Dead Air – Michelle Schusterman

Dead Air CoverSeries: The Kat Sinclair Files, #1
First Published: 1st September, 2015
Genre: Middle Grade Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Penguin Random House

Kat Sinclair’s dad gets a new job presenting a ghost-hunting TV show. Kat goes with him and starts a behind-the-scenes blog, but there’s more going on than she ever imagined.

Kat is dealing with family issues. Her mother has left. This gives Kat the freedom to find her own style, such as finally being able to cut her hair and wear horror t-shirts. She also gets on a lot better with her dad and grandmother (from her mother’s side). But at the same time, she’s angry her mother left. The children Kat meets on the set also have their own family issues to face. The parents here aren’t shown as one-sided evil people or as always getting it right. They’re realistic families trying to figure things out.

The internet features prominently. Each chapter opens with things like emails, blog posts and forum comments. Kat writes her blog as well as staying in touch with friends and family. It covers the positive things, like people being able to share their interests. It also covers the darker sides, of death threats and obsessive fans. I liked that it handled those issues without making it sound like the internet was the start of them. Kat’s own grandmother had a stalker when she was younger. The tools change, but there will always be people who take it too far.

There is a dash of the supernatural here, but the heart of the story is really the people, rather than the ghosts. Kat has to deal with Oscar, who is about her age. They’re both being homeschooled by the show’s intern Mi Jin. And there’s the whole issue of why the show has such a high turnover of hosts. The mystery unfolds at a reasonable pace. It was obvious to me long before it was to Kat, but that does mean it’s something the reader can figure out.

One of the crew, Lidia, has a congenital heart condition. She has a pacemaker, takes medicine, and has seizures. I did have concerns that this might be written off as having a supernatural cause. Seizures often get shown as something mystical rather than actual seizures. That doesn’t happen here. Some things might aggravate her symptoms, but it isn’t suggested that her heart condition was due to anything other than natural causes. However, I wasn’t fond of the plot requiring the triggering of seizures, as in reality, there’s never a good reason to do this.

Kat is biracial, with a white mother and black father. Her father is the one who appears the most in the story. Mi Jin is presumably Korean American based on her name, though it isn’t stated. There’s a gay supporting character. Generally, these things are handled with a light touch. The plot isn’t focused on them, but they aren’t missable.

This is a fun ghostly adventure, with references to classic horror films, and some new creepy tales of its own. There is some discussion of death (the ghosts tend to have died in bad circumstances), death threats and related violence. It’s handled at an age-appropriate level.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Skeleton Man – Joseph Bruchac

Skeleton Man CoverSeries: Skeleton Man, #1
First Published: 1st August, 2001
Genre: Middle Grade Horror / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

When Molly’s parents disappear, she’s sent to live with an uncle she’s never seen before. He reminds her of the story of the Skeleton Man, but will anyone believe her?

The story starts after Molly’s parents have vanished, but it flashes back to previous events such as her parents not coming home and meeting her uncle. Her uncle reminds her of the old Mohawk story of the Skeleton Man. This is about a man who likes the taste of human flesh, so eats all of his own until he’s only a skeleton. Then he starts eating his family. Her uncle is pale, thin, and she’s never seen him eat. But more importantly, she’s sure he doesn’t have good intentions towards her, whatever those might be.

I liked the theme of using stories to understand the world. Thinking about the Skeleton Man gives Molly a framework for dealing with what’s happening around her. The stories in her dreams help her decide what she’s going to do. This is also reinforced with modern stories, as Molly feels comforted by the songs from musicals sung by her teacher, Ms. Shabbas.

Though what’s happening at her uncle’s house is creepy, there’s also horror in what happens outside. Molly has her concerns dismissed by the adults who should be protecting her. Her only ally is her teacher. Ms. Shabbas believes something is wrong, without expecting Molly to be use exactly the right words. It’s clear Molly is frightened and that’s enough. But the people with the real power to act are reluctant to listen. This will be relatable for many children, who’ve tried to go to adults only to have their concerns brushed aside.

Ms. Shabbas has her own obstacles when it comes to being heard. Her concerns about Molly are not taken particularly seriously, even though she’d know the children in her class and would be in the good position to realise something isn’t right. No one outright says she’s being too imaginative, as happens to Molly, but there is that polite attempt to not listen to what she’s saying if at all possible. This is subtle, as the only indicator given is that Ms. Shabbas has an afro, but I certainly took that as being a black woman making it harder to be heard.

Race and culture is touched on in other ways. One reason Molly is sure she won’t be believed is the Skeleton Man isn’t a shared story with the adults she’s approaching. Molly takes her own dreams very seriously, but is aware that talking about them won’t go down well. She’s also very critical of her own appearance, such as finding her dark hair ugly and wanting to dye it blonde. It reminded me of wanting to straighten my hair when I was a child, because I’d already picked up on my hair not being deemed acceptable. Children shouldn’t face these pressures telling them non-white features are ugly, but they do, so Molly’s criticism of herself was unfortunately very plausible.

There is a reference to the idea of being crazy as a potential cause of the uncle’s behaviour. The adults involved make a specific link between people who are non-neurotypical and survivors of trauma as being likely to act this way. Molly pushes this aside as unlikely. But the link is still being made between evil acts and craziness, in a way that some readers will take away as being the probable cause.

Outside of my concerns on the evil and crazy link, I enjoyed the story. It creates that unsettling feel right from the start. As well as the potential supernatural angles, it also touches on some rather more everyday (if not any less horrifying) issues.

The reading difficulty of the book is aimed at lower middle grade. It’s a very short novel with relatively easy words. The edition I read had pictures by Sally Wern Comport to break up the text. Note that it does have horror themes and cannibalism references.

A Front Page Affair – Radha Vatsal

Front Page Affair CoverSeries: Kitty Weeks Mystery, #1
First Published: 1st May, 2016
Genre: Cozy Mystery / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Kitty Weeks is an apprentice reporter for the Ladies’ Page of a newspaper. Her first big assignment, to cover a party, turns into something more when someone is murdered.

The story is set in the USA during World War I. The period comes across clearly, and the series looks set to cover America’s entry into the war. There are a number of mysteries that come together in the book. I guessed the initial murderer quickly, but as there was more going on, there were still things to figure out.

The biggest issue was I didn’t connect with the main character. Kitty is from a wealthy family, which gives her the freedom to take on her dream job. She still faces issues from a newspaper editor who thinks women shouldn’t be reporters, though her biggest issue turns out to be herself. Kitty is the one who decides to skip off work for things that could have waited until later, or to go home early on a day when she was needed late. She simply assumed that if she did that, there’d be no consequences. When there are consequences, she’s shocked. Her first reaction is to assume those working class people around her, who do stay at work, were out to get her. Rather than not having a whole lot of choice because they can’t risk their income. This is why I empathised more with the people around Kitty than I did with her.

It’s uncomfortable to have the attitudes of the time laid on so thickly, without anything to balance it. For example, there are racist statements, but no prominent characters of those races. It touches on attitudes to gay people at the time, but the only gay character ends up dying tragically. People outside of the white upper class are lucky to get lines, and certainly don’t get a lot in the way of development.

It was also difficult to get through the non-fiction sections. There are quotes from books and articles, which slow the story down. All round, I found myself skimming a lot.

I didn’t hate the book. It’s competent. But those things meant I didn’t love it.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Movie CoverGenre: Superhero / Film
Main Cast: Henry Cavill; Ben Affleck; Amy Adams; Gal Gadot; Jesse Eisenberg; Jeremy Irons
First Shown: March, 2016
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

I wasn’t that fond of Man of Steel. So when I went to the cinema recently, I walked past the staff in their superhero costumes, the table of drinks, and the balloons. Instead, I headed into Zootropolis, which was great. But there had been a bit of a mistake when the tickets were booked, which meant the manager had to handwrite tickets for a showing at a slightly different time. The cinema sent free tickets as compensation. So it’s thanks to Odeon Cinemas that I’m writing this review of Batman v Superman.

In the aftermath of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) fight with Zod, people are questioning whether Superman is a good thing for the world. Batman (Ben Affleck) has no doubt about the answer: after seeing the carnage caused by the battle, he thinks Superman has to go. But it might be that there’s something more happening than either of them realise.

One of my criticisms of Man of Steel was the amount of death that was brushed under the carpet. Epic fights happened with no attempt to move the fight away from the city. Civilians had to fend for themselves, if the film even acknowledged they existed. This film does address that. The opening scenes were the strongest on that score, as they show Bruce Wayne on the ground during the finale of the previous film. It humanises the conflict in a way Man of Steel failed to do. Some of the later scenes did not work so well, as there were a whole lot of happened-to-be-uninhabited places in two major cities. That was rather convenient and hard to believe. Though at least the heroes are now considering that civilians will die if they’re not careful.

I liked the concept behind Batman. He’s older, and twenty years as Batman has taken its toll. Wayne Manor is a ruin, so he lives in a new building on the grounds. Alfred (Jeremy Irons) is also older, and has become rather more cynical. Given how often the Batman origin story is done, it was a good choice to have an established Batman, with the issues that come with that.

Batman going darker is the main theme of his storyline. He tortures criminals for information, which fails as it’s not a reliable method. As Alfred points out, it’s Bruce Wayne who finds the information through non-violent means. The violence is a coping mechanism, not a solution. This was an interesting take on Batman, but I would have liked more on what led to this. He has flashbacks about his parents dying, but the traumatic things he would have faced after that are glossed over.

Superman’s storyline didn’t have a lot going for it. He gets very little time as Clark Kent, and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) ends up doing the reporter thing without him. There’s a lot of standing around looking sad and feeling guilty about people dying. Not a whole lot of really getting into his story, or showing his relationship with Lois developing.

The final main hero is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). She has a small role in this one, but it’s a good sign for her coming solo film. She has an air about her, as though she’s a lot older than she looks, which really works for the role. She also brought a bit of interest to later fight scenes, as she’s a lot more tactical with her weapons than the other two.

The villain is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), son of the original Lex Luthor. Having him as the next generation of Luthors isn’t a bad thing, though little time is given on expanding his backstory and motivation. It wasn’t clear how the older Lex Luthor died or how else things had gone differently in this timeline. All of this would have impacted the life of the current Lex Luthor.

Unfortunately, undeveloped elements are a trend. There’s a lot of introducing characters and plot, then trying to wrap them up neatly and quickly. This doesn’t make for the best story.

Taking Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy), for example. He’s in a wheelchair after having both legs amputated (above the knee), due to injuries from the big attack of the previous film. He feels bitter and blames Superman. When he climbs the Superman statue to spray messages, it looks like he might get a role that goes beyond being there to pity. But he doesn’t, and that’s his last moment of agency when he’s not being manipulated. I was particularly uncomfortable with the press interview, where the camera moves to show his legs as he complains about losing everything. It’s set up in a way to point at his disability as something to pity. It would have been a lot more interesting to have his anger against Superman and the system actually come to a resolution. And as a result, for him to come to terms with what happened. But there’s no time to develop his story.

On to some of the other things going on, mental illness is handled the way superhero stories often do. Batman’s trauma is shown with empathy, even when his behaviour is going off the rails. Lex Luthor is the bad guy, which means he’s called psychotic as an insult (he doesn’t come across as actually psychotic… he also shows signs of trauma). Lex is irredeemable and mentally ill, while Batman can change and is troubled.

There’s a scene where Superman rescues a girl in Mexico. The crowd holds their hands out to touch him, as though he’s a god. Superman might be uncomfortable with this, but it still paints him as the great white saviour, worshipped by those simple non-white folk who don’t know any better.

Gotham and Metropolis were difficult to tell apart. They were also really close together. I never imagined they’d basically be districts of each other, viewable just by looking the right way. If it hadn’t been for characters saying where the action was happening, I wouldn’t have known.

There’s a lot more that could be said without needing to give away major plot twists or talk about the ending, simply because there was so much happening. It’s really the setup for multiple films.

I didn’t hate it, and I did like it better than Man of Steel. There were some themes I’d like to see explored more in sequels, like what it means to be an older Batman. There was plenty of action, and it’s likely to be enjoyable enough for superhero fans. But I didn’t love it because of the cramming issue.

When it comes down to it, I’m a lot more interested in the possible future films that will come from this. Wonder Woman is finally getting another film. After reading Cyborg’s adventures, I’m curious about how his story will be developed. Aquaman has always hit my love of ocean stories, even before Jason Momoa was cast in the part. The groundwork for the setting could lead to something great, but the filmmakers do need to slow down and tell one complete story per film, rather than trying to do everything at once.

Cyborg Vol. 1: Unplugged – David F. Walker

Cyborg CoverFirst Published: 29th March, 2016
Genre: Superhero / Graphic Novel
Contributors: David F. Walker (writer); Ivan Reis (penciller); Joe Prado (artist); Adriano Lucas (colourist); Rob Leigh (letterer)
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Attackers from another dimension kill Cyborg and steal his arms. But Cyborg doesn’t stay dead and his arms regenerate. He heads to S.T.A.R. Labs to find out what’s going on with his technology. Meanwhile, in another dimension, a war against alien cyborgs rages.

This graphic novel includes the first six issues of Cyborg’s comic. It tells a complete story, though does leave some plot threads open for future stories. The opening introduces what’s been happening in Detroit while Cyborg was off being a superhero, as well as providing space for Cyborg to reflect on his life and relationships. This part interested me the most, as it means finding out about the man behind the snarky superhero.

Inevitably, the two storylines come together, and there’s some alien cyborg action. The highlight of that part was the art. The aliens are detailed, and there’s a certain organic messiness to the cybernetics. The battle scenes are a place where this really gets to shine. My only complaint with the artwork was the cat who Cyborg talks to before and after. The cat didn’t seem as detailed or expressive as the other characters. Though he wasn’t in a lot of frames, it stuck with me.

Cyborg’s backstory is having most of his body destroyed and replaced by machines, including a replacement eye and arms. Disability issues often aren’t addressed in stories like this. When prosthetics give someone superhuman abilities, it’s usually handled as though there aren’t any issues at all. That isn’t the case here, though the way it was handled wasn’t perfect. I liked that the cybernetic technology is treated as the untested equipment that it is, with the concerns that raises for Cyborg about what’s happening to his body. He also faces being treated like a science experiment by the scientists, including his own father. The struggle against feeling dehumanised is linked back to how he felt just after the accident, when he was hesitant to go outside due to reactions from other people. Even after becoming a superhero, he faces people asking him invasive personal questions, from how he goes to the toilet to his sex life. Superhuman prosthetics don’t make these social consequences go away.

Other social concerns are touched on in the early part of the story, such as differing access to medical care. A man with a missing eye and crude prosthetic arm is one of the protesters outside the labs. Detroit is suffering financially, and access to the best medical care is not something everyone has. This leads to body shops, where people can have untested cybernetics attached. It’s an option that can be within reach for people failed by the medical system, but it means surgery in shady back alley establishments and uncertainty about what the cybernetics will do.

It was a great setup… but it gets lost once the action starts, and is wrapped up neatly in a simplistic cure narrative. This highlights an issue with the aftermath in general. I’d expect a lot more devastation left behind, rather than things going back to normal so quickly. The way everything wraps up feels rushed.

I also would have liked to see more of Sarah. She’s shown as a supportive friend, and possible love interest, but doesn’t get to do a whole lot. I couldn’t say much about her. I want to see them as friends before I can really buy them as a possible romance.

I don’t think this is a bad introduction to Cyborg’s solo adventures. It has some time to develop him as a character, as well as some action. There’s more to explore when it comes to how his cybernetics are changing. The ending was the weakest part, though there is the potential to address those themes in more detail in future stories.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]