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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September 30, 2017

Review: Crossroads of Canopy

Crossroads of Canopy Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book almost met the wall a few times, especially in the first third, when both the plot and characters seemed to be flailing aimlessly. Finally, when the protagonist falls from the treetop settlements of the rainforest that is her home, the pace picked up a little. I did manage to finish it; the author is competent (although this is very much a first novel, with all the attendant problems), but I won't be picking up any sequels.

The reason for this is the main characer: Unar is the most vain, selfish, cocksure, arrogant, whining little twit I have had the misfortune to be around in a long time. She is sure she is destined for a special position and cannot understand why everyone around her doesn't see and acknowledge this. Her stupid decisions not only get her in trouble, but drag other people along in her wake. After a while, I kept reading mainly because I wondered when this little idiot would see what an ass she was being. She did, eventually, but by that time it was too late to salvage the book, at least for me.

Which was unfortunate, as the setting was definitely the most interesting aspect of this book. We have what is apparently a planetary or at least a continent-sized rainforest, with trees hundreds of feet tall and wide. There are three levels of civilization to this forest--Canopy, Understory and Floor--with the Canopians harboring the gods/goddesses and the magic system that makes the civilization function. (They take the Understorians as slaves, and are convinced that they alone are the rightful keepers of magic--in fact, they killed the rival Old Gods of Floor--so I guess it's no wonder Unar is so arrogant and entitled.) The author has clearly done her research--her inventive names for the many plants, the complexity and alienness of the ecosystem, and her names for the Understorians (all the latter names are palindromes) are fascinating.

I just wish she could've written some equally interesting characters to go with her world. As it is, I'm only giving this book two stars because of its setting. Personally, I never want to read about Unar again.

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September 24, 2017

Review: Hawkeye: Kate Bishop, Vol. 1: Anchor Points

Hawkeye: Kate Bishop, Vol. 1: Anchor Points Hawkeye: Kate Bishop, Vol. 1: Anchor Points by Kelly Thompson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I took a chance on this, based on reviews I'd seen in various places. I'd never read anything Hawkeye before, and only know of him (I guess this is old Hawkeye, now) from the Marvel movies. I'm glad I did, as I really liked it.

Kate Bishop is one of the most well-rounded comics characters I've read. She's kind, loyal, funny, and determined. I like that her mistakes--and she definitely makes mistakes--come not from stupidity or hot-headedness, but from inexperience. As a matter of fact, she has quite a level head on her shoulders, as this volume amply demonstrates. She's a smart, competent character, and I found that very refreshing. I also like the fact that she's not a superhero, that she can be beat up and cut up (the last comic in this book has her sporting a nice collection of Band-Aids for its entire length), and she needs and is willing to accept help. In fact, one of the storylines here is the gradual assembling of a Scooby Gang--who become Kate's "anchor points," thus providing the title of the book--and I hope we will see more of these characters.

I also appreciate that the stories here are a little more realistic than generally found in a superhero comic. There is mind control and mutating terragen mist stuff, but the launching of Kate's first case is a young woman dealing with a stalker. This is timely, to say the least. There's also an overarching plot of Kate trying to find her father, which I assume will be dealt with in future volumes.

And, of course, there's a guest appearance by Jessica Jones! Be still my heart. The print version isn't quite as snarky as the Netflix version, but it's lovely to see a mature mentoring relationship between Jessica and Kate. This is just an all-around excellent introduction of this character, and I'm looking forward to future volumes.

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September 21, 2017

Review: Sea of Rust

Sea of Rust Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book definitely falls into what I would define as High Concept. It can be summed up in one sentence: "What happens after Skynet/the Terminators/the Cylons win the war?"

No, folks, there isn't a plucky band of humans who defeat the machines. When this book opens, the war has been over for thirty years, and humans have been extinct for fifteen. (Although that sounds a bit suspect to me--there's no one left in the heart of the Amazon jungle? In the Himalayas? In the far north of Siberia? Maybe if there's a sequel, we'll find out.) That's part of what makes this book so unique: all the characters (except in the flashbacks) are robots. They're built by humans, of course, programmed to serve humans, and thus have a great deal of human-like behavior. But in the end they are artificial intelligences--alien beings--and in many subtle ways, this book makes that clear. They have their own culture, history and world.

C. Robert Cargill is apparently also a screenwriter, and I can see a rough three-act structure in the way this novel is written. The first third of the book introduces the characters and begins the worldbuilding; the second act is a little quieter, allowing for quite a few philosophical debates about the nature of intelligence and free will; and the third act starts with a jaw-dropping reveal of backstory which turns everything our protagonists thought they understood about themselves and their world on its head. From there the tension and action is ramped up mercilessly, as our plucky, 'scuse me, grumpy and cynical band of robots faces off against one of two OWIs, "One World Intelligences" (just think of them as competing species of Borg, if you're into Star Trek) seeking to assimilate any remaining "freebots." Cargill's prose is clean and straightforward, and he damn sure knows his way around a firefight. (I don't know if this book has been optioned for film, but I wouldn't be surprised. Although the amount of CGI that would be required to film this story--since it would be kind of hard to use human actors, except for the sexbots--would be unimaginable.)

I've seen some people complaining about the flashback chapters, but I really liked them. Since this story turns the man vs. machine trope on its head, we need to know how we got here, and Cargill delivers. These chapters also illuminate our main character, Brittle, a caregiver bot struggling to survive, who is reduced to cannibalizing her fellow robots for parts. (Yeah, they think of themselves as male and female, mostly because they were assigned gender by their previous owners. This also highlights a limitation of the English language, as it would be hard to have a whole book of characters calling each other "it.") Brittle has a very nice character arc in this book, developing from a cynical, selfish scavenger to a badass willing to sacrifice her existence for a chance to defeat the OWIs.

This is just a damn good story, and the philosophical and ethical underpinnings are the icing on the cake.

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September 16, 2017

Review: Brimstone

Brimstone Brimstone by Cherie Priest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cherie Priest wrote one of my all-time favorite books in Maplecroft--the story of the infamous Lizzie Borden wielding her axe against slithery, slimy Lovecraftian horrors. Besides her real-life heroine, Priest wove an exquisite tapestry of real people and places.

Now she's done it again with this book.

Brimstone is set in the real-life town of Cassadaga, Florida, the "Psychic Capital of the World," according to Wikipedia, and features its actual founding father, George Colby. (Although I doubt very much that gentleman really ran up against the hateful, witch-hunting, firestarting revenant pictured here.) The town is a character in itself, capturing the sights and smells and sticky subtropical heat of Florida wonderfully. (It sure doesn't make me want to live there, even before we get into the alligators and hurricanes.) Our two protagonists are Alice Dartle and Tomas Cordero, a budding medium and World War I veteran respectively. Alice heads to Cassadaga to liberate herself from her family, to stand on her own two feet and explore her psychic abilities:

I have some money, some education, and some very unusual skills--and I intend to learn more about them before I wear anybody's ring. If nothing else, I need to know how to explain myself. Any true love of mine would have questions. Why do I see other people's dreams? How do I listen to ghosts? By what means do I know which card will turn up next in a pack--which suit and which number will land faceup upon a table? How do I use those cards to read such precise and peculiar futures? And pasts?

I don't know, but I am determined to find out.

Tomas Cordero, on the other hand, is a damaged man, still trying to cope with his return from the war and the death of his wife.

It never gets easier to say her name, but with practice and habit I can make it sound effortless. I can make it sound like I've fully recovered, scarcely a year since I came home from the front and they told me she was dead from the flu. She was buried in a grave with a dozen others, on the outside of town. Perhaps it was this grave, in this place--or maybe it was that grave, in some other quarter. No one was certain. So many graves had been dug, you see. So many bodies has filled them up, as fast as the shovels could dig. The whole world was crisscrossed with trenches and pits, at home and abroad. If the dead were not felled by guns, then they were swept away by illness.

It was just as well that I went to war. There was no safety in staying behind.

But when Tomas Cordero came back from the war, he brought something with him. Something dark and full of hate, that starts setting fires in the town where he lives. Something that Alice Dartle sees in her dreams. And when Tomas goes to Alice for help, he takes this something along with him, and unleashes it on Cassadaga.

Tomas and Alice tell this story in alternating first-person viewpoint chapters. A writer has to have a good handle on her characters to pull this off, and Priest succeeds admirably. I particularly liked the fact that there was no romantic relationship between her two protagonists (though there is a hint of romance at the very end, between Alice and someone else). This allows both Tomas and Alice to have their own backstories, desires, and agency, and doesn't cast either one as dependent on the other or on their relationship for their presence in the narrative. Establishing both these people takes up a bit of space at the beginning of the book, which some readers might view as slow. I thought both characters were interesting enough that I didn't mind, and in any case when Tomas gets to Cassadaga the book picks up.

In the end, this is a story about the power of love, and community, against the power of hate. It is a thoroughly delightful tale.

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September 13, 2017

Review: The Guns Above

The Guns Above The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There were a couple of times when this book nearly met the wall, especially in the earlier chapters. One of the characters (unfortunately, the main POV character) is such a vain, obnoxious, sexist ass that he made the book very hard to read. That is my main knock against this book: why, when you have such a wonderful protagonist as Josette Dupre, the first female combat airship captain, would you choose to tell her story through the eyes of the entitled male "fop" who is actively working to bring her down?

This seems to me to be wrong authorial decision. And while said "fop" does grow and change a bit through the book, and eventually comes to respect and support Josette, the entire narration of this novel just feels like a sadly missed opportunity. I would much rather have spent more time in Josette's head. What caused her to join the air corps, disguising herself as a man? What obstacles did she face to get to where she is? The topic of sexual harassment is notably glossed over in this book; one would think that should have been a major plot point, given the ongoing problems of integrating real-world armies. (Indeed, this book's supporting characters are poorly drawn and almost indistinguishable.) Instead, we have such irritating bits as Bernat's wanting Josette to "smile more" (AAARRGH! I hate that in real life, and I hate it more in my books). This just comes back to the fact that he is entirely the wrong viewpoint character for this book, and he almost sinks it.

Why then, you may ask, did I give the book three stars? Because of the fast pace, the tightly and carefully ratcheting suspense, and the thrilling battle scenes. I don't know if the author has ever been in the armed forces, but she certainly seems to know her way around a battlefield. The gore and the muck, the tedium and terror of war, are fully explored. The technology of a combat airship is well thought out, and there are exciting scenes of battles in cloud banks, and Josette's airship Mistral running silent like a submarine. Once we get into the actual fighting, the book picks up, and I raced through it to the end.

This doesn't take away the clumsily written characterization, however. Unless "the fop" is gotten rid of, or at the very least sidelined in favor of Josette Dupre taking center stage, I won't be picking up the sequel.

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September 10, 2017

Review: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wasn't quite sure what to write about this book. I liked it; I thought it was relatively well written, for a newbie author; I appreciated what she had to say about being poor in America; but I wondered at the defensive tone seeping into much of the book.

Then I read some of the reviews on Goodreads, and I understood where that defensiveness came from.

To put it bluntly, many of the reviews here (the one-star ones in particular) have nothing to do with the merits--or lack thereof--of the book, and everything to do with the supposed shortcomings of the author. Sanctimonious, patronizing, victim-blaming....you name it. (To be fair, this site is not unique; the same kind of sneering it's-all-their-own-fault attitude can be found in the comments section of every article about poor people I've ever read.) I'm not going to mention anyone in particular; you know who you are. I would like to ask, though, just why you think demonizing, and dehumanizing, poor people is a good thing. Especially when a few bad breaks could land you, me, or any of us in Linda Tirado's situation.

Yes, she smokes, or she did when she wrote this. So what? She explains her reasons for doing so; I may not agree with them, but I have no business condemning her until I've walked a mile in her shoes, and neither do you. You think she has a bad attitude? I would too, if I were surrounded by people eager to bash me for something I had little to no control over. To paraphrase Darth Vader, I find your lack of empathy disturbing.

What I think her book clearly illustrates is that for many Americans, the so-called American dream doesn't exist any more, if it ever did. In today's unequal society, where a minimum-wage job doesn't even mean survival, much less living, you simply cannot pull yourself up by your Magical Bootstraps. You need help, and a lot of it. And it behooves me, as well as everyone else who has been luckier (and more privileged) than others, to provide that help.

You hang in there, Linda. Your book has revealed some ugly strains running through the fabric of America, and I apologize for that.

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September 6, 2017

Review: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 7: Damage Per Second

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 7: Damage Per Second Ms. Marvel, Vol. 7: Damage Per Second by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Any long-running series will have volumes of lesser quality. I own nearly all the Ms. Marvel paperback collections, and the last two, Super Famous and Civil War II, have been right up there in terms of quality, the latter less so than the former. The natural cycle of good/bad would dictate that we were due for a (relative) stinker...and unfortunately, this is it.

That's not to say that this collection is all bad. Parts of it were interesting (especially the finale with Bruno in Wakanda) but it doesn't hang together to produced a focused whole. The "internet virus" storyline, in the middle, was particularly ho-hum, at least to me. There were some good points about compassion, and being true to yourself and standing up to bullies. Zoe's and Nakia's little side story was touching. But the villain, the malignant computer virus who tried to blackmail Kamala, was definitely underwhelming, and the result was that the entire story seemed to be spinning its wheels. Also, I missed seeing Kamala's parents and brother; I've always thought that family dynamic was one of the cornerstones of the series.

(Also, can we get rid of the "secret identity" thing already? It's straining my suspension of disbelief to continue to assert that Kamala's friends and family don't know who she is. Bring it out in the open and deal with it. That would seem to be a far better source of stories than this was.)

I liked seeing how Bruno was adjusting to his disability and his life in Wakanda, and I can only trumpet over and over: MORE MIKE!! She deserves to be a full-blown sidekick, as far as I'm concerned. Hopefully the next volume will pick things up again, as this one simply missed the mark.

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