10 PRINT “Heart of Code: The Impossible Fortress”

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

Published: February 7th, 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fiction, Coming-of-age
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs and 23 mins

The Impossible Fortress hits the exact right notes of eighties nostalgia without turning into a catalog of bygone pop culture. It definitely opened a flood of memories for me. I wasn’t a teenager in 1987, but I did spend my childhood teaching myself BASIC on my Apple IIGS and keying in machine language programs printed in the backs of my dad’s computer magazines.

Billy, Alf and Clark just want to see Vanna White in the May 1987 issue of Playboy, and they’ll try just about any harebrained scheme to get it. When they go into a local typewriter repair store and try to convince the owner that they look like serious businessmen who are definitely old enough to buy it, Billy meets Mary, an overweight social outcast who not only shares his love of computer programming but also his interest in making games, not to mention the fact that she has talent to spare.

Mary tells Billy about a contest judged by their personal game design hero, and it isn’t long before they’re heads-down, working feverishly to finish the titular game – an unfinished, unpolished concept created by Billy in his free time – all while Alf and Clark think he’s working a scam to get the Playboy.

The characters are so sharply drawn that they leap off the page. Rekaluk makes them both relatable and unique with only a few key details as well as a strong sense of the time and place. I fell in love with these characters, rooting for them to figure things out and make something out of themselves.

That’s why I was especially invested when the book took a turn for the dramatic and the stakes became much higher. Suddenly The Impossible Fortress wasn’t just a teenage sex comedy filled to the brim with programming nostalgia; it was also a story about how one wrong choice can ruin your life and how easy it is to watch your dreams slip through your hands. When things started going south for Billy, my stomach dropped, and I didn’t want to stop reading.

In fact, I listened to most of this book in one long sitting while I cleaned and packed for my holiday travel. I rarely get the chance to listen for such a long, uninterrupted period, so it’s especially nice to find a book compelling enough to warrant the attention. I highly recommend The Impossible Fortress, and can’t wait to read Jason Rekaluk’s follow-up, whatever it might be.

LOVED IT

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

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The Girl Who Wasn’t: LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff

LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff

Published: May 29th 2018
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction
Format: eBook
Length: 402 pages

LIFEL1K3 is the rare book that I mostly enjoyed until the end soured me on the whole thing. It’s a mash-up of a lot of genres and tropes, which gives it a certain amount of madcap charm, but it squanders that good will with some draggy pacing, an overload of teenage angst, and a final twist that feels like a gotcha moment designed only for shock value. It’s also overstuffed with plot and world-building, so it’s almost impossible to summarize succinctly.

When you live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, you have to make ends meet in whatever way possible. Eve builds and pilots homegrown battle-bots from spare parts and pits them against challengers in gladiator battles with the help of her trusty little robot, Cricket, and her best friend, Lemon Fresh. She has a cybernetic eye and a “memdrive” installed in her brain to help her remember her past life, cut short when she was shot and left for dead.

When the book opens, she’s about to fight a malfunctioning corporate bot to get medicine for her ailing grandfather, Silas. The battle goes south, but she’s saved at the last minute when she unleashes some kind of telekinetic power that fries the malfunctioning bot.

Only problem is, gladiator battles are broadcast throughout the local area, and her performance brings her to the attention of some unsavory types, including a religious sect who kill “deviates” on sight and a corporate bounty hunter who wants to capture her for nefarious purposes.

Lucky for her, she’s saved by a beautiful “lifelike” robot named Ezekiel, designed to resemble a handsome young man with super-strength, who she salvaged when his ship crashed nearby. When they try to make their getaway, another lifelike named Faith captures her grandfather, so Eve and her friends have to save him while also running from the bounty hunter hot on their tails. Complicating things is the fact that Ezekiel and Faith both seem to recognize her and call her by another name, Ana.

Now, it’s kind of hard to explain my criticisms of the book without spoilers, so I’m going to warn you now that the rest of this review will be full of them. When Faith damages Eve’s memdrive in a fight, Eve starts having flashes of another life different from the hardscrabble one she thinks she knows. It turns out that Eve isn’t who she thinks she is, which becomes a running theme.

Eve begins remembering her life as Ana, who lived in a corporate tower with her father, the inventor of the lifelikes. She knows the lifelikes and has a shared, tragic history with them! Also, her grandfather isn’t her grandfather. Instead, he’s an engineer who gave her fake memories so that she could have a fresh start.

Ezekiel was the boy of her dreams, Faith was her best friend, and the lifelikes (except possibly Ezekiel) betrayed her family and killed them in a revolution. The angst and the drama build as Eve tries to reconcile her identities and histories, deal with her buried feelings for Ezekiel, and fumes about people lying to her.

You might think that everything I’ve summarized up above is more than enough for one book, and you’d be right. However, Kristoff still has a few twists left up his sleeve. The first few twists just stir up more drama and angst, but the final twist is what soured me on the book.

It turns out that Eve isn’t even the real Ana – she’s secretly a lifelike designed to think she was Ana. After she was shot, Silas installed the memdrive to give her a fresh start as someone new. This revelation puts her over the edge, and she pushes her friends away and slides into apparent villainy in the final sentence of the book.

By that point, I’d already lost a little bit of patience with the number of plot twists and the angsty in-fighting characters, but I wouldn’t have minded the final twist so much if Eve’s decision was less black-and-white. If she’d gone out into the world to find herself with mysterious motivations, I’d at least want to find out more about who she decides to become. Instead, she seeks out another lifelike with clearly villainous motivations and tells him that they have a lot of work to do.

It felt like Kristoff was trying to force Eve’s decision to BE EVIL, and it made me not care about her journey. LIFEL1K3 was a bit of an exhausting read thanks to its everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink storytelling, but that final twist just felt like it sold out the main character for a cheap shock.

DISLIKED IT

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

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Devil Music: We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

Published: September 18th 2018
Publisher: Quirk Books
Genre(s): Horror, Rock and Roll
Format: E-Book
Length: 336 pages

We Sold Our Souls is sort of like a heavy metal concept album in novel form, but that doesn’t mean it’s the kind of slapdash narrative you would normally find on a long-player. Instead, it’s a propulsive read that rides on the momentum of a lost album full of revolutionary rock songs.

The author of that lost album, Kris Pulaski, is a washed-up former rock guitarist riding the desk at a Best Western. She’s stuck in that customer-service wasteland because Terry Hunt, the lead singer of her old band, Dürt Würk, sold her out, stole her music, and sued her into oblivion. It doesn’t help that the rest of the band hates her because of something terrible she did on “contract night” – the night the band fell apart in spectacular fashion.

When Kris sees a billboard for Koffin, Terry’s sell-out cash-grab nu metal band formed in the ashes of Dürt Würk, she’s at absolute rock bottom. She’s broke, friendless and soon-to-be homeless after her brother kicks her out of her dead mother’s house.

The billboard is the catalyst that sets off a bottomless store of anger she’d kept tamped deep down inside. She decides that it’s time to confront the former members of Dürt Würk and ask them why the events of contract night don’t line up in her memory.

This is a horror novel called We Sold Our Souls, though, so I’m sure it isn’t surprising to learn that something bizarre is going on behind the scenes and Kris gets caught up in its wake as soon as she gets back in touch with her old band.

I was so caught up in this book that I read the last 2/3rds in one marathon sitting, which I think is a pretty resounding endorsement. There are also two harrowing set-pieces that kept me on the edge of my seat and wincing.

I’ve read a few of Grady Hendrix’s novels now, and although this one isn’t as good as My Best Friend’s Exorcism, it delivers some solid scares while also painting a compelling picture of how music can save your life.

REALLY LIKED IT

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

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Modernized Space Girl: Barbarella, Volume 1

Barbarella, Volume 1Barbarella, Volume 1: Red Hot Gospel

Written by: Mike Carey
Art by: Kenan Yar, Jorge Fornés
Published: October 10th, 2018
Publisher: Dynamite
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Format: E-Book
Length: 126 pages

First, some caveats about this review of the new Barbarella comic written by Mike Carey: I’ve never seen the Jane Fonda movie, so I watched the trailer to get a feel for it because it felt like a necessary entry point.

I also read the first volume of the classic comics by Jean-Claude Forest so that I’d have a baseline to compare against the rebooted series. From a writing standpoint, I’d say that the two versions of Barbarella are on close to equal footing, but the art in the modern version just does not do the character justice.

Forest draws the classic 60s version in black and white with an almost sketch-like quality to the art. The suggestive lines are still evocative even if the style is a little dated. It might be interesting to read a remastered version with full-color art as long as it didn’t lose the style of the original. I think I would have preferred that over the rebooted version, or at least a new comic that more closely follows the classic style.

The first volume of the Mike Carey version consists of a three-issue arc drawn by the series artist, Kenan Yar, and a stand-alone drawn by Jorge Fornés. Both stories start with Barbarella’s ship breaking down, which I’m guessing is a running joke from the movie.

In the longer story, Barbarella crash-lands in the middle of a rebellion on a repressive religious planet where the church removes everyone’s genitalia to prevent them from enjoying sex (because pleasure is a temptation.) Naturally, Barbarella considers this a horrifying injustice and does everything she can to fight the church, stopping only at murder. The story is a bit forgettable. It doesn’t help that Barbarella isn’t driving the plot for most of the arc.

I’m also not a fan of Kenyan Yar’s art, which doesn’t capture the look of the character. The perspectives are oftentimes awkward, and Barbarella herself doesn’t have the cool elegance of the original. It’s a shame, because the cover art is uniformly great. The covers made me wish for an arc drawn by one of those artists.

The art for the standalone story was a much better fit for Barbarella’s style and personality. That story follows her as she books passage on a ship towing three bespoke planets to their destinations. When someone sabotages one of the planets, the story turns into a spin on an old-fashioned mystery. I liked it more than the longer arc, but it felt comparatively slight and a bit rushed.

I’m not sure if I’ll read more Barbarella. This volume was a bit shallow, and I don’t think I’ll come around on Yar’s art. I still might watch the movie, though, even if it is super-cheesy and somehow rated PG despite its reputation for innuendo.

LIKED IT

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

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The Little Death of Reality: Alt-Life

Alt-Life by Thomas Cadène

Published: October 17th, 2018
Publisher: Europe Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Format: ebook
Length: 184 pages

Alt-Life is the story of what happens when two horny French people volunteer as beta testers for an all-encompassing VR experience that lets them escape from the polluted, dying Earth. Once you’re inside the VR devices, which look like giant red eggs full of undulating cilia, the system integrates with your body and you live out the rest of your life on the inside.

For the first year they’re inside the devices, Josiane and René are alone in an infinite world, testing out the system so that the rest of humanity can join them when it’s ready. They explore its limits and discover that there aren’t any as long as your device has enough memory. They also explore every possible sexual fantasy. Josiane sinks into endless hedonism, but René quickly becomes disillusioned with the lack of substance in his imagined encounters and loses his sex drive.

This, then, is where more existential questions come into play. If you can have anything you imagine with the snap of your fingers, does any of it have meaning or value? What does it mean to be rich or powerful in a virtual world? The arrival of other humans in the virtual world brings even more complications because, by that time, Josiane and René have changed in immeasurable ways.

While René and Josiane are inside their virtual world, we also get glimpses of the world outside. It’s obvious that the Earth has become inhabitable, presumably due to some kind of environmental catastrophe (sound familiar?) and humanity has created these bizarre organic VR devices as a way to preserve themselves in some form, even if that means living out the rest of their lives in an imaginary world.

From reading some of the other reviews of this book, it seems like the wall-to-wall sex was a bit much for some readers, but Alt-Life is about more than just sex. Instead, the author explores the nature of humanity and what it could mean to give up on “real life” and retreat into a virtual refuge. It just happens to be a particularly horny refuge.

I especially enjoyed the art style. At first, everything is minimalist, all solid colors and simple lines, but once Josiane and René start letting loose and playing with their abilities, there are huge panels full of bright colors and meticulous detail. It’s a beautiful book. My only criticism is that the dialog is lettered in a tight cursive, which makes it difficult to read.

REALLY LIKED IT

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

Purchase at: Comixology

The Silliest Quest: Kill the Farm Boy

Kill the Farm Boy by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne

Published: July 17th 2018
Publisher: Del Rey
Genre(s): Fantasy, Humor, Satire
Format: ebook
Length: 384 pages

Kill the Farm Boy is a silly book that sends up and undermines some well-worn clichés of the fantasy genre’s hero narrative. It asks questions like “What does it mean to be the Chosen One?” and “Who deserves to be a protagonist?” and then unloads goat poop on them. This succeeds with varying results.

I read most of the book on a three-hour plane ride, and at first I did enjoy it. Somewhere in the middle, though, it started to drag a bit, and I still hadn’t finished it by the time my trip was over. Instead, I switched gears and finished Meddling Kids, which I read at a snail’s pace over the last few months.

I think part of the reason that I lost momentum was that the book started feeling a bit muddled, as though the story underlying the jokes and satire wasn’t as robust as it needed to be. Also, I was no longer trapped inside a metal tube hurtling through the sky, so I had more things to distract me.

The main twist to Kill the Farm Boy is that the protagonist isn’t who you think it’s going to be after the first chapter. When the book opens, we meet an unremarkable farm boy named Worstley anointed as Chosen One by a sketchy-seeming fairy who also gives Worstley’s goat the power of speech. Worstley and Gustave, the goat, set off on a quest to do something or other involving destiny and then the story takes a decisive left turn that I won’t spoil here.

As the adventure continues, the cast of characters grows and we meet an oddball assortment of misfits and outcasts. Each one gets some time in the spotlight, but it’s sometimes hard to tell which character is driving the story, and I quickly forgot the aim of their quest after putting the book down for a few days.

The general silly tone also means that the stakes feel non-existent, even when characters suddenly and unexpectedly die. Every death plays as comedy. Also, there are several moments where it feels like the authors are summarizing something tedious to save time and jump ahead even though the book still feels like an overlong joke.

I definitely laughed or chuckled several times while reading this book, so it was an enjoyable read. I just wish there was something more interesting underneath all the silliness. Not every comic fantasy author can be Terry Pratchett, though they might try.

LIKED IT

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

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Infinitely French: Infinity 8, Volume 1

Infinity 8, Volume 1: Love and Mummies

Written by: Lewis Trondheim (Zep)
Illustrations by: Dominique Bertail

Published: July 10, 2018
Publisher: Lion Forge Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Science Fiction
Format: Digital
Length: 105 pages

If I didn’t already know that Infinity 8 is a French comic, reading it would make that crystal clear. It has a French feel about it, from the art reminiscent of Moebius, to the laconic dialogue scenes, to (most tellingly) the glimpse of casual nudity and the protagonist who wears a skin-tight spacesuit straight out of 1950s pinup illustrations.

It isn’t a very complex book, but I did enjoy it well enough. The main character, Yoko Keren, is an agent tasked with saving everyone on her ship from certain catastrophe. The captain of her ship is a massive alien who can roll back time eight hours to give them another chance to survive, but it needs her help to know what to expect. This means that Keren can fail up to a certain point, but she has to prevent the ship and captain from being destroyed before they can roll back time.

When Keren goes outside the ship to investigate an anomaly, she discovers a debris field full of dead bodies – a veritable floating space necropolis. Shortly thereafter, she is followed outside by a species of aliens who can’t resist eating the dead, and hijinks ensue. This mostly involves dead things exploding in chunks of gore and aliens chasing her because they want to kill and eat her. She handles all of this with aplomb and never seems particularly ruffled, even when coated with blood and gore or fending off the attentions of an amorous alien.

For some reason Keren is also obsessed with having a baby, constantly scanning everyone around her for their genetic suitability. Mostly this involves scanning aliens and telling them that they wouldn’t work. It’s a very odd detail to include.

I think mostly I enjoyed the art style and the deadpan conversations Keren has with the aliens she meets in space in the middle of a field of corpses. It’s all so very macabre and charming.

The series does continue after this volume, but it feels like it could wrap up here. This volume reads like a fairly self-contained story, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To be honest, I’m not sure if I would be interested in reading the rest of the series.

LIKED IT

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

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Desert Island Reads

The ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood has a miniature bookstore in their lobby curated by One Grand Books. They ask actors, artists, writers and other creatives to pick their ten “desert island reads” and explain their choices.

Browsing through these selections is a great way to kill time while you wait for your movie to start. Some of the lists are better than others, though. It’s clear that some curators chose books designed to impress, where others actually selected books they loved and wanted to share.

Of course, that isn’t really surprising. Picking your all-time top-ten favorites has always been catnip for pretentious pop-culture know-it-alls, especially when they can share them in mixed company. Knowing that everyone will see that you picked Infinite Jest is irresistible to a certain kind of person.

Even still, it sounded like a fun challenge, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I tried to approach it as though these might be the only books I could read for years, or possibly the rest of my life. Hopefully I avoided picking anything too pretentious.

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. I think I could be happy with nothing but Discworld books on my imaginary desert island, but if I could pick only one from the series, it would be this book about Sam Vimes and the Night Watch. Pratchett was one of the most humane, hilarious and incisive authors I’ve ever read, and Night Watch is one of his masterpieces.
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. This is another case where I’d probably be happy with nothing but an entire series of books. Barring that, I’d settle for this, the first Culture novel, which sets the tone for the series and kicks things off with a widescreen action-adventure that still has something to say about the universe and the people in it.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Mitchell is a genre chameleon of the highest order, and this, his most well-known book, is ambitious and showy in all the right ways. He completely switches styles for the half-dozen nesting stories that form this stunning novel, but that doesn’t detract from the amazing storytelling and characters throughout.
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. Epic, exciting and hilarious, this book jumps back and forth in time from World War II to the present-day. It explores the thesis that nerds and hackers have been around for a very long time, and that they’ve always changed the world, sometimes in very strange and unexpected ways.
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. This is a great, very weird, very funny book, overstuffed with fantastic characters, killer ninjas, a surrealist apocalypse, and a mind-bending twist. Harkaway reads a bit like Douglas Adams’s comic sensibilities crossed with William Gibson’s future-shock.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I read this series so many times when I was a kid. It’s a foundational work for me, and nobody does that particular brand of madcap satire nearly as well. I’m well past overdue for a re-read.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman. This rambling shaggy-dog story about an ex-con who gets mixed up in the world of forgotten gods was one of the first Gaiman books I read, and it still stands up after all that time. I love spending time in this world with these characters.
Middlemarch by George Eliot. I loved this sprawling story about small-town British life. I read it after watching the first season of Downton Abbey because I was looking for something that scratched that same itch. It probably helped that I listened to an amazing audiobook version, but I definitely fell in love with the characters.
The Dead Zone by Stephen King. Stephen King is one of my favorite authors, and this is the book that I always recommend to people who’ve never read his stuff. At heart, it’s a thriller with a vein of dark fantasy running through it. Although the horror elements are there, they’re fairly low-key, so it’s a good entry point for the squeamish. Really, though, it’s actually a character study about a good man put in an impossible situation (a theme common to King’s works).
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. When I finished this book, I sat there stunned for a solid few minutes. Bester builds a mind-bending sci-fi adventure on top of the loose outlines of The Count of Monte Cristo. Reading this made me sit up at attention more than once.

The Self-Made Detective: IQ by Joe Ide

IQ by Joe Ide

Published: October 18, 2016
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Mystery
Format: Audiobook
Length: 9 hours and 8 minutes

Joe Ide’s debut novel, IQ, won’t revolutionize the detective genre, but it does tell an entertaining story about well-drawn and complex characters. It wasn’t the most exciting crime novel I’ve ever read, but I’d be happy to follow the future exploits of Isaiah Quintabe wherever they lead.

Isaiah – IQ for short – is a smart, talented guy whose life changed tragically when a hit-and-run driver killed his brother, Marcus, right in front of his eyes. Before his brother’s death, Isaiah might have gone on to college and great things, but that all fell apart in an instant.

After the accident, Isaiah withdrew into himself, living alone in the apartment he’d once shared with his brother and hoping that social services wouldn’t come for him. When his money ran out and it reached the point that he might lose the apartment, he offered a room for rent to a kid named Dodson in a moment of desperation. Their uneasy friendship would soon have wide-reaching affects on both of their lives.

IQ jumps back and forth between 2005, when Isaiah and Dodson take up a life of crime that escalates with deadly results, and 2013, when Dodson brings Isaiah a case to solve the attempted murder of a dissolute rapper by a hitman with an enormous pit bull.

The best parts of IQ are the characters and the world they live in. Isaiah and Dodson are friends first by necessity, but as they try to solve a case together as adults, it becomes clear that their friendship runs deeper than their youthful robbery spree.

The actual case feels a bit low-stakes because the potential victim is an asshole burnout rapper doing his best to alienate everyone he knows. It’s hard to have much sympathy for a millionaire too doped out of his mind to think straight. That said, the villain is definitely creepy, and the unique detail of having him breed and train pit bulls is off-kilter in a particularly LA way.

Isaiah is a bit of a DIY detective, almost entirely self-taught after he dropped out of high school. When he solves a mystery, it doesn’t feel like another example of the Smartest Guy in the Room throwing his weight around. Instead, he uses inductive reasoning and makes his best guesses at likely outcomes, not always with perfect results.

IQ is a quick, entertaining read, and the audiobook has an excellent narrator. I enjoyed the book, and I’ll probably pick up the sequel, but it isn’t at the top of my list.

REALLY LIKED IT

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

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Insert Gritty Reboot: Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: The Big Lie

Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: The Big Lie

Written by: Anthony Del Col
Art by: Werther Dell’Edera
Published: November 28th 2017
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Genre(s): Crime, Graphic Novel
Format: Digital
Length: 162 pages

Maybe Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: The Big Lie would have resonated for me a bit more if I’d ever read Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. Instead, I’ve only ever seen their cover illustrations and imagined the sort of squeaky-clean peril they might get themselves into. I think, though, that I still wouldn’t have gotten much from this too-serious gritty reimagining of the classic teen mysteries.

The introduction to The Big Lie admits that it takes inspiration from the revelatory Afterlife With Archie, a series that thrillingly juxtaposes familiar Archie characters with zombie horror to great effect. The problem is that The Big Lie only suffers by comparison.

Where Archie subverts familiar characters and tropes without losing the essence of the originals, The Big Lie tells a dour modern-day noir that slaps Hardy and Drew names on bland, interchangeable characters. It isn’t subversive because there isn’t enough substance there to subvert.

Instead, it confuses a grim, serious tone with maturity, suffers from some serious holes in logic, and hangs it all on a boilerplate storyline about corrupt cops, drug dealers, and unexpected murderers. I didn’t care about or relate to any of the characters, and I also didn’t much like the art.

If I was going to write a modern noir update of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy mysteries, I think I would ground it in story where they’re all still crime-solving kids, but the mystery has higher stakes. You could still flash-forward and show them as adults, but the core has to be about something that happened when they were kids.

Although I do like the idea of rebooting classic stories from a fresh new angle, I can’t recommend The Big Lie. It misses the mark in so many ways and delivers something both bland and uninteresting.

DISLIKED IT

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

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