The Massive Vol. 1: Black Pacific by Brian Wood et al

The Massive, Vol. 1: Black Pacific - Brian Wood & Kristian Donaldson & Garry Brown & Dave StewartPublished: April 2nd, 2013
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel
Format: Paperback
Length: 176 pages

The Massive tells the story of the Ninth Wave conservationist force ship The Kapital as its crew tries to survive in a post-apocalyptic world and find their missing sister-ship, The Massive. The Kapital’s crew is an odd group of misfits and environmentalists; the captain, Callum Israel, previously worked for a Blackwater-style outfit until he grew tired of killing and rededicated his life to pacifism and environmentalism. Along for the ride is another former mercenary, Mag Nagendra, who is still more than willing to use violence to protect the ship and its crew, and a mysterious woman named Mary who may not be what or who she seems.

As for the apocalypse, it was more of a gradual world-wide collapse than anything more cut-and-dried. Water levels have risen, half-burying cities around the world. Huge parts of America lost power and never got it back. A series of environmental disasters crippled world commerce and decimated local populations. All of it has added up to a world where The Kapital spends its time searching for supplies, bartering with criminals and running from pirates.

In fact, there is very little plot to this first volume of The Massive that doesn’t concern The Kapital’s efforts to resupply. We are given small glimpses of back-story as well as hints of supernatural events later in the book, but for the most part the story focuses on the dry minutia of survival. Scenes of fighting off pirates and searching for supplies alternate with flashbacks explaining the disasters that added up to a sort of slow, creeping end of the world.

The introduction to the book emphasizes that life goes on after a disaster, and explains that part of the idea behind The Massive’s story was to talk about a different kind of apocalypse, where people just keep living in spite of the world falling apart around them. It’s an interesting concept, but unfortunately the result feels more like an environmentalist lecture than a compelling story.

Character development is limited, and what plot there is concerns itself with fairly mundane occurrences. There’s a good amount of discussion about the missing ship, The Massive, which clearly has some significance to the overall storyline, but I didn’t get a sense of where the series was going from the first volume. It felt like the author spent most of his time establishing a number of plausible environmental disasters, but neglected to offer interesting characters or a compelling storyline.

The one strong point is the art, which favors striking realism throughout. Unfortunately, however, that isn’t enough for me to recommend this book, which I ultimately found dry and uninteresting.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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

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Strange Attractors by Charles Soule and Greg Scott

Strange AttractorsStory: Charles Soule
Art: Greg Scott

Published: April 9th, 2013
Publisher: Archaia Entertainment
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Science Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Length: 128 pages

In Strange Attractors, Heller Wilson is a grad student studying complexity theory, a branch of mathematics devoted to the study of complex systems. He’s a career-minded guy, and is currently working on a thesis topic suggested by his advisor and designed specifically to get him hired at a high-paying job after graduation. Problem is, he’s struggling with the topic – comparing the resiliency of New York City after 9/11 to the struggles of New Orleans after Katrina – so he decides to track down a former Columbia professor who wrote about similar subject decades ago.

Wilson soon discovers that the professor, Spencer Brownfield, is a bit of an eccentric. Among other things, Brownfield explains that he eats exactly 1700 calories a day – no more, no less – and closes their meeting by releasing a rat into a crowded restaurant. However, Wilson is desperate for help with his thesis, so he persists and manages to talk Brownfield into giving him access to his research in exchange for helping with a few “projects”.

When Wilson shows up to help with those projects, Brownfield sends him off on a number of apparently random tasks without any explanation. Wilson cooperates gamely for a while, but when he eventually gets fed up and decides to quit, Brownfield surprises him by demonstrating what those seemingly random tasks can achieve when done in concert. It turns out that Brownfield is (he claims) using his theories to “adjust” events in New York City in subtle ways, continually working against the ever-increasing flow of chaos and darkness in the city. Brownfield explains that the reason New York City is so resilient is because he is working to keep it that way. Wilson is drawn back in, and soon becomes obsessed with Brownfield’s theories.

Strange Attractors is one of those stories that exists just on the edge of science fiction. Although the idea of using mathematical theories to control events in a city seems fanciful at first blush, upon consideration it feels like the sort of thing that might not be outside the realm of possibility. History caught up with William Gibson, after all. Accordingly, the book is simultaneously both grounded and magical, and the resulting mix is extremely appealing.

In some ways the premise reminded me a bit of the basic concepts of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, but here the idea of controlling future outcomes is real-time, personal and entirely specific to the city of New York. Brownfield considers himself NYC’s caretaker, and Wilson eventually admits to himself that he also feels a strong enough connection to the city that he wants to protect it. The author and artist clearly share that love of the city, and their devotion is part of what makes this story feel unique.

I also loved the art, which is gorgeously drawn and full of color. Whenever Brownfield or Wilson visualize possible outcomes, they are shown as a series of interlocking colored lines bouncing between people or objects. This conceit helps make Brownfield’s theories feel concrete, like something hidden in plain sight if you only know how to look. Also, color is used to signify the current state of the city – red for chaos, blue for stability – and the growing presence of redness helps to build tension throughout as Brownfield and Wilson work to save New York from impending cataclysm.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Strange Attractors, and will definitely be checking out other work by the same author. Recommended.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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

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Bad Medicine Volume 1

Bad Medicine Volume 1Story: Nunzio DeFillipis & Christina Weir
Art: Christopher Mitten
Colors: Bill Crabtree

Published: January 30th, 2013
Publisher: Oni Press
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Format: Paperback
Length: 120 pages

Bad Medicine follows disgraced former cardiologist Dr. Randal Horne and hard-nosed NYPD detective Joely Huffman as they work together to solve strange murders apparently caused by fringe science and exotic diseases. Also along for the ride are the ever-cranky pathologist Teague and his oh-so-snarky partner, Hogarth. The first collected volume of Bad Medicine includes two story arcs. In the first arc, detective Huffman discovers a dead man with an invisible head in an experimental lab, and tracks down Randal Horne to help solve the mystery. In the second arc, the CDC asks Horne and Huffman et al to investigate what appears to be a werewolf attack.

As I was reading Bad Medicine, I couldn’t help comparing it to Fringe, and it isn’t just because the mysteries are caused by weird science. It’s also the fact that the main characters are an eccentric, disgraced doctor who went on walkabout and a no-nonsense blonde female detective. Even still, that wouldn’t be such a big deal if Bad Medicine brought anything unique to the table, but it really doesn’t have much to offer in terms of originality. The first mystery seems stranger than it actually is thanks to a bit of misdirection from the villain, and the second is a fairly bog-standard werewolf story.

However, I did generally like the art in the book. It’s reasonably unique, stylized enough to be distinctive while still feeling fairly grounded. I did have occasional problems figuring out what was going on in panels that were either too stylized or laid out poorly, but I was usually able to decipher the action upon further reading. It may also have been a side effect of reading a digital version of the book. The real problem with Bad Medicine is that the writing is stilted and uninteresting.

The dialogue never feels very natural, and the cast consists entirely of stock characters without any real defining traits. Horne talks to a ghost and Huffman has a pet cat she dotes on, but the characterization doesn’t go much deeper than that. We’re told that Horne has a terrible bedside manner, but he never actually says anything particularly off-putting, so it’s hard to see how he got the reputation. One of the supporting characters, Hogarth, spends most of his time throwing out wisecracks that just fall flat or feel out of place, and he ends up coming off as a one-note attempt at comic relief.

Overall, Bad Medicine was a pretty forgettable read, and I definitely won’t be checking out future volumes of the series.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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

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Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

Published: April 26, 2011
Publisher: Spectra
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Steampunk
Format: Paperback
Length: 480 pages

At first glance, Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding sounded like a sure bet. Sky pirates? I’m there. Steampunk setting? Count me in. Endless rave reviews from a dozen fantastic authors (Joe Abercrombie in particular) sealed the deal. Unfortunately, the resulting book doesn’t quite live up to those high expectations.

Retribution Falls tells the story of a ship called the Ketty Jay, captained by one Darian Frey and crewed by a collection of misfits and rejects, all of whom are hiding secrets and running from something in their past. Frey is a paranoid, selfish drunk, who seems only to keep a crew so that he can run the jobs that pay for his drink, drugs and card games. Frey only really cares about his ship, and jealously guards the ignition codes from anyone and everyone, even when the life of one of his crew members is at stake in an early scene.

After escaping a close scrape at the start of the book, Frey’s luck seems to be looking up when he’s given a plum job with an assured payout of fifty thousand ducats. He eagerly accepts, and only when the job goes horribly wrong does it become clear that he’s been set up. The rest of the book is spent with Frey and his crew alternately running from the law and trying to unravel the mysterious conspiracy that chose Frey and his crew as its scapegoats. Along the way, Frey slowly learns to trust his crew members, and we begin to uncover some of the events that drove each of them into the outlaw life.

As I read, the book slowly grew on me, but it took a really long time getting there. I read the first one-hundred pages in fits and starts over a month, and only really started to feel invested around the two-hundred page point of the book, when we finally start getting a glimpse into the mysterious backstories of Crake, the ship’s daemonist, and Jez, the apparently immortal navigator.

However, it wasn’t so much that I was starting to like the characters; it was simply that I was curious enough about their backstories to keep reading. As a rule, the characters in Retribution Falls are archetypes that never quite rise above their origins. If you stick around long enough to make it to the end, they do become slightly more interesting and/or sympathetic. Unfortunately, far too much of the book is spent with unlikeable characters who only reveal questionable past actions, or ciphers who hold their mysteries (and personalities) too close to their chests.

One of the most glaring problems this book faces is its striking similarity to a certain late, lamented scifi/western TV series about a band of misfits running from the law in their ramshackle spaceship. You know how Amazon recommends similar products on their pages? Here it doesn’t quite apply. If you liked Firefly, you’ll probably have a hard time escaping unfavorable comparisons when reading this book. With better character development and more detailed world-building, Retribution Falls might have risen above such easy accusations of similarity, but as it is it reads more like a pale imitation of better things.

Strangely enough, despite the tone of this review, when I was done with the book I felt like I might be interested in reading another installment in this series, in the hopes that later volumes would tighten up the storytelling and better develop returning characters. Ultimately, the honest truth is that if this was a library book I probably would have returned it unfinished after reading fifty pages. I really only gave it a chance to redeem itself because it was a review copy.

For the first half of the book:

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

For the last half:

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

That averages out to a rousing 2.5 stars, folks!

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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Fun and Games by Duane Swierczynski

Published: June 20, 2011
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller
Format: Paperback
Pages: 283

Duane Swierczynski is a name I’ve come across several times before. It’s a hard one to forget, even though I probably couldn’t spell it if my life depended on it. Amazon has been quite sure that I would enjoy his work, and has recommended him many times over. Swierczynski seems to write the kind of genre fiction I find myself enjoying lately, intense crime thrillers that occasionally edge into more speculative territories.

The first book I picked up by Swierczynski was his fourth, Severance Package… and I couldn’t get into it. Not sure why, it just didn’t click. I made it a few chapters in and took it back to the library. I wasn’t so sure that Amazon knew what it was talking about. Even still, every new book of his that I came across had an intriguing description. Sometimes I’m just not in the right mood to read a particular book, and I figured I might just need to give Swierczynski another shot.

And what a shot it was. The kind that picks you up off your feet and tosses you across the room. Little blue birdies dancing in your vision the whole way down. I don’t know what kept me from getting into Severance Package, but there was no such hesitation when I started reading Fun and Games today over my lunch break. Within 20 pages I knew I was going to finish it this evening, and within a few short hours I’d torn through the rest in a mad rush. In my considered opinion, Duane Swierczynski has arrived, and just careened right up my list of Must Read Authors.

Fun and Games is the first in a trilogy, which, thankfully, will be completed promptly over the next two years (book two this winter, book three in 2012). The main character, Charlie Hardie, is a former police consultant whose life was ruined in a tragedy three years earlier. Ever since then, he’s drifted through life in an alcoholic haze, making ends meet by house-sitting for the rich and absent. He wants nothing more than to drink himself into a stupor while watching old movies and forgetting that his life ever happened.

However, he gets more than he bargained for when he starts a job housesitting for a movie composer who lives in the Hollywood Hills. On his first day, Charlie is assaulted by a crazed woman who is squatting in the composer’s bathroom. The woman, Lane Madden, wallops him with a microphone stand and then starts babbling about a mysterious “them” who are trying to kill her and make it look like an accident. At first Charlie thinks she’s just a washed-up drug addict, but then he realizes that Lane is Somebody Famous, and that she may actually be telling the truth.

Charlie gets all the proof he needs when “they” – sometimes referred to as “The Guild” or “The Accident People” – try to kill him. Once The Accident People make their move, Fun and Games sets off at breakneck speed and only slows down long enough to let you catch your breath before the next white-knuckle action scene. Most of the action takes place in a very short amount of time, maybe 24 or 48 hours, as the protagonists are cornered, escape, and then get cornered again. The story is full of twists and turns, misdirections and reveals, all neatly doled out with masterful pacing that kept me glued to the page.

One of the great things about Fun and Games is that it’s very much a Hollywood thriller that could only be set in Hollywood. There’s a generous dose of satire layered over the proceedings; The Accident People are exactly the sort of assassins that someone would dream up for a movie, but they’re also the sort of the assassins that people who make movies might use to knock each other off. They are always concerned with the “narrative” of their kills, wanting to ensure that no hint of the true story peeks through. That Charlie Hardie will not die does not fit into their neat little storyline.

It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a book this much, and it’s certainly been a few months since I’ve read something in one sitting. I’m definitely sold on Swierczynski now, and can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of this trilogy, not to mention his earlier books. Mulholland Books just added another one of my favorite authors to their roster.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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Across The Universe by Beth Revis

Published: January 11, 2011
Publisher: Razorbill
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction, Romance
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 416

Across the Universe is a mash-up of scifi, mystery, and young-adult fiction, with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. In a nutshell, it tells the story of a colony seed-ship on a journey towards a distant planet and the teenage girl who wakes up early – 50 years before the trip is over – only to find herself stuck in a strange, dystopian society where someone may be trying to kill her. All of this sounds fascinating, but the end result is a mystery that is telegraphed far too early and scifi that doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny.

When the main character, Amy, wakes up from cryogenic sleep – nearly dying in the process – she quickly meets the leader of the society, Eldest, and his protege, Elder, who will assume the reigns of leadership when Eldest retires. The book alternates viewpoints between Amy and Elder, which is a nice way of giving us both the insider and the outsider perspectives.

The more Amy finds out about the ship society, the stranger it seems. Racial and class distinctions are gone because all of the people are genetically uniform. Rather than reproducing normally, the people on the ship go into heat during “the time”, which Amy is told is coming soon. Everyone in the working class is strangely emotionless and distant, as though they are running purely on autopilot. The only people who seem to show any spark of intelligence or normality are all considered “crazy” and given a regimen of pills to keep them under control.

The mystery revolves around discovering who is unfreezing and (sometimes) killing the colonists. The author spends a lot of time early on talking about how nobody locks doors on the ship because privacy is so respected, but too much of the mystery relies on important doors remaining unlocked. This is a bit hard to swallow when Eldest spends most of the book jealously guarding his secrets, even from Elder. I didn’t have much trouble figuring out the culprit fairly early on. This is only disappointing because the book spends so much time focused on the murder mystery when it seems like the true mystery should be the nature of the ship itself. However, I will give the author credit for throwing in a few good surprises near the end of the book.

One other thing that didn’t seem entirely credible was the initial configuration of the ship, with frozen Earth colonists below and living lower-class workers doing the menial upkeep of the ship for centuries while the colonists sleep. It just seemed like a recipe for class warfare, as if the ship’s initial designers set out to cause as much social friction as possible. How do you reintegrate those two groups into a working colony, with one sleeping while the other toils away? I also questioned how sustainable the ship could be with the bulk of its passengers living and reproducing and using up resources. It seems like it would be far more practical to keep everyone frozen.

Although I wasn’t entirely satisfied with this book, I did check the author’s website to see if it was planned as the first in a series, and it is. The ending doesn’t exactly scream for a sequel, but it doesn’t necessarily tie everything up in a neat little bow, either. Amy finds out some hard truths after she wakes up on the ship, and those hard truths don’t just go away at the end of the book. I’d definitely be interested in reading future books set in this world, although I do hope that the author shifts her focus towards exploring some of the intricacies of the society she’s established, rather than spending so much time on a so-so murder mystery.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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You Were Wrong by Matthew Sharpe

Published: August 31, 2010
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Genre: Literary Fiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 192

You Were Wrong is a short book, but manages to wear out its welcome in no time at all. I was ready to throw it against the wall after two chapters, but forced myself to continue reading so that I could finish and give it a fair review. The good news is that I got used to the writing style after a few more chapters, but the bad news is that I think that may have just been Stockholm Syndrome in action.

The main character, Karl Floor, is a sad-sack twenty-something math teacher who shares his dead mother’s house with his hateful stepfather. When the book opens, Karl is beaten up by two of his students, only to stumble home and discover that his house is apparently being robbed by the beautiful and mysterious Sylvia Vetch. Sylvia doesn’t act like a normal robber, however, and tends to Karl’s wounds before taking him on a journey across town to the house where she lives. As Karl’s life becomes intertwined with Sylvia and her circle, he wanders aimlessly through a series of mysterious encounters with people who abuse and confuse him. Karl is entirely passive by nature, and spends most of the book whining, getting dragged along against his will, or just plain lying down and passing out.

The book feels a bit more like a series of rambling vignettes than a novel. There is the slightest hint of a mystery concerning Sylvia’s real motivations, and the story almost swerves into crime fiction at one point before course-correcting, but mostly it’s a shambling collection of long-winded character studies. Sharpe describes the most mundane of things in excruciating detail, often employing digressions within digressions that bloat single sentences into page-long tangents. Characters don’t speak like actual human beings; either they monologue for pages about vaguely related matters, or they utter terse exchanges full of thudding importance and implied mystery.

The best I can say about the book is that Sharpe occasionally pulls off a fine turn of phrase or throws in a decent joke. For the most part, however, I found it both overwritten and crashingly dull, and was glad to see the back of it.

HATED IT
HATED IT

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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Reheated Cabbage by Irvine Welsh

Published: September 14, 2009
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Genre(s): Literary Fiction, Short Stories
Format: Paperback
Pages: 288

This is the second book I’ve read by Irvine Welsh. The first, Ecstasy, disturbed me to no end back in the day even though I’ve always been a huge fan of the movie version of Trainspotting. Even still, I was willing to give his fiction another chance.

None of the stories in this collection are nearly as disturbing, but as with any collection of disparate works, some were better than others. Several of them were fairly modern (read: elliptical) which I don’t always like, but I did like the book enough to keep reading them.

I think my favorite of the stories is the last one, “I Am Miami”, which does a good job of sharply drawing a flawed but sympathetic character, and is also the rare example of redemptive themes in the collection. I actually grew to care about the bitter old school teacher at the heart of that story, and worried for his future. My second most favorite was “The State of the Party”, which had several classic moments that juxtaposed Scottish vernacular with crisp, proper narration in a way that made me laugh out loud.

I do think that this book is best if you are at least familiar with the world of Trainspotting, simply because two of the stories are directly related to that book in some fashion. It also helps to be able to decipher the written form of Scottish dialect or you will be thoroughly lost through much of the collection.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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