book review: pre-holiday 2013 roundup

I suppose I’m getting used to the fact that this is less a book review blog than it used to be. I’m sorry. Maybe I’ll be more diligent in 2014? Regardless, here’s what I’ve read (for a certain value of) recently.

  • Mendoza in Hollywood by Kage Baker. A sequel to In the Garden of Iden, but there’s another book in between that I haven’t read. I like these books because they’re all about the historical anachronism. This one wasn’t as tragic as the first though.
  • Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. This was the only Vonnegut novel I hadn’t read when I started Unstuck in Time, Gregory Sumner’s book about Vonnegut’s novels. I liked Galapagos more than I’d expect to like a book about inbreeding, stupidity and evolution. Which means I liked it a lot. Unstuck in Time was a decent bit of biography around what was going on in Vonnegut’s life when he was writing the novels, which, fine, whatever, but was also a really good Cole’s Notes kind of refresher on what was actually in those books. It tickled my Vonnegut itch which means I can keep tackling new books in my to read pile rather than rereading the ones I know I love.
  • Paintwork by Tim Maughan. Three short stories set in a near future SF world. I liked the Cuban giant fighting robots story the best, though they were all fine stories in a Strossian vein.
  • Battling Boy by Paul Pope. A boy-god is sent to Earthish to fight monsters as part of his adolescent trials. I love Pope’s art, but wish the story was less of a first chapter and more complete. Selah.
  • The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. This is the second book in The Raven Boys cycle, and this one I liked a little less than the first because it was such a continuation, instead of introducing us to characters and situations. Yes, this almost directly contradicts my issue with Battling Boy. Whatever. I quote Whitman at you.
  • The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf. I am not a history buff, but a friend who is one recommended this and I loved it. Part of the appeal is that I know shit about the crusades from the European perspective since my education wasn’t really big on celebrating wars of any sort, so now all I know about them beyond very basic Indiana Jones stuff is from this book about bickering Seljuk princes and the politics between Damascus, Aleppo and Baghdad. Neat stuff did happen in the past (and it totally gave me a lot more context for when I play Crusader Kings, which I enjoy anyway).
  • Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon and Little Hits by Matt Fraction & a bunch of artists. These are good gritty-ish Marvel crime comics about what Hawkguy does when he’s not being an Avenger. Funny and clever. I read this because Fraction is probably my favourite superhero writer these days. The Pizza the Dog issue in Little Hits is the best though. The best.
  • The Land Across by Gene Wolfe. This one is about an American travel writer going to a strange European dictatorship. It feels like it’s going to be a Kafka pastiche but then it turns into a ghost story and noir secret police detective tale. It’s very weird and I really liked it. I like The City & the City better, mind you, but not by much.
  • Battle Bunny by John Scieszka, Mac Barnett & Matthew Myers. This is a picturebook a well-meaning grandma has given to a little boy about a Birthday Bunny that the boy has repurposed into the tale of thwarting Battle Bunny and his evil world domination plans. I love love love the idea of this so much. That said, I’m a little nonplussed by the gender role implications that boys have to turn everything into violent confrontation for it to be interesting and wish that the protagonist (who is the person defacing the “original” book) was a girl. I might have to write separately about this book.
  • Plow the Bones by Douglas F. Warrick. This collection of mostly dark SF short stories was excellent. The writing in its density and consideration of the implications of the premises reminded me of Ted Chiang. Really really good stuff.
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. This is a dystopian novel that’s far more realistic than most. Economic downturn has forced communities to hunker down and maybe hope for the best, while drugs and deprivation force people who have even less to descend upon the people who have a little bit. And in all this, a teenage girl with overdeveloped empathy (she feels injuries in other people) is building her own way of seeing and being in the world. It’s hard to take a lot of other fanciful dystopia at all seriously when this was done so well. I’m kind of ashamed it took me so long to read this classic.

Phew. I’m leaving out a few that I’ll try and do separate writeups for.

movie review: prometheus [spoilery]

I really wanted to like Prometheus but I couldn’t. Not immensely. Of the movies I’ve seen in 2012 I liked it better than John Carter (of Mars) (which I had low expectations for), but less than everything else. I rewatched Total Recall a while back, which while not being a masterpiece by any means, it had a better sense of itself and more mind-bendy SFishness than Prometheus (and much worse acting).

The good bits:

Michael Fassbender as David the android was pretty excellent. He was well done as the translator and childish person who was just trying to do right by his creator. The scene in the billiards room where he makes the final decision to infect Holloway or whatever the guy scientist’s name was is chilling.

Idris Elba as Captain Yannick was so good. He had one exposition scene which seemed weird and unprovoked but otherwise, he was badass and charming and yeah. I need to see that show he starred in because he’s pretty excellent.

The rest of the bits:

You know how in Alien, nobody is an idiot? Everyone is just doing their jobs as well as they can. The only stupid moment in Alien is when Ash breaks quarantine and lets the facehugger onto Nostromo, but it’s because he’s working on a different set of orders from everyone else.

In Prometheus this trillion-dollar team of super scientists is a pile of morons. They poke creatures and destroy stuff and breathe the atmosphere without compunction. First thing we do, let’s jolt this head with electricity and trick it into thinking it’s alive! They behave in nothing like a reasonable fashion for a scientific possibly first contact team (apart from Captain Yannick, and even he takes the ship on a suicide mission). “This is a scientific mission. We won’t need weapons.” Having a character lampshading the stupidity of their choices doesn’t make it any better.

The iconic image of the big ring thing rolling from the trailer? Huge fucking spoiler. The only thing the trailer didn’t have was the explosion that caused it rolling. Knowing that the big ring thing lands on the ground drained all the tension from the Engineer alien’s plan to go to Earth with its biological weapons of mass destruction.

It would have made more sense to get an actually old person to play Weyland instead of Guy Pierce in eighty tonnes of makeup. Just saying.

While the pregnancy angle was interesting, why the fuck would the medical doodad in Vickers’ lifeboat be configured to Male Only (so Shaw couldn’t tell it do do a caesarean section – and definitely not an abortion)?

There were so many crew on the ship who were there just to be killed in the rampages near the end. One of the things that made Aliens work is the slow build where you felt for everyone who was about to die. There were all these people I hadn’t seen before getting tossed about by the alien infected form of the geologist, and it all felt hollow.

Verdict:
Bah. I really wanted this to be good. I was hoping it would be more like a big-budget, more actiony Moon, but it was way more like Predators or Alien Resurrection – not the worst movies ever made, but nothing I’m going to remember fondly (outside of a couple of bits). The Avengers is still in theatres; go see that instead. It doesn’t try to answer any big questions about the meaning of humanity but it’s way more fun and the only people doing terribly stupid things are bureaucrats trying to nuke New York.

movie review: thor

I waited till today to see Thor because I wanted to see it in 2D, and I saw it at all because I had a “free movie” voucher. And I’m kind of treating all of these Marvel movies as the prologue for Joss Whedon’s Avengers.

Basic synopsis: fratboy god gets kicked down to earth where he learns a bit of empathy so he can maybe be king of the gods some day.

I’d expected to hate all the Asgard stuff, but it wasn’t bad. The actors were all fine in their roles. Idris Elba as Heimdall had more to do than I expected, which was nice. The story was exactly what you’d expect. It hit every point pretty much exactly on cue. Which is good when they spent umpty million dollars on it I guess.

It’s weird seeing a movie so predictable, especially while I’m in the middle of reading a book that is making me all tingly in its awesomeness (and part of that rests on it not being what you think it’s setting itself up to be). But it’s not just superhero movies. A few weeks ago I saw a movie about a woman who got out of prison and was trying to reconnect with her daughter. It too was completely predictable. I guess a story that’s exactly what you expect leaves you free to dwell more on the performances or the dialogue or whatever, so that’s something.

Anyway, Thor was a fine explosiony action movie with some incredibly chiseled pecs. I wouldn’t see it in 3D.

book review: demon in a bottle

I didn’t start reading comics until I got to university. So I didn’t know a lot about all the superheroes beyond what made it to the cartoons (and that the goddamned Batman was awesome). I had the same sort of baseline knowledge of a lot of these stories as I do of most mythology. Gilgamesh had an owl and he killed a bunch of people? The Monkey King journeys to the west with a magic stick for some reason? Loki fucks 8-legged horses? You know, basic knowledge.

So in the last few years when the Iron Man movie made him into a top tier character, I knew some stuff about Tony Stark. I knew he was on the Avengers. I knew he was on the government’s side in the Marvel Civil War when they “killed” Captain America. And I knew he had a drinking problem.

The other day I spotted the Demon In A Bottle trade paperback on the shelf at our branch. “Aha! Those are the comics where we learn of Tony Stark’s alcoholism. I shall read them!”

I’m really glad I wasn’t reading comics in the 70s.

I’m not saying that Demon In a Bottle is bad, but it definitely suffers from the limitations of its times. Everything is so simplified and ridiculous. He has to tell the audience in narration that his plexiglas shields slid over his eye and mouth holes when Sub-Mariner drags the fight underwater. The dialogue is inane and there are pages of him beating things up in his testing facility and on Justin Hammer’s manor-boat for no reason other than to give him something to fight.

I recognize that things were different then and that even today not everything in comics is going to be Shakespeare, but yeah. It’s not tremendously enlightening stuff to read.