Category Archives: Reading

Tuesday’s covers are full of grace

Hannes Bok gives us a weird one. Unfortunately his writing wasn’t as good as his art.I’ve no idea what’s going on in this V.E. Pyle cover either, but I’d like to.This Walter Brooks cover is good, but it makes Simak’s amazing Time and Again look much more mundane than it is.

This Mel Crair cover — the guy’s face looks he’s either having a stroke or about to hulk out.

And here’s what looks like creative marketing of a Vonnegut book to make it cooler. Art is uncredited.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Bones, sports and saucers: Books read

Sarah Beth Durst’s THE BONE MAKER is an excellent fantasy that never quite goes where I expect. Protagonist Kreya is one of the band of heroes who defeated the dark magician Elkor a quarter century ago, saving the realm. She lost her husband, however, and has spent the decades using Elkor’s bone magic (all magic in this setting comes from bones) to resurrect him briefly at the cost of her own life (one day for spouse, one less day for her).

Desperate for bones that will allow her to raise him permanently, she recruits one of her former friends — now living a glamorous life as a retired hero and businesswoman — to help revisit the battlefields of the war and steal human bones (which is ethically an absolute taboo). Unfortunately the trip reveals that Elkor lives, so the two women recruit their former allies to fight the battle again.

It’s unusual enough to have a team of heroes in their late forties, but the book heads off into other directions from there. If you’re expecting a big battle against the forces of darkness — well, we get one eventually, but it’s much more a story of personal struggle, politics and making peace with the past than of battles. Very well done.

SIDELINED: Sports, Culture and Being a Woman in America by Julie DiCaro didn’t surprise me with the news that sports and sports reporting are a boys’ club. DiCaro’s first person accounts of an industry where just hearing a woman read the news can turn fans into trolls (they go to sports to get away from women, dammit!), rape and abuse allegations get “manitized” (man + sanitized — DiCaro didn’t coin the term, but I thank her for introducing me to it) and despite the growing number of female sports fans, the number of women reporters is still few and far between (which DiCaro says discourages them supporting each other — if there’s only one female reporting gig at a given station, it’s hard to bond with the competition) is still compelling reading. While I’m done adding references to Undead Sexist Cliches, I’d certainly have included elements of this book if I’d read it last year.

From my perspective, SILVER SCREEN SAUCERS: Sorting Fact From Fantasy In Hollywood’s UFO Movies by Robbie Graham has a lot of problems with the fact/fantasy boundary itself: Graham’s a UFO believer convinced the government cover-up is a thing and that most Hollywood UFO films are government propaganda preparing us for the Big Reveal. This spends way too much time for my taste (I was looking at this for Alien Visitors of course) on UFO cases and history and some of his assumptions are, to put it kindly, strained. It’s true that The Thing From Another World and It Came From Outer Space both have a saucer crashing Just Like Roswell, but “flying saucer crashes” is something writers are perfectly capable of coming up with on their own.

That said, Graham does make a few good points, such as how even in films where the Defense Department knows all about aliens (e.g., Independence Day), the military never has any plans in place for fighting them. And the book does remind me that many people who worked on these films are indeed UFO believers, which I definitely need to mention. That said, there’s a lot of silliness and unconvincing speculation, plus a few small errors (the UFO in The Flying Saucer is not a Soviet flying ship). Not a total waste of money, but close.

#SFWApro. Covers by Damonza (t) and Gil Kane (b), all rights to images remain with current holders.

 

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So I bought a book of Virgil Finlay art

Phantasms is my third such, because Finlay’s art is just gorgeous. So here’s some Finlay art. First, from “Yesterday’s Doors” by Arthur J. Burks.Next from The Shadowy Third by Ellen GlasgowAnd a scene from a book called The Hobbit.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Action films explained and some so-so comic collections.

Rereading ACTION SPEAKS LOUDER: Violence, Spectacle and the American Action Movie by Eric Litchtenfeld proved a good move as he has excellent insights about Predator, Independence Day and the Spielberg War of the Worlds. Lichtenfeld argues that the action film (as opposed to war films or PI films  with lots of action in them) starts in the 1970s with Dirty Harry and Death Wish

— bringing Western themes of violent vengeance to urban setting. Then the genre goes through phases including the Schwarzenegger/Stallone era of buff musclemen, martial arts from Stephen Segal and Churck Norris, Die Hard knockoffs and disaster films (which is where he sees Independence Day falling), all with running themes such as revenge, captivity narratives and fetishized weapons. While I might quibble with Lichtenfeld’s genre boundaries in spots, overall this is excellent.

THE WOODS: The Arrow by James Tynian IV and Michael Dialynas has a high school mysteriously transported into the middle of an alien forest. They have no running water, a limited food supply, there are monsters outside; the president of the student council does what she can, an ex-military gym coach becomes obsessed with imposing order and an antisocial needs leads a party in pursuit of a possible answer. Like Summit last week, this is too by the numbers, though it’s a more interesting book.

ETHER: Death of the Last Golden Blaze by Matt Kindt and David Rubîn is the story of Boone Dias, a scientist cum detective (he seems very Sherlock Holmes to me) investigating crimes in Ether, a parallel world of magic. Dias doesn’t believe in magic — it’s all science to him — which makes it easier to think analytically about crimes, such as the murder of Golden Blaze, Ether’s great champion. This volume had too much set-up for the series, but it’s a good story nonetheless.

ADLER by Lavie Tidhar and Paul McCaffrey is such a good idea — accurately described as “League of Extraordinary Gentlewoman” — I wish the execution had been better. It’s 1902 in a somewhat steampunk Great Britain, with Queen Victoria still alive thanks to drug treatments from Dr. Jekyll. When nurse Jane Eyre returns from the Boer War, she finds rooms with Irene Adler and becomes embroiled in her latest adventure, thwarting a terrorist attack by Ayesha of Kor — she’s PO’d the British have colonized her kingdom — on London making a bomb out of some of this radium Madam Curie has discovered.

Despite it’s many flaws, Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman uses Victorian characters who are clearly recognizable. Here, however, the characters feel like name-only versions: the nurse character has nothing to do with Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Jane appeared in fiction fifty years earlier. There’s no shortage of characters I might see doing the nursing thing (female PI Loveday Brooke or Polly from the “Old Man in the Corner” stories) so I can’t see any reason to pick Jane beyond name value. And Ayesha’s scheme is not only overly complicated (building a death ray she has no intention of using) it comes too close to the climax of the original LGX. The art is good-looking but in the action scenes I had a hard time following who was doing what to whom. Overall, a disappointment.

#SFWApro. Irene Adler portrait by J. Allen St. John, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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Covers for a Tuesday

First, a Richard Powers cover.Next an uncredited cover with a very, very large newt.Then a thriller cover.And that’s it for today. Second and third covers are uncredited.

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From phantom hitchhikers to slave revolts: books and graphic novels

THE GIRL IN THE GREEN SILK DRESS is Seanan McGuire’s sequel to Sparrow Hill Road, returning us to the ghost roads and the unlife of ghostly hitchhiker Rose Marshall, the Phantom Prom Date. Rose ended the first book on a high note, protected against Bobby Cross murdering her again (the souls of those he runs down or off the road fuel his car and make him immortal) and reunited with her high-school sweetheart.

After a couple of chapters of exposition (I don’t know I’d have gone further if I hadn’t read V1 — but it does help set up Rose’s “normal” compared to what’s coming), Bobby traps her and weakens her protection. A couple of chapters later, he turns her mortal. Rose has powerful allies in the ghost world, but in reality she’s easy prey. Her only hope is a folklore professor who has a grudge against her, but will that be enough when Bobby comes hunting?

There were bits of this that I found cliched — Rose’s reaction to the 21st century could just as easily be Captain America thawing out of the ice — but overall this was great reading and better than the first book. I look forward to catching the concluding volume before too long.

FRIEND OF THE DEVIL: A Reckless Book is part of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ noir series about 1980s PI Ethan Reckless. In this story, his new girlfriend asks him to find the sister who left for Hollywood a decade earlier, then vanished without a word.

The story doesn’t reinvent the hardboiled PI, and some elements of the mystery are stock. Overall it worked, though, and I really liked the emphasis on how different hunting someone was back then — even finding a list of movies the sister appeared in takes work in the pre-Internet age.

UNITY: To Kill a King by Matt Kindt and Doug Braithwaite is set in the same Valiant Universe as Archer and Armstrong and is, I think, a crossover event between several characters (including Armstrong’s brother Gilad, the Eternal Warrior). The medieval warrior known as X-O Man of War has used his powers to bring his Visigoth people back to their ancestral home in Rumania; this freaks out Russia enough that they’re close to going nuclear. Can the telekinetic Harada put together a team to take Man of War out? And what happens after?  As I don’t know any of the cast besides Gilad, I was hardly excited about this book, but it was still fun enough to spend time with.

SUMMIT: The Long Way Home by Amy Chu and Jan Duursema was less engaging. The story involves an astronaut on a blow-up-the-meteor suicide mission; against all odds she somehow survives but with the ghosts of her team in her head and strange powers manifesting in her body. What’s going on? And is it possible even her mentor has a hidden agenda? This is perfectly competent but it felt perfectly formulaic, nothing I haven’t seen a dozen times before.

WAKE: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, by Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martinez, is frustrating because, as Hall shows, there’s so little on the record about the topic: historians often missed signs that women were taking up arms and many sources are inaccessible (Hall’s tried researching slave-ship uprisings at Lloyds of London, but they’d rather their role insuring those voyages be forgotten). While Hall discusses what little we know, most of the book is about her research efforts and the painful feelings diving into this stuff dredges up in her. Don’t get me wrong, that works as a narrative, but like Hall, I wish I could learn more.

#SFWApro. Covers by Aly Hill and Hugo Martinez, all rights remain with current holder.

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From the Civil War to Area 51, and all points in-between! Books read

I picked up SHERMAN’S GHOSTS: Soldiers, Civilians and the American Way of War by Matthew Carr because I understood it to be a look at how Sherman’s concept of total war on the civilian population — though Carr argues Sherman’s bark was more brutal than his bite — affected our concepts of war in the 20th century. The answer, however, appears to be not much: while theorists often invoked Sherman’s policy of targeting the enemy, it doesn’t appear Sherman was a direct influence on the Nazi blitzkrieg or the saturation bombing of Vietnam. So the book doesn’t amount to more than a history of modern warfare against civilians, which didn’t tell me enough that I didn’t already know.

WATCHING SKIES: Star Wars, Spielberg and Us by Mark O’Connell, is the memoir of a British kid about 20 years younger than me on growing up fascinated by movies, particularly the big SF films of the 1970s. I gambled this might shed an interesting light on Spielberg or the Christopher Reeve Superma but it really didn’t, nor did I connect with O’Connell’s personal views of movies, movie-loving and the struggle to see movies (apparently catching even big American films wasn’t that easy in those days). This might have worked better if I was too young to remember this era.

Having read Day of the Triffids and Midwich Cuckoos recently, I figured I’d try John Wyndham’s THE CHRYSALIDS as many people consider it his best work. While I don’t agree, it is very good (as is this Mark Salkowski cover).  The narrator is a kid in what readers can see is a post-nuclear war society where radiation-induced mutations are constant; in the boy’s community, the solution to protecting the gene pool is not to suffer a mutant to live. That makes life extremely uncomfortable for the narrator as he’s one of several kids in a telepathic gestalt; it’s not as obvious as being born with an extra toe, but it’s still not easy to keep the secret. This is familiar stuff — it may have been less so back then — but it works very well.

Somehow I never got around to reviewing the individual collections of Jeff Smith’s BONE when I read them so I might as well review the whole series now. In the opening issue, cousins Fone Bone (the nice one), Smiley Bone (goofy and a little dumb) and Phony Bone (the greedy, not-as-cunning-as-he-thinks one) are fleeing their community (Phony’s latest scam has gotten them in hot water. Wandering into a neighboring valley seems a simple enough solution, but what about the dragon? The pretty girl Fone falls hard for? The cow races? The cosmic war between good and evil?

This starts off as a cute, whimsical story that feels close to the old Disney Duck Tales. Over time it grows into something much more epic, which makes it remarkable that it still works, right up to the end.

BATMAN: Blink by Dwayne McDuffie and Val Semeiks (cover by Semeiks) is two related Batman stories. In the first, Batman crosses the path of Lee Hyland, a blind man with the ability to see through the eyes of anyone he touches. This comes in handy for Hyland’s bottom line — look, here’s someone’s account number and their passwords! — but ith Gotham City plagued by a series of random killings, Hyland’s abilities may help the Bat identify the man behind it. In the second story arc, government agents kidnap Hyland to exploit his ability; when Batman goes looking for him, things get violent. Good stuff.

As I’ll be writing about the fictional appearances of Area 51 in Alien Visitors, I figured I’d check out Annie Jacobsen’s AREA 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Military Base as it seemed to be a serious look rather than conspiracy theorist. Unfortunately the history of secret experimental planes and the people who work on them told me way more than I wanted to know, which is not Jacobsen’s fault. Where I do fault her is that she does slide into conspiracy theories, making a great deal out of the Atomic Energy Commission taking over matters nuclear from the Manhattan Project — I feel as if she was about to blurt out “They were both just covers for Hydra!” And she makes a very flimsy case for the Roswell incident being an encounter with Soviet flying saucer technology crewed by kids mutated by Dr. Mengele’s WW II research.

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Covers for Tuesday

A neat Shadow cover by George Rozen.I have no idea what’s going on in this Robert Bonfils cover, but it does manage to be both interesting and suggestive.

And this uncredited thriller cover.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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From a future shadow to ancient Rome: books read

THE SHADOW by James Patterson and Brian Sitts is a bad, pointless effort to reboot the franchise for 21st century readers (though given Patterson is a name brand, that’s not to say it won’t work). In 1937, an attack by archfoe Shiwan Khan leaves Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane poisoned and dying, but Cranston’s prepared for this worst case scenario. They’re both placed in suspended animation (this was a trick used with Sherlock Holmes in three different stories back in the 1990s); Cranston thaws out healed in 2087 but where’s Margo?

Part of the problem is that this handwaves the Shadow’s magazine and radio stories as fiction based on the real exploits of Lamont Cranston, socialite PI and adventurer (Marvel has used a similar premise to retcon some of its Golden Age comics). It’s pretty much a Name Only take on the Shadow — he and Shiwan Khan can now levitate and throw force bolts — which doesn’t work for me as a long-time fan. If I approach the book as a totally separate creation, it still doesn’t work. There are a few nice touches — witnessing the dystopia of 2087, Cranston assumes the Depression never ended — but it’s 90 percent uninspired and bland. The main new character has a connection I guessed just from reading the synospis, yet it’s written as if we’ll all be shell-shocked by the Big Reveal.

THE FROZEN CROWN by Greta Kelly has as protagonist a queen in exile who’s also a secret necromancer (witches are not well thought of). Having her kingdom under the Empire of Doom, she arrives in the capital of the Empire Of Sort-Of Justice to enlist support for reclaiming her land. Obstacles include the complexities of the empire’s Byzantine politics and the cult of mage-haters hoping the empire will back their belief in not suffering a witch to live. Fantasies involving politics don’t always work for me, but this was enjoyable, though the cliffhanger didn’t really work for me.

BROADCAST HYSTERIA: Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News (given the emphasis on the term the past few years, I’m surprised to learn this came out in 2015) by A. Brad Schwartz looks at how Wells, when he was radio’s enfant terrible, decided to perform a fictionalized news broadcast (something already done a couple of times) and settled on War of the Worlds as the subject matter. The results, as Schwartz details, did not panic many people — the usual response was simply to warn others or call the radio station for more information — and many listeners assumed what had happened involved a natural disaster or a German attack. The newspapers, however, were happy to play up the more extreme reactions to show how irresponsible this new medium of radio was. Then a researcher branded the panic as proof Americans were sheeple easily vulnerable to fascist manipulation (like I said, this was pre-Trump) and Welles himself would push stories of panic over the years as his star faded and this became one of the things he was best known for. Very good.

A FATAL THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM: Murder in Ancient Rome by Emma Southon suffers from her efforts to be humorous (too many quips about “This emperor was boring, aren’t you lucky I’m not discussing him?”) but still does a good job looking at how violent ancient Rome was. This included killings that shocked Rome (regicide, killing senators, human sacrifice) and more interestingly those that didn’t — butchering slaves (if one slave killed their owner, every slave in the household died), gladiatorial games and creative methods of executing prisoners. Southon does show Rome wasn’t alaways as black as it’s painted — parents killing their kids wasn’t approved of the way many sources claim — but she argues it saw people fundamentally differently from us. Only a small fraction of the populace had dignitas — enough importance that their lives mattered — while everyone else was disposable. In most cases, death was a private family matter, not anything that involved the government or (largely non-existent) law enforcement. Grim but absorbing reading.

#SFWApro. Cover by Michael Kaluta, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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R’Lyeh vs. New York City: NK Jemisin’s “The City We Became.”

THE CITY WE BECAME by NK Jemisin opens with a hot-tempered street artist, homeless, black and gay. The avatar of the city of Så0 Paolo contacts him to explain he’s the avatar of New York City, which is now becoming sentient, and that the Enemy will object, so the avatar has to prepare for battle.

After the opening scene, we cut to an amnesiac, newly arrived in Manhattan, who winds up fighting off an incursion by a Lovecraftian horror; the amnesiac, it turns out is the avatar of Manhattan. A short while later, he and his new roommate are attacked by the Women in White, an avatar of the same horror. Only not physically — she pulls the trick of reporting them as men of color (and gay men no less) threatening her! The Enemy has more than one method of waging war.

In subsequent chapters we meet the avatars of Brooklyn (woman rapper turned politician), the Bronx (sixtysomething lesbian and street artist), Queens (Indian-American math whiz) and Staten Island (racist white woman who hates living with her abusive dad but can’t bring herself to face the imagined horrors of the rest of New York). The amnesiac is Manhattan. It turns out that because NYC is NYC, one avatar wasn’t enough; the different boroughs have their own manifestations, but if they can’t learn to work together and revive the initial avatar, they’re doomed. The Woman in White is the avatar of R’lyeh, and because human cities achieving sentience wreaks havoc in other dimensions, she’s determined New York’s new avatars must die Which would be extremely bad. As in Atlantis bad.

I read this as part of my ongoing research in response to that Southern Discomfort feedback, but it’s an excellent book in its own right. My only complaints are a)the Woman in White’s dialogue is sometimes creepy as hell (the early scene I mentioned) but other times it’s generic power-mad supervillain (we humans are nothing but amoebas compared to her!). And while I don’t dispute that New York is more multiple cities than a single one, I wonder if it’s that unique — would people from Sao Paolo roll their eyes at being told they can be represented by one avatar? Heck, even the part of the Florida Panhandle where I used to live sees plenty of differences between communities (Destin’s for rich snobs and retirees, DeFuniak Springs is for the rednecks, etc.). But those are minor quibbles.

Like Southern Discomfort this is very much a setting story. As you’ve probably gathered, it’s all about the Big Apple and what makes the Bronx the Bronx and Staten Island Staten Island, and the tensions within the communities. Braca, the Bronx avatar, has to deal with a bunch of smirking white male artists who deliberately troll her gallery with racist-themed art, then go online to rant about how they’re oppressed because Braca wouldn’t accept their work (leading the woman’s sidekick to describe them as “Cthulhu’s tentacled fuckbois.”).

It’s also interesting to see how Jemisin makes the opening compelling even when not a lot is happening. She still makes the scene tense because the avatar is tense. He’s sitting in a fancyrestaurant, conscious that he’s the only black man there, that everyone’s checking him out, that his clothes are threadbare. There’s a lot of internal monologue but Jemisin can even make that interesting.

Like Southern Discomfort this also has multiple narrators, though nowhere near as many as I go through.

Overall I don’t know that I learned anything useful, but it was a terrific book I’d have read anyway.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder; jacket art by arcangel

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