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