All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeI’m pretty sure we’ve established in this space that I love a good World War II book, and especially one of this recent spate of “World War II books about places that are not London or a concentration camp”. I’m not sure exactly what it is that fascinates me and pretty much everyone else about this time period, but it probably has something to do with the whole good vs. evil thing and how, ideally, this is a time never to be repeated and from which we can learn many dozens of things. One hopes.

The first part of that, the good vs. evil thing, is of course not that simple, and this idea is explored pretty interestingly in this book. We have two main protagonists: a young blind girl living in France with her father, and a young mechanically-minded boy living as an orphan with his sister in Germany. Both leave their regular lives very quickly, she to coastal France to help her father hide a very valuable stone, and he to a military school to become a good German soldier.

The girl’s story is rather a bog-standard World War II story, with the hiding and the rationing and the French Resistance and et cetera. Doerr tries to dress it up with this valuable stone business, but that’s a really weird and unnecessary side plot so let’s pretend that never happened.

The boy’s story, on the other hand, is more of a bog-standard coming-of-age boarding school story, except for the whole “becoming a good German soldier” thing, and I found that absolutely fascinating as someone who also loves a good boarding school story. Trying to do well in school and fit in and not succumb to peer pressure are such universal sentiments, and it’s hard not to sympathize with this boy who really just wants a better life and this is his only way to get one.

Another big idea explored in this book is the importance of the radio (and communication in general) during the war and beyond. It’s amazing that in this time, broadcast radio is so ubiquitous that the Germans are confiscating radios and creating their own stations and broadcasts to keep people from knowing what’s really happening, but meanwhile resistance fighters were communicating via the radio and German soldiers have to take radio receivers out and scan the dial and hope to happen upon the right channel at the right time to hear the right words that would help them take down their enemies. It’s not unlike the current ubiquity of the Internet and the way that some countries censor it or create their own version of it to give to their people. It’s fascinating and also incredibly frustrating to see history repeat itself like this.

I will admit, though, that for all that intriguing content I didn’t end up being super into the book. That stone business is kind of really very awful, as I said, but also I had a hard time getting into Doerr’s writing. The best thing he does in the book, I think, is make his chapters very short and snappy so that when the point of view changes you keep reading to get back to that other narrator, and then the other, and so on until you’ve read the whole book and are like, huh.

On the plus side, after discussing this twice at book club I can say that it is a very good pick for your next book club meeting, as you will get a lot of different opinions on the book and there are a lot of different aspects of the book to talk about. I’m not sure I’d read it again, but I’d definitely go to another book club or two about it!

Recommendation: Read it and then make all your friends talk about it with you.

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The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of MiraclesHey, look, another book club book! This one turned out much better than the last one, thank goodness!

I picked this one for my in-person book club off of a list of suggestions I got from my online book club friends, because man, I am so out of book ideas. (Do you have some? Let me know! Ahem.) I had heard enough of it to be like, “Oh, is that the one where the Earth’s spin slows down?” but not much else, but that sounded like a pretty good premise and something to talk about so I put it on the list.

Sometimes with these apocalyptic-ish books you get a story where it’s heavy on the plot and the Big Event is super important, and sometimes you get a story where a Big Event is happening but that really doesn’t matter at all except for setting. This book was, kind of surprisingly, right in the center of those two styles. We have a super important Big Event, but the focus is on the humans and how they’re reacting to the Event, both as humans do and possibly as is caused by the Event itself.

What happens, of course, is that the Earth’s spin starts to slow for no apparent reason. Scientists are like, WTF, but for most people it’s not a hugely big deal that there are now a few more minutes in the day. Except that the spin keeps slowing, and soon there are a few more hours in the day, and eventually a few more days in the day, and of course this insane day and night pattern takes its toll on the Earth and its plants and animals, especially those emotional humans.

What makes the book most interesting to me is that it’s told in the past tense, so we know that people are going to survive but we’re not quite sure how, and also that it’s told from the point of view of a young teenager, giving us the double uncertainty of adolescence and apocalypse.

It helps, too, that the sort of Big Conflict laid out in the story is so unexpected to me, this completely baffling conflict between the people who choose to live “on the clock”, following the standard 24-hour day regardless of what it looks like outside, versus those living off the clock and following the sun for their days and nights. You’d think it would be as simple as ignoring the people doing what you think is a crazy thing, but if you’ve lived in this world for any amount of time I think you can guess how ridiculous the tension between the groups gets.

Outside of that Big Conflict, the rest of the book is really a look at relationships and how they function under big stresses and little stresses and the everyday realities of life, which is a book I can totally get behind.

It’s not a perfect book, sadly, as the characters end up being a bit simplistic and certain actions and events are more cliché than I wanted them to be, but I think it does such a great job with its premise and elsewhere that it’s worth your time, especially if you have some people to hash out the details with.

Recommendation: For fans of quasi-apocalyptic books, weird science, and teen protagonists.

Every Day, by David Levithan

Every DayIt may not surprise you to learn that as a child I loved me a show called Quantum Leap. Scott Bakula, wacky person-in-a-different-body hijinks… to my elementary-school self, it was the greatest. Today you could not pay me to watch an episode as it can only have aged poorly, but I will cherish my childhood-tinged memories forever.

So of course I was intrigued by the premise of this book, in which a 16-year-old kid (entity? being?) we’ll call A wakes up every morning in a different body — always has and presumably always will. This is life for A, and A is more or less happy to put up with it, until the day A falls in love with Rhiannon, the girlfriend of A’s current body. A can’t get Rhiannon out of their head and breaks all of the rules they’ve made for themself to try to make a relationship with Rhiannon work.

I found this book incredibly interesting at its premise — it does a really good job making you think about identity (gender, most obviously, but other forms of identity as well) and how it is all completely constructed by ourselves and the people around us and how uncomfortable other people are when these constructions are challenged. There’s also some intriguing talk (spoilers? ish?) about how A exists and what happens to the people in the bodies A briefly inhabits and what would happen if A never left.

But that romance plotline? Ehhhhhhh. I was more or less okay with it when I read the book, as I was focused more on the stuff noted above, but as I talked about it with my book group I started to like it less and less. It’s a weird and creepy relationship that is hugely selfish and places Rhiannon in an impossible situation and potentially hurts many other people in the process and it’s just, again, weird and creepy. Full disclosure, though, one book-club-mate found it super incredibly romantic, so it’s possible that if you are or are temporarily inhabited by a 16-year-old you will feel the same way?

Other book-clubbers had issues with an odd B-plot storyline wherein a kid and later a pastor become obsessed with A and it leads to some half-formed revelations about A’s existence and possibilities that would have needed their own entire book to become fully formed. I didn’t mind that we didn’t get any closure on some of those things, but it was definitely a bone of contention at book club.

There’s a companion novel to this, called Another Day, that tells the same story from Rhiannon’s point of view, and I’m kind of interested to see if her side of the story helps fill in some of the weird blanks left in A’s story but I’m worried it will just make those gaps even larger. I don’t know. I’m pretty content leaving this story where it left itself, and moving on to better things.

Recommendation: For anyone who thrives on improbable romance stories, slightly less for anyone who is interested in one author’s take on identity politics.

The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl, by Melissa Keil

The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon GirlI read Keil’s first book several months ago, and it was super cute adorable brain candy. When I was done, I went to read her second book, The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl, but it wasn’t out in the US yet! Noooooo! But luckily, it’s here now, and I grabbed it up as soon as I could.

Cinnamon Girl sounded like it was going to be even more up my alley than Outer Space, since it had a nerdy comics-loving protagonist in addition to its lovely Melbourne setting. Our girl, Alba, is just after graduating high school and is planning on putting off thinking about the future for as long as she can, or until the end of the summer when everyone’s off to university, I guess. But her plans for an uneventful summer are ruined when a weird internet prophet names her sleepy town as the place that’s going to survive when the world ends in a few short weeks.

This sounds great! I’m super in! But, unfortunately, the story takes a really really strange tack on the love triangle story that I just couldn’t make myself enjoy. Alba’s got a cute boy bff who is ONLY her bff, but when a former classmate turned super hot TV star shows up in town to partake in the end-of-the-world festivities, things get super weird between her and the hot guy and also her and the bff. Throughout the whole book it seems like Alba knows what she wants, and what she wants is not to have a relationship with either of these guys, or anyone, really, but then at the end, surprise! A relationship is totally in the cards. If there had been any indication of this, it would have been okay, but it seriously came out of nowhere. Laaaame.

Also lame was the fact that “comics-loving protagonist” turned out to be “name-dropping comics-artist-obsessed protagonist”, with seemingly every sentence out of Alba’s mouth containing a reference to a comics artist or their run on a series or something else crazy specific. When I got the reference (Kelly Sue!) it was awesome, but when I didn’t it just felt awkward. It is entirely possible that I am too old and uncool for this book. That would be unfortunate.

On the plus side, I really did enjoy the whole end of the world plot line and the general existential angst of the post-high-school summer, and I did like Alba quite a bit as a character until her sudden but inevitable betrayal of my expectations. So maybe if you’re prepared for the romance bit it’ll play about better for you?

Recommendation: For serious lover of comics, regular lovers of teen angst stories and Australia.

End-of-the-Year Comics Roundup: Superpower Edition

I just can’t even with this December, guys. I have started three novels and finished only one, and it’s not that I don’t want to finish the other two, it’s just that that feels like it requires, like, effort. And I just don’t wanna.

Thank goodness for my backlog of comics and the fact that I am apparently all for reading words that are accompanied by pretty pictures. I’ve read lots of comics this month and they’ve all been pretty awesome.

Today, let’s talk about the ones that will scratch your superhero itch.

S.H.I.E.L.D., Vol. 1: “Perfect Bullets”, by Mark Waid and various artists
S.H.I.E.L.D., Vol. 1When I read Ms. Marvel, Volume 3, there was a super awesome bonus issue from a crossover with S.H.I.E.L.D., and I was like, yeah, I’m probably going to go read that now.

So I did! And I liked it a lot! This is a series made for the single issue, as the story in each issue is almost entirely separate from the stories in the other issues, with a different fight and a different main character each time. There’s a Coulson backstory issue, the wonderful Ms. Marvel issue, an issue with Spiderman (who I always forget is an Avenger), a kind of terrible and manipulative Sue Storm issue, and a two-parter with the whole Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. team, which is weird but I like having the whole gang together so that’s fine.

It’s a little weird reading this and watching the TV show, as I can’t quite place the comic in the timeline of the show and it quite possibly doesn’t have a place in it. Things are just off enough to be confusing, but also enough that I’m curious anew about how things might go. Win! This isn’t going on my “A plus plus will read while walking home” list, but I will probably be picking up the next trade volume when it comes out in a couple months.

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4: “Last Days”, by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4Speaking of Ms. Marvel… things are not going well for her in this volume. Her former crush object is a real a-hole, for one, and as she won’t stop telling people, but then also there’s this, like, giant planet coming in for a landing on top of Manhattan. I’m sure that has something to do with important Marvel Universe things, but I can’t be arsed to look it up. The upshot is, Kamala finds herself running all over Jersey City trying to protect her family and community from the bad things that are going to happen and the bad things that ARE happening thanks to a certain former crush object. This is exhausting me just to think about it. I will never be a superhero.

Awesome things in this volume include a visit from Carol Danvers, which would be whatever except that Kamala’s insane squeeing is absolutely adorable (it’s the meeting with Wolverine times a thousand), an unexpected “be true to yourself” speech, and some serious truth bombs about love and responsibility. There’s also another crossover event included here, two issues of Amazing Spider-Man, but I’m just not that into Spidey so I don’t think this one’s going to get me to buy more comics.

We Can Never Go Home, by Matthew Rosenberg, Patrick Kindlon, and Josh Hood
My copy of the trade paperback says “Volume One” on it, but I’m pretty sure this is a one-off miniseries. I’m not sure what they would do if they made more of these. But I’d probably be interested in finding out.

This is not a superhero story, but it does have a girl with a superpower in it: the power of glowy eyes and super-strength with the Hulk-like limitation of having to be anxious for it to show up. Our girl, Madison, is a football-player-dating popular-kid at her high school until one day, she’s not, having shown her superpower to her jerk boyfriend when he deserved it. However, she also showed her superpower to a loner classmate at the same time, and this completely changes Madison’s life, and not really for the better.

It’s a short series, so I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say the writer did some super interesting things with the “girl discovers her place in the world with the help of a cute boy” story as well as with the concepts of heroes and villains and self-determination and all that good stuff. Some of it is a little anvil-y because, well, five issues of a comic does not give you much time or space to work with, but some of the characterizations are surprisingly subtle. I’m not sure I loved this as a complete work, but there are definitely parts of it that are really awesome.

That’s all I’ve got for now — what other awesome superhero/superpower stories should I pick up next?

Weekend Shorts: All the Single Issues

Well, okay, obviously not all of them, because I have just too many for the fact that I “only buy in trades.” Except for cool mini-series, and intriguing #1s, and shiny things… whatever. If you’re a single issue reader, here are some you should check out!

Back to the Future, Issues 1 and 2, by Bob Gale and various artists
Back to the Future 1Cool mini-series, check. I want to say issue 1 came out in time for Back to the Future day back in October, and as soon as I heard about it I was like, yes, please, stick that on my pull list. It looks like there will be five total of these, and I’m guessing I’ll be left wanting more!

Back to the Future 2The best part about this series is that the issues contain two standalone stories (just like the best Saturday morning cartoon shows), so if you just find one lying around you won’t have missed anything. In issue 1 we have “The Doc Who Never Was”, which details the time the US government came to recruit Doc Brown and his prototype time machine (no Delorean yet!) and “Science Project”, a cute little thing in which Marty’s got a science project due and Doc Brown offers up all the doodads in his shop. Issue 2 brings “When Marty Met Emmet”, which, well, I think you know what that’s about, and “Looking for a Few Good Scientists”, in which Doc Brown as college professor tries to get in on the Manhattan Project.

Also cool is that each issue is illustrated by a different artist. Seeing so many different takes on Doc and Marty is super neat and it gives the stories a completely different feel even though they share the same author. If you’re a fan of Back to the Future, this is definitely a series to look for.

Paper Girls, Issue 1, by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang
Paper Girls 1I didn’t really know much about this book going in besides “Brian K. Vaughan” and “paper delivery girls”, but if you know me you know that’s enough to shell out three bucks for. If nothing else, the packaging is great — high-quality paper for the bright yellow cover, fantastic art and colors on the inside, yes please!

But it’s Brian K. Vaughan, so the story’s high-quality, too. We meet our paper girls the morning after Hallowe’en as they navigate the very very dark streets of “Stony Stream”, Ohio (I get that reference!) and fend off jerky teenagers and equally jerky cops. I would have been perfectly happy if that were the whole story, honestly, but it gets even better with the addition of ALIENS. I am very intrigued and will definitely be picking up the trade to read the rest.

Rocket Girl, Issue 6, by Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder
Rocket Girl 6And… shinies. I bought a couple of issues of this when it first came out, before I gave up and went to trades, but the first trade volume is one of my favorite things. I hadn’t seen any issues of this in ages, so when I spotted #6 hanging out on the shelves of my comic shop I bought it immediately to make sure they’d make more for a volume 2. Fingers crossed!

This issue doesn’t have terribly much to do with what I think is the cool part of the story, with the time travel and the Quintum Mechanics intrigue and the weird world of the future that is our past that is… oh, time travel. Mostly this issue is about Rocket Girl’s personal issues, including apparently some mommy issues that I am very intrigued to see play out.

That’s all for this round of comics… what great things are you reading this week?

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell

Carry OnYou know, I’m not really sure why I bother try to find other books like Rainbow Rowell’s books, when Rowell’s books are amazing and wonderful and I could probably read a couple of them thirty-six more times each and have the next few years of my reading life covered.

Carry On comes out of one of those beloved books, Fangirl, in which the main character is writing an epic fanfiction called Carry On, Simon, about a Harry-Potter-esque wizard and his Draco-Malfoy-esque nemesis/crush object. Carry On is unfortunately not that fanfiction, which I presume would never have gotten past the editors, but is instead Rowell’s version of what the last Simon Snow book might look like if indeed Simon and Baz discovered their true feelings for each other.

Confused? Don’t even worry about it. The whole book is just so dang adorable you will forget that you have no idea what’s going on.

I won’t summarize the plot, because it’s basically “Insert Standard Harry-Potter-Esque Story Line Here”, but I will say it takes that SHPESL and does some fun stuff with it. The wizarding world gets to have vampires but it doesn’t get Quidditch, instead having the wizards play soccer like normal people. The spells in this world are the best, all based on commonly-used phrases and catchphrases like “some like it hot” “Scooby-Dooby-Doo, where are you!”, and also you have to watch out that your spells don’t go too literal and, say, set everything on fire.

It also does some dark stuff with the SHPESL, giving us a Dumbledore of dubious trustworthiness and also a Big Bad who is far more existentially terrifying than any Voldemort. My bestie and I, who bonded over the Bartimaeus trilogy and its better-than-HP ending, agree that Carry On‘s ending is also obviously superior and obviously more depressing, just as it should be.

And then, of course, there’s the Simon/Baz romance, which is just so perfectly teenagery with the longing and the missed connections and the misunderstandings and the complete insecurity and although I do not miss those days my teenage heart is happy to relive them from the comfort of the future. There is just a little bit of angst over whether Simon is gay or gay for Baz or what, and it’s kind of nice that Rowell mostly gets that out of the way and lets everyone get back to stalking vampires and solving magical mysteries.

Basically, I loved this book, which I read in one sitting, curled up inside on a perfectly nice day. The only problem is that now I’m caught up on Rainbow Rowell again and I don’t even know when her next book will come out!

Recommendation: For fans of Rowell, Harry Potter, and adorable fan fiction.

Rating: 9/10