Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Graphic Novel Review - The Walking Dead Vol. 4: The Heart's Desire, by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn

So, I took a short break from this series, after finishing the third volume. I was finding that I was unconsciously comparing the graphic novels to the AMC series, and whether that's a fair comparison or not, I was a little surprised to find out that the graphic novels were suffering a little by comparison. Coming back to it fresh helped me to get away from that and focus on the characters and story more. That being said, I'm not really sure how I feel about this one.

The survivors are facing an ultimatum to leave the prison, but the showdown is cut short by a sudden emergence of the prison's earlier (and considerably more flesh-hungry) denizens. In the melee that ensues, Rick decides to take some executive action, and our heroes scrounge up some more borrowed time in their new, locked-down safe haven. The seams are going ragged, though; the constant pressure of leadership is starting to wear Rick down, especially when yet another character we know and love has an unexpected run-in with zombie teeth. A mysterious new arrival pushes some tensions past their breaking point, and the survivors are forced to reassess the society they are trying to build in the wake of the zombie apocalypse.

In other words, lots of human-on-human action. This one is all about the characters, and their attempt to formulate their next steps, now that they have had a little time to hunker down in one place. In theory, this volume should have been great. In practice, it was... shall we say, uneven.

Rick is getting a lot more realistic and interesting, so that’s a plus. All of his bluster and bravado led him down the route I was hoping Kirkman would go: he’s starting to lose it, and maybe had lost it from the beginning, which is why he needed to play cowboy in the first place. Since Rick is the closest we have to a main character, this is doubly interesting, and seems to be on its way to fulfilling the promise of creating a strong dramatic epic that happens to have zombies in it.

As for the rest, though, I’m starting to get a little bothered by the thematic misogyny. Yeah, I know, that seems rather ridiculous coming from a young man who is actively reading horror comic books, but I’m serious. Lori’s "I’M A HORMONAL SHREW BECAUSE I’M ON THE NEST!!11!" routine is thankfully dialed back this time around, but consider the following:

Andrea, a certified badass with proven shooting skills and now a wicked scar from her brush with a serial killer, is undeniably the strongest female character in the series up to this point. So, naturally, she has decided to become the group seamstress.

Okay, there’s nothing wrong with that, I guess. Maybe she likes to sew.

Another, even stronger female character shows up. She's omninously quiet, skilled in combat, enough of a hardcase to be dragging the zombified forms of the people she loved in chains, and obviously more than a little crazy. And the first things she does when she is integrated into the group? Make some catty comments about a few of the other women, and give a surprise blowjob to one the men that seems like a group leader.

Uh... hmm.

This development throws Carol into a tailspin. This woman, who has survived more than most and has been a calm and steady guardian of her only daughter, promptly turns into a teenager. After a mostly fake suicide attempt, she suddenly and inexplicably begins throwing herself at Rick, for no reason other than that he "stood up for her."


This all culminates in a decision by the group to create a leadership committee, and Rick immediately comments on how it’s made up of solely men. Apparently, the women wanted it that way, because even Lori and Andrea specifically told everyone that they just want to be "protected."

You see where I am going with this.

Granted, I’m mostly convinced that Kirkman is purposefully making patriarchy a theme in this story, considering the earlier references to it, and the continuing character arc of Rick (specifically, him trying to decide whether “justice for all” or “might makes right” is the right course of action for keeping them all alive). Also, it's not like any of these developments are unrealistic or hard to believe; in fact, they are very believable. Likely, even. These ideas are actually given more examination than they usually get in similar works. Still, it’s all just bad enough for me to feel uncomfortable being an apologist for it. The misogyny is definitely, unmistakably there. I guess it’s up to the reader to decide whether Kirkman is making it a deliberate part of the story or not, and whether that is palatable or not.

Other than that continuing issue, this series is still a good read, as far as I'm concerned. The narrative twist at the end of this volume was handled rather nicely, too. I’m still not blown away yet, though... I like the story and characters enough to keep reading, but I’m not an unabashed convert yet, I don’t think. I like it, but I still have my reservations.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Book Review: The Matchmaker of Kenmare, by Frank Delaney

This book took me by surprise, in a number of ways. I hadn’t known about its impending publication, mostly because I still had Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show on my to-read list. When I was fortunate enough to get my hands on an advance reader’s copy, I figured it would be another languid, bucolic yarn in the tradition of Delaney’s other books. Which it sort of was, in that it has the same undeniable Irish storyteller feel to it. However, Delaney has outdone himself this time, as I finally enjoyed the myth of the characters as much as the myth of the setting this time around.

This book is, more or less, a direct sequel to Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show. It picks up with Ben MacCarthy traveling Ireland, gathering stories for the Folklore Commission and dodging painful memories of his missing wife. As part of his travels, he visits Kate Begley, the titular matchmaker, thinking only to collect some observations on rural matchmaking traditions. He discovers Kate to be a force of nature, and is immediately drawn into a close friendship with her. Their odd platonic companionship becomes even more tightly wound as Kate suddenly meets the great love of her life, American soldier Charles Miller. Kate finagles a way to catch him that drags Ben off into the WWII battlefields of France, where their only protection is the professed wartime neutrality of Ireland. When Miller inexplicably disappears, Kate’s determination to find him has far-reaching consequences, not the least of which is the effect on Ben. Trapped by grief for his wife and unsure of his feelings for Kate, he nonetheless continues to escort Kate on her foolhardy quest, and has ample opportunity to reflect on what "neutrality" really means, both physically and emotionally.

So, in the beginning, I felt like I should have read Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show first. Ben serves as the story’s narrator, and thus his backstory from the previous book is referred to rather than explained, creating a few moments of disorientation in the beginning. However, once I became familiar with Ben, I appreciated the symmetry that came with him being as mysterious to me as Kate- especially later in the book, when their analogous searches for the possibly-dead become entwined. Despite my initial wariness, I found this novel to work quite well as a standalone.

And what a standalone it is. Delaney, always a favorite author of mine, finally got it completely right this time around. This book has all of the strengths of his signature style. The settings are rich and easily visualized. The characters fit into archetypes that are very familiar to those who have read Delaney before, but are still delightfully quirky and real. I also found myself enjoying the bits of absurdity that should, by all rights, be bugging the hell out of me. Kate Begley is an infuriating character most of the time, but a blend of the odd (homilies at inappropriate times) and the profound (unshakeable conviction masking insecurity and naiveté) in her characterization make it impossible not to be invested in her. The same can be said for the story in general. For example, the book begins with a factoid about giraffes, which proves important later, when Ben and Kate end up meeting one. Seriously. Most readers would wonder how something like that could possibly work in a story that is already a mishmash of meet-cute, family memoir, and war story, but somehow, it does work. These bizarre asides just enriched the tale for me; they imparted a sense of the epic, like the unlikely details slipped into a genuine folk tale. Considering the author’s usual pattern, and the distinctly Irish bittersweetness of the book's ending, I’m sure this was Delaney’s intent.

Notably, none of the mild annoyances I found in Delaney’s other books are present this time around. I don’t know if this is the case with the previous book, but The Matchmaker of Kenmare definitely has the tightest storytelling of Delaney’s books that I’ve read, and I’ve uniformly loved his other books. Nowhere in sight is the odd, padded pace of Ireland, the awkward and stilted romance of Tipperary, or the unnecessary characters of Shannon. The pace is perfect here, with none of the jarring I’d expect as the story moved from picturesque Ireland to the war-torn Ardennes. Delaney’s tendency towards odd tangents dovetails perfectly (and is even explicitly explained, at one point) by Ben MacCarthy’s narration, as the character’s affinity for tangents is his indirect way of dealing with painful memories. The romantic elements were genuinely affecting and passionate, and were often heartbreaking in their tragic realism.

If I have any gripe with the book, oddly enough, it’s with the cover. As I noted above, I was offered and greedily consumed a prepub galley, so I had only the text and Delaney’s reputation to guide me. When I saw the actual cover, it reminded me a lot of the other Delaney covers: a charming, idyllic, homespun image of a beautiful, dreamlike Ireland, whereupon distracted characters pace the countryside and ruminate on the country’s rich, mythic history. There’s a little of that in the Matchmaker of Kenmare, but to me, the story jumps out of that particular box. There’s something here for all readers, including romance, folklore, war, adventure, and humor. However, the lion’s share of the story is fairly intense, gritty, and emotionally charged. Speaking as a librarian, I honestly think the cover could turn away some readers who would otherwise very much enjoy the book, and likewise dupe other readers who aren’t prepared for Ben and Kate’s march through perdition.

Cover-judging aside, though, this is a truly a phenomenal book. It’s definitely my favorite of Delaney’s, and one of the better fiction books I’ve read in the past few years. The characters will stay with me for some time, I think.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Book Review: The Sounds of Star Wars, by Jonathan Rinzler

This book is awesome. The "kiddy" press-and-play interface and sheer bulkiness might turn some readers off, but don't let the buttons fool you; this is a serious book, and it's fascinating.

The Sounds of Star Wars chronicles the work of sound designer Ben Burtt, along with other talented and hardworking people, on the Star Wars films (including the prequels, and the animated Clone Wars series). Each movie gets is own introduction, which gives a basic timetable for how the sound was produced, the circumstances surrounding each film, and how everything came together in the final product. Then, a rich representation of sound effects is presented in an order that roughly corresponds to the timeline of the movie. Each sound is marked with a number, which allows the reader to track down and play a sample of the sound through the book's audio interface (which includes a headphone jack... nicely done, Rinzler). Most of the numbers also mark passages of text that range in size from blurbs to multiple pages, explaining how the sound was conceived, recorded, and mixed.

It's a simple book, and it occasionally veers into the overly technical. But honestly, how much fun is this? Did you know that the Rancor's roar came in part from a dachshund? Or that the Ewok language is a variant of indigenous Mongolian? Even if you aren't impressed by party trivia like that, the simple ability to press a button and have a Jawa scream "Utinni!" at your wife at unexpected moments is worth the price, alone.

Seriously, this is a must-own for Star Wars fans or people interested in the art of sound effects, and definitely worth a look for anyone who has the sound of a lightsaber igniting and swinging etched into their cultural memory.

Verdict: 5 / 5