Tuesday, April 30, 2013

#CBR5 Review #18: American Vampire vol. 1 by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, and Stephen King

This past weekend I spent my time at the Calgary comic expo, and one of my cousins (who is an avid fan of all comic books and genres) got into a big discussion with me about what he recommends I read, and American Vampire was one of them. He said it was one of the only vampire stories that has even interested him since he was about 12 years old, given that the whole thing has become a bit overpowering and sanitized in popular culture today. But American Vampire is quite intriguing regardless of this, as it addresses the concept of generational vampiric evolution, and isn’t afraid to leave a twisted trail of bodies behind.

Scott Snyder predominantly writes the American Vampire series, with art by Rafael Albuquerque. For the first trade volume (single issues #1-5), however, the stories told alternate between writing from Snyder, and guest writing by Stephen King. Each volume of the series focuses on a different period of American history, and how the new bloodlines of vampires are both affected and fit into each era; the first volume, which I am reviewing today, is centered on the 1920s.

What we have in the first volume is the story of a young woman named Pearl in Los Angeles, trying to make it as a major Hollywood star. She and her friend are lured to a party with one of the bigwig executives of the movie studio, where the most turn out to be vampires themselves and attack Pearl. On her deathbed, a strange man who has been watching Pearl decides to feed her his blood, thus changing her into a strong, sun-walking vampire, just the kind that those who attacked her hate. We then learn the origins of this man who changed Pearl, and how he became a vampire in the Wild West known as Skinner Sweet. A man who witnessed the rise of this new generation of vampire –which the traditional, sun-fearing vampires consider “abominations”—tells this story many years later claiming his stories to be true, and not a work of fiction.

The tales of Pearl and Sweet alternate between one another, and we somewhat come to learn a few of the reasons why Sweet decided to turn Pearl. Much of this, however, remains in mystery, though it is suggested that the two will end up meeting many times over the years in the subsequent volumes in the series. Overall, however, the story is about power and control, the strength of bloodlines and a fear of those who are different or threaten our existence. But more than anything, it is about vengeance: dirty, bloody vengeance.

At first I found the flipping between stories to be a bit disconcerting as I wasn’t quite connecting all the dots, but after a while it starts feeling more natural, as connections and characters begin to fall into place. Also, the further I got into the story, the more interested I became as to what was going to happen, wondering how much power the old, somewhat tyrannical vampires actually have on American history. The ending, as well, leaves some serious suspense to urge you to take in the next volume, and I personally am interested to know what happens next, and more importantly, how much further down the road we end up before we see these characters again. How will they have changed? Will they have affected history or will it have altered them in some ways?

The art in the book kind of reminds me of that done by Gabriel Bá in The Umbrella Academy series, though to be honest I’m not sure why… whatever it is, it is very appealing to look at, and the dark, muddy colours of many of the scenes adds to both the ominous and eerie mood, but also to the old-timey feel found in this volume. As for the writing, it can be straightforward with dialogue at some points, but also features some overlays of engaging contrast between the text and the visual panels in which they reside.

While American Vampires, as of now, hints towards some overarching ideas and concepts within its pages, many of the main themes presented are fairly straightforward. I assume they are going to beef up a bit more as time goes on, but I suppose I will have to read more to find out. In any case, if you are a fan of the vampire genre, you will likely find American Vampire to be quite enjoyable. If you are not, but enjoy graphic novels or comic series, there should be something in this for you as well. If nothing else, volume 1 is a solid beginning to what appears to be the makings of a fascinating story that spans many years and points in history.

[Be sure to check out more reviews on the Cannonball Read group blog.]

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

#CBR5 Review #17: The Maze Runner by James Dashner

Dashner, writing about running through a maze… huh. I just realized how much that seems like a terribly unintentional pun. In any case, The Maze Runner is the first book in the young-adult dystopian trilogy of the same name. It first came onto my radar when I saw one of those “If You Liked The Hunger Games then you might like…:” lists, and it sounded kind of interesting, if only because most of the young-adult fiction I’ve read over the years has been somewhat female-centric (I don’t know why, it just has been), and this one is centered around a society of boys. Then, I heard some internet whisperings that this was going to be another YA series being adapted for film, with actors such as the strangely endearing Dylan O’Brien, the stunning Kaya Scodelario, and that cutie-patootie Thomas Brodie-Sangster in the lead roles, and my interest was peaked all the more, hence, my delving into this novel.

And was my intrigue warranted? Yes, it certainly was. While the novel has a couple of parts that are reminiscent of usual dystopian stories (and in this way has a moment or two of predictability), it kept me incredibly enthralled throughout; I actually let out an audible gasp or two at a few parts, which hasn’t happened to me while reading a book in a long time. It’s one of those novels which is very easy to read, and you will likely get through quite quickly, due to the fact that there is so much mystery surrounding the whole setup that you just want to keep flipping the pages to figure out what in the world is actually going on.

What we have in The Maze Runner is a boy named Thomas, whose memory is essentially wiped clean, but not as simply as that: he knows a lot about things, but not about events, or who he is, aside from his first name. Thomas wakes up in a black, metal box, only to be pulled up out of it and into a little homestead known as “The Glade,” inhabited by nothing but young, teenage boys, who all arrived at different times, just like Thomas did. The boys have made their own little society here, each with their own jobs and ranks within the community, whose main purpose appears to be to live life by the routine they’ve established, and to solve “the maze”. The maze? You see, the Glade is situated in the middle of a giant maze, with giant doors that shut around the homestead every night, keeping some seriously dangerous creatures out. For some reason, Thomas feels strangely familiar in this bizarre, unrecognizable world, and upon his it soon becomes clear that Thomas is not quite like the other boys, and the typical order of the Glade starts to go haywire; unusual things start happening around the Glade (well, more unusual than they are used to), including the arrival of a young, comatose girl, with an ominous message, and the boys all can’t help but feel as though Thomas’ arrival has triggered something, and that someone is studying their every move. Is this maze just a game? A test? Or is it something else?

One of the most effective aspects of The Maze Runner is that the reader can see inside Thomas’ head, despite the story being told in a limited third-person narrative. We see all the confusion and lack of understanding of Thomas’ new life as it unfolds, just as if we were the ones who were placed inside this strange world. Sometimes when you have these otherworldly, dystopian settings, everyone has lived there for a while already and so understands how things are and what life is like, but we as the reader don’t, and need some kind of exposition to fill us in. It’s not like this is necessarily bad, but sometimes it slows the action down or leads to confusion is regards to certain things, while everyone else around acts like everything is totally everyday and normal, and that can be frustrating (to me, at least). But in The Maze Runner, that frustration of being in the dark about things is expressed through Thomas. There is also a lot of mystery regarding the glade and the maze that people are struggling to figure out, and by only being able to see what Thomas sees, the reader also gets to take part in the mystery and try to piece the clues together, just as he is. This is an incredibly successful facet of the novel, and makes for it to be a real page-turner as you almost want to know what is going on as much as Thomas is, and the only way to find out is to keep reading. This is also why I kept my description of the plot a bit vague, as I feel knowing everything from the get-go might lessen the fun in a way (then again, maybe not, it's really hard to say).

Besides the odd, slight moment of predictability within The Maze Runner, another aspect that irked me a little was the use of slang-terms by the boys. It’s pretty understandable that they would develop these new words and terms in the little society of theirs, but certain phrases almost seemed a bit overused throughout the course of the book, and in that way it became a little stiff. The rest of the writing in the novel, however, is effortless and breezes by. It’s more about the story and the characters than it is about being creative with language and wordplay, though Dashner does seem to have a great handle on creating suspense and writing riveting action sequences.

One final enjoyable piece to the novel is the strong characters presented in the boys of the Glade. I often forgot how young the character are supposed to be while reading, much like how I kept forgetting how young Katniss was during the Hunger Games, through their adult-like demeanor and strong actions. The society that these boys have built on their own through their isolation and need for leadership is somewhat reminiscent of The Lord of the Flies in a way, and their success with it over the course of two years wouldn’t be possible without the dichotomy of their chronological and subjective ages, which is partially explained in time.

At the end of The Maze Runner, we are left with feelings of hope, only to have these pushed back for an ominous tone with the short epilogue attached to the end; the epilogue presents even more questions as to the truth behind the maze, but no answers, as if James Dashner is urging you to continue with the rest of the series with this little tease. Maybe it’s not some literary masterpiece, but there are definitely some weighty societal questions presented in the pages of The Maze Runner. If you aren’t looking for that, however, the course of action of this novel is worth the read in itself, and I would definitely recommend checking it out.

[Be sure to check out more reviews on the Cannonball Read group blog]

Friday, April 19, 2013

#CBR5 Review #16: The Sandman - World's End by Neil Gaiman

World’s End is the 8th volume of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series “The Sandman”, but does not focus on any direct story-arch of the series as a whole. Similar to the 3rd and 6th volumes of “The Sandman”, World’s End is essentially a collection of short stories, this time being told by a collection of various characters that find themselves all in the same place at the same time. All of the tales are related in some way to one another, but in the most minimal sense. Each story on it’s own is quite interesting, yet the volume as a whole is slightly lacking when compared to some of the previous installments of the series. That’s not to say that it’s not a good, speedy read, but there is something less than satisfying about it when all is said and done.

The story begins with a man named Brant Tucker, as he drives his sleeping friend, Charlene, back to Chicago, when they hit a sudden summer snowstorm. Being driven off the road and injured, the two manage to make their way to an Inn called “The World’s End,” which is full of various mythical creatures and characters that all ended up stranded there by some type of storm or accident. One of the workers of the Inn suggests that something big has come to pass in one world or another, or that a certain world has recently died, sending ripples of consequence throughout the many realms, thus creating the raging storm. To pass the time until the storm clears up and they can leave, many of the visitors choose to tell stories to one another. They include the following:

“A Tale of Two Cities”: This tale focuses on a man who loves to wander around his city, taking it all in and seeing all the people, only to one day find himself trapped inside what he is told to be the dream of the city. Unsure of how to find his way out, the man begins to fear what may happen if the city every stops dreaming.

“Cluracan’s Tale”: A story about a young Faerie, Cluracan, sent as an emissary to the city of Aurelian to represent the interests of his people during a time of political upheaval. After causing a stir with a terrible prophecy, Clarucan is in for more trouble than he bargained for, but is helped out by a familiar dark face and his magical powers of disguise, which he uses to sway the people of Aurelian to best suit his own race.

“Hob’s Leviathan”: A young girl poses as a boy named Jim in order to become a sailor. A passenger on one of her journeys from Singapore to Liverpool tells her a tale about an Indian King and a gift of immortality (a story within a story!). Before the end of the journey to England, however, the ship encounters a great sea monster, and while Jim wants to tell people of this danger, she starts to wonder if, like her true identity, some secrets are best kept to oneself.

“The Golden Boy”: The rise and fall of what is considered to be the greatest president of one of the “Americas”. This story takes place in what is presumably an alternate universe version of the United States, and is incredibly illusory to Jesus Christ and the various Gospels, including the Temptation of Christ in the form of a figure known as “Boss Smiley”.

“Cerements”: A young apprentice of the necropolis, Litharge, tells a tale of one of his first encounters with the ceremonies of “air burial,” which includes the telling of different stories on the parts of all the other people involved in the ritual (more stories within stories!). The people of Litharge are devoted to the dead and the burial rituals of all the different realms; the stories they choose to tell during their burial process strongly reflects the ritual, secrecy, and value that is encompassed in this life.

At the end of it all, the party bears witness of a strange event outside through the Inn’s windows, and the storm clears, leaving people to choose where they want to go from there. While each tale focuses on something different, there is often a notion of secrecy within the stories that are told: despite sharing with one another, there is always something left out or left unsaid, which makes the whole undertaking have a slightly more serious air than you would imagine a troop of storytellers might have.

Each tale on it’s own is extremely effective, but in the final act of everyone trying to determine what exactly is going on at the Inn, the feelings presented in each story start to unravel, leaving more questions than answers. Although this is often what makes “The Sandman” tales so effective, in that the reader can use their own imaginations or find clues to help them connect the dots, this one just has something missing that makes it a bit less cohesive feeling than what one might want. Regardless of this fact, World’s End is still an enjoyable novel that fits with the rest of “The Sandman “series, it’s just not one of the best ones, in my opinion.

Friday, April 12, 2013

#CBR5 Review #15: Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams

What’s with me and starting my reviews of a series partway through? In any case, after I devoured the first four novels in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series last summer, I started to get a bit saturated with the whole thing and had to take a break, until picking up the 5th addition, Mostly Harmless, now. To be honest, I’m not really sure where I last left off… But remembering the characters is really all you need for this one. Of course the plot ends up all in a mishmash once you get into it, but what else would you expect with the series at this point? And while it’s nice to revisit those familiar faces and the fun writing style of Adams, this novel is definitely not the greatest thing I have read, or even close to being the best of Adams’ work to date.

Mostly Harmless starts us off with the theory of alternate, parallel universes: those universes that would have existed had you made a different decision at some point or another in your life (Sliding Doors! Everything is Sliding Doors!). Here, there is a new Trisha McMillan, one who hadn’t gone with Zaphod all those years ago, just situated elsewhere in the infinite galaxy, apart from the real Tricia/Trillian, who is now a famous reporter all across space and time. Meanwhile, Arthur has lost his newfound love, Fenchurch, and is once again just bobbing about the universe, trying to find some place for him to situate himself that resembles his long lost home on earth. And all the while, Ford Prefect is shambling about the offices of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, soon learning that something not quite right is going on, in the form of Vogons and the creation of a new guide. After a while of flipping back and forth, we eventually see all these stories collide in the form of a young lady named Random, who just wants to find a place to belong in the vast universe, like Arthur (and that’s not the only way in which they are related).

Overall, Mostly Harmless feels a bit more cohesive than some of the sequels to the first Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy have to date, by just focusing on the three main characters and their respective stories until they converge. At the same time, however, the ending left me feeling quite unsatisfied. Not in a cliffhanger, kind of way, but in a bit more of a sad and slightly befuddled sort of way; the end of the whole thing just started to fall into a bit of a slump, trying to press a message of belonging into it, repeating an earthly scenario from the beginning of the series, and lacking in any real development on the parts of the characters, which left me feeling a bit disappointed since they’ve all been on such a journey with so many changes since the beginning of it all.

Yet as always, Douglas Adams’ dry, matter-of-fact presentation of the most ridiculous and outlandish ideas and phrases makes up for a lot of the downfalls. I know his style isn’t for everyone, but I personally really love it, as it almost feels like he’s just shrugging his shoulders going, “That’s how it is. Take it or leave it, it doesn’t make a difference to me if you don’t want to believe me” whenever he explains these ridiculous ideas of his.

So in the end, Mostly Harmless is certainly not the best of the series (that would still the first one, in my opinion), and the tale of Arthur, Ford, and Trillian really seems to have lost a bit of its steam along the way. But if you just want to keep going anways, or find yourself a fan of the quick and strange manner of Douglas Adams, then I’d still recommend taking a gander at this instalment.

[Be sure to check out the Cannonball Read group blog for more reviews.]

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

#CBR5 Review #14: The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare

Approaching the end of the semester (and with it, my class that purely studies Shakespeare), I do say that this will likely be my last Shakespeare review for quite some time. Was it fun? Well, it was hit and miss, but for this last reading, we hit a bit of a higher note than some of the other plays I’ve reviewed thus far.

The Winter’s Tale is categorized as one of Shakespeare’s Romance plays, and, like Problem plays, it doesn’t really fall into a distinct classification as a straight tragedy, drama, or history. What is typical of the Romances, however, is their use of other-(worldliness and sometimes magical elements) to produce an effect. And unlike the other hard-to-categorize Problem plays, this work wasn’t really that much of a problem for me. In fact, I found it to be a lot more effortless in it’s unraveling than some of the previous Elizabethan works I have read. Predictable? Yes, it is ridiculously predictable, and I found myself saying, “because of course!” a number of times. But that predictability doesn’t really hinder it in the end, as this complements the easy course of action, giving the play a straightforward reading.

I will try to describe the plot in the barest, more basic way, as it has a very simple and foreseeable plot that can probably be guessed at if you only try: We begin with Leontes, the King of Sicilia, asking his visiting friend (and the king of Bohemia), Polixenes, not to leave after having spent the last 9 months in Sicily with Leontes and his wife, Hermione. When the pregnant Hermione tries to urge Polixenes to stay too, however, Leontes begins to wonder if she had not been having an affair with Polixenes, and if her unborn child is in fact that of Polixenes. Betrayal, anger, and banishment occurs within Sicilia, leaving the newborn daughter of the king and queen in a far-off place, being raised by a shepherd, but winning the affections of a prince who is intrinsically tied to the drama of the beginning. But of course, in the end, there must be a return back to Sicilia, ending with a large familial reconciliation.

What is enjoyable about this work, as I mentioned before, is the ease that comes with reading it. A lot of the time, Shakespeare’s works are far better watched than read, and much easier to understand that way; while I can’t really say what it would be like to see this play acted out, it is very easier to follow strictly in a textual way. The language used is still decorative and inventive, but not in a strict or complicated way. This may come from a large use of prose-like verses by the common folk in the shepherd town, and the placement of a large portion of the action within this pastoral “other world” that is the country aids in creating a simple, airy, and refreshing feeling to the action overall.

However, if there is something that made me roll my eyes, it is the seemingly random use of magical, suspended-belief within the last act of the play, in order to impose reconciliation between Hermione, Leontes, and Perdita. While the rest of the action appears to fall into place without much meddling, trickery, or forcing of circumstance, throwing one last hitch into the end in order to drive the final point of happiness home seems a bit… hammy. The rest of the work manages to balance its dramatic and comedic elements well, but this last little push just comes across as silly and melodramatic in comparison.

In the end, I would recommend reading The Winter’s Tale if you are a fan of Shakespeare. I would also recommend reading it if you are trying to get into Shakespeare, as it is a far easier read than some of his other, more commonly-recognized works. That being said, if you don’t really find yourself a fan of the bard, you might want to skip it, as it’s not like you will be missing out on any crazy twists or profound ideas if you don’t read it.

[Be sure to check out more reviews on the Cannonball Read group blog]