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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August 11, 2019

Review: A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This has so far been a good year for space opera, and this is one of the best. This is a story of colonization and striving to hang on to your civilization and culture in the face of a monolithic empire that "annexes" (forcibly) nearly every star system it comes across. It's rich with nuances of language and culture, rife with politics and court intrigue, and has a neat little murder mystery at its heart. The mystery isn't really the story's focus--the overarching themes of identity and independence are--but it certainly serves to ratchet up the tension. This is a very fine book.

Mahit Dzmare is the new Ambassador for Lsel Station, a mining system where people live on stations instead of planets. As the story opens, she is bound for the City, the planet that is the heart of the Teixcalaanli Empire, to take the place of the previous Ambassador, Yskander Aghavn, who she eventually discovers has been murdered. Lsel Station is no financial or military match for Teixcalaan, but they do have a technological advantage in their imagos, implants that record the memories and experiences of several generations of previous holders so that precious knowledge is not lost. But Marit's imago is fifteen years out of date, so she is heading into this new assignment with one hand tied behind her back.

I'm sure some will say that this story is slow, and if a reader is accustomed to periodic explosions, desperate fights, and breakneck pacing, I guess it is. But the vividly realized richness of the world and characters more than makes up for it. There are many layers here, both in worldbuilding and characterization, and the author takes the proper time to explore them. (Just as an example: the character names are so gloriously alien. Six Direction, Nineteen Adze, Three Seagrass--numbers and nouns. And there are quotes at the beginning of each chapter: snippets of poetry and history, paragraphs from manuals and news broadcasts, that convey the sense of an entire complex culture without intrusive or tiresome infodumping. It's masterfully done.) But at the same time, the ticking of the plot gradually becomes louder and louder, until that moment about two-thirds of the way through the book when it explodes--and because it has all been so well set up, the reader's heart is thumping as they race to the end.

After the revolution and the installation of a new Emperor--an event in which Mahit is intimately involved--she returns to Lsel Station, irrevocably changed by what she has experienced. The next book, hopefully, will deal with that. There is also an overarching alien threat in the background, scarcely touched on in this book, which I presume will loom larger and larger as the series progresses. Don't miss it.

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August 7, 2019

Review: The Women's War

The Women's War The Women's War by Jenna Glass
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a bit hard to review, because it did a lot of things well, but overall it didn't seem to live up to its excellent premise. I'm glad I read it, but I don't think I will be seeking out the rest of the trilogy.

The good:

First and foremost, the worldbuilding. The magic system here is well-thought-out and fascinating. Does the idea of "masculine, feminine and neutral" elements of magic remind you of the Periodic Table of Elements? It certainly did me. This magic was not easy or simple--it required serious study and experimentation, and it could easily backfire. It wasn't something the characters could just wave their hands (or their wands) and summon up. Practitioners had to write exacting formulas and cast their spells in a meticulous order to get the results they wanted. It had limits, and it could be (and often was) dangerous. This book is fantasy, but the magic had a bit of a science-y sheen on it you don't often see, and it made this part of the story stand out.

The characters (for the most part). We have multiple viewpoints here, with the focus on women, as could be surmised by the title. The one male POV character, the villain Crown Prince Delnamal, seemed to be there just for the purpose of being a whiny, entitled ass who unfortunately came into power when he really shouldn't have and proceeded to take revenge on anybody who ever told him "no." He wasn't a particularly good antagonist, shall we say. The other POV characters, particularly poor doomed Jinnell, were far better written.

The pacing: Others have said this book seemed slow. I didn't think so, because I could see the plot slowly winding tighter and tighter, like a well-oiled spring, until it finally broke. When it did (see: Chapter 43 and Queen Ellinsoltah's elimination of her rival) the action was quick and brutal. As was the ending.

The bad:

The concept, with its feminist messages. I almost hesitate to say this, because so much of this book is about women fighting to reclaim their power, and exploring their (partial) release from oppression. The method by which this was accomplished--a spell that basically turned the women of the Seven Well's fertility switch to "off," setting it so women would not get pregnant unless they themselves desired a child, and certainly not in response to male demands or coercion--has an interesting counterpart to our own world's sexual revolution triggered by the invention of hormonal contraception. This medieval world's oppression is far more severe than our own, and high-born women are not going out into the workforce any time soon.

However, what was glaringly lacking, and has been pointed out by other reviewers, is the complete absence of any sort of representation. To be blunt, all of the female characters seem to be white, and there are no gay or trans women to be found. This is particularly notable in the Abbey, where the highborn daughters who don't produce heirs or rebel against their fathers or husbands are cast off (and forced to work as prostitutes). Are we to think that the women confined to the Abbey wouldn't start pairing off, and also that they wouldn't be mad as hell and refusing to take it anymore? Come now. This gives the story a very incomplete, superficial feel, and casts the characters as unrealistically beaten-down and submissive. I finished the book in spite of this, but I can see where this might be a turn-off for many readers.

It seems like the author put so much thought into her magic system that she didn't bother to work out her world's social and political system, especially in the wake of her world-altering event. This may change in the next book, of course, but this one has left enough of a sour taste in my mouth that I don't think I'll be picking it up.

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August 5, 2019

Review: We Rule the Night

We Rule the Night We Rule the Night by Claire Eliza Bartlett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think this book has a terrific concept--in the Author's Note, she explains that her female pilots are based on the Soviet Night Witches of World War II--but the execution does not live up to the promise. Mainly because the worldbuilding is thin and sketchy, and the ending is quite unsatisfying: the story simply dribbles away into nothingness, with no resolution or feeling of completion. It's not really a cliffhanger as such, but it's weak.

The first chapter begins in media res, introducing us to the first of the two main characters, Revna, trying to cope with an attack on the weapons factory where she works. Revna's initial characterization is neatly laid out--she is an amputee with prosthetics of "living metal," and she is also a magic wielder who has all her life hidden her ability to work with the Weave, the threads of magic that crisscross her world--and there's a nice action sequence where she rescues herself. (The characterization in general in this book fares far better than the plot and worldbuilding.) Chapter Two introduces us to our second protagonist, Linne, who has spent three years in the army disguised as a boy and has now been found out. Her commanding officer is trying to figure out what to do with her. Both girls are drafted into the newly formed women's aviator regiment, tasked with learning to operate poorly repaired and obsolete planes and conduct bombing runs over the war's front lines.

Unfortunately, for all the war's importance to this story, I never got a good sense of who the enemy was or why they declared war in the first place. Granted, this story isn't focused on politics--its thrust is the relationship between Revna and Linne and the growing camaraderie of the female aviators and engineers--but a little more background and context would have helped greatly. As it is, we have a somewhat confusing plot that picks up a little in the back half of the book, but is simply not clear enough to have the emotional impact it needs to. And the bad ending doesn't help.

This book feels like it needed another draft and a more ruthless editor. I liked it in spots, but I can't really recommend it.

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August 4, 2019

Review: Internment

Internment Internment by Samira Ahmed
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The internment of Muslim American citizens by the United States government is a frightening thought, and this could have been an important, timely book....if it was better written. Unfortunately, it's not. The overall impression it left to me was shallow, with inch-deep characterizations and poor worldbuilding. Which sounds like an oxymoron, since it's essentially the America of today on a slight alternate-timeline track. The name of the president isn't mentioned, but everyone who reads this book will know who the author is talking about. The same slogans are used, the same technology--with a heavy emphasis on social media, of course--and the past protest group Occupy, as in Occupy Wall Street, is mentioned. All this could have added up to a good story. The ingredients are there. But the execution is utterly lacking.

Even with fiction set fifteen minutes in the future, your world and plot has to be plausible, and this simply isn't. I can see the current administration trying to set up a registry for Muslim Americans, but that would be tied up in court for years, as would any attempts to confine them to internment camps. (And for that matter, can you imagine our government even breaking ground on said camp without the news immediately leaking to Twitter and Facebook? It sure as heck wouldn't get completely built in secret, as this book tries to pass off.) The only way this plot could get even halfway off the ground is if martial law were declared, and that would promptly spark a civil war when a great many of the military would refuse to follow the president's orders. I'm sure most of the Border Patrol and ICE would be the administration's obedient little lackeys, but there would be a helluva lot of people in the Army and National Guard who would remember they swore an oath to defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.

This first hurdle is compounded by the fact that the characterizations in this book are...not good. They're more caricatures than characters--the Muslim heroine, the Jewish boyfriend, the white camp guard who falls in love with the heroine (he never comes right out and says it, but it's obvious) and rethinks what he's doing in this camp. The camp Director is a one-note purple-lipped villain, cardboard-thin, whose only purpose seems to be to threaten and bluster and hit people, either in front of witnesses or on a recording that can be leaked to social media. The Director is not the sharpest tool in the shed, let's say. And the way this story ends is even more unbelievable than the way it starts.

No, your time would be far better served by reading some actual history, namely about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Go find a good book on the camp named Manzanar and read that instead.

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August 3, 2019

Review: Boys Will Be Boys

Boys Will Be Boys Boys Will Be Boys by Clementine Ford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The purpose of this book is made clear in the introduction.

Boys Will Be Boys takes aim at toxic male spaces and behaviors that are used to codify male power and dominance, but that also secure protection from the consequences of them. I've looked at how gender inequality is first learned in the home and then filtered down through pop culture, and how this provides the perfect launching pad into even more damaging practices later on--the embrace of online abuse, rape culture, men's rights baloney and even the freezing out of women from governance and leadership.

This book is definitely not Feminism 101. It's a fairly dense text, for all that the author makes it as readable as possible and writes with plenty of sharp snarky humor. (She includes her definitions of transgender, cisgender, cissexist/cisnormative, heteronormativity, cis-het and disabled person up front.) If you haven't read any serious work on feminist theory before, I'd recommend you start with bell hooks' classic Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics before tackling this book. There is plenty to chew on here, and only my intense dislike of marking up my books kept this from being scribbled on in the margins and highlighted.

The only (minor) drawback is the fact that the author is Australian, and a great deal of this book discusses Australian politics and culture. (Although she does touch on the United States, including Harvey Weinstein and our so-called President.) One thing she tries to make clear is that men should be as invested in dismantling the patriarchy and its insistence on male dominance as anyone else, because it ultimately imprisons them just as much as women, locking them in rigid, emotionless, stoic and ultimately damaging gendered boxes. It would be so much better if men were allowed to be kind and soft and nurturing, if they could like pink and get butterfly tattoos and wear dresses if they wished, and not be regarded as lesser or "sissy" (God, I hate that slur) because of it.

There's some pretty harrowing stuff in here, especially in the chapter on rape, which is to be expected. But this book is a valuable addition to feminist scholarship, and gives the reader a great deal to think about.

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August 1, 2019

Review: Honor Bound

Honor Bound Honor Bound by Rachel Caine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to last year's Honor Among Thieves, and suffers somewhat from being the second book of a trilogy. The author dives right into the story with little or no infodumping and recapping, and if you aren't already familiar with the worldbuilding and characters, you're going to be pretty confused. That said, I really liked how the authors expand both their characterizations and world, and how they raise the stakes.

And wow, are they ever raised. An ancient Lovecraftian evil returns to life in this book, and our sentient living spaceship Nadim and his crew, including our protagonist Zara Cole, are thrown into a battle to determine the fate of the galaxy. Along the way, Zara grows as a character, coming into her own as a leader and working out some of the kinks in her relationship with Nadim. (As far as "kinks" go, the authors hint at a possible polyamorous triad with the three main characters, which is pretty far out there for a young adult book. One wonders how far the final volume in the trilogy will take this.)

One knock a reader might have with this book is the massive cliffhanger ending, breaking off on the verge of a huge battle. This final scene is very well written, and definitely whets the reader's appetite for the concluding book. If you don't like that kind of thing, though, this ending will drive you nuts.

For me, this book's many pluses outweigh the few minuses, and I can't wait for the next book.

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July 28, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: Best Fan Writer

Best Fan Writer is fun, because it's a little closer to the kind of scribbling I do. (Not that I'm comparing myself to anyone here--far from it!) But it's supposed to be stuff put out for fun and not for money, which means it could be anything and everything, from reviews to analysis to deconstruction to calling out to humor to snark. In practice, I suppose there are more reviews and reviewers than anything else--we do love to talk about good books, after all. I like reviews well enough (obviously, given most of the content of this blog), but I prefer essays that go deeper, that examine themes and worldbuilding and the choices of creators. The latter kind of writing is well represented in this year's shortlist.

My ballot:

6) James Davis Nicoll

James Davis Nicoll made me exhausted just looking at his packet submission. It's his entire year of reviews for 2018--722 pages. I wanted to go lie down as soon as I opened the file. His work ethic and speed of reading impresses me, but unfortunately the sheer number of entries by necessity makes them a little on the superficial side. I'd prefer fewer reviews and deeper delving into each individual book.

5) Charles Payseur

Charles Payseur better fits the formula I just outlined--fewer reviews, deeper delving. His specialty is short fiction, although there was a novel review, the transcript of a podcast, and a couple of personal essays included in his packet. They were...okay, but nothing that struck me as really outstanding.

4) Alasdair Stuart

Now we start with the essayists and analysts. Alasdair Stuart's offerings include essays on Dr. Who (13), Clipping, the Kitschie Awards, problematic faves, and most absurd of all, Burt Reynolds' appearance in Season 9 of The X-Files. (Which I personally liked, apparently a lot more than most people. I'd take Scully, Doggett and Reyes any day over the unholy mess that was the show's final season.) These articles are fairly short, but they're more personable. Also, anybody contrasting Johnny Rotten with the 13th Doctor earns a kudos in my book, even if it doesn't quite rise to the level of the other nominees.

(This is another case where the top three placements, for me, pretty much came down to a coin toss.)

3) Bogi Takacs

Bogi Takacs concentrates on what e calls "QUILTBAG+" issues, and all of the entries in eir packet are viewed through that lens. E is a little more measured and deliberate in eir writing, a style that demands thought and contemplation afterwards.

2) Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

According to her packet, Elsa Sjunneson-Henry writes about "disability in genre fiction," and she does it with a razor-sharp, biting wit. She takes apart the Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water in four pages, and has a fascinating essay about performing burlesque with a disability. Writing such as this, pointing out the ways the book/movie industry and individual creators have fallen short in their representation and challenging them  to do better, is invaluable.

1) Foz Meadows

Foz Meadows isn't as prolific as some of the other nominees in this category, but she makes up for it with the depth she gives to her essays. Her movie and game reviews are detailed and fascinating; she thoroughly deconstructs Star Wars: The Last Jedi, nailing how Rian Johnson failed in both his themes and his characters. She doesn't usually approach her subjects through the lens of a particular issue, but she takes each one on its own merits and dives deep, which I appreciate.

Next up: Best Graphic Story

July 27, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: Best Professional Editor, Short Form

This category is for editors of magazines and anthologies. I personally wish the editors of more Kickstarted anthologies would make it into this category, as it seems to me some of the most interesting anthologies/collections of recent years have sprung into being through a Kickstarter campaign. (I know I've supported possibly more than my fair share of them.) But the requirement that there be "at least four anthologies, collections or magazine issues devoted to science fiction and/or fantasy, at least one of which must have been published in the year of eligibility," probably cuts that off.

Oh well. There's still plenty of worthy names to be found here. 

My ballot:

6) E. Catherine Tobler, for Shimmer Magazine

Shimmer just shut down last year, after 13 years. I never paid much attention to this magazine before now, which is likely my loss. Still, after reading the last issue (provided in the voter packet) I really couldn't find anything I thought to be outstanding. 

5) Gardner Dozois

I wouldn't be at all surprised if the late Gardner Dozois took the rocket, as he died last year and this is the last chance to honor him. To my mind, that would be more of a "lifetime achievement award," which is fine. 

4) Lynne M. Thomas/Michael Damian Thomas, for Uncanny Magazine

The last four nominees are very close in my mind, and it took some juggling to figure out my final placings. But you have to rank them somehow, right? Uncanny Magazine is one of the top SFF magazines in the field, but it's also won what feels like its fair share of awards the past few years. Let's spread the love around a little bit. 

3) Lee Harris, for Tor's novella line

Lee Harris has overseen some of the best novellas of the past few years (especially Murderbot), as part of Tor's excellent novella line. Again, this was tough, but the remaining two nominees, in my mind, just squeaked past. 

2) Neil Clarke, for Clarkesworld Magazine and various anthologies 

Neil Clarke has a famously good eye for translated fiction, but my placement here is mainly due to the Clarkesworld stories, particularly my vote for Best Novelette, Simone Heller's "When We Were Starless." I loved that story. 

1) Julia Rios, for Fireside Fiction

I've said before how much Fireside Fiction impresses me, and obviously Julia Rios and her team is the reason for that. The magazine has a fine, well-rounded balance of good fiction, nonfiction and editorials, and as a Patreon supporter I've also gotten emails advocating for various causes. It's just an outstanding magazine, and Julia deserves acknowledgement for guiding it. 

Next up: Best Fan Writer