Category Archives: Reviews

Opinions are always free. Here are mine.

Review: Disjointed (2017)

Watch disjointed: Netflix

I rarely disagree so fully with prevailing opinion on Rotten Tomatoes or elsewhere, because we live in an age where crowd-sourced reviews en masse are usually pretty good.

But the mob is wrong when it comes to disjointed, a Netflix original sitcom starring Cathy Bates. This is a great show, and you should watch Season 1 to see if you agree.

I rarely like sitcoms because they’re rarely funny beyond surface gags. Of course, there are exceptions: How I Met Your Mother and Friends famously made their mark in the world with great writing and a strong story arc. Usually I stick with longer-form shows that incorporate comedy but don’t depend on it. (Pushing Daisies and Boston Legal, I still miss you!) I’ve tried some of the many others which win critical acclaim– Broad City, Insecure, Hey White People — and I end up walking away halfway through the first season. I guess I’m more into drama and action.

So I was pretty surprised when on a lark we started to watch disjointed and actually liked it. The premise of the show is simple: Cathy Bates runs a weed dispensary in California as “Ruth,” the maven of weed (and law). The show’s plots are basic sitcom fare: a zany cast of characters inhabit the store, from the hippie guy who tends the plants to owner’s son who’s trying to prove to his mom that his MBA is worth something in her alternative business. Potheads abound, and the show doesn’t mind mocking their giggles or stupor or childlike excitement for their favorite strain.

Dank and Debby are two stoners who inhabit the show’s plots. They make me laugh 100% of the time.

But a couple deeper elements deserve praise, and I can’t believe the critics missed these.

First, the show tackles issues around the War on Drugs with a deft hand. Yes, the show assumes the POV that pot is relatively harmless, often beneficial, and sort-of legal. I could see how some might be offended by a show that takes as its premise that arresting people for weed is borderline immoral. Some might also feel that disjointed glorifies smoking and getting high; it’s true that most of the stoners and customers at the dispensary get along just fine with their smokey lives. But the recent legalization efforts in several states suggest that the people who decide to make weed a lifestyle aren’t generally ruining their lives or anyone else’s, and I’m not going to fault a comedy for not dealing with edge cases where weed costs someone their job. The characters do confront people who are lighting up too much or using weed to escape real issues.  I just think stoned people are funny and the show plays off that for much of its humor.

But where things really shine occurs in the story line of Carter, the security guard who checks IDs at the door. He’s a military vet suffering from PTSD. His episodes are rendered by the show via incredible animated shorts that take over the screen and unpack memories that burst into his consciousness and affect his life. The art style is amazing; the plot line is refreshing. I didn’t expect to even stick with this show more than 3 episodes; the fact that it’s dealing with PTSD is part of the reason.

The storytelling itself is interesting. Maybe I inhabit the YouTube/social media world of Millennials so much that I don’t find it disjointed (haha) as some critics; I find the blend of live action comedy, animated scenes, and YouTube episodes from Dank and Dabby to be the perfect medium for a show about living in a drug haze.

Storytellers don’t have to hedge their tales with caution signs.  The show has a strong libertarian bent when it comes to weed. I like it without the slab of moralism on top.

Are there moments where the humor is just slapstick? Yes. But critics have panned the series as “unfunny” – a charge I honestly can’t understand. Winks and nods abound throughout the writing. The chalkboard behind the counter is chock-full of witty references. You need to squint to see what books Ruth is reading in her office, but the titles are always a nod to something in the plot. The slogans on Tai Kwon Doug’s studio are the exact kind of bro-stupid that make his character funny.

Is this a genius show that will challenge America’s drug policy? Nah.  Will you see the seedy underbelly of the drug trade like in Weeds? Nope.

Is it worth 5 hours to binge all 10 episodes and laugh yourself through a bag of popcorn this weekend (because you’re gonna get sympathetic munchies)?  Yes. Yes, it is worth it.

disjointed on imdb

 

Hugo 2017: The Highlights and Reviews

I threatened a few days ago to post reviews of the Hugo pieces that I found worthy, and here I am to deliver the goods.

NOVELS
Honestly, every novel in the Hugo nominee list this year is worth your time. I didn’t love each of them the same, but at least none of them wasted my time like a few have in the past (*coughs* Seveneves, I’m looking at you). I’m not here to write full reviews; you can find great ones everywhere.

  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee is a striking novel with a strong female lead, a far-future world with interesting social structures, mathematics-as-magic, and a galactic space war on a grand scale. This book really grabbed my attention. It doesn’t easily slip into any identifiable story category, though I’d say the two-person (protagonist/antagonist) relationship that drives the main character’s plot is critical to the book’s success. I’ve already ordered the sequel.
  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer kept me turning pages, and I nearly listed it first on my Hugo ballot. (The honor went to Ninefox.) Palmer is a University of Chicago historian, and this book reads like an 18th century Alexander Pope was transported forward a few hundred years. She imagines a future world that isn’t shot to hell, and I found that refreshing considering the shitstorm that is 2017 after the hellfest of 2016. Her world offers us a view of what rapid transportation could do in helping humanity develop new “nations” not organized around geographical location. Imagine aligning yourself with people who pursue your same vocational goals — and even better, imagine reorganizing the central family unit into an extended collection of “relatives,” both blood-related and not, who come together to live in collectives centered around common interests. Sign me up, I’m ready to join a ‘bash!
  • The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin continues her fantastic series that earned her a Hugo Award for the first book, The Fifth Season, last year.  (One of my favorite reads of 2016.) The sophomore entry expanded the story yet stands tall in its own right, building more of the world and giving us even more characters who face difficult ethical choices. The overarching tale offers commentary on issues of race and climate without (to me) being preachy. The series continues to defy genre categorization – is it sci-fi? fantasy? does it matter? Speculative fiction it is, and a great example. Start with The Fifth Season if you’re jumping in.
  • All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, tells the story of a computer engineer and a witch in San Francisco. Another genre-bender, this novel goes down easy with snappy dialogue writing and a good examination of the conflict between science and the metaphysical. I can’t say this novel asks Big Questions, but it does offer a good view of the microcosm of conflict among people with different goals and values. Plus, she clearly lives in SanFran and peppers the book with lots of local details.
  • A Closed and Common Orbit is Becky Chambers’s second novel after her strong debut The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Not wanting to jump in on book two, I read both this spring. This series is like Firefly and Star Trek having a baby in John Scalzi’s trunk: There’s all the ensemble camaraderie of Firefly (down to the female engineer), the thrill of space and battle and Big Questions of AI vs human intelligence, and the snappy dialogue writing of Scalzi. At times it was almost annoying – like Chambers is trying so hard to emulate her hero Scalzi that we’re losing her voice at times. She’s a young writer, and you can feel that in the writing. But she shows much potential, and I look forward to reading more entries in this series. Chambers will come into her own rapidly and probably have a very successful career, drawing in many people who would walk straight by the piles of hard sci-fi in bookstores. My main criticism of both books is that she tends to be preachy. Hopefully she’ll relax about that.
  • Death’s End by Cixin Liu wrapped up my ballot. I had such high hopes for this book, having enjoyed The Three Body Problem in 2015 and swept off my feet by last year’s The Dark Forest. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I loved or even liked Death’s End. I can appreciate some elements of the storytelling – the three fables in the center of this giant novel were a wonderful plot device – but I hated most of everything else. Liu is an ideas man; he doesn’t really write characters. That emerged as a major weakness as he tried to wrap up his idea-fest-turned-novel-series. I hated the ending too. When I get to the end of a 600 page book and feel like I wasted my time, it makes me angry.  All that aside, I’m glad Liu’s books were translated for an American audience, even if this one is at the bottom of the list for me.

SHORT STORIES
Finally the drama of the Puppies controversies is over, but the short story category was still a bit weak.  On the upside, I can link to a few of these since many are published digitally nowadays and publishers sometimes make them generally available since they were nominated. I’m listing my top picks here (in the order I voted for them).

  • My top short story pick ended up being NK Jemisin’s “The City Born Great,” posted at Tor.com (full story here). Jemisin lives in NYC and she infuses her love for the pulsing City into this story, but with her typical genre-bending twists. Is it sci-fi? Is it urban fantasy? I don’t know and I don’t care.
  • “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar is available in full on the Uncanny Magazine right now. This is a fairy tale polished to a gleaming brightness, turning cliched plot points into a thoughtful look into a friendship between two women, each imprisoned in their own ways. I’d happy read this story in a lit class for the sake of the ensuing discussion.
  • Carrie Vaughn’s story “That Game We Played During the War” drew me in and held me from start to finish. Full text here. It’s not a complex story, and it’s not a stunner, but I really enjoyed the interpersonal nature of the tale. Also #chess.

The other three nominees in this category were very weak. “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” seems to be trying too hard (IMO) to establish itself as a TIME MANIPULATION STORY.  *shrugs*  But it’s not a bad read.   Second, though I loved Brooke Bolander’s entry in last year’s Hugo (one of my favorite stories ever), this year’s “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” was a huge disappointment.  It just…. *sighs*…. too preachy; too little plot; too little of anything I want to read. A revenge story, barely.

Finally, I don’t even want to waste words on John C. Wright’s “An Unimaginable Light.”  Wright is the darling of the right-wing Rabid Puppies, and after shoving him down our throats for the past few years, a change in the Hugo nominations process served as a barrier to having to read much of him this year. Thank God. The man apparently can’t devise a plot worth more than two shits (this is my assessment after three years’ of nominations of his drivel).  Honestly. If you’re going to put someone forward as the poster boy for conservative man-centric science fiction, for the love of pete, could you at least pick someone who can write?  John C Wright is an embarrassment to writers everywhere.

NOVELETTES
Again, a few of these are worth pointing out, if you can find them to read them. Novelettes are just long short-stories; you can read them in a single sitting, though you might realize your butt is tired by the time you’re done. (Contrast this with Novellas, which kill your butt if you try to read them straight through without at least getting up to get more coffee.)

  • “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon shows what a master storyteller in folk tales and Native American culture can do in a science fiction/fantasy setting. It doesn’t matter if this tale is alt-reality or near-future; it’s a great example of the power of simple tales.  Read the novelette at Apex Magazine.
  • I really wanted to vote Carolyn Ives Gilman’s story “Touring with the Alien” #1. Man, it was so close. Maybe I should have. This could have been a pedestrian walk through a boring, tired sci-fi concept. Except it wasn’t. It was fantastic. Thoughtful. Provocative. One of the better “intelligence” and “alien” stories I’ve read in a long time. Clarkesworld Magazine has the full novelette available online.
  • “The Jewel and her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde is an example of fantasy writing that I can get behind. I really enjoyed this tale, mostly because Wilde built a world where some gems have power, and the way the people adapted to handle the risks and rewards of that power was genuinely fascinating.  If she has more stories in this world, I will read them.  Read the introduction at Tor.
  • Also in the category of “fantastical folk tales” is “You’ll Drown Here if you Stay,” by Alyssa Wong. Cool story.  I put it 4th, because I felt the others were stronger, but still a great read for those who enjoy the way traditional folk tales (and their structure) blend well with science fiction and fantasy. Read it at Uncanny magazine. 

The other two stories really aren’t on my recommended list. “The Art of Space Travel” is a people story; it has almost zero connection to speculative fiction; I’m not sure why it was nominated.  Memo to people: Just because your story includes an astronaut doesn’t make it science fiction. 

NOVELLAS
Still reading this category – I didn’t enter Hugo votes because I didn’t get a chance to finish these. Will return once I’m done and offer a couple thoughts, if I find something worthy.

GRAPHIC NOVELS
Man, some great writing here! I recommend reading each of the Hugo nominees. They were all good.  Monstress Vol 1 was my top pick, but it was genuinely hard to pick a favorite when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the story for the Black Panther tale, and so many others were interesting and beautifully drawn.

RELATED WORKS
This is the category for everything that isn’t fiction…. like Ursula LeGuin’s essays, Neil Gaiman’s essays, a personal memoir from Carrie Fisher, and more.  Dive in and read, especially Le Guin and Gaiman, if you get a chance.

I voted in other categories like Dramatic Presentation, Short Form and Long Form, and some of the editor categories, but I won’t bore you with those here.

Bottom line – this year’s Hugo nominees are worth your time!  Even the weaker categories (short stories) offer fiction worth reading. So if you’re out of beach books and want something good for August, hit your library or bookstore and help an author eat next month. 😉

Interesting read: The Radium Girls

Sat in a bookstore over the weekend and read a large portion of the book Radium Girls. These factory women went from being some of the highest paid workers in the 1910-20s to ravaged by radium poisoning from their work. Though the companies fought hard to deny it, a few remaining (dying) “radium girls” sued the companies and won – these were landmark cases in establishing workers’ rights to sue for occupational diseases.  The book is a rapid read and leans more toward entertainment-style writing rather than hard science, but Moore unpacks the women’s story well. Check it out next time you’re in a bookstore.

The Radium Girls were so contaminated that if you stood over their graves today with a Geiger counter, the radiation levels would still cause the needles to jump more than 80 years later. They were small-town girls from New Jersey who had been hired by a local factory to paint the clock faces of luminous dials.

Source: The Radium Girls and the Generation that brushed its Teeth with Radioactive Toothpaste

Wanted: A soul – Mass Effect: Andromeda Review

Sometimes games can’t beat the pressure of their own ancestry. If any game series risks being downgraded due to its own success, it’s Mass Effect. Many of us found the ME trilogy to be one of the most powerful story experiences of the previous console generation. ME2 ranks as one of my favorite stories of all time, across all categories (book/game/film/TV). I wrote about power of the Mass Effect storyline here several years ago.  Despite the controversy about the series’ ending, the writers showed us just how high excellent game storytelling could rise.

So it’s not an understatement to say I was bubbling with excitement this spring to get my hands on Mass Effect: Andromeda, the newest game from the BioWare team.

… and discovered that this newest installment has no soul.

I can’t escape the tinge of disappointment that I feel whenever I’m playing the game. The basic arc is all there, the loyalty missions, the questing structure, decent sci-fi shooter combat. The game’s shine is dulled a bit from the effect of Mass Effect hitting in 2007; games overall are so much better now and audience expectations march ever higher.

But what I genuinely miss is the story having a soul.

Briefly (only mild spoilers here), you play one of the two Ryder twins who are traveling with the Milky Way pilgrims to the Andromeda galaxy. An unknown large corporation (The Initiative) sponsored 100,000 colonists to move to the neighboring galaxy and set up shop. If you know the ME series, this game takes place around the same time as the start of ME2, so you know that all Milky Way life is being threatened  by the reapers, though most folks there don’t realize that yet.

The themes in Andromeda are a lot of what you’d expect: meet new alien races, fight the ones who try to kill you, explore brave new worlds, do side quests that range from annoying to genuinely interesting, and try to get these new colonies off the ground before everyone dies in the cold darkness of space.

Honestly, if the only expectations Andromeda had to live up to were last year’s No Man’s Sky debacle, I’d say it was winning. This is what we all wanted No Man’s Sky to be, in many ways: fly around on a kick-ass ship to brightly colored planets with difficult environments and poke around till we find something cool. Build bases. Stare at a sky full of stars – because Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s star maps are breathtaking. It’s always been one of the best features of the ME games.

A recent patch allows gamers to skip the long travel cutscenes as they move throughout a star system, but they’re genuinely beautiful.

But therein lies the problem. As consumers, we demand that each new iteration be an improvement. Is it ok that Andromeda feels like the writers sketched out the bones of ME2 and swapped in new names and new inciting incidents?

Why does this game leave me feeling so cold inside? Why do I pick up my controller (driven by a “need” to finish, because it’s a BioWare game and I want to know what happens) yet feel bored by pretty much everything that’s happening here?

I’m still working through my first play through, so I can’t speak to the ending of the story. It’s possible ME:A will wow me by the end by offering up what I’ve come to expect from these guys: really interesting deep writing with thorny ethical dilemmas and characters I love like members of my own family.

My Sara looks a little like this. Actually, mine looks a LOT like Michelle Obama, which was entirely unintentional…..

But I’m 50+ hours in, and my love for the crew is tepid. I like Sara Ryder (I’m playing her rather than Scott, her brother), but she’s such a goody-two-shoes at times. Without the paragon structure in the dialogue choices, I often feel as if my only options are between “nice” self-righteousness and the asshole version. Ryder is quite young, so maybe that’s part of BioWare’s goal with this character – to evolve her own understanding of the difficulty of command as the game progresses. But I’m not seeing it really, and it all leaves me a bit cold inside.

AAA+ game titles are too big to fail, so they die from the inside out.  If you’re too afraid to gamble your story by pushing it forward and challenging the player, you kill it by a thousand little cuts. It’s not that the ME:A writing is bad; it’s fine. Well, dialogue is laughably stiff much of the time, but that may have more to do with the game’s engine and pacing than the actual writing.  Extra Credits did an excellent piece on why the animation has been so stiff in ME:A and the challenges that come with trying to create realistic game conversations:

But animation issues aren’t at the heart of what’s wrong with Mass Effect: Andromeda. It’s that the story seems to have little driving it forward emotionally, while the gameplay itself isn’t innovative enough to offset this weakness in the writing.

I’ve heard that BioWare is stepping away from the ME franchise after this – gutting the Montreal studio that made it and focusing on other IPs instead. I’m sorry to hear that; the ME universe is so rich and well-developed thanks to the trilogy. But they didn’t gamble big enough on story, while gambling too much on the switch to the Frostbite engine and all the animation issues that caused.

*****
A good example of RPG game-writing with heart: The Witcher 3 blew my mind and set the bar pretty damn high for all future RPG writing. I’m thrilled to hear that Netflix is going to produce a Witcher TV Series. I’m so excited!

I wrote about my experience playing Witcher 3 a few months ago … it’s #1 in my list of “best games I’ve ever played,” barely edging out Journey and Mass Effect 2 for that title.
I played a parenting sim disguised as the best video game I’ve ever played

 

2016 Goodreads challenge

Happy to report that I beat my 2016 goal for reading books. I read a lot more short pieces than book-length works – if you added together the thousands of words I consume daily via articles, it’d probably equal a book a month.

But I’ve noticed my attention is sporadic and fragmented these days, so I’m committed to reading longer works so I don’t lose my ability to concentrate. screen-shot-2017-01-01-at-2-06-33-am

Click through to see my full Goodreads list for 2016

If I were to flag any for particular recommendation it would be these:

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators – the story of the pioneers who invented the digital machines that gave us the computer age. Absolutely fascinating deep dive into the conditions that allow creativity and innovation to prosper – and cautionary tales of those whose ideas languished because they weren’t working in a supportive environment.

NK Jemisin, The Fifth Season – this novel won the Hugo this year, and it was one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a long time. A gritty fantasy novel that allegorizes the nastiness of racism, written by a Black woman. I couldn’t put it down.  I also highly recommend the novel I listed as #2 on my Hugo ballot, Uprooted by Naomi Novik.

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others – a striking short story collection well worth your time. The title story formed the basis for one of 2016’s best films, Arrival.

****
There are times when I’m kind of embarrassed that I don’t post huge reading lists year after year. For someone who loves books (have you seen my house?!), I don’t read as many as I feel I should. My work is mental rather than physical, I read articles and essays extensively, and I soak up stories through video games and films.

One of my 2017 resolutions is to feel less guilty about things that aren’t wrong and that I probably won’t change. I’m aiming to read 20 books in 2017 and stop beating myself up for not reading more. I just ordered the next two novels in the Witcher series – I’m excited about those! -and I’m already halfway through Cixin Liu’s final novel in his trilogy. In nonfiction, I want to return to the excellent book on education, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Us Too. Dava Sobol has a new book out about some women in science in the 20th century; can’t wait to get my hands on that. I might even pick up the Stephen Ambrose condensed biography of Eisenhower that Coart can’t stop talking about. Oh, and John Scalzi has a new novel coming out this spring, plus the 3rd book in Jemisin’s series. It’s going to be a good year!

What’s on your reading list for 2017?

Worth your time to read

A few good reads to kick off your week. One should never approach Monday without a good read around.

To kick off, this piece by Kutter Callaway of Fuller Seminary really hit home with me today when I read it in a back issue of Fuller Magazine that we got at work a few months ago. (Yeah, I know, I’m behind.)  He discusses the way that chronic pain distorts our view of reality, usually attacking our sense of hope the most viciously. And how Christians dealing with chronic pain gain insight into the hope offered by the Gospel. A powerful read.

Restoring Hope: Being Weak and Becoming Well – Fuller Studio

*****
From the same issue of Fuller Magazine come two excellent pieces about Christians and hospitality. This ancient set of practices has worn very thin in our modern age, and these scholars take time to explain why Christians should pursue hospitality even more fervently now.  In fact, hospitality might create a space where Christians and Muslims can gather on common ground. 

Restoring Hospitality: A Blessing for Visitor and Host – Fuller Studio

A Moratorium on Hospitality? – Fuller Studio

*****
Time is not just money. It’s also power.  And one of the significant discrepancies between working women and working men lies in their access to uninterrupted free time to think, create, or connect.

This article by Brigid Schulte gives a name to the fragmented craziness that women experience as they try to juggle work, parenting, and marriage:  leisure confetti.  

While many working men are able to access blocks of uninterrupted time, most women — especially mothers — get their leisure time only in snatches, and even then it’s dirtied with the mental anxiety of carpool logistics, supper planning, family scheduling, budgeting, etc.

Confetti. You can’t build or create anything or even feel like a real human being if the only time you get to yourself comes in scraps.

Brigid Schulte: Why time is a feminist issue

*****
I never talk on the phone much now, and aside from my teenaged spurt of nightly phone sessions with my best friends (or calls home during my college days), I’ve never been a huge phone talker.  Texting was (and is) a god-send: concise communication that people can read when they’re ready, apart from the disruption of a ringing phone.

This Slate writer disagrees, and wonders if we’ve lost something…

The Death of the Telephone Call |Slate

*****
This next one may make some folks mad…. but that’s not my intention. In fact, I’d like to post this as much to invite critique as suggest alliance.  But I think Americans need to turn a critical (in the sense of objective / evaluation) eye on football. It’s a dangerous game – one that grinds up the bodies (and brains) of players for the violent pleasure of the masses. This bothers me.

And here, this author suggests an even more troubling link – that the US military is happy to keep Americans confusing patriotism with team loyalty, to see football as  a kind of American war.

I’m not a peacenik but it doesn’t take a 60s hippie conscience to question whether Americans can tell the difference between patriotism and nationalism, between bandwagon-riding mob behavior and common sense.

How the NFL Sells – and Unabashedly Benefits From – the Inextricable Link Between Football and War |The Cauldron (Sports Illustrated)

*****
A powerful reminder that ministry which sees the recipients as “needy” will fail to be as successful as it should be.

“Do you want to know why we love him [another missionary]? He needs us. The rest of you have never needed us.”

What’s Wrong with Western Missionaries? | DesiringGod

*****
I may not be in a classroom any more (an experience that I genuinely miss pretty often), but I want everyone to read this wonderful piece directed to young teachers.  It’s a great reminder of why I taught, and why I want to spend my life trying to make education better.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer suggests that we teach who we are and thus, no matter what we teach, our students judge us as “good” or not according to how we communicate who we are.

Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

 

I’ll be back with some book reviews soon. Currently reading 2 or 3 that have been good reads for sure.