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Once again, the review is personal: Reenu-You by Michele Tracy Berger (#SFWApro)

I’m always a little nervous when a friend asks me to review a book on my blog (and sends me an ARC) because what if I hate it? Sure, I liked the last story I reviewed for my friend Michele Tracy Berger, but would I like her novella REENU-YOU (cover by Emma Glaze, all rights remain with current holder)? Happily I did.

Reenu-You is a miracle hair straightener that the protagonists, Kat and Constancia, both use. Unfortunately, it turned out to have A Few Side Effects like grotesque scabs, and before long they and a few other women of color are quarantined, then forced to go on the run from health authorities.

It’s not a thriller though. The plot is less important than the characters, their interactions (Kat, an Aspen ski instructor, and Constancia, a younger New Yorker, are very different) and their thoughts about hair, beauty and the beauty standards society imposes on them (Michele discusses this on one of John Scalzi’s Big Idea posts). I know from other reading that hair is (and has been for a long time) a really complicated subject for many black Americans, but it’s not something I run into much in fiction except in passing (this may, of course, say as much about what I read as what’s been written). And while stories that spends a lot of time on people simply sitting around and talking about stuff like that often doesn’t work for me, this one did.

I was a little thrown by the ending, which on first glance didn’t seem to fit where I thought things were going. When I looked at it again, yes, it worked.

You can find Reenu-You on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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Gladiators, Drag Queens, Mystics and Victorian Detectives: movies and TV (#SFWApro)

ARENA (1989) was a surprisingly entertaining direct-to-video film by Danny Bilson and Paul Demio that combines the elements of an old boxing film (think Body and Soul or The Set-Up) with SF: a young man with dreams of winning the interstellar boxing game becomes humanity’s first chance to take back the championship from ETs. That displeases a crooked fight promoter, who deploys everything from drugs to dirty tricks to a seductive blonde to get the hero off his game. Fun, though the humanity vs. aliens aspect does feel uncomfortably like The Great White Hope (i.e., the fantasies whites had about someone snatching the championship away from n-word heavyweight champ Jim Johnson a century ago). With Claudia Christian as the hero’s manager and Armin Shimmerman as a weaselly ET (kind of a proto-Quark). “The second round — now we humiliate him.”

I’d vaguely believed THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT (1994) was a pulp/cliffhanger parody but in reality it’s a remarkably well-done dramedy in which Aussie drag queens Terence Stamp, Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving head across the desert to perform in a show for Weaving’s ex-wife, running into baffled small-towners and bicurious mechanics along the way. Well done; the heavy use of Abba on the soundtrack makes me propose Mama Mia for a double bill. “Just what the center of Australia needs — a cock on a rock in a frock.”

For my Arthurian Screen Rant column I rewatched DOCTOR STRANGE (1978) in which compassionate psychiatrist Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten) learns he’s been chosen to replace John Mills’ “Dr. Lindmer” (so obviously Merlin, I wonder why they bothered with the extra “d”) to battle Morgan leFay (Jessica Walters) and her dark masters. Easily the best of Marvel’s 1970s TV efforts (Captain America, Captain America II, Spider-Man, etc.); while I’m disappointed they turn Stephen into a nice guy, they do a remarkable job, given the limited budget, duplicating Steve Ditko’s psychedelic visuals from Strange Tales.  “I’m several hundred years too hold to be alright.”

The first season of THE RIVALS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES presents various Victorian investigators and conniving criminals such as Martin Hewitt, Madame Sara, Lady Molly, Romney Pringle, Dr. Thorndyke and Dorrington. The ruthless nature of Dorrington makes his episodes the best; the others are adequate Victorian mysteries but don’t particularly stand out. “The usual story, police baffled — a sorry state of affairs I must say.”

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A French? photographer, an Indian housewife: this week’s films (#SFWApro)

MAHANAGAR (1963) — Big City in English — is Indian director Satyajit Ray’s take on a familiar US theme, My Wife Got a Job!, but it’s better than any US film in that line that I can think of (all rights to image remain with current holder). The protagonist is a bank clerk’s wife who gets a door-to-door sales job, then almost quits at her husband’s insistence. Only when he loses his job, she has to stay on as the sole source of support, giving her a taste of independence and money of her own. The discomfort and insecurity of the male members of her family are handled much more matter-of-factly than most American films, and ultimately this is more accepting of Mom’s role than I think an American film of that period would be. Very good. “We have let earning a living make us cowards.”
FINDING VIVIAN MAIER (2013) is a documentary about the eponymous nanny  who spent her life taking photos of strangers on the street, amassing a collection of photographs that turned her into a retroactive celebrity when a guy who acquired them in an estate sale started posting them online. This is not a great documentary but it is interesting watching the guy and the various people who knew her attempt to reconstruct her mysterious past (“I’m a linguist. I know that was a fake French accent.”) and speculate about what made her the obsessively private person she was. “I really feel guilty saying these things.”

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Slipping into the workflow (#SFWApro)

So as I mentioned last Friday, I’m dealing with several paying gigs for the first time in a while. Though I haven’t heard from one of them, which makes me wonder if it’ll be one of those that just never gets around to giving me assignments (no big, it’s not like it cost me anything but time to try).

What I’m pleased about is that I don’t seem to be following my usual pattern which is to let my mind wander off and drag out the work. I was very bad about this with my work for Raleigh Public Record a few years ago; I did good work, and I didn’t miss deadline, but it always took far more time than it should have.

Now if my mind glitches on one project, I switch to another instead of wool-gathering. When I didn’t have some information I needed yesterday, I started doing some work on Southern Discomfort. This is a good thing; the more work I have the more I need to use my time efficiently. Particularly to get the fiction done. I think that may be the main reason I’m so focused — I really, really don’t want to lose any more time for fiction than I have to.

So let’s hope it keeps up. Fingers crossed.

In unrelated news, I made a vegan chocolate cake with fudgy icing and hazelnut topping this weekend. Went over like gangbusters at the vegan potluck we attended.

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Paper Girls, Talking Apes, Wonder Woman and More: TPBS and Books (#SFWApro)

I’ve frequently complained that DC super-hero trade paperbacks are hard to follow, so I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to pick up PAPER GIRLS 2 by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang without having read #1. It seems that in that one, a group of 12-year-old paper girls stumbled into a time war; in this volume, they wind up in the present, which has the usual cultural shocks (“Spencer’s Gifts is gone but that doesn’t mean the future is post-apocalyptic.”) plus Erin meeting her future self and being decidedly unimpressed. Plus there’s another Erin counterpart, time coming undone, a floating hockey stick … and it all makes for great reading. The 1980s references (“You look straight out of AIRWOLF!”) reminded me of Stranger Things but I liked this a lot better.

HARROW COUNTY: Countless Haints by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook is a good rural Gothic horror. The protagonist, Emmy, thinks she’s a normal girl despite some odd incidents, but her father, much as he denies it, sees a connection between Emmy and the witch the locals killed right before Emmy was born … Well done.

THE WICKED AND THE DIVINE: Fandemonium by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McElvie worked much better for me than the preceding The Faust Act as Laura tries to figure out what the ending of that volume means for her, and for the pantheon. Plus the gods have to deal with a crazed stalker fan who seems intent on picking them off — or is someone trying the Prometheus Gambit (kill a god, gain their power). Not really a lot happening, but this held me despite that.

WONDER WOMAN: Flesh by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang is a big improvement over the previous volume, War, as the creators’ god-awful take on Orion only appears briefly. Here we get the history of the First Born of Zeus (quite good), Zola goes hunting for truffles (I was pleasantly surprised how that turned out) and the First Born making his move for the throne of Olympus. Unfortunately the scenes of Apollo torturing the First Born didn’t work for me for various reasons, which I’ll get into when I discuss the follow-up, Bones.

BANANA SUNDAY by Root Nibot and Colleen Coover has teenage Kirby struggling to fit in at her new school despite the awkwardness of having three genetically engineered talking monkeys following her around (actually it’s one monkey two apes). This is targeting a younger audience than me, I suspect, and the supporting human characters are weak, but the monkeys made this fun enough to keep reading — Go-Go the midget gorilla reminds me of Plushie with his priorities (“Banana! Nap”).

41m5aytyrnlI interlibrary-loaned SEERS, WITCHES AND PSYCHICS ON SCREEN: An Analysis of Women Visionary Characters in Recent Television and Film by Karin Beeler under the assumption this McFarland volume would cover everything from Medium to Bewitched but I should have read the description: Beeler’s focus is specifically on psychics/clairvoyants (“witches” gets in because of precog Phoebe in Charmed). It’s also geared for a much more academic audience than me, so I couldn’t get into it (and I must admit, I don’t agree with her analyses).

OUR MAN IN HAVANA (cover by Geoff Grandfield) was the Graham Greene spy spoof that inspired Tailor of Panama. The protagonist Wormold is a British vacuum-cleaner salesman in Havana recruited by British Intelligence for insight into local politics; as he needs money, Wormold simply makes crap up, which his credulous superiors swallow whole (though unlike the later novel, it’s more them buying into their own fantasies than any calculating motive). Very funny, though Greene can deftly switch to grim or violent without missing a beat; odd to read now as Wormold’s claims of a big sinister military project being built read like a foreshadowing of the Cuban missile crisis.

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China, Egypt and Stars Hollow: Movies and TV (#SFWApro)

THE GREAT WALL (2017) is the historical fantasy in which medieval sell-swords Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal arrive in China to steal some gunpowder, only to be caught in the middle of a clash between monstrous horrors swarming the Chinese border and the “Nameless Order” that guards the Wall against them. I wasn’t planning to catch this until several reviews convinced me it wasn’t just a movie set in China that’s all about a white guy (e.g., Forbidden Kingdom). Damon’s character is definitely the star, but the Chinese warriors have more to do than just support his heroics. It’s also a beautiful, visually delightful film, with some great supporting performances (Pascal is particularly fun as a much more weaselly mercenary than Damon). Both TYG and I enjoyed it. As the somewhat reptilian horrors swarm like ants and are controlled by a queen, I’m inclined to suggest the Charlton Heston vs Army Ants film The Naked Jungle as a double feature.  “I have been training my whole life for this shot.”

THE SQUARE (2013) is a documentary on the Egyptian pro-democracy movement as it moves from fighting Mubarak through a series of street protests to locking horns with the military and then the Muslim Brotherhood (both of whom are happy to position themselves as the Real Revolutionaries). Impressive in the Egyptian reformers determination to keep fighting despite the odds (“One night, you will call for my son, and his mother will tell you he is not there.”) but grimly sobering in showing how much harder “set up a democratic new government” is than kicking the old one out (not news to me, but it’s still unsettling to see it demonstrated). A good job. All rights to image reside with current holder. “It makes me happy that ‘Protest’ is now a children’s game.

GILMORE GIRLS: A Year in the Life was Netflix four-episode reunion series for Gilmore Girls, bringing back pretty much everyone (except Ed Herrman, now deceased). Just like in our world, a decade has passed since the series ended: Luke and Lorelai are together, Emily is coping with her grief over her husband’s recent demise, and Rory’s writing career is suddenly falling apart (we catch up on a lot of other characters too). Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino still has a great flair for her bantering, pop-culture referencing dialog, but it’s not up to the level of the original (which I’m a fan of). After ten years, why is Rory suddenly so inept at managing her career? What did Lorelai’s attempt to hike the Oregon Trail do other than pad the running time? This may reflect that Palladino got yanked off the series before the last season, so this reunion is her chance to do her own solution — that is, things like Rory’s career woes might have worked better when she was 22 instead of 32. But now that I’ve heard Palladino’s famous last words for the series (which she had in mind from the get-go), they really don’t work for me. So I’m not one of those clamoring for more, especially as Palladino (or so I’ve read) never had plans for anything further, so who knows what we’d end up? Still, I’m glad I caught up with the characters for a little while. “I’ve been injected by anthrax and the antidote is in my other pants!”

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Titans, Time Travel, Tractors and More! (#SFWApro)

TEEN TITANS: The Culling and TEEN TITANS: The Trial of Kid Flash show author Scott Lobdell (with various artists) at his best and work on this strip (don’t get your hopes up, even his best isn’t that good). The former reminded me of all the reasons I stopped reading X-Men during the 1990s — bombastic villains, sadistic villains, umpty-zillion dark secrets. As I said of X-Men: The Shattering, it’s a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Although I will give the editors points — there’s a crossover issue that isn’t included here, and they actually provide a synopsis, rather than leaving me going “Huh?”

The second TPB was Lobdell’s last with the team and he does a fair job wrapping things up on a mostly happy note; on the other hand, the political plotline (Kid Flash’s secret life as a future terrorist) gets very muddled.

SUPERMAN: War of the Supermen by James Robinson, Sterling Gates and various artists was the climax to a story arc involving the long-lost survivors of Krypton settling into the solar system under the leadership of General Zod and Superman having to figure out whether his loyalties lie with New Krypton or Earth. I found this story arc interminable and dull, but I must admit this final segment is pretty entertaining as it’s all action — Krypton invades, Earth retaliates, Superman battles Zod, etc. However Zod’s still a dull villain — as I’ve said before, nobody can think of anything to do with him other than vicious Kryptonian supremacist (but Superman II has embedded him too deeply in the mythos not to recycle endlessly, I guess).

I thought Eric Shanower had long ago given up on his Age of Bronze series adapting the Trojan War myths but BETRAYAL Part II turned up at the local library. This focuses primarily on the doomed love of Troilus and Cressida, which works well; however I don’t find Shanower’s normally excellent art works with the battle scenes, and there’s a lot of those. So a curate’s egg (partly good, partly not).

THE HISTORY OF LUCY’S LOVE LIFE IN TEN AND A HALF CHAPTERS by Deborah Wright is a paranormal chick-lit tale in which a woman getting cold feet with her boyfriend uses a time machine to try out the Great Lovers of History. Even if I hadn’t spent two years watching time-travel films, nothing in this is terribly new as Lucy keeps discovering life in the past isn’t as easy or smooth as she imagined. In fairness, I don’t read much chick-lit, but I’ve read some and liked it better.

1918FORDSON, FARMALL AND POPPIN’ JOHNNY: A History of the Farm Tractor and its Impact on America by Robert C. Williams (all rights to image of Fordson Tractor with current holder; source here) chronicles how tractors, like so much later tech, went from a high-priced tool few could afford to an indispensable part of farm life. Henry Ford’s Fordson tractor was a major player in the transition, thanks to assembly-line manufacturing cutting costs and prices. However the Fordson was still too big to work with row crops like cotton or corn, so it wasn’t until the smaller, more maneuverable Farmall that farmers could completely replace horses with machines. Whether that was ultimately good or bad, Williams finds hard to say, savings in labor and time being counterbalanced by farmers shifting from self-sufficiency to debt in order to afford the machinery (“Being a farmer is now as much about managing finance as managing crops.”). Specialized, obviously, but good if the topic interests you

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