Glitterbomb: Red Carpet Bomb

Glitterbomb, Volume 1Glitterbomb, Volume 1: Red Carpet

Written by: Jim Zub
Line Art by: Djibril Morissette-Phan
Colors by: K. Michael Russell

Published: March 7th 2017
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Horror, Satire
Format: Paperback
Length: 136 pages

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for just over three and a half years now, so obviously that means I can consider myself an expert on the city, as is traditional.

Therefore, with my sacred powers as an Angeleno, I’ve decided that satires and takedowns of LA only work if they come from a place of love. If you’ve got nothing but hate for Los Angeles, if you can’t see even one iota of the appeal of this ridiculous city, then your critique will probably come out sour and clichéd.

Or, in any case, that was my reaction to reading the first volume of Jim Zub’s Glitterbomb.

In Glitterbomb, we meet Farrah Durante, a struggling middle-aged actress only minutes from destitution. Her sole claim to fame was a small recurring role on a cheesy sci-fi show many years ago, but after the show fired her, nothing has gone right since.

That all changes when she tries to drown herself in the ocean and a horrifying vengeance monster possesses her, giving her the ability to eviscerate anyone who has wronged her. At first, the unexplained black-outs and gruesome murders confuse and horrify her, but it isn’t long before she gives herself over completely to the monster’s dark desires.

Glitterbomb reads like the author visited LA once, hated it, and then funneled that hatred into a takedown of easy targets.

It’s common knowledge that actors are oftentimes horribly mistreated and that the industry is especially bad for women who no longer look like twenty-somethings, but that also means that it is an over-used cliché. Throwing in a monstrous twist isn’t even a particularly new idea, but it is what gave me a glimmer of hope about this book.

The fact that these tropes are familiar wouldn’t matter if the execution brought something new to the table, but Zub’s writing completely misses the mark. My theory is that it’s because he can’t seem find anything to love about LA.

In fact, there are any number of Hollywood satires and critiques that feel both more realistic and more powerful because they understand the allure of Hollywood without immediately holding the city and those who love it in contempt.

For example, FX’s Better Things focuses on a middle-aged actress trying to balance family life with an acting career, but it’s obvious that she loves what she does, despite the terrible people and sometimes crushing grind. It tells a far more well-rounded story by focusing on a main character who has a complex love-hate relationship with a difficult industry.

All that Glitterbomb has to say about Hollywood is that aspiring actors are shallow idiots who want fame and validation for the sake of it, and movie producers are nothing but predators.

Farrah doesn’t even have a compelling character arc in this first volume; she switches gears from despairing to malevolent with little to no build-up – it almost felt like I missed an issue – and then the book ends in a way that feels both rushed and inconclusive. I have absolutely no idea where Glitterbomb might go after this volume, but that isn’t an exciting prospect.

I also thought the art was wildly inconsistent throughout. The characters sometimes looked like completely different people from one page to the next, and I had no idea that Farrah’s babysitter was black until her mother said something her race.

This is the second Jim Zub book I’ve read and found disappointing, so I probably won’t pick up any more of his work.

DISLIKED IT

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Harrison Squared: Attack of the Teenage Fish People

Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory
Published: March 24th, 2015
Publisher: Tor Books / Audible Studios
Genre(s): Fantasy, Horror, Young Adult
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hrs and 10 mins

Daryl Gregory’s Harrison Squared is a much sillier book than its cover implies. The sinister Lovecraftian overtones suggested by the tentacles looming behind the protagonist are present, but the book’s overall tone is actually pretty goofy even though it’s about a kid trying to find his missing, possibly kidnapped mother.

Most of the goofiness comes from the random literary jokes and pop culture references that Gregory includes throughout, but it doesn’t help that Harrison Squared feels pitched at a younger audience than I was expecting. Instead of a Tor SF&F novel with a teenaged main character, it reads more like a young adult novel in adult packaging.

Of course, I read plenty of YA, so I don’t necessarily have a problem with the book’s reading level. The real issue is that I was expecting something deeper and richer than Gregory delivered. The book’s town of Dunnsmouth is sketchy and underdeveloped, and Harrison barely spends any time going to the school at the center of the story.

Gregory also sets up a number of threads that don’t really pay off. The other students at Harrison’s new school speak in a complicated sign language that he never actually learns. They also take part in a religion that seems to consist mostly of singing in an unknown language. More damning is a late revelation about Harrison himself that feels superfluous to the story. All of these details hint at a world without actually making it feel lived-in.

Harrison Squared ends in a way that seems to require a sequel, but it turns out that a semi-sequel already exists. One of Gregory’s previous novels, We Are All Completely Fine, includes an adult Harrison in its ensemble, although the summary makes him sound very different from the version portrayed here.

Harrison Squared is a quick read, and I did laugh a few times, so I’d be willing to give Gregory’s work another chance. Ultimately, though, I thought this book was a bit forgettable. It just doesn’t break any new ground in the fashionable mini-genre of Lovecraft pastiches.

LIKED

Full disclosure: Although I did receive a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, I listened to the audiobook on Audible.

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The Unreliable Family: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Published: May 30th, 2013
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Genre(s): Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hours and 57 minutes

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a family saga with a twist. Unfortunately, the marketing and summaries of the book don’t try very hard to hide that twist, so if you somehow manage to read the book without knowing it, I am very impressed.

The good news is that I knew the twist and it didn’t ruin the book for me, but I do wish I could have experienced it completely fresh. The bad news is that the fact I even mentioned that there was a twist is probably telling you more than you should know.

Fowler is an interesting author. Her early works and short stories are best described as “slipstream” or “magical realism”, but she’s most well-known for The Jane Austen Book Club, a bestseller later adapted into a movie. Nothing fantastical happens in that book or in her newest novel, but as I read them, my awareness of her history as a fantasist was always at the back of my mind.

Even when Fowler’s books are technically realistic, they seem to hover on the edge of the strange. Reality is thin wherever she turns her gaze, even if it’s only upon an overly personal discussion of the complete Austen. That sense of oddness is probably why I’m drawn to her books, regardless of the subject.

Rosemary, the narrator of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, is weird and broken and compelling in a million different ways. She barrels through life, trying to run from her past and her family, but never quite escapes from her many failures and disappointments. She’s an unreliable narrator disappointed by her inability to pin down the truth.

The problem is that she can’t actually remember what happened between her and her sister when they were young, but she knows that it broke her family apart, and isn’t that almost the same thing? Over the course of the novel, Rosemary unpacks her past, dancing towards truth and only veering away when she realizes that her own biases and imaginings have become more authoritative than factual.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is quietly devastating, but it’s also funny and strange and next door to the unreal. Reading it made me misty-eyed more than once, and I always consider that a point in favor of a book. I absolutely loved it.

LOVED IT

Full disclosure: Although I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, I actually listened to the audiobook.

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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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