My Favorite Murder

The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin. Felony and Mayhem Press, 2005, originally published 1944. 9781933397009.

After thoroughly enjoying The Moving Toyshop, I decided to go back to the first book featuring literary detective Gervase Fen. A company of actors and a playwright have arrived in Oxford to put on a repertory production of a new play. One of the actresses, thoroughly disliked by pretty much everyone, is found dead, shot through the head at close range. The police are certain that it’s suicide, but Gervase Fen is convinced otherwise. The writing is delightful, light and joking, full of glorious turns of phrase and a very literary vocabulary (have your dictionary handy). The characters are all quite flawed and interesting and the action (and there is a lot of it) takes place over the course of a single week.

Is it a flaw of Generation X that we think we invented self-aware metafiction? This book is clear proof that we didn’t: it is full of winks at the audience and joyful tweaks of mystery conventions. The murder itself doesn’t happen until well into the book, with the author teasing the reader about it the whole time. Then our detective solves the murder and announces that he has done so to every character, but refuses say who the culprit is, with another third of the book still to go. Asin other golden-age mysteries, all the clues are available to solve the mystery, but the complexity of Crispin’s solution to this impossible crime may make you roll your eyes. But you know what? I enjoyed the ride so much that I didn’t care one bit.

no, she doesn’t sparkle

Glister by Andi Watson. Dark Horse Books, 2017. 9781506703190. 302pp.

This is an omnibus edition of four shorter graphic novels originally published by Walker Books back in 2009 and 2010: Glister: The Haunted Teapot, Glister: The House Hunt, Glister: The Faerie Host, and Glister: The Family Tree. I’m a huge fan of Andi Watson’s graphic novels for kids (Princess Decomposia, Gum Girl) and adults (Little Star, Love Fights), but somehow failed to connect with this series when it was first published. Having all the books in one volume seems to have made all the difference — they’re excellent.

Glister Butterworth is a fearless, friendly little girl who lives in Chilblain Hall with her father and, well, others. Strange things happen around her, her world is full of ghosts and creatures and faeries, and her house is somehow alive (and moody). In the first book, her supernatural adventures are far more fun than freaky. The teapot is haunted by the ghost of a terrible author who runs her ragged when she helps him finish a novel. In the second, after being insulted, Chilblain Hall’s mood is in the dumps. Glister tries (and fails) to cheer it up, so it leaves. She sets off to find it. The third book opens with Chilblain Hall getting a new neighbor, Faerieland, and a new visitor, Glister’s missing mother, who she talks with in her mirror. Glister will, of course, have to set off into Faerieland to rescue her. Luckily she has the magic hoodie her mother made for her when she was a child. In the fourth, the Butterworth Family Tree blooms, and to Glister’s delight, several of the relatives she’s only seen in portraits around the Hall come to visit. Her delight doesn’t last long and the visits may cost her and her father their home.

Watson’s style is more cartoony than realistic, and it has a sketchy, hand-inked feel that gives his stories an energy lacking in many kids’ graphic novels. Each of the stories is reproduced using a single color, which seems to highlight his talents. It’s the perfect way to create a world in which the supernatural is present but isn’t too threatening.

This is not a a story about ecological armageddon.

Good Night, Planet (Toon Level Two) by Liniers. Toon Books, 2017. 9781943145201. 32pp.

When Toon’s Easy-To-Read Comics are good, they’re really good. This is one of my favorites. It’s going to be my go-to gift for early readers for the next few holiday seasons.

After an active day playing outside, a little girl tells her stuffed animal, Planet, good night and goes to sleep. Planet gets up, gives the sleeping girl a kiss, and goes off to have his own nighttime adventure with the family dog and a mouse who gets Planet to climb a tree and reach for the moon. Many cookies are eaten by all before Planet returns to bed and the girl wakes up. It’s sweet, fun, and perfectly executed.

He was real

Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman by Box Brown. First Second, 2017. 9781626723160.

(This conversation started with me talking about a British documentary show on Netflix called Embarrassing Bodies. Gene sends his daughter screenshots from it. You should watch it.)
Gene: I’m a recovering pro wrestling fan.
Sarah: Coming into this, I was like, he’s this comedian…
G: Did you like him?
S: Not my favorite but I respected his funny meta-comedy, practical joke sense of humor, but it wasn’t something I tuned in for.
G: I remember watching SNL when I was really little, I used to stay up all night watching TV. (This and letting me read anything I wanted are what I owe my parents for.) I watched the first season when it aired when I was 7. I remember seeing him do the Mighty Mouse thing. It was crazy.
S: I saw an HBO special he did that was all the hits, so I saw all of his famous bits compressed into like an hour.
G: I saw him on Taxi, too. I remember seeing him wrestle women. I remember seeing him apologize to his parents on Letterman.
S: I saw some of those too.
G: Weird, right?
S: Not as weird as Crispin Glover, but weird.
G: Glover never really seems to be having a good time. Andy Kaufman seemed to be having fun.
S: We start in Kaufman’s childhood, and it was funny to see so many of his later bits reflected in his childhood. Obsessed with Elvis, watching Mighty Mouse…and it didn’t feel artificial, it felt like we were finding out this was the kind of kid he was.
Continue reading “He was real”

Yes, sir, that’s my baby manual

Welcome: A Mo Willems Guide for New Arrivals by Mo Willems. Hyperion Books for Children, 2017. 9781484767467.

I grabbed this book off the shelf because I was looking for books on immigration as a part of a Welcoming Week display, and then found out it was for a different kind of newcomer: babies! The book welcomes these new arrivals and explains the joys (music, cats, stories) and challenges (sadness, hurt, ice cream disasters) that will be faced in the weeks and years to come, all in the form of an instruction manual with simple infographic-style symbols. Useful tips and reassurances are included: if the new arrival has questions, they only have to “call or flail about or scream like a banshee. Someone is standing by 24 hours a day 7 days a week” and love and help is always available. Each page ends with “while we read this book together,” keeping the traditional picture book feeling among the jokes for parents. It is utterly charming and destined to be a perennial baby shower present.

Roller Women

Slam! Volume One written by Pamela Ribon, Illustrated by Veronica Fish. BOOM! Box, 2017. 9781684150045. Contains SLAM! #1 – #4.

Two friends, Jennifer Chau (muscular, brainy student studying for a masters in geology) and her friend Maisie Huff (skinny, recently dumped) meet when they’re freshies, new to roller derby. Roller derby gives participants many things: bruises, friends, enemies, and a sense of who they are. Jen and Maisie are drafted by different teams. Jen’s team’s all-star jammer seems to have a personal problem with her, while the less athletic Maisie struggles with her confidence and skating skills. After some drama when they’re both working with a new crop of freshies, their friendship seems over, and then their teams have a bout against each other.

Fish’s art really conveys the power of the derby without going over the top, and the panel layouts give the action just the right pace. Props to Pamela Ribon’s writing, too — she was (according to the cover) one of the writers of Disney’s Moana— her script allows the story to achieve a great balance between the words and pictures.

Family History

Irmina by Barbara Yelin. Translated from German by Michael Waaler. SelfMadeHero, 2016. 9781910593103.

Barbara Yelin’s fictional, beautifully drawn graphic novel was inspired by a box of “diaries and letters she found among [her] late grandmother’s things.” The question she’s asking herself throughout by creating it seems to be: Why were ordinary Germans so passive during the horrors they were responsible for during World War II? The answer the book offers never felt like an excuse to me

It opens in London in 1934 with the arrival of Miss Irmina von (something German) in foggy London. Some assume she’s a Jew or a communist fleeing Hitler, but all she wants is a profession and independence. She is the only German in her class at a commercial school for young women and somewhat awkward in social situations, but at a party she hits it off with Henry, a young black man from Barbados studying at Oxford. The two begin spending time together, developing a friendship on the basis of their not quite fitting in. Their relationship is charming, and clearly heading toward more than friendship, but money trouble forces Irmina to return home. The two vow to stay in touch, with Irmina struggling to save enough money to return to England.

I don’t think I’m ruining too much by saying that doesn’t work out as Irmina hopes, and that she soon gives up on returning to England and makes a life in Hitler’s Germany. She doesn’t personally do anything horrific, but she witnesses horrors perpetrated against Jews and does nothing, and clearly knows about what’s happening elsewhere in German territory. She’s such a sympathetic character in the first part of the book I kept hoping for some sort of redemptive action on her part in the second half. I won’t ruin the book by telling you whether that happened or not, but it did remain compelling throughout, all the way through the bit set in the 1980s at the end.