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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      Lumberjanes #1-2: Beware the Kitten Holy & Friendship to the Max by Noelle Stevenson & Grace Ellis

      Read: April 7, 2017

      This is the high energy story of the young women of cabin Roanoke, who follow a bearwoman into the woods and are attacked by three-eyed foxes, and things only get stranger from there.

      There’s very little downtime in Lumberjanes. Monsters fly out from every direction, the characters are constantly active, there’s loads of yelling… The downside to this is that the mystery never really gets time to build, there’s no pause to wonder what might be happening. It’s just action, action, action, reveal. It’s not my favourite pace, but it works.

      The artwork is somewhat unrefined, but it fits the tone of the story and has a certain character to it.

      Essentially, Lumberjanes is what it is, and it is that well. The reveal – which I won’t spoil – was a bit of a let down, only because I’ve seen it too often, but all the elements of the story worked.

      This would be fantastic as a “baby’s first graphic novel”, for ages 7-10.

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        Imperial Radch #3: Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

        Read: 4 April, 2017

        In this conclusion to the Imperial Radch trilogy, Breq’s efforts to bring universal justice to the Athoek system begin to unravel.

        It’s difficult to review a book (and series) that I enjoyed so thoroughly. I loved everything, and whatever small flaws might have popped up were drowned by the tsunami of awesome.

        In particular, I love Leckie’s ongoing theme of identity – what does it mean to be self? what does it mean to be separate from others?

        In this book, we have Presger Translator Zeiat to make some of the questions explicit. Her playful identifying of cakes and her reaction to someone’s injury are the perfect mix of humour and mindblow.

        I was a bit worried when I only had about 50 pages left and the plot didn’t feel even close to being resolved, yet Leckie somehow managed to leave me feeling completely satisfied. There are loose ends, of course, but they make sense.

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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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            A Series of Unfortunate Events #4: The Miserable Mill by Lemony Snicket

            Read: 28 March, 2017

            Another instalment in the Beaudelaire saga, and likely the last one that we’ll read for a little while. The goal was to read the first four so that we could watch the Netflix show, and now I think that we need a bit of a breather. Not because there’s anything wrong with the series, but simply because we are fickle creatures who crave variety (and because I accidentally stayed up too late one night and put about a bazillion picture books on hold at the library and they’ve all come in at once).

            The Miserable Mill changes things up a little, in that we get to meet a new accomplice. Sort of. Because we don’t get very much of Dr. Orwell. But still, she’s an interesting one. She’s different from Count Olaf – smarter, more cunning. I would have liked to see a bit more of her.

            Without getting too much into spoiler territory, there’s a rather horrific scene at the end that rather disturbed me. This book has upped how graphic the death and maiming is.

            Gender is an interesting theme in this series. We have the ambiguously gendered henchperson, which comes off feeling a bit transphobic (particularly in The Wide Window), and in this book we get a cross-dressing Count Olaf. And I don’t really know what to make of it.

            But then there are gender reversals that feel refreshing, like having Dr. Orwell be a woman (which I wasn’t expecting, based both on my own biases and the name), and having the co-owner of the lumber mill seem queer coded (and not be a villain!).

            So, as with most things, I think it’s complicated. Snicket is doing a great job sometimes, and riding his own biases at other times.

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              Imperial Radch #2: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

              Read: 22 March, 2017

              Ancillary Sword continues the story of Breq, now in command of her own ship, as she tries to protect the planet Athoek from the brewing civil war.

              My mind was thoroughly blown after Ancillary Justice, so I had to stop reading. I knew it’s a trilogy, but it was just so good that I couldn’t imagine how the story could possibly move forward without being a huge disappointed. Since Justice‘s resolution is so satisfying as is, I was ready to stop right there. Yes, you read that correctly – I was ready to abandon the series because it was just too good.

              But after a year, a review convinced me to give Sword a try and, peeps, it totally holds up.

              In some ways, I even liked Sword a little better. For one thing, the main players and context are already established, so there isn’t that “new fictional universe” disorientation. It also does away with Justice‘s time hopping.

              In other ways, I didn’t like it quite as much. More characters are shown to be single-faceted – baddies to be defeated. Raughd, in particular, was rather disappointing.It worked at first, to have this super charming, socially privileged, universally liked person putting people down in private and destroying their sense of self worth. There was a lot there to explore. But then Raughd started to play out more obviously, and became more of a caricature, and she became less interesting because of it.

              But this is an extremely minor complaint. I still have one book to go, but I feel comfortable enough to recommend this book whole heartedly. It is mind blowing, thoughtful, well written, and absolutely fabulous.

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                A Series of Unfortunate Events #3: The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket

                Read: 13 March, 2017

                How fortuitous that we finished this book on the 13th!

                I’m not sure if the series is just growing on me or if Snicket is hitting his stride (or, perhaps, a mixture of both), but I really enjoyed this one! It has amazing passages like:

                “Stealing, of course, is a crime, and a very impolite thing to do. But like most impolite things, it is excusable under certain circumstances. Stealing is not excusable if, for instance, you are in a museum and you decide that a certain painting would look better in your house, and you simply grab the painting and take it there. But if you were very, very hungry, and you had no way of obtaining money, it might be excusable to grab the painting, take it to your house, and eat it.” (p.136-7)

                Even though the stories are a bit formulaic (kids are handed over to a new guardian, Count Olaf appears in disguise, no one believes the kids, guardian dies, Count Olaf traps the kids, the kids unmask Count Olaf, Count Olaf flees), each one is still different enough to feel fresh and interesting.

                The stories are dark, but my kid is finding it titillating (possibly hereditary, given my own obsession with Edgar Allen Poe at his age). They’re funny on a kid level as well as an adult level, making them fantastic family read books. And, lastly, they’re wonderful at initiating teachable moments (and handle the teaching themselves quite often, such as when the narrator explains new vocabulary).

                Kid and I are both really enjoying the series.

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                  Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

                  Read: 8 March, 2017

                  This is a difficult book to review because, of course, it wasn’t written for me. What I get out of it, what I think of it, is fairly beside the point. And there are many other reviews of far far more value than whatever I could say.

                  As I was reading, I tried to think of this book’s use as a primer for, say, white teenagers. It’s a bit fast paced, with references and allusions coming from every direction. This book was not written to be some white kid’s 101, so the points aren’t argued, the references aren’t explained. The intended audience is passed all that already. But, still, even though a lot would fly over a white kid’s head, there’s a lot there that should stick.

                  It’s a beautiful, powerful, brutal book. And it is so, so timely.

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                    Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

                    Read: February 26, 2017

                    A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

                    This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

                    Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

                    I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

                    It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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