What I’ve Been Reading

25894059Arena by Holly Jennings

I don’t always get lucky with books I choose to review for SFCrowsnest. There are a lot of books that sound really great, but don’t quite live up to their promise. I’m getting better at picking winners, though, and Arena by Holly Jennings is definitely that. It’s a great book, one I’m really glad I’ve read.

You can read my full review here, but in short, my favourite aspect of this story—actually, I really liked two things. One was the character arc of Kali. It took me a long time to warm to her, and the fact I admired her so much at the end of the book was due to her growth—and that she did it all by herself. This young woman literally pulled herself up by the bootstraps and got on with the business of winning. In every respect.

I also really enjoyed Holly Jennings’ take on gaming culture and the way it shaped the story. She didn’t just sprinkle a few references throughout the text and say there, gamer book. The story itself is constructed like a quest chain, with each success promising a greater reward. Very well done.

 

13630171The Skull Throne (Demon Cycle, #4) by Peter V. Brett

Another more than pleasant surprise. After the soap opera/dirge that was Daylight War, I nearly gave up on this series. I love the premise. I adore this world. It’s one of the most fascinating fantasy worlds ever created, with a new magic system, hints of old apocalypse and fully fleshed out characters you really come to know and care about. Peter Brett’s habit of going back to tell the origin story of all of those characters had started to wear on my by the third time ‘round, though.

Daylight War ends with a pretty damn big question—one the cover copy for The Skull Throne doesn’t answer. Also, when you’re nearly 2000 pages into an epic series, it’s hard to let it go. So I moved on to The Skull Throne—and read it in two days. That’s nearly 800 pages in two or three sittings. The pacing was phenomenal with a lot of the plot threads tangling themselves into dreadful knots. The lives and loves aspect is still there, but with more a immediate meaning and an absolute bearing on the plot. Also, there’s very little flashing back to ‘this is how it all began.’ There really isn’t time. This book is a race. It’s frenetic and bloody and a lot of what you might have taken as the status quo up to this point will be challenged and changed.

Unfortunately, we have to wait a year until the fifth and final installment. (◕︵◕)

 

28531239Trailer Trash by Marie Sexton

I’m late to the Marie Sexton fandom, which actually works in my favor. She’s got a huge backlist for me to explore. The book of hers that really won me over was Winter Oranges. Before then, I’d really enjoyed her collaborations with Heidi Cullinan (Family Man and Second Hand) and Promises, book one of her Coda series. I enjoy her characters immensely. They’re normal guys doing normal things. It’s this accessibility and Sexton’s skill in making them feel real that makes her books so compulsively readable.

Trailer Trash has an irresistible premise: two high school seniors from opposite sides of the tracks, who alternately fight and give in to their attraction for one another. What makes this story special, however, is the focus on the emotional aspects of their relationships with their family, friends and each other.

Teenagers feel things very deeply and to them, what they’re feeling is everything. They can’t think beyond right now and find it difficult to imagine they’ll ever feel that way again. I remember being there and so does Sexton. Her boys are so real and their love story is so wonderfully tender. I loved every word of it.

 

20821614You (You, #1) by Caroline Kepnes

The cover copy really undersells this book. Yes, it’s possible to take a lesson about how much we reveal about ourselves on social media from this story, but more I found it to be a tale about secret selves and how some people simply cannot be judged by their ‘covers’.

It took me a little while to grasp the point of view—it’s Joe, our apparent villain, talking to Beck, his victim, as if this were his journal and she the only reader. There aren’t a lot of stories told from the perspective of the villain, so that was my hook. The scariest part, though, wasn’t what Joe did (or the why or the how), it was the fact that I empathized with him—nearly the whole way through. Even when he was doing very, very bad things. I liked Joe. Additionally, the premise of the book would have us believe Beck was the victim, but I’m not convinced she wasn’t the most evil character of all.

A very thought provoking read—and there’s a sequel!

 

18373Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

My daughter read this for school. On the day she started, she described the premise to me in the car. It sounded very familiar, so I asked if she was reading Flowers for Algernon and she replied that she was and further commented on the fact she should have guessed I would know the book because I’ve read everything.

I hadn’t actually read it. I’d seen the movie. I also, inexplicably, had the audio book sitting in my library—untouched. It must have been a daily deal at some point. So I downloaded it and listened.

Flowers for Algernon should be required reading for every human being. The book’s power is in its simplicity, thanks in part to Charlie’s narration. What it says about us as people is both beautiful and sad, and reading it inspired me to become a better person—to be kinder, gentler and more thoughtful; to count my blessings and to remember those who have less. To understand that happiness is completely subjective and that one should never assume their version of it might suit another.

You’d also might think I’d have learned by now that I really shouldn’t listen to books that make my cry while I’m driving. Not sure if I’ll ever remember that one, though.

 

24983889East of West, Vol. 4: Who Wants War? by Jonathan Hickman (Writer), Nick Dragotta (Artist), Frank Martin(Colourist)

I’ve been a fan of this series since the beginning. The apocalyptic landscape grabbed me, the promise of more doom and gloom to come kept me reading. But really, it’s the combination of art and storytelling that makes East of West such a stand out.

So often during a comic/graphic series, the writer or the artist will change issue to issue—either as guests are invited to participate or ‘staff’ are rotated through current offerings. Sometimes it’s exciting to see what a new artist will do and certainly some artists are more adept at telling different kinds of stories. With its large cast of characters, however, the consistency of the art in East of West—which is always phenomenal and perfectly matched to the story—is such an important factor. At a glance I can tell who is who, even without glancing at the text and dialogue. Given that comic books and graphic novels are such a visual medium, this is really helps the reader with the flow of the story. If you’re too busy trying to figure out whose face is squashed across the page, then you’ve fallen out of suspension. That’s not good.

As for the story, it’s fantastically complex and ever deepening. With the exception of Knights of the Old Republic, this may be the series I’ve invested the most time in and I’m not ready to quit yet.

Review: East of West Volume 3: There is No Us

East of West, Vol. 3: There Is No UsEast Of West Volume 3: There Is No Us’ collects issues 11-15 of the comic ‘East Of West’. It’s tempting to babble senselessly about how good this comic is, urge you to go out and buy all available issues right away, but I wouldn’t be much of a reviewer if I didn’t explain my fascination. I’ll start with a little back story.

Loosely based on the ‘Book Of Revelations’, ‘East Of West’ tells the story of impending apocalypse. It’s clear from the very first issue that the world has been destroyed and revived before in what might be an endless cycle. What’s not clear is the role to be taken by the very recognisable symbols of a biblical apocalypse. The Four Horsemen are missing one of their number, Death. The Seven Seals have been replaced by seven nations. The Beast is…difficult to explain without spoiling some of the surprises of the story. Then there is the Message, which is presented as a constraint upon the actions of all. A dictate on how the world will end. Mixed into this over-arching story are the lives of the people within each nation. The leaders and their friends and foes. Continue reading “Review: East of West Volume 3: There is No Us”

Review: East of West Vol. 2: We Are All One

 “There’s Horsemen on the plains, the sky’s red as blood, and only the blind can see a better end.”

Fate was always going to put ‘East Of West’ in my path. I devour post-apocalyptic stories with unholy glee and have done since I discovered the ‘Book Of Revelation’, which is probably why I enjoy ‘East Of West’ so much. There is history here, a lot of it. Creators Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta have pulled snippets of story from several well-known legends and have fused the pieces together with their own imagination. I really love their take on the end of the world. I love this comic series. Now I’m going to continue to enthuse while I talk a little bit about ‘Vol. 2: We Are All One’.

The title is very appropriate. Throughout this collection, issues 6-10 of the comic, the back story widens to include and link several of our main characters. Many of them were involved in the past, willingly or unwillingly. Wittingly or unwittingly! They’re all connected, throughout history and time. There is a sense they are as fated to be together as me and this series.

On to the story. Accused of being a traitor, Bel escapes the conclave and goes to find Justice. We get our first delicious slice of back story here and a promise from Justice to serve just that, saving Bel for last, of course. Meanwhile on, Death is looking for his son. Insert another glimpse of back story, this time for Ezra Orion, who was caught up in Bel’s escape and is now paying a terrible price. My heart wrenched and my gut clenched for this one. It’s the story and the art. This is a partnership that breathes hyper-realistic life into every frame.

Back at the white tower, the city is on fire. Presidency is not an easy task, particularly under the constraint of the Message and the Word. Here, the reader gains a sense of both the urgency and the futility the seven must feel while the world races toward the end. They have to keep it together for just that long and then give it up. Talk about anti-motivation. Then again, I’m not the disciple type.

Death confronts the Oracle and she extracts a terrible price for information about the whereabouts of his son. These panels are suitably grisly. On to John Freeman, who receives a lesson in history from his father. This is another chunk of back story that shows timeless connection between many of the characters. The lessons from his father help glue the story together while reinforcing the fact it is huge.

‘East Of West’ has always had the depth of a novel. That’s why I enjoy it so much. The issues don’t feel episodic in the traditional comicbook sense, even if each serves a purpose. Rather, each issue is a chapter of a larger and ever-growing tale. I love the combination of back story, plot and hints of possible futures. For me, each issue is another building block, I suppose. Separately, they serve a need. Together, they are so much more.

The last chapter has Death meeting the man who can tell him where his son is. Unfortunately, for all involved, the Ranger has also caught up with his prey. Cue epic battle and denouement. Of course, the story doesn’t end here. In fact, there is much left to tell.

Before the end, we check in with the Beast. I’m not going to detail this scene much except to say it had my skin crawling. Really and truly.

So, to reiterate, this is a fantastic story done justice by volume two. The art continues to be amazing and the writing is top notch. There are no characters underserved by the collaboration of Hickman and Dragotta. I don’t want to discourage those who like to read their comics issue by issue, but I really love the way multiple issues work together in this series, as if designed to hang between two covers as a single unit. Unlike some collected comics, these graphic novels work well. They have a beginning and an ending, which only leads me to praise, once again, the scope of the project, and the imagination of its creators.

The next collection, ‘East Of West Vol. 3: There Is No Us’, is not due out until October. I might have to break down and collect the single issues before then, despite my desire to read them as a unit. Thankfully, the story stands up well to several readings.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

New York Comic Con 2013

Me auditioning as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.

My mission this year at the New York Comicon was to meet Greg Capullo. I failed miserably, in part due to the NYCC mobile app being all but useless and because there were 125,000 people pressed hip to shoulder inside the Javits Center. Navigating the crowd became the featured activity, seconded by finding an empty piece of wall to slump against for a few minutes. Waiting in line for the restroom was the third. But, that’s a convention. The crowds are part and parcel of the experience. If you’re averse to being sandwiched between strangers for longer than a minute or being poked in the eye by someone’s homemade sword, a con isn’t for you. A convention has a lot more to offer than a lethal cocktail of body odour, though. Continue reading “New York Comic Con 2013”

Review: East of West Volume 1: The Promise

East of West, Vol. 1: The Promise by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta

I love post-apocalyptic fiction, all kinds. Examined, it’s not the healthiest obsession, but I seem to share it with a good portion of the population. Stories of the end of the world, the cataclysm (all kinds) and after, are everywhere. The New York Times Bestseller list, at the movies, on TV and in the hands of children. A recent browse of the YA shelf at the library showed a serious bend toward dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction. Vampires still get a look in, but their uglier cousins, the zombies, are having their day.

Our fascination with the end of the world goes a long way back, so it’s hardly surprising gruesome tales of our end continue to capture the imagination, or that some of the most enduring stories continue to be reworked. One of the best known and popular tales of the apocalypse is found in the bible. Revelations. The Four Horseman and the Beast. It’s terrifying stuff! I remember being convinced as a child that the Horsemen would ride in my life time. I may have just watched The Omen when I came to this conclusion. Unfortunately for my parents, I got a hold of a bible and read Revelations to my younger sister. I wasn’t allowed to baby sit for some time after that.

Continue reading “Review: East of West Volume 1: The Promise”