My Month in Reading, October 2019

My October reading was bookended with a few really great horror stories, which is as it should be. I also read the newest standalone novel by Kate Atkinson and finally finished a disappointing sci-fi novel by Amber Royer.


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The Empty Ones by Robert Brockway

The horrifying imagery in the Vicious Circuit trilogy by Robert Brockway is second-to-none. He has a way with surrealist gonzo skull-fuckery that I love without reservation.

It helps that these books are hilarious and populated with lovable assholes. I also always enjoy stories about hidden worlds that exist under the surface of the real world. Case in point – the main villain in the books so far is a hollowed-out monstrous version of Mario Lopez who no longer understands humanity.

I also loved the first book when I read it a few years go, and this volume keeps up the stream of obscenity and gruesomeness to excellent effect.

LOVED IT


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Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life is one of my all-time favorite books, and the audiobook read by Fenella Woolgar (possibly the most British name ever) is a big part of why I loved it. Transcription reunites narrator and author, and although I didn’t love this book as much, it’s still a damn good read.

Atkinson has a talent for the sort of imagery that surprises you with its incongruous perfection, and Woolgar’s delivery of Juliet’s world-weary witticisms is bar none. I just didn’t think the story resonated as much as Ursula’s adventures throughout her many, varied lives.

I’m also not sure how I felt about the end of the book. To a certain degree, it’s a spy novel, with the requisite misdirection and twists, but I felt like the ending didn’t have the punch that it should have once Atkinson laid all her cards on the table.

Still, she is an author I will follow wherever she wants to go. I’ve still got the rest of the Jackson Brodie mysteries to read, as well as her early novels.

REALLY LIKED IT


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You Have Arrived at Your Destination by Amor Towles

I’m not sure what to think of the Forward Collection so far. This is the second story I’ve read from the collection, and although it was perfectly cast with David Harbour as the audiobook narrator, there wasn’t a whole lot to the story.

The narrator goes to an advanced fertility clinic that provides extrapolated dramatized versions of his potential child’s future life (warts and all), but it doesn’t go well, as you might have guessed.

The most interesting thing about this story is the idea of extrapolated futures based on genetics, but it doesn’t come to any conclusions about this development more complex than “that would be bad”, which is a song as old as science fiction.

LIKED IT


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Self/Made Volume 1 by Mat Groom

As an IT professional with coding experience, reading this book felt like what doctors must deal with any time they watch a medical show on TV – a catalog of teeth-grinding inaccuracies clearly only added for the sake of drama.

If you can accept the basic premise that a game developer could accidentally create a self-aware, artificially intelligent NPC and then find a way to bring the NPC out of the game and into a robotic body, you’ll probably find a lot to like about this book, especially the art.

I was too distracted by the fact that the developer carries around the code for the NPC in some kind of glowing orb that projects a hologram of the character’s face. The orb (precious, breakable) is the only copy of that character (no backups or code check-ins, I guess) so when the villainous CEO of the game company breaks the orb in a fit of rage, the developer is in danger of losing all her work.

I liked the idea of this book more than the execution.

DISLIKED IT


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The Institute by Stephen King

This was a solid adventure story that moved along at a brisk pace. I was expecting something a bit more horror-tinged when I started reading it, but instead this was mostly a fantasy about terrible things happening to telepathic and telekinetic kids. This was also the closest King has come to a young adult novel since maybe Eyes of the Dragon, although it was fairly profane, so maybe that would disqualify it in some circles. King sticks the landing here, and I enjoyed it a lot.

REALLY LIKED IT


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Screwball by Simon Rich

This is a fun little short piece narrated by Beck Bennett playing Babe Ruth as an talented idiot, presumably based on real history. In this telling, Ruth is an oblivious nice guy who just so happens to be good at baseball. When he runs afoul of another player who is completely useless as well as being the owner’s son, he blithely accepts everything the man says and does his best to be a good friend. A lot of the humor here relies on the disconnect between what Ruth perceives about the world around him versus what we know is going on via context clues.

REALLY LIKED IT


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Free Chocolate by Amber Royer

I struggled with this book. I wanted to like it more than I did because the premise sounded clever and funny, but the execution just got on my nerves. Bo Benitez is a culinary student who gets caught up in international intrigue when she steals cacao beans – a tightly controlled commodity because chocolate is highly coveted by aliens. Bo’s alien boyfriend talks her into stealing the cacao, and somehow she manages to stumble her way through a heist with little to no preparation or planning.

After she barely escapes the cacao facility with her life, she stumbles from one catastrophe to the next. The cover sells the book as a “space opera crossed with a soap opera,” and the pacing definitely reflects that. Bo ends up in one terrible situation after another, oftentimes while pining after one of several potential romantic prospects.

The author includes Spanish phrases through, presumably to give the book a multicultural feel, and it mostly works, although it was a bit much at times. A far more annoying trope is Bo calling out her “prey instinct” every time she runs into a dangerous alien.

I spent two and a half months reading this book in fits and starts, and only finished it because I brought it with me on a flight to Minnesota.

DISLIKED IT


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NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

This was the horror novel I wanted for October. It was creepy, disturbing, and hair-raisingly suspenseful.

It features a villain who is disturbing because he truly believes he is helping children by sucking all the life out of them and turning them into vampires, and a henchman who does the dirty, horrifying work of torturing and murdering the people who get in their way.

I loved the characters and the setting, and I loved the idea of people who can navigate their own personal worlds with help from a talisman. I’d heard mixed things about the TV adaptation, but I enjoyed this book so much that I think I’ll give it a chance.

LOVED IT

My Month in Reading, September 2019

In September, I read three more InCryptid books by Seanan McGuire, and finished out the series so far. Other than that, I read a few graphic novels and listened to a short sci-fi novella.


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Cannon by Wallace Wood

This book is definitely a relic of its time. Wood liked to write sexy action comics for servicemen, so these stories originated in comics sent to soldiers. Wood had a great art style, all bullet-headed agents and voluptuous, leggy women. He had a talent for drawing both action scenes and cheesecake pinups, and he was also especially good and looks of existential horror, which pop up once or twice in this volume.

One of the tropes of this series is that all the women are beautiful and none of them keep on their clothes. A handful of the female characters (heroes and villains both) are seemingly always nude or only occasionally dressed in see-through clothing. When given the opportunity to disrobe, they do, and if they need to escape a villain’s clutches in the altogether, they make the best of it.

This would all be a bunch of absurd, sexploitational fun if not for the threats of rape and casual misogyny that crop up throughout. I liked the art and adventure enough that the occasional sour note didn’t ruin the book for me, but my rating definitely comes with a big asterisk.

LIKED IT


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Magic for Nothing by Seanan McGuire

I think one of the biggest strengths of the InCryptid series is its ability to support switching viewpoint characters from volume to volume. These books exist in a shared world, but every Price sibling has a different perspective on life and a unique tone that comes along with it.

The whole series is funny, but the humor in each book comes at you from different angles. This book is the first of three focusing on Antimony Price, the youngest Price sibling, tasked with an important undercover mission after the world-changing events of the last book. She also ends up joining the circus.

One nice thing about Antimony’s story is that she gets a bit of new romance, which was missing from the last few books because Alex and Verity have more established relationships. It’s a fun time to mix romance and danger with death-defying feats in a carnival tent. I’ve already purchased the rest of the series so far, so it won’t be long before I’ve finished reading the remaining books.

REALLY LIKED IT


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Imaginary Fiends by Tim Seeley, Stephen Molnar and Quinton Winter

In the world of this book, imaginary friends are real but are also trans-dimensional vampires that feed on fear, among other emotions. The main character, Melba Li, is a young woman committed to an insane asylum as a teenager after stabbing her best friend a dozen times because Polly Peachpit, her imaginary friend, told her to do it. The FBI recruits the now adult Melba to help solve a case that may involve another imaginary friend.

The art in this book is pretty great, and the story goes to some bizarre, oftentimes dark, places. I like the idea of someone who can only solve crimes with the help of a manipulative invisible monster. It’s an absurd trope, but it’s fun to see it play out in this scenario.

Unfortunately, I think this book was a casualty of DC shuttering Vertigo, and it seems unlikely the story will continue. At least the book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, and this story arc can easily stand alone even if there is plenty of potential for more in this world.

REALLY LIKED IT


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Giselle and Beatrice by Benoît Feroumont

This is an odd book. The art is exaggerated and cartoonish, but the subject matter is fairly explicit. It’s about a woman named Beatrice, mistreated by her sexist cad of a boss, George, until she gets revenge with magic that turns him into a woman named Giselle. Oh, and Beatrice has a penis because she was partially transformed by the man who gave her the gender-swapping magic.

After George becomes Giselle, Beatrice forces herself on her and then makes Giselle clean her apartment as her live-in maid. Complicating things for Giselle is the fact that she has a thick accent and speaks in broken English, so she has a hard time explaining her predicament to anyone. As time passes, their relationship changes in unexpected ways.

I liked the art, and the story kind of reminds me of Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, but this is also a book about two reprehensible people. George was a scumbag, but Beatrice isn’t particularly likable once she gets her revenge, and Giselle soon becomes sympathetic.

LIKED IT


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Tricks For Free by Seanan McGuire

Antimony is on the run from the covenant as well as hiding from her family, so she goes to ground and goes undercover as an employee at LowryLand, a Disney-like theme park with equally soul-destroying working conditions.

It wouldn’t be an InCryptid novel if she wasn’t surrounded by cryptids and the supernatural. Her dead aunt Mary hangs around to make sure she’s safe, and her roommates are a sylph and a gorgon. She doesn’t have her mice or her boyfriend Sam, but plenty of weird stuff keeps happening around her no matter what she does and how much she tries to hide.

When Antimony runs afoul of magic users in the park, she jumps at the chance when one of them offers to teach her how to control her magic. Everything seems great until strange, unexplained accidents start happening around the park and Antimony decides to investigate even though it might blow her cover.

This was yet another highly enjoyable entry in the InCryptid series. I did get a little frustrated late in the book when it felt like the characters were constantly rushing into danger without much of a plan, but it wasn’t enough to kill my momentum. The ending sets up further complications that will surely pay off with dividends in the third Antimony book, That Ain’t Witchcraft.

REALLY LIKED IT


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That Ain’t Witchcraft by Seanan McGuire

And now, after six InCryptid books in a row, I come to the end of the series so far. Book nine comes out in February of next year, and you can be sure that I’ll buy it day one. I enjoyed immersing myself in this world for the last two months.

I especially liked how Antimony’s books served as a trilogy within the larger series, building a story arc that resolved with a confrontation against the most significant and dangerous supernatural villain in the series so far, while also tying up one thread of the Price family’s fight against the Covenant, now personified in Leonard Cunningham.

My favorite part of this book comes during a climactic moment that I won’t spoil here, but let’s just say that it was the only moment in the series so far that made me get a little misty-eyed.

LOVED IT


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The Last Conversation by Paul Tremblay

I’ve seen a lot of rave reviews of Tremblay’s work, but this is the first of his stories that I’ve read, and although it was decent enough, it probably wasn’t the best introduction.

In it, an amnesiac wakes up in a strange facility and an unseen woman puts him through his paces. She prompts him to remember his past via mental and physical exercises. The tone is detached and a little unsettling, and I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn that there is more going on than the main character first realizes.

This novella is part of a collection of thematically related short stories made available on Audible and Kindle for Prime and Kindle Unlimited users. It’s a fancy short story collection that you can download and read in any order. Even if this story wasn’t my bag, I plan on checking out the rest of the series.

LIKED IT

My Month in Reading, August 2019

Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid series dominated my audiobook listening in the month of August. Every time I finished one book in the series, I bought the next! I also read more Karen Russell, a few comics, and a disappointing young adult novel about witchy babysitters.


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Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell

Although I didn’t love every single story in this collection, enough of them knocked it out of the park that I loved it as a whole. I’d already read the title story when it was published in the New Yorker, but it was fantastic the first time around, so I didn’t mind listening again. It’s probably my favorite story of the bunch, but most of the stories in this collection are equally fantastic, so it’s hard to rate one over the others.

One interesting thing to note about this collection is that I could really tell how Russell’s writing style has changed since St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. The stories in her first collection were oftentimes elliptical and unresolved, whereas these newer stories generally have complete arcs. I like both types of her stories, although I do tend to prefer stories that resolve. It’s rare that I enjoy elliptical storytelling in any medium.

LOVED IT


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Half-Off Ragnarok by Seanan McGuire

I decided to listen to this on a whim. At the time, I was in the middle of several audiobooks that were good but weren’t quite catching my fancy, so I thought it might be time for a bit of good old-fashioned modern fantasy from one of the best. I read and enjoyed the first two books in this series all the way back in 2013, but never got around to reading more until now. This book was actually a great reintroduction to the series because it switches viewpoint characters to Alex Price, the older brother of Verity Price, who is the protagonist from the first two books. I blew through this book over the course of a week, and then I immediately bought book four and started listening. I may just keep plowing my way through the rest of the series.

REALLY LIKED IT


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When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll

I would buy full sized poster prints of pages from this book. Emily Carroll’s art is both minimalist and drop-dead gorgeous in eye-popping black, white and red. This slim volume is a dark fairy tale about a dangerous countess and the village woman who comes to her castle to stop her reign of terror. The story is mysterious, sensual, and ultimately elliptical, but I loved the overall effect. I need to finally get around to reading Through the Woods, which I’ve owned for a few years now.

LOVED IT


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Pocket Apocalypse by Seanan McGuire

This is the second InCryptid book featuring cryptozoologist Alex Price and his Australian girlfriend Shelby Tanner. This installment is sort of like Meet The Parents in Australia with the added danger of werewolves. When Shelby convinces Alex to come to Australia with her to help stop a local werewolf infestation, Alex learns that her family is not going to be easily sold on her American boyfriend. He also encounters a truly terrifying adversary in the pack of roving werewolves, simply because the nature of their disease means that their bites are infectious and any mammal can be infected, but the only treatment is highly toxic and very dangerous. The mystery in the previous volume was definitely engaging, but it didn’t have quite the same visceral edge as the threat of being ravaged by a werewolf and turned into a mindless killing machine. As soon as I finished this volume, I bought the next!

REALLY LIKED IT


The Babysitters Coven
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The Babysitters Coven by Kate Williams (Full Review)

This book took me forever to finish, and my enjoyment diminished more and more as I got closer to the end. Does not live up to the potential of its very cool cover design.

DISLIKED IT


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Chaos Choreography by Seanan McGuire

I’m on a roll at this point! The InCryptid books are the only thing I want to listen to during my walks, and I’m going to use up a year’s worth of Audible credits way too soon.

Chaos Choreography switches perspectives back to Verity Price, the focus of the first two books in the series. This is kind of a nice trick, because each protagonist gives the series its own flavor. You can have the shared world of cryptozoologists, but if there isn’t a story to tell about one of the Price kids, McGuire can switch to another.

This installment is particularly absurd and focuses on Verity’s time as a contestant on an all-stars version of a reality show dance competition. When eliminated contestants start getting vivisected and covered with strange runes, Verity has to try to stop the villains without losing her competitive edge. Needless to say, complications ensue.

Mere minutes after finishing this book, I bought book six. The series to date (as of this writing) totals eight published books with one more scheduled for next year. At least I still have enough credits left to catch up.

REALLY LIKED IT


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Nancy: A Comic Collection by Olivia Jaimes (Full Review)

If you’re looking for a good laugh from a strip that feels “relatable” without pandering, then you should definitely check out Olivia Jaimes’ Nancy.

REALLY LIKED IT

My Month in Reading, July 2019

After a slow June, I got back in the swing of things for July. I finished several audiobooks and a few graphic novels along with the final book in the His Dark Materials trilogy.


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The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

Bob Howard, supernatural IT guy slash reluctant field agent, is a fun character to follow. Even still, I’ve been slow to read this series, which is now nine books long. In fact, I read book three in 2011 and originally started the series way back in 2007.

I think it helps to understand that the Laundry Files began as a parody of British spy novels, and then Stross either felt restricted by that premise or grew bored with it, so slowly but surely rejiggered it into something else, eventually turning it into a reliable yearly release.

This book felt a bit transitional, possibly because of that shift. From what I remember of the earlier books, Bob was generally at the forefront of the story, driving events and saving the day. In this volume, Stross introduces a few new viewpoint characters and Bob is in a more reactive role. He’s still the one narrating events or recording them for posterity, but he’s in over his head and oftentimes sidelined during action scenes.

From reading the summaries of the later books, it sounds like Bob isn’t always the primary viewpoint character, which makes sense if Stross wanted to open up the premise a bit. I’m still enjoying the series, but I’ll probably have to read another book or two to get an idea of where he’s taking it.

REALLY LIKED IT


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The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

It’s kind of amazing how out there this trilogy gets. I wish I’d known back in the day when I first started reading it, because I might have made the effort to finish what I’d started instead of stopping after book one. These books were easily some of the best I’ve read in a good long while, and each book in the trilogy only improved on the one before it.

This one includes a harrowing trip into the afterlife for Lyra and Will and ends with some hard choices for both characters. There is an epic battle scene between humans, angels, witches and just about everything under the sun.

I’m hugely excited about the HBO adaptation, which will hopefully do it justice, even though they are condensing the books into two seasons instead of doing a book per season. Still, the bizarre visuals in the second and third books should more than make up for anything condensed for television.

LOVED IT


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The Pin-Up Art of Bill Ward

Bill Ward is a famous pin-up artist who drew the kinds of comics you might find in Playboy or its forgotten men’s magazine predecessors. The most interesting thing I learned from this collection is that he drew with a conté crayon and his originals were huge as a result.

He definitely had a knack for drawing glossy black leggings on absurdly exaggerated statuesque women. Less successful were the gag captions, which I only rarely found funny, probably because they’re from a different era but also because the jokes were clearly not the point.

This volume also makes it clear that Ward had a few go-to poses and settings, and most of his comics were variations on a handful of themes. His work probably stands up slightly better in an uncollected form, which essentially means that this collection only diminishes it.

DISLIKED IT


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Act of God by Jill Ciment

I got bored with this book halfway through and almost didn’t finish reading. Instead, I listened to The Apocalypse Codex and then decided to give this another shot since it is relatively short.

My main problem with Act of God is that it isn’t nearly as interesting as the cover or the summary implies. It’s a story about four women catastrophically affected by fast-growing mutant mushrooms that infest their homes, which makes it sound like the book is going to be weirder than it is.

You could replace the mushrooms with any natural disaster and tell about the same story. Aside from that hook, the book isn’t all that compelling.

DISLIKED IT


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Cash Boy, Volume 1 by Mio Murao

Sometimes I read comics just because they are available on ComiXology Unlimited or Hoopla or Overdrive and the bar for entry is low. I’ve read more manga in the last year or so, mostly thanks to those resources, and sometimes I’ve found some pretty decent reads. This was not one of those times.

The basic premise is that a college boy and a high school girl become step-siblings when their parents marry, but then they are soon orphaned when their parents die on the way to their honeymoon. Lucky for them, their parents left them a huge amount of money that they then spend irresponsibly, oftentimes resulting in sexy hi-jinks. Oh, and there is a bit of sexual tension between them because they were strangers and now they’re only siblings in the legal sense.

The worst part of this book was the translation, which is clunky and rife with typos, but the views on women were also questionable. First, the boy obsesses over a materialistic woman who turns him down because he doesn’t spend enough money on her. Then, he starts going to a fashion hotel, (aka love hotel aka brothel), where he becomes infatuated with a sex worker. This does not end well for him.

DISLIKED IT


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Ice Cream Man, Volume 1: Rainbow Sprinkles by W. Maxwell Prince and Martin Morazzo

This book is sort of like what you might get if the Sandman comics were about some kind of demonic entity pretending to be a friendly neighborhood ice cream man who just so happens to cause mayhem wherever he goes.

Each issue is an episodic story about something terrible or weird (or both) that happens either adjacent to or because of the Ice Cream Man’s influence. I liked the art and I generally enjoyed the book, but the stories felt slight and kind of forgettable.

The series is clearly going for a classic horror anthology vibe, but none of the horror twists had the gut punch you get from a Twilight Zone episode. Instead, they were just a series of gross or horrible happenings.

LIKED IT


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Cryptofauna by Patrick Canning (Full Review)

This was an entertaining book that was almost too silly for its own good. I enjoyed it, but found myself wishing that there was a little bit more substance behind all the absurdity. Still, I would happily pick up another book by this author.

LIKED IT


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Die, Volume 1 by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans

Gillen describes Die as goth Jumanji, which is a pretty fair summary. The art, by Stephanie Hans, is painterly and gorgeous and is by far my favorite part of the book.

Imagine, if you will, a group of friends who shared a horrifying trauma many years ago. They’ve drifted apart in the intervening years, but something draws them back together and throws them into the mix of a new and developing trauma. Needless to say, they are cranky about it.

In the first volume of Die, we meet that group of former friends, now splintered apart and living emotionally damaged existences. Once, when they were young, they played an intense and dangerous game that pulled them into another universe with real and lasting consequences, including the disappearance and presumed death of one of their number.

Many years later, they reluctantly decide to get the gang back together after the delivery of a die belonging to their lost friend. This artifact transports them back into the game that changed their lives and forces them to reckon with the many ways this alternate universe has changed and moved on since they went home and tried to resume their former lives.

This first volume is bleak and cynical and sets up the horrifying consequences of something that should have been nothing more than a game. The characters are all flawed and searching for something they lost or never had. It’s a fascinating world, and I can’t wait to read more.

LOVED IT

Relatable Urchins: Nancy by Olivia Jaimes

Sluggo is Lit

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes

Published: October 1st, 2019
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Pub
Genre(s): Comics
Format: Hardcover
Length: 144 pages

I’ve never read any of the classic Nancy comics, but her look is iconic. I feel like I could identify a Nancy comic from across the room by the shape of Nancy’s head alone. The fact that those comics were ubiquitous enough to become iconic but passé enough that I’d never read any of them is a fascinating contradiction.

Nancy is one of a handful of undead syndicated comics, kept running by a series of artists after the original artist died. It’s the sort of thing that newspapers carry by default for the sort of people who still get newspapers and read the comics section. That’s why the handoff to Olivia Jaimes was such a shock to the system; after decades of comfortable, predictable irrelevancy, Nancy was suddenly reentering the pop culture discussion and getting read and shared by young people.

One of the most interesting things about Jaimes is that she wanted to bring Nancy back to her original spirit while updating the trappings of the strip for modern times. Her predecessor had turned Nancy into a parade of cutesiness and made the strip toothless and unfunny. Jaimes’ vision of Nancy was as a stubborn little girl who is always scheming, in a strip packed full of absurd jokes that sometimes get a little meta.

The most famous Nancy image from Jaimes’ reign so far, “Sluggo is Lit“, is a meta joke about the cartoonist not wanting to do a strip and providing previews of upcoming stories, but it’s also a poke at the sort of people upset that Jaimes is updating Nancy with modern sensibilities. The only reason that anyone is talking about Nancy comics in 2019 is because Jaimes made them resonant for our times.

This collection includes strips from Jaimes’ first year of running Nancy. It has several laugh out loud moments throughout, and I find myself wanting to read more of the daily strip. There isn’t an overarching storyline to the collection. Instead, the strips are mostly just episodic hi-jinks or one-off jokes. Nancy does slowly but surely learn more about building robots in her robotics club, but that’s more about the comedic potential of Nancy building and controlling something mechanical.

If you’re looking for a good laugh from a strip that feels “relatable” without pandering, then you should definitely check out Olivia Jaimes’ Nancy.

REALLY LIKED IT

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

Amazon | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

Resting Witch Face: The Babysitters Coven by Kate Williams

The Babysitters Coven - Feature

The Babysitters CovenThe Babysitters Coven by Kate Williams

Published: September 17, 2019
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Genre(s): Fantasy, Young Adult
Format: eBook
Length: 368 pages

I wanted to like The Babysitters Coven. It has a fantastic, eye-catching cover with an illustration of a badass girl facing down some presumably nefarious multicolored clouds. I am always a sucker for a good cover design, so it breaks my heart when the book doesn’t live up to the cover.

The elevator pitch for The Babysitters Coven is The Babysitters Club meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve never read The Babysitters Club, but I feel like you don’t have to read those books to understand what they’re about. Buffy, though, is something that I obsessed over to the point of distraction a few years ago, and I’m always game for stories that play around with those tropes.

The book starts off well enough. The narrator, Esme, is a snarky misfit of a girl who meticulously plans and documents her daily outfits, curating clothes along thematic or referential lines. She runs a local babysitters club with her best friend Janis, another fashion plate. She lives with her dad and a flatulent dog named Pig, and the only real black spot on her life is the fact that her mom is almost catatonic and lives in a mental institution. The snarky narrator is a stock character in YA fiction, but Esme lands a few solid laugh lines early in the book and I highlighted one or two passages.

Esme’s life is fairly normal until the day that someone tries to kidnap one of her babysitting charges. If that wasn’t enough to freak her out, Esme starts to realize that she might be able to move things with her mind. Everything comes to a head when a mysterious girl named Cassandra asks to join the babysitters club and Esme finds out that she might not be the only one experiencing unexplained supernatural events. Further complicating matters is Cassandra’s smoking hot older brother, Dion.

I started reading this book on May 10th, 2019 and didn’t finish it until August 21st, 2019. That’s a good three months and change. In the intervening time, I finished nineteen(!) other books. For whatever reason, I liked the book enough to want to keep reading, but I never seemed to make much progress until the last week or so when I decided it was time to power through and finish it. That said, when I finally got into a rhythm reading the book, I liked it less and less.

One of the biggest problems with The Babysitters Coven is that the pacing is deadly dull. After Esme and Cassandra discover their shared supernatural experiences, they noodle around without any clear goal for more than half of the book. The discover a written guide to basic magical powers, but they don’t receive an explanation for their abilities and responsibilities until past the halfway point.

When Esme and Cassandra finally meet someone willing to give them some guidance, their new mentor mostly serves as an infodump who speaks in cheesy jargon before disappearing for the rest of the story. The magic system seems ill-defined and without any real weight or consequences, but after the characters play with magic early in the book, they neglect to use any of their more complex powers during climactic scenes.

Williams jams most of the plot and action into the last quarter of the book, where everything falls apart and then resolves itself in short order. Esme and Cassandra don’t receive much in the way of training or information before they face a more serious threat, and then everything is neatly wrapped up in only a handful of pages.

To return to the subject of the elevator pitch, The Babysitters Coven is fully aware of its pop culture precedents. The Babysitters Club and Buffy are both name-dropped in the story, among other pop culture, as if lampshading the shared tropes will make it more acceptable.

I think it’s an interesting choice when speculative fiction interacts with some version of our real world via pop culture, but it has to be skillfully done so that the author is interrogating those tropes instead of just cataloging them. I’m sad to say that The Babysitters Coven is not that skillful.

DISLIKED IT

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

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The Name of the Game: Cryptofauna by Patrick Canning

CryptofaunaCryptofauna by Patrick Canning

Published: January 23, 2019
Publisher: Patrick Canning
Genre(s): Humor, Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 9 hrs and 17 mins

Cryptofauna is an entertaining book that runs on pure momentum. The sheer volume of absurdity paired with the author’s constant digressions and convoluted wordplay keeps things humming along while the mysterious nature of the game at the center of the book keeps you hooked until the end.

Reading this felt like strapping myself to a narrative rocket with no time to stop and think about the whys and hows of it all. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think it could get a bit exhausting if the book was too much longer.

Cryptofauna is about a suicidal janitor named Jim, stopped from killing himself and recruited into the titular game by a mysterious older gentleman named Ozymandias (Oz for short) who lives in the mental institution slash retirement home where Jim works.

Oz doesn’t explain much to Jim before setting him off on a series of three tasks – his initiation as an “operator” in Cryptofauna. Jim meets a lot of colorful characters and ends up in a series of bizarre or distressing situations that always feel playfully absurd even when they are also deadly serious, and the book carries us along his journey.

Cryptofauna the game is never explained in much detail. We get the broad strokes, i.e. that it involves sets of operators battling each other over the course of their artificially extended lives to either improve or undermine the state of the world. The actual details of what that means in practice are vague, probably because it’s funnier that way. I have mixed feelings about this if only because the whole thing feels a bit hand-wavy; the silliness and humor are clearly the point, so the rules don’t matter.

Also, the book spends most of its length focused on Jim completing the seemingly random tasks that serve as his initiation. His assigned rival doesn’t play by the rules, so we don’t get to spend much time with Jim as a practicing operator. Jim’s tasks sort of make sense in a macro way while also feeling arbitrary for the sake of comedy.

There is a scene late in the book where Jim and his allies destroy a sinister boarding school, but instead of dramatizing the action, Canning summarizes it in a few non-specific sentences and explains that it was a battle for the ages. Again, this is presumably meant to be a joke, but it felt more like a placeholder.

I did enjoy this book, and I’d probably be up for reading another by Canning, but I think I would enjoy it more if it balanced humor with a slightly more grounded narrative.

LIKED IT

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

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My Month in Reading, June 2019

Girl Reading

For whatever reason, I had a bit of a slow month in June. I was still working on the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, and although I loved every minute of it, it still took me a while to read. I also listened to two fairly long audiobooks this month. The Nix clocked in at almost 22 hours, and Foundryside was nearly 20 hours. Both were excellent in different ways.


The Subtle Knife
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The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

This was not at all what I was expecting from a sequel to The Golden Compass. The end of the first book in the trilogy pulls the rug out from under the reader, revealing that Lyra’s father is just as dangerous as her mother, if only with different methods and conflicting alliances.

The second book resets the playing field when we meet Will Parry, who comes from a world much like our own and who lives in modern times, not the early part of the Twentieth Century like you might imagine from Lyra’s version of Oxford.

The Subtle Knife is deeper and weirder, and much more disturbing than the first book. Lyra and Will discover a third world that serves as a way station between their respective worlds, but it has fallen into disrepair and been overrun with invisible specters who can suck the life out of an adult in seconds.

Will has to make some hard choices, and they encounter new and more terrifying dangers. We also start to get glimpses of Lord Asriel’s grand plan, and it is unclear what to root for other than Lyra and Will living to fight another day.

The book ends on a cliffhanger that must have been maddening back when it was first published. On to the final book in the trilogy!

LOVED IT


The Nix
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The Nix by Nathan Hill

This is a sprawling coming-of-age novel about a boy abandoned by his mother, and the man he becomes when he seeks her out years later to try and write a book about her life and history. It’s also about the girl she was before she gave up and married his father.

It jumps back and forth between 2011 and Chicago in the late 1960s, when the city was on the verge of erupting into riots at the Democratic National Convention.

The Nix reminded me a bit of The Goldfinch at points, but the end result wasn’t nearly as masterfully done. I enjoyed the book, but there were several points where Hill spends long chapters on characters completely secondary to the main plot, and I found myself asking why those scenes were relevant.

The only real justification is that they cross paths with the main character, and Hill wanted to paint a bigger picture of their lives. It didn’t help that the audiobook narrator chose to narrate those chapters in the voice of the characters, which made the time spent with them even more annoying.

I also felt like the ending wrapped things up just a little bit too smoothly, especially after so much strife and struggle.

REALLY LIKED IT


Miss October 1
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Miss October #1: Playmates, 1961

This book, translated from the French, follows two parallel storylines in Los Angeles, 1961. One thread follows competing detectives as they try to catch a serial killer known for murdering beautiful women and then posing them like centerfolds. The other thread is about a young woman who went deaf after an assault and decided to take up cat burglary.

The possible connections between the two storylines are intriguing, and the premise has a built-in ticking clock as the murderer kills a new “centerfold” every month, presumably leading up to the cat burglar in October.

The art is gorgeous, perfect for the fashion and the period, and the story is compelling enough that I came close to buying the rest of the series as soon as I finished this first volume.

REALLY LIKED IT


Foundryside
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Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett (Full Review)

This book is a great combination of epic fantasy world-building structured around a series of heists with escalating stakes and a dark heart of atrocity that permeates the engine of its dystopian society. Highly recommended.

LOVED IT

More Than Wordsmiths: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside cover detail

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Published: August 21st, 2018
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre(s): Fantasy, Heist, Adventure
Format: Audiobook
Length: 19 hrs and 34 mins

Golems from Jewish folklore have always fascinated me, with their heads full of instructions written on a life-giving scroll. A golem is both the creation myth in miniature and a way to codify magic, a sort of early computer programming where the processors are clay giants. It’s strangely comforting to imagine that human beings could control the world in such a fashion, while also terrifying to imagine the many ways it could go wrong.

In Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett takes some of those basic elements and introduces a world where craftsmen use the art of scriving to write a reality-controlling language on inanimate objects and give them a form of consciousness; everything in creation is nothing more than a golem waiting for its instructions. Then, he imagines all of the ways that this power could and would go sickeningly, catastrophically, heartbreakingly wrong.

Sancia is a thief, and a damn good one, all thanks to her ability to touch any object and understand how it works. When she touches an object, understands everything about it, which comes in handy when she needs to pick a lock or avoid a trap, but makes it hard to focus when she has to tune out her own clothes.

When the book opens, Sancia is about to start a seemingly mundane job for a mysterious client: steal a small wooden box from the waterfront and deliver it unopened, no questions asked. As you might imagine, the heist goes catastrophically wrong, and Sancia decides she needs to know what she went to all that trouble to get.

Inside the box, she discovers a bizarre scrived key that can open any lock and that also happens to speak in a snarky voice that she can hear in her head. Sancia quickly realizes that she is in deep shit with any number of people who want to kill her, and she sets about trying to find a way to survive.

This wouldn’t be a book about a thief if there wasn’t eventually a bigger, more dangerous heist in the cards. As Sancia comes to understand the true stakes of her situation, she slowly but surely builds out a crew of friends and allies while Jackson Bennett unpacks her history and reveals the horrors of her former life.

Meticulous worldbuilding always feels like the “fun” of an epic fantasy novels, the part of the book that the author obsessed over, sometimes to the detriment of the story. Jackson Bennett’s worldbuilding is fun, but scriving is also the rotten core at the heart of Foundryside.

Sancia’s world and its wonders exist only because of atrocities that seem like ancient history but that happened not so long ago. The worst part is the revelation that the modern-day scrivers only understand a tiny fraction of the language of their ancestors, and all the power will go to the first scriver who puts enough pieces of the language together to remake the world in their image.

Foundryside is the first of Jackson Bennett’s novels that I’ve read. I had heard endless praise for his Divine Cities trilogy, and I’m sure I’ll read it before too much longer, but for whatever reason, I was more drawn to Foundryside’s fascinating premise and high-stakes magical heists. Highly recommended.

LOVED 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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My Month in Reading, May 2019

I thoroughly enjoy reading Jason Kottke’s monthly media diet posts, so I decided to try something similar with my monthly reading for this year. I thought it would be a good writing challenge and help keep me fresh between longer reviews.


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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I originally read this back in the 90s, sometime after the second book came out but before the third. I remember enjoying it at the time, but for whatever reason I never got around to reading the rest of the trilogy. As part of my goal to finish more series that I started but never finished, I decided this would be the next trilogy/series I tackled.

The Golden Compass definitely holds up. I didn’t remember too much – just the broad strokes of the plot and characters – but what I found welcome about it is that it’s the rare young adult book where the main character behaves like a kid, but she’s also smart and capable in a way specific to children. Lyra Belacqua never feels like a little adult trapped in a child’s body, and the book is all the better for it.

Pullman also has a way with words and a fascination with headier philosophical matters that weave throughout the story without ever overwhelming the plot. This is a book for kids with stakes that feel real and dangerous and occasionally horrifying. The villains are truly villainous, and the book doesn’t pull any punches.

I started reading the second book the day after I finished the first, so I’m already doing better than I did oh those many years ago.

LOVED IT


The Blood of Elves
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Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

This is the first book in the “Witcher Saga” proper. The books leading up to this one are short story collections that set up the characters and relationships while also building out the world.

The funny thing is, this book still felt a bit like several novellas stitched together, like the old-fashioned fix-up novels from the golden age of sci-fi. The end result is a novel that still feels fairly episodic. It works, but it doesn’t build to much of a climax.

Instead, it’s a series of stories about Geralt’s ward, Ciri, her early training, and the dangers she faces from the outside world. Geralt isn’t even the viewpoint character for most of the book, with Dandelion, Triss, Ciri and Yennifer all getting their turns at the helm. I like that this book kept things fairly small-scale. I’m assuming the series only builds in scope from here.

REALLY LIKED IT


Unnatural Volume 2 cover
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Unnatural, Volume 2 by Mirka Andolfo

The further adventures of a sexy pig-girl living in a dystopian society who gets caught up in a supernatural conspiracy because of her status as the chosen one in a former life. Yes, you read that right.

For a book marketed on its sex appeal, this volume sure does focus on the main character running and hiding from the villains who want to control her life, all while fighting the spirit of an evil wolf-man that only she can see. Yes, again, I know. I like this series more than that ridiculous premise might warrant, mostly because the art is so wonderful.

REALLY LIKED IT


Reincarnation Blues cover
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Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore (Full Review)

An alternately bleak and drily funny book about a man who keeps getting reincarnated but would rather spend all his time in the afterlife with his girlfriend Susie, who happens to be an incarnation of death.

LOVED IT


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Exorsisters, Volume 1 by Ian Boothby and Gisele Lagace

I do like Lagace’s art, which is probably why I keep reading Menage a 3, but where that series has sexy hijinks to keep things interesting, this book includes more than one scene where a character explains backstory to another character who already knows it in an awkward info-dump. The most interesting thing in this series is the revelation that the main character’s mother sold her daughter’s soul to save herself, but the story around it is limp and graceless.

DISLIKED IT