Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review - Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, by Julie Halpern

Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, by Julie Halpern
This has been lurking around in my to-read list, but after meeting the author and discussing the different editions of Dungeons and Dragons with her, I had to bump it up to the top. I’m decidedly outside this book’s target audience, but ended up relating to it anyway.

The most interesting thing about this story is its determination to blend a surprisingly accurate portrayal of playing D&D with a fairly standard “affluent teen girl has affluent teen girl problems” romantic comedy. These are two audiences that one wouldn't think would intersect all that often, but that seems to be the point of this book. Jessie Sloan is the quirky and interesting girl that has never had to really stop and consider how quirky and interesting she is, due to the conventional popularity of her big brother and circle of friends. When everybody shifts their social colors without her, though, she finds herself alone and insecure. If she can get past her first bonafide identity crisis, she might find true kinship where she would have never thought to look: among the kids that dress funny, act oddly, and spend their free time rolling characters and creating campaigns.

This is not a book to read if you are looking for a deep examination of teen angst, or an earth-shattering romance. This book maintains a very light-hearted tone, and even the more mature moments that deal with sexuality are handled with a casual touch that is, ultimately, quite realistic (since adults do a lot more hand-wringing over that kind of stuff than teens themselves do, like it or not).

I think the reason I got so caught up in reading this despite not being particularly interested in the romantic travails of a teenage girl is that the characters feel fleshed out and alive. Jessie is delightfully awkward, and her relationships with her brother and parents are sweet and believable. The antagonists are not archetypes, but simply the villains a lot of us remember from our own high school days: "friends" who aren’t mature enough to realize how crappy and selfish they’re being. Best of all, the nerdy kids are actual people. They aren’t Comic Book Guy caricatures, and they aren’t “geek chic” models that are tarted up with a few gaming references. They are exactly as I remember me and my friends being: occasionally awkward or immature, and in dire need of advice when it comes to wearing clothes that fit properly, but otherwise normal and generally nicer and more accepting than a lot of their peers. Most importantly, they are unashamed of their interests, and seem to really enjoy themselves. Most of the book chronicles Jessie’s attempt to understand this attitude and reconcile it with the lessons learned from years of hanging out with the cool kids, and this is what drew me in. Well, that, and the fact that I started reading this around the same time I was preparing to run my first D&D game, which probably put me in the right frame of mind.

I suppose there are a number of things I could seek out to take issue with, but I don’t really want to bother. I enjoyed this book from cover to cover for what it was, and would recommend it to anyone who is in the mood for a light-hearted YA romance. Be warned that you’ll get a crash course in Dungeons & Dragons and live action role-playing in the bargain, but I promise it isn’t too nerdy for you non-nerds to handle.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Comic Review - Chew Vol. 1: Taster's Choice, by John Layman and Rob Guillory

Chew Vol. 1: Taster's Choice, by John Layman and Rob Guillory
I can’t think of any better way to praise this comic than to simply describe it.

A deadly plague has killed millions of Americans, and the official explanation from the federal government is a particularly nasty outbreak of avian flu. As a result, all domestic and game fowl have been branded as unfit for human consumption, and the production and distribution of poultry meat has become a serious felony. Enforcement of these new laws has fallen on the Food and Drug Administration, which has since become the most powerful arm of the government.

Tony Chu is a detective in this chicken-free world. He’s also a cibopath, which means he gets psychic visions from anything that he eats (except for beets, which, for some reason, are free of mojo vibes). This ability serves him well in busting poultry-based criminals, but Chu discovers that it can also be used in more conventional police work: any time he needs to find out more about who a murder victim is or what a perp is hiding, he can simply take a bite out of them and find out.

This revelation during an otherwise routine chicken-smuggling bust catches the attention of the FDA, and Chu is recruited and offered the chance to see what his cannibalistic ability can really do. From there, he begins to discover how deep the rabbit hole really goes: are there more people like him? What’s the real story behind the bird flu outbreak? Why are some members of the government so interested in an Earth-like planet light-years away? Will his new bosses ever stop asking him to snack on half-decomposed body parts?

Tell me this isn’t awesome.

The description sounds like bizarro fiction, but Layman plays everything as straight as it can be, and the resulting volume is both as funny as it sounds and surprisingly suspenseful. Most of the collected issues are fairly grim and exceedingly gory, but they never inch past the realm of believability, and never get quite to the point where the reader is forced to take things too seriously. Layman manages to create something that is over-the-top without being campy, and high-concept without being self-important. Guillory’s artwork complements the story perfectly, with an angular, occasionally grimy feel that’s just cartoonish enough to carry a note of the ridiculous.

This is the most fun I’ve had with a comic in years, and I’m sad that it took me this long to discover it.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Book Review - American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

I am nowhere near as familiar with Gaiman’s work as I should be, and this is my first shot at his adult fiction. I have to admit that, fifty pages in, I was fairly convinced that I wouldn’t like it, especially after talking to someone who only made it a bit further than that before giving up. As it turns out, it just took a while for me to get what Gaiman was trying to do with this book.

The book centers on Shadow, a hulking, pensive man who is fond of coin tricks and has just served a short prison stint for assault. Through what appears to be the cruel vagaries of fate, Shadow finds himself with nowhere to go and nobody waiting for him when he is released, except for an odd man named Wednesday, who just might be a down-on-his-luck god. The rest of the story is basically one long road trip across America’s heartland, punctuated by a jumbled pastiche of cameos by the ragged remnants of once-almighty deities, as Shadow works under Wednesday to rally an army against the supposedly imminent attack of the glittering, frantic, materialistic new gods of America.

This book starts out with a little preamble and lot of moroseness, and the otherworldly elements are kicked off by an oddly placed erotic chapter that gets extremely weird very quickly. It takes a bit of fortitude to process the first few chapters, and to accept that the plot largely consists of rising action once you get past them. Indeed, the climax is so literally anti-climactic that it will definitely be the last straw for any reader who is still on the fence at that point. Fortunately for me, I was wholly enjoying myself by the time I got to the end. American Gods is just like the Americana road trip that Shadow takes: an aimless journey across a landscape dotted with bizarre curiosities. Journeys like that have no real “point,” except to make one ponder the loneliness of decades-old tourist traps, and wonder at the power they still have to make a traveler stop and stare.

I read the tenth anniversary edition, which included scenes that Gaiman edited out of the original publication. I enjoyed all of the various visits and confrontations that Shadow endures throughout the story, but I have a feeling these bonus scenes contributed to the occasionally sluggish pace of the book. This edition also included Gaiman’s ruminations on being a Brit that has the gall to write a book about American folklore, which are both amusing and illuminating.

It’s hard to categorize this book, which can be observed by reading the list of awards it has won: the Hugo, Locus, Nebula, and Bram Stoker, among others. It’s a little bit fantasy, a little bit horror, a little bit literary fiction, and more than a little bit strange. Ultimately, though, I found myself unwilling to put it down, and I found myself in a thoughtful mood for a few days after I finished, both of which are good signs. I’d recommend it to anybody who has a craving for something that’s simultaneously familiar and ethereal.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Book Review - Blackwood, by Gwenda Bond

I’ve come to appreciate books from the publisher Angry Robot the same way I’ve eventually warmed to Baen: unapologetic genre fiction that provides reliable escapism, free of pretentiousness. I was excited to hear about their YA imprint, partly because of my own literary ambitions but mostly because I’m all for more fantasy and sci-fi in YA lit. I gave Strange Chemistry a try with an advance reader copy of this book, and while it didn’t really blow me away, it’s definitely a good start for the author.

The hook for this book is its historical element: the disappearance of the Roanoke colonists in the 16th century. The story’s protagonist, Miranda Blackwood, has lived her entire life on Roanoke Island, bound there by a curse that stretches through her bloodline all the way back to the original colonists. When the force behind the historical vanishing threatens to return and engulf the current population, she and her father are swept into the thick of the mystery. However, Phillips Rawling, a good-natured delinquent that has tried his entire life to stay away from the island, is drawn back by an ability that also traces back to the first colony. Well, by that, and by an increasing affection for Miranda.

That’s where my first problem with the book lies. Though the budding romance follows a familiar course, it feels a little rushed and distinctly contrived. That feeling kept popping up here and there throughout the rest of the book- the surprise villain, the damsel in distress, the climactic plan revolving around the prerequisite MacGuffin. I wanted more context and more time to discover and absorb the plot elements. That, combined with occasionally awkward pop culture references, created a lingering sense of trying too hard, as if there was a YA fiction checklist being ticked off somewhere.

But, hey, trying too hard is better than not trying hard enough. Underneath the (in my opinion) middling execution is a readable story steeped in fascinating and well-researched lore. The twists, though mostly predictable, are still effective. Although I didn’t really have much invested in any of the secondary characters, I really liked Miranda and her dog. The story is tightly plotted and moves along at a swift pace, bolstered by some deliciously tense moments that, given a little more room to breathe, could have been even more effective.

As it stands, it’s solid YA paranormal action, and a decent debut novel. It successfully blends romance and humor into the mix, despite a few stumbles, and makes for a quick and enjoyable read. It’s definitely worth checking out for those who get a thrill out of putting an otherworldly patina over the unexplained.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Monday, July 9, 2012

Regarding kids on planes.

We flew with our 20-month-old son for the first time a few weeks ago. Despite the fact that my brilliant wife had planned it all out and had every potential problem accounted for, I got more and more anxious as the day of our first flight approached. Thankfully, my boy is a natural world traveler, and handled the whole trip beautifully and with almost no loss of his toddler composure whatsoever. All told, it was a fun trip and a nice experience.

Flash forward to last weekend. I was listening to an NPR quiz show, and when the host asked a question to which the answer was airline flights that do not allow children to board, the audience actually applauded. I could practically smell the DINK self-congratulation through the radio speakers, and it made me consider why I was so anxious to fly with my son in the first place. While my son did great and, as far as I know, didn’t bother anybody, the sentiment behind that applause was precisely what I was so afraid of in the weeks leading up to the trip.

Every couple of weeks or so, I see the same discussion pop up in various venues: how irritating and selfish it is for people to fly with children, and what the parents who would subject other passengers to their spawn might be thinking. For those of you who are wondering what I’m thinking, let me illuminate you. The same questions and demands always seem to arise, so as a parent, allow me to address them in a hypothetical scenario.

I will preface this by saying I am about as far away from a “daddy blogger” (do those exist?) as one can be, and honestly don’t have any strong opinions about parenting anyone or anything other than my own child. I am a quiet, nerdy, and somewhat self-involved guy who became a father at thirty, and am still trying to figure out this whole fatherhood thing. I get annoyed with other people fairly quickly, and can definitely sympathize with the feeling of strangers ruining your day simply by existing. But if you had a kid, you’d understand. Yes, I know, that cliche that is worn through enough to be both useless and infuriating. Just bear in mind that your luxury of not being responsible for the life of a tiny larval human affects your ability to empathize with what I’m telling you.

Okay, so, for the sake of argument, we’re going to assume that you aren’t one of those knobs who think they’re in a movie theater instead of using public transportation, and you haven’t already started being a jerk to me just because I’m boarding the plane with a baby. Let’s say everything has been going fine up until we’re an hour into a four hour flight, and for some reason, my child gets upset and starts crying. This is a straw man, true, but it's a straw man composed largely of arguments I've heard countless times before.

Wonderful. A crying baby. I will let this parent know what I think about that by giving them the stinkeye, and perhaps I will make a snide remark to my companion that’s just loud enough for the parent to hear.

While I appreciate your subtle attempts to get me to realize that my child is being irritating, I have news for you: I’m already aware of that. You know how that grating cry makes you clench your jaw? How it spikes your adrenaline, and makes you want to do something, anything, to just make it stop? I’ve been dealing with it for a lot longer than you have, and unlike you, I am actually required to figure out what that something may be, regardless of where we are or what ungodly hour of the night it is. So, yeah, I get that you’re annoyed. I am at least twice as annoyed as you are (because I guarantee that I have you beat when it comes to thinking “not this crap again”), and what’s more, I’m already embarrassed before anybody around me even starts to get upset. If you really want to insert yourself into the situation, stop making bitchy faces and comments at me, and use that energy to make a funny face or silly remark at my child. That might actually work, at least for a time, and I’ll be your new best friend for the rest of the flight.

I’d rather not. I don’t like children. But you don’t seem to care about my obvious discomfort, so I guess I’ll just confront you directly. Can you please get your child to be quiet? I’d really like to get some rest.

Shit, yeah, why didn’t I think of that? Hold on a second.

Excuse me, Colin? This nice grown-up over here would like you to stop crying, and feels that I have a greater responsibility to them than to you. So, let’s be quiet, what do you say?

Hmm... well, golly, that didn’t seem to work. Would you care to ask him yourself?

I’m about to do just that. If you can’t control your child, I’m more than able to do it.

Yes, I’m sure that if a stranger elbowed me out of the way and got into my baby’s face, it would frighten him into at least a momentary silence. If you attempt it, you’ll have plenty of time to congratulate yourself on your success as you plummet towards the ground, after I have bodily forced you down the airplane toilet.

Look, it’s just really inconsiderate when parents don’t do anything to quiet their screaming children.

Has it occurred to you that I’m trying to do something, and you just aren’t recognizing that fact?

Now, I will say this: there are plenty of parents who literally sit and do nothing as their children run wild, kick seats, or throw increasingly frantic temper tantrums. These are the parents who placidly ignore their child, continuing to read their book, talk to their spouse, or simply stare off into space, hoping that their child will settle down on their own. Feel free to give those parents all the grief you’d like. At best, they are either irresponsible or distracted, and could use the wake-up call. At worst, they are selfish and/or stupid, and deserve the grief they get. Just bear in mind that while there may be an overlap in the Venn diagram of “irresponsible, selfish, stupid person” and “parent,” making a broad correlation may not be the most intelligent conclusion.

That being said, let me explain something about parenting that you, having no experience or interest in the subject, may not fully appreciate. If a child is old enough to be in, say, first grade, then a parent can “do something” to make them behave. Maybe. If, on the other hand, the child is a toddler, we’re basically dealing with a chimpanzee. Adept parents have an arsenal of tactics and implements to distract and pacify, which may or may not have any effect, depending on how tired, hungry, sick, or bored the toddler is. To which their reactions, by the way, will differ from child to child, depending on their burgeoning personality, much like how the particulars of your annoyance may vary from that of some other sanctimonious cock on a different flight. If the child is an infant or a newborn... well, here’s something that many of us parents take for granted. We assume it’s common sense that you can’t in any way discipline or reason with an infant, but I have realized that a lot of non-parents don’t actually know this. So, in plain terms: crying is the only way an infant can communicate any sort of problem, from excruciating pain to wanting a hug. The only thing I can do is try things until I hit the right button to make them stop. And sometimes, that button doesn’t exist. Sometimes the kid is melting down for no other reason than that it’s meltdown time.

So, in short: if my child is crying and I am talking softly to them, or holding and rocking them, or giving them toys, or trying to feed them, or doing anything at all that somehow involves them, and you ask why I’m not doing anything about my kid, don’t be surprised if I look at you like I want to punch you in your unhelpful throat.

Well, I don’t understand what possible reason you have to bring children that can’t be controlled on an airplane in the first place.

There’s a whole world of possible answers to that question, and the correct one is about as much your business as your reason for flying is mine.

It’s not the same thing. Whatever my reason is, I’m not taking away from the enjoyment of other passengers. Honestly, children under a certain age shouldn’t even be allowed to fly. You have other options for traveling.

I’d be all for adults-only flights, if I could still get a regular flight and it would get you out of my business.

If an airline feels it would be profitable to segregate families into their own flights, there’s nothing stopping them. However, the fact that such a supposedly sensible idea isn’t widely implemented should say something to you. Perhaps the airlines don’t agree that you deserve more special treatment than I do for the same ticket price, or perhaps they don’t care, but the math doesn’t add up because you aren’t the majority you think you are.

In any event, I found this attitude to be petulant even before I had any skin in the game. Oh, you’re forced to share a plane with people you’d rather not? You might not get peace and quiet while sharing space with the general public? How utterly tragic for you. I weep for your predicament, as I watch you hold up the boarding line by completely ignoring the size limitations for carry-on bags, and then stage a daring conquest of my armrest once you finally do sit the hell down. It seems to me that demanding everyone conform to your needs (as opposed to, I don’t know, buying your own goddamned plane and doing whatever you want with it) seems a lot like what you claim that my child and I are doing.

What’s that, you say? Buying your own plane is a ridiculously unrealistic request? I don’t see how it’s any more unrealistic than expecting that, instead of a four-hour flight, I should take my baby on a car or bus trip that will be at least three times that length, cost approximately the same when gas and food are factored in, and exponentially increase the attendant hardship on both of us. Or to not travel at all, because your convenience trumps whatever reason I might have to take him with me when I fly.

Let’s just put it this way: I agree that an adults-only flight would be an elegant solution to both of our problems. In the event that the airlines agree with you, I’m more than happy to take my child on a plane meant specifically for us. Otherwise... well, you have an opinion. How nice for you.

Whatever. I chose not to have children, and you did. I shouldn’t have to put up with your children, and that’s that.

And there’s the rub. Most of what this argument boils down to is the fact that, unlike me, a lot of travelers do not like children, have no patience for their antics, and are not interested in why they do what they do. They feel that parents are selfish for expecting a little leeway, and are harassing others by attempting to integrate their children into the world around them. Some go as far as to consider the act of having children to be selfish, considering the state of our society and world, but most just feel that since they did not choose to be responsible for a child, they should not be expected to make allowances for those who did.

I don’t really have a good answer to that. I actually agree with, or at least understand, a lot of that mindset, and accept that people will make whatever value judgement they choose regarding me and my life choices. I recognize that there are hordes of genuinely bad parents out there that personify the behavior which leads to this conclusion, ruining things for those of us that aren’t that way. That’s fine. My only response is that I am attempting to raise my son so that he won’t turn out to be the kind of smug butthole that would automatically refuse the benefit of the doubt to the parents of a small child.

And that’s really what I’m getting at: the benefit of the doubt. I understand the necessity for child-free zones, but the rampant attitude of “all parents are undesirable because I might be momentarily bothered” is troublesome, especially because in this instance we’re talking about basic transportation, a fairly vital service. It goes back to that cliche of not understanding if you’re not a parent yourself. One of the most visceral lessons that being a father has taught me so far is that there are a lot of people in this world that never outgrew the need to have everything their way, right now, me me me me me. I’ve met a lot of adults that I now recognize are not all that emotionally advanced past my son, for whatever reason. Yes, a lot of them are parents. A lot of them aren’t, though. Furthermore, that’s an immaterial argument, because we’re not talking about banning selfish people from planes. We’re talking about banning children.

This is what I’m getting at: at any given point in time, my son is being selfish because, uh, he’s two. How old are you?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Book Review - Young Miles, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I had an opportunity to meet Lois McMaster Bujold recently, and I told her what recently occurred to me: the first two Vorkosigan books are responsible for bringing me back into science fiction, after two decades of straying from a childhood built on Asimov and Bradbury. Well, to be fair, the Mass Effect games had a lot to do with that, too. But the first Vorkosigan omnibus, Cordelia’s Honor, was the first sci-fi book I’ve read that excited me like Foundation or All Summer in a Day used to. After I finished it, I had numerous people tell me that the saga doesn’t really get going until Miles’s story begins in the books presented in this volume. While I had to adjust my expectations a little in order to really get the most out of this omnibus, I can definitely see what they’re talking about.

The first book, The Warrior’s Apprentice, is a farce with a tragedy at its center, which took me a little time to get used to. I think I was expecting some grand and self-important introduction to Miles Vorkosigan and his sprawling story and legacy. What I got was a sarcastic, whip-smart son of a noble who tries not to be devoured whole by a spur-of-the-moment white lie that grows into a lumbering, self-feeding construct of half-truths and bent rules. I took things too seriously when I started the book, and got somewhat annoyed at the serendipitous coincidences and increasingly improbable scenarios. Once I caught on, though, it read almost like a Shakespearean comedy: seemingly innocuous decisions interlace and send Miles on wild, unpredictable courses. However, one of Miles’s snap-judgement gambits, made just as he is getting confident of his string of successes, has dire consequences. This scene is especially powerful to readers who have read the previous books in the series. Although this development jabs a monkey wrench into the otherwise madcap pace of the story, it interjects a well-written dose of character development into the proceedings, which seems to plant the seed for Miles’s further maturation later on in the series.

This idea is further explored in the included short story, the Mountains of Mourning. Set chronologically between the two novels, the story takes Miles out of space and thrusts him into the hinterlands of his home planet of Barrayar, where he has to pit his noble title and fledgling leadership skills against the entrenched, vicious customs of his own people. This theme of the responsibilities and burdens that come with rising through the ranks carries over into the second book, The Vor Game. This story follows the same general template as the previous book, with Miles hopping from location to location, often under an assumed identity with an intricate cover story, attempting to prevent the entire house of cards collapsing under him. This time, however, he does so with the official blessing (grudging though it may be) of the Barrayaran military. The stakes are now much higher, and due to his previous experiences, Miles is more keenly aware of the consequences of his various schemes and what might happen if they fail.

The flow of the story gets a little snagged in places, and the books contain their fair share of melodrama and convenient plot devices. Even so, this one takes the universe set up in the previous omnibus and runs with it. Miles is a wonderful character, keenly aware of the mental strengths he must hone and employ to compensate for his physical weakness. The stories are good, and the characters are great. Best of all, Bujold leaves a lot of room for new settings and growing character arcs, without getting too wrapped up in hard sci-fi minutiae. In short, this is series that started strong, and at this point, is consistently getting better.

Verdict: 4 / 5