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This week is Will Eisner Week, devoted to the reading of Graphic Novels.
Eisner, creator of The Spirit, was one of the greatest champions of storytelling through comics graphics. He used the graphics to help tell the story in unique and exciting ways. His Contract With God is credited with making Graphic Novels “literature” and therefore OK for children (and adults) to read. We celebrate Eisner and his legacy this week by promoting the reading of Graphic Novels.
This is one of the strangest, and strongest, young adult novels I’ve encountered for a while. The first-person narrator, a young man from Seattle named Noa, is delightful, and manages to be hilarious and irreverent while telling a harrowing tale of science fictional misadventures. The tale begins with Noa literally waking up in space one morning, wearing a space suit labelled “Nico” that is running out of oxygen and tethered to a space ship that is about to explode.
The space adventures are decidedly weird, but the love story is not. Noa falls right away for another guy, named DJ, from Florida, who has also inexplicably woken up on the same space ship. But because of bad experiences with another boyfriend, Noa is conflicted in love. There is one other person on the ship, named Jenny, who interestingly never questions the validity of or interferes with the budding gay romance. As Noa works through his past issues to accept the relationship that DJ offers, he tells a genuine love story about two kids who question, not their gender or sexuality, but their suitability for love.
As an added bonus, the story managed to surprise me completely with an outrageous but science fictionally satisfactory explanation for the weirdness. The unexpected revelations add a whole new layer of complexity to both the space adventures and the love story. It is, indeed, complicated. And set in space!
As a casual student of Chinese mythology (learned mostly from Japanese anime, perhaps not the most reliable source) I was very excited to see this book land on our shelves. It is the newest translation of one of the oldest collections of legends in history, written by Wu Cheng’en (probably) and first published in China in 1562. Its original title was Hsi-Yu-Chi (Saiyuki) or Journey to the West. It is a record of the myths that accumulated around an actual historical journey, by a monk named Xuanzang who walked from China to India to collect Buddhist wisdom in 629 AD. The sixteen-year journey seemingly inspired a lot of stories—Wu Cheng’en’s original novel requires three volumes.
The historical Xuanzang was probably not accompanied and protected on his journey by three outcast immortal demons, one of which was the Monkey King. But in Wu Cheng’en’s version of the tale, Monkey is a lot more interesting than the holy monk, who doesn’t even show up until Chapter Nine or so. A few chapters later, shortly after embarking upon his journey to India, Xuanzang releases Monkey from a (well-deserved) 500-year captivity. The other two demons, seeking their own redemption, join in subsequent chapters. But Monkey is the hero of this story.
Most fantasy readers have heard of the Monkey King, even if they don’t know about Hsi-Yu-Chi. He has been the star of movies, manga and anime, usually under the name Son Goku or Sun Wukong. His magic enlargeable staff is the seed of all those weapons that appear out of nowhere, and his ability to create fighting clones of himself is a key video game and anime trope. Clearly the prototype for shonen characters like Naruto, Monkey is mischievous, heedless, over-confident, and clever. He can also be selfishly cruel, sometimes becoming a trickster figure similar to Loki. But his enthusiasm and passion remain irrepressible—an indestructible, powerful, eternally fourteen-year-old kid.
This current translation, titled Monkey King: Journey to the West, is by Julia Lovell, a “professor of modern China” at the University of London. At only 339 pages, it is most definitely an abridgement of the original. (The details are explained in the scholarly introduction, with footnotes, of course.) Lovell’s translation is easy to read, with modern language and a great feel for both the ridiculousness and high adventure inherent in the story. I have not read all of it yet, but would begin reading it out loud at once, if I still had a kid at home to read it to. I might consider skipping a few of the more questionable phrases, though. That Monkey does not hold back any words or feelings.
The last image is of Son Goku on the cover of my favorite anime/manga about the Journey to the West. For my review, go to twincitiesgeek.com, and search “Saiyuki.”
Gu Miyoung is a young Korean woman who is half human and half gumiho (nine-tailed fox), called “wicked fox” because the legendary gumiho are immortal fox demon spirits who must consume life in order to live. She is trying to get through high school without killing the innocent (though she is willing to drain the life out of the guilty), while desperately trying to satisfy the demands of her mother, who is fully a fox demon.
Her life becomes very much more difficult when she saves a young man from an attack by a dokkaebi (goblin). Jihoon is an affable underachiever who has parent issues of his own. But he has been raised on folktales by his Halmeoni (grandmother) and is able to recognize the existence of magical beings when actually faced with them.
This book stands out from the enormous number of fantasies for young adults because Miyoung’s story does not require that she solve problems that are not her own. I have, perhaps, read too many YA epics starring girls who not only must deal with their own growing pains, but also overcome world-shattering systemic evil with their naivety and sheer stubbornness. This tale feels much more intimate and realistic; serious adolescent problems made more urgent and engaging because of a fantastic element.
While our heroes certainly have otherworldly powers, they are very much grounded in personal experiences within a modern world. The story takes place in a beautifully-described Seoul, Korea, a landscape which feels very different, yet vibrant and real. Both Miyoung and Jihoon change in the course of their tale, becoming stronger and a bit wiser. And, of course, they eventually fall in love. But will they be able to make friends and maybe get into a good college?
There is an epilog which suggests that their adventures are not yet over. A second book, Vicious Spirits, is scheduled for August. I’m looking forward to seeing what these two people do next.
Jonathan Letham is the author of Motherless Brooklyn and other quirky novels, which blend science fiction and realism in a style that has been called (by the author) “genre bending.” He has won a MacArthur grant and is clearly an accomplished writer at the top of his craft.
This book takes place in post-apocalyptic Maine, with characters suspended in an oddly dispassionate, unquestioning almost-reality. As with much of the best science fiction, the story has more to say about today–in this case, America during the Trump era–than it does about predicting a realistic future. The unmoored, almost dreamlike quality of the story, where neither the author nor his characters seem to know what to think, provides a surprisingly excellent vehicle for readers to process their own experiences.
The apocalypse that occurred several years before the novel begins, was a sudden “arrest” of modern conveniences such as computers, radio, cell phones, cars, planes, and guns. There is no consistency to the things that stopped working, nor is any explanation offered. The people stranded together in a community of organic farmers on the coast of Maine do not seem to particularly care what happened, or why. They have the one thing that matters at the end of the world—sustainable food sources. They have enough to feed everyone, including the inland community of militaristic guys, called The Cordon, who are either keeping the farmers trapped or protecting them from outside intrusion. It hardly matters.
This sort-of-idyllic utopia is threatened one Tuesday when an enormous, mobile machine, carrying a man who claims to have driven there from California, breaks through The Cordon. Our hero, Journeyman, who used to be a screenwriter before visiting his farmer sister just before the Arrest, knows the driver of the vehicle. Todbaum was an unscrupulous movie mogul who’d built an empire on lies and narcissistic persuasion, and was Journeyman’s boss. He brings stories about the outside world, which may or may not be true. And he brings with him dangerous reminders of a past which really might be better forgotten after all.
When I saw these two books side-by-side on the shelves in the middle-grade section, I just couldn’t resist! Two fantasies based in Asian legend and featuring fierce girls wielding sticks, is either a wonderful coincidence or a new trend.
The Dragon Warrior, by Katie Zhao, is about a Chinese-American girl (Falun Liu, aka Faryn) and her brother (Ah Li, aka Alex). They live in San Francisco’s Chinatown, within an enclave called the Jade Society, a secret group of warriors who fight demons. They have been raised by their grandfather (Ye Ye) because their mother is dead and their warrior father is missing. Ye Ye and his charges are often ridiculed for being too traditional, because no one believes that there are demons any more. Except, of course, there are, and Falun will have to fight Gods and demons from Chinese myths based on the legend of the Journey to the West.
The Girl Giant and the Monkey King, by Van Hoang, also draws from the Journey to the West, which is where the legendary Monkey King originated. The Girl Giant is a Vietnamese-American girl (Thom Ngho, aka No) who lives with her tiger-mom mother in a small midwestern town. Her father is unknown. She’s really, really strong, and thinks that this, in addition to being too Asian, is the reason why she’s an outcast at school. She will venture into the Heavens, led by the mischievous Monkey King, in search of his legendary staff and her own identity.
The books both feature realistic middle school heroes, though The Girl Giant and the Monkey King deals with slightly more mature themes. Both girls receive a reasonable amount of help and misdirection from the adults in their lives, and must sort out which is which in order to succeed. But The Dragon Hero is a fairly typical kid-hero’s journey, with Falun finding her courage and learning who to protect. She will be accepted after she becomes a hero. In The Girl Giant and the Monkey King, Falun must learn how to handle her strength while she decides who to trust. She also must realize that the first step to fitting in is to recognize that you’re really OK.
Both books have a fair number of cultural references, with numerous uses of Chinese or Vietnamese words, particularly for foods, as well as casual mentions of some of the problems that come from being an immigrant. (My favorite Vietnamese word is “cu’ng,” an endearment used frequently by Thom’s mother, which needlessly embarrasses her.) And both books, while leading to satisfactory conclusions, promise to be the first book in a series.
Linus Baker is a quiet, somewhat cowardly social worker, who takes his job with the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY) very seriously. He investigates the orphanages where those troublesome magical youths are raised, and never really notices that keeping them safe and repressing them are very closely related. Arthur Parnassus is the director of one of those orphanages, perhaps the most dangerous one of all, since it houses Lucy, aka Lucifer the Anti-Christ, along with five other mysterious children. They meet when DICOMY sends Linus on a clearly-not-routine, month-long investigation of Arthur’s orphanage, located on a remote island, miles away from the last stop on the train line.
The House in the Cerulean Sea isn’t really a gay romance, though the cover quote describes it as “like being wrapped up in a big gay blanket.” There is attraction, yes, but it is not particularly physical or sexual. It is based on a middle-aged, stodgy compatibility and a growing realization that both men wish the magical children to be treated with gentleness and respect, no matter how odd they look or how dangerous their powers might seem. Really, the book is a love story between two men and six children (and the female sprite that owns the island). If that’s a big gay blanket, I wish I had one.
If I have any objections to the book, it is that it’s too comfortable, like a cozy mystery without the cat, and intolerance instead of murder. TJ Klune describes his book as providing “positive queer representation,” and it certainly does that. But it seems that Mr. Klune doesn’t have children. Everyone on the island has a secret and terribly abusive past, but it never seems to bother them. The children are too perfect, too adorable in their rare instances of misbehavior. But this is a fantasy. If you can believe that there are children with magical powers, you can probably accept that a large dose of love and patience will entirely erase the bitterness and isolation that usually accompanies an early history of abuse. Curl up and enjoy!
In the past few months, two of my favorite fantasy books, both long out of print, have been re-released in new editions. Both are from smaller presses, so are a little bit expensive, but still cheaper than the used original paperbacks, if you can find them. I read both of them again, and found that they are as beautifully written as I’d remembered. Both are still surprisingly relevant, a reminder that, though we have moved on to new crises and epidemics, the past was no less complicated.
Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm (before she became Robin Hobb) was published in 1985. This is one of the first, and still one of the best, urban fantasies. It is a love story to Seattle, told through the eyes of Wizard, a man not yet comfortable in his own power. The new 35th anniversary edition from Grim Oak Press ($30 hardcover) is illustrated with a darker palate than I’d like to see, though once Wizard’s Viet Nam War past arrives to haunt him, it is not inappropriate. As with many urban fantasies, the disenfranchised street people do, indeed, hold important magic necessary to maintain their city. But this Seattle is a place where the price of that magic might be living fully within something that looks very like madness.
The Wild Swans by Peg Kerr was first released in 1999, and tells two loosely entwined stories, one from 1689 New England and one from 1981 New York City at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. We at DreamHaven Books have signed copies of the new edition from Lume Press ($14.99 paperback). Eliza, in Puritan New England, weaves shirts from nettles for her swan-enchanted brothers, just as in the old fairy tale. Three hundred years later, Elias, a gay man disowned by his Puritan parents, finds a new family among the gay community of Manhattan and then must watch as his “brothers” are inexplicably taken away. In both stories, the real magic is redemption, and it is bought by sacrifice which leads to acceptance and a kind of sorrow that is not far from joy.
Both books finish with a cathartic sadness that nonetheless leads to hope. We have survived traumas before, and we will survive these new ones also.
The awfulness of 2020 is almost behind us, but we still need to get through another couple months of cold weather, short days, and quarantine. It’s a perfect time for reading in a comfy chair, preferably beside a fire or, possibly, just a space heater. Those of us who are voracious readers need something really long but not too taxing. For best results, we need a not-quite real place to hang out with imaginary people who we are pretty sure will survive their harrowing adventures. And their adventures need to be solidly in print, so that we can spend as much time with them as possible.
The “October Daye Series” by Seanan McGuire begins with Rosemary and Rue, and continues for fourteen more novels, the most recent of which is A Killing Frost. October (Toby) Daye is half human and half fae, so, of course, she is a private detective who investigates crimes involving any of the enormous variety of fae who populate the edges of San Francisco. She is a sarcastic and hilariously observant narrator, though she does go on a bit too long when describing the wonders and perils of faerie. Each book has a separate problem for Toby to solve, usually involving bloodshed, usually with her own blood. The books can be read individually but, if read in order, also provide the story of Toby’s search for reconciliation with her birth family and establishment of her own place to belong.
The “Rivers of London Series” by Ben Aaronovitch begins with Midnight Riot and continues for eight novels, the most recent of which is False Value. There are also two novellas, eight (mostly unavailable, sorry) graphic novels, and a short story collection called Tales from the Folly. Peter Grant is a half White, half Sierra Leone Krio Police Constable in London. He is assigned, reluctantly, to the sort-of-secret Metropolitan Police division, often called the Folly, that deals with magical crime in and around London. He is a sarcastic and hilariously observant narrator, though he does go on a bit too long about the wonders and atrocities of London architecture. Each book has a separate problem for Peter and his mentor and magic instructor, Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale, to solve, usually involving Peter using a spell he barely knows. The books can be read individually but, if read in order, also provide the story of Peter’s ongoing friendship with the many Goddesses of London’s rivers, the progress of Peter’s father’s washed-up jazz career, and a little more information about what, exactly, happened to Nightingale in Germany during World War Two.
Or, you could always reread Tolkien. Enjoy!
Here is our schedule for this week and next week!
Thursday, December 24th – Noon to 3 pm.
Friday, December 25th – Closed.
Saturday, December 26 – Noon to 6 pm.
Sunday, December 27 – Closed. We’re now back to being closed on Sundays.
Monday, Dec. 28 – Wednesday, Dec. 30 – Noon to 6 pm.
Thursday, December 31 – Noon – 5 pm.
Friday, January 1st – Closed.
Saturday, January 2nd we resume normal hours. Monday – Saturday, Noon to 6 pm.
The book begins at the funeral of 12-year-old Nnamdi’s father, who had been the Chief of Police in the town of Kaleria, Nigeria when he was murdered. When the funeral is crashed by a gang of criminals and their “Chief of Chiefs,” who everyone believes killed his father, Nnandi vows to see them all punished. A year later, though, the murder is still unsolved and Nnandi’s sorrow is turning to shame and impotent rage.
This may not be the best time for Nnandi to receive from his father’s ghost a magical statue called an ikenga. But ikenga means “place of strength,” and he certainly needs that. At first is seems like a perfect solution, giving him Hulk-like super-strength fueled by his anger. But this may not be what either he or the town of Kaleria actually needs. He will have to decide whether to tend his father’s garden with his friend Chioma, or give vent to his anger and bring violence to the people he thinks are responsible for his father’s death.
This is a wonderful book for middle-schoolers, one of the few fantasies these days with a boy protagonist. Nnamdi is a quiet soul driven out of himself by anger that he clearly needs to learn to control. Chioma is one of the best girl supporting characters ever, using her wit, intelligence, compassion, and more than a little bit of courage to set Nnamdi on the right path.
My Brother’s Husband by Gengoroh Tagame is a gentle story about the visit to Japan of a huge, gay Canadian named Mike. He is visiting Yaichi, the twin brother of his deceased husband, but the story is told mostly through the eyes of Kana, Yaichi’s young daughter. Kana is in third grade, and is exactly the right age and disposition to be able to innocently ask questions that reveal the rupture between Yaichi and his twin, and the hidden prejudice against homosexuality in Japan.
This may sound inappropriate for readers of Kana’s age, but it is not. In this book, marriage is only about love, not sex, and the message is that love between all people should be okay. There are some scenes of communal bathing, which we wouldn’t see here. This includes a trip where Kana’s whole family takes Mike to a traditional hot spring (onsen) in the mountains. After visiting the public baths, they travel to an aerial tramway from which they can view Mt. Fuji. They then, unrealistically, take a pirate ship back to the hot spring. My little family did the same trip when we were in Japan. Twice. Like Mike, we were the only non-Japanese people in the baths.
My Brother’s Husband is a complete graphic novel available in a two-volume set or a large, single-volume edition. It is a beautiful story about what makes up a family, learning to live with past regrets, and grieving for someone you should have spent more time with. But it is also about a young girl making a new friend from Canada, and teaching the adults in her life just how important that is.
Japanese comics, called manga, provide a fascinating glimpse of another culture, along with some wonderful new comic art styles. These two very different manga were first published in Japan for kids in middle school. They might be challenging to young American readers because they are printed “backwards,” as they are in Japan. The books are read from back to front, and the pages from right to left. The stories might also be challenging, for adults as well as children, but their message of friendship and acceptance are important and universal.
Natsume’s Book of Friends by Yuki Midorikawa is about a teenage orphan boy who has been passed from home to home because he can see things which no one else can see. They are called yokai, and are a sort of benign supernatural being that has no parallel here. No one in Japan believes they exist either. Natsume is afraid of them until learns that his deceased grandmother could see them too, and she has left him a book of yokai names she called the “Book of Friends.”
At the beginning of the series, Natsume has just been sent to a new family and a new high school. He has learned to keep his distance from human and yokai alike, and is terribly lonely. But he meets a powerful yokai he calls Nyanko-Sensei (literally, cat teacher) who agrees, somewhat reluctantly and sarcastically, to protect him. He also meets his new adoptive parents and new classmates who, he slowly learns, might be willing to accept him.
The manga was produced as a series of short stories published over many years. All together there are 23 volumes of stories, and new ones are still being written in Japan. As they progress, Natsume becomes more comfortable with himself, and gathers a group of good friends, both human and yokai. But each individual volume contains one or two complete stories, which can be read in almost any order.
From the pen of Jasper Fforde, author of the best-selling “Thursday Next” series, comes another novel set in a world that is very familiar, but . . . well, not quite right. Fforde never attempts to explain the Spontaneous Anthropomorphizing Event that took place fifty-five years before the story begins, though some of his characters speculate that it might have been an Act of Satire. The result of the Event is the addition of 1.2 million very intelligent, humanlike Rabbits to a place that looks a bit like modern Wales.
The world has adapted to the Rabbits pretty much as you might expect. The government has built a number of large Rabbit Warrens and established agencies with long, obfuscating names like the Ministry of Rabbit Affairs. There is a Rabbit language (which uses only the letters N, I, R, H, U, and F), research into Rabbit culture, and a wealth of Rabbit translations of great literature and plays. And, of course, there are the comically realistic people who don’t really know any Rabbits, and so aren’t really aware of their level of prejudice. Not to mention the members of organizations called things like TwoLegsGood, who actively hate Rabbits.
Our hero is a middle-aged guy who is one of the few people who can actually tell the Rabbits apart, so he has been forced to work for the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce as a Rabbit Identification Operative, tracing Rabbits suspected of breaking the law. His stable but not-very-happy life is interrupted when a family of Rabbits moves in next door. We all get a light-hearted lesson in how racism works as the inevitable clashes begin.
The Rabbits themselves are a peaceful people who love literature, gardening, a vegetarian diet, and the occasional carrot. They have a lot of relatives, though they do practice birth control. They believe in a democracy where everyone watches out for everyone else’s rights instead of their own.
And the Rabbits are, in fact, aware that the new government-built MegaWarren, into which their entire population will soon be moved “for their own good,” is not where they want to be. But they have lawyers, and activists, and a plan based on a prophecy and agreed upon by all of them. It won’t change anybody’s life very much, but it might break your heart just a little bit as you laugh out loud at the silliness.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!
We want to let you know that DreamHaven will be closed on Thursday, November 26th.
We will be open Friday at the usual time, AND we’ll have some specials and giveaways on both Friday (11/27) and Saturday (11/28).
We are also starting our holiday hours. For the next four weeks (through December 20th) we will also be open Sundays from Noon – 5pm
Monday – Saturday Noon – 6:00pm
Sunday Noon – 5:00pm
This book is the first volume in a trilogy called Between Earth and Sky. It is celebrated (on the cover copy) as “the most original series debut of the decade” and praised for finding its inspiration in the “civilization of the pre-Columbian Americas.” Having read quite a bit of fantasy over the decades, I didn’t see a huge difference in cultural viewpoints or magical abilities. But the book is beautifully written and engrossing. Its strongest point is its magnificent and wrenching characters.
Xiala is a foul-mouthed, fierce pirate ship captain, an outcast from her own people. It becomes clear eventually that her people, the Teek, are a society of women only, living in precarious harmony with the Goddess of the sea. There is a Teek saying: “Impress a man today, and he’ll expect you to impress him tomorrow too” (p. 175). And another: “The sea has no mercy, even for a Teek” (p. 227). She already knows this.
Xiala is forced to sail a mysterious young man named Serapio to a place called Tova in time for the celebration of an astrological Convergence. Serapio’s story unfolds also, a long history of abusive training initiated by his own mother, in hopes of fulfilling an almost forgotten prophecy. He belongs to the repressed Crow People, whose lamentations say, “We have become a place of long weeping, a house of scattered feathers” (p. 291). He has never met another Crow person except his mother.
In Tova, the Convergence is awaited by Naranpa, a naive woman from the slums of The Coyote’s Maw who has unexpectedly and unpopularly risen to the position of Sun Priest. Though this is a position of highest power, in actuality she has been unable to enact the reforms she sees as necessary. She is possibly the only priest who believes the Manual which states, that the priesthood is “a body of Reason and Science beyond the petty squabbles of humankind” (p. 385). She will learn otherwise.
There are others: The crew of Xiala’s boat, Narampa’s slum-lord brother Denaochi, a crow warrior named Okoa and his giant riding-crow Benunda, and the mysterious witch Zataya. All of them will be both destroyed and saved by the coming Convergence. But the outcome is truly in the hands of the Gods, and there’s no telling which, if any, side They might be on. This is not a safe or predictable world, though it is filled with wonder and aching sorrow. I would pick up Book Two at once but, sadly, its release date has not yet been announced. I’ll have to be content to wait.