Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Comic Review - Hack/Slash Omnibus 1, by Tim Seeley

Just look at how ridiculous and awesome this cover is. This is the kind of cover that I wouldn’t really carry under my arm in public, and in fact, I was a little embarrassed having it on my bedside table. Still, I couldn’t pass this up after finding out about the book’s concept, and while it’s a bit of a hot mess, I’m glad I gave it a try.

Hack/Slash is an Image title that began life as a sporadic indie comic, which chronicles the episodic adventures of Cassandra Hack and her hulking, disfigured companion, Vlad. When Cassie was a teenager, her mother committed suicide after being revealed as a serial killer, only to rise from the grave as a vengeful undead “slasher.” Cassie was forced to put her own mother out of commission a second time, and has roamed the country ever since, seeking out other slashers and ending their respective reigns of terror.

This collection is about as over-the-top as one would expect it to be. I’ve seen other readers lambaste this title for being shallow and tawdry, and I’m forced to wonder what they were expecting when they picked it up. For my part, I got exactly what I thought I would: B-flick plotting, campy dialogue, pointless sexual titillation, and plenty of gore. In short, everything that horror movies used to be. There are even crossover one-shots that star Evil Ernie from the eponymous horror comic and Chucky from the Child’s Play movies, along with additional “movie trailer” shorts, to drive that particular point home. It’s definitely not going to make you think, and could rightly be identified as vulgar or even sexist. But it’s a rough-hewn blend of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a Troma film, which does just fine by me.

I did have a problem with this omnibus, though, and it’s bad enough that I almost knocked another point off. The art, generally speaking, is atrocious. As in, occasionally edging past the line of so-bad-it's-endearing, but more often just plain bad. Seeley recruits a number of artists, including himself, to pencil these early Hack/Slash entries. Some of them are decent, but others may as well have been doodling in their textbooks during algebra class. This is less of a problem when there is a single unifying art style, but in the last story of the collection, the artwork literally changes from page to page as different artists take the helm for a few panels. There are a couple of bright spots, most notably the stylized, nightmarish work in the Evil Ernie crossover. However, these are negated by some amateurish and truly ugly panels elsewhere.

All told, though, this was a great junk-food read. I wish things had come together a bit better, story-wise, and I legitimately hated a good portion of the art. I enjoyed the book like I would any of the slasher movies that inspired it, though, and the concept is fun and interesting enough that I will probably pick up the next omnibus. I hope there will be more of a story arc as I get into the run of the continuing comic, but at this point I’d be satisfied with another dose of increasingly weird slashers and unapologetic butt-kicking.

Verdict: 3.5 / 5

Book Review - The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick

I was going to start this review with a recollection of how I ended up in a hot tub with Brian Selznick, but I think I’ve dropped that particular name enough for one lifetime, so I’ll just leave it at this: librarianship can make for some pretty weird anecdotes.

Anyway, at first glance, this book seems hefty for a children’s story. Opening the cover reveals an ethereal mix of hand-drawn sketches and sparse, elegant prose that unfolds like a mix of picture book, fable, and silent film. I can’t think of anything else like it.

The story is deceptively short enough that I don’t want to give too much away. Hugo Cabret is an orphan that lives in the walls of a Paris train station, taking care of the clocks and stealing food to survive. Every now and then, he visits the toymaker’s booth in the station and makes off with small windup animals, which he cannibalizes for parts to repair a miniature figurine he keeps in his room. The mysterious automaton is the only memento Hugo has left of his father, and he is convinced that if he gets it working it will impart an important message. When the toymaker catches him one day, it sets off a chain of events that connects Hugo’s mechanical man with the dreamlike movies his father used to talk about, and forever alters the lives of both Hugo and the toymaker.

The most striking elements of the book are the two-page illustrations that frequently intersperse the narrative. They can be disorienting at first, until the reader realizes that they are integral to moving the story along. They are scenes in themselves, rather than mere accompaniment. The pictures are wonderfully drawn, and framed in such a way that something almost like animation emerges if you flip through them in just the right way. Selznick’s prose is simple and straightforward; all of the charm and wonder resides in these visual interludes.

The only complaint that I have with the book is that things get a little anticlimactic near the end. Selznick builds so much fantastic wonder, especially in the beginning, that the resolution feels exceptionally earthbound. This in itself is a bit of a brilliant stroke, though, as the story was inspired by a real turn-of-the-century filmmaker and his odd collection of automata. Taken as a whole, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a paean to how extraordinary the little quirks and foibles of ordinary life can be, especially when you are twelve years old. Despite its impressive page count, this can be read in a day, and is filled with enough enchantment to hook readers of any age. I plan on putting it in my son’s hands as soon as he’s able to read on his own.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Book Review - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

This is one of the many books that I should have read a long time ago, and I finally picked it up in honor of Banned Books Week. For some reason, I can never get the teens in my library interested in this one. After reading it, I’m going to redouble my efforts; this is a powerful, funny, and heartbreaking book.

The story is a semi-autobiographical account of Alexie’s own childhood, told through the lens of a physically weak but fiercely intelligent 14-year-old American Indian named Arnold Spirit Jr. Having grown up on the Spokane Indian Reservation amidst rampant alcoholism and crippling poverty, Junior (as he’s known on the rez) clings to his flawed family and his rough best friend, Rowdy, and draws comics as an emotional outlet. A chance encounter with a teacher convinces him that in order to escape the downward trajectory that seems to afflict everyone he knows, he must attend Reardan, the affluent, all-white high school outside the reservation. His unprecedented defection makes him an outcast both at his new school and among his own people, and seems to bring nothing but further tragedy down upon his head. Even so, he is determined to stay the course he has set, relying on his wit and strength of spirit to find new friends and make peace with the upbringing he is trying to escape.

This is a fairly standard Bildungsroman, and follows a familiar course as Junior breaks into adolescence and emotionally matures. The book stands out, however, in the voice of the boy telling the story. The story started as an anecdote from Alexie’s own childhood, and it shows; Junior’s diary bleeds with emotion, by turns furious, despairing, and prematurely world-weary. That being said, this book is consistently funny. Between Junior’s sharp, self-effacing wit and his satirical comics (adeptly drawn by Ellen Forney), his story is buoyed by absurd vignettes, made poignant by the earnest seriousness of his circumstances.

While the plot itself is standard YA fare, the depiction of life on an Indian reservation isn’t. Alexie paints a picture of desperation and racial tension that is unique to one particular group of people that remains mostly underrepresented. Most importantly, he showcases the issues that a boy of Junior’s culture must endure while still making him universally relatable. Arnold Spirit Jr. is a 14-year-old boy, and ultimately faces the same trials any 14-year-old boy must face.

I feel like I’m ranging all over the place while trying to review this book, but that might be appropriate. Junior’s story whipsaws between hilarious and heartbreaking, and doesn’t waste words while doing so; this is a slim book and makes for a very quick read. It’s worth a look for anyone, though, regardless of age. At its most basic level, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a diverting, visually interesting, and bittersweet little story that also serves as a primer for Alexie’s other works. Also, it’s frequently challenged by parents who think it will introduce their preadolescent children to the concept of masturbation. So, if you don’t find that as amusing as I do, at least read it because all banned books deserve to be read.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Comic Review - Doctor Grordbort's Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory, by Greg Broadmore

I got this one by winning a stack of Dark Horse books in a raffle at this year’s ALA Annual Conference. I didn’t think much of it at first; it’s very short, and looks like a novelty piece or an offshoot of a larger work. I was hooked by the second page, though. The humor alone is worth picking up Doctor Grordbort’s Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory.

This is essentially a fanciful catalogue of intricate, highly dangerous ray guns and other equipment for manly men who want to conquer the moon people and impress at social gatherings. There is no story to speak of, beyond the common elements of an alternate retro-futuristic universe where rugged, mutton-chopped adventurers traipse across the solar system, pillaging planets and seducing space vixens. The weapons, gizmos, and robots share a distinct H. G. Wells vibe, and bristle with random tubes, antennae, bulbs, and unpronounceable pseudo-scientific elements. The book is capped off by a richly illustrated vignette of Lord Cockswain’s adventures hunting exotic Venusian wild game with even more exotic weaponry.

Even though the book is slim (it’s even shorter than it looks, thanks to the thick cardstock pages), there is a lot of content packed into each page. The print is small, and the format perfectly emulates an old-timey pamphlet. There is a mix of illustrations and actual photographs of the products (designed and built at Broadmore’s day job: special effects powerhouse Weta Workshop) and each entry comes with both specifications and marketing copy. These little articles are the reason to flip through this faux-brochure; they are drenched in wry, bawdy humor that starts out hilarious and gets progressively more absurd. Offhand descriptions of violent intended use and horrific side-effects sit alongside meaningless retrotechnobabble and meathead slogans that could fit in an advertisement for “natural male enhancement,” all with subtle world-building and steampunk-esque gewgaws in the background. It’s a rollicking mess that’s perfect for reading in bite-sized chunks. The mini-comic at the end doesn’t add much, but the artwork is gorgeous, and it presents a nice thematic punctuation mark.

I don’t usually offer more than a middle-of-the-road rating for story-light companion pieces like this one, but I bumped it up a bit just because I found it so funny. The sense of humor is reminiscent of the violent buffoonery and bravado of the video game Team Fortress 2; sure enough, as I discovered, you can get “Grordbort packs” in the game for the Soldier, Engineer, and Pyro, with more on the way. Absolutely perfect.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Book Review - The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater

I was really afraid I was getting into a romance with this one. I’m a little romance-weary when it comes to teen lit, and I’m especially done with paranormal romance; I can happily live out the rest of my days without reading another book involving a girl’s forbidden interspecies love with a vampire, werewolf, ghost, zombie, angel, orc, mummy, leprechaun, or any other miscellaneous creature of the night. Stiefvater’s Mercy Falls series fits that bill, which is why I’ve never read any of her work until now. As it turns out, I’ve been doing myself a disservice. Stiefvater is an excellent writer, and this a taut and fantastic book.

The story of Raven Boys follows two distinct households. Blue Sargent has grown up in a loud and eccentric household of psychics in rural Henrietta, Virginia. She can’t see the future, but she seems to amplify the extrasensory powers of those around her. Ever since she was born, she has carried the burden of an ominous prophecy: if she ever kisses her true love, he will die. As a result, she’s carefully cultivated a veneer of solitary weirdness, content in her own eccentricity. Meanwhile, across town, Richard Gansey III continues a longstanding eccentricity of his own: hunting for the final resting place of the mythical Welsh king Glendower. He is a Raven Boy, one of the well-heeled princelings that attend the prestigious Aglionby Academy. He methodically searches for traces of old magic with three fellow students: surly Ronan, studious Adam, and inscrutable Noah. Blue is thrown in with this motley crew through a twist of fate: one of them may be the true love of her prophecy, and despite the warnings of her family, she can’t help but be drawn into their quest. However, they are not the first people to try and wake the magic that lays sleeping in Henrietta, and the stakes become much higher when others around them realize what they are doing.

The book defied pretty much every expectation I had of it. Instead of being a romance, it was an ensemble piece that deftly examines class differences and the profound effects that ripple out from broken family lives. There isn’t any hand-holding when it comes to the paranormal aspect of the book; the reader is dropped right into the quest for ley lines and ancient wish-granting kings, and catches up by way of fascinating little bits of expositional trivia. The characters are charming, realistic, and an absolute joy to read. The story is pretty grim overall, but the heavier moments are balanced by plenty of humorous interludes and by the surprisingly homey feel of Blue’s oddball family.

The ending is a bit problematic, as this is very clearly the first volume of a pending series. However, Stiefvater avoids the common trap of using a cliffhanger to hook the reader. She does paste on a last-minute reveal, but for whatever reason it didn’t really put me off. The climax is a bit vague, but the most urgent plotline is resolved nicely, and the reader is left with few wildly waving loose ends that lead enticingly into the next volume.

This book was exquisitely enjoyable, and a very impressive series opener. The story is odd enough that I have trouble recommending it for a specific group outside of “teens” or “paranormal fans,” but I honestly liked it from cover to cover. It’s definitely worth a try.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Friday, September 21, 2012

Comic Review - Fables: The Deluxe Edition Vol. 1, by Bill Willingham

I've run across various volumes and offshoots of this series for the past few years, and finally decided to buy this deluxe volume on a whim and dive in. As a rule, I'm generally careful of pantheon comics that come to me with universal acclaim; The Walking Dead and Buffy Season 8 have taught me that I will be disappointed if I expect too much. However, while Fables isn't quite perfect, it is really, really good.

The first story arc of this volume begins in The Woodland, a New York City high-rise that serves as a kingdom-in-exile for the inhabitants of every conceivable myth and fairy tale. Driven out of their respective storylands by a mysterious adversary, these "fables" are trying to make their way in the world of the "mundanes" by sticking together in their own little community, ruled by Old King Cole and administered by a considerably more world-wise Snow White. The suspected murder of someone close to Snow threatens to throw a tenously peaceful community into disarray, so she leans on reformed predator Bigby Wolf to solve the case.

The second arc deals with an upstate farm that houses the more anthropomorphic Fabletown denizens, hiding them away from the mundanes. The forced seclusion and loss of their ancestral lands have made the farm fables restless; murmurs of revolution roil at the farm, fomented by two of the three little pigs and encouraged by Goldilocks. Snow takes a trip to the farm in order to ease tensions, but is drawn into a sudden, violent coup that could mean chaos both there and in the city.

I don't know what I was expecting when I flew blind into this series, but fairy-tale characters acting out hardcase mystery and quasi-political intrigue were pleasant surprises. Willingham plays most of this stuff pretty straight, and while the result isn't anything that moves beyond the realm of what one usually sees in comics, it's still novel and downright fun enough to keep me turning pages. The artwork is top-notch, particularly the consistent character work. The visual style seems a little comic-retro, somehow; Snow White looks like a 1950s model, and it definitely adds the right visual feel.

My only complaint is that the plotlines, for all of their excitement, are a bit superficial. This is compounded by melodrama that pops up in odd places; dialogue will occasionally take a stilted turn, and characters will artfully cry for a panel or two and suddenly stop. The comic doesn't lack for grittiness in the appropriate places, but I think it gets a bit too airy (and not in the fairy-tale way) in a few others.

As I said, though, I don't expect any different from a decent comic, and Fables is much better than decent. It's a cleverly written, beautifully drawn diversion. I'm definitely sold on the second volume.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Book Review - Redshirts, by John Scalzi

After being underwhelmed but intrigued after reading Zoe’s Tale earlier this year, I’ve been meaning to start John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series from the beginning (I’ve even bought the whole series since then). Instead, I picked this book up on an impulse, after hearing so many good things about it. I vacillated for a while, wondering if maybe Redshirts is a little too smug for its own good. Overall, though, the book’s concept is strong and the story is legitimately exciting and often hilarious. Mild spoilers ahoy.

The title of the book refers to the random crew members on Star Trek (especially the original series) that you can tell aren’t going to make it past the second commercial break. You know what I’m talking about. When a routine away mission to perform an ostensibly boring task on a nondescript planet is revealed to be made up of Ensign Bob and three senior officers, at least one of whom should be on the bridge of the ship, it’s clear right away that things aren’t going to end well for Bob. The book uses this established truism to launch a transparent parody of sci-fi television tropes.

The story revolves around a group of fresh-faced Universal Union cadets, newly assigned to the UU flagship, the Intrepid. Once there, however, they quickly realize that something is amiss. The ship’s crew goes out of its way to dodge away-team duty, which has a consistent track record of random accidents and bizarre fatalities. The senior officers often act inexplicably strange, and people take every opportunity to dodge them. Even the laws of science tend to go a little weird on the Intrepid, from time to time. Investigating these odd occurrences leads to a crazy theory on what the Intrepid really is, and the newest redshirts embark on an equally crazy mission to possibly save themselves from an early, meaningless death.

Redshirts appeals to the same group of people who enjoyed the brilliant satirical movie Galaxy Quest: those who love science fiction television enough to poke fun at its glaring flaws. Scalzi uses metahumor for this purpose, to great effect. The first half of the book is packed with in-jokes, and the second half plows right through the fourth wall and makes a determined assault on the fifth. This element of the writing is consistently funny, but it also gave me pause in the first few chapters. Scalzi’s trademark wit in both narrative and dialogue is present here, and combined with the emphasis on metahumor, there were quite a few moments where I felt a little stir of annoyance even as I smiled. Golly gee, I would think to myself, isn’t this book just so goddamned clever. Look how clever you are.

The thing is, though, it really is clever. The concept never strays into being the one-trick pony it could easily be; Scalzi gets a lot of value out of the “we’re expendable” meme, but he deftly sets it up as an integral part of the plot, so it never feels tired. Instead of repeatedly going for the same joke, he layers a bunch of other metafictional elements on top of it. The result is a mishmash of gleefully absurd and unexpectedly somber moments that create a fast-paced, engaging story; in other words, a classic pulp science-fiction plot. I couldn’t put this book down, and since it’s pretty slim to begin with, I tore through it much quicker than most of the books I read.

It does have its problems, though. You may notice that I did not mention any specific characters in my synopsis above. That is because the main characters are largely indistinguishable from one another. The narrative of Redshirts is enormously reliant on dialogue, and Scalzi eschews any sort of physical description of the protagonists, except for mentioning that one of them is a woman. The hero, Andrew Dahl, has black hair in my mind’s eye, but I can’t remember if he’s written that way or if I just did it on my own to make him stand out. Anyway, this can be an effective writing tactic if the characters' voices are distinct, but all of the heroic redshirts (and a good number of the supporting characters) repeatedly fall back on the same sardonic wit for which the author himself is known. They all quickly started to bleed together, and that honestly made me care a bit less about them. One could argue that it’s another satirical reference, but it doesn’t feel that way.

The codas at the end of the book are the big payoff, and they are solidly written and emotionally powerful. They are also radically different in tone and format than the rest of the book, and while I wasn’t overly bothered by the shift in gear, I kind of wish all of that interesting, affecting stuff was somehow integrated into the main story.

All of those issues circle back to the general tongue-in-cheek tone, though, which taken as a whole is what makes the book work so well. There’s a genuinely gripping story and hints of existentialism hiding underneath the snark, too, which ensures that the book transcends mere parody. I can definitely see where it might lose some readers; hard science-fiction fans will probably be annoyed by the blurry, completely nonsensical plot mechanics that drive the last part of the story. I took my cue from the general tone of the book, though, and didn’t get bogged down in the details. This is quick read that has a lot of pathos lurking alongside its deft satire of genre tropes, and is required reading for anybody that has ever attended a sci-fi convention or can rattle off actual episode names of their favorite series. Also, it comes with a companion song from Jonathan Coulton, which only adds to its credibility.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Book Review - The Violinist's Thumb, by Sam Kean


Kean’s newest nonfiction book traces the history of DNA, from humankind’s earliest attempts to understand how life develops through to the implications of working with the recently unzipped human genome. There’s plenty of hard science that introduces the structure and inner workings of chromosomes, but the book is definitely written for the layperson.

Much like Mary Roach’s works, The Violinist’s Thumb is divided into thematic chapters that are composed of related vignettes that range from fascinating and tragic to offbeat and absurd. These vignettes tend to connect to and reference each other, due to the generally linear progression of scientific breakthroughs related to DNA. While the book doesn’t qualify as narrative nonfiction, I got a clear sense of a solid beginning, plenty of harrowing adventures in the middle, and an ambiguously open ending.

The stories in each section range far and wide in their subject matter, from mystery illnesses and scientific scandals to frog sex and microscopic sculptures. In short, it delivered everything I want from science nonfiction: plenty of offbeat curiosities and humorous asides to give context to complex, genuinely interesting scientific information. Kean writes simply and offers plenty of casual (and occasional acerbic) editorials, which occasionally come off as one-liners but still keep the more data-driven sections from seeming too much like a textbook.

There is enough simplification and use of weasel words to annoy readers who are already well-versed in the subject matter, but it’s absolutely perfect for someone like me: eternally interested in science, but not all that adept with the lingo or basic theory. After finishing this book, I’ve been casually perusing articles and videos on molecular biology, which says almost everything I need to about it. Thankfully, Kean includes a meaty reference list with plenty of suggestions for what to read next on the subject. As mentioned above, a few of the chapters may be a little hard to follow for people without a science background, but this is a must-read for anybody who has even a passing interest in what DNA is, how it works, and how our understanding of it has evolved and affected almost everything we do. There is more than enough compelling human drama in these pages to offset the strings of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review - Prodigy, by Marie Lu

This is a great sophomore effort. I was vaguely underwhelmed by Legend (the first book in the series), most likely because I had heard so much about it. Prodigy, on the other hand, strays out of familiar territory and into some interesting places. There are still a few predictable areas in the plot, but it’s wonderfully written overall and a whole lot of fun to read.

Having escaped Los Angeles, June and Day are not much better off than before. Day remains exhausted and gravely wounded, and medical attention seems unlikely while still trapped in and hunted by the Republic. Desperate for help, June turns to the Patriots, the violent revolutionary group that assisted with Day’s escape. In return, the Patriots demand their help for a grand plan to bring down the Republic once and for all. As the two of them close in on the Elector to seal the deal, however, they discover how muddy the political waters in the Republic really are.

The split narrative format works a lot better in this book. Part of it may be that June and Day spend a lot more time apart, which keeps the shifts between their respective viewpoints interesting. However, it feels like Lu has had more time to explore these characters, and their voices seem much more distinct now even without the nifty ink colors (Day’s chapters are blue this time). The story takes some interesting turns, and we get to see some equally interesting locales along the way; as with the previous book, the world-building is one of Prodigy’s strongest points, in my opinion. The writing is top-notch, and a lot subtler this time around. The characters are more introspective, and there are a few genuine surprises. Despite the grandiose ambitions of the plot, I never lost my suspension of disbelief. Most importantly, when the prerequisite love triangle eventually emerged, I not only bought it, but found it realistic and harrowing.

The only time I stumbled while reading was...

...minor spoiler ahead...

...when June and Day make it to the Colonies. After the chilling depiction of the Republic in the first book, I’ve been waiting to see how the Colonies are described in comparison. Lu does not skimp on details, but June and Day are in and out so fast that we don’t get much of a look, at least in this book. Moreover, the danger of the Colonies seems to be a little bit forced compared to the Republic. The systematic brainwashing of the Republic’s citizens is scary and affecting because it is believable. By comparison, the motivations of the Colonists don’t ring quite as true; things seem exaggerated in order to paint the picture of corporate statism in broad strokes. That being said, there’s plenty of room for a third book, despite a story that actually resolves itself quite nicely, so maybe we’ll eventually get a deeper look.

I still guessed a lot of the key story developments before they happened, but at no point does the book feel dumbed down or poorly planned out. In fact, this book is a pitch-perfect example of its genre. It’s a believable dystopia with plenty of action and romance. It asks readers to accept that its fifteen-year-old characters can do a lot of wildly unrealistic things, but what YA dystopia doesn’t? This is a solid standalone book, and brings the series a notch above its peers in the genre.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Comic Review - The Walking Dead, Vol. 7: The Calm Before, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

What a relief.

Seriously, after the parade of dumb that was This Sorrowful Life, I was fairly close to giving up on the series entirely. Considering how many more volumes there are, I wasn't willing to waste my time and money if the comic continued down that trajectory. Thankfully, this one returns to the quality of the earlier volumes, story-wise, and actually does a few things better.

After engineering a stalemate with the nearby Woodbury survivors, Rick and company dig further into their prison sanctuary and try to create something resembling a normal life. The due date for Lori's baby rapidly approaches, which gets some others in the prison thinking about starting a family while they still can. Supplies are found and preserved, the fences are patched and guarded, and things begin to settle down, just a little. However, the stillness allows our heroes time to finally experience the anger, jealousy, and despair that they've had to bottle up until now in order to survive. If that wasn't bad enough, they may come to learn that their stalemate with Woodbury isn't as ironclad as they had hoped.

Adlard's art remains consistent and visceral. I don't know if I've mentioned this in previous reviews of the series, but I really like that the main art is rendered in stark blacks and whites. I've lately been delving into a lot of comics with panels vividly colored by computer, and the return to to Adlard's style is striking by comparison. It prevents the gore from going over the top, and reinforces the drama by keeping distractions from the characters themselves to a minimum. Also, it's a nice callback to Night of the Living Dead, which I recently rewatched.

To my surprise and gratitude, Kirkman has backed down a bit on a few of the most grating character and story arcs. Lori is no longer a screeching, shrewish caricature of a hormonal pregnant woman, and for the first time starts to look and sound like an actual character. Andrea reverses course from the Submissive Female Sidekick #4 role, and acts like a strong protagonist again. There's a bit of a break from Rick's melodramatic he-man bullcrap, which was long overdue (and nicely capped off with a metaphorical scene where he finally gets to shave). Some long foreshadowed developments finally occur, along with one surprise that promises an interesting psychological change in one of the major characters. And, yes, just when you start to forget that this is a zombie story... GRAAHR ZOMBIE ATTACK.

One particular element of the story (Alice's ambition and methodology for further studying the zombies) is something any fan of the genre will recognize, and easily predict what it portends. However, it felt more like a homage than a trope.

The Calm Before is an appropriate name for this volume, because it is rather slow and light on action compared to the previous books. It's by no means boring, though. Indeed, of the volumes I've read so far, this one comes the closest to doing what Kirkman set out to do: tell a zombie apocalypse story that's less about the apocalypse itself, and more about the people who are left.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Friday, August 17, 2012

Comic Review - Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8, Vol. 2: No Future for You, by Joss Whedon, Brian K. Vaughan, and Georges Jeanty

The second volume of Season 8 breaks away from the emerging threat of Twilight to focus on another returning character: Faith. Brian K. Vaughan takes up the writing duties for a four-issue arc. Apparently still on her quest for redemption and self-acceptance, Faith is contacted by a similarly disenfranchised Giles and offered a deal. If she can get close to and take out a rogue Slayer that runs in British high society, he will provide her the resources to travel anywhere she wants to go in order to get away from vampires and hellmouths.

Whedon returns to write the last story in the volume, a one-shot that is almost entirely composed of foundation for future issues, with a fight scene thrown in for flavor. Buffy and Willow confront a demon to get more information on Twilight, and address some of the growing discord between the two of them. Meanwhile, the reader learns a little bit more about Dawn’s giantess predicament.

The screen-to-comic format works a lot better in this volume, and Vaughan’s writing is a match for Whedon’s. Jeanty’s illustrations still tread a nice line between photorealism and an original take on the characers. Still, this volume feels very setup-heavy. We get a little villainous monologue at the end that moves things forward, but beyond that, this volume is still in the territory of establishing characters and foreshadowing conflicts, and so I never got too worked up while reading it. Faith’s undercover mission, interplay with Gigi, and resulting alliance with Giles are all interesting, but happen very quickly. Whedon’s story at the end is diverting, but not particularly substantial.

That being said, I can see the strands being drawn together. I think that once I read the next few volumes and the main story arc finally gets going, I’ll appreciate this volume and the previous volume a little more. I’m still not particularly impressed with Season 8 as standalone stories up to this point, but I'm getting a sense of the bigger picture.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Book Review - Legend, by Marie Lu

I took my time getting to this one, due to my tendency of avoiding hype and being slightly burnt out on the YA dystopia genre. That may be why I ended up being less impressed with it than I thought I would, despite glowing reviews and a few flashy writing and format tricks. Even so, it’s a worthy addition to the genre, and has promise as the first in a series.

Legend takes place in a future version of Los Angeles. This LA is an important city in The Republic, a coalition of western states that bears more than a passing resemblance to North Korea. Children are physically and mentally tested at a young age, with the best and brightest being inducted into an endless war with The Colonies to the east. June Iparis is a young Republic prodigy who is preparing for a military career and an affluent life, but a sudden tragedy derails her plans and puts her on the the trail of Day, the most wanted criminal in Los Angeles. For his part, Day is simply trying to survive, scrounging food and supplies for his impoverished family and tweaking the Republic’s nose along the way. When he finds himself implicated in a crime he didn’t commit, he will have to rely on someone who has every reason to hate him in order to escape retribution.

The book relies on split narration by two separate protagonists, which is becoming dangerously close to overdone as a YA literary trope. Lu handles it pretty well, though; despite other reviews to the contrary, I found June and Day to be well-developed characters with very distinctive voices. The neat gimmick of using colored ink in Day’s chapters didn’t hurt, either. In my opinion, though, the book’s greatest strength is in the world itself. As I mentioned above, Legend’s Republic mirrors North Korea, where the cult of personality, ceaseless propaganda, and brutal repression of anything that resembles dissent results in a populace that brainwashes itself in order to survive. Lu’s vision of this particular future contains all of the elements that I find so appalling and fascinating: the enormous gulf between social classes, the bellicose and dishonest jingoism, and the trap people get caught in when the state demands loyalty to itself over one’s own friends and family. For this reason, I found Day’s chapters especially readable.

I couldn’t get as excited about the book as I wanted to, though, and I think it’s because there weren’t any real surprises in store. The plot and character threads follow familiar patterns, and the twists are well foreshadowed. There were a couple of particularly interesting mysteries that were left unresolved, presumably to be explored in later books. This feeling of familiarity is compounded by a smattering of setting and plot elements that aren’t quite as original as some of the others. Teen girls that attract the attention of totalitarian heads of state and dystopian capital cities in Colorado sound an awful lot like another series I've read.

However, while I wasn’t floored, I still enjoyed the book. It’s a solid YA dystopia, and definitely worth checking out for fans of the genre. I was intrigued enough by the setting to pick up an ARC of the next book, because the world Lu builds has a lot of promise.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Book Review - Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

I am an absolute mark for fantasy that strays outside the Medieval European box, and Who Fears Death puts forth an interesting and woefully underrepresented alternative: African-based folklore. It also blends magic with a definite touch of post-apocalyptic science fiction, which makes things extra interesting. Ultimately, the story fell a little flat for me, but it was worth reading for the world-building alone.

The story follows Onyesonwu, a headstrong young woman that has been an outcast her entire life due to her appearance; her sand-colored skin, light hair, and strange freckles marks her as a child of rape, a shameful existence in the eyes of the dark-skinned Okeke people. Her neighbors have greater reason to fear her, however, when her talents for sorcery and shape-changing begin to manifest. As her power grows, her dreams are invaded by malevolent and deadly being: her biological father, a powerful sorcerer of the Nuru people across the western desert. Furious at the pain this man has caused her mother, and at his bewildering attempts to kill her, Onyesonwu sets out with the few friends she has to track him down. On the way, however, she gets caught up in a prophecy that promises to rewrite the history of the Nuru and Okeke peoples, and end the horrifying violence between them.

The setting evokes something between high fantasy and alternate history, like something from the pen of Guy Gavriel Kay. However, Okorafor makes it clear early on that this is not an epic. It’s the story of one girl, who eventually becomes a woman and accepts a series of burdens that she didn’t choose but must endure. I actually prefer it this way; while I love speculative fiction that takes place on a grand scale, I love good characterization even more. Honestly, Onyesonwu is not an easy character to like, but she’s definitely an interesting character to follow.

The plot itself feels a little loose, though. Okorafor’s take on this mythology is less fantasy fiction and more magical realism, and though it’s not a particularly fair critique, I tend to lose patience with magical realism rather quickly. Putting that aside, though, there’s an odd vagueness that suffuses the entire story- the mystical elements of the book are described in very broad terms, and left largely unexplained. Despite the urgency of Onyesonwu’s quest, her path is meandering, and the stops along the way seem arbitrary. The book’s beginning is strong, and its ending is exciting and satisfying, but the connecting points in between lack something that I can’t quite put my finger on.

That doesn’t make for a bad read, though. Just one I wanted to like a little more than I did. The world Okorafor builds and the mythology she places within it are absolutely wonderful, and the characters are beautiful for all of their glaring, maddening flaws. There are some incredibly dark elements to the story, especially in the beginning; I’d recommend it primarily to adults and very mature young adults. But this is a great choice for fantasy or post-apocalyptic fans that want a break from the usual genre tropes.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Comic Review - Astonishing X-Men Vol. 4: Unstoppable, by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday

I forgot how much I love the grandiose insanity of the X-Men series. The movies that mainstream audiences are familiar with never really get into the fact the X-Men spend so much time battling space aliens that they don’t really think much of it. This volume spends all of its time either on an alien planet (the Breakworld) or in space battles above it. It neatly wraps up Whedon’s run on the series, though I am glad I was familiar with the preceding volumes before reading these issues.

Whedon has a talent for weaving large story arcs. Most of the major plot points from the last three volumes (all of which felt decidedly standalone) are effortlessly connected in this last volume. The character work is still perfect, and Cassaday’s art is back to the high standard set in the first volume. His renditions of Kitty in particular were interesting; he continues drawing the distinctive features that began emerging on her in the last volume (which disoriented me a little, back then). The plot in this arc also gives him a lot of panels to really zoom in and draw her in intimate, emotive detail. The result is a character that looks a lot more like a living, breathing individual, rather than a stock brunette superhero (Whedon’s deft characterization and dialogue notwithstanding).

The story does seem to bulge a bit at the seams in a few places, mostly because there’s not enough room in the comic format to slot in all of the necessary exposition and connecting action. It’s hard to track exactly where everybody is at any given time- they’re on a ship! They’re on a planet! Back on a ship! Now on a moon, or something! Somebody’s gravely injured! Now they’re all back on the ship, somehow! There’s also a short sequence that brings together a lot of Earth’s superhero heavy hitters for no discernible reason other than to indulge in a couple of fun cameos.

Also, I’ve realized that Whedon has a very distinct writing style that I can easily recognize now that I have some experience with it. The clever bookends and writing tricks that are the hallmarks of his screenwriting are still evident here, which can be a little taxing in individual issues but are extremely effectual in a read-through volume. Also, in a few scenes, Kitty Pryde sounds an awful lot like Buffy Summers. I don’t have a huge problem with it, fanboy that I am, but it’s worth noting.

So, all told, this is a great conclusion to the Breakworld story. Even better, it continues the superhero soap-opera tradition of irresistible open-ended plot threads and cliffhanger endings. I wasn’t particularly planning to continue with the series after Whedon's run, but I don’t think I can help myself. I can’t just stop after that last page.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review - Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, by Julie Halpern

Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, by Julie Halpern
This has been lurking around in my to-read list, but after meeting the author and discussing the different editions of Dungeons and Dragons with her, I had to bump it up to the top. I’m decidedly outside this book’s target audience, but ended up relating to it anyway.

The most interesting thing about this story is its determination to blend a surprisingly accurate portrayal of playing D&D with a fairly standard “affluent teen girl has affluent teen girl problems” romantic comedy. These are two audiences that one wouldn't think would intersect all that often, but that seems to be the point of this book. Jessie Sloan is the quirky and interesting girl that has never had to really stop and consider how quirky and interesting she is, due to the conventional popularity of her big brother and circle of friends. When everybody shifts their social colors without her, though, she finds herself alone and insecure. If she can get past her first bonafide identity crisis, she might find true kinship where she would have never thought to look: among the kids that dress funny, act oddly, and spend their free time rolling characters and creating campaigns.

This is not a book to read if you are looking for a deep examination of teen angst, or an earth-shattering romance. This book maintains a very light-hearted tone, and even the more mature moments that deal with sexuality are handled with a casual touch that is, ultimately, quite realistic (since adults do a lot more hand-wringing over that kind of stuff than teens themselves do, like it or not).

I think the reason I got so caught up in reading this despite not being particularly interested in the romantic travails of a teenage girl is that the characters feel fleshed out and alive. Jessie is delightfully awkward, and her relationships with her brother and parents are sweet and believable. The antagonists are not archetypes, but simply the villains a lot of us remember from our own high school days: "friends" who aren’t mature enough to realize how crappy and selfish they’re being. Best of all, the nerdy kids are actual people. They aren’t Comic Book Guy caricatures, and they aren’t “geek chic” models that are tarted up with a few gaming references. They are exactly as I remember me and my friends being: occasionally awkward or immature, and in dire need of advice when it comes to wearing clothes that fit properly, but otherwise normal and generally nicer and more accepting than a lot of their peers. Most importantly, they are unashamed of their interests, and seem to really enjoy themselves. Most of the book chronicles Jessie’s attempt to understand this attitude and reconcile it with the lessons learned from years of hanging out with the cool kids, and this is what drew me in. Well, that, and the fact that I started reading this around the same time I was preparing to run my first D&D game, which probably put me in the right frame of mind.

I suppose there are a number of things I could seek out to take issue with, but I don’t really want to bother. I enjoyed this book from cover to cover for what it was, and would recommend it to anyone who is in the mood for a light-hearted YA romance. Be warned that you’ll get a crash course in Dungeons & Dragons and live action role-playing in the bargain, but I promise it isn’t too nerdy for you non-nerds to handle.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Comic Review - Chew Vol. 1: Taster's Choice, by John Layman and Rob Guillory

Chew Vol. 1: Taster's Choice, by John Layman and Rob Guillory
I can’t think of any better way to praise this comic than to simply describe it.

A deadly plague has killed millions of Americans, and the official explanation from the federal government is a particularly nasty outbreak of avian flu. As a result, all domestic and game fowl have been branded as unfit for human consumption, and the production and distribution of poultry meat has become a serious felony. Enforcement of these new laws has fallen on the Food and Drug Administration, which has since become the most powerful arm of the government.

Tony Chu is a detective in this chicken-free world. He’s also a cibopath, which means he gets psychic visions from anything that he eats (except for beets, which, for some reason, are free of mojo vibes). This ability serves him well in busting poultry-based criminals, but Chu discovers that it can also be used in more conventional police work: any time he needs to find out more about who a murder victim is or what a perp is hiding, he can simply take a bite out of them and find out.

This revelation during an otherwise routine chicken-smuggling bust catches the attention of the FDA, and Chu is recruited and offered the chance to see what his cannibalistic ability can really do. From there, he begins to discover how deep the rabbit hole really goes: are there more people like him? What’s the real story behind the bird flu outbreak? Why are some members of the government so interested in an Earth-like planet light-years away? Will his new bosses ever stop asking him to snack on half-decomposed body parts?

Tell me this isn’t awesome.

The description sounds like bizarro fiction, but Layman plays everything as straight as it can be, and the resulting volume is both as funny as it sounds and surprisingly suspenseful. Most of the collected issues are fairly grim and exceedingly gory, but they never inch past the realm of believability, and never get quite to the point where the reader is forced to take things too seriously. Layman manages to create something that is over-the-top without being campy, and high-concept without being self-important. Guillory’s artwork complements the story perfectly, with an angular, occasionally grimy feel that’s just cartoonish enough to carry a note of the ridiculous.

This is the most fun I’ve had with a comic in years, and I’m sad that it took me this long to discover it.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Book Review - American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

I am nowhere near as familiar with Gaiman’s work as I should be, and this is my first shot at his adult fiction. I have to admit that, fifty pages in, I was fairly convinced that I wouldn’t like it, especially after talking to someone who only made it a bit further than that before giving up. As it turns out, it just took a while for me to get what Gaiman was trying to do with this book.

The book centers on Shadow, a hulking, pensive man who is fond of coin tricks and has just served a short prison stint for assault. Through what appears to be the cruel vagaries of fate, Shadow finds himself with nowhere to go and nobody waiting for him when he is released, except for an odd man named Wednesday, who just might be a down-on-his-luck god. The rest of the story is basically one long road trip across America’s heartland, punctuated by a jumbled pastiche of cameos by the ragged remnants of once-almighty deities, as Shadow works under Wednesday to rally an army against the supposedly imminent attack of the glittering, frantic, materialistic new gods of America.

This book starts out with a little preamble and lot of moroseness, and the otherworldly elements are kicked off by an oddly placed erotic chapter that gets extremely weird very quickly. It takes a bit of fortitude to process the first few chapters, and to accept that the plot largely consists of rising action once you get past them. Indeed, the climax is so literally anti-climactic that it will definitely be the last straw for any reader who is still on the fence at that point. Fortunately for me, I was wholly enjoying myself by the time I got to the end. American Gods is just like the Americana road trip that Shadow takes: an aimless journey across a landscape dotted with bizarre curiosities. Journeys like that have no real “point,” except to make one ponder the loneliness of decades-old tourist traps, and wonder at the power they still have to make a traveler stop and stare.

I read the tenth anniversary edition, which included scenes that Gaiman edited out of the original publication. I enjoyed all of the various visits and confrontations that Shadow endures throughout the story, but I have a feeling these bonus scenes contributed to the occasionally sluggish pace of the book. This edition also included Gaiman’s ruminations on being a Brit that has the gall to write a book about American folklore, which are both amusing and illuminating.

It’s hard to categorize this book, which can be observed by reading the list of awards it has won: the Hugo, Locus, Nebula, and Bram Stoker, among others. It’s a little bit fantasy, a little bit horror, a little bit literary fiction, and more than a little bit strange. Ultimately, though, I found myself unwilling to put it down, and I found myself in a thoughtful mood for a few days after I finished, both of which are good signs. I’d recommend it to anybody who has a craving for something that’s simultaneously familiar and ethereal.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Book Review - Blackwood, by Gwenda Bond

I’ve come to appreciate books from the publisher Angry Robot the same way I’ve eventually warmed to Baen: unapologetic genre fiction that provides reliable escapism, free of pretentiousness. I was excited to hear about their YA imprint, partly because of my own literary ambitions but mostly because I’m all for more fantasy and sci-fi in YA lit. I gave Strange Chemistry a try with an advance reader copy of this book, and while it didn’t really blow me away, it’s definitely a good start for the author.

The hook for this book is its historical element: the disappearance of the Roanoke colonists in the 16th century. The story’s protagonist, Miranda Blackwood, has lived her entire life on Roanoke Island, bound there by a curse that stretches through her bloodline all the way back to the original colonists. When the force behind the historical vanishing threatens to return and engulf the current population, she and her father are swept into the thick of the mystery. However, Phillips Rawling, a good-natured delinquent that has tried his entire life to stay away from the island, is drawn back by an ability that also traces back to the first colony. Well, by that, and by an increasing affection for Miranda.

That’s where my first problem with the book lies. Though the budding romance follows a familiar course, it feels a little rushed and distinctly contrived. That feeling kept popping up here and there throughout the rest of the book- the surprise villain, the damsel in distress, the climactic plan revolving around the prerequisite MacGuffin. I wanted more context and more time to discover and absorb the plot elements. That, combined with occasionally awkward pop culture references, created a lingering sense of trying too hard, as if there was a YA fiction checklist being ticked off somewhere.

But, hey, trying too hard is better than not trying hard enough. Underneath the (in my opinion) middling execution is a readable story steeped in fascinating and well-researched lore. The twists, though mostly predictable, are still effective. Although I didn’t really have much invested in any of the secondary characters, I really liked Miranda and her dog. The story is tightly plotted and moves along at a swift pace, bolstered by some deliciously tense moments that, given a little more room to breathe, could have been even more effective.

As it stands, it’s solid YA paranormal action, and a decent debut novel. It successfully blends romance and humor into the mix, despite a few stumbles, and makes for a quick and enjoyable read. It’s definitely worth checking out for those who get a thrill out of putting an otherworldly patina over the unexplained.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Monday, July 9, 2012

Regarding kids on planes.

We flew with our 20-month-old son for the first time a few weeks ago. Despite the fact that my brilliant wife had planned it all out and had every potential problem accounted for, I got more and more anxious as the day of our first flight approached. Thankfully, my boy is a natural world traveler, and handled the whole trip beautifully and with almost no loss of his toddler composure whatsoever. All told, it was a fun trip and a nice experience.

Flash forward to last weekend. I was listening to an NPR quiz show, and when the host asked a question to which the answer was airline flights that do not allow children to board, the audience actually applauded. I could practically smell the DINK self-congratulation through the radio speakers, and it made me consider why I was so anxious to fly with my son in the first place. While my son did great and, as far as I know, didn’t bother anybody, the sentiment behind that applause was precisely what I was so afraid of in the weeks leading up to the trip.

Every couple of weeks or so, I see the same discussion pop up in various venues: how irritating and selfish it is for people to fly with children, and what the parents who would subject other passengers to their spawn might be thinking. For those of you who are wondering what I’m thinking, let me illuminate you. The same questions and demands always seem to arise, so as a parent, allow me to address them in a hypothetical scenario.

I will preface this by saying I am about as far away from a “daddy blogger” (do those exist?) as one can be, and honestly don’t have any strong opinions about parenting anyone or anything other than my own child. I am a quiet, nerdy, and somewhat self-involved guy who became a father at thirty, and am still trying to figure out this whole fatherhood thing. I get annoyed with other people fairly quickly, and can definitely sympathize with the feeling of strangers ruining your day simply by existing. But if you had a kid, you’d understand. Yes, I know, that cliche that is worn through enough to be both useless and infuriating. Just bear in mind that your luxury of not being responsible for the life of a tiny larval human affects your ability to empathize with what I’m telling you.

Okay, so, for the sake of argument, we’re going to assume that you aren’t one of those knobs who think they’re in a movie theater instead of using public transportation, and you haven’t already started being a jerk to me just because I’m boarding the plane with a baby. Let’s say everything has been going fine up until we’re an hour into a four hour flight, and for some reason, my child gets upset and starts crying. This is a straw man, true, but it's a straw man composed largely of arguments I've heard countless times before.

Wonderful. A crying baby. I will let this parent know what I think about that by giving them the stinkeye, and perhaps I will make a snide remark to my companion that’s just loud enough for the parent to hear.

While I appreciate your subtle attempts to get me to realize that my child is being irritating, I have news for you: I’m already aware of that. You know how that grating cry makes you clench your jaw? How it spikes your adrenaline, and makes you want to do something, anything, to just make it stop? I’ve been dealing with it for a lot longer than you have, and unlike you, I am actually required to figure out what that something may be, regardless of where we are or what ungodly hour of the night it is. So, yeah, I get that you’re annoyed. I am at least twice as annoyed as you are (because I guarantee that I have you beat when it comes to thinking “not this crap again”), and what’s more, I’m already embarrassed before anybody around me even starts to get upset. If you really want to insert yourself into the situation, stop making bitchy faces and comments at me, and use that energy to make a funny face or silly remark at my child. That might actually work, at least for a time, and I’ll be your new best friend for the rest of the flight.

I’d rather not. I don’t like children. But you don’t seem to care about my obvious discomfort, so I guess I’ll just confront you directly. Can you please get your child to be quiet? I’d really like to get some rest.

Shit, yeah, why didn’t I think of that? Hold on a second.

Excuse me, Colin? This nice grown-up over here would like you to stop crying, and feels that I have a greater responsibility to them than to you. So, let’s be quiet, what do you say?

Hmm... well, golly, that didn’t seem to work. Would you care to ask him yourself?

I’m about to do just that. If you can’t control your child, I’m more than able to do it.

Yes, I’m sure that if a stranger elbowed me out of the way and got into my baby’s face, it would frighten him into at least a momentary silence. If you attempt it, you’ll have plenty of time to congratulate yourself on your success as you plummet towards the ground, after I have bodily forced you down the airplane toilet.

Look, it’s just really inconsiderate when parents don’t do anything to quiet their screaming children.

Has it occurred to you that I’m trying to do something, and you just aren’t recognizing that fact?

Now, I will say this: there are plenty of parents who literally sit and do nothing as their children run wild, kick seats, or throw increasingly frantic temper tantrums. These are the parents who placidly ignore their child, continuing to read their book, talk to their spouse, or simply stare off into space, hoping that their child will settle down on their own. Feel free to give those parents all the grief you’d like. At best, they are either irresponsible or distracted, and could use the wake-up call. At worst, they are selfish and/or stupid, and deserve the grief they get. Just bear in mind that while there may be an overlap in the Venn diagram of “irresponsible, selfish, stupid person” and “parent,” making a broad correlation may not be the most intelligent conclusion.

That being said, let me explain something about parenting that you, having no experience or interest in the subject, may not fully appreciate. If a child is old enough to be in, say, first grade, then a parent can “do something” to make them behave. Maybe. If, on the other hand, the child is a toddler, we’re basically dealing with a chimpanzee. Adept parents have an arsenal of tactics and implements to distract and pacify, which may or may not have any effect, depending on how tired, hungry, sick, or bored the toddler is. To which their reactions, by the way, will differ from child to child, depending on their burgeoning personality, much like how the particulars of your annoyance may vary from that of some other sanctimonious cock on a different flight. If the child is an infant or a newborn... well, here’s something that many of us parents take for granted. We assume it’s common sense that you can’t in any way discipline or reason with an infant, but I have realized that a lot of non-parents don’t actually know this. So, in plain terms: crying is the only way an infant can communicate any sort of problem, from excruciating pain to wanting a hug. The only thing I can do is try things until I hit the right button to make them stop. And sometimes, that button doesn’t exist. Sometimes the kid is melting down for no other reason than that it’s meltdown time.

So, in short: if my child is crying and I am talking softly to them, or holding and rocking them, or giving them toys, or trying to feed them, or doing anything at all that somehow involves them, and you ask why I’m not doing anything about my kid, don’t be surprised if I look at you like I want to punch you in your unhelpful throat.

Well, I don’t understand what possible reason you have to bring children that can’t be controlled on an airplane in the first place.

There’s a whole world of possible answers to that question, and the correct one is about as much your business as your reason for flying is mine.

It’s not the same thing. Whatever my reason is, I’m not taking away from the enjoyment of other passengers. Honestly, children under a certain age shouldn’t even be allowed to fly. You have other options for traveling.

I’d be all for adults-only flights, if I could still get a regular flight and it would get you out of my business.

If an airline feels it would be profitable to segregate families into their own flights, there’s nothing stopping them. However, the fact that such a supposedly sensible idea isn’t widely implemented should say something to you. Perhaps the airlines don’t agree that you deserve more special treatment than I do for the same ticket price, or perhaps they don’t care, but the math doesn’t add up because you aren’t the majority you think you are.

In any event, I found this attitude to be petulant even before I had any skin in the game. Oh, you’re forced to share a plane with people you’d rather not? You might not get peace and quiet while sharing space with the general public? How utterly tragic for you. I weep for your predicament, as I watch you hold up the boarding line by completely ignoring the size limitations for carry-on bags, and then stage a daring conquest of my armrest once you finally do sit the hell down. It seems to me that demanding everyone conform to your needs (as opposed to, I don’t know, buying your own goddamned plane and doing whatever you want with it) seems a lot like what you claim that my child and I are doing.

What’s that, you say? Buying your own plane is a ridiculously unrealistic request? I don’t see how it’s any more unrealistic than expecting that, instead of a four-hour flight, I should take my baby on a car or bus trip that will be at least three times that length, cost approximately the same when gas and food are factored in, and exponentially increase the attendant hardship on both of us. Or to not travel at all, because your convenience trumps whatever reason I might have to take him with me when I fly.

Let’s just put it this way: I agree that an adults-only flight would be an elegant solution to both of our problems. In the event that the airlines agree with you, I’m more than happy to take my child on a plane meant specifically for us. Otherwise... well, you have an opinion. How nice for you.

Whatever. I chose not to have children, and you did. I shouldn’t have to put up with your children, and that’s that.

And there’s the rub. Most of what this argument boils down to is the fact that, unlike me, a lot of travelers do not like children, have no patience for their antics, and are not interested in why they do what they do. They feel that parents are selfish for expecting a little leeway, and are harassing others by attempting to integrate their children into the world around them. Some go as far as to consider the act of having children to be selfish, considering the state of our society and world, but most just feel that since they did not choose to be responsible for a child, they should not be expected to make allowances for those who did.

I don’t really have a good answer to that. I actually agree with, or at least understand, a lot of that mindset, and accept that people will make whatever value judgement they choose regarding me and my life choices. I recognize that there are hordes of genuinely bad parents out there that personify the behavior which leads to this conclusion, ruining things for those of us that aren’t that way. That’s fine. My only response is that I am attempting to raise my son so that he won’t turn out to be the kind of smug butthole that would automatically refuse the benefit of the doubt to the parents of a small child.

And that’s really what I’m getting at: the benefit of the doubt. I understand the necessity for child-free zones, but the rampant attitude of “all parents are undesirable because I might be momentarily bothered” is troublesome, especially because in this instance we’re talking about basic transportation, a fairly vital service. It goes back to that cliche of not understanding if you’re not a parent yourself. One of the most visceral lessons that being a father has taught me so far is that there are a lot of people in this world that never outgrew the need to have everything their way, right now, me me me me me. I’ve met a lot of adults that I now recognize are not all that emotionally advanced past my son, for whatever reason. Yes, a lot of them are parents. A lot of them aren’t, though. Furthermore, that’s an immaterial argument, because we’re not talking about banning selfish people from planes. We’re talking about banning children.

This is what I’m getting at: at any given point in time, my son is being selfish because, uh, he’s two. How old are you?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Book Review - Young Miles, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I had an opportunity to meet Lois McMaster Bujold recently, and I told her what recently occurred to me: the first two Vorkosigan books are responsible for bringing me back into science fiction, after two decades of straying from a childhood built on Asimov and Bradbury. Well, to be fair, the Mass Effect games had a lot to do with that, too. But the first Vorkosigan omnibus, Cordelia’s Honor, was the first sci-fi book I’ve read that excited me like Foundation or All Summer in a Day used to. After I finished it, I had numerous people tell me that the saga doesn’t really get going until Miles’s story begins in the books presented in this volume. While I had to adjust my expectations a little in order to really get the most out of this omnibus, I can definitely see what they’re talking about.

The first book, The Warrior’s Apprentice, is a farce with a tragedy at its center, which took me a little time to get used to. I think I was expecting some grand and self-important introduction to Miles Vorkosigan and his sprawling story and legacy. What I got was a sarcastic, whip-smart son of a noble who tries not to be devoured whole by a spur-of-the-moment white lie that grows into a lumbering, self-feeding construct of half-truths and bent rules. I took things too seriously when I started the book, and got somewhat annoyed at the serendipitous coincidences and increasingly improbable scenarios. Once I caught on, though, it read almost like a Shakespearean comedy: seemingly innocuous decisions interlace and send Miles on wild, unpredictable courses. However, one of Miles’s snap-judgement gambits, made just as he is getting confident of his string of successes, has dire consequences. This scene is especially powerful to readers who have read the previous books in the series. Although this development jabs a monkey wrench into the otherwise madcap pace of the story, it interjects a well-written dose of character development into the proceedings, which seems to plant the seed for Miles’s further maturation later on in the series.

This idea is further explored in the included short story, the Mountains of Mourning. Set chronologically between the two novels, the story takes Miles out of space and thrusts him into the hinterlands of his home planet of Barrayar, where he has to pit his noble title and fledgling leadership skills against the entrenched, vicious customs of his own people. This theme of the responsibilities and burdens that come with rising through the ranks carries over into the second book, The Vor Game. This story follows the same general template as the previous book, with Miles hopping from location to location, often under an assumed identity with an intricate cover story, attempting to prevent the entire house of cards collapsing under him. This time, however, he does so with the official blessing (grudging though it may be) of the Barrayaran military. The stakes are now much higher, and due to his previous experiences, Miles is more keenly aware of the consequences of his various schemes and what might happen if they fail.

The flow of the story gets a little snagged in places, and the books contain their fair share of melodrama and convenient plot devices. Even so, this one takes the universe set up in the previous omnibus and runs with it. Miles is a wonderful character, keenly aware of the mental strengths he must hone and employ to compensate for his physical weakness. The stories are good, and the characters are great. Best of all, Bujold leaves a lot of room for new settings and growing character arcs, without getting too wrapped up in hard sci-fi minutiae. In short, this is series that started strong, and at this point, is consistently getting better.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Comic Review - Scott Pilgrim Get It Together, by Bryan Lee O'Malley

This volume continues the motif of Scott’s deepening relationship with Ramona serving as a path for him to blunder into being an adult. Now that he’s defeated Todd and sent Envy on her way, Scott is forced to deal with baggage of a more immediate nature: having no job, relying endlessly on others, and pathologically avoiding any kind of responsibility, all of which appear to be giving Ramona second thoughts. If that wasn’t bad enough, he’s also facing a distinct upswing in attacks by people with swords- first by a mysterious older man, and then by the next of the Ramona’s evil exes.

The meta-humor and disregard for the fourth wall work a lot more seamlessly this time around, and there aren’t any awkward flashbacks to screw up the narrative. The humor is a bit darker, which is appropriate considering the direction that the story is starting to go. Beyond that, the fourth volume has everything that made the rest of the series so fun to read: the bizarre genre-blending, the constant video game callouts, and the understatedly hilarious characters and dialogue.

I did have one gripe, though. Spoiler alert: Ramona makes a big point of correcting Scott with “evil exes” every time he says “evil ex-boyfriends,” presaging the arrival and surprise attack of the decidedly female Roxie. The problem is, Ramona never makes this distinction until this volume, which gives the distinct impression that O’Malley made this development up on the spot. Inconsistencies like that bother me, but honestly, it fits within the slacker chic feel of the series. After grumbling about it for a while, I decided to let it go after realizing how much I was enjoying the rest of the book.

This volume is back up to par, after the ever so slight disappointment of Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness. I'm noticing that I'm lot more generous with my comic reviews than I am with my book reviews. I guess one could argue that there's a lower bar to meet, but honestly, I rate them based on how much I enjoyed them, and this is an eminently enjoyable read. As with the rest of the Scott Pilgrim books, though, you need a sense of irony and at least a passing familiarity with 8-bit video games to really appreciate it.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Book Review - The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey

Man-eating monsters! Grave robbers! Senseless violence! Worm infestations! Victorian manners! This Printz honor book is purported to have it all, and indeed it does. In fact, I’d argue that it has almost a little too much. Despite the occasional slouching towards gratuitousness, though, this is an extraordinarily fun book if you like monsters and don’t mind some gore.

The book is presented as a three-volume diary of one Will Henry, who served as the young apprentice to a New England “Monstrumologist,” Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, in the late 19th century. The folios recount a particular instance when a new “project” landed on Warthrop’s doorstep: a marauding pack of anthropophagi, a huge, cunning, and merciless variety of predator that normally resides in Africa. Ever the dutiful assistant, Will Henry follows Dr. Warthrop (along with a mysterious English colleague of the doctor’s) from their macabre laboratory to a lonely cemetery, a stinking asylum, and even into the bowels of the earth hunting the monsters, even as innocent bystanders are ruthlessly torn apart and eaten during the search. The mystery of the anthropophagi, however, may lead a lot closer than the distant savannas of Benin.

The ambiance of the story is perfect, and there is a wonderful interplay between the affected gentlemanliness of Warthrop, the distinctly Dickensian Will Henry, and the truly nightmarish scenarios they inhabit. The resulting mood of the book is slow-burning and genuinely tense, without ever (in my opinion) getting boring. The prose does get a little flowery when Will Henry ruminates on the nature of his mentor, or tries to make sense of the horrific things he has to experience. Then again, that makes sense, given the idea that this story is supposedly a journal transcription. Besides, I’m a vocabulary nerd, and Yancey’s writing is evocative and beautifully constructed, so I can forgive the frequent journeys into exposition.

This is not a book for young or squeamish readers, though. Even forewarned as I was, the level of gore in the book surprised me. I don’t necessarily have a problem with the depictions of the anthropophagus attacks, as their ferocity lent a sense of bloody urgency to the gothic atmosphere of the story. But some of the other scenes- the fate of Hezekiah Varner, the lingering over the deaths of young children, and the weird fixation on literal and metaphorical virgin sacrifices, for instance - seem to veer into the territory of shock for shock’s sake, which always strikes me as a little lazy (and has me mourning the current state of horror cinema).

That being said, though, Yancey treads the line between fun and over-the-top very well. While things occasionally get ridiculous, the entire story is deadly earnest, and there are plot reasons (or, at least, solid thematic writing) behind every bit of violence. I had a great time reading it, and while I’m not lying awake at night, I’m still thinking about some of the climactic moments. This is a great read for horror fans, teen or adult, that aren’t afraid of being revolted.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Comic Review - Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8 Vol. 1: The Long Way Home

Now that I’ve spent a few years rewatching the entire Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, I can finally check out the Whedon-penned Season 8 comics. Being an enthusiastic fan of the series, I’ve kind of built them up a little in my mind. Consequently, the first volume didn’t quite bowl me over as much as I was hoping, but it is a worthy successor to the show (so far), and that’s all that really matters.

This first volume largely picks up where the seventh season of the slow left off, albeit with some pretty major new developments. For example, Dawn is apparently a giantess, now, a side effect of an ill-advised and vaguely explained affair with a magical being called a Thricewise. Buffy is gathering all of the newly called slayers and training them, with Giles advising and Xander coordinating their squad attacks on various demon hotspots. Evil begins to stir again in the crater that was once Sunnydale, however, as familiar faces begin to rise from the dead and focus on Buffy. A mysterious reference to something called “Twilight” indicates that the new rise in demonic unrest may be more than a fluke.

These five issues seem to be an introduction to the Buffyverse for newcomers, and a transitional piece for those who are continuing on from the show. They feel very episodic, and while the larger plot arc gets established immediately, the story in each issue is very much self-contained. There are plenty of cool moments for established fans, and most importantly, Whedon’s trademark witty dialogue is in full effect throughout the volume. The interaction between the characters and the overall tone of the story feels exactly like it is advertised: another season of the show.

This dedication to the format does come with a drawback, though. Whedon was fond of circuitous storytelling when writing for the show, using clever bookends and waiting until the last minute to tie plot strands together. He carries this tendency over into this first volume of Season 8, and it doesn’t work quite as well in comic form, at least here in the beginning. The abrupt transitions between scenes are a lot more jarring in print, though the payoff when the story comes together at the end is still satisfying.

The artwork is great; I usually have trouble with comics based on real-life actors, but Jeanty does a wonderful job straddling the line between preserving the characters as portrayed by the actors and developing his own consistent visual interpretation of them. Also, it appears that both Whedon and Jeanty enthusiastically embraced the freedom from a special effects budget, as there is a definite trend towards more epic fantasy and sci-fi elements in this book.

Between the rampant experimentation with comic story structure and slight lack of cohesiveness in the separate issues, I left this volume feeling just the tiniest bit let down. However, the individual issues are strong (especially the last one), and the volume does a fine job of catering to both new readers and Whedonites looking for more Scooby action. I may have waited too long to start this series, and thus built it up a little too much in my own mind. I enjoyed finally diving in, though, and am excited to see what the next volume has in store.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Book Review - A Confusion of Princes, by Garth Nix

I’ve been on a distinct science fiction jag lately, and I’ve noticed that hard sci-fi is starting to pop up more often in YA lit, which makes me extremely happy. I’ve never read Nix before, but Sabriel has been on my to-read pile for quite some time. Even without his name attached, though, I would have jumped on this one; after hearing it summarized by a fellow librarian, I practically ripped an advance reader’s copy out of her hands. While I did have a few issues with its execution, A Confusion of Princes was every bit as fun to read as it seemed like it would be.

The story follows Khemri, a newly inducted Prince of a vast galactic empire. Contrary to the life of luxury he had imagined princehood to be, Khemri finds himself on the bottom rung of a vast and deadly society of millions of Princes, all of whom share the superhuman gifts of his biological, technological, and psychic engineering. Even his supposed immortality is no protection from the cutthroat political environment he is thrust into. However, someone high above him in the Imperial hierarchy has a plan for Khemri, which puts him onto a fringe world populated by normal humans. Khemri fights to return to his princely legacy, but his befuddling entanglement with a human girl named Raine is better preparing him for what he’ll face upon his return than he realizes.

The book is written from Khemri’s point of view, and therefore plunges the reader into Nix’s version of the galaxy without too much in the way of introduction to its particulars. As such, it took me a few pages to take in the lingo and understand what it was referring to. Once I got past that particular hurdle, though, I loved the worlds that Nix built. The balance of world-building, hard sci-fi details, and interpersonal drama is deftly achieved, making for an exciting bit of galactic escapism. The characters aren’t quite as nuanced as I prefer; in fact, the only character that gets any exploration at all is Khemri, and he follows a fairly predictable arc throughout the story. Even so, he’s a perfect protagonist.

My only problem is that Khemri is a little too perfect. It’s certainly not outside the bounds of the story, since his many psychic and technological powers are an integral part of the story. However, I did feel a little buffeted by Khemri’s constant ability to do everything perfectly and concoct ingenious workarounds to every challenge. It seemed to flatten his character out a little, and because the story is told in the first person, some scenes seemed to revolve around conveniently invented plot devices. The problem is somewhat compounded by the story's pacing. Over half of the book is spent on Khemri’s training in the ways of being a Prince. These sections are fascinating in their own right, but they relegate the main story to a comparatively cramped section of the book, forcing Nix to depict a lot of action in a short space without the benefit of much explanation or introspection.

Thankfully, Nix does hit all of the right notes to make Khemri’s story both sympathetic and thrilling. Meanwhile, the convenient badassery of the hero is an easy problem to forgive, considering the genre. While I wish we would have spent a little less time following Khemri’s awesome exploits of awesomeness and more time on his relationship with Raine or the differences between the Empire and their human thralls, I was still caught up by the story and thoroughly impressed with the slick, detailed universe that Nix creates. While adult fans of hard sci-fi might want something more from the story, this is a great read for general science-fiction fans, and perfect for teen readers who are looking for action and adventure.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Friday, April 13, 2012

Book Review - Allison Hewitt is Trapped, by Madeleine Roux

A woman fighting zombies with an axe in a bookstore? How could I not be curious after just looking at the cover? I saw this one getting decidedly mixed reviews, but honestly, I found it to have nearly everything I was looking for in a zombie apocalypse book. Granted, there are a few things that I think could have been done better, but generally speaking, I had a great time reading this.

The title aptly describes the framework and entry point of the book: Allison Hewitt, a literature major and bookstore employee, finds herself locked in her place of employment after the zombie apocalypse spills across her town. Against all odds, she manages to find a wireless Internet connection near the bookstore, through some kind of emergency network called SNet. Allison begins to record the daily horrors of her new existence, initially as a way of staying sane and embracing something that seems normal. Eventually, however, the detached snark of her entries evolves into something else, as she moves to increasingly tenuous sanctuaries and her circumstances grow more desperate. Meanwhile, a community of survivors grows out of the blog's comment threads. Her new, faceless audience provides solace, warning, and advice as she decides to risk everything and strike out on her own to find her mother.

The story progresses exactly as one would expect, and though it contains plenty of familiar tropes, it feels distinctly like homage rather than retread. The secondary characters are just fleshed out enough to avoid being cardboard cutouts, but honestly, Allison has such a strong voice that I was largely fine with focusing mainly on her. The current example of a contiguous ensemble piece in the zombie genre is The Walking Dead comic, and that has rapidly devolved into a histrionic melodrama; comparatively speaking, I find the focus on one character to be refreshing. Her constant sarcasm does threaten to get in the way of the dialogue and action from time to time, especially when Roux puts especially elaborate one-liners in her mouth. However, it’s a fair price to pay for the creepy sense of whistling in the dark that it provides. Naturally, there’s plenty of wading through zombie gore and battling past sinister human survivors, and the book never gets boring, despite the various claustrophobic settings in which Allison finds herself trapped.

I do think that the book’s gimmick falls a little flat, or at least falls short of what it could have been. Telling the story of the zombie plague through a blog is a really neat idea, even with the vague and unrealistic setup it gets here. The comments, especially, are an intriguing way to move the story along. While Roux does some interesting things with this in the beginning, it eventually tapers off in favor of long-winded posts that look suspiciously like book chapters, with a few repetitive “good to see you’re still alive” comments tacked on. It doesn’t feel like Roux fully commits to the idea of this story being a blog. Between the weird present-tense delivery and the gradual inclusion of very specific narrative detail, the posts just don’t seem like posts. Nobody writes a blog like that, even if they have nothing else to do. There are a few instances of awkward writing that I choose to attribute to Allison instead of the author, but I wanted more consistent dedication to the format.

That particular failure to suspend my disbelief didn’t take away from my enjoyment, though. Terror, humor, violence, and romance are deftly mixed, and I found it genuinely hard to put down. Though this book isn’t particularly elegant, it’s still going up on my zombie pantheon shelf alongside Max Brooks.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Book Review - Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko

This one has been on my radar for a while, but I was expecting something completely different from it. By all appearances, it seemed to be a humorous period piece aimed at younger teens, with a smart-aleck protagonist and a hilariously absurd premise. The book had a lot of this in the background, but most of it was ancillary to the main story, which was a surprisingly sweet testament of a boy’s love for his sister.

Moose Flanagan is not impressed with his family’s recent move to the infamous island of Alcatraz. He misses his friends back home in Santa Monica, and is resentful of all the time his father spends at his new prison guard job. Most of all, he’s skeptical of the reason for the move: a chance to enroll his developmentally disabled older sister, Natalie, in a prestigious San Francisco school, the latest in a long string of attempts by his desperate mother to get Natalie the help she needs. When things don’t go as planned, it falls on Moose to safeguard his sister, while simultaneously trying to find his place in the odd community of prison staff, their families, and the mysterious convicts in the cell house.

The book is fairly quick read, and while a lot of attention is paid to details of 1930s Alcatraz, the story centers on the daily life of the Flanagan kids and their new friends, both on and off the island. Moose tries to make friends and settle in, but is hampered both by the politics of life at Alcatraz and by the need to watch and protect Natalie. Meanwhile, Natalie is imprisoned within herself by autism, in a time when nobody knows what autism is. As she rapidly approaches the age where the world will give up on helping her, she struggles to be what her family needs her to be: normal. The frustration, selflessness, and affection between Moose and Natalie shines throughout the story. The book ends on a somewhat abrupt note, but the last third as a whole is perfectly written; despite the Flanagans’ efforts to keep up appearances, their struggle not only touches the families around them, but the cons locked up next door. Including the most famous of them.

The story meanders a bit, but it’s never boring. Choldenko has a knack for stringing small, daily vignettes together to create a subtly adept, ground-level character study. The book is rather short, and some of the supporting characters feel undeveloped enough to be somewhat interchangeable. Besides that little issue, though, this is a solid, touching story that has the added bonuses of period Alcatraz authenticity and a frank depiction of dealing with autism. It’s a great option for middle-grade and teen readers.

Verdict: 4 / 5