BOOK REVIEW: What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong

What the Hell Did I Just Read (John Dies at the End, #3)What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the third installment in a trilogy that began with “John Dies at the End.” The series takes place in an undisclosed and rundown Midwestern town that is prone to various catastrophic supernatural shenanigans. It’s a humor-horror cross-genre work that is heavier on the former than the latter by virtue of the fact that the tone is consistently lightened by the duo of doofuses’ jokes and unreliable narration – often in the face of apparently calamitous events.

In the first book, the narrator, David, and the titular character, John, consume a drug (street-named “Soy Sauce”) that gives them the ability to see supernatural phenomena to which the general citizenry are blind. This book continues with that idea, but — given their experience with supernatural happenings, limited as it may be – they’ve become paranormal investigators of sorts (usually unpaid and sometimes without anyone asking for their services.) Also, Amy becomes not only a more firmly established love interest to David, but also a full-fledged member of the team – albeit the one that plays straight-[wo]man to the buffoonery of the other two.

The central event in this story is a child abduction that turns into a chain of abductions, but soon it becomes in doubt whether the children ever existed in the first place – or whether they are mass delusions implanted by a monstrous source. The book unfolds as the story of the trio trying to find the “children,” to find out what their true nature is, and then to figure out what to do about them. The villain’s henchman is capable of shape-shifting and takes several forms throughout the book – including that of David, thus casting suspicion upon him.

The author takes an interesting approach to perspective. The perspective shifts between David, John, and Amy, but only the David parts are written in first person (John and Amy are allotted sections from their perspective, but they are written in third-person limited perspective.) There are section headings to clarify whose perspective is being used and so it’s not hard to follow (even context would provide a great clue.) The shifting perspectives serves three purposes. First, one can see points in time during which David is not present, allowing the team to divide and conquer and for humorous confusion to be exploited. Second, it allows one to see the difference between the various accounts of the same event, which is helpful in building confidence about what actually happened — given the unreliable narration. Third, it allows for unreliable narration to be used for comedic effect. John, in particular, is famous for being especially unreliable among the unreliable narrators, though most of his embellishment is along sexual lines. [Amy is the most reliable in that she isn’t prone to flights of fancy. However, she has no ability to see through the shapeshifters and implanted hallucinations, and so she might – in fact — be the least reliable.]

There is not a strong and satisfying conclusion to the story. In part, this is because it’s not entirely clear what really transpired. We know at the end that there is another version of events out there, an account written by a scholar of the paranormal who is a secondary character in the latter half of the book. However, it also seems that the author tries to end one the lesson that sometimes the best thing to do is to wait and see, and not create problems by one’s need to be active. That is a fine lesson, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying conclusion to the story. There is also a muddled motivation of the “missing children.” I don’t think this lack of a definitive ending is about setting up a fourth entry in the series because the author states only vague intentions to (possibly) continue the series at some undefined point in the future. I also don’t think it’s a matter of having painted himself into a corner, but it maybe that he’s trying to say something about what really happened that I didn’t actually get. That’s a risk with so much going on in a multi-perspective, unreliably-narrated book.

There is a humorous attempt to engage with the challenge of mental illness, with John and Amy encouraging David to get help toward the end of the book. [This is also addressed in the epilogue.]

This is certainly a fun read. It’s humorous throughout. The story isn’t the strongest (or perhaps isn’t the clearest.) If you’ve read the other books, or at least the first one, and enjoyed it, I’d recommend you give this one a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Chu, Vol. 1 by John Layman and Dan Boultwood

Chu, Vol, 1Chu, Vol, 1 by John Layman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: January 26, 2021

 

The unique element of this book is its food-centric premise, and – in particular – the existence of food-based extrasensory perception. The central character, Saffron Chu, is able to read the mind of anyone nearby, if she eats the exact same thing that person is consuming as he or she consumes it. Saffron is part of a criminal gang that conducts high-value burglaries. Saffron’s brother, Tony, has a different (and much grosser) food ESP in that he can get psychic impressions from sampling the deceased at crime scenes (i.e. a bit like “iZombie” but he doesn’t have to eat brains; it can be blood or viscera that he tastes.) [Actually, his power is broader than that in that he can get impressions off of anything he eats, except – for some reason – beets, but the tasting of blood and gore is most relevant to his role in this story.] Tony is a police detective.

The story begins with the crew that Saffron belongs to bungling the burglary of a powerful crime boss. Keeping with the critical role of food, the burglary fails because a city-wide outbreak of food poisoning attributable to tainted chicken strikes part of the crew, and only Saffron and her charming, if douchey, Dick Dastardly-looking boyfriend – Eddie Molay – escape. The rest of the story revolves around Saffron and Eddie trying to survive and escape revenge attacks from the crime-lord who they attempted to rob. As the couple is doing so, Tony and his partner are assigned to solve the murders of the burglary-gone-awry from which Saffron and Eddie escaped, as well as some of the subsequent cases that ensue.

Family is a major element of the story’ tension. The cat-and-mouse between Tony and Saffron is only part of this, though it is a central element of the story. These characters are also put in situations in which they must determine if family comes before the other things they value, and they must cope with the fact that whatever they do happens within a familial context – i.e. they each have to face the shame of the family knowing who they truly are.

The art is whimsical, colorful, and easy to follow. The classic cartoony nature of the drawings is beneficial in maintaining a tone that is lighthearted, despite the many gruesome deaths that are depicted in graphic, but comically absurd ways.

This volume collects the first five issues (#1-5) of the series. I enjoyed the story, which was straightforward and entertaining. The premise of the book is unique, if odd — but better bizarre than cliché.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

The Magician's Nephew (Chronicles of Narnia, #1)The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Controversy swirls around this kid-friendly fantasy novel, a controversy not dissimilar to that which plays out among diehard “Star Wars” fans. This book was the sixth of seven books to be written by Lewis as part of what became “The Chronicles of Narnia,” but it’s a prequel that describes the creation of Narnia. Therefore, some people claim that it must be read first because it shows the dawn of the alternate world on which the rest of the series is based. Others, however, insist that the books should be read in the order written, i.e. beginning with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” [Lest one think one is offending the author’s sensibilities by reading this one first, it should be pointed out that Lewis, himself, said he had no intention of writing more than the first volume when he started, and – therefore — it’s not as though reading this one first is an assault on his plans.] While I have no dog in the fight, per se, this is the first book of this series that I’ve read. I intend to read “Lion / Witch / Wardrobe” at some point, as it is one of the most popular books in the series. [After that, we’ll see; I’m not a huge fan of series books.]

The titular nephew is a boy whose mother is ill and his father is working in India, and, therefore, the boy and his sick mom are living with an aunt and uncle. Soon after Digory meets the next-door-neighbor girl, Polly, who will be his partner in adventure, the young explorers accidentally stumble into the uncle’s office / laboratory. The uncle is what Christopher Booker calls a “Dark Father-figure / Tyrant” – i.e. he is a manipulative and cowardly old man who uses others recklessly to his own advantage. In the case of Digory and Polly, he tricks the girl into donning a ring that will send her into a parallel universe, and then he manipulates Digory into going after her so that he can get a report in order to learn what is on the other side (The rings come in pairs and she has no “return ring.”) [Note: for the adult reader — and even many older and / or more sophisticated young readers – the weakest part of this book is the fact that the uncle was able to create these rings when it’s clear he doesn’t even know how they work. This element requires one to check one’s credulity at the door, and just accept the answer is “magic.” It is, after all, a kid’s book.]

The ring transports the dynamic duo to a forest that serves as a transshipment station between worlds. It is a quiet and peaceful place. Once Digory follows Polly through, the natural question arises as to whether they should go straight back home or check out one of the other worlds. They decide to go into another world to see what it’s like. One of the prevailing themes of this book is the very Biblical question of how one confronts temptation. When they get to the parallel world, they find that its inhabitants have been frozen by some sort of magic. The first [major] temptation of the book regards whether they should ring a bell, an action that will have unknown consequences. In a switch on the Bible story, this time the girl is the voice of reason who urges against temptation, while Digory is quite insistent and – ultimately — gets his way. This unfreezes the world, waking up a beautiful “queen” who turns out to be a witch and completing a collapse of the city that the freezing had interrupted. When Digory and Polly escape back to the forest, they unwittingly bring the Witch along with them, and – even worse – she manages to follow them back to their world.

While the Witch doesn’t retain all her magical powers on Earth, she is quite strong and does manage to create quite a ruckus. Realizing he is responsible for the mayhem, Digory realizes he must get rid of the Witch. In the process of trying to get the Witch back to her own world, Digory, Polly, the magician / uncle, a cabman, and the cabman’s horse are pulled into a different alternate world, a world where Aslan, the lion, is in the process of creating Narnia. The Witch escapes off to do mischief, happy to be back in a place of magic. In Narnia, some of the animals are of an intelligent / talking variety, and – as it happens – this includes the cabman’s horse, Fledge.

Digory believes that Narnia, being a magical place, might have something that can save his ill mother. While he tries to get Aslan to give him some such magical medicine, what Aslan actually gives him is an opportunity for redemption, a chance to again face temptation and to decide whether he will do the right thing. This opportunity involves Digory, Polly, and Fledge going on a mission for a magical MacGuffin, a mission that ultimately, Digory – alone — can complete.

I read an illustrated version of this book. The illustrations might be nice for reading to children, though they didn’t add a lot for adult readers, and were fairly sparsely placed throughout the story.

If one can get past the implausibility of the uncle – who is a bit of a doofus – creating these high-powered magic rings that allow trans-dimensional travel, a power beyond that of the Witch who is shown to be in all ways more advanced than the uncle with respect to magic (except, with regards to the rings,) then the rest of the story is reasonably sound for a fantasy novel. I found the book to be engaging and worth reading. As I said, I can’t say whether it is better to read this volume first or sixth, but it does read as a standalone story.

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BOOK REVIEW: Kill a Man by Steve Orlando

Kill A ManKill A Man by Steve Orlando
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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James Bellyi is a closeted gay mixed martial arts fighter in contention for the middleweight belt. Amid the pre-fight smack talk, Bellyi is outed by his opponent, the man who current holds the title. The dropping of this bomb throws Bellyi’s career into disarray, his gym quietly drops him, the fight promoter overturns Bellyi’s previous fight, saying that he cheated under the referee’s nose, the organization – name “EFC” for legal reasons, I presume – fearing that much of its fanbase is not ready for a gay champion.

When the EFC finds itself in a bind because losing an injured headliner threatens to bleed the interest out of its upcoming event, they are forced to give Bellyi another shot to work back to a title-fight. With no one in his corner – literally — Bellyi manages a victory, but he knows he’ll need a coach to succeed in the title fight against the man who publicly outed him.

This is where things get interesting. Bellyi’s father, DJ Bellyi, had died due to fight-related injuries when James was still a boy. DJ Bellyi had been trying to stigmatize his opponent, Xavier Mayne, with anti-gay slurs, in part to get Mayne of his game and in part — we learn — because the senior Bellyi was genuinely a homophobic bigot. However, instead of knocking Mayne off his game, what DJ succeeded in doing was throwing a legendarily powerful striker into a seething rage.

While James Bellyi always despised Mayne for killing his father, when he finds himself facing a title fight without “a corner” and with all odds against him, Bellyi decides to pursue Mayne as a coach. Reluctantly, Mayne agrees. This creates overlapping stories between James and Mayne, and the core question is whether the younger generation can learn from what the previous generation went through. We learn that Mayne was traumatized by DJ Bellyi’s death. It’s also about whether and – if so – how the world has changed on a societal level in the intervening years.

I found this book to have an intriguing premise. It’s a simple story. It may seem like I gave it all away in the review, but reading the back-cover blurb gives a reader at least as much insight into the key story elements as did my description. There’s not a lot by way of extra layers. So, its more about whether the details of the story (e.g. the characters’ interactions) resonate with the reader than whether the reader will find some huge unexpected twist. The art is easy enough to follow. The artist uses different color palettes to differentiate different blocks of panels, I believe this is for the purpose of establishing emotional tone (but, perhaps, I misunderstood what was meant to be conveyed and it’s more about differentiating scenes.)

I enjoyed this book, and if you like fight stories you’ll likely enjoy it. It’s like “Rocky” but with the underdog status being less by way of being from down-and-out circumstance and more based in bigotry.

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BOOK REVIEW: iZOMBIE, VOL. 1: DEAD TO THE WORLD by Chris Roberson

iZombie, Vol. 1: Dead to the WorldiZombie, Vol. 1: Dead to the World by Chris Roberson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“iZombie” is the story of Gwen, a zombie who works as a grave-digger to allow her access to ethically-sourced brains (at least compared to the alternative.) Gwen lives in the cemetery, has a colorful cast of friends and confreres, including: a ghost, a were-dog, and the odd human being. The niche idea that separates this from the vast zombie lore is that Gwen takes on memories and personality traits of the ex-owner of the most recent brain she consumes. She then uses this knowledge to do a favor for the deceased, be it solving their murder, or otherwise. In this volume, following visions of the deceased family man leads Gwen back to a spooky house that she and her ghost-girl pal had trick-or-treated at on Halloween.

I read this because I was intrigued after seeing the CW television series which is based upon this comic book. For those who’ve seen the show and are wondering, the book and show have very little in common beyond the premise of a female zombie who takes on memories and personality traits of the former owner of the brain she consumes. In the tv series, the main character is Liv Moore, a doctor in the medical examiner’s office, and the series is much more of a police procedural set in a city experiencing a covert pandemic of Zombification. Both the comic and the tv series are light-hearted takes on zombie tropes, but the tv series reminds me more of “Psych” than it does, say, “The Walking Dead.” [An individual who people believe is a psychic, but who solves crimes in another way altogether – i.e. “Psych” with Zombies.] Comparing the comic book is more difficult, but I would say it has a definite “Scooby-Doo” vibe, except the monsters (e.g. vampires) are real and not the scary ploy of a crotchety old man (and there’s a nefarious guild of monster hunters in the mix.)

I enjoyed reading this volume. It wasn’t as satisfying as it could be because it seemed like it was more about setting up a larger story than it was about telling a story within the volume itself. That is, I was left in a somewhat unsatisfied state of having more questions outstanding than I felt were answered. To be fair, there is a story – i.e. an answer as to why Gwen’s “brain of the month” died, but we don’t really know whether that answer can be trusted because we know the responsible party has some (presently ill-defined) ulterior motive. Perhaps, it is just that, as readers, we enter the protagonist’s world “in medias res” and then are given a huge helping to chew on that will not be paid off until later. The combination of these two factors causes the volume’s story arc to get lost.

I enjoyed this comic book, overall. I will make the unpopular and anti-urbane comment that the tv series seemed a bit cleverer and more intriguing to me. That said, it’s an interesting concept and a nice light-hearted read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Kink ed. by R.O. Kwon & Garth Greenwell

Kink: StoriesKink: Stories by R.O. Kwon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: February 9, 2021

 

This is a collection of fourteen erotic short stories with a common theme of asymmetric power dynamics. [That’s an excessively syllabic way of saying Dominant / submissive, top / bottom, or Sadist / masochist relationships.] As is common with anthologies, a meaningful overall rating isn’t really possible. I found a couple of the included stories to be highly evocative or engaging, many were good, while others were just okay – plagued by the usual suspects that impair erotica such as characters without depth / intrigue or thin story. That said, none of the stories were poorly written.

To be fair, a broadly appealing erotica collection is a tall order. For one thing, erotica is the most idiosyncratic of genres. Like Horror, if it’s too tame for one’s tastes, it’s boring; if it’s too wild, it grosses one out — or otherwise become unreadable. [I suspect few (if any) readers will have the latter problem with this collection; some might have the former. (That is, given the likely readership demographic.) If you are picking up a book on kinky erotica, you are unlikely to be triggered or otherwise shocked or offended by anything contained herein.] In addition to the varied levels of intensity readers look for in erotica, there is the question of whether varied sexual orientations and identities are of interest to a given reader. This book covers a lot of ground in this regard, including heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and transgender characters.

Because the anthology is so qualitatively and topically varied, I’ll say a little about each story.

1.) “The Cure” by Melissa Febos: I found this to be a strange choice for the collection and – particularly – for opening the collection. It’s about a lesbian who decides to have sex with straight men because she’s having trouble in her customary dating pool, but since she likes sex, she decides to pursue it in the form least laden with complication. So far, it could be fine, but it devolves into a laundry list of what she finds disgusting about intimacy with men. Now, one would expect a lesbian to find having sex with a man unappealing; just as anyone might when having sex outside their preferred orientation. However, it does raise the question: Why am I supposed to enjoy reading about this in a book of erotica? I think it’s fair to say that reading about people enjoying having sex is more erotic than hearing about people who aren’t enjoying their experience.

2.) “Best Friendster Date Ever” by Alexander Chee: This is a story about a hookup between two gay men who meet via a dating site, and who find themselves in a mutually appealing top / bottom sexual experience. While it’s not a story with a great deal of depth, it would have made a better opening because at least if features two people who are having intercourse because they like having sex with each other [as opposed to because there’s nothing on Netflix and each is the best the other can do on short notice.]

3.) “Trust” by Larissa Pham: As the name suggests, this story revolves around the issue of trust and the challenges that subject presents in a relationship of dominance and submission. When the couple goes on a getaway, the story mirrors the experience of trust-building in sexual encounters with the non-sexual circumstance of the male (dominant) driving off for the day without telling the female (submissive) that he’s leaving — or when / if he’ll be back. There’s some interesting insight into submissive psychology to be seen in this story.

4.) “Safeword” by R.O. Kwon: In this story, we see an issue that was touched upon in the previous on (and which later recurs,) which is what happens when one member of an intimate relationship is more into the kinky aspect than is the other. In this case, it’s a sadomasochistic relationship in which the female masochist is more desirous of the sadomasochistic aspect of the relation than is her male partner. The couple goes to a dominatrix so that the masochist can get what she desires and the man can learn to better pleasure [i.e. pain-ify?] his partner.

5.) “Canada” by Callum Angus: This atmospheric piece describes a girl’s relationship with a female to male transgender. It’s one of the shorter pieces, and – as the title suggests – it plays heavily on the setting, Canada, to create ambiance.

6.) “Oh, Youth” by Brandon Taylor: The story centers on an attractive young man named Grisha, and the appeal he has for some middle-aged people – particularly the infatuation that develops between the husband in a married couple that he is staying with temporarily during a college break.

7.) “Impact Play” by Peter Mountford: A recently divorced man enters into a serious relationship with the woman he was having an affair with when his marriage ended. He and this woman share an interest in kink and fetish sexuality that his previous wife apparently did not. We don’t learn much about his ex-wife, but we do learn quite a bit about his cousin, Betsy, whom he treats as a confidant and with whom he has a special relationship.

8.) “Mirror, Mirror” by Vanessa Clark: Diary entry of a well-endowed transgender escort. The story explores the fetishized nature of the main character’s occupation.

9.) “Reach” by Roxane Gay: A man and wife enjoy the former tormenting the latter with a steady stream of indignities as a fetish in their romantic life. It’s one of the more sensual pieces of writing in the anthology.

10.) “Gospodar” by Garth Greenwell: I would rate this as one of the two strongest entries in terms of story. It’s not the typical erotica in which the character comes out the other side of the story completely unchanged except for being momentarily spent. A submissive gay man meets up with a dominant in Romania that he learned about through the internet. The interaction starts off swimmingly, but it takes a hard turn south. The story is quite visceral, but provokes thought on the nature of consent where power dynamics are in play.

11.) “Scissors” by Kim Fu: This story is set amid a stage show in which sharp objects are used to undress a performer in motion. Attendees aren’t just after the prurient appeal of the striptease, but the vicarious visceral fear.

12.) “The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror” by Carman Maria Machado: This story has some superficial commonalities with the previous one – i.e. it largely takes place in a theater in which frightening shows are put on that feature a damsel-esque central character. However, it’s also quite distinct from the previous story. It’s the longest story and is the other entry that I consider strongest in terms of narrative qualities. The central character is a young girl [called “Bess” though that isn’t her real name] who becomes the protégé of the main character of the aforementioned horror show. The story is all about the changing nature of their relationship as the protégé grows from girl to woman.

13.) “Retouch / Switch” by Cara Hoffman: This ethereal piece is about fluctuation in sexuality and identity. It’s one of the shorter pieces, and features a dreamlike quality.

14.) “Emotional Technologies” by Chris Kraus: This piece frames the dominant / submissive relationship in artistic and philosophical terms. It’s erudite and among the most thought-provoking pieces in the collection. In particular, it discusses the role of an acting “technology” (most people would call it a “method”) that uses somewhat cruel and savage tactics to achieve the desired outcome. Because I’m a nerd who likes thinking about things that are “out there,” I really enjoyed this story. Others may find that the erotic adventure is undone by the philosophizing.

If you’re intrigued by what you’ve read so far, you should definitely give this one a read. While it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s well-written and has broad appeal. It takes chances in some ways, but stays inside the lines of most readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

A Prayer for Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an oldie (originally published in 1989,) but I just got to it and must say that it’s one of the most skillfully crafted novels I’ve read in some time. One indication of this is that it is both highly readable and often nonlinear in storytelling. Stories that jump about in time have to keep the reader in a rapt state of attention and need to be written with multiple cues as to where one is in the timeline. Otherwise, if one misses a time transition, one is lost — and then the reading becomes a tedious slog. Irving maintains one’s attention through masterful revelation. The reader is always asking questions that are teased out until (at the optimal time) a revelation is made, but by that time one has a new slate of questions – all of which are resolved by book’s end.

The story revolves around the relationship between the titular character, Owen Meany, and the narrator – who is also Meany’s best friend, John Wheelwright. Owen Meany is a fascinating character mentally, physically, and spiritually. Mentally, he is at the top of his class and is often the smartest person in the room even when the room contains adults. Conversely, physically he is the tiniest kid in class and never grows out of that position, and he has a strange and grating voice that also isn’t cured by puberty. Spiritually, he is not only a person of iron-clad faith, he also believes he is God’s instrument. [Faith and doubt is a major theme of this novel.] The close relationship between Wheelwright and Meany is fire-forged by the trauma of Meany hitting a foul ball that careens into the temporal lobe of John’s mother, killing her instantaneously (and, perhaps more crucially, the relationship survives the the revelation that Owen believes he is God’s instrument.) It should be pointed out that Owen is also devastated by the foul ball killing. John’s mother, Tabitha Wheelwright, is as much a mother figure to him as to John, both because Owen’s mother is ambiguously not right in the head and because Tabitha says she will pay for anything necessary (beyond the scholarship he is sure to get) to allow Owen to go to the Gravesend Academy. (John comes from money but Owen is from a struggling blue-collar family, and so Owen couldn’t go to the prestigious school otherwise – even though he is academically much more suitable for such an educational environment.)

One fascinating aspect of character development is that Irving keeps the reader in Owen Meany’s corner. This is no small feat as the boy can be a bit of a pill, being a self-important know-it-all with a Biblical level of faith and (in some cases) dogmatism, as well as – oddly enough – a palpable disrespect for his own parents. One way this is done is by making Meany relatively reasonable, moral, and consistent – i.e. even when he is irksome it is usually in opposition to even more irksome forces. The other way that the author achieves this is by showing us that all the likeable characters in the book stay in Owen’s corner, as well. The most telling example of this is when John admits that he secretly hasn’t forgiven the batter two before Owen in the lineup for a play that allowed his friend to get to bat [while Owen, himself, is exonerated.] When John’s grandmother, who initially finds Owen to be painfully annoying, becomes Owen’s benefactor and primary maternal figure we know that there is something about this guy.

As kids who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, Owen and John enter adulthood at the height of the Vietnam conflict, and the story climax revolves around there diverging paths. Neither is a fan of the war, but Owen believes he has been called by God to participate for a very specific purpose. Therefore, he ends up in the bizarre situation of struggling to get sent to war while the Army finds him unfit for combat because of his diminutive stature (and his friends and family think he’s lost his mind.) The climax and conclusion tie up all the loose-ends generated by the book, including a few that one may have dismissed as purposeless “quirky behavior.”

Interspersed throughout the book are flash forwards to the “present day” (mid / late 1980’s.) These were the least appealing part of the book to read, though they did serve a purpose. For the most part, these sections consisted of John Wheelwright ranting about American politics or discussing his troubled relationship with the church he attends or the school at which he teaches. Ultimately, I saw these as a way to show John’s loathing for the American government and America because he believes they stole the genius of Owen Meany from him and from the world. As I was reading them, I wondered if they weren’t Irving’s way of getting across a loathing for the Reagan Administration and the Iran-Contra Affair. However, these parts also created an evocative lonely feel because one notices all the characters with strong individual identities are absent. This is not to say that the character of John Wheelwright / narrator is ill-developed, but he is a bit milquetoast compared to Owen or even characters like Hester or Grandmother. John’s obsession with national and institutional entities rather than individuals makes one feel the loss at points throughout that John has felt since Owen’s demise.

If you read fiction, this is a must-read. It is storytelling at its best. Despite excellent foreshadowing that lets the reader know the the book is on a tragic course, how this plays out is full of unexpected turns. The book is emotionally charged and intellectually engaging. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Boys, Vol. 2: Get Some by Garth Ennis

The Boys, Volume 2: Get SomeThe Boys, Volume 2: Get Some by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This volume continues the Garth Ennis series that takes as its premise that the superheroes are villains and the real heroes are anti-heroes. It consists of two different four-issue stories. The first half (issues 7 – 10 [of the comic series overall]) is the subtitular story “Get Some,” and the back half (issues 11 – 14) is entitled “Glorious Five Year Plan.”

“Get Some” pits the Boys against Tek Knight and SwingWing as the anti-supe team investigates the killing of a young gay man. Tek Knight is a sex-addicted cross between Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne (i.e. wealthy, intellectually-gifted, and without superpowers.) SwingWing was originally Tek Knight’s sidekick, Laddio, but became a marquee character in his own right (á la Dick Grayson’s Robin to Nightwing transformation.) Of course, Butcher and his team, “the Boys,” aren’t social justice warriors out to solve all societal ills, but – instead — are interested in the case mostly for the leverage it will give them over a couple of key members of the superhero group called Payback.

This is a simple story, and perhaps the most thought-provoking part of it is how the characters respond to homosexual individuals. On the one hand, there is Billy Butcher who talks in such un-PC terms that he would certainly be labeled homophobic by anyone hearing him talk, but yet he is both comfortable being around gay people and shows no disrespect in his behavior toward them. On the other hand, one has Hughie, who is very uncomfortable with Butcher’s politically incorrect speech, but is also subtly uncomfortable interacting with gays. As the movie “Get Out” considered whether “soft racism” can be at least as disconcerting as hardcore bigotry, this story considers whether “soft homophobia” isn’t something that presents a more serious long-run threat to better relations.

The second half of the book presents a more intriguing story. In “Glorious Five Year Plan,” the Boys go to Russia to get to the bottom of a case involving an exploding head. [FYI – this has nothing to do with the exploding heads from the second season of the Amazon Prime tv series.] The Boys team up with an old retired superhero from the Soviet days, “Love Sausage,” whose costume is way too tight. The story revolves around a nefarious plot and international intrigue that turns out to be much bigger than was first thought. When Butcher stumbles onto warehouse where about 150 superheroes are hanging out, he knows someone has big plans. The story features an intriguing villain, Little Nina, who is physically tiny but manages to have an outsized menace.

I enjoyed both these stories. It’s nice that each is self-contained. If you like the idea of superhero team-up parodies, this series is worth looking into. If you’ve been watching the tv series, don’t worry that the books will be spoiled, they are very different in many ways.

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BOOK REVIEW: Psi-Lords by Fred Van Lente

Psi-LordsPsi-Lords by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: December 2, 2020

Four individuals find themselves with autobiographical amnesia and superpowers in an unfamiliar deep-space world. Over the course of the story, they discover that they are a multinational team of Earth astronauts deployed to this location because it’s on a collision course with planet Earth. However, they are instantly caught up in the political and interspecies squabbles of the roving star system on which they’ve found themselves. Even once they figure out their mission, they have to contend with forces that have opposing objectives.

This volume (consisting of eight issues) seemingly suffered from a problem of not being constructed from story foundations upward. Rather, it felt like the author said, “We need these cool happenings to occur. Let’s write /draw them and then at some point we can figure out why they might happen.” If that sounds like devoting all energies to figuring out how to pimp out a penthouse without knowing anything about how the basement and ground floor will be arranged, that’s about the size of it. The central premise doesn’t make much sense, so the things that this book does right don’t matter so much – though they do exist.

To be fair, the most glaring point of incredulity in the book is later explained more adequately as part of the resolution, but by that time one is so soured to the book that it doesn’t matter [plus, it’s only one of several points of incredulity.] The issue in questions revolves around the fact that we are led to believe that these four have superpowers because they were given them in order to guard some dangerous (but ill-defined) prison population. Imagine you are a tourist traveling in a foreign country and people from the government hand you a machine-gun and rocket launcher, and say, “Please guard our most dangerous prisoners.” The reader is presented with a premise like this as the rationale for these four lead characters having superpowers. It seems like the author wanted to make a superhero story, but he didn’t want to waste a lot of energy thinking of why or how this team of people would have superpowers. [Yes, I know that, from radioactivity to murdered mothers, superhero origins are notoriously tenuous, but this one is so bad that it actively captures one’s attention, hindering one’s capacity to stick with what is going on in the story.] As I said, explanation is revised at the end, and the revision is a bit better, but by that time the sins of story have piled up so high that it doesn’t free the book of the stench of story failure. (I think the author wanted to keep origin information secret till the end, and that killed the story. He either could have made an earlier strategic reveal or thought up a more logical explanation.)

Because the lead characters are from Earth (i.e. in a universe where we know how physics work) there are some huge issues on the science front as well. I’m neither a science major nor one to nit-pick all the little physics violations that sci-fi stories are rife with, but I think if one so much as passed eighth grade science, one will find all the glaring impossibilities of this book annoying. [And if you really know anything about science, you’ll be mortified by how ridiculous it is at every turn.] You may have caught the biggest of these in that it’s supposed to be a star flying through space. There seems to be a lack of understanding that a star that gets relatively small becomes even more immensely dense, such that gravitational effects are still in effect. Setting the story in another world would eliminate this, but then one wouldn’t have the emotional appeal of characters from Earth. [Quite frankly, I also don’t think anyone (but the biggest science sticklers) would notice or care if they were engaged in the story, but because motivation is unclear and undercut from the start, it’s impossible to become lost in the story (and easy to find faults.)]

I found the art a bit odd and frenetic at first, but it grew on me. I can’t say that if there was nothing wrong with the story, I would have been troubled by the graphics at all. There were a number of little things that were not great, e.g. quips that didn’t land, etc. that wouldn’t have detracted from my enjoyment if there weren’t so many major story elements that didn’t make any sense. As I said, even huge science problems probably would have gone unnoticed if the story wasn’t a flaming train wreck by the time that I had the free cognitive capacity to notice those errors (i.e. because I wasn’t intrigued or emotionally engaged in the story.)

I think there are some interesting ideas in the book — such as the Scion character backstory. With different execution, e.g. revealing information differently and building more sound and logical motivations, this book could have worked. Despite being intrigued by the blurb, I wasn’t thrilled with this book, but your results may vary.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Inferno [a.k.a. Hell] by Henri Barbusse

The InfernoThe Inferno by Henri Barbusse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a translation of the French novel, L’Enfer, which is alternatively entitled Hell or The Inferno in various English language editions. It’s a short work with a simple premise, but is nevertheless psychologically and philosophically intriguing. An unnamed narrator, lodging at a rooming house, discovers that he can see and hear into an adjacent room. The book describes what this man witnesses, as well as doing some philosophizing about what he sees and the conversations he hears.

While the events of the book are voyeuristic and said voyeur does witness various sexual dalliances, it’s not a graphic – and certainly not a pornographic – work. The author is as much interested in the pillow talk as he is in the acts of intimacy, which it’s not clear how well he can see anyways.

It should also be pointed out that not all of what the narrator witnesses is carnal in nature. It could be argued that the most fascinating scenes involve an old man who is dying. In addition to the non-erotic intimacy of dying, itself, there’s a scene in which a priest comes to offer the dying man last rites. At first the old man is agreeable enough to this, but as the priest’s dogmatism and accusatory tone becomes oppressive, the man has enough and tries to send the priest away. The scene turns expectation on its head as the priest is so fearful for the man that he ultimately tries to just get the man to say the bare minimum needed to ensure his salvation. But, by that time the man — who doesn’t seem fearful at all – is no longer interested.

Another intriguing scene sits toward the end of the book. It’s one in which the story goes meta- on itself. The narrator, this time dining at a restaurant, witnesses a well-known writer who is sitting at a nearby table tell his guests about his new writing project. What he describes is the same as the book one has just read (in subject but not in tone) – i.e. it involves a boarder who is a voyeur, peeking in on an adjacent room. The difference is that the fictitious author wants to make it all humorous. This offends the narrator’s sensibilities. The narrator presumably wishes such a book to be more like the one that one is almost finish reading – deeper and more philosophical.

I found this book to be thought-provoking and evocative. It puts the reader into the voyeur’s seat and shows one people’s behavior when they think they are alone, they think they are only with a loved one, or they are engaged in intimate activities with someone with whom they don’t have a truly intimate relationship. It makes one think about how well one really reads the people one comes in contact with.

If you are interested in the psychology of intimacy and solitary behavior, this book raises some interesting considerations. I’d highly recommend it for individuals not too weirded out by the book’s voyeuristic aspect.

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