December 2, 2019

In the Blu-Ray Boudoir: Men In Black: International

I have fond memories of the original Men in Black. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones played off each other beautifully, and the latter's craggy face completely sold the idea of someone growing old in this risky, batshit crazy job and wanting to get out of it. The film had a fresh feel to it, and most of the jokes were genuinely funny.

That wasn't the case with this film, unfortunately.

Full disclosure: I like Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson as actors. Hemsworth has, of course, done a very good job in Marvel's Thor franchise, as has Thompson. The two of them had great chemistry in Thor: Ragnarok. Thompson was also good in Boots Riley's sci-fi satire Sorry To Bother You, and great in Janelle Monae's full-length video version of her album Dirty Computer. So I went into this movie predisposed to like it. That lasted hour.

Today's emoji:


I've found that as I've grown older, I have less and less patience for stuff I don't like. About halfway through this movie, I realized the story was dull and insipid, the rapid-fire dialogue was not nearly as clever as it thought it was, I could not figure out why Hemsworth's character was considered such a screwup, the film's director had completely quashed the chemistry Taika Waititi drew from Hemsworth and Thompson in Thor: Ragnarok, and despite the presence of a luminous, silver-haired Emma Thompson, the entire movie was giving me a bad case of the Eight Deadly Words: "I Don't Care What Happens To These People!"

At which point I yanked the disc out of my Blu-ray player and went on with my life. Mainly, logging on to Disney+, finally getting the damn thing to work  (by streaming it with Microsoft Edge), and catching up with The Mandalorian. (Which I will talk about when the season is done.) This disc goes back to the library tomorrow. Fortunately, I didn't spend any money on it.

December 1, 2019

Review: The Deep

The Deep The Deep by Rivers Solomon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book has an interesting backstory. It's based on a song of the same name, recorded by the rap group Clipping. (featuring Daveed Diggs of Hamilton fame), which was on the Hugo ballot last year. Rivers Solomon, one of the nominees for the Campbell Award (now the Astounding Award) for best new writer, was asked to expand the story into a book. This novella is the result.

I tagged this "science fantasy" because it's definitely not science fiction--pregnant African woman thrown overboard during the Atlantic slave trade are not going to give birth to babies (merpeople, actually) who can live in the ocean, and the descendants of those babies are not going to expand to become an entire society of wajinru (as they come to call themselves) living in the deep. The scientific basis for the world is not the point. The point is memory, history, and responsibility; and the weight of all of these and the price one pays to bear it.

Yetu is our protagonist, the historian of the wajinru, carrying six hundred years of memories in her mind. She only shares them once a year, during the Remembrance, to remind her people of who they are and where they came from. (There is very little said about "our" world except for the mention of a past war between the wajinru and the "two-legs." Solomon does not go into specifics, but it got me to wondering if the wajinru, with their control of the ocean waters, wiped out most of two-leg civilization.) There is only one historian at a time, and the burden of the memories is killing Yetu. Thus, when it comes time for the Remembrance, she downloads all the memories into the minds of her people--and makes her break, swimming out of the deep to the surface, leaving her people behind.

This is an interior-focused, character-based story, with no villain as such. Yetu's fight is with herself, to come to terms with who she is and what she wants. During her surface sojourn--trapped in a shallow tide pool--she meets several two-legs, including one she becomes increasingly close to, Oori. Oori is the last of her people and cannot understand Yetu's turning her back on her history. This clash of values forms the heart of the story, as Yetu, in a sense, grows up. She returns to her people, determined to change the status quo, but willing to take the memories back if she cannot. This proves not to be necessary, as she teaches all of her people to take on the weight of the memories and, in essence, turns every wajinru into a historian, spreading the burden. Afterwards she goes in search of Oori, and wielding a little ocean magic, transforms the human woman into a creature who can survive underwater and brings her to the deep.

This is a layered, multi-faceted story, speaking to the weight of history and how trauma is transmitted from generation to generation. The metaphor is obvious, or at least it should be, and I freely admit that I as a white person cannot fully understand it. Stories like this are necessary, to illustrate and educate, and I'm glad Clipping. picked a talented writer like Rivers Solomon to expand on their vision. There's a lot to think about here, and if you like a fast, action-based plot, that is not this story. It is, however, tailor-made for those who can appreciate how speculative fiction can, in creating a parallel world, shine a bright, unflattering light on our own.

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November 28, 2019

Streamin' Meemies: The Man in the High Castle, Season 4

I just finished the fourth and final season of The Man in the High Castle, and like many fans, my eyes nearly fell out of my head at the ending. I have thrown books against the wall in frustration upon reading the final pages, but I'm not going to treat my computer like that. Still, this emoji pretty well sums up my reaction.

Season 4, despite some excellent individual performances and one outstanding episode, managed to squander whatever goodwill the first three seasons had garnered for me. I went back and rewatched the last episode of Season 3, "Jahr Null," and the contrast is night and day. I don't know what happened to the writers and showrunners for the last season, but the story pretty much fell off a cliff.

SPOILERS ABOUND from here on out, so be warned.

I've never read Philip K. Dick's book and thus have no idea how well (or how poorly) it was adapted, but the overall thrust of the series was right up my alley: a world where the Germans and Japanese won World War II and divided the defeated U.S. (the Nazis developed the atomic bomb before we did, and wiped out Washington DC with it, forcing a US surrender) between them, and National Socialism spread pretty much planet-wide. The first two seasons explored the tensions between the American Reich and the Japanese occupation of the West Coast, as well as general fractures in the American Reich, spread by the films produced by the titular "Man in the High Castle," showing an alternate world (ours, maybe) where the Allies won.

Season 2 introduced the multiverse, and established that certain people (including one of the show's stars, Japanese Trade Minister Tagomi) could travel between them. The American Reich also cottoned to the existence of this, and developed a machine that could open a "portal" of their own. (The set built for this was really evocative, using 50's style buttons, switches, and vacuum tubes.) They began testing this portal, trying to determine just how people could move from one world to another (and who could do so) in preparation for invading those other worlds. Season 3 showed that the only ones who could travel between universes were those whose counterparts had died; therefore, in the Season 3 finale, Juliana Crain, knowing her alt-verse twin had been killed, was able to meditate herself into the next world, the world where the Allies won and the films were supposedly coming from.

(Although I doubt this is the same 'verse Tagomi went to, because even though the Allies also won in his, in that alternate Juliana Crain was his son's wife. There also seem to have been some films procured from that 'verse as well. This is one of the things about the worldbuilding you really can't dwell on for too long.)

The first three seasons of this show were some pretty solid TV, with rich characterizations and twisty plots, so I impatiently awaited season 4. Unfortunately, the very first episode of season 4 started the show on its downward spiral by killing off Trade Minister Tagomi. That was a shock, and his absence was felt more and more throughout the season. It became clear, at least to me, that despite the excellence of Rufus Sewell's portrayal of Reichmarschall John Smith, Tagomi had been the heart and soul of the series, and it made me angry that they got rid of him like that. He and Inspector Kido were great foils. I guess it was all parcel and part of Japan's improbable defeat at the hands of the Black Communist Resistance, and their folding up and running back to their home country. Obviously the writers had no idea what to do with them.

Also: WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO ED MCCARTHY? He was one of my favorite side characters, and he vanished without a word. I went back and watched "Jahr Null" to prove that I hadn't imagined him, and he had a very good scene with his cowboy boyfriend and Robert Childan, dropping a Resistance banner off the side of a building in New York. From what I could tell, all three of them got away, but Childan shows up in Season 4 and Ed is never mentioned again, as far as I remember. This is not a good way to treat your characters, people. Or your audience.

(Robert Childan is not dealt with very well character-wise either in the fourth season. He always was a love/hate sort of fellow, an opportunistic money-hungry slime one moment and a reluctant hero the next. He gets a bit of the former in season 4, but is wasted on a silly love story in the latter half of the season. And then he too drops out of sight, and we don't even get to see him get on the boat to Japan or be reunited with his wife. Talk about lazy writing.)

John and Helen Smith are emphasized this season, which inspires mixed feelings in me because both Rufus Sewell and (especially) Chelah Horsdal really step up their game. The best episode of the season (and the only one to approach the levels of previous seasons) is episode 5, "Mauvaise Foi," focusing on Smith's journey to the alternate world where his son Thomas is alive, and his running head-on into the consequences of his choices. It's a tour-de-force performance by Sewell. But I also had an ugly thought while watching it: "I really hope they don't give this guy a redemption arc, because you feel for him watching this and he absolutely doesn't deserve it."

(They don't, fortunately. Maybe that's the only good thing the writers did this season. They show plainly that once you start riding the Nazi tiger you can never get off, as Helen emphasizes in the finale. Reichmarschall Smith's ending, as stark and ugly as it is, is the only possible one for his character. So is Inspector Kido's, pledged to the yakuza [and amputating one of his little fingers as the mark] and doing their dirty work--which he shows he will be very good at--as the price of his son's return to Japan.)

Juliana Crain is not emphasized as much this season, another unfortunate result of Tagomi's absence. The Black Communist Resistance storyline was okay, but this being the final season, they weren't around long enough for me to really care about the characters. But everything was eclipsed by the idiocy of the ending, which I suppose was meant to be mystic and ambiguous but which just came across as stupid.

To wit: Juliana, her lover Wyatt Price, and their Resistance group storm the portal, built in an old coal mine in the Poconos Mountains (somewhere in upstate New York, looks like), and derail the train carrying the Smiths and their guards to the site. This was the first sign that the ending was going to be shit, because they disabled the electricity, cut through the fence and planted the explosives, and....there isn't any pushback or a firefight? Where the hell were the guards while this was going on? This place was shown to be stuffed with brownshirts, and they should have come running out of that complex like their anthill had been kicked over. What happened to them, other than Plot Convenience for Dummies?

Then, after the train derailment and the Reichmarschall's death, the group comes into the portal's control room...and the bloody thing suddenly activates? With no power? After it had been previously shown that it was necessary to spin up all four turbines to open it? As Juliana, Wyatt, and Hawthorne Abendsen (the titular Man in the High Castle, who pops into the scene with no explanation, rhyme or reason) watch, people start coming out of it. Who the hell are these people, and why would they even want to come to this world? They look like they're sleepwalking, dragged here by....what? The fact that their alternates in this 'verse have been killed? Hawthorne must think one of them is his dead wife, as he says, "They've been waiting," and starts walking, obviously looking for her. And that's where the show ends.

Oh. My. God.

I can come up with a better ending than that in five fucking minutes. Let's start with: Juliana comes back to the High Castle world because Reichmarschall Smith is sending assassins into the alt-verse after her, as well as using other operatives to manipulate that world's timeline: killing one of the US's top nuclear scientists, for example. Thus her goals are twofold: 1) kill Reichmarschall Smith; and 2) close the portal. Her alt-world, and all the others, needs to be protected. So, in the final scene, Wyatt and the group set up explosives all around the control room, and Juliana has to make a choice. After all, she can travel from 'verse to 'verse without needing a portal, so she won't be trapped here like others will be. But what she can do is return to the alt-Earth and recruit freedom fighters from the ranks over there (specifically, those who have been killed in the High Castle 'verse). She knows the High Castle world will need help, since despite the death of the Reichmarschall and his second in command calling off the attack on the West Coast, National Socialism is hardly defeated (and America will probably soon be embroiled in a nasty war with Europe). 

Also, Juliana is, or should be, feeling more than a little guilty. When the Reichmarschall's assassins came for her, the alt-John, a far wiser man than his High Castle counterpart, was killed protecting her. So that's another reason to return, to look after alt-Helen and alt-Thomas. (And maybe, just to sweeten the pot, she would have been shown a glimpse of the alt-verse's Frank Frink, her lover and fiancee from the first season, who was later executed by Inspector Kido. Yeah, she may be involved with Wyatt Price now, but Frank was a far more compelling character.)

So, in my fantasy version, the final scene would be: Juliana kissing Wyatt goodbye, saying "I'll be back," and meditating herself away to the alt-verse, and then the portal blows up. And as Wyatt and his group retreats, he says something to the effect that "The battle may be over, but the war is just beginning."

Yeah, I don't know anything about writing for TV, but this sounds like a far more satisfying ending than what we got.

If Amazon ever makes the series available on Blu-Ray, I'll buy it. The first three seasons, at least. But this fourth season (Rufus Sewell, Chelah Horsdal and Joel de la Fuente, as Inspector Kido, notwithstanding) sucked.

November 20, 2019

Review: Stormrise

Stormrise Stormrise by Jillian Boehme
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This started off reminding me of the Chinese legend of Mulan. The men in the country are called up to war, and a young woman pretends to be a man and takes her father's (in this case, her brother's) place. She learns to fight and fights well, and after the war is over she returns home in triumph. In this case, there is also magic and dragons (the former made specifically from the bodies of the latter), and a teenager named Rain L'nahn, who runs away to save her brain-damaged brother Storm from going to war. To conceal her "monthlies," she buys a pouch of powder before she leaves, powder made from the body of the ancient dragon T'Gonnen. This causes her to dream of his mate Nuaga, and eventually she finds Nuaga in the flesh and released her from a centuries-long sleep. To save the kingdom, Rain and Nuaga must release the rest of the dragons from a similar sleep. Rain has to do this while still pretending to be her brother Storm, navigating basic training with her unit, and journeying with them to save the High King...and along the way, she discovers one of the other soldiers in her unit, Forest, is the betrothed of her sister Willow. (It was an arranged marriage, which is why Rain has never seen him or known who he was before. And of course she falls in love with Forest.)

If all this sounds a bit angsty and soap-opera-ish, it is. This is not a terribly deep story, either in characterizations or worldbuilding. The side characters are not very fleshed out, and the love interest Forest is just bland. I also question some of the plot choices. The antagonist, Sedge, is a right bastard though most of the story, behaving like a nasty caveman when he discovers Rain is female, and at the climax she suddenly forgives him because he saw his ass was grass and threw in his lot with Rain and Forest? I don't think so. The ending is particularly unbelievable. Just because Rain almost single-handedly saves the High King, he is going to throw away centuries of tradition, allowing Rain to become a grandmaster in this society's martial art of Neshu and teach young girls this same art, just because she asks? Misogyny and patriarchy is not that easily overcome, alas.

What bugged me the most was the dragons. They are just weird. They are six-legged, with fur and manes instead of scales and horns. I tried Googling to see if this was based on any Chinese or Oriental dragon myths, but I couldn't really find anything. That really stretched my suspension of disbelief, and snapped it outright at some points.

This seems to be a self-contained story, which is a good thing, as I wasn't going to continue even if there were further books. It's okay, but there are better young adult dragon fantasies out there.

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November 18, 2019

Review: Protect the Prince

Protect the Prince Protect the Prince by Jennifer Estep
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book provides a good illustration of that wise old maxim, "Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it." In the first book of this series, Kill the Queen, our protagonist Everleigh Saffira Winter Blair fled from the palace after the massacre of her family and fell in with a gladiator troupe, vowing to wrest the throne from her traitor cousin Vasilia. By the end of the book, she had succeeded in her quest--but the book ended with the intimation that her problems were just beginning.

This book explores those problems, and is all the more interesting to me because of it. Court intrigue is a juicy sub-genre of epic fantasy if done well, and this one is. As this book makes clear, holding the throne is far more difficult than gaining it. Everleigh has to juggle the backstabbing, sneers and power grabs of her nobles, negotiate a treaty with a neighboring country with an eye to defending both countries from an invasion by her enemies, learn the wiles of power and diplomacy, work out how she feels about one Lucas Sullivan, the magier who works for her previous gladiator troupe...oh yeah, and expose a hidden assassin trying to kill her.

Along the way, she learns more about herself and her powers, and just what it means to be a "Winter queen" (hint, it has nothing to do with said powers, and everything to do with the ability to make hard choices and sacrifice her own needs and desires for her people). The book ends with the treaty negotiated and allies gained, and the resolution of her romantic subplot--but the war with Morta is looming ever larger on the horizon. Presumably this will be the focus of the third book.

This isn't deathless literature, but it's an interesting, fast-paced, slightly pulpy epic fantasy. It's a good beach read, I think.

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November 17, 2019

In the Blu-Ray Boudoir: Brightburn

(Do we have enough B's? Maybe, except for the grade.)


I missed this film in the theater, so I rented it from my library. This is just as well; after watching it, I'm glad I didn't drop any money on it. I would've liked to be a fly on the wall during the pitch for this movie, as it can be summed up in 3 words.

"Sociopathic Adolescent Superboy." 

Doesn't that sound cool? Or at least different. The idea of a young Superman (the film doesn't use those words, or even the description "superhero," but come on, we all know what inspired this) who is not the least bit heroic, and who in fact turns into a killer when he comes into his powers? Talk about inverting a trope. Not to mention that the next question is, "Who's going to stop him?" Especially since kryptonite is seemingly nowhere to be found in this universe.

Yeah, this is an intriguing premise. Too bad the execution is so thoroughly botched.

The main problem--and indeed, the bottom line--is the no-good, thin, underdeveloped script. Honestly, the film looks and sounds like a rushed-into-production first draft. I wonder if this was due to the power of the J.J. Abrams name, although he doesn't appear to have anything to do with actually writing or directing this mess. The characters are dull and shallow, with humdrum dialogue. It seems like the filmmakers are in such a hurry to get to the point where our Superboy, Brandon Breyer, realizes who he is and what he can do and starts offing anyone who gets in his way that they sacrifice buildup, tension and any semblance of character development. They certainly don't waste any said development on their central character, as apparently all it takes is a 12th birthday party and the denial of a rifle for a present to cause him to go stark raving batshit. (At least Superman absorbed the lessons and morality of Ma and Pa Kent and used them throughout his life. Although, to be fair, these particular adoptive human parents don't appear to have any good life lessons to offer. In particular, the excruciating scene where the father tries to talk to Brandon about playing with his penis...err, growing up is beyond awkward.) None of the actors stand out--they look like they're all in this just for the paycheck, and the kid playing Superboy seems to have only two expressions: a blank stare and a lip-curling snarl. (He also likes to dabble in his victims' blood and documents it all in his notebook, which is of course the clue the Unbelieving Mom--who was terribly written, as a character--stumbles upon that finally convinces her their Darling Alien Foundling is in fact doing these terrible things.)

The worldbuilding is also nonexistent. I'm sure this is partly due to the fact that they can't legally mention the "Super" word, but the film also eschews the existence of other superheroes--or aliens, since this is what Brandon actually is--altogether. A major logic fail is the fact that his ship supposedly fell to earth in 2006. Well, the last I checked, Google Earth existed then, as well as quite a few high-tech government spy satellites--and you're telling me they didn't detect this asteroid/spaceship blazing its way through the atmosphere, track its trajectory, and send some jack-booted Homeland Security thugs to the landing spot to scoop up whatever remained before these Kansas farmers could find and ferret away the alien baby? Especially since our Superboy, raised and controlled by the government, would have made a great weapon to use in the so-called War on Terror (as well as any number of Trumpian enemies, real or imagined). Hell, he could have smashed Osama bin Laden or any ISIS and/or al-Qaeda fighter to bloody mush in one pass. 

It's maddening that these people could have come up with such a fantastic premise and utterly fail to do anything with it, besides slathering on the murder and gore. (Specifically, if you have any squickiness regarding eyeballs and faces, there are two scenes in this movie where you'll need to avert your eyes.) The ending is also a downer, as our Superboy (after dropping his mother to her death from 35,000 feet) brings down a 747 and afterward sits in the wreckage eating a chocolate-chip cookie. This scene, and the end credits, sets up what this world's future will be--this superhero sociopath wreaking havoc with no one to stop him. (And let's not even think about what awfulness he'll come up with once he gets past puberty.)

Blargh. Let's skip this one, please.

November 16, 2019

Streamin' Meemies: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Season 4

Yeah, I watch a kid's cartoon. I admit it. I've found, however, that many kids' cartoons (or at least the good ones, like this one) have the obvious text for the kids--and a lot of subtext for the adults. One of the most refreshing things about She-Ra is the straightforward, no-time-to-waste storytelling: there's thirteen episodes this time around (at least Netflix didn't split the season, like it did last time--grrr), but each one is only twenty-three minutes, so there isn't a superfluous scene. The storylines and themes are easy to follow, and the dialogue is on the nose. Again, that's due to the show being aimed at younger viewers, but there's a great deal here for the grown-ups to enjoy.

When we last saw our intrepid heroes, Adora had finally broken free of Catra and the Horde had been (temporarily) defeated, at the cost of Queen Angella sacrificing herself. This made her daughter, Glimmer, the new queen of Bright Moon. Right away, this throws a spammer in the works: the relationships between the Big Three (Adora, Glimmer and Bow) are disrupted and never really healed, even by the season's end. Glimmer is thrown into a role she is ill-prepared for and makes some questionable/bad decisions, and Adora is reluctant to let go of her previous position of authority and to treat Glimmer like the queen she now is. Bow, unfortunately, is caught in the middle, and spends most of the season trying to bring the other two back together. (This is one of my main complaints this season, that Bow is given hardly any character development.)

In general, the characters shine this season, with some spotlights on characters not previously explored: Perfuma, Frosta, Mermista and (especially) Scorpia. (I've always been a fan of Mermista's dry, droll, perfectly deadpan snark, and the episode where she solved a mystery by referencing a series of books published in the She-Ra universe is delightful.) Perfuma is highlighted in episode 2, "The Valley of the Lost," where she learns more about her powers, and where we sadly also see the sendoff of Geena Davis' Huntara. Mermista and her mysteries are brought to the fore in episode 7, "Mer-Mysteries," and Scorpia is given some welcome background and crucial character development in episode 6, "Princess Scorpia," one the best episodes of the season.

"Princess Scorpia," in particular, is grounded in one of the season's overriding themes: friendship, the difference between a good friend and a bad friend, the effort needed to maintain a friendship, and above all, the strength to break away from a toxic person, or what Scorpia calls a "bad friend." She is referring to one person when she says this--the villain Catra, who Scorpia finally sees for what she is and walks away from. The entire episode is a buildup to that moment, and it is as cathartic as one might expect. (The relationship between Scorpia and her little robot, Emily, is also touching.) Catra is also affected by this: later on, she is holed up alone in Entrapta's wrecked room, isolated and depressed and suddenly realizing what Scorpia meant to her. (Again, this is a kid's cartoon so this is not overtly romantic, but adults can read the subtext.) It's enough to give the viewer a shred of sympathy for Catra, a pretty complex villain, but at the end, of course, she ruins her sympathetic moment by promptly sucking up to Hordak Prime.

The most prominent new character, Double Trouble, is a campy, overemoting drama king/queen (the character is non-binary, as is the actor) of a shapeshifter who plays both ends against the middle, selling out both the Princess Alliance and the Horde. Swift Wind, Adora's rainbow-hued flying unicorn, also gets a bit of play. The Horde's former second-in-command, Shadow Weaver (voiced with wonderfully slimy unctuousness by Lorraine Toussant), begins teaching Glimmer magic--and taking advantage of her inexperience--and the sorely missed Entrapta makes her reappearance near the season's end, in "Beast Island." (Where we discover considerable abandoned First Ones tech and the fact that Glimmer's father, Micah, isn't really dead.)

Plot-wise, several layers of the onion are peeled back, changing the story from a sparkle- and glitter-filled fantasy (albeit with the grimy green-brown tech of the Horde) to a world with more of a science fiction feel. The mystery of Mara, the first She-Ra, is revealed, along with what she did and sacrificed to protect Etheria. She's not a traitor, it turns out, although the First Ones avatar Lighthope most definitely is (though to be fair, she's trying to carry out her long-delayed, thousand-year-old programming). In the final episode of the season, "Destiny Part 2," Glimmer makes the last and worst of her decisions as queen, allowing Scorpia, the missing Ninth Princess, to connect with the Black Garnet and boot up Etheria's First Ones power network. This drags in Adora, the current She-Ra, and her sword, and she is forced to carry out Lighthope's mission. Adora eventually succeeds in breaking free and shattering the sword, but not before Etheria is sprung from the hidden dimension Mara had placed the planet in a thousand years before--and into the wider universe, where the freshly arrived Hordak Prime and his army is waiting.

Needless to say, this means the entire premise of the series is now turned upside down. All the characters have gone on life-altering journeys, and greater challenges lie ahead. I certainly hope Netflix renews the series for a fifth season, as it would be a crime to leave all these loose ends dangling. I'm not a kid, but I really enjoyed this, and I encourage others to give it a try.

The Return of the Master

I didn't know this poem existed until this morning. It was left in the comments of the blog Electrolite thirteen years ago by the late author John M. Ford.

The worm drives helically through the wood
And does not know the dust left in the bore
Once made the table integral and good;
And suddenly the crystal hits the floor.
Electrons find their paths in subtle ways,
A massless eddy in a trail of smoke;
The names of lovers, light of other days --
Perhaps you will not miss them. That's the joke.
The universe winds down. That's how it's made.
But memory is everything to lose;
Although some of the colors have to fade,
Do not believe you'll get the chance to choose.
Regret, by definition, comes too late;
Say what you mean. Bear witness. Iterate.

Well, hell. I'd heard that name before, and seen authors I respect sing his praises, but I'd never actually read anything by him. After his death, his work fell out of print. Now, however, the SF publisher Tor will reissue his stories and novels (except for his two Star Trek tie-in books) as a result of a bit of literary detective work, as chronicled here.

Also, read this: the first of a compendium of comments left on the blog Making Light.

I am in awe. And you can bet I will be watching to build a collection of his reissued work.

November 11, 2019

Review: The Twisted Ones

The Twisted Ones The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

T. Kingfisher, also known as Ursula Vernon, has been publishing award-nominated and -winning stories for quite a while. Her stories are combinations of magical whimsy and pragmatic, ordinary characters. This is the first novel of hers I've read, and it's a lot darker than the stories I've read of hers to date. But it takes the same basic situation, of an ordinary person thrown into an extraordinary situation, and steadily ratchets up the dread and terror.

Melissa, aka Mouse, is a freelance editor who gets roped into clearing out her grandmother's house after Grandma's death. Grandma was a bitter, nasty old woman, and also a hoarder, something Mouse doesn't discover until after she and her redbone coonhound Bongo arrive at the house. (It matters a great deal what kind of dog Bongo is--as Mouse admits in her writeup of events, if Bongo had been a border collie, she wouldn't be here now to write down what happened.) The house is in the middle of the North Carolina woods, surrounded by loblolly pines, kudzu, a very strange rock in the back yard, and woodpeckers--or what she thinks is woodpeckers--going tap tap tap.

The first night she is there, Mouse discovers a journal left behind by her late step-grandfather, Frederick Cotgrave, and as she reads it, a particular phrase repeats itself over and over: And I twisted myself about like the twisted ones. Cotgrave is trying to find the "Green Book," which his wife, Mouse's grandmother, has taken from him and hidden, and he writes down as much of it as he can remember in his journal. Thus we have a story within a story, which slowly unfolds as Mouse's story does, giving clues to "the twisted ones" and "the holler people."

This is a slow, stealthy escalation of terror, until halfway through when all hell breaks loose. Suffice to say you will never regard the word "effigy" in the same way again. Kingfisher is in complete control of her story and characters at all times. Mouse, like so many of Kingfisher's (and Vernon's) characters, is not a hero, or a badass; she's muddling through as best she can, gradually rising to the occasion as the situation gets worse. She is surrounded by several well-drawn supporting characters, particularly Foxy, the sixty- or seventy-something next door neighbor. Foxy is a delightful character, and I would love another book about her. All the characters are relatable, everyday people, and you really care what happens to them.

Kingfisher also gets that horror and humor can live side by side, and she deftly plays with the absurdities of the tropes she is writing about. There are multiple laugh-out-loud moments in this book alongside the multiple creeptastic moments (especially the Last Stand in Grandma's Kitchen at the end of the book). This book (according to the Author's Note at the end) is in conversation with, and inspired by, a turn-of-the-century (the last century) horror story, The White People, by an author I've never heard of, Arthur Machen. I'm not sure if the "white" or "holler" people were meant to be the Fae--in one way it sounds like that, with their hidden gateways to faerie mounds in alternate worlds, maybe in Wales and maybe not--but these White People are like no Fae you've ever read before.

This is one fine, scary book, but let me assure you the hound doesn't die: in a lot of ways, he saves the day, in his lovable dimwitted manner. And if you, the reader, never want to step into a hoarder's house again, and if you particularly don't want to deal with leftover doll collections...after closing the covers of this book, that's perfectly understandable.

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November 9, 2019

Review: Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction

Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kröger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a very ambitious project: gather together the unknown, forgotten, overlooked and underappreciated female pioneers of horror and speculative fiction. There are the usual suspects, of course: Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, Toni Morrison, Tanith Lee, Anne Rice. Unfortunately, to an extent, this book became the victim of its own ambition. I appreciated the obvious research that has been put in, especially for those writers I've never heard of before. At the same time, I wish some of these writers had been expanded upon, and excerpts and analyses of their stories included. As it is, though this is a worthwhile book, it ends up being a rather superficial one.

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