The City & The City, by China Mieville (2009) K

Date read: 6.03.09

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

The City & The City is dark, brooding, and meticulous. It is the story of Inspector Tyador Borlu who investigates a mysterious and highly delicate murder case. “Highly delicate” for Borlu soon discovers that he must invoke Breach, a mysterious judicial force that governs disputes in the rare case that they involve a crossing of the cities, Ul Qoma and Beszel. However, help is not so easily found and Borlu must undertake this investigation himself. Using not-exactly-by-the-book methods, Borlu uncovers mysteries of the murdered girl, the very archaelogy of these two odd cities, and Breach.

Review

Mieville pulls the reader in with promises of the same great and dark fantastical adventures of his previous novels– we concoct a terrible conspiracy in our minds when first confronted with the murder, we imagine the city divide must have come about as a result of a great otherworldly battle, we provide ancient magical powers for each mention of a mysterious artifact… and although these theories are shattered one by one as the novel progresses, we still imagine the epic Big Reveal will, in fact, prove all our thoughts to be correct. Instead, The City & The City is cold and harsh, and there is never a magical solution. There is definitely a depressing, suffocating atmosphere that comes from knowing that every death, every misunderstanding, every unnecessarily gruesome fact of life is caused for humans, by humans.

I have to say I harbored this niggling disappointment each time a plot turn indicated that there was in fact no magic. I was naive– I should have paid closer attention to the genre titles “noir fiction” and “weird fiction”, but Mieville has always had a way with enchanting the story no matter what genre. I found the mentions of Myspace and Chuck Palanhiuk highly jarring, but undoubtedly genius. These references really made the reader think and realize he was reading about a country off somewhere in the Middle East that existed in the same world at the same time, that if he travelled far enough he would perchance bump into the city of Beszel. This effect was definitely unnerving and brought the story closer to home.

In many ways, I found Beszel and Ul Qoma to be the darkest of any of Mieville’s cities to date. Beszel and Ul Qoma encapsulate the grimness of today’s most rundown urban centers, without the usual gems of beauty that one can find in Mieville’s other works. While New Crobuzon was covered with filth, death, and corruption, the reader was still made to understand the powerful potential of inner beauty– Lin’s amazing (although admittedly grotesque) artwork, the majestic surrealism of The Weaver, the slowly nurtured romance between Bellis and Silas– and in the end, the Baslag books were just as much about the good as they were about the bad.  And of course, the London underground setting of King Rat also contained an edgy artistically musical appeal. I didn’t see any of this hope or light in these cities– whenever I uncovered more about a good person or a seemingly magical concept, there was simply only… dirt and muck underneath. Basically, I didn’t come away seeing promise dangling on the ends of story threads in the same way I did for other Mieville works. This, perhaps more than the downward spiral to nowhere, frightened me the most and in many ways, made the story as a whole less appealing.

This is not to say that The City & The City isn’t another great work of art created by China Mieville. I was so accustomed to floating along in the waves of Mieville’s greatly fantastical settings and characters, only to find myself rudely shoved into a hard and entirely unforgiving setting. I am under the opinion that this novel is extremely mislabeled as a fantasy work…there is an explanation and a science behind everything plot turn, and ultimately, my point is do NOT walk into The City & The City expecting fantasy. Although I have not read much detective noir fiction, I can confidently say The City & The City must be among the cream of the crop– as usual with Mieville, you can see the literary quality dripping off the edges of each page and feel the weight of a great imagination.

Go to:

China Mieville

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2008) K

Date read: 11.8.08

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Nobody Owens (Bod) lives in a graveyard, has ghosts for friends and family, and a mysterious neither-living-nor-dead guardian. As he grows up, he has to learn both the ways and secrets of the large graveyard as well as deal with the outside world. This foreign world is extremely dangerous place for Bod because the assassin of his family is still on the prowl. Throughout the journey of his childhood Bod basically learns about growing up– girls, beings which are neither living nor, and slowly, how to function in the outside world.

Review

Way to go Neil Gaiman! All those months of meticulously following the progress of The Graveyard Book on his blog certainly paid off– the day it was released, I headed over to my local bookstore, plucked one brand spanking new copy off the display, and settled into an armchair to read for the next couple hours. I read it all in one sitting, and in about a week, after procuring enough monetary funds, I immediately bought the book.

I have to say The Graveyard Book was spot on in so many respects– character development, pacing, storytelling… to name a few. Sure Bod lives in a graveyard, but his childhood frustrations and adventures  are so relatable. He has his own quarrels with his guardians, fighting against the constraints of the graveyard much like children do their own homes. The imagery is simply splendid, especially Bod’s adventures beneath the graveyard and all the different fantastical creatures. And, who doesn’t like ghosts, vampires, and other such creatures? I definitely felt transported into another world through that imaginary magic portal every child wants to travel through. Above all, I was definitely caught up in the snowball effect of the novel– you’re reading and the suspense and developments keep piling on until suddenly, you realize you haven’t been breathing for several pages. That is the feeling I’d been longing to experience again, that same thrill of reading Patricia Wrede or Brian Jacques or J.K. Rowling as a child with breathy light-headedness.

The Graveyard Book has replaced Coraline as my favorite Gaiman YA fiction. It is fantastical, yet down to earth at the same time, and strikes a wonderful balance between barreling trains of action and meandering scenes chock full of character development. Quite honestly, one of my recurring gripes with Gaiman’s works is they typically feel a bit cold, despite being terrifically written and crafted. I usually enjoy every minute of a Gaiman novel or comic, but come away feeling a bit dissatisfied, as if it didn’t successfully speak to me on a deeper level. The Graveyard Book, however, was warm and honest, and definitely a great read for any child or even adult.

Go to:

Neil Gaiman

Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004) E

Date Read: 6.13.09

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

Oskar is an alienated twelve-year-old living in a decaying Swedish suburb in the 1980’s. He is brutally bullied at school, and fantasizes often about striking back at his tormentors, keeping a scrapbook of newspaper articles about murders as his inspiration. Two new neighbors move into Oskar’s apartment complex: one an older man, and one, apparently his daughter, an androgynous girl named Eli who smells terrible, walks barefoot in the snow, and only comes out at night, but is nonetheless befriended by Oskar.

If you know anything about vampires, you can imagine where this is going. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, translated by Ebba Segerberg) was a bestseller in Sweden when it was published in 2004, and gained further international attention when the 2008 Swedish-language film adaptation (IMDB) won a number of awards and became a surprise hit. I’m not sure now if I heard about the movie or the book first, but unusually for me, I ended up watching the movie first, and read the book shortly after. I enjoyed both immensely, but for slightly different reasons in each case. Given that, I thought I’d do a combined film and book review. Please note that mild spoilers follow.

Continue reading Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004) E

Vampire Deluxe!, by Lawrence Gullo & David Ryder Prangley (2009) E

Date Read: 6.19.09
Book From: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Vampire Deluxe!, by Lawrence Gullo and David Ryder Prangley,  is a profoundly silly vampire comic featuring two medieval lads who masquerade as princes of the night in order to sex (and rob) the ladies. Pretty good plan, huh?

The concept is good enough to deserve a longer treatment, at least in my opinion, but here it sets up a pleasurably nonsensical plot involving midnight mandrake-digging expeditions, voluptuous ladies in white gowns, and dialogue like “Take that, harlot.”

Gullo’s characters are distinctively gaunt and elegant, and while his stylized anatomy can make for stiff posing, his characters’ hilarious facial expressions often sell the punchlines of the sardonic jokes – something I also find to be the case with My Life in Blue, his first webcomic. (Vampire Deluxe! also happens to be set in Gullo’s mythical Eastern European homeland, Baritaria, the subject of his second webcomic, Baritarian Boy.)

Eeeeeeeeehhhhhh

All in all, I had me some good times with Vampire Deluxe! – it’s a quick and marvellously fun read for any fan of Gothic goofiness. (If you like Young Frankenstein, try…)

Go to:
Lawrence Gullo: bio and author page
My Life in Blue
Baritarian Boy

The Scandal of the Season, by Sophie Gee (2007) E

Date Read: 12.17.08

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

English poet Alexander Pope achieved his fame and success when in 1712 he published his mock-epic poem, “The Rape of the Lock,” satirizing the public disgrace of the renowned beauty Arabella Fermor. This novel follows Pope’s rise to fame, as he departs his country home to travel to the city for a season. As Pope struggles to find material for a new poem, and to cope with the hypocrisy and cruelty of London’s high society, the haughty but meagerly dowered Arabella encounters the equally attractive and clever Lord Petre. Amid the stirrings of a new Jacobite rebellion (the conspiracy to return the Catholic James VII to the throne), Arabella soon undertakes a clandestine affair with Lord Petre – an affair that will become the talk of London, and Pope’s making, by the end of the season.

I was actually able to see Sophie Gee speak about this book and the research that went into its making, and found her a very intelligent, engaging speaker, so I had this quite high on my reading priority list. Plus, 18th-century bedroom/social intrigues have been a pet subject of mine ever since I fell in love with Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Unfortunately, Gee appears to be a pretty terrible novelist. Most of her book is graceless and entirely deficit in subtlety and real character development – the only area in which she demonstrates any deftness is the sometimes witty, cutting dialogue. Erotic scenes occasionally offer a break from the plodding narration, but are executed with a mix of irritating coyness and heavy-handed, charmlessly vulgar metaphors. (Imagine the most obvious sexual innuendo possible involving swords, hilts, and sheaths. Got it? Good. You have now succeeded in equalling every sex scene in the book.)

The saving grace of The Scandal of the Season is that it’s based on real people and real events, and ones in which Gee is clearly an expert, such that the weight of their true personal histories and characters give substance to an otherwise poorly-constructed novel. As such, the only reasons I kept reading this were that 1. I bought it (damn), and 2. I really wanted to see what would happen to the characters. The end is very bittersweet and truly fascinating historically, but Gee effectively robs it of most of its emotional heft. Boo.

Go to:

Sophie Gee

The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman (1995) E

Date Read: 6.11.09 (reread)

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

I must have picked this up at a used book sale a little while ago and forgotten that I had done so, because I found it on my shelf with no distinct memory of having acquired it – something that has been occurring with increasing frequency lately. Whoops.

The Midwife’s Apprentice is a medieval coming-of-age story, the story of a nameless girl picked up out of a dungheap by a sharp-tempered, greedy midwife. Christened Beetle by the midwife, she begins by sweeping floors and running menial errands, but begins to realize that she has more wits than the rest of the world gives her credit for.

I first read this in about fifth grade, but never liked this as much as Catherine, Called Birdy, Karen Cushman‘s other medieval historical fiction, although Midwife won the Newbery Medal. (Catherine “only” won the Honor.) Even at that age, I found the Moral at the End of the Story a little offensively obvious; Cushman also fell prey to the lesson-in-your-face YA tactic in Catherine, but that book’s greater narrative heft makes it more forgiveable.

However, The Midwife’s Apprentice is still an extremely enjoyable read. It’s very effective in creating a sense of space and slowly passing time despite its slim size, and there are quite a lot of wryly funny parts that I forgot. And Cushman’s attention to the details of medieval life is always extremely rewarding and fun – she creates a uniquely lively, earthy, and warm atmosphere, painting colorful pictures of village life, market fairs, and the breathtakingly detailed esoterica of the midwife’s trade, which employs ingredients from crushed emeralds to murderer’s wash-water. Her characters similarly have great warmth, and she effectively plays a broad emotional range over the course of the story. Overall, a very fun and feel-good read.

Go to:

Karen Cushman

The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, Book Two, by Chris Hastings & Kent Archer (2008) E

Date Read: 6.12.09

Book From: Borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewer: Emera

The Adventures of Dr. McNinja is an ongoing webcomic about a doctor who is also a ninja; duh. Chris Hastings writes and draws, and Kent Archer inks. They used to be roommates, and you can kind of tell.

In the second volume of the Doctor’s adventures, Dutch action star and sworn ninja nemesis Frans Rayner has captured the Doctor’s loyal teen sidekick, Gordito, and will stop at nothing to destroy the Doctor and claim Gordito’s magnificent and authoritative mustache as his own. Meanwhile, a mysterious drug has hit the streets, endowing common hoodlums with ninja powers. Can Dr. McNinja D.A.R.E. to resist ninja drugs and violence? Will he be able to protect Ben Franklin’s clone from harm in a high-speed motorcycle chase? Will his gorilla assistant Betty ever be able to eat her hot dogs in peace?

It’s a tricky affair to read this on a train, or anywhere else public. First there’s the business of trying to hide the pages of neckbeards and ninja showdowns from seatmates and the people across the row from you; then you have to try not to keep hooting maniacally and out loud. Granted, you do have to have a pretty random and absurd sense of humor to enjoy Dr. McNinja, which relies on non sequiturs, preposterous plot twists, occasional nerd references, and a universe of characters who take themselves way too seriously – if you couldn’t tell from the summary.

Luckily, I am well-endowed in the random-sense-of-humor department, and get a huge kick out of every volume, although I also tend to feel slightly stupider afterwards. (By contrast, my brother read a few panels and preemptively declared, “This sounded awesome, but it’s stupid.” His loss.) The fact that Chris Hastings’ art tends to be kind of shaky – it reminds me of the illustrations that you’d see in a high school newspaper – actually adds to the comic’s humor. Disproportionate facial features, rather lumpen anatomy, and physically implausible poses just seem right.

I would recommend Dr. McNinja as being great for de-stressing. My own roommate and I read the first volume during some of our darkest academic hours this past school year, and still get way too much of a kick out of shouting, “FROZEN SHAMROCKS KEEP HITTING MY FACE.”

Dr. McNinja can be read for free online, or purchased in printed volumes – which replicate the original comics’ alt texts – via Raptor Bandit Industries.

Go to:
Chris Hastings

Harley and Ivy, by Paul Dini, Bruce Timms, et al. (2007) E

Date Read: 6.13.09

Book From: Borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewer: Emera

The DC collection Harley and Ivy (writing by Paul Dini & Judd Winick, art by Bruce Timms, Joe Chiodo, Shane Glines) collects three pretty mindlessly entertaining Batman story arcs starring villainesses Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, all based on episodes from Batman the animated series, though kicked up with darker touches and sexual innuendo. In “The Bet,” Harley makes a bet that Ivy can’t win a kiss from every man in Arkham Asylum, only to have the bet backfire on her when her main man, the Joker, joins the list of kiss-ees. In “Love on the Lam” (which was so unmemorable that I couldn’t even remember it without a little boost from Amazon), Harley once again attempts to get back into the Joker’s good graces by pulling off a heist of her own, enlisting Ivy’s help to do so. In “Harley and Ivy,” the gals pack off to South America in order to recover a specimen of a rare zombie root central to Ivy’s newest plan for world domination. From there, they make their way to Hollywood, where they begin filming a big-budget, diamond-studded movie glorifying their own escapades. Catfights, shower scenes, and gay lumberjack encounters ensue.

Overall, very silly and rife with absolutely shameless fanservice. The stories themselves are hardly memorable and simply retread Harley and Ivy’s well-established character dynamics (bubbly and annoying vs. sultry and sarcastic), but the fluid, expressive art, either by Timms himself or styled after his work on the series, and madcap humor make for a fun, quick read. If you’re a Harley/Ivy fan (as both Kakaner and I are), this is worth a look, so long as you’re not expecting masterful storytelling or anything. This is one of those books that makes you laugh so hard your brain hurts, with you feeling slightly the worse for it afterwards.

Go to:

Paul Dini
Bruce Timms

Looking for Jake, by China Mieville (2005) K

Date Read: 2.17.06

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Looking for Jake is Mieville’s first published short story collection, containing tidbits of every lustworthy genre– weird and urban fantasy, sci-fi, noird, horror, and of course, baslag. The collection is an extremely welcome contrast to Mieville’s previous works– one, his first novel, and the other three a sprawling epic trilogy. Mieville definitely clings (and I suspect will always cling) to the urban setting, which in my opinion, is the best type of backdrop to broil all types of conspiracies, folklore, and war. In the case of suspense and horror literature, I feel the urban setting also lends itself very well to relatability, and while you as the reader might find yourself soaring to distant lands and imaginations with high fantasy, urban fantasy brings the weird and excitement directly to you. My reactions to the stories in this collection range from indifferent to eyes-glued-to-the-page drooling– here I have some thoughts and mini-summaries of each story:

Continue reading Looking for Jake, by China Mieville (2005) K

Anna, by Isaac Marion and Sarah Musi (2008) E

Date Read: 2.2.09
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

book anna

Anna is the wistful tale of a young ghost who falls in love with a human boy. When I first stumbled upon Isaac Marion‘s short fiction online, it was one of the stories that most enchanted both Kakaner and me. In 2008, Marion self-published a 50-edition print run of Anna, with illustrations by Sarah Musi.

I love the size and feel of the book, especially the old-fashioned font and heavily textured, off-white paper cover. There’s something very individual-feeling about self-published books, and with their slight imperfections, you somehow you get more of a sense of the author, and of the effort that went into making the book. Instead of it being A Copy of a Book, it’s A Book, if that makes any sense.

Musi’s ink illustrations are delicate, charming, and perfectly suit the feel of the story with their elegant, expressive minimalism. Her elongated forms, fine linework, and use of negative space struck me as being faintly Gorey-esque. The story unfolds simply and gracefully, with quiet gravity. The details of Anna’s existence as a ghost are particularly captivating: my favorite moment of the story might be when she sinks into a mountain, seeking the comfort of its solidity.

As of July 2009, about 25 copies of Anna are still available for sale on Marion’s site. You can also see previews of the text and art at the same link. I treasure my copy, so if you’re at all tempted, I would buy one while you still can.

Go to:

Isaac Marion
Isaac Marion’s fiction online
Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion [E]
Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion  [K]