Rainy weekend reads in brief

Last weekend we had lots of fun plans but we were feeling a little under the weather, so when it pretty much rained non-stop we took advantage and just stayed at home. For Tim that meant playing computer games (mostly Elite: Dangerous). For me it meant reading. I got through four and a half books. Which sounds like a lot for two days, but it includes two graphic novels and a very slim collection of short stories, so I think that reveals how much time we actually spent watching TV (mostly Legion, which is nightmarish but also excellent, and confusing). As reading lots in quick succession makes it harder to write in-depth reviews, I’ll do brief ones instead.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is the third of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which began with My Brilliant Friend, and that means I now only have one instalment left to read in the saga of Elena and Lila. With recent(ish) revelations about the true identity of Ferrante (a nom de plume) it’s more tempting than ever to confuse her with narrator Elena, who begins this book as a successful author about to get married. Her childhood best friend Lila, meanwhile, is at a very low ebb, working her hands to shreds in a sausage factory owned by a rich friend of the Solara brothers, who have terrorised the neighbourhood since they were boys. As with every part of their story, Elena and Lila switch fortunes and switch from close, regular contact to spending long months apart.

The writing is, as ever, beautiful. I marked so many great quotes as I read. This book explores marriage, motherhood, family and whether or not anyone can, or should, escape their roots. Elena is torn between the cultured elegance of her new in-laws and the promise of a life far from Naples, and the importance of telling the truth and siding politically with the family and friends of her childhood. Lila is, as ever, fierce and demanding, making life decisions that Elena sometimes struggles to understand. I am looking forward to, and also sad already about, reading the final book in the series.

“How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled…The old neighbourhood, unlike us, had remained the same. The low grey houses endured, the courtyard of our games, the dark mouths of the tunnel, and the violence. But the landscape around it had changed. The greenish stretch of the ponds was no longer there, the old canning factory had vanished. In their place was the gleam of glass skyscrapers, once signs of a radiant future that no-one had ever believed in.”

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No, sitting in a cold dirty hole was not awesome

anyas-ghost-coverAnya’s Ghost
by Vera Brosgol

This is a sweet, honest and spooky tale told in stylish graphic novel form. It’s one of a handful of comics I added to my Christmas wishlist on the back of Googling something like “best comics by women”, so it was a bit of a gamble, but one that paid off.

Anya is in many ways an ordinary American teenager – she only has one close friend, Siobhan, and she’s given up on ever being popular, but she worked hard to hide her Russian accent and chooses her clothes carefully so that at least she isn’t a target for bullies. She worries about her body, about turning into her frumpy mother, about ever attracting the attention of hunky star of the school basketball team Sean. Normal. Until she falls down a well and finds the ghost of a girl who died 90 years ago and is longing for a friend.

The ghost makes for an interesting new friend – one who can spy on people for Anya and wholly accepts Anya’s word on what’s cool. (Incidentally, I personally think Anya’s taste rocks based on the posters in her bedroom: Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, Metric, the Shins, Weezer…Pretty excellent.) However, the ghost is not an entirely benevolent force.

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But I want to look like this

never goodnightNever Goodnight
by Coco Moodysson

This graphic novel is set in 1982 and tells the story of three young girls who start a punk band. If that sounds oddly familiar, it may be because Coco Moodysson’s husband, Lukas Moodysson, adapted it into his 2013 film We Are the Best! (It’s an excellent film, I highly recommend it.) Having seen the film first, I was initially confused by some of the differences I found in the book but I’m trying not to compare the two.

12-year-old Coco lives with her divorced mother and her 17-year-old sister Magda. Their mum’s a bit of a party animal and gives the girls a lot of freedom. Coco’s best friend since third grade is Klara. Klara’s big sister Matilda (her age is never given but it’s implied she’s very close in age) often hangs out with them, and the three of them have decided to start a punk band. None of them can play an instrument but it’s punk, so that doesn’t matter.

The story is about female friendship first and foremost, touching on a few coming-of-age moments such as trying alcohol and starting to see parents as human beings. These girls have turned to punk because they are outsiders by nature, and they’re proud of it. They’re scathing of mainstream music and they talk about politics and environmental issues. The day they first heard the Clash they all cut their hair into spikes and dyed it black. But they’re also a little socially awkward, reliant on each other because they can’t really talk to anyone else.

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I’d be rocketing through my dreams

rocket girl vol 1Rocket Girl Vol.1: Times Squared
by Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder

This was on the staff recommends shelf at Midtown Comics in New York, and I do like a good staff recommendation. Plus the artist is female, and I was on the hunt for some female representation on our comic shelves.

Rocket Girl has a fairly complex plot, which I suspect will get easier to follow in later volumes, although maybe not. DaYoung Johansson is a detective in the New York Teen Police Department in an alternate-reality 2013 who is sent back in time to 1986 to investigate shadowy but all-powerful Quintum Mechanics for “crimes against time”. There’s some twisty time-loop who-did-what-when stuff going on and some action-adventure chase sequences, but what I found more interesting was the culture clash DaYoung faces.

“I get to fly. It’s why I joined the NYTPD. I used to lay in my bed thinking all about it, trying to make sure that when I fell asleep I’d be rocketing through my dreams. Force it. Focus. Fantasize real hard and hope when your eyes shut you don’t know the difference. It usually didn’t work.”

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It’s a joke they’d throw the book at me

kick-ass-3Kick-Ass 3
by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr

I have mixed feelings about Mark Millar (as you’ll see from my reviews of The Secret Service: Kingsman and the first Kick-Ass) but he does spin a good yarn, and those I’m a fan of. This is the fourth part of a series (yes, for confusing reasons, number 3 is part 4), so this review may contain spoilers for the previous books. (Actually, it absolutely does.)

Kick-Ass is 18 now and his Justice League of costumed self-proclaimed superheroes is well established, but are they ready to face the big time? Their one member/friend who had the balls and skills to fight big scary criminals is Hit-Girl and she’s locked away in prison, thanks to Chris Genovese, nephew of terrifying mafia boss Rocco Genovese. Now Chris is in hospital in critical condition while Uncle Rocco is intent on taking over all organised crime on the East Coast. Can Kick-Ass and co step it up to fight the new super mafia that’s forming? Or can they at least break Hit-Girl out of prison so she can lead the way?

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Was her memory meaningless? Her experience insubstantial?

seconds-bryan-lee-omalley

Seconds
by Bryan Lee O’Malley

This is a sweet, funny graphic novel from the author and artist behind Scott Pilgrim, very much in the same vein. It blends real life with fantastical elements and has a strong female lead. What’s not to love?

Katie is the head chef at a restaurant called Seconds, but her dream is to own her very own restaurant. She has started to make her dream come true but it isn’t going smoothly. Her ex-boyfriend Max keeps turning up at Seconds, she’s having an affair with the man she’s supposed to be training up to replace her, and the builders at her new restaurant keep calling with bad news. When she causes an accident through negligence Katie knows something has to change…and somehow it does.

“Katie disappeared into the pantry. It was pretty pathetic. She sat there heaving and trying to make herself cry. The saddest thing was that she couldn’t have a moment away from herself. And then, through a crack in the floorboards, she saw—something.”

This has elements of a classic folk or fairy tale, including the idea that being able to put right mistakes won’t necessarily result in everything turning out perfectly. It also has a lovely strand about female friendship, as Katie alleviates her loneliness by getting to know her waitress Hazel. In familiar Bryan Lee O’Malley fashion, there are no clear right answers and Tim and I argued about the ending, before agreeing to accept that it isn’t the ending.

“Katie’s heart wouldn’t stop racing. Was her memory meaningless? Her experience insubstantial? Was she losing her grip on reality? Was she even awake?”

The art style is simple and atmospheric, with some beautiful set pieces. For instance, one double page is given over to a top-down view of the Seconds building, like a floor plan occupied by people and furniture. It reminded me of a page from one of the Usborne Puzzle Adventure series, with subtle jokes and hidden clues to the story to come – and I mean that as a compliment; I loved my Usborne Puzzle Adventures and still have several of them in my library!

Katie is an imperfect, relatable lead character. She’s strong and confident when she needs to be, fragile and heartbroken in hidden moments. She makes mistakes and she tries to put them right. She’s a bitch on a bad day and beloved by all on a good day. She doesn’t want to be alone but she doesn’t want to give up her dreams for a boyfriend. And she talks back to the narrator, which I found hilarious.

So now the only question is: will Edgar Wright please make a film of this? It would be really really great.

Published 2014 by Ballantine Books/SelfMadeHero.

Source: Excelsior! comic shop, Bristol.

Nightmares sneak out into the daylight

The Sandman

The Sandman Vol. 1 Preludes & Nocturnes
by Neil Gaiman (writer), Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III (artists)

I have been told so many times that I should read The Sandman that I just assumed it would be wonderful. It’s Neil Gaiman, it’s a highly acclaimed comic-book series, it’s about dreams and nightmares – it sounded perfect. And it is pretty good, but I think my expectations were too high.

This is the first of 12 volumes, republishing the full original run of The Sandman. The artwork is beautiful in a dark, gothic style. The concept is fascinating and open-ended. Quite simply, the Sandman is the lord of the world of dreams, both good and bad. He can move in and out of the real world, magical realms and dreams themselves.

This volume has a clear complete storyline – in 1916 a magic circle tries to summon Death and instead gets the Sandman, whom they imprison for many decades. This has a terrible effect on the world – with no-one controlling the dream world, some people go mad, others just stay asleep for years. The Sandman must escape and regain control, but it won’t be an easy task.

“Daniel Bustamonte returns to his best dream. But this time the clouds are flimsy, frail, less real. And then the clouds aren’t there at all. Too scared to sleep, he sobs to keep himself awake until dawn.”

“Stefan’s case is new to the doctors. They thought they’d seen every form of shellshock. How long can a boy go without sleeping? When do the nightmares sneak out into the daylight? The morphine is proving useless. It’s sad.”

“Unity Kinkaid finds it harder and harder to stay awake. She now sleeps for almost 20 hours a day. She used to dream; to shift in her sleep, muttering and sighing, locked in half-remembered fantasies. Now she lies unmoving, breath shallow and silent, lost to the world. Unity sleeps.”

I liked the concept, I liked the story and the artwork, I like that it’s dark (even a bit grisly in places) but…I’m not sure exactly what was wrong but it didn’t grab me. The stuff about the world going mad without the Sandman was brilliant but over a little too quickly, I felt a lot more could have been made of it. And there was surprisingly little of the dream world depicted, but I’m sure that’s still to come. Only, I’m not all that bothered about reading the remaining volumes.

Maybe I was in the wrong mood. Maybe I should treat it as much as a work of art as a work of fiction. I’m not sure. I had half a plan to try The Books of Magic next. Perhaps I should lower my expectations first?

First published as The Sandman issues 1–8, 1988–1989, by DC Comics.
This edition published 2010 by Vertigo, DC Comics.

Source: I bought this from my local comic-book shop.

Girls and guns and science

Echo: the Complete Edition
by Terry Moore

So I quite liked this graphic novel, then Tim said that the maths that the whole storyline is based around is complete rubbish and now I’m not sure if that makes a difference or not. I think I still like it.

It’s almost a superhero story, but not quite. Super-clever scientist lady invents a new element and makes herself a suit out of it, then gets blown up by her superiors while wearing it and the suit attaches itself to two unlucky bystanders. That’s the first couple of scenes. The rest of the story follows those two bystanders as they discover what the suit can do and have very different reactions to it. And both get chased by various government agencies and scientists who want their tech back.

This is one of those beautifully drawn graphic novels that includes a lot of panes with no words, so despite this being a huge tome (this was previously published as six trade paperbacks) I tore through it in one day. I probably didn’t pay enough attention to the detail.

The main character is Julie, one of those two bystanders in the desert. She is an artist struggling to pay her bills and resisting signing the divorce papers that her husband has sent. There’s a large supporting cast, but foremost among them are Dillon, who was the boyfriend of the dead scientist lady, and Ivy, a kickass agent for a mysterious organisation. The first time we meet Ivy she is picking flowers with her daughter. In the next scene she is flying a plane on her own and puts it into autopilot while she changes her clothes. Awesome.

The maths/science stuff is complete rubbish and I did get a bit annoyed by it, even before discussing it with Tim. And there’s also a religious storyline that I found a bit questionable, to say the least. But the main characters and their lives on the run are engaging, funny, upsetting, sad and touching in all the right places. A main character appearing to be offended by the suggestion she might be gay is made up for by there being other characters who just happen to gay, without it being a thing.

Throughout the book there are quotes from writers and scientists about man and science, especially the destructive nature of man. Really it’s quite a negative view of science. There are plenty of scientists in the book who are trying to do good, but the suggestion is that it’s futile, that there will always be someone who wants to do something terrible with any new scientific discovery and that someone will always get their way. I prefer not to be that pessimistic.

There’s also a lot of excuses come up with for drawing women wearing very little. In fact, flicking through the gallery of cover art at the end of this collected edition, the majority of them concentrate on Julie and her large chest.

But dodgy science and fan service aside, I really did enjoy this read. I was interested in and cared about the characters, even some we only meet very briefly, and the bikers were very cool. But not as cool as Ivy.

Published 2011 by Robyn Moore.

Comics are for grown-ups

Skellington

Skellington
Scary Go Round book 3
by John Allison

As the title intimates, this is the third collection of Allison’s Scary Go Round web comic strips in print, in this case taken from May 2004 to March 2005. All of those comics are still available, for free, on the Scary Go Round website so why would I (well, okay, Tim) buy this in book form?

First of all, it’s a book! And we like books. They are good. Slightly more seriously, I struggle a little to follow a storyline of any length in a webcomic. Too much clicking, too much waiting. I am impatient like that. Also, Allison has thrown in some bonus features – rewritten bits, introductions to each story and some sketches he did for character development. I really like the extra insight that this gives. And last but not least, we buy his books to support an author who is creating great work.

But what is Scary Go Round? Well, previous to this book I had only read snatches of it over the years so I am almost a newcomer myself. As far as I can tell, it is a comic that follows the lives of a group of mostly 20-somethings living in Yorkshire, to whom insane things happen often. But there’s the occasional story that doesn’t involve the regular characters at all, which is either to confuse the reader or to give Allison a break/change/fun new experiment.

In this volume, most stories centre around housemates Amy and Shelley. Shelley is sensible, responsible and works as the mayor’s assistant. Amy is ditsy, haphazard and works for a crazy inventor guy who she may or may not have a crush on. There’s a fairly large cast of regular/recurring characters, including Shelley’s former housemate Fallon who is some kind of kickass secret agent (in fact, she has her own book, titled Girl Spy).

Storylines include Shelley and Amy going to a death metal concert, and a teapot time machine. From mundane daily life to extraordinary oddness, the dialogue is funny and the interaction between characters warm and realistic.

According to Tim, who knows about these things, Scary Go Round and its predecessor Bobbins (from which several characters survived) were some of the earliest webcomics and are important in terms of carving a new genre and format. Scary Go Round itself has now ended, but Allison’s new webcomic Bad Machinery is going strong.

Published 2005. Print version no longer available but I’m hoping the e-book will be added to the Scary Go Round store soon.

Finding my inner geek

The Guild volume 1
story by Felicia Day, artwork by Jim Rugg

This is a comic prequel to the web show The Guild created by and starring Felicia Day, a series I haven’t watched by the way. I guess that makes me an atypical reader, but I loved her in Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and the comic was in the car with me on a long drive so, what else was I going to do?

It’s the story of Cyd, a violinist with a loser boyfriend and therapy sessions that are failing to help her depression at all, thanks to a particularly awful psychiatrist. On a whim she buys a computer game, an online RPG that allows her to create a whole new character for herself called Codex, make friends and follow structured rules that make sense.

So yeah, it’s geeky, but don’t let that put the non-geeks among you off. It’s a human story with a lovably flawed character at its centre. Cyd’s mistakes are harder to correct than Codex’s, but by being Codex and interacting with lots of new people, people who for the most part are positive and want to help her, Cyd learns to deal better with her real life.

The important message is, of course, that online friends can be “real” friends even if you never meet them in person. The beauty of the Internet is that it gives you access to the whole world, to find others who share your interests, who lift you up and make you smile. You don’t need to be in a physical bar with someone to swap stories of drunken exploits, or share your baby’s first words, or open your heart.

Which all sounds a little cheesy. Sorry, that’s only my interpretation. The comic is not cheesy, it’s awesome. Day hits just the right balance between sentiment and straight-talking. It helps that her main character is struggling to figure out how she feels, or whether it’s okay to feel a certain way, and her sense of loneliness translates well in comic form.

Well, I’m off to check out the web series. I can feel my geekiness increasing already.

First published as three comics in 2010 by Dark Horse Comics. This edition published December 2010.