Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Y: The Last Man (Brian K. Vaughan)

Here it is, my hotly anticipated first comic book/graphic novel review! Ok, so maybe "hotly anticipated" is a slight exaggeration. "Moderately anticipated" maybe, or "somewhat vaguely anticipated because of that allusion to comics from the Declaration of Interdependence that never made it clear whether or not it was a joke" might be more realistic. Regardless, here it is, and for my first cb/gn review, I wanted something that met a number of specific criteria:

1) A finished series (as opposed to one that is currently ongoing)
2) A self-contained universe (who needs all that funky cosmic backstory?)
3) A kick-ass concept (easily summarized, infinite implications)
4) Something that any reader could enjoy, not just comic book readers.

Having scoured my shelves for something that met all of the above criteria, I finally settled on one of my favorite series of all time, Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan.

Now, for those of you familiar with the comic book world, BKV is the highly acclaimed creator of some incredible books, most notably Runaways, Ex Machina, and The Hood. For those of you who don't know much about comics, you might recognize him as one of the principle writers of a little ABC show called Lost, which he's been with since season 3. So he's got some street cred.


The premise is fairly straightforward: a mysterious plague kills every mammal with a Y chromosome except Yorick Brown, an amateur escape artist/comparative lit major, and his pet helper monkey, Ampersand. Seriously, humanity's last hope is a Shakespeare nerd and his capuchin. This might not sound like an instant formula for success, but the real draw comes from the power of the writing. The story is extremely plot-driven. Yorick's main goal throughout the series is to get from NYC to his girlfriend, Beth, who is in Australia when the plague hits. The trip is extremely difficult, though, considering the devastation caused by the simultaneous deaths of half the world's population.

Yorick heads first to Washington, D.C. to look for his mother, a Representative from the state of Ohio. In D.C., the new president (previously the Secretary of Agriculture) orders a secret government agent, codename 355, to escort Yorick to find renowned geneticist Dr. Allison Mann to try and figure out why he alone survived. Along the way, Yorick and 355 encounter a group of women calling themselves the Daughters of the Amazon, who believe that Mother Earth was cleansing herself by getting rid of the males, and that they should kill the last man. Yorick is also being tracked by operatives sent by the Israeli government (who are unique in that they've maintained their military through the large number of women in service before the plague).

And all of this is in the first 5 issues (there are 60 total, collected in 10 volumes).

The over-arcing plot aside, the series also picks up many more subplots as Yorick, 355, and Dr. Mann travel across the country and affect other people's lives. The supporting cast is huge, and most of the characters are very well filled out. BKV uses many of these characters to illustrate the different ways in which people deal with devastating loss. The theme isn't primarily depressing, though, it's actually very funny. Between the jokes that Yorick tends to tell to cover his feelings of inadequacy regarding being "chosen" as the last man on earth, and the sometimes ridiculous situations that he gets himself into, Y is able to cover a broad spectrum of emotional and intellectual topics in a highly amusing way. Throughout the series, Yorick has to deal with issues like love, suicide, depression, adultery, responsibility, and plenty of others, mostly on his own, but always with a clever quip or witty remark. With an epic scope and some tremendously impactful scenes, Y: The Last Man is a smart, funny series that challenges the limits of what people might be willing to label "respectable literature." I would absolutely recommend this series to anyone.


Y: The Last Man
by Brian K. Vaughan

Brian K. Vaughan takes a plot that can be summed up in one sentence and writes it out to its very limit, creating unforgettable characters and putting them in unique conflicts.

The voice is strong if not the most original in the world, but so many themes are touched on in so many new and dynamic ways that it's hard to think of anything written in the same style that's done so well.

Y is so much fun to read, and covers so many topics and issues, with so many amazing characters, that's it's hard not to get sucked right in. Truly one of the most enjoyable things I've ever read.

Overall: 9

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)

I would like to preface this review by saying it took me FOREVER to finish this book. I'll go over the reasons for that in a second, but that's why it has taken me so long to write the review.

Anyway, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is a good book. Not awful, not excellent, it's just a good book. It takes very emotionally impactful subject matter(a murdered/missing girl), presents it in an interesting way (the girl narrates from heaven), and keeps the reader engaged for most of the story. Sounds like a winner, right? What's the problem? Oh wait, that's right, you caught me. It keeps the reader engaged for most of the story. It's usually a good idea to keep your reader reading the book until the end, which I personally found very difficult to do. It wasn't bad writing, don't get me wrong. There are still compelling images and dramatic turns after page 200 (when the story initially drops off). However, those images and turns begin to lose focus. I'll try to put it into some context for you.


The first two sentences do a lot to get this story moving:
My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

Okay, so we immediately have something to work with. We've got some solid facts and a whole lot of great questions. A fourteen-year-old girl was murdered on December 6th, 1973. How was she murdered? Who killed her? Was the murderer ever caught? How did her family react? What did this do to her community? All of these questions come from just the first two sentences. And Alice Sebold does answer all of these questions—eventually. The novel primarily deals with the rest of the Salmon family and their friends and neighbors as they are forced to cope with Susie's death. This is a great concept, and I cannot emphasize enough how well Sebold writes out the family's reaction to this loss. Coupled with this is Sebold's interesting idea of heaven as a place where people are given their "simplest dreams." Susie can basically do whatever she wants—including watch the living as if they were a soap opera—and the adolescent voice she gives the narration adds a level of depth to the lack of understanding that death often brings. In this way the book succeeds. The characters go through the different stages of loss in different ways and at different times, with each ultimately overcoming their grief. In a subtle but well-crafted move, the characters all begin to get on with their lives. Unfortunately this begins only a little more than halfway through the novel, and carries on for almost sixty pages. During this period the book loses purpose, desire, drive, conflict; essentially, anything worth reading. It beautifully illustrates the ways that all of the different characters in the story have gone on with their lives, but it does so way too long. The characters find themselves moving on, but so do I. Without anything going on besides Susie keeping us up to date on those closest to her, it feels like a family reunion on repeat. "Lindsey started doing this. Ruth got a call from her father one day. Sometimes, in heaven, I would look at other people." For sixty pages. It is absolutely true that it takes people a long time to get over the deaths of loved ones, but without any real direction, it's easy to put the book down at any time during this span. And I wish I could tell you the ending made the wait worth it, but I'm not sure it did. The ending was strange, and not in an artistic, Life of Pi/Fight Club/Harry Potter kind of way that twists things and makes you question everything you've just read. It was just a strange, quasi-ending, followed by a nice happily ever after epilogue.

I was almost upset that I didn't end up enjoying this book. The first two hundred pages or so are highly compelling. I was drawn in immediately and never let out. Once the grip was finally loosened, however, it all started to fall apart. Had this book ended sooner, and perhaps in a slightly different way, I'm fairly sure that I would be recommending it to everyone. As it stands, though, I'd only recommend it to people who have had children or siblings die at a young age, as it might be something they'd relate to more than others. It's really unfortunate that I have to give my first negative review to The Lovely Bones, since I had so much hope for it, but definitely wait for the film.


The Lovely Bones
by Alice Sebold

Kick ass concept but ultimately a poor execution. It doesn't matter how fast the Maglev train is if it breaks down halfway to the next station.

I've never read a book narrated from heaven, so it has that going for it. Aside from that the voice is competently written out, and there are some gems along the way, but as I said earlier, it's good; not bad, not great, just good.

I felt invested in the characters enough to at least give Sebold the chance to redeem herself in the end (which she didn't really do), but as I've said many times already, it got boring. It doesn't matter how good a story begins or ends if you lose interest halfway through.


Keep reading Genoshans! Hopefully the next review will be of something more enjoyable.

*—At the suggestion of those few of you who chose to make one, I've made the rating system slightly more accessible. The numbers will stay, but a short little explanation will follow to make the rating more easily understood. The same process goes into the rating, though, it's not arbitrary.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

100 Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez)

100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez is an absolutely incredible novel. It is four-hundred pages of wonderful. Immediately one of my favorite books ever (I say immediately, but it's actually incredibly dense, so it took me quite a while to finish). I highly recommend this book to anyone who: a) has a family; b) enjoys quality storytelling; c) can read and/or be read to.


100 Years of Solitude tells the story of Macondo, a fictional South American town, through the eyes of the Buendía family. Over the course of seven generations, the Buendías experience just about every conceivable problem a family can face—war, famine, industrialization, incest, immigration, emigration, poverty, wealth, alchemy—and discover interesting things about life and themselves along the way. As much as the content of the book is incredibly creative and original, there are several aspects of the writing itself that make 100 Years of Solitude truly unique.

Magical Realism—A term that I was until recently unaware of, magical realism essentially refers to a style of writing in which extraordinary events are perceived as mundane, and often vice versa as well. Márquez himself has said, "My most important problem was destroying the line of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic." This is one of the most exciting aspects of the novel. Almost constantly the reader is bombarded with remarkable events in the lives of the Buendías that range from undeniably absurd to borderline unbelievable to mildly quirky. Things like ghosts, fortune-telling, and bicentennial lifespans are accepted as everyday occurrences in Macondo. It's difficult to go into specifics without ruining any of the many, many interweaving plotlines in the novel, so instead I'll illustrate with a relatively ambiguous quote:

A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta's chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.

"Holy Mother of God!" Úrsula shouted.

Here you can see how something completely ridiculous is presented matter-of-factly, a trait of magical realism that leads into the second writing aspect that makes this a wonderful read...

Humor—The book is hilarious. There are times when I was reading that I would come across an amazing phrase or sentence and run out of my room to show the first person I came across how funny it was. All of the characters have their own absurd quirks that distinguish them from everyone else (which is helpful, since half of the characters have the same two names, a recurring theme that the matriarch of the family, Úrsula, points out as a possible explanation as to why all of her male heirs have disappointed her). These quirks and the accompanying circumstances that cause or come out of them really drive the story forward. Everything in this book is connected, usually by a ridiculous event, and all of these events are alluded to frequently throughout the novel. Which brings me to the third aspect...

Time—100 Years of Solitude uses the concept of time like no other novel I have ever encountered. Even though much of the actual history of Buendías is presented linearly, time itself is fluid. Events are often repeated; intervals of time change or move freely between the events; one year often takes entire chapters, while one sentence might encompass half a generation; allusions are made to other temporal events. Much of the novel deals with themes on the cyclical nature of history, while simultaneously presenting ideas towards the idea of the eternal within a person's own lifetime.

I would really like to go further into this book, but am afraid that, in my enthusiasm, would reveal too much, so I highly implore you to read 100 Years of Solitude (then maybe we can talk about it).

If my review encourages you to pick it up, let me know what you think. If you've read it already, feel free to email me or comment on what you like or didn't like about it.


100 Years of Solitude
by Gabriel García Márquez

Plot Concept: 8.5
Plot Execution: 10
Characters: 8.5

Thematic Intent: 9
Thematic Execution: 9.5
Originality: 9

Enjoyability: 9
Readability**: 8
Investment: 8.5

Overall: 8.9

*—I am very much interested in constructive feedback regarding the rating system. If you have any thoughts or comments, let me know!

**—Readability refers to the difficulty of the reading, but since a book that is too easy would be as hard to read as one that is too difficult, "Readability" refers to the overall challenge of the read. A high number indicates that the word choice, sentence length, and overall read are seamless, never tripping the reader for reasons of either simplicity or difficulty.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Declaration of Interdependence

Some books suck. It's a sad fact of life. Somewhere, somehow, right now there is a publisher who thinks that the book that they are about to put out is the next great American novel, but they are sadly mistaken because the book sucks. And this happens all the time. With all that wasted paper out there, and few reliable methods to truly discern whether or not a book is worth reading, it can be difficult for the average reader to smoothly transition into their next instant-favorite.

Enter The Daily Genoshan {trumpets blast, confetti, fanfare, etc.}!

The goal of The Daily Genoshan is to really get into a reading and give detailed reviews of any and all books that come across my desk. Novels, memoirs, poetry, comic books, Chinese food menus, billboards, screenplays, cereal box nutritional information, anything that can be read and reviewed. The Daily Genoshan is here for YOU, the innocent reader, victim to bad characterization and lackluster plots everywhere you turn. A review by The Daily Genoshan will not only let you know which books suck, but also why they suck, in case that particular brand of suck is something you might be into.

[There may also appear reviews of good books, so don't be alarmed if you come across some positive suggestions. In fact, I find it extremely difficult to even finish sucky books, so it may turn out that there are more reviews of good books than of bad. Don't worry, though, I'll even review the segments of books that I do not finish reading, illustrating clearly why I never finished them.]

The Daily Genoshan is open and welcome to suggestions for books to review, and may even feature guest reviewers from time to time. If you would like to suggest a book or guest star as one of The Daily Genoshan reviewers, just email me at bpmcgackin@gmail.com, with a subject line of either "TDG: Review suggestion" or "TDG: Guest Reviewer" (pretty creative, I know, it took me days to think of those).

Keep reading, Genoshans!

Brian McGackin
Founder, The Daily Genoshan

Contact Information and FTC Disclaimer

FTC Rules: While I do not make any money from authors, publishers, or anyone else related to these books in exchange for these reviews, there have been times where I've received free copies of a book to be reviewed, and may receive more in the future. Due to FTC compliance rules, however, you should always assume that I have an ulterior motive, and thank them for their unceasing vigilance in the face of this ever-increasing threat of blog advertising.

If you would like to contact me regarding a book you would like reviewed, or for writing matters in general, feel free to email me at bpmcgackin@gmail.com