Tuesday, 13 October 2020

#OcTBRChallenge: the first 33 books


I've been trying this month to read a hundred books as part of the #OcTBRChallenge, which is where people try to reduce the size of their TBR (to-be-read) lists, or get stuck into the books they've been putting off too long. Obviously there's nothing special about reading a hundred books – almost anyone could do it in a single day if the books chosen were short enough! – but it has been good fun to really burrow through my collection. Plus, knowing that I was going to go all out with the short books in October encouraged me to be a bit more patient with longer books the rest of the year. Anyway, here are my short reviews of the first 33 books of the month.

Exo, Vol. 1, Jerry Frissen and Philippe Scoffoni (Humanoids): Aliens come to Earth and the Moon to proactively prevent the colonisation of their own planet. Decent enough, but unremarkable, and it's very much one chapter rather than a story in itself. ***

Giant Days, Vol. 13, John Allison (BOOM! Box): Good fun. Some real wisdom. I'll be sad to read the last volume but it feels like it's coming to a natural end. ****

The Lydia Steptoe Stories, Djuna Barnes (Faber & Faber): Three short stories in diary form about sexual stereotypes and the people they suffocate. I loved this book. I would get the end of a sentence, realise it hadn't said what I was expecting it to say from its shape, then double back and realise how funny it was. *****

My First Little Book of Intersectional Activism, Titania McGrath (Hachette Audio): Hilarious. I nearly fell off my chair during some chapters. You can tell how carefully the (left-wing) writer has been paying attention to the wilder reaches of Twitter, where racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying and authoritarianism thrive in what are supposed to be progressive communities. Many of Titania's most outlandishly offensive statements are things I've seen people say for real, and receive thousands of likes for doing so. Satire often involves exaggeration; here it's more a concatenation. Alice Marshall's reading is perfect. I'd love a sitcom about the character. She's like a modern-day version of Nathan Barley or Rik from The Young Ones. ****

Shaky Kane: Elephantmen and Monsters, Richard Starkings and Shaky Kane (Image): Three short stories about traumatized ex-soldiers investigating crime and horror in the big city, all drawn with verve by Shaky Kane. ***

Robert Sax Tome 01 : Nucleon 58, Rodolphe and Louis Alloing (Delcourt): A dapper Belgian garage owner finds himself drawn into international espionage. It's 1957 and Eastern bloc operatives are after the plans for a nuclear-powered car. I adored the art – it's a bit like Paul Grist drawing Tintin, if that makes sense? – and how tall panels were used throughout to showcase the architecture of Brussels. ****

The Four Horsemen: The Discussion that Sparked an Atheist Revolution, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel C. Dennett, foreword by Stephen Fry (Transworld Digital): Fascinating discussion between four prominent atheist thinkers. It's not as if I needed to be persuaded to their point of view – I don't remember ever believing in any of the gods, except Santa Claus – but I was constantly impressed by how well they put things. I suppose that by the time of this discussion they had had a lot of practice. I thought it was interesting how often they interrupted each other, and how often they disagreed, and agreed to disagree without flying off the handle. I also liked Richard Dawkins' shout-out to The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – I loved that novel too. If I'd read this a few years ago, I'd have been glad that in the UK religious thinking had been in retreat since their discussion took place, on the whole. Reading it now, long stretches of it could have been, with barely a word changed, a discussion between feminists on how to deal with extremists pushing the idea that the female sex doesn't exist and thus requires no protection in law from the male sex. It feels like that kind of thinking never really goes away, especially when it gives men an excuse to control women. Sam Harris makes an interesting point towards the end, that it's easier to find shared ground when focusing on specific problems rather than the broad strokes. ****

Cosmopolitan, Akhil Sharma (Faber & Faber): The attractive neighbour of a lonely retiree asks to borrow his lawnmower. He makes a grab for her in the garage but is fortunate in that she is receptive rather than outraged. A relationship develops between them, and the question is whether it's the kind of relationship he thinks he wants. He is not the most sympathetic of protagonists, but it's a well-written story that reveals his character, and develops it, in a variety of subtle ways. ****

Terres Lointaines, episode 1, Leo and Icar (Dargaud): A young man searching for his father is taken under the claw of an intelligent crustacean, Stepanerk (the chap on the cover). To reach the right continent, they join an archaeological expedition, the goal of which is to discover what happened to the previous inhabitants of this planet. Stepanerk was the character who made this book for me: he considers everything in terms of whether it is interesting or annoying, which was often amusing, and his spidey-sense was a fine way of creating tension, by letting the reader know something bad was about to happen without telling us what it was. ***

Dalek Attack: Blockade and Other Stories, Terry Nation et al. (BBC Audio): Five stories about people who get into trouble with the Daleks, on Earth and elsewhere, plus some other bits and bobs about the trundling terrors. The stories aren't terribly good, but the readings are, and I enjoyed listening to it. Matthew Waterhouse sounds uncannily like Colin Baker, and it was a surprise to learn that Davros can read minds! ***

John Wick, Vol. 1, Greg Pak and Giovanni Valletta (Dynamite Comics): Decent prequel to the films, showing John Wick's introduction to the world of the Continental. ***

Monsieur Jean, Part 1: The Singles Theory, Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian (Humanoids): Imagine Friends, set in Paris, and drawn in the style of H.A. Rey. I thought it was charming. ****

An Elegy for Easterly, Petina Gappah (Faber & Faber): A sad story about the last days of a Zimbabwean shanty town, very well told. ****

Child of the Storm, Vol. 1: Blood Stones, Manuel Bichebois and Didier Poli (Humanoids Inc): A newborn child is found in the forest, still attached by the umbilical cord to his dead mother, who had apparently been struck by lightning. Raised by the hunter who found him, Laith's peculiar reaction to storms draws attention, and once his abilities reveal themselves powerful people beyond the village begin to pay attention. A decent enough book, without being at all remarkable. ***

The Art of the Boys, Darick Robertson (Dynamite Entertainment): The covers for all the issues of The Boys, plus those of the mini-series that came out during the original run, with preliminary sketches for each cover and brief plot synopses. Probably makes more sense as a physical object; with a digital copy you might as well be browsing the covers on Comixology. Interesting to read that Adam McKay was trying to make it into a film but all the studios turned him down. Wonder if they regret that now it's the biggest thing on television? ***

Do Not Pass Go, Joel Lane (Nine Arches Press): Five short stories, all featuring a crime or two, and set in and around Birmingham. They're all pretty short, so there isn't much mystery, it's more about mood, and overall it makes a pretty good argument for staying at home after bedtime. ***

James Bond: Hammerhead, Andy Diggle and Luca Casalanguida (Dynamite Entertainment): A straightforward but reasonably entertaining adventure for a ruthlessly violent Bond, with him getting into bother at an arms fair. ***

The Dynamite Art of Alex Ross, Alex Ross (Dynamite Entertainment): Lots of amazing artwork, some from comics I've read and loved, like Kirby Genesis, others from comics I didn't even know existed. His style is as stunning as ever, and his talent for revitalising old characters is as remarkable as Alan Moore's, but by the end you do wish he would do fewer covers and more interiors. It's as if the world's greatest actor just appeared on film posters rather than appearing in the films. ****

The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, Koren Shadmi (Life Drawn): An excellent biography of the man who created... The Twilight Zone. Shows us his experiences in World War II, his battles with the network censors, and how unfaithful he was to his wife. Brilliantly drawn. ****

The Fantastic Voyage of Lady Rozenbilt, Vol. 1: The Baxendale Cruise, Pierre Gabus and Romuald Reutimann (Humanoids): A book about the people on an airship, some very rich, others very poor, some human, others not. It's weirdly short, apparently due to it being from a French album that has been sliced in two, and entirely unsatisfying to read on its own. ***

Drifting Dragons, Vol. 1, Taku Kuwabara (Kodansha Comics Digital-First!): A crew hunts dragons in their airship; the similarities to whaling make it a rather uncomfortable read. Some of the characters are quite engaging and the art offers some impressive views of the sky and the dragons that live there – at least until our heroes slaughter them without mercy, even the babies. ***

Black Widow, Volume 1: S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Most Wanted, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee (Marvel): Someone knows Black Widow's secrets and blackmails her into stealing intelligence from SHIELD. A pretty good action adventure that seems (from the trailer) to be the inspiration for Black Widow's first solo film. ***

Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery, Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece (Dark Horse Books): A light-skinned black journalist goes undercover in the American South to gather evidence of lynchings. It's getting too dangerous now people know he's out there, but just as he's getting ready to take a desk job his own brother is thrown in jail for a crime he didn't commit, and a mob is gathering outside. It's a very good book, surprisingly funny in places, that burns with its purpose: making sure those crimes against humanity are never forgotten. ****

Without Feathers, Woody Allen (Audible): A very funny audiobook collecting various humorous pieces by Woody Allen, which begins by announcing that it was to "be published posthumously or after his death, whichever comes first", and continues in a similar vein. A striking feature was how often I would be in the middle of a sentence laughing at one thing, and then a twist at the end of the sentence would send me laughing in a different direction. Terrific. I'm so glad Audible got him to record these audiobooks. ****

Moon Face, Vol. 1: The Wave Tamer, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Francois Boucq (Humanoids): Gigantic waves hit the coastline regularly and various groups of lunatics handle it in different ways. Into this situation comes a young man with a flat face and the ability to heal from bullet wounds. It's okay, but I do get tired of how pretty much every Jodorowsky book features sexual violence against women. ***

Living with the Dead: A Zombie Bromance, Mike Richardson and Ben Stenbeck (Dark Horse Books): Two blokey blokes who survived the zombie apocalypse find their friendship tested when they encounter an attractive and boisterous woman. Quite entertaining but I wasn't sure what to make of the ending. ***

What Is Existentialism? Simone de Beauvoir (Penguin Classics): Felt like a bait and switch given that "What Is Existentialism?" was only six pages long and basically said it's too hard to explain in so little space. The rest of it was interesting but reminded me of reading a Camille Paglia book a while back – the snappy individual sentences tended towards the aphoristic, but I couldn't tell what they were supposed to add up to. In several places it asserted things that were blatantly untrue in the course of a making an argument. ***

The Arrest, Jonathan Lethem (Ecco): A pleasant post-apocalyptic enclave is disturbed by the arrival of a blowhard in his supercar. Full review to follow. ****

Ms Ice Sandwich, Mieko Kawakami (Pushkin Press): A Japanese boy is fascinated by the ice-cool woman who sells sandwiches in a supermarket. When he becomes friendly with a girl in his class (one so cool she can act out the entire gunfight from Heat) his fascination with Ms Ice Sandwich becomes at first a roadblock and then a joint endeavour. A very sweet and tender portrait of a child who feels adrift. ****

The Originals, Dave Gibbons (Dark Horse): I can't see the art of Dave Gibbons without being six years old again and wowed by his work in Doctor Who Weekly. This story of sci-fi mods and rockers looks as good as his work always does, and if it isn't one of his all-time classic works it's still well worth reading. ***

Brussli: Way of the Dragon Boy, Vol. 1: The Conqueror, Jean-Louis Fonteneau and J. Etienne (Humanoids): A little boy found in an egg is raised by a kindly couple as if he were their own. He's a bit funny-looking and gets teased a lot, but when the village faces danger he will show his bravery. The art is gorgeous, like cells from a hand-drawn animated film, and Brussli and the friends he makes are very charming to read about. ***

The Last Ones, Vol. 1: Exodus, David Munoz and Manuel Garcia (Humanoids): A children's book illustrator found herself in charge of a bunch of children when the apocalypse and then the vampires struck. As they try to reach safety a new ally offers his help, but he's a bit long in the tooth, if you get my meaning. Kind of like The Walking Dead but with vampires, this didn't blow me away but it was a decent start. ***

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark (Canongate Books): A wonderful book, full of humour and character, about the women living together in a London hostel in the period after World War II. I did not expect such a nerve-wracking ending! It is read to perfection by Juliet Stevenson, who even sings at one point, something I always love in audiobooks. *****

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