Nov 292013
 

Had a conversation with a friend recently about some of the things that I’ve been watching recently. He quoted/paraphrased me to his blog. So I decided provide a more detailed write up of my thoughts, and have cross posted them below:

1- Arrow does a better job with its series episodes that Marvel SHIELD. I happen to love Whedon, but SHIELD comes across as the step child of the Marvel universe, whereas Arrow (based on DC’s Green Arrow comic series) has reimagined the hero and yet paid homage to the rest of the DC universe. There series is chock full of references to things you would recognize from other DC movie franchises (Batman, Flash) as well as references to things that come only from the Comics. SHIELD has done the same, but lacks the same chemistry between its main characters (which is unfortunate, because Whedon is known for excellence in casting.)

2. Cloud Atlas (http://amzn.to/1j1BPus) was fantastic. Although the first 20 minutes is very confusing, and it takes great concentration to unravel the mystery of the series, by the conclusion you a pattern emerges and the final scenes are emotionally impactful. I was tenuously interested when it was in the theatre, but opted to skip. While it’s not the kind of movie that suffers greatly from that decision (and is still an excellent watch at home or via online streaming), I think it was worth the price of theatre admission.

3. Ender’s Game, on the other hand, greatly abbreviates the plot. While it is essentially true to the essence of the novel, the novel is quite literally too big a story for the big screen. They render the epic story down to a watery plot that omits much of the moral weight of the novel, as well as reducing the impact of Battle School on Ender (reducing his stay from years, in the novel, down to a mere 28 days in Battle School, in the movie…) Despite the loss of critical world building scenes, the movie still highlights the essential elements from the novel, remains true in spirit and provides a visual spectacle that one can appreciate.

Feb 102013
 

Dream Dark
Dream Dark by Kami Garcia

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A brief (73 page) short story re-introducing Link as a succubus, showing him learning to deal with his new identity and trying to get along with Ridley who, despite losing our Caster powers at the end of the previous book, is somehow Casting again.

It’s an interesting mini-story between Beautiful Darkness and Beautiful Chaos, books 2 and 3, but doesn’t really fit in either. It’s a segue between them and is rightfully relegated to its own short story.

I wish more authors would take this road– there have been some books I’ve read recently (in lengthy multi-book series) where the book really didn’t deserve a full book treatment. The authors made a wise choice in writing this as a short story rather than trying to flesh it out to something it wasn’t.

I liked this and have no regrets in purchasing it– I even recommend it despite the 3 star rating (which means I liked it not loved it.)

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Feb 102013
 

Beautiful Darkness
Beautiful Darkness by Kami Garcia

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the typical fashion of teen fiction everywhere, Beautiful Darkness introduces a “secondary love interest” for series protagonist, Ethan Wate. Lena, the girl of his dreams, is moping over having killed her adoptive father, Macon, the succubus, had been killed at the end of the previous book (she blames herself.. it’s understandable and believable teen drama.)

While Lena is busy drowning in her sorrow, hanging out with Ridley, the dark caster, and Ethan’s advesary for Lena’s affection, John. After a series of evasions, Ethan finally begins to realize that Lena is starting to see another guy and he has an opportunity to start fresh with the bookish yet beautiful Olivia.

The thing that I like best about this hiatus into teen drama is that it never went so far that I truly believed that Ethan and Olivia or John and Lena would ever become an item. On the other hand, it was believable enough that it had me worried throughout the book.

Of course, Ethan declines to pursue Olivia, but there are a couple of close calls due to Ethan feeling sorry for himself that Lena has run away with another guy. That relationship turns out to be less than what it appears to be also– John and Ridley are being manipulated by the bad guys into delivering Lena to a fantastic final confrontation wherein Lena will be used by the Dark Casters to reshape the Order.

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Feb 072013
 

Dune
Dune by Frank Herbert

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paperback:

The story and narrative style is crisp and wastes little space. The scope of the story is breathtakingly immense. Ten thousand years since the man-machine wars– and those are only hinted at by reference to the Butlerian Jihad. Act I is the Atreides taking possession of Arakis. Act II is the fall of House Atreides and the rise of the lisan al gaib, Paul Muad’dib. Act III is the culmination of the legend wherein the lisan al gaib takes possession of the position of the imperial emperor, the landsraad, Dune and the future of humanity. (Although that is another story.)

Audiobook:

A huge cast of narrators retells this story lovingly. There’s little more that I can say about this story than what I said about the paperback version (above)– I do wish to note that the primary narrator is sometimes tasked with reading lines from characters who have been previously narrated by other narrators (e.g., sometimes there is a different narrator for the Baron Harkonnen– and sometimes the primary narrator reads the Baron’s lines.) I am pretty sure that Paul, Jessica, Chani, Stilgar and Gurney are all voiced by the same narrator throughout the audiobook.

Despite the oddity of inconsistant narrator selection for a single character, the primary narrator is skilled enough at narration that it is easy to tell the difference between his general narrative voice and the various characters he narrates for.

I highly recommend both the paperback and this most recent audiobook from McMillan audio, released in 2007.

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Jan 102013
 

The Left Hand of Darkness
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I so wanted to write a review of this book when I finished reading it (July 2012), but I put it off for later. And now, several months later, I don’t recall enough about the story to due a truly worthy review of this book. Sufficed to say that one of the key elements of Literature (as opposite to SciFi and Fantasy) is that the story focuses not on the plot, but instead on some topic that is relevant to the human condition. I’m not saying that Literature can’t be SciFi or Fantasy– I’m not that bigoted. But I’m also not saying that SciFi or Fantasy aspires to reveal some element of the human condition. SciFi/Fantasy is often (possibly even most often) concerned with the plot. Moving characters J from A to C, and explaining how they get around the plot challenge, B.

When a story’s great conflict is a lengthy trek across the deadly snowscape of an alien planet, where the solitude and occasional brushes with death due to the deadly cold cause the protagonist to do a lot of soul searching, and where the conclusion of the story is not so much the plot being resolved but instead the protagonist realizing how much he’s changed since the start of the story… Well, that’s literature. The fact that there isn’t much direct conflict, certainly no fights, and almost no resolution to the external events portrayed… Well, that is again literature– in it’s purest form perhaps. (Completely ignoring the fact that the setting is Science Fiction.)

The Left Hand of Darkness was one of the most interesting stories I read in 2012, especially because it was literature in a SciFi setting. This book gave me several hours of lengthy discussion with a friend of mine who is also an English teacher at a Community College in Los Angeles. I can’t say that I would be drawn to read fiction like this regularly– I like plot in my stories– but every once in a while it’s nice to read a story that makes you think about who you are and what it means to be human.

Jan 102013
 

Beautiful Creatures
Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An amazing book, made even more amazing by the fact that it’s teen fiction yet (to me) contains the necessary complexity to be adult fiction. That complexity includes a well woven plot, deep and interesting characters, and where creative (read: poor) grammar is contained within quotes where it belongs.

I’m especially pleased to note that it isn’t until chapter 4 that the point of view (POV) protagonist, Ethan Wate, has an exchange which tells you more about the author than it does about the character. The conversation between Ethan and his father is very girly. Men, as a general rule, do not communicate subtext by choice of words and the context of the conversation. We’re just not aware enough of our environment to create contextually relevant subtext on purpose.

Also, men typically don’t walk around saying things like “the kind [of mutual understanding] that only guys come to.” Again, we’re not that aware. However, the internal monologue of the POV character made me think about story construction and I realized that what authors typically do is, they write in a character of the opposite sex (from themselves) as having some keener understanding of the opposite sex than normal. What Kami and Margaret did was make the POV character more self aware of his gender’s behavior, which is why it rang false. The only time I’m self aware is when I’m comparing my behavior to a generalized behavior of the opposite sex.

Despite making two paragraphs out of this minor aberration (and they happened infrequently– on the order of I think it happened like 4-5 times in the entire book– and those instances were specifically to provide explanation via exposition– and it worked), that’s literally the only real complaint I can make about the entire book.

The story is, at its essence, a love story like a Romeo and Juliet. Making the primary characters readers is one of those tricks to make characters more endearing to other readers (Don’t believe the hype– opposites do not attract, they just excite.) And Ethan and Lena both read and write. Ethan’s caretaker, Amma, is a crossword junkie who loves obscure words. Several characters quote from classic literature or quote historical personages; Voltaire, Euripedes, Martin Luther King, and so forth. And best of all, I was touched by the romantic angst as Lena and Ethan faced the problem at the center of the story, Lena’s curse.

In fact, when I sat down to dinner with a friend I had stopped at the Climax of the story– and I had been tempted to cancel dinner to finish the book– when I got to talking about what I’d been reading recently, this book was at the “top of the to read list” that I recommended to him. (I’ve read a total of four different series in the last two weeks and this definitely gets into my top ten.)

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Jan 102013
 

The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Surprised this qualified as “teen”, a number of word selections were more advanced than I’d expect to hear from teenagers. The story construction was well done. Carolyn McCormick’s narration was supurb.

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Not my best review, but like Midst Toil and Tribulation, I forgot to post the review when I read this back in Aug 2012.

Jan 102013
 

Midst Toil and Tribulation
Midst Toil and Tribulation by David Weber

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Finally the Mainland-Siddarmark war begins. It’s not an invasion like we might have hoped, but instead a desperate rear-guard action to protect the innocent people of Siddarmark from the Army of God.

The constant meeting notes were less in evident, but there were several chapters that could have been culled from the book by simply summerizing the meetings. There’s not much conflict there, and they’re (to me) boring ways to provide exposition.

Not sure how I feel about Nahrman being converted into an AI. Definitely don’t believe that everyone who finds out is going to be totally OK with it. There are always going to be people who will re-think their allegiance after they started (even if they made the right decision in the first place).

I am also baffled why, after (how many books now?) 6 books, Merlin (or anyone else) hasn’t ever once considered putting SNARCS between the semaphore stations to intercept every communication that left Zion. I just accept it and move on only because the Temple Lands has stopped sending complete orders into the field (out of distrust that some among their army are heretics and traitors). So even if they did put SNARCS in a place to capture every Semaphore message, those messages don’t contain everything that happens within the Temple itself.

But, moving 40,000 troops East instead of West at the “drop of a hat” is mind-bogglingly difficult to digest. While yes, if the Imperial army had simply not put troops anywhere near that front because they didn’t expect an attack, yes that would be a problem when the forces did start moving East… the army moving East would have had to recall all of its advanced scouts… And if they didn’t, if instead they were ordered simply to ready themselves for moving West, but not to actually begin the movement… then simply by intercepting those orders it would be a lot clearer to Merlin and the rest of the Good Guys that the Temple Lands were about to pull a switcheroo.

So to think that the Empire was caught flat footed because they didn’t recognize the signs, and that the Army of God’s forces (or Desnair, or whoever) were able to turn around go in the exact opposite direction without some confusion and disarray… well… I just don’t buy it.

I think this is a case of the author becoming too clever for his own good.

I still really love the idea behind the series, but I feel like Weber is starting to let me down. That makes me a sad panda.

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Originally read this in Oct 2012. Forgot to post the review to my blog.

Jan 082013
 

Apocalypse Z: The Beginning of the End
Apocalypse Z: The Beginning of the End by Manel Loureiro

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Apocalypse Z, authored by Manel Loureiro of Pontevedra Spain and translated to English by Pamela Carmell. Apocalypse Z is a story written in journal format, the first of of that format that I’ve ever read. Each chapter is written largely in the style of a diary entry, in post tense first person. A number of the later chapters, as the tension rachets up, include a subtantially increased level of detail and focus. The story concludes with the main protagonist’s final entry, wherein the protagonist write that he’s photocopied his journal and left it for other to find, in case he doesn’t make it.

The transition from blog/journal format to a more detailed blow-by-blow format is gradual and well paced. While the additional detail is a clear give away that the fictional author, and protagonist, is writing in such depth purely for the purposes of telling the story that Manel wants told, it works well.

Manel also artfully renders common everyday (for him and his protagonist, both of which are lawyers) bits of knowledge into the story. Like how he learned, as a lawyer, about how to do breaking and entering, or how he learned about the realities of automobile accidents involving pedestrians, both from former clients. He also does an excellent job of remembering realities (like how cars left unattended might end up with dead car batteries if the doors are left open and the internal lights left on; or vehicles which might have been left running will be out of gas.)

He does, however, perpetuate some common myths; like the car explosion myth. MythBuster’s tackled the topic of gas tank explosions in 2004 and determined that a car’s gas tank would need to be (a) extremely hot and (b) near empty so that the air within the tank would be sufficient to sustain the gasoline fire until an explosion could take place. Without sufficient heat, or sufficient air in the tank, the tank cannot reach sufficient pressure to explode. (Yes, the MythBuster episode was focused on shooting gas tanks, but the same principals apply. And no, I’m not saying that a car with gasoline in it wouldn’t fuel a wild fire… just that unless the fire can get inside the tank and burn long enough to cause an explosion one of two things is likely– (1) the gas tank will act like a candle reservoir, supplying fuel for a long term burn, or (1) there will be insufficient oxygen exposure to ignite the fuel in the tank.)

On the other hand, trees exploding from a raging fire is completely believable due to the water content within the tree and the rapid expansion of same during a serious burn. It happens in Redwoods in my area from time to time.

Horror is not normally my thing, but I read the book in two days and was thoroughly drawn in– upto an including reading late into the night on my e-reader, in the dark. Spooky.

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Jan 022013
 

City of BonesBeware of spoilers
City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Granted, I read the book quickly, but I put it down several times to do other things. It’s hard to give a novel a 5 star rating when I feel like putting the book down (rather than being forced to put it down due to some interruption.)

Clary Fray is your typical female protagonist who needs to be regularly saved. One wonders why this trope is still used today in a post-modern, pro-feminine (post-feminist) culture? Why does the female protagonist need to be saved? Why can’t she save herself? Does saving oneself detract in some way from being feminine? When Clary (Clarissa) is able to save herself, it’s not due quick thinking or skill, it’s because her nature(as the child of two Shadowhunters). I find “because the spirit moved me to do it” explanations for success to be annoyingly similar to deus ex machina.

I found one of the story mechanics(the one that causes Clary to forget things supernatural, and showing the reader how Clary forgets something she just saw)interesting.

I did not find any plot holes, which was an extreme pleasure. The book was well edited for spelling and grammar. Most of the humor was punny, which deserved a smirk, but I did not laugh except when people said things in seriousness that were just outright silly. Like “They say the meek shall inherit the earth, but at the moment it belongs to the conceited. Like Me.” made me laugh.

Unfortunately, the plot felt a little flaccid for me. It was well tied together, there wasn’t wasted space (or if there was, it wasn’t much)… just for me, the plot felt uninteresting. And the final reveal(the reveal that Clary and Jace are brother/sister, a la Star Wars Luke & Leia)was almost cliche (to me).

I neither loved nor hated the book. After I read some other stories, I might even pick up the next in the series.

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