The Scandal of the Season, by Sophie Gee (2007) E

Date Read: 12.17.08

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

English poet Alexander Pope achieved his fame and success when in 1712 he published his mock-epic poem, “The Rape of the Lock,” satirizing the public disgrace of the renowned beauty Arabella Fermor. This novel follows Pope’s rise to fame, as he departs his country home to travel to the city for a season. As Pope struggles to find material for a new poem, and to cope with the hypocrisy and cruelty of London’s high society, the haughty but meagerly dowered Arabella encounters the equally attractive and clever Lord Petre. Amid the stirrings of a new Jacobite rebellion (the conspiracy to return the Catholic James VII to the throne), Arabella soon undertakes a clandestine affair with Lord Petre – an affair that will become the talk of London, and Pope’s making, by the end of the season.

I was actually able to see Sophie Gee speak about this book and the research that went into its making, and found her a very intelligent, engaging speaker, so I had this quite high on my reading priority list. Plus, 18th-century bedroom/social intrigues have been a pet subject of mine ever since I fell in love with Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Unfortunately, Gee appears to be a pretty terrible novelist. Most of her book is graceless and entirely deficit in subtlety and real character development – the only area in which she demonstrates any deftness is the sometimes witty, cutting dialogue. Erotic scenes occasionally offer a break from the plodding narration, but are executed with a mix of irritating coyness and heavy-handed, charmlessly vulgar metaphors. (Imagine the most obvious sexual innuendo possible involving swords, hilts, and sheaths. Got it? Good. You have now succeeded in equalling every sex scene in the book.)

The saving grace of The Scandal of the Season is that it’s based on real people and real events, and ones in which Gee is clearly an expert, such that the weight of their true personal histories and characters give substance to an otherwise poorly-constructed novel. As such, the only reasons I kept reading this were that 1. I bought it (damn), and 2. I really wanted to see what would happen to the characters. The end is very bittersweet and truly fascinating historically, but Gee effectively robs it of most of its emotional heft. Boo.

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Sophie Gee

The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman (1995) E

Date Read: 6.11.09 (reread)

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

I must have picked this up at a used book sale a little while ago and forgotten that I had done so, because I found it on my shelf with no distinct memory of having acquired it – something that has been occurring with increasing frequency lately. Whoops.

The Midwife’s Apprentice is a medieval coming-of-age story, the story of a nameless girl picked up out of a dungheap by a sharp-tempered, greedy midwife. Christened Beetle by the midwife, she begins by sweeping floors and running menial errands, but begins to realize that she has more wits than the rest of the world gives her credit for.

I first read this in about fifth grade, but never liked this as much as Catherine, Called Birdy, Karen Cushman‘s other medieval historical fiction, although Midwife won the Newbery Medal. (Catherine “only” won the Honor.) Even at that age, I found the Moral at the End of the Story a little offensively obvious; Cushman also fell prey to the lesson-in-your-face YA tactic in Catherine, but that book’s greater narrative heft makes it more forgiveable.

However, The Midwife’s Apprentice is still an extremely enjoyable read. It’s very effective in creating a sense of space and slowly passing time despite its slim size, and there are quite a lot of wryly funny parts that I forgot. And Cushman’s attention to the details of medieval life is always extremely rewarding and fun – she creates a uniquely lively, earthy, and warm atmosphere, painting colorful pictures of village life, market fairs, and the breathtakingly detailed esoterica of the midwife’s trade, which employs ingredients from crushed emeralds to murderer’s wash-water. Her characters similarly have great warmth, and she effectively plays a broad emotional range over the course of the story. Overall, a very fun and feel-good read.

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Karen Cushman

The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, Book Two, by Chris Hastings & Kent Archer (2008) E

Date Read: 6.12.09

Book From: Borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewer: Emera

The Adventures of Dr. McNinja is an ongoing webcomic about a doctor who is also a ninja; duh. Chris Hastings writes and draws, and Kent Archer inks. They used to be roommates, and you can kind of tell.

In the second volume of the Doctor’s adventures, Dutch action star and sworn ninja nemesis Frans Rayner has captured the Doctor’s loyal teen sidekick, Gordito, and will stop at nothing to destroy the Doctor and claim Gordito’s magnificent and authoritative mustache as his own. Meanwhile, a mysterious drug has hit the streets, endowing common hoodlums with ninja powers. Can Dr. McNinja D.A.R.E. to resist ninja drugs and violence? Will he be able to protect Ben Franklin’s clone from harm in a high-speed motorcycle chase? Will his gorilla assistant Betty ever be able to eat her hot dogs in peace?

It’s a tricky affair to read this on a train, or anywhere else public. First there’s the business of trying to hide the pages of neckbeards and ninja showdowns from seatmates and the people across the row from you; then you have to try not to keep hooting maniacally and out loud. Granted, you do have to have a pretty random and absurd sense of humor to enjoy Dr. McNinja, which relies on non sequiturs, preposterous plot twists, occasional nerd references, and a universe of characters who take themselves way too seriously – if you couldn’t tell from the summary.

Luckily, I am well-endowed in the random-sense-of-humor department, and get a huge kick out of every volume, although I also tend to feel slightly stupider afterwards. (By contrast, my brother read a few panels and preemptively declared, “This sounded awesome, but it’s stupid.” His loss.) The fact that Chris Hastings’ art tends to be kind of shaky – it reminds me of the illustrations that you’d see in a high school newspaper – actually adds to the comic’s humor. Disproportionate facial features, rather lumpen anatomy, and physically implausible poses just seem right.

I would recommend Dr. McNinja as being great for de-stressing. My own roommate and I read the first volume during some of our darkest academic hours this past school year, and still get way too much of a kick out of shouting, “FROZEN SHAMROCKS KEEP HITTING MY FACE.”

Dr. McNinja can be read for free online, or purchased in printed volumes – which replicate the original comics’ alt texts – via Raptor Bandit Industries.

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Chris Hastings

Harley and Ivy, by Paul Dini, Bruce Timms, et al. (2007) E

Date Read: 6.13.09

Book From: Borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewer: Emera

The DC collection Harley and Ivy (writing by Paul Dini & Judd Winick, art by Bruce Timms, Joe Chiodo, Shane Glines) collects three pretty mindlessly entertaining Batman story arcs starring villainesses Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, all based on episodes from Batman the animated series, though kicked up with darker touches and sexual innuendo. In “The Bet,” Harley makes a bet that Ivy can’t win a kiss from every man in Arkham Asylum, only to have the bet backfire on her when her main man, the Joker, joins the list of kiss-ees. In “Love on the Lam” (which was so unmemorable that I couldn’t even remember it without a little boost from Amazon), Harley once again attempts to get back into the Joker’s good graces by pulling off a heist of her own, enlisting Ivy’s help to do so. In “Harley and Ivy,” the gals pack off to South America in order to recover a specimen of a rare zombie root central to Ivy’s newest plan for world domination. From there, they make their way to Hollywood, where they begin filming a big-budget, diamond-studded movie glorifying their own escapades. Catfights, shower scenes, and gay lumberjack encounters ensue.

Overall, very silly and rife with absolutely shameless fanservice. The stories themselves are hardly memorable and simply retread Harley and Ivy’s well-established character dynamics (bubbly and annoying vs. sultry and sarcastic), but the fluid, expressive art, either by Timms himself or styled after his work on the series, and madcap humor make for a fun, quick read. If you’re a Harley/Ivy fan (as both Kakaner and I are), this is worth a look, so long as you’re not expecting masterful storytelling or anything. This is one of those books that makes you laugh so hard your brain hurts, with you feeling slightly the worse for it afterwards.

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Paul Dini
Bruce Timms

Looking for Jake, by China Mieville (2005) K

Date Read: 2.17.06

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Looking for Jake is Mieville’s first published short story collection, containing tidbits of every lustworthy genre– weird and urban fantasy, sci-fi, noird, horror, and of course, baslag. The collection is an extremely welcome contrast to Mieville’s previous works– one, his first novel, and the other three a sprawling epic trilogy. Mieville definitely clings (and I suspect will always cling) to the urban setting, which in my opinion, is the best type of backdrop to broil all types of conspiracies, folklore, and war. In the case of suspense and horror literature, I feel the urban setting also lends itself very well to relatability, and while you as the reader might find yourself soaring to distant lands and imaginations with high fantasy, urban fantasy brings the weird and excitement directly to you. My reactions to the stories in this collection range from indifferent to eyes-glued-to-the-page drooling– here I have some thoughts and mini-summaries of each story:

Continue reading Looking for Jake, by China Mieville (2005) K

Anna, by Isaac Marion and Sarah Musi (2008) E

Date Read: 2.2.09
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

book anna

Anna is the wistful tale of a young ghost who falls in love with a human boy. When I first stumbled upon Isaac Marion‘s short fiction online, it was one of the stories that most enchanted both Kakaner and me. In 2008, Marion self-published a 50-edition print run of Anna, with illustrations by Sarah Musi.

I love the size and feel of the book, especially the old-fashioned font and heavily textured, off-white paper cover. There’s something very individual-feeling about self-published books, and with their slight imperfections, you somehow you get more of a sense of the author, and of the effort that went into making the book. Instead of it being A Copy of a Book, it’s A Book, if that makes any sense.

Musi’s ink illustrations are delicate, charming, and perfectly suit the feel of the story with their elegant, expressive minimalism. Her elongated forms, fine linework, and use of negative space struck me as being faintly Gorey-esque. The story unfolds simply and gracefully, with quiet gravity. The details of Anna’s existence as a ghost are particularly captivating: my favorite moment of the story might be when she sinks into a mountain, seeking the comfort of its solidity.

As of July 2009, about 25 copies of Anna are still available for sale on Marion’s site. You can also see previews of the text and art at the same link. I treasure my copy, so if you’re at all tempted, I would buy one while you still can.

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Isaac Marion
Isaac Marion’s fiction online
Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion [E]
Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion  [K]

Freakonomics, by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt (2005) K

Date Read: 1.7.07
Book from: Boston Public Library
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Levitt and Dubner explore several unorthodox theories behind crime and parenthood using their own statistics.

Review

I started reading Freakonomics with *a lot* of expectation from all the hype and word of mouth. It was an incredibly short read, and in the end, I felt like I had just finished a really long newspaper article instead of an engrossing book. It was enjoyable, but I really wasn’t impressed. First of all, I expected the concepts and economics to be… deeper? I felt like there wasn’t enough “intellegence” or solid insight to the chapters. Most of the book read like a statistics report, and while statistics were certainly crucial, I felt like the book as a whole was a bit of a cop out, relying on filler reports and less on thoughtful extrapolation.

Freakonomics is often seen as a melding of pop culture and economics. And in support, Levitt and Dubner argued points like how Roe vs. Wade was responsible for the last decade’s decline in crime, that parents actually do not matter in child development, and discussed teaching methods in school using statistics as proof. Basically… it was all fine and dandy to read and enjoy but it was all rather vague and I felt like it was simply another sensationalist story “supported” by statistics which you can never be sure are accurate. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the super skeptical mathematician within me speaking. But don’t get me wrong– it was still a fun read.

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Steven Levitt
Stephen Dubner

The Millenium, by Upton Sinclair (1924) K

Date read: 12.24.08

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

(Copied from the back of the book). The year, 2000; the place, Central Park’s 100-story Pleasure Palace, built expressly for the “pleasure of the ruling class.” Shortly before the opening ceremony a radiumite explosion kills everyone in the world … except for the eleven people already inside the Pleasure Palace. Most of the eleven survivors are wealthy and can’t imagine living in a world without servants or luxuries: “No more quail in aspic, no more theatre parties, no more tailors,” they moan in unison. As the group battles to exist in a chaotic world without rules or structure or money, three of the survivors, led by Billy Kingdom, the poor yet resourceful outsider, go off to build a new utopian society, the Co-operative Commonwealth, on the banks of the Pocantico Hills of the Hudson River, north of new York City.

The Millennium was first written as a four-act drama in 1907, after the collapse of Sinclair’s own “Co-operative Commonwealth” in New Jersey. Its production on Broadway was delayed over and over until all copies of the play were lost. In 1924 Sinclair rewrote the story in novel form.

Review

Well, pretty much all you need to know is actually on that back cover summary– it tells you exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Overall, The Millenium was exactly how it sounds– a funny, informative, quirky, and insightful read. It is painfully clear from the dialogue (dramatic, very exclamatory), static settings, and narrative that the work was meant to be a drama and the style is rather enjoyable as long as you are expecting it.

The Millenium is a humorous dose of… everything that goes wrong with every form of government. Basically, after the explosion, the survivors cycle through all sorts of governments including Socialism, Communism, Captialism, Feudalism, and plain Survivalism. It was incredibly funny to see each form of government build itself up around one ridiculous product (nutrient pills, which in this futuristic society were the only form of sustenance) and the workings of the “economy”. You also get to see these intense, miniature forms of government comprised of 2-6 people clash against each other and watch one muscle its way to victory.

There really is not much in terms of character or setting development– the characters were very apparently only tools for Sinclair to use. And, well, the moral of the story was that governments suck and utopias rule. But what else can you expect from Sinclair?

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Upton Sinclair

FreakAngels, by Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield (2008-200*)

FreakAngels is an ongoing sci-fi/steampunk comic by Warren Ellis, syndicated online for free in weekly, six-page installments. It was begun in February of 2008, and I’ve been following it since then (I think I first saw it publicized on Coilhouse, my favorite blog). It follows the adventures of a group of young psychics who’ve dubbed themselves the FreakAngels, and hold down a corner in a Thames-inundated London.

It’s variously a futuristic survival story and a character-based drama, with a cast of somewhat cliché (one of the characters is basically a clone of Delirium from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; unsurprisingly, she seems to be the fan favorite) but likable protagonists. The cool, clean art, by Paul Duffield and a team of colorists, tends to be shaky anatomically speaking – noodle fingers are frequently in evidence – but the characters are attractively drawn and the backgrounds are very satisfyingly detailed, especially when it comes to architecture. If some of the FreakAngels’ outfits (and hair colors) are somewhat improbable given their living circumstances… can’t have steampunk without fun clothes. It’s also clear that Ellis has put a good amount of thought into his characters’ survival strategies, so it’s fun to see their efforts at scavenging and rebuilding society via a mix of past and present technology – steampower and solar panels have both come into play.

All in all, FreakAngels will probably appeal to fans of Firefly and similar tales of scrappy, foul-mouthed, hyper-competent, and-therefore-you-must-love-us families thrown together by circumstance. (I personally have mixed feelings about that particular formula as perfected/beaten to death by Joss Whedon, but clearly am susceptible to the charm anyway.)

I suspect I might be hooked in part because of the method of delivery – getting my FreakAngels story kick is a fun way to start a Friday. Print collections are also being issued as the comic goes on.

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Warren Ellis

M is for Magic, by Neil Gaiman (2007) K

Date Read: 7.4.07

Book From: Borders piracy

Reviewer: Kakaner

M is for Magic is a collection of short stories written for children. I had been eagerly anticipating the publication of this collection because I find Gaiman’s writing tends to come across warmer and his characters more relatable in his children works (Coraline, Wolves in the Walls, etc.).

I am sorry to say that this collection was sorely disappointing. First of all, I had already seen about half of these stories in other collections, for example, “Troll Bridge”– for the third time– and “Sunbird”. The first story in the collection, “The Case of The Four And Twenty Blackbirds”, was abysmal. It literally hurt me to read it. It was incredibly contrived, and each paragraph seemed to end with a terribly joke or pun. To top it off, the story was also filled with sexual innuendos written in a childish manner, a clear attempt to transcend the boundaries of the age bracket of the genre through clever humor. I couldn’t believe I was actually reading children’s literature or Gaiman’s work for that matter.

“The Case of The Four And Twenty Blackbirds” certainly spoiled the rest of the collection for me. There was no spark and nothing remarkable in the rest of M is for Magic. Despite the overall lackluster appeal of this collection, I still have great respect for Neil Gaiman and am still looking forward to his new works.

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Neil Gaiman