14 December 2017

Review: Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

My public demanded it! Here's my review of Big Finish's UNIT adventure Assembled at Unreality SF. Kate Stewart, Osgood, and company meet the old UNIT: Jo Grant, Mike Yates, and Sergeant Benton.

Hardcover, 277 pages
Published 2005
Borrowed from the library
Read February 2017
Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

I read this because a student in my YA literature class asked to do an Honors conversion, and selected this novel as the basis for her supplementary research project. She ended up opting to not complete the research project. I wish she had, partially for the selfish reason that maybe it could have convinced me there was something more to this book. The fundamental idea is okay: when you go to the afterlife, you live there as you age backwards until you're a baby again, and then you get dispatched back to the real world to begin a new life. Zevin's afterlife is weirdly conventional, and conventionally contemporary America at that: people have jobs and drive on highways and stuff. But on the other hand, animals talk? A mundane afterlife could work, but in Elsewhere I felt like it was more a lack of imagination than anything else-- there's no coherent logic that backs this up. Like, where does money even come from? Why is everything like middle-class 21st-century America? Where are all the dead Chinese and Indian people, who surely would make up the majority of the residents of Elsewhere? A good book could get away with leaving out this kind of detail, but this book isn't that good. It's not terribly tedious or anything, but it sure takes its time with things. The sparse style is going for literary, I think, but it mostly comes across as underwritten.

12 December 2017

Return to Oz: Sky Island by L. Frank Baum

Captain Jack is back! My review of Big Finish's new box set about missing adventures in the life of Jack Harkness is up at USF.

Trade paperback, 288 pages
Published 2002 (originally 1912)

Acquired February 2017
Read March 2017
Sky Island: Being the Further Exciting Adventures of Trot and Cap'n Bill after Their Visit to the Sea Fairies
by L. Frank Baum
illustrated by John R. Neill

Like The Sea Fairies, I hadn’t read this until prompted to do so by the folks at the Oz blog Burzee; unlike The Sea Fairies, I really enjoyed the experience. It feels more planned than a lot of Baum’s novels; so many of his books are about getting from Point A to Point B, and even when they’re technically not about trying to get somewhere they sort of work that in there anyway, like the excursion to the outside world in Marvelous Land or the tour of Oz in Emerald City or the various searches in Lost Princess. (Some of these do it better than others; I enjoy Marvelous Land, whereas in Emerald City the travel stuff is just a diversion from the invasion plot.) But Sky Island is very much about the governments and people of Sky Island in a way that makes it more focused than almost any other of Baum’s fantasies I can recollect. It’s also tremendous fun—Baum is inventive and clever and whimsical and suspenseful in just the right proportions, and what Trot has to do here actually matters, both to her group and to the people of the island.

I agree with Nick and Sarah at Burzee that Baum’s doing something political here, but I too don't know what, and I actually like that it’s hard to map on something specific; Baum’s attempts at social commentary can be heavy-handed at times, but this one is engaging. I really liked the stuff about democracy and poverty and such, and it was thought-provoking even if I didn’t quite know what he was trying to say.

I enjoyed Cap’n Bill in this one a lot, even if he was somewhat ineffectual; the way he takes charge of the military is fun even if he does end up captured ASAP. Baum always seems to have it out for militaries! (This reminded me a lot of some of the stuff in Ozma of Oz.)

The Dover edition of this book does have the color plates, for which I’m very grateful—this feels like some of Neill’s best work to me! But maybe I just think that because I actually don’t have very many Oz books that include color illustrations, so of course this one stands out. The cloud journey on the umbrella looks great, and I always like the way Neill draws Polychrome.

Next Week: Back to Oz, as we meet Scraps, The Patchwork Girl of Oz!

11 December 2017

Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender: Smoke and Shadow by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru

Comic hardcover, 236 pages
Published 2016 (contents: 2015-16)
Borrowed from my wife
Read December 2016
Avatar: The Last Airbender: Smoke and Shadow

Script: Gene Luen Yang
Art: Gurihiru
Lettering: Michael Heisler

The Avatar television series always had the most emotional heft when dealing with Prince Zuko and his family, and thus far, the same seem to be true of the comic books, as the two Zuko-focused ones, The Search and Smoke and Shadow, have felt more substantive than the two Aang-focused ones, The Promise and The Rift. Smoke and Shadow shows what Zuko was doing during The Rift, as Zuko contends with factions in the Fire Nation dissatisfied with his leadership, factions led by Zuko's girlfriend's Mai's father. Yang and Gurihiru invent a new faction of the Fire Nation, the mysterious Kemurikage, who may or may not be spirits. There's also some surprisingly touching stuff about Zuko's long-lost mom trying to reintegrate into the life she lost and the nation she left behind even as her own daughter pulls away from her.

It's fun at the same time that it's serious: Mai has a new boyfriend, and that causes a lot of friction and a lot of jokes; it's great to see Mai uncharacteristically call him "babe," and even better to see Aang irritated by it. (I do hope that what happens with the new boyfriend at the end is just misdirection, because it seems like a misstep if not.) Plus, Uncle Iroh gets all the best jokes, including one about how Zuko has an angsty wave. There's also a good part-two cliffhanger. Overall, this is just a really solid, well-done Avatar adventure, recapturing what made the television series so enjoyable, the best of the comics so far other than The Search. I'm definitely looking forward to North and South.

08 December 2017

50 Miles to Eternity

As a high school senior, I applied to exactly four colleges: Miami University, Xavier University, the University of Cincinnati, and the University of Dayton. These universities are 19 miles, 20 miles, 21 miles, and 50 miles from where I grew up. There's an obvious trend there, and an obvious outlier. I did not want to go anywhere far away. In fact, my mother forced me to apply to the University of Dayton, and I refused to seriously consider it.

At this distance I remember surprisingly little about my college application process, why I picked Miami over the others. It does have the nicest campus of the four. The main other thing that I remember is because UC's academic calendar ran much later than Miami's, I was getting e-mails in early September telling me it was not too late to enroll at UC. Reading them in my dorm room at Miami, I was like, "Uh, I'm pretty sure it is." (I'd guess my mother remembers more of this than me.) The main thing I do remember about the whole process is that I really did not want to go far away from home. The hour drive to Dayton seemed like it would be an eternity!

It's such a contrast to being at the University of Tampa now. I could pop home for the weekend or even the evening as an undergraduate. There was a period where I still went back on Tuesday nights to fulfill my obligations as an Assistant Scoutmaster in my old Boy Scout troop! Most of my students here are from out of state; going home means an eight-hour car ride at best, more usually a plane trip. I couldn't countenance going far; they couldn't imagine staying close to home. (Though some of them have turned out to be more homebodies than they imagined. I filled out data on a transfer application for one, and that prompted a pre-class conversation that caused others to bemoan how far away they'd gone.)

After I graduated, though, I lived at home with my parents for a year, and then when I was applying to M.A. programs, I couldn't wait to get further afield. I remember applying to Indiana University and worrying it was too close at 120 miles away. So I suppose I ended up going through what my UT students went through, just five years later. (Sometimes I think my emotional development was five years behind the average.) I guess I needn't've worried, as I ended 800 miles away, and now I'm over 900!

And 120 miles would be delightful.

#430: What are your sources for information about colleges and universities?

07 December 2017

Review: Father and Son by Edmund Gosse

Mass market paperback, 270 pages
Published 1986 (originally 1907)
Acquired June 2010
Read January 2013
Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments
by Edmund Gosse

Not a Victorian scientist novel... but a novel about a Victorian scientist. Well, a memoir told novelistically at any rate. You may know Edmund Gosse's father as Philip Henry Gosse, the man who did not say that God put the fossils there to test our faith, but whom everyone thought said that. Father and Son is a great read, but it had less to say about science and seeing scientifically than I had expected. If anything makes Philip Gosse a terrible dad (and he sure is, at least as Edmund tells it) it was his religious piety, which Edmund said left only "what is harsh and void and negative" (248). Philip was a self-denying emotionless man, but because he thought that was spiritually correct, not because of scientific training. A far cry from the mix of Christianity and science employed by Philip's friend Charles Kingsley.

06 December 2017

Reading Roundup Wrapup: November 2017

Pick of the month: “The Busiest Man in England”: A Life of Joseph Paxton, Gardener, Architect & Victorian Visionary by Kate Colquhoun. This was an excellent biography that brought together a number of my interests: the Crystal Palace, Victorian science, the sheer enthusiasm Victorians had for anything and everything. My only disappointment is how long it took me to get around to reading it! It was a month of good reading quality in general: Sins of the Wreckers was a strong Transformers comic, For Your Eyes Only was an above average James Bond book, and North and South was one of the better Avatar comics.

All books read:
1. Transformers: Sins of the Wreckers by Nick Roche
2. The Broken Earth, Book Three: The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin
3. For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming
4. Doctor Who: The Garden of Statues by Justin Richards
5. Avatar: The Last Airbender: North and South by Gene Luen Yang
6. “The Busiest Man in England”: A Life of Joseph Paxton, Gardener, Architect & Victorian Visionary by Kate Colquhoun
7. Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Rough Beasts of Empire by David R. George III
8. Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations: Watching the Clock by Christopher L. Bennett

A slightly down month. I'm still adjusting how to keep at my pleasure reading with my new workload, and also it took me about half the month just to get through The Stone Sky. But Thanksgiving Break provided a nice opportunity for a late save; I read #3-7 during Thanksgiving week, and nearly all of #6-7 in particular while flying.

All books acquired:
1. For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming
2. Bernice Summerfield: Adorable Illusion by Gary Russell
3. Faction Paradox: Against Nature by Lawrence Burton
4. Faction Paradox: The Brakespeare Voyage, or The Fourth Wave Boys’ Book of Whaling for Universes by Simon Bucher-Jones and Jonathan Dennis
5. Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Volume 5: Mobilization by Yoshiki Tanaka
6. Terra Ignota, Volume II: Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 644 (down 2)
Books remaining on "To review" list: 20 (down 2)

05 December 2017

Return to Oz: The Sea Fairies by L. Frank Baum

Two more Unreality reviews in the past couple days: the eighth Doctor begins fighting the Time War, and the tenth Doctor and Rose make their glorious comeback.

Trade paperback, 240 pages
Published 1998 (originally 1911)

Acquired and read February 2017
The Sea Fairies by L. Frank Baum
illustrated by John R. Neill

I’ve been reading a blog called Burzee of late, which is about a pair of Oz fans working their way through the canonical Oz works, plus related stories. Thus far, every novel they’ve done has been one I’ve read before, but when they hit the two Trot and Cap’n Bill books that L. Frank Baum wrote during the Great Hiatus between Emerald City and Patchwork Girl, I decided to read along with them, as I’d never read them before. So the commentary that follows is mostly a response to Sarah and Nick’s commentary at Burzee.

I’m not even sure I knew The Sea Fairies existed when I was a kid; while I owned some of the other Baum fantasies that tied into Oz, like Queen Zixi of Ix and Dot and Tot of Merryland, I kind of remember being perplexed as how Trot and Cap’n Bill knew Button Bright already in The Scarecrow of Oz, which would seem to indicate I wasn’t even aware of a book that would plug the gap.

I didn’t like this very much. It wasn’t terrible, but I did find it dead boring. I have a friend who really likes children’s fantasy but can’t get into the Oz novels because they’re so plotless—so many of them are about getting from point A to point B, with just a series of visits in between, like Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, The Road to Oz, and so on. This doesn’t bother me if the places are interesting and there’s some kind of urgency to the quest (I like Dorothy and the Wizard a lot, Road less so), but Sea Fairies is like one of those novels except no one is going from anywhere to anywhere! There’s no goal or purpose to anything that happens in the first half of the novel, it’s just a travelogue without the actual travel. Sarah and Nick connect it to The Twinkle Tales, a series of short fantasies for younger readers, but I found that pretty hit-or-miss, which I guess corresponds to my reaction to this book. Nick says the book eventually clicked for him… but it never did for me! (I guess there were some good bad puns, though.)

The arrival of a villain in the character of Zog halfway through wasn’t a “merciful release” for me as it was for Nick, though, because by the time the plot turned up, I was so disinterested that I didn’t care what evil he did. And the powers of the mermaids are so amazing and absolute that it’s hard to feel like anyone is ever actually in real danger.

I did like Trot and Can’n Bill more than Nick and Sarah did—they both have a nice practicality to them. Bill sort of veers between out of his depth (heh) to the only person on top of things, but I guess it depends on how closely he can connect his fairyland experiences to a real world one. (He does a pretty good job leading the troops in Sky Island, I feel.) Having an adult along is interesting, and something Baum didn’t do a whole lot: the Wizard in Dorothy and the Wizard and the Shaggy Man in Road, and Rinkitink in, well Rinkitink in Oz seem to be principle ones.

My Dover edition’s illustrations aren’t very high-quality reproductions, and it omits the color plates, sadly. I don’t think there’s a reprint that has them. As a result, the illustrations didn’t make much of an impact on me. I’m glad I read this at last, but I have to agree that it’s hard to imagine giving this to a kid now. I was starting to wonder if Baum was a terrible writer, and I only liked his other books because I was nostalgic for them! Thankfully Sky Island was much much better.

Sarah connects Sea Fairies to Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, and I did too, but in the context of the 1978 film, which maybe gives an indication of what a 1980s adaptation of The Sea Fairies (which was supposedly planned) would have been like. Having seen the film I can easily imagine an adaptation of Sea Fairies in the vein of The Water Babies, which features Jon Pertwee as a singing Scottish cartoon lobster. (Actually, there are some elements of The Water Babies film that are closer to Baum’s novel than Kingsley’s!)

Next Week: Trot and Cap’n Bill return, but this time go up instead of down, to Sky Island!

04 December 2017

Review: Black Canary: New Killer Star by Brenden Fletcher, Sandy Jarrell, Moritat, Annie Wu, et al.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2016 (contents: 2016)

Acquired November 2016
Read December 2016
Black Canary, Volume 2: New Killer Star

Written by Brenden Fletcher, Matthew Rosenberg, Julie Benson & Shawna Benson
Art by Sandy Jarrell, Moritat, Annie Wu, Wayne Faucher, Claire Roe
Color by Lee Loughridge, Serge LaPointe, Allen Passalaqua
Letters by Steve Wands, Marilyn Patrizio

New Killer Star just isn't as good as Kicking and Screaming. Part of this is that it's kind of a hodgepodge: one four-issue story arc, one side story of the band visiting Gotham Academy, one flashback story (set before Kicking and Screaming), and one part of a story about Dinah being (re)united with Batgirl and Huntress to (re)form the Birds of Prey.

And part of that is that none of these components are particularly satisfying. The main four-part story is about Dinah being kidnapped by a ninja clan or something who want to know the martial art secret previously known only to Dinah's mother. There's a lot of backstory invoked here, some of it new (I don't think the New 52 Birds of Prey ever said a thing about Dinah's parents) and some of it old, but all of it isn't very illuminating to the Dinah of the present. I want to read about the band having wacky martial arts adventures on the road! But mostly the band is separated from Dinah during this adventure, and the story feels like it's ignoring the premise of the book more than it's using it.

It's kind of weird how this reinserts Dinah's post-Crisis backstory into the New 52, kind of, after Birds of Prey spent so much time developing her orphan backstory.
from Black Canary vol. 4 #10 (script by Brenden Fletcher, art by Sandy Jarrell)

The art, too, is disappointing. Sandy Jarrell isn't a bad artist, and neither is Moritat, but neither of their work compares to that of Annie Wu, the primary artist on volume 1 of Black Canary, who only draws two issues here-- they just lack the dynamism, fun, and sexiness that Wu brings. I know Wu did some well-received Kate Bishop Hawkeye comics for Marvel, but I don't know what else. She's clearly an up-and-coming dynamo (or ought to be), so I'll have to keep on top of her work.

01 December 2017

Thanksgiving No-Ways with My Cousins

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Thanksgiving-- it is my favorite holiday. Significantly, this is because of how I celebrate it every year; the Mollmann family going up through my grandparents' generation always rents a large lodge or several cabins adjacent to a state park somewhere for Wednesday through Saturday or Sunday. These days, as my cousins marry off and reproduce, that's rather a lot of people.

Before we even got engaged, I told Hayley that we were always doing Thanksgiving with my family; that was my one nonnegotiable condition for marriage. Since when we were both at UConn we got a whole week off for Thanksgiving, we usually did something like the Saturday through Tuesday before Thanksgiving with her families in Cleveland, and then headed down to join mine for the actual day itself. Well, negotiation happened anyway, and back in 2014 we actually did Thanksgiving dinner with her families in Cleveland, booking it down to Hocking Hills Thanksgiving night to at least spend Friday through Sunday with my family.

photo by me
This year, circumstances created another compromise. Her little brother is a member of Ohio University's Marching 110, and this year they were invited to march in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Now the parade is not something I've ever particularly cared about, but getting to see my wife's brother in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity trumped even my nonnegotiables.

It was a hectic couple days. We flew in and out of Newark on a budget airline; Hayley's dad and family were staying in Brooklyn in the apartment of one of Hayley's cousins (out of town for Thanksgiving himself-- thanks Luis!). All in all, we left home at 5:30am and made it to the apartment at 2:30pm after driving an hour to Orlando, taking a parking shuttle, making the actual flight, riding the airport train, riding a New Jersey Transit train, and taking the subway. We were up early the next day, too: the parade itself starts at 9am, but you have to get to the parade route early to secure a good spot.

photo by Hayley
We awoke at 5am and got to the route around 6:30am, and the front row was already filled up along the entire route. We ended up settling in behind an older man and his adult daughter who had laid out some towels to claim a stretch of sidewalk for the rest of their family who were coming later. Our theory was that since they would be sitting on the towels, we would have a pretty good view of the parade over them.

It was a long and cold wait for the parade to start. It has been a long time since all I had to do was stand in one place and wait for something to happen. It was in the high thirties; coming straight to this from November in Florida was a particular shock. Hayley's other brother went and got me a coffee and her a hot chocolate mostly so he could go to the bathroom; I really needed that coffee but was terrified it would make me need to go to the bathroom. (Amazingly, I was fine.)

When the rest of the family in front of us finally turned up, it turned out they didn't need as much space as they had claimed, so they pulled up one of their towels and invited us into the vacated area. So getting there at 6:30am actually paid off!

photo by Hayley's older brother
I hadn't really known what to expect, since I've never paid the parade much attention, but basically it rotates between the big balloons (mostly, but not all, of licensed characters), elaborate floats with celebrities atop them (I didn't know very many of them, but I did know a few, including celebrity chef/Enterprise guest actress/Salman Rushdie's ex-wife Padma Lakshmi, and pop stars Sabrina Carpenter and Olivia Holt), clowns dressed up (usually in a way that co-ordinates with a float), and a number of marching bands (mostly high school, actually, but in addition to OU, there was also Prairie View A&M, as well as the Air Force Marching Band).

It actually was really fun. The floats were impressive, though I don't get why they bring in a bunch of celebrities, mostly singers, who don't do any actual singing. The clowns were entertaining, and the balloons really are cool to see in person. The marching bands were all really good. There was a tremendous energy to the whole thing-- the clowns threw confetti!-- and I loved shouting and chanting at the floats and balloons. It was cold, but the skies were clear; you couldn't have asked for a nicer day, to be honest.

This was followed up later by a Thanksgiving dinner cruise for the Marching 110 and family, which was itself gorgeous:
photo by Hayley

Friday and Saturday morning we spent sightseeing; Friday with Hayley's family, and Saturday on our own after they left. The Grand Central Station Holiday Train Display was massively disappointing compared to the Union Terminal one in Cincinnati, but Central Park is always cool, and I particularly enjoyed seeing the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Cool plants, cool layout, and I enjoyed noting a few significant-to-me Brooklynites immortalized on the path of Brooklyn greats:
photos by me

So, in the end, I had an enjoyable trip, but I feel like I would never do it again. It's hard to imagine that this experience of it could be topped. And missing getting to spend time with the Mollmanns has been tougher and weirder than I imagined. But I am really happy I got to do it. Thanks to Hayley's dad and family for the opportunity, and for everything you provided during the trip!

Bonus Unexpected Victorian Literature Reference

photo by me
it's a rose in the Cranford(!) Rose Garden in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

30 November 2017

Voice and Genre in Young Adult Literature: Feed (2002)

Trade paperback, 300 pages
Published 2004 (originally 2002)
Acquired September 2008

Previously read October 2008 and August 2011
Reread February 2017
Feed by M. T. Anderson

Joe Sutliff Sanders has a chapter called "Young Adult SF" in the Routledge Companion to Science Fiction where he looks at that overlapping Venn diagram of young adult literature and science fiction. Sanders says that YASF is a tricky business: "when weighing the importance of traditional traits of sf in YASF, fundamental differences, even incompatibilities, emerge between these perspectives" (448). Young adult fiction is all about relevance. He quotes two other critics on the problem: Farah Mendlesohn says that YASF "closes down the universe for children, reducing sf to either metaphor or to a means to resolve personal problems" (448), while Mike Cadden argues that "while science fiction tends to give us more or less complete characters reacting to a world or universe in dramatic flux, young adult literature gives us the constant in the form of the wide world and shows the dynamism in the developing character in response to that world" (448-49). Sanders concludes that YA scholarship has a "fascination with the relevance of the literature to young readers, a relevance often signaled by a text's attention to exactly the personal problems Mendlesohn mentions" (449).

Okay, okay, what about Feed? Now Feed is science fiction, but it's also dystopian fiction, which has some distinct purposes to other forms of sf, and it's also a satire, which again is its own genre. (And it's a love story, and probably some other genres too.) So where exactly does it fit within this (initialism-heavy) account of YA vs. sf vs. YASF? Interestingly, I think it kind of does both. If sf is outwardly focused and sf inwardly focused, there are ways in which Feed is very much inwardly focused: Titus and most of the other teens in Feed lead very limited lives, and do not think about the wider society in which they are embedded. And the story is extremely relevant, even moreso now in the smartphone era than it was on original publication in 2002; the behavior of the future teens is clearly modeled on the way actual teens behave. I've seen M. T. Anderson speak three times, and he mentioned that to write Feed and get the voice down, he read teen magazines for months, and I think it paid off.

But in Feed, there's a distinction between the characters and the reader. This is satire, after all: the reader is not meant to align with the viewpoint character in a way they are in a YA novel like The Outsiders or The Hero and the Crown or Holes. You're supposed to be turned off by the behavior of Titus and his friends. They may be inwardly focused, but the reader is encouraged to be outwardly focused. This differing orientation is aided by the snippets of feed that show us the wider political context for the novel's events, a context to which the characters pay little-to-no attention. These characters are, in Cadden's terms, "complete. Horrifyingly, terribly complete. Titus learns very little from his experiences (purposefully so, because it makes him uncomfortable), while the world he inhabits is indeed dynamic (in that it's decaying; dynamism doesn't have to be positive). So Feed manages to straddle both halves of the YASF divide, but this all could be because it's a dystopian satire and not some other form of YASF, which might struggle more with this.

I assigned Sanders's essay to my YA lit students alongside Feed, though I don't think it was the best: Sanders aims his article at sf scholars wanting to know more about YA, while I think my students would have benefited from one aimed at YA scholars wanting to know more about sf. Since teaching Feed I saw Farah Mendelsohn talk about science fiction at the Children's Literature Association conference, and she opined that YASF is often not very good in a way that is not true of YA fantasy. Which, anecdotally, feels true to me. It turns out that Mendlesohn actually has a book about YASF, The Inter-Galactic Playground; given how much I like her Rhetorics of Fantasy, I need to check it out to see if it has some good insights for next time I teach Feed.