April 2020

Collects Avengers 1-6 (2018). Part of Marvel’s Fresh Start relaunch.

Writer: Jason Aaron
Artists: Ed McGuinness, Mark Morales, Jay Leisten, Paco Medina, Juan Vlasco

At least in mainstream superhero comics the saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is true. And so it is also with the newest Avengers relaunch.

Steve is young again and Cap. Tony is out of his coma and Iron Man again. Thor is… almost back to his old self but without Mjolnir. He does have another hammer, though. They get together in a bar. Steve wants them to reform the Avengers but Tony is against it. However, when dead Celestials (space gods) start falling out of the sky, Tony puts his differences with Steve aside.

Meanwhile, the Black Panther and Doctor Strange are going to the Earth’s core… to find giant insects which have been down there for millions of years but they’re not starting to wake up. They also find symbols, pictures thousands of years old, of people who look like the Avengers.

Jennifer Walters is having trouble controlling her Hulk-side. The Ghost Rider is acting up and his host Robbie is concerned. Captain Marvel and the Alpha Flight station are trying to contain the threat from space but it looks like it’s too much for them.

Finally, we have Odin who tells us the story when he and his buddies got together a million years ago to make a final stand against one Celestial. His group back then looked very familiar and I’d like to read more of them. Except that they’re humans. Who didn’t exist back then.

Basically, it’s a decent end-of-the-world plot that brings a group of bickering superbeings together. I don’t really understand why Ghost Rider had to be here, though. I also didn’t care for the change in Jennifer. I really hope Aaron resolves her issues; she’s clearly here as a substitute Hulk and not as herself. Also, Carol acted really strange. Maybe she has some guilt issues, but she shouldn’t take them out on her (future) teammates. Loki (or rather some other being who looks like Loki) is teaming up with the Celestials against humanity. (After reading Loki Agent of Asgard… this isn’t the same person. Clearly, it’s an evil twin from an alternative reality.)

For some reason, the team doesn’t gel together for me at all. They don’t feel like family, in fact they don’t even like each other.

Interestingly, this story changes the origin of the superbeings on Earth. We’ve known for a long time that Celestials messed with humans back in the dawn of humanity which created the Eternals and Inhumans. Apparently this was true only from a certain point of view. Or it depends on who you believe. Personally, I also find it fascinating that this story also changes people from “created” beings (by cosmic beings but still) to “accidents” or even “unwanted accidents”. That’s a pretty interesting shift for the Marvel universe.

Also, Eternals are now dead?? I thought their movie is soon coming out?? Seems like a very strange move… unless they’re returned to life at some later date. Maybe a whole story arc about bringing them back?

This was a rocky start for the relaunch. I hope Aaron finds his feet with the team.

A Buffy the Vampire Slayer book set late in the third season.

Publication year: 1999
Format: Print
Page count: 289
Publisher: Pocket Books

Buffy’s world is falling apart. Her mother Joyce has met a very nice man and is dating him.

Also, Giles seems more absentminded than before. He promised to look after Oz’s wolf form but delegated it to Angel instead. When Buffy storms off to his apartment, she finds out that he’s with a new, beautiful teacher.

At the same time, Buffy’s old friend Pike from Hemery High (from the movie) comes to Sunnydale. He’s evasive at first but confesses that a stone demon is hunting him. The demon can change any living flesh to stone. While Pike knows about vampires and demons, he fights them only when hasn’t got another choice. He’s asking Buffy for help.

Buffy’s friends try to convince her that her mom dating is completely normal, at least when the man in question seems to be completely normal. Still, it’s hard for Buffy. Of course, Buffy has her own love life to worry about when Pike comes to make trouble for her and Angel.

Giles’ absentmindedness continues so much that Buffy and the others really start to worry about him. They keep a close eye on him and, indeed, something sinister is happening to him.

This was a pretty enjoyable book otherwise but I really didn’t care for the Pike/Buffy/Angel triangle. We know that Buffy can’t choose Pike because he’s not in the show, so it’s really pointless. The stone demon was a pretty average monster of the week. The Giles story line also had something I thought couldn’t be canon at all but it was resolved at the end.

The characters are well done, of course. Golden is usually one of the best Buffy writers.

I’m way late pointing this out but this month is the annual Women in SF&F Month over at Fantasy Cafe. The event has already lots of wonderful posts and a week more to go.

The first book in a humorous fantasy the Clocktaur War duology.

Publication year: 2017
Format: Audio
Running time: 7 hours 40 minutes
Narrators: Khristine Hvam

Slade is a forger who was caught. She’s been forced to lead a group of people to an enemy city, hoping to find a way to stop their magical and mechanical soldiers. Others have tried and disappeared. Slate has a little bit of magic, namely she can smell rosemary when meeting with someone significant. Her partner (and former lover) is Brenner, a brooding, snippy assassin who was also caught and is now part of this suicide mission. Her nose leads her to Sir Caliban, a former knight-champion of the Dreaming God, now a convicted murderer. Caliban used to kill demons until one possessed him and forced him to kill innocent people. Supposedly, the demon has been exorcised but death was too good for him. But Slade smells that he’s destined to help her in the mission and so he’s released.

However, they’re all get magical tattoos which will kill them if they stray from the mission. The group’s fourth person is Learned Edmund, 19-year old misogynistic scholar who wants to get some writings back and supposedly knows more about the mechanical soldiers.

It’s a comedy. Mostly. Told from the POVs of Slade and Caliban. The story is chock full of Dungeons&Dragons archetypes, stereotypes, and cliches, most of them turned either on their ear or slightly on their side. As an old gamer, I thoroughly enjoyed this. I’m the one who often plays paladins or bards (or an angel when playing In Nomine). Paladins can be fascinating characters. Caliban is one such, even though he’s a fallen paladin. Kingfisher also plays a little with our expectations: paladins aren’t chaste, in fact they’re often pursued by rich and beautiful women, so much so that Caliban doesn’t even notice Slade much at first. Oh and even though Caliban’s inner demon is dead, it left a part in and it gibbers to him. Sometimes he speaks in the demon tongue without noticing it. This seemed to have annoyed some reviewers. I liked it.

Slade isn’t really a combat person; she used to forge accounts. She’s bitter about the whole suicide mission thing, yet she obviously has hope that she, at least, will get out alive. She’s never even ridden a horse so the journey in horseback is a whole new experience for her.

Pretty much the only thing I didn’t care for was the romance aspect. Too predictable and obvious. No real reason to stretch it out. As a fan of kickass married couples (or trios or other committed relationships), I would have loved for them to get together at the start.

Also I didn’t like that Slade is the only woman. Because I’m so over the “only one woman in a group” and “only one woman in a group and more than one man in the group is after her”. Too bad they’re here.

The ending is very abrupt and leaves us in a cliffhanger.

A reprint of the Modesty Blaise comic strips 10-12, 14B.

Publisher: Titan
Original publication years: 1966-1968
Titan publication year: 2005

This is another very good collection of Modesty Blaise adventures. One of them, Jericho Caper, is one of my favorites.

“The Black Pearl”: The first story is firmly rooted in 1960s mysticism. It starts in Northern Bengal with an ancient Buddhist holy man Lal. A young novice requires Lal to take up a difficult mission. Lal, is of course too old and frail to do it but someone owes him a great debt, a young woman whose life Lal saved some years ago. And Lal has a mystical means to ask for the repayment.

Modesty is coming home with a new lover, Mark, who trains soldiers for a living. At Modesty’s loft, Willie is engraving a gem. When Mark starts to admire an old amber which should have an insect inside, he notices that it’s gone. Modesty and Willie know that Lal needs them. The travel to him as soon as possible and Mark comes along, too.

Modesty and Willie are faced with a task that seem almost impossible: they must retrieve something called the Black Pearl from a Tibetan monastery in the middle of Chinese occupation. However, they don’t hesitate and Mark comes with them, too.

The task is very dangerous but it has a couple of delightful moments. Modesty must convince a group of misogynistic guerrillas to follow her. Also, they don’t know what the Black Pearl is and it’s a great! Near the beginning of the story, we get another great little snippet of Modesty’s Network days. That’s how Lal saved her life.

“The Magnified Man”: This story starts with a man who commands someone, or something, very strong to just take up a huge boulder and throw it down on a speeding car, killing the man inside.

Modesty, Willie, and sir Gerard Tarrant are on a holiday in Basque Country. Willie recognizes a girl who works for French intelligence and greets her, not realizing that she’s undercover. The moment he does, he tries to leave quickly but he thinks he has messed up her work and put her in danger. To make sure that she’s alright, Modesty and Willie tail her.

Unfortunately, Willie’s hunch is true and the head of the criminal gang orders her killed. Despite Modesty’s and Willie’s best efforts she’s badly wounded. They need to pay back.

This is more straightforward adventure story. The duo goes after a ruthless but very vain villain who is robbing a gold train and uses unusual help.

“The Jericho Caper”: This is one of my favorite stories because Modesty comes up with one of her most ingenious schemes to save the lives of her enemies and, of course, to save herself and her companions, too. Modesty is in a very small town in Middle-America, living very simply. She has also find a new lover, a former soldier who was blinded in war. Now he’s a clay sculptor. One day, three desperadoes walk to town, taking any supplies they want and three girls. Modesty wants to go after them but her new lover, Torres, restrains her. Torres explains that the three men came from a nearby town full of near-lawless men and that if Modesty had killed them, the rest would’ve destroyed the town in revenge. The small town’s priest thinks it’s his duty to go and try to get the girls back. Modesty joins him over the priest’s objections. Torres also joins them.

Like I said, this story shows Modesty’s ingeniousness. Originally, she has just one gun, a priest, and a blind man. However, Willie shows up quickly but that doesn’t even the odds much, considering that the “president” of the desperado town has hundreds of men. The story has some great comedic moments, too.

“The Killing Ground”: This is a lot shorter story. Modesty and Willie wake up, imprisoned in a boat. An old enemy, Bellman, has kidnapped them but not just to kill them. The duo will be put on a small, uninhabited Scottish island and three professional hunters will hunt them down and kill them. The duo must use all their skills to survive.

Great fun with lots of action. However, there’s also some racism which was common during the times the stories were written.

Storybundle has again very tempting bundles:
Mysterious women curated by Kristine Kathryn Rusch for 20 days, Best of British SFF curated by Lavie Tidhar for 16 days more, Boss Battle curated by David L. Craddock for 13 days more, and Bundoran Buddies Sci-fi Bundle 2 6 days more.

On Kickstarter, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch are running a very interesting project for writers. They’re doing Writing Bundles which has WMG Publishing’s ebooks for writers. It includes bundles of Smith’s and Rusch’s ebooks about productivity, craft, business, marketing, and industry. It has been funded and the first stretch goal has been met, so Rusch’s Freelancer’s Survival Guide is also included. 13 more days to go.

The fourth book in the Expanse SF series.

Publication year: 2014
Format: Print
Page count: 583 + an excerpt from the next book
Publisher: Orbit

Two years has gone from the end of the previous book. The Ring is now a gateway to space which apparently has thousands unexplored planets. Humanity has send some probes. But one desperate Belter ship has gone through the Ring and the people have settled on one of the planets, mining precious lithium which they’re hoping to sell. However, the Royal Charter Energy has gotten permission from the UN to mine there. They’re coming to evict the people they’re calling “squatters.” The journey has taken 18 months so the Belters have had ample time to establish their colony which they call First Landing. However, the planet is teeming with alien plants and animals, none of them edible by humans so life isn’t exactly easy for them.

The RCE ship, the Edward Israel, has called and made a contract with some of the colonists to construct a landing pad for them. But a group of the colonists don’t want the RCE to land and take away their planet. So, they’ve gathered explosives from the mining operation and when the book starts, they’re driving to the pad and setting the charges.

The book has four POVs. Holden is the only character whose POV we’ve read before. Basia Merton is one of the colonists. He’s from Ganymede and his son was one of the sick kids that the scientists kidnapped and experimented with. He carries a lot of guilt for abandoning his son Katoa. He took his two remaining kids and wife and left the station believing that Katoa was dead.

Dimitri Havelock is aboard the Edward Israel. He’s one of the security officers there. He’s from Earth but has worked all over the solar system, including Ceres station. He used to be Miller’s partner and was briefly seen in the first book.

Doctor Elvi Okoye is one of the RCE’s scientist and she’s been itching to get to a whole new alien planet. From the beginning, she resents the squatters (as she thinks of the colonists the whole time) because they’ve contaminated the planet rather than building a habitat and leaving the rest of the plant pristine. She’s in the first shuttle that comes down and is blown up.

After the colonists blow up the first shuttle, Avasarala sends Holden to negotiate between the two groups and the keep peace as much as he can. Everybody knows him and he has no stake on either side, so she says that he’s the perfect UN negotiator. Holden doesn’t like it but wants to do his best to keep the peace.

The situation starts really tense and only escalates. RCE’s security chief Murtry brings a team down and the sight of armed RCE guards only makes the colonists more fearful and willing make bad decision after another. The colonists from Ganymede have already lost their homes once and aren’t willing to lose anything anymore. And yes, the planet itself has some surprises, too.

The planet, called New Terra by UN and RCE but Ilus by the colonists, is months outside contact with the rest of the human civilization, essentially a new frontier. Holden points out that this place has thousands unexplored planets and humans are fighting over the first planet they came across.

Yes exactly and exactly why the situation and some of the escalations felt strange to me. RCE’s interest is two-fold: first the big lithium mine and secondly to show everyone that they’re in control here. To me, neither of those are worth a single human life. How do they know that the next planet won’t have an even bigger deposit? They don’t. They haven’t even bothered to look. So yeah, especially when things escalated out of control, I felt that the characters needed to step back and really consider what they’re doing.

For the most part I enjoyed the book. However, I wanted to know more about this first alien world that we see in the series. Elvi was at least trying to explore it. I’d love to see more of the worlds beyond the Ring but at least based on the last chapter and the blurb of the next book, that’s not going to happen. Sad.

The characters were ok. However, Elvi is the only female POV and she develops a teenager’s crush on Holden. I didn’t care for that and later she has a very strange and quick change of heart. What? It almost felt like the writers were sick of it and just ended it. Basia is guilt ridden over leaving his son behind and blowing up the landing pad. His daughter wants to go back and enter university and Basia doesn’t want her to go. Havelock is left in charge of Edward Israel’s security. On the bad guys front, I think the main escalator was a sociopath who had found just the right place to do what he wants to. His minions were also very linear thinkers.

The theme of the book is clearly frontier and how people fight over it. If and when humanity actually goes to space, I really hope we don’t end up killing each other over the first scraps we find.

The first book in the contemporary cozy mystery series Whispering Pines.

Publication year: 2017
Format: ebook
Page count at GoodReads: 284
Publisher: Brown Bag Books

This series is set in a very small and quirky town of Whispering Pines in Wisconsin.

Jayne O’Shea is twenty-six and a former homicide detective. She and her West Highland White Terrier Meeka have come to Whispering Pines because her grandmother passed away recently and she needs to make her Gran’s house ready because her parents want to sell it. However, she’s also looking for some peace and quiet after she quit the job she loved because of traumatic events and broke up with her fiance.

But when she arrives to her Gran’s huge house, it has been vandalized. Also, Meeka finds a dead body in the backyard. It’s the body of a young woman whom Jayne doesn’t know. She calls the local sheriff.

Jayne doesn’t want to get involved; she wants to relax and find a new direction for her life. But when the sheriff doesn’t seem at all interested in investigating the murder of the tourist, Jayne investigates with Meeka. The local people are a very strange set. Many of them loved Jayne’s Gran and are also welcoming to her, at least to her face. But many are also suspicious of outsiders because Whispering Pines is a very insular community. Many are practicing Wiccans who face ridicule and prejudices outside the town. Most are misfits who don’t fit any anywhere else.

Sheriff Brighton is slow to investigate an outsider’s death and his deputy Reed, who is also the sheriff’s nephew, is hostile to Jayne from the start. One man claims that he can see when death is approaching a person. Then there’s the local witch shoppe’s owner who seems to be the only person who really welcomes Jayne.

And then there’s Tripp, a young man who arrived to town a short while ago. He likes it there, but nobody wants to hire him. Jayne needs someone to clear out her Gran’s house and she enjoys his company, so she considers hiring him.

I enjoyed the writing style which is in the first person. Jayne makes short observations of every person she meets which was a good way to introduce them. The book has a large cast of characters but many of them felt distinct for me. I especially enjoyed the budding friendship between Jayne and Morgan, the witch shop owner.

Meeka is a former cadaver and drug dog but she has been trained to assist Jayne’s emotional problems. They go almost everywhere together. Jayne herself has a lot of problems. She feels that she can’t trust herself because of past decisions which turned out badly. Her mother is a business woman who disapproved of Jayne’s career and now is trying to control her.

The mystery is a twisty one. The ending was a bit abrupt and I couldn’t really buy the murderer’s motives. However, otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed the book and the quirky characters so I will continue with the series. While the murder is solved, the rest of the mysteries remain unresolved.

A reprint of the Modesty Blaise comic strips 7-9.


Publisher: Titan
Original publication years: 1965-1966
Titan publication year: 2004

This is another very good collection of early Modesty adventures. The first one, Top Traitor, is one of my favorites.

In “Top Traitor” Willie is accidentally spending the night in Modesty’s guest room when someone breaks into Modesty’s penthouse. The burglar turns out to be James Fraser, Sir Gerard Tarrant’s right hand man and a former British Intelligence field agent. Tarrant has disappeared and a very sensitive file is missing. Tarrant’s bosses think that he has defected. Fraser doesn’t believe that but he’s watched, so he must secretly contact Modesty and Willie. Only two people, in addition to Fraser and Tarrant, have access to the file. So, one of them must be the traitor. Both are, of course, very high ranked in British intelligence. But that doesn’t stop Modesty and Willie from kidnapping them and interrogating them in their own unique way. Then, Modesty and Willie must get Tarrant back from a very secure place abroad.

This was lots of fun with elements I enjoy a lot: Modesty and Willie undercover, this time in a back country village near Germany (however, I’m sure anyone from around there would cringe to see these stereotypes), and their wit peeking through in the way the two top agents are interrogated. Also, Modesty and Willie’s absolute faith in Tarrant’s loyalty. Lovely!

“The Vikings” is a bit wilder tale. A group of modern pirates are robbing people all around the coasts from Denmark to Spain, dressed as vikings. One of the victims recognizes one of the pirates – as his own son Olaf. The Vikings are a group of young men partying just as hard as they “work”. Their leader is the hardest and wildest of the group, looking for a better challenge in soft, modern times.

Modesty and Willie are on a holiday in Sweden, ice boating. The Vikings’ victim approaches Modesty and accuses that his son, Olaf, has become a criminal because of her. It turns out that Olaf was, indeed, part of Modesty’s criminal organization, the Network, but Olaf came to her and was, in fact, a liability so Modesty isn’t eager to help him. However, Olaf is married, Modesty goes to meet with his wife. She asks Modesty’s help and Modesty agrees. But the Viking boss is delighted to get a better challenge in Modesty.

This story shows Modesty’s (and Willie’s) ethical code. Modesty wants to help Olaf’s wife and they first try to talk the Vikings’ leader to release Olaf. It’s the first real glimpse we have of the Network in action, except for the mention in “Mr. Sun” that Modesty had broken up drug smuggling rings. Later we hear that she also broke up human trafficking rings. When Modesty was doing crime, she wasn’t just robbing things randomly; she researched her targets meticulously and used as little violence as possible. The same thing is true of the next story.

“The Head Girls” starts about a month after the ending of “the Vikings”. Modesty has healed from her wounds and is vacationing in the Hebrides. Willie comes to meet her. When they head back from the beach, two men stop them. The men claim that they’re guards of the nearby government research station but Modesty knows they’re lying. Modesty and Willie knock them out and realize that they’re actually industrial spies, spying on the station. They give the men over to the station’s security. Meanwhile, in the station we find out that the station’s lead researcher’s “perfect” secretary is also a spy. When the two spies are caught, the secretary is ordered to kill them.

Meanwhile, the lead researcher has gone to meet Modesty and Willie. During their Network days, they actually stole the researcher’s previous work but sold it back to him at a reasonable price. He holds no grudge, and Modesty even asks him to spend some time with them when he’s in London. He accepts because his newest invention is ready and he’s selling it to the government. But when he gets back to London, there’s an explosion and he’s killed. Modesty and Willie investigate.

This story also refers to Modesty Network days. By all accounts, she was just the same person then: loyal to her people and with her own code of honor. In this story, too, the stakes turn out to be very personal to our heroes.

The plots in the MB strips are pretty complex. Sometimes they’re far fetched but they’re often well-thought out and enjoyable when reread, too. I very much enjoyed these ones.

A short audio play based on real events in Marie Curie’s life.

Publication year: 2019
Format: Audio
Running time: 1 hours 19 minutes
Narrators: Kate Mulgrew, Francesca Faridany

From Audible’s description: “In 1912, scientist Marie Curie spent two months on the British seaside at the home of Hertha Ayrton, an accomplished mathematician, inventor, and suffragette. At the time, Curie was in the throes of a scandal in France over her affair with Paul Langevin, which threatened to overshadow the accomplishment of her second Nobel Prize.”

Mulgrew plays Ayrton and Faridany is Curie. They’re both wonderful and they’re playing wonderful women. The press is hounding Curie and calling her awful names. Curie’s daughters are also hearing all those things and Curie is on the verge of desperation. But Ayrton comes to help her. Neither of the women are perfect, but real people. They’re also friends who support each other but also fight with each other. Most of the story is their dialog, except for the end which was far weirder.

This was a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these women. Sadly, the world hasn’t changed much; many people still judge women based on their appearance or pretty much anything else than what they do.

I knew about Curie, of course, and even knew that she’s invented the portable X-ray machine and used it during World War I. Not from a history course, though, but from an episode of Timeless. However, I haven’t heard of Ayrton who was an electrical engineer. I must find out more about her.

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