Ubik, by Philip K. Dick / *****

ea56b8dbc195160aedc8b1d009e2a1fdIt’s hard to write about Philip K. Dick in general – what new can be said about a writer who was so influential and who’s inspired so much writing? And that goes doubly for Ubik, one of Dick’s most acclaimed novels. And yet, here I am, trying to describe one of the best novels written by one of the most fascinating and interesting science-fiction writers who ever lived.

Those of us who love Philip K. Dick usually concede that it’s not the craft and the prose that draws us to his work; it’s the complicated, mind-blowing plotting (usually more evident in his short stories) or the rich, thoughtful philosophical musings (a staple of his novels). Ubik is the best of both worlds, though – a head-scratching, dizzying display of plot twists, confusion, and surreal touches that all come together perfectly, all while anchoring itself in musings about the afterlife, causation, time travel, and the nature of consciousness.

Trying to describe the plotting of Ubik is a fool’s errand, but more than that, it would remove the pleasure of unraveling the book’s mysteries for yourself. Suffice to say that the book gives us a future in which company’s provide anti-psychic services in an effort to protect corporate secrets, which has led to what amounts to underground warfare between the psychics and those trying to thwart them. Into this comes a whole new talent that could change the game – but first, a most unusual contract comes across the desk of the leading anti-psychic agency, one that’s going to make the next few days exceedingly strange.

If that sounds vague, well, good – as I said, much of the pleasure of Ubik comes from unraveling all of its disparate pieces and seeing how Dick toys with his audience. But more importantly, for all of its rich plotting, Ubik is packed with fascinating world details, from a society where everything is automated and linked to your credit report to mortuaries where people are kept in a half-life state so you can speak with them for years after their death. And it’s those aspects that make the book so fascinating, as Dick plays with our ideas of the afterlife (here, he’s drawing in no small way on Tibetan beliefs) and how it will play out, but also our own self-awareness. Few authors were as fascinated by the malleable nature of reality as Dick was, and Ubik brings that in spades, as characters unravel, fall apart, and see the world devolving in front of them. The very question of “what is real?” becomes central not only to the plot, but to the lives of our heroes, as they attempt to figure out any sort of purpose or meaning to their existence.

There are better written Dick books out there (A Scanner Darkly); there are richer novels (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is my favorite); but few marry Dick’s playful side with his thoughtful as well as Ubik does. In many ways, it’s the platonic ideal of a Philip K. Dick novel, and maybe an ideal gateway into his work for those who’ve never experienced it. More than that, it’s just a blast of a read, with enough substance to satisfy those wanting a bit more than pure pulp.

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The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman / *****

942df342a24680d4807289bb9d3456a8Most children’s books probably don’t begin with the slaying of the protagonist’s family at the hand of a blade-wielding murderer. Then again, most children’s books aren’t written by Neil Gaiman, an author who’s always moved in and out of the darkest aspects of the world with ease, even in his children’s literature. And while the result can definitely be scarier than what, say, the youngest children could handle, re-reading The Graveyard Book with my son only underlined for me all the ways that Gaiman’s respect for what children can handle pays off – the way it never talks down to its audience, but instead, spins a story that’s engrossing to all ages and while never feeling condescending, simplistic, or “safe”.

Yes, The Graveyard Book – Gaiman’s homage to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book – is nominally for children, but don’t let that deter you from reading it. With every bit of the imagination, wonder, magic, and beautiful prose that Gaiman has brought to everything else he’s written, The Graveyard Book is a delight – part coming of age tale, part adventure story, part thriller, and part magical realism, but all wonderful, charming, and imaginative.

The Graveyard Book takes the form of, essentially, a series of connected short stories, all telling of episodes and incidents in the life of Bod Owens, a young boy being raised by the inhabitants of a graveyard. There’s a trip into the land of the Ghouls, an encounter with the ghost of a witch, a trip to the darkest grave in the yard, and more. And through it all, there’s the threat of the man Jack, trying to find his way back to Bod. Gaiman juggles the micro and macro expertly, turning each individual chapter into a satisfying, complete story while also putting them all together to create an arc for Bod – a young boy who’s beginning to grow up and figure out the person he’s going to become.

It’s that arc that truly makes The Graveyard Book so special. Yes, Gaiman’s imagination is on full display, giving you wonders and horrors, magic and terror, fantastical visions and other worlds. And yes, there’s his dry British humor, his love of his characters, his fleshed-out world. But what makes The Graveyard Book so truly rich is the emotion that comes along with Bod growing up. After all, much of a parent’s job is preparing your child to be self-sufficient and to be able to thrive on their own – and Gaiman doesn’t ever forget how painful that can be, no matter how proud you may feel of your child.

Of course, he does this while spinning a tale as deftly as ever, filling his world with memorable characters and fleshing it out with rules, shadows, hints, and details to dwell in for days. But maybe the most important thing of all was what my son said after I finished the last chapter: “Are there more books after this?” And that love of the book – one that I shared – is the thing that speaks best to the wonder and success of Gaiman’s creation.

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Reincarnation Blues, by Michael Poore / *****

51hmlljnwil-_sx327_bo1204203200_A good portion of the books I read are review copies, and while I’ve come to enjoy the chaos and unpredictability of reading books where I have zero expectations, there are definitely times where I’ve considered giving it up. (Why, yes, these times often correspond with long streaks of bad books – how did you know?) All of which goes to say, the joy of reviewing is that sometimes you get a book like Reincarnation Blues that can completely blindside you, coming out of nowhere and blowing you away with its imagination, humor, style, and richness.

Trying to describe Reincarnation Blues is a bit of a rough task; the best I can do is to say that it combines the millennia-spanning reincarnated souls of Cloud Atlas with the untraditional but rich love story of The Time Traveler’s Wife, with a rich sprinkling of humor that’s oh so welcome. But even that description doesn’t really do the book justice – it doesn’t convey the richness of the storytelling, the quiet silliness, and most of all, the pure warmth of the whole experience.

Reincarnation Blues is the story of a soul named Milo, who’s among the oldest souls in the universe – he’s been reincarnated nearly 10,000 times. That’s given Milo an incredible amount of experience and learning, with lives lived in the ancient past, the distant future, and everywhere in between. But Milo’s favorite parts of existence are the parts in between his lives, where he gets the chance to reunite with the love of his “life”: Suzie…also known as Death. And once you add to that the impending threat of oblivion – because any soul that hasn’t achieved enlightenment by incarnation #10,000 doesn’t get another chance – and there’s a lot of pressure on Milo to figure some things out.

And yet, Reincarnation Blues never feels like a high pressure book. Yes, there’s this deadline looming, and yes, there’s this complicated idea of having a romance with the incarnation of Death, but Reincarnation Blues remains focused, both in plot and thematic terms, on the nature of the human experience – on learning to be kind, on listening to other people, on trying to accept the universe for what it is. It’s a book that’s never really about all of Milo’s lives, despite the way it weaves in and out all of them, giving us scenes of combat, of peace, of future science, of primitive tribes, and every possible combination of all of those. It’s about what Milo did and learned in those lives, and the experiences that shaped him into the person he is.

And yet, there’s no denying that Poore’s incredible imagination gives the book a life that’s undeniable, and maybe all the more effective for how he backgrounds it throughout. More than that, the way he weaves all of Milo’s lives into one complex history – with actions in one life being referenced in another – give the sense of a complex mythology behind the book, a carefully planned out reality that we only get glimpses of. Add to that his quietly funny, sometimes silly writing style, and you have a book that succeeds in no small part to the authorial craft on display in every page.

But more than the imagination, more than the humor, what really made Reincarnation Blues work for me was the warmth of the whole novel. This is a book where the stakes revolve around finding a successful relationship and achieving some sort of internal peace and calm with the universe. And to that end, for all of the drama, for all of the stakes in each individual life that Milo leads, the book is more about connecting to other people, about learning the importance of how we relate to each other and the legacies we leave behind. That’s a great message to receive, but also a rich one, one that’s so welcome in days where we feel constantly pushed against each other. And it’s the thing that really sold me on this book – that, and the great writing, and the rich imagination, and the wonderful characters, and the great humor…well, maybe I just loved all of it, and loved it so much.

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The Leftovers (Season 3) / *****

the-leftovers-season-3-posterI’ve been a fan of The Leftovers since the beginning – yes, even that infamous first season, which I think is phenomenal television and gets an unfairly bad rap. (That’s not to say it’s not a bleak and draining experience, but I think people complain far too much about it.) Then came the second season, which managed to be even better – keeping all the themes and ideas of the first season, but turning into something more darkly funny and slightly more accessible, all while never compromising in the least.

And now, the show has ended with its best season yet, which went even further than the second, delivering some of the wildest, strangest, most ambitious hours of television I’ve seen in years, all while never leaving behind its basic themes: an exploration of grief, faith, doubt, and purpose in a hostile – or even worse, indifferent – universe. That’s heady, astonishing fare even for prestige television, but The Leftovers never flinches from its mission, exploring how faith can both give us purpose and blind us to reality, how suffering and pain are an essential part of the human experience but no less devastating for their necessity, how death leaves us walking wounded.

In lesser hands, The Leftovers would be overwhelmingly crushing (see that first season, which came close). But in the hands of Damon Lindelof, it’s one of the most remarkable, inventive, surreal, and powerful shows I’ve ever seen. What other show could take a throwaway joke about a beloved 80’s sitcom from season one, then twist it until it became a powerful scene about finding yourself rejected by the world and even the universe as a whole? What other show could take a character’s struggle with faith and have it culminate with an episode involving God, a sex cruise, and a lion? What other show could kick things off with a series of increasingly ludicrous bio-scanners (and one of the all-time funniest sound effects on a tv series), but end by forcing us to carry through an infamous and horrific nuclear deterrent? And honestly, I’m only scratching the surface of a season that delved into Australian Aboriginal culture, apocalyptic fears, damaged relationships, suicidal tendencies, but also a slow-motion trampoline sequence set to the Wu-Tang Clan, pratfalls, and a surprising number of penis jokes. The Leftovers has always been its own unique show, but never more than this season, when it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television – and I’m watching Twin Peaks right now. It’s unpredictable but always consistent, surreal but always comprehensible, surprising but logical – in other words, it was a constant joy to tune in, simply because I never knew what to expect, but it was always going to be great.

In other words, as The Leftovers hit its final season, its confidence grew, and the show was willing to go for broke, making its characters’ struggles literal, tangible, and even operatic in their stakes. These are big questions – questions about God, about why we suffer, why people die, how we can find happiness, what happens to us after we die, and the importance (or lack thereof) of faith. And rather than giving glib, simplistic takes or easy answers, Lindelof embraces the complexity and difficulty of these issues, exploring them and refusing to ever give us – or the characters – easy answers. The Leftovers has always been a show about uncertainty, a feat it managed to the end, somehow finding the absolute perfect way to handle the question of “What exactly happened in the Departure?” in a way that perfectly matches the show’s themes.

It doesn’t hurt that the show is anchored by such great performances. Christopher Eccleston’s religious figure Matt is all the more compelling and rich this year, as his faith leads him in some bizarre – and maybe delusional – places. Scott Glenn finally gets some showcases after far too long, carrying an episode on his back largely with his weathered, questioning face. Justin Theroux is as great as ever, mixing despair, anger, doubt, and public confidence in a way that’s instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever struggled with the moodiness that comes with depression. And best of all, there’s Carrie Coon’s wounded, bristly Nora Durst, perhaps the single person most affected by the Departure, whose pain can’t be covered up, no matter how tough her exterior can be. There’s any number of other great actors here, including a few I don’t want to spoil (but will be welcome appearances for fans), but the show’s main cast truly does remarkable work, investing us in these wounded, hurt people and following them as they grapple with issues that every single one of us grapple with as well.

Look, I know that so much of what I’m saying makes The Leftovers sound like work, or like seriously heavy fare. And make no mistake – the questions, the struggles, the themes of this series are huge ones, universal ones that are going to hit home for many of us, and evoke painful personal moments. But in the end, the reason The Leftovers works is that, for all of its questions, for all of its doubts, for all of its fears, it finds optimism and a reason to keep on, even in the midst of it all. Whether that be faith or family, relationships or purpose, The Leftovers ends up being far more reaffirming than you might expect for a show that’s so much about death, grief, and loss. And that optimism and hope is something very much worth remembering, maybe now more than ever.

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The Killbug Eulogies, by Will Madden / ****

34596837There’s something great about a book that embraces a constricting, careful conceit and finds a way to make it work, telling a story that couldn’t be told any other way. (For a great example of this, see Joe Hill’s superb short story “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead”.) What’s even better is when the conceit is instantly appealing, and Will Madden’s The Killbug Eulogies manages to do both. The idea here is simple: in a war initially reminiscent of that in Starship Troopers, soldiers are asked to deliver eulogies for the fallen, and the book consists solely of those eulogies, with no outside context. That’s a great idea from the get-go, but Madden really runs with it, creating, in effect, a series of short stories that collectively make up a larger arc, story, and novel.

Even better, though, the disconnected nature of the novel allows Madden to take on a wide variety of modes, tones, and ideas, ranging from hilarious to darkly satirical, from reverent to melancholy, from profane to sacred, and sometimes all of them at once. Within pages of the first eulogy beginning, we’re introduced to a soldier½ named Oogo (whose name was supposed to be Hugo, but the letter H was under strict rationing for the war) whose addiction for video game achievements leads to his death as he strives to cap the leaderboard for harvesting the left hand of the bugs. The result is gloriously silly and funny, making digs at so many social trends while still building its world, but it doesn’t prepare you for the next one, or the one after that, or the one after that, each of which finds their own voice, their own themes, and their own sensibility.

Sometimes, that can be a problem. Madden occasionally lets his eulogies turn into exposition, and it feels like he loses track of the thread, particularly in a late eulogy which gets into a long story thread about a captured bug who serves as a poet of sorts. It’s a great story, but gets away from the book’s conceit, and feels like it’s information he wanted to convey but couldn’t quite do organically. Similarly, those disconnected stories can lead to confusion – it’s not clear for some time that each of these eulogies is actually done by the same soldier, even when the tone and verbiage changes drastically in some of them.

And yet, those are both forgivable flaws, given how engaging, how funny, how rich these stories all are. Taken as a whole, Madden’s creating a complicated world, one that only slowly reveals its nuances and unreliability as it goes along. What seems like a cut and dry military conflict reveals itself to be something messier and more savage; the bugs rapidly become more than just cannon fodder; and our heroes…well, there may be a reason there’s so much depravity in these stories. And all of that doesn’t even get into the final chapter of the book, where Madden changes our perception of the whole book with some great – but completely fair – revelations that pull together all sorts of loose threads into a coherent whole, all without ever dodging the dark and silly humor that the book does so well.

The Killbug Eulogies isn’t just great science-fiction, though it’s undeniably that; Madden may seem like he’s just making jokes at first, but by the time you reach the end, you’ll realize just how sprawling, how complex his world building has been, even if it’s only carefully revealed. No, it’s also fantastic – and genuinely funny – satire with a dark bent, a thoughtful take on war, and a great piece of writing, one where form and function are intertwined in a way that leads you to realize that this book couldn’t have been done in any other way – at least, not without being this good, this fun, and this rich.

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Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders / *****

97808129953431Not all five-star reviews are equal. It’s just a fact of life that you deal with as a reviewer – although grades and ratings are helpful, they’re not the be-all and end-all. No, the best you can do is choose a rating, and then hope to explain what the book/movie really deserves. And that’s doubly so in the case of George Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Because I’ve given five-star rankings on this site, more than a few times, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a book I’ve read in recent years that moved me, floored me, stunned me, and simply blew me away like Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s not just the best book of the last several years; it may be one of the best books I’ve ever read, period, full stop.

It’s going to be hard to convey the experience of Lincoln in the Bardo in a simple review – at least, in a way that doesn’t either reduce it to its barest outline, or explain it in a way that doesn’t make it sound pretentious and insufferably complicated. Taken at its simplest, Lincoln in the Bardo is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s time of grief after the death of his young son Willie, near the onset of the Civil War; taken as a novel, it’s a tale told through 100+ narrators, from distorted ghosts to primary sources (letters from the Civil War) to academic texts both real and fictional, all of which work together to tell a story about grief, war, public responsibility, and leadership. The former sounds simple and possibly saccharine; the latter sounds daunting and exhausting.

The truth, as you might imagine, comes somewhere in the middle. It undeniably takes a couple of chapters to get into Saunders’ rhythms, watching as he weaves in and out of his historical texts (both real and imagined), and slowly establishes his various narrators. And yes, as the book builds towards various “big” moments, the result can be overwhelming sometimes, creating a cacophonous effect that’s hard to escape. And yes, more importantly, this is a book about grief in its most primal form, as a man grieves for his son, who died before he ever truly lived.

And yet, none of that comes close to truly capturing the experience of Saunders’ book, which clearly proves the maxim that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Saunders’ miscellaneous excerpts from historical documents and academic texts, for instance, do more than simply setting the stage of the novel; they allow us to immerse ourselves into the difficult political situation of Abraham Lincoln, a president dealing with an unthinkable conflict that was far from popular, as well as the bloody guilt that came with each new battle report. In Saunders’ hands, we don’t just read about the war; we find ourselves plunged into that time period, seeing both the ardent supporters and the fervent opponents of the war, to say nothing of the wide range of opinions on Lincoln, whose beatified reputation is stripped away with a reminder of how he was received by his contemporaries.

But it’s Saunders’ bardo – the transitional state between life and death – in which Lincoln in the Bardo truly soars. Populating his graveyard with a slew of figures unable to leave their lives behind, Saunders fills his pages with Dante-like invention, letting figures be altered by their lives in poetic fashion. (One man, who began to see the beauty of the world as he died, is now entirely composed of eyes looking in every direction; another, who died awaiting his first night with his wife, finds his spectral form to be in a constantly aroused state, to an absurd degree.) Each provides their own unique voice, their own concerns, and Saunders widely allows them to be from all classes, all genders and sexualities, all races, turning this from the story of one man’s grief and into a universal exploration of regret, loss, and life. Whether it’s hearing the stories of regretful suicides, anger at children who abandoned them, concern for their businesses that they built – whatever their loss, Saunders brings it to life, turning the book into something more universal than one man’s story.

And yet, this is Lincoln’s story – and by extension, a fascinatingly American story. Here is a man who is mourning the loss of his son, even as the war he’s overseeing sent so many other people’s childrens to their own deaths – a fact that Lincoln is increasingly unable to forget, and which haunts him. At the same time, this is a father, grieving for his son, and there is something painful and heartrending in how Saunders approaches this, dealing with it in degrees, with both father and son unable to move on from this loss.

All of this makes Lincoln in the Bardo sound daunting, and that’s a shame – not only is it surprisingly accessible, it’s also surprisingly funny, with Saunders’ dry wit and ability to inject silliness and anarchy into his stories often in clear view. And in a lesser book, all of that – the humor, the grief, the Civil War allegories, the personal stories, the slew of narrators, the historical documents, the guilt, the supernatural elements, the poetic justice – might overwhelm the book, or turn it into chaos. But in Saunders’ able hands, all of it works together, creating something that reads and feels like nothing else you’ve ever read. It’s funny and it’s heartbreaking; it’s profound and it’s childish; it’s complex and it’s simplistic; it’s universal and it’s incredibly specific. But more than that, it’s also truly, astonishingly beautiful – a work of art that explores grief, loss, and guilt as parts of the human experience. It grapples with big questions about what it all means, and it tries to find answers, and it does so while telling an incredible story and bringing to life a world unlike anything else in fiction.

It is, in short, a masterpiece of the highest order, and one of the finest books I’ve ever read. And I can’t wait to read it all again.

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The Sandman: Overture, by Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III / *****

51mk9h-qq4l-_sy344_bo1204203200_It’s been several years since I read Neil Gaiman’s astonishing, sprawling, ambitious The Sandman – long enough that even though much of it instantly impressed itself on me permanently, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to properly appreciate his long-awaited prequel, The Sandman: Overture. Many prequels rely so heavily on dramatic irony – on us knowing where the story goes – that to approach them as an independent tale is folly and absurdity. Moreover, that over-reliance on foreshadowing and setting things up is often their undoing, as there’s little sense of life or spirit to a prequel; instead, it’s all inevitability and putting things into place.

Luckily, Overture suffers from none of that delivering an exhilarating, surreal tale that manages to set up the opening of the landmark series while still functioning as its own exciting, unpredictable story. Indeed, one could almost approach it before you read the series, and it would work fine; then again, that means being thrown into Gaiman’s complex, labyrinthine mythology without much of a guide, which can be a little much to take in.

2017-01-08-11-20-45Because, make no mistake: this plunges you back into the world of Dream and his siblings, avatars of ideas such as Desire, Delight, Death, and others. Much of the joy comes from the way Gaiman slowly reveals the nature of his story, of course, but suffice to say that Overture revolves around a crisis that threatens the nature of the universe – a crisis that Dream himself may have caused, through an act of mercy. Now, he has to face the consequences of that action – consequences which could quite possibly lead to his own death.

As always with Gaiman, the ideas here are astonishing ones, and a joy to explore. Gaiman’s magic has always lay in his 2017-01-08-11-20-13own expansive mythologies, and Overture allows him to dip back into one of his greatest accomplishments, simultaneously playing in it and expanding it in subtle ways. And every bit as complex is Gaiman’s approach to morality and story-telling. There are no easy answers, no clear cut villains or heroes. Everyone is flawed; everyone is noble in their own mind. Sacrifice costs; duty matters; good deeds can haunt us. It’s wonderfully complex, thoughtful material – as though Gaiman is capable of much else.

But what may be the most astonishing part of Overture is not Gaiman’s prose; no, that honor belongs to the mind-blowing, convention-defying, utterly original art by J.H. Williams III. 2017-01-08-11-21-10Gaiman’s world is magical one, where time can stop and start, reality can bend, and our perceptions cannot always be counted on. And Williams matches that in every way, eschewing traditional panels, rotating frames to emphasize surreal moments, plunging you into shadow before overwhelming you with explosions of color, and more – and that doesn’t even touch on his forays into the worlds of dreams. I’ve truly never seen art like what Overture has to offer, and, by definition, words can’t convey their impact. But rest assured, its ambition and surreal (but comprehensible) nature matches Gaiman’s world perfectly.

2017-01-08-11-22-26The result is the ideal, perfect union of artist and writer, combining Gaiman’s ambitious, sprawling universe with an art style that pushes against the very boundaries of the form whenever possible. It’s beautiful, unnerving, surreal, a little mind-bending, and oddly evocative – and every single one of those words could apply to Gaiman’s story as well. All of it combines to make a truly remarkable, interesting prequel, one that expands the universe, tells one last story in this incredible world, and explains a little while leaving a lot more unsaid. And the story it tells is nicely self-contained, giving all of the feel and scope of a typical Sandman arc while feeling like its own saga. It’s a joyous return to one of the great comic sagas of all time, and a worthy follow-up to a series that changed comics, delivering a great story, incredible art, and imagination to spare.

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