What Happened

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What it’s about: Hillary tells us what happened and what could have been.

Notes: 

  • I have to admit, my interest in reading this book was somewhat voyeuristic, the desire to get into the mindspace of a public figure who has been so endlessly analysed and dissected by the media. I wanted to know what she thought about the whole affair, the terrible day that Trump won the presidency, about how she would answer the question: “what happened?” The various stories circulating around that said the work didn’t pull any punches spurred on this avid interest in reading her book.
  • Well, I have to say it’s not as juicy as screed as it could be, but is actually a kind of post-fact manifesto, a wistful but detailed fantasy of the good she imagined she could have done had she won the presidency. It was a chronicle of her thoughts about being a woman in power, of her true passion of working on policies that would lead to the betterment of the children of America. Indeed, pretty much all the juicy bits, I read before actually buying the book.
  • That said, she is strident in her criticisms of the state of American politics and society in this age of Trump.  She doesn’t hold back in accusing the Russians of an all-out campaign to undermine American democracy and aiding the Trump campaign, and she has no compunctions in warning us of just how incompetent and unfit Trump is to be President, both from a personality and policy angle.
  • It’s hard to feel anything but sympathy for Hillary after reading the book – while she does get tied up in her own significance at times, it was still a surprisingly self-aware and engaging look at herself and the decisions that ultimately led to our present situation. Who can blame her for trying, appreciating the significance of her candidacy for millions of men and women in America? Should we blame her for losing to a buffoon, for her unpopularity, which was the result of decades of Republican smear tactics? For her emails, blown insanely out of proportion? For the media, walking hook, line and sinker into Trump’s shock doctrine and inadvertently pushing his brand even more into the American consciousness?
  • Ultimately, though, this book is the kind that will not have much lasting power. It isn’t a call to action or a manifesto, not a manual for revolution – it is just a journal of introspection, self-reflection and a wistful imagining of a what-could-have-been, a kind of cathartic exercise for Hillary, even (and she admits it, in the book). It is a book to be consigned to the background texture of history, fitting for a woman whose time in the spotlight is probably over, however unjustly.

Verdict: Equal parts what-if policy manifesto, self-reflection, and screed, What Happened gives an interesting and unique account of the election from Hillary herself, but doesn’t rise above its own self-preoccupation to deliver a strong message of hope and action for the American people, sorely needed in these times.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 pantsuits

 

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The Devotion of Suspect X

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What it’s about: A murder is committed, and we know who did it. The question is, how will the killers evade the police?

Notes:

  • After reading the masterful Naoko, I sought to read Keigo Higashino’s other mystery novels, expecting an entirely more conventional murder mystery. But The Devotion of Suspect X is no such thing. Instead of being a whodunit, it is more like a howdunit, with the perpetrators revealed at the start and much of the novel being an account of how the detectives try to make sense of the circumstances of the murder while the perpetrator orchestrates his 6D chess game of a plot to throw the investigators off the scent.
  • One would think that a howdunit, bereft of the usual core conceit of mystery novels – i.e. the mystery – can ever build suspense. But Higashino has a way of writing with an undeniably seductive clarity that keeps hinting at the fact that the story is bigger than it seems – and what starts out as a straightforward case slowly turns more and more bewildering, to both us and the detectives, until the story is blown wide open with one of the greatest twists I’ve read in a detective thriller.
  • The book doesn’t rely on verbiage or put on literary airs. It’s a straight-shooting, tautly-written detective novel that feels pulpy in its brevity but is startlingly complex and well-conceived in its execution. The result is a novel that is both easy to read but unputdownable in the way it seduces you to unravel yet another layer in its narrative onion.

Verdict: Quick-paced, cerebral and utterly engrossing, The Devotion of Suspect X expands the boundaries of the genre and delivers an unexpectedly involving narrative with a killer twist.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 bento boxes

Rick and Morty (Season #3)

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What it’s about: Rick and Morty gets increasingly meta about its place in contemporary pop culture.

Notes:

  • Rick and Morty is by now a latter-day phenomenon, eagerly awaited by hordes of fans attuned to its brand of offbeat, improvisational and almost misanthropic humor. It was always going to be hard to meet such lofty expectations, especially due to the unduly long wait for this third season.
  • The third season of Rick and Morty still has the series’ offbeat brilliance, but it, I think is sometimes hampered by the tendency of some of its episodes to become pulpits for that grinding sense of nihilism that the creators want to contrive.
  • The whole “everything is pointless and nothing has any meaning” theme is certainly an important one, but the show is at times overly fixated on developing that theme, and to indulge in its nihilistic impulses, at the expense of its essential oddball humor. Some episodes barely got a laugh out of me because they were so invested in developing the show as a dire commentary on the pointlessness of it all – case in point, the Vindicators episode.
  • But at the same time, season 3 has some of the most scintillatingly brilliant episodes of the entire series. The Ricklantis Mixup, a tautly told story of the Citadel of Ricks, has a good claim to being the single best Rick and Morty episode to date, mixing storytelling, humor and good old-fashioned social commentary into one irresistible package. And who can forget Pickle Rick, an episode whose utter absurdity belies its thematic relevance to Rick’s character?
  • I’m just annoyed at the lack of continuity development in the wider universe – so many of the plot threads and easter eggs that you would expect to be resolved in the season are left hanging. What happens to the citadel? Where is Phoenix Person? The season ends without any satisfactory development of the slow-burning plot threads, and at the end of the season we return to the pre-season status quo, with Jerry back together with the family. I’d thought the last episode would be a showdown between Rick and evil Morty, but I guess the creators weren’t ready to pull that particular card out.

Verdict: Rick and Morty continues to entertain with its blend of high-concept sf and oddball humor, but its creeping nihilism does take its toll sometimes.

I give this: 4 out of 5 Simple Ricks

 

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season #3)

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What it’s about: Big things happening in the Nine-Nine, with new captain, new characters, new romances and even a few real criminals to deal with.

Notes:

  • B99 is comfort food for the soul – funny and witty as ever, and with a dose of absurdist comedy thrown into the mix – what with the insanity that was Seth Dozerman’s weird one-episode appearance. I really was not expecting the show to go there. Seriously, those first few episodes with Dozerman and later the Vulture were weirdly funny.
  • The season’s other big thing is the arrival on the scene of new character Adrian Pimento, a keyed up undercover cop who’s seen so much shit it’s driven him slightly insane. Pimento isn’t the best character, just because he’s so unstable in a way that breaches the bounds of comedy and sometimes comes across as a little disturbing. Rosa’s relationship with Pimento, which is used to drive the last big story arc of the season, also feels a little random – there’s not really any good reason for the two of them to get together, beyond the weird sexual energy that is purported to exist between them.
  • But the whole masquerade actually boils over into something much bigger, when Pimento is forced by his one-time mob boss to go into hiding, which also implicates Jake and Holt when they manage to cripple his presence in Brooklyn. For the first time, B99 actually deals with criminals that aren’t the hokey and harmless Pontiac Bandit or burglar sort. It’s an interesting segue, and the show manages to straddle comedy and drama without tipping over to either side.
  • On the other hand, Jake and Amy’s relationship actually survives and thrives, despite their contrasting personalities. And past a few healthy disagreements, it’s not played for cheap laughs and drama – it is a genuinely sweet romance that gets tempered by crisis, not cheapened a la Family Guy. It’s sad that one would expect, according to the iron laws of TV, for that relationship to be wrung dry for comedic ethos or dramatic pathos and then made to die off, which would be the usual path – and B99’s done it for Charles’ and Rosa’s various romances before this. But it seems that Amy and Jake’s relationship is being invested in to provide another solid emotional core for the show. I hope the next few seasons continue that trend.

Verdict: Season 3 continues the wit and sharp writing of the series while taking it to new territory, putting in real effort in developing and growing its characters.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 overly-close Swedish detective partners

Two Serpents Rise (Craft Sequence #2)

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What it’s about: An employee of a water supply concern tries to prevent his city from being destroyed by giant serpent gods, without having to fall back to the dark old ways of human sacrifice.

Notes:

  • I really like the Craft Sequence for how it has so far enmeshed fantasy and urban fantasy tropes together in a highly original fashion. This notion of fantasy worlds grappling with modernity – not just in technology, but in the social structures that come with sophisticated industrializing societies – is relatively new ground in fantasy.
  • In Two Serpents Rise, Gladstone depicts a society and city (Dresidiel Lex) that is heavily inspired by the Aztecs, but has since cast off its history of human sacrifice to appease the gods to enter a new gilded age roughly resembling 1920s New York. A city that sustains its burgeoning population on the magic of Craft, which draws its power from exploiting the natural world, leaving indigenous communities to suffer from the effects of rapacious extractionism, all in order to support the bourgeois lifestyles of the urban rich.
  • The conceit is clearly meant to be a reflection of the real world – but Gladstone makes an interesting juxtaposition via highlighting the city’s Aztec-esque heritage. In decades past, before the advent of Craft (read: industrial age technologies), the city prospered by the periodic human sacrifice to appease two giant serpent deities residing at the heart of the city. In this context, the sacrifice is more visceral and  barbaric, but it forces the city to confront the reality of its devil’s bargain (albeit glorifying it as a noble act) – rather than effacing it behind the impersonal but industrial-scale exploitations of faceless corporations, so that the urbanites of Dresidiel Lex can attend their parties with a clear conscience.
  • The juxtaposition is the key to the plot, because the protagonist, Caleb, has to negotiate a new way for the city to survive beyond these two extreme ends. In a way, his character straddles both worlds – he is the son of one of the last priests of the old ways, and has gained some of the powers that they used to have – but on the other, he has gainful employment as an employee of a vast industrial concern that supplies water to the city using Craft. He is sympathetic in a way – someone who embraces modernity in part as a way to resolve the daddy issues resolving around the fact that his dad is a wanted terrorist who used to carve out people’s hearts, and who once subjected him to a painful ritual to grant him weird and unpleasant powers.
  • Overall, it was an entertaining book, if not particularly memorable in terms of plot and character development – while Caleb was, I think, an interesting character, no one else really was, although one character – the King in Red, a deathless animated skeleton and CEO of Red King Incorporated, does make an impression, but more because he’s a deeply scary funky telekinetic skeleton. The Craft Sequence does have a lot of these nuggets of weirdness that stick in the mind.
  • One thing that does stick out in my mind, though, is Gladstone’s unfortunate penchant for writing some of the most god awfully purple prose in fantasy literature. Seriously – the book is peppered with weird similes and hyperbolic images that read like bad high-school poetry, and actually detract, rather than augment, the reader’s mind’s eye of what is being described. Like this extract from a single page of Caleb and love-interest Mal having sex on a beach amidst fireworks:
  • “…as they lay with each other, on each other, in each other, the flame built…her laugh shook the world…they breathed in unison, and clutched each other forever. Fireworks burst and burned, flared and retreated. The sky broke open time and again only to reclaim its darkness. All was subsumed in flames, which were themselves dancers, singers, beaters of drums, flowering on the infinite to die.”
  • Narmy, isn’t it?

Verdict: Creative, inventive and stellar urban fantasy, stymied somewhat by a somewhat unmemorable plot and characters and at times awfully purple prose.

I give this: 4 out of 5 thaums

The Delirium Brief

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What it’s about: Shit hits the fan in the Laundry-verse, as the Sleeper in the Pyramid returns bearing the face of another old adversary, and all the world’s occult forces must rise in opposition to its grotesque crusade.

Notes:

  • The Delirium Brief is like the Avengers of the Laundry-verse. Nearly every protagonist that featured in the past six or so books makes an appearance in this, even long-forgotten bit players like Iris from The Fuller Memorandum. The PHANGS, the elves and even some of the “superheroes” from Annihilation Score make an appearance. And let’s not forget Bob Howard, missing the past three books and now finally back in full Eater of Souls vainglory, once again the somewhat unreliable narrator of this book.
  • In The Delirium Brief, our heroes are finally confronted by the greatest enemy of all – their own Government, who, driven by a very neoliberal desire to privatise the occult defense capabilities of the state, liquidate the Laundry in a hasty and ill-conceived move to curry public favour after the bungled elven invasion in Leeds. Except that the entity they are trying to outsource these functions to is controlled by a soul-eating eldritch horror who wants nothing more than to consume every living soul on the planet, and are presiding in a systematic dismantling of the occult defense infrastructure to enable that. A frightening and very clever parody of the very real desire by some quarters of the political spectrum to abdicate the functions of governance to private actors, leading to regulatory capture – except that this particular dysfunction has existential consequences.
  • The book, apart from bringing together all its characters, also kind of executes a few odd plot retcons – like recasting Iris as a sleeper agent all along, and making the Mandate the Black Pharaoh – probably for the sake of maintaining overall series continuity – because the Laundry was probably not gestated as such a long series to start with. The jury’s still out on this one, but I suppose we will see if these plot threads start to bear real fruit in latter novels.
  • The notion of the Senior Auditor afraid and at his wit’s end enough to welcome the rule of a lesser eldritch evil – to combat an infinitely worse one – is truly frightening in the context of the Laundryverse. Stross is not pulling any punches here on the severity of the existential crisis facing the world – and I personally can’t wait to see what happens next.

Verdict: Fiendishly clever, gripping, replete with quality Lovecraftian horror, and a satisfying culmination of books’ worth of buildup of characters and plotlines, The Delirium Brief is an explosive and bold entry of the Laundry Files novels.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 Continuity Operations warrant cards

Spiderman: Homecoming

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What it’s about: A young and naive Spiderman must learn to wield his powers responsibly.

Notes:

  • I’m liking how Spiderman: Homecoming is being integrated with the rest of the MCU as an accessory superhero without another tired rehash of an origin story, but instead, a story that explores him coming into his own abilities through trial and tribulation. Thematically, it works well as an “intro” movie to MCU-continuity Spiderman because it captures the defining conceit of Spiderman – the power/responsibility struggle – without needing to hearken back to Uncle Ben again. I like how Tony Stark’s the mentor, now, too – and how he fits into the whole Avengers shtick.
  • I really like how grounded the movie is too – as MCU movies go, at least. Spiderman isn’t dealing with some existential crisis or god-tier supervillain – just a good old-fashioned criminal lucky enough to get his hands on some Chitauri technology for fun and profit, whose only motivation is to make money to support his family – even if he’s willing to go to psychopathic lengths to do so. Also, casting Michael Keaton as the Vulture is so apropos – after his Oscar-nominated turn in Birdman, which in turn was an ironically appropriate reference to his tenure as Batman. A bat superhero turned bird superhero turned bird villain. The Vulture is probably the villain with the most grounded and realistic motives since Iron Man’s Obadiah Stane.
  • Of course, being a teen film, the movie is filled to the brim with cringeworthy teenybopper antics – proms, house parties, and teenagers awkwardly trying to find out what it means to be an adult. Oh, and Peter Parker’s absolute inability to act normal when trying to hide his true nature in a crisis situation. Not my favorite part of the movie by any stretch, but since such things are almost par for the course in any American film about high school kids, I suppose it is a standard offering.
  • Sexy Aunt May is super disturbing. Marvel, why???

Verdict: While not the most groundbreaking MCU film, Spiderman: Homecoming is a creditable entry into the MCU, and miles, miles better than the Spidey films that preceded it.

I give this film: 3.5 out of 5 energy weapons