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Review Grab-bag

If find myself pressed for time this month and absolutely overwhelmed by the various media I'd like to tell you about. 

Pretty much my reaction throughout this film.
First up. I watched Guardians of The Galaxy Volume 2, okay? So you can get off my back. And? I loved it. About as much as the first one, honestly, give or take a joke or two. What it misses in novelty and sheer comedy (this is a percentage thing: there are more jokes and fewer of them completely land) it more than makes up for resonance and, you know, feelings.

It's actually damn impressive that the first movie 1) got made in the first place 2) worked as well as it did. There are five characters I doubt many had any reason to care about and by the end of the first flick, you loved them.

Total surprise.

So that's the first film. The second film surprises by taking all of this very, very seriously and finding ways of making you care about such diverse topics as the attempt of a green and purple sister at reconciliation over the purple one's cybernetic mutilations, the realization that true friends won't give up trash pandas no matter how hard pandas might wish them to, the reunion of a planet and his son, and the son's discovery that his 'real father' was the guy who repeatedly threatened to eat him. Because all of this is handled in this super precise but deceptively arch way, you think you're watching a bunch of neon-gaudy cartoon action when what you're actually watching is as universal as the friggin' Theogony. And then the eyes make with the moisture.

I could write more - might actually write more come to think of it - but this will do for the moment.

On to a series of novels I've read recently: 

  • Abengoni by Charles R. Saunders: At this year's Boskone (which already seems a life-age ago) I sat in for a panel on "Afrofutrism." Man, I am sure glad I did. In addition to half-dozen authors I'm in the process of tracking down, I picked up a copy of this fantasy master's latest novel. Imagine Lord of the Rings set in Western Africa on the cusp of an encounter with mock-European refugees. Imagine something far, far better than that. This is a story that begins exactly where it needs to, introduces one element precisely when it needs to enter, and keeps things moving so smoothly and with such style, you don't realize you've reached epic status until the moment has already swept right through you. 
  • Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama . I don't always read things I hear about through the New York Times Review of Books but when I do, it's because the review finds a way of making the book seem absolutely essential. This is a strange book in many ways, and a familiar one in others. At heart, though what we have here is a mystery procedural: Yoshinobu Mikami is the press director for a Japanes police department in the grip of various intra and extra-agency rivalries and conflicts. Fourteen years prior, a kidnapped girl had been murdered, the case left unsolved, a permanent stain on the department. Mikami discovers a strange connection between that old crime and his own daughter's recent disappearance. This novel never quite unfolds how you think it will, and never quite winds up talking about what you think it might. Nevertheless, the book is tense, absolutely absorbing, and deeply affecting. 
  • Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. I've read a few Scalzi books and one things I can say unifies nearly all of them, thematically speaking, is their reliance on con jobs. Not that Scalzi himself is a fraud but that the form of his speculations often revolves around some central and essential deception. Red Shirts, Old Man's War, and now, Collapsing Empire each revolve around a self-aware speck of flim flam. It's not like Scalzi is shy about it. He pretty much rubs it in your face early on, daring you to believe that things really work the way the characters assume they do. And of course they don’t. The pleasure of a Scalzi book is that these cons, once unearthed, always make the book stronger and more interesting. It's a pure exercise in having/eating cakes and it works again and again. In Collapsing Empire, the title pretty much gives the set-up: an interstellar empire has reached its sell-by date and is within years of disintegration. The world building of the novel is breezy fun. There is an empire. There is FTL drive. There's even anti-gravity. None of these three things work exactly like they do in other universes and each has significant hitch not appreciable at first glance. There's a conspiracy, of course, but the plot is so effortlessly, profanely fun, no part ever feels like it's going to get bogged down. This is space opera as written by a fan of Elmore Leonard and all the more fun because of it.
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