Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Batgirl Vol. 1: Beyond Burnside

I was so excited for this! Hope Larson (she of Goldie Vance)! Rafael Albuquerque (he of American Vampire)! Batgirl!

While all three of those things may be quite good individually, together, they are underwhelming. And that's being polite. When I finished reading my ARC of the trade paperback (sorry, the only comic I read single issues of is The Unstoppable Wasp), I literally (and I am not misusing this word: I mean literally) made this face:

It was a grimace. A cringe. A horrified sense of loss at what could have been.

So what went wrong?

A lot of things. In Beyond Burnside, Babs Gordon leaves Burnside, the thinly-disguised Brooklyn hipster section of Gotham, to travel throughout Asia and get away from saving the world. As we all know, this never happens for superheroes. In her hostel in Japan, Babs meets her friend Kai. Evidently, when they were kids, Babs and Kai were tight, but after he went to reform school (gasp!) they lost touch. But things are better now, right?

Oh noes! A villain dressed like a Japanese schoolgirl-meets-clown attacks Kai during a parade and demands "the formula." Gee, could Kai have some shady dealings? Is his new job not as legit as he makes it out to be? Let me see...

But Babs is too starry-eyed over dating a "normie" (holy cats, who says that???) to realize what's going on right away. And even when she makes the gargantuan mental leap to realize that Kai is smuggling bio-enhanced bacteria in his gut (wait, what?), she still sees him as someone to be saved, not someone who has committed a crime. I mean, didn't she see Brokedown Palace? Doesn't she know what happens to people who smuggle stuff in Southeast Asia? I'm sure it's applicable to biologics!

Anyhoo, in order to save Kai--which the turd doesn't really deserve, but I guess Babs is a much better person than me--Batgirl has to track down the "Students"--martial arts villians--and their "Teacher."  To do so, she trains with an MMA school in Singapore, as one does when traveling in Singapore.

There, she has a cage fight with The Moth, a highly-skilled fighter who just happens to have the same tattoo as Clown Schoolgirl. The Moth is also deaf in some weird nod to "diversity": Babs reasons that since Moth can't hear, she has advanced reflexes. That's really ableist. Finally, she fights a construction worker called Hardhat (I am not making this up) in Seoul, where the villains explain that they're only doing this because they didn't pass their college entrance exams and therefore have crappy lives. Teacher has promised them a serum that will make their brains function at full power (but also maybe make their hair fall out and cause cancer, but who reads the fine print?) so that they can retake their exams, pass, and go to college. Well. That's certainly ... not a villainous motivation I've seen before. I'll give Larson that.

In the end, Batgirl has to "turn off" her eidetic memory in order to beat Teacher. First of all, that's not how that works. Second of all ... yeah, that's still not how that works. Throughout the comic, Batgirl's eidetic memory allows her to replay the past "from all different angles." The way I understand it, having an eidetic memory (which actually hasn't been scientifically proven, but carry on) means you have vivid and specific recall of memories, but it doesn't mean you remember things you didn't actually experience. For example, Batgirl shouldn't be able to see the fight from all angles because she only observed it from one. This is not The Matrix. Plus, I honestly didn't understand why she had to "forget" everything she knew in order to beat Teacher. Because she was thinking too hard? If she caused herself to forget everything, how did she know how to fight? How did she know she was Batgirl? If this had been presented more as a memory palace-type construction, I would have been more forgiving of it.

I don't think I need to go back over the plot in order to point out its weaknesses. Here are some extra problems with the comic, just for fun!

All of the women in the book, with the exception of Babs, are very stereotypical "dragon lady," which is super racist. Don't do this. They are all amazing martial arts fighters with lacquered lips and Evil Plans. 

Babs' costume is ridiculous. You can practically see her whole face, and all of her hair spills out. Yet somehow Kai the genius doesn't figure out that the redheaded, white Batgirl and his redheaded, white girlfriend are the same person. Also, I'm not sure how she changes in the middle of a parade without anyone noticing.

There is a huge disconnect between the perky, twee new Batgirl as Larson writes her (which is really a continuation of the last Batgirl reboot, which I hated) and Albuquerque as an artist. His art for Batgirl is not awful, but it's not the right art. He does dark and twisted very well. If he had done artwork for Gail Simone's Batgirl, that would have been perfect. For this Batgirl? It's too ... clean. Too nice. And because you don't see all the rough edges that make Albuquerque a great horror artist, it just looks dull. And yes, he is the one who did the infamously-pulled Batgirl-and-Joker variant cover, so why DC picked him for this happy-happy Batgirl is just beyond me. Then again, pretty much any decision DC makes is beyond me. Except for Jason Momoa. I like that decision.

Skip this and just reread Simone's Batgirl instead. Or check out Albuquerque's work on American Vampire

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley for review.

**Note** This review is a warning to not write reviews while exhausted. I mixed up Albuquerque and Gabriel Rodriquez, who actually illustrated Locke & Key. You should read that one too. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

This is a short, twisted, poisonous little story in the best of ways.

It's a quotidian enough situation: meeting the boyfriend's parents for the first time. It's awkward and kind of nerve-wracking. But the narrator of our story has another thing on her mind ... she's thinking of ending things. Does she love Jake? Sure. Does she want to be with him forever? Not really. But every time she screws up the courage to start the agonizing process of breaking up, she remembers all of the good things about their relationship, and retreats.

Now, she's stuck in a car with him as they traverse the snowy countryside on their way to Dinner with The Parents. Not an ideal place or time for a breakup. And then there's the matter of the phone calls to her cell phone from her own number. The calls with the same message over and over and over.

Once they arrive at the parents' farmhouse, the strangeness of the situation only intensifies. Jake's parents are more than a little odd. And why is Jake acting so strange after dinner? Why does he want to get slushies in a blizzard, or stop at a huge, rambling high school building in the middle of nowhere?

Interspersed with the whispers of neighbors and friends, gossiping after the fact, this is a taut razor-wire narrative. I guessed the ending fairly early on, but the twists and turns made me doubt myself and find new theories to explore. This is a book that is all about the journey, not the destination. An eerie exploration of the psyche, identity, and what makes us who we are. I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a chilled dagger traced along your spine, causing your heart to speed up and your guts to squirm uncomfortably. It's wonderful and terrifying at the same time. Try it--what's the worst that could happen?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Eliza and Her Monsters

Although I have learned to embrace my geek side, I am lacking in one rather essential facet of geekdom: participation in fanfic.

I had a brief flirtation with (of all things) Pride and Prejudice fanfic around 1999.  By then, the BBC miniseries had been out for a few years, but people were totally obsessed.  There was this subsite of Pemberly.com called "Bits of Ivory" and I would read it sometimes (every day after school).  But I never thought of writing or creating anything--I really don't know if I have it in me to create something.  I enjoy commenting and chatting and picking things apart, but putting something together seems huge and imposing and it makes my brain curl up and die.  So I've never actually written anything myself.

Monday, March 20, 2017

A Very Short Review of Kill All Happies

1) The third sentence in the book is "Hey, dumbslut."
2) The second chapter is called "Warpath of Suck"
3) I can't imagine any high schoolers calling a teacher "Miss Ann Thrope"

If you aren't convinced, please see points 1 and 2 and reread until you get it. Girl-on-girl hate (even if it's in the guise of a teehee text from a big sister) is not acceptable. Don't talk about "the warpath," ever. It's not a thing. It invokes the popular image of Native people as bloodthirsty and war-loving. Do not do this. See also: "low man on the totem pole" and sitting "Indian style."

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley. Grr.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Recap of the Phryne Fisher Mysteries I've Read So Far

Technically, I suppose the title of this post should be "listened to," but audiobooks are reading too!

That sounds grammatically dodgy, but it is also the truth.

The reason you should listen to these books has very little to do with the plot, characters, or setting (although at least one of all three is delightful in most of the books) and everything to do with Stephanie Daniel as the brilliant, clever, and talented narrator. I feel awkward listening to narrators who try to hard to make men Very Deep Voiced and women OH SO HIGH AND FLIGHTY TEE HEE LADY VOICES! But Daniel creates a distinctive voice and tone for each character and switches between them effortlessly. I could never read a paper copy of any of the Phryne Fisher books without hearing her in my head. She even makes a valiant (if slightly misguided) attempt at a deep Louisiana accent. Good on her!

For the most part, these are charming mysteries following the amateur detective career of the Hon. Phryne Fisher. Yes, that's Phryne, pronounced "fry-nee" and not "fern" as I had been saying it for years. Goodness. Evidently Phryne was a famous courtesan who offered to pay for the walls of Thebes back in Ye Olde Ancient Tymes. Classical antiquity was rather lacking in my education. Anyhoo, Phryne, who has a shining black cap of hair and emerald green eyes (protagonist signature), is dreadfully bored with her life in the English countryside. Catching foolish young men with a predilection for petty thievery just isn't cutting it, and she certainly isn't about to get married. Phryne is a trained-in-Paris flapper who can shoot a gun, speak French, and maintain her sangfroid in many different situations. She ships off to Melbourne, where she was born, and makes the acquaintance of Scottish lady Doctor MacMillan on the journey. Eventually, we meet Dot, a housemaid contemplating murder who eventually becomes Phryne's personal maid, and Bert and Cec (pronounced "Sess" for Cecil), two ex-soldiers-turned-cab drivers and communists. Bert and Cec are my favorite characters in the series so far.

The rotating paramour trope appears in each book. Phryne likes sex, uses birth control, and has no desire to marry or get particularly attached to anyone. This "man in every book" gets tiresome after a while, especially with all the talk about Phryne's nipples. There is a lot of nipple talk, which always makes me feel awkward when listening to a book. Sometimes I wish Greenwood would just do characters and mystery and skip the sexy bits.

My least favorite was Blood and Circuses, but that seems to be a consensus among readers of the series. So let's go through them in order of what I've completed!

Cocaine Blues

Phryne arrives in Melbourne with a commission to investigate the poor health of Lydia Andrews, daughter of a well-off British colonel who has all the symptoms of being poisoned. After taking up residence in a posh hotel, Phryne acquires a lady's maid and semi-reliable transportation. Not only does she become embroiled in a cocaine ring pursued by Russian dancer vigilantes (long story), but also tracks down an illegal abortionist whose butchery kills most of the women he "treats." A very solid entry into the series.

Flying Too High

Because detectives in series must have many different talents (this is a rule somewhere; I'm sure of it), Phryne is rather a good pilot. When her next case takes her to a flying school whose proprietor's ill temper may make him a threat to his father's life, she shows the men how it's really done. There, she also encounters her former schoolmate Bungee Ross, a very talented pilot who's flown over the Himalayas and so forth. Each novel always has two mysteries; so in addition to The Murdered Father,  Phryne must track down a kidnapped child.

Murder on the Ballarat Train

On the way to the Australian countryside (outback? Must it always be called the outback?) by train, Phryne awakens in a chloroform haze. Rushing through the compartments, she flings open the windows and rouses the occupants, only to notice that an elderly passenger is missing. Her body is later found, mangled, near a water tower. But there's also someone on the train who should not have been: a young teenage girl. She has no memory of who she is or how she got on the train, and she shows signs of having been molested. Phryne's investigations introduce her to a strapping young university student, a creepy mesmerist, and a possible killer fiancé. I quite liked this one because of the stories of Ruth and Jane, two girls that Phryne adopts. She has a heart, after all.

Death At Victoria Dock

If you are going to commit a murder, don't almost shoot Phryne Fisher while doing so. It puts her out of temper and will cause her to pursue you to the ends of the earth ... or at least Melbourne. Passing by Victoria Dock, Phryne's beautiful red Hispano-Suiza gets dinged with bullets, and upon alighting, she sees the body of a beautiful young man, covered in blood and with an anarchist tattoo on his breast. He dies in her arms. Phryne tracks the anarchists with the aid of brooding and melancholy Peter Smith, who becomes her lover. Dot also gets a boyfriend in this book: the innocent but earnest Hugh.

The Green Mill Murder

Out dancing with a rather insipid young man at a jazz club called the Green Mill, Phryne literally falls over a corpse--the body of a young man who had been competing in a dance marathon. Someone managed to stab him through the heart with a thin, sharp instrument in front of the dancers and the band without anyone noticing. Is the charming bandmaster Tintagel Stone involved? To exonerate an innocent man, Phryne must fly her Gypsy Moth over the Australian Alps to find a man suffering from shellshock. He is basically a super-hot bearded Viking and I totally approve of him being with Phryne. I really, really enjoyed the mountain journey part of this book.

Blood and Circuses

Ughhhhhh. This book. Premise: Phryne has friends (and a lover, natch) among the carneys who follow traveling circuses. Their particular circus is being sabotaged, and they want Phryne to find out what's going on. Meanwhile, Detective Inspector Robinson (another one of my favorite characters because of his very plain manner) investigates the murder of an intersex person performing as a "freak" in the circus. Phryne assumes the mantle of bareback trick rider to inflitrate the circus (which of course she pulls off, because of course) and has a lot of angst about being on her own without a maid or anyone. Thankfully, she finds solace in the arms of Jojo the Jewish clown. I am not making this up.

Ruddy Gore

Fans of Gilbert and Sullivan will probably enjoy this more than I did, but this is perfectly serviceable. During a performance of Ruddigore, not one but TWO actors collapse on stage from poison. With the help of a by-Jove-yes-guvnor stagehand and the elegant Lin Chung, Phryne must solve a decades-old murder, investigate a ghost, stop the actors' romantic entanglements from tearing the theatre apart, and solve the murder. This one has some rather gruesome deaths and handily disposes of one of Phryne's former lovers by marrying him off. He was rather boring, anyway. It's hinted that Lin Chung and Phryne will be together for a longer period of time, but I'll have to read the next one to believe that.

If you like light mysteries with loads of atmosphere and a cast of fun characters, check out this series. But do choose the audio versions--they are absolutely marvelous.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What I Lost

I have been agonizing over this book review for months--literally. I don't know if I'm explaining myself in the clearest manner, but I just have to put it out there and let it be.

I am starting to think it is impossible to read a decent YA book about eating disorders.  The only two that are worth reading are Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson and Believarexic by J.J. Johnson.  However, as someone who had an ED and still wrestles with the messed up thoughts and emotions related to it, I find myself oddly drawn to these books.  I challenge them.  I read them critically and poke and prod the characters to see if they are authentic.  I don't expect happy stories all the time, with loving parents and teachers and friends, but I do expect teens to be shown that they matter, and that someone cares enough about them that they'll be removed from a dangerous situation.  Although the inner voice of Elizabeth, the protagonist of What I Lost, is on point, other aspects of the story overshadow what is good.

Reading books about ED and self-harm and mental illness is exhausting.  I spend a lot of time on them, noting problems and marking questions and wondering how certain ideas or phrases got past editors to make it into the hands of teens.  I wonder at books like Sad Perfect, which I honestly think poses a danger to teens who are self-harming or who have an eating disorder, and I am angry that people praise it.  What I Lost has a more authentic voice than Sad Perfect, but also contains far too many problems for me to recommend it. I'm not saying you cannot enjoy this book or learn something from it--you can. But I ask that you remain aware of how words and numbers harm, and the thoughtless use of words and numbers can harm young readers.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

DNF: Exo

Would I rather read a problematic yet intellectually stimulating book, or one that's as bland and unappetizing as plain gelatin? Each has its advantages and disadvantages: Gelatin Book won't make me apopleptic or threaten violence against the book by making to throw it against the wall. However, at least problematic books give me something to think about.

I've been trying to read Exo by Fonda Lee for several days now, and every time I open the book, it seems as though I'm reading in reverse. That's how slow this one is. I asked myself, "Would I rather read Ender's Game, which is sexist and whose author is ... shall we say, divisive?" Alas, my answer was yes, I would much rather read Ender's Game, because at least it was interesting and I have a soft spot for boot camp-style novels, no matter how trite they are. See also: Starship Troopers by Heinlein and Armor by Stakely. Unfortunately, Exo squanders the opportunity to run with an awesome alien invasion premise and biomechanical nano-armor and falls over its own clumsy attempts to have a plot. I'm also disappointed at the lack of human diversity made either explicit or implicit in the narrative.

If you've read any of my SF reviews, you know I love a good alien invasion story. They're right up there with natural disasters and doomsday scenarios (and their backwater cousins, the MUTANT ANIMALS OF DOOM! attack stories). Exo has a a relatively different setting from most of its YA compatriots in that it takes place years after the aliens have established Earth as a colony. Humanity--as a whole--no longer resists their alien overloads. Wartime cost both sides a great deal, and after long years of fighting, peace as vassals was more palatable than endless fighting to the point of extermination.

The invading aliens, called the zhree, supposedly came to Earth to protect it from Evil Nomadic Zhree Renegades. A benevolent dictatorship is anything but, and humanity fought back with a ferocity that surprised the zhree.

The war lasted longer than either side expected, and when humanity was exhausted of troops and matériel, they surrendered. Not everyone believed that was the right choice; some rebel groups continue guerilla warfare against the zhree and the humans who accept their rule.

Apart from subjugation, these humans strongly object to the modification of human children using zhree nanotechnology. Zhree have physical bodies that are weak, so they developed nanoparticulate armor that was also bionic--integrated into their bodies. They can armor-up with a thought. Human children are selected to go through this Hardening process as well, becoming super soldiers. But are they still human afterward?

That is the chink in the armor that a rebel group called Sapiencees wish to exploit. A propagandist has been writing grandiose and overstuffed prose condemning the evil Exos and the humans that are in erze to the zhree. (Yes, that's how the novel is written, and it's highly confusing--but more on that later). Donovan Reyes is a soldier-in-erze and an exo. He's also the only son of the Prime Liason, who's basically a big cheese collaborator with the zhree. So when a raid goes very wrong and a tiny, malnourished girl manages to get the drop on super-soldier Donovan (what???), the sadistic rebel Kevin and his sidekick Brett take him as a hostage to the Sapience stronghold deep within the Black Hills. There, Donovan learns that the propaganda writer is actually his runaway mother, and he predictably falls in love with Anya, the girl who captured him.

I got 130 pages into the book and nothing was happening. I could not struggle through 200+ more pages of strugglebus romance and didactic musings about What It Means To Be Human. I'm getting sleepy and bored just writing this review.

Donovan has zero personality. He's a giant spoonful of vanilla pudding--unsatisfying and bland and kind of jiggly. Since I originally became aware of the author via the We Need Diverse Books organization, I expected Exo to highlight diversity. It's hinted that Donovan and his dad are vaguely Latinx (Reyes?) but I'm not sure what anyone looks like other than Anya, with her super special manic pixie dream girl red hair. For a relatively rare genetic variant, redheads sure are in abundant supply when it comes to future rebellions. I don't even know what else to talk about in the book because somehow nothing really happened in 130 pages except for Donovan's mom pulling a Darth Vader on him. Also, whenever I think of Kevin the villain, I think of the minion Kevin.

Often, the barest of plots can skate by if you have either a charming and witty narrative voice or solidly intriguing wordlbuilding (having both is even better). Alas, Exo's world of alien domination is as lackluster as its leading man. Lee throws around alien jargon left and right in what I assume is supposed to be an immersive experience, but what is actually a muddled mess of fake words. Several chapters in, we finally find out what it means to be "in erze." Just because of the preposition, my brain kept substituting the word "heat" for "erze" and I was very confused abut mating humans and zhree.

Ha ha! No. "Erze" is a familial order, like a clan. Humans under zhree control belong to an erze and receive the corresponding vocation. So if you belong to the warrior erze, then you are a warrior. Nouns follow a higgledy-piggeldy capticalization scheme ("erze," for example, is not capitalized, but "Soldier" or "Nurse" is. After trudging through so many chapters of Donovan whining about how he IS human, thank you very much, but also part of the great zhree civilization, I asked myself, "Why should I care?"

I found no reason to care about any of this, so I simply walked away. Do not be fooled: a book should not gain accolades because aliens or because dystopia or for any other reason that book pundits like to squee over a new title. Exo is spectacular in only one way, and that's in its dullness.

For the love of all that is good, skip this. Even if you are jonesing for a teen sci-fi book, you can pretty much pick anything else and it will be better than Exo.

I received an ARC of this title from the publisher.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Midnight at the Electric

A photograph. A one-way trip to Mars. A Galápagos tortoise. A carnival quack promising a magical cure-all using electricity. One of the most amazing things about life is how we are all connected by the strangest and yet most mundane of objects. This is generally most apparent when there is an outbreak of illness--gee, look at how many people touched that doorknob and then their faces and then holy Moses! It's influenza galore! However, this magical object story has been done before, and I wondered how much I would care for it this time around in Midnight at the Electric. After rearranging my face after the final, heart-rending cryfest, I was filled with wonder at how such a relatively short story left such a big impression.

I had never read anything by Anderson before Midnight at the Electric (I am going to remedy that posthaste; I promise!), so I wasn't sure what to expect. The story opens as Adri prepares to leave the flooded remains of Miami for the flat fields of Kansas. It's been a long time since the world found out the hard way that yes, global warming is real. The seas rose, sweeping away coastal cities with their pretty boardwalks and glamorous beaches and high rise hotels. Humanity began to once again turn their hopes to the stars. Now, a colony has been established on Mars, and Adri has passed the rigorous selection process and is a future Colonist. The training facility is in Kansas, and the company sponsoring the trip located Adri's only living relative, Lily, in nearby Wichita.

To say that Adri is reclusive, introverted, and curmudgeonly would be a slight understatement. Her cousin Lily chats up a storm, delivers bon mots with a wink and a smile, and has dementia. Sunny, bright Lily sometimes forgets how old she is or what she is doing or other equally existentially critical things. However, Lily maintains her dignity. I never pitied her--I simply loved her, and Adri grows to feel the same way. Plus, there's the enormous tortoise in the backyard. Her name is simply Galapagos. And she's related to a mystery enfolded in a letter from a mysterious Lenore to an equally mysterious Beth.

Catherine Godspeed and her little sister Beezie are suffocating. The dust blanketing Kansas does not confine itself to the ground, but it crawls into corners and flows into lungs. Beezie can't stop coughing, and she's dying. Cathy knows they have to get out, but that would mean leaving Ellis, her friend with whom she is also in love. There's also the mystery of the postcard from Lenore and the fact that they've got a very large tortoise tethered in the backyard.

After Teddy died in the Great War, Lenore's family has tiptoed around their cavernous estate. Everyone and everything is broken, with no chance of being put to rights again. To escape the press of grief, Lenore writes letters to her childhood friend Beth, with whom she hopes to reunite in America. But Beth doesn't write back. Undaunted, Lenore continues to write, and chronicles her fateful meeting with James, a soldier disfigured from the war.

All of these women possess a stubborn, tenacious belief in some truth--a truth that turns out to be far more pliable than they had ever thought. Adri believes that she's best on her own, with no one to love or to love her. Cathy believes that taking an electric cure will heal Beezie's dust pneumonia and they won't have to leave home. Lenore believes that once she arrives in America, she and Beth will continue on just as they had been ten years before. The realization of being wrong will shake them to the core and form them into someone better. The mutability of life is as transformative as it is terrifying.

I dearly wished that this book would not end. Anderson leaves just enough ends unraveled for the reader to have something to ponder. None of the girls have a fairy tale ending. Linked through time and space by a picture, some letters, and Galapagos herself, Lenore, Cathy, and Adri embark on journeys to find love, life, and ultimately, themselves.

Absolutely stunning. Everyone should read this.

I received an ARC of this title from the publisher.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Wood

These woods are deadly, dark and deep
And they have many paths they keep...

Forgive me, Robert Frost. I could not help but run through Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening and mixing up the words while reading Chelsea Bobulski's upcoming YA novel The Wood. Much like Frost's iconic dark woods, the grove of this novel has a mysterious allure that may be deadly. At least, my teacher enforced a more macabre reading of "Woods."

Of late, I have been skeptical of YA time-travel novels--and any novels dealing with temporal jaunts in general. Although it received accolades and a movie deal, I did not like Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (which I suppose is technically a multiverse novel, but tomato, tomahtoe). I got about two chapters into Gwen Cole's Cold Summer before I started falling asleep because I didn't care at all. Into the Dim was a particular grade of Not Good. Granted, I've not yet read Passenger by Alex Bracken or The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig. I am saving them for an epically cranky reading period.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Dreamland Burning

I have thoughts about Dreamland Burning.

My anticipation for this book was high, and so my disappointment is more acute.