Saga, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughn

unnamedGraphic novels and comics are really picking up literary steam and popularity these days. One of the most talked about comic series of the past year has to be Brian K. Vaughn’s Saga. So when I was perusing the shelves of my local Barnes and Noble, I picked up the first volume without thinking twice, went home, and inhaled the entire thing like candy.

On the Bookrageous podcast, I think they like to pitch this series as Romeo + Juliet in outer space. I’ve also heard descriptions such as Firefly meets Quentin Tarantino. All are accurate. The first volume tells the story of Hazel’s birth. Her parents are star-crossed lovers from warring worlds who have gone and done the craziest thing possible – falling in love. Now the whole galaxy is out to kill them and take their newborn. In addition to this main plotline, there are ghosts, trees headlining as rocketships, and whole planets that act as brothels.Wackiness ensues.

What does Saga do so well against this backdrop of absurdity? Humanity. I felt something for the characters immediately. And that emotional connection creates a levity to the story that perfectly balances the fantastical elements that could have easily taken center stage. Caring about this outlaw family also keeps you on the edge of your seat and turning the pages quicker than you have in recent memory. They must save Hazel!!

You can’t talk about a graphic novel without talking about the pretty pictures. And let me just tell you, the artwork in Saga might be my favorite of all literary time. LOVED. Sometimes in illustrated characters, I find a sameness that keeps me from connecting to any one person individually. Not the case here. Each drawn being lives and breathes all on their own. Kudos, creators!

When I was speaking with the Barnes and Noble employee as he rang up my order, he told me how much he loved the series and how the fandom was waiting rather impatiently for the third volume to be released (April 2014!). Gladly, I still have the second volume to look forward to and will hold off for a few weeks to lessen the inevitable torture of joining those eagerly anticipating the newest release.

So go read Saga. Right now.

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The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

What better way to remember a beloved author than reading one of his works?  I was so saddened to hear of Bradbury’s recent death because this man literally awoke the science fiction loving monster within me.  As a freshman in high school I read The Martian Chronicles along with several short stories by Bradbury and have not stopped reading him since.  Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Dandelion Wine have all been spectacular reads over the past decade and a half.  So with his passing I thought I’d take it all the way back to the beginning with the very first story I ever read that he wrote – “The Veldt”.

What I didn’t realize (and how could I not have realized this?) was that “The Veldt” is actually the first story in a collection entitled, The Illustrated Man.  Eighteen stories are woven together seamlessly.  The illustrated man is literally that – covered in beautiful lifelike tattoos that come awake at night.  They bring warnings of the future and one even shows a man (or woman) his/her death.

There are tales of race, gluttony, materialism, consumerism, and other bleak ‘isms’ that all involve space, many Bradbury’s beloved Mars.  In one yarn, all African American people escaped Earth to colonize Mars and now, many years later, a white man is on his way to Mars for the first time – will the Martians exact revenge for the wrongs of the past or forgive this man his race’s crimes?   And then there’s the previously mentioned “The Veldt” where the children’s virtual reality playroom becomes a little less virtual and a lot more reality.  But perhaps my favorite of the collection (and one of the only positive, uplifting stories) tells the tale of the world’s best father.

Bradbury’s writing is his amazing imagination come to life.  You really almost feel like a child again as you giddily read these wondrously fashioned creations.  There’s just something so special about the vibrancy of his writing even when his subject matter is decidedly bleak.  It’s like a painting you can’t take your eyes off of.  His stories always have a message – a morale – but never feel heavy handed or indulgent.  Or perhaps the magic of his writing just overshadows anything negative.  I even forgive him his obvious flaw of writing terribly poor female characters.  Often writers can’t get away with this, but something about Bradbury’s almost innocent style allows me to chalk his sexism up to being a product of his time (1940s/1950s).  Don’t hate me for it!  Clarisse from Fahrenheit 451 proves he can build a strong female!

The Illustrated Man will forever remain on my shelves and has only further solidified my inner Bradbury geekdom.  He’s a science fiction cultural icon and deserving of every bit of praise he receives.  The world lost a truly amazing visionary this year and he will be forever missed in the literary world.  I beseech all of you to pick up some Bradbury soon and discover (or rediscover) what makes his writing so effortlessly timeless.  This collection is a great place to start and will appeal to anyone who likes science fiction, twisty-turning plots, a story with a moral purpose, or just fantastic, poetic prose.

Reading back through what I just wrote and I sound like a complete lush gushing over her new lover.  Seriously.  I guess that’s how a favorite author should make you feel.  Thanks again, Mr. Bradbury, for making me weak in the knees!

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

My first exposure to Ray Bradbury came some 14 years ago when I was a freshman in high school.  We read The Martian Chronicles and I was smitten, not just by Bradbury himself, but also by the whole idea of science fiction.  Science fiction seemed to be a place where adults were still allowed to use their imaginations.  I’ve since read Fahrenheit 451 (twice!), Dandelion Wine, and Something Wicked This Way Comes and have loved each one dearly.

Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of fireman, Guy Montag, who lives in a future where firemen start fires instead of stopping them.  Their job is to burn homes suspected of housing the most dangerous of contraband – books.  When Montag meets a strange young woman, Clarisse, one evening, she sends his world spinning simply by having the audacity to ask questions.  Soon enough, Montag realizes he’s been yearning to ask these same questions and finds himself hunter turned hunted as he races to free himself from the shackles of a world without thought.

I’m not sure what I can possibly say about this literary gem that hasn’t been said much more eloquently by someone else.  What really amazed me this time through the novel was how utterly relevant the story still is 59 years after publication.  Nothing about the premise or execution seems dated.  The futuristic elements are still locked firmly in a future we haven’t realized and fears of censorship, raging wars, and lack of freedom are still quite prevalent.  To top it all off, this ‘classic’ is an extremely accessible novel to read and should pose no hardship to new readers and yet still impact well read literary snobs.  Bradbury is a genius.

During my first reading in high school, I think I focused more on the shameful act of burning books than how our country got to that point in the first place.  During this reading, I was shocked to discover that people stopped reading all on their own far before the government enforced a ban.  How scary is that?  With the closing of Borders and the idea of brick-and-mortar bookstores being close to extinction, Bradbury’s foresight seems downright creepy.  Will we as a nation just eventually shun reading so much that we’ll be happy to see books banned?

I was also really drawn to the description of this dystopian society.  America becomes a world where brainless television reigns (think reality tv).  They have whole rooms where all four walls are huge television screens and they call the actors their ‘relatives’.  Their world moves so fast, technology has become so central, that no one slows down enough to make human connections anymore.  Can you imagine the day we think of Kris Jenner as our own mother or Kim Kardashian as our beloved sister?  It makes me break out into a sweat.  In this future world, suicide is so commonplace that they just send a team of stomach pumpers to siphon the swallowed sleeping pills from your body.  I’d probably be swallowing pills too if my family was The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

Joking aside, this novel is scary, grim, and shocking because you will see signs of society already turning towards Bradbury’s ‘fictional’ world.  If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and get a copy ASAP – it’s a short little story, less that 200 pages, but so unique and important.  My reread took place on the same day everyone was protesting SOPA which felt so freakishly relevant.  I would also beseech you to read Bradbury’s other novels, as they are all amazing in their own way.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

First, and perhaps most importantly, what a fun story.  Once I had purchased Ready Player One, I knew it wouldn’t sit on my shelves long (despite the massively large amount of books already on my TBR shelf).  I bought into the hype from the get-go and was so not disappointed – in fact, I think I enjoyed the book more than I had even hoped.

Wade Watts (online avatar – Parzival) is a senior in high school around year 2041.  The world is crumbling around him as humans spend all of their time inside the virtual world of OASIS, ignoring the reality that planet Earth’s days are numbered. When the multibillionaire creator of OASIS dies, he bequeaths his fortune to the first person able to uncover the hidden Easter egg he wrote into the OASIS code.  What follows is a desperate scramble to win the game and escape the miserable existence of reality, led by Parzival and his friends Artemis, Aech, Shoto, and Daito.  Right on their tails is IOI, the evil corporation who hopes to use their fortune and resources to not only win the money, but also control of the single most important social construct in the present day world.  Throw in a massive amount of 80s trivia, a hero’s quest, the search for identity and you’ve got the gist of Ready Player One.

At first I couldn’t understand why the media was making such a big deal of the billionaire’s death.  After all, the people of Planet Earth had other concerns.  The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change.  Widespread famine, poverty, and disease.  Half a dozen wars.  You know:  “dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria!”

You do not have to be an 80s connoisseur or pop culture guru to love this story.   Most references to these types of geeky entertainment are fully described and brought to life by Cline within the book.  I do warn you, however, that you’ll come away with a list of films, television shows, music, books and other items you’ll immediately want to consume.  My Netflix queue is filled with movies from this novel, much to my husband’s benefit as movies such as Blade Runner are, in his opinion, modern classics.  I can’t wait to re-read once I’ve educated myself.  Not that I’m a complete 80s novice, I love Pretty in Pink like I love Pride and Prejudice.  Plus, the 80s gave me life – so kudos most beloved decade.

To make a point out of my babbling, you don’t necessarily have to know the details of the 80s, but I think you need to understand what the 80s could possibly mean to a group of people young and old, or a deteriorating world in manic need to find themselves – to find an identity outside the virtual playground so that they survive the forces constantly pushing against them.  I can’t think of a decade that better eclipses the search for identity.  All the silly clothes and loud fashion, the experimental music, huge political failures and successes, the rise of a younger generation, and the rapid progress of the computer and technology.  There’s a lot you can learn from such a oft-criticized and repeatedly mocked decade.

All that important sounding junk aside, Ready Player One is a fast-paced, fun, quirky, and often touching story of friendship and competition.  There are explosions and high action for those who are adrenaline junkies right alongside great character development, romance, and compelling social commentary for the readers who require a little more depth.  And both groups will be utterly satisfied.  While Ready Player One might never win any literary awards or be studied some 200 years in the future,  Will Watts and his comrades will hold a dear place in the hearts of many readers and will remain on my bookshelf to be reread for years to come.  A book that can glorify Cap’N Crunch cereal right along with showing the detriments of global warming wins my own personal award for Awesomeness.  I can’t wait to see what Ernie Cline does next!

One last aside:  I think anyone who believes they hate science fiction should read this book.  I’ve recommended it to several sci-fi haters and they’ve all had to eat crow!  Take a chance!  You can always leave me scathing comments and ‘I told you so’ trash talk feedback if you prove me wrong – I can handle it!

Book Review: Empire by Orson Scott Card

You first have to understand that Orson Scott Card wrote one of my favorite books of all time – Ender’s Game.  I actually read Ender’s Game as part of my ninth grade curriculum and have reread the novel a couple of times since – plus, I finished the Ender’s Saga a couple of years ago (there are three additional books in the series).  In a way, I kind of view Ender Wiggins as my Harry Potter.  That being said, Empire is no Ender’s Game.

Card was asked to create a world around a video game idea and thus, Empire was born.  We’re a bit into the future to the tune of a few years, not decades or centuries.  In the first few pages, the President and Vice President are both assassinated.  Before long, the US has found itself smack in the middle of a second civil war – this one being fought red vs. blue.  Instead of a boy genius, Card now has us following an old Delta command unit whose leader works an office job at the Pentagon in anti-terrorism.

Empire is political – you need to know that up front, and the politics are anything but balanced.  Sure, Card does occasionally try to argue both sides, liberal and conservative – but all too often these brief moments seem forced or merely an afterthought.  Writers are supposed to write what they know, right?  Card is very much a conservative so it comes as no surprise that the Liberals are the enemy – the bad guys.  I’d have been much more pleased if he had reversed the situation and removed the reader’s ability to say – boy, I sure saw that one coming.

The novel does highlight the duality and division of our country’s two-party system, the ugliness of war, and warns of something many Americans believe could never happen – another civil war.  The action is non-stop and the pages turn freely.  If you can divorce yourself from choosing sides or identifying with any one ideal, you can probably enjoy this book as a fun, sci-fi thriller.

I rated this book a 2/5 because I’m heavily biased.  Empire doesn’t come close to Ender’s brilliancy and the story just feels too choppy – kind of like someone wrote something because they were asked to, not because the idea grew organically in their own imagination (huh, imagine that!).  Plus, they killed my favorite character mid-way through the novel which left me kind of floundering to find someone else to believe in.  Boo!

A little warning – this book is the first in a series, so the ending will fall a bit short.  Also, I don’t plan on reading the next novel.  I’m beginning to get a bit peeved at everything having to be a series now-a-days.

Pages:  344

Year Publish:  2006

Next review:  The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne