Firefly: Back from the Black

Title: Firefly: Back from the Black

Author: Joey Spiotto (Illustrator)

Summary: Ever wondered how the crew of Serenity would fare if they landed back on Earth-That-Was? Would we see etiquette classes by Inara? Remedial math lessons from Jayne? Could River make it as a psychic poker champ? And what kind of carnage could Saffron cause with a charity kissing booth?

Buckle up, Browncoats! Because it’s time to find out…

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I was given this book as a present for my birthday earlier this year. I hadn’t even known of its existence, but almost anything Firefly related is a welcome gift! This book is a fine addition to my moderate merchandise collection.

A short book of single-panel comic art work, i’ll start off by saying: if you haven’t seen and enjoyed Firefly the TV show, don’t bother picking this book up. Every page is a reference or an in-joke to the programme, and is bound to be lost on those unfamiliar with it.

The art is simple, but cute. The most expressive and comical character is by far Jayne, with his icon hat and range of emotions he is stand out in this book. The colours are all bright and fun, with characters in familiar and new scenarios, usually with a twist or visualising something only referenced in the show (Wash juggling geese was particularly amusing). There are also more scenic panels, often with some glorious negative space (my weak spot–i love it), like Serenity parked up on a quiet suburban street or Jubal Early trying to hitch a ride while floating, unanchored, in space. Any page would look at home in a frame.

It’s a fun little book of adorable little Firefly cartoons. It’s not that deep, but it is that sweet. I loved it.

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Everything I Never Told You

Title: Everything I Never Told You

Author: Celeste Ng

Summary: Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favourite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfil the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.

A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait about love, lies, and race.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: This book had been on my radar for a while, but i wasn’t sure if i wanted to read it. It was the female POC author and the Chinese-American family dynamic that peaked my interest, and when i saw the book in The Works for a few quid i couldn’t say no. I’m glad. I enjoyed this book in a lot more ways than i thought i would.

The quote on the cover says this book “calls to mind The Lovely Bones“, but for most of the book i couldn’t help but think of the TV series Twin Peaks. It starts with a missing girl and the discovery of her body being pulled from a body of water. It goes on to explore the lives of the family and how little they really know about each other. And with Twin Peaks in mind, i’ll be frank and say i had my eyes on the Dad for most of the book!

What i loved most about this book was its third person omniscient narration. I think this is generally a very underused narrative voice, with most books being told in third person limited or first person point of view. Third person omniscient is pretty tough to pull off well, but Ng manages it flawlessly. I was hooked from that very first line, and knew i was going to enjoy the hell out of this book. The narration flits between all the characters’ thoughts and feelings while also giving snippets of events to come. But none of it in a clumsy way–it still flows and at no point did it get confusing.

All the characters are wonderfully written. All with sympathetic motives and views, but all flawed in genuine ways. None of them are perfect, and all of them fail to communicate enough that wires are crossed, incorrect assumptions made, and pressure piles high on shoulders not strong enough to bear the weight. It is all three children i felt for most, but especially Hannah. The youngest, the ignored and forgotten, the observant and unwitting confidante. Nath and Lydia, bound together by their history and the way the family has dealt with that, but also pulled apart by time and adolescence.

Marilyn and James–Mum and Dad–are perhaps the two most interesting characters, but certainly for me the least sympathetic. Their life experiences, reasoning, and decisions are understandable and i feel for them… to a certain extent. When they become so blinded by their own emotions and selfishness, though, i have to draw the line. Marilyn i have more sympathy for, as a woman in the 60s and 70s with dreams and ambitions, and people at every turn only holding her back. Her only real mistake was blindly projecting that onto her daughter. James, though. As much i can understand his history; how isolating being the only Chinese student would be and how desperately he would have wanted to fit in. I couldn’t forgive how he all but hated Nath for being too similar and idolised Lydia for seeming to be so popular and “normal”. I wouldn’t forgive him holding his wife back in her dreams because of his own inadequacy issues. And i certainly shouldn’t forgive an affair with a teaching assistant that started on the day of his own daughter’s funeral. James is just far, far too selfish to be likeable.

I found the story simple, but excellently constructed, and perfectly emotive. It easily kept me reading, not only to know what happened, but also to see how these characters developed and dealt with their trauma. I wanted a happy ending for them (well, most of them). I wanted Hannah to be loved and appreciated and seen, i wanted Nath to go to college and live his own life, i want Jack’s heart to not be broken. I was happy to see just enough of the future in the last couple of pages that i could close the book happy and satisfied.

This is not the usual kind of book i read–it is heavily character-driven, with personal drama and development at its core. It’s contemporary fiction, and it’s not my go-to. But i fell pretty much head of arse for this book, and i need Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere pretty much ASAP. I’d also love to read more books in a well-written third person omniscient voice… the only others i can think of are The Book Thief and The Hobbit. Any recommendations?

Instruction Manual for Swallowing

Title: Instruction Manual for Swallowing

Author: Adam Marek

Summary: Robotic insects, in-growing cutlery, flesh-serving waiters in a zombie cafe… Welcome to the surreal, misshapen universe of Adam Marek’s first collection; a bestiary from the techno-crazed future and mythical past; a users’ guide to the seemingly obvious (and the world of illogic implicit within it). Whether fantastical or everyday in setting, Marek’s stories lead us down to the engine room just beneath modern consciousness, a place of both atavism and familiarity, where the body is fluid, the spirit mechanised, and beasts often tell us more about our humanity than anything we can teach ourselves.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 3.5/5

Review: I don’t even remember how, where, or why i came across this book, but it obviously intrigued me enough to add it to my wish list, because i got it for my birthday a couple of years ago. It was recently moved swiftly up the ‘to read’ list when it was mentioned at a short story workshop i attended. One of the exercises was to take two things that you would generally not mix and write a story about them (which his how i ended up writing about a first kiss at an exorcism!). This is, seemingly, what Marek does with these stories.

None of these stories are about what you expect. My favourite was Cuckoo, i think, because its elusiveness works so well; it has a well-rounded story that doesn’t give all of its pieces up at once. Robot Wasps and Meaty’s Boys are two that also sit strong in my mind. Meaty’s Boys is one of the longest stories in the book, but seemed to fly by in no time at all. It is also the story with the most well-built world. Though the world we glimpse in Robot Wars was fascinating and left me wanting to know more about it.

These weird little glimpses into strange quirky worlds are what i love about the best short stories. They don’t all make sense, they don’t all have an underlying message or meaning, and they don’t follow any kind of pattern. They’re mostly just light-hearted gems to while away a few minutes while you’re waiting for the bus. And if a few of them have any kind of depth to them, well, that’s a bonus for those who want to search for it.

I mostly dived into this book looking for inspiration for my own short story writing, and while i did find some of that, i also found doubt and uncertainty. What i found these stories mostly lacking was feeling. I found it easy, once i’d finished a story, to let go of it–to move on. I think that’s perhaps not the feeling i want my own stories to leave readers with, but i write things that are also a little off the wall and i’m starting to wonder… but that’s a whole other post.

The only other problem i had with some of these stories were a few of the male characters, who were off with other women, trying to recapture some bullshit emotions or shit, while leaving their long term partners at home literally holding the baby. I just can’t with these characters, and it makes me side-eye Marek a little that this is obviously so easy a character he can fall into writing.

But yes, silly, weird, and inspired short stories that made me laugh, intrigued, and inspired. Definitely want to read more.

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The Outward Urge

Title: The Outward Urge

Author: John Wyndham

Summary: The ‘outward urge’ was a factor in the Troon inheritance. Successive generations of Troons, looking up at the stars, heard the siren voices that called them out into space. And, as the frontiers of space receded, there was usually one Troon, if not more, out there, helping to push them back.

The five exciting episodes related here deal with the parts they played in the building of the Space Station, the occupation of the Moon, the first landing on Mars, and the trouble about Venus and the asteroids.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: John Wyndham is one of my favourite authors. My absolute favourite, if you ask me on decisive day. I even recently got a John Wyndham inspired tattoo ♥ I’ve not read all his books yet; i’m taking them slowly, because there are only a finite number. It’s been a while now, though, so i thought i’d pick this one up.

This book has five stories set across 200 years, linked by the development and exploration of space, as well as by the Troon family. It is common for Troons to have the ‘outward urge’–that is, to explore space, to go further, to know what else there is out there. And so the Troons are at the forefront of every spaceward progression these stories explore. The first British space station, the first landing on the moon, the first Mars landing, the first Venus landing… I love that Wyndham uses a family to connect the stories. They are more intrinsically linked this way, yet still independent, with so much time passing between them.

The first story had me sobbing by the end of it, despite the fact it was pretty clear what was going to come. For the first story to hit me like that left me already so invested in the rest. I love that while we meet the first Troon, heading to help build the space station, he is a young man, but when we meet his moon station commander son in the second story, he is 50 years old. It’s so clearly not the same story or character development in each chapter; they each have their own heart and meaning. I loved them all, but the first and the last were stand out for me. The Mars landing was a very close third. Just… they’re all brilliant!

A few stories had some wonderful quotes and meaningful concepts. Wyndham explores that side of science fiction so, so well–the philosophical alongside the technological. I was underlining and dog earring quite a bit, and i love it when a passage strikes me so close to my heart that i have to pause in my reading to take a note of it. One of my favourites was this one:

Odd, he thought, in a kind of parenthesis, that it should need the suspicion of human hostility to reawaken the sense of the greater hostility constantly about them.

I would have given this book five stars in a heartbeat, if it weren’t for one glaring omission. Something that, for Wyndham, is surprising and disappointing. The lack of female characters. Every single Troon in this book, and every single space-bound non-Troon main character is a man. It could be argued that, writing in the 1950s, Wyndham was writing more in line with his era. BUT a) that’s never stopped Wyndham before, and b) the stories are set 40-240 years into the future, give me a god damn spacewoman! So yeah, the omission of decent female characters has irked me, but i also know how bloody good Wyndham is for including wonderful women elsewhere, so i won’t hold a grudge–this time.

In summary, I still love Mr Wyndham, but i’ll need a female-strong book from him next. And to be fair, that wont be for at least six months…

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Horrorstör

Book Review: Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix 4/5 StarsTitle: Horrorstör

Author: Grady Hendrix, Michael Rogalski (Illustrator)

Summary: Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking.

To unravel the mystery, three employees volunteer to work a nine-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the dead of the night, they’ll patrol the empty showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.

A traditional haunted house story in a thoroughly contemporary setting, Horrorstör comes packaged in the form of a glossy mail order catalog, complete with product illustrations, a home delivery order form, and a map of Orsk’s labyrinthine showroom.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: This book caught my eye immediately when i first came across it. A novel idea, and the cover and design were brilliantly done. I knew I wanted to read it. But more than that, I wanted to buy a copy for my sister–she’s in Ikea as often as her credit card allows her to be. Buying a copy for her meant i could borrow it, so it was a win-win.

Although i’m a big fan of the horror genre, i really didn’t expect this book to be scary or creepy at all. I expected humour and a goofy, slapstick kind of horror. I was kind of right, but also so, so wrong.

Hendrix wastes no time in getting the story going, with the whole thing taking place over just 24 hours. The first third of the book is pretty light reading, with some odd things going on and the main characters seeming fairly two dimensional. It was good and kept my interest, but wasn’t outstanding.

The last two thirds of the book were brilliant. At a particular point the horror aspect stopped being just weird and quirky stuff in a furniture superstore and actually began getting scary. Genuinely scary. So much so that one night i had to stop reading early and scroll through instagram and pinterest for a while before i went to sleep. I loved it.

Although the creep factor got pretty high, the humour didn’t suffer for it. My favourite has to be the furniture names, and a chair called a arsle had me grinning for a while. The book walks a fine line between genuine horror and poking fun at horror clichés, and it walks it perfectly. It allows the fun poking to compliment the contemporary setting.

If you’re paying enough attention there’s a lot of commentary on consumerism, retail work, and the soul-sucking nature of it all. But never so much that it bogs down the book, nor make too much light of it.

The characters follow form. They are an interesting two-dimensional, never quite reaching three, but i think that fits with the overall vibe of the book. Our main character Amy was annoyingly likable, and i was rooting for her as soon as shit starts to get real. She becomes a worthy hero of the story… and the wardrobe scene, while predictable, was an excellent example of the horror/humour line and is definitely my favourite part of the entire book.

If you couldn’t tell already, i loved it. I can already see this being a strong contender for the book i most urge people to read this year. If i had the money i’d buy a load of copies and hide them amongst Ikea’s avalanche of catalogues!

The Wendy Project

Title: The Wendy Project

Author: Melissa Jane Osborne (Writer), Veronica Fish (Illustrator)

Summary: What forces us to finally grow up?

16-year-old Wendy Davis crashes her car into a lake on a late summer night in New England with her two younger brothers, John and Michael, in the backseat. With Michael missing, Wendy struggles to negotiate fantasy and reality as students and adults around her resemble characters from Neverland. Given a sketchbook by her therapist, Wendy starts to draw “The Wendy Project.”

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I was drawn to this book both because of my own name in the title, and because of that gorgeous cover. The beauty continued on the inside, both in terms of the art and the story.

Following a car accident and a missing, presumed dead bother, Wendy begins to draw and write. She chronicles her life, emotions, and ways of coping. People in her life become characters–good, bad, mischievous–her trauma and loss becomes a story, a fantasy, a mystery to be solved. She tries to make things easier by fitting feelings and events into a narrative she can control, but she can’t control her characters.

The art is wonderful, whirling and fading between a grim reality and a bright make-believe. The use of colour is magnificent–it emanates from her journal and seeps into the life around her, into the people and places and objects. The colour is both what her life is missing and her escape from life. It’s just… really amazingly done, okay?

Wendy deals with so much, so beautifully in this book. Loss, love, depression, guilt, teenage romance, teenage angst, loneliness… and it’s all dealt with and portrayed in heartbreaking simplicity with a thread of hope throughout. I felt the depth of Wendy’s emotions, but not so much that i became upset myself. And i’m happy with that.

I devoured this book. It flowed so easily, i couldn’t help but keep reading. The story, the art, the colour… I couldn’t look away.

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Internal Wilderness

Title: Internal Wilderness

Author: Claire Scully

Summary: A journal of a sequence of events occurring over a period of time and location in space.

Based in London, freelance illustrator Claire Scully works in pen, ink and digital with a heavy focus on drawing. Her work explores a variety of themes including the relationship between ‘man’ and his environment. Internal Wilderness is part of an ongoing project looking at ‘landscape and memory’ – our relationship with the environment, effects we have on the world and space around us and in turn it’s profound affect on our own memory and emotions.

Each of these landscapes is a starting point to a much bigger adventure that strives to answer the question of what lays beyond the horizon. Within the space on each sheet of paper a world can be created either from a distant memory of a childhood holiday or from the desire to see parts of the world that for now are only dreamed about.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: With no words, this little book was a quick, but wonderful read. Each page shows a landscape: mountains, fields, lakes, forests… Each page is its own little escape. They are all set at night, with a full moon featuring in almost all of them. The light from the moon reflects back on the sea, on steams, on cloud cover and mist. The colour palette is black, white, and shades of blue. It’s all gorgeous.

I spent long minutes looking at these pages, taking in the art and the detail, but also letting go. I wondered if these were real places–real views. I let myself believe there was a corresponding spot on the earth somewhere where i could stand to see these images in real life. I also thought about places i have been where i’ve seen similar views, and the feelings i experienced there. The knowledge that the world is so vast, while i’m so small. How minute my own worries were in the face of that.

This book took me away for the time i was reading it, and the places it took me were lovely. It’s a book i’ll pick up again, when i need to escape, but can’t go anywhere.

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Dockwood

Title: Dockwood

Author: Jon McNaught

Summary: It’s a cloudy Tuesday in October and the residents of the town are going about their business as usual. In Elmsview Nursing Home, a kitchen porter dutifully prepares lunch for residents. Elsewhere, a council worker sweeps the fallen leaves from the pavements. Along Nettlefield Road, a paperboy is delivering his daily round. And in the trees, swallows gather noisily in preparation for their annual migration.

In this bittersweet and contemplative work, Jon McNaught weaves together the everyday lives of three locals against an evocative backdrop of autumnal transitions.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: As with almost all my graphic novel purchases, this was bought on a whim from my local comic shop. I love impulse buying graphic novels–they are rarely as disappointing as random book buys!

This book is so, so lovely. It has two stories in it, but i think the word ‘story’ doesn’t do them justice. They don’t really have plots, or development, or conclusion. Instead of stories, they’re more like a series of moments. Each is so quiet and unassuming. Both are set in the fictional British town of Dockwood. The first, Elmview, follows an employee at a care home as he helps the chef in the kitchen and as he delivers cups of tea to the residents. The second, Sunset Ridge, follows a kid walking home from school with a friend and doing his paper round.

The art is wonderful. With a limited colour palette of blue, red, pink, black, and white, the panels are simple, but hold so much depth, change, and mood. And mood is really what this book is all about. There is some dialogue in the stories, but most panels have no text. Instead they show people walking, chopping, folding, reading. Instead they show animals flying, climbing, eating, perching. These panels, strung together, show small moments that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. They have a peaceful feeling about them. Serene and simple, they made me take the time to slow down and really appreciate them–really experience them. I found this book just really, really calming.

My favourite moment would be in Sunset Ridge when the kid stops for a few minutes to eat a chocolate bar and read one of the papers he is delivering. There is a story about a new galaxy being discovered and he stops to look up at the night sky, still munching on his snack. It’s a moment to contemplate how big the universe is, and how small you are in comparison to it all… Then a bus drives past, blocking the view with a giant advert for an action film. Suddenly we’re back down to earth and moving on–to the next moment.

This graphic novel is just lovely. That’s the word. It wrapped my mind up the same way a blanket would wrap my body. Safe, and warm, and comfortable.

It is also not without humour…

Black Widow

Title: Black Widow

Author: Christopher Brookmyre

Summary: Diana Jager is clever, strong and successful, a skilled surgeon and fierce campaigner via her blog about sexism. Yet it takes only hours for her life to crumble when her personal details are released on the internet as revenge for her writing.

Then she meets Peter. He’s kind, generous, and knows nothing about her past: the second chance she’s been waiting for. Within six months, they are married. Within six more, Peter is dead in a road accident, a nightmare end to their fairytale romance.

But Peter’s sister Lucy doesn’t believe in fairytales, and tasks maverick reporter Jack Parlabane with discovering the dark truth behind the woman the media is calling Black Widow…

Rating: ★★★★☆ 3.5/5

Review: I’ve been having a bit of a reading slump lately, so i decided to dive into a Brookmyre, as they are always a fun, interesting, and relatively light read. I wasn’t wrong; this was just the type of book i needed to get me enjoying the act of reading again. Even in the 7 hours since i’ve finished reading it, i’ve caught myself with a half hour to spare and thought, “Oh, good, i can read a bit of my book,” before remembering there isn’t any left to read!

This is the seventh book in the Jack Parlabane series, and as with the last book, Dead Girl Walking, Brookmyre remains departed from the humour-filled escapades of Parlabane of yore. Instead of wise-cracking and elaborate set ups, he’s glum and lack-lustre. I miss the old Parlabane–i miss Christopher Brookmyre. But there is more to this book than simply one character!

The story itself is a not-unfamiliar one. A career-driven woman meets and swiftly marries a man somewhat beneath her. Her husband’s car is then found off the edge of a cliff, they have no body but work with the assumption that he is dead. The details involve cyber-spying, troubled childhoods, and secrets inside secrets inside password-protected secrets.

Most of the book is heavily focused on our main character–and main suspect–Diana. The second half is more of an even split between her and Parlabane. Diana, as the ‘black widow’ of the title and the main suspect from the get go, i liked and was rooting for almost immediately. This is a crime thriller and i expect twists and turns; if i’m being told to assume a character is guilty too early, i’m going to go right ahead and assume they’re innocent. So while she was portrayed as callous, cold, and calculated, i was busy admiring her strength and self-preservation.

The start reminded me strongly of Gone Girl. The missing and presumed dead partner, the first-person narrative of a harsh and intelligent woman. It might even be another reason i warmed to Diana so quickly–i’m one of the few people who actually enjoyed Amy’s character. Thankfully, as the plot developed the similarities faded and i was invested in this book in its own right, rather than as a comparison.

I enjoyed the book well enough; Brookmyre’s writing is stellar in all the ways it always has been. It’s smart, it’s intriguing. His characters are always so well-rounded and he seems to bring them to life with such an ease that i’m insanely jealous of. There are side plots, mini plots, pre-plots. There is never a dull moment, to say the least. However.

However, there weren’t any shocking revelations. Well, i mean, there were, but they weren’t shocking to me–i’d figured them all out. When i read a book i know has twists and turns i’m looking for them. I’m an active reader–i can’t not be looking for them. The book is saying, “Oh, hey, look at A,” so i’m looking closer and B and C. Small throwaway comments regarding the timeline, someone’s perfume, or someone’s pregnancy and i can see what road the reader is being led down, so i extrapolate and take the road less travelled, instead. The only thing i didn’t have figured out were the fine details and the overall motive, because they didn’t matter so much until the very end.

For anyone who doesn’t consciously evaluate the mystery in crime thrillers, this book will not disappoint. For those of us that do, well… i think the only way we’ll be surprised is if a book left no clues and made very little sense. I enjoy the process of figuring things out as i read, and as much as i’d like to be surprised by a twist, i do feel a smug dose of satisfaction when i see it all coming.

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Graffiti (and Other Poems)

Title: Graffiti (and Other Poems)

Author: Savannah Brown, Ed Stockham (illustrator)

Summary: These poems are about growing up, budding and grappling and shedding, about how wonderful it feels and about how deeply it aches.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: This book’s been on my radar for a while, but i’ll admit, in the end it was this second edition cover that had me buying it (black > white). I also seem to be a bit hit-and-miss with poetry. Sometimes i love it, sometimes it just doesn’t click with me; i’m always apprehensive going in.

It was the third verse in this collection that got these poems clicking for me. I so immediately felt like an adolescent again, old and familiar emotions swept over me so effortlessly. And the best part was that they weren’t unwelcome or uncomfortable. Often, remembering emotions from my teenage years can stir embarrassment and shame, but that’s not what i felt and recalled when i read this book.

The poems are written from a place of introspection, but with enough perception to make them astute and mature. Poems like a poem just for me, real estate, and the only things i know to be true reveal an author who knows herself, but knows she’s not infallible, and knows she’s going to grow and change. While i relate to many of the feelings and sentiments in these poems, it’s with hindsight–i would never have been this self-aware as a teenager.

To me these are the poems of someone processing their own experiences and emotions in a safe and intelligent way, and that makes them massively relatable and fascinating. If these were written during and about Brown’s teenage years, i–as a woman a few years into her 30s–would be very interested in reading any poems she writes in her 20s.

And the art! The accompanying pieces amongst the words. They’re perfect little visual snippets of the poems. There is one in particular of a capsizing ship that I would consider having tattooed on my body. Such simple artwork speaks volumes, in just the same way three verse poems contain as much depth as a novel.