Just Giblets

2014, the Year in Books: #’s 4 & 5

18th January 2015
by Michael

2014, the Year in Books: #’s 4 & 5

Top five time… and the authors of the two books represented at #4 and #5 have both appeared on my top lists of the year before. This is Thrity Umrigar’s second visit to the Top 5, with her sublime novel The World We Found coming in at #4 in 2011. Marilynee Robinson came in at #2 in 2008 with Home, the second of the Gilead trilogy, for which this year’s #4 book of the year is the conclusion.

The Story Hour#5 – The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar

Forgiveness is a topic too often left unexplored. In Thrity Umrigar’s beautifully drawn domestic drama, an Indian immigrant, who harbors a life-altering secret rashly attempts suicide and finds herself in the care of an African-American therapist who is harboring a secret of her own. As the two women become unlikely friends their lives become entangled, but when these secrets are revealed/discovered, the limits of their friendship and their capacity for forgiveness will be tested.

Thrity’s work at spinning domestic, cross-cultural drama is elegant and powerful. Characters shift across reader sympathies, and with the exception of one character who is decidedly one-dimensional, they all reveal hidden depths that make them seem all too real.

Chalk up another strong novel from best-selling author Thrity Umrigar!

Lila#6 - Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Lila is the third in Marilynne Robinson’s exquisite Gilead trillogy that began with Gilead and Home. Lila revisits the Reverend John Ames, late in his life, but is centered around Lila, a wandering woman, taken as a child by the mysteriously scarred woman known only as Doll. For as long as she can remember, Lila’s life has been a hard one, although she wouldn’t describe it as such, being the only life she has had. After her life with Doll is ended, she reaches her lowest point before finding herself living in an abandoned shack in the outskirts of Gilead. It is there that she makes the acquaintance of Reverend John Ames.

It is there that Lila’s life makes a turn. While she struggles with her thoughts, and her beliefs as she reads the bible, she also slowly learns the trust Reverend Ames, who grows to love her.The two eventually marry and start a family, but it is Lila’s journey from harrowing pragmatism to joy and hope that makes LILA beautiful. Marilynne Robinson is a master storyteller, and her words carry with them a spirituality that transcends the religious.

posted in 2014, Books, Year-end lists | at 11:06 am | 0 Comments
15th January 2015
by Michael

2014, The Year in Books, #’s 6 & 7

Other than being written by women, there’s not a whole lot in common with the sixth and seventh books on my list. One is from a well-known author that I’d never read, but she so charmed me at a Random House author breakfast, that I thought I’d give her work a try. The other was from an author whose previous novel was #5 on my list of best reads in 2012!  Interesting side note: my #6 novel could be considered similar to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life which I found tedious and couldn’t even finish. Obviously, I would disagree.

lucky

Lucky Us

#7 – Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Lucky Us is a new coming-of-age novel set in the 40s and 50s by best-selling novelist Amy Bloom. Eva is a young woman left by her mother at the home of her estranged husband, Edgar, on the day of his new wife’s funeral. There Eva meets her new big sister, Iris, with whom she runs away with as Iris seeks stardom in Hollywood. There they befriend Franciso, a gay hair and make-up man who helps Iris on her way up and subsequently down the Hollywood ladder before a surprise reunion with Edgar leads all three of them to Brooklyn where Eva settles into her life.

For the first half of the book, Eva is mainly a spectator in her the life of her family. Too young to work, unable to attend school, Eva helps her sister try to achieve her goals while carefully observing the vagaries of life. A series of sudden tragedies push Eva into a more active role in her own life, as she finds herself without a support system and people who are dependent upon her.

Through it all, Bloom keeps things light, even when dealing with difficult situations. She’s a great writer, using language that is clear yet beautifully composed, and creating voices that are unique and sympathetic. I had the privilege of seeing Ms. Bloom talk about her at the time forthcoming novel at Book Expo America last May and found to be utterly charming, strong-willed, and hilarious.


myreal

#6 – My Real Children by Jo Walton

Patricia is feeling confused today. At least that’s what the note by her bed tells her. In fact, at her advanced age, in the nursing home where she lives, she often feels confused and forgetful, but what’s she remembers distinctly are the two lives that crowd her memory. One where she married Mark and raised four children in a world that is at peace and has a colony on the moon; and another where she spent her life with her beloved Bee and their three children, on a beleaguered planet suffering from nuclear detonations and fatal fallout.

Jo Walton, whose last novel, Among Others is my afore-mentioned #5 read of 2012, spins a straight-forward, subtle tale of a woman’s life, or rather, two lives, and how a single decision can propel that life into two very different paths. And could that one person’s quiet, unassuming life also have major repercussions across the globe? Just like the theory that the flap of a butterfly’s wing can cause a hurricane halfway around the world, Walton wonders if a single decision could make the difference between peace and violence. Which life would you choose if given the choice?

posted in 2014, Books, Year-end lists | at 7:24 am | 0 Comments
11th January 2015
by Michael

2014, the Year in Books, #’s 9 & 8

A local author creates a complex, character study masquerading as a thriller, and a inventive fantasy riff on a classic tale come in this year at #’s 9 & 8. These two books couldn’t be more different (except for their dark tone and intense female protagonists… okay, maybe there are more similarities than I first thought) and they appear on this list for different reasons. Elo’s book features strong, complex writing, and a deep exploration into character, while Paige’s book features an adventurous, inventive plot, filled with rich, vividly drawn characters. Just a peak into the variances of what makes a strong read for me.

North of Boston#9 – North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo

Boston-area author Elisabeth Brink has reinvented herself as Elisabeth Elo after an initial debut that focused on the interior life of a quirky heroine named Gillian Cormier-Brandenberg, in order to launch a dramatic series of suspense novels following the life of another woman with a somewhat complex name, Pirio Kasparov. That’s really where the similarities end. North of Boston certainly delivers on the suspense, but it is so much more than that weaving alcoholism, questionable parenting, the fishing industry, perfumery, complicated family relations, the questionable line between hunting and slaughter, and even the exploitation of indigenous cultures. It may seem like an everything but the kitchen sink approach, but in the skillful hands of Elo, it is in fact, a powerful, coherent story that resonates long after the final page is read.

I’m not a huge fan of the genre, but as I mentioned, this intricate story transcends simple characterization. What holds it together most effortlessly, is the character and voice of a bold new heroine. Pirio can be a little impulsive, and experience has taught her to withhold emotion, but she’s smart, tough and likable, and more than capable of carrying a novel, and as time will surely tell, a series.

Dorothy Must Die#8 – Dorothy Must Die by D. M. Paige

First in a series, Dorothy Must Die tells the story of Amy Gumm, another Kansas resident who finds herself dropped in Oz because of a tornado. Sadly, the Oz Amy finds herself in is a horrific reflection of the one we all grew to know through the wonder of the movies. This is Oz is ruled by a despotic hand, one that thinks nothing of torturing and killing anyone who displeases her. It is the hand of Dorothy, and the Order of the Wicked has decreed that she must die and that Amy must be the instrument that does it.

Expanding yet again on the universe of L. Frank Baum, Dorothy Must Die is imaginative, compelling, and yes, horrific. Billed as a young adult novel, I was surprised at the brutality faced by the characters in this book. Still it makes for a really strong read, and fans of fantasy, or the Oz books should give it a try.

posted in 2014, Books, Boston, Fantasy, Year-end lists | at 7:00 am | 0 Comments
10th January 2015
by Michael

2014, the Year in Books: #’s 11 & 10

Here’s a pair of books that really have very little in common other than the fact that their titles both begin with the letter “S” and they’re both excellent books that are among the best books I read in 2014! Neither are my usual fare either. #11 is a non-fiction science ebook, and #10 is Chick-Lit. Of course, the former is a book about bumblebees, one of my favorite animals, and the latter is written by a beloved soap opera, returning to writing, and showing off some top notch improvement.

A Sting in the Tale#11 – A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson

Bumblebees are among my favorite creatures, and Dave Goulson’s book is simply delightful. Packed with fascinating scientific and historical facts about bumblebees, Goulson also fills the book with charming anecdotes, and droll humor. As a British scholar, the focus of Goulson’s research is understandably centered around that country, and the once-ubiquitous English gardens that allowed the bumblebee to thrive for so many years. Goulson does follow the research far and wide, from South America to Tasmania. He also peppers the book with related informational tidbits on honeybees, butterflies, badgers, martins, echidnas, wasps. and all sorts of other creatures.

Goulson wraps up his popular scientific narrative by talking about the BBCT, or Bumblebee Conservation Trust, a charity devoted to the Bumblebee, that he started several years ago. He adroitly makes the larger connection of the importance of the bumblebee, and all the pollinators of the world, and our planet’s success.

scared

#10 – Scared Scriptless by Alison Sweeney

Scared Scriptless is Alison Sweeney’s second novel set in Holllywood featuring a female protagonist who is involved in the entertainment business. You could label it chick lit, romance, or beach reading, and you would be correct, but its easy, comfortable and warm style really transcends genres and puts a smile on your face while you’re reading. When I’m reading Sweeney’s novels, I feel like I’m listening to her tell a story. I’m on the set of a busy television show shoot; I’m pitching a reality show to hard-nosed executives, and on a date with an impossibly handsome, incredibly popular television/movie star and dealing with all that entails. The details that Sweeney infuses into her novel, which can only come from her first person experience, translates to beautifully and seamlessly into the story that I really feel like I’m spending time with the author herself.

The plot is engaging enough without the Hollywood touches. Maddy Carson is the script supervisor (have you ever read anything about a script supervisor?) on a hit TV show — but is not comfortable with the Hollywood entertainment business life. She’s a down home gal, with deep roots in her family’s hometown in the mountains. When an opportunity presents itself to help her family and home community by pitching a reality show about her town, she’s tentative, but throws herself into the project, alongside her boss, Craig, who she is secretly dating. Then there’s this gorgeous actor who has just joined the show how is not so subtly pursuing her despite her “no actors” policy. Can the uber-organized Maddy reconcile her discomfort with Hollywood to become a real force to be reckoned with in the business? And will she figure out her love life despite her protestations against grand romantic gestures? And how many movie quotes will I catch as Maddy and her colleagues toss them about throughout the novel?

If you’re not looking for something serious and full of literary allusions, and you’re curious, even a little, about the mechanics of creating a TV show, give Scared Scriptless a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.

posted in 2014, Books, Year-end lists | at 10:41 am | 0 Comments
8th January 2015
by Michael

2014, the Year in Books: #’s 13 & 12

The next two books on my top list are both new authors to me, and are the first two of several high-end speculative fiction titles on my list. It was a good year for me with science fiction. It was also a really good year for women authors, with 10 in the top 15 (and 13 in the top 19.)


duplex#13 – Duplex by Kathryn Davis

This is one unusual book. Kathryn Davis merges the tropes of science fiction (robots, sorcerers) with 50′s domestic drama. Mary’s neighborhood is populated by boys who play sports, and girls who trade cards. The robots who live next door are curious, but most of the time they retain their human shape. When the sorcerer drives down the street one day, Mary’s life, and the life of her neighbors, is changed forever. Then there’s that house by the ocean, where all sorts of confounding events occur. And just what happened to her school crush anyway?

I’m not sure I quite understand what Davis was getting at with Duplex, but I loved the tone and the structure of the book. The concepts are grand yet personal. It’s not the type of book where I necessarily needed to know exactly what was going on, but it was fascinating to read, and so entertaining, that I just let that all go. If you’re willing to trust you’ll have an interesting ride, you will want to give Duplex a try.

memory#14 – Memory of Water by Emmi Ita?ranta

A dark future, where potable water is scarce, and seventeen-year-old Noria Kaitio struggles to learn the secrets of the past to determine how the world came to be the way it is. While learning to become a tea master and eventually take over for her father, Noria learns of the dangerous secret that puts her at risk with the government. She also discovers old technology that reveals even more secrets that she finally must act upon in the hopes that knowledge will help to change the world.

Emmi Ita?ranta is a talented writer, weaving together sentences that create stunning visuals. Memory of Water weaves and falls like flowing water ultimately seeking it’s destination. This is a somber tale, filled with foreboding, but ultimately there is a hopefulness infused into the resolution. Noria is a wonderful character, both reflective and proactive, and the future Emmi paints is intricate and fascinating.

posted in 2014, Books, Year-end lists | at 6:00 am | 0 Comments
7th January 2015
by Michael

2014, the Year in Books: #’s 14 & 15

snowThe Snow Queen#15 – The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham is a talented writer, and his prose is always a joy to read, but in his latest novel, The Snow Queen, I felt the story wasn’t quite fully realized. There are some intriguing ideas — around life, death, love, siblings, success, songwriting, caring — but it’s unclear what it all amounts to. In fact, re-reading some reviews of The Snow Queen I find it difficult to recall the book being described; it just didn’t stick with me.

Still, despite a slow start, Cunningham’s latest novel builds nicely and the threads do start to come together nicely in the last quarter of the book. Sadly, a Michael Cunningham novel only comes along once every few years, so it’s disappointing when they don’t all reach the heights that his previous work does. Definitely worth a read.

this#14This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

This Dark Road to Mercy is a good book. I enjoyed reading it. It moves along nicely and tells a good story about two young girls in North Carolina, Easter and Ruby, whose mother has died years after their father has abandoned them. They end up in a foster home awaiting word from grandparents they have never met living in Alaska, when their father, Wade, a former, promising baseball player, shows up with an idea to get them back. Trouble is, someone is after Wade, and his intentions are not good. Wiley Case does a nice job building some suspense, Easter’s voice is particularly strong. But I am not really sure what he was trying to say about fatherhood, and the parent/child relationship, and the ending left me vaguely unsatisfied. Overall, I enjoyed it, but it was a little shy of being a great read.

posted in 2014, Books, Year-end lists | at 6:00 am | 0 Comments
6th January 2015
by Michael

2014, the Year in Books: A Few Honorable Mentions

There’s nothing arbitrary about the number of books I chose to spotlight for my year-end review. I stop there I feel there is a natural cut-off. This year that break does come in at #15, but even there, of the 38 books I read this year, there were a few more that I felt deserved a mention on the blog. Maybe they didn’t rise to the very top, they were still notable for one reason or another and great reads all the same. Here they are, in alphabetical order by author: the-books-that-didn’t-make-the-top-but-were-still-notable!

secret

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore – As a big comic big fan, a bigger fan of superheroines, and a long-time fan of WonderWoman, you know I wasn’t about to pass up a book that explores that character’s secret history. Add to that an author with a pedigree in feminism and history, and I was bound to find this a fascinating read. Then, I found myself sitting next to Ms. Lepore at a Random House breakfast at BookExpo America where she introduced this book to a bunch of librarians, and we bonded over my Wonder Woman cellphone cover. All that and I haven’t even mentioned what a great book this was. Lepore talks about how the Wonder Woman comic book came to be, and how it led the feminist charge through most of the previous century, but she also explores Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Martson and the two women in his life, Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne, who served as inspiration and even co-creators of the Amazon Princess.  Marston and his unconventional family make for fascinating subjects, and they were, but call me superheroine-centric, I just wanted a little more Wonder Woman.

liars

We Were Liars by E. Lockwood – This smash, young adult novel follows the lives of four teens as they spend summers on a private island off Martha’s Vineyard a la another famous, political family from real life. Seventeen-year-old Cady is our narrator as she looks back on the previous few summers on the island after a bizarre head injury robbed her of a season’s worth of memories. No one wants to tell her what happened, not her closest friends and cousins, not the little ones, not her mother, or aunts, and not even the boy who she thought was her boyfriend. All she knows is after the accident that robbed her of her memories, she stopped hearing from her fellow ‘liars,’ no matter how many e-mails she sent. We Were Liars is a engrossing read, with a nifty twist toward the end, but there’s only so much privilege I can read about before starting to roll my eyes. Fortunately, Lockwood is aware of this and rolls her authorial eyes in that direction as well.

arsonist

The Arsonist by Sue Miller – I’d never read Sue Miller, but she was going to be a guest at an author panel I put together, and I always try to read the book of an author I will be hosting. Plus, the premise of The Arsonist appealed to me: a series of fires plague a resort town in New Hampshire, but the houses going up in flames only seem to belong to the summer residents; the year-round residents abodes seem safe. This is the backdrop of a family story where a woman returns from years working in Africa to find her aging parents having some difficulties. What starts as a family drama, a story about aging, and a backdrop of crime, evolves a little too much into a love story for me during the second half, but Miller’s a strong writer and I’m glad I gave this one a shot.

 

love

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff – We lost one of our true talents in 2012, but he left us with a gift; his first novel. One that retained his sharp tongue, his sardonic wit, his discerning eye and his sympathetic heart. And the kicker? It’s entirely in verse! This is truly anoriginal and refreshing series of interconnected stories chronicling life, love and relationships throughout the 20th century. In addition to David’s poignant, acerbic, and witty storytelling skills, he has written the entire novel in verse, and included some beautiful illustrations by Seth. It’s a gorgeous design for a sweetly powerful novel by a talented writer who left us far too early.

posted in 2014, Books, Year-end lists | at 6:00 am | 0 Comments
5th January 2015
by Michael

2014, The Year in Reading: Graphic Novels

SagaIn preparation for my list of the best books I read in 2014, I wanted to call out a particular category that deserves mention, but didn’t feel right to include on the list proper, and that is the graphic novel, or more specifically, the collected editions of monthly comics. I’m a big comic book reader, and most of the reading I do in this genre is of individual issues on a monthly basis. Occasionally there is a title I’ve missed that I later catch up with when they are collected and published in bound editions. If I included these collected editions as part of this list, then Saga, Volumes 1, 2 and 3 would have made the Top 5.

The latest ongoing work by notable comic writer Brian K. Vaughan, with dynamic assistance from illustrator Fiona Staples, is a science fiction space opera cum Romeo & Juliet. A soldier and a rebel from opposite sides of two warring planets, fall in love and flee with their infant daughter with the governments of both factions, and a particularly a couple of wild bounty hunters on their tails. Saga is just that: a prose narrative of achievements and events in the history of a personage, family, etc. Sagas are all about heroism, and while there is something inherently heroic about Alana and Marko’s forbidden love and their refusal to follow the prejudiced and hateful viewpoints of their respective worlds, their heroism is shown on a much smaller scale, and that is they desire to raise their daughter despite the odds against them.

sagav1Vaughan, whose work in such comic titles as Y: The Last ManEx Machina,  Runaways and the stand-alone graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad, is known for this thoughtful explorations into the human condition, while telling a compelling adventure story, whether in the context of a dystopian society, a world of super-heroes, or against the backdrop of war.  His partner and co-owner of Saga is talented illustrator Fiona Staples, whose imaginative designs of alien races and starships lends both a whimsical fantasy and hard science fiction element to her work. Her gorgeous, hand-painted covers, and hand-worked lettering are also widely-praised by critics and fans alike.

If you’re a fan of high adventure, fantasy or science fiction, but not a comic reader, I would recommend you give Saga a try. If you’re a comic fan, but not so hot on the science fiction/fantasy elements, i would also suggest you pick up Saga, Volume 1. This is top notch work, and worthy of a place in my list of Top Reads of 2014. I only gave it a category all its own to make room for more books to spotlight.

posted in 2014, Books, Comics, Year-end lists | at 8:52 am | 0 Comments
10th January 2014
by Michael

2013: the Year in Comics

Winner

Marvel Now

Loser

DC Comics - The New 52

 

 

 

 

 

A year ago, as 2013 was starting, DC was still riding on the successes of the New 52, although the steam was starting to sputter, and the creativity that had been evident during its launch was starting to get scarce.  On the other hand, Marvel, who had spent years heading in a direction I just wasn’t at all interested in, was starting to show some promise with their Marvel Now campaign, their answer to DC’s New 52.  Who would know that in just one year, as 2014 is kicking off, I would have made such a radical shift, jettisoning many of my DC titles, and feeling lackluster about the ones I’m keeping, and embracing so many new Marvel titles… or at least enjoying the new directions that they are headed in. I’m somewhat unique when it comes to comic readers, I think.  I’m largely interested in super-heroines, and as a gay man, I’ve been enjoying the growing number of gay characters that have been popping up in comics.  Overall, I would give DC higher marks when it comes to their treatment of women and gays in comics.  That all seemed to change during 2013, when Marvel really started putting their money where their mouth is, and showcasing female characters in a really big way, putting marketing muscle behind them, and really starting to address some of the criticisms that have been dogging them:  namely that they were a old, white boys club.  2013 showed them really trying new things, and 2014 looks to be continuing the trend.

High Point of 2013

Sif

Sif from Journey into Mystery by Kathryn Immonen and Valerio Schiti.  Hands down, best comic book read in 2013, and I dare say, in the last ten years.  Smart, rollicking fun.  Too bad it only lasted 10 issues.

Journey Into Mystery 2013 saw the bulk of the short run that I have to mark as one of the best comic arcs I have ever enjoyed.  That was Marvel’s Journey Into Mystery, featuring Sif, written by Kathryn Immonen with art by Valerio Schiti.  Wow.  I remember reading an interview with Immonen before the series launched, and she talked about giving Sif some fun, sprawling adventures, filled with brawls, revelry, bad behavior, and just plain old fun.  She succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.  From Asgardian berserkers, to fighting back to back with Spider-Man in Manhattan, to cosmic, space adventure, Immonen wrote Sif as the consummate warrior who fit in everywhere.  It was truly the most fully realized the character has ever been.  Completely defined on her own, and not as Thor’s boyfriend, or Beta Ray Bill’s boyfriend, but as a warrior, as a goddess, ad a friend, and as a super-heroine.  Valerio Schiti brought Sif to life with his pencils that combined a goddess’ beauty, with the true strength of a warrior.  I never doubted that Sif couldn’t do all the mighty thinks she did, and she was beautiful while she did it.  And did I mention the gorgeous cover art by Jeff Dekal?  Blew me away every month.  But it was too good to be true, and I knew it wouldn’t last.  Still we had 10 fantastic issues to enjoy – and it was a real longshot to begin with.  I am so happy to have had such a joy to read for ten months running.

 

Other Shining Moments

Sandman: Overtures

Neil Gaiman returns to Sandman along with J.H. Williams III

The only thing better than Neil Gaiman returning to his most well-known work, The Sandman, would be having return with someone like J. H. Williams III handling the artwork.  Well, that is just what Vertigo did, and the result is spectacular.  Only a single issue has been published thus far and already the results are out of this world… literally.  Neil is crafting the story that serves as a prequel of sorts to his groundbreaking series.  What were the events that led to Morpheus’ decades-long captivity in issue #1 of The Sandman comic?  Overture  will reveal this story over the course of several bi-monthly issues. Neil’s return is fresh and welcoming. It feels both comfortable, a soft, enveloping afghan to curl up in on a snowy night, and revitalized and energized.  And other than Dave McKean, was there ever an artist more suited to visualizing the tales of the Dream-King than J.H. Williams III?  He gave us hints of this type of work in Promethea, matured to the superstar comic artist he is today with Batwoman and now turns his formidable talents to such a classic character whose visuals have been chronicled by a series of great artists.  In 2013, this is the one thing DC really did right.

 

 

 

 

 

Young Avengers

Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen.  Innovative, fresh and fun.   Smart as hell.  Too bad it’s only lasting 12 issues.

The third comics high point in 2013 has a connection with the first.  Prior to Sif taking over the spotlight in Journey Into Mystery, Kieron Gillen had a very successful run on the title featuring Sif’s fellow Asgardian, Kid Loki. In 2013, Gillen brought Kid Loki along for the ride when he launched Young Avengers, surpassing even the heights the groups’ creator, Allan Heinberg took them.  With innovative artwork and stories that truly felt like they were populated by super-powered teenagers (albeit fantastically powerful and incredibly beautiful teenagers) Young Avengers was fresh and exciting every month. Kid Loki wasn’t the only new member in the Young Avengers, a mysterious powerhouse named Miss America, Kree superhero Marvel Boy, and former X-Man Prodigy joined original members Wiccan, Hulkling and Hawkeye for some truly dimension-hopping adventures. It is notable to mention that the Kate Bishop Hawkeye has starred to not just one, but two of the year’s spotlight series.  Read more about her activities in the Hawkeye entry below. It is also notable that the gay relationship between Wiccan and Hulkling is central to the series.  Again, this series could have run much longer, but after a single year, Gillen decided to call it a day rather than lose the innovative energy that infused his first season.  It will be greatly missed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FF

FF by Matt Fraction and Mike Allred.  Full of heart, joy and spontaneity.  And you could find a better artist for this title.  Too bad it’s only lasting 14 issues.

My next entry has been a consistent high point for 2013 and is yet another title that will be ending after just over one year.  Matt Fraction was everywhere in Marvel in 2013, including taking over the Fantastic Four franchise.  In addition to the flagship title, Fantastic Four, Fraction took over FF (formerly the Future Foundation) keeping the large cast of young students at the Foundation, and replacing the Fantastic Four with the quirky  combo of Ant-man (Scott Lang), She-Hulk, Medusa, and She-Thing (Johnny’s pop-star girlfriend, Darla, in a Thing suit).  Sound weird?  Well it was, but it had originality, fun, and most importantly, heart.  It didn’t hurt that Michael Allred handled the artwork, and his gorgeous, cartoony style fit the title to perfection.

Batwoman

Batwoman proposes to maggie Sawyer.  Groundbreaking and powerful.  Too bad DC had to mess it all up afterwards.  Fingers crossed for Andreyko.

Alas, the tale of Batwoman should probably be a blog post all on its own, but it has been examined and talked over by many better writers/bloggers than me, so I will try to keep it down to a paragraph or two.  Nothing DC has put out in the last decade can compare to the excitement generated and quality served that Batwoman, first under the masterful team of Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III.  When Greg left the title due to editorial interference from DC, Batwoman fans collectively held their breath. Would their beloved title survive?  When the announcement came that the writing duties would be taken over by artist Williams III, and that he would continue to draw every other story arc, you could feel the internet sigh in relief. Personally, although I would miss Rucka, who really was an act that couldn’t be topped for this title, I was thrilled because the artist who would be alternating with Williams III was Amy Reeder, who I also loved.  Her work on Madame Xanadu was clean and fresh, but also broke convention and would be a perfect counterpoint for Williams III.  Alas, after a couple of issues, ‘creative differences’ forced Reeder off the title. Somehow Batwoman survived yet another creative shake-up, but the third, and most recent will be the make or break moment, I fear.  In a glorious moment, Williams III had Kate Kane aka Batwoman, propose to her beloved, Maggie Sawyer.  Before any follow-up could be seen in the book itself, the news broke that DC was not allowing any characters to get married (because all their characters had to be angst-ridden and miserable, which marriage prevents) and due to larger creative differences, J.H. Williams III was leaving the title.  Now that was a blow that I doubted Batwoman could survive. Yet somehow, some way, DC got one of the very few writers that might be able to take the reins successfully to do just that.  Marc Andreyko, whose amazing work on Manhunter could have been a precursor to Batwoman, has taken over the writing duties of Batwoman.  The real question is, as 2014 kicks off, can Marc rise above the editorial interference that seems to be the true enemy Batwoman must face to rise triumphant back to her former glory.  Only time will tell.  2014 will either be one more sigh of relief, or the year that Batwoman comes crashing down from the heights she has existed in since her launch.

 

 

 

Fearless Defenders

Cullen Bunn had big plans for the superheroines of Marvel in Fearless Defenders.  Too bad it only lasted 12 issues.

Cullen Bunn did something promising at the end of his Fear Itself: The Fearless miniseries a couple of years ago.  He ended the story with Valkyrie realizing that she needed to gather together a new group of Valkyries to be ready to combat evil, etc.  What followed in 2013 was a series to surprising when you think about Marvel’s track record, that the fact that it lasted 12 issues was an astounding feat that I will always treasure.  It may not have been the most innovative writing, or the most polished art, but it spoke directly to my particular fan-boy heart. Fearless Defenders was basically a forum for writer Cullen Bunn to spotlight the heroines (and villainesses) of Marvel.  It starts as an odd copule scenario, Brunnhilde the Valkyrie and Misty Knight, bionic detective coming together to combat evil.  Along the twelve-issue run we are treated to an assortment of well-known (She-Hulk, Storm, Black Cat, Elektra), fan-favorite (Tigra, Dani Moonstar, Hellcat, Colleen Wing, Thundra, Elsa Bloodston) and downright obscure (Hippolyta, Clea, Tarantula) heroines coming  together for some kick-ass adventure. Add to that a terrific new ‘human’ character, Annabelle, who gets caught up in the team’s adventures and falls for Valkyrie, who, being an Asgardian goddess, is not necessarily opposed to a relationship with another woman.  Sadly, that gets slightly derailed when Annabelle is killed and with a little help for Clea, Valkyrie rescues her soul but ends up having to share her body with her. And that’s just the start.  When I read what Mr. Bunn had planned for the longer run of this title, my soul just weeps.  Why wasn’t this title flying off the shelves!  Then, I step back and wonder, how did he sell more than a dozen copies?  I’m so thankful this title existed, and I’m so thankful that this Marvel Now initiative gave Marvel the balls to get behind it for a year.  Who knows?  Perhaps the Fearless Defenders will return?

 

 

 

 

Hawkeye

Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye is original and fun.  Surprised (and happy) that this one is still being published!

Matt Fraction has an offbeat sensibility.  And I really, really welcome it in comics.  Just take a look at FF and Hawkeye?  I’ve always enjoyed Hawkeye (Clint Barton) as a character, but since the Bendis-i-zation of all things Avengers, I was pretty much over most of them as characters.  When this new Hawkeye series was announced, honestly, what caught my attention were the fantastic covers created by David Aja.  I also read an interview with Fraction somewhere where he mentioned that both Clint and Kate Bishop – the other Hawkeye – would be appearing in this title.  My interest was suitably piqued. The rest is history.  Hawkeye is one of the most original mainstream superhero comic today.  It’s firmly rooted in the superhero world, with references to Hawkeye’s Avengers membership, and villains like Madame Masque popping in from time to time, but the stories’ focus is much more personal.  From Clint trying to protect his building’s fellow tenants from a shady landlord, Kate trying to find a job, or Clint’s dog having an issue-long adventure on his own, Hawkeye never ceases to please. And it’s truly showing in the non-comic book store world.  Collected editions of the Hawkeye comic are showing up next to Fables on the top selling graphic novel lists on Amazon. This is the way you grab an audience, people.  Not by playing it safe, but by taking chances.  Thanks, Matt.

 

 

 

 

 

Red She-Hulk

Biggest surprise of the year

Have I said this too many times already?  Surely this was the biggest surprise of the year for me.  That whole Red Hulk think was totally lost on me over the last few years, and when they started in on the Red She-Hulk?  I just couldn’t be bothered.  There was a perfectly good She-Hulk running around: Jennifer Walters, and the spotlight on any She-Hulk should be on her.  Sure, Betty Ross Banner is a character with a lot of history, and the fact that she’s got some Hulk issues of her own is vaguely interesting, I just didn’t see the need. So why did I pick up the first issues of the new Red She-Hulk comic?  I really have no idea.  Jeff Parker was the creative force behind Agents of Atlas, which I actually didn’t read, but heard good things about it.  I’m wracking my brain, but honestly, I can’t remember why I picked it up, but something about that very first issue, with the Avengers trying to hunt Red She-Hulk down, and with Machine Man of all people being the readers’ point of entry, that really clicked, and like Journey Into Mystery featuring Sif, there was something just old school and fun, while still being original, about Red She-Hulk.  Too bad it only last 8 issues.

 

 

 

 

 

X-Men

Brian Wood’s X-Men

Despite being saddled with a mutant-line crossover a couple issues after it debuted, X-Men has managed to find a nice identity and let the central characters shine.  What could have easily been a gimmick — let’s feature a team of X-Men that’s all women — very quickly became something much more organic and fun under Brian Wood’s steady hand.  It has helped that he’s had a couple of terrific artists helping him out, first Olivier Copiel, then Terry and Rachel Dodson, but the dynamic between the characters, the action sequences, the rhythm of the stories… by gosh, you might not even notice that there aren’t any guys featured!  It’s just kind of business as usual! The roster has changed slightly since the start. Kitty Pryde has left the building (sadly).  Kitty is such a mature and stabilizing presence, I would have liked to seen her play off some of the more volatile characters a bit more.  That said, the introduction of X-Factor’s Monet (M) into the mix in the last couple of issues is inspired, and should make for a nice team dynamic.   Wood has set up a little tension between Storm and Rachel, which is nice.  It’s nice to see Rachel do much of anything, actually.  And having Jubilee as the catalyst of sorts for this team was kind of nice as well.  Especially since the fact that she’s a vampire now is barely mentioned.  Maybe they’ll just forget about it.  It’s nice that the students are all running around in the background as well, interacting where appropriate.  I’m also loving the natural growth of the Sisterhood, a team of super villainesses to oppose the X-Men.  And the fact that Brian is reaching beyond the mutantverse to populate this Sisterhood with the likes of the Enchantress and Typhoid Mary is inspired.  If the writing and art stays at this level, X-Men could be around for a long time.

 

Mixed Bags

Guardians of the GalaxyBefore I get into the two major families that Marvel focuses on, let me say a brief word about Guardians of the Galaxy.  A few years ago, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning revitalized Marvel’s cosmic line of comics through a couple of major events called Annhiliation and Annihilation: Conquest.  Among the titles they launched was a whacky band of cosmic misfits, The Guardians of the Galaxy.  Led by Starlord, their roster was  a loose collection of space-faring warriors such as Drax, Gamora, Captain Marvel (Phyla-Vell), Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Moondragon, Mantis, Cosmo, Bug, and a few more.  It was fresh, it was funny, the characters were distinct and unique.  One of the best comics in the last ten years.  With the announcement last year that Marvel’s next new movie in their stable would be a Guardians of the Galaxy film, a new series was launched written by Marvel powerhouse Brian Michael Bendis.  It was a stripped down roster, Starlord, Drax, Gamora, Rocket and Groot, with the addition of Neil Gaiman’s creation, Angela.  And amazingly (not) Mr. Bendis took every ounce of character and intelligence out of the book.  The characters are the blandest batch of heroes to be found.  They took away Gamora’s inappropriately revealing costume and replaced it with ugly, clunky armor that makes her pretty generic looking.  They added in Iron Man just because.  It’s really pretty abysmal.  Not even a very brief appearance by my favorite ex-Guardian, Mantis, could perk up this blah title.  Well, I waited out Bendis over in the Avengers.  Maybe in ten years, Guardians of the Galaxy will have a new writer and I will enjoy it once again.

The Avengers

Not counting Young Avengers, which is so far removed from the Avengers family, I just pretend it’s not even related.  Marvel leaned heavily on the Avengers family of titles this year with not one, but two major events wrapped around them.  The first, Age of Ultron came and went without a whole lot of impact.  For me, the main positive moment in this event came from the prominent role played by Susan Storm Richards, the Invisible Woman.  A thank you to Bendis for including her in that role.  I barely remember the rest of the story.

Infinity

Infinity was a bit of a dud. Overlong and repetitious.

The main event of 2013 was called Infinity, and it was helmed by Jonathan Hickman.  This one crossed over throughout pretty much all the Avengers titles to varying degrees of success.  There was a whole lot of repetition, i.e. here’s the same exact story from Captain America’s point of view in The Avengers; here it is from Captain Marvel’s point of view in Captain Marvel; here it is from Spider-woman’s point of view in Avengers Assemble… you get the idea?  One thing Infinity did for me was help me come to the realization that Hickman’s Avengers is not my cup of tea.  It’s all big ideas, zero characterization.  He’s swollen the Avengers roster to about 35 members, and honestly, they are pretty interchangeable.  There are literally no defining characteristics that make one character any different from another.  Sure, Captain America spouts orders – but so does Captain Marvel.  Thor just wants to hit things — well so does Smasher.  And on… and on.  Some of the sister Avenger titles fare a little better.  Avengers Assemble written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Warren Ellis, focused more on the lady Avengers, and brought some interesting insight to their tale.  Hickman’s New Avengers featuring the Illuminati, was slightly more interesting because it was focused more tightly on a small group of characters. Uncanny AvengersThe one new title that I have been enjoying a great deal is Mighty Avengers.  While it’s too soon to tell how long it will last, or how long I will like it, it features an interesting mix of characters, including Spectrum (Monica Rambeau), She-Hulk, White Tiger, and Luke Cage, among others, and is the most diverse gathering of heroes that Marvel has put together.  Similarly, reaching back to Âge of Ultron, the one new title to emerge from that event is Avengers A.I. starring Hank Pym, the Vision, and some other artificial intelligences.  It’s intriguing and fun, and this latest issues reveal that Jocasta would be involved has me even more interested. The one major Avengers title that somehow managed to avoid the Infinity onslaught was also the best of the bunch.  Uncanny Avengers was born out of last year’s Avengers vs. X-men event.  Helmed by Rick Remender, Uncanny Avengers has taken a bold premise, humans and mutants working together quite visibly, and created a major epic storyline that doesn’t sacrifice some powerful character work.  Remender had the challenging job of integrating the Scarlet Witch back onto a team after Bendis dragged her character through the mud every way you could conceive of, and he has done so effectively and without sacrificing what came before.  He has also written the Wasp back in character, flirtatious, yet tough and capable.  He has integrated former X-Men, Havok, Rogue and Sunfire into the mix nicely… and of course, Wolverine, who was already an Avenger.  Honestly, this one took me by surprise.  I hadn’t really been expecting much.

X-Men

X-Factor

Good-bye X-Factor. We’ll miss you.

I’ve already shown the winner in the X-Men family above… and that would be Brian Wood’s X-Men, featuring a team of female X-Men.  Speaking of Peter David’s X-Factor, my #1 mutant book came to a close last year, and while it’s coming back in a different incarnation in 2014, these last few years, the title, spawned from a mini-series starring Madrox, was something really special.  Not only did it give us another fantastic gay couple, Rictor and Shatterstar, but it deftly wove together intricate stories featuring Pip the Troll and Hela, not an easy feat for mutant title.  I’m sure David’s new X-Factor will be a fun read… most of his work is… but there was something about that last X-Factor that was special.  I certainly never thought I’d like Layla Miller, and a couple issues under David’s pen, and she was a favorite. The real surprise for me has been Bendis’ All-New X-Men.  The concept, bring the original X-Men forward in time so they can see what a mess their Cylcops has made of the present, so they can go back and make sure this stuff doesn’t happen in their future, is just the kind of ridiculous claptrap that makes many people roll their eyes at comics.  Lets be clear, this was a way to bring Jean Grey back to life without bringing her back to life.  Since Alias, I haven’t really thought much of Bendis playing in the Marvel world.  In fact, his whole Avengers run is what nearly drove me away from Marvel.  So you can imagine how surprised I was when I was really enjoying his All New X-Men!

All-New X-Men

Second biggest surprise of 2013. I’m loving this.

 

DC

Other than Neil Gaiman’s return to  Sandman, the most positive thing I can say about DC is that some of their title maintained a certain level of quality.  I am in the midst of a major purge of DC titles, and their recent line-wide push, namely Villains United, hasleft me decidedly cold.  The editorial interference that drove J. H. Williams III from Batwoman was enough to put me off all on its own.  It’s a slim hope that the talented Marc Andreyko will be able to do something positive with the formerly amazing title under the current editorial regime.

Wonder Woman

The biggest surprise about Wonder Woman is that DC is letting Brian Azzarello continue to write it.  I am enjoying his fresh take on the series, but it’s truly baffling when there is another Wonder Woman starring in Justice League and Superman & Wonder Woman that doesn’t resemble Azzarello’s lead character much at all.  In fact, the Wonder Woman in those other two titles is one of the worst iterations of the character since the 70′s.  I can only imagine that at some point, Mr. Azzarello will move on to another title, and the Wonder Woman starring in her own comic will slowly (or quickly) morph into the one that more people are seeing over in Justice League.  That will truly be a sad day.

The Movement

Gail Simone’s new title, The Movement

Of course, the bright spot over at DC remains Gail Simone. She is such a talented writer that she consistently keeps me interested in Batgirl despite the fact that DC keeps dragging her into the Batman family and the stories going on over in that part of the world.  It seems that every few issues, Gail has to work in some Batman-related storyline that disrupts the flow of her own storytelling.  Gail has a second title over at DC called The Movement.  This oddball group of young super-heroes fight for the homeless, the poor, and the otherwise disenfranchised against a corrupt law enforcement agency.  It’s fresh and fun, and Gail injects it with her usual share of LGBT issues and other diversity.  That said, I don’t expect it to last much longer.  Gail will be writing her first story over at Marvel in over ten years, and it is my hope that they lure her over there to take part in the seeming renaissance that’s happening there.

Other than that, the titles that I am still enjoying over at DC include World’s Finest: Huntress & Power Girl, Earth 2 (largely thanks to Nicola Scott’s amazing artwork), Swamp Thing and Animal Man.  Trinity of Sin: Pandora intrigues me, and I always like to support female characters, but it has been so tied up in the whole Villains United story that I’m rapidly losing interest.  Same with Justice League Dark, which I find interesting because of the characters, but I wish it was off on its own and not tied up in all the goings on of the main Justice Leagues.

Vertigo’s mainstays, Fables and Fairest remain top quality books. The big problem over at DC is, as I mentioned, their Villains United initiative, where the focus for the past several months has been on villains.  I don’t read these comics for the villains, I read them for the heroes.  It’s all pretty boring, actually, and it caused me to drop a bunch of titles that I wasn’t really enjoying anyway.  And the rash of cancellations at DC of books that I was enjoying is disheartening:  Legion of Superheroes, Katana, Demon Knights, Sword & Sorcery: Amethyst, and I, Vampire.  Honestly, this is the first time I can remember that there wasn’t a Legion of Superheroes title being published, or at least in the works.

Other publishers

But there’s good work being down outside of the big two as well.  I don’t seek out a whole lot of indies, but Gail Simone got me to check out Red Sonja which she is writing for Dynamite.  Terry Moore continues his creative work on Rachel Rising.  Amy Reeder has started her own book along with writer Brandon Montclare called Rocket Girl for Image which has started off promisingly.  Colleen Doran has gotten Image to resume publication of her epic A Distant Soil, and I’m really enjoying seeing all my favorite kaiju come to life in the Godzilla titles for IDW.

So that’s it!  My year in comics.  Still reading, still enjoying them over all, although DC really is hitting a low point.  If nothing else, the comics industry is pretty quixotic, so who knows what will happen in 2014.

posted in Comics, Year-end lists | at 7:32 am | 0 Comments
8th January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 1 & 2

My top books read in 2013 is topped by an old favorite and a new debut.  Helen Wacker’s debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni is a powerfully gorgeous fantasy novel disguised as historical fiction.  Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is gorgeous, Gaiman-fantasy at its best.  A couple of really great books.

The Golem and the Jinni#2 - The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wacker

I find it interesting how wrapping a fantasy in historical fiction allows a novel to transcend genre and suddenly appeal to a wider audience. It’s a neat trick that worked for Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and if there’s any justice it will work for Helene Wecker’s lovely and highly original The Golem and the Jinni.

The setting is the oh-so appealing turn-of-the (20th) century New York City, and the protagonists are, surprisingly enough, a golem called Chava, and a Jinni called Ahmad. Both find themselves in a difficult situation with no one who truly understands their respective plights. Chava was created to serve as a wife for a Polish peasant. Despite admonitions to the contrary, the peasant awakens Chava on the journey from Europe to America, then promptly dies of a massive heart attack. The golem is suddenly alive, but without a master, and while she possesses nearly limitless strength and endurance in her body made of clay, her strange ability to sense the desires of those around her threatens to drive her mad.

In traditional jinni style, Ahmad finds himself in Arbeely’s shop after the young man begins work on a copper flask. Ahmad has been trapped in said flask for centuries, but his release only adds to his torment, for on his wrist is an iron cuff that traps him in human form, and prevents him from accessing the full range of his fiery powers. His memories of how he found himself trapped thus have been wiped clean.

Eventually, the woman of earth and the man of fire meet and form a grudging friendship. Wecker develops their relationship beautifully, and it is the interplay between Chava and Ahmad that scores the highest points with me. In fact, Chava is a fascinating character, and while archetypal, she is also refreshing and delightful to root for as the novel’s main heroine. Wecker also uses the Jewish and Syrian communities to strong effect, adding a rich cultural element to the fantastic story.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane#1 - The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is just the master of telling archetypal stories involving childhood, magic, evil, myth, and the world. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a middle-aged man returns to his childhood home in rural England and stumbles across a farmhouse at the end of the lane that sparks certain memories that he didn’t know he had. These memories spin back forty years to a terrifying time when something dark and menacing was almost turned loose on the world thanks to his fears.

Gaiman has such a talent for straddling the line between that type of fantasy the instills wonder and delight and a dark horror that works on all ages.  He taps into the terrifying things that scare both adults and children.  The monstrous caretaker in this novel taps into many of the fears we have both as isolated children and as worried parents.  Gaiman’s creativity and imagination is vivid and powerful, tapping into something we all feel from our youth, and he imbues real menace into his stories that somehow still manage to work for both kids and adults.

posted in 2013, Books, Fantasy, Year-end lists | at 7:21 am | 0 Comments
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