My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutola

Read: 23 May, 2017

For some reason, my copy of the book includes both My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and The Palm-Wine Drinkard, but in the wrong order. I didn’t realize that I was reading the second book first until I had already finished it.

I don’t think it matters too much, except that there are a few “wink at the camera” mentions of a Palm-Wine Drinkard that I assume I’ll get once I read the first book.

The story follows a young boy who, escaping from some inter-tribal warfare, finds himself in the Bush of Ghosts. There, he wanders around for twenty years among the ghosts, suffering various trials and tribulations, until he finally finds his way home.

The writing style is a bit of a challenge – it’s written in a very “oral” style, complete with some colloquial grammar. It meant that I had to slow down my reading, letting the voice in my head narrate, or I would get lost.

The narrative is very loose and episodic. Just as the main character visits numbered towns in no particular order, so his adventures themselves could have been arranged in just about any order.

I found the story very interesting. It isn’t character driven, by any means, as the main character only really serves as a vehicle to explore the Bush. But the ghosts he meets are imaginative and interesting, and it was always fun to see how he would get himself out of the various “punishment” situations.

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The Change #1: Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood Smith

Read: 15 May, 2017

Like most people, I have a bit of series fatigue, and have been trying to aim for more stand-alone novels. But then I accidentally picked Stranger up after seeing it recommended somewhere, not realizing that it was a series until I started writing this review.

This is an ensemble story, beginning with a scavenger (called ‘prospector’) coming upon a small town. He tries to fit in while each of the other characters deal with their own drama and the regular dangers of their environment, while their own local Lord Humungus brews up dastardly designs on the town.

The most obvious thing about this book is it’s diversity. There are many different ethnicities, many religions, many sexual orientations and types of romance… This is a book that is chock full of diversity.

It does read a little odd at times. This town, that seems to be so inclusive (except, of course, along the Changed/Norm axis), has preserved its distinct ethnicities for generations. It also feels almost a little collectionist, in the “one of each” style of diversity.

But, you know what? This is not a complaint. Maybe I’d count it against the book if diversity were so common that it were humdrum. But I don’t live in that world, so I will clutch to any book that intentionally and thoughtfully gives as many people as possible a character they can identify with.

I really really loved the romance triangle in this book. I don’t want to spoil it, but this is how love triangles are done right. When the romance stuff first started and it was clear that a potential conflict was coming up, I groaned because I have just been through this love triangle biz far too many times and I just can’t even. But then it resolved, almost immediately, and to great satisfaction, and it was wonderful.

This is YA, and perhaps even on the younger side of that bracket. There were times when it felt a little extra kiddy, maybe even late middle school-ish. It was still a perfectly enjoyable read for this 32 year old, but there was a certain naivete to the narrative that reminded me that I’m not the intended audience. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to the 12-16 crowd, though. It’s a very enjoyable read with great representation, interesting worldbuilding, meaningful conflict, and some great messages scattered along the way.

Some of that naivete is in the worldbuilding – little details that feel off. Like when a town of about a thousand people, a town that rarely gets visitors and then only one or two at a time, has street signs. I grew up in a town about that size and most of our streets didn’t have signs. They probably had names, though I never knew them. Places were referred to as “by the bakery” or “next to so-and-so’s house.” Small towns get by perfectly well on relational descriptors, and yet these are completely absent in Las Anclas.

While part of a series, Stranger does work as a stand alone. There are plot threads that don’t get resolved, but not in a terribly unsatisfactory way. I’d say it’s a safe book – fine for people who might be feeling a bit of series burnout, but with the option of continuing the story if desired.

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Paper Girls, vol.2 by Brian K. Vaughan

Read: 16 May, 2017

I’d love to start this review with a plot summary, but I’m still trying to figure it out for myself.

The story isn’t making much more sense, but the weirdness is starting to become familiar.

As are the characters. I had a little trouble in the first volume because everything was happening so fast that I never got a real grasp on the characters. But they’re starting to differentiate for me, and I’m getting a better sense of who they are.

The artwork is great, and the story is certainly compelling (if rather confusing).

But now I have the same problem I had with Saga – I have to wait several months before the next instalment comes out.

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Read: 13 May, 2017

A young and inexperienced girl suddenly finds herself married to a widower twice her age. Right from the start, the relationship is utterly unequal – by age, by class, and by knowledge. While the girl struggles to find her place as mistress of a great house, she finds enemies in every servant, every neighbour.

This is something of a slow burn story, a “psychological horror” that relies far more on building a creepy atmosphere than on any overt sorts of scares. And du Maurier does it so very well.

Not only is the narration itself beautiful and poetic, every word has a place, every nuance and connotation and evoked imagery is used to great effect.

Du Maurier does an amazing job of controlling the tension in every scene. The most memorable example of this is the preparation for the costume ball, where it’s immediately obvious that disaster is coming. It’s even fairly obvious what that disaster will be (at least in its generalities). But du Maurier holds back, building and building the tension by describing how very happy the protagonist, and how very much she is not anticipating what we know is about to happen to her. I could hardly breathe through that entire, rather lengthy scene.

The characters are all – down to the very last speaking part – alternately monstrous and sympathetic. I hated Maxim, I sympathised with Maxim, I hated Maxim. My heart broke for the protagonist, I found her insufferable, my heart broke for her. The same again with Rebecca, with Mrs Danvers, with Favell… And it was all seamless, without any inconsistency in their characters.

This is, quite simply, what a masterfully written novel looks like. It may not appeal to everyone, particularly those who don’t enjoy the slow burn type or who have some sort of weird, quasi-inhuman aversion to gothic trappings, but it is a good novel.

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The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Read: 23 April, 2017

Dick is an ideas person. Like Electric SheepHigh Castle is full of ideas, all tossed in and scrambled fairly willy-nilly. A dozen great books or movies could be teased from the setting he creates.

Unfortunately, Dick is not an execution person.

There’s very little that might resemble a plot. The alternative ’60s are described in detail, but it’s an empty world. The characters are soulless automatons who putz around for a bit and then we reach the last page and it’s over. Dick starts three distinct plots: One is a political thriller/spy story that ends fatalistically (the immediate mission complete, but with the realisation that it will help nothing), one is a bootstraps story about the conflict between the antique industry (forgeries included) and the attempt to generate new culture, and the third is a sort of semi-lucid road trip that ends up being a sort of spy story of its own.

These stories sort of connect at points (someone from Story A knows someone from Story B, someone from Story B used to be married to someone from Story C), but that’s about it. These stories, and the characters that make them up, are just there as vehicles for the world development.

And that world development is… meh. The transatlantic rockets are the kind of thing I’d expect from the Fallout franchise’s tongue-in-cheek futuretech. The Nazis being awful, but also hopelessly inept and disorganised once push comes to shove because, ultimately, you can’t run a society on hate is sad and scary in this era of the Alt-Right controlling the government, but ultimately unimaginative.

Then there’s the dialogue. I’m guessing that Dick was trying to “Japanify” people’s speech patterns? Frankly, that came off more Mickey Rooney than linguistically insightful. It was overplayed and overdone for my tastes.

I did like the recurring theme of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – a fictional book within a book of fiction, about an alternative world in which the Nazis did not win the war. That was funny.

I also liked the discussions of colonial identity, from both perspectives. How do the Japanese react to colonising the pacific US, and how does the pacific US react to being colonise? How does the US break? That’s all an interesting background theme that just didn’t get the plot or setting it deserved.

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Ms Marvel, vol. 3-4: Crushed & Last Days by G. Willow Wilson

Read: 20 April, 2017

In Crushed, Kamala meets a super cool guy who seems to totally get her until, of course, he turns out to be terrible. It’s a bit of an overdone plot, and the comic format makes it feel a bit rushed, but it works fine. Even though we never get a grasp on Kamran’s character (and his sudden change in behaviour is disturbing), it’s still nice to see how Kamala reacts to what’s going on.

Then some big plot stuff gets set up and then… Last Days. The world ends.

According to Wikipedia, it was some big Marvel “event”? I guess I don’t really understand. It was nice to see how Kamala deals with the end of the world, but it seems like she had such a short run. And it’s hard to see how the series can recover from… everyone dying? The only alternative is that it’s was a fake-out and Kamala isn’t dead, despite all the resolutions, and that’s not a whole lot better.

And I guess this is my issue with the superhero/extended universe stuff in general – I can’t possibly keep up with everything, but I feel like I’m missing half the story when I read just the ones I like. It’s hard not to be put off.

I do like Kamala, though, and I like the nerdy references (“KHAAAAAAAN!”), and I like how she relates to her friends and her family. I just can’t help but think that her story would have been much more interesting without the confusion of all these different superheroes around (when she gets her powers, one of the first things they do is try to figure out which origin story she fits – is she a mutant? is she created? no, she’s an “inhuman”/part alien whose powers were activated by chemicals…. okay…). And while I can appreciate the part of her character that geeks out over meeting other superheroes, I feel like there’s a better story to be found if she simply used stories of fictional superheroes to build an identity for herself. Imagine if Captain Marvel were a fictional character whose persona Kamala adopted…

Anyways, I’m sure this comes down to personal taste. Readers who are more invested in the Marvel brand probably get a lot more out of the crossovers and extended universe “events”.

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Trickster, edited by Matt Dembicki

Read: 11 April, 2017

This is a fair collection of trickster stories, each told by a different storyteller/artist team. Given the anthological nature of the book, the quality does vary quite a bit, though only one or two of the stories were what I would consider poor. For the most part, they were interesting, well told, and well illustrated.

As each story is illustrated by a different artist, each has its own style – and these can vary quite a bit, from Marvel-like to Ren and Stimpy. For the most part, I found that the art style meshed fairly well with the tone of the story.

From what I’ve read, these stories are somewhat sanitized. There’s nothing in here that your average parents wouldn’t want their kids – even fairly young kids – reading. There’s nothing approaching the crueller/raunchier trickster tales I’ve come across. I assume that this was deliberate to keep the collection fairly universal, but it may give an overly clean impression to readers who – like the editor – weren’t familiar with First Nations stories prior to encountering this volume.

I was fairly impressed by the geographical breadth of the anthology. There is even a Hawaiian story, which I don’t often see in collections of North American First Nations stories.

Overall, I found that the quality does vary quite a bit from story to story, but the collection is worth checking out.

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Thomas Cromwell #1: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Read: 9 April, 2017

I’ve tried and failed to read so much historical fiction because the writing quality often just isn’t there. Ever genre has its standards, and it seems that historical fiction got its from the “bodice ripper” romance tradition – very overwrought phrasing, terrible dialogue, intrusive narration, and all-round poor sentence construction. It’s why I’ve always liked the idea of historical fiction, but so rarely actually read it.

Mantel makes it clear that historical fiction can be well written, even excellently written. All the “he, Cromwell” repetition aside, this is an extremely well crafted novel about Cromwell’s rise to power in Henry VIII’s court.

There’s some time hopping at the beginning, which is something of a pet peeve of mine. Not to mention that the beginning – when the reader is already disoriented and trying to work out who everyone is supposed to be – is the absolute worst time to fuddle with chronology like that! There are other ways to keep readers engaged through backstory!

But the time hopping seemed to fizzle out about a third of the way through, and the rest of the narrative was fairly straightforward.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about Henry VIII’s court, apart from the broad strokes outline and Moore’s Utopia, and this was a fantastic primer. That world feels far more familiar and real to me now, and I appreciate that.

A common praise in reviews of this book is that Mantel does an excellent job of getting into Cromwell’s head, and that is absolutely true. He feels like a complex, real, living person. His pains – particularly the loss of so much of his family to the ‘sweating sickness’ – are viscerally conveyed, as are his drives and his joys.

This is an excellent – if rather long – book that breathes life into the history it is based on.

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Paper Girls, vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan

Read: 7 April, 2017

This was recommended to me as “if you like Stranger Things…” And I can see the comparison. It’s set in the ’80s, it’s about a group of young kids (in this case, 12 year old girls) who come upon some sort of mysterious monster shenanigans.

The storytelling is very good, with a strong sense of pacing. It makes the setting details clear (such as the date) without explicitly spelling them out. As for the mystery, it makes just enough sense to keep me from feeling lost, while still remaining mysterious enough to be compelling.

The main characters seem solid and are interesting as a group, but I’m having a little trouble getting a sense of them each as individuals. I’m assuming that this is a space issue and that we’ll get to know them better as the series wears on.

The artwork is great. It’s very expressive and stays stylistically consistent even while it increases or decreases detail depending on the needs of the panel.

Overall, I quite liked the first volume of Paper Girls, and I’m intrigued enough to continue the series. Of course, there’s still 30 people ahead of me on the library waiting list for volume 2…

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Ms Marvel, vol. 1-2: No Normal & Generation Why by G. Willow Wilson

Read: 2 April, 2017

Kamala Khan is a fairly ordinary nerdy Pakistani-USian until her latent “bendy” powers are suddenly triggered in some sort of attack. Now, she can make herself huge (embiggen), or small (disembiggen), or even make herself look like someone else. Will she learn how to control her powers? What will she do with them?

This is your fairly standard hero origin story, made interesting by Kamala. As a third culture kid, she has to forge her own, unique identity out of the fragments she’s given. This actually meshes surprisingly well with the ‘secret identity’ hero story.

Wilson’s writing is solid. Characters felt consistent, and were well developed. There’s some reliance on stereotypes, but that’s normal in the first impressions stage. I fully expect everyone to get more fleshed out as the series wears on (and, certainly, that process is already evident in how Kamala’s parents are treated just in these two volumes).

The artwork is fine. It’s clear, it works. I did find that it lacks a bit in personality, and there’s a jarring difference in character appearance between the first volume and the beginning of the second. Still, I’m mainly being nit-picky.

Overall, I enjoyed the first volume quite a bit – which is surprising with my terrible case of origin story fatigue – but wasn’t quite as impressed with the second. Generation Why tackles some pretty big themes, including cults, environmental destruction, and “kids today”, but it doesn’t really handle them with nearly enough care. This isn’t really a spoiler since it’s set up in volume one, but Kamala discovers that a bunch of missing kids are in a cult. When Kamala tries to free them, they resist, explaining that they are all there by choice and giving a pretty shallow explanation of why. Kamala meets their protestations with an equally shallow rebuttal, and they all immediately switch sides.

Yikes.

I can’t tell whether Wilson really just doesn’t know about cults and couldn’t be bothered to look the topic up before she started writing, or she was just too pressed for time, but the result is pretty terrible. I hope that we get to see some of those characters return in future volumes and see more of the psychological aftermath of being in a cult, but even if that’s the case, there was some serious damage done by trying to cram too many themes into such a short space.

I do enjoy Kamala, though, and I look forward to reading more of her adventures. If you are into the Marvel universe, this is a great addition. If not, some aspects get a little silly (random aliens! bird people! gas attacks on a city are no big deal!), but they don’t get in the way of the core “third culture kid forges an identity for herself” theme of the series.

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