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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Glitterbomb: Red Carpet Bomb

Glitterbomb, Volume 1Glitterbomb, Volume 1: Red Carpet

Written by: Jim Zub
Line Art by: Djibril Morissette-Phan
Colors by: K. Michael Russell

Published: March 7th 2017
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Horror, Satire
Format: Paperback
Length: 136 pages

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for just over three and a half years now, so obviously that means I can consider myself an expert on the city, as is traditional.

Therefore, with my sacred powers as an Angeleno, I’ve decided that satires and takedowns of LA only work if they come from a place of love. If you’ve got nothing but hate for Los Angeles, if you can’t see even one iota of the appeal of this ridiculous city, then your critique will probably come out sour and clichéd.

Or, in any case, that was my reaction to reading the first volume of Jim Zub’s Glitterbomb.

In Glitterbomb, we meet Farrah Durante, a struggling middle-aged actress only minutes from destitution. Her sole claim to fame was a small recurring role on a cheesy sci-fi show many years ago, but after the show fired her, nothing has gone right since.

That all changes when she tries to drown herself in the ocean and a horrifying vengeance monster possesses her, giving her the ability to eviscerate anyone who has wronged her. At first, the unexplained black-outs and gruesome murders confuse and horrify her, but it isn’t long before she gives herself over completely to the monster’s dark desires.

Glitterbomb reads like the author visited LA once, hated it, and then funneled that hatred into a takedown of easy targets.

It’s common knowledge that actors are oftentimes horribly mistreated and that the industry is especially bad for women who no longer look like twenty-somethings, but that also means that it is an over-used cliché. Throwing in a monstrous twist isn’t even a particularly new idea, but it is what gave me a glimmer of hope about this book.

The fact that these tropes are familiar wouldn’t matter if the execution brought something new to the table, but Zub’s writing completely misses the mark. My theory is that it’s because he can’t seem find anything to love about LA.

In fact, there are any number of Hollywood satires and critiques that feel both more realistic and more powerful because they understand the allure of Hollywood without immediately holding the city and those who love it in contempt.

For example, FX’s Better Things focuses on a middle-aged actress trying to balance family life with an acting career, but it’s obvious that she loves what she does, despite the terrible people and sometimes crushing grind. It tells a far more well-rounded story by focusing on a main character who has a complex love-hate relationship with a difficult industry.

All that Glitterbomb has to say about Hollywood is that aspiring actors are shallow idiots who want fame and validation for the sake of it, and movie producers are nothing but predators.

Farrah doesn’t even have a compelling character arc in this first volume; she switches gears from despairing to malevolent with little to no build-up – it almost felt like I missed an issue – and then the book ends in a way that feels both rushed and inconclusive. I have absolutely no idea where Glitterbomb might go after this volume, but that isn’t an exciting prospect.

I also thought the art was wildly inconsistent throughout. The characters sometimes looked like completely different people from one page to the next, and I had no idea that Farrah’s babysitter was black until her mother said something her race.

This is the second Jim Zub book I’ve read and found disappointing, so I probably won’t pick up any more of his work.

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Harrison Squared: Attack of the Teenage Fish People

Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory
Published: March 24th, 2015
Publisher: Tor Books / Audible Studios
Genre(s): Fantasy, Horror, Young Adult
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hrs and 10 mins

Daryl Gregory’s Harrison Squared is a much sillier book than its cover implies. The sinister Lovecraftian overtones suggested by the tentacles looming behind the protagonist are present, but the book’s overall tone is actually pretty goofy even though it’s about a kid trying to find his missing, possibly kidnapped mother.

Most of the goofiness comes from the random literary jokes and pop culture references that Gregory includes throughout, but it doesn’t help that Harrison Squared feels pitched at a younger audience than I was expecting. Instead of a Tor SF&F novel with a teenaged main character, it reads more like a young adult novel in adult packaging.

Of course, I read plenty of YA, so I don’t necessarily have a problem with the book’s reading level. The real issue is that I was expecting something deeper and richer than Gregory delivered. The book’s town of Dunnsmouth is sketchy and underdeveloped, and Harrison barely spends any time going to the school at the center of the story.

Gregory also sets up a number of threads that don’t really pay off. The other students at Harrison’s new school speak in a complicated sign language that he never actually learns. They also take part in a religion that seems to consist mostly of singing in an unknown language. More damning is a late revelation about Harrison himself that feels superfluous to the story. All of these details hint at a world without actually making it feel lived-in.

Harrison Squared ends in a way that seems to require a sequel, but it turns out that a semi-sequel already exists. One of Gregory’s previous novels, We Are All Completely Fine, includes an adult Harrison in its ensemble, although the summary makes him sound very different from the version portrayed here.

Harrison Squared is a quick read, and I did laugh a few times, so I’d be willing to give Gregory’s work another chance. Ultimately, though, I thought this book was a bit forgettable. It just doesn’t break any new ground in the fashionable mini-genre of Lovecraft pastiches.

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Full disclosure: Although I did receive a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, I listened to the audiobook on Audible.

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