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WIB: Jan 25-31

March 29, 2015

I’m skipping on the book club backlog for this entry because there were so many books this week.

The first thing I read was The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, for our speculative fiction book club. I am very, very happy we chose to read this, because I do hate reading out of order, and I didn’t realize this was the first in a series. The next, To Say Nothing of the Dog, is a selection for my online book club later this year, so everything ended up falling into place–or, rather, in order, which is how I like things. (The books are, I hear, only loosely connected. Still. I haven’t stopped being me.)

This is one of those books where I’m glad I didn’t read the back and/or inside covers before diving in. To sell the book, they give away a major plot point. The book has a bit of mystery to it, and that mystery drives the first half of the narrative. I can tell you this, though: it’s the story of a world where time travel is used by historians, and of one young woman’s passion for a certain time period being used in a tug-of-war between her mentors. Maybe that sounds exciting. I can’t say “exciting” is a good word to describe this book. There are times when it’s tense, when it’s tough, but only the end is fast-paced. The book itself relies on the commonplace and mundane, both in the present and in the past. I could see people giving up on this book. But they shouldn’t. Thrillrides aren’t necessary for good literature; this story is engrossing because of the day-to-day, not despite it. All of us in the book club really enjoyed it, and I’m very much looking forward to reading the next book this summer.

Next up I slogged my way through Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun & Spite by June Casagrande. It was recommended by a member of my online book club who didn’t enjoy our selection of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. While I understand why people don’t like Truss, I couldn’t understand why anyone would enjoy Casagrande, who is nowhere near as clear in her describes and is, frankly, mean to the point of nasty. She believes she’s on the other side of this language war, the side that’s cool and casual and snarky, but her blows are low and personal; her slut-shaming is way past okay into Just Plain Wrong. I almost didn’t finish this book because of it.

I decided I needed a palate cleanser, so I reread Judy Blume’s Deenie, a wonderful book that had much more going on than I remembered. Deenie is not just a girl who has scoliosis and has to learn to deal with getting a brace, although Blume’s specific descriptions of what that’s like are so helpful; it’s also the story of a young girl whose mother is, frankly, terrible to her, and Deenie’s sexual and relationship maturity. How do I forget all this masturbation stuff in Blume’s work? And yet I do. I think it went over my head because I was probably 7 or 8 when I read this book for the first time. As an adult, I want to praise Blume for what she’s done for young people. So many books–except the Alice books by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor–vague up or flat-out ignore young people’s libidos, when it’s such a huge deal, a new, confusing experience. But if someone wrote now the way Blume did? I’m not sure how that would go over. Deenie is a good book, if not a great one, and if it’s dated, the content is so rare yet so universal that I don’t think it matters.

Emily St. John Mendel’s Station Eleven is the story of a pandemic, as it begins and years after it ends, when the world is very changed indeed. It’s gotten so many positive reviews, and it is very good, but to me it has such a Purposefully Literary feel that I couldn’t give it five stars. If you want capital-L Literature in your Dystopia, this is the book for you.

I also finished UnDivided, the last book in the Unwind Dystology by Neal Shusterman. This book is a highly satisfying conclusion to the series, and perhaps the strongest installment since the first.

I finished the week by giving up on Chelsea Cain’s One Kick at about fifty pages in. It didn’t make any damn sense, everyone was so douchey you couldn’t figure out why anyone would do anything with them, the nudity seemed like a sort of “hey, this’ll make a great screenplay” move, and I can’t believe this is the start of a series. Ugh.

Well, that didn’t seem like it took very long at all. So I guess I’ll use this space to post a tally of where I am in my reading goals.

Shelf books: 10/50 (2 given up on)

New books: 8/20 (3 given up on)

Total books: 47/100 (1 other given up on)

Next up: nostalgia, the new Gayle Forman, a by-the-numbers Roswell High rip-off, and me quitting on another book. I think it’s going to be that kind of year.

If you’re telling me two stories at once…

March 9, 2015

…you’re usually not telling me one good story.

I have to say, I’m really sick of the double-storyline television show right now. It was interesting enough in the first season of Once Upon a Time, where we learned about the characters while they were under the curse and not truly themselves. It was a clever way to do it, but the show has been using back story as a crutch for a while now. This half-season’s storyline only proves that, because the past just might be contradicting everything we already knew.

Quit it. Stay in the present.

Oliver Queen in Arrow was “on an island” for five years. Does that mean we have another two seasons before we can finally stop watching these boring flashbacks? Again, in the first season, it’s good viewing. Actually, it’s must-see TV. It could’ve stood on its own. Flipping back and forth only weakened both storylines.  And the way they did it was awkward. Some episodes, you had situations that paralleled what Ollie was going through in the present. But it didn’t always fit, so they switched it up and we got a straight chronological look at Oliver’s first year or so, which made the parallels even clunkier. Now we’re at a period of time where most of what we see is kinda dull. But it doesn’t have to be.

Quit it. Separate the story lines. We’ll stay with you, I promise. (We’re still suffering through this season, aren’t we?) Or miniseries the rest of it.

The only show I watch that seems to tell two stories but is really telling one is How to Get Away with Murder. It’s basically done what first-season OUAT did: tell a mystery story where you get information in the present and the past. Because there’s no memory loss, no huge change of worlds, it doesn’t have the feeling of being two story lines–mostly, you know, because it isn’t. It’s most definitely not telling us two chronological stories, although you could say it feels that way: post-murder/pre-murder. A big difference is that we’ve watched the characters grow. The only one who really did that in the first season of OUAT was Emma, the person who had almost no role in the old storyline.

Quit it. Fine. HTGAWM gets a pass. But I’m hoping we’ll lighten up on the flashbacks from here on out. And no more flying cheerleader!

WIB: Jan 18-24 Plus Book Club Backlog

March 1, 2015

Only two books that week: Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, a reread for me, and UnSouled, the third book in the Unwound “dystology,” whatever that means.

Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves was a book that came to me at just the right time, the first time I read it years ago. I was back to community college after years away from education, and there were things here and there that I’d forgotten or never learned properly. Like many adults re-embracing education, I was a snob, and Truss’s snobbery appealed to me. Not so much upon rereading for my online book club. Truss is high-strung and high maintenance; her descriptions of how things works, however, is excellent in its clarity. But I’m no longer the kind of person who feels like the entire civilized world is coming to an end because of a misspelled sign. I have met too many people who have been through a broken American education system to think we’re all starting from the same place and therefore should end in the same place. I do, however, think that if you’ve got internet access and you’re not talking to your friends (but rather, say, a forum or whatever) you should probably go for clarity and lack of typos.

I dunno; I just don’t care anymore.

Moving on, Neal Shusterman’s Unsouled is a great third-book-in-a-four-book series. Like many of those, it’s a bit forgettable in the timeline because it’s a FOUR BOOK SERIES. (Five if you count the novella I skipped.) Just when you think things will end, you realize there’s a whole other book ahead of you, and it’s a mixed blessing because you want to carry on with these characters but four might just be the limit of a dystopian series–I mean, a dystology. (Eh.) I really enjoyed the series and while this one doesn’t have the punch of the first one (or the last, which I’ll talk about when we get there), it does what any good middle of a story does and keeps progressing and entertaining.

*

Another book club I joined last year was through Meetup.com, and is another speculative fiction book club.  I am sad that I can’t always keep up with these guys, because they are great people and the selections are good and the discussion’s good.  But they’re really far away and they meet at restaurants, and that’s gas and food we couldn’t always afford last year.  Still, I made a few of their meeting for books I’d read before, and books that were new to me too.  Here are the new ones:

Max Barry’s Lexicon is a great idea that doesn’t quite turn into a great book. Having already read Jennifer Government a while back, I knew Barry wants to be funny a lot, but Lexicon is slightly stronger and slightly less silly.  It’s less of a satire and more, at times, like an earnest novelization of a script Barry hasn’t sold yet for an action movie about the (magical) power of words. It’s a fun, fast book with slightly more depth than the usual fun, fast book, but Barry still hasn’t made it to my must-read list.

John Scalzi’s Redshirts is a odd little book. Hilarious parody of old science fiction shows soon turns to something surreal, almost experimental, and heartwarming. The newest crew members of the Intrepid are pleased as Punch to be assigned to such a prestigious starship, but soon find that the Intrepid is not like other ships. For one thing, high-ranking crew members never seem to die, but the lower ranks are killed off by the score during bizarre incidents and away missions. The new guys need to figure out what’s happening and how to make it right before they’re the next to go. I had such a great time with this book.

We also read some H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers short stories around Halloween. I hadn’t read Lovecraft in maybe about a decade, and then only the one small collection. I couldn’t remember a thing, except a story where a monster finds out it’s the “human” one and everything else around it is monsters? Something like that. This time around, I read “Call of Cthulu” (I think?) and I know I listened to “The Haunter of the Dark” on hppodcraft.com. Such a good reading it made me sad I’d already read “Call of Cthulu” rather than listening to their version. I could live without the racism, which people often excuse because of the age but no, there were lots of people who weren’t racist like Lovecraft back then. Chambers was an influence of Lovecraft’s who I’ve heard has gained popularity lately by being featured in the show True Detective or whatever it’s called, but I don’t know it so I can’t be sure.  But I guess if I ever watch the show, I’ll maybe pick up on something, because I read a few of the first stories in The King in Yellow, which I liked as much as Lovecraft, really.  The only reason I didn’t keep on with it is because I ran out of time.  I’m sure I’ll go back one day, maybe next Halloween.

So that’s the books I read for that book club.  Next time: time travel, more grammar, and yet another book club.

Gotham: So wrong, so right

February 17, 2015
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[Spoilers up through The Blind Fortune Teller.]

Let’s imagine two worlds called Good and Bad, divided by a thin border. The inhabitants of this world are personified television shows. Some television shows live in the world of Good, some only in Bad. Some are in Good but sometimes accidentally wander into Bad when they aren’t paying enough attention. Some are in Bad yet somehow manage to trip into Good’s territory occasionally. Some shows are built on the border and we give them about a season. Gotham plays hopscotch on the border while everyone yells at it to come back to Good, where it’s nice and safe. Gotham ignores them.

“Uneven” might be the nicest word you can apply to Gotham. Despite its pre-built mythology and a truly stellar, talented-as-heck cast, Gotham makes more mistakes than it has any right to, yet when it’s good, it’s so very, very good that the fans are thus far unwilling to give up the fight.

This week’s episode, “The Blind Fortune Teller,” is a perfect example of Gotham throwing together its usual hodgepodge of mess and mastery. In it, we find new couple James Gordon and Leslie Thompkins out on a date at that place people in Gotham always go for dates: the circus. Specifially, Haly’s Circus, home of the Flying Graysons.

I held my breath through the Graysons’ performance, because we know that eventually, it doesn’t end well. But this performance goes off without a hitch, until the end, when there’s an acrobat/clown melee.

ACROBAT/CLOWN MELEE. This is why people watch Gotham.

We find out that a snake dancer named Lyla has been seeing men from the circus’s version of the Hatfield and the McCoy legend. (I once saw a commenter on a website who said they were from one of the families, and that they hated the perpetuation of the myth, which is why I use the word “legend.”) The Graysons and the Lloyds have been fighting since “before the Great War” over the theft of a horse, and it seems that the snake dancer, Lyla, is another excuse to fight. But then Jim uses Lyla’s snake to find her–

HE USES LYLA’S SNAKE TO FIND HER–

and she’s been murdered. Each side is blaming the other, and the only real love match between them, John Grayson and Mary Lloyd, has let the feud come between them.

So far so good, sort of. John and Mary are a bit over the top, but this is a show that just had an acrobat/clown melee, so they get a pass.

Then a creepy old fortune-teller–male!–tells Jim and Lee a cryptic message that he says Lyla told him from the beyond. Lee decides she knows what it means later, and insists they stop having a lovely meal together, that was supposed to be followed by sex, and go hang out in a park filled with homeless people in the hopes that they will stumble across something. They do, because Gotham writers are ridiculous, and although it’s supposed to be a red herring, meant to make Jim believe it was some sort of Satanic cult that hasn’t been around for a decade, Jim magically figures it all out in a moment so we can go on with the rest of the show. See, the blind man, Cicero, must have helped someone cover up the murder, but who? And why? Well, obviously, Lyla’s illegitimate child must be his, of course. It can’t be because of any other reason.

The kid, Jerome, then goes full-on Joker and admits to killing his mother, laughing manically, etc etc. Cameron Monaghan is perfectly cast in this role. He creeped me the heck out. BUT! it was too much. And this is where Gotham fails over and over again. It’s like someone stood over Monaghan and said, “Give me MORE! Give me MORE!” as if this would be the only scene he’d ever be in. And maybe that’s true; I don’t really read a lot of casting spoilers. But if Gotham were serious about building a world, rather than handing us one on a really obvious plate, it would’ve held Monaghan back. He would’ve been more effective with half the performance.

Meanwhile, Fish Mooney’s being held by parts pirates (is that a reference people get?) and no one was yelling at her to give more this week, so she was perfect. Jada Pinkett-Smith: the only woman who can give a rousing speech on freedom while standing on a man’s back. Mooney’s always on the camp side of things, but it’s almost always worked for her. Evoking Eartha Kitt has worked for her so far. She’s even wearing a catsuit, basically, although she’s got a shirt over it right now. I mean, look at her. She’s Catwoman. Can we find out her real name is Patience Phillips, and undo the damage done?

Meanwhile meanwhile, Barbara finally comes home in this episode, as well, to find Selina and Ivy camped out with Fruit Brute. She basically shrugs it off–

SHE DOESN’T EVEN GAF THAT THERE ARE TWO KIDS LIVING IN HER APARTMENT–

and decides to figure out what to wear to recapture Jim’s heart. The kids give her advice, which she takes because why not? (and they’re not wrong; that outfit was trying way too hard), and then sees Jim and Lee making out and is a Sad Panda.

MEANWHILE MEANWHILE MEANWHILE, Oswald sucks at having a club, so Zsasz offers a reprogrammed Butch to help out. But reprogrammed how? At what cost? We’ll find out later. But for now, it’s heartbreaking that Butch seems so…not like Butch.

MEANWHILE MEANWHILE MEANWHILE MEANWHILE, the Baby Batman goes to a meeting of his board to call them out for possibly illegal shenanigans. These are the same people (I guess?) that will one day think of him as too much the playboy to be Batman? I know there have been competent CEO Batmen before, but it never seemed to gel with the idea of the guy who was too frivolous to be taken seriously.

That’s a lot of stuff going on in one episode, and who knows if I missed anything. I don’t THINK so though.

The worst part about this episode, I think, was Lee. Like Barbara, they seem to have taken a character fairly set in her first appearance and made her do whatever the plot needs, which is basically the opposite of how you should write anytthing. I was reading this interview with Lee’s actress, Morena Baccarin, and this quote jumped out at me:

IGN: Do you know why Leslie is so gung-ho about doing what’s right? Do you know her backstory yet?

Baccarin: Actually, I don’t know. We haven’t discovered that yet. They haven’t told me too much so far. I kind of get things revealed to me slowly. But she’s somebody who really stands up for what she believes in and has a strong set of morals. She’s not a goody two-shoes or anything like that. I mean, she understands how things work in the city and how things sometimes have to get done. But I think she’s also trying to live in a world that she wants to live in and can be proud of. She’s not somebody who’s too precious about things. She can get down and dirty, and she does. And she wants to be a part of whatever force can make the city a better place.

First off, the first part of the question is stupid, IGN. But we’re going to let that be. Look at what Baccarin says about her character. Lee is so far from that in this episode. “Precious” is exactly the word to describe her. She’s a Manic Pixie Dream Doctor but without the quirky clothes. Given that Gotham‘s got a “multiple time period” thing going on (see: the cell phones, the clothes, the cars, the cereal), I wouldn’t even mind if they’d introduced Lee as quirky, but they didn’t. She went from assertive to a thrill-seeker in a few episodes, doing unprofessional things (!) with Jim giving in at every turn (!). Why? Because she’s so cute? Sigh.

This is truly the Barbara problem all over again. I believe I said in my review of the Gotham pilot that Barbara seemed to be one of the few characters where they had a handle on who she was, but that turned out to absolutely not be the case. Read Baccarin’s words again. “We haven’t discovered that yet.” “They haven’t told me too much so far.”

Look, I can get them not giving away plot points, but Baccarin should have a strong grasp on her character’s personality from the get-go because the show should. But they don’t. And it’s annoying to me that the women of the show seem to get this treatment more often than the men.

Barbara is a train wreck, but she was never a consistent train wreck. One week she was fine being a cop’s fiancee; the next she wasn’t. One week she’s dedicated to making things work; the next she’s left him and gone to her ex. We didn’t know her well enough to see WHY she was making these choices; by making them senseless to the viewer, they can’t be anything but that, and it’s sloppy and lazy of them.

Montoya is the same way. I was fine with her thinking Gordon was on the take, because lots of cops in Gotham are on the take. But then she was like “Oh, we can’t! Oh I guess we can. Now get out of my house” and all that. Poor Montoya. That character deserves so, so much better.

Gotham needs to get it together, but the fans keep saying that and it doesn’t happen. It’s hard to deal with this week by week. I wish the show had gone into a long winter hiatus, took its time, and planned better, but it didn’t. The best we can hope for is that the showrunners start reading the reviews, and listening to the fans, and get their shit in order. Until this week, they’ve been losing viewers every week because the show won’t stabilize. I feel sorry for the new viewers from this week, because they weren’t getting Gotham‘s best. But then again, I’m starting to wonder if they ever will.

More dating tips from The Flash

February 15, 2015

Previously on The Flash, we learned how to let your friend know you have more than friendship feelings for them. In last week’s episode, “The Nuclear Man,” we continue the streak (heh) of healthy dating choices as Barry goes on a date with a decidedly not-comic-book-canon Linda Park.

Spoilers and whatnot follow.

I. Love. Linda. Park. I loved her and Wally together in the comics I could get my hands on from the library. I loved her goofy crush on Flash in Justice League Unlimited.  And I really, reallllly love this version of Linda, who is decisive and assertive but not unwilling to change her mind when offered new information.

Seriously, I’m trying to think of another woman on television who is as assertive when it comes to dating as Linda Park who also doesn’t come off as predatory or laughable, and I can’t. Now part of me is wondering if the “cougar” in the Joe & Cisco subplot was purposely to direct our attention to what a predatory woman really looks like on TV, thus deflecting any sexist bullshit that Linda would’ve gotten.  As it was, after Linda did all these great things, like making the first move and giving Flash her contact information in “Crazy for You,” and in last week’s episode being clear about what she wants sexually and from a relationship, there was STILL a guy in the comments (at io9, maybe?) who thought she must be secretly some sort of villain, because she PUSHED SO HARD FOR A SECOND DATE.

Oh, okay. I guess a “good girl” wouldn’t do that?

I’m going to have to disagree with that whole concept.  Good girls are clear about what they want when they feel they can safely say so, which makes Linda Park great. She wants Barry, so she suggests they skip dinner for a make-out session, and he readily agrees. Sexy, sexy consent! When he ditches her for “work,” which he decides not to call work (good call even if he was only fumbling; she is a reporter), she lets him know flat-out that her time is precious to her and the thought of having half an evening isn’t what she’s looking for. God, did I love this. She’s not a walking TV stereotype, with the underlying whine of “Girlfriends are nags, amirite, bros?” She’s a person with strong, reasonable opinions. Not everyone wants to date someone with a cop’s hours.

Also, Linda’s reporter sense is tingling in this episode, and I love that too. What’s going on? She turns to Iris, Barry’s bff and her co-worker, and Iris, REASONABLY, thinks maybe Barry’s tripping up on those old feelings. You can get mad at Iris for it, and say that maybe she’s acting in her own self-interest, but it really is the most reasonable conclusion to come to, especially since (as I mentioned in that last post) Barry is a pretty emotional guy. So Iris maybe does the wrong thing by telling Linda that Barry has just dealt with some unrequited feelings, especially since Linda is smart as a whip and realized immediately that the recipient of those feelings is Iris. Our Girl Linda certainly wants none of that either. So she calls it off with Barry, and reveals her sources like a reporter (ETHICS IN SUPERHERO TELEVISION), and there you go. Except Barry really does like her, and it’s The Flash stuff he’s hiding, not his feelings for Iris.  He confronts Iris for dishing what he considers to be inaccurate dirt–new possibilities really do help erase old feelings that never got off the ground anyway, but he could be fooling himself, and under the bandage called Linda Park might be a wound, but I HOPE NOT BECAUSE THAT STUFF IS BORING–and then does something demonstrative at Linda’s work, convincing her that Barry is the kind of lovable/sexy goofball she probably does want to spend more time with. Cool. It wasn’t a huge declaration of anything. It was ghost pepper-eating, which called back to their conversation about spicy food on their first date. It’s a clear way of saying, “I was paying attention” and “I am serious about wanting to have fun with you.”

Okay, it was at her work, which is less cool, but frankly, you kind of have to with her because, as she says, she works a lot.

So Barry again hits the non-Flash, relationship stuff out of the park (heh). He’s a bit slow on the uptake but without that, we’d have no drama, and what’s a CW show without drama? I’m just happy to see an assertive female character on my new favorite superhero show, and things being played out as reasonably as television lets them be.

Barry/Linda <3

I Came for The Wall, I Stayed for the Intrigue: How to Get Away with Murder

February 9, 2015
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Although I talk about television as much as I talk about books lately, it’s usually that my shows have source material in books somewhere and I can justify writing about them in what’s technically a book blog.  How to Get Away with Murder has no source material that I know of.  However, I did watch it because of a comic book.

Actress Viola Davis, who plays the lead in the show, has recently been cast as Amanda Waller in the DC Suicide Squad movie.  Waller, thanks to the DC Animated Universe (DCAU), has long been one of my favorite characters.  A woman who is older, black, and heavy-set who is allowed to be awesome is a rare thing in the comic book universe.  Waller has no powers; or, more accurately, her power is the power of the government, with all the positives and negatives that entails.  She is never truly villainous, and she’s one of those rare, wonderful antagonists that almost never needs to lie, because she is so very often right.  Even when she’s wrong, the principles she stands for make her right.  She’s a woman who represents the very understandable fear of the government as it pertains to all these people with superpowers.  To The Wall (as she’s called), it doesn’t matter if the powers are used for good or for bad; all power has the ability to eventually corrupt and therefore they must be kept in check.  She runs the Suicide Squad, a rotating group of villains that pay off their debt to society with dangerous covert missions.

The DCAU’s version of Amanda Waller (as voiced by the awesome CCH Pounder) is amazing.  She is a tough woman who has had to be tough to get where she is.  She is the kind of woman that doesn’t give much away, not about her life (she’s called “Mrs. Waller,” but we never see Mr. Waller–that is, if they use her comic book backstory, I don’t remember because it’s not about who she was, but who she is and continues to be), not about her feelings.  She’s got that act-like-a-man thing that worked so well in politics in the past, but probably won’t last much longer.  She wears skirts, but they don’t make her look attractive or good.  Those are not things she feels like she has to be to do her job.  In fact, the skirt is a mislead.  “Here is a lady,” her clothes say.  “Here is a woman,” her actions say.  It’s all part of playing the game.

She’s the kind of woman who knows for decades who Batman is behind the mask and doesn’t play games with it–but she will use that information if she has to.  She’s the kind of person who eventually changes her mind on who Batman is and what he means and how he’s made.  (I’m going to leave it there, because you should watch all of it, including the Epilogue.)  She’s everyone’s antagonist, but she and Batman have a special relationship.  They both begin from a place of paranoia that they believe is necessary to create contingencies to protect a world from powers it’s never had to deal with before.  There’s a reason Batman keeps Kryptonite in his utility belt, and it’s the same reason Waller has her job.

It’s hard to find specific antagonists in the world of comics.  It’s easier to find the heroes, especially when they get their own titles.  I haven’t read a lot of Waller in the comics because I’ve found it difficult to find her in the comics at my library, but I am highly attached to her character and enjoy when she’s on the page.  One of the reasons I didn’t read The New 52 is because they made her young and thin, and that’s ridiculous for a world with so little diversity as it is.  I’ve heard that actresses have played her in things I haven’t seen (later seasons of Smallville, Green Lantern maybe?), and I’m incredibly disappointed with her portrayal in Arrow, but now we have the Suicide Squad movie, where she’s going to take a front seat.

I was Team Oprah when the rumors started going around about the casting.  She has the weight to play the actress–and I’m not being rude here.  Her dramatic chops are fantastic, although the public tends to forget that after years of her talk show; physically, she’s as close to The Wall as we’re going to get from Hollywood.  But they announced Viola Davis.

I had no idea who this woman was, except peripherally.  I’d probably seen her as an extra or guest star about ten years ago, on SVU or Judging Amy.  But I didn’t see The Help.  I don’t even know if I made it all the way through the pilot of The United States of Tara.  I had to find out if this woman could do justice to The Wall.  So I turned to her latest series, How to Get Away with Murder.  I’d heard the buzz, and Mahasin loves it.  I decided to give it a shot.

Before anything else, let me say that Hulu and ABC finally did something right with this show.  It was getting so much buzz that they decided that instead of having the last five episodes available, they’d keep the first episodes going through the first run of the series.  This meant people like me, who don’t have broadcast TV, could jump in any time before the repeats and still manage to catch up without missing a thing.  I’d be watching a few more shows this season if other networks had thought to do this.

Now on with the show.

Davis plays Annalise Keating, a smart, tough Philadelphian lawyer who teaches classes as well as takes difficult cases.  She’s a woman who does not like to lose; she is a woman who will do anything not to lose.  She uses her cases to teach her students.  She explains how she does what she does, and why.  To her, the law isn’t a game, but it isn’t set in stone either.  It’s malleable.  She’s a sculptress.

Every year, she picks a group of four to be her interns and then works them near to death.  This year, she picks five: rich dudebro Asher, who embarrasses himself nearly every time he speaks and generally has no idea; Wes, a really nice guy who got in on the waiting list, which immediately makes him mockable to his fellow students; Michaela, an upwardly mobile young woman who loves being smart and being the best; Connor, a gorgeous gay man who will seduce any man to get what he wants; and Laurel, who looks around her and sees people with less than her and wants to fight for them.  Every week, we watch them aid Annalise in her high-unwinnable cases, and fight each other for the head of the class, watched over by Annalise’s associate Bonnie and the vaguely mysterious Frank.

This is all really interesting on its own, but one of the students at the college has recently been murdered, and it sets off a chain of events that lead to Annalise and her students becoming more intimate with the case than they ever expected.  From week to week, the story twists and turns, being told in flashforwards and flashbacks and the present-day cases that show Annalise for the legal powerhouse that she is.

On another show, Annalise would be cold and hard and never anything else, until maybe a breakdown.  But this show never does that.  It shows Annalise as a woman who is both able to mask her feelings and embrace them entirely, yet we know she is so smart that it’s possible every tear is a lie.  In the first episode, I kept waiting for her to reveal all her actions as manipulation, and it doesn’t happen because Annalise is not some stock character moved around like a puppet on screen.  She manipulates, yes, but she doesn’t stop feeling because of it.  It might instead affect her more.

Viola Davis is utterly brilliant as Annalise.  One moment she is cold as ice; the next she bares her soul and you want to sob for her, with her, while still being terrified that Annalise is playing you, the viewer, too somehow.  In That Scene, the one that has won her all the awards, I was bowled over.  I mean, I could’ve fallen to the floor, it was so overwhelming.  And as a white woman I don’t even BEGIN to understand the ramifications of what Davis was doing.  And, more importantly, here’s a woman who made that scene what it was: not just by being the actress in it, but by making certain choices that I hate to detail, because if you haven’t seen it and you will…well, I’d like to save that moment for you.

So, all that said: I am on board with Viola Davis being The Wall.  I am beyond on board.  On top of all that talent is a woman who is not traditionally thin and beautiful; she’s gained a little weight in all the best places over the past two years (from what I can tell from Googling red carpet events), giving her the kind of body that can be made blocky-looking with the right clothes.  She’s got a lovely face that with the right wig looks full.  While we may not be getting a hefty Wall, we won’t be getting a slim one, and for that I am grateful.

But then there’s all that talent too, and I am screechingly happy about this casting choice.

Now to try to find a way to warm to Jared Leto, and figure out who this Margot Robbie woman is…

Agents of SHIELD and the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe

February 2, 2015
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We comic book nerds are constantly mourning the fact that the rights to many Marvel characters are in different hands. In fact, these hands, currently:

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Although Marvel has managed to do great things with the characters whose rights they retain, there’s still a hole in the fans’ hearts that everything isn’t being pulled together at once.

Mostly? It’s Spider-Man and the X-Men. The flagship money-maker and the mutants. And while being without Spider-Man in the Marvel U is sad, it’s something we can live with, because he’s one character and he can obviously hold his own even without interacting with anyone else. But as the MCU grows larger and larger, the lack of mutants has been felt more and more. It’s one thing to have a bunch of accidents that lead to powers, or “Gods,” but without the X-Men, Marvel isn’t whole.

This was most obvious at the beginning of the television show Agents of SHIELD, where a team is assembled to deal with all the change that’s been happening in the world since smart people and aliens have decided to make a new world. They have little to do that feels like it’s important, except track down one guy who suddenly has powers. This does lead to much bigger things, but the show really gets going–ask anyone–when it’s finally allowed to connect to the larger universe after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Still, something is missing. Let’s call it that “X-Factor.” (HA.)

Marvel has decided to deal with that issue by basically substituting The Inhumans for the X-Men. The Inhumans, a team I barely remember anything about although I’ve read about them in tons of stories, are, um, some people with powers. Aliens? I forget. Uh, but their powers come from something called Terrigen Mist, and are everything from a world-shaking voice to, um, lots of hair?

Look, all I really know is that Crystal and Quicksilver get married. And there’s a big dog.

Don’t get me wrong, some fans LOVE the Inhumans, but they don’t have the name recognition, let alone the emotional attachment, that the X-Men have. And they don’t have the Big Metaphor that the X-Men have always managed to represent: the Other, the Civil Rights Movement, homosexuality in America, the Holocaust. Take a situation where people have felt lesser, and you can put the X-Men in there (except slavery, and even then you could probably write a paper on how the X-Men and the Morlocks are basically like being able to pass and not being able to pass as white over the centuries–has anyone written this paper? I’d love to read it!). The Inhumans can bring powers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that’s not the same as filling the gap that comes from a lack of mutants.

I think one of the biggest problems is that the MCU had is that it hadn’t addressed this lack far sooner. If you compare the MCU to the DC television universe, well, DC has actually paced everything much better. They began with Arrow, a man with no powers, and occasionally having him run up against some science-based powers as time went on. But once they decided to add Barry Allen, the Flash, we’re suddenly inundated with powers–along with scientists, inventors, and criminals who want in on this new world. That took, what, three years? Not even. Ten years into the MCU and we’ll be seeing that The Inhumans movie, by the way. Meanwhile, if you want to keep up, you’ve gotta watch Agents of SHIELD. Except Marvel, ABC, & Netflix decided to hold off putting the show’s first season–which started with little praise before the Captain America movie set off some real stakes for the team (and we learned the actor who plays Ward needs more than being written as “generic hero-dude” to make a facial expression)–up for streaming until it was too late for the large amount of Millennials/Gen Xers living “Netflix/Hulu-only” to catch up to season two before the episodes disappeared into the Nowhere between Hulu and Netflix. Once again, people like me, who haven’t had television service in years and relies only on Netflix and, now, Hulu, can’t keep up with a universe that’s building a huge chunk of its world on television.

What a mistake.

So now I get to spoiler-dodge, and I’m not the only one of my friends doing so. I could pay for the season pass, but I’m still not the kind of person who’s interested in owning things without a physical copy. But this isn’t about me, although I think it’s important to note that I’m one of many in a small but growing demographic that the industry is ignoring.

With so many people NOT watching Agents of SHIELD, will The Inhumans make it into the MCU in such a way that people are going to care? Will they be in, bit by bit, in the next few movies to prepare the way for their 2018 movie debut? Or is Marvel putting all their eggs in the Agents of SHIELD basket?

I love that Agents of SHIELD is now connected to the larger universe, but are about 22 episodes a year an investment that people really want to make?

I put a lot of faith into the people behind the MCU, but they misstepped not making Agents of SHIELD a mid-season replacement so it began after Winter Soldier, they misstepped by not giving the binge-watchers time to catch up to season two before the premiere (although DC almost did the same thing with slightly more time with Arrow), and I don’t think The Inhumans are a misstep so much as they are a misdirection–look at the powers over here and you won’t miss the X-Men!

Sorry, guys, I DO miss the X-Men–or, at least, I miss the Big Powers and the Big Emotional Connection I have to the X-Men characters. The girl with all the hair isn’t going to cut it for me. Or the dude who can’t talk.

But maybe the big dog will.

Amending my 2015 reading goals slightly

January 31, 2015

The libraries where I live now have a, to me, unusual way of dealing with new books.  They won’t lend them for the first six months.  Even where the catalogs are shared between libraries as part of a consortium, you have to physically go to a library to pick up a new book if you want it.  You can’t just put a hold on it unless the library where it is is your “home library.”

Sometimes I wonder what the point of a consortium is.

Anyway, given that my “home library” is the smallest in the area, with a tiny budget for materials, I’ve decided to change my “new books are November (previous year) to (this year)” policy to “new books are June (previous year) to (this year)” until I live elsewhere or the policy is changed.  It’s just too difficult to get a brand-new book from a library that only acquires a few at a time.

I don’t think it will matter much.  I’ll still be driving to the other library when I need to, and I have a good relationship with the library staff so that if I suggest something not as me but as a librarian, I am taken seriously.  But in case I need that buffer, it’s now there.

WIB: Jan 11 – 17 Plus Book Club Backlog

January 30, 2015

Another week, another set of books read!

My worry with Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman is that nothing in it would be very secret to me–or anyone else who’s read the Wikipedia entries on Wonder Woman and her creator, William Moulton Marston.  This actually turned out to be true.  Despite that, Lepore does an admirable job piecing as much together as she can from the secretive, and often dishonest, group that led to the famous comic book Amazon.  She fills in the story, including the first-wave feminist movement that inspired Marston.  Not being a regular reader of non-fiction, I can’t say whether my feeling that the book could have more cohesion is a fair assessment, but sometimes it felt there was so much about Sanger not only because of her connection to Marston, but because at least that information was available.  Unlike with Marston’s crew, who, frankly, lied their butts off all their lives.  But once you read the book, if you didn’t know already, you’ll know why.

That said, this book is a wealth of information all in one place and a very good read.  Even as someone who knew a chunk of the story beforehand, I found The Secret History of Wonder Woman to be engaging and interesting.

Next up, I read two of Marc Sumerak’s Power Pack books: Pack Smash, a Hulk team-up; and Big-City Super Heroes, a Spidey team-up.  For those who don’t know, Power Pack is a team made up of young kids, the Powers, who were given, uh, powers by an alien.  They then go out and be superheroes.  Power Pack was the creation of an editor, not a writer, but it doesn’t matter, because these kids still work.  The ’80s made them, but there’s something timeless about kids being thrilled to have powers and siblings working together for the greater good.  When I think of eighties’ characters that seemed too, too eighties , I think of Skids and Rusty.

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Those pants though, Rusty.

But I digress.

In this new telling of Power Pack, the siblings have moved to New York and are trying to figure out their place in the world, while hiding their abilities from their parents.  Power Pack has always been all-ages, and this series would be great for kids not yet ready for all the murdering in the MCU.  Plus, the Spidey story is a hoot, with Peter Parker finding himself turned into a kid.  I’ve heard this series isn’t in the regular continuity, but who cares?  Power Pack always works.

And now for the book club backlog.

My online book club is very dear to my heart.  It originally began as an off-shoot of a Livejournal community for book nerds, and then about eight months ago moved to Facebook.  The move was awkward but necessary; almost every one of the book club members was done with or barely using Livejournal.  The biggest problem so far has been a lack of good poll options.  But otherwise, the transition has been smooth, although the make-up of the group has changed significantly since we added our friends.

The way the book club works is that we suggest and then vote on twelve themes for the year.  After that’s done, we move on to suggesting books within the themes, and then vote again.

Our January theme was Mystery, and we read A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the first of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures.  It’s half What We Love about Holmes and half Problematic, but that’s what happens when you go back and read older authors, I suppose.

Our February theme was Juvenile Literature, and we read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.  It was a reread for me, and I’ve since read the graphic novel version as well. It’s one of the truly scary books out there for children, as well as being interesting and imaginative.

Also in February, I finally picked up another copy of James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, a selection from a previous year that I’d never finished, and finished it up.  It’s a great book, as I detail here.

March brought us LBGTQI Month, and David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing.  This is an important book.  Not a perfect one.  But it’s the story of two ex-boyfriends trying to break the world record for longest kiss, the boys and men around them meeting, breaking up, loving, and the Greek chorus of men who died during the AIDS crisis.  Without the latter, the book would be adorable; with it, it’s a stark reminder how easily we forget the past.

April was Non-Western Literature, and we all gave up on The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk.  If we wanted to read about some guy cheating by sleeping with a younger girl, and justifying it to himself because, you know, he’s a guy, we didn’t have to go outside Western literature to do so.  We were bored with it when it took place here, so taking place somewhere else didn’t give it a pass.

May was Non-Human Perspective with Richard Adams’s Watership Down.  I may have been the only one in book club who’d never read it before.  It’s a very good book, and I don’t know how I’d feel if I’d read it as a child.  As an adult, I was only willing to give it three stars, probably for…oh, here we go.  Here’s what I said about it on the book club page: ” I could’ve lived without the nature porn, especially the entire, poorly-written page about how day isn’t night, and honestly, the man is at his best when he’s not trying to be flowery, literally and figuratively. He’s a good storyteller but a bad writer, I think, and that’s especially highlighted in the mythology/folk tales of the rabbits, which are some of the best bits of the book. It took me a while to realize that these folk tales couldn’t be very old at all if the trickster was dealing with automobiles and guns.

Hazel was really good but his believe Fiver/don’t believe Fiver thing got old quick and I was happy when he finally stopped doing it. Fiver was interesting but I don’t like magic in my reality, which is what Fiver’s psychic or divine abilities were for me. The language was interesting. The fact that there aren’t supposed to be metaphors makes my Lit brain hurt.”

June was Beach Reads, with The Life List by Lori Nelson Spielman, a chick-lit book that got mixed reviews from the book club.  It was called a good beach read, fast and light, but others had problem with the manipulation and infantilization involved in writing a list for one’s daughter life goals.

July was Books to Movies with Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I’ve covered on this blog several times before.  This time I’ll talk about the movie.  My husband half-watched it from behind his laptop in the TV room and said it was boring and awful.  All I could see were the gaps that would’ve made it a coherent story.  I remember loving it the first time I watched it but I didn’t have a critical eye on, but this time I was like, “It’s nice to see some of these things, but it would be better if this movie didn’t leave out huge, important things, or even little, important things.”  Great performances from the actors though.

August was Superheroes with Soon I Will Be Invincible, which I also spoke of last time.

September was a big of a free choice with Books I Never Read in School.  I read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.  I had read at least part of The Little Prince in French class, but not in English.  I didn’t find it as charming as everyone else in the entire world, I suppose.  Treasure Island was more fun than I expected, if a bit rushed.  Stevenson says he wrote it in a weekend.  No kidding.

October is Banned Books Month (well, sometimes it’s September) and we read Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.  Most of us believed it should’ve been banned from schools for being sexist, racist, and obnoxiously written.  How many times can a man say “cedars” and “snow” in one book?  I think it’s like sixteen times in the first chapter alone.  Also, there’s little sense that the author understands how truly awful his lead male is.  I’ve read reviews where this book is said to have “a beautiful love story,” but I cannot for the life of me figure out who that love story is between.  Is it the stalker lead?  Because, JESUS.

November was Spin-Offs with Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, a retelling of the Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective.  Penelope is a shade in the Underworld who is “living” in our present, which muddles the story a bit, I think, but it gives her a modern voice and enough distance to be an unreliable narrator.  The book club was mixed on whether they enjoyed it, but everyone I think found it at least interesting.

Finally, in December, we had Nostalgia Month, reading The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.  Everything old is pathetically being worked toward again today, and this book has a diverse cast AS IF IT WERE NOTHING, because back then, it was nothing to have a diverse cast.  How sad is that?  It’s a great mystery, if a bit of an odd duck because it doesn’t feel like anything that would be published as juvenile lit today.  The funny thing is, I’d forgotten reading it, but I must’ve read it at least twice because once I started, the details were all so clear to me, including who’d done what (but not necessarily why).

I had some extra time and read some other nostalgia-for-me reads, including Dragons in the Waters, probably L’Engle’s worst novel (but still okay); the Wrinkle in Time graphic novel by Hope Larsen, which has its pros and cons and some lovely art (stick to the book first); and the first three Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice: Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, and Queen of the DamnedInterview, which I’d loved at 12 but shunned by 21, was the most surprising re-read to me.  I’ve read some older, Gothic-y horror since then and I have to say, Rice really does a great job of recreating that style.  Lestat, which had always been my favorite, seemed surprisingly slow-paced for what it was trying to do.  Queen of the Damned seemed more repetitious than I remembered, but was still a very good read.  Not sure if I want to move on and reread the “middle” books so I can read Prince Lestat, though.

Next up: More current books, more book club back log.

WIB: Jan 4 – 10 Plus Book Club Backlog

January 19, 2015

2014 was the year of Too Many Book clubs.  As I worked to balance my job hunt with my husband’s sudden career change, a move, and my volunteer work, I decided to do something “fun” like join a book club.  Except somehow, one book club became four book clubs (on top of the one I’ve been running online for years) and it got ridiculous.

I’m back down to two, both of which I run.  One is the online one which reads all over the place, and the other is the speculative fiction book club that’s hosted by my local library.  Today’s backlog will be the selections from the speculative fiction book club.

I’m going to do them in order, because the two books I read during the week of January 4th are related to the book club.

Our first selection was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which we chose because I was reading for my online book club as well.  It was a reread for me, and ultimately was not as engrossing for me as the first read.  This doesn’t make it a bad book by any means.  But the slow reveals are best when you go in unknowing.  Our “picky” member didn’t finish it, I don’t think?  The only man in the group back then said he thought he’d have to turn in his man card for reading it, but he enjoyed it, and the other member of the newly-formed club enjoyed it as well.  So that’s three thumbs up for the alternative history novel that was turned into a bad adaptation (which I’ll discuss when I do the online book club selections).

Next, we read Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, another reread for me that didn’t even hold up a little.  This pseudo-literary novel about a supervillain is just crap.  Bad writing of female characters, incredible inconsistency, and by the time things started to be good, the whole thing was over.  It got a lukewarm reception from the group as we tore it a new one in our discussion.  I hear Grossman is coming out with another book this year, maybe, and I’m thinking of giving it a chance if I have time.  I’m not sure why.  I guess because this was his debut, and I expect better things now.

Our next selection was Larry Niven’s Ringworld, a book I absolutely did not finish, which I discussed here.

Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta was next.  Our male reader shunned the format (graphic novel), and our other readers had read the book or seen the movie but not both.  I was the only person who’d done both.  We were a little puzzled which woman character was which sometimes, and felt that there are far more characters than necessary to tell the story.  There’s so much going on, but it is still incredibly powerful stuff, such a reflection of its time.

After that, we moved on to the classic The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, suggested by a member of the book club who adores Wells.  It was a first-time read for me, and I really loved it.  I’d never seen any of the movies or anything, so all I knew was that there’s a time machine and that there are Morlocks, creatures with which I am far more familiar in the X-Men universe than in its own.  I thought it was a fast, compelling read, with many interesting ideas.  I am more interested than ever to read Wells’s work.

The next month’s selection was the young adult novel Unwind by Neal Shusterman.  It was recommended by a member of the book club who couldn’t actually make the meeting, and then another member had read the wrong selection due to a missed meeting, and then our third member didn’t finish the book, with left me being the only one who read the whole thing.  The one who gave it up didn’t like the immediacy of the first person or the immaturity of the narration, but I didn’t even really notice the tense and the immaturity of the narration made sense to me since we’re following three young teenagers.  I noticed that the sentence structure is even more simplified in the chapters with the perspective of the youngest character, so I figured it was the author’s intention and I gave it a pass.  Truly, the narration may make up for the terrifying premise: children can be retroactively “aborted” by their parents before the age of eighteen in a process called Unwinding, where each part of the body is donated to a living person.  As the book moves to its horrific ending, the immaturity of the characters perhaps has been a blessing.  The book can be read alone, which is why we read it, but I moved on to the sequel (and was the only one in the group who finished that one)…which brings us to the first full week of this year.

Unwholly is the second book in what I was hoping was a trilogy, but it looks like a fourth book came out last year.  (My library doesn’t have it!)  Shusterman brings his A game and the second book is stronger than its predecessor.  The characters who made it through the events of the first book move on to more adult responsibilities, which bring their own challenges, and the climate of the country is reaching a tipping point.  I am currently reading the third book in the series, and hope it will be as good as this one was.

Finally, my last book of the week and the book club’s selection of this month was Elantris, Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy novel about a world whose magic has twisted, the prince who must solve the problem before it overwhelms him, the holy man who may have to allow a massacre, and the princess who basically tries to bring feminism everywhere she goes.  When fantasy isn’t set in the present day, I usually check out, but this book kept my attention on every page.  The made-up languages are minimally used and understandable in context, the mystery of the loss of magic is compelling, and the heroes are all wonderful.  The book is mostly paced well (although I think he could’ve cut quite a few repetitions of description of pain), and has a retro feel to it, like it could’ve been written in the late ’80s or early ’90s.  Maybe that’s a sad indication of where we are with feminism right now, but there you have it.

So that was the week in books.  Next up: superheroes and the selections of the online book club.

 

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