Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

Read: 13 January, 2017

After a very unusual night, Richard becomes re-acquainted with his college friend, Svlad Cjelli – or, as he is currently calling himself, Dirk Gently. There’s also a ghost involved. It gets weird.

I have my doubts that Adams knew what the solution to the mystery would be before he started writing. This was my impression with the Hitchhiker’s books as well – he seems to just sit down, write what’s funny, and then try to come up with something that’ll end the book.

And that’s fine. This is one mystery where the journey really is all that matters, and the journey is hilarious.

Now that I’ve finished reading the book, I can finally watch that show I keep hearing about!

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The Chronicles of Narnia #3: The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

Read: 10 January, 2017

This is the story of a boy and his horse (and a girl and her horse, too, but I guess titles can only get so long before they become unwieldy), and their escape to Narnia and the north.

I had a lot of trouble getting into this one. Every time the adventure starts picking up, there’s a sudden Grownups Are Talking scene that just seemed to go on and on and on. My poor son has taken to drawing pictures during bedtime reads because, advanced in so many ways as he is, he just can’t find it in himself to get excited about Calormen politics. And I honestly can’t say that I blame him.

I might have felt differently if there had been something interesting or creative about the Calormenes. But, instead, they’re pretty much just a hodge-podge of “oriental” middle eastern stereotypes. Which really only serve to date the book.

I’m also unsure of what this does to the Narnia universe. In both The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, there was a sense of an empty world. Sure, there was the cabby who served as the first king of Narnia, but his court was comprised of talking animals. And in TLTWaTW, everyone makes a huge fuss over there being actual human children in their world.

Now, just a few years later, we find out that there are whole nations of humans less than a day’s ride from Caer Paravel.

It reminded me of the book of Genesis: God creates Adam and Eve, who have three sons, who then go off and get married. And, suddenly, we have near descendants going off to other lands and living in the cities there. Knowing a little of C.S. Lewis’s religious perspective, I can’t help but wonder if he wasn’t having a bit of a larf when writing this.

In conclusion, I found this to be a very pale follow up to TLTWaTW. There are too many grownups and grownup doings, and the use of stereotypes just comes off as lazy.

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Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie M. Liu (illustrated by Sana Takeda)

Read: 27 December, 2016

The summary describes the setting as “an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia.” Which… is better than any description I could come up with. Very little gets explained in this first volume.

Which is my main issue. While it could be argued that the storytelling dives right in without wasting a bunch of time on exposition, this left me with very little to latch on to. Things happened, characters acted, but I was just left feeling somewhat confused. I didn’t quite know what to make of them or what I was supposed to be feeling. I don’t need an infodump, but a little more context would have been nice. By the time I finally started feeling like I had a grasp on the world, the volume was over.

A lot of that is, I’m sure, in the nature of the serial storytelling common with comics. This is where I like graphic novels so much more – the story I pick up is complete, it has its arc, I don’t have to keep going through issues on blind faith that I will, at some point, figure out what the heck is going on.

But this is genre convention, so I supposed it isn’t really fair to judge Monstress for adhering to it. People who are more comfortable with serial comics will be fine, whereas people coming from a prose background, like myself, will likely struggle. Be warned.

The plot itself didn’t have much room to develop in such a short volume. It’s a fairly standard “ancient ones vs humans and oh yes the in between people”, with the twist that people can absorb an element from the ancient ones (and their mixed offspring) to gain power. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

The matriarchy angle is interesting. There’s a particular joy to reading a comic where nearly all the characters are female, except for a handful of background characters who have very little dialogue. After so much media being the opposite, it was refreshing.

But it felt like it just wasn’t going quite far enough. It’s a matriarchy, but soldiers wear armour that accentuates their sexy at the expense of protection (boob armour! boob armour everywhere!). And while there are a few larger bodies, they are in the background. All the central adult characters are super models. It would have been nice to have a little more variety.

That said, the main character is an amputee, and that is just wonderful to see.

Where the series really sells itself is in the artwork. It’s sort of art nouveau inspired, and it is so gorgeous. Every single panel is rich with detail. From what I can judge of the first volume, it’s the artwork where this series is distinguishing itself. It’s the artwork that’s going to make people giving volume 2 a chance.

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The Witcher Saga #2: The Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski

Read: 19 December, 2016

I’ve decided to play through Witcher 3 again (because it’s just that amazing), so of course I had to start reading the next instalment in the series. I need something to keep me going when I have to be AFK!

As in Blood of Elves, there’s no real structure to this novel. There are three distinct episodes – Ciri and Fabio’s Big Day Out, Geralt At The Ball, and Ciri On The Run – but nothing except chronology binds them together. Each one has its own structure, as though perhaps Sapkowski is more comfortable with the shorter format of the first two books but was compelled to publish full length novels.

I read Blood of Elves after playing Witcher 3. Now that I’m playing with two books under my belt, it’s been such an interesting experience. For example, there’s a side quest where Geralt comes across some sort of travelling carnival with a caged wyvern it claims is actually a basilisk. PC Geralt challenges the identity of the creature, but the argument ends when the cage falls apart and it escapes, endangering the audience. It’s was an amusing little side quest on my first play through – a Thing To Do as I work my way into completionist heaven – but this time it was delightfully amusing.

I have several of these experiences, or ones where I caught a reference made by a character. It’s added a whole extra depth to my enjoyment of the game.

The lack of structure is a bit jarring, but not distressingly so. I enjoy the characters, and I love the richness of the setting. I’m not sure that I would be enjoying it quite as much without all the emotional baggage I’m bringing in from the game, but it works beautiful in tandem.

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Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Read: 10 December, 2016

As I believe I’ve mentioned here before, I listen to audiobooks as I fall asleep to help keep the creeping anxiety at bay. It works wonders! Not only does it mean getting a little extra reading time in at the end of the day, it also means having something to focus on other than my own varied and myriad shortcomings as I try to lose consciousness. Win win!

This book did not work.

I knew I was in trouble as soon as Lawson’s first joke had me laughing at loud. Her voice (the audiobook is narrated by its author) is upbeat, and she tends to begin each chapter with a (rather loud) song.One of these woke my spouse and, after about 20 minutes of the bed shaking because we were both laughing so hard, I realised that this was not going to work as a bedtime book. Instead, it became my doing-the-dishes book.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever laughed so hard while doing the dishes.

Lawson’s reading style is very casual – she sounds like someone rather excitable telling anecdotes at a party. She gets caught up in her stories, occasionally even adding asides that I’m pretty sure aren’t in the text, and she is always careful to put the appropriate emphasis on words like “vagina.”

As much as I enjoyed the book, the narrative style was uneven. The stories of Lawson’s childhood – mostly found in the first half of the book – were great, but then a number of chapters in the second half sounded as though she had just reproduced posts from her blog without much editing. So while the book begins as a memoir, it then becomes a random assortment of vignettes – having a sleepover with friends, a collection of post-it notes left for her husband, that sort of thing. Each of these chapters is a whole unto itself, with a kind of thesis that is explained and resolved by the end, but that doesn’t fit with the larger themes of the book. Most of these chapters were absolutely fine, and I enjoyed them, but they felt out of place. Honestly, they read like filler – like Lawson wrote this book about her family, realised that it was too short, and padded it with blog posts.

Despite this one flaw, I really enjoyed the book. It’s not something that I would read again, but it was funny and entertaining and it made doing the dishes a whole lot of fun.

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William the Conqueror by Thomas B. Costain

Read: 8 December, 2016

As I was talking to my mom about reading the Narnia books to my son, she mentioned that she has a few children’s books that we might want to look through. There, on her shelf, was an extensive collection of Random House historical biographies for children from the 1950s.

These books had been my mother’s when she was a child, then enjoyed by me, and I picked out a few to share with a third generation – our first was William the Conqueror.

At five, my son is perhaps a little young for this series, but he followed along in his own age-appropriate way. The battle scenes, which enthralled me as an 8-10 year old, we’re a little too intense. There are also a few authorial asides (particularly with regards to gender roles) that made me uncomfortable enough to turn into Teachable Moments.

But, for the most part, this book holds up. The vocabulary is a bit challenging, and the narrative voice doesn’t lend itself well to out-loud reading, but it’s a great introduction to historical concepts. And while I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all the historical facts, the book lays an excellent foundation for helping kids to get a feel for a time period and a familiarity with essential names.

The writing style can be very repetitive, and seemed to have trouble deciding whether it wanted to show or to tell. It’s unfortunate because the book, on the whole, is great fun.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Read: 5 December, 2016

Immortal Life is a fantastic book about the HeLa cell line – immortal cells that kick started many fields of modern medical science.

But the story goes beyond the clinical, exploring the life of Henrietta herself, her husband, her children, her many descendants. Much of the story focuses on Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, and her search to learn about the mother she couldn’t remember.

It’s a heartbreakingly human tale of horrific medical abuse, crushing poverty, child abuse, Old Timey medical research ethics. It personalizes what have for so long been thought of as nothing more than a collection of cells in a test tube.

The issues raised about ethical medical research are important ones, and Skloot gives us few easy answers. But they are things that we all should know about and consider.

Even more important is the history of medical abuses towards black patients and those with mental illnesses. So much of the modern medical science we depend on today was developed through horrific experimentation on vulnerable populations. For that alone, this book should be required reading for all teens.

I was aware of most of the issues brought up in the book, but getting to know Deborah and the Lacks family made it all so much more viscerally real.

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The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Read: 16 November, 2016

Casual Vacancy was a big depart from Harry Potter. Aside from being geared toward an adult readership, it’s a completely different genre – “slice of life” rather than fantasy. It tells the story of Pagford, a small town in the English countryside, in the wake of a city council member’s death. All stories come back, in one way or another, to that empty council seat and what it means to the lives of the town’s residents – from its wealthier members right down to the poorest.

A big part of the magic of Harry Potter was the way in which Rowling created a world of stereotype characters – easily grasped and understood at a glance – then remained in their space until they started to come alive. And yet, strangely, they remained stereotypes, just stereotypes that we came to know and to care for.

In Casual Vacancy, she does the same thing. We have the lower class girl with the turbulent home life, and we have the teen obsessed with living “authentically”, the over-achieving “tiger mom” immigrant who had a sort of arranged marriage, the social worker struggling with professional boundaries, the bored housewife fantasising about a singer in her daughter’s favourite boy band, etc.

Each of these characters is and remains a stock. Rarely do they have traits that are not perfectly in keeping with their “type.” And, yet, we stay with them, we watch them, and over 500 pages, sheer time and care fills them out and makes them whole.

It’s a remarkable process.

Harry Potter had its horror and tragedy, but Casual Vacancy lacks its hope. The characters are petty and locked into their own experiences. They are hurt, and they respond by lashing out in a great web of misery. Worse, there is little resolution. Most characters end in the same position – or worse – as they started, or have only just set a course for possible change that is well beyond the scope of this book. It doesn’t revel in the pain, and it does have its moments of levity, but it’s easy to see how this might be a difficult read for some.

One similarity between the two works that interested me is how both Harry Potter and Casual Vacancy work as representations of tyrants and how people deal with/react to them. In Harry Potter, the theme is placed in a fantasy setting, and the tyrant is defeated through valiance and friendship. In Casual Vacancy, however, things are a little bleaker. (SPOILER: And while the tyrant is eventually defeated, it is through the failure of his own body – a realistic fluke that offers that dim ray of hope to the town.)

I doubt that I would have picked up this book if not for the author, and it’s easy to see why so many people were disappointed with it. It’s clearly Rowling’s writing, but this is something completely different, and marketing the book as “by the author of Harry Potter” does it a disservice. That said, it’s a solid piece of writing. Rowling did a great job showing us the complex web of small town life, and navigating between such a large cast of characters in a way that kept it interesting (in the sense that adult “slice of life” fiction is interesting – obviously not a genre for everyone!).

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Old Man’s War #2: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

Read: 7 November, 2016

Like Old Man’s War, this sequel has a strong flavour of Starship Troopers. But it’s all the good Troopers and none of the bad. It’s what I wish Troopers had been – a fun read, compelling characters, mind-blowing future tech, with just a dash of “makes you think” philosophy. You know, without a bunch of self-stroking moralizing about how crime rates are so bad these days because parents don’t beat their kids like they used to.

In this book, we leave John Perry behind and instead delve into the Ghost Brigade – a branch of the military comprised of the clones of people who signed up to join the Colonial Union, but died before they reached the correct age. These special forces soldiers begin their conscious lives as adults, they know no life outside of the Colonial Union.

Unlike the regular soldiers, the special forces are created to be soldiers, and are never given a choice. This provides some very fertile ground to explore the idea of free will and choice – particularly the difference between choices and meaningful choices.

Old Man’s War did a great job introducing the universe, and Ghost Brigades does an excellent job introducing the overarching plot. I see, now, how the story can be sustained over many more books, and I’m excited to read them.

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Star Wars: Shattered Empire by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Marco Checchetto, Angel Unzueta, and Emilio Laiso

Read: 27 October, 2016

Taking place in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi, this graphic novel features Shara Bey, mother of Force Awaken‘s Poe Dameron, as she meets a number of the Star Wars universe’s big names.

I really can’t say that I loved Shattered Empire. The dialogue writing was passable, but not great. The artwork was fine, albeit a little showy, and lacked character. The plot writing was unfocused.

The artwork felt a little too polished, and it bordered on the uncanny valley with the characters from the movies – trying too hard to make them recognisable. In some portions, it actually looked like the scenes were made with 3D models and then sketched over. There’s a certain stiffness, an inorganic Barbie doll-ness, to that art style that kept popping up. I also found that the action sequences lacked clarity, so that I had to skip ahead to figure out what I was supposed to be seeing.

For the plot, each section of the book has Bey going off on a different adventure, each time with a different original cast member from the movies. The adventures themselves are interesting enough, but nothing ties them together, they don’t build toward anything.

My last complaint – and this is with the Star Wars universe more broadly – is with the focus on parentage. I would have enjoyed Shara Bey just fine as a character without her being the parent of another character. I could have enjoyed Poe Dameron just fine as a character without finding out that his parents were important people who got to meet Luke and Leia.

The parentage theme works with Anakin and Luke because that’s the story, “the sins of the father” and so forth. But there’s no reason to take it any further than that. We don’t need to find out that Anakin is actually the one who built C3PO, or that fan favourite Boba Fett’s father was actually the genetic pattern used for the clone army, or whatever is going on with Rey. These characters are all lovely and important on their own, without the need for intricate breeding certifications.

What I loved about this book, and about the expanding universe in general, is how diverse they make the universe feel. And by retconning women and POCs back into the events of the original trilogy, they let me feel, for the first time, like characters who look like me can really matter in this epic story. I’ve always loved Star Wars, but the new canon is the first time I’ve ever felt loved back by the franchise.

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