Fullmetal Alchemist

by Hiromu Arakawa
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Content: There’s violence and some mild swearing as well as some graphic injury images. It’s in the manga section at the bookstore.

So I read this one kind of weirdly… I could only get my hands on volume 2 at the bookstore,  so K suggested I watch the anime to catch me up on the story, and then I read volume 2 (and put a hold on volume 3, but volume 4 isn’t available at the library, so maybe I’ll just finish the story watching the anime, because — believe it or not — I’m invested in this one…) Maybe that’s the way to go — watching the anime before reading — because I found myself more invested in this manga than I have in the past ones I’ve read.

This one’s the story of the Elric brothers, young, talented alchemists who had a devastating accident while attempting to use alchemy to bring their mother back from the dead. Edward (he’s the actual boy) lost a leg but his brother, Alphonse (he’s the armor), lost his entire body. Edward was able to save Alphonse by putting his soul in the armor, but it cost him his arm. And so, now, they’re searching the world for something — possibly the Philosopher’s Stone — to make them both (but mostly Alphonse) whole again. On their adventures, they meet dangerous people (not the least of which are the seven deadly sins personified, though I’ve only met Lust, Greed, and Envy so far) and fight to keep together.

Oh, I really liked this manga (K finally recommended one I really, really liked!). I liked the relationship between the brothers, and I liked the side characters. This is a huge, complex story that just got huger and more complex, and even though I’ve only read one, I’m dying to know what happens and how it all plays out. If it just means watching the anime, I definitely will finish this one.

 

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Watchmen

by Alan Moore
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Content: There is graphic violence, swearing (no f-bombs though) and nudity (and sort-of on-screen text). It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I wrote about this one ten years ago when I first read it, but I thought I’d write my thoughts that I turned in as well.

Intellectually, I know the Watchmen is a classic work of not only comic storytelling, but also a classic work of literature. However, while I can respect what Moore and Gibbons are doing, I didn’t like the experience. Partially it was the art; Gibbons’ art was completely subservient to the text, lacking very little originality. I did find the panel in issue 4, , the moment when the test chamber went off (9) and the particles dissolved Dr. Manhattan and the following few panels to be incredibly striking. But otherwise, I found the moment-to-moment and scene-to-scene art slowed down the narrative, especially through volume nine. I understand that, thematically, Moore is reflecting the world he saw when this was written in 1987 — a very sexist, homophobic (issue 11, p. 9, among others), and bleak world — and critiquing the way we use superheroes in our cultural life: None of the characters are honorable or admirable (like Superman or Captain America) or even serving the cause of justice, even if it’s in a vigilante manner (Batman). The backstories we learn (I’ll admit; I didn’t read the “excerpts” in the end; and felt like they were filer that added no substance to the actual plot line) don’t take away from the feeling that the characters are mostly individuals without any integrity in what they do. I wish he had allowed the women (all two of them) to be more than just sex objects — Sally, whose most significant characteristics were that she is aging and that the Comedian raped her (issue 2, p. 5-7), and her daughter, Laurie, whose sole purpose is to be a companion to her lovers, both Dr. Manhattan (issue 5, p. 11) and Dan Dreiberg (most of issue 7, but specifically p. 28). This is a reflection of both the mid-1980s society and popular culture, but doesn’t excuse the lack of development of these characters. Admittedly, Moore isn’t putting up hyper-masculinity as an ideal: Neither of the hyper-masculine characters of the Comedian and Ozymandias are admirable characters, while Rorschach, who would not be considered “masculine” at all — being called “queer” (issue 5, p. 27) and “runt” (issue 6, p. 8) among others — also happens to be the moral center of the series. He is the one who realizes that someone is creating a plot against “costumed adventurers” (issue 1, p. 12) to get them out of the way and in the end refuses to compromise his ideals forcing Dr. Manhattan to kill him (volume 12, p. 14). I did like the ending; while Ozymandias “gets off”, Dr. Manhattan’s prophecy that “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing EVER ends” (issue 12, p. 27) is fulfilled in the very final panel, where readers see Rorschach’s journal detailing everything delivered to the newspaper, and the final image (issue 12, p. 32) is the same as the cover of issue one and the first image the readers see (p.1). True, there is a lot to think about and discuss — is it right to kill off millions of people just to save the world? — but it was not an enjoyable reading experience. If this had been my first foray into graphic novels, it might have turned me off on the format completely. Thankfully, it wasn’t.

Module 8: The Drowned Cities

Bacigalupi, P. (2012). The Drowned Cities. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co.

Genre: Speculative fiction: science fiction, post-apocalyptic/dystopia, Earth’s future.

Book Summary: “War maggots” Mahlia and Mouse have their existence in the jungles of a war-torn future America figured out: Mahlia has apprenticed herself to a pacifist doctor and even though the villagers don’t particularly like her, she makes do. And Mouse, who saved her life once, is her faithful sidekick. That is, until a bioengineered war creature called Tool escapes his prison and ends up in Mahila and Mouse’s neck of the woods. Suddenly their life is gone: Mouse is taken by the soldiers and Mahlia escapes with Tool. From there, both friends will do what they need to survive, but perhaps the cost of  maintaining their is too high?

Impressions: This was fascinating. It took me a while to get into the book, mostly because I haven’t read Ship Breaker, but eventually I got hold of the world that Bacigalupi has built and fell into the book. It’s not a happy book though: Bacigalupi is very frank about the effects of war, and what that does to everyone: civilians, soldiers, leaders. It wasn’t a bleak, hopeless view though: Bacigalupi makes the reader care about his characters, and gives them — even Tool — a humanity that transcends the situations. I was a bit worried about 3/4 of the way through, wondering how he was going to wrap it up (and, to be fair, there is a proper sequel to this one — Tool of War — that properly finishes the story), but he managed very well. It was a satisfying ending, and while it left things open for the next story, it wraps this one up quite nicely. It’s definitely beautifully written, and it nails a lot of current issues — of violence and tribalism, especially — on the head.

Review: The reviews I read praised the world building and the action of the series, as well as Bacigalupi’s frankness when it comes to war. The staff review writes, “Beautifully written, filled with high-octane action, and featuring badly damaged but fascinating and endearing characters, this fine novel tops its predecessor and can only increase the author’s already strong reputation.”

Staff. (2012). Children’s reviews. Publisher’s Weekly. 259 (11), n.a.

Library Uses: This would go great on a “books about climate change” display, as well as a general speculative fiction display. It also needs to be in a book group; there is so much to discuss!

Readalikes:

  • The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness: This one is aliens rather than post-apocalyptic, but it has the same themes of tribalism, war, and understanding the “other”. Also, everyone should just read it.
  • Undertow by Michael Buckley: In this near-future, some humanoid creatures have come out of the ocean and tried to settle on land. There is tension (obviously) between them and the humans. This explores the tribalism angle as well.
  • The Fog Diver by Joel Ross: An environmental Earth future mashed with steampunk: Earth was destroyed through chemicals, which produced a “fog” that covered the world, so humans moved to the skies. Some fantastic action.
  • And, obviously, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins: This is the closest read alike to The Drowned Cities, but I think Bacigalupi does what Collins was trying to do SO much better.

A Land of Permanent Goodbyes

by Atia Abawi
First sentence: “You were born to die.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: January 23, 2018
Content: There are some disturbing scenes of violence in the book, both due to war and due to extremists. It will be in the Young Adult (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

I’m going to say this up front: I couldn’t finish this one. It’s not because it was bad; it’s actually an important book, being about the Syrian civil war and the things the refugees go through to survive. It’s stark and unflinching.

And it’s narrated by Destiny.

Which is my problem.

Much like The Book Thief, I just couldn’t get into a book narrated by an ephemeral, all-seeing third entity. I just can’t. I tried. I gave it half the book, and I’d be okay with it for a while, but then Destiny would stick its nose into the story and pull me back out of it.

I was in the minority with The Book Thief, and I suspect I’ll be in the minority with this one. As I said, it’s important. It’s a book about an important subject, written by a person of color. I just wish I could have finished it.

Exit West

exitwestby Mohsin Hamid
First sentence: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy floating around the office and got passed in my direction.
Content: There are a half dozen or so f-bombs, and some sort-of sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one has got the entire staff of the bookstore all a twitter. Seriously. They LOVED it. It’s SO good. You HAVE to read it. So, when they threw it my direction, I decided to give it a try.

It’s nominally the story of a couple, Saeed and Nadia, who meet in a country that’s on the brink of a civil war. It vaguely feels middle eastern, but I don’t know if that’s because that’s me projecting, or if it’s what the author intended, but it’s what I saw. Their relationship is a fitful one at the start, but as the insurgents and rebels move into their city, their relationship picks up speed. And when Saeed’s mother is killed, they decide to leave together, to find any way out.

But it’s not really about the plot or the characters with this one. No, this is about the words. And they are gorgeous. It’s a slim novel, which shows that no word is wasted. And it feels that way, too. Every word is important, every line leads somewhere else. It is something to sink oneself into, enjoying the words on the page.

I’m usually a plot and character person, so it’s different for me to give myself over to something that’s so wholly, well, not. I enjoyed this one. Hamid gave faces and stories to refugees, to people who are fleeing their home and trying to find a new place and the way that changes a person.

It makes it worth reading.

Traitor to the Throne

traitortothethroneby Alwyn Hamilton
First sentence: “Once, in the desert kingdom of Miraji, there was a young prince who wanted his father’s throne.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Rebel of the Sands
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some almost off screen sexytimes and a lot of violence. It’ll be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

It’s been a bit since Amani has joined the Rebel Prince to try and claim the throne from his father, the Sultan. Things aren’t going so great for them; they’ve had several setbacks and it’s starting to seem hopeless. Then Amani is kidnapped by her aunt and sold to the Sultan. Suddenly, it looks like things might be turning around for the rebellion.

Of course, it’s not as easy as it seems: the Sultan is crafty and conniving, and Amani finds herself more than under his control; she’s stuck in the haram trying to find a way out. And all she can hope is that she comes out on the winning side.

It took me a bit to get back into the world, to remember what I really liked about Rebel of the Sands, but once I got going, I found I couldn’t put this one down.  I loved Amani’s fierce style, her problem-solving, and the way she was able to make plans, even under the direst of circumstances. There wasn’t as much of her and Jin, and he was more in the background of this book, but I did enjoy the moments when he did show up.

Mostly what this book was about was the politics of leadership: what makes a good ruler, how firm or fierce one should be, and the reasons subjects do or don’t follow one. I found that part fascinating.

I am definitely committed to the story line, and curious about where Amani and her rebel friends will go next.

City of Saints & Thieves

cityofsaintsby Natalie C. Anderson
First sentence: “If you’re going to be a thief, the first thing you need to know is that you don’t exist.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy picked up for me by co-workers at Winter Institute.
Content: There’s a handful of minor swear words and some disturbing illusions to rape. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Tina has one goal: take down her mother’s former employer, Mr. Greyhill who happens to be the owner of a large mining corporation. And, as Tina believes, her mother’s murderer. It’s a goal she’s been working on for the past 5 years, since she left the Greyhill’s compound in the wake of her mother’s murder. She’s trained to be a thief, and her plan is simple: get in, have her tech friend BoyBoy hack Greyhill’s accounts and drain them, and then kill her mother’s murderer.

Things don’t go according to the plan, however. Greyhill’s son, Michael, is home from school (he wasn’t supposed to be), and catches the uncatchable Tina. And from there, Tina’s plan spirals out of control. As she begins to question everything she’s believed up to this point, she finds her past, her mother’s story, and yes, ultimately, justice.

I really liked this thriller, and thought that Anderson did an admirable job tackling the issues that East Africa faces. From milita terrorism, to kidnapping, to mining issues, to gangs: it was all there. Anderson didn’t sugar coat anything; even the “good guys” were complex and did questionable things.  It’s a complex place, Kenya, and Anderson, even though she’s not east African, did an admirable job reflecting that.

There was a bit of a twist at the end, too, which I didn’t quite see coming (should have, though), and I loved that Tina, for the most part, handled things on her own, but also was able to make decisions that stayed true to her character.

An excellent debut novel.