Monday, June 19, 2017

Book Review: Dingo

Charles de Lint's 2008 novella Dingo focuses on two young men who both fall for the same girl, and what they do to try and win her affections.  Of course, being a de Lint story, there ends up being more than a little magic, danger and even a visit to a world separate, but not that different, from our own.

The novel focuses on Miguel, a seventeen-year-old high school student who falls immediately head over heels for the new girl in town, Lainey, an Australian girl with a strange dog.  Things get more confusing when the usually friendly Lainey starts acting like she's never met Miguel and then Johnny, a local bully, seems to take an interest in her as well.

The novel uses Australian folklore and merges it quite nicely with the world de Lint has created in his city of Newford.  None of his regular characters make an appearance in this novella, but as per usual, much of the story focuses on how normal folk deal with a undeniable confrontation with the world of magic.

A fascinating, if short, read.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Book Review: The Boy on the Bridge

M. R. Carey's 2017 follow-up to The Girl with all the Gifts, The Boy on the Bridge works as a prequel, and once again focuses on a small group of soldiers and scientists attempting to exist after an end of the world event.

The novel takes place on a mobile science station (think tank mixed with RV) that plays an important role in the original book.  Just as with the first novel, we are given one character to view this strange new world from, but this time, there are two protagonists, a scientist and a young man named Steven Greaves, who is a quiet, perhaps autistic young man who may be the human race's last, best chance for survival.

The novel works to create an incredibly tense, paranoid situation and plays with issues of consequences and living in a perpetual state of fear.

Well worth the read.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Book Review: The Isle of Stone

Nicolas Nicastro's 2005 novel The Isle of Stone takes a look at Spartan Society nearly sixty years after the battle of Thermopylae, specifically during the battle of Sphacteria (325 BCE).  The novel focuses on two Spartan warriors, Antalcidas and Epitadas, brothers who were raised in two very different, but traditional Spartan styes.

Much like John Gardiner's The Wreckage of Agathon, The Isle of Stone looks at the Spartan Empire with a jaundiced eye.  The empire is portrayed as brutal, and neither brother is drawn in a particularly heroic way.  What I really liked about the novel was the character of the warrior's mother and her rationalization for why she helps one brother and hurts the other.  The ethics of the Spartans, as described by Nicastro, definitely leave a lot to be desired.

The majority of the action of the story takes place with an army of Spartans under siege on a barren island surrounded by the Athenian navy.  The story moves quickly and although I didn't like it as much as Nicastro's other work on the list (Antigone's Wake - which I LOVED!), it does work to give an unflinching look at a culture often celebrated in our modern day.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Book Review: Stranger in a Strange Land

Reading Robert A. Heinlein's 1961 science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land was a curious experience for me; on one hand, the concepts - an examination of humanities strong focus on religion and monogamy from the point of view of an outsider were quite interesting - while on the other hand, Heinlein's views on women were dated to the point of extreme distraction.

The book follows Valentine Michael Smith, the human son of Earth colonists on Mars who was in turn raised by Martians and his visit to Earth as ambassador from Mars. Much of the focus of the book begins with ideas of misinterpretation and communication; at first human authorities hide Smith away and attempt to get him to sign away the rights he has to his own vast fortune as well as potentially the entire planet of Mars. From Smith's point of view this is all irrelevant as the Martians have sent him for an entirely different purpose.

Smith quickly makes friends with a nurse named Gillian and her journalist boyfriend Ben Caxton. A daring escape follows and the majority of the novel focuses on Smith's relationship with Jubal Harshaw, a writer/doctor/lawyer who offers the Martian asylum. Harshaw has three secretaries (a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead) who work in tandem to satisfy his professional needs - the blatant sexism here (perhaps seen as charming when the book was published in the early '60s) definitely pulled me out of the narrative repeatedly, reminding me that when reading any fiction it's important to keep in mind the context in which the story was written.

The book itself was a touchstone for American counter-culture in the sixties and introduced the concept of "Grok" meaning a sort of total understanding of another, and even introduced the waterbed in concept.

A compelling read, but historical context is key to making it through.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Movie Review: Alien Covenant

Here's the thing with prequels: I'm actually pretty hard pressed to think of any that I loved more than the original - in fact, it may be fair to say:

You should see any movie that later had a prequel made, as for the prequel, it's kind of up to you.

Now, as my wife quickly pointed out to me, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly are both technically prequels, as they occur before the earlier film that introduced the main character - so maybe take my earlier statement as a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule.

Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant is both a sequel to the 2012 film Prometheus and a prequel to the Alien Franchise. The film follows the crew of the Covenant, a ship bringing two thousand cryosleeping colonists to a new world who, after a solar flare accident, find a signal coming from a nearby world and decide to investigate it. As with more and more genre films these days, the production company released a number of crew videos and even a short bridging film connecting Alien: Covenant directly to Prometheus ahead of the films release. At this point I haven't seen any of those, preferring to watch and review the film on its own merits.

The action is pretty great, the creatures are terrifying and the crew does a nice job of portraying space truckers. I left the film quite impressed with how it was all put together, but a week later, and I'm feeling a little confused as to my current state. On the one hand, as a fan of the original film, I'm happy to revisit a world I've enjoyed a number of times, on the other hand, much of this film felt either like a retread or giving too much backstory to a creature that should remain mysterious. I will say that I was interested enough to see if there was a novelization (there is) and to add it to my used-bookstore wish list.

After all, an examination of the Alien franchise could be an October theme month some year.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Book Review: Planet of the Apes

For me, the 1968 film Planet of the Apes exists almost as long as my childhood memories of science fiction, along with shows like Mork & Mindy, Star Wars, and Star Trek the story of an astronaut trapped on a planet inhabited by intelligent apes seemed to always exist in my understanding of space-based stories.

Over the years I've seen the original film, the sequels, the remakes and the toys, so when a friend suggested we read the original French novel by Pierre Boulle, I was definitely intrigued. The novel follows a journalist named Ulysse Mérou, who in 2050 joins a spaceships crew to explore planets in the Betelgeuse star system. Here they find a planet inhabited by intelligent great apes, where humans exists, but as a wild animal rather than a dominant species.

There are a couple big changes from the film including the fact that the apes speak their own language, and the protagonist ends up spending much of his time learning it. I can definitely see why the film went with having them speak English, but this made for a much more interesting story. The story ends differently than the film and does have significantly more focus on the loneliness and isolation felt by Ulysse.

A really intriguing read and one I'm glad I got the chance to experience.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Charles de Lint's Little (Grrl) Lost (2007) is a YA novel focusing on a friendship between two teen girls, T.J. and Elizabeth, the first having recently moved from the farm to the suburbs and the second having just run away from home. Although T.J. is more straight-laced and Elizabeth is a little more punk, the big difference between the two of them comes down to size; while T.J. is a pretty normal young woman, T.J. is a Little, and therefore stands at about six inches tall.

The Littles were first introduced in the collection Tapping the Dream Tree, and although this novel does take place near Newford, it's connection to de Lint's regular cast of characters is pretty limited. A fun jumping on point for new readers and a great story about friendship and finding your place in the world as well.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Book Review: Gods Behaving Badly

So I've had a copy of Marie Phillips Gods Behaving Badly in my home for about five years now; both my wife and oldest daughter have read the book, and my wife had said she thought I would really enjoy it, so when I found a copy at a used bookstore I snatched it at once.

First things first - my wife was absolutely right, this is a delightful read and one I should have gotten around to long before this.

The novel follows the major gods of the Classical Greek Pantheon (Zeus, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Ares, etc.) in the modern world, where they share a small house in London, England. While trying to keep a relatively low profile, they end up affecting the lives of a number of mortals and the end of the world may occur unless a hero can rise to save them all.

A big part of what I like about the book is the soap opera-esque family dynamic shown between the various gods with plots, friendships, affairs and even wars occurring regularly. Yes, a lot of this type of concept has been covered elsewhere (American Gods, Greenmantle and Fables all touch on similar concepts), but Gods Behaving Badly has a nice sense of humour throughout and a reminder of how much more interesting fallible gods can be to a narrative.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Slow Reads


So although I have a specific reading pattern I tend to follow each month (LINK), there are a number of things I read that fall through the cracks.

1) Month-long Reads: During any given month I'll supplement my seven regular books with a book of non-fiction, usually essays, to read each night. As these books can take a month or longer to read, I don't often update them on my Goodreads list or even mention them on my blog. Current I'm reading Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, and enjoying every bit of it.

2) Year-long Reads: A few years ago I received a horror anthology from one of my younger brothers that had a horror story a day for a year - usually these stories were less than a page long, but they were all a lot of fun. So, when I heard about Ryan Holiday and Stephan Hanselman's The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations of Wisdom, Perseverance and The Art of Living I had to give it a shot, and you know what - it's a pretty great read read! I'm about a third of the way through and find this book, read first thing in the morning gives me some pretty interesting stuff to think about all day.

3) Books my wife suggests: As my lovely wife is just as voracious a reader as I am, she'll often read a book that she know would be exactly my thing (for instance, she was the one who introduced me to the world of Charles de Lint), so every couple months she'll suggest something I have to squeeze in between my other books. Although she does suggest far more titles than I can immediately get to, I do keep a list and get to it when I've got time.

4) Other: And here we fit all the trade collection of comic books I read, as well as magazines, social media, and pamphlets, as well as all sorts of online content ranging from LinkedIn and Facebook posts to Doctoral Theses on Economics.

What can I say? Even for a guy who spends all his time reading it's often tricky to keep track of it all!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Book Review: Promises to Keep

So after finished Widdershins, wherein de Lint has written a very nice finale for two of his favourite characters, what is the appeal of a prequel novel looking at one of them during her college years? Actually quite a lot.

Promises to Keep follows perennial favourite Jilly Coppercorn in an earlier time in her life, shortly after she came to Newford in the first place, and works as both a great little story in its own right, and also a pretty great jumping-on point for new readers who may not want to go all the way back to The Dreaming Place, written nearly two decades earlier, as well as a story that acknowledges that although very interested in the magical aspects of the world, Jilly spends the first part of the series of books with no direct contact, only hearing about this world through the stories of her friends.

The story is short and sweet, focusing on issues of lost friends and things that may have been and left me feeling quite satisfied and looking forward to reading more.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Movie Review: Colossal

Throughout our lives every action we take (or don't take) effects people around us in ways we can't often see until well after the fact. Nacho Vigalondo's 2016 film Colossal takes this concept into the fantasy genre when Gloria, a young woman in crisis finds that for a few minutes each morning her actions directly affect the people of Seoul South Korea when a giant Monster exactly mimics her actions, causing destruction and mayhem wherever it goes.

The film alternates quite nicely between small-town drama and the heightened reality of a monster attack on the other side of the world. Recently dumped by her long time boyfriend, Gloria (Anne Hathaway), has returned to her small hometown and is living in her childhood home while attempting to find something to do with her life. She reconnects with a friend from elementary school and gets a job in a local bar, she begins to put her living space and life together, and then she gets swept up in the news stories surrounding a monster attacking Seoul. Things take a strange turn however when she starts to realize the creature is mimicking her movements each morning when she crosses the same playground on her way home from work.

The story depends strongly on the relationship between Gloria and Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) and how their friendship begins to move in a direction Gloria isn't interested in.

Although darker in tone than I was expecting based on the trailers, Colossal was well worth the watch and a nice change from the comic-book adaptations that tend to fill my spring and summer theatre viewing.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Book Review: Guillermo Del Toro: At Home with Monsters

A companion book to the museum exhibition of the same name Guillermo Del Toro: At Home with Monsters is a fascinating read looking at the collection of horror, science fiction, fantasy and other genres kept by the writer/director in his home.

The book focuses on many of the pieces of artwork (in many mediums) in Del Toro's collection, as well as an essay by the author himself, and three different lists of films, artwork and fiction the author has been influenced by - all of which are robust enough to keep even a massive reader like me enthralled for some time. An excellent addition to his 2013 book Cabinet of Curiosities, which went film by film through his works and related parts of his collection.

A wonderful Christmas present from my friend Ron - this book was quickly scooped up by one of my children for her own reading pleasure, so double bonus!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Book Review: American Elsewhere

Robert Jackson Bennett's American Elsewhere (2013), sits nicely in the same Horror/Science Fiction cross genre as the television series Rick & Morty - a place I (and any number of literature critics) like to call cosmic horror.

Cosmic Horror, largely influenced by the weird fiction (actually a genre classification, not a judgement - mostly) of Howard Phillip Lovecraft, focuses less on gore and terror and more on the fact that our world is merely the plaything of ancient gods and monsters who can not only destroy us with little effort, but probably wouldn't care if they did. Generally when characters in a Cosmic Horror story figure this out, they go incurably insane.

American Elsewhere follows an ex cop named Mona Bright, who discovers at the reading of her stepfather's will that part of his estate includes a house previously owned by Mona's mother, and it exists in a small town called Wink, New Mexico.

Unfortunately for Mona, Wink does not appear on any map, and she has a week to claim the home before it reverts to municipal ownership. Finding her way into the town, Mona finds a curiously perfect city, with any number of strange rules (actually, this is not dissimilar to Welcome to Night Vale - only really not played for laughs) such as no one can go out after dark, certain questions cannot be asked and certain buildings cannot be entered.

Also there some sort of demon in a rabbit mask no one is supposed to talk about.

Although topping six-hundred pages, the novel moves along a quite a nice clip and definitely kept me interested. Definitely worth a look!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Book Review: Tides of War

My third novel by Steven Pressfield on this tour of Ancient Greece through Historical Fiction, Tides of War takes place well after the events of The Last Amazon and Gates of Fire, but as with those previous novels, gets deep into the world of Ancient Greece and gives the reader a rare taste of the values and thoughts in world.

Taking place during the Peloponnesian War, Tides of War follows Alcibiades, the nephew of Pericles and one of the greatest generals of the Ancient World. The story is told through two layers; our narrator is interviewing the man responsible for Alcibiades death, who in turn is narrating his life alongside the general over this many campaigns.

What I found most interesting about the story was how little I knew about the general going in; when I've read previous works about Theseus or Sappho or Leonidas, I was at least a little familiar with their lives (Minotaur, Poetress, Spartan King), so when I started reading about a general who switched sides from Athenian to Spartan and even to Persian, I was quite surprised by just how unfamiliar I was with the historical figure. It did lead me to more than a couple quick stops at wikipedia to get a better grasp on the character, but as these books often do, I found it was well worth the distraction.

An intriguing introduction to the Peloponnesian War, and one that leaves me looking forward to the next book off of the list, Isle of Stone by Nicholas Nicastro, with more than a little excitement.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Movie Review: Their Finest

Lone Scherfig's Their Finest, based on the 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, focuses on a film production by the British Ministry of Propaganda during the Second World War about the evacuation of Dunkirk. In many ways however, the film is about stories; why we like them, how we use them, and what goes into them.

The film takes place in 1940 and follows Catrin Cole (played by Gemma Arterton), a young writer hired to work for the Ministry and her growth as a writer and teller of stories. The film looks at film production from the point of view of writers, editors, producers, actors and executives, and works as both a great war story, and a story about how to tell great war stories.

The concept for the film within a film, two sisters piloting a stolen boat to aid in the Dunkirk evacuation, shifts from the actual event to the varied ways in which the story must or might be modified to better work as a film to inspire Britain, and perhaps even America into joining the war effort.

A really great picture, filled with heart, hope, and a love of the medium of film.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Book Review: Widdershins

One of my favourite things about reading Charles de Lint's Newford stories is how characters will pop up as main characters for a novel or a short story, and then step into the background for the next story; sure there are mainstays like the Riddell brothers or Jilly Coppercorn, but overall you get a different view of the city each time you go back sort of like Terry Pratchett did with Discworld.

Sometimes, however, you do really want to know what happens next, and in the latest of his books I've read, Widdershins, we follow up with Jilly a few years after the events of The Onion Girl and get to see what may be one of my favourite things in these types of stories, a collection of almost all my favourite characters over the twenty-years of stories working together to help a friend in need.

Like Louis L'Amour's The Sackett Brand (1965) or heck, even Kevin Smith's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), this book is really for the fans. For the people like me who have been reading about Jilly and Geordie since the short story "Timeskip" back in 1989, this is a really fun reward.

Almost every new story de Lint sets in Newford works as a standalone, but I will say this one works best if you've read the short story collections, The Onion Girl and Spirit in the Wires.

Well worth reading, and as I'm nearing the point where I'm up to the books published ten years ago, I'm already starting to get nervous about when I'll have to wait like every other de Lint fan for his new books to come out.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Book Review: Unnatural Creatures

Neil Gaiman's 2013 short story collection Unnatural Creatures takes a number of stories written about mythical creatures over the course of a little more than a hundred years, introducing readers to some really great stories and authors.

As with most short story collections, not all are perfect hits, but there are some really great standouts, Samuel R Delany's Prismatica and Larry Niven's Get a Horse, were both a lot of fun, and the final story, Come Lady Death by Peter S. Beagle was simply wonderful.

A great starter collection for people unfamiliar with the fantasy genre, Unnatural Creatures does a great job of showing some of the heights to which the genre can reach.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Book Review: Foundation and Empire

Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Empire, his 1952 follow-up to Foundation, continues where the last story left off; about three hundred years into a (hopefully) 1000 year Dark Age after the fall of a Galactic empire and before the rise of the next Empire. The series focuses on a science called psychohistory, which suggests that with careful tending, this Dark Age can be a mere millennium, rather than the thirty-thousand years it would otherwise take for galactic civilization to rise again.

The second novel focuses on two key events in the rise of the foundation: first, in The General, the last attempt of the crumbling Empire's military arm attempts to destroy the young Foundation before it can gain more power, and; second, in The Mule, a mutant is born with the ability to control those around him, throwing the original psychohistoric plans entirely out the door.

As with the first novel, the stories are short, but the ideas are huge. This was a fast and fascinating read that had me waiting on tender hooks to read the final book in the original series, Second Foundation, as soon as I could.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Book Review: The Blue Girl

Charles de Lint's 2004 YA novel The Blue Girl, follows two best friends Imogene and Maxine, through a year in Newford's Redding High. Throughout the novel the girls get involved in the world of Faerie (pretty much a requirement in a Newford-based story), and although there are a few familiar faces (Christy Riddell for one), this is mostly a new story with new characters in a familiar setting.

The book rotates between three narratives, Imogene, a new girl in school (and Newford), hoping to have a fresh start, Maxine, a quiet student looking for a friend, and Adrian, the ghost of a boy who died in the school years ago.

What I really liked in the story was just how small it was - there are no massive demi-gods or mystical creatures like in the Jack of Kinrowan books (which I also loved), just two friends trying to make it through the school year and getting caught up in something bigger than they expected. What surprised me the most in the novel was the depiction of Maxine's mother, who beings the novel as an almost cartoon-ish example of the controlling mom, but then changes throughout the story into a fully fleshed-out believable parent.

In the end the book was a lot of fun, and I hope I find these characters popping up in future works by de LInt.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Book Review: Antigone's Wake

Continuing on my journey through Ancient Greece via historical novels, I've now moved passed the Persian War into the beginning of The Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). This is the whole Athens versus Sparta war that lead to the rise of the Athenian Empire.

This month's book was Nicholas Nicastro's 2007 novel Antigone's Wake, which focused on the character of Sophocles (playwright of Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Electra, etc.), and his career in his early fifties as a military general for Athens.

The novel is short, to the point, and does a great job of painting its protagonist as a man in transition. Sophocles friend Pericles suggests that as Sophocles already knows how to effectively mount a stage play, why couldn't he use his skills towards military victory, and honestly, it would be a largely ceremonial role in response to his recent success with the play Antigone.

The story works quite nicely in painting Sophocles as a man near the top of his game thrust into a position he never trained for or wanted, and how he deals with some terrifying challenges, including his own teenage son coming along for an "adventure".

Considering that history largely focuses on Sophocles role as playwright, an examination of him as military leader was a real treat for me, and one that has me looking to view some of his plays before moving onto my read for next month, which in the end, is the mark of any successful historical fiction novel.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Book Review: Magic

Years ago I picked up the novel Magic by William Goldman for two simple reasons: 1) I'm a big fan of his films (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, The Princess Bride, Marathon Man, etc.), and 2) I can never say no to a well received horror or thriller novel.

The story follows a young magician named Corky Withers who just can't seem to catch a break (Hey! I just got the pun on his name :) ) He's a technical pro at card-based illusion, but for some reason his audience presence is just no good; his patter isn't up to snuff, and his discomfort at the showmanship aspect of magic shines through much brighter than his skill set.

Just as he's about to give it up, he figures out a pretty creative new angle, and things start to look up for him.

Or do they?

First of all, what I really like about the book is how well it plays with expectations; everything from the narrative voice to the the shifting of time from past to present and future, really work as analogue for how a well-done card trick works. Just as you begin to piece together what's going on, the story shifts and you realize the author has just been distracting you.

A really fun read, and as I have never seen it, an excellent excuse to someday check out the 1978 film adaption starring Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margret.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Movie Review: Kong Skull Island

So last week I went out with the family to see Jordan Charles Vogt-Roberts Kong: Skull Island, which turned out to be a pretty great decision. As with any giant-sized monster movie, the film really benefits from being seen on a big screen. Past that, it was funnier, scarier, and much more interesting that I first imagined.

Taking place in 1973, the film follows a team of scientists, soldiers, a tracker, and a journalist, as they explore Skull Island, a previously undiscovered island for a simple geological survey, but things are not as they seem and the team quickly (and horrifyingly) meet Kong for the first time...

It's important to note for this film that the violence is pretty extreme (not to a horror-movie level, but definitely more intense than a standard action-adventure film), and that Kong himself (modelled largely after the original 1933 film) is pretty awe-inspiring in size and scope.

This film is meant to the first in Universals "Monsterverse", which will eventually include popular Japanese monsters such as Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan, but works as a nice stand-alone film using a historical setting to give the film an interesting aesthetic as well as great standout performances by Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly as well.

In the end the movie was a lot of fun, and considering it wasn't a horror film, a nice way to do a reimagining as well.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Book Review: Salamis

Christian Cameron's Salamis, the fifth in his Long War series (as well as the next-to-last) follows Arimnestos of Plataea through the battle of Salamis, directly following the events of The Great King, which ended with the defeat of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.

What I really enjoyed about this entry was how well it tied together naval battles in the Ancient world with domestic scenes and the life at a war camp as seen through our protagonist. As has been the case since Killer of Men, I'm really in awe of how well Cameron portrays the war seen from the infantry level, and as someone who has been reading books set in the Ancient world for over a year now, this series really stands out as a pretty great entry point for new readers - the only books I'd put ahead of it are Mary Renault's books on Theseus (The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea).

A really enjoyable read and one that left me caught up with long-time readers of the series, waiting for my turn in the hold queue for the last in the series, Rage of Ares.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Movie Review: Logan

So here we are, the final Hugh Jackman as Wolverine film, and man was it good!

Director James Mangold's Logan takes place in a nearly mutant-free near future wherein Logan lives a quiet life as a limo driver and tries his best not to be noticed.

He does have secrets however, and early in the film these begin to catch up with him.  He's harbouring a fugitive, running out of time and is about to be met with something he'd never expected; new mutants.

The story moves between extremely violent (this is definitely not a film for children) and surprisingly heartfelt, and much of this comes down to the work of Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart.

The film is a lot of fun and honestly, it may be the first X-Men film I'll go to the trouble of purchasing since X-Men: First Class.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Book Review: Iron Council

China Mieville's third novel set in the fictional world of Bas-Lag, Iron Council really should have worked for me, as it mixed his world with Western tropes, but as compared to Perdido Street Station and The Scar, it fell a little flat for me.

Both previous novels had really compelling characters and settings, while Iron Council focused largely on concept.  An escaped train houses a small society attempting to outrun those after it, but when compared to books like Christopher Priest's Inverted World, which had a much more compelling lead, I just found the book didn't hold my interest as well as his other titles.

Although not my favourite steampunk novel, I'm still a big enough fan of the author that I'll keep coming back for more.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Book Review: Norse Mythology

Here was everything I knew about Norse Mythology last month in a nutshell.

You've got Thor and Loki and Ordin... (mostly gleaned from The Mighty Thor comic from Marvel), Odin is the dad, Thor and Loki are brothers, and although Thor isn't that bright, he's pretty straightforward, and although Loki is pretty much a big liar, every once in a while he does something good.

There are Ice Giants (again, Marvel Comics)

There's a terrifying Squirrel (shown best in the comic series The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl - also a Marvel comic)...

J.R.R. Tolkein used a bunch of Norse Mythology when creating Middle Earth.

....and, yup.  That's about it.

So when I read Neil Gaiman's latest, Norse Mythology, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect.  What I got was a pretty nifty overview of the topic, from creation myths straight through to Ragnarok - the end of times for the Norse gods.

The stories are all quite readable, a lot of fun, and educational in a way I wasn't expecting.  It definitely left me interested in finding out more, which for a book of this type, is pretty much the goal.

A great read!

Monday, March 13, 2017

Movie Review: Get Out

After spending the last few months watching all sorts of Oscar-nominated films, it's finally time to get back into my regular viewing habits, which brings me to Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy.

My first must-see film of the year was Jordan Peele's Get Out.

The film follows Black photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) on his first visit to his white girlfriend Rose's (Allison Williams) family home. Although friendly at first, things take a turn for the puzzling and then move towards terrifying throughout. As the story depends on a number of twists and turns, I hesitate to spoil anything, but I can say it's well worth the watch and left me quite impressed with how effectively comedy and horror can play off of each other.

A really good film.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Book Review: The Shining Girls

Lauren Beukes 2013 novel The Shining Girls is a little tricky to peg down in terms of genre. The story works as a thriller, a time travel story, as well as a mystery, and showcases the city of Chicago over a sixty-year span.

To describe the book I'm going to have to get into the twists and turns a little, so sorry for the four-year-old spoiler, but if you want to read the book cold here is my short review.

A fast read, really intriguing, included large sections where I simply could not put the book down.

Back to the longer review; the story focuses on Harper Curtis, a drifter in depression-era Chicago who finds his way into a house that allows him to travel throughout sixty years of time, starting in 1931 when he finds the house and ending in 1993. Inside the house Harper finds trophies of the Shining Girls, women he has/will kill to continue to power the unique abilities of the house. The story involves Harper bouncing back and forward through time on his murder spree and equally focuses on one of the shining girls, Kirby Mazrachi, who survives her attack and then begins to work to track down this terrifying killer who she first saw as a child and next years later when he attempted to kill her.

As a character, I was pretty impressed with Kirby, you see her at three distinct ages in her life and I found I was really rooting for her as she attempts to make sense of the nonsensical.

A pretty great read and an author I'm definitely looking forward to following.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Book Review: Foundation

Having read an awful lot of Science Fiction over the years I'm pretty well read in the field. Not to an academic level mind you, but definitely to one that leaves me pretty familiar with the names and major works of any number of writers depending on the decade. So having just finished working my way through David Pringle's Science Fiction: The 100 Best Books, I thought I should go back and catch some of the classics I had missed through the list or on my own.

Which brings me to Asimov's Foundation (1951), actually more a collection of short stories and itself the beginning of one of the most highly regarded series in Science Fiction. The story begins with a scholar named Hari Seldon who has come up with a science called psychohistory, which allows him to predict the future on a massive scale, both in time and number of people effected.  The science doesn't work on predicting any individual person, but instead planetary civilizations.


Seldon has discovered that the galactic empire he lives in is soon to collapse into a dark age, but he believes that his science can be used to dramatically decrease the projected time of barbarism from 30,000 years to a mere 1,000 by transporting a small group of 100,000 people to an isolated planet on the outreaches of the empire.  The rest of the book follows his foundation over roughly the first two-hundred years of his plan.  Each section features a different main character and a different challenge facing his new society.

The stories work as intricate puzzles and although his characters are a little two-dimensional as compared to Bradbury or Heinlein's, I really enjoyed the logic behind each problem and solution, as well as the fact that as each group solves a problem in their own story, they, or their solution, has become the problem in the next story.

Although I had read Foundation back in high school, I had never got around to the rest of the series, so I figured that I should start with book one to get my bearings.

A fascinating read.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Oscar 2017: Best Picture Nominees pt. 3

All right, the Oscars aired last weekend, but I still hadn't got around to the final three Best Picture nominees so here you go:

ArrivalDenis Villeneuve's Arrival sits quite nicely as a high concept science fiction film that in many ways is a throwback to late 70s science fiction focusing on issues of language like Riddley Walker, Juniper Time or The Ophiuchi Hotline. The film follows Earth's reaction to the appearance of alien spacecraft and their attempts to understand the language of the creatures within. An intriguing film that asks for multiple viewings.

Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge is almost two films; the first half being the story of a Seventh Day Adventist named Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) who enlists in the American military during the Second World War, but attempts to work in such a way as to remain true to his religious convictions, specifically to never handle a gun. The film moves from his initial attempts to impress the importance of his beliefs upon his superior officers and moves into a courtroom drama towards the halfway point. The second half of the film follows Doss into active service and works hard to show the horror of the Pacific theater of war. It's not for those with a weak stomach, but strives to show a different measure of the term heroism. In the end I'm not sure if I would ever re-watch it, but I certainly enjoyed it the first time.

Manchester by the SeaKenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is a drama following a man who has been put in the position of looking after his teenaged nephew after the boy's father has died. The story is straight-forward, but as with Fences is full of deep characterization and some pretty amazing performances. Well worth the watch.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Book Review: Pericles the Athenian

Rex Wagner's 196 Historical novel, Pericles the Athenian follows the famed Athenian leader from the end of the Persian War to his death during the early years of the Peloponnesian war.  Told from the point of view of his friend and contemporary, the philosopher Anaxagoras, the novel works to describe how a man managed to lead Athens from it's near destruction at the end of the Persian War (Greece vs. the Persian Empire), into becoming the head of the Athenian Empire leading up to the Peloponnesian war (the war between Athens and Sparta).

This was my fifteenth book on the list of 36 Historical Novels set in Ancient Greece since January of last year, and although there was a lot I liked about it; Wagner is writing about an era in which we don't have a lot of primary sources to refer to and the fact that Athens at the time tended to exile any leader who got too powerful makes Pericles story quite the interesting one, I did feel at times that the book worked better as a textbook, or perhaps as creative non-fiction, rather than a perfect story on it's own.

An interesting read, but not one I would suggest as a starting point for people interested in the topic.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Book Review: The Great King

The Fourth in Christian Cameron's Long War series, The Great King has its protagonist, Arimnestos of Plataea return from his trips abroad as pirate and trader and returns to key events in the Persian War, including the buildup to the battle at Thermopylae and it's immediate aftermath and a in depth look at the naval battle at Artemisium (which has been covered far less often in popular culture).

The first half of the book focuses on the Olympic games of 484 BC, wherein Arimnestos witnesses just how close to fracture the Athenian and Spartan factions are in the face of the Persian empire, and the second half of the book begins with with a trip to the court of King Xerxes which looks like a trap even in the planning phase, and then the naval battle at Artemisium.

Much of what I've loved about the series continues here, with Cameron building his protagonist into a leader and father (sorry for the mild spoiler), rather than simply warrior, and a closer look at exactly how embassies and naval battles worked. The mission to Xerxes is in response to the Spartans killing his envoy (the whole "THIS IS SPARTA!" bit from 300) as you couldn't actually kill political envoys without having to send envoys of your own in response/apology.

Although not as complete a story as the previous three books (it definitely leads directly into the fifth book of the series, Salamis), The Great King is an engrossing look at the war from the ground level and definitely has me interested in completing the series.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Oscar 2017: Best Picture Nominees pt. 2

Having now seen the second third of this year's Best Picture nominees, I'm pretty happy with the results and am really looking forward to the final three films on my list for the awards this year.

Fences
Denzel Washington's Fences (written by the late August Wilson's as an adapted version of his own1987 Pulitzer Prize winning play), is a story of a black family in 1950s Pittsburg that begins simply and moves quickly into an incredibly powerful drama.  The two leads, Washington and Viola Davis play Tony and Rose Maxson, a couple who have been together for nearly two decades and are currently facing difficulties with their teenaged son Corey.  The story is intense, the acting is top notch and the film is well worth the watch.

Hell or High Water
Set in the Texas Midlands, Hell or High Water is a crime film with aspects of Film Noir, Westerns and Thriller merged together in an engaging story of two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who set out to rob a number of banks in order to right a wrong perpetuated against their recently deceased mother.  Jeff Bridges plays a local ranger tasked with tracking the robbers down and the film works as a smart thriller set in an environment where virtually everyone sides with the criminals rather than the law.

Lion
If you've seen the trailer for Lion, you've already got a pretty good idea of what the film is about; a young Hindi boy named Saroo ends up lost on a train, lives homeless in Calcutta and is eventually adopted by a couple in Australia.  Years later he begins to track down his own origin, attempting to find his way home.  What I will say about the film is that although it sticks directly to the story I was expecting, the plot is well paced, the acting is wonderful and the musical score by Dustin O'Halloran and Hauschka may be my favourite this year. A really, really good movie.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Book Review: A Victor of Salamis

William Sterns Davis's A Victor of Salamis is both the 13th book I've read on my continuing journey through Ancient Greece via Historical Fiction, and the second oldest (published in 1907, it is only beaten by Homer's Iliad, which to be fair, is not a bad statement for any book taking place in the Ancient World).

The book follows an Athenian named Glaucon the Beautiful, who spends the novel conveniently finding a way to be personally involved in every major conflict and event of the Persian War (he even briefly meets Arimnestos!) while being found guilty of a crime he didn't commit and working throughout to save his wife from being forced to marry the very man who betrayed him.

Ok - I'll admit the story is pretty simple, action-based and and kind of a mash-up of The Fugitive and Forrest Gump. But putting all that aside, it's a fun read, a great intro to the broader points of the Persian war and even features Simonides in a strong supporting role. Although I would suggest many other novels off of this list to be read for a better read, A Victor of Salamis is a pretty great introduction to the players and events of the Persian War.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Book Review: Spirit in the Wires

Charles de Lint's 2003 novel Spirits in the Wires is one of those delightful fantasy novels that works both on it's own merits and as an interesting look at how we viewed The Internet in the early 2000s. The novel, based in his fictional city of Newford, connects Christy Riddell, a renowned folklorist (and regular Newford supporting character) to two women, Christianna Tree and Saskia Madding, both of whom come from strange beginnings and are about to go on a journey that melds the World Wide Web with de Lint's faerie mythology.

In the novel a virus has struck the Wordwood, a popular website that works like a sort of sentient Wikipedia, and has been mentioned in any number of de Lint's other works over the years. Initially shutting down the website, the virus mutates and soon regular users of the site disappear in a sweeping world-wide event that connects the novel's primary characters with a number of others from de Lint's world.

The story works as a journey, but travels back and forth between three groups, giving the reader a number of well-developed characters to follow and some pretty amazing wonders along the way. I don't want to get into too many specifics as much of the fun of the novel comes from the various twists and turns of the plot, but it is definitely well worth the read.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Oscars 2017: Best Picture Nominees pt. 1

Before the Oscars had been announced this year I had already seen both La La Land and Moonlight, and within the week of nominations I'd added Hidden Figures to my list.

La La Land - having really enjoyed Damien Chazelle's Whiplash last year, I have to admit I had been looking forward to La La Land months before it came out. The story focuses on an actress and a jazz musician who meet and fall in love while pursuing their professional dreams. The songs and dances are fun, the references to classic Hollywood films (and specifically musicals) are great fun for the film buff, and the simple storyline of the film made for a great viewing, I'm not sure how well it would stand up to a rewatch, and it didn't knock my personal favourite musical of 2016 (Sing Street) off of it's perch, but La La Land was a fun, frenetic film that basically had "Oscar Contendor" watermarked on every frame.

Moonlight - Barry Jenkins moonlight follows a young gay man named Chiron through three periods of his life, the beginning of adolescence, teenager, and as a young man, and examines how he interacts with his friends, society and culture. To date this is my favourite of the Best Picture nominees as the story was quite strong, the acting was incredible, and the film was an incredibly immersive experience. Well worth the watch and heartily recommended.

Hidden Figures - This was a delightful film that showed me some history I had been entirely unfamiliar with (not unlike The Dish (2000), director Theodore Melfi's film follows three different wormen working in three different departments at NASA during the early 1960s and told three pretty great stories.  A fun film with an important story to tell.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Oscars 2017!

Last week the announcements went out, and as per usual I'm now going to dedicate the next month to watching all of the fancy films recommended to me by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I figure that as I spend the rest of my year watching various super-hero, monster and robot films, I can spend a month catching up with some pretty great drama.

This year I started with two Best Picture nominees already in my hand, having seen both La La Land and Moonlight before the nominations had gone out, but that leaves me with seven films to see, Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Lion, and Manchester by the Sea. I do try to work my way through the other categories with varying degrees of success (Production Design usually requires me to see one new movie, while Best Documentary Short goes unseen every year).

I made it out to see Hidden Figures with the family yesterday, and will post a review on it tomorrow.

Short version - It was pretty darn great!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Book Review: The Scar

China Mieville's second book set in the world of Bas-Lag is the 2004 novel, The Scar, and even though it doesn't take place in the city of New Crobuzon (the setting of his book Perdido Street Station), that city hovers over the majority of this book as both threat and homeland.

The novel follows a translator named Bellis Coldwine, a famous linguist in her own right, who has taken a job on the first available ship out of New Crobuzon's harbor as she is on the run from the government due to the activities of an ex-boyfriend named Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin (the protagonist of Perdido Street Station). The story follows her through her first mission and then the novel switches gears as (sorry for the mild 13-year-old spoiler) her ship is overtaken and she is press-ganged into working and living on a floating city called Armada.

Much of the novel follows her explorations and discoveries on this new city, including its varied rulers, denizens, and culture (here the remade are seen as equal, and sometimes slightly higher than equal, members of society). Much of the book deals with language and literacy and a significant portion is set in a library, so I was quickly sold.

I really love Mieville's ability to populate his novels with a large number of characters all with their own agendas and a consistent interplay of actions, reactions and rules.

A great read and yes, I'll be following it up with his third book in the setting Iron Council, next month.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Book Review: A Handful of Coppers

So for my fortieth birthday my lovely wife tracked down a large number of hardcover Charles de Lint books for me, including a number I had missed out on while reading my way through his work.

Case in point A Handful of Coppers: The Early Works of Charles de Lint vol 1: High Fantasy - the book follows four separate characters through a number of short stories (and one novella), that range from straight Conan the Barbarian/Farfd and the Gray Mouser worlds through to Arthurian legend and beyond, including one book I've read before, but in context with three other stories about the character.

I'll admit some of the earliest stories are pretty rough, but with each of them you can read and watch a master storyteller develop through his early days, and for that alone it is well worth the read.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book Review: The Physiognomy

Jeffrey Ford's The Physiognomy (1997) has been on my "To Read" list and my "Used Bookstore" list for almost a decade, and over the holiday break I managed to find an ebook copy through my local library and was able to read this, the last best novel winner of the World Fantasy Award from the 1990s on my Award Winners list.

The novel focuses on a witchfinder general type named Physiognomist Cley, who has been sent from "The Well-Built City" to an outlying village to track down a theif, using his mastery of the skill of physiognomy (the now outdated science of tracking peoples attributes and abilities based on lumps and bumps on their skulls). Cley is a pretty awful, unsympathetic character, I haven't disliked a protagonist so much at the begning of a novel since reading S.M. Stirling's The Domination, but as with that book, Cley is meant to be disliked and even hated at first; he's a drug user, a rapist, a bully and pretty much a monster by any normal standard.

His problems begin when he meets a woman who also claims the ability to perform physiognomy just as he loses his own ability to perform his art as well. If I had to find a sub-genre for the novel it gets close to Steampunk in a number of ways, but equally moves towards high fantasy in a number of places.

In the end I found the book to be a good read, but I'm not sure I would continue to explore the followup titles in Ford's Well-Built City Trilogy.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Book Review: Gates of Fire

Finishing my first year of reading historical fiction set in Ancient Greece, I read my second Steven Pressfield novel, Gates of Fire. This one focused on the Battle of Thermopylae between Sparta and the Persian Empire. Similar to Gary Jenning's 1980 novel Aztec, Gates of Fire is told from the point of view of the victors of the battle interviewing a lone survivor, and works to paint a view of a society in the era leading up to the battle in question.

In Pressfield's book, the character is Xeones, a volunteer in the Spartan army (which would mean he wasn't a true citizen of Sparta), who is able to tell his own life story, as well as why he volunteered to join with a city that would never consider him to be a full citizen and further, why he would join the Three Hundred Spartan in a battle that was sure to end in their deaths.

The novel was incredibly immersive and powerful, and left me with no question as to why this book was so well received and sits on the recommended reading lists of so many military forces throughout the world.

As much as I've enjoyed every one of the twelve novels I've read off this list to date, Gates of Fire alone would have made reading the list worthwhile.

A great book.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

I just finished a list it took me eight years to complete

Think of some long term goals you've had in life; marriage, wealth, kids, fantasy vacations, retire by 55, you know the type. Those sort of goals that sit just over the horizon waiting for you to catch up, and most of them feeling like there's not much you can do but wait and hope for the best.

Then think of those medium length goals, the sort of five-year-plan goals we have more often that require some work; propose marriage, get a degree, or even pay off your car.

Back in 2008 I had a dose of reality hit me when I heard about David Pringle's Science Fiction: The 100 Best Books Published in English between 1949 and 1984. The book began with George Orwell' s 1984 and ended with William Gibson's Nueromancer. As a huge science fiction fan and a voracious reader, I was fairly certain I would have read at least half of the novels he wrote about. Unfortunately for me; a then 32-year-old Canadian who counted the dozens of Star Trek and movie tie-in novels as a lot, Pringle's UK-focused list left me with a disappointing nine titles in total (four of which I had read as novel studies in Junior and Senior High School).

That left me with ninety-one books between where I thought I would be when I picked up the book, and where I found myself when I put it down.

So, I decided to start with the second book, Earth Abides (which would end up becoming one of my favourite novels period), by George R. Stewart, and try to read a book off of the list each month.

Two weeks ago, nearly eight years after I picked up Pringle's book, I finished John Calvin Bachelor's The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica (As a Canadian SF fan, I had read Nueromancer in my teens).

Here's what I learned along the way.

1) As my wife put it to me when I suggested starting a University degree part-time, "you'll be seven years older whether you do the work or not", and she was absolutely right.

2) I've now read my way through a list of books that were pretty good at the worst, and mind-blowing at their best, and honestly, I probably wouldn't have heard of half of these titles had I simply stuck to the SF section of my local bookstore.

3) I found the simple and yet amazing fact that if you take something big, break it down into manageable chunks, and consistently work at it, you can do all sorts of things - even if it takes you the better part of a decade.

BTW - my reward? Knowing that this is the kind of thing I can do with clear goals, consistent work, and a supportive network of friends and family.

What a great way to start a new year!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy 2017!


Happy New Year's Everyone!

Hoping 2017 will be a great year for us all!

Your old pal,
Bookmonkey