Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis

October 12, 2017 0

I am a fan of Stephanie Burgis’ work. Her middle grade novels starring the incorrigible Kat Stephenson are some of my favorites. I love the skillful way Burgis writes the whimsical Kat in a great historical setting. Burgis weaves history and fantasy together in all her works. I just read Burgis’ novella Snowspelled, and I am transported.

Snowspelled is the story of Cassandra Hargrove, an exceptional sorceress who has pushed herself too far, and must now face the consequences of her actions. The book is about Cassandra finding her new self, and her struggles in the face of that. True to perfectionist form, she isolates, breaking her relationship with the her fiance. The two are thrown together at a house party, and well, I can’t begin to describe the chemistry and witty banter between them. You can guess, however, that I came for the setting and I stayed for the relationship. Into this mix Cassandra and Wrexham encounter an elf-lord with an agenda against Angland, and Cassandra has to find the culprit causing an unnatural winter.

All of the characters are wonderfully realized. Cassandra is an easy character to identify with, flaws and all. Brother Jonathan and sister Amy show Cassandra an affection that help the readers extrapolate her less prickly dimensions. I won’t begin to praise Wrexham. We could be here a long time. Just…read the novella.  I read it in a day. That is testimony to its quality, not my speed.

What is best of all about this is that there will be more. I’ll be waiting, not so patiently, right over here.

Review: Terminal Alliance by Jim C. Hines

September 16, 2017 0

The author was kind enough to send me an early review ARC, which I appreciate a great deal. I have read all of Hines’s books, and the reason this book gets five stars from me is it is the author’s most ambitious project to date.

Don’t get me wrong. Hines is one of the most versatile authors working in speculative fiction today, and I love that he ranges far and wide in his take on the speculative. Terminal Alliance has so many moving parts. It makes the philosophical statements he makes in his Goblin series (you missed this? Go look again!), has the strong moral characteristics of his princesses, and is full of the kind of self-examination we get in the Libriomancer series.

AND in and of its own self, this is easily the most interesting group of extraterrestrials I’ve seen in SF in a long time. In a publishing world of Roddenberry style humanoid aliens with facial appendages, Hines gives us aliens that are patterned on other life forms of earth–octopi, bugs, muppets–but he gives them excellent personalities and distinctive traits for each alien and alien culture. No Mr. Spock Vulcan monoliths here. Different planets have different factions that don’t get along. Hmmm…that’s kind of refreshing.

Additionally, Hines’s humor wends into satire in this book. To get these jokes, you have to understand our current culture and see how the future warps and distorts it. We get the jokes the characters in the book can’t get. There’s plenty in there that’s funny for its own sake, but man, the social commentary on current times. It’s pretty good.

I liked Jim Hines as an author before. I am more impressed now than I have ever been, and I’m the academic that called Goblin Quest the current equivalent to Pilgrim’s Progress. Step back and just let Hines write. I’m looking forward to whatever comes next.

Review: Continuum by Wendy Nikel

September 3, 2017 0

Like Wendy Nikel herself, I am a sucker for almost any time travel story, so Continuum was a good fit for me as a reader. Time travel as vacation meets the problem solving of Quantum Leap in a satisifying package.

The story begins in the past when Elise Morley retrieves a client who has forgotten herself and almost takes a voyage on the Titanic with her fiancee. Elise saves the client, but the rather inelegant Extraction causes fallout which ripples through the book. Meanwhile, it turns out that the travel agency where Elise works is not the only entity to have access to this technology, and a government agency has been sending people to the future. Elise is sent to retrieve a rogue agent.

While I wish we could have spent more time in the heads of a couple of the characters who were relevant to the past, I found the story that focused on the future well-paced and interesting I wanted just a bit more to explain what Allen was doing and why, although his ultimate motivation was a solid payoff. Chandler charmed me a great deal. And while Elise strikes me as world weary at first, she has a noble turn of character and a surprise plot twist which work pretty well.

Nikel is a solid writer with vivid description, an imaginative future, and a command of accurate historical speech. Check out that purse snatcher in 1912. Her characters manifest their time stream’s habits and inflections brilliantly, which is a real value add for this reader.

Nikel creates a rich world in which she could easily weave a tapestry of other time travel adventures.  While Elise seems like she ends up in a place from which she cannot return, well, it is time travel after all, and whose to say continuity has to be linear?

Review: The Defenders

August 19, 2017 0

What does a writer who is working on two manuscripts do with a little spare time on Saturday? Well, she writes (first and foremost) and then she watches…oh, 8 hours of The Defenders. Caveat: This writer got up pretty early.

I know you are dying, DYING! to hear about The Defenders. Did it work? Was Danny Rand as bad an Iron Fist as he was in his own series? Could the four Netflix heroes work well together? What can you do in a police room full of supporting characters anyway? And what about Dr. Strange, The Hulk, Prince Namor, and the Submariner?

Let’s start with that last question first. The only thing similar to the comic Defenders and this show is the name. No, you are not going to see even the Valkyrie, who was a Defender in the seventies. Let’s face facts: Netflix was just looking for an available super hero name, and they didn’t want to go with the Champions of Los Angeles. Got it?

Our Defenders are the four action heroes on Netflix who have actually had their own shows: Daredevil, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. Incredibly well-balanced, moral compass Luke Cage is around to keep the rest of these guys from getting killed. Just saying. Mike Colter is so cool in this show, and his character makes my teeth hurt. In a good way. The acting is mighty fine among the mains. Charlie Cox keeps up Daredevil’s edgy vulnerability. Krysten Ritter delivers again as the hard-boiled Jessica Jones. And yes, Finn Jones as Iron Fist works here. As a matter of re-envisioning, if you look at the entire Iron Fist show as a set up for this show, suddenly you can see how that piece fits into this puzzle. Oh yeah, Iron Fist has many, many problems, but you need those problems to make this plot work.

The show is not without flaws. The pacing is still off, although not as much as in the 13-episode Netflix shows. Still, some parts of the show seem self-indulgent and could use more editing to make sure they firm up the story’s movement. And yet, there might be a counterargument, that everyone gets to see their favorite supporting characters do their thing. Like I live for Foggy, and so even if his bits don’t forward the story, I’m there.

One of the things the Hubs and I noticed as we watched the show: even the villains (sometimes especially the villains) have bad days in this universe. Alexandra, played by Sigourney Weaver tries her very best to destroy New York city with style, but the best laid plans…

Things to watch for that might press your Marvel buttons: first meeting between Colleen Wing and Misty Night. Money moment scene with Luke Cage and Iron Fist squaring off to fight the Hand. Matt Murdock agreeing entirely with Luke Cage that innocents shouldn’t get hurt because they are cut out of that same moral cloth. Jessica Jones telling the story about Matt Murdock’s boxer father to a kid who’s just lost her own father. Electra finally getting her groove back.

And…in this day and age, and especially after Iron Fist, Luke Cage talking about privilege to Danny Rand AND GETTING THROUGH TO HIM made me feel pretty good. Danny is far from a perfect character, but he grows. The only way to go for Danny is up.

I miss Frank, but I understand the next series to watch for will be Punisher, so I guess I can wait. Not too shabby, Netflix.

Review: A Borrowed Hell by L.D. Colter

July 23, 2017 0

Last week I was in the air, and as is often my way while flying, I read a lot of books. One of the books, L. D. Colter‘s A Borrowed Hell, was pretty good. Published by Shirtsleeve Press, A Borrowed Hell dives right into the world of Jungian archetypes while taking a cue from Dante’s Inferno.

You have to like your fantasy on the literary side if you’re going to take a journey with July Davish as he literally confronts his worst fears and inner demons. As a reader, I identify strongly with July and his trials, his emotionally absent father, troubled sister, and addicted mother. He’s the kid who’s going to save them all, and therein lies his problem.

While his life is falling apart, July sees himself as a stable center at its core, just as a man having a run of bad luck. But when his life is threatened in a car accident, July finds himself occasionally transported to a purgatory where he must be confronted by the issues of his life and work through them, promising no pat endings or easy answers. While he’s awake, he’s lucky enough to meet a partner worthy of his journey.

There are only two parts of the story where I am pulled out. There’s an intimation on July’s part that people who use Xanax are addicts, which is solid characterization, but is not true. (Sensitive Xanax user here!) Valerian, the aforementioned partner, is pretty special, but in a story this literary, their meeting is a pretty pat love at first site kind of thing.

Still. I love the characters. I like July, Valerian, and Bill. I like all the variations of Pat, the archetypes. The medical details are strong, the emotional journey is good, and Colter builds emotional tension throughout. Don’t overlook this book. It’s a hidden gem.

Review: Chalk by Paul Cornell

June 27, 2017 0

Last year at Convergence, I heard Unreliable Alumni Paul Cornell read from an upcoming novel, Chalk. At the time, Cornell expressed he had been working on the book for a number of years. What Cornell read captivated and terrified me. Chalk more than delivered on the promise of the reading.

Chalk takes place in 1980’s England in Wiltshire.  Cornell and I are similar in age. I went to school in Scotland in 1978, the child of a local girl from Dunoon and a Yank sailor. In many ways, it was easy for me to feel the atmosphere Cornell was writing about, being in a similar place at a similar age. And another dimension disturbed me deeply–while my brief time at Dunoon Grammar School was pleasant, most of my school experience in Iowa was harsh and hard. Chalk sounded depths in me as it married and blended so many of my own experiences, not in specifics, but in emotions. I am certain I am not the only reader who has thought so.

The challenge Cornell has taken on is to tell the story with brutal honesty. This isn’t a story about a strange victim concocting revenge, or a heroic boy overcoming the odds of difficulty. This is the story about someone maimed in body and spirit stumbling to find their way through trauma. The boundaries of what is real and what isn’t melt and twist. Even the narrator, especially the narrator of the story, doesn’t know. For such a speculative piece, this grounding in psychological reality makes the work a masterpiece.

Some are saying Chalk is literary more than speculative. It is definitely both, a cross genre work that satisfies this English professor on many levels, and the troubled child I was on many more. The truth of the story, the reflection of the uneasy adolescence, and unflinching portrayal of the past make this book a must read, if a difficult one.

Review: Samurai Jack Season 5

May 16, 2017 0

We’re just about at the end of Samurai Jack season five. For those of you not in the know, creator Genndy Tartakovsky created the original Samurai Jack, which aired for four seasons, from 2001-2004, without a conclusion. The first show was largely a series of interconnected vignettes, Jack and his arch enemy Aku the glue that tied the show together. A mere 12 years later, Tartakovsky decided to give the show an ending, and we have 10 22-minute episodes with incredibly tight story telling to enjoy.

Samurai Jack has always been on the cutting edge of animation, having one several awards for outstanding animation. Entire episodes have been in black and white, or used outlines. It always takes avant garde risk and pushes the envelope not only in animation, but in music as well. This particular season surprises and compels. It is designed for adults. Adult Swim on Cartoon Network has always aired the show, but this season is the first where Jack has killed–and suffered psychological fall out for it.

You might wonder if you can make sense of Samurai Jack without watching the original. You can. However, knowing the original story helps you appreciate layers, especially in the episode where Ashi searches for a despondent Jack and we see how many people Jack has helped over the years.

Season five is a worthy ending, standing alone, but enhanced by what has gone before. If you do not get Cartoon Network, the show can easily be purchased on Amazon.

Review: The Monkey King

April 29, 2017 0

Sometimes I watch films over my husband’s shoulder. The other night Bryon was watching The Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven, a 2014 film starring Donnie Yen as the Monkey King. It looked pretty good, so yesterday I watched it with no shoulders in the way. For those of you who don’t know the story of the monkey king, this primer will get you up to speed. The Journey to the West sequence most folklorists are familiar with begins in The Monkey King 2, and there are plans for The Monkey King 3 to be released soon.

A critical overview of The Monkey King‘s reception in the United States points to what seems to me to be a lack of understanding about Chinese culture and cinema. Mind, I am certainly no expert, but I find the complaints of the movie lacking substance or the main character Sun Wukong of being annoying to be irritatingly groundless. In China it is the top grossing film of all time, and it is likely to be, as the story is as ingrained in the Chinese cultural conscious as Superman is in our own. Except, imagine if Superman had been around for some 500 years or so. Anyway, I think U.S. critics (and many viewers, if the Netflix ratings are to be believed) have no idea what to do with it.

From my perspective, it is a touching story. Cast aside all the special effects, and what you have is a story about an outsider trying to find his way in a world that is hostile to him, losing his love, and being used by people who do not have his interests at heart. Small wonder the Monkey King goes rogue at the end of the story, and that Sun WuKong can get his morality under control at all is some kind of miracle. It is a story of growth, redemption, and repentance. I dare you not to be touched when Sun WuKong tries to resurrect his dead friends, his enormous guilt for leaving them to try to gain acceptance in heaven weighing heavily upon his anguished shoulders. The story edits the original to make the Monkey King more sympathetic to good effect.

The special effects enhance the film. If you are not a fan of special effects like those found in The Sorcerer and the White Snake, that’s probably a good enough reason to not watch The Monkey King. Also, the film is in Chinese, and you are going to read subtitles, which is a turn off for many people. Personally, I am a snobby foreign film viewer, so this is only a plus for me. I don’t do English dubs. I didn’t do The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo U.S. style either.

So, this viewer is looking forward to The Monkey King 3, as well as completing my viewing of The Monkey King 2, which I’m about half way through. Check it out for yourself. Don’t let the reviewers fool you. This could well be one of my favorite films. EVER.

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