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.

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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

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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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Sweet Myth-tery of Life

December 8, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

sweetSweet Myth-tery of Life by Robert Asprin

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The One About the Women

So, Skeeve can sometimes be full of himself. Being the narrator, and being the heart that holds M.Y.T.H. Inc. together, can do that to a person. He can also be a bit clueless, which is part of his charm, but all those aspects of his character come together in this book, where he finds himself trying to solve the mystery of women. Seeing as he’s inept with them up to and including this book, it makes for an interesting plot, except that the book doesn’t really have one.

Its premise is that he has to decide whether to marry Queen Hemlock, who has given him the choice of marrying her to help rule the kingdom, or not marry her, at which point she will abdicate the throne and leave him to rule the kingdom anyway. Over the course of the book, he has to think about Hemlock, Tananda, Luanne, Bunny, and Massha, along with Kalvin, the djinn from Myth-nomers and Im-pervections, and his wife and what they mean to him. It’s a bit troublesome for me, as Asprin takes these characters who are all fulfilled and reduces them to objects for Skeeve to consider.

Hemlock and Luanne aren’t developed enough to be more than just objects, and Tananda, Bunny, and Massha keep the characteristics that make them more than objects, but they’re still evaluated that way over the course of the story. Skeeve even admits that he doesn’t even think of Massha as a woman, due to her size. He reduces these women to their attractiveness. This isn’t a new thing in the series (Tananda is often described physically before anything else, as if that is her most important attribute), but it became more noticeable in this book, where everything is about these women and their attractiveness.

Aside from all that, the book isn’t as engaging because nothing really happens. Skeeve has to decide what to do about Queen Hemlock, and he does (with about as much of an anticlimax as there was in M.Y.T.H. Inc. Link), but otherwise it’s just about Skeeve moping and mooning about his decision. In addition, this book is peppered with typos (including a bunch of “it’s” for “its”), which get distracting after a while. Then there’s that cliffhanger ending that leads into the final book in the series, which wasn’t published until six years after this one. Remember, I was reading these as they were released back in high school.

I can’t deny that I had fun reading the book, since it maintained the same style and feel as the previous books, but I also can’t deny that I saw a lot of problems with it. I didn’t notice them when I was younger, as I didn’t notice Piers Anthony’s problems with women in all of his books, so maybe that was still the nostalgia talking. Now, though, it’s hard to evaluate the book as a story when I find myself cringing at how Asprin portrays the female characters.

 

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Myth-nomers and Im-pervections

December 5, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

nomersMyth-nomers and Im-pervections by Robert Asprin

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The One About Perv

When I decided I wanted to re-read these books, I tracked most of them down through used bookstores. In my haste, I grabbed what I could find, not paying attention to whether or not they were the editions with the Phil Foglio illustrations. The first time I read this book, I read that edition, and I found myself missing them during my re-read.

With this book, we go back to Skeeve’s point of view, as he travels alone to Perv to ask Aahz to come back to the company. Perv is based on New York City, or Chicago, or any other large metropolitan area around the world, and it gives Asprin a chance to explore the modern world while still staying entrenched in his Myth Adventure style. I thought it was well done, especially in how he handled some of the themes in the novel.

All of the books have had some passages where Asprin focuses on one theme or another, and they help make the books be more than just funny fantasy books. Myth-nomers takes that a step further, looking at the culture of big cities and how they affect individuals. From examining the police force to addressing the divide between the wealthy and the poor, the book has a lot to say, more than the other books in the series. As such, I think this is my favorite of the books in the series. That it comes so much later in the series is surprising to me, since I expected them to start falling off by this point.

This was the first book in the series that stood apart from my nostalgia and was able to stand on its own merits. Here’s hoping that the rest of the books in the series are able to do the same (though I have two more M.Y.T.H. Inc. books to finish, so I’m not holding my breath).

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M.Y.T.H. Inc. Link

December 2, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

linkM.Y.T.H. Inc. Link

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The One About Everyone Else

Back when I first read this book, I was buying the books individually as they were released (the first six having been collected in two volumes for the Science Fiction Book Club). This was the first book in the series I read that included Phil Foglio’s illustrations, and since then, his portrayal of the characters has been how I see them in my head.

M.Y.T.H. Inc. Link is the first book where Asprin wrote outside of Skeeve’s point of view, and it was also the first book in the series that disappointed me. Skeeve was always the heart of the gang, and it made sense that he would narrate the stories. While it was nice to see him from his co-workers’ eyes, it didn’t have the same kind of narrative impact to read stories that didn’t feature him. Sure, the crew deserved stories of their own, but I always felt like the approach to the stories here felt less interesting, and disjointed. That feeling holds true in my re-read, as well.

As I mentioned in my last review, Skeeve is the heart of the group, the one who holds them all together, and the stories are just more interesting when told from his perspective. He portrays his own exploits honestly, even when he comes across as cold and arrogant, so there’s not much sense in having the other characters fill in when he’s not around. Skeeve doesn’t feature in the four stories that comprise this book, so there’s not much he could have told, but the other books talk of other adventures that took place in between, so why not take the same approach here? Other than getting more insight into Gleep, I didn’t see that the stories were necessary enough to feature their central characters.

In the foreword to this book, Asprin mentions that he intended to make this style a regular occurrence, but it looks like he only kept it going for three books. I’m not sure if it was in response to the general opinion of non-Skeeve books, but from what I’ve read in other reviews and in talking with other folks who’ve read the series, there’s not a lot of love for the M.Y.T.H. Inc. books. The best that can be said of this one is that it sets up the events for the next one.

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Little Myth Marker

December 1, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

masrkerLittle Myth Marker by Robert Asprin

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The One About the Kid

To this day, I still use Dragon Poker as an analogy for any system that is prone to overcomplication and whimsy. Since I play a lot of board games, it comes up at least once a year when someone starts explaining the rules of a new game that’s not very streamlined. My memory of the Myth Adventure books is that Dragon Poker featured heavily in almost all of them, but it turns out it didn’t make an appearance until here, book six of the series.

Little Myth Marker is also the rare book that doesn’t bring in a new member of Skeeve’s team. We get introduced to Markie, the kid whom Skeeve takes as a marker for his winnings in a game of Dragon Poker, but at the end of the story, she parts company with the group. Considering that even Vic, the vampire antagonist from the previous book, eventually becomes a part of the team, it’s an anomaly. There’s a good reason that’s addressed at the end of the book, but it comes down to honesty and character, which is a trait common among all the books in the series.

I think that’s part of what makes the books so approachable. Skeeve is a nice guy who always wants to do the right thing (even if sometimes it gets repeated so much that it’ll make you sick to hear it again), and everyone on his team has that same characteristic. The main characters are all good, respectable people, and it makes it easy to like and root for them.

This book marks the end of the first books under contract for the series, and it ends on a fairly complete note, though it remains open enough to continue the series. I used to have these books in the Science Fiction Book Club omnibus editions, and this one marked the end of volume two. After this point, I started reading the books as they were published.

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Myth-ing Persons

November 30, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

personsMyth-ing Persons by Robert Asprin

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The One About the Vampires

Of all the Myth Adventures books I remember, Myth-ing Persons was the biggie. Not only did it feature Aahz and Skeeve and the rest of the crew, but it featured vampires! The horror nut that I was, I was all over this one.

I remember more details about this book than I do the others, save for Another Fine Myth. I remember how the bazaar used other dimensions to save space in Deva; I remember how the I remember how Skeeve rescued Aahz from the living stone cell; I remember how the vampires first reacted to Skeeve and the rest of the gang. There were some other fun things I either didn’t remember or didn’t realize when I was reading (Drahcir and Idnew, for example), but for the most part this was a re-read to remember all the great stuff from the story.

One thing that’s stuck with me as I’ve been reading these books is how Asprin portrays Massha. She’s strong, independent, and her own person, but how he portrays her as a fat woman in the story concerns me. She’s aware of it, but the way Asprin has Skeeve think about her doesn’t sit well with me. Clearly there’s judgment going on as he evaluates her as an apprentice and a person, due to her weight, and he mostly overlooks her as a woman entirely because of it. The person she is aside from her weight shines through, enough that Asprin avoids stereotypes, and she doesn’t come across as simply the token fat woman. It’s troubling, but not enough to dismiss the entire series out of hand because of it.

Regardless, the story is entertaining, and brings back a lot of fond memories. I understand that these books may not hold up as well as I progress further into the series, but then again, that’s true of most series that don’t run as long as this one does. It’s impossible for me to separate the story from my nostalgia, but I’m still having a lot of fun with these books.

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