How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

Read: 1 May, 2017

My copy’s cover boasts that this story is “now a major DreamWorks Animation film.” That’s a lie. There is a DreamWorks movie with the same title, and even the main characters have the same names, but it’s not the same story. At all.

That was rather unexpected.

But not unwelcome. The movie was a wonderful story about a friendship between a boy and a dragon that sort of crammed in a thing about a Big Bad to be defeated at the end because I guess the screenwriters felt that they needed a grandiose climax but couldn’t be arsed to write a second draft in which the two plots actually make sense together.

Whereas in the book, there is a Big Bad, but it’s better integrated into the story. And, perhaps more importantly, it actually makes sense.

Unfortunately, I just wasn’t feeling the book. The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless in the movie tugged my heartstrings in all the right ways. But in the book, the two don’t really seem to have much chemistry together.

It didn’t help that the only human female in the whole book was the main character’s mother. I get it, “boys don’t want to read about girls”, but what do you think teaches them that? Sure, the movie crammed in your normal Stock Strong Female Love Interest #3, but at least she was there. It was a start.

I also had trouble with the narration. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t find the rhythm of the text, and I kept stuttering and stumbling over myself while trying to read it out loud. The writing just didn’t have any poetry in it.

There’s a whole lot of your typical boy media “gross-out” stuff, like references to snot and belching and such. I can imagine those being a hit for some kids, but mine couldn’t care less. I can see how this book might hit a lot of a kid’s interests and become a family favourite, but it just wasn’t working for us. Maybe in a few years…

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    Earthsea Cycle #1: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

    Read: 24 April, 2017

    The first book in the Earthsea Cycle gives us the origin story of Ged – a boy with promising magical talent who, in a moment of weakness, makes a terrible mistake that shapes the rest of his life.

    I first read this book as a young teen, and I was surprised by how much of it I could remember. The unleashing of the shadow thing, in particular, was still vividly in my memory. It was particularly interesting to revisit scenes that have stuck with me all this time and to go “uh, so this is where that’s from…”

    This was written in an era when fantasy was still very much tied to oral storytelling – “Tolkienish”. It makes the narrative pace very fast, as we get little more than brief sentences to cover weeks and even years of the story’s chronology. That doesn’t mean that the story’s pace is fast, though. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it does drag a bit as Ged travels around the world and meets with largely unconnected side quests.

    The style also adds a distance between the reader and the action. Rather than seeing the action, we are told about it. This used to be standard in fantasy, but a book written like this now wouldn’t get anywhere near the same reception.

    That doesn’t make it bad, by any means. It’s beautifully written, and the worldbuilding is magnificent, but it does mean that people who aren’t either at peace with older fantasy genre conventions, or who have adjusted their expectations to the newer expectations of the genre are going to struggle with the book.

    All that being said, it fully deserves its place in the canon, right alongside Tolkien for its worldbuilding and lyrical narrative. And for me, specifically, it’s wonderful to visit again with an old friend.

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      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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        Lumberjanes #3-4: A Terrible Plan & Out of Time by Noelle Stevenson & Shannon Watters

        Read: 23 April, 2017

        The first two volumes meandered toward a single plotline that was resolved. In these two, we get a few different mini plots that hint at the big mystery of the Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types.

        These stories are satisfying on their own, and only some involve defeating big scary monsters (the first story in A Terrible Plan is simply the girls telling scary stories while sitting around a campfire), with no need for any big-p Plot. That said, though, we do get some more information on the camp, and on the mysterious Bear Woman.

        Mostly, though, the story is about the friendships, and that’s where it delivers. I also love the inclusion of various sexualities and gender identities.

        The art style fits the tone of the series perfectly – it’s cartoony, fairly expressive, whimsical. It’s not photorealistic, sometimes it’s even a bit first draft-y, but it always fits the mood of the panel well.

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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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                  Lumberjanes #1-2: Beware the Kitten Holy & Friendship to the Max by Noelle Stevenson & Grace Ellis

                  Read: April 7, 2017

                  This is the high energy story of the young women of cabin Roanoke, who follow a bearwoman into the woods and are attacked by three-eyed foxes, and things only get stranger from there.

                  There’s very little downtime in Lumberjanes. Monsters fly out from every direction, the characters are constantly active, there’s loads of yelling… The downside to this is that the mystery never really gets time to build, there’s no pause to wonder what might be happening. It’s just action, action, action, reveal. It’s not my favourite pace, but it works.

                  The artwork is somewhat unrefined, but it fits the tone of the story and has a certain character to it.

                  Essentially, Lumberjanes is what it is, and it is that well. The reveal – which I won’t spoil – was a bit of a let down, only because I’ve seen it too often, but all the elements of the story worked.

                  This would be fantastic as a “baby’s first graphic novel”, for ages 7-10.

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                    Imperial Radch #3: Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

                    Read: 4 April, 2017

                    In this conclusion to the Imperial Radch trilogy, Breq’s efforts to bring universal justice to the Athoek system begin to unravel.

                    It’s difficult to review a book (and series) that I enjoyed so thoroughly. I loved everything, and whatever small flaws might have popped up were drowned by the tsunami of awesome.

                    In particular, I love Leckie’s ongoing theme of identity – what does it mean to be self? what does it mean to be separate from others?

                    In this book, we have Presger Translator Zeiat to make some of the questions explicit. Her playful identifying of cakes and her reaction to someone’s injury are the perfect mix of humour and mindblow.

                    I was a bit worried when I only had about 50 pages left and the plot didn’t feel even close to being resolved, yet Leckie somehow managed to leave me feeling completely satisfied. There are loose ends, of course, but they make sense.

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