Friday, November 26, 2010

Assorted Comics

I've just read a couple of really enjoyable comics, and it's had me thinking about how hard it is to find good comics.  Besides the part where I'm not into superheros, I think the open-ended nature of the storytelling isn't really my thing--I like to know I'm going to get an ending. 

Still, I've read all of the compilations of Fables that have come out so far, and am waiting eagerly for the next one, Witches.  I also read the first volume of the spinoff, Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love, which was good, but not as good as I hoped it would be.  I haven't decided yet if that's because it's a different author or because of the short-run, bang-up action format, but either way, it temporarily filled my needs for more in that little realm.

This week, I was wandering by the graphic novels display at my local library, which is in the fiction section and separate from where they keep most of the comics.  They do a great job selecting for that display--a lot of it draws the eye, and I've checked out quite a few books from there.  This time, I picked up Bayou, by Jeremy Love. 

It's the story of a sharecropper's daughter named Lee in Mississippi in the '30s.  Her best friend, a little white girl, disappears in the swamp, and her father is arrested for it.  Lee knows that her friend was taken by a strange swamp creature, but of course she can't prove it.  So she sets off into the swamp to rescue her friend and save her father's life. 

This is apparently based on a webcomic, though it wasn't free so I haven't seen it online.  The next volume will be out in January, and if the library doesn't buy it, I will.  The balance between creepy and enchanting is so tricky, and this book is dark and frightening and dangerous, as well as whimsical and charming.  I'm so excited to have discovered it.

I also read Tower of Treasure, which is a kids' comic that claims to be the first book in a series called Three Thieves by Scott Chantler.  This is the problem with comics in general, though, and recent ones in particular--will there be more?  I really hope so.  It's about a girl and her two friends in a traveling circus.  They travel to the heart of the kingdom, where she finds out her friend is determined to steal the queen's jewels.  When she learns that the queen's chancellor is the man who kidnapped her brother and killed the rest of her family, she's determined to learn everything she can, and hopefully save her brother.  High adventure, high stakes, and  a daring heroine--a great kids' book.

I think I've written about the other comics I've enjoyed in the past few months:  Rapunzel's Revenge and its sequel, Calamity Jack, by Shannon, Dean, and Nate Hale--think fairy tales in the old west.  Y: The Last Man, which failed in a lot of ways as an apocalypse story, but as the tale of a character on a quest, was really good (until the end, which was the biggest throw-the-book-across-the-room letdown of an ending every in the history in the world, not to give anything away).

But there just aren't enough really good comics out there, and I don't have the patience to sort through the mediocre ones.  So I was really excited to luck into some fun stuff.  The next one I have is Beanworld, which is so surreal that I don't think there are existing adjectives to describe it.  When I get a chance, I'll choreograph an interpretive dance to explain it to you and post a video. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What the Heck?

The Night Bookmobile is a graphic novel by Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife, a novel I really liked.  Some people have called it overhyped, and I can see that, but I found it very thoughtful love story about how much control love has in our lives, and how much adversity a relationship can handle.  Like I said, I really liked The Time Traveler's Wife.

I kind of didn't not like The Night Bookmobile, but I don't think I really liked it.  I'm pretty sure I was getting a lecture from an author whose books I like, the upshot of which was "you probably read too much." 

Alexandra is wandering the city close to dawn after a fight with her boyfriend when she stumbles upon a Winnebago full of books and the odd librarian running it.  It turns out that every book in the Night Bookmobile is one Alexandra has read--it is a full catalog of her reading life, including journals, appliance manuals, and other ephemera.  Sunrise comes all too soon, and she begs to join the librarian on his rounds, but he shakes his head and drives off.  Over the rest of her life, she encounters the library several more times, and spends many more hours looking for it. 

It's a slight book, more of a short story than a novel.  And it's kind of a sweet story--what obsessive reader wouldn't find it fascinating to browse shelves devoted entirely to his or her own reading life?  It's like looking through your own photo albums. 

But in spite of this interesting observation, the point the story seems to be making is that this might not be a great thing.  Are you wasting the time and energy that you might spend connecting with other people?  It doesn't ask if the fantasy worlds of books are worth it--it's not about the worlds in the books.  It's about the sheer fact of books--the piles, the lists, the volumes, the hours, the pleasures.  Without their contents, do they  mean anything?

Maybe I'm reading too much into this--as I said, it's slight.  But I have to say, it's very much like being lectured on health food by a classic French chef.  Yeah, you're absolutely right, but you've devoted your life to creating dishes full of butter--do you really want me to stop enjoying them?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Anyone Named Garth Should Have A British Accent -- I'm Looking at You, Mr. Brooks

Years ago when my friend Melissa moved away, she was cleaning out her bookshelves and she thrust a trio of paperbacks into my arms one day at work.  "Have you read these?  You totally should."  I looked at the covers skeptically--they seemed a little "high fantasy" for me--and thanked her, because it's always been about quantity with me.

They'd been on my shelf for five years or so, and I can't remember why I finally picked one up.  Probably just thumbing through it idly.  I remember that the prologue was kind of dry, but when you get to the real story, it starts out with a girl in boarding school--promising!  With magic powers--awesome!

And finally, I sat down and read Sabriel, by Garth Nix.  (He's not British, he's Australian, but I'm bourgeois and the accent still counts.)  As I've said, I'm not much for high fantasy, and you could say this falls into that category--no dragons, but complicated magical systems, everyone's very solemn and ceremonial.  But he succeeds in the one place that matters, and the one place that solemn fantasy so often stumbles--he tells the small, personal, human story of Good triumphing over Evil and fighting off the Forces of Darkness.

I read Sabriel quite a while ago, but I've been saving up the two sequels.  But when Brenda asked for a recommendation for some good fantasy that she hadn't read, I found it on the tip of my tongue, and that brought me back to reading Lirael--a book that I own, believe it or not!--which I am loving almost as much.

Lirael is a member of the Clayr, a group of people somewhere between a race and a clan, gifted with Sight and part of the fundamental power of the Old Kingdom.  But Lirael is different--her father is unknown, her mother long dead, her looks are unusual, and her sight is nonexistent.  She's not as instantly likable as Sabriel--adventurous boarding school student and gifted mage.  Lirael is anguished, introverted, full of so much longing and shame that she can barely speak to others.  But she's also talented and independent. 

I'm halfway through the book, and most of the first half has been about Lirael's life on a small, personal scale, as she becomes a librarian (yay!), longs for the Sight, and develops her magical powers.  Just now, the story is beginning to blossom in the direction of Destiny and Saving the World, and I'm right there with it.

Good fantasy, like any good story, is about people.  Whenever I doubt a novel, it's because I doubt its being about someone I want to spend my time with.  But sometimes someone surprises me.  Sometimes a guy named Garth is a total rock star.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Gloom Books

Sometimes a book will put me in a foul mood.  It's hard to predict which books are going to do it, though.  I mean, it's naturally never the happy ones--though I think when I get to my 100,000th reading of Curious George something bad might happen. 

The first time I noticed the effect was when I read Blindness, by Jose Saramago.  I had to stop reading it (maybe I've told you this story) about 1/3 of the way through when I realized that every time I picked it up, I would find myself irrationally angry at everyone I encountered within an hour of reading it.  Like, not just the irritating people on the train, but the people minding their own business.

I think I'm feeling this again.  The thing is, Blindness was a powerful book, and you could see my emotional reaction as a testament to that.  I'd Know You Anywhere, by Laura Lippman, is not in the same class.  It's somewhere in the range of quality where you'd find high-end mysteries and mid-range thrillers, though its pace is a little too leisurely for a thriller.  It's like Alice Hoffman writing a Laurie Moore book. 

None of this is saying anything bad about it.  The story, in essence, is that Eliza, a happy, low-key housewife and mom, is suddenly contacted from death row by the man who abducted her for five weeks when she was 15.  The story moves back and forth between her trying to figure out what to do about him and what he wants, and flashbacks to the abduction.

The thing about this book--the key thing, really--is that Eliza is the most passive person you've ever met.  This is not a failing of the author, though there are plenty of books where a passive protagonist is a bad writing problem.  Here it's the point of the story.  The reason Walter didn't murder Eliza the way he did the other girls is because she was totally compliant.  Her demanding older sister, her warm, intellectual psychologist parents, and later her loving husband and mean-girl teenage daughter all see different aspects of this pliancy.

And now, when Walter contacts her, she doesn't want him to, but she doesn't stop him.  She's pushed around--buffeted, really--by an anti-death penalty activist, by her daughter and her daughter's principal, by her former abductor.  Her whole personality is created around avoiding conflict, bending to circumstance. 

I'm hoping (halfway through the book) that Eliza will come to terms with this about herself--that she'll grasp how much of life is structured around everyone else, how little access she has to her own feelings and opinions, and the fact that what kept her alive was the same thing that allowed Walter to get away with what he did for so long.

The reason I'm blogging at midnight, though, is that the book is pissing me off.  Eliza is, a bit, but no more than the author intends her to.  The book is an unfolding of her character, and that's what I'm getting.  But by nature, everyone in the book kicks her around a little--the opportunistic journalist who follows her to a soccer game, the bullying activist who believes that she's found her true calling when she really just sort of groped around for somewhere to direct her controlling tendencies.  Even Iso, Eliza's teenage daughter, who is really just the classic fourteen year old snarky bitch.  I put the book down, and I'm lying in bed pissed at all these people, wishing Eliza would be mad at them, put them in their place so I can stop thinking about them.

I suppose this is also a tribute to the book--it's engaging, it's got me caught up.  But I'd sacrifice that to be asleep right now, or even just to feel less irritable.

Then again, I've also been sick for a full week, as has everyone in my house, including a poor-sleeping two year old.  Maybe that's contributed to my mood?

Monday, November 08, 2010

Brief Rant

I'd Know You Anywhere, by Laura Lippman.  The main character talks like a narrator.  Not the content--she's not giving exposition left and right--but the syntax.  "'Not even Vonnie, difficult as she can be, would go against our wishes.'"  Try saying that sentence out loud.  You almost can't.  You certainly can't say it and convince me you're not reading it. 

I suppose if this is the worst thing about the book, it'll be all right.  Let's find out, shall we?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Code of the Old West

The Reapers Are the Angels, by Alden Bell, is a whole other kind of zombie book. Temple is walking the world like Kwai Chang Caine, going where the day takes her, looking around her at the mysteries and miracles on God's earth.  Most of the people left huddle behind walls and wait for the "real" world to return--a world that's been gone for 25 years. 

Not Temple.  She is strong, and fast with her knife.  She can take care of herself, and there are supplies to be found, and the zombies are slow zombies.  There are other dangers in the world, though--people, and other sorts of monsters.  But it's a world full of good people, taking care of themselves and each other.

"God is a slick god.  Temple knows.  She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe." 

The rhythms of the language is amazing--Temple's voice is southern, rural, with the cadence of cowboys.  Her understanding of the world is like that, too--simple, naturalistic, immediate.  She's done things that horrify her, but she's not looking for redemption--just something to do with herself until whatever is going to happen is finished happening.

This is not a book about urgency.  It's a book about the pace of life, and how it unravels before you.  Temple wanders through enclaves of safety, meets other people who roam, sees horrors worse than any zombie.  She earns an enemy--the character most like her in the story, whose sense of honor and wonder matches hers--and travels to leave him behind and to find a future for the helpless stray she's picked up.  But while this plot is strong enough to drive the book, the point of the story is to look around at a world that no longer belongs to civilization, but only to God--in the form of nature, of individual people, and of the wonders civilization left behind.