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!

Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor

LagoonWhat a weird book. This is one of the many books that ended up on my TBR list because the internets told me it would be good, and I read it because I saw it at the library and remembered that I thought it would be good. Maybe that’s not the best way to go into reading this book, because it is super weird and you need to be prepared. I can help!

Okay, so. This book. How to describe it. Besides weird. Which it is. Hmm.

Let’s start broad. This book is set in Lagos, Nigeria, in I think roughly the present day. A lot of the tension and interestingness in the novel come from this setting, particularly in the way that the people of Lagos treat magic and religion and how those interact with science and logic. I was very glad to have recently read Half of a Yellow Sun, which helped me sometimes to figure out what was “a Nigeria thing” and what was actually weird in this novel. Sometimes.

What really intrigued me in this book is that the main protagonist is a woman of science, fighting against her husband’s belief in the goodness of his religion and the badness of the magic he believes she has, but then also the book is full of actual magic and also aliens and so the fight isn’t between science and religion or logic and magic but between the people who don’t see them interact in quite the same way. This caught me off guard, but in a good way, I suppose, and I kind of want to go back through the book and know this from the beginning and see how it changes my reading.

If those overarching themes hadn’t already had my brain working overtime, the story itself would have done it quite nicely. It’s a deceptively simple story: what would happen if aliens showed up in Nigeria? But when you throw in lots of narrators and characters and points of view (including POVs of fish and, um, roads) and wade through all of the baggage that all of these characters carry, getting a shape-shifting alien an audience with the Prime Minister of Nigeria is really difficult.

I didn’t read this book especially quickly, partly because I was constantly wondering if I should even keep reading because I clearly had no idea what was going on, but I’m not sure it’s a book you should or can read quickly. If I had been prescient, I would have picked this for one of my book clubs so that I could have all the people to talk about all the things with. There’s still time, I suppose…. Until then, I do have this fancy comment section if anyone wants to help me figure out what’s up with those poisonous oceans!

Recommendation: For people with time for thinky-thought-thinking and those who love magical realism and aliens.

Weekend Shorts: Book Club Re-Reads

I don’t re-read books terribly often, but when I do, it’s for book club. This year is probably going to be seeing more than its fair share of re-reads as I’ve been tasked with putting the book list together for my in-person book club, which means several very popular or much-requested books but also some books I know we can talk a lot about — the re-reads!

Of course, re-reading a book doesn’t always turn out the way you think it will…

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
Code Name VerityOh, man. I picked this book for my book club for several reasons, including that it’s short-ish and we were short on time, I remember loving the heck out of it, and it had been a while since we read a WWII book. It seemed like a winner.

What I didn’t remember from my first reading is the fact that the first half is slow as molasses in winter. It’s slow, it’s kinda boring, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for what’s happening, the narrator’s kinda weird… it’s bad. About half of the people who showed up for book club hadn’t made it past this part, and they were like, we are here to determine what you were smoking when you chose this book. The other half had finished it, with the redirect and the new narrator and the Actual Plot, and while they didn’t all love it they at least understood what I was going for!

True story, even I only just finished the first half before going to book club, so it was kind of hard to convince everyone else they should finish. But finish I did, and yes, again, the second half was much better, though I didn’t find myself shedding a single tear at the end of it where a few years ago I was ugly crying in public. I’m not sure if this is a function of reading it soooooo slowwwwly this time, or the conversation with people who didn’t like it right in the middle of my re-read, or just the fact that I knew what terrible things were going to happen. But it was just… an ending.

Recommendation: Absolutely yes you should read this. Maybe don’t read it twice.

Lock In, by John Scalzi
Lock InLet’s be honest, and TOTALLY SPOILERIFFIC IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK. I mostly wanted my book club to read this to see how many of them thought Chris Shane was a lady. I had Shane in my head as, like, robot first, dude second; my husband totally thought she was a badass chick. There weren’t a lot of book clubbers at this meeting because apparently sci-fi-based procedural crime stories are not my club’s jam, but of the handful who were there it was a mostly dude-Chris consensus, and in fact a sizable white-Chris minority who had missed the “angry black guy with a shotgun” line about Chris’s father.

I had actually tried very hard to get myself into chick-Chris mode, going so far as to use my free Audible trial to obtain the audio version of this book narrated by Amber Benson (you can also get one narrated by Wil Wheaton). It was a very weird experience. Sometimes my initial read of the book, and Benson’s not-super-feminine voice, kept me thinking Shane was a dude. After a while at each listen, I could get into chick mode, but only if I imagined that Amber Benson was Eliza Dushku instead. I would totally watch this movie with Dushku (or her voice, whatever) as the lead, by the way. And with Joss Whedon somewhere at the helm. Hollywood, make this happen!

Outside of all that, though, the book was just as weird and twisty as it was the first time, enough that I couldn’t exactly remember what was going to happen and all the big reveals were still pretty much intact. My book club was not a big fan of all the intrigue and subterfuge, which of course I loved, but they all agreed it was at least interesting.

Recommendation: Totally pick up the audio book in whichever narrator you didn’t expect the first time. It’s weird and fun.

Weekend Shorts: Volume 1 Edition

Comics are weird. You can read them in single issues, or you can wait until a bunch of them are collected in volumes, and it can be hard to tell by any one issue, or even any one volume, what that series is really going to be like. (See: The wild difference between early and late volumes of The Unwritten.)

This is definitely the case for both of the volume ones below. I’m not sure about either of them as a long-term comic relationship, but I’m definitely going to have to check out their second volumes and see if things go any differently than I expect.

Shutter, Vol. 1: “Wanderlost”, by Joe Keatinge and Leila Del Duca
Shutter, Vol. 1I pretty much picked this one up because of the cover, which has a girl with a camera (like!) and a Felix-looking cat thing (weird?). I’m not sure if I’d’ve picked up this book if I had looked at the back cover, though, which is more indicative of the insides with its giant-gun-wielding suited lion and giant-sword-wielding armored… fox? Yeah.

The opening pages had me hooked, though, with a dad and his daughter hanging out on the moon (the MOON!) and hints of other wild adventures to come. Fast-forward to the future and we meet our protagonist, Kate Kristopher, a 27-year-old whose best years seem to be behind her. She’s a popular novelist but hasn’t written anything in ages, and she’s spending her birthday at her dad’s gravesite, as you do.

Don’t worry, though, things get interesting very quickly when some ghost ninjas show up to kidnap Kate, and then some mobster lions get in on that action, and they all seem to want to lead Kate to siblings she didn’t even know she had. There is lots of running and jumping and climbing trees and whatnot, and narrow escapes, and non-escapes that later become escapes, and it’s basically nonstop crazypants.

Which is awesome, and I loved reading this volume, but it’s also tiring. There are like a million things that happen here, but I can’t remember any of them with clarity because they are all rolled up into a ball of crazy in my brain. I am super intrigued by the “girl is thrown headfirst into a pool of family secrets” plotline, but I am moderately annoyed by the “how many crazy anthropomorphic animals and robots and ghosts and shit can we draw into this panel?” business that surrounds it. I’m hoping that’s all just sort of exposition and that the second volume will get to the good stuff, but I’m already resigning myself to the fact that it won’t.

Black Science, Vol. 1: “How to Fall Forever”, by Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera
Black Science, Vol. 1I had almost the exact opposite experience with this book. I had heard great things about it and actually bought it from my local comic shop and dove in ready for some crazy time-and-space-travelling goodness.

The conceit here is kind of like that show Sliders that I watched a lot of as a kid — a group of scientists have a machine that takes them to parallel/alternate universes and it’s super awesome until it breaks and starts sending them to random universes for random amounts of time. Some of the random universes are very dangerous and some are relatively safe, but none are terribly helpful for fixing the machine and bringing everyone back to their original universe.

That kind of plot is basically catnip to me, but unfortunately this volume starts off not doing a lot with it. I mean, yeah, they’re jumping around universes and stuff, but there’s far more focus on the fact that the protagonist dude has been cheating on his wife with a coworker (with whom he and his kids are trapped in these other universes, DRAMA) in the first few issues and I was like, come on, get to the pseudoscience!

I also felt a little let down by the art, which is very pretty on the page level, but a) has a lot of two-page spreads that are hard to see in the trade paperback binding and that led to me being very baffled until I figured it out on each spread, and b) is kind of FBP-esque with the people drawing and it can be hard to tell all those big noses apart.

However, the art was still pretty and the last couple of issues make up for the early lack of action plot with some veeery interesting pseudosciencey turns of events and a pretty decent cliffhanger that left me wishing I had the second volume at the ready. I will definitely be back for more.

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body ProblemI feel almost embarrassed to have waited over six weeks to talk about this book, but, see, here’s the thing: this book is bonkers. And not just bonkers like I usually mean it, where it’s weird and strange and requires a lot of brain power to make it through, although all of those are certainly true. But bonkers like, there was so much going on and the narrative was so all over the place that my brain just went ahead and jettisoned all of my memories of it. I listened to it for 14 hours with my husband on our pilgrimage to Cleveland and honestly the thing I remember most clearly is the narrator saying “REEEEEHYYYYYYYDRAAAAATE” like some kind of health-conscious Dalek.

Obviously, there’s more. The book starts during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, with the government decrying heretical things like physics. There’s a looooooong bit with a physicist being persecuted for SCIENCE and lots of boring talky talk, and I was like, “I swear to god this book is supposed to be about aliens. If I had data signal right now I’d double check that.”

Then there’s more stuff with the physicist’s daughter getting caught up in more anti-Chinese things and getting sent off to do, um, stuff, I have no memory of any of this, and then there’s a dude in the near-future-day taking pictures with weird ghostly time stamps that no one else can see or take a picture of and cue me being like YES ALIENS but no, no aliens yet, just super weird science and shadowy government organizations and a weird video game with dehydrating people and chaotic eras and winter is coming.

When we finally get to the aliens, this does not solve the problem of the book making only 5 percent sense. The aliens are weirdos, the people who like the aliens are weirdos, the people who hate the aliens are weirdos, there are two mysterious protons that have a backstory that is highly amusing if you are a complete nerd (our amusement level: fairly), and I still have no idea what any of that was about.

So, like, you know The Martian? You know how it’s got all that awesome science that is super cool because it’s explained in pirate ninjas and whatnot? Okay, take that, but instead of space engineering this has theoretical physics and instead of pirate ninjas this has no useful explanations whatsoever. And you can’t just kind of skim over the science parts, as you can with The Martian, because the whole dang book is science parts.

But the thing of it is, the author and narrator do a great job of telling this story. I may not remember the actual story, but I do remember that I had more than one book downloaded and ready to listen to and Scott and I chose to keep listening to this one. It’s weird and crazy and makes no sense when you’ve had six weeks to forget all of it, but in the moment it’s kind of awesome and fascinating, if you’re into that theoretical physics thing.

There’s two more books in this series, and the second one just came out, and it’s definitely going on my list of road-trip audiobooks because I need to know what’s up with these aliens but I will never find out if I don’t have Scott around to commiserate with when the book inevitably goes completely off the rails. I’ll try to remember that one better, but no guarantees!

Recommendation: For science nerds and wannabe science nerds ONLY. Do not attempt this book without at least a passing interest in theoretical physics.

Rating: 6/10

Weekend Shorts: Citizen and Memorial

I’ve got an interesting combination of nonfiction books this week — one current events and one historical (if 2005 is historical…), one that is short and important and one that is looooong and self-important. I think you might be able to guess which one I liked better.

Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
CitizenI had heard many good things about this book, including that it’s excellent on audio, so I waited patiently for an OverDrive copy only to find that I couldn’t get past the narrator’s flat affect. But I still wanted to read it, so I put myself on a long list for my local giant library system’s ONE copy (poor planning, that) and many weeks later finally got to read it.

Again I was surprised, this time by the weird, self-published quality of the book — waxy pages, simplistic formatting, oddly placed images. I’m pretty sure this was a purposeful decision, but I don’t know enough to know why anyone would make it. But, once I got past that and started reading the book, none of that mattered because the words are amazing.

The first half or so of the book is full of short vignettes about casual racism experienced by Rankine — people asking completely unnecessary questions or making very incorrect assumptions and presuming that Rankine (and probably everyone else) will just forgive or ignore them. The latter part has, I guess, stories written for various outlets on the topic of race and racism, and although I found these more difficult to understand in their sort of avant-garde style, they were still super interesting. I was intrigued especially by the one about Zidane and the 2006 World Cup, which has a really cool two-page style and well-placed graphics and is just a great total package.

This book is a quick and necessary read for anyone who lives in this world, so go make your library buy a copy.

Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink
Five Days at MemorialI found myself without an audiobook a couple of weeks before the recent 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, so when I saw this pop us as available I knew I had to listen to it. I’ve read stories about Katrina in the past and bemoaned my lack of knowledge of the whole event, having been focused on other things like my first semester of college at the time. I hoped this would help.

And… it sort of did? But it wasn’t quite the book I was expecting. You’d think a book with such a specific title would deliver as advertised, but only a few chapters of this book are about those five days. Those are the interesting chapters. It’s fascinating, listening with that distance of dramatic irony as the hospital staffers prepare for their hurricane weekend at the hospital, bringing their dogs and food and water or bringing barely anything depending on how bad they think this hurricane is going to be. It’s horrible, listening as the hospital’s triage system fails miserably in the face of a hurricane that is much worse than anyone expected. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching, listening as doctors make decisions that will not just affect, but most likely end, the lives of their patients. It is insane and I hope I never have to deal with any of that in my life.

If the book had ended there? A+++, five stars, would read again. But instead it keeps going, talking about the legal aftermath of hurricane, about the lawsuits and criminal charges brought against the staff members who may or may not have euthanized patients, about prosecutors and defenders trying to piece together a case with very limited information. This might also be a great book on its own, but it’s so wildly different in tone and subject that I just didn’t have the same interest in it. And by the epilogue, which I should never have listened to and which is full of admonishments and recommendations for hospitals in future tragedies, I had completely zoned out and the book was almost nothing but background noise.

But those chapters about the storm are excellent, and you should totally read them. I bet this book would be a lot better in print, where the rest of the chapters can be easily skimmed over.

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl DreamingI had heard all the good things about this book, but I was hesitant to read it because I have an irrational mental block against both memoir and poetry. I know, I know. I’ve had some success lately with memoir on audio, though, so when I saw this was available on OverDrive, read by Woodson herself, and also very short, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a try.

It did not hurt. It was actually quite wonderful.

The audiobook definitely helped, as Woodson’s poetry is free verse and so the book sounds like a regular memoir most of the time. But the audio also makes the poetry part so much better because you can hear where Woodson breaks her lines and where she wants the emphasis and I’m looking at the print version right now and it’s just not the same. There are a few poems where the spacing and italics and the white space in the print version have their own sort of gorgeousness to them, but overall I am very glad I chose to listen to this.

Oh, what’s the book about, you ask? Right. Well, it’s a memoir, of course, of Woodson’s childhood growing up briefly in Ohio and then primarily in South Carolina and Brooklyn in the height of the civil rights era.

“I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
Columbus, Ohio,
USA—
a country caught

between Black and White.”

Those are the first lines of the first poem in the book, and they set the stage for what’s to come. Woodson and her siblings grow up with a Southern mother and Northern father and feel the strain of that geographical divide no matter where they’re living. In South Carolina they live with their mother’s family in their mother’s home, but even their mother is wary of their lives there. As a Northern transplant to a very Southern part of Florida, I was startled to hear these words coming out of my car speakers:

“Never ma’am—just yes, with eyes
meeting eyes enough to show respect.
Don’t ever ma’am anyone!
The word too painful
a memory for my mother
of not-so-long-ago
southern subservient days . . .”

That first part is absolute crazy talk in my neck of the woods, where a forgotten “ma’am” gets even grown adults in trouble. “Ma’am” and “sir” have become so ingrained in my vocabulary that it’s hard to imagine anyone purposely not saying them, but of course it makes perfect sense in the context of the time.

And that’s how most of the poems go — they’re mostly short, some very short, reflections on mostly normal events like moving and going to school and making and keeping friends, but they’re all imbued with history, whether the history of Jacqueline Woodson or her family or the South or the whole country.

It’s a beautiful book and if you are on the fence about it for any reason, please do give it a try, especially in audio. You probably won’t regret it.

Recommendation: For everyone, really.

Rating: 9/10