December 5, 2016

Review: Wonder Woman: Earth One, Volume 1

Wonder Woman: Earth One, Volume 1 Wonder Woman: Earth One, Volume 1 by Grant Morrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is apparently yet another reboot (or "reimagining") of Wonder Woman. Most of us know the basic story, of course. So my goal in reading something like this is to see if the writer can find something different, add some new tweak to the legend. Looking at it from this angle, the results were definitely mixed.

First, the upside: writer Grant Morrison seems to have a good grasp on the characters of Diana, Hippolyta and the other women of Paradise Island. Diana is very young (she's described by one man as a "teenage swimsuit model who can benchpress a Jeep") and at the beginning of her journey. Needless to say, she gets quite a shock when she first sets foot in "man's world." Etta Candy has become Beth Candy, who is a larger-than-life delight. This writer, at least, does not sugarcoat the obvious: with no men to be found, the women of Paradise Island can and do form relationships with one another. Queen Hippolyta is a complex figure, wanting to protect the daughter she created out of her anger and the seed of Hercules.

The most drastic change is Steve Trevor: he is now African-American. As such, he states that "like a lot of people in 'man's world,' my ancestors were enslaved and persecuted by men with too much power." He does not want to see that fate happen to the women of Amazonia. But Diana, the daughter of Hercules, is, as her mother describes her, "proud, restless and rebellious." The final panel shows her taking her robot airplane and setting it down in the middle of a town square, coming out on the wing and saying, "Hola, Man's world--it's time we had a talk."

The art is...well. It could be better. It's way too busy in some panels. The pacing of the story seems a bit uneven in spots. I think this reboot shows a lot of potential, but it's not quite there yet.

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November 23, 2016

Review: Feedback

Feedback Feedback by Mira Grant
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If I'm to be honest (and there's no point in writing this if I'm not), this book disappointed me. I am a great fan of the original Newsflesh trilogy: the first book, Feed, made me cry (and anyone who's read it will know what I'm talking about). Shaun and Georgia Mason, Buffy and the rest are great characters, and the premise pretty much reinvigorated the standard zombie-apocalypse genre, I think.

This book continues the story of that world, taking place concurrently with the events in Feed. Our narrator, Aislinn "Ash" North, is an Irwin (those who, in this universe, actually get out in the field and kill zombies). She and her team of bloggers are covering the Democratic candidate for President, just as the Masons were covering the Republican candidate in Feed. We get quite a few zombie attacks in this book, there is a conspiracy revealed that is much more straightforward than the somewhat convoluted plotting in the original trilogy, and our team ends up on the run in the wilderness.

All well and good. However, the reason this book falls flat for me is the characters. To put it bluntly, despite the author's best efforts, these people are simply not as interesting as the Masons. Ash marries her Newsie (news blogger on their team), Ben Ross, to get a green card to work in the country, but she's really in love with her Fictional (fiction writer on their team), Audrey Wen, and the three of them are in some sort of fake polyamorous relationship. Then there's the other member of the team, genderfluid Mat, who unfortunately gets offed (or zombified, rather) about two-thirds of the way through the book. Mat's characterization, as far as I'm concerned, is not well done. I realize the author is trying to be consistent by calling this person "they" and not describing them, but the end result of this is that the character came off as vague and opaque, and I didn't care about this person very much.

The writing is as good as ever, but the story just sort of peters out at the end, with an unsatisfying conclusion. To me, this book is ranked at the bottom of the Mira Grant books I've read, behind the original Newsflesh trilogy and the Parasitology trilogy.

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November 15, 2016

Review: The Fireman

The Fireman The Fireman by Joe Hill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To make a long(ish) review short (and after completing this 747-page behemoth, I have a fresh appreciation of brevity) this book is basically Joe Hill's version of The Stand.

The story leans more towards the science fiction end of the spectrum than horror. There are a few elements that might be construed as supernatural, and they seem a bit out of place with the rest of the narrative. Instead of The Stand's virus, we have a spore that inhabits human hosts and eventually, in most cases, results in spontaneous combustion. This inevitably leads to the breakdown of society and the usual attendant horrors; anarchy, mass death and starvation, and roving tribes of people exterminating the "burners," the infected.

Unlike Stephen King's magnum opus, Joe Hill keeps a tight focus on one character, nurse Harper Grayson. He makes it a point to characterize her as an ordinary Everywoman. Harper is not some kind of kickass urban fantasy heroine, but rather someone trying her best to cope with a terrifying time. She becomes pregnant at the beginning of the outbreak (the timeline of the story is the length of her pregnancy), and nearly the entire nine months is spent running and hiding from her crazy, vicious SOB of a husband, who threw a fit when Harper wouldn't join him in his planned suicide pact after they became infected. (Jakob is a bit over the top as a villain, actually.) After her first escape from Jakob, she falls in with a group of infected people who are learning to control the spore; apparently the hormone oxytocin can convince it not to incinerate its host. (Some people, including the titular character, demonstrate an impressive cooperation with the spore, which gives them incredible flame-generating powers. Unfortunately, some of this stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.) This group gradually turns into a rather frightening cult, which takes up most of the middle part of the book. There is a lot of fighting, running and hiding, and a great many character deaths (including the completely unnecessary death of a cat--come on, Joe. That was just gratuitous and wrong). I suppose this is intended to keep the reader on edge, George RR Martin style: none of our supposed protagonists are safe. It got damned tiresome after 700 pages.

In fact, I will say right here that 2-300 pages of the book could have been chopped out with no great loss. This is not to say that Joe Hill is a bad writer. To the contrary, his prose is excellent. He writes good action scenes. I don't think his characterizations are as compelling as his father's; he seemed to be setting a few scenes up to make the reader cry, or at least tear up a bit. I did none of that. (Except when Mr Truffles died, and it's telling that I felt worse over the death of a cat then the demise of the Fireman.) I did finish this book, but it took more than a week and I was dragging at the end.

So: very much a mixed bag. If Joe Hill ever writes a normal-sized book, I might take a chance on that. But I'm not diving into one of his doorstops again.

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November 12, 2016

What Rough Beast

Ah, America. The grand experiment is over indeed, now that we have elected a pussy-grabbing protofascist.

This election will be analyzed and dissected for years to come (and I can't wait [sarcasm] for Ann Coulter's take on it). There are many reasons behind Trump's win, of course. However, after viewing the map of county wins, I have a few questions for all the aggrieved white people, especially in the Rust Belt states, who voted for him:

You do realize Donald Trump is a narcissistic con artist who is only out for himself, don't you? He doesn't give a shit about you. You were useful to him, nothing more. He enjoyed seeing you come to his rallies, scream his name, and prop up his ego. (One proof of this is that he said he'd like to continue the rallies even after he gets into the White House.) He was born with several silver spoons in his mouth, a one-percenter from the get-go, and you expect him to care about the likes of you? Don't make me laugh.

You do realize he's not going to fulfill his campaign promises, don't you? He's already backtracking about repealing the Affordable Care Act. He doesn't even comprehend, since he doesn't know jackshit about policy, that you cannot keep enrollment despite pre-existing conditions and kids on their parents' insurance and scuttle the rest. The program doesn't work that way. (If you don't believe me, ask Mitt Romney, since Obamacare is basically Romneycare expanded to the entire country.) Not to mention the fact that the insurance companies themselves, as well as the hospitals that have eliminated most of their uncompensated care, are going to fight him tooth and nail on any such thing.

You do realize he's not actually going to build the effing Wall, don't you? Logistically, how would that even be possible? How high is it supposed to be, thirty feet? How much concrete and rebar (and barbed wire, presumably, for the top) would that even take? How many roads would have to be built, in remote desert areas? How many trucks, hauling how many loads of concrete and gravel, into these remote desert areas? What happens in summer when it tops 115 degrees out there? Who's going to design the wall, and how long will that take? What about putting out contracts to bid, and how long will that take? Also, who will work on such a massive project? (Unless you plan to force all the undocumented immigrants and Muslims from the concentration camps into indentured servitude to build it.) I work for the VA. Do you have any idea what a nightmare a simple procurement job such as buying medications for our pharmacy can be? How much more of a nightmare do you think procuring materials for a thousand-mile-long (or longer) Wall will be? Unless Trump declares himself President for Life (and he's already 70) what makes you think he'll even live long enough to complete it? Plus, who's going to pay for it? (Mexico sure as hell isn't, even though Trump says he will "make" them, and by the way, how would he even do that? Nuke them until they hand over the money?) Are all you aggrieved white people who voted for him going to pony up, you who are already complaining about your taxes? But then again, if Trump rams through his massive tax cut, and deficits explode (as they inevitably will) what are you going to do then? Still go ahead and built the frakking thing? And you're complaining about the size of the national debt now? Just wait till Trump's beautiful Wall adds to it.

I tossed these things off in just a few minutes, off the top of my head. And this doesn't even touch the fact that you, Aggrieved White People, just voted for a man who has a monstrous hard-on for Vladimir Putin; who asked during a briefing why, if we had nuclear weapons, we couldn't use them; who lies to you, his constituents, as often and as naturally as he breathes; and who has no respect for 51% of the human race, namely women. He made no attempt to hide who he was, and you voted for him anyway, because you want some kind of Sugar Daddy to come along and fix you.

Honestly, you disgust me. The Party of Personal Responsibility, my ass.

I know time machines don't exist, but I can't help feeling that somewhere out there some geek has secretly built one and popped back a hundred years to whisper into W.B. Yeats' ear.

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

October 30, 2016

Review: What Will It Take to Make A Woman President?: Conversations About Women, Leadership and Power

What Will It Take to Make A Woman President?: Conversations About Women, Leadership and Power What Will It Take to Make A Woman President?: Conversations About Women, Leadership and Power by Marianne Schnall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a series of essays about women in power, what it will take for a woman to be elected President of the US, and why there hasn't been one before now. There are twenty-nine people interviewed, men and women, politicians and pundits, journalists and writers and musicians, from all sides of the political aisle. This book was published three years ago, but of course it is all the more relevant now, with the woman most often mentioned in these pages (hopefully) poised to make history.

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October 27, 2016

Review: Underground Airlines

Underground Airlines Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a tricky book to recommend, because the basic premise is pretty triggery and requires the reader to have all their spoons in a row. Even me, and I’m usually not put off by such things. So, here is a very basic rehash for readers to decide if they can handle this book, because the author is uncompromising and relentless in taking his horrifying premise to its logical end.

WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

This is an alternate history where the Civil War was never fought…because Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1861. In the aftermath, the Crittenden Compromise was passed, and states’ rights to hold slaves was enshrined in the Constitution, with an amendment (“no future amendment of the Constitution shall affect the five preceding articles”) that forbade its ever being repealed. So in our modern day, there are four states--the Hard Four; Louisiana, Missisippi, Alabama, and a reunited North and South Carolina--where slavery is still practiced. (Martin Luther King did live in this timeline, but because LBJ was dragged into, not the Vietnam War, but an 11-year fight to keep Texas from seceding, the Civil Rights Act was never passed. So although the timeline is contemporary with our own, race relations are fifty years in the past, which of course means Barack Obama was never elected. The United States, far from being the world's only superpower, also seems to be a backwater, economically depressed country.) Three million African Americans are enslaved, and the population is maintained about how you'd expect; breeding houses are mentioned, where of course--although we never explicitly see it--mass rape and forced pregnancy is practiced. The subjugation and dehumanization is constant, and the warped effect this causes is reflected in the main character, Victor (although he has another name his mother gave to him before he was taken away from her at the age of five; we never find out what it is), who is one of the most complex characters I've ever read. After escaping from his plantation and living a few brief years as a free man, he is captured by the Marshals and forced to hunt down other recently escaped slaves. This is the story of one case that turns Victor's entire world upside down. Memories he repressed for years come back to haunt him, and he is forced to confront who he is and what he has become.

I've heard some complaining that the world created here could never have happened. Perhaps so. But SF, as a genre, regularly deals with some pretty impossible things (faster than light travel, a staple of space opera, just for starters) and for me, if the book makes its own internal sense and sticks to it, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief. The author does not flinch in exploring the ramifications of his premise, up to and including the final twist, the Hard Four's version of the Final Solution. So many of those ramifications discussed along the way, in throwaway lines and matter-of-fact details (the prose is tight and restrained, almost Hemingwayesque, which serves to drive home the horrors of the story being told), are so uncomfortably close to the reality we live in...it gave me the shivers, and still does, just thinking about it.

Needless to say, this is a tough book to read, and I wouldn't blame anyone, especially people of color, for being unable to finish it. It is beyond bleak in many ways. But it is unforgettable.

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October 13, 2016

Review: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 5: Super Famous

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 5: Super Famous Ms. Marvel, Vol. 5: Super Famous by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I reviewed the previous Ms. Marvel, Last Days, I noted that the series had regained its usual quality following what I felt was a disappointing third volume, Crushed. This installment completes this return to form, taking its place alongside my favorite so far of the series, Generation Why.

I must admit that I haven't (so far) read any of the other relevant Marvel storylines, so I have no idea what went into Kamala Khan's becoming an Avenger. Not to worry. G. Willow Wilson does an admirable job of compressing these outside developments into three finely-drawn pages, and then we go back to the themes that make Super Famous such an excellent addition to the series.

In this volume, Kamala is torn between her duties as an Avenger and her family and friends. We realize, before she does, that she is stretching herself way too thin, and is trying, as she says, to be "too many things to too many people." Before this is resolved at the end, we are treated to two entertaining stories that drive the point home. In the first, her best friend Bruno (who she told in Last Days she couldn't be with because she had to devote herself to being Ms. Marvel) finds a girlfriend, Michaela "Mike" Miller. (By the way, Mike is an awesome addition to the series, and I hope we see more of her.) There is a bit of complicated arglebargle about Jersey City being taken over by a development company, Hope Yards, which turns out to be a front for the Avengers' old enemy, Hydra. Kamala and Mike work together to defeat Hydra (at least this time) and send it scurrying, but the tension between Kamala's private and superhero lives is driven home.

In the second story, Kamala's brother Aamir meets a young woman named Tyesha and wants to get married. Kamala's attempts to continue in school, help with the planning of her brother's wedding, and bust Jersey City's bad guys lead her to create copies of herself, aka "golems," so she can be in three places at once. This, of course, gets out of hand, and she ends up fighting a giant version of herself, and calling in Captain Marvel and Iron Man to help her out.

(Yes, Tony Stark has a couple of brief cameos here. These lead to the single funniest panel in the entire book, where he folds his arms, looks down at Kamala, and demands an explanation: "Spill it. Whatever it is. Otherwise, you're gonna have to explain the whole thing to Patriot Pants, and you know how he is." One can only imagine Robert Downey Jr. delivering this line.)

After taking in Carol Danvers' advice, Kamala realizes where her priorities lie. The themes of home and family espoused here may be simple, but sometimes the most basic ideas are the most powerful. In any case, Super Famous is delightful, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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"Your Face, It Was Apricot"

This is hysterical.

October 12, 2016

Review: The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics' Top Score—from Nadia to Now

The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics' Top Score—from Nadia to Now The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics' Top Score—from Nadia to Now by Dvora Meyers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was okay. The subject matter--the scoring format and history of gymnastics, from the viewpoint of the women who did or did not score a perfect 10--was interesting, and the author seems to have done her research, but she is not the most exciting writer in the world. She pales next to, for instance, Laura Hillenbrand. Also, with all the recent articles coming out about sexual abuse in gymnastics, the fact that she does not delve into this subject seems a glaring omission. Still, this is a fairly engaging book, especially when the author talks about individual competitors, such as Simone Biles.

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October 9, 2016

Review: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4: Last Days

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4: Last Days Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4: Last Days by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This volume of Ms. Marvel is much better than its predecessor, Crushed. That disappointed me, but in this volume we're back to the series' usual standard of excellence.

I haven't read the overall Marvel storyline, so I don't have any idea what's going on with the "incursion zone" appearing over Manhattan. To my mind, it doesn't really matter, as this volume is full of excellent character moments. Kamala meets up with her idol, Carol Danvers; she reveals who she is to her mother; she talks things out with her best friend, Bruno, and tells him that for now she must concentrate on being Ms. Marvel; she reconnects with a couple of friends; and in the most interesting vignette, we get to see a little bit of Kamala's brother Aamir, who just wants to "go to the mosque, volunteer, and read books."

The only complaint I have about this is that this volume only collects three of the comics, and the back half of the book is taken up by an Amazing Spider-Man crossover, which is pretty much filler and nowhere near as interesting.

I'm not into graphic novels to the extent that many people are, but this series has for the most part been a winner. Let's hope this high level of quality continues.

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