31 March 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: Prose Fiction #7: Batman: Knightfall

Hardcover, 349 pages
Published 1994

Borrowed from the library
Read March 2014
Batman: Knightfall
by Dennis O'Neil

Knightfall is a book of two distinct halves, and the first is definitely better than the second. In the first, a gangster known as Bane decides he is going to prove himself by taking out Batman, and he enacts a massive scheme to deplete Batman's strength in order to do so. Bane himself is the best part of this; far from being the brute thug I'd imagined from the film versions of him, he's a fascinating, semi-heroic character, or at least a character who could easily become a hero with the right push.

The second half of the book tells the tale of Jean-Paul Valley's time as Batman, while Bruce Wayne recovers from his breaking at the hands of Bane. This is less successful, partly because there's so little overlap with the first. Bane is dispatched quickly and easily by the new Batman, who capitalizes a bizarrely small amount on his major accomplishment, and he stays in prison for the rest of the novel. And given how important a character Jean-Paul is in the second half of the book-- he's Bruce's first choice for a replacement!-- he's introduced really late, very shortly before the breaking of Batman. The effect is two halves that don't quite mesh; Jean-Paul should have been more important in the beginning, and Bane should have returned at the end. Without some source of cohesion, the ending is unsatisfying.

Part of the reason I started this project of reading superhero prose fiction was to see how writers rendered the interiority of superheroes in prose. O'Neil actually uses this as a plot point; Bruce thinks of himself as "Batman" up until his back is broken, and then he cannot anymore. But when he adopts other disguises, he also inhabits them completely-- as does Jean-Paul the identity of "Batman." When the narration dubs Bruce Wayne "Batman" again, you know the hero has made a comeback.

28 March 2014

Review: “This Is NPR” by Noah Adams, John Ydstie, Renée Montagne, and Ari Shapiro

Hardcover, 271 pages
Published 2010

Acquired September 2012
Read February 2014
“This Is NPR”
by Noah Adams, John Ydstie, Renée Montagne, and Ari Shapiro

When I was in high school, the only music genre I liked was classical-- hence, I put in a lot of time listening to WGUC, Cincinnati's NPR affiliate. I quickly grew to enjoy the non-music programming as well; they didn't air Morning Edition, but All Things Considered grew to be vital, especially in the time after 9/11. I didn't hear much NPR during my college years, but since acquiring a job (and hence, a commute), I find myself listening to it almost every time I drive. I even podcast it now, listening to both Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! and On the Media on a regular basis.

All this is to say that maybe I'm biased, but there's not really a better source of good journalism than NPR. "This Is NPR" celebrates the first forty years of the broadcaster, from when it began as protesters swarmed D.C., up to the coverage of the Chinese earthquakes. Criticisms definitely turn up, but it's clearly written by a group of people who believe in NPR and what it does. There are a lot of great stories, large and small, from how they used to edit the tape manually-- still working on the end of All Things Considered after the beginning had started-- to battles for funding to tales of the foreign bureau in the middle of revolutions and riots. It's chock-full of fascinating details that you'll be repeating to those around you as you read (much to their chagrin).

26 March 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part XVII: House of Secrets: Foundation

Comic hardcover, 127 pages
Published 1997 (contents: 1996-97)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2014
House of Secrets: Foundation
by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen

From 1996 to 1999, DC revived the House of Secrets for 25 issues. I tried to get the House of Secrets Omnibus, but ILL couldn't procure it, so I had to settle for this, which collects just the first five issues. It's a very different House of Secrets than we've seen before (and since); the House is located in Seattle, and it attracts to it those who possess "secrets," who are tried by a group of ancient ghosts. Into all this enters Rain, a damaged, defensive young woman who ends up serving as the court's "witness." What could easily be a cliche character is really quite interesting-- her hard edges feel real, not like stock traits, as she's genuinely hurtful sometimes. The prose and dialogue are great, and this is probably the best artwork of Teddy Kristiansen's (considerable) career. There's something of a self-contained story here, but I'm disappointed I'll never know what happens to these guys next.

24 March 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part XVI: House of Mystery: Desolation

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2012 (contents: 2011)
Borrowed from the library
Read February 2014
House of Mystery: Desolation

Writer: Matthew Sturges
Penciller: Luca Rossi
Inker: José Marzán, Jr.
Colorists: Lee Loughridge, Dave Stewart, Eva de la Cruz
Letterer: Todd Klein
Short Story Writers: Bill Wilingham, Steven T. Seagle
Short Story Artists: Darwyn Cooke, Aaron Campbell, David Lapham, Peter Snejbjerg, Annie Wu, Tony Akins, Teddy Kristiansen, Inaki Miranda

One feels like the final volume of a series should start laying on some answers, but Desolation just piles on the complications, and boring ones at that. Why this whole divergence with Lotus Blossom? Why add a whole mess of sorcerer characters only for them to do nothing? Why ruin the character of Goldie that way?

Eh, who cares. House of Mystery was a great vehicle for stories, but its own story was never particularly interesting, and this volume confirms that. The best part is the final issue, where three travelers tell the tale of the House, but even that seems a little tame and lackluster.

21 March 2014

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode V: Rescues by Tom Taylor and Colin Wilson

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2011 (contents: 2010)
Acquired July 2012
Read February 2014
Star Wars: Invasion 2: Rescues

Script: Tom Taylor
Art: Colin Wilson
Colors: Wes Dzioba
Letters: Michael Heisler

Year One of the Invasion (Month 3)
Rescues picks up right from the end of Refugees, following Finn as he continues (sporadically) his Jedi training and Kaye as her rebellion against her Yuuzhan Vong captors continues. Finn's plotline is okay-- there's some nice space combat action, as he and the Solo twins try to sneak onto a Yuuzhan Vong-occupied planet-- but the high point is definitely Kaye's continuing to amass power and forces to use on the Yuuzhan Vong. It seems to presage a decent into villainy without being completely evil; it's pretty well done, and I look forward to seeing what happens to her in volume 3.

20 March 2014

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode IV: Refugees by Tom Taylor and Colin Wilson

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 2009)
Acquired March 2012
Read February 2014
Star Wars: Invasion 1: Refugees

Script: Tom Taylor
Art: Colin Wilson
Colors: Wes Dzioba
Letters: Michael Heisler

Year One of the Invasion (Month 3)
Though written in the 2010s, the Invasion comic series takes place during the first year of The New Jedi Order. According to the timeline I consulted, the first two volumes take place between Chewbacca and the Dark Tide duology. (I'm skeptical, but that skepticism is based on a decade-old memory of Dark Tide, so we'll see what I think once I reread it.)

Anyway, Invasion follows the journeys of two siblings named Finn and Kaye Galfridian, members of the royal family of Artorias, one of the first planets to fall to the Yuuzhan Vong. Kaye and their mother are captured by the Yuuzhan Vong, their father is trapped on the planet, and Finn ends up falling in the Jedi and discovering his Force potential. Finn's plotline is a little jumpy; one page he's leaving Artorias, the next he's settling in at the Jedi Academy and crushing on Jaina Solo, the next he's on a pivotal mission to Nar Shaddaa. Meanwhile, Kaye is figuring out how to turn the tables on her captors.

It's not great, but it's not bad-- I don't really feel the level of attachment to the Galfridian family that I think the story wants me to have. The worst part is when Luke Skywalker, Kyp Durron, and a Jedi Master you've never heard of go on a mission together. Guess which one dies? The best part is just getting to see the Yuuzhan Vong invasion visualized; this is a rich era, and one of my favorites, and it has a very unique aesthetic that hasn't been exploited much. The Yuuzhan Vong are perfect for comic books.

19 March 2014

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode III: Chewbacca by Darko Macan et al.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2001 (contents: 2000)
Borrowed from the library
Read February 2014
Star Wars: Chewbacca

Story: Darko Macan
Pencils: Brent Anderson, Igor Kordey, Jan Duursema, Dave Gibbons, Dusty Abell, John Nadeau, Martin Egeland, Kilian Plunkett, Rafael Kayanan
Inks: Willie Blyberg, Igor Kordey, Jan Duursema, Dave Gibbons, Jim Royal, Jordi Ensign, Matin Egeland, Kilian Plunkett, Rafael Kayanan
Colors: Nathan Eyring, Matthew Paine, Angus McKie, Dave Nestelle, Dan Jackson
Lettering: Vickie Williams

Year One of the Invasion (Month 2)
This comic picks up shortly after Vector Prime, taking place in the lull between the Praetorite Vong beachhead and the arrival of the main force of the Yuuzhan Vong. During this time, C-3PO and R2-D2 travel the galaxy, recording testimonials from those who knew the fallen Wookiee warrior, friend and foes alike. I didn't much like the tales that mostly featured Wookiee characters-- they're hard to tell apart, and I think rendering Chewie's dialogue into English misses the point-- but most of these are decent little tales. I particularly liked "Ssoh; or, A Slaver's Lot," where Chewbacca leads a mass uprising, and "Wedge; or, A Pilot's Anecdote," a tall tale about just how dangerous a Wookiee can be. "Han; or, An Empty Galaxy" was also quite good: poor guy.

18 March 2014

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode II: Vector Prime by R. A. Salvatore

Hardcover, 387 pages
Published 1999

Acquired 1999(?)
Reread February 2014
Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime
by R. A. Salvatore

Year One of the Invasion (Month 1)
For a Star Wars novel, especially one designed to relaunch Star Wars for a new audience, Vector Prime begins very slowly and very inconsequentially, with boring (and irrelevant) political scenes, and the characters all spread out from one another-- not to mention, totally separated from the actual plot of the story. It's an odd choice, and not a very effective one; I found myself getting bored. Even worse, the way our heroes get involved in the story is solely on the basis of coincidence; they want to check out some rumors about smugglers, apparently talking to Lando Calrissian is the only possible way to do that, and Lando's new base of operations just happens to be the invasion corridor of the Yuuzhan Vong. Surely there was a more elegant way to pull this all together?

If I had written Vector Prime, I'd have led off with the "Running the Belt" chapter (about a third of the way in); that's where the book comes to life, in terms of action, character, and that good old Star Wars feel. It's a great chapter, with cool action, Force powers, and it shows off the Solo kids as Jedi as legitimate as the previous generation. From there, the book is generally pretty successful; I love the chapters where Luke and Mara investigate the Yuuzhan Vong infection on Belkadan. There's a real sense that they've encountered something new, something entirely unlike the Empire or any other threat they've encountered before.

This is all driven home quite pointedly when Chewbacca dies, in what is undoubtedly one of the most epic sequences in Star Wars. They drop on moon him. Yes, that's right, it takes a whole moon to kill Chewbacca. It's a tight, chilling action sequence. Even better (which I'd forgotten), Salvatore puts it about a third before the end of the novel, giving its remainder a real heightened sense of threat, something the Expanded Universe certainly hadn't seen in a long, long time, not since the days of Thrawn or the Clone Emperor. Vector Prime isn't always successful on its own merits, but it definitely bodes well for what's to come.

17 March 2014

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode I: Boba Fett: A Practical Man by Karen Traviss

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2006

Acquired December 2013
Read February 2014
Star Wars: Boba Fett: A Practical Man
by Karen Traviss

Year Zero of the Invasion
The recent publication of Invasion, a comic series taking place during The New Jedi Order, has me revisiting the series, which originally ran from 1999 to 2003-- amazingly it finished over ten years ago now! There are a number of peripheral additions to the series (short stories, comics, and the like) that I didn't read at the time, so I'm giving those a shot this time around, starting with A Practical Man, a prequel novella that sets the stage for what Boba Fett and the Mandalorians were up to during the Yuuzhan Vong invasion.

Unfortunately, it doesn't do much more than that. A Practical Man is largely a dot-connecting exercise, with little insight into the Mandalorians in general or Boba Fett in particular. Which is a shame, because Boba Fett going from the ultimate loner to the leader of an entire civilization ought to be fertile ground for Traviss's usually excellent character work, but that just doesn't happen here. There are glimpses of it, and I like the contrast between the different warrior ethos of the Mandalorians and the Yuuzhan Vong, but this story is too fundamentally simple to be interesting.

13 March 2014

Review: Kraken: An Anatomy by China Miéville

Hardcover, 509 pages
Published 2010

Acquired March 2012
Read August 2013
Kraken: An Anatomy
by China Miéville

This is my first encounter with Miéville, and Kraken is a book chock-full of ideas-- enough to sustain a dozen other novels, I suspect. I loved the exploration of obscure London religions, and I loved the insertion of such a crazy idea into (in part) the police procedural genre. Perhaps my favorite idea is the ghost cops who aren't really ghosts, but just the leftover tropes of cops. Or perhaps the guy who uses a magic wish to turn his toy Star Trek phaser into a real one. It seems to not take place in our own world, but even that is (quite cleverly) accounted for at the novel's end. A little messy at times, and I got lost on occasion, but it was usually worth it.

11 March 2014

Review: Zombie Mommy by M. T. Anderson

Trade paperback, 220 pages
Published 2012 (originally 2011)

Acquired and read August 2013
Zombie Mommy: A Pals in Peril Tale
by M. T. Anderson

This is more like it-- Zombie Mommy is no Whales on Stilts or The Flame-Pits of Delaware, but it's a fun, rollicking satire of horror tropes, not to mention heists. I particularly loved it when Lily's mother determines that she's going to die because in YA novels, the mothers of the protagonists always die.

10 March 2014

Review: Agent Q, or The Smell of Danger! by M. T. Anderson

Trade paperback, 294 pages
Published 2011 (originally 2010)

Acquired November 2011
Read July 2013
Agent Q, or The Smell of Danger!: A Pals in Peril Tale
by M. T. Anderson

Agent Q is probably my least favorite "Pals in Peril" tales thus far; it just takes too long to get started, and the target of the skewering is maybe a little too easy for Anderson's usual deftness. Once the eponymous Agent Q, with his over-the-top James Bond, Jr. flashiness, turns up, the book kicks into gear, though, and I enjoyed the climax a lot. Probably my favorite part is the teenage monk who is only allowed to speak sarcastically, so he can work sarcasm out of his system before adulthood.

07 March 2014

Review: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2005 (contents: 1986-87)

Acquired January 2012
Previously read November 2008 / February 2012
Reread July 2013

Writer: Alan Moore
Artist/Letterer: Dave Gibbons
Colorist: John Higgins

My third reading of Watchmen comes from teaching it, where I was sadly unable to convince my students that Rorscach is nuts and that Ozymandias is right. They seemed to like it, though, and some of them really liked it.

05 March 2014

The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Book 17

Hardcover, 610 pages
Published 2012

Acquired September 2012
Read February 2014
Believing the Lie
by Elizabeth George

George's Inspector Lynley novels seem to alternate between great and terrible, so it seems inevitable that after enjoying This Body of Death, I'd really struggle with Believing the Line. Like the worst Lynley novels, it just takes forever-- there's a lot of perspectives outside of Lynley (and sometimes Havers), and since each character is given equal time, that means Lynley pops up very rarely and thus does very little investigating. Indeed, I can barely remember him talking to anyone; Sergeant Havers and Deborah St. James (gah) doing most of the actual legwork here. It's also really hard to care, because it's not very certain that a murder even happened, and that uncertainty never goes away.

I get it, Elizabeth George, you're trying to upend the mystery genre... but you're not good enough to get away with it. Leave it to Paul Auster and Julian Barnes. Also, I refuse to believe this book was actually written and set in 2012; a key plot point is that Barbara can't perform even rudimentary translation of Spanish-language web pages on her own, because she's working on the case outside of the Met and its resources. Resources like Google Translate, I guess?

That said: Barbara Havers is always awesome, and there's a decent sideplot about a divorced couple trying to care for an orphaned kid. And the last 100 pages or so are pretty good, as everything comes into focus. But man, a lot more sure needed to happen in the rest of the book.

03 March 2014

Review: Tales of the City edited by Philip Purser-Hallard

Trade paperback, 154 pages
Published 2012

Acquired August 2012
Read February 2013
The Obverse Quarterly: Year Two, Book One: Tales of the City
edited by Philip Purser-Hallard

The City of the Saved (the city after the end of the universe where everyone ever is alive again all at once) is a great idea, and I'm thankful that it's gotten its first full-length feature here. Highlights include Elizabeth Evershed's "The Socratic Problem," where Socrates is brought on a guest lecturer at a City university; "Highbury" by Helen Angove, set in a district of the City inhabited by people from Regency England and people who wish they were from Regency England; and the magnificently creepy "Bruises" by Dave Hoskin.

01 March 2014

Reading Roundup Wrapup: February 2014

Pick of the month: "This Is NPR" by Noah Adams, John Ydstie, Renée Montagne, and Ari Shapiro. This history of NPR, published on its fortieth anniversary, was completely delightful to me, who grew up with NPR to an extent and became a regular listener upon acquiring his own car in 2001. Filled with great anecdotes and great insight into what is surely our country's best news organization (among other things).

All books read:
1. House of Mystery: Conception by Matthew Sturges with Matt Wagner, Peter Milligan, Chris Roberson, and Mike Carey
2. House of Mystery: Desolation by Matthew Sturges with Bill Willingham and Steven T. Seagle
3. Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George
4. Star Wars: Boba Fett: A Practical Man by Karen Traviss
5. Arthur & George by Julian Barnes
6. Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime by R. A. Salvatore
7. Star Wars: Chewbacca by Darko Macan
8. Star Wars: Invasion 1: Refugees by Tom Taylor
9. Star Wars: Invasion 2: Rescues by Tom Taylor
10. “This Is NPR” by Noah Adams, John Ydstie, Renée Montagne, and Ari Shapiro
11. Prelude to Infinite Crisis by Geoff Johns and Greg Rucka with Judd Winick, Jeph Loeb, Jeremy Johns, Bill Willingham, Marc Andreyko, John Arcudi, Bob Harras, Gail Simone, and Andy Diggle
12. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

All books acquired:
1. H. G. Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography edited by G. P. Wells
2. In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman
3. Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice by Colonel C. E. Callwell
4. Star Wars: Lost Tribe of the Sith: The Collected Stories by John Jackson Miller
5. The Dr. Who Fannual edited by Shaqui Le Vesconte

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 523