Sunday, March 21, 2010

Book Report: I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President

Like Jon Stewart (the Daily Show host whose blurb appears on the cover--not the Green Lantern), I loved this book. It's got a very PS238 feel, albeit on a smaller scale. Author Josh Lieb does a nice job of balancing standard super-villain tropes and a genuinely touching personal story.

Writer's note: this book is written in first-person, present tense, which some people dislike, but it works here. Also, this novel extends the usual narrative conceit by having the protagonist address a non-specific audience. The character would have no reason to say any of this to anyone in the world of the novel, but it's used as an effective way to deliver the story to the reader, and allows the writer to "cheat" certain expository bits into the flow of the prose.

Buy the book: Powell's, Amazon


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Monday, March 08, 2010

Comic Book Report: World War Hulk (Various)

That's it? Really?

The above is my overall reaction to this recent Marvel line-wide crossover event. I mean, first of all, the title is completely misleading. The story doesn't involve the whole world (it's only Manhattan), and it's not actually a war (just a couple days of superheroes clobberin' each other).

It's not even really about the Hulk, come to think of it. I mean, yes, he is the inciting event which causes all this mayhem, but in the end, it's not really about the not-so-jolly green giant or Bruce Banner. There are a few good moments here and there, but in the end, we gain no real insight into either character.

And the way in which Earth's heroes finally stop Hulk is almost a literal deus ex machina--even Marvel's editors acknowledge this, in a Mad Libs-style interstitial page in the Damage Control collection. But hanging a lantern on a weak third act doesn't make it any less of a cheat.


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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Comic Book Report: Batman: False Faces

As comic book writers go, Brian K. Vaughan has a pretty solid batting average. He created the Eisner Award-winning Y: The Last Man, the singular Ex Machina, and Marvel's Runaways, all of which are great titles. (I have some quibbles with the current state of affairs on Runaways--and, to a lesser degree, Ex Machina--but I'll save that for another post.)

This book collects some of BKV's earlier work in the DC universe. As he says in the introduction, all these stories were designed to be "standalone," so they could be dropped into a monthly title without affecting continuity too much. That doesn't necessarily limit a storyteller's choices, and in some ways, it can help to sharpen the focus on the most fundamental, unchanging aspects of an established character.

All these stories deal with identity in some way. The opening tale, comprising three issues of Batman, is the strongest, telling how Bruce Wayne dons a disguise to infiltrate Gotham's criminal underground, and the consequences of doing that long-term. It treads some familiar superhero ground with the question of which identity is the "real" one--Batman, or Bruce?--but manages to spin it in an interesting way.

The closing tale is the weakest, despite having a killer premise: Clayface, a clay-based Batman villain, versus Wonder Woman, a heroine born from magical clay! But the payoff doesn't quite match the setup. To be fair, it's always been hard to write Wonder Woman; there's the costume, and the magic, and the entire Greek pantheon to deal with. Even Greg Rucka and Joss Whedon couldn't quite get it.

Overall, Batman: False Faces is worth a read, especially if you're a Batman fan or interested in seeing how Vaughan's writing has improved since he wrote these stories.

Buy this book: Powell's, Amazon


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Friday, February 12, 2010

Comic Book Report: Planet Hulk

I'll be honest: I was never really into Marvel comics. I don't have anything against them; they just never spoke to me in the same way the mythic characters of the DC universe did. So it doesn't bother me as much when, for example, new writers reboot or retcon characters to explore new storytelling avenues.

In the "Planet Hulk" storyline, writer Greg Pak (auteur of the impressive-if-uneven 2003 anthology film Robot Stories) drops the Hulk--quite literally--into an epic fantasy/space opera. This isn't the monosyllabic "Hulk smash" monster I remember from my childhood; this Hulk speaks in complete sentences, even formulates strategy, and more than anything reminds me of Wolverine.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. As mentioned above, I have nothing invested in these characters, so I was able to go along with the story--which shamelessly recycles a tonne of archetypes, tropes, and clichés in service of a tall tale that gets progressively more ridiculous and unexpectedly touching. Pak doesn't manage to totally pull off the third act, but to be fair, it would probably have required a multi-bookstop novel series to do the concept justice.

There's a lot to like here, and I'm curious to see what happens next in "World War Hulk," and how the movie adaptation plays.

Recommended. Buy this book from Powell's or Amazon.


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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Comic Book Report: Scalped Vol. 4

Kurt Busiek himself recommended Scalped to me last year, and he was not wrong. (That in itself is a bit of a story--he was signing at Excalibur Comics on Free Comic Book Day, and when I stopped by during a lunch break from BarCampPortland 3, I was the only customer in the store and thus able to actually have a substantial chat with him and some of the very friendly staffers. I also picked up a copy of Arrowsmith.)

Every trade paperback collection of a monthly comic needs a title--usually taken from the main storyline therein. "The Gravel in Your Guts" arc comprises the last four issues in this collection, which focus on the "big bad" of the story, Chief Lincoln Red Crow. Previous issues have referenced his backstory, especially his connection to the protagonist, Dashiell Bad Horse, but here we see things from Red Crow's perspective in the present day.

I don't read a lot of crime fiction or watch much film noir, so maybe a lot of the stuff here is playing off standard genre tropes. It still works. I suspect this story would work just as well if it were set in an urban ghetto instead of a South Dakota Indian reservation, but there are certain things you could only do with these particular characters and this particular history.

It's dark and raw and sometimes tough to read, but always compelling. Check it out: Scalped web site, Vol.4 Amazon link


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Monday, February 08, 2010

Comic Book Report: Star Trek New Frontier

I cannot recommend this book.

It collects "Turnaround," a five-issue miniseries published by IDW in 2008. And while I realize it's part of an ongoing storyline, there's just too much "continuity bingo"--which is a phrase I just made up to describe the apparent need of many tie-in writers to include every single character from an existing series, even if there's no good story reason for those people to show up in a particular work. This often results in convoluted, nonsensical, and/or irrelevant plot twists.

All that aside, this book features not one, but two dei ex machina. Two. That's about two more than any reasonable story needs.

Oh yeah, and also? The Vulcan mind-meld does not work through walls. I don't care if the character happens to be half-Romulan. Both of those races are touch-telepaths. I don't mind it when writers make shit up, but you can't make up shit which contradicts existing shit.

More generally, I have issues with Peter David's writing. I know a lot of people love him, and I'll grant that he's good with plot and dialogue, but too many of his scenes play as overly colloquial or--in the worst case--juvenile. Sometimes I just couldn't believe these people were professional, career military officers and not teenagers.

And some scenes seem to have been written just because the writer thought they were funny, not because they fit into the narrative. There's a good scene in which viewing someone's vacation photos is compared to literal torture, but it's totally anachronistic here.

Finally: One layout idiosyncrasy that bugged me throughout the book was the lack of any thought bubbles or narration captions. Absolutely every piece of information was delivered through dialogue, even if it was a character talking to herself in a situation where that would make no sense. Which is weird, because Peter David has made quite a name for himself in comics.

That is all.


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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Book Report: Tales of the Dominion War

If you're not a Star Trek fan, you can stop reading right now.

Tales of the Dominion War is, as you might imagine, an anthology of short stories set in the Deep Space Nine universe. Or, more accurately, in various parts of the Star Trek universe during the last two seasons of DSN. By that time, crossover between Trek series had become pretty common, and as a viewer, it was pretty exciting to see more of the fictional universe being fleshed out.

Media tie-ins are always tricky to do well. On the one hand, you want to include enough "real" or "canon" elements to show fans that you understand the setting; on the other hand, you don't want to just name-drop a bunch of characters without saying anything new or interesting about them.

That, in a nutshell, is why many of these stories didn't work for me. Writing aside, a lot of them seemed to aspire to be nothing more than the caulk of continuity--i.e., filling in storytelling gaps left by the TV series. If you think of the Dominion War like an actual, real-world conflict--say, Vietnam or WWII--there should be plenty of stories to tell about all sorts of different people who were involved. And since this is all fictional, it should be easy to make up some really compelling stories, right?

Maybe so, but this anthology didn't quite hit the mark for me. It's generally a bad sign when the introduction to a story has to explain that the pivotal character you're going to read about was featured in a different tie-in novel, and describe that character's connection to Trek canon--as if the editor knew that otherwise, the story itself wouldn't carry much weight. I skimmed through two or three of these stories because I knew I wasn't going to care much about their contents.

I do have to give props to my favorite piece, "Mirror Eyes," which manages to balance the elements I mentioned above. It's written in first person, as a series of journal entries, and brings the protagonist to life without veering into Mary Sue territory. It's also set between two seasons of DSN, so it doesn't suffer from episode-adjacent syndrome (in which a short story set immediately before, after, or during an existing TV episode inevitably begs comparison with same--and usually comes in second).

Finally, I have to mention that three of the featured authors--Heather Jarman, Michael A. Martin, and Andy Mangels--live in Portland, Oregon. 'oS! (That's Klingon for "represent.")


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Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Report: SuperFreakonomics

I don't generally read a lot of non-fiction books, but I enjoyed Freakonomics a lot, and the follow-up, SuperFreakonomics, did not disappoint.

Unlike some writers, who like to draw lots of conclusions based on sometimes slim or anecdotal evidence (coughMalcolmGladwellcough), Levitt and Dubner love data--the more the better. Their stories concern macroeconomics--the study of complex systems with large populations--and they like to highlight "natural experiments," in which some happenstance holds certain conditions constant while varying others.

For example, they examine the effect of television on children's behavior--specifically, violent crime rates in cities which got broadcast TV at different times during the 1950s:
[D]id the introduction of TV have any discernible effect on a given city’s crime rate?

The answer seems to be yes, indeed. For every extra year a young person was exposed to TV in his first 15 years, we see a 4 percent increase in the number of property- crime arrests later in life and a 2 percent increase in violent- crime arrests. According to our analysis, the total impact of TV on crime in the 1960s was an increase of 50 percent in property crimes and 25 percent in violent crimes.

Why did TV have this dramatic effect?

Our data offer no firm answers. The effect is largest for children who had extra TV exposure from birth to age four. Since most four year-olds weren’t watching violent shows, it’s hard to argue that content was the problem...

You can read the relevant excerpt from that chapter, "Unbelievable Stories About Apathy and Altruism," online at

As you can see above, the book isn't all charts and graphs, though it does include some relevant visual aids. My favorite is the mathematical expression PIMPACT > RIMPACT. You'll have to read all of chapter one to understand why that's so amusing.

And the epilogue, which recounts a totally freaky experiment involving monkeys, is unforgettable and hilarious. I first heard Levitt and Dubner tell that story when they gave a talk at my former employer in 2005, and I wish the video were online so I could share it. You'll just have to settle for reading the book.

ADDENDUM: You can read the complete monkey experiment story online in "Monkey Business" (New York Times Magazine, June 5, 2005).


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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Book Report: Star Trek - The Collectibles

This was another "impulse buy" at the library. I know they have at least one volunteer who is active in local sf fandom; I wonder if she's the one sneaking these books into their rotating displays.

I used to fancy myself a bit of a collector, when I was younger; I suppose every child goes through that stage at some point, and either grows out of it or goes pro. I enjoyed the little stories that went along with some of the items in this catalog, about why they're so valuable or the author's memories of acquiring them, and even got nostalgic when I saw pictures of some of the stuff that I used to own. (Most of it is probably still packed away in my parents' garage, but there's nothing really valuable there. I was never a mint-in-box kind of guy; if I got a toy, I wanted to play with it.)

These days, I'm not a big believer in the "collectible" mentality. Maybe it comes from years of working with computer software, which is eminently disposable, but I feel like if you're buying something only to put it on a shelf and look at it, you might as well just take a picture. It's a little embarrassing to realize how much people are willing to pay for a hunk of plastic just because it happens to be shaped like a particular spaceship or fictional character. I know the perceived value is in its history and such, but I just can't get behind it.

If you ask me, there's already too much real scarcity in the world--food, clean water, vaccines; I could go on. Purposefully doing "limited runs" of a mass-produced object in order to make it "rare" and thus drive up its price in the market seems somewhat Ferengi, don't you think?

And now, a link to "Printcrime."


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Monday, January 11, 2010

Book Report: Tomorrow, When the War Began

I haven't actually made any New Year's Resolutions for 2010, but I did get it into my head to blog about the books I read. (Short capsules, like DeeAnn was doing, but one at a time, like Larry does.) So here goes...

I don't remember how I found Tomorrow, When the War Began at the library. I think it was in one of their featured displays, but I don't think it was part of a particular themed collection. Anyway, the reason I picked it up was the arresting title, and the first couple of pages held my attention pretty well. So I checked it out.

As it turns out, this is the first in a very popular series of Australian YA novels. I didn't look that up until after I'd finished the book, so I thought it ended very abruptly. But it was a pretty engaging read throughout, with the possible exception of the soap-opera bits in the middle. I liked that it was a war story focusing more on the people than the politics of the conflict itself. I suppose that also helps it appeal to youngsters who don't give a toss about world governments and such.

Anyway, I've put a hold on the second book--The Dead of the Night, published in the U.S. as The Dead of Night--and we'll see if I continue to like the story. At least the books in this series don't balloon into doorstops, like some others I could mention. And I've got a few months before the movie opens.


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Monday, December 28, 2009

Like Netflix for Books

I just finished reading The Life And Times Of Martha Washington In The Twenty-First Century, the oversized hardback edition of the epic comic book series by Frank "300" Miller and Dave "Watchmen" Gibbons. This book has a cover price of $100. It's 600 pages long and weighs over seven pounds without the slipcase.

(photo from BoingBoing)

It's a good book, and I never would have bought it myself, but I got to read it and enjoy it for free, thanks to my local public library.

My wife and I live in the Portland (Oregon) metropolitan area, which means we have access to the Multnomah County Library in Portland proper and the Fort Vancouver Regional Library, just across the river in Washington state. Even better, both library systems have online catalogs, so you can search for the exact book you want.

The best part is that both libraries allow patrons to place any book "on hold." Back in Mountain View, the library would only allow you to put something on hold if it was checked out--if the book was on the shelf, you had to go find it yourself. Not here. Even if a book is shelved, tireless Portland and Vancouver library staff will retrieve it for you--from anywhere in their system--and send it to the "hold" shelf at your preferred branch.

Once that's happened, you'll get an e-mail telling you the book is "on hold"--only your library card can check it out--as long as you pick it up soon (within ten days in Vancouver; seven in Portland). After you've got it, you can also renew it online, unless someone else has put it on hold after you.

The only way this could be more convenient is if, like Netflix, the libraries mailed books directly to us. And they actually do offer that service--in Vancouver, you need special approval; anyone can request it in Portland for $2 per book plus return shipping costs. But it just seems wrong for us to be that lazy, especially when running errands is one of the few things that gets us out of the house these days.

The big advantage for us is being able to create something akin to a Netflix "queue." We tell the library what books we want to read, and they tell us when those books are available. I put Superfreakonomics on hold in Vancouver last month, and I'm now up to #20 on the list, but I'm in no hurry. Portland has a great graphic novel collection, and I was able to catch up with DC's insanely insane Final Crisis stuff without having to track down individual issues at comic shops or spend money on trade paperback collections that I'd only read once.

This also makes for some pleasant surprises, when we get pickup notices for books that we'd put on hold months ago and then forgotten about. I've currently got two books on hold that the library hasn't even purchased, because they haven't been published yet. But I know I'll be able to read them when they are.

None of this takes away from the fact that I love owning books. It still requires non-trivial self-control to limit my purchases every time we hit Powell's. It's just really nice to feel like at least some of my local tax dollars are going to support a great service that we use quite a bit, and from which we derive great personal benefit. I didn't ask my country to do this for me, but I'll take it!


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Friday, December 18, 2009

25 Hours From Now...

I'll be appearing on the 30 Hour Day livestreaming telethon between 1:00 AM and 3:00 AM Saturday to read some traditional holiday stories, including:
  • Clement Moore's "Twas the Night Before Christmas"
  • Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl" (inspiration for GrooveLily's excellent Striking 12 stage show)
  • O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi"
...and a little gem from 1922 that you've probably never heard of. Hint: I'll be doing a few different British accents.

Tune in any time between 4:00 PM Friday (today!) and 10:00 PM Saturday night to see a colorful parade of entertaining and interesting personalities from Portland, Oregon (complete schedule here). You don't even have to close your laptop. And it's all for charity!


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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

SnoutCast #2: Old People

Not only do we talk about old people, DeeAnn and I also talk like old people in this podcast. It's a performance. Like improv! As far as you know.

[ Download mp3 - 53MB ]

00:00 - "Old People" GC prototype (Sean & Crissy)
04:23 - discussion of same
10:55 - the origin of "we're not having fun anymore"
12:13 - getting back to the prototype...
17:39 - inside baseball and
19:10 - following up on the 10,000 hour rule from Outliers
20:55 - asshats and gaywads (as seen on Daily Show & Colbert Report)
23:30 - we are not experts; doing the math
31:09 - DASH 2 and trying new things
44:23 - "Old People" Clue recorded live (Sean & Lisa and coed astronomy)
56:23 - The End

You can also hear Jasper-cat yelling in the background every now and then.

Music: instrumentals from "Code Monkey," "A Talk with George," "Mandelbrot Set," and "First of May" by Jonathan Coulton

CKL DeeAnn Jasper

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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Hot and Cold FlashForwards

I've watched the first six episodes of FlashForward, the TV series "inspired" by the Robert J. Sawyer novel, and so far: meh. Not sure if I'm going to keep watching. The premise is interesting, and I like some of the characters, but the story being told isn't really to my taste.

Speaking of characters, is anyone else amused by the fact that several of the people central to the plot are being played by non-Americans? To wit:
  • Joseph "Ralph's brother" Fiennes as alcoholic FBI agent Mark Benford;
  • Sonya "I was Penny on LOST" Walger as Benford's long-suffering wife, Olivia;
  • Brian "bit player" O'Byrne as Benford's Jedi Master AA sponsor;
  • Jack "that dude from Coupling" Davenport as a mysterious stranger; and
  • Dominic "I was Charlie on LOST" Monaghan as another mysterious stranger.
Also note that the mysterious and possibly eeevil strangers are the only ones speaking with their natural accents. Them foreigners is trubble, I tell ya!

My two favorite characters are FBI agents Demetri Noh and Janis Hawk, played by John "Harold from Harold and Kumar" Cho and Christine "you probably don't remember me from that one episode of House" Woods, respectively. I think Demetri actually has the most interesting storyline, insofar as it deals directly with The Big Question underlying the premise of the show: to wit, fate vs. free will. And I loved Janis' big boxy eyeglasses from the start; last week's hot-lesbian reveal was just icing on the cake. So to speak. Um, let's stop this metaphor before it goes off the tracks.

As for story, I think I know where it's going, and I'm thinking I'll get more enjoyment out of reading the TWOP recaps. When you're dealing with a global phenomenon, the choice of which story you tell says a lot about what you want to say. Choosing to focus on the law enforcement team investigating the cause of the flashforward instead of the team of scientists who were reponsible for it (as the original novel did) fundamentally changes the nature of the story, even more than the rejiggering of the premise itself: in the novel, the flashforward gave people visions of their lives 21 years in the future; in the TV series, the jump is only six months.

In typical Robert J. Sawyer fashion, the novel deals with a lot of science, and there's some interesting discussion of quantum mechanics and philosophy. The most amusing parts of the novel deal with Sawyer's predictions for 2009, as written in 1999; in the novel, eyeglasses are rare because laser keratotomy has been perfected, but everyone still uses VCRs and videotape. Also, it's no longer fashionable to wear blue jeans; denim dyed other colors is in. (Like Cory Doctorow says: "Science fiction writers don’t predict the future (except accidentally).")

The TV series, so far, seems to enjoy being different things at different times; it's veered from family drama to police procedural to techno-thriller to medical mystery to West Wing knock-off. Maybe that was part of the plan from the start, but the FBI investigation is the only continuous thread, and that hasn't really been ringing my bell.

Maybe V will be better, but I'm not holding my breath.


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