One Very Odd Comic
Fiction: 'Common Denominator' by John D. MacDonald

Review Round-up: The Five Star Books and Comics of January

Zita the SpacegirlLast year I tried to do a monthly round-up of my favourites and, er, un-favourites of each month. This had two goals: to get reviews off the blogging plate and to create some sort of personal 'record' that I could refer back to later in the year. 

That said, I felt a little guilty about un-favouriting things. And, as I was working on various awards ballots and best-ofs and whatnot, I realised my favourites list was equally inaccurate. So I'm going to try something a little different.

I think star ratings - be they Amazon and Goodreads - are pretty ridiculous. They're fun (crowd-sourced wisdom!) but frustrating as hell. If you're following me on Goodreads (and why would you? Is there anything less interesting?) you'll see that I do two ratings: 5 stars or ... not at all. That's not a 5 or zero - that's a 5 or abstain. Either I'm recommending a book for some interesting reason or not. This pretty much matches my reviewing 'approach' for Pornokitsch: I can either find something interesting to talk about in a book, or I can't. That's not the book's fault, of course - more an expression of my own privilege as an amateur reviewer. 

Anyway, I think it'd be more useful - certainly for me - if, instead of 'liking' and 'unliking' books, I turn this round-up into a list of books I five-starred, and why. As with all things, this is subject to change and whimsy. See "privilege", above.

With no further ado, the ten books from January - from spacegirls to the steam room:

Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke (2014): This graphic novel is adorable. And I kind of mean that literally: it is lovable, charming, huggable... pick your words. Zita's best friend is sucked through an interdimensional portal. She jumps right in after him - and winds up on a planet that's about to be smacked by an asteroid. Zita collects a group of ramshackle friends and sets out to save the day / rescue the dude in distress / generally be kind of awesome. This book is just happy

Escape from Baghdad!Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks (2014): Maggie has been homeschooled. And her home is three older brothers and her dad, her mom having left in one of the book's overarching mysteries. Her first day of high school is a bit overwhelming: so many people! So much stuff going on. And that's where this graphic novel excels so beautifully: it is about adolescents and their coping mechanisms; processing that vast wave of information and sensation. For the characters in this book that takes a variety of different forms - fitting in, acting out, running away, cutting their hair or even seeing ghosts. A really clever book that tells a complex story with surprising subtlety.

Escape from Baghdad! by Saad Hossein (2015): Utterly brilliant contemporary heist/adventure set in Iraq. Two Iraqi civilians-turned-gunrunners find a priceless treasure - a lost artifact of Druze mystics. And at the same time, they kill the son of one of Baghdad's most influential - and relentless - warlords. The last thing they need on top of all that is to be involved in a centuries-old battle between various conspiracies. Darkly hilarious and wonderfully exciting, Escape from Baghdad! is a cross between Tim Powers and Ocean's Eleven. Or a supernaturally-inspired Three Kings, from the (long unseen) Iraqi perspective. As silly as this is to say in January, this is absolutely one of the books of the year.

Sworn in Steel by Douglas Hulick (2014): Reviewed. Hulick gets a lot of praise for his well-crafted sword-fighting scenes, but I personally think the bit he does right is balancing the epic and the intimate in a fantasy adventure. Drothe's getting tangled up in the Fate of the World, but the narrative is expertly focused on his (more empathetic) personal goals and motivations. All this, in a book that's not the size of a cinderblock. 

Practical Instruction for Detectives by Emmerson Manning (1921): This is exactly what it seems - a  handbook for fledgling private investigators. My initial hunch was that this was something for kids - a sort of Boy's Own handbook. But it is more like a guidance manual for those looking for a career change, or perhaps a lucrative second job. Manning takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour through all the types of detective and their roles and responsibilities. Fun for mystery readers, and very handy if you're, say, editing a book set in 1923. Philosophically, a bit depressing: Manning's stance is that criminals are all 'incurable' criminals, and isn't a real believer in rehabilitation. Most of his case studies start with that approach as well: Manning generally goes into each of his cases with a firm conviction (pun?) of whodunnit, and then details the process of how he found the evidence or got the confession.

Run if You're Guilty by James McKimmey (1964): Stumbled on his SF short stories, loved them and then learned that McKimmey was primarily a noir novelist. And, if they're all like Run, I've got a lot of good reading ahead of me. Run is set in a remote campsite: a group of strangers come together and, when one of them dies, they find themselves trapped. The high-pressure environment brings out the worst (and, rarely, the best) in everyone -  the quietly forlorn site owner, the struggling young writer, the self-loathing mistress, the pompous businessman, the pair of con artists and the bureaucratic sheriff's deputy. The relationship between humans and the natural world is also debated, and winds up being one the book's recurring themes.

SekhetSekhet by Irene Miller (1912): As far as I can tell, this is the only book by this author, and I can't find anything else about her online. Sekhet is a meandering novel with a vaguely Egyptian theme: the protagonist, Evarne, is rather taken by the Egyptian goddess of love and revenge. As she should be, really. Evarne is beautiful and uninhibited - raised by her father, a classical scholar, and kept away from society. When her father passes away, she winds up in the care of one of his old school friends, a sleazy bastard who is more than delighted to have a beautiful teenager under his wing. And, as implied, under the rest of him as well. Evarne lives out a sort of naively hedonistic youth before realising how badly treated she really is. The second act is a sort of distraction - her Dickensian adventures with an acting troupe. The third act has her returning to society and finding herself - and true love. Everything about this is overwrought and meandering - down to the goofily melodramatic ending - but genuinely surprising. A slow starter, but the vignettes of early 20th century creative society are good fun.

Red Sonja: The Art of Blood and Fire by Gail Simone, Walter Geovani and Adriano Lucas (2014): A self-contained storyline featuring the exploits of the legendary barbarian warrior. Sonja's off on a quest to find the six finest entertainers - cook, swordsman, animal trainer, courtesan, etc. - in the world. If she brings them all before the king, he'll free his slaves before he dies. If not, they'll die with him. The episodic format is perfect for comics and this story is perfect for this medium - I suppose the closest example in recent fantasy literature would be Abercrombie's Best Served Cold. Simone balances Red Sonja's adventures with a bit of introspection. As she hacks in (and out of) the lives of others, Sonja is forced to reassess some of her own decisions. This might be the best epic fantasy of 2014 - I wonder if we could get it submitted to the Gemmells.

The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley (2014): I suspect that this actually will be on the DGLA shortlist, so I'll probably get into this then. The flaws have been pretty well picked-apart by reviews: mostly that it is predictable and Adare (the one female character) has a ridiculously trunctated/vestigial/token/silly plot. And it is very much in the high fantasy/superhero mold, where everyone involved seems to have both a Unique Prophesy and a Unique Power. But, hey, you know what? It is still really fun. The trick with epic fantasy seems to be to take all the elements we know and still find a way to keep the reader entertained, and Staveley does that. 

Players: A Sports Romance Anthology (2014): More saucy romances - but I thought I'd try something without a duchesses. The anthology is eight complete novellas, and, after reading them, I think I prefer my romance novels with more bustle and less hustle. Still, what's curious to me is the difference between these romance genres. The overall formula is the same, but the tone is very different. Being contemporary, the stories in Players feel more blatantly escapist - with beautiful apartments, stacks of money, fast cars, great outfits and improbable occupations for everyone involved (princess, model, etc). They're also a bit more, um, visceral when it comes to the sex. The period romances are often about a sort of self-actualisation. Whereas these are very much about, well... hard bodies. As, I suppose, you might expect from a collection promising 'alpha males'. I'm sure proper romance reviewers have looked into this a bit more thoroughly.