Friday, 28 February 2014

The Darkest Child (by Delores Phillips) - A review

The Darkest Child

Location: USA
Author: Delores Phillips
Publisher/Year: Soho Press/2005
Genre: Drama
Theme: An black family of ten children led by an imposing and often downright evil mother during a period of intense change for the African-American community in the 1950s and 1960s.

For Black History Month, USA was decided upon for the February Book of the Month location, with an emphasis on books touching upon themes regarding the lives of the African-American community. Of the books presented, I decided to go with The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips.

This book, while marvellous, is also troubling at times, going well beyond the social setting and actions that should be troubling enough on their own. This is not a failing, but a concerted attempt at ramping up a depiction of the reality of the period in its own unique way. The feeling is made particularly severe by the fact that the most troubling aspects come from the mother in the family portrayed rather than from the social issues of the time.

The plot description below has been lifted from Goodreads (sorry, not original, but it captures the basic idea too well for me to ignore!):
Rozelle Quinn is so fair-skinned that she can pass for white. Her ten children are mostly light, too. Everyone in the small Georgia town in which she lives knows that they have different fathers. She favors her light children, but it is Tangy Mae, the darkest of them all, who is the brightest and the only one desperate to get an education. Even in rural Pakersfield they have heard of the Supreme Court's recent ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, though they are in no hurry to comply with it." "Rozelle wants thirteen-year-old Tangy Mae to take over her jobs: days, doing house cleaning for whites; nights, servicing men, white and black, at the "Farmhouse." And Rozelle is not a woman whose commands can lightly be ignored. She is a creature of moods, possessive of all her children, desperate for their love, demanding of utter loyalty and obedience, harshly repressive of any signs of independence. They are the only thing in her life that she can control.
 With Rozelle and 10 children, as well as numerous other characters, not many get to shine. But as the two main characters of the book Rozelle and Tangy Mae get characterised to a great extent. Rozelle is terrifying as a parent and as a person, one whose absolute control over her children's lives while increasingly leading a deranged existence. She is demanding in all the wrong ways, and in many ways sets about ruining the lives of Tangy Mae and her siblings. Tangy Mae, on the other hand, comes across as a very sympathetic character, a remarkably bright, young girl whose chances of becoming a success in her right are hampered by her mother's rigid notions of what might be appropriate. The story thus largely revolves around these two while others remain as supporting characters. It's these characters, their issues with each other, the problems that turn up, and the well defined settings that make this novel work, and drive the story forward.

So what did I think of the story and the characters? Definitely good, somewhat troubling in phases. Sadly, many of the characters did not get to be fleshed out as a result of the large cast, which is less than pleasing but understandable. The characters that did get focused on were very well constructed, and the language certainly contributes. Beyond being set in conserative Georgia the location did not matter quite as much in terms of contributing to the feel of the tale, alas!

Would I recommend this book? Wholeheartedly. It can be quite specific in terms of mistreatment, but one should be okay with it all by now!

Sorry, not the greatest review. It's been a busy few days and I need to get this review done quickly. Hopefully I can do this one properly later. For now, farewell, and see you soon!

Monday, 24 February 2014

Aya de Yopougon (by Marguerite Abouet & Clément Oubrerie) - A review

Aya de Yopougon

Location: Côte d'Ivoire/Ivory Coast
Format: Graphic Novel
Author: Marguerite Abouet
Artist: Clément Oubrerie
Publisher/Year: Gallimard Jeunesse/2005
Genre: Realistic fiction
Theme: The lives of a group of young women and their friends and family in city of Abidjan, and portraits of ordinary

people living everyday lives in a developing African country

What comes to your mind when I mention the word 'Africa?' If you're like most people, at some point you would have pictured crushing poverty, disease, starvation, war, and untold miseries (also the forests and animals, perhaps, but that's not the point here). This is how we as outsiders have been conditioned to think about Africa. While it's true that Africans have to deal with more than their fair share of problems, there is far more to them than this. Day to day lives are a mixture of highs and lows, just as in any other part of the world. Indeed, many Africans display an enviable joie de vivre, something that is very much on display in 'Aya de Yopougon.' Marguerite Abouet set out to create a work that shows the everyday life of Africans (well, Ivorians, to be precise) and not focus specifically on the more miserable aspects as many 'western' narratives are wont to do, something she achieves in this look at the lives of a few young women and those around them.

One would think the central character in this story would be Aya, the eponymous heroine, a resident of Yopougan (termed 'Yop City' by the locals), a popular area of Abidjan. And yes, she is reasonably central in some ways. But overall, the story seems to revolve more around the actions of her friends Adjoua and Bintou than Aya. If anything, the oh-so-well-behaved-and-ambitious Aya stands as a counterpoint to her more carefree and wild friends, who are keen on partying, marrying rich guys, and getting settled with a standard salon or clothing shop. Where this could have been a narrative about Aya and her dreams of becoming a doctor, overcoming the pressures of society and a deeply regressive attitude on the part of her parents (who do in fact think she should just marry a rich guy and not search for a meaningful job), but is instead a narrative about young women dealing with the highs and lows (some more challenging than others) of everyday life. But this is not a criticism of the story, per se. Indeed, this is a story that could have been a standard tale of a women from an impoverished background rising to achieve her goals despite obstacles in the form of family and society. Or a tale about her friends, one seemingly impregnated by the other's boyfriend. Or a series of other life-altering dramas.

But no. At the end of the day, this is a tale that takes these events as parts of the everyday lives of these characters. They may become truly major (the pregnancy is a major event in this book, admittedly). But the focus is on different people enjoying life in their own ways. It's about young women and young men interacting in a country that was experiencing a period of relative success and joy under President Félix Houphouët-Boigny. It's a tale about people going to the popular clubs, to the local makeout spot, to the market, to friend's places; it's about the social interactions and the simple joys and problems of everyday life. This is a portrait of everyday life in a reasonably liveable African city in the 1980s, far removed from the myriad tales of war and poverty that define Africa. In this sense, Abouet succeeds marvellously. The art is interesting and has its own character. Is it beautiful art? That's a matter of perspective. But it captures the characters and the intended feel quite well, and that is what it was meant to do. And it captures the setting even better, giving the readers a sense of what life is like in Yop City for Aya and her friends.

This is not a spectacular work. Indeed, it is not even a complete tale in many ways. The plot is largely irrelevant. But it set out to do something different, and does it well. It's not a book for everyone (the phrase 'your mileage may vary' is seldom going to be more relevant in the books reviewed on this blog), but it's a book worth a look-see at the least. Admittedly, only 3 of the 6 books in the series have been translated into English, but that should be enough. And for those like me who read French, definitely try it in the original language. The added slang and other aspects give the book a special Yopougon feel that may be lost to some extent in translated versions, and this is invaluable when looking at a slice of life in this region and for the section of society the book is about.

Cold Hearts (by Gunnar Staalesen) - A review

Cold Hearts

Location: Norway
Author: Gunnar Staalesen
Year: 2008 (published in English by Arcadia in 2012)
Genre: Murder Mystery (Crime/Thriller)
Theme: The latest in the Varg Veum series of novels, where private investigator Veum sets out to track down a missing prostitute and finds the troubling background of his case intersecting strangely with some other incidents...

Gunnar Staalesen is one of the greatest Norwegian crime novellists of our time (and for those who are not into crime fiction as of now, I should mention that there's a fair bit of competition on that front). His series of novels featuring Varg Veum (16 novels, in addition to some short stories and a co-written work) is definitely the most notable part of this career, and of the 5 Veum novels translated into English Cold Hearts is the latest and certainly ranks up there with his best works.

Set in the city of Bergen, Cold Hearts (as always) centres on private investigator and former social worker Varg Veum. Much of the story is told in flashback despite following a straight narrative all the way through once the flashback starts, a relatively unusual choice for this series. The case starts off when a young woman named Hege (indeed, Varg's son's former classmate and ex-girlfriend) walks into his office with a case. But don't be fooled, this is no 1920s noir narrative where a classy/glamorous but tough dame walks into a private investigator's office. No, as with much of contemporary Scandinavian crime thrillers, this is grittier and more real in today's world. Hege, who could so easily have been Varg's daughter-in-law, is now a prostitute, and wants Varg to find her friend and colleague Margrethe aka Maggi, as the police rarely bother themselves with missing prostitutes. As Varg digs deeper into Maggi's background (leading to the occasional confrontation with her pimps), he finds intersections with other ongoing cases, all of which seem to tie into the troubled family background in which Maggi and her siblings grew up. With a troubled family background and ongoing problems, in their youth Maggi and her siblings ended up in the care of a neighbourhood committee that took it upon themselves to take care of the kids given the parents' own inadequacies. With his social work background also bearing upon the investigation, Varg follows multiple interwoven threads and also explores the flaws created by a social setup that may have interfered more than it should have to create lifelong problems for the children. As he follows a case growing ever darker, Veum finds that he may very well end up with a trail of bodies if he doesn't find the answers soon enough...

This is a gripping novel, and as with many Scandinavian thrillers mixes a noir approach with a gritty, edgy feel that feels very contemporary. Staalesen does not shy away from exploring the seedier parts of society, nor should he given the genre he's writing about. Veum is a character who is both the classic detective and the everyman, an interesting character who engages the readers, while others are also well fleshed out. The plot itself is intricate and very well crafted, a must for crime novels, though at times it does feel a little convenient that practically every major crime in the city begins to tie into the case Veum himself is pursuing. Staalesen also does well at describing the setting of Bergen, painting a detailed picture of each district and neighbourhood that Veum visits and where events transpire. It's a very personal depiction of the city, something Staalesen tends to do in most of his novels, and one that serves the novel and the readers well.

On the whole, this is a crime thriller worth picking up. Don't worry if you haven't read other books in the series - it is easy to make out what's going on and the setting itself is a modern one that most of us in cities can engage with, particularly with Staalesen's descriptions of the neighbourhoods and key locations. And if you like it, you can definitely pick up some of the other novels in the series! All in all, an enjoyable read (er, if you enjoy serious crime novels).

The Unknown Soldier (by Väinö Linna) - A review

The Unknown Soldier

Location: Finland (mostly)
Author: Väinö Linna
Publisher/Year: WSOY/1954 (published in English in 1957)
Genre: War/Drama/Historical fiction
Theme: A gritty, realistic view of life as a Finnish soldier during the Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union

To truly understand The Unknown Soldier, it's essential to understand the context in which it was written. Following the so called 'Winter War' of 1939-40, when the Soviet Union annexed Finland and forced the Finns to concede key territories including Karelia, Finland went through a sort of collective depression of every sort. Morale was low, and it was in this setting that more 'positive' literature about the brave, unflagging Finnish soldier emerged. As Finland and USSR launched into a second war between 1941 and 1944, dubbed the 'Continuation War,' and past concessions came undone in the midst of wartime chaos, such literature and propaganda continued unabated in a drive to keep Finnish morale high. Indeed, this continued for about a decade after the Contination War as the nation struggled to deal with the aftermath of another, more devastating loss.

It was at this time (1954) that Väinö Linna, a former soldier himself, penned The Unknown Soldier. A harsh, uncompromising picture of the true nature of war for those actively fighting for their nation, The Unknown Soldier was an anti-war novel without actually being defeatist. It railed against the desolation and suffering of war while still showing the valour of the soldiers having to endure it. At first, the book was strongly criticised by many for being anti-nationalistic by highlighting the horrors of war and 'ignoring the bigger picture.' Linna himself had aimed to provide a more realistic view than the blind idealism espoused by many authors of the time.  To quote Wikipedia, "In Linna's own words, he wished to give the Finnish soldier a brain, an organ lacking in earlier depictions — this was a barb directed at Johan Runeberg's The Tales of Ensign Stål, which admiringly portrays Finnish soldiers with big hearts and little independent intellect."

The novel does not feature a single protagonist. Instead, it focuses on a range of soldiers in a single machine gun company, with different personalities and coming from all sections of society, as they deal with the horrors of war. These range from young, naive types to cowards, and even one particular soldier who adheres to the ideal of the unflagging Finnish soldier as described in Finnish propaganda of the time (despite Linna's oft repeated contempt for this notion, he is one of the few characters who survives the novel). Many of the officers and soldiers in the novel, all too aware of the reality of war and their own natures, scoff openly at the idea of the idealised Finnish soldier, knowing full well how different they themselves are from what the government and literature of the time suggest. As the tide turns against Finns over the course of the war and the novel, we see how these characters respond and evolve in their own different ways, and we see many of them die (indeed, Linna does not shy away from showing their deaths in the most blunt manner). This is a novel replete with personality archetypes, but it does not at any point sink to the level of representing them as hollow stereotypes and despite being unable to flesh them out in great detail (too many characters for that) does not leave them as blank figures. Instead, each character remains a very real person and each death continues to affect other characters as well as the readers in a very stark sense. The cold, depressing nature of losing one's comrades, something Linna himself had experienced, comes across almost too well.

This is not a novel that shies away from reality. Indeed, some would even describe it as a documentary given how real the setting and details are (but still featuring fictional characters). But to Linna and thousands like him on the front lines, this represented far more than any of the propaganda parading around as literature at the time. This novel shows you in tremendous detail what life was like for a soldier in that war, what the country and regions had devolved into. Linna himself continued to write about the war with his 'Under the North Star' trilogy, a historical fiction narrative that had much in common with 'The Unknown Soldier' and even intersected in parts. But it was this novel, which overcame initial criticism to resonate strongly with a nation in recovery, that came to be identified with the nature of war and life for soldiers. Sadly, the translated edition is flawed, and from what I understand does not come anywhere near approaching the magnificence of the original Finnish work. That said, it's still an utterly real and fantastic account of what the war was like for soldiers, and a gripping narrative that conveys the historical and geographic setting perfectly. 

Dom Casmurro (by Machado de Assis) - A review

Dom Casmurro

Location: Brazil
Author: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Year: 1899
Genre: Romance/Drama
Theme: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy avoids priesthood for the love of his life. Boy and girl get married, have a kid and live happily ever after. Except there's no such thing as 'happily ever after' here...

Machado de Assis is the preeminent Brazilian writer, a legend in his native land and arguably the most iconic writer the country has ever produced (don't say Paulo Coelho...). Which makes it remarkably surprising that I, a noted Brasilophile, have never read his most famous work. Dom Casmurro is a surprisingly complex tale (surprising because it starts off looking like a standard romance, but turns into something else altogether halfway through) that almost every literate Brazilian (apparently) reads at some point. It is a wonderfully crafted novel that is reminiscent of some great works throughout history, but still finds its own ways to captivate and even surprise readers.

This is the tale of and narrated by Bentinho (the eponymous Dom Casmurro, which roughly translates to 'Lord Pigheaded' -  I relied on Google Translate rather than my own rusty Portuguese skills -  though I have seen it more appropriately described as 'Lord Taciturn'). Let's be clear about this from the very start - Bentinho is THE narrator, and that plays a key role in how the tale plays out from his perspective. The narrative is in the style of old Bentinho's flashbacks to his youth, and is well crafted to reflect that these are his memories rather than what necessarily happened.

Bentinho had long been pressured by his devout mother to become a priest, something that did not interest him quite as much as the lovely Capitú who lived next door. Capitú also shows a deep interest in Bentinho, and the two lovers strive to ensure he does not have to take up priesthood so that they can be together. In the event, Bentinho does end up at a seminary for a brief while, where he encounters Escobar, a man who becomes and remains his best friend. As the tale unfolds, Bentinho and Capitú grew closer and eventually marry, while Escobar marries Capitú's best friend Sancha. For those of you thinking this is as conventional as a love story can get (indeed, very Hollywood rom-com at this stage), this is where the tale starts to turn...

Bentinho and Capitú eventually have a son named Ezekiel, a ray of sunshine in their already happy lives. Or so it seems at first... Eventually Bentinho notices that Ezekiel looks less like him and more like his best friend. And other signs also point in disturbing directions. Seemingly betrayed by the love of his life and his best friend, Bentinho takes a turn for the worse and starts seeing patterns that threaten to ruin his life... It is at this point that it becomes clear to the reader that this is not a Hollywood rom-com, but in fact the Brazilian equivalent to Othello. A man with a seemingly perfect life turns into a nervous wreck, seeing conspiracies against him everywhere he looks and becoming increasingly psychotic in a manner that threatens to tear his life and those of his loved ones apart. How it unfolds, well, that's not something to be revealed in a book review!

Coming back to that bit I highlighted earlier: perspective. This is all from Bentinho's perspective. As the tale unfolds, we see hints of contradictions in his narrative. This is all heavily skewed to reflect his point of view on the events of his life and is coloured by his own biases and psychoses. In all likelihood the narratives of Capitú and Escobar would be tremendously different from other perspectives. As it is, Bentinho is a man dealing with severe issues, and these issues colour the way he lives his life and the problems that emerge. This is where Machado de Assis does well not to limit the novel to showing the tale from his perspective.

As a setting, the time and place are well mapped out. 19th century Brazil was a fascinating place, with many cities and society itself modelled on Europe and colonial life. This is captured in Dom Casmurro, a keen look at Brazilian society of the time. Geography isn't the key aspect here, it's the socio-cultural setting.

The novel, as mentioned, as finely crafted and written. Machado de Assis' varied style lends itself to the simple romance as well as the subsequent intrigue, and his stylised prose is a delight to read. The inspirations such as Othello and other classic works are fairly notable, but at the same time the novel retains its own distinct style and story. This remains the quintessential Brazilian novel, and is definitely a must read.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Pride of Baghdad (by Brian K. Vaughan & Niko Henrichon) - A review

Pride of Baghdad

Location/Setting: Iraq
Format: Graphic Novel
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Niko Henrichon
Publisher/Year: Vertigo (DC Comics)/2006
Genre: War/Politics/Animal drama
Theme: Loosely based on a true story, this is the tale of four lions who escaped from the ruins of the bombed Baghdad Zoo and found themselves wandering around a city at war

Another graphic novel review (there's another one to come in a couple of days, sorry!), this is a fairly acclaimed graphic novel that I never actually got around to completing until now. Truth be told, I was always able to appreciate it as a fine work but it never really gripped me enough to go through with it completely. But it's one of those graphic novels that your average comics fan has to read at some point, so I knuckled down and went for it.

In 2003, USA invaded Iraq and engaged in heavy bombing in many key areas. Prime among these was of course the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Among other instances of collateral damage, Baghdad Zoo took heavy damage and was left in ruins. From the midst of this carnage came a story that captivated the world, however briefly, and inspired this novel. A group of lions found themselves free as a result of the damage to the zoo, and ended up in the alien world of war-torn Baghdad. A top media attraction for a while, the story soon faded. Until Vaughan and Henrichon came out with this graphic novel three years later, and reimagined the story with anthromorphised lions whose tale and interactions reflected much of the war and general political setting. The obvious Animal Farm comparisons have often been made, but where that was a biting satire of world politics this retains a more 'human' element that is not incomparable to a more serious, grown-up version Lion King.

At its core, the story is driven by well defined characters. Zill, the full grown lion, yearns for freedom but has grown a little tubby and comfortable in captivity. His mate Noor is far more driven when it comes to her quest for freedom, and is always on the lookout for chances to break out (eventually succeeding thanks to the bombing, of course). Their young cub, Ali, has no particular feelings regarding captivity versus freedom, not really having known anything but the zoo. But he is driven by curiosity, and the idea of this strange new world outside the one he grew up in is certainly something to be explored! Last, but not least, is the old lioness Safa, who feels safe and comfortable in the zoo and is wary of the potentially high cost of 'freedom.'

When the tale begins, these characters are still safe and sound in the closed environment of Baghdad Zoo, where a certain social hierarchy is in place, leaving the lions well and truly at the top of the pyramid. This is a position of power the pride enjoys, and the social commentary on classes and hierarchy across the animal kingdom in the zoo certainly reflects to some extent on our own society. When the shelling takes out the zoo and liberates the animals, though, it's a whole new world out there for the animals. The old social structures no longer hold. The lions are not de facto royalty any more in a harsh and unknown environment where survival is all that matters while a war waged by humans rages around them. At the same time, the essence of this story is not in the social and political narrative but in how the lions come together as a family to deal with the challenges facing them. They differ on many things, but at the end of the day they are family and have an unbreakable bond that lasts until the very end.

It's a heartwarming tale, but one that has its fair share of tragedy and depth. It is well plotted with good (but generic) characterisation. Vaughan does well, but at the same time it must be pointed out that this is in some ways contrary to his natural style. The art by Niko Henrichon is gorgeous, with stunning visuals making the lions seem both realistic and human in their own special way, while the locale is perfectly rendered. This is unmistakably a book set in Baghdad when the war was arguably at its most destructive, and there are underlying narratives that also capture the general setting in a subtle manner.

Again, this book was not the most gripping for me, but it is very hard not to objectively appreciate that it is a great piece of work. Definitely worth a read at some point.

Violence 101 (by Denis Wright) - A review

Violence 101

Location: New Zealand
Author: Denis Wright
Publisher/Year: Penguin/2008
Genre: I have no idea. It reads almost like a non-fiction narrative, so not quite a thriller, but it does deal with some dark aspects. I have seen it classified as Young Adult, but that only applies as far as the setting and protagonist. There's more beyond that. Still, let's go with 'Young Adult'
Theme: A dark novella about a fourteen year old boy who is convinced that violence is not only okay, but the only acceptable solution and way of being.

This is not your average young adult novel. This is not your average kid. Yet there's a disturbing combination of real characters and real life horror in this work from Denis Wright. It's raw, it's strangely powerful, and leaves you with a lot to think about, all in the space of 180 pages. This is the sort of book that will leave my mother shaking her head about how deeply disturbed this generation is. And for once I find I can't disagree with her, though I actually appreciate and in a strange way enjoy how real this feels.

Hamish Graham, the supremely intelligent and stunningly persuasive protagonist of Violence 101, is a deeply troubled individual. And I mean DEEPLY. This is a fourteen year old boy who has been through multiple institutions for young offenders, and on his very first day at the third one (New Horizons) he attacks the biggest guy around to establish himself as top dog. He is convinced that violence is not merely acceptable, but is the solution to every obstacle in his way. He idolises many for whom violence was indeed an answer (if not the answer), most notably Alexander the Great, and can routinely list instances and statistics about violence. This is a boy who worships at the altar of violence, and it is the ultimate way of life in his book. At the same time, the writer is very clear that Hamish is not to be labelled a sociopath or psychopath, seemingly an inherent contradiction but one that is exploited very well.

The book itself revolves around a combination of narratives. The dominant one, as you can imagine, is Hamish's. He is under no illusions about his proclivities and his abilities. He embraces his fondness for violence, and is unabashedly open about the idea that he is smarter than those around him (to be fair, he often is) and that this is truly what freaks them out. In a world where denial and positivity are often stressed, Hamish feels he appreciates what life is truly about and the lesser beings around him do not seem to understand the limits they are placing on him and on themselves with their narrowminded approach. This is not a disorder to be cured through therapy - Hamish is all too aware of his passion for violence and considers himself above therapy. Indeed, as far as he's concerned his way is the right way, and others need to learn from him! At the other end of the spectrum, as seen from occasional narration from his headmaster and instructors, there are many who are genuinely concerned about him. Two of them even seem to be getting through to him (despite minor setbacks such as broken arms and whatnot), but this is hampered when Hamish learns that he may be sent to a mental institution and runs away. The unforeseen consequences of his actions, as Hamish is forced to confront the realities of his worldview, are potentially life-altering for Hamish as well as his instructors.

This is a very real, visceral narrative that gives you a look at the mind of a character like Hamish. Hamish is that rare type of delinquent, one who is not misguided but is remarkably rational and intelligent when it comes to his dark side. What terrifies many readers, one notes, is not what he does, but that he somehow conveys all his violent tendencies as being not just rational but the right things to do. Wright conveys this very skillfully without actually losing the balance that shows how twisted Hamish is. This is a rare skill, and the narratives are woven together very well to accomplish this.

The New Zealand setting, while important, is also not. Wright uses the locale well and the dialogue has Maori expressions tossed in every now and then. This is definitely New Zealand. But the tale is hardly restricted to its setting. This story could take place just about anywhere, and often does. At the heart of the tale is the protagonist's mind, and that is the true setting of the narrative, and is managed in a nuanced manner.

Is it worth reading? Yes, provided you can handle the dark, disturbing themes that emerge from such a work. I wouldn't give this book to my parents, or to some of my friends. Of other friends and my sister, I can tell that some of them would engage wholeheartedly with Violence 101. If you're okay with exploring the darker side of human nature, this 180 page inside look at a violent mind is definitely for you.

Whiteout (by Greg Rucka & Steve Lieber) - A review


Location/Setting: Antarctica
Format: Graphic Novel
Writer: Greg Rucka
Artist: Steve Lieber
Publisher/Year: Oni Press/1998 (collected in 2007)
Genre: Crime/Thriller
Theme: The first murder in Antarctica and the hunt to find the killer. Enough said.

Not sure if including graphic novels in this counts as a cheat, but if I recall correctly there were no restrictions in the challenge rules regarding the validity of graphic novels. Whiteout is admittedly made a little more complicated by the fact that it was originally a miniseries that got collected nearly a decade after publication, but it speaks volumes about Rucka's smooth writing and transitions that I was convinced at first that this was an Original Graphic Novel (aka OGN, which is a graphic novel intended to be published exactly as that, in the form of one complete story/novel rather than a collected edition). Some of you might have watched the movie based on this and come away a little less than satisfied. To give credit to the movie, it strived to represent the story, and performances were good. But it never stood a chance of replicating the intensely personal feel embedded in the novel, and without that it comes off like a relatively bland TV movie that ended up on the big screen instead. But the focus of this review is the book, not the movie. So let's get down to it!

First up, might as well understand a little bit about Rucka as a writer. Before Whiteout came out, Rucka was essentially a novellist, but it must be stated truthfully that for all his merits he was at most middle rung in that arena. But those merits I mentioned? Some of those translated beautifully to comics as a medium, and Whiteout became the first clear example of that. Strong plotting and realistic characters abound in Greg Rucka's work, and intense attention to detail (particularly when it comes to the setting) is a hallmark of his work. Elaborating further on the 'realistic' characters part, Rucka has a noted skill when it comes to writing female characters. He does not write them as 'strong female characters' according to a trope - he merely writes them as people worthy of respect. He might occasionally focus on the specific traits that make them strong female characters, but in a way that does not take away from how real they are. There is a reason that he is arguably the most acclaimed modern Wonder Woman writer, a character that has remained an enigma to almost every writer who has had to deal with her. These traits, while important for his career as a novellist, worked so well for comics that he got elevated to a modern comics pantheon of sorts, making him one of the most respected comics creators around.

That aspect regarding writing female characters well? That shines through perfectly when it comes to US Marshall Carrie Stetko, the protagonist of Whiteout. A tough as nails character, she's not the most cheerful of folks (then again, how many Marshalls would be cheerful about being stationed in Antarctica?). It's a challenging place, and the relative isolation makes it worse. She is civil with others, but rarely friendly. Carrie's there to do a job, and beyond that everything else is secondary. And that job? It gets pretty complicated when the first ever murder in Antarctica happens on her watch. All while remaining on high alert about a potential snowstorm that could jeopardise the safety of everyone at the station and also give the killer a great chance to get away. Teaming up with British agent Lily Sharpe, it's a race against time to catch the killer and end his killing spree before the storm hits.

I won't tell you much more, because a murder mystery/thriller is best left unspoiled. I will at most tell you that she does eventually come out on top. But considering a sequel titled 'Whiteout: Melt' turned up a few years later with Carrie back in the fray, it seems safe to say she makes it out of this one okay.

This is not the most spectacular murder mystery. The actual perpetrator is pretty obvious from the moment we as readers first encounter them (not specifying the gender!). But it's still pretty well crafted as a novel, particularly for Rucka's first real attempt in this format. And where it stands out is the characterisation. Readers don't come away from this with a feeling that they have read hollow pastiches of standard characters, but real people approaching this problem in a very real way. Carrie Stetko as a protagonist the readers engage with because one sees her dealing with challenges like any real person in this situation, and coming out on top not because of some superheroic ability to defy the odds but because she battles through whatever shit she has to deal with while clearly not being okay with it. Another strength of Whiteout lies in the attention to detail when it comes to the setting. Rucka's research clearly worked, but at least as much credit must be given to the art of industry veteran Steve Lieber, who replicated many parts of the Antarctic research base(s) and the surrounding areas & conditions with stunning detail that allows the readers a chance to feel what it's like for the characters to be in that spatial setting. There is a deliberate starkness to the art that works because it's Antarctica - there is no need for stylistic flourishes here - and this creates the sense of isolation felt by the characters perfectly.

Is it the most spectacular work? Not really. Arguably not even among thrillers about the first murder in Antarctica (you'd be amazed how many of those are around). But it's still worth a read, particularly for those who are interested in strong characterisation and realistic settings when it comes to such works. For a challenge like Around the World in 80 Books, this book sets up an Antarctic setting perfectly.