Kickstarter comics

As the year at work started off with a cascading series of problems, I have been in a bit of a reading slump , not able to focus on reading and getting distracted even from stories that I’m actively enjoying. I’ve started a number of books and haven’t completed any of them, and it’s definitely me rather than any judgement on the books. Hopefully I’ll get back to those later and be able to enjoy them when I’m in the right mindset.

But one of the things I enjoy doing is browsing the comics section of Kickstarter. There’s always a wild array of possibilities there with stories that couldn’t or wouldn’t or just haven’t found a way into mainstream graphic novel publishing, at least not in the US. I semi-regularly support the stories that catch my eye and then just wait to see what shows up as a surprise gift to myself however many months later.

Last week while I was moping around not able to read anything much, one of the projects I supported was fulfilled and I received a package that contained two thin volumes that were each short enough that I could just sit down and read them in one go:

Cotton Tales, Volumes 1 & 2
by Jessica Cioffi, AKA Loputyn
2022

These beautiful books full of ethereal images tell a gothic story of a boy who has woken from an injury with no memories in a mansion that’s haunted by a ghost and there are a huge number of rabbits that only he can see. The world has magic in it, but it’s unclear what is real to that world and what isn’t. And everyone he meets has ulterior motives and hidden histories.

It’s a fairy tale story with a simplicity that let me read and enjoy it within a day and break my streak of unfinished books. I’m also looking forward to seeing if there is an eventual volume 3, although volume 2 does end with a satisfying conclusion even as it sets up for the next stage of events. Volume 1 ended with much more uncertainty so I’m glad I got these both at once.

Having enjoyed these books so much, reminded me of another Kickstarter comic that I’d received some time back and then never got around to completely reading:

Elements of Fire
edited by Taneka Stotts
2016

This more hefty book is a limited-palette graphic novel (black, white, and red) anthology of 23 stories with lengths ranging between two to sixteen pages each. The first couple of stories reminded me of why I hadn’t completed this before: they weren’t bad, just not to my taste: one high fantasy and one overly twee. But this time I persevered and I am so grateful that I did because the third story blew my mind! It was so good and so beautiful both visually and conceptually. And then there were twenty more stories!

With any anthology there are going to be better and worse stories but this is really an amazing collection. I loved more stories than I didn’t and now I’m a bit embarrassed for having set it down for so long. The artists made some amazing and fascinating choices with how to use the restricted palette to best effect, and created vast and complex worlds in just a few pages each.

Each story is unique — Stotts did an amazing job of curating a wild diversity with this collection that went above and beyond the stated intent of diversity in having all creators of color. It really shows a diversity of cultures and styles and approaches to the art of graphic novels.

While they all very good, my favorites — the ones where the stories and the art combined to touch my heart — were:

  • Cactus Flower by Sara Duvall
  • Pulse by Der-Shing Helmer
  • Hearth by Jaid Mandas and Marisa Han
  • Preta by Chloe Chan and Nina Matsumoto
  • Meta Helmet by Deshan Tennekoon and Isuri Merenchi Hewage
  • Caldera by Jemma Salume and Taneka Stotts
  • Firestom by Melanie Ujimori and Chan Chau
  • Home is Where the Hearth Is by Veronica Agarwal

I highly recommend this anthology to any and everyone to see which stories and images touch them. Because all of the stories are skillfully written and drawn: after that it’s a matter of personal preference.

This anthology also really presses home why I browse Kickstarter so much more often than I step into any comic bookstore anymore. A good comic book store will have an “Other” section in addition to their Marvel and DC, but they necessarily cater to the masses in a way that Kickstarter doesn’t have to. Plus each comic is a unique creation of love by an artist rather than a business decision by a corporation, so even when they wind up not to my taste (which happens sometimes), I never regret supporting them.

It was also wonderful to sit down with some books and actually read them, cover to cover, and have a sense of completion that I’ve been missing in the last couple of months.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

The Screwtape Letters
by C. S. Lewis
1961

Having enjoyed The Great Divorce and found it extremely thought-provoking and had a casual book club with various members of my family, it was proposed that we read The Screwtape Letters next. It was just as thought provoking, if not more so, although somewhat less enjoyable. It consists of 31 chapters/letters plus one toast, and it’s all told from the perspective of a demon, the titular Screwtape, who is giving advice on how to lure humans into sin.

Despite having been written 80 years ago, it is decidedly timely today, as it addresses the devil’s goal of keeping humans constantly focused on doom scrolling and headlines and thoughtless denigration of anyone who disagrees with you, while avoiding humility, charity, respect, or thoughtful consideration. I felt decidedly called out at various points. I should be better! I will try to be more thoughtful and focused and enjoy the pleasures that are available to me in the present and worry less.

At other points, however, it feels dated in the way that it appears to be arguing about social trends that I’m not even aware of. At one point the devil is recommending that people should stay focused on government policies rather than prayers since those are so much less important and I really hope that Lewis had no expectation of “thoughts and prayers” becoming such a catch phrase for politicians refusing to update policies. As Screwtape presents himself as the arbiter of what is evil, Lewis comes across as an arbiter of what is good, and that is, occasionally, rough. Historians, modern artists, and unions are all mentioned as being misleading to Good Christians.

Lewis definitely takes the opportunity to call out some of his personal most and least favored theologians, placing them either as godly agents or thoroughly controlled by the devils’ temptations to sin. This book also has a nearly Ayn Randian Objectivist perspective on the world: what is Good is very clear and natural and unaffected by different lives, perspectives or understandings. Devils provide temptation and people provide false information but a Good Christian will just know what is right due to God, much the same way that Ayn Rand’s protagonists will know what is right due to Logic, despite any lack of education or resources for either. Peak individualism, despite the differences in both methods and goals.  

I found that I needed to read this book one chapter at a time and take at least a little break between. They were thought provoking and inspiring and occasionally quite funny, but they were also quite dense and more than occasionally rather florid.

This book also made me think that I should get around to reading Lolita, at some point, as the only other book I can think of that has the protagonist/narrator also be the unrepentant villain of the story. I did wonder how many people read this book and think Screwtape is an anti-hero instead. Some of his advice came across as fitting right in with big business and some of my least favorite managers at my job, so it’s not out of the question.

I got a lot out of this book and enjoyed talking about it with Anna as we progressed through, but the book started out strong and then got progressively more wearying as it continued. It’s worth reading, but be prepared to decide what you take seriously. (Note: Cherry-picking what to take seriously is also advice that Screwtape would offer a human and C.S. Lewis specifically rejects when it comes to religious contemplation. So, you know: Enjoy!)

At the Feet of the Sun by Victoria Goddard

At the Feet of the Sun
Lays of the Hearth-Fire, Book Two
by Victoria Goddard
2022

If I had any sort of self-control, I would not have finished this book quite so quickly, because it’s essentially five books all presented together in one omnibus. Which I’m glad of! Because otherwise there would have been some real cliff-hangers. But, it’s really long with multiple interlinked plot arcs and side quests that are massive enough to be regular quests all on their own. And, also, the book (that’s really five books) does come to a satisfying emotional conclusion at the end, but it doesn’t actually conclude the original plot that was set up at the end of the first book. So I’m already looking forward to Book 3, but am glad enough to have a breather before presumably reading another 1000+ pages.

This book starts up soon after the end of Book 1: The Hands of the Emperor, and the first part runs parallel to The Return of Fiztroy Angursell, and then just keeps going with the adventures and development of Cliopher “Kip” Mdang. Kip is a wildly successful bureaucrat who has spent his life successfully dismantling an empire and replacing it with a more egalitarian system of government. And now he’s retiring. He’s not yet officially done, but he’s transferred the majority of his work and responsibilities to others and has the space to figure out who he is now that he’s not so driven anymore, and that’s not an easy path. And also, this whole universe is an amazing creation where there are nine interconnected worlds, magic and gods are real, religion is complicated and diverse, and time fluctuates wildly. Kip’s career is somewhere between 45 and 1100 years long, depending exactly where you stand, and his own personal experience varied as well as he experiences long periods of timeless effort. The story moves seamlessly between practical struggles and legendary adventures; travels on the sea around Kip’s home archipelago and travels on the Sky Ocean between the stars; searching for Kip’s lost cousin Basil and going to get a new fire from the Palace of the Sun.

Kip is amazingly and wonderfully competent in achieving his goals for the greater good of the world, but still struggles to find his place and self-promote when it’s about him and not some greater achievement. And figuring out how to communicate with his emperor as a person whom he loves after spending decades/centuries working with him as an untouchable god is an ongoing struggle, even as they both want equality between them. Through all the struggles, there’s a sense of certainty that it will all work out, or if it doesn’t, then it will be a loss of what could have been but what already is, is still sufficient.

It’s a beautiful and optimistic book, and I really enjoy it immensely.

The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik

The Golden Enclaves
Lesson Three of The Scholomance
by Naomi Novik
September 27, 2022

This book has been out for a week, but I was finally able to check it out from a local library and then read it over the course of maybe 27 hours (in the middle of a work week). And just wow! It’s so good and so satisfying and so tense.

This book starts immediately after the second book ends, and is very much a continuation of everything that has happened before in the previous two books and I probably need to go back and reread both in order to better enjoy some of the clues that had been casually dropped as world building before but abruptly become extremely plot significant here.

Each book centers around a conflict that’s slightly larger impact than the previous book. In the first book, the plot is focused on our protagonist’s personal survival; in the second book, it’s about the school’s survival; and in this the third book, it’s about the community’s survival. This is also the first book where the action is outside of the school and there are adults involved and hoo boy does that make things even more complicated. The kids in the school were just trying to survive: well the adults outside of the school are doing the same but have had even more time to make mistakes and make compromises and make hard decisions that have consequences down the years, decades, and centuries. And our protagonist El has to figure out how to live in the world where it’s the people rather than the mals who are the greatest danger.

This book also reminded me of Rainbow Rowell’s Anyway the Wind Blows, the third book in her Simon Snow series, in a variety of ways that I can’t write out without spoilers.

Anyway, I adore this book, but it’s definitely not a stand-alone. So if you haven’t already, go read the first one first.

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

The Great Divorce
by C.S. Lewis
1946

I’ve been having trouble getting into any of my usual genre books and then my aunt recommended this book, which felt like a bit of a palate cleanser. It’s a fascinating premise with a somewhat disinterested perspective and it gave me so many thoughts. I really enjoyed it. It’s fourteen chapters across only 128 pages, but took several days to read because I had to pause and think about it periodically, to give each character their due.

The premise is that the narrator is on a bus trip from hell to heaven. It’s a regular bus route and anyone is welcome. Many are even eagerly awaited by those in heaven. And yet, very few of the travelers choose to stay. Each character is unique in their circumstances, but also the same in the way they consider themselves to have been in the right, and yet their self-defense is also their condemnation.

It gave me so many thoughts.

I’m going to make a cut here more for length than spoilers. In part because I think the experience of this book is not something that can be spoiled by advance knowledge. It’s not exactly plot driven. It’s characters and perspectives and metaphors. They’re fascinating and I want to talk about them.

Continue reading

Beware of Chicken by Casualfarmer

Beware of Chicken (Book 1)
by Casualfarmer
2022

This was a free online story posted serially that built a large enough following to get turned into a book. I actually read this (plus book 2, and several chapters of book 3 as well) on Royal Road earlier in the year before the author took a break to format and edit book one for publication. But since the online serial is still ongoing, this is a review of the ebook which has the distinction of being complete.

This book is absolutely ridiculous and also the quintessential pandemic lockdown book. It’s like The Swiss Family Robinson for anime lovers. Do you dream of leaving all the anxiety and stress of the world behind and go start a small farm that takes a lot of work to create but also is wildly, improbably successful? How about just have everything work out all right and be loved and respected as a powerful person while also being a friendly goof who enjoys life? There is no conflict that isn’t resolved nicely in our main character’s favor, with every protection that an author with world-building abilities can provide. This is the comfort book to end all comfort books.

The basic plot is that our main character, a guy from Canada, wakes up in a Xanxia (fantasy China with magic and demons and swords, etc.) in the body of Jin Rou, a lowly outer disciple of a great cultivation sect. Jin Rou is clearly fated to be the protagonist of an epic story — poor and abused, he will struggle and fight epic battles and rise to greatness, etc. — and our main guy decides to nope his way right out of that. He takes a quick exit from the top of that mountain temple, does his research to find the least dangerous, least magical location in the land and starts a farm. He still has the strength and speed of a disciple of a great cultivation sect, as well as the education of a modern farmer/handyman, so everything goes very well for him. He also has a rooster he calls Big D.

The rooster is the titular chicken of Beware of Chicken. This rooster does understand fantasy Chinese but not modern English, wakes up to being sentient and considers himself to be named Bi Di. It is also absolutely clear to him that he, Bi Di, is the first disciple of Jin Rou, a Hidden Master of great power. Bi Di rises to greatness, the farm is amazing, and absolutely everything is ridiculous. Jin Rou is the Mary Sue to end all Mary Sues, and absolutely nothing goes wrong.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper and the Professor
by Yoko Ogawa, 2003
translated by Stephen Snyder, 2009

This was a very small and sedate novel, focusing on the characters, and experiencing the world through those characters, rather than any particular plot. It was also a quietly sad story about a successful friendship. It has the feel of a classic, or an archetype, helped by the way that none of the characters are named.

I rarely read books from the Literature genre, which might explain why this book felt so unique to me, but I think it really is unique. I rarely read Literature in part because I don’t tend to enjoy it, but I did like this one. Despite how different it was from other books I’ve read, or maybe because of it, my brain kept reminding me of other books that had some point of similarity.

It had a similarity in tone to the calmness of The Empress of Jade and Fortune. A scant handful of characters and a house. Nothing terrible happens in the book, and anything that happened in the past has been survived, by these characters at least.

The titular Professor reminded me of Paul Erdős from The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, and also of Charlie Gordon in the later half of “Flowers for Algernon”. The professor is a mathematician who sees the deep beauty of numbers and also a brilliant man with a brain injury that he’s aware of and trying to compensate for. His injury prevents him from making new memories, so that every day he meets his housekeeper for the first time.

The book itself delves into some of the math puzzles and history that he tells to the housekeeper and her son, and shows how the housekeeper learns to appreciate the endless stability and mystery of the numbers as well, despite her not being particularly mathematically inclined. That aspect reminded me of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, a book that attempted to shoehorn a philosophy textbook into a novel and that I did not much care for. This book is somewhat more successful, I think, in including a few actual mathematics principles with explanations, and might be an interested way to introduce the concepts to a student.

The book is written in the first-person by the housekeeper, and her perspective is fascinating in its incompleteness. There are events in her own life as well as in the professor’s life that she never gets the full story for, and also doesn’t look for. It’s left to the reader to consider what we know or can guess but also put aside what we don’t know and live in the moment. The book as a whole felt like a wonderful and much needed break from the frantic plots and fraught relationships of much of my other reading. I really enjoyed it.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula via e-mail

I just discovered the existence of Dracula Daily:

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an epistolary novel – it’s made up of letters, diaries, telegrams, newspaper clippings – and every part of it has a date. The whole story happens between May 3 and November 10. So: Dracula Daily will post a newsletter each day that something happens to the characters, in the same timeline that it happens to them.

Now you can read the book via email, in small digestible chunks – as it happens to the characters.

I just signed up for this and am really looking forward to it!

Portrait of a Wide Seas Islander by Victoria Goddard

Portrait of a Wide Seas Islander
by Victoria Goddard
2022

Every so often I google search some of my current favorite authors’ names to see if there’s anything that I missed. And yes! I discovered that this novella published nine days ago. I immediately bought and read it and it’s such a delight. It’s a companion novella to the book, The Hands of the Emperor, (and about a tenth the length.)

Buru Tovo is ninety years old, a highly respected wide seas islander, who has been waiting, mostly patiently, for years for his grand-nephew, Kip Mdang, to return from his travels into the heart of the empire and take his proper place in the island society, trying not to worry that he never will. In this novella, he decides to make the three month journey to the capital and see what his grand-nephew has been doing. In The Hands of the Emperor, we see these events from Kip’s perspective as his grand-uncle suddenly shows up at the capital with questions. This novella is the other side of that interaction. Buru Tovo’s perspective is fascinating and lovely and complex and hilarious.

Petty Treasons
by Victoria Goddard
2021

In writing up the review for Portrait of a Wide Seas Islander, I discovered that I had not made a post about Petty Treasons before. Clearly something to be corrected! I also read this within a week of it being published. It’s another companion novella, this one about Kip Mdang’s introduction to the emperor, from the emperor’s perspective. It’s another delightful exploration of what Kip looks like from the outsider point of view. But more than that, it’s also a fascinating exploration of the emperor’s perspective, because Goddard did something really interesting: at the start, the text is written in the second person — possibly the only time I’ve ever enjoyed a story told in the second person. It’s such a brilliant choice here because it highlights exactly how much the emperor is disassociating, and makes it all the more impactful when he starts to have hope and the text, in fits and starts, transitions into the first person.

I’m always so impressed with Goddard’s ability to infuse her writing with such joyful excitement. Both of these are so delightful and make me want to bounce on my toes with sheer glee.