Category Archives: British

Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers by John Harris Dunning, art by Nikhil Singh

Salem BrownstoneSalem Brownstone, once the proprietor of the Sit & Spin Laundromat, gets an ominous telegram (on Halloween, naturally) calling him to New Mecco City, Azania to “take immediate possession of his [late father's] house and the contents therein.” His mourning – “[a]fter all these years of wanting to know my father, now it’s too late. I’ve lost him” – is short-lived when he discovers an intruder in the manse …

Before Salem has time to get better acquainted with visiting Cassandra Contortionist, who knew his father, the Shadow Boys descend. Uh-oh. Cassandra passes Salem the “scrying ball” which belonged to Salem’s father, with warnings that he must always keep it safe. Injured during their escape, Salem wakes up surrounded by the many creatures of Dr. Kinoshita’s Circus of Unearthly Delights. As Salem recovers, many strange occurrences happen, not the least of which include evil, dark plans to take over the universe. Salem, of course, holds the key – I mean the ball – to keeping the world in balance.

While the plot follows a rather straightforward good vs. evil narrative, the art is anything but predictable. As revealed in artist Nikhil Singh’s bio notes, the panels were seven years in the drawing with a major move in between for both creators from South Africa to London. From Salem’s single expressively squiggly eyebrow, to the mysterious Lola Q’s eyepatch, to Ed Harm’s stages of mutant transformation, and so much more, Singh’s irreverent, protean imagination is clearly manifested in the myriad tiny, peculiar elements of each panel.

Reading swiftly through will restore your sense of goodness and safety, but you’ll find you need to go back again and again)to make sure you haven’t missed any important details. After all, the fate of the universe lies between these glorious, mercurial pages.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, British, British Asian, South African

Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner, foreword by Brian Michael Bendis, afterword by Jeet Heer

Fagin the Jew“I am Fagin the Jew of Oliver Twist,” begins the ‘father of the graphic novel’-Will Eisner‘s 21st-century literary reclamation of the 19th-century classic. “This is my story, one that has remained untold and overlooked in the book by Charles Dickens,” a tattered old man insists. “Tarry a bit, Mister Dickens,” he speaks directly to his maker, “while ol’ Fagin here tells you, Sir, what I really was and how it all came to be!!”

The infant Moses Fagin arrived in London with his parents after surviving the pograms of Eastern Europe. While England was kinder to immigrant Jews, the more recent arrivals from Middle and Eastern Europe “were regarded as lower class.” Fagin paraphrases Dickens’ own A Tale of Two Cities-opening as he remembers his upbringing: “These were grim times, and yet the best of times for us newcomers.”

Moses learned early of life on the rough streets, but was given the chance of a promising future when he was hired as a houseboy to a wealthy Jewish merchant who soon enough came to treat him more like his own son. A single unthinking action sends Moses back to the streets, where he must use every means to survive. Again and again he’s mistreated and betrayed, unjustly accused and imprisoned. Somehow, he manages to keep some semblance of humanity and, in his later years, provides a haven-of-sorts for homeless boys, including the young Oliver Twist. The “Epilogue,” narrated by an adult Oliver – now a happily-married, well-established barrister – offers an apocryphal “turning point in Fagin’s life and his legacy” that is especially,  sigh inducing. Oh, if only!

As memorable as Fagin’s narrative is, the context in which it was written is perhaps the more enlightening story, especially as revealed in Eisner’s 2003 “Introduction to the First Edition.” In reimagining Fagin, the legendary Eisner – whose name is on the U.S. graphic industry’s highest awards – was, in essence, responding to his own stereotypical creations more than a half-century earlier. In 1940, Eisner introduced The Spirit, which featured an African American character named Ebony. By 1945, after surviving military service, Eisner became “more aware of the social implications of racial stereotypes, and [he] began to treat Ebony with greater insight.” More years passed until Eisner realized how Ebony was “feeding a racial prejudice with this stereotype image.” Eisner transferred that new awareness toward “produc[ing] graphic novels with themes of Jewish ethnicity and the prejudice Jews still face.” In the original editions of Oliver Twist, he “found unquestionable examples of visual defamation in classic literature … Combatting that became an obsessive pursuit …”

For this 10th anniversary issue, Fagin is bookended by an illuminating foreword and afterword that provides further insight in the story’s creation and aftermath. The levels of reclamation are especially intriguing – from Eisner’s distancing of his own stereotypical creations, to his rescue of Fagin from ignominy, to many-Eisner (of course!)-winning comics maker Brian Michael Bendis and culture journalist Jeet Heer‘s involvement in getting one of Eisner’s ‘minor’ titles to more and more readers.

Much like Jean Rhys gave Jane Eyre‘s ‘madwoman in the attic’ a voice in Wide Sargasso Sea, and Tom Stoppard offered Hamlet‘s schoolfriends a play of their own in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Eisner literally gives life to Fagin: “This book,” he rightfully insists, “… is not an adaptation of Oliver Twist! It is the story of Fagin the Jew.”

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2003, 2013 (10th anniversary edition)

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The Wall by William Sutcliffe

WallIn an unnamed conflict zone – not unlike the challenging, changing borders of Israel and Palestine – 13-year-old Joshua lives in a new settlement community, Amarias, surrounded by a guarded, barbed-wired wall. Too soon after his father’s violent death, his mother desperately married Joshua’s now-stepfather who considers himself their savior.

During an afternoon of play, Joshua’s new soccer ball goes out of bounds, thanks to a friend who runs off after refusing to retrieve it. In his search, Joshua discovers a hidden tunnel that takes him to the other side of the wall. Chased by a viciously angry mob of older boys, he’s saved by a young girl, Leila, who then helps him return to Amarias. Before they part, she asks him for food.

Back in relative safety, Joshua can’t stop worrying about Leila, struck by how different her life is from his own of plenty and privilege. His determination to repay her help sets off a chain of events that makes Joshua question everything he’s been taught to believe. From borrowed sandals to the tiniest olive tree sapling to the challenges of buying enough aspirin, The Wall presents two communities living right up against each other, yet separated by a seemingly unbreachable divide. One brave young boy attempts to make the great leap …

While The Wall doesn’t name countries, the fictional settlement’s name, Amarias, is an anagram for Samaria, which today refers to the northern part of the West Bank. British novelist William Sutcliffe (who happens to be married to fellow novelist Maggie O’Farrell!) describes himself as a “Jewish atheist.” After his participation at Palfest [Palestine Festival of Literature] in 2010, Sutcliffe told The Guardian in an April 2013 interview, “everything I thought I knew about Israel was shattered. Seeing a military occupation up close, seeing a small number of people with guns telling a large number without guns what to do … it was so much more brutal than I thought it could be.”

Published originally across the Pond with two different covers – one aimed for adult readers, the other for a younger audience – The Wall is an indelible, nuanced portrayal of young lives caught between complicated, opposite ‘sides.’ Sutcliffe offers no easy answers, and leaves a wide berth for plenty of questions. To read his book is to look beyond your own walls, to seek experiences beyond your comfort zone, and be inspired to follow your own moral compass as best as you can.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Untold Story by Monica Ali

Untold StoryMonica Ali’s latest novel which pubbed June 28, 2011, just before what would have been Diana Spencer’s 50th birthday – July 1, 2011 – had “The People’s Princess” lived. In case the cover wasn’t enough of a clue, that date detail matters because Untold Story imagines that Diana left her adoring public not via decorated casket, but was rowed away by a faithful staffer – an Oxford-degreed Foreign Officer turned history professor who was Diana’s Private Secretary! – to restart her new life as an American commoner. “Some stories are never meant to be told. Some can only be told as fairy tales,” opens this Story. That might have been ’nuff said right then and there … but we go on and on and on …

Train-wreck style, Ali resurrects a fragile Diana who undergoes the knife to change her renowned visage just enough, tones down her posh accent, wanders the States carrying the birth certificate of a dead British-born American, has a few meaningless peripatetic flings, and eventually settles somewhere in Middle America in a small town called – wait for it …! – Kensington (egads!).

She’s bought a small house (with a pool), works at an animal shelter, and has made a few close (as possible) friends, although she spends most of her time with a rescue canine named Rufus. She’s more or less gotten over her cutting and starving (she even has an opportunity to share her recovered wisdom with a friend’s troubled adolescent). She longs for her heir-and-a-spare, and keeps a box of clippings about them hidden in the back of her closet. She also has a kind, devoted lover with whom she can share little more than a bed. And then her image-stealing nemesis happens to randomly wander into Kensington, and recognizes her iconic eyes. What’s a distraught ex-royal to do? To run or not to run, that is again the question …

Ali’s debut, the unforgettable Brick Lane (shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize, adapted to celluloid in 2007), was one of those literary landscape-changing titles about the Bangladeshi British community. Not surprisingly, the novel garnered controversy for various unflattering portrayals of the locals, but in this case, even bad press was good press and Ali hit bestselling lists, and collected nominations, prizes, and other hefty accolades.

Loyal devotion to Brick Lane keeps me adding every Ali title to my shelves. Alas, I have yet to finish her Portuguese-set short story collection Alentejo Blue, or her deadly In the Kitchen. Sticking this Story into my ears is most likely what got me to the end: kudos indeed for narrators Emma Fielding (who assumes the royal voice) and Nicholas Farrell (who alternates between the elegant, saving secretary and the desperate, lifelong photo-snatcher) as they go far in making the implausible at least finishable.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Splash, Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia

Splash, Anna Hibiscus!As gorgeous as the large snowflakes are where I am, just to be contrary, I’m wishing for sun and surf! I can’t remember the last time I went splish-splashing, so clearly I’m overdue! For now, I’ll just have to join Anna Hibiscus on her beckoning blue beach …

“Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa,” introduces British Nigerian storyteller Atinuke. In her latest adventure, Anna is “at the beach with her whole family”; although the “laughing waves” are calling, everyone around her seems too busy to test the waters. Her grandparents are reading, her father and uncle are talking to friends, her mother and aunties are busy braiding their hair, even her cousins – with such fabulous names as Benz, Wonderful, Clarity, and Common Sense! – are doing anything but getting wet.

The waves will wait for no one, so Anna decides to go to “Splash!” and “Jump!” and “Hee-hee!” with such glee that her entire family finally realizes it’s high time to share some wavy delights. Anna’s playful joy brings everyone together, because “Anna Hibiscus is amazing too.”

Atinuke, who describes herself as “a traditional oral Nigerian storyteller,” draws on her own bicultural experience of growing up in Africa and England as the child of a Nigerian father and an English mother. She wrote her Anna Hibiscus series, she explains on her website, because “as a story teller … it was clear from children’s questions how little they still knew about the Africa that I am from.” Working together with illustrator Lauren Tobia – whose winsome art is as adept at capturing landscapes of sea, surf, and city, as she is at imbuing each character with charmingly nuanced expressions – Atinuke’s “Amazing Africa” becomes a vibrant celebration of family and home with “amazing” Anna Hibiscus as an adorable multicultural guide.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, African, British, Hapa

The Case of the Love Commandos: A Vish Puri Mystery by Tarquin Hall

Case of the Love CommandosMysteries don’t get any more substantially delicious than this: Vish Puri voiced by Sam Dastor as written by Tarquin Hall, with just the right balance of page-turning entertainment and sociopolitical insight. Before you partake, however, you should know that this is #4 in a series; while each installment provides standalone delight, only reading in order – The Case of the Missing Servant, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken – will provide full satisfaction. Yes, they’re that good. So if you haven’t already, go catch up quickly!

Vish Puri, founder and leader of Most Private Investigators Ltd., is the “winner of six national awards and one international, also. … The Federation of World Detectives saw fit to name [him] super sleuth some years back. [His] picture was on the cover of India Today.” But for now, he’s taking a break from enjoying his laurels (although he always has time for a quick snack), as he’s convinced of “‘nazar lag gayi’ – the evil eye was upon him.” He’s actually failed to solve the Jain Jewelry Heist case, and now he’s somehow managed to get pickpocketed as he prepares to embark on a short family pilgrimage. Still, he insists, “‘My radar is working twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year, only.’” And much to his wife Rumpi and his Mummy’s disappointment, Puri decides he can’t take that much-needed break, after all.

Puri’s operative “Facecream had never asked for his help before and he wasn’t about to turn her down.” Facecream’s latest assignment for the Love Commandos [a real-life volunteer organization "dedicated to helping India's lovebirds who want to marry for love"] has gone awry: would-be-groom Ram – of the Dalit, or ‘untouchable,’ caste – has been kidnapped from a Commandos safe house and his bride-to-be Tulsi – a “highborn Hindu” – is afraid her disapproving, all-too-powerful father will stop at nothing to keep the couple apart. And then Ram’s mother is found dead, and the case suddenly becomes far more than a missing persons report.

While Puri and Facecream take on India’s illegal caste system, political intrigue in the highest echelons, genome mapping without consent, marriage brokers, that rare ethical lawyer, and an evil Swedish medical director with heinous secrets, Mummy’s off in the remote mountains and shrines chasing a case of her own. Even as she recovers the stolen wallet in spite of being told by Rumpi that Chubby (her pet name for her inestimable son who only begrudgingly ever accepts her good help) did not want her involved, Mummy savvily realizes the pickpocket and his oversized belligerent wife have far greater riches in sight.

As proud as Puri is (when the evil eye has turned away, only) of his most excellent radar that eventually solves all, he’s not above accepting a few new truths. He knows to be humbly grateful (enough) when Mummy shows her sleuthing prowess once more – the chutney doesn’t fall far from the pakora, after all. And although he still frowns on marriage-without-parental-approval, Ram and Tulsi’s commitment to each other teach him plenty about true love … and thankful is he for Mummy, Rumpi, their three daughters, and a “house … filled with grandchildren and laughter.” He won’t be needing any pilgrimages to appreciate his many blessings.

There remains, however, one question left unanswered … oh mighty triumvirate of Vish/Sam/Tarquin: Where’s #5 already??!!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under FireConfession: If I didn’t have to read Elizabeth Wein’s follow-up to her breath-wringing adventure, Code Name Verity, I would have kept Rose Under Fire under wraps, hidden somewhere amidst my must-read pile, and just be content with basking in the potential promise of a satisfying ‘gawwww’ sometime in the future. The book’s galley sat unopened for a good six months, until the final version appeared on my doorstep as one of the hundreds of titles submitted this year for a book award for which I’m on the judging committee. Suddenly, I was racing to finish – and really, once you start, you won’t be able to stop anyway – in order to make the deadline for the next batch of near-monthly nominations. As bereft as I am to have to wait (and wait and wait) for Wein’s next, I can at least admit that of the non-picture book-submissions, Rose is the best of the best – I think I’m allowed to share my humble opinion.

As with Verity, Fire returns readers to World War II, introducing a new group of women pilots (airborne girl power!). As a much-appreciated bonus, Fire also continues Maddie and Jamie’s love story, as well as Anna Engel’s complicated wartime choices (you must read Verity to know what all that means). That said, with her name (and what a name, indeed! Wein has a penchant for multi-layered nomenclature) claiming the title, this is inarguably Rose Moyer Justice’s story. An American by birth, Rose is fulfilling her wartime duty across the Pond by helping the Allied Forces ferry fighter planes between Britain and France.

When an aerial delivery goes awry, Rose is captured by the Nazis and eventually sent to Ravensbrück, an all-women Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany. Faced with heinous inhumanity, her survival depends on believing in the very best individuals have to offer one another – amidst the pestilence and filth, the starvation and cruelty, the horror and suffering, Rose finds empathy, love, and salvation with a small group of women who become her family.

Even more than Verity, this is not a book for younger readers. We’re reading about Nazis, the Holocaust, concentration camps, genocide and annihilation – to say that terrifying things happen would be sheer understatement. But here’s where Wein triumphs: she has an uncanny ability to deftly blur what might seem to be rigid lines of right and wrong, and miraculously create the tiniest hints of humanity in even some of the worst perpetrators of hate.

“My book is fiction,” she writes in her “Afterword,” “but it is based on the real memories of other people. In the end, like Rose, I am doing what I can to carry out the last instruction of the true witnesses – those who went to their death crying out: Tell the world.” Read, learn … and, because inhumanity still prevails in too many places, we must continue to tell and tell and tell …

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb

Sweetness in the BellyRaised as a Roman Catholic convinced of at least one past life as a Jewish grandmother, I find myself in my old age utterly wary of institutionalized religions, repeatedly alarmed at what we human beings commit upon one another in the name of various (one-and-only) gods. In our post-9/11 era of heightened intolerance, this quote from British-born, Canadian-domiciled author Camilla Gibb‘s Sweetness struck me as especially sane: “My religion is full of color and possibility and choice; it’s a moderate interpretation … one that allows you to use whatever means allow you to feel closer to God … It’s an interpretation where … one’s personal struggle [is] to be a good Muslim, not a fight against those who are not Muslim.” Replace “Muslim” with any other religion, and it still remains a rational, caring, open-minded statement … oh, if only we could all be so accepting.

Meet Lilly, a white Muslim, “born in Yugoslavia, breast-fed in the Ukraine, weaned in Corsica, freed from nappies in Sicily and walking by the time we got to the Algarve.” The only child of “two solitary renegades who’d met at Trinity College Dublin in the 1950s,” Lilly’s early life was rootless: “‘You don’t want to spoil the journey by missing what you’ve left and worrying about where you’re going,’” her parents insisted. When Lilly is orphaned at 8, the rest of her upbringing continues in a Sufi shrine “on the Moroccan edge of the Sahara,” quietly educated and nurtured under the guidance of the Qur’an and the Great Abdal.

At 16, Lilly is sent on pilgrimage to Harar, Ethiopia, where her gender does not allow her access to the intended sheikh’s home and she is instead thrust upon an impoverished, angry mother of young children. Eventually Lilly’s open teachings of the Qua’ran earn her both students and respect – for awhile – as well as the attention of a young local doctor.

By 1974 when the Derg overthrows Emperor Selassie and plunges the country into tragic violence, Lilly flees for an unfamiliar ‘home.’ With her cultural fluidity and linguistic efficiency, she works as a hospital nurse in a London hospital that serves the city’s downtrodden. She creates a family-of-sorts with Amina, a single mother – also from Harar – and her children, the youngest of whom Lilly helps delivers in an alley. Together the two women form a community organization that helps incoming refugees reunite with their families. “Our work is not as altruistic as it sounds,” Lilly admits. Amina awaits news of her missing husband; Lilly of her good Dr. Aziz.

For Gibb, Sweetness was 16 years in the making, including two years spent living in Harar while finishing her Oxford PhD in social anthropology. A university friendship with a young Ethiopian woman who arrived in Toronto as a refugee was Gibb’s initial inspiration for the novel; “this book is my attempt to understand” her friend’s experience of dislocation, of feeling “like a ghost” that first year of escape and arrival. Seamlessly moving between two decades, two countries, and multiple cultures, Gibb presents a jarring, difficult story with empathetic grace, carefully sifting through what we hang onto and what we must let go in order to do more than just survive, to somehow become whole.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2006

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FArTHER by Grahame Baker-Smith

FArTHERCertain books make me terribly selfish – because once I finish a post, the book gets cleared off my desk and either shelved or shared. British author/artist Grahame Baker-Smith‘s FArTHER – the many meanings in the title alone, achieved with just the lower-casing of that single ‘r’ provokes goosebumps of awe! – has been parked on my desk for months and months … and still I hesitate.

Baker-Smith won the coveted Kate Greenaway Medal, one of Britain’s highest honors for illustration, in 2011, a year after its release. That the voyage over the Pond to reach Stateside shelves took three years is rather surprising, but readers can gratefully bask in the recent safe landing.

So are we ready for the story …?

A father dreams “of air and flight,” so much so that his son must sit in his lap “until he remembered me.” His creations are stupendous, but they never carry him aloft … war, tragically, is eventually what takes him away. His son, now grown, claims his father’s dreams and finally soars. And then the son’s son arrives in the world with new possibilities: “What will he do, I wonder …”

Beyond the words, Baker-Smith’s art is gawwww-inducingly spectacular. Collaging occasional photographs (he thanks a borrowed hound, Rodney Seal, and his cooperative owners for the canine camera time) with various textures and original drawings, Baker-Smith creates a faraway, wondrous world of bittersweet memory and beckoning promise. Each page is a treasure hunt, from avian curtains and tiles, to a calligraphied letter marked with 1768 (because … it’s a leap year?), to the bare outline of a father’s supporting hand, to a toddler’s outstretched touch upon a stilled bird. Each page, too, is a reminder – the beckoning skies, a lofty balcony, even rough seas – to always be open to dreams.

Readers: All

Published: 2010, 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, British

One Gorilla: A Counting Book by Anthony Browne

One GorillaCounting books seem to be a dime a dozen, and some you wouldn’t even pay that much for! How satisfying, then, to discover this priceless One Gorilla.

The concept is simple – it’s a counting book, after all: each bold, sensational double-page spread features a numeral and the corresponding number of various primates, from the titular 1 gorilla to 4 mandrills to 9 colobus monkeys …

But wait … because after the 10 lemurs, creator Anthony Browne inserts his own self-portrait, as he explains, “All primates. / All one family. / All my family …” And when you turn the page once more, he includes “… and yours!” That final spread spectacularly showcases human primates from all over the world, of all skin tones, ages, and even expressions: the shyly smiling woman in chador, the tentative little girl still sporting bed-head, the comical older man with hair so stiff as to resemble a strange helmet, the blonde woman with too much make-up caught with her eyes closed, the wrinkled older woman with thinning hair gazing with deep concern emanating from her aging eyes, and so many more.

You and I could easily step right into the picture; in fact, the partial body at the top right suggests that the human population goes on and on … with all of us welcome and included.

Browne’s One is simply magnificent – all for One, and One for all, indeed!

Readers: Children

Published: 2012, 2013 (United States)

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