From Dead to Worse: Tortured Life

Tortured Life

Written by: Neil Gibson and Dan Watters
Art by: Casper Wijngaard
Colors by: Jan Wijngaard
Letters by: Jim Campbell
Layouts by: Eric Irving

Published: September 22nd 2015
Publisher: T Pub
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Horror
Format: Paperback
Length: 164 pages

Tortured Life reads like a hack novelization of a gore-drenched heavy metal concept album, and it’s about as well-plotted as your average double-LP. In fact, the art wouldn’t look out-of-place on a metal band poster, especially when the skull-faced villain shows up and starts killing people.

Rich seems like a nice, normal young man. He has a good job and a beautiful girlfriend, but then one day he starts having visions of how everything and everyone around him is going to die. When the visions don’t go away, his life quickly falls apart and he is left friendless and alone. The book opens on the day he decides to commit suicide because he saw his own death in the mirror.

However, unbeknownst to Rich, his nearness to death opens a door to the underworld, letting through both a helpful ghost girl and the murderous Bloodyman – that aforementioned skull-faced killer.

The ghost girl, Alice, sticks around just long enough to point Rich at some exposition before disappearing from the story until the end. The explanation for her absence is that crossing over to the world of the living is difficult and dangerous, so she can’t keep going back and forth, but it makes her feel even more like a lazy plot device.

When the explanation for Rich’s visions arrives, it is both incredibly convoluted and completely nonsensical. The revelation doesn’t tie in thematically to his visions of death, and Rich and Alice respond to the explanation by as much as throwing up their hands and moving on. The ending is ultimately both anticlimactic and dour.

To be honest, I also really wasn’t a fan of the art style. The book’s cover is eye-catching enough that it drew me in, but the interior art just didn’t do it for me. It’s slightly similar to the cartoony style of the Chew books, but seems ill-suited to Tortured Life’s bleak tone.

However, I think I would have forgiven the art if I’d liked the story and characters more. Tortured Life was an underwhelming read, and I can’t recommend it.

DISLIKED IT

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

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Neither is True: Grand Passion by James Robinson

Grand Passion by James Robinson

Art by: Tom Feister
Colors by: Dave Curiel
Letters by: Simon Bowland

Published: September 6, 2017
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Crime
Format: Paperback
Length: 120 pages

Grand Passion doesn’t begin to live up to its title. Instead, it tells a small-scale story that ends up feeling a bit dull.

The main characters are a cop and a bank robber who (we’re told) fall in love at first sight. Really, though, they fall into bed together and then get caught up in a shootout.

Most of the story takes place in a handful of locations over a very short amount of time, and everything wraps up at the end in a neat little bow. Of course, the ending only gives one of the characters what they want. The other has to make do with pretending to be someone else for the rest of their life.

Not only do we not get to know these characters before their story ends, we’re asked to believe that they have such incredible sexual chemistry that they are willing to forgo a lot of baggage to be together. I didn’t believe it for one second.

To top it all off, an unseen character who speaks in a distracting country dialect narrates the entire story. The author lays it on so thick at times that I wasn’t always sure what the narrator was saying.

The art is decent enough, but the story is totally forgettable. Grand Passion is the sort of crime narrative that Ed Brubaker could pull off in his sleep, but the execution here is uninspired.

DISLIKED IT

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

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It’s Not Worth It: Snotgirl, Volume One

Snotgirl Vol. 1: Green Hair Don’t Care

Writer: Bryan Lee O’Malley
Illustrator: Leslie Hung
Colorist: Mickey Quinn

Published: February 28th 2017
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Satire, Mystery
Format: Digital
Length: 144 pages

I really loved the Scott Pilgrim books when I read them a few years ago – Goodreads tells me I gave the entire series five stars – but nothing else I’ve read by Bryan Lee O’Malley has lived up to that standard of quality.

His first book, Lost at Sea, was mostly just slight. His follow-up to Scott Pilgrim, Seconds, was better but still felt a bit lacking – I barely remember anything about either book. However, slight or not, they’re both light-years better than his newest series, the willfully unpleasant Snotgirl.

To be fair, the unpleasantness is right there in the title. Lottie Person, the main character, has an epic allergy problem that generates awful green snot at the most inopportune of times. I mean, how is she supposed to be a picture-perfect fashion blogger if she can’t even control her nasal passages?

This would maybe be a funny/gross premise if Lottie (or any of the other characters) had any kind of redeeming qualities, but they’re all horrible, vapid people being terrible and catty to each other.

This is coming from me, a huge fan of the Lovable Alpha Bitch. Cordelia Chase on Buffy/Angel and Taylor Townsend on The OC were my jam. I like stories that uncover the hidden depths of that particular archetype… but Snotgirl is not that. Lottie is shallow and horrible, and when bad things started happening to and around her, I was not in her corner.

The twist, see, is that Snotgirl also wants to be a murder-mystery-slash-thriller. Did Lottie really see someone die, or is she losing her mind? Again, this feels like a potentially rich vein of storytelling – fashion blogger + murder = DRAMA – but the execution was so muddled and obtuse that I didn’t care about what was actually happening to Lottie.

It’s a shame, really, because I do like Leslie Hung’s art. It feels a bit like manga designs from the eighties crossed with fashion sketches. I just can’t figure out what O’Malley sees in these characters. They have no redeeming qualities, and I’m not sure he even likes them. Does he just want to punish them for their vacuous ways?

DISLIKED IT

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Good Behavior: Good, Not Best

Good Behavior by Blake Crouch

Published: November 15th, 2016
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Short Stories
Format: Audiobook
Length: 5 hrs and 46 mins

Good Behavior is simultaneously the definitive collection of Letty Dobesh stories by Blake Crouch and no longer the definitive story of Letty herself.

These stories were originally published as three separate novellas over the course of a few years. As of 2016, they are also the basis for a TNT series starring Michelle Dockery in her first post-Downton role in an ongoing series. This volume collects the stories along with author commentary.

However, unlike other book adaptations, I think I might recommend watching the show before reading Good Behavior. These stories read a hell of a lot like the rough draft of the show, and might best be appreciated with that in mind.

Crouch’s commentaries reinforce this impression. He discusses how he and the show’s co-creator adapted and cannibalized each story for the show, and it’s obvious that he thinks the adaptation is an improvement.

He points out more than once how the stories as written didn’t match the tone of the show or how tweaking events and characters for the adaptation opened things up in new and exciting ways.

As I listened to the audiobook, I oftentimes found myself thinking “Letty wouldn’t do that” or “this isn’t a Letty story”. Michelle Dockery’s portrayal is so compelling that I couldn’t picture the character any other way.

That said, I did enjoy reading Good Behavior. That’s especially surprising after I gave up on Crouch’s Wayward Pines trilogy after two books. I just couldn’t work up the energy to care about the finale, and I barely enjoyed the second book.

It helps that Letty is a much more interesting and likable protagonist than the main character in Wayward Pines, who spends most of his time hitting his head and blacking out. Also, it felt like Crouch had a better handle on style and language in these stories. He pulls off a few clever turns of phrase here and there that add a nice noir flavor.

Ultimately, I do recommend picking up Good Behavior, but only as supplemental material for the show and not a true standalone work. In fact, this collection is entertaining enough that I’m willing to give Crouch another chance, especially since he had a hand in writing the show.

LIKED IT

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

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Lincoln in the Bardo: A Tumult of Hauntings

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Published: February 14th, 2017
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre(s): Fiction, Historical, Ghost Story
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs and 25 mins

George Saunders is an amazing short story author. I’d put him up there with Kelly Link, Steven Millhauser and Jorge Luis Borges in my pantheon of personal favorites.

However, until Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders had never published a novel. This is a common trait among the short story authors I love; they rarely, if ever, turn their talents to novel-length works.

Lincoln in the Bardo is also unique because of its audiobook, which involves 166 different narrators acting out the massive cast of characters.

Nick Offerman, David Sedaris and Saunders himself take top billing. Voices you’ll probably recognize from movies, TV and audiobooks surround them on all sides. The care that clearly went into the audiobook production easily makes it the definitive version of Saunders’ novel.

At its heart, Lincoln in the Bardo tells a fairly straightforward story. After young Willie Lincoln dies from a protracted illness, Lincoln visits his son’s grave in the middle of the night, setting off a chain reaction that forces the other ghosts in the cemetery to examine their existence (or lack thereof).

Stories about the restless dead alternate with scholarly citations explaining the national attitudes towards Lincoln before and after the death of his son. The ghosts and citations interrupt and build upon each other, blending into long streams of conversation and contradiction. The effect is simultaneously poetic, hilarious and ironic.

And Lincoln in the Bardo is definitely funny, even though it is also filled with stories about incredible tragedy and heartbreak. One of the first ghosts we meet – Nick Offerman’s character, Hans Vollman – spends his afterlife walking around naked with a giant boner, insisting that he isn’t dead, just “sick”.

One of my favorite parts of the book was nothing but quotations describing Lincoln’s eyes; the quotes come one after the other, oftentimes directly contradicting each other on very simple information like his eye color. It’s a subtle way of emphasizing the subjective nature of historical narratives. I often wondered if any of the quotations were from real works or if Saunders invented them all.

I definitely enjoyed Lincoln in the Bardo, and would hold it up as an example of why audiobooks are a fantastic way to read, but I do think it feels a bit like a short story that grew to escape the confines of its word count.

The sheer avalanche of details, both personal and historical, are definitely compelling. I felt like I learned things about Lincoln that I’d never known, and Saunders is a master of characterization with a sensibility like none other. That said, the book felt a little slight thanks to its minimal plot.

Even still, I highly recommend checking out Lincoln in the Bardo, especially as an audiobook.

REALLY LIKED IT

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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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