Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Witty's Year End Book Review 2008

So what if I'm not a librarian anymore! I still read dammit!

Just as a reminder, this isn't a list of new books that came out from 2008 or 2007, these are simply the best books I've read this year.

Best Fiction Book
Every so often I go back and read a title I've passed by before, which is where Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett comes in. Part of his expansive Discworld series, it's a bit of a stand-alone book as it's not fully part of any sub-series like the Weird Sisters or the tales set in Anhk Morpork (although cameos abound). A relatively serious work (okay, there's still jokes and puns aplenty), the novel details the struggles of a young man selected by a Large God of Discworld (one of many) named Om whose followers are losing so much faith in Him that he's been reduced to the form of a turtle. Struggling to re-establish true faith across the land, the boy and his Turtle-god discover that Om's religion has become oppressive and more obsessed with ritual and routine, and the land ripe for war. Serious questions - admist the wordplay - about faith abound, especially when Pratchett reveals at the end the fate of believers - true and fake - in the Discworld afterlife. It's a more serious work than others in Pratchett's 'Verse, but I consider it a good introduction to the place moreso than any of the serial novels. It also contains a fave quote: One day a tortoise will learn how to fly...


Best Non-Fiction Book
No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty.
I grabbed this off the Pasco library shelves more than once. Mostly because it's a survival guide for NaNoWriMo. Not that it helped me much this year... 9k word count, sigh... bummer, and damn... but still it's a good motivation and how-to book on writing. Sincerely suggest all would-be writers take a glance.

Best Graphic Novel
Empowered Volume 4, by Adam Warren.
Just a warning, this is a graphic novel not meant for kids. There's still a few people out there who think comic books are all for 13-under preteens. Sorry, there's a market for adult-level comics. And Empowered fits that market to a T. There's no outright nudity, but there's enough exposed flesh shown to hint at what's what. We do see couples getting intimate, and there are elements of sexual roleplaying and yes bondage (which I'll get into later in this review). A bigger issue would be the profanity the characters drop nearly every other word, although most of those are bleeped out (savvy cursing enthusiasts can tell which f-word and s-word is which). If there's an appropriate age level for reading this, I'd say 16-up.
It's a superhero series set in its own universe (it's not Marvel or DC with their own multiverse problems), where nearly everyone we meet are spandex-bound metahumans with overly sized muscles for the guys and overly sized... ah, "tracks of land" for the ladies. But in Warren's world, everyone's got emotional issues: the guy heroes are all confused poseurs more worried about their battle cries than doing a good job; the women heroines have emotional issues stemming from high school traumas. In Warren's most cutting idea, nearly everyone in his universe gets their superpowers from sexually transmitted diseases (one superhero group forms from a STD support group).
In to this world comes Empowered, a young lass and rookie heroine who somehow inherited a powersuit that grants her strength and energy blasts. Unfortunately, the suit is hyperthin and prone to tearing up, meaning one scratch makes her powerless. And in her world, all the thugs and supervillains are adept at hog-tying people: while they won't kill her (cape-killing is akin to cop-killing), they do the more humiliating thing of tying her up and leaving her bound and helpless and half-naked for the world to see. She wants to do good, but she ends up an embarrassment and mocked - sometime openly by her supposed teammates the Superhomeys - by all, leaving her prone to massive emotional issues of her own (as the series progresses, readers learn that the suit is still powerful when torn: it's really powered by Emp's emotional state, which is as fragile as the suit).
Warren started off this series as a set of one-off panels and artwork, mostly from requests he'd get at comic cons from guys desperate for good-girl (and bad-girl) art of bound women. Yeah, some guys are into that. From that, he starts off with a series of witty, sadly brutal stories about a heroine in constant bondage, and the surprising thing is that he actually brings up troubling questions about just what it is that's making us watch her get bound and gagged in the first place.
Because Warren provides depth to his characters, especially Emp. We watch not only her getting bound and gagged, but we also watch the emotional turmoil afterwards when she's back home trying to cope. As she gathers a small circle of friends - a boyfriend called Thugboy, a former ex-thug who was the first to say nice things to her; a female friend and New Jersey ninja (!) Ninjette; and a captured dimensional wolfdemon trapped in a powerbelt and left on her coffee table constantly demanding the latest DVD series to watch - she gains an audience to hear her gripes and provide emotional support. And with her friends' emotional issues - Thugboy's backstory of crossing other Heroes and Villains keeps popping up; Ninjette's fleeing from an abusive family home that's slowly catching up with her - thrown into the mix, we get to compare/contrast all the trauma everyone's going through. Wait, what was my point?
The point is, this isn't all titillation for us. Warren throws out ideas about bondage and what it actually means: is it really fun to watch someone get bound and gagged and humiliated? How much of this is really about sex, or even about fun? In Volume 4, Warren takes us right to the edge of 'Uncomfortable' when he has Empowered show up for a Make-A-Wish event for a cancer-sick preteen boy... only to find the boy's wish is to be a supervillain and roleplay 'capturing' a heroine like her. At what point to we readers worry about the pedo aspects of this questionable roleplay...? Bondage and empowerment (there's that word) issues come up when her best friend Ninjette is hunted and captured by a rival ninja clan at the climax of Volume 3, one of the more violent and unsettling stories in the series (yet).
Volume 4 picks up where 3 left off, with Ninjette suffering the psychological trauma of her near-mutilation by the ninja bounty hunters. But while she's dealing with that, Empowered gets word that she's up for an award (the Capeys, the Oscars of superheroing and as equally self-serving) that ups her self-esteem to new heights... only to find out from her teammates the Superhomeys that the award is a joke, comparing her to an earlier pathetic hero who was devastated by the prank years earlier and seemingly disappeared...
This volume is when we see where Warren is going with this series: it's not about sexual empowerment (regarding the bondage and sex-roleplay issues) as it is about emotional empowerment, the struggle against other people's torments upon our heroes. The plotline of the prank award is the latest and largest blow yet: an open mockery of Emp's attempts to be a real heroine and save others. The conclusion of the plotline - where the awards ceremony turns into a deathtrap - is completely satisfying, and hints that Empowered may have finally proved her worth (slight SPOILER there: that Empowered defeats the bad guy even with her suit in tatters suggests she's learning that she's still powerful even when it's torn).
The beauty of the series is with the characters: no one is two-dimensional and everyone adds value to the storyline. Best of all is the development for Empowered's nemesis, Sistah Spooky, the one Superhomey literally working hard to make Emp's life as miserable as possible. It's Spooky who, after a heart-to-heart with an ex-lover warning her of her phobia against attractive blondes (Sistah Spooky's origin from Volume 1 is hilariously twisted in its own right), reveals to Emp that her Capey nomination is a prank. And Spooky's horrendous love life and the poor decisions she's made there provide an arc of sympathy that might allow our heroine Empowered a better career in future issues.
Nah, that won't happen. Warren's gonna figure other more devious ways to get Empowered tied up again. Maybe with Canadian-grade hemp...?

Best (not really) Unavoidable Book of Ultimate Destiny
Anything by Stephenie Meyer, but especially Breaking Dawn, the fourth volume of her Sparkly Vampire series. I swear, SPARKLY VAMPIRES. This is, actually, something I avoided at all costs. Everything I heard from the summaries - emo teen girl meets broody vampire boy 'neath a silvery moon which then explodes for no good reason actually the only thing exploding are the moody werewolves yeah that does happen - made me just sit back and think: "Wait. Wasn't this from the Roswell High series???"
This whole series is basically an overripe Harlequin romance novel with extra teen angst thrown in for good measure. Not for guys, this is definitely for teen girls... and their moms. Oy.
There is a book recently out by Meyer however, that's not part of that vampire series and by all reports is actually pretty good: The Host. It's an alien invasion story, where humans are possessed by space-wandering parasites. Uninfected humans are in the minority and try to hide and fight back against the takeover, and one rebel girl is captured and merged with a parasite that ends up sympathetic to her cause, joining with her even as separate personalities in the fight to end the invasion. Of course, there's still a cute boy or two motivating the heroine(s)... This wasn't a book of Ultimate Destiny (which means a book of hyped expectations, much like Harry Potter's series finale last year), so it didn't fully fit this category the way Breaking Dawn did. I didn't read The Host: I did give it as a birthday present to my friends' teenage daughter, and she liked it. It will be a series of its' own, so keep an eye out.

Best Book by Someone I Know and Corresponded with via Email on an Occasional Basis
This breaks down to basically two people: Stefan Petrucha and Sheryl Nantus. Since I did Sheryl last year I'll see about reviewing one of Stefan's work.
Petrucha I know from the old old days of the Topps X-Files comic book series, when I did online reviews of the comic, and Petrucha went out of his way to gripe about my speeling errors. Ah, fun times. ;)
He's in constant production by the look of things, mostly with working on Nancy Drew paperbacks (!) and Mickey Mouse comics (!!! dude? Well, hey I guess work is work...) but of higher literary value is a recent work The Rule of Won. Meant for young adult audiences, there's enough bite here for adults to enjoy. The Rule of Won is about a teen slacker drawn in to an overactive high school social club obsessing over a self-help book similar to that Secret book. Only this time, the motivationals seem to be working all too well, and people are getting what they want... with painful consequences. Eventually the slacker has to rise up and get a part-time job at the mall... um, fight back against the evil teen overlords. While it falls into the familiar teen novel realm of standing against peer pressure and groupthink, the snarky ripping into self-help thinking is what caught my eye and fit my reading mood.

So with that, Io Saturnalia and Happy New Year. Now, back to job-hunting...

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