Category Archives: Reading

Reading for fun? Awful!

In an essay on fantasy, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” Ursula LeGuin argued that beautiful writing was essential to fantasy: if you could fit the dialog into a contemporary conversation, it wasn’t really fantasy.

This struck me as a kind of arbitrary rule but apparently AS Byatt expressed a similar view writing about Harry Potter, that fantasy should be “numinous” and Rowling isn’t — her readers are just too clueless to get it. Doris Egan replies that there’s a long tradition of non-numinous fantasy: “These books don’t make you fall to your knees — you’re having too much fun to do that.” And that’s perfectly fine.

M.A. Kropp quotes an even more restrictive view she encountered online, that reading fiction is bad. If you’re not reading to learn, not reading to enrich your mind, you’re just stuffing your brain with junk food. This, again, is a view I’ve encountered forms of before: Joanna Russ once wrote that reading for pleasure (as opposed to Serious Works like her own that tackle Serious Issues) was no different from taking drugs, a way to escape reality (Alan Moore has made similar complaints). This is why I will probably never read anything by Russ.

The idea that people are reading The Wrong Books has a long history. In 19th century England, as literacy became more widespread, there were worries about the working class reading lurid penny dreadfuls instead of uplifting art. In the 1950s, the book Cycle of Outrage says, Clever People Who Talk Loudly In Restaurants worried that American teens (and adults too) were turning to fluffy popular entertainment instead of embracing social realist fiction.

The same view of what makes Good Y/A continued for most of the last centuries. I read many times that teens don’t want fun reading — they’re serious truth-seekers who read to understand life! Which as one book on how school kills the urge to read said, is why the award-winning children and teen books are always Serious and nobody recommends popular favorites like Nancy Drew. As late as 2000 I read an article explaining the Oz books were crap because Baum didn’t discuss serious moral issues like C.S. Lewis did.

As the author of a book on Oz, needless to say I disagree. And my teenage tastes obviously weren’t those of a serious truth-seeker. Just look below (contrary to that one argument above, there’s a lot more to the best Conan than just machismo).That Frank Frazetta cover reminds me specfic has some of the same debates. SF fans who dislike fantasy have spilled a fair amount of ink explaining fantasy fiction is crap (in contrast, as Charles DeLint says, fantasy readers who don’t like SF simply don’t read it). It’s testosterone-laden Conan knockoffs for adolescent boys. It’s gauzy princesses-and-unicorns stuff for girls who don’t wat to deal with all that icky STEM stuff in SF. It doesn’t have carefully thought out scientific rules. Spider Robinson sneered that he’d be interested when someone comes up with a spell that can explain the heart’s loneliness (does he imagine technology can do that?).

A lot of this reminds me of HL Mencken’s definition of a Puritan as a person terrified that someone, somewhere, is having fun. I will never believe there’s anything wrong with wanting to read for pleasure or entertainment. It may not elevate our minds — though entertainment and art can coexist comfortably — but that’s okay. Whatever the appeal of popular fiction, it’s been appealing for a very long time. I don’t think it’s a flaw in our species.

To paraphrase activist Emma Goldman — who was told dancing was incompatible with fighting for political change — don’t join the revolution if it won’t let you dance. Or read.

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

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Books and graphic novels about trouble-making teens

A SH*TLOAD OF CRAZY POWERS: The Frost Files 4 by Jackson Ford has series hero Teagan Frost (genetically engineered for TK by mad scientist parents, now working for a black ops West Coast operation) narrowly survive an encounter with her metahuman siblings, a side effect of which is losing her powers. That proves really unfortunate as the senator who signs off on the operation’s budget insists on having her s his bodyguard during a West Coast visit — and wouldn’t you know, they wind up at the epicenter of a terrorist attack?

This is competent, and some of the plot twists were completely unexpected. It didn’t grab me, though, as I expected more powers, less straight action thriller. And Frost’s superior Tanner is a stock hardcase character, like DC’s Amanda Waller without the characterization she had in Suicide Squad.

SHE COULD FLY by Christopher Cantwell and Martin Morazzo focuses on a mental patient obsessed with a mysterious woman flying over her city. Unfortunately I have zero patience with “freaky thing happens, oh look, it’s the delusional person’s unreliable narration” and Cantwell is having a ball indulging in it. I sent it back to the library after finishing the first chapter.

SPIDER-GWEN: Most Wanted? by Jason Latour and Robbie Rodriguez has Gwen Stacey struggling to keep up her life as Spider-Woman with having both Kingpin henchman Matt Murdock (it’s a parallel world) and her father Captain Stacey determined to hunt her down. And can she balance her superhero life with her role as drummer for the Mary Janes rock group (alongside MJ, Betty Brant and Gloria Grant)? This is pleasant but doesn’t break much fresh ground (admittedly most comics don’t) and the rhythym of the dialog is too familiar, the bantering style I keep seeing in lots of comics

LIVEWIRE: Fugitive by Vita Ayala and Raul Allen is a less satisfying Valiant Universe teen hero. A Psiot with control of technology and electricity, Livewire spends way too much time in the middle of the book  debating Needs of the Many with another Psiot, and the fact she once shut down the world’s entire electrical grid (hence being targeted by the powers that be) should have been mentioned soonner than it was.

NANCY DREW/HARDY BOYS: The Big Lie made me wonder if it would be about Trump’s election claims but no. Instead this has Nancy, Frank and Joe reunite years after they played teen detective games during summer vacation (I really hate they erase the teen detective stuff where the CW Nancy Drew embraces it). Now, it’s serious: someone murdered the Hardy Boys’ dad, Nancy’s discovered her dad is nont the person she thinks and these innocent childhood figures are All Dark And Gritty It’s Soooo Noir CAN YOU STAND IT? I could stand it but I wasn’t blown away by it.

JANE AUSTEN: Her Heart Did Whisper by Manuel Santoni is a look at Young Jane, how she became a writer and the possibility of a lost love in her younger days. Like most of this week’s reviews, I liked it but I didn’t love it.

#SFWApro. Cover by Rodriguez, all rights remain with current holder.

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Cobras, cleavage and covers!

This Robert Bonfils cover certainly catches the eye with its mix of sex and death.Jeff Katherine Jones (the artist transitioned) gives us one of his Frank Frazetta-style covers.A rather Dali-esque cover from Richard Powers.A couple of robot covers. First a cute one from HW McCauley — seriously, what’s the woman scared of?A more ominous metalloid from H. Lawrence HoffmanAnd another Powers to finish off with.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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A wicked day for amnesiacs and flight attendants: books read

Mary Stewart wrapped up the story of Merlin in The Last Enchantment but then went ahead and gave us the Fall of Arthur in a final, fourth volume. THE WICKED DAY blew me away the first time I read it and it impresses as much on rereading (and I really like Steven Stone’s cover). What makes it work is that it’s the only time I’ve seen Mordred written as a rounded person rather than a complete villain (though often an entertaining one).

As covered in the earlier books, Morgause saved Arthur’s bastard from the massacre of baby boys arranged by Morgause’ husband Lot (though widely blamed on Arthur). Mordred is happy growing up as a fisherman’s son, but then a chance meeting with Gawain brings him to Morgause’s court. From there, events eventually lead him to Camelot, where he discovers Arthur is not the blackhearted villain of Morgause’ stories but a truly great king. Then Arthur reveals who Mordred’s father really is …

Stewart says in the afterword that the earliest sources to reference Mordred make no mention of him as Arthur’s enemy, but she’d already prophesied him as Camelot’s doom and couldn’t see a way around it. However she handles it beautifully — Mordred is ambitious, sure, but had events played out a little differently than they do at the climax, he’d never have set himself up as king. Stewart even shows Mordred has the potential to be a great king, taking what Arthur’s built up and improving on it. Alas, it’s not to be … a terrific finish to a great series.

When I found it in the library, SIRI, WHO AM I? by Sam Tschida looked like classic thriller material. The twenty-something protagonist wakes up in a hospital bed, amnesiac and has to figure out who the heck she is. Unlike characters from forty or sixty years ago, she does it in past by studying her cell-phone’s Instagram feed, Uber history and text messages. It turns out she’s a dynamic entrepreneur with a cool match-making website and an amazing boyfriend — or is that just the face she shows to the world?

My assumptions about the book are partly to blame for why it didn’t grab me: it’s not a thriller but a chick lit/New Adult novel about the protagonist finally outgrowing her shallow influencer role and getting real. That wasn’t as interesting to me, and led to further misconceptions: to me, the guy who’s so nice and helpful screamed “I’m the one who tried to kill you!” but no, he’s just a nice guy.

THE GREAT STEWARDESS REBELLION: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet by Nell McShane Wulfhart made an interesting companion to Jet Sex, taking us back to the 1960s when stewardesses were hemmed in by weight restrictions, height restrictions, age restrictions and makeup and dress requirements. Worse, their membership of the Transportation Workers Union produced no benefits as the union refused to take women’s complaints seriously (one leader declaring in the 1970s that they’d kick out the feminists just like they had the commies). Eventually, however, the stewardesses pushed back against both the airline rules and the TWU, forming their own union and turning flight attendant jobs from a brief pre-marriage phase (those age requirements got a lot of women tossed out) to careers. A bit more detail than I needed, but that’s not the author’s fault.

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From WW I to WW II: books

A PEACE TO END ALL PEACE: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin shows how the roots of the conflicts continuing to tear apart the Middle East go back to the misconceptions of the Allied Powers in the Great War: that the Young Turks who’d taken over the Ottoman Empire were puppets of Jewish interests; that if Britain controlled the caliph of Islam, they’d control the tnire region; and so on. The officers on the front lines made their own share of errors: Fromkin concludes the Navy could have taken Constantinople and avoided the disastrous Gallipolli campaign but the commander got cold feet and decided to wait for the Army instead.

The end result? A longer war, a badly designed peace and a failure to enforce the peacetime settlement Europe wanted due to a reluctance to keep a massive presence in the area (though our own occupation in Iraq shows that a heavy occupation force might not have been a game changer), feuding among the allies, resistance among men in the field (a lot of British officers opposed England’s support for a Jewish homeland in the region) and continued misunderstanding (David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism discusses a lot of the same misconceptions). Dry and very detailed, but interesting.

MURDER BY MATCHLIGHT by ECR Lorac is one in a long mystery series about Det. MacDonald, this one taking place during the London Blitz. The strike of a match in the pitch darkness draws the eye of one witness to a murder; MacDonald investigates the case which involves a silent killer, a number of show folks and and Irishman who faked his own death. This is too old-school for me, with lots of reconstruction of people’s whereabouts on the night of the murder and a long and rather dull explanation of the case at the end. Where it stands out, though, is the backdrop: houses destroyed, people fleeing bombings or displaced by them, entire blocks gone, and the fatalistic acceptance of it all (in a tone distinctly grimmer than the stereotypical Stiff Upper Lip).

Reading that prompted me to check out Connie Willis’ BLACKOUT and see if the complaints about how she treats the death and disaster of the Blitz as an amusing theme park were valid. After reading the book, I think they’re codswallop: the various time-traveling historians do find some fun in their journeys but there’s also death, destruction, fear and desperation. That said, I found it a very dull book, closer to a historical slice-of-life than anything else. That would have worked at 300 pages, perhaps but at 500 it just drags on too long with not enough narrative spine to support it — and there’s another volume behind it to wrap up the story (it shows my lack of enthusiasm that I settled for reading the synopsis on Wikipedia).

As none of the covers of this week’s reading grabbed me, here’s a Joe Kubert cover from a WW II story instead.#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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Antihero: is he worse than his society?

One of the panels I sat on at ConGregate in July was on writing antiheroes. The inevitable question came up, what’s the boundary line between antiheroes and villains? I forget which author said it — I think it was Michael Williams but I’m not sure — but someone suggested the test is “Is he worse than the society he’s fighting against?”

This makes a lot of sense to me. In V for Vendetta, for instance, V is a coldblooded killer and terrorist but he’s fighting to overthrow a fascist British state. Their evil justifies him not playing by Marquis of Queensbury rules. In the 1942 movie The Glass Key (and the novel it was based on), Alan Ladd’s protagonist is a crook, the right hand of the local political boss. He uses unscrupulous tactics to get the job done — beating people up, locking up a witness so they can’t testify — but the job is clearing his boss and friend (Brian Donlevy) of a murder rap he’s being framed for. So he’s still the good guy.

On the other hand, when Tony Stark in Marvel’s Civil War crossover event engages in unscrupulous tactics like a fake assassination, which he arranged to build support for superhumans registering with the government. That’s … not justifiable, any more than Marvel’s Man on the Wall. Simply asserting it’s a dirty job but it has to be done — and in Tony’s case, it didn’t — doesn’t make you an edgy antihero. Tony became a villain. And Ben Urich not reporting the story doesn’t make him much better.

Another measure of an antihero is whether you enjoy watching them do their thing. There’s a point in The Most Hated Man on the Internet where Anonymous sets out to destroy revenge-porn pioneer Hunter Moore: they shut down his site, empty his bank accounts, erase his Social Security number and have him declared legally dead for a month. One guy watching this unfold comments that while he totally does not approve of those tactics “it sure is fun watching.”

That’s definitely part of it. George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman is much worse than the Victorian society surrounding him; what makes him a success is his total lack of principles and outrageous cowardice. He’s fun to watch (though not so much I became a regular reader of the series). Lots of stories that focus on a criminal protagonist such as the British comic-strip villain the Spider or the heist film Rififi rely on the same principle: make them engaging enough and we’ll want them to succeed (the Spider also spends most of his time fighting other criminals). I wish I’d thought of that while the panel was ongoing.

#SFWApro. Cover by David Lloyd, all rights remain with current holder.

 

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Let’s look at some cover images shall we?

Two by Jack Gaughan. And yes, that’s the same John Jakes now known for North and South.One by Sergio Leone for this James Bond/SF adventure mashup.I believe Robert McGinnis did this Carter Brown cover. Less skin than usual for that series, but the trippy wallpaper makes it, like the Leone, very much of its time.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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Eternals, British comics and some Valiant heroes: graphic novels

The Eternals are Marvel characters who’ve never interested me outside of Jack Kirby’s original Eternals series — they’re such a very Kirby concept I don’t care what anyone else does with them. ETERNALS: Only Death is Eternal by Kieron Gillen and Esad Ribic doesn’t change that.The concept of the Eternals since the original Bronze Age series (see above for Kirby’s art) is apparently that they’re some kind of machine life serving Earth (which is also a machine) to protect humanity for the Celestials (this is close enough to Chloe Zhao’s Eternals I assume it’s as much an influence as Kirby). They’re not immortal per se, but the machine resurrects them when they die — except it’s not happening, Zuras is dead and they need to find out why? While the narration is often amusing, the story’s so-so and way too much stock recycling of Burden Of Immortality tropes. The Big Reveal about how the machine really works didn’t impress me at all. So I’ll skip Vol. 2

STEEL CLAW: Invisible Man by Kenneth Bulmer and Jesus Blanco collects the beginning of a long running British comic strip (this comes from the early 1960s and lasted on into the next decade) about Louis Crandall, who as a result of a freak lab accident gets the power of temporary invisibility whenever he’s exposed to electricity — except for his eponymous prosthetic. At first he uses his power for crime but by the end of the book he’s reformed and settled down (he thinks) to a quiet, ordinary life. This will, obviously, not work out. The art is good, the stories are decent.

DR. MESMER’S REVENGE by Donne Avnell and Carlos Crus was a much less successful collection. Mesmer is a somewhat deranged collector of Egyptian antiquities; when some crooks rip off his collection, he reanimates the mummy Angor to hunt them down and reclaim his goods. As Angor isn’t very fussy about collateral damage, Scotland Yard is soon involved in trying to stop him. This premise also shifted as it went along but doesn’t really hit its stride until Mesmer gets hurled back in time to ancient Egypt alongside some of the cops, then returns with even more powers. Part of the problem is that Tom Stone, the bobby trying to stop him, never really gets as much heroic action as Tim Wilson in Black Max. Overall, this was forgettable.Now some Valiant stuff — BLOODSHOT: Book One by Tim Seeley and Brett Booth focuses on the eponymous nannite powered hero, seeking to atone for the wrongs he did when he was working for the bad guys. As some online reviews put it, this is a very 1990s comic book, from the name to the constant Action Action Action (apparently this ignores some of the past character work on Bloodshot, whom I’m unfamiliar with). That said, I enjoyed this.

RAI: Book One by Dan Abnett and Juan José Ryp continues the adventures of another Valiant hero, in a distant future SF setting. Rai is a Japanese cyborg who overthrow the tyrannical Japanese AI Father and now seeks the remaining components of Father’s programming to destroy them too. It’s readable but not quite as interesting as Bloodshot, despite me liking lots of Abnett’s earlier work

MY LITTLE PONY/TRANSFORMERS: Friendship in Disguise by multiple creators is more fun than anything on this page except Steel Claw. The Changeling Queen of the Ponyverse attempts to summon other Changelings as allies, gets the Transformers, and we have a series of short stories where different ponies and robots pair up. This suffered from me barely knowing the My Little Pony stories at all (and this doesn’t make me want to read them more) but the same is true of Rai and Bloodshort and I still liked this better.

#SFWApro. Bloodshot cover by Booth, not sure who did the crossover image. All rights remain with current holders.

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And this week Wednesday also means covers …

The corrections process on the PDF for Aliens Are Here is going smoothly so I would probably have managed a post if not for the power outage today. On the plus side, it was brief so our food in the fridge didn’t spoil. I did a lot of cooking last weekend so I would not have appreciated that.

I’m always a sucker for the old Ballantine Books covers. This one’s uncredited.

I imagine the story behind this Emmett Watson cover isn’t as supernatural as it looks.The puzzle is why the woman on this Ed Emshwiller cover is wearing a radio telescope for a hat.One of those Evening Gowns in Space covers, but by Walter Popp rather than Earle Bergey.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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You know what Tuesday means — covers!

Ed Valigursky’s alien here looks rather cute, don’t you think?Ed Emshwiller offers a cool cover.And this one’s uncredited.#SFWApro. Rights to images remain with their current holders.

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