Black Panther

Let’s get the obligatory thumbs up/down portion of this review out of the way first: Black Panther is one of the better superhero movies. It’s in my personal top-five list, somewhere in the mix that includes The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, Wonder Woman, and Logan. Fans of the genre will enjoy the hero’s journey and outlandish setting (Wakanda is a dazzling blend of Camelot and Star Trek), action/adventure fans who are ambivalent about superheroes will still appreciate the fast-paced narrative and kick-ass battles, and for those who’d rather skip all the explosions and CGI, at least you have other ways to enjoy a night at the show.

The film offers no shortage of topics on which to comment — the hilarious memes its inspired, the lame attempts by racist cowards to sabotage its aggregate audience score or scare caucassians with reports of fake assaults, its cultural significance to black America and black girls especially, even its potential impact on a character who, as I’ve commented before, has had a complicated history in the comics. But for today, I’ll restrict my comments to the decision not to develop the Infinity Stones story arc that’s been sown through most films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

(Background for the curious but uninitiated: the Infinity Stones are six gems of immense power, formed during the Big Bang that started the universe. Five of the stones have appeared in MCU films, as has Thanos, a madman attempting to gather the entire set and cause all kinds of trouble. Since Black Panther is the last MCU film before Thanos completes his collection in this May’s Avengers: Infinity War, many assumed the sixth stone would be in Wakanda, or that T’Challa would somehow stumble across its presence.)

I was glad to see Black Panther make no mention of the sixth stone, as its inclusion would have been an unnecessary distraction. T’Challa’s role within the MCU had already been established by his appearance in Captain America: Civil War (another film that did little to further the saga of the stones), and there was no need to further incorporate his character in this marvelously complex world. Most MCU heroes have been featured in at least one film with only tangential relationships to the MCU; Black Panther deserved an opportunity to shine on his own, and based on the phenomenal box-office receipts, T’Challs needed no assistance from his Avengers buddies or the Infinity Stones storyline to deliver a terrific story.

Some day, the current era of superhero movies will come to an end, most likely when the current generation of charismatic actors decides to move on to other projects. I’m just glad that Black Panther was able to have his moment on the stage before the curtain came down.

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King of the Holly Hop

Some words of advice to all private investigators, especially the fictional ones: don’t go to any of your high school reunions, because if you do, somebody’s gonna get themselves killed.

Milan Jacovich arrives at his class’ 40th, and one of his fellow alumni has a drink thrown in his face, walks out to his car, and catches a bullet with his noggin. Advice for reunion attendees: if a private eye shows up, don’t wander off by yourself. Especially if you’re carrying emotional baggage from your high school years.

Hired by the lead suspect in the case to clear his name, Milan interviews many of his classmates, and discovers some ugly scar tissue over adolescent wounds. The lead suspect, for one, had been humiliated during the Holly Hop, a school dance held just before Christmas his senior year; he confronts the cause of his embarrassment at the reunion, and when that man winds up dead minutes later, suspicion rightly falls on him.

“King of the Holly Hop” falls within a series of Milan Jacovich mystery novels written by Les Roberts. I haven’t read any other books in the series, but I didn’t feel at a disadvantage for entering this series without a previous introduction. There isn’t as much action as you’d find in most other mysteries, but Roberts’ characters are complex and engaging. If you like the mystery/crime genre, you’ll appreciate this novel’s craftsmanship, and if you’re just looking for an entertaining read, you’ll find more than enough satisfaction.

Closing Time

It’s 2018, and it’s time.

Time to follow through on an ambition I’ve held since the time I started my professional career almost thirty years ago: to stop working jobs I have to do, and do the work I want to do.

It won’t be easy, because for all the banality of my current profession, it does have its comforts. Several months ago, I realized that three decades of routine had conditioned me to avoid risk. I was going to need some help in order to make the transition to my new career.

It was around that time when I downloaded Your Guide to Calling It Quits, a short book that can be started and finished in the same evening. The author (Kelly Gurnett, who writes and blogs under the name Cordelia) begins with a brief autobiography, which read much like my own experience: “I woke up every morning absolutely dreading the day ahead of me.”

(Honestly, every morning is a bit of a stretch, but there have been far too many dread-full waking hours of late.)

The book didn’t answer all of my questions, but it contained enough insights to be truly inspirational. I particularly appreciated Cordelia’s statement that quitting has to be a positive action.

You can’t quit because you’re fed up with what you’re doing. A response rooted in despair or frustration is likely to lead to an equally negative situation.

You need to quit in order to do what you want to be doing. In other words, you need something to quit for. As I like to say, you need to run towards where you want to be, not away from where you are now.

Precisely because it is so short, “Your Guide to Calling it Quits” is a wonderful little gift for anyone contemplating a major career change. (Ironically, the author’s blog has not been updated in close to a year; has Cordelia quit quitting?) I’ve enjoyed revisiting the book lately and letting myself be inspired by its pithy advice.

I’m going to need that inspiration in the coming year, because this transition ain’t gonna be easy. Indeed, every new beginning is some other beginning’s end.

Tweety & the Monkey Man

For most people, stopping a murderous man-ape would be enough challenge for one day. But Jess Friedman, Monster Hunter Mom and protagonist of “Tweety & the Monkey Man”, must also endure the killer stares of disapproving mothers, sadistic personal trainers, and self-righteous daycare providers.

The novella, the first of a series set in the same fictive universe as Eric Asher’s Bubba The Monster Hunter, is fast-paced, suspenseful, and enjoyable work of urban horror fantasy. Blackrose’s attempts at humor can be a little forced at times — there is a reference to the famous “failure to communicate” line from “Cool Hand Luke” which seems entirely out of place for a mid-thirties woman in 2017 — but the overall quality of her writing more than compensates for her occasional faults.

Like all the books in the Bubba universe, “Tweety & the Monkey Man” is published by Falstaff Books, an independent fantasy/sci-fi press from North Carolina. The book shows all the qualities of professional editing — the tone is consistent, the cover design is subtle but appealing, and each of the secondary characters is given an opportunity to shine. More than a few typos slipped through the cracks, and I do wish the editorial staff had talked the author out of that “Cool Hand Luke” reference, but their efforts certainly give this book a polished appearance.

We’re All Going to Die, So Let’s Go Fishing

It’s perhaps unwise, and certainly ungenerous, to let the wisenheimer in me create the title of this post. Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel deserves its standing as a classic of apocalyptic fiction, because it presents an incredibly depressing topic in a manner that’s compelling and unforgettable. It begins just after a global nuclear war has devastated the northern part of the planet. In southern Australia, a handful of survivors hope to avoid the southern spread of radioactive fallout, and make contact with anyone above the equator. Yet with the advance of each page, hope is eliminated like autumn leaves falling to the ground. There is nobody left to receive the messages sent from Australia; the radiation retains its lethal potency as it makes its unstoppable descent. “On the Beach” is one of the few literary works where it’s best to know how it will end before you begin reading, because that ending — the extermination of humanity, as well as most other life on Earth — is overwhelming to contemplate.

And yet, while I appreciate the novel’s ability to keep me engaged with its characters, I can’t help being amused by their unwavering serenity. Maybe I’ve seen too many Mad Max movies, and been conditioned to believe civilization is just a catastrophe away from collapsing into anarchy and brutality. By comparison, the stoicism with which the characters in “On the Beach” meet their doom seems quaint, antiquated. Their actions seem impossibly naive; one character decides to enroll in secretarial school, another finishes working on his sports car, and as the government announces that suicide pills will be distributed free of charge (how charmingly magnanimous), one couple decides to, yes, go on a fishing trip. (They worry that their fishing may disrupt the breeding cycle of the fish, an incredibly odd thought for people who know that everything’s going to be dead within a few weeks.)

But maybe it’s that impossible serenity that explains this novel’s continued appeal. We probably believe that we should respond to Armageddon with such tranquility, even if we can’t actually see ourselves acting that way if our end does come. And that is why, despite having the most depressing of all outcomes, and despite the irresistable temptation to have some fun with its outdated sentimentallity,  “On the Beach” nevertheless remains an inspirational novel.

I Am Legend

After finishing the excellent Station Eleven a few months ago, I was inspired to read other works of apocalyptic fiction. Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel “I Am Legend” may not have been the first “killer virus” novel, but it’s influence on the genre cannot be disputed, and seemed a good place to start.

Like many classic science-fiction novels of its time, “I Am Legned” attempts to provide a scientific explanation for a supernatural phenomenon. The vampires who ravish the United States are infected by a bacteria, and it’s the task of the protagonist, Richard Neville, to find a cure. The epidemiology of the plague is interesting, although how it turns its victims into full-blown Gothic bloodsuckers seems a bit of a stretch.

But it’s not the science that makes this novel appealing. Neville, who believes he might be the only human immune to the bacteria, mostly succeeds in his nightly battles against the vampires, but fares far worse against his crushing isolation.  Read as a character study of a man losing a war against loneliness, “I Am Legend” continues its appeal well over fifty years after its publication.

I Will Find You

If I have to go to prison, I will miss you. And when I get out, I will find you.

Those are the final words spoken to Joanna Connors by the man who had just brutally raped her. Twenty years after the attack, Connors realized she had never fully recovered from the assault, and began writing “I Will Find You” (2016) in order to understand what forces led to the violent collision between her and her attacker.

The description of the rape in the second chapter is probably the most courageous writing I’ve ever read. Connors recounts the attack in almost clinical terms, neither sanitizing nor over-dramatizing what happens to her. She even spices her narrative with dark humor in a manner that seems bizarrely appropriate. It is a tough read; I can’t imagine anyone surviving such an attack without losing their mind. But in order to understand her struggles in the coming decades, we need to see this attack in all its brutality.

As she describes the research she conducted years later on her attacker’s background, Connors touches on a number of hot-button social issues — the wording and application of rape laws, the racial divide between black and white Americans, the ineffectiveness of our criminal justice system. The author’s handling of any of these issues would be worthy of analysis, but what I want to focus on for this review are her comments on the practice of journalism. When she begins to interview her assailant’s family, Connors provides a half-true statement of her intention. Her explanation is reasonable — who would want to speak to someone who says “Can I ask you some questions about your brother, who raped me?” — and one can see why lying about herself was the quickest way to get to the truth. To her credit, Connors sees why tactics such as hers, while perhaps necessary in her profession, are what lead to the negative impression most Americans have of the news media.

“I Will Find You” is a thoughtful, meticulous, and well-crafted narrative. It is a difficult subject to read about, but at a time when the leader of our country brags about sexual assault, we need to pay attention to the voices of the victims.

Climate of Hope

“Climate of Hope” was published immediately after the 2016 presidential election in the United States. Its appearance could not have been more timely.

Authored by two men on opposite ends of the American political spectrum, this book argues for climate change policies in a way that’s neither conservative nor liberal. Michael Bloomberg, the former Republican mayor of New York City and founder of a major Wall Street corporation, makes a compelling (if at times overwhelmingly dense) case that benefiting the environment is a sound financial decision. Carl Pope, an executive with the Sierra Club for several decades, provides more of the science behind climate change theory, and describes the successes and failures he’s witnessed as an advocate for Earth’s environment.

Both authors recognize the environmental threat posed by the Trump administration, yet argue that effective climate change policies are best implemented by cities and states, rather than Washington bureaucrats. They also claim that the best way to address climate skeptics (you know, the people who refuse to believe the data that show the rise in planetary temperatures) is not to warn of potential hazards, but rather to relate success stories. The improvement of the atmosphere’s ozone layer, for example, demonstrates how environmental policies, such as the reduction and eventual banning of chlorofluorocarbons, can have an immediate impact on the planetary climate.

If you don’t believe climate change is real and has at least partial human causes, don’t bother reading this book — you’ve already demonstrated the impermeability of your so-called intellect. But if you believe the data that’s been presented, and are looking for inspiration in this politically dispiriting time, you will find a lot to like here.

Division Two

“Division Two,” a 2015 self-published novel from Philo Feaubique, presents a tiered system of the afterlife. Division One is analagous to the Christian vision of Heaven, Division Three is a void, and Divison Two is… complicated.

People who  have intentionally harmed others in their life, don’t believe in an afterlife, or don’t believe they belong in Division One, are sent to Division Two. Once there, they are either assigned a private room where their deaths are replayed continually until they ask for help, or they are assigned a task by one of several Gatekeepers, whose mission is to help other Division Two members escape from the hells in their private rooms. This sounds much like Purgatory, but with a goal of achieving an Eastern-style personal serenity rather than atonment.

Movement between divisions is possible, and in a highly comic and completely believable scene, one soul that has gone to Division One becomes immediately indignant when he sees the others than have been allowed entry (I can see many evangelicals having this reaction), and requests to be sent down to Division Two.

The thought-provoking view of the afterlife makes the novel very engaging, although the pacing is too often slow and repititive. The novel also uses too many characters, many of whom are indistinguishable from the others and display little or no growth over the course of the narrative.

Like many self-published novels, “Division Two” would benefit from a good editor, which might actually be in the works — the author has temporarily pulled the book from the market to work on a revision. I hope Philo follows through with his revision and employs an editor, because the novel does have promise.

A Summer in Harlem

“A Summer in Harlem” is a self-published novel from 2013 by Brendan Whitt, available on Amazon. Set in the summer of 1948, the novel tells the journey of Thad Thomas, a bright Alabama teen who visits his aunt and cousins in Harlem. Thad is captivated by the stories of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s, but the neighborhood he encounters is far different than what he had expected.

Thad’s cousin Willie represents the urban decay that has engulfed Harlem, and the enduring friendship between these two very different characters — one naive and enthusiastic, the other street-mart and jaded — suggests that while Harlem may not be able to regain its former glory, it can still serve as a beacon of inspiration.

Whitt maintains a consistently fast pace in his narrative, and all of his characters are memorable. Like many self-published authors, he could use a good editor, but his story-telling ability is strong enough to overcome his deficiencies.