl #1 for anyone who’s trying to keep that straight) and the people in her life.

The first one was pretty important, I thought. Considering comic books generally have a cheerful lack of concern about trauma, both physical and emotional it was a refreshing story mostly centered around Barbara’s struggle to become Batgirl again. As far as plot it’s a fairly generic story – weird baddie wearing a mask with sci fi tech and a load of henchmen.

Actually, it’s those henchmen who make the story interesting, because one of them worked for the Joker and was with him the day he shot and paralyzed Barbara. Layer that onto of Barbara’s frustration about her physical abilities and her fears that she’ll never be the Batgirl she once was and you have a really great, emotional story.

My favourite part is Barbara and Dinah (the Black Canary), who Barbara goes to for support. Dinah responds the way any good best friend would – by kicking the crap out of Barbara. Literally and also figuratively. This story also had a truly, spectacularly horrifying look at the childhood of James Jr, Barbara’s serial killer brother. I know that we all want to think that kids are born good, but really, there’s a lot of compelling evidence to suggest that’s not true and even fictional, illustrated portrayals of people who are not unwilling, but unable to feel empathy are usually very chilling.

The second story if Barbara’s Night of Owls, which I’d  read before but I feel like I might have missed the subtly of the story. There are actually three heroines in it. One is a little girl, taken away from her family in Japan during the Second World War to make balloons that carried bombs across the ocean to the west coast of the United States and who is killed in Nagasaki. The second is a young girl who is one of the few victims of those bombs,  but survived, and was taken in  by Haly’s Circus and then recruited by the Court of Owls to be a Talon. And Barbara, of course, who’s fighting desperately to protect her city, but much more so her family.

The last story is Knightfall. After Barbara beats up some would be carjackers at a charity function, the one that ran is caught in a bear trap. Despite the fact that she recently smashed his buddy into a car, Barbara realizes that he’s just a kid who’s going to die if she doesn’t help him, but by doing so she crosses the Knightfall organization, a driven group of vigilantes who are trying to clean up the streets by killing everyone from murders to petty criminals.

This is a lady power story if ever there was one. Knightfall is a strong, albeit crazy, female villain, most of her crew is as well, and Barbara teams up with a gruff detective trying to come to terms with the death of her husband and Batwoman (in one of the most epic team-ups ever!! I mean, if you’re me and you really like the Batladies kicking ass). Anyway, it was the kind of story that had loads of kicking and punching and breaking faces but somehow I can’t see any of the Batboys, not even Nightwing, caring so much about a sixteen year old car thief the way Barbara does. I don’t know exactly what it is about the story that made it feel different, but it was great.

Everything I’ve read by Gail Simone has been incredible awesome. She’s so good at writing the women strong, empowered, fierce but not making them masculine. I think it’s hard to find heroines who haven’t had to sacrifice their femaleness in order to be better in fights.

I still kind of wish Barbara was still Oracle though.

Last movie I watched: Hotel Transylvania! So good!! Best kids movie ever, or at least up there. There’s no bad guy at all! And the story is still awesome.

Last TV episode I watched: Camelot. That was … a show that happened….

Cats in a really lovely story

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles De Lint, illustrated by Charles Vess

This story is super charming, super sweet and very fable like but with a little bit less of the heavy handed moralistic values that tend to get all over fables and ruin the experience. At least for me.

Lillian is an orphan being raised by her Aunt on a farm near Tanglewood forest. She loves the forest, the animals in it and the magic and myth that surround them, particularly the wild cats. One day when she’s playing in the forest, Lillian is bitten by a snake and is rescued by the wild cats who save her by turning her into a kitten. Of course, Lillian doesn’t want to stay a kitten but her choice to become human again has terrible consequences.

It’s a kind of slow, meandering book but the illustrations are beautiful and the story is lovely. Lillian is a likable heroine, even if she really a symbol more than she is a person. There are the required elements of talking animals, trees, half man half animal creatures and a character that is almost literally a deus ex machina. There’s careful explanation of the lessons  that Lillian’s learned through her adventures, but they aren’t really what you’d expect and even though they are stated outright I didn’t find them particularly heavy handed. Which is weird ’cause usually I really, really hate all attempts by adults at forcing kids to understand stories in a certain way.

Like… really hate it.

The other things that I found really interesting was the portrayal of Aboriginal people in this book. Again, normally the portrayal of them as kind of wise, all knowing mystics makes me super uncomfortable because it’s kind of you know, superficial and not really complex, but in this story I found it didn’t matter. The whole story is so saturated in mythology, both North American and European and so many characters fill the place for the powerful, magical being that it doesn’t feel particularly problematic at all. Which is kind of a win. And by kind of I mean a serious one. In the story the Aboriginal people are just like all the other people, no more defined or limited in their expression by that piece of their history than any other character.

So at the end of it all this is probably not the book to give to a reluctant reader or a kid looking for a quick pace but it really is a beautiful story. I don’t know, it feels like a read aloud before bed kind of story somehow. That’s what I’d do with it.

Last movie I watched: A Dangerous Method. I watched it for the cast, not going to lie. Keira Knightly was kind of… better than I thought she’d be

Last TV episode I watched: Part of a TMNT on TV I think. Last full episode of something was V MARS!

I very much resent Batman villains who stab Alfred

Batman: Heart of Hush by Paul Dini, Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs

In which Bruce admits to Selena that he loves her.

You know, I think Selena’s a better choice for him than Talia. As far as I know, Selena has never decapitated any of Bruce’s other love interests and I really think that speaks volumes for her stability.

That’s beside the point though.

In Heart of Hush we see the return of Hush, as the name would suggest. I’m not going to lie, he is kind of one of my most favourite/hated Batman villain. He just makes for really good plots. At the beginning of this story he returns and makes a vague but genuine threat to “strike from a far”. Bruce freaks out, warns Alfred, Dick and Tim only to have Hush attack Selena instead and literally holds her heart random.

Yeah, this story may be suffering slightly from comic book biology.

Not the point. As I expected from a story about Hush, there’s lots of nice, winding plot, plenty of guest villains and a few near death experiences for almost everyone. Even Alfred. Although Bruce does put a stop to that in pretty short order. How crazy do you have to be to go after Alfred?

So, Batman villains sometimes have a connection with him, in a guilt inducing way. Two Face, Joker, they’re both a least a little his fault, and depending on which cartoon you’re watching sometimes they all are. But Hush is different. Bruce Wayne created Hush by being Bruce Wayne. By being charming and rich and shallow. By wearing a normal person outfit. Not by being Batman. Like… completely accidentally using his other secret identity he made a super villain. Which is kind of a neat change.

So yup! I didn’t love this one the way I loved Hush, but it was pretty excellent.

Last movie I watched: Hobbit. Wonderful. Too long. Weird mix of epic and children’s story. Whatever.

Last TV episode I watched: Same Young Justice. Everyone, stay whelmed.

Captain Jack’s first novel

Hollow Earth by John Barrowman and Carole E Barrowman

Okay, think Inkheart, but less developed characters and a more simplistic writing style. Then add in dash of Harry Potter and something slightly like A Series Unfortunate Events and you’ve more or less got this book.

Honestly, I did mostly pick this book up because John Barrowman wrote it and I’m a nerd. I’m sure I’d have done the exact same thing if it’d been written by anyone else who’d ever been on Doctor Who. Whatever. And it’s totally a first novel so I understand there’s a lot of room to improve. I’m also totally a snob, so a lot of the things about it that I didn’t really love probably won’t bug children at all.

It was a good story. That’s mostly what I have to say about it.

Em and Matt are twins, and when they work on a drawing together, they can bring it to life. Their mother has done her best to keep her children  away from the power struggles going on in the magical/art community but when the twins take a huge risk and draw in public events are set in motion that will… I don’t know… be epic, end in Scotland and break their family apart.

This is why I’ll never have a career in writing blurbs on the back of books.

I suppose the things that didn’t quite do it for me are mostly small ones. The characterization seemed a little weak. I mean, I was pretty fond of the characters but they didn’t have a lot to offer as far as complexity goes. Matt is more or less a courageous hero who is angry and impulsive. Em is more or less brave, loyal and perpetually frightened. One of the grownups is the wise one. The other is the protector. The other is the gruff but kind one. Another one is the traitor. The last one is the suspicious but ultimately heart of gold guardian. They’re good, they’re just tropes.

Similarly, the story is pretty generic. Standard coming into their powers story. Complete with kids breaking the rules a little, getting in trouble, adults hiding important information from them and a mysterious missing parent.

I did enjoy it though, even if it didn’t totally fill my unreasonably high expectations. One of my favourite things was the easy way they handled Zach, the third child in the trinity of children’s fiction. The neat thing about him is that he’s deaf. And it’s kind of handled in an very easy way. Every once in a while his lip reading skills come in handy or they mention that a character doesn’t sign, but other than that there’s virtually nothing about it. I mean, obviously I think it’s a little problematic that the character doesn’t really deal with it and that it’s kind of a character trait but on the other hand I love that Zach isn’t defined by his deafness. He’s totally just a kid like the others. He is not his disability, and that’s fantastic. Also not always something that comes across well in fiction,  particularly in stories that aren’t about the experience.

So that was pretty awesome. I also adored the way Em animates her fears and dreams and the lovely relationship between the twins and Zach was totally worth it. I would probably recommend it to middle reading level kids who enjoyed Harry Potter and were just looking for a good story to rip through.

Last movie I watched: Probably still the Hobbit.

Last TV episode I watched: Last episode of Young Justice season one. Highlight: Robin fighting Batman. Love those two so much