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Month: April 2019

READING THE TBR, DAY 99: Space: Punisher (2012) by Frank Tieri

I really love an alternate reality version of established Marvel canon, and this one is no exception. Giving us an inter-stellar hunt for the shadowy figures who murdered Frank Castle’s family, this reimagining of the tale brings in artificial intelligence and aliens as well as a space-suited Punisher determined to give no quarter to those he deems worthy of, well, punishment.

Featuring cameos by villains such as Ultron, Magneto and Red Skull, as well as my darling Deadpool, and Hulk, and those troublesome Watchers, this really is its own pocket universe, and one that could so easily be its own long-running space opera series, if the actionable names and recognizable powers were altered significantly enough.

The art here is particularly noteworthy, too, the extra-worldly aspect of the tale perfectly rendered, while the clever sight-gag Easter Eggs just keep on coming, and Punisher’s AI helpmeets are just THE BEST.

In all, a home run of a 4-shot comic limited series, and one that I wish had gone on for far, far longer.  

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TBR DAY 98: Space: Punisher by Frank Tieri
GENRE: Comics, Marvel, Superheroes, The Punisher
PUBLISHED: 2012
TIME ON THE TBR: ~2 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Big City Comics, Melbourne.
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 98: The Shade of the Moon (2013) by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Wow, this series took a turn.

Very often, post-apocalyptic fiction will lead into burgeoning dystopia, and with this book, we get a glimpse of that already happening. Four books in, and only four years after the cataclysm, life has gotten very disturbing for our friends, with classism rearing its ugly head and corruption taking its toll on pretty much everyone.

But it is made even worse here because we see all of this unfold as we follow the adventures of Miranda’s youngest brother Jon, now seventeen, who is one of the favoured few living in a comfortable safe town — where he plays soccer to pay his way, if you please — and he has turned into a total asshole.

Jon and his step-mother Lisa (the kids’ Dad is dispensed with in the early passages of the book) live in a rarefied enclave with little Gabriel, into which they gained entry due to the largesse of Alex, of the last two books fame. They are known as clavers, the upper class, who employ servants and look down on the working class, who are commonly called grubs — Alex, now a bus driver, and Miranda, a greenhouse worker, are grubs now. There is supposed to be a metaphor here, about how easy it is for people, given even a modicum of power or status above others, to begin to lord it over their fellows, and yeah, that is true, and I totally get it. But it is brutal to see it happen to a character we have liked for the past three books — and one, moreover, whom we now learn is a serial sexual predator.

The final third of the book is supposed to be Jon’s redemption, having him see the error of his ways through the eyes of his new love, the vaguely egalitarian (but absolutely infuriating) Sarah, and realize that hey, actually my family are just as good as I am, and girls are not my playthings, and also, this town’s caste system is fucked the hell up. But by the time we get there, it is all so bleak and horrific and the disasters have been enacted so thoroughly — along with a Handmaid’s Tale-esque twist — that it is nigh on impossible to forgive him, nor the book itself. 

I wish I hadn’t read this book. It has utterly ruined the (uneven, but withal enjoyable) trilogy that came before it. It is no wonder that the series ended here. Indeed, according to her Author’s Note, this was apparently Pfeffer’s second attempt at this book.

What on the blighted Earth could have been worse than this, we can only speculate.

  SCORECARD

TBR DAY 98: The Shade of the Moon (Last Survivors #4) by Susan Beth Pfeffer
GENRE: YA Post-Apocalypse
PUBLISHED: 2013
TIME ON THE TBR: ~5 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 97: This World We Live In (2010) by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Idiot kids.

This is a refrain that ran through my head pretty constantly throughout this book, after our new friend Alex, from the previous novel in this quartet, meets with our old friend Miranda, from the original book in this quartet, and of course they are into each other, because they are the only age-appropriate teens either has spent much time with, and are not related to.

In this book, we’re back in journal mode, with Miranda relating elder brother Matt’s precipitous marriage to the designing Syl; the clan’s continuing battle for survival; and the arrival of Alex and his sister Julie — in company with, hey there Dad and Lisa! And nice to meet you, baby half-brother and road buddy Charlie!

Of course, disaster strikes, because the end of the world sucks, but more importantly, these teens are troublesome as hell and manage to make the end of the world even worse. (Eldest brother Matt as much as any of them, this time out.) Meanwhile, the religious element of this entry is very interesting indeed, as those who were once atheistic, or at the very least agnostic, are won over to devotion, as they seek comfort in a world that is devoid of same.

By turns infuriating and fascinating, This World We Live In brings together the action of the previous two novels perfectly, ups the angst level considerably, and oh, boy. That ending. It is full on.

Next up is the fourth and final installment in the series. I am equal parts excited and anxious to get to it.

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TBR DAY 97: This World We Live In (Last Survivors #3) by Susan Beth Pfeffer
GENRE: YA Post-Apocalypse
PUBLISHED: 2010
TIME ON THE TBR: ~5 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 96: The Dead and the Gone (2008) by Susan Beth Pfeffer

The Dead and the Gone departs from our sweet Miranda of Life As We Knew It, and instead introduces us to New York City native Alex Morales. Second in his class at an elite Manhattan academy, he is looking forward to going to Georgetown and getting away from his pesky younger sisters, but when the moon is knocked out of its natural orbit, he and his family must find a way to survive in an increasingly dangerous city, with their parents MIA and Alex now in charge.

In contrast to the atheist Miranda, the Morales clan are very devout, enough that it causes more than one difficulty for them throughout the months that they linger on in a dying New York. The kids attend Catholic schools and they pray, er, religiously, for salvation and peace. And Brianna — foolish, deluded Brianna — is punished mightily for her unquestioning faith. Ooh, that made me so mad at her! Almost as mad as the time Alex slapped his little sister across the face because she dared talk back to him. (Fuck you, Alex!)

The unsavoury side of humanity makes itself far more evident elsewhere in this sequel, too, with evidence of that “societal breakdown turning men into monsters” theme that post-apocalyptic fiction almost always explores. Terrifying, really. And terrifying that it feels so accurate.

Told in third person, rather than first, and dealing with much grittier fare than the original, The Dead and the Gone is as bleak as its title implies, and proves to be a pointed contrast to its predecessor. Reading of Miranda’s tribulations, you couldn’t help but feel awful. But reading of Alex’s much more horrifying reality, you realize that she and her family had it all relatively easy, making it clear that there is always someone who has it worse than you, and to be grateful for what you have.

It is very well done indeed.

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TBR DAY 96: The Dead and the Gone (Last Survivors #2) by Susan Beth Pfeffer
GENRE: YA Post-Apocalypse
PUBLISHED: 2008
TIME ON THE TBR: ~5 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 95: Life As We Knew It (2006) by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Back in 2014, Amazon.com was kind enough to inform me of the release of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s The Shade of the Moon, which its algorithm was pretty sure I would enjoy. Said algorithm neglected to mention the three books preceding that novel in the Last Survivors series, either by accident or on purpose, but once I discovered them for myself, I ordered all four.

Amazon really does know me disconcertingly well.

Life As We Knew It takes the form of a diary, in which we read the first-person thoughts of one Miranda Evans, who witnesses the destruction of the moon’s orbit from her small and prosperous Pennsylvania town. Through months of uncertainty and stockpiling and illness and privation, she and her family eke out an existence in a world much changed, but one that remains remarkably civilized, all told. Certainly, there are rumours of mistreatment of women, some tinpot dictators get their kicks out of some limited power, and Miranda sees some kids with guns potentially bent on some kind of mischief. But here, the people of the town grow to be self-interested but not malignant, and the biggest conflict Miranda faces is with her mother, who really is spectacularly unfair at times — at least, according to her teenage daughter.

It’s a blessed relief, from all the horrors of lawlessness inflicted mostly on women in other examples of this literary field.

One of the more interesting, but little-seen, characters we meet during Miranda’s struggle is her childhood friend Megan, who has always been religious, but on whom the end of the world has worked a kind of pious overload, so determined is she to see the goodness of God even amid all the death and destruction. It’s a subtle piece of writing, especially when Miranda confronts Megan’s manipulative, patronising preacher, a man clearly not suffering the same hunger as his parishioners.

Miranda herself is a mixed bag of teen angst, especially in the early days of the disaster, when the extent has yet to make itself plain and relative comfort can still be maintained. But she is quite likable, very relatable, and only grows more so as she must set aside childish things to take the reins of her much-beset household.

I am very pleased that I took a chance on this whole quartet before even testing out the first one, as I am now very eager to see what happens next to our heroine and her family, including two brothers as well as the aforementioned Mom, in this much-altered — but maybe steadily improving? — world. I cannot wait to keep going.

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TBR DAY 95: Life As We Knew It (Last Survivors #1) by Susan Beth Pfeffer
GENRE: YA Post-Apocalypse
PUBLISHED: 2006
TIME ON THE TBR: ~5 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 94: Is Heathcliff a Murderer? (1996) by John Sutherland

I cannot recall the last time I had to look up so many words in the reading of any book. My vocabulary is pretty vast, particularly when it comes to terms literary and linguistic, so it is humbling indeed to discover that there are so many words I have not only never heard of, but can barely even work out from context.

This shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to me, I suppose, given that this book boasts some deep scholarship from the very learned John Sutherland, investigating enduring conundrums posed in the works of Austen, Thackeray, Scott, Dickens, Trollope, Gaskell and assorted Bront√ęs, among others. (But not too many others.) It perhaps didn’t help that I have not read all of the books discussed herein, but happily I have read most of them, and so I at least knew what detail — often quite an esoteric detail — was under discussion, and occasionally had even asked myself the same questions, or come to the same conclusions.

(Yes, Heathcliff is totally a murderer.)

(And so, I must disagree with Sutherland, is Becky Sharp.)

One of the most exultant aspects of reading a book such as this is that it feels like an education in itself: it’s basically a university-level course, and you are entitled to a credit towards a liberal arts degree just by making your way through it. Moreover, Sutherland’s pedantry knows no bounds, and yet he cites sources even more particular (if that is possible), which makes anyone who may have thought they were overly nitpicky feel very much at home amid these esoteric contemplations. I honestly loved reading this, even when I didn’t fully understand it without further research. Which was a lot

However, I also bought its sequel, Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?, at the same time, and it will be a while until I feel equipped to take it on. My brain needs a break for a while first.

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TBR DAY 94: Is Heathcliff a Murderer? by John Sutherland 
GENRE: Literary Criticism, Non-Fiction
PUBLISHED: 1996
TIME ON THE TBR: ~3 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: The Little Bookshop, Napier.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 93: Three Act Tragedy (2018) by Agatha Christie

I have had the complete collection of Agatha Christie’s Poirot books on my TBR pile for years, mostly because I wanted to read the play novelization Black Coffee in its proper publication order, but also because I feel like I read them all somewhat too young — I was fifteen — and have wanted to experience them again as an adult. Especially since I have happened upon the occasional episode of Poirot over the years, starring the peerless David Suchet as the little Belgian, and I’d love to watch that series from beginning to end someday. Which I obviously can’t do before I fully experience the source material.

I’m wacky like that.

So I have been rereading the series concurrent to my daily dose of newness from the TBR — which means, often I am reading at least two books each day these days; oh, the productivity! — but today I read Three Act Tragedy, the eleventh Poirot book published, and I am positive I have never read it before. I can only assume my mother (the source of all my teenage Christie reading) did not own it. But I bought a complete set of the Poirot novels from a vintage shop five years back, all in a lovely uniform edition, and what a treat to discover a wholly unexpected new-to-me gem.

For a gem it is, another very cleverly laid out mystery told in yet another very unusual style, with Poirot mostly on the periphery of events and the main story carried by an acquaintance of his, Mr. Satterthwaite, and the very dapper Sir Charles Cartwright, a respected actor, both of whom are witness to the novel’s first murder.

I’ll admit, I did not remotely suspect the murderer. How mortifying, to be outwitted by a long-dead author who was writing long before the proliferation of crime procedurals made of everyone an armchair detective. (Then again, in those crime procedurals, you can usually tell who did it by recognizing the actor portraying them from other TV shows.)

Then again again, Christie was undoubtedly a genius in her field, and for all that her stories are set in a glamorous, Downton Abbey-esque world now barely recognizable, they will forever remain absolutely timeless. 

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TBR DAY 93: Three Act Tragedy (Poirot #11), aka Murder in Three Acts, by Agatha Christie  
GENRE: Mystery, Cosy Mystery, Poirot
PUBLISHED: 1935
TIME ON THE TBR: 5 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: A vintage shop.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 92: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF (2018) by Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder

I mean… Devil Dinosaur. As if you’re not going to want to read a comic with a freaking dinosaur in it. Especially when he is sidekick to such an unusual… superhero, for want of a better word: a nine-year-old mechanical genius with a secret lab underneath her school who is determined not to be transformed by the Terrigen mists that have been released to activate the dormant Inhuman genes in the world’s citizens.

And which our genius, Lunella Lafayette, has discovered that she plays host.

Lunella is misunderstood and shunned by her lesser classmates and is dismissed by both parents, teachers and the Hulk — a jerkface Hulk, not incidentally — as just a kid who should stay out of matters that don’t concern her. But Lunella is convinced that a lot of things concern her, not least the Devil Dinosaur (how does everyone know this name? It makes no sense!) and the hominids whom she also accidentally caused to travel from pre-history to her own time.

The first volume of this girls-read-comics-too comic ably sets up the premise, the characters, the villains and the Terrigen-fuelled hysteria that had overtaken much of the Marvel Universe during this book’s original release date. (Ah, 2016. What a time it was.) It’s all quite illogical, even spectacularly silly at times, but it’s pretty fun and carries a strong message of self-determinism — it seems like it would be the perfect gateway comic for any youngster, no matter what their gender, ready to begin their four-colour adventure.

Although, not if they really love Hulk.

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TBR DAY 92: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF by Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder  
GENRE: Comics, Marvel
PUBLISHED: 2016
TIME ON THE TBR: ~1 year. 
PURCHASED FROM: Minotaur, Melbourne.
KEEP: Absolutely!

READING THE TBR, DAY 91: Tess of the Road (2018) by Rachel Hartman

As with many fields of artistic endeavour, sometimes an author will improve over time, and with others their debut novel completely dazzles and then their subsequent works never live up to that first blazing success.

Such is proving to be the case with Rachel Hartman, whose first novel, Seraphina — a YA novel featuring some very unusual dragons — was among my very favourite releases from 2012, but the sequel to which, Shadow Scale, failed to truly live up to its promise, and now this third romp in the same universe, but centred on Seraphina’s horrid half-sister Tess, is just a yawn and a snooze and an all-around disaster.

I should have stopped reading after the opening chapters. I definitely should have stopped reading after they way Tess drunkenly devastated her sister’s marital prospects. And I cannot believe I kept reading after she set off on a road trip in familiar Fantasy trope .

I guess I wanted to give Hartman a chance. After all, it was certainly interesting, the way she gave us an utterly unlikable heroine with such a dark past, and how the larger narrative explored women-as-currency, as well as giving us a very different perspective on the heroine of the earlier books. But these highlights did nothing to mitigate against the many, many lows of a boring journey across a boring world, only slightly enlivened by the arrival of her old friend Pathka, who brings with him some more of the unusual dragon lore in which this world is steeped.  

Such a disappointment. I doubt I will ever pick up another book by this author again. I really hate to see such early potential vanish under the weight of ineptitude — both authorial and editorial.

Bye, Tess. And good riddance. 

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TBR DAY 91: Tess of the Road (Tess #1)by Rachel Hartman  
GENRE: YA Fantasy
PUBLISHED: 2018
TIME ON THE TBR: ~1 year. 
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: No!

READING THE TBR, DAY 90: The Madman and His Parables (1918) by Kahlil Gibran

I’m honestly not sure I understand any of this short but dense text. Kahlil Gibran is, of course, best known for The Prophet, which I read years ago and believe I got the point of, but this disjointed collection of, I think, metaphorical tales of alienation and a search for identity amid religious oppression, just kind of made my head hurt.

It’s not often I feel I’d like to study a particular work, consulting experts and having theories expounded to me, rather than making up my own mind, but this is one of those rare exceptions to my own, probably arrogant, self-reliant rule. I feel like I hover on the edge of comprehending the point of these “parables and poems”, but just need a helpful scholar to get me over the line.

Or, maybe I’ll never get it. And that’s okay, too. If nothing else, reading this book has reminded me of my own limitations, and we can all use a dose of humble pie once in a while, can’t we?   

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TBR DAY 90: The Madman and His Parables by Kahlil Gibran  
GENRE: Philosophy
PUBLISHED: 1918
TIME ON THE TBR: ~12 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: Yeah. I might understand it one day…