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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Armada: Second Wave Slump

ArmadaArmada by Ernest Cline

Published: July 14th 2015
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Length: 349 pages

The Last Starfighter is a very bad movie. The too-thin story is nothing but a delivery mechanism for a few minutes of primitive CGI, and I question the taste of anyone who could watch it nowadays without groaning.

Accordingly, if you operate under the theory that very bad movies are the ones that actually deserve reboots, there has never been a premise more ripe for a “re-imagining” than The Last Starfighter. The advances made to video games since the heyday of arcade cabinets are exponential, and the line between games and combat simulators has never been thinner.

Armada is Ernest Cline’s pitch for a Last Starfighter reboot, tailor-made for the inevitable blockbuster film adaptation. It improves on the movie in a few ways but introduces new problems; although it is more grounded and believable than the original, the plotting is slapdash and the pop culture references are overwhelming.

In Armada, Cline tells the story of Zack Lightman, a fatherless teenage gamer with anger-management issues and a high score in the titular game – a popular space-flight simulator/shooter. Zack’s late father was also a gamer obsessed with pop culture, but he also had a crackpot theory that all science fiction is part of a government plot designed to prepare people for alien invasions.

Zack obsesses over everything his father loved despite his suspicions that Lightman the elder might have been a little crazy. Although his obsession does eventually tie into the plot, it’s mostly just Cline’s excuse for peppering the dialogue with references to 80s movies. In fact, in the book’s most egregious moments, the characters quote dialog verbatim instead of having real human conversations.

When Zack sees a ship from Armada flying past his school, he thinks he’s going crazy like his father, and tries to write it off. However, we immediately know a few things that he seems willfully ignorant about despite his intimate familiarity with The Last Starfighter:

  1. He isn’t crazy. That was totally a real alien ship.
  2. He is going to get recruited by the military.
  3. Oh, and, his dad is totally alive out there somewhere. Duh.

All of this is screamingly obvious, but the book takes its sweet time getting to the point where Zack actually steps into a spaceship. I’m sure that once this is a movie, the pacing of this section will be better and it won’t feel like such a drag to spend time on Zack’s normal life, but here the first act of the story is deadly dull. I could definitely have done without the chapter-length walk-through of Armada’s in-game mechanics, especially because at that point the stakes were still nonexistent.

It doesn’t help that Cline spends a lot of time setting up characters and situations that never really pay off. Zack’s anger issues just go away without him ever actually addressing them. His love interest gets one significant scene and then barely appears in the rest of the book even though she’s actually a pretty cool character. The overall effect is a book that feels underdeveloped and rushed, as though producing a movie-ready follow-up was the main priority here.

And, yes, the pop-culture references that Cline is known for do feel a bit heavy-handed. Somehow the same obsession with 80s culture worked just fine in his début, but here it took me out of the action almost every time. There’s also a weird scene where Zack describes how hot his mom is and admits to a mild Oedipal complex. These are all things that I think Cline would have fixed with another rewrite or two.

It’s a shame, really, because I genuinely enjoyed Ready Player One, and I was really excited for Cline’s follow-up. I think he has a lot of potential as a writer, and I could still see that potential in Armada even if I don’t think the execution is there. For example, the government’s recruitment plan makes a lot more sense than The Last Starfighter, and once the invasion gets underway, Cline introduces a new mystery that makes for a far more compelling dramatic question than whether Zack will get recruited.

Cline already has a lucrative deal for his third book, so it’s not like the shakiness of his craft on Armada is going to derail his career, but I hope he gets the chance to put a bit more love and attention into his next book.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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Rat Queens: Everything’s Coming Up Tentacles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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

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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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Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn

Dash & Lily's Book of DaresPublished: October 11th, 2011
Publisher: Ember
Genre(s): Young Adult, Romance
Format: Paperback
Length: 272 Pages

One day, while browsing in the Strand bookstore in New York City, Dash finds a red Moleskine notebook hidden next to a copy of Franny and Zooey. He opens it and discovers that the owner, a girl named Lily, has left a series of mysterious clues and instructions for anyone who reads the book and passes certain requirements. Dash passes the test, does as instructed by the notebook, and the epistolary adventure at the heart of Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares are underway.

The story unfolds in alternating viewpoint chapters narrated by Dash and Lily, two bookish, lonely teenagers living in New York City. Dash responds to Lily’s initial challenge with a challenge of his own, and they begin building a relationship through increasingly personal notes left in the Moleskine journal along with dares that put them right in the middle of Christmas-shopping crowds in downtown New York. Levithan writes Dash’s chapters while Cohn writes Lily’s, and although each character has a fairly distinctive voice, the two styles mesh together well and the book never feels disjointed.

The thing I liked most about Dash & Lily is the way it juxtaposes the main characters’ romantic ideals with reality. Dash and Lily both begin to idealize each other through their written interactions, but we also get to see the versions of themselves they keep hidden. Dash is a bit of a loner, possibly too clever for his own good, and Lily is a bit high-strung in stressful moments. Neither of them quite matches up to the other’s romantic ideal, and their experiences as they learn to navigate the differences between fantasy and reality are what make this book more than a fluffy rom-com conceit.

However, compared to some of Levithan’s solo work, Dash & Lily is admittedly still a bit fluffy. The stakes in the core relationship are never too high, and the dares are ultimately fairly benign. On one hand, you could argue that keeping stakes low for a high school romance is more realistic, but I have to admit that I missed the emotional punch of Every Day and The Lover’s Dictionary. Even still, I enjoyed the book, and will probably pick up the other Cohn and Levithan collaborations at some point.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

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

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A Selection of Scary Stories

I’ve never been a huge fan of horror, but over the years I’ve gained an appreciation of scary stories. They aren’t necessarily the same thing, either. As I see it, horror is a genre with a few common tropes, one of which is that the story may or may not be scary. For example, I’ve never really thought that slasher movies were scary. They’re mostly just gratuitous. I’ve read a bunch of Stephen King, but few of his books are truly scary and most feel more like dark fantasy than outright horror. Evil Dead 2 isn’t particularly scary, either, but it’s definitely a horror classic.

Scary stories, on the other hand, can exist in almost any genre. I think a good author can wring a bit of terror out of something entirely realistic and/or mundane. However, it’s pretty rare that I read something that genuinely freaks me out. When it does, it’s the sort of thing that sticks with me forever, which is definitely something to strive towards as a writer. I’m certainly drawn to writing scary stories myself.

LullabyWhen I think of scary stories, one of the first that springs to mind is Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, which tells the story of a man who discovers an African culling song in a children’s book. Unfortunately for him, he only discovers the song’s powers after he’s read it to his wife and child and accidentally killed them both. Then, of course, the song gets stuck in his head, and if he inadvertently thinks it at someone, they die. Needless to say, I found the concept of a deadly thought virus completely and utterly terrifying.

CoralineNext in line is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which is probably my most favorite of all his books. The funny thing about the book is that I’ve heard it tends to scare adults far more than children. Apparently a young girl exploring a frightening alternate universe full of terrible danger tends to freak out adults but sounds like an adventure to kids. Go figure! Gaiman skillfully uses surrealism and an omnipresent menacing atmosphere to keep the reader constantly off-kilter, and the tension just keeps building. Coraline isn’t the only work of Gaiman’s that I’ve found creepy and/or disturbing. Some of his short stories are particularly chilling as well.

The End of EverythingI’d also argue that Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything fits in this category. The narrator, Evie, is a teenage girl in the 1980s whose best friend suddenly disappears one day. Was she abducted? Did she kill herself? Panic in the community builds as the disappearance drags on and on, and Evie takes it upon herself to investigate what happened. Part of what makes the book so terrifying are the uncomfortable parallels between Evie’s crush on an older man and the increasing likelihood that her friend was abducted by a pedophile. Nothing in the book is black and white, and even though it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, I hesitate to recommend it to anyone simply because it filled me with such a palpable feeling of uneasiness throughout.

I hope to someday tell a story that manages to convey the same sense of dread and uneasiness I felt when I read those books and others. Until then, I’ll continue on my quest to read truly frightening books wherever I may find them.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstorePublished: October 2nd, 2012
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Genre(s): Fiction, Technology
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs and 41 mins

Clay Jannon is young, techno-savvy and unemployed after being laid off by an ill-fated startup called NewBagel. As his desperation for a new job grows, he starts looking for opportunities everywhere under the sun, which is why the “Help Wanted” sign in the window of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore catches his attention. Mr. Penumbra, the store’s owner and namesake, hires Clay largely based on his love of books and his willingness to climb the steep ladders necessary to reach the store’s towering upper shelves.

After Clay is hired, he is told that the bookstore has a few rules, and one of them is that he isn’t allowed to read any of the books kept on the back shelves. These books are loaned out to a small club of customers who seem to be performing some kind of research. Clay only lasts so long before he gives in to temptation and tries to read one of the books – only to find out it’s written entirely in code. Things only get stranger from there.

The most fortuitous event in his clerkship, however, is the night when a young woman named Kat Potente walks into the store while he is working on a data visualization he hopes will help unravel the mysteries of the bookstore. Kat, it turns out, works for Google, and has access to huge amounts of computing power that they can bend to the task of uncovering the truth behind the store. With help from Kat – and Google’s servers – Clay begins unraveling the secrets of Penumbra’s store and the true adventure begins.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a fascinating hybrid of genres. It feels like a fantasy adventure, but focuses entirely on technologies that exist in the real world today. Clay and Kat both speak breathlessly of the wonders possible thanks to Google, and even though they occasionally sound like an ad for the company, it’s hard not to get caught up in their excitement. This book has adventure, romance, an epic quest, tiny cities built to scale inside a living room, a mysterious secret society, mind-boggling technology and a leavening of actual history. It’s a brisk, entertaining read, and very funny to boot.

Although I do highly recommend this book, the only caveat I would make is that Google is such a big part of the story that the company almost feels like a major character. I could definitely see that being off-putting for some readers. In theory Sloan could have told a similar story without actually explicitly naming Google, but I think part of the idea behind this book is to tell a story that seems fantastical but is actually grounded in present-day reality. From that perspective, the intense focus on Google’s achievements is a big part of what makes this book work so well.

One of my most favorite moments in the book comes near the end when Clay visits a massive storage facility while on a quest to find a missing artifact. The facility is full of constantly moving shelves that seem to have minds of their own as they shift artifacts from place to place. The scene is full of magic and strangeness, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that just such a facility actually exists in the real world. That, ultimately, is the book’s greatest achievement – finding the wonder in modern technologies that we might otherwise take for granted.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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