Monday, May 27, 2013

#CBR5 Review #23: The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie

The comedian, actor, (surprisingly fantastic) jazz musician Hugh Laurie? Why yes, a Jack-of-all-trades that one is. The Gun Seller is Hugh Laurie’s first novel, which had apparent promise of a sequel, which has yet to be released. But no matter, as this book is substantial and conclusive on its own, not to mention complex, quick-witted, and humorous. Essentially, I could just hear Hugh Laurie saying the words of the novel to me as I read it, and picturing a Fry-and-Laurie era Laurie acting it all out definitely added to my enjoyment of it.

What we have in The Gun Seller is a retired Army officer in London, named Thomas Lang. Thomas works odd-jobs as a bodyguard and mercenary for connections he made during his time in the army, but when he is approached by a man who wants to hire him for an assassination, Thomas gets into a whole mess of trouble. Thomas chooses to try and warn the man who is to be assassinated that he is a target, only to find that the man who sought to hire him and the target are one in the same. Thomas’ character was the real object under question, by a man named Alexander Woolf, and his daughter Sarah. They tell him of a conspiracy involving international arms dealers that they want his help in stopping. Reluctantly, for the safety of Sarah, Thomas becomes embroiled in this conspiracy, which later is discovered to involve not only “gun sellers,” but also terrorist organizations, the American CIA, and the British Ministry of Defense.

The plot itself has many different layers of covert operation and deceit, and as I was quite tired while reading it (due to being on a fast-paced bus tour around Ireland at the time, not because I was bored with the book), by the end I started getting… confused. If you just go with it, everything eventually works itself out and makes sense, but getting there can be a bit of a struggle at times. Fortunately, Laurie’s writing is fun enough to make even the most baffling sections worth working through. As lighthearted as it seems at times, however, The Gun Seller is quite a serious novel, just told with a softer, quirkier feel, which totally works.

In the end, I really enjoyed this book, regardless of the difficulty I had trudging through the odd sections, knowing who was on whose side, what the odd sentiment said by one person meant to the other, and who we were even rooting for at the end of the day. But The Gun Seller really does resonate with the Hugh Laurie-loving side of me, as I could definitely tell that he wrote it from familiarity with his television work and writings. I would say that this book is not for everyone, but if you like stories of conspiracy organizations, then this one would likely be your fancy. It’s not usually my kind of thing, but this time, I quite liked it.

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

Thursday, May 23, 2013

#CBR5 Review #22: Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon by Matt Fraction

(with art by David Aja and Javier Pulido)
Apparently there is this idea that Hawkeye is the “most useless Avenger,” what with not being superhuman in any way, and using arrows rather than more “practical” forms of weaponry. But after The Avengers film came out last year, more people are starting to appreciate Clint Barton/Ronin/Goliath (I know, I know), and this series of Hawkeye comics focuses on Clint’s life outside of the Avengers. More specifically, the trouble he gets himself into on a regular basis, as well as some of the work he does for S.H.I.E.L.D. when he isn’t chumming up with the other superheroes. And well... it's pretty comical.

A trim first volume at just around 130 pages, My Life as a Weapon includes the first 5 issues of Hawkeye, as well as one final installment of Young Avengers Presents #6. The first five issues all start with Clint in a seemingly disastrous situation, which he then explains and elaborates on. Generally, his getting out of these mishaps involves help from the Young Avengers version of Hawkeye, Kate Bishop (whose age is still elusive to me. Is she actually 9? Is she an older teen? I really couldn’t tell you). But these adventures of Clint’s dispel the myth of Hawkeye being the most useless Avenger? Not really, but boy is he amusing, and still manages to be inventive and capable in even the most difficult situations (that always seems to occur after be acts without really thinking about what he is doing). Impulsive, snarky, and blunt is how I would characterize Clint Barton in this series, and that makes for an absolutely hilarious read. Because who says comic books have to be serious adventures all the time?

The only thing that I didn’t really enjoy in this volume was the final inclusion of Young Avengers Presents. Not only is the art drastically different in this story (not that the art is bad, in fact, it is very detailed and engaging), but the tone is quite dichotomous to the rest of the volume’s inclusions as well. While the previous 5 stories focus on Clint and his general gravity towards trouble, all while attempting to do the right thing for the people around him (especially when on missions from S.H.I.E.L.D), this final conclusion shows the first meeting of Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, while Clint is working with the Avengers. It shows how Clint wants to become a bit of a mentor to the Young Avengers and their use of their powers for good, rather than trying to stop them from doing what they do best. This isn’t to say that the story is bad, but the contrast between the established gruff characterization of Clint with this new, soft and slightly paternal side seemed a bit jarring to me.

A small example of one sleek issue-cover
If nothing else, however, the cover art for each issue within the volume is absolutely stunning. The covers are minimalist in design, but have big impact. In addition, the artwork frequently used when Hawkeye is about to shoot an arrow, showing his strict bodylines and tensions, are phenomenally depicted without being overly done as well.

But at the end of the day, I thoroughly enjoyed My Life as a Weapon, and plan on reading the second volume soon. While it definitely helps to have a bit of knowledge of the Avengers universe beyond the film for the last issue in the volume, this is not really necessary for the rest of the book, and so I would recommend reading this to anyone who has even a slight fancy for tales of a superhero nature.

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

Monday, May 20, 2013

#CBR5 Review #21: Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

As we all know, Gods are immortal, so what happens when they find themselves in the modern era after almost everyone has stopped believing in them? What will their lives be like and will they conform to social norms, or still behave in the ways that they always have? Marie Phillips’ novel Gods Behaving Badly addresses this in a humorous satire about some of the major/most well known Gods of ancient Greece.

Gods Behaving Badly centers on twelve Olympian Gods living in present-day London. While some still act in their typical roles as Gods, many have been forced to find “human” jobs to keep themselves going, as their powers have begun to wane over time; the problem is that nobody really believes in the ancient Gods anymore, which is where they have always found their power. Therefore, instead of living high on Olympus, the Gods find themselves all stuffed into a single, run-down flat, squabbling like they always have in all the myths of the past. After the God Apollo upsets Aphrodite, however, she decides to play a cruel trick on him, using her son, Eros, to make Apollo fall in love with someone without any reciprocated feelings. This leads to a sweet and mortal relationship getting caught up in the dysfunctional and not strictly “acceptable” lives of the Gods (by modern standards, that is). But what happens when the world itself becomes put in danger by their selfish pursuits of angering one another? Will the Gods fight to regain power and save the world, or resign themselves to mortality after all these years of slowly becoming obsolete?

I had been meaning to read this book for quite some time, and just now finally got around to it; was it a masterpiece? No, but it was very fun and didn’t take itself too seriously at all. Knowing a bit about these Gods and Greek mythology definitely added to my enjoyment of the novel, as I understood some of the references and characters present already; more strictly speaking, I know just how unconventional and dysfunctional the Gods have always been portrayed as. But this erratic behavior was accepted of the Gods “back in the day,” yet once you put them into the modern day and age, it seems jarring that a celestial being would act as such. Hence, some of the humor to be found in Phillips’ work. While some of these attempts at showing the dichotomies of belief come across as inanely blunt, as well as a few predictabilities aside, the course of action unfolds in a smooth and creative manner. The only things that I could really gripe about when it comes to this novel would be some instances of slightly forced interactions and dialogues between characters that didn’t seem entirely natural (even if the characters are the embodiment of ancient Gods), as well as the overly saccharine epilogue, with its somewhat cheesy tying up of everything that wasn’t per say all that necessary. All in all, however, I enjoyed Gods Behaving Badly, and would recommend reading it at some point when you aren’t looking to engage in anything overly serious.

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

Sunday, May 19, 2013

#CBR5 Review #20: Th1rteen R3asons Why by Jay Asher

Jay Asher’s young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why focuses on the important topic of teenage suicide, and how a young person may be led to it. While the writing is effective in demonstrating how a person’s actions may affect another in ways that they could never have imagined, reading this novel made me feel a little strange, almost as if it left a slightly sour taste in my mouth upon finishing it. Not in that the topic of suicide makes me uncomfortable like it does some people, but that there may have been ways to make the whole thing have more of an impact? The tone was a little more bitter than I thought it would be? I’m not sure. In any case, here is specifically what the story is about:

Thirteen Reasons Why starts with a young boy named Clay receiving a series of cassette tapes anonymously in the mail. As he listens to them, he finds that they are from one of his classmates, Hannah, who recently committed suicide, making a list of thirteen people/incidents that influenced her decision to kill herself either directly or indirectly. After listening to all of the tapes, the recipient is asked to then send them along to the person who follows them on the list. If the person does not listen and send them along, Hannah claims that someone watching will release another set of the tapes to the general public. Clay listens to Hannah’s story of old boyfriends, fake friends, sexual assault, peeping-toms, car accidents, and people who don’t care enough to reach out, only to fear where he will end up on the list, as all he ever did was have a crush on this girl who is now gone. At the end of it all, Clay is among those on Hannah’s tapes, but does not fall into the same category of the rest as being one of those who snowballed the negative aspects of her life; it is as though his inclusion is because he almost helped her out of her pain, yet didn’t reach out quite enough, which, really, is what nobody did. Nobody saw the signs that she needed help, and even the smallest comments became big weights upon Hannah in the end. But is she blaming these people on her list for her suicide? In a way, maybe, but also not; it’s really hard to say.

There is a sense of relief almost that comes with having the “innocent” Clay be the narrator, as it isn’t hard to start feeling for him and liking the character after being in his head following these tapes for so long; it would be devastating to know that he hurt Hannah in some way. But at the same time, it could have been ever more powerful to have been inside someone’s head who did have a more direct hand in her downfall, as maybe you could see how people could become affected with guilt after hearing Hannah’s words, or it would make a bigger statement in regards to how people may not realize how they are affecting people with their actions. I don’t know, but there was a bit of a fear I felt reading that maybe the seemingly sweet Clay did do something horrible after all. But then hearing that he didn’t in the end sort of made the whole thing too easy, and it got slightly tiring hearing about his crush on her over and over when there was nothing to be done at this point in his life. And a statement like that coming out of me makes me wonder if maybe I’m too cynical or pragmatic or not emotional enough for something like this.

What the book is very successful in doing, however, is highlighting an important message to young people in that you may not realize how you are influencing others: we may not know everything going on in a persons life, so the tiniest statements can hurt someone in a way we never even realized. And if someone looks like they need help or is showing strange signs, maybe we should reach out, like Clay is prompted to do at the end of the novel with another girl he knows. I think that that, overall, is what Hannah was trying to convey in her tapes, which is a seemingly simple message, but is still unfortunately being lost on a lot of people today.

And yet… there is still something that irks me about the Jay Asher’s novel, and that nagging thing is most easily seen in the threat of the second set of tapes. Without this threat, yes, maybe those on Hannah’s list wouldn’t have listened or sent them along for fear that everyone will now know what they have done. But with this fear comes almost a sense guilt and with that guilt, blaming. Hannah repeatedly says that she is not strictly blaming people for her suicide, but I still felt a lot of bitterness when reading it, which made me wonder about the presentation of the whole thing. It’s hard to explain, but something made me feel not quite right about the way Hannah went about her confessionary tapes. This unnerving sense I felt can specifically be seen in regards to one girl, Jessica, who had received the tapes before Clay who is then later recalled to having been raped at a party which Hannah witnessed; she claims that Jessica’s life may have been ruined by this, and yet she feels not harm in compounding on top of this by sending Jessica these tapes which detail how Jessica had a hand in Hannah’s decision to commit suicide. This compiling or “snowballing” of incidents and feelings is what led Hannah to her act in the first place, and yet she is somewhat performing a similar deed to this girl on her list (maybe not in the same way, mind you) even though Hannah is more aware of Jessica’s life than she was of Hannah’s, so I got some mixed messages at that point. A lot of these negative feelings are personal, however, so I don’t know if anyone else who has read this feels differently.

In the end, Thirteen Reasons Why was a book that I read quite quickly as I wanted to know what happened to Hannah just as much as Clay did by the end. And while it had some strong messages in regards to young people, the tone and words, which strained to be poetically beautiful at some points left me feeling a little conflicted. That’s not to say that it wasn’t good to read through once, I just don’t think this book would be something I would pick up and read again; I’d say it would probably be better received and have more of an impact on those in the target young adult demographic, which kind of goes without saying.

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

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

#CBR5 Review #19: The Scorch Trials by James Dashner

The Scorch Trials is the second young adult novel in James Dashner’s “Maze Runner” series. Like the first installment of the series, this novel is predicated on a group of young people placed into a testing situation, with so many questions and few answers.

I’ll try to keep the description brief (and slightly vague?) so as to not spoil anything from The Maze Runner. Also, these novels are the kind that seem as though they’d be better enjoyed if you don’t know what’s coming next:

The Scorch Trials begins in the middle of the night after the boys of the Glade make it out of the maze. They feel as though they have found a safe-haven with the people of WICKED, and yet, things soon go wrong: hallucinations occur, and Thomas loses his connection with Teresa, yet the Gladers gain a new member to their company from another maze that was filled with only girls, known as “Group B”. The boys find themselves surrounded by people called “Cranks” who have been infected with a disease called “the flare,” as well as ominous tattoos across their backs. Finally, the Gladers meet a man who tells them that they are a part of a group of “trials,” that what they see is not necessarily real, and their responses to everything are what WICKED is really interested in. They are then sent out on a journey to cross a barren desert to a “safe-haven” within two weeks time, in order to gain a cure to the flare disease. The boys, of course, have no choice but to comply with this test, and go out into the seemingly deserted world, only to face hardships, violence, and more and more strange questions and circumstances along the way. The boys come to feel as though there is more to their situation than is being told, and that the world may be in a worse state than they realized.

While the tactic of having just little snippets of information that make you want to learn more was used to great effect in The Maze Runner, it fizzles out slightly in The Scorch Trials. There are still some sequences of great action and suspense, but there I found far less interest when it came to characters and their actions in this novel. This might just personal, but some of the relationships that alter throughout the action of this story seem a bit stiff and forced in either direction. Far-less intimate and personal interaction occurs in The Scorch Trials as compared to the initial novel, which may be the culprit in this case.

That, or the theory that “sequels are never as good,” which isn’t always true, but for this work, I would say that this is accurate. And yet, the way the novel ends with another serious cliffhanger, I still want to know what exactly is going on with these young people and the trials they are being put through. Hopefully some answers come soon, because as of yet, not enough pieces have fallen into place for me to really feel satisfied.