BookBin2014: The Cuckoo’s Calling

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My experience earlier this year with J.K. Rowling’s first foray into non-Potter fiction was decent enough that I decided that if I could find her second offering at the local library, then I would give it a go. So it was with delight and a little trepidation that I borrowed The Cuckoo’s Calling.

First, I really wish that I hadn’t known that “Robert Galbraith” was Rowling writing under a pseudonym. I wish I’d been able to experience this novel thinking that it was someone other than an already established author trying to break into another genre after a somewhat mixed first attempt. However, truthfully, I probably would have never read this book if I hadn’t known that Rowling was the actual writer. See, I have learned through repeated trials that detective stories simply are not my cuppa. I do keep trying (because I just don’t know when to quit sometimes), but I’ve yet to find one that makes me go “YES! THAT’S IT! THAT’S THE BOOK FOR ME!”

Totally strange, I know, considering that so many of my favorite shows have been crime procedurals…including that one three-lettered series that I simply can’t quit. But I digress.

Still, I have to say that The Cuckoo’s Calling came pretty close to finally pulling me into the detective genre all the way. Close. But not quite all the way. True to Rowling’s form, she did a fantastic job of setting up compelling characters and situations that kept drawing me along for whatever fantastically bumpy ride she had in mind. Plus, Rowling has an enviable skill for planning things out to the very last detail. I honestly could not fault the conclusion of this story, even when I sat and pondered it far more deeply than I think I’ve ever pondered one of these stories.

I think, though, that this was part of the problem I had with the novel. It was so well-planned that the reveal felt…anticlimactic. I don’t know how else to put it. I felt that the whole novel preceding the part leading into and finally giving the big reveal was so solid and enjoyable that…I don’t know. The ending should have been more…more.

Great use of words there, right? I’m trying not to give away anything about the ending, though, because I don’t want to ruin anything for those of you who might not have read this book. And even though I wish that the ending hadn’t been quite as neat and polished and sedate as it was, I do think this book is worth reading. Rowling is gloriously talented to the point that, even when I don’t completely love every bit of every story she writes, I can still love her for her abilities and her obvious devotion to language and literature. To put it in her own vernacular, I think she’s brilliant.

Final Verdict: As well written and mostly enjoyable as this book was, I kind of feel at this moment that I don’t need to add this to my collection. However, I found Rowling’s detective Cormoran Strike an interesting enough character that I have already added myself to the wait list at our local library for his next adventure, The Silk Worm (the library hasn’t even received any copies yet and already I’m 384th in line!).

BookBin2014: We

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I knew nothing of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We when I found it at the local library, other than the fact that it was one of the new arrivals in the science fiction section since my last visit. Turns out, this is one of the earliest examples of dystopian science fiction, predating more well-known novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. In fact, Orwell even acknowledged in a review of We that he was going to use it as a model for his next book, his aforementioned dystopian classic.

There can be no doubt, upon reading this novel, that Zamyatin’s story was quite influential on many of the darker storytelling souls within the genre’s literary pantheon. Tangentially, I have a strong belief that he found influence and inspiration in preceding tales, including the works of H.G. Wells, whose notions of the chaos that scientific advancement could cause morphed in Zamyatin’s mind to the chaos of failed mathematical control.

In Zamyatin’s future, equality is a mandate, individuality is not an option, and the human collective (in its significantly war-reduced numbers) runs in such precise mathematical form that names no longer exist (our protagonist is known simply as D-503) and every moment of every day occurs according to precisely timed intervals. Wake. Walk. Work. Eat. Celebrate. Assemble. Copulate. Sleep. All planned. All approved. All performed according to the One State.

“Mathematically infallible happiness.”

How could anything possibly go wrong in such an equation?

Zamyatin’s novel is a rebuke of many of the political and cultural happenings of his time, obviously, but his stark outlook on the results of those influences remain timely and relevant, nearly 100 years later. I’m honestly surprised that I had never heard of this novel before now and that it’s not nearly as well known as the previously mentioned novels that continue to show up on bestseller lists and required reading for students everywhere. Perhaps it’s because the previous translations of this novel have been unapproachable? I have read that some translations are not as engaging as the recent translation by Natasha Randall (which is the version I read). I had no problems with Randall’s efforts. I think, however, that Zamyatin’s style is a bit of an endurance test at times. That being said, it’s well worth it to make it through this novel, especially if you consider yourself a sci-fi connoisseur.

Final Verdict: I’m not sure. I feel as though, as a science fiction fan, that I should have this as part of my collection for its historical importance. Also, it is a compelling story, if a bit of a slog at times. I believe that I will at least add it to my wish list, for further contemplation. Prophets know that just because I add something to my wish list doesn’t mean that I’m going to be purchasing it any time soon. I have books on there that have been patiently waiting to be purchased for almost 10 years.

BookBin2014: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

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It’s been quite a while since I brought you all a book review. It’s not that I’ve stopped reading; I simply couldn’t do more than one blog post a day during the month of May (TBH, I’m honestly amazed that I was able to do even that, with as chaotic as my May ended up being).

Then June came…and June went. How it’s already July, I still don’t understand.

Anyway, I finished Susan Cain’s book Quiet several months ago. The sign of it being a book that’s well worth it? I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I read it.

I make no secret of the fact that I am extremely introverted. I couldn’t make it a secret even if I wanted to. It really is that obvious. One of the major obstacles I encounter on a regular basis is the fact that many within the business world have apparently decided that the world should have no time for introversion. I have a feeling it’s an even more extreme outlook here in America, where “go-getters” and “action-takers” are the desired worker model. We want bold personalities ready to schmooze and smile and talk and lead and be the successes they were obviously destined to be simply because of their scintillating personalities and take-on-the-world attitudes.

Too often, people make the mistake of assuming that quiet people are weak, one-dimensional, antisocial, and ultimately valueless. This is unfair in general, but damaging to both sides in professional settings. Instantly assuming this litany of negative traits about introverted employees locks us out of achieving our true potential because we are never allowed to operate within a work model designed for our unique abilities, and denies our employers the full power of our abilities because we don’t fit the square holes of the Extroverted Ideal.

Cain, herself an introvert, makes a poignant case against this assumptive behavior by the corporate world and for more understanding of the richness that introverts can bring to any professional setting with just a little bit of adjustment to what has unfortunately become the standard. She also discusses the need for adjustments in schools as well, which embrace the valuing of extroversion over introversion more and more, significantly reducing the success rates for all those quiet, shy kids before they’re even old enough to get crushed by the corporate world.

Is this an objective book? Hardly. A book about introversion written by an introvert? Of course she’s going to have a lot to say about what is often a fairly unbalanced treatment of quiet people by the (too) loud mainstream. Is it a valuable book? Absolutely. Who better to tell our story and argue our case than one of our own?

Final Verdict: I definitely want to add this to my library. I also want to make it mandatory reading for every single extrovert, but especially every single extroverted person in charge of managing even one introvert, because here’s a little hint: You’ve probably been doing it wrong this whole time.

BookBin2014: Locke & Key: Clockworks

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Remember back when I reviewed volumes 2-4 of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke & Key graphic novel series and stated that I loved those volumes so much that I had already added myself to the library wait list for the fifth volume, Clockworks?

Finally.

That’s right, it took almost 8 months to finally receive the fifth volume…and it subsequently took me less than a day to consume it and still be left starving for more.

I’m not going to go into details other than to say that this volume finally provides the full back story for how Rendell Locke and his friends ended up unleashing the demon that has been plaguing his children. More captivating Hill storytelling set off by beautiful Rodriguez artwork. I cannot reiterate enough that if you love well-crafted horror and stunning illustrations, then these books are a must-read for you.

I’m also going to skip the “Final Verdict” section, because I’m getting these novels. No ifs, ands, or buts. IDW has released the final volume already, so technically, I can go ahead and start stacking up now. I’m torn, though. Do I wait to see if they release a packaged set of all six books? Maybe a special edition set with bonus materials? Or do I just start buying the separate books now?

Decisions, decisions. Mayhaps it’s time to e-mail IDW directly to find out if they have anything planned. To the lair inbox, stat!

BookBin2014: Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick

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Okay, let’s just get the puerile moment out of the way now. Loba loves Dick.

Go on. Giggle. I’ll wait.

All right, wrap it up! Honestly.

As I was saying, I do lurves me some Philip K. Dick. I also recently immersed myself in the joys of putting holds on books from other local libraries. I went a little crazy with that one, actually. But that’s a different story. So, thanks to book hold miracles, I was able finally to read Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick. I must have picked up this collection 20 times if I picked it up once at the Borders that used to be near my work. Sadly, though, I didn’t get a chance to get over for the store closing sales, so I never acquired this for my collection.

First, here are the stories included:

  • “Beyond Lies the Wub”
  • “Roog”
  • “Paycheck”
  • “Second Variety”
  • “Imposter”
  • “The King of the Elves”
  • “Adjustment Team”
  • “Foster, You’re Dead”
  • “Upon the Dull Earth”
  • “Autofac”
  • “The Minority Report”
  • “The Days of Perky Pat”
  • “Precious Artifact”
  • “A Game of Unchance”
  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”
  • “Faith of Our Fathers”
  • “The Electric Ant”
  • “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts”
  • “The Exit Door Leads In”
  • “Rautavaara’s Case”
  • “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon”

Quite a nice selection, indeed, including the short stories that inspired movies Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, Impostor, The Adjustment Bureau, and Screamers. I’ve not seen all of these movies, but of the ones that I have seen, I enjoyed finally seeing them in their original (always different, sometimes better) forms. I enjoyed the entire collection, but I think the caveat is that “enjoy” means something entirely different when applied to the writings of this particular author. Dick’s stories epitomize dystopic futurism. Whether bleak and chaotic or sterile and despondent, his future rarely conjures the warm fuzzies. His characters are beleaguered and all-too-often seconds away from incarceration for events either beyond their knowledge or beyond their control. Sometimes, they face alien enemies. Sometimes, their enemies come from within their own ranks. Sometimes, they come from within their own minds.

Hardly does sunshine fall upon Dick’s worlds. They are battle-damaged, time-ravaged, alien landscapes (sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally). Same with his characters. “Happy ending” sometimes computes to a character ending his own existence rather than someone else doing it for him. Dick is dark.

So why do I love him so much? I like dark. I like dystopic. I think imperfection adds complexity and chaos instigates intrigue. I don’t inherently trust people who think that everything is perfect and wonderful. Those are the people who are one day going to have a massive mental fissure and start chucking kittens into rush-hour traffic. Dick’s stories are reminders to dark-souled individuals like me that life is bleak and unforgiving and we must go about to spark our own light where we can. Also, we should expect the neighbor’s dog to be in cahoots with aliens and the grocery checker to be an android. Or alien. Or alien android.

However, Dick is a bit much to take in one consolidated collection like this one. My enjoyment definitely waned toward the end. After a while, you do kind of want a bit of the warm fuzzies. It’s kind of like how I’ve been on a horror movie kick lately, but every now and then I’ll take a break for something like WALL-E or The Blob (okay, so that last one is a horror movie, too, but it still counts as a break, dammit). Still, I’m glad that I was able to track down and finally read this collection. I actually found a nice selection of some of Dick’s novels at a used bookstore. Reading this reminded me of their presence in my library and that I really need a little more Dick in my life.

Go on, giggle away. That was a freebie.

Final Verdict: If you are looking for an entry point into the world of Philip K. Dick, then I would probably recommend you start with one of his full novels or a smaller collection of short stories. I think this one might overload the novice if they read it all at once. However, I definitely see the value of having a book like this in a sci-fi collection. It would make an excellent rainy-day diversion.

BookBin2014: The Complete Peanuts 1975-1976

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This is going to be a very quick review, denizens. Apparently, that’s all I have time for these days. Really, though, there’s not a whole lot to say about this read. While wandering through parts of the library I’d never been in before (read: the kids’ section), I stumbled across a small collection of some of the books from the Complete Peanuts comic collection that has been slowly hitting the shelves.

I really want all these books, and I don’t know why I haven’t been buying them as they come out. I even went so far as to add them to my wish list, to remind me to buy them. And yet, I have not. I love the Peanuts. I used to save all the Sunday comics when I was a kid. By then, of course, the strip had lost most of its bite, which made them perfect for young readers but, I realize now, must have been quite disappointing for readers who loved the edginess of the early strips.

Apparently, the edge was dulling even in the mid-1970s. Lots of focus on Snoopy, including what I guess was Spike’s first big foray into the comic strips. I remember Spike was a strip stalwart in the 80s, so I found it interesting to see his official big-scale arrival. I also got a little bit of a kick seeing the comic strip that originally ran the day I was born. Because, really, who doesn’t love a shot of narcissism with their Peanuts?

This wasn’t a bad collection to thumb through on a snowy Sunday, but it did rekindle one of my primary concerns with this collection, and what I think is ultimately causing my hesitation: At what point do I stop buying the books? We all know that I have a slight bit of OCD. It was difficult enough for me to stop buying X-Files seasons (hell, I’m still vacillating on that decision!). Can I handle not having the entire collection? What if I miss something really good because I drew the line too soon? Should I draw the line? Or do I just buy them all and deal with the fact that later books won’t be nearly as good as the earlier stuff?

This. This is what I deal with all the time, denizens. Be thankful I filter. Most of the time.

Final Verdict: I really do need to start collecting these books. When does that tax return come in?

BookBin2014: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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Every time I flew anywhere throughout the past year, I would see Ransom Riggs’s novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, on all the best seller shelves. Of course, by the time I returned from wherever I’d gone and made my way back to the library, I’d forgotten that I wanted to look for this book.

Until now.

The funny thing is that I didn’t realize that it was a young adult book until I couldn’t locate it in any of the places with which I was familiar at our library. I finally had to ask a librarian, who led me into a section I’d never gone to before…the children’s section. Needless to say, I immediately began to give serious reconsideration to my decision to read this book. Not because it was a young adult book, mind you. I have several young adult series in my library, from the classic Narnia tales to Harry Potter to the His Dark Materials trilogy.

But the last time I tried a young adult book? It all ended in tears. And broken molars. And a deeply seared hatred for vampires. And a severe disdain for popular young adult fiction.

Luckily, however, Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children are far and away superior in every way to Bella Swan and her gag-worthy gaggle of shimmery emo-pires. Plus, Riggs gives readers honest-to-goodness actual strong female characters. For that alone, he deserves much praise.

This also wasn’t a bad book. I can understand why it remained on the best seller list as long as it did. It’s a tale of adventure and fantasy and, although it admittedly takes a bit of time to set up the story and the subsequent action, the setup itself is enjoyable. Plus, Riggs adds an interesting new dimension to his novel by using real photographs from many moons ago, writing them into his tale as if they were taken of these actual characters. I really liked that aspect of this novel. I thought it was clever and refreshing and brought the characters that much further off the written page and into true existence.

Surprisingly, I didn’t really feel a great connection with this story world. I don’t know why, but it never drew me deeply enough into its world to make me want to return. I think it was because I realized as I neared the end that the first novel was setting me up for a sequel, and I balked mentally at that. Again, just like I didn’t realize this was a young adult novel, I also didn’t realize that it was the beginning of a series. I guess I should have automatically assumed that though. These days, you gotta have a sequel!

(Thank you, Stu.)

I see that Hollow City, the second novel from this series is now out. I also see that Hollywood has picked up the first novel for movie-fication. According to Riggs, Jane Goldman is writing the script and Tim Burton will direct. I’m intrigued by Goldman as screenwriter. She did botch The Woman in Black a bit, but I enjoyed her take on Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and her script for X-Men: First Class was, indeed, first class. As for Burton directing…Helena Bonham Carter will make a lovely Miss Peregrine (you know I’m right…she’s in every damned Burton movie!).

Final Verdict: I don’t know if I want to keep reading this series of books. However, I also feel an obligation to support a young adult book series that features strong female characters. I’ll probably keep an eye out for this to hit the library and give it a go.

BookBin2014: Vampires in the Lemon Grove

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I was already going to write a laudatory review of Karen Russell’s short story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove. After only three stories, I was completely in love with Russell’s rather idiosyncratic storytelling style. Her characters inhabit worlds that are recognizable in certain ways, completely foreign in others. She chooses periods and places that you might assume at first glance won’t be at all interesting, and then she does beautiful things with words that make it impossible not to fall deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of her curious mind.

Yes, I was already going to praise this book and declare that I needed to add it to my own library. Then I arrived at the story “The New Veterans” and I realized that I loved Russell and needed to read everything she has ever written. Why? Her protagonist in “The New Veterans.” Her protagonist’s name, more precisely.

Beverly McFadden.

I literally laughed out loud. If you’re a dork like me, I hope you’re laughing out loud, too. Or at least smiling in a knowing way.

Yeah, beyond the nerdy joy of that unexpected gift, Russell delivers stories that are equally unexpected. If you like stories that offer neatly packaged resolutions with every ending, then this is probably not going to be your cuppa. Many of the stories have delightfully open-ended conclusions, leaving you to ponder the next scene. I personally like stories like that. It allows me a deeper level of engagement as well as a wonderful freedom to unleash my imagination to play in other worlds.

All in all, Russell is a wondrous surprise of a discovery, her stories showcasing an obvious adoration for linguistics and a penchant for peculiarity seasoned perfectly with a pinch of humor and a pinch of horror. I can’t wait to read more from her.

Final Verdict: Finally, a library discovery that I have happily added to my own wishlist.

BookBin2014: Duncan the Wonder Dog, Show One

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If ever you wanted to find a graphic novel to dismiss anyone’s assumption that they are “easy reads,” then this is the book for you, denizens. At more than 400 pages of tightly packed storytelling pleasure, Adam Hines’s Duncan the Wonder Dog, Show One is a visual storytelling blackout of a novel.

To be honest, I wasn’t quite prepared for this level of engagement. I only did a precursory flip-through before adding it to my pile of library books. Once I started in for my first serious session with this story, I realized that it was one of those rare beasts of a book that pulls you into a dazzlingly complicated world, where the story is not confined to the traditional spaces that “normal” tales occupy. The only other book that comes to mind as a fair frame of comparison is Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (although his follow-up, Only Revolutions, might be similarly constructed; I’ve yet to read that one). Like Danielewski’s labyrinthine debut novel, Hines’s novel bleeds into the margins, weaves through the backgrounds, trickles down the spine, and floats outward into any space it can infiltrate. It whispers tangential tales along the outskirts of the main story, sometimes making their connections readily known…sometimes making you work to unlock the cipher.

Not only does this novel not occupy the traditional spaces of storytelling, it also does not occupy the traditional parameters of “reality.” For Hines’s characters, animals can speak, philosophize, create, destroy, love, and harm with the same pernicious zeal as humans. In some regards, I could imagine Gerry Alanguilan’s graphic novel Elmer fitting quite well into Hines’s graphic world.

As for the artwork, Hines is quite talented at manipulating a monochromatic color scheme, but his true skill lies within his mastery of shadow and light. Especially light. Natural light. Fluorescent light. Light caressing a weary face. Light piercing a stentorian darkness. Light unrestrained by a two-dimensional depiction. Hines’s rendering of light throughout this novel was a magnificent thing. His complexity of shadows against shadows was almost equally captivating, but it was the light that continued to draw me into this murky, muddled, contrasting world in which humans and animals try to coincide amidst prejudices and long-suppressed hatred that triggers terrorism, investigation, salvation, and damnation, all in pounding waves of stunning line work and shading.

Final Verdict: Even though this book is called “Show One,” and I read that Hines had planned to take the series up to nine volumes, I don’t see any new volumes out there yet. Of course, with this level of detail both in artwork and storytelling, I imagine these things will each take quite a bit of time to produce. So far, I would have to say they are worth the wait. This was well worth the read, and I will happily keep watching for the next show to start…

BookBin2014: Swallow Me Whole

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Publishers Weekly wrote this about Nate Powell’s graphic novel Swallow Me Whole:

Indy comic artist Powell, an Eisner-nominee, works full-time with adults with developmental disabilities, which may have been an inspiration for Swallow Me Whole, a stand-alone graphic novel about two teenage step-siblings with psychological problems. Ruth suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and thinks she can hear insects speak, making it difficult for her to walk across grassy lawns but landing her a sweet internship in the natural history museum. Perry sometimes sees a tiny wizard who speaks to him about his destiny, which would be cute if this were a fantasy comic; instead, it’s sadly tragic since Perry recognizes the wizard as nothing more than a troublesome hallucination. It should be obvious from the start that things will not end well. Dark inks and elongated whispering word balloons carry us into Ruth’s world of voices and missing time, while experimental paneling masterfully conveys the characters’ inner worlds and altered states. Powell’s ultimate message remains unclear: Is this a cautionary tale reminding ill teens to take their medication(s)? Or should we take a hopeful message away from Ruth’s tragic story, knowing that one need not give in completely to one’s delusions?

I place this here because I believe this is an excellent summary of a novel that in many ways defies summarizing. Even this tidy little blurb misses so much. Powell delivers a haunting and complicated attempt at viewing the world through the inescapable maze of mental illness. Ruth in particular was poignant in her alienation, tragic in her magnificence. He uses the visual aid of his chosen medium to leave us just as confused, just as lost, just as frustrated and bewildered as Ruth and Perry. His artistry, at times bleak, primitive, decorates the landscapes of Ruth’s and Perry’s world in deep shadows, ghostly gray mists, and sharp lines of light. At times, he erases all boundaries, leaving a page emblazoned with a single image, the surrounding blackness threatening to completely devour it. Sometimes, the nothingness wins…entire pages devoured, formless, empty.

Worth second mention is Powell’s ingenious use of word balloons. Conversations snake through the air in contorted streams, shrink in size and trail away…made pointless by some mental disturbance that steals meaning from spoken words and focuses our attention on the slow disentanglement of our protagonists from reality.

Even though the plots are quite different, Powell’s novel reminded me in many ways of David Beauchard’s graphic novel Epileptic. Both deliver stories involving extremely difficult mental/medical conditions as experienced through younger perspectives. Again, I believe this dismisses the author from having to provide a convoluted (and possibly overwhelming) level of medical explanation, instead allowing us to experience the transpiring events on the same level as the main characters.

Final Verdict: While I don’t know if I would like to add this book to my own library, I’d be interested to see if Powell is able to provide the same level of power and control. Perhaps reading some of his other works would inspire me to want to bring several of his works into my graphic novel collection.