Thursday, August 14, 2014

"Monster Hunter Alpha" by Larry Correia

Monster Hunter Alpha (MHI, #3)Monster Hunter Alpha by Larry Correia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third installment in the Monster Hunter International saga takes us in a slightly different direction and focuses entirely on The Boss: Earl Harbinger. Artfully told in a real-time style and peppered with flashbacks that give us Earl's back story, this novel hits the ground running and doesn't let up. This is the kind of page-turner that will keep you up past your bed time. That's what it did to me, anyway: hello, three AM.

This story also introduces one of the most interesting origin stories for a particular type of supernatural creature that I've ever encountered.

Intelligent characters with plausible arcs, nail-bitingly intense running battles, and enough weapons tech to keep the hardcore gun guys entertained. Bonus: female characters you can cheer for, sympathize with, and admire. No screaming "arm candy" babes or "faux dude" chicks here.

Great Summer or vacation reading.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Rising Tides (#5 in the Destroyermen series) by Taylor Anderson

Rising Tides (Destroyermen, #5)Rising Tides by Taylor Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This isn't much of a real review, but I'm happy to save that until after I've finished the last book in this series. I'd been way behind and made an effort a few weeks ago to catch up, and now I can't stop reading. This series is like candy for action-adventure or space-time FUBAR stories (whatever that means to you). The actual genre is "cross-time shipwreck", and this is all that and more. "Rising Tides" became a real page-turner for me at about the halfway mark. Power reading through these novels is exhausting, though, because the characters really get put through the wringer again and again. Still, the payoffs are good and the world-building is utterly engrossing. I'll be sad when I get to the end.

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Thursday, April 03, 2014

"On Stranger Tides", by Tim Powers

On Stranger TidesOn Stranger Tides by Tim Powers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm a huge Powers fan, so it's no surprise that I loved this. It's not your typical pirate tale, but then what's typical? This is not YA. It is, however, obvious to me that the writers of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films had a copy of this in their possession from early on. In fact, I'd surmise that it has been the inspiration for the franchise since day one and not just for the fourth film, which bears almost no resemblance to this novel beyond the title and the fact that there are pirates, including Blackbeard (named "Thatch" instead of "Teach" in the novel), and a trip to the "fountain of youth".

***** minor spoilers *****

So many elements from the films seem cherry-picked from this novel that I couldn't get through more than a handful of scenes without flashing to aspects of the PotC franchise. Ironically, the only element that seems original is Cpt. Jack Sparrow, who has no counterpart in the book. Here you will find the basis for all the "voodoo"-inspired magic and sorcery, including crews of "undead" sailors, which add up to what amounts to a perfect back-story for Cpt. Barbossa (Phil Davies in the book). Although the female lead in the novel bears little resemblance to the films' Elizabeth Swann, it's no surprise that her name is "Elizabeth" and that she is placed in proximity to a mild-mannered but capable young man who ends up having to spend some time posing as a pirate.

My guess is that the screenwriters read this, saw it as great buffet of source material from which they selected a plate-full of tasty bits. Perhaps they optioned the book then and there. Perhaps they tried to get away with making enough changes that they wouldn't have to buy the option, but got called out on it after the first film and then entered in to a formal agreement with Powers, culminating in the fourth film using the book's title as the film's subtitle. Does it really matter? Not particularly. The films are what they are. The book is a separate entity. Powers certainly seems happy with the arrangement, and that's all that matters. To people who would cry, "But they ruined the book!" I would echo Powers' assertion that no film can "ruin" a book. The book stands alone. It has not changed. The films are what they are, which is to say that they are a different thing entirely. Nobody can change the content of a book by making a film that takes the story and turns it all topsy-turvy. That would be voodoo indeed.

I read some of this in paper, and listened to it all via audio book from Blackstone. The reader is pitch perfect, and manages to create distinctive voices from the very French Jack Shandy to the Robert Newton-esque Phil Davies to a hulking giant black voodoo practitioner with a voice like a sepulcher.  Imagine my surprise at finding it to be none other than.... Bronson Pinchot. I knew he was a good actor, but his character voices are a revelation. Well done.

By the way...  Tim, if you're reading this, I'm so sorry it took me so long to read this to completion. It seems like every time I picked it up something came up, or I had to read something else for a project, or who knows what else. Maybe I was hexed. Anyway, I hope they paid you a wheelbarrow of doubloons for the rights, because it looks like they were using it all along.

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Victorian Heritage Festival recap

Cpt. Frye leads the cavalry.
This isn't much of a recap of the annual Port Townsend Victorian Heritage Festival since I was only there one day and worked most of it at the Old Consulate Inn (a fabulous place). I helped out with the parade as a cavalry "outwalker" and then rushed down the hill to shoot pics and video of the Gatling Gun demonstration. Next year I hope to be more involved...beyond just doing all the graphic design. I'd really like to have gone to some of the panels, and it's been ages since I've been able to get to a ball. 
Next year...
Col Marshall explains the gatling gun.
Cpt. Frye distracts the press at the gat demo.

Cpt. Frye and Mrs. Snow

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Port Townsend Victorian Heritage Festival 2014

My writing in general, and blogging specifically, has been a bit spotty lately as I've been teetering between nursing a bad back and grinding out graphics for the looming Victorian Heritage Festival in Pt. Townsend, WA. If you're interested at all in history, and in the Puget Sound area weekend after next, come pay us a visit!

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Film Sack: "The Man From Planet X", or "I'd Run a Mile for a Cuppa"

This is appearing a bit late in the week because life got in the way. Stupid "going places and doing things"! It's been a week since I sat down with the spouse and took in the wonder of The Man From Planet X (1951), but the experience lingers fresh in my mind like a pine cone on the noggin launched by an angry squirrel. As usual, the Film Sack treatment made up for any trauma experienced by viewing the film du jour. Just what the movie doctor ordered.

This movie tries so hard to be Serious Science Fiction but fails on almost every level. I'm fairly easy to entertain, but this cinematic relic is dangerously close to dull. From the overly formal and pretentious language of the principal characters, to the loving pans across the artificially moody "Scottish" landscape, to the slow-motion tussles of the listless alien with various ineffectual humans... I found myself checking my watch for the first time since The Thin Red Line.

Best to begin at the beginning, I suppose, and we don't have to wait long for the WTH? moments. Before even the first shot of the actual film, we're treated to a credit sequence created entirely from one inexplicable font, which I'll call Hobo Plank Sans, or maybe Paper Chain Rivets Extra Bold. Not just the main title, but the entire credit sequence uses this inappropriately whimsical type style. Somebody was dang proud of that font.

On to the first establishing shot, which is clearly a lovely stretch of the California coastline near Monterey. They immediately cut to an adorable model shot of the Scottish Moors: the comparison between the two shots does not reflect well on the model. Fog machines are used abundantly in this movie, but it doesn't really make things better. It just looks like a bad model/set with lots of fog. Also, I believe this is supposed to take place on an island. To my knowledge there are no "moors" on any small islands in the UK. You can have a rugged island setting or you can have creepy moors, not both, but the filmmakers were making use of leftover sets from Joan of Arc so there you go.

We then cut to an interior shot and an ominous voice over from "John", our male lead. The tone of this monologue is reminiscent of the opening words of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, and indeed the rest of the film is basically a flashback, but the rest of the film never really delivers on the promise set up here. Mostly we get a bunch of bad fake science gobbledegook that wouldn't impress the average primary schooler, a lethargic alien, the requisite smarmy male lead, and the requisite screaming ninny female lead.

There's really no excuse for the bad science and lazy characterizations in this. Actual good movies were being made in the early 50s, even good sci-fi like The Day the Earth Stood Still. When I saw William Schallert was in the cast I was kind of excited: Patty Duke's TV dad! This is an early role for him and he plays totally against type as a sneaky bad guy who, you guessed it, wants the alien tech to Rule the World! Yeah, I drop spoilers. You've had since 1951 to see this. Deal.

The usual parade of tropes are all present and correct: Leading man who is supposed to be worldly and wry but comes off as smarmy and patronizing ("Your face has changed, but I remember your legs...wink wink"): check! Frail old scientist with pretty daughter: check! Aforementioned Evil Scientist who screws everything up: check! Rustic but charming local rubes who alternately show the only common sense or get out the torches and pitchforks: check! Rustic locals with bad accents: check! Spaceship that wouldn't be safe at any speed: check! Terrible fake car driving: check! Female lead who screams at every little thing and exists solely as eye-candy and for the leading man to paw and condescend to: check! This female lead really takes the cake, too. Not only is she a screaming ninny, but she's so traumatized by being LOOKED AT by the slow-moving, not really scary alien that she spends a goodly portion of the film off-screen under sedation.

The Film Sack crew didn't care much for the score under this film, but I thought it was fine for the grade of film...with one caveat. The "lightening counting" scene. Every flash of lightening is accompanied by trilling flutes. Ouch. Treading dangerously close to Hannah-Barbara SFX there. We don't need musical punctuation, thanks. I didn't like the Don Ameche-esque mustache on the male lead, either. This is 1951, not 1931, and this guy is not old enough to work a look like that properly. Ronald Coleman called and he wants his look back! Clarke looks great without the 'stache. With it, he just looks like he's trying to be a 1930s leading man. My opinion, but there it is.

There's the requisite amount of 50s-era sexism here, too. It's not worth over-analyzing, but there are some cringe-worthy moments. The "I may not be much of a cook, but I can brew a mean cup of tea!" moment isn't particularly surprising or onerous, but the male lead basically leering at her every minute is beyond patronizing. It's an artifact of the times in a way, but there are plenty of films from the 50s that don't fall in to these traps, too. The actors are doing their jobs, and the director could have asked for more nuanced and less clichéd performances. Especially irritating was the female lead, "Enid", who drove me nuts with a really annoying yodeling/warbling vocal technique for conveying distress, excitement, or happiness. Picture Bobby Brady's voice cracking, with a forced trans-Atlantic accent, when he hit puberty. It gets really old after a few lines.

The movie ends with the "we must withhold this distressing knowledge from humanity for their own good" trope, which is so last century. The US government has been preaching this for years and it's not exactly a secret that they're keeping secrets. In 1951 we were just getting in to the age of the "flying saucer", MJ-12, and Project Blue Book. The epilogue of Man From Planet X is a perfect kick-off to this era.

The truth is out there, but it's kind of slow and can't reach its air valve.