An Unwelcome Quest: The Book That Reviews Itself

An Unwelcome QuestAn Unwelcome Quest by Scott Meyer

Published: February 10, 2015
Publisher: 47North / Brilliance Audio
Genre(s): Fantasy, Comedy, Adventure
Format: Audiobook
Length: 11 hrs and 46 mins

Scott Meyer’s Magic 2.0 series is fantasy with a science-fiction hook: a computer hacker named Martin discovers an all-powerful file that lets him control reality, so he travels back to medieval times and pretends he is a wizard. This fails spectacularly when he meets all the other hackers who had the same idea.

An Unwelcome Quest is the third book in the series. The first two weren’t perfect by any means, but they were at least funny and light on their feet where this one quickly wears out its welcome. It’s a huge shame, because this series was exactly what I was looking for when I wanted to have a few laughs during my commute. One definite bright side is that Luke Daniels continues to bring his A-game as narrator. Also, I occasionally enjoyed the last quarter or so after gritting my teeth and slogging through the fairly dire middle.

I think the only reasons I made it through this installment in the series are because I wanted to know what happened to the characters and the fact that I received a review copy. Unfortunately, one of the first big changes in An Unwelcome Quest is that the events take place almost entirely in the magical world instead of jumping back and forth between modern times and the past. This means that treasury agents Murph and Miller don’t even appear during the story. Their presence is sorely missed. Meyer also splits up his cast of heroes into two groups, with Martin – the main character in the earlier books – relegated to a supporting role in an ensemble.

The book opens with Todd, a psychotic ex-wizard, escaping from prison. He kidnaps half of the characters and forces them to run through a badly designed RPG campaign. When Martin and the remaining wizards realize their friends are missing, they rush to the rescue and run through the same campaign in slightly different ways. Both sets of wizards bicker endlessly at every turn, and the effect is more sour than funny. It doesn’t help that Meyer includes constant explanations and recaps at every turn, in case you weren’t paying attention during the previous chapter. This repeats ad nauseam.

There is also a running joke that all the enemies in the game have the same basic attack pattern, which does nothing but undermine the already very low stakes. In fact, the villain explicitly the wizards that the obstacles they face will only annoy them without actually killing them until they reach the climax. That final sequence is basically the only part of the book where it feels like the characters are in even mild danger.

In the end, An Unwelcome Quest feels like an over-padded novella. There are entertaining moments here and there, and I did actually laugh out loud a few times. Unfortunately, getting to those good parts required slogging through a lot of tedium and redundancy. I might be willing to read another book in this series if Meyer somehow course-corrects, but it’ll take some pretty glowing reviews to convince me.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley. Of course, I ended up going ahead and buying the audiobook version because Luke Daniels is a fantastic narrator.

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The Fade Out: Dark Stars

The Fade OutThe Fade Out, Volume 1: Act One

Story: Ed Brubaker
Art: Sean Phillips
Colors: Elizabeth Breitweiser

Published: March 10, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Noir, Mystery, Crime
Format: Paperback
Length: 120 pages

The Fade Out is a tale of bad old Hollywood, when studios covered up all varieties of crime and young actresses faced near-constant sexual assault on the ladder to stardom. It definitely made me wonder how much has changed and how much has stayed the same since the 1940s, when this story takes place.

Charlie Parish is a screenwriter with a few dark secrets who wakes up one morning after a debauched party to discover a promising young actress, Valeria Sommers, strangled in her own home. Charlie decides to get himself the hell out of there – hiding any evidence of his presence before he leaves – but when the movie studio he works for spins the murder as a suicide, Charlie’s guilt and horror only increase.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips love a good noir. I haven’t read all of their work so far, but The Fade Out is one of their most grounded stories. It’s an unflinching look at the seamy underbelly of classic Hollywood, led by a conflicted non-hero who struggles to figure out what to do. The book also particularly focuses on the ways women were horribly mistreated during that time period, both in and outside the film industry.

Brubaker’s dialogue crackles, Sean Phillips’ character designs are bold and spare, and Elizabeth Breitweiser’s colors are the perfect accent that brings it all home. Charlie views the world through thick round glasses that dwarf his face. His writing partner, Gil, slumps his way through every scene, rumpled and dissolute. Valeria and Maya, her lookalike replacement on the picture, both have fresh, open faces and expressive mouths that make it easy to imagine them as long-lost Hollywood starlets.

Although The Fade Out starts with a murder mystery, it seems content to wander through old Hollywood, introducing a slowly expanding cast of characters without pushing Charlie into his ostensible role as citizen detective. It seems clear Brubaker is playing a long game and enjoying the scenery along the way.

My only criticism is that the third issue features so much female nudity that it verges on the exploitative. It’s clear that Brubaker is criticizing a system that puts women into situations that force them to use their bodies as currency, but the amount of naked flesh on display begins to undermine his point.

Even still, The Fade Out is an excellent slice of noir from creators working at the top of their game. Definitely worth checking out.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Netflix for Books: Scribd vs Kindle Unlimited

People keep trying to make “Netflix for books” happen. It’s probably because someone out there thinks I don’t have enough to read. I was definitely skeptical about these services at first because I have always been perfectly happy getting too many books from my local library. However, once they started introducing options that included audiobooks and comic books, it wasn’t long before I gave a few of the all-you-can-read services a spin. Luckily, most of them offer a free trial month, so it was easy for me to get sucked in.

Kindle-Unlimited-Launched-for-iPhone-and-iPad-All-You-Can-Read-for-9-99-7-39-451298-2The first service I tried was Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s $9.99 a month offering. Unlimited offers both ebooks and audiobooks, and thanks to Amazon’s close integration of Kindle and Audible, you can take advantage of Whispersync and download some books in both formats. Unlimited offers a lot of flexibility because you can read ebooks on Kindles or in Kindle apps, and listen to audiobooks in either the Audible app (which is fantastic) or any of the Kindle apps or devices. One of the killer hidden features of Whispersync is that it works even if you check out a Kindle book from the library, and Audible discounts show up even if you’re just borrowing the e-book.

As far as the titles available on Unlimited, it’s best for independent books, Amazon exclusives and smaller publishers. I listened to the first two Wayward Pines books by Blake Crouch and then used the Audible discount for Whispersync titles to buy the first two Magic 2.0 books by Scott Meyer. I also read a Kindle single and a book on writing. If you want more mainstream books, Unlimited does offer a few good options like the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games, but you won’t find most of the big new bestsellers on Unlimited. If you really enjoy independent genre fiction, Unlimited is probably a really good deal, but ultimately this selection wasn’t enough to keep me subscribed.

scribd-e-booksOnce I cancelled Unlimited, I decided to try Scribd, which costs $8.99 a month and works on iOS, Android, Kindle Fire and web browsers. Scribd was originally an online document publishing platform, but they announced a subscription book service a few years ago and that has completely taken over the site. Although I was first drawn to Scribd by their comic book library, I haven’t actually read a comic on there yet. Instead, I’ve mostly used it to listen to audiobooks. I was definitely impressed with their audio and e-book libraries when I first joined, but when Scribd announced a partnership with Penguin Random House Audio, their audio selection grew exponentially.

If you’re a fan of audiobooks like I am, Scribd is more than worth the monthly fee. I actually cancelled my Audible subscription a few months ago and haven’t really missed it. It helps that I already own plenty of books on Audible, but Scribd is actually a strong contender even when compared to Audible’s full library. So far I’ve listened to Lucky Alan by Jonathan Lethem, Get In Trouble by Kelly Link, The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore and In The Garden of Iden by Kage Baker. I’m also currently reading At The Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson. Some of those are brand-new books.

However, the Scribd app isn’t as polished as the Audible app. The default volume settings are way too quiet when I’m driving, for one thing. Although Scribd does offer some books in both e-book and audio formats, you can’t sync between the two automatically. Additionally, when you open a book, Scribd spends a long time syncing to their servers before the book actually opens. This happens even for books you’ve downloaded to your device. The e-book reading experience is at least as good as the Kindle app, but I’m not sure I’d ever choose it as my primary way to read e-books, just because I really prefer e-ink screens for text. That said, if they can beef up their comic book selection and work on improving the app, Scribd would be firing on all cylinders.

I’ll probably stick with my Scribd membership for the foreseeable future, although I may try other services if they seem like good options. I know that Oyster is fairly well-liked, but they’ve said they have no plans to expand into audiobooks, so that’s a deal-killer for me. No matter what, I’m sure I’ll buy and borrow books from every place I can get them. I can never have too many books, after all!

Wayward Volume One: Pretty But Empty

Wayward Volume 1: String TheoryWayward Volume One: String Theory

Story: Jim Zub
Line Art: Steve Cummings

Published: April 7, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Fantasy, Graphic Novel, Adventure, Magic
Format: Paperback
Length: 144 pages

The art in Wayward Volume One is probably the best part of an otherwise cliché book. The backgrounds are gritty and realistic in a way that feels completely grounded, and the character art is bright and stylized. Unfortunately, all of that beautiful design is in service of story about yet another teenager discovering hidden magical powers and using them to fight monsters.

Rori Lane is half-Irish and half-Japanese, which means she speaks the language but has a head of bright red hair that makes her stand out in a Japanese crowd. The story opens when she moves to Japan to live with her mother after a (so far unexplained) falling out with her father. Her mother works long hours and is hardly ever home, but Rori seems to have nowhere else to go, so the arrangement works.

There are the occasional interesting details, but they feel more like window-dressing than real characterization. Rori’s mixed heritage means she’ll never really fit in, no matter how well she learns to speak Japanese. The author plays with that theme, but doesn’t dig deeper than a moment where her teacher tells her to dye her hair black so that people won’t think she’s a troublemaker. We also learn that Rori is a secret cutter, but the revelation feels completely arbitrary and gratuitous because it doesn’t have any impact on the story. Ultimately it just feels like a cynical attempt to add depth to the story.

The other characters aren’t given much more depth than their magical abilities, but at least Ayane – a magical “cat girl” – is entertaining and strange. The story rushes through Rori discovering her powers and meeting other powered characters so that it can get to the fight scenes. I don’t necessarily prefer stories that dwell on characters discovering a secret world in plain sight, but Rori starts out the book lost in another country and ends up leading a team of magical teenagers in a very short amount of time. Additionally, the dialogue is oftentimes very wooden, reading as if Zub is trying to imitate English poorly translated from Japanese.

Ultimately the art and colors are the only things I actually liked about this book. Without the art, you have nothing but a story that relies on nothing but well-worn tropes, limited characterization and dialog that is both wooden and unnecessarily vulgar. I doubt I’ll pick up another volume.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Rat Queens: Everything’s Coming Up Tentacles

RatQueensV2_CoverRat Queens, Vol. 2: The Far-Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth

Story: Kurtis J. Wiebe
Art: Roc Upchurch and Stjepan Sejic

Published: May 19, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Format: Paperback
Length: 136 pages

Rat Queens is a modern spin on classic fantasy tropes that plays within those boundaries while also subverting clichés, and does so with a light touch. It has a great premise: a group of rowdy adventurers in a fantasy world fight, fuck, and generally incite civic destruction. The twist is that they’re all women, and they work both with and against other adventuring parties with similar mixes of race and gender.

The character designs are great, and Wiebe has a fantastic sense of humor. The character development is especially well-done, and each of the women at the center of the story feel both fully developed and entirely unique. In fact, characterization is probably the strongest aspect of the series so far.

I definitely enjoyed the first volume, Sass & Sorcery, which was a story about the team as they dealt with a surprising betrayal. This second volume, The Far-Reaching tentacles of N’Rygoth, tells a story that focuses on Dee, a semi-lapsed member of a religion that worships Lovecraftian horrors. I get the impression that future volumes of the series will tell similar stories that focus on each member of the Queens, so this volume is probably a good template for things to come.

Unfortunately, although I did enjoy volume two, it wasn’t as funny as volume one, and the pacing felt a little rushed at times. It opens with the Queens fighting against invading inter-dimensional horrors, and doesn’t really let up much from there. There are flashbacks interspersed throughout – part of the invasion involves strange mind control that distracts the Queens with hallucinated memories while they try to fight – so we do get a bit more back story for the characters, but it still felt like this volume didn’t gel quite as well as the first.

There was also a significant change behind the scenes when the original artist, Roc Upchurch, got arrested for domestic abuse charges and Wiebe fired him from the series. Stjepan Sejic, the artist who completed the last few issues in this volume, has his own unique style, but definitely fits very well within the established Rat Queens universe.

Although I do think this volume had a slight dip in quality, I would still heartily recommend picking up the series, and I look forward to future issues. Definitely worth checking out.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Get in Trouble: Heartbreaking Pocket Universes

Get in TroubleGet In Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link

Published: February 3rd, 2015
Publisher: Random House
Genre(s): Short Stories, Slipstream, Fantasy, Surreal
Format: Audiobook
Length: 9 hrs and 57 mins

Kelly Link has a knack for expertly juxtaposing weirdness with the mundane, and it’s basically catnip for my reading soul. Get in Trouble is no different.

However, one thing I noticed as I read is that only a handful of these stories are terrifying, which is a change from the norm. Link never really writes flat-out horror, but she has a way with chilling details and building suspense.

Although her talent for disturbing atmosphere does still come into play, Link spends most of her energy creating real, lived-in characters that leap off the page. In many ways, Get in Trouble finds her in transition; it’s still odd and unsettling, but it’s also some of her most accessible work.

The audiobook version, narrated by a full cast, features both familiar and new voices, some of whom are better than others. Tara Sands, who reads Secret Identity, is probably my favorite of the bunch. Ish Klein, who reads The New Boyfriend, has a high-pitched voice and staccato delivery that actually adds to the strangeness of the story. The only narrator I had some trouble with is Susan Duerden, whose odd cadence and breathy voice was very distracting at first.

“The Summer People” read by Grace Blewer
Fran and her (alcoholic, absentee) father are caretakers for vacation summer homes. Most of the time this just involves cleaning up after out-of-towners, but sometimes Fran has to deal with a different and far more dangerous type of summer people. This story starts out slowly, but Link steadily builds the danger and weirdness until delivering a punch of an ending. My only complaint is that the audiobook narrator completely ignores Fran’s accent.

“I Can See Right Through You” read by Kirby Heyborne
The Demonlover, aging star of a massively popular supernatural romance, reconnects with his former co-star/girlfriend as she films a TV segment about mysterious disappearances at a nudist colony. This story actually manages to humanize a celebrity couple who bear a very strong resemblance to Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. That said, the story opens with a prologue that feels completely disconnected from the main plot, and the ending is both sudden and unexpectedly surreal. I enjoyed the middle, but I’m still not quite sure what to think about the rest of this story.

“Secret Identity” read by Tara Sands
Told in the form of a confession and an apology, this story relates the adventures of a sixteen-year-old girl who travels to a New York hotel to meet a man more than twice her age under false pretenses. When she arrives, she discovers that the hotel is hosting two conventions: one for dentists, and another for superheroes. Much to her dismay, everyone assumes she is there to audition as a sidekick. Easily my favorite story in the entire collection; the main character is sympathetic and relatable even when she does terrible things. I also loved how Link plays with the idea of “secret identity” throughout.

“Valley of the Girls” read by Robbie Daymond
Decadent rich kids fight and fuck and build pyramids to house all of their worldly goods while lookalikes called “faces” make public appearances in their names. This story felt a bit overstuffed – too many disconnected ideas and not quite enough character development. Either “faces” or the Egyptian aspects of the story would have been enough to carry it, but both together are a bit too much. Ultimately Link doesn’t spend very much time exploring the concept of “faces”, so it just ends up confusing things.

“Origin Story” read by Rebecca Lowman
A small-town waitress spends the night with her former boyfriend, a now-famous superhero, at a dilapidated Wizard of Oz theme park. They have sex and talk about life, slowly but surely revealing shared histories and the intimacies of a long friendship. As they speak, we get glimpses of the strange world around them, full of mutants and people with superpowers. This story was a little willfully confusing at first, but once I got into the world, I definitely enjoyed it.

“The Lesson” read by Cassandra Campbell
Tan and Harper decide to attend a wedding held on an island despite the fact that their surrogate, Naomi, is in danger of delivering their baby prematurely. This is definitely the most realistic story Link has ever published, but there are still a few quirky touches and moments of strangeness. I liked this story, but I spent the latter half waiting for supernatural occurrences that never arrived.

“The New Boyfriend” read by Ish Klein
Immy and Ainslie are best friends, but Immy kind of hates Ainslie for getting everything she’s ever wanted and more. Especially her “boyfriends”, which are actually lifelike robots entirely devoted to their owner. When Ainslie receives a new boyfriend for her birthday, Immy’s jealousy overwhelms her, and she takes drastic measures. This was probably my second-favorite story in the collection. The narrator’s flat affect and unreliability paired well with the creepy concept of a “ghost boyfriend” who might be possessed by a real ghost.

“Two Houses” read by Susan Duerden
Astronauts on a long-haul spaceship – the House of Mystery – tell ghost stories during one night of their years-long trip to Alpha Centauri. This story was a mix of sci-fi and the supernatural, and although it builds to a particularly creepy moment at the end, it mostly relies on atmosphere and not plot or character.

“Light” read by Kirsten Potter
This story is so full of strange details that it’s nearly impossible to summarize properly. An alcoholic woman with two shadows works security at a company caring for “sleepers” – people found randomly lying asleep on the ground. She visits pocket universes, sleeps with the occasional wolf-man, and fights with her troublesome twin brother, who sprung forth from her extra shadow. Although I did enjoy this story, the strangeness was at such a high level that it was kind of overwhelming at times.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley… and then I listened to the audiobook version on Scribd instead. It was worth it!

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Lucky Alan: When the End Comes

Lucky Alan and Other StoriesLucky Alan and Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem

Published: February 24th, 2015
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre(s): Short Stories, Literary Fiction, Magical Realism, Surrealism
Format: Audiobook
Length: 4 hrs and 22 mins

The only thing I remember about Jonathan Lethem’s first collection of short stories is that he really liked abrupt endings. Lucky Alan is no different. Sometimes the endings work, and sometimes the stories just feel unfinished. That’s probably why this collection has so many one-star ratings – people assume that Lethem is trying to palm off his fragments on an unsuspecting public, and they react with vehemence.

Thing is, I think the one-star critics are being overly harsh. Yes, a few of these stories are duds, but the good ones far outweigh the misses, and it’s possible that Lucky Alan is Lethem’s strongest collection (although I’d have to re-read his earlier work for a definitive verdict). It definitely made me want to pick up his most recent few novels, and I haven’t been as interested in his work since he starting writing in a more exclusively literary vein.

Although I definitely recommend listening to the audiobook version of this collection – the narrators are all pretty great, even Lethem himself – all the stories (but one) are available online from their original publications.

Lucky Alan” read by Mark Deakins
Very much about New York and the people who live there. An actor and a theatre director strike up a casual friendship, and one day the director tells a story about his fraught relationship with a neighbor. Subtle but great. All about small details and the way people perceive each other and themselves.

The King of Sentences” read by David Wain
A couple is so obsessed with an author they call “The King of Sentences” that they travel to his hometown and stalk him until he appears at the local post office. The object of their affection responds with distaste but it doesn’t faze them in the least. Heightened and satirical but still entertaining – I could almost picture this as a sketch on Portlandia.

“Traveler Home” read by Mark Deakins
A man known only as Traveler survives a blizzard along with his dog, only to find a baby under odd circumstances. Lethem uses a stilted, affected style here that I found distracting. This out of all the stories felt the most like it was the first part of something unfinished.

Procedure in Plain Air” read by Amy Landecker
A road crew digs a hole in a sidewalk outside a coffee shop and puts a prisoner inside. The only witness feels responsible for the nameless, voiceless prisoner and decides to keep watch. I think I liked the oddness of the situation more than the story itself, which felt lacking in incident.

“Their Back Pages” read by Isaac Butler
Characters from classic newspaper comic strips crash-land on an island and slowly but surely devolve. This is probably the most stylistically ambitious of the stories in this collection, alternating between descriptions of comic panels and more traditional narrative scenes. At first I wasn’t sure what to think of this story, but once I caught on to what was happening, I really enjoyed it.

The Porn Critic” read by Bruce Wagner
A man writes reviews of porn tapes for his job, but it ends up interfering with both his reputation and his personal life. This felt a bit reminiscent of a Woody Allen story in some ways, although far more realistic than most of Allen’s fiction. Both this and the title story are very stylistically similar, and both feel like they are specifically about New York City.

The Empty Room” read by Michael Goldstrom
A man designates one room in his house as the “empty room”, explaining to his family that they aren’t allowed to leave anything in the room once they finish using it. Over time, he ends up basically living in that room, away from his family. This story had a nice undercurrent of surrealism that helped bring home its more allegorical aspects. Additionally, although the ending is sudden, it works really well for the material.

The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear” read by Jonathan Lethem
This story has one joke, really: that if a blog is like a house, a banned commenter is the rotting corpse left resting on the threshold. Once the joke becomes obvious, Lethem just keeps hammering it home. This is the only story in the collection that I’d consider an absolute dud.

Pending Vegan” read by Mark Deakins
A man who has stopped taking his antidepressants goes to SeaWorld with his family despite his looming sense of disaster. For whatever reason, this story wasn’t particularly memorable. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t really hold my attention, either. The main character’s anxiety and endless worrying didn’t really add up to much in the end.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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The Awesome: Sex, Blood & Monster Hunters

The Awesome by Eva DarrowsThe Awesome by Eva Darrows

Published: May 26th, 2015
Publisher: Rebellion / Ravenstone
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy, Monster Hunters
Format: eBook
Length: 352 pages

The Awesome has a fantastic cover. Even though the main character is a monster-hunting teenage girl, she isn’t pictured striking a pose in skin-tight jeans. Instead, we’re treated to a stylized green vampire skull and the title in hot pink graffiti. This cover is by far one of the book’s best assets, and it also does a great job of setting the tone for the book itself: fast, loud and a little punk.

Maggie Cunningham’s mother, Janice, hunts monsters. Janice is fully licensed to hunt, and Maggie is her apprentice-in-training. In fact, monster-hunting is fully above-board and regulated by the government, which means there are rules and requirements before you can take on bigger bounties and tougher monsters. Maggie wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a badass monster hunter, but there’s one problem, and it’s a big one: she’s a virgin.

Turns out vampires can smell a virgin’s blood from across the room, and it sends them into a blood rage. Maggie can’t hunt vampires until she’s “devirginized”, which is actually kind of a challenge because she’s home-schooled and spends most of her time socializing with no-one but her mother and other hunters. The solution? Maggie decides to go to a party with her best (only) friend and find a (hopefully) nice boy to deflower her. This goes about as well as you might imagine, and things only go downhill from there.

The Awesome is raunchy and vulgar from the get-go. The Cunningham women have a very frank approach to their sex lives (not that Maggie is thrilled to know about her mother’s sexual proclivities). That frankness paired with Maggie’s wry sense of humor make the character leap off the page, although she does fall prey to the cliché of identifying herself as “not like other girls” early in the book.

Maggie’s quest to lose her virginity actually ends up being a very original way to approach a romance storyline, and probably aligns way more closely with the sorts of mishaps that plague actual teenagers. Maggie’s fumbling social disasters start off raunchy and end up sweet, which is difficult to do well.

The supernatural aspects of The Awesome are a bit more jumbled, however. The conflict isn’t introduced until reasonably late in the book, and it always feels secondary to Maggie’s romantic entanglements and her relationship with her mother. The result is that the supernatural parts of the book feel a bit undercooked.

Darrows also raises the issue of Maggie’s prejudice against supernatural beings (instilled in her by her mother) but never quite addresses it head-on. Maggie meets vampires and zombies and eventually learns to respect them as people instead of just targets, but it never feels like she has a true eureka moment where she understands the situation in more than black and white terms.

As I was reading, it also occurred to me that the traditional urban fantasy story would probably focus on Maggie’s mother, the monster hunter. Instead, we’re given a peek into the world of someone who wants to get to that place but doesn’t have her shit together.

Tone and characterization are the best parts of The Awesome. The plotting is a little loose, but I’m sure future installments in what I assume is a series will only improve in that area. Darrows sets up a few things that I’m sure she’s planning on paying off in later books, and I’m definitely going to check them out.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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The Fold: Inter-Dimensional Holmes

The Fold by Peter ClinesThe Fold by Peter Clines

Published: June 2nd, 2015
Publisher: Crown
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Horror
Format: eBook
Length: 384 pages

My first exposure to Peter Clines’ work was thanks to Audible, which recommended his earlier novel, 14. I rarely buy books without existing knowledge or recommendations to go on, but the summary sounded really interesting – a man moves into a Los Angeles apartment building and starts experiencing mysterious and possibly supernatural events – and the narrator, Ray Porter, was excellent. I ended up really enjoying that book, and added Clines to the short list of authors I plan on reading as thoroughly as possible. Accordingly, when I saw that he had a new novel coming out this year, I immediately wanted to get my hands on it.

In The Fold, teleportation is a reality… but it’s not quite ready for public consumption. Enter Mike Erikson, a man with an eidetic memory hired to find out why the scientists involved refuse to share their invention with the world. Thanks to his observational skills and analytical mind, he soon discovers that things are not what they seem and that “the fold” is far more dangerous than anyone imagined.

The Fold’s strongest points are its plotting and sheer readability. I tore through the book in a matter of days, and I was definitely hooked throughout, forgoing sleep and important chores so that I could continue reading. Clines is skilled at subtly injecting creeping horror into his stories, and I loved that feeling of being slowly drawn into something horribly doomed. Clines also injects timely pop culture references throughout, which makes the book feel grounded in the here and now

Anyone who has read Clines’ previous work knows that he has a fondness for a certain brand of cosmic horror. When hints of a connection to the world of 14 started cropping up in The Fold, I immediately had a guess where the story might be going. Although this did make the book slightly more predictable for me, I was also excited to know that Clines was continue to play in a setting that I throughly enjoyed.

Unfortunately, the characterization in The Fold isn’t quite up to snuff. Mike isn’t given much depth other than his stated discomfort with using his intellectual abilities, and we are only provided the barest glimpse into his life before this story begins. Most of the time it felt like his function in the plot was more important than who he was as a person, and ultimately he became a kind of Holmes pastiche without the humanizing flaws or down-to-earth partner.

The other characters don’t fare better. The supporting cast is a bit one-note, and Jamie, the love interest, reads like such a wish-fulfillment cliché that Clines hangs a lantern on it:

She sighed. “All that brain power and it never occurred to you why a cheerleader turned into a computer geek?”

“I just figured you were some Internet male fantasy come to life.”

I was also disappointed that the novel raises existential issues like whether you’re still the same person after you teleport and then quickly discards them in favor of resolving the story with a series of bloody fights. In fact, the climactic scenes don’t really have anything to do with the side effects of teleportation. Instead, they turn The Fold into the kind of story you could tell about any door into a hostile place, and felt like a bit of a re-tread of 14 in some ways.

Although I did enjoy reading The Fold, I definitely wish the characterization had been stronger. I think there might be a more interesting version of this book, perhaps in an alternate universe, where Clines draws his primary influences from Philip K. Dick’s worries about reality and selfhood. I do still recommend checking out his work, however, and I’m hoping there will be further books in this world.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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The Wicked + The Divine: Exploding Beauty

The Wicked + The Divine, Volume 1The Wicked + The Divine, Volume 1: The Faust Act

Written by: Kieron Gillen
Illustrated by: Jamie McKelvie
Colored by: Matt Wilson

Published: November 12th 2014
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Fantasy, Graphic Novel
Format: Paperback
Length: 144 pages

The Wicked + The Divine takes celebrity worship to an extreme and imagines a world where the gods reincarnate in human form once every ninety years, oftentimes as the biggest stars of their generation. They are always young, beautiful, famous (or infamous) and dead within two years. Our window into the lives of the “pantheon” is Laura, a seventeen-year-old Londoner with a fan-girl crush on nearly every member.

When Laura faints at a concert performance given by a god named Amaterasu, Lucifer – incarnated here as a blonde girl with an androgynous Bowie look – takes her backstage and irrevocably tangles her life with the affairs of the gods. Laura’s time backstage ends quickly thanks to an assassination attempt on the gods, which Lucifer foils by snapping her fingers and exploding some heads. This results in Lucifer’s arrest and trial, and Laura decides that she has to do everything she can to help her idol, no matter the danger.

Before I get into the writing, I think I should state for the record that I absolutely love Jamie McKelvie’s art, which the best part of this book by far. The lines are bold and strong, and his style is so distinctive that I can identify it immediately when I come across his work. Combine McKelvie’s lines with Matt Wilson’s vibrant coloring and you’ve got a book that is absolutely gorgeous to behold. That said, The Wicked + The Divine isn’t just a pretty face; it’s also exceedingly British and peppered with Kieron Gillen’s wicked sense of humor throughout. The problem is that the story is a bit muddled and the plotting occasionally feels rushed.

Laura’s introduction to the world of the gods feels a bit arbitrary; Lucifer picks her out of a pile of fainted teenagers and then she’s neck-deep in weirdness and danger. I never quite bought into the idea that a seventeen year-old super-fan could do anything significant to help a group of supposedly all-powerful gods or that any one of them would ever rely on her for help. Lucifer reads more as a teenager play-acting the part of a butch bad girl and not the Lord of Darkness, but it still rings a bit false when Laura keeps insisting that The Devil Herself desperately needs her help.

Despite these hiccups, I did enjoy reading the first volume of The Wicked + The Divine, and I do think I’ll check out more volumes in the future. I just hope that the story gets a little tighter as the series continues and that Laura has a more active, crucial part in events as they unfold.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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