Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sex Criminals: One Weird Trick by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Sex Criminals, Volume 1  Brilliant!  Suzie has the ability to stop time when she has sex.  She thinks she's the only one.  Then she meets Jon and discovers she's not alone.

I am fairly new to comics/graphic novels, only having started to read them regularly when DC Comics started its New 52 campaign.  With a few exceptions, I have mostly read superhero comics.  Sex Criminals is a refreshing change.  It is so funny, sweet, and well, just brilliant.  Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky pack a lot into this graphic novel: adolescents discovering their sexuality, not having anyone anyone to talk to about it, stumbling along and then meeting someone with whom everything just sort of clicks together.  I loved it and am looking forward to the next set of issues.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake   I am not sure how to describe Oryx and Crake.  It is definitely not a love story as is claimed in the blurb on the back cover.  (Seriously did the person who wrote the blurb even read the book?  Oryx and Crake don’t even appear in the same time and space until the last quarter of the book.)  It is a utopia (if such a thing even exists) or dystopia, depending on one’s point of view.  Chickens are bred to produce multiple breasts, wings, and other parts people like to eat.  There is a cure for nearly every disease so to keep making money pharmaceutical companies create new diseases to cure.  Genetic experimentation has been taken to the extremes with varying degrees of success.  In addition to the chickens there are pigoons, ranks, wolves.  The amazing thing about this story is that it all seems kind of possible.  The world Atwood describes is not so farfetched that I couldn’t imagine it happening in some form or another in the not too distant future.

Snowman (formerly known as Jimmy) tells the story in a non-linear format.  Stories of his childhood, his best (and only) friend Crake, and his life in a bubble (or compound) are intermixed with his life as Snowman among the Children of Crake after much of the world’s population has been decimated by a man made plague.  Snowman/Jimmy is sort of an everyman trying to survive after a disaster.  He has no special skills other than an ability to write snappy advertising slogans.  Yet somehow he has become the defacto leader of the Children of Crake, a sort of re-engineered species of humans.

For the first two-thirds of the book I had a hard time figuring out what this book was about.  I read and reread the blurb on the back cover to remind myself. That turned out to be little help because as noted earlier, this is not really a love story.   The story was interesting enough to keep me reading but there were chunks where I couldn’t help but wonder what the end goal was.  I mean in a mystery the goal is to figure out who did it.  In a romance the goal is for the two people to finally realize they are meant for one another.  In a fantasy novel there is usually some sort of quest.  Even in an ordinary non-genre fiction story there’s a “I was going about my day as normal and then this extraordinary thing happened and here’s how it changed me” storyline.  Here there wasn’t any of that, not exactly.  Even though a catastrophe has occurred Snowman is not trying to do anything in particular except get through the day and night.  It does come together in the end, but not until the last hundred pages or so.  Maybe I am too goal oriented but if someone asked me what this was about I am not sure I could answer in a coherent way.

This isn’t to say I didn’t like Oryx and Crake.  I did but it was also really easy to put down and walk away, at least until the end where the story starts to come together.  Thinking about it some more, I might describe it as a thought experiment or long form hypothetical posed in novel format.  It definitely makes one think.

This is the first in a trilogy.  The next two books are The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam.  Even though I'm still not quite sure what the story is about I am looking forward to seeing what happens next. 

The Year of the Flood   MaddAddam

Friday, May 16, 2014

Loaded by Christos Tsiolkas

Loaded  Loaded was the debut novel of Christos Tsiolkas.  It is an ambitious novel (Novella? It’s quite short) that touches on being the child of immigrants, sexuality, family, and connecting with other people.  It reminded me Catcher in the Rye (with the caveat that it has been a long time since I last read Catcher).  Like Holden Caulfield, Ari has failed out of school (Holden was kicked out), doesn’t have a job, and has no plans to get one. He is pissed off at the world and thinks most people are cowards who have blindly and stupidly bought into the job, mortgage, American capitalism dream or nightmare, depending on one’s perspective.  (I know this takes place in Australia and was written by an Australian author but America is referenced several times.)  Ari doesn’t want that life but he doesn’t yet have the strength to break away from it or know what kind of life he does want.  In the meantime, he spends his time drinking, drugging, and having sex with friends and strangers most of whom are men.  He isn’t about to tell his parents about that last part.  Ari is the son of Greek immigrants and they are angry enough about his lack of schooling, joblessness, partying, and general rejection of their life.

I liked this.  It was short and I wanted more, wanted there to be some sort of resolution.  Then again, the lack of a definitive resolution is probably a more truthful ending.  Tsiolkas is also the author of The Slap and Barracuda which I hope to read in the not too distant future.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Werewolf Sings the Blues by Jennifer Harlow

Werewolf Sings the Blues  Werewolf Sings the Blues is the second book in Jennifer Harlow’s Midnight Magic Mystery, though the events in the book actually take place before the first book in the series (What’s a Witch to Do?).  Between the two, I liked the witch book a bit more than this one. 

One reason why I had trouble connecting to this story was the main character, Vivian.  I don’t believe one has to necessarily like a character to like the story. (Gone Girl is an example where the main characters are totally unlikeable yet the story is totally compelling).  Still, if the characters don’t grab the reader, then there has to be something else to pull the reader in (again see Gone Girl).  Here, Vivian quickly grew tiresome and there wasn’t much else to grab my attention, which is probably why it took me so long to read this fairly short book.

Vivian wasn’t all bad but her bad girl antics started to feel like listening to a broken record after awhile.  The excuse for her behavior is her sad childhood.  Her father abandoned her and her mother when she was a baby (or so she was told) and her mother and stepfather all but ignored her, especially after her sister Jessie was born.  Vivian was literally the redheaded stepchild.  Like unhappy children do, Vivian rebelled, with drugs, alcohol, and minor skirmishes with the law, which of course only made her relationship with her mother and stepfather worse.  As an adult, Vivian is still struggling.  Her thirtieth birthday days way, Vivian gets some startling news: Werewolves exist.  Her father Frank is not only a werewolf, but the pack leader.  The werewolves are at war, and she, as the daughter of the pack leader, is in danger.  Enter handsome, muscular, blond guy, otherwise known as Jason, to the rescue.  Jason has his own daddy issues, and frankly they are much more serious than Vivian’s issues.  Yet, Jason is a fairly decent guy.  Vivian, in contrast and to use Jason’s words, is a wrecking ball.  She recognizes that her behavior is destructive but does it anyway.  I get it, she has low self-esteem.  I sympathize but her destructive behavior and general negativity got old pretty quickly.

I might have gotten past Vivian if there was an actual mystery here, this is part of the Midnight Magic Mystery series after all, but there isn't one.  Jason immediately explains the reason why Vivian is in danger.  Most of the book is about how (not if, because this is that kind of book) Jason and Vivian will make it to safety and how long it will take them till they realize they are in love with each other and they live happily ever after.  There is a question of who the traitor inside Frank’s pack is but even that isn't much of a mystery (let's just say it's the mean guy), and anyway this question doesn't really surface till late in the book and no one spends all that much time trying to figure it out.  If there had been a more of a mystery I think I would have liked this more.  Overall, this was okay but I would recommend What’s a Witch do Do? over this.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451: 50th Anniversary Edition

Fahrenheit 451 takes place in a society where houses are fireproof (unlike the “stick houses” of today) and the job of the fire department is to start fires not stop them.  Specifically the job of the fire department is to burn books.  I’m not sure entirely why.  There was something about preventing inequality and unhappiness but that seems like a cop out on so many levels.  Even if Bradbury was trying to play devil’s advocate nothing about that argument makes sense.  

I wish I had read Fahrenheit 451 in a high school English class, perhaps then I would have gotten more out of it.  Instead I was rather disappointed and if truth be told, a little annoyed.  The disappointment stemmed from the writing.  It is set in an alternate reality, but that reality wasn’t adequately described.  This reminded me a little bit of Matched which takes place in a society where literature, music, and other forms of art have been distilled town to the 100 best representatives of each and the rest has been destroyed.  I’m not saying Matched is a great piece of literature but it had better world building and a better explanation for why and how that society was organized the way it was than Fahrenheit 451 did.

My annoyance mostly had to do with a passage where one of the characters is describing how there used to be books and how those books had to be made less offensive as so not to offend “minorities”.  This really annoyed me.  It reminded me of when people make racist/homophobic/whatever remarks and then complain that their First Amendment Rights are being violated when other criticize them for it.  The First Amendment does not make one immune from criticism.  It simply means the government cannot prevent speech or punish speech (with a few limited exceptions).  Other people have just as much right to say what they want, including criticizing the first speaker.  If this book is meant to be an allegory about censorship then it seems to undermine itself with passage like the one just described.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro

The Art Forger  Claire Roth is a talented artist who makes bad decisions.  While an artist in her own right, for the last few years she has been making a living by copying famous paintings.  Whether she is a forger or merely a copier is a matter of intent.  A forger intends to pass her work off as the original while a copier and her patron acknowledge a copy is just that.  There is nothing illegal about copying another’s painting.  Claire’s work is even sold by company that has the word “reproduction” in its name – nothing misleading there.  

Claire became a copy artist work after a scandal involving her, her former mentor/boyfriend, and a painting left her a pariah in the art world.  Struggling professionally, personally, and financially Claire can’t turn away when Aiden Markel, a powerful gallery owner, offers Claire a way back into the art world with her own show.  All she will have to do is make one more copy, a credible copy of Degas’ fifth After the Bath.  To do this she needs to be able to examine the original up close, so Markel has the Degas painting delivered to Claire’s studio where she will create the copy.  The problem is After the Bath was one of the paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the still unsolved 1990 art heist.  None of the stolen paintings has ever been recovered or seen since 1990 so how did Markel come to possess it?  As she works an even bigger question begins to surface, as Claire begins to wonder if Markel’s original is itself a copy.  But if Markel’s original is really a copy, where is the actual original? 

This was so good! I’m not even sure why but I couldn’t put this book down, staying up late, getting up early, desperately needing to know what happened next.  B.A. Shapiro seamlessly weaves three time lines together – Claire in the present, Claire’s scandal three years earlier, and Isabella Stewart Gardener’s 19th century correspondence about her friendship with Degas.  Claire is ambitious and that ambition leads her to rationalize one bad decision after another in the present and the past.  Aside from Claire’s personal and professional moral drama, what really pulled me in was the mystery surrounding the 1990 art heist.  Though the book is fiction (as is Degas’ fifth After the Bath), the 1990 theft from the Gardener Museum did actually happen.  The crime still has not been solved and the paintings and sketches that were stolen have never been recovered.  There have been many theories about who was behind the theft and where the artwork is now.  In The Art Forger Shapiro offers her version of what happened to at least one of the paintings.  The enjoyment I got from this was highly unexpected and very much appreciated.

Monday, May 5, 2014

What's a Witch to Do? by Jennifer Harlow

What's a Witch to Do?  Mona is a giver who has spent most of her life taking care of other people.  She helped raise her younger sisters and is now raising her nieces after their mother abandons them.  As the high priestess (aka the head witch) of her coven Mona mentors and advises the other witches.  At one time or another people in the small southern town where she lives, half of whom she is related to, have found Mona's door open when they needed help. On top of all that Mona runs her own business and is active in her community, human and supernatural.  And what does she get in return for all her generosity?  Death threats.

When Adam, a werewolf from her past, comes crashing into Mona's life with the news that someone in her coven is trying to kill her, Mona channels her inner Miss Marple and tries to identify her potential murderer.  She figures it must be one of the women who would be eligible to succeed her as the high priestess in the event of her death.  Luckily she doesn't have to solve the mystery alone as Adam decides to stick around and be her bodyguard.

What's a Witch to Do? is a cozy mystery-paranormal-romance centered around a witch and a werewolf, with a vampire and a demon thrown in for good (or not so good) measure.  It was a little predictable with obvious misdirects on both the romantic and mystery story fronts and I solved the mystery of the potential murderer long before Mona did.  Still I enjoyed the ride.  I recently listened to a podcast where one of topics was literary palate cleansers to be read in between heavier books.  This is perfect for that.  The romance was sweet.  The mystery, well there wasn't much of a mystery, but that's okay.  It was quirky and quick in just the right way.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Bookish Events and Other Bookish Goodness

Free Comic Book Day

Saturday, May 3rd is Free Comic Book Day!  Participating Comic Book Stores around North America will be giving away free comics.  There will be comics for kids, comics for adults, and comics for everyone in between.  It is a great way to get introduced to comics.  It is also a wonderful way to get young reluctant readers interested in reading.  You can find more information about this event, including a list of the comics and participating stores near you, here.

Levar Burton thinks Free Comic Book Day is pretty great too:

Here is an even better video from the Reading Rainbow pioneer.

California Bookstore Day

This Saturday is also California Bookstore Day.  Celebrate at your local independent bookstore with readings, prizes, and other treats.  I have never participated in an event like this before and don't know what to expect but any event that celebrates bookstores sounds good to me!  Look here for information including a list of participating bookstores near you.

The Underground New York Public Library

I just think the Underground New York Public Library is cool.  It is a collection of photos of people reading on the subway.  I used to live in New York and remember getting quite a bit of reading done during my commute to and from work.  I miss living in a city with a truly massive transit system that could you most places in the city limits and that enabled me to read while doing it.  Plus seeing people read makes me happy.  So does seeing people running when I'm running.  Whenever I see people doing either (not at the same time, that would be dangerous as is walking and reading which I see people do all the time) I just think how great it is people are doing something to keep their minds and bodies as strong and healthy as possible.

Happy Reading!

Odds On by Michael Crichton writing as John Lange

Odds On  The basic plot of Odds On is pretty simple:  Three criminals plan to rob the Reina, a luxury resort hotel in Spain.  To ensure their success they have had every aspect of the crime plotted out and simulated on a computer.  There is talk of punch cards to give you an idea when this book was written.  Of course, nothing goes quite as planned.

Odds On was published by Hard Case Crime, an imprint that specializes in publishing new and republishing old hard-boiled crime fiction.  I have always loved old-fashioned dimestore novels.  In fact I kind of prefer romance novels and certain mystery and crime novels in mass market paperback size and will go out of my way to get them in that format.  It just feels right.  Hard Case Crime has done a great job recreating the look and feel of those old-fashioned novels.  This is most notably demonstrated in the cover art.  In keeping with the old-fashioned dimestore novels from the 40s,  50s, and 60s each novel has a lurid cover, usually involving a woman in a provocative pose.  The artwork is pretty amazing and is yet another reason why I prefer physical books, or tree books, to ebooks.

As for this specific tree book, it was okay.  it started off slow and sped up toward the end. At first this reminded me of Oceans 11.  There is a crazy scheme with a bunch of moving parts, so many characters I had trouble keeping them straight, set against a wealthy backdrop.  Ultimately this was not as fun as Oceans 11 but then Oceans 11 might not be as much to read as it was to watch. 

Check out Hard Case Crime to learn about other novels in the series and see some of the great artwork.