Friday, March 30, 2018

Book Blogger Hop March 30th - April 5th: Origen Wrote an Eight Volume Refutation of Celsus' "On the True Doctrine" in 248 A.D. This Is the Only Form in Which Celsus' Work Has Survived

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: How many book clubs do you belong to? If you do belong to an in-person book club, do you have meetings in the day or evening? Do you meet at someone's house or meet at a local restaurant or coffee house?

As I have mentioned before, I am a member of the Washington Science Fiction Association, which is, among other things, a kind of book club. It technically meets twice a month, on Friday evenings, at one of two houses belonging to members, but I only attend once a month due to the fact that one of the two houses has a lot of pets and they trigger allergic reactions from the Redhead. As a result, we don't go to meeting that are held in that house.

WSFA isn't just a book club, so using it as an answer to this question may be a bit of a stretch, but I figure it is close enough that I'm going to anyway. WFSA is a science fiction club, so really it covers all forms of science fiction and fantasy and not just books, but there is a lot of focus on books and other written fiction. I mean, we also talk a lot about movies, television shows, conventions, genre fiction awards, and a dozen other topics, but the primary focus is usually on books.

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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Review - The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne Valente

Short review: Six women consigned to permanent residency in Deadtown whose lives were sacrificed to advance someone else's story tell their own stories.

All women deserve
More than being stuffed in a

Full review: "Fridging" a character specifically refers to an incident in the Green Lantern comic book in which the hero Kyle Rayner's girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt was killed by the villain Major Force and stuffed into a refrigerator for Rayner to find later. This kind of plot device then sends the hero into a righteous wrath whereupon he then goes upon a rage-driven quest for revenge to avenge his lost love. The use of the term in a more general sense, to mean a character (who is almost always a woman) who is killed off in order to provide motivation and character development for the hero (who is almost always a man), was originally coined by Gail Simone, and has since become a widely used term to refer to this sort of lazy and misogynistic trope.

The framing of "fridging" is to subordinate the fridged character to the protagonist's story - the now-dead character only exists in the story to help tell the story of the "more important" central character. Because this trope is almost always presented as a female character being sacrificed to give depth and meaning to the story of a male character, this has the effect of erasing the women's stories. In many of these cases, the female character to be killed off is presented in as shallow a way as possible - since she exists only to further someone else's story, to the extent her story is told, it is usually only told to the extent that her story intersects with the protagonist's. The end result is that there is a rogue's gallery consisting of dozens (or, more likely hundreds) of female characters whose stories were never told, because they were killed off so that Bob Squarejaw could experience a little angst and dedicate himself to vengeance. Marvel's Punisher is a character entirely built upon this premise, and his wife and children pretty much only exist within flashbacks in his story. I suspect that the fact that the villain's killed Wick's dog in John Wick was intended as a kind of joke - replacing the usual girlfriend, wife, sister, or daughter of the hero with a dog, and part of the commentary provided was that the dog got as much character development as the usual victim would have.

Cat Valente's Refrigerator Monologues takes this trope and flips it on its head. The characters given voices in this book are all women who are residents of Deadtown - the place where the discarded comic book characters go when they die. Some characters die and then come back to life, but others, the ones who were "fridged", are all eternally confined to the never-ending autumn of Deadtown. They call themselves the Hell Hath Club, aren't happy about their deaths, and they are going to tell anyone who shows up at the Lethe Café on open mic night. They are Paige Embry, Julia Ash, Pauline Ketch, Blue Bayou, Daisy Green, and Samantha Dane, they all have their own stories to tell, and in this book Cat Valente tells them all.

To provide a setting for her heroines to exist in, Valente has crafted a complete world around them, populated with super-heroes, super-villains, love interests, mentors, children, and everyone else. Although the world is very clearly inspired by the fictional worlds of some of the major comic book publishers, and several of the characters and storylines are reminiscent of characters and storylines that have appeared in those worlds, Valente's world is a distinct entity unto its own. To a certain extent, such similarities are unavoidable, and some are possibly even unintentional, but it is clear that many of the elements that run parallel to well-known comic book stories were included quite deliberately. These parallels are, after all, part of the point of the book: To highlight how these stories in previously published stories sideline and marginalize women's stories, one has to emulate them to some extent, and Valente manages to come close enough for the references to be recognizable, but not so close that the stories she is telling are diminished.

Each of the six stories told in this book ends tragically, which seems like an inevitable outcome given that this is a book about women who died to further the story of another person. Even within this limitation, Valente refuses to allow the stories of these character to be erased - even if the story they were supposed to have originally appeared in cast them as a secondary character, in this book they take center stage and give full voice to their own lives and experiences. The characters in this book might be a girlfriend who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or a superheroine whose powers were "too dangerous" for her teammates to allow her to live, or a disaffected punk teen who finds love and has an ill-fated child, but that is not all they are, and in each of their stories that is made painfully clear. This is a book full of rage, rage at being dead, but also rage at having their story erased. But there is so much more than rage in these stories, because as Valente presents them, these are fully realized characters with complete lives: The anger that runs through each woman's story is engendered by the joy she had in her life - the hopes, the dreams, and the ambitions she had for herself that were all snatched away by the necessities of formulaic storytelling.

There are some books that need to be written to make a point. The Refrigerator Monologues is one of those books. But like the women depicted in its pages, it isn't only that kind of book. While some books intended to make a point can become didactic polemics, in Valente's hands, the premise results in a collection of fully realized women living in what feels like a completely distinct and yet entirely familiar fictional comic book world. This is, quite simply, a brilliant book. These are stories that needed to be told, and it turns out that Valente was the perfect person to tell them.

2018 Locus Award Nominees

2018 Hugo Award Longlist

Catherynne Valente     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, March 26, 2018

Musical Monday - The Easter Song by Paul & Storm

Easter arrives this upcoming Sunday. So does April Fool's Day. I'm not sure what to make of this confluence, but I am assuming it will be something like the lyrics to this Paul & Storm song. Or not. To be perfectly honest, the story this song tells about Easter is not really any sillier than the actual story, and is probably more plausible.

Subsequent Musical Monday: Love of a Lifetime by FireHouse

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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Book Blogger Hop March 23rd - March 29th: 247 A.D. Was Marked as the Millenium of Rome

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: When meeting with friends, do your discussions usually turn to books?

It really depends on the group of friends I am meeting with. I have, more or less, three fairly distinct groups of friends whose interest in books ranges from "high" to "mild".

My group of friends least interested in books are drawn from the people I work with. Some of them have an interest in books, but it is mostly a passing interest. Topics of discussion (when we aren't talking about work-related matters) ranges pretty far and wide. Sometimes we talk about books, but more often we talk about movies, television shows, college basketball, our children, and other things like that.

My second group of friends is comprised primarily of the people in my regular gaming group. We usually gather to play board or role-playing games, and the conversation often includes books. After all, we are usually playing games with a fantasy or science fiction theme, and most of the people in the game are fans of those genres. The conversation often touches on books, most often on graphic novels, since a couple of the game group regulars are comic book fans, but it often turns to other science fictional related media like Marvel and Star Wars movies or the latest Netflix series.

My third group of friends are the people I know through my membership in the Washington Science Fiction Association, the organization that, among other things, administers and bestows the WSFA Small Press Award and organizes and puts on Capclave every year. When people from that group get together, the subject of books is always the primary (and often only) subject of conversation. It is a group that is primarily dedicated to putting on a literary-oriented science-fiction convention after all.

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Monday, March 19, 2018

Musical Monday - For a Few Dollars More by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra

Released in the United States just after A Fistful of Dollars as kind of a sequel to that movie, For a Few Dollars More also features a score composed by Ennio Morricone, and once again the Danish National Orchestra knocks the theme song out of the park with this live rendition of the piece.

Morricone seems to have written the score for this movie in much the same way as its predecessor, with the added twist that many of the motifs contained within the music were intended to sound like the chimes of a music box-like pocket watch that features heavily in the plot of the film. Because of this, the music gives the movie a kind of fairy-tale feel, albeit a violent money-and-revenge-driven fairy-tale.

Subsequent Musical Monday: The Easter Song by Paul & Storm

Danish National Symphony Orchestra     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Book Blogger Hop March 16th - March 22nd: My Copy of "Last and First Men" by Olaf Stapledon Is 246 Pages Long

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Who is your favorite children's books author and why?

Andre Norton

Though there are a number of other science fiction and fantasy authors who have written books aimed at younger readers who I have enjoyed quite a bit - Lloyd Alexander, John Bellairs, Susan Cooper, and so on - there really is no choice other than Andre Norton for me. The only real caveat here is that Norton's books may or may not be properly classified as "children's books", as most of her writing was published before the defined market categories of "young adult", "middle grade", and "children's book" had really solidified. I do know that I started reading her books as a child, specifically starting when I was in third or fourth grade, so I'm going to go with that experience and say she qualifies as a valid answer to this question.

Norton holds a special place for me due in large part to her ubiquity in school libraries when I was a kid. My family moved around a lot when I was younger: My father was in the foreign service, and being the child of a foreign service officer is kind of like being the child of someone in the armed services, except that instead of moving from military base to military base every few years, you move from the capitol city of one country to the capitol city of another every few years. When I was young, my family moved to (among other places) Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Kinshasa in what was then Zaire (but is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Lagos in Nigeria. When I graduated from Woodberry Forest School, the three years I spent as a student there was the longest period of time that I had ever attended the same school.

Norton features in the story of my childhood because one of the first stops I always made when starting at a new school was the school library. There weren't public libraries (or at least not public libraries that were accessible to me) in many of the places my family lived when I was younger, and bookstores were few and far between, so the school library was my only real source for new reading material. My parents had a reasonably well-stocked home library, with copies of a couple of Abrashkin and Williams' Danny Dunn books, quirky books like Brinks' Pink Motel and Nash's Mrs. Coverlet's Magicians, and a collection of classic books that was theoretically at younger readers that included Treasure Island, Gulliver's Travels, Toby Tyler, Swiss Family Robinson, and others, but I burned through those at a pretty rapid clip.

Maybe I just got lucky, or maybe Andre Norton's books were just a common feature of school libraries when I was younger, but I could always count on there being several books that she had written available. Given that Norton was quite prolific as an author, there were usually some books of hers that I had not already read, although I did end up reading some of her books more than once although in some cases it was unintentional as there were several of her books that were published with multiple covers, and a few that were published under alternate titles. I read so many Andre Norton books as a kid that as an adult I am often uncertain if I have read a particular story of hers or not. There are a number of her stories that I am certain I have read, including Judgment on Janus, Victory on Janus, Witch World, The Zero Stone, Moon of Three Rings, Star Man's Son, Quag Keep, and Star Guard, but there are others where I remember something of the plot and characters, but the title has completely slipped from my memory.

There were other authors who I enjoyed a lot, but none really offered the range that Norton did. Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain is a magnificent series, but once you get past that, his books are mostly light fantasy and not much more. Tolkien is a giant in the fantasy fiction genre, but after one had read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and then waded through The Silmarillion, there wasn't much else of his available in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When one picks up a Norton story, on the other hand, one can find a fantasy, or a space opera, or a time travel adventure, or a post-apocalyptic tale, or even a western or a story based on a role-playing game. What I could be certain of, is that a Norton book contained a story that I would enjoy reading.

I had a weird path into being a science fiction fan. Although I had read some short science fiction before then, my first science fiction novel was Samuel R. Delany's Nova, which is an unusual entry point. But after that, my reading in the genre was dominated by Andre Norton's work. Before I turned ten I had read dozens of her books, and before I entered high school I had read dozens more. In a sense, Norton shaped my view of what science fiction, and to a lesser extent fantasy, are as genres. More than that, Norton gave me (and continues to give me) literally hundreds of hours of enjoyment via her writing, and that's why she is my favorite children's author.

Subsequent Book Blogger Hop: 247 A.D. Was Marked as the Millenium of Rome

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review - War and Craft by Tom Doyle

Short review: Even though they are in exile and on the run, Morton, Endicott, Marlowe, and Rezvani re called upon to save the world one more time. The real question this time is not who will survive, but whether anyone at all will.

A magic wedding
Flight from danger to danger
Then, apocalypse

Full review: War and Craft is the third, and definitely final, book in Tom Doyle's American Craftsmen series, a fantasy that posits the existence of magical craftspeople in the modern world who are mostly tied to their home countries and native magical traditions. The series started in the novel American Craftsmen with a conflict that was almost entirely internal to the U.S. crafting community, continued in The Left-Hand Way in which the conflict spread outward, most notably to Russia, the Ukraine, and Japan, and reaches it denouement in this novel, where the threat has become both global and, for the protagonists, intensely personal.

After a brief prologue where Ossian Mac Cool, the last of the Fianna guardians of the three gifts of the order is introduced via a rather bloody confrontation with some members of Left Hand adherents, Most practitioners or the arcane arts engage in rather mundane craft, but those who dabble in the darker arts are said to be "Left Hand" practitioners, and make up the villainous contingent in the novel. Part of the tension in the story comes from the fact that one of the heroes - Dale Morton - is the last scion of a craft bloodline that is notorious for indulging in Left-Hand craft, and one of his ancestors was the primary villain in the first two books. The ambiguous nature of the heroes is ramped up still further due to the fact that Michael Endicott, a member of a house traditionally opposed to the Mortons and their Left-Handed ways, was only kept alive in The Left-Hand Way due to the use of Left-Hand magic, and is now sustained by Left-Hand infused nanobots in his body. Throughout the novel, both are tempted by the Left-Hand craft time and again, and they are rather understandably regarded with suspicion by every craft practitioner who comes into contact with them.

After the prologue, the story shifts to the four central characters - Dale Morton, Michael Endicott, Scherie Rezvani-Morton, and Grace Marlowe where they are hiding out in Japan following their refusal to obey orders in the previous book. Granted, the actions they took in the last book did save the world, but as they took their actions in defiance of their superiors, they start this book "on the lam". Plus, given that Endicott appears to have taken a step forward to becoming a trans-national craft power (a situation that has caused large scale wars in the past), even those outside of the United States government view the quartet with caution. Other nations, including Japan, clearly see a possible opportunity to garner an edge for themselves by offering asylum to the group, but are wary of the potential harm that may ensue.

The quartet are not just in Japan sitting around, they are there so that Endicott and Marlowe can get married. This is an event of some import in the magical world created by Doyle, as the union of two craft families is a big deal and looms even larger in that it is the union of two craft families from different countries, and one of the betrothed may be an impending trans-national threat to boot. There is an array of rituals and taboos surrounding a craft marriage, the most salient one being that there is a true surrounding the wedding until after the marriage is consummated, meaning that the quartet of heroes are safe for the first part of this segment of the story, allowing numerous representatives from around the world to be introduced, including the Jessica Mwangi of Kenya, Omatr Khan of Pakistan, Zhuge Liang from China, and the emissary from the Vatican, a priest named Cornaro. Even by introducing some of these characters only in passing, Doyle is expanding and deepening the mythic reality of his fictional world, making it feel more like a fully realized place with each addition.

The wedding goes smoothly, and then all hell breaks loose as expected afterwards as various enemies try to eliminate Marlowe and Endicott as soon as their happy event has concluded. This leads to a running fight through the streets of Yokohama where the four heroes pick up an unexpected new ally and suffer an entirely unexpected loss that is caused by an entirely unexpected enemy. Their hosts soon let them know that they have worn out their welcome in Japan and they hop into a plane and head off without much of a plan, dazed from the curveball they had just been thrown. They end up more or less tumbling into India, where they are confronted by an Indian craft community that is both powerful and deeply suspicious of them, but needs their services for a mission of critical import, which is where the real meat of the plot turns up - in the world sanctuary, a monastery located in disputed territory near the three-way border between India, Pakistan, and China.

As a condition for offering the quartet (actually quintet, or possibly sextet, depending on how you count "people") refuge, the Indian government gets them to agree to investigate the world sanctuary and report on the source of the strange events that had recently begun happening. Because Scherie is pregnant, the other three more or less conspire to get her to agree to go to Italy and meet with Cornaro on the pretext that she needs to learn more about banishing spirits before they head to the sanctuary. Of course, as soon as she is safely packed away, Dale, Michael, and Grace immediately head off to the mountains to try to infiltrate the sanctuary. With the team split, the story hops back and forth between Scherie and the strike team as each finds themselves confronted with mortal danger. For the strike team trio, the danger is readily apparent, and they knew ahead of time that they were walking into a situation that was going to be potentially life-threatening (and even soul-threatening) and every step they take just ramps up the tension in the story. For her part, Scherie expected to be going to meet with a potential ally and learn some valuable information, but she is fairly quickly disabused of this notion and finds herself locked in an unexpected struggle for her life and the life of her unborn child. On the other hand, Scherie does learn valuable information and gains an unexpected ally, but the information comes from a source she didn't expect, and the ally is someone she didn't even know she was going to meet. One of the persistent themes of War and Craft, and indeed the American Craftsman series as a whole is that this sort of serendipity is the foundation upon which victories are built.

It is during this portion of the book that the novel shifts in tone. While the early parts of the book had been filled with action and adventure, it was an almost rollicking kind of action, reminiscent of what something like James Bond would have been like if magic had been in play. Once Scherie heads to Italy and the remaining trio make their way to the world sanctuary, the tone quickly becomes much darker, dipping into the horror genre at times. Although each of the heroes is confronted with malevolent enemies intent upon their destruction, the real horror they face comes from within themselves, as time and again they face situations in which their own fears and weaknesses are used against them. Doyle pushes the reader relentlessly forward: Each time one turns to the next page, one finds themselves hoping against all reason that Endicott, Marlowe, Morton, or Rezvani can somehow find a way to deal with the terrors that they face without damning themselves, and each time one turns to the next page, the author refuses to let his characters off the hook. Three of the four central characters reach the point of no return, and each of those three continues forward, pressing on despite the personal cost. Victory can be had, but the price that will be exacted in exchange is tremendous. The brilliance of this book is that every step the characters take seems perfectly reasonable and at the same time completely horrible and the whole time the reader is hoping that conclusion that feels inevitable can somehow be averted all the while knowing that it cannot.

Early in War and Craft, one of the characters tells the reader how the story is going to end. Telling the reader where the story is going is a difficult to use technique, but when it works it can be very effective - John Michael Straczynski used this approach to great effect a couple of times in Babylon 5 - and Doyle deploys it almost perfectly here. By letting the reader know what is going to happen, the author gives the outcome an almost existential inevitability that serves to give the entire book a sense of impending doom. Paradoxically, this general air of overwhelming dread serves to provide a glimmer of hope, as one finds themselves wishing for the heroes to avert this foretold conclusion, desperately looking for ways that they could evade this seemingly foregone conclusion. Even so, when the story winds its way to the dire end that one has been anxiously hoping could be avoided, it feels strangely satisfying, as if the grim ending was the only way the story could have ended. That is, perhaps, the greatest tribute to the quality of the book: It ends not perhaps in the way that one wanted, but in the way that it had to end, and as a result, one walks away from the book feeling content, albeit a kind of drained and devastated contentment.

Previous book in the series: The Left-Hand Way

Tom Doyle     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, March 12, 2018

Musical Monday - A Fistful of Dollars by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra

A Fistful of Dollars was the first Spaghetti Western to have real success in the United States, and is the first of the "Man with No Name" trilogy. I am not sure, but it may have been the first Spaghetti Western to receive a wide release in the United States. To cater to the American audience, many of the Italian members of the production company took "American sounding" stage names - for example, Sergio Leone was credited as Bob Robertson, and Ennio Morricone was credited as Dan Savio.

Even with the name changes to "fit in", these movies were a distinctly alien presence in the American cinema landscape of their era, and part of that traces to the music. More specifically, how the music was used during the production of the films. Apparently, Morricone often composed music for the score before filming began, and Leone would tailor the scenes in the film to match Morricone's work, often lengthening sequences so as to accommodate the music. I think that this pattern - having the music dictate the pace of the film rather than the pace of the film dictating the music - is a large part of why this set of movies have such an otherworldly feel to them.

Danish National Symphony Orchestra     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Book Blogger Hop March 9th - March 15th: "245" Is a Jazz Instrumental by Eric Dolphy

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Do you enjoy reading retellings of, or 'sequels' to, classic novels? Why or why not?

Based on the handful of novels I have read that meet those criteria, I'm going to have to say no. Most of the long-delayed "sequels" to classic novels that I have read have been long-delayed sequels to classic works of science fiction, and by and large, those have proven to be terrible. For example, Arthur C. Clarke published Rendezvous with Rama in 1973, which quickly became one of the most celebrated works of science fiction. In 1989, Clarke teamed with Gentry Lee and began producing sequels to Rama, specifically, Rama II, The Garden of Rama, and Rama Revealed. These sequels were, to be blunt, terrible. They were so bad that they almost retroactively made the first novel worse.

Similarly, Isaac Asimov originally published the Foundation trilogy between 1951 and 1953, and it is regarded as one of the keystone works of the science fiction genre. Twenty-eight years later, in 1981, he published Foundation's Edge, and then three more books in the series. He later published more books to tie the Foundation novels to his Robot series. The end result is a big mess, which was made worse by the fact that all of the novels published in the 1980s just weren't particularly good.

There are other instances of this happening in the science fiction genre, but I figure that's enough examples to make the point. In my experience, delayed sequels to "classic" books have a poor track record when it comes to quality, so I haven't really enjoyed them when I have read them.

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Monday, March 5, 2018

Musical Monday - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra

The "Spaghetti Westerns" such as A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West, were so dubbed in part due to the fact that their scores were written by Ennio Morricone (as well as the fact that they were directed by Sergio Leone and written by Italian screenwriters). These movies aren't technically science fiction or fantasy movies, but they feel like they are, since they all seem to take place in a mythic Old West that bears little relationship to actual history and the stories have a kind of almost dream-like quality to them that makes them seem like a kind of romanticized hyperreality.

One of the elements that gives the Spaghetti Westerns their otherworldly quality is Morricone's music. This performance is fascinating because it shows exactly how the various parts were made. I, for example, would never have thought that one of the parts was actually made by a human voice. The unusual array of instruments used in many of Morricone's compositions also contributes to their somewhat alien feel. I like the Spaghetti Westerns quite a bit, but I am convinced that Morricone's music will still be being played long after the movies have faded from the cultural consciousness.

On a note that really doesn't connect to anything else, the conductor Sarah Hicks kind of looks like Kelly Sue DeConnick's long lost brunette sister.

Previous Musical Monday: I'm Gonna Getcha Good by Shania Twain
Subsequent Musical Monday: A Fistful of Dollars by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra

Danish National Symphony Orchestra     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Book Blogger Hop March 2nd - March 8th: The Tupolev Tu-244 Was a Proposed Supersonic Passenger Aircraft That Was Never Actually Built

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Off the book topic . . . do you use a mouse pad? If so, what is on it?

I do use a mouse pad. Actually, I use two - one at work and one at home.

The one I use at work is incredibly boring. It is just a standard issue pad with the name of the Federal agency I work for on it.

The one I use at home is a custom made one that I have been using for years. It has a picture from about fifteen years ago of my two older kids - Riker and the Czarina - on it.

Subsequent Book Blogger Hop: "245" Is a Jazz Instrumental by Eric Dolphy

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Friday, March 2, 2018

Review - Star Brand: New Universe, Vol. 1 by Jim Shooter and John Romita

Short review: Kenneth Connell gets a mark that grants him immense power. Somehow this leads to issue after issue of him moping about his angsty man-pain.

At first the old man
Gave the Star Brand to Kenneth
Then he wants it back

Full review: In 1986, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the use of the name Marvel Comics, Marvel decided to launch a new line of comics, set in a completely separate fictional continuity that they called, naturally enough, the "New Universe". The idea was that the new fictional universe would be just like our Earth, right up to a specific event called the "White Event" that supposedly took place in 1986 and sparked the development of super-heroes and super-villains. Star Brand was one of the initial eight titles in the new continuity, and was initially written by Jim Shooter, who was the editor-in-chief at Marvel at the time it was launched. This series was intended to be the flagship title for the New Universe, and is something of a hybrid of Green Lantern, Lensman, and Superman in tone. This volume covers roughly half of the entire run of the series, from October 1986 through November 1987, with a couple of crossover issues included in which the Star Brand character featured.

The basic premise of Star Brand is pretty straightforward. Kenneth Connell is in the countryside outside of Pittsburgh riding his motorcycle and practicing stunts when he comes across an alien creature who gifts him with the "Star Brand", a tattoo-like mark that, when used properly, acts as a powerful weapon. The Brand, when activated, makes Kenneth nigh-invulnerable, super-strong, and gives him the ability to fly, even in outer space. The Brand also grants an array of other powers, mostly involving throwing energy blasts and blowing things up. Since Kenneth doesn't know the full range of powers of the Brand, the reader really doesn't either, and every now and then the writers pop out a new power when they need for Kenneth to have it. Even with the impressive array of powers of the Brand at his disposal, Kenneth is conflicted and unsure of what to do, and this is one of the central themes that runs through the entire volume. Armed with world altering (or even potentially world-ending) power, Kenneth is at a loss as to best use it, or even if he should use it at all.

Being wishy-washy seems to be one of Kenneth's central character traits. When the series opens, he is dating the beautiful blonde Barb, but also fooling around with the Debbie "the Duck" on the side. Despite his professions of love for Barb, Kenneth is afraid to commit to a stable relationship with her, and also unwilling to set "the Duck" aside, even though through much of the volume he treats Debbie awfully, exploiting her devotion to him to get his laundry done while also shoving her out the back door so Barb won't find her. Kenneth is wishy-washy about his career as well, working as an auto mechanic at an auto dealer without much thought of trying to advance his career or do anything else to improve his situation. Kenneth is, quite simply, a terrible choice to have the power of the Star Brand because he is terrible at actually making choices. It isn't that Kenneth makes bad choices, it is that he simply doesn't make choices, but rather spends his time drifting along and refusing to actually choose. The fact that there is really no reason for Kenneth's angst just makes the book a bit more tedious: Over the course of the volume, he has three attractive women pining for him. He's tall, handsome, and has a job that provides sufficient income for him to pay all of his bills and have motorcycle that he basically uses as a toy, and the only reason that he doesn't have a better job is that he basically doesn't seem to want one. Plus, he gets the power of the Star Brand handed to him at the outset of the novel. He's a mopey character who is mopey for no identifiable reason.

There is something somewhat interesting in the idea that an ordinary person could be blessed with great power and then find themselves at a loss as to what to do, but the ongoing paralysis Kenneth experiences just becomes tiresome after a while. There are nice touches where the story tries to illustrate the difficulties one might have as a super-hero - Kenneth frequently has to navigate using rivers and large landmarks while flying around, and even then he sometimes gets lost. He is confronted with problems that even his powers cannot solve, such as a child with a fatal ailment caused by the chemical plant in the town where he lives. He worries that if he reveals himself, he may be targeted by the government and forced to either serve as its agent or become a pariah who is hunted. The trouble is, these background details really amount to what should be little more than the scenery of a super-hero story, rather than the main plot, and they simply aren't enough to carry the series on their own. Much of this volume feels like the side story in a super-hero comic that fills in the pages in between the real story.

This feeling that one is reading the filler in between the real story, to a certain extent, encapsulates the New Universe as a whole. The idea behind the line of comics was that the fictional world would look "just like the world outside your window" and the stories would strive for more realism, but the net result was that the stories were kind of pedestrian and plodding. Kenneth wallows in self-doubt for far too long - essentially this entire volume - only rousing himself to action once in a while, and then only in fitful spurts. The very last story in this book is essentially an extended flashback that ends with Kenneth distraught over actually doing something to prevent the likely onset of World War III. Some of the best storylines in this volume take place when the Star Brand title crossed over with, notably Spitfire and the Troubleshooters and then later Nightmask, but these stories are mostly interesting because Kenneth basically plays second fiddle to the other heroes in them. The Spitfire crossovers are especially interesting because they show the titular characters actually taking action to try to make the world around them better and dealing with the fallout that ensues, a marked contrast to Kenneth's frequent melancholy malaise.

To a certain extent, the promise and problems that Star Brand has is reflective of the promise and problems of the New Universe series as a whole. One of the taglines used for the line was that it was just like "the world outside your window", which was kind of an interesting idea, but all too often the writers seemed to forget to add "but with super-heroes and super-villains", and that is in evidence all too frequently in this collection. Sure, Kenneth has the powers of the Star Brand, but he doesn't really use them for much, and with a tiny number of exceptions, never faces an opponent that even comes close to matching him. The only real recurring villain is the "old man" who is also the alien who originally gifted the Star Brand to Kenneth, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason to his actions: First he gives the brand to Kenneth, then tries a couple times to take it back, getting increasingly vicious in the process, but as a character he remains almost entirely opaque to the reader. The end result is that it is difficult for the reader to really care about much of what is going on in the story. The book is "the world outside your window", and not much more, and that's just not all that interesting. There was a lot to like about the premise of the series, but the execution simply left a lot to be desired.

Overall, Star Brand is an intriguing idea that had fatally flawed execution. This volume compiles a year's worth of issues of the title, and by the end it feels like essentially nothing of real consequence has taken place. The most notable difference between the beginning and the end of the book is that Kenneth has stopped dating Barb, gotten a short-term girlfriend in Switzerland killed, and is kind of in a committed relationship with the Duck. Pretty much everything else is essentially the same in the final issue of the book as it was in the opening issue of the book. In the end, Star Brand feels like a missed opportunity, just like the rest of the New Universe, with a possibly brilliant but definitely interesting premise presented in the most pedestrian manner possible.

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