January 15, 2015

What I Read on My Winter Vacation

Due to one thing and another, this first post of 2015 is rather later than planned, but hi, I'm back, happy new year! I have a number of looking-back-and-ahead topics to get to as I reacclimate to routine. Today, though, I'm savoring the memories from the first week of my time off, which I spent in beautiful Mendocino relaxing with family. I did a lot of contemplating the ocean, eating well, and of course, reading. Here's what I read on my winter vacation:

→ At its core, THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS by Michel Faber is about a marriage tested by separation. As the story opens, Peter is leaving on a long journey. His wife, Bea, has agreed that it's important for him to go, but she's struggling with the thought of them being apart.

Information is doled out slowly in this novel, and it's a while before all the circumstances of the voyage are revealed. Knowing nothing else up front would make for a great reading experience. However, I'd already heard considerably more when I started the book, and it was those details of the premise that made me interested in reading, so I'll go ahead and describe the other major parts of the story.

Peter is traveling to a far-distant planet because he is the pastor selected to preach about Christianity to the native population. He knows shockingly little about the mission he's about to undertake, and nearly everything he discovers once he arrives on the planet comes as a surprise to both Peter and the reader. His biggest challenge is that he and Bea are used to functioning as a team, and at first, his thoughts are always on what she might be doing and how she would react to what he's experiencing. Only limited communication between them is possible, and as the days pass and her messages fill with more and more bad news about life back on Earth, Peter finds himself feeling increasingly disconnected from his beloved partner.

The story, characters, and worldbuilding in this novel are all fascinating, though all fell somewhat short of my expectations, which were raised by the book's inclusion on many best-of-the-year lists. Still, I was engrossed throughout. Faber is a skilled and imaginative writer, and I'm interested in reading more of his work. I strongly recommend this book, despite some flaws, and I look forward to discussing it.

→ I bought myself a mystery present in the form of Book Riot's Quarterly box, and among the excellent selections in the shipment, I was pleased to find MS. MARVEL, VOLUME 1: NO NORMAL by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona. I've been hearing raves about this comic for a while, including that it appeals even to readers unfamiliar with superhero comics. I fall into that category myself, so I was curious to give the series a try.

Kamala Khan is a teen from Jersey City who writes Avengers fan fiction, adheres to her Muslim beliefs, and also argues against the restrictions of the religion and of her parents. Her classmates mock her differences, and Kamala wishes she could be normal. Instead she becomes extraordinary when she is granted superpowers and transformed into the latest incarnation of Ms. Marvel. This paperback volume collects the first five issues of the comic, in which Kamala receives, comes to terms with, and learns to use her new powers.

The writing and art in the comic are both strong. What interested me most about the book is the way Kamala struggles to find a balance between home, school, religion, and fighting evil. I didn't get invested enough in the superhero story to want to continue following the comic, but it's great to see new diversity introduced to old characters, and I'm glad this version of Ms. Marvel is out there.

HERE by Richard McGuire is a beautiful and strange graphic work that I first heard about on the radio and had a hard time envisioning from description alone. I'm offering a photograph of one of the pages to help explain the book:

Page from HERE

Every page depicts the same place on Earth, a spot that's occupied by the living room of a house for several centuries. Many pages show multiple moments simultaneously by overlaying boxes that peek into sections of the space at different points. The year displayed at the corner of every illustration orients us in time, but the rest of the interpretation is up to the reader. The chronology leaps back and forth across decades and millennia seemingly at random. There is limited use of speech bubbles, but the drawings are the main focus. A few recurring characters emerge, and some tiny stories play out across certain pages. Overall, though, the book's concern is setting, not plot.

The detail in the illustrations is impressive, and it's evident that McGuire took great care with historical accuracy. I was fascinated to see what he imagined for the space at different times and to muse on the juxtapositions and sequences of images. While I might have preferred to find a stronger overall story in the book, I enjoyed the time I spent with HERE.

(For a more story-focused graphic take on one place across time, check out the excellent BUILDING STORIES by Chris Ware, which I read on my winter vacation a couple of years ago.)

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, a group of authors reveal how they titled their novels: "One of the unexplainable mysteries of writing fiction is that I normally begin already knowing the title and last line. I can't explain why. It's a mystery. The stories for which I don't already know these elements take longer. Perhaps because something hasn't quite distilled, and my conception is still a piece of sand, battling a shell to turn itself into a pearl," says Marie-Helene Bertino.

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