Monday 11 July 2016

#CBR8 Book 76: "Captain Marvel, vol 1: Higher, Further, Faster, More" by Kelly Sue DeConnick and David Lopez

Page count: 136 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Carol Danvers, who is apparently a hot-shot pilot and one of the Avengers, lives in the crown of the Statue of Liberty (you can do that?) with her sister and niece. When the Avengers find an escape pod from a spaceship with an alien refugee inside it, they decide that Carol be the one to return the girl to her homeworld, as well as take up a more permanent presence in space as a representative for the Avengers Initiative. As she returns the girl to her home planet, she discovers that they are in dire need of help, as much of the populace (already relocated from another planet) is sick and dying. Now the aliens are fighting another forced resettlement and Carol decides to help them.

Considering this is the first trade of a new Captain Marvel run, extremely little was done to explain who Carol Danvers is or what her powers are. At the end of the first issue, there is a brief one page explanation of how she ended up where she is (rendered as a child's drawing), but I really didn't think I learned enough to really feel like I got to know the character. She's brave, she can fly, she's apparently part alien. She likes Star Wars, she has a cat called Chewie (who may or may not be some sort of alien beastie that Rocket Raccoon really wants to murder) and she's a very good pilot. She was possibly in a relationship with Rhodey, the Iron Patriot, but decided to go off and live in space for an unspecified amount of time instead. I just don't think I was given enough to decide whether I even like this character or not.

This trade collects the first five issues of the run and I sadly found the story a bit too disjointed and confusing to entirely engage me. It starts with a dramatic action set-piece and then flashes back to several weeks previous. There is a guest appearance by the Guardians of the Galaxy (who I now care a lot more about because of the movie). I had trouble caring about what happened, even if there were quite a few quips and the art was well done throughout. I wasn't expecting a full and drawn-out origin story just because this was the first trade in an ongoing series, but a bit more back story would have been appreciated. As it is, I'm not sure I care enough about Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel to seek out further issues of this. I have enough ongoing comic books to follow as it is.

Judging a book by its cover: Fairly dynamic cover pose. Carol Danvers with a bit of a Natalie Dormer smirk pulling on gloves and looking bad-ass. I very much appreciate that unlike so many female superhero costumes, there is nothing gratuitous or exploitative about Captain Marvel's costume. It's functional and practical.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR8 Book 75: "Castle Waiting, vol 1" by Linda Medley

Page count: 457 pages
Rating: 4 stars

The opening story of Castle Waiting, which explains how the castle came to be abandoned, so to speak, is a variation on Sleeping Beauty. Only once the princess is awakened from her century of sleep and the hedge surrounding the castle lets people in and out, she goes off with her prince and pretty much forgets about the place where she slumbered and the people in it. As the years pass, the castle becomes a refuge for various outcasts and odd characters, with the princess' now elderly handmaidens being the only original inhabitants still staying there.

The second story concerns the journey of a mysterious lady, who is revealed to be pregnant, who after travelling for months, arrives at the castle, seeking sanctuary. Once the baby is born, she reveals that the baby's father is not her husband, and while not much is revealed about the baby daddy, the child has green skin and his father apparently had horns, at least, so he's clearly something a bit out of the ordinary. I'm assuming more about the lady Jain and her baby may be revealed in future volumes, it's not actually given that much focus here.

We are also given the story of the nun, sister Peaceful, and her order of bearded nuns. Turns out, Peaceful was originally a tavern keeper's daughter, until she started growing a beard and decided to join the circus. There she discovers they already have a bearded lady (who becomes her BFF) and the two eventually run off and discover the convent of the Solicitine nuns, all of whom have facial hair. My favourite story was probably that of the Mother Superior of the order, and her life before she came to the convent.

Linda Medley studied folklore and it shows in her gentle twist on a number of fairy tales. It's only really the first tale that is a version of Sleeping Beauty. The rest of the book involves more of an anthology of tales involving the various inhabitants of Castle Waiting or people they've met before they came there. The art and lettering is absolutely gorgeous throughout, and reminded me a bit of Charles Vess (who among other things illustrated Neil Gaiman's Stardust and some issues of Sandman). There is a strong feminist theme to many of the stories, with female friendship being an important common denominator throughout the book.

Only the final story of the book, involving a greedy mill owner making things difficult for the Solicitine nuns didn't really work for me. That one was boring. Other than that, there are a lot of quirky and unusual characters making friendships and forming bonds throughout the stories. Found family is absolutely a big thing here. This is once again one of those books that has languished on my shelves for years and years without me ever picking it up. I'm glad I finally did. It was well worth some hours of my time.

Judging a book by its cover: I have a lovely hardcover edition of Castle Waiting, vol 1. The spine is green and the cover image feature all of the various inhabitants of the castle, in a full colour illustration. As the inside illustrations are all in black and white, it's nice to see the characters in colour, at least once.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read. 

#CBR8 Book 74: "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith

Page count: 528 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Francie Nolan grows up in the tenements of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York in the early years of the 20th Century. The granddaughter of German and Irish immigrants, Francie and her younger brother Neeley (real name Cornelius) grow up dirt poor, but thankfully don't really realise it until they get older. Their mother, Katie, works hard as a janitress to make sure they have a place to stay and food on the table. Their father, Johnny, is handsome and charming, a gifted singer, and a drunk. He works as a singing waiter when he can, but is too unreliable to hold down a steady job. Francie and Neeley help out as best they can, collecting junk and selling it for pennies.

The daughter and sister of women who never even learned how to read and write, Katie Nolan values education above all, and is determined that both of her children are going to get educated, whatever the cost. Even before the children are literate themselves, she reads them a page from the Bible and from the collected works of Shakespeare. Francie is quiet and bookish and loves the local library, determined to read her way through every book on the shelves, from A to Z. She reads a book a day and does well in school, so well that the family lie about her address so she can go to a better school in a more prosperous part of town.

Francie works hard to do well in school, but has to get a job rather than go to high school, or her family can't manage. She doesn't give up on her dream of going to college eventually, though, and through perseverance and determination, slowly manages to achieve her goals.

I'm sure a lot of American teenagers possibly read this book at some point during their school years. Written in the 1940s, when it wouldn't have been as much of a historical novel as it is now, it is a wonderful, if very sad and affecting, portrayal of what growing up poor in Brooklyn pre-World War I would have been like. It's a book that doesn't shy away from showing the harsh realities of being poor and hungry, but it's not an utterly miserable book, by any means. The Nolan children may not have a lot of money, but they are taught to be responsible, work hard and they have their pride. Katie Nolan doesn't take charity from anyone and when her husband, who she stole away from her best friend because Katie just knew she had to have him, turns out to be weak and unreliable, well, then she just shoulders more of the burden of providing for the family. Johnny Nolan may be a drunk, but he's never violent, abusive or cruel and he does what he can to take care of his wife and children.

As she grows older, it becomes very obvious to Francie that her mother will always love Neeley best, and she quietly resents her mother for this fact. At the same time, she herself admits that she loves her father more, as he seems to see her and understand her in a way her mother never could. She's a fairly lonely child, finding it hard to trust women other than her closest kin, having seen the judgemental nature of many of the women in the neighbourhood. Living mainly in her books, she nonetheless sees the realities of life and the frailties of human nature all around her in the tenements and in the marriages of her parents and aunts.

Even with snatches of humour and the occasional hint of levity, the book really is very sad for a lot of the story, because there is nothing nostalgic or romantic about being the working poor. As Francie comes of age, she is fully aware how often she and her family are judged, and hard they must work just to make ends meet, let alone to put something aside for a rainy day. She comes to share her mother's opinion that education is the way out of poverty and does her very best to excel in school.

This book made me smile, it made me sad, and towards the end, it made me actually sob, because I had been so engrossed in the story that I didn't want it to end. About two thirds of the way through, the story was getting so grim and I was so despondent that I spoiled the rest of the story on Wikipedia. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to read to the end if I didn't know that things were going to get better for the Nolans eventually.

A wonderful coming of age story, chronicling a very real past, with a wonderful set of characters. Francie's immediate and extended family are all wonderful. This book is a beloved classic for a reason. It's a sad and emotional reading experience, but is not relentlessly bleak all the way through and there is hope and a promise of a better life for the surviving characters at then end of the story. 

Judging a book by its cover: The version I read has a simple and elegant cover, with the major colours being green (along the spine) and brown, towards the bottom of the book and reflected in the font used for the title. There is a faint sketch of a tree behind the title, also done in greens. It's a good cover, if nothing flashy or too exciting.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read. 

Sunday 10 July 2016

#CBR8 Book 73: "Bone" by Jeff Smith

Page count: 1341 pages
Rating: 4 stars

The three Bone cousins Fone Bone (renamed Hero Bone in my head), Smiley Bone (Comic Relief Bone) and Phoney Bone (Greedy, or frequently Insufferable, Bone) have been driven out of their home town of Boneville because Phoney Bone had some sort of get rich quick scheme and scammed the entire town, and now an angry mob has driven them off. They are wandering in the wilderness when they are attacked by a huge swarm of locusts and end up in a mysterious forest in a valley, separated for quite some time.

Fone Bone befriends a small leaf-like bug called Ted and meets a large red dragon, before he is introduced to a pretty girl, Thorn, and her grandma Rose. He also encounters furry, sharp-toothed, pointy-eared rat creatures, who would very much like to eat him. He is eventually re-united with his cousins, who are working in the local tavern at Barrelhaven. As Phoney tries to make himself rich by fixing the betting for the annual cow race, Thorn keeps having strange dreams about her past. It also seems like there are strange and sinister things afoot with the rat creatures, their leader Kingdok, and a mysterious hooded individual, all looking for the Phoney Bone, who wears a star on his shirt.

As Thorn is alerted to the fact that dragons are in fact real, her dreams start coming all the more frequently, and she remembers more about her past, before she ended up in the remote valley with her grandma. She discovers that her grandmother has been lying to her all her life and that there is a reason the rat creatures and the Hooded One are after both Phoney Bone and her for a reason. Can Fone Bone and his cousins help Thorn achieve her destiny? Can they stop the sinister Lord of the Locusts from rising and destroying the world? Will Phoney ever stop trying super annoying Get Rich Quick schemes and making himself unpopular with everyone around him?

I bought my mammoth collected edition of Bone so many years ago I don't even remember not owning it. Have I ever read it before now? That would be a resounding no. Collecting the 55 issues (and nine different books) of the fantasy adventure comic, my edition is a whopping 1341 pages and that makes for quite the unwieldy reading experience. Every time I've considered starting it, I've looked at the size of the book and reconsidered. So in the great comics read of 2016, it was imperative that I finally read this huge book, which I think has moved house with me at least twice.

For the first third or so of the book, I was not impressed. The book starts slow and spends way too long with the Bones just plodding around doing nothing in some remote village. I think Phoney convincing Smiley to dress up like a cow so they can rig the cow race, or Fone Bone wandering around, moonstruck and infatuated with Thorn, writing atrocious love poetry are things that are supposed to be funny, but to me it was just annoying and puerile. It was painfully obvious from the very beginning, even before it was revealed that Thorn had mysterious dreams, what her actual origin was and I would have like the comic so much more if the main focus had been on her and the power struggle with the Lord of the Locusts, instead of countless digressions featuring hapless bald gnome-like beings making me want to tear my hair out.

Once the quest to restore Thorn to her rightful place in the world begins, and there's war brewing and an army of rat creatures and soforth, and Fone Bone stops believing that he could EVER have a chance with a human girl (I have no idea what sort of creatures the Bones are supposed to be, but an inter-species romance between them and humans seems pretty far-fetched, and this is coming from someone who has read any number of shifter romances) and just gets with the helping her program, the book gets a lot better. That Phoney Bone is off-screen for literally hundreds of pages and I don't have to read about his greedy schemes to defraud others was also a plus.

The art is absolutely spectacular. The main fantasy adventure story, when it actually kicks off, is really fun. This book once again reminded me how much I absolutely loathe the trope of early fantasy (thanks Tolkien!) of spending hundreds and hundreds of pages of set-up where nothing much of any importance happens before we get to the good stuff. I am way happier now that most fantasy no longer utilises this trope.

Thorn is quite an engaging heroine and it's not her fault that anyone who's read more than two fantasy narratives ever can tell what her story is from the page she first appears. When Smiley Bone was separated from Phoney and stopped being just idiotic Comic Relief, he was actually very sweet. Even Phoney Bone wasn't a complete waste of space. He clearly actually cares for his cousins and it is explained further into the story that the three are orphans, with Phoney being the eldest, always trying to protect the other two. When he's not actively trying to scam someone to make himself rich (something like 90% of all his appearances in the book), he's not too bad. Grandma Rose was a pretty cool lady, although she appears to have supernatural strength, speed and healing ability, considering the feats she achieves over the course of the story.

I was seriously unsure of what rating to give this collection. If I was only rating the first third, I would probably have ended up on 2 stars. But as the story gets going, it really is very engaging and there are some cool twists and turns. I did come to really like the two cowardly sentry rat creatures, and Bartleby was a darling. I also developed a strange affection for Kingdok, the giant, toothy-grinned leader of the rat creatures, even though he's clearly one of the villains. The art really is so beautiful throughout and if I'd read this as a young teenager, when I had a lot more patience for slow set-ups, I would probably have loved the whole thing. There is a lot of humour (even though I personally found a lot of it annoying rather than funny. According to my husband, I am crazy for not liking the stupid cow race), which is nice, especially because so much fantasy nowadays is all grim and dark. As I can't start with quarter stars (that way madness lies), and the book is better than 3.5, a full four stars it is.

Judging a book by its cover: Sadly, having seen some of the other covers for the collected edition of Bone, I think my edition has one of the most boring and plain covers of the various editions. Fone Bone sitting alone on a rock in the forest. On the back cover, there are little colourized pictures of Phoney, Thorn, Smiley, the Red Dragon and Kingdok, and on the spine, you can see one of the rat creatures attacking Fone Bone in the woods (that's the picture that seems to be the actual cover image on several editions). I wish my book had looked a bit more exciting.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 9 July 2016

#CBR8 Book 72: "Idol" by Kristen Callihan

Page count: 307 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Liberty "Libby" Bell (yes, her parents named her Liberty when their surname was Bell, I don't know why you'd do that to a child either!) has been living as a veritable recluse in her grandparents' old farmhouse on an island in the Carolinas (I think, there's an author's note about how the place obviously doesn't really exist blah blah) since her parents died in a car accident the year before. She apparently makes her living as a book cover designer (cool job - not one I've come across in romance before, not that we EVER see her doing any work). She comes home to find a man passed out on her lawn, his large, expensive motorcycle having destroyed part of her front yard before it got wrapped around her fence. Since he is clearly dead drunk, Libby wakes "Lawn Bum", as she mentally christens him by spraying him with her garden hose. He wakes up, swears a lot, proceeds to get completely undressed and vomits all over her.

Killian James is the guitarist and one of the lead singers of Kill John, the biggest rock band on the planet (they're never just moderately famous people, nope, super celebrity, obvs). On the anniversary of his bandmate Jax' suicide attempt, he got himself hammered into oblivion and went joyriding on his bike, ending up in Libby's front yard. He hasn't wanted to touch his guitars or make any music for a year, but after spending some time with the grouchy, snarky hermit woman who cleaned him off and fed him, despite her misgivings, he feels his inspiration returning. Normally surrounded by clamoring fans or press people, he enjoys that Libby clearly has no idea who he is. He understands why she retreated to the island when her parents died, and could quite happily stay hidden away in the house right next door to her forever. But his manager won't stop calling, and it's time to get the band together again.

Killian doesn't want to go back on tour without Libby. Having discovered that she can sing, play guitar and makes her own songs (her parents were a session guitarist and a backing singer, respectively), Killian wants her to play some songs with the band. Libby doesn't want to leave the safety of her farmhouse, and she certainly doesn't want to go on stage with a hugely successful rock band in front of tens of thousands of people. Nor does she want people to think Killian is only giving her a chance to sing because he wants to get in her pants. But if he leaves and goes on tour, is she ever going to see him again? What would a world-class rock star really see in a shy little homebody like Libby Bell?

If your business tycoon/billionaires are the dukes of contemporary romance, the athletes and various sportsball players the viscounts, then surely the rock stars have to be the earls. In the last few years, I've read rock star romances by Kylie Scott (the Stage Dive series) and Nalini Singh (Rock Kiss), but if you google "rock star romance", there are SO many hits. Again, as I pointed out, the rock stars in question are not really your run of the mill just made their first album, starting out sort of guys. Nope, they're always the biggest, most popular rock gods in the world, recognised by everyone everywhere. They're also, always, super gorgeous. I'm doing a mental image search of the lead singers of some of the big rock bands around presently - most of them look like hipstery grad students, NOT romance heroes. So here is absolutely an example where romance really does NOT mirror reality.

While I really liked all three of Kristen Callihan's Game On books (I thought the series was completed with book 3, The Game Plan, but I was wrong, there is a new one out in February next year), this was less great. Going by her Goodreads updates, my friend Erica was frustrated enough with the book that she actually DNF'd it. I can't say I see what was quite so annoying about it, but it certainly didn't grab me and keep me engrossed like her sportsball NA books did.

I have many quibbles:
  • First of all, there was quite a lot of tell, not show, in this book. We are told that Killian and Libby have all these things in common and that they talk about everything under the sun, but we are rarely actually party to these conversations. We are also told about Libby's job, but she's one of these contemporary romance protagonists who don't ever actually appear to have to do anything to make a living. Perhaps her parents' deaths left her independently wealthy? If so, this is never touched on.
  • Despite never having performed on stage (she has crippling stage fright, and was strongly discouraged by her parents to go into a career in music), Libby isn't just good at playing the guitar and singing, she's absolutely awesome. After one song, she's won over the entirety of Killian's band, not just the guy who has the hots for her. They have no qualms about having her sing along on several of the songs on their international reunion tour. 
  • As seems to be the case far too often, Killian isn't just well-endowed, he has a veritable monster in the pants region. Here I'm going to have to agree with my friend Erica - what is wrong with reasonably-sized, but well-favoured once in a while? Why do they always have to be super-huge? 
  • Speaking of the pants-region, far too much of Killian's emotional and physical state at any given point seems to be expressed with reference to what his balls are doing or how they are feeling. I went back and counted - fifteen separate mentions - of Mr. Rock God's dangly bits. 
  • For people who are both apparently great at writing song lyrics, both Libby and Killian SUCK at communication. Using their actual words to express to one another what and how they feel - not a thing they excel at. It's one of the things that keeps the conflict of the romance drawn out longer than should have been necessary.
There are good things about the book too. I really liked the supporting cast (I'm sure many, if not all, of the band members are going to star in future books). Scottie, the band's drop-dead gorgeous, but oh so cold and correct manager is the star of the next book, out in October, if Ms. Callihan is to be believed. Killian's cousin, Brenna, who manages the band, seems pretty cool, and I liked that she and Libby started to form a friendship, even though both admitted to barely having female friends before. There is a lot of fun banter and if the main couple had just been better at communicating, with each other and those around them, the main conflict of super famous rock star and reclusive nobody suddenly thrust into the spotlight could have been more interesting. So far, this book is less good than Callihan's other contemporaries, but still more entertaining than her historical paranormal fantasy ones. I shall give Scottie's book a try, and hope that it's an improvement.

Judging a book by its cover: So with her sportsball New Adult romances, Kristen Callihan's books all feature burly dudes in various stages of undress (usually shirtless) seen from the front (with their heads conveniently cut off, or at least their faces obscured). But on the cover of the book about a rock star who is described as ALWAYS ending up shirtless on stage during his gigs, there is a fully clothed dude, with his back to the camera. His ass is even mostly hidden by his guitar. Poor use of ogling material, cover designers. That's all I'm saying. At least the dude has short hair (Libby cuts Killian's long tangled hair short in one very steamy scene in the book). This cover is quite boring, I find. It doesn't capture the dynamic nature of good rock stars or the energy of the band described in the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR8 Book 71: "Bitch Planet, vol 1: Extraordinary Machine" by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine DeLandro

Page count: 156 pages
Rating: 4 stars

"In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth. Mother Earth, we used to say, before we understood. Space is the mother who receives us, you see? Earth is the father. And your father has cast you out. For your trespasses, your gluttony, your pride, your weakness, and your wickedness are such that you are beyond correction and castigation. Like a cancer you must be excised from the world that bore you. For the well-being of us all, lest your sickness spread. You will live out your lives in penitence and service here..."

These are the words, read by a woman, that the women sent to the Auxilliary Compliance Outpost, an off-world prison colony, more colloquially known as "Bitch Planet". Who is deemed non-compliant? It could be as the back cover of the trade paperback says anyone who doesn't fit in their patriarchally-assigned box, be they too fat, too thin, too loud, too shy, too religious, too secular, too prudish, too sexual, too queer, too black, too brown, or too whatever-it-is-they'll-judge-you-for-today. Compliant women all seem to be thin, demure, white and blond.

The world is controlled by the "Fathers" and anyone who doesn't fit into their ever-changing images of what a good, submissive and compliant little female should be, is sent away to prison. It is a world that wouldn't work if many women didn't also conform to these crazy standards, helping the men police their sisters, mothers, daughters, supporting the internalized patriarchy.

In the first five issues, collected in Extraordinary Machine, we meet a number of women sent to Bitch Planet, and get some glimpses into what some of them did to be deemed non-compliant enough to be imprisoned. Some of the women are offered a flimsy chance at freedom, offered to form a team and compete in the hugely popular, much betted-on, universally televised sport Megaton. Kamau Kogo, a former athlete, now accused of a murder she didn't commit, is asked to assemble a team. She initially refuses, but is persuaded to change her mind by other women in the prison, who want to grasp at the tender straw of hope the proposal brings.

So many Cannonballers have already written excellent and much-more eloquent reviews of this book than I can manage. El Cicco, SavageCat, Narfna, Emmalita, Yesknopemaybe, Jenny S, Alwaysanswerb and Bonnie. It's difficult to come up with anything clever and insightful that one (or several of them) hasn't already said. This is an important, angry and deeply feminist comic. It has many important messages about the way toxic patriarchy brings women down and how it brain-washes ladies into buying into the lies, so many of them in turn help oppress fellow women. The writing is good, the art is deliberately pulpy. The "adverts" at the end of each issue are subversive and great, but also provide terrifying facts about domestic abuse and violence against women in the US today.

I don't know when the next trade is out, but I shall keep my eyes open.

Judging a Book by its cover: Each of the issues of Bitch Planet have stylised and pulpy covers, reminiscent, as Emmalita points out in her review, of the cheap pop art of “girls, girls, girls” comics. There is the silhouette of a full-figured lady who is clearly non-compliant, giving both middle fingers to the world. The pink background shows some of the prisoners on the right side of the silhouette, with the  prison guards and their terrifying busty, and leggy Confessor Nun in a chair with her legs crossed. Above the silhouette's head, naked women wearing helmets, fighting. "Are you woman enough to survive?" "Girl Gangs...Caged and Enraged" printed at various places across the cover, again, calling to mind pulpy exploitation comics. It's a good cover, for a very good book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 4 July 2016

#CBR8 Book 70: "American Born Chinese" by Gene Luen Yang

Page count: 240 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This book alternates between three different story lines. The first, by far my favourite, is about the Monkey King, who teaches himself all the different branches of Kung Fu until he is not only invulnerable and immortal, but also able to fly, make himself huge, shrink down or shapeshift. He wants to become greater than Tze Yo Tzuh, the God of all the gods, and is instead buried under a mountain for five hundred years because he is too stubborn to change his mind.

The second story is about Jin Wang, who moves from San Fransisco to a neighbourhood with barely any Asians, and is ostracised and bullied as a result. He so desperately wants to fit in, even more so when he falls for one of the American girls in school. His only friend is a kid from Taiwan, Wei-Chen, a geeky boy who also struggles to fit in and has to wrestle with speaking correct English on top of everything else.

The third story seems to be a racist sit-com, complete with awful laugh track, about Danny, recently accepted onto the varsity basketball team. He's quite well-liked and popular at school, but then his cousin Chin-Kee, the worst Chinese stereotype character you can possibly imagine, comes to visit and proceeds to make him more and more embarrassed and freaked out.

The three separate and seemingly unconnected storylines eventually converge into one, and the theme of the whole book seems to be acceptance of one's true self, even in the face of adversity. All three characters dealt with feel alienated or different in their society and fight to change this through various means. I absolutely loved the Chinese mythology bits, and learning more about the Monkey King and his journey towards spiritual peace and acceptance. When I was a student, several of my friends would love to stay up late, watching episodes of Monkey (I only barely remember snippets), but as I kept reading, it became obvious that the mythology behind both was the same.

Having only ever read Boxers and Saints by this author (which was very good, but oh so depressing), I really wasn't sure what to expect. I get what he was trying to do with the Chin-Kee parts, but the super racist stereotype of a Chinese character still made me deeply uncomfortable and I therefore really didn't like those bits too much. Jin Wang was a bit of an idiot on occasion, but as someone who works with teenagers, I know all too well that that is a universal trait, no matter the background of the teen in question. All teenagers are idiots, and being a teenager pretty much always sucks. The hoops they will jump through and the ordeals they will put themselves through to fit in, it astounds me. I'm glad Jin Wang eventually started to see that he would be happier if he accepted his true self, even if he had to have a mythological visitation to do so.

I think I would have been happiest if this entire book was just an illustrated story of the Monkey King and continued with his Journey to the West, without any modern age teenagers or horrible stereotypes at all. The art is absolutely amazing throughout, so expressive.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover is almost all yellow, with line drawings of mountains, clouds and the mountain the Monkey King is buried under in the background. The Monkey King, naturally, looks quite annoyed. On the left-hand side, you see half of little Jin Wang's face in the foreground, clutching one of his beloved robot toys (when he is asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he responds "a Transformer"). Jin Wang and the robot are in colours, otherwise the whole thing is yellow. The back cover has the other half of Jin Wang and his robot and up in the left hand corner, there is a small TV screen with picture of Chin Kee grinning. I like the cover, which captures a lot of the graphic novel in three simple images.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Status Update: All the comics

Over the last year, I've had a pretty heavy work-load, to say the least. I have taught one Norwegian class (meaning at least 4 written assignments per semester to correct, two of them longer mid- or end of term-essays) and two English classes (each class again has at least two written assignments per semester, one of them mid- or end of term-length). That's a LOT of correction and grading.

Add to that, oral presentations, parent-teacher conferences, long afternoons of meetings and soo much lesson planning. The worst part is, next year, I'm going to be teaching tenth grade Norwegian and English, as well as TWO full classes of ninth grade English. So I'll have even MORE correction work. As a result, it is crucial that I feel like I get a lot of reading done this summer. Reading I've been putting off, not letting myself do, because it would add to my workload. I love the Cannonball Read, I really do. Blogging about what I read forces me to engage with the books I read on a different level, always considering what I want to be saying about to books afterwards and trying to see both positive and negative sides to the books. No matter how good I am at promising myself I'm going to review as I go along, I tend to build up huge back-logs, however, and when you're ten-thirteen books behind on your reviewing, it can be harder to really let yourself enjoy the book you're currently reading, which will add another to the back-log pile.

Comics and graphic novels are great reads, for the most part. They are also fast reads, giving me instant gratification. I can usually get through one in just an hour or two, depending on the length. Of course, that also means that I instantly get another thing I need to blog about, and it can make my back-log grow all the faster. Consequently, I have not let myself read any comics or graphic novels this year. The last ones I read were in December of last year, some of them read then to ensure I would actually manage to complete my triple Cannonball. Pictured is the pile of trade collections of various comic books, or graphic novels the husband and I own, which I have yet to get round to reading. Yes, I know it's super bad that I have yet to read American Born Chinese, Bone, Maus or Persepolis (I saw the movie for the last one, is that ok?). I was always intending to, stuff just came up! I just needed more time. Now is that time.

For those of you who can't see (my phone camera is not great, and the early afternoon light streaming in from the balcony of our flat didn't make picture taking easier), there are 18 different volumes here. When I get to the comics shop and get my greedy hands on Saga, volume 6 (which the internet assures me is out this week), there will be 19 - as I intend to read them in alphabetical order. Yes, I'm forcing myself to wait until I get to S to read the new SAGA! That is my penance for waiting so long with some of these books.

I'm not actually doing this just to bulk out my Cannonball tally, although I'm not going to lie and say that it makes me sad that I'll be adding more than 20 books in about a week. I will also have to review all of these, but now that I'm on vacation, I have that time. What else am I going to do? Go outside? Clean the house? Exercise? Binge-watch television? Pah! Reading is more important (besides, I suspect I'll be able to do some binge-watching in the evenings).

The books I will be reading are as follows (alphabetical by title):
  • American Born Chinese - Gene Luen Yang
  • Bitch Planet, book one - Kelly Sue DeConnick/Valentine DeLandro
  • Bone - Jeff Smith
  • Castle Waiting - Linda Medley
  • Captain Marvel, vol 1: Higher, Further, Faster, More - Kelly Sue DeConnick/David Lopez
  • Chew, vol 2: International Flavor - John Layman/Rob Guillory
  • Chew, vol 3: Just Desserts - John Layman/Rob Guillory
  • Hawkeye, vol 1: My Life as a Weapon - Matt Fraction/David Aja/Javier Pulido
  • Locke and Key, vol 3: Crown of Shadows - Joe Hill/Gabriel Rodriguez
  • Maus - Art Spiegelman
  • Ms Marvel, vol 2: Generation Why - G. Willow Wilson/Jacob Wyatt/Adrian Alphona
  • Persepolis, vol 1 and 2 - Marjane Satrapi
  • Red Sonja, vol 1: Queen of Plagues - Gail Simone/Walter Geovani
  • Saga, volume 6 - Brian K. Vaughan/Fiona Staples
  • Through the Woods - Emily Carroll
  • The Unwritten, vol 9: Fables - M. Carey/B. Willingham/P. Gross/M. Buckingham
  • The Unwritten, vol 10: War Stories - Mike Carey/Peter Gross
  • The Unwritten, vol 11: Apocalypse - Mike Carey/Peter Gross
  • Wonder Woman, vol 4: War - Brian Azzarello/Cliff Chiang/Goran Sudzuka
Let the reading commence!

Edit - 14/07/16 - Change of plans. There is NO way I'm going to have time to read all of them before we jet off to the States tomorrow (as was my plan) and I will therefore be saving Persepolis, the three volumes of The Unwritten and the Wonder Woman until later in the summer. Should be able to get through the rest, though. 

#CBR8 Book 69: "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" by Alison Weir

Page count: 676 pages
Audio book length: 22hrs 26 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Tudor history has pretty much always been my favourite era of any historical period ever. There's just so much drama and intrigue and the personalities were so immense, be it Henry VIII or his two daughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Back in November, there was a big audiobook sale over at Audible, and I picked up a huge amount of books, this one included. It took me nearly three and a half months of on and off listening to get through this nearly 23 hour long historical exploration of Henry VIII's six marriages, with focus firmly on the various ladies in question and their lives both before (and in some cases, after) they married what most would consider the most famous king in English history.

Divorced (Catherine of Aragon), Beheaded (Anne Boleyn) , Died (from complications of childbirth, Jane Seymour), Divorced (Marriage annulled, actually, but that doesn't make it as catchy, Anne of Cleves), Beheaded (Catherine Howard), Survived (Katherine Parr). Six women, one hugely powerful, and as he aged, increasingly erratic and unpredictable ruler, whose chief obsession during his reign was to beget sons. Despite my Masters degree in History, where I spent part of a year studying the various Tudors, especially Elizabeth, I do love me some Sexy Tudors. Sadly, they never got round to showing Mary or Elizabeth's reigns, but I'm confident that Kate Beaton has captured what it would have looked like:

After listening to Alison Weir's insightful chronicling of the lives and fates of these important historical women, I feel even more strongly that Mallory Ortberg (RIP The Toast, you will be missed!) speaks powerful truth in her advice to each of the various queens, many of whom could have made better descisions over the course of their marriages to the king. It made me cackle with laughter when I read it back in November, and re-reading it now, it felt even more apt.

A very good book for anyone interested more in his queens than Henry VIII himself (let's face it, more than enough of history books have been written about him). It's long and comprehensive, but will because of it answer any questions you may have had about what being a queen in the Tudor era was actually like. The Tudors may be fun, but it's a soap opera, not actual history. It also clearly gives an impression about what the early years of Mary and Elizabeth Tudor must have been like, and it's not surprising that one grew up to become a hysterical religious zealot and the other one, despite her passionate nature, foreswore marriage forever.

Judging a book by its cover: Not too much to say about this. It's a book about Henry VIII's six wives, so a portrait of him, surrounded in turn by each of the six women he at one point or another was married to, seems suitable.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 68: "Auntie Mame: An Irreverant Escapade" by Patrick Dennis

Page count: 299 pages
Rating: 4 stars

After little Patrick's father dies, he is left to the care of his eccentric and adventurous aunt, Mame. His childhood goes from one of routine and order to one rather more unusual, and over the course of his adolescence and early adulthood, his colourful Auntie Mame keeps providing him with amazing anecdotes. Each chapter starts with the author reading about some saintly spinster from New England who took in an orphan, leading to his own recollections of his life with his aunt. Suffice to say, anything the spinster did in the Digest article he's reading, Mame did too, only more elaborately and with a lot more hijinks.

While little Patrick's father wanted him raised with a proper, conservative education, Mame tries to enrol him at an experimental school, which enrages the head of his financial trust enough that he's sent off to boarding school. Mame eventually marries a fabulously wealthy Southern gentleman and does her best to become a proper Southern Belle, and where ordinary mortals may have broken their necks, she impresses the entire neighbourhood by staying on the back of an absolute monster of a horse throughout a long hunt.

When she is sadly widowed, Mame is nonetheless left wealthy beyond imagining, and sets out to write her memoir, until her mousy assistant elopes with her ghost-writer. Said assistant is then left pregnant and distraught, with Mame showing up shortly before Patrick's graduation from St. Boniface's Academy, absolutely careless of any danger to his academic record or reputation, determined that together they will help bring forth the unfortunate child to the world.

During his college years, Mame's lavish parties greatly impress Patrick's college chums, and as he grows older, his free-spirited and outrageous aunt does her best to try to help him smoothly through the vagaries of romance. During the war, she nearly kills both Patrick and herself trying to foster displaced war orphans, who sadly turn out to seemingly be demons in child form. Once Patrick finally does find a wife and beget a child of his own, Mame returns after multiple year abroad to tempt her great-nephew with tales of adventure and promises of journeys to exotic locations.

Growing up in Norway, I was entirely unaware of Auntie Mame, the 1955 novel that was turned into a movie, a Broadway play and a musical (which was also filmed). My best friend Lydia gifted me the book several years ago, and I have to admit it languished on my shelves until now, when I finally picked it up and was absolutely delighted. While some of Mame's escapades had me sympathising greatly with Patrick and rolling my eyes at her more outrageous turns of phrase and crazy schemes, I was also mostly entertained throughout. The book, which is more like a collection of short stories with a common framing device, that a continuous narrative, suggests that if Dennis, who based Auntie Mame on his real life aunt, experienced even half of the things he writes about in the book, he had a very eventful coming of age, indeed.

Apparently there is a sequel as well, about Patrick and Auntie Mame's travels around the world after he graduated St. Boniface and I suspect I am going to have to read that too. Having now had the joys to finally get to know Auntie Mame, I can't wait to see what she'd get up to travelling around Europe and possibly beyond. Thank you, Lydia, I'm terribly sorry it took me so long to read the book.

Judging a book by its cover: I absolutely love the cover for this book. The cover artist, John Fontana, did SUCH a good job. The yellow background has a textured pattern, evoking a brocade wallpaper, with the decadent Mame to the right of the cover, wearing a stunning gown and dripping in pearls and jewelry, as is only right and proper for a woman of her formidable wealth. Her darling boy, Patrick is clearly only a young child, wearing his school uniform, complete with short pants and a cute little red cap. On the back cover, which is mostly red, the lovely Mame is lounging at top of the page, resting on one elbow with a martini glass in her other hand. It's a lovely touch.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 3 July 2016

#CBR8 Books 65-67: "Salvation in Death", "Ritual in Death" and "Promises in Death" by J.D. Robb

Total page count: 912 pages
Salvation in Death - 3.5 stars
Ritual in Death - 3 stars
Promises in Death - 4 stars

It's that time of year again, when I decide to check in on Lt. Eve Dallas and her unbelievably wealthy and gorgeous husband Roarke. Just like a long-running TV show with characters and a setting I enjoy, these books are perfect vacation reading for me.

Salvation in Death - A Catholic priest is poisoned with sacramental wine during the funeral of one of the communities best-loved senior citizens. There are tons of witnesses and initially, it seems impossible that anyone could have anything against the popular and civic-minded father Miguel Flores. Then, across town, a hugely successful tele-evangelist is collapses on stage during one of his huge shows at Madison Square Garden. Are the murders connected, or is there a copycat at large? Can Dallas get over her discomfort with organised religion and genuine faith and discover who the murder (or murderers) are?

While the initial premise of this book was really cool, I thought the unravelling of the murder plot just took too long in this book. The motive for the killings is revealed before we're even halfway through the book and far too much time is spent just getting the guilty parties lured into confessing. I got bored waiting for the final act to really get going.

Ritual in Death - Eve Dallas and her multi-gazillionaire husband are at a swanky party with one of his society friends in one of his many New York hotels. Suddenly a naked man staggers in, clearly disorientated, covered in blood and clutching a knife. Eve traces the bloody footprints to another hotel suite, where they find a young woman clearly murdered in what appears to be intended as a Satanic ritual of some sort. The suite shows clear signs that quite the raucous party with food, drugs, wine and sex took place before the festivities were finished off with a spot of sexual assault and murder. The blood-covered man remembers absolutely nothing and has clearly been heavily drugged. As the crime scene is one of Roarke's properties and the security has been compromised, he is just as invested in having the crime solved quickly and the murderers apprehended as his wife.

There are hints of supernatural elements in this novella, as Roarke, initially going against the wishes of his wife, calls on a former flame, a woman who practises witchcraft in order to figure out who is responsible for the grisly murder. As this is a novella, the plot moves a lot more quickly than in the novels, and there is less of a presence from the supporting cast, with the notable exception of Dr. Mira, who helps Eve try to get through to the various individuals who may be able to shed light on the situation, but who have all been drugged into oblivion.

Promises in Death - Amaryllis Coltraine, a cop recently transferred to New York from Atlanta, and Chief Medical Examiner Morris' current girlfriend is found murdered in the basement of her apartment building. The murder of a cop is always something that shakes everyone involved, but for Dallas, who has to break the news personally to her good friend, it becomes imperative that she track down the person or persons responsible. As she and Peabody investigate Ammy Coltraine's murder, they discover connections between her past and that of Eve and Roarke. Coltraine's former lover, currently conveniently visiting New York, is the son of Max Ricker, a man currently serving multiple life sentences on a prison colony off world thanks to Lt. Dallas and her husband. Is the son as dangerous and corrupt as his father, or is his presence in the city just a coincidence?

While Coltraine had only been mentioned as a supporting character in a few of the preceding books, Morris has been one of the long-running secondary cast, and his burgeoning romance had been given some attention. To make the book even more sad, the prologue is from Coltaine's POV, as she leaves her flat for the last time, going to meet her murderer, and it's quite clear that she's happy and in love, making Morris' loss all the more tragic. Eve, Roarke, Peabody and the other regular character have to do their very best to try to comfort their friend in his time of need, while also investigating the murder of his girlfriend.

Because of the emotional connection to Morris and the way the murder felt personal to everyone involved, this book really affected me and although I couldn't remember Max Ricker at all (which isn't all that surprising, as I read the book he featured in nearly six years ago and never bothered to review it), it was clear that he was a pretty loathsome character and the question of whether his son was a chip of the the old block worked fine even if I couldn't recall who the father was or what exactly he had done.

Having now glommed three In Death stories in a row, I think I've satisfied my romance/sci-fi/mystery itch for this round. I'm ready for something different again now.

Judging a book by its cover: Because the In Death books invariably have pretty identical covers (the top bit in one solid cover with the author's name prominently displayed - the middle bit a solid black bar with the title of the book - X in Death - and the lower part comprising a number of random mystery/suspense elements that may or may not fit the theme of the novel), this is all you're getting. The covers are so formulaic that commenting on them isn't really much fun. I can tell you that on Salvation in Death, the top bit of the cover is purple, Ritual in Death is a novella, so it doesn't even get its own cover and Salvation in Death as you can see, is a sort of reddish coral.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR8 Book 64: "Throne of the Crescent Moon" by Saladin Ahmed

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Resorting to the blurb for a plot summary, because I need to get my reviews up to date, and trying to come up with my own synopsis takes too long:

The Crescent Moon Kingdoms are at a boiling point. A struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the mysterious Falcon Prince is reaching its climax. In the midst of this brewing rebellion, a series of brutal supernatural murders strike at the heart of the Kingdoms.

Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, three score and more years old, has grown weary of hunting monsters and saving lives. But when an old flame's family is murdered, Adoulla is drawn back to the hunter's path. Raseed bas Raseed, a hidebound holy warrior, is eager to deliver God's justice. Zamia Badawi has been gifted with the near-mythical power of the Lion-Shape, but lives only to avenge her father's death. Until she meets Raseed and Adoulla.

When they learn that the murders and the brewing revolution are connected, the companions must race against time to save the life of a vicious despot. In so doing, they discover a plot for the Throne of the Crescent Moon that threatens to turn the city, and the world itself, into a blood-soaked ruin. 
First of all, I would like to point out that the blurb I copied from the back of my book actually contained TWO separate grammatical errors, that I felt the need to correct before transcribing it. That's some piss-poor copy-editing there, Gollancz publishers. Real nice. I can't have spent too much time reading the back before picking this book up at a clearance sale at the Oslo Airport book shop a few years ago. I may have refrained from buying the book if I'd seen that. Now, having read the whole book (as far as I can recall, there are no egregious grammatical errors in the actual book), I'm glad I did buy it. It was an entertaining, and out of the ordinary read, for me.

Second of all, the blurb makes it seem as if Adoulla is actually pretty much retired when these supernatural murders occur. That is not the case. He is in fact pretty much the only one still trained in the old ways to kill ghuls and other horrible monsters, with most of his peers either already retired or dead. Naturally, he's getting a bit fed up, and feeling his age more and more. Raseed is a deeply religious dervish and Adoulla's apprentice. He's frequently shocked and outraged at the older man's speech and behaviour, but there is also clearly a lot of affection between them. Together, they work hard for little monetary reward and keep risking their lives to keep the populace of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms safe.

Zamia Banu Laith Badawi is a desert warrior, who was chosen to take on the role as Protector of her tribe, meaning she can shape-shift into a lion with supernaturally sharp claws and teeth. Normally, the role of Protector would be bestowed on a man, and after Zamia's entire tribe was brutally murdered by an evil, soul-stealing sorcerer, she is starting to believe that she is unworthy of her gifts. She has nonetheless sworn to avenge her people and while initially sceptical to Adoulla and Raseed, she agrees to join forces with them. As it turns out that her lion-shape is the only thing able to harm the incorporeal Jackal-spirit helping the sorcerer, her aid becomes invaluable to the ghul hunters.

The majority of epic fantasy seems to be both written and largely populated by white men. Luckily, the fantasy landscape isn't all J.R.R "I have three women of any importance in my fantasy epic, and let's face it, Arwen isn't much to write home about" Tolkien any more, but unlike in paranormal fantasy (where pretty much all the writers and protagonists I can think of are women, Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden being the notable exception), there is still a strong dominance of Caucasian men both writing and populating the stories. Now, Saladin Ahmed is also a dude, but he is of Arabian descent and there is not, as far as I can tell from their physical descriptions, a single white person in this book. The setting, characters, supernatural threats and magic is all Arabic-inspired, reminding me a lot of A Thousand and One Nights.

Two of the protagonists are men, one older, one young, but they would clearly be completely overpowered if not for Zamia. The most important supporting character is also a formidable woman of rank and magical abilities and it shouldn't be quite so surprising when women are given prominence and an equal share of the glory in fantasy. But it sort of is.

So why no more than 3.5 stars? Despite the interesting and unusual setting, the pretty cool characters and the fairly action-packed plot, I just kept waiting to get more engrossed in the story. It took me four full days to finish the book, which is unusual for a book of only 300 pages. I will absolutely be keeping my eye out for the next book in the series, as I hope that now that I've been introduced to the world and the characters, the next book may be more of a page-turner for me. A promising beginning to a series, but not the most exciting fantasy I've read. Huge kudos for doing something different, though.

Judging a book by its cover: The UK paperback I own of this has a fairly plain cover, a bluish purple with hints of mosaic decoration, with the Throne of the title prominently displayed, even highlighted as with a spotlight. There is a curved sword resting on it and quite a lot of blood on the sword, as well as the seat and base of the throne. I don't want to spoil too much of the book, but the image is really quite apt. The US cover has an artist's rendering of what the three protagonists might look like while fighting ghuls, but I actually prefer this simple cover, as my mental image of the characters doesn't match up with that of the other cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read