Saints by Gene Luen Yang – A Book Review

I recently wrote a review of Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers, and this book, Saints, is a companion piece.  In fact, it’s more than just a companion piece — it’s a conclusion.

In Boxers, there’s a moment where the main character, Bao, sees a young girl close to his own age.  He believes she looks like the devil.  Later on in the book, when they are both much older, Bao (seemingly) kills this girl in the city of Peking because she will not renounce her Christianity.

Saints is the story of that girl, from the time she is eight up until the age of fifteen.  She is simply called Four-Girl in the beginning by her family.  She is unwanted, unappreciated, and largely neglected.  It isn’t until she meets converts to Christianity that she begins to feel a sense of security.  Eventually, Four-Girl converts as well and chooses the name Vibiana.  However, throughout much of the book, and despite being visited frequently by Joan of Arc herself, Vibiana is not exactly the most devout of Christians.  She likes the food.  She likes the roof over her head.  She likes being recognized as a human being and not a waste of space.  It’s clear Jesus is not at the forefront of her mind.

When she hears of the Boxers headed to kill Christians, she is inspired to follow Joan of Arc’s lead and fight in the name of God.  But really … she just wants to fight.  After the life she’s endured, can you blame her?

She is eventually captured by Bao from Boxers, and at that moment you get to find out exactly what took place between them in that scene from the first book.

While Boxers is quite a bit longer, the ending of Saints struck me as far more poignant.  Admittedly, this could be because I consider myself a Christian as well.  Vibiana (Four-Girl) undergoes a tremendous change, one that I won’t spoil for you, but one that absolutely resonated.

As Boxers depicted Bao losing more and more of himself in his plight to save China, Saints offers a bittersweet story about Vibiana finding peace.  That tranquility, however does not arrive as one would expect.  Just the  opposite.

A noted Christian himself, I appreciated that Gene Luen Yang did not get too heavy-handed with Saints.  In fact, like with Boxers, he made a point to show the good and bad in everyone.  The Boxers consider themselves freedom fighters striving to preserve their culture, yet the Christian converts consider them monsters.  The Christians in the book believe themselves to be righteous, yet many of them are self-serving and overtly sinful.  However, in the end, Yang reminds us what it is to be truly selfless.  Some would say that’s being Christ-like.  Others would say it’s simply being compassionate.

Though the artwork is simply rendered, this is a powerful story about history, people, motive, and belief.

The epilogue of the book, by the way, shook me to my core.  Perfect.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

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Boxers by Gene Luen Yang – A Book Review

After teaching American Born Chinese for several years, I finally decided my (then) nine-year-old could handle it last fall.  She loved it, so when Gene Luen Yang came to our local library, we had to pay him a visit.  Unbelievably, we got there before anyone else and snagged a front row seat.  Mr. Yang was already there and held a wonderful conversation with my daughter.  He is truly an incredibly nice man and obviously a father of young children.

Because he made such a great impression on her, my daughter wanted to read everything by Gene Luen Yang.  She enjoyed Secret Coders, so I next grabbed her both Boxers and Saints as well.  Admittedly, I didn’t know much about either book.

She read them and made a few comments about them being a little bloody, then asked me to read them, too.  How could I say no?  I’m a fan of the author as well.

My daughter was right–these are bloody, violent books!  However, they are also very, very good.

Boxers takes place between 1894 and 1900.  Historically speaking, it deals with the Chinese uprising against Western invaders as well as Christian missionaries.  This all actually happened.

Yang focuses on Bao, a young man whose family, friends, and village has suffered at the hands of foreign influences and even Christians.  They are marginalized, bullied, and even killed for not conforming to outside forces.  Bao loves Chinese opera, specifically the many gods and goddesses featured therein.  As you know from American Born Chinese, Yang is particularly talented at infusing Chinese mythology into his stories.  Of course, in the case of Bao, these are not myths.  These gods and goddesses are reality, and he is soon able to harness their power.  He teaches others to harness their power as well, and this is the foundation of their strength against the bigger, better armed invaders that they confront.

The book culminates in the city of Peking.  There Bao must make his most difficult of decisions and face his ultimate challenge.

Boxers is a violent, complex book.  While I don’t regret letting my (then) nine-year-old read it, I should have done a little research and provided a bit more guidance as she devoured it.  It presents the very ugly, brutal side of colonialism and even Christian evangelism.  However, it also brilliantly depicts Bao compromising his “gut” feelings of right and wrong versus what he thinks is best for his nation.  Bao kills innocent Christian women and children in this book, but from his perspective, they are not innocent.  They are foreign devils trying to destroy his culture and people.

Yang himself is a Christian, so please don’t get on his case about this.  He’s depicting a character rooted in historical events and using him to explore obvious complexities that actually occurred.  The Chinese who did not conform were beaten and killed mercilessly.  The Boxers did the same to their adversaries.

Rest assured, Yang does not deal with any of this lightly.  He clearly put a lot of thought into how he wanted to execute this story.  I found it thoughtful, tasteful, and fair in relation to historical precedent.

I will admit, though, because of Yang’s drawing style, the violence jarred me.  This would have been a very different book by any other artist.  While there is blood, head shots, beatings, and even mass murder, Yang doesn’t make any of it gratuitous.  At the same time, though, he also doesn’t shy away from what’s happening.  At one point, Bao decides to burn a church with Christians inside of it.  Yang doesn’t soften this horrific event, but he also doesn’t sensationalize it.

As you can tell, Boxers deeply resonated with me.  I completely recommend it.  I do think it’s okay for children, but I would urge you to guide them through it (unlike what I did).  There is much to be learned from the book, to be sure.

I’ll review Boxers‘ accompanying title, Saints, soon!

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings – A Book Review

You may remember that my wife and I very much enjoyed Killing Eve, which aired on BBC America.  As is my habit, I had to go check out the source material, which turned out to be a novel entitled Codename Villanelle.

Written by Luke Jennings, this fast-paced, brisk thriller served as the basis for the television show.  However, as you read the book, you’ll notice the show greatly enriched virtually every character.

Villanelle is still present–obviously.  So is Eve.  Konstantin and Niko, too.  Several other characters were adapted into new characters for the show, or outright jettisoned.

The show also used the same general plot.  Villanelle is an international assassin who comes from less than nothing.  Konstantin is her handler.  Eve is a UK agent obsessed with apprehending Villanelle.  Niko is still her husband.  However, Jennings keeps them fairly bare-bones.  Yes, he introduces some of their little idiosyncrasies.  Eve is still something of a social train-wreck.  Villanelle is still a sociopath.  Niko is still incredibly patient and helpful.  But, we seem to just skim the surface of these interesting attributes.  None of them have the charm nor the depth of their televised counterparts.

The novel is very plot driven.  Jennings is incredibly specific with locations, weaponry, procedures, and technology.  There is ample action that moves at a whiplash pace, but, again, the characters are somewhat flat.

I have to wonder if I’m being unfair to the book.  Killing Eve is clearly such a special show, is it unfair to judge the source material too harshly in this case?  Could Killing Eve’s charming, odd, wonderful characters have existed without Jennings groundwork?

Honestly, I don’t think I’m being unfair.  The book was an entertaining read, but it didn’t strike me as monumental.  Without the show, I don’t think it would have made much of an impression on me.  Keep in mind, though, I don’t read much suspense or espionage spy stories.

Frankly, there were times when I thought the book was a little sexually gratuitous.  Jennings makes a point to depict Villanelle as a sexual predator.  He absolutely objectifies her and her prey.  It largely felt unnecessary to me, because it is–again–dealt with at a very shallow level that makes it seem like it’s there only to shock the reader.

If you like quick reads full of detail, action, violence, and suspense, this is the book for you.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

The Beach by Alex Garland – A Book Review

Yes, it’s true, I’m reviewing a book that’s been on the market for over twenty years.  The truth is, I’ve grown to greatly appreciate Garland’s film directing and wanted to check out his written work.

The Beach, which you may remember was a film released back in 2000 which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, was based upon the book published just four years prior.

It features Richard, a young man who suffers from a seemingly permanent case of wanderlust.  He is constantly searching for the perfect destination–a place untouched by tourism, commercialism, or average people, really.  While in Bangkok, he happens across a man who gives him a map to just such a place.

The man cannot travel with Richard, and I won’t tell you why, but Richard does manage to befriend a French man and woman–a couple–to join him.  None are sure the map is real, but they chance it anyway.  After a courageous swim through the ocean itself … they find the beach.

The beach seems idyllic in the beginning.  There is a small group of people living in tandem with one another–all vested in the same interests.  Life is very good … until ill-timed tragedies strike.  The group could handle these adversities well, or they could … fall apart.  I’m sure can guess which occurs.

The Beach is a well-written book.  At almost 450 pages, it’s a long read, but it’s also a relatively fast one.  I would not describe it as a page-turner, but Richard’s psyche is particularly interesting and it’s fascinating to witness his development throughout the story.

The tale itself is rather complicated.  On one hand, the beach dwellers are in love with nature, independence, and a simple life.  They are perfectly happy to pull their weight, support one another, and waste the days away in paradise.  On the other hand, a certain selfishness resides in each of them, as does a touch of irresponsibility.  The beach is a total secret, one worth killing for, and everyone there has decided to turn their backs on their previous lives in order to enjoy their Eden.  It takes a bit of a misguided person to go to such an extreme, wouldn’t you say?

Garland executes perfect pacing in establishing Richard, logically delivering him to the beach, allowing us to see the beauty of the island, but then also in dissecting each character as catastrophe unfolds.

After all, when you think about it, if each one of these individuals was willing to turn their backs to their own flesh and blood, how much can they really depend upon one another when things go bad?

Some have compared it to Lord Of the Flies as well as Heart Of Darkness, and these are certainly appropriate comparisons.  I personally don’t feel it achieved that level of mastery, but it’s a solid read well worth your time.

As I said, Garland was a very good writer back then and has only gotten better.  His characters in The Beach are interesting from start to finish.  The story itself, while enjoyable, felt awfully derivative of the classics mentioned already.  I have to wonder if I’d feel differently had I read it back in 1996.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

Green Lantern: Earth One by Hardman and Bechko – A Book Review

It made my day when I won this graphic novel by Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko through Goodreads.  I’d been hearing good things about it, and even though I’m not a huge Green Lantern fan, I thought the idea of reworking him within the Earth One concept could be a wonderfully entertaining experience.

Even though Green Lantern has been rooted in science fiction for the last sixty years or so, word on the street said this book would strip away all of the fantasy elements the character carries and make it a true work of science fiction.

If you’re unfamiliar with the character, Hal Jordan is a test pilot who was chosen to replace a deceased member of the Green Lantern Corps, which is an intergalactic police force.  Each member wears a ring that will create hard light constructs of anything the wearer imagines.  However, Green Lanterns must recharge their ring every twenty-four hours with a battery that looks quite a bit like a … well, lantern.  That’s green.  This corps has hundreds if not thousands of members, and you can imagine all of the betrayals, deaths, love connections, uprisings, reshuffling of power, and so on that has occurred during the last several decades.

In this version, they broke with tradition and made Hal Jordan a rejected astronaut who currently works as a space prospector.  And … that’s about it.  Though the circumstances are slightly different, he still happens across the ring.  He eventually connects with other Green Lanterns.  He organizes and leads them.  This Jordan is more of an underdog, but I found the whole book very similar to what’s come before.  Even his costume is pretty much the same.

In my opinion, they did not take it nearly far enough.  They did not break away from his Silver Age roots in any meaningful way.  That’s generally been my issue with all of the Earth One books, though.  The idea is that these books would depict what these heroes would be like in today’s real world, and the answer is … pretty much the same.

I do want to commend Gabriel Hardman’s art, though.  He’s got an expert sense of anatomy and perspective, and his backgrounds are exquisite.  I also very much enjoyed Jordan Boyd’s colors.  His use of green light surrounded by the darkness of space felt fresh.  At times he seems to employ a dot matrix technique, which was also felt both nostalgic and original.

So while the book is well executed, I didn’t find it particularly inspired.  It wan’t the innovative science fiction extravaganza that I expected.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

Pops by Michael Chabon – A Book Review

If you visit this site regularly, you probably know I’m a bit of a Michael Chabon fan.  (I met him once, you know.)  His latest book recently released, and I could not wait to read it.

Pops is a very slim collection of nonfiction essays.  I particularly enjoy Chabon’s nonfiction because he is unafraid.  He addresses topics that would scare most authors.  Specifically, he has no issues admitting that fatherhood, and manhood for that matter, is a bit of a work in progress for him.  Even though none of us have it figured out, he readily admits that fact.

Remember, Chabon is a world-renowned Pulitzer Prize winner.  He should have an ego the size of a mansion, but he doesn’t.  His humility is both refreshing and inspiring.

At just 127 pages, Pops succinctly delves into Chabon’s adventures in fatherhood.  If I’m not mistaken, each of his children serves as the focus of an essay.  The themes range from discovering the true nature of a child to seizing upon missed opportunities to trying to teach boys not to act like assholes.  There’s much more, of course, but the unifying factor throughout is Chabon admitting to his own mistakes and simply trying to do the best he can.

The book ends, interestingly enough, with Chabon writing an essay about his own father.  If you are a consistent reader of Chabon, you understand that this is well-covered ground.  He is not mean when it comes to his own father, yet he also isn’t sugarcoating anything.  It’s obvious that he loves his own dad, but it’s also apparent that he didn’t always like the man.

If find it fascinating that in a book about his own trials, tribulations, and triumphs as a father, he ends on a note that helps us to understand the events that forged the sort of father he would one day become.  Now, I trust Chabon completely.  I’ve been reading him since 2004, and I’ve never had reason to doubt his honor or sincerity.  However, it is worth noting that in all his recollections regarding his father, we’ve only had his unique perspective.  And now, in writing about himself as a father, we only have his point of view.  What would his own children say about these essays?  Will they find Chabon’s writing compatible with their own personal experiences?

Chabon is incredibly intelligent.  It would not surprise me at all if he were to have his children participate in a podcast or an interview or something to serve as a companion piece to this novel.  It simply struck me as an interesting thought.

As always, Chabon delivers beautiful prose describing his escapades in parenting.  If you love his writing, you’ll love this book.

 

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – A Book Review

I took a chance on this very quick read after a friend recommended it.

Ella Minnow Pea is a unique concept.  The premise is that a small island exists off the coast of South Carolina.  This entire island’s culture is based upon Nevin Nollop, the man responsible for the blessed phrase: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

Though a literate, incredibly well-spoken people, the island’s inhabitants are thrown into complete disarray as a statue of Nollop begins to lose letters from the sacred phrase.  They take these jettisoned letters as spiritual intervention, and so they remove each letter from usage as it falls.

Because the book is written as literal correspondence between characters, a dark farce ensues.  The messages begin missing those outlawed letters, and, by book’s end, the notes between characters are nearly incomprehensible.

To make matters worse, the town punishes anyone caught using the banned letters.  Beatings, exile, even death can result as a byproduct of usage.  Things get very bleak very quickly, yet the circumstances continuously remain hilarious.

While the story itself did not make a lasting impact upon me, Mark Dunn’s execution absolutely impressed.  To literally omit those letters banned by the town in the actual story — that’s no easy feat!  I enjoyed the structure, construction, and style of the book immensely, and I would recommend reading it for that experience alone.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)