January 21, 2018

Review: Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood

Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood by Marjorie M. Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first volume of this won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Novel in 2017, and for good reason. This volume ups the stakes and expands the world and characters, and should be on any comics fan's must-read list.

Marjorie Liu has an extensive publishing history, including a favorite urban fantasy series of mine, Hunter Kiss. Those books were the ones that first impressed me with her skill at worldbuilding. The Monstress world is more shivery Lovecraftian fantasy than the science-fictional feel of Hunter Kiss, but the depth and complexity of both universes stand out.

In this volume, Maika Halfwolf goes on a quest to follow in her (possibly) dead mother's footsteps, in an attempt to find a solution to the devouring Old God living inside her. (These provide the nearest parallel to Lovecraft--they're all eyes and tentacles.) She is accompanied by Ren Mormoriam, the twin-tailed cat that is revealed to be a "nekomancer," a magic user who can talk to the dead, and the adorable fox girl Kippa. (In fact, Kippa is probably my favorite character of the bunch. She's brave, innocent, loyal, kind, and has a highly developed sense of right and wrong, unlike the cynical Ren and the admittedly effed-up Maika.) During their sea journey to a mysterious island visited by Maika's mother, we are introduced to fascinating new characters, including a tiger, an octopus and a shark. More of Maika's backstory is revealed, and in the way of such things, a few questions are answered but far more are asked.

Once again, Sana Takeda's art is outstanding. This is not a book to be flipped through quickly--there are so many small details in the panels that each page deserves some leisurely study. Takeda captures perfectly the combination of beauty and horror that underlies this story. Without a doubt, this is one of my favorite graphic novels from last year.

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January 20, 2018

Review: Into the Drowning Deep

Into the Drowning Deep Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book expands on the previous novella, "Rolling in the Deep," the story of the cruise ship Atargatis on the hunt for "mermaids," found adrift with all hands lost. I read that story three years ago and gave it only two stars because I didn't feel all its themes meshed.

I'm happy to report this book is much better.

At its heart, of course, this is still a horror novel, which means there is lots of blood, gore (and in this case, slime) and casualties. You know, or you should know, going into a horror novel, that many of the characters are going to die. A superior horror novel takes the time to invest in its characters, making them real people instead of faceless redshirts standing in line to be offed. Mira Grant does exactly this, and does it very well. All of the viewpoint characters presented in this book are given backgrounds and motivations, even if they're only present for one scene. Some people may object to this, saying it makes the book drag...but it's all part of her careful, necessary setup. When all hell finally does break loose, the reader (or at least this reader) cares whether these people live or die.

Another advantage this book has over the earlier novella is the room to explore the science. The science of the "mermaids" presented in this book is fascinating. It's well-researched and convincingly presented, at least to this layperson. The sheer love of science also shines through, when the necropsy of what turns out to be a sentient being is just as absorbing, and suspenseful, as what happens when the "mermaids" attack.

Up till now, my favorite Mira Grant book has been her excellent Feed. I think that might still be true, but this one is definitely nipping at its heels.

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January 15, 2018

Review: Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump's America

Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump's America Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump's America by Samhita Mukhopadhyay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has twenty-three fierce, feminist essays about resistance to the 45th President. Its title is taken from the last presidential debate, wherein Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a "nasty woman." With all the horrid things he's said and done since then, that sounds positively quaint. This book has a nice cross section of white women/women of color responding to the reality of the Trump presidency and how it has affected them.

My favorite essays include "Beyond the Pussy Hats," Katha Pollitt's treatise on how reproductive rights are threatened under this administration, and the things we can do to counter that (for example, I've set up a monthly donation to the National Network of Abortion Funds); "Country Crock," Samantha Irby's funny/horrifying tale of moving from a blue state to a conservative area; "Dispatches from a Texas Militarized Zone," Melissa Arjona's report on border checkpoints in South Texas; and "A Nation Groomed and Battered," Rebecca Solnit's dissection of the undertones of domestic abuse that underlined both Donald Trump's candidacy and the people who voted for him.

But the most harrowing essays are the personal stories of the election and its aftermath. These include "Advice to Grace in Ghana: Trump, the Global Gag Rule, and the Terror of Misinformation," by Jill Filipovic, about the damage Trump's reinstating and expanding the Global Gag Rule is doing right now, today, to women in Ghana and across the globe.

One of the first things Donald Trump did in office was reinstate and then expand the global gag rule, an executive memorandum that pulls U.S. funding from any foreign organization abroad that provides abortions with non-U.S. money, refers women for safe abortion services, advocates for abortion rights, or even tells women their legal options. Previous iterations of the gag rule under Republican presidents have limited it to USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) family-planning funding; Trump's version expands it to include all foreign-aid funding, even money allocated for HIV/AIDS, malaria treatment, Ebola, and childhood vaccinations. Organizations abroad are slated to lose millions of dollars, none of which are going to abortion but towards modern contraception, HIV treatment, vaccines, and other basic health care. Contraception will be hit especially hard. And without contraception, women get pregnant when they don't want to be. When women get pregnant when they don't want to be, some of them have abortions--legal or not, safe or not. The overwhelming majority of women in sub-Saharan Africa live firmly in this "or not."

This is disgusting. I hope someday after Trump is thrown out of the Oval Office there is a study to determine how many African people died because of this.

Mary Katherine Nagle's "Nasty Native Women" is a barn-burning essay that traces the United States' shameful treatment of Native Americans, from George Washington down to the present day. She discusses the refusal of various courts and previous Presidents (Andrew Jackson in particular, who defied a Supreme Court ruling) to allow tribal nations to prosecute non-tribal members for crimes committed on tribal land. This doesn't focus on Trump so much, except to ask if he will continue the government's tradition of dehumanizing Native peoples. (Based on his insistence on calling Senator Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas," the answer seems to be yes.)

Finally, the closing essay in the book, Nicole Chung's "All American," tackles the daunting prospect of "how to talk to your Republican, Trump-voting family." She's a child born of Korean immigrants, adopted by a white family. Her essay lays bare what a task she's taken on, trying to convince the parents who voted for Trump to take the side of her and her children, and realize what a disaster he will be for immigrants, women, and people of color. Frankly, I don't know if I could preserve the familial relationship under those circumstances, but Chung is determined to try.

This book is both a dissection of the election and a call to action. It's essential reading for these unprecedented times.

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January 14, 2018

Review: Motor Crush, Vol. 1

Motor Crush, Vol. 1 Motor Crush, Vol. 1 by Brenden Fletcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I saw this at the library and was sufficiently intrigued by the first couple of pages to bring it home. I've never heard of any of these people or read their other work, but this is an interesting sample, even if Brendan Fletcher seems overly fond of his cliffhanging twists.

Domino Swift is an up-and-coming World Grand Prix motorcycle rider, competing for her father, the former champion racer Sullivan Swift, by day, and running illegal Cannonball races at night. The purpose of the latter is to win an ongoing supply of the illegal machine stimulant Crush. This stuff is deadly to humans, we discover--a thief forced to drink it has his body literally explode. It's soon revealed that Domino has to have Crush, not to put in her motorcycle, but to keep herself alive--she uses it in her inhaler and also ingests it. This is only one of the mysteries of Domino's past that this volume gradually reveals, like a set of nested dolls, leading to an ending that only asks more questions.

Domino is a stubborn, hot-headed person who makes plenty of bad decisions, but her loyalty to her father and friends (and her ex-girlfriend, the pink-haired Lola Del Carmen) shines through. She knows she's in over her head, but she doesn't stop trying to make things right. The characters and the absorbing (if at times overly convoluted) mystery kept me reading, but the real star of this show is Babs Tarr's artwork. It isn't overly busy, but you really have to pay attention to each panel. There are little worldbuilding and character-revealing asides scattered throughout, masquerading as things a viewer in this world might be watching on their phone, and if you blink you'll miss it. Tarr also does a great job depicting motorcycle and racing sound effects and chase sequences. This volume ends on a cliffhanger that portends to throw the Motor Crush world wide open, and I'll be sure to seek out the next one.

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January 11, 2018

Review: This Gulf of Time and Stars

This Gulf of Time and Stars This Gulf of Time and Stars by Julie E. Czerneda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the seventh book in the Clan Chronicles series, a series that started twenty years ago with the author's first published novel, A Thousand Words for Stranger. Czerneda is a biologist, and it shows; her aliens are complex and fascinating. The aliens in this series are the Clan, a species that looks Human, and can hide among the various aliens and Humans that make up the Trade Pact. The Clan have psi powers and can teleport through an extradimensional space they call the M'hir, even between planets and star systems. The ability to manipulate and travel through the M'hir is of great value to them, so much so they have deliberately bred for it, in the process breeding themselves into a extinction-causing corner. Their females, called Choosers, must mate with males with stronger psychic powers than the Choosers' own, or the Joining will kill the hapless males. This power increases with each generation, until the appearance of the strongest Chooser ever born, Sira di Sarc...a Clanswoman who will kill anyone who tries to mate with her.

This problem is solved in the first three books in the series, when Sira Joins with a Human man, Captain Jason Morgan. The second three books of the series, Reap the Wild Wind, Riders of the Storm and Rift in the Sky, are a prequel, going back several generations to the Clan's ancestors and their original (or at least it was thought to be then) planet of Cersi, and what led the Clan to split and part of them to migrate to Trade Pact space.

Now, generations later, with Sira di Sarc the leader of the Clan, the series comes full circle. Various shady elements in the Trade Pact try to assassinate the Clan (which even after all this time, due to their reproductive problems, number just under a thousand members total) and succeed in killing off a great many of them. (If you're asking how a species with telepathic powers can be taken by surprise and slaughtered, the answer is, again, due to the author's skill in creating believable alien species. In this case the assassins are one of the scariest, creepiest aliens I have ever seen in print--the Assemblers, beings composed of various sentient parts that blend into a mind-shared whole. There are several scenes of hands/feet/heads/torsos/et cetera scrabbling through landscapes or rolling across floors, and the mental picture that gave me was almost enough to make me run screaming from the room.) In Sira's desperation to find a refuge for her people, she returns to the place in Trade Pact space where they first emerged, and takes the survivors through the M'hir to Cersi, the planet from where they came.

That isn't the end of the story, of course. There is a deeper mystery here, as Sira, Jason Morgan, and the rest of the Clan discover. Perhaps the book started off a bit slow, but that was necessary to set the stage, and give a brief fleeting impression of normalcy and happiness before everything goes to hell. There are very nice relationships between the various characters, especially Sira and her Chosen, Jason Morgan. There are two books remaining in the series, both of which I'm anxious to get to. I'm quite invested in these characters and this series, and if you give it a chance, I think you will be too.

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January 3, 2018

Nuclear War for Dummies

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Unrolled thread from @kurteichenwald

And the Republicans are risking this just to get their tax cuts.

"Traitors" isn't too strong a word for this. "Country over party ," my gold-plated ass.

January 1, 2018

Thoughts on "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"



Yeah, I finally saw it. I waited for the crowds to die down a bit (although I guess they haven't died down that much, since the film just broke the $1 billion barrier at the worldwide box office). Still, my screening wasn't completely packed, so I suppose I can count that as a win.

Note: SOME SPOILERS, though I'll try to keep it as general as possible.

On Rian Johnson, writer/director:

I'm glad they gave this episode to him, as he's taken the franchise in some interesting new directions. I'm looking forward to the new trilogy of films he'll be developing. Unfortunately, I'm cringing even more at the thought of JJ Abrams writing and directing Episode IX, as I will bet money he'll yank all that progress back.

On the characters:

Poe Dameron: If I had any input into Episode IX, Poe Dameron would be Force-whipped by General Leia and thrown into the brig in chains for the film's entire running time. That arrogant flyboy prick is responsible for the nearly total decimation of the Resistance. The most satisfying scene of the film for me was a newly awakened Leia Organa shooting his ass out of that command chair.

And don't come at me with the "But Vice Admiral Holdo should have tolldddd himmmm!" whine. Bull-fucking-shit she should have. His place was to shut up, listen to, and obey his commanding officer. It all shows on his face when Holdo is introduced--he thought he would be the next one in line with Leia in a coma and the rest of the Resistance officers killed, and it didn't sit well with him that he wasn't.

(And Dameron had the unmitigated gall to announce, when Holdo finally clued him in to what was going down, "That might work"? Holy crap. Holdo should have knocked him down and yelled, "Yes! And it would have worked a lot better if you hadn't been such an asshole!")

(Needless to say, I am not a Poe Dameron fan in any way, shape or form, at least not tonight.)

Finn/Rose: Rose was an absolute delight, and Finn learned some valuable lessons as well. Of course, the only reason they took that Canto Bight detour to begin with is because of Poe's idiocy, but some very good character growth and scenes, including the film's wonderful final scene, came out of that misbegotten mission.

Captain Phasma: I'd rather they'd not have used her at all than waste the character like that.

General Leia Organa: I about bawled at every one of Carrie Fisher's scenes. Even more knowing what might have been, because I suspect that in Episode IX, she would have been the one to finally take Kylo Ren out. And that last scene with her and Luke was way too short.

Holdo: Oh, that wonderful, purple-haired, badass Vice Admiral. LISTEN TO YOUR FUCKING FEMALE COMMANDERS, FOLKS.

Rey: She may not be a trained Jedi, and certainly isn't a traditional Jedi, but she is a Jedi, even as Luke indicated. I'm not quite sure what to make of that weird scene in the Dark Side pool--is that when she finally faced up to the fact that her parents weren't coming back, and the only one she could depend on was herself? I really hope the deleted scenes in the Blu-ray release will shed some light on that.

Luke Skywalker: Mark Hamill stole this show, plain and simple. Yoda made him face up to his failure, and he rode that failure to the bittersweet end.

Kylo Ren: He's a bit better as a villain now, and a lot of that is due to Adam Driver's commitment to the character. His and Rey's interactions were some of the best parts of the film. And, of course, the final showdown with Luke.

Overall: B+

Better than The Force Awakens, enough so that I really wish Rian Johnson was doing the final film. And, of course, tears for our dear departed General.


December 31, 2017

"You raze the old to raise the new"

At long last, we can say goodbye to this godawful year.

Don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.


December 28, 2017

Review: Martians Abroad

Martians Abroad Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book seems to me to be, at least in part, a reply to Robert Heinlein's classic juvenile Podkayne of Mars. I read Podkayne years ago, but I would hesitate to revisit it now. I skimmed the first few pages recently as an experiment, and I am afraid I would find that the Suck Fairy has taken up permanent residence in its pages. Yes, Poddy has a distinctive voice, but unfortunately it's the voice of an egotistical narcissist that has no relation to how a sixteen-year-old girl would actually think.

(And I'm not going to touch the topic of Podkayne's sociopathic little brother Clark.)

Martians Abroad does not have that problem. Polly Newton is a realistic, relatable character who undergoes a nice character arc over the course of this story. She is a bit immature in the first chapter, a slightly spoiled seventeen-year-old born and raised on Mars whose world is upended when her mother sends Polly and her twin brother to Earth. They are enrolled in the prestigious Galileo Academy, a school that Polly's mother Martha insists will prepare them to succeed in life. The book charts the course of Polly and Charles' first few months at Galileo, and explores themes of culture shock and a fundamentally decent teenage girl's coming of age.

This is a quiet, character-driven tale. Polly and Charles do not stop a conspiracy, fall in love, or save Earth and/or Mars. (There is a hint of romance, stiff and awkward and utterly believable, but I'm glad it's not front and center.) The story has a bit of a mystery plot, with escalating incidents of danger at the school that Polly and Charles have to solve. But again, this serves mainly to illustrate the characters. In the end, Carrie Vaughn has updated Podkayne of Mars for a modern audience, and I've enjoyed what she's done with it.

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December 25, 2017

Review: A Red Peace

A Red Peace A Red Peace by Spencer Ellsworth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This first book in the Starfire Trilogy is either a short novel or a really long novella. It feels like a throwback to the pulp age: we have a galaxy-spanning war, lots of oft-squicky biotech, a horror aside that absolutely gave me the shivers (seriously, that brief sojourn into the Dark Zone, with its planet-sized telepathic spiders consuming all life, is enough to give anyone nightmares), soulswords that vacuum up their victims' memories, one vat-grown supersoldier with PTSD, and a half-human half-alien pilot who gets thrown willy-nilly into the middle of a mystery that spans thousands of years and extends into another galaxy. This is a fast-paced adventure with some interesting things to say about addiction and the cost of war.

Since this book is only fifty-some-thousands words, there is not a great deal of room for character development. The author actually does a fairly good job within his length constraints, on the supersoldier Araskar in particular. The next book, Shadow Sun Seven, is easily twice the length of this one, and I hope Ellsworth will be able to take a deeper dive into his characters. But this is still a promising start.

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