Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Walking Dead, Black Hole, Y: The Last Man

Walking Dead: Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore/Charlie Adlard

The zombie genre may be reaching saturation, but I still read anything with an animated corpse on the cover. As a result, I've read a lot of crap: stories that try to implement a humorous or interesting twist, but fall short and miss out on that satisfying classic zombie apocalypse feel. I have also read a lot of formulaic zombie stories, that stick so closely to a pattern that they are utterly predictable. Walking Dead, a long-running comic that follows former sheriff Rick, walks a fine line in the middle. The series finds a good balance between flesh-eating monsters and the drama of people trying to work together and survive. It establishes its own zombie science, which is moderately original but retains all the typical zombie hallmarks. The main characters find unique refuges and meet with other survivors, some of whom are very disturbing. But it doesn't feel episodic; it satisfies curiosity by exploring the spectrum of reactions to the end of the world. The comic is at 82 issues right now and I'm still looking forward to the release of every one, but I already feel like the story has been slightly overextended, and I hope the series ends before its fans are exhausted.

Black Hole: Charles Burns 

I got this for my birthday, and I'm glad I did, because it's very different from what I usually read. Black Hole is centered around four teenagers in the middle of an STD epidemic that turns its victims into mutants. The art style is haunting and graphic, the story adeptly capturing the fear of ostracism, isolation, uncertainty, and apathy of late adolescence. Reading it was a surreal and uncomfortable experience because of the reoccurring imagery of its hallucination/dream/vision sequences, and its frequent brushes with sex, violence, and grotesque deformity. But it was compelling, and the climax of one character's story was as heartbreaking as anything I've ever read.

Y: The Last Man: Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra

The premise of this comic is one of the most interesting I've ever come across. A disease sweeps across the entire planet, destroying every organism with a Y chromosome, human, animal, embryo and sperm alike – except for one guy, Yorick, and his pet monkey Ampersand. The characters are varied and interesting and I did grow to care about them, but what really keeps me thinking about this series is not so much them, but the things they see. As Yorick and his companions, Allison, a scientist, and 355, a secret agent, travel around the world, we see what has become of different civilizations as they recover from the catastrophic death of half their population. We find out who has filled the enormous power vacuum in nearly every field, from politics to military to trade. The ending was a little disappointing, just because it's hard to craft a conclusion big enough for such a fascinating and epic story.


So that's what I think about that stuff. Come back in a couple days for a link to Senseless. Then buy it!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lovely Bones

     I read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold for the first time a few years ago when a crazy cat lady on the bus my best friend gave it to me. Since then I have done something I don't do very often, which is periodically pick it up and read it again.

     The book is told through the point of view of Susie Salmon, a young girl who is raped and murdered very early in the story, so, understandably, reading it was a visceral experience. After Susie dies, the story becomes less about her and more about her family and the people who knew her, as she watches them from the afterlife in the years that follow her death.

     The one element that sticks out the most to me was the attention that Sebold gave to every single character, even the ones who hover briefly around the edge of the story and then disappear. In just a few sentences, she gives the reader one or two details about this person to make them as real and three-dimensional as Susie and her family, and to make the reader feel their unique pain, even if it is not directly related to the young girl or her death. There is Mr. Botte, a teacher of Susie's with a terminally ill daughter, and Artie, an awkward classmate with fixations that make him an outsider. The murderer, who we also watch through Susie's eyes, is opened up to the reader, even as we hate him for what he did.

     There was a major twist that alienated me a little bit because of how blatantly supernatural it was, and it felt out of place in a book that dealt so intimately with real emotions. Even after careful consideration, I still wonder if the book might have been better for its absence. But, aside from that, the story is lean and Sebold's style is fittingly simple and elegant, with just enough well-placed detail to make every page concrete and intense, without bogging down the narrative with redundant descriptions. To me, it was almost tangible, how much she cared about these characters and felt what they felt. It comes through in the authentic portrayal of their journey through grief, which is very different and personal for each character, from Susie's immediate family to a girl from school she barely knew. The point of view is perfect; we get to be with Susie as she progresses through the afterlife, and we get to watch the people she left behind as they grow up without her. Even though I was thrown for a loop with the twist, it certainly doesn't make me regret reading this book, as it is ultimately full of characters and scenes that have stayed with me for a long time.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Hunger Games

     I had planned to kick off this blog with announcing that my short story had gone live on Kindle. But the formatting is still in process, so, because I'm very excited about this blog and all book stuff right now, I thought I would write a book review.

     Right after The Hunger Games was released in 2008, I read the first chapter online, here. I remember that I enjoyed it, but it seemed like it was a book for an audience younger than I, so that was all I did for a long time. Then, on a visit to Barnes and Noble, the cover caught my eye and I sat down to read it for a few minutes. I stayed in that chair for three hours until the store closed, then I bought the book and did not go to sleep until I had finished it.

     I loved the story, the characters, and the themes, but we'll get to those; the first thing that instantly charmed me was the world the author has created. The story takes place in a land called Panem, which is divided into twelve districts and a capital city. Parts of this place are so saturated with wealth and advanced technology that they start to do very silly things with their excess, like genetically augmenting their appearance; tinting their skin green, engraving gold patterns into their faces, and so on. In other parts of Panem, people are starving, and some of them get by with what they can kill with bows and arrows. I love science fiction and fantasy, and The Hunger Games balances the two genres in one setting believably and seamlessly.

     But an engaging setting isn't much with no one in it. The protagonist of the books is a teenage girl named Katniss Everdeen, who does not change much until the very end of the third book, when she suddenly changes a lot. But she is a well-written character; there are things about her not to like, as there should be, but she has been through a lot in her short life, and her strengths are appropriate for her history and they make her an admirable heroine. Her relationships with her mother and her younger sister are portrayed in a way that were deeply affecting even when they weren't front and center. Some of supporting characters, have their own rich back stories, and several of them became very important to me by the end of the book, but none of them have the same depth or vibrance as Katniss. The reader is given a number of very intimate glimpses into Katniss's past and her inner monologue, but they do not overpower the narrative or hold back what is a fascinating story.

     I will try to be vague about the plot in case you haven't read it, but there might be a few spoilers here. The story follows Katniss as she participates unwilling in a gruesome annual tournament, sponsored by a totalitarian government, that pits two teenagers from every district against each other in a lengthy fight to the death. There are numerous graphically violent scenes, but barely a whisper of sex so I guess that's why it is marketed as a book for young adults. The books really grow up as Katniss's situation and the situation of Panem as a whole becomes increasingly dire. There is an element of political strategy, as well some very profound, mature themes about government control, massive social class gaps, and the detachment that comes from watching tragedies on a screen instead of facing them yourself. Romance has its place, balanced well with the action and the larger story, and a love triangle develops. I was a little bemused by how hastily it was wrapped up (and almost wish it was not wrapped up at all) but Katniss's decision does make sense.

     The ending of the final book, Mockingjay, had a deeper impact on me than almost anything I have ever read. For a few days after I read it, I was angry at the author, not because it was poorly written but because it was so wrenchingly tragic. This spurs the massive, sudden shift in Katniss's character, to a point that I understood but that I had a little trouble sympathizing with. Nevertheless, heartbreaking as it was, the series wraps up in a very satisfying way, at a good point, and it has earned a high place on my list of favorite literature.

     That said, I am pretty apprehensive about the movie. This guy looks pretty beefy for Peeta Mellark, who is 16 and spends a lot of time painting or making cakes.