James Bond: Vargr by Warren Ellis and Jason Masters
4 out of 5
The Short Version: After a revenge mission in Helsinki, Bond returns to London and is handed a case from his fallen comrade’s workload. A new drug has hit English shores and his job is to break up the trafficking operation – but what should be a simple in and out job turns out to be anything but.
The Review: The idea of Warren Ellis taking on James Bond is immensely appealing. Yes, Ellis is best known for his takes on transhumanism and technofuturism – but Crooked Little Vein was an ass-kicking adventure and I had the feeling that Ellis, an Englishman to his core, would get Bond intuitively in a way that some of his recent chroniclers struggled with. Turns out, I was right: the best thing about this comic is that Bond is Bond. He’s the handsome, abrasive-yet-charming, ruthless bastard who Fleming created – the blunt instrument, as as we’re so frequently reminded in this 21st Century day and age – and Ellis sets him up for a pretty solid, if a bit by-the-numbers mission. There’s a smashing cold open, a quintessential villain, and Ellis even works in some of his trademark futuristic sci-fi with bionic prostheses and drug trials gone wrong. Jason Masters gets Bond’s look right, too, and the comic is often a joy to look at (if not my favorite overall art, in terms of styling). This felt like a solid reintroduction to the latest modern Bond and I’m beyond excited for Eidolon – more excited for a Bond story, in fact, than I’ve been in a long, long time.
Niels Lyhne by Jens Peter Jacobsen, translation by Tiina Nunnally
2.5 out of 5
The Short Version: A young Dane called Niels Lyhne loses his Christian faith as a child and tries to find meaning in love and art – but ultimately ends up disenchanted and heartbroken many times over.
The Review: The back cover makes an allusion to Hamlet and I went in a little wary. I’m never fond of books/characters/stories that rely on the adolescent reading of Hamlet-as-indecisive-moper – and that seemed to be what this book was setting up. That having been said, this story actually does earn its allusion to that far more famous one, because Niels is working through a lot of stuff and never quite manages to figure it out. There are also some hints of proto-feminism here, in the way that the “strong-willed women” around Niels live lives that are as complicated and complex as Niels’, if not moreso. Overall though, the novel has fascinating moments but I found it a little lacking, frankly. The translation, by Tiina Nunnally, is admittedly fantastic – feeling colloquial and modern without losing any of the potency of the book’s original time and place – but I was never fully engaged, even when I was enjoying reading. Niels is a bit too “#notallmen” and while his deathbed repudiation of Catholicism felt like a proto-existentialist philosophical touchstone, his ‘story’ such as it was felt more like vignettes without any connective tissue as opposed to a truly structured narrative.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reed
2 out of 5
The Short Version: Jake and his girlfriend are driving out into the country to visit his parents. She’s considering ending their relationship but is continually distracted by disturbing and strange things – like the confusing state of his parents’ house, like Jake’s decision to take a detour in a snowstorm, and more. But the truth is far more unsettling than it initially might’ve seemed…
The Review: Withholding information from a reader is nothing new. When it’s done well, it is just about as perfect as a thing can be – but slip up even once, withhold too much or insert something too unexpected, and it can upset the entire balance of the novel. So it is with Iain Reed’s fitful and ultimately disappointing debut novel. It begins sparsely, bleakly: an unnamed female narrator is riding with her boyfriend to meet his parents. It’s cold, snowing, she’s thinking of breaking up with him. They finally arrive, after long digressionary conversation, at the parents’ house and things immediately go from suspiciously stilted to totally fucking weird and creepy. But even as Reid ratchets up the suspense and has the reader wondering just what the hell is going on, he lets the reader down by destabilizing the story too much. It quickly spins out of his control, resulting in an ultimately unsatisfying and a little medically baffling twist that is altogether so headscratching that the reader is left not so much wondering “what just happened?” as asking “really?” The difference, of course, is what separates the wheat from the chaff – and for all its sporadic promise, this novel is decidedly chaff.
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel
3 out of 5
The Short Version: Edger and Fern Keating discover over Labor Day weekend in 1976 that all of their family estate’s money is gone. This knocks them both from their comfortable upper-class perch and sends them spiralling, both making questionable decisions that leave their three children (nine and two six-year-old twins) alone for several days.
The Review: I’m a sucker for a big messed-up-family novel and for an author who can head-swap with ease – and the first hundred pages or so of Ramona Ausubel’s novel gave me exactly what I wanted. She swings like a David Fincher camera through the heads of her characters, sometimes even dropping into the thoughts of the ancillary ones like a waitress whose only appearance lasts for a page, and she renders them all vividly and enjoyably. Edgar and Fern are both quintessential fuck-ups of the rich white sort, completely unable to comprehend a life without, and while their behavior seems laughably egregious (both leave their children alone at home assuming the other will take care of them, after a swinger session gone awry) it also seems entirely plausible. It’s the 1970s, rendered here in the same way that Mad Men made the horrible parenting of the 60s seem completely realistic to a modern-day audience.
But the book begins to falter after its snappy start, as the summer’s bliss fades and we begin to no longer see the humor in watching these people make terrible decisions and instead start to question why we’re reading about it at all. Toss in some undercooked development with the kids and the whole thing deflates like a soufflé: it’s still entertaining enough, but doesn’t sustain that initial zap of excitement. The last hundred pages felt like the hangover of the first week of school after a summer of fun, with some speedy wrap-ups and the revelation that none of these people were necessarily all that interesting right from the start.
To Be or Not to Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure by Ryan North
5 out of 5
The Short Version: The one that started it all, Ryan North’s epic discovery of the original book that inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet – a chooseable-path adventure featuring dead fathers, badass ladies, lots of murder, and endless fun.
The Review: To some extent, if you’ve read one Ryan North Chooseable-Path Adventure, then you don’t need to be sold on another. You just know that it’s worth it. To Be or Not to Be was the original book, first published independently (and still, I think, the highest raising literary Kickstarter) and now given a snappy redesign and tune-up from the folks at Riverhead. Design-wise, it’ll match Romeo and/or Juliet on your shelves, it has the same initially-mystifying printing decision of multiple options on a given page, and while it isn’t in color, the illustrations are still a delight. It even appears that North dropped back into the book and added/edited a little bit for the Riverhead run – I noticed a few direct mentions and recalled a few things I hadn’t seen before. Although those might honestly just be things I never found on the first go-round, which is in and of itself a case for why Ryan North’s Shakespeare games are and hopefully always will be simply delightful.