I’ve never been the biggest fan of poetry. I think it’s beautiful, but I’m not a big reader of it, an...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
I’ve never been the biggest fan of poetry. I think it’s beautiful, but I’m not a big reader of it, and I don’t write it. Sharp Teeth is that wonderful exception.
Written in free verse, Toby Barlow’s debut novel combines the mysteries, passion, and eloquence of poetry with the accessible storytelling of prose. The Wall Street Journal likened it to “Romeo and Juliet, werewolf-style,” which is partly accurate. The different lycanthrope packs of Los Angeles are like the familial houses that rule the city, the members brothers and sisters, bound by the magic in their blood and the secrets of their transformation. Between them are a pair of unlikely, star-crossed lovers: the dogcatcher and the wolf. Only he doesn’t know what she is, and that ignorance rubs against her bottled-up knowledge and heats the friction between them.
There’s tragedy, like with Romeo and Juliet, though not all is lost. The book is part modern crime drama. A cop named Peabody investigates a murder: the evidence a river of blood and the unmistakable trail of red paw prints that leads him into the heart of gang rivalries that are only human some of the time. An old pack, a wild pack, and a rebel pack. All three with different outlooks on life but one insatiable hunger to own the town, to devour it.
These werewolves don’t change by the cycle of the moon: “That’s as ancient and ignorant as any myth.” Rather:
The blood just quickens with a thought a discipline develops so that one can self-ignite reshaping form, becoming something rather more canine still conscious, a little hungrier. It’s a raw muscular power, a rich sexual energy and the food tastes a whole lot better.
That’s Sharp Teeth in a nutshell. These people have reasons for turning wolf. They were recruited because of their strength and loneliness, the sense that the world had wronged them, abandoned them, and now is the time to rip its throat out. That desire turns to blood lust, as primal as the sexual drive that burns with it. Sex and love. Canine and human. Almost one and the same, and the beauty is how they flirt and intermingle, that violence and passion spilling out like guts on the page.
It’s a dog’s world. Barlow ponders the tameness of man’s best friend as much as he does the wolves those mutts might be as they wait and watch with knowing, human eyes. Blending in as regular dogs is how these packs stalk the town, how they get away with murder, how they infiltrate the enemy’s forces and convert and initiate or betray. They operate by animal rules and live by human needs for revenge and companionship and possession. Barlow weaves these two sides together with grace and sadness and a just a lick of happy-ever-after.
You’ll never look at your dog the same way again.(less)
I knew people had complaints about Mockingjay, the third and final Hunger Games book, but wow. What a...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
I knew people had complaints about Mockingjay, the third and final Hunger Games book, but wow. What a way to let down your readers.
Recently, when I reviewed the previous book, Catching Fire, I discussed who I wanted Katniss to end up with. Well, I got my wish, but it wasn’t the story that I hoped for.
Catching Fire was all about gathering the strength to fight back against the Capitol. The rebellion, for Katniss at least, began as soon as she heard that District 12 had been destroyed. But that energy and hope is washed away in Mockingjay, in which author Suzanne Collins reduces Katniss to a shadow of her former self — with no chance of repair.
I feel like Collins kept writing horrible things until she reached a point where she didn’t know how to stop — how to save her main character from the total destruction of her soul and ideals. Katniss, for most of the book, is traumatized. Peeta’s in the Capitol’s grasp, and her home is gone. And District 13 is no heaven. Things get worse from there.
Let me take a minute to talk about what I did like. Katniss forges new, closer friendships with Finnick, once so abrasive and now so sensitive and caring and lost without his Annie, and even Johanna, who was tortured in President Snow’s care, finds understanding and strength in Katniss, who receives the same from her. Mockingjay isn’t about rebellion as much as it’s about recovery — hanging on even when the present and future are dire, and you’re not sure how to survive.
What bothers me about Mockingjay isn’t the countless deaths or (view spoiler)[the unfortunate turn of events involving Peeta (at first I thought Collins was going to use that twist as a way to push him out of the picture and force Gale on Katniss, but thankfully, she didn’t stoop to that). (hide spoiler)] This is war. Horrible things happen. No, what upsets me is that Katniss is never given a true chance to recover: She’s broken at the beginning of the book and even more damaged by the end.
But — and I’m about to reveal a huge spoiler here — what really irks me is (view spoiler)[how hypocritical it was of Katniss to agree to another Games played by the Capitol’s children. In Prim’s name. Prim would never want that. She’s a healer. And I can’t believe that Katniss, who blames herself for every life lost because of what she did with those berries, would want more death after everything that’s happened. After she chewed out Gale for devising what she saw as heartless traps and plans that blurred the difference between them and the Capitol. And for believing that Peeta was right: that humans are horrible because we use children to settle our differences. Isn’t that what she’s doing?
I believed Snow, too, when he said that it wasn’t his bomb that killed the children and ended the war — that took Prim away from Katniss. And Gale’s admission afterward all but confirmed it. But still, Katniss chose to punish more children, more families, for no reason but revenge against those who didn’t ever deserve it. (hide spoiler)]
That’s the only moment where I felt Katniss did something out of character, or that what happened shouldn’t have. (view spoiler)[Because even Prim’s death made a strange sort of sense: Protecting her is what set everything in motion, and losing her is what stopped it. In a way, that was the end of Katniss’s world. For everyone else, it was the beginning of a new era. But Katniss isn’t part of it.
It’s fitting, then, that I felt like the whole world abandoned her and Peeta and Haymitch after the war. That they thanked their Mockingjay and their heroes by sending them into exile — into the graveyard of District 12, where their nightmares live. The old world. It was wrong of them. Even Haymitch and Katniss’s mother seemed to abandon her in the end. Only Peeta came back. And together, they did the only thing there was to: rebuild. Try to survive. Because life goes on.
So I got the ending I wanted, in a sense: Katniss and Peeta together. She knew she couldn’t survive without him because of the gift he gave her every day. Of joy. Of optimism. Of believing things can be better. (hide spoiler)]
Collins is, as always, the master of cliffhangers and gripping prose. But I think she failed Katniss — and, ultimately, failed us. Katniss deserved better. We deserved more.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I’m already well into reading Mockingjay, but I wanted to stop and discuss Catching Fire (spoilers!),...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
I’m already well into reading Mockingjay, but I wanted to stop and discuss Catching Fire (spoilers!), the middle novel of The Hunger Games, which came to movie theaters this winter.
(view spoiler)[I always expect second books in trilogies to be the weakest. In Catching Fire, author Suzanne Collins turns the story in a predictable direction: a budding rebellion against the Capitol. The plot lacks as much substance as the first book, but Collins manages to surprise me by throwing main character Katniss Everdeen back in the Hunger Games with a bunch of old people and young, lethal victors from the past annual “celebrations.”
Katniss will always have a place in the Games now, but I didn’t expect to see her back in costume so soon. It’s a good twist, but not everyone will approve: The Games segment of the book is short and too similar to events we’ve already seen, and the first half to two-thirds are plodding. (hide spoiler)] The romance, fake or otherwise, between Katniss and Peeta — the boy with the bread and her star-crossed “lover” — and Katniss and Gale — her childhood friend and fellow hunter — is more prominent in this novel (that’s good or bad, depending on what you were hoping for) although Collins thankfully grounds it in the grim reality of their situation. In the Games or in District 12, every move Katniss makes still puts her life and the lives of others in jeopardy.
So Catching Fire is lighter on content than the first book. There are some beautiful or dramatic moments involving a (view spoiler)[wedding gown (hide spoiler)], Katniss’s lead stylist (Cinna), and her competitors — and supposed allies — in the Games. I found the story absorbing though maybe that was because the romance was so juicy, but I also liked Katniss’s opponents more this time around. They’re a lot more striking: Johanna, who strips and trains naked (the actress for her in the movie, Jena Malone, is perfect); Finnick, charming and arrogant and deadly in the water and on land, who becomes one of my favorite new characters; and the intelligent and weird “Nuts” and “Volts,” to name a few. I also liked all the environmental traps in the arena even if they felt contrived (view spoiler)[(monkeys, blood rain, etc.) (hide spoiler)], like Collins was just dropping obstacles in there to pad out the Games (not that the wall of fire from book one was ever particularly clever or original). The characters’ interactions are what make the battle royale interesting, not anything the Gamemakers throw at them — although I did think the jungle and clock theme were fun.
I spent a good amount of time during my read-through thinking about Peeta and Gale and whom, if either, Katniss is better off with. I don’t think it’s fair that she should be forced into a romance when marriage and kids and love are the last things on her mind. But for her, these relationships are still happening — unwillingly and as much out of necessity as natural desire. Her survival in the Games depends on how well she and Peeta can put on a “show” for the audience, but they’re also thrust together privately through their mutual situation. (view spoiler)[They comfort each other when they’re tormented by nightmares; (hide spoiler)] their trust in each other is strong because of the Games — and that bond, formed through the preservation of their own mortality, is much more intense than that between her and Gale. Those two only tasted a small measure of danger in the woods outside District 12. Their reading of each other’s body language is much more intimate as hunters, and perhaps their world view is more similar, but Katniss never expressed a love for Gale whereas with Peeta, she feels gratitude and admiration — for the eloquence of his words, for his optimism. For saving her life time and again. For understanding what it’s like to survive the Games because he was there with her.
I don’t know how the trilogy will end, but I’m hoping Katniss gets to be with Peeta. (view spoiler)[What started as distrust and confusion and a sickly sweet performance has morphed into genuine affection, friendship, and more. They sleep soundly next to one another. She notices his hands as they work on a painting or drawing, like a lover would. (hide spoiler)] And that’s all because of the nightmare they went through in their first Hunger Games. Sometimes, life is funny that way.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I didn’t enjoy Divergent as much as I thought I would. I don’t even like the main character, Beatrice...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
I didn’t enjoy Divergent as much as I thought I would. I don’t even like the main character, Beatrice, all that much. But I do like how author Veronica Roth plays around with themes such as bravery, cowardice, and honesty.
Divergent splits its world into factions and forces everyone, at a young age, to choose which one they want to spend the rest of their lives a part of. That sometimes means joining a completely different group of people and never seeing your family again because you’re supposed to obey the mantra “faction before blood.” It sucks.
Beatrice grew up in Abnegation (which means “self-denial”), a faction that teaches selflessness above all else. But the problem with the factions, which were created to prevent war and violence by adhering to a set of ideals, is that if you commit yourself to the qualities that you think would guard against those things, you end up leading an extremist lifestyle. Most of us find it OK to be selfish sometimes, or dishonest, or reckless, or smart, but no one in Divergent gets that luxury.
That’s why people change factions — a chance at freedom, at identity. But those words don’t mean much when you’re simply trading one rigid way of life for another. It’s a flawed system that leads to a lot of political problems that boil over later in the book.
So Beatrice leaves her faction of total strictness and charity (people call the Abnegation “Stiffs”) and chooses its very opposite: the Dauntless. They’re everything the Abnegation are not supposed to be. But before initiation, even before you choose, you take a test that’s meant to guide you. Beatrice’s results, which are supposed to reveal the faction where she best belongs, are inconclusive. They are wrong. Divergent.
For most of the novel, Beatrice — or “Tris,” as she chooses to be called — has no idea what that means. She just tries her best to survive initiation, which with the Dauntless means jumping onto moving trains and onto rooftops, climbing to ridiculous heights, getting tattoos, showing skin, shooting guns, and fighting. It’s supposed to teach her to be brave, but not everyone has the same idea of what that is. She has to figure that out for herself, and that’s what I loved most about Divergent. The concept of bravery (or any of the other faction ideals) becomes confusing when you’re trying to define it — when you apply it to different situations the same way or try to live by its compass alone. A lot of what bravery means to Tris depends on how she connects to whatever she’s feeling. Brave one moments means a gun in her hand and the next, stepping away, being vulnerable.
That also makes her unlikable in a lot of ways. Tris can be completely selfless when she follows old habits or protects her friends, but inside, she can be petty. She can be angry. Selfish. And it’s hard to admire someone who listens to a fellow initiate sob during the night and ignores him because it disgusts her.
None of us is perfect, though, and maybe Tris’s character is just an honest one. Heroes don’t always have to be good. I’m not sure Tris is. She’s smart and moral, and she feels guilt or pain when others are wronged, but she’s not above committing cruel deeds herself.
Maybe that’s why Divergent gets more interesting later on because for the first half or so, the pace is kind of slow. I wasn’t even sure I cared about any of the characters. It took awhile for me to warm up to or feel convinced by them. And a lot of that had to do with betrayal, friendship, and romance — and most importantly, the thing that makes Tris an outcast from the world: not that she’s Dauntless but that she’s Divergent.
She’s stubborn and a little crazy. When others call her weak or small or a “Stiff,” she fights back. She tries harder. And as much as I don’t know that she’s the best model for anyone to look up to, I do think that’s worth something. We can be anything we want to be in a world where we’re supposed to think and act like everyone else. We can be Divergent; we can be nameless.
William Gibson, one of the early movers of cyberpunk, wrote a novel in 1996 about cyberspace love. Id...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
William Gibson, one of the early movers of cyberpunk, wrote a novel in 1996 about cyberspace love. Idoru, which I didn’t even realize was the second book in a trilogy called Bridge when I bought it (and that doesn’t matter), is about virtual avatars and worlds that have become so real that they cross dimensions and enter into existence.
As a gamer, that’s not an unthinkable concept to me. That future is all but here, with virtual reality and technology like Google Glass. Even with our many phones and computers and televisions, we’re constantly plugged in. Our lives are as much online as they are physical.
In Idoru, those realities intersect. The lead member of the popular band Lo/Rez plans to marry a synthetic personality called Rei Toei, the titular idoru — only their love and such a union is impossible. She’s not real, merely a conscious hologram projected by a machine, and everyone around Rez is wondering what’s going on in his head.
Enter Laney, who’s good at figuring out that sort of thing. So good that when he worked at SlitScan, a company obsessed with the ratings roller coaster of making and breaking celebrities, exposing and destroying their lives for entertainment, he predicted that a wannabe-famous young woman would kill herself. Nobody believed him, but he’s good at reading the signs — discerning the “nodal points,” like seeing faces in the clouds. Too good.
Those are skills that could be put to better use — use with Lo/Rez, or at least the people who protect them. Laney’s hired to get inside Rez’s head, so to speak. That’s the idea, anyway. The data isn’t there in the way it should be, and the mysterious idoru plays her own part in it, as does an innocent girl named Chia who travels to Japan to learn if there’s truth to the rumor about Rez’s proposal on behalf of the Lo/Rez fan club she’s part of. Only, she becomes involved in a dangerous sort of business, all accidental, that changes her perception of life, with its many planes, and of her own idol, Rez.
It’s a bizarre plot for sure, but Gibson’s writing has captivated and stuck with me since Neuromancer, and it’s just as absorbing here. Gibson shifts verb tenses and sentence constructions as easily as the characters do realities. His writing is plain, stark on the page, yet totally imaginative in the way that brings you to this whole other state of being, this completely new future. Tokyo. The Walled City. A love hotel. Beautiful and ugly have a way of mixing up together.
Idoru seems to search for a sense of its own meaning toward the later chapters, all switching between Chia’s and Laney’s perspectives even when they inevitably intertwine, but the message to me is one we’re more familiar with each day: the union of technology and nature that’s so pure, so invisible as to be untraceable — to be as one. “Porting” — logging on — is a commonplace phenomenon, no different than walking down the street. The idoru and Rez’s love is real even though she exists only as embodied information. And some people, like the shut-in otaku Masahiko, live more in data spaces like the Walled City than in the real world.
This is a future where anyone’s identity can be fabricated, can be replicated or falsified, as avatars or doppelgangers on video — your face on someone else’s body, incriminating. Or how you want to be seen. The new real you.
Gibson is clever to pair this exploration of a new nature with the widespread, cult-like indulgence in the celebrity. Like the real to the virtual, the digital version to the truth, the images don’t quite match up. They’re slightly off, almost imperceptibly. Rez and the idoru can’t be accepted. Their relationship is too controversial. But they will be. We’re getting there — one reality infiltrating another.(less)
Ahem. That outburst accurately sums up my feelings about Su...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
WHY DID I WAIT SO LONG TO READ THIS BOOK?!
Ahem. That outburst accurately sums up my feelings about Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and I ought to leave it at that. But because this is a review, let me explain my enthusiasm.
The eponymous Hunger Games is a Battle Royale for children — a televised sporting tournament that throws the rich and the poor, the untrained and the athletic, together in an open arena where they must survive against the elements and each other in a fight to the death. It’s also the biggest reminder of the Capitol’s power and how much control it wields over the twelve districts of Panem.
The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (yes, it’s a weird name, but there’s a reason for it), comes from an incredibly poor area called the Seam. Through memories and recollections that feel organic to the story (they’re woven in), Collins shows us how capable and battle-hardened the character is before she even enters the arena. Katniss watched her father die, cared for her innocent little sister when her mother’s mind and body succumbed to depression, and started hunting outside the district limits, beyond the fence — a pursuit that’s forbidden but so essential to the simplest human survival in Panem. Hunger is their oppression.
Life is a little easier when Katniss meets with her hunting partner, Gale, but their relationship is strictly business and friendship. At least, it was. A trace of romance seeps into their talks in the woods just as the next annual Hunger Games are about to begin, and not Katniss or Gale but her little sister Prim is chosen, with a single odd against her. That’s when Katniss volunteers to take her place and her entire perspective on life changes — mainly, that she won’t have one for much longer.
That’s the most fascinating part about The Hunger Games to me: the meanings of words. Survival, romance, killing, mercy. At first, survival is making it through another day of gnawing hunger in the Seam, and then it’s outsmarting your enemies and the ravages of nature in the Games. It’s owing someone and living for them, or being owed.
Romance is thinking of love in terms of practicality — raising a child in a world where hunger is law — or putting on a show to give the citizens of Panem, the “audience,” the drama and excitement they crave, all to better ensure survival (popularity means sponsorship, which means more gifts during the Games). Murder (dare she use the word when the Capitol treats the Games as national celebrations) is the difference between killing an animal and killing a person, someone who could easily be a friend, and sometimes is. Or it’s ending a life when a quick death is preferable.
Collins plays with these dualities and more, and she does it in a way that’s natural and perfectly paced, that’s ever urgent and deeply affecting, with a protagonist who’s both likeable for her strength and moral values yet hopelessly graceless in times of social need. For once of such talent and intelligence, Katniss is clumsy with words, clueless near boys, and faithless about her own abilities. But these flaws only make her more impressive — more real. Every time I was on the verge of tears (which was pretty often), I held them back because I knew Katniss would do the same. She had to. Perceived weakness is death in the Games.
Some vulnerability is okay — that of love. Much of the Games veers toward Katniss’s fabricated romance with the boy tribute from her district, Peeta. To win the favor of the audience, they play the roles of star-crossed lovers, partners and teammates all while knowing one of their fates must be cut short, possibly by the other’s hand. There can only be one victor. Their relationship is always reminiscent of this pull and tug: enemies or friends, lovers or actors, Katniss is never quite sure. And at home, watching them onscreen, is Gale.
Our curiosity about what Gale, her loyal and trusted friend, must be thinking is never answered. That awkwardness is tangible with each kiss or smile Katniss and Peeta share, but at times, when the moment is right, it vanishes completely. They experience a whole lifetime in that arena, and that’s something Gale can never match. But he and the Seam promise normalcy, or close enough to it, and Peeta is everything but.
The second book, Catching Fire, should parse the truth from the fabrication, the genuine feelings from the ones born out of the instinct to survive. And I can’t wait to read it.(less)
Whatever I was expecting when I picked up Dan Simmons’ 1989 sci-fi novel Hyperion, it wasn’t a versio...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
Whatever I was expecting when I picked up Dan Simmons’ 1989 sci-fi novel Hyperion, it wasn’t a version of The Canterbury Tales set in space.
Think about it: A bunch of strangers embark on a pilgrimage together and make a game out of telling stories. A couple small parts even mirror Chaucer’s Middle English prose. The characters follow a randomly determined sequence to decide who speaks when, and each narrative differs not only in theme but also in structure. The contents of these tales are supposed to better prepare them for the hardship ahead and reveal which of them is a spy.
General unease about their journey, which may not come to fruition, and the deadly creature known as the Shrike pervades their recollections. Each pilgrim has joined because of a specific spiritual calling — an obligation to the future of humanity, which is under threat from several sides.
Piecing together the larger significance of these tales takes time, but eventually, new details illuminate the characters whom readers and the other travelers know nothing about and each of whom brings a token of their past or troubles with them. These possessions of value take different forms and are in plain sight for the entire novel, but readers don’t realize their importance until each person tells his or her tale. It’s amazing how powerful these moments of clarity can be — with some characters more than others.
Indeed, some stories, like the Priest’s, are riveting. His in particular is weird, disturbing, and hard to forget. It puts a perverse twist on Christianity and religion in general. Others, like the Soldier’s, are dull and uninspiring, with little thought to bolster the action. It’s in this segment that a passionate sexual relationship with a woman ends in a cliche expression of masculine fear, which is explored through a sci-fi lens — you know, the vagina is a mouth of metal teeth — and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Hard. It read like a bad porno.
Hyperion contains several polarized looks at sex, though, including a few that are meaningful. It’s the diversity between them that’s important — a reflection of how these remarkably different characters see the world and a reminder that they’ve met on this pilgrimage for a common reason.
Simmons’ writing is often haunting and, in rare moments, quite beautiful in description. The strength of the book rests with its depth and interplay of ideas and the variety of its stories (an Asimov-esque detective thriller, a devastated romance, a familial tragedy, and so on) but that also serves as its major weakness. I got bored of Hyperion once I hit a tale I didn’t like, and any renewed interest from that point on died with every new section that failed to appeal to me.(less)
Earlier this year, I expressed skepticism toward The She-Hulk Diaries and Rogue Touch — specifically,...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
Earlier this year, I expressed skepticism toward The She-Hulk Diaries and Rogue Touch — specifically, about authors scribbling down superhero adventures without the pretty pictures to match and, more importantly, with what seemed like a “romantic” spin (that turned out to be false).
I love comics, and removing their visual element would be like neutering them. The physical prowess of female superheroes, especially, is what grabs your attention; it’s the artist’s job to convey that. Then the writer steps in and uses that moment to communicate their emotional and mental strength as well. These three traits complement one another. I wondered if a novel could properly re-create that power. Since so much of a superhero’s identity is rooted in action and visuals — perhaps even more than words — would these characters even translate well into novel protagonists? Or would She-Hulk and Rogue become shallow versions of themselves?
The answer is different than what I expected — at least in She-Hulk’s case (I have yet to get around to Rogue). After reading Marta Acosta’s fun and very juicy The She-Hulk Diaries, I decided that a) yes, superheroes have enough thoughts buzzing around in their heads to fill a novel but b) the whole superhero action thing is what comes across poorly.
Acosta takes She-Hulk, aka Jennifer Walters (although, in this book, they’re two separate characters who cohabit the same body) and makes her a character worth knowing outside of comic books. I’m a nerd and stickler for accuracy and faithful portrayals, but she pulls it off.
But as someone who doesn’t write for comics, Acosta loses stride when delivering big action. She restricts most of She-Hulk’s crime-fighting efforts to trashing petty thugs who are also cartoonish — and not in a good way. In a cheesy, ’60s comics kind of way.
It half works with the story. The Avengers have ostracized She-Hulk, and she’s not getting all the cool, intergalactic gigs anymore. So she’s stuck picking loser bad guys off the streets.
However, the whole time, I was waiting for at least one super-villain showdown. Acosta does include one — sort of. To leave one out would have disappointed a lot of readers, but what she ends up with isn’t handled with the same finesse and drama as what you’d see in comics today. It’s a little outdated and campy. I found this to be the weakest part of the book.
I’m reluctant to put a label on The She-Hulk Diaries, but this very much does seem like chick-lit to me. (Marta can fight me in the comments if she’d like.) But that’s good news because I find chick-lit to be very fun, and hey — it’s definitely not romance.
What’s most impressive is how Acosta writes Jen/She-Hulk in a way that would make any modern, feminist-minded woman proud. Jennifer stands up for herself. She doesn’t jump into a relationship (or bed) although she courts some very different suitors. She doesn’t have the best history with men, either. She’s normal, but at the same time, she’s a little wiser than some of us.
She isn’t a flawless character, though. Pretty much anywhere outside the courtroom (Jen’s a lawyer), she struggles with self-confidence. She’s got some anger issues, deep down. But I love her for being honest and so dedicated to her work, which is all about doing good. I love her for treating her friends with just as much importance and care as her career — and while finding a relationship is important, she doesn’t degrade herself to get there. She’s not going to change who she is.
To say that’s an important message for young women and girls today would be an understatement.
By the end, I wanted more of Acosta’s writing because it was so enjoyable, but she does leave readers hanging about a few minor plot threads: the circumstances surrounding She-Hulk’s split from the Avengers, for example, and how Jen feels about her mother’s death.
At the same time, the overarching story — which connects the “antagonists” (I’m lumping them in a very general group) together and keeps She-Hulk (and lawyer Jen) rather busy — isn’t as compelling as the little details: the everyday thoughts and actions of these two characters.
The book pours on the romance more heavily later on, when Jen has to choose between several love interests. And I can’t help but feel like her union with Mr. Right was a little mushy.
Complaints aside, The She-Hulk Diaries is a light, funny, and emotionally cathartic read that breaks expectations.(less)
Time travel is cool, but it’s even better when you don’t have to worry about pesky anachronisms.
Maybe I watched too many episodes of X-Men as a kid, but I’ve always hated time-travel plotlines. Every time a character thought it was a good idea to visit the past or the future and change something, I groaned. It never worked out well for anyone, and they messed up more than they fixed.
Now, if I could zip back in time, I would tell myself a lot of things. Much of my advice to my younger self would consist of “this isn’t as important as you think it is,” “stay in touch with that person,” and “just try it” — but if I returned to my freshman year of high school and happened upon the very month that I was reading Artemis Fowl, I would casually mention that maybe I should give Eoin Colfer more of a chance because hey, this one book he’s going to write is pretty grand.
Yep. I borrowed Artemis Fowl from the library years ago, and I didn’t like it. Maybe the first book was just lousy or something, but I feel like I should have spent more time exploring author Eoin Colfer’s works. His latest, The Reluctant Assassin — the first entry in his new W.A.R.P. series — is well written and thoroughly enjoyable.
W.A.R.P. stands for Witness Anonymous Relocation Program, which is a nifty way both to refer to the story’s central theme of time-traveling and explain the reason for it: W.A.R.P. agents protect important witnesses by sending them to the past, but some agents want to use the technology for black ops and eliminate terrorists and other unwanted figures before they can do real damage later on.
Chevron “Chevie” Savano is a teenager, but she’s already a kick-butt FBI agent who attended high school undercover before the whole mission to spy on her fellow students went kablooey. Now she’s in London, biding her time until she can grow up and be an FBI agent for realz.
She gets her chance one day, when the weird hunk of junk she’s monitoring for any long-awaited trickle of activity stirs to life and ejects a man and some boy named Riley. From the past. It’s called a W.A.R.P. pod, and it’s a time machine — one of many. All fell out of use when their inventor disappeared into the past because certain conspiring agents wanted to use them for the aforementioned sneaky time travel stuff. He took all the Timekeys used to activate the machines with him.
The man who emerges from the pod doesn’t survive — too many nasty mutations and wounds — but the boy does, and his appearance creates trouble for Chevie and ultimately forces them to flee into the past. They become an unlikely duo — he an apprentice to a crazy murdering psycho illusionist, and she a spunky FBI agent who doesn’t exactly fit in well with Victorian times. While she catches him up on modern conveniences like cars and the adventures of Harry Potter in the present, he shows her around London circa 1898.
There they must shake the trail of Riley’s master, Garrick, who absorbed the knowledge and attributes of a modern man when he came through the time machine after Riley. So now he’s a deadly assassin who not only knows how to perform illusions and stage tricks but can understand modern science and technology and happens to bring a laser-sighted gun with him. Dandy.
Colfer actually gives Garrick an impressive amount of depth. The magician has this weird obsession with family, and he considers Riley a son. He’s bent on making him a killer like he is. He also craves real magic, like the power of the Timekey that moved him through time. The other characters are equally memorable. Riley is probably my favorite — his old-timey lexicon makes him entertaining to both adults and kids.
The pacing is excellent as well. Colfer dedicates fair shares of the writing to each character, and he’s adept at facilitating emotional investment between reader and character. When I came across a new one, I connected almost immediately.
What I also love is how the story doesn’t tread all over the idea of dangerous anachromisms: that going to the past is a sure way to mess everything up. The book just kind of goes with it, and while the characters definitely don’t want Garrick to use what he knows of present-day London to rise in society, these hiccups work themselves out through their presence and actions. Even another time-hopper, who we meet later in the book and has for years exploited his knowledge of the future for personal gain, gets what’s coming to him. He kind of interferes with history big time, but not for good.
Lesson learned? Time travel is generally bad to abuse, but at least you can have fun without worrying about majorly screwing up the timeline. I look forward to the next adventure. Maybe I’ll get to read more about the terrible mutations that time-traveling can cause? (I want there to be a live person with a dinosaur head, dammit.)(less)
Let me introduce you to Dana Fredsti, the creator of a smart zombie meta-fiction meets steamy gore-st...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
Let me introduce you to Dana Fredsti, the creator of a smart zombie meta-fiction meets steamy gore-stained-clothes-be-damned romance called Plague Nation. It’s the sequel to Plague Town (here’s my review), which was my favorite book from last year. I thought a zombie novelization would be stupid. I was dead wrong.
Now, I love zombie movies. It’s easy to react to the horror of blood and guts when it’s splattering all over the screen. Reading about it is less visceral, in theory anyway. But Fredsti knows how to squeeze words for all their disgusting worth, and she even establishes a community with fellow film aficionados by playing off famous movies through her characters — mostly an elite class of virus-resistant fighters called the DZN, who have received a top-notch zombie education in order to do their job: picking the streets clean of flesh-hungry walkers. So they cite zombie flicks a lot. Gotta have some fun amidst all the depressing carnage, right?
Book Two is a strong continuation of what Plague Town started. Some of what originally captivated about the plot has ground away, but the emotional tension has increased. Fredsti’s writing still demands my attention, and I adore (and hate) these characters even more than before. That connection is strengthened by her personable storytelling.
The romance, which culminated in a blush-worthy sex scene last time, sputters out in chapter one — on purpose. It immediately creates new conflict and is an effective way for the story to dig its hooks into the reader. In short, hunk-of-man Gabriel is giving protagonist Ashley Parker growls instead of cuddles, curtness instead of sweetness, and it’s driving her crazy. Of course, Gabriel has his reasons — he’s one of the few victims of the zombie virus who didn’t change into a mindless walker or turn out to be a booty-kicking “wild card” like Ashley and the team. He needs a special serum to function properly or risk becoming a cannibalistic half-human. We get an ugly glimpse of what that’s like through Jake, one of the other characters focused on in this book.
Ashley and Gabriel’s relationship is only one point of interest, though, as the author opens up the love possibilities to other characters. But don’t think Plague Nation is all kiss and tell. It has plenty of killing, too — along with painful loss and nasty mutations as readers learn more about the virus that’s spreading across America and beyond.
I doubt the DZN can believably contain the virus in the third and final book, as the situation can only worsen as it expands to global territories. Fredsti’s biggest challenge is to prepare these characters with a bad-ass plan of action; after all, saving the world takes a lot of work.
New allies should help with that (and props to Fredsti for inventing one lovable acrobatic daredevil, who appears later in the book), but the enemies are multiplying, too — like the mysterious Griffin, who seems to suffer from the same problem as Gabriel but without all the fuss and high-maintenance.
It’ll be fun to see how crazy the outbreak and conspiracy gets and how the good guys cope with the crisis. They’re the core of the story — what drives it forward and keeps it fresh in between headshots and showers of red goo.(less)
With the debate over gay marriage raging in the news lately, Prophet of Bones (out tomorrow) fits rig...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
With the debate over gay marriage raging in the news lately, Prophet of Bones (out tomorrow) fits right in.
OK, so this new book isn’t about homosexuality. At all. But it is about a coming together of religion and science, which is the kind of open-mindedness we need to be more receptive to. In other words, you could believe this and I could believe that, and it would be ALL RIGHT. The world wouldn’t end.
Prophet of Bones by Ted Kosmatka — who, as it happens, is a very talented writer at video game company Valve (and if you’re not a gamer, please don’t let that affiliation negatively sway your decision to read this book) — isn’t about a doomsday event, either. But it is about the creation of Earth and answering crazy questions like, what if God made two Adams?, and, what if Darwin is totally wrong and we’re all the product of intelligent design?
Basically, it’s about a scientist’s discovery of a divergent human species — one that came into existence at the same time as our ancestors but isn’t a part of the same family tree. Their very bones reveal the truth that God was, well, playing “god” with his favorite creatures: mankind.
So, we’re not special. Not like we think.
Prophet of Bones — an extension of the short story “The Prophet of Flores” — is a beautifully and crisply written novel. Kosmatka’s use of language is admirable on its own, whether or not you care for the story (although I’m sure you will). It’s got a lot of cool/nerdy science stuff in it, along with conspiracy and murder — you know, the standard ingredients for a good thriller. And some sex. You can’t be a science action hero and not get the girl, even if she’s of questionable character.
I didn’t want to put this book down. That doesn’t happen to me very often. If Kosmatka writes another book, I’ll buy it. In fact, I’m going to have to track down his prior release, The Games. (He’s also working on a new novel — a continuation of his early novelette “Divining Light,” and the theme is once again “scientists in trouble.”)
The author sews an alternate history into the story with a fine hand, and readers have to do some interpreting — it’s not all spelled out for you even if the words are clearly typed on the page. Kosmatka doesn’t assume you’re stupid, but he does approach the science talk in a way that’s very accessible. It sounds like the stuff of doctorates without requiring you to have one to understand it.
Some of the most interesting observations from this book come from its questioning of what the world would look like without religion — if evolutionist theory totally won out, leaving no room for God. Would it be a better world or a chaotic one? That’s a discussion worth having outside of this book although I didn’t expect the characters’ conversation about it to go the way it did. (If you get the book, check around page 158 to see what I mean — once you get that far, of course.)
The only aspect about Prophet of Bones that I disliked was the supernatural elements, however minor they are overall. Kosmatka adds in some super-strong/intelligent dark creatures, and their presence just feels forced and too unreal for a book so grounded in science. Even though it fit with the intelligent designer/playing god ideas, I couldn’t get into it.
But do yourself a big favor and read the novel anyway.(less)
Terry Brooks has written over 30 novels, but they’re all new to me. Before now, I hadn’t read any of...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
Terry Brooks has written over 30 novels, but they’re all new to me. Before now, I hadn’t read any of his stories, but the subjects he traditionally delves into are familiar: fantasy adventure, magic, and elves.
To acquaint myself with his work, I decided to start with Wards of Faerie, which came out last fall and is already succeeded by a sequel, Bloodfire Quest. Together they comprise the first two books in The Dark Legacy of Shannara, one of many series in the larger Shannara line.
I read a digital copy, so I rarely got a chance to look at the cover, but the design for Wards of Faerie is more symbolic of how Brooks concludes part one of the series than how it unfolds. The splitting of the coin represents the broken parties at the end of the novel — characters take separate paths with different priorities, and some even scatter to unreachable locations — which promises lots of excitement for Bloodfire Quest but little for Wards of Faerie itself.
Granted, the premise is enticing: Long ago, a girl fell in love with a boy from a dimension called the Forbidding, but she chose to remain with her people, the Elves. Determined to have her join him, the boy stole some of her family’s precious Elfstones and returned home, leaving a trail in the hope that she, armed with the ancient seeking power of the Blue Elfstones, would follow.
Enter Aphenglow Elessedil, who is searching for signs of magic lost to the Druids, an order that believes it can bring balance to all races through its prudence. She finds the girl’s diary and in it, the clues she has been looking for. What it means or what power the stolen Elfstones might hold, no one knows. The discovery triggers a chain reaction of omens, including multiple attacks on her life, and sets in motion a dangerous journey into the unknown and a brewing conflict between the Druids and the Federation, an opposing force that values the advancement of science and wants to stifle magic throughout the land.
Most of the characters feel one-dimensional; either they’re side characters who receive little attention or more important ones who never break out of the frames that Brooks has built for them. The Prime Minister of the Federation, for instance, is a transparent villain who lacks even a modicum of depth.
That’s not to say the other characters don’t have potential; in fact, I’d love to see where they end up. Currently, all but one or two have undergone any sort of genuine development. A mere few descriptors can encapsulate their personalities and worldview. I admire how one romantic angle was resolved as it brought a lot of strength to a good character, and I appreciate that the Ard Rhys (the leader of the Druids) wasn’t overglorified, but otherwise, these characters did little to impress me.
I found myself taking quite a few breaks from Wards of Faerie, which is partly normal due to my schedule and partly a sign that this just didn’t hook me. At 384 pages, it’s certainly not a long fantasy book. The action greatly improves in the final third — with battles, deaths, and strange new places and implications. Brooks introduces a pretty cool source of magic that’s shrouded in mystery.
That’s not the only instance of magic or supernatural influence that’s interesting. One character, a shape-shifter, and two others who can manipulate the “wishsong” add great color to the story.
In other places, though, Brooks defaults to clichés evident in prophecies (“many will die; one will betray you”) or resorts to delivering neat plot summaries when introducing a main antagonist. This isn’t engaging fantasy. It’s a tepid introduction in which Brooks seems afraid to verge on something bigger too soon.(less)
[Note: I want your questions about real-life ninjas! Please include them in the comments here or on m...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
[Note: I want your questions about real-life ninjas! Please include them in the comments here or on my blog, and I'll try to pass them on to author John Man to answer.]
Our idea of the quintessential ninja is a little short of historical reality. In fact, what does the average person really know besides that they dress in all black and are masters of stealth and assassination techniques? They didn’t use magic, they couldn’t walk on water, and their primary goal was not to kill or be killed.
John Man’s new book Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior traces this order through history — from the first proto-ninjas to the true ninjas’ rising prevalence in Iga and Kōga in Japan and their fall and final years. Much of the foundation of ninjutsu (the way of life) came from Chinese origins, and the ninja were more concerned with survival than their flashier counterparts, the samurai, who chose self-sacrifice and would commit seppuku, or suicide by disembowelment, rather than face defeat. A ninja’s objective involved gathering information and relaying it back to his employer, where it could be of use — and that couldn’t happen if ninjas charged in on enemy territory, prepared to die.
Black wasn’t even the necessary go-to color for a ninja. Brown worked just fine, too, and dark blue was preferable under moonlight.
They weren’t sell-outs who took any job as long as the price suited them. Ninjas believed in a cause. Many doubled as samurai (and vice versa), but they did more than sneak into castles night after night. They were farmers who built up other expertise, such as medicine. When peace took hold and their occupation was in danger of vanishing completely, that’s when they opened their teachings to the world and started writing them down.
Some of the most fascinating aspects of Man’s book regard the myths and legends — the stories and rumored ninja tricks and equipment — which he analyzes and debunks. For example, he examines the falsity of how ninjas could tell time by looking at the eyes of a cat, dispels the belief that ninjas could walk on water with special shoes called “water spiders,” and picks apart the tale of the resourceful ninja dwarf Ukifune Jinnai.
The best part is saved for last: the story of the “last of the ninjas,” Onoda Hiroo, who survived in the jungle for 30 years, believing World War II hadn’t ended.
Ninja is quite the meandering history book, however. Sometimes the writing is utterly engrossing, and you can’t pull away from the page. Other times, you’ll find yourself needing a timeline or a sidenote that reminds you how certain sections are relevant to ninja history. That’s usually when the book strays from Man’s unique and compelling interview reporting — a first-hand investigation complete with observations and honest reflections as the author learns from his visits and conversations with sources — and turns into a textbook. Ninja switches back and forth between being an amazing reference, perfect for pop-culture enthusiasts who want an accessible dose of history, to a dry academic read.
Bottom line: I greatly enjoyed my time with Ninja, but it’s not as much of a direct feed on ninjas as I expected. It can be fun, but it digresses too much into battle stories and other historical developments that the author only loosely connects back to the subject at hand. Readers will likely feel lost at times.
What I liked: The emphasis on first-hand reporting, discrediting (or recounting) myths and legends, and the in-depth profile of Onoda Hiroo.
What I wasn’t expecting: A lot of talk of “ninjas” who weren’t really ninjas.
This book was provided by the publisher for honest review.(less)
If the South won the Civil War … That’s the premise for the “Roaring Twenties” thriller The Jazz Cage...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
If the South won the Civil War … That’s the premise for the “Roaring Twenties” thriller The Jazz Cage. Author Ray Smith sent me an e-copy for review (sorry about the wait, Ray!) and told me, “Think of it as Uncle Tom’s Cabin meets The Untouchables.“
The description fits. On one hand, The Jazz Cage is about two runaway slaves trying to find freedom, but it’s got some booze, corruption, and gangster-style gunfighting, too. As I’ve said in previous posts, it’s not exactly a book I’d grab right off the shelf. History never wants to stick in my head, so I’m ashamed to say I wouldn’t know Famous General X from the guy who lives down the street. I’m a little fuzzy on battles and law, too. Smith’s book is peppered with dates, events, and names, and sometimes that information is distracting, like he wanted to cram as much in where he could — which isn’t necessary since the focus of the book is less on what would change if the South won the war and more about slavery and abolition.
Now, that’s coming from a reader who isn’t so concerned with accuracy or alternate histories. I’m sure if my best friend were here right now, she might have different comments to make, just like she did during Lincoln — Daniel Day-Lewis be damned. But when a book is set 60 years after the South won the Civil War — which didn’t happen — you expect its story to play out in a way you haven’t really seen before. The Jazz Cage basically follows two slaves who run away and the people who try to help or stop them.
Maybe Smith did work some historical “what if” magic on the book, or maybe there are subtleties I’m not noticing. (In that case, Smith — I’d love to talk those over with you, so email me!) But what I read didn’t seem to depend so much on a timeline shift as it did slavery and freedom, and you don’t need to alter history to write that.
But whether or not that’s an oversight of the book doesn’t much matter as I generally have no complaints about the story itself. I actually enjoyed it, which doesn’t usually happen with me and history anything. Smith has a knack for writing characters with good personality quirks and ending each chapter (all 116 of them) on an effective cliffhanger. They’re fairly short, so the pages whizzed by — in no smart part due to his clean and carefully crafted writing.
The Jazz Cage is Smith’s second novel but the first that he found “fit for public consumption,” according to the author page, which also says he’s happy to receive and answer emails from readers — which I like. And maybe you’ll want to, especially if you like talking history.
I’m not that kind of girl, but if I wasn’t reviewing this book here on my blog, I’d be glad to tell Smith how much I enjoyed his characters — who through the painting of details stood out clearly in my mind like real people — and his suspenseful action scenes. I mean, car chases and gun fights — Underground Railroad meets Prohibition-era mobsters? If pushing slavery into the 1920s was all the platform that Smith needed to write this book, then I’m all for the South winning the war.(less)
Jeff Lemire has become one of the most popular comics creators in recent years, working with DC Comics to write...more(Posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
Jeff Lemire has become one of the most popular comics creators in recent years, working with DC Comics to write and illustrate titles like SWEET TOOTH and the new ANIMAL MAN. This year’s The Underwater Welder (from Top Shelf Productions) is a graphic novel entirely of his own invention, and Lemire’s keen moral sense of character and thorough understanding of happiness and sorrow, and of success and failure, translate wonderfully into this standalone tale.
Lemire has a knack for balancing simplicity and complexity with equal grace. Divided into four parts, The Underwater Welder is about a man named Jack who’s about to start a family with his wife Susan, but before he can move forward, he must come to terms with the past. He dives deep into the cold, dark sea every day not in search of riches or sunken treasure but answers. Years ago, when Jack was still a child, his father jumped into the ocean and never returned, leaving him and his mother alone.
Now, as he’s on the verge of becoming a father to a baby boy, Jack’s fears and doubts bubble to the surface. Was his dad really the hero that he idolizes, or has he been ignoring his loved ones’ advice and forgetting about countless disappointments? Susan is worried that Jack will turn into his no-good father at a time when she needs him most, and he almost disappears altogether — just like his dad did. To shoulder the responsibility of parenthood, Jack must understand his father not as a child does, but as an adult can. Fathers are human beings, with real moments of strength and weakness, and Jack must figure out what kind of man his was. But there’s a possibility that he’s searching for a truth he’ll never find.
Lemire introduces pieces and layers of the mystery behind Jack’s father’s disappearance, but he keeps readers engaged by feeding them crumbs of answers one at a time. You never feel like he’s proposing too many questions without giving some semblance of understanding and resolution in return. And Lemire never goes overboard with his story or characters. Their depth lies in their common, everyday familiarity.
Lemire also makes great visual and thematic parallels between diving and self-discovery, water pressure and the stressful demands of life (and the sudden release of a pregnant woman’s “water breaking”), the confusion of swimming up and down underwater and moving backward and forward as people, and so on. For example, Jack is a welder who mends broken constructions for a living but has trouble fixing his own problems. These subtle but effective connections work so well with the black-and-white imagery and inspire such curiosity that once you’re a few pages in, you won’t miss the fullness of color. In a way, the bleakness of the illustrations is fitting. Jack’s world is one without brightness and hope — one that has been standing still for years. Something’s been missing from his life, and he can’t rest until he recovers what was lost.(less)
Take a look at the cover for Where the Dead Fear to Tread by M.R. Gott (sequel forthcoming) and you pretty much...more(Posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
Take a look at the cover for Where the Dead Fear to Tread by M.R. Gott (sequel forthcoming) and you pretty much know what to expect. It looks like it could be an action movie poster, right? Unfortunately, that’s what the book most resembles — a movie. Maybe the author is in the wrong business because as a popcorn movie, this story might work. It doesn’t as a novel.
Where the Dead is about an antihero who punishes child abusers and tangles with ghosts, vampires, and werewolves. That might sound like a sensible, collected premise, but that’s not how the book reads. It wants to be both a detective story and supernatural fiction, and the result is a mangled hybrid between the two. There’s no consistency to its world — you have no idea what to expect next not because the plot is fascinating and unpredictable but because it feels like Gott is making it up as he goes along.
A lot of it is pretty cheesy. I can’t take seriously an eyeless vampire playing Chopin or a female cop running around naked with dual pistols in her hands — or worse, a ghost chanting “bare ass escape.” The silliness of it conflicts with the larger image the book projects about its characters, who are all tough, badass, and angry as hell. Sometimes all the dialogue consists of are accusatory remarks and swearing (“bitch” appears multiple times on the same page, for instance). It’s hard to get a feel for any real depth when you imagine all the characters looking like the guy on the cover: serious face, smoking gun, leather trenchcoat, clever comeback on the tongue. What’s even weirder is that some of these defensive/offensive quips involve negative comparisons to children: “Don’t threaten me like some fucking child” is an odd choice of words when the main investigation that everyone’s wrapped up in involves a child’s disappearance and protection of the innocent.
Gott’s book is quite vulgar at times, but that isn’t an asset. Those moments of bitter dialogue are too forced. His real strength lies in his descriptions of his creatures, particularly the maggot-infested cemetery Caretaker and his minions. The rest is a bunch of long action scenes strung together. They’re incredibly boring to read and wouldn’t be half as bad if they were slimmed down and spaced apart between nice chunks of meaningful character development, which there’s much too little of.
I found most of these characters hard to believe or care about. The “serial killer” and antihero — one of the protagonists of the book, William Chandler — is supposed to be dangerous and capable, but he beats himself up over not being able to save a baby bird, which is just about the sappiest and most ridiculous plot point ever. Granted, it was less embarrassing once I learned his reasons (he was unable to save someone close to him who died in a similar manner), but that wasn’t revealed until much later in the book. By that time, I had already stopped being interested in the character.
It’s a common movie trope to glamorize characters who are tough and angry and “mysterious,” but underneath the leather, there’s not much substance. That’s the mistake that puts Where the Dead in the ground.(less)
I went into Zombie Blondes (2010) by Brian James hoping for a fun spin on high school drama. All those oh-so-per...more(Posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
I went into Zombie Blondes (2010) by Brian James hoping for a fun spin on high school drama. All those oh-so-perfect popular kids … what if they’re really zombies? What poetic justice that would be. It sounded like a light read and a good break for the winter. But what I ended up with was a lot more brainless than I expected.
The book is all about Hannah — Hannah, Hannah, Hannah. She’s just about the most selfish and unsympathetic teenage character you can happen upon. She’s moody to her father, rude to her friends (and might-be friends), and self-pitying even when things are going her way. I know the author was probably trying to make these qualities endearing — a grumpy but lovable misfit who just wants to fit in — but on Hannah, they’re ugly colors.
She’s the new girl in school, and the closest person she has to a friend is Lukas. She flips back and forth from liking him (and calling him cute) to badmouthing him in private and calling him crazy and a freak. Her mixed signals are confusing and annoying. Poor Lukas puts up with all her crap, and even when he gets mad at her and keeps his distance, he winds up forgiving her and suffering more of her insults.
Hannah acts this way because she wants so desperately to be normal, but Lukas is never good enough for her. She’d rather be friends with the popular girls who treat her like dirt. And her self-esteem is so low that when they finally stop humiliating her and inviting her little by little to “become” one of them (quite literally, as they’re a zombie recruitment death squad), she falls for it. Completely. As long as their words and actions seem genuine, she’s more than happy to join them even when it means shrugging off everything that makes her unique.
Every cheerleader on the team is alike — unnaturally so, and that’s what Lukas tries to convince Hannah of all throughout the book. But she’s too naive or too in denial to recognize the countless signs (two plus two equals ZOMBIES), and she doesn’t trust her gut until she sees the most gruesome evidence laid out before her. I have a hard time empathizing with a character who lies to herself so much and treats good people so poorly.
The climax — the big reveal — doesn’t happen until very late in the book, and then it plays out like a bad horror movie action scene. Before this, Lukas constantly refers to comic book zombie stories as a cliché way of explaining what’s happening at their school, and he continues to use them here. Author Brian James doesn’t take advantage of the larger metaphor at work, either — that people can be flat-out undead zombies but also the figural kind. He does establish a few connections, but they’re so minor that you barely notice. He misses out on a lot of potential.
James’s writing is a letdown. I’m not fond of how often he resorts to fragments. I know they’re done stylistically, but it just feels lazy.
He also leaves some gaping plot holes, and it’s not a very long book — only 232 pages in the hardcover version. Most of my questions are about the last few chapters, so I won’t spoil it for you. The final scene packs a nice twist, but the ending is terse and kind of disappointing.(less)
“Russian novels are anything but charming,” my boyfriend said after I told him what I was reading la...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
“Russian novels are anything but charming,” my boyfriend said after I told him what I was reading last weekend.
I shrugged. “Well, it’s charming and a bit lonely.”
Death and the Penguin is about a struggling writer who writes too-short short stories and keeps a pet penguin named Misha in his apartment. That’s all I needed to know to get interested, but Viktor, who can’t afford to pay his bills, finds luck with an odd newspaper job writing obituaries about people who are still living. Everyone goes sometime, right?
The extra pay is modest at first — a roof over Viktor’s head and more fish in Misha’s bowl. And Andrey Kurkov’s (by way of translator George Bird) writing is simple and, yes, charming. The characters find pleasure in food and drink, in good company, and in watching the penguin splash around in the bathtub, stare at his reflection in the mirror, or “set off at a comical waddling run” into an ice-hole. The book’s first hints of loneliness are found in the knowledge that the economic and political climate is bad, Viktor’s visits with friends are fewer than he might like, the penguin lives in a too warm climate, and that those long contemplations in the glass are done by an insomniac penguin who occasionally stops and sighs “like an old man weary of both life and himself.”
The more Viktor’s status “improves” — he earns more money on top of his salary with the newspaper, meets new people, and even becomes responsible for a child and possible wife — the more he wonders whether his life has become artificial. Is he happy, and his family full of love?
2013 Eclectic Reader ChallengeViktor’s self-doubts and moodiness as a writer makes these moments of consideration more authentic and natural. When Kurkov pauses to allow his character to ponder his situation, you pay attention to the insights. Running underneath this worry is a strain of anxiety that intensifies as the story goes on. Viktor’s unease that he may be writing obituaries for people who will die, not could die, puts him and his new family in danger just like it has countless others. The day he learns the truth about his work is when he’s no longer needed.
Death and the Penguin‘s depressing narrative is a slow spiral, not one that’s wild or erratic. Piece by piece, the story doesn’t seem to end happily for anyone, and Kurkov isn’t overt about the suffering. It’s subtle, and it grows in power and significance the more your mind considers the consequences.
Bottom line: A bittersweet book that speaks of loneliness and a paradoxical yearning for spiritual freedom and companionship.
What I liked: The inviting simplicity of the writing, most of all. Also, the book feels completely finished and self-contained even though there’s a sequel. While the ending wasn’t happy, it worked well for what it was. But I’m glad there’s another book.
When I finished my boyfriend’s favorite Philip K. Dick book last week, I had no idea what to say. That’s probably a s...more(From my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
When I finished my boyfriend’s favorite Philip K. Dick book last week, I had no idea what to say. That’s probably a sign that I’m not crazy about it, but I generally do like the novel. I’m just not sure what to take away from it.
You know the feeling. We’ve all been there. To me, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) wasn’t transmitting a profound galactic message from the future here to Earth as much as it was pondering what’s out there and who’s watching over us. If we sent someone out into the depths of space, like the book did Palmer Eldritch, what would he tell us if he returned?
No one quite knows what Eldritch has seen, but he comes back to Earth (or Terra) … different. At this point, people are probably pretty weird to him, too — most of the world is chewing what’s called Can-D, an illegal drug that “translates” you into a communal plane of being. It’s like getting high and imagining you’re a doll, only all the women go into one body (Perky Pat’s is the most popular), and all the men into another, and you forget about your crummy life for a while. The comedown afterward is what makes users so desperate for more, especially those living out their lives in exile on the Martian colonies. People are depressed and bored.
When Eldritch reemerges, he brings with him the ingredients for a new substance, one that won’t be illegal and will be even more realistic and longer-lasting than the current market holder: Chew-Z. The book gets into some funny stuff here — when you’re finished decoding its lingo, you’re left figuring out its attitudes on Christianity and God. You see, taking Chew-Z is an out-of-body, almost holy experience where you can be reborn as anything and create anything. You essentially invent your own world, and you can live in it for as long as you wish.
Philip K. Dick makes a lot of parallels between it and the “eternal life” God promises after death. But like the afterlife, it’s a kind of heaven or hell situation, and it has some frightening effects on users. The fake reality you enter when you use Chew-Z doesn’t leave you — at least not as quickly as it should. That’s how Eldritch — or what’s left of him — plans to get his hooks into every living being on the planet … an Earth where the sun bears down too hot, people undergo procedures to “evolve,” and psychics called “precogs” peer into the future as a means of business, like predicting fashion trends. It’s a very different world, but the people in it aren’t so alien to us. We all seek to escape the tedium of our daily lives, and in doing so we immerse ourselves in entertainment and expensive hobbies we don’t need. Some of us even turn to drugs.
But the idea behind The Three Stigmata seems to be that committing ourselves wholly to one entity — that’s scary. That’s a total removal of identity. People either react negatively to Chew-Z, wanting it banned, or they accept the blissful fantasy as truth. But it’s also a commentary on God: Once you take communion, he’s in you for good. And his ways spread everywhere.
Is Eldritch, a kind of warped Christ-like figure, a dangerous messenger of the one God? Can God be evil and good? And is what comes to Earth actually a manifestation of God, or is something bigger out there, waiting, with all the answers — or none at all? These are some of the questions the book asks, and if you’re open-minded about religion and its implications … thinking about it is kind of creepy.
Bottom line: If you’re into science fiction and you’re not easily offended religiously, The Three Stigmata might pique your curiosity.
What I liked: Halfway through, the reading started to get a lot better because it was so weird. There’s also literary value to be found.
What I wasn’t expecting: Its views on accepting Christ, body and soul.(less)
Life of Pi is not a difficult book. Author Yann Martel and publisher Knopf Canada released it in 2001...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
Life of Pi is not a difficult book. Author Yann Martel and publisher Knopf Canada released it in 2001, so it’s not even that old. But its literary merits are precious — truly a wonder of our time. This is a novel you can recommend to family and friends with full faith.
And that’s what it’s about: faith. Not necessarily religious faith although that does hold great meaning for Pi Patel, the shipwreck survivor after whom the book is named. It’s also about faith in life and where it takes you. What seem like acts of god may steer us off the course we hope and plan for ourselves, and we’re then bound to where the waters carry us. We can either succumb to hardship or make it a part of our souls and live on.
Those are the challenges that Pi, a young boy, faces in Life of Pi. He sees the beauty of life — the vision of the city of marine life swimming underneath his boat, the miracle of details that save him from total starvation and other mortal pains — but also its ugliness, like an animal suffering cruelty from another or a man reduced to primal behavior.
Early in the book, Pi seeks faith in whatever religions are available to him, and on the boat, he finds even greater meaning: a reason to believe beyond all hope. In his solitude, the world speaks its secrets: An island with life no record can describe, or an occurrence so impossible or coincidental. He sees god in the fabric of life, its ways often incomprehensible to us, like his. What’s hard to believe becomes not so hard to believe with time.
That’s not the book’s only theme. The beginning chapters teach us about animals and zoos, like the kind Pi grew up in — how animals behave, what zoos really provide them versus public perception, and so on. The answers might surprise you. They surprised me and made me wonder, too, especially when Pi shares tidbits of information about different species. The Dorado dolphinfish, for instance, change colors as they die.
Later, as Pi observes the animals trapped with him in the lifeboat, he applies the same principles. He has to survive with a tiger, a hyena, and an orangutan on board. He sees what he expects to, but he also witnesses the unimaginable — behavior and interactions between him and the animals that would never be possible except in such extreme conditions like theirs. The biggest source of mystery is the tiger: whether he tames it and what their relationship means. Pi ponders this throughout the book, but we never truly know, and neither does he. The tiger remains a mystery.
What the book seems to be pointing to, however, is how “human” animals can sometimes be, and how much we often refuse to believe them capable of the same behavior or deserving of the same respect or treatment. Pi internalizes this so much that by the end, the opposite becomes a reality as well — that animals would think the same of us. The relationship is complicated, but it never stops being beautiful and violent and wonderful and amazing. To read Life of Pi is to read a full account of pain and loss that’s difficult to absorb, but in its dual simplicity and complexity, you can better connect to and understand the universe. And that’s what Pi has long searched for.(less)
The tale of Brave Story comes packaged in a gorgeously illustrated, colorfu...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
(Contains minor spoilers.)
The tale of Brave Story comes packaged in a gorgeously illustrated, colorful jacket that hints at the adventure awaiting readers courageous enough to delve into the book’s 800-plus pages (if that’s even a concern for you). It’s a meaty story, written by female Japanese author Miyuki Miyabe and translated by Alexander O. Smith. In ways, it reminds me of The Neverending Story (one of my favorite books), but I think it’s much more rich and real than that.
Brave Story is a ghost legend, fantasy epic, and heartbreaking family drama all in one. Part One deals with a typical Japanese haunting and — who would have guessed? — video games since the main character, Waturu, and his best friend Katchan are kids. Then it veers off into much harder-hitting territory than the simple fun and worries of childhood: divorce, a difficult betrayal for any family.
Miyabe deals with this topic extraordinarily well. She doesn’t pick sides but rather gives the perspectives of Wataru and his abandoned mother and also his father, who’s leaving them, and his mistress. The story painfully and thoroughly explores how a change this devastating upends lives and ripples out, spreading a family’s secret shame to relatives, friends, and even the local community, with its people who are all too happy to judge.
Wataru, still so young, is left where all children are when divorce happens: in the middle.
His wish to bring his family back together takes him to a mysterious world called Vision, where he has a chance to change his destiny (Part Two). Wataru and Katchan’s past discussions of their favorite role-playing video games foreshadow the trials in Vision, but their ideas of what sword-and-shield adventuring is like doesn’t match the reality, as Wataru soon learns. Miyabe creates a fully embodied world here, set apart from the real world that Vision mirrors. Alongside Wataru, we come to learn about its cultures, history, people, and current events — including racial prejudices, crimes, religion, and war.
Fixing his problems in the real world won’t be easy. Wataru faces competition with his friend Mitsuru, a classmate and much more powerful and able Traveler to Vision. Both must collect five gemstones before they can reach the Tower of Destiny, where the Goddess waits to grant them their one wish and change their fates forever. Wataru embarks on a journey despite the doubts of an influential few and gains companionship in Meena and Kee Keema, who believe in him and the importance of his quest.
The difference between Mitsuru and Wataru becomes more apparent as they grow as characters, passing through different lands with a common fear among their people: the expanding conflict between the North and South and the approach of Halnera, an event that happens once every thousand years. Its coming signals much darker times in Vision, and it intensifies the rivalry between Mitsuru and Wataru.
Miyabe doesn’t resort to clichés of good and evil. The final and inevitable showdown between the two characters surprised me — it wasn’t how I expected their competition to end, and I like Miyabe’s creative decision here. The victor wasn’t necessarily “better” or more “good” than the other; rather, he understood the meaning of bravery and what his experience in Vision meant to his future.(less)
Many of us don’t bother with age labels when selecting a book. After all, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
Many of us don’t bother with age labels when selecting a book. After all, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is filed under children’s books but engages all types. We like what we like.
While Harry Potter can suit anyone, Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is designed to target adults — readers who can handle large amounts of mature content. Rowling interprets a literal meaning from the term “adult novel,” writing as crudely as she can by tossing in a great cast of characters that allows her to broach as many issues as possible: adultery, molestation, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, bullying, sexual deviation, homosexuality, physical abuse, depression, racial prejudice, and so on. The list is a long one.
It’s almost like she set out to prove she’s more than a children’s author. She seems to say, “I can be nasty. I can be dirty. I’m not so fragile.”
Once readers move past how weird that is and how hard Rowling tries to be vulgar in the beginning parts of the book, the novel becomes a poignant examination of society’s hypocrisy and the complexities of human nature. Every character has problems, but most of them derive from misunderstandings — from failing to communicate and listen. These people are self-involved and can’t imagine that anyone has it as bad as they do, but everyone does.
It’s hard not to judge these characters even when you’re condemning them for judging others. Rowling arguably provides the best commentary about this through the character Terri Weedon — a drug addict, whore, and poor excuse for a mother. We only think we know these characters until Rowling offers us a different perspective.
Everyone is at war — with each other and mostly with themselves. This isn’t a happy book. Rowling’s subtle observations of human tendencies are painfully frank. After listening to an unconventional choice of music at a funeral, for instance, “the congregation filed slowly out of the church, trying not to walk in time to the beat of the song.” The Casual Vacancy is full of these little revealing moments about our social insecurities.
The book reaches just over 500 pages, but the more you read, the more it swallows you whole and demands your attention. The pain these characters suffer is intolerable; you feel their fury and their shame, and it makes you root for the worst of them. You want them to fix their lives.
Not all ends well, but from tragedy springs forth a kind of poetic justice and truce for many — husbands and wives, parents and children, and friends and enemies. The “resolution” (truer to real life than to perfect, fairytale endings) makes you a little more hopeful, and for once, you can see “a prettiness about Pagford,” a town built on gossip, small-mindedness, and solidarity.
I can’t recommend it enough. And if it still bothers you, just pretend Rowling didn’t write it.(less)
Why is Locke & Key one of the most successful comics out there? The answer has something to do wi...more(Originally posted on my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
Why is Locke & Key one of the most successful comics out there? The answer has something to do with the strength of writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez’s partnership. Hill introduced an original idea in 2008 with a strong follow-through — every issue pushes the story forward and keeps readers begging for more. Then, there are the gothic illustrations, which give the main estate, Keyhouse, that dark and foreboding mood we need to wonder what secrets are hiding inside. The monsters look real, the people are visibly distressed and haunted by their past and present lives, and shadows are everywhere. When you can’t see them, you can feel them in between the pages.
Locke & Key is rich with history and a growing darkness that’s unlocked with every finding of every key. We know there’s evil among the good guys, and it’s masquerading as one of them, listening to their conversations and manipulating them. When’s the last time a comic both shook you to your core with authentic, human feeling and messed with your head as much as it did the characters’?
They have dimension, as big as the house. They mourn. They repress. They wonder. They bottle their emotions away or pour them out uncontrollably. These are characters in suffering, desperately clawing at whatever can set things right. Unfortunately, that counts for their enemies as well, and each side wants to win just as bad.
Clockworks prepares readers for the final chapter by bringing together all those secrets and knowledge and giving it to the Locke children — and to us. That’s power they can use. This volume is more about the people who came before than its main cast, but Hill still manages to prepare them for the battle ahead. Issues need resolving before Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode can move on and take back Keyhouse. It’s about the struggle of putting their lives back together, of confronting the grief within themselves.
Locke & Key always contains as many surprises as it does secrets, and each cliffhanger is more intense than the last. Only now, the stakes are higher than ever.(less)
Leave it to one of the best modern writers in comics to make Superman relevant again. The second volume of Earth One...more(From my blog, Misprinted Pages.)
Leave it to one of the best modern writers in comics to make Superman relevant again. The second volume of Earth One (on sale November 6) is a literal investigation into the man and legend: his personal life and why he refuses to let anyone get too close, his work persona and how he makes himself appear to the public, and also his budding career as the Man of Steel — whom the U.S. government is studying in case the world’s alien miracle ever turns on them.
As Clark Kent grapples with maintaining these identities, so does he struggle to find peace among them. The beautiful girl in the apartment next door wants to seduce him, but he won’t allow it: The risk of hurting her is too great. And as an up-and-coming reporter, he’s still learning how to balance hard journalism with the compassion that drives his stories. He finds similar conflict in his doings as Superman. This book tests his abilities to both help people and do what’s right for them; sometimes those two things can’t always be reconciled.
And to stop his newest enemy, the Parasite, who drains him of his energy and powers, Superman must walk as a mortal — helpless to the greater forces working against humanity. The experience is humbling, and it gives him a reason to fight harder. The world needs someone who can make it feel safe, even if it’s not.
Just as Superman is an alien in a human visage, the Parasite is a human in monster’s form. We see this kind of parallel of unbridled rage and strength in both characters, but it’s Superman who prevails: Not because he isn’t tempted to loose control, but because he is afraid to. That concern for the well-being of the people around him is what makes him a hero — and able to carry on where Parasite fails. At the same time, it cripples him, isolating him from the people he saves when he’s not wearing the suit. He keeps people at a distance, terrified that they’ll discover his secrets or come to harm because of them. These difficulties will continue to be a major part of Clark’s development as a superhero and as a person, and Straczynski ends the book with a sense of the growth ahead of him.
Shane Davis (the comic’s penciller) deserves accolades, too, for showing us the many conflicting sides of Superman: the vulnerable young boy, struggling in a world that can never truly accept him; the timid reporter and tenant, who keeps to himself to prevent others from learning the truth; and the dangerous, confident hero, carving his place in a world that needs him.
Straczynski ends the volume with uncertainties: two new figures are about to enter Superman’s life, and we already recognize their last names. But their roles are different — reversed from what we expect them to be. That air of mystery is what makes the book so irresistible. This is the Superman we know, but it feels like we’re only just starting to understand him.
Bottom line: The Superman you’ve wanted for years.(less)
I’m a big Buffy fan, as you can probably guess by my recent spotlight of the current comic book series and my review...more(From my blog, Misprinted Pages,)
I’m a big Buffy fan, as you can probably guess by my recent spotlight of the current comic book series and my review of Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion. But I need to step back to Buffy’s first outing in what’s considered “season eight,” an extension of the popular television show, only in print. The Long Way Home kicks it off.
(view spoiler)[Whedon begins the series by giving the main characters a moment to reflect on how leaving Sunnydale and breaking the chain of chosen ones has affected their lives.
“The thing about changing the world…. Once you do it, the world’s all different,” the opening line reads.
We start with Buffy, who’s now called “ma’am” more often than “Buf,” her usual nickname, and who’s leading an army of Slayers these days — not just potentials, but real Slayers. They might possess as much physical power as she does, but they need to learn how to fight together, not separately. Buffy’s experience in battle and knowledge of the demon world sets her ahead of the girls who are now her peers.
A lot has changed with the Scooby gang, too. Xander is a sort of sergeant of the troops, organizing their efforts against vampires and other baddies. His new role is a far cry from the old Xander, who worked construction and lived the most “normal” life of his friends, residing for a long while in his parents’ musty basement. He’s eased comfortably into his new position, and the girls respect him — especially a recruit named Renee.
And Dawn…well, she’s grown. By a large margin. We’re talking giant here, and she’s tight-lipped as to why she’s gone up fifty pant sizes. Of course, knowing Dawn, it probably has to do with her very small need for attention. ;P
A new threat is rising. Not only is there the whisper of something called Twilight, but the government isn’t happy with the “superior race” that’s running around the world. They’ve gone back to Buffy’s hometown (no longer a dot on the map) and enlisted the help of two old enemies to stop the Slayers. It’s a weird tag-team, but it’s a start — one that presents a believable danger to Buffy’s team, particularly her closest friends.
Everyone has a suitable place in the comic, which I like. Except Ethan Rayne. I don’t get his involvement at all.
The story isn’t the best — how did Willow not die, exactly? — but even having a story at all was and is a big deal to Buffy fans. Georges Jeanty is still feeling his way around the artwork, perfecting the characters’ likenesses (his work is highly regarded because of how well he manages to represent the show’s actors). The final issue in this volume doesn’t quite mesh with the rest of the book, but I like it anyway — it’s a look at one of the “decoy” Buffy Summers that the Scoobies planted to confuse their enemies.
Recommendation: A rocky beginning, but a definite read for anyone who loves the TV series. Find it for about $10. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)