Weekend Shorts: Sparks Nevada and Galaxy Quest

Spark Nevada: Marshal on Mars, #1: “The Sad, Sad Song of Widow Johnson, Part One” by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and J. Bone
Sparks Nevada #1Kids, shine your astro-spurs and don your robot fists! It’s time to finally see Sparks Nevada in action! Squee!

I have mentioned before in this space my love of The Thrilling Adventure Hour and especially “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars”. It is amazing and wonderful and hilarious, and as soon as I heard that I could get it in comic form I grabbed it from my local shop, where the counter dude was like, “I don’t even know what this is.” Oh, counter dude, you are missing out.

In this issue we get to see Sparks in action way back before the start of the podcast, when it was just him and Mercury riding the plains of the fourth planet together, protecting this time Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and the ever-paranoid Felton on their trip back from one of Mars’s moons. Everything’s going fine until the Martians show up, deposit Croach with the party, and then skedaddle, with only the explanation that some bad guys are on their way. Sparks thinks he’s got everything covered, but of course he ends up needing Croach’s help and we end in the middle of a fight with a rather large gang of outlaws. Thank goodness it’s not the end of Sparks Nevada!

Also in this issue, an issue 0 depicting the event that brought Croach under onus to Sparks, annoying both of them for all time. Squee again!

I love how faithful this book is to the speaking style of the show’s actors. You’d think pauses and stutters and interruptions would be hard to translate but it’s done perfectly. I had the actors’ voices in my head the whole time and it never sounded odd. I’m not sure how it will read to someone who’s never heard the show before, but really you should be listening to the show so it’s a moot point. Also awesome are the illustrations — I love that Sparks is rocking an Eleventh Doctor haircut and that I finally get to find out what Croach looks like! I cannot wait to see how this series plays with the show’s world. I’ll find out next time!

Galaxy Quest: The Journey Continues #2, by Eric Burnham and Nacho Arranz
Galaxy Quest #2Speaking of things I have previously squeed about

I said last time that if all four issues of this mini-series were as awesome as the first, I’d be quite pleased. Sadly, this second issue is almost not at all awesome. Galaxy Quest what are you doing to me?!

We left off last time with a threat to the cast of our favorite space drama, and we pick up right there, with Jason staring down his lizardman double. But instead of instant action, we get this weird conversation between the two of them recapping the first issue (OF FOUR, I might remind you), and then like three punches and then the cast are roped into coming with the lizardman to help him defeat his enemies? Or something? I don’t know. They get a fancy spaceship and they leave behind a bunch of lizardmen clones to take their places on Earth, so I’m sure there’s going to be a broken spaceship and some interesting new relationships at the end of all this. Issue #3, you’d better step up your game!

Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You, by Cecilia Rodriguez MilanĂ©s

Oye What I'm Gonna Tell YouBefore we start, I have to admit that I read this book almost entirely because it fits in with my personal diverse books challenge. Usually short story collections “chronicling the lives” of anyone are well outside my wheelhouse, so it’s a double whammy of diversity when you add in the Cuban-American element. So I am probably about to say some stupid things about slice-of-life and immigrant fiction, is what I’m saying.

The collection started off poorly for me because of what I hope is some terrible formatting in my advance copy that led to me being absolutely baffled about whether or not I was continuing one story or starting a new one (verdict: a little of both). A few pages later I was back on track, but then the story turned out to be about a bunch of girls who die under terrible circumstances, and I was like, is the whole book going to be this depressing?

It is not. Thank goodness. The collection covers a lot of different stories across different age groups across different states and countries (mainly Florida, “Nueva Yersi”, and Cuba, with a jaunt to China once), and the stories vary in length from about half a page to tens of pages, so for the most part if a story isn’t great there’ll be a completely different one soon! That’s always a plus in any short story collection.

I really liked the second story in this book, which is about a girl who brings home her black Haitian boyfriend for the first time, at Thanksgiving, without specifying to her family that she is bringing home her black Haitian boyfriend. This interaction goes about as swimmingly as you are currently imagining. Around this, there’s bits about the ingrained racism of the girl’s family and how she feels mistreated by them but also loves them, because family. Also, there’s lots and lots of Spanish thrown around and I was happy to be reading on my Kindle with its translation feature, although I am pretty sure it does not know all the slang these characters do.

Other great stories include the one where a mother breaks her own rule about never visiting other people’s houses and an unexpectedly hilarious one in which a girl gets stuck with a dog she really doesn’t want, both of which could have been in any non-Cuban-American collection of slice-of-life stories in almost the same form. Turns out diversity isn’t that hard after all!

Some of the shorter stories I had trouble with because they’re that kind of story that picks up in the middle of nothing and ends in the middle of nothing, and kind of nothing happens in the middle, and some of them ended on these weird sentences that seemed like they should have great meaning because they ended the story but just… didn’t? I don’t know.

But overall it’s a solid collection of stories and has definitely piqued my interest in Cuba and its emigrants for future reading adventures. Any suggestions?

Recommendation: For people who actually like literary short stories and those interested in Cuban Americans.

Rating: 7/10

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the FloodAnother road trip, another Margaret Atwood plague-apocalypse book. So it is written. But it’s probably a good thing we were listening to this on a road trip with few other listening options, because the beginning of this book is rough and there were a couple of times we might have thrown in the towel on it.

In the first book, the narration trades off between the post-apocalypse Snowman and his pre-apocalypse alter ego Jimmy, and it’s fascinating because you want to know how Jimmy became Snowman. But in this book the narration trades off between pre- and post-Flood Toby and pre- and post-Flood Ren, with most of the narration at the beginning of the novel coming pre-Flood, so a) there’s a lot of timelines to follow and b) if you’ve read Oryx and Crake you already know what the Flood is so there’s not much suspense on that front.

But once the story gets going, it gets interesting. A lot of the story is focused on the God’s Gardeners group that is briefly mentioned in the first book and which is a sort of religion/cult/commune based on vegetarianism and pacifism and the worshipping of saints like Dian Fossey and E.O. Wilson, which yes, totally. It is pretty cool to see the Gardeners from the perspectives of Ren, who came to the group as a ten-year-old, and Toby, who as an adult is rescued into the group from a rather more terrible life. It’s also fascinating to hear (because audiobook) the sermons of Adam One, the leader of the group, which are interspersed between chapters and whose tones change to match the world outside, and the hymns which are actually set to music for the audiobook. Super neat!

The other big part of this book is that it tracks the story of Oryx and Crake, giving background to the tertiary characters of that book, fleshing out the world outside of Jimmy’s view, and moving just a bit farther forward in time than the end of that first book. On the one hand, this is pretty neat and makes the world that Atwood created that much larger and more real. On the other hand, there’s almost too much overlap between the books to the point where you’re like, oh, Jimmy’s having sex with yet another character in this book? Jimmy meets Ren for the fifty-seventh time? FANTASTIC.

But I really do love the world-building, and I cannot get enough of Atwood’s gorgeous sentences, so it’s all good. I will definitely be picking up MaddAddam when it is time for another road trip!

Recommendation: For fans of plague fiction and the world of Oryx and Crake, although it’s probably not strictly necessary to read them in order.

Rating: 7/10

p.s. One of the God’s Gardeners is called Eve Six and I cannot help but wonder if Atwood is an X-Files fan.

Weekend Shorts: Saga and Hawkeye

Saga, Vol. 4, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Saga, Vol. 4This comic, guys. It’s sooooo good. If you’re not reading it, you’re missing out. In this volume, it seems we’ve skipped a bit forward in time — Hazel is a toddler, ex-slave Sophie is a hipster tween, and Prince Robot’s baby is born in a graphic and very human way on the very first page. Good morning! We get to see our favorite fugitive family having a bit of downtime on a planet called Gardenia, where Marko plays stay-at-home dad while Alana plays a… um… I don’t even know. While Alana makes money acting on a very telenovela-ish broadcast thing while wearing awkwardly sexy outfits. As you do? Anyway, this leads to some marital tensions that almost turn really really terrible, but instead only turn pretty darn terrible at the end.

Meanwhile, there is a single commoner staging an uprising on the Robot Kingdom, stealing a royal baby and running off to Gardenia for broadcasting purposes; Prince Robot coming out of his stupor to hunt down his kidnapped baby; Gwendolyn, Sophie, and Lying Cat on a heist; and a brief but delightful cameo from my favorite tabloid reporter couple. Such excitement!

Hawkeye, Vol. 2: “Little Hits”, by Matt Fraction and David Aja
Hawkeye, Vol. 2Hey, remember when I read the last volume and I was totally baffled the entire time? Yeah, that doesn’t change. I was prepared this time, but this is definitely still a thinky book (which is probably why they’re ending it soon) that requires a lot of concentration.

The first issue (#7) is pretty straightforward — Hawkeye (Clint) helps one of his tenants/neighbors take care of his dad out in Far Rockaway during the storm of the century while Hawkeye (Kate) goes to an expectedly disastrous engagement party in Atlantic City during same said storm. But then things go back to confusing normal in the second issue (#6, just for funsies), in which we see six days in the life of Hawkeye, shuffled up and requiring the use of clocks to help you figure out the timeline. Oh, good. The next issue (#8, and back to a normal order) details how gingers are terrible for Clint’s well-being, from Clint’s point of view, and the one after that details how gingers are terrible for Clint’s well-being from the points of view of the dangerous women in his life. Then there’s a Kate issue introducing a bad guy who is also apparently a clown, and then to cap it off there is the absolute best issue ever, starring Pizza Dog!

Like, no, seriously, this thing is amazing. Pizza Dog is the dog Hawkeye rescued from some bad guys, and this whole issue is from his point of view, so there’s not much dialogue except for what the dog presumably understands. Mostly it’s just page after page of Pizza Dog wandering around, recognizing people by how they smell and noting what things are related to them, and then also stumbling upon a murder scene, flirting with a neighbor dog, attacking bad guys, escaping bad guys, and leaving one Hawkeye to adventure with another. This is probably my second-favorite single issue after the choose-your-own adventure in The Unwritten. I am intrigued to see what Fraction and Aja can do to top this.

The Shadow Cabinet, by Maureen Johnson

The Shadow CabinetHas it really been two years since I read The Madness Underneath? Am I going to have to wait another two years to see how this ends?? Things are getting crazy up in this series and I don’t think I can handle it.

If you haven’t read the series, seriously, start with the first book, read the three existing books as fast as possible, and then come back here. If you read on without doing so, I can’t promise you won’t be spoiled to the best parts of the first books.

This book starts off right where the last one left off, with an upsettingly dead person. Sad face! Rory and Co. are pretty sure the UDP is a ghost now and decide to go track UDP down, but they’re already pretty busy looking for the crazy Jane Quaint and Rory’s kidnapped classmate Charlotte. Then Rory, in the midst of breaking all the rules, meets a new ghost-seer with a wealth of information about London and ghosts and even secret society conspiracy theories that are totally just wacko theories except perhaps they’re not? Meanwhile, we get the back story on crazy Jane, who helped a pair of twins murder a bunch of people in an attempt to beat death, which twins are totally dead but possibly not for long.

This book is nuts, but still awesome because Maureen Johnson does not know how to write a not-awesome sentence or a not-awesome Rory. Rory is the best, guys, even if she is incredibly terrible at following rules. And I am super-interested in all the new characters Johnson introduces and what they’re going to do in the next, last book.

This book also introduces a lot of that intrigue and subterfuge that I like, and even though I felt like things were going a little off the rails, plot-wise (Secret societies! Magic stones! Cults of personality! People who are only mostly dead!), I was still totally interested in how everything was going to play out, and it played out quite nicely. The ending was even sufficiently creepy without resorting to killing people I like! Very excellent.

Recommendation: For those who like ghost stories with subterfuge.

Rating: 8/10

Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful ThingsI ignored the Cheryl Strayed hype for a long time because ugh, memoirs, and also eh, advice columns. But I heard enough people falling over themselves loving on Tiny Beautiful Things that I figured I should at least check it out. And seriously, this thing is so good that you’ll probably be hearing about her memoir in this space some day, which is just crazy talk.

Anyway, this book is a collection of advice column questions and answers from “Dear Sugar”, Sugar being a formerly anonymous and always honest advice-giver. I’m not terribly much for advice columns, but I knew this one, and this book, was going to be perfect for me when I got to page 15 and found the following sentence: “The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.” Yes. This. A thousand times this.

Most of the questions Sugar gets, or at least publishes, are secretly about that one thing. Sure, on the surface they’re about a lot of things, from romantic relationships gone awry or not-yet-existent to family relationships of dubious quality to crises of faith and identity, but Sugar’s answers tend to boil down to one thing. Will this make you happy? Do it. Will it make you sad? Don’t do it. Will it make other people happy or sad? That’s not really your problem.

You might think that would get boring over 353 pages and 56 questions, but the fact that it doesn’t is a testament to Strayed’s writing. She could just say, “It’s not making you happy. Stop. The end,” but instead she says things like, “You mustn’t live with people who wish to annihilate you. Even if you love them.” She could even stop there, with simple and direct answers, but instead she throws in stories from her own life, which has been difficult in many ways and wonderful in just as many, to show the question-askers that yes, life sucks, but not all the time. Things may seem bleak now but they will be less bleak later. But only if you focus on making yourself the most awesome self.

It’s a powerful book. I am one of the lucky few who, in Sugar’s words, “have almost never had to get over anything,” and I know that I am lucky for it. But I also know that my time will come, and I am glad to be prepared in advance. And it’s lovely to see letters from people who share my low-grade neuroses, to know that I’m not the only one and that if I can see clearly the answer for the letter-writer, I may just possibly have an answer for myself.

Recommendation: For you. For everyone.

Rating: 10/10

Normal, by Graeme Cameron

NormalDon’t you just hate it when you think you know what a book is going to be and then you’re wrong in the worst possible way? Like, you think a book is going to be pretty decent and then you’re just staring at the pages wondering how you even got here?

Yeah, that’s this book.

To be fair, it’s not the worst book I’ve ever read. That would be very difficult at this point. But the only reason I finished it is because it took me like three hours to read and I was already two hours in by the time I realized it was not going to get better.

It started off so promising, though, if you like a certain kind of story. It’s a book about a dude with a girl trapped in his basement who then meets a girl he doesn’t want to trap in his basement, and now he wants to go straight but a) can he and b) can he before the cops show up? And I really did want to know the answers to these questions, at the beginning.

But then I started learning more about our unnamed weirdo narrator, and I was like, wait. Because it’s one thing to empathize with or root for an unrepentant serial killer or whatever, but it’s another to root for a guy who just kind of… does stuff? And this guy just does too much stuff. At the beginning of the novel he’s killed one girl and is dismembering her body when her friend shows up and so he kidnaps the friend and takes her to his well-built and well-hidden basement dungeon thing (the builder of which is buried nearby), and then brings her a friend to play with whom he then takes out into the woods to literally hunt with a bow and arrow, and then later he’s gonna maybe kidnap some girl but he doesn’t and then he’s not gonna kidnap some girl and then he kills her instead and forgets to bury her and I am like DUDE. Pick a thing and stick with it. It is a great surprise to me that he evaded the law for more than ten minutes ever, but he does it for days in the course of this novel.

It feels to me like the author just watched a bunch of Criminal Minds (not that there’s… anything wrong with that) and picked out all the criminals he liked or whatever and made them one dude. And then he picked out some choice FBI interactions with criminals and threw those in, too. There’s just no internal consistency for how anyone is acting, and it obviously bothers me SO MUCH.

On the plus side, I loved the ending, in which (are spoilers spoilers if I don’t want you to read the book anyway?) weirdo dude completely effs everything up, still manages to nearly get away with it, and then one last final thing ruins him. This part of the book is almost satirical in its humor, and if the rest of the book had felt like that I think I could have been completely on board with this as the funniest psychopath story ever told. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what he was going for (based on the interview at the end of my copy of the book), so.

At least I got it over with quickly (which basement friend cannot say).

Recommendation: For those who watch way too much crime drama and who remember not to take this book as seriously as it takes itself.

Rating: 4/10

Weekend Shorts: Wicked, Divine, and Unwritten

The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1: “The Faust Act”, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
The Wicked and the Divine, Vol. 1I had heard vague good things about this book around the internets, but not enough to really get me interested. But then I was at the comic shop getting other things and I asked the guy at the counter what he thought about it and he was like, “It’s fantastic, you should buy it immediately.” He was not wrong.

The conceit of this story is that various gods incarnate themselves into the bodies of more or less ordinary twenty-somethings for two years every 90 years, because sure, why not? In their 2014 bodies, the gods are literal rock stars, performing and giving interviews and being totally open and honest about their godly status, but of course no one really believes them. Except maybe for Laura, a groupie who ends up in the right place at the right time to see Luci (slash Lucifer) snap her fingers and explode a couple of dudes’ heads. When Luci is arrested and the other gods more or less abandon her, Laura does everything she can to help out.

This is a fantastic book, starting with the super pretty artwork that I just need to have all over my walls, like, immediately. Look at these covers, people! So gorgeous. And then also it’s neat to see gods from all the different religions (some of whom could be from several religions all by themselves) hanging out doing their god thing, and then even better there’s an intrepid girl reporter on the case who is probably going to be majorly pissed when she finds out these gods are for reals. I’m super in love.

The Unwritten, Issues 45 and 46: “The Corpse Harvest Reiteration”
The Unwritten #45It has been an absurdly long time since I delved into the world of The Unwritten, and I was more than a little worried that I might have forgotten everything. Luckily I found myself at the start of a little two-issue run wherein 1) the action focused mostly not on the overarching plot and 2) our favorite vampire spent a page explaining the important stuff. Thanks, Richie!

The Unwritten #46So in this set of issues, Richie is feeling bad for himself and Didge is doing her police thing, and then the two of them join forces when a little kid loses first his babysitters and then his dad in freak deaths that have brain damage as the common link between them. Turns out the kid is writing stories that come true, and although he’s not explicitly writing anyone into these stories the people he’s basing them on end up in big trouble. It seems that the story world, once thought a bit dead, may be only mostly dead.

I am super excited to get back into this series, which is good because I have a pile of issues and trades lying around for it!

What fantastic short stuff are you reading this weekend?

The Lost Boys Symphony, by Mark Andrew Ferguson

The Lost Boys SymphonyIt’s apparently the time of year for me to read weird books. Sex strikes, cocaine as a narrator, odd people hanging out in hotels…. But where those books were weird in a “What the heck is going on?” way, this book is weird in a “My brain is broken and I don’t have enough duct tape to fix it right now” sort of way, largely because time travel.

And it’s the most brain-breaking-est kind of time travel, too, where people change history and then remember new memories but also old memories and are still hanging out wherever they were when they changed history regardless of the fact that they CHANGED HISTORY and shouldn’t be there anymore! It’s not Looper levels of ridiculous with severed limbs or anything, but it comes pretty close.

Okay, so, the story. There’s this dude, Henry (the best time traveller name?), and he’s a super percussionist, awesome boyfriend to Val, and best of best friends to Gabe. However, he’s got some mental issues, and at the beginning of the story he is escaping his mother’s house and the imaginary cacophony that surrounds him there to hike across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan and get back together with Val, who recently left him for a new life. Halfway across the bridge, he is overcome by the bridge’s music (again, imaginary) and collapses, waking up some time later in a strange place with two strange but eerily familiar people watching over him.

Turns out those dudes are the Henrys 80 and 41 (as they call themselves), and they have figured out how to use the crazy bridge music to time travel (as you do) and they have come to talk to 19 and see if he can’t fix their lives that have not gone quite the way they want them to. Henry 19 is really unclear about how and why they’ve come to him and what he can do to help, and as the story goes along he comes to find that maybe 80 and 41 aren’t any more clear than he is on that score.

When I started reading this book, I thought it was going to be a more or less straightforward (for a time travel book, anyway) guy-gets-girl book, with Henry chasing the elusive Val across time and space so that they can be together forever in all timelines or whatever. But it’s so much more complicated than that. Staying true to the time-bending conceit, the chapters go back and forth between times and characters, chronicling the three friends mostly in the time of 19 but also going back to high school and forward to 41’s time. We find out how the time travel got started and we see how it is way less useful than anyone ever thinks it is as things go wrong and are corrected and then go wrong again. And then meanwhile to the whole Henrys thing, we see Gabe and Val taking in 19’s disappearance and changing their relationship in a way that threatens to be pretty disastrous to all Henrys involved.

I love the way that Ferguson played with time and narrative, doling out important bits slowly across all timelines until they finally made sense. I also love that Val, who could easily have gone Manic Pixie Dream Girl, got to be a real live human with thoughts and problems of her own. The ending of the book left a little bit to be desired, resolution-wise, which if I’m saying that means it’s seriously a thing, and the very end is just too simple for my tastes, but on the plus side I’ll be thinking about what happened (and what might have happened) for days. This is an amazing first book and I will definitely be looking for more from Ferguson.

Recommendation: For people whose brains are extra-strong and those who love a good time travel yarn.

Rating: 9/10

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

The Dead Mountaineer's InnWhat a weird little book. I picked it up largely because of its subtitle, “One More Last Rite for the Detective Genre”, and the fact that it’s a Russian book and hey, that’s totally diverse, and because I was promised amusement by the jacket copy. I’m pretty sure I got that amusement, but this book is so confusing that who knows what I thought about it?

Okay, things I do know. The book is set somewhere cold and snowy, at the Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (yeah, I don’t know why it’s different from the title), which is named for a mountaineer who stayed at the hotel when it was called something else and, you know, died. There’s a little “museum” set up with all of “HIS” stuff, and the owner is pretty sure HE is haunting the hotel. Our protagonist, Inspector Glebsky, is on a ski vacation at the hotel along with a bunch of weird guests, including a famous-ish magician, the magician’s androgynous niece or nephew, a married couple with a strange relationship, a mountaineering physicist of some renown, a tall drink of water who’s pretty great on skis, and a frail little man who possibly has tuberculosis.

Right. So. Most of the book is about all these strange people interacting with each other and with the prank-playing “ghost”, and a surprising amount of time is spent trying to figure out whether the androgynous kid is a dude or a chick, but then eventually there is a murder and Glebsky’s on the case. There’s a dead dude in a locked room (the best kind of case!), a strange mechanical object with no apparent use, several people whose luggage is suspect, and a whole lot of conflicting stories.

And, well, it’s weird. The case does not solve itself in the manner which you might expect from that description, and although there are not-so-subtle hints dropped throughout the novel that point you in the right direction it’s still kind of like, really? And there is a really lame epilogue, but this book was written in 1970 in Russian, so I’ll just let that slide.

What is great about this book is the characters, who are all strange in their own special way and who all think everyone else is the strange one, and the writing, which is maybe a little roughly translated or maybe is meant to evoke confusion with choppy sentences and disconnected thoughts. Either way, it lends this kind of “what the heck” vibe to the whole book that helps make the “what the heck” ending seem a little more appropriate.

I am definitely intrigued by this odd little book, and I will have to check out other weird Russian books in the future. Suggestions?

Recommendation: For those who love books that don’t make a lot of sense on purpose.

Rating: 8/10

p.s. Apparently if you’re not feeling up to actually reading this book, you can play it on Steam. If you do, let me know how it goes!