Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

Review: When the Stars Go Out

Saturday, October 9th, 2021

I like to imagine that most people who enjoy reading have embraced the idea that writing in genre can be a stregth rather than a limitation. I often find it helpful to think of artists primarily being in one of the camps Scott McCloud defines in Understanding Comics. Broadly those are storytellers and commenters on form. Paula McLain is solidly in the first camp. She’s got things to say and is using the mystery/crime fiction genre to structure the story. The result is a page-turning story.

The focus is a cop on a break to deal with trauma cast in the role of of private eye in her home town. “Cop” undersells her skills – she’s an experienced and effective investigator who can’t leave a case in her specialty alone, and picks one up here. This is a fairly common crime fiction setup and Stars mostly follows the conventions from that to a conventional conclusion. I mean if you’ve ever read a mystery, you’ll recognize the beats of the story, but that genre has a rich enough body of beats to choose from that the effect is that I recognized I was hearing salsa and also that I was hearing excellent salsa. McLain’s prose is expressive and her plotting is propulsive. It’s a gripping read.

Her story also lights up a lot of ideas and issues worth thinking about. The investigation is into the disappearance of young girls in rural communities. The setting is Northern California in this case, but I think the ideas are more universal. I think there’s no way to talk about that without talking about the foster case system, personal trauma of the perpetrators, victims, and families, and the effects and support of the communities. McLain doesn’t blink at any of that. She brings solid research, and for all I know experience, to the details of plot, character and setting that elevate Stars from the run-of-the-mill.

She also deftly ties this to a story most Americans will recognize from the headlines, which is a nice subtle way to underscore the point that she’s telling us what headlines obscure about that kind of story.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Genesis

Sunday, September 12th, 2021

Genesis is a novel that feels to me like a short story. It’s an SF bottle movie (one location and one topic) with a little twist to it that is smart about its topic, but maybe a little longer than it needs to be.

That topic is Artificial Intelligence (AI) writ large, in the sense of what is a conscious entity and can humans create one. The “will AIs replace replace us” trope appears, too, in kind of an interesting, understated way. Because the story is all told indirectly it did make me engage in the story in some interesting ways. I think it would make a great book club selection for some nerds, in that the questions it raises obliquely are more interesting than the plot on the paper.

There’s some nice writing, and a good engaging structure to the story.


Review: The National Road

Monday, September 6th, 2021

I was attracted to Tom Zoellner’s collection of essays because we share a love for road trips and reflection, though mine had become more sky trips pre-COVID. I love the enforced mindfulness of a long drive and I’ve had many an insight on the highway or airway. Zoellner is a better writer than I am and many of his essays coalesce into the sorts of historical discussions of Americana that I love.

The road is an inspiration we share, but the insights are less universal. That’s probably inescapable. So much of what I love about road trips is the internal and personal reflections. I suspect that Zoellner doesn’t consider as many computer science thesis topics as I did in graduate school, for example.

That said, all of these essays are good, and diverting. But I enjoyed my favorites so much more than the mass of them, the effect raised the bar in hindsight. Worth a read.

Review: The Midwich Cuckoos

Sunday, August 22nd, 2021

I came to this as through a couple roads. There’s an off-the-cuff reference to it in The Invisibles that I ran down for my contemoporaneous annotations of that series which is enough of a draw to attract me. When the guys at Random Horror Podcast No. 9 covered the first film version of (Village of the Damned) and hinted at some powerful depth in that movie, I decided to pull it from the library.

There was a lot I liked about it, but it didn’t have the depth that Cecil and Jeffrey implied. For what it’s worth, I found their analysis of Village of the Damned reflects their depth as thinkers and artists more than the movie supports. And I’m delighted that they pushed me to read the source.

It hits all the beats of late 1950’s SF. It wrestles with issues of evolution, the roles of science and the military, societal mores, and political dogma without any of the distractions of realistic characters. The characters are all there to make philosophical points and raise intriguing questions, not to engage the reader emotionally. They are solid, just not much beyond stereotypes. The ideas are the stars of the show.

To its credit, the plot is well constructed to maneuver the characters to bring out the ideas that John Wyndham wants to address. The clockwork is well-crafted and executed with the occasional well-turned phrase to bring it to life. And it has a life. The characters move believably through the machinations that bring the questions of a hostile nature and humanity’s role and the role of its intellectual, spiritual and emotional constructs in it into sharp relief.

They are interesting ideas and worth thoughts. My only deep criticism of it, allowing for how it stays so well in its genre lane, is that there is little ambiguity present. Wyndham uses his world to raise his issues, but makes sure to scope each one tightly. The result feels as much like a murder mystery or one of Asimov’s puzzle stories. Given the constraints, there are few resolutions that make any sense other than the one the characters reach.

I see why Cecil and Jeffrey asked questions that neither Midwich nor Village raised. I like looking at the ideas, but my thoughts all start by negating one of the explicitly stated facts of the plot. I find the value in the power of the the underlying ideas to provoke speculation.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Twain’s Feast

Friday, July 16th, 2021

Andrew Beahrs’s Twain’s Feast defies easy categorization, but I’m really happy that I read it. It’s historical, culinary, environmental, journalistic, literary, and includes recipes. If Beahrs were less steeped in any of these areas, I doubt that Feast would cohere into anything worthwhile.

The basis is a menu Mark Twain includes in The Innocents Abroad that is a tribute to the uniquely American foods he was missing in Europe when he was writing. Twain’s got elements of a blogger in him and it’s easy to imagine his menu chapter as a listicle in the current media world. I intend that as an endorsement. Twain’s such a keen ofserver of people and society that his menu is not so much a bill of fare as a collection of evocative dishes. Food is so connected to our cultural consciousness that his readers would not have been able to read it without their own memories and passions rising. Feast Beahrs’s response to that stimulation.

He brings an interesting array of talents and fascinations to play. He’s a good literary historian who knows Twain well. He puts the dishes into the sort of personal and societal context that wold make them so beloved of Twain. Then he connects the same dishes to contemporary times.

The connections take Beahrs out into the world to tell those stories. He does a good job connecting them to different aspects of the world. Prairie Chicken is on the menu, but you can’t eat one because there probably only a few hundred birds alive. But the story of the birds themselves and the people caring for them is compelling. Details of BBQ and Southern dishes connect to Twain’s relationships to the Confederacy and the Union. That reflects into society’s relationships as they evolve. Each chapter connects the food to something compelling about this world.

He writes well and has a passion for food as well.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Because Internet

Sunday, June 6th, 2021

Because Internet spans scholarship and popular culture in all the ways I admire. Gretchen McCulloch doesn’t assume her audience consists of isolated academics or insular nerds. I think dillatentes on both sides will learn and be entertained. I consider myself a part of her target audience, so I found it delightful.

I’m the kind of language nerd who avoids prescriptivism and dire pronouncements about technology damaging our collective communication and cognition. I seems like languages have always fragmented into jargon and argot and adapted to new technologies. Technology changes both how we express our thoughts and the people we communicate with. That’s true of everything from the chariot to the text message. It’s interesting to look at the details of the changes that the Internet has encouraged, but I’m also confident that any shift away from, say, cursive writing that it encourages will not significantly damage us.

McCulloch largly shares my perspective, but can support the position with specific scholarship. Better than that, she can explain the underlying studies and ideas clearly. I’m interested and unprofessional and found the studies non-daunting and enlightening.

Highly recommended.

Review: Nexus

Sunday, May 23rd, 2021

Baron’s and Rude’s Nexus is one of my all-time favorite comics. It has been around for decades, and has become more of a hang-out comic than an ongoing dramatic concern. For that reason I tend to pick up new episodes when they appear, and follow Baron on social media to hear about them. This is a novel set in current Nexus continuity that I helped crowdfund somewhere.

The novel is fun for me, because I would enjoy checking in with the cast in any medium. In a lot of ways, it’s mostly fun for me to see the differences between the storytelling in the comic and in the novel.

There are lots of little moments where verbalizing the story doesn’t completely work for me. Nexus is known for the density of both visual cues and straight up easter eggs that the artists pepper issues with. Baron drops those in, but they are a less subtle in text.

Overall, the story is a fine Nexus story, and no one can execute one better than Baron. But the stakes never seem that high. If this is your first brush with Nexus, they may seem so, but Nexus and company are basically James Bond and British Intelligence. They save the world once a week.

Mostly for fans, I think.

Review: Retablos

Sunday, May 23rd, 2021

Retablos sits at a sweet spot between a short story collection and a more direct memoir. Octavio Solis is verbally painting these economical scenes from his childhood as tiny devotions that he shares. He says this fairly directly in the introduction, making the title allusion explicit. It’s an interesting framing of the memoir and works well for me.

Solis is a playwright of some renown which for me manifests itself in both his strength of judgement in picking interesting scenes to depict and his occasional surrender to his writerly instincts in dramatizing them. I think where those lines are is largely a matter of taste and, overall, Retablos works for me. I understand that it won’t work for everyone. This may be the price for taking chances and I endorse it.

Solis’s life and the setting both emerge as more of the devotions unfold. I came away with a great feeling of the texture of both. The setting – El Paso – is a timely choice given our current preoccupation with immigration and the southern border. To me the place is rich enough to be fascinating without the contemporary fascination.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: City on the Edge of Forever

Friday, April 23rd, 2021

City on the Edge of Forever is a great book to hand to a new Angeleno who is trying to find their feet in this part of the world. Peter Lunenfeld has clearly fallen in love with SoCal and immersed himself in both the history and culture, both pop and mainstream. I probably picked it up five years too late for the peak effect, but I appreciate the work.

A lot of history, innovation, artifice, and commerce blend here. While that’s true of any place, SoCal gathers all that from several disparate cultural sources and stirs it with the roiling twin forces of land speculation and the creative media industry. There’s the natural churn and clash of people accelerated by rapid turnover of people seeking fame, land, and wealth. The result – at the moment – is a place that is constantly trying to pretend it’s new by repainting its zeitgeist. Its history is a kaleidoscope of more of the same.

It’s a strange, fast-moving place for someone from somewhere else, as so many of us are, and Lunefeld does a fine job finding threads that embroider it all with interesting patterns. He finds some interesting connections through culture, architecture, occultism, and mass media.

As I say, I had heard enough of these histories before that I wasn’t spellbound by all this, but I can see how it could serve as a great eye-opener.


Review: Wheels of Chance

Saturday, April 3rd, 2021

If there’s a “Tedcore,” this book may define it. It’s a Victorian romance by H. G. Wells set on a bicycling holiday in England. That said, it turned out not to be what I expected. It held my interest, though.

Wells is a fascinating guy who was pro-bike in an era when being pro-bike meant preferring them to horses. His affection for cycling is well enough known in bike circles to include apocryphal quotes. As a practical cyclist of the time, he does well at including interesting details in this. I’m no expert on these times on bikes, primarily being acquainted with them from Mark Twain’s work, so I learned much.

Beyond that, Wheels of Chance includes a lot about the class structures in Britain at the time. Our main protagonists are separated by sex, but more importantly by class. The barriers here are broadly familiar to anyone who’s read Romeo and Juilet or seen Valley Girl. Broadly familiar, for sure, but the specifics are pretty interesting.

Also interesting was the arc of the romance, such as it is. Modern romcom conventions are only partially present and the idea of a Hollywood ending is completely missing. It’s fun to see both what Wells has to say here and how he says it.

His characters are similarly of another time, but animated and believable. It’s easy to make out the world’s constraints and pleasures through their eyes.