In Review: Incognito

IncognitoIncognito by Ed Brubaker

My rating: 3.5 of  5

I am not quite sure whether to give Incognito three or four stars, so I’ve settled on 3.5.

Incognito started slowly, which is kind of a weird thing to say because it started right in the middle of the action. You know, one of those I’m-the-main-character-and-I’m-currently-in-the-middle-of-a-fight-but-I-shouldn’t-get-ahead-of-myself-so-let-me-go-back-to-the-beginning-and-explain-how-I-got-here situations. But Brubaker spent a long time slowly unraveling the story- and there was a lot to unravel.

Overall, I loved the ideas that Brubaker played with. The main character is an ex-criminal who is a victim of whatever crazy science led to his creation. There are extra-terrestrial beings who form secret organizations-both good and bad. There are government cover-ups of superheros and super villains. That’s all very interesting.

The characters all had individual quirks, but I didn’t identify very strongly with any of them. I would have liked the series to explore the characters’ backgrounds in more depth. There’s clearly crazy stuff that happened in the past and Brubaker basically just said, “This is the way it is and you, the reader, just need to accept it.”

As for the story, I’ve certainly never read anything quite like Incognito. There were elements that I’ve seen in other places but I’ve never seen this whole package. That’s definitely a plus. However, there were so many moving parts that it took me about four full issues before I felt like I had a solid grasp of everything that was happening. Because it took me a while to catch on, it took me a while to really get invested. If I had gotten this as a monthly publication, I might have given up halfway through. There was enough happening to keep me interested, but not necessarily enough to keep me invested.

I guess Incognito pretty much just followed the same story formula as a lot of other comics. There was a lot of exposition with just enough action and character development to keep the reader interested, and then all the real action happens in the last issue when everything comes together and is wrapped up with a nice little bow. I accept that this is a tried-and-true storytelling technique but I’ll be honest, it gets stale. Actually, I’m going to stop myself from going off on a rant/tangent here. If you want a rant-gent, check out my blog for my review of The Shadow Hero.

The best thing about Incognito was the overall story and the way it’s written. As I said, there was a lot going on. You figure out enough along the way to understand what’s happening, but there are still a lot of holes in the information that Brubaker gave you. Having to figure things out as you go was part of the fun. And the ending was pretty good. I think everything came together well and all the ideas Brubaker threw into the story were pretty well realized.

The writing was good on the whole and there were some quotable moments. One quote I enjoyed was, “Half of winning any fight is luck… The other half is not hesitating when you get lucky.”

The art was also great. while not a big factor, I liked that all the panels were very square. There was no ambiguity about how to read the story and it also looked cool.

In the end, I’m still undecided how I feel about Incognito. I loved Brubaker’s ideas, but I would have liked greater exploration of the characters and their backgrounds. That might have meant a longer series and I would still have enjoyed this if it was twice as long (12 issues instead of six). While I wouldn’t give it a glowing review, I would still recommend Incognito to others based purely on Brubaker’s unique collections of ideas.

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In Review: Emotional Agility

Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and LifeEmotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read and enjoyed Susan David’s article on emotional agility a couple of years ago. As soon as I heard she wrote a book, I had to check it out. I’m glad I did. This was a good book.

David discussed a number of psychological principles and did a good job of explaining them all. She used personal and relevant examples that I could connect with. I particularly liked that she cited a lot of research and scientific studies to back up her arguments.

However, this book could have been better. There wasn’t much on how to implement the principles in your life. I understood everything she discussed, which is important because I think that was David’s primary goal with this book. But actually applying something to your life (in a meaningful way) is always the hardest part for people, so the book would have benefited more from concrete advice on implementation.

I also think the book could have been shortened with more concise writing. At times, the examples messed with the flow of the book. Examples are important- and David had some good ones- but having too many detract from the larger point.

To be frank, this book was not very new or groundbreaking. The material was good but I I was familiar with most of what she presented. Perhaps I have just read too many psychology books.

My conclusion: If you have never heard of emotional agility and have not read many psychology/self-improvement books, I recommend this book. If you have heard of emotional agility or have read other psychology books and articles, I suggest that you find Susan David’s emotional agility article in the Harvard Business Review.

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In Review: The Shadow Hero

The Shadow HeroThe Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved The Shadow Hero. It captured the feeling of old-school comic books while still creating something fresh. It was also a fun read with interesting characters!

Anytime I read something based on golden age comic books, I get nervous. Comic book writers just aren’t very good at taking old stories and making them fresh. Actually, this really peeves me. [Warning: The following could be construed, by some, as a rant. Feel free to skip to the next paragraph to return to the book review.] The comic book has the potential to be an incredibly unique medium because of the way it mixes graphics with writing. It creates a world that readers can completely immerse themselves in- in a way traditional novels and films can’t. Yet for some reason, 99% of comic book writers have been telling the same played-out stories for years. It’s like every comic book writer read an issue of 1950s Superman and decided that that was the standard to which they would hold their own writing. Of course, I get it. Those writing techniques and plot structures are “tried and true”. Who needs to put in the work to create something truly original when they can just write the same story over and over? Plus, it’s not like the world has changed at all since the 1950s…Granted, comic book publishers are also to blame. They seem to think that comic book readers have not changed in 50+ years. I heard recently that DC Comics is planning to start a children’s line of comics. This is getting good press and that’s great, but why did it take until 2017 for them to realize that children will like a well-told comic book story just as much a well-told chapter book story? Why did it take until the 2010s for comic book publishers to catch on to the fact that comic book readers would enjoy strong female superheroes (by which I just mean female characters with any real depth). Why did it take a slump in sales and an increase in indie publishers for the traditional comic book publishers to realize that they might, at some point, need to evolve and grow a little? There are of course good things being done in comics. I’ve read some brilliant stories and I know there are lots I haven’t read. But the comic book industry, as a whole, seriously needs to step up its game. Meanwhile, back at the Batcave…

What really made The Shadow Hero great was the history behind it and the way Yang wove his own ideas into that history.

The Green Turtle was a small-time superhero from the golden age of comic books. Most people haven’t heard of him but he was perhaps the first Asian-American super hero. I say perhaps because in the original, which only ran for 5 (or 6?) issues, we never learned the Green Turtle’s backstory. We never saw his face completely; his skin was an odd shade of pink; his shadow was a turtle for some reason; he didn’t have any noticeable super powers but seemed to just run through bullets and easily beat up all his enemies. (The Shadow Hero included a good history of the Green Turtle.)

Yang took the ambiguity from the original comics and filled the holes one by one. His additions felt natural and he didn’t try to recreate the original Green Turtle. He just worked with what had already been written. That isn’t easy to do (well). Along the way he also added comedy and some characters that felt real.

It can be difficult to resurrect an old hero without upsetting people, but Gene Luen Yang did very well (granted there aren’t many original Green Turtle fans to upset in the first place).

The Shadow Hero is aces in my book!
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In Review: The Name of the Rose

The Name of the RoseThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I am unsure how to rate or review this book. At some points I thought it was brilliant. At other points I found it very trying. In the end I figure everything evened out to make this a 3.5 star book.

I have written my review with heading in the style of the book. I don’t know if it helps readability but it just seemed like a good idea at the time.

Part 1: In which I fall in love with the premise of the story

First of all, I absolutely love the the premise of the story: A murder mystery set in a 14th century monastery. I have not read many works of fiction set in that time period and I’m interested in just about anything that examines the history of God or the catholic church. So the premise really got me excited and I dove into this book with about as much energy as is possible.

Part 2: In which I enjoy the mystery itself

I don’t have many complaints about the murder mystery itself. The pacing was good for me but was slower than some other stories. If you get bored easily, I doubt you’ll make it. New wrinkles are added to the mystery throughout and Brother William puts on his best Sherlock Holmes impression to make sense of everything.

Part 3: Where I grow tired of the writing style

The basic setup of the story is something like this:
information about the mystery,
great information about the mystery that gives you the feeling something big is coming,
really long digression.

It was very clear that Umberto Eco knew a lot about the time and subject of the book. He frequently made (long) digressions to talk about things that would have been hot button issues at that time. For example, I now know more than I ever wanted to know about heretical religious groups in the 14th century. I saw other reviews who said it felt like Eco was shoving his knowledge down. I understand that feeling. It can feel pedantic at times.

However, the only thing that really annoyed me about the digressions is the way they broke up the story. In the beginning, you don’t know much about the murderer so it isn’t a huge deal to make a temporary digression. But later in the story you know more about the mystery and sometimes get the feeling that something big is about to happen…only for Eco to take you into a 10 page digression. That got really tiring by the end. I admit to skimming (cough cough skipping) some of the later digressions in favor or reading the “good parts”.

Also, there are some monster paragraphs. Many of them took up an entire page (in my edition) and I remember at least one paragraph that spanned 2.5 pages. I’ve seen longer paragraphs but why does anyone need a paragraph that long? C’mon Umberto!

Part 4: The end

I was tired by the end of the book. Things kind of felt like they had dragged on and I just wanted to be finished with the book. Brother William doesn’t solve the crime until the very end and I was really afraid of an anticlimactic ending. (If the ending had sucked, I promised myself I would show no mercy and either burn the book while cursing Umberto Eco or smash it to pieces a la Office Space.)

Thankfully, I really like the ending. All the clues came together and the explanation for the crime was great. At the very least, the ending made sense in the context of the greater story; it felt realistic. I don’t want to spoil anything but an event takes place after the crime is solved and it felt like sweet justice. To paraphrase Kendrick Lamar, it’s like Eco knew just, knew just, knew just what I wanted: poetic justice. The ending just about made it worth reading 600 pages.

Part 5: In which I, a writer of book reviews, make the uncharacteristic decision to write a partial film review because I feel that the director’s interpretation of this story helped me to better understand my feelings for the novel

The Name of the Rose seems like a perfect movie concept to me and I watched the movie (because who doesn’t love Sean Connery?) as soon as I finished the book. It was not nearly as good as the book and it helped me appreciate the book more. The digressions were annoying in the book but they helped to build the overall atmosphere. They even had a few funny moments. The unraveling of the mystery was kind of slow but we learned a lot about the characters, who all had great depth. The movie skipped all that. I think the director was trying to distill the story to just “the good parts” and I can’t blame him. But the viewer really misses out.

Stray notes on the movie:
Listening to actors talk in the style of 14th century monks gets kind of annoying. Adso is really annoying in the movie. He is afraid of everything and doesn’t help solve the crime at all. He is more of a sidekick in the book- a John Watson to Brother William’s Sherlock Holmes. But Sean Connery PERFECTLY plays the role of the arrogant, uncompromising Brother William. Major props to whoever decided to cast him.

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In Review: The Joker

The JokerThe Joker by Brian Azzarello

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The Joker is one of my favorite villains. I would even say that he’s one of the best villains in all of literature. My favorite Joker was Heath Ledger’s portrayal and I was told that Brain Azzarello’s The Joker told a story in the vein of Ledger’s Joker. So I had high expectations. Maybe that was my mistake because this was disappointing. Very disappointing. Read more