May Short Book Reviews

Homelands: Fables Volume 6 – Willingham, et al. Have I mentioned before how much I am enjoying this series?  This volume isconcerned primarily with the departure from New York (in typically flamboyant fashion) of Jack of the tales, and with Boy Blue’s journey into the homelands to rescue his long lost love. Neither course of action goes quite as planned. In spite of confirmation of the identity of the Adversary and mechanics of his rule, this wasn’t the highlight volume for me, probably because of the narrower range of characters. But I enjoyed the adventures of the Black Knight, Boy Blue’s fanatic indefeasibility, and the surprise of seeing the Adversary’s land not as the Mordor-like wasteland I expected but a functioning and corrupt empire and the ending was typically complex – goals achieved but not in the way expected, friends reunited but seeing each other differently. The characters are not bounded by immutable fairytales, but grow and shift and change.

The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice – Valente. The second half of The Orphan’s Tales and I enjoyed this one just as much as the first volume. It captures the feeling of old tales read for the first time, and in spite of the desert- djinn- and spice-laden character of this volume, the book reminded me of those northern European fairytales that begin as a riff on Cinderella and go east of the sun and west of the moon and into the arctic and change into bears and fall in love with the King of Arabia’s daughter and meander on and on. In the case, the stories go inward, looping around and in on themselves and gradually coming together, repeating names and stories from themselves, and the first volume, changing and shifting perspectives until the goal is revealed. The ending was not earthshattering, and could perhaps have been stronger, but this story was never about the end. Go. Read. Preferably one after the other so you don’t lose the paper-thin subtelty of the connections.

Batman: Black and White – Miller, Gaiman, Lee, Kubert et al. I wandered into Borders and found this on a discount rack and it was good. I said last month that I couldn’t review Batman. This was something else. This was brilliant – an anthology of 8-pagers by different artists and writers, in differing styles. Classic, tight, sketchy, surreal, comedic, metatextual, hilarious, poignant, hard-bitten, bitter. Facets of an iconic character, of a man, of an idea, of a city (“We are Batman” was my favourite line). I recommend this very highly – for the art, for the tales, for the feeling of being let into a world of minds which have been influenced by this story.

Arabian Nights (and Days): Fables Volume 7 – Willingham, et al. Back to New York and the politics of the Woodlands. Still not nearly enough of Snow and Rose Red and Bigby, but they are there – or their influence is – and the old Mayor is put to a new purpose (it took me a while, but I like King Cole). And crawling out from under that influence come the new generation of the government in exile – Charming as much of a cad and a bounder as ever, but realising abruptly what the title he has won means; Beauty and the Beast getting their feet under them and realising that they can’t do their jobs the way Snow and Bigby did, but they just might be able to do them their own way. The main problem I found was the Arabian delegation and I can’t work out whether its treatment could have been different. They are Arabian characters from the Arabian Nights as told in Europe and come with all those ideas and notions and I’m not sure if those will be or are examined. Particularly the women of the harem. But I will wait and see, because so far the series is doing a strong job of developing stock characters into strong individuals, and for all the cardboard villainous viziers, there was Sinbad, who showed promise. Like Baghdad of the two worlds, there may be more than meets the eye.

Batman: Black and White volume 2 – Dini, Ellis, Claremont, Azzarello et al.:Not as deep or multifaceted as the first (although it has received higher reviews on Amazon) but not as bad as I feared it was going to be from my first glimpse. It seemed much lighter and more comic-traditional in feel and I did enjoy it. And I can’t get the story of Batsman (the one that put me off to start with) out of my head. I keep laughing over his cape adorned with flocks of tiny bats. But it didn’t have the extra information about the writers and artists and the pages of sketches and script that the first did. I liked those.

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Also: Isaiah; 1,2 and 3 John in German and English; Jude; Philemon in German and English. I am cultivating a low appreciation for paraphrasing and dynamic equivalents, particularly when one parallel translation is just so obviously much worse than the other.

April Short Book Reviews

The Mean Seasons: Fables Vol. 5 – Willingham et. al. I am enjoying this graphic novel series so much. I spent an evening sitting in a cafe composing a post on the awesomeness of one of the main characters. The series is not unproblematic, but it’s better than a lot and it is fairytales not retold but… matured? continued? and thrown into a difficult situation they have to deal with or perish. Snow continues to be amazing, Bigby to be difficult, everyone has their own agendas and jealousies, and they are beginning to be under threat not only from the old world but from elements of the new and from their own rules. Will the triumph of democracy be a deathblow for Fabletown? Will investigative journalists expose the secret at the heart of 21st century New York? Will true love triumph? And will anyone ever cut Snow a break? I wish comics weren’t so expensive. I’m trying to not buy more than one volume of this a month, but I bought vol. 6 a week after this one.

Batman – A Death in the Family . My first actual Batman encounter other than the movies and The Daily Batman, so while I enjoyed reading it (and found the idea of readers “voting Robin off”) I don’t really have any framework within which to review it. But seeing the Joker so much gave me a jawache.

Assorted short comics acquired at Supanova – these were out of context for me, both in terms of the continuing stories and the sort of comics they are, so I won’t review them. Also, I was disconcerted by the artwork being so much weaker than what I am used to seeing and so much better than mine.

Labyrinths – Borges. Finally. And yes, he is gorgeous. He reminds me of Umberto Eco, but perhaps took himself a little more seriously. His short stories, essays and poems tread between fantasy (sometimes reminding me of Lovecraft) and philosophy, theology, impossible hypotheticals, all short enough that they leave you room to go off on thoughts of your own. I would sit on the bus pondering the relationship between his examination of ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’ and the cultural cringe and the landscape in Australian speculative fiction until I began to suspect the reason I was having trouble concentrating at work that week was because I was thinking too much outside it. The final poem in the collection was ‘Elegy’ which contained the very lovely line: “to have grown old in so many mirrors” which reminded me of Elliot but is both more beautiful and just as tragic.

The Game – Diana Wynne Jones. As lively and convoluted (plot and story and characters all) as any of her stories, but in other ways just as reserved. The story of the paths of the mythosphere, the interconnectedness of families and stories and myths and legends (the Sysiphus strand which reaches out to the legend of Sysiphus at one end, but closer to home is office workers dealing with never-empty in-trays), the whirling wheeling stars (which reminded me of P. L. Travers at her best) are so rich and ripe and vivid and yet DWJ holds back so much, telling only the barest part of the story and leaving the reader wanting so very much more. Not that the story is untold, but she has shown and hinted at wonders and worlds just over the edge of it and then pared back to only the core of her tale. It is incredibly frustrating. I wrote to the DWJ list that “DWJ is very good at giving the impression that there are stories spilling over the edge of the one you are reading, that there are worlds and events and tales that you can’t quite turn the page to read although you *want* to, and that she probably won’t tell you ever because they aren’t necessary to the (quite wonderful) story at hand. Lately, however, she seems to be developing this to a very fine pitch – as if she has worked out the bare minimum she needs to actually tell to convey the story she wants to tell you, while hinting at an even more voluminous universe. The story she is telling works and is very very good, but as a reader I am convinced that there is *so much more out there* that it becomes a kind of exquisite torture.” The worst part is that I know from experience that even if she does write a sequel, it will probably be about an extremely peripheral character and is unlikely to take place in the same universe.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat – Oliver Sacks. If you ever saw Awakenings with Robin Williams, Williams played Sacks. This is a series of case studies of patients with various neurological anomalies – twin savants, a ‘disembodied’ woman, a musician who ceases to recognise faces (not just the faces of certain individuals but human faces at all), people whose lives are held together with music or who can only walk upright by means of a spirit level attached to their spectacles, who recognise expression but not words or words but not expression. It is fascinating and alarming but most interesting because he treats his patients less as fascinating cases than as interesting, complicated people, whose ‘problems’ may not be problems at all, or part of a continuum of human experience. I was glad I read this after Borges, for Sacks referred to him (and particularly his story ‘The Mnemonist’) several times.