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.

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

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

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That Which Unravels: The Readymade Thief

The Readymade Thief by Augustus RoseThe Readymade Thief by Augustus Rose

Published: August 1st, 2017
Publisher: Viking
Genre(s): Adventure, Thriller, Mystery
Format: Hardcover
Length: 384 pages

I originally picked up The Readymade Thief by Augustus Rose because the cover caught my eye, but the summary and a few blurbs from some of my favorite authors finished the sale. I started reading it soon after I bought it, and loved the first half so much that I enthusiastically recommended it to several people. Unfortunately, the latter half of the book feels messy, and the ending is a bit unsatisfying. I would still recommend it, but not without a few caveats.

The main character, Lee, is an intelligent and resourceful girl who finds herself backed into a life on the run after a series of mistakes and personal betrayals. Lee is the main reason the book works as well as it does for as long as it does; she’s a sympathetic and compelling character trying to find her way in the world under impossible circumstances. It also helps that I love stories about secret societies and histories that exist just out of view, and a character forced into the margins of society is the perfect person to explore that kind of world.

Like most high schoolers, Lee dreams of going to college, but she builds her funds by shoplifting and selling her classmates the goods. When the school finds her best friend’s drugs in Lee’s locker, she takes the fall and ends up in juvie. After a few excruciating months of bullying and stress, Lee escapes, and that’s when things get interesting.

Now homeless and friendless, Lee falls on the mercy of a strange organization called the Société Anonomie. They’re mostly known for throwing wild parties and dressing up in antiquated clothing, but they also run a house for homeless runaways where Lee winds up when she needs somewhere to sleep. It isn’t long before she discovers something more sinister going on at the SA house. In her haste to escape, she steals an object precious to the SA, and spends the rest of the book trying to decide what to do next. Should she run, fight, or give back what she stole in the hope that they’ll leave her alone?

There are a lot of things I loved about The Readymade Thief, which is why I’m sad that it doesn’t stick the landing. My favorite parts are when Lee is living in the houses of people on vacation, going on night-time excursions to abandoned places with her new friend Tomi and trying to figure out why the SA wants a stolen Duchamp readymade. Trying to solve a mystery is almost always the most engaging part.

I started having problems with the book when it became obvious that Lee could probably give back the Duchamp and the SA would leave her alone, but the story kept manufacturing reasons for her to stay invested. The real problem is that Lee doesn’t have a driving, personal reason to stop the SA. All she wants is for everyone to leave her alone so that she can live her life. She’s an interesting character, but she isn’t a crusading hero-type. The best she can manage is a quest for vengeance, but her plans all fall apart because she keeps doing stupid things without thinking.

The hoariest cliché arrives during the climax, when Lee finally confronts the villain. He monologues for pages, helpfully connecting the dots and explaining his organization’s true motivations. That device rarely works without feeling heavy-handed, and here it just misses the mark.

The best parts of The Readymade Thief help make up for its flaws, but the one downside of a shaky ending is that it’s the last thing you remember about a book. That’s probably why my criticisms are still so fresh in my mind. Even so, The Readymade Thief is worth a read, and I’ll definitely keep an eye out for future books by Augustus Rose.

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My Favorite Reads of 2017

I read a lot of books in 2017, but most of them were graphic novels.

That does feel a bit like cheating, but I made up for it by reading them in high volumes and by tackling a few massive books over the course of the year.

My totals for 2017 were as follows:

111 total books

97 by male authors
14 by female authors

30 audiobooks
64 graphic novels

9 physical
102 digital

The Aeronaut's Windlass The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim ButcherAudiobook, 21 hrs and 46 mins, 2015 — I’m a fan of Butcher’s Dresden Files series, which is especially good in audio form, but I’ve been a little hesitant to try his other books because epic fantasy isn’t my bag. The Aeronaut’s Windlass might have convinced me to give the rest of his stuff a try, though. It definitely has an epic length, but it also has steampunk trappings and talking warrior cats. It helps that it doesn’t fall prey to the clichés of epic fantasy that I remember turning me off when I read The Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth back in the day. The early chapters were a little slow going, but after I dug deeper into the world, it had me hooked. It also helps that it reads like a standalone even though it’s the start of a series.
All Systems Red All Systems Red by Martha WellsDigital, 156 pages, 2017 — This novella has easily one of the best and most compelling narrators I’ve come across in a long time. Murderbot, as they secretly call themself, is a corporate security android who hacked their own governor module so that they could watch endless soap operas and ignore stupid orders from humans. All they want is for the humans to leave them alone, but when danger arises, they decide to help despite their scorn for humanity and general social anxiety. Hijinks ensue, and the humans learn the shocking truth that their security robot is a thinking and feeling being.
American Gods American Gods (Tenth Anniversary Edition) by Neil GaimanAudiobook, 19 hrs and 39 mins, 2011 — I first read American Gods back in 2001 in hardcover. I loved it then, and I’d thought about re-reading it over the years, but it wasn’t until I watched the Starz adaptation that I finally decided to take the plunge. The show is fantastic, but it made me realize that I’d forgotten everything that happened in the book aside from one or two scenes. The show is a pretty faithful adaptation – surreal and rambling and sometimes plotless, just like the book – but it only covers about a fourth of the story. The best parts of the book are still to come on the show, and I loved listening to those parts of the audiobook. I’ve been a little disappointed by the last few Gaiman books I’ve read, but American Gods has only gotten better with age, and the excellent audiobook adaptation elevates it into a masterpiece.
Brother of the More Famous Jack Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara TrapidoDigital, 256 pages, 2014 (first published 1982) — A young British girl comes of age, surrounded by the cleverest family of sarcastic hooligans and ne’er-do-wells ever put to page. They bring her into their orbit for a time when she is young, but after an inevitable heartbreak, she leaves and takes her lumps from the world. A funny, touching slice-of-life that still resonates. I don’t remember where I first heard about this book, but something drew me to it, and I’m glad I read it. Trapido has a flair for characterization and can definitely turn a phrase.
Countdown City Countdown City by Ben H. WintersAudiobook, 8 hrs and 18 mins, 2013 — I loved The Last Policeman and can’t recommend it enough, but for some reason it took me years to get around to reading the second book in the trilogy. In this sequel, Hank Palace is still stubbornly upright in the face of the continuing degeneration of the pre-apocalyptic world and still trying to solve crimes despite the consternation of everyone around him. I couldn’t help but root for him to make right some small part of his doomed universe. An end-times noir that is both tragically funny and absurdly sad.
Extreme Makeover Extreme Makeover by Dan WellsPaperback, 416 pages, 2016 — I’ve listened to the Writing Excuses podcast on and off for years, but this is the first Dan Wells book I’ve picked up and read, and holy shit is it a doozy. Let’s suppose that a cosmetics company accidentally invented an anti-aging crème that has the unintended side effect of overwriting your DNA with the DNA of the last person who touched the crème. Then let’s suppose that the executives at this company decide that DNA-rewriting crème could make them filthy rich, and imagine the worst possible things that could happen as a result of their greed. And then keep reading, because Wells runs through every possible horrible outcome, one after another, with a kind of insane glee. The result is both darkly hilarious and terrifying.
The Flintstones, Vol 1 The Flintstones, Vol 1 by Mark Russell and Steve PughDigital, 170 pages, 2017 — Someone had the genius idea to write a Flintstones comic that takes the characters seriously within the framework of a dark-but-funny social satire, and it works better than it has any right to do. Fred suffers from PTSD after his war service, household objects have existential crises, and consumerism is a newly invented scourge. The art is also fantastic, and it’s amazing seeing the characters drawn in a more realistic style.
The Goldfinch The Goldfinch by Donna TarttAudiobook/Digital, 32 hrs and 29 mins, 2013 — What if Harry Potter was an accidental art thief who never recovered from the trauma of his mother’s death? The protagonist of The Goldfinch goes to live with his shit-head father in the wastelands of suburban Las Vegas and finds himself lost among scam artists and gangsters. The lingering effects of drug use and dissipation from that time haunt him well into his adult years, along with the guilt and paranoia from stealing a priceless artwork. The Goldfinch is a sprawling, tragic, hilarious coming-of-age tale that ends with a white-knuckle heist. I loved the characters, and I loved every minute I spent with them. Although I mostly listened to this one in audio, I did jump back and forth between the Kindle and audio versions so that I could keep reading even when I didn’t have the time to listen. This combination of audiobook and e-book is definitely the best way to read a massive book.
It IT by Stephen KingAudiobook, 44 hrs and 57 mins, 2016 (first published 1986) — IT is another book I decided to read after watching an excellent adaptation. In this case, it was the 2017 movie version, which covers about half of the story, give or take. King is one of those authors that I read voraciously back in high school, but I haven’t kept up with the habit in recent years. IT was worth reading, though. The book has an imposing length, but every page adds up to an indisputable masterpiece. King is writing at the top of his form here, and it’s obvious he knows it. One of the most skillful scenes occurs early in the book, and involves a shift in perspective from one character to another when the power balance changes. I listened to the audiobook version, read by Steven Weber, and it was a pitch-perfect reading. Those 45 hours sped by in a flash, although I did read the last few chapters on Kindle because I was so caught up in it.
The Magician's Land The Magician’s Land by Lev GrossmanAudiobook, 16 hrs and 27 mins, 2014 — The Magicians was a great but flawed book; The Magician King built on that foundation to create something stunning, and this, the last book in the trilogy, brings it all home in excellent form. Quentin does what he can to learn and grow, even if everything he does still doesn’t work out. The Magician’s Land is about coming to terms with adulthood and reality, even if that reality still offers the ability to cast world-changing spells. I loved spending time with these characters and in this world, and the only reason I took so long to read this book is because I wanted to savor it.
The Portable Veblen The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenziePaperback, 448 pages, 2016 — I will be the first to admit that I picked up this book because it has a squirrel on the cover. That drew me in, but the synopsis sold me. Veblen and Paul are a young engaged couple. Veblen spends her free time as an amateur translator of Norwegian texts and Paul is an engineer working on a medical hole-punch for combat-ready craniotomies. They might be in love, but they’ll have to deal with Veblen’s neurotic mother, Paul’s ethically challenging work and Veblen’s obsession with a squirrel that she thinks she is falling in love with. It’s light, it’s funny, and it’s just a little weird.
Spoonbenders Spoonbenders by Daryl GregoryAudiobook, 14 hrs and 2 mins, 2017 — A multi-generational story about the family of a con artist, Teddy, and a psychic, Maureen, who fell in love. When they were young, The Amazing Telemachus Family travelled the talk show circuit to show off their amazing feats, but after a skeptic debunked them on live TV and Maureen died of cancer, the family never recovered. Imagine a family dramedy crossed with con artists and supernatural abilities, and you’ll get the basic idea of this hilarious, wonderful book. As soon as I finished reading it, I wanted a sequel and a TV adaptation. I loved the hell out of the book, which surprised me since I thought Harrison Squared, one of his earlier novels, was a bit disappointing.
Sword of Destiny Sword of Destiny by Andrzej SapkowskiAudiobook, 12 hrs and 47 mins, 2015 — I’ve played bits and pieces of The Witcher games, but I’ve never finished one. Even still, I played just enough for the world and the characters to intrigue me, so I decided to pick up some of the original books that inspired the games. The series starts off with two short story collections before getting into the meat of the “saga” that inspired the games. The first collection, The Last Wish, consists mostly of fairytale retellings, but this, the second collection, is where the world of The Witcher starts getting deeper and more interesting. Characters that will become significant later are first introduced here, and we begin to understand more about what drives Geralt. I definitely enjoyed reading this collection, and the audiobook version is especially good. It’s narrated by Peter Kenny, who also reads most of the Iain M. Banks Culture novels.
Version Control Version Control by Dexter PalmerAudiobook, 18 hrs and 52 mins, 2016 — This one was a slow burn, but that was also true about The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Palmer’s début. At first, Version Control feels like a near-future family drama about grief and marital intimacy, but as you keep reading, you start getting hints about something far deeper and stranger going on. This book does take a bit of patience, but that patience is more than rewarded by the end. It helps that the characters are sharply drawn, and they live in a chilling, believable semi-dystopia with just an edge of satirical social commentary.
The Vision, Vol 2 The Vision, Volume 2: Little Better than a Beast by Tom KingDigital, 136 pages, 2016 — Holy shit, The Vision is so good. Amid all the endless reboots and event series (which I have done my best to ignore), Marvel has still managed to produce some groundbreaking comics over the past few years. Volume 1 was on my list for 2016, and Volume 2 more than delivers on that promise. The entire series is a perfect stand-alone story arc even if you don’t know much about the greater Marvel universe. It’s also incredibly brutal, bleak and thought-provoking.
Wisp of a Thing Wisp of a Thing by Alex BledsoeAudiobook, 9 hrs and 14 mins, 2013 — I love the feel of this series about magic and the secret power of music made by country folk living in the Appalachian region. So far, every book in this series is essentially standalone, although there are recurring characters throughout. I think the best way to describe the Tufa books are as grounded fairy stories told through the lens of magical realism. It helps that Bledsoe is a talented, evocative writer, and the audiobook versions have one of the best narrators in the business thanks to Stefan Rudnicki.
The Woman Who Died a Lot The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper FfordeAudiobook, 10 hrs and 58 mins, 2012 — I’d forgotten how much I loved and missed this series until I finally listened to this, the most recent Thursday Next novel. Fforde fills these books to the brim with weirdness and satire. Most authors would stop after setting up a main character who travels inside novels to solve crimes, but he throws in lifelike humanoid doubles, genetically engineered dodos, time travel, contraband cheeses, authoritarian mega-corporations and much, much more. The sixth book, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, was a bit of an unfortunate misstep, but The Woman Who Died a Lot puts the series back on track. That said, it came out in 2012, and I’m starting to wonder if Fforde will ever return to the series. It doesn’t help that the end of this book definitely sets up a potential sequel. I may just have to re-read these books from the beginning, especially since I finally read Jane Eyre and might understand those references this time around.

The Fire Inside: Heroine Complex

Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn

Published: July 5th 2016
Publisher: DAW
Genre(s): Fantasy, Adventure, Superheroes
Format: E-Book
Length: 378 pages

I love stories about people with mundane jobs who exist in the orbit of someone extraordinary – like a personal assistant to a superhero, for example. It’s a fun mental exercise to think about what that might actually be like, what you’d have to deal with when your job function includes placating a petulant heroine when she isn’t out saving lives and stopping evil.

Evie Tanaka is in that exact position when Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn begins. She’s the mousy, reserved personal assistant to Aveda Jupiter, San Francisco’s Favorite Superhero – previously known as Evie’s childhood friend, Annie.

Evie has no social life outside of work and tries to keep her feelings on clampdown because of a tragedy in her past. It doesn’t help that her mom died a few years back and her father subsequently disappeared on walkabout, so Evie is also responsible for taking care of her bratty teenage sister, Bea.

Evie is just barely holding her life together until Aveda is injured and needs someone to take her place in public appearances. See, Aveda’s superhero powers come from a failed demon invasion that turned into an ongoing demon problem, and she isn’t the only person who was granted powers. Their friend Scott can perform little magic spells, including a glamour that will let Evie impersonate Aveda.

As soon as Evie goes out in public as Aveda, things go off the rails. Demons attack, and Evie is forced to use her own powers – flames that come out of her hands when she is upset or angry. She’d tried to keep them inside like her emotions because she was afraid of what she might do, but as soon as she lets them out, she finds it much harder to keep anything inside.

Heroine Complex is ultimately a story about a closed-off, repressed young woman learning to trust her own emotions and believe in herself. It’s also funny, full of well-drawn characters, and genuinely entertaining.

When I first picked it up and started reading, I assumed that it was a young adult novel, partially because of the cover, but also because of the writing style, which made the characters seem young. However, as I kept reading, it became obvious that the characters were all in their late twenties. Then there was the first of several fairly hot sex scenes, which made me realize that I’d been reading an urban fantasy all along.

This genre confusion didn’t negatively impact my enjoyment of the book, but it did make me wonder why I immediately assumed it was a young adult novel. I really like the cover design, but maybe the cartoony style made me jump to conclusions.

In any case, I’d definitely recommend Heroine Complex. It’s the first book in a trilogy, each of which focuses on a different girl in the group – Evie, then Aveda, and then finally Bea. I’ll probably pick up the next two sometime soon.

REALLY LIKED IT

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

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From Dead to Worse: Tortured Life

Tortured Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DISLIKED IT

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

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Neither is True: Grand Passion by James Robinson

Grand Passion by James Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DISLIKED IT

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

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It’s Not Worth It: Snotgirl, Volume One

Snotgirl Vol. 1: Green Hair Don’t Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DISLIKED IT

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Good Behavior: Good, Not Best

Good Behavior by Blake Crouch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LIKED IT

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

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Lincoln in the Bardo: A Tumult of Hauntings

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REALLY LIKED IT

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