book review: in the shadow of blackbirds

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).

book review: onward towards our noble deaths

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is the story of a group of Japanese soldiers in World War 2 who are stationed on the South Pacific island of New Britain in 1943. There’s no one character that’s the hero, just a bunch of poor saps who have malaria, malnutrition and get eaten by alligators. It’s bleak as hell.

The characters are drawn in this cartoony style while the backgrounds and animals are very detailed, which is an interesting effect. I feel it put me in their shoes as the rookies got slapped for no reason, or as they decided they needed to eat their fill before going on their suicide mission. This kind of manga is a bit different from what the kids these days are all about, but this was a really good comic.

book review: good-bye

Good-bye collects some Yoshihiro Tatsumi comics from the early 1970s. Now, I don’t know a lot about manga, but I’m really interested in how these were received at the time. They’re very sad stories. One is about a man who’s about to retire and knows his wife cheated on him in the past and feels useless and decides to cheat on her and spend all their savings doing it. Another is about a hostess at a club who’s faithful to the man who took her virginity and then went to jail for four years, who tells her he’ll be her pimp when he gets out. Another is about a daughter being pimped by her father to an occupying American soldier. None of them are happy at all. They don’t make you feel good reading them (though not to the extent that Requiem for a Dream makes you feel terrible). But man, I’m glad they exist.

book review: desert war

Alan Moorehead was a British war correspondent during the North Africa campaign in World War II. Desert War is his trilogy of books about the campaign, covering 1940-1943. He wasn’t present for every key battle, but he tells a lot of great stories of what it was like to be on those lines out in the desert, and in the hills of Tunisia, and the hardships the soldiers endured and all of that kind of stuff. I was amazed at how it worked, that the reporters could just get into a jeep and travel up to the front and back and hang out with soldiers and go to meetings with generals and all that. It’s kind of a romantic proposition. Of course he talks up their bravery and the honourability of their opponents. There isn’t anything about the politics behind the war, just reporting of how it went on. And he describes the desert war as a clean one. That there weren’t bystanders in the way to get killed; it was just soldiers and their equipment and loads of rocks. It’s all kind of alluring. North Africa is somewhere I should head some day.