Friday, December 23, 2011

Graphic Novel Review - Y: The Last Man, The Deluxe Edtion Vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra

I’ve had this collection for a while, now, having bought it on a random whim right after my son was born. I have a bit of a soft spot for post-apocalyptic settings, especially disease outbreak scenarios. Maybe it’s my latent hypochondriac tendencies. Further, there seemed to be a lot of places to go with the idea of “the last man on Earth.” Having finished the first ten installments via this deluxe volume, I think I’m still unsure of what I think about it. I definitely enjoyed reading it, but I can’t decide whether it’s clever or smug.

The titular last man, a twenty-something named Yorick Brown, is about as a normal as you’d expect a young person named Yorick to be. He is an accomplished escape artist that has trouble finding and keeping a real job. He has accepted responsibility for training a helper monkey named Ampersand, for some reason, and is preparing to propose to his girlfriend Beth (who is currently on walkabout in Australia). One day, every mammal with a Y chromosome suddenly drops dead of a violent and bloody plague… except, apparently, Yorick and Ampersand. Suddenly thrust into a world where he is a curiosity, commodity, and marked man all at once, Yorick crosses a dramatically altered landscape in search of his family, and hopefully, a way to get to Australia and find Beth.

After the virulent misogyny that seems to keep ramping up in the Walking Dead books, I actually found the freely-displayed and open-for-dissection sexism in Y: The Last Man to be somewhat refreshing. Vaughan knows exactly what kind of powder keg he is playing with, so he doesn’t attempt to be subtle. The post-plague world is unfettered by the biological and sociological strictures of gender identity, and so every character archetype is loaded with contextually interesting baggage. Nurturing mother-types, strong female leaders, hysterical housewives, femme fatales, lipstick lesbians, butch lesbians, women who really want a man, badass woman soldiers, calm and rational mentors, and violent, avenging man-haters... they are all here, and they are all concerned with or have a stake in Yorick’s existence. It takes the unfortunately common trope of female characters in a story always being secondary to male characters, and makes it quite literal, which makes for an interesting exercise. It also provides a tense and suspenseful backdrop to the story, as Yorick must dodge the various attentions of those around him as best he can in order to simply get from one place to another.

There are a couple of problems with this book, though. First and foremost, Yorick happens to be an irritating douche. Now, I realize that this injects a bit of irony into the “last man” scenario, and removing that element would make this either a harem manga or a letter to Penthouse. Still, it was consistently hard for me to get behind Yorick, and every stupid thing he said or stupid decision he made pulled me out of the story just a bit. Moreover, I understand the purpose for playing with sexist stereotypes, but, uh, they’re still sexist stereotypes. The Daughters of the Amazon wanting to kill Yorick because DOWN WITH MEN seems like kind of a waste of thematic possibility (and I can't decide if there's any meaning to the fact that they've all burned the wrong breast off, or if it's just a pointless inaccuracy meant to drive people like me crazy). And being vastly outnumbered by women doesn’t really make Yorick throwing around feminine-specific slurs all that much more palatable, even if it’s setting-appropriate.

I don’t know, maybe I’m white-knighting too much. I just think that there is the potential for some exciting, intelligent stories, here, and it is being ignored in favor doing something easier. Oh well. The story is still quite readable, regardless, and is packed with exciting moments. Guerra’s art is vibrant and effective, if sometimes a little loose. The panel layout is conventional, and aids the story just fine. All told, this is a solid comic with an intriguing mystery at its heart: what exactly happened, and how did Yorick and Ampersand survive it? It’s definitely worth reading for comic and graphic novel fans, as long as you can take the gender politics Vaughan plays around with in stride.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Book Review - My Favorite Band Does Not Exist, by Robert T. Jeschonek

I gave this one a try solely from the cover and from the basic plot gimmick: a hoax band that might actually exist. It was clear right from the outset, though, that there is considerably more to this book than meets the eye. So much so, in fact, that I really don’t know what to make of it. It’s a weird cross of speculative fiction, YA romance, and bizarro, with a heaping spoonful of magical realism and dash of pulp fantasy homage. I think I liked it, but it was kind of a mess.

The story is told through three different viewpoints. Idea Deity is a boy on the run from his family, and suffering from a condition wherein he believes he is a character in a novel, being manipulated by a malevolent author. As a release valve for his anxiety, he has created a fake band called Youforia and maintains their web presence, effectively nurturing an online following for an indie band so obscure that they don’t actually exist. Meanwhile, Reacher Mirage, the lead singer for the band Youforia, is driven to distraction by the news about his band that keeps leaking out onto the Internet. Determined to keep the band a secret until he is ready to play in public, he is confounded by reports of the band's doings that nobody else should know about. The third perspective is told through a tattered fantasy book called Fireskull’s Revenant, which both Idea and Reacher happen to be reading. As that story draws to a climactic confrontation, Idea and Reacher are slowly pulled together in a meeting that could save them both.

This book is utterly confusing at the outset. Jeschonek does not give the reader much time to get accustomed to the quirks and idiosyncrasies in Idea’s world before shifting to Reacher’s much odder one. Furthermore, it’s not particularly clear until later that the sudden jump to reading a chapter in the book-within-a-book, Fireskull’s Revenant, is a narrative device that will continue throughout the story. I almost gave up in the first third of the book, because the technicolor mishmash of existentialism and bizarre characters was a bit much to handle.

With a little perseverance, I broke through to a place where I started to get into the story. As the characters and their disparate worlds began drawing together, the pace evened out a bit. Still, once I got to the end I was left feeling a little unsure about what I had just read. I think I understood what Jeschonek was going for, and I liked the themes and the unique concept, but I’m not sure how successful he was at translating it all into a readable story. Still, there’s an eclectic, punk-rock aesthetic at play, here. This book would be worth trying if you’re looking for something way off the beaten path, or are in the mood for some weirdness without venturing into full-on bizarro territory.

Verdict: 2.5 / 5

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review - Dumpling Days, by Grace Lin

This one falls outside of my normal reading habits; while I’ve developed a bit of a weakness for teen lit/YA/whatever you want to call it, I don’t typically delve into middle-grade fiction now that I’m so far beyond my middle grades. I picked up an ARC of this because it looked cute, though, and it didn’t disappoint.

This is apparently the latest in a series of Lin’s books about Taiwanese-American girl Pacy. In this volume, she goes on a summer trip with her family to Taiwan. In the past, Pacy has felt like the odd girl out for being the only Asian kid in the room, but she feels a new anxiety exploring her parents’ homeland as she realizes she now sticks out for being profoundly American. Even her talent for art, the thing that she truly believes makes her special, is put to the test. Thanks to the company of her family and plenty of interesting things to see and do, though, what starts as a scary journey to an unfamiliar land ends up being fulfilling and even profound.

There isn’t much to say about this book that the description doesn’t tell you, but as the title suggests, Pacy’s tour of Taiwan revolves around the food she eats. Maybe my gluttony is showing, but I can’t think of a better way to do it. The descriptions of all the various foods were a nice, immersive touch, and the occasional illustration of said foods and other Taiwanese cultural items were a whimsical addition to the story. This is definitely targeted towards younger readers, but it’s a cute story that offers a friendly introduction to Taiwanese culture, and the travails a kid must go through when trying to navigate their own ethnic identity.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Graphic Novel Review - Dear Creature, by Jonathan Case

Dear Creature was placed enthusiastically in my hands by a librarian colleague, who knew about my rekindled relationship with graphic novels and insisted that I would love it. I was already intrigued by the pulp cover, but the description of an atomic sea creature that speaks in iambic pentameter and is looking for salvation through love was more than enough to sell me. Let this be a lesson to trust your local librarian when s/he suggests a book to you: other than a few minor quibbles, I did indeed love this little gem.

Written, illustrated, and designed all by triple-threat Case, the setup for this standalone graphic novel seems complicated at first glance. Grue is your typical sea monster, lurking in the depths of the ocean and emerging only to devour horny teenagers. Beneath his scaly exterior, however, beats the heart of a poet; he has learned to speak English through the castoff pages of Shakespearean classics, found in a series of mysterious notes-in-bottles. Inspired by the works of the Bard and moved by whoever left them for him to find, Grue seeks to transcend his predatory existence by discovering true love. He begins exploring dry land, egged on and occasionally mocked by a crass Greek chorus of amoral crabs that would much rather go back to snacking on cheerleaders. Meanwhile, however, a sheriff in a nearby seaside town has taken notice of all the missing kids, and his suspicions are leading him directly to Grue.

The artwork in this graphic novel is understatedly fantastic, using stark black-and-white illustrations that lend an appropriately retro feel to the book. The story itself lives up to all of the delightful quirks that are apparent on the surface. The creature himself is a lovable fiend, and his Shakespearean dialogue is charming. The secondary characters have surprising depth for so short a graphic novel, and defy every stereotype that one might expect for the roles that they play. And honestly, the book is worth reading just for Grue’s wisecracking crab companions.

The book hiccups a bit near the end, with a bizarre encounter with a giant squid that didn’t really add much, other than to reinforce the story’s undercurrent of silliness. It’s enough of a detour to make the end feel somewhat rushed. But other than that, this book was really an unexpected treasure. It blends themes and genres so effectively, and with such a sense of fun, that it is a solid read for anybody who is in the mood for a quirky love story.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Book Review - Throne of Jade, by Naomi Novik

I was all riled up after finishing the first book in this series. Napoleonic wars, plus dragons? What’s not to love? In theory, this second volume of the Temeraire series should have piled on the awesome, adding nineteenth-century China to the mix. Granted, the book was… mildly awesome. I guess. In any event, it had all of the required elements to continue the story of the first book. However, the story and pacing is so weirdly listless that it was difficult to get excited at all about it.

The second book follows up on Temeraire’s origin as a mere egg: a gift from the emperor of China to Napoleon, seized en route by the Royal Navy. In the intervening time, the emperor has discovered the whereabouts of his truant gift, and furthermore, what use it has been put to. As revealed in the last book, Temeraire is a rare breed of dragon called a Celestial, bred as companions to royalty and expected to live as scholars rather than soldiers. Laurence, his loyalties already painfully divided, is summoned to the emperor’s court to answer for these twin affronts. As he and Temeraire begin the long journey to China, Laurence increasingly finds himself herded towards choosing between losing his beloved dragon and giving the hated French a powerful new ally.

The key phrase above is “long journey to China.” Most of the book is a drawn out ship voyage, which lends a certain staidness to the proceedings. Even with the occasional punctuation of action- some related to the larger plot, and some not- the middle of the book plods along, not really going beyond just marking time. It’s well-written, to be sure; the characters are still lovable, the dialogue has just the right amount of authentic stuffiness, and the blending of genres is as charming as it was in the first book. However, I found it difficult to stay engaged throughout the majority of the voyage.

When Laurence and Temeraire finally get to China, the damage kind of felt like it was done. Novik does some interesting things at this point, contrasting the way dragons are treated in Chinese society to the social norms that Laurence and Temeraire have heretofore taken for granted. The political intrigue is ratcheted up a bit, too, as the choice Laurence thought he was facing is revealed to be considerably more complicated. Again, though, nothing seems to rise above a dull roar. By the time the villains are revealed and the climactic confrontation begins, I was dismayed to realize that I didn’t really care enough to be affected too much by it. Especially considering that it plays out exactly as foreshadowed.

I don’t know. I liked this book, but I wanted to like it more, since I was so excited by the first one. This book technically works as a standalone, but I wouldn’t suggest starting with it. It’s weak compared to the first book, but it does reveal some interesting backstory on what Temeraire is and where he comes from.

Verdict: 2.5/5

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Book Review - Why We Broke Up, by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman

I picked an ARC of this book up from an unmanned pile sitting outside a film screening, and it ended up being a pleasant surprise. It took me a few chapters to get comfortable in the story. Something about the characters and the writing gnawed at me for a while, but I couldn’t put this book down after getting acquainted with the charcters, and ended up loving it despite a somewhat disappointing ending.

The author of this book is better known to many as Lemony Snicket, the creator of the Series of Unfortunate Events books. This book is a little less ostentatious, but does use a storytelling trope that is currently popular in teen lit: revolving the narrative around the description or progression of a physical object. In this case, it’s a box of bottle caps, flyers, and other mementos. The story is presented as a letter by Min Green, written to her ex-boyfriend Ed Slaterton and dumped on his porch with a box of detritus from their short and tempestuous relationship. The letter details each object in the box, placing them within a timeline that chronicles the unlikely meeting and courtship between odd, “arty” Min and the co-captain of the school basketball team. Each object is rendered in detail by artist Maira Kalman, though the ARC is sadly incomplete in this regard. Min narrates each description as a stepping stone through her first serious relationship to its inevitable (in her estimation) demise.

My first moments as a reader with Min were irritating, but as a testament to Handler’s talent, it was because she is a fully realized character right from the beginning. Min is replete with a smug, quirky bravado that only an intelligent but insecure teenager can appreciate. As the narrator of the letter/book, her exaggerated mannerisms and dramatic flourishes dominate each page. By the tenth run-on sentence and third unnecessary use of the word “whatnot” in the first two chapters, I was rolling my eyes.

Once I got accustomed to Min, though, the payoff for powering through was quite nice. She even acknowledged how pretentious and silly it was to throw “whatnot” around with such reckless abandon, eventually. The character that emerges as the story of her breakup unfolds is complex, sympathetic, and realistic: a teen girl who embraces eccentricity in order to bridge the awkward gap between childhood and adulthood, falling in love for the first time with someone she had no reason to even talk to. Despite her cleverness, she lets passion distract her from the signs of impending doom (like any teenager in love for the first time would), and is completely blind to the prospect of something beautiful that’s been in front of her the whole time.

Handler and Kalman’s grab bag of tricks keeps things interesting. Even without the benefit of the complete art, the introduction of each “chapter” with a rendering of an object from Min’s box keeps the whole affair from seeming too much like a checklist. While some of the supporting characters feel a little shallow and underexplored, the dialogue is snappy and the streak of jaded irony that all of them seem to share creates a consistent, humorous set piece. I was particularly amused by the constant references to obscure cinema; Min tends to compare everything in her life to her favorite scenes from a variety of arthouse foreign films, all of which she discovers through a well-loved reference book on the subject. I read over half of the book before it dawned on me that all of those references to classic films, actors, directors, and musicians were completely made up. The thing is, since Min is as much a hipster as any knit-capped twenty-something you’d find in real life, I had just assumed that they were real people and things that I just hadn’t heard of. Whether this was something Handler intentionally chose or just did for the sake of storywriting convenience, it felt like a gentle dig at being indie for indie’s sake, which fit perfectly into the dry humor and sweet vulnerability that suffused the rest of the book.

The only hiccup for me was with Min’s erstwhile love, Ed Slaterton. There isn’t a whole lot to his characterization, other than some brief hints at a tragic home life and the obvious revelation that teenage boys, even the good-hearted ones, are generally fuckups when it comes to relationships. Ed’s bemused normalcy does paint a nice contrast to Min’s over-the-top quirkiness. Also, it’s actually refreshing to have all of the theatrics of Min’s letter and box of memories lead to something as simple and time-tested as two kids who are crazy about each other, but lack the experience to keep from burning too quickly and trusting too blindly. Still, the story builds to a somewhat abrupt and underwhelming conclusion, realistic though it might be.

The book was a slow starter for me, but I was hooked once I got a few chapters in. It will be a mainstay recommendation for YA romance, and it’s a great read for anyone who doesn’t mind an emo sensibility and has a thing for Juno-esque “I’m precocious as hell but still an awkward girl that gets in over my head” protagonists.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Graphic Novel Review - The Walking Dead Vol. 5: The Best Defense, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

Be warned: minor spoilers ahead.

All right. Before reading this volume, I went back and reread all of the trades up to this point, in order to recapture the narrative and get back into the spirit of the story for Halloween. A few things I noticed during the read-through:

1. I appreciate the switch to Adlard’s art after the first story arc. While Moore made the characters much more distinguishable from one another, he also lent an exaggerated aspect to their features and expressions that was almost cartoonish. The more realistic drawing from Adlard gives the artwork a gritty feel that’s more in line with the story.

2. Kirkman actually does a very good job in setting things up for future revelations. Much of what goes on in plot and character development is subtly constructed and foreshadowed in previous story arcs. And on that note:

3. I’ve said it before, but it’s definitely not my imagination. The world of the Walking Dead is profoundly misogynistic, populated with complicated male characters that are propped up by submissive, shallow female supporters. However, the jury is still out on whether this is a product of the story Kirkman is telling, or the heteronormative assumptions he makes while telling it.

In this volume, the story moves from a simmering internecine struggle to a more dangerous external conflict, as the sudden appearance of a helicopter leads Rick, Glenn, and Michonne to the doorstep of another survivor camp. This group is led by a man named Philip, who has styled himself The Governor. This new player in the story is quickly established as certifiably insane, as well as the extreme example of securing authority through the “might makes right,” do-anything approach to keeping people safe that Rick has been struggling with up until now. As the three protagonists begin their ordeal in the Governor's hands, the rest of the group back at the prison wait anxiously for their return, with no idea that a new, non-zombie threat is now bearing down on them.

As usual, I’m conflicted. The introduction of an honest-to-goodness, crazy-ass human villain that doesn’t immediately flame out and get shot in the next issue is exactly what the story needed. I appreciated the claustrophobic tension that suffused the last volume, especially considering that finding and keeping a sanctuary broke the formula that had previously been established. That sort of conflict can only keep up for so long before getting tiresome, though, and a clash with another survivor ideologue is the next logical step. As over-the-top as the Governor is, I needed a shock to the system. We’ve spent a lot of time in the past few arcs on what the end of the world has done to our heroes, so I appreciate the reminder that yes, by the way, it really is the end of the world. Dead people are trying to eat everyone that’s left, and that can make people justify doing some really screwed up things in the name of survival. I consequently ate this volume up. The story is exciting, the pace is perfect, and I’m primed for the fallout that’s sure to come in the following volumes.

Here’s the thing, though: did we really need another refresher course on how women are not welcome in this version of the zombie apocalypse? Maybe it’s because I reread everything, but the no-girls-allowed mood was already firmly entrenched. At this point it’s really starting to grate, and I wish Kirkman would stop harping on it and just fucking move on, already. I like that the theme of deconstructing nuclear families and monogamous relationships has appeared, but as foreshadowed, it comes from the female character that apparently can’t function without a man. More problematic, though, is that the reasoning for this development actually makes sense and is dramatically interesting, but is immediately met with “we don’t do that in Kentucky,” etc. I’m not sure if that was a reference to polyamory or homosexuality, but considering how Andrew and Dexter turned out and what happened to them, I wouldn't be surprised if homosexuality is unwelcome in this zombie apocalypse, too. We can forget about Andrea being a solid female protagonist, too, now that she's voiced her committment to doing whatever Dale tells her to do.

And, of course, Michonne. Oh, Michonne. To be fair, our sole remaining strong female character was effectively subjugated right as she was introduced in the last volume, when she immediately glommed onto a male protagonist for no other apparent reason than that they are both black. But yes, the brutal, prolonged rape and torture of Michonne for daring to physically attack the man that had, without provocation, maimed one of her companions was particularly hard to read. Not just because it’s hard to stomach on its own, but because Kirkman has decided to frame it in the perspective of what it does to the men around her. The Governor’s so crazy, he rapes people for fun! What a scary and interesting character! And oh, poor Glenn! Look how traumatized he is by having to hear Michonne being raped! Meanwhile, we get one line of dialogue from the victim herself concerning what she plans to do to her tormentor (which I’m convinced will happen, and will be as bad as she implies), but otherwise, no actual focus on what such horrific treatment is actually doing to her or what she is thinking. Other than some artistically drawn panels of her tied spread-eagle, of course, and renderings of her beaten face and cries of pain for dramatic effect. That says all we need to know, right? Sigh.

I usually don’t have patience for people that go searching for reasons to get offended, but Jesus, WE GET IT, ROBERT KIRKMAN. MEN ARE IN CHARGE. I think my problem with all of this is that Kirkman is taking pains to write what he feels might actually happen in a zombie apocalypse, which implies that somewhere deep down, he imagines violent patriarchy to be the natural order of things that would immediately be reestablished without social norms to hold it back. Admittedly, that’s an argument that can’t be dismissed offhand, considering that institutionalized rape and the relegation of women to submissive wards meant to be owned, guarded, shepherded, and/or used can be found this very moment in various parts of the real world (and even in our own “civilized” country). It’s still unpleasant, though, and I have yet to see the purpose for constantly reasserting it in every single story arc, especially since it’s largely done through and abetted by the female characters that I’m supposed to like and sympathize with.

But I’m still giving this one a four. Yeah, I know. Insensitive, privileged white male. The story is still fantastic, though, and I liked this volume much better than the previous few. It’s a really good zombie melodrama, and at this point in the series it’s still a great read for fans of the genre. Just, you know... trigger warning. Don't read this series with any illusions of it being more socially enlightened than any other comic book aimed at young men. Also, I’m realizing that most of the protagonists are pretty hard to like at this point, and I’m torn between finding that odd and recognizing it as interesting, as the reality of the world they are in continues to take its emotional toll on them.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Book Review - The Shattering, by Karen Healey

Is this a story about teen suicide? A murder mystery? A dystopian parable? A paranormal tale about plucky young people holding off the forces of evil? A realistic take on coming out of the closet? Well… yes. The Shattering is undoubtedly an engaging read, but there’s a lot of competing themes to contend with.

The story opens with Keri, a Maori girl who has lived her entire life in the idyllic New Zealand seaside hamlet of Summerton. Her older brother Jake has recently committed suicide, leaving her in a frustrated limbo of rage and grief, and straining the bonds of her family. However, her childhood friend Janna comes to her with a shocking assertion: Jake was murdered. At Janna’s request, they meet with an online friend and former summer fling of Janna’s, Sione, who has deduced that not only do the three of them have firstborn older brothers that have committed suicide, but that the trend spirals unsettlingly outward. Each year, a firstborn older brother from somewhere in New Zealand or Australia visits Summerton, and is subsequently reported to have killed themselves shortly afterward. Determined to put an end to what they are convinced is a serial murder spree, the trio bumps up against a force much more powerful and insidious than a lone killer, which weaves through the entire town and is tied to everyone who lives in it.

I didn’t know a whole lot about this one when I started. I guess I was expecting something like Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher after reading the blurb, but the story took a hard left in the first few chapters. Once the pace really started to ramp up, it changed directions again as the neo-Pagan elements came to the fore. Out of nowhere, everything stopped for a minute to ponder on the complexities of being gay in a small town, in an almost completely internal conflict. Finally, after the intense, rapid-fire climax, we slide right back into the suicide motif that started everything off. Quite frankly, this whirlwind of themes is extremely disorienting. All of them fit nioely into the story, adding dimension to the characters and making for a story that is never boring. However, the sheer number of ideas pretty much ensures that none of them get explored very deeply. I left the story feeling vaguely dissatisfied, as a result.

Other than a slight case of multiple personality disorder, though, the book is a fairly engaging read. The upshot of all these themes is that the story remains fresh and occasionally surprising from cover to cover. The character work is great, with a multicultural cast of sympathetic characters that are unapologetically flawed and believable. Healey also did some interesting stuff with the setting, here. For all that the story takes place in a beautiful coastal tourist town, there isn’t much in the way of flowery descriptions. The closest the narrative comes to describing the backdrop is a vague trance that occasionally overcomes Summerton’s visitors, leaving them ensnared by a picturesque beauty that is never really depicted in detail (which makes perfect sense as the plot begins to thicken). Meanwhile, the reader is immersed in various words, rituals, and articles of clothing in the Maori and Samoan cultures, and bombarded with New Zealand and Australian geography. The result is an understated but real and comprehensive introduction to the setting, delivered almost wholly through the somewhat jaded eyes of the characters themselves.

Ultimately, I wasn’t really blown away by this book, but I did enjoy following the various narrative twists and turns. There are a lot of moving parts, but if you aren’t particular about your story focusing on one thing at a time, the parts make for a decently fun read for a wide swath of YA readers.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Review - It Gets Better, ed. by Dan Savage and Terry Miller

For roughly three years of my teenaged life, I was the target of anti-gay bullying. The fact that I am quite heterosexual did nothing to alleviate it; in fact, the bullies harassed my girlfriend, too, just for good measure.

Granted, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. The main instigator was as cowardly as he was stupid, and he lost much of his power to intimidate when he backed out of a surprise opportunity to settle things one-on-one, outside of school (one that I was more than happy to take advantage of). But he always had a flock of his mouth-breathing buddies with him, some of whom were twice my size and seemed intent on really hurting me. Furthermore, he was consistent. If ten days had gone by without them sauntering up to me at lunch, I could reliably expect an encounter at any moment. Even though things rarely went beyond words, the constant, absolute mindlessness of the regular harassment wore on me.

Worst of all, the adults in my life seemed powerless to stop it, in some cases willfully so. After an altercation that almost got physical (I had a soda can thrown at my face, and pushed the little shit who did it away from me), I was herded into a vice-principal's office. I was solemnly warned by my school’s administration that because I threw my tormentors’ words back at them, demanding to know what it was about “faggots” that seemed to get them so hot and bothered, I could be suspended for “sexual harassment” if I did it again. My parents gave me moral support, but it was clear they weren’t going to get any help from the school, at least in an official capacity. Because I felt confident enough to handle it on my own, I didn’t want to risk making things worse by kicking it up to them until the moment I felt that I had no other choice, which thankfully never came. And even then, things almost went very bad one night, when a van full of drunk chuckleheads (one of whom I thought was a friendly acquaintance of mine) tried to trap me, my girlfriend, and her little sister in a deserted parking lot after a school dance, forcing me to almost wreck my car getting away.

It was a serendipitous combination of my own moxie and the support of friends that got me through that time, but I didn’t escape unscathed. I still carry the marks of that old rage, at peers who could be so arbitrarily cruel, and at grown men and women who were supposed to help me and instead stood by and let it happen. Even though I was more angry than despondent over it, I can easily imagine a victim of such treatment feeling like they have no escape and no hope, especially a young victim who deals with it over the course of years. Even with more publicity of bullied teens committing suicide, many people still seem to think that this isn’t a problem, or even more reprehensible, that it isn’t a problem worth caring about. It’s really sad that a book like this even needs to be written, but it does, and the inspiring essays within serve a crucial need.

This book is basically a print extension of the “It Gets Better Project,” an online compendium of short videos recorded by LGBT and straight adults that speak candidly to teens being bullied over their sexuality or perceived sexuality. The project is meant as a lifeline for kids who are considering ending their own lives, by assuring and/or reminding them that while it may not seem so at the time, high school isn’t forever. If they can endure the static that they are getting from their peers, the adults in their communities, or even from their own families, they can still grow up and create a normal, loving, happy life, just like any other person. The assertion of things actually getting better is subjective, considering how ugly people out in the world still are, but many of the contributors acknowledge this. The point isn’t to paint an unrealistic picture of a bully-free life after high school, but to give these kids a glimpse of the power that they will have over their own life, and the great things waiting for them, once they get through this comparably short period of time.

In light of that, I feel like a bad person for not giving this a perfect rating. Honestly, though, this is only a cover-to-cover read for the harried kids who really need a chorus of voices affirming that things get better, and for those who are close to one and want to help them. For everyone else, it’s more of an inspirational read, to be picked up every now and again and read in short bursts. Each essay is a couple pages long, and follows the same formula: a description of bullying, the consideration of suicide, the good things that have happened since, and an affirmation of how loved and important the reader is, and how things will eventually get better for them, too. The essays do have variety, with authors that are gay and straight, old and young, politicians and students, men, women, and transgendered. There are two pretty awesome comics, and one screed aimed at the bullies rather than the bullied. All together, though, they do follow the same formula, making them undeniably repetitive. From the standpoint of a curious reader, the website is a bit more engaging than the book.

But that takes nothing away from the point of the book. In the introduction, Savage writes that the It Gets Better project was born out of a realization that no parent or school was going to invite him to speak directly to LGBT youth, who need to hear this message the most, so he took matters into his own hands. Not every teen has access to the Internet, and many who do can’t afford to have a browsing history that will call the attention of their family on them; this book is for them. Honestly, though, speaking as a parent and as a librarian, it’s a book that every teen should at least flip open, wWhether it’s cover-to-cover or a simple skim through a couple of the essays. The sentiment behind the book is absolutely correct, and many kids and teens desperately need to hear it.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, by Bryan Lee O'Malley

The halfway point of the Scott Pilgrim series is where things start to get a little more complex. We’re still firmly on the “beat the evil exes to date Ramona” boss-battle rails, but in Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, an evil ex of Scott’s shows up, as well. Despite the story getting a little deeper, I had a little more trouble getting into this one than I did the previous books.

At the end of the last volume, Ramona reveals that her next evil ex is Todd Ingram, who just happens to be the bass player for the art-rock band The Clash at Demonhead. Incidentally, that band’s frontwoman is Envy Adams, the femme fatale who broke Scott’s heart by cheating on him with Todd, sending him into the pathetic spiral of insecurity and self-pity that he’s currently trying to fight his way out of. Got all that? As it turns out, Envy’s callous toying with Scott in the previous book has a purpose. She knows all about Scott’s quest, including some mysterious information about who Ramona really is. Further, she’s determined to see that Scott fail once and for all, at the hands of her current true love.

Getting into Scott’s backstory a little more is nice. The one consistent problem I’ve had with the books so far is Scott being somewhat of an unsympathetic jackass, and so a little exploration of the relationship with Envy and what went wrong alleviated that a little. In fact, it was done in a fairly brilliant way, paralleling the “main quest.” The cool art, hilarious sarcasm, and trademark video-game chic are all still in effect, as well, making for a read that’s at least as fun as the first two.

I kind of felt that O’Malley wanted to balance the more complicated plotline with an extra helping of jaded cleverness, though, and it got on my nerves a little. The story of Scott and Envy is told in choppy flashbacks that are interspersed with the main story, and the vignettes occur literally without warning upon the turn of a page. In fact, other than some slightly different hairstyles on the characters, a page turn is the only clue that the story has shifted to a flashback, every single time. It’s disorienting the first few times it happens, and annoying every time after. I could have lived with the haughtiness of it all, but it happens just a few times too often. Too many flashbacks, too little attention to the main narrative. I also thought that the forays outside the fourth wall were a little ham-handed this time around, compared to the previous books. Tablature play-alongs and impromptu cooking shows were quirky and clever; references to “the book” and character acknowledgments of a deus ex machina are trite by comparison.

All of which is not to say I didn’t like this one. I just liked it a little less than the first two. One positive note is the strong feeling that the story is going to shift a bit, now that we’re past the midpoint. The hints about Ramona’s past are much more pointed in this volume; the next three will hopefully change things up from the current formula. Even with the little problems I had, I got the definite feeling that the overarching story is really crystallizing by this point. Best of all, it does so without losing any of the charm, humor, or ridiculous over-the-top theatrics that I liked in the first two so much.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Book Review - Underdogs, by Markus Zusak

I don’t know what it is with me and omnibuses… omnibusseses… omnibi? Anything that’s packaged as a complete set, be it made up of novels or comics, tends to attract my attention these days. This particular omnibus appeared to me out of nowhere, and didn’t do anything for me at first. Somewhere between when I started it and when I finished it, though, it crept up on me and became one of my favorite recent reads. It’s a meandering, quirky coming-of-age story that is funny and heartbreaking by turns, and will definitely touch a chord in anybody who has been a teenage boy before.

This is a collection of Markus Zusak’s first published works, before his recent fame for writing The Book Thief. The trilogy, comprised of The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, and Getting the Girl, is narrated by a teenager named Cameron Wolfe. Cameron is the youngest son in a blue-collar family trying to make ends meet in an Australian suburb, and the books are a mesh of his stream of consciousness and his poetic writings as he attempts to navigate through his daily existence. The first book, The Underdog, introduces the Wolfe family and follows Cam through an aimless period in his young life where he tries to reconcile who he wants to be with the reality of who he is. Fighting Ruben Wolfe offers a bit more of a linear story: feeling like they should somehow contribute to the family, which is facing increasingly dire straits, Cam and his older brother Ruben get mixed up in clandestine, amateur boxing. As they fight, though, Cam realizes that Ruben is fighting for something other than money, and that he might be fighting for something deeper, himself. The third book, Getting the Girl, brings the themes of the first two into a familiar focus: first love and its consequences, which refines and changes everything that Cameron thought he had knew about himself.

At first, I wasn’t so impressed. I have a consciousness that streams just fine on its own, and so I tend to get annoyed by fiction that doesn’t have a point. But the Wolfe family makes an indelible impression, and Cam in particular is intensely likeable in all his quiet nobility and earnest insecurity. Once I got accustomed to the tone of this particular slice of life (which, with all of its Australian mannerisms and references, took me a bit to do), the narrative began to solidify a little, first into an exploration of the fraught relationship between close siblings, and then into a time-tested story of love and frustration. The character development is particularly excellent, and gets more nuanced throughout the books. Fighting Ruben Wolfe’s themes of sibling rivalry and family bonds build directly on Cam’s observations from The Underdogs, while the messy relationships in Getting the Girl spring from the character development in Fighting Ruben Wolfe. Taken as a whole, the story arc is subtle, and brilliant.

Getting the Girl particularly resonated with me. It could have easily been another entry in a somewhat crowded genre: horny teen boy learns a lesson about healthy relationships! As funny and enjoyable as books in that vein can be, they don't usually do too much for me. Perhaps it’s because most of those stories only touch the surface of what it’s like to have an adult’s sex drive but a child’s impulse control, and I don’t harbor any particular nostalgia for the situations that arise from that. But Zusak’s take on this particular form of teen angst struck home. While reading this, I occasionally mused that girlfriends and mothers should give these books a spin to gain some insight into the teen boy’s brain. Cameron struggles with the conflict between his hormones (sex with any female that looks his way, and proving once and for all that he isn’t a loser) and his heart (the little-boy desire of wanting to be nurtured and loved, and the manliness of being perceived as honorable and chivalrous). The results are the same insecurity, shame, and tendency towards self-defeat that almost every boy has to go through while growing up, and find inventive ways to cope with. His sexual fantasies are constant, and he accepts their inevitability. He also can’t help but fall in love at the drop of a hat, desperate to find something noble that gives those fantasies meaning, which makes him even more self-conscious. And best of all, this is not a motif that show up fully formed in the third book, even though the story itself stands alone. Rather, it is the result of Cameron’s character growth up to that point. It is beautifully understated, and cathartic to read, at least for me.

The only complaint I have with this book is the same complaint I have with every omnibus edition I read, and it has to do with the cognitive dissonance of reconciling the chapters of a collection to actual standalone books. As I mentioned, my infatuation with this book was a slow burn, since I was a little nonplussed by The Underdog and didn’t warm up to it until well past the halfway mark. If I were reading the standalone novel instead of this compilation, I don’t think I would have hung around for the following books, and that would have been a terrible loss. But as always, I can’t decide whether that speaks to a failure in the writing, or with me being psyched out by reaching the end of the “book” even though I have hundreds of pages left to read in the volume I’m holding. Suffice it to say that the first book is considerably more freeform and light on actual plot than the other two, so it pays off to stick it out if that bothers you.

But besides that small issue, this is a fantastic little smorgasbord of coming-of-age vignettes. It effortlessly brought me back to my own struggles with my self-worth as a young man, and it has the mark of a truly great read: the more I ruminate on it after finishing it, the more I love it. I would particularly recommend this to teen guys, who I suspect would not object to a little stealth introspection hidden amongst a tale of girls, fighting, and making fun of stupid little yappy dogs.

Verdict: 4.5 / 5

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Book Review - Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

This book has been attracting buzz for a while, especially since the impending film version was announced. I am characteristically late to any sort of hyped material, but I think that serves me well; it allows me to approach the “best ever” anything with a healthy dose of cynicism. In this instance, though, I was completely blown away. After finishing Thirteen Reasons Why, I promptly placed aside all of the baggage and special considerations that come with “dark YA” and “teen readers.” This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, irrespective of genre or intended audience.

Thirteen Reasons Why has two narrators. The first, Clay Jensen, is a teenage boy who finds himself in possession of a package of seven mysterious audiotapes. Listening to the first tape reveals them to be recorded messages from the second narrator: Hannah Baker, a classmate that Clay knew and liked, but had committed suicide a few weeks prior. The tapes turn out to be Hannah’s last message to thirteen people she claims were in some way responsible for her death; each side of the tapes holds an anecdote about a single person, all of which connect into a series of events that took Hannah to her fateful decision. Following a map that had been surreptitiously placed in his locker, Clay follows in Hannah’s footsteps as she traces the stories across the various landmarks of their small town, listening to each tape and dreading the moment when his name will appear. As the various threads of Hannah’s story come together through the tapes, Clay must come to terms with his own feelings about what happened to Hannah and the repercussions of why it happened.

Stylistically, this book is pitch-perfect. The format is unique without being gimmicky, and is fine-tuned with a perfect amount of suspense. I found myself walking along with Clay, trapped in the thrall of the tapes and waiting with curiosity and apprehension for the next one. When I wasn’t reading the book, I was thinking about it, processing the previous chapters and anticipating the forthcoming ones. The story is compelling enough to keep readers turning pages, with no stumbling blocks in the narrative and no extraneous plot elements.

Regarding the content itself, it’s fairly obvious at first glance that the story is dark and heavy. But Asher handles the complexities inherent to a story about suicide (specifically, attempting to explain suicide) masterfully. I read a couple of other reader reviews, and was dumbfounded at how many people commented on how they didn’t buy the depiction of Hannah Baker, or didn’t agree with how Asher wrote her particular reasons for what she did. I was especially astounded by some reviewers who claimed experience with suicide attempts, and blasted her motivations as “unrealistic.” I didn’t know that there was such a thing, outside of some extreme exceptions, as a “realistic” motivation for ending one’s own life. Generally speaking, a friend or loved one’s suicide is fraught with mysterious motives, and when reasons come to light, they never justify or even explain why that person would do something so drastic.

The anger, though, I do understand. I was occasionally angry with Hannah Baker, in the way I would be angry with a real person for killing themselves. I’ll even confess to having an internal ideological war. Hannah’s tapes are calm, collected, and focused. They are full of dark humor, and of pointed accusation. They depict a teen who knew what she was doing, and knew the impact it would have on the people who listened to the tapes. The parent part of my psyche spent some time wagging its finger at the librarian part, insisting (with some logical cause) that this book paints a somewhat glamorous picture of a suicide victim using her death to exact revenge on her perceived tormentors, which is not the healthiest message to send.

However, I can say with some confidence that that’s ultimately not what gives this book its emotional power. Yes, the tapes have their share of graveyard humor and practiced vengeance, which gives the story a lot of its readability. But revenge isn’t the point of the tapes. I was fortunate enough to meet Jay Asher and get my copy of this book signed, and with his autograph he penned a key phrase from one of Hannah’s tapes: “Everything affects everything.” That, I feel, is the central theme of this book. As Clay makes his way through the tapes, Hannah makes it perfectly clear that the decision to kill herself was hers alone, and came from her “giving up,” not from any one person or event pushing her to it. As the various events recorded on the tapes come together to form a connected story, Clay is made privy to how each small thing affects other small things in her life, creating ripples that cascaded into unintended consequences. Everything affects everything. The story becomes less about explaining why a teenage girl might commit suicide (which will never resonate as “realistic” or “good enough,” honestly), and more about examining how we treat others in light of the fact that we can never know what someone is going through at any particular time, and how we might be helping or hurting without intending to or even thinking about it. This theme has interesting applications all throughout the story, from the sweet and tidy ending to the implied-but-unexplored effects that the tapes might have on the other people on Hannah’s list. I suppose I could construct a lot of interesting arguments about why other people (fictional or otherwise) who go through the same things or worse are often able to cope just fine, but that’s not really the point. In another story, maybe everything affects everything in different ways. Who knows.

Though, I do find it ironic that the common complaint with the book seems to be that many readers can’t sympathize with Hannah because they don’t really know anything about her other than her suicidal thoughts, don’t think that the common high school problems depicted are worth the melodramatic result, and aren’t satisfied with only hearing her side of the story. Guys? There is a scene in the book that deals specifically with that (the peer communications class), and according to the author’s afterword, it was drawn from a real-life incident. Just saying. I realize that it’s easy to dismiss Hannah’s story as “childish” and “unbelievable” due to it being fictional, but I interacted with more than one suicidal friend in my teen years. It was believable to me. Petty problems never seem petty to the person who has to deal with them, and in case you’ve forgotten what being a teenager is like, there is no such thing as a petty problem to someone who is often experiencing powerful emotions and complicated interpersonal interactions for the first time, without the life experience and biological capacity to see things with a longer view. To be fair, though, Hannah’s tapes do smack a little bit of self-righteousness (another reminder: teenager!), and it is easy to get caught up in this being a story about suicide instead of a story about how callously people can treat other people, due to them thinking such treatment isn’t that big of a deal.

Anyway, that’s a lot of philosophizing on a fairly simple idea. Wheaton’s Law: don’t be a dick. Frankly, though, you don’t need to have any aspirations toward deep self-reflection to enjoy this book. It has believable and achingly sympathetic characters, an engaging premise, and wonderful execution. The tone and content is perfect for older teens, while the format and suspenseful pace is the equal of any adult thriller. And I’m confident that even readers who don’t like the book will think about the story and the themes it conveys long after they finish it. I’m wary of what will happen once Hollywood finishes wrapping its flailing appendages around this story, but the book has my recommendation for anyone and everyone, with absolutely no reservations.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Graphic Novel Review - Feynman, by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

I found the idea of a graphic novel biography of physicist Richard Feynman to be so quirky and interesting that I was fairly excited to get my hands on a copy. Feynman is a bit of a book searching for an audience, but it ultimately encompasses a fascinating man’s interesting life and complicated ideas in a fairly accessible way.

Ottaviani presents this biography as a memoir told by Feynman himself, drawn from various primary sources. The book begins with Feynman’s early life and first marriage, along with his early studies in physics that culminated in some important contributions to the Manhattan Project. The narrative follows his groundbreaking work in quantum electrodynamics, including the invention of the famous notations that bear his name. Along the way, the reader is treated to various anecdotes and hilarious asides on everything from cargo cult science and the perils of accepting a Nobel Prize to Feynman’s tendencies toward safecracking and ogling pretty girls. The meaty graphic novel takes a hard left in the second half, where the largest section of the book is dedicated to Feynman’s famous lectures attempting to explain quantum electrodynamics to the layperson. However, by the time the reader gets to the end, where Feynman approaches his own illness and death with characteristic smarm and wit, they are left with a vivid impression of both who Richard Feynman was and the important contributions he made to modern science.

Myrick’s artwork is interesting. It has a comic-strip feel that sets a scene without being too slick or fancy for its own good. I don’t know if I’d call it attractive, especially considering that it can occasionally be hard to tell characters apart. The faces are beautifully expressive in clean, simple ways, though. Also, Myrick occasionally shakes things up with the injection of random magical realism and, naturally, plenty of scientific diagrams.

I admit that while I’ve always been fascinated by physics, I’ve never had a head for mathematical rigor. Thus, even though I found “the lectures” engaging, I had a hard time following some parts of them even though they are made for people like me. Even so, that made the occasional moments of understanding that much more illuminating. Honestly, I think being exposed to something as complicated as quantum field theory through the medium of a graphic novel helped a great deal, regardless of what that says about my intellect. Especially considering that the actual hard science is incidental, in this case, to the story of the man himself.

The biography is told in a disjointed fashion, comprised of a series of vignettes that are only loosely connected in any chronological order. This takes some getting used to, but ultimately transcribes a life in the way it should be experienced: messy and unexpected. The book covers all of the major facets of Feynman’s life- the atomic bomb, the Nobel Prize, the Challenger Disaster commission, the lectures– but it also chronicles the shenanigans of a hilarious eccentric, and presents the various tragedies in his life with a poignancy born of no-frills simplicity and honesty.

Though there are already a couple of books on Feynman’s life and work that would be good introductions to the general reader, I’d place this one at the head of the pack. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I spent a decade being too intimidated to pick up one of those books, and after reading this I'm eager to jump in. Most importantly for me, the book has enough heft to it to be a satisfying read for a graphic novel. While hard-nosed scientists and comic enthusiasts with mainstream tastes may not find what they are looking for here, I’d recommend this to general readers as a fantastic story about an insanely interesting person, and to those already familiar with Richard Feynman as a fun, graphical take on the man.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book Review - A Dance with Dragons, by George R. R. Martin

George R. R. Martin would like you to know that he bought a dictionary of archaic Scottish English in the six years it took to write this book, and he learned a lot of cool words from it.

For example, did you know “leal” was used instead of loyal? It’s true! Also, you can use “neeps” to refer to rutabaga or turnips. And we already know that the word “teats” is awesome, of course, but let’s not forget the marvelous utility of the word “cunt!” It can refer to a woman’s body part, the woman herself, or just be a general exclamation of frustration in any situation where a woman might be involved to the slightest degree!

So, if you’re as excited about these words as you were to read about “groats,” “nuncles,” and “valonqars” in 2005, make sure to pick up A Dance with Dragons. George is so excited about this new batch of words that you are sure to get your money’s worth! Cunt leal cunny cunt leal teats neeps neeps cuntcuntcunt.

Okay, for real, now. I kept my hopes at a reasonably low level after the massive letdown that was A Feast for Crows, and it’s a good thing I did, because there is no appreciable difference between that book and this one. On one hand, that’s kind of a good thing; these two books started as one book, and inhabit the same chronological space in the overarching story while encompassing two different groups of main characters. A radical shift in the writing would have been jarring. However, setting aside the problem of this format slowing the overarching story down to a crawl, the consistency also means that the same infuriatingly bad writing in A Feast for Crows is slathered all over this one, as well, which distracted me from the truly gripping story underneath.

The War of Five Kings is all but over, but the stage is being set for the return of House Targaryen, which could change everything. Daenerys Targaryen struggles to maintain her hold on the slaver city of Meereen, while enemies descend on her from all sides and her famed dragons grow increasingly hard to control. A number of potential suitors race across the narrow sea to her, hoping to win her hand and tip the balance in Westeros: Victarion Greyjoy of the Iron Islands, Quentyn Martell of Dorne, and a young sellsword boy who hides a powerful secret. Even Ser Jorah Mormont hopes to once again reach the exiled queen, with none other than Tyrion Lannister in tow. Meanwhile, Jon Snow keeps his eyes fixed beyond the wall, balancing a tenuous grasp on the Night’s Watch command with the need to do anything it takes to defend against the horrors that are coming with the winter. And, let’s see… Bran’s up in the north learning how to be the best skinchanger ever, while Arya’s still in Braavos learning how to be awesome.

In other words, lots of Going Important Places and Saying Important Things, and not much else. There’s plenty of action interspersed in the various chapters and settings, but most of it is subdued; we’re back to intrigue and foreshadowing as we build up to what promises to be a huge denouement in the final books. The problem is, Martin has established himself to be a master at world-building and writing on a large scale, but as the last book proved, he’s god-awful at writing dialogue and creating small, intimate scenes. Unfortunately, dialogue and intimate scenes make up the lion’s share of this book. So, even though most of these chapters are still pretty interesting, they don’t move the story forward too much, and showcase some of the worst aspects of Martin’s writing.

As I mentioned above, Martin continues his maddening habit of suddenly introducing archaic words that don’t mesh at all with the rest of the prose, and repeating them until you want to use the book to bash your own face in. He also continues to invent new clichés that didn’t exist in the books before, and throw them around like confetti. In this book, people aren’t speculating on anything’s worth in groats anymore, but they all agree that “words are wind.” It’s not just the Westerosi who mutter this gem at any given opportunity; people across the sea, who supposedly speak entirely different languages, are also prone to blurting it out whenever anybody promises anything to anybody else. Also, it’s apparently in fashion to point out that nipples on a breastplate are useless. That one shows up at least twice, and then… spoiler alert!… somebody finds an actual breastplate… with nipples on it! Ha ha! Ha. Meanwhile, expect Tyrion to basically repeat two things for the entire book. Considering how great a character he has been to this point, this is particularly depressing.

The sex scenes, frequent as ever, continue to range between somewhat odd and painfully bad. Well, at least this time Martin isn’t obsessively fixating on the differing sizes and colors of women’s nipp… oh, wait, there it is. And… yup. There’s another passage, a few chapters later. Sigh.

I know I’m nitpicking, but there are bigger issues at play, too. Entire story threads in this book are completely unnecessary. One particular character winds their way through the book, doing nothing much of note, and then suddenly dies at the end after accomplishing one thing of pertinence to the story. This is something that could have been handled in a single chapter. It could have been an aside in someone else’s chapter, for crying out loud. While stuff like this is good flavor text, it takes up a lot of space without adding much.

I’m being harsh, but I really do like this series, and since Martin is king of the fantasy world right now, there’s no point in lobbing softballs. I think Martin has started to believe his own hype. These books have become famous for their grittiness, and for no character being safe and no happy ending being guaranteed. It seems like Martin just assumes, by this point, that he can please the fans that have those expectations by just writing in as much casual violence and pointless sex as he can, and ending every chapter on a cliffhanger. Moreover, the series is starting to suffer from the same affliction that can be observed in every successful popular fiction series: once an author starts raking in wheelbarrows of money, nobody wants to suggest that their manuscripts need editing anymore. According to Clarion West, this man teaches other writers how to write fantasy and science fiction. It’s therefore somewhat alarming to observe that he not only didn’t recognize that his two most recent thousand-page novels should have been three-fifths of a single manuscript (at best!), but that he feels the best way to establish a leitmotif is with unrelenting, context-free repetition. The fact that things go wonky when he strays from that repetition (“womb” is not a synonym for vagina, George) doesn’t do much to reassure me. And nobody seemed to have the courage to point these things out to him. Or, more likely, nobody cared, since this book was bound to be a bestseller anyway, regardless of whether it is actually good.

So, with me ranting full bore about this book, is it safe to assume I hated it? Sigh. No. I devoured it, just like the rest of the series. Once again, it must be said that underneath all of the stupid crap is a solid, engrossing, intricate story. It’s tightly plotted, despite the sudden meandering pace, and the themes are smart, realistic, and consistent, even if they are poorly presented. This series is visceral. Each page is alive with textures, smells, sounds, and a sense of unflinching reality. There are important messages in this story, about the nature of power, the arbitrary whims of fate, and the ambiguity of concepts like morality and justice. And though I’m sick to death of Martin’s cliffhangers, there are a couple of jaw-dropping moments in A Dance with Dragons that promise big things in the next books.

It bears repeating that this book is basically the second half of A Feast for Crows, six years or no six years, and thus deserves the same rating I gave that one. I’m not done with this series. I’m still a fan, and I need to know what happens next. I still think anybody who reads fantasy should read the first three books in this series, at least. But this book and the one before are badly written. It’s as simple as that. Not bad enough to ruin the series, but bad enough to pale in comparison to the previous books. I’d be lying, though, if I said I didn’t like it enough to tear through it and wait in anticipation for the next one.

The nice thing about all of this, as my wife and I often joke about, is that I get to be a fantasy hipster, now. While the newcomers rave about Game of Thrones and buy the reprinted paperbacks with the HBO logo on the cover, I get to smooth my moustache, crack open a Pabst Blue Ribbon, and declare that I was into Game of Thrones before it was big, and was already disappointed with it before you ever heard of it.

Verdict: 2.5 / 5, plus extra credit for being gripping despite its massive shortcomings.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Review - Nowhere Girl, by A. J. Paquette

As I was walking through the exhibit floor at ALA Annual, I chanced to pick up an advance reader’s copy for a children’s book that had some very nice art on the cover, a definite rarity for ARCs. I browsed through the blurbs, and discovered that this particular children’s book is about a girl who grew up in a Thai women’s prison.

I dare you to say no to a children’s book set in a Thai women’s prison. If you say you aren’t interested in how that turns out, you’re a filthy liar.

Naturally, being a children’s book, this story isn’t as eyebrow-raising as one might fear/hope. It’s actually a sweet little parable, set against a very memorable backdrop. Luchi Ann was born behind the bars of the prison, tucked away in the Thai hinterlands and far removed from any semblance of civilization. It is the only home she has ever known, and has always brought here a naïve, sheltered form of comfort. After her mother unexpectedly dies, however, Luchi is propelled into the outside world, more lonely and vulnerable than she has ever been. With only the name and address of an American who might be her grandmother, Luchi must somehow find her way back to a home she’s never known. However, the secrets that sent her mother to prison in the first place may come back to claim her.

While the initial setup and opening chapters of this book are compelling, it doesn’t really have a solid finish. The story starts to come apart about halfway through, and ends with a climax and some drawing-room revelations that are somewhat absurd. The plot works, but the various resolutions to Luchi’s obstacles are too convenient, and overly saccharine. The unique premise and shallow execution make for a story that’s a little hard to take seriously, despite its earnestness. In fact, its earnestness occasionally gets in the way, too, with pages of overwrought internal dialogue and paragraphs of exposition that routinely go purple.

But of course, that’s coming from an adult reader. None of this should present a problem for the school-age readers for which the book is meant. Further, Paquette has a gift for setting; her depictions of Thailand are lyrical and vivid, and even the somewhat unbelievable section describing Luchi's boat trip had me interested enough to look up more information on freighter travel. The story itself has an interesting and likeable protagonist, a carefully constructed theme, and a taste of suspenseful danger without being too intense for the target age range.

Overall: a mediocre but solid book. I wasn’t very excited about it personally, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to a young reader who is looking for a travel story, drama, or a book about Asian cultures.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book Review - The Future of Us, by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

This kind of book is not my usual choice, but I had the good fortune to meet the authors and get an autographed advance reader’s copy. Turns out, this is right up my alley, and I just didn’t know it yet. While not particularly profound, it is a quick, smart, and satisfying read.

This book’s concept is largely unchanged from the random conversation between the authors that I’m sure it came from. It’s 1996, and Emma’s best friend Josh comes over with one of those America Online CD-ROMs we all once got in the mail and promptly put in the microwave for their pyrotechnic value. Or, you know, used them as coasters, or whatever the rest of you did with them. Anyway, as Emma prepares to venture into the Interwebs, she notices a blue-and-white login box. Thinking this part of AOL, she enters her password again, which leads her to some strange website called Facebook. Further exploration with Josh reveals what seem to be versions of themselves from fifteen years in the future, with everything one would expect from a Facebook page: photos, banal status updates and... naturally... relationship status. Suddenly endowed with the ability to know her future and take steps to change it, Emma begins fiddling with her own future based on the scraps of info she can pull from her future self’s Facebook wall. Josh, on the other hand, fears what such meddling could do to their lives, both in the future and in the here-and-now.

This book grabbed me for a very specific reason. I am 31 years old, and therefore was the exact same age as these characters at the exact time it takes place. It’s like a cultural love letter to my youth. Furthermore, I spent the nineties dealing with the unrequited love of a close friend or two (as I imagine many of you have, as well), so I found the dynamic between Emma and Josh painfully realistic. My personal biases aside, though, this is a pretty neat story. Time-travel stories are fraught with peril, in that they invite science nerds to point out everything logistically wrong with them, but this one is believable. It keeps the “how” vague, because honestly, “how” doesn’t matter. The characters matter, and this story stays focused on them, with split-perspective narration between Emma and Josh that works well and keeps the book moving. There is a strong theme of not being so caught up in tomorrow that you neglect today, but it’s a theme that is inherent and not delivered heavy-handedly. This is a book that’s easy to get caught up in; I devoured it relatively quickly.

The only problem I had with the book has to do with the same reason it resonated so easily with me. I’m not entirely sure what the audience is for this book. Because it’s marketed as YA, it has to do some heavy lifting in terms of setting. Today’s teens don’t remember the 90s, and so there are constant shoutouts to the fads and pop culture of the time. Some of this works (the music, in particular), but most of it feels awkward and gratuitous, and makes the time-travel aspect seem a little gimmicky. On the other hand, while The Future of Us is tailor-made for those of us who actually grew up in the 90s, it doesn’t quite go deep enough to tap into that thirty-something sensibility. There are a couple of great scenes in the book that show how mutable the future is, but instead of really throwing a curveball like it could have, the story ends on a tidy, sweet, and predictable note. Honestly, I think Asher and Mackler could have done a lot more with this story (with everything about it intact) if they had aimed it at adults instead of the YA market.

But for what it is, it’s fantastic. This is a quirky little romance that’s perfect for socially networked teens, and it’s a cultural paean to those of us who actually got those CD-ROMs in the mail, once upon a time.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Book Review - Glow, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

This is definitely a case of the right book hitting me at the right time. I’m currently neck-deep in an addiction to the video game Mass Effect 2, which has precipitated a definite sci-fi jag in my entertainment tastes. This rich little dollop of YA sci-fi, which I got to read as an advance reader's copy and will be published in September, is just what I was looking for. It had a couple of procedural issues, which kind of makes me want to knock a point off depending on my mood, but this is a great start to what promises to be a fun series.

The first volume of the Sky Chasers series introduces Kieran Alden and Waverly Marshall, a young couple aboard a huge starship called the Empyrean. The Empyrean and its sister ship, the New Horizon, left an ailing Earth over forty years ago, carrying the hope of creating a new world and saving the human species from extinction. Kieran, being the first baby born to the original Empyrean crew and an all-around golden boy, is first in line for the ship’s captaincy. Everyone expects that he and Waverly will get married, and she does love him, but she has her doubts about whether she really wants to marry him, or if she is merely succumbing under the moral imperative to procreate. Her realtively sedate troubles are violently interrupted by the appearance of the New Horizon, which is supposed to be years ahead of them. An unexpected turn of events separates Waverly and the other Empyrean girls from everyone they’ve ever known, where they must find a way to escape a desperate captivity that is insidiously disguised by good intentions and comforting lies. Meanwhile, Kieran finds his capacity for leadership truly tested, when Seth Ardvale, a rival for Waverly’s affections, decides that Kieran isn’t fit to lead. Facing an increasingly dangerous mutiny and with no adults available to step in and take charge, Kieran is forged into a leader that might save them all, or might take them further down the path to annihilation.

So, I need to address two things right away. First, more and more teen books have characters with names like Kieran, Waverly, Brayden, Madison, et cetera, and my irritation with this is proof that I’m officially getting old. Second, I really wish everybody would stop trying to market new books as “The Next” version of whatever recently made piles of money. Yes, this actually is a fantastic readalike for The Hunger Games, but it doesn’t change the fact that repeatedly bleating “OMG THE NEXT HUNGER GAMES” is marketing at its most crass, and it makes my eyes twitch.

Okay, with that out of the way: this is solid sci-fi, and a fantastic teen book. It definitely places more emphasis on action and character development than it does on space and starships, but it does what it does very well. Of particular note is the interesting way in which it handles religion. A few chapters in, I was ready to dismiss this one as another version of the same story I’ve read plenty of times: religion bad. Being no fan of religious fundamentalism myself, I’m pretty okay with that, but it’s a somewhat tired trope. But then Ryan pulled the rug out from under me: secularism bad, religion good? Wait, no, religion still bad, maybe? Turns out, religion and secularism in this book’s universe are as good or as bad as their adherents. Gee, what a concept. And this not only makes for intriguing character motivations, but deftly sets up the framework and dominant theme for the rest of the books in the series. This, more than anything else, has me excited about how the next books will turn out.

The only problem I had with this book is that it had a whole lot of story tell in a fairly short amount of time. Like I said above, Glow is action-packed, and things move along briskly and with satisfying tension. Trouble is, the story occurs over several months, and it’s somewhat disorienting trying to reconcile the dialed-up pace with the apparently missing chunks of story time. The problem is exacerbated by the split in the narrative; once Waverly and Kieran are separated, the book follows their individual stories in different chapters. Each story could conceivably have its own novel-length treatment, but they are combined into a slim multithreaded plot in which they chronologically overlap. The process leaves certain elements feeling unexplored, or even artificially rushed.

The book also ends with a massive cliffhanger, making no bones about being the first part of a series. However, the two story halves each get a respectable climax, and the cliffhanger comes at the end of some dramatic falling action, letting Glow stand alone quite well. I think there are a few too many things to pick at to call Glow a complete success, but I personally loved it. The story is exciting and satisfying, the setting is a fresh take on a familiar concept, and the utopian themes and realistic motivations are a breath of fresh air in an expanding field of teen sci-fi where the bad guys are bad because they’re just bad, man, and it’s up to the teenagers to make everything all right.

That, I think is my favorite thing about this book: it isn’t at all clear who “the good guys” are, or what the best course of action for the teen protagonists is.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Book Review - The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

I first read this book for a class in high school, and remember being completely enamored of it. Rereading after an intervening fifteen years of reading experience has given depth to that appreciation. Immediately after finishing, I left the book nonplussed and somewhat unimpressed. After thinking about the story for a day or two, though, I’m in love all over again.

The Maltese Falcon is an essential detective novel and, along with Raymond Chandler’s works, a hallowed progenitor of the hardboiled genre. For those that haven’t already seen Humphrey Bogart’s turn as Sam Spade, I don’t want to ruin any part of the tangled, complex mystery, because all of the fun in this story is in trying to make your way through its moving parts. Let’s just say it starts how you would expect: sullen, sarcastic private eye Sam Spade sits in his office, flirting with his secretary and shooting the breeze with his somewhat oafish partner, when the dame walked in. It started as a simple case, tailing a shady character in order to track down his beautiful client’s sister, but things get complicated quick, and people end up dead. Soon, a host of shady characters are calling on Spade, offering him vast sums of money in exchange for a mysterious black statue that one of them likely already has. Meanwhile, Spade’s acquaintances in law enforcement are increasingly suspecting him of foul play, and his client seems to shift her allegiances whenever the wind changes. Using only his wits and his cool, Spade has to get to the bottom of things without getting wrapped up in them himself... hopefully ending up with a pocket full of cash, to boot.

I finally realized why I had to think about this one for a bit before reaffirming that I love it: Hammett leaves a huge amount of subtext up to the reader to decode. The story is classic noir, and reads just like watching a noir film. In fact, there are no internal monologues, omniscient narrations, or transcriptions of character thoughts. Everything is in the dialogue, and it’s up to the reader to determine what the characters are thinking, which is easy sometimes, but intriguingly impossible much more often. And man, what dialogue it is. Hammett’s writing is whip-smart, and the snappy patter never lets up. Sam Spade, in particular, is a bottomless pit of cool. He’s got a line for everything and everyone, and he never sounds trite or overdone, despite being the literal template for every booze-soaked, cigarette-rolling, skirt-chasing private dick since. He is the best kind of detective to read: the guy that always gets his man, but is quick to acknowledge that he’s always out for number one and never quite clear on just how corrupt he may or may not be.

The other characters in the story are considerably more stereotypical; they fit their assigned roles and play their assigned parts. Again, though, the beauty of Hammett’s writing makes them stand out, in that nobody’s motivations are ever revealed, and the reader only gets a glimpse of what’s really going on. This carries through to the plot, in that while Spade eventually solves one mystery, there are plenty of questions that go unanswered. This isn’t a tidy drawing-room mystery. This is a crime story mixed with an intrigue tale, and it's delightfully messy.

The 1941 film is probably the version of this story that most are familiar with, and rightly so, considering that it’s one of the best films ever made. But Hammett’s original story is a must-read, especially if you like detective fiction or film noir but haven’t yet seen Bogie do Spade. There’s a certain kitsch factor at work, considering that the book will fulfill every last expectation you might have of a book about a hardboiled private eye and the femme fatale that showed up at his doorstep one evening. But having those expectations fulfilled is the best part about this classic.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Book Review - The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

I don’t understand how you do it, Patrick Rothfuss. I can’t stop reading your ridiculous fucking books.

The Kingkiller Chronicle books are getting a fair amount of buzz, and well they should. They are epic fantasy in the classic vein: young boy with roughshod background turns out to be The Hero, and goes on a Hero’s Journey in preparation for a much-foreshadowed confrontation with evil forces. It’s time-tested comfort food for fantasy readers. Moreover, Rothfuss is a fantastic author. As I mentioned in my review for The Name of the Wind, he can turn a phrase like few others can. He writes characters and scenes so well that I didn’t particularly care that Kvothe is an obnoxious, smug little Mary Sue with unearthly good luck, or that The Wise Man’s Fear doesn’t have any recognizable climactic action or, for that matter, any story structure at all. I was too busy turning pages to find out what happened next. Well, that’s not entirely true; I did care. A lot. But I was ravenously turning pages anyway. Seriously, I have no idea what to think about this one.

Again, this book doesn’t really have a cohesive story to summarize, being largely an extension of the first book: Kvothe the innkeeper sitting with the Chronicler and relating the continuing adventures of Young Kvothe. The best way to synopsize this book is to consider it a road novel. After a meandering introduction of Kvothe continuing to be the best at everything while at the University in Imre, his quest to find out more about the Chandrian and avenge his family’s murders leads him away from his new home and out across the known boundaries of the world. Now, in theory, this is the perfect next step for developing Kvothe’s character and moving the story along. It works in practice, for the most part. Most of Kvothe’s adventures are compelling, even if they usually result in him growing more as a legendary badass than as a fully developed character. But each fun, well-written part is balanced out by something completely ludicrous. I honestly felt disoriented after finishing this one, trying to decide if I loved it or loathed it. Spoilers ahoy, so skip to the end if you don't want to know some of the major plot points.

When Kvothe first leaves the University, he ends up in the court of a foreign ruler (known colloquially as the Maer), tasked with navigating the intrigues of the local nobility and getting into the Maer’s good graces. He does this by foiling a long-game assassination attempt due to his exceptional powers of observation, and by playing Cyrano de Bergerac to woo the ruler’s lady love for him, which is naturally a cakewalk due to him being the Best Musician Ever. This would all be just fine (especially considering the hints throughout the book concerning just who the Maer’s lover is), if one could forget for the barest moment that Kvothe is sixteen years old. One star.

Kvothe then ends up on an expedition in the wild as the leader of a mercenary band. Since, you know, if I were a powerful noble, I would definitely put a sixteen-year-old in charge of a mercenary band. This part, however, is the strongest section of the book. Kvothe’s struggle to maintain his position amidst battle-hardened sellswords is actually interesting and believable, and the conclusion of their mission (which is the closest thing to a climax that this book has, even though it’s a little past the halfway mark) is tense and has interesting implications for the larger story. Five stars!

Then, there’s Felurian. The Felurian part. I just... I don’t even... I mean...

Okay, the Felurian part. So, this is foreshadowed since the blurb on the first book: "I spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life." Apparently, Felurian is a faerie spirit that is essentially an avatar of sexual desire. Capricious and seductive, she lures men into her domain for no reason other than her own desire and relatively innocent curiosity, but the awesome sexiness of her otherworldly sexitude is too much for a mortal man. Those who don’t suffer a massive coronary from the vigor of her faerie sex are left broken husks, spending the rest of their short lives pining for her after her curiosity and lust are sated. Kvothe, the sixteen-year-old virgin, stumbles into Felurian, and of course, she can't help but sex him up. But Kvothe the sixteen-year-old virgin has sexy sexitude powers of his own! He is so naturally gifted at the sexing that Felurian, the faerie spirit of lust, can’t get enough of his sexy sex. There’s still the problem of escaping her domain, but Kvothe manages that by once again being the Best Musician Ever. But Felurian decides that she won’t let her boy-pet back into the mortal world if he’s not the Best Sex Machine Ever, in addition to everything else, so she spends forty pages teaching him the secret faerie arts of sex wizardry. Seriously. Literally thousands of techniques are apparently imparted, with mysteriously sexy names like “Ivy Climbs the Love Tower” and “Rhino Fondles the Pomegranate,” or whatever. I mean... really? Zero stars, plus an additional penalty for squandering what could have been a fantastic goddamned story opportunity.

Here’s the thing: I could see how this would actually be a cool moment in the book. For all of Kvothe’s skill at everything he touches, Rothfuss has taken pains to depict him as woefully inept when it comes to romance. This could have been made a central point as to why his encounter with Felurian went as it did, especially considering that he manages, just for a brief moment, to master the art of Naming while in her domain. Something could have been made about the state of mind that sexual bliss encourages, especially to those that don’t already have preconceived notions about what it is, and this huge chunk of aimless titillation could have had a point. Instead, Kvothe lounges around naked and marvels at how he can’t remember how many times he’s grabbed Felurian’s breasts, or how much honeyed bread he’s eaten. Deep, man.

Anyway, that steaming ladleful of stupid is balanced out by one of the most intriguing scenes in either of the Kingkiller books: Kvothe’s encounter with a malicious faerie deity that calls into question everything he’s ever done from that point on, and implies that he may be doomed no matter what he does. My imagination is still reeling after reading it. After he escapes from Felurian, he ends up in the homeland of the stoic Adem mercenaries, and spends some time learning their ways. It’s a solid bit of world-building that honestly could have used its own novel-length exploration, but it really is a joy to read. Eight stars, and a demand for a side-project book about the Adem!

And then you once again remember that Kvothe is sixteen frigging years old, and accomplished more in a couple of months than any of the Adem did in years. That knowledge is stuck firm in your mind as you read about his encounter with a group of bandits that had kidnapped some farm girls and subjected them to days of rape and humiliation. By this point, it’s a forgone conclusion that Kvothe will save the day, but the revelation of him being the Best Consoler of Rape Victims Ever is just a bit too much to take. One of the girls had retreated inward after her brutal ordeal, and Kvothe manages to bring her around again just by being awesome. Okay, that’s easy enough to accept, I guess. But near the end of this vignette, the apex of this girl’s anger, shame, and helplessness is expressed thusly: “I hate men!” To which Kvothe deftly responds, “I’m a man too. We’re not all like that.” I’m not sure whether to be aghast at the author’s indelicate, crass handling of such a poignant and potentially provocative scenario, or appalled at how Kvothe is apparently still considered the most smooth-talking ladies' man ever to rescue a damsel after such a clumsy, boorish response. Either way, I have no earthly idea what this whole section is even doing in the book in the first place, as it doesn’t add a single bloody thing to the story. Negative fifty stars, and I want Patrick Rothfuss’s lunch money.

Sigh. I just don’t know. The thing is, there is justification for these problems right there in the text, because once again, Rothfuss is fundamentally a good writer. We have a classic case of an unreliable narrator, expounding on a theme of history and mythology being largely indistinguishable. We have a story framework that revolves around a broken, defeated man, who may have been marked for tragedy from the outset and who is obviously consumed by regret at the folly of his youthful arrogance, as the ritually repeated prologues and epilogues make clear (by the way, after the fourth time you read one of those florid passages, they start to become irritating). Both point to glimpses of a larger theme, and a purpose to everything that doesn’t currently make sense. Both also make me feel as if I’m being an apologist for a thousand pages of masturbatory author wish-fulfillment.

I can’t get around the fact that I really liked reading this book, and though I was frequently outraged, I was never bored. I would definitely recommend this to fantasy readers, and it decidedly belongs in the “must-read” pantheon for the genre. As for myself, though, I can’t decide between giving it a completely non-scientific five stars for being fun, smart, and readable despite its flaws, or an angry one star for the brazen, sustained assaults on my suspension of disbelief. You’re all duly warned, I guess, so I’ll split the difference with three stars.

This must be how Twilight fans with any remaining sense of shame feel.

Verdict: 3 / 5, I guess.