ambuscades, burglarious, cachinnate, rodomontade

The Moving Toyshop: A Detective Story by Edmund Crispin. Walker and Company, 1946. 0802754341.

I was complaining to a co-worker about having to give up on two classic mysteries in a row because they were too dark. (I have to be in the right mood for a really gritty book.) He recommended a series featuring a crime-solving Oxford don and loaned me this book. (Thanks, Tom!) It turned out to be just right.

English professor Gervase Fen is a delightful sleuth: he has a keen, logical mind, a tremendously dry sense of humor, and drives his red sports car (named Lily Christine III) around Oxford like a maniac. His poet friend Richard Cadogan comes to Oxford on vacation. On his way into town late at night, he finds the door of a toyshop unlocked. He enters to let the shopkeeper know, makes his way to the apartment upstairs, and finds the body of an elderly woman who was strangled to death. The unseen killer knocks him out with a blow to the head. After Cadogan comes to, he escapes through a back window. When he brings the police to investigate, both the body and the toyshop are gone. The police figure he imagined it all because of his (very real) head injury. Fen thinks otherwise. Together they piece together the clues to a murder without a body.

The crime itself is a complex and baffling puzzle. Even the suspects comment that it is an impossible murder, a locked-room mystery in an unlocked room. Several times I was convinced that I knew who had done it, only to have the evidence clear that person and a new suspect emerge. The solution brought everything together in a satisfying way. I am definitely going to follow the rest of Gervase Fen’s cases!

Both Fen and Cadogan are wonderfully eccentric, and they manage to gather quite a few odd characters to help them. My favorites were Wilkes, a hard-of-hearing elderly professor who always ends up near the liquor and beautiful women; an unnamed truck driver with a great appreciation for literature; and Mr. Barnaby, a student who interrupts his intellectual madeira-and-cake soiree to gather a mob of drunk undergrads and chase down a suspect. I found the book richly written and quite fun, with some lovely turns of phrase and a vocabulary that sent me to the dictionary quite a few times. There are many entertaining literary references including a plot point involving the poetry of Edward Lear, a pair of heavies nicknamed Scylla and Charybdis, and a running joke involving Fen half-starting a discussion about Measure for Measure every time he’s on the phone with the police.

Really real friend friends

Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham. First Second, 2017. 9781626724167. 224pp.

I feel like I’m seeing Pham’s name and artwork everywhere. I loved The Bear Who Wasn’t There (am I imagining the scene with a giraffe on a toilet?) and I’ve got Isabella for Real near the top of my to-read pile. And she also drew a full length graphic novel with Shannon Hale (Princess in Black, Rapunzel’s Revenge (I know she’s written a lot of other cool books, but those are my favs))?!? When does she sleep?

First, the art: fantastic. Pham captures the red-headed Shannon’s everyday antics and really brings her imagined games to life, too. She’s right up there with Raina Telgemeier. Wow.

The story: This is Shannon Hale’s story, based on her memories of elementary school friendships. (There are awkwardly beautiful pictures of Hale at the back for comparison with the character’s look, along with an author’s note about the story.) Shannon loves her friend Adrienne so much! But in second grade, others want her attention, too, and then Adrienne moves away. Shannon makes another friend, Tammy, who clearly wants Shannon’s friendship while all Shannon wants is for Adrienne to come back. And then she comes back. It’s painful to to read, and it only gets worse as girls form grade school cliques and Shannon moves in and out of them — lots of social anxiety, lots of stomach cramps. It’s saved from a didactic after school special vibe and comes alive because Shannon doesn’t always do the nicest thing, and like in real life it’s often not clear what she should do. (I’m leaving this where my high school aged daughter can find it.)

Renaissance Woman

Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story by Peter Bagge. Drawn & Quarterly, 2017. 9781770462694.

Bagge’s first biographical comic, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, was the kind of history-is-stranger-than-fiction book I love, so I was pretty excited that he’d written another one. And it’s about Zora Neale Hurston: writer, folklorist, and star of the Harlem Renaissance. It doesn’t disappoint: it’s full of the same kind of outrageous behavior, headstrong self-confidence, and perseverance in doing what needed to get done. Her life had family troubles! Literary feuds! Scrapes with death in rural Florida while collecting folklore! (There was a woman with a knife in a turpentine camp who felt Hurston had been putting the moves on her man!) And lots and lots of romantic relationships! (See also the previous parenthetical!)

There is a but coming: Hurston’s very full life, complex political beliefs, friendships and sometimes enemyships with a list of influential people as long as your arm means that you get plunged into the middle of  her life without a lot of lead up or context… until the notes section at the back. The notes, arranged in order by the page they explain, have the same tone as the comics with lots more detail. I just wish the information from each section could be combined better with the notes. I’ll be first in line for any future biographies by Bagge, but now I’ll be sure to flip back to the notes section as I read them.

Take a Powder

Promise of Blood (The Powder Mage Trilogy) by Brian McClellan. Orbit, 2014. 608pp. 9780316219044.

My friend Eric has been telling me about this series for years. Every time I heard “Powder Mage” all that came to mind was “take a powder” or “baby powder” and I didn’t pick it up. Huge mistake.

The series’ eponymous powder mages have an affinity with gunpowder: they can snort it for super strength, speed, and stamina, cause it to explode from a distance, and use its explosive power to hurl bullets with and without guns. All of which is good, because they’re hated by members of the royal cabals, the more traditional magic users who are valued and kept close by their rulers.

The book opens with a coup by a general who is also a powder mage, who leads soldiers against a corrupt king who is bankrupting his country and abusing its citizens. There are a lot of beheadings and violence. He has to fight off royalists and try to control the city. He hires an investigator to figure out the cabal members’ cryptic last words. And he sends his son (also a powder mage) to kill his son’s best friend (the only surviving member of the royal cabal) at a remote mountain outpost. Nothing goes as planned. A neighboring country is about to invade. A popular master chef claims to be a god. Oh, and some version of Armageddon is coming. At the center of most of it is my favorite character, a mute young woman who uses some kind of “primitive” uncivilized magic no one understands, and who clearly kicks ass. (Eric assures me she figures into the later books, so I can’t wait to read them.)

Brandon Sanderson apparently mentored/taught McClellan, and their books share a level of craft and just sheer entertainment value that I rarely find elsewhere. If you liked Sanderson’s Mistborn series I think you’ll love this book.

The Incredible Flatness of Being

shapes by John. J. Reiss. Little Simon, 2016. 9781481476454. 34pp.

colors by John J. Reiss. Little Simon, 2016. 9781481476430. 34pp.

Two classic picture books from the late 60s and early 70s featuring what I think of as flat art — bold, uniform colors, no shadows, gradients, or textures. (The board book format’s cardboard pages makes the art feel even flatter.) I’ve got no idea how art like this was colored before the age of Photoshop but it’s simply wonderful to look at. In shapes a gray fox and his friend, a mole, show where colorful basic shapes like triangles and circles appear in things like sails and thumbtacks, and how they can be combined to make more complex shapes like pyramids and spheres. There are even pentagons and hexagons and more. In colors Reiss shows the variety of what we might refer to as “blue,” “yellow,” and other colors by showing differently colored things — cornflowers, blueberries, the sea / baby chicks, bees, squash — that are not all the same color as each other. Like the fish on the cover, the entire design emphasizes that things we can group as the same aren’t the same. And his section on green includes gooseberries, which kids need to know about so that stores will continue to stock gooseberry jam, which I love.

Big Dreams… Of Murder!

Agatha Christie by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara, illustrated by Elisa Munsó, translated by Raquel Plitt. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2017. 9781847809605. In the series Little People, Big Dreams.

I’ll admit that I was confused by the series name Little People, Big Dreams. Are all the biographees short? No, turns out they are all about women who had some aspiration in childhood that led to their achievements as adults. In Agatha Christie’s case, she thought up better endings for the books her mother read aloud to her. She grew up to learn about poisons as a nurse in WWI, and later created the legendary detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She wrote mystery novels that became famous all over the globe. (The afterword notes that her books have been translated into more than a hundred languages and that her book And Then There Were None is one of the ten most-read books in the world.) This book is both an accessible biography for kids who won’t be reading Christie’s novels until they’re older, and an encouragement to explore their interests.

I wish I had Gene’s eye and vocabulary for illustration so I could say something more informative than “I really liked it!” The pictures are black and white pen drawings full of detailed patterns and swooping lines. Each page has an accent in red, and the faces are simple and appealing.

On The Wings Of Lots Of Dead Birds

Audubon: On the Wings of the World by Fabien Grolleau & Jérémie Royer. Nobrow, 2016. 9781910620151.

I’m not someone who longs for walks in primeval wilderness, I don’t read history books, and most biographies leave me cold, but this beautifully drawn and colored graphic novel was amazing. Audubon was obsessed with painting the birds of America. He left his family behind to undertake dangerous trips into the unsettled wilderness to paint the birds he found there. Two moments that stand out to me: Audubon climbing into a hollow sycamore tree to investigate the thousands of swallows nesting inside, and shooting at a flock of pigeons in which birds may have numbered over a billion. (The most shocking thing about the book was the cavalier way he killed so many birds so that he could pose them in lifelike ways to paint. He’d sometimes be so captivated by them that he let them live, but those exceptions were few and far between. It was more like: “Look at that beautiful bird!” Pow!) The scientific community in the U.S. wasn’t supportive of Audubon’s work — they saw him as an artist, not a naturalist — so he eventually had to travel to England to find support for his famous book.

I often say that the key to pursuing one’s artistic goals is a supportive spouse or partner, and Audubon’s wife goes above and beyond in terms the number of years she spends without him, raising all their children. (I’d love to read a graphic novel about her life next.)

Pair this with Nick Bertozzi’s epic Lewis & Clark to try to give the comic readers in your life a love of nature and history. It’s too late for me, but I’m sure that could work for someone with fewer plant allergies.