Monday, March 19, 2018

Musical Monday - For a Few Dollars More by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra

Released in the United States just after A Fistful of Dollars as kind of a sequel to that movie, For a Few Dollars More also features a score composed by Ennio Morricone, and once again the Danish National Orchestra knocks the theme song out of the park with this live rendition of the piece.

Morricone seems to have written the score for this movie in much the same way as its predecessor, with the added twist that many of the motifs contained within the music were intended to sound like the chimes of a music box-like pocket watch that features heavily in the plot of the film. Because of this, the music gives the movie a kind of fairy-tale feel, albeit a violent money-and-revenge-driven fairy-tale.

Previous Musical Monday: A Fistful of Dollars by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra

Shania Twain     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Book Blogger Hop March 16th - March 22nd: My Copy of "Last and First Men" by Olaf Stapledon Is 246 Pages Long

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Who is your favorite children's books author and why?

Andre Norton

Though there are a number of other science fiction and fantasy authors who have written books aimed at younger readers who I have enjoyed quite a bit - Lloyd Alexander, John Bellairs, Susan Cooper, and so on - there really is no choice other than Andre Norton for me. The only real caveat here is that Norton's books may or may not be properly classified as "children's books", as most of her writing was published before the defined market categories of "young adult", "middle grade", and "children's book" had really solidified. I do know that I started reading her books as a child, specifically starting when I was in third or fourth grade, so I'm going to go with that experience and say she qualifies as a valid answer to this question.

Norton holds a special place for me due in large part to her ubiquity in school libraries when I was a kid. My family moved around a lot when I was younger: My father was in the foreign service, and being the child of a foreign service officer is kind of like being the child of someone in the armed services, except that instead of moving from military base to military base every few years, you move from the capitol city of one country to the capitol city of another every few years. When I was young, my family moved to (among other places) Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Kinshasa in what was then Zaire (but is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Lagos in Nigeria. When I graduated from Woodberry Forest School, the three years I spent as a student there was the longest period of time that I had ever attended the same school.

Norton features in the story of my childhood because one of the first stops I always made when starting at a new school was the school library. There weren't public libraries (or at least not public libraries that were accessible to me) in many of the places my family lived when I was younger, and bookstores were few and far between, so the school library was my only real source for new reading material. My parents had a reasonably well-stocked home library, with copies of a couple of Abrashkin and Williams' Danny Dunn books, quirky books like Brinks' Pink Motel and Nash's Mrs. Coverlet's Magicians, and a collection of classic books that was theoretically at younger readers that included Treasure Island, Gulliver's Travels, Toby Tyler, Swiss Family Robinson, and others, but I burned through those at a pretty rapid clip.

Maybe I just got lucky, or maybe Andre Norton's books were just a common feature of school libraries when I was younger, but I could always count on there being several books that she had written available. Given that Norton was quite prolific as an author, there were usually some books of hers that I had not already read, although I did end up reading some of her books more than once although in some cases it was unintentional as there were several of her books that were published with multiple covers, and a few that were published under alternate titles. I read so many Andre Norton books as a kid that as an adult I am often uncertain if I have read a particular story of hers or not. There are a number of her stories that I am certain I have read, including Judgment on Janus, Victory on Janus, Witch World, The Zero Stone, Moon of Three Rings, Star Man's Son, Quag Keep, and Star Guard, but there are others where I remember something of the plot and characters, but the title has completely slipped from my memory.

There were other authors who I enjoyed a lot, but none really offered the range that Norton did. Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain is a magnificent series, but once you get past that, his books are mostly light fantasy and not much more. Tolkien is a giant in the fantasy fiction genre, but after one had read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and then waded through The Silmarillion, there wasn't much else of his available in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When one picks up a Norton story, on the other hand, one can find a fantasy, or a space opera, or a time travel adventure, or a post-apocalyptic tale, or even a western or a story based on a role-playing game. What I could be certain of, is that a Norton book contained a story that I would enjoy reading.

I had a weird path into being a science fiction fan. Although I had read some short science fiction before then, my first science fiction novel was Samuel R. Delany's Nova, which is an unusual entry point. But after that, my reading in the genre was dominated by Andre Norton's work. Before I turned ten I had read dozens of her books, and before I entered high school I had read dozens more. In a sense, Norton shaped my view of what science fiction, and to a lesser extent fantasy, are as genres. More than that, Norton gave me (and continues to give me) literally hundreds of hours of enjoyment via her writing, and that's why she is my favorite children's author.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review - War and Craft by Tom Doyle

Short review: Even though they are in exile and on the run, Morton, Endicott, Marlowe, and Rezvani re called upon to save the world one more time. The real question this time is not who will survive, but whether anyone at all will.

A magic wedding
Flight from danger to danger
Then, apocalypse

Full review: War and Craft is the third, and definitely final, book in Tom Doyle's American Craftsmen series, a fantasy that posits the existence of magical craftspeople in the modern world who are mostly tied to their home countries and native magical traditions. The series started in the novel American Craftsmen with a conflict that was almost entirely internal to the U.S. crafting community, continued in The Left-Hand Way in which the conflict spread outward, most notably to Russia, the Ukraine, and Japan, and reaches it denouement in this novel, where the threat has become both global and, for the protagonists, intensely personal.

After a brief prologue where Ossian Mac Cool, the last of the Fianna guardians of the three gifts of the order is introduced via a rather bloody confrontation with some members of Left Hand adherents, Most practitioners or the arcane arts engage in rather mundane craft, but those who dabble in the darker arts are said to be "Left Hand" practitioners, and make up the villainous contingent in the novel. Part of the tension in the story comes from the fact that one of the heroes - Dale Morton - is the last scion of a craft bloodline that is notorious for indulging in Left-Hand craft, and one of his ancestors was the primary villain in the first two books. The ambiguous nature of the heroes is ramped up still further due to the fact that Michael Endicott, a member of a house traditionally opposed to the Mortons and their Left-Handed ways, was only kept alive in The Left-Hand Way due to the use of Left-Hand magic, and is now sustained by Left-Hand infused nanobots in his body. Throughout the novel, both are tempted by the Left-Hand craft time and again, and they are rather understandably regarded with suspicion by every craft practitioner who comes into contact with them.

After the prologue, the story shifts to the four central characters - Dale Morton, Michael Endicott, Scherie Rezvani-Morton, and Grace Marlowe where they are hiding out in Japan following their refusal to obey orders in the previous book. Granted, the actions they took in the last book did save the world, but as they took their actions in defiance of their superiors, they start this book "on the lam". Plus, given that Endicott appears to have taken a step forward to becoming a trans-national craft power (a situation that has caused large scale wars in the past), even those outside of the United States government view the quartet with caution. Other nations, including Japan, clearly see a possible opportunity to garner an edge for themselves by offering asylum to the group, but are wary of the potential harm that may ensue.

The quartet are not just in Japan sitting around, they are there so that Endicott and Marlowe can get married. This is an event of some import in the magical world created by Doyle, as the union of two craft families is a big deal and looms even larger in that it is the union of two craft families from different countries, and one of the betrothed may be an impending trans-national threat to boot. There is an array of rituals and taboos surrounding a craft marriage, the most salient one being that there is a true surrounding the wedding until after the marriage is consummated, meaning that the quartet of heroes are safe for the first part of this segment of the story, allowing numerous representatives from around the world to be introduced, including the Jessica Mwangi of Kenya, Omatr Khan of Pakistan, Zhuge Liang from China, and the emissary from the Vatican, a priest named Cornaro. Even by introducing some of these characters only in passing, Doyle is expanding and deepening the mythic reality of his fictional world, making it feel more like a fully realized place with each addition.

The wedding goes smoothly, and then all hell breaks loose as expected afterwards as various enemies try to eliminate Marlowe and Endicott as soon as their happy event has concluded. This leads to a running fight through the streets of Yokohama where the four heroes pick up an unexpected new ally and suffer an entirely unexpected loss that is caused by an entirely unexpected enemy. Their hosts soon let them know that they have worn out their welcome in Japan and they hop into a plane and head off without much of a plan, dazed from the curveball they had just been thrown. They end up more or less tumbling into India, where they are confronted by an Indian craft community that is both powerful and deeply suspicious of them, but needs their services for a mission of critical import, which is where the real meat of the plot turns up - in the world sanctuary, a monastery located in disputed territory near the three-way border between India, Pakistan, and China.

As a condition for offering the quartet (actually quintet, or possibly sextet, depending on how you count "people") refuge, the Indian government gets them to agree to investigate the world sanctuary and report on the source of the strange events that had recently begun happening. Because Scherie is pregnant, the other three more or less conspire to get her to agree to go to Italy and meet with Cornaro on the pretext that she needs to learn more about banishing spirits before they head to the sanctuary. Of course, as soon as she is safely packed away, Dale, Michael, and Grace immediately head off to the mountains to try to infiltrate the sanctuary. With the team split, the story hops back and forth between Scherie and the strike team as each finds themselves confronted with mortal danger. For the strike team trio, the danger is readily apparent, and they knew ahead of time that they were walking into a situation that was going to be potentially life-threatening (and even soul-threatening) and every step they take just ramps up the tension in the story. For her part, Scherie expected to be going to meet with a potential ally and learn some valuable information, but she is fairly quickly disabused of this notion and finds herself locked in an unexpected struggle for her life and the life of her unborn child. On the other hand, Scherie does learn valuable information and gains an unexpected ally, but the information comes from a source she didn't expect, and the ally is someone she didn't even know she was going to meet. One of the persistent themes of War and Craft, and indeed the American Craftsman series as a whole is that this sort of serendipity is the foundation upon which victories are built.

It is during this portion of the book that the novel shifts in tone. While the early parts of the book had been filled with action and adventure, it was an almost rollicking kind of action, reminiscent of what something like James Bond would have been like if magic had been in play. Once Scherie heads to Italy and the remaining trio make their way to the world sanctuary, the tone quickly becomes much darker, dipping into the horror genre at times. Although each of the heroes is confronted with malevolent enemies intent upon their destruction, the real horror they face comes from within themselves, as time and again they face situations in which their own fears and weaknesses are used against them. Doyle pushes the reader relentlessly forward: Each time one turns to the next page, one finds themselves hoping against all reason that Endicott, Marlowe, Morton, or Rezvani can somehow find a way to deal with the terrors that they face without damning themselves, and each time one turns to the next page, the author refuses to let his characters off the hook. Three of the four central characters reach the point of no return, and each of those three continues forward, pressing on despite the personal cost. Victory can be had, but the price that will be exacted in exchange is tremendous. The brilliance of this book is that every step the characters take seems perfectly reasonable and at the same time completely horrible and the whole time the reader is hoping that conclusion that feels inevitable can somehow be averted all the while knowing that it cannot.

Early in War and Craft, one of the characters tells the reader how the story is going to end. Telling the reader where the story is going is a difficult to use technique, but when it works it can be very effective - John Michael Straczynski used this approach to great effect a couple of times in Babylon 5 - and Doyle deploys it almost perfectly here. By letting the reader know what is going to happen, the author gives the outcome an almost existential inevitability that serves to give the entire book a sense of impending doom. Paradoxically, this general air of overwhelming dread serves to provide a glimmer of hope, as one finds themselves wishing for the heroes to avert this foretold conclusion, desperately looking for ways that they could evade this seemingly foregone conclusion. Even so, when the story winds its way to the dire end that one has been anxiously hoping could be avoided, it feels strangely satisfying, as if the grim ending was the only way the story could have ended. That is, perhaps, the greatest tribute to the quality of the book: It ends not perhaps in the way that one wanted, but in the way that it had to end, and as a result, one walks away from the book feeling content, albeit a kind of drained and devastated contentment.

Previous book in the series: The Left-Hand Way

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Musical Monday - A Fistful of Dollars by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra

A Fistful of Dollars was the first Spaghetti Western to have real success in the United States, and is the first of the "Man with No Name" trilogy. I am not sure, but it may have been the first Spaghetti Western to receive a wide release in the United States. To cater to the American audience, many of the Italian members of the production company took "American sounding" stage names - for example, Sergio Leone was credited as Bob Robertson, and Ennio Morricone was credited as Dan Savio.

Even with the name changes to "fit in", these movies were a distinctly alien presence in the American cinema landscape of their era, and part of that traces to the music. More specifically, how the music was used during the production of the films. Apparently, Morricone often composed music for the score before filming began, and Leone would tailor the scenes in the film to match Morricone's work, often lengthening sequences so as to accommodate the music. I think that this pattern - having the music dictate the pace of the film rather than the pace of the film dictating the music - is a large part of why this set of movies have such an otherworldly feel to them.

Previous Musical Monday: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra
Subsequent Musical Monday: For a Few Dollars More by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra

Shania Twain     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Book Blogger Hop March 9th - March 15th: "245" Is a Jazz Instrumental by Eric Dolphy

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Do you enjoy reading retellings of, or 'sequels' to, classic novels? Why or why not?

Based on the handful of novels I have read that meet those criteria, I'm going to have to say no. Most of the long-delayed "sequels" to classic novels that I have read have been long-delayed sequels to classic works of science fiction, and by and large, those have proven to be terrible. For example, Arthur C. Clarke published Rendezvous with Rama in 1973, which quickly became one of the most celebrated works of science fiction. In 1989, Clarke teamed with Gentry Lee and began producing sequels to Rama, specifically, Rama II, The Garden of Rama, and Rama Revealed. These sequels were, to be blunt, terrible. They were so bad that they almost retroactively made the first novel worse.

Similarly, Isaac Asimov originally published the Foundation trilogy between 1951 and 1953, and it is regarded as one of the keystone works of the science fiction genre. Twenty-eight years later, in 1981, he published Foundation's Edge, and then three more books in the series. He later published more books to tie the Foundation novels to his Robot series. The end result is a big mess, which was made worse by the fact that all of the novels published in the 1980s just weren't particularly good.

There are other instances of this happening in the science fiction genre, but I figure that's enough examples to make the point. In my experience, delayed sequels to "classic" books have a poor track record when it comes to quality, so I haven't really enjoyed them when I have read them.

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Monday, March 5, 2018

Musical Monday - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra

The "Spaghetti Westerns" such as A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West, were so dubbed in part due to the fact that their scores were written by Ennio Morricone (as well as the fact that they were directed by Sergio Leone and written by Italian screenwriters). These movies aren't technically science fiction or fantasy movies, but they feel like they are, since they all seem to take place in a mythic Old West that bears little relationship to actual history and the stories have a kind of almost dream-like quality to them that makes them seem like a kind of romanticized hyperreality.

One of the elements that gives the Spaghetti Westerns their otherworldly quality is Morricone's music. This performance is fascinating because it shows exactly how the various parts were made. I, for example, would never have thought that one of the parts was actually made by a human voice. The unusual array of instruments used in many of Morricone's compositions also contributes to their somewhat alien feel. I like the Spaghetti Westerns quite a bit, but I am convinced that Morricone's music will still be being played long after the movies have faded from the cultural consciousness.

On a note that really doesn't connect to anything else, the conductor Sarah Hicks kind of looks like Kelly Sue DeConnick's long lost brunette sister.

Previous Musical Monday: I'm Gonna Getcha Good by Shania Twain
Subsequent Musical Monday: A Fistful of Dollars by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra

Shania Twain     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Book Blogger Hop March 2nd - March 8th: The Tupolev Tu-244 Was a Proposed Supersonic Passenger Aircraft That Was Never Actually Built

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Off the book topic . . . do you use a mouse pad? If so, what is on it?

I do use a mouse pad. Actually, I use two - one at work and one at home.

The one I use at work is incredibly boring. It is just a standard issue pad with the name of the Federal agency I work for on it.

The one I use at home is a custom made one that I have been using for years. It has a picture from about fifteen years ago of my two older kids - Riker and the Czarina - on it.

Subsequent Book Blogger Hop: "245" Is a Jazz Instrumental by Eric Dolphy

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Friday, March 2, 2018

Review - Star Brand: New Universe, Vol. 1 by Jim Shooter and John Romita

Short review: Kenneth Connell gets a mark that grants him immense power. Somehow this leads to issue after issue of him moping about his angsty man-pain.

At first the old man
Gave the Star Brand to Kenneth
Then he wants it back

Full review: In 1986, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the use of the name Marvel Comics, Marvel decided to launch a new line of comics, set in a completely separate fictional continuity that they called, naturally enough, the "New Universe". The idea was that the new fictional universe would be just like our Earth, right up to a specific event called the "White Event" that supposedly took place in 1986 and sparked the development of super-heroes and super-villains. Star Brand was one of the initial eight titles in the new continuity, and was initially written by Jim Shooter, who was the editor-in-chief at Marvel at the time it was launched. This series was intended to be the flagship title for the New Universe, and is something of a hybrid of Green Lantern, Lensman, and Superman in tone. This volume covers roughly half of the entire run of the series, from October 1986 through November 1987, with a couple of crossover issues included in which the Star Brand character featured.

The basic premise of Star Brand is pretty straightforward. Kenneth Connell is in the countryside outside of Pittsburgh riding his motorcycle and practicing stunts when he comes across an alien creature who gifts him with the "Star Brand", a tattoo-like mark that, when used properly, acts as a powerful weapon. The Brand, when activated, makes Kenneth nigh-invulnerable, super-strong, and gives him the ability to fly, even in outer space. The Brand also grants an array of other powers, mostly involving throwing energy blasts and blowing things up. Since Kenneth doesn't know the full range of powers of the Brand, the reader really doesn't either, and every now and then the writers pop out a new power when they need for Kenneth to have it. Even with the impressive array of powers of the Brand at his disposal, Kenneth is conflicted and unsure of what to do, and this is one of the central themes that runs through the entire volume. Armed with world altering (or even potentially world-ending) power, Kenneth is at a loss as to best use it, or even if he should use it at all.

Being wishy-washy seems to be one of Kenneth's central character traits. When the series opens, he is dating the beautiful blonde Barb, but also fooling around with the Debbie "the Duck" on the side. Despite his professions of love for Barb, Kenneth is afraid to commit to a stable relationship with her, and also unwilling to set "the Duck" aside, even though through much of the volume he treats Debbie awfully, exploiting her devotion to him to get his laundry done while also shoving her out the back door so Barb won't find her. Kenneth is wishy-washy about his career as well, working as an auto mechanic at an auto dealer without much thought of trying to advance his career or do anything else to improve his situation. Kenneth is, quite simply, a terrible choice to have the power of the Star Brand because he is terrible at actually making choices. It isn't that Kenneth makes bad choices, it is that he simply doesn't make choices, but rather spends his time drifting along and refusing to actually choose. The fact that there is really no reason for Kenneth's angst just makes the book a bit more tedious: Over the course of the volume, he has three attractive women pining for him. He's tall, handsome, and has a job that provides sufficient income for him to pay all of his bills and have motorcycle that he basically uses as a toy, and the only reason that he doesn't have a better job is that he basically doesn't seem to want one. Plus, he gets the power of the Star Brand handed to him at the outset of the novel. He's a mopey character who is mopey for no identifiable reason.

There is something somewhat interesting in the idea that an ordinary person could be blessed with great power and then find themselves at a loss as to what to do, but the ongoing paralysis Kenneth experiences just becomes tiresome after a while. There are nice touches where the story tries to illustrate the difficulties one might have as a super-hero - Kenneth frequently has to navigate using rivers and large landmarks while flying around, and even then he sometimes gets lost. He is confronted with problems that even his powers cannot solve, such as a child with a fatal ailment caused by the chemical plant in the town where he lives. He worries that if he reveals himself, he may be targeted by the government and forced to either serve as its agent or become a pariah who is hunted. The trouble is, these background details really amount to what should be little more than the scenery of a super-hero story, rather than the main plot, and they simply aren't enough to carry the series on their own. Much of this volume feels like the side story in a super-hero comic that fills in the pages in between the real story.

This feeling that one is reading the filler in between the real story, to a certain extent, encapsulates the New Universe as a whole. The idea behind the line of comics was that the fictional world would look "just like the world outside your window" and the stories would strive for more realism, but the net result was that the stories were kind of pedestrian and plodding. Kenneth wallows in self-doubt for far too long - essentially this entire volume - only rousing himself to action once in a while, and then only in fitful spurts. The very last story in this book is essentially an extended flashback that ends with Kenneth distraught over actually doing something to prevent the likely onset of World War III. Some of the best storylines in this volume take place when the Star Brand title crossed over with, notably Spitfire and the Troubleshooters and then later Nightmask, but these stories are mostly interesting because Kenneth basically plays second fiddle to the other heroes in them. The Spitfire crossovers are especially interesting because they show the titular characters actually taking action to try to make the world around them better and dealing with the fallout that ensues, a marked contrast to Kenneth's frequent melancholy malaise.

To a certain extent, the promise and problems that Star Brand has is reflective of the promise and problems of the New Universe series as a whole. One of the taglines used for the line was that it was just like "the world outside your window", which was kind of an interesting idea, but all too often the writers seemed to forget to add "but with super-heroes and super-villains", and that is in evidence all too frequently in this collection. Sure, Kenneth has the powers of the Star Brand, but he doesn't really use them for much, and with a tiny number of exceptions, never faces an opponent that even comes close to matching him. The only real recurring villain is the "old man" who is also the alien who originally gifted the Star Brand to Kenneth, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason to his actions: First he gives the brand to Kenneth, then tries a couple times to take it back, getting increasingly vicious in the process, but as a character he remains almost entirely opaque to the reader. The end result is that it is difficult for the reader to really care about much of what is going on in the story. The book is "the world outside your window", and not much more, and that's just not all that interesting. There was a lot to like about the premise of the series, but the execution simply left a lot to be desired.

Overall, Star Brand is an intriguing idea that had fatally flawed execution. This volume compiles a year's worth of issues of the title, and by the end it feels like essentially nothing of real consequence has taken place. The most notable difference between the beginning and the end of the book is that Kenneth has stopped dating Barb, gotten a short-term girlfriend in Switzerland killed, and is kind of in a committed relationship with the Duck. Pretty much everything else is essentially the same in the final issue of the book as it was in the opening issue of the book. In the end, Star Brand feels like a missed opportunity, just like the rest of the New Universe, with a possibly brilliant but definitely interesting premise presented in the most pedestrian manner possible.

Jim Shooter     John Romita     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, February 26, 2018

Musical Monday - I'm Gonna Getcha Good by Shania Twain

Once upon a time, Shania Twain was a country music star. Then she decided that she wanted to be a crossover star and make pop songs. Apparently part of this plan was to make a music video that had an inexplicable science fiction theme and really didn't make any sense at all.

There is nothing in the song that suggests a science fiction themed video would make sense, and the actual "plot" seems almost backwards. Shania is singing about how she's "gonna get you", but she spends the entire video on her magical motorcycle zooming through a CGI land trying to escape from a giant robot that is trying to get her. Oddly the way the sequence is presented, the robot wouldn't have chased her if she hadn't set out on her motorcycle ride to begin with. The chase ends when the robot smashes itself against a pair of doors because it forgets to pay attention to where it is going. The chase is intercut with scenes of Shania wearing a catsuit and performing with her band as disinterested robots walk by in front of them. This part of the video ends with motorcycle Shania using one of the destroyed robot's eyeballs to shatter the plate glass window in front of band Shania, who then walks out onto the CGI street.

Nothing in this video makes any sense. The catsuit looks good on Shania though.

Previous Musical Monday: Just One Person by Richard Hunt, Jerry Nelson, Steve Whitmire, Kevin Clash, Frank Oz, and Dave Goelz
Subsequent Musical Monday: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra

Shania Twain     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Book Blogger Hop February 23rd - March 1st: 243 Is the Calling Code for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, A Country That Was Called Zaire When I Lived There

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Do you read hardcovers with the dust jacket on or off? Why or why not?

I read books that have a dust jacket with the dust jacket on. I don't think I ever thought about taking one of them off to read a book. I certainly have hardcover books that don't have dust jackets - I have piles and piles of used books and a lot of them parted ways with their dust jacket long before they ever got into my collection, but if a book has a dust jacket, I leave it on to read it. Before this question, I had never even heard of the practice of taking a dust jacket off a book when reading the book. I figure that the dust jacket is there to protect the book, so taking it off seems to me like it would be counterproductive.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Review - Saga, Volume Seven by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Short review: What was intended to be a brief refueling stop on Phang turns to tragedy for Marko and Alana as well as the remaining population of the comet.

After a fuel leak
Landing on a battleground
As empires collude

Full review: Seven volumes into its story, and Saga just seems to be getting better. Perhaps it is because the characters are so well-established by now that their hopes and dreams carry more weight and their tragedies and losses seem more poignant. Perhaps it is because the story has backed both the heroes and the villains into a corner from which there seems to be no escape and yet they carry on, No matter the reason for the continued improvement of the series, this volume packs an emotional punch that is almost heartless in how devastating it is, and yet feels completely necessary to the story. In short, Saga is a brutal series, and this volume is the most brutal of all of the installments in it.

This volume picks up shortly after Volume Six left off, with some unhappy people sharing the tree-ship that serves as Alana, Marko, and Hazel's home. The former Prince Robot (now merely Sir Robot) wallows in self-pity and, to a certain extent, self-hatred following his exile from his people and later separation from his son. This self-loathing has turned to sexual frustration, with an unhealthy focus on Alana. On the other side of the ship, Petrichor spends her time grumbling about the work she is doing for her "new wardens" to make clothes for Hazel and her impending younger sibling. When Izabel suggests Petrichor could make maternity clothes for Alana, Petrichor nearly erupts in anger, angrily condemning both Alana and Sir Robot. The former prisoner of war might swallow her anger sufficiently to allow her to share a ship with those from the "other side", but she isn't going to be happy about it. Even when they are all on the run from the two most powerful empires in the galaxy, the animosity engendered by the interstellar war that surrounds them is still all but all-consuming.

After the stage is set with these preliminaries, the story gets into full swing when it is discovered that one of the fuel lines in the ship had a leak and they are running on fumes necessitating an emergency landing on the contested comet of Phang, which coincidentally happens to be the refugee child Sophia's original home world (Sophia, one might recall, is the child sex slave that the Will saved and who has since taken up following Marko's former fiancée Gwendolyn around). The primary resource that Prang has is fuel, which is exactly what Alana and Marko need, and also what keeps Wreath and Landfall fighting over the place, as much to deny the place to the other as to claim it for themselves. Phang was already riven with internal sectarian conflict, but when the two great powers jumped in, the conflict became world shattering, transforming the entire populace into either combatants or refugees. One of the subtexts of the entire Saga series is that Landfall and Wreath have long since forgotten their original bones of contention and at the point the story takes place, are merely fighting for the sake of fighting. The story on Prang is quite possibly the starkest and rawest example of this fact.

Intending to stop for just a few hours to plant their tree for a bit and refuel, Alana and Marko instead meet up with a band of adorable looking little religious zealots who also happen to be pitiful refugees. When Hazel is taken by one named Kurti, they agree to help feed the wayward family despite Petrichor's objections, and then let them take up residence in the tree ship. Although not directly stated, it is heavily implied that taking in this added group has strained their resources, and as a result the refueling takes six months, and even then is not complete. This is described by Hazel as one of the happiest times she ever had with her family, but her earlier statement that few adventures ended worse than this one hangs like a looming threat over the domestic tranquility. Events overtake the more or less happy commune, and before too long the war begins to knock on their doorstep.

The action cuts away a few times to focus on the Will, Sophie, Gwendolyn, and Lying Cat, catching the reader up with what is going on in their stories. Sophie, having grown up, seeks to apprentice with a freelancer like the Will and possibly gain vengeance against Marko on Gwendolyn's behalf. Gwendolyn, for her part, has gotten married, entered the Wreath bureaucracy and set about trying to climb the hierarchy while engaging in some illicit collaboration with her nation's enemy. The Will, on the other hand, is still wallowing in drug addled self-pity, and loses his membership in the freelancers union. While Gwendolyn's story in this volume turns out to matter to the events taking place on Phang, and Sophia still seems both adorable and terrifying, the Will's story and everything else about him has just become tired and dull. At this point, I simply don't care what happens to the Will (or, as he is now called since he lost his membership in the freelancer's union, Billy). He has become such a sad sack character that he makes every scene he is in seem completely pointless.

Before too long, the tragedies on Phang start hitting fast and furious as a freelancer named the March comes to try to collect the bounty on Marko and causes an unexpected and somewhat shocking casualty in the process. Sir Robot's sexual obsessions come to a head at exactly the wrong moment when he decides to experiment with a secret stash of drugs he had hidden away, while Petrichor figures out what the forces of Landfall and Wreath are up to and pushes for everyone to get off Phang before it is too late - mostly to save her own skin, because Petrichor is nothing if not self-interested, but saving everyone else is a side-effect that she is willing to live with. In a twist Jabarah and the rest of the family that Alana and Marko had taken in elect not to leave the doomed comet, asserting that their faith in the Lord will protect them from any harm - leaving with the tragically prophetic suggestion that a good name for the child Alana is carrying would be Kurti. Waiting and trying to convince the misguided zealots to leave results in a rushed take off just in time to avoid disaster, and causes another tragedy that is small, personal, and devastating. One of the brilliant pieces of writing in the book is to take a moment in which the entire population of a world is being snuffed out, and reduce the deaths to two small and helpless people and blank black empty pages. The ending of this volume is among the most heart-breaking resolutions one could imagine. Even the fact that one tragedy is piled on top of another, which would normally seem almost cloyingly desperate, only enhances the darkness and despair conveyed by this turn of events.

On the one hand, Volume Seven of Saga is a very small-scale story, telling a tale of personal conflicts, and human scale tragedies. Our heroes suffer not one, but two terrible losses, and revelations come out that will strain the already tense living arrangements of the tree ship. On the other hand, Volume Seven is a story that is told on a sweeping scale and involves the politics of two interstellar nations and the fate of an entire world. Telling the story on both the personal and the epic level has been an element of Saga almost from the beginning of the series, but the two have not crashed into one another in such a savage way before. At the same time, one of the underlying questions running through the series has been "is there any way to end the calamitous war between Landfall and Wreath", and this volume offers the small glimmer of hope that there might be, although the spark will probably be the reaction to the events of this book rather than the odd collaboration that is seen taking place in it. In the end, this is one of the most heart-rending volumes of a series that was already heart-rending, but at the same time, the harsh and callous nature of the story feels both necessary and almost satisfying.

Previous book in the series: Saga, Volume Six

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

2018 Nebula Award Nominees

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Comments: The Nebula Awards are once again upon us, and once again, the members of SFWA have selected an array of novels, stories and dramatic presentations that runs the gamut of speculative fiction works. Granted, the list is a bit heavy on stories set during fictionalized history, and the short fiction list includes a lot of stories from Uncanny, Clarkesworld, and, but that's the topics that have engendered the best writing and where a lot of the good short fiction is getting published these days.

One thing that is interesting is that nominees for the Ray Bradbury Award don't include any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies that were released last year, and all three of those movies - Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok - were all among the better Marvel movies that have come out in the series. It is also interesting that The Expanse, The Handmaid's Tale, The Defenders, The Punisher, Stranger Things, American Gods, and several other quite excellent episodic series were completely overlooked as well. On the one hand, this is a good problem as there is no way that all of these excellent speculative fiction shows could have been nominated. On the other hand, it is kind of puzzling that all of these other potential nominees were passed over in favor of some of the actual nominees in the category that were not really as good. Oh well, no award is perfect. This one did pretty well this year even so.

Best Novel


Other Nominees:
Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
Jade City by Fonda Lee
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

Best Novella


Other Nominees:
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker
Barry’s Deal by Lawrence M. Schoen
The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

Best Novelette


Other Nominees:
Dirty Old Town by Richard Bowes
A Human Stain by Kelly Robson
A Series of Steaks by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time by K.M. Szpara
Weaponized Math by Jonathan P. Brazee
Wind Will Rove by Sarah Pinsker

Best Short Story


Other Nominees:
Carnival Nine by Caroline M. Yoachim
Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand by Fran Wilde
Fandom for Robots by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard) by Matthew Kressel
Utopia, LOL? by Jamie Wahls
Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM by Rebecca Roanhorse

Ray Bradbury Award


Other Nominees:
Get Out
The Good Place: Michael’s Gambit
The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Wonder Woman

Andre Norton Award


Other Nominees:
Exo by Fonda Lee
Weave a Circle Round by Kari Maaren
The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller
Want by Cindy Pon

Go to previous year's nominees: 2017

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Monday, February 19, 2018

Musical Monday - Just One Person by Richard Hunt, Jerry Nelson, Steve Witmire, Kevin Clash, Frank Oz, and Dave Goelz

So, another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida, this time the body count was seventeen. This seems all too familiar, too tragically "normal". But this time the survivors have come out demanding that real change take place. There are some people who have become tired of fighting the lobbying efforts of the NRA, and view such efforts as little more than tilting at windmills, but the teens at the center of this have not yet succumbed to such cynicism and fatigue. They believe that change can take place if they just push hard enough, and on a fundamental level, they are correct. This is why every political movement needs fresh blood on a regular basis - to inject optimism and hope into it. It is possible that out of the Parkland tragedy, something good might finally happen.

I've said this before, and it is still true: The message that Jim Henson's work sends is that we could live in a better world, and that we should aspire to make the world we live in that better world. Though this song is mostly about believing in oneself, the message it sends applies really to any kind of cause. All it takes is one person to start something that can build into a force. Mothers Against Drunk Driving was started by one mother who lost her child, and it ended up changing not just the laws concerning the laws about drunk driving, but how society viewed the issue as well. Things can be changed, we just have to believe that they can and then act on those beliefs.

This performance is from Jim Henson's memorial service, and is the tail end of a medley of his favorite songs sung by his closest collaborators. They performed most of the medley as themselves, but I think it is somewhat significant that they chose to perform this song as their Muppet alter egos. The obvious reason is that they wanted to pay homage to what Henson had created, but I think the deeper reason is that the Muppets inhabit a better world than ours. They live in the world that we could inhabit if we just chose to make it happen one person at a time.

Previous Musical Monday: Simon Zealotes by Larry Marshall
Subsequent Musical Monday: I'm Gonna Getcha Good by Shania Twain

Richard Hunt     Jerry Nelson     Steve Whitmire

Kevin Clash     Frank Oz     Dave Goelz

Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Book Blogger Hop February 16th - February 22nd: U.N. Resolution 242 Was Adopted Unanimously by the U.N. Security Council in Response to the Six-Day War

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Have you ever found yourself acting like a favorite character in a novel? If so, which one?

Not really. I've said before that I don't really relate to books in that way, but more significantly, behaving like most of my favorite characters would be either impractical, impossible, or dangerous. I doubt I could get away with riding about on a horse while slaying enemies with a sword like Éomer, from the Lord of the Rings, and I certainly can't alter reality with my dreams like George Orr from The Lathe of Heaven, or heroically lead a rag-tag band against the God of Death like Taran from the Chronicles of Prydain. I suppose the closest I might come to behaving at times like a favorite character from a book is when I try to adopt the philosophical attitude of Ged from the Earthsea books, but given that he is a skilled wizard and I am not, I'm not really able to emulate him particularly well.

Previous Book Blogger Hop: The First Punic War Ended in 241 B.C.

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Friday, February 16, 2018

Review - The Wicked + The Divine: The Faust Act by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

Short review: The gods are immortal, but they also die. They have shown up again after being away for ninety years, and rock concerts and murder seem to be what is in store for them.

Ninety year cycle
For the return of the gods
Murder is afoot

Full review: The premise of The Wicked + The Divine is that once every ninety years, seven gods emerge, inspire millions and earn rock star-like adulation for two years, and then die. This cycle permits gods to be both immortal and finite - making their very existence into a mystery that underlies the entire book. This also makes most of the gods teenagers, which is interesting, since most actual teenagers seem to think they are immortal, even if they are not. Even the question of whether or not the figures at the center of this story are in fact "gods", or are merely charlatans impersonating divinities is left as something of an enigma for the reader to ponder. The fact that one of the alleged gods - Ananke - appears to not die, but live on in perpetuation in between the cycles, just serves to further deepen the mystery surrounding these figures.

The central character of the story in this volume is not one of the gods, but rather a London teenager named Laura who has been swept up in the mania surrounding the gods. After a brief introduction set ninety years before the main events of the book, the plot gets going with Laura sneaking out of her house, skipping her college classes, and attending a concert given by Amaterasu. The concert itself is presented much as a rock concert would be presented, with the added boost of throwing in some sexual ecstasy being engendered in the crowd by Amaterasu as well. The near orgasmic experience of confronting the object of her adoration causes Laura to pass out, and she later wakes up in a room with Lucifer, another one of the gods who takes a liking to the girl and escorts her to where Amaterasu is being interviewed by a skeptical woman named Cassandra with the goddess Sakhmet in the background behaving cat-like on the couch.

It is at this interview that the plot of the book kicks off, when a pair of would-be assassins seemingly try to kill the assembled goddesses from a nearby roof by taking shots into the room, which in turn prompts Lucifer to apparently cause the assailants' heads to explode by snapping her fingers. In the aftermath, Lucifer is arrested and charged with murder. At Lucifer's arraignment, she quite reasonably asks how she could possibly be charged for murder just for snapping her fingers i the next building over - as she points out, there is no way that she logically could have done the two men harm that way. This highlights one of the tensions that exists in the book: How does the world deal with beings who allegedly have inexplicable supernatural powers? One has to wonder exactly how the legal system actually would adjudicate such a case, because none of the normal standards for proving causation could possibly apply. In any event, the judge essentially refuses to believe anything Lucifer says, and when Lucifer gets angry, Lucifer snaps her fingers and the judge's head also explodes.

Lucifer is, of course, immediately swept away and changed with the judge's death as well, despite her protestations that she didn't actually do anything and that she is innocent of the judge's death. This leads to the meat of the book, as Laura befriends Lucifer while visiting her in prison, and then teams up with Cassandra to try to investigate who might have wanted to set Lucifer up to take a fall. This leads Laura to hunt down the Morrigan in the London Underground, where she also comes across the murderous Baphomet, and sees what appears to be yet another series of miracles. Soon enough, Laura and Cassandra receive a rather insistent invitation from Baal himself to come and visit the entire pantheon, where Ananke informs Laura that they are not going to do anything to aid Lucifer and then dismisses the mortal. This, naturally enough, doesn't sit well with Lucifer, who breaks out of her prison, sparking a bloody fight between Lucifer and several of the other gods (with the Morrigan making a late appearance to assist Lucifer) that is only ended when Ananke appears to kill Lucifer off with a snap of her fingers.

The story ends on something of a cliffhanger, as Laura belatedly discovers that she seems to have acquired a power similar to Lucifers, or at least has been gifted with a cigarette that holds a remnant of the goddesses power. But the volume is also filled with unanswered and frequently troubling questions. As Laura points out, one of the pantheon is a murderer and none of the other members seem the least bit interested in finding out who that might be. This, however, is only the most obvious and probably trivial mystery presented by the book. The most tantalizing questions stem from the prologue which is set in 1923, during the previous cycle of the gods, although the reader might not truly understand the significance of the scene when they read it. In this sequence, the gods are assembled around a table, preparing to commit suicide so that they can make their next appearance in ninety years. The curious thing about this scene is that more than half of the places around the table are empty, presumably because the absent deities didn't survive the two years of life that they are allotted each cycle. Even curiouser, Ananke doesn't participate in the mass suicide, and apparently will live through the intervening ninety years until the others return.

The questions that revolve around Ananke alone would be enough to fuel the rest of the series: Why doesn't Ananke participate in the death and rebirth cycle that the other gods endure? Why do all of the other gods seem to defer to Ananke? Why does the ninety year cycle even exist to begin with? Does Ananke enforce it? And so on. But there are a myriad of other questions that come to mind as well: Is the array of gods that is reborn the same in each cycle, or do the gods vary as is implied at one point by Baal? Do the gods personalities override the previous personalities of the beings they are reborn as, or do the gods remember their non-divine lives as Minerva seems to suggest when she bitterly complains about the unfairness of dying before she turns fourteen? Do the gods remember their lives as previous incarnations? The web of questions is tantalizing, pulling the reader in and enticing them further into the story.

The Faust Act is an excellent opening gambit to what promises to be a strong series of stories. This volume contains a story that both feels satisfying in itself, and promises far more to come at the same time. The book also manages the neat trick of making the gods simultaneously mysterious and enigmatic, and yet still so closely analogous to the rock star style media figures that feature so heavily in modern culture now that they seem comfortably familiar. In short, this book is a mass of delightful contradictions encompassing a myriad of intriguing mysteries that presages what appears to be a thoroughly engaging ongoing story.

Subsequent volume in the series: The Wicked + The Divine: Fandemonium

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