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Book Review: the Very Best of Kate Elliott

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Book Review: the Very Best of Kate Elliott

Review by: Prof. Jenn

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I’ll admit to you, readers, that I was disappointed by this book for one reason, and one reason only: I tried to speed-read through it because my review queue was so long, and was unable to do so. The stories in this collection are so myriad in setting and tone, so compelling, that I had to stop and read through at a slower pace, enjoying and absorbing each tale.

This collection spans multiple worlds of Elliott’s (plus some non-fiction which is equally fascinating): some stories are stand-alone, some take place in already-created sci fi or fantasy worlds already in the Elliott canon. All feature women as central (or at least essentially pivotal) characters, without every story being about feminist preaching, which is important in itself. The focus in all of them is on the story, driven by well-drawn characters. All these characters are rich, flawed, engaging, and in every single story the reader wants to know what happens next (hence my inability to speed-read). It’s no easy feat to accomplish rich world-building in such a short form as the short story, but Elliott nails it in each and every one. And one doesn’t have to be familiar with her work to enjoy this collection, though I daresay I’m going to go out to my nearest bookstore and find more by her after having read this.

There is no orbiting outside this collection: it’s an absorbing read, for anyone who enjoys sci fi, fantasy, blending of the two, excellent characters, Elliot’s previous work, or dang good storytelling. Or all of the above.

Bottom Line: I highly recommend this Best of collection.

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Graphic Novel Review: The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

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There is a huge difference between a good graphic novel and a great one. Good graphic novels are prevalent–they’re beautiful, well-written, and an all-around underestimated genre. Still, a great graphic novel is rare and elusive, and will possess some quality that can’t be found in any other book, a unique visual element that the novel cannot subsist without. My favorite graphic novel is Asterios Polyp, which exhibits this quality effortlessly. The Sculptor, Scott McCloud’s book that came out in early February, also contains visual elements that make it settle above the crowded alleys of its neighboring competitors.

The story is as follows: David Smith is one of many David Smiths. He’s not even the only David Smith in the art world. But one day he’s offered a deal by  Death himself–a tremendous gift that would allow him to leave his artistic mark on the world, at the price of his remaining life, which would be cut down to 200 days. David accepts the deal and is given the ability to mold any material with his bare hands, but shortly after meets a girl and falls in love.

At nearly 500 pages, this formidable graphic novel is gorgeously illustrated in blue monochrome. Though this is not McCloud’s first foray into books–he has written a few others about comics–it is his first graphic novel. Despite this, it reads like a self-actualized veteran’s accomplishment.

The main character, David, is a frustratingly tortured artist struggling to make his mark on the world. He continues his downward spiral even after he receives his thorny but incredible gift from Death. Then he meets Meg–who appears to him as an Angel during a street performance–and immediately falls in love. Meg is the embodiment of the manic pixie dream girl, instantly loved by all who meet her, constantly helping others at her own expense. As the story progresses, Meg’s character grows beyond the stereotype. McCloud has addressed the manic pixie trope in interviews. Meg is actually based on his own wife. “I married the trope — what am I gonna do?” he says.

Though The Sculptor does not necessarily tread any new ground, it explores its themes of death, memory, and artistic fulfillment, well. David’s artwork, which he takes to the streets, eventually manipulating the entire city to fit his vision, is the needed element in The Sculptor that elevates this novel from good to great. It’s a sad tale, but it gives the gift of hope to the reader and the graphic novel enthusiast who wants this art form to succeed.

Book Review: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

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This review doesn’t come with a trigger warning, that just happens to be the name of Neil Gaiman’s newest short story collection, which was released in early February. As usual, Gaiman delivers a unique cavalcade of stories marching in a variety of different formats. Stories in the first and third person, stories told as one half of an interview transcript, and stories that may read traditionally, but always don a twist. There is truly a wide variety of fiction here, for which Gaiman apologizes in his own introduction.

“I firmly believe that short story collections should be the same sort of thing all the way through. They should not, hodgepodge and willy-nilly, assemble stories that were obviously not intended to sit between the same covers… This collection fails that test. For this failure, as for so much, I request your indulgence and forgiveness…”

Trigger Warning amasses a collection of stories that were not meant to live in the same world, some of which were already given worlds of their own. “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” and “The Sleeper and the Spindle” already have their own bona-fide illustrated versions. “A Calendar of Tales” assembles all of the material that Gaiman wrote with the help of Twitter and BlackBerry. “Feminine Endings” has been around for ages, and any Gaiman fan has probably been aware of it since Neil first hooked up with Amanda Palmer back in 2009.

Still, there is a character to Gaiman’s writing that remains consistent. An oddness, a strange frankness about the world, that ties these disparate stories together. They are all so very Gaiman-y, which means, in some strange way, that they are all very much ours.

The stories twist and turn and surprise you, in their own way. Some of them are surprisingly funny, like “Orange,” the story of a girl answering questions about her sister turning into a god. [This happens to be one of my personal favorites from the collection]. There are the takes on classic horror (“Click-Clack the Rattlebag”), a Doctor Who story (featuring the 11th Doctor and Amy, so what’s not to love?), a Sherlock story, and a tale following the American Gods hero, Shadow. Then there are the heart-breaking new characters, making their first and only appearance in this book.

It is a worthwhile collection that possesses the ability to turn any short-story naysayer around.

Cover Artwork for Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

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Graphic Novel Review: Seconds

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With 2014 beginning to fade from recent memory, it’s about time I write about my favorite graphic novel of the preceding year: Bryan Lee O’Malley’s book Seconds. Released over the summer, it is O’Malley’s first published work since the last Scott Pilgrim installment was issued in 2010. The story follows Katie, a young chef trying to open another restaurant so she can leave Seconds (her first culinary establishment and the place where she lives in an apartment upstairs). After a dramatic incident in which a young waitress gets injured, Katie discovers her resident house spirit, who gives her a mushroom and an opportunity to erase a mistake and rewrite events. Soon afterward, Katie finds a patch of these mushrooms and begins abusing their power, despite Lis, the house spirit’s insistence that they should only be used once per person.

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Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley

The back of the book, with dust jacket partially pulled back to show the design underneath.

The book itself is beautiful. The half dust jacket and cover boards have different designs, giving it a unique style. I’m also a sucker for any novel that takes the color of the panel lines into account (props to the colorist, Nathan Fairbairn).

Seconds differs quite a bit from the Scott Pilgrim series, and more resembles his first graphic novel Lost at Sea. The book is a single, contained story, rather than a series released manga-style. The story also incorporates a narrator, though there is some witty banter exchanged between it and the main character, implying that the narrator may be an inner voice of Katie’s. These quirks bring the story to life. There are even some nods to Scott Pilgrim for O’Malley’s dedicated fans. (Scott and Ramona are eating in the restaurant on page 259, for example).

Main character Katie looking pretty cartoony next to her hunky new husband. (Ignore my appropriately themed bookmark in the upper right).

One of the Second’s flaws is its main character, which is admittedly sort of the point–she is flawed to a fault. As she digs herself farther into trouble by continuing to eat the mushrooms that erase her numerous mistakes, it seems to take an unbelievable amount of time for her to learn from these errors. She is hard to root for. Katie differs even in style from the others. O’Malley’s style is cartoony, but Katie’s design takes it to another level, as she is the only character with gravity-defying anime hair.

There is nothing groundbreaking in Seconds; no new story elements or decisions that set it far apart from other works, but it has just the right amount of humor, quirk, and design to make it pop. I want more graphic novels like this, with a single developed story that plays with narrative styles, and some nice resolution at the end. Seconds is worth checking out, and not just for Scott Pilgrim fans.

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Book Review: A Dance in Blood Velvet

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Book Review: A Dance in Blood Velvet by Freda Warrington

Review by Prof. Jenn

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The re-publishing of Warrington’s lush vampire epic continues with A Dance in Blood Velvet–a story that takes place after They Lived Happily Ever After. Because hey, vampires really do have literally the opportunity to do so. However, as former humans with every human foible still intact, it’s not so simple. Relationships become tautly intertwined as Karl’s former companions reawaken and challenge what Charlotte has found and begun with her new life as a vampire. Charlotte herself is learning what sort of a vampire she is becoming as well as dealing with searing jeolousy which finds manifestation (or retaliation?) in her obsession with a ballerina.

Warrington has a gift for portraying realistic strong feelings and is an excellent author of character. Because of this, what we get in this sequel is not over-ornate romanticism but powerful driven characters, going for their objectives no matter what. The reader finds it hard to put the book down, as long as it is, because she must find out what happens next. As far as how it reads as a sequel, I can imagine someone coming into this story without having traveled with the characters before, as there is enough explanation (without info dumps) and opening discussions between Karl and Charlotte that one could hit the ground running without having read the first one. Though, you’ll want to read the first one too.

This book ends with a potential serial villain much in the vein of Batman’s Catwoman–definitely an antagonist and dangerous, but surprisingly not always not on our heroes’ side…and we are left with the idea that yes, we will be seeing this villain again.

Bottom Line: this series is extremely well written–A Dance in Blood Velvet is a taut, tense, exhilarating read.

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Book Review: Chicks Dig Gaming

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Book Review: Chicks Dig Gaming ed. by Brozek, Pearson, Smith?, & Rabe

Review by Prof. Jenn

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Books of this nature can easily fall into the trap of redundancy. Witness my review for Queers Dig Timelords, another anthology of this ilk, and indeed in this series. Chicks Dig Gaming does not, however, fall prey to the trap. The collection of essays span from wicked satire to sweet nostalgic memoir, to a celebration of gaming in general or certain games, a recounting of a particular gaming event, to analysis of a game or game trope, a recounting of the history of video games, to the ever-important discussion of the unfair and even dangerous treatment of women in the gaming world. This collection doesn’t only discuss video games, but board games, LARPing and pen-and-paper RPGs are discussed as well.

My problem with Queers…, as you recall, was that the essays all had the same tone and even the same subject matter (Doctor Who changed my life because…). This, especially read in big sections in one sitting, started to grate on the nerves, or at least became repetitive fawning. Chicks...doesn’t do this, as each essay has an author voice distinct from every other, and the topics at hand vary widely. I commend the editors for this, as it’s an entertaining as well as an informative read throughout.

Highlights of this collection include: a satirical look at the lack of boys in video gaming and what we can do about it, a paralleling of Mario to a bodhisattva and the Mario games to Buddhism, how one author who didn’t like video games at all tried Portal, and a delightfully written description of how another author learned to get cutthroat in Eve Online.

Bottom Line: this collection is highly recommended for anyone who loves any games.

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Book Review: Jackrabbit

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Book review: Jackrabbit by Ian Healy

Review by Prof. Jenn

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Ian Healy has delivered again in this next installment of superhero novels in the Just Cause universe. As I have written before, I have and continue to enjoy Healy’s ability to embody the coming-of-age voice, as well as the voice of the “regular Joe,” whether they are superpowered or not. (Sorry, “parahuman” is the correct term in his universe.) In Jackrabbit, though, we run into a new kind of parahuman–that of the Herald. The cheeky rabbit god and his buddy the frog god run into a new, insectile god in God’s Land–and it is revealed that this new god isn’t one invented by humans. This is a big deal, and not a good thing, at all. So (as it so often is) it’s up to our trickster god Leporidus to save the day. He begins his rescue plan by choosing a Herald–that is, a human who will embody the god on Earth. He selects hapless nerdy teenager Jay and, as it turns out, he has made an excellent choice.

Since I know Ian personally (we grew up together through Talented and Gifted programs in junior and senior high school as well as the theatre programs in said schools), I can slap him a virtual yet hearty high five in glorifying the nerd in this world. Even with today’s “geek chic,” nerds are still the victims of bullying today, and actually the nasty insect takeover of Earth event in this novel is connected directly to the theme of bullying. What Healy does very well is illustrate real human beings, whether it’s the coming of age type of Jay/Jackrabbit here or Mustang Sally in his earlier works, or “normal” folks trying to deal with the extraordinary, as in yet other novels in the Just Cause universe. And I love that the female hero is adorably annoying–it’s so great that she’s not flawless, but we still love her. Thanks for the realism and the joy amid the tense action. Also, thank Heaven for an African-American protagonist hero.

Usually I adore Healy’s Just Cause books without question, but I had a couple minor reservations about this one: a) why does Jay have to get all buff and huge when he transforms? Isn’t he a better Rabbit god herald by staying slight and quick? b) Bunny, Jay’s best friend, smacks of the stereotypical Gay Best Friend. In fact, he reminds me of the gay dancer friend in the 1984 movie Breakin’. maybe it’s the dance studio thing. Anyway… c) Jay turns real cheeky once he becomes Jackrabbit. he was pretty meek before. I’m not quite buying his snarky transformation. Maybe if he were already getting in trouble because of his wit and cheek, before he transformed? That way we can see exactly why Leporidus chose him, and his personality later would fit, etc. d) I hate to say it, as I love the ending, but I think it was a little too easily achieved. All of you, go out and read it and come back and tell me what you think.

Bottom Line: Jackrabbit is a fantastic novel and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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Book Review: Blade of the Samurai

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Book Review: Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann

Review by: Prof. Jenn

 

How good a combination is a ninja-detective, seriously? What a perfect set of skills to be able to solve a murder in 16th-century Japan. Blade of the Samurai is a sequel to Claws of the Cat, which are historical thrillers starring Hiro, our shinobi protagonist, and his partner in solving crime, Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest. With these two intellects at the helm of any investigation, no murderer will stay safe for long. Admittedly I haven’t read the first in this series, so I can’t tell you how the characters have evolved in this sequel, but I can tell you if this is your first foray into the investigations of these two, you will have no problem getting to know our characters, their situations, and setting immediately.

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An official in the shogunate has been murdered, and a whiff of a plot to assassinate the shogun himself is in the air as Hiro and Mateo are conscripted to investigate the murder before Oda comes to invade Kyoto. The inclusion of real historical figures (Nobunaga Oda, Hattori Hanzo, etc.) and detailed descriptions of the 16th century Japanese setting plunges us right into the setting as good historical fiction does. However, the quick, clipped pace, the tension begun right as the story begins, and the short chapters make this also a well-crafted whodunit. This book is difficult to put down, and is a quick, exciting read. It’s also a fun addition to have the cultural differences pop up between Father Mateo and his Japanese surroundings (especially noble and samurai encounters, normal Western gestures and thoughts being offensive to the Japanese characters). The outcome of the mystery is complex and not cookie-cutter easy, and the end leaves us with many open ends ready for another sequel (Flask of the Drunken Master, out in 2015).

Bottom Line: Blade of the Samurai is highly recommended.

 

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Book Review: Yesterday’s Kin

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Book Review: Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

Review by Prof. Jenn

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Yesterday’s Kin is a novelette which takes us on a breakneck pace through the philosophical, scientific, and psychological implications of a near-future contact with alien life. They come in peace, they come with some scientific advancements but not totally all-powerful, and we experience them through the POV of a prominent scientist and her flighty, dreamy, ne’er-do-well son. What the aliens’ actual purpose is for parking in New York Harbor and what happens to the people of Earth (and what will happen) is a fascinating, intelligent and intuitive discussion of the old “are we alone” question of so much sci fi.

The book is written in third-person limited POV, and is limited to two perspectives only: Marianne”s (the scientist) and Noah’s (her son), which makes what we know and when we know it tightly dictated and suspenseful. By the time we get to the big twist/revelation at the end, whether or not the reader has guessed it already is irrelevant–it’s a tense moment nonetheless.

Bottom Line: Yesterday’s Kin is highly recommended. I read it through in one sitting. I think it’d make a great movie…

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Noah-books

Book Review x2: Noah, Noah: Ila’s Story

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Two, two, two reviews in one!: Noah by Mark Morris and Noah: Ila’s Story by Susan Korman

Review by Prof. Jenn

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Sigh. Well these books are pretty awful.

Noah is the official novelization of the the movie of the same name (screenplay by Aronofsky and Handel). The story follows Biblical figure Noah from the preface of him seeing his father killed by barbarians through his vision of cataclysm and subsequent construction of the Ark and the saving of all the animals, two by two. Ila’s Story is a novella/knockoff/something-or-other that retells the story in Noah but with much less detail and in the POV of character Ila.

Since I am a lit professor by trade, I can’t bring myself to write a completely negative review of anything, no matter how poor in quality. So here are the redeeming qualities of these two books: hm…let’s see…

  • The Watchers are a cool concept (well everything here is a Biblical concept but you get what I mean), and seeing them in both their manifestations in this story is satisfying.
  • It’s always interesting from a character study standpoint to delve into the complexities of psychological motivation in an old and/or archetypical character. Having all the sturm und drang of Noah’s psyche as he struggles to keep control of crazy circumstances is a neat exploration of an old character.
  • The addition of Ila makes for more strong female presence in a story traditionally male-centered.

Yeah, that’s as kind as I can be. The fact of the matter is that the book is clunkily written, the women are only focused on motherhood and the men, nothing else, the violence is gratuitously graphic without furthering the story, and the villain is so stereotypical he’s actually kind of funny. Ila’s Story is actually even worse–there is no character development, no added richness due to the changed female POV, the writing is even more stilted and clunky, and this is even less okay with me as Ila’s Story smacks of being written for juvenile or YA readers. All readers deserve better, but especially young readers.

Having said all this, I must admit I have not seen the movie on which these books are based. Would my opinion of the books change if I had? I don’t think so, as bad writing is just bad writing. Maybe we can blame the bad writing more on the screenwriters than the novelists? Any of you seen Noah and can add to the dialogue here?

Bottom Line: I do not recommend either Noah or Ila’s Story.

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