A Front Page Affair – Radha Vatsal

Front Page Affair CoverSeries: Kitty Weeks Mystery, #1
First Published: 1st May, 2016
Genre: Cozy Mystery / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Kitty Weeks is an apprentice reporter for the Ladies’ Page of a newspaper. Her first big assignment, to cover a party, turns into something more when someone is murdered.

The story is set in the USA during World War I. The period comes across clearly, and the series looks set to cover America’s entry into the war. There are a number of mysteries that come together in the book. I guessed the initial murderer quickly, but as there was more going on, there were still things to figure out.

The biggest issue was I didn’t connect with the main character. Kitty is from a wealthy family, which gives her the freedom to take on her dream job. She still faces issues from a newspaper editor who thinks women shouldn’t be reporters, though her biggest issue turns out to be herself. Kitty is the one who decides to skip off work for things that could have waited until later, or to go home early on a day when she was needed late. She simply assumed that if she did that, there’d be no consequences. When there are consequences, she’s shocked. Her first reaction is to assume those working class people around her, who do stay at work, were out to get her. Rather than not having a whole lot of choice because they can’t risk their income. This is why I empathised more with the people around Kitty than I did with her.

It’s uncomfortable to have the attitudes of the time laid on so thickly, without anything to balance it. For example, there are racist statements, but no prominent characters of those races. It touches on attitudes to gay people at the time, but the only gay character ends up dying tragically. People outside of the white upper class are lucky to get lines, and certainly don’t get a lot in the way of development.

It was also difficult to get through the non-fiction sections. There are quotes from books and articles, which slow the story down. All round, I found myself skimming a lot.

I didn’t hate the book. It’s competent. But those things meant I didn’t love it.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Movie CoverGenre: Superhero / Film
Main Cast: Henry Cavill; Ben Affleck; Amy Adams; Gal Gadot; Jesse Eisenberg; Jeremy Irons
First Shown: March, 2016
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

I wasn’t that fond of Man of Steel. So when I went to the cinema recently, I walked past the staff in their superhero costumes, the table of drinks, and the balloons. Instead, I headed into Zootropolis, which was great. But there had been a bit of a mistake when the tickets were booked, which meant the manager had to handwrite tickets for a showing at a slightly different time. The cinema sent free tickets as compensation. So it’s thanks to Odeon Cinemas that I’m writing this review of Batman v Superman.

In the aftermath of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) fight with Zod, people are questioning whether Superman is a good thing for the world. Batman (Ben Affleck) has no doubt about the answer: after seeing the carnage caused by the battle, he thinks Superman has to go. But it might be that there’s something more happening than either of them realise.

One of my criticisms of Man of Steel was the amount of death that was brushed under the carpet. Epic fights happened with no attempt to move the fight away from the city. Civilians had to fend for themselves, if the film even acknowledged they existed. This film does address that. The opening scenes were the strongest on that score, as they show Bruce Wayne on the ground during the finale of the previous film. It humanises the conflict in a way Man of Steel failed to do. Some of the later scenes did not work so well, as there were a whole lot of happened-to-be-uninhabited places in two major cities. That was rather convenient and hard to believe. Though at least the heroes are now considering that civilians will die if they’re not careful.

I liked the concept behind Batman. He’s older, and twenty years as Batman has taken its toll. Wayne Manor is a ruin, so he lives in a new building on the grounds. Alfred (Jeremy Irons) is also older, and has become rather more cynical. Given how often the Batman origin story is done, it was a good choice to have an established Batman, with the issues that come with that.

Batman going darker is the main theme of his storyline. He tortures criminals for information, which fails as it’s not a reliable method. As Alfred points out, it’s Bruce Wayne who finds the information through non-violent means. The violence is a coping mechanism, not a solution. This was an interesting take on Batman, but I would have liked more on what led to this. He has flashbacks about his parents dying, but the traumatic things he would have faced after that are glossed over.

Superman’s storyline didn’t have a lot going for it. He gets very little time as Clark Kent, and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) ends up doing the reporter thing without him. There’s a lot of standing around looking sad and feeling guilty about people dying. Not a whole lot of really getting into his story, or showing his relationship with Lois developing.

The final main hero is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). She has a small role in this one, but it’s a good sign for her coming solo film. She has an air about her, as though she’s a lot older than she looks, which really works for the role. She also brought a bit of interest to later fight scenes, as she’s a lot more tactical with her weapons than the other two.

The villain is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), son of the original Lex Luthor. Having him as the next generation of Luthors isn’t a bad thing, though little time is given on expanding his backstory and motivation. It wasn’t clear how the older Lex Luthor died or how else things had gone differently in this timeline. All of this would have impacted the life of the current Lex Luthor.

Unfortunately, undeveloped elements are a trend. There’s a lot of introducing characters and plot, then trying to wrap them up neatly and quickly. This doesn’t make for the best story.

Taking Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy), for example. He’s in a wheelchair after having both legs amputated (above the knee), due to injuries from the big attack of the previous film. He feels bitter and blames Superman. When he climbs the Superman statue to spray messages, it looks like he might get a role that goes beyond being there to pity. But he doesn’t, and that’s his last moment of agency when he’s not being manipulated. I was particularly uncomfortable with the press interview, where the camera moves to show his legs as he complains about losing everything. It’s set up in a way to point at his disability as something to pity. It would have been a lot more interesting to have his anger against Superman and the system actually come to a resolution. And as a result, for him to come to terms with what happened. But there’s no time to develop his story.

On to some of the other things going on, mental illness is handled the way superhero stories often do. Batman’s trauma is shown with empathy, even when his behaviour is going off the rails. Lex Luthor is the bad guy, which means he’s called psychotic as an insult (he doesn’t come across as actually psychotic… he also shows signs of trauma). Lex is irredeemable and mentally ill, while Batman can change and is troubled.

There’s a scene where Superman rescues a girl in Mexico. The crowd holds their hands out to touch him, as though he’s a god. Superman might be uncomfortable with this, but it still paints him as the great white saviour, worshipped by those simple non-white folk who don’t know any better.

Gotham and Metropolis were difficult to tell apart. They were also really close together. I never imagined they’d basically be districts of each other, viewable just by looking the right way. If it hadn’t been for characters saying where the action was happening, I wouldn’t have known.

There’s a lot more that could be said without needing to give away major plot twists or talk about the ending, simply because there was so much happening. It’s really the setup for multiple films.

I didn’t hate it, and I did like it better than Man of Steel. There were some themes I’d like to see explored more in sequels, like what it means to be an older Batman. There was plenty of action, and it’s likely to be enjoyable enough for superhero fans. But I didn’t love it because of the cramming issue.

When it comes down to it, I’m a lot more interested in the possible future films that will come from this. Wonder Woman is finally getting another film. After reading Cyborg’s adventures, I’m curious about how his story will be developed. Aquaman has always hit my love of ocean stories, even before Jason Momoa was cast in the part. The groundwork for the setting could lead to something great, but the filmmakers do need to slow down and tell one complete story per film, rather than trying to do everything at once.

Cyborg Vol. 1: Unplugged – David F. Walker

Cyborg CoverFirst Published: 29th March, 2016
Genre: Superhero / Graphic Novel
Contributors: David F. Walker (writer); Ivan Reis (penciller); Joe Prado (artist); Adriano Lucas (colourist); Rob Leigh (letterer)
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Attackers from another dimension kill Cyborg and steal his arms. But Cyborg doesn’t stay dead and his arms regenerate. He heads to S.T.A.R. Labs to find out what’s going on with his technology. Meanwhile, in another dimension, a war against alien cyborgs rages.

This graphic novel includes the first six issues of Cyborg’s comic. It tells a complete story, though does leave some plot threads open for future stories. The opening introduces what’s been happening in Detroit while Cyborg was off being a superhero, as well as providing space for Cyborg to reflect on his life and relationships. This part interested me the most, as it means finding out about the man behind the snarky superhero.

Inevitably, the two storylines come together, and there’s some alien cyborg action. The highlight of that part was the art. The aliens are detailed, and there’s a certain organic messiness to the cybernetics. The battle scenes are a place where this really gets to shine. My only complaint with the artwork was the cat who Cyborg talks to before and after. The cat didn’t seem as detailed or expressive as the other characters. Though he wasn’t in a lot of frames, it stuck with me.

Cyborg’s backstory is having most of his body destroyed and replaced by machines, including a replacement eye and arms. Disability issues often aren’t addressed in stories like this. When prosthetics give someone superhuman abilities, it’s usually handled as though there aren’t any issues at all. That isn’t the case here, though the way it was handled wasn’t perfect. I liked that the cybernetic technology is treated as the untested equipment that it is, with the concerns that raises for Cyborg about what’s happening to his body. He also faces being treated like a science experiment by the scientists, including his own father. The struggle against feeling dehumanised is linked back to how he felt just after the accident, when he was hesitant to go outside due to reactions from other people. Even after becoming a superhero, he faces people asking him invasive personal questions, from how he goes to the toilet to his sex life. Superhuman prosthetics don’t make these social consequences go away.

Other social concerns are touched on in the early part of the story, such as differing access to medical care. A man with a missing eye and crude prosthetic arm is one of the protesters outside the labs. Detroit is suffering financially, and access to the best medical care is not something everyone has. This leads to body shops, where people can have untested cybernetics attached. It’s an option that can be within reach for people failed by the medical system, but it means surgery in shady back alley establishments and uncertainty about what the cybernetics will do.

It was a great setup… but it gets lost once the action starts, and is wrapped up neatly in a simplistic cure narrative. This highlights an issue with the aftermath in general. I’d expect a lot more devastation left behind, rather than things going back to normal so quickly. The way everything wraps up feels rushed.

I also would have liked to see more of Sarah. She’s shown as a supportive friend, and possible love interest, but doesn’t get to do a whole lot. I couldn’t say much about her. I want to see them as friends before I can really buy them as a possible romance.

I don’t think this is a bad introduction to Cyborg’s solo adventures. It has some time to develop him as a character, as well as some action. There’s more to explore when it comes to how his cybernetics are changing. The ending was the weakest part, though there is the potential to address those themes in more detail in future stories.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Cybernetic Tea Shop – Meredith Katz

Cybernetic Tea Shop CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 14th March, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | LT3 Store

Clara moves from place to place, with only Joanie (her Raise hummingbird) for company. Sal is a robot who runs a tea shop in memory of her owner. Then Clara pops into Sal’s place during her lunch break.

There’s some interesting worldbuilding in the story. Humanoid robots were banned from production, due to worries about them being able to learn and become full people. Instead, people have Raises – robotic animal companions who are intelligent and have personalities, but can’t learn and adapt the way a robot could. Robots like Sal are in a difficult place, where society doesn’t know quite what to do in terms of rights. Sal has outlived the company who made her, so spare parts are increasingly an issue, and her memory is failing.

The novella focuses on Clara, Sal and Joanie, giving space for their relationships to develop. I liked that Joanie really doesn’t change, because she’s not able to without being re-programmed, as a contrast to both Clara and Sal. In the case of the latter two, their first meeting isn’t perfect. Clara knows she shouldn’t treat Sal as a novelty, with all the being-an-object that implies, but does it anyway out of surprise. She also realises how hurtful that reaction would be to Sal.

They get over that initial awkwardness, and continue to get closer as Clara regularly visits the tea shop. Sometimes Clara brings Raises she’s repairing for work, and eventually Sal trusts her enough to do the needed repair work. Both have things they’re not ready to face. For Sal, it’s the obvious one of her owner’s death and continuing to run the tea shop because she always has. For Clara, her wandering is something she picked up due to growing up in a migrant worker family. They moved where the jobs were. Even though she doesn’t need to do that anymore, she moves from habit, rather than considering what she really wants.

It touches on issues of power imbalances in relationships. As much as Sal loved her owner, it doesn’t change that she was owned. Her owner’s name is coded into her, and that registration of an owner prevents her from being able to move on. Clara realises this isn’t something she should change without permission, but also that ownership is a problem. No one’s name should be in that field. As much as people may talk about belonging to each other in romances, it’s meant metaphorically, not as a literal thing that someone has no choice over.

This is an asexual romance. There’s some intimacy though cuddling, generally being close and Sal trusting Clara to work on her systems. There isn’t any sex, and the couple discuss that they’re not interested in that. It’s nice to see a focus on finding out what a partner is comfortable doing, rather than a focus on pressuring a partner to do things anyway.

What I didn’t find so believable was the social worldbuilding. Sal was several centuries old. Things might have advanced in robotics, but there weren’t really other signs that this society had gone through a few centuries. Things like gender roles and fashion were stuck much as they are today. I’d also have expected more impact from people having Raises, as social spaces would need a redesign to accommodate many people having a robotic pet.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Agent Carter (Season One)

Agent Carter Cover (UK)Alternate Titles: Marvel’s Agent Carter
Genre: Superhero / Television Series
Main Cast: Hayley Atwell; James D’Arcy; Chad Michael Murray; Enver Gjokaj; Shea Whigham
First Shown: 6th January, 2015
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

** This is a full season review, so will discuss some scenes from later in the series. It will not reveal the major plot twists. Please don’t post information about season two in the comments. I’ve not seen it yet. **

Agent Carter tells the story of Peggy Carter’s (Hayley Atwell) life after the war. She works for the SSR, but is constantly undervalued for being a woman. They’re more interested in having her take the lunch orders than doing secret agent stuff. When Howard Stark’s (Dominic Cooper) vault is raided, and his dangerous inventions end up on the black market, he contacts her to clear his name. Part of the deal is assistance from his butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy).

One unusual thing with this series is we know where it ends. Peggy will found SHIELD and survive into old age. Howard will eventually become the father of Tony Stark. Jarvis will live long enough to inspire Tony, and be immortalised as the A.I. Jarvis. This is the story of how everyone gets there.

I enjoyed how the story progressed. Each episode tackles a new part of the overall plot, with plenty of twists and turns. The short season meant there was no filler or waiting on the movies to reach a certain point (an issue Agents of SHIELD is prone to having). What makes it though is the relationship that develops between Peggy and Jarvis – one of friendship and mutual respect. I’m down for watching them solving mysteries together.

Peggy losing Steve is also tackled head on. She’s grieving the loss of the man, while society only sees Captain America. One reminder of this is a radio show, where her role is taken by Betty Carver, a damsel in distress. As well as being salt on her wounds, this show highlights how history was often rewritten to exclude the women who were part of it. The secret agent becomes a nurse, who is there to mend socks and get kidnapped.

A large part of the conflict for Peggy is getting things done in a society that’s sure she’s incapable of doing so. It’s why she ends up going behind the back of her colleagues, as she knows they’ll neither believe her, nor be willing to look at theories outside of Howard selling his own inventions. Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham) is trying to protect her. Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) is the typical women-don’t-belong-here sexist. Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) is the best of the bunch in many ways, but still idolises her in a way that a real person can’t live up to.

It’d be easy to show Peggy as the single exceptional woman, but that’s not how it goes down. One of my favourite moments is when the women she lives with are explaining the elaborate ways they smuggle food out of the buffet. They don’t lack ingenuity. They lack opportunity.

It also touches on disability issues. Daniel is a war veteran with a leg injury, who walks with a crunch. He’s been told his survival is an inconvenience. When someone notices his developing feelings for Peggy, he’s told she’d never date a guy with a crutch. Daniel also stands out among his colleagues as not being the classic Northern European guy (the actor is Albanian-American).

The dynamic between Daniel and Peggy is interesting, as they’re each marginalised in different ways. They use that to empathise with each other. They don’t always get it right, but it gives them a starting point to try.

Around the time I was watching, there was yet another example of a romance book where a Jewish woman falls in love with a Nazi, then converts to Christianity. There seem to have been a string of them recently. Some authors are very determined to romanticise Nazis and sweep all of the atrocities under the rug as not being that bad. One comment on this is why the non-Jewish love interest has to be a Nazi, rather than one of the many people who actively opposed them.

So I was very interested to find out that Jarvis was married to Ana, a Jewish woman. This is one of those stories about a person who opposed the Nazis doing what he can to get the woman he loves out of Europe, and to safety. I also liked that when Peggy refers to Ana being Jewish in past tense, Jarvis corrects her. She hasn’t stopped being Jewish.

What I didn’t like so much is we don’t get to meet her. This was a golden opportunity to have a positive on-screen Jewish character, and it didn’t happen. Though I can see why Jarvis would try to keep her out of things, this wouldn’t have prevented there being a scene where he made up some vague excuse and she was suspicious, or something on those lines.

It’s also very noticeable that black characters aren’t in main roles. Though I’d be happy to see more non-white people in general, I really wanted to see anti-black racism addressed given the setting and time. For a series that handles other issues of marginalisation, this is one that’s glaring in its absence.

Despite those areas where I would have liked more, I enjoyed the season as a whole. It tackles a number of difficult issues, as well as having a fun action mystery plot. I’ve always rather liked stories that handle being non-superpowered in a world with superheroes, so in many ways, I like it better than the movies it came from.