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.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
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.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
Published: December 1st 2015 Publisher: Audible Studios / Brilliance Audio Genre(s): Comedy, Short Stories Format: Audiobook Length: 4 hrs and 28 mins
Bream Gives Me Hiccups is actor Jesse Eisenberg’s debut short story collection. Although it doesn’t feel like a vanity project, it is definitely a little derivative. Eisenberg’s work is in the same wheelhouse as Woody Allen’s short fiction, and doesn’t always fare well by comparison.
Most of the stories in Bream Gives Me Hiccups are slight comic riffs on a premise. The joke is oftentimes spelled out in the story’s title. When these shorter pieces are good, they deliver some of the best laughs in the collection. When they’re bad, they’re almost entirely forgettable.
Included with the short pieces are two longer stories that appear at the beginning and middle of the collection. The title story, “Bream Gives Me Hiccups”, is one of the best in the collection. The second long piece, “My Roommate Stole My Ramen”, is easily the worst.
One thing Eisenberg does to set himself apart from Allen is make his characters seem like real people with emotions. He only succeeds intermittently, but when he does, the stories are particularly good. Allen is by far the better writer, but the characters in his fiction were always held at arm’s length.
Section I, “Bream Gives Me Hiccups”, is framed as a series of restaurant reviews by a nine-year-old. Each review quickly devolves into a rundown of the main character’s life and troubles – with his divorced parents, his best friend, and the kids at school – and the result is both hilarious and affecting.
Section II, “Family”, mostly consists of a series of extended jokes from the perspectives of Eisenberg’s family members (real or imagined). There are a few standouts here: “Separation Anxiety Sleepaway Camp” is an absurdist exploration of childhood neurosis, and “My Nephew Has Some Questions” is by far the best example of Eisenberg committing to the game of a joke.
Section III, “History”, is all bits and no characters. I remember laughing once or twice at this section, but the stories didn’t leave much of an impression. Also, the joke in “Marxist-Socialist Jokes” is that they’re all non-jokes, which is just annoying.
Section IV, “My Roommate Stole My Ramen”, is where this collection went off the rails for me. In a series of letters to her high school guidance counselor, a spoiled freshman rants about everyone and everything in her life. There isn’t much of a narrative arc, and the main character doesn’t learn or grow by the end of the story. Eisenberg doesn’t appear to have any sympathy for this horrendous character, so it’s hard to understand why this story spends so much time with her. The end result is both tone-deaf and misogynist.
Section V, “Dating”, lands with a thud. I wasn’t particularly entertained by four variations on a bar pick-up, and found this section completely skippable.
Section VI, “Sports”, was also pretty lame. “Marv Albert Is My Therapist” is only mildly funny if you know who Albert is. “Carmelo Anthony…” is slightly entertaining because the Eisenberg character is completely delusional about his “pickup game”.
Section VII, “Self-Help” brings in some much-needed darkness with “Smiling Tricks” and “If She Ran Into Me Now…”, both of which feature delusional and/or downright psychotic main characters. It also helps that neither story overstays its welcome.
In Section VIII, “Language”, the best story is “My Spam Plays Hard to Get”, in which even scammers don’t want to steal from Eisenberg. “Nick Garrett’s Review” has a fairly obvious twist, and the remaining stories are unremarkable.
Section IX, “We Only Have Time for One More”, just feels unnecessary.
So, to summarize, although there are definitely worthwhile stories and the occasional bright spot in this collection, the second half almost sinks under the weight of unpleasant characters and unremarkable stories.
It’s a shame, because I really enjoyed several of the stories and wish the overall collection was that consistently good. However, I’m still willing to recommend picking up this collection because of the handful of truly great stories. I’d also recommend picking up the audiobook version so that you can hear these pieces performed by the author.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, but I actually listened to the audiobook version from Audible. Go figure.
Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix Published: September 23rd 2014 Publisher: Blackstone Audio / Quirk Books Genre(s): Horror, Satire Format: Audiobook Length: 6 hrs and 16 mins
Anyone who has ever shopped in an IKEA knows that it is the ideal setting for a horror story: a vast, maze-like structure filled with an infinite number of uniform objects designed to frustrate the sane mind. Not to mention all the screeching children jumping on mattresses in the bedding section.
In an ideal world, Horrorstör would deliver that perfect combination of surreal horror and retail satire. Unfortunately, although there are clever touches throughout, the book falls flat.
Amy works at Orsk, a US-based IKEA knockoff that is identical in everything but name. She’s disaffected, burnt out and sarcastic, mostly because she hasn’t lived up to any of her potential. When her straight-laced boss, Basil, asks her to stay after work to help him investigate some strange goings-on in the store, they discover something far more sinister than smelly goo in the furniture aisle.
For a book billed as a horror comedy, Horrorstör is relatively laugh-free. The satire of retail drudgery feels non-specific, and as soon as the supernatural elements come to the forefront, the rest of the story is humorless bordering on bleak. The only sustained joke are the fake product listings, but they’re only mildly clever.
The horror aspect of the book relies on well-worn tropes, and after a certain point it feels like the events could be happening in any enclosed space as opposed to specifically inside a big-box furniture store. Hendrix introduces the idea of the characters getting lost in Orsk’s seemingly endless showroom, but it’s quickly dropped in favor of more traditional supernatural horrors. I also thought it was a huge missed opportunity that none of the characters assemble an improvised weapon out of random kitchen-ware and furniture pieces.
The main character spends most of the novel avoiding responsibility, reacting to horrible events or giving up entirely. Following her was frustrating, and she only develops as a character very late in the story. The conclusion is open-ended enough that Hendrix could write a sequel, but it definitely feels like he saves all potential character development for another book.
Ultimately, Horrorstör is underdeveloped and forgettable. The book’s design was by far the best part of an otherwise disappointing package.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, but I listened to an audiobook version from the library.
Published: February 10, 2015 Publisher: 47North / Brilliance Audio Genre(s): Fantasy, Comedy, Adventure Format: Audiobook Length: 11 hrs and 46 mins
Scott Meyer’s Magic 2.0 series is fantasy with a science-fiction hook: a computer hacker named Martin discovers an all-powerful file that lets him control reality, so he travels back to medieval times and pretends he is a wizard. This fails spectacularly when he meets all the other hackers who had the same idea.
An Unwelcome Quest is the third book in the series. The first two weren’t perfect by any means, but they were at least funny and light on their feet where this one quickly wears out its welcome. It’s a huge shame, because this series was exactly what I was looking for when I wanted to have a few laughs during my commute. One definite bright side is that Luke Daniels continues to bring his A-game as narrator. Also, I occasionally enjoyed the last quarter or so after gritting my teeth and slogging through the fairly dire middle.
I think the only reasons I made it through this installment in the series are because I wanted to know what happened to the characters and the fact that I received a review copy. Unfortunately, one of the first big changes in An Unwelcome Quest is that the events take place almost entirely in the magical world instead of jumping back and forth between modern times and the past. This means that treasury agents Murph and Miller don’t even appear during the story. Their presence is sorely missed. Meyer also splits up his cast of heroes into two groups, with Martin – the main character in the earlier books – relegated to a supporting role in an ensemble.
The book opens with Todd, a psychotic ex-wizard, escaping from prison. He kidnaps half of the characters and forces them to run through a badly designed RPG campaign. When Martin and the remaining wizards realize their friends are missing, they rush to the rescue and run through the same campaign in slightly different ways. Both sets of wizards bicker endlessly at every turn, and the effect is more sour than funny. It doesn’t help that Meyer includes constant explanations and recaps at every turn, in case you weren’t paying attention during the previous chapter. This repeats ad nauseam.
There is also a running joke that all the enemies in the game have the same basic attack pattern, which does nothing but undermine the already very low stakes. In fact, the villain explicitly tells the wizards that the obstacles they face will only annoy them without actually killing them until they reach the climax. That final sequence is basically the only part of the book where it feels like the characters are in even mild danger.
In the end, An Unwelcome Quest feels like an over-padded novella. There are entertaining moments here and there, and I did actually laugh out loud a few times. Unfortunately, getting to those good parts required slogging through a lot of tedium and redundancy. I might be willing to read another book in this series if Meyer somehow course-corrects, but it’ll take some pretty glowing reviews to convince me.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley. Of course, I ended up going ahead and buying the audiobook version because Luke Daniels is a fantastic narrator.
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.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
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.
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.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
Published: January 11th, 2011 Publisher: Audible, Inc. Genre(s): Fiction, Comedy Format: Audiobook Length: 23 hrs and 41 mins
As you might imagine, Skippy Dies opens with the death of the titular character, one Daniel Juster (nicknamed Skippy). Skippy dies of mysterious circumstances at a donut shop named Ed’s, then the story jumps back several months to tell the sprawling tale of life at Seabrook College before and after that fateful day. Skippy Dies has a wide-ranging cast of colorful, hilarious and occasionally maddening characters, and the Audible production brings them all to life with a wonderful full-cast recording.
Although Skippy is the catalyst for much of what happens in the book, he isn’t necessarily the main character. Instead, Skippy Dies is an ensemble story with a half-dozen or more plot-lines that weave in and out of Skippy’s life. First and foremost is the story of Ruprecht Van Doren, Skippy’s roommate. Ruprecht is socially awkward, horribly overweight, exceedingly intelligent and obsessed with string theory. At one point in the book, Ruprecht manages to convince his friends to test a device that might open a portal to another dimension if only they can get it into the girl’s school next door.
Then there’s Carl and Barry, two burnouts who start selling “diet pills” bartered from kids with ADHD to girls looking to lose weight fast. Carl is dangerous, psychotic, and hopelessly in love with a pretty girl named Laurie, who is also Skippy’s number one crush. Despite the seemingly huge gap in their social stations, Laurie and Skippy do actually get together at one point in the book, and it only inspires more fits of rage and destruction on Carl’s part.
Murray doesn’t just focus on students, however; he also tells the story of Howard “The Coward”, a Seabrook alum who finds himself back at school, teaching history to the sort of kids he was not so long ago. Howard, who has a loveless relationship at home and terrible guilt from an “incident” that happened years ago, barely holds the respect of his students until a pretty substitute comes to Seabrook and up-ends his life. Howard also butts heads with Greg “The Automator”, acting headmaster of the school, who seems to care more about branding and merchandise than education. The Automator is the kind of subtly dangerous imbecile who tends to rise to the top in management positions out of sheer bloody-mindedness.
All of these characters and more interact in scenes that are hilarious, touching and occasionally even disturbing. Murray weaves mundane events, satire and occasional flights of fancy with such a deft hand that he makes Seabrook College feel like a living, breathing world. The book is simultaneously epic and intimate; filled with lofty ideas and discussions of the nature of reality, but focused entirely on life in a small community in Ireland. Skippy Dies is a huge, long book, but if you have the time, I highly recommend the audiobook version. The full cast recording makes the world of the book feel more real and makes it easier to keep track of the huge cast of characters.
Published: February 26, 2013 Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Genre(s): Fiction, Comedy Format: eBook Length: 369 pages
Egon Loeser, protagonist of Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident, is an asshole. He’s obsessed with sex, contemptuous of his friends, hopelessly infatuated with a girl who doesn’t return his affections, and completely untalented as a theatrical director. In the hands of a lesser author, such an unlikable main character could be the fatal flaw that alienates most readers. However, Beauman makes up for Loeser’s bad behavior by populating the novel’s supporting cast with striking, sharply drawn characters and filling it with laugh-out-loud comedy throughout.
At the start of the story, Loeser is a set designer in decadent pre-war Berlin. Loeser’s 1931 is full of never-ending parties, desultory work on a play production that never seems any closer to performance, and an ever-vigilant search for good cocaine. The play he is working on is the story of the life of Adriano Lavicini, a seventeenth-century stage designer best known for the tragic accident that ended his career and life.
Lavicini, it seems, built a complex special effect known as the Teleportation Device which brought down half the walls of a theater and killed two dozen people (and a cat). Loeser, set designer for the play about Lavicini’s life, builds a much more modest Teleportation Device that merely serves to accidentally dislocate the star actor’s arms. Different types of Teleportation Devices are a running theme throughout the play; Lavicini’s, Loeser’s and a literal Teleportation Device built by a Californian professor named Bailey who Loeser meets later.
After the failure of Loeser’s stage device, he heads to yet another Berlin party, where he fortuitously runs into a girl named Adele Hitler (no relation). Loeser was Adele’s tutor when she was younger, and when he discovers the pudgy girl he knew has transformed into an incredibly beautiful young woman, he is instantly smitten. This encounter completely changes the course of Loeser’s life; he becomes obsessed with Adele and follows her first to Paris and then to Los Angeles.
As Loeser fruitlessly follows Adele around the world, he runs into a wonderful cast of characters, all of whom leap off the page. Loeser becomes a fan of the hard-boiled fiction of Stent Mutton and accidentally meets Mutton and his wife one day while wandering lost in California. Dolores Mutton, Stent’s knock-out wife, is beautiful but also incredibly terrifying, later threatening Loeser with death in no uncertain terms. Loeser ends up living in the guest house of one Colonel Gorge, a gruff, powerful man who is suffering agnosia, which causes him to confuse pictures for the real thing – hold up a picture of a woman, and he becomes convinced she is there in the room. The book also includes a few chapters from other perspectives; in one, Beauman focuses on a con artist named Scramsfield, who gets Loeser caught up in one of his scams. In another, Beauman tells the story of the surprisingly unhinged Dr. Bailey, whose fraught personal history has influenced the unconventional means and methods he uses to research teleportation.
Even if The Teleportation Accident occasionally rambled, I was always drawn back in by Beauman’s flair for characterization and comedy. I laughed out loud a good dozen times throughout, which is a rare achievement for any book. The only real criticism I’d level against the book is that the opening pages are needlessly obtuse; I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of readers put it down at the beginning out of a worry that the novel would continue at that pitch throughout. Thankfully, once Beauman settles down and gets to business, The Teleportation Accident is a thoroughly readable and highly enjoyable book.