New Books and ARCs, 1/22/19

This week I have two — count them, two! — super sized stacks of new books and ARCs for you, and here is the first of them, filled with reading goodness. What here is calling to you through the computer? Tell us in the comments!

First Pass Oscar Predictions, 2019

Most of you know I was a professional film critic waaaay back in the day, and one of my hobbies every year is to look at the Academy Award nomination list when it comes out and guess, based on my experience, which people/films will walk away the awards. My prediction rate: Pretty decent! Usually I get five of the six main categories (Best Picture, Director, and the lead and supporting acting categories).

This year, before I begin, I’ll note: Kind of a weird year, nomination-wise. There are some heavily expected films/filmmakers in there, but also a bunch who… really weren’t? At least, they were a surprise to me. And there were some surprise omissions as well. All of which makes this a pretty damn interesting year for the Oscars, and for guessing who will win.

So let’s check out this year’s list and see how it goes.

BEST PICTURE 

Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

Eight nominations this year out of a possible ten, and an interesting spread. For years my usual advice would be to toss out of consideration any film that doesn’t also have a Best Director nod — which this year would punt Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book and A Star is Born — but this year I wouldn’t do that.

Two of these films, however, I think we can take out of contention immediately: Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody are the first off the boat. Black Panther gets a deserved nod in the category, but its other six nominations are in (sorry) undercard categories: No directing, acting or screenwriting nods here. Plus it’s a superhero film. It took the Academy until 2003 to honor a fantasy film, and it took another fifteen years after that to honor a science fiction film. It is correctly nominated in the category, but I don’t think the Academy can bring itself to give the nod to a superhero film (here; more on this later). Bohemian Rhapsody, on the other hand, has a Bryan Singer problem, as the director is in bad odor at the moment for being an alleged sexual harasser and predator, and also for being fired off the film essentially for being a flake. Rhapsody winning would be an embarrassment; these aren’t the Golden Globes, after all. People would actually care.

After that? It gets tricky! Honestly I feel like there are good arguments for each after this point. But let me rank them anyway. I don’t think The Favourite is actually the favorite, but 10 nominations, including director, screenplay and its domination of the actress categories, really can’t be overlooked. It could pull off a surprise. Likewise, BlacKkKlansman isn’t one I see making the final cut, mostly for subject reasons (it’s not usual winner fare), but it was well-regarded and it represents a comeback for Spike Lee, who, honorary awards aside, is fucking owed a competitive Oscar if you ask me. No one can say BlacKkKlansman isn’t of sufficient quality for a win. It could win.

Green Book is next out for me. It did well at the Golden Globes, but its awards season PR campaign has been a bit of a nightmare, what with its primary white actor tossing about the unexpurgated N-word in interviews, its screenwriter having to apologize for bigoted tweets and its director having to apologize for (checks notes) flashing his dick on previous movie sets. So all of that is a thing. Plus, you know, that whole “Driving Miss Daisy 2.0” issue, which maybe isn’t 100% fair, but when you have a Best Picture field that also includes Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman, it’s not hard to see which film in the field is targeted at white folks who want to feel good about how far we’ve all come. And, well. Here in 2019 and in the thick of the Trump Years, “how far we’ve all come” is well up for debate, isn’t it. Which brings us to Vice, which, whatever its other qualities, is a film about Dick Cheney, so, uh, yeah. Maybe I’m overestimating liberal filmmaking’s visceral disgust of the former vice president, but I don’t seeing it making it first past post out there in the Hollywoods.

So we’re down to A Star is Born and Roma. For me the big surprise of the Oscars is Bradley Cooper’s omission in the Best Director category (don’t feel too bad for him, he’s nominated in three other categories), and I think that’s indicative of how much the heat behind this seeming-juggernaut of the awards season has cooled. But cooled or not, I still think it’s one of the two films that has the best chance, especially if the actors branch of the Academy is scandalized that one of their own was not honored as director and seeks retribution/compensation (See: Argo). Beyond this the story is classic Hollywood, frequently told but as it happens rarely honored with awards, so maybe this time is the charm.

But then there’s Roma, which is brilliant and distinctive and classy and everything the Academy loves to see in a Best Picture winner, has great production story to boot, and is from a director who everyone loves (who also shot and wrote the film and is nominated in those categories). It’s the closest thing this year to the front runner, buuuuuuuut there are two wrinkles: It’s also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and it’s from Netflix. I’s fair to say the Academy hasn’t quite figured out what it thinks about, or wants from, that streaming service, and maybe there’s some residual animosity/whatever there (Disclosure: I have deals with Netflix for things in development/production. I like Netflix, personally. They give me money!).

The A Star is Born-winning scenario is Roma winning the Foreign Language award and Alfonso Cuarón winning Best Director (and/or screenplay or cinematography), leaving the field open for Bradley Cooper’s film. It seems unlikely the Academy will vote for Roma for Foreign Language and Best Picture. So who the Foreign Language winner is will be your first big clue of how the evening will go.

If you put a gun to my head about it, I’d say Best Picture will go to A Star is Born, because, aside from everything else, it wouldn’t hurt the Academy these days to honor as Best Picture a film that made more than $100 million at the domestic box office (the last one to do that: Argo, six years ago). The Academy members know their organization is reeling from PR issues and could use a hit, in more ways than one. But Roma could very definitely take it, and possibly should. If neither of them do it, who knows? The only thing I do know is that if Green Book takes it, black Twitter is going to be lit for the next week afterward.

Will Win: A Star is Born
Should Win: Roma 

DIRECTOR

Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice

Congratulations to Pawlikowski for (probably) punting Bradley Cooper out of the fifth Best Director slot and for raising his profile considerably. He won’t win here, but if Cold War wins in Foreign Language (which it probably will, if Roma does not), he’ll still get his moment and it will probably be good news for Roma, too. So everyone wins (except, uh, A Star is Born). I’m pretty sure Lanthimos and McCay are along for the ride here, although of the two I think Lanthimos has an outside chance, and we should all watch the next few weeks to see if The Favourite’s star rises generally. I think Spike Lee has a reasonable chance although again this might just be me projecting my come on for fuck’s sake it’s Spike Lee feelings here. For all that I’ll be mildly shocked if Cuarón doesn’t walk with this one. This is as close to a gimme as this year is giving us.

Will Win: Cuarón
Should Win: Cuarón

LEAD ACTRESS

Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Probably the most competitive category because there are good arguments for everyone here: McCarthy is stretching herself as an actor and the Academy loves that; Aparicio is literally coming out of nowhere (from the Hollywood point of view) and that’s a deeply attractive thing for voters; Colman is an actor’s actor and I suspect has a lot of admirers in the acting branch and beyond; and Lady Gaga is Lady Gaga and she basically carries A Star is Born on her surprisingly naturalistic shoulders.

In any other year, I’d put chips on Gaga and Colman, but here’s the thing: This is Glenn Close’s seventh Oscar nomination, and if anyone deserves the “career award” path to an acting Oscar win — in which the Oscar win is less about the particular performance than the recognition that the person should seriously have won by now — it’s Close. Does Close deserve the Actress Oscar for The Wife, against all the other performers in the field this year? Maaaaaaybe? Does she deserve an Oscar? Oh hell yes she does. I suspect the Academy members know it, too.

Will Win: Close
Should Win: Colman

LEAD ACTOR

Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

I think Mortensen is one of our most interesting actors generally and I can watch him in just about anything, but he certainly hasn’t been helping himself recently on the PR front, and I don’t really see this being the role that nets him an Oscar (I suspect Mortensen, who is quirky, is probably okay not winning, so). Aaaaand I don’t think Actor is the Oscar Vice is going to get, Bale’s method acting aside (he’s already got an Oscar, and he’ll be back, so he’ll be fine). So that leaves Cooper, Dafoe and Malek. Malek’s possible, and in fact I think this is Rhapsody’s best chance at a big award, but Cooper is in a similar(ish) role and his film is generally less problematic. On the other hand, if Star wins Best Picture, Cooper picks up an award there, and Academy members do like to spread awards around these days. But on the other other hand: Willem Dafoe, who like Close is certainly eligible for the “Career Oscar” treatment, and whose performance as Vincent Van Gogh is widely acclaimed. I am personally vaguely annoyed that a 63-year-old actor is playing “the final years” of a man who died at 37, but honestly who cares what I think about that.

This category I’m not sold on any particular person being the front runner, but for now I’ll go with Dafoe and see if it sticks in the next few weeks. If not Defoe, I’ll say Malek, with Cooper consoling himself(!) with a mere Best Picture statuette.

Will Win: Dafoe
Should Win: Bale

SUPPORTING ACTOR

Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice

Ali and Rockwell have won Oscars within the last couple of years and I don’t think there is a huge belief among Academy members that they absolutely must have another one right now, so I’m going to go ahead and drop them out of consideration. Adam Driver I think is happy to be here! Good for him, I think we’ll see him in this category again at least a couple more times in the future. I don’t think it’s his year (although if it is, that’s gonna be a good sign for Spike Lee). I’m delighted to see Grant in the category as I’ve been a fan of his since How to Get Ahead in Advertising, and I think there is a pretty good chance he’ll get the nod. But at the end of the day I think it’s Sam Elliot’s to lose, and I will be surprised if he does.

Will Win: Elliot
Should Win: Elliot

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Stone and Weisz already have Oscars and again there’s not a huge rush to give either another. And after that, who knows? Any of the other three could take it. My money is on Adams, who is a multiple nominee, is edging into “she should have an Oscar as some point so why not now” territory, and whose Oscar win would take care of Vice’s Oscar recognition generally. But King and de Tavira should not be counted out, particularly King, who already won a Golden Globe for this role, and otherwise has recently won an Emmy. So: We’ll see!

Will Win: Adams
Should Win: King

Other Awards: I’ve already talked about Foreign Language — if Roma wins, it’s likely to be A Star Is Born’s night; if not, then Roma is still in the running for Best Picture. If Lady Gaga doesn’t get Actress, she will be able to content herself with an Original Song Oscar, as “Shallow,” which she co-wrote, is a prohibitive favorite in the category. In the screenplay categories, I’m feeling The Favourite and also maaaaaaybe BlacKkKlansman, the latter being a place where Academy members have a chance to give Spike Lee his competitive Oscar (but I’m very soft on that prediction). If you’re wondering where Black Panther has a shot, see Costume and Production Design, with (I think) Costume being the best chance (It’s also up in the Sound categories, but I don’t have a feel for those).

I do think a superhero film will win an Oscar: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is I think the hot tip for the Animated Film Oscar. Incredibles 2 might still take it (which would not be the worst thing, it’s perfectly good!), and I have to say I have a soft spot for Ralph Breaks the Internet, because my pal Pamela Ribon co-wrote the screenplay, and it’s hilarious. But, yeah. Spider-Man was a game-changer, and if it doesn’t win, it was robbed.

I’ll check in again just before the actual ceremony to see if my feelings about the categories have changed at all. In the meantime, you may now entertain your own Oscar thoughts in the comments.

The Big Idea: Django Wexler

Every hero has a journey — or so it would seem — but does that have to be the journey we expect them to take? Django Wexler asks that very question in this Big Idea for his new novel Ship of Smoke and Steel.

DJANGO WEXLER:

There’s a story we like to tell in science fiction and fantasy: call it the “journey to power”.

The parameters of it are so obvious they almost don’t bear repeating. Our protagonist (orphan farmboy, penniless waif, lowly ensign) begins in a position with no power or authority. Over the course of the story, they gradually improve their lot, often as a side effect of pursuing other, more altruistic goals. The farmboy becomes a master swordsman, the waif leads a revolution against the oppressive state, the ensign assumes command of the starship in a crisis. By the conclusion, they can look back from the dizzying heights and reflect on how far they’ve come, and perhaps laugh about how provincial concerns like local bullies seem on the eve of the Final Battle.

I’m being reductive, of course, but this thread or something like it is at the root of many, many SFF narratives, and for good reason. It’s immensely satisfying — the underdog who we identify with almost automatically slowly getting the upper hand. Often there’s a contrast between those in power at the start of the story, who abuse their authority, and the hero, who wields power justly and honestly. It’s a story most of us can identify with, because almost everyone knows what it’s like to begin at the bottom of some field, and we can all enjoy the fantasy of becoming powerful enough to give petty tyrants their comeuppance.

Let me stress that this is a good story, which is part of some of my absolute favorite works. It’s in Harry Potter, The Wheel of Time, and Star Wars. (The journey to power overlaps, but is not identical to, the more familiar Hero’s Journey of Campbellian fame.) I’ve used it in my own works, many times. Winter’s story, in The Shadow Campaigns, follows her journey from lowly ranker through sergeant, regimental officer, and finally commanding general, from the front lines to the heights of power.

In my middle-grade fantasy, The Forbidden Library, the protagonist Alice becomes a powerful Reader over the course of the series, accumulating contracts with magical creatures than increase her repertoire of abilities. In fact, one of my favorite moments in that series comes in the fourth book: having spent nearly all her time since encountering magic in strange alternate worlds battling monsters, Alice finds herself spat out, alone and penniless, on a Florida beach. (The story takes place in the early 1930s, so no cell phones or internet to the rescue …) She makes her way back to her home in Pittsburgh, and in the process discovers just how powerful her abilities make her in the “normal” world — she can go anywhere, do anything, and no one stop her. I like it as a moment of reflection, that pause just before the summit where we look down at how far we’ve come.

Ship of Smoke and Steel, my new YA fantasy, has a very long history in my archives. It was originally called Soliton (the name of the colossal ghost ship that is the primary setting) and it made good use of the journey to power. Our protagonists (originally there were two of them) were poor orphans, unaware of their magical abilities, who were abducted to be given to Soliton, which collects mage-bloods for mysterious reasons. Once aboard, they had to make their way in the dangerous, lawless society of the monster-haunted ship, gradually uncovering their own power along the way.

That first attempt never quite worked out — it was part of a somewhat ill-conceived Massive Worldbuilding Project, the sort of thing that starts with “Year 0: The World is Created by The Gods” and pages of maps on millimeter graph paper, and it collapsed under its own weight — and the ideas for Soliton lay dormant in my files for many years. (Writer pro tip: never throw anything away.) When I got the chance to return to them, after more than a decade and nine novels, I decided to take a different approach. (n.b. different as in “different from what I had done before” — I certainly have no claim to originality in the genre!)

Isoka, the protagonist of Ship of Smoke and Steel, is a powerhouse from the beginning of the story. She is an adept of Melos, one of the Nine Wells of Sorcery, the Well of combat and war, which grants her energy blades and nearly impenetrable armor. When we first meet her, she’s an enforcer in a criminal organization, laying waste to a gang of rivals. And while she learns a few new tricks over the course of the book, by and large this is not a story about her coming into her power — she’s already done that.

Instead, Isoka’s story is what you might call a journey to empathy. Apart from a younger sister, to whom she’s obsessively devoted, Isoka starts the book with a callous disregard for the feelings or welfare of others, happy to slaughter her way to the solution of any problem. Soliton, when she’s shanghaied on board, presents her with a situation that can’t be solved by cutting it to pieces, both physically (it’s full of giant monsters and other adepts) and emotionally (much to her surprise, she falls in love with a princess). Her struggle with this is the heart of the book.

Why do it this way? Some of it is just how the characters came to me, of course. Some of it, as I said, is just wanting to try something I haven’t done before. And I think some of it comes from the outside world — this book was written in 2017, and with times being what they are, it’s the journey to empathy that really speaks to me right now. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope it speaks to all of you, too.

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Ship of Smoke and Steel: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.