Neither is True: Grand Passion by James Robinson

Grand Passion by James Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DISLIKED IT

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

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Romance By Any Other Name

We’ve been watching the Starz adaptation of Outlander recently, and it got me thinking about how I’ve never actually read a “romance” novel, but I’ve read plenty of stealth romance sold as other genres. I’ve actually owned Outlander on Kindle for a while – it was free at one point and I thought I might as well find out what all the fuss was about – but I never actually got around to reading it.

Now we’re just over halfway through the first season and I’m definitely enjoying the show. Jack Randall, the villain, steals pretty much every scene he’s in, and the episode where he describes flaying Jamie’s back is simultaneously mesmerizing and horrifying. The show does have its problems here and there, however. The first episode spends a bit too much time in Claire’s head; she narrates most of the episodes, but that first one feels like it’s half an hour of her staring out a window thinking pretty thoughts. The narration does get better from there, however.

Sexual violence is also a pretty common trope on the show so far. I do think they’re making an effort to give Claire some agency when these moments occur, but I have to wonder if she’s going to face the threat (or reality) of rape literally every other episode. Additionally, there are a few particularly controversial scenes (one of which we just watched) that I know completely turned people off on the experience. I can’t really compare since I haven’t read the book (yet), but I get the impression that the show might be doing a better job with some of the more borderline material. Your mileage may vary?

In any case, I’m enjoying Outlander, but that wasn’t really a surprise. I’ve known for a very long time that I’m a huge sucker for cinematic romance although I normally stick with comedies. Outlander is oftentimes a very funny show, but it’s mostly dramatic. Luckily it generally avoids melodramatic or soapy plot twists (unlike Downton Abbey, for example), so that helps with my enjoyment.

So, here’s me: a sucker for romance, but I’ve never read an actual Romance Novel. I’ve enjoyed reading romantic books sold as fantasy or literary fiction – books like The Night Circus, Kushiel’s Dart, Soulless, Attachments, A Little Night Magic and Firethorn – so why haven’t I taken the plunge and picked up a flat-out romance?

The short and most obvious answer is: marketing. Romance novels tend to have covers that don’t appeal to me and summaries that don’t catch my interest. I haven’t figured out how to interpret the packaging to find the books I would actually enjoy the way I can with a genre novel. My rule for SF&F was that I wouldn’t read a book with a spaceship or a shirtless dude wielding a sword unless I was already familiar with the author, but I don’t know what rules to follow in the romance world. My best guess is that I should avoid books featuring Fabio on the cover.

Gamification and C-Monkeys: Corporate Double-Talk

Gamification and C-MonkeysGamification and C-Monkeys by Keith Hollihan

Published: October 22nd 2013
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Genre(s): Thriller, Science Fiction
Format: eBook
Length: 280 pages

Gamification and C-Monkeys are a pair of related novellas sold together as a “flip book” with a different cover on each side. The effect is clearly meant as a call-back to days when publishers sold slim, pulpy novels in bound pairs, and although both stories include familiar beats, Hollihan leavens each with modern ecological concerns and stylistic touches.

I decided to start reading these novellas thanks to a highly scientific method that involved skimming the first page of every review copy I have in my possession until I found one that hooked me enough to keep reading.

Gamification, a thriller about corporate espionage, offered just the right combination of spare prose and business jargon. I was soon caught up in the plight of the main character, a former corporate executive and current ex-con recently released from prison and struggling to make ends meet. When he begins working under-the-table for his old company cleaning up after the CEO’s ill-advised affair with a woman at a rival company, things start to get hairy.

Hollihan definitely knows his jargon. I’m pretty sure that if you turn this book sideways, a few inter-office memos and a quarterly report might fall out. He also has a pretty solid grasp of thriller conventions and pacing; the book starts out slow but steady until things inevitably begin escalating and Hollihan pulls the rug out from under his main character.

It was exciting reading, and I definitely enjoyed the experience, but the end of the novella left several story threads unresolved or unexplained, and I was admittedly a bit confused about who did what to whom and why. It felt a bit like Hollihan ignored motivations and explanations  in the name of surprise and excitement. It worked in the moment, but ultimately left me unsatisfied.

I assumed that C-Monkeys might shed some light on the parts of Gamification that remained unexplained, but I was sadly disappointed. At one point in Gamification, the main character is given a pulpy dime-store novel about a mad scientist on a mysterious island full of giant salamanders. C-Monkeys is essentially the expanded version of that novel’s summary.

Unfortunately, in expanding the story, Hollihan doesn’t bring much more to the table. The main character in C-Monkeys is a cipher with no back story and no clear motivations. We are eventually told a bit more about who he is and why he might want to sneak on the island, but it comes late in the story and feels like an arbitrary info-dump instead of a shocking revelation. Honestly, nothing about C-Monkeys felt particularly surprising or remarkable.

I wanted to like Gamification and C-Monkeys more than I did. Both novellas were eminently readable, and Hollihan gets a surprising amount of entertainment mileage out of corporate espionage and the particulars of drilling for oil, but Gamification’s many twists add up to a lot of nonsense and C-Monkeys just feels unnecessary. I might be up for reading more of Hollihan’s work, but I can’t recommend this pair of novellas.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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

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The Incrementalists: Plight of the Immortal Micro-Managers

The IncrementalistsPublished: September 24th, 2013
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hrs and 52 mins

The Incrementalists has a killer premise and a rave from John Scalzi on the cover, so I was understandably impatient to read it as soon as it came out. The book focuses on the members of a secret society that uses psychological manipulation to make small changes that hopefully have larger effects on the course of human history. This “meddling” is all in the name of making the world a “better than good” place. These Incrementalists, as they call themselves, have the benefit of several millennia of stored memories and history guiding them in their work. In fact, a large part of what makes their group work so well are the methods they use to pass down memories and maintain continuity over time.

All Incrementalists have a shared mental space they refer to as “The Garden”, where every member has an imaginary home of their own, used to store or “seed” memories, data and the psychological triggers required for mental manipulations. This combined with their ability to pass on memories and personalities from dead to new members makes them a formidable force when necessary. However, subtlety is the watchword for Incrementalists, and ethical considerations are always an important driver for every choice they make. Brust and White pepper in this world-building throughout, and although it does occasionally get a bit metaphysical, it’s easily the most interesting part of the book.

However, the meat of the story focuses on two Incrementalists in particular, Phil and Ren. Phil is the oldest continuous Incrementalist. Becoming an Incrementalist means being implanted with the memories and personality or “stub” of a deceased former member. When this happens, the two personalities vie for dominance. In Phil’s case, his personality has come out on top for longer than any other member of the group, which gives him seniority without necessarily making him infallible. Ren is a new recruit that Phil brings into the fold to replace the late Celeste, Phil’s tempestuous sometimes partner and former lover.

Ren is wide-eyed and ambitious, and surprisingly eager to join a strange cabal of semi-immortal meddlers, so it isn’t long before the recruitment process finishes and Ren finds herself implanted with Celeste’s stub. Naturally, that is when the shit hits the fan. Somehow the process doesn’t go through correctly, and instead of coming out the other end with all of Celeste’s history at her command, Ren has a hard time remembering who the hell this Celeste is everyone keeps ranting about. When the other Incrementalists start looking into the problem, they discover hidden sabotage and go into full-on panic mode. Accusations, manipulation, and attempted murder all come into play, and the group finds itself at a loss for the solution.

However, this is where the premise began unraveling for me. When I picked up the book, I had certain expectations that I’d be reading about a society of people spending their time manipulating the world around them. In practice, however, it turns out that most of the meddling involves nothing more than convincing Ren’s boss to put off a conference call so that she can stay focused on Incrementalist matters. Ren does meddle with a cocktail waitress at one point, but it doesn’t amount to anything of note. Other than that, the Incrementalists spend most of  their time dealing with a storyline that feels like nothing so much as metaphysical office politics. It’s a bit hard to care about a possibly corrupt secret society that does little more than manipulate its own members.

Then, of course, there’s the romance storyline. Shortly after Phil and Ren meet, they are in love. Part of it is the latent memory of Celeste influencing them both, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that it feels like the characters go from strangers to passionate lovers in no time flat. It doesn’t help that I never really got much of a sense of either character as a person; they both felt a bit underdeveloped. Instead of feeling like a release or a rush of emotion, the romance scenes played more like passion by default.

Ultimately, although I found the premise intriguing, the plot wasn’t all that compelling. It is possible that my audiobook listening habits were part of the problem, however. I just haven’t been making time for audiobooks recently, so I listened in fits and starts over the course of a month. On the other hand, if the book had grabbed me, I’m sure I would have made more time to listen.

One more note for audiobook listeners: Ray Porter and Mary Robinette Kowal are both wonderful, talented narrators, but for some reason they use different accents for the same characters. A head-scratching choice and particularly confusing when the narrators switch in the middle of a scene.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn

Dash & Lily's Book of DaresPublished: October 11th, 2011
Publisher: Ember
Genre(s): Young Adult, Romance
Format: Paperback
Length: 272 Pages

One day, while browsing in the Strand bookstore in New York City, Dash finds a red Moleskine notebook hidden next to a copy of Franny and Zooey. He opens it and discovers that the owner, a girl named Lily, has left a series of mysterious clues and instructions for anyone who reads the book and passes certain requirements. Dash passes the test, does as instructed by the notebook, and the epistolary adventure at the heart of Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares are underway.

The story unfolds in alternating viewpoint chapters narrated by Dash and Lily, two bookish, lonely teenagers living in New York City. Dash responds to Lily’s initial challenge with a challenge of his own, and they begin building a relationship through increasingly personal notes left in the Moleskine journal along with dares that put them right in the middle of Christmas-shopping crowds in downtown New York. Levithan writes Dash’s chapters while Cohn writes Lily’s, and although each character has a fairly distinctive voice, the two styles mesh together well and the book never feels disjointed.

The thing I liked most about Dash & Lily is the way it juxtaposes the main characters’ romantic ideals with reality. Dash and Lily both begin to idealize each other through their written interactions, but we also get to see the versions of themselves they keep hidden. Dash is a bit of a loner, possibly too clever for his own good, and Lily is a bit high-strung in stressful moments. Neither of them quite matches up to the other’s romantic ideal, and their experiences as they learn to navigate the differences between fantasy and reality are what make this book more than a fluffy rom-com conceit.

However, compared to some of Levithan’s solo work, Dash & Lily is admittedly still a bit fluffy. The stakes in the core relationship are never too high, and the dares are ultimately fairly benign. On one hand, you could argue that keeping stakes low for a high school romance is more realistic, but I have to admit that I missed the emotional punch of Every Day and The Lover’s Dictionary. Even still, I enjoyed the book, and will probably pick up the other Cohn and Levithan collaborations at some point.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

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

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On Gender and Genre

The Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeI’ve been in a book club with some friends from college for a few years now, and a couple of months back we had a discussion about whether or not certain books could be considered “girl books” or “boy books”. The discussion was inspired by The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which my friend Aaron argued was more of a “girl book” than he would have liked to read.

Our book club – largely composed of women (and librarians, to boot) – ultimately did not agree with Aaron’s assessment, but the concept of books that are only appealing to a specific gender is not a new one. The romance genre, for example, is one that is traditionally considered targeted towards women, but it isn’t the only one. There are also sub-genres like books about shopping, cozy mysteries or anything involving quilts that are stereotypically female. Some, but not all, of these books exist under the designation of “chick lit”, a marketing term designed to simultaneously alienate men and patronize women.

However, when you try to turn it around and consider books “for men”, there isn’t a corresponding umbrella term. I would imagine that genres like military fiction, epic fantasy and hard scifi are considered stereotypically male, as are books about no-nonsense action heroes or middle-aged men reminiscing about sex, but I feel certain there are women who read and enjoy all of those genres. Surely even the “fond memories of vagina” genre has its female readers.

So what, then, does it actually mean when someone refers to a book as “chick lit” or “for women”? People have a habit of confusing genres with reading levels or target audiences. Young adult fiction is another case in point. Maybe what someone actually means when they say they think a book is too girly is that they don’t like or understand the book’s genre. More likely is that they haven’t read the right book or books in that genre. Ultimately, though, it all seems to come down to the marketing.

Literary fiction, for example, is a genre that likes to believe it isn’t one, and if a “romance” novel is marketed as literary fiction, it will probably reach a wider audience and gain more respect. In fact, I’ve read a number of books that were essentially romance novels sold under another name. For example, Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is sold as fantasy but has a very strong romantic/erotic plot line. It’s also a fantastic book that I would recommend highly to readers looking for something a bit different. The Time-Traveler’s Wife is sold as literary fiction but has elements of both scifi and romance.

My good experiences with young adult books and “stealth” romance novels lead me to believe that there must be books I’d enjoy that are marketed as romance novels. If it’s simply a matter of being embarrassed to be seen holding the cover in public, then reading the ebook is an easy solution. I’m starting to suspect that I could find a book I would enjoy in every genre if I just knew where to look.

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

Discount ArmageddonPublished: March 6, 2012
Publisher: DAW
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Format: eBook
Length: 368 pages

Discount Armageddon is the story of Verity Price, a blonde twenty-something cryptozoologist and recent transplant to New York City. She pays the bills by working as a waitress in a strip club, supports the family business by working to help the local populations of cryptids – monsters to the unenlightened – and secretly dreams of making it big on the ballroom dancing competition circuit. She hates public transportation, instead getting around by running parkour-style across the city rooftops, all while armed to the teeth with every kind of weapon she can hide under her skimpy waitress uniform. Oh, and her roommates are a colony of talking mice that venerate her every act with religious celebrations and feasts.

Things in the city are going swimmingly for Verity until the day she finds herself accidentally hanging from a snare set by a member of a monster-hunting sect called the Covenant. The Price family’s ancestors were part of the Covenant, but broke with the party line and decided to start helping cryptids instead of hunting them into extinction. Naturally, this didn’t endear them to the Covenant, and the Prices have been in hiding ever since. Complicating the situation is the fact that this Covenant member, Dominic, is strikingly handsome when he isn’t indiscriminately hunting and killing cryptids. Verity isn’t too happy about Dominic’s presence in the city, but when cryptid girls start disappearing and she hears credible rumors of a dragon – long though to be extinct – living under the city, they form an uneasy truce to stop the beast and sparks start flying.

In broad outlines Verity’s story feels familiar. It has the standard trappings of the urban fantasy genre: a secret world, hidden in plain sight, a main character with a special connection to that world, and a romance storyline involving a bad boy love interest who just needs a little redemption to make him boyfriend material. What makes it stand out are the unique details that McGuire works into the mix.

The mice in particular add a good bit of humor to the proceedings. They have dozens (if not hundreds) of religious ceremonies, all named for mundane events in Verity’s life, and all celebrated with a fervor that makes it difficult for Verity to have visitors. I also liked that there isn’t a single vampire or werewolf in the book. There are creatures who can switch between human and animal forms, but they all feel like off-the-beaten path choices, like the Japanese tanuki and an Indian creature called a madhura. Additionally, Verity’s background as a cryptozoologist isn’t just window-dressing; an important plot point revolves around actual biological processes becoming evident in one of the creatures she runs across.

The only real criticism I can come up with is that although title is catchy, I’m not really sure what it has to do with the actual story. In any case, Discount Armageddon is the first book in a new ongoing series for McGuire, and I look forward to picking up the future volumes. I’m also excited about reading her other books. She’s Hugo-nominated for her work as Mira Grant, and I’ve heard great things about her other urban fantasy series, the October Daye books. I get the impression that McGuire likes working with familiar tropes and genres while subverting them just enough to make them feel fresh and entertaining.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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Every Day by David Levithan

Published: August 28th, 2012
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy
Format: Hardcover
Length: 336 pages

Note: The narrator of Every Day is essentially genderless, but for simplicity’s sake I use male pronouns throughout this review.

David Levithan is an interesting standout in the young adult / fiction world. He seems more than willing to experiment with storytelling forms; his previous book, The Lover’s Dictionary, chronicled the ups and downs of a relationship through alternately hilarious and painful entries in a dictionary. His new book, Every Day, is more traditional in form, but still full of the same thrillingly out-there ideas that I loved about his previous work.

Every Day’s premise is simple but striking; what if you woke up every day in a new body and a new place? Some essence of your self – your soul, some ineffable store of memory – survives the jump from body to body, which gives you continuity of identity, but you also have access to the memories of your “host” so that you can pass unnoticed in their life. How would it feel to look out from different eyes every day, experiencing the world from an infinite number of perspectives? More importantly, what would happen if, one day, you fell in love… and couldn’t let go?

A, the narrator of Levithan’s story, wakes up one morning in the body of Justin, a sullen teenage boy who doesn’t take care of himself, doesn’t get along well with his parents and mistreats his girlfriend. A usually tries not to interfere with the lives of his hosts – who seem to match the age he would be if he lived normally – but something about Justin’s relationship with his girlfriend, Rhiannon, makes him decide to try and improve her day. They skip school and go to the beach… and A falls in love. After that, A spends each successive day trying to find Rhiannon, working to get to know her and eventually revealing his body-jumping secret.

Levithan plays with some fascinating philosophical concepts throughout. Once A reveals his identity to Rhiannon, the major question becomes: how exactly do you have a relationship with someone who isn’t in the same body twice? A, who grew up unsurprisingly open-minded after experiencing life through the eyes of every possible type of person, feels like there shouldn’t be anything keeping them apart, but Rhiannon isn’t quite so ready to live outside the norms. For example, A notices that she isn’t quite as receptive when he is in the body of a girl or someone who isn’t traditionally attractive. Late in the book, the question arises of what it would mean if A and Rhiannon had sex in one of his host bodies, since it has been made clear that the hosts do remember vague details of their lives the next day. All of these complications make A’s story poignantly tragic, and the romance compellingly star-crossed.

A’s experiences vary wildly from day to day. One particularly harrowing experience involves a day spent in the body of a habitual drug user going through withdrawal; another centers on a girl who is planning to commit suicide. A is almost always understanding and open-minded about the lives of the people he inhabits, although he does admit early on that he doesn’t necessarily like everyone whose life he takes over. The only real false note in the book comes on a day when A inhabits the body of an extremely overweight boy. A refers to him as “the emotional equivalent of a burp” and it seems strangely judgmental by comparison.

The author also introduces a subplot about a boy named Nathan who gets in trouble with his parents after A controls his life one night. When Nathan comes home after curfew, he blames his behavior on demonic possession. Eventually the story gets picked up by the national news and a shady evangelical preacher starts asking more of the “possessed” to come forward. Nathan remembers enough about his experience to get in touch with A through his secret email account, and tries to convince A to reveal his true nature. Although this storyline does add some tension to the mix, I felt like the book didn’t necessarily need it. Every Day largely focuses on the romance between A and Rhiannon, so when a late reveal implies that the story might slip into thriller territory or start exploring explanations for the body-jumping mythology, it doesn’t quite fit. Luckily Levithan avoids straying too far down that path.

That isn’t to say I wouldn’t be curious to know more about the cause of A’s body-jumping experiences, and the book definitely ends on a note that would leave Levithan wide open to write a sequel if he chose to. I’d definitely read it, but I imagine it would need to be a very different book, simply because it would only diminish this book to try and repeat the romantic storyline.

All in all, I highly recommend Every Day. It’s a quick read full of powerful emotional moments and thought-provoking ideas, and I definitely look forward to seeing what Levithan comes up with next.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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

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