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.

Also? The cover is amazing

Lovecraft Country: A Novel by Matt Ruff. HarperCollins, 2016. 9780062292063.

In Atticus Turner’s teen years, his father argued with him about reading H. P. Lovecraft stories, telling him that he shouldn’t read anything by a racist author. Atticus looked to his uncle George, who sympathized but gave Atticus some perspective on his father’s anger. (He makes a comment that will definitely resonate with readers: “But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect,” and when Atticus asks him why he doesn’t get as angry, “I don’t get mad. Not at stories. They do disappoint me sometimes. Sometimes they stab me in the heart.”)

Now it’s 1954, and Atticus Turner is back from the Korean War. He gets a letter from his father urging him to come to Massachusetts to learn more about his mother’s family. The letter appears to have come from a town called Arkham: the home of the nightmarish godlike creatures, ominous occultists, and corpse reanimators of Lovecraft’s stories. Atticus knows it’s a fictional place (and George is pretty sure it’s actually Ardham), but his father was last seen with a white stranger in a flashy car, which doesn’t seem like a good sign for a black man in 1950s Chicago.

Uncle George, now the editor of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, and strong-willed family friend Letitia drive north with Atticus to rescue his father. Their journey is perilous: in Jim Crow era America they face sundown towns and the imminent threat of murder by the police. The new owners of a cafe George wants to review for the guide seem to have burnt out the previous owner and are ready to do violence to them. The possibility of facing down lethal extradimensional creatures and dark magic pales in comparison.

This starts a series of intertwined stories of Atticus and Letitia’s families getting caught up in a multi-generational feud as leaders of the Ardham and Chicago lodges of the Order of the Ancient Dawn struggle for control of vast magical powers. Like social an economic power, magic is firmly in the hands of old white New Englanders, and they use it against black people in similar ways. The ghost haunting a house and the house’s white neighbors both want the new black owner gone, a ledger detailing the money owed to an enslaved ancestor is ransomed for a powerful book of spells, a woman discouraged from studying astronomy finds a portal to other planets: each story combines everyday oppression with spooky otherworldly powers and high-stakes adventure.

I picked Lovecraft Country up because of the premise, then I couldn’t put it down: the creepy atmosphere and perilous battles kept me turning pages.

Love in Wartime

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. Simon and Schuster, 2016. 9781501124372.

Eighteen-year-old Mary North, spoiled daughter of a politician, abandons her Swiss ski trip to volunteer at the outbreak of World War II — so suddenly that she’s still in ski wear when she checks in. She’s disappointed with her boring assignment as schoolteacher. But then she creates her own excitement by seducing her boss, Tom Shaw. Everything is complicated when Mary meets Tom’s handsome roommate Alistair Heath, formerly an art restorer but currently an artillery officer, just back from the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Alistair is posted to Malta, Mary takes charge of a motley class of kids returned from their evacuation from London, and the two continue their romance in lighthearted letters, not all of which reach their destinations. Alistair narrowly escapes death many times. Mary ruffles society feathers with her egalitarian notions and by accepting a black student into her class. Mary and her friend Hilda volunteer for air raid duty, and Mary drives an improvised ambulance that carries stretchers which, empty or not, are tied to its roof!

This romance is sprawling, vivid, witty, and, though it might seem messy at first, tightly plotted and carefully constructed.

Thanks to Robert in San Diego for this guest book review!

8-Bit Nostalgia

Impossible Fortress: A Novel by Jason Rekulak. Simon & Schuster, 2017. 9781501144417.

Sarah: So do you find yourself wondering if a book is intended to be an adult or teen book and then judging it differently?
Gene: Yeah.
S: I think I would have been harsher to this book if it had been a teen book.
G: Isn’t it a teen book?
S: It is not a teen book.
G: I read it like it was a teen book.
S: I read it as an adult book, so I was a little bit more forgiving of the fact that it meandered.
G: But it’s clearly a teen novel. It just relies so heavily on nostalgia that you can’t put it on the teen shelf. It’s much more for us.
Continue reading “8-Bit Nostalgia”

The Plague

laid waste by Julia Gfrörer. Fantagraphics, 2016. 9781606999714.

laid-wasteGfrörer’s inks are amazing. It looks like she uses a pen — there isn’t much variation to the thickness of her lines — but she’s able to cross them to create different textures which give only a sense of the darkness of the story and the deep despair of its characters. I’ve returned to this book again and again to look at its shadows.

When she was a young girl in a medieval town, Agnès was mistakenly buried. Her older sister rescued her from her grave, though, and Agnès grew up. Now her town is being ravaged by the plague. It’s a world of funeral pyres, mass graves, and dogs eating body parts. Nothing matters. Agnès finds a moment of pleasure with a man whose wife is dying, but only after he stops trying to reassure her and agrees that it’s the end of the world. Will St. Catherine answer her prayers for a new husband and more children, or for death?

I know it sounds like a bummer, but Gfrörer ends it on a hopeful note (or not, depending on your interpretation — and there’s a lot of room here for interpretation).

Magickal Realism

Aleister & Adolf, story by Douglas Rushkoff, art by Michael Avon Oeming, lettering by Nate Piekos. Dark Horse Books, 2016. 9781506701042.

aleisterReader note: This book has a LOT of nudity and fucking in it, in addition to Satan worship*, murder, and Nazi atrocities. So, y’know, if any of those is a deal killer for you, give this one a pass.

A graphic artist in the early days of the web goes in search of the original paper files on the design of a corporate logo, after the digital files he needs to build a web page start to misbehave by refusing to stay put on the screen. He’s horrified to find images of torture and death that played a role in the logo’s development. He meets with an elderly man, now dying, who explains what it all means: in his youth, during World War II, he was tasked by American military strategists to recruit British magician Aleister Crowley because the Americans wanted to find a way to use Hitler’s interest in the occult against him. Instead of completing his mission and reporting back, as ordered, he ended up overwhelmed by Crowley’s ideas and in danger of losing himself to the powerful magicks at play. Crowley became obsessed with creating a symbol powerful enough to defeat the Nazis.

The story is based on real-life strangeness and occult beliefs during WWII, with a story of personal obsession and loss woven throughout. Crowley thinks the Nazis are adding power to the swastika through their horrifying medical experiments and mass murders. His efforts to create a rival symbol involve sex magick and sacrifice. This isn’t just a Hammer style occult horror story, it’s about the power of symbols and how they permeate of our lives. In the notes on his art at the end of the book, Oeming comments that while he usually sells his original cover art, he thinks he will burn the cover of Aleister & Adolf rather than unknowingly sell his depiction of Hitler to a neo-Nazi for any price. The symbols in this book are still powerful, generations later.

*a nerdy footnote: Aleister Crowley in the book (and probably in real life) would strenuously object to someone calling what he did Satan worship or black magic. Then he would give you a long-winded explanation as to why. But that’s what people who will want to steer clear of this book would call it, which is why I’m calling it out with those words.


Northlanders Book 1: The Anglo-Saxon Saga by Brian Wood, Davide Gianfelice, Ryan Kelly, Marian Churchland. Vertigo, 2016. 9781401263317. 464 pages of Viking goodness.

northlanders-book-1Contains Northlanders #1-16, #18-19, and #41. Originally collected (mostly) in the first three Northlanders graphic novels: Sven the Returned, Blood in the Snow, and The Cross and the Hammer.

Gene: This is the book I sent Chris Hallbeck for his birthday in November, and I realized I wanted to reread it — maybe it was that seeing Mads Mikkelsen in the new Star Wars movie reminded me of the quiet, brutal fights in the first 30 minutes of Valhalla Rising, or the fact that I’ve been trying to get into Neil Gaiman’s book of Norse mythology. And I just read Black Road, which is the newest installment in Brian Wood’s Vikingverse, and I want more.

This book isn’t about the same characters all the time, though some come and go. It’s an easy readalike for the TV show Vikings. It’s the book I want to give anyone who falls for Marvel’s perfectly coiffed Thor.

It has a beautiful old map, which shows where the stories take place — all not too far from Scotland or Ireland. Where’s Danish Mercia? Right there. I had no idea.

The first story starts in 868 AD. There’s a kid whose dad is a Christian and is always down on him — I think they live in abbey. The kid gets pissed. When the Vikings come ashore to raid, he meets them and goes, “It’s this way.”

Sarah: Ha!

Gene: That has nothing to do with the next story — three women escape when Vikings murder everyone in their town. They go to an old fort on the sea where they hold off the Vikings.

Sarah: Sweet!

Gene: (I worry that I use the word “brutal” in my reviews too much these days because that describes everything I’m reading and enjoying. Not sure what that says about where my head is…)

The next story is about a guy named Sven who is returning to the Orkneys. Somehow he ended up in Turkey, and he’s working as a guard there, living the good life. He finds out his father died and he wants his inheritance, so he goes back home. He looks like a fancy fop, especially to the Vikings, but he completely kicks ass. Back home, no one wants to see him. There’s violence. He finds the woman he once loved, who is with the guy in charge of the village, and falls in with another who is fighting a one-woman guerilla war against the Vikings. And he tries to get his stuff back while getting revenge.

Sarah: I enjoy a good revenge story.

Gene: And then there’s a one-issue story from the comic, drawn by Marian Churchland

Sarah: That’s gorgeous!

Gene: …about a small young woman whose father is the big man in town. After he dies, she has to figure out how to survive because nobody respects her. She’s always been her father’s daughter. She has to figure out her place and who she is.

The last story takes place in Viking occupied Ireland in 1014.  There’s a badass warrior on the loose, killing Vikings, and he has a little girl with him, his daughter. The Viking King’s right hand man is hunting him, along with a bunch of dogs and grizzled warriors. Man vs. dog. Man vs. human. Hacking and slashing. And then there’s a beautiful turn in the story that’s awful for the character…

But all I need to say is “Vikings!” right?

Sarah: Yeah. But the way you talked about it there was a lot of story and character complexity, and I think people that like those HBO destination TV series full of all the guts would like this.

Gene: Would you pitch it as a Game of Thrones readalike?

Sarah: Yeah. Not that I’ve watched or read GOT.

Gene: What’s your one sentence booktalk of this?

Sarah: If you like HBO….

Gene: If you like really violent, old timey shows…

Sarah: Old is new again.

Gene: But it’s not a readalike for Westworld. You’re probably not watching that either.

Sarah: No.

Gene: Robot humping! You’re missing out.

Sarah: I know! Fanfiction-wise, I should be watching it.