April 23, 2016

Review: Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and right up there with the best of 2015. It is so many things–a mystery, a horror story with callbacks to, of course, Lovecraft (although you never actually see Cthulhu or any of the Elder Gods–there’s just a suggestion of a black shadowy something coming through an intradimensional door in the last battle, turning the bad guys to ash and retreating again), and above all an unflinching, brutal examination of racism, both in the time of Jim Crow and echoing down to our day.

You might think this last is presented in a heavy-handed way, but it isn’t. This is because of the author’s prose, which is restrained and straightforward, almost Hemingwayesque. (He’ll never be accused, to use Stephen King’s memorable line, of paving his road to hell with adverbs.) Given the subject matter–both the horror elements and the social–this approach is necessary, I think. There’s also elements of humor; very dark, to be sure, but I was startled into laughing at least once or twice. The characterizations are subtle, and demand a careful reading; and in any case, this is not a book to rush through. It’s structured as a series of interlinked novellas, not chapters as such. You might think one or two of the novellas in the middle section have nothing to do with the overall plot, but keep going. When you get to the scene where all the characters sit down and tell each other their parts of the story (and how often have we read books where we say, “I wish these characters would just talk to each other”? Well, in this book they actually do it!), everything clicks into place, and the author’s meticulous plotting becomes evident.

It occurred to me as I read the final pages that the title is more than just a metaphor for the book’s horror elements. To me, it’s also a metaphor for America as a whole, with its continuing racism and fear/hatred of the Other, both in this book’s setting of 1954, and, to our shame, still today.

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April 22, 2016

"Die Like a Hero Going Home"

cartoon for April 22, 2016

Today's cartoon in the Arizona Republic.

Oh my effing God, 2016. You need to stop this right now.

David Bowie. Glenn Frey. Merle Haggard. Malik Taylor. Vanity. Maurice White. Paul Kantner.

And now, of course, Prince Rogers Nelson, at the age of 57. Only *cough*mumbledy*cough* years older than me.

I've been watching a few videos, including the ubiquitous clip of his scorching guitar solo in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame rendition of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." If you fast-forward to the end of the clip, Prince tosses the guitar into the air after his solo--and it never comes down.

Obviously someone in the rafters caught it, but talk about symbolism.

Then I stumbled across this clip, with Lenny Kravitz.

That blue jumpsuit is a work of art all unto itself, but the incredible musicianship and guitar chops are on full display.

I only hope whoever manages his estate will release the rumored hundreds of songs in the vaults, so we can see the full extent of his genius.

"When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home."   ~Tecumseh

April 18, 2016

Review: This Shattered World

This Shattered World This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the sequel, of sorts, to These Broken Stars, to which I gave a five-star review a couple of years ago. I say "of sorts" because while this book continues the overall story, and the protagonists from the first book make cameo appearances, this book introduces two brand-new characters. Jubilee Chase is a bad-ass soldier and Flynn Cormac is an idealistic rebel, and they come together on Avon, a planet in the midst of terraforming (the swamp that covers the inhabited section is almost a third protagonist in its own right) and shrouded in clouds and mystery.

This book is a lot darker and grittier than the first, with the alternating points of view of Jubilee and Flynn exploring the rebellion, the politics behind it, and the attempts to tamp it down. The complication to all this is the so-called Fury, the mental illness that sooner or later infects almost every soldier stationed on Avon, causing them to snap and kill anyone nearby. I say "almost" because it soon becomes clear that Jubilee is immune to the Fury. The reasons why are a major plot point, reaching back ten years to a similar rebellion on her birth planet of Verona, where her parents were killed.

As in the first book, the characterizations are excellent. There is a considerably larger cast in this book as opposed to the first, which focused almost entirely on the starcrossed love story of Lilac and Tarver. This frees the authors to further develop their world, to the book's benefit. The book starts with a bang, with Jubilee's kidnapping by Flynn, and never really lets up. The pacing is masterful, with well-chosen, quieter moments of character development.

Jubilee and Flynn's story is brought to a satisfying conclusion in this book, but the storyline remains up in the air: will Roderick LaRoux, the master manipulator behind the scenes in both the first book and this one, finally get his comeuppance? This, presumably, waits for the third book, which is upcoming on my list. I hope I enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the first two.

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April 16, 2016

Review: Letters to Tiptree

Letters to Tiptree Letters to Tiptree by Alexandra Pierce
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

James Tiptree Jr., AKA Raccoona Sheldon AKA Alice Sheldon, died nearly thirty years ago. In an unfortunately brief career, she made an indelible mark; not only for her groundbreaking, feminist stories, but because of the fact that she wrote most of them under the male pseudonym of James Tiptree Jr, before being outed as Alice Sheldon after her mother's death. This book celebrates what would have been her 100th birthday, and is filled with poignant essays of current SFF authors writing about what Tiptree/Sheldon meant to them.

The first section, containing the titular "letters," has thirty-eight authors expressing their feelings about Tiptree. Some write to "Tip," some write to Alice, some write to all three or various combinations thereof; but all of them turn out fascinating, complex thoughts about a complex woman. The second section, my favorite, consists of letters between Sheldon and the writers Ursula K. LeGuin and Joanna Russ in the late seventies, before and after her outing, as she tries to explain why she hid her identity (and wonders out loud if she will have any friends left). LeGuin, in particular, comes off as a warm, loving woman and staunch friend, delighted in the revelation that James Tiptree is Alice Sheldon.

The third section consists of introductions to Tiptree's collections, from books published before and after the revelation of her identity; excerpts from academic analyses of feminist science fiction and Tiptree's role therein; and a final essay from the author herself, shot through with wit and humor.

This is a moving tribute to a remarkable woman, who sadly left us far too soon. Her influence on the SF field is still great today, and I'm glad to see a book like this that will carry forth her banner into the future.

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April 3, 2016

Review: The Sandman: Overture

The Sandman: Overture The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm still on my graphic-novel kick, but this is definitely the best one I've read since Scott McCloud's The Sculptor. In fact, it's damn near perfect.

Now, I must admit that I have not read any of the Sandman series proper, so this was a bit confusing at times. However, the story sucked me right in: the Dream King and his quest to save a mad star he mistakenly let live once upon a time, which will now bring about the end of the universe. This is a story that spans all of space and all of time, from the vastness of the multiverse to the interior of a black hole.

The artwork accompanying this story is absolutely gorgeous. I would not recommend trying to read this on any device. I checked the deluxe edition out from the library, and waiting for the dead tree copy is well worth it. There are two foldout pages (I imagine Vertigo had a fun time with that when it went to press) and on several occasions the art and word bubbles rotate across the entire length and breadth of the page. There are certainly no "panels" as such, not in this comic. The colors are bright and lush, and one could sit and study J.H. Williams' images for hours.

Morpheus is a lonely fellow in this story, and he ends up weakened and alone in the end, a state of affairs which is supposed to lead directly to the first volume of the series. That will be my next project, I think. Still, whether or not you have read the original Sandman, do not miss this.

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Review: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 3: Crushed

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 3: Crushed Ms. Marvel, Vol. 3: Crushed by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this third collected volume of Ms. Marvel back-to-back with the second. I liked this one well enough, but it definitely suffered by comparison with Generation Why. Still, in any ongoing storyline, you've got to have highs and lows, peaks and valleys, and quieter moments. I appreciate it when the writer makes those quieter moments an opportunity for reflection and greater characterization, which G. Willow Wilson did with this volume.

Not that there aren't some exciting elements to this. The first installment springs the trickster Loki from Asgardia on Kamala's school (specifically the Valentine's Day dance) to look for agents of the Inventor, the foe Kamala defeated in the previous volume; and the final installment throws in Jemma Simmons and Paul Coulson from S.H.I.E.L.D (about which I know nothing). In between, though, is the meat of this volume: a story about Kamala's family, Pakistani culture, her best friend Bruno who is in love with her, and her own infatuation with a boy she last saw at the age of five who "picked his nose" and who turns out to be Inhuman, just like her.

(He also--spoiler!--turns out to be a lying, manipulating bastard.)

This sort of teenage love storyline may feel like a step back, but it's not all that unrealistic, given that our main character is all of sixteen years old and still in high school. What's important is that Kamala learns and grows from the experience, which she does. I appreciated her characterization here, and I think this sets her up well for succeeding volumes.

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March 31, 2016

Review: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 2: Generation Why

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 2: Generation Why Ms. Marvel, Vol. 2: Generation Why by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first volume of this comic, "No Normal," last August as part of my voting for the Hugo Awards and really liked it (although I liked Rat Queens better). Now, it must be remembered that I am a comics newbie. I've never read any Alan Moore, for instance, or any of the Marvel or DC Comics universe. I've never watched any of the X-Men movies, and only know about Wolverine from sighing over Hugh Jackman.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed this, even more than the first volume.

In this story, Kamala Khan, the Pakistani-American teenager turned secret superhero, is settling into her new life of patrolling and protecting her home town of Jersey City. She goes up against her first serious protagonist, the Inventor (a clone of Thomas Edison crossed with the head of his pet cockatiel). In the process, she fights a huge mutated sewer alligator, discovers something about her origins (which is somewhat of a science-fictional explanation, involving alien races), gets adopted by a huge sentient bulldog--with an ulterior motive--named Lockjaw, fights off a giant robot attacking her school, and in the end teams up with some more kids to take down the Inventor.

(Oh yeah, and in the very first issue of the collection, she runs into Wolverine! Who, unfortunately, looks nothing at all like Hugh Jackman.)

This being a very stripped-down story with not much subtlety, there are Important Lessons Kamala has to learn: she can't do everything herself, there's a reason superheroes work in pairs or teams, and there is no shame in asking for help. This can get a bit over-the-top at times, but the overall charm of the character and the excellence of the artwork carries her through. Kamala is characterized very well, acting just like a sixteen-year-old would when thrown into this impossible situation. Impulsive and overconfident, relying too much on powers she has barely scratched the surface of, until she learns the hard way that even Ms. Marvel has limits.

I would think this is a terrific comic for teenage girls, and it still holds great attraction for us old farts as well.

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March 20, 2016

Review: Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine

Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue DeConnick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There's been a lot of hype about this comic, so I decided to check it out. Now that I've read it, I think the hype is at least partially deserved. This book, collecting the first five issues of the comic, suffers a bit from what I think of as "setting-up" syndrome--that is, establishing the characters and world. This takes up pretty much the first three issues. Issues four and five have the beginning of a more coherent storyline, but the whole thing seems kind of awkward, and doesn't mesh terribly well.

Having said all that, I think there is tremendous potential here. In a horrifying dystopian future, the "fathers" (almost without exception white men) of the "Protectorate" arrest women (almost always women of color) for "non-compliance"--a term so broad as to be completely arbitrary, applied according to the whims of the white men in power--and ship them off to an offworld prison complex, AKA "Bitch Planet." We are slowly introduced to our main characters (Kamau Kogo, Meiko Maki, the fabulous Penelope Rolle) who are drafted to fight in a violent sport called "Megaton," which is obsessively watched back home on Earth. Unfortunately, while there is some backstory on the characters (particularly Penelope, in a wonderful montage where she asserts her self-image as a large, beautiful black woman), there is no worldbuilding to speak of. What is the Protectorate? Was there a war fought, and who won, and how did this world get to be the way it is?

Perhaps this isn't the point. This comic has a lot to say about the world today: feminism, intersectionality, patriarchy, male entitlement (the first issue has an asshole dumping his 41-year-old wife on Bitch Planet so he can be with a younger woman; the wife, Marian Collins, is subsequently killed), how society views women in general and in particular any women who doesn't fit in a "box." It's using the trappings of the future as a sometimes vicious comment on the world we are living in right now. Still, that leaves the overall story a bit thin; I think some background on this society would deepen it considerably.

Just as a comparison, since some other reviewers commented on it, I bought Issue #6 separately. In the back, after the issue's storyline concludes, there are feminist essays, letters from readers, and an interview with a Japanese woman who does "designer vagina art." These add tremendously to the issue as a whole, and it's too bad these weren't included in the paperback.

Nevertheless, this is a worthy read. Hopefully these initial bumps will smooth out as the story goes forward.

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March 17, 2016

Review: The Islands at the End of the World

The Islands at the End of the World The Islands at the End of the World by Austin Aslan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book, unfortunately, is less than the sum of its parts. Some of these parts were good--the setting, the Hawaiian mythology, the growing, palpable sense of isolation as the entire world apparently falls apart--but these were offset by the generally lackluster characterization and several very large plot holes.

First, the good: the author has lived in the Hawaiian Islands, and it shows. His descriptions and settings have a ring of truth and authenticity I appreciated. I also liked his use of Hawaiian culture, mythology, and language. The hero, sixteen-year-old Leilani Milton, is half indigenous Hawaiian and half white, and not well liked because of it. This conflict is understandably given short shrift in the end-of-the-world scenario that follows, and her epiphany at the story's climax is a bit of weaksauce. Leilani is epileptic, and participating in an experimental drug trial at the beginning of the story, when the Emerald Orchid, the alien energy being Leilani likens to a spawning turtle, arrives to orbit the planet and bring about the end of civilization.

I've seen this plot before--bring down the power grid, since civilization is so dependent upon electricity, and the world basically goes to hell. The only unique twist the author brings to this, as far as I can tell, is the idea of all the world's nuclear power plants melting down (because without electricity, they can't pump water to cool the reactors) and threatening to irradiate the entire planet. Since the Hawaiian Islands are so dependent upon continuous shipments from the mainland--food, gasoline, etc etc--the excrement hits the revolving blades pretty quickly. The story becomes the saga of Leilani and her father trying to get from Oahu, where she had been having her medical tests, to their home on the Big Island.

Unfortunately, the Emerald Orchid is not a good hook to hang this plot on. It's not explained very well, and what is stated is implausible. It's an energy being that soaks up radiation and communicates with Leilani telepathically during her seizures? Leilani's father speculates that it's visited Earth before, and possibly caused our planet's extinction events? (HOW??? It's only wreaking havoc now because it's taking the electrical grid down. What, pray tell, would this being have to do with the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs?) Also, it seems to cover distances in space impossibly fast. The author is forgetting that space is BIG, because he states that the creature is detected "entering the solar system" and it's seemingly close to Earth only days later. Not to mention the fact that it supposedly travels between galaxies?

I mean, come on, people. My suspension of disbelief snapped about halfway through this book, and I had to struggle to finish it.

It's too bad, because some of the book was good. But overall, I can't recommend it.

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