Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Marvelous Kamala Khan

Ms Marvel Vol 1
I admit, I was pretty apprehensive about the relaunch of Ms Marvel as a superhero with a Muslim-American teenage girl at its center.  Not because I have some great love for the Ms Marvel character (I never knew she existed).  More because I was (and still am, to an extent) annoyed that Marvel lauded Ms Marvel as one of the ways they were diversifying their superhero line-up, but the author of the series is a white woman.  I mean, come on - are there no South Asians out there who could write this story?  Sigh.

The author is G. Willow Wilson, of Alif the Unseen fame.  Wilson converted to Islam in college and has written several books with Muslims as the main characters.  At least Marvel chose an author who is familiar with the religion and culture that makes up so much of Ms Marvel's back story.  But still...

But enough about the author and more about the story!  I think this is actually the first superhero comic book I have ever read, which is probably just what Marvel wanted in creating this character.  I am not sure how these stories usually progress, but this compilation of the first several volumes in the series is more set-up than anything else.  We meet the main characters, Kamala Khan and her family and friends.  And we get a very quick introduction to a villain.  But we don't get much else.  This is very much a first chapter, not a whole story.

But it's a pretty great first chapter!  Kamala Khan is a very smart, kind, and funny teenager in Jersey City who loves video games and comics.  One foggy night, she's given super-powers that give her the ability to change the way she looks - she can change her face and grow bigger and smaller.  Kamala comes from a religious Muslim family and going out in hopes of saving the world every day and night is a little difficult.  She starts breaking her curfew, her parents become concerned, and Kamala struggles with keeping such a huge secret from her parents.  But she also seriously loves being a kick-ass hero.

There are so many things to love about Kamala, and most of them are the same things I've loved about Wilson's other female characters.  Wilson does a truly amazing job of writing strong and heroic women who are also religious.  Kamala is smart and dorky and nice.  Her parents are strict but they love her and want what's best for her.  It's just that her vision of what's best for herself is different than what her parents want for her.  There's one scene where she goes home after an exhausting and failed attempt to save a friend and grabs a bunch of food from the refrigerator to eat.  And all she can think is that she really wishes her mom knew her secret so that she could greet her at home with warm food and a big hug.

One thing I wish wasn't glanced over so much in the book was the way that Kamala can change her entire appearance.  The first few times she become Ms Marvel, she becomes a leggy blonde.  I assume that's who worked as Ms Marvel before, but it is telling on many levels.  Kamala has loved comics for her whole life, and never has she seen a superhero that looks like her.  So when she finds out that she has the power to become whomever she wants, she defaults to what she thinks a superhero looks like - a blond woman.  But as the story progresses and Kamala comes into her own, she ditches the face-shifting and keeps her own features.  The message is clear:  she owns it, and she's a superhero on her own terms.

It's a very powerful statement, and I am so looking forward to seeing how this character develops.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Only thing soft about Tan-Tan is she big molasses-brown eyes...

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
Midnight Robber is the first novel by Nalo Hopkinson I've ever read, but it won't be the last.  I have had the book for a few years now but have always shied away from reading it.  It's science fiction, a genre I don't read very often (but am getting more into!), it's written in dialect (patois), and, more to the point, the main character is a victim of incestuous rape.

But I finally opened up the book and read the first few pages.  I was so drawn into the story that ally my qualms just disappeared.  Midnight Rider is the story of Tan-Tan.  After Tan-Tan's father commits an unforgivable sin during Carnival, he escapes (with 6-year-old Tan-Tan) to New Half-Way Tree.  Tan-Tan must learn to adapt to survive, and so she takes on the persona of the Midnight Robber, a Robin Hood-esque, smooth-talking, vengeance-seeking rhyme master who helps people in need and punishes people who cheat.

At first, I really struggled with the dialect in this book, especially because I would read a few pages here and there during Thanksgiving week, quite distractedly.  I never got into a rhythm.  Finally, over this past week, I was able to read at least 50 pages at a time, and that really helped me.  While I still stumbled sometimes and had to reread sentences, it was much easier, and I became much more immersed in the world Hopkinson created through the language she used.

Hopkinson's universe is based on an Caribbean culture, dominated by the African folktales and sprinkled with Indian influences.  Just as I loved Aliette de Bodard's Eastern influence in her science fiction, I really, really appreciated this in Hopkinson's.  Here's a universe where Carnival is the biggest holiday of the year, everyone has a helpful eshu (the trickster teacher of African tales) in her ear, and children go to bed hearing stories of Anansi and the Midnight Robber.  I especially appreciated the way Hopkinson weaved her main story with folktales about Tan-Tan as the Midnight Robber. I love folktales and just ate those sections up.

I also liked the way Hopkinson progressed her story.  I don't want to give too much away, but as I said at the start, Tan-Tan goes through some truly horrible stuff in her early life.  Hopkinson shows how this abuse affects Tan-Tan's ability to trust other people, to form friendships, and to meet new people.  For example, Tan-Tan flirts with every man she comes across because she cherishes the feeling of her being in the position of power, when she's been powerless for so long.  And Hopkinson also evolves that feeling into the Midnight Robber, Tan-Tan's alter ego who is confident and witty and strong and doesn't pull any punches.

There's also a lot of symbolism in this story.  There's another intelligent species on New Half-Way Tree, and the way people treat that species is much as you would expect.  There's Tan-Tan's desperate need to escape from a past that keeps coming to find her.  The gender bender of Tan-Tan becoming the Midnight Robber while a man waits patiently at home for her to return.  The lawlessness of convict towns slowly becoming more civilized and the impact something like that has on the environment and ecosystem around those towns.

I admit that the characters in this story didn't draw me in nearly as much.  Tan-Tan is the central character, and while I liked her, she kept me at a distance.  Other characters come in and out of the story without any real personality or development, even when they are quite integral to Tan-Tan's life - her mother, the town doctor, her best friend Abitefa.  I wish we had seen more of these characters and how they saw and interacted with Tan-Tan.  But maybe Hopkinson didn't want to take away from her main character and put all the focus there.  I do hope that in other books, there is more a cast of characters than just the one.

That said, the positives outweighed the negatives here.  There's so much, more than enough to sink your teeth into and ponder over several nights.  I'm absolutely going to read many more books by Nalo Hopkinson, and I recommend you to do the same.  Especially because

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Magic isn't just for those who deserve it

I've been aware of Lev Grossman's The Magicians trilogy for some years now, but I've always been turned off by George R.R. Martin's really obnoxious quote on the cover of the book:

The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea.

Ugh, really?  Sometimes fantasy authors are such snobs.  As though JK Rowling and Lev Grossman were trying to write the same book.  As though a book aimed at children and young adults should be the same as a book aimed at adults.  As though .... anyway, I digress.  Suffice it to say that the quote itself was enough to turn me off the book.  When you combine that with the fact that I have been turning away from traditional fantasy in recent years, I just wasn't sure if this was going to be the book for me.

But I've heard a lot of positive things about the series as a whole, and I did want to try a complex doorstopper of a book on audio to see if I could handle one.  So The Magicians was it.

So what's this book about?  It's about a group of brilliant teenagers who go to Brakebills Academy to learn magic.  There, they learn how to do nearly anything they want to do, make new friends, fall in love, and then graduate.  And find that, when you can do pretty much whatever you want, it's hard to feel any sort of direction in life.  Until they one day learn that a beloved fantasy series from their childhood may have been real, and they journey into another world to try and live out all their childhood dreams.  And (of course) find that maybe the fantasy world is not quite the rainbows and unicorns they had expected.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Review-itas: The TBR Edition

Every once in a while, I will look at the many bookshelves in my house filled with books that have sat patiently unread for years (and seriously... many, many years) and be filled with a sense of panic.  What am I doing borrowing all these books from the library when I have at least a couple hundred on my shelves that I haven't read yet?  It makes me feel guilty and stressed out and pretty far behind.

This past weekend, I did a shelf clean-up and got rid of a few dozen books that I really don't have any interest in reading any more.  My tastes have changed, as you will see from the reviews below.  I frankly no longer really care that much about Medieval England's religious struggles. class struggles, and gender roles.  I really don't care that much about Medieval England at all.  As various periods in English history have prominent placement on my bookshelves, this was a difficult lesson to learn and I don't know if I have fully come to terms with it.  I think I am still a huge fan of 18th and 19th century British history.  I am absolutely fascinated by the class struggles and gender roles in that era and how technological advancement impacted social norms and roles.  At least, I think I am.  But it's been quite a while since I read a book set in that era, too, so I don't quite know.

Also, I read much more diversely now, and my bookshelves aren't very diverse.  This makes it even more difficult to pull books from my shelves to read because I want to make sure I maintain a good balance in the diversity of the authors I read.

Basically, I've come to realize that my bookshelves no longer fully reflect my reading tastes, and I've been having trouble coming to terms with that.  There are still a lot of books there that sound interesting to me!  Hopefully I find some sort of balance and read those in the coming years without panicking too much about how or when I choose to read them.  Until then, though, I will probably continue as I am now, with spurts of reading from my shelves coming all at once, brought on more by guilt and panic than by pure interest.  So it's no surprise, then, that I am fairly lukewarm about the results:

Based on the above, it's probably no surprise that I didn't finish The Illuminator, by Brenda Rickman Vantrease.  I read it because it has been on my shelf for years (at least 8) and it was available on audio download at the library and I wanted to feel like I was making progress on my TBR.  Not exactly the most promising of situations, so I apologize to the author.  No one wants to be up against those odds!

A widow is trying to care for her property and her family, even against the grain of society at the time.  And then a man comes into her life and sets her heart racing and her mind thinking and complications ensue.  And the man is an illuminator who transcribes the Bible (very prettily).  And he transcribes other (Treasonous!  Heretical!) things, too.  Also, there's a mystery around the murder of a corrupt man of the cloth.

Considering that I didn't really have much interest in reading this book, I actually found the story and the audiobook quite engaging.  The characters are real and likable, though they felt very likable to my tastes.  I get that there were dissenters throughout history that had progressive views, but I do think that you can make a character likable and powerful within the confines of their environment rather than always being the one person in a crowd who looks away from a hanging or thinks that servants are basically the same as rich people, except not as rich.  Anyway, later on in the book, one of the main characters expresses very anti-Semitic viewpoints, so that took us right back to the 1300s.  Or the 1940s, anyway.

I think I just didn't finish reading this book because another one came up in my library audio queue that I really did want to read.  And because, while I was interested in the story, I wasn't terribly engaged or excited by it.  I didn't really care what happened next.  Again, I think that is just because my reading tastes have changed.  I can see 23-year-old Aarti being very into this book, and 23-year-old Aarti was pretty great, too, just different.  So if you enjoy Medieval England and tales of religious dissent and the way people of different classes were treated in that period, I think you would really enjoy this one.

The Pericles Commission by Gary Corby
I distinctly remember reading a review of The Pericles Commission in a newspaper and noting it down because I was finished with the Marcus Didius Falco mystery series set in ancient Rome, and I thought that a mystery series set in ancient Greece would be a good fix.

The Pericles Commission works very well as a Falco substitute.  You have a private investigator who is middle-class and trying to make his way up in the world.  He meets a beautiful and savvy young woman, totally ineligible for him, and the two become partners in crime-fighting.  The guy has a pretty entertaining and fun family that we get to meet and spend time with (including a precocious younger brother named Socrates).  And the author seems to know his stuff - you learn a lot about ancient Athens, from the geography to the historical figures to ancient laws and customs and much more.  There's some humor, too, but if you are used to Lindsey Davis' quick-witted, self-deprecating, and completely lovable Marcus Didius Falco, it will be hard for Nicolaos to compare.

The Pericles Commission was just what I needed.  I had just finished Who We Be, which was an amazing book, but not exactly light reading.  And people were rioting in the streets all over America over a grand jury's lack of indictment over the events in Ferguson, MO.  Basically, I wanted a book that was fun and didn't require me to think very much.  And, damning as that might be to the author, this book really fit the bill, and I enjoyed it for that reason.  There are fun scenes here!  And while sometimes the dialogue (both internal and external) and the clue-dropping (or red herring-dropping) can be clunky, that is to be expected from a first novel.

I am not sure if I will continue on with this series, just because as I've gotten older, I've gotten progressively worse at keeping up with series.  And because I honestly don't think that ancient Greece has the same pull on me these days as, say, 1950s South Africa or 1960s America or ageless Henrietta or countless other settings.  But it was fun and it was light and I learned a bit more about Athens circa 450 BC.  And that was just what I wanted,

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Lord of the Flies, in pretty, minuscule watercollor

Beautiful Darkness
Like pretty much everyone else who saw Elizabeth's review of Beautiful Darkness, by Fabien Vehlmann and illustrated by Kerascoet, I immediately had the book on my radar.  Luckily, the library has the book and I just got to read it.  And, as Elizabeth says, it is SO CREEPY.

This book is what I remember of Lord of the Flies, all the way down to the dead person offering no help, decaying as the civilization around her decays.  A population of small people is somehow whisked away from their fairy tale-esque life of balls and hot chocolate and happiness and dropped into a wild, foreign place with no one to help them.  At first, they all try to help each other under the leadership of Princess Aurora, who works hard to make sure everyone has what she needs.  But not everyone wants to work, and not everyone is created equal.  People commit horrible acts and then go on with their days as though nothing has changed.  And through it all, Princess Aurora works to make things better.

As Elizabeth stated in her review, this is a book that stays with you long after you finish reading it.  not only due to the scary things that happen in its pages but also because of the juxtaposition of those horrible things and the beautiful, almost idyllyic scenery in which they happen.  Like in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, everyone here reverts to their baser selves, focused on primacy and power.  This is humanity with a veneer of civilization but with gloves off and claws out.

I had a lot of trouble finding a page of panels to share in this review because I don't want to give too much away.  I already feel like maybe I did, with my references to Lord of the Rings and Heart of Darkness.  If you are anything like me, those two comparisons may be enough to send you running in the other direction.  I didn't much care for those books when I read them - they were too raw and visceral and overt.  But now that I've read Beautiful Darkness, I think that the overtness was fine.  In this book, the in-your-face selfishness of humanity seems so at odds with the waif-like, adorable characters that it really gets in your head!

And that's all I'll say.  If you happen to be somewhere in the world where there is lush greenness around you, I highly recommend you to read this book outside - I bet you won't look at birds and bees in quite the same way for at least a few days afterward.  If you're in the midst of winter like I am, then read it in front of a warm and cozy fire with a cup of hot cocoa - you'll need it.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Tina Fey. Like a Boss.

Bossypants by Tina Fey
It seems like all comedians who just happen to be women are writing books these days, and I think it began with Tina Fey's Bossypants.  I enjoyed Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and have plans to read books by Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, and maybe Caitlin Moran.

I anticipate all these books being hilarious and heartwarming, and I am sure I will finish all of them with, "Ohmigosh, if I knew [insert funny and awesome celeb name here] in real life, I just know we would be BFF!"

But, after reading Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and Bossypants, I also wonder if all of them will kind of sound the same.  With Kaling and Fey, it was a general arc of - I am funny, I worked hard, and then I got my own sitcom!  Granted, this is simplifying a lot.  And the journey for both of them to get there was really fun to read, and they made some truly excellent points about being funny, being a woman who is funny, and working really hard to get what you want in life.  (Fey added in more about being married and having a kid, too.  Kaling wrote a bit about not fitting the prevailing tropes of beauty and becoming a style icon, anyway.)

It's possible I read Bossypants too soon after I read Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?  And therefore they felt pretty similar.  I think I was just hoping for a little more depth.  It's not like I think Fey should have to confront the fact that she's a comedian who happens to be female all the time, but she really DID break a ton of glass ceilings and stereotypes and so much more at Second City and Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, and I wish she spent a little more time talking about that.  She basically says - if there's a jerk in your way, work around him or above him.  Which is good advice, I suppose, but how?  People like examples!  Points to follow.  And I feel like those were missing.  Especially since the name of the book is Bossypants, I excepted more about how Fey dealt with bosses and then her own style as a boss.

But I also don't think Tina Fey set out to write an inspirational memoir, or a how-to manual to women on how to succeed in business (by working really, really hard to supplement a natural talent).  I think she just wanted to share her story with us.  And I think she does really well there.  She's great when she talks about her sense of style, she's so approachable when she talks about her parenting style and how she deals with being a working mom, and she's really honest about her experiences as a young person coming to terms with her own prejudices.  And the whole way through, she's very, very funny.  (Especially when she responds to "fan mail" and internet comments.)

Also, the scenes Tina Fey describes between herself and Amy Poehler, and between Am Poehler and everyone else, are just fantastic.  I now plan to watch a whole lot of Parks & Rec.  And, obviously, read Amy Poehler's book.  Funny feminists #ftw!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My Life in Books

I'm over at Stuck in a Book today, chatting (long-windedly, as you'll see) about my life in books.  Stop by if you want!  You can learn more about another lovely blogger, Joann at Lakeside Musing, too :-)


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