Cloudbound

January 19, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

cloudboundCloudbound by Fran Wilde

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There are a lot of things Wilde does right with Cloudbound. For one, the first couple of chapters serve as a nice summary of what happened in Updraft, the first book in this trilogy, which is useful, since I last read that book over a year ago. Like that book, Cloudbound also wraps the story around some fascinating ideas and themes, which help to elevate what is, to me, a mediocre story, to something a little more interesting.

The book picks up a few months after the events of Updraft, and this time Wilde shifts the narration from Kirit to Nat, one of her oldest friends who wound up fighting her to help save the towers. To say their relationship is strained is being generous; there’s a tremendous loss of trust between the two, and it drives their characters for the bulk of the book. Unfortunately, the characters didn’t spring to life for me. Kirit is mostly a background character, with the focus shifting back to the troubles between the Spire and the towers, neither to which she belongs. She’s an outcast, despite her role in bringing the corruption to the towers’ attention, so she gets very little page-time in the book.

I don’t find fault with Wilde shifting attention from one character to another. There are a lot of people in her Bone Universe, and it helps broaden the universe to show that it takes more than one hero to keep that world going. It’s just that none of the other characters are as interesting as Kirit. She does a good job of creating a diverse cast of characters, and gives them proper motivations, but I couldn’t get interested in them.

The other weird thing about the story is that it ought to have engaged me. Plot-wise, it was interesting, and expanded on what the Bone Universe is, but somehow I felt disconnected with it all. It reminded me a lot of the Craft Sequence, in that the narrative itself couldn’t engage me, despite the wealth of great ideas within.  I also noticed how Wilde uses sentence fragments a lot, I’m guessing for effect. Or because she felt it provided a narrative punch. (Yes, that’s my attempt to show how she was using them.) For me, they were more distracting than anything else.

I’m not sure if reading Updraft would have made me more aware of these issues, since I listened to the audio production for that book. I get the feeling the sentence fragments would have been less obvious, but I’m not sure about the rest. I do know that I remember pieces of Updraft fairly vividly; time will tell if Cloudbound will stay with me as well.

As I was reading this book, I figured I might have been done with the series, but then she went and ended the story the way she did, and I get the feeling I’ll be back around for book three. I know it’s already out, but the stories didn’t strike me as good enough to buy the books in hardcover, so I’ll likely wait until the paperback is released to get caught up. If my library carried a copy, I’d get it from there, but as it is, I don’t mind waiting. I have a lot of other books I’m more interested in reading right now, anyway.

Started: October 19, 2017
Finished: October 27, 2017

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Archie: Volume Four

December 11, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

archie4Archie: Volume Four by Mark Waid and Pete Woods

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In the afterword of the first volume of the Archie reboot, Waid noted that when he started writing the series, he hung a sign on his bulletin board that read, “First, do no harm.” It served as a reminder to tackle the characters honestly, as members of the Archie universe, and to maintain the themes and feelings of the original series. He’s accomplished this in the allegorical sense, but with Volume Four, he shows that he’s not necessarily abiding by that rule in the literal sense.

(Spoilers ahead.)

This volume packs an emotional punch, as the Betty/Veronica question continues to be a central part of the title, and also because Betty winds up in a serious accident by the end, serious enough that she flatlines before coming out to learn she can’t feel her legs. I’m a little torn by the reveal, because I can’t deny that it’s effective, but I also wonder if this is just a narrative ploy to drive Archie back to Betty. If that’s the case, then it makes Betty’s character pretty worthless, doesn’t it?

The accident is the result of a drag race between Archie and Reggie, and comes in mostly out of nowhere. Betty catches wind of it, and attempts to prevent it, but it forces her off the road, where she is seriously injured. Somehow, the two male characters come out of it with hardly a scratch, and it’s hard to tell how they react to the news, since the volume ends on a cliffhanger. Waid suggests this will be a big thing for Archie (and for Reggie, though for different reasons), and it all sits uncomfortably with me. Betty has been strong and independent, and unless this turn of events is there to make Betty stronger, it all feels like a girl-in-the-refrigerator moment. I’m withholding final judgment until I see where this part of the story goes, because it can go either way from here.

As for the other stories, we see less of Cheryl Blossom (though her story takes an unexpected turn), and there’s a cute interplay between Jughead and Veronica that’s endearing, but the story is overwhelmed by the Betty arc. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it was nice to see some other characters get some time in the spotlight. Moose even gets some panel time!

Unfortunately, so does Reggie. Reggie was never a likable character, so it’s no surprise that he’s nobody’s friend in the reboot, but Waid seems to be trying for Riverdale’s own version of Henry Bowers, instead of an obnoxious prankster. There’s an air of finality around his pranks that didn’t exist in the old series, and it feels like it goes too far in the revamp.

Despite my concerns, I still think this is a solid volume, with some effective storytelling. It relies a bit too much on coincidence and might be pushing characters into making decisions that don’t support their characters, but it’s definitely memorable. I’m eager to see how Waid will wrap up this storyline in Volume Five.

Started: September 5, 2017
Finished: September 5, 2017

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The Girl from the Well

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

wellThe Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco

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Whoof, what a mess. It feels like there could be a decent story buried in the narrative — a young boy with tattoos on most of his body begins to see a ghost who is avenging other dead by killing their murderers — but the writing is so bad it’s hard to find it.

The ghost is our narrator, which is part of why it doesn’t read well. Our main character is the young boy, Tarquin, and his aunt, Callie, but we never see what’s happening in the story through their eyes. Instead, we have the ghost telling us what’s happening with them, so we’re removed from the events and emotions of the story. The only real connection we have with the characters is through their dialogue, which is so poorly written that it’s embarrassing.

The dialogue feels consistently stilted and forced, and winds up coming across as insincere. Tarquin’s main way of communicating is through sarcasm, which doesn’t come across well in the story, and since we have to learn of their backstories through conversation, we get a lot of info-dumps through the dialogue. The story moves quickly as a result, so there’s no subtlety, no easing our way into the story. Instead, we get a teacher who immediately believes one of her students when she tells her she can see a ghost, and a therapist makes an immediate breakthrough against a patient’s hostile reticence to talk. We don’t see any struggles or introspection about any of this; we’re expected to take it at face value.

As a result, the characterization is flat. Callie cares for Tarquin, as does his father, but we don’t get a sense of that emotion; we only know that about them because we’re told it’s so. Tarquin seems to come to care for the ghost who is our narrator, but again, we don’t get a real sense of why. Despite her being a murderous thing, the ghost takes to Tarquin and Callie immediately; she even admits to them that she’s not sure why she feels that way. In the end, neither do we.

Chupeco has an odd style to her writing, where she will

break

up

her sentences across paragraphs, apparently as a means of drawing attention to the tension of a moment. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well as she thinks it does. For me, it just slowed me down, forcing me to parse the sentence instead of experiencing the story.

In another author’s hands, The Girl from the Well could have been a fantastic horror story. As it is, it’s clunky, poorly developed, and poorly written. The book is marketed as YA book, which means I maybe should give it some slack for being more direct, but there are plenty of YA and juvenile books that don’t pander that way for me to ignore it. Chupeco has written a sequel and an additional book, but I won’t be reading either.

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Usagi Yojimbo: The Hell Screen

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

screenUsagi Yojimbo: The Hell Screen by Stan Sakai

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Every time I review an Usagi Yojimbo book, I say the same things: strong storytelling; bold artwork; vivid characters. The Hell Screen is no different, since Sakai is still a natural at all of those things. His established characters ring true and honest, and his newly-introduced ones, while less developed, are drawn well enough to serve their purpose in the stories.

The theme of this volume seems to be rain, as the stories all take place during thunderstorms. The first two stories have an overlap I haven’t seen in Sakai’s stories before, where they diverge in the midpoint of the first one. The second story begins at that divergence, which felt odd (as near as I can recall, Sakai has never gone back in his timeline, though he’s used flashbacks before), but it made sense once I understood what he was doing.

I say this every time I review an Usagi Yojimbo book, but if you haven’t yet read these books, you should. They have appeal for all readers of all ages, and the storytelling is so good that it’s a shame not to experience it. You have a long way to go to catch up (this is volume 31!), but it’s worth it.

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Archie: Volume Three

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

archie3Archie: Volume Three by Mark Waid & Joe Eisma

—–

I’ve been reading the Archie books for as long as I can remember. I have memories of begging my parents to buy me the newest digest on display at the grocery store, and I remember reading them over and over again. I had my favorite characters, and I took sides on the whole Betty/Veronica running plot (Team Betty!), so it’s safe to say I was invested in the series as a kid.

The thing is, I don’t remember Cheryl Blossom. At all. I might have been too old to be reading Archie when she was introduced (Wikipedia says that was 1982), but even if I was, she didn’t make an impression. The way Waid introduced her in this volume made it clear she was an established character he was re-introducing, but for me it was all new. It didn’t feel like Waid was expecting the reader to know the character in order to not have to create her backstory, but it did feel like he was playing to the audience more with her character.

She’s not a likable character (she’s not intended to be), but she’s being presented as a third interest for Archie’s affections. While Archie is still the klutzy, clueless teenager he’s always been, Waid hasn’t presented Archie as being so clueless that he won’t see through her act. Maybe that’s forthcoming; this volume is more interested in establishing her character and putting events into place to bring her to Riverdale. Regardless, I’ll be interested in seeing how Waid puts the two character together.

As I said above, this book is all about Cheryl and getting her to Riverdale, but all of the events leading us that way feel forced. It made some sense for Hiram Lodge to send Veronica to a European boarding school at the end of Volume Two, but it still felt strained. Waid even succeeds in making her return feasible, but Cheryl’s move was a little too pat to be believable. The pieces fit well enough, and thinking back on it, I can’t see where Waid cheated to pull it together, but I’m not sure why he felt the need to move Veronica to Europe to do it.

Waid has done a good job so far with reinventing Archie for the modern world while staying true to the characters, but it feels like he stumbled with this arc. Now that the characters are all back on one place, the story should pick up and get back to what it’s done well so far, but getting there was a bit of a disappointment.

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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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Scooby Apocalypse: Volume 1

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

scoobyScooby Apocalypse: Volume 1 by Keith Giffen, et al.

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There were three reasons I had to read this book:

1. Keith Giffen. I’m a long-time fan of Ambush Bug.
2. J.M. DeMatteis. Two of my favorite comics are Brooklyn Dreams and Moonshadow.
3. Afterlife with Archie. It was much better than I expected it to be.

Scooby Apocalypse is another gritty horror reboot of a kids’ franchise, only it’s handled much less evenly than Afterlife with Archie. The writers of that title had an understanding of the characters they were writing, and maintained the characters while putting them into an unreal situation. Giffen and DeMatteis ignored the characters of the original cartoon, save for the high points (a talking dog; a hipster companion; Velma’s smarts), and went off in their own direction with the characters.

Velma is probably the biggest change, since she’s not that likable a character. She’s part of the science lab that’s caused the apocalypse of the title, but she’s cold, distant, and seemingly uncaring. Daphne is a TV reporter, working on a show about mysterious mysteries that airs on the Knitting Channel (?), and is a determined, upwardly-mobile personality. Scooby is a regular Great Dane turned into a cybernetically enhanced dog thanks to experiments in Velma’s lab. Shaggy is a dog trainer at the lab who takes a liking to Scooby because he’s considered a failure for not being as assertive as the other dogs. Fred … well, Fred may as well not even be there, for all he contributes to the story. And, true to the original show, the less said about Scrappy, the better.

It’s possible to take the characters and update them successfully without taking away from their characters; Scooby Doo on Zombie Island darkens the tone, advances the franchise, and tells a good story, all while staying true to the characters. Scooby Apocalypse, on the other hand, does none of these things. Even as it attempts to make the tone more serious, it does so in such a way as it’s easy to laugh at the attempt.

Speaking of laughter, the jokes here fell so flat as to be embarrassing. Shaggy still says “Zoinks!”, Velma still says “Jinkies!”, and Velma’s last name is still Dinkley, but these reveals are deliberately played for laughs, at the characters’ expense. The characters aren’t even friends, save for Shaggy and Scooby, which means it’s harder to sympathize with them as a group, especially when they don’t even trust each other.

A key element of the story in the book is how Daphne doesn’t trust Velma, since she was a part of the lab that released the plague that created all of the monsters. Velma insists that it wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did, and the two of them spar about this particular point for the entire. Dang. Book. We get it: We can’t trust Velma, because Daphne doesn’t. We don’t need it repeated to us every three pages or so. It became tiresome, especially when Daphne would begin to trust Velma, only to suddenly shift back to not trusting her after something else happened.

The artwork is fine, but I was disappointed to see a gratuitous panty shot in the comic. Yes, Velma’s skirt is pretty short, and yes, running from monsters means she’s less likely to worry about what’s showing than, say, surviving, but it’s not necessary to the story.

Stories about monsters and zombies are rarely subtle, but they can approach their subjects with a subtlety if done correctly. Scooby Apocalypse is not one of those stories. Despite the collection ending on a cliffhanger, I won’t pursue this title any further. I blame myself for getting suckered into the premise, but I blame Afterlife with Archie for starting this kids’-books-as-horror-comics trend.

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Darth Vader: Vader

June 21, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

vaderDarth Vader: Vader by Kieron Gillen, et al.

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I’ve heard a lot of good things about this title, enough so that I bought the first two volumes when I found them on sale for Kindle. I wasn’t expecting them to be Watchmen-level good, but I figured they might be entertaining. What I didn’t take into account is the main character being Darth Vader, stone-cold killer and all-around totally unlikable dude. Considering this arc takes place between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, I should have realized there wasn’t going to be much sympathy for the character here.

The first volume follows Vader shortly after the destruction of the Death Star, when he has to face Sidious and own up to his failings. He’s sent on a task to meet with Jabba the Hutt, and while there, he arranges for two bounty hunters to do some work for him: one to find out who it was who destroyed the Death Star; and the other to find the identity of the person who may serve as Vader’s replacement (and since the Star Wars universe is lousy with recurring characters, of course one of the bounty hunters is Boba Fett).

There’s not a lot of tension to the story, since it’s hard for us to care about either Vader or Sidious. We see the beginnings of Vader’s feelings toward Sidious, as he feels betrayed when a potential replacement comes into the picture, but even that isn’t enough to make us sympathetic to him. Gillen brings in a secondary character through a chatty archaeologist who pilots Vader around the galaxy, and I couldn’t understand why she hooked up with him. Vader has no love for history as it happened, so why would an archaeologist choose to help him? It might have been different if she had been forced, but she seems cool with helping him, just because he’s on the winning side. Plus, when she’s introduced, she appears to be a carbon copy of Indiana Jones, right down to her dialogue.

It might have been a better read if the artwork had supported the story, but for all the action the story has, the artwork feels static. It’s clear, and shows what happens, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any motion from panel to panel. Instead, it feels like we’re reading dialogue over snapshots of action. I’m not sure what it is about the art that makes it feel this way, but it’s the first comic I’ve read that does.

I’ll go ahead and finish volume two of the series (I already bought it, and it only took an hour to read this one), but I don’t expect much from it, and I don’t expect it will inspire me to read the other two volumes. I’m not sure what it is I’m missing, but it’s far from the story the reviews led me to believe it would be.

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Archie: Volume Two

May 15, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

archie2Archie: Volume Two by Mark Waid, et al.

—–

I had a lot of fun with the first collection of the Archie reboot. It captured the heart of the characters, updated them to life in the modern world, and had decent stories that were reminiscent of the comics I read when I was a kid. I’d say I was surprised, but Mark Waid was at the helm of the reboot, so I kind of expected it to be all of those things. I just wasn’t expecting it to be good enough to capture forty-four-year-old me.

By now, Archie and Veronica are a thing, and Archie and Betty are not. Of course, Archie being Archie, it’s not that simple. Archie has feelings for both of them, for good reasons, and while I remember as a kid just accepting that about them, here we get to see why. We already knew why he and Betty were a thing, but Veronica’s spoiled-girl routine made it a bit of a mystery why Archie was so hung up on her. Here, Waid tells us why. It helps to build the character, and it also helps to start at the very beginning like they’ve done, because when I was a kid, the characters had already been around for thirty years. Maybe the very first comics gave readers some similar reasons why, but by the time I was reading them, it was just a foregone conclusion that this was the love triangle.

Fiona Staples drew the art for the first arc, and I was somewhat hesitant when I saw she wasn’t involved with the second one. My hesitation was for naught, though; the artists here do a great job of capturing the mood of the comic, from the dramatic moments down to Archie’s pratfalls. They blend the comic (that is, funny, and capturing the style of the comics) with the serious so perfectly that you roll from one to the other without noticing.

I’m not sure if it’s the nostalgia affecting how I feel about the series, but I’m impressed. We’re only twelve issues into the new series, and we’ve run the gamut of emotions with the characters, which is the sure sign of a successful story. So long as they keep this momentum up, I expect be a part of this revival.

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King Dork Approximately

May 8, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) ()

dorkKing Dork Approximately by Frank Portman

—–

I read and enjoyed King Dork, but had no idea that Portman had written a sequel. My interest in the book was secondary to my nostalgia for The Mr. T Experience, but I found an engaging, if odd, story that surprised me. I’m just cynical enough to think that an old punk rocker writing a novel is an attempt to cash in on said nostalgia, but it was a decent book.

The book follows shortly after the events of King Dork, picking up with Tom Henderson after he’s recovered from his near-fatal tuba injury (no kidding), and trying to cope with returning to the hellhole of his old high school. The thing is, due to what happened in King Dork, the school is being shut down, and he’s being shunted to Clearview High, away from his best friend Sam Hellerman, and dropped into an altogether new school where he has to relearn how to navigate the cliques and other normals.

This book is one of those oddities, where nothing much happens, but you can’t quite bring yourself to stop reading it. It seems to follow the same general plot of King Dork, just without the conspiracy revolving around Tom’s father’s death. Tom deals with high school, navigating girls and parents and teachers and all the rest, which culminates in a fight and a concert that goes poorly. It’s not a retelling of the first book, but it’s awfully familiar, but without that connection to his father’s death, Tom’s story isn’t really a story. I mean, does it make sense to have two coming-of-age stories back-to-back, involving the same character?

I was disappointed in how Portman portrayed the female characters in the story, though I expect it’s not too far off from how fifteen-year-olds think about girls. Lord knows, I was a different person at fifteen than I am now at forty-four, but by fifteen, kids should at least start thinking about their classmates as something other than someone to ramone with. As such, it’s not the sort of book I would give to a teenager, even though it’s marketed as a YA book.

Portman is a decent writer, though he overuses bits of his narrative. He has a tendency to write about some particular thing in one sentence, and then refer to that s. p. t. by its initials shortly thereafter. It slows down the narrative, forcing you to go back and remember what those initials are supposed to be. There are also the bits where he uses a word, following it immediately with “if [that word] means what I think it means.” It was cute the first few times Portman used it (and appropriate, considering it’s supposedly written by a fifteen-year-old with confidence issues), tiresome through the middle portion of the story, and then by the end of it, Tom started becoming aware of how much he was overusing it and making fun of it. Again, it slowed down the narrative due to its overuse.

I liked how much Portman used music as a large factor in the story, and how he even included a list of albums referenced in the book. It was also fun to see that he had recorded a soundtrack to the book, using songs and lyrics he had incorporated into the story to make real songs. It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to MTX, but it took me back to listen to some new tunes by the band.

So, the book is readable, if not necessarily engaging, despite some unfortunate character choices. It’s not necessarily inappropriate, but it has enough adult content and poor portrayals of women that I would recommend parents read the book themselves before passing it on to their kids. Anyone mature enough to recognize the problems would be fine with it, but I would hesitate giving it to someone who might read it and think it’s an endorsement for that kind of thing.

 

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