Monday, December 19, 2011

30 Day Book Challenge - Day 8

I bet you thought I had forgotten about these, didn't you?

Post 8 – Most Overrated book

When I first encounter Marcus Heitz's fantasy novel The Dwarves, I was both somewhat surprised and rather excited. Now, as much as I like Tolkien, I've never been as fond of those works that took their major inspiration from him. Though there are no doubt many reasons for this, the relative sidelining of Dwarves in Tolkien's works (aside from The Hobbit) has always annoyed me, and so far as I am aware this has been more or less the standard ever since.

Therefore, when I first heard that there was a Dwarf-centric fantasy story floating around*, I was quite excited, and eager to get my hands on a copy. One might say that I pre-rated the book quite highly - however, this proved to be a mistake, as once I actually read it, I discovered that The Dwarves wasn't quite was I was expecting.

Now, there were quite a few interesting bits in the book, especially surrounding the Dwarvish culture described therein. The problem, at least to my mind, is that the author chose to make Tungdil, the hero of his story, an orphaned Dwarf raised among humans with no knowledge of his own culture.

I can see the appeal from a storytelling perspective, with the audience witnessing Dwarven political maneuvering, say, or finding out that each of the dwarven clans have an associated specialty among the traditional dwarven arts** at the same time the viewpoint character does. Furthermore, just typing out the last sentence of that last paragraph made me realize how much Tungdil's back-story resembles Worf's, although it goes a somewhat different direction.

Not a Dwarf, despite indications to the contrary.

Despite these perfectly understandable reasons, I was expecting  - perhaps hoping for - something with a bit more of an "insider" view. As it stands, the book was much less unlike most post-Tolkien high fantasy than I expected, hence my initial over-rating. In retrospect, I liked quite a bit about it, especially the Dwarf-centric parts that met my expectations - but, for every steampunk pneumatic intra-continental subway system, there seemed to be an irritating non-Dwarf sidekick (such as the Human actor Rodario, who for some inscrutable reason reminded me strongly of Gilderoy Lockhart, albeit more heroic).

Still, even all this hasn't managed to completely sour me on the series - and there are three more to read. I'm sure I'll get to them someday - just not as quickly as I might've otherwise.

*Admittedly, there may be others I haven't heard of - but then, I've never heard of them, have I?
**These consist of anything that involves making things out of rocks.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Music's Only Airship Pirates

With a crew of drunken pilots, we're the only airship pirates!
We're full of hot air and we're starting to rise
We're the terror of the skies, but a danger to ourselves!

Over the last decade or so, untold amounts of digital ink have been spilt trying to define the term "Steampunk". Part of the problem is that steampunk is more of a stylistic genre than anything else, and as such can be applied to film, or literature, or prop-making, or music, or pretty much any other form of art.

Now, while I've been interested in the genre since I first heard of its existence* that last category, steampunk-as-music-genre, didn't really appeal. Back in 2008, however, I came across a reference to a little ditty called "Airship Pirates", by a group called Abney Park. An intriguing title, to say the least. Once I had tracked down and listened to the song, well, I really liked what I heard:

Unfortunately,none of the other songs on their "Lost Horizons" album really grabbed me in quite the same way - not even the incongruously upbeat (not to mention plot-relevant) "Post-Apocalypse Punk". So, I bought a copy of "Airship Pirates" as a single, and went on my merry way.

A couple of years later, I heard a rumor that "The Wrath of Fate", a song from the band's new album, was something of a sequel to "Airship Pirates". Now, I'm a big fan of gratuitous continuity, so I decided to give it a shot.

Now, that's more like it. As I poked around, I discovered that the new album -  called The End Of Days - takes "gratuitous continuity" to a level possibly unheard of in the music industry.

It seems that, since Abney Park decided to brand itself as a "steampunk band", they've been using their songs to create a fictional background for themselves; a complex story involving time travel, accidental apocalypses ("plot-relevant", remember?), and of course Airship Piracy. In recent months, they've even branched out into a role-playing game and upcoming novel further exploring the setting.

But even without this lovingly crafted backstory, many of the songs from The End of Days (as well as their previous album, Æther Shanties) are quite enjoyable themselves. I would especially point out the aforementioned "The Wrath of Fate", "To the Apocalypse In Daddy's Sidecar", and "Neobedouin", from the former; and "Building Steam" and "The Clockyard" from the latter, as being well worth a listen.

With these last few albums, Abney Park has easily made itself one of the most unique-sounding bands I've ever heard. Even if they have written a philosophically questionable lyric or two (I'm still trying to work out whether the references to Christianity in "I've Been Wrong Before" are complimentary or not), I will be quite interested in whatever they end up doing next.

They're certainly better musicians than they are pirates, at least . . .

*The date of which, for the historically minded, I can only say (though with some certainly) was between 4 November 2004 and 23 February 2007.

Monday, September 12, 2011

So, Cowboys & Aliens . . .

 . . . has come and gone from the theaters, and I've had some time to mull over my reaction to it. I'd been anticipating the movie for quite some time, and was frankly a little bit underwhelmed. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing I can point to as being bad about this movie - well, nothing major, anyway - but I have, nonetheless, an unsettling feeling that something was off. Maybe my expectations were just too high.

Anyway, despite my vague dis-satisfaction, this film still did - and did well - what it set out to do, namely take a typical Western and turn it on it's ear by introducing invading aliens. Now, I'm not very familiar with the Western as a genre - I've often said my favorite example of such is Back to the Future Part III - but prior to the first alien attack, it seemed that we were all set for a stereotypical - and probably literal - showdown between the anti-heroic drifter* and the corrupt cattle baron that rules the town with an iron fist.

In their own ways, over the course of the film after the alien attack both Jake and Colonel Dolarhyde transcend the stereotypes they start out as. For Jake this is mostly a matter of slowly recovering his lost memory (though the closing scene indicates that he's given up outlawry), but Dolarhyde has a much more dynamic character arc.

He begins as a straight-up antagonist, first seen torturing one of his own employees over some incinerated cattle (for some reason, he doesn't believe the  hapless cowpoke's claim that the herd caught fire while he was falling in the river), then stomping into town to demand that the sheriff give him Jake (who did him some as-yet-unspecified injury) and Percy (his bratty son) instead of sending them to the Marshal, as the law requires.

As badly displayed as it is, this kernel of goodness - Dolarhyde's love for his son - is ultimately the catalyst for his redemption. In particular, Percy's capture by the aliens spurs him into leading the posse to track them down, thus forcing him to co-operate not only with a gang of outlaws that robbed him, but with the local Apaches. This is particularly eye-opening for Dolarhyde, as some of his employees are Apaches - and one in particular, Nat, seems to have great respect for Dolarhyde, and at one point brings up a tale of his deeds during the Civil War. Unfortunately, Dolarhyde does not appreciate this, gruffly telling him that the stories "weren't for you, they were for my son."

It is a big sign of Dolarhyde's development, then, that later on, as Nat lays dying, Dolarhyde tells him that "I always dreamed of having a son like you." Conveniently, when Percy is rescued from the aliens he's displaying the same amnesia that Jake had, which means that Dolarhyde has been given something of a second chance with him. It is, I suspect, not accidental that the name of their town is "Absolution".

In contrast to these weighty matters, a lot of the film, including the parts with the actual aliens, is actually quite light. In part, this comes from attempts to draw comparisons between the aliens and the cowboys - the worst example is probably the Space Lassos with which the townsfolk are abducted. Thankfully, almost nothing else is quite this campy**, and it's actually somewhat refreshing to have the alien's motivation be something as mundane as gold (of course, they may need it for industrial purposes and not, as Dolarhyde hilariously assumes, as currency).

The film did have a couple other mis-steps, such as the aliens' seemingly variable vulnerability to gunfire and/or bladed weapons. Another thing that bugged me was the upside-down ship in the middle of the desert - not that it wasn't a cool visual, but were we supposed to assume that the aliens somehow caused it? Because that would be completely at odds with what we later find out about the scale and capabilities of the alien's operations.

But these are minor vexations with what turned out to be a perfectly enjoyable film. I'm still not sure what exactly was lacking about it - it had, as I mentioned, deep character development, but there was quite a lot of decent and (so far as I could tell) period- and genre- appropriate action. And all this, without devolving into preachy comparisons of the invading aliens with the settlers. Perhaps it was, after all, just my expectations that were off - the film, for the most part, worked really well. If nothing else, they certainly nailed the Western "look" - when the west wasn't getting blown up, that is:

That image says everything else that needs to be said, really.

*I note with interest that, as an amnesiac, Daniel Craig's character begins the film quite literally as the man with no name. And when it is revealed, his last name is Lonergan. Ha!

**And it could have been much, much worse. Several years ago, the graphic novel this film was . . . let's say inspired by, was available to read online for free. Horses that flew because their shoes were made of alien metal were involved.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

30 Day Book Challenge - Day 7

Post 7 - Most Underrated Book

(Why yes, I did change the in-post header from "day" to "post".)

In the interests of making timely (ha!) and relevant posts, I'm going to interpret this category, and the next, as being books that I, prior to reading, either under-rated or over-rated, respectively.

When I first encountered Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, it was by stumbling across the film version of the book - a 1986 production starring Sean Connery, who, it must be admitted, was the reason I gave the film a second glance (Hey, look, Sean Connery in a monk habit!). I was preoccupied with something else at the time, and so didn't give the film my full attention, but I was intrigued enough to look up more information about it, and the book it was based on.

As I did so, the impression I got was that this would be a very difficult book to read, one that buried the story under oblique historical allusions. Thankfully, nothing could be farther from the truth - the book was very readable, despite being steeped in the culture of a 14th century monastery.

Being a 14th century monastery, there is a great deal of emphasis placed on literature and learning. In fact, one could say that this is the main theme of the book, or one of them at any rate (it's certainly the theme that was most relevant for me).

In the story, one of the biggest mysteries (besides "who's killing off all these monks?") is that of the monastery's library, which is forbidden to all but the librarians who bring the monks their requested texts. As the characters investigate, they find out that this library, and the knowledge it holds, is the key to the entire mystery, and there is plenty of discussion - even with the final villain - about literature, and especially whether preservation should be combined with distribution. To say more would be to give away too much of the ending, but as a nascent librarian I took especial interest in the issues being discussed as well as the skillful portrayal of an . . . outdated viewpoint.

There are also some clever literary references written into the book - for example, one of the monks, long gone blind and closely associated with the monastery's literally labyrinthine library, is named Jorge of Burgos, a clear allusion to the writer Jorge Luis Borges, who was also blind a wrote a famous short story about a similar, though much expanded, library.

The most obvious literary reference, of course, comes from Brother William of Baskerville. While his pupil Adso of Malk is the narrator, Brother William is definitely the hero of the book. As can be inferred from his name, he is intended to be a reference the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes. The similarities continue with his appearance - taller and thinner than average, "his eyes . . . sharp and penetrating; his thin and slightly beaky nose" - all of these bring Holmes to mind*. Even in their vices, the two characters resemble each other - one amusing scene has Adso describing William's habit of picking and chewing certain un-named herbs, about which he is uncharacteristically reticent. The comparison between Holmes and Brother William is furthered even more by his use of amazingly developed deductive powers, especially one particular scene where he describes and names a missing horse, which he was never seen.

Actually, this last is an excellent example of how skillful Eco is at writing from a 14th-century viewpoint. After sending the befuddled monastery workers on their way, William explains that the detailed description of the missing horse was deduced not only from physical signs (footprints in the snow, tail-hairs left in the brush, etc.), but also from writings about horses: he quotes one authority's description of the "ideal horse", asserting that because the abbey thinks it's a good horse that they see it as conforming to that description; and notes that one famous logician uses a particular horse-name in his arguments, and therefore assumes that is the most likely name for any given real horse.

This use of scholarly writing as an unimpeachable authority serves several purposes - it illustrates the five-to-seven century difference in world-views, sets up part of the motivation of the final villain, and supports the general theme of the influence of books, both on human actions and on each other. That all of these threads were woven together, and in such a way as to make even 14th-century theological arguments at least mildly interesting**, was unexpected and contributed to my initial under-rate of the book. I am quite glad, however, that I went ahead and read it anyway.

*The blond hair and plot-significant, slightly anachronistic eyeglasses, however . . . don't.

** Although I freely admit that fictionalized arguments about outdated  doctrinal points might not be everyone's cup of tea, so to speak.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Avengers Assembled

The past couple of weeks have been good ones for period genre movies. Not only was the extra- terrestrial- invasion- Western Cowboys & Aliens released last weekend (look for that post some- time next week), but it's also been the debut week for the superhero- World War II film Captain America: The First Avenger.

Which was, in my estimation, an excellent movie. In the inevitable competition between Cap and Thor, I believe I prefer the former - though this is largely on account of a general preference for pulpy to cosmic action.

Luckily, Captain America has some fairly substantial pulp roots, being directed by Joe Johnson, who also directed The Rocketeer and won an Oscar for effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark - the latter, in fact, gets a shout-out from the Red Skull, who criticizes Adolph Hitler's search for "trinkets in the desert" while he has harnessed the power of Asgard.

Yeah, Asgard. One of the numerous things the film did well was tying in the previous films, in a much more overt manner than the blink-and-miss references of previous films. As mentioned, the power source for Red Skull's weird war machines is an artifact from Thor's Asgard - the 'chapel' scene where he first acquires it makes this patently obvious - and his last scene strongly implies that he got swept up into the Bifrost. On the allied side, one of the SSR's scientists is none other than Howard Stark, future father of Tony, and apparently the inventor of a mid-20th-century hovercar.

Indeed, I was greatly impressed with the film's the pulpy super-tech, and the general look of the film - it's probably the first time I have walked out of the theater and thought "Hmm, I wonder if there's an Art of book available yet?" (There is.)

But it takes more than good art direction to make a decent film. Fortunately, Captain America pays as much attention to story and character as it does to spectacle. The focus, of course, is on Steve Rogers - I thought the film did an excellent job of showing how, even pre-serum, he displayed the qualities of bravery (his beating in the alley), intelligence (the flagpole incident), and selflessness (the grenade episode), and how the serum merely allowed him to give full expression to his already noble character, less the relatively short time he spends in the USO (which, though objectively it may have actually been an important contribution to the war effort, was certainly portrayed as Cap not living up to his potential).

Previously, I had mentioned that I thought the preview of the Tesseract at the end of Thor was an odd choice, telegraphing as it did the ending of this film. As it happens, this turned out not to be a big deal, as we see - or at least infer - what happens to Cap at the end of the war, at the beginning of the film. Knowing what's coming, the fate of the Cube isn't nearly as important (and we do see its final acquisition by the proto-S.H.I.E.L.D, in a nice scene that builds both Cap's and Howard Stark's characters, without Cap even being present).

The film proper ends with Cap's introduction to the modern world, in a scene which cunningly mirrors the first few moments after he took the serum. Showing up to explain things is Nick Fury (of course), leading into next spring's Avengers film - which, now that all the principals have been shown, was previewed in a teaser trailer after the credits. Is it May 2012 yet?

Anyway, despite that buildup I think that Captain America works equally well as a stand-alone movie. It's not without its flaws - I was particular bothered by a few scenes in the "battles montage" that screamed "obviously supposed to be in 3-D!!" - but the good parts of the movie more than make up for it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

30 Day Book Challenge - Day 6

Day 6 - A Book That Makes You Sad

This one turned out to be a hard entry for me to write, and it ended up a slightly inaccurate one.

Slightly inaccurate in that it's only the end of the book in question that is at all melancholy. That book, I suppose I should say, is The House At Pooh Corner, the second of the two A. A. Milne books that introduced the world to Winnie-the-Pooh, Christopher Robin, and the other denizens of the Hundred-Acre Wood.

Now, I've been a fan of the Bear of Very Little Brain pretty much since infancy; therefore, I was quite thrilled when my family acquired a nice hardbound copy of The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh many years ago. I read it many times in middle school and after, and not always to my intellectual betterment (I distinctly recall one instance in which I received a less-than-stellar grade on a spelling test, partially for submitting the word hunnysuckle).

Negative influences on my spelling skills aside, I like this book for quite a bit. While most of the book is quite funny (and occasionally in ways at odds with the way Disney handles the characters - Eeyore in particular makes quite a few cutting remarks at opportune moments). The last couple of chapters, however, have always made me a bit melancholy.

For the penultimate chapter, this was largely because of the callous way Owl and Eeyore force Piglet out of his home. The fact that they don't seem to have realized it almost makes it worse - even as a little kid I found that whole sequence very unfair.

But it's really the last chapter that makes The House At Pooh Corner worth mentioning in this category. It's really quite odd, since the last sentence would seem to be a hopeful one:

"But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them along the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing." 

Despite this, the parts of the chapter immediately prior to this are all about how Christopher Robin's education is strange and confusing to Pooh, hearkening back to earlier chapters in which his schooling causes him to disappear completely from the Wood.

So on the one hand, you have the naturally bittersweet theme of growth, of leaving one stage and entering another. On the other, you have a deliberate subversion of this theme, with a hint that this subversion is not quite natural (note the reference to an enchanted place). I find the resulting clash somewhat distressing, and usually left me feeling sad when I finished the book.

Not that that ever stopped me from re-reading it, though.

Friday, July 01, 2011

30 Day Book Challenge - Day 5

So, yeah, at this point it's pretty obvious I'm not going to be doing all 30 of these in June. Sorry about that.

Day 5 – A Book That Makes You Happy

Observant and regular readers will have probably noticed by this point that one of the things I look for in my fiction is coherent (or at least interesting) world-building. The acknowledged grandmaster of this, of course, is J.R.R. Tolkien; he even coined some of the terminology associated with this, such as "Secondary World" and "sub-creation".

Some authors and other scholars take this one step farther - treating their favorite stories as the lightly-fictionalized records of real events, analyzing broad swathes of literature to uncover the "true" events behind them, and connecting them. This game has been played with popular literature for quite some time, and has interested me ever since I first heard of it. Indeed, I've even dabbled in The Game myself, and was actually intending to make this post about Crossovers.

Then, I finally manged to get ahold of a copy of Myths for the Modern Age, a collection of essays exploring this kind of "Tertiary World"-building, edited by the same Win Scott Eckert as is behind Crossovers. As a compilation, naturally there are some pieces that are more interesting than others - for example, one of the early pieces, "Wold-Newtonry: Theory and Methodology for the Literary Archeology of the Wold Newton Universe"is a particular favorite of mine; not least because of the delightful phrase, "literary archeology".

But that's not the article that convinced me to use the book for this post - that honor falls to Eckert's own "Who's Going to Take Over the World When I'm Gone?", a genealogical* study of the Moriarty family. Imagine my delight and surprise when, seemingly out of the blue, the article mentions how one of the Professor's grandchildren is none other than Howling Mad Murdock of The A-Team (the television version, obviously). Since Murdock is pretty much my favorite A-Team member, and The A-Team itself one of my favorite television shows, I was quite pleased at this.

Amongst other amusing tidbits from that section was the idea that Murdock's first name is "Hamish" - in the show, Murdock is never given a first name, only an initial. And why is this so amusing? Because the name "Hamish" is a variant form of "James", which according to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the first name of both Professor Moriarty and at least one of his brothers (the cavalier attitude some famous authors take towards continuity is part of what makes this kind of fandom so entertaining).

As if Murdock wasn't enough, both Eckert's article and a later one by Brad Mengel ("Watching the Detectives, Or, The Sherlock Holmes Family Tree") both theorize that Hannibal Smith was the son of Fu Manchu's great nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith. Furthermore, it seems that Hannibal's grandfather was Fu Manchu himself (through his mother Fah lo Suee) - this Asian ancestry no doubt explains how Hannibal kept getting away with his "Mr. Lee the Chinese Laundry Man" persona.

This is a much better disguise in real life.

While the inclusion of half the A-Team is what qualified Myths for the Modern Age as a Book That Makes Me Happy, there's plenty of other good material to be found within. Admittedly, much of it is available on Eckert's Wold Newton Universe website, though I understand the published versions are more up-to-date. Indeed, a quick poke around the site shows that it includes only Hannibal's inclusion, not Murdock's. This is no criticism, merely an acknowledgement that the two sources are different - and it will surely inspire me to acquire my own copy of Myths, from a source other than the library.

*Genealogical studies linking various fictional characters being one of the major features of Wold Newton Universe scholarship.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Remembrance For "Raiders"

Taking a quick break from the Book Challenge, I'd like to mention a particularly auspicious movie anniversary.

Thirty years ago today saw the theatrical release of Raiders of the Lost Ark, by most metrics one of the best films ever made. It's certainly one that had a measurable impact on me, even though I didn't actually see it until I was in my teens.

Once I did, however, it quickly became one of my favorite films*. A large part of this, I think is my appreciation for Indiana Jones as a character - he's a much more intellectual character than many similar heroes, and as many encounters with characters played by Pat Roach shows, isn't always (or even often) able to win a fight simply by overpowering his opponent.

Raiders is also a fairly tightly-plotted movie, moving along from scene to scene with just enough explanation to be understandable, without losing momentum.

And boy is there a lot of momentum.

Despite a few mis-steps (in particular, Brody's recounting of the Ark's appearances in the Bible has always seemed a bit exaggerated to me), it's easy to see why this movie is so highly regarded - and I'm sure that thirty more years won't change that at all.

*Although, to be truthful, I slightly prefer Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But only slightly.

Friday, June 10, 2011

30 Day Book Challenge - Days 3 & 4

Hmph - two posts in and already there's schedule slippage. Nothing to do but carry on, I suppose.

Day 3 – Your Favorite Series

Not surprisingly, there are quite a few different sets of books that could qualify for today's first category. The Chronicles of Narnia would be an obvious answer, if I weren't saving them for an upcoming day; as would the Dirk Pitt novels by Clive Cussler, and Terry Pratchet's Discworld series, both also favorites of mine. I ended up basing my decision on a number of factors - what series (I asked myself) am I most likely to recommend for someone looking for something new to read? What series do I buy new installments to immediately upon release? Most relevantly, what series jumped immediately to mind when I read the question? When I thought about it that way, one answer came readily to mind - The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher.

Another reason to like the series is the great, if not always accurate, cover art by Chris McGrath.

Although it took a few installments to really settle in, the books telling the story of modern-day wizard Harry Dresden have been consistently high-quality in storytelling and world- and character building. Although we only learn about it in bits and pieces, there definitely seems to be a consistent backstory to the Files, and lots of things going on the background that Harry (our first-person narrator) doesn't seem to be aware of. It takes a skillful writer to pull this off properly, and so far I for one haven't been disappointed.

As the series has progressed, the characterization has also only improved, not that it was ever bad to begin with. This not only applies to the main characters, Harry and Karrin Murphy and the rest of the cast that appears in pretty much every book, but to just about everyone that appears - even characters who start out as one-note obstacles to Harry (I'm thinking of Morgan specifically here, who starts out in a fairly stereotypical unreasonable-lawman mode, but by the later books is considerably more sympathetic. And then - but I won't go into that). The books also deserve special mention for Michael Carpenter, easily one of the best Christian characters to be found in a secular novel of recent years.

Most importantly, The Dresden Files is fun to read, figuring out the whodunnit-and-why plots along with Harry, piecing together the backstory as Jim lets it out, and making guesses and deductions about where the series will ultimitely end up.

Day 4 – Favorite Book Of Your Favorite Series

Sunday, June 05, 2011

30 Day Book Challenge - Days 1 And 2

Recently I've been reading a blog called the Egotist's Club, which is just finishing up a month-long book-themed blogging challenge - it looks like it could be a fun idea, so I think I'm going to give it a try. There are 30 different topics to cover - conveniently, one for each day in June:

Day 1 – The best book you read last year
Day 2 – A book that you’ve read more than 3 times
Day 3 – Your favorite series
Day 4 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 5 – A book that makes you happy
Day 6 – A book that makes you sad
Day 7 – Most underrated book
Day 8 – Most overrated book
Day 9 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people would’ve read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

Of course, we're already a few days into the month, so I'll have to double up on the first few. In addition, I'm going to set a couple of other boundaries - no using the same book for two different days (although no promises about using different books by the same author, or from the same series), for example. Also, I might tweak the topics a bit as I write them up - but only a little.

So, having said that, let's get started, shall we?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Stranger, Yet Familiar

Way, way back during the previous incarnation of this blog, I posted a bit about the then-current Pirates of the Caribbean film, Dead Man's Chest. Going back and re-reading my excited ramblings is a bit humbling now - possibly my views on that film have since been a bit soured by the failures of At World's End, but in retrospect I seem a bit . . . uncritical (also less skilled with formatting).

Still, having seen the latest installment in the franchise - Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - I can safely say that it was at least as good as DMC, and probably a bit better.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Hwæt - Hammer Time!

What was I just saying about the 2011 blockbuster season?

So, two weekends past saw the release of Thor, the latest Marvel superhero film. Despite knowing basically nothing about comic-book Thor, I am at least superficially familiar with Norse mythology, so I hoped I wouldn't be completely lost. Before I get into the more specific yet hopefully spoiler-light commentary on the film itself, however, I do need to note that this was the first feature film I have seen utilizing the latest generation of 3D technology.

I wasn't impressed.

Now, it may be that the theater itself was at fault, but I thought that for a supposedly cutting-edge visual technology, the film was awfully blurry, especially during the early fight scenes. I've heard that other places have had a similar problem, so whether it was a flaw in the filming process, some or all of the prints, or the projection I'm not sure. I do think think that if it worked properly it would have been fairly impressive - but it didn't.

The movie itself, however, I thought was really good. I personally didn't like it quite as much as either Iron Man film - but then, I generally prefer Batman to Superman, too.

As I mentioned, my prior knowledge of Marvel's take on Norse mythology quite scanty (I think limited to the fact that Thor's secret identity was a scrawny doctor named Donald Blake, a reference I did catch when it popped up in the film), but the film was still perfectly easy to follow. I was especially pleased at a few mythological tidbits that made it in, such as a brief appearance by Sleipnir (I hear Hugin and Munin made it in, too, but I didn't catch them), as well as a certain plot-relevant revelation about Loki that I had completely forgotten about.

The conceit that the Norse pantheon is based on interactions with advanced humanoid aliens, while hardly original, was well-presented - especially the notion of Yggdrasil as a kind of wormhole network, which was quite impressively pictured during the ending credits. Some of its briefly-mentioned yet unseen planet-branches make for intriguing sequel possibilities - this long-standing Tolkien fan would really, really like to see Thor visit Alfheim, for example.

Plot-wise, the film didn't make any major mis-steps, although I do think that Thor's character growth should have taken somewhat longer, in-story, than it did. The ending I think played a bit with audience expectations - we know Thor is going to be in The Avengers, so his situation in this film's closing was somewhat surprising. It will be interesting to see how this gets resolved without either overtaking the entire film or trivializing the end of Thor.

The post-credits stinger was also interesting, though I suspect it would have worked a lot better if Thor had been released after Captain America. While I suppose part of the point of the stingers has so far been to lead into the next film; given that Cap's movie is going to be largely a period piece, it still seemed kind of a weird thing to preview.

Speaking of stingers, I was quite impressed with the way the one from Iron Man II was integrated into the plot of Thor, even as they reinterpreted it - the activity buzzing around the crater that we (or at least I) assumed to be SHIELD agents turned out to be a bunch on New Mexican rednecks having a party. And for the record, Stan Lee's cameo as one of said rednecks may be one of his funniest yet.

Of the, hmm, controversial casting of Idris Elba, I'll say no more than that I found his performance entirely appropriate to his character, and that Al Harron of The Blog That Time Forgot has two excellent pieces on the whole affair. Oh, and his sword was created by the previously blogged sword-smiths at Mad Dwarf Workshop - great job there, guys!

One last thing to mention, and that's Loki's character development. In many ways, Loki's story acts as a parallel to his brother's - while Thor starts out with little sense and a huge ego that gets somewhat chopped down to size over the course of the movie -

With apologies to Marvel and M. C. Hammer.

 - Loki becomes less sensible and more ego-driven as events spiral out of his tenuous control. Even so, right up through the end he remains a sympathetic antagonist - even now, it's not so hard to imagine that he and Thor could end up reconciled. I expect they won't, not permanently, but if Thor really takes off as a franchise it would be an unexpected and inspiring direction to take it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Noteworthy Event

As of today, I've been writing Words of Wonderment for a full year. Considering that the previous incarnation of this blog lasted for only a couple of  two-month spurts, that's pretty good, though I admit there were a couple months that I didn't post anything, and the overall average is only about one post every two weeks. Fortunately, I've got plenty of stuff yet to write about, especially with summer blockbuster season upon us once again. So, then, to everybody who's stopped and read something here over the past year, and especially everybody who has left a comment - thanks!

Friday, April 01, 2011

C. S. Lewis' Belgian Teenage Crush

It sounds like an April Fool's Day gag*, but it's not. At least, it's not mine.

Perhaps I should start at the beginning. I've been reading the first volume of C.S.Lewis' collected letters recently, which cover the still-extant letters from 1905 to 1931. I've just gotten through 1915, when Jack was seventeen years old and studying with Professor Kirkpatrick.

In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves dated 2 February, he mentions a somewhat mysterious "She", an "awfully decent sort" that he is clearly quite taken with. A helpful footnote explains - from what source is not mentioned - that about that time a family of Belgian refugees had moved into the area where Jack was staying, and that the young Lewis "became infatuated" with one of the family's daughters.

This never-named young lady is mentioned a few more times in subsequent correspondence between Jack and Arthur, once on 16 February (where Lewis remarks that Greeves "perhaps [is] tired of my 'affaires'"), and again on 30 March to note that the two were exchanging letters.

The mysterious Belgian girl is mentioned one final time in letters between the two, on the first of October 1931. In it, the two are discussing their previous correspondence on Lewis mentions "suppressing . . . all letters that refer to my pretended assignation** with the Belgian".

So, then, it's "April Fools!" on us and Arthur Greeves, kind of. But how much is "pretended"? The footnote to the first letter suggests that the family of refugees at least existed, and Jack didn't make it up out of whole cloth. Personally, I think - or would like to think, at least - that he did make friends with the girl, and that his claims of "pretended assignation" refer to Jack exaggerating the romantic aspects of the relationship to his friend, completely unsurprising behavior from young men in any era.

*Which is, of course, why I'm posting this little tidbit today.

** "Assignation", in this context, apparently meaning the same thing as "Tryst". Or maybe, "Date"?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hunting Up A Good Read

One of the biggest problems with being someone who loves to read is not, as one might expect, finding new things to read. No, these days the Internet will give you the full information on any book you might hear about, and probably recommend a hundred more for you that are vaguely related. The problem is time - at least for me, who at any given moment is probably working on several books at once, and has "to read" list rivaling an academic bibliography. So, it takes something fairly unusual to make me jump "out of order" in my reading list.

Handily, Something Fairly Unusual happened just the other week - two separate and very different online communities pointed me at Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia. It had already been slightly on my radar, but the revelation that there are a bunch of preview chapters available increased my interest significantly.

And boy, was I not disappointed. The main character of the book is a young accountant named Owen Pitt, who is recruited into the titular organization after his boss becomes a werewolf and attempts to eat him. Luckily, Pitt is a firearms enthusiast and all-around protagonist type and is able to not only escape with his life, but actually kill the monstrous manager (I suppose a fourteen story fall followed by a heavy desk landing on your head will kill just about anything not already dead). The rest of the book is his recruitment by and first job with MHI, the world's most renowned monster-hunting business.

"MHI" stands for "Monster Hunter International", the company as well as the book title. But you figured that out yourself.

It sounds like a common, almost clichéd setup, but the author does several interesting things with it. The most obvious is the guns - in many of these kinds of stories modern weaponry is either ineffective against the supernatural creatures, or just not mentioned as a potential resource. For MHI, however, "shoot it until it stops moving" is generally Plan A, and surprisingly enough it's usually effective enough to disable most monsters until they can be permanently disposed of.

Another interesting twist is that MHI is a private, for-profit business* rather than a government agency or a religious/academic association. While I'm sure this is not a unique idea, it is different enough to be noteworthy.

I was also intrigued by the world-building in the book. Correia took an unusual step, in my mind, of taking the standard horror-fantasy monsters - werewolves, vampires, zombies, and such - and adding not only the by-now-also-standard stable of H. P. Lovecraft-inspired creatures (an aside in the book reveals that Lovecraft got some of his inspiration from hanging around with Hunters), but also a trailer-park full of elves and a tribe of heavy-metal loving orcs living deep in the woods of Alabama (Tolkien apparently knew some Hunters, too). The latter of these even fight alongside our protagonists, showing up at the climax with horse-trailers full of giant riding wolves. Does Scott Oden know about this?

Anyway, although it definitely take more than good ideas to make a good writer, Correia is no slouch in the wordsmith department, either. Monster Hunter International is a fast-paced read, and one that mixes suspense and action with a decent dose of humor, especially of the sarcastic first-person-narration kind. Owen Pitt and Harry Dresden would probably either get along fantastically, or hate each other. Possibly both.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that the book has no flaws at all - I did notice a few issues, mostly about characterization (certain portions of Pitt's biography read suspiciously close to the author's). However, despite this I enjoyed reading it very much, and would not hesitate to recommend it to others. I'll definitely be getting the sequels (numbering two at present), too. As if I hadn't spent the first paragraph of this post complaining about how I have no time to read the books I already have . . .

*Albeit one that derives much of its income from Federally-funded monster bounties. This is one of the reasons I hesitate to label this book the first Libertarian Urban Fantasy to come to my attention (the second being that my bestowing such a label would be pretentious and silly).

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

He's Alive . . . He's Alive!

Wow, where did the last couple of months go? I plan to get back to semiregular blogging soon, but in the meanwhile I had to share this little gem I came across doing a school assignment:

Harvard College Library Ask-a-Librarian: Does Harvard have a copy of the Necronomicon?

What's really hard to tell is whether the questioner was being facetious or actually thought the Necronomicon is a real book, and which of those whoever wrote the response thought was the case. Personally I think both of their tongues were firmly in their cheeks, but it would be easy to read either or both of them as being perfectly serious about the whole thing.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Science Fiction & Fantasy Month - Finale

That's "Finale", not "Finally".

Speaking of Jules Verne . . .

The Hunt For The Meteor

Apparently known originally as The Chase of the Golden Meteor, this is not one of Verne's more well known stories. And I must say, I can understand why.

Possibly this is not entirely Verne's fault - according to Wikipedia, the version I read is a 'condensed' version, and the most egregiously awful part of the book (what kind of name for anyone, much less a French mad scientist, is "Zephyrin Xirdal", anyway?) seems to have been an invention of his son Michel Verne, who edited Meteor extensively after Jules Verne's death.

Still, even the best authors don't write a huge hit every time, and with this story there's not a lot to work from. It's basically about two rival astronomers, who simultaneously discover a new meteor. Their rivalry, always prickly, becomes much more serious when the meteor is discovered to be made of gold (!), and downright hostile when the aforementioned Zephyrin Xirdal invents a device that can reach into space and disturb the meteor's orbit . . .

While the slightly off-putting switch in focus from the astronomers to Xirdal can be blamed on the younger Verne's meddling, that's not the only odd thing about the book. There's also the opening and closing, which involves the marriage of a young adventurer couple (and yes, they get married in both the opening and the close of the story). Their presence seems completely superfluous - besides the fact that they randomly chose the feuding astronomers' town to get married in, they are completely separate from the rest of the story and could just as easily have been left out. Well, almost - they do show up at the meteor's landing site, and even almost interact with the main cast for a line or two, but I still don't understand their purpose in the narrative. Perhaps if Verne had lived to finish the novel they would have been better integrated.

But even that wouldn't have saved the book from feeling overly satiric and preachy. Now, it's not that I can't handle satire in my speculative fiction - I'm a big fan of Terry Pratchet's Discworld books, after all - but here, it just seemed forced. Maybe it's due to the novel's unfinished status, maybe Verne just wasn't a good satirist, I'm not sure.

I suppose perhaps the main thing to be learned from this book is that not every author's works-in-progress should be published posthumously. They can't all be Tolkien, after all.

The House of Many Worlds

My apologies to everyone who was really excited about seeing I, Robot in this space, but I found something even more interesting to read, at least to my mind.

The House of Many Worlds and its sequel, The Three Faces of Time, were written in the 1950s by Sam Merwin, Jr. They are, broadly speaking, alternate-history novels of the "Multiversal" variety. In The House of Many Worlds, the viewpoint character, poet journalist Elspeth Marriner, along with her fellow journalist Mack Fraser, are recruited by a mysterious Frenchman into a nameless organization that has the capacity to travel between parallel universes. They use this capability mostly for observation, although they also arrange for mutually beneficial technology transfers between different worlds. It is for one of the latter sorts of missions that our two heroes are recruited, visiting "Columbia" - a United States more autocratic than ours currently undergoing a new revolution - and arranging for them to learn internal combustion and shielding for their disintegration-beam weapons (this was the 50s, remember) from another US that's almost, but not quite, our own, in exchange for some space-flight tech.

The second book introduces the idea that various galactic processes may advance or delay a given Earth's historical starting point, thus allowing Elspeth and Mack to help defend a world in it's First Century A.D*. from one far in the future that is running low on resources. There was one part of this I would have done differently - despite that Earth's history apparently starting later, the Mt. Vesuvius eruption still takes place on schedule (and is in fact part of the climax). Wouldn't it be interesting, though, if history was the same as it really was - except that it started at a different time? Imagine if Vesuvius had gone off, say, in the middle of World War II, or if Mt. St. Helens had erupted in 1880 instead of 1980?

Nevertheless, although written more than half a century ago, this is still a pretty unique idea. I am aware of a few other takes on the subject, but Merwin's two books are among the earliest, and overall quite well done, too.

There's one other thing about these stories that deserves mention, and that's the treatment of race. In the first book, our heroine develops an attraction to the Columbian Field Marshall (which is to say, the Columbian Army's chief of staff) John Henry, an enormously important figure - who happens to be black. In a remarkably progressive scene for the fifties, another character cautions Elspeth - not because she was any problems with an inter-racial romance, but because "there are a number of worlds were color doesn't matter, but this is not one of them." A particularly refreshing attitude, especially in a genre that is often accused of racial insensitivity.

* A few variations are mentioned between the world of "Antique" and our historical First Century, most notably that contact and trade with ancient China is slightly greater. Of course, contact between Rome and China has since been discovered to be greater than previously thought . . .