Orphan Black Helsinki by by Graeme Manson, John Fawcett, Heli Kennedy, Denton J. Tipton

Fans of the series will likely enjoy this tale of the Helsinki clones. For me, the lack of attention to detail, rather incoherent story and lack of a really strong story arc left a very flat experience. Orphan Black Helsinki isn’t terrible but it struck too many disenfranchising wrong notes to be a really good title.

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Story: A clone in Tapiola, Finland becomes aware and tracks down her ‘sisters’. As Veera travels to find the other clones, she makes a good friend in one but not all will come on board that there is a very real and present danger. Until one of them dies.

It likely won’t matter to those who aren’t Finnish, but clearly the artist either visited very quickly or was using post cards to draw the Helsinki city and suburbs. Ironically, I have lived in the City (Tapiola) in which this story takes places and it nor the people bear ANY resemblance to the Finnish City. Stupid things like non Finnish storm drains in the streets, cars having the wrong license number sequences, houses and schools looking like someone stuck North America into Finland, etc. all bothered greatly. Imagine someone from Finland drawing an Orphan Black New York and putting a Chrysler Building in there for flavor and then showing a suburb in queens populated with WWII era log houses (rintamamiestalo) so prevalent in Finland. It’d look stupid to you, right? But it is more than that – from a school with the wrong naming conventions to very unFinnish mores; clearly, this was written/illustrated by individuals who grew up in North America, not Finland. Heck, even the character Veera’s dossier listed her in Helsinki – when she was actually in Espoo – a completely different City.

Similarly, the characters were so North American as to be ridiculous. From the wild parties to the almost California-like party atmosphere. The way they handled situations and each other were very North American and not Finnish. So sure, it’s not going to bother anyone outside of North America but it is just so sloppy and unprofessional not to research the story/art better.

The story doesn’t resolve and ends rather abruptly. Although not listed, this likely was meant to continue/will continue further since were get very little in the way of point or resolution. The writing is admittedly somewhat shallow and the art is serviceable, details aside. So those invested in the series will likely enjoy Orphan Black Helsinki. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Brace For Impact by Peter Pigott

Brace For Impact is a thorough but brief examination of air crash incidents and safety in Canadian history. Although some crashes outside of Canada are mentioned, most are purely for reference to laws, regulations, similar incidents, or pressures put on Canadian aviation. As such, this isn’t an in depth examination of individual crashes (most are described in a few sentences); rather, it is a general overview for educational/historical purposes.

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The book is arranged chronologically, starting from the first flights around the turn of the century and then progressing up through the decades. Topics affecting air safety and crashes – from maverick owners, daredevil pilots, deregulation in the 1970s in the US, the Comet crash aftermath, and the rise of air crash investigation are a good example of what is covered within the book.

As noted, the chapters are fairly brief and to the point. There is a large notes section in the back which adds to the page count but doesn’t affect the reading experience. The writing is direct and logical, well structured and easy to follow.

Those looking for specific information about air crashes won’t find what they are looking for within this book and would be best suited checking wikipedia or watching Air Crash Investigation/Mayday TV series. But as a short survey of air crashes in Canada, author Pigott has done a good job putting it all together. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Brandon Sanderson’s White Sand

Sanderson is known for his intricate and original magic concepts and that creativity is definitely to be found in White Sand. And certainly the artwork is intricate and full of detail and originality. Yet taken as a whole, this never comes together to create a very good graphic novel. The story is bland, overwordy/dialogue heavy, and the illustrations fail to convey the subtlety of the writing. The plot is confusing and the setting odd and unresolved. Characters are flat and very caricature-like, creating a very disenfranchising read.

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Story: Kenton is the son of the master ‘sand wizard’ – and is learning to control the sands on his desert planet. Full of rebellion and idealism rather than sand manipulation talent, he is the disappointment that his father cannot live down. When the Sand Masters are betrayed and slaughtered, he must find a way to save his culture, battling from within and without as he finds his own magic.

I think the problem here is that the art just doesn’t match the story very well. Sanderson’s story appears to be full of nuance and subtlety but the illustrations are very emotive, with characters always appearing to be overreacting (yelling, gesticulating, etc.) or in odd positions for body shots (appearing to be walking in a scene where they should be standing). It was very incongruous and made everyone seem like they were always screaming or angry, regardless of situation. And I found the static pictures of groups of people very strange – with legs crossed and arms extended in very theatrical positions that made no sense for the scene. Combined with a very slavish attention to the idea of ‘white’ in White Sand it meant that nearly 3/4 of the images are pure white – leaching the graphic novel of color and energy. It looked more like white snow than white sand and I felt there really needed to be a hint of yellow in all that white.

The plot/setting was fairly mundane. Parts were over explained to death (many times over, the magic system) and other areas never explained at all (daysider vs darksider, etc.). And other areas made no sense at all – such as the costuming and how no one every remarked or noticed Kenton in his Sand Masters outfit or his Darksider friends in their elaborate costumes despite there being a war at that point. Add in a useless early plot device about a race and a LOT of dialogue/exposition and this can be a chore to read. The art isn’t allowed to tell the story at all and is clearly fully subservient to the story – it makes for poor synergy and a pointless waste of the graphic medium.

I obviously did not enjoy White Sand. Admittedly, I’ve only read one Brandon Sanderson book so I am not ‘invested’ in the author. As a graphic novel, this felt like a missed opportunity that never really came together to create a compelling story. It’s also a really good lesson on how author/illustrator synergy can create a great work of art or completely fail to gel into a compelling read. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Monstress Volume 1 by Marjorie M. Liu , Sana Takeda

Monstress combines beautiful and intricate drawings with a very layered and nuanced story. But it is also extremely dense with answers to the many mysteries doled out very miserly. As such, it is both fascinating and disenfranchising at the same time; a gorgeous read that perhaps destroys its own charm through inscrutable storytelling.

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Story: 17 year old Maiko seeks answers to her forgotten past and odd inner power. She will travel to the enclave of her enemies as a slave and travel the world hoping to find that which she has lost. Along the way, she will make friends and enemies and come to understand just what kind of monster lurks within.

An interesting stylistic choice was made by artist and writer to contrast the beautiful, ethereal graphics with harsh language and violence/torture. Amidst the world of beauty, an ugliness lies underneath and only Maiko bluntly calls it. But at the same time, she is also hiding something even more evil – or is it? It’s all very Lovecraftian.

There’s not a lot of answers to be had here – it can be very frustrating and certainly more reveals would have been rewarding. Most of the characters are very one-dimensional and are summarily killed off – and then reanimated anyway. It made for a very confusing mix for a reader, perhaps creating an uneven footing that makes the entire reading experience very uncomfortable.

After awhile, I just gave up really trying to get into Maiko’s character and just stared at the pretty pictures. Yes, that is rather shallow but nothing was happening for too long and the story was taking too long to progress. Likely, it will take several reads to really ‘get’ the viewpoint of the author and where she was taking the story. But this first book does sort of end an arc.

Do I recommend this? Definitely. There is something incredibly unique and beautiful here (in story and in art). But be prepared for several rereads until the denseness finally sets in. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Snow White by Matt Phelan

Snow White is a lovely retelling of the classic fairy tale, this time placing the setting in 1920s New York City. Phelan cleverly updates several aspects of the tale while still keeping the sweetness of the inspiration material intact. Nearly wordless, the beautiful watercolor pencils tell most of the story perfectly.

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The setting is nicely researched and all the characters drawn very much in the style of the era: pageboy caps on boys, rosy cheeks on our Snow White, cupid’s bow lips on our femme fatale stepmother. It perfectly evokes jazz age and then the pre-deco world. As well, New York City is very much a character of the book: from Ziegfield Follies to the ‘magic’ of a Macy’s Christmas window. I always appreciate historical accuracy; especially in this case with the transitioning from 1910s to 1920s as Snow grows up.

The illustrations are pencils and watercolor – with enough detail to show the emotion but also create an ethereal quality. Each page typically has four or five panels, each artfully arranged as needed to tell the story. From the ‘lost boys’ dwarves to Samantha “Snow” White, each character is beautifully illustrated.

If I had one nitpick, it’s that the evil step mother was perhaps a bit too maniacal looking in a lot of the panels. I would have liked to see a bit more subtlety there as was done with Snow and the Boys. But in all, that is a minor quibble for a beautifully presented fairy tale suitable for small children and adults. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Spells of Blood and Kin by Claire Humphrey

Spells of Blood and Kin is a slow burn dark urban fantasy layered in tones of grief, depression, and inexorable loneliness. Author Humphrey throws out the book on urban fantasy; but at the same time, the oppressive darkness and anticlimactic end will likely alienate many readers.

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Story: Maksim is kin – an immortal powerful nonhuman with a constant craving for violence. Lissa is the granddaughter of a Russian witch and drowning in grief over the recent loss of her Baba. A death that has released a spell keeping Maksim from the misery of his own actions. When Maksim loses control on the spur of the moment, he infects Nick – a young man enjoying rebelling: violence, drugs, and nightlife. As Lissa deals with a desperate Maksim’s request to make a new spell, Nick begins to change.

The story has a clear arc – Maksim finding Nick and his friend in early morning Toronto, bleeding after drunken fights. The rest of the story is Maksim and his fellow kin Augusta “Gus” tracking down Nick while Maksin desperately tries to regain equanimity through witch Lissa’s ‘eggs’ that keep him calm. At the end, the ‘infecting’ of Nick comes to a head in a very surprising way.

Side characters are just as intricately drawn as the mains – from Maksim’s friend “Gus” to Lissa’s quirky British step sister who abruptly charges into her life after the death of her grandmother. The expectation of tombstones over people’s heads is wholly thrown in the air and certainly the story goes in directions not expected. Unnecessary drama isn’t manufactured and there is no deus ex machina. If anything, Spells of Blood and Kin is the antidote to the melodrama of this genre.

But at the same time, the story has no glimmers of real hope. The oppressive tone is stifling and none of the characters are pretty – each is ugly in their own way as they deal with their natures of what life has flung at them. Lissa with her grief over her grandmother’s death; Maksim fighting to not kill what he loves ever again; Gus looking for a purpose in life; Nick not wanting to stop the partying/drugs/etc; Lissa’s stepsister Stella running from her stifling British parents; and Nick’s best friend deciding to forgo the punk extravagance and settle down with the nice girl he’s found.

The story really works on the character driven level. It’s not flashy and it is not what most would expect. None of the characters are even remotely likable – they are extremely flawed. Those aspects give the book a grounded perspective that lifts it above a lot of the poorly written stories that are so prevalent these days. Just don’t read this if you are depressed. Written from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

The Copper Promise is a dark but also quirky fantasy featuring very dry humor and a lot of violence. Those with a trigger about graphic torture might find it a bit much; granted, the humor and oafishness of the characters are a counter to the heaviness. But it is a difficult mix and I’m not quite sure the balance was always achieved.

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Story: A treasure lies buried – a kingdom’s worth hidden to prevent theft from invaders. One man knows where it is: the last in the line of the kingdom’s ruling family. He’s been tortured and disfigured, but he has survived the overthrow of his kingdom. He hires mercenaries to help retrieve his heritage – but little do any of them know what they are about to awaken in the process.

I have to admit, I never liked any of the characters and found the very detailed descriptions of the torture and violence gratuitous. It is a fantasy novel so I expect some – but in this era of Game of Thrones violence, the ante keeps getting upped. The Copper Promise passed my comfort threshold within the first chapter.

The characters are fun and funny – in a very British dry humor way. They are all pretty much anti-heroes. I wish I liked any of them but I just didn’t. I’d rather have logical and intelligent rather than smarmy and quirpy. I was bored of them quickly, sadly.

Although this review may seem like the book is poor, that certainly is not the case. It’s decently written with a lot of interesting story locales and twists. There are even several chuckle-worthy moments. But for my taste, I just didn’t want to follow the characters and found the locations more interesting. And then there was all that violence….

In all, this will definitely delight many readers. I just never warmed up to the story. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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