July 26, 2015

MovieBob Reviews: PIXELS (2015)

Oh dear Dogg. Tell us how you really feel, Bob. (Warning: SERIOUSLY not safe for work. But I laughed till I cried.)


July 25, 2015

Review: Storm Siren

Storm Siren Storm Siren by Mary Weber
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I tried with this book. Honest to Dogg, I really did. But the clunky writing and terrible metaphors finally caught up with me about three-quarters of the way through, and I threw it down and said, "That's it." I'd nearly hurled it against the wall at the halfway mark; I'd taken it to work to read on my breaks, and threw it on the table and said, "This book is stupid!" But I picked it up again (mainly because I didn't have anything else to read) and gave it one more try.

No more. I'm home now, and I have two more library books to get through, plus my own ever-expanding To Be Read pile. Life is just too short.

The sad thing is that there is a good book here struggling to get out, if only the editor had been a little more diligent. The main character is well drawn. The setting is rather generic Fantasyland (though the story reminded me, more than a little, of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Stormqueen). What completely fractured my suspension of disbelief is the uneven writing--for the most part, the action scenes are good, but the author's descriptions, metaphors and similes are terrible; I don't know why her editor didn't clamp down on this--and the worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is lacking to say the least; cliched and not thought out. Especially regarding the ecosystem of her world: there are "ferret-cats" and "panther-monkeys" (groan) and the final deal-breaker for me--flesh-eating horses.

For crying out loud. That simply does not work. And it's not as though said deer-chomping mounts even play a main role in the plot (at least, as far as I read) which makes the whole thing even more irritating. If you want your readers (or at least this reader) to accept your story and your world, you've got to get these background details right, or the reader is hurled out of your book. If you want a savage carnivorous riderbeast, fine. Just don't make it a horse.

Bah. There's got to be better books than this.

View all my reviews

July 20, 2015

Review: "Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial," by Kenji Yoshino

This book is the story of one of the cases that led to Obergefell vs. Hodges, the recent Supreme Court decision that legalized marriage equality in all fifty states. Hollingsworth v. Perry is the trial that resulted in the striking down of California's Proposition 8, the citizens initiative that banned same-sex marriage. 

Because the author is a Professor of Constitutional Law, he gets pretty deep in the legalese weeds here. No doubt some will find this boring; I found it fascinating, and the story of the trial reads like a novel. The author discusses the plaintiffs (two same-sex couples denied a marriage license), the proponents, the lawyers behind the marriage-equality movement and the history of the movement, the lawyers who brought Perry to trial (including Republican Ted Olson, who ironically won the horrid Citizens United decision before the Supreme Court), and the judge. This all takes place in Part I, a necessary set-up to the trial itself.

Part II delves deep into the trial, including excerpts from the transcript. The author thoroughly explores the arguments put forth by both sides, and explains how the arguments against same-sex marriage simply do not hold up. The proponents' witnesses were, to put it mildly, lacking, and the plaintiffs made their case with a mixture of expert witnesses and people relating their lived experiences. The plaintiffs ultimately prevailed, but of course the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, where it was taken up along with United States vs. Windsor, the case that struck down DOMA (the federal Defense of Marriage Act). The California judge's ruling in Perry was also upheld at that time, albeit on narrow grounds that applied to the state of California only; but in that ruling (along with Windsor) the seed was planted that led to the final victory just last month. 

The author, Kenji Yoshino, does a very good job of explaining torturous legal minutiae and making it understandable for the layperson, and constructing an absorbing narrative. Especially interesting, to me, was his championing the process of the trial in and of itself, and how cross-examination can strip arguments to their bare essentials and create a record that exposes their faults and virtues for all to see. One paragraph I particularly liked:

Finally, trials separate fact from belief. At least in the United States today, the trial requires an innately secular form of argumentation. As such, it operates as a sieve that filters out religious motivations for a law. The Perry trial showed that opposition to same-sex marriage is largely rooted in conservative religious beliefs. Beliefs move people to engage passionately in a cause, and passion can often persuade. Yet as the trial showed, a passion is not a reason, much less a reason for a law. (p. 269)

This is good too:

Finally, a trial is, as one reporter said of Perry, a "great and theatrical classroom." Olson later reflected that Perry "was an enormous education to everybody who was in that courtroom, even those who had been laboring in the vineyard for gay rights." Though the proceedings were not broadcast, Perry has generated numerous books, articles, TV pieces, a documentary, and a play, all of which have extended the trial's reach. While the purpose of a trial is justice for the parties, not public education, trials have been known to provide that education as a collateral benefit. (p. 274)

The author ends the book with a ringing endorsement:

So let me pre-commit myself: Next time such a legal controversy arises that implicates thorny "legislative" facts, let it go to trial. Let us try whether women regret their abortions, whether guns deter crime, or whether climate change is occurring. And let the product of the trial be disseminated throughout all forums in which the debate is taking place. For me, the Perry trial explored not one, but two civil ceremonies--the ceremony of marriage and the ceremony of the trial. I have come to see that my conviction about the importance of the civil trial are just as consequential as my convictions about marriage. And so I say again--for the next great legal controversy that turns on key legislative fact: Let there be a trial.

Everyone knows how terribly flawed the American judicial system is, but reading this book will revive one's faith in it, even for a little while. This is an admirable accomplishment. It's also more meaningful now, in light of marriage equality's ultimate victory.

July 19, 2015

The Hugo Project: Best Novel

(Note: This is the latest, and the last, in an ongoing series of posts discussing the 2015 Hugo nominees, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

And now we come down to the wire, and the Big One, as George R.R. Martin calls it. Best Novel. If you've read this series of posts, you pretty much know which book I'm going to vote for, but I wanted to make it official, and also explain why I have ranked the books in the order which they will appear on my ballot.

Not on ballot and did not finish: The Dark Between the Stars, Kevin J. Anderson

I just couldn't with this one. I've never been fond of ten-pound doorstoppers with endless viewpoint characters anyway, and this book did not even have the charm of good writing or an engaging plot to recommend it. Add to this the fact that a great many of those viewpoint characters came across as downright stupid, and my response is: Nope.

5) Skin Game, Jim Butcher

This book is frothy and fun, and ultimately forgettable. It's a very good Harry Dresden/urban fantasy book (and urban fantasy, as a genre, is sadly underrepresented at the Hugos, as well as other major awards), but in comparison to the other books on the ballot it simply falls short.

4) The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

It's notable that a translated novel originally published in China in 2008 even got on the ballot to begin with (no thanks to the Impacted Canines--its being there at all is solely due to Marko Kloos' withdrawal). This book is stuffed full of physics and hard science ideas, and I admire the ambition of its author. Unfortunately, his characters are not well developed, and I need a balance of good characterization and good ideas to vote any book as Best Novel of the year.

3) No Award

2) The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison

Talk about an 180-degree turn--this book is all about characterization. It's the story of an unprepared kid who becomes Emperor and has to navigate his way though bloody, shark-infested waters. It's the ultimate triumph of brains over brawn, of intellect and kindness winning over cruelty and ambition. Maia starts out as passive and confused, and just along for the ride; but at the end of the book  he becomes, as the title of Part Five proclaims, "Edrehasivar the Bridge-Builder." That's not a bad sort of person to be, and how he gets there is fascinating.

1) Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie

I said a long time ago it would take one helluva book to knock Leckie out of my top spot. Katherine Addison came damned close, but in the end I have to go with Ann Leckie. I know some people were disappointed with this, the quieter middle book in the Ancillary trilogy, but to me this is a tighter, more focused, and ultimately better book than Ancillary Justice. Leckie takes a deep dive into the character of Breq, and also reveals more of the fascinating and horrifying Radchaai society. I've preordered the third book, and I can't wait.

So this is the end of my Hugo recaps. I started these reviews because the ongoing Canine clusterfuck moved me to buy a supporting membership for Sasquan. I'm also planning to buy a membership for next year's Worldcon so I can nominate. With that in mind, as I get back to more normal blogging, I will mention stories, books, movies and TV shows that I think are worthy of consideration for next year's Hugos.

It's been fun, people. Now, anyone who cares about science fiction and the future of the Hugos needs to get out and vote.

July 12, 2015

The Hugo Project: Best Semiprozine/Best Fanzine

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

So I've gotten to these two funny categories that I find hard to understand. What's the difference between a semiprozine and a fanzine? According to the Hugo website, the former is:

Semiprozine is the most complicated category because of the need to define semi-professional. A lot of science fiction and fantasy magazines are run on a semi-professional basis: that is they pay a little, but generally not enough to make a living for anyone. The object of this category is to separate such things from fanzines, which are generally loss-making hobbyist pursuits. To qualify a publication must not be professional (see above) and must meet at least one of the following criteria:

The publication pays its contributors and/or staff in other than copies of the publication.

The publication was generally available only for paid purchase.

A fanzine is described thusly:

This Award is for anything that is neither professional nor semi-professional and that does not qualify as a Fancast (see below). The publication must also satisfy the rule of a minimum of 4 issues, at least one of which must have appeared in the year of eligibility.

The ballot for Semiprozine includes two entries also on the Impacted Canines ballot. In my effort to be somewhat objective (although my patience is wearing mighty thin) I went through both samples offered, and I must say in my view they simply aren't of Hugo-winning quality. This leaves three magazines, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed and Strange Horizons.

This was actually a pretty tough choice. Full disclosure: I have a current subscription to Beneath Ceaseless Skies through Weightless Books, and I participated in Lightspeed's "Queers Destroy Science Fiction" Kickstarter, with one of my perks being a year's subscription to that magazine along with its entire back catalog. I also love John Joseph Adams' editorial abilities and own several of his anthologies. So I am quite familiar with the high quality of two of the three.

Strange Horizons, though, was a new beast for me. It seems to be an entirely online magazine (whose website, in my opinion, is in desperate need of an update). The Hugo packet sample offered an intriguing mix of stories, reviews (there's nothing I like better than a well-written book review, and theirs just show me how far I have yet to go in that regard) and poetry.

What made me sad, though, and also angry, was some of the stories I read from these three magazines, notably "21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One)" and "A Moon For the Unborn" from the Strange Horizons sample, and "In the Dying Light, We Saw a Shape" from the Lightspeed issue. To be frank, these were stories that should have been on the Hugo ballot, instead of the Nutty Nugget nonsense we actually received. ("When It Ends, He Catches Her" by the late Eugie Foster is another such story.) These stories' quality, compared to what we ended up getting, is breathtaking. This made me revise my opinion of my vote for Best Short Story. I have nothing against Kary English and I'll be looking for her work in the future, but her nominated story simply does not hold a candle to these, and due to that I cannot vote for it. The Hugo stories should be the best short stories across the entire range of the field, not the best weapons porn, or somebody's best buddy, or someone's own tiny publishing house.

Anyway. [rant over] Strange Horizons is the most wide-ranging and eclectic of the three, and due to this it edged out Lightspeed for my top vote. My rankings for Best Semiprozine are:

1) Strange Horizons
2) Lightspeed
3) Beneath Ceaseless Skies
4) No Award

Now: for Best Fanzine, Black Gate has withdrawn from the ballot due to the Impacted Canines' shenanigans, which saddens me (although I certainly understand), as they probably would have gotten my top spot. As for the remaining nominees:

The Revenge of Hump Day: HELL NO. This is "Wisdom From My Internet"-style bullshit.
Tangent Online: So-so. It's okay, I suppose, but not really Hugo quality.
Elitist Book Reviews: I will bookmark this; as I stated previously, I love a good book review.
Journey Planet: Oh my goodness. Dr Who? Now I must admit to a serious lack of geek cred here: I know nothing about Dr. Who, except for what I've read in various places. Never watched an episode. I certainly don't share the obvious fanaticism for the series on display in this fanzine. That being said, it's a well-written, well-edited zine, and the sample issues eventually verged into other subjects, such as sports. This greater and deeper breadth of subject matter eventually compelled me to give it the top spot, just ahead of Elitist. My rankings for Best Fanzine:

1) Journey Planet
2) Elitist Book Reviews
3) No Award

July 9, 2015

The Hugo Project: Best Fan Artist/Best Professional Artist

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

Best Fan Artist: This is a pretty weird category, I think. To be frank, I didn't care for any of the nominees that much. I wouldn't have purchased their work to display on my wall. Elizabeth Leggett had one sample that kinda sorta drew my eye ("Emancipation"); it's pretty surreal. But in the end, I wasn't gosh-wow enough about it to vote for her.

No Award

Best Professional Artist: My goodness, what a contrast. When you say "Oh, that's cool!" several times as you're scanning the various artists' samples, you know you've hit the jackpot. Of course, this is for Professional artist, so that's a bit of a difference.

Several of these artists I would definitely put on my wall, or at the very least, use for computer desktop backgrounds. These include Nick Greenwood's "Dragon," Kirk DouPonce's "Hugo 6" and "Hugo 8" (I would have called them "Emerald-Eyed Skull" and "Girl Climbing Out of Laptop" respectively), and well, just about all of Julie Dillon's work. Julie's samples were awash with detail and color, and her characters were marvelously diverse. My favorite, "Menagerie," showed a girl in a wheelchair feeding her flock of many brightly colored birds--parrots, peacocks, what have you.

So: my rankings in this category.

1) Julie Dillon
2) Kirk DouPonce
3) Nick Greenwood
4) No Award
5) Alan Pollack

(Carter Reid is left off the ballot because I realized he draws that awful Zombie webcomic. No thank you.)

Yes, I am getting to the bottom of my ballot. For anyone who's curious, I'm saving Best Novel for last.

July 4, 2015

The Hugo Project: Campbell Award

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer advertises itself, famously, as "not-a-Hugo," celebrating what the Worldcon community decides is the best new science fiction/fantasy writer of the year. Unfortunately, like so much of the rest of the ballot, this category has been tainted by the shenanigans of the Impacted Canines.

(Forgive me for sounding testy. Several weeks of slogging through godawfully bad stories not worth their weight in puppy piss will do that to you. I mean, if you're going to behave lawfully-but-unethically and game the awards, can't you at least nominate something halfway decent? Apparently not, as most of the ballot proves.)

Listed from worst to best.

5) Jason Cordova

Reading one story was enough to turn me off this writer. A World War II retelling with the Germans riding giant white mutated spiders (the "dreaded German Hollenspinne division"), defending machine gun nests in a forest called Belleau Wood, and the Americans sending in two specially-bred, equally giant lions, also ridden like horses by their handlers, to kill the "hellspiders"? Two-thousand-pound lions, working for the US Navy and the Marines? (These actually sound like prehistoric cave lions, and there's no explanation given as to how or why the Americans would have such an animal.) Both of the lions, Ghost and King, along with their handlers, ended up dying, by the way. For frak's sake. The only thing that could have amused me about this story is if the lions had been named Ghost and Darkness, after the campy Michael Douglas movie.

4) Rolf Nelson

I had a heckuva time finding any work by this guy, as there was nothing from him in the Campbell Hugo packet. (I eventually realized he has a story in the included Castalia House collection Riding the Red Horse.) He does have one book on Amazon, The Stars Came Back. I tried to read a sample of this and bounced off it so hard I hit the opposite wall; it's written in script format, all cut-tos and fade-ins and fade-outs, which grated on me in very short order. (Obviously I would never make any kind of Hollywood slush reader.) No thank you.

The story in Riding the Red Horse, "Shakedown Cruise," started out as unremarkable military SF. (Lest you think I know nothing about the genre, I am right now in the midst of a really good MilSF novel, The Machine Awakes by Adam Christopher. "Shakedown Cruise" does not compare.) A few pages in, something struck me as odd. At first it was one sentence, than an entire paragraph, then several paragraphs...abruptly switching from past tense to present tense and back again. This jarring back-and-forth pattern continued for the rest of the story.

Now, I honestly do not mind present tense. I read a lot of YA, and present tense is almost a young-adult default. HOWEVER. I expect any use of present tense (that is, if you don't start your book or story that way from the beginning) to make a bit of sense and be used with a purpose; i.e., either for certain characters and/or flashbacks, and definitely with a page or chapter break. Just throwing it into your story willy-nilly, with no explanation or warning, smacks of either poor writing or poor editing, or both. In this case, since this is a Castalia House publication (the publisher of, among others, the purple prose-eater John C. Wright), I rather think it's both. At any rate, this bouncing between tenses ruined the story for me, and I hadn't been all that into it to begin with.

3) Eric S. Raymond

This writer, as far as I can tell, has one published fiction story, "Sucker Punch," found in Riding the Red Horse. (Although he has apparently written a great deal of nonfiction work; see his home page here.) This was something of a surprise, as it's a competent, professional effort (and it sticks its tenses). The focus is on the weaponry and the battle strategy, meaning the characters suffer as a result, but overall it's not bad.  Unfortunately, I cannot bring myself to give Mr. Raymond a Campbell Award on the basis of one story.

2) Kary English

I've read and liked Ms. English before--I'm voting for her story, "Totaled," for Best Short Story. The samples for the Campbell packet included one piece, "Flight of the Kikayon," that I actually liked better than "Totaled." She is definitely a writer to watch.

However, she's not my choice for Best New Writer. That goes to:

1) Wesley Chu.

I haven't read all of his novel, The Deaths of Tao, but I've read enough to make him my pick. The quality of his writing is immediately apparent.

So: My ballot rankings for the Campbell:

1) Wesley Chu
2) Kary English
3) No Award

July 1, 2015

The Hugo Project: Best Graphic Story

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

Best Graphic Story. Now this is a category I know little about, as I am seriously not into comics. I never got into them when I was younger, and in fact I tended to look down on them, considering them obviously inferior to books. The closest thing to a comic book I remember reading is (anybody remember them?) a Big Little Book, in this case the old-fashioned Fantastic Four with the orange Ben Grimm. (Actually, I just found it on Amazon--it's The Fantastic Four in the House of Horrors.) I don't remember much about the story, as the last several pages were missing, which frustrated me to no end.

So I am (or was) very much a comics virgin. Now I won't be so crude as to say I just popped my comics cherry (wink wink) but I did chew it up and spit out the pit.

Rating the four non-Canine nominees, from bottom to top:

4) Saga

Sorry, I just couldn't get into this. I think the word is "bounce." Maybe because it's Volume Three, Chapter Thirteen, but it seemed like there was too much backstory I neither knew or cared to know.

3) Sex Criminals

I suppose the idea is original enough--certain people can freeze time during and after orgasm (at least until they get aroused again), and they use what they call "the Quiet" to steal money to rescue their local library. This seems completely contrary to human nature, wherein if people could actually do this, they would have sex just to get off and get rich. Also, as far as that goes, why is Suzanne even bothering with this weird loser? Surely she could do better with just her favorite vibrator, in terms of not sharing the wealth, having a better chance of getting away from the Sex Police, and avoiding Jon's ill-timed boner knocking them out of the Quiet.

2) Ms. Marvel

Now we're getting into an actual story, and one that is far better than the first two. This is the tale of sixteen-year-old Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American with the usual adolescent problems intensified by the unique complications of her Muslim culture and customs, being made a superhero quite by accident. In this story, she is dealing both with the typical teenage angst of a girl trying to find herself and break out of her parents' narrow box, and the challenge of attempting to control her superpowers and use them for good. However, I wish "Hugo Voters Packet" hadn't been stamped across every page (why? none of the other nominees was like this) as it interfered with quite a few of the dialogue balloons.

This comic was certainly Hugo-worthy, and had it not been for that other nominee, I would have voted for Ms. Marvel first. But the remaining nominee is:

1) Rat Queens

I loved Rat Queens from the very first panel.

As far as I'm concerned, this has it all: four great characters, a compelling storyline, sass, intelligence, female bonding/friendship, ample passing of the Bechdel test, humor, and heartbreak.

I don't know much about the history of comics, so I couldn't say if it's derivative, poorly drawn, etc etc. Just comparing my top two, I think Ms. Marvel was a bit better drawn, but Rat Queens has the superior story. It takes my top spot.

But there was one other nominee, wasn't there? The Impacted Canines choice?

Yes, there was. A webcomic, Zombie Nation, and the less said about this the better. It has no storyline, no compelling characters, and doesn't come within spitting distance of the worst of the other four. It's almost as bad as John C. Wright's preachified polemics and that Wisdom From My Internet abomination.

But this category does provide an example of what the rest of the ballot should have been. One Canine nomination against true quality stuff. In the categories that are all, or nearly all, Canines, to my mind there is no vote beyond No Award (with only a few exceptions) because the Canines' choices are not only derived from an unethical (if legal) slate--they are all that bad. This category, with more proportional representation of Canine and non-Canine, drives the point home.

(I realize the Canines will say the same thing about, for example, last year's ballot. But come on. As far as good writing goes, Ann Leckie, Katherine Addison, and John C. Wright/Tom Kratman/Michael Z. Williamson aren't even in the same universe.)

So: for this category, my vote is as follows.

1) Rat Queens
2) Ms. Marvel
3) Sex Criminals
4) No Award
5) Saga