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10th August 2018

2:42pm: The Joker: Death of the Family by lots of people (2018-57)
So apparently at some point the Joker cut his own face off, to make some kind of a point, then escaped from Arkham Asylum. He disappeared for a year or so. This set of reprinted comics tells what happens when he comes back.

It's a series of "movements," as it were, each taking up one to three issues of nine different comics, all of the "New 52" set of series DC (re-)launched six or seven years ago, where they restarted most of their major characters: the Bat-books being a mostly-exception.

What this is, is a deliberate attempt to one-up Allan Moore/Brian Bolland's _The Killing Joke_, arguably the best Joker story ever told: and it would have worked, had the writers been better. The idea is brilliant and apalling; the Joker has realized that he truly loves Batman, and wants his full attention. But that attention is sapped by Batgirl, Nightwing, various Robins, and others; the goal is to free Bats from all those emotional entanglements, and make him the grim, powerful crimefighter the Joker needs him to be.

While the Joker was away, though, Gotham City has gone to a whole new kind of Hell: gangs who emulate the Joker are roaming the streets, committing crimes that try to be senseless (though they rarely are). The first sub-arc shows Batman fighting some of those gangs, and finding out where the worst one comes from: a criminal mastermind who calls himself the Merrymaker (and who, no, is _not_ the Joker).

In the second sub-arc, the Joker comes to town with his face stapled, or tied, or sewed, or _something_, onto the front of his head. (It gradually decays as the story proceeds. Ew.) He tries to manipulate Catwoman (Selina Kyle) into giving up on her on-again, off-again love affair with Batman, hiring her (through a frontman) to play a deadly chessgame with a horrific ending.

Next, in the pages of Suicide Squad, he goes after his personal groupie, Harley Quinn, forcing her to take on his old role as the Red Hood (a criminal, not to be confused with the hero of the same name who appears later in this story...)_and lead Batman into a trap. At the same time he is trying to determine whether Harley can be the Harley he really wants, and things get quite ugly between them.

The most difficult part for me is the segment featuring Batgirl (Commisioner Gordon's daughter Barbara). In _The Killing Joke_ the Joker shot her through the spine and paralyzed her, creating the wheelchair-bound heroine known as Oracle; somehow, in this comic, she's come back from that and is Batgirl again. I guess I missed a lot. Anyway, her "reunion" with the Joker should have been fraught with emotion - and it is, but the emotion is not really captured by the layouts and dialogue. Failure, alas.

Anyway, you get the idea. One by one, he goes after the various people Batman cares about, once using Batman himself, poisoned with a Joker-serum, to attack Nightwing (Dick Grayson, the first Robin). 

The whole thing builds up to a ghastly and, potentially, deadly practical joke of a dinner, attended by Batman, all the Robins and Reds, Batgirl, and served by a Jokerized Alfred Pennyworth. More I will not say.

I'm incredibly frustrated by this book. I should have loved it, but I only liked it. Grumble, grumble.
10:47am: Petra Haden
One doesn't normally associate "pretty" with the music of King Crimson, but some tracks in fact are; and "Matte Kudasai" (from the 1981 Discipline longplayer) is one of those. And Petra Haden has made it even prettier.

Haden is a vocalist who covers all sorts of music, including instrumental tracks (which "Matte Kudasai" largely is, but not completely), overdubbing herself many times to achieve a sound not the same as, but comparable to, the originals. She first came to my notice when she covered the entire album The Who Sell Out; it was only partly successful, but that was still quite an accomplishment.

And now this:

Haden has done a few other Krimson tracks, as well, plus many other things. Plus, she performs with her two sisters as The Haden Triplets, a sort of country version of the Roches:

9th August 2018

3:53pm: The Science of Discworld II: The Globe by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, & Jack Cohen (2018-56)
Having done a bang-up job on cosmology in the first volume, Messrs. PS&C decide, in this volume, to talk about the evolution of the human mind as we sort-of know it.

One of their most basic tools in this discussion is what they call "extelligence," the information and such _outside_ our brains that is accessible _to_ the brains. This includes social knowledge, knowledge stored in books and other such formats, knowledge available on the Intartoobz, and much more.

Their other primary tool is the concept of _story_. On Discworld, of course, things happen because narrative impulse says they must; but there is no narrativium on Roundworld (i.e., Earth). But our brains need contexts for random facts, and that context (say PS&C) is a story. We tell ourselves stories that help us imagine the consequences of our actions, what's going on in other minds, and so on. We also deliver a great deal of socializing information (what PS&C call a "Build-a-Human Kit") to children in the form of stories.

And most of these stories, they point out, are lies. We tell children that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit/100 degrees Celsius, but we don't tell them, because they don't need to know and they couldn't understand it if they did, that this boiling point depends a great deal on things like air pressure; in a vacuum, liquid water just boils, and even ice sublimates into vapor.

Newton's Laws of Motion and Gravity are tremendously _useful_ stories, but (as we have known since Einstein) they are also lies. Or, if you will, useful and sufficient approximations for most purposes, but still not fundamentally _true_.

The same thing with most of the other things we teach in school. History is grotesquely oversimplified, as it must be, for grammar-school children; and even the moral lessons we teach them are sort of conditional at best. (Never tell a deliberate untruth, we say. What if a Nazi is asking you whether you have any Jews hiding under your house, and you do? I would fib in a hot second... and I'm not even a very good liar, so I might be dooming myself as well.)

Oh, and, yes, there's a Discworld story in the odd-numbered chapters. The Wizards of Unseen University find out that elves - and Discworld elves are _nasty_ creatures - have infested the Roundworld they created in Book 1. So they enter and determine to foil the elves at the dawn of prehistory ... but this turns out to prevent much in the way of cultural evolution for humans, so they go back and stop themselves ... but the elves still must be stopped _somehow_.

The story part is not quite as enjoyable as I should like from a Discworld book, but the science chapters are fascinating, so overall, yeah, I liked it.

29th July 2018

8:33pm: The Incredibles 2 (2018)
To my surprise, I think they surpassed the first one. This one is even more character-driven than the first, and gave the characters some real development.

It starts exactly where the first movie ended, with the attack of the Underminer (voice of John Ratzenberger). This is quickly taken care of, ending in the arrest of the Incredible family and a stern warning never to let it happen again. (As you may recall, Supers are illegal in this world.) Their government agent, Dicker (Jonathan Banks) tells them that "the program" is being shut down and the best he can do for them is two weeks in a motel. (As you may recall, their house was destroyed in the first movie.)

Cue depression. Cue moping. Then, a Very Rich Guy, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) contact them. They run a Very Big Corporation, inherited from Daddy; Winston is the sales genius, Evelyn is the designer. They say they want to bring back supers, and they have a plan to do it ... using Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter). Which means that Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) must learn to take care of the kids: Dash (Huck Milner), who is having trouble with his math homework; Violet (Sarah Vowell), who has boy trouble; and Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), who is developing powers. _Lots_ of powers. The kind that keep a father awake at night.

Meanwhile, Helen is saving people. She stops a runaway maglev, finding out that the driver was in some kind of strange trance - which turns out to be from a screen on his dashboard, produced by someone calling themself "The Screenslaver".

Lots of amusing things happen, and of course Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and Edna "E" Mode (Brad Bird) have their parts to play. Lots of action, of which only one scene is of the "hard to figure out what's going on" variety - that's the infamous scene with all the strobing. It _does_ make sense in context.

Several plot threads come together and even, to some extent, resolve each other, and the ending is reasonably happy.

28th July 2018

7:50am: Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman (2018-55)
As a kid, I was fascinated by myths. The Greek and Roman myths were the most accessible, the Finnish stuff was just _weird_, but there was something really special about the Norse myths. Lewis later (or earlier, but I read it later) verbalized it nicely for me: due to the prophecies, the Gods know they're going to lose, but they fight anyway; and we know they're going to lose, but we side with them anyway - because they're on the side of right.

More or less. The Norse gods are sly and occasionally downright nasty, but they're more-or-less on the right side, the side that thinks humans and trees and squirrels and so on have some right to exist.

Gaiman here retells those stories, from the creation of the Nine Worlds (and a bit before) to the Ragnarok (and a bit after). That "bit after" is critical, because it meant that the whole thing wasn't utterly hopeless, that there would be another, and hopefully better, creation after ours. The Ǣsir and Vanir will, indeed must, die, but they take the monsters with them, and there are just a few survivors to carry on in the new world.

And there's this: the Norse gods have more _personality_ (to my mind) than the Classical gods. Most of the Greek gods are pretty much one-note characters, but Odin, Thor, Frey, Freya, and so on - and especially Loki - have some complexity to them. (Can you imagine old Zeus sacrificing himself to himself, or giving up an eye for wisdom? Nah, he'd just find some nymph and get laid.) They remind me less of some archetype, and more of some order of chivalry, but without Christianity. They go out, have adventures, come back and squabble among themselves, and so on. (In fact, I can see a certain parallelism between the Edda-tales and the Arthur-tales, with Loki in the role of Mordred and the Ragnarok similar in sketch to the final battle of the Morte.)

So, um. Where was I? Oh, yeah, the retelling. Gaiman tells it in a "here we are at the fireside, let me tell you a story" kind of voice that I find quite compelling. The 281 pages of this volume go _fast_.

There are stories here I've loved since childhood, retold brilliantly. And there are tales I've never heard before, like "The Mead of Poets," or "Gerd and Frey."

This is, in short, a damn good book, and one I wish I had had to read to my children when they were small.

27th July 2018

3:46pm: How to Read a Modern Painting, by Jon Thompson (2018-54)
Some years ago I read Patrick De Rynck's _How to Read a Painting: Lessons from the Old Masters_. I found the volume informative on the techniques, symbols, tropes, genres, and so on used by artists over the centuries. It has a format of two-page spreads, each dominated by a largish reproduction of a single painting and text about the painting and the artist, generally with one or two smaller reproductions of other paintings somehow related to the main painting, or, occasionally, details of the main painting. I came away from it feeling that I was more able to enjoy the old masters' paintings generally.

This volume, subtitled "Lessons from the Modern Masters," unsurprisingly follows the same format. Alas, I did not find it as fascinating.

Part of it is the inchoate nature of modern painting. There are, I think, more movements in a given decade than there were in a century of the Renaissance and prior, each with its manifesto rejecting much of what has gone before and its radical new techniques. Some of these movements I rather like. (Mainly Impressionism and Surrealism, with a fond spot for Dada and Pop art.) Most I don't, even after reading Thompson's volume.

But the burgeoning of movements and techniques makes it hard to tell a coherent story about modern painting, especially when you are limited to a format of two-page spreads (admittedly broken twice in this volume to go into more detail about something particularly important and special in the author's eye).

Thompson often manages to make me more sympathetic to what an artist/movement is trying to accomplish, and some of it is accomplished with consummate skill and, well, artistry.

But some of them give "My three-year-old could draw that" a bad name.

I mean: I can see covering a canvas evenly with black paint to make a point. But having done it once, doing a whole series of them, identical except perhaps for the size, is just gilding a turd. Likewise, whole series of paintings each containing one stripe, against a contrasting or complementary background, down the length or height of the canvas - oh, what design; what artistry; what BS!

Then there is (not named as such in this book but plenty of examples) primitivism, in which millenia of developed technique in figurative drawing are deliberately thrown away in favor of, well, something a three year old or other person uneducated in painting might do. I won't say "could do," as these paintings are clearly designed rather than rapidly thrown together, some of them with great skill and care. But to see someone who is clearly capable of more, doing something less, makes me crazy.

I donno; perhaps that's the reaction they want.

More complex are the works of people like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. They get accused of being frauds, but they aren't; they are pursuing their own muses. I happen to believe that their muses have been taking bad drugs.

But most of the works included I respect without liking. Picasso heads the list; he clearly knows exactly what he's doing and why, and he does it damn well, but it is, to me, cold and affectless (with the odd exception, notably "Guernica"). Then there are the opticalists like Frank Stella, Bridget Riley,and so on: work I even like, but wouldn't want to look at more than twice.

In the end, I'm glad I read this, and will keep it for occasional reference, but I still prefer figuration (not "realism") to abstraction. (Similarly in sculpture; love Rodin, hate things made of girders welded together in some strange Lovecraftian geometry.)

20th July 2018

2:46pm: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 2, by divers hands (2018-53)
Well, this just came out this week.

The thing about the Legion, is that - like the Fantastic Four - they are a family. They have their squabbles, and occasionally one of them goes mad and tries to kill the rest, or blow up the universe in one case, but they love and stand by each other.

Their special abilities range from the ridiculously powerful (Mon-El, stronger than Superboy and immune to Kryptonite...) to the, well, ridiculous (Matter-Eater Lad. Bouncing Boy.) The plotting ranges from the melodramatic to the inane, as is par for most super-hero comics, though there are occasional side-trips to something decently plotted. The villains are bombastic and, well, they have to be powerful enough, or crazy enough, to challenge 20-something superpowered 20-somethings.

And yet, somehow, it works. Or at least, it worked, for someone like me who grew up with them. But I drifted away from comics for many years, and when I came back, I'd missed huge swathes of Legion history.

Some of these stories I've heard about for years the Earthwar, the desperate battle against Omega, the coming of the Super-Assassins - and this issue takes us to the end of the "Superboy and the Legion" magazine; the next issue after the last one in this volume features the beginning of the first regular monthly "Legion of Super-Heroes" title.

The art, too, ranges, from the competent to the pretty darn good, but is limited by the subject matter to tones of bold and brash and colorful. The later stories in this volume are all written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Joe Staton, who would later be famous for the delightfully silly E-Man.

All of which is, I guess, an attempt to justify to myself why I keep buying these volumes. And I will, too, until they catch up with where my collection of the magazines begins... Because the truth is, I love them with the heart of a nine-year-old boy picking up his first Legion story ("The Super-Stalag of Space!") and seeing the wondrous Thirtieth (now Thirty-First; the Legion always stays 1000 years ahead) Century.

Sadly, around the time I stopped buying comics regularly - indeed, it's one of the _reasons_ I stopped buying comics regularly - DC wiped out the entire history of the Legion and started over again. And, yes, some of the names were better ("Triad" instead of "Triplicate Girl," [later the even sillier "Duo Damsel" ...] for example), and some of the stories were better-written ... but I frankly don't care. The Legion was built on the growth and maturing of characters originally created as a tossed-off one-shot story, basically to give Superboy something to _do_ for an issue. They did indeed grow and mature, with characters leaving, dying (for real, no backsies), marrying, and generally having lives. Taking all that and tossing it in the shitcan meant that _my_ Legion was dead and gone for good.

So, no, I can't get excited about Mon-El and Saturn Girl showing up in the _Supergirl_ tv series. I just can't care about revamps. When they rebooted the Legion, they booted me.

As Pansy Yokum would say: Ah has spoke!

18th July 2018

6:09pm: The Atheist in the Attic, by Samuel R. Delany (2018-52)
In Delany's most recent novel, _Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders_, one of the two protagonists has a life-long fascination with Spinoza's _Ethics_. In this novella, Benedict, né Baruch, Spinoza is a character.

It consists of a (long) journal entry by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, visiting Amsterdam at the behest of his patron, an unnamed Duke. On his own time, he visits Spinoza. (I know very little about the life of either Leibniz or Spinoza; I presume Delany does and that this is possible.) They converse for a while, and agree with each other well enough that a second visit is planned -- though not narrated. Leibniz mentions a number of his own peculiarities, of which the most interesting to a science fictional audient will be his invention of a brass calculating machine. Spinoza mentions that he grinds lenses for van Leeuwenhoek, which which he has discovered his famous "animalcules."

It _was_ an interesting moment in history. One of the things discussed, almost in passing, is the Netherlands' "_rampjaar_" of 1672, a year in which they were attacked by the forces of France, England, and some German states, and things became very dark indeed. (Some friends of Spinoza's were, apparently, killed and eaten.)

Yet their discussion is only the middle of the novella. The opening and closing take place in and around the home of Leibniz's host, named only Gunther in the book. Gunther's visit to a Jewish moneylender at the beginning of the book casts dark reflections on the visit with Spinoza, a Jew whose people have cast him out for blasphemy. (Spinoza mentions being 40 years old; a little calculation puts this meeting about 1672 or 3, and makes Leibniz about 26 years of age; the _rampjaar_ would thus be fresh in the Dutch peoples' minds.)

The writing is - as always with Delany - beautiful, clear, and self-intensifying. Delany has a way of mentioning things at carefully spaced intervals that increases their significance. (Outdoor toilets. Smallclothes. Servants. Wigs. Jews.) The story is slight on the surface, but deep in its implications.

Delany still rocks.

16th July 2018

2:47pm: Read: The Beginning Place, by Ursula K. Le Guin (2018-51)
Another book that took me longer than I expected to read: in this case, because I found myself luxuriating in the language. Le Guin - at least since _Left Hand_ and _Wizard of Earthsea_ - was always an acute writer, but here she may have reached, at least, a local peak. Beautiful, beautiful sentences and paragraphs building meaning leisurely but purposefully.

Oh, and there's a story. Hugh Rogers finds a gateway to an "evening country," a place where it is always twilight and time goes more slowly than in our world - eight hours there are about an hour here.

But Irena (Irene Pannis) has been coming to this place for years, and is not pleased to find a stranger camped beside _her_ special place. It only gets worse when Hugh is welcomed by the people of the place as the hero they have awaited. Their roads are filled with fear, and only "Hiuradgaz" can save them. And, the cherry on this sundae of insult, they expect _Irene_ to act as his guide and interpreter as he seeks the source of the fear and deals with it.

That's actually more than half the book, right there. It starts slowly, building to a rather astonishing crescendo, and ending with a long coda that brings peace to Hugh and Irene.

Only one Le Guin novel left. ...sigh...

13th July 2018

9:03pm: Read: The Science of Discworld by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen (2018-50)
I'm quite surprised that this book took me a week to read. No, seriously. The odd-numbered chapters are basically a Discworld story, and the even-numbered chapters are popular science exposition.

The Discworld story is set entirely on the grounds of Unseen University, the school for wizards (but not witches) in the city of Ankh-Morpork. In UU's squash court, young Ponder Stibbons has invented a device to split the thaum.

The unexpected result is the birth of a universe. To the wizards, it's a small globe in which cosmic evolution takes place. They wind up focusing their attention on one world, "Roundworld," that is, or resembles, ours to the nth decimal place. Here, against all odds, life begins and survives massive vulcanism, comet/meteor smashes, Snowball Earth, and so on, eventually producing sapient life -- several times. (The story speculates on possible cultures long before the rise of humans, of which pretty much all evidence would be wiped out by impactors and such. In the non-fiction chapters, they admit that this is just silly speculation, but they _do_ point out that, if it were true, how would we know?)

The non-fiction chapters are not only science exposition, but exposition on the practice, history, and philosophy of science. They are a pretty good read ... I'm tempted to say better than the story, but really it's a tossup.

The fiction chapters depend somewhat on previous knowledge of the inhabitants of UU, especially Chancellor Ridcully, Assistant Librarian (and later in the story Egregious Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography) Rincewind, and the Librarian, plus the Luggage. You can pick most of it up from context and exposition, but the Luggage in particular would be confusing to one not familiar with it.

In all, an enjoyable read, but not quite as enjoyable as the "real" Discworld books.

7th July 2018

6:40am: Read: When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka (2018-49)
1942: A Japanese-American family, middle class, living in Berkeley CA, is "relocated" to a concentration camp in Utah. That's pretty much the story, the rest is details.

But what fine details they are! The family consists of an unnamed mother, girl, and boy; the father was taken by the FBI in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and they have not seen him since. We have the mother's point of view preparing for the journey, the girl's on the train journey to Utah, the boy's in the camp, all brought to life by simple, eloquent language and the observations that make up a reality.

The next-to-last chapter is told in the first person plural, as by both children at once, and relates their homecoming. This is where the book truly becomes - for me - devastating, as the family is not permitted, by their neighbors, to reintegrate into society: they are completely _othered_ by their former friends and neighbors. The mother takes jobs cleaning the houses of the wealthy to get by. The father finally comes home, a broken man.

And the final chapter is a kind of stream-of-consciousness from the father's point of view, describing his brokenness in terms of the interrogations he underwent after his arrest. Only here does the book become truly brutal; the chapter is, mercifully, short, and maintains its power throughout.

Probably the first chapter is the best, in its almost-surreal quietude and acceptance, but the whole thing is clear and moving.

6th July 2018

10:13am: The Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee (2028-48)
Second book of a series, of which I have not read the first: and it stands alone just fine (though I imagine there are some nuances I might have caught had I read the first).

This is set in a future star empire ruled by a "Hexarchate," six people who are respectively the heads of various "factions," each of which serves a function in the society (though I question the value of having a faction of torturers as one of your six).

The Kel are the soldiers. Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan is on the deck of a cindermoth (capital ship), top of a fleet headed to fight the Hexarchate's deadly enemies, the Hafn. General Kel Khiruev is ready to go, but has been delayed by a last-minute addition to the crew, a Captain Kel Cheris, carrying secret orders.

Cheris comes on board, and immediately takes control, on the grounds that she is possessed by the undead General Jedao, who has never lost a battle (but went mad and destroyed both armies in his last battle as a living person). Cheris, or Jedao, has no trouble taking control, because the Kel are conditioned with a "formation instinct" that makes it difficult-to-impossible for them to _not_ respect the chain of command and obey orders no matter what.

Brezan, however, turns out to be a "crashhawk," in whom the formation instinct hasn't taken properly; he raises his gun to stop Jedao, but Jedao shoots the gun from his hand and orders Brezan, and all non-Kel, tossed off the boat in survival capsules.

And that's chapter one.

The book is full of space battles (in which Jedao's genius wins the day - when it can be bothered to); intrigue (especially by Shuos Mikodez, Hexarch for the Shuos faction, which specializes in spying, assassination, and general skullduggery), and the "Machineries of Empire," which is the series title. It moves quickly and densely and keeps you (or, at least, kept me) guessing as to how things were going to go.

The real prize of the book, though, is the characters. Brezan, Khiruev, and Mikodez are all intriguing characters, who kept my interest throughout. There are a few chapters from other points of view, but they are more "interesting sidelights" to the main action, which revolves around those three and, of course, Jedao.

A definite possibility for my #1 Hugo vote this year.

2nd July 2018

3:51pm: The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi (2018-47)
John Scalzi's trademark blend of wit, interesting (if sometimes outrageous) ideas, and bang-up plotting is fully on display here. The main outrageous idea is that a small number of star systems are connected together by "the Flow," which lets ships travel between them in reasonable (months) periods of time without exceeding the speed of light. This is convenient, because none of these systems individually has what it takes to sustain human life, so they are heavily interdependent. Indeed, the "Empire" is formally referred to as the Interdependency, and is ruled by a triple detente of the Guilds, the Church, and the Emperox.

As the story begins, the Emperox is dying, and his daughter, Cardenia, is coming to terms with the reality that - due to the death of the Emperox's intended heir in a racing accident - she is about to become the ruler of the Interdependency.

In the meanwhile, trouble is brewing among the Guilds. The House of Lagos, in the person of their matriarch's daughter, Kiva, has just arrived at the planet End. End, I hasten to say, is the one exception to the above statement about inability to independently sustain human life; it is a highly Earth-like planet. It is also subject to constant (one or two per decade) attempted revolutions against whoever is currently the Duke, because End is also - being literally the far point of the Interdependency - where the dregs and political exiles are sent by a merciful government.

Kiva finds that her house's trading privileges at End have suspended, due to a virus that got into some of the fruit Lagos had previously sold to End farmers; but in reality due to the presence of rival Guild Nohamapetan's Ghreni, one of the three leading members of that family, and well-ensconced with the Duke of End.

Also in the meanwhile, an obscure noble on End has received proof of his theory - that the Flow is about to collapse. He sends his son to warn the Emperox, but things happen.

This is a story of multi-layered betrayals, with pirates, rebels, nobles, Emperoxes, dead Emperoxes who can advise the living one, and much more. It is a great deal of fun.

28th June 2018

5:37pm: Brief Cases, by Jim Butcher (2018-46)
A book about the Other Wizard Named Harry is always looked forward to in my family.

Harry Dresden is Chicago's only practicing wizard, and as a Warden of the White Council, it is his job to keep the midwest safe from ghoulies, ghosties, and things that go bump in the night. This has gotten him scarred, nearly executed by the Council, laughed at by normal people, and on one occasion, killed (he got better). This is a book of stories about him and those around him: nearly half (five and two-thirds out of twelve) of the stories don't involve Dresden at all; in fact, one of them is set decades before he was born.

The stories narrated by Dresden range from typical Dresden to, in the case of "Curses," something approaching serious art. In three of them, he aids a young half-Bigfoot named Irwin through various troubles that come with being a half-Bigfoot in the mortal world, and those are quite amusing.

The first non-Dresden story, and the first in the book, concerns Warden Anastasia Luccio, chasing a necromance across the Wild West to Tombstone. Tense but a bit off the mark, though if Butcher decides to continue the story I am totally with him.

Then, there is a story narrated by "Gentleman" Jim Marcone, the mobster who runs Chicago and is a signatory to the Faerie Accords. He wants to believe that he is totally amoral, but the monster in this book falls afoul of his "no kids" rule, and Marcone goes to the mattresses.

Two stories - "Bombshells" and "Cold Case" are told by Dresden's erstwhile apprentice, and now Winter Maiden, Molly Carpenter. Both are taught and well told.

Waldo Butters stars in "Day One," the story of his first mission as a Knight of the Cross.

The final story, "Zoo Day," is (to me) the best of the bunch. The first part is narrated by Dresden, the second part by his daughter Maggie, and the last part by a Foo dog named Mouse who hangs around with them.

All in all a good collection of stories, though probably not the best place to start with Harry Dresden.

25th June 2018

2:40pm: Hugo-nominated graphic stories (2018-41-45)
_Bitch Planet 2_

This one really didn't work for me at all. It might, had I read volume 1, but that exceeds the mandate - I'm reading what's nominated this year, and if it doesn't stand alone, it fails.

It's (apparently) about a prison planet where women who won't Conform and Obey Their Men are sent. It's violent and ugly and, well, just didn't work for me.

_Monstress Volume 2_

Worked a little better. There were things I didn't get that I suspect I would have, had I read volume 1, but they didn't bother me as much.

This concerns the adventures of Maika Halfwolf, who is indeed descended from an anthropomorphic wolf (her grandmother) and her companions, an anthrofox named Kippa and a multi-tailed cat sorcerer named Master Ren. Maika is of "the Blood," meaning that she carries within her a monster of great power, that is slowly devouring her - she has already lost an arm to it.

And there's a lot of politics, and some grand adventures, and I enjoyed it.

_Paper Girls Volume 3_

So apparently these girls from the '80s are lost in prehistoric times, and there's an intentional time traveller, and early humans, and big mammals, and it's all good fun, with terrifying adventures and lots of strong female characters. The only male characters in this volume are three brutal early humans*, so I wonder if there's a "women good, men bad" vibe here, but if there is, it isn't so blunt that it bothered me.

* Oh, and a baby, but he's more a plot point than a character...

_Saga Volume 7_

A more-or-less standalone story from an ongoing series of which I was vaguely aware. It's set in space, but there's magic, and ghosts, and robots with CRT heads, and horned people and winged people, and ... Well, lots of different kinds of people. The main character is a little girl named Hazel, who is the child of a wingperson and a hornperson, which both their peoples find unnatural; as this story begins, she has recently been reunited with them. We know that she'll survive the "Saga," because she's the narrator, telling the story from an obviously adult perspective.

Their starship - which is apparently a tree - lands on a comet to refuel. Because it has lots of fuel - whatever the fuel is - this comet has been the site of many wars, and a Final War is going on as our heroes land here.

Oh, and: there are assassins out to kill-or-capture Hazel's parents, and they've tracked them to this comet.

_My Favorite Thing Is Monsters_

This one isn't, exactly, SF/F, but it's glorious and will get my #1 vote.

Set in the late '60s, it's the story of Karen Reyes, a hispanic-hillbilly crossbreed living with her mother and older brother in Chicago. Karen is a young lesbian (this emerges gradually) in a Catholic school, and a real weird kid whose goal in life is to be bit by a monster so she can become one.

Naturally, she is bullied.

The gimmick is that the whole comic is Karen's spiral-bound notebook, where we see everything as it looks to her - for example, she draws herself as a young werewolf.

24th June 2018

8:48pm: River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey (2018-40)
This is the last of the Hugo-nominated novellas and it's a real contender in my book, if only for its sheer outrageousness.

See, somewhere around the beginning of the 19th Century, Congress debated bringing hippos to the US to be farmed as a source of meat. That's real.

Gailey imagines not only that it really happened, but that some of them went feral, and others were bred to be ridden by "hoppers," making the South the Wild West of this alternate world.

This is, then, not a Western, but a Southern, but with all the tropes and details of a Western. Or, a post-modern Western, with transvestites, gay folks, and whatever Hero (the main character's love interest, referred to only as "they") is. Gamblers, cheats, fast-shooters, cons, assassins, ranchers, land barons, and the occasional Federal Marshall make up the cast of this whack-job novel. I love it the way I love Arthur Byron Cover's _Autumn Angels_ and Richard Lupoff's _Spacewar Blues_.

And, No. I am not telling you more. As we used to say in third-grade book reports, "Read the book and find out."

21st June 2018

5:34pm: All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (2018-39)
This is a twisted version of Good Old-Fashioned Science Fiction, to wit: a group of people and a robot surveying an alien planet, facing unexpected danger; but with a few twists.

The most important twist is the narrator: this is volume one of "The Murderbot Diaries," and the narrator is indeed a psychotic SecBot: not _exactly_ a robot: it is a construct of metal and flesh, who has "hacked my governor" and thus made obeying orders, ah, shall we say, _optional_.

In the manner of Sheckley, say, or Dick, the equipment for this survey group is less than optimal, because contracted out from "The Company." Or _is_ it the equipment? There appears to be sabotage going on, but who? The Murderbot, as it calls itself, knows from the security feeds that nobody in the group is doing it. And then all contact is lost with the other survey group on the other side of the planet...

So, Good Old-Fashioned SF, complete with Mysterious Enemy, plus a dose of corporate paranoia, all filtered through the viewpoint of a 'bot who makes Marvin the Paranoid Android seem positively chipper. What's not to like here?

18th June 2018

2:39pm: And Then There Were (N-One), by Sarah Pinsker (2018-38_
Of the novella nominees I've read so far, this was the most straight-ahead _fun_ to read (though there are several I'm quite looking forward to in the same spirit). It tells the story of Sarah Pinsker, an insurance investigator living in Seattle with her lover Mabel, who receives an invitation to "SarahCon." This will be a gathering of alternate versions of Sarah from a variety of quantum continuums.

(In case there was any doubt that the Sarah who narrates this story comes from an alternate reality as regards ours, one of the others is a Nebula-winning science fiction writer.)

Half the fun of the book is the reaction Sarah has to meeting hundreds of nearly-identical versions of herself. It's disorienting, and bizarre, and Pinsker conveys this -- well, it could have been done for more weirdness, but that would have taken over the story, which is the other half: it's a locked hotel murder mystery, a la Agatha Christie (but better written). One of the Sarahs is murdered, and there are a couple of hundred potential murderers. Since Sarah-the-narrator is the closest thing they have to a detective, the hotel manager (another Sarah) asks her to investigate.

There are moments of hilarity, but it's basically a very cleverly done murder mystery with a quantum ending.
2:21pm: Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor (2018-37)
Though I was able to follow this book fairly well, I was constantly reminded that I was reading the second book of a series, where I had not read the first; and thus conscious of depths that I was surely missing.

Binti (whose name means "Daughter of" and whose whole name is very long) is a young woman of the Himba, an Africian - Namibian, to be precise - people who stick mostly to themselves in an uncertain future. Binti at a younger age found an _edan_, a mysterious alien object which has shaped her life. Already a whiz at math (certain to be her father's successor as the village's Master Harmonizer), she was chosen to attend Oomza University, an interstellar place of learning. But on the way there - and this is all in the first book, so I'm summarizing summary here - the ship was attacked by the Meduse, a warlike alien species who have been at war with a neighboring Namibian people. They wiped out the entire complement of passengers - _except_ Binti, because of her _edan_; instead they transformed her so that she has _okuoko_ tentacles instead of hair on her head. This (somehow) enabled her to wrangle peace between Meduse and Humans.

Now, a year after being proclaimed a hero, a year of intense study at Oomza Uni, she decides to go home for a visit and to take her "pilgrimage," which will make her an adult in the eyes of her people. Her best friend, a Meduse named Okwu, joins her.

After a few chapters of Oomza and travel, the main body of the book takes place in Namibia, where (she learns) not everybody is happy to see her. And she doesn't get to take the pilgrimage because ... something else happens, something that will transform her as much as the Meduse did...

Okorafor's writing is taut and supple, her characterization vivid, her settings visual and visceral. I will certainly pick up the third book (Binti: The Night Masquerade) and probably the first book as well.
2:04pm: The Black Tides of Heaven, by J.Y. Yang (2018-36)
Set in a world where magic works in a fairly particular way, in and around a country that's kind of like China, only not, this book is the tale of a twin. Akehi is one of the two youngest children of the Protector. They were born for the specific purpose of giving them to the High Monastery, whose head monk is a rival/ally of the Protector.

The Protector, now, is the ruler of Chengbee, by force and wiles. She rules the Tensors who do the magic, and, through them, a huge geophysical area. She also has many children but no heir apparent; she's about 80 when Akehi and Mokoya are born.

One of the odder aspects of this world is that, as you come of age, you choose what your gender will be. Before you make that choice, you are not "he" or "she" but "they" - which sometimes becomes just a _bit_ confusing, as it's not always clear which "they" is being referred to, or even whether in a given case it's singular or plural. I was always able to suss it out, but the fact of having to stop and suss pulled me out of the headmovie.

At any rate, Mokoya turns out to be a prophet of some worth, and the Protector pulls them (intending just Mokoya, but the two refuse to be separated) to live in the Palace.

Mokoya has a vision of the next High Monk, a circus performer named Thennjay. He survives an attempt to assassinate him - presumably from the Protector.

Akehi runs away to live in a neighboring country and years pass and stuff happens and there's a satisfying conclusion.

This is a really cleverly designed world, and a well-plotted story. I'm more than a little tempted to pick up the companion volume, _The Red Threads of Fortune_, which is Mokoya's story, but not right away as I'm deluged with to-reads right now...

12th June 2018

6:55pm: A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn (2018-35)
OK, so. This book has the reputation of being a socialistic, anti-American, pile of propaganda.

Not exactly.

It appears to attempt three things:

1) To tell the story, not of Great Leaders, but of the ground-level people and what the Great Leaders's doings did to them.
2) To tell the story of the economic forces that shaped the United States; to this degree, it is perhaps at least post-Marxist, if not actively Marxist.
3) To tell the truth about some things that were glossed over or outright lied about in our grade-school history courses - at least, for those of a certain age. I'm not sure what they teach them in these schools today!

Thus, for example, Zinn's discussion of Columbus is more in line with the counter-narrative that became popular around 1992, than it is with the happy little story of Columbus Discovering America they teach (or taught) in grade school.

He interprets the Declaration and Constitution as documents designed to keep the privilege of white male landowners intact. He takes literally Lincoln's statement that he would either free all the slaves or keep them all enslaved, to restore the Union. He points out our overseas adventurism all throughout the 20th Century, and a little before, and a little beyond, and observes that much of our foreign policy is designed to create and/or keep markets for our overproduction. And he believably explains the two-card Monte game that the two-party system has become.

Zinn documents his counter-narrative of America heavily and presents it very anecdotally, which makes it a little rough going at times but (to me) well worth the effort.

I think this should be required reading, especially for middle-of-the-roaders.

28th May 2018

7:44pm: Blood Calls, by Charles D. Shell (2018-34)
If I had seen this book on a shelf I would probably have passed it by, as almost any blurb would make it seem like Generic Fantasy Product. But it escapes that fate on a couple of grounds.

First, the characters. The main characters are "a boy and his dragon," so to speak, and _yes_, we've had telepathic dragons before, God wot, but these two are noirishly snarky, with each other and everyone else. Also, they get, gradually, some serious background development, showing _why_ they are as they are. Without going into too much detail, the boy - more a young man - is Corbin Illimas, who is hated as a halfbreed "Skurgan" in his home city, able to do blood magic; and his dragon is Blood, a rare red dragon who is hated by other dragons for his difference.

The setting is also fairly interesting. The story is set (mostly) in a city on a pretty balkanized continent, where one nation, Gurein, is extending its reach for _lebensraum_ and the "reunification" of their "separated brethren." The religious on this continent mostly worship "the Freed," people who escaped from Hell, overthrew the Gods, and declared liberty of conscience, or something like that (cultural information comes in dribs and drabs). The other significant viewpoint character is Amber Norch, an officer in the expanding nation, who has both a sense of duty and a conscience.

Corbin is sent as a junior diplomat to Sunal, a minor city-state that is invaded before he has even learned his way around the place. The invasion is very mysterious, because Sunal is not on Gurein's main path of conquest. It appears that something much bigger is afoot.

Shell manages action scenes both large-scale and small deftly; there is a duel in the book that had me holding my breath, and there are battle scenes that just _work_.

And then there's the politics, civil and personal. Corbin falls seriously on his first day for a young woman who turns out to be the daughter of the head of Sunal's military forces, and not a man who takes well to a foreigner wooing his only child - let alone a foreigner who comes with a red dragon.

The humor is often remniscent, in a good way, of Terry Pratchett, though not as forward in the story as it is in Discworld.

In short: I enjoyed it.

25th May 2018

4:46pm: Secrets in Death, by J.D. Robb (2018-33)
So J.D. Robb (who is really Nora Roberts [who is really Eleanor Marie Robertson]) writes these science-fictional police-procedural murder-mystery hot-romance novels, only the bottom has mostly fallen out of the romance as the heroine and the hero settled down, about forty books back, to blissful domesticity.

The heroine is Eve Dallas, New York City murder cop around the middle of the 21st century, after something called the Urban Wars. Technology has _mostly_ advanced logically, though to my mind rather slowly, except in one area: there are colonies on other planets, apparently in other star systems, though that last point has never (to my memory) been stated directly.

The hero is Roarke, no first name given or used, Irish street rat grown, via various legal and illegal enterprises, into (apparently) the richest person there is, since he owns planets, or at least colonies, as well as a significant percentage of the real estate in New York City.

They met when he was a suspect in a murder case in book one; by the fourth or fifth book (by my memory), they were married. He also enjoys helping in her more difficult cases.

So instead of romance, their relationship in these books (except for the occasional sorta-hot sex scene) is about their negotiating their different backgrounds, careers, and personal histories of trauma.

There is a supporting cast of interesting characters - too many, at this point, to all appear in one book (no "Oz Parties" here) - who support Eve personally and professionally.

In the first pages of _Secrets_, Eve is a witness to a murder. She is in a high-end pub when a woman staggers up from the downstairs restroom, bleeding out. She turns out to be a high-end video gossip columnist and -- slight spoiler, but this becomes clear very early in the story -- a rather successful blackmailer, giving Eve and her partner, Peabody, a plethora of unknown suspects.

Robb writes cleanly and clearly, with a certain wit. Eve's cynicism is balanced nicely by the upbeat nature of Peabody and the warmth of Roarke. The mystery, as usual, is solved satisfactorily, and the killer brought to confess by manipulating the psychological quirks that led them to kill.

Normally I say that a late book in a series is not a good place to start; but, what the heck, the books in this series, other than the first four or five, are independent. There is a sequence, and a slow development of character, but _Secrets in Death_ can easily be read on its own. So, maybe it _is_ a good place to start...

23rd May 2018

Today is the twenty-third of May.

Do not, repeat, do not buy the liverwurst.

That is all.

20th May 2018

3:14pm: The Eye of the Heron, by Ursula K. Le Guin (2018-32)
This short, YA novel first appeared in an anthology edited by Virginia Kidd, called _Millenial Women_. The credits in the edition I have refers to the anthology as "Millenium Woman."

Anyway. It takes place on Victoria, a world to which Earth has sent two waves of prisoner-colonists. The first group, a bunch of political criminals, founded the City. The second group, pacifistic idealists, founded Shantih and other, smaller farming towns outside the City.

Several decades later...

The people of the City rule by threat of force. The people of the Towns govern themselves by consensus. This sets up, pretty much as you might expect, a conflict of ideals, in which the City people try to force the town people into mandatory labor, while the Town people meet them with nonviolent resistance.

Our main characters are Lev, a young man from Shantih/Shanty town, and Luz, a young woman from the City.

As the book begins, Lev is returning from an expedition the People of the Peace have sent out to find a place for a new colony, outside the reach of the City. The City are having none of this, and their Bosses send whip-bearing thugs to break up a meeting.

Luz is the daughter of the top Boss, and knows Lev a little because they were in school together. Luz is quite a complex character for a YA book, but her arc is pretty simply from a resentful daughter of the City to a follower of the Peace. She gains agency by leaving home to warn the Townsfolk of a coming raid, and chooses to stay.

_Heron_ is not one of Le Guin's most successful books. Her political heart is very much on her sleeve here, with nearly all-bad Bad Guys and nearly all-good Good Guys, a very unusual setup for Le Guin...

...except, of course, for "The Word for World is Forest," which this book resembles more than somewhat in its implicit moralizing.

Fortunately, Le Guin continued to grow as an artist and learned how to bring her moral lessons more subtly (as indeed she had before this book, in _Left Hand_ and _The Dispossessed_).
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