The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Read: 12 September, 2017

This is a rather sweet story about a mouse who loves a princess. Though written for the younger set (at 6, I’d say my kid was just the right age), there are some rather brutal moments: Tails are chopped off, parents die, children are beaten so badly that they go partially deaf, someone dies of fear… The book doesn’t really hold back, and I can see some parents (and perhaps more sensitive children) being put off by it.

As it is, the central message of the book is one of empathy. Having most of the villains be hurting, and even the “good” characters doing bad things because of their grief, generated a number of good teachable moments about that empathy theme.

Orange, The Complete Collection #2 by Ichigo Takano

Read: 10 September, 2017

Finally, the finale of the Orange story! Orange only takes up about 2/3rds of the book, with the remainder being a filler short story called Haruiro Astronaut (no, as far as I can tell, the name doesn’t make any sense).

First, for the ending of Orange: The story ends satisfyingly. It’s a little abrupt, but it works. It ends at the moment when Kakeru stops thinking about how much pain his death will spare others, and starts thinking of how much pain his death would cause others. He’s still depressed, he still has an awful lot to work through (and I really do hope that he changes his mind about seeking professional/medical help), but that one little change is a profound one.

We never do find out how the future is changed by Kakeru’s survival – will he and Naho end up together? What will happen to Suwa? Will the friends keep in touch? But, in a profound sense, none of that matters. The fact that Kakeru will be alive already changes everything. And the rest is just… life.

There are a few things that have bugged me about the series. The first is, of course, Naho’s naivete. I realize that it’s meant to be the character flaw that she needs to overcome, but it just boggles the mind sometimes. How can she keep being shocked that Kakeru likes her when the letters have already told her, multiple times, that he does? Maybe it’s just a translation issue, or maybe it’s some cultural shorthand that I’m not getting, but it’s frustrating.

Given that mental illness is such a key part of the story, I wish that it were more responsibly handled. Only one character (Kakeru’s grandmother) brings up the idea that Kakeru might seek professional help. He gets angry, the issue is dropped, it’s never brought up again. I wish that, just once, his illness could be identified (especially since he seems to share it with his deceased mother). And while I’m not sure how well it would have worked with the story the author wanted to tell, I wish that treatment had been brought up in a better way. I wish that the recommendation to seek professional help had been echoed by Kakeru’s friends as well. I wish that it hadn’t just been dismissed as if it were a humiliating thing to do.

Lastly, part of me is rather uncomfortable with the way the whole friend group tip-toes on egg shells around Kakeru. His feelings are front and centre. And while it’s not like it’s his fault, all his friends act like victims of abuse around him. Their lives are utterly focused on him – on making sure that he’s always happy, on making sure that they never say anything that might set him off. Sure, they are getting good life experiences too, but that’s incidental. Everything they do, they do for him. I’m not sure how responsible it is to present a love story and model of friendship like that.

Especially in light of Harairu Astronaut. That story is kinda terrible. There’s an interesting story in between the lines about how the two sisters view their relationship, and the one sister’s fear of hurting men’s feelings leading her to agree to date anyone who will ask (a habit that is clearly presented as destructive).

It’s just that all the men in the story are absolutely trash. Yui is abusive – he orders everyone around, tells them what to do, demands that the women feed him, etc. Tatsuaki is a stalker. Natsuki is okay, but even he is forceful in his own way (and his arc seems to be to learn to be more forceful, rather than it being Yui’s arc to be less).

But there’s some odd sexual dynamics in the story that I wish were explored a little more. I’m not sure whether Yui and Natsuki are meant to be more than friends, but they do seem like it at times. There also seem to be hints that the twins would be open to being in a poly relationship with Yui together. And the final scene has Chiki holding Tatsuaki’s hand while Tatsuaki holds Natsuki’s hand.

Mostly, I feel a bit out of my depth with Haruiro Astronaut. I can’t tell whether the subtext I’m reading into it is meant to be there or not, and I feel like there is more going on than what I’m able to perceive.

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Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

Read: 3 September, 2017

I have such a long TBR list that I don’t often get to just pick a book up based on the cover and synopsis and just give it a try. But I had a gift card, I was in a book store, and I couldn’t find any more of the books from my list. I picked Wolf Winter because it’s a Canadian author born abroad, and that’s a niche I’ve been pursuing lately. Plus, I tend to enjoy Scandinavian literary sensibilities.

The story starts as a murder mystery, but in the small settler community of Blackasen, an investigation quickly starts to turn up secrets in every closet. As one character says, the settlers who choose such a harsh, isolated livelihood are all running from something.

The book is slow, and takes the time to build up its dark atmosphere. The mountain always seems to loom, the snow always seem to press in, and wolves stalk the forest. And in all of this is the hysteria that makes ones’ neighbours the greatest danger of all – precisely the kind of atmosphere that makes The Thing (1982) one of my favourite movies.

The characters are all flawed, but feel quite solid. They all make terrible mistakes, but their mistakes are earned.

I loved that the book never talked down to the reader, but never erred in the other direction, becoming inaccessible. It’s a delicate balance, but it really worked. Events will be described in vague terms, in allusions, approached sideways, but clear shapes emerge.

One of my favourite aspects was the handling of magic. I really enjoy ambiguous magic – magic that could be real, but could just be in people’s heads. And this balance is also deftly handled in the book. It’s never quite clear whether Frederika really is able to see ghosts and cast spells, or if she is just suffering from hereditary mental illness. The story works with either interpretation.

To sum up, I took a chance with this book, and it’s an absolute gem. It’s atmospheric and brooding, it’s ambiguous but not pompously so, and it tells a solid story about superstition and family and survival in extreme environments.

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Orange, The Complete Collection #1 by Ichigo Takano

Read: 29 August, 2017

I picked up this book without realising that it was only the first volume. This, combined with the fact that the story really does seem on track to wrap up by the end, resulted in a very frustrated reader. But the next book is at least out already, so I haven’t fallen for that trap again.

This is a story about choices. The main character receives a letter from her future self warning her that one of her friends will die, and providing her with instructions to prevent that from happening. But while Future-Naho may believe that she has an accurate grasp of all the causal chains, there’s much that she can’t know even from her vantage point. Especially once the story starts to unfold differently as Naho makes different choices, and Future-Naho’s experiences become less and less accurate.

It’s a concept that’s certainly been done before (I grew up on Quantum Leap, and other shows like Early Edition have covered similar ground), so the story swims or sinks on the strength of its characters.

And I have to say that it does a pretty good job. Naho’s self-conscious naivete can be a bit annoying at times (especially when she keeps misunderstanding Kakeru’s expressions of love despite already knowing that he likes her!), but she has enough going for her not to cross the line into being unlikable. And whatever her flaws, they’re overshadowed by the interactions between the six friends.

The last thing I want to touch on is the pacing. I often complain that graphic novels move too fast – they race through plot beats without giving me enough time to really absorb the implications, or to get a sense of the characters by letting me see them to react to events. But Orange is a slow burn. Each event in the story is savoured, and the narrative meanders through the story at a leisurely pace. Characters have a chance to show me who they are, and their relationships have a chance to grow. It’s really quite refreshing!

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Vorkosigan Saga #2: Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 28 August, 2017

I am so grateful to the people who finally convinced me to give Bujold a read. Her short stories were fun, but Mountains of Mourning shook me rather deeply. And here, we have a full novel with that same intense emotional impact.

Right from the beginning, I fell in love with the Quaddies. Well, with Claire and Silver, anyway. Claire is a bit of a goodie-goodie, but I really connected with her through her interactions with Andy. And Silver… well, Silver is just wonderful.

And then Bujold started putting these two wonderful women through hell. Page after page, I had to read through a cringe as some of the worst things I can imagine happen to them. I’m fairly desensitised to violence, I don’t feel it when characters are shot, or hit, or fall. I just see it too often in media, and it doesn’t really mean much. But the things Bujold put these two poor characters through really twisted my stomach.

Leo Graf was a bit bland as a protagonist, but he worked well enough as a reader-insert. He struck that good balance between being the outsider through which the reader can experience the story, and being an active agent within the story. Even so, I liked that Bujold didn’t fall too deep in the “white guy saviour of the child-like natives” trope, despite how very strong the temptation clearly was.

Van Atta was a great moustache-twirling baddie. He made me squirm. Worse, I’ve known people like him, and Bujold wrote him perfectly to set off all my warning bells. I can understand complaints that he was fairly one-dimensional, and it’s true that he really was just irredeemably awful, but it worked. And even without complexity, he still rang very true – making him all the more frightening.

My only complaint about the book was the love story. It felt tacked on, and it really wasn’t necessary. I feel like the story, as well as the two characters involved, would have been quite a bit stronger if they could have just been friends. I would like to see a man and a woman work together to achieve a goal, suffer together, trust each other, respect each other, and not have to be lovers by the end. It’s just overdone.

But that was a very small part of the book. The rest was fantastic. And reading all these reviews declaring this book one of the weaker books in the Vorkosigan Saga is making me so very excited to read on!

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Aliens by Mark Verheiden (art by Mark A. Nelson)

Read: 19 August, 2017

Rendered non-canonical by Aliens3, Aliens takes up the story of Newt and Hicks, several years after their return to earth (due to legal issues, Ripley is inexplicably absent).

Aliens, the movie, struck a chord for people because it wasn’t just about the action – it was about the characters. When shit hit the fan, viewers cared because we had come to know and like the people it was happening to (except for Paul Reiser’s Burke – he was terrible). And in the end, we loved the little family Ripley had made for herself.

That’s what Aliens3 got so very wrong. Ripley’s whole arc, the whole process of building a new community while surrounded by the cold, machine-like xenomorphs, all got tossed out of the airlock when they killed Newt and Hicks in the opening credits. The movie failed on many other levels, too, of course, but destroying the bonds formed in Aliens right off the bat would have doomed it regardless.

Aliens makes the same mistake. Newt and Hicks are alive, of course, but the opening finds Newt in a mental institution and Hicks back in the army, and they don’t talk. They’ve come back to earth and gone their separate ways and that was that. There’s some bit further in where Hicks decides to save Newt because he did it before so why not, but that’s really about it.

These are two traumatised people with experiences that are literally out of this world, and no one can possibly understand what they’ve been through except each other. Why wouldn’t they have stuck close to each other?

Apart from what they’ve done with existing characters, the story itself is fine. It hops around too much, and there’s this whole weird bit where the xenomorphs suddenly have psychic powers for some reason. The bit about the religious cult forming around the aliens was interesting, but the story keeps jumping around too much and I never really got a grasp on who the preacher was or where he got his information from (except for the psychic communication stuff, which just came off as silly).

As much as I loved getting to see Newt again (and her arc was a decent one once it actually got started), I think the comic would have been better served by narrowing its focus. It could have focused on the preacher, or focused on Newt, or focused on Hicks, and any one of those would have made for a much better story. But, instead, the strategy seemed to be to throw as much at the reader as possible and hope that something sticks.

Which is another lesson the comic didn’t learn from Alien and Aliens. Both of those are very simple stories – xenomorph appears, Ripley survives. There are vague bits and bobs about shadowy corporations, but all the other content comes from just spending time with the individual characters – getting to like them, getting a feel for their motivations. Whatever is happening off-location is not part of the story.

The artwork is fine. I found that some of the key characters lack definition, so I had some trouble telling them apart. This wasn’t helped by all the plot-jumping. It’s in a realist style that isn’t really my bag of cats, but it does the job. I did appreciate all the detail put into each panel, which gave it some of that crowded, dark, mechanical atmosphere that the movies do well.

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Mass Effect #1: Redemption by Mac Walters

Read: 16 August, 2017

Redemption follows the search for Commander Shepard’s body, taking place after Shepard’s disappearance at the beginning of Mass Effect 2.

I’d venture to call myself something of a Mass Effect fan, and it’s the story and characters that have always drawn me to the series (as well as BioWare’s other big’un, Dragon Age). Unfortunately, this comic doesn’t have much of either.

The plot follows Liara T’Soni in her search for Shepard’s body, but she isn’t alone. Cerberus and the Shadow Broker are both looking for it, too. Helping Liara is Feron, who seems to be sometimes working for Cerberus, sometimes for the Shadow Broker, sometimes for himself. As the comic puts it, he’s “a double — no, a triple agent”. Pro tip from someone who has never written a comic: You can’t have a triple agent in a 100 page graphic novel. You can barely have one in a 700 page prose novel.

So that’s the whole story – the reader is given whiplash as we’re given a guided tour through some of the games’ set pieces, we get to see a few of the games’ characters, and every couple pages gets punctuated by a shocking twist.

Who is Feron, anyway? What, in the end, does he stand for? *shrug*

I realize it’s a little odd to complain about how Liara is presented here, since the games are pretty bad for sexualizing their female characters. But at least in the games they have some personality. Here, she just reacts to stuff while she models her skin-tight outfits in a series of spine-snapping poses. The closest Liara gets to arc is the hint we get from the title and a throwaway line toward the end – that she feels bad about leaving Shepard to die alone, and wants some kind of redemption by finding the commander’s body. Okay…

There’s a cutesy little gag toward the end about Shepard’s body being so disfigured by the blast that it’s “hard to tell if it’s even a man or a woman”. It’s an obvious joke, but I’ll admit to having a bit of a chuckle.

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Dreamweaver’s Dilemma by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 15 August, 2017

The book contains three of your standard “what if this weird thing were to happen in the real world?” stories, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, two science fiction stories (both set in the Vorkosigan Saga universe), and a collection of essays.

The Adventure of the Lady on the EmbankmentAdvertised as a “never-before-published Sherlock Holmes pastiche,” this story was quite a shock for me. I had picked up this book after multiple people recommended the Vorkosigan Saga, and I had read that Dreamweaver’s Dilemma comes first chronologically. I had no idea that this was going to be short stories, and I was even more surprised when I started the first story to find Sherlock Holmes!

As I read, I kept expecting aliens to land, or the titular lady to be revealed as a time traveller. Something. But no, this plays it straight as a Sherlock story. And despite my confusion, I really enjoyed it. I grew up with Sherlock Holmes, and it was nice to revisit that world.

Barter: This is about when I realised what I was really in for with the book. Finally, here was some science fiction – albeit of more the “weird tales” variety. The story itself isn’t too memorable, except for the very amusing unrestrained self-indulgence. As a mother with writerly aspirations, it’s hard not to sympathise with the main character – nor with the author who dreamed her up.

Garage Sale: Another cutely self-indulgent piece. I don’t think this story would have worked without context (in this case provided by it following Barter). It lacks Barter‘s obvious genre markers, so the story twists very suddenly into absurdism. As it is, I found it entertaining (albeit a little horrific at times).

The Hole Truth: Many of these stories share an amusing sense of humour. In this case, we get this lovely pun to kick off a fairly run-of-the-mill “reap what you sow” story.

Dreamweaver’s Dilemma: This is where the book really picks up. It was clear from the Sherlock story that Bujold has an interest in mysteries, and this reads like a hard boiled noir. While the three “weird tales” stories were mostly about situations, Dreamweaver is about people. The characters are vivid, the plot is compelling, and the future-tech is a well-integrated part of the story.

The Mountains of Mourning: This story really hit me. It was thick with details, and all the details interconnected meaningfully. The characters are vivid and complicated, and the moral problem at the centre of the story is a truly difficult one. And maybe it’s just the PMS talking, but I found the ending absolutely heartbreaking, albeit satisfying.

Though I’ve read that Dreamweaver and Mountains take place in the same universe, I’m not sure how that will play out. There are similarities – largely in contrast with the other stories in the book – but they are few and rather superficial. I suppose this is a “backwoods vs developed centre” issue, and all will make sense as I explore the saga a little more.

The essays at the end of the book are all interesting and worth reading, and I appreciated the Vorkosigan trivia appendices.

I had some trouble ordering this book within Canada (though listed on Amazon, I was getting emails every few months to inform me that they couldn’t find the copy they thought they had until, eventually, they simply told me to go look elsewhere), so I took a gamble on the strength of recommendations I’ve received for this author and special ordered it from the US. I spent a fair bit more than I usually do for books, but I don’t feel cheated in the least. Mountains, alone, would have made the whole book worthwhile, but I enjoyed my time with each and every one of the stories.

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The Myth of Persecution by Candida Moss

Read: 9 August, 2017

The central argument of the book is that, while there were some periods of actual persecution of Christians in the early centuries, they were very few. Most of the martyrdom accounts we have are unsubstantiated, or refer to prosecution (where Christians were breaking laws that were not drawn or enforced with Christians specifically in mind).

And this matters because it is the narrative of martyrdom that excuses horrifically callous behaviour. Specifically, the fudging between disagreement and persecution. If Christians are always and have always been under attack from worldly forces, and people wanting to get gay-married is an attack on Christianity, then the Christian fight against gay marriage becomes a fight of self-defence.

I would also add, though Moss doesn’t, that there is also a fudging between chosen martyrdom and imposed martyrdom. Part of the veneration of martyrs also promises greater heavenly reward for greater earthly suffering, which is the logic used by people like Mother Teresa in denying palliative care to terminal patients. By increasing their suffering in their last days – without their consent (informed or otherwise) – Mother Teresa sought to purify their souls.

The book does have some weaker moments, such as when Moss hitches much of her argument against the reality of persecution in the earliest period on the fact that the group in question was not yet called Christians (largely around p.130-134). Which is just an argument from semantics, and not particularly useful.

But for the most part, Moss constructs her arguments well, She also strikes a good balance between being readable and being informative.

I think that much of this book will appeal to the “New Atheist” types, who will make much of the occasional ‘gotcha’ sound bites. I also think it’s a valuable (though perhaps uncomfortable) read for Christians who currently believe that early Christians were persecuted, especially if they believe that this persecution has been ongoing. This book won’t hold any hands, though, so I suspect that most readers from this group will simply dismiss it.

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Fatty Legs by Margaret Pokiak-Fenton & Christy Jordan-Fenton

Read: 17 July, 2017

Olemaun desperately wants to learn how to read. So, despite her sister’s warnings and her father’s fears, she demands to go to the Outsider’s school.

The story of Olemaun is told in a very straightforward, factual manor. There are the hardships and the bullying from a nun nicknamed ‘the Raven’, but there are also sweet moments, such as her few interactions with the nun nicknamed ‘the Swan’. It’s a very human story.

With its simple narrative style and many illustrations (including a number of photographs), this is perfectly suited to early chapter book readers. This would make a perfect introduction to the issues surrounding residential schools and cultural genocide.

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