Books in Review, April 2016

I cheated a little this month in keeping to my four-books-a-month goal by reading two graphic novels. A picture is worth a thousand words, to be sure, but a picture does not take as long to read as a thousand words. Boom, 200 quick pages.

(Updated in 2020 to reflect my refined genre classifications.)

The Ragwitch, Garth Nix

This book is clearly being marketed towards a YA audience. I bought it in the YA aisle. (The fact that I think YA as a genre is a marketing ruse and not actually a legitimate literary category is a separate issue.) The main characters are children. The premise relies on an absolute classic of children’s fantasy literature, the “bored children on vacation get into magical trouble while their inattentive parents fail to notice” trope. However, once through that idyllic beginning, on about page 20 this book takes a sharp turn into psychological horror territory and never looks back. I am not even going to post a little bit of plot spoilage because you get to it pretty quick, and there is no replacement for that kind of slamming realization. I have a bit of an overactive imagination and a stellar ability to whip up my anxiety, so I tend to stay away from psychological horror (no Stephen King for me!). I’m glad I didn’t know where this book was heading before I picked it up because I might not have started at all, just out of my fear of my fear, and that would have been a damn shame, because it was excellent. Bearing in mind that I stick to sf/fantasy over horror, the character of the Ragwitch is one of the most psychologically revolting and personally terrifying I think I have ever read, and certainly has the most original MO for mind game torture. Read this book, read it now, and then plan to not go to the beach or look at rag dolls for a while.

Format: novel. Traditional genre: YA, but really fantasy or horror. Setting: fantasy/horror, YA. Story genre: specfic, thriller, quest, high concept. Rating: 3/3.

How to Fake A Moon Landing, Daryl Cunningham

What does one call a graphic novel-format work that isn’t a novel? You can’t call it graphic nonfiction, because boy does that bring up associations we’re not looking for here. Nonfic in a pic? I’m open to suggestions here. (2020 me: the term that has emerged is graphica or graphic story, neither of which I like, but there’s other things I don’t like more about 2020.)

Anyway, this particular volume was about debunking common science myths and denialism, including rejection of evolution and climate change, the thoroughly discredited vaccine-autism link, and of course, that we didn’t actually go to the moon. This book was accessible and straightforward, and does a great job of explaining what people who believe these (extremely common) science myths believe, and the surface-level logic of the beliefs. I’ve gotten up to Advanced Science Communication 501 level, so I’m looking for material that focuses on how to change minds and not be threatening, or the psychology of conspiracy theories. But that wasn’t the intent of the book, nor should have been. All it could have added without becoming something it wasn’t trying to be would have been a little more explicit teaching on critical thinking. This was a blast (especially for an impulse snag at the library). Scientists, read and take note – this is how you make science communication fun, and these are the misconceptions you’re up against.

Format: graphic “novel”. Subject: science, science communication, conspiracy theories. Rating: 3/3.

Manga Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare (words), Emma Vieceli (pictures)

I love Much Ado. I see myself so strongly in Beatrice, and I’m a sucker for a good miscommunication comedy. I’m frustrated by characters not talking to each other in dramas (see my reviews of Outlander), but comedic miscommunication is freakin’ gold. I think I’ve seen more versions of the show on stage and screen than any other Shakespeare work. I adore this play and everything about it (except for the casual misogyny and also Claudio, but who really likes Claudio anyway). Unless you are a die-hard manga and/or Shakespeare fan, go watch one of the movie versions or see it on stage (it’s pretty reliably a winner in the theater) instead of reading this. I found it difficult to tell some of the male characters apart in the drawings (the ladies all had noticeably different dresses but the dudes all had the same suit and hair), and some of the famously snappy dialogue lacked the zing a talented actor provides. But manga nerds and Shake-spear-carriers (see what i did there), dive right in!

Side note: why are there no modernized adaptations of this play? I’m talking something like 10 Things I Hate About You (Taming of the Shrew) or Warm Bodies (Romeo and Juliet) or The Lion King (Hamlet) or Scotland, PA (Macbeth). Beatrice and Benedick are the original sass-master couple, the villainous sideplot is diabolical and then deliciously karmic, and you could totally cut out basically all the sexist bits in adaptation. (SOMEONE HIRE ME. I COULD TOTALLY MAKE A MOVIE WHILE ABD.)

Format: graphic novel, drama. Traditional genre: manga. Setting: manga realism. Story genre: relationship and ensemble. Rating: 2/3.

Best American Science and Nature Writing 2015, many authors, ed. Rebecca Skloot

You like science? Nature? Bite sized pieces of writing? Pieces ranged in length from a few to a few dozen pages, from geology to health to social science. There’s something here for everyone. And it really is the best of the year – there was not a stinker in the lot!

Format: essays. Subject: miscellaneous science topics. Rating: 3/3

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