Hogfather is a Discworld novel about Xmas. But more importantly to me the first time I read it 13 or so years ago, it’s about belief. For me that makes it one of my favourite Discworld novels (beside Small Gods). I remember it being very important to me when I was still in my X-Files stage of life, where the Mulder/Scully dynamic between skepticism and faith was what I lived for in my fiction. This Xmas, reading the book again, I could read it a bit more as a straight-up novel, not a culmination of philosophy.
In the story the Hogfather (like Santa Claus, but with four pigs flying his sleigh) has disappeared and Death has taken over the role for Hogswatch Eve. Death isn’t a very convincing Hogfather and he manipulates his granddaughter Susan into figuring out what’s happened to the real Hogfather and put things right.
I’d forgotten huge chunks of the plot (though I remembered the Tooth Fairy being important somehow) but the bits about belief and the need to believe in little lies like the Hogfather as practice for believing in big lies like justice stuck with me. But it felt like there was a lot of padding to the story. I guess my estimation of it went down a little bit on this rereading but it remains one of my favourite Xmas stories (along with the original The Nightmare Before Christmas).
It makes perfect sense to read in the afterword of 10 Billion Days and 100 Billion Nights that one of the big influences on Ryu Mitsuse (the author) was Stanislaw Lem. The story is about Plato and Siddhartha and Jesus of Nazareth (one of the three is the villain) dealing with Titans and Orichalcum, the death of all humanity, colliding galaxies and the existence of entities beyond infinity. It is fucking marvellous.
At first I thought it would be more like The Years of Rice and Salt, but 10 Billion Days is not nearly so grounded in the life of people being reincarnated. It’s the kind of book that you can sort of float through because the plot isn’t grabby, but then you shake out of yourself and ask what happened and you realize you’re somewhere distant and cosmic. I don’t know how much of that distancing comes because this is a translation, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a book about cyborgs looking for god and I liked it a lot.
I made the mistake of reading the last third of Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls out in a park on a sunny day. This was a mistake because the book is so sad I was sitting there sniffling and holding back tears in the midst of happy people in the sun looking at boats and such. If you read it on a rainy day you will feel much more in tune with the world.
A Monster Calls is about a monster who comes and visits Conor, who’s been having terrible nightmares. The monster tells him the monster will tell Conor three stories and then Conor will have to tell the monster one, and in this way the monster will help the boy.
Put like that it kind of sounds like a cool little fable kind of thing. But it’s actually a story about how death and love and cancer and everything in the universe is just not fair at all. It isn’t a fantasy story; it’s a coping with reality story.
It is so good.
The War at Ellsmere is Faith Erin Hicks’ story about Jun, a scholarship student at an all-girls boarding school and her roommate. There’s a terribly evil girl at school who wants to break Jun, and eventually finds a way to get her expelled. It’s a short book that moves quickly, and yes the dramatic history of the school told near the beginning is important later. It’s a story about friendship and awkwardness, and the ties you have to people who are dead. It’s pretty great.
Hicks does an awesome job with snarky teenage lead characters, and her art works well throughout. It feels heavy somehow with all the woods crowding around the school, enclosing the story. Also, I love the idea of Blindfold Monopoly as a game.
Neil Kleid and Nicholas Cinquegrani’s The Big Kahn was an excellent comic about religion lies and trust. It opens with the funeral of a rabbi. Within a few pages we discover that the rabbi was actually a conman who’d settled into his fake life. The effects this has on the dead rabbi’s family is big and profound. One of his sons was set to take over from his father, but now he’s let go and wracked with guilt over all the lies (that he had no idea about).
The art is very clean and light and doesn’t get in the way of the story, but the writing is what makes this book great. It’s all about grief and trauma and coping and what you can do about the bad things your family did, something I’ve got a little history with myself (although who doesn’t?). Very worth reading.
Stephen Baxter’s Last and First Contacts is a collection of short stories that to me, have the common theme of scale. There are stories about dark matter ripping the universe apart, and about alien consciousness that is propagated by gravity waves, and story after story of life continuing without people, or with radically changed people. It was a collection of big stories and I liked that.
Strangely, the first story in the book, and the only new story, is the smallest scale, about an amateur German astronomer working on Von Braun’s rockets. I also really liked the pulpy alternate history exploration story about a world where the Pacific was uncrossable, not because of storms, but distance-wise. On a Nazi air-city they fly the distance from the Earth to the Moon over the ocean but never get to the Americas because of a fold in space that hides remnants of the past, mammoths and Neanderthals and dinosaurs. It was very neat.
The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is a manga series by Eiji Ohtsuka and Housui Yamazaki about a group of Buddhist students who, well, dispose of corpses. Not just in a mortuarial sense, but in the getting the dead their closure kind of sense. The main character can speak with the dead and find out why they are restless. Another guy is like a dowser for corpses. One girl was trained in embalming in the States (evidently it’s not a common practice in Japan). There’s a kid with a puppet channeling alien voices.
The stories aren’t bad. They feel very manga like in the broad strokes the characters are painted in. I think my favourite story in this volume was the old woman in a cabinet they carried all over the place until they found a monk who’d made an urban version of Dendari Fields, from an old poem. That story worked much better than the guy who was cutting bodies up and stitching them into patchwork creatures for the sake of a campfire tale.
Please Ignore Vera Dietz is a book by A.S. King about a pizza-delivering high-school senior named Vera whose best friend Charlie is dead.
The story jumps around in time covering the nine months after he died along with their lives up till then. We learn about how they became friends and how their friendship fell apart, and about saying something when something is wrong. The whole idea of ignoring things and not getting involved to maintain a peaceful zen life gets a pretty good criticism in this book.
What I loved about the book was the shifting in time and perspective. We all know right from the beginning that Charlie dies, but we don’t exactly know how. It’s a good hook and as we learn more about them we want to know how it came to be this way. King did something similar in The Dust of 100 Dogs, where the main character dies in the prologue and the rest of the book is about getting us back to that point. The book is mostly told from Vera’s perspective but there are bits tossed in from her dad’s point of view (he’s a recovered alcoholic whose wife left and changed the spelling of her name so he writes about her as
CindySindy, which is kind of heartbreaking), and from the dead boy’s point of view, and from the big pagoda monument that sits on the hill above their town. It’s really well done.
The villains are appropriately high-school insane. I’m very glad I never encountered such a vindictive horrible liar as Jenny Flick, but I completely believe she exists (maybe she got a bit moustache-twirly at the very end, but I wouldn’t put her actions past her).
So yes, a very good YA book.
Baloney is “A Tale in 3 Symphonic Acts” by Pascal Blanchet. It’s a beautiful book with art all in shades of white black and red and a kind of retro cartoony design sense.
In a small town there is a butcher named Baloney, who’s had a sad life. His wife fell to her death from the town’s cliffs and his daughter has lost a hand, a leg and her sight. He knows she won’t be able to go to a good school so he sends for a tutor. The tutor is a dreamer and man of science and they run afoul of the tyrant of the town who sells all the heat. Nothing good comes of it.
The neat feature is how each act is preceded by a description of the music accompanying it. Example:
Orchestration: Slow waltz in a minor key
- Bass for gravity
- Flute for the wind
- Vibraphone for mystery and snow
- Cellos for austerity
- Oboe for melancholy
I really liked how that worked and especially how it slowed down the way I read the book. There’s a playlist at the end that gives the different characters and themes their own music (mostly Shostakovich and Prokofiev.
The story doesn’t have many words and would work as a picturebook bedtime story if you wanted your kid to grow up to be Chris Ware. It’s a great dark little book.
It’s the story of Bras, an obituary writer who’s the son of a famous writer, at a bunch of different stages in his life. They’re told out of sequence though, the first story being when he’s 32 but others in his 20s and 40s and 11, I think. The thing is that each issue (when they were single issues, but this version is a collected trade paperback) ends with him dying. Each one has a short obituary of him, written by him.
There’s friendship, father issues, stuff about being a writer and finding your own voice. It’s a beautiful book, seeing all the different ways a life could end and what happens when it doesn’t.