Monday, July 30, 2012

Dorm life in The Highest Frontier

The Highest Frontier 
by Joan Slonczewski
TOR 2011

Reviewed by Deirdre Murphy

Jennifer Ramos Kennedy is descended from American Presidents in a world where “ultra” is the new kudzu.  Left emotionally damaged by the sudden death of her twin brother, and despite a congenital abnormality that left her unable to speak in public, she has a straight A+++ average,  is an award-winning young scientist, and a volunteer who works both as an EMS and with Homeland Security dealing with everyday incursions of ultra.  As the book opens, Jenny is preparing to go to Frontera, a university on a space station circling the Earth.

Ultraphytes are an alien menace, a life form that crash-landed in the great salt flats of Utah, and which grows and mutates fast.  When stressed, it emits cyanide, killing things—and people.  Between ultra and global warming, the Earth is in trouble.  Some people look to the space stations for a safe escape from the troubles of Earth.  Others seek religious freedom or freedom from Earth’s gambling and morality laws. 

Jenny’s father runs the North American branch of Toynet, which is the super-Internet of Jenny’s day.  People text and video-chat, vote, attend classes, experience the news, and much more in Toynet.  As they ride modified anthrax strings into space, in between frequent messages in various Toynet windows, Jenny’s parents warn her to tie her shoelaces, keep her protective HIV up to date, do her homework, play (not a typo) her taxes, and, of course, listen to the mental they installed into her Toynet diad after her twin's death to watch over her mental health.

As this interaction shows, the setting is a graceful blend of the strange new world of the future and the normal, everyday life of a college student.  Jenny is warned away from Professor Abaynesh’s Life class by an upperclassman who doesn’t know Abaynesh is already signed up as Jenny’s advisor.  Jenny ignores the advice—a good thing for the reader.  The first Life class is an adventure in itself, combining the day’s lessons with the excitement of a time-travel scavenger hunt and a roller-coaster ride on a strand of DNA.

At first, the dangers at Frontera seem limited and ordinary, despite being on a space station.  Jenny believes she has been sent here rather than to one of the larger prestigious universities on earth because she needs a safer environment than she would find there—after all, she has a chromosomal impediment to speaking in public and she was emotionally damaged by the death of her brother.  This college is run by friends of the family and the grounds are totally free of invasive species—no need to worry about ultra or catching Dengue fever again (though Jenny finds she misses kudzu).

Still, college is a challenge.  Jenny has to learn to live with a very strange roommate (another damaged rich girl), face down her advisor (and her advisor’s two-headed pets), push herself to speak to strangers, and call tech support to attend to her new residence’s Toybox.  The normal challenges of a girl having to live on her own for the first time.  But then she swats a mosquito, there is a malfunction in her lawn, and a piece of space debris blocks a portion of the power being beamed to the station, cutting off Toynet and causing a brown-out.  Suddenly Frontera University seems more like an actual frontier than a safe haven for damaged rich kids.  In the meantime, the American Presidential race is heating up.

The emotional plot is, of course, the story of Jenny’s coming-of-age.  It’s hard to give a hint of the main science-fiction plot without offering spoilers.  Nearly everything that’s happening matters, in big or small ways, to the central problem that Jenny must face and the clues to that mystery blend seamlessly into the background.  I don’t want to tell you what to look for—part of the pleasure of reading the book was figuring it out for myself.

The characters in The Highest Frontier, from Jenny’s very political family to her professors and the coterie of students that Jenny hangs out with are memorable, quirky, and real.  There’s a lot going on, with science and politics—and, of course, Jenny’s actions—affecting the outcome.  Jenny has enough skills to be a satisfying hero and enough flaws to be a believable and sympathetic college student.  The main plotlines are resolved but it is clear that, as in the real world, life goes on.  I am left wondering if there will be a sequel.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ellen Datlow comes through again

Blood and Other Cravings
Edited by Ellen Datlow
TOR 2011

Reviewed by Deirdre Murphy

I’m a fan of fantasy of all flavors, light and dark, but horror?  Not so much. Still, Blood and Other Cravings was rarely dull, and held a number of stories that I enjoyed. 

The book starts with a breath of hope, the tale of a man who, despite all likelihood, survives a mining disaster.  He’s sure he will savor every moment of the rest of his life, and indeed, that’s how it starts.  But then he’s visited by a hungry stranger and a story that could have been uplifting turns dark.

My favorite story here is "First Breath" by Nicole J. LeBoeuf.  A teenager seeking herself, a chance encounter in a bar, a first kiss.  It is a very normal story which gracefully and inevitably turns strange and creepy.  It probably says something about me that I found the end more poignant than dreadful.

"Mrs. Jones" by Carol Emshwiller is another twisted love story.  We start with the sad tale of two spinster sisters who live together without sharing anything of significance, except a certain poverty of character. When strange noises hint that something might change, the two sisters each rise to the challenge as they perceive it; one wins the prize, if prize it is, but that’s just the beginning.

"The Third Always Beside You" by John Langan is another story of love gone wrong, of a family in the wake of an infidelity where the presence of the “third” lover colors every moment of their family’s life, becoming an obsession of the children that lasts into their adulthood, even though (as with most obsessions in horror collections) they would doubtless have been happier if they could have let it go and  focused on their own lives.

"Keeping Corky" by Melanie Tem stars a very loving mother, but things start subtly wrong and move forward inexorably to a proper Twilight Zone-style ending.

"Mulberry Boys" is creepy and disturbing and all too memorable.  I could say more, but I’d really rather not revisit that story in my mind.
Blood and Other Cravings ends with "The Siphon" by Laird Barron.  It starts much like standard horror fare, a routine trip that turns strange and deadly, but the author has a sure touch and the story is beautifully written.  It offers more than despair and gore, though there is plenty of that too.

Overall, I was very impressed with this anthology, even though, as a general rule, I prefer happy endings. Whether you’re a die-hard horror fan or just dabble in the genre from time to time, I think you’ll enjoy this this horror anthology. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sirius Pottering for Harry Potter fans

Sirius Black and the Secret Keeper – A Harry Potter Prequel Web Series
Reviewed by *Leonardo Ramirez
Can’t get enough of Harry Potter?
While J.K. Rowling has kindly given us Pottermore to quench our thirst for all things Hogwartz after the end of the series, fans are hard at work in creating their own take on the history of the saga. Enter Sirius Black and The Secret Keeper. An un-official prequel to the Rowling books, Secret Keeper was directed, written and produced by Adam VillaSenor and grants the viewer the added back story of how Sirius Black was going to be used as the secret keeper for Harry’s parents location. The location was instead eventually given to Peter “Wormtail” Pettigrew.
The web series begins with Bellatrix Lestrange torturing Thomas and Marlene McKinnon hoping to obtain the whereabouts of the Potter family. Without giving too much away, Sirius Black shows up and this is where the action begins.
Reymond Villasenor not only resembles Sirius, but has a good grasp of the gestures and movements that Gary Oldman put into the character in the movies. The special effects are top-notch and given that it’s a fan-made film it’s pretty astounding. While reminiscent of the John Williams score, the music retains the feel of the movies and doesn’t have that cheap rip-off feel.
Beyond the sheer enjoyment of watching episode one which can be found here , even more amazing is the recovery that director Adam VillaSenor made after he hit his head on concrete and suffered amnesia for 4 months. The writer/producer had to not only be reminded of what he was working on but the process as well. He had to re-learn everything, so kudos to Adam for not quitting and continuing his dream.
Speaking of dreams, his is to continue the series and he needs your help to do that. If you’d like to learn more about this project and how you can help, visit
*Leonardo Ramirez is an author of Science Fiction and Fantasy. His new Children’s Steampunk book, The Jupiter Chronicles is available for pre-order now on Amazon. Please visit for more info.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Silent City - A web series worth watching

The Silent City
Guest review by *Leonardo Ramirez
I’ve always rooted for the underdog in any entertainment medium. Be it books, film, comics or any other form, indies have it tougher because, for starters, we (and I include myself in there as well) don’t have the money to prop up production or market our beloved creation out the wazoo. In some cases, we’re just starting out and learning to hone our craft, but as we gain experience we get better and better.
With hardship comes perseverance.
With that in mind, I was happy to take a look at The Silent City, a web series produced independently by a group of talented individuals who raised the money via Kickstarter and bring their past experiences to the table.
As its website explains, The Silent City is a “new take on the post-apocalyptic road movie, The Silent City is an independent web series shot in the real-life abandoned spaces of New York City. When an unexplained event decimates the human race, the survivors must fight for their lives in the ruins of civilization.” Each webisode is about 4-6 minutes and there are currently 5 webisodes planned and available for viewing.
Eric Stafford, who served our country honorably in Desert Storm, does a great job as the unnamed lead character alongside Kettie Jean as Otsu. As a former Navy serviceman, he fits the part wonderfully as the only survivor of a post-apocalyptic world who is trying to survive the ravaged land. Rob Rusli’s music adds an element of atmospheric tension and begs the listener to stay right where they are while the concept art by Olli Hihnala is breathtaking. I strongly encourage you to visit for a glimpse. The cinematic photography and direction brings the viewer into a post-society world with realism and a sense of the need to survive.
There were some lingering questions as to what caused the apocalypse and what the main character may be in search of, but my hope is that these things will come to light as well as what roll Otsu plays in the master plan. The tone is significantly softer than a “Mad Max” feel and fits somewhere in between the aforementioned and “I Am Legend” without the zombies.
The Silent City undoubtedly has more than it’s telling. I look forward to hearing what it has to say and I, for one, hope that they succeed in sharing its secrets.
*Leonardo Ramirez is an author of Science Fiction and Fantasy. His new Children’s Steampunk book, The Jupiter Chronicles is available for pre-order now on Amazon. Please visit for more info.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Latest Spiderman Movie Deserves to be First

The Amazing Spider-Man   
Released July 3, 2012  (USA)
Review by Karina Fabian
My family loves superhero movies.  We saw Avengers on opening day and some of us have gone back to see it again and again.  Captain America and Iron Man get replayed on DVD, and Liam just got IronMan socks for his birthday.  Batman, unfortunately, has gotten too dark, but we enjoyed the movies for awhile.
When it comes to Spiderman, though, the reigning opinion has been “Maybe on Netflix.”  However, when the latest version, starring Andrew Garfield as Spiderman, and with Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) as his love interest instead of Mary Jane, came out, we decided to give it a chance.  Frankly, the trailer where Spidey takes on the carjacker had sold us—here at last was a Spiderman who had some fun! 

Knowing that they were probably rebooting in order to introduce him to the Avengers later in the series, we went in with high hopes—and weren’t disappointed.
SPOILER ALERT, though I’ll try to be vague.
The thing we loved most about this version was its believable, three-dimensionality of characters.  Peter was not just a whiny nerd-genius stereotype sating his guilt by avenging the death of his Uncle Ben.  Instead, he was a shy, socially awkward, smart kid.  As Amber put it, “I know these kind of guys!”  The scene when he has dinner with Gwen’s family and gets into an argument about Spiderman with her Police Chief father is very well done—especially in the way what Capt Stacy says effects his character growth later on.  The other great thing (as seen by my kids even more than me) is how the mask gave him confidence.  You could even hear it in his voice—he was louder, deeper and surer of his words.  He became the smart-alecking Spiderman we know and love in the comic books.
(There was one faux pas in the character development, however.  I have been informed by my teenage daughter that no “sciencey geek” of her generation would use Bing.  Product placement fail?)  

Uncle Ben and Aunt May had a wonderful relationship—and not just the two-dimensional “Love you always.”  I think my favorite couple’s line is when May grumbles, “Why didn’t you tell me you didn’t like my meatloaf?  Thirty-seven years of marriage!  How many meatloaves did I make you?”  The best part is how she’s walking away when she says the last—just a very natural exasperation.    Uncle Ben is much more believable—he gets frustrated, tries to keep his temper, and the scene where he is killed exemplifies who he was as a man—someone trying to do right rather than a random victim.
Gwen works better than MJ as a girlfriend, I think.  It was nice to see a heroine comfortable in her home, supporting her boyfriend, showing some spunk—and not clueless!  Thank you for a girlfriend who wasn’t clueless!
My favorite side character is Flash--the jock bully who becomes a Spidey fanboy.  From the beginning, he is not seen as a cardboard cutout, and the scene when he tried to express his sympathy to Peter after Uncle Ben dies was one of the most real of the movie. 
Dr. Curt Connors, who became the Lizard, was not money-hungry, fame-mongering—or even desperate to use the formula for his own benefit.  He’s actually a scientist who tries to stay ethical until the genetic soup drives him insane.  The thing about Spiderman I like is that you have ordinary people pushed into extraordinary situations, and this movie stays true to that.
The plot is your typical Genesis-of-Spiderman plot: nerdy boy gets spider bite; uncle delivers the “responsibility” speech then dies because nerdy boy doesn’t listen; nerdy boy dons suit to fight crime while supervillian discovers the key to his powers; big fight scene where nerdy boy proves his stuff and truly becomes Spiderman.  Having Gwen (who was his original girlfriend) mixes things up, but what really made this movie enjoyable is that all the elements play more naturally and believably—and as a result, you get caught up in the story rather than the action.
Overall four stars of five.  This is what the Spiderman movie should have been to begin with.