December 3, 2015

Stardate: This Is Fine -- A Book With A One-Word Title

I love graphic novels. I love graphic novels with cute art, snappy dialogue, and a great visual concept.

 I freaking love Nimona.
Nimona was apparently a webcomic before it was published into the book form that I found at the library and proceeded to read and then hug for a few hours after it was done. So maybe some of you are familiar with it. And you can cry with me over this graphic novel and how perfect it is.

Nimona is a shapeshifter. Ballister is a super villain. Nimona wants to be Ballister's sidekick. Ballister doesn't want a sidekick. He gets a sidekick anyway, who is sometimes, pointedly, a shark. And a fun-tastic time was had by all, except probably Ambrosius Goldenloin, who was cursed from birth not to have a good time because he'll always have that last name.

Noelle Stevenson is a genius with her art. It's simple and cute, and it'll have you rolling in stitches, but then it'll suddenly, treacherously fill up with this straightforward, heart-rending pathos, and you'll find your soul crying softly along with your eyes. The world - a sort of fantasy world with modern tech, a genius move - is perfectly suited to this style. "Sometimes loads of fun, sometimes numbingly tragic" could be the slogan for every part of Nimona.

It's really the relationships that make this story, though. The Nimona/Ballister dynamic is the centerpiece, and it's perfect - actually perfect. Ballister is the grumpy supervillain you always love to love, because they actually have a center of melted chocolate and broken promises, and Nimona... well, Nimona's characterization has to be seen to be believed. They work together with all the bickering and suppressed emotion that you could want.

I won't even get into Ballister and Ambrosius, and Ballister's backstory. And Nimona's backstory! And Ambrosious's role throughout the story as the designated hero! It's all ridiculously clever and surprisingly heavy for such a cutesy art style and I really don't want to review too much, just in case it takes anything away.

If you like graphic novels and great writing, read Nimona. You won't regret it.

Stardate: Comfortably Numb -- A Book With A Color In The Title

I saw the cover on the "New Arrivals" shelf at the library. I had to have it - that cover! Surely the story inside wouldn't be as beautiful as this Book With A Color In (Or As) The Title.

Would you believe that Vermillion actually is as awesome as that cover? Stop. Just look at it. Go to the Goodreads or Amazon page and look at it in full screen. Just look for a while.

Once you're done, you can rest assured in the knowledge that this book is as amazing as the cover. That dusky, starry, hand-scrawled feeling? Yeah, it's all there.

Vermillion is a sort of alternate-history kind of affair, a Western steampunk with added ghost-hunting and talking bears. It's got all manner of gender-bending excitement and understated romance, for one thing, all of which is almost flawlessly integrated into the actual, really exciting plot. Racial tensions, too? Yep. Flawless. Does the book actually get around to storytelling with all this diversity that Tanzer is throwing around? You'd better believe it.

Though all of that is present in Vermillion, the story and characters are always front and center. How's this for a hook: Lou Merriwether, a Chinese Stetson-wearing ghost-hunter, goes out west to find out why Chinese workers keep dying when they go to work at a mysterious sanatorium that claims to have the Fountain of Youth. Interested yet? If you're not, then you shouldn't read the book, because this is exactly the story you get, with an added metric crapton of character development and growth.

Lou is a fantastic main, for one thing. She's hardbitten and tough, but it's not that annoying kind of "I'm a Tough Girl (TM)" that gets thrown around. She's actually tough, but she's actually human, and these two things create conflict sometimes - but it also helps her get things done. She gets things done really well, too. She's sometimes hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking, but almost always 100% awesome.

This world is so fun, too! Tanzer incorporates Chinese ghost stories and creatures, which is especially fascinating for a story set in the 1800s. I'm still not sure why there are talking bears, but I just rolled with it, and it wasn't a big deal. And there are vampires, too. Probably some other creatures, but I forget just now.

It's an adult novel, so there are some adult themes. But if you're comfortable with that, and you need some rollicking Western steampunk with a great female lead? Vermillion is the book with a color in the title that you really, really need. Then you can sit with me in my prayer circle for a sequel.

Stardate: I Can Do This -- A Classic Romance

Some long years back, when I was around twelve or thirteen, I went on an airplane trip to Philadelphia. It was my first airplane ride ever. At the airport, I got the only book that didn't look scarily modern. I think I knew it was A Classic Romance, which was a draw, but, for some reason, I never read it.

It's probably good that I didn't, because Wuthering Heights is a complicated mess of terrible people and terrible actions, and I'm not sure if I would have understood it then. Maybe I would have, but I'm glad I didn't. 

I want to suggest that I might have fallen in love with Heathcliff, but I think even me at thirteen would have known better. Heathcliff is a creepy, creepy man.

From watching the Merle Oberon/Laurence Olivier movie, I thought I knew what the story was about. Little did I know that it was even more horrible than the movie! Like, ten times worse than the movie! How about that. It's true: everyone is terrible. Heathcliff is awful - at first, understandably so, but then he just goes off the rails and it's pathetic and a bit scary. (When did people start romanticizing him? I can understand some characters, but Heathcliff? His sad backstory is not nearly sad enough to warrant his later behavior.) Edgar? Kind of pathetic, but sweet... but also still a little creepy. Isabelle? Terrible. Joseph? TERRIBLE. Nelly is the only decent person in this novel, and even she has her moments of questionableness.
I had a whole essay on Cathy. Unfortunately, it's been a while since I read this (in August, ha) and I've forgotten most of it. Suffice it to say, Cathy is the most complex character in the novel, and while I still think she's an awful person - an awful, manipulative, petulant, selfish person - I also think there's a lot to explain it, more so than there is for Heathcliff. Cathy is a tragic figure, wild and untaught, and, ultimately, even if she sort of deserves what she gets, we still feel sad. Because she also sort of didn't.

All those names and family connections were a monster to get through, let me tell you. My southern skills at family trees should have made it easier, but it was really rough in the beginning. No one is judging if you have to map it out for yourself to remember, especially when children start getting named after the previous generation.

Is it worth it, for all the awfulness and the tangle of names? Absolutely. Brontë's language is intricate and descriptive, as plaintive and as wild as her most famous character. You'll be in for the long haul for this lengthy, dense book, but it's worth it. It's definitely worth it.

(If you don't put "Wuthering Heights" on after you finish this book, either the original Kate Bush version or a cover - my favorite is Hayley Westenra's - I will judge you. Hard.)

Stardate: I'm Okay, You're Okay -- A Book I Started But Never Finished

After The Hunger Games, I tried to do the whole "dystopian about a white girl who's special" thing that went around for a while like a weak, sniffelly cold. I remember picking up Matched after reading some great 2-star reviews, and being unable to get past fifty pages or so. This time, I was ready - ready to laugh, ready to tear things apart, ready to hammer another nail into YA dystopia's coffin.

It didn't work.

I mean, in my defense, it's not like it's my new favorite book or anything. I'm not going to go out of my way to defend Matched.

But I gave it three stars, which is more than I expected. Maybe it's because the last dystopia I read was Divergent, which I hated with most of the larger bones in my body. But that was a while back. Maybe it's because green is my favorite color.

Maybe because Ally Condie took a lackluster concept, gave it some lackluster prose and characterization, and somehow managed to... interest me?

Looking back, I'm not sure what I saw in Matched. It was entertaining. Moderately so, but still! Entertaining! 

This is what I said in my Goodreads review:

Things that both Matched and Divergent have (as most YA dystopias do):
--Incredibly flimsy "dystopian" government systems--Questionable writing styles/techniques--Way too many Capitalized Nouns 
What Matched does that Divergent doesn't, however, is have a heroine who isn't a ragefest of hypocrisy, bad decisions, and inconsistent behavior. Not saying that Cassia is a well-written heroine or anything - she's no Katniss. Just saying that, if there were a Battle of Tolerable Personality, Cassia would win, just for being bland and occasionally decent, as opposed to Tris and her gasket-blowing idiocy. 

And it's true. She wasn't dumb! I don't remember ever really getting angry at Cassia, either for a decision she made or because of something she thought. It could be because she's just a little bit too white-bread, but still - not being gif-inducingly stupid is a huge plus for me in the YA dystopian area. (And... if we're being honest... I really liked Ky. Xander was incredibly boring, but Ky was a sweetie. I like that guy. And I worry about him.)

Like I said, the world of Matched is ridiculous, ill-founded, and poorly supported by actual human nature. Most of them are. And seriously, can we get one dystopia that doesn't Capitalize all Important Nouns or sometimes Verbs? But if we're comparing - which isn't nice, but sometimes one has to, when they're deciding what to get at the library or bookstore - Matched is better than a few options I could mention. Not better than Hunger Games, but better than some others. That's about as good as I think we're getting for a while.

Stardate: My Wrist Hurts -- A Book A Friend Recommended

Over this summer, during the week of my birthday, I got a visit from one of my very best friends in the world. This friend had Recommended A Book long ages ago, and just prior to this visit, I had ordered the book. During the visit, I read the book. I'm very glad, but also a little unhappy, because ouch.

Teeth has teeth. Teeth in its prose, in its characterization, in its plot twists, in the way it bites your heart in half. It's that kind of book.

I can't figure out where to start. What about the characters? The characters who are desperately real, even though Mostkowitz's prose is that kind of pseudo magical realism that I tend to despise? They all have their own voices, their own stories, their own struggles, their own way of hurting you. Rudy? I frickin' loved the kid. Teeth? Let me take him home and care for him and help him. Diana? What a fascinating girl; I wish she'd had more page time, maybe her own novel. Rudy's relationship with his family is so important to the novel, too; it's not as important as that between Rudy and Teeth, but it's never shoved to the side. It's part of the situation and part of the conflict, and it's done incredibly.

The concept is as mythical as this gray, windy, stormy novel deserves. An island full of fish that magically make a sick person better? Well, why the heck not? Teeth isn't marketed as a modern-day fairytale, but it should be, because that's exactly the vibe that I get. A bloody, mature fairytale. (Could you find this in the YA section? Beware, because language and themes of sexual abuse abound.) A quasi-love story, the magic of the earth and of love. I'm speaking in metaphors because it's hard to talk about this book straight (haha) - it just sort of slips out of your hands. Like a little silver fish.

As much as her characters hurt me, I think it's Moskowitz's atmosphere that sticks with me most. How she maintains this consistency with the feeling of the island - the wind, the gray, the clouds, the thunderous ocean, the rocks, the sea spray, the cold sand, the dark, the damp - it's beautiful in a brutal way, and it's impossible not to remember it and to feel it. The screaming that she describes... haunting. Haunting, that's the right word.

Can you handle swearing and more mature subject content in your mermaid tales? Please read Teeth. It's worth the bite.

Stardate: Third Time's the Charm -- A Book Published This Year

While I had that little side challenge going with a newly-published book every month, I needed to save something special for this category. Something that I knew I'd love. Something like the sequel to Rachel Hartman's incredible debut Seraphina. 

Seraphina ended satisfactorily, but with plenty of room to expand, to take the story further, to press the boundaries of Hartman's lovely worldbuilding and character development. That's exactly what Shadow Scale did.

Seraphina and Co. travel a lot in Shadow Scale. It's not a boring story, though; Hartman knows how to use judiciously the "so we rode for a month and ended up dirty and hungry in an inn somewhere" trick of all fantasy writers everywhere. But she also sprinkles the travels with their own significances, something that keeps the book rolling at a quick but never hurried pace.

The mythology deepens beautifully in Shadow Scale, shedding light on dragons but also even more on the half-dragons that Seraphina knows exists with her. I absolutely love the half-dragons, by the way, and how they work. No half-dragon is the same, and some are humanoid while some are... well. I suggest reading. But they're all their own persons, and the journey to meet them was so much fun! Hartman manages to characterize these minor half-dragons, significant points in this particular story but rarely given so much space, briefly and potently so that you remember them all in between interacting with them again.

Speaking of deepening mythology - the religious system of Seraphina's world expands, too. Did it expand. Hartman gives  hints about what's going on, but it takes you the whole book to really get the whole picture. And the whole picture is amazing. I won't spoil a thing, because the way it's written is just really, really cool.

As I admitted in a previous review, I'm a character person, but the worldbuilding that went into Seraphina/Shadow Scale is mind-boggling. It might not be as detailed as some - stand down, LOTR fans, I know you're slavering at the jaws now - but Hartman gives the reader a spectacular feeling of realism that you just can't shake. Everything is consistent and lifelike, and all the senses are engaged. Taste? Smell? Sight? Feeling? Sound? All of them! Her style is amazing and I'm always a little bit jealous when I think about it.

While the ending was a bit rushed - a little more explanation and set-up would have been nice - I'm glad to say that Seraphina had a great conclusion in Shadow Scale. Rachel Hartman is a genuine talent and I can't wait to see what she does next.

Stardate: It's Not So Bad Yet -- A Book I Actually Did Read In School (And Many Times After)

Hey, guys. It's time for me to make an insufferable confession. I read every single book I was supposed to read in school. It's true. I'm an arrogant little nerd driven by perfectionism and a slightly obsessive need for completion. However, this is not to say that I enjoyed all or even most of them. Sadly, I hated most of them, or at least resented them for not being much fun. There is one, though, a Book That I Actually Did Read For School and have since come back to over and over and over.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a masterpiece. I really approach this review with fear and trembling because, of all books, Cyrano deserves a great review.

Cyrano de Bergerac, the character, is a magnetic character, a wonderful person who is simultaneously a fascinating, flawed character. How often do you see a character who is both good in the moral and the technical sense? I can probably count them on my fingers. He's brave, generous, selfless, loving, prideful, reckless, brilliant, melodramatic - and we can never forget his inferiority complex the size of France. I've read a couple translations of Cyrano at this point, and none of them ever disappoint in capturing Cyrano's voice, his mesmerizing, enchanting, blood-pounding voice. I don't think you can ruin Cyrano. He's too strong a presence for that.

The story is simple, straightforward - ugly boy loves a beautiful girl, beautiful girl loves a beautiful boy, ugly boy helps beautiful but rather slow boy woo the beautiful girl, girl and boy marry, ugly boy is, as usual, the dream wingman but ultimately left alone, romantically speaking. And then a bit more, but in case no one's read it yet, I won't say anymore.

I see a lot of people insulting Roxanne and Christian, but stop! Don't do that! Let the characters breathe. See them as people. Roxanne isn't vapid, shallow, selfish - she's a girl in love, a girl who also loves her cousin. Cyrano hides his love well! She couldn't know. She has beautiful lines, and she's no doormat love interest. That scene where she rides into the soldiers' camp to bring them food and cheer? She's incredible! And Christian - poor Christian. Maybe his speeches pale in comparison to Cyrano making up and reciting an impromptu poem at a stubborn actor, but stop comparing him. Listen to how honest he is. Do you ever doubt that he truly loves Roxanne? I can't. He's too straightforward, too sincere. And he's a sweetheart, and brave in his own way. (Also, the utter hilarity of his 'nose' scene when Cyrano's trying to tell a story. What a kid.)

The less we say about the final scene, the better. I don't have enough kleenex on hand to take care of the soppy, teary mess I'll become.

Cyrano de Bergerac is the kind of literature I'd call a gateway drug. Want to get someone into the classics? Bypass the 400-page Dickens and Austen novels, put down the Faulkner and - yes, though my heart breaks - even the Shakespeare. Give someone Cyrano (probably the Penguin edition - great readability). It's simple, brief, and beautiful - utterly beautiful. 

Stardate: Here We Go -- A Book That Became A Movie

I actually read this one way back when I was doing good on those deadlines and such. Then, as Yeats said, things fell apart. I had really wanted to actually watch the movie the book was based on before I reviewed it, so I could compare, but alas. All I have to give is a review of one Book That Became A Movie, Neil Gaiman's Stardust.

I have to rally my memory a bit to remember how I enjoyed this book, which is a pretty clear indicator on its own. I know, I know, this is Gaiman. Beloved by all. Stardust is one of his most popular, too (hence the movie, I suppose) and I really wanted to love it.

Going back over the brief Goodreads review I wrote for it, I recall that, though this is supposed to be a romantic novel - at least in some parts - I really didn't enjoy the romance at all. Tristan was kind of an ass, to be honest, in all but the most literal Narnian sense. Yvaine was a great character, I thought, but for her to like Tristan sort of bothered me.

I had the same problem with Stardust that I had with another of Gaiman's popular offerings, Neverwhere. The concept was nice - great, even - and there's nothing wrong with his prose at all. But I'm a character person, through and through, and Gaiman's style keeps the reader at such a distance. It's not necessarily a bad thing - obviously, enough people love it! - but it's something that pushes me away.

My favorite parts of the book were the bits about the ghost prince-brothers. Fantastic. It was clever enough to be entertaining throughout, and since they weren't the main focus of the novel, the aesthetic distance actually enhanced the comedy.

It's not like Stardust is a long book - far from it - but it's just so slow, and I can't remember anything that really happens, except a drawn-out beginning and Tristan and Yvaine running from things. I really wish I could remember more, but all that's there is a vague sense of entertainment and a much more concrete sense of being bored and slightly let down.

(Also, this is an offensively short review. Apologies.)

What more can I say about a book I can't remember after only a few months? Not much, I'm afraid. Sorry, Gaiman. But I still have American Gods on my to-read list - maybe his grittier stuff will be up my alley.

And we're back.

College is a disruptive part of life. Hence, my unannounced hiatus.

However, finals are upon us, and my workload is lessening drastically. Tomorrow's my last day of tutoring, and I only have two short essays to write by next Tuesday, which I've already started working on. I've got nothing much to do at the end of a busy but, for the most part, rewarding night.

Except catch up on reviews.

That's right! While I'm not sure if I can finish the "Read One Newly-Released Book For Each Month" challenge, I am still up and swinging at that "Review One Book A Week" challenge.  Over the past months, I've actually read enough books to fill in enough holes in my list to where I might be able to cram in the last handful - eight, to be precise - over Christmas break.

That's four more Wednesdays and two books to a Wednesday. Doable? Absolutely.

That's sixteen - count them, sixteen - that I could write tonight. Doable? I'll rev up the coffee machine and see.

Joyous reviewing!