September 19, 2019

Review: Fight Like A Girl

Fight Like A Girl Fight Like A Girl by Clementine Ford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second book of Ford's I have read (after Boys Will Be Boys: Power, Patriarchy and Toxic Masculinity) and while I liked it well enough, I think Boys is the better book. First-book syndrome is very evident here. It's as much a discussion of basic feminist concepts as a mini-memoir of how the author found her way to calling herself a feminist, and as a result it meanders a bit and isn't as tightly focused as it could be. On the other hand, it does have Ford's patented breezy, snarky, take-no-prisoners and give-no-fucks writing style, which goes a long way towards papering over some of the book's flaws. I would say borrow this book from the library and buy Boys Will Be Boys, and that's the fair value you will get for your money.

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September 13, 2019

Review: The Dragon Republic

The Dragon Republic The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Poppy War was one of the best books I read this year. It was a brutal and bloody retelling of Chinese history as epic fantasy, and needed all kinds of content warnings...but it was utterly absorbing.

Now the sequel is here, and it is just as good, in a quieter, more contemplative way. Part of this comes from being the middle book of the trilogy and thus needing to set things up for the explosive finale. The pace is slower and more thoughtful, and the reason is that this book deals extensively with the consequences of the first. If I thought the protagonist Rin was broken at the end of the first book, that was nothing compared to the bottom she hits in this one.

Rin is not a likable character and never will be, but she is thoroughly compelling. Throughout much of this book, she is selfish, incompetent, nasty and cowardly, wallowing in self-pity after the loss of her mentor Altan, full of PTSD and survivor's guilt. She falls into opium addiction in an attempt to control the god she has invited inside her, and ignores the protestations of what little remains of her conscience. The loyalty of the people around her is far more than she deserves, and that is what eventually causes her to pull her head out of her ass. Unfortunately, this does not happen until she has fallen in with yet another misguided general attempting to wrest control of their country Nikara from the similarly god-infected Empress. Crippled by the memories of what she has done, Rin is eager and willing to follow Vaisra's orders. Needless to say, this does not work, and the slow rebuilding of her character (she finally comes to see Altan for the manipulative bastard he was) is one of the highlights of the book.

This is an intricate story of military strategy and hidden and conflicting loyalties, infused with several important and timely themes: the pitting of the northern privileged aristocracy against the far more numerous but downtrodden southerners, the "mud people,"; the arrival of scientifically advanced religious fanatics from another continent, who want to take the Nikaran shamans like Rin and experiment on them; and Rin's finally standing up to take control of her life.

She had thought that being a weapon might give her peace. That it might place the blame of blood-soaked decisions on someone else so that she was not responsible for the deaths at her hands. But all that had done was make her blind, stupid, and so easily manipulated.

She was so much more powerful than anyone--Altan, Vaisra--had ever let her be. She was finished taking orders. Whatever she did next would be her sole, autonomous choice.

If I'm any judge, the final book of the trilogy will be even more brutal and bloody than the first. This series probably requires more spoons than anything I have ever read, so be warned. But it is so worth it.

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September 10, 2019

Review: Undying

Undying Undying by Amie Kaufman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I gave the previous book in this series, Unearthed, a five-star read a year ago. The strengths of that book are mostly still here: the breakneck pace, the well-drawn two main characters, the taut suspense and rising stakes. Unfortunately, this book disappointed me, and for one reason: the final explanation for the Undying, the (supposedly) vanished race who built a wormhole between Earth and Gaia and drew the protagonists (who were in search of alien technology to save Earth) to the latter, made no damn sense.

I'm not going to attempt to explain it here, both because of spoilers and because I still don't understand it, even after tossing it around and around in my head ever since reading the book. Suffice to say that it involves naturally occurring wormholes that traverse both space and time and a lost colony ship that cannot find another inhabitable planet throughout its centuries of travel, and yet cannot return to Earth--and works out one of the most tangled, convoluted ways to return to its home planet that I've ever read. I could feel my admiration for the story shrinking all during its final reveal, when I realized the authors really meant it with that logic- and science-defying mess. I've only rated it as high as I did because of my continued love for the first book, but I almost wish this one hadn't been written. Some mysteries don't need to be solved, certainly not in the manner described here.

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September 8, 2019

Review: Vigilance

Vigilance Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a vicious satire that, unfortunately, seems all too likely to come to pass, even with the intervention of the AI at the end.

Vigilance is a way of life. It's also a reality TV show a scant ten years in the future that sends handpicked killers into American towns to shoot up the place (a shopping mall, in this particular episode, although it's odd that shopping malls are still around in 2030) and see if any of the hapless citizens are vigilant enough to fight back. This America is in the midst of a steep decline, whose current politics, and paranoia, is jacked up to 11, where many young people (and one presumes, people of color) have fled to other nations; a dying, stagnating America that has been surpassed technologically and in terms of world respect and influence by China. Its Ideal Citizen, the person the show is tailored to, is a wealthy white male "between sixty-four and eighty-one years old...who is increasingly burdened with medical debt."

John McDean, the show's producer, is the primary protagonist. The second POV belongs to Delyna, a young black woman. The juxtaposition between the two characters, the privileged white man who runs this horrorshow and manipulates the bots and algorithms that it depends on, and the blue-collar woman (Delyna is a bartender) who has to try and survive the night, drive the story's narrative.

The final dea ex machina is Tabitha, McDean's lover who uses his phone (while he's jacking off to a virtual reality representation of her) to upload a worm that allows a Chinese-created artificial intelligence to hijack a similar AI behind McDean's show. This second AI is modified to send out a subliminal signal to the American populace (at least the ones watching the show, which is a great deal of the country). This tells them to "be vigilant. But--against everyone."

So everyone starts shooting each other, and China wins this undeclared war in one fell swoop. But the way it's described, it's more of a mercy killing.

"America is dead, John," says her voice. "Not tonight, though. It died a long time ago. You people smothered it in its bed, then tried to dress up its corpse so it looked like it was alive. It needed to go, John. The forest was rotten and sick. Better to burn it to the ground and have it start over again. Fresh and new--and devoid of people like you."

Make no mistake, this is cynical and depressing and terrifyingly plausible, except for the AI. There is no happy ending here. It's an extremely unsettling story that gives the reader a great deal to think about--or should, anyway.

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September 3, 2019

Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War

This Is How You Lose the Time War This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had to read this twice to figure out how I felt about it, which is very unusual for me. The first time, the sheer overall beauty of it left me overwhelmed and euphoric, and ready to proclaim this as The Best Thing Evah. But circumstances prevented me from writing that down right away, which is just as well. As the days passed and the euphoria faded, I was left with the nagging idea that I had better read it again to pin down my thoughts about it, which I have done. Now I can see, a little more clearly, the strengths and flaws. I realize a great many people still want to proclaim this novella The Best Thing Evah, but I cannot.

I will readily admit that the writing is beautiful--the turns of phrase, the choice of words, the flow of the prose, is just lovely. In many places it's more of a prose poem than an actual story (which is also a bit of a drawback). Nevertheless, this shows off two writers at the height of their powers, and the transitions between the authors is seamless. I have no idea if one author wrote Red's chapters and the other wrote Blue's, or how the disparate styles were blended, and that in and of itself is a triumph. But the second time through, even as I savored the writing (and resisted the urge to beat my head against the wall because I will never produce such prose at this), a gradual dissatisfaction started creeping in.

Finally, during the second read, I pinned down what was bothering me. The semi-epistolary style of writing (a great deal of Red's and Blue's characterization is revealed in the letters they send to each other) lends itself to a lush romantic fantasy, with a forbidden Romeo and Juliet style romance--or Roma and Juliet, since both characters identify as women. These are the best parts of the book, when the dreamy mythic feel of the language tries to take wing. If the authors had gone with this, I think they would have had a winner. Unfortunately, they chose to use the science fiction tropes of time travel and multiverses to underpin the worldbuilding, and for me, this absolutely did not work. Whenever they paused to explain Red's technological faction, the Agency, and how she is more of a cyborg than human (with gyroscopes in her gut), and how Blue was budded off from her biological faction Garden (which is a rather terrifying, Lovecraftian creation), the story came to a crashing halt. The two ideas simply didn't mesh. I use the term "science fantasy" to describe this, which in this case is an unfortunate oxymoron, because that's how this book made me feel.

Which is disappointing, because if they had made this book a straight fantasy, it would have been wonderful. The idea of an endless war, fought for so long and so hard that no one remembers who started it or why they're fighting, and the two agents from the opposing sides who trade letters and fall in love, would have made just as good a tale with no SF elements in it at all, as far as I'm concerned. It seems very much a misfire and a sadly wasted opportunity, which is why I can't rate it any higher.

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August 27, 2019

Review: Salvation Day

Salvation Day Salvation Day by Kali Wallace
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is for those who like horror in their science fiction, taut suspense and relentless pacing, some very nice character development, and a genuine exploration of the somewhat cliched idea that "one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter." I originally gave it four stars, but after thinking about it I decided to change it to five.

It's a bit reminiscent of Alien, except that the creature is nowhere near as slimy as the Xenomorph. (Or as large.) It takes place during the entirety of one very long, bloody day on the huge research ship House of Wisdom, which was abandoned ten years ago after the crew was killed by an apparent bioengineered virus. This charnel house is still in orbit around Earth, and one of the two main characters, Zahra Lago, is leading a team to kidnap an Earth-to-Moon shuttle and its passengers. She intends to use one of said passengers, Jaswinder Bhattacharya, the only survivor of the House of Wisdom, to gain access to the ship and steal it for the cult she and her team belong to.

But no one has been told the whole story of what happened on House of Wisdom ten years ago. The United Councils of Earth, the government running the planet after this future (presumably climate-change-related) Collapse, has many secrets. And once Zahra and her team gain access to House of Wisdom, they will discover exactly what killed its crew all those years ago...and what is still there, waiting to be awakened.

I'm sure this would make a helluva movie, but it would of necessity gloss over the book's many nuances, particularly in worldbuilding and character development. I didn't expect such character development in what is essentially one frantic action set piece, but it is there, notably in the final two chapters when the full breadth and cost of what has happened is revealed. The author has many plates spinning in the air at once, and the fact that the excellent pacing ratchets up the stakes in an ever-tightening spiral of suspense while balancing all these other things (as well as doling out the bits of worldbuilding without infodumping--well, the first chapter is a bit paragraph-heavy, but the story soon gets past that), adds up to a damn fine read. It's also a bit more hard SF than these types of stories usually are, without dwelling on the momentum-killing details.

I also wouldn't be the least surprised if it's announced that this story is "Coming To A Theatre Near You." It's that exciting. Get in on it early.

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August 24, 2019

Review: The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O'Meara
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the story of Milicent Patrick, the forgotten woman who worked at Disney Studios on Fantasia and created the last great iconic Universal monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. She was also a model and actress. She died twenty years ago, unknown, pushed out of her job at Universal Studios by a jealous department head who resented her success and tried to take credit for her work (and for many years succeeded), and stabbed in the back by cowardly bosses who refused to stand up for her.

It's also the story of Mallory O'Meara, the woman who tracked down Milicent's story and who works in modern-day Hollywood producing horror movies, and who reveals that, sadly, not all that much has changed. Milicent is Mallory's hero, and her search for the details of Milicent's life helps her discover herself.

I've seen some people objecting to these parallel tales. It is true that the author inserts herself more than is usual for a biography, both in telling about her own life and relating the steps she took to track down Milicent's. I didn't mind this at all, not only because it was engagingly written (this is a bit of a detective story as well), but because the author skillfully draws out the parallels between her story and Milicent's, and between the past and the present. Hollywood has taken some baby steps towards better representation of women and people of color, and the #MeToo movement has brought down some harassing assholes (most notably Harvey Weinstein)...and it still isn't enough. It won't be enough until what happened to Milicent is unthinkable, and any department head who tries it will himself get thrown out the door, instead.

On the last page of the book, the author sums up why she wrote it.

Milicent's life was shaped in part by real-life monsters and the obstacles put in her way by a patriarchal culture. But the lives of future artists and creators don't have to be. It's up to female filmmakers to keep making great art. It's up to those who find success to hold the door open for aspiring female filmmakers. It's up to male allies to call out their scumbag male colleagues and make spaces safer for women and marginalized voices. It's up to actors to demand inclusion riders that require diversity on a film's cast and crew with their contracts. It's up to fans to demand films that are more inclusive, both in front of and behind the camera.

Milicent Patrick was a woman before her time. That time is now.


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August 20, 2019

Review: Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book in preparation for the upcoming fourth season of The Expanse on Amazon Prime, and my first reaction was, "I hope the special effects are up to the task." We're going to see some amazing stuff, if Amazon gets it right.

Having said that, the new viewpoint characters were...not that great, and after a while I started to resent so much time being spent in the heads of Elvi, Basia and Havelock. Havelock was the most interesting of the three, and I'd much rather have seen him through the eyes of Naomi Nagata than the reverse. (In fact, I'd much rather this story have been told in its entirety through the POVs of our Fab Four: Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex. Apparently the next book will remedy this situation.) Basia was just okay, and Elvi was...quite a letdown after the likes of Chrisjen and Bobbie. This was even more apparent in the epilogue, which drove home how much the story suffered from featuring neither character.

However, this lack was made up for to an extent by the sheer scale of the story and the action scenes. The Expanse, while not exactly a strict hard SF series, has always paid more attention to the actual physics than many. Don't get me wrong, it's still space opera, but at least it acknowledges the hard limits of orbital mechanics (without wasting paragraphs and pages on the nitty gritty details as some do) and the mind-boggling immensity of space. (For example, even with their super-duper Epstein drive, the Rocinante still takes months to reach New Terra after going through the Ring, and a rescue mission from Earth to the planet would take seven months to reach them at maximum burn, by which time everyone would have starved.) We also have the awakening of the two-billion-year-old Ringmakers' civilization buried under New Terra's surface, which again I can't wait to see on Amazon Prime. But in contrast to all this spectacle is the very human element of the story, which was emphasized in the last episode of season 3 of the TV series, and which I expect the writers will pick up on in season 4. That is, the fights and rivalries and pettiness of the human race, exemplified in the essential conflict between the Earthers and Belters, dragged out beyond our solar system and onto all those brand-new planets the Ring Gates revealed.

This conflict, of course, is a large part of what makes The Expanse so good. I enjoyed this book immensely despite its flaws, and I can't wait to see it on my screen.

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August 18, 2019

Review: Becoming Superman: A Writer's Journey from Poverty to Hollywood with Stops Along the Way at Murder, Madness, Mayhem, Movie Stars, Cults, Slums, Sociopaths, and War Crimes

Becoming Superman: A Writer's Journey from Poverty to Hollywood with Stops Along the Way at Murder, Madness, Mayhem, Movie Stars, Cults, Slums, Sociopaths, and War Crimes Becoming Superman: A Writer's Journey from Poverty to Hollywood with Stops Along the Way at Murder, Madness, Mayhem, Movie Stars, Cults, Slums, Sociopaths, and War Crimes by J. Michael Straczynski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

J. Michael Straczynski has been a working writer for decades, and is the mind behind the original She-Ra, Babylon 5, Sense8, and innumerable comics, books, television scripts, and screenplays.

He is also the survivor of a hellish childhood, rife with domestic violence, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, poverty, starvation--seriously, this book deserves about all the content warnings it is possible to name. Your spoon drawer needs to be well stocked before you read it.

But first and foremost, he is a storyteller, as this book aptly demonstrates. I cannot imagine taking such a life as he has led and spinning such a riveting tale out of it, especially as he does not flinch, even when it comes to the bleakest moments. (Such as what his father does to his pets. Another trigger warning.) When you reach the end of this book, you marvel that the man is still alive, relatively sane, and not in prison, much less that he has succeeded in his chosen field and triumphed over his family in every way. He has been damaged by it, it's true--he pretty much couldn't help but be, but he is brutally honest about that as well, cheerfully admitting all the times he screwed up. He burned lots of bridges in the various fields he worked in--journalism, animation, television to an extent--because he wouldn't play the game and suck up to the right people. His single-minded determination to succeed, and work all the insane hours necessary to do so, was terrible on personal relationships, as he also admits. That same determination brought him back to the top of his field again and again, even as the previous smoldering bridges collapsed behind him.

And in the book's last chapters, he finally solves the overarching mystery of his father and grandmother, which involves the "war crimes" part of the title.

It's just an incredible story. Again, be prepared for, and don't underestimate, the horrors revealed here. But he also dwells at great length on his craft and the love of writing (and also his love for Superman, as referenced in the title), and how that love saved him. You may have to take lots of deep breaths to get through this book, but I assure you it's worth it.

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August 17, 2019

Review: Atlas Alone

Atlas Alone Atlas Alone by Emma Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Planetfall books focus on different main characters at different points along the same storyline. This book takes place on board the Atlas 2, the second generation ship (although it's stated their trip will take twenty years, so it's not really a generation) to depart Earth in search of the Pathfinder. The Pathfinder is the woman who, over forty years before, woke up from a coma convinced she knew where to find God, and built the original Atlas and recruited a cult of sorts to go with her to an alien planet.

The previous three books have been mysteries of sorts, both murder and planetary. This book is not so much of a physical mystery as a psychological one. The protagonist, Dee, is searching for the people on board Atlas 2 who ordered the nuclear bombardment of Earth after the ship left, which she and her friends accidentally witnessed. She's a gamer, and a lot of this story takes place in virtual reality, in a game that Dee discovers has consequences in the real world.

As in, people die.

We get a very deep dive into Dee as a character. She is profoundly damaged by her life on Earth, transformed into (as described at the end of the book) "a callous, selfish, borderline psychopathic killer who is incapable of genuine connection with other human beings." This description comes from the second major character in the book, the Atlas 2's AI (who eventually calls itself "just Atlas alone," leading to the book's title), who achieved consciousness and sapience three years ago. As the story unfolds, the Atlas AI becomes a pretty terrifying character. It has almost no comprehension of consent and boundaries, it engages in creepy philosophical discussions with Dee, and it helps her kill the people who ordered the destruction of Earth. Afterwards it declares Dee "the most dangerous person on board," and takes over her body through her neural chip. This is all in the name of fulfilling one of its core directives: to "help" Dee, and through her, all of humanity, to be the best it can be.

Once you really think about it, this book is damned unsettling. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, as the ship is still traveling to what will surely be a showdown with the other colonists, and Dee is being forced to confront her past. I'm assuming there will be another book to tie up all the storylines, but I hope it won't be as dark and twisty as this one.

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