He’ll Clean Up This Planet: Version 43 by Philip Palmer

Version 43Published: October 28, 2010
Publisher: Orbit
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Format: Paperback
Length: 560 pages

Version 43 is a weird book. If the reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere are any indication, it’s the sort of book that inspires polarizing reactions.

It’s long at over 500 pages. It’s gory, vulgar and occasionally squick-inducing even though it isn’t at all dark or gritty. It has a weird structure; at several points in the narrative it seems like the book can go no further, surely a climax or resolution is coming soon, and then Palmer tops himself yet again. That said, it isn’t at all exhausting, and I certainly didn’t feel like it wore out its welcome. I read it in a few marathon sessions, and although I wasn’t sure what to think of it at first, it thoroughly won me over by the end.

Version 43 is a Galactic Cop and a cyborg. He was originally based on a human being, but he doesn’t know who he was before, and it has been centuries since he felt at all human. Every time he dies in the line of duty (and this has happened 42 times before) he is reborn in a new cyborg body with a backup of all his crucial data and memories, yet somehow each version is never the same. He is sometimes ruthless or callous, and he is thoroughly intractable when it comes to dispensing his version of the law. He deletes emotions he finds inefficient, and is always on the job.

The book opens on the planet of Belladonna, where Version 43 goes to solve a bizarre and gruesome murder that has claimed the lives of five people. He arrives in town and immediately starts ruffling feathers and killing people at the drop of a hat. At first Version 43 feels like a bit of an old west gunslinger story. The main character’s only concern is tracking down murderous gangsters in a lawless frontier town. Then, he dies, and the story gets much stranger. The book cuts away to the story of a bizarre alien creature called the “hive-rat”, and at first it isn’t at all clear what this has to do with the story of a cyborg officer. Then Version 44 arrives on Belladonna and the cycle starts all over again.

As the book continues, Palmer piles weirdness upon gore upon philosophy upon quantum physics and the resulting lumbering mass gains momentum until it is an infinitely strange, wonderful and oftentimes hilarious book. Although the content is occasionally gruesome, the tone is always light, dancing over the atrocities committed on every page. I’m not sure who I might recommend this book to; it feels like an acquired taste. Even still, I’ll definitely be checking out more of Palmer’s work.

LOVED IT

LOVED IT

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Episodic Fascism: Judge Dredd Volume 1 by Duane Swierczynski and Paul Gulacy

Judge Dredd, Volume 1Published: April 23, 2013
Publisher: IDW Publishing
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Science Fiction
Format: Paperback
Length: 120 pages

My only exposure to Judge Dredd is the 2012 movie starring Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby, which I understand stays true to the comic while telling a pretty badass little crime story. I only watched it a week or so ago, so it seems appropriate that I finally got around to reading this collection of Dredd stories by Duane Swierczynski. Swierczynski quickly became one of my favorite authors after I tore through his excellent novel Fun and Games. I picked up this volume hoping for more of the same, although I haven’t read any of his other comic book writing.

This volume collects several short stories, some of which tie together into a larger case and some of which are one-off side stories that break up the main plotline. The larger thread focuses on malfunctioning robots, but there is also a story about kidnappers threatening clones of famous people and a judge who has the mind of a killer living inside his head. The stories are generally short and to-the-point, but instead of making the book brisk and action-filled, it feels like Swierczynski is always rushing to the next plot point. The result just comes off as shallow and repetitive.

Additionally, there isn’t much characterization to go around. It feels like this is probably appropriate for the universe – Dredd also didn’t have much in the way of characterization – but it doesn’t help that the dialogue is occasionally stilted or campy. Judge Anderson had more depth in the movie, but here she felt like nothing but a handy plot device. I was also regularly distracted by the use of made-up swear-words, which I’m sure fits with the series as a whole, but just felt silly here.

Ultimately, I felt like the episodic structure undermined this volume, and I would have preferred to see a longer, more developed storyline set in the Dredd universe. I might try to track down some of the older Dredd books for comparison’s sake, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of this series.

DISLIKED IT

DISLIKED IT

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

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Birth of a Real Boy: The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and The Ship That Sank Twice by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and The Ship That Sank TwicePublished: September 24, 2013
Publisher: Vertigo
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Format: Hardcover
Length: 160 pages

The Unwritten tells the story of Tom Taylor and his late father’s series of bestselling fantasy novels that revolve around a boy named Tommy Taylor inspired by his real-life counterpart… or was it the other way around?

I’ve only read two volumes of the main series, but I definitely enjoyed the ever-increasing surrealism as the literary world begins to encroach more and more on Tom’s life. This volume, “The Ship That Sank Twice” serves as a bit of a prequel to the main series as well as a standalone retelling of the first Tommy Taylor adventure.

The book consists of two alternating storylines – one in which Tom’s father begins putting together his plans for a media empire revolving around his son’s “mysterious” origins and another that follows the mishaps of his fictional creation. If the book was nothing but Tommy Taylor’s first adventure, it might feel like a bit of a re-tread; part of the joke of The Unwritten has always been that Tommy Taylor is a more cynical, clichéd analog of Harry Potter.

Thankfully, Carey makes the Tommy Taylor story stand out a bit by playing with the tropes in interesting ways and leavening the proceedings with humor. One of my favorite moments in the book happens when a series of ever-larger animals discover the infant Tommy floating on the ocean and argue over who will get to eat him.

As for the storyline that focuses on Tom’s father, it serves as a chilling counterpoint to the magical adventures of his creation. Tom’s father comes off as nothing but a cold-blooded manipulator, willing to destroy his marriage and the life of his son in the name of a long-term publicity stunt. This thread grounds the narrative and offsets Tommy’s magical adventures with a growing menace.

The art throughout the book is gorgeous, and the layouts are oftentimes dynamic in ways that make the story jump off the page without impacting its readability. Mostly this book just made me want to dive back into the main series so that I could continue experiencing the odd story of Tom Taylor’s life. I definitely recommend this book, although I would also recommend picking up at least the first volume of The Unwritten first to get the full effect.

REALLY LIKED IT

REALLY LIKED IT

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

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An Anthology of Hilarity With a Side of Murdermen: The Thrilling Adventure Hour by Acker & Blacker

The Thrilling Adventure HourPublished: August 20th, 2013
Publisher: Archaia Entertainment, LLC
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Comedy
Format: Hardcover
Length: 136 pages

The Thrilling Adventure Hour is a long-running stage-show and podcast with an old-fashioned radio-drama sensibility. Every episode features recurring characters and serial adventures acted out by actors and comedians in front of a live audience. Although some familiarity with the podcast is helpful – hearing Paul F. Tompkins’ voice in your head as you read can only improve your enjoyment – this graphic novel version of the show doesn’t require much familiarity with the source material. I’ve actually only listened to a handful of episodes, and none of them were recent.

Luckily, the show transitions well from stage to page. The writing is sharp, and the illustrations for each story are done by a different artist with a unique style. The book has a total of ten stories featuring the regular characters from the show. Each story takes its cues from common tropes of bygone radio dramas, then subverts them with humor. That mix of nostalgia and comedy might wear thin if it wasn’t clear how much affection the writers have for their subjects. I’m sure it also helps that these characters and stories were honed over eight years of live performances.

My favorite of the bunch is easily the story of booze-hounds Frank and Sadie Doyle, who solve paranormal mysteries by accident while searching for their next drink with charming disregard for danger. However, I also thoroughly enjoyed Down in Moonshine Holler, with its cross of Preston Sturges and Shirley Jackson. My favorite joke was the Murdermen, though. Always in the mood for murder.

The best part about this collection is that it’s the perfect primer for someone who has never heard of the show. They can read and enjoy it, then dive in to the show’s archives in iTunes. I know I certainly will. I’m also hoping to get a chance to see the live show sometime soon now that I live in Los Angeles.

REALLY LIKED IT

REALLY LIKED IT

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

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Ugliness All Around: Todd, The Ugliest Kid on Earth Volume 1 by Ken Kristensen and M. K. Perker

Todd, The Ugliest Kid on Earth Volume 1Published: August 20, 2013
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel
Format: Trade Paperback
Length: 96 pages

Todd, The Ugliest Kid on Earth is an odd little series about a kid named Todd surrounded by terrible human beings. It’s not exactly surreal, but it is nonsensical in a way that is clearly meant as darkly comedic but mostly just feels sloppy. The main character, Todd, is a little boy who wears a bag over his head at all times because, we assume, he is incredibly ugly.

In this volume, Todd gets in trouble with the police when a child-murderer decides he’s too ugly to kill and gives him dolls (evidence) instead. A gung-ho police detective arrests Todd on the basis of this “evidence” and immediately puts him in prison with a bunch of hardened criminals… because that totally makes sense, right? Todd is a sweet little kid who likes chasing butterflies and now he’s in prison dealing with the Aryan Brotherhood. Comedy! Todd makes friends, learns about prison life, and narrowly avoids terrible harm on every other page.

This book, pitched as comedy, mostly just seems unpleasant and cruel. Almost all the adults in Todd’s life are uniformly awful; the only adult who isn’t terrible to him is another prisoner who kills one man and carves “snitch” in another’s forehead. The joke, see, is that Todd is so nice and everyone else is so awful.

The writing tends to forgo logic or believability in the name of “satire”. Characters behave in completely ridiculous, unbelievable ways for the sake of comedy. The author puts Todd in terrible situations because I guess it’s funny to see a nice, oblivious little kid get mistreated.

As for the art style, it’s certainly distinctive, but it mostly seems designed to emphasize the ugliness of the various characters. I guess that’s also part of the joke: Todd might be ugly under that bag, but we see nothing but ugliness and hate around him, so he obviously isn’t that bad.

HATED IT

HATED IT

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

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Memory Comes in Waves: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LanePublished: June 18th 2013
Publisher: William Morrow Books
Genre(s): Fantasy
Format: eBook
Length: 178 pages

Neil Gaiman’s most recent novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is a study in contrasts. It’s his first book written “for adults” in many years, but the main character is a seven-year-old boy and the writing style is the same clean, spare style he used in The Graveyard Book and Coraline. It’s a novel, but it has the flavor of a short story or a novella, and Gaiman admits in the afterward that he originally thought it was a short story until it took on a life of its own. Then there’s the fact that despite the writing style and length, it took me a month to finish. That last part is my fault, of course, but I digress.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells the story of an unnamed narrator who returns to the town where he lived as a child for a funeral. To escape from the day, he decides to drive to where his former house used to stand, then he continues his journey on down the lane to the Hempstock farm, where a girl named Lettie Hempstock used to live. He speaks with the old woman still living there and asks if he can see the duck pond out back that Lettie used to call her “ocean”. He sits down to look at the pond and finds himself awash in memories of his childhood, back when he was just a boy and Lettie Hempstock still lived down the lane.

The narrator’s life collides with that of the Hempstocks one day when a boarder at his house commits suicide on the border between his house and their property. The narrator becomes friends with Lettie, a girl who seems strangely assured for her age and who also demonstrates powers and abilities that are at odds with her farm-girl appearance. The narrator becomes more and more entwined in the strange world of the Hempstocks as supernatural events begin to escalate and his world becomes far more dangerous.

I’ve long said that Gaiman’s Coraline is one of a handful of books I’ve read that genuinely freaked me out. The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn’t exactly the same kind of freaky, but it definitely feels like his darkest and most surreal novel. Gaiman is a skilled writer when it comes to ratcheting up tension and slowly pouring on more and more unreality, but he normally saves his weirdest stuff for his short stories. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the first time he’s let those sensibilities loose on a larger canvas, and although it did take me a while to finish, he sticks the landing.

I was slightly bothered by what felt like the passive nature of the narrator, but it’s easy to forget that he’s only a seven-year-old child during the events he is remembering. He’s as brave as possible and he takes action when he thinks it matters most. Ultimately his heart is in the right place. I’m honestly not sure what slowed me down while I was reading this – in fact, I read an entire book by Lisa Lutz during a break in the middle – but I don’t necessarily hold that against it. Although I was occasionally unsure what I thought of the book, the payoff in the epilogue cemented its status in my mind.

I think if you enjoyed this book, you should definitely check out some of Gaiman’s short stories. They’re occasionally hit or miss, but they can also be shivery and intense and beautiful in all the right ways. I particularly recommend Bitter Grounds.

LOVED IT

LOVED IT

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Stealing Hearts and Paintings: Heist Society by Ally Carter

Heist SocietyPublished: February 9th, 2010
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Genre(s): Young Adult, Crime, Thriller
Format: Audiobook
Length: 6 hrs and 6 mins

First, a confession: I was mostly inspired to pick up this book thanks to an incredible cover re-design done for Maureen Johnson’s #coverflip challenge a few months ago. I’d seen Ally Carter’s books on the shelves before and was vaguely intrigued by the titles and premises, but never enough to actually read them. I try to be open-minded about books that look like they aren’t “meant for me” but it’s all too easy to forget. Heist Society is a good reminder that I oftentimes thoroughly enjoy books that someone in a marketing department decided only a woman would read.

Heist Society is the first in a series of books about Katarina “Kat” Bishop, a teenage girl who comes from a long like of con artists and thieves. The book opens with her getting kicked out of a prestigious boarding school that she’d scammed her way into in the first place. Her motivation? No schemes or plans but her desire to get out of the family business and live a normal life. Unfortunately for her, the family business won’t let her go that easy. When it turns out that her father is in trouble with a very dangerous man who wants his paintings back, Kat assembles a crew and plans a heist to save her father’s life and put things right.

The tone throughout is arch but not snarky, brisk and cool and thoroughly engaging. There’s a bit of romance, even a love triangle by the end of it, and the heist is appropriately convoluted and clever. One of the things I liked most about Heist Society is the way Carter uses real historical details to flesh out the back story and give the heist meaning and weight. I was already enjoying the book, but when Kat learns exactly what kind of paintings she’s dealing with, Carter had me thoroughly hooked for the long haul.

My only criticism of the book relates to a character named Nick. Nick’s appearance late in the story adds a nice bit of romantic tension, but his motivations and back story never make sense. He feels like a slightly too-obvious late addition designed to raise the stakes of the relationship between Kat and her friend Hale.

However, I’d consider that a minor quibble, and it certainly didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of Heist Society. I’ll definitely be picking up the next book in the series.

REALLY LIKED IT

REALLY LIKED IT

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Memories of a Ghost: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

The Madness UnderneathPublished: February 26th, 2013
Publisher: Brilliance Audio, Inc.
Genre(s): Young Adult, Mystery, Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs and 53 mins

The Name of The Star, the first book in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, ends with the main character, Rory Devereaux, discovering new powers that may change everything about her relationship to the spirit world. It’s an exciting end to an intense book, and it definitely sets up potential new storylines for what felt like a fairly self-contained story.

Johnson has publicly stated that she has a total of four books planned for the series, so The Madness Underneath needs to both follow-up on the first book and set up enough threads to make books three and four worth reading. With all that on order, does it deliver? The short answer is: kind of.

The Madness Underneath picks up a few weeks later as Rory is living with her parents and recovering from her ordeal. She’s been going to a therapist, which she hates because she isn’t allowed to actually talk about the truth. The government has covered up what actually happened with the Jack the Ripper copycat from the first book and nobody would believe her if she told them the truth in any case. Rory mostly just wants to return to Wexford to be with her friends and maybe get back in touch with Stephen and the rest of his ghost-hunting squad.

When Rory accidentally exorcises a ghost with her new powers, it doesn’t take long before she’s back at Wexford and under the watchful eye of the government’s secret paranormal squad. At this point it would be safe to assume that the main mystery plot would get underway, but instead the book largely focuses on Rory’s PTSD. She’s way behind in school and can’t work up the urge to get caught up. She’s dating Jerome but she’s no longer sure why. Eventually Rory goes to a new therapist after Charlotte, her overachiever classmate, gushes about how much the therapist helped, but the mystery plot remains elusive throughout.

Rory does eventually have to use her talents to exorcise some more ghosts, but those exorcisms never amount to a major story thread. By giving Rory the ability to banish any ghosts with a touch, Johnson has made it so that no ghost like the Ripper could ever threaten her again. The problem with that is that it means Rory needs a new, more serious threat to fight against, and for most of the book the only threat is her depression and general lack of direction. It doesn’t make for very compelling reading.

Ultimately the book just felt like a transition. Rory deals with her PTSD, deals with Wexford and then gets a reason and a purpose to pursue in the next book. The book ends on a cliffhanger that leaves a few major threads unresolved, and although I probably will continue reading the series, I’m disappointed that this installment doesn’t have enough to recommend it and make it stand alone.

LIKED IT

LIKED IT

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What I’m Reading Right Now

ReadingMy life has been in a bit of upheaval recently, and it’s definitely impacted my reading habits. First off, I moved from Austin to Los Angeles at the end of June. The months leading up to the move were pretty stressful as I obsessed over every little detail and generally drove myself crazy. I did fit in some reading during that time, but it mostly consisted of listening to audiobooks.

Now that I’m more settled here in LA, it feels like I haven’t been reading as much as I used to. The nature of my work has changed such that I don’t end up listening to as many audiobooks while I’m working. I haven’t been going for walks like I used to in my neighborhood back in Austin (but I was already bad about that before I moved), and when it comes to the printed word, I’ve been working on several books for a pretty long time.

Anna Karenina is the worst offender by far. I started that in December of 2012 and only pick it up to read about once a month. I’m maybe 400 pages into that 1000+ page tome, and I’d still like to finish it if I can. I don’t normally read that far into a book without finishing it. I’m also still “reading” a short story collection that I started in March and last read in April.

More recently, I started Neil Gaiman’s newest book, which is short and should be a quick read, but I just haven’t been making time to pick it up. Of course, I read an entire book by Lisa Lutz in the middle of reading the Gaiman, so maybe it’s just me.

There is also the fact that I’ve been reading a lot of screenplays recently. Reading so many scripts has been taking up a lot of my free time when I’m not devoting it to playing video games, but reading scripts just doesn’t feel the same as reading a good book.

Either way, I’ll be done with the scripts soon and I think I’ll be able to devote more time to reading for fun. As for my huge audiobook collection, if listening to them is the only thing that will get me outside for a walk, then maybe that’s for the best. I just need to find a good part of my new neighborhood to take a walk.

Small Things Become Magnified: Under the Dome by Stephen King

Under the DomePublished: November 10, 2009
Publisher: Scribner
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Length: 1074 pages

Like many of the books in my extensive collection, I’ve owned an unread copy of Under the Dome for years. It wasn’t until I began sorting through my books in preparation for a cross-country move that I decided it time to dive in and read that massive tome so that I could sell it. I was, of course, also hoping to finish reading before the premiere of the CBS adaptation. I wasn’t successful in either goal, however; the book came with me to California, and the series was 3-4 episodes in before I finished reading.

I’ve also been on a bit of a throwback kick recently. I read a lot of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard in high school, and I’ve been reading a lot of both lately. I’ve mostly been reading Leonard’s older stuff, but with King I’ve been focusing on his most recent work. Doing so has caused me to come to the conclusion that King has been doing some of his best work since finishing the Dark Tower series. Joyland is brisk and entertaining, 11/22/63 is easily one of King’s masterpieces, and Under the Dome is a solid small-town epic.

Under the Dome opens with few glimpses of events around town as people are trapped, injured or killed when a mysterious invisible dome comes down from the sky and surrounds the town. King sets up heroes, villains, murderers and a mystery in short order, then gets down to the business of watching a small town viciously turn on itself. In a lot of ways, Under the Dome reads a bit like a fictionalized sociology experiment. The speculative elements are kept to a minimum, and King seems more interested in human behavior under pressure – good, evil and in-between. It’s a concern that has always threaded through his work, but here he brings it to the forefront.

I will admit that Under the Dome didn’t grab me quite as much as 11/22/63, but I think part of that is the difference in focus. 11/22/63 is personal and romantic, focused on one man’s experiences, whereas Under the Dome has a huge cast of characters and a wide-ranging focus. The characters in Under the Dome are alternately likable or heinous, but none of them has the depth given the main character in 11/22/63. In some ways, Under the Dome reminded me a bit of Tommyknockers, with its shifting viewpoints and portrait of a small town falling apart at the seams. However, where Tommyknockers is wildly inconsistent and rambling, Under the Dome is measured and focused, even at an epic length.

Ultimately I thought Under the Dome was entertaining and competently written but comparatively unremarkable. Better than some of King’s older books, but not up to the standard set by his other recent work. I think part of the problem may have been the fact that much of what happens relies on the townspeople being gullible or outright stupid; Big Jim Rennie feels like such an obvious villain that it’s sometimes hard to believe anyone trusts him in the first place. I’m glad I read it, but I’m curious to see how the TV series reconfigures the same elements for a different medium.

REALLY LIKED IT

REALLY LIKED IT

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