Monday, July 18, 2016

Book Review: The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath

Title: The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath
Author: Ishbelle Bee
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication Year: 2015
Read: July 2016
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley + Hard copy from library
Genre: Dark-fantasy-fairy-tale-for-grown-ups
Rating: 4.5 Ladybirds

If your preference is for linear, straightforward storytelling and practical prose in your reading, this might not be the book for you. That disclaimer out of the way, however, I can assure you that I loved this book. Really, really loved it. Y’know, I really hate comps for describing books, because they usually end up being completely off in the ways that matter, but the comps to Catherynne Valente and Neil Gaiman on the back cover did a nice job of approximating the feel of this book. I would add to that a bit—Valente and Gaiman by way of Dickens and Carroll, resulting in something that is in conversation with those authors, but unique in its own right.

Mirror is a young girl traveling back from Egypt with her protector Goliath Honey-Flower. However, Mirror has not always been Mirror—she used to be Myrtle, with two sisters and a sinister grandfather, living in Victorian London. But then her grandfather locked her in a strange clock to die, and something changed, and when the policeman Goliath rescued her and sent her grandfather to prison, something was different. For Goliath, too. No longer a policeman, he can change shape and is determined protect his young charge and help her solve the mystery of what happened to her in the clock.

John Loveheart was an aristocratic young boy, with a sick mother and an evil aunt and a father in over his head. When a demon called Mr. Fingers comes to collect his due from John’s father, John finds himself orphaned and then adopted by the Lord of the Underworld. Driven mad and wicked (though not as wicked as some), now he is a young lord, bound to do Daddy’s bidding around London, and Daddy wants Mirror. Something powerful that has escaped Mr. Fingers for some time resides in her, and he believes consuming it will add to his power.

There are many other characters and plots and tangentially related stories interwoven around this basic story, which may at first seem disparate, but weave together beautifully to form a beautiful whole of interrelated people, pieces, and parts. The climax of what might be called the main plot occurs about a third of the way into the book, and then the reader is left teetering on that edge as the following chapters change narrators and settings and jump back and forth in the timeline (that nonlinear storytelling I mentioned earlier). This could’ve had the potential to be confusing, but in fact has the effect of filling in the story and backstory around our central tale of Mirror and Goliath and Loveheart and Mr. Fingers, giving a greater view of the world and the events of the story, with all of the interconnected threads lending it a great emotional resonance.

The beautifully poetic writing only adds to this emotional resonance, and is evocative in an almost synesthetic way. It’s probably what some may call “purple prose” (which I just think some people use as a pejorative way to refer to lyrical writing when it’s not to their tastes), but I think its lyricism holds magic and power. This story is at its heart a fairy tale, and a dark one—modern in many ways, but as old as time in others, with that current of magic and power and truth you can feel in the old tales, and when you’re lucky, in the new ones, too. It may not be a book for everyone, but it was definitely a book for me.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Comics Review: Monstress

Title: Monstress (Issues #1-6)
Author: Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda
Publisher: Image Comics
Publication Date: Trade paperback collecting issues #1-6 to be released on July 19th, 2016
Read: July 2016
Where It Came From: Digital ARCs from publisher via NetGalley
Genre: Fantasy-sci-fi-horror-graphic-novel?
Rating: 4 Mask Pieces

Hey, remember when I was talking about how much I love Image Comics? Here’s another one from them! I saw issues of Monstress on the counter at my Friendly Local Comic Shop a couple months ago and was really drawn to the art, but, as is usual for me, I decided to wait for the trade paperback to come out. However! When issues #1-6 recently came up on NetGalley in anticipation of said trade paperback releasing later this month, I couldn’t resist the chance to catch up on what I’ve been missing with this title.

Monstress is the story of Maika, an Arcanic (a.k.a. supernatural hybrid) teenage girl. She lives in a world still rife with conflict between Arcanics and humans after a great war between the two. Arcanics are being captured and sold as slaves to humans, and a powerful religious organization of human women called the Cumaea performs experiments on Arcanics and murders them to harvest a magical substance called lilium from their bones. Maika and her best friend Tuya are just trying to settle down and find normalcy again after surviving the war, but Maika has a secret. There is a monster living inside of her—literally—and it hungers for blood and violence. As Maika’s control over it weakens, she travels to the city of Zamora, located at the edge between the territory of the Federation of Man and the land of the Arcanics, to look for answers in perhaps the most dangerous place possible.

And that’s just the beginning of the first issue! A lot of ground is covered, story-wise, and it took me a few issues to get a good mental handle on the world and the moving pieces of the plot. However, the richness of the world-building really is beautiful as it unfolds, and to call it simply Asian-inspired seems to somehow be an inadequate description. It is a fantasy world, to be sure, but the nods to and nuances of a diversity of Asian cultures from our world are incorporated seamlessly, and come together with all of the imaginative fantasy elements to form something new and singular. I believe in the letters section of one of the issues, creator Liu talks about how she wanted the comic to reflect the hybrid nature of Asia itself, and I think this was accomplished masterfully.

The comic also does a masterful job of demonstrating the horrors and atrocities of war and its aftermath, which only takes on even greater depth and meaning when you learn that some of the inspiration for this story comes from the experiences of the author’s grandparents. And I will be honest—the violence and horror in that first issue (murder of children, implied cannibalism, references to rape) made me feel so sick to my stomach that I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue reading. But I did, and I’m glad I did—violence is still a part of the comic, as you would expect of a story concerned with war, but in later issues I didn’t find it was quite as much at the forefront of the storytelling as it was in that first issue. For me, the story really hit its stride in issues four and on, when other places and characters from the fringes of the world as we know it so far start to become tied in to Maika’s story, and some questions begin to be answered to a degree (and of course new ones come up). And that ending to issue six was a killer!

Let’s talk about Sana Takeda’s art for a moment, because it is absolutely stunning—beautiful, with a sort of Art Deco, steampunk vibe, and manga-esque touches here and there that add to that hybrid-Asia atmosphere that this comic does so well. For all the violent, scary things that her art depicts in this story, there is also room for occasional hits of the super-cute (Kippa the kitsune-like fox child hugging her own big fluffy tail makes me squee every time), as well as really just staggering splendor and detail (Corvin D’Oro, anyone?). Completely frame-worthy.

Overall, though the initial level of violence and gore made me squeamish and I was a bit confused about the history and mythology of the setting, as I continued reading, the decrease in depicted violence and further clarification about murky aspects of Maika’s world (the quick lessons from the cat Professor Tam Tam at the end of each issue were helpful, too) helped me to become invested in the story, and now I can’t wait to find out what happens next (because that issue six, you guys!!). And though I am not one to usually buy single issues of comics, knowing that there are fun extras like letters and additional art might convert me, at least in the case of Monstress!

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copies, our review is uninfluenced by their source.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Cookbook Review: Asian Pickles

Title: Asian Pickles: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Cured, and Fermented Preserves from Korea, Japan, China, India, and Beyond
Author: Karen Solomon
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Publication Year: 2014
Read: 2014-present (future, too, most certainly)
Where It Came From: Digital ARC direct from publisher + hard copy from library
Genre: Cookbook of International Delights
Rating: 5 Happy, Healthy Pickling Beds

Living in Japan cultivated in me a healthy respect for the pickle, far beyond the definition as I came to understand it in my youth (“pickle” being synonymous with “cucumber” to me at the time, and of which there were only the options of dill and sweet). Well, I suppose on my mother’s side of the family we had the purple, Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of pickled eggs, but to my southwestern born-and-bred palate, the color was shocking, as was the thought of a protein rather than the accepted vegetable being the subject of said pickling.

But in Japan, my concepts of what makes a pickle were broadened beyond my wildest dreams. After a trial by fire with umeboshi (seriously, my Western palate ignored the “pickled” part of the translation of “pickled plum,” and focused on the “plum” to expect something sweet. It was not sweet.), it was as if I had survived my hazing to join a not-so-secret society of briny, fermented, vinegary delights. The small side dishes of pickled vegetables to accent the meal became my favorite part of the spread at the dinner table with my host family, and I would question my host mom relentlessly about them. What vegetable? What do I eat it with? Local specialty? Homemade or store-bought? Which is not to say every pickle I encountered in my time living in Japan or in my travels around Asia was exactly to my tastes (I still remember fondly many occasions on the Kyoto city bus when I would suddenly get a hit of a really unpleasant smell and think, “Oh no, farts from strangers,” only to look around and see a little old lady holding a freshly purchased culprit package of some pickled item from the market), but I am rather proud of the fact that I would try at least once nearly anything offered to me.

And after my experiences with Japanese pickles, anything was fair game. Korean banchan! Pickles from Vietnam! I would try all the things!! I loved it all, but it never really occurred to me that these were things I could make at home. Well, it did occur to me, but it seemed like a magical process too esoteric and specialized for me to pull off on my own. Moving back stateside made it much more difficult for me to get my pickle-fix, and my mind turned to making pickles of my own. There were books out there with info about Japanese pickle-making, certainly, but it seemed time-consuming, with considerable expense for materials and special, difficult-to-source ingredients. I tried my hand at some simple Korean pickles, but nothing too complicated. I also made some quick fridge takuan daikon radish pickles for an aunt who enjoys them, but that was about the extent of my experimentation. Overall, I felt kind of blind in my pursuit of pickles like those I ate abroad.

And now we come to the actual book review. I was super excited to hear about Asian Pickles prior to its publication, because a book covering basic pickle traditions from countries across Asia, with an emphasis on accessibility, sounded like just the thing I was looking for. And it did not disappoint! The book covers pickles and pickle-adjacent foods from many Asian countries, from classics to pickles of the author's own creation inspired by the flavors and pickle-making techniques of the country, and from simple pickles with a broad appeal, to more complicated, challengingly flavored ones for those who have reached graduate-level in their pickle studies.

There are chapters devoted to Japan, Korea, China, India, and Southeast Asia (the latter containing recipes from Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia). Each chapter opens with a quick, fun look at the history and culture of pickles in that particular place, followed by suggestions and ideas for when and how to serve the pickles that follow, and a primer on basic techniques of pickle-making in the culture in question. And then the recipes, oh delightful recipes! The recipes for each country are divided or categorized in a way that makes sense for them. For example, Japan is divided into traditional recipes, and new recipes inspired by the traditional. India is divided into pickles and chutneys. Korea is divided into kimchis and banchans. And so on. The book is not intended to be a comprehensive treatment of pickles in each culture, but rather to provide an accessible way to bring traditional recipes, flavors, and techniques into your home, and to inspire you in your own creations and further forays into the world of Asian pickles. And accessibility is key to the author—in her introduction, she promises to provide DIY alternatives to special equipment, and to not ask readers to buy special tools or hard-to-find ingredients unless absolutely necessary to the success of a recipe. Any unfamiliar terms or ingredients can be found in the glossary at the back of the book (along with ideas on where you can buy them), and there is also a resource list of books, magazines, and websites for further research.

The writing is easy reading, fun, and humorous, like you’ve got a pickle-making friend who is just chatting with you about a mutual interest, sharing her tips and knowledge (one of my favorite tips—use a teaspoon instead of a potato peeler to peel away the thin skin of ginger and other rhizomes. Genius!). It’s as much fun to simply sit and read as it is to cook from. And the photos are absolutely gorgeous! I was having a Pavlovian response as I paged through the book, admiring the bright colors and imagining the walloping flavor punches packed by the pickles on the page. Overall, a great book and one I will be adding to my personal collection. I think next on my to-pickle list will be the Kyoto-specific, Kyoto-nostalgic senmaizuke , or “Thousand Slices” Turnips from page twenty-four.

*Additional important facts:

  • I ate some homemade kimchi before writing this.
  • I have a dog named Pickle, completely independent of any love I bear the food of the same name. (She had picked out her name long before I learned the joys of fermented veggies.)
  • Once, at a school I was teaching at in Japan, I was very surprised to find a huge glass jar of plums sitting in alcohol on the counter, which the teachers were making into umeshu. No one could understand why I was mildly shocked to find liquor being produced in the teacher’s workroom.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Image Comics Round-Up: Limbo, WicDiv, Paper Girls, and More!

I’ve tried some superhero graphic novels in my day, but I can never seem to get into much in the DC/Marvel worlds (Ms. Marvel being the exception). Enter Image Comics! Pretty much all of the graphic novels I read on a regular basis come from this publisher. I’ve been trying a lot of different series of theirs in recent months, and thought I’d do a little round-up post of what I’ve thought of my readings so far.

Limbo is a backwater swamp-noir, with voodoo in its veins and a touch of Lovecraft woven into the mix, with hints of the ‘80s and an analog vibe to round out the palate. Sound eclectic? It is, but the moving parts all come together smoothly to spin a story with some deeply creepy moments, a mystery that starts out simple and gains momentum and complexity, and the overall puzzle of our amnesiac P.I.’s origins and the world he finds himself living in. On a few occasions there was some convoluted philosophical-esque stuff that I wanted to tl;dr, and some of the reveals about P.I. Clay were dark enough to be almost depressing, but overall I enjoyed it. This trade encompasses a complete story arc, but enough mysteries remain that I might seek out the next volume to find out what’s in store for Dedande and its denizens. Also, the included extras were really, really awesome.

I.D. reads like the graphic novel equivalent of a short story. It fits the sci-fi category in terms of both the medical main concept of the story (brain transplants) and the setting (we get hints of non-Earth colonies and terraforming). Still, the main concerns of the story seem to be philosophical and psychological, as three previously-unknown-to-each-other characters consider having their brains transplanted to new bodies. What would motivate a person to take such drastic action? How would personal identity fare in such a situation? The art is absolutely beautiful, and the storytelling has an ethereal, vague quality, creating the necessary shape of the story while leaving much of the surrounding information amorphous, conveying details that create character depth in few pages and hint at further depth, while dancing airily around the questions those hints and nuances tease out of the reader. It’s a story that I can respect, but not the kind of thing I’d go back and re-read.

The Wicked + The Divine is pure delight for me. In an alternate modern day, every ninety or so years twelve gods are incarnated as humans, with a 2-year expiration date on life. For those two years after awakening, they are music stars with fanatic followers, zealot-y anti-fans, and skeptics as well. Are these people really gods in the flesh? Are they just crazy, deluded young people out for fame and fortune? A young woman from the “fanatic follower” category finds herself embroiled in the world of the twelve and their caretaker/advisor, and begins to see that there’s a lot more going on under the surface of the phenomenon. The art is quite stunning, with a fresh, clean-cut style, and a bit of neon-hip edge, unlike anything I’ve seen before. Some shocking moments and reveals keep me plowing through the trades.

Paper Girls comes from Brian K. Vaughan, the mind behind the immensely popular Saga (which it perhaps inevitably draws comparisons to). The short pitch: In the late ‘80s, four preteen newspaper delivery girls out running their routes stumble upon some seriously weird shit. This one was super fun for me because I went into it with no idea that it was going to veer into sci-fi at all. The whole time I was like, “What the hell is happening?!”—and I absolutely loved it. It’s strange and wonderful and weird and crazy and completely its own thing in the way that Saga is, but strangewonderfulweirdcrazy in its own brand new ways, though you can see how the same mind dreamt them up. Awesome art, with a neon suburban ‘80s vibe, and plenty of mystery to keep me looking forward to future volumes.

Shutter is another one that has drawn comparisons to Saga, and unfairly so, in my opinion. (The only time I thought about Saga while reading this was when the main character’s talking, helpful Felix the Cat clock was introduced. I remember thinking, “Hey, another comic I love with a cat that talks! Cool!” And that was it. The word Saga didn’t even come into my brain.) Said main character is Kate Kristopher, who lives in a wild, eclectic version of modern day Earth. As the daughter of a famous explorer, she spent her youth and teen years traveling the world with her father, until a tragedy caused her early retirement. Now, however, sinister and mysterious forces hunting her down have forced her out of retirement and back into the world of adventuring and hidden family secrets. The art didn’t do as much for me as in other comics like Paper Girls and The Wicked + The Divine, but I didn’t mind it. Beware of occasional and unsettling intrusions of gore and violence, though.

What are your latest graphic novel discoveries and obsessions? Let us know in the comments!

Limbo, by Dan Watters & Caspar Wijngaard
Published by Image Comics (June 2016)
Read in July 2016; e-ARC from NetGalley
3.5 Stars

I.D., by Emma RĂ­os
Published by Image Comics (June 2016)
Read in July 2016; e-ARC from NetGalley
3 Stars

The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1: The Faust Act, by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, & Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics (2014)
Read in May 2016; Paper copy checked out from library
4 Stars

The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 2: Fandemonium, by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, & Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics (2015)
Read in June 2016; Paper copy checked out from library
4 Stars

Paper Girls, by Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, & Matthew Wilson
Published by Image Comics (April 2016)
Read in May 2016; Paper copy checked out from library
5 Stars

Shutter, Vol. 1: Wanderlost, by Joe Keatinge, Leila del Duca, & Owen Gieni
Published by Image Comics (2014)
Read in June 2016; Paper copy checked out from library
4 Stars

*As ever, much as we are grateful for review copies, our reviews are uninfluenced by their source.

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