BooksOfTheMoon

The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway

By Rhys Thomas

Rating: 4 stars

I must confess that this tale of a troubled young man who dresses as a superhero to avoid dealing with trauma in his past isn’t the sort of thing I would normally read. But it got a glowing review in a magazine I usually trust and I’m a sucker for a good romance.

Sam is an average guy with a nice house, some nice friends who are as equally socially awkward as he is, and a decent job. He also dresses up a few times a week to fight crime (well, help old ladies across the street, give young kids a heart to heart, and help drunks out of graves, mostly). And then Sarah walks into his life and things will change forever.

Sam is a likeable guy, probably on the spectrum and some aspects of his life hit a little too close to the mark for me personally. His awkwardness around Sarah felt completely authentic and once they did eventually get together, there’s still a lot of tension because you’re just waiting for the secrets to come out and for things to go horribly wrong.

When I were a lad, romances tended to be built up throughout the book and resolved with the couple getting together in time for the climax (so to speak). Whereas here, and possibly in modern romance more generally (like I say, it’s not usually my genre), they get together by the middle of the book, and then things fall apart. In that sense, it reminds me of the film La La Land, although it has a very different thematic ending to that film.

The characterisation of Sam is excellent, although his two friends, with the somewhat unlikely nicknames of Tango and Blotchy, are much less well served. Even Sarah feels like she could have had a better treatment. Of all people, I was surprised that Sam’s boss, Mr Okamatsu, got a lot of attention.

This is a powerful story about grief, loneliness, kindness and love. It’s a very quick read and left me with a number of emotions. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to hug my nephlings.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472248145
Publisher: Wildfire
Year of publication: 2018

They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded

By James Alan Gardner

Rating: 4 stars

I loved All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault and timed it such that I finished it just as the sequel was released. This book focuses on Jools, another of the four housemates who get caught in a lab explosion and gained superpowers. She’s the jock of the group, and the one who’s struggling most with her studies. This combination ends her up with immediate knowledge of anything that’s part of the corpus of public knowledge and Olympic-level mastery of any human skill.

Despite these skills, Gardner paints a skilful picture of a young woman who’s good at giving the appearance of confidence and having it together but who is actually a bit of a wreck and is now struggling with a degree of inferiority compared to her superpowered teammates. Oh, and she’s also afraid that she’s turning into a Mad Genius who will stop caring about the devastation that her potential inventions could wreak. And that she’s got a drink problem.

The Darkling siblings Nick and Elaine return in this book, albeit more for an extended cameo than anything else. The blood bond between Elaine and Kim (now just K, having moved further toward the non-binary part of the spectrum) is used to drive the plot forward, and there is, of course, the eponymous gun. Believed to be created by Mad Genius Diamond from the first book, it’s very much the definition of a macguffin.

The Spark world is expanded as well. In addition to Grandfather and Invie, this book introduces us to the Aussie All-Stars and Robin Hood and his gang of Merry Men, a group of outlaw Sparks who rob the rich (Darklings) and (allegedly) give to the poor. Jools gets caught up with them and struggles to keep herself right.

The whole potential mind rape thing is rather disturbing, even if nothing happens to Jools. The idea that not only does Robin do this to other women, but that it’s facilitated by Marion is icky. Those were the most intense chapters of the book for me, when Jools is beset all round and separated from her teammates, having to rely entirely on her own resources (which are more than she gives herself credit for). I almost punched the air when Zircon finally turned up.

I’m thoroughly enjoying this series and a quick tweet to the author assures me that he’s already at work on the next one (Miranda’s book). This one is perhaps slightly not as good as its predecessor, but it’s still a highly enjoyable read.

Book details

ISBN: 9780765398789
Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2018

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault

By James Alan Gardner

Rating: 5 stars

Yet another book I picked up from John Scalzi’s Big Idea. The author talked about his desire to write a really fun superhero novel and that caught my attention. Modern superheroes all seem to be full of angst and woe, and this sounded different. And oh goodness, it was so much fun! In a world where monsters and heroes are real, four college housemates get caught up in a science lab explosion (what else?) that turns them into superheroes. Before they can take a breath and worry about the important things (cool costumes and a team name), they’ve got to figure out who is causing all the explosions and stop them from killing a good fraction of the population of the city.

The first thing that really caught my eye in this book was the idea that there’s a pricetag associated with “Dark Conversion” (i.e. being turned into a vampire/were-animal/demon/etc) and that it’s high. The idea that only the One Percent can afford it and suddenly they become so much more visible and (even more) differentiated from the rest of society is brilliant. It’s a compelling metaphor for the rich and how they view the rest of us. By comparison, the Light can choose anyone, no need for wealth or power. One rogue gamma ray and bam, you’ve got superpowers (rather than radiation poisoning). I also like how aware the book is of its own tropes and it meta-analyses them just enough to be fun and not so much to be irritating.

Our protagonist is Kim Lam, a geology student with a past she’d like to forget parts of. Her housemates are science students of various types and get just enough fleshing out to make them interesting (I see from the sample of the sequel at the end of the book at the next one is told from Jools’ perspective, so hopefully each of the team will get their own book and character development) but Kim gets the most. When they develop superpowers, her geology obsession gives her rock-hard skin, and her desire to hide gives her shrinking powers. I’m not sure where her 360-degree roving vision comes from, but it’s not something I’ve seen before in my (admittedly limited) superhero reading and is very cool.

So the book is hugely readable, with a sharp and sympathetic first-person narrator in Kim, with a fascinating world that leaves me hungry for more (I see a sequel is just out!).

Book details

ISBN: 9780765392633
Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2017

Astonishing X-Men Ultimate Collection Volume 1

By Joss Whedon

Rating: 4 stars

I must confess that I’m not hugely familiar with the X-Men. I used to watch the cartoon when I was young, and watched the first couple of films. This first half of Joss Whedon’s run with the X-Men covers two story arcs. In the first, the idea of a cure for mutation is introduced, along with an alien who has a vendetta against the X-Men. In the second, a damaged sentinel attacks the X-Men mansion under the orders of an unseen mastermind and there is danger from within.

The volume focusses on a core group, missing Professor X, who reform the X-Men as a superhero team to be visible and a beacon for the good that mutants can do in the world. Scott Summers and Emma Frost are co-leaders, with Hank McCoy, Kitty Pride and Logan filling out the ranks (superhero codenames are hardly ever used). It’s a fun book, filled with Whedon’s trademark humour (a particular favourite is a fight where Kitty and Colossus have thought bubbles that are mostly angst, and then we cut to Logan who’s just thinking how much he loves beer). It’s a great way to cut the tension and stop it feeling too “woe is me”.

It’s also a decent introduction to the characters, even for someone like me, whose knowledge of the X-Men and the universe is limited. We get up to speed with who everyone is, what the setup is and what the factions are quickly, and without infodumping – as you would expect from a writer of Whedon’s calibre.

The art is pretty good, although I wouldn’t call it special. There are some good splash pages and it fits the superhero style well. The one disconcerting thing for me in terms of the art is that Nick Fury is white. As far as I’m concerned Nick Fury is, and has always been, black (and looked like Samuel L. Jackson). This series predates the MCU by a good four years, but it’s still disconcerting for someone who’s main entry to Marvel has been the MCU.

So a good entry to the X-Men universe, with good characterisation of the cast and a fun book to read, enhanced by Joss Whedon’s ear for dialogue.

Book details

ISBN: 9780785161943
Publisher: Marvel
Year of publication: 2004

Superman: Red Son

By Mark Millar

Rating: 4 stars

I rather enjoyed this “what if” story, asking the question of what would happen if the infant Superman had crashed in the Soviet Union rather than the US. It starts in the 1950s when Superman has come into his powers and is working for the Soviet authorities, under Stalin, and charts his rise and eventual fall, alongside Lex Luthor. Other superheroes also turn up, both Wonder Woman and Batman, both reimagined in some sort of Russian context (I don’t care what anyone says, Batman’s furry hat is adorable, and very practical) as well as Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen.

I like how Miller has played on the tension between the sort of world that Superman is born into and his fundamental good nature, a nature that just wants to help people. The idea of what help means is drawn out, as Superman comes to believe that in order to help people, he has to take the very Soviet view of creating order, sort of the antithesis of American individualism.

The battle of wits that goes on between Superman in Russian and Luther in America is well played too, lasting decades, as Luther goes from a well-balanced scientist into full scheming megalomaniac mode, in his attempts to bring down Superman.

So all in, a nice alt-hist with a very neat twist at the end of the story.

Book details

ISBN: 9781840238013
Publisher: Titan Books (UK)
Year of publication: 2003

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2)

By Becky Chambers

Rating: 5 stars

Update 2018-05-14: second time round, I loved this book as much as I did previously. The only comment I’d make is that since I now knew where Jane’s story was going, I could engage much more with Sidra early on. Definitely a book that rewards rereading.

Original review:
I didn’t think it would be possible, but I adored this book almost as much as The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I thought I would miss the crew of the Wayfarer too much, but the Lovelace instance last seen leaving the Wayfarer in an illegal body, in the company of a tech wizard slowly enchanted me. This book tells both Lovelace’s (soon renamed Sidra) story and that of Pepper, and why she is so keen to help Sidra. For the first half, I found Pepper’s story much more engaging than Sidra’s, as she was suffering worse (or, at least, more relatable) deprivations.

But Chambers is better than that, and she slowly draws you into Sidra’s head and you feel for her as much as you do for Pepper and then she draws the two strands together at the end in a joyous and satisfying conclusion that may leave you blubbing but buoyant and with no AI-cide this time round, either!. Speaking of blubbing, I made the mistake of reading this on public transport, and was welling up more than once (Owl meeting Jane in the Big Bug sim was a roundhouse to the feels!), so be warned.

The theme of AI rights, which was touched upon in Small, Angry Planet comes much more to the fore here. Like in Ann Leckie’s Ancilliary books, it’s something where (sentient) AIs are taken very much for granted in this world and aren’t considered worth spending any time on, but as we found out in Small, Angry Planet, they can grow, feel and fall in love. Sidra is constantly terrified that others might find out what she is, and she’ll be terminated, because she’s not considered to be a person. And this fear means that she has to hide who she really is, and deny her self and her purpose.

I hope that this thread will be picked up again in later books, but given how different this is to its predecessor, I’m willing to bet that Chambers will surprise us all over again. And I, for one, am hugely looking forward to it!

Book details

ISBN: 9781473621473
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 2016

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 1: Squirrel Power

By Ryan North

Rating: 4 stars

This was a fabulous introduction to the most excellent Squirrel Girl, aka Doreen Green, a girl with the proportionate speed and strength of a squirrel! Well, when you think about it it, I suppose it’s no more stupid than any other superhero origins!

What I mostly loved about this comic was the lack of angst. She’s a superhero (complete with a Deadpool collectible supervillain card deck) who eats nuts and kicks butts, along with her adorable (and not super powered at all) squirrel sidekick, Tippy-Toe. And when kicking butts fails, she thinks her way out of the resulting fracas. And it turns out that there are a surprising number of ways of using a squirrel army to help defeat your enemies (said enemies including Kraven the Hunter, Whiplash and Galactus). I love the little Twitter-style catch-up at the start of each issue and the fact that this collected trade paperback keeps the letters pages from the issues.

The art is cartoony and fun, and SG herself is drawn as a normal sized woman, wearing a sensible outfit. I enjoy the fact that each page has a little (easily missed) caption at the bottom of the page, with a narrator (possibly SG herself?) commenting on what’s going on on the page in a really fun way.

This volume collects the first four issues, containing the first arc of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl as well as the story that SG first appeared in, from 1992 where she tries to impress Iron Man into joining forces with her.

Squirrel Power was an awful lot of fun, and I certainly look forward to reading more of Doreen’s adventures in future collections (I just hope that she manages to steer clear of the stupid crossovers and Events that eventually put me off G. Willow Wilson’s Ms Marvel).

Book details

ISBN: 9780785197027
Publisher: Marvel
Year of publication: 2015

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 5: Super Famous

By G. Willow Wilson

Rating: 3 stars

Right. Wait, what?! The last time we saw Ms Marvel, aka Kamala Khan, she was standing with her best friend, on the roof of her school, waiting for the end of the world. Here, we’re dumped right into the middle of the action, the world hasn’t ended and Ms Marvel is now an Avenger?! There’s no explanation of this, we just get a throwaway comment that it’s eight months later and just carry on regardless. This is frustrating, especially given where we left of last time.

Still, it seems that Kamala hasn’t been paying much attention since that time too, as she’s stunned to find out that Bruno is now seeing someone else, but before they can talk about that, there’s a redevelopment in Jersey City that goes a bit Stepford to deal with; her super-religious brother has fallen in love and needs her to be a chaperone; Avenging is trickier than she realised (not to mention the downsides of fame); and then there’s a whole stack of Kamala clones that need taken care of… It’s all a bit overwhelming, for the reader as well as for Kamala, as she tries to discover just what her priorities are.

As fond as I am of Kamala and her world, this book didn’t do it for me as much as the earlier ones. It was still fun, but it all felt a bit hectic, and the whole non-end-of-the-world thing was underwhelming. I understand it was part of some larger Marvel metaplot, but if you’re going to do that, it still has to work for people who don’t religiously read all the titles. Just a few panels of exposition would have been fine. And now, I see that the next volume is called Civil War II, presumably tying in with another Marvel crossover, and I’m really not sure I can be bothered with that. It’s Kamala I want to see, and her family and her friends and Jersey City. I’m happy to leave Spider-Man, SHIELD, the Avengers and all the others out of it. If the focus is going to move away from the characters of this title, to be more involved in crossovers, then I really can’t be bothered any more.

Book details

ISBN: 9780785196112
Publisher: Marvel
Year of publication: 2016

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4: Last Days

By G. Willow Wilson

Rating: 4 stars

Volume 4 of Ms Marvel (Kamala Khan edition) sees Kamala meet one of her all time heroes (and namesake) and have to save her brother from her evil ex while at the same time dealing with the end of the world.

This may possibly be my favourite Ms Marvel book to date. I loved the goofy mix of action and emotion, which has always been there, but Wilson has smoothed the edges to perfection in this one. I suspect that I missed a lot of the background with the big planet over Manhattan as I think it was part of some sort of crossover but you don’t really feel like you’re missing out on anything important.

The scenes between Kamala and Carol Danvers are very sweet and the ones with her and her family are awfully moving. However, it’s the last scene of the main story, with Kamala and Bruno that left a lump in my throat.

It was a bit jarring that at the end of that, we get a crossover issue with Spider-Man. It’s a complete change of tone, but fun in its own way, even if I get the impression that there’s a whole bunch of Spider-Man emo stuff going on (‘cos Spider-Man always does, doesn’t he?) that I didn’t really care an awful lot about. I was there for the embiggening and punching (and Kamala doing her fangirl squeeing thing, which is quite adorable).

Book details

ISBN: 9780785197362
Publisher: Marvel
Year of publication: 2015

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 3: Crushed

By G. Willow Wilson

Rating: 4 stars

Volume 3 of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms Marvel sees the young Kamala Khan have to deal with a force more terrifying than supervillains: feelings. The opening story doesn’t really do an awful lot for me, as it brings Loki, trickster of the gods down to visit for Valentine’s Day. Apparently Loki is now working for the good guys but a hilarious misunderstanding leads to a punch-up with everyone’s favourite puncher. It was okay, but I didn’t think it was the strongest of Kamala’s stories.

Fortunately, the one that follows it makes up for it. In this one, Kamala falls for Kamran, the son of some of her parents’ friends. And falls hard. Unfortunately, things don’t go well, and Kamala has to learn how to cope the hard way. There’s also a surprisingly touching scene between Kamala’s older brother Aamir and her best friend Bruno which touched a few chords with me. This story leaves a lot lying open, some of which, I assume, will be covered in future volumes.

The final story is a crossover with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with Jemma Simmons and Phil Coulson making an appearance. It’s fairly lightweight, and the likenesses of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to the TV show aren’t great but it’s a fun way to end the collection, with a message about family thrown in for good measure.

Book details

ISBN: 9780785192275
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Year of publication: 2015

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