Thursday, January 29, 2009

What-the-Dickens: the story of a rogue tooth fairy

by Gregory Maguire

This guy has made quite the career out of re-telling traditional fairy tales and such from new perspectives:
  • Wicked is The Wizard of Oz told from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West (it has a sequel, Son of a Witch — arguably better than its parent book — and it has been made into a critically-acclaimed musical, currently touring the nation, which itself spawned a reality TV spin-off);

  • Mirror Mirror is an Italian Renaissance-and-incest version of the story of Snow White;

  • Lost, which I never got around to reading, takes a new look at Ebenezer Scrooge;

  • just out in 2008, A Lion Among Men revisits Dorothy's cowardly pal from Oz;

  • and my favorite, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (you should be catching on by now; need I explain?), was made into a Lifetime television movie starring Stockard Channing. (Yes, I worship her; no, she is not the reason this book is my favorite of Maguire's.)
He's also written many books for younger readers, and What-the-Dickens is one of the longer ones. It's the story of a tooth fairy (more of a pixie or sprite, actually, with more of an animal nature than your typical Disney-style flowery fairy) struggling to grow up and discover himself outside the society of other tooth fairies — sort of a fish-out-of-water or raised-by-wolves kinda thing — and eventually challenging the traditions and strictures of what turns out to be a rather oppressive tooth fairy community.

The story of this rogue tooth fairy is told within another story: the tale is being told by a young man to his younger neice and nephew, whom he's left with during an unspecified and possibly apocalyptic storm or catastrophe while the children's parents have gone in search of food and help. This wrap-around story was kind of unnecessary, but not really bothersome. I think the author explained the reason for it in an interview on Fresh Air, but I don't recall what he said. If i were going to read this book aloud to kids, I'd probably just leave it out.
Good ratings overall, not awesome but very enjoyable. Should be appealing to fans of Artemis Fowl and the like.

Don't Say Any More, Darling

by Fumi Yoshinaga

Fumi Yoshinaga might be the greatest yaoi manga author/illustrator ever! The art is exquisite, the stories compelling, the whole package simply amazing. I'm in the middle of the Antique Bakery series, and I'm loving it. Don't Say Any More, Darling is a collection of short pieces — gay (with some R-rated scenes), sorta gay, not even gay — and I really enjoyed them all. They're realistic, poignant, artfully composed. I've read short stories by renowned authors, "masters of the craft," that aren't as good stories as these; the beautiful illustration only adds to their greatness.

If you like yaoi, if you like romantic, emotional manga, you simply must read this. I'll give a Top 10 Manga rating.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Same-cell Organism

by Sumomo Yumeka

Argh! I can't believe I'm still so far behind. This is another one that I read long enough ago to have forgotten. It's from the same publisher as some other high-quality yaoi I've read, but I recall this one being a bit dull, even though the artwork is beautiful. I read a review just now that jogged my memory a bit, reminding me that the "main" story about two young men in love is interrupted by chapters that seemed totally disconnected to me (other than being about boys love) but, according to the reviewer, are sort of allegorical representations of different aspects of the main characters' relationship. Ultimately, there's better out there, so I wouldn't recommend this unless you've already read all the really good ones.

On Subbing: the first four years

by Dave Roche

One of the longest zines I've ever read, and among the first. All about the author's experiences a substitute teacher's aide in a large metropolitan school district on the West coast somewhere between Seattle and San Francisco. (I no longer recall if he actually specifies, but it's Portland for sure.) As a teacher's aide, he works with a lot of troubled and disabled students, probably because most classrooms don't have TAs. It's an interesting, well-written account of type of work and workplace not many of us will ever see firsthand. I also learned about the life skills program for developmentally delayed students, some of whom stay in the program until age 21, that was of use to me at my work, where some of these young adults hang out and/or visit as a group. As far as I'm concerned, this zine is a classic.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

From Eroica with Love

by Yasuko Aoike

I've read the first four books in this series so far, here and there over the last two years, but recent clean-up efforts led me to re-read parts of 2 and 3, and all of book 4 in the last two days. Now I'm really into it, and I've made hold requests to get the remaining books, 5 through 14, that my library owns.

It's classic Cold War-era manga originally published in the late '70s. Eroica (aka Earl Dorian Red Gloria) is a flamboyant, hedonistic, homosexual, aristocratic art thief. His nemesis is NATO officer Major Klaus von dem Eberbach (aka Iron Klaus), whose rigid Teutonic nature is at odds with his shoulder-length hair and bangs. (Of course, fashions that seem feminine or androgynous to a modern reader weren't necessarily considered un-masculine in the '60s and '70s — think long hair, bell-bottoms, velour, V-necks, and angel sleeves.)

Iron Klaus, of course, despises Eroica and his louche ways, while the Earl, of course, lusts after the Major. To the officer's chagrin, and to the thief's pleasure, their paths are constantly crossed. Or are they in fact star-crossed lovers? Klaus's hatred of Dorian (and queers in general) definitely carries a whiff of "me thinks the lady doth protest too much."

Me, I have a crush on Agent Z.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

World War Z: an oral history of the zombie war

by Max Brooks

Wow, I'd heard about this book so long ago, and over the years I've suggested it to a few friends but only recently got around to reading it myself. Probably, we're in the decline of the coolness of zombies, but they'll never drop out of the zeitgeist entirely.

The cool thing about this book is sort of captured in the subtitle: it's a collection of interviews of people who lived through and witnessed the zombie-pocalypse. Partly because of that, and also because it's a book instead of a big-budget-special-effects movie, the book offers a more detailed look at aspects of humans vs. zombies that often are left out. It really gets into the practical, military, political, psychological, and moral issues related to battling a worldwide zombie infestation instead of just relying on the inherent scariness of zombies for focus.

I read it pretty quickly, and ravenously. Hard to put down and fun to read, without the careless, uninspired writing that sucks the enjoyment out of a lot of thrillers.

Z for Zachariah

by Robert C. O'Brien

A couple years ago, the library got a paperback copy of this book with a cover that made me think it might have zombies in it. The title, of course, hints at that a little too. The back-cover description doesn't use the Z-word, but it tells of a young woman all alone in a post-apocalyptic world and the arrival of a stranger. So I'm still thinking maybe he's a zombie!

If I'm recalling correctly, it says in the foreword or afterword, or one those kind of things, that the book was actually finished by the author's family for posthumous publication. The story is pretty bleak compared to the author's better-known Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh (itself better-known, perhaps, as The Secret of NIMH, the title of the 1982 animated film). I'd argue that the stories have a lot in common, but this young adult book is definitely less fuzzy and more mature than the cartoon-friendly younger kids' book.

Z for Zachariah doesn't have much explicit violence, but there are references to "off-screen" violence and a pervasive sense of barely-restrained potential violence. Creepy, but no zombies, and with an ending that's either sad, disappointing, or both — which I mean in a positive way, in the sense that it's not a tidy ending or the one you'll find yourself wishing for, even if you think happy endings are lame.

Like zombie or vampire movies, or pretty much anything apocalyptic, it could be considered an allegory and therefore potential book report fodder. It could be read fairly quickly and, I think, would hold the attention of most teens.

Mother's Milk: a novel
Some Hope: a trilogy

by Edward St. Aubyn

I just finished the absolutely stunning Mother's Milk, which features among its protagonists the main character of the trilogy Some Hope, which I read a few years ago. The author has truly mastered the craft of stream-of-consciousness, exposing the mental and emotional lives of his characters in exquisite — sometimes agonizing — detail, but in a way that's perfectly coherent and sympathetic. We're talking Virginia Woolf-style stream of consciousness, not the staccato jibber-jabber or random ramblings that some writers have produced. It's meant to be a stream, after all, flowing and connected.

As you might guess from the author's name, St. Aubyn, he has some other things in common with Woolf: his characters are upper- or upper-middle-class, and they're unfulfilled. They have the sort of first-world crises that it's become fashionable to mock. Now, I suppose it's rather first-world of me, but I don't think one needs a genocidal war or Oprah's-Book-Club-style tragedy to write an interesting book. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that it's a bit cheap and easy to write about a catastrophe of some sort, and more challenging to root out the tiny personal catastrophes and make the reader care about them.

Unlike the novels by Woolf, there's a dark humor and hedonistic ennui woven through the existential angst. In some ways, it reminds me of Douglas Coupland or even Chuck Palahniuk; in particular it brough to mind A Spot of Bother, which I reviewed here.

A strong recommendation for Anglophiles, fans of dysfunctional families, and those looking for something more literary, but still contemporary, than much of today's popular fiction. Some Hope is very good, but Mother's Milk even better — enough to gain a provisional spot in my Top 10.