Top 5 Summer Reads – Massive Slacker Edition

So I haven’t been quite as busy with posting as I hoped I would be during the summer.  Super-sorry.  And because I’m so far behind, I’m going to give you guys a post that you don’t deserve…

Here’s a (sorta) quick Top 5 list of my favorite books that I’ve read (or re-read) so far this summer:

5. The Sandman: King of Dreams by Alisa Kwitney

King of Dreams is one of many books written about Neil Gaiman’s fantastic series Sandman.  Authored by Alisa Kwitney, the book is one of the few volumes on the series that should be required reading alongside the ten trades (or four Absolute volumes, if you’re crazy like me).

While some of the illustrations aren’t new, there are bits of ephemera from various artists (including a really nice collection of early drawings from the pre-Sandman days).  Pick up the Sandman collection, Hy Bender’s Sandman Companion, and this volume and begin waiting for Gaiman’s upcoming Sandman prequel illustrated by JH Williams.  2013 can’t come fast enough.

4. The Waste Land and Other Poems by TS Eliot

The Waste Land and Other Poems has been my favorite collection of poetry since I accidentally stumbled upon TS Eliot as an angst-ridden sixteen year old.  The Wasteland and The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock are two of the finest examples of the genre, and the way Eliot plays with literary allusion in conjunction to his maddeningly complex and layered style will forever be burned into my brain.

And, likely, Prufrock will haunt me to my grave…

3. Saga by Brian K Vaughn and Fiona Staples

What can I say about BKV?  His comics work stands far above that of most mere mortals, and his new series, Saga is no different.  Saga tells the story of two aliens who fall in love… and unfortunately are on differing sides of an intergalactic war.  

Romeo and Juliet is the first comparison, but Vaughan has already brought in bounty hunters, bizarre aliens, and some truly hair-raising scenes that are drawn beautifully by Fiona Staples.

They’re just about ready to release issue 5 (WEDNESDAY!!!), so there’s still time to jump in on this one early!  Y The Last Man and Ex Machina were both fantastic, creative, and high-minded literary comics that are becoming increasingly rare… Check out Saga now before you regret it!

2.5 Dial H by China Mieville and Mateus Santoluoco

OK this is a cheat… but I forgot about this comic until I started writing about Saga.

Dial H is a reboot of an old DC property titled Dial H For Hero.  And that’s the extent of what I know about the original series.  The reboot is part of the New 52 from DC Comics… I could go on about that, but I’ll leave it alone, mainly because Dial H is so damn fantastic.

Our hero is Nelson Jent, an overweight slacker who one day finds himself turned into an oddity named Boy Chimney after attempting to make a phone call from an old pay phone.

Each issue thus far (we’ve reached #4) has been exciting, funny, and well illustrated… not to mention that you actually get a story instead of the crap DC has been mostly shoveling into their other New 52 titles.

Plus, Brian Bolland does the covers.  What’s not to love?

2. A Hologram For The King by Dave Eggers

This was going to by my number one… but it was outvoted by my mind.  We’ll get to that later, though.

Eggers is a true master as storytelling and crafting relatable characters, and Hologram is no different.  Alan is a salesman.  Or was, before all the economic bullshit the world had been thrown into.

Now, Alan is sitting in a hotel in Saudi Arabia, hoping to impress King Abdullah with hologram technology so that when the King’s city is built, all tech will be provided by the company Alan represents.

Alan is an everyman, and a bit of a post-modern Willy Loman.  Divorced, broke, and on the verge of giving up, Alan is on his last chance.  As he adjusts to the customs of a new culture, he also has to deal with family issues, the death of friends, and a general feeling of obsolescence.

The book also pretty much has the best designed cover of just about anything in my collection… so you should definitely buy it just for the gorgeous graphic design work on the cover.

1. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

If you ever need to convince a friend that teen books have value beyond the section they’re shelved in (I’m looking your way, Jonathan Franzen), don’t hand them Hunger Games (I’m begging you!), give them a John Green novel!
I’m not even going to justify this statement with a plot.  Just know that The Fault In Our Stars is not only the best book I’ve read in the last twelve months… it is one of the best books that I’ve read in the last decade.
A bittersweet tale, Green impresses, not only with the way he subverts our expectations as readers, but also with his incredibly subtle literary references and not-so-subtle pop-culture references.  He weaves them together so well with the story he tells that you’ll be stunned.
And also crying.
Not that I did.
 I’ll be back in a few days with a more in-depth discussion of A Hologram For The King and The Fault In Our Stars! I also hope to dig into a few more books in the coming days to talk about!

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Only The End Of The World Again – The Age of Miracles

Once you get about sixty or seventy pages into The Age of Miracles, you’ll notice something.  It sneaks up on you, much like the plot where the earth’s rotation slows.  Suddenly, you’ll realize that you’re reading a coming-of-age tale… with a little apocalypse thrown in for good measure.

And the end result is rather brilliant.

The Age of Miracles
Karen Thompson Walker
273 Pages
Random House
June 26, 2012

A co-worker noted that, despite the title of the novel, nothing particularly miraculous happens in this novel.  And this is true, at least insofar as the positive connotations of the word “miracle.”

After all… if it were a negative experience, it wouldn’t be a miracle.

And yet… The Age of Miracles has many moments that brush on the miraculous, with a simple prose that will occasionally brush on the divine.

Our story is told by twelve-year-old Julia, living in the suburbs somewhere in southern California.  One day, when Julia’s mother turns on the news, scientists are announcing that the rotation of the earth has begun to slow.  They don’t know why and they don’t know if it will continue to slow.  But already, days are gaining extra seconds, extra minutes.

What follows is as much a tale of the changes that happen to Julia and Julia’s family as it is a science-fiction tale of the Earth going haywire.  And, despite my early skepticism when I began reading… I ended up really enjoying it.

Most of the chapters start by updating us on either the Earth’s rotation, or the effects the slowing has had on the planet, the people, the animals.  Trouble begins with birds.  They start dying off, crashing into things.  The sports are affected as the gravitational pull changes.  Things are heavier, even if just barely.

The changes happen in people too.  Some people, against the US government’s wishes, decide to live according to the planet.  While a majority of the country stays on a 24 hour time system, these time rebels are ridiculed and ostracized for choosing to live according to the more natural rhythms of the planet.

The satire really picks up when we hear about these characters.  Some, like Sylvia, Julia’s piano teacher, make out alright, at least at first.  Others, like the aging hippies that live on the same block, are picked up for growing pot plants inside their house (ah, anonymous tipsters!).

While all this is happening, Julia continues to grow and develop, all the while, her relationships are changing.  Her best friend, Hannah, is gone.  Julia chooses to socialize less and less while simultaneously pining over Seth, the skateboarder with the dying mother.

What is truly remarkable is that through all this… life goes on.  Julia and Seth dance around each other endearingly.  Julia makes and loses friends, sometimes heartbreakingly.  And Julia learns a lot about her parents… some things that she wishes she wouldn’t.

In fact, if you took out the science fictional aspects of the plot… the book would be a perfectly entertaining work of literature in its own right.  But the slowing of the earth allows Walker to really play with the reader’s emotions.

Would the things that happen to Julia still happen if the Earth weren’t slowing?  Probably.  Puberty is a volatile time in any child’s life and when you add in all sorts of family drama… it can be downright maddening.  And as Walker writes, puberty and middle school can be the most affecting time of a person’s life:

This was middle school, the age of miracles, the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove.  Our first were emerging, but they were being corrected.  Blurred vision could be fixed invisibly with the magic of the contact lens.  Crooked teeth were pulled straight with braces.  Spotty skin could be chemically cleared. (page 43)

Despite these sorts of miraculous advancements (as well as large leaps forward in technology), scientists never discover exactly what caused the slowing, nor do they find any way to fix it.

There’s further social commentary, especially as we see the rich of the world making out well, even with the pending apocalypse.  There’s a few comments from various sources about how lucky America is, especially in consideration of Africa.  Julia’s grandfather is an excellent lampooning of conspiracy nuts, as he doesn’t believe in the slowing at first… only to start hoarding gold when he finally does believe it.

Beyond all that… the writing is excellent.  Walker has a crisp, clean pose with a lot of funny and\or thoughtful similes.  There’s a tenderness to much of Julia’s inner monologues that is generally free from bitterness, as she tells her story more than a decade later.

Overall, the book is quite good.  The reading was fast paced, the characters are interesting and three-dimensional, and the commentary comes through without coming off as overdone, or extreme (see The Sugar Frosted Nutsack).  I’d definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a quick, thought-provoking read for the summer.

On top of all that, Walker will be at Powell’s on July 19 and I’m pretty excited.  Signed copy, here I come!

Garth Ennis Is Massively Fucked Up – The Boys

The title really says it all.  I don’t think I have much else to say on the subject.

Garth Ennis is one of the most messed up, disturbed individuals writing today.  And you don’t have to look any further than his comic book serieses… er series’… um… series?  I think that’s both the singular and plural form… Erm, anyway, they’re entitled Preacher and The Boys.  And we’re starting this off with The Boys.

The first thing you should know about The Boys is that it began as a Wildstorm comic.  Wildstorm, subsidiary of DC Comics, let the comic go because they were uncomfortable with how anti-superhero is was.  Dynamite picked it up and… it has continued with its anti-superhero bent for almost seventy issues now.

The Boys is a superhero story told from the level of us normal human beings.  Think Marvels, or Kingdom Come, but with a whole megashitton more blood, cursing, and a liberal sprinkling of “cunt” and various other fun bits of British terminology.

In The Boys we follow “Wee” Hughie Campbell, a man whose life has been tinged with tragedy at the hands of a superhero named A-Train.  At this point, he is recruited by a man named Billy Butcher to join a CIA-backed group known only as “The Boys.”

The group is made up of five members:  Butcher, Hughie, Mother’s Milk, The Frenchman, and The Female (as in Kipling’s poem, “the female of the species in more deadly than the male”).  Butcher has recruited this team for one reason:  to fight back against the superhuman community when one of the “supes” goes too far.

Their world is much like ours.  Well, y’know, except for the superheroes.  In their world, superheroes exist and they’re mostly massive jerks, at least in their private lives.  Their public personas are created in the typical way:  through comic books.  The public generally doesn’t see the darker side of their favorite heroes because most of their exposure to the costumed bunch is through carefully crafted media events, and their individual (and group) comic books.

The heroes also make a lot of money off of their various products… Comics, action figures, etc.  And the biggest, most lucrative group of all is known as The Seven.  The Seven, led by The Homelander (the comic’s version of Superman), is basically The Avengers, or the Justice League.  The best of the best, the most powerful, and (not surprisingly) the most corrupt.

The Seven is the main target of The Boys through much of the story.  Butcher has a grudge against The Homelander, though we don’t know exactly why.  Hughie is looking for revenge on A-Train (also a member of The Seven), and the rest of The Boys simply follow Butcher’s example.

I can’t talk much about the plot without getting into heavy spoilers, but I will say this: despite all the violence, all the cursing, and the buckets and buckets of blood that pour off of every page… Ennis is such a crafty writer that he manages to stick you with surprising moments of genuine tenderness with his treatment of Wee Hughie.

Hughie, as the main character, is the moral compass of the story.  He frets over the violence he’s asked to commit (or even that he only witnesses), and is constantly questioning Butcher over either his methods, or the level of extremity he’ll take a situation.

In the story arc titled “Innocents,” Hughie is sent to spy on the joke superhero group known as Superduper.  They’re initially so incredibly silly and lame, but as Hughie spends time observing them (and how they’re treated by their new leader Malchemical, who has been put in charge as a punishment) pity starts to override the desire to laugh.

Most impressive is the emotional impact of the love story between Hughie and a woman named Annie.  Their relationship starts early in the series (16 or 17, I think… but don’t quote me) and from the beginning… we know that she’s really Starlight, the newest member of The Seven.

Speaking for myself… I knew from when they got together that the fact that they were on opposing sides of a war was probably going to come along and cock up everything, but… I went in denial.  And when all the secrets start coming out… Ennis writes with enough skill to make it truly heartbreaking.

As I finish this post, The Boys is counting down its last five issues.  Number 68 sits next to me on the couch and I can’t wait to read it.  Before the year is done, the series will be over.  They way it’s been going, I imagine it’ll be really satisfying.

As good as Preacher?  Well…  Not yet.  The Boys is a very entertaining read.  It is a subtle satire of government and war (as well as a not-so-subtle satire on superhero comics), and there’s a lot of good messages within the pages of the comic.  But Preacher… Preacher was so incredibly brilliant that I don’t know if Ennis can top it.

So next up?  Preacher!

Morality In Crushing 6 Inch Aliens – John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War

I recently read the novel Redshirts.

loved it.  A lot.  A whole lot.

So I thought… why not try some more Scalzi.  And I was right in that choice.  Old Man’s War is a great novel.  As Scalzi’s first novel, I’m rather surprised just how well written and complete  it is.

Old Man’s War
John Scalzi
320 Pages
Tor Books
December 9, 2004

For one thing, Scalzi is quite skilled at separating (and eventually combining) the humorous and serious parts of his novel.  It begins on Earth, from the perspective of a man named John Perry and the early chapters are a bit depressing.

Perry is a 75-year-old widower who has joined an interstellar army known as the Colonial Defense Force (CDF) to fight for human beings who are attempting to colonize the universe.  Much of the first few chapters is Perry mourning his wife and considering just what it means that he’s left his entire Earthly life behind to fight wars among the stars.

At this point, you’re probably saying, “James, no one in their right mind would want a man aged 75 to fight in a war, interstellar, or otherwise?”  And, excepting Charles Atlas, you’d be correct.

Fortunately, the CDF has stolen tons of alien tech over the years, and has the ability to transfer a person’s consciousness into a completely new, greatly enhanced body.  These bodies do not age, are completely hairless, and are able to survive on only two hours of sleep. Handy, no?

Perry’s introduction to this universe is also ours. We learn about skip drives (hyperdrive for a new age), Brainpals (an internal computer with an HUD that appears in the user’s vision), and all sorts of other technology.  Perry names his Brainpal “Asshole” and the humor continues.

In fact, the first 100 pages are almost all humor, as Scalzi introduces us to the universe he has created.  Even the basic training Perry gets tossed into is mostly light-hearted and fun.  The novel tells us of Perry’s acclimation to his new body and he discovery that he excels as a soldier.  Humor reigns for much of this arc of the story.

But… then the war came.

Naturally, war is a complex subject.  And Scalzi is smart enough as an author to treat is as such.  There’s battles that are inevitable, certainly, and these are very well written and interesting

But then there’s the ones that border on cruel and horrible (did I mention the merge of funny and serious?  Try to read the chapter about the Covandu battle without laughing… and then feeling terrible about laughing).  Scalzi has written a great universe with a large number of interesting (and often frightening!) aliens… all of which want humanity to bugger off back to earth, and are more than willing to fight over it.

Perry goes through a lot of strange cycles as he attempts to deal with the fact that he’s a ruthless killing machine and it never comes off as disingenuous, or preachy on the part of Scalzi.  Instead, it feels like natural character progression, which really speaks to Scalzi’s ability to write good characters.

While reading the novel, I almost felt like I was reading a novel of Starship Troopers (and yes, I know there already was a novel…  The movie is different, I hear).  It should be unsurprising, then, that the novel is written very much in the style of Robert Heinlein, or that Scalzi even acknowledges Heinlein’s influence at the back of the book.

After reading Redshirts I knew I wanted to read another Scalzi novel.  I wasn’t sure where to go with, but I’m glad I ended up with Old Man’s War.  It is a part of a series… and I’m generally down on series novels because I hate trying to keep up.  I would much rather have a nice beginning, middle, and end, and be done with it.  But Scalzi’s got me hooked now, the bastard, so I can’t wait to check out the rest of the books in the series.

I would definitely recommend this book to people… even people who don’t normally read sci-fi (or those like myself who abhor military science fiction).  Scalzi’s humor really is the star of the novel and the witty banter carried me through many scientific explanations that I would otherwise be too stupid to understand.