June 2017 Reading Wrap-Up

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Adulthood Rites by Octavia E. Butler (My Rating: 4/5) This is the second book in the Xenogenesis Trilogy, also known as Lilith’s Brood. I preferred the first book, Dawn, and there’s one, major reason for that. I’m going to try to explain it as well as I can without spoiling or at least by being super vague. A character in this second book is kidnapped, and through the course of their being held, they come to sympathize with their kidnappers. This is not treated like Stockholm Syndrome or anything of the kind. It’s treated as legitimate. But there was never a point where I could see why they would feel this way. The shift to caring for these people didn’t make any sense to me. It becomes a major plot point, and I’m questioning why it’s happening at all. So, yes, worth losing a star over probably. But it’s still an incredible story that, aside from that bump, is very well-told.

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf (My Rating: 3/5) My feelings about this graphic novel are so incredibly difficult to explain. This is a memoir about Backderf’s time growing up with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in high school. First off, “friend” is a very loose term. If by “friend” you mean someone that you found amusing and only allowed to hang out with you because he was ridiculous, then apparently that’s a friend. He never had any affection for him, and their friendship felt more like Backderf simply got use out of him.

Maybe you’re saying, “well, what a relief.” But not really, because there’s another part of this whole thing that’s troubling. The part where Backderf noticed that Dahmer was having severe problems and didn’t tell anyone. And then the way that he tries to dodge responsibility by giving several really inadequate excuses. He tries to blame the adults that also did nothing, even though he had every opportunity to bring their attention to what was happening. He never analyzes his own behavior. He only acts like he had a sixth sense about Dahmer, trying to make us all accept that the way he treated him, like the village idiot, was for the best. I just don’t accept that at all, and the lack of introspection is glaring.

He tries to simultaneously describe Dahmer as having no control and being a slave to his broken mind but also being personally responsible and questioning his choices, which is contradictory and confusing. Either he had control or he didn’t. You can’t label someone as so mentally ill that they can’t control their actions and then treat them as if they should’ve “made better choices”. It’s as if Backderf didn’t even know how he felt. He just knew he didn’t want any of the victim’s families suing him, which he cautiously mentions regarding a memoir Dahmer’s father tried to write. So the whole thing feels careful and not entirely genuine. Interesting, sure, but not what I was hoping for.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (My Rating: 4/5) Another graphic novel, this one about growing up as a Chinese-American and the issues with racism and identity that come along with that. It incorporates a good deal of magical realism into the story, and on the one hand it made the book more symbolic and moved the story along faster. On the other hand, the ending was not telegraphed in the slightest and felt very random. I wasn’t sure I could meet the author halfway when he decided to get that utterly weird. But the message was strong. He pulled no punches in relating how lonely it is to be young and feel like you stand out like a sore thumb. I especially recommend this for teens, to hopefully encourage empathy, which is always a good lesson.

Banewreaker by Jacqueline Carey (My Rating: 5/5) This book has taken over my life. It’s the first in a duology, the whole of which is called The Sundering. It’s an intentional clone of Tolkien’s work, and it was built that way specifically so it could commentate on the way he created his world. Mainly to address the idea of “pure evil”. We follow the “bad guys”, or at least if this were The Lord of the Rings, they’d be the designated bad guys. We discover they have perfectly valid motives and none of them are that bad really. But in many ways good is dumb, and the heroes have taken for granted that surely their god wouldn’t lie to them. Right?

If there was ever anything in Tolkien that bugged you, this book discusses it. I’m not trying to say that Tolkien or his work is bad. He was clearly a genius, and he defined the way that fantasy authors build their worlds, if not via the landscape and creatures themselves, then with the care we all expect them to use in crafting these worlds. But he wasn’t perfect, and black-and-white good and evil don’t excite me. This book, because of how it twists it all up in a knot, is something I find very exciting.

Carey takes the basic premise of LOTR and rebuilds it into her own. For all the Tolkien clones that I could easily dismiss, this is a shining beacon of how it should be done. Firstly, with a clear purpose in mind. And secondly, with enough twists and turns that you’re not going to be anticipating every Tolkien-esque move. This is her own world, her own work, and her own characters. And I know I tend to shirk hyperbole, but this is amazing. The writing is incredible. The characters will win you over within their first appearance. I cannot wait to get to book two, Godslayer.

Imago by Octavia E. Butler (My Rating: 5/5) The final book in Lilith’s Brood AKA The Xenogensis Trilogy. Each book in this series has gotten progressively stranger as we inhabit more of the alien side of things in our main characters. This one goes all the way with a first person point-of-view from a human/Onakali hybrid who is the first of their kind to be ooloi. This results in a lot of food for thought, since the ooloi might just be the most manipulative creatures to ever exist. We see that here, and whether you consider this conclusion to the series as a victory or a huge loss is going to depend greatly on your own point of view. Butler has done a fantastic job of giving multiple opinions and POVs and spreading her hands toward us, the reader, to decide what’s right and what’s wrong. Meaning I could talk about these books for ages and never tire of it.

Ex Machina Volume 7 by Brian K. Vaughan (My Rating: 4/5) An interesting idea was put forth in this volume, but I don’t feel like Vaughan went far enough with it. Mayor Hundred flies to the Vatican and meets the Pope. Because of his powers, he’s seen as either the Antichrist or demon possessed, depending on who you talk to. Meanwhile, someone’s trying to hijack his powers to assassinate the Pope, which makes it appear as if they’re right about him. And this sounds amazing, but it was all pretty rushed. That’s starting to become a trend with this series as it goes on. Great ideas that are hurried along, and I wish we’d gotten more time with them. Still, that doesn’t stop it from being overall a good time to read. But it does stop it from being great.

The Hike by Drew Magary (My Rating: 5/5) This is one of my unapologetically weird reads. A man takes a hike through the woods before a business meeting and gets hopelessly lost. But not just any kind of lost. He’s now trying to survive in a world that works on fairy tale rules. And he’s not genre savvy. This was immediately a weird, fun, scary time right out of the gate. The book moves at a great pace with lots of action, if that’s your thing. The unexpected keeps happening, because dream logic abounds. It’s a great adventure. It was going to be four stars, and then that ending happened. That was a five star ending all the way. I couldn’t deny it. And I don’t dare spoil it. This book deserves to be experienced.

Ex Machina Volume 8 by Brian K. Vaughan (My Rating: 3.5) To be perfectly honest, it’s been a while since I’ve loved a volume of this series. There’s been so much filler and so much of plodding politics. The dialogue that was once so snappy has lost its luster. I’m just waiting to get to the end now. This volume is book-ended by two single issues that deal heavily in race, and it was clumsy and fumbled and white savior-y and then utterly dismissive. The main story revolves around a fan of The Great Machine who is unstable. It was interesting, but Vaughan couldn’t seem to figure out what he wanted to do with her. She was part fangirl, part Catwoman, and did neither one that well. This was probably the weakest volume I’ve read so far.

Ex Machina Volume 9 by Brian K. Vaughan (My Rating: 5/5) Now this is what I was talking about. A boost in conspiracy and intrigue. Sudden sharp twists. Set-up for the finale. All kinds of major arc stuff happening. Less random politics that are very hit or miss. This was a very strong volume up there with the initial three for me. It gave me the boost to finish this series off.

Ex Machina Volume 10 by Brian K. Vaughan (My Rating: 4/5) This would have been perfect if not for the very useless subplot about whether or not the mayor should endorse morning after pills. I’m not trying to say that birth control and abortion are not hot-button topics that have a lot of controversy and opinions behind them. I’m saying the plot of this volume was about the world literally ending, and we’re worrying about things like this. Such bad tonal problems. But when it was on track with the more major plotline, it was fantastic. I feel like that’s a good summing up of my entire opinion of this series. When it was on track, it was great. When it wasn’t, the quality was pretty questionable.

Saga Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan (My Rating: 5/5) So what did I immediately try next? Only Vaughan’s most hyped series of all time. Ex Machina showed me that if he can remain on course he has decent storytelling chops and is worth reading. While I really enjoyed this first volume and think that all the people who love it are justified in doing so, only time will tell if the whole series feels cohesive and not messy like Ex Machina did. I will say that I’ve seen plenty of writers try to do Star Wars and fail. There’s a simplistic magic to Star Wars that is hard to capture, but Saga does it. Probably because comics are as visual as movies, and it makes the science fantasy really pop. Exposition can be relegated to politics and the war rather than how the pretty ships work, and while that makes it very soft if you’re a hard SF fan, I was pleased with it.

Kindred by Octavia Butler (My Rating: 5/5) I’m on quite a roll with reading Butler’s work lately. I read this one in two days, because I couldn’t put it down. It’s so harrowing and kinetic that it makes for a fantastic page turner. It’s also deeply thought-provoking. The relationships here are complicated, to put it much too lightly, and the main character, Dana, is constantly warring with how she feels about anyone at any given time. The novel uses spontaneous time travel to put a modern black woman in a slave narrative, and it’s nothing short of horrifying and brilliantly written. Every question this scenario poses is difficult and necessary, and I think I’m currently in a book hangover because of how I can’t stop thinking about it.

Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar (My Rating: 3/5) This seemed as if it was going to be very good. Most of the way through the story, I was absolutely feeling it. I was waiting for the big payoff. There’s a decent climax, but the denouement was awful. Really awful. The story starts with Gwendy, a girl on the cusp of starting junior high, who is handed a magic box by a man named Richard Farris. RF! Us Constant Readers know what those initials mean. He’s bad news, for certain. Suddenly when he shows up again at the end of the story, he was some kindly sprite who knew Gwendy had it in her all along to do the right thing, like something out of a kid’s show. She’s totally blameless, and her life will be amazing. Wink! The End. I’m sorry… I thought this was Stephen King? I thought Farris was clearly Randall Flagg or some version of him. Why was he nice? Was that a trick, because it was not at all clear. I think Chizmar wasn’t aware of the mythos he was playing in and that weak-sauce ending was his idea. Meh.

Thanks for reading, and happy geeking!

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