Wednesday, September 14, 2016

#CBR8 Review #25: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

I’m not sure how I keep finding these books that result in me wanting to have long personal discussions but, alas, the Amazon recommendations have led me here yet again. Adam Silvera’s young adult book More Happy Than Not is one of those ones that wasn’t amazing, but I still enjoyed and wanted to get through quickly. While the story and progression may have been a touch clumsy at times, some of the universal themes of pain, memory, suppression, and relationships were brought forth well. Perhaps a little obvious at times in the language and dialogue, but I suppose that is sometimes to be expected in books targeted at younger audiences, right? Not always, but you can definitely see some of the messages and ideas being laid out very directly near the end of the novel.

But let’s get discussing what this novel is about, and then dive into some of the subjects it brought forth in my mind, shall we? What we begin with is a 16 year-old young man named Aaron, living in s pretty tight-knit community within the Bronx. The story takes place in what is basically the near future, as some pretty recent pop-culture references are made to be current (not sure how that will hold up for the novel with the passage of time), but slightly in the future as a new procedure known as Leteo has been created that people can undergo in order to suppress or “forget” some of their most painful memories. Of course, there is a process to this and not just anyone can walk in and get the procedure done, but Aaron knows someone who has had it done: one of his friends was made to forget his twin brother, who was killed in a not-uncommon act of violence for where they live.

Aaron’s most painful memory at this time, however, is that of finding his father after he commit suicide. Not long after this, Aaron attempted to kill himself as well, but survived. Aaron is not exactly the happiest person in the world, and he recognizes that while he has some friends he grew up with and spends a lot of time with, he is not really close to any of them or feels like he can talk to any of them. The one person he really opens up to is his girlfriend, Genevieve, an interesting artist who helped Aaron through some of his most difficult times when dealing with the death of his father. But when Genevieve goes away to an art retreat for a few weeks, Aaron feels himself falling into a loneliness that he begins to fill with a new friend, named Thomas, from a nearby community. The two come to share a close bond and consider each other best friends in no time (which at first I thought was a bit unrealistic but then I realized, you can really bond deeply with certain people quickly, and teenagers especially form and drop connections to friends at different speeds, and seeing how neither Thomas nor Aaron seemed to be really close to anyone, this makes sense that they would gravitate towards one another easily). Thomas is a bit of a wild-card in terms of not really knowing what he wants from life, but easily goes with the flow. But of course, seeing how close Aaron and Thomas are starts to put a little dent in Aaron and Genevieve’s relationship, and some of Aaron’s friends start to wonder about the true nature of Aaron and Thomas’ relationship. Does some nasty stuff happen? Absolutely. Does the Leteo procedure start to play a bigger role in the story than what it did in the beginning? Of course it does! But I won’t say how until… later… under a spoiler warning.

This brings me to my first point of discussion, which is the presentation of toxic masculinity in this novel. And honestly, let me just say that one of my pet peeves that makes me cringe every time I hear someone say it, is when a guy says something nice or compliments another male friend and follows this with, “No homo.” I mean… that’s just disappointing. No homo at all? Not even a little? 1% partially-skimmed homo (a phrase I have taken to using with my friends given my own bi-ness).
The community that Aaron lives in is not one that I have ever found myself, and so I am not entirely familiar with the way of life or how exactly the community views certain things, but you get a sense from this novel that they way these boys were raised, they are taught to be a particular breed of “man”. Anything else, even the simplest thing such as wanting to play as a female character in a video game is a sign of being “weak” or “a girl” or “gay”. And you know, there are people out there that say things like this! Even within this novel, Aaron as a child wanting to play with a doll is considered evidence that he is not straight, which I didn’t entirely like but there are indeed people who take these things as proof of a person’s sexuality, when really all that is is stereotyping.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, and am going to put a big old SPOILER WARNING for all that follows, as I continue to lay out exactly how this book plays out, as it will lead to some more topics of conversation:

When I said people start wondering about Aaron and Thomas’ relationship, what I mean is that they start to think that the two of them are involved romantically with one another. This is not the case, as the two are just friends, but Aaron does indeed have romantic feelings towards Thomas. In fact, he comes out as gay to Thomas, who is super supportive and still loves Aaron, but not in the way that Aaron would like him to. Not only do Aaron’s unreciprocated feelings start to create issues between the two friends, but it also creates havoc for Aaron and Genevieve. And this brings me to the second discussion topic, which is, how that pain of having feelings for someone who doesn’t feel the same way back is so universal, no matter the reason for the other person not loving you in the way you want. Maybe they have someone else, maybe their sexual orientation does not line up with liking you, or maybe there just isn’t attraction there. I’ve had this, and it sucks. But Aaron doesn’t deal with these feelings well, and in fact has convinced himself that Thomas is actually gay as well, but just hasn’t come out yet or perhaps just hasn’t discovered this part of himself. While it may have made for a really nice ending to have the two of them realize how much they love each other not just as friends but something more, it’s just not always realistic. Speaking as a small bi, I can tell you that no matter how much you may want someone to like girls, ultimately you can’t change who someone is. Sometimes things come out and people discover who they are once they meet that right person, but not always. And honestly, Thomas and Aaron’s friendship is so beautiful, and really what Aaron needed at that time, as it led to a new understanding and freeing of a different part of himself that had been under the surface. I mean, I am tired of LGBT+ stories being focused on the coming-out of a person and the struggles they may face (no matter how important these stories may be) and just want to read or see a few more that aren’t just bogged down with pain and suffering. Can LGBT+ characters not just be a part of a story that isn’t ABOUT their sexual or gender orientation? Are we not allowed to be happy even in fictional worlds? Because it feels like that sometimes. So while I would have squealed with happiness at the cuteness of Aaron and Thomas ending up together… This story had other ideas in mind, involving a lot more pain, but also not just copping out easily and letting things fall into place perfectly for everyone. Such is life? Hmm… I seem to be contradicting myself a little on what I want and like to see in these stories.

In any case, Aaron begins to wonder if he can undergo Leteo to make him “forget” that he is gay. To which I want to say, oh my poor boy, even in a world where heterosexuality is often the only “option” presented to young people, all it takes it that one person to touch your heart and make you start to uncover different parts of yourself. Sexuality is not set in stone, as the journey our lives take can lead us down so many different roads. And the novel does a great job of discussing the idea that sexual orientation is not really a choice (though perhaps people may choose how to act and what attractions to act on or not), but is a part of our nature. Just as we may suppress memories of trauma, they still influence and impact us underneath, and may even come up to the surface again: such is one of the main ideas in psychoanalytic psychology, after all! Adam Silver makes a huge point of addressing this issue of there not being anything wrong about who we are as people, as many still somehow believe that being gay or bi or trans is a “choice”. The writing is very deliberate in these areas (as I mentioned earlier, perhaps being a little too on-the-head with it?), but it is an important thing for young people to realize that who we are is no inherently wrong, even if we are not what many would consider “normal”. Though I do recognize and acknowledge those feelings that Aaron presents in perhaps wanting to forget his sexual orientation, and this would possibly make his life less painful, given his upbringing and where he lives (the next brief point of discussion). I mean, I sometimes even wonder if being straight wouldn’t make things easier for me, or if even just liking one gender wouldn’t make it easier to come out to certain people I know who don’t seem to entirely believe in bisexuality or totally understand it. But I didn’t get to choose this, and am learning to be totally okay with it in myself. Now I just have to work with the world around me and hope that I can carve out some happiness even if the world around me is slightly more perilous to maneuver in some areas given this facet of myself.

This leads us to the next subject of violence towards LGBT+ people, particularly in certain areas, cultures, and communities. I have been fortunate enough to not experience that much violence or hatred towards me in my life (oh, but I am also not entirely out yet, am I? Ah… that’s a kicker), with the exception of a couple of guys calling me a dyke as they drove by me on the street once, and the tiny little comments from family and friends that get under your skin and make you afraid to tell them about parts of yourself because you don’t know if they will truly understand or accept it 100%. But in other countries, cultures, and even communities, the physical and emotional violence that can take place is astounding and heartbreaking (that reminds me, if you haven’t seen “Gaycation”, it’s incredibly interesting and illuminating as to how different areas of the world treat and see LGBT+ people. It can be brutal and emotional for me at times, but it’s very good and touches on this subject in certain areas of the world).
And we see this violence towards LGBT+ people play out in Aaron’s neighborhood, as some of his friends react incredibly strongly just to the simple suspicions they have about Aaron and Thomas’ relationship. Aaron suffers an intense beating, and this then leads to a new twist in the story: as I mentioned, Aaron wanted to undergo a Leteo procedure in order to forget that he is gay, but he didn’t realize that he already had, and meeting Thomas had just brought this out of him once again. (See what I mean about how sometimes one certain person can lead to new personal learning?)

The memories that flood back to Aaron after he is severely beaten –almost to death—causing this undoing of the procedure in his brain are painful, but ultimately a part Aaron’s story and what led him here today. We see him growing up as a boy, and the comments made by his father and brother about being a real man. We see Aaron developing a crush on one of his friends as a child, who is now fighting against who Aaron is. We see Aaron in a relationship with a boy at school, only to face violence for even sitting next to him on an affectionate way on the train. We see the two of them being ripped apart by fear and circumstances that make them want to hide. We see Aaron coming out to his accepting mother, but the anger and violence that this results in in his father. We see Aaron coming home and finding his father dead, only to feel as though this is somehow his fault, in that his father didn’t want to live with a son like him. There are so many layers to not just the physical but emotional violence that you can experience in your life, that is laid out entirely with Aaron’s recovered memories. But despite the fact that these memories are newly uncovered and may illuminate certain things to Aaron about himself, he faces another setback from the changes caused in his brain: he now suffers from anterograde amnesia, wherein he struggles to form new memories. He has remembered his past, but cannot seem to remember his future or keep the present in check.

Basically, we have changed from Aaron wanting desperately to forget certain things about his life, to a new stage where all he wants to do is remember. This kid can’t catch a break and honestly, it gets to be a bit much where I just want him to be happy and for something good to happen to him (just as I was talking about the suffering of certain characters earlier). And this is all really a part of understanding memory and how our experiences and memories define who we are and who we may become. We may try to suppress and forget things, but they are a part of us no matter what and influence how we behave. And knowing about these memories may be helpful in truly understanding ourselves and why we are the way we are, no matter how painful it is. But being unable to make new memories is a struggle that stops us from moving forwards: how can we develop and change if we do not remember our experiences? It is an interesting idea, and I like the interplay of the forgetting versus remembering within this book.


Ultimately, More Happy Than Not is a good look at the experiences of a boy within a particular community that I do not have any experience with. Yet it touches on subjects I know I have discussed before and are close to me. Adam Silvera’s overall presentation of the novel is perhaps a little clunky at times and the messages are delivered in a very obvious and in-your-face manner, but they are still some very important topics being presented that I think a lot of young people can benefit from hearing (especially given that that is the target audience for the novel). It was not my favourite book, nor my favourite within what would be considered the LGBT+ genre, but it was still something I had no trouble finishing and engaged me the entire time while reading it. And for that, I give it 3/5 stars.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

#CBR8 Review #23-24: He Forgot to Say Goodbye and Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

One of my favourite books I read last year was Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s beautiful Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I just fell in love with the soft, intimate voice that Alire Sáenz had, and the story really touched some personal themes from my own life. Consequently, I decided to take a look at some more of his work, but this time in the realm of different subject matter (though I believe all would be considered within the young-adult genre).

The first, a novel called He Forgot to Say Goodbye, sad some of those delicate elements that I fell in love with in Alire Sáenz’s writing, but I had a little bit of trouble really connecting with the story. Told from the perspective of two young men (Ram and Jake) who are both from very different walks of life, dealing with different personal issues, but both contemplating the fact that their fathers were not present in their lives and how this fact may have shaped their lives and personalities in the end.

One of the young men, Ram, is from a middle-class Mexican background, with a delightful character to be found in both his mother and his aunt, dealing with issues surrounding his brother’s drug use. Ram has an interesting relationship with his best friend, Alejandra, who I was not sure who I ultimately felt about as a character: sometimes she felt too pushy with Ram, and at other times, she felt like she was strong and working with her own struggles as well. For some reason, however, I felt like her character became a bit too central, especially when she met Jake, and she became almost the entire object of his attention.

The other boy, Jake, is from a more affluent up bringing, struggling in his relationship with his mother and stepfather. Jake seems to be very conscious of the world around him, yet I can see how some people may not feel for him and his issues as I am reminded of a girl in one of my counseling classes who said she may struggle with working with people who seem so privileged. Yet, no matter a persons upbringing or how privileged they may be, this does not invalidate their experiences or mean their pain isn’t real. And honestly, I had a hard time liking Jake’s mother in the slightest and felt for him (though I wonder if his mother was fully developed and not just a caricature of a character in some ways?)

Truth be told, there was not a huge plot involved in this novel, as a lot of it was introspective and reflective on the parts of the two boys, though there was some movement in terms of their different personal relationships. One of the strongest aspects of the novel was how the two boys’ lives intermingled and their interactions with one another, so it was a shame that these interactions and their relationship was not given as much room to develop. I would have liked to have seen more of that, as I feel like it could have been very interesting and helped their characters develop more as well.  Ultimately, tone of this book, even if I got a little irritated by Jake often using his signature phrases repeatedly to the point where it was like, okay, I get it, he’s a teenager with signature terms, can we chill out a bit? Despite this, I found the novel easy to read, I just wanted there to be a bit more, and found I was not as drawn in by the characters as much I would have liked.

The second novel in this Benjamin Alire Sáenz double-header is entitled Last Night I Sang to the Monster, and focuses on a young boy named Zach in a rehabilitation facility, as he struggles with remembering how exactly he got there, and dealing with a lot of repressed memories and trauma. We also get to meet some of the other patients at the facility working through various issues (mostly addictions like Zach), such as Rafael, who is an older gentleman that is a roommate and close friend to Zach. We also get to meet Zach’s main therapist, Adam, who works with him both in group sessions and individually throughout the course of the novel.

Similarly to the other books I’ve read from Alire Sáenz, this novel has a very gentle way of being, that truly tries to capture the nature of human emotions and pain, and succeeds quite well in these areas. I just found there to be some issues with awkward phrasing and language used in trying to be poetic and discuss these emotions, which put me off a little. I also feel as though my background in studying counseling and therapy for the past few years came as both a positive force in appreciating some aspects of this book, while making me critical and skeptical of others. 

On the one hand, I think the examination of how different people deal with trauma and pain, and how some are willing and able to work through it while others aren’t is very well depicted: the place of dreams in a person’s mind and experience is also what some styles of therapy likes to focus on, so having Zach’s dreams be a part of it was definitely relevant. I also liked how there was the inclusion of some art therapy aspects (my specialization), though these parts weren’t fully developed and I know I personally would have led them or dealt with debriefing of pieces in a different manner. That being said, while I recognize that there are different styles of counseling and therapy (and some practitioners are comfortable with certain things while others aren’t) I couldn’t help but question some of the methods that were depicted or some of the things said by the professionals in this novel. That is, I would never do or say these things or even be comfortable thinking about it. But, maybe that’s me being nit-picky and letting my own levels of comfort and personal style get in the way of how I see things in these areas now.

My other conflict of thought was in the depiction of trauma, suppression of memories, and the process of remembering. I feel like this was done well and showed how sometimes we can just push things so far down that they tear us up inside without us even realizing, because we feel as though remembering and being aware of what happened will hurt us even more. The process of healing though, seemed a bit quick to me. Both Rafael and Zach have huge breakthroughs of remembering or being able to talk about things that happened to them, and while I know that being able to express these things can be very helpful, it almost came across as though as soon as they did this first step, it was smooth sailing to healing and coming to terms with things. But healing and recovery does not occur in a straight line, and awareness is just the first step of the work, the processing, and the moving forward: healing is more like a spiral, where sometimes this takes you forwards and sometimes backwards, though you are still moving and working on moving outwards. Therefore I was a little bit conflicted about the ending of this novel and how the lives and healing of certain characters played out. I was still, however, very appreciative of the depth of emotion displayed throughout the novel, and how pain and struggling was treated not as a weakness but as something that we as humans may face and have a hard time dealing with, yet we are still capable of working through and coming to the other side of in our own time and in our own ways. 

So, I guess in a way both He Forgot to Say Goodbye and Last Night I Sang to the Monster had their strong points, and had a really soft nature to how they approached different topics. But ultimately, there was a bit of a disconnect for me in some areas in each, which stopped me from absolutely loving either. Consequently, I would give both novels 3/5 stars.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

#CBR8 Review #22: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, vol. 1 “BFF” by Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, and Natacha Bustos

Situated within the Marvel comics universe, comes a new young hero by the name of Lunella, or “Moon Girl”. And boy, is she cool in the nerdiest way possible. At least, I think so, despite the fact that all her classmates think she is a bit of a weirdo. Lunella is a young, genius inventor (not unlike Peter Parker in the “Amazing Spiderman”), but Lunella is terrified that one day she is going to become a mutant like the X-Men, which would make her a monster. You see, she carries a particular marker in her DNA that may later transform into a mutation, and she really really does not want that to happen. But how does she stop this? By harnessing the power from an ancient device that used to be owned by a group of Neanderthal-type creatures in the past. One of which owned a dinosaur that they called the Devil Dinosaur.

In any case, Lunella is on a mission to get this device and use it’s power to help herself stop from changing form, and this involves locating the “nightstone” as it’s called, and involving some travelling through time for the devil dinosaur and the “killer folk” who possessed the stone in the past. The Devil Dinosaur causes panic in the city, of course, yet it looks like he really just wants to help Lunella. The two form an unlikely bond as she continues with her goal, and the Hulk even gets entwined in things for a little bit (though he came across as a bit cocky in this? Maybe that’s just me, I haven't read a lot of comicbooks wherein the Hulk is featured).

All in all, Lunella’s adventure in this volume is a fun one that leaves you with a bit of a cliffhanger before the next installment of the story. It was enjoyable to see her relationship with the Devil Dinosaur develop, and she really is an adorable and spunky kid who you can totally get behind and support. She feels like nobody understands her, and you just want to root for her in her mission, though to be honest I’m also curious as to what her mutation would be should this occur. Also, the drawing and illustration by Natacha Bustos in this book is really fun and has a lot of expression to it, which I love! Maybe not the most serious or “dark and gritty” comic book you’ll find, but definitely something light and fun that a lot of younger readers will definitely enjoy. And I enjoyed it too, and want to see what happens next for this awesome young girl!

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Monday, August 8, 2016

#CBR8 Review #21: More Than This by Patrick Ness

Well, that certainly was not what I expected. And not in a good way, to be honest. This YA novel begins in a slow-burning fashion, focusing largely on the main character, Seth, and his memories: very character-driven. Yet about a third of the way in, there is quite a twist, that changes the whole tone of the novel, and ultimately leaves more questions and confusion at the end of everything. There is the sense that Patrick Ness is trying to create an ambiguous ending for the reader to fill in the gaps with whatever explanation and reality they desire, but I don’t feel like it was all that successful in the end. Sometimes uncertainty works, but here I feel like there were just too many questions and things that couldn’t be fully explained, and that leaving things ambiguous just felt like a bit of a cop out in some ways? That sounds harsh, but I was pretty disappointed by the ending, after some really solid emotional moments were created throughout the book that drew me in initially. It was just a really strange book at the end of the day, that almost felt like two completely different novels pasted together.

Now, I don’t want to give too much away about the book, given that the twist is quite surprising and makes you want to know more and keep reading, despite the fact that it maybe doesn’t make complete sense at the end of all things. But I’ll lay down a bit of a synopsis here, though I do warn about some mild spoilers ahead:
What we see first is a young boy named Seth, moments before he dies by drowning. Yet despite the fact that he has died, he soon awakes in a strange, deserted world, set up exactly like the town he lived in a child before his family experienced a traumatic event. With no people and little to explain what has happened, Seth just starts trying to survive, yet every time he sleeps, his head is filled with memories that begin to explain how and why he died, as well as some other events of Seth’s life that defined his relationship with his family.  But then, everything switches gears when some new characters are introduced. And by switches gears, I mean everything suddenly feels like the “Matrix”, which I did not see coming whatsoever. But the way this online/offline consciousness thing that develops just leaves a lot of holes and things unexplained as to what exactly happened and how it all works. Also what’s going to happen next. Will Seth and his new friends save everyone? Leave everyone? Can things be sustained for longer periods of time in the new world? I just don’t know. I also had a bit of an issue with how Seth’s story in his memories played out in terms of his sexuality (I’m just tired of sad stories like that, I don’t want to hear about nothing but how my sexuality is going to make me suffer in my life, bye!), but that might just be a bit of a personal thing.

In any case, it was quite a good concept that just needed a bit of finessing. But you know… it wasn’t terrible. I just wasn’t feeling it at the end of the day (hhmmm, which is also what I said about a guy I just met recently. Interesting).. Maybe I’ll give another one of Patrick Ness’ works a shot at another time. But maybe not. Only time will tell.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Sunday, July 24, 2016

#CBR8 Review #20: Books of Adam – The Blunder Years by Adam Ellis

That transition into adulthood and finding your way can be a tricky one, and full of random shenanigans. I feel like that’s a common topic for a lot of stories today about finding success and where you want to go in your adult life: I am definitely sitting right in that stage, just trying to figure stuff out and not really sure the best way to go about it.

In The Blunder Years, a lot of those fears of failure and feeling lost and adrift come to life through little essays about various moments in Adam Ellis’ life, as he tries to make his way after graduating from art school. Stages of learning and progression are presented in the form of funny stories that are punctuated with humorous comics to illustrate the wackiness of some of the situations he found himself in. The drawings involved in this are cute and comedic, and Ellis definitely has a distinct style about how he portrays people. And if you haven’t checked out his other web comics, I would definitely suggest taking a look, as they can be quite funny. (He is now over at Buzzfeed, apparently). 

Topics that are hit on within this book include leaving town for something new, first apartments, finding friends, relationships, finding work, and general advice and lessons learned on the way. Some of the tales recounted are quite funny, and Ellis’ mannerisms and character throughout them really reminded me of myself at times. I will, however, say that overall I wasn’t really sure where this book was going or if there was a clear focus as to an ultimate conclusion. But maybe that’s the point of the whole thing, given the stage of life it represents: sometimes there isn’t a destiny to achieve or an overarching plan, but we are just blundering through things and figuring it all out as we go along. I know I certainly am. A human meatball disaster.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

#CBR8 Review #19: John Dies at the End by David Wong

You know when you’re dreaming and something absurd and surreal happens but your dream self is just like, “yeah, that makes sense”? That’s what the progression of this book and the characters’ reactions felt like to me. They just kind of rolled with everything, despite it being a ridiculous ride of the supernatural and things that don’t entirely make sense. A crossover between our world and another filled with monsters and other strange beings and seemingly arbitrary rules of what is possible and what is not. But I guess when things get weird, you learn along the way, which is exactly what the protagonists of this book do.

John Dies at the End follows a young man named David, and his friend John, as they become embroiled in a strange fight against evil paranormal forces from other realms. It all starts when John ends up taking a bizarre “drug” at a party, and begins to see things that not all people can see: other planes, if you will. David soon ends up accidentally having this drug enter his bloodstream as well, and well, wackiness ensues as they try to stop various demons, creatures, etc from attacking people and entering our world on a larger scale.

But the thing about David and John is that they are human disasters. You probably knew some guys like this at some point in your life: the young guys who are really lovely and fun, but don’t really have any huge motivations and are just kind of coasting into adulthood without having any of their crap together? I know some guys like that, actually, and they are really sweet but oh boy they are unmanageable.

And that’s exactly what makes this story really funny. It’s not just the absurdity of everything that happens once this paranormal stuff starts to surface, it’s how willing David and John are to just go with it. They might ask questions for a minute or be confused as to what’s going on, but they are very willing to just accept things as reality. David has to use a bratwurst to communicate with his friend like some kind of weird phone? Okay, I guess that’s just what has to happen. A strange jellyfish-like creature is floating through a local girl’s house? Right, let’s see how we can kill it.

Honestly, I love absurdist humor, as it catches my attention way more than any violence, sex, or anything else that’s simply mean to be shocking. At times I wasn’t really sure where this book was going, however, and am not sure where the sequel will go, but I enjoyed it enough to want to see what happens in the next book for sure. 

[Don't forget to visit the Cannonball Read main site]

Saturday, July 2, 2016

#CBR8 Review #18: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

“It came from the woods. Most strange things do.”

You know how horror movies can be super effective when they create a sense of unease just by making you know that something is not quite right? But you can’t determine what that thing that’s not right is, and therefore you have no idea what to do or how to fix the situation? How the idea of a monster is almost scarier than when you actually see what it is, because of the way your imagination runs wild and fills in the dark space with exactly what you fear? Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods, uses this idea of ambiguity and uncertainty to create an eerie set of visual short stories, all of which center around the concept of the dark and mysterious nature of the woods. What dangers might be lurking in there, unseen? What kind of monsters do our minds make up when we let it drift?

The five stories (as well as a short conclusion) are all presented in a way that never quite leaves a definitive end to the story: it is up to us to fill in the blanks as we see fit. While this has the potential to be frustrating, the ambiguity that I mentioned before really works here, as it creates a sense of unknowing to add to the overall mood of the collection.
The stories included in Through the Woods are as follows (and I’ll be brief in my descriptions as each story is pretty brief, and therefore I don’t want to give too much away):
- “Our Neighbor’s House”: Three young girls are left at home when their father goes on a hunting trip, but never returns.
- “A Lady’s Hands are Cold”: A woman marries a man, but begins hearing strange sounds from his house at night.
- “His Face All Red”: A man’s brother returns after being lost to the woods.
- “My Friend Janna”: A young girl acts as the town’s local medium.

- “ The Nesting Place”: A young girl does not take kindly to her brother’s new fiancé. 

Each story is presented in a visual fashion, the artwork of which is absolutely beautiful and ties the whole thing together really well. I am particularly fond of all the artistic depictions of the woods, my favourite being a full, two-page spread of the woods at night found in the book’s conclusion section. Carroll also has a real knack for showing people’s exhaustion and unrest in their expressions, which is another thing that I think really works here as it illuminates how tired and drained people can become when they are stressed and afraid. She has a truly distinct style of artwork, which may not be for everyone, but I found it to be quite expressive and really love it personally.

The only thing that I could really bemoan about this book was that it reads very quickly, and therefore I almost wanted there to be more of it. I am not the fastest reader, but managed to finish it in one short sitting (possibly owing to there being not too much text on each page, as the artwork is really the main focus). It is not really like anything else I’ve read, and I thoroughly enjoyed this short and pretty book. I can see why some people may not love it, as it’s the kind of thing that’s not for everyone. I was also under the impression that it would be more of a “horror”-style book, but really I would just call it eerie or creepy, as that’s the mood I got through the whole thing, and it was really effective in maintaining.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, June 23, 2016

#CBR8 Review #17: Captain America, Winter Soldier Ultimate Collection by Ed Brubaker

I will admit that when it comes to comicbooks (and especially well-established characters), I have read far less than I would have liked. They all have so much history and so many appearances that it's hard to keep up or even know where to start! Therefore, a lot of my knowledge of these characters has come from just looking things up, talking to friends who are also into these worlds, and ultimately watching the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Along those lines, I must say that I absolutely ADORE the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and therefore thought the Winter Soldier storyline might interest me in the comics. That being said, having seen the movie (and no I did not cry the last time I watched it, what are you talking about??), I can't help but now face the book without wanting to compare the two to one another. There weren't too many new twists to be found in this collection, having seen the general plot play out in the film, but how plot ultimately unraveled was a bit different. This is most notably in the presence and importance of certain characters throughout Ed Brubaker's collection. Some of these differences really worked for me, while some I was a little uncertain on, though that may also have to do with my gaps in knowledge of some of the backstory and history of certain characters.

The focus of Captain America: Winter Soldier Ultimate Collection is on Captain America facing the threat of a resurfacing cosmic cube, the power of which could alter worlds and be incredibly destructive in the wrong hands. Yet Steve Rogers' attention in this mission is drawn to the figure of the Winter Soldier, a soviet super-soldier and assassin, whose identity is... well.. you know.... Spoilers?????



Bucky with the good hair.

Obviously, seeing his old friend anew and under the influence of Hydra mind-control does a number on Steve and puts a kink in his mission and makes him question what to do. Is Bucky still somewhere in there, or is it just his body with a totally blank mind? Can he be saved? Will he have to relive Bucky's death all over again in a new way?

As I mentioned, the way this story plays out is different than in the film, though ultimately leading to a similar end that can then continue on. One big difference that I really liked was the presence of Red Skull. He is important, effective, and just keeps going as a real threat and villain in the shadows, long after you think he is gone. I like having the actual figure present in the stories, and I know Red Skull was pretty important in a lot of comic books and story arcs throughout the ages.
Other characters that showed up that I didn't realize were around or a big part of Captain America's stories during the War are Namor and the Human Torch. They are seen in a few flashbacks of when Cap, Bucky, and the Howling Commandos used to work together, and it really adds to the history of Captain America and just how many battles he got into during the War, showing how he wasn't just an iconic figurehead for a short period of time, but actually quite active, along with all the other heroes who have become a part of American history in that universe.

One major distinction, however, that I am actually pretty hype about is Sharon Carter (Agent 13). While apparently she is Steve's ex-girlfriend, she is not simply reduced to love interest like she was in the Marvel movies, nor an egregiously forced one at that: she is actually an awesome field agent who Nicky Fury cares about, as well as Steve and all her other teammates. She is given her own work to do and her own character, and honestly she deserves it. It's almost as though she is the figure that Natasha plays in the Winter Soldier film.
Oh, and speaking of character differences, something else I didn't realize was that Sam Wilson (lovely as ever, and always down to help his friends out) as Falcon can actually listen to birds and get intel from them??? Amazing! I love this!

And now I come to the thing that always throws me off in the comic books: Bucky and Steve's relationship. They are clearly close friends who love each other a lot, but there is something that I just can't let go of from the film adaptations in how they grew up together and have been friends all their lives, that I just don't want to shake off for the "young boy who Cap took under his wing as a partner in war". Though as I said, they are still clearly connected and care for each other, making their dynamic and how Steve responds to finding out the Winter Soldier is Bucky very engaging.

So overall, there wasn't per say anything too new in this story that I had not seen before, but I did like all the variances and inclusions of other characters in the story as compared to the film. As a book alone, it is an interesting story with some twists to it to keep you going, and I definitely want to get more into this series and the Captain America comics themselves. (And no, not just because my friends and I have determined that I am basically pre-supersoldier Steve Rogers).

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

#CBR8 Review #16 – The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

I feel like I’ve been saying this about a lot of books lately, but I just seem to want more. I’ve had The Sisters Brothers stashed on my e-reader for a few years now but haven’t gotten around to reading it until now. The writing is simple and easy to follow, and the story is interesting in that I wanted to see see what wacky antics would happen as the story progressed, but I ultimately wasn’t all that engaged by it. It’s as though certain scenes and interactions between people would be laid out with lots of detail as though they should be focused deeply on, only to not end up coming back up again or really meaning all that much in the end. Maybe that’s one of the themes, though: things happen and sometimes they don’t amount to much or lead us anywhere close to where we thought we would be.

The Sisters Brothers is set during the California gold rush, and follows two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, as they perform a job for a man named the Commodore. These brothers are essentially assassins, assigned to take out a man who the Commodore claims to be a thief. But as time goes on, you realize that this may not in fact be entirely true, and the brothers continually end up in strange situation after strange situation that they never really expected on their journey.

The story itself is told from the point of view of Eli Sisters, who is essentially the second-in-command on the job, as his brother, Charlie, is much more hot-headed and likely to go along with the plan and job in any way that will benefit him the most. I grew to like Eli along the way, though was sometimes a little confused by his actions and tendency to change moods quite suddenly: but not as suddenly or as violently as his brother, Charlie. In a way, I couldn’t understand Eli’s loyalty to Charlie or his character, and didn’t like Charlie at all. I know that there is often a strong bond and loyalty between brothers, but using that as the only explanation to how they are so tight-knit despite their antagonistic behavior towards one another just wasn’t enough for me. I wanted more explanation as their relationship and how they got into this type of work, rather than seeming to just be plopped right in the middle of it and just having to accept that they are in it for the long haul with one another.

But as I mentioned earlier, I suppose the biggest sticking point for me with this book was that things would happen or seem to be leading somewhere, only to result in meaning nothing or having little consequence in the end. And that was really frustrating to me for some reason. We are made to see the brutal life and killings of the “old west” or whatever you want to call it but just as a plot point to move us on to the next. And maybe I’m just growing tired of stories like that, with so much death that just moves us on to the next stage without much thought. I don’t know. Because really this wasn’t a bad book at all! I just never felt like I was all that engaged in it or really caring all that much.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

#CBR8 Review #15: Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

I don’t know why I keep trying to read books by Chuck Palahniuk. That is not to say that he’s not a good writer, it’s just that his very distinct style and way of telling a story is not for me. I’ve given him a go with a couple of other novels, but I think I’ve just come to realize that while I can see why others might like his work, I just can’t seem to enjoy it. And that’s okay. Though I will say that out of the three books I’ve read by Chuck Palahniuk to date, this one was not my least favourite, so that’s a good thing!

Damned is about a thirteen year-old girl who has just died and is now in Hell. The story of how she died and what her life was like is told through almost a series of journal-entry type chapters addressed to Satan. Her accounts of Hell are vivid and include a lot of grotesque filth and imagery, as well as descriptions on how the whole operation is set up to run as she comes to learn more and more. Madison is intelligent and snarky, but definitely also a teenager. And as I read this book, I am reminded of a fact that I came to realize very clearly in myself earlier this year: I do not know how to age people properly. Particularly young people: two children or teenagers could be the same age and I could perceive them to be drastically different in age. Such as what kind of happens with Madison throughout this novel. At some times she seems much older than she is, but at other times she seems so young and innocent in some ways. But that, I believe, is somewhat intentional and reflective of her upbringing as the daughter of a well-known actress and film producer who themselves a bit eccentric, and try to keep their daughter within an infantilized image for public consumption, all while pushing her to experiment with drugs and other activities in her life as a way to experience life and come to know herself.

There are also a host of other characters present, particularly four other friends that Madison meets in Hell who, along with her, come to form a parallel image to those archetypes found in The Breakfast Club. These characters are all intriguing but I feel like we almost don’t get enough of them, or they don’t end up being as important as you think they are going to be, the way they are introduced and the roles they play near the beginning of the book. I also feel like there is some minor shifting in characters that doesn’t entirely make sense, or at least, I couldn’t make sense of as things went along.

Essentially, the whole novel revolves around Madison telling her story of how she got to Hell, coming to terms with being there, and learning the ropes of the place in order to make her time there bearable, and perhaps use all the potential her living life lost in this new setting. There are a lot of details included, both in terms of physical setting and background of Madison, which makes her and the universe seem very vivid and real, despite some of the information not per-say being completely necessary. It’s an interesting take on the conception of Hell and how arbitrary a trip there can be based on our lives. Yet there is still a bit of an inconclusiveness to the whole thing, both the ending and the story itself: I wasn’t really sure what the purpose was or where it was going. And yes, there is a sequel entitled Doomed, but based on my response to this first book, I am not inclined to really get into that one. It just didn’t engage me for some reason, and therefore, I think it’s time for me to break up my readership with Chuck Palahniuk. It’s not you, sir, it’s me. I promise you.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]