Alpha : Bessora, Barroux, (Sarah Ardizzone (trans.))

Alpha. Abidjan to Gare du NordAlpha. Abidjan to Gare du Nord by Bessora

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to know how to classify this raw and brilliant book, so perhaps I shall classify it as a story about people and leave it at that. I was lucky enough to interview Bessora, and her translator Sarah Ardizzone here and I’d urge you to check out their thoughts about Alpha. There is a lot of depth here and care, and it shines through to the final product; a graphic novel of unsparing, simple truth.

Alpha is trying to get from the Ivory Coast to the Gare Du Nord in Paris. His wife and child have made the journey before him, though he does not know whether they were successful. He does not know if they are even alive. Life isn’t easy like that. This book doesn’t give you the simple Hollywood narrative, it gives you something rawer than that. It gives you a burnt, bitter truth and makes the faceless known.

I heard Bessora speak about this book (a quote I include here in this article about children’s books featuring refugees) and her comment that โ€œWe are all somebodies, not nobodiesโ€ has stuck with me for months now. She is a precise and beautiful writer, and when her language works with Barroux’s simple and blunt artwork, Alpha comes to possess a fierce and unflinching beauty of its own. This is a powerful book. It might be too true for some.

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The Arrival : Shaun Tan

The ArrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It hit me recently that I’d never reviewed this, this story of eloquence and love and shadows, and that was something I had to make right. The Arrival holds a difficult place in my heart in that, I think, I read it too soon. Too blindly. Too hungry for words and language and precision. Reading can be selfish, sometimes. You can ache to remake the text in your vision, to dominate it with your perspective and views, and thus deny the value of the read itself. We read for others. We read for otherness, for voice, and for echoes to map our lives against, and sometimes I don’t do that. Sometimes I can get a little lost, and need to step back, and remind myself that this is not my story. I do not own this text. I am a reader. I own my reading of that, but I do not own the other.

And so I came back to Shaun Tan, drawn in part by a political and pervasive rhetoric that seems to seek division where there is none to be found, but also because of the stillness of that front cover. It made me understand what I had done to this book before, and it make me realise how I needed to approach it now. I look at a lot of books as part of my job, and stillness is not something you see that often on a front cover. Yet, as I look at it now, I can see that it’s not still. That it’s a moment, an encounter, and this is a split second point between it. Stillness in movement; being able to capture that precise, delicate, beauty where the two of them meet eyes and properly see each other? Beautiful. Perhaps, too, the essence of this book. The encounter where things become Things, and Known, and Named.

So, the book itself. It is wordless, split into six “chapters”. I say “chapters”, because honestly, imposing an idea of sequence on this poetic narrative seems difficult. It is linear, but it’s also not; the story of people coming to a new land, forming connections, but also what came before and after, the stories that thread through us on a daily basis, the web of connection that is life, I suppose, just living and being and loving. Moments. Beats. The dance of your heart and the stillness that comes when you find home.

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Collecting Sticks : Joe Decie

Collecting SticksCollecting Sticks by Joe Decie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was at a conference the other day where talk turned to the idea of ‘kindness’ and how writing can give an opportunity for emotions to be expressed another way. To shine a light into the darkness. It’s a complex idea and one that I suspect I’m going to be unpicking for a while, but what stuck with me was that idea of kindness. I have been moving closer to it for a while now, seeking it particularly in the children’s books I work with but also elsewhere. That acknowledgement that the world is a complex and challenging and intimidating space and that we are just people trying to do our best in it. Kindness. It’s hard to find in a book, hard to consciously seek it, but when you find it, you find a fat and rich and genuine warmth that sings of love and hope and belief in people in all of their foolish and idiosyncratic ways. Kindness.

And so I came to Collecting Sticks by Joe Decie, a comic book that I’d seen reviewed elsewhere and ordered at the library as a consequence (reviews! they work! colour me stunned!). It is a beautiful, beautiful book and I loved it. It’s a slender, elegant visual note, rendered in a black and white wash and wry notes and asides towards the reader. It’s autobiographical, covering a glamping trip undertaken by Decie’s family, but rather deliciously global in the same way; Decie focuses on the moments at the heart of his panels and lets the white space of the page or the quietly focused background of the panel provide that universal backdrop that means these moments of family and conversation could, perhaps, be in your house right now. It’s delicately done and all rather wonderful.

Seek this out if you’re a little tired with the world, or if you’re looking for something to remind you of the intense potential of people. Collecting Sticks has such a delightful warm rhythm to it that it beats with family life, of closeness and of love. It’s eccentric, funny, and self-conscious, and it’s full of utterly delightful beats. And it is full of kindness. Warmth. Empathy. Love.

This is a beautiful, beautiful little book.

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The Pirates of Pangaea : Daniel Hartwell & Neill Cameron

The Pirates of Pangaea: Book 1 (The Phoenix Presents)The Pirates of Pangaea: Book 1 by Dan Hartwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Like H Rider Haggard. But with dinosaurs.”

That was how I described this dynamic and rather wonderful comic from the team of Daniel Hartwell and Neill Cameron; the Pirates of Pangaea gives us boy’s own adventures, cut from the pages of those delicious 1950s stories of derring do, mixes it up with a bit of H Rider Haggard, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and if that weren’t enough, there’s also dinosaurs.

I really liked this. I talk a lot in my reviews about books knowing the space within which they work and owning that space. Children’s literature, comics, young adult literature, everything I review, they all talk to each other. They all exist as part of this great dynamic system of expression; a stone thrown into the pond and the ripples rolling out a thousand fold. And that’s one aspect of what I mean when I talk about space; the dialogues between texts. The way one text finds an echo in another; the way one novel talks to that and vice-versa.

Another aspect of space, though,is the idea of the book itself. The page edge. The limit of the bookish space. The part where the book ends, practically. The page corner. The front cover. The part where the world stops being book and starts being something else. The sofa. The table. The floor. (Get your books up off the floor, please, thanks)

This part of space is particularly pertinent for picture books and comics because they can push all the way up to that edge. A novel will always have white space around the text due to typsetting, but visual media? It can push that edge. It can spill story all the way out and into the world, and this is where The Pirates of Pangaea shines. It’s a big book. It’s a big and storied and strong book; the story doesn’t just live within its pages, it’s everywhere. The visual coding of this book is so strong. I believed it. Boats ride on the back of dinosaurs, land-borne craft over the sea of green, people ride dinosaurs and I believed it. All of it.

It’s all true.

I spoke at the start of this review about the authorly echoes The Pirates of Pangaea stirred up in me; it’s a comic of finding yourself in a world where you have to, because there’s nobody else to do it for you. Sophie, one of the lead characters, is cut from a very distinct cloth; she’s brave, occasionally gobby, quick-witted and I rather love her.

There’s another fine detail of The Pirates of Pangaea that I want to highlight, as it speaks again to me of that great width of this comic, the way it exists in a space so much larger than it may seem to initially inhabit, and that detail comes at the little note at the start of each chapter. Each chapter’s introduced with a double sided page, coloured in that evocative note of antique and yellowing parchment, with a map on one side and a dinosaur on the other side. Each side is noted in pencil with little notes which speak of lived experience. This is clever, clever work; it’s not letting any part of the book-space go to waste, and it’s making every inch of it work for your narrative.

This is good, good stuff.

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The Motherless Oven : Rob Davis

The Motherless OvenThe Motherless Oven by Rob Davis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s hard to review this twisting, dark labyrinth of a book because reading it felt less like reading, and more like a theatrical experience. I’m conscious that that’s such a loose way to talk about reading for every text is full of theatre and experience, but something about The Motherless Oven leaves me a little bit lost for words. And so, because of this, I focus rather on the experience of reading it; of those sharp, acute panels and those moments where I really didn’t understand what was going on but could feel it somewhere within the pages, a lifeless heart, a contradiction, words pushing against each other with a story to be told but a story told in language that I did not and do not yet wholly understand.

It was complicated. Complex. Can I deliver an idea of the plot? Yes. Approximately. Like writing words with sand, I make a semblance of what it was and in that process make it into what it is not.

The world of The Motherless Oven is a world populated by machines and human children and when it rains, knives fly down from the sky and spike the ground. Scarper is facing his deathday. There’s a girl. A boy. Parents locked up in the shed and lions at the school gates. When Scarper’s father escapes the shed, it’s up to Scarper to get him back.

Like sand, this book, like sand running through a cupped palm.

Read The Motherless Oven for the panels where the girl stands in a knife-storm; a patio table as her umbrella, for the panels where the mothers look after the children, and for the moments where the text aches at the edge of its speech bubble and palpably seeks to be somewhere elsewhere in that moment. Read it for the reading. There are elements of 1984 in this for me, and of the Clockwork Orange and of Stand By Me. The darkest of moments, and the brightest. So often the same.

This book is locked to me and yet, somehow, so very open, all at once.

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Briony Hatch : Penelope & Ginny Skinner

Briony HatchBriony Hatch by Penelope Skinner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Briony Hatch is a slim graphic novel, coloured in black and whites and reminiscent of something doodled in pen and ink on the inside of an exercise book. It’s definitely a story of two halves; the intense teenage ennui of life and the struggle of Briony to figure out where she fits in, coupled with a rather intensely poignant (and sardonically true to life, oddly enough) tale of love and ghosts and regrets. Overlaying both stories is Briony’s devotion to the book series ‘Starling Black’ and her deep and pained reading of the final book in the series. Think Harry Potter and Fangirl and you’re about on point with that one.

The big key point about Briony Hatch is twofold (and I apologise now that I seem to be splitting everything about this review into bifold reasoning, but hey-ho, maybe it’s the weather or something) and the first is the art. Briony is very much herself, from her tumultous and haphazard hair through to the butterfly wing bulge of her stomach and her intense and scene-dominating eyes. It’s quite the thing to have all of this conveyed in black and white and it’s a little startling at first, but once you come to terms with it, it’s hard to not love it just a little bit.

The second bright strength of Briony Hatch rests in the humour. There are a few moments when Briony meanders off into daydreams, blurring her life with that of Starling Black, and when the daydreams become rather pleasurable,she comments: “This fantasy is better than I thought!” There’s a few other rather delicious asides throughout: “I am of the internet generation … So even though I’ve never had sex … My imagination is extremely graphic”

Where Briony Hatch does suffer though is with the lettering and stylistics of that lettering. It’s all delivered in a, whilst appropriate, personal and handwritten style that does fit but does, also, seem somehow jarring for the wider tones of the story engaged in in the second half. Whilst that is worth noting, it’s worth noting in the context of a story that’s rather deliciously unique and a little bit of a surprise and a lot of pleasure.

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Nancy Drew – Ghost In The Machinery : Stefan Petrucha & Sho Murase

Ghost in the Machinery (Nancy Drew: Girl Detective, #9)Ghost in the Machinery by Stefan Petrucha

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An odd thing this, but sort of madly appealing in a problematic sort of way; Ghost In The Machinery is an adventure “so big that it takes three graphic novels to tell the whole story”. Ghost In The Machinery is the first in the series and complete, after a fashion, though with several big over-arching gapes of plot that I presume lead into the next one.

It begins with Nancy, Bess and George camping out in the woods coincidentally on purpose to investigate strange lights in the woods. They investigate the lights and come across an old munitions factory which is due to be demolished the next day (explosives, naturally, we do need the dramatic here) and the lights lead inside. And so Nancy and her pals decide to investigate. As you do. I was mildly hysterical at this point, though I went on with it because it’s sort of hard not to. When a book, a comic, a play, whatever, starts with such headlong giddiness and sort of careens down the path of not giving one iota about it, you do tend to go along with it, even if it’s just out of a sense of delirious fascination as to where it goes next.

And so I did, and so it does go to places quite surprising and a bit quantum-leap(y) at points (and a few that were maybe more – wait, what, did I miss a page or two?), but it still managed to retain a certain sense of dynamism about it that kept me interested. A lot of that is due to the art, the ferocious vividness of Nancy; the smart panels which balanced out each other on the page (2:2, 3:3 etc, providing a sense of continuity and equality, but also warning you about the visual highlights yet to come, which will deviate from this rhythm).

So: to sum? There’s a lot at fault with this comic really but a lot that’s good with it as well; that sort of crazy adherence to the source text’s eccentricities, the character of Nancy herself remains an intense joy and she’s rendered here with brilliant and intense effect, and, you know, there’s a bit with a tank. Bits with a tank are always good.

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