Locke & Key Volumes 4-6, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez

Locke & Key, Vol. 6I managed to spread the first three volumes of this series out over the span of four months, but then RIP started and I love this series and I couldn’t help myself and read the last three over the course of 24 hours. As you do. I can’t say I’ve finished the series, thankfully, as I have been made aware of both an audio adaptation of the series and some one-shot comics in the universe that are not yet free to me but which might need to be purchased anyway because yes.

In these last three volumes, things get pretty intense, which is quite a feat for a series that started off with a violent murder. We finally get the backstory of Keyhouse and just how all those keys came to be in existence, and we find out how Dodge came to be, well, Dodge, and what he’s willing to do to make his evil dreams come true. Terrible things happen to people we’ve just met and people we’ve (I’ve) come to love. Awful truths are told and inevitable truths are encountered. Things go very very poorly, but, spoilers, things also turn out all right.

I obviously love the insane premise and plot of this series, with magic keys and evil schemes and spooky wells and mean shadows and supernatural enemies everywhere. But what I think makes this series so perfect is that Hill and Rodríguez depict all of this happening to actual real human beings with actual real human emotions and flaws (except when said emotions have been removed but that’s a whole other thing). Our kid heroes deal with kid problems and also adult problems that kids run into — making new friends, navigating relationships, dealing with an alcoholic parent, taking on adult responsibilities when no one else will. They also deal head-on with societal prejudices of race, class, disability, sexual orientation, and more, and force the reader to look at their own assumptions, like my very serious assumption that the dude with ridiculous facial hair was obviously going to be a bad guy (spoilers: somehow not at all?).

And, of course, the art is amazing. I’m much worse at describing my love for comics art than prose, but I think it’s right when I say that the drawings — the shapes, the facial expressions, a flip of hair — and the colors perfectly exhibit the emotions of the characters and the world around them. There are some interesting similarities in the way that some characters are drawn that I at first took for a mistake but may, looking back, be part of a larger story, and I love that I can see that in this book.

There are problems in the series, of course, from overly simplistic characterizations to completely unlikely dialogue to too-easy answers to the slightly-too-happy-for-me ending. But there is so much good in it that I am willing to let that slide, and then to seek out all the everything ever set in this universe, so clearly I am head over heels for this thing.

Are there any comics or stories in general that make you feel this way? What other series are the complete package like this one?

Weekend Shorts: The Spire and MaddAddam

I bring to you today one comics mini-series and one audiobook, not chosen for their similarities but which are similar nonetheless. Fascinating worlds, interesting characters, and flashbacks abound in both of these stories, and there’s definitely some crossover of themes. Clearly I have a type when it comes to my stories.

The Spire, #1-8, by Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely
The Spire #1I picked up this series just about a year ago when issue #3 came out, also picking up #2 that day and then waiting a couple weeks for #1 to make its way between stores. I had intended to buy all of them and read them as they came out, but I only did the first part — I couldn’t not own all these amazing covers, but apparently also couldn’t stand waiting for more story. But once I had all eight delightful issues in hand, it was time to binge!

And seriously, wow, this series is good. I came for the artwork, but I stayed for the story. Said story follows Commander Shå of the City Watch (City Watch!), a sort of offshoot of the regular police force comprised of “skews” — a derogatory term for beings who are not quite human and who therefore generally creep polite society out. Shå gets caught up in the investigation of a pretty brutal murder, and then several pretty brutal murders, all of which point back to a strange history between the city and the people and skews who live outside its walls.

It is… I can’t stop saying that it’s really good. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the series, and it’s all intriguing. Besides the murders you have of course the prejudice against skews to work with, Shå’s secret relationship with someone she really shouldn’t be dating, flashbacks to the current ruler’s venture outside the city wall’s, a power trip by a future ruler with ulterior motives, a mysterious and powerful being that some people want to murder, fighting, magic, love… I’m not really sure how all this fits into eight issues but it does, perfectly.

Also, the artwork. I want so many of these covers and pages and panels blown up to ridiculous size and plastered on all my walls. The style and the colors are totally my jam.

I am only sad that that’s the end, but maybe if I’m lucky these guys will pair up again and make something equally fantastic. At the very least, the good thing about comics is that people make SO MANY of them that I’m sure to find either the writer or the artist somewhere else soon!

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood
MaddAddamTrue story: I was absolutely convinced I had read this book already, to the point where I had to page back through my Goodreads “read” list to discover that no, Scott and I had only listened to the first two books in this series on our various road trips. Conveniently, a road trip cropped up shortly thereafter and I downloaded this right quickly.

As a book, it’s great. It takes place right after The Year of the Flood and catches us up on what’s going on with our God’s Gardeners and our Crakers and our Jimmy/Snowman/Snowman-the-Jimmy. It’s not terribly good news, as the Painballers are loose and the pigoons are in fighting form and the Crakers continue to be the most annoying four-year-olds. But, on the plus side, while our friends are dealing with this mess we get to have some more backstory, in the form of flashbacks from Gardener Zeb about his life and that of his brother, Adam One.

Unfortunately, it was kind of a dud road trip book. It was so similar in tone and even story to the others in the series that it was very easy to zone out during the audio, and there wasn’t a lot of really new information to keep our attention. Even in the “fight scenes”, there wasn’t a lot of action going on, and those were few and far between. Scott was willing to let me listen to the book, because I was actually interested in it, but he slept through a lot of it and missed the parts I listened to on my runs and when it came time to summarize what he’d missed it was a lot of, “Well, Zeb told some more stories about Adam One and also there’s this chess piece with drugs in it”, or “Well, the Crakers were annoying and also the pigoons came and made a truce with the humans so they could all go kill some Painballers.” So, lots of nothing with some exciting punctuation.

I still liked it a lot. I love this world that Atwood’s made and I would probably read several more books set in it because there’s still more to know. But it’s definitely a book that should be read when you have lots of time and attention to pay to it.

The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty

The Husband's SecretI chose this book for my most recent in-person book club meeting, on the strength of a recommendation from one of my regulars that went something like this: “ERMERGERD THE HUSBAND’S SECRET CAN WE READ IT CAN WE READ IT CAN WE READ IT IT IS SOOOOOOOOOOO GOOD.”

I was like, I seem to recall that other people have liked this book as well, so, sure, why not.

And, well, it was pretty darn amazeballs.

I am a sucker for many things in books, and this combines some of the best: multiple narrators whose stories intertwine, an Important Thing that is nothing but hints for a long time and then pays off big, and the country of Australia.

The Important Thing in this book is a letter. A woman called Cecilia finds this letter tucked away in her attic, with a note that it should be opened only after the death of her husband. Cecilia’s husband is still alive, and she’s not much for rule-breaking, but she is SO CURIOUS about what the letter could possibly be and spends many of her chapters obsessing over it. Eventually the letter is opened, and the result is pretty much the worst thing ever, and the rest of Cecilia’s chapters are pretty much disaster control.

Meanwhile, a woman called Tess finds out that her husband and her cousin/bff/practically-twin-sister are totes in love, which is not good for many reasons including that they all run a business together. Tess just cannot even and packs up her stuff and her kid and runs off to her mother’s house to figure out what the heck Step Two is. But then a hottie from her past shows up, and maybe there’s a Step One Point Five to be dealt with first?

Also meanwhile, a woman called Rachel finds out that her only child is running off to America with his wife and kid, leaving her all alone with nothing to distract her from memories of another child she once had, who was murdered as a teenager. In the midst of distracting herself from that terrible news, she finds a tape that she thinks may finally put away her daughter’s murderer, who Rachel believes is a certain person I previously described as a hottie.

DUN DUN DUN.

So, yeah. It’s awesome. I love the way Moriarty writes — she’s great at little details like using what’s on TV to mark certain scenes as happening at the same time as others and at the big details like managing to tie this whole story together with the Berlin Wall. Her dialogue is also great, with all of the characters having their own distinct voices, which is surprisingly hard to do. The psychological aspects are fascinating, the little mini love story is weirdly cute, and when I picked up the book to double-check how to spell Cecilia I started reading it over again from the beginning. But then I stopped, because my TBR pile is no joke.

The only things I didn’t absolutely love were the climax of the plot, which I found rather too on the nose, and the epilogue, which ties together all the loose ends and explains from the outside how certain storylines play out. With a book like this I was expecting far more ambiguity, but actually I think that the clear ending works for the overarching themes of the book.

I will definitely be reading more books from Liane Moriarty in the future, and so should you!

Recommendation: For fans of Jodi Picoult, tugged heartstrings, and lines like, “‘He was thirty,’ said Esther. “So I guess he’d lived a pretty good life already.'”

Weekend Shorts: Saga, Alex + Ada, and MIND MGMT

I’ve been doing a lot of snappy, quippy titles on my Weekend Shorts posts lately, but I had to go back to a boring title for this one because I just couldn’t find the through-line for these three series. If you can figure out where I could have gone with this, I will give you ten points and a cookie!

Saga, Vol. 5Saga, Vol. 5, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
I actually read this about a million years (read: three months) ago, but it slipped off my posting radar. Luckily I own this one, so I can grab it off my shelf and remind myself what’s up.

:skims volume:

Ah, yes. We drop into this volume with all the bad things in full swing: Hazel is kidnapped, Alana and Klara are trapped, Sophie and Sophie and Gwendolyn are fighting dragons, Marko is stuck with Prince Robot IV on a crappy mission.

But of course, things only get worse from there, as drugs lead to drug-induced flashbacks to horrible life experiences and well-intentioned plans get completely derailed by reality and greed.

And then Brian K. Vaughan channels his inner George R.R. Martin and just kills the shit out of everyone, including a favorite of mine, and I’m not sure I can forgive him for that but luckily his characters aren’t too thrilled about it either, so I think things will be getting interesting in the aftermath. This book continues to be one of my favorite things ever.

Alex + Ada, Vol. 1Alex + Ada, Vol. 1, by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughan
I stumbled across this title on hoopla and remembered hearing good things about it, so I grabbed the first volume and read it before even getting out of bed one morning. I wasn’t sure at first that I would like it, but it definitely grew on me.

The plot is sort of reminiscent of the movie Her — in a near-future world people can buy, for many many dollars, an incredibly realistic robot companion that is indistinguishable from an actual human except for a tattoo and the fact that the robot is, well, a robot, and not really capable of passing the Turing test. If you’re the kind of person who just wants a companion who will agree with you and do all the things you like (and I mean ALL the things, eyebrow waggle, etc.), then it’s perfect.

Our protagonist, Alex, is gifted one such robot from his grandmother, who loves her robot sooooo much and thinks Alex will love his, too. He is, let’s say, not thrilled, and tries to return the robot, but it’s hard to return something that just wants you to like it and he ends up keeping it. Her. Ada.

But Alex isn’t content with his new friend that likes everything that he likes, so he seeks out a way to make her more human. Turns out there’s a secret society of people and robots that have done just that, and Alex can make his robot as sentient as possible… for a price.

I liked this book all right, though it took far too many issues to get to the good stuff. It says some really interesting things about friendships and relationships and sentience and humanity, and I’m hoping that the next volume will get some plot going. But if it doesn’t, eh, it’s hoopla, so I’m only out my time.

MIND MGMT, Vol. 1MIND MGMT, Vol. 1, by Matt Kindt
Another serendipitous find on hoopla. I love free comics, guys. Well, comics paid for by my tax dollars, which sounds even better, actually!

In this world, which I think is roughly present-day, there’s a journalist, Meru, who is banking on a crazy story to get her career back on track — a plane full of people that managed to land safely even though everyone on board developed a terrible amnesia that persists, two years later. Meru is sure that if she can just track down the one person that mysteriously vanished from the scene, she’ll have a story and a new book and maybe some cash to buy groceries.

But there’s definitely more to this story than Meru knows. She’s being tailed by mysterious agents, she’s finding people and places that are not as they should be, and the story’s narrator indicates that this is not the first time Meru has followed the same clues to the same ending. Suspicious!

In the midst of this main story, we learn more about the titular MIND MGMT, a secret organization that trains up promising young people with special mental abilities to do relatively mundane things like impart subliminal messages in advertising or relatively insane things like survive certain death. It’s a crazy organization, and it obviously has something to do with Meru’s quest, but it’s not quite clear yet exactly how they fit together.

I am so intrigued by this story, and so in love with the artwork, which is sketchy and watercolor-y and generally very pretty, that not only am I excited to read the next volume in this series but I have bought the first issue of Kindt’s new series, Dept. H, which has the same lovely art style and an equally weird story summary. I hope I’ll be able to report back with love for both!

Joyland, by Stephen King

JoylandPoor Stephen King. I remember when this book came out and it was a big deal that it would a paperback original, only in print, so that people would have to actually read a gosh darn book or whatever. But although I checked out the paperback from my library, I actually ended up reading this one mostly on my Kindle, as it has been long enough that the publishers gave in to those high-tech readers with their confounded devices.

And, really, it wasn’t that much different, reading it both ways like I did. I’m sure the floppy paperback was meant to evoke the early-seventies setting of the book and really get you into the story, but let’s be real, it’s Stephen King and the man can write — I was happily hanging out in rural North Carolina even when I was reading pieces of the book on my fancy smartphone.

This is one of King’s.. quieter novels, for lack of a better word. It’s not a horror novel or a doorstop or a book with Things To Say or some combination of the three, but it’s very obviously a Stephen King novel and it is delightful.

What this book is is a reminiscence by a present-day Devin Jones about his experience working the summer of 1973 at the Joyland theme park. You know from the beginning that something kind of weird and/or terrible is going to happen that summer, but most of the story is about Devin just growing up — spending the summer away from a girlfriend who’s going to (and then does) break his heart, learning how to be himself, finding out what he loves besides the idea of love, that sort of thing. But there is weird stuff, of course, because it’s King, and what we get here is a sort of haunted-theme-park-slash-murder-mystery subplot in which Devin and his friends first wonder about the woman whose ghost is meant to be haunting the park and then sort of accidentally solve her murder.

There’s spookiness and intrigue and yet another kid with The Sight that King loves to give his characters, so if you’re over The Sight you may want to pass on this one, and there’s also wonderful description and spot-on emotional heft. I should probably mention that this book is intentionally a pulp-fiction, noir-y mystery, so the mystery-solving ending is almost necessarily contrived and quick, but the rest of the story is well paced and I probably would have enjoyed it even if the solving bit had been left out.

Reading this book, and even just thinking about it as I write this post, makes me want nothing more than to run off and join a carnival — but maybe just for a week or two because it sounds like a lot of effort, really, and I’ve got bills to pay that I don’t think carnival running can cover. But it’s a beautiful dream.

Recommendation: For chilly winter nights when you want to think about summer; for those who want to experience nostalgia for a place and time they’ve never seen.

The Dinner, by Herman Koch

The DinnerWell, this was a book. A book I had no intention of reading, but then my book club picked it and I was in a reading slump with literally nothing else I was interested in and I figured, hey, maybe this will get me consuming books again. And it did, so plus ten points to my book club on that one?

But the book itself? Blergh. I had one of those strange reading experiences where I wanted to know what the heck was going on, so I was turning pages rapidly and taking very few breaks from reading… but I was not really enjoying the experience. Sure, I was curious how everything was going to turn out, but I didn’t actually care about the plot or the characters or anything in the book.

This is probably partially by design — the book is written in a close first person that gives no details about anything useful and all the details about the things that don’t matter, because that’s what the narrator wants to focus on.

The book takes place over the course of the titular dinner, with scenes from the dinner interspersed with flashbacks to earlier that evening, earlier that year, and earlier in various relationships that give varying degrees of context to the dinner at hand. At the beginning, all you really know is that a dude doesn’t want to go out to dinner with his brother; at the end there are far more pressing concerns about everyone at the table.

It’s a neat conceit, I’ll admit, and that conceit is definitely what kept me flipping pages. How is this detail going to come into play later? Does this seemingly throwaway sentence have greater import? How is the narrator going to reconcile this situation he’s describing with the life he thinks he’s living?

But the problem is, I didn’t really care about the narrator. He seems set up to be an unlikeable narrator, and I’ve seen this book compared to books like Gone Girl in that regard, but he is so completely detached from the unlikeable things that he does that I just can’t muster up feelings for him either way. I would love to hate him. But I don’t. Ditto for every other character in the book.

As often happens in cases like this, going to book club was helpful for increasing my respect for the book, if not my enjoyment of it. One of the more interesting things I picked up was a perspective on the book from someone who is a little bit obsessed with the Netherlands (the book is set there and translated from the Dutch). There is a particular event that this book, and the dinner itself, centers on, and it’s kind of weird, but my friend pointed out some social norms and policies that are different in the Netherlands that make the event, and the characters’ reactions to the event, make far more sense. So therefore I’m going to chalk up all the other things I didn’t understand to the cultural gulf between me and Holland.

So, yeah. It’s an interesting book to read, style-wise, but I wish the style had been wrapped around, say, any other story. Not the greatest book to kick off 2016 with, but it definitely inspired me to get reading and get some better books in my brain! Any suggestions for the year?

Recommendation: For fans of style over substance, Dutch-ness, and weird people doing very weird things.

The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer PrinceI meant to read this book back when it came out, but somehow I just never got around to it. First there were other books, then there was a mild internet controversy over how well the race/ethnicity portion of the book came off, then there were other books again. But this month has been a really weird month of reading for me and I needed a book that was fun, interesting, and, most importantly, short, and this fit the bill.

In the world of The Summer Prince, bad things have happened to the Earth and the people who have survived them have largely moved to the Equatorial regions where there are seasons instead of the perpetual winter you find everywhere else. At the same time, humans have been developing gene therapies or something that keeps them living much longer, to where 250 years old is the new 90.

This story takes place in Palmares Tres, a big shiny glass building of a city in Brazil, run by “Aunties” and a queen who has ruled for decades. In this matriarchal society, kings are elected every five years to rule for one year, doing really not much ruling but instead preparing to sacrifice themselves at the end of the year to choose the new queen. In this particular election year, an 18-year-old called Enki is elected, to the delight of our hero, June, but it becomes quickly obvious that he is not intending to rule quietly. Instead, June and Enki take art to the streets to protest pretty much all the things that make Palmares Tres the city that June loves.

So, it definitely hits that “interesting” mark dead on. I really liked the worldbuilding in this story, from the physical style of the city to its struggles with age, class, race, technology, isolationism… it’s really cool. I don’t remember that mild internet controversy well enough to really discuss it, but I thought Johnson did a good job with all of the prejudices that mix in this novel.

It also hit the “fun” mark pretty well, as the beginning of the book is filled with June’s graffiti art escapades and the impropriety of Enki as summer king. But eventually things turn serious, and the implications of June’s actions and Enki’s shenanigans become dangerous, and it’s still pretty cool but it loses a lot of the fun. There are long passages of lecture on morality and some anvil-subtle scenes that drive home those struggles I mentioned above.

Luckily it was a short book, so even though I kind of wanted to set it aside when it got serious I was almost done and I saw it through. I’m glad I did finish it, even if the ending was terribly predictable, and overall I did enjoy my time with it. If you’re in my same reading slump boat, though, don’t mistake this for the brain candy I thought it was!

Recommendation: For lovers of quasi-dystopian futures and near-future worldbuilding.

Rating: 6/10