Saga: Volumes One – Four (CBR10 #29-33)

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Other than clocking everyone’s rave reviews I have been staying away from the world of Saga on purpose. I have an inclination to wait for series to be near its conclusion before I pick it up. But I’m not made of stone. My friend Gina hand delivered the first eight volumes to me while we were on vacation last month. It seemed Saga’s time had arrived.

These books are *fantastic*.  I always knew they would be: the swath of Cannonballers who love these and have such varying taste means that they absolutely have to be the best of the best.  These books are viscerally good. Cancel plans, move around to read lists, question all life choices that have kept you from reading them before now GOOD.  They also transcend any entry issues I usually have with comics and graphic novels.  I’m putting it down to two things, the quality of Vaughan’s narrative and the absolute stunning design of Fiona Staples.

Brian K. Vaughan was introduced to Fiona Staples by a mutual friend. Vaughan reportedly chose to work with Staples because her artwork is incredible, that it doesn’t look like anyone else. I can absolutely believe it, have you seen her work? GLORIOUS. I’m so glad to know that Staples is co-owner of Saga, her work in designing the cast, the ships, and all the various races in the story is just as integral to my enjoyment of these books as the story Vaughan has plotted.  Her painted covers, and hand-lettering Hazel’s narration with her own handwriting, make the difference in the quality of the books.

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Volume One introduces us to our family on the run and all of those who are chasing them. When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring new life into a dangerous universe. Alana and Marco are dynamic characters in very few panels; we immediately know them and their struggles even if we don’t know details yet.  Their love for each other and their newborn daughter is captured on their faces in Staples’ art.  There isn’t a lot of lumbering info dumps, the universe that is a scary, crazy, fucked up, violent place is easily understood and the peril facing the young family is illuminated: the antagonist characters are quickly made complex, but also frightening.  Even the protagonists’ allies are visually scary, but terribly charming. I really like The Will, I don’t know what that says about me.

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Volume Two is my favorite thus far. It may be a perfect space opera: adventure, romance, and humor. This volume is the story of the coming together of family across planetary divides. Marko has not told his parents that he ran off with a member of the enemy, as one would expect, so he has a lot of explaining to do when they show up at their ships door. Hazel’s narration told from the future is hilarious. Marko and his mother go to find the accidentally exiled babysitter Izabel, and Alana and Marko’s father get to know each other better. Prince Robot IV is searching for the star-crossed family, The Will reluctantly joining forces with someone on the hunt for Marko broadening his character out and we get more delicious sass from The Lying Cat. I should probably tell you more about this one, but I can’t seem to find the words to break it into smaller bites, just know its good, and inextricably linked to the volumes before and after.

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Volume Three has my favorite of the four covers so far. It was so burned in my mind that when Gwendoline shows up in Volume Two I immediately recognized her and then became VERY confused about how we got from where we were to where we were going. Our motley crew travel to a cosmic lighthouse on the planet Quietus searching for their literary hero, the author of the romance novel that their initial courtship hinged on. This book pulls together the themes of the two previous ones and adds some of its own, as you would expect. It explores how to make a life while on the run, what finding love after a loss might look like, and how to feel about it.  There’s also a bit about getting over a breakup and that violence only begets more violence. Plot-wise The Will, Lying Cat, Gwendoline, and Sophie are stuck on an idyllic alien planet while waiting for their spaceship to be repaired and Gwen is impatient to get to Alana and Marko, but the Will seems quite content to stay on the new planet. He doesn’t seem to realize that he’s seeing impossible things and they are all in danger. Meanwhile, a pair of tabloid journalists is trying to figure out exactly what is the story with Marko and Alana: could two enemy combatants actually have deserted, got married and had a child? (Yes) The real threat to Marko and Alana’s family time on Quietus is not that they betrayed their respective people, it’s that their life together might give others ideas about just who the enemies are, and that there are other options than killing them. And we learn that the opposite of war is not peace, because this is that kind of book.

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Volume Four is my sole four star rated volume, the other three are all five stars. I’m sure that the plot it covers was necessary for the narrative that Vaughan is after, but it was both hard to read on an emotional level, and frankly a bit uneven. In order to watch people come back together they have to be separated first, and that is not enjoyable for the characters or the readers. We’ve got toddler Hazel, Alanna and Marko struggling with the reality of life in hiding and the stresses of family, but we also have a secondary plot dealing with the Robot monarchy and rebellion that felt… off. But, even that leads to a great final panel so I can’t hate it too much. But most of all I don’t want Alana and Marko to be fighting anymore. My emotions are fragile and I love them as a team figuring it out together, not sparring with one another, no matter how true it rings.

Overall, I’m in love with this series. It’s rare to have humor, sorrow, wit, action, adventure, and beautiful drawings married in one text, but this is that text. I’m making myself take a break from reading the next four volumes until at least tomorrow. I think I have the strength to hold out.

These books were read as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (CBR10 #29)

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers, #1)

Science Fiction is one of the genres that grew on me over time.  I find myself drawn more to the space-based versions, books like the Red Rising trilogy, The Martian, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Sparrow, and Children of God have been favorites over the years.  There’s something about the exploration and survival stories that are part of the genre that work for me. I became particularly interested in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet when I heard it described as a contemplative, character driven space opera. My favorite genre books are all character driven. But I still put this book on and off my to read list at least once, but that’s a story for later in the review.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is at its heart a road trip story. We’re introduced to the ship the Wayfarer in the form of a newly added crew member: Rosemary Harper. No one expects much when she joins the crew the captain, Ashby, just needs someone to be their clerk and keep up with the forms so they can get better jobs drilling holes in space, and Rosemary is looking to be anywhere but where she came from. While the hodgepodge ship has seen better days, it offers Rosemary a place to rest her head and some distance from her past.  Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic and crazy and populated by a diverse crew of sapients. It’s also about to get extremely dangerous when the crew is offered the job tunneling a wormhole to the titular small, angry planet. While that’s just the type of plot that works for me, in the hands of Becky Chambers it is treated in an episodic way. She spends over 400 pages of her book bouncing from one small adventure to another resulting in character development but not much else. But it doesn’t really need much else; its power is in the small things it accomplishes.

The book is also unabashedly feminist (Chambers used to write for The Mary Sue), sex positive, inclusive, and has an overall optimistic view of the future, even if that future contains our destroying the Earth.  The crew of the Wayfarer lives in a world which intrinsically makes room for multiple ways of being. Chambers isn’t writing a story about overthrowing systems and fighting against injustice. Her story is about the lives we lead in a universe that is stable but still has its problem areas. She’s writing a story about adults for adults that isn’t “adult” in its content. Not all of her characters are loveable, or necessarily likeable, but they all make sense. They may be alien (and Chambers manages to really make her aliens seemingly infinitely diverse) but they are all recognizable and relatable. It makes the minutiae of their lives an interesting read all by itself, and puts the larger plot of the journey take a back seat.

Time to circle back to my almost putting this book off to some indeterminate time: some science fiction books have absolutely beautiful cover art… and some do not. That was honestly part of my entry bias to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, that I absolutely hated its cover. I also couldn’t really get excited about the frequent comparisons to other properties – it didn’t sound like the fun character study I had initially been sold on.  I put it back on my to read list when I read the Read Harder Challenge Tasks late last year, and  its lackluster cover got it its spot on 2018’s to read list.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Her Every Wish (CBR10 #28)

Her Every Wish (The Worth Saga) by [Milan, Courtney]

For my next review and #CBR10Bingo square, let’s stay on brand, shall we? This morning I woke up unconscionably early and decided I had time for a novella before I had to deal with the day: so off to my bingo list and the award-winning novella by Courtney Milan, Her Every Wish.

Her Every Wish won the 2017 RITA for Romance Novella. The RITA awards are given by the Romance Writers of America, aims to promote excellence in the genre by recognizing outstanding published romance novels and novellas (there is a separate award, The Golden Heart, for unpublished work). It is a wide field, up to 2,000 romance novels are entered in the competition into one of over a dozen categories (that number fluctuates year to year). There are two rounds of judging and the winners are announced each year at the RWA conference in July.

As beloved as she is, it is hard for me to believe that this was her first win and her second nomination, but Romancelandia is a wide and busy place and whether it affects things or not, Milan self-publishes. For those wondering, she was nominated a third time this year for her novella “The Pursuit of…” in Hamilton’s Battalion, a collection sitting on my digital shelf, and her first nomination was in 2014 for The Countess Conspiracy. I’ve not read the book which precedes this one, Once Upon a Marquess, as it was a bit of a disappointment to others and this series is still early in the writing stage, and set to be seven novels long. I had decided to wait it out until there was more of the series to read (although Emmalita’s review of After the Wedding got me to purchase that book and this one). In broad strokes Milan is endeavoring to continue her feminist romance mission but adding even more to the expected tropes of historic romances set in England. Milan is an author on a mission to stop the whitewashing of history and include people of color and a variety of sexual identities into her work.

This novella focuses on Daisy and Crash. Daisy is the daughter of a failed grocer, her mother is in ill health, and financial security is a memory. The local parish announces a Christmas charity bequest to help young people start a trade; she sees it as her last chance to get her wish of security for herself and her mother. Her only problem – the grants are intended for men, but it didn’t say so explicitly so she’s attempting to bluff her way into a future. It all goes as roughly a one might expect for 1860s London and her former beau, Crash, steps in the help her succeed as best he can. Crash comes with his own baggage – his family line is filled with slaves, whores, and sailors, he has no idea his true heritage, and the world would not let him forget it, but he has been raised to do his best to keep going. He is determined to help Daisy keep going for her own sake.

In its short 100 pages Milan packs her novella with plot and characters, but also with the robust themes of learning how to accept someone as they are, for who they are, and finding value in yourself, of being worthy of your own wishes. It was an uplifting, jam-packed Milan novella in the style of some of my favorites, without the drawbacks of some of her missteps in the past. I am not at all surprised, and a bit glad, to know that this won last year.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

The Cuckoo’s Calling (CBR10 #27)

I don’t scorn rereading (see please, my Harry Potter reread), it just isn’t something I do often since I joined up with the Cannonball crowd back in 2012. It is sometimes very difficult to find new words to express a reaction to a book, and now that writing a review is part of my reading process I cannot skip a review. If I read a book… I’m reviewing it (with the exception of on book back in CBRV, but I still reviewed it on Goodreads).

So, why did I dive back into the world of Cormoran Strike? Several reasons, actually. I was longing for the world of these books, having spent 18 months away from them, I was willing the announcement of the publication date of book four, Lethal White, into existence (we got it!), and I had purchased the audio of the first book in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling several months ago because I wanted to own the complete series as read by Robert Glenister. Which meant that I had spent money on a book that I had already read, so I should probably read it again to help justify to myself the purchase price (worth it).

So what is The Cuckoo’s Calling for the uninitiated? It’s a classic murder mystery in its style and delivery. Strike is an injured war hero, he’s just broken up with his mysterious fiancée after a long on and off again relationship, he’s the son of two famous people but eschews the spotlight for himself, and is dead broke. He’s hardened and grizzled, and he’s clever where others aren’t. He is also dogged and determined, and endearingly befuddled like all great investigators in fiction. Robin is the eager sidekick, super competent at all things, with agency: she has desires and wants and fears and ambitions that come to life over the course of the book and series. The victim is a gorgeous supermodel who apparently jumps to her death, but her grieving brother can’t accept how the case was closed and hires Strike to find out what really happened, and hopefully before their mother passes away from end stage cancer.

On the surface it would be easy to say that these books don’t share a lot thematically with the Harry Potter books, but I would disagree with that assertion. This is also a story where the unsuspecting forces of good battle to resist the forces of fear and hate. The characters of Robin and Cormoran are rediscovering themselves, unpacking who they can be and are in the pursuit of knowledge, of truth (how more Hermione can you be?). Additionally, the writing has a similar and familiar structure, Rowling’s style of writing flows easily; she uses plenty of adjectives and humor and is very good at putting you in the room with her characters. I’m watching along with the BBC miniseries as I reread, and it is so noticeable when the adaptation moves away from Rowling’s plotting – the character motivations are diminished. The adaption for the first book, which is three episodes, should have been enough time to lay the story arc out as Rowling wrote it, there was no need to move some plot points around or change the nuance of Guy.

But I digress. My complaint about this book when I read it back in 2015 was that the beginning was too slow, I no longer agree with that assessment. As I sat in my car listening to the world unfold I was happy to have the time Rowling puts into her worlds – she is not so much a builder as a suggester, but she does quite a bit of character and world building in the first quarter of the book before launching us, securely, into her better-than-average mystery. The series works on re-read (so far) on the strength of its characters and getting to spot the clues that Rowling left for us in plain sight.

My reread of this will continue in a few weeks, I’ve got a new shortened deadline to get these read again (although I know I have to wait a bit past publication for the audio version to be released).

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

 

The Proposal (CBR10 #26)

The Proposal (The Survivors' Club, #1)

I have finally taken my first trip to a Mary Balogh romance. I’m still surprised when I manage to miss an author completely, but it usually means that there’s a well-liked series with good reviews which is complete that I can dive right into. In the case of Mary Balogh that series is the Survivors’ Club which tells the story of seven people who survived great tragedy (whether physical or mental) during the Napoleonic Wars and formed a tight friendship while they healed for three years away from Society. The first book in the series, The Proposal, held my attention so well and Balogh’s writing pleased me so much that I went ahead and requested the next few books from the library for the coming months and plan to blow through the series during the rest of the year.

The Proposal begins with Gwendoline, Lady Muir, who has seen her share of tragedy. Content in a quiet life with friends and family, the young widow has no desire to marry again. Though, she isn’t the member of the Survivors’ Club: that would be Hugo, Lord Trentham, who scoops her up in his arms after a fall on the beach. He does not, however, view himself as a gentleman; he is a soldier whose bravery earned him his title. Born a merchant’s son who inherited his wealth he is happiest when working the land, but duty and title now demand that he finds a wife. In a very funny scene, a grumpy Hugh alerts his friends in the Survivors’ Club to his plan to find a wife to provide an heir and help with his sister. They tease he will obviously find one the next day down at the beach, and of course the very next day he is rescuing an injured Gwen and bringing her back to the house with him.

Embarrassed, Hugh doesn’t wish to court Lady Muir, nor have her interfere on the annual reunion of the Club. In a fine bit of plotting, this struggle where Hugo and Gwen are given time and space to get to know each other and become attracted but do not wish to be allows the reader to settle into the series. It is an infodump of sorts, but it worked well for me. In lesser hands the first half of the book would have been the end of the plot, but Balogh has more territory she wants to cover. Balogh builds a story around the mental wounds Gwen and Hugh both experienced, punching holes in the “happy” lives they have both created for themselves in the years since their respective tragedies, and analyzing the class differences of the social strata that Gwen and Hugh grew up and live in.

In the second half of the book their two vastly different worlds come together, both will be challenged in unforeseen ways. Mrs. Julien, one of my personal Romancelandia guides, is of the opinion the central theme of many Balogh historical romances is closed and broken people finding new lives and unexpected happiness. In The Proposal I would say that theme lines up exquisitely. Balogh creates a world and a story where over a respectable timeline; two mature adults in their thirties are given a second chance at happiness. And really, who better to be given these second chances than soldiers and those who have seemingly lost everything? I was warmed and won over by the sincere sweetness Balogh brought to her characters, and that while the characters have been through the proverbial wringer, the stories are not mawkish. Balogh shows a deft touch in how she layers and slowly reveals the sorrows of her characters without wallowing in them.

I feel Balogh earned a believable happily ever after for Hugh and Gwen. As they get to know each other, they recognize their first impressions were about expectations. Even at the books halfway point, when Hugh proposes to Gwen and she refuses, they are still functioning on expectations. But then Balogh builds out her narrative and Gwen invites Hugh to court her, if he wishes. I love that they continue to seek each other out, acknowledging they simply want to be with each other even if it is not a natural fit into either of their lives or worlds.  It is a novel that stays within its genre tropes, but nudges them with the ways in which the details and specific plot points are placed. The novel grows the universe of Balogh’s books, and I’m interested to see how that universe continues to grow and keep up with the characters we’ve met so far.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read – now in our tenth year! At Cannonball Read we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

The Revolution Was Televised (CBR10 #25)

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Sometimes I read a non-fiction book and wonder to myself, what would this book look like if the author had waited just a few more years before analyzing the available evidence? In The Revolution Was Televised Sepinwall takes a critic’s eye to the changing landscape of television drama in the past two decades. He was absolutely in the right place to make the necessary observations and do the needed interviews with the creatives behind the shows he analyzes – Sepinwall started his career as a television critic for my now local paper, The Star-Ledger, during the years in question (he left the paper in 2010 right after I moved to the area and joined the staff at Hitfix, and later UPROXX, and now Rolling Stone). But, Sepinwall published this book in 2012 and not 2015, and due to that misses the second wave of the revolution entirely: the advent of streaming service prestige television meant for binge-watching. Netflix unleased their original series on us the very next year and the television landscape looks very different again in the five years since the arrival of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, let alone The Handmaid’s Tale, and Amazon Prime’s offerings.

It was nearly impossible for me to separate my reactions to the work that Sepinwall did do from what it could have been. It was part of the reason I was a bit underwhelmed by the book, something that emmalita and I share. But I should perhaps back up a little first because Alan Sepinwall did tackle a large mountain of a topic that is going to be at the center of the discussion of what pop culture and television are and can be moving forward.

In The Revolution Was Televised Sepinwall looks at twelve shows that started the era we now call the Golden Age of Television, or Peak TV. Those dramas are The Sopranos, Oz, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. Sepinwall’s main argument that these are twelve of the shows which were at the vanguard of taking what television drama had been up to that point and creating the space to take the medium more seriously, and use it more creatively, than ever before. Sepinwall tells the story of these twelve shows, and the shows they made room for, through his own recollections of reviewing them as they were released, and using interviews with their creators from then and in most cases new ones from when the book was being written.

I mention above that one of the drawbacks I found in the book was the timing of its publication, my other issue is perhaps a fairer one: the actual structure of the book. In some ways the twelve chapters function as twelve oral histories of the shows. We march through time from one show to the next in the order they were released (with one exception). It becomes, at times, repetitive and a bit redundant. On its surface there is nothing wrong with tracking the growth of the revolution over time, as the shows affected each other and the milieu in Hollywood where they were being green-lit. However, it doesn’t let Sepinwall dive deeper into the themes emerging in Peak TV, and instead focuses perhaps over heavily on the auteur theory.

Non-fiction is difficult to review. The meat of the argument or story being told and how well it is reasoned or argued cannot be ignored, but this is still writing. Sepinwall has an easy to read facility in his craft, honed one can only assume by the sheer size of the output he’s written in the course of his career so far. This was a three star book for me, but I don’t think I’m done reading Sepinwall, and look forward to eventually picking up his book with Matt Zoller Seitz, TV (The Book).

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society. 

Ghostly Echoes (CBR10 #24)

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Back during CBR7 I picked up Jackaby by William Ritter because it featured a bit of a paranormal mystery with a sassy female protagonist who doesn’t have a romance with the male protagonist. While I love a Romance novel, I don’t need romance in all my stories. As it turns out Jackaby was a strong book and over the years I’ve kept up with the series in a (mostly) timely manner.

Ghostly Echoes is the third full novel in the series (there’s one short story as well, The Map) and the character who is the driver of the story is the ghostly owner of 926 Augur Lane, the headquarters of Jackaby’s detective agency. There’s corruption and murder afoot in New Fiddleham and it all links back to how Jenny Cavanaugh was murdered a decade ago and the disappearance of her finance the night she died. As Abigail races to unravel the mystery of how and why people keep turning up missing or dead flinging herself more deeply into her friends’ grim histories, Jackaby leads a cast of familiar characters across the cobblestones of nineteenth-century New England and down to the mythical underworld  and back again, solving the case at hand and setting up the endgame in the next book.

The Jackaby series blends a bit of fantasy and folklore with a touch of mad science and its author, William Ritter, isn’t afraid to throw a touch of social commentary into his YA. This time we get a transgender character whom Jackaby speaks to and interacts with using all the care, class, and affirmation that one could hope for.

These books are fun, clever, and quick-witted and I remain enthusiastic for what I’m assuming is the closing chapter in the next book, The Dire King.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.