Book Review: Inferior

Book Review: Inferior by Angela Saini

Disclaimer:  I received this Uncorrected Page Proof as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.  Some material may be changed in the final product, due out 5/23/17.

Inferior

Today there was a news story about a member of the European Parliament arguing against equal pay for women on the grounds that “they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent.”  Unsurprisingly, this MEP was male.  Equally unsurprising was the tongue-lashing he got from a fellow MEP who happened to be female.  But while it’s unusual for a theoretically respectable politician to say these things in public nowadays, it is a current of thought that stretches back to at least the ancient Greeks.  And often science has been misused to justify such attitudes.

This book is mostly about the science of sex differences (that is, “how are men and women different?”) and how that science has been interpreted over the years to justify sexism and resistance to social change on the subject, but also about contrary evidence and theories that paint a more egalitarian picture.  The author is an award-winning British science journalist who was assigned to write a piece on menopause but found enough material for this book.

The book begins with Charles Darwin claiming that women were less evolved than men for reasons.   Then it covers multiple subjects such as brain imaging and primatology on the way to the riddle of why women don’t just die when they become infertile.  (The last has two major competing hypotheses named “The Grandmother Hypothesis” and “The Patriarch Hypothesis”; all the scientists that have gone on record as supporting the latter are male.)

There’s a reference list for each chapter, and will be an index in the final product.  There may be illustrations in the published version; there were none in the proof copy.

A repeated theme of the book is the suggestion that many sex difference researchers started from “essentialism”, the basic assumption that men and women are different in fundamental ways, and then did their research in such a way as to disproportionately focus on the ways the sexes are different, rather than similar, and sometimes even finding differences that don’t appear to actually exist.  It’s also notable that several male researchers come across as dismissive of research done by scientists (particularly women) whose results contradict their own theories.  One, for example, admits that he’s never studied bonobos himself, but clearly  the research results found by a woman must be wrong since it’s different from what he learned by studying chimpanzees.

The writing is clear and concise, and should be readable by bright high school students on up (although some parents may find parts of the subject matter, such as the existence of intersex people, uncomfortable.)  Recommended to those interested in science, feminism and the intersection of the two.

Book Review: Superheroes

Book Review: Superheroes edited by Rich Horton

Superheroes as we know them more or less started in the comic books of the late 1930s, with the most obvious first “true” superhero being Superman.  And comic books have largely shaped our perceptions of costumed superheroes ever since.  But sometimes prose is a perfectly acceptable way of writing about people with unusual powers and distinctive appearances who fight crime and injustice.  There have been quite a few anthologies of short stories in the field, and this is one of them.

Superheroes

The sixteen stories cover various aspects of the superhero genre, from the superheroes themselves, through supervillains, and to the civilians who have to try to survive in these larger than life worlds.  The lead story is “Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald.  A nethead (a cyborg able to interface with computers) is called in to deal with a virus in a superhero base’s computer.  But that’s not all he’s there for, and the information he seeks will cost him dearly.

“Wonjjiang and the Madman of Pyongyang” by Gord Sellar is the story of a South Korean superhero who’s been forced into the role of leader for a multi-national team operating in his homeland and sometimes in neighboring countries.  Unfortunately, politics has freed his North Korean nemesis, budget cuts have gotten Wonjjiang laid off, and our hero’s overbearing mother is pushing him to get married.  (Sadly, the one woman he’s interested in already has a boyfriend.)  One of the more “traditional” superhero stories in the book.

A couple of the stories are of special interest.  “Wild Card” by Leah Bobet is set in the Shadow Unit continuity, about a secret group of government agents that normally battle serial killers who’ve developed super-powers.  Except that this time, the “anomaly” has picked on someone whose personal mythology comes from comic books, and he’s decided to become a full-fledged super-villain.  Somewhat lighter than the usual Shadow Unit story.

Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) contributes “Dirae.”  Suddenly in the city there’s a woman who appears out of nowhere to save lives like a real-life superhero, then vanishes again until the next rescue.  It’s told from the perspective of that woman as she slowly comes to realize she literally does disappear between those incidents, with no clue where she’s spending the rest of her time, if any.  She tries to work out who she really is and what’s happening to her.  Mr. Beagle is an excellent fantasy writer, and this is one of the best stories in the book.

The weakest story for me was “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link.  A young woman comes to a hotel to meet a man she got to know on the internet; by coincidence (or is it?) there’s a superhero convention going on at the same time.  The secrets she’s been keeping from her prospective lover are compared to a hero’s secret identity.  I didn’t like the main character and found most of the people she interacted with boring.  Overall, a decent collection of 21st Century superhero themed writing.

There’s some vulgar language and sexual situations in the stories, and a couple of them deal with euthanasia.  I’d recommend this to senior high students and up.

Comic Book Review: Jacked

Comic Book Review: Jacked written by Eric Kripke, art by John Higgins.

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Josh Jaffe is hitting a mid-life crisis.  His body is beginning to fall apart, he doesn’t really talk to his wife much any more, and his entire job field was rendered obsolete by new technology, so he’s been unemployed for the last six months.  Nothing has turned out like he’d imagined it would as a kid, or even as a teenager.  Josh’s dentist brother recommends nootropic supplements, “smart drugs” that supposedly improve cognitive function.  Sounds kind of shady, but while surfing the web, Josh finds an ad for “Jacked,” which seems to speak to him.

Jacked

Josh orders a supply of Jacked, and discovers that the ad was perhaps underselling the product.  He can think more clearly (other than the hallucinations), has energy to spare (especially in bed), his aches and pains vanish…and he can pull a car door right off the hinges.  Josh’s formerly unimpressed son starts looking up to him again!  This is the good stuff.

But then Josh discovers that his next door neighbor Damon is a drug dealer that’s been beating his girlfriend Jessica.  The outcome of that encounter puts Josh and Jessica on the wrong(er) side of some very bad people.  Worse, the nastier side effects of Jacked start coming to the fore, and what if Josh runs out of the drug before the bad guys run out of bullets?  And how will this affect Josh’s wife and child?

Eric Kripke is probably best known as the creator of the popular television series Supernatural.  According to the introduction of the collected volume, he had his own mid-life crisis a couple of years ago, and his musings on that led to him proposing this comic book series to Vertigo Comics.  He mentions that writing for comic books is a whole different kind of hard than writing for television, and gives much credit to John Higgins for making the script actually work on page.

One of the themes of the story is that Josh doesn’t live in a superhero world, so even though he gets some low-level superpowers, things tend not to work out as they would in a traditional superhero story.  Even when he dons a costume, it only makes him look ridiculous.  In the end, it’s his human abilities and connections that give Josh the ability to resolve the situation.  (We do get cameos by a few classic DC heroes, and a reference to obscure series Electric Warrior.)

This is listed as for “mature readers” and has some nudity, non-graphic sex scenes, a lot of gory violence, body function humor and even more vulgar language than is called for by the plot and setting.  I suspect Mr. Kripke may have gone overboard on that last one because of having had to work to TV’s broadcast standards.

One of the features I really liked was that most issues’ last pages were flash-forwards to the next issue that weren’t quite the same as the depiction in that later story.  Also, all the points that were important at the climax were properly set up earlier in the series.

Josh does a fair bit of self-absorbed whining at the beginning of the series, and it takes a while for him to get his head out of his own funk.  I do like that while Josh and Jessica do team up against the drug gang, it’s all about survival (and revenge on Jessica’s part) with no attraction between them at all.  Josh loves his wife, and much of his motivation is being a better husband for her, even if he doesn’t understand the best way to do that.

The main villain is Damon’s brother Ray, who has a rather narrowly defined sense of morality.  He takes care of family, but everyone else is fair game.

Recommended for fans of the “ordinary schlub gets superpowers and screws up big time” type of plot.

Book Review: Wintersmith

Book Review: Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Tiffany Aching is a witch in training.  She in some ways is already a very powerful witch, and has endured some hard lessons that required growing up fast.  But she’s also very much a girl who’s almost thirteen.  Miss Treason, on the other hand, is over a century old and has not been a “girl” in a very long time.  So when she tells Tiffany not to move during a dance, it doesn’t occur to her to explain what the dance is or why moving during it is a bad idea.  Tiffany senses a spot in the dance that seems to be shaped for her, and her feet dance her right in.

Wintersmith

That was a huge mistake, as the dance is the change of seasons.  And now the Wintersmith, the personification of winter, has become fascinated by Tiffany.  He sees her as the Summer Lady somehow in his time, and wants to hold her forever.  And if Tiffany doesn’t make it to spring, then spring will never come…..

This is the third Tiffany Aching book within the Discworld setting; the first book in the sequence is The Wee Free Men.  Tiffany is a farm girl who grew up in sheep-herding country called The Chalk.  She’s very practical and straightforward, which serves her well in witchcraft.  (In the Discworld setting, witchcraft, while it certainly includes a heaping of magic, is more about being a “wise woman” who provides skills and knowledge to a rural area.)  On the other hand, she is very young and has many things to learn, and sometimes Tiffany will get her back up and turn stubborn at the wrong moment.

Tiffany is aided as always by the Nac Mac Feegles, tiny blue men that combine the more disturbing aspects of Smurfs with the more violent aspects of highland Scotsmen stereotypes.  They have their own special dialect, and there’s a glossary at the front that also helps readers and parents know what they’re in for with the Feegles.  The tiny men provide much of the comic relief in the book, and are usually annoyances, but they are helpful when pointed in the right direction.

As well, Tiffany interacts with the community of witches, from the fearsome Miss Treason who has mastered the art of Boffo, through the harsh but highly competent Granny Weatherwax and jolly Nanny Ogg to the vain and in way over her head Annagramma.  Each of them has lessons to teach Tiffany (yes, even Annagramma has her uses) and help her on the way in her Story.

And Roland, the baron’s son, Tiffany’s friend who is a boy, comes into play as he has his own problems, but sets them aside for the time being to be the Hero that the Story needs at a crisis point.  His highly unpleasant aunts sound like they will be an issue in the next volume.

The Wintersmith, of course, is the antagonist of the book.  As the anthropomorphic personification of the idea of winter, it isn’t evil.  But Tiffany’s mistake has thrown the Wintersmith out of balance, and unbalanced winter is highly dangerous.  Worse, it’s trying to make itself more human without understanding what that means or caring about the effects it has on others.  It chillingly (pun intended) follows a children’s rhyme about what “makes a man” until it gets to the most important ingredients and just skips those.  It’s both funny and scary when the Wintersmith tells random people “I am a human being.”

A nice twist of the book is that it starts with a version of the final showdown between Tiffany and the Wintersmith, then rewinds the story, reminding the reader “the future is always a bit wobbly.”  When we reach the ending again, things are somewhat different.

This is listed as a “Young Adult” book but should be fine for precocious middle-schoolers on up.  Some parents may be disturbed by references to sex and childbirth (no gory details), but it makes sense in setting; Tiffany’s a farm girl with older sisters in a society that doesn’t shy away from those topics.  But the important thing here is relationships and learning how to say “no” to ones that are not a good idea.  Younger readers should probably start with the first Tiffany Aching book.

Recommended to fantasy fans, young readers and fans of practical, straightforward women.

Comic Book Review: Vertigo CYMK

Comic Book Review: Vertigo CYMK edited by Scott Nybakken

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Vertigo CMYK

I don’t talk a lot about colorists.  In most comics, they’re not noticed unless they really screw up, or there’s a particularly striking image.  But they are an essential part of the color comics creation process.  It’s the colorist who makes sure that the characters have the same color clothing and hair from panel to panel and page to page.  The colorist has to choose appropriate background colors that will complement the foreground without hurting the eyes, and create mood with appropriate shades for the circumstances.  It’s a difficult job and one that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

The reason I bring this up is because this anthology comic book is all about color.  It’s named after Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/blacK, the four inks used in tiny dots to create all the colors in the “four color” printing process that allowed color to work on cheap newsprint paper.  For many years it was used both for the Sunday comics and comic books.  The latter are printed on fancier paper now, allowing for more shades and variations, but “four-color” is a history that all comics creators know.  This was originally a four-issue series with each color getting a focus.

The Cyan section leads off with “Serial Artist” by Shaun Simon (writer), Tony Akins (artist) and Andrew Dalhouse (colorist.)  A struggling musician falls in love with a girl he finds “tagging” a building.  When he inherited a funeral parlor, he feels obligated to make a go of that instead.  His girlfriend has an idea for bringing in some business…he really should have asked more questions about that building she was putting graffiti on.

Many of the pieces aren’t full stories, but mood pieces or story fragments.

One of my favorites is “Adrift” by Jody Houser (writer)  and Nathan Fox (artist who did his own colors.)   A bereaved girl has a conversation with her little sister’s “Barbara Jean” doll while they wait for her grandmother’s funeral.  The doll’s garish magenta clashes with the gray tones around her in a way that emphasizes she’s not of this world.

The Black section tends towards…well, darker pieces, but a couple of them play against this expectation.  “Super Blackout” by Gene Luen Yang (writer) and Sonny Liew (art & colors) is about an app that allows you to erase photos on your smartphone–but that’s not its true purpose.  There’s some effective use of app icons to carry the story with a minimum of dialogue.

Each section ends with a story by Fabio Moon, who does all the chores himself.  They form a connected narrative about a vase artisan and his friend who lose one gallery and go in search of another.  The artisan is able to see this loss as an opportunity and sees hope in the future.

While some of the pieces are weaker than others, it’s a beautiful assortment.  I should mention that this is a Vertigo “mature readers” title, so there is some violence and nudity, as well as rough language.  There are stories that involve suicide and rape, both off-page.  (It doesn’t wallow in it like some other Vertigo series have, however.)

I’d recommend this book especially to art students to see how different colorists work with artists and writers to enhance the stories.

Book Review: Consumed

Book Review: Consumed by David Cronenberg

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I read was an uncorrected proof, and changes may be made in the final product.

Naomi and Nathan are photojournalists, specializing in lurid crime and medical stories respectively.  They’re what my generation called “hip” and up to date with all the latest technology.  The two are in a mostly stable relationship, though they spend little time together, snatching moments of intimacy when their paths cross.

Consumed

As the story begins, Nathan is doing a story on breast surgery in Budapest, while Naomi has fastened on a news item about a French philosophy professor who has apparently killed and eaten his wife.  Their investigations lead them further apart physically, one to Canada and the other to Japan, but the stories they pursue are more closely intertwined than they could have guessed.

Mr. Cronenberg is, of course, a famous movie director, with credits like The FlyThe Dead Zone and Cosmopolis.  This is his first published novel, cue out in September 2014.

There’s a lot of brand name dropping, and technological fetishism; it’s very “now”, which makes me suspect that in twenty years’ time, the book will have aged badly.  But at this point in time, it’s still fresh.

It’s hard to pin down a genre here–let’s say somewhere between psychological thriller and techno-thriller, with the meaning of and reasons for much of what’s going on left obscure until very near the end.

Naomi and Nathan aren’t particularly likable protagonists.  They’re self-absorbed, low on journalistic ethics, and have a habit of letting their story subjects co-opt them.  Nathan makes a particularly horrible mistake early on which screws up their relationship.  Naomi is confronted more than once with her lack of cultural depth.  On the other hand, better people wouldn’t have gotten into the fixes they do, which are essential to moving the story along.

Some readers are likely to find this book intensely creepy, as there are themes of cannibalism, deformity, insanity, bodily infirmity, insects and disease throughout.   There’s also a lot of talk about sex, even outside the sex scenes.

I found the ending less than satisfying–the story answers a few of the questions, then abruptly stops with a final mind screw and the actual fates of several people up in the air.

If you’re a big fan of Cronenberg movies, this bears a strong resemblance to one of them, and is likely to please.  People with weak stomachs should skip this book.

This may be fixed in the final version, but there’s a use of Japanese honorifics that will be teeth-grinding for those who’ve studied the language–and since both characters in the scene are native speakers of Japanese, they don’t have any excuse.

Movie Review: JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time

Movie Review: JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time

The Legion of Doom’s latest plan has been thwarted by the Justice League of America, and Lex Luthor is trapped in ice for a thousand years.  He’s accidentally unleashed by two teenage heroes of the 31st Century, Karate Kid and Dawnstar.  Luthor promptly steals an hourglass that controls the power of the Time Trapper, and comes up with a new plan–get rid of Superman on the day he came to Earth, and the Justice League will never come to be!

JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time

This movie was commissioned by Target to tie into their new line of JLA toys, so it’s more kid-friendly  than some of the other recent DC Comics animated fare that’s aimed at teens and up.  It’s not in any previous continuity, blending aspects of the New 52 (the costumes, the lineup of the Justice League minus Green Lantern) and the Super Friends (Robin is on the team, the Legion of Doom’s rather silly plans, the two teen trainee heroes.)

Most of the League has rather flat characterization–Robin at least gets to be sarcastic.   Dawnstar and Karate Kid are the actual stars of the show.  They’ve swapped personalities somewhat from their classic portrayals–KK is brash and impulsive (and wears a costume reminiscent both of Super Friends character Samurai, and of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series. ) Dawnstar is introverted and a bit timid (and has vaguely-defined light powers in addition to her normal tracking and flight.)

The Legion of Doom gets to have a bit more fun in their parts, particularly Bizarro and Solomon Grundy.  The guest villain, Time Trapper, is appropriately spooky, foreshadowing that it’s much more dangerous than Lex Luthor realizes.

As mentioned above, this short film is pretty family-friendly.  There’s fantasy violence, but no one is permanently hurt, no foul language, and no sexual innuendo.  Karate Kid and Dawnstar make mistakes, and learn a valuable life lesson.

Two short Super Friends episodes are also included on the DVD, both with time-related stories.  They make the main feature look good by comparison.

I’d recommend this for Super Friends fans, and families with kids who enjoy superhero cartoons.

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People by Jared Diamond, adapted by Rebecca Stefoff

Disclosure:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

This is a young adult version of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, originally printed in 1992.  I have not read that book, so will not be making direct comparisons.  I have, however, read Guns, Germs & Steel, which has some overlap with this volume.

Mr. Diamond is a biogeographer and evolutionary biologist.  In this book, he discusses the information (current as of 1992) that scientists have about the evolution of humans, who share about 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees.  This segues into an examination of human behavior, how it is (and is not) unique among the world’s animals; and winds up with some thoughts about what this might mean for humanity’s future.

The language is clear and should be suitable for strong readers from 10-11 up; there’s also a helpful glossary at the back along with an index.  There is no bibliography, presumably because the sources would not be written for young adults.  There are several illustrations and sidebars to break up the text.

Parents of sensitive tweens should be aware that the book covers some “heavy” subjects, such as war and genocide.  There’s also some discussion of the probable evolution of human sexuality.

A couple of chapters recap the information from Guns, Germs & Steel about why some human societies developed technology more quickly than others.  Mr. Diamond frequently uses “narrative causality”; trying to find the most logical sequence of cause and effect without being able to fill in all the links in the chain.

The final chapters deal with the looming specter of environmental destruction and mass extinction of animal species.  (But not anthropogenic climate change.)  Mr. Diamond is pessimistic about the chances of alien contact.  He does believe, however that conservation and population control can mitigate the worst effects of human behavior.   After all, while evolutionary biology explains many things about human behavior, it is not the only explanation.  We have free will.

This would be a good general introduction to anthropology and biogeography for  middle schoolers and non-science majors.  Some of the information is out of date, due to it being more than two  decades since the original book was written–serious students should review the recent research as well.  As Mr. Diamond repeatedly reminds us, his opinions influence his interpretation of the available evidence.

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