Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Witty's Year End Book Review 2015

Getting down towards the moment where I want to mention the stuff I've read, and above all the works that I liked, so that I might inspire the seven people who visit this blog to go out and read these books as well. Hi there!

Some of the rules to note: the works listed may not be new this year, but are ones I've read this year or re-read as a refresher of sorts. Thing is, you should be able to find them in your local library or at least online as an ebook for purchase. The links are to the Goodreads website where you can track your reading library for sharing with friends. That said, here goes.

Best Fiction

Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman.
This had been out for a few years (2007) before I finally got around to reading it, but it's become a minor classic as a deconstructive look at the superhero comic book narrative. Told from the perspective of the Mad Scientist Arch-Villain (think Luthor/Dr. Doom), the story is less about how he plots his next scheme for world domination than about how he interacts with the only people he knows: costumed vigilantes with other-worldly powers. Sharing the narrative in a parallel plotline is a secondary character - a newly created (literally) cyborg soldier introduced to the ranks of superheroes to fill their thinned ranks after a particular tragic battle - coming to terms with how she's no longer really human and yet is expected to BE human in a superhero team that's barely functioning as a group.
The genius of Grossman's work is how he toys with the standards archetypes of the superhero genre - which is emerging as a literary form separate from the graphic narratives it has been confined to the last 70 years - while respecting those tropes and explaining how such skewed, screwed up personalities and plots could exist in our real world.
Honorable mentions: Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee. The anticipated follow-up work from the writer's classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Flawed, but poignant. It's personally heart-breaking to realize some elements from Mockingbird were not as noble or humanizing as we thought when we read it in high school.

Best Non-Fiction

Between the World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Caveat: I am part of the group known as The Horde (originally the Lost Battalion of Platonic Conversationalists), which is essentially TNC's fan club from his writing for The Atlantic since 2007 or so. So this means that anything he writes is going to get a favorable impression from me. Hell, the guy can write a comic book series for Marvel and I'll sing its praises. Oh, right, he is... (I'm a DCU guy, so this IS a big deal)
Between the World And Me is a book-long letter Coates writes to his son - standing in for the readers - about his past experiences growing up as a Black teen in a decaying urban setting, coping with issues and personal traumas inflicted on minorities due to the institutional racism embedded deep into the American character. Describing the attacks on Black men and youth as "plunder", Coates details the horrors of lives ruined and brutally ended all because our system - of schools, law enforcement, business and employment, established cultural norms - is geared towards punishment and silence of those deemed poor and inferior.
It's a powerful read, and the sins Coates catalogs in his work are ones that need addressing.
Honorable mentions: Here If You Need Me, Kate Braestrup. A beautiful memoir about spiritual awareness, coping with personal loss, and how not to panic when getting lost in the woods of Maine.

Best Graphic Novel

Batgirl of Burnside Volume One, Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr
You might remember I went SQUEE back in 2014 over superheroine Batgirl's new costume design. So this was something I was waiting on. Our library finally purchased the collected first volume of that series, and when my hold on the book came in I got to be able to read it.
If you haven't followed her history, Barbara Gordon (actually the second Batgirl on record) had endured a tragic attack at the hands of the Joker, leaving her wheelchair-bound for two decades and revamped as a hero coordinator / information broker known as Oracle. The recent reboots to the DC Universe gave the publishers the excuse to let Babs get the use of her legs back so she can rejoin the legion of The Bat Family, and this series starts off with a more youthful version heading back to college to work on her computer science skills developing her own AI program. Mixing in the struggles of being a college-age cutie and the hassles of an invasive social media environment, Babs comes to realize that her snap-on cape is the MOST AWESOME THING EVER. Oh, sorry, that's me projecting. My bad.
This is actually a fun read, with well-drawn work by artist Tarr that keeps the image narrative flowing in a eye-catching way. I heartily recommend the costume for cosplay purposes.  ...What?

Best Work By Someone I Email, Tweet, or Chat With On a Regular Basis

Sunstone Volume One, Stjepan Šejić (yes, I had to copy/paste that because damn that's impossible to remember for speeling purposes, okay?)
WARNING: Not for kids, NSFW, nobody under 17 buys this, okay? OKAY? Just because it's a comic book doesn't mean it's for kids! This is an incredibly mature work and should be read as such.
I wouldn't say "on a regular basis," but I have done some give-and-take with Sejic about his work on Sunstone as well as Death Vigil (another awesome work that deserves more love), so he qualifies for this award. I need to chat more with Sheryl Nantus someday. Anyway, I digress.
Essentially the WAY BETTER story about bondage than Fifty Shades of Bad FanFic, Sunstone is about the meeting between two women sharing BSDM fantasy stories who decide to take the next step and act out those stories with each other. Yes, it is about hot lesbian bondage (even the main character narrator admits it) between a practiced domme and a novice sub, but like all great works what really sells this series is the developing characterization and humorous details of the real-world implications that impose on the women's fantasies (and their growing love for each other).
Sejic takes the time to build up his main characters Allison (the domme) and Lisa (the sub), giving them back stories explaining why they would have an interest in sex roleplay that makes up the BSDM culture. And he doesn't make them ideal characters: Allison in particular has her doubts and fears (due to a near-tragic bondage incident) and Lisa feeling uncomfortable with how far she's willing to let her writing fantasies overtake the real-world consequences of relationships. Thrown into the mix are fellow bondage enthusiasts - some with their own issues and emotional scars - as well as regular characters from outside that culture who provide contrast and commentary on how Allie and Lisa are falling in love with each other despite their arguing that "it's not like that".
If the plot seems a little bit like Pride and Prejudice (but with hot lesbian bondage), it's because it's following the similar tropes of having two characters who are made for each other coping with the issues of class (Allie is personally wealthy compared to Lisa's struggling writer existence), gender roles (traditional vs. alternative), emotional damage (pride), and other obstacles they have to overcome to achieve that beloved ending of literature: the white wedding of True Love / Happily Ever After. Not much has really changed between the 19th Century world of Jane Austen, except for the 21st Century era of smartphones, file sharing, and texting.
The sex scenes are drawn with care and interest, by the by. This isn't a truly exploitative work like the porn videos you can find on the Intertubes. And if you actually read the story instead of glaring at the naughty pictures, you'll notice the hilarious witty repartee and funny plot twists.
Why this is way better than the exploitative bondage fiction dominating the market right now is that Sejic takes the time to create believable, likable characters, and because he treats the bondage culture with sympathy, genuine research, and detail about the realities of what it's really like to get tied up in rope (hint: it's not safe) and at the mercy of someone else's care.
Sunstone is right now the best example of It's Not Porn It's HBO Art on the market today.

Best Anthology That Contains a Short Story I Wrote

Stories for All Seasons, by Writers for All Seasons
I'm part of a writing group in Lakeland (Writers 4 All Seasons), and this past year we decided on a shared project of creating an anthology to help promote our group as well as get some of us established as published authors. It's currently a Kindle-only version available for download, but I hope people out there will take a look and support our efforts.
My submission was "Where The Snow Is Grey", a Christmas-time winter tale using a character I am using in my own 'verse of stories (but one that can be told here). I hope you like it among the other tales told.

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