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: johnny and the dead

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.

book review: petrograd

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.”

book review: goliath

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.

book review: behemoth

Behemoth is the second book in Scott Westerfeld’s YA steampunk Leviathan trilogy. Though it’s been a while since I read the first one, I was pulled right into this excellent middle volume.

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.

book review: trotsky: a graphic biography

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.

book review: lost girls

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.)