On Monsters by Stephen Asma

Asma_MonstersAsma, Stephen T. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: If we be human, then need we monsters? In other words, is one of the defining characteristics of humanity the creation of monsters and the monstrous? After all, monsters have always been around. They lurk in our literature, religions, myths, imaginations, landscapes, histories, and (gasp) even in ourselves! Asma takes an omnivorous approach to this topic, exploring the evolution of monsters in relation to science, philosophy, art, literature, psychology, even popular culture. Asma also takes a long hard look at the evolution and mutation of heroes — those summoned to face and defeat what the rest of us fear.

Critique: Why should men and babies worry about witches? Who was the greater monster-slayer: Charles Darwin or Alexander the Great? Why are we more afraid of female monsters?

With innovative provocation, this book invites readers into the world’s most frightening realms to confront the most wondrous yet horrific aspects of human nature: the creating and killing of monsters.

According to Asma, “Each era expresses different fascinations with monsters” but regardless of time, culture, or technology, key features of what makes a monster are consistent. And its these consistencies that wind up communicating a lot about how humans see the world, each other, their desires, their fears, their enemies, and their heroes.

This is a terrific read for writers who deal in horror, the Gothic, paranormal, fantasy, maybe even political thrillers — any genre wherein monsters are made. And it should not be overlooked by anyone noticing the recent trend in Hollywood to create conflicted, sympathetic villains competing against dark and seedy heroes (or antiheroes). Think Iron Man, The Lizard, Bill the Butcher, Walter White, Batman, and Sherlock Holmes. Lately, the line between good and bad is a murky one to draw. And Asma’s research goes a long way helping us understand not just THAT this is happening, but WHY. Why we doubt who’s good, who’s bad, and who needs done away with. The word “monster” stems from Latin monstrum, rooted in monere, to warn. Monstrum can also be found in demonstration, which originally meant “proof that something is true.” So then, monsters are warnings and, perhaps, they are also flares of truth.

Ignore your aversion to footnotes, citations, and source quotes. Asma is a good storyteller and precise researcher with a mind like a lantern able to lead you ever deeper into the dark.

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Pay the Piper by Jane Yolen

Yolen_piperYolen, Jane and Adam Stemple. Pay the Piper: A Rock n’ Roll Fairy Tale. New York: Starscape, 2005. Print.

Genre: YA fantasy (light)

Summary: Callie, 14, wants to go to a rock concert but her mega-protective parents won’t let her go. As the editor of the school news paper, Callie cooks up a quick scheme to interview the band, thus scoring backstage passes and forcing her parents to let her go cuz…it’s totally for school, right? Turns out the band is really a cadre of banished fairy folk who must make enough money every year to pay the king of the fairies, or else he must be paid in blood (read: human children). When money falls short, Callie’s little brother winds up on the blood list, jump starting Callie’s heroic and defiant side!

Critique: I lovedLOVEDl.o.v.e.d the title of this book! A rock n’ roll fairy tale? Yes, please! Publishers ought to be pushing these out like apples: one a day, to keep the doctor away. I also loved that the premise of the book unfurled from a historical hypothetical: what if what happened to the children of Hamelin in 1284 was true? What if a piper showed up and actually (millennials read: literally) led all the children away to who know where?

According to Yolen and Stemple, that event DID happen and it was because Peter Gringras and his Brass Rat band mates could not make enough money on their musical gigs to pay the king (also Gringras’s father who banished Peter–the piper, or virtuoso flutist–for accidentally killing his brother and heir to the throne).

In practice, the worldbuilding did not fully support the dilemma, which let all the air out of the stakes. Nothing really felt urgent. Peter’s band has been around forever. They are fairies after all, and age super-slow compared to humans. So every good while, when their fans begin to wonder why they don’t ever look older, they disappear and reinvent themselves. New name, new place, new tunes, etc. But by Callie’s time, they are mega-famous. As a result, I was not sure why losing the money from one gig was enough to blow the whole year and send the kiddo’s packing to fairy-folk-land.

Lastly, even though the point of view occasionally alternated between Callie and Peter, the story picked Callie as its protagonist. This also left me puzzled. In the grand scheme of things, Callie’s troubles were not that big. Her need for growth was, correspondingly, not that big. Peter, on the other hand, was a huge mess and had the most to overcome.

On the bright side, this is one of the few fairy books where the girl protagonist is NOT enchanted and idiotically, helplessly, submissively in love with the hot fairy dude. Callie tells Peter straight up, You’re 800+ years old. I’m 14. Gross! As a result, Callie is permitted throughout the story to be smart, resourceful, and autonomous. She thinks. She decides. She acts. And that’s a refreshing change within this popular trope!

Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

sagaVaugn, Brian K. Saga, vol 1. Illus. Fiona Staples. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2012. Print.

Genre: Graphic Novel

Summary: Racial opposites, Marko and Alana, fight on opposing sides of a bloody interstellar war, until they fall in love. Defecting from the army, they run away and begin a family. With a new baby to care for, they escape danger after danger as they seek to lead a new life on a new planet anywhere else in the galaxy where they can be peaceful and happy.

Critique: All the books in this series are short, but don’t expect a quick read. The artwork is too exceptional to flip past. While the plot tends to follow familiar and comfortable archetypal patterns, the quantity, diversity, and originality of the worlds and creatures rendered in Staples’s poised drawings are dazzling, baffling, and amazing! Not since the living days of Jim Henson have feral minds been exposed to such an intoxicating wealth of believable and endearing fantanimals!