The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar

Read: 23 October, 2016

The Rabbi’s Cat is a slow, meandering snapshot of life in an Algerian rabbi’s household, as narrated by his pet cat. The cat begins to speak, and so the rabbi must prepare him for his bar mitzvah. The family gets a visit from cousin Malka and his pet lion. The rabbi must pass a dictation test to determine his rabbinical placement. The rabbi’s daughter marries, and the whole household goes to Paris to meet her new in-laws. Things happen, the characters talk and feel and live, and issues are resolved after a fashion, enough to make way for the next. I wouldn’t be surprised if each chapter had originally been published serially.

I picked this book out at the library, knowing absolutely nothing about it, because the cover looked interesting. Unlike the last time I did this, this time was actually a very pleasant surprise.

The artwork is beautiful. It has a lot of character, and it shifts with mood to enhance the storytelling. As I’ve been trying to read some more superhero comics, which tend to favour a more “realistic” style (albeit with idealised bodies), this kind of expressive artwork has been missing.

I also found that the style reminded me a lot of the French comic books that I used to read as a child. I felt very vindicated when I found out that the artist does, in fact, belong to the French graphic novel tradition!

The story itself is delightful. Most of the characters are fairly archetypal, but we spend a lot of time getting into the rabbi’s head. He’s a complicated person who is seen wrestling with his faith. In the beginning, it’s more intellectual, as he tries to teach the cat in preparation for his bar mitzvah and they argue theology. Later, when his daughter marries and he feels abandoned, it brings his grief over his deceased wife back to the forefront. It’s very touching, often funny, and so very human.

The novel had a somewhat mythic feel to it, particularly where the animals were involved. It read a bit like a parable, making its Jewishness all the more palpable.

I really enjoyed this one. It was cute, and heartwarming, and entertaining. The cat was amusing, and the storytelling was very well adapted to its medium.

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Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Read: 8 August, 2016

Who Fears Death takes place in post-nuclear holocaust Africa, though save for a few mentions of computers and scooters and other relics of modernity, it might as well have been set in mythic time.

The story follows Onyesonwu, a mixed race child born of weaponized rape, as she comes into her power as a sorceress and ends the genocide of her mother’s people. On the way, she gathers friends and allies, falls in love, and learns about her mother.

I really enjoyed Onyesonwu as a character – it’s rare to find a narrating main character that has quite so strong a personality. She’s certainly no Bella Swan! And while she tends to get angry and lash out, I never felt annoyed by her. That’s no small feat when she keeps impatiently interrupting characters who are trying to explain things to her because they aren’t getting to the point fast enough!

I loved the setting. I loved Okorafor’s descriptions of the desert, and I tend to favour that mythic, mysterious brand of magic. The early parts of the book, as Onyesonwu is learning about magic, what it can do, and how it works were, in my opinion, the best.

That said, the book has its flaws. The big one that I see mentioned a lot in other reviews is that it follows that “be mentioned in a prophecy, get mentor, kick ass” formula. I actually found this to be the least of the novel’s problems – mainly because I enjoyed the mentorship sections of the books so much, and because the prophecy bit took a backseat to the characters. It was brought up every so often (along with the plot-paradoxing issue of the two main characters knowing how they were going to die), but Onyesonwu’s strong personality drove the plot forward. Until the very end of the book (which I’ll talk about in a bit), I never had the sense that she was being driven by the prophecy. Events seemed to line up conveniently, but it worked within the context of the world, and Onyesonwu made deliberate choices every step of the way.

The much bigger issue with the book is its second half. (SPOILERS: Once the group of friends leaves Jwahir, the plot loses its focus. Long passages are spent on side missions, and most of the narration is devoted to the in-group bickering. Toward the end of this, they meet the Vah – a group of people who live in the centre of a sandstorm. The Vah are literally only introduced right before they appear, when Mwita sees the sandstorm approaching and asks if Onyesonwu has ever heard of the “Red People.” These people pop in so late in the story, with no build up, and they end up providing the main characters with the means to destroy their enemy. It’s too convenient, and it stinks of poor planning.

The ending itself – where the Big Bad is defeated and the corrupted holy book is rewritten – felt horribly rushed. They confront the Big Bad, Onyesonwu is completely incapacitated, and Mwita whips out the magical item that can defeat their enemy. That’s it! After all of that build up and all those journeys and all that accumulation of power, it’s all over in a page or two. And then, when Onyesonwu goes to rewrite the holy book, she does so with a little bit of handwaving. That’s it?!)

The final thing I want to touch on is the lack of consequences. There are times in the novel when choices are made that have negative consequences, and the impact is just sucked out of them. (SPOILERS: A perfect example is the treatment of FGM. Bringing it up, and having the female main characters all undergo it, is interesting and has consequences for their relationships with others – specifically, Onyesonwu’s friends link the idea of freedom to the physical fact of having a clitoris (much is made of heterosexuality in the novel). But when it comes right down to it, Onyesonwu just uses her magic to grow everyone’s clitorises. That’s it, conflict over, everyone healed, the end. And just when I’d thought it so interesting to see a pre-pubescent girl choose FGM, against her parents’ wishes, for the sake of her family’s honour suddenly hit puberty and rage at her choice. But then she gets to Ctrl+Z and the consequences are just gone.)

Overall, I did enjoy Who Fears Death a lot. I think that I would have judged it more harshly if it had been written by a white author and set in, oh I don’t know, Chicago, but my library needs a lot more colour. As it was, I welcome Okorafor’s perspective and I was glad to see a non-western European take on magic. If I’m going to read fantasy about Chosen Ones defeating the Big Bads in accordance to prophecy, I’m happier for it to be Who Fears Death than The Fionavar Tapestry.

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African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou

Read: 29 January, 2013

Gregoire Nakobomayo is an aspiring serial killer. He idolizes Angoualima, a particularly brutal serial killer who had been on the prowl in Gregoire’s youth, and he has promised to Angoualima that he will be a good disciple, that he will kill.

The story is set in a first person rambling style, allowing Gregoire to take us through his life (a “pick-up child,” he was abandoned at birth and raised in a series of foster homes), his “petty” criminal activities, and, ultimately, his plans to murder Germaine – a prostitute he has convinced to live with him.

The book reads like a really long joke, with a macabre (but hilarious – though I’m rather ashamed to admit it, given the subject matter) punch line at the end. It reminds me of a lot of 19th century horror/gothic short stories with their twist endings in which everyone gets their comeuppance.

I found the narrative voice to be very compelling. Gregoire bounces back and forth between feelings of inadequacy and narcissism, impotence and power, and a very misplaced sense of purpose. I found his thought-processes to be both uncomfortably familiar and distinctly Other.

It’s an easy read and, at only 145pages, a quick one as well. The translation wasn’t too bad and, while I did feel that I was missing a lot of the local-specific jokes and references, it’s still reasonably accessible to an international audience.

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Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Read: 13 January, 2013

Imagine if the daemons from Pullman’s His Dark Materials series were real, except that you only got one if you had a guilty conscience. In Zoo City, the animalled are the new criminal element, living in the fringes of society, ghettoed into “zoo cities.” After addiction led to Zinzi December being paired with a sloth, she tries to pay off her debts by finding people’s lost things and writing 419 scam letters. But after a job goes wrong, she becomes entangled in a search for a lost girl…

Beukes’s writing style is fantastic, and she made good use of alternative chapters – articles from a fictional movie database describing a documentary on the first famous case of an animalled individual, one of the 419 scam letters that Zinzi sends out, a fictional journal article about animalling, etc. There’s also quite a lot going on in the book that’s separate from the mystery itself, such as Zinzi meeting a couple her boss is scamming, that add dimension to Zinzi and her world. I also found that Beukes’s use of descriptions is fantastic.

Unfortunately, the plot feels clunky. I rode through because the characters are compelling and the writing is a joy to read, but the mystery just falls flat.

***SPOILER ALERT***

I didn’t care for the ending at all. For one thing, can we stop writing books set in the music industry that have the producer be the baddie, please? But also, the attempt to tie together the two different plot strands in some big elaborate conspiracy was just tiresome, and totally unnecessary. The victims (other than Mrs Luditsky, who seems to have been killed only for the cover up anyway) are fringe people that no one noticed missing. As for the twins, Odi had already set them up as being unhinged with the rehab stuff, so he could have easily just covered it up with a “they ran away” story (especially once Song helped out by actually running away – giving that story some precedence). What was the point of getting Zinzi involved at all? and the victims sending out e-mails? Why? That’s not Zinzi’s shavi, so how were they doing it and why were they sending them to her?

***END SPOILER***

I’d say that the book is worth reading, just for the characters, the setting, and the world-building concepts. But as a mystery, I was disappointed.

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The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

Read: 7 November, 2012

Brendan Doyle has received a rather strange invitation. He has been asked to give a lecture on Samuel Taylor Coleridge and is being flown all the way to the UK and offered at least $5,000 to do it. The mystery deepens when Darrow, a very wealthy but dying man, explains that the lecture is merely to be the introduction to an evening during which Darrow, Doyle, and several guests will be meeting the actual Coleridge.

Time travel is very difficult to write about. Between the paradoxes and trying to explain why characters don’t foresee what’s coming, it can quickly devolve into comedy. So let me just start by saying that Powers has done it. He’s pulled it off – perfectly and beautifully.

Apart from Doyle, there isn’t too much depth to the characters – since this is mainly an action-driven novel – but they are still interesting and entertaining. Of course, there are types: the woman posing as a man to avenge a lost love, the crazy clown/magician, etc.

But what I especially loved about the novel is how the facts to come are laid out early on (thanks to time travel), so the focus is not on what happens next but rather on how will we get there.

Unfortunately, the climax was something of a let down. While the rest of the plot seemed carefully planned so that everything was predicted through past (and sometimes future) events, the climax had multiple elements that just seemed to come out of left field – in one case, this actually involved introducing a brand new rule for the fictive universe. It’s almost as though Powers just got bored and wanted to move on to his next project. It’s a shame, because it’s a rather big blemish on an otherwise very enjoyable novel.

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Discworld #7: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Read: 26 April, 2012

I felt that it was about time for me to return to Discworld!

In Pyramids, we follow Teppic – the heir of Djelibeybi – as he goes to Ankh-Morpork to study with the assassin’s guild. He’s called home just after passing his final exam because his father has died and it’s now his turn to be king.

Like the rest of the Discworld series, Pyramids is laugh-out-loud-and-then-realize-you’re-on-the-bus-and-die-a-little-inside-with-shame funny. The plot is a little flimsy, but that’s not what I’m coming to Pratchett for anyway. I did also find that Pyramids didn’t have any characters that really stood out. Dios and Ptraci (Tracey?) both had potential, but neither was really sufficiently explored. And, like most Discworld novels, the climactic end is written too visually and doesn’t come across very well – I often find myself skipping through the last 10-20 pages of Pratchett’s novels.

And, of course, I love how dense Discworld novels are with thinking food. Pratchett is a master at bringing up complex issues and ideas in a very simple (and funny!) way.

I don’t think that this would make a good starter novel for someone new to the Discworld universe, but it’s an excellent addition for old fans!

There’s a whole lot more Discworld novels that I haven’t read yet. Help me afford to expand my collection by buying Pyramids (Discworld Book 7) from Amazon! Continue reading

Amelia Peabody Mysteries #18: The Serpent on the Crown by Elizabeth Peters

Read: 20 January, 2012

Every good detective needs a special trait. Adrian Monk has OCD, Nero Wolfe is overweight, Gilbert Cunningham takes place in Medieval Scotland… Peters’ Amelia Peabody is an Egyptologist working in the late 19th – early 20th century.

I’ve long been something of an amateur Egyptology aficionado (and, in fact, was set on a career in the field for years before the insecurity of puberty put me off any “hard” careers), so I was quite excited to give this mystery series a try. Also, I like to start series at the beginning, but I picked this but up at a sale so I thought I’d give it a try anyway.

In this adventure, a widow and well-known author presents Peabody&co with a “cursed” statuette and claims that a mysterious black afrit killed her husband and is coming after her.

The mystery was fairly blah. The detectives do very little detecting; instead, they spend 2/3 of the novel having things happen to them, and then the culprits confess everything. In the final chapter, it’s revealed that Peabody had everything figured out much earlier, but she gave no indication of this at the time.

And, frankly, it’s not like the detectives didn’t have the chance to do some real detecting – they just sucked at it. For example, two of Peabody’s party spend days trying to track down fugitives before they even think of the possibility that the fugitives might not be using their real names!

The writing  form was also rather confusing. Some sections were titled “From Manuscript H,” but no indication was given as to what this might refer to. I suppose it’s possible that this was established in an earlier book, but it was rather weird, especially since there were no other section titles. Peters also made the odd choice of switching back and forth between first person and third, without any real reason for the choice.

All in all, I’d say that this is a fine detective story for a poolside read, but it’s not worth seeking out.

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The Ice Beneath You by Christian Bauman

Read: 2006

I had the pleasure of living in the same neighbourhood as the author for several years. He’s a fantastic guy, despite his peculiar affinity for oversized dogs. He gave me a copy of The Ice Beneath You as a (requested) Christmas gift.

The book is divided into two alternating narratives from the life of Benjamin Jones. In one, he is travelling across the United States, drifting and self-destructive. In the other, he’s a soldier posted in Somalia.

Throughout the story, it’s plainly obvious that something happened in Somalia, although it’s not revealed what it is until near the end. The suspense leading up to the big twist is beautifully executed, and the scene itself is very powerful.

The Ice Beneath You reminded me a bit of Catcher in the Rye, in the sense of aimless desperation conveyed. I found that it did a very good job at conveying the trauma felt by many veterans, and the lack of support available to them as they try to make sense of what they’ve lived through as they return to a society that is totally disconnected from the horrors of war.

I’m not often a fan of war books, nor of “modern” fiction, but I did enjoy this one. It’s well written and interesting, and it conveys it’s message with a reserved poignancy that is rarely successfully executed.

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Cairo by G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker

Read: 10 July, 2008

This is the first actual full-length graphic novel I’ve ever read, so I don’t have all that much to compare it to. That being said, I enjoyed it immensely. It’s a short read. I went through it in about five hours while at work, so I had a whole lot of distractions.

I loved the way mythology was used in the story. The result was an urban fantasy injected with just enough realism to make it all seem possible. The use of Arabic in the story was also well done – just enough to give the story an exotic flavour while not enough to confuse a non-Arabic speaking reader.

The illustrations are beautiful, both realistic and stylized with just enough shadow to give it a gritty feel. There were a few chronological errors (in one part, for example, a character is wearing glasses, and then taking his glasses out of his pocket and putting them on), but these are few and truly unimportant in the face of the work as a whole.

The characters themselves were fairly two-dimensional (the wide-eyed blonde American who wants to change the world, the censored journalist, the Israeli special ops soldier, the American teen who wants to do a suicide bombing in the hopes that it would teach all the kids who teased him in High School a lesson, etc.), but I do understand that it’s probably unavoidable in this sort of medium where the space available in which to tell the story is so limited. Even so, strong writing made these stock characters pop and made me hold my breath hoping that they would all come out all right.

In conclusion, I think this is a great book, perfect for anyone interested in world mythology or the middle east.

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