Sunday, October 19, 2014

Comics Round Up!

First off, okay, I lied about posting this weekend.  It was a crazy weekend; I did the best I could.

But I did manage to finish a lot of books, so let's do some quick comics hits. I feel like I never have a full review-worth to say about a comic, unless I'm reviewing a bunch of volumes at the same time.  But since I have a bunch of first volumes to talk about, may I present:

Graphic Novel Mini-Reviews!

My new favorite thing is Amulet, which is fodder for another post, but it's made me a huge fan of Kazu Kibuishi.  He hasn't written a ton of books, but he's edited a ton of comics anthologies, and I recently read Explorer: The Mystery Boxes, which was quite charming.  As with any anthology, some of the stories were better than others, and I'm pretty sure it was intended for a middle grade audience.  Some of the stories are completely charming--I especially liked Jason Caffoe's "The Keeper's Treasure," about a treasure hunter and the beast who guards the prize, and Rad Sechrist's "The Butter Thief," about a girl who is transformed into a spirit and has to steal a stick of butter from her wily grandmother to win back her form.

But I think my favorite was Emily Carroll's "Under the Floorboards."  Carroll is one of my new favorites, and this story was just the right blend of creepy and clever. 

Morning Glories was listed as a favorite by someone I know online, and the rest of her list read exactly like mine, so I picked it up.  The premise seemed really promising--six oddball teens end up at an elite boarding school that is more than it seemed--but as I started reading, I felt like it wasn't quite coming together.  It was just kind of crazy and a little warped.

Then I read a little further, and I realized, no, this book isn't a little crazy, it's BAT$&*^ INSANE, and it's not off the wall, it's hanging from the ceiling dripping black ichor on your shoulders (metaphorically; no beasties (yet)), and yeah, I'm totally on board now.  The pretense that we were going to take the notion of boarding school seriously when there are attempted murders and actual murders and etc. going on was bugging me, but we left that behind, and now it's about our heroes versus their captors/teachers, and being the rats who can see the maze but can't escape it.  Volumes 2 and 3 are both already acquired.

This next one was an advance copy from Netgalley, and as soon as I requested it I felt a little dirty, because it's about serial killers and the beginning is kind of gross and I know I'm a bit of a sucker for horrifying sensationalism. But I kept reading, and guys, Nailbiter is really, really good.  Like, fast paced and actiony, not spending too much time on the gore, but really about investigation, with very likeable detectives. 

Basically there's this town in Oregon with the unlikely name of Buckaroo and the even more unlikely honor of being the home of 16 separate serial killers in the past 50 years.  This is weird, and when a disgraced FBI agent gets a call from an old friend who claims to have figured it out, he heads out to Buckaroo to meet him.  But the friend is missing, and the most recent killer, the Nailbiter, is out on parole, so the agent teams up with the local sheriff (who dated the Nailbiter in high school) to try to sort things out. 

This summary doesn't cut it--this book is really about the mystery, which is probably supernatural.  There's dying, but very little of it is visually graphic, and it's not particularly grosser than most supernatural detective stories.  I mean, it is violent--I'm not recommending this to people who are averse to serial killer stories.  But I'm really excited about this discovery; can't wait to read more!


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Apologia

I've been on such a roll of blogging regularly that I feel the need to tell you that I can't post a review today; I'm just flat out with work stuff and class parent stuff.  BUT I do have a bunch of comics to review, so I'll try to get a post up this weekend, and back to my regularly scheduled program on Monday!

Just for visual interest, here's a selfie of me and some redwoods from our trip to San Francisco this summer. 


Not particularly flattering, but hey! Redwoods!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I Had a Dream

I've been thinking about doing NaNoWriMo this year, but I wasn't sure what to write.  And then I had this crazy dream the other night that might actually have a story in it (though I doubt I can keep the climax where we have to get Jon Bon Jovi to Germany in time to find an interdimensional portal).  So guys, I think I might try to do NaNoWriMo this year.

If I do, I have to do some prep work in the next few weeks.  I don't need a detailed outline, but I need a vague idea of an endgame or I write myself into corners.  I don't understand how everything always turns out okay in most books.  I'm much better at coming up with insurmountable problems than with surmounting them.

Am I crazy?  I think I might be crazy.  But I need to kick into gear, and this might be just the thing.  If I do it, my reading will probably go downhill, though I think I'll probably post here for accountability.  (Speaking of which, hi, Lianna!)

Exciting.  Nervous.  NaNo.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Conspiracy Facts

This book...I don't know what to make of this book.

Paolo Bacigalupi is someone I've always thought I should read more of.  I loved Ship Breaker; I really want to get to The Drowned Cities sometime soon.  The first few pages of The Windup Girl and was a bit overwhelmed by the world building, so I never finished reading it, but I've begun to suspect that that's a shame and I should really give it a try. 

So I was excited to read an ARC of The Doubt Factory from Netgalley.  (As of this writing, the book's not out yet, so the links go to the free Kindle preview of the book.)  And it confirms my belief that Bacigalupi is a writer I like, even while I can't say I love the book.

How do I feel about it?  Well, it's definitely not bad.  I would say that the first half suffered a little from being dragged out, and I have a guess about that--the pacing of the setup is very much the pacing of a world with a lot of building to do.  This is the first Bacigalupi book that takes place in the here-and-now, and the amount of time spent setting up Alix and her privileged life at her fancy boarding school and happy family is more appropriate to the setup of a world like Ship Breaker, where we need to spend pages on the characters' day-to-day patterns of living because they are so very unfamiliar, and they are the only way we'll come to understand the character.

This book, on the other hand, is an Issue Book (I wish I could remember/find the blog I read that reviewed it recently, because it pointed this out very neatly), and as such it depends on the reality of the world it takes place in.  So all that world building and scene setting starts to feel like back story, and the fact that the actual Point of the book (and the Point of this book has a capital P) is kind of teased for a long time without being explicit starts to become a weakness before that aspect of the storytelling plays itself out. 

(Note that the rest of this review will be a little spoilery thematically, though not plot-wise.)

Not that the action doesn't start out right away.  We begin when Alix, gazing idly out the window of her upper-crust prep school chem lab, sees a guy staring up at the building.  When the principal approaches the guy, he punches him.  The students are intrigued, but that's about it.

Then we spend some time in Alix's life, and there's another incident at school, and Alix realizes that this guy--this group--is targeting her.  Her family gets protection, law enforcement gets involved, and eventually we come around to the Point, and the Issue of this Issue book.

The issue is about how big corporations seriously screw the little guy.  It's about how regulation is inadequate, and business is amoral, and products (especially drugs) are not sufficiently safe, and people make tons of money with lies.  Think Big Tobacco.  Not just ignorance, but lies. 

Now, these are things I believe to be true.  Is this a factor of me being an adult reading a YA book?  I know this is how the world works, and I have no doubt about it.  But it makes the book a little heartbreaking to read, because I feel like I already know the ending--we are not going to bring down corporate America or our fabulous "capitalism as morality" system with one big movement.  The book even makes the point that people who see and point out the "conspiracy" are labeled as nuts, even when they are and can be proven objectively right.

So I feel like this book was trying to open my eyes and mind to an idea that I've already thought about a lot and found an uneasy truce with.  This is a place where a teenager might be motivated to action, or taught a healthy and constructive cynicism, but where I, a (let's admit it) middle aged lady, am left kind of deflated by my inability to connect with the characters' sense of hope.

When it comes down to the story--the characters, the plot--it's very well-told, and I loved a lot of the secondary characters, from Cynthia, Kook, and Tank to Lisa the Death Barbie.  I liked that Alix was really a very typical girl, not a Chosen One or super-special--though Moses's fascination with her from the beginning leaned a bit in that direction, and their fascination with each other was really quite Instalovey.   

I can't tell you the end, because I'm not quite there yet.  I will say that this book has definitely encouraged me to read more Bacigalupi (and I'm starting to love typing his name and saying it out loud: Bacigalupi, Bacigalupi), and that it's cemented that he can build character and construct a story.  This just wasn't the particular story for me.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Hollow Girl

I will admit that I requested Tin Lily, by Joann Swanson, from Netgalley because it sounded like it might be sensational and melodramatic.  Lily and her mother have left her father, until one night he shows up and shoots her mother.  Now Lily's in mourning and trying to move on to a new life, with the threat of her uncaptured father still hanging over her head.  I'll admit to kind of wanting an angsty thriller.

So any disappointment around those expectations were clearly my own fault; this is a story about someone who's been through loss and trauma and is trying to find her way back to feeling again.  She's hollow and unconnected, without her mother, unable to understand how her once-beloved father has become this horrifying person, hoping that the aunt she's never been close to will keep her.  It's about dissociation and flattened affect, about the inability to feel anything.

The second half of the book is much stronger than the first; in other circumstances, I might have put it down halfway through and given it two stars.  It wasn't bad, per se, but there's not a lot there--a description of events, almost procedural in nature, like someone describing an episode of Law & Order from the point of view of a witness.

Really, it's about dissociation, flattened affect, and the sense of blankness that comes from trauma.  Lily is made of tin because she's light hand hollow, with no room for feeling.  So after a very brief scene of violence at the beginning, there's a LOT of going through the motions, which is not that interesting to read about.  There are a few interesting observations of that sense of hollowness--her use of a thread, or train of thought, to keep herself from thinking the dangerous things, for example--but for the most part it's bare motions being gone through.

I might have put it down halfway through, but it was going quickly and I wanted to review it, so I kept reading, and the end was better.  The process of Lily's healing gets more active--she makes a new friend, gets a good therapist, learns more about her parents' histories.  It's a very mundane story of surviving trauma, which is kind of what I liked about these parts--the therapist is good and trustworthy, her new friend is human and helpful, and the self help book is actually useful.  If she keeps some secrets that would have better been shared, well, her reason is relatively understandable, given her state of mind, and she changes course at a point where a reasonable person should be expected to.

But then, at the end, I got my action when Lily's father shows up to finish the job.  I think Hank is the weak point in the whole thing--by trying to make him both realistic and human, he turned into kind of a parody of irrationality.  He's clearly an alcoholic, but is he also schizophrenic?  He was abused as a child, but how was he just a flat out great guy till he started hanging out with his dad? In trying to show how Lily and her mom could love him and stay with him so long, the frail human and abusive monster and loving dad got all jumbled together, and his psychology actually didn't seem to make much sense to me at all.

I don't know--as I read the book, I felt like it was probably two stars.  By the end, I kind of wanted to give it three.  Looking strictly at the labels Goodreads gives their stars (two is "it was okay" and three was "I liked it"), I think I'd be solidly in 2.5 land.  I haven't decided how many I'll actually give.  I'll be very curious to see what the author does next.

So there's my review.  Do with it as you will. 

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

A Good Story

It's absolutely ludicrous that I should be signal boosting a big name like the Book Smugglers, but they have begun their story publishing endeavor and I want to sing about it to the rooftops.  I've fantasized about this exact thing--soliciting and then publishing just those exact stories that you yourself most would love to read.  If I was the Smugglers, it's what I'd want to do, and I'm just tickled that they're doing it!

So, free today at TheBookSmugglers.com, you can read S.L. Huang's new story, Hunting Monsters, for free.  I bought it a few days ago through their direct link (so I could read it early; see the bottom of their page) or you can buy it on Amazon if you want it on your Kindle (see my link above).  It's really great, highly recommended.

Their first round of stories--this year, this publishing season, what have you--is about subversive fairy tale retellings, and I'm looking forward to the whole thing.  This one did a beautiful job blending several fairy tales while being its own story, and playing out the results of a lot of the messed up things that happen in fairy tales.  I loved that the action was entirely separate from the familiar stories--those are the background for the drama that's unfolding in the here and now.

As Auntie Rosa says so many times in the story, it's so complicated.  Life is complicated, and the things we did when were young, the things we were shaped by and still have to own, the things we forgive and the secrets we keep--it's never black and white.  I always have to remind myself of that; I love how this story laid it out.

Can't wait for the next one!

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Audio Magic

My favorite kind of audiobook is something that I would have considered fine but nothing special if it hadn't been for the performance.  I mean, a great book turned into a great audiobook is tautologically great, but I like it when a book that might not have been entirely worth my time is elevated by an excellent performance.

So I'm glad I found Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo, narrated by Lauren Fortgang.  I've been meaning to read the book for ages, but I just sort of never got around to it, and to tell you the truth, it's that kind of book--YA fantasy that entertains but doesn't stick to your ribs.  It's got a pretty great Russian-type setting, which is very nice, especially when the things like royal opulence vs. peasant misery are carried over. 

Still, though, it was mostly your standard ultra-average-girl-finds-out-she's-the-chosen-one storyline.  There are some twists and turns, some good, some heavy-handed.  It's a pretty good book. 

But what it's great at is filling my need for an audiobook.  The reader has a very matter-of-fact voice, and she brings a lot more skepticism and sarcasm than the voice in my head would have heard for Lina's voice.  I also think that her very American accent did a lot to keep any parts of the book with high fantasy pretensions grounded--I didn't get lost in Fantasy Story mode because the reader kept Lina a real person, reminding me of her flaws and feelings when the writing itself might have skated over them.

So the kingdom of Ravka is divided in half by an impenetrable desert of blackness called the Shadow Fold (note that all spellings and capitalizations are guesses on my part), which can be crossed thanks to the powers of the grisha (magic-wielders).  Ravka suffers--cut off from her ports, the Shadow Fold only crossable with heavy casualties (man-eating creatures live there in the dark), at war on all borders.

Then Lina, an orphaned apprentice cartographer in the army, is discovered to have latent magic powers--sun-summoning powers, which could help the Darkling (head of the grisha) to destroy the Shadow Fold.  She's whisked away from her life into the glamorous world of the grisha.

Now, if I'd written this review yesterday, it would have been all upbeat, but I'm closing in on the ending and I have to warn you that the climax of the story relies on something that, while not quite a deus ex machina, had me throwing up my hands in frustration.  It's a plot point, and it's kind of spoilery so I won't give any details at all, but I will say that I could let what seems like a tonal inconsistency surrounding the magical system go, but I seriously rolled my eyes when the big twist came at the very last moment for no reason.  Like, Glinda, why didn't you tell Dorothy about the shoes back in Munchkinland and save her all that walking? 

So I have to admit that that had me pretty infuriated.  And I see what the author is trying to do--to show that what seemed to be Lina's weakness is really her strength, and to paint her as genuinely flawed, because some bad decisions get made there.  But in service of that admirable goal, there are some shenanigans that took me out of the spell that the story had on me, and that was a shame.

So, I'm giving this four stars overall, but one full star of that belongs to Lauren Fortgang, as does my intent to immediately acquire the sequel.  In audiobook form of course.