Book Review

How Wonderful is Wonder Woman?

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I had the pleasure this afternoon of seeing the new Wonder Woman movie as part of the DC Extended Universe. If you don’t want to read everything I have to say, here is the TL;DR: It was excellent…for a DCEU movie. Backhanded compliment? You betcha. And if you have no idea why it’s so backhanded it could win a tennis match, then you will probably love the movie regardless of its faults.

Wonder-Woman-Poster_1200_1778_81_s

First, what I am happy about: This is a strong lead female who kicks ass and doesn’t let anyone tell her she can’t. If they try, she just does it anyway. Okay, she may be a little naive in her blundering forward, but it fits her character. Gal Gadot did an incredible job brining this suffragette inspired heroine to life, and Patty Jenkins did a right good job on the direction side of things, and fans are eating it up. The movie is breaking box office records for woman led and woman directed films, and hopefully Hollywood will take this is as a sign to create more movies with strong female leads and let women actually direct big budget movies now. Up until this movie, female directors weren’t often entrusted with blockbuster movie budgets, regardless of how well they direct. I am praying to all of high heaven that this movie breaks those glass ceilings in hollywood and we get to have more wonderful estrogen derived storytelling. We’ll see.

The male supporting actors did an amazing job, and Chris Pine was a darn sexy Steve. I wish Etta Candy had had more screen time because her comedic moments were priceless. Though Sameer’s line about being unable to find work as an actor because of his skin color and Chief’s acknowledgement that it was Steve’s people who committed genocide on his were almost too real, and beautifully placed. And the soundtrack, my gosh, that was thrilling.

But that’s where my happiness ended.

****SPOILERS AHEAD****

I feel like the writing was lackluster, and the actors did an incredible job in spite of it. Here were the main problems:

  1. The General and Doctor Poison failed to convey their motivation. Maybe it was the fact that the Doc has a ceramic faceplate that she couldn’t act past, or maybe it’s because they don’t give her any kind of motivation or explain WHY she’s got a faceplate. Major missed opportunity, especially when they use her as they did in the final battle. Needed some backstory there, and the General is nothing but a cardboard cutout of a villain. It felt like they were trying to do a Red Skull and failed. Frankly, I would have done away with the character of the General altogether and made a better individual villain out of Doctor Poison. Woman vs. Woman.
  2. You know how when you play video games or role playing games and you work hard to level up your characters? Then someone comes through with a cheat and skips past all the hard work? That’s what feels like happened with their Diana. She didn’t put the work in to earn her special abilities, she can just all of a sudden DO something cool and she’s like, well that’s cool, moving on. I’d expect a few more, “Where the hell did THAT come from?” moments before they reveal her heritage. But no, cheat code activated, let’s use that top level spell right here, right now.
  3. I felt like the movie was puttering along just fine, with a few small complaints, until we reached the point where Diana really goes after who she thinks is Ares. From there, nothing feels right. The pacing is wrong, the fighting is boring, and nothing is earned by the characters. There’s a couple of strong moments, but they’re cheated by almost amateurish special effects and fight sequences that should have been way more epic and inventive. For gods’ sake, you have two gods battling it out. Have some unique ideas about how to frame that and what they can do!
  4. Really? We’re going to end with a moralizing sermon about how love saves all? Oh F*CK you. It was here STRENGTH and PERSEVERANCE that saved mankind. Can a woman be STRONG? Or is that not allowed? Yes, Wonder Woman as she was first written was concerned with love, but she also kicked ass when kicking ass was necessary. Here, let me explain a little bit about where Wonder Woman comes from and why this makes me so mad…

****END SPOILERS****

I found a wonderful book recently called The Secret History of Wonder Woman. It goes in-depth into the life and work of the gentleman who created Diana, Princess of Themyscira: William Moulton Marston. William grew up at the turn of the century and went to school when psychology was just becoming its own discipline. In fact, he was one of the first people to use blood pressure as a way to measure lying and arousal, which led eventually to the lie detector test. He was a strong feminist and supported the suffragettes in their pursuit of the vote, marrying his childhood sweetheart (who had just as many degrees as he did and was a career woman of her own) and carrying on a polyamorous relationship with a suffragette named Huntley. Eventually, they added a fourth to their unique arrangement: none other than the niece of Margaret Sanger who introduced birth control to the US and paid for it dearly.

Cover

Marston worshipped these women and insisted mankind would be better off if it reverted to a matriarchy. His long, rambling, and mostly unsuccessful career eventually led him around to creating Wonder Woman, his paragon of the perfect woman. She was strong, and independent; she was kind and loving. Most importantly, she was more than equal to man and, in one issue, is elected to be President of the United States. Mind you, this was all happening in the early 1940’s which was a last bastion of female advances before the 50’s made the women return to their homes. Diana was a feminist and a believer in female superiority. If Marston had heard those tepid lines about love at the end of the movie, he would have laughed himself silly. Yes, love is a strong weapon in the hands of women, but the movie would have been much better served by sticking to the theme of belief that they started to run with. It was much more powerful, and more in line with the identity of Wonder Woman.

Hugo Awards 2014 (Part 2)

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I’m back with the second installment of my reviews of the Hugo nominations for this year.

Novellas

The Butcher of Khardov – Dan Wells
When I first pulled this out, I admit I was judging a book by its cover. I was afraid it was some pulpy tie-in novel, but it is anything but. Wells has created an incredibly moving and heart-wrenching love story, dislocated in time, with a main character who has gone rather mad, in a world that is a steam-punk fantasy blend (Warcaster’s world, for those of you who game.) I’m going to vote this one best of category because of its subtlety and nuance, which I did not expect to find in a tie-in novel.

Six-Gun Snow White – Catherynne M. Valente
This was a very unusual take on the Snow White story, very dark, very gritty, and set in the Wild West. I would vote this best in category except I felt like she was trying a little too hard to shoe-horn in Native American mythology to the Snow White story and it just didn’t work for me. If I ignored that aspect, it was a fantastic and troubling retelling, just the way it should be.

The Chaplain’s Legacy – Brad R. Torgersen
At least this one didn’t suffer the same fate as his Novelette that’s up for consideration; this story kept me engaged and interested from start to finish. It explores themes of religion and belief and the interference of technology with our connection to the spiritual. It would have ranked higher in my list except that I felt like the main character didn’t really experience any growth. He’s still pretty wishy washy about his own faith by the end of the story and I wanted him to come down solidly on one side or the other by the time the story wrapped.

Equoid – Charles Stross
This was a unique piece of fiction blending the dry british humor of Pratchett’s ilk with the horror of HP Lovecraft. I normally do not care for horror myself, but I was actually able to enjoy this story, even with all the gory bits. However, I felt like it just wasn’t quite polished yet, almost like I was reading a draft, and not a published work.

Wakulla Springs – Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages
The only reason this story is not my absolute number one pick is because I don’t think it belongs in the category for a Hugo. No matter what the authors say, I don’t classify this story as speculative fiction. Yes, the characters talk about all the myths surrounding the springs, yes there are a couple moments that are unreal, but those moments could be the result of hallucinations on the part of the characters, or projection, and, to be honest, don’t lend much at all to the story. If you took them out, the story could function just as well without them. In my mind, this firmly removes the story from the realm of speculative fiction. That being said, it is an absolutely beautiful story spanning three generations of a family and their connection to Wakulla Springs, so you should definitely go read it. Just don’t expect a speculative fiction story.

Fan Artist

Graphic Novels
I missed two of these as they weren’t included in the downloadable judging packet, so I had to go track them down.

Time – Randall Munroe
I am definitely voting this one best in category as it was a new and unique form of graphic novel, a time lapsed experience on the internet that was absolutely beautiful. And what should the Hugo go to, but something new, unique, and exciting? Munroe has been creating fantastic art with a fabulous scientific bent for years now, and its about time something of his was up for nomination. You can travel through Time here.

Saga Volume 2 – Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples
I got volumes one and two from the library and worked my way through them quite quickly. The art is gorgeous and the story line is unique, but I’m still going to put this in second place to Time, simply because Time’s concept is so unique. I also felt that Saga is a bit abrupt in its presentation and could use a little more nuance in its pacing, and there are a few panels in it that are simply there for shock value, which I really don’t care for. But Saga is definitely more engaging, and better written, than the other three graphic novels up for consideration.

Next week, will be the start of Novels! And definitely the art categories. We’ll see how many of the different award categories I can actually make it through, and give them a thorough enough consideration to actually make a judgement call…

Hugo Awards 2014 (Part 1)

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As many of you know, I’ve started reading for the Hugo Award this year, and I wanted to keep you all apprised of the work that’s up for consideration and what I think of it, mainly so that when voting comes up in a few weeks, I can remember why I liked, or didn’t like, certain stories…

That being said, I’ve made it through a few categories already, so here they are, in the order in which I liked them, favorite, to least favorite:

Short Story

“The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” – John Chu
Chu has created a new world where, if you lie, water falls on you from nowhere. Literally, if you tell a whopper, you’re absolutely drenched in cold water. He takes this unusual setting and juxtaposes it with a problem that many people are actually facing today: the struggle of coming out to your family. It is a beautifully written piece, the struggle with the main character’s cultural and personal identities is well balanced and the whole thing makes your heart ache. Definitely voting for this one to be best in category.

“Ink Readers” – Thomas Olde Heuvelt
This fantasy involves a town who is responsible for making sure the wishes wished during a certain festival are fulfilled by their rituals. There is a lot of twists in this one, so I don’t want to say too much more, but it is a passably fun story. The only reason this one falls to second place for me is I felt like it was trying a little too hard to be foreign in the way the prose is presented and its ends up just being a bit convoluted.

“Selkie Stories” – Sofia Samatar
“Selkie Stories” was a total ‘meh’ for me. Its well written, but, as it even says at the beinning, “I’m tired of selkie stories.” This one really didn’t feel like it touched any new ground in the genre, and, in fact, it summarized a lot of older selkie stories within it. If someone was less familiar with that genre than I am, it may have been more enjoyable, but to me it just felt like the same old, same old.

“If You Were a Dinosaur My Love” – Rachel Swirsky
If I could downvote for the Hugo, I would for this one. It is overwrought drivel of the kind I would expect a middle schooler who was pining over the popular boy to write. Just don’t even go there…

Novelette

“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” – by Ted Chiang
I have long been a fan of Ted Chiang, particularly of Lifecycles of Software Objects. I think that novella is absolutely stunning, in both story and design, and so when I saw he had another short story up for consideration, I was stoked. Happily, he does not disappoint with this Novelette. “…Truth…” is a wonderful piece exploring what it means to tell the truth and how we deal with language and memory and how that affects said truth. It juxtaposes a futuristic society debating the pros and cons of a new technology that allows for perfect recall and search-ability of memories to an older story during colonization of a missionary teaching a tribesman how to write and keep records. Definitely try and find a copy of this, if you can, because it is amazing, particularly if you like your speculative fiction to have a bit of meaning behind it.

“The Lady Astronaut of Mars” – Mary Robinette Kowal
This is a heartbreaking story about the first woman who went to Mars and the latter days of her life on said planet with her husband. It is powerful, and moving, but I felt like the end didn’t quite deliver on its potential, hence it drops to my number two spot for this category. It deals a lot with the question of failing health in old age, responsibilities of the generations to each other, and similar topics.

“The Waiting Stars” – Aliette de Bodard
An interesting read, with a fascinating premise, about genetically/cybernetically enhanced humans as the core AI/computer system for ships. The precise details are left purposefully vague, but it sets up a tidy little conflict with a race that believes that this sort of thing is utterly immoral. Again, this dropped in my esteem because I felt like the end didn’t quite deliver, plus the beginning was a little hard to get into and understand what, exactly, was going on.

“Opera Vita Aeterna” – Vox Day
“Opera…” is an interesting fantasy story, featuring an elf studying human religion as though it were a separate magic system from what the elves know of. I rather enjoyed that part of it, the theological and cultural discussion of what religion is and can be, but then the author throws in what I felt was utterly unnecessary carnage, leaving me feeling ‘meh’ about the whole story. There was a lot of potential to create a powerful message about belief, but in the end it just ended up another story about revenge.

“The Exchange Officers” – Brad R. Torgersen
I actually got bored and stopped reading this one. Its space-opera-y but didn’t feel like it was covering any new ground. I skimmed the latter half of the story and, even knowing how the story came out in the end, had absolutely no desire to go back and finish it, so we’ll just leave it at that.

Graphic Novel

The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who – Paul Cornell & Jimmy Broxton
I felt like this was a fun twist on the ‘character visits our world where he is just a character’ trope. Good art, fun story, all around enjoyable.

Girl Genius – Kaja & Phil Foglio
I felt like this one was just trying too hard, with everything. I liked the art the best out of all three, but the writing itself felt stilted and awkward.

Meathouse Man – George R.R. Martin adapted by Raya Golden
I opened this, and closed it again. I have the same problem with this as I have with Game of Thrones: utter gratuity. There is no point to all the nakedness and blood other than to be nakedness and blood and I just don’t feel it adds to the story. I’m all for a good sex scene, or a rousing massacre, but they really need to serve a definite purpose to the plot, and I just don’t feel this does. Sorry Martin fans…

Next up, Novellas! I’ll eventually make it to the novels, I promise…

Finding Hidden Gems

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We had stopped by our local used book store a couple weeks ago while we were out and about and I happened to see a book by Diane Duane that I hadn’t previously known existed. I was very familiar with her Young Wizards Series, and loved them dearly, and here I was, presented with a science fiction novel, Starrise at CorrivaleI got quite excited and bought it immediately, and sat down to read it post-haste.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but what I ended up getting was…very different from what I was used to reading from Diane Duane. The Young Wizards books are very straightforward, with pared down language and a no-nonsense, everyday sort of manner which works well in contrast with the high fantasy she is injecting into the modern world. The opening pages of Starrise, however, were flowery and overly descriptive, setting a lovely scene, but not in the slightest what I’d come to expect from Duane’s writing style. I even went to my bookshelf and grabbed the first of the Young Wizards books to make sure I wasn’t imagining the difference.

Once I got over the initial shock of such a different tone, I started to enjoy Starrise. It is very much a space opera, with blazing guns, marines, aliens, and evil corporate plots. it manages to avoid being cliche for the most part, which was refreshing, and the characters are all engaging and surprising. One interesting note: these sci-fi novels are actually set in the world of a game, Star*Drive, which I had no notion of before picking up this book. They manage to avoid the trap that most licensed books fall into, as they do not require any familiarity with the game to follow and enjoy, and Starrise is a full and complex story of its own. I find many licensed books to fall short on those aspects, so this was a nice change.

If you are in the mood for a somewhat pulpy space opera (which, admit it, we all want now and again) I’d go track down a copy of Starrise at Corrivale. Its well worth the hunt.

By the Skin of his Teeth…

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I was given the opportunity to interview Jim Butcher for The Speculative Craft last week, and he was kind enough to share a pre-press copy of Skin Game with me to read before the launch date today. Which means that now I can tell you what I think, before most of you probably even pick it up.

For all the rabid fans out there, like me, I can assure you, Skin Game does not disappoint. I don’t want to let any spoilers slip, cause I’m just not that kind of girl, but there are a good handful of twists that you don’t see coming, some for the book plot, some for the arc plot, and I really can’t wait until the next book, since Butcher has set up some phenomenally fun plot points to play with down the line. But the writing is solid as ever and the story keeps you turning the page.

I hadn’t realized until I started doing my pre-interview research that Butcher had actually planned out the full character arc for each character for the full 20-odd book series before he sat down to write the first one, which makes me even more excited to see where these characters are going. They’ve already changed so much and we’re already on book fifteen. I find myself day dreaming about where they might end up. I mean, by this time, Dresden has already played with Hellfire, Soulfire, and is now the Winter Knight, how much more powerful can he get? Will he end up running the council? Cause that would be hilarious. Who knows? And now I have a year to wait until I can read the next book. But to help with the withdrawal pains, look for the interview with Butcher next week on The Speculative Craft!

Chaos Theory Translated

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It’s alway fun when you stumble across a local author who also happens to be extremely talented. That’s what happened when my friend said, “Oh yeah, my dad’s a sci-fi writer.” So I looked up Jeffrey A. Carver and was not disappointed.

I started with his Chaos Chronicles, since Neptune Crossing was up for free download on Amazon at the time, and was immediately entranced. It has a unique setup in that the main character ends up with an alien consciousness residing in his head that he nicknames Charlie, who is on a mission to save the Earth, but needs his help (ie, his body and cooperation) to do so. Their interplay is hilarious at times, touching at others. For a little twist, Charlie frequently dies and returns with a new personality, kind of like Doctor Who, but a lot more frequently. You’d think that would get annoying after a while, but, no, instead it just made me look forward to seeing how Charlie had changed.

The three books are easy reads, I made it through them in two weeks, and it only took that long because I had to wait for delivery of the last two books. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but I do want to say that they are fascinating stories that explore concepts ranging from what it means to be human to how to deal with the ‘other’ phenomenon. There is a LOT of alien interaction throughout. One interesting craft note: while the first book begins solidly from the human’s perspective, the point of view morphs, with more and more of the chapters from the point of view of various other aliens that join their merry band of world-savers.

I can’t wait to read more of his books, and I definitely recommend them for anybody who is a fan of space dramas with a solid dose of basic chaos theory sprinkled throughout.

What would you do with a sack of gold?

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This was the question that Mark Twain posed in his novella, The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg. In this delightful little novella, there is a town called Hadleyburg in that prides itself on beings scrupulously honest. A man who was dealt a slight by the town decides to get his revenge by proving that they are, after all, nothing but greedy men who are willing to lie to get what they want.

I’m not going to tell you how he accomplishes this feat. Suffice it to say that he does indeed manage to corrupt the incorruptible leaders of Hadleyburg, much to everyone’s dismay and chagrin. It is a true Twain work, full of inventive language and full caricatures, and it is a delightful little discussion on just how to push humanity’s buttons and bring out the greed that is natural to our species.

If you’re looking for a quick, lighthearted, yet provocative read. I’d suggest you pick this up. You’ll work your way through it in no time, but be the richer for it.

That Point When You Know an Author Too Well…

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When I heard that Kim Harrison‘s new book was coming out, I immediately placed it on hold at the library. Of course, this also meant that I had to wait for two weeks cause I was far from first in line. But as soon as The Undead Pool arrived for me, I sat down to start reading. Not even five pages in, our favorite witch lets of a pithy remark and I immediately snort and say, “Ya think?” Imagine the ensuing hilarity when I turn the page and Jenks says the exact same thing to her. This is the point at which I know I love an author.

But besides being entirely in sync with Harrison on expressing doubt at Rachel’s understatement, The Undead Pool did not disappoint on any level. The writing was quippy and clean, the character development hits the “About time!” meter perfectly, and you’re left with the uneasy sensation that even though things in this book got bad, they’re going to get even worse in the next one. One of my favorite parts of Harrison’s writing is that she is not afraid to let her writing, her characters, and her world evolve the way some other genre writers are. The Rachel Morgan who we follow in this book is miles and away more mature, more talented, and more accepting than the Rachel we first met in book one. Her world is constantly changing on her and she’s learned to just take it in stride with minimal complaints and get her job done. Its so refreshing to find books where the author is willing to take the risk of changing for the more satisfying rewards rather than play it safe and write the same characters over and over again (*cough* Janet Evanovich *cough*).

That being said, my only complaint with this book is the cover. They’ve been steadily getting worse and now the cover looks like some trumped up romance novel, with Rachel in a teensy miniskirt and corset (which appears nowhere in the book, unlike the white leathers of another cover). Granted, there are some racy bits that correspond with that “Well, FINALLY!” I was speaking of, but this is much closer to a gritty urban fantasy novel akin to The Dresden Files than it is a supernatural romance. This is why I am so happy I can design my own novels and don’t have to rely on what a marketing team decides will sell…

The Age of the Illustrated Primer

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I read Snow Crash ages ago, and had always intended to come back to Neal Stephenson and read more. I just didn’t get around to it until now. My boyfriend purchased me a copy of The Diamond Age, sure I would love it, and he was right.

The Diamond Age is a story not only about the coming of age of several young women of different societal statures, but also of invention, individuality, and the importance of education, all presented in a cyberpunk futuristic world with digital paper and cybernetic horses.

Now, one of the most interesting things about this book was the fact that it was originally printed in 1995 but the tech that he talks about in this book became a reality in 1997 when E Ink spun off of the MIT Media lab, and with the debut of interactive books for the iPad just a couple years ago, we are pretty darn close to the primary Maguffin of this book: A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. All that is missing is a slightly more advanced AI that can adapt the story to the reader’s environment. Our Print to Voice technology is almost good enough to handle the read aloud component as is.

This makes this trippy, tribalistic future that much more realistic, which is both frightening and exciting. Imagine being able to adapt every child’s education to their individual experiences. The kind of creativity and advancement this could foster would be incredible.

But, enough about what this book talks about. Suffice it to say that the alternate future it plays with is just about as odd as the one in Snow Crash and just as fun to read about. The writing itself is flawless. Engaging and unique, as all of Neal’s books are, it also takes a chapter or two before you get used to the language he uses. He has a whole new vocabulary he introduces to deal with his fractured society, and it takes a little bit to understand what everything is, but that adjustment period is entirely worth it. Once you get past the first 12 pages, you’re golden.

So, if you’d like a not-quite dystopian conversation about the importance of education and individuality, The Diamond Age is definitely the book for you. Just have patience with the opening, Stephenson rewards you in time.

Do You Wanna Build a Cyborg?

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I am an avid fan of K.B. Spangler, what with A Girl and Her Fed and the first tie-in novel, Digital Divide. That’s why I got super excited for Maker Space, the sequel to Digital Divide. It came out not too long ago and immediately downloaded it for my Kindle. I jumped in and was not disappointed. Its another fast paced cyber crime thriller, only this time it touches on a cultural phenomenon close to my heart (and my day-job): Makers.

After a massive bomb rocks downtown D.C., Agent Rachel Peng is given a task force and autonomy to work outside the official investigation to ensure that nothing is missed. Her investigation brings her into contact with a community of Makers working out of a decrepit office space nee warehouse that they have turned into a Maker think tank of sorts. Makers are a newly identified kind of human, the kind who revels in constructing marvels of technology and art from otherwise basic components.

Makers tend to be open-sourced and concerned with the betterment of humanity…and having a lot of fun. I’m looking at you, Maker-Faire participants! They are an incredibly strong and welcoming community of people that I have the privilege of working with as an illustrator at O’Reilly Media. We used to publish a magazine called Make that has now spun off as its own company that produces the magazine, how-to books, and even kits to help beginning makers get started. We still help Make publish their books, so I still get to see all the designs for the fabulous projects they have created and are helping others learn how to become master builders in their own right.

But enough on the Makers themselves and my glee at seeing them featured in such a prominent role in a fiction novel. Maker Space turned out to be well worth the wait. It is eloquent, gripping, and exceedingly well-paced. I do have to admit, I was thrown a little bit by the fact that the Boston Marathon Bombing was mentioned in passing when a few characters were discussing preparation for events such as this. It is still so fresh in everyone’s mind out here in Beantown that it was just weird seeing it mentioned in a fictional novel.

Regardless, if you are looking for an excellent procedural cybernetic drama, I highly advise you to pick up both Digital Divide and Maker Space. They don’t rely on any knowledge from the web comic (though I highly suggest going and giving that a try, too, cause there are some excellent inside jokes) and Spangler presents a wonderfully fresh take on crime dramas and cyberpunk. I just wish I’d had the cash to spring for an O.A.C.E.T. badge during the kickstarter….