Dec 19, 2012

Mini-Reviews Part Two: Comics, Fantasy, and Kid Lit

Buffy Season 8 covers

Buffy Season 8 by Joss Whedon, Brian K. Vaugh et al: These comics are the canonical continuation of the TV series, so we get to find out what all the characters have been up to since the huge, universe-changing events at the end of season 7. Amy wanted to know whether I loved them or would rather pretend they didn’t exist, but the truth is that I fall somewhere in the middle. There’s some major WTFery going on here plot-wise, and I still can’t get over one particular character’s narrative arc (ugh, worst identity reveal ever). However, as long as these comics exist I’m going to read them, because it means I get to spend time with some of my favourite characters ever. There are some small-scale personal moments in these books that are every bit as good as anything on the TV series.

I think that’s my answer right there, actually – reading these books feels like spending time with these characters, not with some pale, unconvincing version of them. And as long as that’s true, I know I’ll keep coming back for more. For more on Buffy Season 8, here’s Memory’s excellent review. I agree with almost everything she says, especially in the “Pet Peeves” section.

Avatar The Last Airbender: The Promise parts 2 and 3 by Gene Luen Yang

Avatar: The Promise Parts 2 and 3 by Gene Luen Yang: I reviewed The Promise Part 1 when it first came out, and what I said about it goes for the whole trilogy. Gene Luen Yang does an absolutely wonderful job of capturing the spirit of the show, and he addresses topics like decolonization with complexity and insight. He also sets the stage marvellously for the next Avatar comics trilogy, The Search, which will focus on Zuko and Azula’s quest to find their mother (I am SO RIDICULOUSLY EXCITED).

I really loved these books, and the one thing I was less than crazy about won’t be a problem for anyone who picks them up now. As Debi and I discussed at one point, the middle volume feels like filler. It doesn’t advance the story much at all, and it made me extra impatient for the trilogy’s conclusion. I’m happy to report volume 3 is every bit as satisfying as volume 1, but I think the ideal way to read to read these is as a single book (and indeed, a one volume edition is coming out next March).

Finally, to answer’s Loni’s question, the story is set about a year after the conclusion of the TV series, and although the characters are a little bit older they still feel like themselves. Much like with the Buffy comics, reading these is like getting to spend time with beloved characters again, which made me really happy.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

11/22/63 by Stephen King: I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy this as much as most of my blogging friends, which isn’t to say I didn’t think it was a good book. It’s just that it felt bloated in a way that my first King, Salem’s Lot, didn’t – I actually love long books, but I thought that this same story could have been told more effectively in half as many pages without sacrificing anything crucial like characterisation.

Stefanie asked me a really great question that helped me figure out why this book wasn’t as much of a hit with me as I’d hoped: “What I’d like to know is whether it says something interesting about history or if it just another you can’t change the past kind of book?” To be fair it’s a bit of a mix, but felt there was more of the latter and not enough of the former. I want to emphasise, though, that King is careful to show the dark underbelly of nostalgia: before we get too tempted to romanticise late 1950’s and 1960’s small town life, he inserts something that draws attention to the reality of pre-Civil Rights life, and I really appreciated that.

Sandy, Jill and Natalie all loved it, so stop by to read their thoughts.

The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman: There were nearly 90 votes for these books, so the pressure for me to say something worth reading is on. Do bear in mind that I read them back in February, though, and allow me to apologise in advance for not saying anything particularly insightful.

First of all, I enjoyed them. I completely agree with Jeanne that The Magician King is a better book than The Magicians — it’s the kind of sequel that makes me appreciate the first book and what it was doing more, and that doesn’t happen often enough. Having said that, the angsty tone of the first book didn’t really bother me: The Magicians is very much a character-centred book, and Quentin’s angst and disappointment and constant longing for what’s just beyond his reach really drive the story. It’s probably tempting for those of us who have successfully dealt with similar feelings in the past to roll our eyes with impatience (and indeed I did just that, more than a couple of times), but I still remember my “everything sucks” phase as a teenager well enough that I remained invested in Quentin’s emotional journey. I didn’t always like him, but to me he was always interesting to read about.

Melissa asked if the books felt original or like Harry Potter rip-offs: I did think they felt original, and it honestly surprises me that anyone would say otherwise. Yes, they draw from a Magic School tradition that Harry Potter is a part of, but it’s not like J.K. Rowling invented this kind of story. Furthermore, there are other storytelling traditions that play just as large a role in Grossman’s books – the portal fantasy, the campus novel, the coming-of-age story, etc. If you ask me, these books probably owe more to The Secret History than to Harry Potter.

One of the reasons why I liked The Magician King better than the first book was Julia, who interested me more as a character than Quentin did. I was completely engrossed in her story, but when I got to That Scene (and I’m confident that anyone who has read these books will know exactly what I mean) I… all these months later, I still don’t know how I feel about it. So if anyone were inclined to discuss it with me, I’d be very grateful.

Forever by Judy Blume

Forever by Judy Blume: A couple of years ago I read Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky, and everyone told me it sounded a lot like Forever by Judy Blume. As it turns out, it’s actually better than Forever — sorry Ms Blume!

Forever is a great book in many ways – to answer Joanna’s question, it absolutely does capture the feeling of first falling in love. Not only that, but it’s a story about a girl discovering what it’s like to feel desire and becoming comfortable with her sexuality, and it’s told with no hint of slut-shaming whatsoever. I also loved the way the romance is framed: Katherine learns that romances that end can still matter to you and that falling in love with someone new doesn’t mean that everything that happened in your life before they came along was a waste of time, and there are still not enough love stories that do that. So hooray for that! The main problem, though, is that the novel is really short, so everything feels a bit rushed and there isn’t enough character development.

Jodie asked: How well do you think it holds up? What is dated about it and what do you think still feel current about it? As I was saying, it does some things that I still want to see contemporary YA romance do more often, so in some ways it’s pretty current. There is something that might date it, though, but part of me wonders if I’m being na├»ve to assume it has anything at all to do with Forever having been published in 1975: Michael is presented as a nice guy, and there isn’t anything in the narrative that really tells us otherwise. However, he’s really forceful with Katherine and I thought he was a huge jerk. The way this is responded to in the text made me think that maybe their dynamics were based on a conception of how boys and girls are supposed to act in relationships that we’re better at questioning today. Don’t get me wrong, I know there’s no shortage of contemporary stories that romanticise forceful or even abusive behaviour, but I wonder if today this would go unchallenged in a novel with this kind of sensibility. I hope this makes sense.

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins: Last year I completely fell in love with Anna and the French Kiss, so I was very excited to get my hands on this companion novel. Unfortunately, it didn’t work quite as well as Perkin’s first novel for me. Good things first: I loved the fact that Lola has two dads and that this is presented as a simple fact about her family and not as an “issue”; I loved her interest in fashion and costume design; I love how Perkins always gives her protagonists passions and interests and a life outside their romantic involvements; and obviously I loved all the Anna and St Clair cameos.

As you can see, there was no shortage of things I loved. The one thing that made this novel less than a complete hit with me was the way the romance was conceptualised. I think this would have been a much better love story without all the talk about The One, and with the narrative acknowledging that sometimes different people matter to us at different times in our lives, and there is no need to drive ourselves bonkers trying to figure out which one of these feelings is “real” and which one is “false”.

Still, I think Perkins is a brilliant romance writer. She captures the process of falling in love and of getting to know someone intimately extremely well, and she’s brilliant at describing passion and longing and desire. The last few scenes, where Lola and Cricket make out in doorways on the way to the winter formal, are pretty much perfect.

The Game by Diana Wynne Jones

The Game by Diana Wynne Jones: Very brief thoughts because it’s been a long time since I read this – excellent use of mythology and lovely ideas about storytelling, but the characterisation is not quite as developed as in Diana Wynne Jones’ other novels. Still, I loved Hayley’s large family, their house, and especially the concept of the Mythosphere. All in all, a satisfying novella.

The Unreal and the Real: Where on Earth by Ursula K. Le Guin

Finally, The Unreal and the Real: Where on Earth by Ursula K. Le Guin: This was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book, so I actually wrote a couple of paragraphs in there. Here they are:

These eighteen short stories gave me the opportunity to get acquainted with Le Guin’s realistic fiction, if you could call it that. These stories, unlike the ones in this collection’s companion volume “Outer Space, Inner Lands”, are all set in our planet, but there are occasional hints of magic in here. The first few stories are part of her Orsinian tales, stories set in the imaginary central European country of Orsinia. There are also stories set in her native Oregon, and stories with the unidentified vaguely magical setting we tend to associate with folktales.

The stories collected here are really not very different from the fantasy and science fiction that first made me fall in love with Le Guin’s writing. Her use of language – its elegance, its precision and its rhythm – is as impressive as always. The same goes for her complexity of her characterisation, as well as for her insight with both what motivates people as individuals and into the power systems that impact our lives.

I realise now that they’re horribly vague and uninspired paragraphs, and it’s no wonder I didn’t even try to develop them into a full review to post here. Bottom line, I really liked it – Stefanie wanted to know if the book is worth getting if you already have Le Guin’s previous short story collections, and my answer is that it depends on how much of a completist you are. The Small Beer Press editions are lovely and they do come with new introductions, but there’s nothing here you can’t find elsewhere. I guess they’d work best as introductions to Le Guin’s short fiction for anyone who hasn’t had the chance to read it before.

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

13 comments:

Beth F said...

I am one of the few who didn't like The Magicians. Maybe I simply didn't understand it and its similarities to many other fantasy books. Despite that fact that you liked The Magician King better, I'm not sure I can gear myself to read it. Plus, I barely remember the first book.

Nicolas Diaz said...

This article is a good companion to The Magicians/The Magician King, Lev Grossman on fan fiction: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2081784,00.html

(I found this before I knew this guy was a novelist, so I kept thinking of fan fiction while reading TM/TMK)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I haven't read any of the Buffy comics yet, but I've been thinking about it. I may have to dive in. I just wanted to make sure it really felt like the characters, so that's good to know.

I'm so glad you talked about The Magicians series. I've just heard so many conflicting reviews. They sound like something I'd like, then someone else I trust says they hate them. I think I just need to read them for myself.

Interesting you compared them to The Secret History. I just finished that and so that makes sense to me.

Stefanie said...

Thanks for all the reviews and answering my questions! I'll probably get around to reading the Kind eventually but maybe not the Le Guin, but then, who knows?

Loni said...

I'm going to have to use my Xmas money to buy Avatar, I think. Thanks so much for reviewing them. I'm so glad they capture the feeling of the characters.

Also, I LOVE the Buffy comics. I need to catch up on them though... If there's any money leftover, I think that's where it has to go.

bermudaonion said...

11/22/63 was my first experience with King's writing and I just loved it. I wonder if the narrator made it better than it was.

Tasha B. said...

I only read The Magician King, and I enjoyed it, but it was wayyyy too cynical for me. Then I was talking about it with Mem and Anastasia and they were like, "Yeah, compared The Magicians it's not cynical at all." Whoa.

Renay said...

I should read Grossman, he seems swell.

Jeanne said...

That scene with Julia was mind-blowing. I liked the way it grew out of the fact that she was hungrier, angrier, and more ignorant but also powerful as...well, you know.

LibraryHungry said...

You have summed up how I feel about everything Stephen King wrote in the last 10 years--the man needs an editor in the WORST way.

I was one of those who couldn't get through The Magicians. It's not even that the characters thought things were pointless, but that their lives actually felt pointless to me.

But now I must, must, must read Buffy S8.

Amy said...

aw, well I'm glad you enjoyed the comics even if you didn't love love them! I don't read them really anymore, but I'm glad others do like them!

Clare said...

That's the first I've heard that The Magician King makes The Magicians better. I really enjoyed the first book's ambiguous ending, which is why I didn't like the idea of a sequel, but now I'll have to ferret it out…

LibraryHungry said...

And I got Buffy Season 8 for Christmas! Didn't even ask for it! I'm dying of excited--thank you for getting me pre-jazzed about my gift!

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