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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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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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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