Friday, December 23, 2011

Book 41 – Crocodile on the Sandbank

By Elizabeth Peters

Olman picked up this book while we were in the Maritimes this summer and highly recommended it to me, saying I’d really like the heroine, Amelia Peabody - “a feisty and headstrong Victorian woman, who embodies all the values of the British Empire, but is somewhat restricted by doing so in a female form” - as well as the friendship that develops between Peabody and a younger woman (no, there is no lezzing out รก la Fingersmith).  Just don’t expect it to be a satisfying mystery.

Olman was right. I did enjoy Crocodile on the Sandbank very much. The beginning was awesome, as it sets up the adventure in which Amelia Peabody is about to begin. What else is an unconventional Victorian woman to do when she inherits a modest fortune and has no wish to marry? She embarks on an exotic voyage, of course! Almost immediately, she rescues, adopts and befriends an abandoned, fallen young woman named Evelyn, who becomes her travelling companion. You can’t help but admire this female protagonist, who proclaims:

I may say, without undue egotism, that when I make up my mind to do something, it is done quickly. The lethargic old city of the Popes fairly quaked under my ruthless hand during the following week.”

For once, I am of complete accord with Olman on both the strengths and weaknesses of Crocodile on the Sandback - it had a great premise that got undermined by the narrative.  I also agree with Olman that there wasn’t much of a mystery, and that the so-called mystery was actually in service of the narrative, which is more of action-adventure than a mystery (which I guessed early on anyway, so it must have been pretty obvious!).


Even more so than Olman, I was terribly disappointed with the ending when Amelia got married and had a child. Don’t get me wrong, as I quite enjoyed the sexual tension between her and Emerson. But what made Peabody so appealing for me was her fierce independence and unconventionality. She was proud being a thirty-two year old spinster, and makes a point of explaining her opinions about marriage to Evelyn:

…my nature does not lend itself to the meekness required of a wife in our society. I could not endure a man who would let himself be ruled by me, and I would not endure a man who tried to rule me.

As a result, I wasn’t expecting Peabody to settle down so soon, and was hoping that her romance with Emerson would continue for at least a few more books, so that readers could enjoy her as Amelia Peabody (not Emerson), not beholden to any man, or any prosaic duties of domesticity. So I'm in no dire need to read the next book.  But like Olman, I wouldn’t say no if someone were to lend me the next Peabody book.

Addendum:  after perusing the wikipedia, it seems that Peters had originally thought this was a one-off, and I think the book was so popular that a series was born.  Peters had rued the fact that in Crocodile, she had stated Peabody's age, and would've probably made her a few years younger had she been planning a whole series.  So that was interesting to know.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Book 40 - The G.N.B. Double C

The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists

A Story from the sketchbook of the cartoonist “Seth”

This is my first time reading a comic by Seth. Being already familiar with the work of Joe Matt and Chester Brown, I knew a little bit about the friendship and history (as well as the idiosyncracies) of this trio. A mutual friend recently lent Conan and I a bunch of comics (City of Glass, The Death Ray), which helped boost my book quota. The G.N.B. Double C comes in at an auspicious Number 40.

At first, I wasn’t really sure what I was reading – was it fact or fiction?  I expressed my confusion to Olman, who told me to keep reading, as this is “Seth’s conceit”, to create a fictional universe where cartoons are revered like works of art.  To quote The Comics Journal, Seth “deftly mixes real and imagined cartoon history in its depiction of a fictional cartoon society in the city of Dominion, where artists from every facet of the medium once gathered to drink, carouse, and sometimes even discuss cartooning.”

The book has an appealing old school hardcover, and there is a nicely crafted quality to the overall design and narrative, yet I wasn’t particularly fond of the cartoon style within. I think Seth succeeded too well in invoking the thick-lined, squat-figured cartoons of old. I just didn’t find the old-time, cornballish style very graceful or aesthetically interesting.

This National review did a good job explaining this oddball comic, but the opinion of the reviewer was not very clear. For myself, I liked this comic ok, and it was indeed a neat conceit. But it just didn’t really do much for me. I think I might enjoy Seth’s other work, like Palookaville or Clyde Fans, so I will have to see if Olman or Dan has any of those comics.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Book 39 – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

By Stieg Larsson

Well-- it’s been over year since I became The Girl Who Kicked Herself For Not Getting The Cheap Hardcover at Chainon.

Last we left off with the exciting conclusion of The Girl Who Played With Fire, Lisbeth Salander was shot in the head by her estranged Pa, her semi-conscious body airlifted to the nearest hospital. Even though you know our heroine is going to pull through somehow, it was still one hell of a cliffhanger to nurse for a year and three months. When hubs got me an iPad last Xmas, I was tempted to get the e-book, but thought the $11 price tag was a little steep. Now that it’s finally released in paperback (for $8! so Why-TF was the e-version more expensive?), I promptly ordered a copy.

Lemme tell ya, it was well worth the wait, despite the fact that this 563–page action-packed tome kept me up multiple nights in a row.  To quote that silly line from the new Cronenberg movie: “It excited me!

Unlike the majority of trilogies or series where each sequel is like a watered-down and/or inferior version of the original (take The Dark Materials trilogy, for instance), each installment of the Millenium trilogy was better than the last. I liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo all right, but The Girl Who Played With Fire took it to the next level, focusing on the character development of the fascinating Lisbeth Salander, as well as allowing her to kick even more ass (physical and cyber-spatial) than before.

The second book also introduced a whole web of new characters and how they were all inter-related to one another. Of course, the common denominator was The Girl herself, but there were new writers working for Millenium, various police inspectors, government officials, secret police agents, biker gang members, old friends of Lisbeth, as well as not-so-friendly people from her tragic past.

The third book has many of the same characters, and then some. It’s like a crazy Swedish version of The Wire, except we have a young woman entangled in some secret government conspiracy to have her locked away in an institution for life. And all because her father happens to be a badass Russian defector and ex-spy who keeps getting into trouble with the authorities because he's an underworld gangster as well as a wife-beater!

Despite the fact that Salander is not able to kick as much ass as she did in the previous book (due to her recovering from a bullet hole in the head (--oops I gave it away, oh well!), Salander’s motley crue of unlikely allies (a few who have friends in strategic places) rise to the occasion to help her out of this conspiracy mess, and Lisbeth also turns to her comrades at the exclusive Hacker Republic for help. The plot of TGWKTHN has been criticized for being preposterous, which is ridiculous. I mean, the Millenium trilogy from the get-go has been about as realistic as, say, the Bourne books. This is escapist fiction, for chrissakes, and other than the not so subtle theme of Men Hating Women, these books aren’t pretending to be anything more. If you want to read a more realistic story, then go read some Margaret Atwood or something.

More importantly, despite the phenomenal number of subplots and characters, Larsson managed to tie everything together into something that was competently cohesive. There was a whole other seemingly unrelated subplot where Erika Berger quit Millenium to work as editor-in-chief for the major newspaper, SMP, and within the first two weeks of her new job, conventiently acquired a stalker. That storyline could have been cut out, but at the same time, it felt like it fit into the narrative, logistically and thematically. It could’ve been a structural mess in the hands of a less disciplined writer. As an experienced journalist, Larsson also did a great job writing about the bustling newsroom of a major daily, the inner workings of Swedish governmental politics or a general overview of constitutional laws. The complicated plot allowed Larsson to touch on various aspects of Swedish society, from the high-ranking offices of CEOs and government officials to some shabby apartment of a lowly drug dealer.

Even if you think the story was rather preposterous, Larsson grounded his universe in such a confident, straightforward maner that you won’t immediately realize how much info you’ve been absorbing at once… that is, until you’re having a fitful night of sleep as the various elements from the novel float about inside your head! Even after more than a year between the 2nd and 3rd books, I was able to remember many of the plot points and characters. I think, after reading the Millenium books, everyone becomes a little like Lisbeth Salander, with her photographic memory and careful observation of details. And the finale was awesome. There were no loose strings I could find.

Immediately after finishing The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Olman and I watched the movie version, which was rather hurried, omitting tons of details and subplots. A few times Olman went “huh?” after the movie skipped or altered something from the book. Since he hasn’t read the Millenium books, I had to fill him in on some background info. So if you’re gonna watch the last movie, it might not make as much sense if you haven’t read the final book. It might have been worthwhile to split the book into two parts, like what they did with Twilight and Harry Potter. Let’s hope the American remake will do this!

Friday, December 02, 2011

Book 38 – The Death-Ray

By Daniel Clowes

Originally published in 2004 as a stand-alone issue of the Eightball series, The Death-Ray was recently reprinted as a nicely bound hardcover edition from Drawn & Quarterly. Shortly after reading a review of this release, a copy was  loaned to Olman via my coworker (thanks Dan!).

I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything by Clowes, though I very much liked the charmingly sarcastic movies version of Ghost World. All I know is that The Death-Ray is Clowes’ first and only stab at the superhero genre. Perhaps it would be better described as a “stab and twist” since there is a definite subversion of form. However, despite the pastel palette of the colour illustrations, there is hardly any humour to be found, only existential emptiness.

The story is basically about an ordinary and awkward teenaged boy in the 1970’s who grows up to be a lonely bitter man. Andy has the ability to be bestowed with superhuman strength when his body absorbs nicotine by simply smoking a cigarette. The death-ray is the gun he inherits from his odd, scientist father long after he had passed away. Just a single pull of the trigger will zap any living organism into non-existence.

Unlike Spider Man, great power does not come with great responsibility for our young Andy. He doesn’t blossom into a ripped example of sparkling masculinity but keeps his 90-pound weakling physique. Nor does he rise up to save the world from evil. Like any naive teenaged loser, Andy doesn’t quite abuse his power, but he definitely misuses it. Let’s just say this sad sack falls short of living up to any superhero potential, using his rather extraordinary gifts to solve his sadly ordinary problems. It’s a great premise to explore, and I’m sure the upcoming movie, Chronicle, was probably influenced to some extent by this comic.

Though I found the concept of The Death-Ray very interesting, I’m not sure if I liked it as much as, say, Charles Burns’ Black Hole, a comic which also explores the teenage psyche in 1970’s American suburbia in a supernatural manner. But it’s a little like comparing apples and oranges since The Death-Ray was a one-off, while Black Hole was the result of a ten-year effort. But I had felt so immersed in the dark, surreal universe of Black Hole, while The Death-Ray was like dipping into a wading pool by comparison. The brevity of The Death-Ray does not seem allow enough time for Clowes’ to explore his themes with any real depth.

The way Clowes’ jumps in time from panel to panel was probably intentional, but it felt quite disjointed to me. For example, after Andy discovers his new found powers, he decides to confront a school bully when he’s picking on his best friend Louie. All of a sudden, the next panel just shows Andy's bloodied hand, but never follows up on the bully. This happens fairly often throughout the comic. You never see the consequences when Andy decides to use violence against violence. I don’t mind jump cuts in movies, if they work for the story, and it can work visually in comics. Perhaps I am missing some kind of important symbolism that Clowes is trying to get at, but I found the panel jump a little annoying in The Death-Ray.

On the other hand, D&Q did a very professional job with the quality of the hardcover edition. The paper feels nice and thick, and shows off Clowes’ coloured illustrations well. And twenty bucks is a pretty reasonable price if you’re a fan of Clowes' work.