Saturday, January 24, 2015

three great graphic novels

Daisy Kutter 1: The Last Train
by Kazu Kibuishi
Bolt City Productions, 2012
153 pages

So, I hadn't realized this was re-released. I first started following Kazu Kibuishi online years ago, before Amulet was a thing, by reading his Copper comics. (I've got those in printed form too, now, so that will be reviewed here at some point.) But by the time I realized I was in love with his style and his sensibilities, his first graphic novel, Daisy Kutter, was no longer in print and unavailable anywhere. I was always sad about that because it looked fantastic.

Well, it is. One of my local comic stores supported Kibuishi's Kickstarter to reprint Daisy and I got their last signed copy, which you can imagine made me feel like queen for a day.

It's a steampunk western. Daisy is an ex-con who owns and runs a general store. It's pretty clear she's bored out of her skull by it, but it's a legit living. Her excitement comes from playing poker. So when she loses the store in a high-stakes poker match, she has no choice but to take up the winner's offer to give her the store back - if she participates in one last heist.

There are a few plot holes and the ending wraps up incredibly quickly, but this is the first in (I hope!) a series, and it was extremely enjoyable. Daisy's got depth, as does Tom McKay, the local sherrif who also happens to be Daisy's ex-partner in crime, and ex-partner, period. There are lots of questions to be answered, lots of fleshing out to happen with both characters. The world, while somewhat sketched-in for this first instalment, has a huge amount of promise. Very much looking forward to the next book.

Friends With Boys
by Faith Erin Hicks
First Second, 2012
220 pages

I find it hard to write about this one because all I want to say is LURRRRVE. This is a sweet, funny, quirky, sensitive, wonderfully-drawn coming-of-age graphic novel about a girl who is starting high school after being homeschooled her whole life. She has three older brothers whom she adores, and hasn't really ever felt the need for any friends outside of them. But they've all got their own lives and challenges at school, so she's kind of on her own. Lucky for her, she's not the only one in need of a friend.

What's nice about this is that it's not really deep or difficult, but it's still a portrait of a kid trying to find her place and fit in, while dealing with stuff - some mundane stuff, like dealing her mother's decision to leave the family or her first year at school, and some not at all mundane stuff, like the strange ghost who keeps following her around. Maggie's got challenges but she's competent, and her family (with the notable absence of her mother) is loving and supportive. This makes the book feel safe and a bit gentle, which is sometimes a nice thing in a coming-of-age book about outsiders.

This book is also really funny. The art supports the characters' development in the best way possible. Hicks can express a huge amount about a character just with facial expression and small gestures, and she uses that to full effect. It's an easy-to-follow style, too, meaning this is a great entree into the world of graphic novels. Excellent amounts of geek humour and an affirming message that being "weird" - however one defines it - is okay.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal
by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
Marvel, 2014
120 pages

I'm not sure I really need to introduce this book. It's gotten a lot of attention because Ms. Marvel is Kamala, an American-born Muslim teenager of Pakistani decent, who in addition to having to deal with the sudden onset of superpowers and the appearance of a supervillain, has to deal with obnoxious, racist classmates, a fairly traditional family, a diet that forbids bacon, and a curfew. It could have smacked of diversity lip-service, but it was so well-written it didn't.

The book lives up to the hype. There are a lot of things to like here, from the fast-paced plot and the bright, stylized art, to the way it handles what shouldn't be a sensitive issue (Kamala's race and religion) but really is. But what I really appreciated was how realistic the whole thing feels from an emotional perspective, which is not something one can always say when reading superhero comics (or fantasy novels, for that matter.) While the title of the volume is "No Normal" what is refreshing is just how normal Kamala is, right down to the fights she has with her parents when she breaks curfew and is then punished for it. She's got superpowers and she handles their onset in a believable way. She's a teenager and she feels like a teenager.

Also, on a very frivolous note, I dare you to read this one and not fall a little in love with Boris.

Will definitely be following this series.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I wrote a little thing...

... for another blog, in which I discuss the top five picture books I'm enjoying reading to smallfry right now. You can go over there and read it if you'd like.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Rose in a Storm by Jon Katz

8138952Rose in a Storm
by Jon Katz
Villard, 2010
240 pages

This was a fun and different quick read, good for a book club read over Christmas. It's a good winter read, too, for those of you who like reading "in season" - which is an interesting concept in itself. I generally prefer to read cold and snowy books in the winter; also I've noticed that in books set in the cold and snowy winter, the authors make the weather a big deal, not just background scenery.

For a book that wasn't terribly difficult to read it did get off to a slow start. I'd say it took me close to 50 pages to really get into it, but once I got rolling it went fast. Rose is a dog, specifically a working dog on a small farm, where she helps farmer Sam keep the animals in line and occasionally does other useful things as well. She is more of a partner than a pet, and Sam tends to see her as such; she is useful, not to be coddled. One winter, some time after Sam's wife Katie has died of an undisclosed illness (cancer, almost certainly) there is a tremendous, days-long, dangerous winter storm. It's up to Sam alone - and Rose - to keep the animals (sheep, dairy cows and some steers, chickens, a donkey) safe and alive through it as one disaster after another strikes.

The book switches easily and rapidly between perspectives - almost always Rose and sometimes Sam and occasionally a few other perspectives for a very short time. Katz knows dogs, and has done a lot of research and work in the area of dog psychology, and Rose's perspective is as close to what a dog's might be as Katz can possibly make it, while still making it readable. We still understand Rose, while recognizing that she's a different creature from a human, and has motivations and ideas and understandings about the way the world works that are different from what a human's might be. I'd say this was really successful, and while I've always quite liked dogs I came away with a lot more respect for them as separate creatures with agency and intelligence than I had before.

It's possible this was one of Katz's main aims in writing this book - and it occasionally reads like that, too.

One of the things that came home to me is just how dangerous a big winter storm can be, especially to farmers. I think it's easy to forget this, living in the middle of a city where your water pressure isn't dependent on the power being on, and your house is insulated (mostly), and the only creatures dependent on you to survive are in your immediate environs. The chances of a coyote getting in to eat your fish are small, and the most personal danger you're likely to see (except perhaps carbon monoxide poisoning) is having a heart attack from shoveling too much snow, and if you're hurt your neighbours are right next door. In short, it's easy to forget, being in a city, just how powerful and powerfully dangerous nature can be.

Even the problems I had with the ending didn't spoil the read for me. But the ending did unfortunately have some issues. Slight spoilers for the ending follow...

... ready?

This is the most blatant example of a deus ex machina I've seen in a novel in ages. I'm pretty sensitive to these, and I don't like them at all. If anything is swooping out of the snowy wild to save Rose and the farm it had better be set up well ahead of time. (Interestingly, my book club actually had significantly less trouble with this than I did: they thought the deus was clearly Katie, the deceased wife. I can see where they're coming from but I didn't see it clearly enough ahead of time to make it better, and I'm still skeptical.)

The other thing is that I don't think a rescue was necessary; I did think Katz had built up to an unsustainable level of tension and conflict, and I think if he'd dialed things back a bit before the climax he wouldn't have needed a deus ex machina, explained by Katie or otherwise, to wrap things up. He could have dialed things back without losing the forward momentum or the dramatic tension, too; things were plenty dramatic as it was. And then he wouldn't have needed something out-of-the-ordinary to rescue his happy ending.

... /end spoilers

Overall, aside from the ending, this is an entertaining and interesting book, something outside the ordinary. Recommended to animal lovers for sure, and people who like snowy rural stories. It's an easy read and a worthwhile one. I'll definitely be reading more of Katz, though I think I may stick to his nonfiction.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

by Rudyard Kipling
Vintage Books, 2010 (originally published in 1901)
265 pages

Full disclosure: my favourite audiobook of all time is the reading Jack Nicholson did of Kipling's story The Elephant's Child, with music by Bobby McFerrin. Ever since that transcendent experience as a child, I've been rather predisposed to like Kipling, warts and all. (All that spanking = not cool, Rudyard.) When a friend mentioned I should read this and then provided a copy, I took a long time to get around to it - but I'm glad I finally did.

Kim is the tale of young Kimball O'Hara, an orphaned white boy living and thriving on the streets of Lahore. His life changes forever when he is about ten years old and attaches himself to a naive but wise elderly lama from Tibet, who is searching for the river created by the Buddha's arrow so he can immerse himself in it and become enlightened. Kim also attracts the attention of the British spy network in India, earning himself a place of respect through his escapades running messages.

I really, really liked this book. It's a fascinating and vivid window into a time and place that really does not exist anymore. It's also a bit of a primer on how colonial racist attitudes were so commonplace and ingrained that someone like Kipling, an intelligent, compassionate man with a deep respect and love for the culture he's depicting, could still say things that are glaringly patronizing, ugly, racist, or pseudoscientific, and his audience would be right there with him. It makes me wonder, sometimes, what prejudices and errors will be exposed when someone looks at our contemporary literature one hundred years from now. Maybe (one hopes?) the idea of a person's physical sex determining their behaviour and outlook on life will seem as ridiculous and wrong-headed?

As an example of the sort of thing I mean, Kipling relies, sometimes quite heavily, on Kim's "white blood" to form his character. This is a child who has grown up on the streets of Lahore with children of many races and religions, has next to no experience of white culture or people, and yet does things that Kipling ascribes to his being white despite the fact that Kim himself doesn't realize he's white. Being white is almost a kind of short-hand for Kim being brave and clever, superior in these qualities to the "natives" around him. This despite the fact that Kim is surrounded by brave and clever people who are not white; I guess those characters had to earn their badges, rather than being born with those traits. And sadly Kipling also occasionally falls into using other characters' races for short-hand for their less desirable qualities - being deceitful, belligerent, or cowardly, for example. Ouch.

Clearly, for Kipling to write that so blatantly and unironically, he understood that being white included certain personality and biological traits other than skin colour. This was a common view supported by scientists of the time, and frankly still is in certain dark corners. The idea of biological determination is insidious and hard to shake. These days, many of the characteristics that Kipling ascribes to racial biology would be ascribed (and described, in building a character in a reader's imagination) to nurture, environment, and societal structures.

But all of that considered and aside - this book is a joy to read. Kipling's language is perhaps not quite as inventive in Kim as it is in some of the Just So Stories, but it can be, and it is always beautiful. The plot is, for a spy adventure, rather slow; but I drank up the descriptions. The colours, the smells, the tastes, the voices and beliefs, the multitude of people and the delight Kim (and Kipling) takes in the diversity. This world is messy and beautiful. And it doesn't exist anymore, except in books, and this is a good one to immerse yourself in whether you're interested in this time and place in history or not.

The characters are as bright and vivid as the rest of the book. Kim is a fantastic lens to experience his world through. And though, as above, the plot is a bit slow, it is not boring if you adjust your expectations to its pace. Very glad I read this, and recommended for the armchair time-and-space traveller, among others.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

the wild reading yonder was kind of tame actually

This time of year tends to have a lot of expectations heaped upon it. We're to celebrate, enjoy the magic, love the togetherness, and eat the food - and that's just the secular bits. Once we're through with that, we're to take stock, set goals, reflect on the year that was, and ruminate on the future. Currently all I want to ruminate on is the leftover cheese and cookies and chocolate and whether or not it will make me desperately ill if I attempt further eating. My poor overfed brain is barely up to the task of celebrating, much less ruminating on the future. All it thinks is: cheese cheese cheese sleep cheese chocolate? cheese...

But let us attempt this anyway! First, the taking stock:

This has been an interesting reading year for me. It's hard not to feel that I have failed a little bit; I haven't managed to read as much as I wanted to, numbers-wise. (I will never read as much as I want to, numbers-wise. There are just not that many minutes in the day, or days in the week, or weeks in the year, or years left in my life.) But I have noticed a shift in my reading, something that hadn't really dawned on me until a couple of weeks ago. My reading, though quantitatively not stellar, has been qualitatively really interesting this year: I'm reading much more widely, and much more challenging stuff, than I have in years.

What many term "escapist reading" is great and I enjoy it - my easy and happy and predictable romance novels, my genre-conforming, conventional, not-too-gritty fantasies, my cosy, comfortable mysteries. I know what I like in those books and generally "challenging" is not it, and those books hold a very important, and fundamental, place in my reading. But what seems very strange to me is that lately I have enjoyed those books less, and actually found "challenging" to be more enjoyable.

Unpacking "challenging": I think what I mean by this is books that require a little bit more mental attention, books that maybe have dense language (I'm reading Proust, and loving it) or that have complicated, unpredictable, and not always snuggly-puppy-happy plots (there will, eventually, be a review of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, and the plot-light but language-and-image-heavy Ru by Kim Thuy). I had been staying away from books of this type, that will require close attention or demand some sort of emotional toll of me, because those books have not made me a happy reader for a long time. I think that's changing. 

Some things are not changing. Language is important in a book for me - I want good writing. That's pretty key. But also incredibly important is characters. I need to like the characters. I need to be able to get behind them. I need to connect with them in some way. I can't get around this. I am not one of those people who can honestly say "I don't have to like the characters as long as..." because every time I've tried that, I've disliked the book. I also generally don't want my likeable characters to suffer horribly or die in some sort of unredeemable way. I recognize this makes me a bit of a chicken, but I'm prepared to live with that. I can read about a character going through something difficult, but there had better be some hope at the end of the tunnel; otherwise the book isn't for me.

Next: numbers, numbers, numbers!
(Feel free to skip this part. I record this for my own benefit. Numbers are fun for me; I am one of those people who likes data entry and pretty graphs. I also find it interesting to summarize my year in reading this way, because it helps me see the bigger picture.)

Books read in the past year: 40
Fiction: 36
Nonfiction: 4
Adult books: 27
Young adult books: 8
Middle grade books: 5
Graphic novels: 7
Audiobooks: 6
eBooks: 10
Series started: 12 (Oh man. Ouch.)
Series finished: 1 (WOOOO!)

Author's nationality: 
Canadian: 6 (incl. 1 French-Canadian novel)
American: 21
British: 9
Japanese: 3
French: 1

Decade of first publication:
2010: 22
2000: 10
1990: 3
1980: 1
1950: 1
1900: 2
1870: 1

One big change, though it doesn't show so much in the numbers, is that I'm not reading nearly as much middle grade fiction. In fact, all five of those books were read before March of this year. This has to do with some changes at work: I'm not currently running a middle grade book club. My ratio of eBooks to traditional formats is exactly the same, which is kind of an interesting trend to note too. Perhaps that's my threshold?

My favourites of the year (more reviews forthcoming):

  • The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes is my clear top book of the year. It's hard to choose favourites, but this book really stood out. Marvellously well-written, fascinating, well-researched, and while it was long I enjoyed all of it. Science biography mixed with history and synthesis of culture and scientific discovery. Incredibly well done. Excellent as audio, too.
  • The Bird of the River by Kage Baker is for sure my top fiction. It's a perfect coming-of-age fantasy, without the epic trappings of many of these sorts of books. No giant world-shaking quests here, though the main character is an orphan, and she does have a role to play in connecting and stopping a series of bandit raids. I loved the world-building and I find Baker's writing goes down really smoothly.
  • The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan was excellent, even though I squished it into a review with two other not-as-great books. My favourite romance read of the year and maybe of the last several. Smart, funny, thoughtful, and exceedingly well-written.
  • Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks was my top graphic novel of the year, which is saying something since I finished Cardcaptor Sakura finally. (Loved those too.) It was sweet and funny and interesting and I love Hicks' drawings. It made me laugh out loud without being too saccharine or trying too hard. Some of the solutions and resolutions seemed a bit too easy, but that didn't ruin the read for me.
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson was just spectacular. I listened to it, which I think helped; the repetition was rhythmic, not tedious, and Fenella Woolgar is a perfect narrator. The concept never got old for me, Atkinson's writing style agreed with me, and the historical detail was really interesting. I liked Ursula more and more as time went on and I kept listening even through the really emotionally difficult parts. Pitch perfect.
  • What If? by Randall Munroe is more popular science. The subtitle says it all: Serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions. This is science writing at its absolute best and the only thing wrong with it, as far as I can tell, was that it ended.

Finally, here's what's up next. Last year's list got polished off with the exception of five... uh, I guess that's half of last year's list? But some of those I'm still working on, like the Virginia Woolf. I'll finish it one of these days. Let's put her first, anyway.

  • The Common Reader Volume 1 by Virginia Woolf
  • Swann's Way by Marcel Proust (the Lydia Davis translation)
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  • Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk
  • Us Conductors by Sean Michaels
  • The Sea Among the Rocks by Harry Thurston
  • The Duchess War by Courtney Milan
  • The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Lots there to look forward to. My book club is reading heavy on the WWII stuff this coming year, which will be interesting, I think. Even though I'm not actually attending the meetings currently I'm trying to keep up with the reading, and I've been really enjoying that exercise too.

So, as previously discussed... it's not likely to get a lot more rowdy over here any time soon, but I'll keep plugging away. Thanks everyone for reading and for dropping a line every once in a while. I think a common theme with my generation of book bloggers (we can call ourselves a generation, right?) is that many of us are slowing down a bit, finding it harder to keep up with both reading and with the blogging especially, as our lives and priorities change. I don't think this is a disaster, but I'm certainly glad people keep posting. I'll try to keep up my end too. Happy new year!