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 Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman

The Magician's LandI was a little hesitant about reading this book, because although I liked the second book I was pretty iffy on the first one, and trilogies are so hard to predict. But still, as soon as I saw it show up on my galley list, I requested the heck out of it, so clearly I had high hopes.

The book starts off with my faaavorite character, Quentin, having seemingly recovered from the events that made me so happy at the end of the last book but ready to get into some more trouble. He’s shadily hanging out at a shady bookstore (the best kind), and we soon learn that he and a handful of other magician-types are there to try for a place on an Ocean’s Eleven-style crew, though it is unclear at first exactly what ability everyone has that makes them suitable for stealing the MacGuffin. The crew works together to prepare for the heist, but of course the heist happens earlier than planned and things go very very wrong. In the meantime, we find out what happened to Quentin between the last book and this new job and also find out some fascinating facts about Quentin’s new pal, Plum.

Quentin’s story trades off with the story of Fillory, where all of our other kings and queens are still reigning. Fillory’s story this go-round starts off with a strange and quickly won war and continues with the discovery that Fillory is dying and only an Epic Quest has any chance of saving it. Eventually the two storylines combine and Quentin helps save Fillory and then a thing happens that I just don’t even want to talk about because srsly.

Overall it was a decent book. I liked it a little better than I liked The Magicians, though both of them suffer from a surfeit of storylines. The heist storyline is actually pretty fun, although its resolution is a bit odd, Plum’s adventure through Brakebills is awesome and terrifying, and Janet’s stories from her solo queen days are things I would have liked to see actually happening rather than retold but I’ll take them. But so many of the other storylines were just ennnhh and the one with Alice made me both baffled and a bit angry.

Luckily Grossman is the kind of writer, like Terry Pratchett or Jasper Fforde, where half the fun is seeing what kind of quotable quotes he’ll come up with next. He’s always ready with a great line about fantasy stories or libraries or being a twenty-something, and there were plenty of lovely and amusing sentences throughout to help take my mind off the irritating parts of the plot. I’ll definitely be watching for more from Grossman in the future; maybe if he can get away from this particular story and character I’ll enjoy his work more.

Recommendation: For those who have read the rest of the series and feel compelled by this book’s existence to pick it up. But definitely don’t start here!

Rating: 7/10

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary JusticeI bought this book about nine months ago on a trip to Virginia, at the famed (where famed = “talked about a lot by a podcaster I listen to”) Fountain Bookstore in downtown Richmond. I did what I always do at a new bookstore: I said, “I want to buy a book, in paperback, that you think is awesome. What do you got?” The bookseller, showing a respectable amount of laziness, pointed at the Staff Picks shelf but also mentioned which picks were actually his, one of which was this book. I had heard that it existed and was supposed to be good, but when the bookseller said, dude, it’s a book about a person that used to be a spaceship? You know I was sold.

And then of course I put it off in favor of library books that needed to be returned until earlier this summer when I found myself in need of a print book and this was the handiest one. And then I didn’t want to put it down, so it came with me to the beach and to Disney World and even briefly into the library with me until I was good and done with it.

Not that I am. This is one of those thinky books, not just in that it makes you think about things like gender roles and inter-class conflict and the nature of consciousness but also in that it is damn confusing. Which, it’s a book about a person who used to be a spaceship, I should probably have expected that, but I think it’s even just a little bit more confusing than that.

Why is it confusing? Well. The book is told in my favorite way, with two storylines from different time frames jumping back and forth between each other. In one, we meet Breq, who we soon learn is our erstwhile spaceship and who is travelling the galaxy on a mission but gets derailed rescuing a former crewmember from certain death. In the other, we meet Lieutenant Awn and her cadre of “ancillaries”, collectively known as One Esk, who are (and this is a bit awful) the AI of Awn’s home spaceship working inside of a dozen or so human bodies who areā€¦ not exactly dead.

There’s a lot to learn in both storylines. In Breq’s world, we’re finding out about Breq’s current quest to find an Important Thing and do another Important Thing with it, and also about how Breq knows this rescued crewmember and why the crewmember was almost dead and how the universe is functioning after a couple of other Important Things that happened, all of which start out super vague and get increasingly specific. In One Esk’s world, we’re finding out about this planet that was taken over by the Radch (with Awn and One Esk as the troops overseeing the results of the takeover) and what that means and how the different classes on this planet are reacting to the same event, and then also later we’re learning that the Radch leader is doing some dicey things that may involve One Esk and that may (read: totally will) lead into one of those Important Things from the future storyline.

So that’s awesome and fascinating but also tough, and it’s not made super easier by the fact that as One Esk, One Esk commands those dozens of bodies and is all, and then I sent my one body over here and she saw this and I sent my other body over here and she did that and also these six bodies were all doing these different things all at the exact same time. Also, it turns out that the Radchaai, whose spaceship One Esk/Breq was, don’t use gender in their speech, and so Breq just calls every person “she” or “her” regardless of anything, and spends a lot of time worrying about giving people the wrong gender designation because people get really touchy about that. But meanwhile everyone that Breq meets knows how to discern gender and so sometimes another character will go on at length about a “he” and Breq’s going on about a “she” and it’ll take six pages for you to figure out whether they’re talking about the same person or what. And then, when you get to the intrigue and subterfuge (subterfuge!), there’s so much of it it’ll make your head spin. I’m still not entirely clear on what happened at the end of the book, but hey, there’s a sequel coming out soon so maybe I’ll find out!

Recommendation: Totally worth a read if you are intrigued by any part of what I just said, though you’ll have to secure your thinking cap to your head with superglue.

Rating: 9/10

Landline, by Rainbow Rowell

LandlineI maaay have already mentioned in this space how super in love with Rowell’s novels I am. I haven’t gotten around to Fangirl yet, but you can bet I will very very soon, and then I will be able to say that I absolutely adore everything Rowell has ever published. (Right? Wait, has she written stuff other than novels? Note to self: look into this.)

Because Landline? Is adorable.

Landline is about a TV-industry workaholic (is that redundant? Probably…) called Georgie McCool who finds herself stuck working in LA over Christmas when she’s supposed to be spending the week with her husband and children and in-laws in Nebraska. Her husband, Neal, who has put up with Georgie’s shenanigans long enough, decides to take the kids with him to Nebraska while Georgie stays behind. Between Georgie’s phone’s inability to hold a charge and Neal’s propensity for leaving his phone behind when he wanders off somewhere, she finds it impossible to get a hold of her husband until she drags an old landline phone out of her childhood bedroom closet and calls Neal on his mom’s landline — fifteen years ago.

So yeah, there’s this weird magical conceit where present Georgie is talking to past Neal, who’s living in the week between the last time they had a huge fight and the time that Neal drove all night from Nebraska to propose. Georgie’s not sure if she’s, you know, certifiably insane, or if she’s actually talking to actual Neal and influencing the actual course of events that led to her talking on this phone now. And with all the horribleness happening in Georgie’s present, she’s not sure if she wants that course of events to stay the same.

The story jumps back and forth between Georgie’s present, where her mom is convinced that Georgie’s about to get divorced and she’s convinced she’s losing her mind, and Georgie’s way past, where she meets Neal, becomes infatuated with him, and overcomes more than a few obstacles to snag him as a husband. Fascinatingly, you can see from those flashbacks that Georgie and Neal are kind of a terrible pairing from the beginning, but it’s also obvious that they’re the kind of people who decide what they want and then stick with it and that they want to be together. Which is not something I would like, but whatever floats your boat, I guess?

I love a lot of things about this story, starting with the characters, who are fun and delightful and maybe not always the most realistic of people (unless your mom is like Georgie’s mom, in which case I want to meet her) but nonetheless realistic emotionally. I love the sort-of time-travelling conceit, which gets me absolutely every time. I love that nothing is cut and dried, from the fight at the beginning to the resolution at the end.

It’s not perfect, of course — it is especially full of clichés of grand sweeping gestures and also the beauty and optimism of snow and also the miracle of puppy birth — but it’s pretty darn awesome. My biggest lingering concern after reading this book is that I should probably get my phone fixed or replaced before its battery becomes as unreliable as Georgie’s. I don’t particularly want to find myself talking to people from my past any time soon…

Recommendation: For those looking for a fun read and some reassurance as to the normalcy of their own relationships.

Rating: 9/10

Brilliance, by Marcus Sakey

BrillianceI initially picked up Brilliance because I had been hearing a lot about it from the same places that told me lovely things about Lexicon, which I adored, and because those places told me it was a book about people with special powers who have to live in a world that doesn’t like special powers, which, yes, I am going to read that. But then I thought that Scott might also be interested, seeing as how we’ve watched the not-terribly-good-but-entertaining-anyway TV show Alphas together, which seemed to be of a similar nature to the book, and so I found it on audio and brought it along on our northern migration.

I’m not sure if it was the expectation of a different kind of story, or the fact that the audio narration felt bigger than the story itself, but I was not as thrilled with this book as I wanted to be.

First, the story. The premise is that back in the eighties, kids started being born with special brain skills that allowed them to think faster or bigger or more creatively than their peers, and they were eventually labelled Brilliants or Abnorms or Twists or “those guys that we hate for being smarter than us and taking our jobs.” As you do. In this particular book, we’re following along with a Brilliant called Nick Cooper who works for a department that corrals Brilliants who are trying to kill government people or blow up buildings full of citizens in an attempt to create some sort of Brilliant-ocracy. His department gets wind of a huge plot of the latter kind, and he tries to stop it but fails, and then he convinces his boss to let him use this failure as a way to “go rogue” and infiltrate the bad guys and take them down. As you may guess, Cooper soon finds out that things are not what they seem.

The world-building in this book is really fantastic. Sakey presents an incredibly plausible reality where technologies are advanced by Brilliants and prejudices that might normally have turned into, say, constitutional amendments have been ignored in favor of anti-Brilliant sentiment and the government has figured out a way to harness the power of Brilliants without having to consider them human beings. Things start out seeming pretty much the way they are in our actual world, but as the differences are doled out throughout the novel you slowly realize just how messed up the world has become.

But plot-wise, things are pretty predictably thriller-shaped, with our protagonist with the home issues and the secret organizations and the femme fatale and the things not being what they seem. And that’s not a bad thing, if you like thrillers, but I was hoping for something a little more think-y and a little less action-y and I did not get it.

I had a hard time with the audio narration, its one redeeming quality being that the narrator gave everyone a distinct voice and I always knew who was talking. However, those distinct voices were taken way over the top (and here I’m not sure whether to blame the narrator or the producer or both) and often they were imbued with emotions that seemed incongruous with what was actually being said (see: Dumbledore in the Goblet of Fire movie). This is not a short book, but by the time I was getting sick of the thriller plot and the voices I was too invested in finding out what was going to happen to give up on it, and besides we were in, like, West Virginia and I wasn’t going to be able to acquire a new book!

So I don’t know. It may be that if you eyes-read this book, you’ll get a better narration from your brain than from the audio, and maybe the plot reads better, too? I liked the world that Sakey created so much that I don’t want to steer anyone away from this book, but if you eyes-read it and it’s still got problems, let me know!

Recommendation: For fans of alternate realities and super-brain-powers.

Rating: 7/10

Gulp, by Mary Roach

GulpYay Mary Roach! This is her newest book and the only one I hadn’t read (well, listened to) yet, so of course this was book number one on the Great Annual McCarty Northern Migration Road Trip. I might need a better name for that. Regardless, we had fourteen hours each way to spend in the car, and this took up a highly amusing eight and a half of them on the first day. Victory!

Just like World War Z before it, this was a fantastic book for a road trip. Roach covers many topics on her way from the top of the alimentary canal to the bottom, all of them fascinating, and the narrator makes sure to give the craziest ones the right emphasis to keep your attention from wandering too far.

And seriously, there’s some crazy stuff. Scott managed to sleep through probably the most insane chapter, that on Alexis St. Martin and William Beaumont. The former was a man who, because of reasons, had a hole in his side that went straight through to his stomach; the latter was a man who, because of science reasons, more or less enslaved St. Martin while also performing gastrointestinal experiments on him. As you do?

Outside of that horror show, there are much nicer chapters on things like why we disdain certain foods (and how propaganda can fix that), how spit works, a crazy thing called megacolon, and, because it’s Mary Roach, a whole chapter on farts.

Oh! And one more chapter, that actually came up in a recent book club discussion of Orange is the New Black, titled “Up Theirs: The alimentary canal as criminal accomplice.” I’m pretty sure I sold Gulp to my book club on that chapter alone…

As always with Mary Roach, I learned fascinating things that I hadn’t realized I had always wanted to know right alongside fascinating things that I would kind of prefer never to know again, and somehow both kinds of facts were equally entertaining. I love the way she manages to find fancy science people to talk about things like spit and farts and how she does so much research that she could clearly keep writing this book for several more chapters but must content herself with lengthy, well-researched, and hilarious asides (probably footnotes in print?). Non-fiction is so much more fun the Mary Roach way.

Recommendation: For people who love facts about farts, which is, like, everyone, right?

Rating: 8/10

The Song of the Quarkbeast, by Jasper Fforde

The Song of the QuarkbeastAgain, perpetually: Me + JF 4eva!

Speaking of books that aren’t what I expected, after our last encounter with Jennifer Strange and company, I figured it would be Dragon Central in this series. Sadly, our dragon friend is mentioned only in passing, but happily there is enough craziness in Fforde’s world to make up for the lack.

A brief summary of said world: it is a sort of post-magic world, wherein magicians used to be awesome and all-powerful but now there’s not enough magic energy to go around and so these same magicians are relegated to basic handyman jobs and making pizza deliveries on flying carpets. Our protagonist, Jennifer Strange, is a teenage, non-magician acting manager of Kazam, a company of crazy old magicians who get into the usual amount of shenanigans.

In this go-round, Strange is herding her ragtag group in preparation for the rebuilding of a large bridge, with hopes of securing future engineering contracts for her company. The head of the competing magic company, however, is not thrilled to see Strange’s magicians doing well and so more or less challenges them to a magic duel — both companies will repair the bridge at the same time and whichever group finishes their half first gets to absorb the other company.

Of course, that head, the newly self-christened All-Powerful Blix, is not up for playing fairly, and also of course, magic is fickle and so Kazam’s magicians are sidelined one by one for various reasons. Strange must try to fix all of her magicians and also catch a glimpse of Kazam’s regular manager, who is bouncing around space-time due to a spell, and also see about a potentially stray Quarkbeast and try not to let it be killed.

As always, I greatly enjoy Fforde’s way with words and his commitment to making his invented worlds as full of life and insanity as possible. He gets in some good digs at our real world and our reliance on things that run essentially on magic, as well as more generally at the incompetence of bureaucracy, but mostly he is content to let his characters do whatever they want, which is consistently amusing. When does his next book come out?

Recommendation: For lovers of Fforde or those with a love of things that make no sense and yet totally do.

Rating: 9/10