September 25, 2014

Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Every novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafon features dark mystery, gothic architecture, shadows of Barcelona, and a love of books, and his latest English release Marina adds to that teen romance and absolute horror. Set in the late 1970s, the year is later and the cast of characters is younger; Oscar Drai is a schoolboy falling in love for the first time, not just with a pretty girl but with her secrets, and the mystery that takes hold of the two of them. The couple follow the mystery — namely a woman dressed all in black with a black veil hiding her face — to the Sarria cemetery and spy on her as she grieves at a grave embossed with the symbol of a black butterfly, and for their curiosity, they are ensnared in an old unsolved case that’s coming back for vengeance.

Originally published in Spanish in 1999, Marina was translated this year by Lucia Graves, the translator for all of Zafon’s internationally acclaimed novels. Intended for a young adult audience, it’s a shorter read meant for one mesmerizing sitting. In this Zafon novel the love of stories and storytelling is embodied in Marina, the character of the tragic writer.

While not the darkest of Zafon’s works, Marina is probably the scariest; the theme of man playing god turns scary when a scientific attempt at immortality leads to animated corpses, violent and angry, and acting out the revenge of their master. More captivating is certainly Oscar’s relationship with Marina and her father Germ├ín, a surrogate family for him and the first he has ever known, and Zafon’s classic uncovering of history and old wrongs that would have been better left in the past (except for the sake of our literary enjoyment.)

August 5, 2014

The balanced Guardians of the Galaxy review

Guardians of the Galaxy is the buzzworthy space action flick of the summer, with its August box office record-breakage ($94 million), a trailer that leaves the mainstream audience giggling but with very confused expectations, and the rave reviews from critics and your Facebook friends alike. It's worth the ticket price, but not your first born child, just in case there was any confusion going by what your friends posted in your Facebook news feed. Enjoyable, and nice and short at 121 minutes, and silly. I'll even go as far as to say fun, with characters, and visuals. I'm avoiding modifiers and superlatives for fear of being misinterpreted as having composed what could be called a rave review in any way. I liked it, and I recommend it.

The one bit of hyperbole I will agree with is where Zaki from Huffington Post calls it "the most confident bit of sci-fi world-building I've seen since the original Star Wars," to which I will add, if only because there hasn't been anything close to a strong attempt at sci-fi world building since Star Wars.

But while unique in the immersiveness and detail of its intergalactic universe, and perhaps in its heroes, it just wasn't unique in its story. Swashbuckler and carefree space adventurer with a Han Solo mien foolishly strikes out apart from his treasure-hunting boss and gang of thugs to slip away with the booty for himself: a silver orb thingy that everybody wants and nobody knows what it really is. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is then chased through the galaxy by the likes of bounty hunters Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel, apparently), and assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana). When he ends up in jail with them, they become friends (with the addition of Drax, played by WWE wrestler Dave Bautista), fusing together into an Avengers-like team only much stranger. I mean, Rocket is a genetically engineered raccoon who suffers deeply for being the only of his kind and the mockery that goes along with it, and who knows what Groot is? And why is Zoe Saldana green?

The story from there is that Peter Quill's orb turns out to have some kind of world-destroying cosmic capability that makes it insanely dangerous and it's about to fall into the malevolent hands of some big deal bad guy named Thanos, played by Josh Brolin, who is wonderful and completely unrecognizable, which is less wonderful, because had I known it was him I would have actually paid attention to the otherwise cliche and yawn-worthy big bad guy monologue. The rest of the movie is spent trying to keep the orb away from Thanos and then trying to get it back from him. With giant space ships crashing into planets and all that fun Marvel stuff, plus some fighter pilot maneuvering and hand to hand combat.

I have to compare it to The Avengers — only quite a bit better — in that the first two thirds of the movie are very strong, and the end falls flat. There are a lot of comparable plot points. The defeat of one of the big bad guys is essentially a punch line: in this case there's no Hulk smash, only Peter Quill breaking into dance suddenly at the moment of his defeat, distracting Ronan the Accuser so they can destroy the warhammer and use the orb thingy to kill him (it's a much funnier punchline than "Hulk smash" if you ask me.) There's also the saving grace, which was another problem I had with the Hulk in The Avengers, which actually makes sense in Guardians of the Galaxy — Groot protects the group, sacrificing himself (although he comes back much cuter). None of this to say that Guardians of the Galaxy was bad, just that it had similar flaws.

The jokes and the prison break scene are what make it good. Kudos to Marvel for casting an actor, Chris Pratt, as star hero who can actually do comedy. This could have gone so wrong had they given those one liners to a type cast tough guy action hero. Instead, there's a humorous overtone on a colorful space adventure that will make you smile, even if it's silly, and won't leave you with too many frustrations of the plot-hole or inconsistency variety. How's that for balance?

July 28, 2014

Mad Powers by Mark Wayne McGinnis

The latest book from Best-Selling Amazon author Mark Wayne McGinnis is available now: get Mad Powers on Amazon.

Mad Powers is a paranormal thriller. It's nice to see the author expand into new territory genre-wise, and as usual he does it with original writing, unique and lovable (as well as intentionally hate-able) characters, and a very different kind of story.

This is the story of Rob Chandler, an agent who loses his memory in a car crash that simultaneously gives him new mad powers to read and meddle with people's minds. Previously a novella in which Rob struggled through the days following his accident with no idea how to find out his true identity and suspecting his life may still be in danger, it's now a full-length novel that ends up somewhere completely unexpected. I won't ruin it for you, but suffice it to say, there's a thrilling mission waiting for Rob once he figures out just who he is.

The way Rob discovers tapping in and then makes use of its power to get through obstacles and out-smart his antagonists, even with the disadvantage of amnesia, is enjoyable, thrilling, and often-times really humorous.

If you like Dean Koontz, this will be very much up your alley; some bits reminded me of Watchers. Another entertaining, fast-paced page turner to curl up with on the couch (and stay there until you finish). The only downside is that you'll be dying to find out what happens next, and you'll just have to wait for the next one.

July 15, 2014

X-Men Days of Future Past [review time]

Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ellen Page, Halle Berry and Peter Dinklage

The verdict is in, and surprisingly enough, X-Men: Days of Future Past is the best X-Men movie to date, and that's saying something, given that First Class was a very impressive return for the series.

I didn't think they could top superheroes meet Cuban missile crisis, but I was wrong: what topped it was genocidal AI super-robots that can adapt to any mutant power (thanks to genetic engineering and Mystique's DNA). Why is that good? Well, it borrows perhaps from Terminator, (okay, yeah, maybe a lot), which means a dark dystopian theme and Matrix-esque end of the world visuals, plus it's a fitting return to what X-Men is really all about — humanity's rejection of its own evolution: the mutants.

Days of Future Past opens on a future where the world has essentially been destroyed by a war between humanity and mutants, one where humanity's weapon is the Sentinel, a contracted military weaponized robot with AI, mutant-exclusive targeting and an ability to adapt to counter any mutant's ability. To establish the strength of the Sentinel, a small band of mutants faces off against one, and all of them, no matter how cool and badass their power, get killed. Since we care about some of those characters, like Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), luckily it turns out that Kitty's band of mutants have been evading the Sentinels when she sends someone back in time to deliver warnings of the attacks. None of them are actually dead, and the group rendezvouses with more important named characters: Xavier, Magneto, Storm and Wolverine.

Once the badass invincibility of the enemy is established, the plot is hatched, and it's the same you've come to know from the trailer: Wolverine volunteers to go back in time and stop this future from happening. That's because Kitty's ability to send a consciousness back is limited, and going so far back would destroy the average mind, tearing it physically apart, or something, so Wolverine is the only one who can simultaneously heal his brain as it's being rent asunder. Or something.

Time travel is overdone in general and I winced every time Wolverine had to repeat that he was from the future or assures Xavier and then Magneto that "you sent me," but what was done nicely was the overlap of past and future, where scenes cut back and forth between the 70s and an apocalyptic world some decades (as in less than a century) later. Our 70s gang spend valuable screen time simply grouping together and then trying to track down Mystique and stop her from murdering Bolivar Trask, played by Peter Dinklage, who invented the Sentinels (and it was his murder that allowed Mystique to be captured and her DNA replicated to allow the Sentinels to transform and adapt like she can). After many attempts, which admittedly gets kind of old fast, Xavier isn't getting through to her, and time is running out in the future due to some nonsensical mechanic where the course of events won't be changed until Wolverine wakes up from his dual-consciousness nap in the past, and the future gang are getting picked off and killed by Sentinels, unable to run while Kitty's doing her voodoo thing with Wolverine's body (note: if that makes no sense, I apologize. It's confusing. Maybe go see the movie instead of reading a spoiler-full review).

Where the strength of First Class was the character development and complexity drawn out from Xavier, Erik and Raven, Days of Future Past actually has its strong point in its plot, which is refreshing, and said plot just relies heavily on the dynamic established in the first film. Except that in the ten year gap Xavier's feelings toward Raven have become surprisingly love-triangley, and while he continues to act as a surrogate older brother or guardian to her, he also resents Erik for taking her away from him, getting inside her head and making a killer out of her to fight his, Magneto's, war. That said, if you don't remember First Class or haven't seen it, that whole dynamic might come across as more of a hot mess.

That doesn't mean there's no good character drama, though. From the trailer you may have been wondering, like I was, why James McAvoy seemed to be up walking 'round again as if he's not a paraplegic. Not telling. Suffice to say, young Xavier has more development where that came from, not to mention more struggles with his relationship with Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence. It's all very tragic and puts X2 and X3 in perspective to see these men with their utter bro-mance continually at odds with one another on what should be a theoretical matter but in practice is very bloody (whether to fight a war, humans versus mutants, or to try to live peacefully). Even in the future, you'll get a lamentation from Ian McKellen that their friendship was strained by foolish young passions, but never an actual admission that he was wrong. It's subtle, but it's there. The man ain't changing.

The best moment of the entire thing was hands down Quicksilver's superspeed mischief set to Time in a Bottle by Jim Croce. Evan Peters was silly and hilarious. A deserving addition to the ever-growing cast of mutants.

I'm okay with the ending. There's probably room for debate there but as someone who is very familiar with but not a comic book nerd addict of the X-Men canon, I was quite happy to see Famke Janssen and James Marsden alive and beautiful as ever. Hopefully Cyclops and Jean Grey are alive enough now to make it into the third installment, X-Men: Apocalypse, and hopefully there won't be another apocalypse, because this dystopia was already pretty close to the end of the world as humans know it.

I seem to have made it through an entire review without ranting about any particular flaw. Did I miss something? No one disagrees with me that this was even better than First Class, right? Well if you do, bring it on. Tell me I'm wrong. Oh and if anyone found any plot holes, particularly time travel related plot holes, do tell!

June 5, 2014

A New Scrapyard Ship book by Mark Wayne McGinnis: Realms of Time adds history to the space adventure series

The next book in the Scrapyard Ship series by Mark Wayne McGinnis is out, and first of all, the cover art is incredible. I love it. Get Realms of Time here.

The stakes increase in the fourth Scrapyard Ship book when Earth is threatened, not with destruction per se, but with time altering drones meant to send the entire planet back approximately 100 years. Jason takes action against the drones, only to worsen the situation; the five drones place on five different continents are knocked out of sync, meaning that Earth is divided up into multiple varying time realms. In order to disrupt the drones and return Earth to its correct timeline, Jason and his team need to travel through these time realms, some in the recent past, some millions of years into prehistory, and some in the future.

What does that mean? It means a series beloved for its space travel adventures now meets historical fiction, and new storylines that are detailed, expert and very satisfying. There's still space action to come to the galaxy, where the Allied forces gear up to assault the Craing worlds and end their conquest once and for all, but Realms of Time adds a new flavor to the series. Plus, you still get to see Jason maneuvering through what always appear to be impossible situations until you see his clever solution, the gang's dynamic growing and changing, Mollie developing while remaining amusing as ever, not to mention getting to know Dira a little better.

Fans who've been dying for more of the story get another satisfying piece, gearing up for a resolution. Enjoy!

May 26, 2014

The Last Buckaroo — Free today

The latest from J.R. Wright, The Last Buckaroo is free today. Pick it up on Amazon here.

Perfect for the Legend of the Dawn withdrawal I was going through, The Last Buckaroo is more of J.R. Wright doing what comes natural to him: storytelling that’s both classic and contemporary, with a style that’s all his own, but might also harken back to some greats. Pick this one up for the love story, but even more page-turning is the storyteller’s voice that gets stuck in your head (in a good way).

Yancey Burke is the last of his kind, and that makes it hard to make his way in a world that's changing around him. Set in Montana, 1919, even the old West is beginning to modernize and for Yancey, "there were no more frontiers to move on to, no more ridges to cross."

In the here and now, the struggle Yancey faces is being locked up for the murder of Clyde Banyon, an unfair investigation by Sheriff Preston Ames and a stacked trial headed by Judge Jethro Samuels. Luckily there's a pretty redhead in town grappling with her feelings for Yancey and, though he may be an old fashioned buckaroo, Katie Peck is determined to get him off the hook for the crime he did not commit, bringing in rebellious and off the cuff star lawyer Woody Clampett to get the job done, and when that's settled, the question becomes what Yancey Burke is to do with the rest of his life now that jobs such as wrangling cattle and so on are no longer available.

A lovable cast combined with a gripping story make this an all around fun read that's sure to be timeless.

May 20, 2014

Godzilla and the malevolent creatures (2014) [review time]

Godzilla is one of those franchises where no matter how long it's been since the last remake, doubts abound and movie-goers are filled with uncertainty and questioning. Questions like why now? and wait, what do you mean it's actually good? can be overheard in coffee shops and sidewalks everywhere. In this case it's been a while since the last, arguably horrendous, attempt, directed by Roland Emmerich in 1998, and yeah, it is actually kinda good.

Bryan Cranston's character Joe Brody is basically Walter White: Nuclear physicist edition. Loves his kid, loves his wife, lets his crazy obsession destroy his life. When the nuclear power plant at Janjira in Japan is affected by inexplicable, unaccounted for seismic activity, Joe's the guy responsible for admonishing that this isn't an earthquake coming and something's really wrong. He's the expert, the crazy genius, the only guy smart enough to see that something strange and catastrophic is about to happen.

It's probably sounding to you like that thing is Godzilla, right? Wrong. Whether or not it ruined the movie is up for debate all over the internet, but either way, viewers were misled by the title of the film. It's not really as much about Godzilla as you might expect. In order to come up with a smart, complex plot about a giant dinosaur monster crushing cities with his big dino feet, the creators came up with "malevolent creatures" (using IMDB's descriptor for its genius vagueness) for Godzilla to hunt across the globe and kill in a big epic brawl. I still liked it, and I think the trade-off was more plot with more interesting science fictional implications, but I also feel cheated and lied to, given that all of the strange occurrences in the first half of the movie that I thought were the Godzilla were actually these "malevolent creatures," and I don't like feeling stupid.

The story of Godzilla himself is a good one. In 1946 he was awakened by a Russian submarine accident, and the US and Russia knew about it all this time, so (as the trailer will tell you), the US and Russian militaries conducted all of their nuclear tests over the Pacific in an attempt to kill it. They couldn't. All the nukes in the world couldn't kill this giant prehistoric god of all creatures. Humanity is weak and technology pales before nature. I like it!

After all that good storytelling, the dialogue gave way to the military trying to kill Godzilla and the malevolent creatures. Words turn to action, and it's mesmerizing, big action that captures your attention and grabs it again and again just when you think you're going to nod off because what's actually so interesting about dinosaur monsters stepping on buildings?

The good cast had good performances but it’s wasted on one of those films where the screenplay must have drizzled out about two thirds of the way through. Don't get too attached to Bryan Cranston, and don't expect his watered down Walter White to have any material to work with, but obviously the man could do no wrong, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson still looks handsome even when the script fizzles out and he stops talking and instead stares either wide-eyed or catatonically at the destruction of the SF skyline. Who knew Kickass would end up good looking? He totally Neville Longbottom-ed. Elizabeth Olsen followed suit, looking pretty and doing absolutely nothing. So if you were going to see Godzilla because you were excited about the cast, don’t bother. They weren't the main event.

The main event was watching prehistoric parasites and the god of all dinosaurs face off and completely abolish my fave city, San Francisco. Oh yay, another monster fighting movie! I really liked the art direction.

Seriously though, it was kind of all about the visuals. I mean I liked the first half better which was actually about the story and a little bit about science, but in the end, it’s greyscale destruction and the kind of immensity that can only really be conveyed through film, although Percy Bysshe Shelley and George R. R. Martin, for two, have certainly tried. 

What you should expect is Jaws meets Alien and I'm guessing Pacific Rim, but I haven't actually seen it, meets King Kong and Breaking Bad. Without color. I don't recommend that you rent it. Go see it with your friends on the big screen, or not at all, and if you missed it, you missed it. Go rent Kickass, or any of the other aforementioned pictures, instead.

May 8, 2014

X-Men First Class: Will Days of Future Past live up to it?

Whether you're a diehard who never lost the faith or a newcomer to the X-Men film franchise, it's pretty likely that the stunt they pulled with X-Men First Class caught your attention one way or another. Set in 1962, it's visually catchy, by which I mean the costumes and the setting will grab you even in the 30 second TV spot. It's no Mad Men but the styles are a ton of fun. And if the costumes and hairstyles didn't grab you maybe working the Cuban missile crisis into the mix did? Yeah, them be nukes. It was a brave comeback and it worked.

X-Men First Class was an impressive return for the series that had been greatly dwindling in the quality of its characters, story, writing, even aesthetic with the travesty that was Origins: Wolverine or The Wolverine, whichever the hell one I saw, don't ask me. Even X-Men: The Last Stand saw the beginning of a decline for the X-Men series (Don't believe me? Check out how the IMDB ratings dropped between films or the footnote below*). Fans responded to a decline with their votes, but X-Men First Class was an entirely different case. It has the highest IMDB rating of the series at 7.8, which is really, really high, considering films among the top 250 of all time (as voted by users) only have an 8.0. I guess users are harsh critics (the highest rating on all of IMDB is Shawshank Redemption at a mere 9.2 rating. Nothing close to 10 exists).

What makes it good? What saved the franchise? Well I already mentioned the visuals, and I'm glad that finally in the sci-fi/fantasy film world someone caught on that when we want striking visuals we don't mean CGI anymore, we're not impressed by that anymore. Art is character-driven these days and not only did X-Men dress up their characters is stunning 60s styles, they also sketched out their stories and made those much more central, I thought, than the plot, which was fine but not great. The cast also helped. Put Jennifer Lawrence in anything these days and she can carry the whole show herself, but First Class didn't even need her; Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy held their own plenty. And including January Jones in anything personally makes me very, very happy. So a good looking cast.

Now that's not to say First Class was perfect. For one thing, I don't feel the need to ever watch it a second time. I feel like the character-driven nature was a nice turn but it still managed to be drowned out a little bit by the action which they of course had to deliver, otherwise it wouldn't be a superhero film. It's just that Kevin Bacon's villain was very boring, with the exception of the flashbacks to Nazi Germany. It couldn't really be helped. I can't think of a better story for them to have told. The heart of it was where it needed to be: on Xavier's loss of his friend Erik/Magneto, and the schism between mutants and humanity, and between the X-Men and Magneto's clan.

Probably the strongest story managed to be Raven/Mystique's, which is impressive. There's a psychological sketch going on there that does get buried by the action a little bit but it pervaded the film and gave her actions motivation. Actually I think her reasons for joining Magneto were much better fleshed out than Magneto's motivations for turning against Xavier. Sure, we know he's been through a lot and life has been hard for him, poor Fassbender, but it's easy to forget all that with the training montages in the middle and the lovey dovey dialogues he has with McAvoy. He doesn't seem dark or tortured during the middle third of the movie, which is nice — there's little I love more than a compassionate relationship for a character who is suffering and really needs it — but then when he goes all evil it seems rather sudden.

Nitpicking aside, both the rating and the strong points I've identified make it clear that X-Men First Class was a revival. Now what will happen when worlds collide, past and future, old cast and new cast? Well for one thing you get a SUPERCAST! Fassbender, McAvoy, Lawrence, Jackman, Paquin, Berry, McKellen, Stewart, holy crap, who's excited? Not to mention Peter Dinklage and Ellen Page. What are they thinking? They're gonna give us all heart attacks. But as we learned with Valentine's Day and Movie 43, it really doesn't matter how many A listers you throw in there, if it's nothing but a gimmick, it's not going to do anything for the quality if there's no quality there. Yikes. Now I'm starting to worry. Maybe too many celebrities is a sign of doom.

So here's the trailer.

It looks funny. Big. Epic. I'm hoping there will be an emphasis on characters over action in this one but seeing Wolverine as the team leader has me pretty worried. There was so much they could have done with that character, and instead they gave us two mindless action flicks that weren't worth watching. I'm not done lamenting that. And to be honest they've always had a super cast to work with, this is nothing new, so if they don't use that talent properly, we may be in for yet another failure.

So what do you think will happen when the old series collides with the new? First Class was a damn good start to a reboot but there may be some cause for concern that Days of Future Past is going to slide into old bad habits. Too much action and too many one liners. Bad writing. Underdeveloped characters that had oh so much potential. Are you afraid or are you rejoicing? Leave me a comment and let me know. Maybe ease my fears a little bit.

*What kind of blogger would I be if I made you do your own research? Here's the footnote: X-Men (2000) has an IMDB rating of 7.4, X2 (2003) has 7.5, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) sunk to a 6.8, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) has a 6.8, and The Wolverine (2013) has a 6.8. That's actually a fairly good rating (6.8), despite that the Wolverine movie I saw was crap, but the point is there was a decline. The point is, X-Men First Class is way back at up 7.8, and the new enterprise managed after many failures to rekindle its original quality.

May 5, 2014

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson: What worked, and what really didn't [review time]

Words of Radiance felt like a perfect sequel on one lazy read through, but scrutiny brings to light the imperfections, like lamplight to a cracked stone, to use a forced metaphor the way Sanderson continuously does. Popular opinion here is going to rule because the Amazon ratings are in and it’s 1,500 five star votes versus all of 4 one star votes, all four of them without good reason. With that commendation in addition to that fact that hey, I loved it too, let’s skip the raving about how good it is and take a crack at those imperfections, because to be honest, The Way of Kings didn't have any, so what happened here to mar book two?

Aside from the lazy criticism that it’s too long and Shallan is too boring (both lame complaints, buck up yer great lumps!) there are actual problems. Like that Kaladin is one whiney sonofabitch that puts Luke Skywalker’s bellyaching over Toshi power converters to oh so much shame. That we want to be cool and calm and enjoy the interlude chapters, but really, come on, nobody cares about Ym, Rysn, and Taln, we just want to see how the story ends and we have to wade through that (interesting, detailed, high and mighty) fluff to get there. That the climax is, in Robert Jordanian style, all in the last 50 pages of a 1000 page book.

Probably my biggest complaint though is Sanderson’s ego in Words of Radiance. There were hints and whiffs of it creating a faint stink on The Way of Kings and even his takeover of The Wheel of Time (of course taking over the epic series of one of the greatest fantasy authors of our lifetime is a fair thing to go to one’s head) but nothing like the testaments to Brandon’s brainpower in this volume. Shallan and Wit are two characters that demonstrate to me that Sanderson doesn't just write smart characters with high wit and intellect, he shoves them down your fricking throat to show how clever their author is. Take a second look at Wit’s speech in the epilogue and see if you can get through it without vomiting, let alone without letting it break the fourth wall into tiny, tiny pieces. Good way to deflect any and all criticism: “Give me an audience who have come to be entertained, but expect nothing special. To them, I will be a god.” Nice. Any problems I have with your books are just that I've come to expect too much from your master genius.

I wanted Shallan to be smarter than me. And Wit too. Maybe that’s an unfair expectation given that of course you can’t write things you don’t expect your readers to understand, you want them to connect with what’s being said, but if Shallan is so witty, why don’t any of her witticisms go over my head? I wanted them to. Or at least require a second of contemplation or inspire a minute of thoughtfulness. Nope. 

This is one place where Sanderson seems to take characterization lessons from Stephanie Meyer. He tells you she’s witty and clever, but the examples, try though they might, do not impress. If he couldn’t think of anything truly intelligent for her to say, then he didn’t have to try to characterize her as intelligent. I mentioned of the Sherlock pilot that it’s hard to follow Sherlock’s thinking, just as it’s hard to follow Dr. House, and that’s a good thing; that makes the character a genius. It wouldn’t make sense if everything he said was at the audience’s level. Shallan and Wit are testaments to intelligence but they don’t stand up. Shallan’s quips are lame and Wit’s diatribes are transparent. It didn't feel that way in The Way of Kings but if there’s another "Fleet ran fast" in book three, that might just be it for me.

Kaladin continues to feel like a cartoon to me, to the point where I don't picture him like a real character the way I can picture say Paul Atreides or Jon Snow or Rand Al Thor as a flesh and bones man, Kaladin in my imagination is like Harry Potter grown up with a beard (And no, Harry Potter in my imagination is not Daniel Radcliffe). He spends approximately two thousand pages of the Stormlight Archive being a depressed malcontent who hates pretty much everyone, even those we love like Shallan and Adolin, making bad choices like to challenge Amaram and ruin the plan for Sadeas, or to allow Moash to go forward with plans against Elhokar, and only at the very end does he have a moment of revelation. He can’t define his own morality or get over his shit and when he finally does it’s frustrating because you've been yelling at him to get over it for two thousand pages now. 

I'm conflicted though because while I wanted Kaladin to become a Radiant and say the words and get Syl back and all that yada, and I liked Elhokar and didn’t want him to die, I almost think the book would have been more interesting if Kaladin had killed him. I was kind of interested in that dilemma and leaning towards removing him. That would have been too dark for Sanderson’s tastes, but it would have worked for me. But then book three would be a thousand pages of Kaladin whining his remorse. Spare me.

Here’s what I liked about the book: Everything else. The payout on the storms that were coming was very good. The ending was a thrill to read because the stakes were so high, it seemed impossible that they could get out, and Shallan my beloved was the key to their survival, which makes my day (even if her IQ is a fraud, she’s still my favorite character, other than Jasnah). I’m glad that they won on the plains against the Parshendi without a character death (so overrated, I like my characters breathing, thank you) except Roion, who blossomed into a hero all of half a page before he died. Poor guy. I like that the next book is set up to deal with all the parshmen transforming and the Knights Radiant returning.
Oh and I liked Shallan’s flashbacks, which many people hated. The best comment I read on Amazon did point out that it was exactly the same as the Tien story in Kaladin’s flashbacks, where the reveal wasn’t a reveal because you already knew, and it was set up like a plot twist even though it wasn’t, but I’m glad that in Shallan’s case the “twist” was covered in all of one sentence, like ripping off the bandaid. Yep, the “mystery” turned out exactly the way we knew all along, but at least we didn't have to read a whole damn chapter dramatically expounding it. 

Words of Radiance was enjoyable in its escapism and the satisfaction of its journey and conclusion, but to be critical there were some imperfections. I loved it but I think it’s delusional to call it perfect or to give it five stars, if five stars means to you what it does to me — that it couldn't have been better than what it was (i.e. it has no flaws that couldn't have been helped), that it is the best the genre has to offer (the best among comparable books), that a second reading improves rather than diminishes the experience of its quality. It could have been better — it could have been trimmed, and one of Sanderson's giant team of editors could have pointed out that Shallan's witty dialogue needed elevation, or that Kaladin is getting a bit tired. No, really tired. The series might come to be among the best of the genre, but this particular volume is not. It's no The Great Hunt or The Gunslinger or A Storm of Swords; it's not even Eragon (because unlike Kaladin, that little bugger was only unlikable for ONE volume). I don't think I could stand to read it again, unlike The Way of Kings, but if I do, I feel like there will be less to uncover on a second read, and not more.

There are 1500 five star reviews for this book and I think that’s crazy. The Way of Kings was worth five stars. Words of Radiance is a cut below.

March 20, 2014

Game of Thrones is back April 6

This is the most badass Game of Thrones Season 4 trailer yet! Got me SO excited.

Have I ever mentioned how much I love Cersei? Probably a fact best kept to myself ... and it's going to be especially awkward now that Jaime is back in King's Landing ... Oh well!

March 13, 2014

New York City Serenade is Flawless [Once Upon a Time]

Don't get me wrong, I'm the biggest Oncer there is, but that doesn't mean I don't want to smack Snow upside the head every time she delivers her cheesy "We always find each other" sickeningly overdone line. Sometimes the special effects are an eyesore, and sometimes there are boring one-dimensional beast/villain things that are just as ugly, distracting, and over the top. Sometimes Emma and the gang get out of situations way too easily using her savior "I'm the savior and I have magic powers" power (remember Greg and Tamara's destroy-Storybrooke-gem-thingy?) And what's with Regina's one liners lately?

Well, other than a good hearty "Watch me," from the evil queen, New York City Serenade toned down all of the series' flaws and only made me flinch one time (when I predicted Regina would say "Watch me" and she did.)

Seriously, I thought it didn't lose a beat. I loved Emma's romantic dates in picturesque NYC restaurants, how she grappled with whether or not her fake life with Henry is real (it's not), and the trail of clues that brings back her memories. I thought the dreamcatcher in Neal's apartment was inspired, finding Henry's camera there was genius and Emma going back for her red leather jacket was adorable.

The end back in Storybrooke left so many confusing questions. So as far as anyone remembers they've just been there the whole time? Nobody remembers going back to the Enchanted Forest? What is the new curse then? Wouldn't it have been more fun if they were back to not remembering they're story book characters? (I'm talking to you, Kitsis and Horowitz — the show was at its best when they were all "Fairy tale characters, what? I'm not Snow White, that's silly and impossible. I just really don't like apples.")

And hey! Snow's pregnant! Wait, why are we acting like that's a reveal? I thought that would be obvious. Well, congratulations, Mary Margaret.

Seems like they're just back where they started, pre-Pan. That whole thing where they're never supposed to see Emma and Henry again didn't last very long, did it? So much for Regina's punishment. Whatever, she seems like she's learned her lesson and earned redemption. Now if only she would stop being such a ... meany pants ... to her step-daughter.

Did anyone else notice the bromance with Hook and Charming? Watch how David smiles when Kilian walks away. It's been a while since I've seen him look at Snow like that. She looks kinda peeved.

I expected to see a bit more of the Wicked Witch, but her final scene sure was ominous! Wicked always wins. But what's her plan? I have to wait until next Sunday to find out what she's up to? Because I don't think reuniting the Charmings back in their hometown was really the point of her evil curse. 

What do you think? Did the first episode of part two of season 3 of Once Upon a Time miss a beat at any point? I was gonna try to come up with some theories as to what the Wicked Witch of the East is up to, but I got nada. How bout you?

March 6, 2014

From Rabbit Holes, coming soon [rabbit holes]

That year wasn't real. Everything in it had happened before. Nothing after it is real, and I don't even know how many times it has all repeated. Let me explain.

At the start of 2012, my girlfriend died and I moved into my new apartment. It was snug for a couple, but alone I had too much room. I was new to the city, and that is a feeling I love. It’s exciting to enter a new city by air, then uncover it from the window of the cab that drives you to your hotel, revealing a bit more between the curb and the lobby, but when you inevitably get to your room to drop off your things and end up crashing on the bed, too tired to not take a break even though you don't want to, sitting back on the hotel bed against the headboard with your shoes on, and if this really is a new city, then all you have exposed of it is that negligible square footage that surrounded the cab — a few unimportant miles of mostly freeway and the widest lanes downtown — the grandiose hotel lobby, and now your hundred square foot bedroom. Maybe you haven't even checked out the en-suite bathroom. That’s all that’s made it into your spacial consciousness so far. In a city of 468 square miles, you have fleetingly experienced perhaps thirty-six point six of them, if you're like me and flew into JFK before being driven to the Roosevelt. For all I knew, the rest of the city didn't even exist. It could be a void. Or it could be a literal circus — tents pitched everywhere — or a war zone, zombie invasion style.

Anything was possible, because I hadn't seen anything yet. But I was grieving, and whatever denial I was in at the time didn't course deep enough for me to even pretend to feel any excitement about that. Truth be told, that first night I fell asleep with my shoes on on that bed, with no supper. I ate breakfast in the restaurant attached to the hotel, an incredibly boring choice that Sheila would never in a million years have agreed to. She would have said, “Be adventurous! Try Blue Moon diner, it has really good Yelp reviews!” as if going to a restaurant based on its high rating on Yelp was adventurous. After a few weeks of apartment-searching, I gave up and moved into the place I had already signed a lease for and paid a deposit on with Sheila, even though it would be big for just one of us. I lived in the apartment that was intended for both of us, her signature still scribbled on the only lease, and I began to do as her ghost demanded.

“See the sights,” said Sheila. She insisted on typical touristy things: the Empire State building, the MET, central park and its troll, which reminded me of taking her to see the troll under the bridge in Fremont, the new Yankee Stadium, but she also insisted that I eat at the least famous dining spots, seeking out the least popular bars and walk down only the streets I had never heard of, because while one really must do a Broadway show and climb the statue of liberty, it was also important to live the city like a local would and discover the hidden gems (without guidance — that would be cheating). It took me a long time to decide whether getting a pumpkin spiced latte would count as a tick on my tourist experience list or my ‘living like a local’ list.  It was before the statue of liberty, actually, that I first knew for sure that everything I did I was doing for a second or third time, no more, and definitely no less, and by that I mean that I was living the year of 2012 over again. When I first stepped up to the foot of lady liberty, for the first time standing in her real presence instead of seeing her through the lens of a camera, I knew at once that I had been there before, yet I had never been there before. There is no other way to explain it. Logically, I knew that this was my first ever trip to New York City, and that this was the first time I ever visited Ellis Island, where my grandmother had landed in ’39, and that my naked eyes had never before looked at the statue — everything was new: the vantage, the unaltered color, the unreplicable sense of amazing height — and at the same time I remembered standing there before.

Paradoxical, to say the least. Impossible. Insane. Yes, that was it. I had been swept up unawares in my brief and the mental break down had taken me completely by surprise, so much so that I couldn't even point to when it started. Everywhere that I went, I argued with myself, convincing myself and begging myself to be persuaded that I had not been there before, while I simultaneously knew and argued calmly and rationally that I had. The year was repeating. And everywhere I went, Sheila came with me, making sweet conversation and so many good suggestions. At first her ghost seemed a representation of what I knew she would do and say had she been here, but eventually she became real — she became unpredictable, and if I created her with my own imagination how could she surprise me? But she did. I had to be insane — but I knew the Giants would beat the Yankees when I saw them play before it happened, and to break or test the spell, I went to the next game the Yankees played — something I couldn't have possibly done the first time 2012 repeated itself because it was something I would never do — and I was convinced the Yankees would beat the Jays, and they did. If they hadn’t, would I have given up my belief as delusion? Did I really know, or did I just take a stubborn unfounded guess and happen to be right? Was I drowning in confirmation bias? I’ll never know, because the fact remained, no matter how much I tested it, that I was always, always, right.

March 4, 2014

Casting Some Starlight on Kory M. Shrum: Dying for a Living [review time]

Dying for a Living by KORY M. SHRUM: 4/5 STARS (Get it on Amazon)

"On the morning before her 67th death, it is business as usual for Jesse Sullivan: meet with the mortician, counsel soon-to-be-dead clients, and have coffee while reading the latest regeneration theory. Jesse dies for a living, literally. As a Necronite, she is one of the population’s rare 2% who can serve as a death replacement agent, dying so others don’t have to. Although each death is different, the result is the same: a life is saved, and Jesse resurrects days later with sore muscles, new scars, and another hole in her memory.

But when Jesse is murdered and becomes the sole suspect in a federal investigation, more than her freedom and sanity are at stake. She must catch the killer herself—or die trying."

Set in a world where ‘Necronites’ die (for a hefty sum) in a profession called death replacement, Dying for a Living is gripping, and sexier than it sounds. Jesse is a death replacement agent — don't call her a zombie, it's rude — which means she temporarily sacrifices her life to bring back the rich from the clutches of death itself.

I really appreciate a great beginning, and Dying for a Living could write the textbook for how to subtly intertwine good exposition into real time action. The setting isn't very different from present day; there’s no distracting new tech or flashy devices, just the present reality of Jesse’s work, and its broader social implications.

The writing is impressive: the right balance of modern (complete with swearing and slang) and literary without falling into overly formal or lyrical crap. You can expect me to tweet the best quotations in future; some of Kory's wording is pristine — totally tweet material.

Where it loses stars: I wanted it to be shorter, and the extra words delving into Jesse’s thoughts and emotions could have been instead devoted to a plot that was brilliant, but hard to keep track of. I was really into the suspenseful mystery that arises when someone tries to kill Jesse for good, and the deeper conspiracy that thousands of death replacement agents across the country have been (permanently) murdered, but I wasn’t pulled in to the love triangle even a little bit. The romance side-plot was nowhere near as interesting as the main story, which was what kept me reading. The story was original, well-planned, and nice and suspenseful.

I recommend Dying for a Living as a read; it’s worth a couple dollars and a few hours of your time, especially if you’re enticed by the premise, like I was. There’s a right way to craft a modern fantasy, and Kory Shrum shows us how it’s done. Dying for a Living isn’t just good for a debut novel, it’s a straight up good read for the escape and the breathlessness it’ll give you over the gripping climax (sexual innuendo intended).

To new and indie writers: While I have a fair supply of books to get me started, I am in the market for review copies of independently published fiction, with a preference for science fiction and fantasy. It won't be the first time I've accepted a book as payment for labor. I will feature your book on Musings by Starlight, first come first serve, and post the review to Amazon (and wherever else you please). While I can't promise five stars, I can promise a promotion that is thought out, fair and honest.

March 3, 2014

Rediscovering Secrets: Revisiting The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson [Review Time]

The wait for Words of Radiance was a perfect opportunity to re-read The Way of Kings, a bulky, epic fantasy premiere that I remembered to be awesome, but couldn't remember why. In those thousand pages, some of which were slow and plodding, there ended up being a number of fantastically complicated and hard to remember twists and turns, and secrets worth re-discovering.

I'll divulge those secrets momentarily, because chances are if you're Googling The Way of Kings right now it’s because you're too lazy to re-read it yourself? And if not, just take this as a spoiler warning and go away :) In the meantime, there are a few other reflections that have come to me after a revisit of Brandon Sanderson’s debut to the Stormlight series.

Classic fantasy can be slow, long, boring and out of touch. Why start a traditional high fantasy these days? The question can be posed to both readers and authors — to authors, why plod over well trodden territory yet again, and to readers, what’s in it to read another Lord of the Rings-esque epic series that just isn't going to be as good as Tolkien?

That was my response to the initial announcement that Brandon Sanderson was moving away from the short, single contemporary fantasy novel that was Elantris and, after finishing another huge, epic, traditional fantasy (The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan) was going to start his own damn multi-volume huge epic. I mean, come on. I just finished reading WOT, I’m not caught up on A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, there are a dozen other series that have been recommended to me that I've never even touched (Discworld by Terry Pratchett, Stephen King’s Dark Tower, anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, Ursula K. LeGuin, Terry Goodkind, R. A. Salvatore, the list goes on) — does this sound like any other avid fantasy reader’s life? We've got catching up to do! Why are you giving us more?!

Surprisingly, The Way of Kings has a lot to offer the genre and grapples with incredibly modern themes. Like how to turn a war-torn world into a peaceful one. Instead of trying to eradicate all of the Lannisters — sorry, enemies — characters like Dalinar Kholin, The Blackthorn for his battle prowess and mercilessness, are starting to lose the Thrill of battle and doubting the cause of revenge for the murder of the Alethi king, his brother Gavilar. Then there are the ideas that build up Sanderson’s world, like Shadesmar, the cognitive shadow world made up of signifiers that represent the signified of the physical world (sorry to descend into literary criticism-ese, that’s just the most concise way to put it). I also like how in response to Tolkien’s world of fading magic and an emphasis on legend and the past, Stormlight sees a return of long-lost abilities and the discovery of new ones, and while history features prominently, it is like the scholar and atheist heretic Jasnah Kholin puts it: the point is future-oriented, using the truth found in the past to decide present action (paraphrasing).

Also fairly modern is its treatment of religion. It’s very easy to forget that Sanderson is Mormon because he treats characters like Jasnah with such respect and gives her incredible wisdom while she tears down the idea of faith in favor of science. It’s the mark of a genius to not only be able to see the reason of the arguments made by your opponents, but to be able to represent them with dignity, with so little bias that they might as well have been written by the atheist his or herself, and not a bitter, mean one like Gregory House but the kind that might be sitting next to you in your college philosophy class. In The Way of Kings it might be Vorinism and The Almighty that Jasnah repudiates, but it’s an easy stand-in for any major religion + God.

The secrets I mentioned are key to what to look forward to in Words of Radiance, out March 4. It’s easy to forget, for example, that not only is Shallan secretly a Shardbearer, she also admitted to murdering her father (at least that's how I read it, and I'm too scared of WoR spoilers to google other interpretations). Which begs the question of whether she took the Blade from him, or from someone else. Another open mystery to recall is that Kabsal, the ardent who flirted with Shallan and eventually revealed his only purpose was to assassinate Jasnah, resulting only in his own death, is a member of a secret society called the Ghostbloods, to which Shallan’s father also belonged. We still don't know where Daddy Davar got his Soulcaster, either, and you can bet we'll learn more about how Shallan and Jasnah can Soulcast without a real fabrial.

All of this are why I've argued in the past that Shallan is a much more interesting character than Kaladin and I raced through the pages dedicated to him to get back to the lady's many mysteries. Still, keep in mind that Kaladin successfully freed all of the bridgemen from Sadeas's army, making Bridge Four Dalinar's personal guard in exchange for his Blade (holy crap, I'll never get over that.) So in addition to Kaladin learning how to become a Radiant, that’s where he is, entering book two — free.

Dalinar was betrayed by Sadeas, losing a huge portion of his army and the faith that Alethkar can ever be united. This feels like another incredibly modern theme to me as well. I don’t see Sadeas as a villain, but a product of Alethi society that, as Dalinar put it, finds rivalry justified always.

The last two humungous twists are the following: Szeth was has been sent to kill Dalinar Kholin (good luck, Dalinar, or should I say RIP?) by King Taravangian, and the Parshendi turn out to be the Voidbringers. Amazing. I love this book.

All of that’s what makes it worth reading. Plus, it’s less daunting to tackle when it’s just coming out now. You’ve only got two to read! There are fricking dozens of Discworld books.

Let me know what you think of the mysteries of The Way of Kings — did you remember them all? Did I miss any? Will you help me find and string Brandon Sanderson up in a highstorm if he doesn't answer all of our questions before book 3? Cool. Thanks.

February 23, 2014

Once Upon A Time is back on March 9

Once Upon a Time is back March 9! And, in true OUAT style, they're boldly fracturing fairy tales left and right and adding characters who shouldn't be in the same world together like it's nobodies business.
I thought I would die of anticipation between the mid-season finale and now, but March 9th is quickly approaching, and soon we'll learn why Hook turned up at Emma's apartment with a warning about her fairytale parents, whom, if you remember, she can't remember. So, let's see how Hook gets around that one! There may or may not be a bit of an outcry over the appearance of Evanora, the Wicked Witch of the East from The Wizard of Oz, but come on guys, we've already been able to stomach Mulan and Dr. Frankenstein in one frame (Okay, I lie, I don't think Mulan has met Whale, who, by the way, seems to be in the modern world in this promo, not the fairytale world — weird right?) Sadly, both in this trailer and in Oz, the Great And Powerful, green face makeup looks cheesy and dated no matter how you do it. No one can Evanora like Margaret Hamilton (the original Wicked Witch of the East), not even Mila Kunis or Rebecca Mader (Lost alum!)

Let me know what you think! Can you handle it?

February 12, 2014

Casting Some Starlight on Indie Star Mark Wayne McGinnis [review time]

Scrapyard Ship by Mark Wayne McGinnis: 4.5/5 STARS (Get it on Amazon)

Lieutenant Commander Jason Reynolds has had a string of bad luck lately — evident by the uncomfortable house arrest bracelet strapped to his right ankle. Worse yet, he’s relegated to his grandfather’s old house and rambling scrapyard. To complicate things, the women in his life are pulling from every direction. But it’s through a bizarre turn of events that Jason is led to a dried up subterranean aquifer hundreds of feet below ground. Here he discovers an advanced alien spacecraft, one that will propel his life in a new direction.

Mark Wayne McGinnis is something of a surprise. His fun science fiction series has rocketed to the top of the Amazon charts, launching all the way to number 11 for Best Science Fiction in the Space Exploration and Alien Invasion categories, and number 12 in the category for Space Fleet fiction. His work is adventurous and captures the imaginations and hearts of readers. Scrapyard Ship was the first space adventure in the series, which was followed at the end of 2013 with HAB 12, the sequel. The Scrapyard Ship novels are written as a kind of web serial in that each one ends with a cliffhanger, but don't worry, book 3 is in the works, and isn't it fun to have something to look forward to anyways? (I'm just bitter there are no more Harry Potter or Wheel of Time books being written, what has become of my life?)

Here's what Amazon reviewers are saying about Scrapyard Ship:

The title is unusual, as are the characters, but they are well done and provided a lot of entertainment. Mr. McGinnis Is an interesting writer. He balanced the action with some 'down time' to develop the plot. He didn't seem to get too involved in prolonged descriptions, as some authors do, but educated me and then went on to get back into the fray. I'm headed back to the order page to get the next book, Hab 12."

"I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a fun filled fight with impossible odds against an implacable alien foe!"

"Reads fast and makes for a great 'mental time out.' Aliens and Phase cannons, the 'Fate of the Earth' and some fun set ups keep ya turning the pages. I'm for the next book!"

HAB 12 by Mark Wayne McGinnis: 4/5 STARS (Get it on Amazon)

HAB 12 really takes off from Scrapyard Ship in one of those cases where the sequel manages to be even more compelling than the original. Scrapyard Ship introduces The Lilly and all of the ship's capabilities, but HAB 12 really runs wild with the possibilities of the multi-verse technology when it comes to weaponry, communications, security, space travel, etc. Believe it or not, this volume is even more complex with more twists and turns, while the characters remain endearing, and raw yet lovable. Another fantastic read. And brace yourselves for another doozy of an ending that will make you ready to die for the next in the series.

Here's what Amazon reviewers are saying about about HAB 12:

"Can't believe this is a new independent author."

"The second book is even better than the first - the characters continue to mature and the plot and imagination of this fast paced SciFi are thrilling. Highly recommend both books and I await eagerly the next book of this series!"

Tapped In by Mark Wayne McGinnis: 5/5 STARS (Get it on Amazon)

Tapped In is possibly the best of the McGinnis pack.

It's nice to see Mark Wayne McGinnis expand into new territory genre-wise, and as usual he does it with original writing, unique and lovable (as well as intentionally hate-able) characters, and a very different kind of story. The way Rob discovers tapping in and then makes use of its power to get through obstacles and out-smart his antagonists, even with the disadvantage of amnesia, is enjoyable, thrilling, and often-times really humorous. 

If you like Dean Koontz, this will be very much up your alley; some bits reminded me of Watchers. Another entertaining, fast-paced page turner to curl up with on the couch (and stay there until you finish). The only downside is that you'll be dying to find out what happens next, and you'll just have to wait for the next one.

More Amazon reviews:

"The good news is you survived a car crash. The bad news is you don't know who you are. The good news you've got a new sixth sense. The bad news . . .

"So it goes in an exciting new action series that touches on science fiction and espionage and lots of other genres. All that with a light touch of humor making a quick, entertaining read."

"This author certainly knows how to put one in suspense! A great novelette, but really a taster and nothing more. Rather annoying really. The basis of the yarn is a sort of ex-CIA operative involved in an accident which leaves him with amnesia. But it also affects his mind, having him become both a mind reader and manipulator, but only with the help of high voltage electrical input every 24 hours."

I hope you enjoyed this month's Indie Star Author. I don't know about you, but I don't read nearly enough independently published fiction, so every month or so I hope to review an indie novel for some supportive and honest promotion (the best kind, if you ask me.) 

To indie writers: While I have a fair supply of books to get me started, I am in the market for review copies of independently published fiction, with a preference for science fiction and fantasy. It won't be the first time I've accepted a book as payment for labor. I will feature your book on Musings by Starlight, first come first serve, and post the review to Amazon (and wherever else you please). While I can't promise five stars, I can promise a promotion that is thought out, fair and honest.