My Friend Dahmer / The Darkest Minds

28 01 2014

Work, work and more work getting in the way of the most important stuff…

… reading. So: impressions of books, rather than actual reviews of books.


My friend Dahmer (by Derf Backderf)

my friend dahmerI was too young to experience the whole Dahmer-thing consciously. Obviously during my own ‘fascinated by serial killers’ phase (doesn’t everyone have one?), the name Dahmer was a chiller. Derf Backderf went to the same high school as Jeffrey Dahmer and after Dahmer got arrested, Backderf – a talented graphic artist – started to put his memories of his “Friend Dahmer” to paper in the form of his own artwork (in all seriousness, Dahmer really wasn’t “a friend” at all, that much is clear from this book).

Actually, Backderf already started to draw Dahmer when he was in highschool… Dahmer was a weird kid, who seemed to just exist and was a total social outcast at first, but then became an almost raving lunatic impersonating his mother’s interior decorator, and who ended up as the school drunk (which Backderf sees as a severe coping mechanism, especially after Dahmer discovers his sexual preferences) whom people tried to avoid at all cost.

Yes, people (adults) should have seen that something was off with Dahmer, but aren’t there tons of weird kids in a high school? How many of them end up as serial killers? It’s a telling fact that when Backderf was notified of the fact that one of his high school classmates was arrested for murdering all these people, his first guess *wasn’t* Dahmer, but another one of his classmates…

Anyone reading this book expecting a sensationalist account of Dahmer’s crimes, look elsewhere. My Friend Dahmer is all about Dahmer’s disturbing home life, Dahmer in high school and how he was perceived by classmates but also how he was used by his classmates. Backderf doesn’t just rely on his own memory, though, he also did a ton of research into Dahmer’s family and teenage life. Backderf is also quite insistent that his novel is not about ‘making excuses’ for Dahmer’s crimes. Yes, you can feel pity for Dahmer up until his first murder, but that’s where empathy and pity stop for Backderf. What Backderf is trying to do is finding reasons, or at least, contributing reasons for what Dahmer did.

My main ‘objection’ to this graphic novel / memoir has nothing to do with the artwork (which is really in line with the topic: quite expressionistic and slightly grotesque). It is with the amount of meta-text. OK, this is partly a memoir and partly a journalistic effort, but I didn’t actually need all the “explanations” to piece together what was going on in this novel. If what is written as meta-text is there to make the reader think about e.g. nature vs. nurture, well, even then, I didn’t need it. As I said, the drawings are quite expressionistic and tell a tale. Dialogue can convey a lot, and then meta-text is just too much. In other words, I think that Backderf is a much better graphic artist and illustrator than he is a writer… but, hey, that’s just me, right? James Ellroy seemed to dig this book a lot, so choose who you want to believe 😉

3.5 stars


The Darkest Minds (by Alexandra Bracken)

darkestmindsThis book combines a number of tropes that have been popular in the last couple of years: dystopian and/or apocalyptic madness, psychic or otherwise supergifted kids (sometimes even locked up), a romance that might be (or not) and a whole lot of running around that may or may not amount to anything. Rather than being wholly unoriginal, however, Bracken has enough talent to pull things together somewhat… But, despite the fact that it’s clocking in a hefty 488 pages, there are on the one hand elements at the heart of this book that clearly needed to be explored more (the weird disease IAAN that affects kids but not adults and why ‘governments’ don’t try to find the cause etc. etc.). At the same time, though, this book also could have used a big comb to weed out some of its needless inconsistencies and superfluous ‘running around scenes’… No, running around does not speed up the action but slows things down and it definitely did not increase the tension (messy comes to mind). This book – and this writer – shows a lot of promise but needs just that final push to get me on the edge of my seat…

3 stars



December 2013 Reads, pt. 2 (Still Not A List Post! Double Ha!)

17 12 2013

Blankets (by Craig Thompson)

Gorgeous artwork, perfectly adapted to depicting the cold Wisconsin winters, and the warmth and desire of a first love. Blankets is not just a love story, though, as it also focuses on Craig’s internal struggle, and in Craig’s case, his struggle is a religious one. However, obsession and conflict are so powerfully visualized here, that it could very well be about any sort of struggle. Great stuff for sure, although I did miss one more chapter outlining how he turned away from his religion. For all the obsession throughout the book, this seemed to be taken care of a bit too quickly. Still: definitely one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read!





4 stars


Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie (by Jordan Sonnenblick)

drums-girls-danger-pieI was very taken with Jordan Sonnenblick’s Notes from the Midnight Driver (garden gnomes, dude!) so I went and ordered his 2004 debut Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie. And even though this reads a bit younger (more MG than YA), it has the same sense of humor, the same warm undertone (even though yes, it’s “a cancer book”) and the same type of narrator. Steven Alper is a very typical 13-year-old. He has an annoying younger brother, Jeffrey, he has a crush on the hottest girl at his middle school (Renee), plays drums in the school jazz band, isn’t the most popular kid on the block, but isn’t bullied or anything either, just “an average kid”. But when Jeffrey gets a nosebleed, Steven’s average life is turned upside down: his little brother has leukemia, and the family – Steven included – has to deal with the situation the best way they can. This is not a “spectacular” book in any way, but this is a just such a great heartwarming – almost old-fashioned – little book, that it’s hard to see fault in this. Greatly recommended to people with a heart.

4 stars

Three books that didn’t work for the cat (October 2013)

28 10 2013

The Infinite Moment of Us (by Lauren Myracle)

imou… and I don’t see how this book could work for anyone out there, really!

Where is the gorgeous scorching prose we got in Shine? Where is the nuanced characterization of Shine? Where’s the plot for that matter? Seriously, as brilliant as I thought Shine was, as cringe-worthily bad I thought this was. This book disappointed me on so many levels: point of view (dual 3rd person narration), pacing (time-lapses), the one-dimensional insta-love romance between the annoyingly selfish Wren and the too-good-to-be-true yet immensely troubled kid with a past Charlie, the language (which borders on fanfiction level!)…

The Infinite Moment of Us tells the supposedly epic love story of Wren and Charlie, alternating their points of view in each chapter. Their relationship – which just happens to be, by the way, one of the most excruciating examples of insta-love ever – develops over the course of the summer of their high school graduation. Wren is the good girl, the one who’s been pleasing her parents like for forever and who is destined for the great future her parents have mapped out for her. Except, now she decides she wants to do it her own way and has enrolled in a program that will take her to Guatemala for a year. Charlie is the (obviously gorgeous) misfit foster kid with the troubled past who’s got a pretty good life now, except for the crazy ex “on again, off again”-girlfriend, Starla.

I guess this book is set up as a Forever for today’s teens, including the different sexual mores. Yes, Charlie and Wren have a sexual relationship, and obviously, these kids being 18 and all, that’s only natural. So, no, the cat didn’t mind that.  What I did mind was the language use of the writer here, which was way below par and bordered on fan fiction. I totally hated the whole ‘baby’ here and ‘baby’ there thing that Charlie dished out, which just sounded so incredibly fake and put me off the entire romance thing: ugh!  And seriously, the character clichés…. pfffff…  just no!

The focus, for that matter, in the 2nd half of the book, was way too much on the sexual relationship between Wren and Charlie and not enough on Wren becoming her own person (or Charlie being his own person). It just seemed that Wren exchanged one controlling relationship (her parents’ control over her) for another, rather than doing what she said she wanted: to break free and discover herself!  It didn’t really do the book much good that there were these time lapses, either. Like one moment they have sex for the first time and then we just jump to “weeks later” where they’ve been at it like bunnies, but we haven’t really been partial to anything else that went on in their lives?? Pacing? What of it?

I dunno, maybe Shine really was a fluke. I haven’t even discussed the way certain plot aspects just don’t make any sense and aren’t developed really… And maybe I just don’t get this New Adult thing (I mean, seriously, is that what this is supposed to be?). No, sometimes it’s easy: there are good books and there are bad books, regardless of genre or target audience. This book right here: one of the worst I’ve read all year.

1.5 star

Ghostopolis (by Doug TenNapel)

ghostopolisDoug TenNapel’s graphic novel Ghostopolis may look alright at first (the graphics are fairly good), but it’s totally lacking in plot and character development and the dialogue is just a wee bit too simple for my taste.  Garth is dying of a mysterious fatal disease, but when ghostwrangler Frank botches up his job, Garth is accidentally zapped into the afterlife. When he’s there, he manages to ‘tame’ a skeleton horse he calls Skinny, and tries to find a way out, accompanied by his dead grandfather, Cecil – who he happens to meet there. At the same time, Frank goes after him, joined by his former fiancée Claire Voyant. There are lots of unexplained events happening in this graphic novel (why does someone like Grant have so much power in the afterlife? What happened between Frank and Claire?), lots of loose threads (What ever happened to Joe?) and even some Christian references, which all in all makes of Ghostopolis a confusing and hard to pin down graphic novel. Ultimately, it just didn’t work for me: not funny enough, not different enough,  not developed enough… Too messy, too random and just too superficial.

2 stars


After the Snow (by S.D. Crockett)

afterthesnowI read that this book is likened to Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go… but the only thing that the two vaguely have in common is the ‘different’ vernacular of their main character and narrator. Unlike in the Chaos Walking trilogy, the plot in After the Snow is not going ANYWHERE!  After the Snow is a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, set sometime in the future, ‘after the snow’.  When Willo returns home from hunting one day he finds out that his family is gone and the cabin where they live up in the mountains is empty.  Intent on finding his family he sets out to talk to talk to Geraint, his (14-year-old) sister’s husband, who will know where they are. But on his way, he finds Mary, whose father is lost and who is starving to death. Willo knows that he should leave her alone and just take care of himself, but he doesn’t.

Seriously, after Willo ends up in the city (and Mary isn’t with him anymore for some reason), I have no clue what’s going on anymore and I don’t really get what Willo’s aims are at that point. If you can tell me, please, by all means, drop me a note…  So many things that are introduced in the beginning of the novel (like Willo and talking with the dog skull) are just dropped after a while, and then the main character ends up having completely different priorities. Weird much?

This book has such an interesting premise and there’s so much potential (it could be The Road meeting Chaos Walking!), but instead it is just a royal mess and feels like the author just skipped a couple of important steps to get to an almost predictably obvious conclusion.

2 stars


American Born Chinese (by Gene Luen Yang)

15 10 2012

When a Graphic Novel manages to win a Printz award, as Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese did in 2007, it comes with a definite anticipatory feeling of excellence and long-lasting merit.  The same year, not only Zusak’s The Book Thief was an Honor Book, but also this book and this book (and also Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender, but the cat hasn’t read that one)! So anything that manages to “win” over those aforementioned books must be something else entirely.

And something else entirely it is: it’s a graphic novel. So in terms of ‘format’ it is definitely something else. It’s also not hard to see what the appeal is of American Born Chinese. Whenever a book includes the discussion of social and/or cultural identity and heritage, it is bound to attract the attention of committees such as that of the Printz Award. The concept of “identity” is a big issue in literature, YA or otherwise. Some of cat’s most beloved (YA) books touch upon the concept of finding and/or pursuing identity in one way or another: Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Going Bovine, Punkzilla, Octavian Nothing, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian…  So I guess, the main question for the cat is, looking beyond the fact that American Born Chinese is a Graphic Novel, is it equal to – or does it even surpass – novels that deal with the same ‘topic’? To that question, the cat would have to say no, but not because it’s a bad book or anything, just because there just aren’t that many books that are better (for the cat) than Vera Dietz or Going Bovine. Just a gut thing.

Which doesn’t mean the cat didn’t like it, because she did. To get to the core of American Born Chinese, and understand the conflict of the main character(s) of being caught between cultures (the Chinese culture of his parents and the American culture of his homeland) and finding your way to cultural and personal identity, it was advisory to get more background information about The Monkey King. Oversimplifying things, The Monkey King is a tale of transformation.  And a tale of transformation is – you guessed it – the universal tale of, well, mankind. In American Born Chinese, mankind, is not what we’re dealing with, of course, but we’re dealing a kid who doesn’t know who he is. Again, oversimplifying things, it’s one thing to be a kid growing up into a teen and then into an adult (and that in itself is a complicated and often messy affair), but it’s possibly even more complicated to do that when your family and cultural history is not the same history as everyone else’s history around you. The universal questions of ‘where do I really belong’, ‘who am I really’, ‘who do I want to be’ are all referred to here, which is why American Born Chinese will appeal to such a broad audience.

Does American Born Chinese have long-lasting merit? Yes, I’m sure it does. It will appeal to reluctant readers (always a great thing!) and it will definitely appeal to teens who have had the same (immigrant) experience (whether the heritage they have to refer to is Chinese or not). The cat recognizes all that, but she wasn’t as blown away by this tale of being caught between cultures as she was with for instance Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Interview with Cecil Castellucci

12 04 2012

The cat had the chance to interview the wonderful Cecil Castellucci, who has a new book coming out in May, The Year of the Beasts, which she wrote together with Nate Powell. Enjoy reading the interview!

The cat: The Year of the Beasts is coming out in May. What should readers know before reading it?

C.C.: I think that some people might have a little bit of a learning curve with regards to the alternating chapters of prose and graphic novel.  I would say, to hang in there!  It will all come together.  And if you are not used to reading comic books, think of this as a way in!

The cat: What is it that you find fascinating about the mythological Medusa story?

C.C.: I always thought that it was fascinating that she turned people to stone when they gazed on her.  But it captured my imagination that in some stories she was born beautiful and then turned ugly after suffering a trauma by Athena.  This duality of her intrigues me.  And I think that image of it served this story well.  I think that when we are in crisis, or grief or trauma we are hard to look upon.

The cat: Can you tell us something about the collaboration with Nate Powell? How did the two of you decide to work together?

C.C.: Working with Nate Powell was a dream.  I was such a big fan of his book Swallow Me Whole and his new books, Any Empire and Silence of Our Friends are amazing as well.  Nancy Mercado thought that maybe his art style would go well with my story.  I agreed!  I’d had the great pleasure of meeting Nate before at the Toronto Comics Art Festival, so we already knew that we liked each other and got along well.  The collaborative process was pretty easy.  I had written the novel including a script for the comic book elements.  For this script I wrote a loose idea of the setting and the mood I was going for along with the dialogue.  Nate then broke this down into panels by drawing thumbnails – or loose sketches- of what he thought a good pacing of action would be.  We both, along with Nancy Mercado, our editor, talked about what worked and then he drew and inked and lettered the whole thing.

The cat: At a certain point Jasper says to Tessa there’s a monster inside all of us. So what monster is inside of you?

C.C.: I don’t know!  Or maybe I do but a lady shouldn’t tell! But I can tell you that I would be afraid that I’d be one of the Graeae.  I would really hate to share a tooth and an eye with two other ladies.

The cat: What is your favorite part of the book?

C.C.: I love all of it because it was such a different kind of book for me to write.  But I really love chapter nine and chapter ten.  I think they flow into each other so nicely.

The cat: Where do you get your inspiration from in general?

C.C.: Every book springs from a different well. I think inspiration comes from paying attention and looking for random threads on how to stitch a story together.  I also think you have to be out and about and interested in lots of things.  This one came from a time when I was in deep crisis.  I felt that I was terrible to look upon and that as I tried to sort through what I was going through, people were frightened away by my violent emotions.  I didn’t want to write a book and I didn’t want to write a graphic novel and I just thought well, why not do half and half.  I knew I wanted it to be about two very different kind of girls who were somehow twinned.  But like I said, every book comes from a different place.

The cat: Can you tell us something about your own creative process? Where do you work? Do you have a certain routine?

C.C.: I like to think of the page as always being open.  So I don’t have a specific routine per se.  But I will say that I love sunny days.  I often sit on my porch.  I live in Los Angeles, so that’s pretty much possible to do year round. It depends what part of the process I’m in, I like to revise in cafes or even in bed.   I am a big fan of deadlines, in that way I give myself a chunk of time to dream about the book knowing that I have to get things down.  For example, right now I am giving myself three weeks to get down a skeleton for my new novel.  I’m hoping to get the bones down so I’ll have something to flesh out.

The cat: To say that you are a multi-talent is really an understatement. Have you always been this creative? Were you a creative child?

C.C.: You are too nice!  I think the answer to that is yes.  I mean, I have always known that I wanted to be a creative person.  To live my life as an artist.  I never wanted to do anything else.  When I was little other kids wanted to play kick ball and I tried to get them to put on an opera.  And for me, it’s always been stories.  I just love stories.  All of the different things that I do seem as though they are all the same to me.  A book, a play, a novel, a movie, a performance piece, an opera, a song, they are all ways of telling a story.

The cat: Did you read a lot as a child? Are there any books that you fondly remember?

C.C.: I did read a lot as a child!  Favorites were A Wrinkle in Time, The Tripod Trilogy, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, A Secret Garden,  Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz.  Oh!  So many!

The cat: What is the best book (YA or other) that you have read in a long time? What are you reading at the moment?

C.C.: The best book I read most recently was The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt.  The way that he wrote about the West and the two brothers was great!

I am currently reading Grave Mercy by RL LeFevers for the panel I’m moderating at the LA Festival of Books and I’m enjoying it very much.

The cat: You’ve made music, you’ve written (YA) novels, you’ve written graphic novels, contributed to film projects… Is there a certain form of art that you prefer? Where does your heart really lie?

C.C.: My heart lies in storytelling.  For me all of these things are the same thing.  They are  all ways to tell a story.

The cat: What is your attitude towards storytelling? Why do you like to tell stories?

C.C.: I guess what I like about stories is how much exploring you can do.  You really become an adventurer of the human condition either by writing a story or by reading them.  You can go under the ocean, back in time, to outer space.  You can be a mother, a wife, a crone, a witch, a queen, a man.  It’s a way spelunking.

The cat: Have you ever experienced writer’s block or just ‘creative block’? How do/did you deal with it?

C.C.: I don’t believe in writer’s block.  I think that sometimes you are just not ready to write what you are meant to write.  It’s just not coming organically.  But if you just breathe, take a walk, read a book, do the dishes, eat some bon bons… you’ll get there.  And sometimes you have to just write through it.  You just have to sit there and get words down on the page knowing that once they are down you can revise them.

The cat: Do you think you are influenced by other authors? If so, which ones?

C.C.: It’s more that I’m influenced by all kinds of art.  I take my influence from all kinds of literature, films, television, paintings, opera, ballet…whatever!  All art is trying to understand the human condition and to express a tiny point of it.  There is something to be found that is totally right in that expression and is the very color you need to paint with for your own work.  When I was writing The Year of the Beasts I was at an artist colony and I had all the artists there draw me a portrait of Medusa and the other beasts.  All of them were different,  but all captured a different piece of her angst that I needed.  So, what I’m saying is that every single artist inspires me.

 The cat: What book do you wish you had written?

C.C.: I wish I had written Persuasion by Jane Austen.  I love that book so much.

The cat: Is there anyone you’d like to work with for one of your next projects? Who and why?

C.C.: Oh!  I feel as though I’ve already worked with such dream people and it’s been such delightful surprises about how those collaborations came together that I don’t dare disturb the machinations of the universe by wishes!  Instead I will say who I would have loved to work with. Luis Buñuel.  I think we would have cooked up some cool stuff.

The cat: What’s the best and the most frustrating aspect of being a writer?

C.C.: Writing stories.  Writing stories.

The cat: Is there anything you regret in your creative career?

C.C.: I regret the moments where I lose a little bit of hope and begin to despair.  I wish I would remember to just push that feeling aside and remember that I just need to keep writing.

The cat: I just finished Dear Bully and I noticed that you and Mo Willems contributed the only graphic stories. Why did you decide to add a graphic story and not a ‘regular’ short story or essay?

C.C.: I believe that a story tells you how it wants to be written.  When they asked me to write an essay, I couldn’t think of anything.  But I did think of writing a little comic book about the silent treatment.  I recruited Mo to draw the pictures.  I kind of love that the images are naïve and innocent.

The cat: Did bullying change you as a person?

C.C.: I think it’s more that group dynamics and my struggle to understand that that has changed me as a person.  Sadly, I think that group think doesn’t go away just because we aren’t kids anymore.

The cat: In your opinion, what is the most important thing for a person to do when they witness bullying?

C.C.: Speak up.  Help out in whatever way you can. But stay safe.  Talk about it.  Silence is the real trouble.

The cat: What one advice would you give someone who is being bullied?

C.C.: You think that no one knows what you are going through.  But you are not alone.  And there is definitely an adult in your world who has been there and knows and that you can talk to.   So find them and talk about what’s going on.

The cat: Finally, can you tell us anything about new projects you are working on?

C.C.: Yes!  My next book comes out in Spring 2013.  It’s a comic book for younger readers called Odd Duck and it’s illustrated by Sara Varon.  It’s about two ducks named Theodora and Chad.  I’m very excited about it.   And I’m currently working on YA novel called The Tin Star.  It’s book one of a two book sci fi series I’ve got coming out.  It takes place on a space station far away from Earth and it’s full of aliens.  It’s due out in Fall 2013.

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions!

Wonderstruck (by Brian Selznick)

3 11 2011

With The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the cat was introduced to a new level of originality: the novel in words and pictures, completely different from ‘your average graphic novel’, yet equally as subversive as many a comic book once was. Though not really a sequel or a companion book to the much-praised Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck does more or less follow the same method of story-writing: words as well as exquisitely drawn illustrations are used side by side to enhance the reader/viewer’s experience. Read the rest of this entry »

The Invention of Hugo Cabret (by Brian Selznick)

15 08 2011

For the cat, who’s not really a graphic novel buff, what Brian Selznick tries to accomplish with The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a unique feat: fusing together elements from such different artistic worlds such as picture book, graphic novel, children’s book, historical novel, silent movie and photography… It takes a daredevil or a con artist to pull it off, and Brian Selznick is probably both. Read the rest of this entry »

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