A Man With An Agenda

I'm an indie bookseller in Vermont, sometime public servant, and voracious reader. I love antiques, cats, D&D, and vintage Ken. Though my job requires me to dabble across the board genre-wise, my heart belongs to the Victorians and epic fantasy.


I write something about every book I read, but only publish reviews close to the release date of the book. If you see something on my shelves and there's no review, feel free to ask me about it!

Legion of Super Heroes, Vol. 11

Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Vol. 11 - E. Nelson Bridwell, Cary Bates, Jim Shooter, Mike Grell

We're still getting some very wacky ideas from what should have been a straight-forward plot, such as the issues where the Legion teams up with a Science Police officer, or when Princess Projectra keeps getting sick. The women also keep getting weaker and weaker. The time will come when male writers will figure out how to tell a love story in a comic book without the woman becoming utterly hopeless. An exception creeps in with Night Girl's romance with Cosmic Boy, but her costume had to lose most of its fabric. I love Mike Grell's art, though, it's classic pop comic. He will make some questionable choices with costumes, too, but we'll get there when we get there. There is tension building in this series, and I can almost feel the Legion about to spring forward into the dark '80s. It's just waiting on the write author to pull all of the elements together.


Legion of Super-Heroes


Next: 'Volume 12'


Previous: 'Volume 10'

The New One by Mike Birbiglia

The New One: Painfully True Stories from a Reluctant Dad - J. Hope Stein, Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia is one of my favorite stand-up comics and I loved the movie for 'Sleepwalk with Me', so it was pleasure to be able to read this.


Birbiglia cuts to the heart of fears surrounding parenthood and reflects on how life tends to put us in really compromising situations. Reading this I am more fervent than ever in my desire to never have children, but 'The New One' has a lot to offer, even to parents. As ever, Birbiglia tackles his insecurities in a super funny and super uncomfortable way with complete honesty.


Legion of Super Heroes, Vol. 10

Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Vol. 10 - Cary Bates, Dave Cockrum

This volume contains Dave Cockrum's landmark stint as the new illustrator for the series. The early 1970s was a tumultuous time in the industry and the many titles were being revamped and or canceled to make way for new creators and lines. Cockrum was fan of the series and made many costume decisions for the series, for better of for worse. He also made many character contributions. In the end, he committed fully to Marvel to work on the revived 'X-Men', creating Storm and Nightcrawler.


Despite other advancements, the stories here are still pretty shallow. The main writer is Cary Bates who doesn't seem to plan much for the long term in his storytelling. A lot of the new costumes were fan-service for the dudes that seem even more dated than the early '60s originals. In fact, there was a whole spread of costumes sent in by fans that thankfully were used only once or twice before settling into a slightly-less-cringey holey-jumpsuits and bikinis. Notably Phantom Girl gained pigtails and bell-bottoms and Princess Projectra's front bodice is only held together by two threads, for example. Chameleon Boy and Colossal Boy got thoughtful recreations of their costumes that complimented their characters. Huh. Funny.


Still, a whole lot of fun.


Legion of Super-Heroes


Next: 'Volume 11'


Previous: 'Volume 9'

Growing Things and Other Stories by Paul Tremblay

Growing Things and Other Stories - Paul Tremblay

Tremblay is an author that I'd really like to like, but I can't put my finger on why. He writes about his style as "ambiguous horror" which sounds unremarkable.


Many of these stories are remarkable, but they don't often go anywhere. Tremblay doesn't flinch at hard-hitting emotional trauma in his characters and certainly the children aren't safe, but there's a distance to the narration that keeps me from really caring at all about their fates. There's only so much ambiguity you can throw in a story and still have it mean anything. His novel 'Cabin in the Woods', on the other hand, was so much unrelenting darkness that it was hard to get through by the end. The imagery is good though. There was a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' style story that was interesting, too, but felt like that game where you try to write a sad limerick. The author's intention was clear, but it didn't quite succeed. I don't know. 


In any case, I'll probably pick up one of his books again. I was interested by what he had to say regarding characters from his novel 'Head Full of Ghosts'. Two stories used them: the title story of this collection was especially good; 'The Thirteenth Temple', on the other hand, felt like a waste of time. I'm pulled in two directions. Thanks, ambiguity.

Reading progress update: I've read 135 out of 1139 pages.

Cryptonomicon - Neal Stephenson

I cannot find where I put this book, I've been looking for days. I don't know how I lost a brick this size, but I did.

Though, I will say, info-dumps about encryption are not as fascinating as ancient Sumerian myths, so maybe I could be looking harder.

Revenge of the Shadow People, Ghosts of Fear Street #9 by R.L. Stine

Revenge of the Shadow People - R.L. Stine, Jahnna N. Malcolm

Vinny Salvo loves hearing his friend Benny's terrifying stories about monsters on Fear Street, but friend Sharon is more skeptical. Then shadows begin moving on their own and one horned shadow monster is coming for him!


Stine's books (and his ghost-writers) are always a  roll of the dice. Sometimes you get something that's fun, middle-grade spooky, and with a bit of something to remember after its over. 'Revenge of the Shadow People'...not so much. We have a concept of shadow people - which is scary - but we have nothing other than Vinnie's gullibility and his jealousy of his toddler brother to work with character-wise. I think we're supposed to think Sharon's a jerk because she claims she deserves the award for their photography project more than Vinnie because she took and DEVELOPED all of the photos. Vinnie did glue them on to the poster board, though. And Benny? If he's not a shout-out to another book in the series I see no point to his character.


This was only twenty minutes of my time so I shouldn't be so picky, but there are books in this series that were a heck of a lot better.


Ghosts of Fear Street:


Next: 'The Bugman Lives'


Previous: 'The Ooze'

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her - Melanie Rehak

I read this in college and it opened my eyes, on finding a copy on our first venture out this past weekend in a second hand shop I figured it was time to give it another go since I've read a few of the original Nancy Drews now.


 'Girl Sleuth' traces the history of the 'Nancy Drew' series from its genesis in a memo from the Stratemeyer Syndicate to the cultural momentum Nancy Drew had achieved by the end of the 20th century. The focus is on the original author of the series, Mildred Wirt Benson, and editor Harriet Adams Stratemeyer who shepherded the series and, infamously, revised the original books and claimed sole authorship for decades. 


The story is a fascinating one. It is very hard to feel sympathy for Adams, but Rehak does a fine job on Adams' background and restrictions and the hardships she faced as a woman in a man's industry. Benson, on the other hand, was an amazing woman who would be noteworthy even without her having ghost-written Nancy. A journalist, pilot and - though she refused the title - feminist who paved the way for many after her.


I would have liked there to have been more discussion of the racism and classism inherent in the books written in the '30s and '40s. How much was present in the Stratemeyer outlines that Benson couldn't deviate from, written by Harriet and her sister for the most part, and how much did Benson add? Rehak goes straight into the era when the books needed to be revised. Those images, stereotypes and ideas were a part of the times, but they were not mandatory. Did Benson ever make a statement of regret? Did Adams? 


Still a good read for those of us who can't get enough.

You Brought Me the Ocean by Alex Sanchez

You Brought Me the Ocean - Alex Sanchez, Julie Maroh

Jake Hyde is in his junior year of high school and wants to study the ocean. He's never even seen the ocean, living in Truth or Consequences, NM, but he's always felt drawn there. His best friend Maria wants to study closer to home, and Jake's overprotective mother would agree. After his father drowned when he was a baby, his mother has all but forbid him to go near open water. There are other complications, like the weird birth marks Jake has up and down his arms and legs that glow when wet, and his growing crush on Kenny Liu, captain of the swim team. 


The story moves at a nice pace, allowing plenty of time for the characters to show who they are and Julie Maroh ('Blue is the Warmest Color') provides a dreamy landscape that doesn't dilute the sharper aspects of the story. I'd forgotten this was a DC Comics graphic novel when Jake and Maria spot Superman flying high in the sky towards the West coast while hiking. 


This novel succeeds as a coming-of-age story, complete with first romance, tears and drama as well as an origin story for Aqualad. There is an astonishing amount of LGBTQIA books coming out now (yay!), and this one hits all the marks.

The Chessmen of Doom, Johnny Dixon #7 by John Bellairs

The Chessmen of Doom - John Bellairs

When Professor Childermass' brother Perry dies, he leaves the Prof ten million dollars and his landed estate in Maine. The catch, of course, is that he must spend the summer at the remote country estate with no paid help. Naturally, the Prof is up to the task, but invites Johnny and Fergie to join him. The letter informing the professor of his brother's death comes with a riddle that comes back to haunt the professor. It speaks of pallid dwarves, dead eyes, and hairy stars. What does it mean?


This book is the usual absurd Gothic nonsense I love from Bellairs. The estate is not only large it is filled with "worthless" statuary and books imported from Europe, features a personalized tomb and statue by the front door and a 300ft memorial column - that you can climb up - for General Herkimer of the American Revolutionary War. There's also an observatory, among other things. I wish Bellairs had spent more (read: any) time describing what the boys discover in the house instead of glossing over it. I felt the lack, though child-me filled the mansion with all the Victorian trappings I longed to find in my '80s ranch. Stone Arabia and Lake Umbagog join General Herkimer as real references moved into Bellairs' world, along, of course with some recently stolen ivory chessmen from the British Museum.


Need I go into the plot? A nefarious person plans on ending life on Earth as we know it with the use of ancient, dark magic and ineffectually tries to scare the Prof and the boys from the estate so he has a clear path. He might as well have employed an unnecessarily slow dipping mechanism when he lures the gang out onto the lake. I did love the detail that Professor Roderick Random Childermass and his brothers Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker and Ferdinand Count Fathom were all named after heroes of Tobias Smollett's novels by their literary parents.


'Chessmen of Doom' makes up for its plot - stretched over a year to little purpose - with such details.


Johnny Dixon


Next: 'The Secret of the Underground Room'


Previous: 'The Trolley to Yesterday'

The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost, Johnny Dixon #4 by John Bellairs

The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost - John Bellairs

This is the first, and only?, direct sequel in the 'Johnny Dixon' series, and it may be why I remembered not liking this one as a kid. Most of Bellairs' work can be read independently, but 'Revenge' jumps right into one of Johnny's patented freaky dreams. An old man threatens Johnny, saying he's done his family a wrong, and that the ghost of Warren Windrow still roams. Warren Windrow is the 'Sorcerer' whose bespelled skull caused so much trouble last time.


Of course, Johnny doesn't tell anyone about the dream. This series. They either keep supernatural events a secret because they're embarrassed, or they disbelieve each other. Johnny starts sleep-walking and acting ornery, and has strong visions of saloons and gambling dens. Eventually, he becomes comatose and even an impromptu exorcism attempt by Father Higgins doesn't help.


As a kid, this one left me a little confused. I didn't read these in order so the abrupt revenge-plot left me in the dark. Also, with Johnny out of the picture we have the Professor and Fergie on a multi-day expedition to the Windrow estate to find ancient magical talismans (straight out of the Bible) that may be Johnny's last hope. 


The saving grace of this book, as with many others of Bellairs, are some genuine horror elements out of nowhere that keep a reader off guard, and the period details that evoke midcentury American boyhood and, in this case, Gold Rush-era California. 


Johnny Dixon


Next: 'The Eyes of the Killer Robot'


Previous: 'The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull'

Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa'Thiong'o

Petals of Blood - Moses Isegawa, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

I dragged my feet with this book for a long time. The character sketches were phenomenal, but something about the style kept me at a distance and it was a great effort to keep turning pages. Even being laid up during the covid-19 lockdown didn't help. Have to mark as 'abandoned'. 

Legion of Super Heroes, Vol. 9

Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Vol. 9 - Jim Shooter

This volume collects issues mostly from 1969, which was also the year that the Legion stories were pushed from the lead feature of Adventure comics to a second-stringer in Action comics.


The stories however...a lot seems to have happened in the volume I had to skip due to costs. Action-wise, certainly, but character development is happening and the stories are taking on more stakes. These issues are sharper and (relatively) heavier-hitting. This includes the first "drug" storyline printed in a comic book after the comics code authority banned the subject - writers got around the censors by making the story about "toxic fruit". That story, as well as an earlier one where a criminal apprehends mind drugs that were for United Planets study only featured great psychedelic art. These issues also see the beginning of new costumes, open romantic relationships and dating stories for legionnaires, and other signs that these babies are growing up!


The Legion very easily could have been cancelled after the switch in venue, but they carry on stronger than they ever were before. The only blah note was the constant referring to the women as "doll". The women have always been treated as equals in 'Legion' stories, and it doesn't go away, but I could really do without the late '60s lingo in the 31st century.


Legion of Super-Heroes


Next: 'Volume 10'


Previous: 'Volume 8'

The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs

The Face in the Frost - John Bellairs

'The Face in the Frost' is one of those books that, when finished, made me shrug, and think "Well, that happened." Except, this book refuses to go away. I finished it Friday night and scenes keep replaying in my head. I hadn't appreciated the book when I first read it in middle school - I wanted more of his juvenile mysteries, not a fantasy pastiche. Now, I know better. Bellairs had been inspired by 'The Lord of the Rings', but wanted more humanity in his characters, and less archetypes, and so created his Prospero (not that one) and Roger Bacon (maybe that one) to run around a version of late medieval England.


The plot is simple: Bacon comes to Prospero for help in locating a book. An evil wizard starts tracking their movements and the two realize there's evil afoot. The genuine horror elements clash with the light-hearted, anachronistic fantasy, which leaves a reader off guard. You don't know what to expect.


My opinion of this is improving the more I think about it, but for the most part this still reminds me of 'Three Hearts and Three Lions' and other early modern fantasies that almost captured something, but leaves most modern readers equally entertained and nonplussed.


Despite the critical success of this book, Bellairs turned away from fantasy to focus on his successful juvenile books. The book was included on the reading list in the back of one of the early 'Dungeons and Dragons' manuals, too, which is a fun future list for me to explore. There was an unfinished sequel posthumously published in the 'Magic Mirrors' anthology that I may have to track down now, and a prequel short story was finished, but is considered lost after the anthology it was submitted to was never published.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

The Only Good Indians - Stephen Graham Jones

Ten years ago, four young Native American men poach elk on tribal lands set aside for elders. They are caught. There is more to the story.


'The Only Good Indians' is a brilliant, slow build, of a novel. Once events start really going wrong in the first section it just keeps coming. A reset for the second and third part of the novel build even faster. Very unnerving, and not for anyone still traumatized by 'Where the Red Fern Grows' or 'Bambi'.


Unfortunately for my husband, I am often a movie talker. At least when viewing at home, don't get me started on those youths talking to each other through a movie up front. Just exit and smoke behind the building like decent folk. Your parents will never know. ANYWAY, at home, I ask questions no one could possibly answer for me, I gesticulate, I shout. I stand up and leave the room only to turn around, stand on the threshold, and ask more questions. Books don't often do that to me, but this was one of them.


These characters were amazing. i should say more about the book, but read the other reviews! This book nails it. I am going to check out more from Jones and, with encouragement from the excellent 'Empire of Wild', I'm going to need to read more horror from First Nations authors, too.

The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb, Anthony Monday #3 by John Bellairs

The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb - John Bellairs

Miss Eells purchases a suspiciously cheap antique oil lamp and unwittingly sets off yet another doomsday countdown. Well, to be fair, it's not a doomsday countdown, it's just a countdown to giving an unscrupulous woman god-level powers. No biggie.


I still don't like how Anthony Monday and Miss Eells became supernatural detectives, but this book is so spooky and spectacularly gruesome that it charms to this day.


The lamp, of course, was stolen from an elaborate tomb. Once lit, Anthony and Miss Eels begin to be stalked by an entity with a cobwebby face and lives are lost. Add in an appearance from Ashtaroth, winter sports, and the most interesting chamber of commerce mixer ever devised, and you have a swell mystery on your hands.


Anthony Monday


Next: 'The Mansion in the Mist'


Previous: 'The Dark Secret of Weatherend'

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Hunger Games Prequel by Suzanne Collins

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes - Suzanne  Collins

Suzanne Collins returns to the world of 'The Hunger Games' to tell the story of young Coriolanus Snow. For those who don't remember, that's Donald Sutherland. The original trilogy captivated me when I first read it, but I had my doubts about a prequel after all these years. This is partly because these books don't continue to resonate with me the way some other YA powerhouses have. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, however, so expect this one to be on the bestseller list for some time.


This was a fast read, even at 500+ pages, and there was some pleasure in seeing the world that had only been viewed through Katniss' limited gaze with greater clarity. The problem I ultimately had with this is the problem that hits a lot of prequels: this story had a foregone conclusion. The story has to have an interesting journey on top of the plot. Was the goal to humanize Snow? To reinforce the message of the original trilogy? To provide an alternative to the increasingly lampooned Katniss model of YA heroine in Lucy Gray? Having finished this...I still can't give you those answers.


I'm rating this as only OK because we didn't see any transformation of Snow. Cunning sociopathic person wins the day may be realistic, but it wasn't riveting as presented here. Lucy Gray is only a cypher because we never hear her perspective, and what we do see is from Snow's eyes, so.... Most importantly, I didn't buy the moral complications presented to the reader. Right and wrong were pretty clear and there was little or no real internal struggle on the part of the characters. That was a defining highlight of the original books. 'Ballad' succeeds only in being a return to a familiar world and by filling in gaps in the timeline of the series. If you liked the original trilogy, you'll find something in this book. Just don't expect the moon.


On the plus side, many bookstores got Mockingjay/Snake iron-on patches so if you pre-ordered a copy with them you get one for free. Check with your local - they may have extra patches that are first come/first served if you didn't preorder!


The Hunger Games


Previous: 'Mockingjay'

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