Saturday, February 28, 2015

Burn Notice, Season 5, Episode 14

Michael gets an upgraded clearance level, which actually makes him more valuable as an asset to Anson, and I wonder if being the puppet master that he is, if the evil psychiatrist had a hand in him getting the upgrade.

In the meantime he has to bring the killer of an old friend to justice with Jesse, while Sam and Fiona tackle the dangerous job of tagging Anson and seeing if they can find out where he sleeps and use that as leverage.

The story about the murdered friend struck me as very typical of similar shows. Devoid of inspiration the writers suddenly invent a very good friend of the main character as the catalyst for an episode. Andre (the now dead friend) is described by his younger brother; Ricky, as having considered Michael and Maddie as family. No mention of Nate or how the presence of the alcoholic, abusive Frank must have made Casa Westen seem a very welcoming family kind of place. Despite this supposed link Michael hasn't seen or heard from Andre in over a decade, and he never made any attempt to contact him when he got back to Miami, nor did he ever mention him. Maddie, likewise, despite living close never seemed to bother to keep up with the family. Maybe making Andre a friend from Special Forces may have made more sense.

Despite this implausibility Michael was to take revenge every bit as much as Ricky does, although he doesn't plant a bomb in the murderer's (a local drug lord by the name of Dion) warehouse, which Ricky does in retaliation for both his brother's death and that of a girl called Dolly (played by the actress Indigo, best known as Potential Slayer Rona in the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). There is an amusing line when Michael sends Fiona to alter the bomb and when Fiona looks at it she tells Ricky to not give up his day job and asks how he learned to do this and his response is 'the internet'. 

Michael playing a loose cannon arms dealer to the hilt, with Jesse being his out there partner, manages to convince Dion's crew that their boss tried to blow them up. This leaves Dion with the unpalatable choice of either confessing to Andre's murder and cutting a deal which will get him solitary or taking his chances on the streets. They missed a golden chance of saying 'sucks to be you' there in my opinion.

While most of this is going on Sam and Fiona are tailing Anson. Michael's voice over keeps reminding the audience of how hard it is to tail someone who is an experienced operative, but I don't think that's really necessary with Anson. He's a gun psychiatrist and likes playing with people's heads, but he's not really an operative, that's why he had minions like Carla and Vaughn. Charles Finley made a welcome return as an environmentally conscious lawyer in order to convince local liked minded students to door knock the apartment complex that Fiona and Sam believe Anson lives in so that they can pinpoint him. As it turns out he doesn't live there, but uses a satellite setup from the place's balcony to pick up information. This in itself could prove useful leverage. They may be able to 'blind' him without him knowing or feed him incorrect data.

Anson pops up late in the episode so Michael can stall him while Fiona and Sam scope the apartment out. Michael broaches the subject of when the two of them may be quits and is told in no uncertain terms that the answer is probably never, or until Anson doesn't think he can use him anymore. The guy knows Michael so well and even has knowledge of his family history, gleaned by posing as Maddie's therapist some years ago. It's going to take a lot to get out from under this thumb, and you can't trust anything Anson says in any case.

Interestingly Renny Harlin directed this, I thought that may have meant some added pyrotechnics, it didn't really although the stunt where Michael got Dion to blow up a truck with an rpg was quite fun.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Burn Notice, Season 5, Episode 13

While the CIA look at upgrading Michael's clearance level, Anson exerts his influence to get Michael to do something that could significantly affect that happening. Pearce still isn't happy with Michael and she seems to be rather naive about exactly how the organisation she works for conducts itself and how it prefers to work. I can't remember what happens to her, but I hope she doesn't get killed, because she seems to be a genuinely good person in a pretty bad world.

Anson wants Michael to extract a computer expert from his heavily guarded compound offshore and bring him to Miami so that he can get his bank details out of the CIA computers, of course the computer expert is the guy who duplicated their security keys. The problem is that if Michael or anyone else goes in there even with using the keys they'll have microscopic trackers all over them (kind of scary that sort of technology exists, and whatever else it's faults may be Burn Notice is generally quite accurate with that sort of research). They wind up having to convince one of the hacker's enemies, and the reason he preferred to live offshore away from his home and his girlfriend, to go in and do their dirty work for him, which would wind up getting him tracked and caught. We've seen the hacker character before, kind of nerdy and helpless, but useful and getting dragged along for the ride. He reminds me a lot of the Patton Oswalt character that appears later in the show, but Oswalt plays it so much better. Interestingly enough the hacker is actually called Oswald.

While Michael and Fiona are dancing to Anson's tune (I still don't know why Michael doesn't just kill him, unless it's inferred that his information will become public if he winds up dead. In typical super villain style he's always one step ahead and likes to play with his food, he is chillingly portrayed though, very believable as the brains behind Management and a complete and total sociopath).

Sam, Jesse and Maddie are trying to find out what the police know about the bombing that Anson connected Fiona with, and that means that Maddie has to learn how to crack open a laptop, remove the data chip and download it, then put it back as if nothing happened. That training session was rather amusing, especially when Sam confiscated Maddie's cigarettes to ramp up the pressure and she immediately said if she had to do this without smoking then he had to watch without drinking her beer.

Ultimately what they do comes to nothing as Anson is always playing the game one move ahead, he also issues a veiled threat to Jesse and Sam approaching them at one of their favourite watering holes and telling them that he knows a lot more about them than their drinks of choice. Loathsome individual and he's got his hooks so deep into Team Westen that the only thing that will release them is his death. The more he knows and the longer he does the more he will bleed Michael and his friends for everything he can get.

Michael gets his clearance upgraded and that inadvertently makes him even more useful to Anson.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Burn Notice, Season 5, Episode 12

Once I saw the names of Tim Matheson and Jere Burns (especially Jere Burns) in the opening credits I knew that this was the episode that would give this season the spark it so desperately needed. Matheson is of course Michael's mentor the completely amoral Larry. Burns on the other hand is new, but I remember him from later seasons.

The episode picks up where the previous one left off, with the CIA taking Michael in for questioning to explain his part in Max's murder. I think if Pearce had her way she would have simply shot him then and there, but still had to follow protocol. Jesse and Sam manage to derail the convoy en route using Fiona's Hyundai. When Jesse and Sam had to use Fiona's car because Jesse's Porsche was in the shop in the previous episode, I knew it wasn't going to escape unscathed. Sam's terrified of Fiona's reaction if they so much as scratch it, where Jesse may feel it's payback for what she let Michael do to his Porsche a few episodes back. As it turned out it wasn't totaled, but it would have needed some bodywork after they clipped one of the CIA vehicles to make it stop.

Between the three of them Michael, Sam and Jesse manage to calm Pearce down enough to let him deal with Tavian and at least prove that he's innocent. He wears a wire to the meeting, and once Tavian knows he's busted he leaps to his death. As far as the CIA are concerned that's the end of the matter. One of their agents was killed by an assassin, not one of their own, so Michael is free to get on with his life, he's still an operative, but there's more behind this and everyone knows it. Pearce certainly isn't happy.

Michael arrives back at the loft and is met by Larry. This is a surprise because as far as Michael knew Larry was still in an Albanian prison, he escaped and now he's looking to rebuild his illegal fortune by ripping off the British embassy and he needs Michael to help. He's also brought along another hostage, a psychiatrist called Anson. The first time we seen Anson he's bound and gagged in the trunk of Larry's car and is being coerced into helping because Larry has his wife hooked up to an explosive device.

When Larry blows up Anson's wife and the psychiatrist goes into a meltdown over it, I bought it, audiences bought it. It's a testimony to Jere Burns acting talent, and he's still killing it as Wynn Duffy in Justified.

The whole thing is an elaborate set up. Anton, not Larry was the mastermind of things. Anson set everything up so that he could take Larry out of the picture permanently and blackmail Michael and Fiona into doing his bidding. Anson is the closest thing Burn Notice ever had to a Bond villain (actually Jere Burns would make an awesome Bond villain), he's got a grand plan, he's undeniably insane, he's brilliant, has seemingly limitless resources. I do often ask myself though why Michael didn't simply kill him once he let he and Fiona know who he was. I guess if James Bond had done the same thing the franchise would have been a lot shorter though. You never kill your good villains.

Anson is behind everything, he's the last member of Management still left standing (they do a little montage of them: the guy Michael and Max killed in South America, Vaughn, Simon, the old guy who called himself Management, even Carla. Technically Simon may still be around, just out of sight) and Anson was the mastermind of the whole thing, he spent more than half his life building it up and Michael Westen tore it all down. Now that same man is going to help him rebuild it and put him back on top.

He has footage of Michael and Fiona's involvement in the explosion at the British embassy. Fiona planted the bomb that killed Larry, but another one went off that killed two security guards, that was Anson's doing, but no one will believe it's not Fiona, and that Michael wasn't involved, he was in the building at the time, assisting a known enemy of the state in Larry. He's got them both over a barrel and he knows it. His true colours are revealed when they ask him about his 'wife' and he refers to her as 'some lady'. He was never married, or if he is, his wife is safe and sound. That poor woman was collateral damage so that he could sell his story and get the outcome he wanted.

Interestingly Pearce is still Michael's handler. She's not real happy about it and I can't see the two of them sharing a great working relationship. It's going to get interesting now that Michael is working for Anson under duress.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Burn Notice, Season 5, Episode 11

They split the gang up again, but this time it was Jesse and Sam helping Michael clear his name, while Michael and Fiona went off on a CIA job together.

The interesting thing about the Michael and Fiona gig was that the CIA actually sanctioned Fiona as Michael's partner on it. The reason being that Pearce had been tasked with tracking down Max's killer and Michael needed partner for the extraction of an American scientist working on biotech weapons for the Russians because it was at a couples retreat.

Michael sells the mission to Fiona on the grounds that it's a romantic getaway on the CIA's dime, and the extraction really won't be that hard taking place at a resort in Venezuela as opposed to the one he recently performed in the Caribbean with Pearce and Jesse that was on a remote island inhabited by mercenaries.

Unfortunately when they get there, Michael is more about mixing pleasure with business, rather then the other way around. I have had issues with how whiny Fiona has been this season, but in this case she's entirely justified. Michael played up the romantic luxury side of this mission to get her to come on it, but once they were there he all but ignored and rebuffed any and all attempts to do something less covert affairs. I found myself wondering if he was deliberately trying to piss her off, because it was certainly succeeding.

Michael and Fiona wound up having to extract both the double crossing doctor and his trophy wife. She was played by genre favourite Charisma Carpenter, who basically played her role as Nicki Skyler as a less feisty Cordelia Chase (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and a less street smart Kendall Casablancas (Veronica Mars). Fiona looked after Nicki, representing herself as Christina and Michael took care of her odious husband.

It's a shame we didn't get to see more of Michael and Fiona like this. There's a definite chemistry between Jeffrey Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar and it's on display here. They gave off a real Mr and Mrs Smith vibe. They could have done a movie (ala The Fall of Sam Axe) or even a series as a husband and wife covert affairs team (it would have left the fairly light weight Covert Affairs with Piper Perabo for dead).

While Fiona and Michael aren't exactly living it up in the luxurious surrounds of a Venezualan resort. Sam and Jesse are pounding the mean streets of Miami, trying to track down a slippery and dangerous character called Tavian, who set Michael up for Max's murder. I get the impression that Tavian doesn't actually run the outfit, he just does what he's told for someone else, but he's a stepping stone, and he did pull the trigger on Max.

Before Michael can make the meet that Sam and Jesse set up for him, they've even put road blocks in place and had both the sea and sky covered, he arrives back at the loft to find Agent Pearce making herself at home (she even helped herself to some of his blueberry yoghurt). It sounds fairly standard, aside from her breaking into his house, until she breaks out some surveillance footage around the area where Max was murdered at the time, and with the assistance of some NSA software she can clearly make out Michael's black Charger heading away at speed. That's when she pulls a gun and orders him to zip tie himself.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Burn Notice, Season 5, Episode 10

Once again the gang split up to do their own separate things in Episode 10.

Michael's under pressure from Pearce to provide his data on Max's killer and has some time to kill while Sam and Fiona go to contact an old 'friend' of Sam's who can possibly hack into the badly damaged computer that apparently belonged to whoever tried to frame Michael for Max's death.

The fly in the ointment is that Jesse wanted Sam to help him out on one of his security jobs, and as Sam is the only guy the hacker knows, it's not like someone else can fill in for him.

Michael offers to take Sam's place for Jesse and that works out nicely because Jesse also wants to use Maddie, but in a hands off no combat role, you just know from the moment he says that, it won't work out that way.

Michael pretends to be a low life hacker who is happy to go along with the guys Jesse is watching, and at that point it's been described as white collar crime, which even Maddie is happy about as these guys carry Blackberries, not guns. That all changes once they get into the building, which is located at an airport and the briefcases are opened to show Mach 10's and the little extra surprise of a hand grenade. From that point on it becomes a hostage situation, and pretty much turns into a Burn Notice version of Die Hard. Michael invents a ex special forces maintenance man by the name of Jack Marsden. How the criminals ever fell for that I do not know. Even the name sounds like the hero of an action film. Michael makes Marsden out to be a combination of Rambo and John McClane, and becomes the spanner in the works. He picks off the bad guys and then stages Marsden's 'death' which allows him to get the hostages out, one of whom is Maddie, and send the remaining criminals into the hands of the waiting police.

While all this is happening and Jesse is helping out on the sidelines, Fiona and Sam are contacting the hacker. Sam may have overstated their friendship. The last time Sam saw the guy he tasered him and put him in the boot of his car. Relationships are not helped by Fiona meeting him and then tasering him again to get him to help, they also put him in Fiona's car boot. Fiona points out that she's ridden in it before, so it's not so bad, but she's a small person.

The other problem with the hacker is that he's under house arrest and wearing an anklet, which they have to remove and then lead the police on a merry chase so that they can get access to the computer lab and try to glean something off the hard drive of the ruined computer. That's Fiona's job, and honestly her car is a great ad for Hyundai, I wonder if they paid for the advertising?

Michael gives Pearce his documentation, which I assume he's doctored sufficiently and in the mean time he has a flash drive from the computer data which may lead him to the real killer.

I have to admit I'm getting a bit disenchanted with this season. While they get to Max's killer inch by torturous inch, they tread water for most of the episodes. Not only was the main storyline of this one ripped off from Die Hard, it closely followed a previous Burn Notice, which served to give it all a feeling of 'seen this before'. I didn't notice it so much watching it week after week, but shotgunning them this way it becomes glaringly obvious that for whatever reason the people behind the show were running out of creative gas.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Favourite Fantasy Authors and Books A - Z (B)

Last week after doing the A's I promised you the B's, so here they are.

I'll kick it off with Clive Barker. Barker is better recognised as a horror author than a fantasy one, and even his best known fantasy works (Weaveworld and Imajica), tend to be more classified as dark fantasy. Clive Barker actually began his career as a film director in the 70's (something that he still dabbles in today) and only had his first book, collections of short horror stories published in The Books of Blood in the mid '80's. He followed that up with a number of novels, one of which; The Hellhound Heart, became the film Hellraiser (directed by Barker as he felt other screen adaptations of his work had not done them justice). At about the same time Hellraiser hit screens, he also published one of his best known works, Weaveworld. Barker is still writing and working in films, although most of his work in both mediums tends to be more horror than fantasy related, the novel Imajica is one notable exception.

Even in 1987 it was hard to find anything particularly unique or ground breaking in fantasy. That's what Weaveworld is, though. Once people realised it wasn't a horror novel, despite the author's reputation, it made it's way into the read lists of fantasy followers, it also got a fair bit of popularity as a mainstream novel. I haven't seen another story quite like it. It concerns the Seerkind, and how in their attempts to keep themselves and their people hidden from the non magical world which they called The Kingdom of the Cuckoo, they created a world called The Fugue, and wove it into a rug. An entire magical world contained within the weave of a hidden carpet. They're hiding from an avenging angel that they call The Scourge, who seeks to exterminate them. Two young people; Cal Mooney and Suzanna Parish, come in contact with the rug ,and are then drawn into a mad and dangerous adventure, both in and out of The Fugue, in which they are pursued by The Scourge, the ruthless sorceress Immacolata and the charismatic, but venal salesman Shadwell.

It's not just the idea, which is extraordinary, that sets Weaveworld apart from so many other works, but Barker's prose, which can be achingly beautiful and otherworldly all at the same time. His conception of faerie (which is really what The Fugue is), was so real, and at times I wondered if Barker was actually writing down a dream he'd had. It was fittingly nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1988 (it lost out to Ken Grimwood's equally astonishing Replay, that must have been a very strong year), and was both a commercial and critical success.

Further and related reading: Clive Barker has a fairly extensive catalogue, although only Weaveworld, Imajica and possibly The Thief of Always (written for younger readers, but also intended to be cross generational in appeal), are fantasy, and even they contain as many horror elements as they do fantasy ones. The rest of his work is largely horror, and none of it relates to Weaveworld, which is a standalone novel. I can't think of anything else that contains a vision like Barker's of the world within the carpet. There is Terry Pratchett's The Carpet People, but that's about a race of people so small that their world is a carpet, not a people that wove their world into one. Raymond Feist's foray into dark fantasy produced Faerie Tale, which has a similar feel to Weaveworld at times, although it tends to remind me more of Stephen King. Tad Williams has a different look at a fairy world in his standalone The War of the Flowers, and C.S Lewis used a similar concept of entering a world other than our own through mundane objects like wardrobes and paintings in his Narnia series. It's also hard to go past Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland books for brilliant prose and a mind bending vision.

L. Frank Baum (the L stands for Lyman) May 15, 1856 - May 6, 1919. Baum had a rather chequered career, working as a poultry farmer, operating a theater, storekeeper, journalist and salesman, before achieving immortality as the author of a much loved children's book in 1900 with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He had published plenty during the years when he made his living other ways than writing, but only The Wonderful Wizard of Oz met with much commercial success. Following the success of his first Oz book, Baum went on to write 13 sequels. In addition to the Oz books, he also penned 9 fantasy novels and numerous other novels, short stories and scripts. While he had great success as a writer, Baum's real love was the theater, and even in his lifetime he made a number of attempts to expand Oz beyond the printed page. There was a modestly successful stage adaptation in the early 1900's, although a follow up based on Baum's book The Marvelous Land of Oz, titled The Woggle-Bug for the stage, flopped. A musical version of Ozma of Oz did well enough in Los Angeles, but he couldn't convince producers to try it in New York. The Patchwork Girl of Oz (one of Baum's favourites amongst his own work) was made into a silent film in 1914. At one point L. Frank Baum announced plans for an Oz amusement park (which would have made it one of the worlds first, if not the first, ever theme parks), but nothing ever came of it, and it may have been one of the author's flights of fancy. He started his own film production company in 1914, but it wasn't greatly successful or productive, although Baum didn't lose a lot on it as he didn't invest much of his own money, unlike other failed ventures such as The Fairylogue and Radio Plays. The failure of that, combined with the stress of running the company, transferring it's ownership to his son Frank Joslyn Baum, and the fact that at the time Oz seemed to have become box office poison, contributed to L. Frank's rather early death at the age of 65.

I'm not as enamoured of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as many other fans are. It is however an important book in the evolution of the genre. Baum's intention was to write an American fairytale, something for the modern age, and he accomplished that with Oz, which is indentifiably, unmistakably American and the inclusion of characters like the Scarecrow and especially the Tin Man stamp it as something of a new age. He wanted to remove the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy from the story, although he did still have to include a witch. It's a brisk tale and moves along well, unlike some others though I don't personally think it has that cross generational appeal, it doesn't hold up that well to me on a reread as an adult. The opener and it's sequels did achieve plenty of popularity when they were released, and they're wonderful tales for children, but I'm unsure if it and they would have endured if it were not for MGM's 1939 film. Oz does seem to hold a particular fascination for American authors in particular, and this can possibly be explained by the fact that it was a truly American fairytale.

Further and related reading: first of all there are Baum's 13 Oz sequels, as well as the 26 written after his death, mostly by Ruth Plumly Thompson, but also featuring contributions by John R. Neill (who illustrated many of Baum's Oz books),  Jack Snow, Rachel Cosgrove Payes, Eloise Jarvis McGraw and her daughter. Fantasy author Sherwood Smith also wrote 3 Oz books that are recognised by the L. Frank Baum Family Trust. Eric Shanower and Skottie Young have been producing lavishly illustrated graphic novel adaptations for Marvel Comics. I'd avoid Philip Jose Farmer's Barnstormer in Oz, it's written for adults, and Farmer tended to provide graphic descriptions of both sex and violence in many of his books (A Feast Unknown was originally published as erotica). There have been many screen adaptations of A Wonderful Wizard of Oz, best known are MGM's 1938 Judy Garland film, the animated Journey Back to Oz (1974), featuring the voice work of Judy Garland's daughter Liza Minelli, the all African American The Wiz, originally a stage musical and then a film, as well as the recent The Great and Powerful Oz. Gregory Maguire's Wicked (the story from the witches point of view) was also adapted into the highly successful stage musical of the same name, and there has been talk about a film, Maguire's also written 3 sequels (Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men and Out of Oz). In 2013 John Joseph Adams edited the anthology Oz Reimagined, which contained Oz stories by writers like Seanan McGuire, Tad Williams and Jane Yolen among others. Williams' Otherland series had a computer generated world based on Oz as one of it's many simulations.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz isn't the first of the modern fairytales, nor was it the last. Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio and Lewis Carroll's Wonderland books predate it. J.R.R Tolkien's The Hobbit is very much a modern fairytale as is Alan Aldridge's The Gnole and Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland books about the heartless young September.

Now when I say that the above picture is of Terry Brooks I can hear everyone groan. Bear with me, and I will explain why he's here. Brooks was a practicing attorney when The Sword of Shannara was published in 1977, while the book met with plenty of critical derision, many claiming that it was a shameless rip off of The Lord of the Rings, it achieved commercial success, and Brooks wrote two sequels, which were vastly different from the original, and therefore also quite different from The Lord of the Rings. Plenty of readers believe that the second Shannara book The Elfstones of Shannara was a far superior book to the first one. Once he had a trilogy under his belt, Terry Brooks moved into the world of comic fantasy and wrote a number of Landover books, he was also continuing to add to the Shannara canon while doing this. Since the publication of The Sword of Shannara, Brooks has covered that world from all angles, writing sequels and prequels. Despite the criticism he's received, he has remained a popular author, and has been doing that full time for many years, and he's even got new Shannara novels slated for release in 2015 and 2016. Every so often talk about a TV show based on the books pops up, and that's happened again with the success of HBO's Game of Thrones and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films, however nothing solid has ever come about. There used to be a very active fantasy discussion forum on Terry Brooks' website, but that's since wound up, he does however still maintain a presence at

This was the one that started it all: The Sword of Shannara. It is often referred to as a Tolkien rip off and it's hard to argue that it's not highly derivative when you can find direct analogues to many of the characters, places and events in the book to The Lord of the Rings. However when it came out in 1977 if you wanted to read epic fantasy you had a choice of The Lord of the Rings...or The Lord of the Rings. I read The Sword of Shannara after The Lord of the Rings, and to be totally honest I had more fun with The Sword of Shannara. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy The Lord of the Rings, or that I couldn't see the similarities and I was probably reading it with the occasional 'I see what you did there' as I went, but as a fairly stock standard fantasy adventure The Sword of Shannara is a damned good read, put the negatives aside and just focus on the positives, and you'll have a good time. Also just to highlight a large difference, to the best of my knowledge The Lord of the Rings is not set on a post apocalyptic Earth, which The Sword of Shannara is. I'm one of those people who prefers The Sword of Shannara to the sequel, but then again that may be because Elfstones doesn't have Panamon Creel in it, and he was always my favourite character. The Sword of Shannara opened up the epic fantasy sub genre, it came out about the same time as Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series and paved the way for things like David Eddings' Belgariad and Raymond Feist's Magician, showed publishers there was a market for this sort of thing, and that turned epic fantasy from a very small niche to a thriving sub genre of it's own.

Further and related reading: there is of course Terry Brooks' many sequels and prequels, still coming out, as well as his non related Landover books, he's also written some non fiction (generally about writing as a craft), and did the novelisations of the films Hook and The Phantom Menace. Similar works to The Sword of Shannara? Well there is of course The Lord of the Rings, which inspired it. Talking about Tolkien rip offs, there's Dennis L. McKiernan's Mithgar series, which began life as a sequel to The Lord of the Rings. Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant, which made it's first appearance about the same time as The Sword of Shannara, I've never taken to the Thomas Covenant books, and I can't for the life of me understand why they escaped some of the same criticism levelled at Terry Brooks when they're every bit as derivative. Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is a little like a Tolkien homage, while managing to be fresh and original at the same time. Robert Jordan's massive Wheel of Time series is also another epic fantasy giant and also has the dystopian feel that Brooks mined in The Sword of Shannara, and later it's prequels.

Mikhail Bulgakov - May 15, 1891 - March 10, 1940. During his own lifetime Mikhail Bulgakov was best known as a dramatist. Prior to devoting his work to the theatre he trained as a doctor, and served in the Red Cross in that capacity during the First World War. He was badly injured twice and became addicted to morphine to kill the pain of his injuries. He quit the drug permanently in 1918, and later wrote a book (Morphine) about that period of his life. Following his work for the Red Cross on the front he went back to Russia, and in 1916 became the provincial physician to Smolensk province. He spent two years there and later wrote about the experience in A Country Doctor's Notebook (an adaptation of this was filmed in 2012 as A Young Doctor's Notebook, starring Daniel Radcliffe and John Hamm). He opened a private practice in his hometown of Kiev, and whilst there witnessed no fewer than ten coups. He was drafted into the army as a physician and found himself in the Northern Caucasus, he became ill with typhus and barely survived. This was where and when he started working as a journalist.

Following this illness he abandoned his career as a doctor and became a writer. Joseph Stalin developed a liking for his work (seeing one of his plays 15 times) and personally protected him and found him work, despite having banned some of his earlier plays. He attempted to emigrate a number of times, but permission was always refused on one ground or another. He began work on his most famous work The Master and Margarita in 1928, while continuing to work on other things, he kept a lot of his work hidden, because of repercussions and critical reception (rarely kind) and the bureaucracy that prevented nearly all of his plays from being staged, as well as the refusal to let him leave the Soviet Union, combined to make him strained and unhappy. He died in 1940, with the work for which he would become best known unpublished.

While Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a number of works that contained science fictional or fantastical elements it is for The Master and Margarita that he is best remembered. The book circulated in samizdat form for many years following the writer's death, but was not properly published until 1966 by his widow, who is believed to have been the model for the Margarita in the title. Bulgakov actually burned part of the manuscript and had to rewrite it from memory. It was written as a critique of Soviet society at the time Bulgakov wrote it and the literary establishment at whose hands he personally suffered. It's not really a linear novel, dealing with meetings between Satan and critics and poets debating the existence of Jesus Christ and the Devil. It has a human sized anthropomorphic gun toting cat (Behemoth) who is a favourite of those who read the book. There's also a marvellous description of a fantastical party. It has a story within in a story portraying the interrogation of Christ by Pilate and the crucifixion, this is the piece being written by the Master of the title. There is a reference in the book by the Master to the burning of the manuscript, so the Master is like a number of Bulgakov's main characters, semi autobiographical. It's one of the most original and fantastical books anyone can ever come across. It's also believed to be the inspiration behind the Rolling Stones hit Sympathy for the Devil.

Further and related reading: for a long time the only of Mikhail Bulgakov's works that was available in an English translation was The Master and Margarita, and even then you had to get a good translation. Now I believe that a number of his works, especially A Country Doctor's Notebook, can be found. They're very different to The Master and Margarita, though. I honestly haven't read anything else quite like it, although he has inspired a number of writers, most notably Mick Jagger for Sympathy for the Devil, and Salman Rushdie has admitted that it was an inspiration for The Satanic Verses.

My fifth and final of the B authors is Jim Butcher.  At the age of 25 Jim Butcher created Harry Dresden as an exercise for a writing class. I believe that story is published in the collection Side Jobs, and the character and idea is very rough when compared the more polished version for which the author has became famous. He wrote the first book of The Dresden Files, was lucky enough to find an agent who represented similar authors and work, and the rest as they say is history. Harry has since starred in 15 books, as well as the aforementioned Side Jobs, and all of them have made the NY Times list, generally at number 1. There was also a criminally short lived TV series starring Paul Blackthorn as the Chicago based Wizard for Hire. Butcher ranged outside of his genre of urban fantasy to produce the epic fantasy The Codex Alera, which was something he'd wanted to do as a kid, but was also connected to a bet he'd made with some fellow authors. He completed that in 6 books. The Dresden Files are ongoing, although the author has tried to cap it at about the 20 book mark, not sue if that's still the plan, though. There is a steampunk novel The Cinder Spire due out in 2015. He can be found on the web at and he also tweets as himself, Harry Dresden and Molly Carpenter (at one point Harry's apprentice).

I'm breaking one of my own rules here (what rules? There are no rules!) about including multiple books, or unfinished series, but I can kind of get away with it. The Dresden Files are all largely self contained, except for Changes, which was continued in Ghost Story, and while there is an overarching story, hence the author saying it will cap out at around book 20, they can mostly be read singly without necessarily having to have read what came before or after. However if you read one, you'll want to read more, because they are highly addictive. I can't really pick a favourite, so I'm putting the series as a whole here. It really did a lot to put urban fantasy on the map and make it more accessible and acceptable to readers, especially those who equate it with paranormal romance, which in a lot of cases is erotica with added vampires and werewolves. Over the course of the 15 books, Harry has battled with and against vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, wizards, witches, fairies, pixies, police and mob bosses, that's just a sampling mind you. One book actually featured him riding the skeleton of a T-Rex. What they are is fun and adventurous, and in a world filled with morally ambiguous anti heroes, Harry is a guy that you're not ashamed to want to succeed, because while he does sometimes make the hard decision, he's always trying to do what is the right thing. In terms of style, its fairly utilitarian, it gets the job done without making a fuss, it's kind of Gandalf if he'd been written by Raymond Chandler.

Further and related reading: I mentioned Jim Butcher's other writing outside of The Dresden Files, with The Codex Alera and the upcoming The Cinder Spire, which I believe is also the first of a series.
Because The Dresden Files are urban fantasy and that's a thriving sub genre, readers are almost spoilt for choice. I originally came to The Dresden Files via Simon Green's Nightside series, which I liked, but wasn't mad about, and then other readers recommended The Dresden Files as being similar, but better. Green did 12 of those, and I tend to think they're more like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere than The Dresden Files, but ymmv. Jim Butcher's original agent also represented Laurell K. Hamilton, and the early books of her Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series do bear some resemblance, Anita was a little like a female Harry, although after a few books they became more about sex than story, and now they seem to be a collection of who Anita's sleeping with held together by the thinnest of storylines. They've created a little sub genre of their own called Vampire Porn. Benedict Jacka's Alex Verus series is a little like a British version of Harry Dresden, he even cheekily references the series in the first book (Fated), only I found the protagonist fairly unlikeable, and he wasn't anywhere near as funny as the author seemed to think he was, and they were also very derivative, there's a fine line between being similar to and derivative, and Fated crossed it. Kevin Hearne has had some success with his Iron Druid series, about the 2,000 year old Atticus O'Sullivan, although after the first couple of books Atticus seems to mainly battle various pantheons of Gods, and his continual comedy monologue kills the tension and can become rather repetitive and unfunny after a while. The closest thing I can find to Harry is Seanan McGuire's October Daye stories, the first book was very similar in tone to The Dresden Files, while being something very different of it's own (no vampires or werewolves, the Cait Sidhe are kind of werecats, though), it just had that same faux hard boiled detective feel to it, the big difference between Toby and Harry is that Toby's half fae and spends most of her time investigating mysteries that involve the fae community of the San Francisco Bay Area. Mercedes Lackey's underrated and little known Diana Tregarde series is also something to consider if you want something like The Dresden Files, Diana refers to herself as a practicing witch, and she battles vampires, Gods and witches, there's only 3 books however, with no plans for more.

I've managed to cover dark fantasy, modern fairytales, epic fantasy and urban fantasy with those 5 authors. I wonder what the C's will bring.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Burn Notice, Season 5, Episode 9

This one was pretty well split in two as well. Sam and Michael got to go after the bomb maker and Jesse used Fiona on one of his private security jobs.

The bomber was an interesting character. Lucien, a former Romanian war criminal, he had all sorts of tricks up his sleeve to avoid capture and was almost impossible to interrogate as he knew every trick in the book. Michael threatened to arrange to have his daughter deported and he was still playing games with them, it wasn't until his allies actually proved that he was expendable by clearly considering him collateral damage when they came for Michael and Sam that he rolled over and gave them something.

While this was happening Jesse took Fiona on a security job securing the house of a pharmaceutical magnate, played with suitable sleaze by British actor James Frain, who specialises in that kind of role. I'm not sure how keen Jesse's employers would be about him taking a former terrorist who runs guns on the side along on a customer facing job (I'm sorry to describe Fiona in those terms, but it's accurate). Personally given the way Jesse allows what he does for Michael and how he involves the likes of Michael, Fiona and Sam in his legitimate business I can't see the private security job lasting.

Unsurprisingly Frain's character turns out to be fairly flexible when things like loyalty and ethics come into play. He actually ran out on a former partner, took his discoveries and trumpeted them as his own, left him to rot in a Chilean prison and to top it off romanced and married his wife. He was the one breaking into the house.

While Jesse worked against his employer from inside and used Michael as a nut job stalker who was prepared to burn the rest of the world to get the pharmaceutical magnate he blamed for his life falling apart, they took the guy down. This meant that Jesse's company didn't get paid for the work he'd done. Yet another reason why he may not be gainfully employed for that much longer.

This is probably one of the least involving seasons of the show. They haven't even come close to introducing anyone particularly threatening and we're half way through the season, the storylines seem to have run out of gas and are repeating themselves as well.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Burn Notice, Season 5, Episode 8

I don't know if the people behind Burn Notice had plans for Lauren Stamile beyond Season 5, but they did really want the audience to get to know Agent Pearce.

In this case Michael and Jesse are soloing with her somewhere on a Caribbean island while Sam and Fiona, with occasional help from Maddie, try to track down the bomber who attempted to blow Michael up.

While Pearce's superiors do want progress on the case of Max, they also want her doing other work, and one of those jobs is an extraction of a character called Cahill, who is selling classified information to the highest bidder. For an extraction like that Michael says he needs a team. Pearce tells him that they're it, but she is allowed to bring in an outsider, although they'd need government clearance. That rules out Sam, and very definitely Fiona, but Michael's smile tells Pearce that he knows someone and that someone is Jesse.

The meeting between Pearce and Fiona prior to Michael and Jesse taking off to the Caribbean with her is interesting. Fiona knew that Pearce was female, but Michael had neglected to mention just how attractive she is. Fortunately Fiona was wearing her trademark sunglasses, otherwise we would have seen glowing green eyes. Initially I was prepared to not like Pearce, both her attitude and her looks reminded me of Paxson (Moon Bloodgood, Season 3), however she grew on me very quickly.

It's kind of fun to see Pearce in the field and they soon realise that the job turns from a simple (when is anything in the world of Michael Westen ever simple?) extraction to a fight against a vicious mercenary. The mercenary in question is Miles Vanderwaal. Vanderwaal was another character first encountered in The Fall of Sam Axe. The name and occupation tends to suggest that he's South African, although David Dayan Fisher's British accent only has a nodding acquaintance with South Africa. I am pleased that they didn't attempt to overdo it with the accent, because they only would have messed it up.

Once they have to think on their feet Michael comes into his own and develops a plan of attack that Pearce says is insane, to which Jesse counters that she clearly hasn't known Michael for very long. There's a nice moment between Pearce and Jesse where she gets to know a bit more about Michael and starts to trust him more than she has before.

The rest of that story is pure Burn Notice. The three pretend to be consultants working for the mercenary's commander and they've found his operation wanting. Jesse gets to play the hard ass drill sergeant and we see some of Pearce's moves, too. Michael's speciality is turning one against the other and he does that here, letting Vanderwaal shoot his boss, then delivering the information and the mercenary to the waiting CIA team.

Back in Miami Fiona has examined the pictures Michael took of the boat bomb and the sliver of C4 he removed and has said that it's very good work, but she doesn't know who made it. She can find out, but it will require contacting and doing a favour for a slimy arms dealer by the name of Armand. Fiona doesn't like him, but he did get her out of Ireland when no one else could, so despite the fact that he's always hitting on her she does have an understanding with him and he will give them the information, especially after she and Sam agree to steal a specific arms truck for him. Fi does what he wants and says that this settles their ledger.

Fiona's less than happy that Michael only asks questions about Armand and how dangerous he was after he's gotten the information he required, whereas before he was okay for her to get it. They cut the argument short when Maddie arrives at the restaurant with her new boyfriend Benny, who seems refreshingly normal, he's either acting or he's going to wind up dead or in fear of his life, because of Michael's life Maddie can never have nice things. Sigh.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Burn Notice, Season 5, Episodes 6 & 7

Due to various circumstances I wound up watching these 2 back to back without a chance to review them separately so you get two. They're only peripherally related, so I'll do them as separate episodes.

Episode 6: Michael has to stall Pearce while he tries to find out who is impersonating him in the bodega, because if she or anyone else from the CIA see that footage, he is history.

We also find out why she's so focused on finding Max's killer, and it stems from an incident in her past where her fiancé was killed while on a mission that she was overseeing. Whether or not the Agency knew about the relationship I find it odd that after suffering a setback like that both personally and professionally that she's still allowed to handle the sort of cases that she does.

She has a mission for Michael. A group of Serbian terrorists have gotten hold of a WMD and if Michael can't find a way of getting it back quick, not only are they going to lose it, they'll also wind up exposing a deep cover agent and it will be Pearce's fiance all over again. 

Michael's plan is to use Carmelo (Miami's second largest heroin dealer) to do their job for them. The problem is that Carmelo and Michael Westen are not unknown to one another. They've crossed paths before, and the heroin dealer has threatened to kill Michael if he ever sees him again. Enter Sam Axe, or as he will be known in this episode Chuck Finley. Carmelo doesn't know Sam.

The fly in that ointment is the desk jockeys overseeing the mission and signing off on an expensive piece of surveillance equipment - a pair of glasses that double as a bug (shades of James Bond there) - Sam has met them before. 

This is where a one off telemovie starring Bruce Campbell (The Fall of Sam Axe) comes into play. It's set before Michael was burned and is largely how Sam wound up being discharged from the SEALs. Bruce Campbell is believable as an ex-SEAL, but though he does a good job of trying to hide his age and physical shape, he isn't believable as an active one. In the movie he runs up against two CIA agents, they're desk jockeys, and the movie was largely made to cash in on Bruce Campbell's popularity and to introduce some plot elements for Season 5. You don't need to see it, though. It's enough to know that Sam and these guys have encountered each other before and they don't like one another. Having seen the film adds a little more spice to it.

These two guys are almost prepared to see the mission fail to stick it to Sam. Fortunately Michael and Pearce won't let that happen and Sam's good enough at thinking on his feet to see it through and not get anyone (mostly himself) killed. The set up of the Serbian terrorist was brilliant and even featured Michael's favourite blueberry yoghurt. Sam knew Michael would have some on hand, so just said that the terrorist's hotel room would have it in evidence and Jesse and Michael were able to plant it. The yoghurt is a recurring theme, an earlier job saw Michael's payment in part consist of a lifetimes's supply of free yoghurt, as the grateful client owned a yoghurt bar.

Fiona and Maddie work as a 'mother and daughter' team to con an unsuspecting government employee into letting them use her facial recognition software to find out who was playing at being Michael. The guy is younger, and can pass for Michael on grainy black and white security camera footage, but wouldn't stand up to close scrutiny and they get him easily enough. The trick will be to then actually talk to him and find out why he did it and who for.

That's pretty much where that episode wraps up.

Episode 7 opens with Sam and Fiona continuing their search for Michael's impersonator. As they watch it looks like a group of heavily armed people are going to kill the guy. Sam gets into the house, gets the guy and his dog Mr Pickles out of the house and into Fiona's Hyundai and Sam takes off in the guy's truck, to lead the bad guys away and then continue his own escape.

Sam then tries to do a favour for his 'lady' (and given how much help she gives them, they owe her a few) by taking a job to try and talk to the ex-husband of a friend who hasn't returned his son to the boy's mother after an access visit. The talk turns into an armed affair, with the father clearly knowing a lot about guns, having a healthy distrust of authority and being very paranoid.

Fiona babysits the faux Michael, Jacob Stark, while they try and work out what he's into and if he's actually telling the truth and just took the job because he was out of work and it seemed like easy money advertised over the internet.

The kid's father; John, is part of an extremist para military group, and he takes his son to their compound. Sam does some surveillance and finds out that the show is run by some character on a power trip who calls himself Zecheriah and is described by Sam as the E.N.I.C (Extremist Nutbag in Charge). That is actually true. This makes him easy to fool, which is what they do to get the boy (who also suffers from extreme asthma) out, although it also makes him unpredictable and dangerous.

That part of the show was all very standard, although the action scenes were very well done and there was an excellent joke about Bruce Campbell's chin. Fiona is usually the one who comes up with those zingers. Although I know the Jesse Fiona thing was supposed to have been buried last season, it seems to be raising it's head again. The two work together a lot and their relationship does go beyond platonic. It's also worth noting that Fiona does still have issues with what sort of a person Michael is and just how far he's willing to go for the Agency. They had words about the situation he put Sam into in the previous episode.

In an interesting twist Michael actually pretends to be Jacob and goes to the boat he's directed to by his mysterious employer (who he never met or even really spoke to. It was all handled over the net or via text message). Unsurprisingly the boat has a bomb on board. Michael rigs the boat to sail out without a pilot and dives out the window, it blows up. Now Michael can look into this person and nail them to the wall for both trying to frame him and for killing Max.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Burn Notice, Season 5, Episode 5

The start of this episode is where I came in at Season 5 the first time around. It all makes so much more sense now! If anyone tells you that you can just drop in on an episodic TV show that's well advanced with it's storyline part way through a season don't believe them. It's not true. I always knew there was something missing, but couldn't figure out exactly what it was.

After finding Max's body and realising that he was being set up to take the fall, Michael sets about erasing his tracks. Jesse arrives outside the warehouse as Michael, Fi and Sam are about to destroy the gun used. He initially advises going to the police, which shows how naive he still has and how little he really knows about Michael's life before he appeared on the scene. In some ways Jesse is trying to build a normal life, but Michael Westen doesn't do normal.

It would have been no point going to the police, because the CIA have shut the site down and are all over it. Michael's teamed up with a new handler. The very attractive Agent Pearce (Lauren Stamile) a self described pit bull. She is however prepared to let Michael run his own investigation off book as long as it helps her find Max's killer, at this stage she does not appear to suspect Michael, though.

While doing that Michael is contacted by a former special forces commander who wants him to speak with one of his recent returnees about an issue. The returnee is an ex sniper, who was actually good enough to break Michael's record. He says it doesn't bother him, but you can see it does just a little.

That part of the storyline was pretty standard Burn Notice. The kid's sister has been put in hospital by someone and he suspects her boyfriend, it turns out that it was the scammers the boyfriend was working for. Michael, Sam, Fiona, Jesse and their new ally (he's one of those annoying clients who can't just sit back and let the gang do what they do best, but has to be there every step of the way) make the bad guy think they're a bigger, richer operation who want him to join them and expand his own horizons.

While it's nothing we haven't seen a few times before, I did like the fact that to reel their fish in they gave him Jesse's Porsche. It was very funny when Jesse's doing surveillance and just hoping nothing happens to the car. It did get a bullet through the windscreen (that was Fiona) and the back bumper got torn off, but it could have been far worse. I still remember what Michael did to his mother's neighbour's daughter's car, which Sam was using as his runabout at the time.

Fiona looks to have moved into the loft, she's 'Fionaed' the place. It has a breadbasket and potpourri and she's made him move the workbench and tools into the backroom rather than scattered over the kitchen. Jesse in particular ribs Michael about it.

There was never any doubt that they'd fix up the bad guy and have him brought to justice. The hot headed young sniper decides to talk to some CIA recruiters who are after his signature as an operative, and while he's learned a fair bit on this mission, I don't think he's Michael Westen Mark II.

The big shock comes at the end. Jesse and Fiona heavied the manager of the bodega where the cellphone used in Max's murder was purchased to give them the security tapes from that day. Michael then set Maddie up with a cartoon of cigarettes in front of the TV to watch them. It wasn't too hard to spot their guy. He wasn't Michael, but he looked like him, he wore dark glasses in the same style as Michael and even had his walk and posture down. Can't let the CIA get hold of them, because one look at the tapes and Michael's going to be down a deep dark hole for the rest of his natural born days.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Favourite Fantasy Authors and Books A - Z (A)

I was unable to sleep last night (very hot and sticky down here) and I pulled out an old book I have called 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels and began to flick through it. I don't know if I could make a list of exactly 100, I'd be sure to go over or under, and I don't like titles like Must-Read or Best Of, they're both quite subjective and always subject to debate and/or argument. I started to think about it, and thought that I could make a list from A - Z (although I may struggle to find authors that have names starting with letters like X or Q, possibly Y and Z as well) of favourite authors and their books that I like most.

Because it's a favourites list that's also quite subjective, but it's only my personal opinion. However because it is as personal as it is that will mean some interesting additions and omissions as well as a few quirks that are probably common only to me and how I view the genre.

Each entry will cover a letter and have the authors whose surnames start with that letter that I have chosen in it. There will be a brief author bio, the book of theirs I've chosen and then a further reading list with selected works by that author and related books by other authors (some of those will more than likely also appear in this list). So lets have at it!

Ben Aaronovitch. Alphabetically Londoner Ben Aaronovitch is first cab off the rank. Aaronovitch first came to the attention of the genre for his work on the evergreen British science fiction show Doctor Who. Prior to publishing his Peter Grant/Folly novels he was best known for Remembrance of the Daleks, a 1998 Doctor Who serial featuring the 7th Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and his companion Ace (Sophie Aldred). It's a highly regarded entry in the show by many fans and was ranked as the 10th best in a poll of fans done by the show's official magazine. The Peter Grant or Folly series (the author seems to refer to them as the Folly books and most readers call them the Peter Grant books), started in 2011 and has now produced 5 books, with more planned. Ben keeps a blog at and tweets @Ben_Aaronovitch.

There are 5 books in the series so far, but I tend to go for the series opener Rivers of London as my favourite of the 5. At the heart of it they're urban fantasy with a strong police procedural twist, which makes sense as the series' 'hero' Peter Grant is a bi racial London copper. While this one, and the books that follow largely concern themselves with Peter's learning of magic and his attempts to track down various London based (although the most recent book; Foxglove Summer, took him out of his comfort zone and into the English countryside) magical criminals, and most often the dangerous and mysterious Faceless Man, they're really about London and certain aspects of it and how it is an ancient and magical city. The title is so apt for the book, it's all about the city and the various waterways (it isn't just the Thames) that run through it, around it and under it, have been throughout the ages, and still are, the veins through which it's life's blood flows. I tend to rate the opener a little higher because it's the one that so skilfully introduces the concept and the main characters. The somewhat confused Peter, his ill-fated parter Leslie, his old and out of step with the modern world guvnor Nightingale, and their mysterious, largely silent and often highly amusing maid Molly. Although the books are all connected, and the 4th (Broken Homes) ended on a cliff, generally they're fairly episodic and self contained, so can be read singly and still give the reader some sort of a sense of closure.

Further and related reading: Rivers of London (which was for some reason called Midnight Riot in the US) was followed by Moon Over Soho, Whispers Underground, Broken Homes and Foxglove Summer. A 6th book, The Hanging Tree, is due out sometime in 2015. There's also a novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks available, and a few of the New Doctor Who Adventures published by Virgin. For a brief time Ben Aaronovitch had the weird stuff happens in London police procedural playground all to himself, before his fellow Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell produced the Shadow Police series (London Falling, The Severed Streets, with a third book also due sometime in 2015) got into the market. The Shadow Police books are even heavier on the police procedural stuff, lighter on the magic and somewhat darker, veering into horror territory at times, with a harder edge than Aaronovitch's Folly books. There was also a 6 issue comic put out by Marvel's Epic imprint during the 80's called The Bozz Chronicles which dealt with an alien, a former prostitute, a down on his luck American prospector and an aristocratic British detective investigating supernatural and science fictional happenings in and around London in the late 19th century. If you can track them down they're worth a read and highly entertaining, especially the interaction between Bozz and Mandy.

Another Englishman. Joe Abercrombie. Formerly a freelance film editor (he may actually still keep his hand in, but I think he's a full time author these days) Abercrombie first entered the world of fantasy in 2006 with the publication of The Blade Itself, the first volume of The First Law trilogy. By 2008 he had completed that trilogy and followed it up with 3 related standalone novels (Best Served Cold, The Heroes and Red Country), they were all set in the same world as The First Law and featured characters from that trilogy coming in and out of the stories. Having conquered the world of adult epic fantasy with those 6 books, in 2014 he set his sights on the field of YA fantasy with the publication of Half a King, the first book in a trilogy. The second volume; Half the World, has just come out and the final book; Half a War (see the theme in the titles) is due out later in 2015. All of the published books have gone on to sell well and been received positively by both fans and critics. He cultivates a rather sarcastic, narcissistic public persona, keeps a blog at and tweets as @LordGrimdark, which in typical Joe Abercrombie fashion is a reference to his perceived status as one of the leading voices of the subgenre known as 'grimdark'.

There's plenty of debate amongst fans as to which of Joe's 'Circleworld' novels is the best, and now with the publication of the 'Half' trilogy, people are rating those among his best as well, but my personal favourite is The Heroes. While there are some characters from the original trilogy and the previous standalone (Best Served Cold) and some slight spoilers for those, The Heroes can be quite comfortably read and enjoyed without knowing anything about them or having read them. The storyline for The Heroes is quite simple, it's basically coverage of a battle for territory, and it centres around a circle of standing stones which give the book its name, they are 'the heroes' of the title. The multiple third person PoV technique focusses on various participants in the battle and the eventual conclusion is that 'war is hell'. The book used a tagline: 'Three Men. One Battle. No Heroes' which summed it up perfectly. It contains plenty of examples of the dark humour that characterises Abercrombie's Circleworld books, as well as the overwhelming bleakness that in life no one really wins. Like most of his work it is very low magic and if it weren't on a secondary world about a battle that never happened, it could almost qualify as historical fiction. It's the characters and their stories that make it work, and it's the most satisfying of Joe's novels for me because of it's tight focus and short space of time. While it's full of the morally ambiguous anti heroes that are so beloved of the grimdark subgenre I felt I had a few people I didn't feel dirty about supporting as is so often the case with that particular subset of 'heroes'. It also contains some wonderfully written battle and action scenes, which are another hallmark of Abercrombie's work.

Further and related reading: there are the other Circleworld books by Joe and his two YA entries (which while they purport to be something new and different are really very similar to the Circleworld books but with less sex, violence and language. The setting is really the Northland in the Circleworld, and I can make direct analogues between some of the characters in those and his other books, it's just the names that have changed) to go on with. He draws inspiration from a number of sources. The Heroes in particular put me in mind of David Gemmell's Legend. There are also the other names in the grimdark field: Glen Cook and his Black Company books, Steven Erikson and Cameron Esslemont's epic Malazan series (both Black Company and Malazan contain considerably more magic than anything Abercrombie has yet written), there's also Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire trilogy, with it's young morally bankrupt protagonist Jorg Ancrath and it's bleak dystopian setting. At the time when The Blade Itself made it's appearance, I feel that Abercrombie must have drawn some inspiration from George R.R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, which is what people think kick started the whole interest in the grimdark subgenre, although he was far from the first person to write it or even coin the term, which originally began as a tagline for the Warhammer 40,000 A.D concept. With his Northland and his 'Vikings' there's people like Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliffe as well as the TV show Vikings.

I did kind of debate with myself about whether to include Richard Adams in this list (he does appear in the 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels list), but when you think about it he wrote books about animals that think like people, and one of them has visions of the future and it doesn't come a lot more fantastical than that. Richard Adams spent most of his working life as a civil servant before allowing his daughters to pressure him into putting the stories that he told them about wildlife to keep them amused on long car trips down into the form of a novel. That novel was Watership Down, and it was hugely successful, it enabled Adams to leave the civil service and devote his time to writing. It also spawned a successful animated feature film (although it's probably better remembered for the saccharine sweet Art Garfunkel chart topping theme song) and a television series. While Adams is best known for Watership Down, it wasn't his only novel and he had success with others: Shardik (a grizzly bear) and The Plague Dogs (escaped dogs used for scientific research) as well as a number of non fiction books, The Girl in a Swing (a suspense novel) and also a collection of shorts that revisited the site of his greatest triumph of Watership Down. Although in his 90's, Adams is only semi retired and still writes, although he hasn't published anything since a story in 2010's Gentle Footprints which was to raise funds for the Born Free foundation.

When you say Adams' name to most people they immediately think of Watership Down. I don't. I think my first exposure to him was through The Plague Dogs, it was a book my mother had heard about, and she borrowed it from the library to see what the fuss was about. I read it after her. It's not what anyone could call an enjoyable read. The subject matter makes it an uncomfortable thing to read, especially if you are, like me, a dog lover. The two heroes: Rowf and Snitter escape from a research facility where they have both been horribly mistreated (Rowf, being a big strong dog, was regularly 'drowned' to test his lung capacity, and poor little Snitter had part of his brain removed and is largely insane because of it). Because of where they escaped from they're pursued by all and sundry, partially due to the fact that they escaped, also because they kill sheep to survive and then a rumour starts that they're plague carriers. Despite being put through absolute hell, the book does have a happy ending, with Snitter being reunited with his long lost master, who he actually believed dead, and he also takes in Rowf. Adams' original ending was far more ambiguous, and that was used for an animated feature film adaptation in 1982. It has flaws. Adams liked using accents for his characters, he does it in Watership Down and again here with the character of the Tod (a fox), whose thick Geordie accent renders him almost unintelligible to people not familiar with the accent. It barely qualifies as fantasy although Snitter's 'visions' could be compared to those of Fiver in Watership Down, although they're probably driven by the experiments performed on the poor little terrier's brain. While the subject matter is important and real, it can be hard for people to read, and it doesn't have the cross generational appeal that Watership Down did, plus big mongrels and mad terriers aren't as cuddly as bunnies looking for a new place to live.

Further and related reading: now this one is a big field. Adams was different from many others who wrote 'animal novels' before him and after actually. Richard Adams' animals lived like they do in the wild, they weren't anthropomorphised, they didn't wear clothes, live in houses or drive cars, nor did they observe human customs, like invite each other around for tea. They did however think and interact like people on many other levels, the accents are an example of that. There were plenty before and since. A.R Lloyd's Kine is a wonderful book about a weasel and the summer that he and his friends took on and defeated the escaped minks that tried to take over their hard won territory. It's hard to mention animal books without recommending Kenneth Grahame's marvelous The Wind in the Willows (which will more than likely reappear in the G's), and I think Beatrix Potter's tales for children also qualify, as while her animals are more like people than Adams' were, she was a keen naturalist, and studied her subjects extensively both alive and dead to make sure she got her drawings and descriptions of behaviour correct. Brian Jacques Redwall series about a group of medieval adventuring anthropomorphic animals are a heap of fun. There's also Garry Kilworth's The House of Tribes, which is almost a Watership Down featuring groups of house dwelling mice in place of the rabbits. Kilworth wrote a number of animal novels featuring foxes, owls, hares and had a successful YA series called The Welkin Weasels. William Horwood's Duncton Chronicles is largely Watership Down with moles, he also covered wolves with The Wolves of Time and it's sequel Seekers at the Wulfrock as well as writing four sequels to The Wind in The Willows.  More recently Laline Paull has entered this subgenre with The Bees, covering the goings on in a dying hive through the eyes of one of the worker bees.

Not many people who read fantasy seem to have heard of Alan Aldridge. That's not really surprising as he is better known as an illustrator and graphic designer. His colourful, cartoony, psychelic pictures have graced many album covers, and he is remembered for his picture book The Butterfly Ball and Grasshopper Feast. I can remember the animated short from the mid '70's.  He also did a number of book covers. In 1991, in collaboration with Steve Boyett and Maxine Miller, he released a gem of a book called The Gnole, and that's what I know him for, although I had seen his work on album covers (he did the artwork for Elton John's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy) and as mentioned Butterfly Ball.

Hardly anyone now has even heard of The Gnole. You get a 'Huh? What's that?' when you mention it. It's one of my favourites of all time. It created a brand new creature: a gnole is kind of like a cross between a gnome and a mole, they live away from society by choice and have been around since the destruction of Atlantis, although it's quite possible that Fungle (the titular character) and his friend Neema may be the last ones left. He leaves his home in the Smoky Mountains to stop a demon from getting hold of a doomsday device. The world is a dangerous and strange place for a backwoods gnole on his own, but Fungle is equal to the task, and although he's captured for experimentation, the gnole captures the minds and hearts of the media, before escaping back to his home in the Smoky's. I should stress that this is about the lavishly illustrated trade paperback edition. Aldridge's illustrations grace it throughout and add to the story, which I suspect was mostly Boyett's work. That particular version of the book isn't all that easy to find now, but it's worth searching for. It's a modern day fairytale, and Fungle really deserves to be up there with Bilbo Baggins, but the book is for some reason often overlooked.

Further and related reading: Alan Aldridge really only wrote this as a full length novel, but if you can find The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast that's worth doing as it's a visual feast. Steve Boyett also wrote Ariel and it's sequel Elegy Beach, both are rather dystopian novels about what could happen to the world if technology was suddenly turned off and replaced by magic. It's hard to say what is like The Gnole as there isn't a whole lot to compare it to. As I said it's a modern day fairytale and two books that I can think of that do fit that bill, which will also appear in later posts, are Frank L. Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien.

Poul Anderson (November 25, 1926 - July 31, 2001) was one of the most highly decorated and respected writers of speculative fiction that has worked in the field. His first stories appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in the late 1940's, and he continued to produce work that ranged across the entire spectrum of the field. He was a founding member of the Society for Creative Anachronism in 1966, and the Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America led by Lin Carter, with an exclusive membership of 8. He was also the 6th President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Over his career he was awarded the Gandalf Grandmaster of Fantasy (1978), 7 Hugos, a John W. Campbell, a Locus, a Mythopoeic, 3 Nebulas, 4 Prometheus, made an SFWA Grandmaster (1997) and inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2000. If it was genre, you name it, Anderson wrote it.

I haven't read a lot of Poul Anderson (hangs head in shame), but that 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels book did prompt me to give The Broken Sword a try. It's rather hard to know exactly how to categorise it. On the one hand it's sword and sorcery, but on the other it's an epic fairytale retelling in grand Tolkienesque style, and because Anderson's background was from Northern Europe (his parents were Scandinavian and following his father's death he spent time living in Denmark, before moving back to the United States after the outbreak of WW II), he covers some of the same ground as Tolkien did in The Lord of the Rings. I say it's epic, but it's all of 274 pages, which would barely scratch the surface of one of today's doorstoppers. Despite the seeming brevity, Anderson packs a hell of a story into it. We've got changelings, fights between human tribes and those in the shadowy lands of faerie, there's incest and love, blood and violence, and some fantastic battles and fight scenes. This is grimdark before they'd hung a name on it. It won't take you long to read, but it will stay with you forever after once you have.

Further and related reading: I'd be here all day if I even attempted to list Poul Anderson's bibliography, which spanned more than 50 years and over 20 full length novels, as well as countless short stories. His work, especially The Broken Sword, which despite the Norse influences, is largely Sword and Sorcery, so was therefore influenced by the father of that subgenre Robert E. Howard, in fact Anderson actually wrote a Conan novel. His contemporaries were the likes of Lin Carter, L. Sprague De Camp, Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance among others (all of those were also members of the Swordsmen and Sorcerer's Guild of America), he's one of the few who can say he wasn't directly influenced by Tolkien despite having some common ground, because they were writing at the same time. Michael Moorcock has cited Poul Anderson as an influence, specifically mentioning The Broken Sword. He's never openly said it, but George R.R Martin had to have Poul Anderson as one of his influences and I can't see how Joe Abercrombie could deny it.

That's the A's. Join me next week for the B's.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Burn Notice, Season 5, Episode 4

Burn Notice goes hi tech as Michael matches wits with a ruthless young hacker.

Because of the end of this episode I am now convinced that I never saw the first 4 episodes of Season 5, and the rest of it makes so much more sense.

Remember how I wondered where Barry was in the last review? Well, someone must have heard me, because this is a Barry centric episode. While Michael and Max are trying to recover some vitally important information off a table, and Michael is annoying the life out of Max by continually harping on continuing to go after who burned him, despite all evidence saying that chapter of his life is done and dusted, Barry comes to Fiona and Sam for assistance.

Apparently everyone's favourite money launderer has a brother (as people often say when hearing this: 'there's two of them?), Paul (played by John Ross Bowie, better known as the speech impaired Barry Kripke from The Big Bang Theory, he doesn't have the speech impediment here and he's slightly less nerdy, but I can't see him as anyone other than Kripke), who has gotten himself into financial difficulty with a computer hacker.

I didn't know who the hacker would be, but the moment I saw the name Big Show in the credits, I knew who a heavy would be. I'd actually thought Michael may encounter the 7' 400+ pound wrestler, but it was Sam and Jesse, it was rather comical to see him throwing the two men (neither of whom are really what you'd classify as small) as if they were rag dolls. He turns out to be scared of the hacker, who is a relatively petite 20 something called Eva (Aviva Farber's portrayal actually put me in mind of an older, tech savvy version of Loretta McCready from Justified).

Michael then has to pull double duty to help the gang out with Eva. Max showed what a genuinely stand up guy he is by pulling a few strings to get them government level access to help Michael out on what is an unsanctioned operation. Max seems to be slightly in awe of Michael by now, largely because he makes hard things about their job look so easy and he has time to do other things outside of it.

Eva turns out to be one of his most dangerous opponents. Possibly due to her sheer ruthlessness, she had her giant accomplice scared to death of what she'd do if he double crossed her. It winds up taking everything Michael and the gang have to foil her and pull Barry's brother out of his situation.

Michael's PTSD seems to have conveniently vanished, which makes me wonder why he had it in the first place. As he's wrapping up his mission with Max he finds his partner dying of a gunshot wound on the floor. It becomes apparent that it's a set up and Michael is meant to take the rap for it. Why? Maybe he wasn't being paranoid when he insisted that the people behind his burning hadn't gone away and that they were still inside the Agency.

The new improved Charger makes it's reappearance as Fiona roars to Michael's rescue, using it as his getaway vehicle. 

The gloves are off and Michael is back to being a marked man.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Burn Notice, Season 5, Episode 3

It looks like the CIA has given Michael some time off in this episode and just as well because it coincides with him realising that he has PTSD and the reappearance of his brother Nate in Miami.

I'll deal with Nate first and then get onto the other thing. Personally if I was Michael and I heard my little brother was coming back to town, I'd find a reason to be elsewhere. Admittedly he'd never hear the end of it from Maddie, but for some reason Nate and trouble go hand in hand, and Michael nearly always winds up almost getting killed.

I will give him this, he is trying to do the right thing, he's left Las Vegas because it's not the best place for someone with a young family and a gambling addiction to be. I don't know what shape his marriage is in, because we don't see his wife, but he has brought his son with him to bond with Grandma Maddie, and this is the first time we see young Charlie Westen. At this stage the role is probably played by a baby sized doll, because all we get to see is a baby shaped object wrapped in a blanket being nursed by Maddie.

As is usual with Nate he brings trouble with him. Someone he used to know died and left his wife with a mountain of gambling debts owed to a violent and thuggish loan shark. Of course Nate recommends his big brother and Michael can't help himself.

The shark is a piece of work and Michael realises that the best way to do things here is to present himself as another low life owed money and set up the bad guy at the same time.

I have to admit Trey on the run from Vegas was one of Michael's best aliases. Along with a sleazy personality and a grating voice he also gave him the little quirk of continually getting well known cliches wrong (like: getting juice out of a stone), and refusing to accept it when someone tells him the real saying.

The plan is to set the loan shark up as an undercover cop and let his boss take care of him. They do this successfully, but then get blind sided when he turns out to be an actual undercover FBI agent. The show did that really well (like I said I either didn't see these episodes before or they have been completely erased from my memory banks), because up until the reveal I didn't see it coming.

Michael and Co then have to work fast and think on their feet to put the real bad guys away and get the undercover agent out of the pile of manure they dumped him in.

Given the nature of what they were doing there was very little of Maddie and Jesse in this episode. We got Maddie at the start bonding with baby Charlie and Jesse made a cameo appearance as a crooked police administrator working with Michael's low life Trey.

I have to admit I had issues with Michael's PTSD. I'm not surprised he's got it, most people would have by now if they lived his life, but why now? It just seems like a rather convenient plot point to have Michael lose it or freeze at exactly the wrong moment.

He was also back in the loft with Fiona, so maybe the apartment was for her (although she seems to spend all her time at the loft) or she didn't go through with the lease on it.

I can see Nate becoming a larger part of the show from this season on, and where the hell is Barry?