Wednesday, December 30, 2015

That Time of Year

December 31, also known as New Years Eve. This is the time of year when I look back over what I read throughout the year and picky my favourites. For the first time in a few years I reached triple figures. I managed 101 books, which is a pretty fair effort.

Of that 101 I chose 11 favourites. Bear in mind though that I made a very conscious effort to reread this year, so some of those comprise the 101 and it's not really fair to include them in this list. The majority of them are recent releases, although there is one older work amongst them. As always this is in no particular order, I don't rank things like that. They're listed as I read them.

 The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

By the time I found out about this it had already been out for a while and I had trouble finding the trilogy opener down here. It's a hard one to classify. On the face of it, it's science fiction as the Tao of the title is a member of an alien species who have to use a human host when on Earth. There's a historical fiction component as many of Tao's hosts have been figures of historical importance (Genghis Khan and Vercingetorix to name two of them) and he's an awful name dropper. Tao basically turns his host, the hapless Roen from an overweight, ambitionless slob into an ass kicking covert operative in a fight for control of the world's future. It's a wild thrill ride with plenty of humour and thoroughly entertaining. The two sequels: The Deaths of Tao and The Rebirths of Tao continue the fun and the story.

Soda Pop Soldier by Nick Cole

I loved Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, and this is in a similar vein, although it has a harder edge, and while I never really felt that the Wade in Ready Player One was ever in genuine trouble I didn't get that with Soda Pop Soldier. The title refers to what the main character does for a living. He competes in an online war game for money and works for a soft drink company. He finds out that the combat he's engaged in is very real and for a lot more than he ever thought. The action is brilliantly done and the reader feels like they've been thrown right into the thick of it and they're getting into firefights along with the online gamers. Highly recommended, especially if someone liked Ready Player One.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

This is the oldie. Up until this I had only read the Hugo Award winning Among Others by Jo Walton. Tooth and Claw, which won the World Fantasy Award in 2004, is completely different to that. It is an extraordinary book. After reading this no one can ever look at dragons in fantasy quite the same way again. Jo Walton's dragons love their gold, and they're large scaly beasts who breathe fire and have ferocious tempers, but everything else comes straight from the pages of Jane Austen. If Jane Austen were a dragon then she would have written Tooth and Claw. Other authors I've read have tried to mimic Austen's style and language, but no one has nailed it the way Jo Walton did in Tooth and Claw. Recommended for lovers of dragons, Jane Austen and anyone who appreciates good literature.

Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant

I cheated a bit this year and included a few novellas in my list. Rolling in the Deep is one of them. Mira Grant for anyone who doesn't know, is the pen name of urban fantasy (October Daye, InCryptid) author Seanan McGuire. Whereas Seanan McGuire writes dark but often amusing urban fantasy, Mira Grant has made her name writing zombie fiction (Newsflesh, Parasitology). I really loved Newsflesh, especially the series opener; Feed, but was less taken by Parasitology, in fact I bailed after the second book and didn't bother with the third. After reading Rolling in the Deep, I am convinced that Mira should give up the zombies and branch out into other weirdness. Rolling in the Deep isn't about zombies, it's about mermaids. It's written about a team going in search of mermaids for the purposes of a mockumentary. Bit by bit they discover that mermaids are in fact real and that they should never have gone searching for them. It's done so well that while reading it I was convinced I'd seen it on TV. Someone should really pick this up and make it into a one off TV special. It would hardly require any adapting from how the novella is written.

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

Ian Tregillis first came on my radar with the utterly brilliant Milkweed triptych (Gretel *shudder*). I was eager to read The Mechanical, the first of The Alchemy Wars trilogy. He did not disappoint. Ian Tregillis' books tend to defy easy categorisation. Milkweed had elements of science fiction, fantasy and alternate history. The Mechanical has all those and he's thrown steampunk into the mix this time. It's set in an alternate early 20th century where through their ability to control robots, the Dutch have become the world's pre eminent superpower and are engaged in a war on North America with the French, who are attempting to resist them. The story of the book follows Jax, a 'mechanical' who finds out how to resist the geas that compels him to do whatever his masters order him and thus becomes an important pawn desperately wanted by both sides for the potential and the threat that he represents. I've also read the sequel; The Rising, and if the 3rd book delivers then Tregillis has created another classic. Possibly one of the most underrated authors in the genre at present.

Vicious by V. E. Schwab

An aptly named book. It's a short, nasty little fable. Brutal in both the way it is told and the language it uses. No one gets out of this one unscathed. I was often reminded of Chuck Wendig's Miriam Black books when reading it. The short punchy way Schwab tells her story is reminiscent of Wendig's writing, although she's less visceral. Nothing is wasted, though. It doesn't use many words and the reader doesn't need them. Plenty of others could take note of the bare bones approach and their own bloated tomes may benefit from application of it. The lead characters have powers that they don't want and rather than helping them, they have become a curse that they can't escape. A book that stays with the reader long after they have finished it.

Crooked by Austin Grossman

I really enjoy what Austin Grossman writes (he's the twin brother of Magicians author Lev Grossman). The only thing that his three books so far have in common is that they're all fictional autobiographies. Whereas his first two (Soon I Will Be Invincible and You) were about fictional characters, one set in a world that most definitely wasn't real and one in a world that was, Crooked is about Richard Nixon (yes, that Richard Nixon) and is by the former President of the US himself. It sets out to put the record straight. Nixon was wronged. He spent most of his life fighting to save the world from a dimension of demons that sought to control it. It would explain an awful lot if it was true. It's funny, scary and informative. It probably won't get the recognition it deserves, although io9 did list it as one of their favourites for 2015.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

I don't generally rank one of these books above any of the others, but if pressed I'd have to put Becky Chambers' debut on top. It is an extraordinary book. I don't generally play well with science fiction, but this one held me from go to whoa. I literally couldn't put it down at times. I laughed and I cried. There isn't a lot of story really, but it's just a wonderful tale about the crew of the small craft as they travel through space doing their job and living their lives. It's one of the few science fiction stories I've seen where it has genuinely alien races that seem real. Becky Chambers managed to create a highly believable future. I felt that I could get in a time machine, fast forward a few hundred years and I'd be in her world. Everyone should read this, absolutely everyone!

Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente

This is another of the novellas. I adore what Valente does with words. I'm convinced that she met the devil one night at a crossroads, pricked her finger with the point of a fountain pen, then signed a contract with her own blood to make her the best wordsmith in the world. I don't even really know what the story of Speak Easy was (it's apparently a retelling of the story of Twelve Dancing Princesses set in a lushly imagined jazz age), but I was just transported by her incredible descriptions and the concepts that she deals in. When I open up a Valente book I'm taken into a world of words and concepts so real that I can almost touch them, and I'm somewhat disappointed when I close it and know that this only exists in our imaginations.

The Builders by Daniel Polansky

At just over 200 pages The Builders is long for a novella, but that's how it's described. Considering that some pages only contain a paragraph, the page count is cheating a bit. Polansky is considered one of the wave of grim dark authors out there, and The Builders fits that. Imagine if The Wind in the Willows had been discovered and adapted for the screen by Quentin Tarantino and you'll get some idea of what The Builders is. It's a sort of blood soaked Magnificent Seven, only Yul Brunner is a world weary, one eyed rat. I was held entranced by the whole thing, it's one of those ideas that seems so mad it can't possibly work, but it does. I read it over the space of a day. Well worth taking the chance on.

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

This is the book based on the highly successful podcast. I hadn't actually ever listened to the podcast when I picked the book up (I have since and it's a wonderful little piece of insanity). I can't really describe the book. It's largely about two residents of the strange little desert community of Night Vale trying to escape the odd town. A town where librarians are dangerous and where angels all called Erika live with and help out Old Woman Josie. The whole thing made no sense, but at the same time was compelling in that if I thought about it I could see metaphors for everything so it therefore made perfect sense. One of the oddest things I've ever read, but also very satisfying.

That's my 2015 through the pages of a book.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Robin of Sherwood Season 1 - Episodes 1 - 3

Yes it is that time of year again. You know when the TV networks assume that EVERYONE goes on holiday and NO ONE EVER watches TV, unless it's sport, so they show absolute garbage (even more so than usual). When that happens and we've run out of stuff to watch we either watch or rewatch something and I blog it.

The last couple of years have been my choice. Disney animated films one year and last year the great James Bond rewatch. This year my wife chose and she went for Robin of Sherwood, the mid 80's TV version of the heroic archer/thief.

This year I'm in the same boat as she was last year. She'd never seen any Bonds prior to Pierce Brosnan, so only had limited knowledge of the franchise. I did see the first few episodes of Robin of Sherwood when they first came out, but they didn't rate well here and the network showing it started to play lucky dip with the timeslot, so I lost track of it. Then I saw and ad for the show and Michael Praed had suddenly morphed into Jason Connery and I thought I was pretty well out of it.

I have to say I really like the casting of Michael Praed as Robin and always have. I can get behind a long haired brunette Robin with dark hot eyes. He's probably a little too clean, but you can't have everything.

The show begins with a good old fashioned village burning. Robin's father Ailric (how he wound up being called Robin, when his father has a very Saxon sounding name I do not know) saving him and then confronting the Sheriff of Nottingham at a sort of mini Stonehenge. Apparently Ailfric was the keeper of an arrow with mystical properties. The mystical thing is one part of Robin of Sherwood that differs significantly from past and future attempts to chronicle Robin Hood in film and TV. There are mystical overtones throughout the show. This was big at the time the show was made (mid 80's) for anything that was set in medieval times, and when you take into account that the show runner; Richard Carpenter, was best known for a comedy series about a time travelling medieval monk (Catweazle) it's probably now that surprising.

After the Sheriff has killed Ailfric and taken the arrow (it was silver and rather resembled a cartoonish cruise missile) the show jumps forward 15 years and an adult Robin is shown rescuing his imbecilic foster brother Much from killing a deer in the forest. It's a staple of the Robin Hood legend that no one other than licenced foresters could hunt in the King's forests (all of England's woods) and to get caught doing carried severe penalties. If the hunter was lucky they'd be maimed and if unlucky executed.

This leads to a confrontation with Guy of Gisborne. I was used to Richard Armitage's portrayal of Guy in Robin Hood and even with  his vinyl drizabone he was more menacing than Robert Addie's version. He's very fair and looks quite young, he's also not all that convincing, he tries, but I just can't take him very seriously.

Over the course of the 3 opening episodes Robin gets into and out of scrapes, generally makes Guy look quite stupid and survives plenty of scheming from Nickolas Grace's Sheriff (also outplayed by both Alan Rickman in the Kevin Costner version Prince of Thieves and Keith Allen in the earlier mentioned Robin Hood) and the Sheriff's rather dopey younger brother Hugo (the requisite evil cleric).

Audiences also meet most of the Merry Men: Will Scathlock (a very young and surprisingly good looking Ray Winstone, with a much softer accent and voice than I was used to hearing from him), Friar Tuck, Little John (originally under a compulsion to serve the devil worshipping Baron Simon de Belleme - I kind of thought that they were shaping him up to be another antagonist like Guy, the Sheriff and Hugo, but he was killed off in the second episode.) Maid Marion (interestingly enough with curly red hair, first time I've ever seen that casting decision made, although I guess a case could be made for the one in Disney's animated Robin Hood being a redhead as she was a fox) and Nasir the Saracen, this was the first time a Saracen was cast as a Merry Man, but since that it's become fairly common. Apparently Alan A'Dale also appears, but he hadn't by the end of episode 3. We had two others Tom and Dickon, but they died in episode 2, so I assume that they were the show's equivalent of red shirts.

One interesting addition is that of Herne the Hunter, who adds to the mysticism angle. This is helped by Clannad's haunting theme Robin (The Hooded Man) and the fact that episode one and two were called Robin Hood and The Sorcerer and episode 3 The Witch of Eilsdon. I did find it eyebrow raising that Robin develops a sort of ceremony honouring Herne and both Marion (previously promised by Hugo to the church as a nun) and Tuck go along with this, not only not protesting, but happily drinking from the bowl representing blood and murmuring 'prayers' to the pagan idol.

Production values are quite high, some of it is dated and they cut the fight scenes to limit the depiction of violence and death, but that's all part of making a TV show, which may be of interest to minors in the 1980's. Acting is spirited if not necessarily high class, and it's quite interesting. The first 3 were all quite self contained  and have familiar scenes from the legend: Much killing the deer, Robin escaping Nottingham, showing up in disguise to win an archery contest, rescuing Marion, attacking a tax collector, fighting Little John in a river with staffs.

I will be interested to see what else they do with the accepted legend and how they depart as the show unfolds.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars and Me

I'm one of those people who is old enough to remember seeing Star Wars (it wasn't called A New Hope then, in fact I don't think we knew it was Episode IV until a fair while after release) at the cinema when it was a new release.

This isn't really a review of The Force Awakens (there are at least 1,000,001 of those already out there and people loved it, hated it or are somewhere in between) it's more of a personal journey through my Star Wars experience up until last Friday when I saw The Force Awakens.

My initial introduction to Star Wars was not through the first movie. My interest was sparked by seeing a trailer for that film at a screening of something else. I don't remember what that film was, but I do remember being enraptured by the trailer for Star Wars and every other person in the cinema (except for perhaps my mother who never understood the appeal of Star Wars) thinking 'I want to see that film!'

By the time Star Wars hit our screens (back then Australia was about 6 months behind the US for new releases, and as there was no internet then very little chance of being spoiled) I'd toys, cards in gum and a novelisation subtitled The Adventures of Luke Skywalker (that intrigued me more than anything really).

I adored Star Wars. It had flaws, but 11 yo me didn't see them. This was the best film ever. Flaws and all (I can see them now) it still remains one of my favourite films. Han Solo became my favourite character. People played at being all sorts of characters, but I always wanted to be Han. He was just so effortlessly cool.

Waiting for a new film was torture, but there were other things to occupy the young minds that Star Wars had captured.

One of them was this novel. I didn't know anything about a sequel. Then a friend of mine brought this to school one day. Note the name on the cover: Alan Dean Foster. I actually really like Foster as an author (his Spellsinger series is a personal favourite), at the time he had never been given a credit on the cover of the Star Wars novelisation, which he wrote. George Lucas' name appeared as author of both the film and the book.  

Splinter of the Mind's Eye gets a pretty bad rap these days. I don't know why. I've read it a few times and find it an entertaining science fiction novel. It is true that if it had been the sequel to A New Hope, it would have sucked. It just doesn't have that epic feel to it. However I don't think that was anyone's intention. It was just a story set in the Star Wars universe. Reading it also readers are left in no doubt that Luke and Leia are not brother and sister. Foster has said that at the time he wrote the novel he had no idea that was the direction that George Lucas was heading with them.

One quibble with Splinter of the Mind's Eye is that there's no Han, however I soon found something else to satisfy that longing.

Respected science fiction author Brian Daley decided to do a trilogy focussing on everyone's favourite space smuggler. I first found out about the existence of the books from an excerpt that was somehow published in one of the magazines my grandmother read when I was staying at her house during a school holiday. Not long after reading it, little old Star Wars obsessed me had tracked down the novels.

I'd read at least the first two before The Empire Strikes Back hit our screens. The final was published in 1980, but I probably didn't get my hot little hands on it until after Episode V had premiered here. They're set not long before Han and Chewbacca meet Luke and Ben in the seedy dive in Mos Eisley. I think Han is talking about taking on the Kessel Run at the end of the last book.

I loved seeing Han star in books and filling in some of his back story. A hot shot pilot, who was betrayed by his commanding officer over an affair of the heart and then drummed out of the force, because the only person who was willing to speak up for him was over 2 metres tall and covered with hair. As Han himself bitterly said when asked about the incident, "Who's going to believe a Wookiee?" Ann Crispin also later wrote a series about Han pre A New Hope, which may have explored that further, but I think it fell into the EU category and none of that is canon anymore. The last Han novel I read was Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn, and to be honest it left me kind of cold.

Despite really wanting to see this I wound up having to make two treks into the city (the new releases were always on in the city and we had to wait sometimes months for them to hit the suburban cinemas) to see this. The first time was with my friend Oscar and we took one look at the lines and said forget about it. My parents took me in a week or so later, we got in that time, but even then there was a lengthy wait and an absolutely packed cinema.

I know plenty of people swear this is the best Star Wars movie ever. I'm not one of them. Don't get me wrong, it's a damned good film, but I just didn't get the OMG best film ever! vibe from it. Oh, yes my mouth dropped open when Vader let fly with 'I am your father.' I always found Yoda kind of annoying and never liked the way he treated Artoo (who is probably my favourite character after Han).

Liked it a lot, but didn't love it and while I wanted to see how it turned out I wasn't left with the 'must see more' feel I had after coming out of the cinema seeing A New Hope for the first time.

I kind of drifted away from science fiction, even pulpy stuff, and got more into fantasy over the intervening years.

After hearing a fairly lukewarm interview by Harrison Ford about the 3rd film in the trilogy, although even then Lucas was making noises about doing Episodes 1, 2 & 3, followed by 7, 8 & 9, I had misgivings about this one. I didn't know at the time that Harrison Ford had never really been that enamoured of his role and had been trying to get written out since A New Hope. Considering that neither he or Alec Guinness ever really liked the films, it gives their performances even more weight and shows what professionals they are.

Then a few friends saw it and they weren't that keen on it, either. This could be due to the fact that what really excites you at the age of 11 or 12, does not do the same to a jaded 17 or 18 year old cinematic palate.

I liked it as a film, but again it was more a sense of relief that it was all over and finished off properly rather than anything else. The Ewoks were cute, but their part in the film was overlong and became tiresome rather than funny after a while. I still can't believe they got their own film later on.  

I've never really been a fan of the Luke and Leia long lost twins idea. I always found Vader's turnaround to be incredibly unbelievable and I still wonder at how Palpatine suddenly got all that power. Not even the prequels really explained why he has the head of the Sith, If anything that should have been Count Dooku and he wasn't even a Sith Lord.

After Return of the Jedi Star Wars was pretty much over for me. I had heard rumours that Lucas wanted to make the other 6 films in his originally envisioned 9 episode series, but no one knew if he really would do that, and he seemed to have plenty of other things on his plate at the time.

I did read some of the sequels that were written after when the EU kind of kicked off, but they didn't really grab me. They didn't have the same sense of wonder that the original films and related novels had for me. I also realised that they were going to keep putting out these things endlessly and I didn't want to be locked into that.

So, the next Star Wars moment for me was:

Okay, the title sucked, but it had Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman in it, and it was Star Wars, how could it miss? Oh, how naive we all were. The only person to come out of this film with his reputation intact was Liam Neeson. Qui Gonn should have been Obi Wan. Qui Gonn was cool, Han Solo cool. Totally believable, except for the bit where Darth Maul killed him. That wouldn't have happened. Qui Gonn could play Maul on a break and still come out on top.

Pretty much everything else they got wrong. Natalie Portman, good actress though she is, suffered from a lack of direction and bad dialog. Ewan McGregor tried hard, but I always felt he was miscast as Obi Wan, even 30 years on and having led a hard life as a hermit in the desert world of Tattooine I just couldn't see him turning out as Alec Guinness (I have similar issues with James McAvoy as a young Charles Xavier in the X-Men films, he just doesn't turn into Patrick Stewart). Jar Jar was simply a bad idea and totally unbelievable. There's a bit where Qui Gonn grabs his tongue, because he keeps flicking it out at the dinner table, he should have yanked it right out.

I liked Watto, but God that kid annoyed me. He does not turn into Darth Vader! He cannot! Then there were the midichlorians and so many other things that just didn't work for the audience.

Despite this we all turned up a few years later when this hit our screens:

I'd always been fascinated by the concept of the Clone Wars right from the time they were first mentioned in Obi Wan's cave, but then I saw this film and a friend and I came out saying to each other: 'What? How can the stormtroopers be clones? That just doesn't work. They've screwed up A New Hope for us.' Apparently if people watch the animated series it fills in some blanks. I never did that. I just can't come at the idea of Star Wars as a cartoon.

Again there's just so much wrong with this film. Once again the dialog sucks. I would have begged George Lucas at this point to hire someone who can write dialog, because he can't. Even as far back as A New Hope, Harrison Ford was telling him: "You can write this shit, George, but we can't say it." The one bright spark and something that may have made it a better film was the distinct lack of screen time given to Jar Jar. I also liked seeing Yoda fight. Most people hate that, but to me it made sense. What else was he going to do? Spout Jedi logic at Dooku while he gets sliced and diced?

Yep, came out of that one feeling more than a bit ripped off. However nothing was going to stop me from seeing the conclusion.

I don't know that it was really revenge as such. I still call it Rise of the Sith in my head. I think it got the title because Return of the Jedi was initially going to be called Revenge of the Jedi, but it was scrapped because it didn't test as family friendly.

Again story and dialog sucked. For God's sake, George hire a proper writer! It's not like you can't afford it. Acting was barely adequate. It felt rushed. They compressed the extermination of the Jedi and Anakin's turn to the dark side into a very short space of time, so the audience never really bought it. Natalie Portman had an incredibly short pregnancy. It also required retconning of one of Leia's speeches in the original trilogy when she talks about remembering her mother. I assume she's talking about Bail Organa's wife, who she believed was her mother up until Return of the Jedi (I'm going with the fan theory that Luke and Leia are not Anakin's kids, but Obi Wan's and in my head Owen Lars is actually Obi Wan's brother, not Anakin Skywalker's step brother). At the end I kept wondering how on Earth did Obi Wan age about 40 years in 20, as well.

I never really invested in the film and during it I kept wondering if Richmond had won their football match that night and couldn't wait to get back to the car so I could turn on the radio and find out. I also missed the first episode of the new Doctor Who to see the film. Took me years to catch up on that episode, too. Yes, I am a nerd, and damn proud of it!

In hindsight the prequels were a mistake and I don't just mean that they were bad films, poorly written and suffering from pedestrian directing, but there was a whole air of them: 'We know what happened. These are just expensive ways of filling in some minor blanks.' No one ever really wants to go into a film knowing the ending, and we went through 3 of these. In many ways it would have been better if they'd never been made and fans filled in their own blanks or read professionally written novels covering the events before A New Hope. If only Lucas had realised that he didn't need to start with Episode IV.

I won't say much about The Force Awakens, other than I frakking love it! I'll need time to watch it again and think about it before I can give much more of a review than that. As far as where do I put it in terms of rating the films? IV always comes first, I put The Force Awakens on a par with V, then VI (I wasn't impressed with Return of the Jedi) and the sequels are varying levels of bad, if I have to rate them then it's II, followed by I (Jar Jar loses it points) and III comes a very distant last. It's one of the worst films I've ever seen.

The Force Awakens almost wipes the prequels away for me. It's new, it has new characters and old characters, we love the world, it reminds us of what we love without going over the top and totally just fan servicing. Yes, the plot is very similar to A New Hope, but A New Hope itself is a fairy tale set in outer space. Luke is a farm boy who rescues a princess from an evil wizard for God's sake!

What The Force Awakens does is feel like an old fashioned Star Wars film. The sense of wonder I got as an 11 yo watching that trailer all those years ago is back.