Review of Spiderman: Far from Home

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This is a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film co-produced by Columbia Pictures and Marvel Studios, and distributed by Sony Pictures. It is the sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), directed by Jon Watts, written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, and staring Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Zendaya as MJ, Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio. This review contains spoilers.

Peter Parker was one of the population blipped out of existence for a while by Thanos, so he’s having to do extra school work to catch up. The high school has planned a summer tour in Europe to provide credits, and Peter is hoping to get closer to MJ on the trip. Meanwhile, a mysterious elemental has appeared in Mexico, along with Quentin Beck/Mysterio who says he is there to fight these interlopers. Nick Fury tries to recruit Peter to help against the elementals, but he ignores the calls. However, when the school trip is in Venice, a water elemental appears and Peter gets involved in the fight along with Mysterio. Peter then meets with Fury, who gives him a pair of glasses containing an AI that Stark meant for his successor. Peter doesn’t want the responsibility, so passes the glasses off to Mysterio, who turns out to be false—only a former employee of Stark Industries and his cronies who are faking the elementals with technology. Can Peter prevail against the empowered Beck? Can he work up the nerve to tell MJ how he feels about her? And is that really Nick Fury he’s been talking to?

This is a great plot in the time-honored Spiderman tradition. Peter is trying to concentrate on his personal life while Nick Fury wants him to step into Tony Stark’s shoes within the Avengers organization. Peter thinks this is ridiculous and makes distracted, half-assed decisions that leave him in trouble. Under pressure, of course, he regroups, gets it together and comes through with a solid performance. Were we expecting anything else? Things seem great for a little while. The tour is safely back home; he’s established a relationship with MJ—and then things go wrong again, leaving us with a couple of cliffhangers in the post-credit scenes. I also have to give special mention to the poor clueless teachers who were trying to chaperone this tour.

On the not so positive side, it seems a little bit of a stretch that Stark would have chosen the 16-year-old Parker to step into his leadership position. Maybe he saw the potential, and of course Peter does step up when the pressure is on. Also, the post credit scenes involving Nick Fury call the reality of what’s going on into serious question. This was also a very long movie, though it turned out to be worth the investment in time.

Great fun. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

Is the term “racist” losing its meaning?

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One thing that’s emerged from the US political campaigning in the last week or so is the willingness of EVERYONE, to scream that the other side is racist. This is a problem that’s been growing for a while. In 2017 John Worther wrote a piece for CNN where he notes that liberals overuse both the terms “racist” and “white supremacist,” mostly as a way to shut down discussion or as a weapon to fight other social philosophies. So far, this has been fairly successful. Universities, companies, government, publishers–all have stopped what they were doing when called racist, evaluated, apologized and changed their policies in an effort to better accommodate minorities. We’ve reached the point; however, that people on all sides seem by default to call the other’s attitudes and comments racist. This suggests that the term has become just meaningless name calling.

Worse, in many cases it seems clear that people are crying “racist” when they don’t get their way, or are not allowed the additional privilege they expect based on their personal achievements and/or ethnic group. This is something that whites have been doing for a long time, but now it seems minorities are doing it, too. In 2018, for example, US African American skater Shani Davis called the results of a coin toss racist when he didn’t win the opportunity to represent the US in the Olympic opening ceremonies. About the same time, Fox News president John Moody was vilified for commenting that athlete choices for the Olympics should be based on ability rather than race, pointing out that that the Summer Olympics, for example, normally has a much higher number of black athletes than the Winter Olympics.

One of the problems with claiming “cultural appropriation” is that it defines particular elements of culture as belonging to some racial or ethnic group. This also suggests that ethnic culture should not be exchanged or modified in any way in encounters with other cultures. Doesn’t this damage everyone?

Since I mentioned attacks on Zoe Saldena for not being black enough for a movie role in the last post, I thought maybe I should go on and look at some related issues. About the same time, Scarlet Johansson withdrew from a starring role as a transgender man in the film Rub & Tug. The attacks on Saldena didn’t really start until the movie was ready for release, so were something of an embarrassment but not a deal killer. However, the Rub & Tug project seems to have stalled after Johansson withdrew. This is basic economics. A big name star attracts investors, who want to make money on their investment. If the film tanks with an unknown in the starring role, they won’t get beans. Apparently none of Hollywood’s transgender actors have been able to inspire confidence, so the movie is likely dead. Isn’t this retrograde progress for the transgender community, if not downright bad press?

Johansson said a lot of nice, politically correct things at the time, but she also mentioned that she thought actors should be able to play any role they wanted, which caused a definite kerfuffle. This same discussion about “cultural appropriation” is going on in the publishing world. What happens if we limit actors/writers/publishers to playing only to their own ethnic group?

Is the term “person of color” racist?

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Following the Yesterday review seems like a good time to consider this question. Looking through the interviews and publicity appearances after the film, I’m stuck by star Himesh Patel’s apparent discomfort during discussions of the casting decisions. This suggests that a microaggression is taking place, in other words, an uncomfortable reference to his racial/ethnic background and to himself as a “person of color.” He’s clearly a very talented actor/singer/musician, so why shouldn’t he have been cast in this role? Doesn’t his discomfort mean the whole fanfare about the casting is actually coming off as racist?

The week I wrote this review, there was a national flap when the four-person “Squad” of young, liberal, aggressive, “women of color” Congresswomen (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar) got into a Twitter fight with President Trump. This let to various people airing viewpoints. For example, Tucker Carlson’s guest Roger Kimball denounced “person of color” as a racist term because “the idea is that somehow you are trapped by your skin color.”

Certainly the term sets up a division that causes discomfort within various groups. For example, Nadra Widatalla writes in the LA Times that the term is meant to be inclusive, but that means it erases the ethnic identity of persons it’s applied to. It lumps everybody not legally defined as white into a big melting pot, regardless of their status in society. It gives Asians and African Americans equal status as minorities, for example, when actually Asians are so successful in US society that they might as well be defined as white, while African Americans generally experience the greatest discrimination.

In this same interview on the Carlson show, Kimball commented that the term is also meant to give virtue to a particular group of people based on their skin color. This virtue has been apparent for a while. We can assume people like Rachel Dolezal and Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t be trying to claim “person of color” status if it didn’t confer particular advantages. Arab Americans wouldn’t be trying to withdraw from the white race and become “people of color” unless there weren’t social and political advantages to the move. And Danny Boyle wouldn’t be using a discussion of his casting decisions for publicity unless he thought it would help sell the film.

Some political commentators went further than Kimball, complaining that the four women of The Squad are actually demanding power and privilege in political decisions because of their race. This kind of identity politics goes beyond just black/white relations, too. Just a while back, Zoe Saldena was judged not black enough to play Nina Simone in the biopic of the singer’s life. This suggests that there is a hierarchy within the “people of color” community that gives greater virtue to persons with darker skin. But then, isn’t looking at skin color as a qualification inherently racist?

Maybe Ibram X. Kendi, Director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center on NPR, gets it right. He says we should recognize the equality of all racial groups. Does this mean getting rid of designations based on color?

Review of the Film Yesterday

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This is an alternate reality romantic comedy film released in June of 2019 by Universal Pictures. It’s directed by Danny Boyle, written by Richard Curtis, and based on an original screenplay by Jack Barth and Mackenzie Crook. Himesh Patel makes his film debut as Jack Malik, and Lily James stars as Ellie Appleton, Kate McKinnon as Debra Hammer, Joel Fry as Rocky, and musician Ed Sheeran himself. This review contains spoilers.

Jack Malik trained as a teacher, but he’s trying to make it as a singer/songwriter instead. His childhood friend and fellow teacher Ellie works as his manager, getting him gigs at birthday parties and finally a festival, where attendance is so poor that Jack is ready to give up. He’s on the way home on his bike when the lights blink on a global scale. Jack is hit by a truck and wakes up in a hospital. His friends hold a little celebration when he gets out, and he finds they have never heard the song “Yesterday.” Actually, they’ve never heard of the Beatles at all, or Coca-Cola, or cigarettes. Seeing this as an opportunity, Jack starts playing Beatles songs for his gigs and soon attracts a bigger following. Ellie gets him a deal to record a demo for a record producer, and after he performs on TV, he’s approached by musician Ed Sheeran to open for a concert in Moscow. After the tour, Jack signs with agent/manager Debra Hammer and starts work on a double album of Beatles songs, which everyone thinks he wrote. All this success is causing stresses in his relationship with Ellie, and Jack is finally approached by two people who DO recognize the songs. He feels increasingly under pressure. Is he doing a disservice to the real John, Paul, George and Ringo in this new reality? Should he tell the truth about what he’s doing? Or go on to be rich and famous?

This is a great little romantic comedy based on the alternate reality premise, with a solid plot and just a touch of satire. Besides Jack’s struggling non-romance with Ellie, we’re offered the moral questions about his misrepresentations and how these are likely to affect him as a person. James is sweet as Ellie; McKinnon turns in a scary performance as the agent; Fry provides great moral support as roadie, and Sheeran does a pretty good job at playing himself. The huge standout is Patel, of course, who has a background in TV soap opera. He’s competent at the acting, but he really lights up the screen on the musical performances, which were recorded live with no overdubs. According to Boyle, this is why Patel was cast, and nobody seems to notice that he’s actually an African/Asian immigrant to the UK playing a part that was 100% certain to have been written for a white actor. In an interview, Boyle said this is an example of talent beating out the system. That’s also what makes this a different, standout film.

On the not so positive side, being a romantic comedy, this is fairly simplistic, and wends its way to the ending fairly uninterrupted by angst, violence or much in the way of action at all. That means it’s very predictable, given the premise, although Boyle does arrange for a couple of pleasant surprises.

Recommended. Should be very successful as a date movie.

Four and a half stars.

Cover Reveal

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So, I’ve been traveling. Here’s a shout-out to Marge Simon and Bruce Boston, both great SFF writers and poets. We had lunch on Friday in Ocala under the shadow of Hurricane Barry.

Meanwhile I’m home for a couple of days, so I guess this is a good time for a cover reveal. I’ve had some older short stories available in different e-book collections for a while, but now these will be combined in trade paperback format so they’ll be available in bookstores. Watch for it August 1! Also, keep an eye out for future works.

Moonshadows Small

Review of Someday by David Levithan

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This is young adult fantasy romance novel published by Knopf and runs 392 pages. It follows Every Day and Another Day, novels with the same characters, a prequel “Six Earlier Days” and the short story “Day 3196.” The novel Every Day was a New York Times Bestseller and nominated for a Lambda Award. It was recently made into a motion picture which is also available for rent/purchase. This review contains major spoilers.

This novel picks up where Every Day leaves off. The protagonist, who calls themself A, is a non-binary consciousness that wakes in a different body each day. They fall in love with the girl Rhiannon, and as a result, reveal too much of themself. This leads to wild accounts of demon possession and the arrival of the fundamentalist Reverend Poole, who turns out to be an evil version of A. Scared by all this, A goes on the run. A means to leave everything behind. They delete their email address and flee the Northeast for the Denver area. But A is starved for affection, and when they find a message to them on Rhiannon’s Facebook page, they are drawn back to her like a moth to a flame. Once in contact, they find the evil and dangerous Poole (also known as X) is holding their friends hostage as a way to get to A. What can they do?

I was really taken by Every Day, which develops a lot of suspense at the end very suddenly, so I’ve been waiting a while for this sequel. It continues a lot of the strong points of Every Day. It’s clear Levithan is interested in the worth of every individual, and a lot of this is about respecting others and treating them well, regardless of who they are. A’s existence is dependent on stealing bodies, but they maintain very strict rules about respecting their hosts and trying to do their best not to make anyone’s life worse during the one-day possession. This novel develops that theme further, including an equality march on Washington D.C. where a lot of the action takes place. Definitely Levithan’s strongest point in this series is how he presents the lives of A’s hosts, a one-day glimpse of each, with all their joys and problems.

On the not so positive side, this doesn’t develop much angst, conflict, drama or suspense. Early in the book A goes through some tough hosts, but this issue clears up once they are back in the Northeast and reunited with Rhiannon. It’s clear that A has to do something about X, and A does come through at the end, but there’s no buildup in the action line to this point. There is a suggestion in the text that A might go over to the dark side, but events don’t support this or provide any discussion of the morality involved. Instead, the book continues to concentrate on the “everybody’s okay” equality theme to the point that it’s intrusive. As a result, Levithan can’t resist making X a sympathetic character. Someone has apparently told Levithan A needs to use the pronoun “they,” too, which leads to the usual grammatical muddle. And last, all these people eventually started to sound the same, which means the author gave up characterization to use his own voice instead.

This isn’t the thriller sequel I’d hoped for, but it is still a valuable book for kids struggling to deal with difference.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Free Dive by C.F. Waller

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This novel is a science fiction thriller published by Cosby Media Productions that runs 336 pages. It has apparently made the Amazon #1 Best Seller list in the past and was nominated for a couple of awards. This review contains spoilers.

Dexter Knight and his partners Cam and Lydia have developed AI operated robots to steal salvage from the ocean floor, and are currently working on retrieving teacups from the Titanic which they can sell for a nice price. Eventually one of their sales goes wrong, and a mob with guns moves in to kidnap them and hijack their operation. Uncertain of who they’re working for, the team deploys their robots in the Marianas Trench, where an unknown object starts to look like an alien artifact. Knight is attracted to the research team’s scientist Ronny, a little put off by the tough Russian ramrod Katya, and struggles to deal with the project’s gun-toting management. The artifact starts to look more dangerous as they continue to investigate. Is this a threat to human civilization?

On the positive side, this is a well-written adventure story with entertaining characters and a nice, rising action line that develops considerable suspense. There’s plenty of space in it for the character interactions and a few plot twists to keep the story interesting. It didn’t turn out like I was expecting at all. The maritime details are sketchy but generally believable. Waller also has an interesting take on AI bots, and I thought their behavior here was a little unsettling. Hmm. Following up on that could actually produce another interesting novel.

On the not so positive side, I had some suspension of disbelief issues with the activities of the aliens and the tolerance of the technology the research team used in the Trench. Yeah, in an emergency, I can see stretching things a little, but (as little as I know about ocean exploration) I think working at the Trench depth went a little beyond that and wouldn’t really be possible. Also, I thought some of the characterizations were a bit over-the-top, which detracted some from the story.

Entertaining but not er, deep. Three and a half stars.

Review of Gallows Black by Sam Sykes

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This is a standalone epic fantasy novella from Sykes’ Grave of Empires universe. It’s published by Orbit and is supposed to be 140 pages, but a lot of this turned out to be taken up by advertising, so I’d guess it’s more like 100 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The Freehold city of Last Word in the Scar is about to become the latest flash point in a war between the Imperial forces and the Revolution. Sal the Cacophony is there to attend an execution where Zanze, one of the people on her revenge list, is scheduled to have his head cut off. Sal waits for Zanze’s turn and a clear shot, meanwhile loading her magical gun Cacophony. She is interrupted by an Imperial Mage, who continues to chat while the next victim, the infamous and powerful freemaker Twenty-Two Dead Roses in a Chipped Vase, is escorted onto the scaffold. All attention is on the woman, and Sal sees Zanze is about to slip away. She starts to head him off, but the mage grabs her, exposing her scars, her tattoos—and the magical gun. He raises the alarm and she shoots him. Chaos ensues. After a brief battle with Imperial Judge Olithria, Sal gets away with Twenty-Two Dead Roses in a Chipped Vase, who confides that her real name is Liette. Can Sal fulfil her quest to find and kill Zanze? What should she do about Liette?

This is grimdark, heavily atmospheric and action-oriented. It launches with a spray of blood from the execution and moves right on to the destructive effects of Cacophony, a magical, blood-thirsty, black and brass pistol with dragon eyes and a gaping, blood-thirsty maw. Besides that, Liette is working on necromancy. All the heavy-weights in this story are women except for Zanze, presumably the villain, that we only glimpse from a distance. Despite the heavy action orientation, the characters are well developed and interesting, while alluding to a backstory that I expect we might find in other books. This novella ought to suit fans of the grimdark sub-genre well.

On the not so positive side, this basically consists of a lot of explosions connected by brief conversations that reveal the political factions and how they hate each other. In the brief lulls, Sal and Liette manage to build a quick relationship and have sex. The plot is simple, but adequate for something this length. Still, I got exhausted well before the end. I’d rather have learned more about the world and about the people who live there. The magical system is also unexplained, and everyone just seems to have amazing powers that they pit against each other while the common people flee. The end result is that it didn’t hook me, regardless of the early promise.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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Tchaikovsky is an Arthur C. Clarke award-winner. This novella was published by Tor.com on July 17, 2018. It is science fiction and runs 176 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Handry lives in a primitive village called Aro with his sister Melory. When he is 13, one of the village men transgresses, and the Lawgiver brews a potion that will exile him from the community. The Lawgiver is old and his ghost is unreliable, so he fails to watch the brew closely enough, and Handry stumbles over the pot and gets some of the potion on himself. The villagers try to clean him off, but he is permanently damaged. He lives a half-existence, unable to digest the village food and somehow separate. Even the local insects avoid him. When the old village Doctor dies, the ghost takes Melory as the new Doctor, and then exiles Handry as unrepairable. Wandering, starving and scared, he finds a band of fellow exiles led by the prophet Sharskin, who leads him to a place called the House of the Ancestors. Sharskin talks to a presence in the House, and he thinks the Severed aren’t really damaged, but instead are released from the tyranny of the ghosts. When Melory comes looking for Handry, Sharskin captures and tortures her, trying to get information from her ghost. Now Handry has to make choices about his future. What will he choose?

This is light reading that starts off like fantasy, but as it develops, we get clues like technical language coming from the ghosts and the House that suggest it’s really science fiction about a society that’s forgotten its origins. This is character driven and Handry’s relationship with his sister is heartwarming. The world-building here is also pretty creative, and the development gradually reveals how the tech behind it all works. The author manages to describe what’s really a fairly horrific life disaster for Handry and Melory and still keep the narration pretty positive.

On the negative side, what Handry and Melory end up with is just knowledge of other possibilities, and no real answers about how he’s going to survive as one of the Severed. This is more about the reveal than about what they can do with the information. Although the novella has a hopeful ending, they haven’t really solved anything. I’m also suspicious about Melory following Handry into the wild–I don’t see how her ghost would allow her to leave the village. And what’s she been eating all this time?

Three and a half stars.

Review of A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark

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This novella is alternate fantasy, is published by Tor.com and runs 46 pages. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Clark, he won the 2019 Best Short Story Nebula Award for “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” published in Fireside magazine. The same story is currently a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. This review contains spoilers.

This story takes place in an alternate Cairo in 1912. Fatma el-Sha’arawi is employed by the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and works as a Special Investigator of disturbances between the mortal and otherworldly planes. She and her co-worker Inspector Aasim Sharif are called to work on a case where a djinn apparently committed suicide with an exsanguination spell, leaving odd glyphs and an angel feather behind. Following up on these clues, Fatma quickly encounters a plot that involves ghouls, assassins and angels, and seeks to replace this Creation with another one. Can Fatma save the world as she knows it? And what does she need to do about that saucy infidel Siti?

This is a nice little adventure story with a slightly bawdy, tongue-in-cheek humor. Although the style and humor detract some from character development, Fatma has some eccentricities that round her out as a real person. There’s a touch of steampunk here, as the city seems to run on clockwork technology. There was some excellent imagery in the description, and I’m also impressed by Clark’s facility with Muslim culture and mythology, even if this isn’t quite reality.

On the not so positive side, we might have saved the bawdy for a little later in the story instead of starting off with it. The dead naked djinn was something of a speedbump we had to get over in order to enjoy the rest of the narrative—which was completely unnecessary. The story was entertaining and stood very well without that.

Three and a half stars.

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