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La fièvre d’Urbicande (Les Cités obscures, 2) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

Les Cités obscures or Cities of the Fantastic is one of my favorite comics series. I’ve spoken about them before and I’m looking forward to the day they’ll finally explode in the Anglo-Saxon literary world.

Each City in this universe has a distinct architectural style that influences and is influenced by its political structure, life-style and even in the way people dress. Urbicand is a city of massive structures that evokes the Futurist architects popular in the early 20th century. Buildings are huge and the few inhabitants seem insignificant is comparison.

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We follow Eugen Robick, a urbatect (architect who designs entire cities) who is obsessively pursuing permission from Urbicande’s austere government to build a bridge. Without it, there’s an unbalance in the symmetry of his ambitious plans for the city.

Off-scene, some friends sent Robick a small, mysterious black cube built from an unknown material. Shortly after, he notices the cube is slowing multiplying and expanding. It continues to do so over the next months, passing through everything without damaging it and expanding to a point where it becomes a network that facilitates communication between different areas of Urbincande, areas that until that point had been mostly isolated.

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In the style of many Franco-Belgian comics, La fièvre d’Urbicande is a surrealist story with lots of food for thought. I especially appreciated the way architecture/aesthetics and politics mix and reflect each other. There is something inhuman about Urbicand, a city seemingly not designed with the human scale in mind. It reminded me of the plans by Nazi architect Albert Speer.

It’s a complex book, unapologetically intellectual, and really rewarding to read.

L’archiviste (Cities of the Fantastic spin-off) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

The Archivist is almost like a coffee-table book. There’s a story, but it’s clearly meant to be eye candy.

Isidore Louis is an archivist that is given the task of debunking the myth of the Cités obscures. Each page includes one of the visual materials he’s unearthed and with each page we also see him slowly becoming convinced of the Cities’ existence.

There are also a wonderful connections with Jorge Luis Borges. Because of spoilers I can’t say much about the main one, but the story is very similar to Borges’ Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.

I want to cover a wall just with posters from L’archiviste.

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Rat Queens Vol. 1: Sass and Sorcery by Wiebe & Upchurch

Even if I’d been immune to all the rave, Rat Queens would still have had me at this synopsis: “Who are the Rat Queens? A pack of booze-guzzling, death-dealing battle maidens-for-hire, and they’re in the business of killing all gods’ creatures for profit.

The plot is not ground-breaking and doesn’t deviate from the typical story about a group of coarse, bad-ass, bad-mouth, swashbuckling, bordering-on-mad mercenaries. Actually, I suspect the whole thing is a spoof of role-playing games that’s not taking itself too seriously.

Unlike unlike plot, character development is taken seriously and in this volume we’re already presented with interesting backstories that made me want to know more. Just the fact the mercenaries are all women (and such a diverse group is so many aspects!) gives Rat Queens extraordinary freshness. It’s impossible not to have a favourite but right I’m still divided between Dee and Violet.

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Chew, Vol. 2: International Flavor by John Layman, Rob Guillory

Another outrageous plot and I loved every minute of it. Not much more to say.

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It was a hit & miss month:

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Preacher, Volume 1: Gone to Texas by Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon

Still not exactly sure how I feel about Preacher. I’ve the notion it’s very clever and deep, but ended up feeling I didn’t quite get it. Maybe because I’m not religious and the point is to ruffle believers’ feathers? Maybe because, in a story so full of layers and questions about Good and Evil, the villains are 100% bad, no grey areas?

Glad I’ve read it, but will file it under “Good, but not for me”.

Ms. Marvel, #1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson & Adrian Alphona 

Hurrah for books that live up to the hype! Both the story and art felt so refreshing, and unlike Preacher, it was written just for me. Most reviews focus on the fact that Kamala is the first Muslim super hero, but for me the innovation is that’s not the most important thing. Ms. Marvel is still a classic story of a superhero’s origins, where the superhero just happens to be a girl, and a person of colour and a Muslim. Like Peter Parker before her, Kamala also struggles with her costume and the “with great power…” thing, she’s still trying to figure out who she is. The book is good because it has characters that are genuinely interesting, writing that’s full of smart humor, a gripping plot gripping and attractive artwork.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier by Alan Moore

Oh Alan Moore, you’re losing me. With every new League book I’m trying to regain the magic of the first two, without success. Were they also this trippy, full of naked women for no apparent reason, and I just didn’t notice?!

Saga Vol. 2 and Vol.3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

The series just keeps getting better and better. I’m loving every new character, from Gwendolyn to Upsher and Doff, as well as all the backstories (Alana’s love for that book!). I could have done without the implausible black-whole baby in Vol. 2, the “He’s the man I love!” line in Vol. 3, and still not convinced about the opposite of war thing, but hey, who’s counting?

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So I spent last week in New York, and between a visit to Forbidden Planet and Strand, this happened.

Some are series I already follow (Serenity, Saga, Chew, Fables), others were your recommendations (Ex Machina, Ms Marvel, Runaways, Rat Queens, Hawkeye) and other were pushes from the nice staff at Forbidden Planet (Locke & Key, Preacher, Planetary).

They’ll keep me busy for a while and fully supplied for the Graphic Novels Challenge 2015.

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One of the best of the year so far. I pat myself on the back for having decided to read more non-fiction graphic novels and choosing Guy Delisle because of our trip to Canada (he’s Quebecois).

Delisle’s partner works for Doctors without Borders so he’s been a temporary “trailing spouse” and stay-at-home-dad in some of the world most challenging regions. Apart from Jerusalem he also recorded his experiences in Pyongyang, Burma and Shenzhen.

This is a personal travelogue of his year in the Holy City and it includes everything from the mundane to the geopolitical, from going to the supermarket to his attempts to enter Gaza, from visiting the zoo to experiencing the 2008-2009 Gaza War.

It’s a brilliant book because Delisle is inquisitive, sharp-eyed and funny. He is also highly aware of being a non-believing outsider in a country full of religious complexities and paradoxes, just like I felt when I was there myself.

The self-mocking humor of this stranger in a strange land is the book’s heart and soul, and because of it the though-provoking moments are that much stronger. Delisle’s clever light touch can have as much impact as, for instance, Joe Sacco’s more intense perspective.

His style is monochromatic, his language (I read it in French) simple and conversationalist. Both feel very appropriate somehow, probably because the subject is already complex enough.

Chroniques de Burma is already waiting in the TBR shelf! Have you read anything by him?

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ninetailorsThe Nine Tailors (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #11) by Dorothy L. Sayers

One of my favorites books in the series so far AND there’s no Harriet or major insight into Wimsey’s character. What it did have was a great set of secondary characters and a perfect snap-shot of post-war village life. There was also extensive geeky conversations about bell ringing that were surprisingly fascinating. I didn’t understand most of it, but discovered a whole new world and found myself happily listening to bell concerts while reading the book.

The book blogsphere gave me really high expectation about the next in the series, Gaudy Night. It better be good, you guys!
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13481275Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

The latest by comfort writer extraordinaire Sarah Allen Addison, which half the world has read months ago, I’m sure. It’s likely that I’ll always have a good time with everything she writes, but within this, Lost Lake felt a bit watered down. It needed to be longer and more focused.

There are many main characters and even more back-stories, too many to go through effectively in only 8 hours of audiobook. A little bit more romance and magic realism wouldn’t hurt the book either – that’s why we pick up SAA in the first place, right?
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nicCaprice and Rondo (The House of Niccolo, #7) by Dorothy Dunnett

Very à propos, this book is mostly set in a Crimea on the verge of invasion. It’s exciting, complex, brilliant and everything else you’d expect from Dorothy Dunnett. I agree with Helen that the sense of place is more tamed this time around, but on the other hand there’s a satisfying focus on character development (Gelis managing the Bank, Julius reaction to the revelation) and a bunch of great action scenes (murder by bees!).

There was also The Letter. Actually, it was just a couple of sentences but I’ll put it up there on Captain Wentworth’s level.

My-Kid-Lies-Nurture-Shock-book-coverNurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Together with Caprice and Rondo, this is the only 5-star of the year so far. A sort of Bad Science just about children. It’s written by two journalists in the child psychology field who specialize in reporting on studies that have gone unnoticed. In the different chapters they slowing and steadily dismantled my dogmas about kids and intelligence, lying, praising, race, sleep, only childs and, my favorite, language acquisition.

“Children key off their parents’ reaction more than the argument or physical discipline itself.”
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Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Let’s just say that if you want something light for a sunny summer day at the beach you might want to skip this one. Don’t be fooled by the cartoon-ish artwork, there is nothing lighthearted about these short stories. It’s a look at the Japan of the 60s and 70s, full of lonely men trapped in bleak lives, self-hatred, family duty, perverse desires and social expectations.

Some stories are like nothing I’ve read before, and just for that I’m glad I’ve read it. Whatever this book may do, it will not leave you indifferent.

#comicsfebruary

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I never could resist graphic novels with impressive urban architectural landscapes. That’s why I love François Schuiten so much. I’d never heard of Mathieu Bablet (his blog here, in French) until I came across this cover at my local bookshop. It immediately caught my eye: the colors, the perspective, the visual impact of that giant worm!

The story is set in a nameless mega city, home to the (as far as we know) few human survivors of an insect-like alien invasion that all but exterminated the human race. The survivors’ hopeless lives are spent hunting for food and trying to avoid the insects.

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I was completely hooked on the first half of the story, about the survivors’ day-to-day, the change of seasons, their squabbles and survival routines. But Bablet lost me once the action really started. Then things just got weird and went all mystical. I preferred the subtle and slow melancholy of the first part to the existentialist feel and chilling events of the second.

I wished the story had taken another turn, but I wouldn’t change a thing in the illustration, which was amazing. I went back to the bookshop to buy another Babet book the next day just because of it. The spaces seem to be wide and claustrophobic at the same time. The geometry of the huge and repetitive buildings captures the eye and is the perfect scenario to show just how lonely these characters are. It’s like they’re insects themselves.

Certain angles almost caused me vertigo and I loved all the details in the scenery: the thread-bare couches in the abandoned apartments, the aging piping, the growing vegetation. Also, Bablet populated the story with several pop-culture Easter-aggs, that The Dork Review collected. The ones I noticed:

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This was Bablet’s first album and I’ll report of his second – Adrastée Tome 1 – as soon as I finish it. By the way, I was looking around and found no concrete evidence that this was translated to English (I only found a cover with the translated title, but nothing else), so let me know if you know about it.

Life has been happening like crazy on this side of the line. Add holidays and heat and pure, unadulterated laziness and you get a blogging slump. It would also be a reading slump if it wasn’t for YA audiobooks and daily newspapers (a holiday tradition and zen moment).

I need a bit of incentive because my spirit breaks just by looking at the two months backlog. Anyone interested in doing a buddy-read or something? Any easy read-alongs going around? Interesting projects?

Meanwhile, and while inspiration doesn’t strike, I’m doing a meme. They’re not usually my thing, but these are desperate times and maybe thinking about the books I’ve planned for the upcoming months will help.

Top Ten Books on my Fall TBR List

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Harris’ The Observations didn’t do much for me, but everyone seems to be raving about Gillespie and I so I’ve decided to give it a try.

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

My most anticipated re-read is Tigana, my favorite book by Guy Gavriel Kay. I’ve decided to tackle it in audio format this time around.

Chroniques de  Jérusalem by Guy Delisle

All books by Guy Delisle are an instant best-seller here in Brussels, European capital of the graphic novel. I’ve never read anything by him but heard lots about this one, a birthday present from my co-workers.

The King of Attolia (The Queen’s Thief, #3) by Megan Whalen Turner

I’ve recently re-read the first two in the series just so that when I’d pick this one up for the first time everything was fresh. I hear it’s the best one of the series so far?

The Unicorn Hunt (The House of Niccolo, #5) by Dorothy Dunnett

I’m trying to go through The House of Niccolo series reeeeeeally slowly because you only read Dunnet for the first time once. It was a Herculean effort not to lunge for this one right after Scales of Gold and its extraordinary ending. I’ve waited long enough.

Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry

Whenever I don’t have a formed opinion on a certain topic, I Google Fry’s thoughts on it and always find myself nodding in agreement. Moab is My Washpot is an autobiography covering his first 20 years of life. The Fry Chronicles is already in the TBR waiting its turn.

The Mauritius Command(Aubrey/Maturin Book 4) by Patrick O’Brian

Another series I want to make last, although its 21 volumes-long… The previous book, HMS Surprise, is set to become one of the best of 2012.

Mayombe by Pepetela

For Kinna’s Africa Reading Challenge, this will be my first by one of Angola’s most famous writers. Everyone I know who reads in Portuguese seems to have read at least one of his books.

She’s Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff by Annalee Newitz & Charlie Anders (Eds.)

To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, on 16 October.

Un día de cólera by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

At the beginning of the year one of my goals was to read more books in their original languages. I’ve done well in Portuguese and French but haven’t picked up anything in Spanish yet. This hour by hour description of 1808’s Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid will put me back on track.

After jumping on this summer’s Buffy Watch bandwagon, and after four seasons, I think I can safely say that I’m a Firefly girl first. I know I still have three more Buffy seasons to go, but I have yet to see an episode that comes close to Out of Gas in drama, or that made me laugh half as much as Jaynestown.

To try to fill the emptiness of Firefly’s early cancellation as I can, including a very used “Browncoats” saved search on Twitter and buying the continuation comics, also written by Joss Whedon.

Those Left Behind (Serenity #1)

If you’ve followed the series and then saw the movie you may have noticed there were some things left unexplained, mainly the fact that Inara and Shepherd weren’t on Serenity. Those Left Behind was created as a transition story, to fill those gaps.

One of the best things about this volume (originally a 3-book comic) is the introduction by Nathan Fillion. It’s a touching account of how he’s loved comic books since he was a kid, how he always wanted to be a super hero and how the challenge to play Captain Malcolm Reynolds gave him the opportunity to fulfill that dream.

So, I guess the message I want to leave you with is this: What you hold in your hand is not just a comic. It is much more. It is a handbook. It is a guide. It is reference material for when you become a superhero. I found the secret, you see. To become a superhero, all you have to do is want it badly enough, and comics are the fuel to that fire.

The story revolves about a scavenger mission that turns out to be a trap orchestrated by old enemies. In between, fans are treated to great Whedon-style moments, like the growing doubts of Sheppard Book, stuck between his religious beliefs and the ship’s shenanigans, and a rare glimpse at scenes from the Unification War (it’s great not to be limited by budget restrictions!).

The story has glimpses of the brilliancy of the series but not exactly quite there, probably because it felt hurried and a bit crammed with information. Whedon managed to publish dozens of Buffy comic books, including a full 8th Season after the TV show ended, but I think he knew he wouldn’t have that chance with Firefly.

I know there was a big chance I’d be a bit disappointed with the book. The artists did tried to make the characters recognizable but fell a bit short, especially with Mal and Inara. I really like the colors a lot though – they seemed to reflect the spirit of the series even better than the TV series. Overall, the book felt more like a really cool storyboard for a lost episode of Firefly.

It’s still a great treat for fans, but it inevitably falls short of a full fledge episode.

Better Days and Other Stories  (Serenity #2)

I liked Better Days And Other Stories a lot better than Those Left Behind. Instead of full a “episode”, this volume has four short-stories, my favorite of which was written by comedian Patton Oswalt and works as an homage to Wash.

I can’t quite put my finger on why I prefer this volume. I know that I laughed more, the action scenes felt more exciting and the artwork  more realistic. Dialogues and the interaction between characters also rang true and there were some golden moments, like Simon treating Jayne for an STD, the bitter-sweet flashbacks of Wash’s adventures and the moment when River really joins the crew.

There’s a scene in the first story, Better Days, where we see each crew member fantasize about what they’d do if they became billionaire, and they were all spot on (oh Kylee, you’re still my favorite!).

Also loved the three drawings between the stories, which together make up a shiny triptych.

What if one day you found yourself sitting on a street bench somewhere, with no recollection of who you are, how you got there, where you live, what you like or dislike. What if you realize that your personality has been erased, that you are, effectively, a blank page?

Éloïse is in that street bench in the first page of La Page Blanche. She’s only able to discover her name by looking through her bag which also contains enough clues to get her home. She remembers everything needed to function, except anything remotely connected to her.

Little by little Éloïse reconstructs her life, but always as an outsider that can’t avoid making judgments about her(previous)self  (what would I think about myself in this situation? What clues would my apartment give me about my own personality?). In some cases, she discovers she doesn’t like the same things or people as Old Éloïse.

Although it can be read as a “detective” story, La Page Blanche is more about Éloïse’s journey of discovery who she was and, more importantly, is. About her decision on whether to jump back into her old life or begin fresh.

The story – by Boulet – is surprisingly light and sometimes outright funny, mostly because of Éloïse’s bursts of wild imagination. Old Éloïse worked in a bookshop and she’s constantly plagued by costumers looking for the “new Marc Levy” (think Paulo Coelho meets Danielle Steel). This obsession with one fashionable author is just one of the points that La Page Blanche cleverly makes about mainstream culture and individuality.

I found the color pallet chosen by Pénélope Bagieu especially successful in reflecting Éloïse’s mood. At least it worked for me, because I had to buy the book after seeing the first pages.

From other reviews I gathered that the ending caused some division, but I loved it. It didn’t provide as much closure as expected, but it… made a point (trying to avoid spoilers) that was even more satisfying. I found myself mentally telling Éloïse “Yes! Good call!” – for someone trying to build a personality, she’s extremely relatable.

I don’t think the book is translated into English, but it should, sooner rather than later.

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Other thoughts (English): Like People and Butterflies (yours?)

Other thoughts (French): madmoiZelle, Hop-Blog, A little piece off…,  Ma Bouquinerie, Les Livres de George, Chez Iluze, Stellade à la plage, Deuzenn’s Garden, Miss Pipelette, Pop corn et thasse de thè, Les petits papiers de princess brunette  (vos avis?)

I’m just going to jump all the other books waiting for a post and go straight to this one, because it needs to be translated into English yesterday. Vivès’ other book, A Taste of Chlorine, was translated and I hope the same happens to Polina, so it has the wider audience it deserves.

Using only black-and-white, Vivès tells the story of a talented Russian ballerina from the moment she’s accepted into a famous dance boarding school. If you know a little about classic ballet dancers, you know it’s a tough career. They must have the stamina of world-class athletes, and at the same time the emotional intelligent needed to make art.

Polina tackles many of the challenges of a ballerina’s life: the extreme training, the emotional strain of acute body control, the competition. At the centre of the book is her relationship with her teacher, a demanding and feared legend of Russian ballet scene.

He has very set ideas on what’s dance’s ultimate objective and what’s needed to get the audience to feel what you want them to feel. But in the end, Polina is a normal child and a normal teenage (though a gifted one), and sometimes we’re just not ready to understand what’s best for us. It’s fascinating to accompany her path towards her own identity, her unique concept of art and dance, and her struggle between acceptance and rebellion.

Vivès’ drawings reminded me of a class I had at art school. The teacher asked Ricardo (are you there? Do you remember this?) to climb on a table and pose with a chair. Then she gave us 5 minutes to drawn him. Then 2 minutes, then 1, then 30 seconds and finally 10 seconds. At the end of those 10 second you realize you’ve dropped the non-essential stuff and just captured the essence of what you see, which is a much harder thing to do. Since then I tend to admire more the artist that in just a few strokes can say everything, than the one that paints something like a photograph.

With just a few lines and shadows, Vivès makes dance come to life. I suspect that body movement is his speciality, because A Taste of Chlorine does something similar, only with swimmers.

Larissa, in the review that made me want to read this (thank you!), pointed out that Polina made her thing of the movie The Company. Without too many dialogues, it portrays the life of a ballet company during one year. To that I’ll also add the ballet-flick Center Stage.

Keep an eye out for the English edition!

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Other thoughts in French: Danses Avec la Plume,  Au Bon Roman, BD75011, Secrets de filles,  Les Carnet Lectures de Solenn,  Les Livres de George, Un chat passant parmis livres, Bulles et Onomatopées, Charlotteauchoco, Les BD du Chat Noir, The Homemade Poney, Lost Persons Area  (vos avis?)