The Man Who Designed the Future by Alexandra Szerlip

Szerlip has given us a very thoroughly researched biography of Norman Bel Geddes. Through luck, timing, and charisma, Geddes was able to work his way up the ladder of the theater industry, creating revolutionary sets and theatrics, that would eventually lead to even greater, non-theater challenges.

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Because the book is so comprehensive, it can be very dense at times. The author clearly loves her subject and there is a bit of hero worship in there. But I also have to appreciate how much research went into getting every detail and every fact of every theater production Geddes was involved in. By the time we get away from theater and toward the showmanship of the New York World’s Fair, it’s clear he was a creative genius at the top of his game.

That I rate this four instead of five stars is that it was a very dry read and the title is somewhat misleading. I think Geddes and his wife made their mark in theater rather than mid century design. I was under the impression this was a book about an Eames or Saarinen type of designer – whereas Bel Geddes felt more about showmanship than actual art. All the same, I did not have much knowledge of his work and enjoyed reading especially about the Worlds Fair project. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Mayday by De Campi, Parker, Blond

Mayday is a difficult graphic novel┬áto review – I didn’t love it but I didn’t hate it. Yet I didn’t feel ‘meh’ about it either. The art and story are solid and I enjoyed seeing the 1970s milieu. Perhaps the best way to describe the issue I had with Mayday is that it was ambivalent in too many places. Our anti-hero is neither likable nor not-likable, the panels and art are creative and yet too obvious in several places, and even the cover (a burning communist hammer/sickle) and title are hard to discern and/or decipher.

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Story: A soviet official has defected with a list of spies in several sensitive US areas. He is escorted to a safe house in Palm Springs. But two deep undercover agents – each diametrically different – have been tasked with removing the official permanently and taking back the film exposing the spies. Felix used to fly MIG jets but one day killed a fellow officer. Rose is a honey trap. As they travel across California, attempting to get to San Francisco, they are chased by the FBI. But Felix won’t be caught easily – even when the vulnerable Rose makes bad decisions.

The story is fully fleshed out and each of the characters has a distinct back story. Felix is, of course, fascinating in his ability to survive each new situation thrown at him. We should be rooting for him as he goes on his killing spree – and I’m not quite sure the author did enough to makes us really want him to get away. Rose, on the other hand, is just as interesting in her very different way that creates friction but also emotion between the two. Felix is determined to save her even knowing that the mission pretty much means their death, even by their own country. Even when Rose isn’t able to save herself.

Where the story falls flat for me is the chase by the FBI. De Campi did almost too good a job of portraying the swaggering Americans as they likely would be viewed by non-Americans – brash, bold, and honestly kind of stupid in their unshakable self belief. Jack Hudson is a man of reason but we needed more to like him other than that he’s not as stupid or over-the-top as his superiors. The story really sagged in the scenes that featured him or the FBI.

I imagine I will have to read this several times to understand why it was named “Mayday” (sounds like an air crash, not a cold war spy thriller). Similarly, it took me several days to realize the cover was a stylized communist flag – I thought it was a plane that was blown up and falling to the ground (because of the Mayday title).

The drug induced psychedelic scenes painted like day glow Jefferson Airplane or Grateful Dead concert posters were cliche and too easy – a disappointment even though the translation was done well. And I’m still not sure if I should be happy or sad at how the book ended – and who died and who didn’t. There were several pages of just clutter, sensationalism (a full page frontal nude woman running into a gas station bathroom because “her eyeballs were floating”), or just boring (the FBI offices). But the author and artists know how to tell a story and I enjoyed the twists and turns of this hyper violent “French Connection” style thriller. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Guardian Herd: Dark Water Trials: Promise Keeper by Alvarez

My 13 year old loved the Warrior Cats books and also Guardian Herd. Here is her review of this new series:

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I felt that the continuation book to guardian herd was rather dull compared to the earlier books. The storyline was too cliche and too easily comprehended. The landscape shared similar issues to the story – not unique enough. The characters were fine but they lacked interesting quirks to give them more personality.

The landscape is just a fantasy land with pegasi, dragons,giants,etc. I guess I was hoping the worldbuilding would be expanded. You can easily figure out what’s going to happen next, which made it hard to want to read.

The characters were relatable and did some unexpected things every so often. It was interesting to not always know what they would do next. Yet still some more interesting characteristics would have been nice. It would have added the final touch to all the characters in the story.

In conclusion, the book didn’t live up to the expectation of the last books. It had more cons than pros. In all, it was not terrible but it was a little disappointing.

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User by Devin Grayson, John Bolton, Sean Philips

User is a three part miniseries collected in a high quality hardback edition. Originally published in 2001, the series has its roots in 1990s MUD culture – the precursor to the MMORGS of today. Back then, ‘gaming’ was all text and imagination – a way to socialize anonymously, for free, with little hardware commitment, and often used to escape the pressure of real life. Of course, modern games such as League of Legends and Blizzard’s World of Warcraft/Starcraft have since replaced the interactions with visuals and a true gaming experience. So younger gamers may not understand the allure of ‘all text’ but for older gamers, this will definitely bring back some nostalgia of sleepless nights spent online with ‘friends’ in a pseudo fantasy world.

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Story: Meg is devastated when her mother walks out on the family. Her father withdraws from reality, leaving her younger sister vulnerable to a sexual predator and she herself at a loss. A chance try of a fantasy social game hooks her completely – she becomes a chivalrous night, has adventures and interactions, and discovers new aspects of herself. More importantly, she finds in the game the strength to deal with her troubled home life. But it will come at a cost – her obsession with the game has a price for her real life.

At first, this reads like a cautionary tale of how becoming obsessed with games can cost one everything in real life. Certainly, Meg’s coworkers and boss are at a loss as to what to do with Meg completely withdrawing and suddenly calling in sick often. Meg herself resents all time away from the computer – especially in lieu of what is happening in her home. But it becomes clear by the middle that this is a book about a person finding oneself – using the virtual world to envision and then enable the virtues needed to deal with life’s crises.

A lot has been said about the gender fluidity of online gaming – where men often play female characters and even have ‘relationships’ with other male online players. In this case, Meg explores cybersex and, ironically, how a male/male relationship leads to a female/female one. At heart, this is one of the main focuses of the book since this is a very personal work from the author.

There are some poignant insights – from meg’s younger sister’s cry for attention as to why she sticks with the sexual predator family friend, to the father who has completely withdrawn from reality, to the mother who has turned her back on responsibilities and run home, to the complete normalcy of the people at her work. Of course, none of the game characters are who what they seem, though all being so harmless does feel very disingenuous.

The art is very 1990s but does convey nuances fairly well. The mundane world is bland and detailed. The computer world is bright, colorful, and nebulous. If I was to be honest, it felt very dated – the computer world as interpreted by a traditional artist and full of polygons and character strings. I wanted the fantasy world to be prettier and more imaginative.

So the real question is whether this is too dated or not – has it aged well? Certainly, the art does ground itself in its milieu of the 2000 era. The story of MUDS feels like a far more innocent time than the catfishing we know today in modern MMORGS. And that our heroine finds her gumption and real life love interest from a game is idealistic at best. Most of the story is hyperreal and so loses any chance of feeling real as a result. Certainly, gender fluidity gaming doesn’t have the lurid ring it did two decades ago.

As someone old enough to have been in the original MUDs and still heavily invested in online social gaming, I found it to be a bit too pat and a bit too personal – almost a Mary Sue rather than a pointed story. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Lady Mechanika Volume 3 by Benitez, Chen

I am going to have to concede that this is a guilty pleasure read. The art is lovely – from the panel designs to the color schemes – it’s 1990s digital at its finest. There is a lot of talent here and it is quite apparent when devouring the lush visuals that we have true artistry at work. But the stories are, once again, very derivative and I find this series missing the alluring fantastical aspects of steampunk – the wonder and the innocence of turn of the century London. With this volume 3, the story takes an even darker turn as we get a sub arc and then more information on the main arc of our heroine’s background.

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Lady Mekanika still seeks the mystery of how she became mechanically augmented. When exploring a case dealing with murdered street urchins with missing body parts, she makes a connection with a detective who has a mysterious past of his own. Together, they will work to bring justice to the ‘lost boys’ – orphans society will never miss and therefore have become easy targets for a madman.

The story is quite short this time – nearly half the length of the previous volumes. But I found the art and even the story to be a bit more interesting in this volume 3. The series is picking up its stride as it builds characters – from Fred to the new detective (who sports a fascinating half Indian/half British history). Frustratingly, I find the side characters so much richer and more interesting than the main; I understand she needs to be a cypher but she is also fairly one dimensional as well.

The story this time delves into Jewish mythology of golems – a subject that has spawned several interesting books recently including the best seller The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Because it is so topical, it feels disingenuous here. I want something new and interesting for a pivot plot point, not what’s in the vogue. Steampunk has such a fascinating breadth that there is so much more to be explored and created rather than regurgitated.

Most will probably buy Lady Mechanika for the visuals and not the story. But I hope in the next volume the new side characters will breathe some life to the story, if not our main character Lady Mechanika. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Moonshine Volume 1 by Azzarello and Risso

With Moonshine, Azzarello mines the rich lore of 1930s prohibition era america with trademark grit and violence. The story can feel somewhat confusing at times as hillbillies fight gangsters and werewolves stalk G-men. But at the heart of it is the slow unraveling of a big City mob crony completely out of his element in Appalachia.

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Story: Lou is a handsome smooth talker sent by his New Jersey mob boss to broker a deal to bring high quality moonshine to New York speakeasies. But things aren’t as straightforward as they seem and Lou soon finds himself irrevocably trapped in an ever devolving nightmare of alcohol, sex, violence, and horror. Something is very wrong in the Virginia backwoods – and he’s walked willingly into the middle of it.

The story is dark, as would be expected of an Azzarello title. Lou is pretty much a nuanced and conflicted character that feels very authentic to the era. He’s neither good nor evil, reprehensible nor pardonable. As the story unfolds, his complete debasement is both startling and fascinating – a car wreck you can’t turn away from as you pass. This isn’t an anachronistic retelling of the jazz era; rather, Azzarello stays true to the period in nearly every way – from the dialogue to the art.

There is true mastery here of design in each of the panels. The perspectives well thought out, creative, and effective in building a sense of dread and hopelessness. Because the story takes so many unexpected turns, readers could have become very lost. But that never happens in Moonshine, a true testament to an artist at the top of his game.

So much happens in this first book that it almost feels like a complete book in itself. But really we only have an introduction and that’s important to remember or it will feel like too much is going on and the book lacks focus. But I am expecting Azzarello has the big picture well in hand and I imagine the next book will be even twistier and consuming. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Building Natural Ponds by Robert Pavlis

With Building Natural Ponds, author Pavlis has given us a thorough understanding of everything needed for a natural pond – whether a small front yard decorative feature or a very large swimming hole to grow trout. Unfortunately, there are only a few black and white photographs and some illustrations, so this felt much more tailored to those comfortable with building, especially those with access to power equipment. That said, I did find much in here to help ensure I can maintain a pond, even through Winter, and develop a healthy ecosystem that never needs cleaning or much maintenance.

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The topics covered in the book are as follows: Understanding a balanced ecosystem, Environmental benefits, Natural looking designs, Planning and design, Building, Fish, Plants, Maintenance and troubleshooting, Large-scale ponds, Pools, bogs, and rain gardens.

As can be seen, quite a range of topics are covered. The writing is clean, friendly, and easy to follow. The book isn’t dense, at 160 or so pages, the topic is covered neatly yet thoroughly to ensure a successful project. One front page includes 3 color photographs of the same pond at a nursery. Everything else is a very infrequent diagram or black and white photo. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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