Halloween reading

Hallowe’en Party

By Agatha Christie

Halloween_PartyWe don’t manage it every year, but we like to read seasonal books when we can, especially spooky Halloween stories. Not especially spooky, but I was thrilled that Agatha Christie had a Halloween novel! Hercule Poirot is summoned by a friend to a small village after a young girl is found drowned in the apple bobbing bucket at the end of the village’s halloween party. This probably wouldn’t have been an intriguing enough mystery for Poirot to expend his energy in retirement on, but the drowned girl had been insisting earlier in the party that she had witnessed a murder. A known liar, no one had believed her, so it seemed somewhat reckless for the murderer to then do away with her and give her words more importance.

As with all of Christie’s mysteries, this was excellently plotted and I had only the faintest guess as to the conclusion shortly before it was revealed. Despite this, Hallowe’en Party is not one of my favorites of hers. Published in 1969 towards the end of her life, I couldn’t help but wonder she was getting cranky in an “old man yells at cloud” kind of way. There is a fairly heavy-handed theme of the degeneracy of the younger generation, with at least half a dozen of Poirot’s contemporaries mentioning the rising crime rate among youths and the misguided mercy of showing them any leniency in the justice system. Which does not read very well in today’s climate of harsh and obviously biased policing. I was concerned that the entire plot would serve as a platform for this philosophy, but fortunately, Christie was too canny of an author to fall into that obvious indulgence.

Pumpkin Heads

By Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

PumpkinheadsI was a little hesitant about reading this since Eleanor and Park broke me a little bit, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for any more of Rowell’s type of coming-of-age story, but this is much more light hearted! Deja and Josiah are best friends who work together at the world’s greatest pumpkin patch – I mean, there are pumpkins, of course, but there’s bumper cars, mini golf, s’mores bonfires, petting zoo animals, pony rides, corn maze, and every possible fall-season snack you can think of (and a few more)! (In the afterward, Rowell says she was inspired by some of Omaha’s excellent pumpkin patches, but that she and Hicks created their fantasy patch.)

Anyway, Deja and Josiah have worked together at the Succotash Hut (perhaps the one stop that I wouldn’t have been super excited about) for the last four years, but they are graduating high school, and going on to college, so this is their last year. In fact, this story is the last day of their last year, and Deja is determined that shy Josiah will actually talk to the girl that works at the fudge shop (yum!) that he’s been pining over from afar for the entire time.

This leads them all over the park, into and out of various hijinx, and of course they learn important things about life and themselves along the way, but with a light touch that mostly just celebrates everything fall, holidays, and friendship. Rowell’s writing is so funny and empathetic, Hicks’ art is lovely and really brought this dream park to life, and the whole thing left me feeling very warm hearted!

ComicFest_2019Also, this is your annual reminder that today is Halloween ComicFest, so if that’s your thing, see if one of your local comic shops is hosting an event here. We stopped by two of our local shops, and picked up an excess of kid-friendly comics, since we’ve found them to be even more popular with trick-or-treaters than candy.

Bloodlust & Bonnets by Emily McGovern

bloodlust-and-bonnets-9781471178955_lgBloodlust & Bonnets
by Emily McGovern
2019

I first ran across this artist/author via her My Life as a Background Slytherin comics which are hilarious and adorable and I highly recommend. And at some point she made a four-page comic called Bloodlust & Bonnets that is hilarious and gorgeous and I also highly recommend.  This book, by the same name as that short, is a 200 page graphic novel that uses those first four pages as the prologue. (Although the art is simplified for the book version.)

For the plot: there’s an evil vampire cult! Lucy, the plucky debutant is targeted by them! Lord Byron has a magical castle! The mysterious bounty hunter Sham has secrets! Napoleon is a psychic eagle! Secret societies and blood oaths and balls and gentlemen’s clubs and turkish baths and succubi and more plucky debutants!

This book is hilarious but also I could only read it in small doses, a chapter at a time. The ongoing joke through the whole thing is just how incompetent all the characters are. Like, all of them. It’s an even playing field at least? With the possible exception of the flighty and wealthy professional widow who is not so much incompetent as she is distracted by other things… ie, potential future dead husbands. So here I am with my competence kink wondering when someone will show up with some competence and each new character is a tease because they all think they’re very capable and introduce themselves that way and they’re all so very much not. Which also makes it fit in kind of hilariously well in British costume drama style.

This is pretty much a take off of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies or Jane Slayre, with Wodehouse & Jeeves, Pink Panther, and Monty Python influences. Which all comes together to say that this book is amazing but also, wow, how are these characters so dumb and yet still walk and breath at the same time???

Nimona

By Noelle Stevenson

NimonaNimona has been highly acclaimed in graphic novel circles for years now, and I don’t know why I resisted it. Sheer contrariness, I guess. But, ah, it is so good! It starts off very Tumblr-y: manic pixie dreamgirl Nimona breaks into the secret lair of a stereotypical villain Ballister Blackheart to insist on becoming his sidekick. He flatly refuses until she reveals she’s a shapeshifter, which he can see would be very useful. It is funny and cleverly written, if not especially original.

Which is the insidiousness…the setup is similar to so many other comics that I’d read that I made assumptions and the heart of the story really caught me off guard. Before I knew it, I adored Nimona and Blackheart, and even felt exasperated affection for their hero foe, Ambrosius Goldenloin (which is rather how Blackheart feels about him, too).

For the simplicity of the illustrations and storytelling, the world building, plotline, and even characters (despite their ridiculous names) are surprisingly complex and nuanced. The ending was a series of reveals that really got me in the feels (to retreat to Tumblrisms, again).

It reminded me just a bit of Carry On, taking archetypal characters and narratives and giving them more depth than they usually get, which makes sense, in that Rainbow Rowell is a prominent blurb on the front cover.

I told Rebecca that she had to read it, and when she started it, she said it was ‘adorable.’ I just agreed, thinking, oh, just you wait…

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers, by Ben Passmore

yourblackfriendYour Black Friend and Other Strangers
by Ben Passmore
2018

I saw Ben Passmore speak on a panel discussion at the Small Press Expo this year. And he was one of the better speakers about doing nonfiction journalism in graphic novel format. I definitely wanted to read his book, which is twenty short stories in graphic novel format – between 1 and 21 pages each. All twenty combined are 120 pages.

The first story, the titular “Your Black Friend”, was remarkably hard to get through. It was fabulous, but it was also deeply uncomfortable because it pointed out my own problems and how none of us get to opt out of a racist society. We can do our best to try to improve society and make it less racist, but we’re all impacted. Black people don’t get to opt out of being oppressed and white people don’t get to opt out of being the oppressors. And here’s a constant struggle with stereotypes in both directions and from all sides.

When reading it, I could feel myself becoming defensive (“I don’t mean it that way!” the white person’s version of “not all men!” etc.) and that itself was an important realization to have, and a reaction I know to guard against.

Once I got through that one though, the rest were (relatively) smooth sailing. Some of them were more impactful than others, and they tended to deal with just different issues that Passmore had run into during his life and travels, many of them about racial inequality but certainly not all of them, and a few that were pure navel-gazing philosophy.

All the stories are good, but a couple of that I want to call out in particular are:

“It’s Not About You”, which does a hilarious and fantastical job of addressing the fact that we’re all dealing with our own issues and struggles and yet that doesn’t excuse us from acknowledging other people’s issues and struggles.

and

Ally I Need is Love”, which is a hilarious and biographical story from his past as a pedicab driver dealing with intersectionality issues, generational changes, and stereotyping.

Anyway, the art isn’t my usual style preference but it carries the stories well and is distinctly his Passmore’s own style, which I can now semi-reliably recognize in other contexts (such as on The Nib, which I follow on Instgram.)

I definitely recommend this book.

In writing this review and checking some links, I also discovered that “Your Black Friend” (the short story, rather than the whole book) got turned into a 3-minute youtube video available here.)

Graphic novels on systematic oppression

I was in a mood the last time I was at the library and these are the three other graphic novels I got along with Freedom Hospital, and all of them are about dealing with systematic oppression. Not necessarily successfully, but trying to. They are none of them cheery.

RunforitRun For It: Stories of slaves who fought for their freedom
by Marcelo D’Salete
2017

There’s four chapters, telling four somewhat interlinked stories of black resistance to slavery in Brazil. And it’s just heart-breaking. Individuals could and did fight for their freedom, but unlike a game of tag, there was no home base, no safety or home free. There was just constant risk of staying, even greater risk of trying to leave, and no alternatives.

And trying to organize for a rebellion against the structure itself was just more courting death.

It also really shows how slavery-based societies actively promote viciousness and suppress empathy, among everyone involved, slave owner and slave alike. And possibly the greatest rebellion that the slaves managed to (sometimes) win, was to maintain a sense of worth to their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.

girlcalledechoA Girl Called Echo, Vol. 1: Pemmican Wars
by Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yaciuk
2017

This a beautifully done YA comic about Echo, who has been placed in a new school and a new foster care house. In school, she’s learning the history of the Métis, the local indigenous tribe, from which she is descended but not raised with. She’s in a position where she doesn’t fit in with the people around her or even with the people who should have been her people, but about whom she doesn’t know anything.

But in an odd experience that comes with no explanation (in this volume, at least) she is transported back in time, for short periods, to the era that her modern history class is talking about. And that’s where she makes what looks like her first a friend, Marie, a young Métis girl. But Marie is experiencing the time that Echo is learning about in school: the series of conflicts between Métis and colonists that largely destroyed the Métis way of life.

veraxVERAX: The True History of Whistleblowers, Drone Warfare, and Mass Surveillance
by Pratap Chatterjee and Khalil
2017

Pratap Chatterjee is a journalist and the graphic novel follows his years-long investigation into governmental mass surveillance and drone warfare. So the slow start and surprisingly long time it takes to get anywhere might be a realistic portrayal of the frustration of the investigation but it makes for a book that spends the first half alternating between victims speaking about their loved ones being killed in drone attacks and Chatterjee speaking about his editor not properly appreciating his nose for a story. Chatterjee does not look good in the comparison.

That said, about two thirds of the way through, it starts to pick up with Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing. At that point the story shifts from following an investigation to explaining the implications of the information found, and that was much more interesting.

VERAX brought up two things that I hadn’t given much thought to before:

First:

That unmanned drones are not actually unmanned: they have a crew of 180 people stationed around the world, keeping them in the air, flying them, analyzing the data, examining the video feed, and making the calls to fire. It means that Air Force enlisted kids right out of high school and sat them down in front of screens with crappy surveillance video (this is not the high def videos shown in the movies) and has them watch the grainy videos of people dismembered and dying from the missiles they helped launch. Rates of PTSD among drone pilots who never leave their offices is amazingly high.

My dad used to say, “be careful what you put into your head, because you can’t always get it out again.” Some knowledge is important to have, and certainly worth the pain of being a third party witness. But sometimes it is just too much: I can’t imagine spending years watching those videos live.

Second:

While mass surveillance is an invasion of privacy and terrifying in how pervasive it is, it is almost equally terrifying how rife with errors it is. It’s bad data and the government is making life-or-death decisions based on this data. That’s why there are so many civilian casualties by a method that is supposed to be created specifically to avoid them. Because how often have you called a wrong number or gotten a call from someone trying to reach someone else? Maybe it’s an old phone number of maybe a 5 got misread as a 6, or a 1 as a 7.

It’s full of bad data, such that a good third of the drone strikes were made on the wrong targets. And the institutions making use of the data tend heavily towards confirmation bias. Ie, if they’re looking for a weapon and they see someone in a person’s hands, that’s evidence that they have a weapon. As opposed to looking at someone carrying something and considering how many other things they could be carrying: a glass of water, a baby, a bag of skittles. No matter how smart you are, no matter how dedicated, you cannot make good decisions based on bad data.

But overall, as a book, it was a slow start that finished with a lot of ideas and was very thought provoking.

I recommend all three books, but they are draining as they show how hard and yet necessary it is to maintain hope.

Freedom Hospital by Hamid Sulaiman

freedomhospitalFreedom Hospital: A Syrian Story
written and drawn by Hamid Sulaiman, 2016
translated by Francesca Barrie, 2017

This is a gorgeous graphic novel, with stark images that carry a lot of impact. The style matches the story too, in its stark contrast that still manages complex characters in a confusing state of social collapse.

There’s a cast of twelve main characters in and around the underground hospital Yasmine has set up to provide medical treatment to the resistance of the current regime. It’s not strictly non-fiction — Sulaiman took liberties with combining characters and stories, but it’s not really fiction either. It starts in spring 2012, and covers the year in four seasons with a short epilog set in spring 2013.

It’s not particularly long or technically hard to read, but it’s a hard subject and the characters are all complex and the situation even more so. And I keep on thinking about days later. One of the things that really struck me about it was the way Sulaiman created a background by the simple matter of, when there was a time cut between scenes, there’s a small line saying how many hours or days later it was, and how many people had died in that time.

“six days later: another 731 killed.”
“ten hours later: another 69 killed.”
“two weeks later: another 2,157 killed.”
“twelve days later: another 793 killed.”

And the people who survive carry on trying to do something: to win, to get noticed, to be saved, to survive…

Some of them do and some of them don’t, and everyone just keeps on trying to find some right thing to do, whether it’s to stay or leave or join one of the militias.

It’s heart breaking and wearying and shows just how easy it is to become accustomed to truly horrifying circumstances.

Small Press Expo, 2018

I’ve enjoyed going to Small Press Expo every year since I discovered it existed at all, but this is the first time I’ve gotten around to writing a review of it. I just buy too many awesome things to keep track of and then wait too long to read them all. So this year, I’m just going to review the ones I’ve finished.

 

OTPcoverimageOTP Book One
Written and Illustrated by Maki Naro
published by: Box Plot Comic

This is an educational pre-historical romance between a thrinaxodon and a broomistega and it is adorable! Oh my heart! I was lying on the floor cooing at this book as I read it. It’s more of a BroTP in my opinion, but that just makes it even better! Best friendship is the best.

I also find is darkly reassuring to hear about the Great Dying that involved ocean acidification wiping out nearly all sea life and the only known mass extinction of insects. Because the world continued on and life evolved new and different animals.

 

zenithcoverZenith
Written and Illustrated by Iasmin Omar Ata

This is described as “a post-apocalyptic adventure about the phases of the moon, islamic futures, and asserting your identity” but I read as more of a fantasy-world look at being bi-racial. In some ways it reminded me of that aspect from InuYasha, but with more detailed look at growing up among animals deities as a half-human.

Also, I love that apparently The Six Pleasures of Medieval Islam were drink, clothing, intercourse, scent, sound and food, with food being the greatest of them all. That seems accurate to me.

 

A Courtesan’s Tale
Written by: Lynn Novella
Published by: Pretty Dark Tales

First of all, this is a tiny book, with measurements of about 1.5” x 3” x 0.5” and is hand bound. Adorable! And Lynn Novella was at SPX creating more of these books as she sat at her stall. She’s also adorable. We agreed that clearly people needed books sized appropriately to be able to carry anywhere and everywhere, so you could always have a book on you at any given time.

It’s not a graphic novel, just text, but the story is awesome and adorable and hilarious in the way it interacts with the stereotypical fairytale by adding practical characters who aren’t putting up with any of this nonsense. And if you’re in a terribly dangerous situation… get out while the getting’s good.

 

maamoulCan These Cookies Stop Islamophobia?
Written and Illustrated by Marguerite Dabaie

I really wanted to buy this one, but the author was away from her stall when I first saw it and didn’t return in the time it took me to read it. By the time I returned, she’d left early.

But since I’d wound up reading the whole thing while standing there, I’m going to review it here, because it’s sweet and socially aware. Rather than a standard graphic novel, it’s more like an illustrated treatise, a combination of love story to the middle-eastern cookies ma’amoul and a discussion of how blindly fearful people in the west have gotten about a whole culture and language.

 

PREVIOUS YEARS:

I haven’t read the rest of my acquisitions from this year, so I’ll need to post on them individually as I get to them. But I also want to take a moment to go back to a couple of my all-time favorite acquisitions from years past:

The Rabbit Hero
Written and Illustrated by Tony Brandl

This doesn’t really have a plot, per se, just character who get their only summaries. The titular rabbit hero is the first to be introduced: “Once, not so long ago, there lived among us, a Rabbit Hero. He was strong, and very brave, of course, but mostly, he could jump.”

It’s a small book that has a fun binding and while there’s no plot, the character summaries and illustrations (with the rabbit hero either present or just out of frame with only his plaid scarf visible) provide such potential for interaction that it’s inspiring. The reader is left to imagine how the story goes.

 

kingdomofwenramenKingdom of Wenramen
Illustrated by Wendy Pham
published by Clandestine Republic

This is another book without plot or even words this time, just a series of images that create a whole world of magic and spirits and animals and food. The central theme is definitely food, ramen in particular.

They’re just beautiful illustrations that really supports the classic idiom “a picture is worth a thousand words” because there’s so much world building going on in these pictures as well as successfully conveying a sense memory of eating really good ramen. I bought this book before I’d ever actually had any restaurant ramen, and really enjoyed it then, but now that I know what good ramen tastes like, ooh, this is so good, but also makes me hungry.