Because you can never have too much Calvin and Hobbes

From A.V. Club: “… Rafael Casal used Watterson’s work as the basis for Hobbes & Me, a web series in which classic Calvin strips are acted out, word for word…..With tousled hair and a striped T-shirt, Casal himself plays Calvin. Rapper-actor Daveed Diggs, now renowned for originating the roles of Lafayette and Jefferson in Hamilton, portrays Hobbes, donning striped pants and a fuzzy coat to resemble a toy tiger come to life.”

This. THIS.


Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi

I’ve been on a long hiatus from blogging, but I’ve finally found a novel to kick (start) me out of the slump–Chasing Shadows, by Swati Avasthi. The book was published in 2013, and sat unread on my shelf for 2 years while I was busy devouring a baker’s dozen of The Ranger’s Apprentice, moving house, juicing (NO), running (MAYBE), getting fitted for reading glasses (old age sucks) and so on.

Chasing Shadows is a YA novel dealing with death and mental illness, so if you are a young Young Adult, proceed with caution. There, can’t sue me now.


It’s the last year of high school in Chicago for Savitri and twins Corey and Holly, long-time friends who are tighter than family. Savitri is Corey’s girlfriend and Holly’s BFF–an equilateral triangle of friendship, see?  They’re endlessly loyal, preternaturally aware of each other’s needs and boundaries, and they have their future planned together for college in Chicago. Savitri is smart and sensible and articulate, while edgy intense Holly has a passion for graphic novels featuring female superheros saving the world. And Corey…well, Corey is murdered on page 10, in a maybe-random shooting at a traffic light.

Holly, seriously injured in the shooting, is unconscious in hospital–and finds herself in a netherworld with Corey, bargaining with the half-snake overlord of death for her brother’s life. Savitri, unhurt, feels the guilt “like stones” as she keeps vigil by Holly’s side. When Holly emerges from her coma, she’s focussed on tracking down Corey’s killer, and Savitri must make some hard choices–help her friend in a dangerous, unhinged quest, or abandon her when she most needs support.

This is a beautifully layered book that impresses on so many levels–the thoughtful arrangement of Craig Phillips’s graphics (in Holly’s view) with the written word, for instance, and the careful connections made while fleshing out of the characters’ families and backgrounds–Holly’s father is a cop, while Savitri’s father abandoned the family. I was particularly struck by the cross-referencing of Holly’s fantastical netherworld with the Hindu myth of Savitri’s namesake, who was known for her piety, wit and devotion to her husband; when Savitri’s husband dies, she follows Yama, the god of the underworld and bargains (successfully) for her husband’s life. When Holly loses the will and ability to deal with the outside world, it’s stories that provide her a language she understands, and a narrative that feeds her needs. Stories offer comfort and healing in a time of grief, but as with all powerful objects, the story can be dangerous. (That’s why people try to ban them, eh?)

I really admire how Avasthi juggles so many elements without the narrative sinking under its own emotional weight. There is a lot going on here, what with two narrators, the graphics, the myths, the superhero graphic novel inspiring Holly, Savitri’s racial identity, the whodunnit angle  of the shooting, the exploration of the trauma caused by violence and subsequent recovery–and it’s all topped with a boatload of teenage angst. But Avasthi has some seriously powerful, disciplined prose that keeps this book not just afloat but triumphantly aloft; at the end, Chasing Shadows stands as both tribute and testament to the power of a good story. Read this!

City of Spies by Sorayya Khan

I admired Sorayya Khan’s novel Noor hugely, and so when her publisher emailed requesting a blog review of Khan’s new novel City of Spies (Aleph, 2015), I jumped at it. Khan is an Ithaca-based writer of Pakistani descent who roots her work in her lived experiences (and her personal vision) of socio-political upheavals in Pakistan. While Noor dealt with the Bangladesh war of 1971, City of Spies takes for its pivot point the 1977 coup in Pakistan wherein the Prime Minister  Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown in a military coup orchestrated by General Zia ul-Haq.

Aliya Shah’s father, a diplomat with the United Nations in Europe, moved to his homeland Pakistan with his Dutch wife Irene (and their three children) as Prime Minister Bhutto appointed him head of the country water and power resources. Eleven-year-old Aliya is very conscious of being a “half-and-half”, and never more so than when attending the American School in Islamabad. As with all whose claim more than one ethnic or cultural affiliation, Aliya is hard-pressed to answer the question of where she’s from; she variously answers Austria (the country of her birth), Holland and Pakistan. Her identity is put to a brutal test everyday, for her school, in essence, is welcoming to those who are white, those with the last name Bhutto, or those, like Aliya, who can pass.

The business of passing is an exhausting one–Aliya has to remember to say “That’s cool!” and avoid using her parents British (rather than American) English, and things get very messy indeed if she’s spotted wearing a salwar-kameez, or if her Pakistani grandfather is visiting their home. Worse, Aliya must live with the overt contempt of her school mates for all things Pakistani, a contempt manifested most brutally in a game played on her school bus, where the older boys spit on the locals, adults and children alike. Points are awarded for every pedestrian or bicyclist hit, and extra points bequeathed if the bicyclist falls off. The Pakistani bus driver is powerless to stop the game, and Aliya is too scared of the much older boys.

And then, Aliya’s loyalties are put to an even more wrenching test when the beloved little son of their family retainer is killed in a hit-and-run accident, and the driver of the vehicle responsible just might be someone close to her family.

In Khan’s hands, the violence and tragedy in Aliya’s domestic surroundings read as a minor echo of the country’s tumultuous, bloody political landscapes. The Prime Minster, overthrown by the military, is accused of the murder of a political opponent, and is subsequently incarcerated. Newspapers are taken over by the government, the mail arrives already opened, gatherings of more than five people are prohibited by law, and Islamabad is crawling with spies. “No one knew what they were really doing since most of them were assumed to be spies, and as a rule didn’t advertise their work. But everyone knew they were there. They drove cars with yellow CD64 license plates, announcing their American-ness, only to be out-done by the yellow CD62 license plates of the Russians […] The CD64s and CD62s were at war with each other, a  Cold War, whatever that meant, and their playground seemed to be Islamabad.”

City of Spies recounts Aliya’s attempt to make sense of the events that shook and shaped her adolescence–and her country. At the close of the novel, thirty months have passed and Pakistan has spun into chaos–the Prime Minister has been hanged, and the devout General Zia has spearheaded the Islamization of Pakistan’s legal and political systems. As readers know, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s death was but the first in a long line of murders in Pakistan’s political landscape–in the Bhutto family alone, for instance, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s son Murtaza was killed in a police encounter, his youngest child son Shahnawaz was poisoned, and finally, his daughter Benazir, who in turn became Prime Minister (and whom some suspected of complicity in her brother Murtaza’s murder), was shot in 2007.

The thirty months are described in minute, telling detail, and those familiar with South Asia will find much to agree and identify with– Aliya’s father, for instance, helps Aliya’s school assignment by delegating the matter to his secretary, who, in turn, assigns an office engineer to built a hand-powered electric generator for their science project. As always, Khan’s steady, clear prose is a treat–she doesn’t put a foot wrong, and is adept at conveying the senselessness of the political violence through Aliya’s uncomprehending eyes.

The ending, however, left me a tad grumpy. Khan provides a long (20 page) epilogue set in the present day, and then a post-script too, but the effect to me was that of opening a new chapter in Aliya’s life rather than providing a truly satisfying finish to the story. We learn that the adult Aliya finally understands events of those months (Khan, in a wise and generous writerly act, doesn’t withhold the information from her readers; many novelists could learn a thing or two from her.) However, while we perceive how the past influenced Aliya’s interests and her choice of profession, there’s a tantalizing absence with respect to Aliya’s character and personality as an adult. I invested enough in the child Aliya to want more than the knowledge that she’s now a truth-seeker filled with sorrow at the state of her country and her childhood city–hey, I’d have liked to get to know the adult Aliya as well. My problems with structure aside, this is a lovely book, imbued with tender melancholy, and I recommend it strongly.

California Bookstore Day 2015!

Saturday was California Bookstore Day, an event celebrating indie bookstores all over the state. Tragically, my city doesn’t feature an independent bookstore (there are comic stores, but you know it’s not the same), and so my son and I went to the bookstore in our neighbouring town. There were events and literary goodies galore, and we started off by buying this poster.

About that anatomically incorrect guy in his underwear and the dog in a diaper. My son loves the Captain Underpants books by Dav Pilkey. You say you haven’t heard of Captain Underpants and Professor Poopypants and Super Diaper Baby? Some people have all the luck.

So….I haven’t warmed to these books (understatement alert), but I also recognize that they aren’t written for me but for a kid who thinks “butt” is the funniest word ever, right next to “stinky” and “slug”. As a parent, I mostly stumble around deciding on a case-by-case basis as to where to Draw The Line, and in the matter of Dav Pilkey’s work, I figured I wouldn’t/oughtn’t prevent my son from reading age-appropriate if utterly tasteless humour. So we laid down $10 for this poster, which is now hanging in my son’s room, and then we bought the latest Geronimo Stilton Spacemice book because his birthday is coming up soon.

But I’d had a secret agenda for visiting the store as well: I’d had my eye on these literary tea towels all along. Literature! Tea! in a glorious towel union!


The teal one reads “It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read–Lemony Snicket.” The yellow one says “People that like to read are always a little fucked up–Pat Conroy.” These are the “salty” towels–there’s another “sweet” set of two towels with different quotes featuring more family-friendly language.

But alas, I ended up not buying either set of towels. They were indeed brilliant as conversation pieces, but I didn’t think I’d get much traction from them when used for their intended purpose. I live with a seven-year-old who spreads jam around a twelve-foot radius every breakfast and often mistakes a tea towel for a dishrag, and these towels didn’t look like they’d survive such abuse. And I didn’t want to buy them just because they were cute (which they *totally* were). The notion of collecting stuff that is intended to be functional but ends up decorative confounds me–what’s the point, say, of dressing up a bed with those unyielding hand-embroidered pillows which must be removed each night? Moreover, I dislike collecting stuff that I don’t need or can’t use immediately. The prospect of having to take care of the said stuff, store and mentally catalogue it (and decide whom to bequeath it all upon my death) gives me the shivers. You know those homes with gracious glass-fronted display cases housing lovely objets d’art collected on world travels or crystal handed down by ancestors who bit bread (or had sex) with royalty? Well, that’s my nightmare residence. The only things I collect are books, hell yes! Indeed, it is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read…

I seem to have digressed from the topic of California Bookstore Day, which, in 2015, expanded to include independent bookstores all over the country. I hope you celebrated the weekend in your own bookish way! And check out @bookstoreday for pictures and tweets from the day.

Odds and Bods: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, Stiff by Mary Roach

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. From Amazon, “Beginning with the classic tale of David and Goliath and moving through history with figures such as Lawrence of Arabia and Martin Luther King Jr., Gladwell shows how, time and again, players labeled “underdog” use that status to their advantage and prevail through the elements of cunning and surprise.”

The book is, in essence, a string of feel-good anecdotes that make an easy point–that adversity (such as dyslexia, early loss of a parent etc.) spurs some to greatness while condemning others to struggle and failure. As always, Gladwell writes with such easy fluency that you’ll zip along as though reading a potboiler, but the premise is way too loose for a central thesis, and too slight to power this 320 page book.   And I found the whole argument problematic–by making it about individual effort, it diminishes the issue of institutional support for those who lack the ability or means or will to overcome overwhelmingly unfavorable odds. As for intellectual rigor, well, the author would sweep the podium were long jumps in logic an Olympic sport. The sweeping conclusions Gladwell draws from the slimmest of anecdotal evidence and reasons (with little or no proof) will leave you shaking your head as soon as you step off that well-oiled conveyor belt of a narrative.

Btw, have you visited the Malcolm Gladwell book generator? Here’s a sample:

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. I haven’t touched popular science writing in about a decade; my last attempt, if you must know, was pretending to appreciate Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought when I was dating my (now-) husband. Mary Roach (who writes for Salon and Wired, amongst other publications) has ended that dry spell. Stiff is a book about dead bodies, and it’s a charmer. A wide-ranging (if mostly West-oriented) exploration of our changing cultural and scientific narratives when dealing with cadavers, Roach analyzes issues and practises ranging from organ donation to embalming to cannibalism. The book is remarkably detailed (do not read this book while snacking) and livelier than you thought possible, irreverent but never disrespectful towards the dead.

Roach’s body of work includes books about the afterlife, sex, and digestion, in Spook, Bonk and Gulp respectively. Am I the only one who finds her titles sort of interchangeable?

YA reading update

I had the flu in January and ah, my friends and oh, my foes, please get the flu shot if/when you can, for my seven days of misery was followed by several weeks of exhaustion, all due to my own laziness and stupidity. The flu left me unable to read anything demanding–all I wanted was juicy plots sans navel gazing and happy endings, preferably in paperback so I could balance the book on my stomach while lying down flat.  (I could’ve done that with hardbacks but the covers cut into my tummy.) YA fantasy, in the form of strong girl protagonists kicking sorcerer butt over the course of a trilogy seemed the order of the day. Well, there’s an abundance of those books, and yes, most of them are painfully derivative and you could’ve saved your money for wine or acetaminophen, but I did find some winners. And I’m posting this piece in March because I finally finished all instalments of all these trilogies last week.

1. The Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson: 16-year-old Elisa, the overweight and underconfident younger princess of  a made-up-name kingdom has a special stone in her navel (ha!) that gives her magic powers. The Godstone is a gift from God, and as the stone-bearer, Elisa is fated to do a special act of heroism in service of God. Over the three books, Elisa meets dudes, becomes more confident and smarter, rises up to the challenge to save her kingdom, and becomes thin.

As you might have guessed, there was a bit too much God-talk for my liking, but overall, these are fun, engaging books, whose strong finish made up for their shaky start. And apparently I can live with navel gazing when there’s a pretty blue stone to look at. The only other real downside was the emphasis on weight loss. Can we have a plus-size protagonist without making her a teachable lesson already?

2.  Agent of Hel trilogy by Jacqueline Carey: If you are looking to gift this trilogy to your 12-year-old mighty girl, be warned: Carey’s protagonist Daisy has sex, with a different person, in each of the three books. There.

Daisy Johanssen was inadvertently conceived when her mom had a run-in with a Ouija board; her dad is a demon who wants to tempt her to the dark side. Daisy. Must. Resist. or she’ll cause Armageddon. Daisy is currently employed as the goddess Hel’s liaison with the mundane world in a small American town, where she solves paranormal crimes and banishes otherworldly evildoers.

The series is powered by excellent pacing and strong secondary characters, but Daisy’s tedious love life slows the books down, and her ultimate squeeze has all the appeal of week-old guacamole. Also, if you love Carey’s Kushiel books, note that the writing in AoH isn’t anywhere near half as good, and the romance is fathoms weaker.

3. Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas: Three books in this series have been published so far, with more to come, but let’s agree to call it a trilogy for the purposes of this post. Celaena Sardothien (yeah, I know) is the official Royal Assassin of made-up-name-kingdom–she won the Hunger Games in Book 1, see?  But Celaena is hiding a big (as in world-altering) secret, and her new position is fraught with an extra supply of supernatural danger.

Lots of political intrigue, painstaking world-building, a strong assassin heroine, and a thrill-a-minute plot make this series a true page turner. I did prefer the second and third book in the series to the first though–it’s like Maas stopped trying so hard to make her protagonist likeable and relatable, and instead trusted her enough to let her be. Maas’s strength lies in her kick ass action scenes that power her narrative–there’s an episode in the third book featuring a witch and a wyvern that is packed with surprises and intense emotion (and yep, lots of cliff falls and battles to the death). I flipped back and re-read that section immediately after I’d finished.  Yes, the writing is occasionally uneven, but when Maas is good, she’s phenomenal.

4. The Bone Knife by Intisar Khanani : This is one of those free-on-Kindle short stories for which I had floor-level expectations, but oh, I was so wrong. Khanani’s disciplined, tight prose is a joy to read, her pacing excellent, and her setting and characters are executed with grace and ease. Oh, and the story features some very necessary (and refreshing!) diversity; most YA novels seem to be set in Europe with an occasional sandy desert thrown in, and their covers favor ethereal blondes holding phallic weapons.

Rae, the oldest of three sisters, is hard-headed and sensible and wary of things that seem too easy. When a supernatural visitor threatens to inadvertently reveal the secret the sisters guard, Rae must put her formidable common sense to use to protect her family despite the danger she personally faces.

It’s a very short short story, be warned! But it’s good enough that I immediately bought Khanani’s novel Sunbolt for the princely sum of $ 1.99, and I’m going to start reading this weekend. Go buy this indie author’s books here!

5. His Fair Assassin trilogy by Robin LaFevers: LaFevers cleverly incorporates mysticism and romance into a slice of real-life fifteenth century history, wherein the young duchess of Brittany sought to protect her domain from enemies within and without–powerful France sought to gobble up the region, and many in the duchess’s court would have been glad to see it happen. In LaFevers’s imagining, there’s a Brittany convent serving Saint Mortain, the God of Death, which trains young girls (who are said to be marked as Death’s Daughters) in the art of killing. Each novel in the trilogy features a young assassin who helps the duchess maintain her position–and finds love on the way. The books are a satisfying marriage of political intrigue with an assassin-coming-of-age arc, and I enjoyed the (historical) happy ending; perhaps *you* don’t need Wikipedia to learn that  Anne of Brittany finally married Charles VIII of France, and managed to ensure a measure of independence for her duchy?

LaFevers is a very fluent writer, and I zipped happily through these books. (If I found the last instalment a tad too precious, it’s probably because I passed Young Adulthood many moons ago.) But oh, that series title. None of the books prioritize the appearance of the protagonists over their skills or character; calling the series “His Fair Assassin” make the books sound shallow, and does a significant disservice to the plot and the writing.

6. Snow like Ashes by Sara Raasch:  Published late 2014, Snow like Ashes is the first instalment of a planned trilogy. The Kingdom of Winter was conquered several years ago, and its citizens’ magic stolen by Spring. Eight survivors, including the heir to the throne, escaped, and have been working to regain their magic and their kingdom. Young Meira is one of the eight, and she hopes to be the one who’ll steal the magic locket that’ll help the Winterians rise again. Meira’s weapon of choice in her battle against the occupiers is the chakram (pictured below).

Serious points for the cover, which dares not to showcase the blonde skinny heroine, but I’m afraid I found this book derivative and bit ho-hum. The big plot twist was hugely predictable, there are too many info-dumps like “The Feni river gurgles off to my left, marking the northern border of Spring before it flows out to the Destas sea”, and fatally, the world-building is borderline silly. The evil guy is called Angra, the capital of Winter is Jannuari, and the Autumn Kingdom’s capital is Oktuber. Am I the only one who reads the last as an acceptable potato? The characters didn’t grab me at all, and so I flipped to the end to confirm my plot twist thesis before quitting this book midway.  One DNF out of 14 reads doesn’t seem too bad though.

Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator

When we meet fifty-one year old New Delhi detective extraordinaire Vish Puri, he’s consuming chili pakoras with relish–and obsessive neatness, for he’s afraid to leave any evidence of his meal lest his wife discover he’s flouting his doctor-mandated low-fat diet. Oh, and the reader is presented with a helpful footnote directing her to the glossary on page 297, for help with the word pakora.

The first page of this book pretty much sums up all that’s right (and the very little that’s not) with The Case of the Missing Servant (Simon & Schuster, 2009). Tarquin Hall (whose name, I must confess, immediately conjured for me the image of a stately manor filled with grim ancestral portraits) has created someone very special in Vish Puri, and the opening note of gentle humour and irony (the detective avoiding detection by his wife) immediately made me warm to the protagonist. But. While there are no further footnotes, this book contains a Glossary with a capital G. If I hadn’t borrowed The Case of … from the library, I’d have liberated it from pages 297 to 310, for this glossary includes sari and namaste and samosa–and oh, the horror–chai. CHAI. If my next English village cozy mystery doesn’t include a glossary explaining jumper, hiya, scone and cuppa, I shall take it very personally indeed.

Much of the business of Vish Puri’s Most Private Investigators Ltd. flows from the Pre-Matrimonial Service, i.e., investigations into the lifestyle and finances of clients’ potential (arranged) marriage partners. But now, Puri is presented with a truly interesting case by a prominent lawyer, Ajay Kasliwal, whose maid Mary vanished from his house in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Mary’s employer doesn’t know where she was from, doesn’t know her last name, doesn’t have a photograph of her, and Mary had no identifying documents. (Note: Many domestic workers in India are desperately poor migrants from marginalized areas, and as they’re unskilled, uneducated workers, they’re usually unprotected by legislation. Consequently, they are ill-treated and exploited all too often. Yes, this is a national shame.)

Puri must find the missing Mary amongst India’s billion people, and find her fast, for Kasliwal’s political enemies are claiming he impregnated the maid and subsequently murdered her. Puri and his trusty sidekicks (whom he’s code-named Tubelight, Handbrake, Flush and Facecream respectively) battle against the uncooperative local police and the intransigent Mrs. Kasliwal, all the while continuing with their ongoing pre-matrimonial investigation cases. Then things take a dire turn when someone attempts to shoot Puri.

It’s often tricky to write about India without coming off either as condescending or willfully blind towards the country’s flaws, but Hall’s balancing act is near perfect–he acknowledges the corruption and crappy infrastructure and structural injustice, but is quick to note uniquely Indian avenues to happiness. He is also both cognizant and appreciative of the cultural notions of duty and honor that kick in when the State and the toothless media fail its citizens. You could do much worse than use this book as a primer to contemporary Delhi–Hall is an acute observer with a nuanced understanding of North India (and Delhi in particular), and is careful to avoid stereotypes and generalizations.

My only beef with this book is the overabundance of explanation about the setting, and it’s not only to do with that Glossary. The initial chapters have a strong whiff of journalistic description about them–there’s much in the vein of “With the population explosion–now 16 million and rising–came a dramatic increase in crime”–and sometimes the writing takes on an expository tone. When Hall hits his stride, however, everything falls into its proper place, and I didn’t surface till page 297.

While there’s much to savor in Hall’s choice of setting, the true appeal of this book for me lies in its characters, both main and secondary (Puri’s mother Mummy-ji is awe-inspiring, and I’m very intrigued by Facecream and her khukhri knife). As a morally upright yet realistic person who actually gets things done in New Delhi (!), Puri is as heroic as he is agreeable, and indeed, Hall writes him with fond indulgence that’s very appealing. There are three further Vish Puri books, and I suspect that they’ll be even better than the first installment, now that Hall has the explain-ey bits out of the way. So it’s back to the library for me for The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Sounds like a hoot.