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Tower of Iron Will

All who enter the Tower regain 100 sanity points.

Currently reading

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die
Randall Munroe, James Foreman, K. Sekelsky, Camron Miller, John Chernega, David Michael Wharton, K.M. Lawrence, Jeffrey C. Wells, Vera Brosgol, Kit Yona, J. Jack Unrau, Jeff Stautz, Aaron Diaz, Matthew Bennardo, Yahtzee Croshaw, Douglas J. Lane, Brian Quinlan, Kate Beaton

The Scooby Doo of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles - David Stuart Davies,  Arthur Conan Doyle

Hound of the Baskervilles is the perfect Scooby Doo mystery. Scooby Doo plots start with a visit to a creepy secluded location. The gang finds that the locals are being terrified by a monster of some sort. After some ominous warnings that they should leave immediately, they have an encounter or two with the monster and then figure out that someone took advantage of a local legend in order to frighten everyone away so that they could claim some land or steal a fortune. That is precisely the plot of Hound of the Baskervilles. All that is missing is the villain saying "I would have gotten away with it too if it weren't for that meddling Sherlock Holmes!"

The Dangers of Loving Angels

Daughter of Smoke & Bone - Laini Taylor

If like me you do not seek out novels in which young women fall in love with supernatural creatures, you will be forgiven for not being familiar with this series. The story follows a 17 year old girl with blue hair who attends art school in Prague. She was raised in a supernatural shop, with a door that opens on cities all over the world, by a ram headed man named Brimstone who fashions wish talismans from teeth. Her idyllic bohemian life is destroyed one day when she is attacked by an angel. Despite being brutalized by the angel, she falls in love with him, as one does.

 

I suppose this falls within the paranormal romance subgenre. It has plenty of story in addition to the romance, but the romance is the core of the plot. The story is entertaining and well told, and presents an interesting fantasy world. I have some misgivings though, especially regarding how quickly the protagonist falls in love with a man who nearly killed her days before.

 

I should mention that despite the title, this is not a novel about a girl whose parents run a barbecue restaurant.

Let Your Insanity Guide You

Moon Knight Vol. 1: Lunatic - Greg Smallwood, Jeff Lemire

There is an old thriller trope in which the hero wakes up in restraints in a mental hospital being told that their past is all a delusion. It is a cliche, but it gets used often because it always works. It is a frightening and exciting premise, questioning your identity and your own memories. It works well for a character like Moon Knight who has an established history of mental illness and it is a reasonable possibility that his superhero career might be delusional.

 

Sadly, Warren Ellis' run on MK ended after only 6 issues, and apparently that was his intended run. This was followed by 6 issues by Brian Wood, 5 issues by Cullen Bunn, and then Jeff Lemire wrote the book for 14 issues. This volume is the start of Lemire's brief run. I offer this as attempt to help anyone trying to figure out MK's convoluted recent publication history.

Not Just a Batman Knockoff

Moon Knight Volume 1 - Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey

I have avoided the Marvel character Moon Knight because it looks so much like an attempt to create a Marvel knockoff of Batman. Many top comic writers and artists have turned the character into something unique. The most unique quality of Moon Knight is that he has three secret identities, a mercenary, a wealthy playboy, and a cab driver. Writers have developed this into the idea that Moon Knight is mentally ill and suffers from dissociate identity disorder.

 

Warren Ellis specializes in writing stories about odd loners who are hyper competent and possess skills far beyond normal people. Moon Knight is a perfect fit for his approach, alongside other Ellis titles like Transmetropolitan, Doktor Sleepless, Fell, Karnak, and Desolation Jones. Ellis expands on MK's multiple identities by giving him two new heroic appearances. As Mr. Knight he is a white suited detective who consults with the police in ways that the dangerous vigilante Moon Knight cannot. He also dons a suit of Egyptian shamanistic armor with a bird skull mask that allows him to punch ghosts. A fun dark take on a fringe Marvel character.

See Rock City

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

American Gods is a big sprawling road trip novel with surviving ancient deities and modern conspiracies and a fairly ordinary man stuck in the middle of it. There are grifters and zombies and men in black style feds, and a Wisconsin town that rivals Lake Wobegon. You really get the feeling that Gaiman could have kept this ball rolling indefinitely, adding more and more distorted mythological characters and mystery elements without ever getting to the finale, but he does get there are there is a satisfying payoff.

Sandman: Rondo

The Sandman: Overture Deluxe Edition - JH Williams III, Neil Gaiman

Sandman: Overture is a prequel to Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, but it can only be read as an afterward if you want to have any understanding of what is going on. It solves a few mysteries of the series, connects elements from multiple story lines, and introduces some all new mysteries that will probably never be explored. I hope Gaiman will return to the Sandman universe one more time and explore more of its cosmology, but now that Vertigo is a thing of the past and Karen Berger has moved on, it seems extremely unlikely.

 

Gaiman worked with many amazing artists in the Sandman series, but J.H. Williams may be his perfect match. Maybe they will work together again on another project. The book is a work of visual art, in addition to the quality of the writing.

Peak Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes -  Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes are the first two collections of Doyle's detective stories, often published together as they are in this volume. The combined collections are kind of peak Holmes as they include many the most famous stories, as well as the first appearances of Sherlock's brother Mycroft and his nemesis Professor Moriarty. There is also indications that Doyle was already getting tired of writing his most popular character, and in fact he tried to kill him off (spoilers for a story from the 1890's).

 

A typical Holmes story involves a character contacting either Holmes or Watson and then taking up about half the story with a narration of their bizarre or complex problem. Holmes then quickly resolves the case. He sometimes pretends the case has him baffled only to reveal later he solved it before the character finished their story. At least three stories involve people taking strange pointless jobs that turn out to be frauds intended to cover up a crime. Often a character will report inexplicable behavior from a family member, which again turns out to be covering up a past crime or a plot for a future crime.

 

Doyle's stories are genuinely entertaining, and the short story format keeps the pacing quick and prevents long digressions. My favorites are when Doyle goes a bit creepy and Gothic, such as in The Speckled Band and The Engineer's Thumb. I especially enjoy it when Doyle gives the reader enough information to figure out the mystery, such as in The Man with the Twisted Lip. Occasionally Doyle even dips into humor as in The Red-Headed League and The Blue Carbuncle. The humor tends to dry up in the later stories as writing Holmes seems to become less fun for Doyle and more of a chore.

 

For anyone interested in trying the original Sherlock Holmes material for the first time, this collection is the best place to start.

Do You Want to Lose the Time War?

This Is How You Lose the Time War - Max Gladstone, Amal El-Mohtar

Red and Blue are agents on opposite sides of a time war. They travel up and down alternating timelines, changing events to push the flow of time toward their mutually exclusive futures. One day on a battlefield Blue leave a note for Red, an extremely dangerous move as agents such as themselves work in complete secrecy. The note begins a secret correspondence that starts as taunting, moves to grudging respect, curiosity, admiration, and finally adoration. The book slowly turns into a bizarre love story.

 

The book consists of brief vignettes in which we see the agents in action leading up to the discovery of a new letter. The mediums of the secret messages was the most interesting element for me. The first can only be read in the smoke from burning paper, another in the rings of a fallen tree, one is coded into a seed that can only be read by eating it, and another is in a bee sting. The notes themselves read like the gushingly purple prose of two English majors trying to impress each other with their vocabularies and stylistic flourishes.

 

I am not sure the book meets the definition of a novel, it is more like a writing experiment. I can imagine the two authors coming up with the idea of two spies on opposite sides of a war leaving each other coded messages and trying to hide their purely mental love affair from their commanders. I found the premise very clever, but since half the book consists of the letters you have to find them interesting to enjoy the narrative and I found them annoyingly twee.

Winding Until It Breaks

The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi

Some science fiction authors have fantastic ideas but are not great storytellers. Some are gifted storytellers but their is nothing particularly original about their ideas. Bacigalupi is one of the few SF authors who excels at both. The windup Girl is filled with brilliant ideas, but it also an absorbing political thriller that could have worked even without the SF elements.

 

The novel is set in Thailand in the near future. Environmental catastrophes have decimated the human population and most modern technology is gone. This world is post-oil and most mechanical devices are powered by springs that are compressed using animal power such as genetically engineered over-sized elephants called megodonts. New agricultural blights have destroyed most of the world's food supply, and nearly all fruits and vegetables have gone extinct. Most global power is in the hands of the "calorie companies" that control the remaining food supplying with grains genetically engineered to resist the plagues. Thailand is one of the last holdouts free of the calorie companies' control.

 

We follow four main characters with very different backgrounds. Anderson Lake is an American businessman in Bangkok posing as the manager of a kink-spring factory, but actually a front for AngriGen looking for the secrets of Thailand's food supply. Hock Seng is an ethnic Chinese Malaysian refugee who was once a prosperous business man but is now reduced to working for Lake who he despises and actively plots against. Jaidee is a Captain in the powerful Environment Ministry that enforces Thailand's harsh environmental protection laws. He is also the only honest man in an extremely corrupt ministry, which makes him loved by the people and hated by the government. Finally we have Emiko, the windup girl of the title. She is a Japanese made "new person," genetically designed to be beautiful and strong, but also obedient. Abandoned on the streets of Bangkok by her Japanese owner, she is reduced to working in a live sex show.

 

The plot of The Windup Girl moves so fast that whatever you think is going to be the main plot in one chapter gets swept away by the press of events in the next chapter. There is a plot about mysterious engineered fruit, which is replaced by a criminal conspiracy, that is replaced by political plots and counter-plots, then an epidemic, a revolution, a deviant scientist, assassinations, and on it goes. Everyone hates everyone else, everyone betrays everyone, and the only sympathetic character is Emiko who is so abused it is heartbreaking. She is actually superior to everyone else, but has been trained to believe she is garbage.

 

While the novel is named for Emiko, she gets less than a quarter of the narrative. Windup is an insulting term for genetically engineered humans, but they are not mechanical, only biologically enhanced. The title may be a play on the idea of the kink-springs that power all the machines in the city. If you wind a spring too tightly it will eventually break and shatter in all directions. The entire story is about pushing a situation until it explodes, and nothing is pushed harder or explodes more destructively than Emiko.

The Sherlock Holmes Method

A Study in Scarlet & The Sign of the Four -  Arthur Conan Doyle

There is a scene in chapter one of the Sign of the Four that shines a light on the absurdity of how Sherlock Holmes solves crimes. The first step of Holmes' method is to have ludicrous amounts of detailed information about every topic at instantaneous recall. Second, you have to accept that definitive conclusions can be drawn based on casual observations and an encyclopedic knowledge of everything. Watson enters their apartment and Holmes observes that Watson sent a telegraph at the post office on Wigmore Street. Holmes points out that he recognizes the dirt on Watson's shoe and it can only be found in a particular London neighborhood and since there is construction outside the post office Watson must have gone there. If Holmes had suggested that Watson had been to Belgium because he recognized the dirt on his shoe I might have believed it, but I refuse to believe that the dirt in various London streets is so unique that it can be identified without a microscope. Secondly Holmes claims to have deduced that Watson sent a telegram based on his observations. Deduction means you have removed all other options and there is no other explanation remaining. What Holmes is doing is induction not deduction. He has proposed a plausible explanation but there are other possible explanations. Everything definitive thing Holmes claims to deduce is actually just a possible explanation based on casual observations and inductive reasoning.

 

Doyle is a very talented mystery writer and his stories are always entertaining, although Study in Scarlet has a massive digression in which half the novel turns into a Western set in Utah with a bunch of evil Mormons. I enjoy Doyle's writing, but it bugs me sometimes that people aspire to Holmes' level of brilliant deduction when Doyle had to know it was all smoke and mirrors.

Escape as Art

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - Michael Chabon

This is going to be one of those reviews in which the reviewer wishes the novel was about something other than what the author wrote.

 

Kavalier and Clay are cousins, one a refugee from Nazi occupied Prague, the other a kid from Brooklyn. Kavalier is a talented artist and Clay an inspiring writer and together they get in on the start of superhero comics with their character the Escapist, a Houdini inspired hero who mostly fights Nazis. I find the history of comic books and the writers and artists who created them to be a fascinating story and I hoped this novel would tell that story, but the early days of comics are just a background for the complicated relationships of the two main characters.

 

For a novel that touches on the plight of Jews in eastern Europe during the Third Reich and the plight of closeted gays in early 20th century America, Kavalier & Clay is a surprisingly fun novel. Kavalier has most of the adventures, and they are amazing. Clay mostly makes wisecracks on the sidelines. There are elements of a fiction trope I think of as "all happiness must die." Whenever the characters in a book or film are getting too close to happiness you know something is about to ruin everything, and that absolutely happens at about the 2/3rds point of the novel.

 

The book has a running theme of escape, both literal and metaphorical. Kavalier literally escapes from Czechoslovakia and then helps his cousin escape from his dreary suburban life. At various times both Kavalier and Clay attempt to escape from their whole lives by packing up and leaving or by pretending to be something other than what they really are. Comic books and genre fiction are often disdainfully dismissed as escapist. I have marveled at the level of literary snobbery that leads someone to dismiss anything that is not serious and/or depressing as escapist. If it means escaping from the wardens of the imagination, then I am all for the escape attempt.

Never Mind the Sherlocks

Honour Among Punks - Guy Davis, Gary Reed

Honour Among Punks is a gender-flipped Sherlock Holmes pastiche set in the London punk scene of the 1980's. To make it more Holmes-ish, it is also a world where respectable English society never moved on from Victorianism. It would have been very interesting if the hows and whys of this world had been explored, but it just exists as an unexamined background element. The main character is a former CID Inspector who was dismissed for exposing police corruption and then went punk and solves crimes as a hobby.

 

I am a fan of Guy Davis' art. His runs on Sandman Mystery Theater and The Marquis are among my favorites. His work is detailed, gritty, and not afraid to be ugly when the situation calls for it. Unfortunately I did not care for this story.

 

The biggest failing of the story requires some spoilers, so spoilers follow.

 

One of the main characters is revealed to be trans and the story proceeds to hit every cliched negative trans trope from immediate pronoun confusion to the psychologically unstable trans woman. Eventually the trans character is revealed to be a serial killer who targets men. I am not a reviewer who insists all trans portrayals must be positive, but the trans = monster trope is a tired thriller cliche.

Dream Logic

The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales (Penguin Classics) - Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, Erika Eichenseer, Engelbert Suss, Maria Tatar

Von Schonwerth was a folklorist and a contemporary of Charles Perrault, Han Christian Anderson, and the Brothers Grimm, but unlike those authors he passed away before publishing his collected stories. His work was believed lost until it was rediscovered in a German archive in 2009. The stories lack the polish of the above authors, perhaps because he did not live to put them in their final form, but their relative crudity gives them an intensity and edge missing from most fairy tales. Some of the stories have a dream like quality, seeming to consist of one bizarre event after another with no clear plot or moral. For example, the story The Three Abducted Daughters genuinely reads like someone attempting to relate a dream they had, and is more frightening for that quality. After reading a story I often found myself retelling it in my head and trying to smooth out the narrative flow into a more coherent fairy tale.

 

Most of the best stories are in the front of the collection. The Enchanted Quill, The Iron Shoes, and The Flying Trunk are all excellent and unique folk tales. To give you a taste of the style I will try to summarize the title story of the collection: The Turnip Princess.

 

A prince gets separated from his hunting party and finds a cave in which to spend the night. He awakens to find himself the prisoner of a witch and a bear. One day the witch leaves the bear to guard the prince, and the bear tells the prince that if he pulls a rusty nail from the wall of the cave the bear will be freed from the witch's control. If the prince then buries the nail under a turnip he will find a beautiful maiden to be his wife. The prince pulls out the nail and the bear transforms into a king. The prince tries to bury the nail in a turnip field but is attacked by a monster. When the prince wakes up he has grown a beard. He eventual finds a turnip and after burying the nail the turnip turns into a giant bowl with a beautiful woman in it. The prince returns to the cave, puts the nail back in the hole, and the witch and bear reappear. He pulls the nail halfway out and the bear turns halfway into a king and the witch halfway into the beautiful maiden. The prince then destroys the nail and the couple are married.

The Conflicted Earth

The Good Earth  - Pearl S. Buck

The Good Earth is the story of a Chinese peasant farmer who rises from subsistence farming to wealth and prosperity. Wang Lung's highly improbable rise allows Buck to depict various levels of society in pre-revolutionary China. The year is never identified, but the existence of trains as a new thing places it in the early twentieth century. The novel's success was due not just to its quality as a novel but due to the fact that it introduced many Westerners to Chinese culture for the first time.

 

The title refers to a theme running through the book of the healing power of staying connected with the land. The irony of this is that it is not a connection to the good earth that resulted in Wang Lung's wealth but some looting committed by his wife during the fall of an unnamed city. The novel is engaging but not particularly deep, more on a level of popular fiction than high literature. The novel's strength is in its depiction of Chinese peasant culture and the plight of Chinese women, which is depicted in a matter of fact manner without authorial editorializing. The cultural aspect is also the cause of most of the book's criticism.

 

The Good Earth's reputation has declined in recent years, partially due to the the rise of identity politics in literary criticism. Identity critics find fault with the book because it is the story of a Chinese family told by a white woman from the United States. If the novel had been written by a Chinese woman or even a Chinese-American, it might hold a very different place in the world of literary criticism. Buck knew as much or more about China than any American of her time, but she was not Chinese so her work falls under the shadow of post-colonialism. Taken on its own merits as a novel, The Good Earth is pretty good. It is when you try to read it as a cultural document of China that it becomes conflicted.

The Great Escape

Mister Miracle: The Complete Series - Tom King, Mitch Gerads

Scott Free, a.k.a. Mister Miracle, is an escape artist, an alien god, and a superhero, but this story is miles removed from typical superheroics. This is a story about escaping. In places it is about escaping from the trauma of an abusive childhood and escaping from the horrors of war. In other places it is about escaping from the banality of everyday life. Scott and his wife Barda debate renovating their condo while dodging death rays and acid gas. They prepare for the birth of their first child while serving as generals in an interplanetary war in which billions are dying.

 

The book opens with Scott bleeding on the bathroom floor after a suicide attempt. He tries to play this off as the ultimate escape attempt: escape from death itself, but clearly something is very wrong with Scott. We learn early on that Darkseid has acquired the Anti-Life Equation and may be using it to warp reality and drive Scott insane. As the story progresses it increasingly becomes more about the daily trials of a young married couple who have just become parents for the first time.

 

In the end Scott may have found his escape not by defeating the forces of cosmic evil but by embracing his role as a husband and father. On the other hand, none of it may be real and he never escaped at all. It is almost a "choose your own adventure" story in that sense. The artwork is as unconventional as the story, with the artist capturing the affect of the rolling distortion of a weak signal on an old broadcast TV to convey the warping of reality or the distorted perception of it as the case may be.

 

I must admit I have no idea what the current status of the New Gods is in DC comics continuity. A few years back Jim Starlin did a mini-series in which the New Gods were killed off. Then almost immediately afterwards Grant Morrison killed them again in Final Crisis. I know Geoff Johns recently did a Darkseid War series in Justice League, but I have not read it. Mister Miracle does not appear to be part of regular continuity, but it could be. I would not recommend Mister Miracle as anyone's first exposure to the New Gods, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has read a lot of comics and is familiar with the tropes of the medium and its various deconstructions.

Real Crimes to Hide Failed Crimes

The Mueller Report: The Comprehensive Findings of the Special Counsel - Robert Mueller, Allen West, Dan Boren

A lot of people invested a great deal of hope in the Mueller Report. They wanted to believe it would end with Trump being perp walked out of the White House in handcuffs. That was never a realistic expectation. Mueller explains in the introduction of the report that due to the Justice Department's prevailing interpretation that a sitting President cannot be indited, he did not prepare a traditional prosecution case as the President could not defend himself in court. This is a problematic interpretation because the special prosecutor law was passed after the Watergate scandal in order to avoid the obvious conflict created by letting an administration investigate itself. Mueller was the sole individual invested with the power to build a criminal case against the President of the United States and chose not to use that power.

 

The report is divided into three sections. The first describes the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Elements of Russian military intelligence, working through a front organization called the Internet Research Agency (IRA) hacked the email accounts of multiple individuals connected with the Democratic Party. Using other front organizations those emails were passed to Wikileaks which published them timed to distract from Trump campaign scandals. The IRA also purchased adds on Facebook and other social media sites to promote Trump and disparage Clinton. They also created faux grassroots online groups to organize rallies to promote Trump.

 

The second part of the report deals with allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Interestingly, it appears that the Russians acted by and large on their own without consultation with the Trump campaign. While there were many contacts between the two groups, it all seems to boil down to a comedy of incompetence. People with loose connections to Putin tried to get closer to him by proving they could make contact with Trump, and people with loose connections to Trump tried to get closer to him by proving they could make contact with Putin. What Trump wanted from Russia was for them to handover Clinton's missing emails which he was sure they had and would be incriminating. What Putin wanted from Trump was an end to American sanctions and a President who would ignore his occupation of Ukraine. The saddest example of this dynamic was the infamous Trump Tower meeting in which a group of Russians promised to supply dirt on Clinton and instead only delivered a speech about lifting sanctions so the adoption of Russian orphans by American families could resume. The Trump team left disappointed, their dreams of profiting from foreign espionage dashed.

 

The final section deals with obstruction of justice by the Trump administration. This is where actions go from failed attempts at crime to actual crimes. Trump did everything in his power to try and interfere with the investigation, including witness tampering through a mix of flattery and bullying, suborning perjury from the White Counsel and other aids, firing the FBI Director, attempting to fire the Special Persecutor, and demanding the Attorney General un-recuse himself and then threatening to fire him. What Trump should have done was ignore the investigation, refer all questions to his personal attorneys, and the investigation would have still concluded there was no collusion. Instead he committed real crimes by trying to hide actions that were not real crimes.

 

It makes you wonder why he tried so hard to derail the investigation. Did he think he had committed a crime? Was he afraid of other crimes that the Special Prosecutor would inadvertently uncover, such as his hush money payments to women with whom he (allegedly) had affairs? Is he so obsessed with preserving his Trump brand that he would tell lies and break laws to avoid the appearance of having been helped to win the election by foreign powers?

 

Mueller ends the obstruction of justice section was his bluntest statement in the whole report. While stressing again that his team chose not to create a standard prosecutorial case, he could clearly state if he found the President to be innocent, and he could not make that statement. While Trump may not have actually colluded with Russian, his abuse of the powers of his office to obstruct justice is a serious crime. If Congress declines to fulfill its Constitutional duty and hold the President responsible for his actions, then Richard Nixon is owed a massive apology, because obstruction of justice was what lead to his resigning in disgrace.