Thursday, September 26, 2013

To Be Or Not To Be: A Chooseable Path Adventure

I have a very long, constantly growing to-read list, and I get in a bad habit of buying or borrowing too many books at a time. Especially when I go a little crazy at the library, I tend to end up with a big backlog of books I've been meaning to read, but this one is due back in a week. At the point that I realized I had a pile of books next to my bed that was almost as tall as my bed, I made a hard and fast resolution not to so much as look at any other book until I'd finished the whole stack. And I was off to a good start, too. Then To Be Or Not To Be came in the mail.
Amazon    B&N   Breadpig    Goodreads
I backed the Kickstarter for this book, what, maybe a year ago? and have been giddily awaiting its arrival ever since. This is a choose your own adventure book for grown ups, written by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics fame and based on the immortal play Hamlet, by my bud Billy Shakes. The concept alone was enough to hook me, and apparently everyone else too, because the campaign soared past its initial goal. What that meant practically (among other things) is that all of the endings (read: gruesome deaths), and there are many of them, are illustrated by some of my favorite webcomic artists from around the 'net.

The book itself is over 700 pages long, and you can "play" as Hamlet, Hamlet Sr., or Ophelia, both through the events of the play and minor and hilariously significant deviations from it. Each storyline is full of gags, hilariously over the top violence, and snarky commentary (and so much more snark the closer you get to the actual play. Reading this has definitely made me realize how very goofy and problematic the original text of Hamlet can be), and at the end of each one, a beautiful illustration. Perfect.

As with all choose your own adventure stories, there are plenty of missteps to make, but unlike most, there isn't really one definitive "good" ending - especially because the "one true ending" isn't exactly happy. Instead, there are lots of deviations, both happy and disastrous, as North riffs on some of the more ridiculous aspects of the play. He also expands, modernizes, and colloquializes the characters and language really nicely. It's like having a really funny dude tell you the story of Hamlet, only you get to pick what the characters do (and sometimes get made fun of for your choices). There are also a whole host of games-within-the-adventure, including but not limited to: an actual game of chess, a game show style trivia quiz, a book within the book, and a text based adventure game (I'm not even kidding).

I can't remember any book making me laugh out loud as hard or as consistently as this one, and, seriously, if you like Dinosaur Comics, or if you like Shakespearean lit and have a good sense of humor, To Be Or Not To Be is a real gem. It's smart, funny, and good looking - what else would you want to spend your Saturday night with! Best part? He's doing one for Romeo & Juliet next.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Kill City Blues

Holy wow guys. So, I just finished Richard Kadrey's Kill City Blues, the latest in his Sandman Slim series. I got into this series a couple months before the last book, Devil Said Bang, came out, devoured them all straight through, and have been anxiously awaiting this next installment ever since. And let me tell you, it didn't disappoint.
Amazon    B&N    Goodreads
Where to start? If you haven't read any of the Sandman Slim books, you're missing out. One of the most powerfully voice-driven series I've read and a personal favorite of mine, these are dark, gritty, hard hitting, bloody, sassy books with great characters, great dialogue, and delightful action. The series is set mostly in LA, and as a So Cal native I love the way Kadrey rips open the city and shows us its ugly innards, both the ones that are there in life and the magical, mystical, and fantastical ones he weaves in with them. These books are akin to paranormal detective stories, but instead of a detective, we get James Stark, aka Sandman Slim, who is more likely to punch, hack, slash, and kill his way to answers than "detect" anything. He's a (literally) hell-hardened, gun slinging, magic wielding badass who's continually stuck saving the world from all assortment of magical and mystical baddies.

I'll admit that Devil Said Bang left me a little wanting - without spoiling any plot points for those who haven't read them, it felt a bit like Kadrey had written himself into a corner, and DSB was him writing his way right back out of it. It was by no means a bad book (really, still a better read than most), but compared to the rest of the series it was a tad halting, without the same intense, unstoppable forward motion of the rest of the series. But if DSB felt like getting the series back on track, Kill City Blues was a fantastic, fresh new start. The story continues the series' overarching conflict, of course - a battle between heaven, hell, and the powers above and beyond them - but in this book we're back in LA, the band is back together, and a maybe slightly more sober Stark is ready to beat his way to some answers.

The first half of the book is enjoyably familiar territory - Sandman Slim pissing off powerful people, making enemies, and generally kicking ass - but it's around the half way point (when we get to Kill City) that the book hits a whole other level. Kill City, the abandoned ruins of a megamall, is maybe my favorite setting in the whole series so far. Kadrey's description of the decay is so vivid and tactile I found myself actually holding my breath as the characters crept through the darkened ruins. The whole place has a tribal, apocalyptic feel, and the place and its inhabitants are so realistically crafted you feel like you could practically step right into Kill City yourself, assuming you were dumb enough to want to. The violence is cringe worthy and intense, the stakes consistently high, and the twists and reveals made me squirm and gasp and squeal out loud. More than once, I felt like I needed to stop and catch my breath, but couldn't stand to put the book down.

The secondary cast also got a lot more face time in this book, which I really enjoyed. We get to see some characters put in a room together for the first time, and the play between them is incredible. They get a chance to riff off each other instead of just Stark, and the resulting  rapport of dialogue is not only gut splitting hilarious, but also helps round out the characters in really interesting ways.Stark's friends have started to befriend each other, and feel less like a sprawling cast and more like a team, which has me even more excited for what's to come.

As with all the other books in the series, Kill City Blues has more denouement than climax, but really the wrap-up is often among the most enjoyable parts of the books, especially the Deities and Drinks portion that shows up in (I think?) every one. From start to finish, the book was deeply engrossing and compulsively readable, and my only real disappointment is that I'm going to have to wait another year for the next one.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


Okay, so, I finally got around to watching Drive, and I find myself left feeling... breathless. Clearly I'm a little late to this conversation, but are there really people that don't like this movie? Scratch that. Are there people who like things that are good that don't like this movie?
IMDB     Netflix
Let me start out by saying that I was sold on the buzz from this movie and have wanted to see it since it hit wide release, but from then until now I haven't been able to find a single person willing to watch it with me. Maybe because the critical acclaim turned into a less dazzling reception (I was informed while I was watching the opening credits that a woman actually tried to sue the creators because there "wasn't any driving" in the movie), but I finally decided I'd waited long enough and went into the movie alone.

Now, I can see where someone expecting Fast And Furious: Ryan Gosling would come out of this movie disappointed, but disappointed for all the reasons that I find myself still sort of in awe. The movie isn't a start-to-finish chase scene; it isn't wisecracks or dirty cops, street gangs, street races, spies, or any of the trappings of a blockbuster. But every driving scene in the movie is gut-clenchingly tense. The cinematography is elegant and beautiful, by which I mean, you can actually see the goddamn cars actually driving. Where Hollywood chase scenes have become a jumbled mash of close up shots and quick cuts, Drive is fluid - you can feel, through the camera, the beauty and precision of the main character's driving, his restraint, calmness, and presence of mind.

The film doesn't have a lot of dialogue, and I'll admit that there are a few scenes between the driver and Irene filled with such protracted uncomfortable silence I straight up do not believe two actual humans could endure it. But at the same time, that's sort of the point - it's meant to be weird, and uncomfortable, and tense. For all ten words that any two characters exchange, there are thousands conveyed and left unsaid. Gosling's nearly silent protagonist is built as someone shy and maybe unusual - restrained and perhaps with some secrets, but ultimately a good and decent guy. The rug is pulled out from under us in a heartbeat, the moment we know what all that crisp composure is holding back: we see the driver put on his gloves half a dozen times throughout the film, but this time, it's different. In that single gesture, we realize exactly what he's capable of.

Is the movie violent? Oh my god yes. But is it too violent or unnecessarily violent? I don't think so. This movie isn't Saw, it isn't torture porn, but it is amazingly brutal. Breathtakingly, beautifully brutal. The violence is graphic and savage and real, but that's exactly it - it isn't some person having to fight through a web of barbed wire, it's a man defending himself and the woman he loves by whatever means he has to. The driver doesn't carry a gun, and it turns out he doesn't need to. It's always the quiet ones.

I'm going to spoilertag this bit, because it's my very favorite part of the movie, but I'm not one for spoilers, even for a movie that's (somehow) already two years old. 

Every part of this movie is elegantly made and purposeful. The acting is divine - and, good lord, for all the previews I saw for this movie, I had no idea that Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, AND Christina Hendricks were all in this movie, too. Damn.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and call this movie a strange spiritual successor to True Romance, especially for the soundtrack that makes the unlikely romance somehow work amid the brutality. Also, I think this means I'm officially on the Gosling bandwagon. Seriously, damn. I'm going to be thinking about this movie for a while.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Max Movie Reviews: Who Framed Roger Rabbit

During my recent illness, I was more or less confined to the comforting bosom of my sofa. So I watched, er, more than a few movies. We'll say I made a dent in my to-watch list. But once I ran out of movies I was immediately interested in watching, I decided to let Max take a stab at it and have Netflix pick my next movie for me. I went for drama, and Max insta-picked....

IMDB    Netflix

...One of my absolute favorite childhood movies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I haven't watched this movie in probably a good solid decade at least, but growing up I had it on a VHS that I watched practically to death. Watching it for the first time as an adult was a really fascinating experience. For a movie that's almost as old as I am, it's held up surprisingly well. I caught a few gags, lines, and plot points I missed as a kid (though not as much went over my head as I expected - like with, say, Disney's Aladdin), but mostly it was like slipping back into a favorite sweater - something comfortable and well-remembered.

I hate to admit that I was surprised to realize how formative this movie was on me. Somehow I'd never really made the connection between Who Framed Roger Rabbit and my love of film noir and detective stories, but while that was a sort of duh realization, what struck me is that it really isn't noir. See, to me at least, the heart of noir is pinning man against his city, and using the backdrop ugliness and corruption of the city to slowly unveil the darkness of human nature. The arc of noir is almost always the fatal fall of the main character, who is continually challenged to see how far he'll go given the right impetus. As the man faces the city - usually LA - he gradually becomes his worst self.

But in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Eddie Valiant's character arc is, pretty expressly, the detective finding his way back to his better self after a period of self destructive mourning. As much of the movie takes place in a corrupt LA/Hollywood, the character himself is foiled against... Toontown, a carefree and gag-filled place where he ultimately rediscovers his lost sense of humor. Now, I say this movie had a formative effect on me, and what I mean by that I'm always holding out for the tragic hero to make the right choice, instead of the wrong one for the right reasons. I think, and I almost hesitate to put this in writing, that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the reason I couldn't like the almost-brilliant Chinatown. Because "real" noir doesn't always (or even usually) have character resolution, it's more about finding rock bottom. Chinatown hits rock bottom, but it never gives any resolution, because...there isn't any.

Even the Dresden Files books, which I absolutely love, are sometimes depressingly traditionally noir. Sure, they're more wise-cracking and (let's be honest) geeky than most big-screen offerings, but for fourteen books now Harry has been on a sharp and increasingly steep downward spiral, always making the wrong choices for the best reasons as he rubs against a world that's far more brutal than he himself was at the beginning of the series.

It makes me wonder if there's any place for an Eddie Valiant outside of a cartoon/kid's movie - a hero who doesn't merely save the day, but manages to save himself, too, or if it would just come off as hoakey.

Anyway, I suppose that's neither here nor there. As a final thought, though, I'd like to say this movie reminded me of Wreck It Ralph, not in any point of plot, but in the notion that this great idea was able to come to be, but would never have worked without the cooperation of multiple big-name studios. Both movies are brilliant and endlessly rewatchable, but with more than 20 years in between the two, for goodness' sake, can't we get a little more cooperation a little more often?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Morning Pages

So, my goal to blog every day in September crashed and burned with spectacular efficiency, but you know what? I ain't even mad. My first missed days were 100% because I was actually getting some crazy good work done on my novel, and then subsequently I fell horribly horribly ill. Not the things-coming-out-your-orifices kind of sick, thankfully, but the all I can do is sit on the sofa watching Terra Nova until my brain melts out my ears because I barely have the strength to pour myself a bowl of cereal kind of sick. In that time, I watched a lot of movies (which may or may not make it to reviews here), and came to the realization that posting every day isn't really super feasible right now, because frankly if I'm reading a book a day, that's where all my time is going. So, we'll see. For now, I'm going to aim for posting regularly, and see if any obvious sort of schedule turns up from there.

Okay, enough housekeeping. I also wanted to share a tidbit of writing advice from twitter that has me thinking. Brian Koppelman (a fab film writer/director/producer) has stared posting six second screenwriting lessons on twitter - which, incidentally, is one of the coolest uses of vine that I've seen. They're beautifully concise, poignant, and more than that, offer advice that's both simple and practical. He posted this one yesterday:

To save you the google, this is a description of Morning Pages by the author herself. Essentially the idea is to free write three pages longhand in stream of consciousness first thing in the morning. She emphasizes specifically that this exercise is for purging negative thoughts and clearing your head. But when I read the advice, my first thought was, oh my god, I could write first thing in the morning.

See, I don't wake up in a negative head space. Writing professionally allows me to keep hours that are in line with my body's natural clock and I usually get as much sleep as I need every night, so I typically wake up feeling pretty good. But I've never considered myself a morning person - not the type to leap out of bed and dive head first into work. It's more of a crawl - me and a bowl of cereal and a twitter feed until I finish opening my eyes. And then it takes a while to get into the groove of working, and I don't let myself do creative writing until I've finished with my paid work for the day, which often means I end up procrastinating, working evenings, and not having time to do the novel.

Part of the problem, I realize, is that I'm a compulsive tab hoarder, both for work and for me, and that means when I come to the computer in the morning (okay, at the crack of noon most days), there's always something there waiting for me to read/do/look at. It's very, very easy to procrastinate. Every time I do some serious housekeeping, either in my house or on my computer, I immediately feel more productive, because apparently my brain can't handle clutter (or distraction), but that's a lesson it's been really, really hard for me to learn.

So I'm taking the advice of Morning Pages less as a motivation for mental decluttering and more to set the stage so I can actually be productive early in the day. Maybe if I can come to a blank page when the day is fresh and new, without a bazillion websites open and blinking at me, I'll be able to make more words happen.

Friday, September 13, 2013

On The 25 Stages Of Grief. I Mean, Editing

I've  had a very productive last few days of editing and revising which coincided nicely with this delightful post from Chuck Wendig: 25 steps to edit the unmerciful suck out of your story. If you've ever done a substantive revision of any type of writing, or especially if you're in the midst of doing so right now, this post will make you laugh, and then cry, and then maybe get back to work more efficiently.

Me? I've been cycling through his steps 4, 8, and 17. For better or for worse (right now maybe worse), I'm very much a front-to-back, start-to-finish, chronological writer and editor. But the good news is, I think I'm about to graduate to the prestigious 20-25 zone. What about you guys?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Singing Detective

I was actually really excited for today's movie, but alas for every reason The Singing Detective ought to have been good, it just really, really wasn't. I wish I could blame this pick on Netflix, but no, this was entirely of my own doing.

IMDB   Netflix
The Singing Detective was advertised as Robert Downey Jr. playing a bedridden author re-imagining himself into his pulp detective novel, implied in musical form. Which, with a tag like that, how could I possibly say no? Everyone else was skeptical - ultimately rightfully so - but I was wholly convinced that this was going to be really great.

Some of the advertised elements are there, of course. RDJ plays a writer who is nearly paralyzed with psoriasis-bordering-on-leprosy. His condition has him hallucinating the characters and events of his novel, a 50s noir that follows a private eye who moonlights as a club singer (the titular singing detective). But the film winds up being a baffling mash up of macabre musical numbers set to cheery 50s music, sequences of leprosy-y, hallucinating RDJ in the hospital, and mix and match scenes reenacted from his book and his childhood. The movie, really, is about coming to terms with the truth of what happened to him as a child (the psychosomatic cause of his illness and the underlying truth his therapist - a creepily bald Mel Gibson - thinks lies within the novel).

I would have love love loved the movie within the movie - that is, the actual story of the singing detective. And disjointed as these scenes were, they were fun and campy and everything I was hoping the film would be. But as the tagline says, this movie is all clues and no solutions, with strong hints in all directions, but no real resolutions anywhere, and really no strong line, at any point, between the main character's fantasy and reality. Instead, there's lots of very unsexy sex, flashbacks and paranoid daydreams that blur together, and even a couple characters that, as a plot point, don't know who they are, what they want, or why they keep showing up. Despite a star studded cast and a fab performance by RDJ, I found myself spending most of the movie just going... what?

At one point RDJ says the phrase kiss kiss, bang bang, and I found myself wishing I'd just rewatched that movie instead. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Object Lesson Outside My Window

I want to take a little break from the usual today and talk about something that happened outside my window today.

For a little background, I live in a large apartment complex. The two biggest windows in my house face out on a parking lot that services several buildings. The view is as lovely as you would expect, but the combination of the open space and the unintentionally good acoustics formed by the surrounding buildings make it the perfect forum for the neighborhood voyeur. In this story, I am that nosy neighbor.

You see, around four o'clock this afternoon, I heard a police siren. My heart went pitter patter, I sprung out of my chair like a startled cat, and raced over to the big glass door to my balcony to see what the disturbance was. I got there just in time to see a cop block in someone who had just parked in front of the building kitty corner to mine, a stone's throw away from my 1.5 story window. I had the instant gut reaction that most people do when they see a cop pulling someone else over: relief that it wasn't me, and a nagging curiosity about what this other human had done to attract the attention of The Law. 

I raced back to my room to get my tea, then cuddled up on the sofa, watching out my balcony door like it was a television. The door was open and between the building acoustics and my nearness to the action, I was able to hear most of what was being said. The scene was proceeding as you would expect - a clean cut, white, male cop was standing next to the window of the car, asking for the driver's license and registration. The windows of this car were just tinted enough that I couldn't really see the driver, and because the cop leaned down to talk to the driver, I didn't hear everything that was said, but made out "You have to be in control of your vehicle at all times." My mind was racing - had the driver been speeding? Weaving? Swerving? But despite my voyeuristic thrill, I didn't expect much to come of it. The person would get a warning or a ticket, and then the cop would leave, and my entertainment would be over. But the cop didn't give the driver a ticket. He asked the driver to step out of the car. 

The driver was a black woman. 

I immediately got a sick feeling in my stomach. Every nerve in my body was screaming shit just got real. And no small part of me was like you shouldn't be watching this. You're going to get in trouble. The woman got out of the car and turned to close the door with the cop standing behind her. Then he pulled her arms behind her back. She had exactly the reaction I think anyone would have if a cop suddenly pulled their arms behind their back: she shouted "No!" and pulled away, which made the cop hold her arms tighter and pull out his handcuffs. He said, very calmly, that she needed to stop resisting him, and she insisted, as calmly as she could, that she wasn't going to resist - that she hadn't meant to resist, and was not going to fight him.

He handcuffed her, and about this time the woman's husband - a very tall, very large black man - stepped out of the building. The husband didn't approach, and the cop didn't react that I could see, but the driver started begging the cop - please, please just let him get the keys out of my pocket. I thought, so if she was taken to jail, her husband would still be able to use the car - that maybe it was his car, and that was the root of the problem. There was a muffled exchange I didn't hear, and then she said "Just let him get my son and let him get the case out of the trunk." The officer agreed, and the husband went to the back seat of the car and pulled out a little boy - maybe 5 or 6 years old. The boy immediately ran for the front door of their building, while the husband went around to the back of the car, opened the trunk, and pulled out what I'm pretty sure was a foil-covered cake pan. Not case, cake. 

The driver then asked the cop to let her get her cell phone from the front seat, so she could call someone to let them know she wouldn't be there (I couldn't quite make out who or where), but he said no, and guided her over to his car and made her get in the back seat. The part of my mind that wasn't reeling thought this woman was definitely going to jail - that she must have been driving without a license, or something else that would get her arrested. But maybe 10 minutes later, the cop came around and let her out of the car and handed her a ticket. As soon as she was out of the cop car, the husband came back outside but stayed carefully near the front door of the building. Once she had the ticket, the woman booked it back into the apartment building, but the husband stayed outside until the cop had driven away. Then he went and opened the back seat of the car and pulled out a big bunch of shiny silver metallic balloons - you know, the kind you get for a special occasion. Like a birthday.

Now again, I wasn't standing right next to them. I didn't hear every word or see every detail. I don't know why the woman was pulled over in the first place. But from everything I saw, my best inference is that the woman was probably wrangling her kid in the back seat, or the stupid balloons, and probably swerved while she was driving. And from everything I know about how the world works, if she had been a stressed out white mom, with a little blonde white son sitting in the back seat on his way to a birthday party, the cop probably would have let her off with a warning. If you had told that cop that one of his fellows had pulled over a white woman and cuffed her in front of her child, I bet even he would be horrified at the prospect. But the driver wasn't white.

The whole time, I was sitting there in horror, thinking to myself over and over again, this woman's life is being ruined right in front of my eyes, for a traffic ticket. That the officer felt the need to use force because she was black and he was scared, and because of it she was going to go to jail, and be considered a criminal, and lose her job and her reputation, and end up trapped in a cycle of poverty over a couple of fucking balloons. Every nerve in me was screaming at me to do something - but what can you do when the person in the wrong has all the power?

Maybe the worst part for me was that a few days ago I walked to the mail box on the other side of our complex to send a letter. On the way back to my building, I saw a large, heavyset black man standing on our narrow sidewalk, and instinctively stepped off the curb to walk across the parking lot to avoid him. I got about six steps before I realized what I'd done - just far enough that I would have looked like an even bigger idiot getting back on the sidewalk, but I could have died of my own shame the rest of the walk home - especially when I saw he was outside playing with his son. The same son that same man had to take out of a car so he wouldn't have to watch his mother being put in a cop car a few days later.

So I can't pretend I don't understand what was going on in that cop's mind. Above all, cops always have to be in control of the situation - for them, it is often literally a matter of life and death to do so, and their own safety comes before the dignity of their suspects. And the fear law enforcement have of African Americans is as deeply engrained as it is self perpetuating. Hell, it was perpetuated today. That kid is almost certainly going to hate, fear, and mistrust the police for the rest of his life. And when one day he is a grown black man, when he one day gets pulled over by a white cop on suspicion of blackness, what happened today is going to color that interaction.

But the very worst part is that while for me this was shocking, almost beyond belief, a story I feel compelled to share, for my next door neighbors, this was nothing more or less than 100% everyday reality. This isn't an isolated incident, or even an unusual one, and it isn't just a police issue. Speaking very broadly and very generally, white people in the US instinctively fear and mistrust black people, and that's a prejudice that - even if you're aware of it, even if you know the absurdity of it and are trying to squelch it - colors every interaction, often completely unconsciously. Which means that fixing the problem takes more than awareness, it takes intervention. And while I'm sure as hell not brave (stupid?) enough to walk up to a cop and point out that he's being a racist, I hope that you and I will both find the courage to draw attention to unreasonable, unfair, discriminatory treatment, because... would you have read this post differently if it were written by a black mother outraged by what had happened to her and her family, instead of an uninvolved white observer?

Sunday, September 8, 2013


Okay, so yesterday's pre-Riddick post was pretty thinky, but today? Today I think I'll just repeat the sound I made as I walked out of the theater.


What, you need more than that? Okay, fine. This is the movie I've been waiting for for almost ten years. It's starring one of my very favorite action heroes and my very biggest girl crush. Riddick goes back to the series' Pitch Black roots - a lower budget, more desolate, hostile world, and lots of big bad monsters in the dark and ugly muther mercs. But for all the similarities with the first movie, it's certainly its own, and Riddick is a different Riddick than when we first met him. In fact, we re-meet him at something of a low point in his consistently rather rough life. The end of Chronicles of Riddick is done away quickly and efficiently, but without trying to gloss over it (like, say, the Avengers with the end of the first Thor movie). We get a brief Karl Urban cameo and are briskly brought up to speed why Riddick is abandoned and left for dead on yet another scourged, forsaken planet.

But really this is what we wanted all along - Riddick is no general, and he's certainly no king, and the movie sets out with him setting out to reconnect with his animal nature. In fact, we start with Riddick as we've never seen him - genuinely gravely wounded, and a little bit lost. I'll confess I had a heart-clenching moment where I was terrified this was going to be another Skyfall look-at-our-not-actually-all-that-old-protagonist-and-how-he's-too-old-to-be-cool disaster. But no, we get a montage of Riddick recovering both physically and emotionally from his ordeal with the necromongers, and reemerging as the beast we know and love. The rest of the movie is a game of cat and mouse between Riddick and two crews of mercenaries that have answered his distress call - they want the bounty for his head and he wants a ship to escape the planet before it gets a little too Pitch Black-y for his tastes.

And this is our Riddick back, playing to his strength with stealth, sass, and smartassery, with all the blood and gore you could hope for from an end of summer R-rated action flick. I would have loved Katee Sackhoff's role to have been a little bigger, but really I'm just so delighted to have her back in space that I find myself without much room to complain. The graphics are pretty good in all the places that matter (i.e., the gore and the monsters), but the CG does negatively draw attention to itself at times, especially with the wild dogs and motorcycles. Overall, a great popcorn flick (in sppaAaaaAaaAace) - if you liked the first two, you'll probably like this one. And fingers crossed it continues to do well after this weekend, so I can have more action in space.

In short: Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!

Thoughts On Chronicles Of Riddick (Or: The Sci Fi State Of The Union)

So, I'm going to go see Riddick tomorrow, and I'm not ashamed to admit I'm really excited. I loved Pitch Black and I loved Chronicles of Riddick, I love Vin Diesel and I love Katee Sackhoff, so I'm exactly 100% this movie's target audience. But I know not everyone is in this camp, and I was thinking about that tonight while I was re-watching CoR in preparation for my long-awaited IMAX experience tomorrow.

IMDB   Netflix
The movie certainly isn't without it's flaws - I'll be the first to admit that. Neither the acting or the writing are the best the world has ever seen, and some of the camera work and lighting in the first half hour of CoR should come with some sort of epilepsy warning. But despite its flaws - and its dramatic differences from Pitch Black - it's actually a really pretty solid sci fi movie. It's got a creepy religious/military state, crazy space pirates, humans struggling against inhospitable environments, and effects that are usually pretty good, even almost a DECADE later. If the movie is a little light on plot, it certainly isn't on action or worldbuilding, but the combination of a big budget and poor turnout effectively killed the whole franchise for that intervening decade.

We're only getting another Riddick movie because Vin Diesel wanted be Riddick again and made enough money from the Fast and Furious movies to make it happen. And while it's doing well so far on it's opening weekend (maybe because it went back to the PB roots?), it makes me wonder about the overall viability of Sci Fi in Hollywood. I mean, after John Carter it'll be a miracle if any fantastical science fiction gets produced in the next ten years - and that was a pretty good movie, too, but one that again suffered from a too-big budget and (in this case) excruciatingly poor marketing. If there's ever been a time for Sci Fi to be a mainstream genre, it's now - with the age of the nerd in full swing, and corporations catering harder than ever to the 14-35 male demographic. But even with a Star Trek reboot and more Star Wars in the mill, by and large the only sci fi flicks that are getting the go ahead are established franchises. The exceptions are pet projects (Avatar, Riddick) and low-budget sleepers (Chronicle - which incidentally was signed for a sequel and subsequently lost its brilliant writer to creative differences with Fox, who reportedly wanted to establish a carbon copy franchise instead of a continuation of, you know, what made the first movie great).

I wonder what happened to the audiences for Sci Fi movies. There was so much buzz for Pacific Rim, but it didn't get the turnout it needed (here, at least) to recoup the sky-high budget. Of course, it's at least partly that the movies that have been made haven't been great - I loved Luc Besson's Lockout, but it was no successor to The Fifth Element, and Prometheus was an absolute disaster, despite everyone's high hopes and every reason for it to be really good. I don't think it's naive to think there IS an audience for these movies. Anyone could see from a mile away why the Lone Ranger movie failed: westerns are dead, and the genre belongs to a different time and a different mentality. Without a skilled translator (see: 3:10 To Yuma, True Grit), it's going to look and feel, at best, dated, and at worst, deeply offensive and problematic (Johnny Depp as a totally un-updated Tonto, really? Who made THAT decision?).

But while Sci Fi is often a bastion for the old guard (as evidenced by all the hullabaloo with the Hugos this year), science fiction by it's very nature is supposed to be imaginative, explorative, innovative, and new. And maybe that, really, is where Hollywood is failing. John Carter was based on the grandpappy of all sci fi stories, something unimaginably innovative for its time, but came off stilted and recycled because so much sci fi since has sprung from Edgar Rice Burroughs' original stories, and because it was based on the imaginings of someone brilliant... in the early 1900s.

And then there's District 9 and Elysium which, I think, really get to the heart of what sci fi is supposed to do, but especially in the case of the latter don't feel entirely fulfilling as movies because they're so much about the message. And Looper, which while I thought was probably the best time travel movie ever made, was apparently very divisive (but maybe fairly successful - I'm actually not sure about that one).

But movies like Pacific Rim and CoR (see, I brought it back around!) aren't any of those things. Really, they're action movies in a science/fantastical setting, a little bit of fun escapism, and I'm left not really knowing where they, and movies like them, went wrong.

I've realized that this post isn't going to have much of an ending, because as much as I'd like to have an "in conclusion" I don't really know what to make of the state of contemporary sci fi in Hollywood. I hope there's more of it, and I hope Riddick is good and does well, but as to the particular woes of the genre, I have a lot more thoughts than answers. Maybe more tomorrow after I see Riddick.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Magic Lost, Trouble Found

I just finished reading Magic Lost, Trouble Found by Lisa Shearin. I actually first encountered this book a few years ago, probably right after it first came out, when my then-roommate was reading it. Full disclosure, I and our other housemates teased her terribly for the pinker than pink, sparkles and stars cover. She insisted it was a great book, but her tastes tend to skew a little girlier than mine, so once we'd shared a laugh or two, I basically forgot it ever existed. That is, until I moved, and found a copy on the paperback shelves at my local library. It peeked out at me whenever I went looking for a book, and I couldn't help but smile every time I saw it. Eventually, I said what the hell, and checked it out.

Amazon   B&N   Goodreads
Surprise surprise, I actually really enjoyed it. Toward the beginning of the book, I had my doubts. Early on, the main character, Raine Benares, has a too-stupid-to-live moment where she puts on a clearly-evil magic necklace, despite her own internal dialogue telling her that it probably isn't a great idea. But thankfully this is more of a catalyst than a character trait, as the whole rest of the plot revolves around her subsequently being unable to remove the necklace - and trying to escape a host of big-bads who want to remove it without a care for her well being. From start to finish, Magic Lost, Trouble Found is a fun read - events move quickly from one disaster to another, but Raine approaches everything with a really great balance of level-headed street smart and spunk. She's a liberated, independent, and stubborn lady who knows how to handle herself, and is genuinely an interesting character rather than merely a STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER.

The book also has a really enjoyable secondary cast, including but not limited to your obligatory Good Guy Love Interest and Bad Boy Love Interest. Thankfully, both Mychael and Tam live up to more than just their tropes, though I do wish we'd gotten a little more development of both. (I almost wrote, to see a little more of either of them, which I suppose I wouldn't argue with, either!). There are blessedly few moments where the main character waxes poetic about how hot the guys are when she should be too busy to even look at them (one of my biggest pet peeves). Really the book isn't remotely about the romance - more like there are some attractive, interested guys that work alongside Raine (and sometimes make steamy kisses with her). There's no should I shouldn't I, and no who should I choose, just two good solid partnerships and some fun with a dash of rivalry. Though, of course Raine ends up forced into a fancy dress she doesn't want to be in but alllll the boys appreciate.

I've read a few other reviews on Goodreads that equate Magic Lost, Trouble Found to a fantasy novel with an urban fantasy protagonist, but I think I'd go a step farther and say it's an urban fantasy novel that just happens to take place in a fantasy world. There are a few funny moments that feel anachronistic for a traditional fantasy, like when Chief Watcher Janek Tawl (aka the lead detective, who I was really pulling for as a romantic interest) "put on a pair of healer's examination gloves" to examine a corpse at a crime scene. But ultimately it weirdly works - despite the sometimes very modern feel of the city, it couldn't easily be interchanged for a real-world one. Shearin does an excellent job of weaving in the city's unique history, geography, topography, and residents, making Mermeia its own unique city that operates on its own rules with its own social order.

The one thing I found myself wishing I could change about the book is that Raine is constantly trying to talk herself in or out of things. And I don't mean she's wishy washy, really, but variations of the phrase "maybe if I kept telling myself that, I'd believe it" are repeated over and over. Once or twice it feels sassy, but the turn of phrase loses its shine quickly, especially when it means Raine overlooks things (like the necklace) that seem like they shouldn't get past her established pretty-good judgement.

The book ends on a sort of open note, which ordinarily would bother me, but instead it's left me ready to pick up the next book to see where the story goes from here. The events of book one are more or less wrapped up, but none of the main characters' fates are decided, and I'm happy to say I'm genuinely really interested to find out what happens to them next.

So, Erin, I'm sorry for making fun of your sparkly pink fantasy novel. You were right, it was good!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Book Review: Trickster by Jeff Somers

I actually finished reading Jeff Somers' Trickster a few months ago, but it's one of those books that's stuck with me. In the interest of keeping up with my new blog-a-day goal, I figured it was worth another look. It's certainly at the top of my personal recommendation list.

Amazon   B&N  Goodreads
I've been on a big male-protagonist urban fantasy kick over the last few months, in no small part because that's what I'm currently writing. Trickster jumped to the top of my long to-read list because I'd heard Jeff Somers' name floating around the internet in always-positive ways, and because this video absolutely cracked me up. It was the first book I picked up in a (delightful) slew of neo-noir novels, and perhaps my favorite thing about it is something that's lacking from many of the urban fantasy novels I've read: in this world, the magic has consequences.

In Trickster, all magic is blood magic, and how much blood you use directly determines the power available for every spell. The main character, Lem, is a Trickster - the novel's parlance essentially for a magical grifter. A low-level talent with just enough ability to exclude him from the "real" world, but not enough clout to make it big among the magical muscle. Unlike most other magic users, Lem refuses to use anyone else's blood to perform his spells. The result is a narrator who is constantly drained - literally - dragging himself from scene to scene on the brink of total self destruction, as he becomes more and more deeply involved in the power plays of people who are completely out of his league. People who, unlike him, have no qualms about draining anyone and everyone dry for their own benefit.

This novel is gritty and exhausting in the best kind of way, a David up against an impossible Goliath, only without the conviction or faith. If conventional noir is about man discovering the depths of their own depravity, Lem's quest is, perhaps, to find some shred of goodness in himself that he doesn't really believe is there. The refrain "we were not good people" is repeated throughout the book - sometimes you believe it, sometimes you don't, and sometimes you start to wonder what exactly that means. As with traditional noir, Lem is constantly pressed to his moral limits, forced to decide again and again how far he'll go given the right impetus. What I love about this book is that nothing is easy. The choices are hard, and the cost is always high, especially for a character that doesn't really see himself as a hero. Having magic doesn't make Lem's life easier, it doesn't make him powerful, and the few moral rules he clings to continually complicate matters and undermine his efforts.

Trickster is not, as is often said of male-POV urban fantasy novels, a spiritual successor to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, but it's own exploration of a much darker, grittier (perhaps, more urban?) fantasy world. You won't find much wisecracking, but you will find some superb, intricate writing as well as deft and elegantly written characters that are, if not conventionally likeable, unflinchingly true.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Max Movie Review: The Living Ghost

Okay, new game: I let Netflix pick me a movie, then review it, for you. If you have Netflix streaming, you may or may not have discovered Max, their new movie curator. You pick a genre, rate some movies, and then it selects a movie for you to watch. The system isn't perfect, but I've definitely found it entertaining. Last night, it recommended me this movie:

Netflix    IMDB
The one-sentence blurb was, essentially: A private investigator is hired to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy banker, only to have the missing man a zombie.

Oh Netflix, how well you know me. I went in for a thriller, and you came out with a 1942 paranormal mystery. Noir + zombies? How could I say no. I hit play.

I enjoyed the movie exactly as much as I expected to. The movie is carried from start to finish with whipcrack sassy dialogue, a near-continuous verbal volley between the two main characters - the P.I., and the missing banker's secretary - from the moment they meet. The brief blurb neglected to mention that the missing man has only been zombified, not turned into an actual flesh eating denizen of the night, but the thin scientific explanation doesn't take away from the Dr. Caligari's somnambulist-style creepitude. The P.I., Nick Trayne, is a deplorable human being in the way that's most enjoyable to watch, and I found myself laughing at and with him in equal measure. The movie has plenty of the sort of sexist moments you learn to inure yourself against if you watch any quantity of movies from this period/in this genre, and at just barely an hour in length it isn't exactly rife with complexity. But it's definitely a fun romp - lots of gags, a few witty turns, a couple dead bodies, and a few undead ones, too.

The City's Son

So I thought it was time to resurrect this blog, and I figured what better way to do it than with a book review? I've been contemplating doing written reviews for a while now - both of books and movies, and The City's Son by Tom Pollock was so good that I've finally given in to the urge. So, without further ado:

The City's Son By Tom Pollock
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I picked up a copy of The City's Son after listening to Reliable Sources sing its praises for months. Almost every time I heard the book mentioned around the web, it was in the company of phrases like "life changing" or "genre re-defining" and I thought, with so many glowing, bubbling, burstingly positive reviews, it couldn't possibly go wrong, right?

Well. I started the book and was immediately put off by it. Within the first few pages, rather than landing on both feet in this new, unique urban fantasy world, I felt disoriented, like I'd taken the plunge too fast. In the first chapter, there's this bizarre mixture of tribal, fantasy, and plain old contemporary urban vibes. I didn't know where I was, only that I wasn't in the Same Old urban fantasy setting. But I started to like it, the cadences of this wild street urchin and the weirdness of it started to jive and I started feeling more comfortable in this other London.

Then the book switched point of view and suddenly instead of this magical underground I was in plain old regular London. The transition was beyond jarring, and every time the POV switched back and forth, I felt a little whiplashed. Even when the two main characters came together, and the real world and fantasy world started to merge, I still felt wobbly. Nearing page 100 of an almost 500 page long book, I started to question the taste of all the people who had recommended the book. I also started to wonder - if all these Book Authorities loved it, what the hell was I missing? I kept reading. And then something spectacular happened. Around page 100, I stopped looking at the page number, and an instant later I'd flown through another 50.

It took a while, but once the story got me, it GOT me. I devoured the entire rest of the book, drinking up every delicious magical detail of Pollock's London - the rules and the hidden races and the subtle, elegant twists on the things that live in every city. When I closed the book I understood what everyone had meant: this book had changed me. Maybe more than any other fantasy book I've ever read, I think The City's Son has altered the way I look at the "real" world. While most urban fantasy stories act on the assumption that there's a hidden magical world we're all just too hard headed to notice, Pollock does this so elegantly and so effectively that it actually feels real - not the typical "yeah, sure, vampires exist," but leaving me wondering about the secret lives of streetlamps and telephone poles, watching to see if statues move, appreciating every brick in an old building. And I'll certainly never look at a crane or construction site the same again. The City's Son doesn't just put fantastical elements into a real world setting, it takes the real world setting and finds and nurtures the magic in it, and then takes you on an adventure through it.

I couldn't be more excited for the sequel, The Glass Republic, because despite my rough landing in the series, I know I'm in the most capable of hands.

And really I think this is all worth saying simply because: if you pick up the book and don't get into it right away, trust me when I say, you'll be doing yourself a disservice if you put it down.