Review: Robot 13, Vol. 1: Colossus!

Robot 13, Vol. 1 : Colossus!Robot 13, Vol. 1 : Colossus! by Thomas Hall (author) and Daniel Bradford (Illustrator)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Robot 13 is an adaption and extension of the legend of Talos, the mythological protector of Crete. In the opening pages Robot 13 has been pulled from the sea in a fishing net, with no memory of himself or his past. He is also innately capable of speaking the language of each of the people he meets. Essentially he is interchangeable with Jason Bourne from the film series. As is the nature with epic heroes of Greek Mythology, his mere presence seems to call forth powerful mythological creatures to challenge him. Him must fight them in succession, leaving a wake of destruction and casualties.

The design of the character Robot 13/Talos is whimsical, kinetic and absolutely infused with personality and energy. Daniel Bradford poses Robot 13 in alternately subtle and heroic postures. He is the best part of every scene and your eye is drawn through color and composition to his face. The textured backgrounds and nearly paper cut-out treatment of the sun and moon have a beautiful graphic style which is very complimentary to the Robot 13’s character portrayal. The human characters are inconsistent and often unpleasant, and most unfortunately the mythical creatures are overly crude and disappointing. The blocking of the scenes feels off and releases a lot of the energy and emotion.

Thomas Hall’s writing is very stilted and awkward, although as a translated work it is difficult to tell where the fault lies. The dialogue balloons are digitally placed and feel disconnected from the art in style and composition. The text and background colors are matched to the characters which is a nice touch, but difficult to read for the cyclops. Although the writing does not hold up to the artwork it is more of a distraction than a detraction, and the book is still worth recommending based on strong concept and character work.

I backed the project on Kickstarter and it can be purchased through Blacklist Studios‘s website.

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Review: The Silkworm

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although not quite as strong as The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm is an enjoyable read which expands the world and characters from its strong and confident predecessor.

Despite Private Detective Cormoran Strike’s imposing figure the story does not rely on physical altercations and chases to generate drama. Strike is focused, patient, observant and clever. His thoughtful interviews guide the subjects to talk freely and fill their own uncomfortable silences. The case is built in layers as each interview adds, underscores, contradicts or attacks previous testimony. This process gives the reader access to the case in a way a Sherlock mystery never could. Strike’s capable assistant Robin Ellacot again provides a vital sounding board for his analysis and compliments with her own insight. Her role as an investigator grows with more time in the field and increasingly working on her own. More attention is focused on her personal life and her fiance, Matthew Cunliffe, introducing his POV for the first time.

I appreciate the the violence, sex and gore of the case is cataloged and scrutinized; while again refraining from explicit detail of Cormoran or Robin’s sex lives. It would be easier to write those scenes then what Galbraith does, to focus on the state of mind of the investigator, rather than go for salaciousness. I appreciate the arc Robin and Matthew go through in this novel, which should only make Robin stronger as the series progresses. For Cormoran it seems his romantic life is still finding familiar patterns but his interaction with his family and friends show potential for some level of happiness. It is my sincere hope the in the next novel Cormoran’s prosthesis and amputated leg are less of a focus. I like it as a character trait, but Cormoran’s swollen aching stump is practically the fourth most discussed character in the book.

The Silkworm proves that The Cuckoo’s Calling was not a fluke. As Robert Galbraith, Rowling knows what she is doing. The pacing, characters, and subtly of tone far outstrip her work in the Harry Potter series. Some crutches remain, such as protracted misunderstandings due to lack of communication, but even there it is improved from the previous novel. I definitely would recommend this series to anyone familiar with the genre, and although flawed, The Silkworm successfully transitions Cormoran Strike into a series stable enough for many stories to come.

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Reviews: The Bigger Bang

The Bigger BangThe Bigger Bang by D.J. Kirkbride and Vassilis Gogtzilas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Bigger Bang is as absurd as its title, but also endearing. The protagonist is a man named Cosmos. Forged in a singularity from what had been our solar system.

…It’s a shame about all good things.
The end came without suffering at least. Just a flash and then…
…over.

Well…
…over for life on Earth. Over for life in the pocket of the multiverse the Earthlings had barely begun to perceive. So, while Earth and it’s inhabitants were created in The Big Bang…

…a being named Cosmos was created in…
The Bigger Bang.

His impossibly proportioned bulk soars through the vacuum of space. To atone for the tremendous cost of his creation he protects all living things throughout the universe. His primary ability is to absorb energy. The first action we witness is his diffusing of a mega-volcano encompassing one-eighth of an planet. Despite his heroism he is feared. Across the universe he is misunderstood. To others he is known as The Destroyer.

King Thulu (who is a combination of Cthulhu, Thanos, and Zapp Brannigan) rules many galaxies through violence and fear. He is ever attended by his faithful assistant (essentially Kif Kroker), and his will is enforced by Captain Wyan (basically a three-eyed version of Gamora). Captain Wyan has known nothing of compassion until she is sent to kill Cosmos and sees his kindness towards all creatures (then promptly destroys the planet he just saved, because orders are orders).

D.J. Kirkbride’s story follows all the familiar beats you would expect, but is peppered with silliness and comic timing. No one describes the “taste and mouth feel” of exotic fruits unless they are in on the joke. This bizarre satire is paired with some of the loosest surreal artwork I have seen in a comic. Vassilis Gogtzilas’ fascination with tentacles rivals Ben Templesmiths’ The Squidder, but also has frames where rows of eyes and teeth just repeat off into the distance. Its whimsical and disturbing. The style lends to very kinetic tableaus peppered with dirty particle effects, and scribbled shading, but it grew on me. There is a sweetness in the insanity. In each vignette Gogtzilas manages to incorporate a self-aware character who responds with a clarity and surprise which pierces through the chaos.

I received access to a digital copy of The Bigger Bang from NetGalley. The collected trade paperback will be released by IDW Publishing on Tuesday, May 26th, 2015.

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Review: The Speed of Dark

The Speed of DarkThe Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems like I mention empathy in every review I write. All writing is an act of empathy, but some shifts of circumstance and perspective are greater than others. In Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark we are in the near future where our understanding of genetic disorders has generally eliminated disease. The story is told from the point of view of Lou Arrendale, a middle-aged man with autistic spectrum disorder. He was born at a time when some treatment was available but a cure still eluded science for several more years. He has high social functioning, lives independently, has a complete work and personal life – but he is also aware that he is different. Some of his differences make him exceptionally talented, but his inherent difficulty with social cues and language isolates him and restricts his ambitions. When a promising treatment for adult autistic spectrum disorder makes headlines, he and the others within this last generation with autism are faced with difficult choices.

I have no idea what it would be like to be autistic and if this portrayal is accurate. It is noted that Lou has undergone some treatment in his childhood which would not be available with current science, which might afford some leniency from readers with a closer relationship to the condition. Even if it is not a realistic depiction of autism it is a fascinating mental framework to experience a story through. I listened to the audiobook version which is a little uneven across the various voices with some sounding a bit cartoon-y, however Jay Snyder’s rendering of Lou Arrendale throughout the very dynamic character arc was superb and subtle. The variations in the meter of Lou’s speech patterns are clear enough in the text, but the performance amplifies the changes by almost downplaying them. I know I am being a bit cagey but I would prefer to let the author reveal plot at her own pace. I have to give additional credit to Elizabeth Moon for not taking the easy path in telling this story. After building such a wonderful character as Lou she rightly lets his personality guide the resolution. There are difficult choices with real consequences and each choice feels right for the character even if it runs counter to convention.

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Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the LusitaniaDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What Erik Larson does in his novels is so difficult for me to define I don’t have a category for it. I labeled it as both “historical fiction” and “non-fiction”, he calls it “narrative non-fiction”, but by any name it is mesmerizing. In Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson synthesizes a staggered amount of meticulous research to provide an intimate vantage point within The White House, British Intelligence, the passengers and crew of the Lusitania and the captain of the German submarine that sank her.

Larson works by aggregating enormous amounts of data, newspapers, autopsies, museum collections and reports. He then incorporates the actual voice of the characters from their journals, ship logs, letters and interviews. He builds from their list of possessions a portrait of their final moments and with the benefit of one hundred years of distance can unravel the events with clarity and context. The story is immensely compelling. When laid bare with the benefit of hindsight and the combined knowledge of all participants I think it is even more tragic. I was surprised at the extent of the culpability of British Intelligence and their leadership. While the actual act of war was committed by the Germany captain of the U-20; the circumstances had seemingly been arranged through both planned action and inaction by the British with the specific goal of bringing America into war.

I only had a vague framework of events which lead to The Great War; the paragraphs read and forgotten in high school history courses. Larson breathes life and bares witness to these pivotal moments in our past. I am astounded by his gift for forensic and empathetic storytelling. Highly recommended.

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Review: Practicing Mindfulness

Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to MeditationPracticing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation by Mark W. Muesse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The last The Great Courses lecture series I listened to was Exploring Metaphysics, and while I had a lukewarm response to it, it did make me think about some more esoteric sciences and beliefs. An old friend of mine has encouraged me to try meditation for over 15 years. Not as a component of religious practice, but scientifically. In finally deciding to investigate this field I selected this lecture series because The Great Courses have proven to be consistently strong, like TEDTalks with a deeper focus. I also decided if I was listening I should practice as well, so throughout the duration of the lecture series I practiced meditation each day as guided by the course.

Caveat – I also primarily listened to the lectures either A) while driving, or B) while on the elliptical, and always at 3X speed. This sounds like I wasn’t giving it a fair shake, but 3X speed is actually pretty natural. 1X is artificially slow, and while 3X is probably a bit quicker than Mark W. Muesse’s regular lecture pace, listeners minds acclimate quickly and it doesn’t sound hurried at all (also Mark is from Texas so could use a pick-me-up to my northern ears).

Mark W. Muesse does a solid job walking the listener through the essential methods of meditation, establishing social and historical context, and describes some potential psychological and biological benefits. I appreciate that he manages expectation as well, underlining that it may take years to advance beyond introductory methods and results. He also supplies many anecdotes from his personal life and experience with meditation, but mostly these felt impersonal and unemotional. It sounds like he is speaking to an empty room, and to a point about 18″ in front of him. Undoubtedly this is the reality, but most of the other lectures I have heard were infused with more energy and personality. He did frequently recite mantras from his religious beliefs which I am innately unreceptive to, but other people may find kinship there.

A few odd outcomes. During the lecture #8 on the “body scan” technique I discovered that I have been practicing this form of meditation since my second year of architecture school, and was (and occasionally is) the only way I could still my mind so I could sleep during those long and stressful years. Also, during the lecture #21 on “pain” I discovered that I have been faithfully practicing this technique for pain acceptance and mitigation for nearly 30 years. I have had migraines since I was nine and also been through two notable bouts with cluster migraines and this technique is largely responsible for my day-to-day function. So I came into this experiment as a devote skeptic (and equally devote practitioner).

While Muesse didn’t necessarily open new doors to mindfulness for me, he did draw my attention to the very real applications which are integral to my life and work. You will get the basics, some of the history and science, a fair amount of Buddhism, and potentially a valuable toolkit of self-awareness.

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Review: Cold City

Cold City (Repairman Jack: The Early Years, #1)Cold City by F. Paul Wilson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had heard good things about Repairman Jack, so I grabbed book one and dove in. Well apparently it’s not that easy. This is book one of the Repairman Jack: The Early Years trilogy, not to be confused with the Young Repairman Jack trilogy, which along with the Repairman Jack (currently a quinquadecology) are all spin-offs of The Adversary Cycle.

Entering the series with Cold City [Repairman Jack: The Early Years 01] you will find a young man looking to lose himself in New York City, shedding his name and all contact with his past. At the start of the book he is working as a landscaper on a mixed-race (I’ll get to it) crew when he gets bullied by one of the other men and seemingly has a psychotic break, nearly beating the man to death. Apparently this is not his first murderous episode having previously (and ritually) killed a kid who thoughtlessly killed Jack’s mother. Our titular psychopath then looks up a family friend and gets involved in the lucrative field of trafficking stolen goods and worse.

From my vantage point he is aimlessly drifting from scene to scene. He stumbles into various characters but with the compartmentalization of illegal enterprises and cabals he never learns anyone’s last names, history or true motivations. Most of the character development is based on the most base stereotypes of various racial/ethnic backgrounds. It is shorthanded and lazy writing. Realizing far too late that this is a prequel I imagine all of these are important figures and settings in the primary spin-off series. It is probably a highlight reel for anyone already familiar with the series, but on its own is frustratingly directionless, then ends with numerous unresolved story lines and cliffhangers. As a stand-alone story is falls short of recommending.

Side note about the Goodread blurb:

…one of the most popular characters in contemporary dark fantasy: a self-styled “fix-it” man who is no stranger to the macabre or the supernatural…

At no point in this book is there any hint of anything supernatural. It is shelved as Horror, Urban Fantasy, and Mystery and it is literally none of these things. It is barely a Thriller and definitely a Crime book, but only because Jack is committing the majority of the crimes. If you are curious about Repairman Jack my guess is to start with The Tomb [Adversary Cycle 02], and perhaps loop back to Cold City when you feel nostalgic.

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Review: Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Leviathan Wakes is a great introduction to a sci-fi series. It has great characters – smart, complex and a perfect small group dynamic. Holden’s moral compass guides this team and it doesn’t feel like a cliche. That is part of what separates this from Firefly which would be a close comparison. Holden is not a rogue, or at least not aimin’ to misbehave – he is a rogue by being honorable, even somewhat righteous, in an environment where self-preservation is expected.

Set mostly on small ships in the hard vacuum of space James S.A. Corey’s story get another thing right – physics. You are always aware of the relative acceleration of each scene and its effect on the characters and their decision making. This isn’t Star Trek where character casually stand and chat while they jump into “warp” speed. Here the ships have mass and inertia, and people are fragile who must orient themselves to their changing forces. Also, space is huge* and traveling between Saturn and the asteroid belt takes time and involves risk. Acknowledging that changes who your characters are, understanding gravity changes what they look like, understanding the scarcity of resources changes how they act.

The plot involves mystery, daring, and politics, and maintains a quick pace. In a series opener you always run the risk of getting a lot of worldbuilding and little resolution, but Corey manages to make a satisfying conclusion, tying up all of the major plot threads. You could definitely stop after this book and feel that you had a complete experience, but leaves fertile ground for future stories. I absolutely recommend Leviathan Wakes to sci-fi fans, and I will definitely be adding the next book in the Expanse series to my “to read” list.

*Space is really huge. If you have not seen Josh Worth’s If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel website, then you should definitely check it out. Just for fun, when you get to the Sun click on the “C” in the lower right corner to scroll at the speed of light… you will find it tedious and end up manually scrolling, which if that does not tell you how big the solar system is I don’t know what will.

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Review: The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the JinniThe Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A good fairytale should breathe magic into a familiar place. It should be a little dark and scary, and it should have a lesson or at least a reflection of who we are and who we could be. This is a great fairytale. Set in New York City in 1899, The Golem and the Jinni is an immigrant story of two neighborhoods – one Jewish, one Syrian, and their cultures, community and mysticism.

Ahmad is a thousand-year-old jinni. Born to be shapeless and free – he is bound to human form and chafes at his restricted life as a Syrian tinsmith. Chava is a newly created golem. Made to serve, Chava finds herself without a master and overwhelmed. There is a wonderful counterpoint at play between the two. They clash in almost every impulse, but are united in their loneliness and the weight of the secrets they must keep about their natures. The primary themes of free-will and destiny are revealed in complex layers and reflect through the relationships they have formed.

Beyond the fairytale aspects, it is just wondrous to see New York through their unique perspectives. The immigrant experience is thoughtfully illustrated and breathes more life into the struggles and joys than most historical fictions. Helene Wecker’s incorporation of mysticism does more than just provide the fantastical elements, it grounds the cultures in tradition. The Golem and the Jinni is an excellent book and highly recommended.

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