The Girl Who Married A Skull and other African Stories edited by C. Spike Trotman, Kate Ashwin, Kel McDonald & Taneka Stotts

Happy Black History Month! I’ve been so backlogged with work that the only volume I knew I could do justice to with regard to the occasion this week is this graphic novel, a part of the Cautionary Fables & Fairytales Book series printed by Iron Circus. I got the entire collection several crowdfunds ago (and recently completed the set) but had never had the right time or occasion to dive in. Happily, I now have a reason to read at least one.

And what a delightful way to start, especially since this is, I believe, the first in the series? The fifteen black and white tales collected here were written and illustrated by seventeen different creators, with a terrific spread across all sorts of folk tales. From humor to horror, from creation myths to tales transposed to a far future, this variety pleases the folklore completist in me. While I’d heard of some of these stories in different incarnations — the title story is fairly widespread, at least to those with an interest in pan-African culture — I was absolutely struck by the whimsy imbued in each interpretation presented here. Perhaps it’s my current state of mind, too, that has me embracing these light-hearted and overall generous takes. The classic story of the girl who married a skull does not usually end as charmingly as it does in these pages, after all.

Of course, this is ostensibly a collection for children, which might explain the lack of grimness. Regardless of why, I’m here for it, as we read of daring protagonists who use their ingenuity for good (tho sometimes for bad — and believe me, that never ends well.) Aside from Nicole Chartrand’s The Disobedient Daughter Who Married A Skull, I especially loved Katie & Steven Shanahan’s Demane And Demazana; Carla Speed McNeil’s Snake And Frog Never Play Together; Kate Ashwin’s The Story Of The Thunder And The Lightning; D Shazzbaa Bennett’s Gratitude; Mary Cagle’s The Lion’s Whiskers; Ma’at Crook’s Queen Hyena’s Funeral, and Meredith McLaren’s Concerning The Hawk And The Owl. The stories are almost all outstanding, but these are the ones that really grabbed me, and married their words particularly well with their illustrations.

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District and Circle by Seamus Heaney

Things, moments, people, poems. Heaney finds inspiration for the poems in District and Circle in things that he encounters or imagines, moments he hopes to preserve or evoke in others, people he remembers, and poems he either recalls or translates. Places, which loomed larger in other collections, are less present here, though of course they are not wholly absent as springs of inspiration. He opens with a thing, a very palpable thing, “The Turnip-Snedder.” I expect that upon reading the title only a minuscule slice of Heaney’s audience would know what a snedder is, but 20 lines later readers will not only have a very clear idea of a snedder, but also a sense of its physicality, the sounds it makes, and its metaphysical role in turning one form of life into another. He follows with “A Shiver,” a sonnet describing and meditating on swinging a sledgehammer. Like the first poem in his first collection, “Digging,” this poem links the physical aspects of work with the internal, the spiritual aspects of creating. Heaney has often spoken of the ways that poems should move or shift as they progress, a movement the swinger of the sledge needs too: “spine and waist/A pivot for the tight-braced, tilting rib-cage.” Poets and poems have this as well, “gathered force like a long-nursed rage/About to be let fly.” The mature Heaney is less certain than his younger self. Where the younger man wrote “Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it.” the older one asks

District and Circle by Seamus Heaney

…does it do you good
To have known it in your bones, directable,
Withholdable at will,
A first blow that could make air of a wall,
A last one so unanswerably landed
The staked earth quailed and shivered in the handle?

As in Electric Light, Heaney engages in considerable dialogue with other poets through translations, dedications and other forms of conversation. “Anything Can Happen” is styled “after Horace, Odes, I, 34.” Rilke gets a translation with “Rilke, After the Fire.” Heaney wonders about Greece and Ireland, about life and death, about poetry and political engagement all in the page and a half of “To George Seferis in the Underworld.” And then there’s the short delight of “Wordsworth’s Skates,” clearly inspired by a museum exhibit, but refusing to be bound to it, as the poet cannot be wholly bound by the material.
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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2023/01/29/district-and-circle-by-seamus-heaney/

Cold Water by Dave Hutchinson

Dave Hutchinson, like William Gibson, is an artiste of the slightly funny deal. They run all through Cold Water, and trying to figure out just who is running a caper on whom is one of the pleasures of the novel. Carey Tews, the novel’s main protagonist, is a Texan who’s been in Europe for decades as a journalist and also one of the Coureurs des Bois. The Coureurs are a shadowy network of people who are adept at moving things, or people, across Europe without bothering with pesky things like fixed identities or border regulations, or really any regulations at all. Between her two professions, Carey has become a connoisseur of the slightly funny deal.

Cold Water by Dave Hutchinson

Which is why she nearly walks away from the proposition that is offered to her in the municipal palm house in Gliwice, Poland. For reasons that are (mostly) explained over the course of Cold Water, she’s no longer an active Coureur. Yet a man who is one of the network’s central nodes has sent her an urgent message that draws her from her home in Catalunya to Gliwice in southwest Poland.

“Are you offering me my job back?” she asked.
“Oh, no,” he said. “No, I wouldn’t dream of being so insulting, unless you wanted it back; you seem to be doing very well on your own. No, we’d like to engage you as a consultant. How do your people put it? A visiting fireman.”
“Why me? Is everyone else busy or something?”
“We think you have a certain … perspective which would be useful.” (pp. 12–13)

The person making the offer, Kaunus, (“That’s a place, not a name,” [said Carey]. He heaved a sigh. “Yes,” he said wearily.) shows her a picture.

She looked down at the photograph … In it, a young man and woman were leaning together into the shot, arms around each other’s shoulders. They were laughing. In the background was a wall of bodies, the occasional hand gripping a beer glass. In the foreground was a table almost entirely covered in empty bottles and glasses and plates. The look on the woman’s face broke Carey’s heart. She looked so young and trusting and happy. The man was blond and handsome and she had never quite got over the suspicion that he looked like the Devil.
“What’s he got himself mixed up in now?” she asked.
“We were rather hoping you’d agree to find out for us,” he said. “On the face of it, he mostly seems to have got himself dead.” (pp. 13–14)

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Come Away From Her by Samuel W. Gailey

Cover art lately has been impressive all across the industry but y’all, look at this gorgeous thing. It’s even prettier than the Kiki Smith etching that inspired the book, in my opinion anyway.

And in my opinion? Come Away From Her reads like Marilynne Robinson deciding to turn her hand at commercial fiction a la Liane Moriarty, with strong Grace Metalious overtones (in case it wasn’t clear, this is a compliment, and a pretty darned lavish one at that.) Set in the 1980s in small town Pennsylvania, this is a book about secrets, violence and redemption, and I was straight up crying through the end of it. I did not manage to finish this in a single sitting as Julia, the publicist who pressed this on me (for which I’m forever grateful!) did, but I’ve also had to contend with poor health and even needier than usual children this past week. Reading and writing have been a bit of a struggle, but this book was absolutely worth fighting through the fog to finish.

As our story opens, Pastor Cap is hungover after yet another bender. He exits his church to find a murder of crows just outside. Trying to shoo them away, he finally sees what they’re obscuring: the bloody corpse of a very murdered person.

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The Moon Tonight: Our Moon’s Journey Around Earth by Jung Chang-hoon & Jang Ho

Happy Lunar New Year, readers! What more serendipitous opportunity for us to talk about the moon than in the first days of this auspicious time?

This wonderful picture book details the way the moon orbits around the earth and how we experience it, both visually and via the tides. In prose that’s as carefully chosen for precision as for beauty, astronomer and science editor Jung Chang-hoon discusses how we observe the moon and why it appears the way it does at different points in the calendar. The text is definitely suited for the scientifically-minded child. I have to admit that there were parts that felt a little over my head even. My planet-loving middle child loves this, however, particularly the flashlight experiment that’s included here to help understand the process of waxing and waning better.

My favorite parts — the terrific anecdotes on Korean culture in relation to the moon aside — were the gorgeous illustrations by award-winning illustrator Jang Ho. The depictions of heavenly bodies are as exquisite as expected, if not outright demanded, by children’s books on the subject.

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The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

I’m so glad I finally found the time to get to this oldest book on my TBR-pile! I’ve had it there since it was nominated for a Hugo two years ago, but other deadlines pushed it aside till I finally had a moment this January to dive in.

And oh, what a smart, elegant, emotional novel it is! I wish all professors of literature were like Micaiah Johnson, because then I’d know that society was in for writing that seriously contemplates human values and conditions instead of the pretentious navel-gazing dreck that passes for fine arts literature nowadays. Clearly, I have an ax to grind with the authors and industry professionals who’ve wasted hours of my life pushing works with dull plots and tedious writing. I mean, y’all, I just read a book where the one guy is described as being “basted with a light batter of money.” Tell me someone else does all the cooking for you without telling me etc. while you focus on your Very Serious Writing Career.

But I digress. The Space Between Worlds is a sci-fi novel about a woman who can walk between the many dimensions of the multiverse. The catch is that you can’t travel into a dimension where your counterpart is still alive. Cara’s alternate selves seem to be really good at dying, as she discovers over the course of her career as a Traverser. But when she realizes that she has a surprising connection to some of the most powerful people in all the dimensions she can walk into, she’ll have to decide whether her cushy life is worth risking for the fate of people who aren’t the ones she actually knows and loves.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2023/01/20/the-space-between-worlds-by-micaiah-johnson/

Paris Hide-And-Seek by Masumi

translated from the original French by Anita Conrade.

My sister went to Paris for her 40th birthday (lol, I went to The Melting Pot for mine) and got this delightful book for my youngest son Theo! Well, for all the kids, but since the protagonist is named Theo, it’s hard to believe that it’s not even a little bit especially for him.

In this seek-and-find picture book, Masumi leads the reader through the most famous sites of Paris, explaining their history in brief, kid-friendly paragraphs and letting the illustrations lead the way on each two-page spread. Each panoramic spread includes Theo, the boy with the scarf; his mischievous dog Potchi; a golden balloon, and an item highlighted in the text in bold for the reader to find.

The process of finding each of these is surprisingly soothing, helped by the luxe paper’s smooth fingertip feel, as well as by the almost-meditative maze that opens the book, really putting readers in the right mindset for the rest of the volume. I was feeling a little anxious and restless before starting this, but quickly fell into a lightly meditative state as I searched the pages for Theo, Potchi and the items. They’re not too difficult to find either. I managed all except one, likely hampered by the face that I still don’t know what a Paris Metro ticket is supposed to look like.

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The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Even by the standards of European monarchs, many of the Romanovs were terrible people. Peter the Great had his oldest son killed by torture. Earlier, Peter’s half-sister Sophia had tried to prevent him from assuming the throne, and if he had lost that contest he might well have paid with his life. Ivan VI succeeded his great aunt Anna when he had not yet had his first birthday, Anna having died of a kidney stone. He lost his throne before his second when Elizaveta, daughter of Peter the Great, staged a coup. Imprisoned, Ivan outlived two monarchs, although there were strict orders to have him killed should any attempt be made to free him. Those orders were carried out when Ivan was 23 and Catherine II, later known as Catherine the Great, was Empress. Catherine herself, born Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, took the throne by deposing her husband Peter III and having him killed.

The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore

No sooner had the Romanovs stopped killing each other than their subjects took up the task. The transition here is Tsar Paul. He was regarded as eccentric and was disliked by the more militant parts of the upper nobility. To be fair, he was not notably odder than his predecessors, though maybe he lacked the force of personality to make people go along with things. Eventually, senior nobles and rash generals began conspiring against him. Montefiore describes an elaborate and deadly dance among tsar, heir and conspirators. The tsar was growing more paranoid as he aged. The heir, Alexander, was in his early 20s and seeing his destiny open before him. The conspirators, particularly Peter von der Pahlen governor of Petersburg and chief minister, lured Alexander with tales of the tsar’s instability and of course the veiled threat that if his knowledge of the conspiracy was exposed his fate would be that of Peter’s son Alexei. (After all, Paul had eight other children, and women had ruled Russia for most of the preceding 75 years, so another empress was not out of the question.) The tsar wanted to see his eldest succeed him on the throne, but not prematurely. In the event, Paul was right to be paranoid. The nobles acted. Historians still debate the extent of Alexander’s involvement, and Montefiore comes down on the side of Alexander being involved but thinking his father was merely to be deposed with he himself ruling as regent. It’s possible that a young man might be naive enough to think deposition might not mean death; people can convince themselves of quite a bit, especially when a lifetime of absolute power is at stake.

After Paul, revolutionary elements cut out the nobility as middlemen in doing away with monarchs. Two of the last four tsars died violently. Alexander II was blown up in 1881 by members of an organization known as “People’s Will.” Nicholas II and all of his immediate family were shot by Bolsheviks in 1918, ending the line that had ruled Russia from 1613. There are currently three Romanov pretenders, though prospects of their return to a Russian throne, let alone ruling as autocrats, are slim.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2023/01/15/the-romanovs-by-simon-sebag-montefiore/

Not Saying Goodbye by Boris Akunin

Events at the end of Black City left Erast Fandorin, the Sherlock Holmes of Tsarist Russia, in a coma. The beginning of Not Saying Goodbye reveals that he has been in that state for a bit more than three years. Masa, his faithful companion for more than a quarter of a century, has watched over him the entire time. Fandorin’s swallowing reflex has remained active, so he has not been in danger of starvation, but the state between life and death has left Masa in a quandry about the right course of action. Medical advice eventually led him to a Chinese healer in Samara, a city on the Volga. Three months in Samara with treatments of acupuncture and herbs had enabled Fandorin to regain some weight and produced the first stirrings of consciousness. Unfortunately, just in those months the long-expected revolution in Russia broke out, disrupting everything, most especially Fandorin’s treatments.

Not Saying Goodbye by Boris Akunin

That leads to the first farcical scene in Not Saying Goodbye, with Masa transporting Fandorin in a chaotic train trip as a large piece of upright baggage. This section is a spoof of train mysteries, with robbers appearing, and a sudden stop tossing their traveling compartment about, thus providing cover for someone within the compartment to engage in a little quick theft, too. Accusations fly until a loud noise near his ear returns Fandorin to consciousness, if not entirely to reason. He solves the mystery, though he regards his surroundings as a dream. He the promptly returns to a deep sleep that lasts days.

Eventually, though, the detective awakens fully; it would be a very odd Fandorin book otherwise. Masa brings him up to date on what has happened since August 1914: their whole world has fallen apart. In the first parts of the novel, he is still recovering his strength and reflexes. As Fandorin struggles to find his feet in revolutionary Moscow, Akunin deprives him of some of the spectacular abilities that had saved him from many scrapes in the past.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2023/01/13/not-saying-goodbye-by-boris-akunin/

The Loud House Vol 17: Sibling Rivalry by The Loud House Creative Team

This might be one of my last reviews of this series, and not due to any change in the quality of the book. Quite the opposite: it feels like my reviews are becoming static because the content is so consistent from volume to volume.

That said, I don’t actually feel like this latest collection is correctly themed. While the Loud siblings certainly take center stage, any rivalry present is hardly between family members. Perhaps the most accurate story to the theme is Lynn It To Win It, where sports-mad Lynn Loud realizes that she’s won every sporting award her school has to offer. This spurs her to make up all sorts of bizarre events, to the detriment of her schoolmates, including her siblings.

The most fun vignette, Trendfretter, centers around fashion plate Leni. When she realizes that others are jacking her style, she goes on a shopping spree with her best friend to find a new signature look. I also really liked the opening story, A Cozy Compulsion, where Mrs Loud decides to teach three of her kids to knit, to varying effects. The stories featuring Lori off at college but still communicating with her little siblings were also very cute.

Overall, these are great reads for fans of the Nickelodeon show on which its based. They’re easy reads that can be used to help reluctant readers get more into the habit, or swift reads for people who want something light and humorous to page through while killing time.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2023/01/12/the-loud-house-vol-17-sibling-rivalry-by-the-loud-house-creative-team/