Monthly Reads: February 2021

How the hell did I read all this in February and my unread shelf is still a mess? Book of the Month is TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM, by Yaa Gyasi.

Unread Shelf: February 28, 2021

Technically I think this is an improvement over last month, at least in terms of number of books, it’s just that the books I’ve replaced the ones I’ve read with have been enormous.

I read books

My comic shop has been having a hell of a time lately. For those of you who aren’t comic geeks, Wednesday is New Comic Books Day. Every comic book shop I’ve ever frequented was closed on Tuesdays, because Wednesday is the day every week when new books come out and that meant that they needed to remerch everything in their damn store once a week. DC Comics recently decided they were going to take responsibility for shipping and fulfillment themselves, and they started shipping everything to be available for Tuesday. My comic shop shrugged and didn’t change anything, knowing that nobody was going to get pissed about having to wait that extra day, and if they’ve caught any grief from it I’m unaware of it.

The problem is that for the last several weeks all of their indie and Marvel books have been getting caught in weather nightmares and have been late. You can probably imagine that with this business model a comic shop makes a huge percentage of their weekly revenue– 75% or more– on Wednesday, and so if something prevents the books from being there on time it can cause serious cash flow problems. Last week’s Marvel books just got put on the shelf today, and last I heard they were hoping this week’s Marvel books would be available tomorrow. I popped in yesterday anyway because I had dinner plans with my dad and the comic shop is near his house, and since I’m not buying much DC stuff nowadays there really wasn’t much of anything available. So I picked up Nubia: Real One, a 208-page original graphic novel written by L.L. McKinney and drawn by Robyn Smith. You might recognize McKinney’s name from her books A Blade So Black and A Dream So Dark, both of which I have read and really enjoyed. This isn’t quite her first comics work, but it’s certainly her first major work– she’s done a story here and there, but debuting with a 200+ page OGN is … not a thing that’s really done, to be honest. I had a conversation with the owners about various prose authors who have made the transition into comics work recently– Daniel Jose Older, Saladin Ahmed, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jodi Picoult, of all people, all came up. Some authors have trouble with the transition, because in comics so much is handled visually.

LL McKinney is not one of those authors, and I’ll stop burying the lede: Nubia: Real One is one of the best comics I’ve read in quite some time, and to pull something like that off with a character I wasn’t terribly aware of or invested in is a hell of an accomplishment. I’m also completely unfamiliar with Robyn Smith’s work, and honestly a quick scan of the book didn’t initially impress me, as this is far from traditional superhero work. That’s not automatically bad, mind you, but Nubia is an Amazon. This is a DC book.

Well, all those concerns got blown to hell once I started reading the book. Smith’s art and in particular her character designs are just beautiful– it can be difficult to draw regular folks in a way that makes them instantly recognizable in a comic book (there’s a reason superheroes wear brightly colored costumes) and the characters are all distinct and clear without looking, other than Nubia’s towering height, disproportionate or exaggerated. And then there’s Nubia’s tooth gap. This may seem like a weird thing to fixate on, but she smiles a lot in this book, and she’s got this gap between her front teeth that just did an amazing amount of work in making her seem like a normal kid and a regular person. I have been reading comics for 35 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character with a gap in their front teeth that wasn’t supposed to be a small child. She feels like a real person, with real problems, and so do her friends, and so do her parents for that matter, and while anyone who knows anything about the character already knows what the big twist is (this is an origin story) the story itself is great as well. I loved this book unconditionally, and if you’re even a little bit of a comic book person you owe yourself to check it out.

I can’t find a properly high-resolution version of this cover, unfortunately, but I also finished Tochi Onyebuchi’s Rebel Sisters this week. This is the second book in a series, the sequel to his War Girls, which ended up in fifth place on my Best New Books of 2019 list. The sequel has a very different feel to it from the first book. War Girls was, in the author’s words, “Gundam in Nigeria,” only it ended up being quite a bit more weighty than that description implies. That said, there were giant mechs and blowing shit up, but for all that it was a cool action book it also had a lot to say about revolution and civil war, and it was all-around a hell of a thing to read.

(I have said it before, and I’ll repeat it again: if you are not reading African and African diasporic science fiction and fantasy right now, and particularly Nigerian science fiction, you are missing out. This is a real movement and you need to get in on it.)

Rebel Sisters is set after the future civil war that takes up the bulk of War Girls, and stars Ify, who was one of the main characters of War Girls. Ify has left Nigeria and moved to a space station and is working as a doctor, when a mysterious illness takes over among the children of many of the refugee families who live at the station. She ends up returning to Earth in an attempt to find a cure for the disease, and finds out that the Nigerian government has … well, they’ve dealt with moving on from the war in a unique way, I’ll just say that. Rebel Sisters is a quieter and more contemplative book than War Girls was, and bounces back and forth between Ify’s perspective and that of one of the synths from the first book, a character I won’t spoil much about. You kind of get the feeling that Onyebuchi got the “big robots smash punch BOOM!” out of his system in the first book, and this one is more About What It Is About, if that makes any sense, although it’s no less an accomplishment for all that. One interesting detail from the author’s afterword that I’m going to make sure you know about going in, because I wish I had: the disease the kids come down with may strike you as … rather narratively convenient, for lack of a better word. It is– and this kind of blew my mind and made me read more into it– actually based on a real phenomenon that has happened among refugee children.

Check it out.

Finally, from the This Book Doesn’t Really Need My Help department, I’ve also read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. I bought both of the other books in this post because of preexisting fandoms, but while I had heard of Coelho before ordering The Alchemist, I couldn’t have told you anything about him other than that he was an author. Well, I decided I wanted to find a book from Brazil for #Readaroundtheworld, and a search for Brazilian authors brought his name and this book up, and … well, if they’ve done a 25th Anniversary Edition of it it’s probably pretty good, right?

It is. It absolutely is.

If I had to compare The Alchemist to anything else I’ve read, two books come to mind immediately: Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. There are a number of commonalities, but what stands out is the length of the books (Haroun is easily the shortest of Rushdie’s works, Jonathan is basically a novella, and Alchemist is around 230 pages) and the fairy-tale feel of the stories themselves. Jonathan and Alchemist come off as more didactic than Haroun does, but all three books have Feelings About How We Should Live, and, well, Jonathan and Haroun are both books that have been intensely rewarding rereads, and I suspect Alchemist is going to be as well.

I don’t speak a word of Portuguese other than where it overlaps with Spanish, but for what it’s worth this is also a pretty superb translation, good enough that I actually made sure it was originally written in Portuguese and not English. There can be a certain awkwardness to translated works from time to time, where you have to sort of wrap your head around the style of the language of the book before you can get into it, but either Portuguese translates very smoothly into English or Alan R. Clarke is very, very good at his job. He’s translated several of Coelho’s books, and I enjoyed this enough that I’ll definitely want to read more of Coelho’s books in the future, so I’m glad they seem to be in the right hands.

#REVIEW: Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi

This is going to be kind of a difficult post to write, because Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom is not like most of what I read, and it’s messing with my ability to talk about it in a coherent sense. Y’all know me by now; I prefer plot-driven books, and my enjoyment of a book is more often focused on what happens in the book rather than concerns about theme and character and highfalutin literary stuff. But this book is enormously character-driven. You know everything that’s going to “happen” in the book within the first few pages (and, to complicate things, I don’t really want to reveal any of it) and there are no big twists or plot reveals; it’s all about listening to Gifty, the main character, tell you about her life.

But, God, it’s beautiful, and I read it cover-to-cover between around 6:00 yesterday evening and 11:00 this morning, and I woke up this morning knowing that I wasn’t doing anything until I’d finished it. Transcendent Kingdom is about grief, and loss, and neuroscience, and addiction, and family, and it’s about being a Ghanaian immigrant in America when America isn’t always a good place to be. It’s also about Christianity and atheism in a way that got straight past all of my filters; in a weird way this book made me wish I were more religious, and that is not a thing that happens, like, ever.

And I really think that’s all I’m telling you, other than to also point out that this is another one of those “this book is amazing as a physical artifact” types of books as well; definitely get it in hardback. I’ve read 24 books so far in 2021 and I’ve read several that I really enjoyed but this is the first one that has ended with me feeling absolutely certain it will be on my end-of-year list. Grab it up, and while you’re at it pick up Gyasi’s Homegoing from a couple of years ago as well.

#Review: THE SEARCHER, by Tana French

I have rarely been so relieved to have enjoyed a book as I was with Tana French’s The Searcher. I’m pretty certain I’ve read every novel she’s written, and until her last book before this one I’d enjoyed all of them quite a bit. I was … not a fan of The Witch Elm. I wrote a review saying so, a review that has haunted me by regularly being one of my highest-viewed posts every month since I wrote it. I don’t know why this happens so often when I write negative reviews; people seem to enjoy seeing me not like things for some reason. But I like Tana French, damn it! It was just that one book! She’s still awesome, read the Dublin Murder Squad books!

I don’t know if she’s done with that series or just taking a break from it, but the notion that her newest book, The Searcher, was also going to be a stand-alone had me … nervous. I feel bad about how well the review of Witch Elm has done. And I felt like I really needed to have The Searcher be a return to form. Chances are if I hadn’t liked it, I wouldn’t have reviewed it, but I’d have to make a decision about whether I was buying more Tana French books as they come out in the future, and I need my Irish crime fiction fix, damn it.

So: yeah. The Searcher is absolutely a return to form. In fact, it might be my favorite of her books, although I’m going to hold off on that decision for a bit and let the sense of relief fade and see how well the book holds up. It shares DNA with a lot of her previous books that was jettisoned in The Witch Elm: the main character is a detective again, although he’s retired, and the book is written in the 3rd-person present tense of the rest of her books and not the first person of Witch Elm. It is not quite a murder mystery; the main character, Cal, is a Chicago cop who has recently gone through a messy divorce and has repaired off to a crumbling house in middle-of-nowhere Ireland, hunting for peace, quiet and smallness. He is rather forcibly befriended– adopted might be a better word, or at least serially imposed upon— by one of the local kids, Trey, a thirteen-year-old from a messed-up household and badly in need of some stability. And then it comes out that Trey’s older brother has disappeared, and Cal gets dragged, mostly unwittingly, into searching for him. There is always the question of whether the brother is alive or dead, but it’s definitely more of a missing-person story than a murder mystery. Can’t have a murder mystery without a dead person, right?

The other interesting thing: Cal, as I’ve said, is retired and a recent arrival in town, and while he’s not exactly taken leave of his detective skills he’s more than a little hamstrung by the lack of any sort of institutional support or knowledge of the local power structures. There are several places in the book where he’s deciding what to do next, and frequently he runs up against well, I can’t run his phone, or do criminal history checks or anything like that because he simply doesn’t have that kind of access any longer. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a fish out of water narrative, but there are certainly elements of that type of story complicating his search, and it’s an interesting change of pace for a book that might otherwise fit in a bit too neatly with the Murder Squad protagonists.

I liked this book a lot. I liked Cal, I liked the relationship between Cal and Trey, and I liked the small cast of supporting characters that get built up over the course of the book. The book is about 450 pages long and I read it in a day; again, I’ve liked-to-loved all of her books but the one, but I don’t remember another one that demanded I finish it immediately the way this one did. There’s a single story decision that comes up at about the 2/3 mark that I still don’t quite get, but it doesn’t turn out to be the misstep that I thought it was going to be when it first happens, and the book ends quite well, I think. I read some other reviews on Goodreads and the biggest knock against the book is that it’s slow-paced. That’s definitely true, but it’s a deliberate decision and quite consistent with everything else going on in the book– Cal has moved to Ireland precisely so that he can lead a slower and more deliberate life, so the book taking its time to watch the rooks in his yard mirrors the main character’s mental state pretty precisely.

Hooray! I enjoy liking things.