November 18, 2017

The Trump Presidency: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

John Oliver knocks this out of the park. Spread it far and wide. Main takeaways:

1. Delegitimizing the media

2. Whataboutism

3. Fake news

Also, an iPhone would make a better president.

November 10, 2017

Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There seem to be a lot of rave reviews for this book, but unfortunately I just don't feel it. This is the second "literary" SF book I've read this year, and for me it's failed in pretty much the same ways. The writing and characterizations may be very good, but the science is simply lacking...and I'm sorry, but you can't have science fiction without fairly plausible science.

This book takes place aboard a generation ship (and a huge sucker; it has multiple decks with thousands of inhabitants each and is fusion-powered) 325 years into its voyage. I take it our Earth is supposed to be the "Great Lifehouse" from which the Matilda launched after some unspecified ecological disaster. Hundreds of years later, the ship seems to be wandering the cosmos (although from the patently awful ending, I'm wondering if it even made it out of our solar system) with no clear goal or destination. Over this time, a religious, oppressive society has developed, based on race. It's no secret that this book is basically the Antebellum South in space; it's even on the dust jacket copy. Which is fine, as this is the subject the author clearly wanted to tackle, and their worldbuilding, characters and conflicts are centered on this theme. But I just wish Solomon had written their book in a contemporary context and left the SF out of it.

It's a shame that overall this doesn't work for me, because parts of it are very good indeed. The main character, Aster, is intersex and neuroatypical, perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum. Her harsh, relentlessly literal characterization rings true on every page. The other characters, including her Aint Melusine, her self-destructive friend Giselle Nwaku, and her ally and mentor Theo Smith, are also well drawn (these three each have a first-person viewpoint chapter, which is a nice way of getting the reader inside their heads). The worldbuilding on board Matilda is intriguing, with each deck having its own culture and language. With these people having spent 325 years on this ship, there's a nice weight of history, and the past--in particular, the story of Aster's mother--becomes more and more important as the story progresses.

Unfortunately, it's the science that does this story in. I don't usually say this, but I wish the author had been even more handwavey about her science than she already is, because then the story could have sat better with me. As it is, the parts where she tries to describe the ship's fusion drive, and the way the Field (crop-growing) Decks rotate, and how the ship is piloted, are just...bad. Slingshotting this enormous vessel around a black hole to change its trajectory? Come on. And the ending, while it's explosively plotted, important to Aster's characterization, and well-paced, scientifically is...ugh. There's no telling where in the universe we actually are, but even if the Matilda was only a few light-years away from our solar system, there's no way Aster could have made it back to Earth aboard a shuttle. She would have starved to death and/or run out of oxygen long before. That last chapter, in fact, pretty much spoiled the entire book for me, because of that and also because of the way it seemed to dribble to a halt with no real point.

If you can overlook this kind of thing, more power to you. I can't. This book is very ambitious, and I commend the author for that, but the execution of this idea is, to me, a total misfire.

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November 5, 2017

Review: $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a sad and depressing book, because it drives home how much the United States, as a country that is supposedly the richest on Earth, has failed millions of our fellow citizens. This book chronicles how, after the ill-advised ending of "welfare as we know it" in the 1990's, a different kind of poverty began to raise its head--households receiving SNAP (food stamps) but no cash at all. From the introduction:

America's cash welfare program--the main government program that caught people when they fell--was not merely replaced with the 1996 welfare reform; it was very nearly destroyed. In its place arose a different kind of safety net, one that provides a powerful hand up to some--the working poor--but offers much less to others, those who can't manage to find or keep a job. This book is about what happens when a government safety net that is built on the assumption of full-time, stable employment at a living wage combines with a low-wage labor market that fails to deliver on any of the above. It's this toxic alchemy, we argue,that is spurring the increasing numbers of $2-a-day poor in America.

This book follows several families that fall into this spiral, in four different communities. (It's no coincidence that almost all of them are people of color.) In the process, it lays waste to the idiotic idea that poor people should just "pull themselves up by their bootstraps"--there usually aren't any boots, let alone straps. Time and time again, we're shown a perfect storm of interlocking factors, many of which are out of the person's control, that end up casting them down into this extreme poverty. These people are trying to cope as best they can, in sometimes illegal ways, but frankly who can blame them? If I had absolutely no money coming in and no job prospects, I might end up selling my kid's Social Security number too.

This is a sobering look at one of America's deepest moral failings. It should make you angry. It certainly did me.

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October 27, 2017

Review: Defy the Stars

Defy the Stars Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Among other books, Claudia Gray has written two well-received Star Wars novels, Bloodline and Leia: Princess of Alderaan. I haven't read them, but I have seen good reviews. My own exposure to this author comes from her young-adult novel Fateful, which has a premise ("werewolves on the Titanic") that in the hands of a lesser writer could have failed miserably. But Gray pulls it off, and in so doing I noticed her skill in characterizations.

That ability is on full display here, with two characters that are so real they could step off the page into your living room. Noemi Vidal lives on one of Earth's five colony worlds, Genesis, which is as lush and green as Earth is brown and dying. Genesis deliberately limits its technology to preserve its environment; Earth wants to move its billions to Genesis, who fears that once here, they will start poisoning Genesis as well. Earth is trying to force the issue, sending armies of mechs (not really robots, although artificially created; they're a mixture of organic and mechanical and are more cyborgs) through the artificial wormhole connecting Earth and Genesis. The war is going badly for Genesis, to the point where they're planning a suicide mission known as the Masada Run: seventy-five ships ramming the Gate, killing themselves and taking it offline temporarily, hopefully allowing enough time for Genesis to build its defenses. Noemi is one of those who has volunteered for the Masada Run, and she expects to die in twenty days.

Abel is a mech, the first artificial intelligence (of twenty-six models total) created by Burton Mansfield. Abel has been drifting on an abandoned ship close to the Genesis Gate for thirty years. His very first chapter makes it clear that his isolation has changed him; deepened his mind, forced his brain to make connections it would not otherwise have made. During another Earth/Genesis skirmish, Noemi and her seriously injured friend Esther land on Abel's ship. Noemi, looking for medical supplies, restores power and frees Abel. His programming dictates that he obey and protect Burton Mansfield--but Mansfield is nowhere to be found. Therefore, since Abel believes as a mech his purpose is to obey humans, and Noemi is the only human to be found...he transfers his obedience to her, his enemy.

From this simple beginning springs a storyline that takes Abel on a journey where he will become, if not precisely human, far more than a programmed, obedient mech. Noemi wants to save her planet, and what begins as a trip to each of Earth's five colony worlds, hunting for the equipment that will let her destroy the Genesis Gate, ends with a realization that a resistance to Earth is arising and perhaps the Masada Run isn't necessary. Along the way, as you probably surmised, there is a slow-burning romance between the two: more on Abel's side than Noemi's, as he realizes that the changes that took place during his thirty years of isolation enable him to question his programming and eventually question and disobey his creator, Burton Mansfield. (There's a particular reason why Abel was created, and his finding out just what Mansfield intended for him is the last straw.) These same changes allow him to transcend his limitations--and love a human. At the end of the book, they aren't together, which is actually an unusual twist, but it felt completely earned. Noemi is able to stop the Masada Run, and Abel is set free, to make his own choices and live his own life.

Our two protagonists, and all the secondary characters, are marvelously handled throughout. This book is 500 pages, but for me it was absorbing from beginning to end. The only reason I'm giving it four stars instead of five is that a few aspects of the science and world felt a little handwavey. Nevertheless, this is a very good book, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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October 25, 2017

Review: Heathen Vol. 1

Heathen Vol. 1 Heathen Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wish Goodreads had half stars. This is actually a 3.5, and that's because the art in the first two issues of the collection seems crude and unfinished. The art definitely improved towards the end, but I think the first two issues could have used another pass. (Also, I guess it's unusual for the writer and artist, in this case Natasha Alterici, to be the same person.)

At any rate, this is a nice story, based on Norse mythology and set at a point where Christianity is just beginning to make itself felt. Aydis is a girl exiled from her tribe for kissing another girl (the sentence was "marriage or death," and her father supposedly chose the latter and set her free instead), and goes on a quest to rescue the spellbound leader of the Valkyries, Brynhild. As things develop, Brynhild and Aydis end up having separate but parallel storylines, with both concentrating on saving LGBT people who might be exiled or murdered in this society. At the very end, Aydis lays down a challenge to Odin, who is evidently the series' overarching "big bad."

The goddess Freyja also makes an appearance, along with immortal talking wolves Skull and Hati, and Aydis' own horse, Saga, who is actually a supernatural being called a "wight." All three provide some comic relief in what is a bit of a grim story. All told, I think this is a promising debut, and I will be on the lookout for the next volume.

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October 19, 2017

Review: Rat Queens, Vol. 4: High Fantasies

Rat Queens, Vol. 4: High Fantasies Rat Queens, Vol. 4: High Fantasies by Kurtis J. Wiebe
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wasn't sure what to make of this volume at first. I've since done some research and discovered that this is a "soft reboot" of the Rat Queens storyline by Kurtis J. Wiebe and new artist Owen Gieni, after controversy with the previous artists. (Short version: Original artist Roc Upchurch was arrested for domestic violence and dropped; replacement artist Tess Fowler, brought in for Vol. 3, left acrimoniously amid accusations that Wiebe tried to bring Upchurch back.) A hiatus ensued following all this drama, but now the Queens are back with a reset and a new Queen, the transgender orc Braga.

Unfortunately, all this ignores the storyline and cliffhanger of Vol. 3, "Demons," wherein Hannah goes to Mage University, which expelled her five years earlier, to try and save her father. She's revealed to be a half-demon who staged a massacre, the Queens are broken up, and Hannah is thrown into a "void prison" from which she's rescued by the demon who is evidently her biological father, and whose power she channeled long ago. It's heavily implied that Hannah has turned completely dark.

But in this volume, the Queens are back in Palisade with their new member Braga, and going on their regular questing adventures. The story has been retconned to the point where Hannah's stepfather Gerard, who was stated to have been executed in "Demons," is hale and hearty and screwing the ghost of Hannah's mother. I've read interviews where Kurtis J. Wiebe is claiming that everything that happened in "Demons" is still canon and all will be explained. I hope so, because my patience is running pretty short.

But just taking this volume on its own, it's not up to previous standards. Owen Gieni's artwork is just...lacking, with Violet suffering in particular. (If there had to be another artist, I wish they had gone back to Stjepan Sejic, who did the best job of picking up where Roc Upchurch left off.) This storyline is weaker, with the exception of the delightful Braga, and the whole thing feels off-kilter and disjointed. I might let Wiebe and company coast for a while because I liked the earlier volumes so much, but if they don't get their act together...well, there's plenty of other stuff to read, after all.

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October 18, 2017

Review: Silence Fallen

Silence Fallen Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the tenth book in the Mercy Thompson series, and the first I've read in a while. Having missed a few of the middle books, there were some things referred to I wasn't familiar with, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment of the story. This book is a bit different in that much of it is told from the viewpoint of Mercy's mate, the werewolf Adam Hauptman. These chapters were okay, I guess, although they were quite bogged down in vampire and fae politics. Sometimes I just wanted them to be over so I could get back to the Mercy chapters, which were more exciting and faster-paced.

(I do wish Patricia Briggs had dispensed with the chapter headings altogether, though. They were way too cutesy and meta, and nearly yanked me out of the story. Her beginning Author's Note informing the reader that this book's storyline was not quite linear should have sufficed.)

I liked this book well enough, but I'm not as gung-ho about it as most readers, apparently. I like the Kate Daniels and Toby Daye series better. Still, this is an enjoyable urban fantasy series, and the level of quality the author brings to her world and characters ten books in is commendable.

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October 14, 2017

Interlude: The Definition of Insanity

My governor, Doug Ducey, is a "trickle-down" fanatic. He believes in the nonsensical notion (popularized more than 30 years ago by Saint Reagan) that cutting taxes, particularly corporate taxes, will cause an explosion of growth that makes up for the lost revenue.

So it was that yesterday I was surprised (not) to see this headline in my local paper.

The Arizona Legislature’s budget analysts on Thursday predicted a budget shortfall that could top $100 million in the current and coming year as the impact of corporate tax cuts continues to overwhelm increases in sales, insurance premium and personal income tax collections.

Chief budget analyst Richard Stavneak told economists and state officials who make up the Legislature’s Finance Advisory Committee that the shortfall will hit $104 million. That’s out of an expected $10 billion in spending for the budget year that begins next July 1. A panel of state lawmakers also attended the meeting.

Excluded from that projection is $90 million in current spending that is labeled one-time but appears to be an ongoing commitment by the Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey, Stavneak said. That puts the expected shortfall next year close to $200 million if that spending isn’t cut. The revenue picture could also brighten, but signals are mixed, he said.

This is the same kind of bullshit that Kansas Governor Sam Brownback pushed. How is Kansas doing?

Kansas expects budget shortfall around $350 million this fiscal year

Kansas, facing huge budget deficits, wonders what to do next

From the second article:

Q: Back up: How did we get here?

A: There are hundreds of bar graphs and pie charts and, someday, probably cartoons to illustrate this, but the very quick version is: Republican Gov. Sam Brownback proposed dramatic cuts to personal income tax receipts in 2012, a position consistent with the tea party movement that aimed to take spending out of government hands.

The Legislature approved the tax cuts. The strategy has faded somewhat nationally but lives on as the governing philosophy in Kansas, even though the cuts did not spur economic growth as their proponents predicted. Result: the gaping holes in the state budget.

Ya think?

This idiocy has been debunked over and over again. And now my state is headed down this same misguided path.

What's the definition of insanity again?

October 11, 2017

Review: Soldier

Soldier Soldier by Julie Kagawa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the Talon Saga, and by far the best. This book is much darker than the first two, and the stakes are exponentially higher. I think Julie Kagawa has really settled into her world and characters, and in particular the character of Garret Sebastian, the "Perfect Soldier" of the title. I really enjoyed getting to know him better, but at the same time the backstory reveals and some of the dialogue tipped me off to what was coming. Which is, let's just say, George RR Martin territory.

I've complained before about the love triangle in this series, but it's handled quite a bit better in this book. It isn't so prominent, and there are reasons given for the protagonist Ember Hill's attraction to each of her boys--she is a shapeshifting dragon, after all, and the two sides of her personality want distinctly different things. Also, the fact that, as a dragon, she will outlive any human paramour by hundreds of years can't be brushed off. In the end, however, she makes her choice, in a fantastic scene that shows everyone where her heart lies. This whole thing is worked pretty seamlessly into the overall storyline, the conflict between the evil Talon organization and the Order of St. George, the humans that have hunted and killed dragons for centuries.

The bombshell ending is obviously setting up the final battle between Ember, Riley, and Ember's murderous little shit of a brother, Dante. (I really really hope he's not given some kind of redemption arc in the final book.) There are quite a few storylines to tie up here, and I can't wait to see how Kagawa pulls it off.

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October 7, 2017

Review: Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Occasionally I have to take a break from my usual SFF (science fiction/fantasy) kick to touch base with the real world. This has become exponentially more difficult since 11/9/2016. But for a good view of American politics, even in the face of the horror that is 45, you could do far worse than this book.

Here, Al Franken charts his unlikely rise from Saturday Night Live to the United States Senate. I own other books by him, and the first thing you notice is that his instinct for a quip is somewhat reined in here (except in the footnotes). This is something he has learned since coming to the Senate, where he realized that his Minnesotan constituents would want a hard-working plowhorse, not an artsy-fartsy show pony. This learning curve has served him well, since when he does let loose, he is deadlier than ever. (This is most notably on display in chapter 37, "Sophistry," wherein we learn that Ted Cruz is every bit the patronizing, smarmy asshole in private as he comes across in public. That chapter is worth the price of admission all by itself.) He tries hard to humanize his political opponents, not demonize them (with the justifiable exceptions of Cruz and 45), and the book is an absorbing look at how American political sausage is made. From the unavoidable necessity of constant fundraising, to his admitted dependence on his staff to rein in his comedic instincts, to the awful grind that was his first Senatorial campaign in 2006 (and the dirty, lying tricks the Republicans used against him), Franken's story of how he followed in the footsteps of his friend Paul Wellstone is fascinating reading.

It's also an uplifting tale of a fundamentally decent person and how he has made a difference. The people of Minnesota have been very fortunate to have Al Franken as their Senator. I wish he were mine.

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