I just read: Disappearing Earth

disappearing_earthDisappearing Earth is medley of stories in the lives of various women living in the isolated Kamchatka peninsula. Kamchatka is situated on Russia’s northeastern coast, and it’s a region that I think most Western readers would not be familiar with. (I certainly wasn’t. When I think of the gigantic country of Russia, my mind can only summon up two kinds of settings, an urban center like Moscow or St. Petersburg, and the frigid reaches of Siberia.) These stories take place in and around socially-conservative coastal towns, quaint colleges, on mountain hikes, or among the modern descendants of the nomadic tribes who herded reindeer in Kamchatka’s hardscrabble wilderness.

No matter their disparate backgrounds, these characters have a lot in common with each other—and with Western readers. They listen to Rhianna on their smartphones; they have frenemies; they debate whether to cut ties with old college friends, or old high-school boyfriends; they suffer through the baby-blues; they roll their eyes at their aging parents. The author, Julia Phillips, weaves in connections between some of these stories. The main underlying connection is the kidnapping of two girls, which happens in the first chapter. Throughout the book, the mystery of the kidnapping is a central theme, and a source of tension and reflection for several characters.

My favorite stories:

December: Ksyusha is a bookish college student of native Even descent. She thinks she’s happy sticking to herself and maintaining a long-distance relationship with her smothering boyfriend back home. But then her cousin convinces her to join a dance troupe practicing indigenous folk dances, and Ksyusha meets a boy who might throw her life into chaos.

New Year’s: Lada is celebrating New Year’s at a cabin with a bunch of other twenty-somethings when she is suddenly reintroduced to one of her closest friends from high school. Masha has ‘escaped’ provincial Kamchatka for cosmopolitan St. Petersburg. Seeing Masha again stirs up conflicting emotions about Lada’s present and her past.

April: Zoya is a housewife muddling through severe ennui and taboo daydreams of the immigrant laborers working outside of her flat. (I’m wondering if her smoking plays more of a role in the story than she realizes?)

This book reminded me a bit of ‘There, There’ by Tommy Orange, which is also a collection of loosely connected stories centered around a culture and a setting that you might not often think of. In ‘There, There,’ the book follows 21st-century Native Americans living in Oakland, California. Both novels end at a modern rendition of a traditional native ceremony. I have to say that I think the characters in Disappearing Earth were more distinct and easier to keep track of. The kidnapping mystery IS resolved by the end of the novel, and I have to say I was genuinely creeped out by the gradual reveal of it. I loved how Phillips weaved in earlier characters to bring the mystery to light, and I was impressed that she had made the characters memorable enough that I could say, ‘Oh! That’s that guy!” as each recurring character was brought into the story.

The Boys: TV vs. the Comic

I talked about the comic series a little in this previous post. It was a long series (72 issues) that I really enjoyed reading in 2018. And in several ways, the TV show improves on the source material. If you’re asking, ‘how so?’ then read on; I’ll list a few of the major differences between the comic and the TV show. Sometimes the divergences in premise might get close to spoilers (after all, just some of the stuff that happened in the comic might end up happening in Season 2), but I’ll give a warning for any speculative spoilers before I get into it.

The-Boys-Comparison

Billy Butcher:
In the comic series, Billy Butcher is a straight-up CIA operative. And he’s so good at his job that he’s given free reign to do whatever he wants. The Boys are his hand-picked and totally sanctioned team. In the comic, Butcher can manipulate Agent Raynor (played by Jennifer Esposito on the TV series) to do whatever he wants. On the show, Billy has virtually no control over the mechanisms of the ‘Deep State.’ He’s like an outlaw freelancer, which gives him a cool, seat-of-the-pants ‘Han Solo’ vibe. Butcher’s origin—the reason for his vendetta against superheroes—is pretty much consistent between in both TV and Comic versions. Slight spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph: Basically, the story about what happened to Butcher’s wife is straight from the comics. But then the Season 1 finale adds a new wrinkle to the story.

The Other ‘Boys:’
In the comic, two-fifths of the team, Frenchie and the Female, are barely more than two-dimensional. On the show, they are far more fleshed out. Which provides some good tension because you both feel invested in them as supporting characters, but also more worried that they could die at any moment (as supporting characters are wont to do in shows like The Boys!) Mother’s Milk is probably gets a higher ratio of attention in the comic, but his character is basically the same. Here’s hoping they don’t follow the comic when it comes to explaining his family story (past & future) and they find a different way to explain his nickname.

The Seven:
The Seven on the TV show is mostly recognizable to the original team from the comic. There is no Translucent on the Seven from the comic book. Instead there is a character called ‘Jack from Jupiter’ who is an obvious counterpart to the Justice League’s Martian Manhunter. In the comic, Queen Maeve is a jaded, martini-swigging sadist. On the TV show, she obviously has a conscience, even if she’s being force into going along with some pretty messed-up stuff.

Hughie and Annie’s relationship:
In the comic, Hughie is a nebbishy Scotsman. In the comic, his face and personality are based on the actor Simon Pegg. (Although I think there is a bit of Karl Pilkington in there as well!) As an homage to the character’s origins, now now Simon Pegg is playing Hughie’s (Jack Quaid’s) dad. Hughie’s an American on the show, but his origin is essentially the same. He’s a regular guy who loses his girlfriend, joins the Boys, and then meets Annie January on a park bench.

In the comic, Hughie is a bit of a git (as Scot might say). He works with the Boys and dates Annie for about half the series before he realizes that she is a member of the most famous superhero team in the world. Annie’s alter ego, Starlight, doesn’t even wear a mask! In fact, it’s Billy Butcher who discovers that Hughie is dating the enemy, and eventually Billy drives them apart by showing Hughie video of Annie being coerced into a sexual assault by some of superhero coworkers. This comic takes places before #metoo, and unfortunately, the comic character of Hughie chooses to do some victim-blaming and uses this as one of his reasons to dump her. It’s pretty obvious in the comic that they’ll eventually get back together, but not before Hughie goes through what seems like dozens of issues of sulking on the subject.

In the show, Hughie has far more agency. He quickly realizes who Annie is, and he spends most of Season One torn between a couple of valid but paradoxical impulses. Does he do things that are good for his burgeoning relationship with Annie? Or does he do things that are good for the ‘quest for justice’ he’s started with Billy? Also, how does he handle his feelings of guilt over dating someone so soon after his former girlfriend’s death?

Compound V:
This, I think, is the biggest difference between the show and the comic. And here’s where I’m going to talk about things that might end up being plot points in Season Two. So skip this section if you’re concerned about spoilers. OK… here goes:

In the comic, the Boys know about Compound V from the very beginning. In fact, they’re all using it! So they are just as strong as their supe foes. (And some would say just as prone to being absolutely corrupted by those absolute powers.) In the comic, the Boys massacre dozens superheroes, and it never seems quite clear why they don’t take on the Seven in a full-on frontal assault. On the show, the scenario is far more clear and dire. The Homelander is the most powerful entity on Earth, and the Boys are all mere mortals (except for Kimiko, of course). So that really makes for a more interesting story with higher stakes.   

The Ending??
How will the TV Series ultimately end? There’s a good chance that even the show-runners don’t know yet. But here’s hoping that this is one case where the TV show follows the comic pretty closely. Because the endings for the comic-book versions of Billy Butcher, Hughie, and the Homelander were all pretty epic! And that’s all I’ll say about that.

What’s distracting me right now: Comics

I love Comixology Unlimited! $6 a month, and I get access to what seems like tens of thousands of comics that I can read any time I want. Marvel, Image, Dynamite, IDW… nearly every American publisher is represented, plus a bunch of European and Manga titles. I had to crack open a beer and celebrate on the day that DC joined the library.

Among all the choices, in the last few months there have been three series that have really stood out to me, hitting that spot of exactly what I want in a comic. Here’s a quick bit on each of them:

Astro City
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artists: Brent Anderson and others
52 issues
2013–2018
Publisher: Vertigo (DC)
OK, I’m an old-school comic reader. I don’t like my comics to be super-short (decompressed) with tons splash pages and not much exposition. Also, I kind of like it when the character-designs are kind of cheesy or campy, but the stories are taken seriously. That’s what you get with Astro City. This is one of those ‘analog’ books (see my post on Black Hammer) where there’s a knock-off version of Superman, a version of Wonder Woman, a version of Doctor Strange, etc, etc. Mostly, Busiek focuses on short stories in his Astro City universe (1-to-3 issues long). Sometimes he focuses on his superheroes; then, at other times, he focuses on ‘regular folks’ who are somehow caught up in the lives of these superheroes. If you check out the series, you’ll meet a woman who works as the personal assistant to the Sorcerer Supreme—later you mean the Sorcerer Supreme’s lawyer. There’s a woman who salvages robots that have been built my evil geniuses—and consequently destroyed by heroes. Even an alien pre-teen who gives us his perspective on what it’s like to have the Fantastic Four ‘invade’ your extra-dimensional, totalitarian society (ala the Negative Zone). Very fun. I’d recommend this series for any comic fan of the 70s or 80s.

GI Joe: Real American Hero, Vol. 2
Writer: Larry Hama
Artists: S.L. Gallant and others
Publisher: IDW
2010–Present
112 Issues (and still counting…)
Speaking of 80s nostalgia. IDW tapped into it big time when they hired Larry Hama to continue his 80s run on GI Joe: Real American Hero. From 1982 to 1994, Hama was the main creative force behind all 155 issues of the original series. With IDW’s help, he kicked off a new run in 2012, starting with issue #156. A lot of people my age loved those GI Joe comics in the 80s—not to mention the cartoon and the toys. I was shocked at how well Hama captures the feel of that original run. You’ve got all of the same outlandish villains and outfits and codenames, but again (like Astro City) the crazy sci-fi plots are presented with just the right level of seriousness and humor.
But my favorite issues are when Hama gets gritty and detailed with what seem to be very well-researched spotlights on different aspects of military life. I remember in the original 80s run, one of my favorite issues involved this technical explanation of what it’s like to man a hovercraft. In this present day series, he does the same thing. He’s got stories devoted to tactics in a tank duel, a story on combat-survival, a sniper tactics battle on a mountain range that looks like it could be Afghanistan. So far, the new run has been chugging along for over a hundred issues, and I hope it’s been a big success for IDW because I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read so far.

The Boys
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artists: Darick Robertson and others
Publisher: Dynamite
2006–2012
72 Issues (Including several Spin-Off Specials and Mini-Series)
The last series I’ve been working my way through is The Boys. It’s written by Garth Ennis, who is probably best known for his ‘Preacher’ series, which has been adapted as a TV series on AMC. Ennis revels in creating stories and characters that are abundantly non-PC. He tries hard to offend everyone on both ends of the political spectrum. So this book has some pretty raunchy scenes, hyper-violence, and homophobic and misogynistic characters—and it’s probably not for everybody.
Like Astro City, it’s set in a superhero analog universe, with its own version of Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, etc. But in this world, almost all superheroes are phonies—they’re just in it for the money, the fame, and whatever particular form of vice gets them off. The ‘real heroes’ in the series are a team of spies and enforcers (‘The Boys’) who help keep the supers in check—or put them down when they commit some act that is too despicable to let slide.
I really like the concept of this series—which, like Preacher, is also being adapted for TV (this time by Amazon Prime). But sometimes ‘The Boys’ tries so hard to be outrageously raunchy that it ends up being almost Puritanical. There are times in the story where it seems like being ‘hedonistic’ becomes shorthand for being ‘evil.’ But the two things are not necessarily the same. Also a lot of the book is about the political cultures of Britain and America, and those sections seem kind of dated in a post-2016 world. Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s updated to small-screen.

I just read: You Know You Want This

You Know You Want This is a collection of short stories by Kristen Roupenian. I had so much fun reading these stories! Which is sort of a weird thing to say because they are all pretty dark. Some of the stories turn violent, and some of them involve magic or horror elements (although I’m dubious as to whether the horror elements are ‘real’ or just in some of the protagonists’ heads). The stories are mostly about love and desire, and how we can twist ourselves up in what we see in ourselves and what we hope other people see in us.

Does a fantastic job of getting into the head of her male characters. I think she’s spot-on with her characterization of males navigating their twenties and thirties. Maybe that says a lot about me. A lot of the male characters get caught in this loop of wanting to be the ‘nice guy,’ and they play into that, with alternating good and bad intentions.

I guess ‘Cat Person’ is the big draw here, because it was published in The New Yorker and generated lots of buzz. It’s a good kind of character piece, about a ‘boy’ and a girl flirting and fluttering around each other on the months leading up to a very memorable first date. The tone of the story really drew me in, because isn’t sure of herself, she isn’t sure of this dude she’s interested in, and the whole story becomes a sort of mystery. Is this guy a sort of lovable loser? Or is he just a plain loser with some masochistic and mysognistic baggage? The way both characters seem to vacillate and question each other (and themselves) will probably seem very familiar to anyone thinking back on their early days of dating.

The Good Guy follows similar themes, but over a longer period of time and from the male’s perspective. Reading these stories I could totally see Netflix or Hulu snapping up the rights to the whole collection and turning them into a series that would be sort of like a cross between You’re the Worst, ‘You,’ and the new Twilight Zone.

Here’s some micro reviews of some of the stories that that really stuck with me:

‘Look at Your Game, Girl’: Classic, coming-of-age creepy.

‘Sardines’: Excellent vignette of a bad mom and her worse daughter, with another truly skin-crawling ending.

The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone: Psychoanalysis by way of a fairy tale.

Cat Person: Again, kind of ambiguous throughout. Where are we going with this? Are we supposed to feel sorry for the narrator’s crush, or cringe at him? But then a slap-in-the-face finale that resolves the question pretty definitively.

The Good Guy: Another excellent, if cringe-inducing, character study.

The Boy in the Pool: Who doesn’t remember watching those late-night cheesy thrillers on Showtime or Cinemax?

Scarred: Magical realism. Love how the main character sort of blithely takes on her role.

The Matchbox Sign: Oof. Maybe I’m choosing to interpret this one in a way that wasn’t intended, but this one was depressing and unnerving in just the right way.

Biter: A perfect sort of snarky, dark note to end on.

This definitely put me in the mood for reading more great short stories. Here’s hoping I can find another collection as energizing as this one. Or that Roupenian will publish something else soon!

I just read: The Milkman

Lately I’ve been using the Libby app to try out a lot of ebooks and audiobooks that I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. The latest novel I discovered in this way is The Milkman (by Anna Burns).

I don’t even think I looked at the blurb that closely. I read something about ‘surveillance’ and ‘paramilitary,’ and I think I assumed it would be a Black-Mirror-esque sci-fi. That’s one really nice thing about these library-apps: you can pick up a book on a whim (and audiobook in this case) and often you end up pleasantly surprised.

I think the reason I assumed that Anna Burns had written some kind of near-future sci-fi was because the blurb and the book itself are deliberately oblique about the setting. But it seems very obvious that we’re kind of in a ‘whimsical’ version of 1970s Northern Ireland. I say ‘whimsical’ because there is a sort of stream-of-consciousness quality to the narration that pulls out the humor in small things, even though terrorism and sectarian intimidation are a daily concern.

The narrator is simply referred to a ‘middle sister,’ and that’s not some kind of ‘Handsmaid’ epithet, it’s simply her pecking order in her very large family. For the first few chapters, she’s like Belle from Beauty in the Beast. She’s been causing a commotion because she literally walks through her provincial town with her nose in a book. Soon middle sister is approached by her own version of ‘Gaston.’ He’s called the ‘Mlikman,’ and he’s a heavy-hitter in the local insurgency. He wants middle sister to be his kept woman.

Middle sister has seen friends and family members get swept up in the ‘Troubles’ and end up dead, so she has no interest in getting involved with the Milkman. But soon rumors are spreading, and most people believe she’s Milkman’s mistress, even though they’ve barely spoken a word. Middle sister feels intimidated and trapped. This is the gist of the book’s main plot, and it’s sounds pretty cool (sort of ‘You’ meets ‘Patriot Games’), but it’s not the main POINT of the book. The book is shooting for more of a sort of slice-of-life jaunt between multiple storylines in this community that is so narrow-minded and shell-shocked that it’s practically totalitarian. The resolution of the Milkman plot is sort of anticlimactic (and also revealed in the first sentence of the book).

Besides the Milkman, middle sister rambles on about several other off-beat characters. There’s ‘real milkman,’ ‘third brother-in-law,’ ’nuclear boy,’ ‘tablet girl,’ ‘sister of tablet girl,’ ‘Something McSomething,’ etc. In case you can’t tell, no one in the book is called by their real name. This is just one of the books many quirks. The narration (straight from middle sister’s head) is chatty and rambling, but also very lively. Middle sister repeats the same names and idioms over and over in short-succession, and she goes on long diversions from her main point. Often times these diversions end up being more important than her main train of thought. I listened to the audiobook version, and the narration-performance by Brid Brennan is excellent. I get tired and distracted trying to read long passages, and I’m not sure if I could have got through the book by reading.

But overall, it was a very pleasant surprise, and definitely a style and a setting that I’d never quite seen before. If you like multiple storylines in one book, an off-beat feminine perspective, and dreamy historical fiction, I’d say check this out. For some reason, it also kind of reminded me of Virgin Suicides (set in the 70s; a very distinctive narration style; and focused on immersing you in a tone and a feel, as opposed to driving a plot along), which to me is very high praise indeed!

I just read: Scythe

Scythe has one of those crazy, young-adult-sci-fi premises that you just have to check out. More unlikely than ‘Uglies,’ more convoluted than ‘The Maze Runner,’ there were several times when the world built by Neal Shusterman had me rolling my eyes and saying ‘There’s no way this would EVER happen!’ But every time that happened, Shusterman quickly amped up the plot with a swerve or kick-ass surprises to overcome my disbelief and keep me chugging along with the story.

Let me go thru the bonkers premise first. The main characters, Citra and Rowan live in a nearly perfect, nearly deathless society. A benevolent AI runs everything (truly benevolent, no twists there, unless they come in the sequel), and death has been ‘cured.’ People are rejuvenated before they can die from old-age. If they fall victim to accidents then they are resurrected. And suicides are not allowed , although there is such a thing as ‘splatting.’ (You might be able to figure out what that is. It’s one of the many cool ideas that Shusterman comes up with while exploring his post-mortal world.)

A society of ‘Scythes’ have been created to control population growth. Although the AI runs everything else in the world, the stakes of human mortality are considered too weighty for its impersonal, computer brain. So the people who are chosen as Scythes have free reign to kill whomever they want, in whatever method they want.

Wai… wha?

So why would a perfectly utopian AI delegate such a dicey, utterly-permanent task to humans, when it is controlling everything else? If society is concerned about population-control, why wouldn’t they try contraception, as opposed to widespread assassinations?

Listen, you just got to go with it…

OK, but there’s one more weird thing… and if you read a lot of YA, you might be able to predict what it is… The Scythes become fully-legal assassins as teenagers. OK, so they can’t rent a car, but they can kill people with samurai swords and flamethrowers?

Needless to say, there are some Scythes (both younger and older) that let their power go to their heads. And Citra and Rowan quickly get sucked into their schemes. As they struggle against these sinister, blood-thirsty Scythes (and as Rowan struggles against his own emerging blood-thirsty urges), the plot takes some interesting twists, and the story reinvents itself with about three shifts in the status quo before it’s done. Which is pretty impressive, considering the book is only 450 pages long.

I’ll also give the author credit for not pushing his male and female protagonists into a full-blown romance—these teen’s lives are intense enough without everything going hormonal. With that said, there is some romantic tension. But that tension is nothing compared to the fact that Rowan and Citra eventually find themselves forced into a sadistic and arbitrary predicament where, in order for one of them to live, the other must die. How does Neal Shusterman get his two protagonists out of this particular conundrum? If I told you that, I’d be spoiling the ending. But let’s just say Shusteman wraps up his final chapters as deftly and as dramatically as he handles the rest of his book. I’m looking forward to checking out what happens in Book 2!