Photo-Blog: Laurel Park, Spring 2017

Since I’ve always been a bit leery of technology, I held out against getting an iPhone for as long as I could. I knew I needed a mobile device to make and receive phone calls in case of an emergency, but that’s all I wanted it to do. Any more than that would only confuse me. Yet at length my husband persuaded me to forsake my utilitarian cell phone and to give an iPhone a try. I had no idea just how quickly I would come to love it. Like many iPhone users, I may love it a little too much.

My favorite thing to do with my iPhone isn’t make or receive calls, or text, or check Facebook and Twitter (though I love doing all that). It’s taking pictures. A part of me has always longed for some talent with the visual arts. Sadly, I can’t draw so much as a single straight line, but I can aim my phone and click and capture beauty. One place of particular scenic wonder is Laurel Park, beside Lake Lanier in Gainesville, GA, not far from our house. Its shaded walking trail makes it an ideal spot for exercise. Sometimes my husband and I take Winnie, our turkey-leg-loving little dog, with us. Other times we go by ourselves, stroll at our own pace, and contemplate the loveliness all around us.

I took these pictures at Laurel Park back in April of this year.

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Interview: Kaitlin Bevis

One of the things I enjoy most about SFF conventions is the chance they give me to meet and befriend cool people who share my enthusiasms. At WHOLanta 2017, I got to know Kaitlin Bevis, author of the Daughters of Zeus series of contemporary fantasy novels, and she graciously accepted my request for an interview.

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Books That Make Me Happy: Arcanum Unbounded

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I enjoy the fantasy fiction of Brandon Sanderson, specifically the stories set in the universe he calls the Cosmere. He may not be the most stunning prose stylist or the most profound thinker in SFF, but he weaves gripping tales that draw me in nearly every time. Yet my favorite aspect of his work is, ironically enough, also my least favorite. He gives female characters important roles in his stories. His heroines are brave, intelligent, powerful, or some delightful combination thereof. Yet in his novels, at least the ones that I’ve read thus far, they don’t quite save the day. They may come very close. They may contribute substantially. Yet at some point at the climax, some male character or other will make that crucial day-saving move. (One exception may appear in the final volume of the original Mistborn TrilogyThe Hero of the Ages. I still need to read this one.)

This is why I’m thrilled with the collection of Cosmere short fiction, Arcanum Unbounded, and three stories included therein — The Emperor’s Soul, “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell,” and Edgedancer. They aren’t the only good stories the collection includes (I’m also fond of Mistborn: A Secret History and Sixth of the Dusk), but they are special to me, because in them at last we find, not heroines, but female heroes.

The Emperor’s Soul gets the collection off to a rollicking start. The plot itself is fascinating, as it introduces a new kind of magic user, a “Forger,” who can duplicate almost anything, from famous paintings to furniture to human flesh and bone. One such Forger, Shai, sits in prison awaiting execution when the country’s powerful Arbiters offer her a tenuous chance at freedom. An assassination attempt has left their Emperor still alive but brain-dead. The people can’t know this. Shai must Forge a soul for him, a new personality so close to the old one that no one could possibly suspect anything wrong. If she fails or tries to escape, she’ll be destroyed in a uniquely gruesome way, and she has never Forged anything as intricate as a soul. From this premise springs some of Sanderson’s most engaging writing, as he describes the work in careful detail, making the magic seem not nebulous but tangible, even real.

Shai is a complex protagonist, deeply distrustful of rules, governments, and authority of any kind. As she pieces together the Emperor’s consciousness, she gains a new view of power and its workings, and also begins to re-evaluate who she is and what she wants out of life. She learns she cares about people more than she thought, as she slowly comes to like and admire the grandfatherly Arbiter who keeps her under observation. In the end she gets the better of those who would cheat her out of her promised freedom and ensures her work will not have been in vain. She may not have asked for all this responsibility, but in the end she sees the right thing and does it.

The collection starts with one novella centering on a powerful young female hero who defies the system and ends with another, Edgedancer, set on Roshar, the world of the Stormlight Archive series. No previous acquaintance with the world on which it’s set is necessary to understand The Emperor’s Soul, but it does help if a reader dipping into Edgedancer has some acquaintance with The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance (the book in which our hero, Lift, first appears). In those books we learn about a group of empowered people called the Knights Radiant — who and what they are, why they’re regarded as traitors by some and potential saviors by others, and why Edgedancer‘s villain, called “Darkness,” feels he has a mission to hunt them down and kill them. Lift is one such Radiant, who keeps herself well fed so that she may become “awesome” whenever the need arises. Lift has already escaped Darkness’s clutches once. Now they’re headed for another confrontation.

Lift is another outcast, dwelling on the fringes of society, taking care of herself as best she can and trying not to incur debts of any kind. A female Huckleberry Finn, she’s on the run from a kingdom she’s helped to save because they want to “civilize” her by teaching her to read and write and wear fine clothes; one of her key powers, the ability to make herself “slick” so that she can slip away from any and all who would get her in their grasp, works as a sign of her refusal to be pinned down or confined. But also like Huck Finn, Lift has her own ethical code, as signified by her other key power, the ability to heal others. Having survived her first encounter with Darkness, now she is chasing him, and it becomes clear in the course of her pursuit that she means to stop him from killing any other Radiants.

I’ve already Spoiled the ending so far as to say Lift saves the day, but how she saves the day wins my heart. She’s not always likable. She can come across as selfish, impulsive, and rude, as we might expect from someone who has made a fateful wish to say ten years old forever. Yet her vow of power is to “listen to those who are ignored,” and she gets the better of her foe in a way that reminds me strongly of one of my favorite female heroes in comics, Doreen Green, the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. In the story’s final moments we see this eternal child accept adult-like responsibility at last (the idea of responsibility is a very big theme in Sanderson’s work), and while her decision may seem like defeat to those who admire Huck Finn’s perpetual flight from civilization, by this time I know Lift well enough to have confidence that she’ll remain true to her essential self.

In between the two novellas we find another female-hero story, “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell,” a reprint which first appeared in the anthology Dangerous Women, edited by George R.R. Martin. Silence Montaigne (and let us pause a moment to take in the beauty of that name) is unusual among Sanderson’s female leads for being, not a young ingenue, but a stout middle-aged widow with two young daughters, the keeper of a waystop (inn) just outside a forest haunted by carnivorous shadows called “Shades.” Silence may have less arcane power than Shai or Lift, but she is skilled, so much so that her success as a bounty hunter has brought her substantial, albeit anonymous, renown. (Nobody knows who the “White Fox” is, but everybody knows what “he” is capable of.) Silence isn’t the kind to make trouble for innocents on the lam. If she comes after you, you darn well deserve it, because Silence too has a moral code. Her mission in this story: to bring in an especially loathsome quarry, and thereby free herself and her daughters from the stranglehold of a slimy creditor. But to do it, she must venture into the haunted wood, her eldest daughter in tow.

In some ways, this story is the most emotionally gripping of my three favorites. First, it’s terrifying, a foray into Gothic fairytale horror; at times I could almost picture it in the style of a German expressionist silent film. The stakes are high, as Silence and her daughter William Ann (another great name) must make the collar and evade both rival bounty hunters and the deadly Shades. Also, while Shai and Lift walk away from their adventures more or less unscathed, Silence’s triumph comes with a heavy cost. Yet for all she suffers, she never surrenders. Even at her lowest, she finds a way to pull herself up and come out on top.

Sadly, Shai, Lift, and Silence remind me why I don’t usually like short fiction. Though their stories are complete, I wish I could have more time with these characters. I wish I could be in their company for two hundred pages or more. All the same, even in the brief time they’re given, they’ve earned places on my list of favorite female heroes in SFF.


Things I Love about… Wonder Woman (The 2017 Movie)

I confess I have not seen Man of Steel or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, nor do I have any plans to do so. I’ve both read and heard a lot about why critics, as well as many fans, took issue with them. It isn’t just their limited color palette (all gray) or their lack of  humor; these are parts, but not the whole. The heart of the problem is that these are movies about heroes made by a filmmaker who doesn’t believe in heroes. Brave deeds are pointless, and idealism a waste of time. How else can one explain Superman’s indifference to the safety of bystanders as he fights Zod in Man of Steel? Carelessness with the lives of innocents is something we’d expect from Zod, not Superman. The line between hero and villain is muddied. While this kind of moral ambiguity can be intriguing when done well, pardon me for thinking it’s not what we go to superhero movies for.

On the surface, the latest DCEU film, Wonder Woman, might seem like more of the same. For the part of the movie set in Themyscira, home of the Amazons, the sun is shining, and the landscape full of vibrant green. Yet when our heroine, Diana, accompanies soldier-spy Steve Trevor to World War I-era Europe on a mission to kill the war god Ares, the dark palette takes over. As Diana moves through the trenches, she’s confronted on every side by human suffering, and we can see it pains her. She wants to help. What good is she if she can’t help? If she can make it across No Man’s Land, maybe she can liberate a captured village and restore starving people to their homes. But Steve, who has been through the worst of the war, tells her it’s a fool’s errand. No point in trying. He can be easily forgiven for thinking that. Anyone who knows much of anything about World War I and trench warfare would share his view.

So, what does Diana choose to do?

Go over the top. March across No Man’s Land, evading bullets with her shield and gauntlets, or magic bracelets. Take out the machine gun nest. Save the village. All because she categorically refuses to accept there’s nothing she can do.

And here the difference between Wonder Woman and its DCEU predecessors is clear. Here we have a movie that actually believes in heroism, the balance of which takes place in a time in history when heroism did indeed seem futile and pointless. Heroism is hard. It may mean death, and even if it doesn’t it can carry a cost. But it’s always worth a try. As Steve says, “We can do something, or we can do nothing.” The movie comes down hard on the side of “something.”

Wonder Woman hit me hard, almost as if it had been specifically designed to give me what I’ve been longing for. I’d been praying it would be good, but I didn’t expect it to be this good. A few things I love most about it:

Diana herself. Any screen adaptation of Wonder Woman’s adventures would only be as good as the actress playing the title character, and Gal Gadot delivers. In point of fact, however, Diana engages our rooting interest before Gadot takes over the role, indeed the very first time we see her, a little girl watching her elders move through their combat training exercises, imitating their moves with the energetic grunting kids her age always think should accompany a good fight. She admires what they’re doing and wants to be a part of it. But fighting must always have a key purpose. As Diana’s mother Hippolyta tells her, the Amazons were created by Zeus to defend the world. They fight so others won’t have to.

Diana’s commitment to this purpose prompts her to leave the relative safety of Themyscira and follow Steve Trevor into war. And here is part of the movie’s genius: while we admire her commitment, we see her naivete. She thinks stopping World War I will be as simple as killing Ares, and of course the situation is a lot more complicated than that. She has to learn this, as she comes face to face with the darkness in the humanity she has sworn to defend. In the course of her journey, she fights, protects, and rescues, but she also makes mistakes. Yet the strength of her character is such that even with all the horrors she has seen, she can sill say, with perfect conviction, “I believe in love.” That’s a hero worth rooting for.

The love story works. Much of what we need to know about Steve Trevor can be seen in his first good scene, after his plane has gone down in the ocean and Diana has saved him from drowning. He’s missed Death by a whisker. He has no idea where he is or how he got there, or how these mysterious superwomen are able to hold off an attack from an armed German platoon. What he does know is that one of those women saved his life, and she and her people are facing danger, and he should join the fray on their side. He steps up, because that’s what he does. This makes him a worthy partner for Diana.

Though he’s played by Chris Pine, best known as Captain Kirk in the recent series of Star Trek films, Steve is no Kirk-esque playboy. He’s a good man with a job to do, a purpose and a drive compatible with Diana’s, and it’s no wonder each quickly comes to admire and respect the other. It also doesn’t hurt that Gadot and Pine have a very sweet and earnest chemistry. The “snowfall scene,” in which Steve and Diana share a dance in the heart of the village they’ve just liberated, hits my romantic-sentiment button.

The supporting characters. For the movie’s first third, women, lots of women, dominate the screen. Diana has two wise female mentors, the graceful queen Hippolyta and the badass general Antiope. These women matter, and Diana carries their wisdom with her into a situation that might otherwise overwhelm her. I’ve heard complaints about Diana’s becoming a “Smurfette,” surrounded only by men (barring a few brief but delightful appearances by Etta Candy, Steve’s “gal Friday”) once she follows Steve to Europe. I loathe the Smurfette Principle, yet in this case it makes some sense, in view of the amount of time spent on the battlefront, and the opening sequence on Themyscira has built up enough good will for me to overlook it. The good news is that the men she befriends are an interesting and sympathetic lot — Sameer, who longs to be an actor, Charlie, who prides himself on his marksmanship but has trouble hitting anything, and Chief, who fights because he no longer has a home. (It’s telling that while he may blame Steve’s people for the loss of his home, he’s still a friend and comrade to Steve himself.) Much of the humor springs from Diana’s interactions with these men, particularly the rakish Sameer, who, when Steve tells him about an island full of women like her, asks the most logical follow-up question: “How can we get there?” The fact that we see Diana in strong friendships with women and men is yet another thing to admire about her character.

The action sequences. The excitement of a cinema action sequence is difficult to convey on paper, so I’ll settle for saying that my favorite high-octane scenes, apart from the march across No Man’s Land, are the battle on the beach of Themyscira (featuring multiple women kicking butt) and the battle to liberate the village of Veld, which shows Diana vaulting into a tower to do some major damage.

World War I, an ideal setting for an anti-war message. Another favorite moment of mine sees Diana berate a group of “armchair generals” for conducting this brutal conflict from the safety of the sidelines. Where she comes from, she declares, “our leaders fight alongside us.”

The rousing musical score. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams knows how to get an audience’s adrenaline pumping and touch our hearts as well.

And perhaps my favorite thing of all, this movie is making money, disproving the notion that audiences aren’t interested in seeing a superhero movie with a female lead. Clearly, audiences, regardless of gender, are plenty ready to embrace a good superhero movie with a female lead (and a female director) — just as some of us have been saying all along.

P.S. While there is no post-credits scene (a la the Marvel Cinematic Universe), stick through the closing credits to see who gets a “special thanks” credit.  The filmmakers studied the character’s history and one individual gets a deserved shout out.



Hollywood’s “Obsession”?

Some movies are successful with the public, some movies are successful with the critics, and some movies, happily, are successful with both. The box-office successes tap into some desire or need on the public’s part; moviegoers decide they want “this” (explosions, or sentient robots, or car chases, or a particular actor) in their lives. The critical successes come into being because someone in Hollywood’s creative community decided, “Here is a story that ought to be told,” and much time and care is expended to make certain the story is told well. But what happens when movies neither meet the public’s desires nor receive the attention and energy needed to make them good?

They fail, of course. Critics pan them, and the prospective audience chooses not to bother. Two recent examples of such failures are this year’s Memorial Day Weekend releases, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Baywatch, one an installment of a familiar franchise and the other a reboot of a 1990s TV hit, both apparent products of the paint-by-the-numbers school of creativity and neither offering the public anything for which it’s been clamoring. Did moviegoers cry out for another Pirates of the Caribbean movie after the last one, On Stranger Tides? How often have we heard the people around us sigh, “God, I miss Baywatch“? Nobody was looking for these movies, and so, without critical support, they sank. Yet the studios aren’t choosing to blame their own lack of innovation and foresight. Instead, they’re blaming Rotten Tomatoes, the website that publishes a bank of reviews and keeps track of the percentage ratio of raves to riffs.

News about this silliness came to me through Facebook, and I made the same mistake I always do — I clicked to see the comments. There I found that one poster had found a different scapegoat. Today’s movies fail, he argued, because Hollywood has become obsessed with “strong female characters” to the point where they shoehorn such characters into movies where they “don’t belong.” This claim strikes me as absurd, especially when connected to these two films. Back when it was good, the Pirates franchise had an active and important female character, and nobody complained about her then. As for Baywatch — you mean there are heterosexual guys who don’t want to see women in swimsuits kicking butt? If men are staying away from these movies in droves, I highly doubt it’s because they have women in them.

All the same, I was curious. Just how obsessed has Hollywood become with “strong female characters”? I went to the Internet Movie Database to research the matter, and I looked up the major releases for the coming weeks and months. This is what I found:

Wonder Woman — female hero. Captain Underpants — male hero. The Mummy — male hero, female villain, female damsel. Cars 3 — male hero. All Eyez on Me — male lead. Transformers: The Last Knight — directed by Michael Bay; no further comment needed. Despicable Me 3 — male lead. The House — Will Ferrell. Baby Driver — male lead. Spider-Man: Homecoming — male heroes. War for the Planet of the Apes — male leads, both ape and human (but this one I’m still keen to see, since Andy Serkis is a powerhouse as Caesar). Dunkirk — male leads, but that’s to be expected from a historical military drama. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets — male and female co-leads; the boy is the title character. Atomic Blonde — female lead, but this one looks incredibly cheesy. The Dark Tower — male hero. The Hitman’s Bodyguard — male leads, bromance. Kingsman: The Golden Circle — male heroes, female villain. Blade Runner 2049 — male lead. Thor: Ragnarok — male heroes, female villains. Justice League — ensemble protagonists. Coco — Pixar’s latest offering, male lead. Murder on the Orient Express — male detective hero. Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi — male and female heroes. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle — male heroes and Smurfette. The Six Billion Dollar Man — duh. The Greatest Showman — male lead.

If these releases indicate an obsession with “strong female characters,” I’m just not seeing it. There’s Wonder Woman, possibly Valerian, Atomic Blonde, and The Last Jedi, but beyond that, the most woman-centric movies I noticed were a couple of raunchy comedies in the Bridesmaids mold and movies like The Beguiled, Megan Leavey, The Glass Castle, and The Book of Henry — the sort of small-scale personal dramas that are often very well done and can offer a welcome break from the summer explode-fest, but have commonly featured women in central roles. In short, there’s nothing new here. So based on the evidence, the Facebook poster’s claim does not hold water.

But wouldn’t it be nice if it did?

What if the powerful producers and gifted directors did indeed decide that more stories about women were worth telling, and put their hearts and minds into such projects so that both critics and audiences would embrace them?

What if characters like Rey and Diana of Themyscira, as well as Laura from Logan and Barbara Gordon from The LEGO Batman Movie, were indeed a sign of a sea change, at the end of which female characters like them would be so common and such an integral part of action-adventure stories that it would never enter anyone’s mind that they “didn’t belong there”?

The future this man dreads is the very future I desire — a future in which writers, readers, and viewers finally understand that giving good roles to women doesn’t have to mean taking them away from men. A future where it’s universally acknowledged that the marvelous world of Story has ample room for awesome male AND female characters.