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October 24, 2011

Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris

I recently finished the most recent Sookie Stackhouse book, Dead Reckoning, and I've been debating whether it's worth writing a review. I've written a couple Sookie Stackhouse book reviews before (Dead in the Family, All Together Dead and so I think my general feelings of affection for this series of books is well known and had not changed with the reading of this latest book.

Dead ReckoningSince I really have nothing new to add about my appreciation of Sookie Stackhouse, another option would be to comment on the quality of this book in comparison to others in the series. In all honesty, however, I hate when people nit-pick about how the most recent book or most recent season/installment, etc. of some line of previously beloved fiction is not as good or didn't live up to expectations. Unless there is a serious, steep decline, or anomalous direction taken in a series, why be picky? What happens, I think, is that the first encounter with good fiction is such an unexpected and, in many ways, pure, unblemished experience that people put it up on a pedestal, and nothing can ever compare to that first, fresh encounter. I'm of the mind that good fiction is hard enough to find, and we shouldn't nit-pick when we do.

This is not to say I found Dead Reckoning to be sub-par in any way. What I can say is that it was "quieter" than the last book, Dead in the Family, where there were a lot of conflicts crossing paths and stories coming to fruition. There are two major climactic moments in Dead Reckoning, and one, at least, is quite large in scale, but for the rest of the time this book is more mellow in terms of plot action.

A couple of things I noticed and appreciated about this book. First, the development of Sookie as a character gets more interesting and complex as the story goes forward. While the character of Sookie (and the books as a whole) don't lose their whimsical, folksy nature, the dark and violent parts are well balanced; this point is increasingly an issue, as we would expect repeated trauma and violence to have an effect on our main character by this time in the series. Harris does a good job developing Sookie's inner conflict of morality, without letting the story get bogged down by moralizing. Sookie struggles with, but for the most part accepts, her reality where she has become, not only a victim of the violence, but also a part of the violence. How much violence is too much for Sookie? Where does she reach her breaking point? These are major themes dealt with practically and believably.

The other thing I've been enjoying about the most recent books is that Charlaine Harris seems to be engaging in an odd sort of meta-fictional conversation with the television series based on her books. Sometimes it can be as simple as an inside reference (in the last book, folks in Merlotte's bar are listening to the True Blood theme song on the jukebox), but other times she seems to be reclaiming her story as her own. Maybe it's because she figures the TV show will never get as far as she has written now and so it doesn't matter. The first major change was in the last book when she wrote her own version of the story of Bill being changed by Lorena, an element of back-story that the tv show had taken the liberty of making up already, and in doing so she is essentially reclaiming that plot element as her own.

In Dead Reckoning, she seems to be openly defying the show, albeit in a playful and good-natured way. One aspect of the books that was purposefully left out of the tv series was the vampire Elvis character. Supposedly, getting the rights from the Elvis estate to use his name and likeness would have been too complex and/or expensive. In the books, the character of Bubba, who acts as a body-guard and enforcer for the other vampires, is purported to be the actual Elvis brought over as a vampire right after death; however, because he was so drug-addled at the time, the vampire Bubba suffers from some mental and emotional limitations. Hearing his real name or references to his past life sends him into a state of rage and emotional distress, so people can only call him Bubba (and perhaps that's how Charlaine Harris got around the name rights issue; I don't believe the name "Elvis" even appears in the books, only clear, but euphemistic references like "the king" or "the man from Memphis"). While the Bubba character has always been largely cursory to the plot, in this book, he is made a pivotal and central part of the biggest plot point in the book.

Last but not least, Harris also reveals--again, in a rather quiet way--the true source of Sookie's telepathic powers. Not only is this a major reveal for the series (perhaps the longest-awaited reveal), but it takes yet another stab at the mythology of the TV series, which has already taken the liberty of postulating the source of Sookie's powers.

June 08, 2011

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

CoverI suppose the most accurate thing I can say about Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker is that I didn't hate it. Further, I can credit it with keeping my attention. So many enormous epic fantasy audiobooks get returned to the library before I finish reading them (which did happen here) and never get re-ordered (this one actually did).

Brandon Sanderson is a newly crowned heavy-hitter in modern fantasy. His inaugural solo publications (such as Elantris) held promise, and then he was chosen to aid the terminally ill Robert Jordan in finishing his vast Wheel of Time epic. Sanderson is now a full-fledged epic fantasy author of large reputation. Problem is, I find the quality of Sanderson's stories pretty middle-of-the-road.

Part of my unenthusiastic reception to this book comes from the fact that it is a certain shiny, glowing sort of epic fantasy, all about bright castles of polished marble, bored and snarky men-made-gods and characters who talk like modern day Americans. This novel comes down definitively on the "sorcery" side of "sword and sorcery," and does not much medieval/historical sort of world-building. The center of this story is its high concept magic revolving around Sanderson's invention of "bi-chroma," a color-laden version of the concept of the soul (at least, a partial soul). Both of the main characters, while not one dimensional, are certainly not challenging in any way. They are both young, naive girls with the moxy to take on great odds and defy authority to make a difference in the world. They don't wrestle with moral conflicts of any depth, or at least not ones the reader can relate to (Vivenna's moral qualms over accepting a supply of bio-chroma isn't exactly an issue burning in the heart of contemporary man).

Sanderson's fantasy is "clean." The story is crisply plotted, the concepts are well-explained, the characters are likable, if not incredibly nuanced. Despite a few moments of violent conflict, this novel is certainly not belonging to the genre of gritty realism within fantasy. It was simply not my style, but despite this fact, Sanderson did, at least, give me motivation to read on.
 
One more thing must, unfortunately, be said about this novel on audiobook. Normally I don’t mention much by way of review of the audio production unless it is downright fantastic (such as in the case of Sookie Stackhouse books or anything by Orson Scott Card). I must say that this audiobook reading rubbed me the wrong way. The more I listened to it, the more I managed to ignore it, but the audio actor (I’m purposely not looking up his name because I don’t want to blame it on him if his performance was prompted by the audiobook director) had a tone of voice in reading this novel that was a bit overdone. It reminded me of the way a teacher might read chapters of a book to his fourth grade class. Again, not fatal, but it affected my enjoyment of the book in a subtle way.

February 11, 2011

Zero History by William Gibson

CoverFamed for his canonical novel, <i><a href="http://arwz.com/zinereviewSKS31.php">Neuromancer</a></i>, William Gibson is among the few classic SFF authors still producing regularly today. His latest novel, <i>Zero History</i>, echos my experience with some of his other recent works, including <a href="http://arwz.com/zinereviewVIO54.php"><i>Pattern Recognition</i></a> and <i>Spook Country</i>. Which is to say, I like it... sort of.

This novel did not start off very strongly for me. The initial build-up and scene-setting was simply too abstract for my taste. I had a difficult time holding on to anything concrete, be it characters, scenes, plot lines, etc. It took me awhile to get a handle on exactly what was going on and who were the major players. Once I got situated in the story, I found some intriguing threads to follow, but the journey there was longer than I would have entertained in a print book (I read this novel on audiobook during my daily commute).

Characters Hubertus Bigend, Hollis Henry and Milgrim from Gibson's <i>Spook Country</i> are back to find themselves entangled in a new round of semi-covert interactions. Bigend has hired Hollis to research a secretive clothing line called Gabriel Hounds, bringing Milgrim in to assist following a Bigend-funded off-the-grid stint in rehab. The concept of a clothing line so secret that nobody knows where to buy it is an alluring plotline in Gibson's fashion. The characters of Hollis and Milgrim are appealing, the character of Bigend both larger-than-life and mysterious.

The problem with this novel, and the previous ones, is that it goes in and out of being compelling for me. It keeps my interest often enough for me to continue listening to the audiobook, but my attention fades for stretches and comes back. The characters and plots are interesting enough for me to pick up on for a time, but I feel that ultimately they are not compelling enough to keep consistent interest. This novel reads, perhaps, more like a conversation than a story. There are lots of intriguing bits, but I wasn't terribly concerned with where they were going. I'd just tune in when the line of thought piqued my interest, and tune out when it lost me.

I'm sure Gibson fans would love this book, and perhaps readers with a better attention span than me.

February 04, 2011

Moonlight, the Complete Series

CoverMoonlight is one of those phenomena you hear about among cult cadres of SFF fans bemoaning the cancellation of a promising show before its time. I finally got my hands on the DVDs the sole season of Moonlight a few weeks back, and while it's no <a href="http://arwz.com/zinereviewRYH1.php">Firefly</a>, there is some merit to the cult complaints. Still, I think this series is ultimately plagued by the question:

"Do we really need another vampire romance?"

Further, do we need another rehashing of the vampire mythos? Another spin on vampire lore with a slightly different set of rules? Another on screen telling of the pathos of the relationship between an immortal and a human? The answer is that unless it also brings something spiffy and new to the table, then no. The genius and vision of Joss Whedon's <a href="http://arwz.com/zinereviewVIO2.php">Buffy</a>? Yes. The charm and irreverence of <a href="http://arwz.com/blog1/2010/07/dead_in_the_family_by_charlain_1.php">Sookie Stackhouse</a> and <a href="http://arwz.com/blog1/2010/08/true_blood_season_two.php">Trueblood</a>? Yes. Moonlight? Er... probably not.

It's unfortunate, though, because this series had a lot to recommend it. The vampire mythos it creates is interesting, just not revolutionary. The writing is good, just not sparklingly fantastic. The actors are appealing, if a bit too "WB" (despite being on CBS!). If fact, this series was almost completely recast, save for leading man and apparently fast track up-and-comer Alex O'Loughlin, who seems to have been in ever new series on network television in the last three years (forgive a gal for some hyberbole?), in order to give the show that "young and cute" appeal.

Leading man O'Loughlin is probably the foremost strength of this show. Not only does he have the young and the cute, but he has gravity and complexity as well as some lighter and comedic appeal. I can see why he's popping up everywhere in television pilots, because he has a lot of Hollywood star cred. While this show may suffer from not being "different enough" from other vampire fiction, it's not without novelty in its storytelling. O'Loughlin's character, Mick, has a couple of standout storylines. One is his quest as an "anti-vampire vampire" to find a cure for vampirism when the mysterious reappearance of his thought-dead vampire wife suggests that it may be possible. Vampires longing to be human, of course, are nothing new (ahem... Angel), but the way this storyline plays out with the ex-wife, the new girlfriend and his passionate resentment against being turned (in a mythos where the biggest downsides to being a vampire are not being able to eat real food and having to sleep in a freezer) makes the plot intriguing and refreshingly character-centered. Mick's anti-vampire sentiments reach a particularly dramatic pitch when he refuses to turn a series regular in order to save his life. Another highlight is when Mick discovers he may have fathered a son (before he was turned in the 1950's) and finds himself confronted by his missed humanity and a middle-aged son in a storyline that is peculiarly touching.

It's not difficult to see why this show was canceled. A rather ordinary rehash of the tried and true vampire storyline wasn't bound to survive very long on CBS. Maybe it would have had a chance on the WB or another secondary network, and maybe it would have grown into something more unique given some time. It was entertaining, well enough written and acted that there would have been plenty of room to grow, but just not enough of a seed to keep general public watching.

January 26, 2011

Towers of Midnight

CoverI will say right off that Towers of Midnight is the THIRTEENTH book in the Wheel of Time series, and so anyone not familiar with the series needs to go back to the beginning and read the first twelve books before starting in on this one. It may take you awhile, but believe me, it will be worth it. Once you're caught up to speed on the first twelve books Towers of Midnight will offer you something that you've been waiting for. What is that?

Resolution. Robert Jordan was a master of creating narratives and interweaving them to create a world where major characters can effect one another in major ways without ever even having met, but with all of these intricate story lines resolution of the major plot points has been long in coming. But it is here. Brandon Sanderson, writing for the now deceased Jordan, answers questions that have been plaguing readers for four or five books now. In this penultimate novel, true identities are revealed, characters come to realizations about themselves and their cultures, and major moves are made that will plunge the world into chaos as the last battle approaches.

Here's a heads up on what the major characters are up to. Rand, fresh from his life changing revelation at the end of the previous novel, sets about trying to put right the world that he has torn asunder, while also keeping an eye on his upcoming confrontation at Shayol Ghul. Perrin and Faile are still stuck herding an army and a group of refugees toward safety, but soon they cross paths with a group of whitecloaks. The confrontation will lead both parties in a direction they never imagined possible. Mat is once again in Camelyn, but he is less than thrilled when he discovers a bounty has been placed on his head. While dodging assassins, Mat also has to deal with the sinister gholam. Thom, Mat and Noal all still have a difficult task ahead of them, the rescue of Moiraine Damodred from the Eelfinn and Aelfinn. Aviendha completes her training to become a Wise One, but is disturbed by new revelations concerning the fate of the Aiel. Egwene is struggling to piece the White Tower back together, a task made more difficult by the knowledge that among the Aes Sedai lurks one of the Forsaken. Woven throughout the novel is an account of Lan's journey toward Tarwin's Gap and a battle which he cannot hope to win.

All over the world plans are in motion, and no one knows who will survive the coming conflict. Many questions will be answered in this novel, but still more are left to be resolved in the fourteenth and final installment of the WOT series. Look for the final book A Memory of Light in the fall of 2011.

December 06, 2010

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

CoverBetter known for his literary fiction in more or less contemporary settings, Michael Chabon is a writer I have often been curious to try, but previously have not had the time or motivation to read. I was excited recently when I happened upon an audio version of Gentlemen of the Road

This story turns out to be a calculated departure from the "literary fiction" of his existing canon. For those of you who may not be familiar with the lingo from within university writing programs, "literary fiction" is a term reserved for the work of writers striving to create serious art, whereas "genre fiction" of "commercial fiction" is the derivative and formulaic claptrap written for the mindless public... in other words, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, adventure, etc. You know, all the books we enjoy reading. After all, books with swords, sorcery, space travel, other planets, etc. can't possibly be serious art. But I digress.

It turns out Chabon is similarly skeptical about this artificial division between the literary and the "not so literary." In his afterword to this novel, he discusses his desire to write a rousing tale in the tradition of adventure fiction. I certainly applaud his motivation and his effort. That's why I read and write fantasy. However, while I admire what Chabon was trying to do, to break free of the constraints of his literary background for a rip-roaring adventure novel, I think he only partially succeeded.

Old habits are hard to break, and I think Chabon brings a lot of his literary breeding into this novel, and that is in places good and bad. I generally do prefer an economical writing style, and his is crisp and clear with strong verbs and nouns. However, in his effort to be elaborate in his writing, perhaps to hearken back to the florid prose of genre forebears, the vocabulary ends up being a little too dense. I, of all people, plead guilty to using too many million dollar words, but with so many vivid words in so economical a style, I felt like the audiobook narrator barely had time to breath, let alone the reader. Chabon's economical literary styles comes into play with his use of plot elements, as well, including characterization and world-building. The problem is that in literary fiction, one can pay very close attention to character and plot without necessarily worrying about world-building. Since literary fiction is often set in the contemporary world, the writer can do double duty with many plot details, evoking what the reader already knows about modern life or recent history to set a scene while with the same detail developing character or scene. For this reason historical fiction writers and fantasy fiction writers typically have to spend more time separately on both. In this way, pacing has become a very important part of the genre. Don't get me wrong, it is a delicate balance, and many genre writers do go over the edge with too much description and too meandering a path on their way to the plot, but I feel Chabon has erred in a different direction. This book seems simply too short to me for a proper adventure tale. Part of getting into the other-worldly setting of a historical or fantasy adventure is spending time with it. A large part of what the reader enjoys is spending time with the characters, spending time in the world, watching the characters interact, feeling the wonder or hardships of the setting. Chabon's economical style may work well for literary fiction, but I felt like the time we spent within his story was just to brief to get absorbed by the world and the characters.  

I found this novel to be too suffuse with the author's literary writing habits to be as rip-roaring as I would have hoped. Certainly a worthwhile read, though, and since it is so short, most adventure/fantasy readers should be able to fit it easily into their reading lists.

November 11, 2010

Ender in Exile by Orson Scott Card

CoverThere has always been a certain dichotomy in fans of the Ender series. There are those who favor the books that feature the characters as children, and those who prefer the books detailing the lives of the characters as adults. It seems I meet more of the former than the latter, but whatever camp you fall into, there is no denying that Ender in Exile attempts to fill in the gap between the two with a novel Card terms a "mid-quel."

In fact, this novel attempts, not only to unite the two parts of the Ender series, previously separated by the gulf of Ender's untold young adulthood, but also to draw the story of Bean, which plays out in the Shadow series, into the narrative of Ender's life. As one might expect, then, this novel is a story of loose ends, resulting in a somewhat meandering plot structure. It takes Ender from the battle school barracks after the war, to his appointment as governor of the first human colony where he finds the last hive queen, to a confrontation with Bean's misguided biological son. Of course, because of relativistic space travel, this novel takes Ender far enough forward in time to outlive his brother and parents (but not Valentine, who is along for the ride).

This novel is certainly entertaining the the fashion Card fans have learned to expect. It doesn't really form a cohesive story; it reads more like a telling of smaller episodes. The novel may have seemed more cohesive if Card had stuck to Ender's point of view. As it is, point of view characters include Ender's parents, a colony biologist, two Italian colonists, among others. These points of view are not consistently sprinkled throughout the story, and seem to pop in at Card's convenience. It's Card writing here, so these forays into new characters and story lines are well-written and interesting. As a result, though, I would say that this novel is most certainly pitched toward dedicated Card readers and wouldn't serve a new reader well, or even as a direct sequel to someone who has only read Ender. Most of the intrigue of these books relies upon a prior familiarity with Card's characters and story-lines.

October 26, 2010

Lover Avenged by J.R. Ward

CoverLover Avenged is the seventh book in JR Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series. It is only the second book of the series that I have read. It may be helpful to know the characters from at least one other book before plunging into this novel, however, like most urban fantasy series, this one is primarily episodic and any astute reader should be able to pick up here without feeling lost.

This book, as with the previous one I read, is a hybrid of action/fantasy genre and romance genre storytelling. On the action/fantasy side of things, we have street-fighting and vampirism, multiple viewpoint characters and intertwining story-lines, hidden identities and the secret powers that come with them. On the romance side of things you have, not one, but two story-lines where couples wrestle with misunderstandings and doubt to discover their attraction and eventual love for each other. These characters might be sporting body-piercings and mohawks, rather than bodices and surcoats, but these are still textbook examples of romance genre stories.

I can tolerate romance in small doses, and the mixing of romance with fantasy improves my capacity for tolerance, since there are other story-lines with meatier plot issues to dilute the romance. The trouble I had with this book was the length. I'm tempted to say that it's a pacing issue, but I also think that it may be simply a matter of tackling too many stories in one book. If Ward had kept to the Rehvenge/Ehlena romance and the Wrath storyline, it would have been enough. As it was, all the other story-lines kept things going a bit too long for me and I got tired and impatient as the book wore on. Perhaps this book is simply the consequence of having too many threads leftover from previous novels, and so perhaps dedicated fans would not find the fleshing out of these stories tiresome. But as a sometime reader, I found that the book lagged toward the end.

This average fantasy reader will likely find this book mildly entertaining; it is probably more palatable to romance enthusiasts.

September 29, 2010

Melting Stones by Tamora Pierce

CoverMelting Stones is the latest book by author Tamora Pierce. It’s the story of a young mage named Evy. For those of you who read Pierce, you will remember that Evy’s last appearance was in the Circle Opens book, Street Magic. In which the long time character Briar Moss finds Evy and begins teaching her how to use her magic.

For anyone who does not read Pierce’s work regularly, there are two different realities, or universes, in which she usually writes. The first is the Tortall universe, which includes her first series, Song of The Lioness, and usually involves characters who are at least marginally involved with the main character from those books. It is geared toward older readers, teens and young adults.

The Circle of Magic books, however, are geared toward younger readers, and this is the universe that Melting Stones belongs to. This collection includes the books from Circle of Magic, and Circle Opens, as well as stand alone books like The Will of The Empress, and Melting Stones. I mention these other books because they are the stories of Evy’s teacher and first friend, Briar Moss, as well as her guardian Dedicate Rosethorn. They are also all good reads.

In Melting Stones, Pierce has taken the opportunity to create a character unlike any other she has ever written. Most of her main characters, particularly the young girls, are driven people, ready and eager to go out in to the world and do something great. They are all hungry for knowledge, and skills, and willing to listen to their beloved teachers because they provide these things that they need so desperately. Evy is different.

Evy was a hungry street child when Briar saved her in Street Magic. She isn’t yet so far away from the streets that she’s forgotten what it was to be hungry and alone. She also went through a war with Briar and Rosethorn, a war that has only been made mention of, though a book about the events has been promised. After this sort of life, Evy is understandably falling out of love with Mankind in general. She is attached to Rosethorn, because Rosethorn shows her love in her own crotchety sort of way. But even Briar she has reservations about, because he left her alone to go "adventuring," as she sees it (Though in truth he’s off risking his life with his sisters. You can read about that in The Will of The Empress). And so, unlike many of Pierce’s characters, Evy is mostly out for number one. Until, that is, she sees what kind of life results from those pursuits.

In Melting Stones, Evy, Rosethorn, and an assortment of new characters are off to an island that is having a strange problem. Their plants are dying, and their water is being poisoned. Rosethorn, and a Water temple dedicate named Myrrhtide, are there to find out what is wrong. Evy, who’s magic centers around stones, is there mostly to tag along with the only person she really likes. This situation changes when it is discovered that the problem lies in a volcano that is about to erupt on the island. Evy finds out that the volcano is being caused by a pair of beings that she names Flame and Crimson. They have the mentality of children who are bored, and want to break out of their underground world and see something new. While these creatures, who are basically lava beings, understand that breaking out into the open sky will kill them, they don’t understand, or don’t care, that it will also kill everyone on the island.

Knowing that she can’t stop them forever, Evy must instead find a way to slow them down, while Rosethorn and Myrrhtide do their best to get everyone off of the island.

True to the fact that this book is intended for children, there is an inclusion of a character that I found interesting as a character, but moronic in what the character was. It is the heart of a mountain, which has decided to travel with Evy instead of staying inside of his mountain.  His name is Luvo. Again, he is an interesting character, but a very child like one.

All in all though, Evy’s story has been a fascinating one. She has changed and grown, and her stories continue to be fascinating. I would suggest giving Melting Stones a read. Once again, Pierce has proven that she is a writer to follow.

September 22, 2010

Crackdown 2: A Brave (not so) New World

CoverAn addictive sandbox game with a sci-fi twist, Crackdown 2 picks up where the 2007 original left off. The player controls a genetically modified clone soldier of the shady but powerful Agency, an arm of the government scrambling to maintain its Big Brother-like control of Pacific City. Referred to as "Agent," the player customizes the character by choosing one of several men's faces (sorry ladies) and an armor color, and begins the journey after a brief training session.

The Agent's progression is tracked through five basic attributes: Agility, Driving, Strength, Firearms and Explosives which are leveled by a combination of finding a variety of orbs and destroying enemies by various means. For example, to raise the Strength attribute enemies must be killed with melee attacks, improvised weapons like thrown cars or light poles, or by discovering carefully placed Mystery Orbs that give an incremental across the board ability boost (Agility Orbs scatter rooftops, unique renegade orbs that improve Agility and Driving must be chased and grabbed). Raised attributes are demonstrable in not only the Agent’s physical strength and speed but also access to superior weapons and vehicles. At the beginning players will drive everywhere, only to eschew cars almost entirely when Agility is high enough to run and jump across the rooftops to travel as the crow flies.

Agent uses every tool at his disposal to reclaim hostile strongholds and activate light beacons as the primary missions, with two main enemy groups in opposition: the Cell, "freedoms fighters" led by activist (and former Agency researcher) Catalina Thorne, and a zombie-like horde of nocturnal enemies referred to as the Freaks, whose origin is revealed via discoverable audio logs scattered
throughout the city. The stronghold and beacon missions drive the story, complemented by welcome distractions common to sandbox-style games such as road races and vehicle stunts.

Mandatory cinematics and the voiceover of Agent’s handler provide an outline of the story, but the details are filled in by the previously mentioned collectible Audio Logs. Crackdown 2’s addictive nature comes from the use of collectibles (numbering over one thousand) to enhance the player and open more of the world as well as new abilities. The graphics are great but not excellent and may serve as a source of frustration to original Crackdown gamers as there is little improvement (the map layout is identical as well), while the game’s sound could benefit from more music and louder gunfire. The controls are responsive, but small lapses in the consistency of climbable surfaces occur. Overall, gamers will find Crackdown 2 an engrossing and addictive sandbox experience.

GRAPHICS:      4/5
SOUND:      3.5/5
CONTROLS:  4.5/5
OVERALL:      4/5

September 15, 2010

Hidden Empire by Orson Scott Card

CoverWhen I read the first book of this series, Empire, I was frankly a little disappointed. It somehow didn't "scratch the itch" for an Orson Scott Card story. The premise suffered from some believability issues in my estimation, and... well, something just seemed to be missing. Couldn't put my finger on it and couldn't figure out exactly why. I thought maybe Card's own politics were getting in the way.

To a certain extent that may have been true, but after reading Hidden Empire and enjoying a true return to form, I have come to believe differently. Empire suffered, I think, because it was based on a premise that did not originally come from Card's imagination. He was brought into the project by video game makers who wanted to create an entertainment franchise surrounding a game about a near future American civil war. I believe now that's what was missing, a concept of Card's own creation.

Hidden Empire contains just as much of what we can presume are Card's political opinions, but it has the same essence of story and characters that I have come to expect from Card's fiction, and was sorely missing from Empire. His starting concept of a plague hitting the African continent is much more subtle and believable than the American civil war he spins in Empire and as a result Card is able to do much more interesting things with it.

He challenges his characters to make moral and ethical decisions while facing this new crisis and challenges his readers to imagine what we might do in their place. There is action for certain, intricate political machinations, but the most compelling part of this story, as with any of Card's stories, is emotion. We as readers care what is at stake for the characters while we are fascinated by the twists and turns the story takes.

While Card does reveal many of his conservative viewpoints, along with more than a few plugs for Fox News, his perspective on politics, history and the future, and the way it all gets woven into the story, is fascinating and educational. Some of his views (if we presume most of the views expressed are his, to some extent) aren't traditionally conservative, at least not fully, such as requiring all land vehicles to be electric so to conserve fossil fuels for jet and rocket engines. 

This series gets a bad rap for Card's conservatism. The first book deserved a bad rap, but not for the politics, rather the ho hum story execution. Hidden Empire is a return to everything I love about Card. If I get Card in top form, then I have no problem taking the conservative politics right along with him.

August 26, 2010

Birdemic: Shock and Terror

coverBirdemic: Shock and Terror Is Really An Inconvenient Cinematic Catastrophe (In A Good Way)
 
When I first heard about Birdemic: Shock and Terror on CBS Sunday Morning a few months ago, I thought it was great: a Vietnamese immigrant utilizes his own money to make a movie. A bad movie.

Birdemic: Shock and Terror is so incredibly poorly created, it is awesome!

First a side note: I myself am a fairly “wooden” actor who is grateful beyond words that people cast me, even for projects in which I don't receive financial rewards. In my humble opinion, if you're in the independent film “business” on any level and haven't see this movie: shame on you.

James Nguyen's project is one of sincerity, passion and conviction. On the outset, it's too bad for him he doesn't know anything about making a film, but that is nearly all of the charm and there are dividends in the end.

Much like another “worst movie of all time” candidate, Manos: Hands of Fate, the flick starts with a long drive down a road as credits (some of which are misspelled) roll. Much of the initial filming is done with half of the Ford Mustang dashboard obstructing your view. Some of the trip has the camera pointed directly at the guard rail whizzing by at the side of the road. This endears you immediately to the filmmaker, and makes you laugh uproariously.

To say that the audio tracking is haphazard is an understatement in every sense of the word. It is patchwork in just about every recorded discussion.

Lead Alan Bagh is Rod, a blue Mustang-driving, crisp white shirt-wearing stud. In the opening moments of the movie, Rod boldly skips out on his restaurant tab to ham-fistedly approach Victoria Secret in-waiting model Nathalie (a photogenic Whitney Moore), who also seemed to skip out on her breakfast bill. Rod recognizes Victoria from English class in high school (she failed to make the connection but quickly agreed to exchange business cards anyway). Their dialog would later suggest that neither paid attention in school.

On the job, Rod makes a “million dollar sale” with the same intensity as you see any magazine salesman on late-night infomercials. Meanwhile, successful Nathalie is making bedroom eyes to a camera while inside, YES, a one-hour photo store. These kids have it going on!

Undertones of doom are foreshadowed as a nondescript TV news anchor in a Toho-inspired newsroom talks about disappearing polar bears. Oooh.

After much courting, we catch a first glimpse of Nguyen's CGI lovebirds in a tree. It reminds sharp-eyed viewers of the winged creatures in Disney's “Song of the South.”

We meet Rod's obnoxious friend and Nathalie's creepy girlfriend who interestingly enough are dating. They dig each other despite the fact that the girl's entire wardrobe consists of white T-shirts that read “Imagine Peace.” They will both “get it in the neck” from the birds. Spoiler Alert!

Arguably my favorite scenes in this “cinemagic” masterpiece are when the couple are on day-long dates. They visit Nathalie's enormous mother (unquestionably the best actor in the cast) and dance in a restaurant to Damien Carter's “Just Hanging With My Family,” a snappy soul-tune about waiting for a Big Mama-prepared “favorite dish.” Nathalie's dance-moves are Travolta-esque in this instant classic.

The young lovers finally decide to rent a hotel room even though it doesn't appear as if they've wandered too far from either one's home. Beside a Tippi Hedren peek on the motel TV (Hedren gets a top five billing at the end for this faux cameo) stands a bra-and-panties' vamping Nathalie. Black wife-beater T-shirt clad Rod is impressed. They get down to smooching that sounds like water dripping and the camera pans down to reveal that their bare feet are pitch-black-dirty! Nice attention to detail.

After a JAWS-inspired first hour without a single evil bird sighting, the CGI harbingers of death violently wreck havoc, with kamikaze-sounding dive-bombs. When the birds aren't crashing and burning into gas stations, they are merely hanging in mid-air, screeching like there is no tomorrow.

Frantic Rod and Nathalie happen upon another young couple, Ramsey and Kelly, who go on an adventure that defies explanation. They save two kids whose families are massacred by the birds (one child is hiding under an SUV and unbeknown to anyone, another pops out of a car trunk), all the while, your average Southern Californian is clearly going about their daily business. Next time, Nguyen may want to crop out oblivious rush-hour traffic as horror is going down.

When the motley crew of adventurers stops who help a Dusty Rhodes/Bo Svenson/Charlie Daniels look-alike, he abruptly pulls a pistol and steals the gasoline that a mumble-mouth storekeeper price-gouged them for mere moments beforehand. Big Dust/Bo/Charlie also gets his in the neck from a flying Eagle and tumbles into a hillside with tremendous gusto. Crime doesn't pay. Our heroes leave the $1,000 tank of gas and his unused firearm roadside. About six people in the audience at my viewing each pointed toward the gas and loudly tried to get Rod's attention. It was an “in the moment” slice of life I will never forget.

The unintentional laughs are everywhere. When a tree-hugger makes a break for it after a long-winded sermon on the junk science that is Global Warming, he does so because he hears a Mountain Lion in the distance. Never mind trying to help the “grief stricken” kids that are tagging along with our heroes.

The Clip Art Eagles are without soul. They have no leader, but they despise the specter of Capitalism. Conversely, their puppetmaster Nguyen has inked a “million dollar developmental deal” as a result of this Inconvenient Catastrophe.

Birdemic is an American Dream come true. It will never be duplicated and Nguyen should simply ride this film into the sunset like the birds at the end of the movie. Harper Lee never wrote again and Nguyen should never try another movie.

August 18, 2010

True Blood, Season Two

CoverAs a DVD watcher, I'm always seeing programs a bit "after the fact." Usually this delay has little to no effect on my watching or expectations, because most of the shows I watch are not watched by every single one of my Facebook friends. True Blood, however, usually garners a random assortment of status commentary the night or morning after a new episode airs. 

As a result, I went into Season Two wondering about all the fleeting items I saw on the internet or heard in person during its first run season. I also went into Season Two having recently finished reading Living Dead in Dallas, the second book of Charlaine Harris's series upon which the show is based (I've read the books hideously out of order due to library and audiobook availability). 

One of the things I like about the True Blood series and how it uses the books as a fundamental substance is how they keep Sookie's story lines generally true to the course of events in the books (the books being first person narrative), while taking creative liberties even to the extent of making up completely new story lines for the characters who do not get viewpoint attention in the books. It gives fans of the books a grounding in the familiar, while letting the viewer still be surprised by twists and turns when they invent new plots or shake up old ones.

I felt dubiously at first when I heard, before watching this season, that the Jason character would be joining the Fellowship of the Sun. As it turned out, though, I actually liked what this subplot did for the arch of the season. Jason never really turns against vampires and subscribes wholeheartedly to Fellowship doctrine; viewers never lose the sense that he's just looking for a place to belong. I also like the fact that this plot line introduces viewers to the Newlins and other Fellowship of the Sun characters before Sookie's fateful encounter with them later in the season. While they aren't terribly likable characters, they also aren't one-dimensional villains by virtue of this extra screen time.

The other big difference in Season 2 from Book 2 is the maenad/Maryann storyline. One of my Facebook friends complained that it seemed like there was an orgy in every episode. Hearing this critique, I wondered how gratuitously the show makers had distorted the book, as there was only one orgy I could recall in the original text. While the maenad/Maryann storyline wasn't particularly interesting for me, I didn't find it, or the orgies, off-putting. Far from a gratuitous grab for ratings, the orgies feature many of the un-sexiest characters in the series and are not dwelt upon with very much screen time at all. The conclusion was clever, and I enjoyed that it gave the series an excuse for an early introduction to Sophie Ann, the Queen of Louisiana. The only thing that rubbed me the wrong way about this story line was the fact that it became the grand climax of the story while it mostly didn't have much to do with Sookie until the end. In the book, the climactic orgy scene has everything to do with Sookie finding the killer of her friend Lafayette (who is saved from death by the series in a storyline with Eric that generally fizzles).

Finally, one storyline that I'm rather on the fence about is that of Jessica, the vampire created by Bill at the end of Season One. She is a character that was created entirely for the show and has never been a part of the books. She ends up in the show dating Hoyt, who is indeed a character from the books, but a fairly minor character. Their storyline isn't uninteresting, but it seems so detached from the core stories and characters, that I often find myself wondering "Why am I watching this?"

Overall, my impression upon watching this season is that it's much better than the rumors made it out to be. In general, True Blood is consistently entertaining and it's one of the DVD sets I most look forward to getting.    

July 13, 2010

The Last Airbender: Book 1 Water

CoverM. Night Shamyalan’s latest outing in the film world abandons his penchant for twist endings and disturbing forays into the paranormal. Instead he tries his hand at a well established franchise with mixed, and mostly bad, results. The Last Airbender follows Aang, a young monk with the ability to control the air, as he avoids the fire nation and learns how to bend or control the other three elements and become the Avatar, the one person capable of reuniting and balancing the worlds. He is accompanied by two villagers of the Water tribe, Katara and Sokka, who discover Aang trapped within ice.

So let’s start with what is good about this movie: the visuals and choreography. The Last Airbender’s strongest point is its cinematic qualities. It truly captures the scope of a vast world, and manages to provide each area it visits with a unique flavor. The colors are strong and vibrant, leaving viewers slack-jawed. I have heard from some viewers that the colors and visuals are muted and washed out in the 3D version, however, the "traditional viewing" version does not suffer from these issues. 

When it comes to the fight scenes in The Last Airbender, all I can say is that they are beautifully done but lacking impact. The use and acknowledgment of Tai Chi for what it is, a combat martial art, was appreciated, but the contact of fist to flesh or armor felt hollow and lifeless. It was clear that the participants were holding back. I felt this lack of energy especially true when it came to the benders. It seemed as if the regular soldiers decided just to sit back and wait to be knocked over like bowling pins rather than try to fight, leading the fight scenes to seem more like dance sequences, very pretty and well done, but ultimately pointless in this kind of movie. 

The plot for this movie is the standard reluctant hero story archetype, with a somewhat unique twist in that the protagonist has been hiding from his role as hero for one hundred years. However, once he is discovered, he quickly, almost eagerly, accepts his role in the events to come. This quick reversal is unsettling and almost negates the sympathy that the story archetype is supposed to create between the hero and the audience. 

Where this film fails most distinctly is in the acting. With very few exceptions, every line uttered almost caused me physical pain. The dialogue was stale, trite, and painfully obvious leaving no room for emotion or intrigue from vocal inflection. Perhaps this writing style contributed to the monotone evident in the acting of every character. Whatever the case, listening to nails on a chalkboard would have been a more pleasing experience than listening to the dialogue in this film.

In summary, The Last Airbender is gorgeous to watch from the amazing visuals to well-performed dance, I mean, fight scenes. Sadly though, this film cannot overcome its horrendous acting and stale plotline. I would only recommend watching if there is nothing left to see at the theatre, and if the theatre has a five dollar special.

July 07, 2010

Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris

CoverI'm always excited to get a new Sookie Stackhouse book on audio. In my opinion, there is no better way to experience these books. Johanna Parker is such an engaging audio actress that she brings Sookie and the other characters to life in such an engaging and entertaining way that my own brain simply can't compare when I'm reading print. In fact, I've been working on reading the print version of one of the earlier Sookie books (because my library doesn't have it on audio), and I try to imagine Parker reading it as I do. It's just not the same.

As far as books in general go, anything Sookie Stackhouse beats out most any other commercial fiction. The only book I can think of that I'd read ahead of Sookie, if given the choice, is probably George R.R. Martin's latest, but that's only because it's been so many ga-zillion years wait for Dance With Dragons. Otherwise, Sookie always jumps to the top of my reading list when it's available. Charlaine Harris never disappoints with a new Sookie installment and every Sookie book is better than the majority of books in its genre.

That said, the inevitable path of the reviewer charged with the task of reviewing one of her favorites is to compare the book to others in its company, in this case, to others in its series. As Sookie Stackhouse books go, this one was slow moving in the beginning. Don't get me wrong, I could listen to Sookie eating breakfast if Johanna Parker were reading her internal thought monologue, but I found myself wondering where the book was going for much of the first half. Sookie books often have somewhat meandering plot lines, but even with that expectation, this book took some time to form into a distinctive plot. Looking back, there were events important to the resolution of the plot that happened early on, but without a distinctive "inciting incident" near the beginning of the book, it left the story directionless for a time.

Once again, this book is a great read and a must for Sookie fans. Don't expect the best of the series, but do expect reliable entertainment.

June 29, 2010

Manos, The Hands of Fate (MST3K)

CoverMystery Science Theater 3000 (often abbreviated to MST3K by its rabid fanbase) is a cult classic, created in 1988, and produced by Best Brains Inc. You probably know the basics of this show by now if you're a science fiction fan, but if not, let me lay it down for you.

Creator Joel Hodgson is trapped on a space station along with his robot sidekicks, and forced to watch terrible sci-fi B movies. Joel and his companions, Tom Servo and Crow, provide sarcastic and witty "peanut gallery" commentary on these masterpieces of cinematic trash, as well as equally corny skits in between the showing of these movies, where Joel interacts with his robot puppet friends, trading cheesy entendres and references to obscure sci-fidelica.

Perhaps their most famous feature-length endeavor finds these characters discussing "Manos, The Hands Of Fate" which has been oft rated as "The Worst Movie Of All Time." The horror anti-classic features one of the most colossally stupid and irrelevant plots ever to grace the silver screen. A classic American family of man, wife, daughter and dog encounter a small, remote shack, and its caretaker, a bearded man with deformed knees. Any small bit of logic or sense is quickly jettisoned, leaving the viewer in a mire of confusion and mild disgust. Joel and his robot friends, however, make this a much more entertaining viewing experience, with rapid-fire witticisms, critiques, and obscure to semi-obscure references directed at the cast and crew.

The genius in MST3K lies in our fascination with things that are classically camp. It seems almost an American tradition to love things that are terrible, yet to be winkingly tongue-in-cheek about it. We know it’s awful, yet we play along with a smile. MST3K allows us elitist nerds to retain our sense of superiority while indulging in something blatantly stupid. That’s why it’s such a cult classic.

The show’s weakness lies in its skits between the showing of the said films. The skits are just as cheesy and juvenile as the movies being shown, but there is almost something terrifically meta about it: a cheesy movie about cheesy B-movies. How can one go wrong?

June 22, 2010

Tricks by Ellen Hopkins

CoverAnother great one from Hopkins, but redundant characters

Since the announcement from Hopkins that she would be writing Tricks I have been extremely excited; the book lived up to all of my excitement. While Identical still remains my favorite, I loved Tricks. Much like Hopkin's other book, Impulse, I feel she has progressed a long way with the multiple points of view poetry novel. Once again, she didn't use much verity of the poetry style (such as making pictures with words), but the use of poetry was very strong and hard to notice. Where as in Impulse, the redundant lack of style was much more noticeable, the storyline and intensity of Tricks makes the reader barely notice.

The characters in this story had such variety, it was almost mind boggling. When starting to read, I was a bit intimidated by the the fact that there were five point of view characters. I also found myself questioning how she would make the story flow using five different stories. Ultimately, it came together very well. As a side note, most of the characters reminded me of characters from past Hopkins books. This book follows the viewpoints of Eden, Seth, Whitney, Ginger and Cody.

Eden (which I love her name!) is a girl from a very religious evangelical family. Eden is much comparable to Sue from Hopkin's book Burned. Being an atheist, her story was very frustrating, yet amusing. Seth is a farm boy who is secretly gay. His story was in the middle for me. I liked the beginning, but as it went on, I became impartial to it. I loved the glam feeling to his story, but just the idea behind his latter relationship creeps me out a bit. I found him somewhat comparable with Tony from Impulse. Whitney was one of the easiest to relate to (until deeper into the story). She is a virgin saving herself for the right moment. Though a virgin, she is very far from innocent. I found myself comparing her to Raeanne from Identical. As her story continued though, of all give stories, it is the story of Whitney that scared me the most.

Ginger was my favorite. She is unlike any of Hopkin's other characters I came to know and love previously. Ginger comes a family of five siblings and mother who turns tricks. It's almost surprising how her story goes given her situation, but I also found myself falling in love her with gothy friend and loved how Hopkins finally put in a girl who wasn't straight. It was refreshing to have a character who came from a bad place and with a different sexuality.

Finally there was Cody, my least favorite. He is an atypical boy working at game stop who has an addiction to gambling. I have a hard time relating to boys in books who are not gay, so that was the first set off to Cody. He wasn't that interesting of a character either, and I found his addiction to gambling frustrating. The interesting thing about his story is simple how he ended up. While interesting, it felt a little impulsive and concluded so quickly, it felt as if Hopkins just forced him to a path very quickly to make him fit into the book. The change was so random and quick, it felt unnatural.

June 16, 2010

Leverage

CoverWhile this tv show isn't precisely science fiction or fantasy, it occurred to me while watching the end of Season 2 last night that a major part of the appeal of this show is the action, the adventure and the "magic" of its conceptual underpinnings.

The premise of Leverage seems hokey at first glance, but don't let it dissuade you. This show follows a team of thieves and con-artists who have banded together to work for the proverbial "little guy," using their underhanded talents to right the wrongs inflicted by life's bullies. They use all manner of high- and low-tech tricks to pull off their contra-cons, adding appeal and cleverness to the concept. Sometimes the tech seems a little far-fetched, but the show writers in the DVD commentary claim that they check and confirm that each tech twist is indeed possible in this day and age. The premise is un-apologetically a clean-cut, action-packed revenge fantasy, and in that respect, you will not be disappointed. It is at the top of its game in the con-artist genre, but if you look for more than a concept in your fiction, don't worry, there is much more to this show.

CoverLeverage is not what I'd call an expressly character-driven show; ultimately each episode is about the plot, and you could watch the episodes out of order without missing anything significant. There are, however, underlying character threads running throughout the show that make the cast of Leverage much more likable than in your average plot-centered show. Consistent fans of Leverage will enjoy watching the character arcs over the course of seasons while the casual viewer won't feel left out of the background details. 

You'll never hear me say that Leverage is an intricate or challenging drama - it's not in the same league as a show like Dexter, to borrow a fellow example of the revenge genre. But for a fun, episodic, plot-driven show, it's definitely a crowd pleaser and one of the best of its ilk in recent years. 

April 01, 2010

The Law of Nines

CoverMost people will recognize Terry Goodkind from his Sword of Truth novels, which he published from 1994-2007. In 2009 he released his newest novel, The Law of Nines. Despite the fact that this novel contains none of his familiar characters and is not even set in the same world, readers will be able to recognize clear threads running from his previous novels into his newest book. At the end of the Sword of Truth series the people of that world were separated; some remaining there and others were transferred to a world without magic. The Law of Nines picks up in that new world thousands of years later where we meet a descendant of the main character of the earlier novels. His name is Alex Rahl.

Alex is turning 27, the very age at which his mother began to go insane. Alex's fear that he too will soon go insane is heightened when odd events erupt around him which force Alex to question his sanity. He soon falls in love with a mysterious young woman named Jax who turns out to be from another world. Jax joins him on an exciting journey, the outcome of which the fates of two worlds depends upon. Alex must come to terms with his heritage and find within himself the strength to live up to the burden which his ancestry entails.

I enjoyed this novel because it brought Goodkind's fast paced narrative to bear upon our own world. Goodkind sets the story, for the most part, in places that actually exist, which lends to the novel a feeling of reality and draws the reader into the action. Goodkind paints Alex as a normal 21st century guy and this allows readers to identify with his fear and confusion when faced with death threats and seemingly impossible magic. Goodkind sets this novel up as a much distant continuation of his earlier books and this allows his fans to feel like even though so much has changed they are getting back into familiar territory. That does not mean that you need to be familiar with Goodkind's earlier work to follow the story. There is enough background and detail filled in that the new reader can follow the story without any trouble, although readers might miss out on some of the references which are made toward the earlier novels.

In trying to establish the link between his older books and this one, Goodkind at times strayed toward being overly repetitive or seeming to be uncreative. There were times when Alex and Jax seemed to be exact copies of Richard and Kahlan. At points in the novel Alex talks about the special smile which Jax gives only to him, which was the same thing that Richard used to say about Kahlan in the Sword of Truth novels. Also, the underlying conflict that moves the plot along is a little too similar to his earlier novels.

Repetitions not withstanding, this novel was an extremely enjoyable read. It will bring a comfortable feeling of familiarity to veteran Goodkind fans and will be engrossing to any newcomers. From the first pages you will be drawn in and filled with a desire to understand what exactly is The Law of Nines.

March 19, 2010

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

CoverThe first film in the Twilight saga was a mixed bag. It was filmed before the series gathered the hype that it has, so the overall anticipation was dooming it to fail. It certainly didn’t help that the movie was not very well put together. The direction was questionable, the characters seemed to lack any joy whatsoever, and even though there were very minor deviations from the book (they ate in a diner instead of at home) the film was a literal adaptation of the novel. So much so that it lost a lot in the transition, which adds credence to the old rule, Just because it works on paper doesn’t mean it works on screen." It was also filmed in a blue hue that really made the whole thing cold and uncomfortable.

The only saving grace that could be gleaned was that the actors cast were absolutely perfect. Each actor accurately embodied their character. Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson (Bella and Edward respectively) are iconic as their literary companions, as are the actors who filled out the Cullens and now the Quileute. 

With New Moon, everything wrong with its predecessor appears to be fixed. The director was replaced by Chris Weitz (who also directed The Golden Compass, an imperfect but enjoyable film), and the story was treated with expert precision. Oh, and they got rid of that awful blue tint.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon explores Bella and Edward’s relationship by doing the only thing it can do, by having them break up. In doing so they learn just how necessary they are too each other as it literally pains them to be apart. Though Bella is devastated by her loss, she throws herself into the comfort of Jacob Black, a member of the local Indian tribe who is also not quite as he seems.  Unfortunately, Jacob has very strong feelings for Bella, but she can’t reciprocate as she is still very much in love with Edward and only views Jacob has a friend. 

In the end, a simple misunderstanding leads Edward to believe Bella dead and he feels he must end his own life. Bella, very much alive, has to travel half way around the world to try to save him before it’s too late.

Separating Bella and Edward is a necessary evil, as you can’t really understand how important their relationship is until they aren’t together anymore. Even though the story is entirely Bella-centric, visions of Edward still haunt her, especially whenever she does something that could involve her getting hurt (like riding motorcycles). Bella indulges her own daredevil self quite often just to get one of these visions.

Her relationship with Jacob is another strong point in the film and a major one for fans of the series.  Bella finds strong support in Jacob while dealing with the absence of Edward. Jacob, however, has such strong feelings for Bella, he is unable to keep them to himself. Jacob is certainly the Yin to Edwards Yang. He is literally hot (his body temp is 108 degrees), he doesn’t have much money, and he can turn into a very large werewolf. And while his tribe is at war with the vampires, they have an uneasy truce with the Cullens.

This time around, the translation from book to film is done with sculptor's hands. Changes were made to keep the film thematically interesting, but still staying true to the story and the characters. The actors are also given clearer direction, which makes for an overall much more enjoyable acting piece.

The book is a very tough read because it is all about Bella’s introspection and depression regarding Edward. This aspect weighed down the book heavily and thus it is the black sheep for the Twilight Series. Luckily, while the film does touch on this theme, it isn’t mired with the loathing and torture that the book is.

Also, while Jacob does have a big following among fans, he is very annoying in the books. He comes off as arrogant and whiny and just doesn’t know when to let go (an affliction all the characters share truthfully). The best thing about Taylor Lautner’s performance is that he imbued the role with such charm that he becomes a likable and sympathetic character whom you root for, regardless if you’re on “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob.”

New Moon was adapted just about as perfectly as you can adapt that book into a film. If you’re one of the folks who have passed judgment on the series, the film will do little to change your mind.  And even though being familiar with the Twilight isn’t required, it’s necessary truly to understand the story.

If you’re a Twilight fan who is holding out until the throng of preening teenage girls have thinned before going to the theater, you do owe yourself a trip to the cinema as soon as you can. 

March 11, 2010

Soldier Son Trilogy by Robin Hobb

CoverI finished Renegade's Magic, the final novel of Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy, and I was truly disappointed... not because the ending was less than satisfactory. Quite the contrary, I was disappointed because I knew it was the last book and I would have no more chance to read about these characters and their adventures.

This trilogy follows in first person perspective the character of Nevare Burvelle, a second son to a noble family who, because of his birth order, is destined to become a soldier for the crown. At first glance, and in truth, for the entire first book, this series appears to be a better-than-average coming of age story about a young man who goes off to the officers' academy to fulfill his destiny, armed with a mysterious magic that shapes his future and bodes of a life that will amount to more than those futures of his school comrades. In truth, much more is going on in this bookcover, events that will have bearing on the entire rest of the trilogy in a cascade of "chaos theory"-style repercussions. The first book Shaman's Crossing is an entertaining tale, but it is in the second novel, Forest Mage, that the story takes a very interesting turn.

The Soldier Son trilogy is unlikely to end up as required reading in high school English classes, but within the established fantasy genre structure this story challenges readers with plot and character twists. It tears down the very structure of expectations that it builds over the course of the first book, and dares readers to see its fantasy hero in a way, to which they are completely unaccustomed. As our hero's life and plans are derailed in unexpected ways, the reader is drawn into sympathizing with the character while at the same time decrying, "The story can't possibly continue like this!" CoverMore than once, the changes to Nevare's life and to the course of the storyline seem nearly intolerable, both for Nevare and for the reader, but just like the protagonist, readers also adjust to the new norms created by Hobb as the story unfolds. What is more remarkable though, is that in a story where magic has a mind of its own and goes even so far as to backseat the narrator in his own body, Hobb still puts the story in her protagonist's hands. Nevare drives this story at every turn, even when he is fighting the inevitable pull of the magic that has beset him.

The Soldier Son trilogy is a great pick for fantasy readers looking for a story that pushes beyond the norm while also remaining grounded in fantasy familiarities.

 

 

 

 

 

March 04, 2010

James Cameron's Avatar

CoverI’ve held off on publishing a review of the much-praised James Cameron blockbuster Avatar for a few reasons. One, I wasn’t really that excited to see it. Two, I wondered if there was anything else really to say (yes, I promise there is, keep reading). And three, I wanted to see what true longevity the event film of the decade had. With the Academy Awards coming up this weekend, and Avatar finding itself on the expanded best picture list, I thought it was time to take a deeper look at the phenomenon.

I live on the east coast and was one of the moviegoers ravaged by the blizzard in December that analysts predicted would damage the opening weekend totals for Avatar. We now know those predictors were wrong, and even though I braved the weather to get to my local cinema, it wasn’t to buy an Avatar ticket. When I walked in, I was astounded by the crowd. Not just because of the weather, but it’s rare to see a line through the lobby in the middle of the afternoon. Everyone was clutching a pair of 3D glasses, so I knew what they were waiting for. I gave in a week after Christmas.

What struck me first about the movie is the pure scope. At no point was I distracted by any of the visual effects, which appear in every frame on camera. Cameron’s team crafted a world so tangible that 3D really is the only way to experience it. Motion capture has come a long way in the last few years, even since Gollum, transferring all of the emotion and expression an actor brings to the screen seamlessly into the CG creations, the N’avi. Live-action performers blend effortlessly in with a world of green screen, strengthened by the talents of Cameron collaborator Sigourney Weaver and rising star Sam Worthington.

The story elements of Avatar are far from original, whether they know it or not borrowing heavily from a wide range of films from Dances With Wolves to Ferngully. The thing that struck me is not only is this a story we’ve seen before, this is a story we’ve seen before from James Cameron, with echoes of Aliens, Titanic, and the Abyss thrown in for good measure. Still, even though I never wondered what would happen next, I found myself wrought with emotion at all the right times, and cheering for the victory of our heroes. Socially relevant issues often sneak their way into blockbusters these days, and Cameron is no stranger—next time you watch Aliens, look for references to the Vietnam war and corporate interests. But, I was struck that such a leftist, pro-environment storyline had captured the attention of a conservative, increasingly unsustainable viewer majority.

Avatar wasn’t one of my favorite movies of 2009; it wouldn’t crack its way onto my top ten, at least. It isn’t even one of my favorite James Cameron movies. But, it is a movie I’ve recommended people take time out of their schedule to see theatrically, in what I was sure would be a long run. There’s little question that Avatar is the movie to beat Sunday night at the Oscars. The real question is, after creating such a pop culture juggernaut, what will Cameron bring us next?

February 26, 2010

Haunted by Kelley Armstrong

Book coverHaunted belongs to a series of books, The Women of Otherworld, that I read sporadically and unabashedly out of order. While I did not appreciate the full background of this book, I also did not find it a problem, and I was familiar enough with the characters to appreciate much of the novelty Armstrong has woven in for dedicated readers.

In many ways, that's what this book is, a novelty for people who read her series regularly. It stems from a pre-climactic plot point in the previous Otherworld book (which I read after Haunted) in which deceased witch Eve Levine bargains with the fates to gets the main characters of that book returned to life after accidentally falling into a portal to the afterlife in pursuit of the bad guy. Now, Eve owes the fates a favor, and they are calling it in to have her track down a particularly pesky Nix who has escaped from a hell dimension and has so far eluded all efforts to bring her to justice, and meanwhile inhabits the minds of women in the real world, turning them into murderesses. With the help of her erstwhile real world lover, Kristof, and an angel with human sensibilities, Eve scours the expansive ghost-world, which very often overlays the real world, intent on hunting down the Nix.

When I looked this book up on Amazon to refresh my memory on the plot details, I was mildly surprised that it got a rather snide review from Publishers Weekly (the default editorial review). Not because it's fabulous literature, but because these generic plot-summary reviews so often praise the most mindless of books. Haunted is not a book I'd recommend to every SFF fan, but I found it entertaining. These books are written, stylistically, like a romance novel, however, they don't follow the plot formula of the romance genre. What I mean, is that the style is very pop-commercial, and the focus of the book is very much on character relationships within families, i.e. parents, children, lovers, spouses. The female character may be portrayed as strong and independent, but relationships are always very important to them, and those relationships get special attention in the book. It's a "nesting" theme that gets a lot of attention in romance novels. Here there's the nesting, but not the controlling "will they or won't they" plot that tends to drive most romances. There are some minor love-relationship conflicts, but they are, indeed, very minor. The plot of this book is, indeed, Eve's pursuit of the Nix, and I found this plot entertaining because it is well-grounded in Eve's character. Each step of the unfolding plot is driven by Eve, her character development and her decisions. Even if the Nix makes a surprising move to upset Eve's plans, Eve's reaction to it is equally active and decisive. In other words, the plot doesn't happen to Eve; Eve happens to the plot.

While this book revolves in a lot of ways around the novelty of Armstrong's constructed ghost world and the focus on known characters brought back from earlier novels, it's not necessary to have read the earlier novels to enjoy this book. It's a fun, character-driven novel that is, admittedly, something of a chick-book.     

February 19, 2010

inFamous (PS3)

CoverinFamous casts players in the role of protagonist Cole McGrath, a newly-minted superhero (or villain, your choice) who gains awesome electrical powers after unwittingly detonating a pulse bomb that wreaks havoc throughout his home, Empire City. In the wake of the blast, a mysterious epidemic sweeps the population, prompting the government to establish quarantine, while powerful gangs terrorize the city’s three districts. Intent on self-preservation and the safety of his friends, Cole is quickly recruited by rogue agents to restore order to the city while struggling to unravel the conspiracy behind the blast. The storyline is compelling enough to keep you guessing up until the conclusion slaps you with a Soul Reaver-esque time paradox that’ll keep your head spinning till the inevitable sequel breaks street. (To gain some perspective on Cole’s backstory, check out the inFamous prequel graphic novel on the developer's website.)

One of the primary hooks in inFamous is the player’s ability to develop Cole either as a reluctantly benevolent superhero or a brooding, anti-heroic supervillain. As you progress through the story, the moral choices you make will affect the game world in a variety of ways: Cole’s physical appearance will change to match his personality; citizens will respond to you with fear or adoration; and certain story events and bits of dialogue will be different depending on your alignment. The game measures your Good and Evil actions on a sliding scale, making it easy to recant your past deeds and reset Cole’s moral compass mid-game. While choosing a particular path barely affects the main story arc, inFamous encourages sticking to one side of the karmic coin by offering ability upgrades specific to each alignment. While it may be tempting to constantly try to balance your Good and Evil actions, players are ultimately rewarded for experiencing the game in its entirety under a single moral heading. This dual morality mechanic adds breadth to the story, but it also highlights the difficulties involved in attempting to incorporate tricky philosophical arguments in videogames. Where many titles try to present their choices in shades of gray, inFamous relies on stark black and white scenarios that spare little room for moral ambiguity. One story event lets you choose which poster of Cole will be plastered across the city: a heroic profile or a menacing death’s head. Another event gives you the option of disarming a bomb or carelessly letting it detonate, destroying a police station. With such transparent choices, it’s never a question in which direction your decisions are pushing the morality meter. This isn’t entirely problematic; but there’s something to be said for subtlety. A bit less contrast in the game’s moral dilemmas could have helped strengthen the overall experience by forcing gamers to make decisions more carefully.

It’s obvious developer Sucker Punch designed inFamous with a comic book aesthetic in mind. All of the major cinematics play out as moving comics, effects-enhanced still images that glide across the screen. The sprawling open world metropolis of Empire City and its inhabitants are modeled with a similar style of cartoony realism. Everything looks terrific. The game’s lighting effects are incredible: electricity leaps from Cole’s hands, tracing vibrant paths of destruction along groups of enemies, spiderwebbing across fences and pools of water, or igniting derelict automobiles into concussive blasts of flame. Animations are simply great—nothing beats watching an electrified bystander spring up stock still, then collapse on the ground rigor mortis straight. And Cole’s parkour-esque leaps and ascents, calling to mind Sucker Punch’s flagship mascot Sly Cooper, are captivating to watch. The game’s frame rate is typically smooth, but tends to chug during frantic, effects-heavy battles. A curious tendency to get stuck in invisible walls will annoy you, but should by no means ruin the experience.

While inFamous earns kudos for its intuitive visual design, the package’s real appeal lies in its tight controls and finely tuned gameplay mechanics. At its core, inFamous is an open world platformer married to a precision third person shooter. Players will spend much of the game scaling and traversing Empire City’s towering collection of high rises and landmarks ledge-by-ledge (a la Assassin’s Creed) and performing precise leaps from telephone poles, street lights, and satellite arrays. The game is awfully forgiving here, offering a “sticky” mechanic that automatically attaches Cole to nearby objects. This function can become annoying when frantically leaping away from enemy crossfires and makes it nearly impossible to execute a smooth descent from any of the city’s structures. But most of the time it’s a welcome safety net that (usually) prevents you from overshooting your target and plummeting into water traps—which, in Cole’s hyperelectric state, almost always results in an untimely death. Early in the story you’ll unlock the ability to speed grind electrified wires and subway lines, making travel between the city’s three major islands much quicker and more fun. inFamous’ brand of stylized platforming should be familiar to anyone who’s played a Sly Cooper, and is vaguely reminiscent of the better Spider-Man titles (check out Treyarch’s Ultimate Spider-Man). In fact, don’t be surprised if you find yourself pining for web-slinging action every time you send Cole hurtling off of a terrace.

As engaging as its exploration elements are, inFamous’ spot-on third person combat really shines. You begin the game proper with a basic lightning bolt attack that neatly replaces any genre-traditional firearm. As you progress through the central storyline, you’ll unlock new attacks and abilities—energy grenades, electromagnetic shockwaves, force fields and precision sniper controls—all of which can be upgraded through neutral or alignment-specific expansion trees. In order to purchase these upgrades, you’ll need to amass experience points (XP) by defeating enemies and completing missions scattered throughout the city. On higher difficulties, standard combat yields less XP; but by chaining together various attacks with bonus Stunts (headshotting an airborne enemy, knocking a baddy off a roof), you can quickly build up a reserve of currency. Upgrading along a Good or Evil ability branch requires advancement through a three-tiered Karma Meter that tracks the morality of your every action. Both branches include exclusive secondary effects that further augment your combat abilities. These residuals are comparable and ultimately offer an excuse to replay the game under the opposing morality. An energy meter at the top of your HUD keeps track of Cole’s internal power supply. While the standard lightning bolt won’t sap your reserve, more powerful attacks will. You can replenish your supply by siphoning energy from the city’s power grid or sucking the life out of downed enemies and civilians. Collecting Blast Shards – small glowing chunks of rock scattered throughout the city—expands your energy bar, but only to a certain point. Tracking down all 350 shards is addicting, recalling Crackdown’s endless search for hidden Orbs. Even though you’ve got a radar to help locate the elusive Shards, it’s little consolation when you’re left scouring the city for the last one or two fragments.

The central story arc of inFamous plays out over 40 missions, identified on the map as blue exclamation points. These missions focus mostly on combat and exploration, and range from repowering subways to scouring a park for invisible enemies. Periodically, you’ll be sent into the sewers to bring a downed substation back online, restoring power to portions of the city and unlocking new abilities. Side missions become available as you make your way through the story; these include escorting captured enemies, methodically ridding buildings of mounted surveillance equipment, and tracking down stolen medical supplies to access clinics which double as respawn points. Fifteen Good-Evil side missions dot the islands, providing substantial fuel for your Karma Meter and occasionally adding perspective to the story. But once you commit to one of these aligned missions, its sister mission disappears from the map; so choose carefully.

Enemy encounters are frequent and consistently engaging. Often, they’ll attack in groups, swarming Cole from all angles (above and below), cleverly using the environment to find cover and secure vantage points. Although each island features its own unique gang, enemy types come standard: gun-toting grunts, grenadiers, rocket launching heavies, and Conduits, special units with powers ranging from teleportation to junk monster “mech” armor. Boss battles are few but wildly chaotic. The climactic final encounter will put your reflexes (and the game’s excellent control scheme) to the test, forcing you to blast, dodge, and reorient in an exhausting, seemingly endless cycle. Featuring the type of intense, technical combat series like God of War and Ninja Gaiden have become famous for, this is easily the high point of the game.

The main storyline of inFamous won’t take long to blast through if you ignore side missions, collectibles, and grinding for experience. And if you’ve already mastered its combat mechanics in previous playthroughs, even the game’s hardest difficulty setting shouldn’t offer much of a challenge. Enemies will take more hits before going down for good; but unless you’re being swarmed by baddies, most deaths will likely be attributed to misjudged leaps and errant grenades setting off self-immolating chain reactions. The real appeal to replaying inFamous is experiencing all of the minor story and gameplay tweaks that result from following a different moral alignment. Although the city becomes re-accessible after you defeat the final boss, there isn’t much to do after endgame. Completionists can scour the map for Blast Shards, venture back into unconquered neighborhoods to complete side missions, collect XP to unlock and enable all of Cole’s abilities or complete a variety of Trophy challenges (take down 25 enemies from aboard a moving train, get 50 sticky grenade kills, etc.). Aside from cinematics and Dead Drops (audio logs) becoming available for playback, there are no unlockables. There’s no online support or local multiplayer, so be prepared to go it alone. The game’s DLC is limited to a single, free add-on ability (the Gigawatt Blades) available for download on PSN; and no further expansions appear to be in the pipeline. Basically, you’re set with what you’ve got out of the box. But for an experience this entertaining (and one so clearly in line for a sequel), that’s not much of a complaint.

Bottom line: inFamous has earned a lot of critical acclaim and industry accolades for being one of the few successful original IP’s this generation, as well as a standout PS3 exclusive and consistent “Best of” nominee for 2009. Its slick controls, spot-on gameplay mechanics and intuitive visual design make it an obvious choice for savvy gamers. Dedicated players can easily complete the modest central storyline twice (once for each alignment) over the course of a week, experiencing most of what the game has to offer in a few sittings. While inFamous presents a spectacular single-player experience, its lack of multiplayer or substantial DLC and virtual dearth of endgame content rob it of any sense of longevity. It’s a must-play; but unless you’re the type of gamer that obsesses over finding every last collectible, you’re better off renting and completing than committing to the retail price tag.

Developer: Sucker Punch
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA)
Genre: Action
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen (T)
System: Playstation 3
Other Systems: NA
Release Date: May 26, 2009

February 02, 2010

The Gathering Storm

CoverI approached this book with some small amount of trepidation. On the one hand, The Wheel of Time series is nearing its conclusion and this book had the possibility of answering a lot of questions which have been plaguing me and other readers for the past few novels. On the other hand, this is the first book in the series to be written since the death of the original author Robert Jordan. Jordan died in 2007 after a painful battle with a rare type of cancer. After a search for an author to finish off the series, Jordan's wife selected author Brandon Sanderson to complete her husband's work. At such a crucial point in the story I was worried that with the loss of Jordan the story would suffer.

My fears were quickly dispelled. The prose was nearly identical to the previous eleven novels in the series and the characters were all just as fun and interesting as ever. We rejoin Rand just after he lost his hand in his battle with the forsaken Semirhage. Rand continues to cut himself off from those around him, believing that the only way he can gain victory at Tarmon Gaidon is by making himself completely emotionless and driven. He has accepted death, and like the voice of Lews Therin Telamon in his head he longs for it all to be over. Before that can happen though he still must confront the Seanchan and forge the nations into a unified fighting force. In the midst of all this Rand discovers an enormous source of power which awakens in him a dark force that slowly begins to alter him. Perrin is stuck herding to safety all the refugees that he helped to rescue from the Shaido. To compound his problems his relationship with his wife Faile has become oddly strained. Following the initial elation which accompanied their first meeting, they have drifted apart, both knowing that events had happened during their separation which could potentially damage their marriage should they come to light. Matt Cauthon, newly married, contemplates the consequences of his unusual nuptials with Tuon. Knowing how a husband is supposed to act, Matt is determined to go on gambling and drinking as if nothing has changed. This determination leads him to make a bet with an isolated community with frightening results. Matt also must figure out how he is to help Thom Merrilin rescue Moiraine Damodred from the mysterious creatures that live in the land behind the red stone doorwayter'angreal. Meanwhile, Egwene, still a prisoner of the White Tower, continues her battle for control with Elaida. Their battle of wills is interrupted by a long foreseen yet still surprising assault on the Aes Sedai by a strange and dangerous enemy. During the attack Egwene must choose whether she will escape or help those who have imprisoned her. The book also visits other characters including Aviendha, Gawyn and Verin.

Despite the ommission of some fairly important characters this novel is as exciting a tale as any of the previous books in the series. The change of authors does not cause any major errors in continuity and no insight into the characters is lost. I would rank this book as one of the top five of the series. Brandon Sanderson has done right by Robert Jordan and continued the series in a manner much in keeping with Jordan's tradition. Even the most die-hard Jordan fan will find little to complain about in this latest instillation in The Wheel of Time series.

January 27, 2010

2012

CoverOn December 21, 2012, the world as we know it is going to end. Based on the ancient Mayan calendar, this "real world" doomsday prophecy is picking up a lot of exposure lately as the date slowly creeps up on us.

The movie 2012 uses this date has an excuse to make the ultimate disaster film. Disaster film guru Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla, Independence Day) has created a masterpiece of destruction on celluloid. The result is nothing short of spectacular, both visually and viscerally, and makes for the perfect popcorn flick. It’s great to watch, but falls apart when you think about it too much.

The film is divided by two stories. The first is that of Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a failed writer and failed family man working as a limo driver. As the city starts to fall apart around him (literally) he risks everything to rescue his ex-wife and his children and try to keep them alive as long as possible. The second is the story of Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor, using a near flawless American accent), a geologist working for the White House who discovers that the Earth is slowing destroying itself. His story centers around how the government reacts to this crisis, and also tries to explain the science behind what is happening.

You see, on the titular date the planets will align which will cause harmful Sun activity. This activity somehow causes the Earth's core to heat up and thus forces the Earth’s continents to shift. This shifting causes all the destruction that the film centers around. Of course, how planets aligning affects the Sun, or how the Sun affects the Earth's core, or even how the Ancient Mayans knew about this impending doom (right down to the exact day no less) is never explained.

Anyways, the stories around these characters are great quiet moments amidst all the grand-scale chaos. The ancillary characters that surround them are the normal mixture for a movie of this type. They are a simple batch of the unlikeable and the quirky who all have some usefulness, and are unceremoniously killed off, then if they're lucky they'll get a brief scene for others to grieve, then they're never mentioned again (the only exception to this rule are animals and children, both of whom inexplicably escape harm at all turns). And then everyone moves on to the next point of epic carnage.

And when I say epic... I mean epic! The cataclysmic destruction of our planet and the cities is beautiful to behold. 2012 packs in every single disaster into one film; Earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, nautical, any place disaster could strike and in any way it could happen, happens here.  And boy is it fun to watch. Whole cities crumble in glorious detail. Sky scrappers break apart in slow motion sequences where can you see every person and every piece of office furniture as they go to their doom. A major national park becomes the unwitting victim of a very large volcanic eruption.  Even Washington D.C. is not free from the tsunami to end all tsunamis. Every minute detail is crafted with loving care, and by loving care, I'm talking about the death of several billion people on the planet.

Despite some rather questionable science, and the usual where characters literally outlive their usefulness, 2012 is wonderful to watch. If you grew up on Irwin Allen's disaster films, this flick will knock your socks off!

January 10, 2010

Spartacus: Blood and Sand

Coming about two years too late to be an absolute knock-off of Zack Snyder's box-office hit "300," but just early enough to capitalize on any renewed interest in mythology-based storytelling (see March's "Clash of the Titans" remake), the Starz network's most ambitious original project to date, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," looks to fill a void on television.

From executive producer Sam Raimi and the creative team that brought us "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Legend of the Seeker," Spartacus, as you may or may not recall from history class or the Kirk Douglas movie, is the story of a soldier who, as a result of his actions, ends up a slave in the Roman court. But Spartacus isn't your average house servant. No, he's sent to gladiator training camp and taught to fight, for the amusement of the masses. Understandably discontent with his lot, Spartacus sews the seeds of revolution among Rome's greatest warriors.

I got a chance to view the first two episodes of the new series, which premieres on Starz January 22, and can tell you I don't really know what to expect in the weeks to come. The pilot episode undeniably pulls all of its inspiration from Snyder's epic, with a level of blood and gore Tarantino could envy. Violent fighting sequences filmed in dramatic slow motion, with clashing sword and shields between men with ripped muscles covered sparingly by cloaks and togas happen every few minutes. Not too sparse are also the sex scenes, which are graphic and filmed with the same level of detail as the battle sequences.

In great contrast, the second episode diverges from the visual style of the first. Intact are the sex and violence, but the story shifts to include political intrigue, adulterous lust, and glimpses of where the season may lead us. Performances from John Hannah and Lucy Lawless are solid, as a married couple fighting to keep their place in the hierarchy of the times. Though, Lawless' blinding red hair could use a shade or two tone-down. A welcome new face to the screen is Andy Whitfield, who's portrayal of the title character doesn't fall into Gerard Butler-Russel Crowe stereotypes of the genre.

My short take is fans of the genre should soldier through the rough pilot for the more satisfying second episode to see where the story takes us. The good news for fans out there is there's sure to be more after the initial episodes. In an unusually bold move for any network, Starz has ordered a second season, "Spartacus: Vengeance," before the current series has even premiered.

January 05, 2010

V - The Series Premier

CoverFor those who remember (or the generation like me who caught the reruns), the original V was a miniseries in the early 80’s that involved aliens coming to earth making all kinds of promises, but turned out to be attempting a take-over. This turn of events prompted a group of regular folk to band together and rebel against their pseudo alien overlords.

By today’s standards, that miniseries, and the regular series that followed, is painfully cheesy. The acting is not very well done, and the special effects are woefully dated. The one element that still holds up is the story, which is a universal tale about normal folk overcoming great odds and achieving immeasurable success.

Naturally, the higher-ups in TV land thought that the "success" of the Bionic Woman remake and the Knight Rider remake (read: epic fail) could easily be applied to V. After the premiere, only one word came to mind… meh.

First off, let’s just say that the show definitely gave V a fresh coat of paint. This is a series for high-def. The scenes of the spaceships are gorgeous. At one point we get a very detailed fly-through of the interiors of the mothership. Obviously scenes like this were done at very high expense.

Sadly, that was the only real highlight of the premiere. What the show loses from what that mini-series was able to achieve was a slow build-up. The original rebellion had a very organic feeling, as you watched it build up from very humble beginnings to a full-on attack force. The modern retelling just jumps right into the fray with a rebellion already formed (it quickly gets deformed, but that’s for a future episode to explore). And while the original had the feeling that this was all done by ordinary people who were just trying to figure things out as they went along, this new take has professionals doing very uncommon people jobs. For instance, the main heroine is changed from a doctor in the original to an FBI terrorist hunter. Plus, the reveal that the Vistors are up to something is way too apparent way too quickly.

It’s odd that the only thing that makes the original stand out today is the one thing that got pushed aside so they could bring in name TV actors and flashy CGI graphics. I know you shouldn’t judge a series by its premiere, like judging a book by its cover. However, this show really needs to remember that at it’s core, it’s always about the story and the characters, everything else comes second.

November 17, 2009

A Haunting In Connecticut

CoverA Haunting In Connecticut is about, surprisingly, a haunting… in Connecticut. Unfortunately for us, this movie took its job too literally and forgot that it was supposed to be a scary film… in Connecticut.

The film begins by telling us that it’s based on a true story. Yeah, like Silence of the Lambs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are based on the Ed Gein story.

So there’s this kid who has terminal cancer who has to get experimental treatments… in Connecticut. Since the commute is ridiculous, the boy’s mother decides they should rent a house that’s closer to where he’s getting treated. Of course, the house she chooses is the cheap, creepy looking place. Right away our cancer boy starts to see strange things going on, which we find out is because he’s "in between the two worlds" (as explained by Casey Jones). Regardless, Dad, the two little kids and the cousin join our unhappy duo in the haunted house… in Connecticut. There’s a mysteriously locked room downstairs that no one can open, for about two days, then the door mysteriously opens to reveal the ugly truth… the house used to be a funeral home! Worse, all the medical instruments and fluids are still around. Instead of complaining to the landlord or maybe the rental association, out loving family decide they should just not go into that room anymore.  You know, cause of the sharp instruments and the little kids…

Moving on. Turns out that’s not the only history in the place; looks like they also used to hold séances, with a little boy as the psychic. In a moment of entrepreneurial brilliance, the director of the place used necromancy to enhance the boys powers so his readings would be more showy… which from what we’re shown just meant he threw-up a lot.

Yup… this was a true story folks.

What makes this movie so painful is that it’s supposed to be a scary film. Instead, it’s more about a family dealing with their dying son… in Connecticut. Along the way, the mother reaffirms her faith, the father reaffirms he’s an alcoholic, the kids reaffirm they like to play hide & go seek in inappropriate places, and the cancer boy reaffirms that when you get messed up visions that no one else can see, you should investigate them completely.

There’s really only one ghost who shows up, and you figure out who he is pretty early on, and the big "twist" really isn't that surprising, and can be guessed quickly.

What’s worse is that the scary parts with the ghosts are basically a diet coke version of The 6th Sense.

There are some small bits of creepy, but the overall experience is more about this family and their drama. For a ghost story, that’s extremely depressing… even in Connecticut. If you’re dying to see this film, borrow it from one of you friends who were unlucky enough to purchase the film and hit fast forward.

October 24, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: The Plan

CoverIt seems like the hot thing to do these days after your series goes off the air is actually to put out a reunion movie before your fanbase forgets you existed. Even a few years later isn't so bad too. Look at the success of direct-to-video features from both Stargate and Dead Like Me, with constant rumored projects in the works for shows like Jericho and Pushing Daisies. The latest is a look back at Battlestar Galactia, the critically acclaimed SyFy reimagining of the 1980s epic most would rather forget. Battlestar Galactica: The Plan is written by Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and directed by series star Edward James Olmos.

The story here takes us back to the original miniseries launch, following the Cylon attack on the twelve colonies, and carries us through the first episodes of the show. I know what you're saying, we already know what happens, we've even got it on DVD. But wait, this time it's from the Cylon perspective. What were those sixes and eights doing before we got glimpses of their lives. Until Season 3, we were only treated to subtle glimpses of Cylon society and what their schemes might bring, kind of like a teaser to remind us bad guys were still pursuing the heroes. Now, the curtain's pulled back and the various stages of the master plan are unveiled.

This installment is a must-have for die-hard fans of the series. It fills in many gaps and blends seamlessly into the existing episodes. At times I even wondered if I was watching some shots from different angles originally aired or if this was a deleted scene or recycled footage. Tricia Helfer, as always, brings her A game. "Let's get this genocide started" is not an easy quip to pull off, but Dean Stockwell's Brother Cavill manages to steal the scene with it. While I'm not sure if this is the last we'll see of the BSG universe, I'm glad we got this much. It's not often fans of a successful show are treated to afterthoughts this great. I guess the lesson learned here is sometimes there are more stories left to tell, even if not a whole season's worth.

October 20, 2009

Warehouse 13, the First Season

CoverThe first season of Syfy's most popular series to date, Warehouse 13, ended with, well, a bang. I suppose I shouldn't say bang. It was really more like an earth shattering explosion, and I mean that both in the physical sense because the last episode did end with a bomb going off, and in the metaphorical sense, because it also ended in some unexpected, and heartbreaking betrayal.

For those of you who haven't been watching the show, here's the basic premise. As we first meet our two main characters, Mika Bering and Peter Lattimer, (played by Joanne Kelly and Eddie McClintock), they are working as secret service agents, charged with protecting the President. This is a job that gets a lot more interesting when a carved head in a museum starts bleeding, and then forces a man to try to kill a young girl, seconds before the President is scheduled to visit.

This incident gets the attention of Mrs. Fredrick, a truly terrifying woman played by C.C.H. Pounder.  She is the leader of Warehouse 13, as she says, it is "hers." And so, both agents are sent to the Warehouse, where they meet Artie Nielsen, (Saul Rubinek). He is currently running the warehouse.

Once inside, the secret service officers encounter several incredible artifacts from America's History. Among them are Harry Houdini's wallet, a football that seems to launch into space when thrown, and a wishing kettle. Said kettle has the interesting side effect of producing a ferret when anyone wishes for something impossible. Seeing as how Bering's first act is to grab the kettle and wish for something impossible, she is now stuck with a ferret.

Warehouse 13 is described as "America's Attic." It is where anything strange, anything unexplainable or dangerous is stored away until we can understand it. It is the job of Bering, Lattimer, and Artie, to find these objects, and tuck them away.

The show really got interesting with the addition of Claudia, played by Allison Scagliotti. She's a nineteen year old techie, with some serious problems with listening to the rules. I have some issues with this character, mainly that most of her lines are either overly childish, or just plain cliché. This is really a shame, because I think Allison has a lot of acting talent, and I hope the writers start treating her better.

One huge and crucial issue in the first season is that the field agents Pete and Mika are just not privy to a lot of the history of the Warehouse. More importantly, at least as far as the plot goes, they don't know a lot about Artie's past. All of this comes to a head when a dangerous former Warehouse agent, James Macpherson, played by Roger Rees, decides to take the Warehouse down any way that he can. I don't have a lot of love for the character to tell the truth. Macpherson is scariest when he's not on stage, given the fact that he's being played by a older British man, who looks more likely to make you a nice hot cup of tea with lemon than to try and kill your family. Though, that didn't stop him from threatening to kill Mika's mother and father.

As for the season finalize, I was disappointed in one thing. I don't think enough was resolved. Macpherson escapes the Warehouse, in fact leaves it in ruins, possibly killing Artie, and certainly leaving Mika and Pete stranded, with no way to get out. It is my personal opinion that Artie is not dead. I believe that he had hold of the Phynix, an artifact that enables one to withstand fire. The thing that worries me is that the Phynix needs to take the life of someone else to save the life of the one holding it. So, who is really going to be dead at the start of season two?

Syfy has ordered at least nine more episodes. Unfortunately, there is no date yet as to when the second season will start. I will be watching vigilantly, however. This show has the air of the X-Files, but funnier. It's like Buffy, but intelligent. It is, at the end of the day, a great show, despite its short comings, and I hope to see it continuing into season two.    

October 15, 2009

Review: Children of the Corn 2009

 

 Children of the Corn DVD

In the history of cinema, particularly in the made-for-TV movie genre, Stephen King adaptations are touch and go. For every venture like It or The Stand, there's also The Langoliers and The Shining. All ranging in scope from divergent to die-hard faithful, the latter not always being an optimal viewing experience, as evident by the film I discuss today. Having premiered on the SyFy channel earlier this month, Children of the Corn is now available on uncut DVD at a retailer near you. This new vision comes partially from King himself, who takes a credit on the screenplay, stars David Anders (Alias, Heroes), Kandyse McClure (Battlestar Galactica) and a slew of really creepy children and teens.

 The premise, if you're unfamiliar with either the original short story or 1984 adaptation starring Linda Hamilton (Terminator), finds a couple on a road trip who, through circumstances beyond their control, wander through the remote Nebraskan town of Gatlin, where the religiously zealot children have purged themselves of adults and started their own society. Donald P. Borchers screenplay closely follows King's original story, making few embellishments on the way. In an age where the hardcore fanbases call for absolute faithfulness in their adaptations, maybe they should just stay quiet for a minute.

What Worked: The kids were downright disturbing. While only four or so actually have a character to speak of, the mob mentality and Yearning for Zion-esque wardrobe and daily routine are enough to keep me from ever going to Nebraska, even though I clearly get the difference between fiction and reality. Daniel Newman stands out in the role of Malachai, with a ferocious edge and unyielding devotion that only exists in youth. Seeing him one moment tender with the girl carrying his child, quickly screaming into the leader of the militia-like group of men, accompanied by anyone old enough to stand and carry a weapon. The most gut wrenching moment of the ordeal comes in the beginning of the third act when we see the prophet child Isaac overseeing a fertilization ritual between a newly of age male and female. In Gatlin, those of mid-teen years must pair off and reproduce, before they're sent in exile and self-sacrifice to He Who Walks Behind the Rows, their alleged god in the corn.

 What Didn't: Almost everything else, for me anyway. I didn't find a great deal of chemistry between the two leads. Their banter at the beginning of the story is the kind of everyday conceit that works amazingly in King's prose, but not so well on screen. The climax is a bit lacking, however true to the source material it may be. Say what you will about 80s horror movies, but I found myself missing some of the artistic liberties taken in the original, including the adult travelers' fighting back. There's a great moment after our female lead has had her encounter with the townsfolk where her male companion shows the children who's boss. I just wish he'd gone a little further. The war veteran/PTSD subplot held a lot of promise at the beginning, but failed in its execution. One comment on the atmosphere, Gatlin seemed to sunny and bright all the time for me to feel any real sense of dread.

Ultimately, this remake/reimagining falls short of both its source and 1984 film. Lacking any moment of catharsis and failing to truly break any new ground, you're better off renting the original.

STAR WARS: The Force Unleashed (XB360)

CoverStar Wars has a long, mostly successful history in videogames. Its titles run the quality gamut from instant classics (Shadows of the Empire) and underappreciated gems (Episode I: Racer) to failed crap (Masters of Teräs Käsi). And with a legacy spanning virtually every genre from dogfighter to MMO, it’s interesting to see how one of the franchise’s latest additions sets about carving itself a saber-sharp
niche. STAR WARS: The Force Unleashed doesn't mince words: its marquee appeal is right in the title. TFU is a game built around the idea of letting players wield devastating Force powers—an idea that it gets mostly right. The Force mechanic isn't without its hiccups; but luckily, there's more to the game than the title suggests.

TFU's story (wedged neatly between Episodes III and IV) unfolds during the final days of the Jedi purge as the Empire continues to tighten its grip on the war-torn galaxy. The game drops the player into the formidable boots of Starkiller, an "orphaned" Jedi youngster who is adopted by Darth Vader and raised as his personal Dark Side agent. The Apprentice travels across the galaxy, hunting down the last of the Jedi and eventually going undercover to stir up counterrevolutionary
forces designed to distract the Emperor from Vader's impending betrayal. Fans can expect to see a number of familiar faces (including Bail and Leia Organa) sprinkled in among the newbies. Although most of the new characters are welcome additions to the Universe, Starkiller is the only one afforded any real amount of depth. LucasArts obviously made an effort to create a compelling and conflicted personality in the game’s lead, and they certainly succeeded. It's a shame they didn't lavish as much attention on the rest of the cast. The game's narrative is fairly intriguing overall, wrought with plenty of twists and surprises. A contrite bit of sentimentality in the ending's final moments mars an otherwise engaging story; but it's a small price to pay for a tale that's both
highly relevant to the Expanded Universe and fits so remarkably well into post-Prequel canon.

LucasArts didn't skimp on the game's production values: TFU doesn't have the most impressive graphics engine, but it does feature some massive environments, beautifully rendered planetscapes, and brilliant lighting effects. In-game models move and react believably, if not
entirely realistically. It's cool to watch Force-levitated troops latch onto nearby objects to stay grounded, but it would have been nice to see enemies with guns snap off some defensive shots while hanging in midair. Most of the character models in the game's cutscenes have a stiff, robotic quality—which is great for the droids but a little awkward for humanoids—and lifeless eyes. Some
pre-rendered CG might have cleared up these problems, but they're minor complaints. All the requisite Star Wars sound effects are represented, from the crackle of colliding lightsabers to the rattle and screech of passing TIEs. Somewhat unfortunately, the requisite Star Wars music is included, as well. I've got nothing against the classic Williams score, but after having been rehashed and repurposed for countless games, it's become more than a little cliché. A derivative original title theme does little to differentiate itself from the rest of the soundtrack.

TFU's gameplay consists of combat-intensive action mixed in with some light platforming and puzzle elements. Lightsaber combat is fun and satisfyingly effective. A variety of unlockable combos, flourishes, and midair juggles, combined with a semiautomatic defense system,
mixes up the action; but a lack of any primary ranged weapons means you'll often be caught slowly advancing on groups of enemies equipped with unblockable projectiles. Adding to the frustration is most enemies' ability to interrupt your attack animations and score hits while you're knocked down. This can lead to lots of cheap deaths, especially on the game's higher difficulty settings. But the real stars of TFU are the upgradeable Force Powers, offensive and defensive Force attacks (including lightsaber throws and lighting strikes) used to augment combat and solve basic puzzles. Despite a finicky targeting system (the game often likes to choose attack points for
you), these Powers combine seamlessly with your arsenal of melee attacks, creating opportunities to chain together devastating combos and kill strings. Style points, which are awarded for creative combat and environmental destruction, can be cashed in for upgraded Force abilities and character attributes. Improving yours stats becomes essential later in the game as enemies become more pervasive and attack in larger numbers.

Some rather mindless Quick Time Events (timed button-pressing minigames) are employed to finish off powerful enemies and wrap up boss encounters; but a failsafe system that lets you instantly retry botched QTEs strips these moments of any real challenge. This bit of handholding seems especially odd next to the game’s unforgiving, rage-inducing highest difficulty setting. Swarms of overpowered enemies will quickly surround and overwhelm the player, leading to an endless repetition of unfair deaths; and don't even get me started on the boss fights. Believe me, I enjoy a challenge (and the satisfaction of unlocking an elite Achievement) as much as the next hardcore gamer, but it's tough to feel like a badass Sith apprentice when you're being habitually dispatched by clusters of torch-wielding Jawas. An occasionally unintuitive checkpoint system and inattentive camera round out the game’s major flaws; expect to sit through the
same meandering cutscenes when you repeatedly die just inside of a new area.

In addition to the single-player campaign, TFU offers a series of throw-away training room challenges. This lack of mode variety isn't especially problematic, as the gameplay doesn't exactly lend itself to multiplayer deathmatch. (A two-player, online co-op campaign mode could have been fun, but might easily have unbalanced boss fights.) Dedicated players can redo missions to collect hidden Jedi Holocrons (which unlock special costumes and lightsaber mods) and complete
secondary objectives, max out their attributes, or search the final level for an alternate, non-canon ending. Progressing through the campaign opens up a series of Extras including character and object profiles and a theater to view all of the game’s cutscenes. Promised DLC, already included with the Wii, PS2, and PSP versions of the game, should help extend the title’s lifespan. But for anyone not brave—or masochistic—enough to attempt TFU’s higher difficulties, there may be a disappointing lack of replayability here. These problems probably don’t constitute enough of an argument to dissuade Star Wars fanatics from buying the game, as the story and production values
alone are likely sufficient to satisfy series diehards. But everyone else is better off sticking to a rental.

Score: 3.5/5.0

October 13, 2009

Trueblood, The Complete First Season

CoverIn Trueblood, The Complete First Season, this HBO original series sets Vampires cohabiting with humans in the small country town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. Vampires come out of the closet thanks to the creation of Tru Blood, a synthetic concoction, which allows Vampires to live without killing humans for sustenance.

The story line, based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by New York Times best selling author, Charlain Harris, is an interesting character study surrounding the life of Sookie Stackhouse. Sweet and innocent, sometimes too good to be true, Sookie is a clairvoyant who can hear people's thoughts. She is bombarded by everyone's thoughts, save the newly settled vampire, Bill Compton, who's just moved in down the road. Bill immediately becomes Sookie's love interest, ruffling a lot of feathers, causing trouble and murder to abound.

Created by Alan Ball, the first season boasts murder, whacked out churches and deep woods exorcisms, weaved along in an almost comical fashion with moderate gore. One favorite scene shows Jason Stackhouse's latest girl is stuffing vampire guts down the garbage disposal. Jason is Sookie's ex-jock brother who nails about anyone in town who's not tied down.

Easy and seductive, this first season is somewhat reminiscent of a night time soap. Although sometimes unique and surprising in its story line, hardship, sex, seduction and loneliness feed fuel to the fires of its characters.

Primarily a character study, the well-crafted dialogue and comedic nuances lead you to develop a camaraderie with the characters, who even if annoying, become quite likable. Notable Characters include of Jason, Sookie's brother, and Tara, her best friend. The flamboyant Lafayette, a local drug dealer who supplies V, or vampire blood, is charming and inviting. You almost don't mind that he trades sex for V with a vampire, or sells it to Jason who develops an addiction to it. Then there's Sam Merlotte, who owns the local tavern where most of the story happens. We find he has his own powers, not to be confused with those of vampires, toward the end of the season.

Bonus features include Tru Blood beverage ads, service ads and vampire mock-u-mentary about vampires in America.

Well cast and intelligently written, most of the time, Trueblood The Complete First Season is an entertaining watch for the creative viewer. It could disappoint die hard Vamp fans, but definitely has something for just about everyone- from steamy sex scenes to magical realms of existence, Trueblood binds the gap between the world of fantasy and everyday life in a rural hick town about as fun and creatively as you possibly could!

October 07, 2009

The Elder Gods by David Eddings

CoverI was in sixth grade when I picked up my first fantasy novel. It was David Eddings' Pawn of Prophecy and it opened my eyes to the fantasy literature at my fingertips. Since then I have moved on to different books and authors, but I always remembered David Eddings as the author who opened my eyes to the genre. When I heard that he had died recently I resolved to read his final series entitled The Dreamers. I got home with the first book in the series, The Elder Gods, and dove into this whole new world.

After diving a short distance into the book, this world didn't look so new to me. I had the nagging feeling that I had seen this world before. As I read and Eddings went into depth concerning the cultures that inhabited the world of The Dreamers it seemed that these cultures had been present in his previous series. The Maag pirates in the book appeared to me to be a mix of Chereks from the Belgariad and Thalesians from the Elenium series. Disconcerted by this fact I decided to concentrate on the aspect of the story that Eddings had always done best, character development.

David Eddings was asked what made his books so successful and he replied, "Characters. My people are as real as I can make them." After reading a David Eddings book you come away with the sense that you have read about, not some characters, but a group of friends. Eddings was a
master at creating camaraderie between his characters that made the story fun and filled with inside jokes. In The Elder Gods it appears that Eddings tried to create this feeling, but again it seems familiar. Not only are the inside jokes recycled, but so are the characters. In The Elder Gods there is a girl who is actually a goddess. She is obsessed with being held and giving kisses. While a sign of affection this tendency is also a ploy to get what she wants. The description I just gave could be taken and applied to the character Aphrael from Edding's earlier series The Elenium.

For his final series I am sad to say that Eddings relied less on creating new characters and cultures, but instead relied on his standard stock characteristics developed in his earlier works. While I
believe that anyone who has read Eddings' past work will be disappointed in this book I would not want to turn off anyone who is unfamiliar with Eddings. This book could be used as a springboard into Eddings’ classics. We were all richer for David Eddings’ creative influence, and he will be missed.

October 05, 2009

Caprica

CoverThe series finales of your favorite television programs tend to leave a strange taste in your mouth. That taste is often both an appetite for still more adventures with your favorite clan of characters, be they Buffy’s Scooby gang or the crew of a Federation starship, and the ill-inducing sensation that what just transpired wasn't as satisfying as you anticipated. The finale of Ron Moore's re-imagined Battlestar Galactica this spring left neither. Viewers, myself included, seemed for the most part, satisfied.

The finale did leave us something—an onslaught of trailers promising more. Fans in the know had heard rumblings but were treated to the trailer for not only "The Plan," a two-hour stand-alone movie chronicling series' events from the Cylon perspective, but also the long-awaited first scenes of prequel series Caprica. Casual viewers may find themselves waiting until January 2010 for more; that's when SyFy (the new moniker of the SciFi Channel) will begin airing the series. But the show made its debut in April on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download. The series stars Eric Stoltz, Esai Morales and Magda Aponowicz set in the colonies 58 years before the cylon war we've heard so much about.

In a world intoxicated with its own success, technology looks to be taking a dangerous turn. In the first few scenes we see teenagers entranced with boundary-bending virtual technology and a robot as a mundane household servant. At its core Caprica is a story about two families with a somewhat intertwined destiny. Daniel Greystone is a businessman, robotics by trade, at the top of his game. Joseph Adama, yes, THE Joseph Adama, we know is a lawyer working in Caprica City, a flourishing metropolitan area that recalls most futuristic depictions of city life, minus any grit or grime. Early on a tragic accident claims the lives of a few of their family members, inciting the events that will lead to… well, we know what happens eventually.

Overall I'm not generally a fan of prequels. There's something about the origin story that just doesn't work for me when we already know the outcome. But this is where Caprica stands apart. Not only does it establish a mythology that while not conflicting with the BSG time stream also blazes new ground, but, by episodes end, a familiar endoskeleton is already in the picture as a major player. If you were a fan of BSG, you'll probably be a fan of Caprica. While the parent series explored aspects of religion, war and politics, this offspring promises a little of the same (terrorists of the one, true god) with more to build on while asking us the ultimate question—what exactly does it mean to be human?

September 30, 2009

Pan's Labyrinth

CoverPan's Labyrinth is a multi-layered story that is more than the sum of its parts.

There are three story threads running through this movie. The first is about Ofelia, a young girl who travels with her very pregnant (and very sick) mother to live with her evil step-father out in the country. After arriving she meets some magical forest creatures who tell her that she is the long lost princess to a magical kingdom. The second story is that of the evil step-father, a brutal military captain fighting off a group of revolutionaries. Last is the story of Mercedes, the house maid who is working in the country house while secretly feeding information to the rebels.

With all these stories put together the movie becomes one third demented Jim Henson production and two thirds gritty war movie.

The Ofelia story is the heart of the film. It focuses on a series of tasks set forth by a Faun to find entrance into the kingdom. Consequently, she goes on all these tasks alone, so the viewer is left to decide if these events are real or part of her imagination. The rest of the film is delegated into the "real world" of the very brutal Spanish Civil War. Now, when I say brutal, I mean it. At one point, after a major shoot out with the rebels, the military goes to all the dead and shoot them again in the head to make sure they are all properly deceased. What got to me the most about the violence is that it is so unexpected.

Almost the entire movie takes place in the real world which is violent and deadly and scary in its own right. Clearly the violence is used for shock value to contrast from the fantasy elements in the Ofelia storyline. It's this theme that carries the film. While Ofelia is running around doing all these magical tasks, she asks the adults about Fauns and Fairies to which they reply they used to believe in them when they were children, but not any more. Guillermo del Toro tells a thought-provoking tale about the lose of childhood innocence.

Admittedly there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the movie, but it is so lost in the fairy tale theme that the characters are more caricatures than actual people. While the movie is following a theme, for all intents and purposes it skates melodrama pretty closely.

Certainly this is not a movie for everyone and definitely not for children. There is significant message for adults to appreciate here. Sadly, after that there is little more that needs to be said about the film.

August 24, 2009

Terminator Salvation: Does it "save" itself?

CoverGoing into the recent Terminator film, I wasn't expecting much. After having just seen the new Star Trek film, and being disappointed by the film's altering of Star Trek history (if you seen the film, you know what I mean), I didn't expect Salvation to do justice for the Terminator franchise. The first two Terminator films were James Cameron masterpieces in the sci-fi and action genres, and the 3rd film wasn't bad either. Was Salvation going to going to screw up this franchise or actually be an entertaining addition to the Terminator mythos? Well, in my opinion, Salvation does save itself; it was a pretty damn good flick.

Picking up a few years after the infamous D day, a small group of humans survive and attempt to battle Skynet, the machines that have taken over the world. John Conner, now a revered leader of the resistance movement, is still listening to the tapes his mother left him, and is believed to be the Messiah to some of the remaining humans. (Note John Conner's initials, J.C., and the Christ parallel becomes pretty interesting). There is also a very great character in the film named Marcus Wright, and he has a very important role to play. The plot follows the band of humans in battle against Skynet and its early versions of Terminators, and the action and post-apocalyptic setting does not disappoint. In the film, John Conner is very concerned about his future father, Kyle Reese, and his safety, and this works very well for the plot of the film. In the first film, it was Kyle who had to protect an unborn John, and now the roles have become reversed and John must protect his young father. To my surprise, the film remained very true to it’s franchise, and this one thing that I enjoyed in the film. Though Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger did not have a starring role in this film, like the previous films, the film was able to create a worthy addition to the Terminator franchise, and it even had many great homages to the previous films. It was apparent that the filmmakers had great affection for the previous films, and also a great vision for directing sci-fiction and action.

Not only was the plot interesting, the action very entertaining, the film true to it's original, but the characters weren't bad either. Marcus Wright is an exceptional character, and Christian Bale's John Conner wasn't bad either. The biggest complaint I hear about this film is about Bale’s low, raspy Clint Eastwood-type voice, which Bale also used for the Batman character in the recent films of that franchise. This voice of Bale, however, did not bother me at all, and I actually liked it. Even if I did find the voice to be annoying, which I didn't, it couldn't take away from the overall awesomeness of this film.

Something I like about Terminator: Salvation is that truly withholds it's brand name. The new Star Trek, albeit somewhat entertaining, was a "Star Trek" film. This new Terminator film, however, was a "Terminator" film.

It works as a great new adaptation of a great story that has been around for along time. It adds a modern flare and vision, but retains the same qualities that made it predecessors, like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a great film. If you are in the mood for a good action film with a great science- fiction plot, the I would recommend Terminator: Salvation, especially if you enjoyed it’s predecessors. This franchise, in my opinion can say, "I’ll be back" a couple more times, there is still much space left for future films in the series. Terminator: Salvation is a saving a grace for it's franchise, at least in my opinion.

August 18, 2009

Transformers, Revenge of the Fallen

CoverTransformers, Revenge of the Fallen, was all in all, a fine movie, with a few issues. One of the issues, however, was not the story line.

The story begins with Sam Witwicky leaving his parents home, to go off to college, without his guardian Autobot, Bumblebee. He is trying, in effect, to lead a normal life.

That goal becomes difficult, however, when he finds a shard of 'the cube,' from the first Transformers movie, on his jacket. When he touches the shard with his bare hands, he is inflicted with images and symbols that he does not understand.

With the newfound, and unwanted information in his head, he goes off to college, only to be pursued by Decepticons, who desperately need the knowledge, to create more of their kind. The Autobots, along with our human characters, set out on a mission to find the source of power that Sam's symbols are leading him to. Unfortunately, no one can read them. This is when they learn about the Primes. They also learn that transformers have been on earth for a lot longer than anyone could have imagined.

I would like to have only good things to say about Revenge of the Fallen. And it is very true that there are plenty of good things to be said about the movie. I watched the original show as a child, and really enjoyed the first movie. Being a huge fan of Shia Labeouf didn't hurt matters either.  However, there were some glaring issues with the movie, that I feel must be acknowledged.  Hopefully they will fix them for any future movies to come.

The writing of the story line was wonderful. The story was true to the original series, and to the previous film. However, whoever was in charge of dialog was awful. There are a few truly great lines, but they are few and far between. I suspect they were an accident. And I'm not complaining about the use of lines from the old cartoon. Some things, like Optimus Prime saying "Let's Roll," are overused and trite, but to be expected.

Of course, the biggest issue I had with the movie was 'The Twins,' a set of annoying, racist Autobots, that were intended for comic relief, but were nothing more than a wince-inducing example of harmful, and untrue ethnic stereotypes.

I was also disappointed to see that the three new Autobots that were women, in the form of three incredibly cool looking motorcycles, were barely in the movie at all. I would have liked to see a great deal more of them.

The one thing about the movie that I could not find fault in was the acting. Every actor did a superb job, especially Shia. And the music was fantastic. The new song by Linkin Park, New Divide, is incredible, and I've been playing it nonstop.

All in all, the movie is worth watching.  It's not thought provoking, but it is a lot of fun.

July 27, 2009

The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl by Tim Pratt

CoverAlthough not everything I have to say about this book is positive, Tim Pratt's The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl is a really cute and fun book to read. Brimming with funky, punky, couragous characters, it won't strain your brain, but sometimes that can be a good thing.


Two years ago, shortly after Marzi started working a coffeehouse called Genius Loci, she peeked into a secret magical door, suffered a nervous breakdown, and dropped out of art school. These days life is working out pretty good for Marzi – she has recovered from her fear of opening doors, and spends her days and nights surrounded by her artist friends and the beautiful murals on the walls of the coffeehouse. Even her quirky underground comic The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, is taking off. Rangergirl travels through a fantasical old west, righting that which was wronged, and fighting her eternal enemy, the Outlaw.


At the beginning of the summer, Marzi and her best friend Lindsay meet Jonathan, who has moved to town to study the coffeehouse murals, done by famous artist Garamond Ray, who mysteriously dissapeared after an earthquake about 15 years ago. As must happen in urban fantasy stories like this, it isn't long before people begin acting strange. After an untimely death, Jane is reborn as a mud woman, and becomes obsessed with the Goddess that is trapped in the coffeehouse. Another art student, Beej, starts living on the streets and making sacrafices to the Earthquake God. Meanwhile, Lindsay's girlfriend Alice leaves town as a cure for her pyromaniac urges.


Laying it on a little heavy handed, Pratt makes sure we know something is very wrong in the city of Santa Cruz, and Marzi and the coffeehouse are at the center of it. The being trapped in (under? behind?) the coffeehouse is a primal god of chaos, and of destruction. After seducing Jane, Beej, and finally Jonathan to his cause, the creature is able to escape his prison. As the chosen guardian, only Marzi has the power to trap him again. Everyone who comes into contact with the “godlet” sees what they want, and for Marzi, it means seeing Rangergirl's foe, the Outlaw.


Marzi has to learn exactly what it means to be the guardian, and how to save her friends and trap or destroy the Outlaw one final time. As Marzi's powers and perceptions grow, the murals in the coffeehouse change, in reflection of her imagination to take on more of a Wild West feel. Marzi takes the opportunity to act out her alter ego Rangergirl fantasies, and save the day. There was so much potential for Pratt to just go nuts here, he's got living murals, trap doors, crazy acolytes, a psychotic godlet, a mysterious oracle, and a curious and resilient heroine. Unfortunately, Pratt just seemed to plod along, being in turns predictable and inconsistent. The showdown of the millenia that I was hoping for at the end turned out to be, well, not so much.


It's not the book is badly written, it's actually quite nicely written. Well paced, friendly characters, nice sense of humor, budding romance. It's just that I've experienced (through books and video games) this urban fantasy of local girl becomes reluctlant hero to save the world and must travel into the medicine lands story so many times that my expectations are pretty high by now. If you've never read Neil Gaiman, Charles DeLint, or other various urban fantasy authors, or never played video games like Longest Journey, Rangergirl may be your first foray into the medicine lands, into the inbetween, and you'll probably enjoy yourself. However, this book falls short of it's potential when judged against other urban fantasy authors.


On a personal note, a friend recommended Pratt's Hart & Boot, and when we couldn't find that at the library, he said “Try Rangergirl. It's not Pratt's best, but it's pretty good”. And that's the best way to describe this book: not the best you'll read, but pretty good.

July 14, 2009

Shadow & Claw, by Gene Wolfe

CoverGene Wolfe's award winning 4 book series The Book of the New Sun has recently been reprinted in two volumes, each containing 2 novels. Shadow & Claw includes the first two novels – Shadow of the Torturer and Claw of the Conciliator. Wolfe presents this sci-fantasy story as a translation of a document written in a "language that does not exist yet." The dense prose is full of archaic words, which Wolfe explains a part of the challenge of a translation and transliteration. With a feeling of historical novels and hero quest fantasy, Wolfe is giving the reader a vision of distant future. Urth and her people are dessicated and dim, and the sun is cooling in her last days. Dripping in adventure, sex, sword fights, coming-of-age, and destiny, Shadow & Claw is swimming in religious parable, symbolism, and hero mythology.

Told as a flash back by the elderly Severian, he is in no hurry to tell his story, and explains to the reader on more than one occasion that he won't be offended if the reader is bored, or chooses not to continue reading his history. Severian, now residing in the royal residence (but as royalty or prisoner, or both, we're not sure) has lived a long life, and knows that although his time may be short, time itself will be around for a long time. The pace of the book is rather slow, but the slow pace allows the reader to become fully absorbed in what is going on, without the distraction of looking for the next action scene. It took me quite a while to get used to the slow pace and the archaic language style, but in the end it was worth it.

Severian's story begins when he is a child, a lowly apprentice in the guild of torturers. Before you start thinking this is one of those horror books full of blood and screaming, it's not. In this world, torture is not only a method of justice, but nearly an art form, and takes years of training and discipline. Some readers have proposed Wolfe used the idea of a professional torturer as shock value to pull readers in, and maybe he did, but any readers looking for shock value will be disapointed.

After being promoted to guild journeyman, one day Severian does the unthinkable – he assists a political prisoner in committing suicide. The punishment for this is death. As a favored student, he is offered exile instead, and given a letter of introduction and a sword, he is sent to the far reaches of the empire, to a small village in need of an executioner. Reminds me of the popular historical novel plot line of the young monk sent away from the monastery to bring the word to a small rural village, and along the way the young monk discovers the world is much larger than he expected. I'm also feeling the need to read back up on Joesph Campbell, as Severian follows his classic hero's journey.

The majority of the novel is Severian's adventures in leaving his home metropolis of Nessus on his way out to the rural country side. And they are exactly that – character building adventures involving a chance encounter with a rebel leader, beautiful women, the accidental acquiring of a magical religious relic, duels, executions (at which Severian performs admirably), a traveling acting troupe, and possible treason. At this rate, he'll never make it to his rural career. His adventures are the best written parts of the book, but not as important as the person they force him to become and the destiny he is unequivocally drawn toward. While reading this I was reminded of Robert Silverberg's Valentine series – the young man who knows he has a powerful destiny, and knows that every step of every day takes him closer, but knows there is no point in rushing things, as his life is predestined, and he will arrive at the proper place at the proper time.

The general plot sound may simple, but it is peppered with Severian's thoughts on the politics and religion of his country, his childhood, his regrets, and his successes, and lush descriptions of the alien wonders of his world. We know "Urth" is a post apocalyptic far future Earth, but will Severian ever figure it out? Will he ever bring his people back to the stars? How did things change so drastically that the citizens of Urth have no idea of their history?

I highly recommend Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series to readers who enjoy epic fantasy, and post apocalyptic tales of the earth of a far future.

July 01, 2009

Like a Chinese Tattoo, edited by Bill Breedlove

CoverI must thank Dark Arts Books for recognizing the significance of short stories. From this recognition springs an anthology featuring four authors whose diverse tales allow us to peek into their mould-encrusted minds, sail through their cavernous labyrinths, and drop us back into the safety of our sofa cushions.

In "Tomorrow, When the Demons Come," Cullen Bunn features both the subtle and blatant dangers of jealousy. One can almost taste the death a stranger brings into the life of a farm family in his most complex story, "Remains."  "Granny Kisses" is a revoltingly comical piece that made even my usual stomach of steel warp briefly once or twice.

Rick R. Reed's stories are probably the most varied in terms of style. Through the use of personal notes and flashbacks, he pays homage to Bram Stoker in "Purfleet."  "Moving Toward the Light" uses the vengeance-from-beyond-the-grave theme to remind us that even those who literally end up in the gutter can find their way out again. And, with comic pathos, "Stung" tells the story of a middle-aged woman who can just never get things right.

Once again, David Thomas Lord displays his mastery of setting and atmosphere in his trio. The seemingly monochromatic "The White Room" leads to a startling conclusion. In keeping with his colour scheme, Lord introduces us to the legend of "The Great White Ape" in a story that reminded me of a cross between Poe and Jules Verne. Finally, "Da's Boy" does a great job of reinforcing my suspicion of young children.

I must be honest. I did not warm to J.A. Konrath's writing until I got past "The Confession."  Although I could appreciate his ability to conjure novel ways of mutilating the human body, his story of violence and torture just didn't interest me. On the bright side, "The Necro Files" introduces us to Detective Harry McGlade. He's an arrogant, incompetent, insensitive jerk, but I liked him anyway, in small doses. "Punishment" features another young child facing his fear in another torture tale.  Fortunately, the violence here is a bit more subtle.

Overall, the stories in Like a Chinese Tattoo offer a diverse taste of writings from authors with whose work I was mostly unfamiliar. Most anthologies feature one story from each of their many contributors. I'd recommend Like a Chinese Tattoo to those who appreciate the introduction to newer writers but would like a longer visit with them.

June 30, 2009

Just After Sunset by Stephen King

CoverStephen King, I've come to realize over the years, is a bit of an acquired taste. Now, this isn't to say that he doesn't deserve his place in the elite of his generation's canon of popular literature, but there are some kinks that may rub readers the wrong way. King has, on occasion, called himself a "hack" and, while he may not be one the world's greatest writers, he is one of its best storytellers which, for my part, goes a hell of a lot farther.

Certain things can't be argued when it comes to his work. The Dark Tower was his opus and one of the best sagas to come along in recent memory. His work adapts well, better than most, to both screen and the pages of comics. But to me, where he has always really shined, is in his short fiction, where the bounds of the medium force his talent into a rare and often powerful focus. His newest collection, Just Before Sunset, is no exception.

As he states in his introduction, this is his return to the form after too long an absence, and his exuberance over that fact comes through loud and clear. The prose is precise and evocative. It is never wordy, never drags and the subject matter ranges from outright horror to subtle depictions of simple humanity.

From the very first tale, King proves that in a good supernatural story, the otherwordly is woven so subtly into the narrative that it feels more like a piece of the backdrop, allowing the reader to focus on the really important stuff. In those like Willa, a sweet, old-fashioned love story with a twist, and perhaps my favorite of the collection, it becomes a way to add emphasis to the underlying themes.  In the Lovecraftian N., he blurs the line between possibility and reason to a terrifyingly uncomfortable degree.

All in all, there will be sleepless nights, to be sure, and there may likely be a few tears shed for the raw humanity on display. King has grown up as an author and expanded his talent for connecting reader with character to the level of true literature, whether it is looking at the fragile nature of reality, comprehending tragedy, both massive and acutely personal, or just plain wanting to dance with your girl forever, Just Before Sunset manages it all.

June 26, 2009

Terrier: The Legend of Beka Cooper by Tamora Pierce

CoverAnyone interested in young adult fantasy will recognize the name Tamora Pierce. She is well known for her many series featuring strong willed female characters, wrapped in worlds of magic of all kinds, a world where fantastic creatures often roam. The stories are known for their great story telling, and the imagination and care put into the design of the magics that are used. And Pierce's new series, Beka Cooper, is no exception. With the introduction of this new character in Terrier, it promises to live up to the expectations her other work sets.

Beka Cooper is the ancestor of Aly Cooper, whom many of Pierce's readers will remember from Tricksters Queen and Tricksters Choice. It is easy to see that Aly comes by her attitude honestly.

Beka grew up in the darkest, poorest district of Corus, called the Lower District. Her mother was sick, and dying when her boyfriend beat her badly, and took everything of value in the house. Beka followed the man, and hunted him until she found his hideout. Discovering that he was a member of a pack of thieves, one that the local Dogs had been trying to track down for months, she reported him to the Dogs, and wrapped up the tragic crime spree. When the Provost, the man in charge of the Dogs, discovered that it was a little girl with a splash of magic in her who caught the thieves, he moved her and her siblings into his home. Their mother was welcomed as well, but she passed away soon after. 

All of this lead Beka to become a Dog as soon as she was old enough. She is given to a team of senior Dogs named Tunstall Goodwin, the two most well known Dogs in the Lower District. They are set in their ways, and none too happy to be saddled with a Puppy, as trainees are called. But, that's before they realize that their Puppy is very different from her fellow trainees. For one thing, she hears dead spirits that cling to the backs of pigeons. For another, she has a cat named Pounce, who is far more than meets the eye.

Thanks to Beka's special power, it soon becomes apparent that there is more to watch out for in the Lower District than just petty thieves. There is someone lurking in the night, taking children from their beds, and holding them hostage for things of value. Those who don't pay are getting their children back dead, or simply never seeing them again at all.

Finishing this book was disappointing only because the story was over.  I loved it, and can not wait to read the next story about the strong, and intelligent Beka Cooper.

June 22, 2009

The Summoner by Gail Z. Martin

CoverThey say never judge a book by its cover, however in this case judge away! The attractive cover art for Gail Z. Martin’s The Summoner is dark and ominous. It was the final push that sent me into her realm of magic and betrayal.

The boundaries between life and death are thinning and Martris Drake finds himself the heir to his grandmother’s position as Summoner. He must learn the craft and fill her enormous shoes while surviving an all out assault by his half brother, Jared.

Martris is confronted with a word of caution from the palace spirits, who seem to be dwindling during the kingdom’s Feast of the Departed.  As the celebration commences Martris finds his mother, father and twelve year old sister murdered at the hands of his half brother. With the king dead, and Jared now sitting at the throne, Martris must escape or lose his own life. Two of his closest friends, Ban Soterious and Carroway the bard, accompany him in his fight for survival and for his kingdom.

The trio must find out or who is imprisoning the palace spirits, evade Jared’s demand for their lives, and find a way to unseat the nefarious brother from the throne.The story immediately grabs hold with sublime settings and charmingly real characters. Martin’s style is easy to read but never lacking in detail. I found it a chore to put the book down rather than to pick it up.

Martin cultivates an engrossing tale with the perfect combination of character development and gripping action. The Summoner will take you to a place you will want to return to again and again. The story is tinged with romance, but not so much to eclipse the sword fighting and dark undertones of the world of the undead.

The only con of Martin’s novel is that it is so difficult to put down. Chapters roll by quickly carrying you to the books conclusion. But fret not! She has crafted the next two titles in the series, The Blood King and Dark Haven.

Fans of adventure fantasy called and Martin answered, securing her place as a benefit to the genre. Her strong characters, beautiful imagery, and fast paced action make The Summoner a staple for your summer book list.

June 21, 2009

Iron Council by China Mieville

CoverSimilar to some of China Mieville's other novels, Iron Council has a bit of a rough start. First we meet Cutter and his crew of rebels who are leaving the metropolis New Crobuzon. The city is embroiled in a war with neighboring Tesh, and there is obviously more going on than the governments of both countries are letting on. Two factions in New Crobuzon work towards their goal: One faction believes in a coup, and then there is Cutter's faction, who believes the Iron Council is their only hope.


Among Cutter's group is an older gentleman named Judah Low, who claims to know the whereabouts of the Iron Council. Everyone follows Judah, and he knows too much. None of the rebels know who they can trust, so the opening few chapters are full of code words and doublespeak. Great for the characters, but confusing for the reader.


The novel follows a handful of story lines, the most important being that of the birth of the Iron Council. Twenty some years ago, a businessman in New Crobuzon received government financing to build a transcontinental railroad. The city government believed this would help them in quick deployment of troops, city defenses, and would allow them to bring neighboring territories under their umbrella. The rails and ties went down over miles and miles, destroying everything in their path, all in the name of progress. The slave construction crews, mostly reMade, were typically shackled at night. Mieville's reMade are the criminal class – citizens found guilty of anything from murder to petty crimes to dissent, and sent to the punishment factories where they were thaumaturgically, chemically, and physically reMade into something that may be a mockery of their crime, or may help them in their future as a slave laborer, or may be random, or may be simple cruelty. If they survived the punishment factories, they could look forward to a lifetime of forced labor. No pun intended, but the reMade are a supernova of a trainwreck – you just can't look away from the additional limbs, animal parts, coal fed engines, alien protrusions and the utter insult to the soul these people have been turned into. On purpose I'm sure, reMade are often Mieville's most human characters, especially in The Scar.


Every huge construction project has it's hanger-ons, and the transcontinental railroad is no different. The great worker strike begins when the prostitutes go on strike. Cash for payroll is slow coming down the line, and the girls just won't do it for free anymore. When the employees realize it's not the prostitutes who are their enemy, but the financially pained railroad company, they strike too. After the company militia treat the reMade slaves as scabs, a riot ensues. A lot of violence and a little bit of luck later, the workers, prostitutes, and reMade have taken over the train, leaving the militia behind with one piddly train car and a long ride home. That was the day the Iron Council was born. From here on out, they lay down their tracks in the direction in which they wish to go, and pick up their tracks afterwards. The Iron Council – a socialist community that reflects equal rights for all races, honest justice, and a burning hatred for governments who fear their people. Everyone works, everyone eats, and no one gets left behind or treated like a second class citizen. After a few years, the railroad company goes bankrupt, New Crobuzon stops chasing the Iron Council, and the Perpetual Train becomes a myth prayed to by dissidents.


Judah Low the golemist is intimately involved with the strike. Originally hired by the railroad trust as a scout, he spends time with a tribe of Stiltspears, who teach him their esoteric brand of Golemetry – giving life to inanimate matter for a short period of time. In a true fantasy novel, this would probably be called magic – in a Mieville novel it's called science. Why Mieville has been lumped under the fantasy genre, I'll never know. As the railroad inches closer to Stiltspear land, Judah tries to convince the tribe to leave, and rebuild their homes elsewhere, but they won't leave their ancestral home. The railroad comes, bringing dynamite, militia, and guns with it, and the Stiltspear community is mostly wiped out. Later, it is partly due to Judah's unusual golemetry skills that the strike is successful, however after many years of living with the council, he decides to return to New Crobuzon where he quickly hooks up with the political dissidents. When the dissident faction decide the Iron Council is their salvation, Judah volunteers information on it's whereabouts, but keeps the rest of his tragic history secret. The group treks across the continent looking for the perpetual train, while the New Crobuzon militia has gone by ship around the continent and is also searching for the Council from the other side.


Something I love about the “Mieville style” is the expense his characters are forced to go through – everything costs something, and nothing is cheap. If you really want something to happen, you better really want it, because it's going to cost you something, you can't just snap your fingers and have it. Judah can't just snap his fingers and have a golem at his command, everytime the priest Qurabin requests a secret from the patron god Vogu, it costs Qurabin something – first knowledge, then memories, then senses, then anything that remains.



One of my favorite things about Mieville is that he's got the balls to write stuff I don't think anyone else wants to touch – deviant sexuality, political commentaries on crime and punishment and recovery, amorality, drug use and dependence, obsession and bone numbing fear. Sure, other authors write about all those things and more, but not in the oceanic quantity and intense quality as Mieville. On the other hand, the thing that hurts him the most as an author is that he doesn't seem to feel the need to be fully coherent. His stream of conscienceness synaesthesia-esque M. John Harrison style descriptions mixed with Lovecraftian horror prose can be a painfully acquired taste, and could easily be a turn off to many readers.


I'm often annoyed by political fiction. After enjoyed a novel and telling all my friends about it, I'll learn it was a propaganda vehicle for the authors political platform. Nothing against an author who has a message they want to get across via fiction, but I don't appreciate being turned into an unwitting preacher feeling stupid for falling for a free advertising trick.


That said, Iron Council is a political novel. And I liked it. And I'm telling all my friends about it. It was a major bonding moment when I saw it on a friend's bookshelf. Mieville has some things he needs to say about slavery, human rights, socialism, and criminal justice, and I like the sound of his voice when he says them. He takes “Of course criminals should be punished to the full extent of the law!!”, culture shock, and social class-ism to the nth degree, forcing readers to really think about how people should be treated. Unfortunately, Mieville is probably preaching to the choir, as people who are interested in reading this book probably already agree with most of what he's saying.


This not a book for the squeamish, hawkish, conservative, or those who are perfectly happy with the status quo.


June 09, 2009

Patricia McKillip: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

CoverI’ve always liked McKillip’s writing style and this book is no exception. It’s lyrical tale about a wizard woman, her adopted son, mythical beasts, and how hard it is to live in the human world.

Sybel comes from a line of wizards who live alone on the Eld Mountain except for the unfortunate women they lure to themselves through magic. Her mother died after giving birth to her and her only companions have been her father Ogam, an old woman called Maelga, and a collection of mythical beasts. She doesn’t care for other humans at all and is not used to dealing with them.

However, some time after her father died a young man comes to her door with a baby. He claims that the baby is kin to Sybel and also a bastard. He asks Sybel to take care of the boy. Reluctantly, Sybel agrees.

For twelve years Tamlorn lives freely on Eld Mountain. Then one day, the same man comes back to Sybel and tries to convince her to let Tamlorn return. It turns out, that Tamlorn isn’t really a bastard at all but a king’s son and many people would like to use Tamlorn in their own plots and plans. However, Sybel doesn’t want Tamlorn to be used and refuses. But eventually, Tamlorn wants to know about his father and in the end both Sybel and Tam have to deal with the human world.

Once again, McKillip turns fantasy traditions on their ear. Many writers would have (and have when they use the most common trope where a farm boy is the long lost heir) taken Tam as the main character: a twelve-year-old boy who is the rightful heir to a kingdom which has strong enemies. But this is Sybel’s story. While Tam is, of course, a significant character because Sybel loves him like a son, she is still the only view point character who makes all her own decisions and have to face the consequences.

The magic in this world is different from many fantasy books. Basically, Sybel has mind powers: she can call animals and humans to her even from a long distance as long as she knows their name. She can also wipe out memories and presumably influence people’s minds in other ways. Her most prominent power, however, is her ability to mentally control the mythical creatures she has. She can talk with them silently and they must obey her. The creatures aren’t animals as such, though. They talk coherently in their minds and the Boar even talks out loud in riddles.

The mythical creatures are very interesting bunch: the Black Swan of Tirlith, Boar Cyrin who sings and talks in riddles in a sweet voice, the Dragon Gyld, the Lyon Gules, the black Cat Moriah, and the Falcon Ter. Ter is the one we see most often because he’s Tamlorn’s companion and protector. All of the creatures seem quite well-behaved although we are told that they long for the time when their names will be remembered and spoken of again. The Dragon even does something about it. Through out the book, Sybel tries to call to her Liralen which is a huge, white bird.

As is usual to McKillip, the characters face hard choices which have no easy answers.

June 01, 2009

The Tudors Season 2

CoverI just finished watching Season 2 of The Tudors, and my only complaint is that it was not as deliciously fabulous as I expected it to be... but what kind of a complaint is that, right? I had previously watched Season 1 a few months ago, and so I knew fundamentally what I was getting in for, though the buzz I'd heard surrounding Season 2 painted it as even more of a wickedly watchable soap opera, loved by fans while looked upon dubiously by critics. Honestly, it was a bit more engaging and faster paced than Season 1, though not quite the compulsive guilty pleasure I had hoped for.

For those who might not know, or might not have guessed, The Tudors is a Showtime network series based on the tumultuous relationships and politics of England's King Henry VIII. Rather than a yawn-worthy historical biopic, the show aims to be a sexy retelling, free to take a few liberties with history for the sake of telling a good yarn. Liberties are indeed taken, but mostly they are measured, chosen carefully with good story sense in mind, and ultimately pretty few considering that the show otherwise sticks closely to known history.

Please don't get me wrong, The Tudors is very enjoyable and great fun to watch. I was looking forward to popping in the DVD when I got home from work every night last week.Cover Often, however, one episode scratched the itch, and I found myself switching to lighter fare after one installment. I suppose that hits at the crux of one problem in The Tudors. I felt that the show made too forthright of an attempt to cast the atmosphere of a serious historical treatment, while at the same time spinning a sumptuous story. This cohabitation of the two sides diffused the drama for me at times. Also, the pacing of the entire two seasons seemed problematic to me. Too much time was spent on the King's getting a divorce from Katherine of Aragon, and the downfall of Anne Boleyn happened too quickly. How delicious it would have been to see power slip more slowly from Anne's fingers, to watch her make decision after decision to dig a deeper hole for herself.

All in all, The Tudors is great program in the grand Showtime network tradition, fun and sexy and intellectual; those who follow my reviews will know that I often have the most critique to offer of media I most enjoy. So please pick up these DVD's if you're a fan of historicals, fantasy or just good television.

May 29, 2009

The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

Book CoverOne of my favorite books that I read in the past year was Joe Haldeman's Accidental Time Machine. Your first guess about this book is probably correct—that you'd be in for a time travel tale. Haldeman, however, takes an SF standard that can sometimes amount to a tired old story, and with his wit and story-telling sensibilities, turns it into an engaging read with novelty, humanity and classic science fiction spirit.

Matt Fuller, a research assistant at near-future MIT, accidentally calibrates one of his projects incorrectly and only realizes it when the device disappears when activated, only to reappear a few moments later. The disappearance and reappearance, he soon realizes, is actually a jump forward in time, and each forward jump becomes exponentially longer. What starts at a second, increases to minutes, to hours to days. By the time he has figured out how to rig up an old car to take himself along with the device, he's gone for months only to find himself in a world of trouble when he gets home. Circumstances push him to make the irrevocable decision to embark on an adventure of forward jumps, casting him increasing further into the future until he can either find a place to settle, or a future with the technology to send him back.

The charm of this novel is primarily in Haldeman's sense of humor, creating characters that are at once whimsical and compelling. The ever larger time jumps give the reader a sense of wonder and urgency to continue along Fuller's journey, as each new time is painted in rich and fascinating detail—and typically defeats all reader expectations of what kind of place Fuller will end up in next. The science is well- but not over-detailed, allowing the causal reader and the science fiction enthusiast alike to enjoy this story. This novel is ultimately about the novelty of each new milieu, but the characters are eminently likable and their motivations keep the story grounded in real emotions. A great choice for science fiction fans, but is highly accessible for general readers looking to try something in the SFF realm.  

May 21, 2009

The Host by Stephenie Meyer

As book buzz goes, Stephenie Meyer has earned quite a sizable amount. Buzz always catches my attention, at the very least, but Meyer's books to this point have been young adult, which always has an adverse reaction on my desire to read. The Host, however, is her first published foray into adult fiction, so I jumped at the opportunity.

This novel opens in a near-future Earth, many years after the quiet invasion of parasitic aliens called "Souls." This race survives and thrives by traveling the universe to find and inhabit compatible hosts. After a clandestine arrival on Earth, they have slowly taken inhabited the majority of humans to establish a peaceful and Soul-ruled planet where the remaining uninhabited humans are rouges on the run from the new established order. The main Soul character of this novel, Wanderer, has been invited to Earth for one lifetime in effort to teach at the university about the many lives she has lived on different planets. Upon arrival she makes the controversial decision to be implanted into an adult host, rather than a child—which is commonly recommended. The host is Melanie Stryder, a recently captured fugitive from the Souls who still longs for the lover and kid brother she left behind. Melanie's robustness proves too powerful to be subdued by Wanderer, and as human emotions flood Wanderer for the first time, the two find themselves both at odds and irrevocably magnetized toward each other. So powerful is Melanie's underlying influence that Wanderer breaks from Soul society to help Melanie track down her fugitive loved ones.

In a lot of ways, this premise is chock full of scifi standards. The symbiant-host relationship may not be familiar to Meyer's YA readers, but any casual scifi fan worth his/her salt will recognize it. The invasion of Earth, the plight of the humans to gain sympathy from one of the invaders... it has all been done before. However, what sets The Host apart from the usual derivative genre standards is how these elements are rooted in characterization. Meyer's characters draw the reader into their plights with a ripe characterization fraught with dilemma. These scifi standards read with freshness through the eyes of earnestly absorbing characters, taking readers on a page-turner journey that is truly character-driven rather than plot driven.

If you have been reluctant to give Meyer's YA novels a try, The Host is your perfect opportunity to succumb to the buzz.


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