March 21, 2017

Review: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF by Amy Reeder
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was...okay. I prefer graphic novels with more mature storylines, which you can have even when your protagonist is a 9-year-old girl, as in this case. The last third of the story, when our hero Lunella Lafayette takes off on her own to hunt down the bad guys, is the strongest. Lunella is a nicely rounded character, with believable motivations and fears, and I think if she was just a little bit older this would be a better comic. As it is, she's cute without being twee or cutesy, which is good, but this simply doesn't have the depth it needs to be memorable.

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March 19, 2017

Review: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really wavered about how many stars to give this. I liked it, but it has its issues, and there is a great deal of handwavium inherent in the premise. This is also one of the grimmest books I have ever read, on a par with Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (if nowhere near that book's quality).

Needless to say, All The Triggers applies. Rape, child rape, abuse, violence and extreme misogyny are found here.

This is a near-extinction-of-humanity and death-of-civilization tale, with a virus so virulent it kills 98% of men and more than 99% of women, including all pregnant women. Which is the first of my objections to the worldbuilding--the world's most lethal viruses, such as Ebola, simply do not work that way. Ebola kills something like 90% of its victims, but this occurs over a time frame of weeks and months. The virus here seems to strike the entire world population simultaneously, which is ridiculous. (Unless it was a genetically engineered organism, tailored specifically to humans, introduced years beforehand, and programmed to turn lethal in response to a specific trigger. Something like David R. Palmer's Emergence, which handles this scenario a helluva lot better.) Also, the Unnamed Midwife who is the book's protagonist--she never gives her true name, but goes by various aliases, mostly male, throughout the book--wakes up after who knows how long in a comalike state (somehow without starving to death or dying of thirst, which also bugged me) to find everyone else gone and San Francisco deserted. (And where, pray tell, are all the rotting bodies and feral dogs?)

But put all that aside, if you can, because that was just the pseudo-science to jumpstart the plot. The author's concerns are what happens to humanity after it all but dies out, and what she and the Unnamed Midwife sees isn't pretty. Specifically, men revert to brutish animals and make all remaining women their slaves.

I said "extreme misogyny" in reference to triggers, but it seems to me there is a lot of hatred of men in this story's subtext, thinking that nearly all men would act like this. Or, hell, hatred of humanity in general, that we would automatically revert to knuckle-dragging barbarians in such an event. To be sure, some of us would. But I'm sure that many more men AND women would band together in the hard work of changing to a non-technological, agrarian society (which is what would have to happen) while preserving as much old world technology as is feasible. (For instance, rounding up herd animals, building greenhouses, scavenging as many medical supplies/canned goods as possible, and also constructing windmills/gathering solar panels for power/etc etc etc. Jeezus. I just threw that out in fifteen seconds, and already I've got a much more hopeful scenario than this book.)

I think the reason the author goes with such a grimdark storyline is that the society she envisions coming after, which is established in the prologue and epilogue as a framing device, is so different from our own. For instance, instead of a two-person marriage as the basic unit of society, there are polyamorous "hives" (specifically, one women with two or more men), and women are separating into two different castes, Mothers and Midwives. (Hopefully this is expanded upon more in the sequel, The Book of Etta.)

In the meantime, this storyline is somewhat equivalent to a drive-by car wreck--it's horrific, but you can't take your eyes off it. Meg Elison is a good writer, with sharp pacing, nice characterization, and a good ear for dialogue. I just wish she'd given more thought to her worldbuilding, because that leaves a lot to be desired.

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March 18, 2017

And Now, A Political Interlude

Today my local paper featured this story on the front page.

Analysis: 380,000 Arizonans May Lose Medicaid

Some highlights:

The analysis by the state’s Medicaid plan obtained by The Associated Press Friday shows keeping most of those people insured would cost the state nearly $500 million a year by 2023.

In a Republican-led state where tax increases are nearly impossible to enact, that’s extremely unlikely.

The report looks at the patients who gained coverage under a Medicaid expansion pushed through in 2013 by former Gov. Jan Brewer over opposition from many in her own party. It now covers about 400,000 Arizonans out of the 1.9 million covered by Medicaid in the state.

Of those 400,000, about 316,000 are childless adults who earn less than the federal poverty limit, and 81,000 earn between 100 percent and 138 percent of the limit.

The analysis released Friday by Arizona’s Medicaid plan looks at several scenarios, none of them pretty for the poor Arizonans currently on Medicaid.

Freezing the current enrollment for the two populations covered by expansion is one option. Another is to only freeze those in the plan who earn above the poverty level.

But the current GOP plan would cut matching funds to states, increasing costs.

Since we have a Republican governor springing from the mold of Kansas' Sam Brownback (i.e., cut taxes every year, no matter what that does to the state coffers, or how public education, to name just one example, suffers as a result), he would never support raising taxes to cover the shortfall, nor would the majority Republican Legislature pass any such thing. So all these people would be shit out of luck. And since, as the story notes, most of these people earn less than the federal poverty level, good luck on them being able to buy insurance on their own.

To put it bluntly, that is obscene.

What do you expect these people to do when they get sick? They're just going to clog the emergency rooms like they did before, and hospitals will lose money from their uncompensated care (which just means you and I, the everyday taxpayer, will pick up the slack). Or, y'know, they'll do what the Republicans seem to want them to do, which is die and get out of the way.

People will die. Make no mistake about it, people will die.

And in the meantime, this asshole Paul Ryan will chortle over finally getting to reduce an "entitlement."

I've said for some time that the driving theme of the Republican party is a simple five words: "I've got mine; fuck you." They don't believe in civilization, other than as a form of feudalism for the 0.01%. They certainly don't believe in the words of Jesus, with his famous refrain: "As you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."

And now they've voted a narcissistic, tinyhanded monster into the highest office in the land, who will push this clusterfuck that will kill people (hey, remember the retired coal miners, many of whom are afflicted with black lung disease? Say bye-bye to your health care too! And all you malingering old farts who live alone and can't work or drive and get a free Meal on Wheel every day? Screw you, suckers!!) on the country.

But Her Emails.

March 12, 2017

Review: Revenger

Revenger Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've heard this book called "young adult," and the first thing I'd like to say is that it most definitely is not. Yes, the protagonists, sisters Adrana and Arafura Ness, are eighteen and seventeen respectively. That does not matter. This book is too dark, and its first-person narrator far too ruthless, to qualify for the young-adult designation, at least as far as I'm concerned.

What this is is a far-future space opera, of pirates and creepy aliens and ancient skulls, of a solar system (possibly ours) where the planets seem to be smashed into rubble, and the human race has built tens of thousands of habitats out of that rubble. Built them over and over again, as a matter of fact, because we're on the Thirteenth Occupation (now known as the "Congregation"), and the history of the Occupations stretches millions of years into the past. The past is the driving engine of the story, as ships search "baubles" for tech and/or artifacts no one can now understand or duplicate, and one never knows if that tech will make you rich or drive you insane. This idea has obvious parallels with Andre Norton's "Forerunners," which are some of my favorite books of all time.

This is some marvelous worldbuilding (and very artfully done, with nary an infodump to be found), and I hope the author writes more books in this universe, whether or not he continues the story of the Ness sisters. But this book is the tale of Adrana and Arafura Ness, who sign on to a "sunjammer" (a ship riding the solar wind on giant sails that visits the baubles as they open, to scavenge the loot sealed inside) in an attempt to help their father, who just lost all the family's money. They are qualified to be "bone readers," linking to the giant alien skulls on the sunjammers that serve as long-range communications devices. (These are also creepy as heck, with the implications that for all there is no brain tissue left inside, they aren't...really....dead.) However, on their very first voyage they run into the pirate Bosa Sennen, who kills nearly the entire crew and takes Adrana hostage on her ship.

This starts the story, and a dark and bloody one it is. Arafura changes from a naive young girl to an obsessed and ruthless woman, and if in the end she finds her sister and kills Bosa Sennen, her triumph comes at a very high price. To hunt a monster, she basically becomes one. The last few pages of the story shows she realizes this, and if there is a sequel, I hope the consequences of what she's done are dealt with. (I also hope the second book is told from Adrana's viewpoint.) There is so much more that could be done with this universe and characters, and so many questions that deserve answers.

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March 7, 2017

Review: Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do about It

Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do about It Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do about It by Kate Harding
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yes, I sometimes read something other than SFF. I'm very glad I read this. I'm sad and angry, however, that it still needed to be written at all, that the idiotic rape myths summed up by this book's title still have such a hold on our culture.

Never fear though, as Kate Harding blows said myths out of the water. Just as an example (from p. 24):

Myth: She asked for it.
Fact: It is literally impossible to ask for rape. Rape, by definition, is sex you did not ask for. So either you mean that a woman who dresses a certain way, or flirts, or otherwise expresses her sexuality on her own terms somehow deserves to be raped--which would make you a monster--or you are wrong, and she was not asking for it.

Myth: He didn't mean to.
Fact: Rapists like to rape. Most of them do it more than once. In "Understanding the Predatory Nature of Sexual Violence," David Lisak cites a study in which 120 college men admitted to a total of 483 acts that met the legal definition of rape. Forty-four of those were one-off crimes. The other 439 rapes were committed by 76 serial rapists, who "had also committed more than 1,000 other crimes of violence, from non-penetrating acts of sexual assault, to physical and sexual abuse of children, to battery of domestic partners." Rape is not an accident.

For those who might sputter, "Butbutbut women lie," Harding also takes an entire chapter to discuss the problem of false accusations, dissecting the cases of Crystal Mangum, Tawana Brawley, and the Central Park Jogger. As she points out, however, according to the best available evidence, between 2 and 8 percent of rape accusations are false. My thought upon reading that was, even if we stretch skepticism to the breaking point and round that figure up to 10 percent, that still means ninety percent of reports are true. So, you know, if a woman says she was raped, the odds are she should be believed until, and unless, the evidence proves her wrong.

(This has nothing to do with the legal standard of "innocent until proven guilty," by the way. One can acknowledge a rape most likely occurred while simultaneously recognizing the challenge and necessity of gathering evidence, and prosecuting a case against, a specific person.)

This is in some ways a depressing, but I think an important book. I'd like to see it used in classrooms, especially when it comes to teaching teenagers about rape myths, rape culture, and consent.

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March 3, 2017

Review: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 1

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 1 Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the best writers working today. His non-fiction articles for The Atlantic are usually excellent, and in many cases (particularly "The Case for Reparations" and "My President Was Black") they are, or should be, required reading for anyone interested in the complex nature of race relations in the United States.

But as good a writer as Coates is, writing a comic book series is a whole different ballgame.

That isn't to say this first volume of Black Panther is a failure. Or, if it is, it is a very interesting and ambitious failure. I would describe it as more of an extended, and necessary, learning curve. Coates clearly has some great things planned for his characters and the country of Wakanda (which is a character in its own right), and I am willing to stick around and see what happens.

This volume is bursting with potential. The main character of T'Challa is introduced, a king who has lost his way, along with what seem to be his three main antagonists--Zenzi, the Deceiver who is fomenting revolution, and Aneka and Ayo, the renegade Dora Milaje (T'Challa's elite female warrior bodyguards). All three villains have logical motivations; they are, as good villains must be, heroes of their own story.

Unfortunately there is precious little in the way of a plot to be found here--it seems more or less one giant setup, and a rather meandering, disjointed one at that. I enjoyed the introduction of the characters, the exploration of the country itself (there's a map provided, and we visit several different locations), the various villain backstories, and some small side tales of Wakandan myths and legends. The art is bright and colorful for the most part, well suited to the various vignettes--which is all they are. They're not a cohesive story, which is this volume's greatest weakness.

Having said all that, the groundwork has been laid. If Coates can come up with a good story to match his appealing world, he'll have a winner on his hands.

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February 26, 2017

Review: Rat Queens, Vol. 3: Demons

Rat Queens, Vol. 3: Demons Rat Queens, Vol. 3: Demons by Kurtis J. Wiebe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of my favorite comic book series. I realize there is a bit of controversy about the original artist that I'm not going to get into. There's a new artist and colorist for this collection, and the artist, Tess Fowler, measures up fairly well, I think. (Although she does have a propensity for drawing outrageous breasts and buttocks, and the cover in particular is a teenage-male-gaze T&A fest. Come on. Betty the Smidgen was my favorite character previously, and all the more so here because she doesn't have bountiful cleavage and enormous knockers.)

This volume concentrates on the half-demon Hannah Vizari, and the Mage University she flunked out of (and, we find out, committed rather bloodier deeds during her stay there). Violet the dwarf is a bit neglected, but the human Dee and Betty--whose real name is Petunia Harvestchild; I'd go by "Betty" too--have their own substantial and funny storylines respectively. (Also, Violet and Betty should be paired more often. Their banter is delightful.) But the star of this show is Hannah. A great deal is revealed about her past, and the story ends at a very dark place: Hannah is embracing her demon side, and the Queens have broken up.

I don't at this time know if the series is going to continue. I hope it does, to resolve this cliffhanger if nothing else. (There is also an interesting little extra at the back, the story of Broog/Braga the orc. Although this one doesn't make a lick of sense artistically; Broog is definitely drawn as a male in the beginning, and at the end he becomes Braga, the daughter of an orc chieftain, with the aforementioned unfortunate huge breasts and no explanation. I know it may sound like I'm harping on this, but it gets tiresome, you know? Not all human females are double-Ds, and fictional women shouldn't be either. Especially when such large breasts would get in the way of their sword-wielding. Maybe some of these artists should investigate the original Amazon myth of the breast corresponding to their sword hand being amputated.) I think there is still a great deal that can be done with these characters, and I hope they'll be given a chance.

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February 23, 2017

Review: Everything Belongs to the Future

Everything Belongs to the Future Everything Belongs to the Future by Laurie Penny
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was...okay. This is going to be a short review because there was nothing about this story and characters that impressed me well enough to wax rhapsodic over it. The worldbuilding is very thin, and while the characters are reasonably well drawn, their motivations and backstories are not explored in enough depth to make this an outstanding story.

Laurie Penny does have a sharp, concise writing style, however, no doubt due to her years as a journalist. I think she is a writer to follow, even if this story is unmemorable.

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February 21, 2017

Review: Lumberjanes, Vol. 4: Out of Time

Lumberjanes, Vol. 4: Out of Time Lumberjanes, Vol. 4: Out of Time by Shannon Watters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the best Lumberjanes volume I have read to date. (I missed no. #3, which was apparently not up to snuff.) This collection benefited greatly from the tighter, more adult storyline, involving the camp director, Rosie, the camp counselor, Jen, and a blast from Rosie's past named Abigail. The past-storyline panels are done in muted sepia colors, in contrast to the bright regular colors of the main panels. This effect is pretty cool.

(Also, whoever wrote the little intros to each comic in the collection, the ostensible first page to different sections in the Lumberjane Field Manual, was quite clever. It's worth your while to read each of these, as they, along with the various badges they are talking about, tie in with the story.)

In this collection, we get some welcome backstory on Rosie and the Lumberjanes organization in general, and one of the characters is revealed to be trans. The last page ends on a cliffhanger: our Lumberjanes think weeks have passed, but Jo's dads tell her it's only been two or three days. This sets things up very nicely for the next collection. All in all, this is well worth your time.

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February 18, 2017

Review: Arabella of Mars

Arabella of Mars Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think David D. Levine has invented an entire new subgenre with this book. I'm calling it "Pulp Steampunk Regency." Pulp because it harkens back to the sort of rip-roaring adventure that was first promulgated by Jules Verne; Steampunk because of airships and automatons; and Regency because the book is set in the England (and Mars) of 1813, with all the retrograde views of women, people of color (and, as it turns out, aliens) that the time period entails.

But whatever you want to call it, it's a helluva rocket (or rather airship) ride. To modern eyes, of course, the "science" is complete nonsense. There are no "swamps of Venus" or a breathable atmosphere on Mars, much less an atmosphere (and soil) that allows for the growth of forests. There is no "intraplanetary atmosphere," or an ocean of air between the planets themselves that replaces hard vacuum and permits airship travel to Mars, Venus and presumably other planets in the solar system. But this is no more ridiculous than the FTL drives that have been a mainstay of SF for nigh on to forever. I can forgive a lot of things if a world and its rules are well thought out and the characters are engaging. This book qualifies on both counts.

Our protagonist Arabella Ashby undergoes quite a bit of personal growth over the course of this story. She learns her own strength, both physical and mental, and though at the end she is forced to marry to assure the succession of her family's Martian estate (because the British Empire of 1813 encompasses all the settled planets, apparently), her husband-to-be turns the formula on its head by being a person of color. The author actually handles the racism/sexism/classism elements of the time period pretty well, all things considered. This is a book that sneaks up on you--the further along I read, the more I liked it. (And Levine's airships are much better than some, for instance Jim Butcher's.)

This particular storyline is wrapped up by the end, but a few lingering questions assure a sequel. I'm looking forward to it.

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