Friday, November 9, 2018

Book Review: Transmetropolitan, Vol 2

book cover for volume 2 of TransmetropolitanAt this point in the series, Spider Jerusalem is fully settled in the city he hates, cranking out a column of acerbic wit and caustic insight each week. There are three standalone stories in this volume along with a three-part tale.

Building on the volume 1 tale of humans rewriting their DNA to make themselves alien, all of the stories explore some of the different pathways of the human condition in the 23rd century. In "Boyfriend Is a Virus," we learn that you can upload your consciousness into a computer whereupon it will then be downloaded into a nanobot dust cloud. "Another Cold Morning" reveals what happens to those cryogenically frozen heads from the 20th and 21st centuries. "Wild in the Country" reveals that there are "reservations" where one can live any lifestyle from history, a memory wipe removing any trace of your past modern life. Even in the "Freeze Me With Your Kiss" story arc, we encounter a group of people who wear hazmat suits 24/7, the Total Solitude Culture.

But "Freeze Me With Your Kiss" has more of a story to it. Spider's ex-wife's head, which is in a jar full of cryonic fluid, has been stolen, and he's being hunted down by groups wanting revenge for past wrongs. I suspect that this is an occupational hazard of his that we'll see more of in the future.

"Another Cold Morning" was my favorite of the bunch. It's the subject of one of Spider's columns and gets at his sense of injustice, revealing how lousy people are. Spider's compassion is on display, in his unique way, in "Boyfriend Is a Virus" as he tries to help Channon, his assistant, deal with her boyfriend's selfish life choice.

Robertson's artwork is excellent, perfectly capturing the helter skelter insanity of normal urban life in the 23rd century.


Sunday, October 28, 2018

Book Review: Hellboy Volume 2 - Wake The Devil

book cover for Hellboy volume 2Volume 2 picks up where volume 1 left off. Defrosted WW2 Nazis are striving to build their "vampir sturm" army, but they need resources to build it and Vladimir Giurescu to finish the job. While the resource problem is quickly solved, ol' Vlad's been dead since the war and his body is hard to find. A year later, Hellboy and his fellow field agents from the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (I didn't realize it was located so close to home. I should see if they're hiring.) are sent to Romania to investigate.

The artwork is much like the first volume with lots of black ink: shadows and brooding darkness. Mignola is quite capable of evoking emotion and story out of the gloomier colors in his palette without seeming drab or dull.

Here in volume 2, Mignola takes over the writing duties and improves the storyline. There's a lot more dialogue and multiple POVs. There is quite a bit of infodumping up front, but it's done in the form of a BPRD briefing. The one thing I would've liked to have seen is more interaction between Hellboy and his co-workers. While on assignment, he's told that he has to go solo in order to cover more ground (not enough agents to go around) so most of the volume is him alone. There are a couple of conversations that teased at deeper connections which will hopefully be explored more in detail later.

As for our intrepid hero, Mignola brings out some of his charm during and between fights with his foes. He refuses to be anyone's pawn and will gladly clobber anyone who would have him be otherwise. Not only do we get more details on Hellboy's origin and purpose, but we get more insight into the villains in this tale. Sure they still like to monologue a lot, but this time they also carry on conversations with each other over friendship, faith in the Master, trust, and love. Still, one of my favorite lines comes from a resurrected Nazi general's disembodied head in a jar:

"Think. Why burn down the world when we can be its masters?"


Thursday, October 25, 2018

Book Review: Saga - Volume 3

book cover for Saga volume 3So volume two left off with a bit of a cliffhanger. Rather than pick right up where they left off, Vaughn and Staples rewind a few days to show our heroes arriving on Quietus to meet the author of the novel that sparked their relationship. There's a bit of exploration on how people cope with loss. Some depth is added to Marko's mom.

Meanwhile, The Will is hanging out on a planetoid with Gwendolyn and Sophie (formerly Slave Girl) waiting for AAA to come and repair his ship. Things are fine until he starts arguing with his dead ex-girlfriend. The problem is: No one else can see her.

There's a sub-plot involving a pair of investigative reporters trying to uncover the story about Alana and Marko. It serves to flesh out more of the universe the story inhabits. Something is revealed, but it could just be a red herring.

Eventually, the two forces hunting down our heroes converge on their location and force the conflict to be resolved—for now.

If I could, I'd give this 4.5 stars. I can't, so I'm rounding down. Why? Well, because of the way certain events were handled, I didn't finish this volume with quite the same feels. There were also some meta bits that seemed out of place. Nothing to really mar it, but enough to make it not nearly as awesome as the first two volumes.


Monday, October 22, 2018

Book Review: The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings

book cover for the tell-tale heart and other writingsWhen I spotted this book at the Newtown Library annual book sale in the summer of 2017, I was psyched. Here was a chance to read some old favorites and discover other stories that I hadn't read before. I likened it to picking up an album by a band who you only knew by their greatest hits but wanted to dive deeper into their discography. So when October rolled around last year, it seemed the perfect time to re-visit Poe.

This collection kicks off with "The Tell-Tale Heart," probably Poe's most famous work. It's followed by "The Black Cat," which I'd never read before, and I was surprised by its graphic nature. My all-time favorite Poe story, "The Cask of Amontillado," followed, and my opinion of it was untarnished. "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Masque of the Red Death" completed the set of familiar hits. Now I was to enter the area of the unfamiliar. While I'd heard of a couple others in the collection, I hadn't had a chance to read them.

I don't want to bore you with analysis of each story, so I will summarize my disappointment.

Poe is credited with creating the first modern detective stories, beating out Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes by over forty years. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter" were two of the mysteries included here. Unfortunately, they were all "tell" and no "show." We have to endure a blowhard detective lording over anyone who will listen how he solved the case. The stories are all "reveal." It would've been far more enjoyable to experience the stories as the detective discovered clues. Doyle and Christie would eventually figure out how to do it right.

A few of the stories were treated as fictional testimonials whereupon the narrator related some strange incident or horrifying experience. I think the hook here was to ensnare gullible readers of Poe's time to believe these sensational accounts were really true, maybe drive up newspaper sales. While the events and particulars would change, the stories shared the same structure and struck me as formulaic. And the purple prose! It got to the point where it was so cloying, so thick, that I had to take breaks from it. I could scarcely finish a page without suffocating from its soporific embellishment into a slumber so deep that only the vigorous applause of Conan's studio audience emanating from the television speaker could rouse me.

Sorry. Got a bit carried away there. Apparently purple prose is contagious. Anyway, Lovecraft would later go on to master these techniques, though now I'm worried that I might no longer enjoy his work.

The collection of stories ends with "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," which embodies all of my objections. It's 161 pages of Mr. Pym's epic sea voyage. It starts as a drunken kidnapping then turns into a shipwreck. Apparitions, sharks, and cannibalism all make an appearance. But after Mr. Pym is rescued, he doesn't return home, but instead journeys with the rescuing ship south. Now at this time, there was still some uncertainty about the existence of Antarctica as a continent, so Poe took advantage of that to do some Hollow Earth extrapolation. And the abrupt ending is neither mysterious nor satisfying.

From here, the collection moves on to Poe's poetry. While a good deal of it is adequate, "The Raven" is his true masterpiece and stands head and shoulders above the rest in not only subject matter, but form and execution.

Ultimately, it took me a year to get through this collection. I'm embarrassed that it took so long. What started out as a promising journey through literary nostalgia took a horrible turn into musty, archaic manuscripts that—Crap! I'm doing it again. [Sigh] So I'm left with giving this collection just three stars. Before you hate on me, I'll admit that it's me, not him. While there are plenty who still appreciate his style, I think my preferences are now too modern. Maybe Poe is now someone who should only be read in small doses—a story here, a story there—and to be appreciated every Halloween.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Book Review: Persepolis - The Story of a Childhood

Book cover for Persepolis - volume 1Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood is a graphic memoir (a memoir in graphic novel form) of Marjane Satrapi's childhood years in Tehran, Iran during the late 70s and early 80s. Those old enough to remember—or know their history—will recall that this is the time when the Shah was evicted from Iran and a religious dictatorship took his place, the American embassy was captured and 52 people were held hostage for over a year, and Iran went to war with Iraq. I'm about Satrapi's age, so I recall those events (from a safe distance) and coming to believe that Iran was ground zero for chaos in the Middle East and the bastion of "Death to America!" sentiment. Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi's attempt to relate what living there was like.

Satrapi's parents were Marxist intellectuals who protested against the Shah's corruption and oppression. This rebellious attitude rubbed off on little Marji and carried with her into her teens. As one tyrant was replaced by a worse one, this became a dangerous trait for Marji to have. As friends and family members were arrested and executed as spies and enemies of the state, the walls around Marji closed in. But rather than shut down, she pushed back as much as any rebellious teen would.

Satrapi remains true to her younger self in telling her story. When she's a child, she daydreams of great things. When she's a teen, she longs for those things that every teen wanted back then: jeans and rock music. While the adult Marjane narrates the story, revealing truths Marji didn't know at the time, she never gets in the way.

The artwork is stark, rendered in black and white. It seems fitting. It reflects the mood. Artistic flourishes and vibrant colors would be out of place here. While the drawings could be labelled "simple," it isn't an insult. In fact, it lends an air of authenticity. Coupled with the workman style of the dialogue, I feel as though I'm reading the illustrated journal of a young girl.

It's probably unpopular to suggest that Persepolis should be in the same conversation as The Diary of Anne Frank. There is plenty of propaganda dictating that all Muslims are evil and makes no distinction between ethnicity or branches of faith. But setting aside their skin colors and religious backgrounds, there is very little that divides these two stories. They both deal with young women growing up under oppressive regimes where the threat of violence is real.

Four stars.


Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Book Review: Saga - Volume 2

book cover for Saga volume 2So if you haven't read volume 1, this review could be a bit spoiler-ish.

Volume 1 leaves off with Marko's parents teleporting in under the assumption that he'd been captured. Volume 2 starts off with Marko introducing his parents to Alana and Hazel. Marko sets off to find the babysitter, whom Mom has banished to a nearby planetoid. Mom, thinking that Marko is incapable of not screwing up, follows him, thus leaving Dad alone with Alana and Hazel. Vaughn then explores the relationship dynamics between the two generations.

Marko's mom is full of piss and vinegar; Marko's dad is the softie. Mom harps on every mistake Marko has ever made. Dad wants to see baby Hazel and make sure she's "normal." He means healthy, but it comes across awkward. Gender stereotypes flipped! I enjoyed how Vaughn handled the conflict resolutions on both sides.

Meanwhile, we're introduced to Gwendolyn, Marko's ex-girlfriend. She's come by The Will's place to check on his progress in hunting down our protagonists. She's annoyed that he's moping over the death of his former lover. In return, he psychoanalyzes Gwendolyn's motives—with the help of Lying Cat—and reveals another dilemma plaguing his conscience. Gwendolyn offers to help with it if he promises to get off his ass and back on the trail. Gwendolyn turns out to have some traits in common with Marko's mom.

We're also treated to flashbacks to when Marko and Alana first met, the book that inspired both of them, and their daring escape from Marko's prison.

The art continues to be fantastic. I thought that Staples' depiction of the planetoid landscape, the way the star's light cast shadows through the ruins, was rendered especially well. And the scenes inside the rocketship-tree were a great mix of earth tones that were vibrant instead of dull. A warning to those who have sensitive eyes: There's a giant naked troll that leaves little to the imagination and, when Prince Robot IV lies unconscious on a battlefield, gay porn plays on his TV monitor for two panels.

Two other scenes deserve mentioning. One is a flashback to when Marko was a kid learning how to ride a giant cricket with his father offering encouragement. The dialogue is in Marko's native tongue and offered without translation, but the artwork explains it all. The other is something Marko's dad says: "Your first grandchild is nature's reminder that your warranty's about to run out."


Friday, September 28, 2018

Book Review: In the Ocean of Night

original book cover for the In the Ocean of Night1999: NASA astronaut Nigel Walmsley is sent on a mission to intercept a rogue asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Ordered to destroy the comet, he instead discovers that it is actually the shell of a derelict space probe - a wreck with just enough power to emit a single electronic signal...

2014: Then a reply is heard. Searching for the source of this signal that comes from outside the solar system, Nigel discovers the existence of a sentient ship. When the new vessel begins to communicate directly with him, the astronaut learns of the horrors that await humanity.

First, a bit of backstory. I actually started this series, not knowing it was a series, back in the 80s. I'd picked up Across the Sea of Suns (book #2) through a sci-fi book club as a teen. Upon reading it, I realized that it wasn't a standalone but a sequel. However, there was enough backstory that it didn't matter. But then the ending was left wide open, so I knew that it was, in fact, a series. I was not amused and subsequently forgot about the series for decades.

By chance, while perusing through one of the local library's book sales, I came across Sailing Bright Eternity and discovered that it was the last book in a six-book saga. I bought it, and it has sat on my nightstand for years hence. So when I spotted this book last summer, I knew that I should go back and read the whole series start-to-finish. Besides, I really liked the titles of the books.

I might be regretting that decision.

This book was written from 1972-1977 and parts were published in If magazine over that time. The book starts in 1999 and runs through 2019 (reprints bumped those dates back 20 years). There is so much 70s dreck hanging over this story that it's downright suffocating. Everything that was ugly about the 70s is concentrated and perpetuated for forty years! The Clean Air Act never accomplished anything, people passively gave up their cars for mass transit because Detroit and Tokyo couldn't innovate, Moore's Law failed to materialize, and the US never snapped out of its economic funk and continued to slowly slide into turpitude. It's enough to make me want to thank Reagan for his "Morning in America" pep rally speeches just to avoid this rubbish.

What arises out of this miasma is a new religious movement dubbed The New Sons. As far as I can tell, it's an amalgam of hippies, Eastern philosophy, Old Testament Christianity, and mysticism that infects the country and the world. Traditional religions are powerless before it and are soon negotiating for inclusion. It comes across as wholly implausible and schlocky. Maybe if I'd been trapped in Haight-Ashbury and my girlfriend was seduced by a bunch of hippies, I'd believe it. In essence, this is what happens to the protagonist, Nigel Walmsley.

Nigel is an insufferable, self-absorbed, patronizing jerk. A certain comment he made regarding a potential asteroid impact in India makes me think he might even be racist. He thinks he's right about everything and disobeys orders because he's right, damnit! What sucks is that too often he is right. But who wants to give that guy the satisfaction? He's a bit of a hypocrite: After witnessing a New Sons' bonfire ritual, he calls it a "license for public rutting" then goes home to have a three-way. Said three-way is Benford's rather clumsy way of informing the reader about Nigel's polyamorous relationship. What's worse is that most of the other characters in the novel are pathetic: power mad bureaucrats and passive aggressive religious zealots. In his relationship, Alexandria seems about ready to pass away from ennui (yes, she's ill, but Benford doesn't take advantage of her lucid moments to develop her character) while Shirley is always angry at Nigel for something. Too much of this book—almost a third—is spent detailing this relationship. While there's some hope for him by the end of the novel, after reading his stream of consciousness babble, I can't help but think he's just going to be a different flavor of insufferable, self-absorbed, patronizing jerk going forward.

So is there anything good here? Yeah, sure. Nigel's encounters with the aliens and anything involving Dr. Ichiro and Nikka. There's the "big idea" that attempts to answer the Fermi Paradox. But there isn't enough of this to counter the swamp of bad I had to slog through.

Now I probably shouldn't be so critical of a book that was written over 40 years ago and was one of Benford's first works, but this was a book that was nominated for both the Nebula and Locus awards. Sure, I'll give him points for the concept, but he lacked vision. How is there a space program if the economic malaise of the 70s never ends and only worsens? He was a physicist at a prominent university; how did he not hear about the advances underway with microelectronics? I gotta use a fax machine on the Moon 50 years after we set foot on it? Maybe we can excuse him for not foreseeing the innovations that would drive the last decades of the 20th century, but not his characters' behavior. Benford writes this damnably sexist scene where Alexandria's doctor won't tell her his prognosis of her medical condition until after Nigel arrives from work, and even then, he directs his conversation to Nigel as if Alexandria is no more than a sick pet. She was an executive at American Airlines negotiating a deal with a Brazilian company! How can Benford do that to her?

Maybe, this book probably would've been easier to deal with reading it right after it was finished, trapped in the 70s, but by 1980 this book's days were numbered.

A weak one and a half out of five stars. Maybe less.