Josh’s Harry Potter (Re)reading Adventure: “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix often seems to crop up as the book many people dislike (or like the least) out of the seven. The reason usually cited for this is the moodiness of the main character, the way in which Harry seems to complain about everything and be a generally terrible person. And the thing is, I don’t really disagree with any of that. Harry is kind of awful in this book, but Rowling gives us a way to understand it. Voldemort’s link with Harry is a major part of both the emotional and narrative scope of the book, so it’s easy (and understandable) to make sense of Harry’s dickishness in the book. That doesn’t mean that the reader has to enjoy it of course, but I’m not totally sure Rowling wants us to like Harry in this book or enjoy his dramatic swings. In a lot of ways, I think Order of the Phoenix draws the reader’s attention to the luscious world and dynamic characters around Harry. We get a shot of Neville that just briefly lets us glimpse how tragic and deep of a character he is. We see the Weasley twins being totally awesome in a their-own-narrative-climax kind of way. Harry is the irritating, kind-of-absent center of this book, and I think we’re supposed to spend our time looking everywhere but at our scar-laden hero.

The one thing that irks me a bit about Order of the Phoenix is the way in which Harry gets idolized so fully by everyone around him. I get the idea that Harry is becoming a shadow of Voldemort in this book, and his own sense of self-aggrandizing is explainable (though, again, not especially appealing) through that. But it gets a bit frustrating when everyone around Harry tends to idolize him–not for the stuff that he’d been through necessarily but for his heroic actions therein. Harry does try, at first, to explain away his experiences over the past few years through luck and help, but he too quickly falls into the hero narrative being spun by his friends/the DA. And I get that Harry has been through some stuff, but the thing is…he really did just get pretty lucky most of the time.

-First year? He let Quirrel touch him. Nice work, Harry; you killed it there with your awesome wizarding skills.

-Second year? Fawkes blinded the serpent, the Sorting Hat gave you a sword, and you managed to stab the basilisk as it bit you (keep in mind, you it was still blind at this point). Then, Fawkes saved the day again by healing your wounds. Again, you’re a star.

-Third year? Hermione’s logic, just like the first year and just about every minor issue you have, set you up to succeed. But you did learn the Patronus charm, which is major magic for your age, so we can give you this one. Nice work. One for three.

-Fourth year? Your wand happened to share some characteristics with Voldemort’s. Otherwise, you and I both know you’d have had no chance. Like, none. Not any. One for four, super solid work.

So, yeah, the idolization of Harry Potter is a bit frustrating, especially because the DA and the Order (not to mention Dumbledore) totally save his butt at the Ministry.

Also, just a quick note to say that the fight between Dumbledore and Voldemort is easily one of the coolest parts of this series. Dumbledore has been hinted at as the unending well of power and wisdom, and seeing him come together with Voldemort is a moment Rowling has been setting up for a long time. Dumbledore’s confidence and certainty throughout most of the fight are awesome to see, and it’s even pretty neat to see his confidence break slightly when he knows Harry is in trouble. Plus, it’s just plain awesome to see the two greatest wizards currently alive let loose against one another.

At the end of the day, Order of the Phoenix isn’t my favorite book in the series, but I do think it complicates the narrative in some really important ways. We get our first emotionally significant death (not that Cedric’s death wasn’t emotionally important, but it’s not even in the same league as Sirius’s), we get an incredibly despicable character in Umbridge, and we get a glimpse of the dangerous, violent world that we will be living in while Voldemort is at full power.


Ben’s Review: “Spook” by Mary Roach

I am not a scientist. I took a geology class once and thought it was neat, and I never bothered with AP Biology in high school because books were cooler and less intimidating. Mary Roach is my kind of science writer, in that she’s not a scientist. Roach writes nonfiction that attempts to bring scientific research down to the level of the non-academic enthusiast. Spook Roach’s second book, investigates claims of the human soul continuing after death. In other words, Mary Roach is trying to find out if ghosts are real. Spook‘s interesting premise and central question carried me through the book, but near the end my interest was flagging. Nonetheless, Spook remained an entertaining, if a little predictable, read.

The most obvious component to the charm of Roach’s work is the author’s adopted persona. Roach approaches her material as a self-described amateur, someone who is willing to do their homework, but also one who understand that there are limits to her own understanding. Her self-deprication and sarcastic wit was charming in the first pages, but by the end of the book I was annoyed with her, ready to be done. To be clear, Spook is not a serious work of scholarship, nor does it have any real aspirations to be. This is meant to be accessible, interesting, and fun. But, for me, Roach’s persona got in the way of my interest in the material.

Around the midway point, I started to notice a pattern. Roach’s chapters almost always center on interesting stories about paranormal inquiry. She discusses actual academic case studies on reincarnation, a man who tried to weigh the human soul, and the many grotesque applications of ectoplasm during spiritualist seances. These sections of the book are engaging if for nothing more than their profound weirdness. But when Roach attempts to discuss current research, the drive of the book wanes. Many chapters follow a predictable pattern. The author would relay an interesting story, introduce us to researchers who are trying to determine the validity of the stories, explain their research methods, and then conclude by saying that the results are inconclusive. Perhaps this is the fault of the subject matter, but there are no answers in Spook, no conclusions, not really any interesting leads. The chapters describe dead end after dead end.

At the end of the book, Roach grapples with the issue of scientific evidence versus personal faith. Roach foregrounds her own struggle with religious faith and her almost childish desire to believe in things like ghosts. This was one of the strongest parts of the book. Roach (smartly, I think) makes the point that almost everyone has a point at which evidence no longer can dissuade us from a belief. But, as a (sort of) scientist, she understands that any conclusion based on faith will be ultimately flawed, but perhaps more palatable.

In the end, Roach questions the utility of using science to back up a belief at all. The trouble is, the book that preceded that revelation did not back that conclusion up, which, I guess, was sort of the point. Still, I was left wondering why someone who seemed to have already made up her mind about her personal belief in the afterlife spent to much time stacking up evidence that showed that it probably does not exist. There is a paradox at the center of Roach’s book, one that I’m not quite sure she totally earns or owns.

Spook gets three pieces of lasagna out of five.

Josh’s Review: “Advent” by James Treadwell

James Treadwell’s 2012 novel, the first in a trilogy, sets up the magical, dark narrative of Gavin Stokes, a boy of 15 whose birth coincides with the re-emergence of magic in a world that has long been without it.  Gavin’s story opens on our young protagonist as he heads to visit his crazy Aunt Gwen, the only one to ever believe Gavin’s stories about his imaginary friend, Miss Grey.  Gwen lives next to a large estate called Pendurra, and she serves as the housekeeper there.  However, when Gavin arrives at Gwen’s house (after a strange and discomfiting trip on the train in which he meets an odd woman named Hester), he finds the quaint abode empty, and so is forced to go to Pendurra to look for her.  There, he meets a peculiar bunch of characters and finds himself in a situation that quickly moves from odd to supernatural.

But Treadwell doesn’t stop with Gavin’s story; the author carefully weaves in another narrative, that of the historic and literary figure of Johannes Faust, that is meant to have a direct bearing on the primary narrative.  And this is actually the point where my first criticism of Advent comes in.  The way the two narratives are set up is based on a system of reader knowledge or lack thereof.  We’re plunged right in at the end of the Faust narrative and each subsequent chapter moves back one space, so that by about 2/3rds of the way through the novel, we have pretty much the whole story.  It functions on the reader seeing this enigmatic event in the first chapter and thinking, “Hey, but…wait, what?  I don’t get it.  More, please.”  Gavin’s story, on the other hand, is supposed to function as the opposite of this; his life and why he’s heading to his aunt’s house are pretty straightforwardly delineated, and, at least right away, the weird balance between these narratives seems to work.  Unfortunately, it becomes apparent throughout the course of the book that Gavin’s narrative is actually based almost entirely on those enigmatic moments (Strange references that we’re supposed to trust will be revealed later, Actions or events that we take on faith to mean something, Characters introduced who drop cryptic lines and disappear–you get my drift.), and because there ultimately isn’t really a strong plot to tide us over until we get some of those answers, the whole novel feels like it’s constructed entirely out of foreshadowing.  And because the entire Faust plot is primarily set up as a supplement/generator of the main plot, it, too, tends to feel incomplete in a bad way.  For me, the Faust plot was the coolest part; Treadwell does a neat job moving through the layers of history and literature in order to pick out the stuff he wants to use for his novel.  I wanted much more of that.  In fact, I wanted much more of that in place of the Gavin narrative.

To take the critique a step further, there seems to be a weird lack of clarity with Gavin’s age/maturity level.  There are, in my mind, two options here:

1. Gavin is 15 and has the maturity level of a 15-year old.  I’m cool with this option because, hey, the book seems like it would be tons of fun to read as a 15-year old.  However, it becomes a little problematic in that Treadwell tends to fall into the standard us vs. them cliché where the kids are the us and the parents are the them, the people who just don’t understand and can’t be trusted.  Yeah, it’s cliché, and that’s never awesome, but it really becomes problematic when Treadwell doesn’t really give us a whole lot of adults who won’t understand.  Sure, we get evil adults who are doing evil things with their evil magics and evil intents, but they definitely understand the supernatural stuff Gavin is going through because, hey, evil magics.  Also, Gavin being a through-and-through 15-year old doesn’t really square with the strange romantic relationship with the 13 year old (yeah, 13.  Ummm, that’s weird, right?) that is pretty much explicitly stated and set up.  And, finally, if Gavin is in some part a 15-year old in order to appeal to that young readership, which solves some of the emotional/maturity problems I’ll bring up in the next paragraph, I have a hard time buying that those kids are going to be cool reading a book that drops words like “vertiginous” and “susurrus” like candy at a parade.

2. Gavin is a 15-year old with the maturity of a much, much older human.  I’m cool with this option, too, because it explains some of the earlier problems I mentioned and works well with certain…reincarnative aspects of the novel (that’s as spoilery as I’ll be, promise), but it doesn’t really square when you get to the multiple points throughout the novel where Gavin has to be a kid, a still-emotionally-developing kid who is immature and young, for things to work and make sense.  One major issue I had with the book is that Gavin does the sort of annoying thing where every other page he seems to have a revelatory moment.  You know the kind I mean–something like, “And Gavin suddenty realized X” or “All at once it became clear to Gavin that he’d been thinking about her wrong this whole time.”  This gets old after a bit, but it can really only make sense (although, I’ll hate it; I’ll just understand why it’s happening) if Gavin is that little kid.  I remember as a kid feeling like I had the world totally pegged down one moment and then completely changing my mind the next moment when I discovered something totally inane like, “Oh, hey, people sometimes smile when they’re happy.”  These moments (none of them as ridiculous as my example) are everywhere in the novel, but they can only be logic-ed away by Gavin being that young kid in a young kid’s body.

At the end of the day, I was interested by the structure of Treadwell’s novel and especially interested in this idea of combating the escapism of standard (urban) fantasy with the idea that things might be really, really terrifying if magic actually existed.  But I was frustrated by the lack of precision with which Gavin’s character was dealt, and I was honestly kind of bored by most of the novel while I waited to figure out what the heck those cryptic statements I read on page 14 meant.

Advent gets two slices of lasagna from me.

Ben’s Review: “Last Call in the City of Bridges” by Salvatore Pane

Last Call in the City of Bridges is the upcoming first novel by Salvatore Pane. In many ways, the novel treads familiar territory. The story of a young adult making sense of the world he has inherited is a common trope in fiction. But this is a novel that transcends the trope. In many important ways Last Call in the City of Bridges feels both fresh and absolutely vital.

Michael Bishop is twenty-five and lives in Pittsburgh. He grew up, like so many of his generation, with a secret certainty that he was destined for greatness, preordained to change the world. But now he finds himself subtitling DVDs for a living, sharing a house with a disenfranchised graduate student, and unhappy with almost every aspect of his life. Like many, he finds solace in the digital world, compulsively updating his Facebook page, surfing YouTube, updating his web comic, and spending hours and hours in front of a Nintendo Entertainment System, reliving the important games of his childhood.

Early in the book, Michael makes a startling claim about the defining moment of his generation. Earlier generations, he says, had clear historical touchstones to define them–D-Day, the Kennedy assassination, Woodstock, the Challenger explosion. Michael suggests that, even more than 9/11, his generation is defined by the advent of Facebook. Facebook, he says, is the source of a uniquely 21st century narcissism. On Facebook, everyone is made important. Everything one does has significance, even if that significance is an illusion. Facebook was also the catalyst for a strange new immortality–everything one puts online about could ostensibly last forever. These digital ghosts, as Michael call them, will persist long after we are gone. Michael and the other characters in the novel are haunted by the very thing they live for, isolated by what is meant to connect them.

Indeed, social media and internet saturation define each of the characters in important ways. Oz, Michael’s depressed roommate, spends his time trying to justify the digital as a legitimate focus for his graduate work. Noah, another friend, posts instructional basketball videos for kids. Sloan, Michael’s friend and one-time lover, hosts a series of YouTube videos that showcase nothing more than her counting to 250,000 out loud. Irony saturates their interactions with the world. No one displays their true internal selves, partly, I believe, because they don’t know who they actually are. Michael certainly does not. This anxiety and search for meaning serves as the novel’s primary narrative force.

One of the greatest strengths of the novel is the voice of Michael Bishop. He’s arrogant, insecure, often insufferable, but there is a genuine intelligence and emotional depth to him. He is a protagonist who is at once able to clearly articulate the painful eccentricities of his generation, while also being firmly participant in them. He guides us through this story with startling clarity. A few of the secondary characters bled together, but I didn’t mind because Michael’s progression is so well-draw.

It’s easy to compare Last Call in the City of Bridges to other novels with similar concerns like The Catcher in the Rye and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. But I think in this case those comparisons don’t tell the whole story. While those are fine novels that I have enjoyed, read in the current context they always feel like artifacts to me. By contrast, Last Call in the City of Bridges is an uncomfortably clear reflection of a world I have lived in and understand.

Michael Bishop finds metaphors in the NES version of Ducktales and measures his interactions with women against Han Solo and Princess Leia. But this referential saturation never once feels false or exploitative. It feels absolutely true, which also makes it sort of sad. I recognize so much of my own experience and feelings about my generation in the novel, but I needed a writer like Pane to articulate them, to reflect them back at me. I was ultimately uplifted by Michael’s conclusions about his fate in the world where irony rules, posturing is default, and the desire for connecting to another human being is the source of our most potent and devastating longing. It’s the best depiction of my generation that I’ve come across in fiction.

Last Call in the City of Bridges gets five pieces of lasagna. It will be available this November from Braddock Avenue Books. I highly encourage you to check out the book trailer here.

Josh’s Review: “The Dirty Streets of Heaven” by Tad Williams

Tad Williams’s newest book, an urban fantasy following the exploits of angelic being Doloriel–who normally goes by the name Bobby Dollar–features all of the brilliant worldbuilding characteristic of Williams’s epic high fantasy, but instead of faraway, vaguely Arthurian landscapes, The Dirty Streets of Heaven takes place in San Judas and features all of the grit and action of a good detective story. The novel is in first person, and because of that we get not only Bobby Dollar’s view of his heavenly work here on earth (Bobby is an advocate angel, which is basically like being a defense lawyer for souls at the point of their judgment–more on that in a bit) as well as glimpses of what Heaven, or the House as it’s sometimes called in the novel, is like. The simple premise of the plot, were I to boil it down, goes something like this: Bobby Dollar is an angel who fights for the souls of humans during their judgment. But one day, on a seemingly routine job, the soul of Edward Walker goes missing, and it sparks a macro investigation by the mightiest powers of Heaven and Hell and a micro investigation by Bobby himself. Sounds pretty alright, yeah?

One of the greatest things about this book is the way in which Williams so cleverly uses his skills as a writer of Big Fantasy Books, the myth/worldbuilding stuff that allows him to pull out a plot through a spectrum of characters, settings, and histories. Urban fantasy is still so often stuck, I think, on trying to not be epic fantasy that it gets lost in the here-and-now details of this or that small scale plot (as opposed to the huge, sweeping plots found in the books of people like Martin, Williams, or Jordan). But Tad Williams is still able to give us some of that neat mythology working behind the scenes of this novel. Sure, the whole thing stays pretty securely in San Judas, and Bobby Dollar spends more time swearing and drinking vodka than he does going after some legendary artifact or leading an army of the Celestial host against the hordes of Hell on the steps of Pandaemonium, but there are definitely hints that there’s an epic story lurking just behind the scenes, and, to be really honest, I think that’s brilliant. Because here’s the thing–you can’t take an entire religion’s mythology and turn it into a gumshoe story without having those sweeping narratives peek through. Instead of trying to cover that intrinsic epic narrative up, Williams is just really smart about where he lets it shine through. The whole novel feels this way, but this issue in particular–the meting out of epic vs. urban narrative–is just masterfully orchestrated.

Williams also has a pretty neat, fresh take on the whole Heaven vs. Hell thing. As I said, Bobby Dollar is an advocate (essentially a defense lawyer) who fights for the souls of humanity to go to Heaven. But here’s how that works: Every time a person dies, an advocate angel is called (like, on a phone) by a sort of angelic operator, and that advocate drives to the place where that person died. At the site of the death, the angel opens up a Zipper to the Outside, which is sort of like when characters in Gaiman’s American Gods go “behind the curtain;” essentially the angels step out of time for a little bit to go through the trial. In the Outside, a prosecutor from Hell shows up, and the judge, one of the majorly powerful angels called a Principality, comes down, hears the arguments from both sides, and delivers judgment to the soul, who just stands quietly (well, some stand quietly) throughout the proceedings. It’s a pretty neat system, and it utilizes so well one of the things I think urban fantasy so often focuses on, which is systems of categorization. You definitely get this in epic fantasy and pastoral fantasy, but there appears to be a much larger emphasis in urban fantasy on having things like rank, level, category, etc. for the different elements (whether they be character-based, magical, whatever) at play in the story. In The Dirty Streets of Heaven, Williams pushes this generic proclivity to its fullest, and we get huge ranges of rank/category in both the denizens of Hell and the winged folks of Heaven. This continues throughout the whole book, which seems like it would get annoying, because once you establish a hierarchy of creatures based on power, you have to know that most readers are just waiting to get to whatever is on the top, so it becomes your job as the writer to hold that information back as long as possible. It’s the same idea with horror; as soon as you show us what’s behind the door (or at the top of the ladder), it loses all its shine and interest. However, Williams is so good at making even the middle ranks on the ladder seem cool that I found myself not really caring when I would get another angel who was more powerful than these guys but still answered to someone else. Whether or not this can continue into the next books in the series (and it will be interesting to see how that happens given where this one ends up) is way uncertain, but as far as The Dirty Streets of Heaven is concerned, Williams navigates the treacherous land of reader expectations and genre conventions like the seasoned pro that he is.

I give The Dirty Streets of Heaven five slices of lasagna.

Josh’s Harry Potter (Re)Reading Adventure: “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”

Rowling’s 4th book in the series, Goblet of Fire really takes what has been a pretty insulated world and expands it drastically. Here we get a close look into the size of and variety within the Ministry of Magic, exposure to Harry’s past and the world’s past, and a sense of the culture/politics operating in the wizarding world. It’s almost as though Jo realized at the start of this book that she needed to push at the boundaries of her landscape pretty heavily because shit is getting so. dang. real. We get a sense of this from the very beginning. We have the first opening chapter of a book (so far) to begin away from Harry (though we find out that he’s linked through his dream) and the chapter not only foreshadows Voldemort’s return but also shows a dangerous crossing of the streams between the Wizard and Muggle worlds. Frank’s death shows the chaotic and wide-spread effects of Voldemort, and it strikes me as a really intentional move here, because we’ve had pretty insular effects from the Dark Lord up to this point. Certainly Rowling has provided whispers about the anarchy of the past, but so far in the present we’ve had relatively contained bad guys, and it can’t be an accident that we have this first convenience killing in the book that so drastically widens the scope of the narrative and the textual landscape.

In my read-through this time, I was struck by how completely uncomfortable the dispute between Harry and Ron made me. There are so many lovely plot elements and cool story pieces at work in these books, and it’s easy to forget how completely integral the friendship between The Three (Harry, Ron, Hermione) is. There seems to be a pretty strong emphasis in this text on the importance of Harry and Ron’s relationship, and Hermione’s role, as is often the case it seems, is to act as the mature, level-headed, and responsible character who acts as the group’s foundation for success. Seriously, I don’t think it can be said often enough how awesome Hermione is.

One of the other elements at play in Goblet of Fire, an element that will come back to haunt us in later books, is the Dumbledore as deus ex machina piece of the story. Though it’s certainly there in earlier books, the idea of Dumbledore playing the really long game and being the “one whom Voldemort always feared” seems to be especially present in the 4th book. Harry thinks his secret correspondence with Sirius, full of talks of strategies and attempts to decipher plot elements, is, well, secret, but we find out that Sirius, whom Harry thinks is a sort of ace up his sleeve is actually a piece in Dumbledore’s larger game, just as is Moody, Snape, and even Harry himself. And don’t get me wrong, that scene at the end when Dumbledore busts into the office, drops Barty Crouch Jr. like a bad habit, and sends Harry into bouts of awe just with the blazing look in his eyes, I mean, that scene rocks. But there’s a way in which it serves to reinforce the idea that Dumbledore is always watching, always alert, and always there to save people when they need it. Sure, Barty Crouch Jr. was able to wear a Moody suit under Dumbledore’s crooked nose for most of the year, but when things got really bad, and it seemed all was lost, he was there because he was observant enough to detect the Moody switch and powerful enough to stupefy faux-Moody through a door and still slam him to the floor. The scene emphasizes that Dumbledore is the goddamn man, that’s for sure, but I can’t help but feel a little bit like I’ve been given a slightly-too-obvious safety blanket. I’m certainly not saying I dislike Dumbledore (The book 5 fight–you know the one I’m talking about: that has to be one of the most badass chunks of any of the books), but there’s a way in which Rowling’s own dependence on him, her own staging of him as the Deus Ex Machina, is revealed here at the end of this book. And yeah, Rowling is a good enough writer to do something with this in the future, but here I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with how comfortable I am.

And finally, there’s Cedric. God. I remember when I read this book the very first time. It took me all day, and I didn’t finish until 10:30 or 11:00pm, which meant I’d read all day and my eyes felt like they’d been scrubbed with extra strength lemon juice. I fell asleep right after finishing it, woke up the next morning, went up for breakfast, and found that I couldn’t sit at the table with my family because I couldn’t stop crying. Why was I crying? Because Cedric F’ing Diggory, barely a major character in this story, died and Dumbledore said those really nice things about him. The end of the Headmaster’s speech kept running through my head, and after reading it this time (several years later) I still found myself tearing up: “Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.” It struck me as a beautiful and painful sentiment then, and it still does now. And really, what are these books about if not standing up for what is good and right in the face of all the hard stuff your world has to throw at you.

Ben’s Review: “Saga” (1-6) by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

The first six-issue arc of Saga, Brian K. Vaughan’s new creator-owned comic book series, concluded last month. It’s not fair to judge a comic as a whole on its first six issues, but, nonetheless, this first story of Saga left me cold.

Saga is set in the midst of an galactic-spanning conflict between the planet Landfall and its moon, Wreath. Two races, each with distinctive non-human features (wings and horns respectively) have been battling each other for generations. But because the planet and the moon are dependent on each other to maintain a stable orbit, the armies outsource the conflict to other planets, turning them into enormous, hellish battlefields and leaving Landfall and Wreath planets relatively unscathed. The entire galaxy, it seems, is affected by this conflict, and there is no end it sight.

The story centers on Alana and Marko, two deserters from either side of the conflict, who, in the first issue, are on the run. In the first pages, Alana gives birth to the couple’s first child, who is an uncommon hybrid of the two warring races. People in high places on both sides of the war view the child as a threat and want the parents murdered and the child taken in custody.

The story is occasionally narrated in first-person by Hazel, Alana and Marko’s daughter (whose birth we witness is the first issue), from an indeterminate point in the narrative’s future. In frequent in-panel asides, Hazel will comment on events that are happening in an oblique, sage-like way. These asides underscore my biggest concern about Saga: tone.

I have no idea what the tone of this story is. Hazel’s narration is dramatic, with a lot of emotional introspection about the nature of family and insights about the other characters. However, the actual world of the story and the characters who inhabit it don’t cohere with this emotional tone. Moments that could be dramatic are undercut by strange attempts at humor and levity, and truly violent and dark moments occur abruptly with little narrative follow-through. The story is unfolding, and I anticipate that we will learn more about the strange behavior of these characters in later stories, but for now I’m left with a large cast of characters that I care almost nothing about.

The reason I don’t care about these characters is because I don’t know who they are. Much of the characterization feels very surface-level, in a frustrating way. Everyone, from Hazel’s mother Alana, to the crazy freelance murder The Stalk, talks like a teenager (in addition to the actual teenager in the story, who is also apparently a ghost). Each character speaks with an affected, cavalier, pseudo-witty comical tone that undercuts almost every moment of genuine drama. The dialogue and character attitudes recall the snarky, referential speech patterns of Joss Whedon, but the story does not yet have the strength of character and emotional core to support it. Again, there have only been six issues, and there are certainly pages and pages of story left to tell, but, to be frank, I just really don’t care about anything that happens in these first six issues.

One highlights of Saga is the art by newcomer Fiona Staples. Her line work is heavy, almost sketchy, and she is able to evoke the scale of this universe, the gleeful weirdness of the character design, and satisfying facial emotion with her pencils. The art is colored in a deceptively simple, almost pastel style. Saga is a beautifully book too look at. I was continually impressed with Staple’s art, even when the story fell flat.

The first issues of Saga do all of the things we would expect from the first part of an epic–it introduces us to the principal characters, the world they inhabit, the conflicts they’re likely to face going forward–but in a fairly bland, uninteresting way that left me with a book that I’m even sure I want to continue reading.

Saga 1-6 gets two pieces of lasagna.

Josh’s Review: “Looking For Alaska” by John Green

So, after my last post about John Green’s Paper Towns, I immediately went out and read his other books. I wasn’t planning to do another Green review here on Genre Lasagna because, you know, we’ve already had two and we don’t want to make this a predictable, monotone thing. So, being on the YA kick that I was, I picked up Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25. I got about 35 or 40 pages in before I couldn’t take anymore. I realize it’s maybe written for a slightly younger audience than Green’s books based on the age of the protagonist–clearly the YA stamp is a bit homogenous–but I’m also in the midst of reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Harry’s just about the same age as the titular Michael Vey, and Rowling’s book is so much more readable than Michael Vey. Anyway, this is all to say that I tried to branch out, I really gave it a go. But I’d rather just write about John Green’s first novel, Looking For Alaska, than read and write about Michael Vey. So.

Looking For Alaska was published in 2005; it tells the story of Miles “Pudge” Halter as he heads to Culver Creek Boarding School, falls in with the schools best pranksters, and learns to smoke like a chimney. I mean, there’s other stuff in there, but really there’s just a huge number of cigarettes smoked in this book. Like, if we could use page instead of capita, this book would have a per capita cigarette count of, like, 3 or something. Anyway, apart from the cigarettes and pranks (but not disconnected from them), Pudge meets a girl named Alaska Young who changes his world.

In a lot of ways, I’m glad that I read all of Green’s books before I did this one, because it allowed me to see how many beginnings there are in Looking For Alaska for the rest of Green’s works. For instance, you might say that Paper Towns is all about how we connect with other people through simplified ideals of who they really are, and much-if-not-all of that book is dedicated to exploring and exploding that idea. And here, in Looking For Alaska, we see the real germination of that idea, because Green doesn’t deal with it in the careful, slow-burn kind of way he does in Paper Towns. Here, Green touches on it, but Looking For Alaska is about so many things that there’s no real space in the narrative or thrust of the book to cover this idea in depth, and the result is that Green’s book feels a bit more messy than the rest of his stuff (which, hey, it’s his first book) and whole heap more raw. We still get some of the moral-of-the-story kind of gesture he likes to make at the end of his stories, but here it feels a bit less fulfilling, which I kind of liked. If anything, I think John Green absolutely excels at plunging his readers into an emotional stratum that is both painful and necessary, and I think he runs the risk of undercutting that experience with some of his final gestures in his books. This isn’t to say that I didn’t love them all, because I really, really did. And I think the overall structure of Looking For Alaska loses out a bit on the carefully constructed feel of his later books. But this one also felt a bit more jagged and fractured at the end of the day, and I have to have respect for an author who can do that.

Looking For Alaska gets five slices of lasagna from me, and I hope all of you can get a chance to read it sometime.

Josh’s Harry Potter (Re)Reading Adventure: “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”

I was a little worried about coming back to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; I’m not a huge fan of the Time Turner narrative device (more on that below), and I’m a little strapped for time these days, which makes it difficult with the first of the really long books in this series.  But I was happily surprised to find myself totally engaged with the story this time around; I read the last 45% of it in one sitting and was absolutely enthralled the whole time.  I’d forgotten just how much bigger Rowling’s world gets in this book, and I happily relearned all about Hogsmeade, the Marauders, the Secret-Keeper tragedy, and the rest.  It was a fun read, and I’m more excited to get into the rest of the books than I was with the first or second installments.

Maybe my favorite part of the novel is the introduction of Remus Lupin as a character.  Not only is Lupin way awesome and a great example of what good teaching can look like, he is also one of the first adults in whom Harry places his full trust.  Hagrid, of course, is the other logical choice, but I think there’s a way in which Hagrid’s character gets written into a liminal space between adults and children; he never finished school and transitioned to adulthood, he speaks in his own, sometimes simplistic style of speech, and he is still fully awed by stereotypically boyish things (dragons, big spiders, pleasing his elders).  Lupin, on the other hand, is clearly a character who has gained the respect of the adult community (sans Snape) in the book, and his relationship with Harry is especially interesting because of that.  In the earlier books, we see Harry holding back information from one of the adults (Dumbledore especially) because there is a fundamental lack of trust there; either he worries they won’t trust him to do the right thing or he doesn’t trust them to do the right thing with his information.  There’s a moment in the 8th Chapter where Harry is sitting with Lupin drinking tea, and Harry considers talking to him about the boggart issue, and for a second he hesitates, but eventually Harry breaks down and the result is pretty positive for both characters.  We see Lupin acting as a mentor and friend and Harry comes away feeling much more secure in himself.  And the really interesting thing for me is that Harry initially doesn’t want to tell Lupin about the boggart stuff because “[h]e didn’t want Lupin to think he was a coward.”  The lack of communication doesn’t have anything to do with these trust issues that seem to plague Harry’s standard method of talking with adults; instead, we have Harry actively thinking about and valuing this other person’s opinion of him, and that’s a real change.

The one thing that didn’t work for me when I was younger and still doesn’t work for me is the time travel stuff at the end of the book.  It was really neat the first time I read it, but, like a lot of time travel narratives, it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t really hold up as well on a second or third readthrough.  Don’t get me wrong; the climax of Prisoner of Azkaban is really well constructed.  But I can’t help but feel as though the climax more closely resembles a masterfully won chess game than it does an emotionally convincing and developmentally satisfying narrative finale.  The emotional pieces at work (Sirius and Harry, the possibility of Harry’s dad and Harry) just feel a little contrived to me.  Harry moves so quickly from hating Sirius to being overjoyed that they’re going to be roommates–and as sweet as that sounds, it just feels a bit abrupt to me.  As for the Prongs confusion, my point is not that it doesn’t seem possible, but it doesn’t seem to carry enough emotional resonance to really carry the finale.  The Time Turner mechanism is such a great idea, and my criticism isn’t of that; my problem is that the neat structural possibilities of the Time Turner seem to steal the climax of a book that is so packed with emotional drama and character development.  I’m curious about this, not having seen/read an overabundance of time travel stories, but this kind of thing (the narrative getting hijacked by the cool plot possibilities of time travel) seems to happen a lot, which is why I’m often vaguely dissatisfied by these stories.

At the end of the day, Prisoner of Azkaban is a great book and a necessary piece to the holistic rising action of the overarching narrative of the series.  It’s quirky, it’s funny, and it gives us just a taste of just how emotionally wrenching things are going to get.  I can’t wait to get into the next one.

I am too sleepy to do favorite quote stuff at the end, but if you want to throw one of your own (or a favorite moment, character, etc) in the comments, I’d love to read it!

Ben’s Review: “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell

Karen Russell is already on her way to becoming a literary superstar, insofar as such a thing is possible these days. Her first novel, 2011’s Swamplandia! was a finalist for Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a high honor even considering that no award was presented. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is Russell’s 2006 short story collection, released when the author was only 25. In it, she displays skill, precision, and invention that is uncommon for an author of any age. The stories in the collection run the gamut between disappointingly pretentious to strangely transcendent, making for an enjoyable, if uneven, whole.

Russell is certainly writing literary fiction–that is, in my prickly definition, fiction that holds imagery, language, and metaphor up as primary concerns. (One could argue, quite rightly, that all fiction has these concerns, but I wish to draw a distinction between the style of work Russell writes and other work that has obvious syntactic and stylistic differences.) We get stories focused on the complications of growing up, of trying to fit into new social situations, of dealing with the growing awareness of parental fallibility. Then we get a story with a Minotaur father pulling a wagon across the unsettled nineteenth-century United States, or the one where a boy finds a pair of swimming goggles that allow him to see ghosts. The two qualities aren’t extricable; each story is dependent on the marriage of these two seemingly incompatible literary concerns. It’s an interesting high-wire act, even more interesting considering the mainstream literary attention Russell has received. Her stories have hallmarks of contemporary literary realism, sprinkled in with a gleeful, disruptive love for genre tropes and the outright weird. A few fall flat, but many of the stories are sharp, surprising gems that call into question the way we have traditionally classified literature. It’s not really useful to reduce Russell’s work to either “literary” or “genre.” Her work makes a convincing claim that, to some extent, descriptive terms like those have limited utility. This is simply good writing.

I found myself with a strange mix of readerly emotions while reviewing this book. I sometimes rolled my eyes at an overly ornate sentence or at half-baked attempts at emotional or metaphorical resonance. Often this was because it felt like Russell was using intentionally strange metaphors and images to gesture toward meaning that seemed absent to me. But then, often in the very same story, I would be broadsided by a passage that would leave me staring mutely at the page, knocked flat by the clarity and perfection of a detail or character exchange. Russell uses weirdness to deepen and sharpen her metaphors (such as in the superb “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Western Migration”), while in others she leans on weirdness a little too much, relying on surrealistic, discordant images to effect the reader (such as in “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows.”) The best stories use the weird elements as a means to making meaning, rather than as a focal point.

Sense of place is also important is nearly every one of the stories. The sweaty Florida setting is rendered in the stunning coastal caverns of “Haunting Olivia,” the roadside gator-wrestling show of “Eva Wrestles the Alligator,” and as a counterpoint to the false indoor winter wonderland in “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows.” The misty, mysterious Everglades are described with an otherworldliness and just-left-of-center quality that they almost become mythic, full of history, malice, and beauty. The stories in this collection are so enmeshed with the setting that they simply could not have taken place in any other location.

My most significant criticism is in regards to Russell’s choice of narrators. Many of the stories are narrated by precocious children with large vocabularies and a sharp talent for introspection and self-awareness. Many of these narrators are young boys, usually from broken or reconfigured families. Taken on their own, these narrators are fine, but when reading the stories closely together, the voices tend to blur. Russell has a startling command of language, but her (mostly first-person) child narrators share a similar speech style, which diminished my enthusiasm for a few stories. I kept waiting for Russell to break away from the mold. A few of the stories do so with great success, but over half of the stories feel very similar.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is an uneven collection that left me seething with a kind of blissful envy. Russell stumbles in a few of the stories, but the ones that work do so on a stupefyingly high level, to say nothing of the writer’s age at the time of publication. Reading the collection made me very excited to check out her renowned novel, and also deepened my anticipation for her new collection of stories, which is out next February.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves gets four pieces of lasagna from me. Not every story is a winner, but those that are are beautiful and unlike anything else I’ve read.