Stack Overflow: Recent Reads

Stack Overflow
My shelf of “read but not yet reviewed” books. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

I had all these grand plans to write a weekly column starting this year about the books I’m reading. I figured, rather than wind up adding to the big backlog on my shelf of books I’ve read but haven’t reviewed yet. (Yeah, there are some pretty old books there… sorry, authors.) I was inspired a while back by Nick Hornby’s More Baths Less Talking, a collection of his columns in The Believer. He starts each column with a list of books he’s acquired, books he’s been reading, and then just talks about books, viewed through the lens of his life.

More Baths Less TalkingWell, I’m no Nick Hornby, of course, but I liked the idea of talking through my reading on a regular basis. For one, it would relieve me a little of the pressure of trying to group book reviews thematically, not to mention keeping me on top of the ever-growing pile of review copies I get sent daily. It would also ensure that I wrote about books while they were still fresh in my memory, as opposed to trying to remember what they were about months later.

Then January happened–I spent way too much time writing up my reflections on 2014 Kickstarter games, my wife had knee surgery and was out of commission for about a week, and on top of that my two older girls got the flu and were home from school at the same time. If not for the support of many, many friends bringing us meals, we might have been eating ramen for every meal. Oh, and GeekDad brought on a big batch of new writers (welcome, y’all!) and launched a Patreon campaign, so there’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff going on as well.

Kickstarter Alert: SwapBots Augmented Reality

Anyway, now it’s nearly the end of January, so maybe this will wind up being a monthly column instead of weekly? We’ll see.

I’ll skip the “books I acquired” because, frankly, that would be ridiculously long, but I may mention a few books I’m particularly excited for. If I have the energy, I’ll also throw in a few of the others that are sitting on that review shelf and try to work my way through the backlog.

I started using Goodreads again to log the books I’ve read and jot down a few short notes about them–I’d used it a while back but fell out of the habit, and now that they’ve integrated a barcode reader into the app, maybe it’ll make it easier to log and rate books… if I can remember. So far this month I’ve mostly read a bunch of comics, some picture books, and I finished one kids’ book that I’ve been reading aloud to my kids.

Gigantic Beard That Was EvilThe Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins is a bizarre little book that I’d seen on some year-end lists and decided to pick up when it was on sale at Powell’s. It’s a comic book, beautifully illustrated in black and white, with narration that sometimes rhymes and sometimes doesn’t. It’s about Dave, a completely bald man (except for one hair above his lip) who lives on this perfectly neat, tidy island… until the day he suddenly sprouts a beard that can’t be controlled. What is the book ultimately about? Is it about untidiness? Being different? Our futile attempts to control the world around us? Maybe a little bit of each.

Okko by Hub

The Okko series by Hub is one that I’d been sent years ago from Archaia but for whatever reason never got around to reading. (Well, I have the first three volumes–there’s a fourth that I don’t have.) It’s set in a world that’s very much like medieval Japan (named Pajan, actually) but there are monsters and demons and other supernatural forces at work. The title character is a ronin who hunts monsters–though he has a demon on his own team. It’s pretty graphic: lots of violence and gore, some nudity, so definitely for adults only. I’m still a little undecided about this one. I did like the stories, though the second book felt like it dragged a lot in the middle. The illustrations are pretty amazing. I didn’t realize it, but it looks like it’s pretty hard to find these days–at least volume 1 is really expensive.

Molly Danger by Jamal Igle

I backed Molly Danger by Jamal Igle on Kickstarter, got my copy, and then forgot it was on the shelf. Molly Danger is a superhero–she looks like a 10-year-old girl, but she’s been around for a couple decades and hasn’t changed in appearance. She goes around fighting off various cybernetically-enhanced bad guys, but often causes a lot of damage in the meantime. The book itself is a very large format, but not too long–only 48 pages–so it left me wanting more. Igle puts you in the middle of the story, so you don’t get origin story. Instead, you get the sense of a character that has a rich history, and you’re just getting a small glimpse of it so far. But there are hints at some secrets yet to be revealed. Igle plans to launch another Kickstarter for book two, so I’m keeping an eye out for that one. (Book 1 is available from Amazon, in case you missed the Kickstarter.)

Nimona by Noelle StevensonI hadn’t ever heard of Nimona by Noelle Stevenson until this advance reader proof arrived, but the comic is available to read online. It started about 2 years ago, and just concluded a few months ago–and will be published in book form by HarperTeen in May of this year. Nimona is a shapeshifting girl who apprentices herself to Lord Ballister Blackheart, a supervillain who seems less villainous than the good guys, the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. I really loved this one for the way it plays on hero/villain tropes, but the overarching story will keep you guessing: what’s going on at the Institution? Who is Nimona, really? The finished book promises to include an epilogue that tells the real ending, beyond where the online version ended, but my advance copy didn’t have that in it, so I’ll have to wait for it with the rest of you. Definitely one to watch for. Another note: if you haven’t read Lumberjanes (from BOOM! Studios), that’s also co-created by Noelle Stevenson, and it’s fantastic. It’s like Girl Scouts meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

SagaSaga–written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples–is one that I’d heard of, but had just never gotten started on beyond occasionally flipping through it at the store. It does have some pretty explicit imagery, so flipping through without actually sitting down and reading it doesn’t give the best impression. But now that there’s a deluxe hardcover edition of the first 18 issues, I decided to give it a shot. Powell’s had a nice year-end sale and I splurged for a copy. It’s a tough one to summarize, because there’s so much going on, but there’s sort of a Romeo-and-Juliet story going on at the center. Landfall and Wreath are two worlds that have been at war for as long as anyone can remember, and the story centers on a man and a woman from different worlds who have fallen in love and had a child together. But these aren’t just people–Vaughan and Staples have created a world full of bizarre beings: the people from Wreath have horns and the people from Landfall have wings–and then there are the robots (the nobility), cyclops, ghosts, and countless other humanoid and non-humanoid beings that populate the book.

The star-crossed lovers are being hunted, because neither side wants to publicize the fact that one of them could fall in love with the other. One of the things I really liked about the book is the way that it’s set in this crazy world with battles and action–but the couple still have to hash out how to be parents, which family traditions they’re going to keep, and so on. It’s wonderfully written by Vaughan, and Staples’ illustrations are amazing. (But, like I said: explicit, definitely not for kids.)

A digression: one thing I’ve noticed about many of the comics I’ve read recently is the idea that bad guys aren’t always all bad. (Or, sometimes, bad at all.) In fact, I think every book above has characters that are misunderstood or presumed to be bad, and we (as readers) discover the true reasons behind their actions. I know that’s not a new trend, but it’s something I think about because for my kids, I think that’s something they’re still adjusting to. My oldest daughter (11) has certainly already encountered more stories of this type than my 8-year-old, but I think both still have a tendency to want things to be black and white. They don’t always like it when the bad guy turns out to have a tender secret; they don’t like finding out that the good guy is doing something bad.

Of course, even as adults, I suppose we struggle with this. When there are people we disagree with, it’s so much easier to paint them as “the bad guys” than to dig into what’s motivating them and figure out how to empathize with them. And it’s so easy to jump from “you’re wrong about this” to “you’re a bad person.” No wonder we have so many stories to remind us that people are complex–things aren’t always as they seem.

Mouse Guard: The Black Axe

I had a copy of Mouse Guard: The Black Axe by David Petersen sitting on my review shelf (okay, one of my many review shelves) and forgot it was there. (See a pattern?) I think I got it before it was released, and decided to hold off until closer to the release date… which I then forgot. Yeah, that was a year and a half ago. Anyway, The Black Axe is the third volume of Mouse Guard (not counting the Legends of the Guard series, which has its own numbering). This time Petersen takes us back in time, focusing on the story of the Black Axe. The Black Axe is a legendary figure in the world of the mice, with stories throughout their history of this axe-wielding mouse. In the first two, an older mouse named Celanawe shows up as the Black Axe, but we learn that it is actually a title that has been passed down for generations. The Black Axe tells the story of how Celanawe came to wield the axe, as well as some of its history. Petersen’s artwork is, as always, beautiful and full of wonderful details. It’s a delight to read. I’m itching for more, but it looks like that may be it for the time being.

Roller Girl
Every member of my family has read Roller Girl–even the toddler. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

If you didn’t know already, my family is a roller derby family. My two older daughters are in the junior league of the Rose City Rollers (as Square Not and Cthu-Liu) and my wife is on the Wreckers, the recreational team, though she’s currently on hiatus because of the aforementioned knee surgery. My youngest daughter isn’t old enough yet, but she’s already a huge fan and cheers the rest of them on.

So it’s no surprise that we’ve been eagerly anticipating Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson, a kid-friendly comic book about a young girl who discovers roller derby. It’s not out until March, but we got an advance copy and it’s already been well-read by everyone in the family. It’s a great story, a mix of roller derby culture and middle-school drama, but we especially like that it takes place right here in Portland. Jamieson also skates for the Rose City Rollers as Winnie the Pow, and has an illustrated journal about it on her website. Many of the skaters and locations seen in the book are ones that we’re familiar with, and some of the names that the kids in the book use are borrowed from skaters we know too. You’ll probably see another post later about Roller Girl, with a bit more about roller derby and what it’s like being a derby dad.

The War of the World RecordsThe non-comic book I finished this month was The War of the World Records by Matthew Ward. It’s the sequel to The Fantastic Family Whipple, and it was the bedtime story selection for my kids for the past month or so. The Whipples are a record-breaking family, except for Arthur, who seems to fail at every attempt he makes. The Goldwins are their main competition–they’ve come out of nowhere, conveniently at the same time that the Goldwins have had a string of disasters: fires and mysterious accidents. In this second volume, Arthur Whipple (and his friend Ruby Goldwin, also the odd one out in her family) do some more detective work, trying to figure out who’s behind the attacks on the Whipples, all while trying to prepare for the upcoming World Record World Championships.

The Whipple books are filled with lots of silly records: Arthur’s event is knife block speed-stocking, for instance. The plot of this second book was a little more convoluted, particularly the reveal at the end, which felt a little bit like a huge infodump. But my kids enjoyed it, and there were plenty of things to laugh about–primarily Arthur’s perpetual cluelessness about what other people are thinking. Yet somehow he still makes a decent detective. From the way this one ended, I’m sure there’s another book in the works.

Lauren IpsumI’ll skip the picture books for now–I do have a huge stack of those from prior to January, too–and just mention one other one that I read last month: Lauren Ipsum by Carlos Bueno. The subtitle is “A Story About Computer Science and Other Improbably Things,” and it’s sort of an Alice in Wonderland for the modern age, though those are pretty big shoes to fill. Lauren is a little girl who gets lost in Userland, and in her attempts to get home she meets a wandering salesman, learns about axioms and recursion, and takes a trip through the Garden of Forking Paths. The story is peppered with little bits of computer science concepts and a lot of humor. In the back, there’s an appendix that goes into a little more detail about some of the concepts (and explaining puns like “Hugh Rustic”).

Overall, I’d say it doesn’t quite measure up to Alice in Wonderland, but that’s not to say it isn’t worth reading. It does touch on a whole bunch of interesting concepts, some just briefly and some in more detail, and I could see it being a jumping-off point to deeper study on all sorts of things.

Well, I’ll leave you with two mentions for later: I recently read Sculptor, an epic graphic novel by Scott McCloud coming from First Second Books next month, and I’m currently reading The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith, whose Grasshopper Jungle was my favorite YA book from 2014. Tune in next time!

Disclosure: I received review copies of all the books except where noted otherwise.

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Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit.