29 June 2012

Where Female Doctor Who Fans Are At

Trade paperback, 186 pages
Published 2010
Acquired January 2011

Read May 2012
Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It
edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O'Shea

Though I was first excited when I first heard of Chicks Dig Time Lords, by the time it came for me to read it, my initial enthusiasm had waned.  In the interim, even though the book won the Hugo(!), I'd read several lukewarm reviews from folks whose opinions I trusted, and I'd also read She's Such a Geek!: Women Write About Science, Technology & Other Nerdy Stuff, an anthology with a similar premise-- get women to write about their geeky passions-- that I'd found somewhat repetitive and uninsightful.

Perhaps it was because of these diminished expectations, but I ended up enjoying Chicks Dig Time Lords more than I didn't.  Though I think you could level a charge at it that too many essays are about Americans (seriously, do no British women like Doctor Who?) who grew up watching the show on PBS (seriously, where are those flocks of women who came in with the new show?) and love organized fandom (seriously, does no one out there enjoy the actual show for being itself?), the essays themselves are good enough to overcome that. I won't comment on all the essays here, just the somehow-noteworthy ones:

One of the first essays in the book is Carole E. Barrowman's "Time is Relative," which chronicles what it was like growing up as Doctor Who fans with her younger brother-- especially when her younger brother is John Barrowman, who of course went on to play Captain Jack in Doctor Who and Torchwood.  Relatively entertaining.  Coeditor Lynne Thomas also turns in a good essay about "Marrying Into the TARDIS Tribe," which has some touching Elisabeth Sladen moments in it. (Poor Lis.)  Seanan McGuire's confession of love for Adric (who she was convinced was real) was absolutely hilarious.

The best of the personal essays was definitely "Two Generations of Fangirls in Middle America," about Amy Fritsch and her daughter who is growing up on the show.  Adorable, and my kids had better like Doctor Who just as much.

I came to Doctor Who Magazine too late for "The Life and Time of Jackie Jenkins" column, about the personal life of a "single white Who fan," but I enjoyed "Being Jackie Jenkins: Memoirs from a Parallel Universe" nonetheless.  It's a funny look at the strange period of Doctor Who fandom between 1996 and 2005, when increasingly odd things were required to discuss... but it's relevant to everyone's fandom experience, I expect.  I'll probably pick up the book of Jackie Jenkins's collected columns that's recently come out.

I didn't expect to like the essays about fandom activities, but I did: Johanna Mead's "Costuming: More Productive Than Drugs, But Just as Expensive" was actually pretty interesting, even if there are some irrelevant tangents.  Even more fun was Jennifer Adams Kelly's "Rutle-ing The Doctor: My Long Life in Doctor Who Fandom," where she talks about making fanvids over the years.  I was expecting Tara O'Shea's essay about running the "green room" at ChicagoTARDIS to be very "insider"-- oh ho ho, look at me, how cool am I with my hobnobbing-- but it was actually a very interesting examination of a job I hadn't thought much about. (If you're wondering, my prejudice against organized fandom is simply my prejudice against all groups that I do not belong to.) The only one of these that strongly didn't work for me was Christa Dickson's "In Defense of Smut," which doesn't manage to find anything more interesting to say about smut than, "Well, I like it, so there."

There were also essays that weren't memoir, usually analyzing gender components of the show.  Lloyd Rose tackles the "problem of Rose" in "What's a Girl To Do?" and comes the closest of anyone to convincing me that there is a problem of Rose-- though I'm still not convinced.  The best of these was definitely "Girl Genius: Nyssa of Traken" by Francesca Coppa, a stirring tribute to an oft-neglected but excellent companion. (Like so many, though, she's shined much brighter after the series than during it; I love her rapport with the fifth Doctor in the audio dramas.)

On the other hand, "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Have We Really Come That Far?" by Shoshana Magnet and Robert Smith? is an unconvincing and mean-spirited examination of gender in the new series, more interested in scoring points than saying anything interesting. And though K. Tempest Bradford's "Martha Jones: Fangirl Blues" is well-written and makes some good points, it seems to think that Martha was somehow a successful character in spite of her creators, not because of them.

I also enjoyed the interviews: we get Sophie Aldred (Ace in the 1980s), who is great, but best of all, my first companion love, India Fisher, who played Charley Pollard opposite Paul McGann. My only complaint about these interviews is that there weren't more of them; there have been plenty more interesting women affiliated with Doctor Who over the years.  I mean-- Laura Doddington, who played Zara in Key 2 Time!? Who cares? At least get Maggie Stables in!

And, of course, the comic by the creators of "Torchwood Babiez" (Tammy Garrison and Katy Shuttleworth) is every bit as delightful as you'd expect.

There are, as you imagine, some essays that are boring or dull or repetitive, but those simply fade from the mind as you read, leaving you with an interesting and varied set of essays about the experience of being a fan of a marvelous show-- all of which just happen to be written by women. This is perhaps what She's Such a Geek! should have been, and I'm sorry it took me so long to get around to reading it. (But then, I always am.)

27 June 2012

Audio Catchup: Doctor Who: The Jupiter Conjunction

written by Eddie Robson
directed by Ken Bentley
released May 2012

Peter Davison as the Doctor
Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka
Mark Strickson as Vislor Turlough
Sarah Sutton as Nyssa
Doctor Who #160: The Jupiter Conjunction

Though I enjoyed Big Finish’s first trilogy that reunited the Fifth Doctor with Nyssa, Tegan, and Turlough (CobwebsThe Whispering ForestThe Cradle of the Snake), it didn’t push its TARDIS team into must-buy status for me, and thus I gave a miss to the second trilogy — and I’d intended to do so to the third.

But there I was, reading reviews for The Jupiter Conjunction, a release which had been overshadowed in my mind by the fact that Big Finish was bringing back Magnus Greel in a prequel to The Talons of Weng-Chiang in the final instalment of this trilogy. As usual, I had grumbled sight unseen about the return of yet another villain from the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era; I’m still waiting for Kandyman II: Sweeties’ Revenge. Anyway, many of the reviews of The Jupiter Conjunction were saying that it was a nice, solid story, the sort that wouldn’t knock the world over but perhaps was the kind of thing Doctor Who should generally aspire to.

Where Our Minds Are Going

Trade paperback, 280 pages
Published 2011 (content: 2010)
Acquired November 2011

Read May 2012
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
by Nicholas Carr

I skimmed this book a lot when I was trying to find a chapter to pull out and teach to my students (as a companion to M. T. Anderson's novel Feed, which covers the same topic in many ways). I knew that Carr would hate me for that, so I resolved the read the whole book some day.  I'm glad I did; this is a very effective expansion of Carr's notorious article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

Carr lines up his ducks quite nicely. He starts by demonstrating that the way we think is shaped by the way we read, and that the way we read is shaped by the technologies we possess, by giving a broad overview of the history of print, heavily drawing on Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Elizabeth Eistenstein. There were a lot of things I knew here, but also ones I didn't-- loved the assertion (I think it came from Ong) that we couldn't have had the scientific revolution without the printing press. From there, he discusses research into how we think is presently being reshaped by the Internet and other electronic technologies.  It's hard not to argue with any of his conclusions-- these things are almost certainly happening. Sometimes his arguments boil down to "McLuhan was right all along," but given that we've forgotten that, it's worth repeating.

What are we to do about it?  That's where I wish that Carr had gone further. It's fine for his article to not delve into potential actions, but in a book-length work it seems like something of an oversight and misstep. I'm trying to cut down on my Internet use, for what it's worth, but that's hard to do with a brain like mine in a world like ours.

25 June 2012

Where Our Words Come From

Trade paperback, 180 pages
Published 2007
Acquired December 2007

Read May 2012
The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two: The Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Words
by Anu Garg

This book is essentially a collection of etymological trivia, each chapter presenting a group of word origins on a common theme. For example, one is about words to do with food, another words named after fictional characters, another just about words derived from Dickens characters!  It's a decent little book, with some good information, and some forgettable stuff.  By far my favorite word origin was that of the titular dord, which meant "density"... just from 1934 to 1939.  Wikipedia has a pretty good explanation. (To my disappointment, I couldn't find anything in Google Books from the period where someone actually used dord.) Esquivalience also has a pretty good origin, too.

The book has its annoying tics. The footers all have "word puzzles" in them, with questions like "What words begin and end with the letters und?"  They're okay, mostly forgettable, but some got on my nerves.  Especially one where the question was merely "How are legislators like allegorists?"; the answer is that they're anagrams, a lame puzzle that tells you nothing clever about either word.  Even worse is the fact that "anagram" isn't defined until a puzzle that comes fifteen pages later!

The book feels like it comes from the 1990s sometimes, with a lot of Bill Gates jokes. And Garg is the only person I've ever heard claim that google has become a generic synonym for "to search"-- not Internet search, but as in the usage "I googled my keys." Has anyone ever really said that?  Also, he seems to think that the Romans, led by Julius Caesar, once declared war on Pompeii!

Those quibbles aside, this was a decent, light read.  I'm going to be trotting out that dord anecdote for years to come.

22 June 2012

Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Alternate Timelines

Hardcover, 202 pages
Published 2006
Acquired February 2012

Read May 2012
Professor Bernice Summerfield VII: Something Changed
edited by Simon Guerrier

This Bernice Summerfield anthology has a somewhat odd premise: a man named Doggles brings a "history machine" to the Braxiatel Collection just after the emotionally devastating events of Parallel Lives.  At the end of the first chapter (Simon Guerrier's "Inappropriate Laughter"), the history machine malfunctions, and the devastating consequences are explored in the second chapter (James Swallow's "Siege Mentality"). But at the end of that chapter, everyone dies, and there's another second chapter (Joseph Lidster's "Dead Mice") where we pick up again in a reality where the machine malfunctioned in a different way.  And so the book goes again and again, sometimes picking up immediately after the malfunction, sometimes months or decades later, but always showing a different possibility.

What stops the book from feeling like a collection of pointless alternate-timeline stories is that they all use the premise as a way to create genuine insights into Bernice herself and her supporting cast. I didn't fully understand what was happening in "Dead Mice," but it was a great look into Braxiatel and his levels of manipulation, as is "Family Man" by Ian Mond.  Pete Kemphshall's "Acts of Senseless Devotion," where Bernice is blinded and her son is dying, showed the all-too-plausible depths to which Bernice might sink to save her son.  Jason Kane gets a good showing in Dave Hoskin's "Writing in Green," where he attempts to show Benny the depth of his love with the help of Hass, the Collection's Ice Warrior gardener.  Another dark story was Ian Farrington's "A Murderous Desire," where someone kills Doggles.  Very dark actions from all of our main characters, but seemingly all too plausible.

Of the stories that picked up much later, I most liked Eddie Robson's "Match of the Deity," where Benny and Doggles are reunited eight years later to try to return a religious artifact to an alien planet, with hilarious consequences.  But even though it's set eight years in an alternate future, it still tells us something of both Bernice and Doggles.

Some take odder approaches, but that's okay.  In Ben Aaronovitch's "Walking Backwards for Christmas," the history machine makes Bernice relive her own past, and thus we get a great story of the little-explored period where Bernice was at a military academy and subsequently went AWOL. It's neat to see a very different, but very recognizable Benny. I also liked Dave Stone's "There and Back Again," where Jason uses the constantly shifting timelines to try to help his other selves break free from Braxiatel's conditioning.  Poor guy.

A couple, though, I couldn't see how the worlds they showed were related to the premise at all.  Why is Bernice fighting with a fanatical resistance army in "The God Gene" by Ben Woodhams? No one really ever says. Or why is Bernice fighting for the Fifth Axis in "The Ice Garden" by Jonathan Clements? I have no idea (though it yields the excellent cover image).

Those are just two stories, though, out of an excellent bunch. Once again, Simon Guerrier has knocked it out of the park with a Bernice Summerfield anthology: we have here a collection of deeply character-driven, unique sf stories, which only an open-ended, multi-author series like this could do. A variety of voices and styles, all giving their perspectives on a small group of people, but able to do almost anything like them. Excellent stuff, which once again has me excited for the continuation of the Bernice line.

21 June 2012

Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Novellas' Curse

Hardcover, 218 pages
Published 2006
Acquired February 2012

Read May 2012
Professor Bernice Summerfield VI: Parallel Lives
by Rebecca Levene, Stewart Sheargold & Dave Stone

Ms Jones, the Braxiatel Collection's venerable administrator who made the mistake of falling in love, is gone. Bernice Summerfield is sent out to track her down in an anthology that, like A Life in Pieces, is made up of three closely-linked novellas.

Well, sort of. The collection is bound together by some typically strong writing from Simon Guerrier, who writes a four-part story that precedes and follows each of the novellas. This leads into the first, "The Serpent's Tooth" by Rebecca Levene, where Bernice finds herself on an out-of-the-way planet where Ms Jones has been sighted-- a planet where women are required to cover themselves up completely and hide from sight. So, she disguises herself as a man and soon finds herself involved in a quest to win the hands of the daughters of the king. As you do. Levene writes a story that does what the best Bernice stories do, moving between light humor and dark implications, sketching in a commentary on gender relations that almost seems worthy of Ursula K. Le Guin. Levene was the editor of the New Adventures for much of Bernice's run in the title, and she clearly gets what makes the character work.

As in A Life in Pieces, the middle novella features Adrian and Bev Tarrant on their own adventure. "Hiding Places" is the prose debut of Stewart Sheargold, who wrote two crazy Bernice audios (The Mirror Effect and The Masquerade of Death), and his experimental tendencies turn out to be fantastic in novella format. As Adrian and Bev try to find Ms Jones in a strange hotel, he gives us great prose, terrifying events, and some great characterization for these two oft-underused leads. Between this and Sutton's novella in A Life in Pieces, these characters are being handled very well, and I hope the line keeps this up-- and that we get to see some of this depth given to the actors playing the characters in the audio dramas.

Lastly we come to Dave Stone's "Jason and the Bandits; or, O, Jason, Where Art Thou?" I wanted to like this story, I really did. It features Jason trying to catch up with Benny when he's heard of what's going on, but a series of increasingly unlikely events keep him away. It's a good idea and a really fun story, but it conflicts completely with the tone of the other two novellas and the linking material-- much as happened with Dave Stone's contribution to A Life in Pieces. You can have one oddball story in an anthology of dozens of short stories, but I don't think it works in a collection of novellas, where it means that a whole third of the book is off on a weird tangent. Especially when it it's the last novella in the book, coming just before the incredible climax.

For incredible it is. Guerrier once again shows his depth of understanding of Bernice and her supporting cast, and that last line is oh-so-sad, to boot...

20 June 2012

Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Return of the Standalone Novel

Hardcover, 179 pages
Published 2005
Acquired January 2012

Read May 2012
Professor Bernice Summerfield #7: The Tree of Life
by Mark Michalowski

The last attempt at a standalone Professor Bernice Summerfield novel, The Big Hunt, was pretty unimpressive, part of that deriving from the fact that it felt like it took place to a rootless character with no history before the book.  The Tree of Life avoids that problem nicely, beginning and ending on the Braxiatel Collection, and in a way that actually sets up what's to come in the next few books.  Even beyond that, though, Bernice is better characterized then she has been in some of her other novels; though plot obviously dominates as it does in this type of sf novel, Michalowski keeps her lively by keeping the narration Bernice's voice, and also bringing Joseph along, who gives Bernice someone to spark against.  Obviously this is less essential in prose than in audio (which is usually the only medium where Joseph is really used), but it actually works well here, too.

The plot, which once again feature evil corporate types, isn't terribly innovative, but some cool ideas do come up in the course of its unfolding, most especially in the very well-depicted climax.  All in all, this is a decent adventure, but the Bernice novels really do pale before the audios, anthologies, and novellas, making me glad that after this, Big Finish largely abandoned the format for Bernice's continuing adventures.

18 June 2012

Computer Games... in Space!

Trade paperback, 357 pages
Published 2012 (content: 2011-12)
Acquired March 2012

Read June 2012
Constellation Games: A Space Opera Soap Opera
by Leonard Richardson

What kinds of videogames would aliens make? Maybe I'm simply unaware of it, but I'm pretty sure this topic has never been tackled by science fiction before.  In Constellation Games, humanity makes contact with the Constellation, a Star Trek-esque conglomeration of alien species working together in a post-scarcity society.  The first thought of the government is that it's an invasion. The first thought of Ariel Blum, a freelance computer programmer who mostly works on a series of Brazilian games about ponies for girls, is that he wants to review the aliens' games on his blog.

Constellation Games alternates between Ariel's blog and straight first-person narration from Ariel, with chat conversations and letters and such interspersed.  The Constellation takes a multifaceted approach to their contact with Earth, and so Ariel soon finds himself in possession of a replica of a millions-of-years-old Constellation gaming console, along with tons of games.  It's a short hop from the idea of reviewing a game to porting one; he wants to help his fellow human understand aliens by releasing one of their games.

Without a doubt, the best parts of Constellation Games are the game reviews.  There are several alien species in the Constellation and we not only see games for multiple species, but games that one of those species made off another, and yet Richardson never fails to communicate the alien nature of the games while still making them seem like plausible games.  I loved these sections: the game Sayable Spice, where the player collects components of taste molecules, comes up a lot, but Blum (and Richardson) show how a good game doesn't just have an interesting mechanic; it can say something, too.  There's one bit where Ariel plays a game called Gatekeeper where you guard the boundary between life and death, "let[ting] normal traffic through, while flicking away dead people who shouldn't be living (zombies) and living people who shouldn't be dying (suicides?)" (33). Ariel's alien contact, Curic, sends him a message to dispute that they are not zombies, they're people who "want a refund." Ariel says that's the same thing, and she replies:
Curic: Zombies are fully dead people who come back to life for no reason.
What you are seeing is when one half of a person dies, the other half wants a refund.
Otherwise the entire person will die in a few hours.
ABlum: who gives out the refunds?
Curic: There are no refunds.
That's the point of the game. (35)
A whole alien biology and culture, expressed via inscrutable game mechanics!

Even aside from that, it's a surprisingly good novel.  I guess I was expecting something like Taft 2012, the last high-concept sf novel I read, but Richardson gives Blum a strong narrative voice, that while idiosyncratic, never grates, and surrounds him with characters that perhaps initially seem stereotypical, but soon begin to betray extra levels of depth, both human and alien. Tetsuo Milk, the alien paleontologist who eventually becomes a history lecturer at the University of Texas, was probably my favorite, and the transcript of his first lecture is amazing. There are even some bits that approach being genuinely moving.  It's also funny at times-- you can't underestimate the importance of that!  The Constellation are a well fleshed out group of aliens, who avoid feeling too stereotypical in their types of social interactions (I loved the idea of "overlays").

At 357 pages, the plot meanders a bit.  The back cover and some early passages imply there's a conspiracy to uncover, but that turns out to not be true at all; the plot is much more character focused.  As such, the book ends the way that people's experiences actually end: frustratingly open-ended.  What happens to Ariel and his friends next?  I find myself wanting to know, but I'm not dissatisfied with the way the book ended; it came to the exact right spot.

Constellation Games is a love letter to videogames and certain elements of geek culture, that's for sure, but it's not a polemic; it shows both the marvelous possibilities of gaming, but also how it often fails to achieve its full potential-- and why.  It's an engaging, original way to explore an alien society, but also ourselves, like all the best science fiction should.  I rocketed through it (often drawn into a chapter on the basis of just reading that next game review), and I'd happily read more sf by Richardson should he choose to write it.

15 June 2012

Victorian Obscenity: Return to Christminster

Trade paperback, 451 pages
Published 1998 (content: 1894-95)
Acquired November 2006

Previously read September 2007 and March 2010
Reread May 2012
Jude the Obscure
by Thomas Hardy

Is three times in five years too much for one book?  Maybe.  I found myself less invested this time out.  "But nobody did come, because nobody does" is still the saddest sentence in literature, though.  On this read, I found myself much more aggravated by Sue than I have been in the past.  Figure out what you want, geeze!

14 June 2012

Victorian Industry: Return to Milton-Northern

Trade paperback, 480 pages
Published 1996 (content: 1854-55)
Acquired January 2009

Previously read February 2009
Reread April 2012
North and South
by Elizabeth Gaskell

Every time I read an Elizabeth Gaskell novel, I fall in love with its protagonist, and declare that she is the best protagonist in all Gaskell.  So, as I read several Gaskell novels in succession this spring, Mary Barton was quickly dethroned by Molly Gibson, who was in turn supplanted by Margaret Hale.

What I love about Margaret (and thus North and South) is how Gaskell shows that inaction is actually an incredibly difficult action to perform.  Margaret is often put into situations where she must not say or do anything, and yet she wants to so much.  Us enlightened twenty-first century folks are quick to criticized the Victorian concept of the "angel in house" because women can do more things than manage a kitchen, but Gaskell takes a different tack here, showing how awful and unfair it is to put someone into the position of being the emotional support for an entire family.  Yet Margaret bears it with as little complaint as possible, managing to be successful in most cases.  It's hard work, but she manages to do it, and we love her for it.

I find that I enjoy Gaskell's implicit social commentary.  Rarely does any Gaskell character come out and say something like, "I think the strictures against female action are wrong," but instead she has a series of awful complications ensue from those strictures.  When you sit down and think about it, you realize that if women were allowed to express themselves more readily, much of this novel would never have happened.  (Good for the characters, I suppose, even if it is bad for me.)  Margaret may be in an unenviable position, but we're never tempted to dismiss her as whiny or lazy thanks to the way Gaskell sets it up.  We're also kept well aware that there are worse positions in life to be in than Margaret's.

I also have to say that this is without a doubt the sexiest of Gaskell's novels.  Margaret's arms-- oh my!  And let us not forget that delicious silence...

13 June 2012

Victorian Memory: Return to Cranford

For my classes last year, there were three Victorian novels I skipped because I'd read them before, but as always, I've finally gone and read them anyway, just for fun instead of for notetaking...

Trade paperback, 213 pages
Published 2008 (content: 1851-53)
Acquired and read January 2009

Reread June 2012
by Elizabeth Gaskell

I first read Cranford over three years ago now, and in the intervening time, I've seen about half of the TV show and thought about a lot of the novel (Dr. Thomas Recchio, author of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford: A Publishing History, is my dissertation advisor).  When I went into it, having since read North and South (twice), Mary Barton (twice), and Wives and Daughters, I was expecting/remembering a light piece of fluff that wouldn't be as good as those more serious novels.

I see that in my original review, I commented on the novel's made-up-as-it-went-along nature (indeed, it wasn't supposed to be a novel at all when it started), but it was much more striking this time through.   The first two chapters form a self-contained story about the coming of Captain Brown to the town of Cranford, where "all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women" (5).  He runs afoul of the genteel women, especially the Jenkyns sisters, Miss Deborah and Miss Matty.  Captain Brown dies, then one of his daughters, making for a depressing tale of female community in the face of hardship.  At the end of the second chapter, we learn in passing that Miss Deborah too has died by the writing of the story.

Then, the third and fourth chapters form another self-contained story of their own, about Miss Matty and a long ago love she let slip through her fingers coming back, but still not happening.  And then it ends with him dying, too, giving us four character deaths in the first four chapters, and two stories that aren't altogether cheerful.

In the midst of all this, sadness, though, are of lot of humorous details about how the ladies of Cranford live, and it must have been this that readers wanted more of, because chapters 5-10 have much more of this.  Not that there's no sadness, because there's definitely some, but the emphasis flips.  It makes for an odd structure: had Gaskell planned it as a novel from the beginning, I would imagine we'd start with the fluffy stuff about what to call people with titles and possible foreigners and the panic over the alleged robberies, and after we'd gained some connection to the characters, it would be time for the heavy emotional stuff.  As it is, it feels very odd.

I think that it's around chapter 11 where Gaskell decided she was writing a novel, because that's where we get out first clues about the potential return of the Jenkyns's brother, Peter.  More than that, though, we get what is surely one of the saddest and most moving passages in literature, where Miss Matty recounts how she and her sister used to plan for their futures, and Miss Matty always wanted to have children, and now they don't even express interest in her, and she dreams sometimes that she has one!  How depressing is that!

From there to the end (chapter 16), we get an abbreviated novel about the financial crisis that threatens to ruin Miss Matty's life and how everyone comes together to deal with it; just as the part where she tells of her lost dreams is so depressing, the parts where the community bands together to help her are so triumphant, feel-good in a way that is actually earned by the text.  There's a lot of emotional power in Miss Matty helping out the man with the bad bank certificates, and in her creation of a tea shop, and in the events of the last two chapters. (I'll try to hold something back, spoiler-wise.)

"We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us."  From its quick, depressing beginning, to its humorous middle, to its quite touching ending, this "accidental novel" turns out to be better than I remembered and expected, and I'm now sorry I consigned it to a second tier of Gaskell's works.

11 June 2012

The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Book 13

Mass market paperback, 774 pages
Published 2006 (originally 2005)
Acquired and read May 2012
With No One As Witness
by Elizabeth George

I've struggled with the last few Lynley/Havers stories, but somehow Elizabeth George is right back on track with this one.  The characters are actually working together, the mystery actually starts right at the beginning, and I actually never had to force myself to keep on reading.  It's not the very traditional mystery structure of most of her other novels, as in this case Lynley is put in charge of a big Scotland Yard effort to stop a serial killer at work in London.  But it works despite that; indeed, the parts of the novel that work least well are the most traditional, as Havers talks to person after person in a youth outreach program.  It takes a better writer than most to make the internal politics of a youth outreach program interesting.  But the rest-- the methodical, slow hunt for evidence, often grasping at straws, as the killer operates with impunity-- makes for good reading.  It's horrifying at times, but that's George at her best for you.  Havers gets a chance to shine here, more than she has in any of these novels for what feel like a long time.

I still wonder why she hates Havers so much.  I mean, Lynley has his faults, but they're the kind of faults that aren't really faults: he's too forthright, he cares too much, he's too responsible.  Oh, how dreadful for him.  On the other hand, Havers's inability to dress herself reaches new heights of absurdity in this installment.  Cut the poor woman a break and let her wear a nice pair of pants without a ketchup stain on them, okay?

There's a big "shock" at the end, or rather there would be if I cared about any of the characters who weren't Lynley, Havers, Taymullah, Hadiyyah, and Nkata.  Okay, that's more than I thought, but why is the rest of the supporting cast so... insipid?

10 June 2012

Audio Catchup: Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles: The Revenants

written by Ian Potter
directed by Lisa Bowerman
released May 2012

William Russell as Ian Chesterton
Sharon Small as Jeannie / Janet
Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles: The Revenants

For the third time in a row, the bonus Big Finish release with Doctor Who Magazine (included as a free download) is a Companion Chronicle-style audio. The Revenants, written by Ian Potter, features William Russell playing Ian Chesterton in a story set between The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Rescue, a tantalising but seemingly little-used period where the Doctor travelled with only Ian and Barbara. (The only full-length story set in this gap is a Missing Adventure, Venusian Lullaby.)

With Susan gone, the Doctor’s decided to get Ian and Barbara home as well, doing some calculations that get the TARDIS closer to 1963 London than it’s ever gotten before. But the TARDIS takes off before the Doctor can step out, meaning that Ian and Barbara are left alone in a strange marsh. This sequence, about a third of the way through the story, is without a doubt its best part. The combination of Potter’s writing, Russell’s narration, and Toby Hrycek-Robinson’s sound design makes this part completely absorbing, utterly chilling, and even a little frightening. Never thought I’d say that for a swamp!

07 June 2012

Journey Into Space

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2008 (content: 2002-04)
Borrowed from a friend

Read May 2012
The Acme Novelty Library, Number 19
by F. C. Ware

When a friend of mine here in Connecticut learned that I was reading Chris Ware's The Smartest Kid on Earth, Jimmy Corrigan, he offered to loan me this, an installment in Ware's occasional periodical series. He had found the book in a trash can in his apartment when he lived in Cincinnati, and rescued it only to realize that he shared his hometown of Omaha with Ware. He kept it, but felt compelled to hide it in his closet so he could avoid any awkward questions with his roommate about why he was taking stuff out of the trash. I don't know why it was thrown away, as it's perfectly intact.

It's also a tremendously good book. There are two halves; the first is a science fiction story about a colonization mission to Mars, while the second is about the writer of that story. The sf story ("The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars") is a dark, disturbing descent for one of the four people on the space mission. Science fiction turns out to be a really good genre for Ware, allowing him to attach his human themes to cosmic anchors. It's a disturbing and heart-rending tale of isolation and obsession.

The second story tells us about the writer of "The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars," W. K. Brown, an obituary writer in the 1950s, who is in a sexual relationship he doesn't really understand. It's very reminiscent of some of the material covered in Jimmy Corrigan, but it comes at it from a sufficiently different angle to work.

It goes without saying that 1) both stories are incredibly depressing, though not as much as Jimmy Corrigan, thank God, 2) the art is excellent, and Ware's style is particularly suited to 1950s sf for some reason, and 3) his use of panel size to generate emotional response is unparalleled.  Good stuff.

05 June 2012

Dark X-Men: The End

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 2010)
Acquired April 2012
Read May 2012
Dark X-Men

Writer: Paul Cornell
Penciler: Leonard Kirk
Inkers: Jay Leisten & Leonard Kirk
Colorist: Brian Reber
Letterer: Rob Steen

After the events of Utopia: Avengers/X-Men, the "Dark X-Men"-- Norman Osborn's government-sponsored team of mutants for dealing with mutant problems-- are down to just five members, Emma Frost, Namor, Cloak, Dagger, and Dark Wolverine all having gone elsewhere.  This leaves the team with Mystique as its field leader and Mimic (who borrows other mutants' powers), Weapon Omega (who killed Alpha Flight, the bastard), and Dark Beast (a sadistic version of Beast from an apocalyptic timeline) as its only members. Mystique impersonates the dead(?) Jean Grey in the field, just because she can.

In Utopia, one was left with an impression of the Dark X-Men as a group of very, very dangerous people with malevolent intent. In turning them into viewpoint characters, Cornell ends up undermining them: the book feels more like Confused X-Men. Mystique just wants to be free of Osborn, Omega doesn't mean to do anything he does, and Mimic is similarly well-intentioned. Only Dark Beast is as malevolent as his name implies, cruelly tortuting in the name of science. This would all be okay, as obviously this group needs to be more deeply characterized than being simply EVIL, but they're not deeply characterized; each character has one single-minded objective that they follow.

We're told they're conflicted, but only with Mystique does this conflict come across as anything more than confusion.  Indeed, Mystique was my favorite part of the book. Sure, she's selfish and partly she just wants to escape Osborn, but she's motivated by a loyalty to mutantkind and she seems to actually want to do the right thing sometimes. I've never read a story with her character before, but I'd like to read more.

This being Cornell, the dialogue is pretty good, and there's a number of great concepts running around here, more than a book this size would lead you to expect. And Leonard Kirk's art is great, clean but angular, perhaps not what you'd expect for a "dark" comic, but it's so good, that I have no complaints. His Mystique looks pretty good in that jumpsuit!

A number of reviews that I read of this book indicated that its subtitle, "Journey to the Center of the Goblin," was a dead giveaway as to where the story was going. It sure says something about the oddity of my dabblings in Marvel Comics that I spent the whole book waiting for Alpha Flight's Goblyn to show up. (She didn't.)

04 June 2012

Dark X-Men: The Beginning

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 2009)
Acquired January 2011
Read May 2012
Utopia: Avengers/X-Men

Writers: Matt Fraction, Craig Kyle & Chris Yost, Mike Carey, Kieron Gillen, Paul Cornell, James Asmus, Shane McCarthy, Marc Bernardin & Adam Freeman, Rob Williams, Jason Aaron, and Simon Spurrier
Pencilers: Marc Silvestri, Terry Dodson, Luke Ross, Bing Cansino, Dustin Weaver, Leonard Kirk, Jesse Delperdang, and Paco Diaz (with Michael Broussard, Eric Basaloua, Tyler Kirkham and Sheldon Mitchell)
Inkers: Joe Weems, Rachel Dodson, Rick Magyar, Mark Pennington, Luke Ross, Roland Paris, Edgar Tadeo, Jay Leisten, Leonard Kirk, Andy Lanning, and Guillermo Ortega (with Marco Galli, Eric Basaloua, Rick Basaloua, Jason Gorder, Sal Aegla, Jon Sibal, Ryan Winn, and Jesse Delperdang)
Other Artists: Mike Deodata, Daniel Acuna, Carmine Di Giandomenico, Ibraim Roberson, Michel Lacombe, Jock, and Paul Davidson
Colorists: Frank D'Armata, Justin Ponsor, Rain Beredo, Dean White, Christina Strain, Edgar Delgado, Brian Reber, Matt Milla, John Rauch, and Dave Stewart
Letterers: Chris Eliopoulous, Joe Caramagna & Cory Petit, Rob Steen, and Dave Sharpe

Holy cow! Not counting cover artists or editorial staff, 64 different people worked on this 368-page book.  Even if you discount everything but the core story "Utopia," which has just one writer (Matt Fraction), there are still some nineteen artists at work on six issues.  Oh, the American corporate comic book factory: how delightful.

Suffice it to say that I'd never ordinarily buy such a book (X-Men comics alienate me in general, and their gigantic crossover events even moreso), except that Paul Cornell has a few stories in it: three shorts that were part of a miniseries called Dark X-Men: The Beginning. Originally these were going to be published as their own book, but that ended up not happening and so I had to by this whole fershlugginer crossover just to get 20-something pages of Paul Cornell goodness. I hope you're happy Marvel!  These stories see Cornell reunited with his Captain Britain and MI13 collaborator Leonard Kirk to tell the tales of superheroes recruited for Norman "Green Goblin" Osborn's government-sponsored X-Men team.

"Namor/Norman" is probably the best of the three, as Osborn attempts to figure why Namor, Prince of Atlantis, could possibly care about what's going on in the surface world. Given its placement in the book after the reader has learned the answer, it's a delightful example of two men out-out-thinking one another.  I also enjoyed "Hidden Depth," where Emma Frost probes Namor's mind herself.  The weakest was clearly "The Temptation of Cloak and Dagger," which didn't say anything that wasn't revealed in the earlier chapters of Utopia.

Utopia as whole is about X-Men leader Cyclops's attempt to keep the X-Men based in San Francisco in the face of growing anti-mutant hysteria and attacks by something called "Bio-Sentinels" whose origins are never explained, not to mention the arrival of Norman Osborn and his government-sponsored Avenger and X-Men teams. The first chapter is actually quite good, building a feeling of tension and unsettledness as the streets of San Francisco are filled with angry rioters, and no one's quite sure what to do. Reading it for the first time after "Occupy Wall Street," it actually feels very prescient.  After that, though, the story stretches out too long through its last five chapters. The characters do interesting things, but we're not privy to their interiority enough to really experience them; Emma Frost must be really conflicted over what's going on, but the plot precludes us from discovering how she feels about her role until its over.

Terry Dodson's art was an unexpected delight, though: nice, clean, and vaguely cartoony.  I got tired of Luke Ross's well-rounded butt shots, though, and the less said about Marc Silvestri's identical faces for women and poor story-telling skills, the better.

I was delighted to see Mike Carey here, after enjoying his work on Lucifer so much, and joined by Dustin Weaver, one of the better artists on Knights of the Old Republic, but their story (about what Rogue gets up to during the riots in the first chapter) feels like a pointless fill-in.  Otherwise, I found the rest of this volume fairly disposable.

01 June 2012

Reading Roundup Wrapup: May 2012

Pick of the month: The Acme Novelty Library, Number 19 by F. C. Ware. As sometimes happens, nothing this month was perhaps as standout as I would like, but though this comic is no Jimmy Corrigan, it's still pretty dang good. Plus: set in space!

All books read:
1. Star Wars: Darth Plagueis by James Luceno
2. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
3. Batman vs. Three Villains of Doom by Winston Lyon
4. Utopia: Avengers/X-Men by Matt Fraction with Craig Kyle & Chris Yost, Mike Carey, Kieron Gillen, Paul Cornell, James Asmus, Shane McCarthy, Marc Bernardin & Adam Freeman, Rob Williams, Jason Aaron, and Simon Spurrier
5. Dark X-Men by Paul Cornell
6. The Pulse: Fear by Brian Michael Bendis
7. Green Arrow and Black Canary: Five Stages by Andrew Kreisberg with J. T. Krul
8. With No One As Witness by Elizabeth George
9. Professor Bernice Summerfield #7: The Tree of Life by Mark Michalowski
10. The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two: The Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Words by Anu Garg
11. The Acme Novelty Library, Number 19 by F. C. Ware
12. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
13. Professor Bernice Summerfield VI: Parallel Lives by Rebecca Levene, Stewart Sheargold & Dave Stone
14. Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea
15. Professor Bernice Summerfield VII: Something Changed edited by Simon Guerrier

All books acquired:
1. With No One As Witness by Elizabeth George
2. Tom Mouse by Ursula K. Le Guin
3. The Obverse Quarterly, Book Four: Zenith Lives!: Tales of M.Zenith, the Albino edited by Stuart Douglas
4. Star Wars Adventures: Boba Fett and the Ship of Fear by Jeremy Barlow
5. George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science: The Make-Believe of a Beginning by Sally Shuttleworth
6. Charles Dickens' Christmas Ghost Stories edited by Peter Haining
7. Tancred, or The New Crusade by the Earl of Beaconsfield, K.G.
8. Legion Lost by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning
9. Star Trek: Captain's Log by Stuart Moore, Scott and David Tipton, Marc Guggenheim, and Keith R.A. DeCandido
10. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume IV: Nebula Winners 1970-1974 edited by Terry Carr

Book balance is at 0!  Amazing!

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 412

I'll Stab You in the Face with Lasers

Comic trade paperback, 117 pages
Published 2007 (content: 2000-05)
Acquired October 2007

Read April 2012
Checkerboard Nightmare: A Brief History of Webcomics
by Kristofer Straub

This is one of those books that is supposed to be funny, and it is funny. So a review would largely consist of me retelling jokes out of context, which is not particularly funny. So the best thing I can do is to tell you that if you find metahumor, webcomics parody, and a Scott McCloud cameo possibly funny, then this is the book for you. Of course, all of strips contained within are available online for free, though the bonus commentary on the history of webcomics-- which is completely magnificent-- is not.

Oh, and let's not forget Hard Action Squad, surely the greatest cop show ever made. "Looks like Hard Action Squad is about to get a lot harder."

Read Checkerboard Nightmare.