The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe

August 7, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

universeThe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe by Ryan North, et al.

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I’m not a fan of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, the series. The character I admire for all of her positive traits, and I endorse giving this book to young girls interested in comics so they can see what a female superhero can be, but for me, a forty-five year old male with no children, female or otherwise, it doesn’t quite ring my bell. It’s a shame, really, because for all the other childish things that appeal to me (The LEGO Movie, the Animaniacs, and almost everything Pixar has ever created), I expected this series to hit all the high notes.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe, though, surprised me. Maybe it’s because I had written off the series for not being my thing, and went into the graphic novel with lowered expectations, or maybe it’s because it’s a standalone work without the inherent baggage of ongoing titles, or maybe it’s just a better written work. Whatever the case, I found myself laughing more at the story than I did with the two collections I’ve read.

The characters are the same, their dynamics are the same, and the storyline is similar to what one would find in the series (only with a clone added into the mix). The running gags carry over from the main series (the Spider-Man theme song continues to make an appearance in one form or another), and the commentary along the bottoms of the pages is still there, but something about it clicked for a change. It’s not enough to convince me to keep reading it, but it was an improvement over the main series.

I’d still recommend this to younger readers, especially girls, but boys, too, so they can see there’s more to being a female superhero than skimpy outfits and assisting male superheroes. Adult readers, though, may have a harder time getting into it.

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel You Know It’s True

August 4, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

squirrel2The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel You Know It’s True by Ryan North, et al.

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I have a rule with ongoing graphic novel series: Read at least two collections before drawing a conclusion on how much I like them. The Unwritten had a bit of a boring start, but once it caught its groove, it surprised me with how much it could do. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl was a title I’d heard a lot about, all of it good, but Squirrel Power just didn’t quite do it for me. Squirrel You Know It’s True is more of the same style presented in the first collection, which is good or bad, depending on how much you liked the first one.

Look I get it: she’s a positive role model for young girls; she attempts diplomacy before violence (and usually succeeds at it); and her adventures are light enough for young readers, but not without serious consequences. If I had a young daughter, I would love for her to read these books. The thing is, I don’t, and there’s just not enough to the stories by itself to encourage me to keep reading it. I loved (and still love) Ambush Bug, the Animaniacs, and the Looney Tunes cartoons, so the loopy sense of humor the series has should have appealed to me, but somehow it was more ingratiating than funny. The Twitter exchanges were still the highlights for me, but overall, it didn’t quite hit my funny bone.

I’d recommend this series to readers with kids, but for adult readers, I’d suggest they pass on it. They don’t take long to read, so the investment of time is slim, but there are so many other good series written for adults that it doesn’t seem worth it to devote what short time it would take to read these books. I have another of her books to read (what can I say? They were on sale, and my expectations were high), but I don’t see myself adding it to my titles to follow.

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Stitches: A Memoir

August 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

stitchesStitches: A Memoir by David Small

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I stumbled across this book while browsing Goodreads one day. That’s nothing of note (a lot of the books that wind up on my to-read list come from there), but that particular day, I happened to be browsing the site after installing a browser extension that linked to my library. The summary and artwork both looked promising, and my local branch had a copy, so I gave it a test run, and what do you know? It works!

Stitches is a memoir of David Small’s early life. It’s a heavy story. Small’s parents were cold and distant, more interested in their own well-being than his own, and they often saw him as a burden more than anything else. His father, a radiographer, tries to cure Small’s pulmonary problems by dosing him with X-rays, so when he’s in his early teens and develops cancer, it’s not much of a surprise. Well, it’s not much of a surprise to his parents. It is to Small, because he goes into surgery expecting the doctors to remove what he’s been told is a sebaceous cyst, but when he wakes, he’s missing his thyroid and one of his vocal cords, and is effectively mute. It’s only then that he discovers he had cancer.

Dysfunctional families are the subject of many a memoir, so the memoir itself isn’t anything new, nor does it provide any particular insights into why families can be dysfunctional. What drew me to the story was the anecdote about his surgery and his ignorance of his own health, and once that point is passed in the story, it ceases to be as interesting. Small carries the story through to its conclusion, offering some small explanations for why his parents were like they were, and offering some small bit of closure to the relationship with his mother, but it doesn’t feel engaging. The story is compelling enough, and Small’s illustrations are evocative (there’s a break in the middle of the story where the style changes, and that change is used to great effect), but in the end, I couldn’t feel much more than pity for the author and his family, and I don’t feel that’s the appropriate emotional response for what happened to him.

Memoirs aren’t really my thing, but every so often a graphic memoir catches my attention enough to make me want to read it. Fun Home was another one I read and only just barely enjoyed, and Stitches is about the same for me. Part of it is they’re so one-sided; family dynamics, even in the healthiest families, are complicated, and it’s impossible to get the entire story of a family just by listening to one member. In his afterword, Small suggests that he did a lot of research into his family when writing the book, but it’s still a story told entirely from his viewpoint. I can’t help but feel we’re not getting the entire story, but maybe that’s the point of any memoir. Again, they’re not a genre I typically read.

I wasn’t impressed with Stitches, but I admit I’m not the target audience. I liked Maus, but most other memoirs I’ve read have felt pointless and self-indulgent. Fans of memoirs, or fans of stories about terrible families, might enjoy it (is “enjoy” even the right word here?), but for the most part I didn’t get it.

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Harrison Squared

August 2, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

harrisonHarrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

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This is an odd book. It’s a prequel to Gregory’s We Are All Completely Fine, in that it tells the story of one of the characters in that book, Harrison Harrison, whose life inspired a series of children’s books. The thing is, Harrison Squared is that children’s book (well, YA at best), which makes it not just a prequel but also a meta story related to the original work.

Harrison travels with his mom, a marine biologist, to a town in Massachusetts called Dunnsmouth, where she hopes to capture footage of an underwater beast. Harrison thinks she’s after giant squids and the like, but Dunnsmouth is hiding something far more interesting than the usual deep-sea creatures. In fact, the creature she’s hoping to discover relates back to when Harrison’s father was killed, and when Harrison himself lost his left leg.

This is a wildly compelling book, which surprises me, since WAACF didn’t grip me the same way. Gregory captures his characters well, doing that thing good writers do where you try to pinpoint where, exactly, you started to relate to the characters so well, but it happens so slowly over the course of the narrative that you can’t do it. They grow organically, building relationships in the same way real people do, over time and (sometimes) reluctantly, and they do it so well that it’s impossible not to root for them.

The plot is a little simplified, but the story doesn’t suffer for it. Key characteristics of the characters will obviously play into plot resolutions near the end, but Gregory handles his characters so well that it’s hard to complain about it. The story itself doesn’t answer all the questions it asks, which isn’t always a bad thing, but here it feels more like a cliffhanger ending than an ambiguity that’s intended to make the reader think. I read an interview that suggests Gregory hopes to make a trilogy out of this, but that he hasn’t written anything else in the series yet. I feel a little cheated by it, but hopefully the book does well enough to justify getting the rest of these books written. You know, as soon as possible.

Harrison Squared wasn’t a book I was itching to read, but it surprised me. WAACF wasn’t one of those books that made me want to go out and read everything Gregory wrote, but Harrison Squared is. I see a lot of his books have won acclaim and awards, so I’ve added another book of his to my to-read list (current count: 600+). I’m eager to see how Pandemonium shakes out.

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Children of Time

August 1, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

timeChildren of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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There are the classic epic science fiction novels — DuneStranger in a Strange Land, and Foundation among them — that everyone should read. They’re powerful works of fiction that force the reader to rethink everything they’ve known before so they walk away with a new perspective on the world and about themselves. Children of Time is another book to add to that list.

The story is twofold. It tells the story of humans, having abandoned Earth after destroying it and traveling through space to find a new world they can call home. It also tells the story of a species on a terraformed planet, uplifted with the help of humans, and how their civilization builds as they gain sentience. The two stories are intertwined and told in parallel, and it’s fascinating to read about the rise of one species while another speeds headlong into its own destruction.

Children of Time spans eons, but never feels tired. As a result, it’s a slow-burn of a story, but it never feels slow. The development of the two timelines is so compelling and realistic that it’s hard not to stay engaged. I found myself wanting to know more about the uplift species than the human drama, mostly because the human drama was something I’ve seen before. Still, the story involving the humans was engaging, too, thanks to Tchaikovsky capturing the characters so well.

Because the story spans such a long time, it would have been easy to get lost among generations and names, but Tchaikovsky overcomes this in two ways. For the human characters, he employs suspended animation so we see the same characters over centuries and millennia. For the uplift species, he creates archetypes of characters that he reuses from one generation to the next that he brings into the story, which works because the species has a genetic memory. The way Tchaikovsky writes his story, it’s suggested that the species don’t have names; instead, when he introduces a new archetype, he instead writes, “call her Viola”, or whatever name he chooses for that archetype.  It’s a brilliant device, and it helps to keep us connected to a species that, in our own minds, are still animals. Instead, we cheer with their victories and feel sorrow for their loss.

Tchaikovsky’s dialogue feels natural, and his characterization skills are strong. He does rely on lots of telling, but the book is a hard science fiction novel, and that’s to be expected for delivering so much technical information. That being said, the author has good turns of phrase, and he has moments where he shows us human nature in all its good and ill. The novel is a strong commentary on humanity and its endeavors, and where it can go. The ending feels a little forced in some ways, but it’s mostly in the science, not in the plot or the characters. Tchaikovsky doesn’t cheat on his story, and there’s so much good in this novel, I can overlook some clumsily-applied science.

Children of Time is moving, compelling, and thought-provoking. The story is as much commentary as it is fiction, and it shows us the best and worst in ourselves. In short, it’s everything a good science fiction novel should be. Fans of epic, generations-spanning science fiction should read this, as should anyone who enjoys a strong, well-told story.

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The Last Jedi

July 31, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

lastThe Last Jedi by Michael Reaves and Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

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It’s weird returning to an adult Star Wars book after having read so many juvenile books previously. It makes the differences between the two literature stand out, since the simplified storytelling of the juvenile books makes for such quick, easy reads. Plus, the shorter lengths of the juvenile books meant there weren’t many subplots; with The Last Jedi, they’re more prominent.

Reaves returns to his usual cast of characters with The Last Jedi, bringing back Jax Pavan, I-5YQ, and Den Dhur, all of whom featured in the Coruscant Nights series. In fact, it follows the events of Patterns of Force so much that I’m surprised it’s not a part of that series. In this book, Thi Xon Yimmon, Jedi Knight and leader of the Whiplash rebellion group, is kidnapped by Darth Vader, and Jax goes on a long journey to get him back. Jax also loses Laranth in the same confrontation where Yimmon is kidnapped, so he’s entertaining dark thoughts, and is tempted by the dark side, especially since he has a Sith holocron in his possession. Jax struggles to balance the Force within himself, and for most of the novel, he’s doing his own thing, without any input from I-5 or Den.

Part of what made Reaves’ other Expanded Universe novels interesting was his use of these central characters, building on and developing their characters from one story to the next. From I-5’s sardonic quips to Den’s pessimistic outlook, with Jax trying to manage the entire group despite all of that, the characters were engaging and served as the anchor for the stories. By dividing them in this book, Reaves removes the key to his story, and it’s a lot less interesting for it. Jax travels from place to place trying to locate and rescue Yimmon, and sometimes I-5 and Den are with him, and sometimes they aren’t. In fact, for as much as I-5 and Den actually serve a purpose in the book, they may as well not even have been featured at all.

For as lengthy as this book is (460 pages), not much happens. There’s a lot of traveling, a lot of backtracking, and a lot of angst-ridden introspection that carries the story, and frankly it’s pretty boring. Under different circumstances, it might not have bothered me much, but after reading the cleaner, more direct juvenile books, The Last Jedi wasn’t the right book to ease me back in to reading the adult books. I’ve been toying with shifting my attention to the new canon books and reading those to stay on top of the new movies, and this might be a good time to make that shift. I’ve made my way through and beyond the prequel trilogies, and the next book I have to read is from the older wave of EU novels. I believe my next read in this project will be Catalyst.

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The Marvels

July 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

maRVELSThe Marvels by Brian Selznick

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Brian Selznick is a fantastic writer. The Invention of Hugo Cabret was so good, and Wonderstruck even better, that I bought a copy of The Marvels around when it was released. It took me a few years to get around to reading it, but I finally bumped it up my to-read list, and I’m pleased to say that it’s as moving a book as either of his first two books.

Selznick’s books are told equally in words and pictures, and The Marvels is no exception. What makes The Marvels different, though, is that the first half of the book is told 100% in pictures. Some of the illustrations have text, but for the most part, they’re wordless, and tell the story of a family who lives in the theater. The story goes back to a shipwreck in 1766 and takes us all the way through the early 1900s, showing the lives of a family who worked and were raised in the theater. Then, the story shifts to 1990, and is told 100% through narrative. Like any Selznick book, though, there’s a puzzle beneath the story, telling us more than we realized, and when the pieces all fall into place, the real story shines through.

Selznick creates his characters to be lively and engaging, even when they’re as unlikeable as Uncle Albert, and they’re what carry the story. Had the entire book been told with narrative and pictures interspersed, like he did with his previous two books, it could have become overly complicated — Selznick does tell the story of several generations of one family, after all — but the way he balances the two stories is perfect. In the end, the characters we’re meant to know the most about — Joseph, Albert, and Frankie — are the ones we grow to care about, and that they’re the ones whose lives are covered through the narrative isn’t a coincidence.

I don’t feel like The Marvels is quite as strong as Selznick’s other books (there seems to be a bit too much back-and-forth between Joseph and Albert that doesn’t go anywhere), but that’s not to say that I didn’t like it. It moved me as much as his other books did, enough so that I had to blink several times to be able to make out the words as I neared the end of the book. Anyone who read and enjoyed Selznick’s previous work should read The Marvels; it’s as brilliant as anything else he’s written.

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Power

July 27, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

squirrel1The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Power by Ryan North, et al.

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I’ve heard a lot about Squirrel Girl, all of it positive. I hear she’s a good role model for kids, especially young girls, and that she’s more inclined to solve problems with diplomacy than with punches. Plus, I hear there’s a loopy sense of humor to the books, so when I saw that these were on sale, I figured it was time for me to see what all the fuss was about.

The good news is I see all of the good I read about in other reviews; the bad news is I still couldn’t get that invested in it. I do think she serves as a strong role model, and it’s refreshing to see a female superhero who isn’t all about skimpy costumes and helping the male superheroes, but the tone of the book put me off. I grew up on Ambush Bug, so I was prepared for loopy and irreverent, but there was something about the characters that didn’t do it for me. Part of it, I think, is the feeling that these books are supposed to be part of official continuity. Continuity, to me, suggests a level of seriousness that doesn’t exist with this title. The fact that she couldn’t keep her secret identity secret (not that it’s broken in this book, but come on; it’s not going to last) opens up a vulnerability to all the characters who know her, and it all fell apart in my head.

There were parts of the story that made me laugh (the Twitter exchanges that started a couple of the issues cracked me up), but for the most part the humor grew tiresome. I gave up on trying to read all of the editorial comments that were at the bottom of each page, as they became distracting, slowed me down, took me away from the story, and in the end weren’t really worth the time. Plus, I was reading a digital copy of the book, and in order to read them all, I had to enlarge the page. It was too much effort for not a lot of gain.

My disappointment might lie with my expectations being too high, but I’m not feeling it so far. I still have a couple other collections to read (they were on sale, and I do still abide by my rule that I have to read at least two collections before drawing any conclusions on a title), but I’m not champing at the bit to get to them. I’ll get there when I get there. I can appreciate the title, and I would recommend it to readers looking for positive comics with a female lead, but so far it’s not going to be a go-to title for me.

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The Last of the Jedi: Reckoning

July 26, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

reckoningThe Last of the Jedi: Reckoning by Jude Watson

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Ferus, one of the last of the Jedi, finally confronts Vader. At the same time, the truth regarding Flame, the mysterious benefactor of the rebellion, is revealed. Ferus also confronts Obi-Wan over his long-term mission, and gets to ask him all the questions we’ve been asking for the entire series. In short, the main plot points of the entire series come to the front here, and the main characters all get a chance to have their reckoning.

I’ve said in other reviews that this series feels more like one long novel instead of a series of novels featuring the same character, and now that I’ve finished the series, I feel that even more strongly. The characters have time to develop from book to book, and even when Watson borrows characters from her other books, or introduces a character we already know enough about without giving us much background (e.g., Bail Organa), they feel real and developed. The later novels are much better than the ones at the beginning of the series, but given how the plot develops, this is no surprise.

With Reckoning, Watson brings The Last of the Jedi — and her foray into the Expanded Universe — to a close, and she does it well. She gives real emotion to her characters, and gets the reader to feel for how things end. Over the ten books, the real connection has been Ferus and Trever’s relationship, and here she brings it to a bittersweet end. For me, that makes the book stronger, and the series one of the best of the juvenile books I’ve read thus far.

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The Last of the Jedi: Master of Deception

July 25, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

deceptionThe Last of the Jedi: Master of Deception by Jude Watson

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Master of Deception takes us to Alderaan, and brings Bail Organa to the front of the story. Ferus, still working for the Empire, is sent to investigate reports of a Force-sensitive child. We already know the reports are accurate, since we know Leia is on Alderaan, but Ferus, still working as a double-agent, works against the reports, trying to downplay the findings.

I find Bail’s character to be one of the more interesting in the Expanded Universe. I feel like he received short shrift in the movies, but he’s been developed into a real character in the EU. His honor and nobility, and his working behind the scenes to try to undermine the Empire, strikes a chord with me. The story continues to show Ferus as he struggles with succumbing to the Dark Side of the Force, but the individual story here shines through the larger story for a change. It’s win-win for me, since I find the larger story to be more compelling, but I also found the main plot of this book to be as interesting.

I have one more book to go in the series, and I’m certainly not going to stop, even if I weren’t already committed to reading all of the EU novels. I get the feeling the overarching plot will be the primary focus of the last novel, and I’m eager to see how Watson pulls it off. She’s been able to portray real emotion with her characters, and with all that could happen in the last novel, I expect it will be a strong conclusion.

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