Book Review: Girl Genius Volume 9: Agatha Heterodyne and The Heirs of the Storm (Foglio, Foglio)

December 27, 2010

*ARC Alert*

Girl Genius Volume 9: Agatha Heterodyne and The Heirs of the Storm by Phil and Kaja Foglio was released July 13th, 2010 by Airship Entertainment (hard- or softcover, full-color, $22.95 soft, 144 pages).

I squealed when I got this book in the mail.  Girl Genius has been a favorite of mine for years–I usually read it, as you can, thrice weekly at the comic’s website.  This is less expensive than buying the books, but you miss out on all sorts of extra goodies like giant bathtub snails.  And book-versions of webcomics make great gifts for our less-savvy loved ones.

But Ray, you say, what is Girl Genius actually about?  Ho!  I am so glad you asked.  The cover should probably have tipped you off, but this is steampunk at its best.  The slogan of the series is “Adventure!  Romance!  Mad science!” and it lives up to that, but I would also add “Hilarity!  Irreverence!  Tiny robot civil wars!”  Seriously, guys, this stuff is… genius.  They say that there is nothing new under the literary sun, but you have never seen anything like this.  Down to the tiniest details of the art and dialogue, it’s off-the-wall fun of the type that won the series the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story in 2008.  Cheers, Professor and Professoressa Foglio–five years and counting, with hopes of many more to come.

Just as a last note, this is, of course, the ninth book in the series.  All of the comics are archived by the authors on their site, and can be read there free of charge as I mentioned earlier.  You can start with this volume if you like, but despite continuing the GG tradition of excellence, it won’t make much sense on its own.


Book Review: The Lacuna (Kingsolver)

October 17, 2010

Hello, my erudite darlings! I’m sorry for the lack of actual reviews of late– my supply of ARCs has more or less evaporated. I do have one that will be up as soon as I get around to finishing it. Also (possibly) in the works is my honest opinion of Twilight: The Graphic Novel, and reviews of the other Cybils graphic novel nominees. Today, though, I have a review for you of The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, which isn’t new, but did recently blow me away.

This book covers roughly twenty years in the life of Harrison William Shepherd, first his experiences in Mexico as a boy and with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky as employers, then his life in America during World War II and the Second Red Scare. Kingsolver has said that the foremost question she wanted to examine in writing this book was, why is the relationship between art and politics such an uneasy one in the US? A mere two decades sampled from our history can’t explain this question fully, but in looking at the period she did, Kingsolver revealed much, and strengthened her thesis by indirectly comparing America’s artisto-political climate to Mexico’s, where art and politics mold together in an almost celebratory way. The most standout character in the book, besides Shepherd himself, was Frida– by the end, you cannot think of her as a historical figure; she is incontrovertibly a real person.

The overarching story of this book is how little we actually know about people like Frida (and Harrison) from the way history paints them; it is the parts of the record that are missing (called “lacunas” by historians) that, when filled, reveal the truth. This book, then, a collection of Harrison’s journals, letters, and relevant news clippings from the time, is the massive piece which completes the puzzle of a life misrepresented. It explores the politics of fear, the inconstancy of public opinion, and the subjectivity of truth against the backdrop of American anti-communism, in a time when to dissent was to offer oneself up to a political and cultural witch hunt. All of this Kingsolver handles with deftness and sensitivity, telling a story that, while inescapably relevant to our current national climate, could only be told in the setting she told it in: it is a story of art, communism, family, and history. It is the story of a man isolated from the world by his upbringing and sexuality who nonetheless finds that he must live in it, and that he can make his mark upon it. It is the story of a life.

In a time when America is dealing with a surge of anger and fear, when “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” is still a touted view, Kingsolver’s novel is not only set in the past. It is a call for conscience and against censorship and intolerance. It highlights the dangers of fear politics, and poses the question, How many voices have been silenced?


Book Review: Mockingjay

August 26, 2010

In 2008, Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novel The Hunger Games reached popular and critical acclaim for its compelling portrayal of the intricacies of love and loyalty when set against the human desire to survive. Its sequel, Catching Fire, moved seamlessly into the lengths to which an oppressive ruling power will stretch to maintain their fragile control, and what it takes to forge a revolution. In Mockingjay, the third and final chronicle of the Hunger Games, Collins takes us on a spare-no-glance tour of the cost of war on a nation and on the human soul, and of how far we are willing to go in defense of a fragile conception of moral right.

Katniss Everdeen, the Girl Who was on Fire, has survived two of the infamous death matches known as the Hunger Games and has unintentionally made herself into the symbol of the resistance against the Capitol’s tyrannical rule. Peeta, the one person who has been through as much as she has and understands, has been captured by the Capitol. District 12, her home, is a firebombed ruin. All around her war rages– the districts are revolting, and at last President Snow’s regime will be toppled or will crush them all.

Katniss is safe in the hands of the surviving District 13, protected as the face of a revolution must be. Inside, she is terrified by the loss of Peeta, enraged by the abuses of the Capitol, and discomfited by the “allies” who seek to use her standing for their own ends. The only stable thing in her life seems to be Gale, her oldest remaining friend, and even he seems to be someone she doesn’t quite recognize any more. Amidst all of this, Katniss must put aside her misgivings and come to terms with the fact that she is the Mockingjay, a symbol of hope for a nation, who is responsible for countless lives.

Anyone who has read one or both of the previous Hunger Games books knows that Suzanne Collins pulls no punches with her vivid prose, but even knowing this I wasn’t prepared for the brutality of Mockingjay. This is a book about love, trust, family, and heroism, true, but above all else it is a story of war and what war does to us. You will not necessarily like this book; you may come out of it hating Collins, Katniss, Peeta, Gale, or any other of the numerous characters. But it will resonate with you, and that, combined with your hatred, will be how you know Collins succeeded in what she set out to do– her characters are human. They have human lusts, fears, weaknesses, and strengths. Their every defeat is diluted by hope, and their every victory is tainted by regret. At the end, you will be hard pressed to say who won, exactly, because each side– every individual, in fact–left so indelible a mark on the outcome that the idea of “winning” seems nothing more than a nostalgic fantasy from before everything was set in motion.


Abbreviated Review: Poison (Poole)

August 4, 2010

*ARC Alert*

Poison by Sara Poole was released on August 3rd, 2010 by St. Martin’s Griffin, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press (Paperback, $14.99, 416 pages; also available in Kindle format).

Francesca Giordano knows a little something about working in the world of men– she is a poisoner in the employ of the Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, one of the most powerful men in Rome. It is her task not only to arrange deaths for Borgia’s enemies, but to protect the family she serves from the poisoners of others. She does all of this with a single-minded drive which cannot be dispelled even by questions about sin and her stained soul, something quite impressive for a denizen of the Catholic Church’s city. Her ultimate goal? Revenge for the murder of her father, who was Borgia’s poisoner before her. This private goal leads Francesca into a tangled web of very public lies, intrigue, and looming slaughter, a web which she must help to untangle if she has any hope for peace with who and what she is. Five stars.


Book Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (Larsson)

May 31, 2010

I have a particular habit which many people find, well, offputting. I carry a small but distinctly solid hammer in my purse, which comes everywhere with me. I could go through my whole rationale to prove that that doesn’t make me a crazy person– after all, who wants to mug the psycho bitch with the hand tools? –but really, all that is relevant here is that the practice was inspired by a heroine who is very uniquely herself and like no other character I have ever had the pleasure of reading: Lisbeth Salander.

I have been waiting to write this post for a long time.

I am by no means alone in praising the Millenium Trilogy; indeed, the late Steig Larsson has gained international acclaim for his series, which is completed by the newly released The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. His story is famous: shortly before his unexpected death at the age of 50 due to a massive heart attack, Larsson turned in three complete manuscripts which he never saw published. Unfortunately for the world, he didn’t live to finish the other books in the series, of which there were to be an eventual ten. He left behind three quarters of a completed fourth volume, and synopses of fifth and sixth books may also exist. As of this May, the Millenium Trilogy has sold a total of some 27 million copies worldwide.

I could go on about how Larsson’s work highlights and condemns a broad spectrum of anti-feminist thought (in its original Swedish release, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was titled Män som hatar kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women). I could talk about how great it is to see a guy writing about a strong female character who isn’t grossly oversexualized and doesn’t turn into a ninny at the crucial moment and need saving. It’d be true; I do admire Larsson for that. But what I really want to gush about is Lisbeth Salander. Salander Salander Salander. When asked by a friend how I liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, my only complaint was that it didn’t have enough Salander; that one focused mainly on Mikael Blomkvist. This unfortunate condition was remedied in the second volume, The Girl Who Played With Fire. Don’t get me wrong– I Read the rest of this entry »


Book Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin)

May 28, 2010

I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember.

These are the first words of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, book one of the Inheritance Trilogy. From this enigmatic beginning the story unfolds in a way that is both disjointed and arrestingly personal. In most books narrated in the first person, the narrator tells us what happened to them without mentioning any bearing that it has on them now– they relate the events of their story, occasionally offering insight, but never making it clear what has happened since it ended or why they are offering it. Yeine proffers her tale in tantalizing bits and pieces, mixed up and out of order, interrupted by distracted tangents that support the assumption that she is looking back on all of this with regret. She may be talking to the reader, or simply to herself, but from this jumble she draws pieces that she draws together more and more tightly, right up until the dramatic finish. I loved Jemisin’s bizarre but highly effective style.

But I’ve gotten a bit out of order myself– it’s rather essential to mention what it is the story is about, wouldn’t you say? I’ll see if I can do it justice.

Yeine Darr is an outlander from the barbarian north of the empire that is the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. When her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the royal city of Sky, where, to her shock, she is named one of the heirs to the king’s throne. Despite the fact that Yeine would rather go home and deal with the monarchy from afar, ruling her own people as best she can, she is quickly drawn into a tangled web of conspiracy and lies which centers around the relationship between the Arameri (the ruling family) and the gods, who the Arameri long ago pulled down from their pedestals and enslaved, and who are every bit as terrifying as, but in ways more human than, Yeine’s royal relations. What Yeine cannot puzzle out is exactly why the Arameri would be interested in her— let alone the gods. Only two things are certain in the floating city of light and secrets– Yeine is held out of her depth by those around her, and many of them want her dead.

This book contains explicit sexual content.