The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West by Steve Sheinkin

Information

Goodreads: The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey
Series: Rabbi Harvey #1
Source: Library
Published: July 1, 2006

Official Summary

A fresh look at Jewish folktales wise, witty, hilarious.

After finishing school in New York, Rabbi Harvey traveled west in search of adventure and, hopefully, work as a rabbi. His journey took him to Elk Spring, Colorado, a small town in the Rocky Mountains. When he managed to outwit the ruthless gang that had been ruling Elk Spring, the people invited Harvey to stay on as the town’s rabbi. In Harvey’s adventures in Elk Spring, he settles disputes, tricks criminals into confessing, and offers unsolicited bits of Talmudic insight and Hasidic wisdom. Each story presents Harvey with a unique challenge from convincing a child that he is not actually a chicken, to retrieving stolen money from a sweet-faced bubbe gone bad. Like any good collection of Jewish folktales, these stories contain layers of humor and timeless wisdom that will entertain, teach and, especially, make you laugh.

Review

The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey is a collection of short humorous stories about a rabbi who leaves school and finds a job in small Western town, quickly earning a reputation for wit and wisdom and his ability to fairly judge any case put before  him.  This background is necessary for the book because Rabbi Harvey’s history is explained only in one of the stories in the middle of the book; if you’re a reader who likes to go into books “blind” without reading the jacket summary, you might be confused, because there’s no introduction; the book simply opens with a story and goes from there.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this book, but I found it an entertaining collection of amusing, clever tales.  It was in the YA section of my local library, but I think it works well as an upper middle grade book, too, and the brand of humor is something I think could resonate with many middle schoolers.  The stories are not laugh-out-loud funny (at least in my opinion), but they’re quirky and amusing, and it’s great fun to watch Rabbi Harvey answer riddles and out-think others.

The combination of a Jewish community and a Wild West setting is a great one.  I’ve seen some other reviewers express skepticism of this, but I honestly never questioned it, and the book works really well.  There’s a nice combination of Western grit with traditional tales and wisdom, and I don’t think readers need to be particularly interested in either the Wild West or Judaism to enjoy the book.

This was a random find for me at the library. I checked it out because it just seemed so unexpected.  A graphic novel about a fictional rabbi just walking around being clever?  But after reading it, I will definitely be recommending it to others.

4 stars Briana

Malice in Ovenland by Micheline Hess

malice-in-ovenlandINFORMATION

Goodreads: Malice in Ovenland
Series:  Malice in Ovenland Vol. 1
Source: Purchased
Published: 2016

SUMMARY

Lily Brown is expecting to spend the weekend completing the list of chores her mother left–but then she finds a tunnel leading from the back of the oven to a strange new world.  Who are the Oven Frites?  And why do they think Lily’s responsible for their recent grease drought?  Can Lily escape their prison and find her way home?

Review

The clever play on the title of Alice in Wonderland suggests that Micheline, much like Suzanne Collins in her Gregor the Overlander series, is rethinking children’s fantasy so it can star protagonists from the city.  And, of course, Hess is also featuring a girl who looks like many young readers, but who may not often appear in literature–a girl with brown skin, frizzy hair, and glasses.  Lily Brown is the fantasy heroine many have been waiting for.  Adventures aren’t just for Alice anymore!

It’s pretty cool that Lily can find adventure right in her own kitchen.  Unfortunately, however, though the characters are engaging, the artwork delightful, and the plot full of action, the premise is also…a little heavy-handed.  The story revolves around the anger of the Oven Frites when they learn no grease drips from the Browns’ oven anymore because Lily’s mom is cooking healthier meals.  But the Oven Frites don’t want to eat fruits and vegetables.  They want their fried, fatty foods back!

If you can get past the healthy eating message, the book is quite delightful.  There is some good material in here involving a haunted prison cell, a trio of elite Oven Frite rangers, and a charming traitor to the Oven Frites.  They may be kind of standard elements, but they work.  And sometimes a solid fantasy is all you really need.

[As an aside, Micheline Hess has also appeared on some panels and spoken about her art and Black women in comics.  Search her name and you can find her speaking at the Schomburg Center, with Black Enterprise, etc.]

4 starsKrysta 64

The Amazing Crafty Cat by Charise Mericle Harper

The Amazing Crafty CatInformation

Goodreads: The Amazing Crafty Cat
Series: Crafty Cat #1
Source: City Book Review
Published: April 11, 2017

Official Summary

Sometimes school can be scary, and even embarrsing, but not today.  Today is Birdie’s birthday, and everything will be perfect!  Birdie’s panda-riffic cupcakes are beautiful, and there’s one for everyone.  She will be the star of the class.  But then…disaster!  A trip and fall on the way to school means no more cupcakes!  Who can save the day?  Who can make the class smile again?  This is a job for Birdie’s alter ego…the Amazing Crafty Cat!

After a quick transformation, Birdie is ready.  She’s not afraid of sticky paws or paper cuts.  She’s not afraid of anything, not even Anya, the class bully.  It’s time to get crafting!

Review

To be clear from the start: this book is not actually about a cat.  Yeah, I was disappointed, too.  Crafty Cat is the imaginary alter ego of our human protagonist Birdie.  And while I have no idea why imagining herself as a cat of all things gives Birdie confidence or why she must envision herself as a cat whenever she does crafts to try to creatively problem solve, I grant that it works for her.  The story centers on Birdie/Crafty Cat’s quest to save an in-school birthday celebration that keeps going horribly wrong.

I really liked that this book centers around a very normal and relatable activity for a lot of children: bringing cupcakes in to share with their class on their birthday.  (Though Birdie’s class seems to have a rule that you can do any birthday activity of your choice; you don’t need to bring in snacks.)  Things go wrong for Birdie throughout the course of the school day, and while I recognize some of these things as relatively “trivial” problems as a adult, I also know I would have been equally upset/mortified as Birdie is if some of these things had happened to me when I was younger.  (Mom can’t drop everything she’s doing and bring something I forgot to school?!  Crisis!)  Chraise Mericle Harper really gets into Birdie’s mind and envisions a book that will appeal to children.

Birdie is also a very realistic character. She’s kind and creative and cares about her friends.  But she also gets grumpy when things don’t go her way and has reasonable flaws.  The side characters are also nicely outlined, considering how little page time they get in the story.  I would have only liked to see more of Anya the bully, or at least more resolution of her role in the story.

The artwork is pastel and somewhat sparsely drawn.  Personally I tend to be a fan of more lavish artwork, things I can spend a long time looking at and still find more detail to appreciate. However, the art here is clean and easy to follow.  There are also a few whimsical touches in the background.

It took me awhile to get into the story and I think the structure could be stronger, but the plot is very relatable and Birdie is a realistic protagonist.  There are also some fun panda crafts in the back of the book, so readers can be more like Birdie.

Briana

Saints by Gene Luen Yang

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Saints
Series:  Boxers and Saints #2
Source: Purchased
Published: 2013

SUMMARY

Abused by her family, a young peasant girl flees her village and becomes a Christian convert.  Now named Vibiana, she struggles to understand her calling in light of the visions she sees of Joan of Arc. When the Boxer Rebellion arrives at the gates, Vibiana will have to decide how strongly she believes in the faith she has adopted.

Review

Drawn mostly in sepia tones, Saints is a more reflective volume than its longer predecessor, Boxers.  In a parallel story, it follows a girl from Bao’s village as she leaves her unloving family and becomes a Christian convert–initially because she thinks Christians are “foreign devils” and that she is assuming the demon nature her family has ascribed to her.  As the story progresses and the Boxer Rebellion gains in intensity, however, Vibiana must choose if she really values the faith she has been living.

Saints is a thought-provoking story, though its use of humor might obscure it reflectiveness for some readers.  Vibiana does not convert out of any spiritual or intellectual conviction, and her growth seems from the outside a little rocky.  She has a habit of asking questions that annoy some of the adults (though others appreciate her thirst for truth and knowledge) and she sometimes seems a little flippant about the faith, to the the despair of the priest who burns himself with an intensity others find uncomfortable.  The wide range of Christians depicted, however, ultimately suggests that there is room for all in the faith as they struggle on trying to find their way and trying to become better.

Also intriguing are the visions of Joan of Arc, a figure Vibiana does not recognize and whose unfolding story intrigues her as she gets to live it.  Joan inspires Vibiana with a desire to be like her by picking up a sword and fighting for her country.  Juxtaposed with Bao’s own visions of the opera gods and his seeming ability to transform into them on the battlefield,  Joan appears enigmatic.  Is she real?  Is Vibiana really seeing her?  Ultimately,  Vibiana must decipher for herself the message Joan brings and what that means for her own future.

Together, Boxers and Saints form a thoughtful look at the Boxer Rebellion, the motivations that drive people to commit acts of violence or acts of great sacrifice, and the ways in which war can distort one’s perception of what is right and what is wrong.

4 stars

Black Hole by Charles Burns

black-holeINFORMATION

Goodreads: Black Hole
Series:  None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1995

SUMMARY

It’s the 1970s in Seattlel and an STD known as the bug is devastating a local high school.  The bug can manifest as anything from an extra mouth to a lizard tail to webbed fingers, but once you have it, society doesn’t want you.  Black Hole follows several teenagers who either have the bug or are about to contract it as they navigate high school, trying to fit in but knowing they’re not like their “normal” peers.

REVIEW

I have to admit this is not the type of book I normally enjoy and the story here simply did not resonate me.  Why a bunch of teenagers would sleep with each other, knowing they will contract the bug and likely end up homeless in the woods as a result, is beyond me.  Surely one’s urges are not so strong that they’d lead one to choose voluntary mockery, degradation, and social isolation?  Isn’t this book doing a bit of a disservice to teens, suggesting many of them simply “cannot control themselves”?

It’s true that many of the teens can control themselves, but simply choose to contract the bug because they are attracted to someone else.  I still find it odd that another party would voluntarily transmit the bug to someone else, if they cared about that person.  Individuals with the bug, once they can no longer hide it and “pass” are eventually driven out of society.  In Seattle, there’s a homeless camp in the woods where the teens live in filthy tents.  And they know there’s a murderer on the loose out there, too.

Certainly the book provides a strong message about ostracizing those who are different, and the feelings of isolation and not fitting in will be familiar to many readers and especially teens, who can see themselves reflected in the young protagonists.But I’m not sure if this is a particularly effective way of talking about what constitutes “normal.” Questions about why teens would voluntarily cause each other to suffer because they “love” each other are all I can think about.

Plus it’s easy to get distracted by Burns’ apparent personal challenge to make everything and anything visually resemble female genitalia.  This is a very graphic novel–I mean, an adult novel.  With adult content.  And sometimes the books seems so caught up with trying to be provocative and titillating that it loses sight of its own message.

I really do not feel that I got anything out of this book that I could not have gotten more profitably elsewhere.  A deeper message about teenage years or fitting in.  Without a cast of characters devoted to nothing but getting high and sleeping around.  As I said, it’s not the type of story I enjoy.

2 starsKrysta 64

Drama by Raina Telgemeier

dramaINFORMATION

Goodreads: Drama
Series:  None
Source: Library
Published: 2012

SUMMARY

Callie is so excited to be the set designer for her middle school’s production of Moon Over Mississippi.  But now she’s having trouble getting the cannon to fire and, even worse, it seems like half the cast is involved in drama over dating.  Can the show go on?

REVIEW

I enjoyed Drama mainly for its quirky protagonist and its lovable cast of characters.  The drama of Drama, however?  Not so much.  Raina Telgemeir crams in so many crossed loves that the book feels more like a soap opera than the story of a seventh grader’s involvement in school theatre.  In some cases, less really is more.

YA has become somewhat infamous for love triangles, but here we have what seems to be a love pentagon. Maybe even a hexagon.   It’s hard to keep track of who likes whom because none of them apparently know what their feelings are, either.  The kids are all kissing and dating each other in what almost seemed to be some sort of incestuous muddle as half the characters seem to be semi-involved with each other throughout the course of the book.  But isn’t it normally a bit of a taboo to kiss someone right after they’ve broken up with someone else, or to start dating someone the week after a break-up?  Isn’t there usually some sort of unspoken rule about that?  I kept waiting for a character to get upset about their previous girlfriend moving on so fast, or finding out that they were a rebound, but generally no one cared.

Aside from the weird romantic dynamics, however, the story is engaging.  I loved seeing someone write about the people who usually stay behind the scenes during a show.  Their enthusiasm for tech and theatre is contagious, and the characters themselves are quite endearing.  I wanted to join Callie’s circle of friends because they always seem like they’re having a good time.  It’s a shame the plot didn’t quite live up to the characters.

3 starsKrysta 64

The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman, et al.

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists
Series:  None
Source: Library
Published: 1990

SUMMARY

Ten thousand years ago, Dream of the Endless sentenced a woman to hell because she would not be his queen.  Now, tortured by the thought that he might have been wrong, Dream determines to return to hell and release her.  But Lucifer is an old enemy and not likely to allow him entry.

Matt Wagner (Illustrator), George Pratt (Illustrator), Dick Giordano (Illustrator), Kelley Jones (Illustrator), P. Craig Russell (Illustrator), Mike Dringenberg (Illustrator), Malcolm Jones III(Illustrator) , Todd Klein (Letterer).

REVIEW

I admit that part of the reason I could never find myself part of Neil Gaiman’s massive fan base is because his prose annoys me.  It tries too hard to be “high,” to model itself on J. R. R. Tolkien, to say, “Look at me!  I am dramatic and clever!”  It jars me out of the story and causes me to contemplate why Gaiman thinks this is an effective writing style.  Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists begins with that same style.  It is full of repetition and elaborate names.  “Destiny of the Endless” gets a lot of play in the first few pages.  Fortunately, the story gets better and the plot is inventive enough that I am willing to suspend my usual distaste for Gaiman’s prose and admit that that I enjoyed this story.

To explain why I found this story so inventive and delightful would be to give away too many plot points.  So I will not say much, other than that  Gaiman plays with familiar characters and concepts and turns them on their heads.  Some might find his treatment of religion, of angels and demons, irreverent.  Gaiman clearly means them to be.  He is criticizing Christianity.  But in doing so, he raises questions about free will, about the nature of hell, about death.  He is exploring and probing and playing.  You do not have to agree with his conclusions or his apparent beliefs to appreciate his willingness to engage with such topics.

And the art is beautiful.  It is marred by a series of images that seem eroticize (often bound) women and to suggest that female sexuality is monstrous.  (Actually the treatment of women in general throughout the novel is arguably not great, both in the illustrations and in the text.)  However, if you are accustomed to trying to overlook sexism in an attempt to enjoy a graphic novel now and then, you may find it possible to appreciate the art anyway.  Even though the panels are fairly regular and the artists do not do much creatively with the spreads, the individual panels contain very detailed illustrations.  There is  a lot going on, to enjoy and to analyze.

Gaiman fans will not need my positive review of this work to continue appreciating his work and the large range of genres it encompasses.  Others, however, may be interested in knowing that this is the first Gaiman work I’ve read that has really captivated me.  I would be willing to try another book of his again, just to see if he can work his magic again.

4 stars