Kindred – Octavia Butler

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This is the same style as the cover of Bloodchild I have and I just really like the simplicity of the art.

Welp. I read this in a day. That probably says more than the thousand words I’m going to write could possibly convey about how good I thought this book was (spoilers, I’m going to write those thousand words anyway). Because it was genuinely excellent. I’m not going to say “enjoyable” because, well… it’s not a subject matter for fun, happy times. But I am very glad I’ve read it, and it is without doubt a brilliant, excellent book. It got five stars on Goodreads and I didn’t even have to pause to think.

I mean, I had a strong suspicion I was going to like it – I really enjoyed Bloodchild after all – but it was just… I couldn’t put it down. It’s not exactly a hefty book, but nor is it particularly shorter than your average paperback. I started reading it on the train to brunch this morning (mmmm, brunch), picked it up again on the train back after and then, when I got home and could sit down and just read… I did… until I ran out of book. Not really because I wanted to know what happened next (though I did) and not really because I was having fun (I was and I wasn’t, if you see what I mean) but just because it was a book where the experience of reading it was so utterly compelling. We’ve all had those, I’m sure.

Weirdly, though, the thing I am most inclined to compare it to is one I didn’t enjoy anywhere near as much – The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. As well as the obvious time-travel comparison, they do share some things, just without Kindred being anywhere near as iffy as tTTW ever gets.

Well, that’s not true. It gets all manner of iffy. But deliberately.

The story follows Dana, a 26 year old black woman in 1976, who suddenly finds herself flung back in time to 19th century Maryland, saving the life of a young white boy, and her subsequent travels back there and home again, and what this means for her life on both sides of the timeline. More than anything else (and more than it’s a science-fiction novel), it’s about a modern(ish) woman seeing the realities of slavery and experiencing them first hand, while also watching her white husband interact with the same world, and see it differently. It’s not a novel for the happy-feels, because nothing about slavery is for the happy-feels, but it feels important and considered and that’s a satisfying thing to read. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, you’re clearly meant to feel uncomfortable (and I certainly did), but it’s… I can’t think of the right positive adjective. Much like The Handmaid’s Tale‘s feeling of inevitability, the reality of it, knowing you very well might become one of the people in the novel and hating that… I find the character of the husband here worrying, because for all that he’s mostly decent, he sometimes slips into minimising the awfulness of life as a slave, simply because he doesn’t see most of it. He doesn’t see the beatings, so doesn’t realise they happen. And he intellectually understands that what is going on is terrible, awful – he wants to protect his wife from it, save her from ever having to go back – but at the same time, he just doesn’t seem to totally get it. The thing that saves him from being as awful as the husband in The Handmaid’s Tale is simply the fact that he admits that he doesn’t get it and sometimes, he tries his best to listen to Dana. It’s not everything, but it’s a lot.

That said, the relationship I find most interesting in the book isn’t their marriage, but Dana’s and Rufus’ (the boy she saves and continues to visit). She seems him as a young, impressionable boy, friends with a slave girl and willing to see that things are not just what he’s been told, and then you see him grow up in snapshots, mostly moulded by his time, and then experiencing interaction and reaction of a woman with modern values. Dana’s willingness to forgive him his awfulness, and that awfulness itself… it’s a strange, compelling dynamic, and more than anything it’s something to read the book for. Dana’s relationships with the slaves are emotive and brilliant, the conflict that comes from her education and mannerisms compared to theirs, but also the fellowship, but those relationships are far more satisfying, and it’s the frustrating changeability of her relation to Rufus that really pulls you in.

I think this is what stuck with me most from Bloodchild too – Butler writes good conflict between people, good conflict within a person, when they struggle with their own feelings and decisions, and makes you really feel settled within their viewpoint. But she also makes you want to get behind them. And so you feel trapped within their indecision – because they are genuinely difficult decisions – while rooting for them to find a solution. They may not always pick what you would pick, but you’re so grounded in their mental state that it doesn’t matter. And that’s an enormous skill, and, well, I’m a sucker for characters. I know I say it a lot, but I am. I like people I can care about, people I can love, and Dana is definitely that. She looks at herself and compares herself to the people who have lived their whole lives as slaves, and worries she’s not as strong as they are, that she’s coddled by having lived a modern life with a lot less oppression – but then we see her dealing with contemporary oppression too. She thinks less of herself than we as readers do, and that makes me support her all the more.

This is going to sound weird, but part of the reason I loved this book so much is it didn’t feel like SFF – which is part of why I’m drawing the comparisons with The Time Traveler’s Wife. Yes, there’s time travel stuff. And yes, that’s indisputably SFF, I’m not going to claim for a second otherwise. But the way the writing focuses in on building these characters that are genuinely nuanced, and on making the reader actually think about slavery, watch it through the eyes of someone contemporary, rather than as a dry, abstract thing (very much as we see Dana comparing seeing a whipping and the way that violence is portrayed on television – this isn’t a subtle thing we’re being pointed to)… it doesn’t feel like the things SFF would focus on. Maybe this means I’m reading the wrong SFF, and I know it’s not all – Atwood definitely felt the same – but it has a seriousness and a reality to it that I think a lot of SFF lacks, and which absolutely isn’t precluded by having fantastical subject matter. You can still have real people, real relationships. And that’s what I crave, and what Butler has done brilliantly.

I loved this book, I felt uncomfortable reading this book, and I couldn’t put it down. I will seek out Butler again (and again) and I feel a real shame for not having come to her sooner.

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Ms. Marvel vol. 1 (No Normal) – G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

ms-marvel-vol-1-reviewMOAR COMICS. That is the theme of today (I have one more after this to read, and then I’m done on my reasonably sized ones until I buy WicDiv vol. 5, I think – I still have Lucifer vol. 2 to read, but that will require me having more time to sit down and get through it). It is an excellent theme.

So I said when I read Squirrel Girl that I’ve not really done much reading in the super hero sort of comics, and I think here, more than in that, is where I felt the absence. It’s not huge, and it didn’t spoil the enjoyment for me, but it was lurking in the back of my mind that, for instance… I don’t really know who Captain Marvel is. Which is kinda… I mean, the necessity of that understanding is kind of obvious, when this is a comic about a girl who looks up to and in many ways wants to be Captain Marvel. Obviously I can get that (look, I just did) and you can infer plenty from context… but Ms. Marvel doesn’t exist in a vacuum of continuity, and I feel like maybe I’d have got more from it if I had a bit of knowledge of that. Which I guess I’m fixing by reading more superhero comics… until I get to the point where this doesn’t happen anymore.

Anyway.

I really, really enjoyed this. In contrast to Monstress, I mainly didn’t pay much attention to the art, but the story? Yes, I am there. Which feels mean of me, because there’s nothing wrong with the art. It’s not bad or unsuited or clunky. It’s just not particularly notable either. It’s like… it’s like the prose in a lot of SFF. It just gets out of the way and lets the story happen, rather than trying to be clever or interesting or… well, notable in any way. Which is fine. It’s not holding me back from enjoying what’s going on, but it feels like a missed opportunity (both here and in SFF books). There’s this whole other axis of coolness you could be exploring, alongside what you’re already doing, and as we saw in Monstress (and in Ody-C) you can definitely do both without either of them suffering for the presence of the other. But, for all that it feels like there could have been more there, it never spoiled my enjoyment while I was reading, it was just something I thought about afterwards and went “huh”.

The story however is great. I mean, we all know the “young person discovers they have superpowers and deals with what this means” story (and the whole “is this a metaphor for puberty/growing up?” thing). On its own, it’s nothing new. It can be done well or less well, but it has no novelty. What’s great about this is taking that trope and making it new by adding that extra angle. I mean, fundamentally, the huge draw of Ms. Marvel is that it’s a superhero who is female and non-white, not culturally Christian, and coming to the existing tropes of superhero-dom with a whole other set of cultural assumptions (even if they’re ones she may want to reject, or is herself learning to navigate). So we get the bit where the new superhero has to make/find a costume… and we get one who acknowledges that the skin-tight suit might give you a wedgie and be uncomfortably immodest. We get to see her walking along a street being ogled, and I really appreciate a comic that acknowledges that that would totally happen. Because it would. Most people who are read by passersby as female have experienced some sort of crap (whether leers and ogles or jeers and insults) while walking down a street and… well… sometimes it’s nice to see that reality made visible. Because for all that superhero women are not necessarily going to be treated the same as everyone else… I would put serious money on them getting the ugly comments the same as everyone else. And her navigating that while being suddenly hypervisible and hyper-aware of her own self… I don’t know, I just found it very emotive.

And the whole book feels like that. For all that Kamala’s cultural experiences are not my cultural experiences (be that because of the religious background or because I didn’t grow up in the US), the fact that her superhero discovery arc acknowledges them, and makes them part of the story is really cool.

As for the substance of the story, yes, it’s very much your usual coming-of-age, but it’s very well done, balancing well the usual twins of “teenage difficulties” and “I have new responsibilities now”, while accurately portraying a character who feels like a teenager. A thoughtful teenager, and one now burdened with new purpose, but one who reads like she might actually be sixteen, with the unpredictability and quixotic emotions that come with that. And I hope that pushes through, I hope we continue to get someone who doesn’t always know what to do, and doesn’t always make the right decisions, but is struggling with this whole thing because it’s difficult, and because she doesn’t feel like it quite fits her.

Also Kamala, so much of her as I have seen in one volume, seems to be a really charming character to follow. I like her. I want her to succeed… and that’s really important to me in my books too.

My only concern (and it’s one to do with my ignorance rather than anything else) is I don’t know how rooted the authors are in the culture they set the world in. I’m going to assume they know what they’re on about (and the people I know who’ve read this and would know better than me seem to think it’s handled well), but it would be something I would be cagey about if I knew it had been done by randos with no idea what they were handling. I’m not in much of a position to spot anything bad (unless it’s super obvious), but I can definitely see that as a trap that might very easily be fallen into. There’s a tiny hint of simplicity to Kamala’s parents, and I don’t know if that’s a product of limited page time, the fact that we’re viewing this all from Kamala’s (teenage, slightly rebellious) perspective, or if it is down to not knowing your source material. Something I’ll have to look up, I think.

Overall though, it’s not a totally unusual story in its main body – the young superhero comes of age and learns how to deal with their powers – but it’s the context and twists on that that make it brilliant, and something really worth reading. I will definitely continue reading the series, and I think I’d even consider buying this in single issues rather than trades, because I really do just want to know what happens next (though I might not do that, just because I wouldn’t want to log single comic issues on Goodreads… it would feel like cheating). If not for Monstress, this might be up there for best comic I’ve read this year.

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Monstress vol. 1 – Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

monstress_vol1-1Another birthday present (yes, I’m taking forever to get through them – I need less of a social life so I can read more books), but also one I’d been meaning to buy myself and read for AGES. And then it won the Hugo, which only doubled my YES PLEASE THIS. And for all that I’d read the blurb and thought it sounded really interesting, I’ll admit my main interest was simply because it looks so damn beautiful. I mean, look at that cover. Look at the intricacy, the colour-scheme. Even the font is pretty. Sure, it has a very mild hint of steampunk to it, but it overcomes that and just… everything about it is lovely to look at. Yes, I’ll admit it, I am just that shallow – but I sort of think that’s the point of graphic novels. Obviously you want them to have a good plot too, you want it to be something you’re going to enjoy reading… but the reason you’re buying it instead of an actual novel is the visual stuff, and well, this one’s got that sorted. All it has to do to keep me happy is have a sufficient plot. Doesn’t have to be stellar, just… good enough.

Spoilers, it’s better than that.

We follow the front cover character, Maika Halfwolf, as she struggles to find out about her mother, in a strange world, peopled by talking cats, immortals and witches, where the humans oppress the arcanics and steal their bodies for magic to keep them young and healthy. But the structure isn’t totally chronological, we dot around, learning more about Maika not exactly through expositionary flashbacks, but more the same style of seeing her through interactions, but in different times and settings, giving us different angles on her character. We still don’t fully know her by the end of volume 1, I’ll admit – she’s something of a mystery in her personality and motivations – but that’s not because the author hasn’t given us anything to go on. They’ve written a complex character that we can’t know in just the one volume, but we’ve got enough to know that we want to know more, and about her three main sub-characters – Kippa (a fox-child who’s just really rather sweet), Ren (a nekomancer and thief, also a cat) and Tuya (??). Not gonna lie, a not insignificant part of me just wants to know more about Ren, because KITTY. Sarcastic kitty:

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Who doesn’t love a sarcastic, sweary cat? But he manages to be a real character as well, rather than a novelty, and this carries through even to the ones we see briefly (yes, there are other cats). We get glimpses of them as a people and how they relate both to humans and arcanics, through prejudice and friendship, and I find it really cool that they’ve pulled this off without it just falling into the cheap “look at the talky kitty” hole (cf most anime ever).

I think the other thing this does really well is atmosphere. The way the art (and particularly the colour-scheme, because it is a very colour-oriented thing) all works in service of lending a feel, a background sense of what’s going on, to the plot and characters is fantastic. The contrast between the intricacy and decadence of the city scenes and the sparseness of the countryside, while elements flow through between the two, is well managed, and there’s a continuity to the whole thing that speaks to a very definite decision about what they wanted the book to feel like.

I think part of it is the fact there are several clear inspiration styles – the one I noticed is Ancient Egyptian – and because they’ve kept those as a strong thread throughout, it not only gives a real sense of coherent atmosphere and style, but of continuity.

They also manage very well the balance between plot and art focus. Because for all that there’s a fantastic plot, and one where I want to know what happens next in the story, the art still stands up for itself and demands to be noticed, lingered over, even when you’re in the middle of something happening… but without ever detracting from the story. I never feel like one has been glorified to the neglect of the other.

The only thing I will say that I’m not super keen on is the… interludes, I guess you’d call them? Instructive little historical notes outside the voice of the plot. I know these are common in comics – I’ve seen them in other things I’ve read plenty of other times – but here… eh. The problem is, if you’ve got a fairly dark, serious plot going on… you know, oppression, prejudice, torture, murder… it’s fairly jarring to have a kitty teacher and her adorable pupils turn up for a lesson at various points. And they are definitely drawn to be cute(sy), and the interludes are, for all that they’re about the history of the land in the book, pretty light-hearted (including the kitty teacher dipping mice into chocolate for her students to eat)… and it just completely jarrs with the tone of the rest of the book. I imagine they were aimed as breaks and contrast, which they absolutely are, but I don’t personally like that contrast, because it feels like it’s at the expense of the tone of the rest of the book. Somehow, it detracts from the seriousness and the suspension of disbelief, and it makes everything else feel silly, which is absolutely does not want or need.

But that’s probably my only real complaint, and it’s not an enormous one. It stopped me giving five stars, but only just, and in a reasonable system, it’d be a 9/10, I think. It’s not like it made me hate everything, it was just a bit… eh.

What I also loved (even if I didn’t totally notice until I thought about it) is how peopled by women the world of the story is. Some of this is later made explicit and obvious, but even at the beginning it’s just… full of women. And that’s not weird. Or initially made a thing of. It’s just something that seems totally ok. Women soldiers everywhere? Sure. Women magic-people? Fine. Women warlords? Not a bother. It’s not exclusive, there are men in the story, and not insignificant ones but it’s just… there’s something satisfying about having enough women to pass the Bechdel Test five times over and nobody making a big deal about it. Casual feminism is just as satisfying as the shouty explicit kind, if done the right way and in the right context (though I’ll admit, I suspect we can only get the casual kind because people have gone in and done the shouty kind… and there’s a definite, necessary joy to reading the shouty kind). And this is the right context.

And I suppose that’s what the book does best – the right thing at the right time, in the right balance. It’s a very well thought out piece of storytelling, where you don’t notice quite how brilliantly it’s all been put together until you think about it, because it just flows naturally and gracefully (kitty interludes aside). And that’s a pretty difficult thing to achieve.

Overall, it’s a fantastic book, fantastic art, and I’m so glad it won the Hugo because it’s brilliant. Will definitely buy the sequel.

Also, I want to use this panel as a reaction to… a lot of things on the internet *saves to ‘phone*:

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No I don’t know why I think this is so hilarious.

 

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House of Names – Colm Tóibín

29344653Hot on the heels of Bright Air Black, another literary reinterpretation of a Classical myth (this time, the Oresteia)… which was probably a bad idea. I mean, this has been on my reading pile for ages, so I was going to get to it eventually, but doing so this close to reading something I hardcore loved that much… it was never going to compare. And, spoilers, it didn’t.

For a start, it’s fundamentally not doing anything as interesting as Bright Air Black is – it’s pretty much just a straight retelling of the story, normal prose, multiple character viewpoints… and that’s about it. Sure, he’s mucked around with the story a little, but that’s what makes it a retelling rather than just… the same story. It just doesn’t have the charm or originality the best retellings do, because it’s not really trying hard enough. It hasn’t committed to doing something new, to being different from what its source material is, and because it hasn’t taken that chance, it’s come out as nothing special. Nothing different. Nothing to make you remember it, or for it to stand out against the backdrop of everything that has been done before. Because that’s the thing with retelling a story from 2500 years ago – there’s been a lot of opportunity for a lot of talented people to do exactly the same thing. You have to be really pushing the boat out to say “yes, what I have done with this story hasn’t been done before and was a worthwhile thing to try”. And Tóibín really just… hasn’t. I’m not even just comparing it to Bright Air Black, here. Just, on its own merits it doesn’t stand out.

And it promised so much more. When I started reading it, I was all set to give it four stars on Goodreads and sort of love it. Not obsessive devotion love, maybe. But there was a definite something there. Because, at the beginning, our viewpoint character is Clytemnestra. And it was a justified Clytemnestra. One whose viewpoint we the reader agree with – and so you get the complexity of a totally angry and wronged woman sliding into… something else. It’s sure, something that’s been done before, but it’s a solid foundation and one I’m never going to object to. And one that was written pretty damn well.

But then we leave her. We follow Electra. We follow Orestes. And they’re just not as interesting. Electra has promise, but never delivers and Orestes… Orestes is one of the dullest characters I have ever written. And it is a powerful talent that can render the escaped, hidden, vengeful son of a murdered father who finds and kills his mother despite the potential vengeance of the Furies… boring. Vapid and empty. And yet, here he is exactly that. He drifts along, dragged by the story, understanding nothing and deciding nothing, trying nothing. And this isn’t really explored. We don’t get into why and how and how it affects him. He just continues being… dull.

We get a brief return to Clytemnestra part way through, which is a glorious relief, but then nope, back to the dullness. And it’s so disappointing, to have been given so much and then to have to deal with so little.

Electra at least there’s something there. She has a personality. But she focusses on an issue with the death of the gods from the world which again is never really explored. She says it to Orestes, she thinks it… but then we never get any understanding and it doesn’t really come up again. There are also clear parallels drawn between her personality and choices and those of her mother, but again, this isn’t given any real page time. We don’t get to see the author working through it and trying to make some sort of point with it. It’s just a vague comparison left in the background for us to acknowledge and move on. There are all sorts of bits like this, left hanging in the background, things that could be picked up, explored, developed and made interesting, but none of them never are. You just have characters full of odd habits and turns of phrase with no understanding of why they are who they are.

All this might have been fine if the setting and storytelling had been inspired, but it’s clearly set up to be about the characters, without managing to succeed at all at being… about the characters. Orestes… doesn’t even really have a character, and spends the entire book metaphorically shrugging and following along behind the nearest available person. He gets a bit of moral quandary at the end but, nope, there we go, ignored it and wandered off. And that’s just his whole thing. It’s so frustrating to read, and it made the book slow and difficult going for me.

That all being said, the prose was fairly decent most of the time, and the parts that weren’t Orestes having no personality at all were very easy reading. I’m led to believe the author has done other, better things, and I would be tempted to try him again on something else, just to see if maybe this one was a lack of inspiration or… not his thing in some way? It feels incomplete, like so many ideas were set up and never finished, and somehow makes me think the author must have done better, because he has all these ideas at all. Maybe I’m being unnecessarily optimistic.

It got three stars from me, because Clytemnestra’s early pain and dealing with the death of Iphigenia are solidly good and four star, and drag the mire of Orestes back up out of the pits. I imagine I’d have disliked this less had I not read an amazing Classical retelling recently, but it was never fully going to do it for me. I’m too picky. I want things like Ody-C, like Bright Air Black, things that take a chance and have a go and really do something with the source material, while still acknowledging their debt to it and passing on the spirit at least of some of the stories the original is telling, in some way or another. This is just, after a promising start, another banal retelling of a tale I know very well indeed.

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Who Fears Death – Nnedi Okorafor

7767021Another book-club book, but one I was very much intending to read anyway. It’s the same author as The Book of Phoenix, though this is the earlier work, and I believe The Book of Phoenix is meant as a sort of prelude, to explain why the world of Who Fears Death is as it is.

The book is set in a nebulous, post-apocalyptic future, in Saharan Africa (though we are not given much more detail than that at the beginning), and has elements of near-future tech, mixed with a strange sort of technological absence. It hovers in the background, making a mess of any attempt to guess precisely when the novel is set.

Partly, this is to background the technology of the setting, because in many ways, the setting is not the point in that regard. Primarily, this is a story of a journey. It’s a story of people, and their relationships, and the difficulties of growing up not only different but outcast entirely. It’s a story of being a woman in a society that does not treat its women well. And it’s a story about being who you are, despite what comes around you. And, in many ways, it’s a story about destiny, prophecy, and whether or not the future is inevitable.

And I really rather liked it.

It is consistently obvious that the author is drawing on a different tradition than the same-old same-old pseudo medieval Europe we’re used to. She has Nigerian heritage, and has spoken in interviews about how this has influenced her work, and it shows – not that I am in any way qualified to spot it in that way, but there’s a strong sense of a tradition and a history pushing through, for all that it’s not one I’m familiar with. The magic, the tradition, and the way people form their societies speak to someone drawing on many many myths, and it makes me want to read more about where Okorafor got her inspiration. Obviously, in part, this different set of traditions is enticing simply because it is different – it’s refreshing to read something apart from what you’re used to. But it isn’t simply novelty that keeps the reader entertained – there’s a real intuitive feel to the way Okorafor portrays magic – magic that she emphatically doesn’t explain – and a beauty to the way she describes things.

I think that’s one of her major strengths – I found her a very vivid, visual writer, whose descriptions really set the scene for me. She gives you her setting in all your senses, and it is so, so easy to find yourself sucked in, really feeling the world she has created. And I think that’s the main reason it’s such a page-turner – because it’s so immersive.

Which is good, because the characters kinda sour that. I mean, I know she’s trying to write (and succeeding) very realistic, human, flawed characters. And I’m not going to say she doesn’t. My main issue is… I wasn’t rooting for any of them. I didn’t love any of them. And especially the main love plot felt… exasperating. Because you totally see why they’re together, what they see in each other… but they’re also really not very good for one another, and it’s just… painful to read. I want them to realise that there are better people out there for each of them. But they remain each other’s One True Love, and it’s infuriating. Which I guess is rather the point. All the relationships Okorafor gives us are Difficult in some regard, and bring to the fore problems both personal and societal – the way the female lead is patronised by the main male character, the way she’s prevented from learning magic because of the ego of the magician – because Okorafor fundamentally knows what she’s doing and what she wants to say. It just sometimes isn’t very Fun.

But hey, sometimes we don’t need fun. Sometimes we need an exploration of the repurcussions of female genital mutilation on the behaviour and psyches of teenage girls. To be honest, and this sounds weird, this was possibly the best bit of the book for me. Okorafor describes the event viscerally and horrendously, but manages to make the reader see why the characters choose to undergo it, and that they come out of it not immediately against the whole process. They form a bond that lasts a long way into the book, and the friendship that’s forged by going through FGM together is a huge aspect of the plot, as well as something of a saving grace for Onyesonwu, the main character, who has spent her life an outcast up until this point. But at no point is the FGM painted as a good thing – more, Okorafor is highlighting the lengths to which Onye has to go to fit in, to make herself acceptable to those around her, and it’s painful and horrifying and yet completely comprehensible.

Then we watch as the girls grow up, and see how their sex lives – and essentially their freedom as human beings – has been curtailed by this, and as they go on their journey, as they become free-er, this still holds them back. And in some ways, the magic is a metaphor for the FGM, and in some ways, the FGM is a metaphor for the way society has treated them. For all that I don’t particularly care about any of them, I do care about watching the way they interact, the way they have to deal with the fallout of what has been done to them their whole lives, the people they’ve been made to be, and how this contrasts with the people they want to be.

Freedom is… a huge theme that runs through the novel, alongside the inevitability (or not) of destiny, and I really think the way it saturates everything is totally compelling. It makes me want to read more of Okorafor’s work.

I gave this four stars and defended it vigorously in book club, and the lost one was simply because I had no characters to love. There’s a very obvious reason she’s won the BFA and WFA, and I will definitely read more by the author, and soon – I hear the Binti series is good…

Next up, House of Names, which alas, for all that it too is a literary author doing Greek mythology, it can’t hold a candle to Bright Air Black.

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Lumberjanes – Stevenson, Ellis, Watters & Allen

250px-lumberjanes_coverI shall sum this book up in two sentences:

Someone: “Ripley, no!”
Ripley: “Ripley YES!”

Ok, so, if I’m being brutally honest, it’s over-silly and definitely over-sweet, as a story. It’s too twee. It’s too self-absorbed…

But there’s a bookish ginger one who’s good at arm-wrestling.

I’m torn, is what I’m trying to say, over whether or not I like this.

The art is sweet and fun and cute and energetic… but the story isn’t really all that substantial – not particularly original mystery fare – and the textual interludes, while cool and definitely helping, aren’t sufficient to drag it up. Nor is the theme of female friendship, which… I wanted to love it just for that. We’ve got an all-female cast (two of whom are flirting adorably) and a massive “friendship is important”… but it went overboard on cutesy so I’m just not sold. It’s… yeah, it’s too twee.

Which is really annoying, because I am not fundamentally averse to twee. The boyfriend read Squirrel Girl, for instance, and deemed it stupidly twee, but that I loved. So clearly there’s something going on that drags this over the line. Buggered if I know what though. It’s got similar ethics, similar lightheartedness… similar lots of things. And yet. I wonder if it’s the art style – which I like – feeding into it? It’s got a lot to recommend it, especially in terms of energy, but maybe the lack of detail makes it feel… without depth.

I’m fundamentally glad it exists – I like the idea of books and stories celebrating female friendship and love – but this book is not for me. And that’s a shame.

Next up, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.

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Henchgirl – Kristen Gudsnuk

51kqhhith7l-_sx323_bo1204203200_And another birthday present. It’s almost like people think I enjoy books or something. Can’t think where they’d get that idea from.

Henchgirl follows the life of Mary Posa, a minion in a mildly evil gang, but who would very much like to lead a more normal, tax-paying existence. There are wacky hijinks and unusual circumstances, and we learn more about Mary’s backstory. It’s a very light, very easy-reading comic, that’s not trying to bog you down with the huge themes, and it succeeds at that.

If what you want is… well, what I want out of webcomics*… mild diversion and distraction, a nice continuity but without too much detail so you can pick it up next week when you forgot what happened… this is definitely the comic for you. That’s not bad, exactly – I can see times when I do want that, and hey, I read webcomics – but it doesn’t feel like quite what I want in an actual book. It doesn’t feel like it has enough substance for that. I’m not sure it’s trying to. And that’s my major issue with this… I don’t think it quite knows what it wants to be.

But, if you pull yourself away from the fundamental confusion of Its True Purpose, and maybe read it like you would a webcomic, in an amiably meandering sort of way, it is intensely enjoyable. The art is very very cute, while being energetic and dynamic. There are funnies, but they are not the focus, and exist in service of the characters and plot. There’s commentary on the superhero genre (some of the heroes in the book are pretty much re-colours of existing heroes, and some are just mockeries of the concepts). There’s an awful lot going on that is definitely worth doing… it just ain’t really about the plot and pacing.

What you do very strongly get is a sense of the characters and who they are.

Gudsnuk manages to do the thing where she gets across a surprising amount of character content in a small amount of space, by the way she symphonises the art and writing. Facial expressions, particularly. Some comics, you don’t feel like you get enough of a chance to get to know the characters in a small space of time… for all that Henchgirl is a lot heftier than the trades I normally read, she gets that sense of person through, mainly for Mary but also for the background characters, in a very small amount of time, and so I feel that had I been reading this as a webcomic in real time, I’d have definitely felt ok about that aspect of it. Which I suppose is the benefit of the webcomic format – they have to do that groundwork and quickly, because if people only get three pages a week, they probably aren’t going to give you 100 pages of chance to set the scene.

I haven’t really said much, but there isn’t an awful lot to say. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever read for plot, but in terms of staring at the pretty pictures, enjoying the jokes and just generally being made a bit happier by the object in my hands, I’m not faulting it.

 

*So apparently this is/used to be a webcomic. Go me. Spotting the obvious stuff without even knowing it.

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