A Review of “Ethel and Ernest”

I found Ethel and Ernest waiting for me one evening on my nightstand. This is the home of my “to-read stack,” or at least the non-digital incarnations in my to-read list. This small volume had been laid to the side…not inserting itself onto the top of the stack, but rather existing as a suggestion off to the right. Initially thinking this was a book for our daughter’s reading lessons, I passed it by. Then Karen told me that she had checked it out from our library, and that I really should read it.

Opening its pages and discovering it to be a graphic novel intrigued me, so I allowed it to skip ahead of others on the list and read it next. I am unbelievably glad that I did.

Ethel and Ernest is an artist’s recollection of his parents…the story of their lives told as he remembers and has pieced it together. One reviewer called it a “love story,” and that phrase resonates as I have found myself thinking about the book…unpacking it, journaling through its impact on my life, an impact disproportionate to its small size.

We initially encounter Ethel and Ernest as they meet and fall in love in 1920’s London. We watch them work through their relationship as the world goes to war, the horrors of what was faced as they sent their son away to the country to be safe, the stories we’ve all read in history books taking on a completely new depth when we witness how it played out in the lives of this ordinary couple. We watch them become lost in the pace of industrial and technological change, loving the new conveniences (she cannot believe how fast the washing machine gets their clothes clean) while grappling with the enormity of how their lives are altered by them. I adore the scene in which they buy a car and go riding down the street, in disbelief that they could afford such luxury.

We walk through their remembering their early romance later in life, watch them struggle with the alienation from their son (the author of the book) as they struggle to adapt to the things that he just accepts.

I feel as though I know Ethel and Ernest now, like I’ve met them. I feel like I know how they tried their best as life rushed by, how they found ways to cope with their profound political disagreements. Perhaps this is inevitable with such a work, whether it’s Brigg’s intention or not, but I can’t help but see my own parents here. They still sit in the same house in which I grew up, and I can picture them waiting for their son to visit or call, uncertain at times of how to adapt to a world that is merciless in the speed with which it changes.

I can hear Brigg’s sorrow at his frustration with them. I can feel my own love for my daughter as I watch  Earnest’s affection for his son. In short, I see that I have so much connecting me…all of us…with Ethel and Ernest, because their lives were ordinary, albeit lived in extraordinary times. Any of us can, and likely will, live through very similar struggles and triumphs.

I think that is why I fought back tears over Earnest’s loneliness in the end.

Brigg’s remorse over his broken relationship with his parents is never explicitly stated, but is an unmistakeable through-line, palpably felt in the jagged speech bubbles and the stark lines of his drawings of himself,  making the reader painfully aware of his disproportionate responses. Ethel, always seeing their family as proper and never “common,” persists in offering him a comb whenever they see each other, which we see as adorable but which was a source of much friction in their relationship. I think that she just wanted to take care of him in a manner of which she was deprived by the war. Later, he accepts the comb, no longer feeling judged, some peace made before the end, before Ethel and Ernest pass away alone and in the cruelest of circumstances after giving their life together everything.

I see so much of not only my parents in them, but also of Karen and I. I wonder how our daughters will remember our lives when we are gone.

In the end, we find the author and his wife looking at the house which Ethel and Ernest bought together. He states with some wonder that they lived in the same house for 40 years and never moved. That home becomes a metaphor for Ethel and Ernest’s devotion to each other. The horrors that they witnessed, the turmoil through which they lived, made them stronger, more resilient in their commitment to their marriage and to their son. They stayed together until the end in a way that I hope to, and were stronger for it.

This achievement alone, if it can be replicated, can be called a successful life.

This little graphic novel carries so much weight. I am not the same as before I read it. I do not treat my relationships the same, I do not view our world the same. Neither, I suspect, will you. I am so glad that Briggs has given us the chance to become acquainted with Ethel and Ernest.

I encourage you to take the opportunity.

A Review of “Jennifer Government”

Jennifer GovernmentI had marked another of Barry’s novels to read some time ago and never gotten around to it, and the premise of this book was even more compelling. I’m generally a fan of dystopian science fiction, though, so this was almost guaranteed to be an enjoyable read. Still Jennifer Government provides a compelling…and extremely timely…story.

The setting is a near future in which America has overtaken a number of other countries and thus spread the dominance of a handful of major corporations through most of the world. Taxes in American countries are no more, and an impotent government that relies on fundraising struggles to police the law against corporate forces, such as the ubiquitous NRA, which have the freedom to do whatever they like in pursuit of profit, including murder. In this future, people are born with no last names. Their identity is entirely associated with the corporation for which they work, and they take on the company’s name as their last name upon employment. Children take on the last name of the corporation sponsoring the school which they attend. Being un-employed, or self-employed, leaves one with no name, no identity. One’s life is entirely dependent upon being consumed by a corporation.

I should point out that, while dystopian, this is a comedy, and Barry’s dry wit is present throughout the story. Characters, such as Billy NRA, find themselves in outright hysterical situations that leave the reader laughing while unable to escape the nagging through-line woven into the setting of every scene.

Not that the through-line is at all subtle. And, as comedic are the scenarios in which our characters find themselves, the development and internal lives of the characters are often flat, and certainly secondary to the story. The point of this novel isn’t the characters, nor is it so much the plot, but rather the world which is its setting, and, while this sounds as though it would be completely dysfunctional and without any chance of working, it keeps the reader turning the pages with a surprising amount of engagement.

Barry’s writing style is quick, overly abrupt in places, and this is one of the most prominent criticisms that I’ve read in other reviews. As this is the first of his work that I’ve read, I can’t speak to whether or not this is his writing style, but it seems as though it’s a device in itself to place the reader into this comically frightening world.

Many would discard this novel as an anti-capitalist diatribe, but doing so misses something deeper going on here. The future in which Barry places his reader is one in which there is no room for thinking against conventional wisdom. Critical thought has been over-run by marketing. Taking time to think, or to live or care for one’s loved ones, means that one is not being productive in one’s employment. Propaganda rules, and different ways of thinking are not tolerated. In its absolute freedom, society has paradoxically given up its soul.

This is a light and quick read, but one that will continue stay present in your mind, and in your perception, in troubling ways long after you’ve finished laughing your way through its pages. Considering the climate in which we live, the setting of this novel, which becomes its own character in many ways, is a warning not only of what is to come, but of what has already arrived. While a bit heavy-handed at times, this is still a worthwhile read for anyone who would like to have their thoughts provoked.

Jennifer Government by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Review of “The Clockwork Dagger”

I knew next to nothing about steampunk, other than the fact that it attracts a devoted following and looks like a really interesting genre. I wasn’t even completely certain how attracted I would be once I truly explored it, but, finding the visual aesthetic appealing in the handful of films I’ve watched, and the conventions that some friends attend, I wanted to explore what steampunk was like on the printed page, how it played out in deeper story-telling. The Clockwork Dagger seemed a popular choice, so I decided to make it my entry point.

This is Beth Cato’s first full-length novel, and we all know that first novels deserve a certain understanding in some areas. Many authors are still finding their voice with that first publication, and so some faults are to be expected. That said, I was impressed with how strongly our protagonist, Octavia Leander’s, voice came through. I could hear this character speaking clearly on the first page, the cadences and tone of her voice clear in my perception, and growing clearer with each chapter. I’m quite impressed with how Cato developed Leander through the course of these 200 + pages, and I felt that I had met a character that I truly knew by the time I closed the book. The other primary characters receive an equally just treatment..all are developed thoroughly and carefully. Occasionally, a piece of reflective or introspective dialogue felt forced, but this was rare, and ultimately never broke my suspension of disbelief. The greatest strength of Cato’s writing in this debut is the care with which she permits her characters to come to life. This is accomplished in no small regard due to her handling of the language, which is clever and inventive, merging well a period piece and modern language as seems a requirement for this genre.

Second would be the world-building. This novel is as steampunk as they come. We’re introduced to a nice balance of Victorian dialogue, whirring machinations and inventions, magical spells and curses, and a mystery playing out aboard a dirigible. I was surprised by the magical components of the book…surprised in a good way. It’s just that I hadn’t really known how much a part of steampunk that magic is, but there you have it…this was a part of my education. I’m actually surprised with the depth of complexity that Cato captures in this world, given that the novel is relatively concise in length, but every nuance of the political structure, the economic issues between nations, and an industrial revolution run amok in war are designed with each detail considered and completely working. The warring nations and corrupt leadership form a fascinating backdrop to the story, without becoming overly didactic in their metaphor.

What Cato tackles head-on in this work is the seeming conflict between faith and science.

Octavia Leander, you see, is a medician…a healer who understands the natural ways to heal that the earth provides, as well as possessing magical means of mending broken people. More than this, these magical abilities are derived from a religious faith, a faith in the Lady and her Tree. Legend holds that the Lady received her power after asking God for the ability to heal more people, and the medicians follower her order. Octavia is ridiculed by many who trust in the rapid new technological developments of the age, yet her abilities cannot be questioned. She is a gifted healer, perhaps the most gifted known in recent memory, and it is for this reason that she is hunted. Most simply end up accepting her abilities with some awe, while concluding that such a path is not for them, thus walking away and attempting to reconcile the visible effects of an unseen faith with the measurable, quantifiable and tactile world of technological advances around them. That reconciliation seems to occur on mostly a surface level, never delved into too deeply…just as in our culture today. I think that this faith in a more ancient knowledge is the thesis of the novel, and what I especially appreciate is that Cato handles it adeptly without ever leaving the reader groaning or resentful. She never develops this into any sort of theology. She is content with the imagery that she is presenting, and it does its job well.

There’s a romantic sub-plot that the book could simply live without. Each development in this regard feels forced and un-natural, and, on the rare occasions in which I did feel that something was out of place, it was in those moments. That said, I have no interest (and barely any tolerance) for the romantic genre, so this could just be my own clouded perceptions, and I’m willing to own that.

The ending feels a bit…stretched…but not to a point in which I feel anything is lost. Simply, proportions of things seem to become very large and epic very quickly, an abrupt step from the heavily interpersonal plot that Cato has developed up to that point. I think that it would have worked better with a bit more transition, but, while trying to avoid spoilers, I’ll say that this could also be seen as a device to further her emphasis on the power of faith.

I expected steampunk to be a bit of escapism, as it has always felt a bit whimsical in my previous (brief) experiences. I certainly didn’t expect it to deal with something deeper and thought-provoking, but I was pleasantly surprised here. I’m certain that, if you’re already a fan, this is already on your list or on your shelf. If, like me, you’re just exploring what this whole thing is all about, then this is a good first read…the kind of novel that stays with for a bit after you’ve finished. I think Cato’s future works will get better, but I’m glad that I’ve met Octavia Leander.

A Review of “Superman / Wonder Woman, Volume 1: Power Couple”

Superman/Wonder Woman, Vol. 1: Power Couple (Superman / Wonder Woman, #1)Superman/Wonder Woman, Vol. 1: Power Couple by Charles Soule

This graphic novel collects the first 7 issues of this story arc, which is one that I haven’t managed to follow in the New 52. I knew of it’s implications, of course…it’s difficult to read anything current in the DC Universe and not know of this romance of titans, but I wanted to finally delve into the story and see for myself.

First, I’ll say that I’ve read reviews and heard strong opinions on whether or not this is sensationalist storytelling on DC’s part to put Superman and Wonder Woman together as a couple. I also have reservations about this, but I’m not reviewing that editorial decision. That is what it is, and there’s no point in reading any review of this collection if you disagree with the plot so entirely.

That said, the writing in these issues is strong. I really haven’t read Soule’s work until this, and I’m impressed with the way he crafts his dialogue. These are two of the most primary characters in the DC Universe…no small undertaking to handle on the page, and he does so deftly. What is actually quite fascinating about the romantic concept here is how both characters are developed in ways that we didn’t see coming. Superman’s desire to maintain a dual identity is as much for the protection of his emotional well being as it is for the protection of those he loves here…and Wonder Woman sees this as a weakness that she has difficulty reconciling. Both struggle to balance the selflessness of their role to protect their world with the very human selfishness of wanting to be happy with someone else. In doing so, Soule is wrestling with the role of the hero, the failings that come from the humanity of the heroes viewed by the public as gods among us, and the heightened repercussions of their choices. As Wonder Woman frets over the tragedy that inevitably befalls the hero, Batman chastises Superman:

“You two have a spat, and the world burns? How can you not be aware of the stakes of what you’re doing?”

I appreciate how Wonder Woman, particularly, is handled in this collection. After her strong start in the New 52, I was worried that she would be overly romanticized or weakened here. I’m glad that quite the opposite is true. We feel her trepidation and insecurities surrounding their relationship…the vulnerabilities that any of us have when being involved with someone. Yet, she is still the adept warrior who needs no help from Superman, and in fact arrives to save him in a critical moment. Both are recognized as the most powerful heroes on the planet, a just due that is all too easily missed when writing Wonder Woman.

I can also say that, for the first time, I felt that I truly heard Diana’s voice in Soule’s writing.

Unfortunately, what Soule does so beautifully with dialogue and character development, he misses in overall plot. The storyline of battling escaped Kryptonians bent of world destruction is merely a forgettable vehicle with which to convey the larger issues presented here, and the climactic fight scene feels dismissive and bordering on unbelievable.

I was a fan of Daniel’s artwork in the Justice League, and he performs just as well here for the most part. He’s a bit more inconsistent in these pages, however, particularly in facial expressions, which leave especially our protagonists looking oddly unfamiliar in several panels.

I respect what DC’s trying to do here, and the way in which they are exploring the characters. There is quite a bit within these pages that is thought provoking, and indicative of the angst with which we see heroes in the “real world” today. I wish that a more thorough plot had been used to convey this adventure, as the final pages fell quite flat and were disappointing. Overall, this concept is off to a good start, but has much room to improve.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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A Review of “Black Widow: Deadly Origin”

Black Widow: Deadly OriginBlack Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Black Widow has long been one of my favorite characters in the Marvel Universe. Before the world at large was introduced to her in Iron Man 2, I was reading her adventures. I was thrilled to have her introduced into the cinematic canon because she’s a strong female character, a hero of tragic origin with a darkness that brings an enormous amount of depth to her stories. Natasha Romanoff has been involved in many adventures within Marvel comics through the decades, playing an important part in various continuities. I hadn’t read the Deadly Origin issues, though, and I was looking forward, as I always do, to reading anything Black Widow when I picked this collection up at my local bookstore.

How disappointing.

This story alternates between a plot called the “Icepick Protocol” to kill everyone that Romanoff loves and hinging around the man who was a father figure to her, Ivan…and flashbacks to her past, from her origins as part of the Red Room through her involvement in the Civil War story arc. This is the retconned history for the Black Widow, in which biotechnological enhancements prolong her life substantially, and thus she has lived through a great deal. We see her husband, the Red Guardian, and other interesting glimpses into the Widow’s past that has crafted her into the strong and fractured character that she is. The flashbacks seemed to be well-paced within the context of the rest of the story to me, but the dialogue seemed out of character in both present and past on many occasions. The sweep of the story is too broad for so confined a collection…we’re simply covering too much of Romanoff’s life because we have to see how it collides with present events. The present events are then reduced to a cacophony of violent confrontations that don’t leave room for the sort of character evolution that I would hope to see in an origin story.

Then, there’s the art.

Two different artists draw this collection: one the modern events, another the flashbacks. The flashback art by Leon is brilliant. The emotions of the characters carry far past the dialogue, and there are moments where I feel I know the Black Widow’s character better based only on her facial expression or posture in tableau from these flashback sequences. Comparing this to the majority of the collection…the current events…is striking enough to be painful. In modern day, Romanoff looks as though she’s seventeen rather than the woman she is, her apparent age completely incongruous with the skills she evidences in the fighting sequences. Which is sort of noticeable, as fighting sequences are really all we see in the present events.

Overall, I also find the events of the story a bit too steeped in the “off-camera” sex. Yes, the Widow is a product of the Red Room, but she has become so much more as a hero, and this just doesn’t do her justice. I think the motivation of the writer was to paint Romanoff as the woman she’s become, but this missed the mark entirely.

Deadly Origin’s writing is, unfortunately, a lot of failing to do the character of the Black Widow justice. Combined with profoundly disappointing artwork for more than half of the collection, and this is a book that will likely gather dust on my shelf without ever being re-read. If you love the Black Widow, you’ll want better.

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