In the Shadow of Blackbirds, by Cat Winters, was a “holy fuck that was great” YA historical/sf novel. It’s set in San Diego in October 1918 with fresh-faced teenage boys heading off to die in the war and the Spanish Influenza killing everyone else.
Mary Shelley Black is a 16-year-old girl who’s just fled to her aunt’s home because her father’d been arrested back in Portland for helping young men escape the draft. Down in San Diego, where Mary Shelley’s childhood friend (and first kiss) was a young photographer before heading off to France, she gets caught up in a world of superstition, spirit photography and death. She’s got a scientific mind and hates all these frauds that surround her, until something happens. Which I won’t spoil.
I loved this book so much. I think what I loved most was that it kept knocking my expectations off-kilter. I thought it was going to be a story about this practical skeptical girl staying steadfast in her belief in facts and waiting for her true love to come home from the war and her father to get out of jail. Then I thought it was going to become a story of rebellion against her young widowed aunt (who works building battleships and is distraught she had to cut her hair and lose so much of her femininity for going to séances) who believes too much in what other people say. Then I was scared it was going to turn into a wide-eyed ghost story, and then I was happy to see it become a mystery. It didn’t settle into a pattern early.
One of the things they say about writing is to start as late as you can. Have the most interesting thing happen right at the beginning and then you can fill in backstory later. Though Mary Shelley’s father is arrested pretty much on the first page, there are other later parts where the story maybe could have started. But I’m so glad it didn’t. The way this skeptical heroine was set up in the beginning would not have worked as well as backstory. Seeing her before and after for ourselves was, in my mind, integral to the layers of shifting belief and the scientific mindset on display throughout what is to be honest a ghost story.
Along with being a historical ghost story, it also feels apocalyptic with the flu and all that death and folk-remedy hanging over everything. Plus it’s got this great anti-war activist stance running through it. It’s not anti-heroism, but it calls out so much of the adventure story bullshit. The heroes in this story are all about these basic acts of decency in a world that’s sick.
So yes, this is highly recommended. I’m bringing it to my Teen Book Club meeting next week even though our library won’t be getting it for a while (it was just released last week, I think).
Johnny and the Dead is a book about a boy who can see and talk to the deceased folks in his local graveyard. Terry Pratchett uses this short kids’ novel to deal with the importance for living people to remember the dead (and the dead people to forget the living). The basic plot is that the village council wants to put in a new condo development on the graveyard and the dead people tell Johnny to stop them. Johnny gets his friends together and (this is where the book really shines) do not organize a protest or anything big and outside the scope of what a bunch of 11-year-olds could conceivably do, they just ask questions about the people who are in the graveyard.
Now, it’s Terry Pratchett writing this, so the characters are funny, but the situations never really are. Even though it’s a bit dated (it’s from the ’90s), it’s a pretty excellent story for Remembrance Day, especially since it talks about how sad it is that soldiers go off and die (instead of doing some bullshit celebratory thing about their noble sacrifices or whatever). Also, it’s the middle book of the Johnny Maxwell trilogy, but I haven’t read the first one and did not feel like I was missing anything.
I enjoy stories of Russia’s history, especially when they’re about the Russian soul, which always seems so different from mine. Petrograd, by Philip Gelatt and Tyler Crook, is about a British spy in Petrograd during the Great War (hence the interstitial name between St. Petersburg and Leningrad). The British want to make sure the Russians and Germans don’t come to a separate peace so they push their Petrograd office into making sure that doesn’t happen, by killing Rasputin.
Cleary is one of the spies. He’s in bed with revolutionaries, feeding information to his masters and the tsarist secret police, and hobnobs with princes (for more information). When Cleary is pushed into plotting assassination he’s clearly out of his depth and the book focuses on what kind of a man he is trying to be.
It’s a great book, done in a bigger hardcover than a lot of Oni Press’ stuff. The art is detailed and brushy (reminded this untutored eye of Craig Thompson’s work, but with more traditional page layouts) with faded orange washes throughout. It’s a great non-gamourous spy story with violence and repercussions and talk of “Russifying one’s soul.”
Goliath is a fitting conclusion to Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy. While Leviathan and Behemoth both referred to Darwinist creations in their titles, Goliath is an electrical super-weapon designed by Nikola Tesla to end the Great War.
The story follows Alek and Deryn as they ride the airship Leviathan over Siberia to Japan then California, Mexico and New York. The plot in this one was a little bit less urgent and more episodic. Alek is desperately trying to find a way to end the war, but can only really find a role in being an assistant to Tesla, while Deryn’s disguise as a boy is the big thing at risk for her in the book. It relied a bit more on meeting real people from history than the previous books as well.
But the climax was thrilling and fit the story perfectly, there were giant fighting bears (sadly not in the climax) and the thing ends happily. Good steampunk; great story.
Alek and Deryn/Dylan begin the story en route to Istanbul where the scientist/spy granddaughter of Charles Darwin has eggs to present to the Sultan to sway the Ottoman Empire from supporting the Clankers. Remember that in this alternate history, the world is divided into Clankers – cultures using mechanical power and walking tanks and the like – and the Darwinists – cultures who bioengineer their tools. Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire are Clankers. Britain and Russia are Darwinist. America is an odd hybrid that no one really wants involved in Europe’s conflict.
The story has exciting air battles, spy/sabotage escapades, gender-swapped shenanigans (Alek and almost everyone else is unaware that Dylan is a girl posing as a boy to be able to be in the Air Service), revolutionaries, unconventional weaponry, Tesla lightning cannons and of course a giant sea monstrosity that might be able to keep the Ottomans out of the war.
This series is something I’d highly recommend.
Rick Geary’s biography of Trotsky isn’t terrible. Trotsky: A Graphic Biography lays out the facts about Trotsky’s life and politics in a mostly coherent way. It just didn’t really need to be a comic. The images tended not to really add anything or show anything that wasn’t going on in the essay dwelling in the captions.
This isn’t to say I didn’t learn anything from it. It was a good Coles Notes kind of document, but it’s nowhere near as good as Logicomix or Suspended in Language which made much better use of the comix form.
I think this is my first review of pornography on librarianaut, but Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s graphic novel Lost Girls is exactly the kind of pornography you want to talk about even if showing it to people might be a little awkward.
At its core, Lost Girls is about three women who are staying in a hotel in Austria in 1914. These women are the grown-up heroines from key works of children’s literature: Wendy, Dorothy and Alice (of Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and ALice in Wonderland, respectively). Each of these women is there for their own reasons. Wendy is accompanying her intolerably dull husband; Dorothy has left America to see Europe (in a seemingly naive farm-girl manner). Alice is there by herself, the grand dame of the tree.
The characters meet and begin to tell each other their stories, which are the tales we know, but are in a less fantastical and more explicit form. The cowardly lion is a farmhand who yells and catcalls boorishly and when Dorothy faces him down and strips, all his bravado falls away and he’s actually a virgin and they have a lot of sex. (Actually, you can just add that “and they have a lot of sex” ending to every bit of plot in the book.) Wendy’s story is about her and her brothers masturbating each other and the peeping tom with the deformed hand in the park. Alice’s story is about Alice being used as a sexual object by all sorts of people who had much more power than her.
The stories are split up between them and what is happening in the hotel, which gets more and more debauched as they share their stories and break down social barriers and fuck an incredible amount. There’s a chapter wherein Dorothy’s boyfriend and Wendy’s husband have a secret tryst. An orgy where the manager of the hotel is reading a tale of incest and pedophilia and ruminating about how stories of such things are titillating even if you would never do such a thing, although as he says that he’s just finished with a 12-year-old boy (who is of course also fictional).
Now the thing about this is that it’s Alan Moore writing this stuff, so the layers to the literature are all there and intricate and studiable. He’s doing his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen literary ransacking here but with stories of sex and coming of age and how stories of sex work. Melinda Gebbie’s art is amazing. It’s a beautiful, lavish book filled with paintings you’d want to shove in everyone’s faces, if only they weren’t filled with cocks and cunts. She uses different styles for each of the women’s tales, and for the different stories of what’s happening in the hotel as The Great War breaks out. There are visual jokes conveying subtext in shadows and the opening and closing motifs are of the mirror that was Alice’s.
Basically my review here is: Best Porn Ever. (And just to be clear, the creators are very clear about it being pornography and the value of pornography. Here’s a great interview with Alan Moore on the topic.)
Baltimore: The Plague Ships is a companion to Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire in full-on comics form.
Lord Baltimore was a soldier in the Great War and in his view, started the plague that has been decimating Europe. While the illustrated novel tells a number of tales of Lord Baltimore, this book focuses on his arrival in a village that a young woman wishes to leave. He kills some vampires and they set to sea and have to deal with a whole lot of fungus zombies. We also see the story of his family after his return from the war and the origin of his revenge quest (which I believe is also in the illustrated novel).
Ben Stenbeck does the art, apart from the covers, so it’s not quite the super-chunky, black-filling-the-page Mike Mignola work throughout, but it’s got a great palette for a horror comic that does a great job of setting mood and punctuating it with stylized gore. Very good stuff.
Logicomix is an exploration of Bertrand Russell’s lifelong quest for rigorous truth through logic in graphic novel form. There are multiple framing devices to the book: the outermost layer is of the authors in their efforts to write and draw the story accurately, below which is an American lecture by Russell ostensibly about whether the US should enter World War 2, but that lecture is an excuse to have Russell narrating his own interactions with logic and truth, which encompass his life. Oh and then there’s a Greek play at the end.
The multiple layers work quite well, with the authors breaking in to argue about how much of set theory and basic logic needs to be explained, and whether the themes of “logic through madness” actually make any sense. Because Russell is narrating his life himself the realization that he’s kind of a dick to his wives is done half-apologetically and gently.
The theory of things and the importance of taking 320-some pages to prove, to actually prove that 1+1=2 is kind of intriguing. I tend to think of that sort of academic theoretical stuff as nonsense (and there isn’t much sense of how Russell did the practical things like pay his rent through his life) but with the biographical aspects it made it much more understandable. Which is the aim of this kind of book: to make these sorts of things accessible to laypeople like me.
Not necessarily for everyone, and I’m not sure I’d want to use it for a YA book club or anything, but a really interesting read.
Paul Westerfeld’s young adult book Leviathan is a pretty excellent story. In all the reviews I’ve seen online they start with the history and the coolness there but I’m going to come at it a bit differently. See the story is about two main characters. One is a young prince who has to flee his palace in the middle of the night after his parents are assassinated, which will plunge the world into war. His two trusted advisors are supposed to take him high into the mountains to keep him safe until the war is over. The other main character is a girl who’s posing as a boy to get onto the kind of ship she was born to be on. After a slight misadventure she gets onto a ship but her job turns into minding the scientist they’re transporting. About halfway through the book the two stories meet up.
Taken like this, it’s a pretty decent adventure story. The girl, Deryn, is a plucky nobody who swears a lot. The prince, Alek, is learning how to get by in a world that’s changed drastically. They’re both depicted well, and the prickly counts and scientists and captains and all the supporting characters are pretty good. All of this makes for a fine, if unmemorable, book.
Now the stuff that sticks in your head is the setting. See this is all taking place in an alternate 1918. An alternate 1918 in which the Germans Austrians Prussians, all of them, have diesel-powered walking tanks. They’re known as the Clankers. Back in Britain, Charles Darwin also discovered DNA and how to manipulate it so they use bioengineered animals for everything, including their airships. The titular Leviathan is a hydrogen filled whale that people can walk around inside with gondolas strapped to its belly. Alek is the son of Archduke Ferdinand, and Deryn’s dream has always been to fly.
There are walker chases and fights. Soldiers get killed. The kids make kiddish mistakes that they beat themselves up for. There are messenger lizards which repeat what they’ve been told, and one of Leviathan’s big weapons is a flock of flechette-bats that get fed metal and then shit it out on zeppelins and such. It’s all pretty cool, if scientifically implausible.
After finishing it I was talking to a kid who wanted something good for grade 8. I hunted down the library copy I had and told him he had to read this. It’s fun how much a big cool image like “So the ship is a flying whale…” helps to sell a book. And the book is illustrated too. It feels very of its time. Plus flying jellyfish and mechanical spider-walkers. Good stuff. The only thing I disliked is how it has “first book in a series” disease, so nothing really gets resolved. It bothered me less than sometimes, because the story was good and I enjoyed the world and characters.