Three Things You Should Read with Brief Reviews

I’ve run into a slew of really good short fiction lately.  For example:

Robot by Helena Bell.  When I tell people I hate flash fiction but don’t have a problem with stories that just happen to be very short, this is the kind of story I mean as what I like.  It’s lush, structurally interesting, and exactly the right length.

Love Might Be Too Strong a Word by Charlie Jane Anders.  I got to hear a big chunk of this one read by Charlie Jane herself at WisCon and it was brilliant and I was vexed when she didn’t get to the ending.  Then I got to be pleasantly surprised when it turned up on my podcast while biking to dinner one night.  I took my time getting to dinner.

The Three Feats of Agani by Christie Yant.  This story is beautiful and tragic and I spent the whole time terrified it would have the wrong ending.  It didn’t.

These are all, incidentally, availbale by podcast, since it’s about the only way I’m keeping up with short fiction these days.  Also, one of these stories is a secret member of the pro-villainist movement.  I won’t say which, because that would be spoilers.

Jade Mountain Cafe: It’s Made of Crack

Sometimes you develop irrational affection for a place and it becomes dear to you beyond its qualities.  It could have a really convenient location, or be the only place you can get x thing even if they don’t do x thing well, or possibly they have particularly attractive employees.

Then there’s the place that’s so awesome there’s a guy strumming a square base on the patio just cuz, your baseline for thing x gets defined as “It’s competent if it’s 50% as good as here,” and you’ll drive clear across town on a weekly basis to go.  I have just such a place and it is Jade Mountain Cafe.

I go for their bubble tea and their pot stickers, and I go every Thursday.  Sometimes I go on Wednesday too.  Or Friday.  Or Sunday.  Those “ors” could accurately be read as “ands.”  They’re not actually as far away from my house as you can get while still being in Madison, but they do a decent impression of it.  I go anyway.  The tapioca beads they put in their tea aren’t just cooked correctly, with the right texture and density, they’re cooked superbly.  I think they cheat and use honey.  I’m totally down with cheating.

Let me give you some perspective so you can see what a big deal this is.  A year ago, I did not like tea.  At all.  But I loved fruit smoothies with tapoica beads, and was in severe withdrawal after developing an addiction in Chicago because nowhere in Madison did them well.  Then Jade Mountain opened, and while they didn’t do fruit smoothies, they cooked their tapioca so well that their tea smoothies were good enough.

Now I drink tea.

I’m not yet a refined, take my black tea black tea drinker, but tea no longer tastes like funky water.  I have an actual pallet.  I almost enjoy it even when it isn’t full of milk and honey and tasty, tasty tapioca.  I foresee legitimate tea fondness in my future.  That’s how good Jade Mountain is.

I want them to open up a new location on the west side something awful.  I may, in fact, have a place within walking distance of my house picked out, if only the coffee shop currently there would go out of business.

Yes, I am obsessed.  Yes, I am an addict.  But it’s not irrational.  They really are that good.  And if you live in Madison, or ever come by, you should come see it for yourself.

Review: Leviathan Wakes

I don’t have a lot to say about this one.  It grabbed me with the prologue and didn’t let go.  The plot twists nicely, the characters are complex and engaging, the world is viscerally real in the best of the gritty space opera tradition.  There was a point where I was annoyed with the book because the bad guys were doing stupid things just to be bad guys, but then when we started talking to the bad guys about why they’d done those things, they made perfect sense, so I was retroactively not annoyed with the book at all.  This book was badass in all the right ways, subtly creepy where appropriate, and did space travel so well and compellingly it makes me feel guilty for playing with FTL.

This, of course, means I rather hate the book, because I need to go have an anxiety attack about whether to vote for it, or for Embassytown.  Stupid quality.

The Dark Knight Rises: And Flops

I went into this movie expecting to find Catwoman painful, desperately hoping to adore the rest of the movie, and pleasantly fortified by an excerpt from a review that declared the film boring.  (Thank you, Noah, you spared me heartache).  As it turns out, Catwoman was not only the best part of the movie, but the only part they really got right at all.  Massive spoilerage to follow.

Nolan clearly understood what he wanted to do with this movie, and I think he even knew why The Dark Knight worked so well.  It was the combination of just enough explicit examination of heady themes against timely political issues, with lots of ass-kicking, that let American audiences have the popcorn movie they wanted but feel smart for liking it.  Look, they had a conversation about power and Caesar and the fall of Rome, and they flipped a tractor trailer!

While the action sequences in Rises were still gorgeous, the thematic bumbling was so blatant, awkward, and in several respects incoherent, that I wound up entertaining myself for huge swaths of the movie by picturing Matthew Weiner assaulting Nolan with a script.  There was no subtext in the entire movie.  By this I don’t mean that there was no discussion of theme or deeper issues.  I mean the characters walked across the screen declaiming what the subtext should have been the entire time.  Everybody wants Bruce Wayne to go ahead and get laid, because everybody wants Bruce Wayne to be happy, and if he finds a girl, then he’ll be happy.  And they say it.  Like that.  Several times.  The conversation might start, “Hey, that philanthropist chick seems nice,” but it immediately turns into, “And you should date her, because I have this fantasy where you have a wife and kids and you’re happy and I want that for you so I’m going to go on at length about how hi, I’m devoted to your family and need you to be happy or I will be unhappy and you’re making me unhappy by being unhappy.”

Alfred was, tragically, one of the biggest problems with this movie.  Instead of being the endearing fount of wisdom and droll observations, he was the Mouthpiece for Exploring the Problem of Batman.  You see, now that super villains have all disappeared from Gotham because Harvey Dent is dead and we’re not even going to talk about the Joker, Bruce should switch to philanthropy and give up his being Batman.  Which he’s already done.  And he totally shouldn’t go back now that there’s a new super villain in town.

We get a kind of lurching twitch toward thematic subtlety with Selena Kyle, aka Catwoman.  She’s a low class girl with expensive skills and tech who runs around subverting class roles and gender expectations.  No really, it’s on the label.  “Hi, I’m a cute maid, stealing your pearls.  Hi, I’m a weak woman, screaming to high hell so you don’t realize I started this brawl.”  I actually adored her, Ann Hathaway put in a fabulous performance as the only character in the entire film having any fun, at all.  It’s not her fault she was swimming in a pool of incoherent thematic flail.

I think Nolan wanted to make a film that talked about class disparity, upward mobility problems, and our societal obsession with prisons as a means of addressing crime.  Instead he had Kyle warning about a storm coming as a vague hint about a peasant revolt in the first of the Batman movies to show no slums, no grunge, and no poor people.  Eight years have passed, and we meet evil corporation head Dagget (get it? Somebody read Atlas Shrugged), and hear about callous disconnected rich people all the time.  But what we actually see are a Wayne foundation event put on despite a lack of profits from Wayne Enterprises, and charity ball where it’s made clear that all the proceeds actually go to charity.  So we have a class struggle, but no visible oppressed people and a pretty shabby establishment of oppressors.

But wait!  Prisons!  You see, Bane grew up in a prison.  He’s from the worst prison ever.  Prison made Bane.  How many times are we going to explicitly blurt out Bane’s back story?  All the times.  It will be the inverse of the Joker declaring a back story we don’t believe but which makes the scene he’s in extra creepy.  Because Prison Destroys Innocence.  And Bane is from Prison.  Prison prison prison prison prison prison.  Prison.

I’m not sure what happened to Arkham in this movie.  I did spend some of the time wondering about it while characters were busy declaiming theme.  Crane’s appearance during the inexplicable French Revolution sequence was a highlight, at least.

You remember how the microwave water vaporizing device in Batman Begins was absurd but well let it go because we were watching a comic book movie?  The fusion reactor that could save the world but gets converted into a bomb with a 5 month decay cycle is dumber, and given plot deciding that this was going to be some sort of anarchistic revolution something something except we don’t really see much of anything, like why the people of Gotham would want to get behind this, or that they do, or, I don’t know.  I could see all the points Nolan was trying to make, but the actual logic of how he was making them was utterly opaque.  Bane having utter devotion from his men because they’re all League of Shadows folk makes sense.  Bane wanting to show that Gotham will tear itself apart while under the threat of nuclear bomb could make sense if he were the Joker.  Bane and *shock* Miranda wanting to destroy Gotham because its time has come, but deciding they’re going to send Bruce Wayne to the place that made them strong, and give him five months to do a training montage level-up so he can beat them? I’d have been giggling at it if I weren’t bored.

Seriously, now.  If exposure to a certain kind of hell hardens you and makes you into a total bad ass, what should you maybe not do with your arch nemesis?  SEND THEM TO THAT SAME PLACE.  Also, how did Bane get all the way to generic Middle Eastern Savage Land to dump off Wayne and then back to Gotham so quickly?

I could go on.  I haven’t even started on the incoherency around the various disablings of Wayne and Batman, the low level irritation that was “I’m not Robin, because I’m a cop, so I’m not Robin,” John Blake, the utter fail that was the twist reveal about Miranda, the ham-fisted cops-in-tunnels plot etc. etc.

IMDB has this movie at 8/10.  I’d give it a 6.  For any of you worried, I am not heart broken and filled with woe.  I think they managed to skew their points of success and failure so far from what I’d expected as to spare me trauma.

They really did nail Catwoman.

Among Others

This review spoilers everything.  You are warned.

I finished Among Others in the last five minutes of my open house yesterday.  I had things I had to do when I got home, so it was three hours before I got around to having this phone conversation with my sister.

Sister: Can I call you back later?

Me: No, I’ll be busy.  But I just need a minute.

Sister: Ok?

Me: I just finished reading a book and I need to tell you something: If we both have to  help fairies stop somebody from becoming a dark queen and you get killed, I will not screw it up when it’s time for you to pass on and if I do, I definitely will not thwart your opportunity to become a fairy later.

Sister: I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Me: I’m just letting you know that I’d take better care of you than the character in this book I read and I’m very upset with it and I love you.

All the things you’ve heard about Among Others, that the prose is pretty, that it captures what it’s like to grow up as an alienated book nerd, that it captures a love of stories and the power of SF community beautifully, it’s all true.  It’s a very good book that does very nice things.

I hate it a lot.

I have serious, serious problems with the thematic concepts behind the idea that Mori did the right thing by deciding to grow up and go be with her boyfriend rather than fix the fact that she screwed up her sister’s afterlife.  That was not the right decision, and Mori lost all of my sympathy the moment she made it.  She lost it so hard I retroactively withdrew my sympathy for what happened at Halloween which she got only because she was confused and distressed and hadn’t known what was going on or what to expect.

I really don’t care if Wim turns out to be David Xanatos with a TARDIS, or Mori grows up to live a rich fulfilling life that is exactly everything she deserves and which saves the world from athletes.  If you get the chance to becoming a faerie and help your dead sister while you do, YOU TAKE IT.

Review: Deadline

Continuing with my Hugo novel reading, I finished Deadline a few days ago. I’m a big fan of zombie movies, and some of my favorite short stories in the last few years have featured zombies, but this was my first zombie novel.  It’s a great first zombie novel.

The thing that grabbed me about this book immediately was the voice.  First person narrative with blog excerpts at the beginning of each chapter, this novel is the voice.  Shaun, the narrator, is a fantastically engaging hot-tempered zombie-hunter turned news site manager in the wake of his sister’s death.  Just to keep things interesting, he’s dealing with her death by hallucinating her in his head.  The hallucinated character thing has been a pretty popular trope over the last few years, but this one doesn’t mess around with silly ambiguity.  Shaun knows he’s nuts, embraces it, and the people around him roll with it.

There’s a ton of action, good suspense, fun world building (the zombie hunters are called Irwins!), and basically everything you want for a fun, quick read.

It’s not perfect.  I feel like it was perfect, and then a critiquer or editor told the author, “You do realize that readers are morons, right?”  There were several points where I was confused because there’d been a line about a thing, I’d followed the implications of that thing all the way to their conclusion, and then spent the next chapter or two wondering why the characters weren’t reacting to the Big Important Reveal only to discover it was because they needed it explained them in excruciating detail.  Given that the meta-conspiracy was neither new in the realm of conspiracy zombie plots, nor particularly interesting, having it derail a couple chapters at a time when it came up was tragically annoying.  Also, Kelly the CDC scientist failed utterly as a character; she was never particularly sympathetic or made much sense, and when confronted with science things did not behave like a scientist.

That said, I really did enjoy this book a lot and recommend it to everybody.  It’s the middle book of a trilogy, but you don’t need to have read the first book; given how much time Deadline spends filling you in on what happened in Feed (the first book), I’m happy I hadn’t.

Embassytown still has my vote, but if Deadline wins, I won’t feel it was undeserving.

Review: Brave

I saw Brave on Saturday.  It was mediocre and I wasn’t going to bother to write a review, but then I spotted somebody on twitter saying, “Haters are misogynists.”  Well, okay, I’ve been called a misogynist before, but I have to wonder whether we saw the same movie.  This movie was not a blow for women, feminists, or, really, gender anything.  In fact, if we’re going to look at it with that lens, it sucked rather hard.

Pixar has never been bad at female characters.*  Their female characters tend to be as fleshed out and well developed as male characters filling similar structural roles, and they get to keep their clothes on.  So while yes, it was nice to Pixar finally have a female lead in one of their movies, I’m disinclined to be over the moon just because they got Merida right.  Of course they were going to get Merida right.  They know how to do that.

The problem I have with this movie was that they stopped doing any work or thinking after that.  Did you notice that the plot was so formulaic that it doesn’t actually make any sense unless you know the formula?  The main conflict is that Elinor wants Merida to accept bethrothal because if she doesn’t, the four clans will devolve back into fighting amongst themselves.  Merida doesn’t want to accept betrothal because she’s too busy running around the highlands playing with her bow and pony.  They resolve this by…telling the other clans that Merida doesn’t have to accept betrothal after all.  So now there’s no war.

Uhm…if it was that easy, why the hell was there a problem in the first place?  No, really, why?  Because that’s all they did.  As presented, either Elinor was stupid for thinking she had to pressure Merida into the bethrothal, or she was maliciously trying to force her daughter into following her own path.  Since Elinor wasn’t the villain in this story (the villain was a tacked-on bear who could have used some actual integration with the rest of everything) I’m pretty sure neither of those was meant to be the case.

Merida’s character arc consisted of tacking on, out of nowhere, an “I’m not responsible for this!” moment, and then at the climax, without any kind of apparent growth or transformation on her part, or the movie even commenting on themes of personal responsibility, tearfully declaring, “This was my fault.”  In other words, they gestured toward a character arc, then didn’t bother to, you know, actually have it in the story.  Because they had a spunky girl character, so their work was done.

Which brings me to my utter frustration with spunky girl characters as protagonists which Pixar triggered in a major way.  This is yet another movie where we have a strong girl whose entire story is defined by her relationship to marriage.  This time around we got the “Gets to put it off until later” variant of the story. Woo.  Yay.  Have we ever seen a boy protagonist have this plot?  I don’t think so.  No, this is the plot reserved for our special girl characters.  Because if we have a special girl character, this is clearly the only plot suited to her.  And to rub salt in our wounds, this time around they didn’t even bother to make the plot make sense.

Don’t get me started on how irritating it is that we’ve got two attractive female leads and not a single attractive man in the entire movie so they we can go ahead and perpetuate the old standard, “Men are boys and women are the real grownups,” tropes about marriage.  Yeah, Elinor stopping a brawl just by walking into it and grabbing the squabbling leaders by the ears was badass, but the fact that this was the only dynamic presented in the movie,** is seriously problematic.

I’m not saying Brave was a bad movie.  It was very pretty, the animation was worth a matinee ticket, and there are certainly movies that are more problematic.  I’m saying this was not the feminist triumph people seem to be touting it as.  It certainly wasn’t a movie that you’d have to be a misogynist to hate.  I just think that in order to love it, you’d have to be a feminist so desperate for something done right that you don’t look at what you actually have.

*I say this without having seen every Pixar movie, so I could be wrong.  More Pixar-obsessed friends assured me they are consistent on this.

** Reinforced from the triplets and their shenanigans, to the relationship between the lesson-teaching witch and the bad, selfish bear-prince