That Familiar Darkness: Criminal, Volume 1

Criminal, Volume 1: CowardCriminal, Volume 1: Coward

Written by: Ed Brubaker
Art by: Sean Phillips
Colors by: Val Staples

Published: February 10th, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Crime, Thriller
Format: Paperback
Length: 128 pages

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are one of the most consistent and compelling teams in comics, and Criminal show some of their early promise. I’ve never read any of Brubaker’s superhero books, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of his work with Phillips for Image Comics.

Criminal is one of their earlier collaborations, originally published by Marvel’s creator-owned comics imprint, and recently reprinted in a deluxe edition by Image Comics. Criminal is oftentimes cited as a masterpiece of the genre, but in this first volume, it feels like Brubaker and Phillips aren’t quite stretching their wings.

I get the impression that later volumes of Criminal are a bit more surreal and/or experimental, but the first volume is completely grounded. In fact, it feels downright familiar if you’ve read anything by Richard Stark. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think my enjoyment of this book may have suffered in comparison with their later works, i.e. Fatale and The Fade Out.

Criminal’s first volume tells the story of Leo, a career criminal known both for his strict rules for every job and his uncanny ability to get away clean when the shit hits the fan. When a dirty cop convinces him to arrange a heist targeting a police evidence van, things inevitably go south in a bad way and Leo is left to pick up the pieces.

I feel like I’ve seen the story beats in this volume a million times, but Brubaker’s writing and Phillips’ art help elevate it into something more than generic. Criminal might feel familiar, but the execution is top-notch.

I enjoyed reading this volume, and I’ll definitely pick up the next volume at some point, but it’s definitely not my favorite book by Brubaker and Phillips. So far, Fatale still wins that prize.

LIKED IT

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

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Unexpected Connections: The Tsar of Love and Techno

Tsar of Love and TechnoThe Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Published: October 6, 2015
Publisher: Hogarth
Genre(s): Fiction, Short Stories, History
Format: e-book
Length: 354 pages

The Tsar of Love and Techno is a hilarious and affecting novel masquerading as a short story collection. It has a lot in common with David Mitchell’s genre-hopping patchwork masterpieces, but here the linked stories don’t feel so much like a stylistic exercise (and I say that as a huge fan of Mitchell’s work).

Instead, Marra uses a fairly consistent style throughout, and the shifts in perspective serve more to reframe familiar characters and situations in a new light. The only real stylistic flourish is the collective narrator in “Granddaughters”, but the conceit is never distracting.

It definitely helps that The Tsar of Love and Techno has a great title and an eye-catching cover, because the summary sounds a lot like an Important Novel About Sad Europeans. Luckily, it’s actually laugh-out-loud funny and full of sharply drawn characters who are simultaneously comical, ruthless, tragic and sympathetic.

The first story takes place in 1937 and focuses on a government censor who modifies photos and paintings to remove dissidents and insert party officials. One of the paintings he modifies – an unremarkable hillside somewhere in Chechnya – becomes far more significant with each story, eventually serving as the through-line that ties the book together.

One of my most favorite parts of this book is the way that Marra parcels out revelations and undermines expectations. The truth is mutable, and memory is suspect, but with the benefit of a novel’s roving eye, we discover the sympathetic hearts hidden in villains and the histories thought lost to time.

The book feels so authentic that I had to check the author’s Wikipedia page to find out if he was born in the region. It turns out that he’s actually an American obsessed with Chechnya. It makes me wonder if people in Chechnya read his books and if Marra even has a publisher in the region.

In any case, I loved this book, and I can’t recommend it enough. The Tsar of Love and Techno was an absolute revelation, and I’m glad I decided to pick it up.

LOVED IT

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

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Suburban Weirdness, Circa 1988: Paper Girls, Vol 1

paper girlsPaper Girls, Vol. 1

Written by: Brian K. Vaughan
Art by: Cliff Chiang
Colors by: Matthew Wilson
Published: April 5th 2016
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Adventure
Format: Paperback
Length: 144 pages

Paper Girls feels like a forgotten 1980s adventure that piles on the subversive twists. They don’t make movies like that anymore, let alone ones this weird.

I think the technical term here is “box office poison,” and yet I’d love to see Paper Girls up on the big screen. It begs for the kind of lovingly nostalgic adaptation that could only work with modern special effects and sensibilities.

Erin is a paper girl in the small town of Stony Stream, Ohio. Her story begins on the morning of November 1st, which is known in her profession as “Hell Night” thanks to all the teenaged trick-or-treaters still humming on stolen sugar highs.

When Erin runs into three other girls on the same route, they team up to stay safe during the night, but run into something far more sinister than marauding teenagers. Things only get weirder from there.

If you enjoy Vaughan’s work on Saga, you’ll recognize the same bizarre sensibilities here. What starts off like a throwback to Spielberg at the height of the eighties quickly collides with Vaughan’s surrealist sci-fi tendencies, and shit gets weird.

I’m still not entirely sure what is going on in the story at the end of the first volume, but it definitely grabbed me and made me want to keep reading. As soon as I finished issue five, I bought the next issue at full price and am seriously considering subscribing to the series on Comixology.

My only real criticism of the book is that the girls don’t get much character development. Erin is a good girl. Mac is a cynical rebel. KJ and Tiffany are… present? Somehow the book still works despite hanging on archetypical characters with little to no depth.

That said, that lack of depth could be a major turnoff if you aren’t a fan of Vaughan’s brand of weirdness. My hope is that future issues flesh out the characters a bit more, but either way I’m hooked.

LOVED IT

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

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Tell Your Story to the Trees: Trees, Volume 1

Trees, Volume 1 CoverTrees, Volume 1

Written by: Warren Ellis
Art by: Jason Howard
Published: February 24, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Format: Paperback
Length: 160 pages

Trees has a simple premise and a massive scope. It asks: what would happen if aliens invaded Earth and then completely ignored humanity?

The book opens ten years after massive alien “Trees” landed on and crushed cities across the globe. The invaders never tried to communicate with humanity, and there were no obvious signs of life inside their impossibly tall alien pillars.

Many people fled from under the shadows of the Trees, but those who remained found new ways to live. New societies formed in these most unlikely of places, and this volume tells some of their stories.

The book shifts back and forth between perspectives in a handful of far-flung locations, including an artist’s colony in China, a research station in the Arctic, an Italian city in the grip of warring fascist mobs, and a border skirmish in Somalia.

Although Trees doesn’t match the tone or worldview of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the narrative here is similarly ambitious and deeply concerned with the particulars of human behavior. This is, I think, the first time I’ve read a volume of an ongoing series that included eight issues in its first arc.

That scope and ambition is commendable, but it also means that the larger plot doesn’t have much forward motion. The Trees are essentially an enormous backdrop for more intimate, character-driven storytelling. The most compelling story told in this volume is about young love in a dangerous place.

However, despite the focus on character-driven stories, Ellis introduces so many characters at such a fast pace that I couldn’t tell you any of their names without referring back to the book.

Also, the pacing in this first volume is very measured, which makes me wonder how many issues Ellis and Howard have planned for the overall series. It looks like Trees is on hiatus and has been since December of last year, but Image says issue #14, which completes the second story arc, releases later this month.

As for Jason Howard’s art, it is chock-full of expressive characters and beautifully rendered cityscapes. My only real criticism is that several of the female characters look very similar, so I initially had a hard time keeping them straight in my mind.

If you’re the impatient type, it might be best to hold off on reading Trees for now, but if you’re into personal stories with a global backdrop, it’s definitely worth checking out.

REALLY LIKED IT

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

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First, Do Your Homework: Texts From Jane Eyre

Texts From Jane EyreTexts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

Published: Tantor Audio
Publisher: January 21st 2015
Genre(s): Humor
Format: Audiobook
Length: 2 hrs and 22 mins

The Toast is (was?) a hilarious website (RIP) and Mallory Ortberg is one of the funniest people I’ve ever read, so when Audible put her book, Texts From Jane Eyre on sale for 99 cents, I picked it up without a moment’s hesitation.

The basic premise of Texts From Jane Eyre is that your favorite characters from classic literature have the anachronistic ability to communicate by text. Hijinks ensue.

That is a great setup for comedy, and the audiobook does it one better by having those texts performed by a pair of actors who dive into their roles with gusto. I’m a firm believer that comedy oftentimes only comes through when performed, and I think this book is no exception. Texts From Jane Eyre reads like a series of sketches that would kill in front of a receptive (and hopefully literary) audience.

The only problem with Texts From Jane Eyre is that it really does require a deep knowledge of classic literature. I would consider myself fairly well-read, but I felt like I was missing the English lit prerequisites to understand most of these jokes. There were still a few solid laughs throughout even when I wasn’t intimately familiar with the works in question, but most of this collection sailed over my head.

That said, I don’t think this book would necessarily land better if I had read every single novel referenced. Pop culture references don’t automatically make for good comedy. There were also a few conversations here and there that strained at the edges of the conceit; I found myself wondering why characters were apparently standing next to each other and texting. It’s possible the real problem is that this joke only has enough steam to sustain a handful of blog posts and not an entire book.

In any case, my mild disappointment with Texts From Jane Eyre won’t stop me from picking up whatever Mallory Ortberg writes next now that The Toast is winding to a close. If you have a few hours free, Texts From Jane Eyre is worth a listen, but make sure you have Wikipedia handy if you do.

LIKED IT

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Kaptara: Finest Pulped Space Comedy

kaptara-coverKaptara, Volume 1: Fear Not, Tiny Alien

Written by: Chip Zdarsky
Art by: Kagan McLeod
Published: December 23rd, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Fantasy, Pulp, Adventure, Comedy
Format: Graphic Novel
Length: 128 pages

Kaptara is very weird and very funny. Both come with the territory when Chip Zdarsky is at the helm, but Kaptara makes Zdarsky’s work on Howard the Duck seem downright traditional. At a basic level, Kaptara is a foul-mouthed piss-take version of classic pulpy sci-fi adventure stories, but it also features a diverse cast and bizarre, gorgeous art.

When the ship Kanga is sucked into a strange anomaly in space, it crash-lands on Kaptara, an alien planet full of hideous monsters and dangerous locals. The Kanga’s crew is separated and some of them are gruesomely murdered, but one man – a bio-engineer named Keith – manages to escape with his life despite his penchant for sarcasm and cowardice. Although Keith initially resists the call to adventure, it isn’t long before he’s on a mission to stop a villain named Skullthor from overthrowing the Earth.

Kaptara is laugh-out-loud funny throughout, but Zdarsky also lets a few poignant moments peek through the silliness. Keith is a misfit who feels like he doesn’t fit in back home, and he doesn’t fit in with his crew, either. After he crash-lands, Keith meets a new band of weirdos and misfits who all seem far more comfortable in their skins than he could ever be, and I’m sure he’ll do a bit of learning and growing as he adventures on Kaptara.

The book has a bit of everything thrown into the mix, including several foul-mouthed characters who feel somehow anachronistic even though the setting is a futuristic alien planet (where they’ve probably had swearing for millennia). There’s even a little murder mystery to keep things interesting.

I loved Kagan McLeod’s character designs and art throughout. The world of Kaptara is full of vibrant colors and strange creatures that look like nothing I’ve ever seen. “Cat tanks” are the primary mode of transportation on Kaptara, and if you’re picturing elephant-sized hairless cats with smushed faces and convenient tank treads, you have the right idea.

I’ll probably read anything Chip Zdarsky writes at this point, but it’s nice to know that he delivers more often than not. I’m looking forward to reading more about the strange world of Kaptara, and definitely recommend picking up this first volume.

REALLY LIKED IT

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

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Girl vs. Ash: Darla’s Story by Mike Mullin

DarlasStoryCover-HighResDarla’s Story by Mike Mullin

Published: February 2, 2016
Publisher: Mike Mullin
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction, Apocalypse
Format: Audiobook
Length: 1 hr and 35 mins

Darla’s Story is a novella that provides a bit of back-story for a character in Mike Mullin’s Ashfall trilogy. I haven’t read the trilogy, but the author meant the novella to stand alone as a complete work, so I read it with that in mind.

I instantly liked the fact that this story features an Iowan farm girl as its main character. I also liked that it doesn’t take place in a far-flung dystopian future. Instead, it occurs immediately after an apocalyptic volcano eruption (with a real-world basis!) covers the entire US in falling ash. Midwesterners and the mid-apocalypse aren’t common tropes in YA (at least not the books I’ve read), so I found the novelty intriguing.

The story follows Darla and her mother as they work to survive in the aftermath of the eruption. Theirs is very much a contained apocalypse, focusing as it does on the minutiae of day-to-day survival for two people stranded in the country. Luckily, Darla is mechanically inclined thanks to her late father’s influence, so she’s one of the best people to get stuck with in an apocalypse. As soon as the eruptions stop, she starts fixing necessities like the water pump and her tractor.

Ultimately, volcanic ash is the primary antagonist in Darla’s Story. Interpersonal conflict only comes into play very late in the action, and it’s really just a complication in Darla’s fight against the endless ash-fall.

To be honest, a little man versus nature went a long way for me. After a few chapters of fix-it work, I was impatient for a more personal conflict. I wanted something to happen that might push Darla out of her bubble.

When the outside world does finally intrude on Darla’s life, it feels more like a frustrating inconvenience than a dire misfortune. In fact, a lot of the stakes in this story feel strangely low. Despite the apocalyptic setting, Darla is both capable and determined, and it never seems like she is in immediate danger.

I think a lot of my impatience with this story stems from the fact that it really does only function as a prequel to a larger work. If Darla’s Story was a screenplay, this novella would be maybe 90% of the first act. It’s everything leading up to the part where Darla finally leaves her ordinary world and goes on a quest. The problem is that Darla can’t get to that point here because the meatier action happens in the main trilogy.

Even though I feel like Darla’s Story doesn’t actually work as a standalone piece, I enjoyed the character and setting. Reading Darla’s Story was enough to piqué my interest in Ashfall, but I’m not sure it’s a great starting place for the overall series. It probably works better as a way to fill in back-story after you’ve read the main series.

As for the audiobook, I thought the narrator was perfect for the character. I’d definitely recommend listening to Darla’s Story in audio form if you do pick it up.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the author.

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It’s Kind of a Funny Story: Bream Gives Me Hiccups

Bream Gives Me Hiccups & Other Stories by Jesse EisenbergBream Gives Me Hiccups by Jesse Eisenberg

Published: December 1st 2015
Publisher: Audible Studios / Brilliance Audio
Genre(s): Comedy, Short Stories
Format: Audiobook
Length: 4 hrs and 28 mins

Bream Gives Me Hiccups is actor Jesse Eisenberg’s debut short story collection. Although it doesn’t feel like a vanity project, it is definitely a little derivative. Eisenberg’s work is in the same wheelhouse as Woody Allen’s short fiction, and doesn’t always fare well by comparison.

Most of the stories in Bream Gives Me Hiccups are slight comic riffs on a premise. The joke is oftentimes spelled out in the story’s title. When these shorter pieces are good, they deliver some of the best laughs in the collection. When they’re bad, they’re almost entirely forgettable.

Included with the short pieces are two longer stories that appear at the beginning and middle of the collection. The title story, “Bream Gives Me Hiccups”, is one of the best in the collection. The second long piece, “My Roommate Stole My Ramen”, is easily the worst.

One thing Eisenberg does to set himself apart from Allen is make his characters seem like real people with emotions. He only succeeds intermittently, but when he does, the stories are particularly good. Allen is by far the better writer, but the characters in his fiction were always held at arm’s length.

Section I, “Bream Gives Me Hiccups”, is framed as a series of restaurant reviews by a nine-year-old. Each review quickly devolves into a rundown of the main character’s life and troubles – with his divorced parents, his best friend, and the kids at school – and the result is both hilarious and affecting.

Section II, “Family”, mostly consists of a series of extended jokes from the perspectives of Eisenberg’s family members (real or imagined). There are a few standouts here: “Separation Anxiety Sleepaway Camp” is an absurdist exploration of childhood neurosis, and “My Nephew Has Some Questions” is by far the best example of Eisenberg committing to the game of a joke.

Section III, “History”, is all bits and no characters. I remember laughing once or twice at this section, but the stories didn’t leave much of an impression. Also, the joke in “Marxist-Socialist Jokes” is that they’re all non-jokes, which is just annoying.

Section IV, “My Roommate Stole My Ramen”, is where this collection went off the rails for me. In a series of letters to her high school guidance counselor, a spoiled freshman rants about everyone and everything in her life. There isn’t much of a narrative arc, and the main character doesn’t learn or grow by the end of the story. Eisenberg doesn’t appear to have any sympathy for this horrendous character, so it’s hard to understand why this story spends so much time with her. The end result is both tone-deaf and misogynist.

Section V, “Dating”, lands with a thud. I wasn’t particularly entertained by four variations on a bar pick-up, and found this section completely skippable.

Section VI, “Sports”, was also pretty lame. “Marv Albert Is My Therapist” is only mildly funny if you know who Albert is. “Carmelo Anthony…” is slightly entertaining because the Eisenberg character is completely delusional about his “pickup game”.

Section VII, “Self-Help” brings in some much-needed darkness with “Smiling Tricks” and “If She Ran Into Me Now…”, both of which feature delusional and/or downright psychotic main characters. It also helps that neither story overstays its welcome.

In Section VIII, “Language”, the best story is “My Spam Plays Hard to Get”, in which even scammers don’t want to steal from Eisenberg. “Nick Garrett’s Review” has a fairly obvious twist, and the remaining stories are unremarkable.

Section IX, “We Only Have Time for One More”, just feels unnecessary.

So, to summarize, although there are definitely worthwhile stories and the occasional bright spot in this collection, the second half almost sinks under the weight of unpleasant characters and unremarkable stories.

It’s a shame, because I really enjoyed several of the stories and wish the overall collection was that consistently good. However, I’m still willing to recommend picking up this collection because of the handful of truly great stories. I’d also recommend picking up the audiobook version so that you can hear these pieces performed by the author.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, but I actually listened to the audiobook version from Audible. Go figure.

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Empty Inside: The Beauty, Volume 1

The Beauty Volume 1The Beauty, Volume 1

Story By: Jeremy Haun & Jason A. Hurley
Art By: Jeremy Haun
Published: March 16, 2016
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Horror, Thriller, Mystery
Format: Paperback
Length: 164 pages

The Beauty Volume 1 has one cool idea and not much else: there is a new sexually transmitted disease that makes you beautiful. If you contract it, you become young, thin and pretty within minutes. The only apparent side effect is a constant low-level fever, so people go out of their way to get infected. It isn’t long before half the population has The Beauty.

There are factions who object to The Beauty for political and religious reasons, but the real problem is that people with The Beauty are starting to spontaneously combust and nobody knows why. When a woman combusts in public, two police detectives (one of them infected) try to find an explanation. They face opposition from government officials trying to cover it up and a shady pharmaceutical CEO who just wants to make a profit. The story turns into a by-the-numbers conspiracy thriller/mystery after only a few pages.

One of my biggest problems with The Beauty is that I didn’t care about the main characters at all. They are generic pretty people who only want to Solve The Crime And Stop The Conspiracy. Neither of them has an identifiable personality and their dialog is basically interchangeable.

The villains get slightly more characterization and/or back story, if only because we see them doing things that aren’t necessarily related to the case at hand. That doesn’t mean their motivations are clear, however.

One villain wears a skull mask and eviscerates his victims to show that he’s obviously a very bad dude, but his appearances in the story are all gore and no tension because his actions feel utterly impersonal.

When I finished reading this volume, I had to check to find out if it was a mini-series or an ongoing title. It felt like a complete (if underdeveloped) story, so I wanted to know if my instincts were correct. It turns out that it is an ongoing series even though the sixth issue wraps up a lot of threads and ends with a note of finality.

One thing I did like about The Beauty was the art. It has a clean, realistic style that emphasizes the absurd horror of spontaneous combustions. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t give the art much to work with, so the book feels slight and generic.

After reading so many disappointing comics with boilerplate stories and undeveloped characters, it’s starting to feel like a problem with the medium. There are exceptional writers like Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky and Brian K. Vaughan working in comics, but the ability to fully develop a character in a few panels seems like a rare talent.

Unfortunately, The Beauty doesn’t deliver on the clever idea at its core because the characters are personality-free and generic.

DISLIKED IT

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

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Wrong-Headed: Noggin by John Corey Whaley

NogginNoggin by John Corey Whaley

Published: April 8, 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hours and 45 minutes

I wanted to like Noggin more than I did. It has a clever premise, it’s definitely funny, and it delivers on more than one genuinely touching moment. Unfortunately, despite everything the book does right, I just wanted to wring the main character’s neck after a certain point. During one scene late in the book I actually grimaced in horror at his stupidity.

Travis Coates starts out with a lot of sympathetic qualities. Noggin opens as he awakens from a surgery to attach his severed head to a donor body. In his former life, Travis was a sixteen-year-old kid with inoperable cancer. When it became clear that he was going to die, he volunteered for an experimental program with a chance to save his life.

The program worked, but that catch is this: five years passed while his head was cryogenically frozen. He’s still mentally sixteen, but his friends are in college and his parents lived with the grief of his loss for years.

That mental age ends up being Travis’ biggest obstacle. Everyone else has grown up and moved on, but he’s still petulant and selfish and unwilling to let go of the past. When he discovers that his best friend and girlfriend didn’t wait around for him to come back, he proceeds to blow up their lives and friendships with his behavior.

Travis spends most of Noggin trying to win back the love of his former girlfriend, Cate, who is now five years older than him and engaged to another guy. It’s obvious from the start that Travis’ quest is a huge mistake. He’s going to fail, and when he does, he’s going to ruin his relationship with someone he claims to love.

There’s probably a way to tell this story that would make it feel like Travis and Cate are star-crossed lovers, but I never found myself sympathizing with his wish to win her back. He just seemed like a pathetic asshole. His self-delusion lasts for so long and goes to such extremes that I lost all patience for his idiocy.

Travis is exactly the sort of “nice guy” who just won’t take a hint, and the Cate is so forgiving that she just keeps giving him the benefit of the doubt. When Travis makes a completely boneheaded “grand gesture” near the end of the book, Cate actually forgives him… and then a few chapters later he ignores her feelings yet again. I groaned aloud.

Honestly, I’m not sure I believe that Travis learns anything over the course of the book. Instead, it feels like he just decides to blame everyone else for not understanding what he’s going through.

Although I might be willing to give John Corey Whaley’s books another chance, I’m glad I’m done spending time with Travis Coates.

DISLIKED IT

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