Nov 26 2019

More Becoming by Michelle Obama

“Becoming Us,” the second part of Michelle Obama’s memoir tells how two very different people, two nearly polar opposite people in fact, came not only to love and cherish one another but to build a life and a partnership that would work from Chicago to the whole world.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

One of their first social functions together, a non-date, was an outing to Les Misérables with other lawyers where they are both working, he as a summer associate and she as a full-time attorney.

… I spent the next hour feeling helplessly pounded by French misery. … Millions of people around the world had fallen love with this musical, but I squirmed in my seat, trying to rise above the inexplicable torment I felt every time the melody repeated.
When the lights went up for intermission, I stole a glance at Barack. He was slumped down, with his right elbow on the armrest and index finger resting on his forehead, his expression unreadable.
“What’d you think?” I said.
He gave me a sideways look. “Horrible, right?”
I laughed, relieved that he felt the same way.
Barack sat up in his seat. “What if we got out of here?” he said. “We could just leave”
Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t bolt. I wasn’t that sort of person. I cared too much what the other lawyers thought of me—what they’d think if they spotted our empty seats. I cared too much, in general, about finishing what I’d started, about seeing every last little thing through to the absolute heart-stopping end … This, unfortunately, was the box checker in me. I endured misery for the sake of appearances. But now, it seemed, I’d joined up with someone who did not. (p. 104)

In Barack’s books, he writes about how, in addition to Michelle’s personal qualities, she gave him an extended Black American family, a sense of connection different from what he had grown up with. Not least, she has a father who is very present in her life and very supporting. (He’s also a little skeptical of Barack.) In Becoming, Michelle writes about what he added to her life, what he brought that she needed without having fully realized that she did.

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Nov 18 2019

The Spider Dance by Nick Setchfield

I love it when the second book in a series is better than its predecessor. And make no mistake, this is not a standalone novel, despite the odd lack of signalling otherwise. You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t start with Nick Setchfield’s The War In The Dark, which sets the scene for why our 1960s spy Christopher Winter is, in this book, working as a hired thug for London mobsters after his none-too-gracious parting of ways from British Intelligence. A transaction gone wrong sees him back in contact with the SIS, however, who require his services once more. Seems an Italian spy working behind the Iron Curtain has requested extraction to the west, and has specifically asked for Winter. Well, not technically: she’s specifically asked for whom Winter used to be.

The Spider Dance by Nick SetchfieldWinter thought he’d left that all behind, but several factors, including a lack of gainful employment, persuade him to go undercover once more to help Alessandra Moltini escape. Aided by one of the service’s first female field agents, the utterly charming Libby Cracknell, he travels to Hungary and meets Alessandra, then things quickly go haywire. Double-crossed and forced to flee for Vienna, Alessandra brings the trio to her own masters, who set them on a chase through Europe to take down one of the most powerful figures of a rival establishment, mightier even than the SIS.

Standard spy stuff, deftly handled, but with an added twist: Alessandra is a demon who knew Winter when he was a death-dealing sorcerer, and needs his help in a game between ancient inhuman races jockeying for power over the mortal world. Mr Setchfield takes all the terrific stuff from his first novel — occult world-building, stylish espionage with a side of Bourne Identity amnesia — and adds greater depth in this follow up. I cared about the characters this time around, felt invested in their goals. I’m still kinda mad about the one death! The only thing I did want to see in this book that wasn’t there was Karina, but I’m hoping she shows up again in future novels. This was great stuff, and I’m only hoping Mr Setchfield continues to get better and better.

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Nov 17 2019

Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner

If Legacy of Ashes were a record album, Tim Weiner would surely have titled it The CIA’s Greatest Shits. As it is, the subtitle is The History of the CIA, which is a misnomer right off the bat because it’s a history and not the history, and as a history it’s mostly a litany of the CIA’s continuous selection of errors, both tactical and strategic. The title itself is not from Weiner, but rather from Dwight Eisenhower, assessing his efforts over two complete presidential terms to mold the Central Intelligence Agency into a useful tool for a democratic nation. Every president who followed would have similar experiences with the CIA, and only the first president Bush, who had taken on the thankless job of CIA director during the Ford administration, appears to have had a decent relationship with the Agency during his term of office.

Legacy of Ashes

The problems are structural, and to an extent known to any ruler who has ever had a spy agency. The spies’ stock in trade is deceit, and over time they often deceive not only their adversaries but their putative masters. All too often, in Weiner’s account, American spies deceived themselves as well. At times, it was lies all the way down: CIA directors deceiving Congress and presidents, heads of covert action deceiving directors, station chief deceiving both local ambassadors and headquarters, and certainly field agents deceiving nearly everyone they interacted with.

Other problems are particular to the CIA and the American intelligence community. In Weiner’s telling, the deep rivalry between the CIA’s analytical and operational parts has hampered the Agency’s functioning from its very beginning. Presidents theoretically want the most accurate assessments possible of America’s foreign enemies and competitors; again theoretically that should come from the CIA’s analytical side, drawing on information and resources from across the American intelligence community. In practice, though, the covert action side of the Agency has often commanded the lion’s share of the CIA’s resources, including the favor of leadership. When 90 percent of an organization’s resources are devoted to one approach, the other is bound to suffer.

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Nov 12 2019

Süden und der Strassenbahntrinker by Friedrich Ani

Tabor Süden works for the Munich police in the missing persons bureau. One day, a man turns up in their offices and says he is back, they don’t need to look for him anymore. Problem is, no one had reported him missing. That would be odd, but relatively easy to dismiss except that over the next few days, he keeps coming back and says the same thing. Then, when he gets up from a conversation that he had been having in the main train station with Süden and a colleague, he socks a passing woman on the jaw and disappears into the city. What is going on?

Süden und der Straßenbahntrinker

That’s what Süden sets out to discover, although technically speaking he is on vacation that week. He interviews people acquainted with the man, Jeremias Holzapfel, and the story makes less and less sense at each turn. Someone else is living in the apartment where he is registered; is Holzapfel’s ex-wife involved in a tax dodge? Why did Holzapfel turn up at an old lover’s apartment and steal a whole new outfit? What is happening with Holzapfel’s current girlfriend? And where was he, during the four years that he says he was away? What has happened to someone who was once a trusted voice in local radio and a fixture on local stages?

This is the fifth of Ani’s novels to feature Süden, a series that now runs to around 20 volumes. (It’s the only one I have read, and I came to it through “München erlesen,” the Süddeutche Zeitung‘s series of 20 books in and about Munich.) In Süden und der Strassenbahntrinker (Süden and the Man Who Drinks on the Streetcar), Süden is forty-four, and slightly disreputable for a policeman. He’s not set on climbing the career ladder, he resists new technology — I presume the book is set at the time of publication, 2002, when mobile phones were common but smartphones not yet on the market — and he gets much closer to his witnesses than I would think is good policing practice. He’s an interesting first-person narrator to spend time with, aware of his faults but also not really trying to fix them. One of the things that pulls him into the Holzapfel case is that during one of their conversations, Süden tells the unmissing man something he hadn’t even told his closest colleagues on the force. What is it about this odd character that prompted such a reaction from Süden?

The case drives the brief (155 pages) novel, but it is also, after a fashion, irrelevant. Some of the most important actions revolve around other members of the missing persons bureau, and what is going on in their lives. Ani also takes care to show that just because a case is at the center of the book, it is not the only, or perhaps even the most important case in the office at that moment. Other colleagues are working on the disappearance of some young girls, and the head of the bureau does not understand why Süden is spending his time on Holzapfel, especially since he is supposed to be on annual leave anyway. He’s even less understanding of Süden volunteering his time for the homicide bureau when a corpse turns up.

Ani shows a Munich that’s rougher than the “lederhosen and laptop” image of Munich in the early 2000s, though definitely a city that I recognize from living there at that time. It has left behind the desperate years of Tauben im Gras or Schellingstraße 48, although one of the characters’ recollections of wartime and the immediate post-war years links the prosperous present to the hardscrabble past.

Süden und der Strassenbahntrinker is a solid police procedural, and if I read more of those I would probably read more of Ani’s work. As far as I can tell, only one of his works has been translated into English. That’s The Nameless Day, and it belongs to another series.

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Nov 11 2019

A Blade So Black (The Nightmare-Verse #1) by L.L. McKinney

Wow, this was probably my most disappointing read this year so far.

After reading L. L. McKinney’s really terrific short story in the Wonderland anthology, I felt compelled to look her up, and found the listing for this novel in my library’s e-collection. I nearly swooned at the awesome cover, and the description (Buffy meets Alice in Wonderland, with a black protagonist from Atlanta) had me all in. I was so excited to finally get a chance to read this book, and then… I read the book.

A Blade So Black by L. L. McKinneyReader, it was a struggle. The story itself was fairly pedestrian and our heroine, Alice, was your typically annoying self-centered, uncommunicative teenager. And still it would have been fine except for the godawful writing. I don’t know what the hell was going on, but by the time I read “grown” where the author clearly meant “groan,” I was starting to wonder whether an editor’s red pen had ever touched any of these pages. The grammar was just so inconsistent as to be completely atrocious. I literally don’t care what form of language an author uses in dialogue quotes, and I have zero trouble navigating AAVE, but if you’re writing a third-person narrative in standard English, then you need to consistently use standard English in your narrative, non-dialogue text. Don’t randomly use “outta” on one page but go with “out of” for the same context everywhere else. Be consistent.

And “on accident” is bad grammar in any form of English. People who say otherwise are even stupider than rigid adherents of the Oxford Comma bamboozle.

It seems almost petty to then grumble about how the action sequences are all a jumble, and how the only at all interesting/realistic people in the story were Alice and her mom. It just felt like mediocre fan fiction, which is a pity because the idea behind it really has so much potential. Idk, maybe Ms McKinney’s writing improves significantly from here on out? Her short story was really good, so I’m open to being persuaded to read the sequel to A Blade So Black (and, honestly, isn’t that just the best title?) but I won’t go looking for it on my own.

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Nov 09 2019

Speaking of Revolutions

“Another young woman, an employee of the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry, was on her way home from a visit to a sauna when the news of the night inspired her to head for Bornholmer [Strasse]. Her name was Angela Merkel. She had chosen a career in chemistry, not in politics, but [November 9, 1989] would change her life. Merkel had been born in Hamburg in 1954, and even though she and her immediate family had moved to East Germany in 1957 [her father was a Lutheran pastor], she still maintained contact with an aunt in her hometown. On the night of November 9, once she made it to West Berlin, Merkel would call that aunt to say that she had crossed the border.”

More here.

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Nov 08 2019

How to Start a Revolution: Young People and the Future of American Politics by Lauren Duca

I’m not one of those people who enjoys underlining inspiring/meaningful passages in a book but oh wow, was I tempted to here!

Full disclosure, I am an old. While born at the tail end of Gen X, I find myself often exhibiting trademark Millennial behavior, likely because I grew up overseas and am unafraid of technology. Regardless, I haven’t been a young person for at least a year, depending on one’s interpretation of youth (which, in some organizations, goes up to 40, a fact which once blew my much younger mind.) So this book probably shouldn’t speak to me as much as it does, but it does.

How To Start A Revolution by Lauren DucaIn 2016, I finally became an American citizen after years of hemming and hawing, because I wanted to be able to say I’d voted for Hillary Clinton against what, to me, was a blatantly obvious example of creeping authoritarianism. On the one hand, I thought, “This is America. We don’t vote for strong men espousing banana republic policies. We’re too smart for that.” But having grown up in a paternalistic regime, I wasn’t dumb enough or comfortable enough in my immigrant status to count on other people doing the right thing when I could be doing the right thing. I donated to Hill’s campaign, put up posters and voted. Watching the election results as they came in three years ago was like viewing a slowly unfolding horror movie: by the time the Pennsylvania results rolled in, I could only mutter, “Thanks for nothing, Pennsylvania” and go to bed, hoping for a miracle.

There was no miracle forthcoming, alas, and I spent that morning crying my eyes out. Even living in my progressive Maryland suburb, with neighbors I love and feel safe around (except for that one couple: fuck those douchebags,) I had never felt more afraid to be a female Asian Muslim immigrant. Weirdly, it took seeing the raw grief of a straight white male friend to finally comfort me. Not that misery loves company — I had plenty of that from other friends who felt freshly vulnerable for being a member of a minority — but because it felt like we had allies, that not all of majority America was complicit in the rejection of those of us who weren’t part of a white evangelical monoculture. “But what,” I thought, as I recovered from my downward spiral of emotion, “can I do next?” I upped my charitable donations, subscribed to quality journalism (I’m still sad Teen Vogue was forced to go from print to digital — guess I’m not that much of a millennial after all,) voted in the midterms, and made my voice heard to both my elected representatives and to politicians of note. There’s nothing more nerve-wracking to me as a quasi-millennial than to call a number in order to log my objections: I sat in my bathroom rehearsing the speech I’d written on my tablet before calling and, blessedly tho perhaps less effectively, speaking to voicemail. And still this president and his cronies are in office, squeezing as much personal gain out of their positions and our nation’s coffers as they can. “Am I not doing enough?” is one question I often ask myself. Another is, “but what else can I realistically do?” I have a job, three small kids and an attachment to 8 hours of sleep a night, and I’m still exhausted half the time.

And that’s where this terrific manual comes in. How To Start A Revolution begins with a snapshot of that galvanizing time around the 2016 election when young people especially realized that politics could not be impenetrable if a failed businessman turned reality TV star spouting phrases deeply antithetical to American values could become President. It captures the rage and helplessness that permeated large swathes of the country as majority opinion was defeated by what Lauren Duca cleverly terms the “political-industrial complex”. It addresses the reasons that allowed this state of affairs to come to pass, but then showcases examples of how young people are fighting back. And then, most importantly, it tells readers what we can do to help.

It’s a really simple three-step process, that I’ll share here on the assumption that Ms Duca won’t mind: Learn. Decide. Act. She enjoins us to educate ourselves on the issues, reading a balanced variety of accounts from reputable sources. She wants us to make informed opinions on the issues, and then do what we can to put our beliefs into action. This last can be as simple as not staying quiet when someone we know spouts a political talking point we know to be bullshit. It’s about showing up and being heard, in any of the many small ways that we as citizens in a democracy must help to maintain the civic health of our government and community. Not all of us can run for office or spearhead a campaign — hell, not all of us can even actively volunteer or donate! — but we can all do what we can, to learn, to decide and to act on our beliefs. None of us are perfect, but we can all help to keep perfecting this grand American experiment in freedom and democracy.

Ms Duca’s book has been an eye-opener both for how we got here and for what we can do next. Written in a highly accessible style, it’s the perfect manual for anyone, young person or otherwise, who wants to change American politics for the better. For being less than 200 pages, it’s a surprisingly dense read, and one I highly recommend to anyone who cares about the future of our country.

I’m planning on conducting a Q&A with Ms Duca in the near future regarding this book, so I’ll keep you posted on how that goes. It’ll be a bit of a departure from our usual author interview; as such, I’m soliciting questions you might like to see answered! Comment here or contact me personally: you know the drill.

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Nov 06 2019

Bringing Down the Duke (A League of Extraordinary Women #1) by Evie Dunmore

There’s an almost Hardy-esque quality to this book, from its impoverished protagonist’s longing for higher education to the frank discussions of sexual transactionalism to the desperately whipsawing balancing acts between respectability and happiness. Of course, since this is a romance novel written in the modern era, our main protagonists do find their ways towards a happily ever after, but the narrative along the way treads on topics rarely grappled with in the oeuvre. Reputation is a really big deal in Bringing Down The Duke, and I honestly can’t remember reading another romance novel where the renunciation of such comes in the form it does here. I’m probably being terribly vague so first, some details:

Bringing Down The Duke by Evie DunmoreAnnabelle Archer is the spinster daughter of a country curate who has been living as the helpmeet of her cousin’s large family since her father’s death. Over-educated but with no inheritance, her prospects seem bleak, till she wins a scholarship to attend Oxford University as one of its first women students. The catch is that she must participate in the suffrage movement that is sponsoring her, handing out pamphlets, buttonholing politicians and demonstrating for the cause.

Sebastian Devereux, Duke of Montgomery, has just been charged by Queen Victoria to steer her beloved but foundering Conservative Party to electoral victory. The last thing he needs is to be accosted by a beautiful, green-eyed bluestocking outside Parliament, especially when he’s also busy worrying about his younger brother, Peregrin, who seems determined to fritter away his life in the same way their father had. So when Peregrin invites Annabelle and several of her suffragist friends to a house party at Claremont, their estate, Sebastian wants nothing to do with them. And Annabelle, even though she’s been tasked with attempting to persuade Sebastian of the merits of her cause, soon finds herself at odds with a man she discovers she cannot manage in the way she does most of the men in her life.

As the two (inevitably) butt heads and fall in love, Evie Dunmore throws up such a series of unexpected but still heartrendingly realistic obstacles that I was actually afraid they might not make it to their HEA! Annabelle’s desperation to maintain her ambitions without forfeiting her social standing or, worse, placing herself in a legally precarious position is underscored by the backdrop of England’s 19th century women’s rights movement. A hundred and forty years on, the social and legal barriers to a prominent member of royalty marrying an almost literal nobody have broken down considerably, and women aren’t consigned to whichever role the most powerful men in their life decree. But back in the day, women were almost entirely at the mercy of their menfolk, and Ms Dunmore depicts this fraught era, where women were beginning to demand to be seen and treated as independent human beings, with insight and skill. I didn’t expect the depth or meaningfulness of the plot twists but I greatly enjoyed them, even as my heart suffered for the pain Annabelle endured.

One thing I did not enjoy suffering through was the occasional but extremely egregious typo. The worst one I can recall is the use of “withered” for weathered stone, and quite early on in the book too (I honestly try not to dwell on typos but sometimes they are so bad and become so numerous that I cannot let them go.) I certainly hope the romance department is getting its fair share of editorial staff, because that should have been caught very early in the publishing process. That aside, a terrific historical romance that doesn’t paper over how much life used to suck for women in Victorian England. I shall definitely keep an eye out for more in the series!

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Nov 05 2019

Anything For You (Valerie Hart #3) by Saul Black

Anything For You by Saul BlackWhen San Francisco homicide detective Valerie Hart is called to her latest crime scene, a deadly assault in an upscale neighborhood, she isn’t prepared for the victim’s identity, or for the emotional turmoil it brings to her newly reconstructed life. Having put her days of robotic alcoholic promiscuity behind her, she’s reconciled with her husband, police computer technician Nick. Their relationship has improved to the point of trying now for children. So the reminder of an illicit liaison from the days she put behind her is the last thing she needs.

Thing is, as far as affairs go, it was all rather tame. Valerie and prosecutor Adam Grant had gotten drunk together one night then gone back to her place, where they had proceeded to fall fast asleep. There had been some preliminaries but no consummation, and the two had been on smiling terms on the few occasions they’d seen each other afterwards. As such, Valerie is reluctant to recuse herself from the case: she’s a good investigator and she wants to find justice for a person whom she liked but didn’t like enough to allow herself to get emotionally compromised over. Plus, she’s morbidly curious as to Rachel, the wife Adam told her he’d never cheated on.

For good or ill, morbid curiosity is one of Valerie’s driving factors:

In her early teens she’d dated a guy who had a fetish for getting into buildings when they were unoccupied. Together they broke into (or concealed themselves in until after hours) their school, the bus depot, the local swimming pool, a couple of cinemas, and three or four private residences. They did no damage, took nothing. Just went through various drawers and wardrobes and cupboards, barely exchanging a word. Neither of them knew quite why, but it was irresistible. Incredibly, they never got caught.

Now there was no getting caught. Snooping was what she was paid for. Being Police was a backstage pass to the world behind the world, the people behind the people, the lives behind the lives. The dirty thrill of it had never diminished. Finding what was hidden. The dark secret. The awful treasure. That was the force that drove her. Justice was an incidental by-product.

Fortunately, Valerie is usually pretty good at finding justice, too, not only for the dead but for those who survive. The object of her curiosity, Rachel, was also injured in the attack that killed Adam. Prints found at the scene point the finger at Dwight Jenner, an ex-con Adam helped put away. Dwight has since disappeared, and the key to finding him lies with the mysterious blonde bombshell of a girlfriend whose involvement with the Grants’ lives may go back further than anyone realized.

This was an impressively crafted mystery, particularly in the way Saul Black uses the shifting perspectives of Valerie and the mysterious blonde to manipulate the readers’ sense of reality. I was actually less shocked by whodunnit than by the clever revelation of how. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was this impressed by the use of a framing device in a mystery novel.

Valerie is also a refreshing heroine, particularly for a police procedural. She’s aware enough of her own flaws to understand why she sometimes makes bad choices, and is smart enough to at least try to resist. She knows she’s damaged, and the thought of motherhood does little to assuage her fears regarding her own moral character. This case especially, with its tangled relationships and twisted, fearsome loves, will dig up some really strong feelings as to what she herself might be capable of:

So far Valerie’s love had been for her parents and her sister and Nick. Would she kill to save them? Undoubtedly. Would she kill to avenge them?

No, she supposed, if she had impregnable faith in the law.

Which she did not. How could she? She was the law–and her faith in herself was ravaged, riddled, rotten with doubt.

Anything For You is a thrilling page-turner that starts out slowly before rocketing through twists galore to uncover the identity of a woman who would kill for love. It can be brutal in its examinations of sexual desire and misconduct, but still centers the experiences and opinions of two strong women with opposing senses of moral justice. Valerie especially is an impressive creation: frank about her flaws, uninterested in being nice, and dedicated to discovering the truth, no matter where it may lead her.

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Nov 04 2019

From Page To Screen: Alias Vol. 1 by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Gaydos

I came to this title from Powers, back when I was still actively collecting comic books in the earliest years of the 21st century. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really understand it. Yes, I thought it was groundbreaking that Marvel Comics was finally releasing R-rated comics, years after the success of DC’s Vertigo line had proven that such could be critically and commercially successful without diluting the publisher’s mainstream brands. And while I enjoyed what Brian Michael Bendis was doing with Michael Avon Oeming over on Powers, I didn’t really understand what he was saying there either (I’m pretty sure it was Mr Bendis’ work on Ultimate Spiderman that finally clicked with me narratively.)

Alias Vol 1 by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael GaydosSo when Netflix and Marvel released Jessica Jones, I thought fondly back on my experience with the comic book that had birthed her, even as I didn’t let it color my impression of the show. Which is a totally fine TV show, btw. The first season is definitely its best, but I’m still mad as hell about how they ruined one of my favorite comicbook characters in the second onward: fortunately, this is hardly a canon depiction (I hope.) Anyway, I knew I had this volume locked up safely from my children’s destructive impulses in my office, and only dug it out the other day to loan to the neighbor across the street. Of course, I decided I needed to refresh myself of the contents first.

I don’t know what it is about the ensuing fifteen years but, after my re-read, I finally understand why Jessica didn’t want to be a superhero. The final pages, where Jessica is so happy at finding someone who understands her, actually make sense to me now. Perhaps when I was younger, when I was single and before I became a mom, it was unfathomable to me that anyone wouldn’t want to be a hero. And I don’t mean that to say that you shouldn’t aim to be your best self, and a good, courageous person who fights for justice, but you don’t need to do that in the spotlight, constantly pitting yourself against cosmic powers beyond your comprehension. Not everyone is cut out for that, and that’s okay. It’s okay to just be an everyday hero, and not someone who has to risk their life saving the world as a matter of course.

Michael Gaydos’ art also holds up really well, even as it constantly astonishes me how Jamie Neumann, the actress who plays Brianna in the third season, is a dead ringer for Jessica Jones’ comic book depiction. I love Krysten Ritter but I come from watching her in romantic comedies and Don’t Trust The B– In Apt 23. She does a great job as Jessica but I also wouldn’t mind seeing someone less ethereally pretty in the role. Also, she so rarely gets to show off her comedic chops as Jessica that it seems almost a waste of her talents. Rumor has it she’ll be reprising the role in the upcoming Disney+ streaming service, continuing to diverge from canon, I imagine (tho, man, I cannot wait for her and Luke Cage to get back together again!)

Anyway, this is a really terrific look at the other side of being a superhero, the side that just wants to be normal but doesn’t really know how to cope. I enjoyed it a lot, coming back to it after fifteen or so years, more so than the TV show to be honest. Perhaps I’ll change my mind about that media in another fifteen. For now, I’ll just appreciate the comics a little more than I did before.

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