Saturday, July 30, 2016

[Book Review] Bloom County Episode XI: A New Hope

Bloom County Episode XI: A New Hope / Berkeley Breathed (Powell's Books)

I remember reading and re-reading my stepfather's volumes of Bloom County and all the antics within.  For me they were the next reading step from Calvin and Hobbes, a mix of seriousness and irreverence that I may not have always understood, but I certainly adored.  Jokes that I didn't get I strove to understand, and sometimes the strips weren't jokes but reflections on life itself.

When Breathed relaunched Bloom County via a Facebook page I was among the hordes of excited fans.  I was also better situated to understand more of the layered (and sometimes not so layered) humor within the strips.

I haven't read all the strips he's published on Facebook thanks to limiting algorithms and limitations of form factor (if I'm on my phone it's a significant hassle to read them).  The fact that he's publishing them as a book excited me to no end.

Bloom County Episode XI: A New Hope is a delight.  It had me laughing and crying, and sometimes just hitting me so hard in the chest that I had to stop and re-read a strip again.  Some of the characters are older, others un-aged, yet the world has moved forward and the characters stay deeply aware.  It's a wonderful madcap reflection of the world we live in, bring irreverent joy to the reader.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

[Book Review] The Book of Phoenix

The Book of Phoenix / Nnedi Okorafor

This is a book about the hubris and folly of mankind, of a desire to live free, and the birth of myth and religion.

A man in the desert stumbles across a treasure trove from the past.  A cave full of computers and a remnant power source that somehow survived the scouring of the earth so long ago.  And the memories of a unique woman that was at the epicenter of it all.

Tower Seven made up Phoenix's whole world.  By all appearances, a 40 year old woman of African descent and voracious intellect.  But appearances can be deceiving.  As a SpeciMen, deliberately conceived, with accelerated growth, and living her whole life under intense study, the world does not recognize her as human.  Perhaps that is how they so overestimated their control over her, her acquiescence and submission to their rule.  In the end she became the apocalyptic monster, but only in response to repeated brutality, lack of respect of life, dehumanization, and loss.

In the end her story becomes the birth of a new faith, perhaps a new fanaticism in its own right.

A short book with quite a bit packed in to it, and an ending that may leave you feeling mixed.  Okorafor is definitely a writer to follow.

Advance Reader Copy courtesy of DAW (Penguin RandomHouse) in exchange for an honest review; changes may exist between galley and the final edition.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Lord of the Rings : The Towering Read - Book 3, Chapter 5

Ranger, dwarf, and elf are spooked.  And for various reasons, 'ranger' does get its own label rather than just 'human'.  That Aragorn, as a human, has more vaunted tracking skills than the elf, speaks volumes as to the abilities of the NĂºmenĂ³reans.  Between their various skills, they do a decent job of CSI: Middle Earth, and put together a decent reconstruction of the previous events.

Even the dwarf picks up on the... awareness of the forest.  Again, Legolas as a wood elf has not the familiarity to identify the true nature of the Fanghorn, but does have enough to recognize the nature of it.  We get a gentle reminder of the life spans of elves, even a younger one like Legolas.  Fanghorn is enough to make Legolas feel young, while he is old enough to consider Gimili and Aragorn (the elder of the two) 'children.'

I'm not sure about the direct use of "Treebeard's Hill."  As a story told in third-person, Tolkien has the ability to reference things that the present parties have no knowledge of.  The mention itself both makes sense and breaks the scene for me.

With both known fact and rumors, their assumption of Saruman's presence is the logical one.  Part of me wants to say that even had they not stayed their hand on chance of innocence, that they would have little luck taking on Saruman.  But the power of the Wizards rarely seems that of direct martial confrontation.  They have powers, but even with Saruman do we rarely see direct displays, rather we see their knowledge, cunning, and manipulation of individuals and events.  That being said, if it was Saruman I'm pretty sure letting him talk would be the worst thing they could do.  Fortunately, they met instead an old friend (and just as fortunately, one who is more than capable of defending himself).

Tolkien and Jackson went about building up tension to this reveal in similar ways, playing up on the ignorance of the party.  They've chosen to drop misleading hints in different ways, with Jackson cutting out many of the references to Saruman's suspected mischief (and giving us explicit rabble-rousing) and giving most of the leading hints to the scene with Merry, Pippin, and Treebeard.  Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are equally concerned about the threat of the White Wizard, but less concerned with attacking what could be just an unknown threat.  Jackson goes so far as to distort Ian McKellen's voice such that it sounds like Christopher Lee's (possibly an actual blending of their voices), before revealing his face.

The importance of names and identity come up here.  Gandalf isn't necessarily "Gandalf" anymore, though he is willing to answer to that name.  He even goes on to say "Indeed I am Saruman, one  might almost say, Saruman as he should have been."  He doesn't claim any name, simply acknowledges labels that apply.  The label Gandalf stands as good as any, especially as he is willing to to answer to it.  But we need to keep in mind that he is not the same person, even if he has mostly the same memories and goals.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Lord of the Rings : The Towering Read - Book 3, Chapter 4

This chapter has been foreshadowed since the very beginning of Lord of the Rings.  Little things here and there, rumors and stories about trees that walk.  Something about the ents has always stood out to me, there's a special place in my heart for the Treeherders, and this read-through the seeds leading up to their revelation really stood out.  Perhaps part of the hook is the fact that even the wood elves are barely aware of ents, relegating them to legend status.  The Treebeard is a being that considers Saruman "young."

When Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard we have the meeting of two races that have largely dropped out of knowledge of Middle Earth.  The contrasts between hobbit and ent are pronounced, but both are races with many names and that love green things.  Hobbits can be considered hasty by more than just ents, but I'd argue that they have a similar love of words, language, and speech, just expressed differently.  I love that ent names are stories, the idea that "Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to."

I've long wondered if Old Man Willow is one of the changed ents that Treebeard mentions.  There's nothing to confirm one way or the other - perhaps Old Man Willow is one of the trees that was half-woken and has a 'bad' heart.  Treebeard does confirm that there are such trees in the Old Forest to the north when Merry inquires.

It's important to remember that ents largely exist outside the morality of the rest of the world.  Sauron upset Treebeard not because he is evil, but because he interfered with the Greenwood.  Similar to Tom Bombadil, but with more of nature's fury and destruction when they wish to bring it to bear.  The ents are moving, but they move with roused purpose rather than impassioned anger.

While the book heavily foreshadows the ents, Jackson gives us very little lead in.  Shortly before things go all to hell with the orcs, Merry & Pippin briefly discuss stories of tree-herders and the possibility of the forest itself resenting the orcish intrusion.  Our actual introduction is both a bit earlier and a bit more violent than the book, with Treebeard saving the hobbits from a hungry and quite resentful orc by simply stomping it flat.  While brief conversation occurs, Treebeard treats the two hobbits as some type of 'orcish mischief' and casually inflicting accidental pain to Merry and Pippin.  Merry recognizes the concept of a treeherder almost right off the bat, and is joyously fascinated (or as much as he can be while being uncomfortably squeezed).

The bit about "Maybe you are, maybe you aren't, the White Wizard will know" is a nice touch.  The audience at this point knows that Saruman has set himself up as a power to be contended with, and as one at least in league with (if not planning to overthrow) Sauron, but we've been shown it through his direct actions.  The fellowship knows that Saruman stands as a threat to Middle Earth, but as the audience we know a lot more about his efforts.

Personally, I wish that Jackson had made slightly different decisions in the insertion of different plot lines.  For one thing, Frodo and Sam's pieces are taking place over a slightly longer timeline than everyone else's.  For another it draws out a few parts long than I'd like, and some of the pieces would honestly make more sense otherwise placed.  Having their initial attempt on the gates of Mordor before even the start of the Entmoot seems bizarre, especially when it could be used to further emphasize the extended nature of ent deliberation.  Some of the plot related to Aragorn & Co also runs afoul, but in a (to me) less egregious fashion.  Or, at least I think it does, I haven't reread that far ahead yet.  I may be proven wrong.

However, Merry & Pippin meet Treebeard in Scene 11, we get a little more Scene 14 (Fanghorn Forest).  The Entmoot begins in Scene 35.  Things in Rohan do occur with alacrity, but Merry and Pippin are acting at least a day ahead of everyone else, with I believe the Entmoot starting on the same day that Aragorn and Gandalf confront Theodin.  The timing/spacing of the translation to film seem a bit off to me with all of that.

"The fires of Isengard will spread." The realization that the Shire is not safe, that these two hobbits cannot stay hidden from the world and the coming storm it faces.  The way Jackson had the ents decide against action, then roused them to action makes some sense from a dramatic point of view, but also contradicts what he's already set up.  At introduction, Treebeard is angry.  Not only quick to kill the orc, but hurting Merry and Pippin as he takes them to judgement by the White Wizard as to their orcish status, all the while ranting about the evils of orcs.  That Treebeard is one of anger and some action, even the ents arriving at the Entmoot appear stern and intimidating at the least.  It makes for a bit of a change to resigned "it's not my problem."  On the flip side, Jackson gives more focus on the understanding that grows within Merry and Pippin

Friday, July 15, 2016

[Book Review] The Aeronaut's Windlass

The Aeronaut's Windlass (The Cinder Spires #1) / Jim Butcher

I suppose I should start out saying that I may have a bias when reviewing this book, Jim Butcher has been one of my favorite authors for over a decade.  I started reading The Aeronaut's Windlass with incredible levels of excitement and anticipation, even if it took me until now to read it (and that kids, is the downside of becoming a book reviewer, books you want to read but don't have a deadline for become secondary to books you want to read that do have a deadline).

I was not let down.
Jim Butcher, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Dresden Files and the Codex Alera novels, conjures up a new series set in a fantastic world of noble families, steam-powered technology, and magic-wielding warriors…

Since time immemorial, the Spires have sheltered humanity, towering for miles over the mist-shrouded surface of the world. Within their halls, aristocratic houses have ruled for generations, developing scientific marvels, fostering trade alliances, and building fleets of airships to keep the peace.

Captain Grimm commands the merchant ship, Predator. Fiercely loyal to Spire Albion, he has taken their side in the cold war with Spire Aurora, disrupting the enemy’s shipping lines by attacking their cargo vessels. But when the Predator is severely damaged in combat, leaving captain and crew grounded, Grimm is offered a proposition from the Spirearch of Albion—to join a team of agents on a vital mission in exchange for fully restoring Predator to its fighting glory.
And even as Grimm undertakes this dangerous task, he will learn that the conflict between the Spires is merely a premonition of things to come. Humanity’s ancient enemy, silent for more than ten thousand years, has begun to stir once more. And death will follow in its wake…

As much as I love steampunk and the whole retro-futurism, I always remain wary of it as a plot setting.  So often the result is a book that seems to be screaming "LOOK AT HOW STEAMPUNK I AM!!!!" while bashing me over the head with all the "steampunk" details.  The Aeronaut's Windlass did not fall into that trap, with it's genre-classifying elements actual parts of the plot and story, not gratuitous extras.  Actually, engines are mentioned but I cannot for the life of me remember if a single one is a steam-engine.

It's perhaps a bit of a misconception that the book is about Captain Grimm.  He stands as one of a prodigious core cast in this adventure.  Gwen, Brigit, Benedict, and most certainly Rowl (after all, he is cat) all deserve equal billing at the very least.  I like that we also get chapters dedicated to the antagonists actions as well, getting more than just interaction and reaction.

The Aeronaut's Windlass combines sci-fi and fantasy in a air-ship filled rollicking adventure that brings to mind a mash-up of Shakespeare and The Princess Bride.  We have heroics, tempers, swashbuckling, dastardly villains, battles of wits, revenge, and maybe a little true love on the side.  This tome drops you into the story from page one and seems much shorter than its 750 pages.  I'm not sure where Butcher is taking this story next, but I will be sorely disappointed if it does not include Rowl.

Advance Reader Copy courtesy of Roc (Penguin RandomHouse) in exchange for an honest review; changes may exist between galley and the final edition.

Monday, July 11, 2016

[Book Review] Boy, Snow, Bird

Boy, Snow, Bird / Helen Oyeyemi

I tore through this book and then took quite some time to attempt to process it.  In the end I think the best that I can do is to recommend reading this book.

The story could be historical fiction, it could be fantasy, but I think classifying it as one thing is limiting.  It starts in 1953 and within a fairy tale laced framework explores race, gender, and the things people didn't talk about except behind closed doors.  With a step-daughter named Snow and the focus on aesthetics, the connection to Snow White is easy to make, but it's not as simple as a re-telling of that well known story.

I'm not used to reading stories that tackle the issue of racism so close to where I live, and I think that's unfortunate.  I live in a region with a reputation for being progressive, but sometimes that just means prejudice is better hidden.

This exquisite book is definitely worth reading.

Discussion Fodder
  • What fairy tale elements did you notice in the story?  How do they effect the plot and narration?
  • Is Boy Novak an "evil stepmother" (or is someone else)?  What do you think of her choices and outlook on life?  What roles does appearance (and appearances) play in her life?
  • What do you make of the Whitman clan?  Their takes on race and passing?  
  • What do you think about Arturo and his jewelry?
  • How is race discussed in this book?
  • What do you make of Snow?  Of Bird?
  • Mirrors play a prominent role in both this book and in fairy tales.  What role(s) do they play here?
  • Is the Rat Catcher "under a curse"?  Clearly his life has been shaped by trauma, but were the curse to be broken, would the Rat Catcher remain Boy's father or transform into her mother?

Lord of the Rings : The Towering Read - Book 3, Chapter 3

Merry and Pippin are in a bit of a bind.  In all the confusion it seems our two hobbits ran into a group of orcs, and even Merry separating a number of them from their hands wasn't enough to dissuade the orcs from their new captives.

The orcs are quite fractious.  The whole taking captives thing really isn't their bag, but there's also an understanding of politics and power games as they challenge the power of Saruman vs Sauron.  It's easy to forget that orcs are more than mindless marauders, rather than a dark mirror of the elves.  The orcish argument comes to violence, but at the same time there is a call for resolution not simple slaughter.  "Put up your weapons!" shouted Ugluk.  "And let's have no more nonsense!"

Pippin demonstrates incredible presence of mind.  In the midst of a full on melee between orc factions he orchestrates the cutting of his own bonds and working to plan ahead.  He knows his dive away from his captors is unlikely to succeed, but it does allow him to leave a marker of his presence, knowing that the larger and heavier orcs will obliterate any sign of his own passing.  The Ring and Gollum baiting of Grishnakh was inspired, if incredibly risky.  There's more to Pippin than "fool of a Took!"

Our order of operations between the book and the film has shifted a little.  Jackson gives us this chapter before the pursuit of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, committing to following chronology rather than the order of the chapters.  This gives us a slightly more jumbled story at times, but also keeps the elements a pace and has the potential for a smoother and more integrated storyline.  In this context however, it makes me more aware of the added content.

So it is, we know what happened with Merry and Pippin before their friends do.

Their captivity is streamlined, fewer interactions and opportunities to act out.  Pippin never has the chance to dash off and drop his cloak pin, the hobbits carried and bound hand and foot.  Instead he uses his teeth to pull it free and drop it, giving the only evidence of their continued presence.  Their actual escape is shown through Aragorn's souped up Ranger Senses... or at least through appropriate flashbacks to the audience of what he's tracking.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

[Book Review] The Invisible Library

The Invisible Library/ Genevieve Cogman

I don't deny it, I have a huge weakness for magical librarian shenanigan stories.  Throw in humor and biting wit, and I'm pretty well hooked.

Irene has a mission: slip into an alternative London with her new assistant and retrieve a very specific book.

Unfortunately, she's not the only one after it, and must deal with warring natives, mechanical contraptions, armored alligators, and a very  dangerous rogue Librarian.

The story had me chuckling early on, and is peppered creative and at time grandiose action throughout.  It is also well flavored with steampunk elements without using them to define the story itself.  I look forward to the continuing story.

Advance Reader Copy courtesy of Roc (Penguin RandomHouse) in exchange for an honest review; changes may exist between galley and the final edition.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Lord of the Rings : The Towering Read - Book 3, Chapter 2

With the party fractured a hunt into to the unknown begins.  Fellowship was the start of the physical journey for this story, but The Two Towers is the start of personal journeys and transformations.  Aragorn is beginning to actually long for his birthright rather than shy away from it.  Gondor is calling, even if self-doubt still has him in a strong grip.  We also get inklings of the intelligence and wit of Merry and Pippin.  And we witness signs of changes in the world at large, one where the Lady Galadriel is considered little more than a fable, that word of Gandalf's passing is met with little woe, and of looming threats and shadows.

That the men of Rohan are both cautious and proud surprises me not.  They have as of yet remained free of war and excel in the husbandry of horses like no other.  Wealth such as their herds breeds caution in the best of times, let alone ill time such as these.  Eomer is however an example of nobility and wisdom, catching in that "Strider" is more than he claims and then doing the unthinkable and lending horses to the party so that they may pursue their quarry.  In modern day we think of horses as expensive, but our concept of their worth is nothing compared to what it is in a pre-industrial society.  He's not doing the medieval equivalent of lending his car to a stranger, it's a lot more serious than that.

Personally, I find it a bit interesting that they lose the trail, even if they can deduce where it goes.  A horde of orcs does not make for exactly subtle passing.  But listening to the earth is a neat trick, and I can't help but laugh at "this is the way that the Orcs went after their debate."  There's a lot of good wit in this chapter, not just calling the orc in-fighting.  The barbed exchanges between Gimli, Legolas, and Eomer are fantastic.

Rohan is in a bind.  Like anyone sane they wish to remain free of war, and they're far enough away from the front that they still have the illusion that neutrality is an option.  But that illusion is close to shattering, and Eomer is at least peripherally aware of it, even if it's not something he wants to admit.  He's not out hunting orcs under guidance, he's out hunting down the marauding band on his own initiative because orders would not be given.  Likewise their herds have been raided by agents of Sauron when sale of mounts was refused, and they live in fear of Saruman and the shadow of the White Tower.

As for the king's displeasure with Gandalf, I feel like Gandalf acted a bit out of trickster spite and necessity.  Necessity due to his imprisonment, the dire nature of his news, and limited options due to the dismissal by the king of the news.  Making off with the king stallion means the best mount to carry him out, but also was likely a calculated choice.  In defense of their judgement of Gandalf, he is often a bringer of trouble and bother, but as a meddler rather than as the source.  All that being said, to the men of Rohan (and to most of Middle Earth), Gandalf is a well-traveled man with esoteric knowledge who has some unique surprises up his sleeves.  The loss of Boromir is far more recognizable as a tragedy for them.

Ignorance and misinformation is rife in this chapter.  Some of it is benign, beings so removed from the lives of the other races that they are considered legend if they're even known of.  Hobbits seem to have worked hard on retreating from the world at large, and so that the name "hobbit" is met with confusion and "halfling" as something from a fairy tale.  I can understand the knowledge passing by men, their lives are so much shorter than those of the other races.  It is surprising to me that a wood-elf such as Legolas, young for his race but still long in years, would have little familiarity with the lore of ents beyond speculation and rumor.  But are the rumors and suspicions regarding Galadriel a sign of the elven withdrawal or of Saron's meddling?  And what is the dangerous difference between a wizard and a sorcerer that causes the men of Rohan such suspicion at how they may have earned Galadriel's favor?

Perhaps the most profound statement to me in the chapter is this, "The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others."

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers has been rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences and scary imagery.

Beyond the shifting of chapter one to the first movie, the film of The Two Towers really doesn't start at the same point.  In fact, it starts with the conflict between Gandalf and the Balrog, fighting as they fall, and Frodo waking from a dream.  From there I'm skipping forward several scenes, as the film then continues first with Samwise and Frodo, then to Merry and Pippin, before coming around to chapter two.  Cinematically this serves to strongly hook us with this continuing story, as well as working around the issues of chronology in a story that jumps around, and the segregation the fellowship halves between books three and four.  The movie wouldn't have worked out had Jackson ignored Frodo and Sam until halfway through.

The hunting and tracking is far more concise, but the three don't fall so far behind.  The patter between Gimli and Legolas has really found it's stride, adding a level of engagement that draws us in.

Jackson adds in a build up that the books lack, or that they only show through Gandalf's exposition.  Saruman is actively building up the conflict against Rohan, putting himself on a pedestal as Sauron's equal, and tying into the war-industry of Tolkien's time, "The old world will burn in the fires of industry!"

There is also no question about the corruption of King Theodin, and the power of Grima Wormtongue over the court.  We know how wrong things are in Rohan, and Eomer isn't just leading a hunting party but has been banished.

The appearance of the Riders is way more impressive in the film than in the book, it's easy to forget how large war horses are.  The look on Aragorn's face when Gimli demands a name of Eomer is priceless, that expression of "you're not helping" reads so clear.  Jackson also cut out much of the posturing and discussion between the two groups, cutting neatly into continuing action, the finding of the burning corpses, and the infamous "Viggo breaks his toe" scene.

Tracking the narrative from the book to the film will be a challenge, so I may miss sections going forward, but I'll do my best to follow it all.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Awesome titles coming out in July!

Ok, so let's be honest, most months have awesome books being published and/or reprinted.  But I happen to get monthly offers to review upcoming new and reprinted titles from Penguin's SF/F imprints.  I'm super excited about July's reprints, and there's some rather appealing new titles as well.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
This is a book about the triumph of difficult women, and I mean that in the absolutely best way possible.  (See full review)
The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross (also, The Nightmare Stacks is out!)
Dominique "Mo" O'Brien is having a rough time. She wields a soul-eating bone violin (that's trying to take over her will) in the service of her country, things with her husband are on the rocks, there's a sudden plague of humans manifesting superpowers, and she's expected to do something about at least the latter with the help of her husband's ex's. On top of all that, CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN (the end of the world as we know it) draws inexorably near, and Mo's suffering from a seeming cultural invisibility as a woman of a certain age. (See full review)
The Aeronaut's Windlass (The Cinder Spires #1) by Jim Butcher
Ok, so I'm making an assumption on this one, but I really like Butcher's work.  It's ridiculous that I haven't read this yet, but I've been super busy with the books I need to read for one reason or another.

Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
Aveda Jupiter is San Francisco's most adored superheroine; protecting the city from demon incursions and looking damn file while doing so.  Evie Tanaka on the other hand is perfectly happy where she is, supporting her childhood best friend and generally remaining out of the spotlight.  It's a bit of a crap job at times, with demon blood staining pricey costumes, Aveda's diva tantrums, and the joys of attempting to raise her rebellious little sister, but it's stable and Evie is good at what she does.  Then after an injury takes Aveda off her feet for several weeks, Evie is thrust into the public eye while masquerading as her boss.  From there, things start getting complicated. (See full review)

Paper and Fire by Rachel Caine
This one's continuing the story started in Ink and Bone, and like book one is filled with adventure, danger, magic, and librarians.  Things are quite complicated in Jess Brightwell's life.  He and his friends may be in more danger than they've ever faced, and the danger comes from inside the Library itself.