Weekend Shorts: Locke & Sandman

Last week I talked about bingeing on single issues on hoopla, but this week I’m going to talk about a couple of trades that I read and loved and probably the only thing stopping me from binge-reading the rest of the already completed series is that I wanted to come tell you all about them first. Darn you, internet persons!

Sandman, Vol. 1: “Preludes and Nocturnes”, by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III
Sandman, Vol. 1Sandman has been on my list of comics to read for a very long time, even before I considered myself a “comics person”. And since the whole series is on hoopla, that’s totally going to happen. Eventually.

This first volume is interesting. It’s essentially the story of Dream, who is accidentally summoned instead of his sister, Death, by some less-than-great summoners. The first issue covers the bad things that happen when you trap the god of dreams in the mortal world — people who sleep forever, people who can no longer sleep — and what happens when that god gets out — revenge in the form of eternal waking. Remind me not to piss off a dream god, is what I’m saying.

The rest of the volume follows Dream as he recovers from his imprisonment and hunts down his stolen tools. This part is a little weirder, as Dream meets not only Cain and Abel but also John Constantine and weird demons and some Justice League people I don’t know and a weird crazy villain guy… There’s a lot going on.

I think my favorites of the issues are the first one, which sets everything up, and the sixth one, which pits a bunch of people against each other as their minds are controlled and which is quite well done in terms of story and art.

I wasn’t as super sold on this series as I’d hoped I’d be, but I recall from my initial interest in the series that the first volume isn’t necessarily the place to start so I’m pretty sure it’ll get better. I just need to find time to read nine more volumes!

Locke & Key, Vol. 1: “Welcome to Lovecraft”, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Locke & Key, Vol. 1This volume, on the other hand, was awesome sauce from beginning to end. I’m a sucker for a creepy murder story and also for a creepy supernatural story, and this is both!

The book starts off with the horrible murder of a high school guidance counselor by a bright but very troubled student, flashing back and forth between the murder and the aftermath. The counselor’s family makes it out alive, but they decide to pack up all their stuff and move into the counselor’s childhood home, called Keyhouse, with his brother. As these things go, though, Keyhouse is not necessarily a safer place for the family — the house is full of secret places and mysterious keys and an apparition who seems to be running the whole show from the bottom of a well.

I love the way this book plays with its creepy elements, interspersing them perfectly with the mundane to make everything seem almost normal. I also love the characters; Hill does a great job of showing their love for each other even while they’re still a bickering family. And that chick in the well, well (HA), she’s veeery intriguing and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett

Equal RitesI read my first Terry Pratchett novel almost a year ago after picking it up by chance in my favorite Cleveland used bookstore. So obviously, when I found myself in said bookstore again, and there were three used Pratchetts just sitting there waiting for me, I snapped them all up without reservation. And when I found myself on a plane in a middle seat with my intended next read up in the overhead bin but those three paperbacks sitting under the seat in front of me, I grabbed the one on top and settled in for a good read.

And it was! I was a little iffy at first on the premise, which is that there’s a baby girl accidentally given wizard powers by a dying wizard who meant to give them to a baby boy, because of course boys can be wizards and girls can be witches and neither the other way around. Yay.

It’s a premise that has been done before, but Pratchett does it in his own reasonably amusing style and so therefore it’s done better. The girl wizard, Esk, grows up not knowing about her wizardliness, and when her magic starts to show her witchy grandmother tries to teach her the witchly ways but soon realizes that just won’t be enough. So Esk and Granny Weatherwax set off on a journey to the wizard school, a journey that is of course full of adventure and danger and magic. Sold!

There is also, as you might expect, a bit of discussion about women’s rights and the nature of girls versus boys, but it’s surprisingly nuanced and intelligent for an ostensibly humorous book. That Pratchett is wily!

As before, what really makes the story is Pratchett’s way with words. From the first page: “This is also a story about sex, although probably not in the athletic, tumbling, count-the-legs-and-divide-by-two sense unless the characters get totally beyond the author’s control. They might.”

From a random page in the middle: “For the first time in her life Granny wondered whether there might be something important in all these books people were setting such store by these days, although she was opposed to books on strict moral grounds, since she had heard that many of them were written by dead people and therefore it stood to reason reading them would be as bad as necromancy.”

Like Guards, Guards!, this book is pretty simple plot-wise and character-wise, but writing-wise it is doubleplusgood and therefore the perfect plane or beach or lunchtime or anytime reading. I am very glad I have two more of Pratchett’s books on hand, and more glad that there are like eight million more to read after those!

Recommendation: To copy myself, for fans of British humor (i.e. Douglas Adams, Monty Python) and fantasy novels and satire and fun.

Rating: 7/10

The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

The Neverending StoryOh, The Neverending Story. I watched the movie version probably several times as a short person (read: child), but it’s one of those movies that I’m incapable of remembering, so mostly what I knew going into this book was that there was a kid and a dragon thing and Atreyu and something about the kid going into the book?

At first it was kind of cool, knowing just a tiny bit about the book. I was having fun listening to basically a brand-new story, but I also had an idea of where things would go and I could look forward to dragons! I like dragons.

I also like the way Ende writes this story. I am a sucker for a frame story, which is what we’ve got here: our hero, Bastian Balthazar Bux (pronounced like “books” by the audio narrator), steals a book from a similarly alliterative bookshop owner and hides in his school’s attic to read it. Go with it. He starts reading the book, and we are treated to a story about a Childlike Empress and kid hero called Atreyu who goes off on a dangerous quest to save said Empress and also the whole of Fantastica. Frame story? Quest? You know I’m in.

Then the story gets even more interesting, with characters in Bastian’s book seeming to react to things that Bastian says, or seeming to see him via magics, and soon Bastian finds himself written right into the book he’s reading, and then finds himself writing the book, which is absolutely insane and I like it a lot.

Except… once my vague recollection of the movie had been fulfilled by the book, I was basically done, but it turns out that there’s a whole second half to the novel that got made into another movie that I didn’t see. So for those six or seven hours of audio, I was like, seriously, this book isn’t done yet? Is this book done yet? This really is a neverending story, isn’t it?

That’s entirely on me, though, and it’s not to say that the second half of the book isn’t interesting, but it basically repeats Atreyu’s quest plot of the first half with Bastian in the lead role and with more melodrama and self-absorption. From a literary standpoint, this seems really cool. From a listening-at-work standpoint, this seems really boring.

I may try this again at some future date after I have completely forgotten the story again, but in print form this time, because I feel like I missed out on a lot of cool things in the story. The audio was rough for me not just because I got bored halfway through, but because the narration and sound mixing is such that some characters are super loud and some are practically silent, and for the parts I listened to while on a road trip it was basically impossible to hear both sets without causing some sort of accident. If you’ve eyes-read this, what do you think? Is it worth another shot?

Recommendation: For lovers of quests and fairy tales.

Rating: 6/10

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the WorldI think I say this all the time, but I do love my book clubs. I love having a reason to finally read a really good book or to trash a really terrible book with like-minded people. I especially love finding books like this one that I probably would never have heard of in my entire life except that my friend wasn’t allowed to make us read one of Murakami’s 800-page books and so she chose this one.

At first I was like, what the heck is this. There are two stories, both referenced in the title, that alternate back and forth and are both very weird in their own special ways. In the first story, we have a nameless protagonist (everyone’s nameless, actually, in this book) who is something called a Calcutec who is basically a one-man Enigma machine and earns his living encoding things without really knowing how… Murakami’s explanations basically exploded my brain here, but once I decided to just go with it everything was much better! Anyway, he gets called on this assignment to encode some information for a rather eccentric old man who works in an office that is… difficult to get to, let’s say, and once our protagonist takes said job even weirder things start happening with dudes stalking him and unicorn skulls making weird sounds and it’s all just… weird.

The other story should be weirder but actually makes more sense — in this one another unnamed protagonist is living in a strange town where people have to shed their shadows before entering and then get assigned jobs (what is this, The Giver?) like, in our guy’s case, reading dreams from skulls. The idea, I guess, is to let your shadow die off and then you live a happy shadow-less life, but our friend’s shadow may have other plans when it comes to that.

So… it’s weird. It’s very weird, in that Japanese way that so much Death Note has more or less prepared me for. But it’s also pretty fantastic. You know I’m a sucker for a good back-and-forth narrative, and it’s even better when the two stories start to show their interconnectedness, and it’s even more better (just… whatever) when things in one story start making you question things in the other story as well as your own existence. It’s one of those, and I love those.

I really don’t know what else to say about this book… I suppose if you wanted to you could dissect this book in all sorts of different ways and come up with Grand Thoughts About The Universe, but really I just enjoyed letting the story do its thing. Maybe you will, too?

Recommendation: For people who like a good punch to the brain every once in a while and are due for one.

Rating: 8/10

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of DuncesI know it’s been a common story lately, but I finished this book for my book club in the parking lot before the meeting started, this time because I didn’t even know there was going to be a meeting until about three days in advance. On top of things, I am.

Even worse, this book starts off so horrible that I was wondering if maybe I wasn’t going to bother to finish this one. I had read through a few dozen pages the first night, and it was all so awful. The main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, is a cretin; the dialogue is all written in dialect, which I find tedious going; and there wasn’t really a story to the story except maybe “Ignatius J. Reilly is a cretin.” Goodness, I hate that man.

But then Toole spends some more time with the characters who are not Ignatius J. Reilly, and they make the book so much better. My absolute favorite storyline is about a Patrolman Mancuso, whom we meet at the beginning of the novel as he tries to arrest Ignatius as a “suspicious character” and fails miserably, instead bringing in some old grandpa. Mancuso is thus placed on a probation that involves dressing up in weird costumes and trolling the French Quarter and some men’s bathroom somewhere for actually suspicious characters, except that his outfits inevitably lead to others considering him more than a little suspicious. It’s very Catch-22 and I love it.

Then there’s another plot that involves a guy called Burma Jones who starts as a vagrant and then gets a job paying less than the “minimal wage” because the woman who hires him is like, “Sweet, a black vagrant that I can threaten into working for cheap!” so then he decides to sabotage her whole weird night club because why not? This storyline involves a cockatoo, also, so what’s not to like?

There are a few more stories floating around, too, with characters of varying degrees of dislikability — seriously, it’s difficult to sympathize with any of the characters and I think it’s a testament to Toole’s writing that I still cared what happened to them, even Ignatius. The stories all sort of weave and circle around Ignatius being a cretin until they come together in an incredibly satisfying way. The book ends a bit later and a bit less satisfyingly, but rather appropriately for the tone of the book, I think. I highly enjoyed this.

At book club, we talked about how this book was apparently not edited (or edited very little?) from manuscript to published novel. My friend Julie was like, “Whyyyyyyyy couldn’t they have edited this down like a hundred pages it’s sooooo long and repetitive,” whereas I was like, “Wow, this writing is tight for not having been edited.” I felt, and still feel, that although, yes, the book tended to drag in places as Toole reiterated pieces of storylines, it was all in the service of making the eventual meeting of the plots more hilarious. It’s like that comedy rule thing where you say something once, and it’s funny, and then you say it ten times and it’s not, and then you say it ten more times and it’s funny again. I think this book came around to funny again, but apparently you may not?

I also learned at book club that this book is sort of cult-y, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show cult-y, but as I’m really not a fan of the Rocky Horror shenanigans I think I’m going to enjoy this book like I do, say, anything by Monty Python. I liked it, I’ll definitely read it again sometime, and I’ll be adding many new quotes to my everyday speech. (“Leave the board out of this!”)

Rating: 9/10

Thinner, by Richard Bachman

I’m always a little confused by authors who use pseudonyms but are also like, “I am totally this person,” so people will read their books. Like I’ve cataloged a few books that are authored by NORA ROBERTS (writing as J.D. Robb) or… someone whose name I forget where her author bio is like “This Person is the pseudonym of That Other Person.” Why are we bothering with the pseudonym, then?

All this is to say that I didn’t actually realize this was a Richard Bachman book until well after I started listening, because everything I looked at was all STEPHEN EFFING KING all the time. It is also to say that when people know they are reading a Stephen King book it is a little weird to hear the narrator talking about how it’s like he’s in a Stephen King book, but according to my friend Cory this is not an unusual thing to happen in a King novel. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

Aaaaanyway the novel. I had actually thought this was a short story, because the plot — a heavy guy gets cursed to become thinner, which is cool until all of a sudden he can barely eat enough to survive — did not seem like a story that could be sustained over 10 hours(!). And indeed, there were a few parts where I was like, “Okay I get it let’s move it along now?”

But on the whole the story was delightfully horror-ful. It starts with a guy, Billy, who’s like, “That creepy gypsy guy was creepy. Why did he say ‘THINNER’ at me?” And then he’s all losing weight, and you find out that the creepy gypsy guy said that because Billy ran over the gypsy’s daughter who ran out into the street and so he was found not guilty of manslaughter or whatever except that then it turns out that maybe he wasn’t quite so not guilty after all? And maybe the gypsy isn’t only targeting him? But Billy is a lawyer, so he’s gonna fight back, even if he has to drive all the way up to Maine (you knew Maine was in here somewhere, didn’t you?) to find these gypsies and bitch at them. Because that’s really what it boils down to.

And really, the driving up I-95 bit could have just been completely excised from the story, because I really do understand that gypsies are creepy, and also why is it that everyone is like “Man, I haven’t seen a gypsy in like 25 years” and then at the EXACT SAME TIME like “Oh, gypsies. You know how they roll.” Do you? Are you sure?

But the whole cursing aspect is interesting, and Billy’s visits to the other afflicted-types are quite creepy, and the ending is the only possible ending I would have accepted for Billy so it’s fine that it’s pretty well telegraphed. Also, I knew I liked Joe Mantegna, the audiobook narrator, from his work on the teevee, but seriously that man can read a book. He did some fantastic voice work to the point where I was sometimes like, “Isn’t Joe Mantegna reading this book? Who is this guy? That is Joe Mantegna? Are you sure?” I think he should probably read every Stephen King book, because he can make with the spooky and terrifying. Maybe he should do a version of The Turn of the Screw! How much would it cost to commission that?

Recommendation: On the whole, I enjoyed my ten hours with Stephen and Joe. Especially Joe. And while I think the novel should be much much shorter, I do still think it’s worth a read if you’re in the mood for some gruesome.

Rating: 8.5/10 (bonus points for Joe!)
(RIP Challenge, What’s in a Name Challenge)

V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore

…Interesting. That’s how I would describe this book. I love the movie version, which I’ve watched at least once a year (on Guy Fawkes Night, natch) for the past several years, and this year someone reminded me that it was, you know, a graphic novel first, and maybe I should read it? Yes, maybe I should. So I requested it from the library, and it took forever to arrive, and then I renewed it a couple of times, and then finally I says to myself, “Self, you’ve gotta just read this thing. Go.” So I did. It took a while, largely because I started a job in the middle of it and I’m still working out how to read print books (I listen to audiobooks at work) on my new schedule. But I read it and it was interesting.

The story is this: There’s a dude, and he’s called V, and he dresses like Guy Fawkes, and he blows some stuff up, and you’re like, cool. He is blowing stuff up because he lives in a fascist state run by basically Big Brother, with help from a computer, so we’ve got some good dystopian tropes in there. At some point, he saves a girl called Evey from some police-type people who are going to do terrible things to her, and she sort of becomes his apprentice. Also, the fascist state does not like V and is hunting him down, and slowly learning his backstory (which is kind of nuts) in the process.

The book is actually quite different from the movie — and this necessarily is how I have to approach this review — with more creepiness in V’s backstory and seedier government officials, and actually much less blowing stuff up, which is disappointing but understandable for the medium. I quite liked all of the extra things I learned about Larkhill, where V was imprisoned, because it made V make more sense, but much of the stuff I learned about the government officials (they’re corrupt! promiscuous! ne’er-do-wells!) was rather tedious. More creepy smiling masked people, please!

All in all, I did like the novel, but it won’t top my yearly dose of explodey things any time soon.

Recommendation: Definitely read it if you’ve seen the movie, or if you generally like dystopia and intrigue in pictorial form.

Rating: 8/10
(A to Z Challenge)