Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Paper Girls Volume 4 (Brian K. Vaughan)

Paper Girls Volume 4
The Paper Girls series
Brian K. Vaughan, illustrations by Cliff Chiang
Image Comics
Fiction, MG? Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: The four paper girls from the 1980's have returned from the ancient past... only to end up in a nightmare version of January 2000, where the worst fears of Y2K paranoia came true in chaos, looting, and mass power outages. Separated during the journey, Tiffany discovers only she can see the reason: giant robotic fighters from the rival time traveler factions, somehow cloaked from the view of both the locals and her fellow time travelers. Meanwhile, the other three girls - Mackenzie, Erin, and KJ - find themselves in the company of a local woman who knows more than anyone in this time should about the conflict, a cartoonist who has been planting hidden clues in her syndicated strip... but is she friend or foe?

REVIEW: It's been a while since I read the first three volumes, so it took me a little bit to get back up to speed, but this was still a fun, action-filled outing in an intense and well-imagined story. Like Erin before her, Tiffany now faces her own adult self, balancing curiosity with disappointment at how childhood ambitions and dreams (not to mention best friends) seem to have been forgotten in the drudgery of growing up. KJ also finally comes out of the closet, to mixed reactions from her friends, particularly Mac. Balancing the different time threads and enemies can be a bit of a chore, but the tale nevertheless moves at a fair pace, and always forward (at least relatively, if not always temporally), so a fair bit has progressed before the cliffhanger ending. I'll be looking forward to the next volume, whenever it appears on Hoopla.

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

Face the Flames (Jo Davis)

Face the Flames
A Sugarland Blue novel, Book 6
Jo Davis
Berkeley
Fiction, Romance
**+ (Bad/Okay)


DESCRIPTION: Clay Montana was one of the last bachelors among the Sugarland firefighters, and had no reason to change his lifestyle... until a devastating wreck stole a year from the paramedic's life. Faced with his own mortality through his long rehabilitation, he starts wondering if maybe it's time to think in the long term and settle down - and the newest cop in town just may be the woman to leash him.
Melissa Ryan may be the new girl on the squad, but she grew up in Sugarland... on the other side of the law. Her uncle Jack runs a moonshine ring out of an armed and barricaded compound in the hills, and numerous federal agents have tried (and failed) to bring down his criminal enterprise. She's come back to town in hopes of doing what no other law enforcement officer has managed: shutting down the Jack Ryan operation once and for all. And nobody - not her uncle's thugs, not her bosses or co-workers, and especially not a hot new boyfriend - is going to stop her.

REVIEW: I've been dealing with a head cold, so I figured I'd read something light. At first, this looked like a typical romance, with the slight twist of the firefighter male lead struggling to regain his independence and job after a massive trauma and having to rely a little more on the lady love interest than in some titles. The formula was a little naked (as were the characters, often), but that needn't be an issue. Unfortunately, it was, and it became more of one the longer I read.
Not a single element of this story does not come straight from the cookie cutter drawer of mass market romance series. Every character is described in terms that have been used, almost verbatim, by countless writers before, playing out forced roles. Lady cop Melissa even has the time and money to run a large spread of property complete with three horses; even allowing for the inheritance factor, just when would a cop with a single-minded mission to bring down an untouchable family crime ring find the time to ride and maintain three horses, and how does a cop's salary stretch that far? Clay and Melissa's interactions are riddled with unnatural dialog that spells everything out; they explain things they already know to each other enough times I half-expected them to nickname each other "Bob" (as in "As you know, Bob..."). The other firefighters and cops are a jumble of names - all of them in various relationships that quite clearly were the subjects of previous Sugarland novels, and all of them tending to be generic support staff for the leads. Clay's injuries cease to become a significant plot factor round about the halfway mark, turning him into just another male romance lead. Nefarious Jack Ryan and his goons are cardboard villains, often doing unnecessarily risky and stupid things just because the plot required them to; their brutality becomes muted as a result, seeming more cartoonish than ghoulish. Plot points stand out like shiny tacks on the string of the storyline, which makes numerous graphic trips to the bedroom... trips that, like the rest of the tale, feel bland and composed of snap-together, generic romance language parts, adding little to the characters or the arc. (Of all the scenes to find boring, especially in a romance title, the sex scenes should not be them, but boring they quickly became.) By the end, I was almost snickering to myself as I played Romance Bingo in my head, ticking off worn-out lines and generic descriptors. That's why it ultimately sank below the flat Okay rating I almost gave it.

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Friday, April 13, 2018

The Antlered Ship (Dashka Slater)

The Antlered Ship
Dashka Slater, illustrations by Eric Fan and Terry Fan
Beach Lane Books
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Picture Book
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: Marco the fox is full of questions, questions none of his fellow foxes can answer... or want to. When the antlered ship arrives, he joins the peculiar crew of animals in search of adventure and new, green lands - but will those lands bring him answers, or more questions?

REVIEW: Another down time read at work, this one grabbed me with the unusual title and imaginative art. Marco and the other animals each have their own reasons for sailing on the antlered ship, and must learn to work together to get where they're going... a destination that may not be a physical place. An enjoyable tale.

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

All Systems Red (Martha Wells)

All Systems Red
The Murderbot Diaries, Book 1
Martha Wells
Tor.com
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: It was supposed to be a routine security run - so the SecUnit, the half-organic humanoid machine, figured it would be boring. Not that it minded boring. Better a boring trip supervising planetary surveyors, part of the equipment rented from an interstellar exploration corporation, than another bloodbath like the one that led it to dub itself Murderbot. And since hacking its behavioral governor, freeing it from compulsory obedience to both the Company and the humans who had rented it for the mission, "Murderbot" could use its free will to stream the entertainment feeds for its favorite serials. If it did a half-baked job in the meantime, well, the scientists did opt for the cheap rental package, and humans never paid much attention to its kind anyway, considering them as disposable as any piece of equipment. But these humans aren't like the others who have rented it... and this planetary survey job is about to turn deadly serious, with sabotage and equipment failure and the sudden, suspicious disappearance of another survey team on the same world.

REVIEW: The compelling voice hooked me into this sci-fi adventure tale from the first paragraph of this compulsively readable tale. "Murderbot," a genderless and nameless being, has secured its free will, but doesn't know what to do with it other than watch entertainment shows and observe (often with distaste) the ways of humans. The dangers of the mission, and the unusual nature of its human companions (who hail from a rare non-corporate system, that views even synthetic beings as more than just disposable items), open up opportunities it never dreamed possible... but, to take advantage of them, it has to decide if it can learn how to trust - and, of course, survive. Compelling as the main character and voice were, though, they couldn't quite cover for weaknesses elsewhere; the characters tended to remain names on the page, the setting and interstellar world somewhat sketchy, and the logic behind the plot seemed a trifle wobbly when peered at closely. Still, it's a fun, if light, read.

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What Do You Do With a Problem? (Kobi Yamada)

What Do You Do With a Problem?
Kobi Yamada, illustrations by Mae Besom
Compendium Inc.
Fiction, CH Picture Book
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: One day, a child finds a little problem following them around. Ignoring it only makes the problem grow bigger, and worrying about it makes it grow bigger still. What can be done before the problem destroys everything?

REVIEW: Like Yamada's What Do You Do With an Idea?, this book personifies an abstract concept with imaginative illustrations. I felt the idea book worked a bit better, but then I'm a little tired of the message of problems always being welcome opportunities that inevitably lead to better things (with the unspoken subtext that failure to see a problem as a welcome opportunity means you're wrong or weak for "not trying hard enough," that "it can't be that bad" - some problems simply must be endured, without promise of opportunity or reward, and forcing that extra burden of having to seek the silver lining just doesn't help.) Still, it's a good book that helps visualize the coping process, and offers hope of better things ahead.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Writing With Power (Peter Elbow)

Writing With Power
Peter Elbow
Oxford University Press
Nonfiction, Writing
**+ (Bad/Okay)


DESCRIPTION: In learning how to write, many learn the importance of complete sentences and the parts of speech and other mechanical fundamentals, lessons drilled home by English teachers and grammar books and the dreaded red lines and margin notes on an essay. What too often falls through the cracks are concepts like voice and energy and power, the forces that transform a flat string of words into a memorable reading experience, that take a by-the-numbers essay and create a truly persuasive piece, that transform a string of ideas into poetry. Teacher and writer Peter Elbow discusses the writing process, from early drafts through final polish, and how to discover one's own voice.

REVIEW: Reading this book, written by a university professor, I kept thinking of the line in Tad Williams's Tailchaser's Song, where the main character Fritti attempts to capture what irritates him so about the inhabitants of the feline capital city. To paraphrase, he says that they'd happily spend their whole lives talking about water bugs, thinking about water bugs, and discussing water bugs with other water bug enthusiasts, only to one day realize they'd never actually seen one, but by then they wouldn't want to, because it would spoil all their lovely ideas.
Teacher Elbow writes labyrinthine lectures about multiple writing methods, several of which bleed over into each other; he expounds upon multiple methods of editing, which also bleed over and contradict each other; he sets multi-syllabic snares in search of the elusive concepts of voice and power; but I have to wonder, in all those lectures, how much actual writing (outside the classroom) he's actually done, let alone read. He seems to exist in a tower above the land of literature, high in the rarefied academic atmosphere, where only the trained initiates may approach after years of studying writing about writing, a place where one may philosophize, ramble, and chase streams of consciousness for their own sakes, freely doubling back and meandering and drifting upon eddies of edification, without need or worry about practical application. It made me want to claw my eyes out by the third chapter - and that was just when he was discussing early drafting, concepts that still had some connection to us poor, uneducated outsiders actually crafting words in the shadow of his high tower. By the end, he was blatantly contradicting himself (such as when he tells students that, in order to find the best words, one mustn't write until one has a vivid image in one's head of what one is saying... only, not a couple paragraphs later, to tell students that stopping to create mental images might just keep them from writing altogether and to just put words down anyway if they can't), a technique that has academic merit, perhaps, but isn't particularly helpful in a book purporting to teach writing to the general public.
Is it necessarily wrong, to discuss writing on this level? No, nor is all his advice useless beyond the college classroom; there are some decent ideas and tidbits here and there, shiny objects even a plebeian hack like myself could appreciate. But the cover promises "Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process", and a prominent review quote from the Boston Globe further promises that this is a "practical handbook for anyone who needs to write." No, no it is not.
While I can see, more or less (if I squint and step sideways and skim - as I had to do copiously in order to finish), the general shape of the ideas Elbow was trying to convey, the verbose, circular, navel-gazing manner in which he attempted to convey it, refusing to commit to a concept or idea without immediately flipping sides, left me cold. I suppose I'm just too undereducated to appreciate his treatises about the water bugs of writing... or maybe I'm just more interested in catching and observing actual water bugs myself than listening to Elbow and his peers discuss them as philosophical concepts.

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Saturday, April 7, 2018

Nimona (Noelle Stevenson)

Nimona
Noelle Stevenson
HarperTeen
Fiction, YA? Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Humor
****+ (Good/Great)


DESCRIPTION: The Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics has long kept the peace in the kingdom, its champion Ambrosius Goldenloin always ready to cross swords with any monster or villain... particularly his nemesis, Ballister Blackheart. At least, that's what the news channels would have everyone believe. A former Institute student himself, Blackheart's seen the truth behind the golden facade - but he's never been able to convince anyone where the real danger is. Until, that is, he acquires a new and unexpected sidekick.
The girl Nimona comes from nowhere, a shapeshifter with flexible morals who insists on helping Blackheart with his evil plans. With her on his side, Ballister starts making progress exposing the Insititute's true nature... but the Director is willing to go to any lengths - and rack up any body count - to bring the archvillain down.

REVIEW: Similar to the Lumberjanes series (which Stevenson co-writes), Nimona mixes superficial humor and action with unexpected, sometimes dark character development. Blackheart and Goldenloin share a complicated history, long locked in a stalemate as hero and villain under the Institute's control, though the animosity is deeply personal. Nimona's arrival disrupts the equilibrium, her backstory and motivations stranger and darker than anyone's. The setting freely mixes science and magic, swords and guns, a weirdly wild world where just about anything can happen, with an explosive climax. As a minor complaint, the lettering was sometimes a little tough to read on my Nook screen, particularly the white lettering on neutral or light backgrounds. Ultimately, though, it's an excellent, often amusing story of the power of friendship and love, and the devastating damage wrought by betrayals big and small.

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Don't Even Think About It (Sarah Mlynowski)

Don't Even Think About It
The Don't Even Think About It series, Book 1
Sarah Mlynowski
Ember
Fiction, YA Humor/Romance/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: They used to be ordinary sophomores in New York City, sharing nothing but homeroom 10B at Bloomberg High School in Tribeca. Many didn't even talk to each other - save Cooper, who couldn't seem to shut up. But after they got their flu vaccines, everything changed...
Now they all know what Mackenzie did during summer break with the hot senior boy in her apartment building, despite being Cooper's girlfriend. Now they know how Olivia's taking after her hypochondriac mother even though she hates it, and how Tess obsesses about weight. Now they know Sadie was the first in the class to lose her virginity, though she wishes her boyfriend would use a breath mint once in a while.
Somehow, the injections gave them telepathic powers. And life - plus Mackenzie's upcoming Sweet Sixteen bash - is going to get a lot more interesting... and a lot more dangerous.

REVIEW: It looked like a lightweight little young adult tale, some high school angst and humor with a sci-fi twist, and I was looking for a quick read. While it did read fast, it turned out to have a lot more heft to it. It's also the first tale I can recall reading written in first person plural; thanks to telepathy, the viewpoint often bleeds between characters, yet with more intimacy than generalized omniscient narration, the whole becoming more than the sum of its parts. This made for a more interesting read than I'd anticipated, in a good way. The students find their ordinary lives turned upside-down now that nobody - not their teachers, not their families, not their classmates or even strangers on the street - can keep secrets from them. Reactions range from panic to despair to utter elation, often mingled together as drawbacks and opportunities related to ESP present themselves. There's some teen angst, and hookups and breakups (not always obvious choices), but with the added telepathy element none of it came across as cheesy or contrived; these are well-rounded characters, not gum-popping demographic cardboard cutouts. The ending felt a little rushed, but since there's a sequel I'm giving it the benefit of any doubt. I'll have to track down more works from this author, I expect; anyone who can pull off first person plural is someone I want to read more of. (I also found it a far more interesting tale of involuntary telepathy than Connie Willis's Crosstalk, for all that the latter tale and author are so celebrated; every single sophomore had a more mature reaction to their power than Willis's heroine...)

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Friday, April 6, 2018

Snow White and the Seven Robots (Louise Simonson)

Snow White and the Seven Robots
The Far-Out Fairy Tales series
Louise Simonson, illustrations by Jimena Sanchez S.
Stone Arch Books
Fiction, CH Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time on the distant planet Techworld, the Queen's scientists created an heir to the crown... but the jealous ruler sabotaged the process, creating a hideously pale baby with ugly red lips and dark hair, entirely unfit to take the throne. When young Snow White's intelligence threatens her own, the Queen sends her off to live with a trash collection robot in the filthiest part of Low Town, hoping to break the girl's spirit - but when the girl thrives, the Queen resorts to extreme measures.

REVIEW: Snow White gets an imaginative sci-fi twist in this graphic novel. Instead of beauty, it's brains that fuel the evil Queen's jealousy, but of course Snow also has compassion, kindness, and all the other traits that ultimately make her a better person and gain her needed allies. The girl's a tech whiz, using her prodigious robot repair skills to win friends among the downtrodden humans and robots of Techworld and beyond. The "prince" is an apprentice scientist from Low Town who proves an ally long before the poisoning incident (which isn't solved with a kiss.) I trimmed it a half-point for being a bit too flat, and for a slightly questionable choice to emphasize the white skin of Snow against the green evil Queen (which I expect, or rather hope, wasn't meant to have a racial subtext, but still made me pause.) Younger readers, particularly girls looking for brainy heroines, would doubtless enjoy it more. As Snow White adaptations go, I've seen far worse.

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The Black Count (Tom Reiss)

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
Tom Reiss
Broadway
Nonfiction, Biography/History
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: In the classic adventure tale The Count of Monte Cristo, author Alexander Dumas relates a harrowing tale of a man wrongfully imprisoned. The model for his hero was none other than his own father, Alexandre Dumas. Born in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue, son of an exiled French nobleman and a black slave, Alexandre would rise as one of the great heroes of the French Revolution... only to fall into poverty and obscurity under his one-time colleague and rival, the future emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

REVIEW: I admit to being one of the unlettered masses who hasn't read either The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers, mostly familiar with them through cultural osmosis - works that were, in no small part, the younger Dumas's memorials to his unjustly forgotten father, not to mention a thumb in the eye of those who willfully buried his legacy, at least as much for personal reasons (Bonaparte himself grew to hate the man who overshadowed him literally and figuratively on the battlefield) as political (his mixed-race ancestry made him unpopular in an increasingly racist Empire.) Reiss tracks down obscure memos, letters, and news clippings to piece together the story of the real General Alexandre Dumas, a man who in many ways embodied the euphoric rise and catastrophic fall of the French Revolution and its fledgling ideals of true racial equality. Though his noble bloodline afforded him advantages over many other mixed-raced children, only during the Revolution could he rise to the rank of full general... but, even at its height, the sociopolitical experiment seemed destined to fail through its own overzealousness in pushing its ideals across a Europe that was patently unready for them, under successive leadership models ill-equipped for the long-term prospect of practicing what it preached... models that utterly failed to foresee the growing backlash of those disenfranchised by the Revolution, not to mention a politically savvy opportunist like Napoleon co-opting the whole movement for personal profit and power. (One sees unsettling echoes in how modern democracies seem to be backsliding, the gains of decades or even centuries all too easily undone at the cry of a handful of demagogues exploiting loopholes to gain power... but, I digress.) It's a remarkable story, though it lost a half-star for losing some of its steam in the middle, wavering and wandering enough for my attention to slip. There's also an overall larger-than-life sense to how Alexandre Dumas is portrayed, as though the author were channeling the general's devoted son and painting a portrait of a lionized demigod rather than a man - a very remarkable man, but a mortal man nonetheless. Still, it's a story that deserves to be remembered, one that even modern historians seem oddly reluctant to honor (as witnessed by the "results" of modern-day efforts to see Dumas recognized in a France that still holds his son in high esteem, yet has not one single, solitary statue or official memorial to the father who so greatly influenced his work.)

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