The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Read: 23 April, 2017

Dick is an ideas person. Like Electric SheepHigh Castle is full of ideas, all tossed in and scrambled fairly willy-nilly. A dozen great books or movies could be teased from the setting he creates.

Unfortunately, Dick is not an execution person.

There’s very little that might resemble a plot. The alternative ’60s are described in detail, but it’s an empty world. The characters are soulless automatons who putz around for a bit and then we reach the last page and it’s over. Dick starts three distinct plots: One is a political thriller/spy story that ends fatalistically (the immediate mission complete, but with the realisation that it will help nothing), one is a bootstraps story about the conflict between the antique industry (forgeries included) and the attempt to generate new culture, and the third is a sort of semi-lucid road trip that ends up being a sort of spy story of its own.

These stories sort of connect at points (someone from Story A knows someone from Story B, someone from Story B used to be married to someone from Story C), but that’s about it. These stories, and the characters that make them up, are just there as vehicles for the world development.

And that world development is… meh. The transatlantic rockets are the kind of thing I’d expect from the Fallout franchise’s tongue-in-cheek futuretech. The Nazis being awful, but also hopelessly inept and disorganised once push comes to shove because, ultimately, you can’t run a society on hate is sad and scary in this era of the Alt-Right controlling the government, but ultimately unimaginative.

Then there’s the dialogue. I’m guessing that Dick was trying to “Japanify” people’s speech patterns? Frankly, that came off more Mickey Rooney than linguistically insightful. It was overplayed and overdone for my tastes.

I did like the recurring theme of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – a fictional book within a book of fiction, about an alternative world in which the Nazis did not win the war. That was funny.

I also liked the discussions of colonial identity, from both perspectives. How do the Japanese react to colonising the pacific US, and how does the pacific US react to being colonise? How does the US break? That’s all an interesting background theme that just didn’t get the plot or setting it deserved.

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Ms Marvel, vol. 3-4: Crushed & Last Days by G. Willow Wilson

Read: 20 April, 2017

In Crushed, Kamala meets a super cool guy who seems to totally get her until, of course, he turns out to be terrible. It’s a bit of an overdone plot, and the comic format makes it feel a bit rushed, but it works fine. Even though we never get a grasp on Kamran’s character (and his sudden change in behaviour is disturbing), it’s still nice to see how Kamala reacts to what’s going on.

Then some big plot stuff gets set up and then… Last Days. The world ends.

According to Wikipedia, it was some big Marvel “event”? I guess I don’t really understand. It was nice to see how Kamala deals with the end of the world, but it seems like she had such a short run. And it’s hard to see how the series can recover from… everyone dying? The only alternative is that it’s was a fake-out and Kamala isn’t dead, despite all the resolutions, and that’s not a whole lot better.

And I guess this is my issue with the superhero/extended universe stuff in general – I can’t possibly keep up with everything, but I feel like I’m missing half the story when I read just the ones I like. It’s hard not to be put off.

I do like Kamala, though, and I like the nerdy references (“KHAAAAAAAN!”), and I like how she relates to her friends and her family. I just can’t help but think that her story would have been much more interesting without the confusion of all these different superheroes around (when she gets her powers, one of the first things they do is try to figure out which origin story she fits – is she a mutant? is she created? no, she’s an “inhuman”/part alien whose powers were activated by chemicals…. okay…). And while I can appreciate the part of her character that geeks out over meeting other superheroes, I feel like there’s a better story to be found if she simply used stories of fictional superheroes to build an identity for herself. Imagine if Captain Marvel were a fictional character whose persona Kamala adopted…

Anyways, I’m sure this comes down to personal taste. Readers who are more invested in the Marvel brand probably get a lot more out of the crossovers and extended universe “events”.

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Trickster, edited by Matt Dembicki

Read: 11 April, 2017

This is a fair collection of trickster stories, each told by a different storyteller/artist team. Given the anthological nature of the book, the quality does vary quite a bit, though only one or two of the stories were what I would consider poor. For the most part, they were interesting, well told, and well illustrated.

As each story is illustrated by a different artist, each has its own style – and these can vary quite a bit, from Marvel-like to Ren and Stimpy. For the most part, I found that the art style meshed fairly well with the tone of the story.

From what I’ve read, these stories are somewhat sanitized. There’s nothing in here that your average parents wouldn’t want their kids – even fairly young kids – reading. There’s nothing approaching the crueller/raunchier trickster tales I’ve come across. I assume that this was deliberate to keep the collection fairly universal, but it may give an overly clean impression to readers who – like the editor – weren’t familiar with First Nations stories prior to encountering this volume.

I was fairly impressed by the geographical breadth of the anthology. There is even a Hawaiian story, which I don’t often see in collections of North American First Nations stories.

Overall, I found that the quality does vary quite a bit from story to story, but the collection is worth checking out.

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Thomas Cromwell #1: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Read: 9 April, 2017

I’ve tried and failed to read so much historical fiction because the writing quality often just isn’t there. Ever genre has its standards, and it seems that historical fiction got its from the “bodice ripper” romance tradition – very overwrought phrasing, terrible dialogue, intrusive narration, and all-round poor sentence construction. It’s why I’ve always liked the idea of historical fiction, but so rarely actually read it.

Mantel makes it clear that historical fiction can be well written, even excellently written. All the “he, Cromwell” repetition aside, this is an extremely well crafted novel about Cromwell’s rise to power in Henry VIII’s court.

There’s some time hopping at the beginning, which is something of a pet peeve of mine. Not to mention that the beginning – when the reader is already disoriented and trying to work out who everyone is supposed to be – is the absolute worst time to fuddle with chronology like that! There are other ways to keep readers engaged through backstory!

But the time hopping seemed to fizzle out about a third of the way through, and the rest of the narrative was fairly straightforward.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about Henry VIII’s court, apart from the broad strokes outline and Moore’s Utopia, and this was a fantastic primer. That world feels far more familiar and real to me now, and I appreciate that.

A common praise in reviews of this book is that Mantel does an excellent job of getting into Cromwell’s head, and that is absolutely true. He feels like a complex, real, living person. His pains – particularly the loss of so much of his family to the ‘sweating sickness’ – are viscerally conveyed, as are his drives and his joys.

This is an excellent – if rather long – book that breathes life into the history it is based on.

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Paper Girls, vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan

Read: 7 April, 2017

This was recommended to me as “if you like Stranger Things…” And I can see the comparison. It’s set in the ’80s, it’s about a group of young kids (in this case, 12 year old girls) who come upon some sort of mysterious monster shenanigans.

The storytelling is very good, with a strong sense of pacing. It makes the setting details clear (such as the date) without explicitly spelling them out. As for the mystery, it makes just enough sense to keep me from feeling lost, while still remaining mysterious enough to be compelling.

The main characters seem solid and are interesting as a group, but I’m having a little trouble getting a sense of them each as individuals. I’m assuming that this is a space issue and that we’ll get to know them better as the series wears on.

The artwork is great. It’s very expressive and stays stylistically consistent even while it increases or decreases detail depending on the needs of the panel.

Overall, I quite liked the first volume of Paper Girls, and I’m intrigued enough to continue the series. Of course, there’s still 30 people ahead of me on the library waiting list for volume 2…

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Ms Marvel, vol. 1-2: No Normal & Generation Why by G. Willow Wilson

Read: 2 April, 2017

Kamala Khan is a fairly ordinary nerdy Pakistani-USian until her latent “bendy” powers are suddenly triggered in some sort of attack. Now, she can make herself huge (embiggen), or small (disembiggen), or even make herself look like someone else. Will she learn how to control her powers? What will she do with them?

This is your fairly standard hero origin story, made interesting by Kamala. As a third culture kid, she has to forge her own, unique identity out of the fragments she’s given. This actually meshes surprisingly well with the ‘secret identity’ hero story.

Wilson’s writing is solid. Characters felt consistent, and were well developed. There’s some reliance on stereotypes, but that’s normal in the first impressions stage. I fully expect everyone to get more fleshed out as the series wears on (and, certainly, that process is already evident in how Kamala’s parents are treated just in these two volumes).

The artwork is fine. It’s clear, it works. I did find that it lacks a bit in personality, and there’s a jarring difference in character appearance between the first volume and the beginning of the second. Still, I’m mainly being nit-picky.

Overall, I enjoyed the first volume quite a bit – which is surprising with my terrible case of origin story fatigue – but wasn’t quite as impressed with the second. Generation Why tackles some pretty big themes, including cults, environmental destruction, and “kids today”, but it doesn’t really handle them with nearly enough care. This isn’t really a spoiler since it’s set up in volume one, but Kamala discovers that a bunch of missing kids are in a cult. When Kamala tries to free them, they resist, explaining that they are all there by choice and giving a pretty shallow explanation of why. Kamala meets their protestations with an equally shallow rebuttal, and they all immediately switch sides.

Yikes.

I can’t tell whether Wilson really just doesn’t know about cults and couldn’t be bothered to look the topic up before she started writing, or she was just too pressed for time, but the result is pretty terrible. I hope that we get to see some of those characters return in future volumes and see more of the psychological aftermath of being in a cult, but even if that’s the case, there was some serious damage done by trying to cram too many themes into such a short space.

I do enjoy Kamala, though, and I look forward to reading more of her adventures. If you are into the Marvel universe, this is a great addition. If not, some aspects get a little silly (random aliens! bird people! gas attacks on a city are no big deal!), but they don’t get in the way of the core “third culture kid forges an identity for herself” theme of the series.

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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Read: 8 March, 2017

This is a difficult book to review because, of course, it wasn’t written for me. What I get out of it, what I think of it, is fairly beside the point. And there are many other reviews of far far more value than whatever I could say.

As I was reading, I tried to think of this book’s use as a primer for, say, white teenagers. It’s a bit fast paced, with references and allusions coming from every direction. This book was not written to be some white kid’s 101, so the points aren’t argued, the references aren’t explained. The intended audience is passed all that already. But, still, even though a lot would fly over a white kid’s head, there’s a lot there that should stick.

It’s a beautiful, powerful, brutal book. And it is so, so timely.

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Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Read: February 26, 2017

A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin (Jamey Gambrell, trans.)

Read: 13 February, 2017

How appropriate to be reading this as my home is slowly buried in snow…

This is a very Russian novel. It’s bleak, it’s unkind, and it’s fantastical. That 50 horse power sled? Powered by 50 miniature horses. Don’t bother with this book unless you’re a fan of depressing Russian absurdism.

As it happens, I am, and I enjoyed Blizzard. 

Spoiler talk ahead: The absurdisms don’t really add anything to the story. I picked this book up because of the promise of Russian zombies, but there are no Russian zombies. The zombie plague could have just as easily been whooping cough.

In a way, it reminded me of the movie Stalker, which builds up all the dangers of the Zone, describing how they kill, but then there’s no pay off. The goal is reached without incident, and the travellers decide they’d best not make use of it, and they go home.

That’s what happens here. The zombies are played up throughout the story. Again and again, we hear of their inhuman claws and the the way they burrow underground to pop up on the other side of barricades.

Do the zombies ever do this? Do they ever even appear? Of course not, because modern Russian story telling hates its audience, and hates Chekov’s gun.

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Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Read: 12 February, 2017

There’s a man no one remembers, a young woman who holds a piece of paper that she can’t put down, a boy whose absent father suddenly reappears and reappears and reappears… It’s really just your average Night Vale day.

I’ve somehow managed to have never listened to the podcast. I know, I know, I’m just not really a podcast sorta person right now. But many of my friends listen to Night Vale and post quotes and tweets and such, and I’ve always found them the perfect combination of funny, insightful, and weird.

So when I found a Welcome to Night Vale audiobook at my local library, I figured I’d give it a shot – helpfully in a more familiar format.

And I really enjoyed it! Night Vale does a fantastic job of ‘hyper-reality’. Details of the story are absurd, but they’re also true, they are subjective impressions rendered literal. The character of Josh is the perfect example of this: a teenage boy, his body assumes a different shape every day – some days he has skin, some days he has a carapace – but no matter what form he takes, his mother always knows him.

I loved how inclusive and refreshing the book is, too. Josh has a crush on a girl and he has a crush on a boy, the only explicit couple in the book are gay men, and the plot revolves around an absent father who is a perfectly nice guy but just not a good father. The central relationship that emerges from the plot is a friendship between two women. It’s just wonderful.

I see quite a few negative (and negative-ish) reviews complaining about how the narrator’s voice carries over into a print, and I can see that. The narrator’s intonations and pauses added a great deal to the story. And that’s not particularly surprising – these characters were made for a podcast format.

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