I just read: The Milkman

Lately I’ve been using the Libby app to try out a lot of ebooks and audiobooks that I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. The latest novel I discovered in this way is The Milkman (by Anna Burns).

I don’t even think I looked at the blurb that closely. I read something about ‘surveillance’ and ‘paramilitary,’ and I think I assumed it would be a Black-Mirror-esque sci-fi. That’s one really nice thing about these library-apps: you can pick up a book on a whim (and audiobook in this case) and often you end up pleasantly surprised.

I think the reason I assumed that Anna Burns had written some kind of near-future sci-fi was because the blurb and the book itself are deliberately oblique about the setting. But it seems very obvious that we’re kind of in a ‘whimsical’ version of 1970s Northern Ireland. I say ‘whimsical’ because there is a sort of stream-of-consciousness quality to the narration that pulls out the humor in small things, even though terrorism and sectarian intimidation are a daily concern.

The narrator is simply referred to a ‘middle sister,’ and that’s not some kind of ‘Handsmaid’ epithet, it’s simply her pecking order in her very large family. For the first few chapters, she’s like Belle from Beauty in the Beast. She’s been causing a commotion because she literally walks through her provincial town with her nose in a book. Soon middle sister is approached by her own version of ‘Gaston.’ He’s called the ‘Mlikman,’ and he’s a heavy-hitter in the local insurgency. He wants middle sister to be his kept woman.

Middle sister has seen friends and family members get swept up in the ‘Troubles’ and end up dead, so she has no interest in getting involved with the Milkman. But soon rumors are spreading, and most people believe she’s Milkman’s mistress, even though they’ve barely spoken a word. Middle sister feels intimidated and trapped. This is the gist of the book’s main plot, and it’s sounds pretty cool (sort of ‘You’ meets ‘Patriot Games’), but it’s not the main POINT of the book. The book is shooting for more of a sort of slice-of-life jaunt between multiple storylines in this community that is so narrow-minded and shell-shocked that it’s practically totalitarian. The resolution of the Milkman plot is sort of anticlimactic (and also revealed in the first sentence of the book).

Besides the Milkman, middle sister rambles on about several other off-beat characters. There’s ‘real milkman,’ ‘third brother-in-law,’ ’nuclear boy,’ ‘tablet girl,’ ‘sister of tablet girl,’ ‘Something McSomething,’ etc. In case you can’t tell, no one in the book is called by their real name. This is just one of the books many quirks. The narration (straight from middle sister’s head) is chatty and rambling, but also very lively. Middle sister repeats the same names and idioms over and over in short-succession, and she goes on long diversions from her main point. Often times these diversions end up being more important than her main train of thought. I listened to the audiobook version, and the narration-performance by Brid Brennan is excellent. I get tired and distracted trying to read long passages, and I’m not sure if I could have got through the book by reading.

But overall, it was a very pleasant surprise, and definitely a style and a setting that I’d never quite seen before. If you like multiple storylines in one book, an off-beat feminine perspective, and dreamy historical fiction, I’d say check this out. For some reason, it also kind of reminded me of Virgin Suicides (set in the 70s; a very distinctive narration style; and focused on immersing you in a tone and a feel, as opposed to driving a plot along), which to me is very high praise indeed!

I just read: Scythe

Scythe has one of those crazy, young-adult-sci-fi premises that you just have to check out. More unlikely than ‘Uglies,’ more convoluted than ‘The Maze Runner,’ there were several times when the world built by Neal Shusterman had me rolling my eyes and saying ‘There’s no way this would EVER happen!’ But every time that happened, Shusterman quickly amped up the plot with a swerve or kick-ass surprises to overcome my disbelief and keep me chugging along with the story.

Let me go thru the bonkers premise first. The main characters, Citra and Rowan live in a nearly perfect, nearly deathless society. A benevolent AI runs everything (truly benevolent, no twists there, unless they come in the sequel), and death has been ‘cured.’ People are rejuvenated before they can die from old-age. If they fall victim to accidents then they are resurrected. And suicides are not allowed , although there is such a thing as ‘splatting.’ (You might be able to figure out what that is. It’s one of the many cool ideas that Shusterman comes up with while exploring his post-mortal world.)

A society of ‘Scythes’ have been created to control population growth. Although the AI runs everything else in the world, the stakes of human mortality are considered too weighty for its impersonal, computer brain. So the people who are chosen as Scythes have free reign to kill whomever they want, in whatever method they want.

Wai… wha?

So why would a perfectly utopian AI delegate such a dicey, utterly-permanent task to humans, when it is controlling everything else? If society is concerned about population-control, why wouldn’t they try contraception, as opposed to widespread assassinations?

Listen, you just got to go with it…

OK, but there’s one more weird thing… and if you read a lot of YA, you might be able to predict what it is… The Scythes become fully-legal assassins as teenagers. OK, so they can’t rent a car, but they can kill people with samurai swords and flamethrowers?

Needless to say, there are some Scythes (both younger and older) that let their power go to their heads. And Citra and Rowan quickly get sucked into their schemes. As they struggle against these sinister, blood-thirsty Scythes (and as Rowan struggles against his own emerging blood-thirsty urges), the plot takes some interesting twists, and the story reinvents itself with about three shifts in the status quo before it’s done. Which is pretty impressive, considering the book is only 450 pages long.

I’ll also give the author credit for not pushing his male and female protagonists into a full-blown romance—these teen’s lives are intense enough without everything going hormonal. With that said, there is some romantic tension. But that tension is nothing compared to the fact that Rowan and Citra eventually find themselves forced into a sadistic and arbitrary predicament where, in order for one of them to live, the other must die. How does Neal Shusterman get his two protagonists out of this particular conundrum? If I told you that, I’d be spoiling the ending. But let’s just say Shusteman wraps up his final chapters as deftly and as dramatically as he handles the rest of his book. I’m looking forward to checking out what happens in Book 2!

I just read: Circe

Circe is sort of an upmarket character-study, by way of classic mythology. I really enjoyed it; to me it really had a ‘literary’ vibe. Because of that, I’m not sure that a hardcore genre-fantasy fan would be as enthused as I was, although there is sorcery and monsters and—of course—gods and goddesses.

Anyone who’s taken Classic Literature in high school probably remembers Circe from The Odyssey. She was the mysterious enchantress who kept Odysseus captive on her island—and who turned his fellow sailors into pigs. Even in the Odyssey, Circe is presented as a complicated character. Both Odysseus’ captor and his mistress. A seductress and a seducee (is that a word?). A ‘dangerous woman’ and also an invaluable advisor. I guess the ancient Greeks were in love with anti-heroes, creating complicated characters like Odysseus, Achilles, and Athena long before we had Tony Soprano, Claire Underwood, or that other Cersei from Game of Thrones.

In this 400-page novel, Madeline Miller expounds upon all of Circe’s life, not just that year she spent with the famous trickster from Ithaca. I was fascinated to see how much of Miller’s story had roots in actual ancient poems or stories. The plot was packed full of palace intrigue and familial drama. Of course, Miller seems to smooth over some parts, or flesh out others with her vivid imagination and a lovely sense of character-work.

The story kicks in shortly after the war of the old gods (the Titans) and the new gods (Zeus’ Olympians). Of course, the Olympians are victorious, and many of the most bellicose Titans are banished to an eternal hell. Circe is the immortal daughter of a Titan, Helios (god of the sun), and a nymph named Perse. Helios is the benefactor of a precarious truce with the Olympians; he is allowed to maintain his court and most of his power. Circe is not extraordinarily beautiful or overwhelmingly charming—which is to say she’s scorned by her divine family.

During her centuries-long coming-of-age, Circe realizes she is extraordinary in a different sort of way. She has powers that make her a new sort immortal—not a Titan or an Olympian, but something else that could upset the balance of the fragile peace. Upon discovering Circe’s new talents, Helios quickly agrees to Zeus’ suggestion that Circe be exiled to a solitary island on Earth.

That’s just the end of the first act. For an exile, Circe certainly gets around. Besides her affair with Odysseus, Circe has encounters with Daedalus (the famous inventor), Medea (her niece), the Minotaur (her nephew!), the six-headed monster Scylla (love the origin story here), Penelope (Odysseus’ wife, gulp!) and many more.

I especially like the last third of the book, when events turn to make Circe’s existence less lonesome, but many-times more perilous. (No spoilers!) I was so intrigued that I had jump on Wikipedia where I found out that once again the crazy events of the book were all partially based on real stories in antiquity. Circe was already a Classic anti-hero with a complicated past—even 2,500 years ago. And Madeline Miller does a fantastic job of bringing the character into the 21st Century and reintroducing her to modern readers in a most enchanting way.

Series Condition: Harrow County

Some comic fans seem to really avoid horror comics. It’s like that one genre that they won’t try. The art tends to be too ‘scritchy-scratchy,’ too gritty. The characters are too paper-thin. This is what they would say. I’m not saying I’m the biggest horror comics fan, but I have to say that the comic medium and horror really mesh well together, especially when the creators are top-notch.
With that said, I would recommend Harrow County to any comics fans who aren’t horror fans. It’s a beautifully rendered book, unlike anything I’ve seen out there. With a likable, well-rounded protagonist, an indelible setting, and a unique cast of supporting characters/creatures. If you are a fan of horror in comics, then why aren’t you reading this already?

Harrow County
Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Tyler Crook
Publisher: Dark Horse
2015-2018
32 issues (Complete Series)

The art is what really drew me (see what I did there?) to this book. Tyler Crook does the penciling, the beautiful sinuous inking, and the even-more-beautiful watercolor and gauche color-art. While we’re at it, he also does the lettering. How was it that he was able to do this many issues in just __ years?(There were a fill-artists on a few issues.) His artwork is stunning and inviting—cartoonish and yet also emotionally devastating when need-be. HIs art kind of reminds me of David Rubin’s, although more tactile and nuanced. Also—perhaps because of the setting—it kept reminding me of Walt Kelly’s Pogo cartoon. Each watercolored panel is sumptuous—like you’re wading through a collage of classic children’s lit illustrations. Arthur Rackham or Maurice Sendak or even Bill Watterson (when he’d take Calvin and Hobbes out into the jewel-toned forest).

Even when the images are horrifying, there is still an inviting warmth to the pages. It’s a sort of weird, ‘ghost story’ dichotomy that reminds me of those old ‘scary-for-kids’ movies from the 80s, ‘Watcher in the Woods,’ or ‘Lady in White.’

Cullen Bunn is the writer, and Harrow County seems to be set in his native North Carolina. The era seems to be perhaps the thirties or forties (after prohibition, before Mayberry). As I mentioned, the tone of the book feels nearly ‘young-adult’—except when it veers into skin-flaying and cannibalism. It’s a very unique tone, and especially for the first several issues, you really feel for the main character, Emmy.

Emmy emerged as an infant from a tree where a horrible witch was hanged. The people of Harrow County (the people who killed the witch) trepidatiously take in Emmy. There are other strange creatures that live in the woods that surround their town, and they aren’t completely unused to dealings with magic (more on that later in the series). But as Emmy approaches her 18th birthday, there’s more and more dread among her neighbors that she is going to turn into the new incarnation of that evil witch. Emmy herself begins to suspect that their worst fears are true. Throughout the series, we see her battling with her newly emerging powers, and her darker impulses. She’s a fin character.

The series just wrapped with issue 32. It’s interesting that while most comic series tend to segment their stories into 6-issue arcs, Harrow County works in 4-issue arcs. Which makes for shorter trade paperbacks when the arcs are collected, but also tighter, more winnowed-down stories. There isn’t much padding in these issues, and I liked that. Tight and simple and always moving toward and endgame every four issues. Maybe that also helped to contribute to the straight-forward, easily-digestible, ‘young adult’ vibe. I really liked the arcs on Kammi and Emmy’s friend Bernice. I like where Bunn takes her character. Emmy’s ‘family’ is introduced interestingly, but later in the series they don’t live up to their potential. The arcs that focused on their mythology seemed less interesting to me.

Overall, I look forward to seeing what Bunn and Crook do next. Bunn has already written some fine X-Men arcs. I’m also looking forward to checking out Dark Ark (about a version of Noah who rescued mythological beasts from the Flood) and Unholy Grail (Camelot and Lovecraft? Sign me up!)

Want to read some other of my ‘Series Condition’ posts on comic series?
The Spire
Invincible
Sliver Surfer
Y: The Last Man

 

 

 

 

 

 

I just read: The Scorpio Races

I’ve never read one of Maggie Stiefvater’s novels before, and I thought The Scorpio Races would be a good place to start. It is a standalone book, and I’ve always been a sucker for books set on beaches.

The setting here is intriguing and quite unique. It’s an island called Thisby that I pictured as being a lot like a British isle in the 1950s. It’s hard to draw a bead on when exactly the story takes place. There’s mention of old beat-up cars and chainsaws, but no mention of TV or phones. So I suppose the story could be taking place at any time between 1930 and 1980. There’s a lot of talk about tradition and ‘women knowing their place,’ which also makes me think it was set in the mid-1900s.

I suppose the murkiness of the era is part of the charm here, because Thisby is unquestionably part of a fantasy world. Its shores are prowled by carnivorous water horses called capaill uisce. For most of their lives, the capaill uisce swim in the sea, but in the Fall, captured water horses are harnessed and raced on land by the island’s bravest men. Racing these oversized, feral horses is very dangerous, and every year men are killed in the race. The winner walks away with an impressive cash prize.

Enter the two main characters. Puck is a young woman who becomes the first female rider in the history of the race. Her family is in desperate straits, and she wants to win that purse. But considering the fact that she’s never been around capaill uisce, and that she’s never trained as a jockey, she seems like an extreme long shot. Add to that the fact that she decides to ride a normal horse in the race (in other words: not as large or technically as fast as a capaill uisce, but more manageable to ride). The other character is Sean—a young racer and trainer who has already won the Scorpio Race several times in his short career. Definitely not an underdog, but he is living under the thumb of the island’s requisite crotchety millionaire.

Sean develops a fascination with Puck as he watches her train. She helps him realize that he doesn’t actually like racing—he just loves the bond he shares with his water horse, a red stallion named Corr. But Sean will lose his stallion forever if he cannot win this year’s race, and therefore obviously crush Puck’s own dreams.

So there’s the conflict. Two protagonists who are friendly with each other (aww, who am I kidding, you know they end up becoming more than ‘friendly’ by the end of the book), but whose aspirations are diametrically opposed. What happens? I was pretty pleased and satisfied with the resolution. So nice to read a fantasy book where you’re introduced to a world, meet friends and villains, establish a conflict, and then see it all wrapped up tidily in 400 pages. And a story about horses… it’s almost not fair, it’s like a story about a loyal dog or a sick toddler… you know eventually it’s going to pull at your heartstrings.

Another interesting aspect of the Thisby world: Even though it’s set in a quasi-modern time, there are still vestiges of a pagan past associated with the Scorpio Races. The riders tie knots and ribbons into their horses’ manes. They seem to cast charms through hand gestures and totems. And they can earn boons or evoke curses using the old gods. These beliefs aren’t explained too much, and there’s a nice ambiguity as to whether they actually work or if they’re just sporting superstitions. Also I have to admit I had a hard time imagining monster horses that could propel themselves underwater like sharks, or bite through a man’s neck in a split second. I know that real horses can swim, and that horses can definitely kill a person. I also know that there is a British tradition of mythical ‘water horses,’ including kelpies, but I was surprised to see an entire fantasy book dedicated to these creatures. But it was definitely a nice departure from the usual fantasy tropes of vampires or dragons or wizards.

I just read: The City of Brass

City of Brass starts off about a con-artist named Nahri in Napoleonic-era Cairo. Nahri doesn’t know where she comes from, but wouldn’t you know that she eventually realizes that she’s far more than just a rootless street urchin—she’s descended from a noble family of mythical djinn (they call themselves Daeva). The rest of the story revolves around Nahri coming to terms with this revelation, and how she affects the lives of two djinn men in the far-off, secret city of their ancient race.

I always thought of a djinn (or a Daevas, or an ifrits) as a sort of elemental spirit—or shapeshifting demon. Something inhuman. But the author, S.A. Chakraborty, presents the Daevas as very close to humans, both in their appearance, their politics, and their passions. If anything, the djinni here come off as elves, and their fabled city of Daevabad is Rivendell. One major difference to that is that some tribes of Daeva feel spiritually connected to fire, some to water, etc. The intrigues that run between these different tribes are as fraught and as morally ambiguous as anything you’d see in Game of Thrones. And just as complicated!

Nahri finds herself drawn to two Daeva men who are on opposite sides of this political divide. Nahri feels a romantic spark for both of these men. Dara is a hotheaded outsider—and a deadly warrior—who feels rightfully angry at the city’s current ruling family. Alizayd is the second son of that royal family. He is a devout Muslim, and also secretly entwined with an insurgency fighting for equality of Daevabad’s half-human population.

After a stilted and complicated introduction, Alizayd became my favorite character in the book. Because of his religion, he has chosen to remain chaste. At the same time, Nahri has been forced into an arranged engagement with his older brother, Muntadhir. All the same, Alizayd develops a fierce attachment to Nahri, and the best parts of the books are when he’s clashing with Dara—his political and romantic rival—over Nahri. There’s more than meets the eye to all of these characters, and that includes Muntadhir and Ali’s father, Ghassan.

All in all, an enjoyable fantasy read in a setting that you don’t often see. I look forward to reading the sequel when it is released.

I just read: Sharaz-de

Until about a year ago, I wasn’t familiar with Italian illustrator and comic-artist Sergio Toppi. Which is a shame because his work is brilliant. It reminds me of the fluid abstraction of Bill Sienkiewicz, the bold action and scale of Walt Simonson (who contributes a foreword to this edition), and some of that realist detail that you see in advertising illustrations of the 60s. This last bit is probably not surprising considering that Toppi started off as an advertising illustrator before transition to graphic novels about cowboys and soldiers, historic figures and the icon Arabian Nights mythos—which is what is collected in ‘Sharaz-de.’ Unfortunately Toppis passed away in 2012 at the age of 80.

Toppi was certainly in his element when it comes to illustrating the world of Arabian nights. His rocky desert landscapes are incredible, and just as impressive is the way he arranges his panels to communicate the passage of time and distance.

His pen carves the faces of his kings and shamans in the same sort of weather-worn majesty that he renders sandstone. Sometimes his vizier and chieftain faces blend in with rock formations or Gustav Klimt patterns, and it all creates this beautiful, dynamic texture of pen-and-ink.

I was also impressed with Toppi’s writing. He condenses the stories to as few lines of dialog. Although this descriptions and introductions are a little longer, and dashed an Old World tone. My favorite story was the set-up in the beginning, which mixes infidelity, sibling rivalry and compassion, and a bit of schadenfreude. (Scheherazade, meet Schadenfreude.)

Plot wise, most of the stories are pretty violent morality plays—full of jealous or greedy characters getting their just deserts. Sort of similar to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, if you read the old-school versions. But all the decapitations and demonic punishments are beautifully rendered, at least!