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Alex Brown

I Want To Believe: Flying by Carrie Jones

Mana is not having a good day. Her crush turns out to be an acid-spitting alien, her mom goes missing, her house gets trashed, the Men in Black are after her, oh, and she discovers she can fly. One day she’s a down-to-earth cheerleader with a helicopter mom and two over-achieving best friends and the next she’s being debriefed by an alien and teaming up with China, her mother’s secret government agent partner, on a massive alien hunt. Everything she thought she knew about her life and the world is wrong and about to get worse. Soon she’s caught in the crosshairs between benevolent aliens, malevolent monsters, G-men, and rogue agents, but with the help of her potential new beau, Lyle, and her BFF, Seppie, she just might manage to save the world.

Carrie Jones’ Flying was a light, easy, and pleasant read. Personally I tend to prefer my YA with more meat on the bones, but there’s nothing wrong with a little candy. Think season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer crossed with the soapy teenage romance of Roswell. And, again, those aren’t cons. I loved the fun, flirty tone of early Buffy and was recently pining over Roswell so much that I started a Netflix rewatch binge. Actually, those retro comparisons are more apt than I initially thought. After spending a good half hour trying to think of contemporary shows, I realized that most teen series now are spicier, darker, and sexier. Even the upcoming Archie show on the CW has gotten on the grimdark wagon. Flying’s tone and style fit perfectly with late 90s/early aughts teen dramas, and that’s a very good thing.

[“My whole life is a lie, a story.”]

Chains and Darkness: Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines

In an alternate history where the Civil War never happened and the Crittenden Compromise was passed, there exists a divided United States. The North abolished slavery but African Americans are still redlined into ghettos and slums. They are free by law but oppressed by social convention, with white people satisfied with the bare minimum of compassion and Black people shamed for being unable to break out of a system designed to subjugate. Sound familiar yet? The South held onto slavery, although its reach became smaller and more consolidated. By the time Victor sets out on his mission in Underground Airlines, there are only four states left holding onto slavery, but they’re making the most of it.

Victor escaped slavery as a child but was captured by the US Marshals. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Marshals were tasked with capturing runaways, and in this fictional world that’s become their main duty. Victor is pressed into service with the Marshals and ends up being eerily good at his job. The toll it takes on his psyche is extreme, and by the time he’s sent to recover a young man named Jackdaw being hidden by a manipulative priest and his cop lackies the lockbox where he hides his anguish is beginning to crumble.

[“I was black. I wasn’t there.”]

The Cure to End All Cures: Panacea by F. Paul Wilson

When three dead bodies in perfect health turn up in Dr. Laura Fanning’s morgue, she’s more than a little confused. Not only were the victims in pristine physical condition at time of death, two of them died of no discernible causes at all while the other died in a tragic accident shortly after a miraculous recovery from a terrible disease. Something weird is going on in Suffolk County, and Dr. Fanning finds herself suddenly and inextricably involved, whether she likes it or not.

Elsewhere, a fundamentalist G-man named Nelson Fife and his murderous associate Bradsher are on the hunt for members of a pagan cult brewing up what they call a panacea and what he calls a blasphemous act of Satan. For fifteen centuries the panaceans have doled out their cure all in secret to those chosen by the All-Mother while the Brotherhood acts as inquisitioners, executing panaceans in horrific Old Testament ways for using witchcraft in defiance of God.

A dying billionaire sends Dr. Fanning and her bodyguard, Rick Hayden, off on a wild goose chase around the world to find the source of the panacea, if it even exists. As Fife and Dr. Fanning circle in on their mutual goal, the fatalities mount up and illness strikes the innocent and guilty alike. Through his connections in the CIA (aka the Company), Fife begins isolating Dr. Fanning and Hayden from the outside world and formulates a sinister plan to kill them and steal the panacea for himself. Whoever controls the panacea determines the course of the future, but the cost of securing the concoction may be a price Dr. Fanning is unwilling to pay.

[“Got a crispy critter for you, Doc.”]

[Insert Sheep Pun Here]: Robert Kroese’s The Big Sheep

It all starts with a missing sheep and a paranoid celebrity. Blake Fowler works for Erasmus Keane, a private dick who insists on being called a “phenomenological inquisitor.” The two men live and work in Los Angeles in 2039, several years after a devastating economic collapse that resulted in the city being divided into LA proper and the Disincorporated Zone. During the Collapse, crime ran wild and more than a few businesses and labs took advantage of the weak enforcement to conduct morally bankrupt and ethically dubious projects. During this period of chaos, Fowler’s girlfriend Gwen disappeared and was never seen again.

When one of their experimental Lincoln Longwool sheep disappears, Esper Corporation hires Keane and Fowler to track it down. In a seemingly unrelated case, young celebutante Priya Mistry believes someone is trying to kill her and hires the investigators to figure out who is sending her cryptic messages. Priya is freaking out over seeing herself in commercials she doesn’t remember making, but when Fowler and Keane run into her later on and she claims to have no memory of ever meeting them, the detectives realize something big is amiss. Things get complicated when the Case of the Lost Sheep and the Case of the Concerned Teddy Bear turn out to be less unconnected than previously thought. There is a conspiracy afoot and victims piling up and Fowler and Keane must root it out before it gets them, too.

[“Stop spooking the sheep, Keane.”]

Of Exiles and Fairy Tales: The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

For Oblivion Ethyl(ene), aka Oblivia, the future is a world of suffering, imprisonment, and isolation. In Alexis Wright’s devastating novel The Swan Book, humans have pushed the earth to its breaking point. “Mother Nature? Hah!…People on the road called her the Mother Catastrophe of flood, fire, drought and blizzard. These were the four seasons, which she threw around the world whenever she liked.” Humans lost contact and connection to the land and so the land punished them for the betrayal.

Bella Donna of the Champions, a white woman from Europe, the sole survivor of a massive floating refugee camp attempting to cross the ocean from north to south to escape the worst effects of climate change, rescues an Aboriginal girl from a deep sleep within the hollow of a gum tree. The girl has no name, no past, and no voice, but as the story unfolds we learn she’d been the victim of a terrible sexual assault and was abandoned and forgotten by her people. Bella Donna names her Oblivia and fills her mind with fairy tales from her homeland of swans. Together they live on an derelict warship on a desolate swamp behind the fence set up by the Army to segregate the Aboriginal people from the rest of Australia.

[“Ignis Fatuus = Foolish Fire. That’s you Oblivion!”]

Pull List: Saying Farewell to Constantine and Midnighter

June is Pride Month, but you wouldn’t know it if DC anything to go by. This month marks the end of the publisher’s only titles headlined by queer characters: Constantine: The Hellblazer, Midnighter, and Harley Quinn. To make matters worse, once the “Rebirth” faff is done and dusted, only two queer characters, Harley and Constantine, will have a solo series, and we’ll have to wait until August for those. While there’s a new crop of characters of the LGBTQ variety coming up, most are being relegated to minor roles or team members. DC actually has a pretty decent back catalogue of LGBTQ+ characters to choose from, but it’s like DC has either forgotten they exist or simply don’t care.

[“Whatever you’re thinking, the answer is likely yes. But with punching.”]

Wicked Pigs and Magic Knives: The Insides by Jeremy P. Bushnell

Divorced, biracial butcher Olive “Ollie” Krueger thought she left her magic days behind her. As a teenager she and her best friend, a gay Colombian kid named Victor, were recruited to magic by a charming warlock, but once Ollie used her prodigious talent to secure a family of her very own she abandoned her trade for a quiet country life. Some personal sabotage in the form of vengeful, mystical Possible Consequences later, and she finds herself working at a trendy Manhattan restaurant, living in a crummy apartment with Victor, and daydreams about reuniting with her ex-husband and estranged son. She’s living half a life, one with few responsibilities and little inertia, that is until her coworker, a Haitian butcher named Guychardson, turns up with a magic knife and upends everything.

Not far from New York, Maja, a young northern European woman, is also after the knife. Maja uses magic to see the histories of everything on earth, meaning she can trace and track anything. She’s hired by a group of white supremacists who dream of subjugating the world with Martin aka “Pig,” a creepy candy-aholic ex-Marine with a fetish for murder, as their gunman/liaison. As they slaughter their way through everyone who crossed paths with the knife, Ollie gets in their crossfire and is pulled suddenly and inextricably back into the worlds of magic. As the the fabric of reality begins to tear, Ollie goes on the run. Her past, present, and future collide as space-time folds in on itself and her teenage mistakes exact revenge on her future self.

[“Hold onto the shard. Keep running. Stay alive.”]

Where to Start with Chuck Wendig

It seems like everyone’s talking about this Chuck Wendig dude. Everyone but you, that is. And that’s a damn shame because Chuck Wendig is ten shades of great. On one hand, as a guy who’s done self-publishing, traditional publishing, and digital publishing (not to mention scripts and video games), he’s written a ton of stuff so you have plenty of titles to choose from. On the other, where the hell do you even start? Ah, my friend, that’s where I come in. Sit back, relax, and let me introduce you to your new favorite author.

Chuck Wendig writes like a punch to the face. His words are visceral and pungent, his tales discomfiting and nonconforming. There’s a fevered, staccato-like quality to his text which gives a sense of urgency, both for the characters and the reader. He writes characters who reject the norm even when they secretly crave it and rage against the family and friends they need the most, all while remaining imminently relatable and recognizable. Every time it feels like things can’t get any worse, Wendig turns the screw once more. Some writers can write big action sequences that make you feel like you’re part of the chaos and some can craft moments of quiet reflection between characters that make you feel like a fly on the wall. Chuck Wendig is one of those lucky few who can do both.

[“We’re all the heroes of our own tales. Even villains.”]

Silence in the Library: Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library

Irene is no ordinary librarian, and her employer no ordinary library. She works for The Library, a sprawling mass of endless shelves surrounding a mysterious and inaccessible city and run by a crotchety cadre of bibliophiles. Or, to quote the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who: “So big it doesn’t need a name. Just a great big ‘The’.” Irene is sent off to various alternate worlds to retrieve unique copies of books to store back in the Library, but she is low on the totem pole, having suffered a severe setback after being betrayed by her former mentor, Bradamant. She may prefer to conduct research into arcane and abstruse topics, but she still has to pay her dues as a spy and thief.

After completing a difficult mission, Irene is paired up with Kai, a green-behind-the-ears newbie still under apprenticeship in the Library. They are sent to an alternate version of London to recover a missing manuscript. The case starts off straight forward enough but soon twists and turns into a mass of deceptions and secrets. Turns out the alternate is chaos-infected, meaning the Fae and their illogical magic have taken up residency. Fairies and vampires coexist with steam engines and zeppelins, turning London into a steampunk city.

[“I’m a Librarian.”]

Don’t Touch That Dial: Summer 2016

Welcome back to “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a seasonal series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. Summer is a time for taking a break from all the heavy drama of the main television season with light and breezy eye candy. Or, at least it used to be. We’re lucky enough to be smack dab in the middle of Peak TV, which means a whole new season of stuff to binge watch instead of eating over-grilled BBQ and taking bets as to how much sweat your business casual suit can absorb before you get to the office.

In this very special episode we’re looking at three shows starring characters with mental illness (Lady Dynamite, Mr. Robot, and Penny Dreadful) and a show about a dude who wishes he was having a breakdown instead of the reality he’s stuck with (Wayward Pines).

[“Am I supposed to laugh at that?”]

Pull List: Star Wars: Poe Dameron

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Oscar Isaac took off his helmet, his tousled hair cascading around his face, and Finn and the internet collectively fell in love. And now thanks to the Disney merchandising machine we all have a chance to spend a little more quality time with the greatest addition to Star Wars canon since Mara Jade. Who I guess is technically not canon anymore thanks to The Force Awakens. So…um…how ‘bout the galaxy’s best pilot, eh?

[“Okay, okay…we can do this! Probably!”]

Can Fear the Walking Dead Be Saved?

It’s time we as an audience admit that Fear The Walking Dead is not good television. The show is 42 minutes of a wasted premise, unfulfilled potential, and idiotic decisions. It is all of The Walking Dead’s worst attributes magnified. All my worries about the long-term quality of Preacher stems from how quickly TWD capsized, how long it took to finally right that ship, how much of a struggle it’s been to keep it afloat, and how eager AMC was to repeat the same mistakes with the spinoff. Yes, the second season is stronger than the first, but that was an awfully low bar to hurdle. And I’m not the only one to notice the quality issues. The show is practically hemorrhaging viewers. Now, 4.8 million sets of eyeballs is still a great number for AMC (though it pales next to The Walking Dead’s 14.2 mil), but that’s also a loss of nearly half its viewership since the season 2 premiere.

With last night’s midseason finale, we’re at a good point to stop and survey. It’s easy enough to note where FTWD has gone horribly awry, but I’d rather look at how it can improve. The show doesn’t suck (although much of the fun has been sucked out of it for me at this point) but it has a long way to go before it comes anywhere close to being Must See TV.

[“These people are not our friends. Get it through your heads.”]

Preaching the Wicked Word: Preacher Series Premiere

“What the hell did I just watch?” That was the general consensus amongst the audience when I caught the screening for the Preacher pilot back at WonderCon this spring. Long-time fans like myself were thrown off by the myriad differences from the comics and newbies found themselves thrust into the middle of a story with no explanation or time to catch up. But despite all the chaos and confusion, the audience cheered the house down when the credits rolled.

I had no idea what the hell is going on, but I know I freaking loved it.

[“It was the time of the preacher…”]

“Amen To That”: The Death-Defying Literary Feats of Preacher

This Sunday, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s epic graphic novel series Preacher finally makes its way onto the small screen, and for many viewers it’s going to be their first (and only) iteration. For the rest of us, we’re going into the television show knowing that it doesn’t matter how great it is—it’ll pale in comparison to the graphic novels.

[“Where preachers dare.”]