The Mongoliad Book One: A Review

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As you can see from the picture here, this book was written by lots of people. The only one of the six I’d ever heard of before picking The Mongoliad up was Greg Bear, a fairly strong Sci-Fi/Fantasy writer (with an awesome name) with about 30 books published. No Asimov, but a good solid read all around. What originally made me want to pick this up (Grabbed it at a library book sale for $1.50) is the collaborative nature of the book. I know for my own writing, having one other person contributing opinions can be a bit of a challenge, much less five. The narrative follows 2 (and sometimes 3) separate groups, one in Karakorum (The Mongols HQ), and one group of knights based in a Monastery that splits a few times to explore the Steppes, Kiev, or fight in a gladiatorial-type circus. Oh yes, a lot happens, and it happens quickly. I’ll summarize the plot colloquially:

Within these groups there’s about three or four key characters who take turns narrating (two of which, interestingly, are strong female characters).  We’ll start with the Karakorum crew. Gansukh the steppe warrior is learning  the perplexities of social combat as he tries to save the Khagan (think Khan of Khans) from being a drunken idiot and ruining the entire Mongol empire, which essentially covers the Asian continent and at this point is spreading into Eastern Europe. Then we have Lian, a Chinese slave tasked with teaching Gansukh the ways of the court. Surprise, she wants to escape. Double surprise, she kind of wants to bone Gansukh. And he kind of wants to bone her. Awkward sauna encounters and archery lessons ensue.

Out on the steppes, we meet a stalwart group of knights, the Order of the Sacred Virgin, training at a monastery to compete in a tournament held by one of the Khans (who are all sons of Genghis btw), mostly for fun, and plot. And here we meet Cnan, a young lady Binder (read: Guide) who is tasked to help the knights, all of various European descent from Scandinavian to Saracen, and give them intel on the Mongols. Here intel amounts to there are millions of them and they’re going to pillage your countries. The knights will take turns with some brief narration, but we mostly hear about their escapades from Cnan’s point of view. Some stay and fight in the tournament while others go try to kill the Khagan and hopefully save Christendom, guided by Cnan, and they get into fights and hijinks along the way. Also, there’s a night named Percival she wants to bone. Still unclear if he wants to bone her.

That was a little cheekier than I normally go, but I’m feeling a bit cheeky today. I very much enjoyed this book, although the pacing definitely made it apparent this was one work in a much longer series. It effectively set the table for some interesting historical fiction action, and from what little I know of the time period the authors went above and beyond to make their story fairly accurate (at least historically). I’d dive into the second book, but I’ve got a Joe Abercrombie and some HP Lovecraft already in the queue.

I’d recommend this to any fan of historical medieval fiction. The fight scenes and setting felt very genuine and realistic, and the characters are interesting enough to make you keep picking the book back up. It isn’t anything insanely riveting or spell-binding, and if you don’t like swords and horses you probably won’t enjoy it too much.

I give it a solid 3.5 our of 5 peasants, who totally get the shaft (sometimes literally) in this book, and just about any other realistic medieval fiction and just needed to be mentioned somewhere in here.

Signing off with a picture of the six dudes who wrote this book:

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Rebel Winter – A Book Review

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The takeaway from this may be that I read to much Warhammer 40K fiction. That being said, I recommend this book to just about everybody, especially fans of war fiction. The Imperial Guard basis in this book is Russian-influenced, so they drink clear alcohol, talk in rough chthonic tones, and have mandatory mustaches. Essentially, it’s awesome. There’s trench warfare, big orky  bad guys, less orky corrupt bad guys, and lots of explosions guns and death. What makes this older example of  WH40K fiction stand out is the topical, less straight-forward subject matter they discuss. There’s a commissar punished for spurning a homosexual advance from and officer’s offspring (and making the young lad kill himself) and discussions of relationships and even sex on the Vostroyan homeworld. Sounds weird for this to be noteworthy, but for a WH40K novel it’s almost unheard of. There’s also some very basic mention of juvenile love and sex (via a hilariously beautiful scene where a Vostroyan describes why he named his rifle), and light moments like this are usually not present in the Black Library as well.

Steve Parker sort of moves in and out of 40K fiction, and usually does pretty good with the Imperial Guard stuff. He’s got about four books out, 2 of which I’ve read. He’s intense, a little more realistic than most 40K authors, and always a good read. I’d recommend anything he’s written to pretty much any fan of sci-fi or war fiction. And not just because it’s all Warhammer 40K.

In summation, Rebel WInter is more realistic and more relatable than the vast majority of 40K fiction. It’s a great starting point for anyone who wants to jump into the Black Library.

Signing off.

If You Don’t Get It I Can’t Explain It To You Vol. 3: Professional Wrestling

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What is the appeal of half-naked uber-muscled men (and later scantily-clad women) pretending to fight each other and acitng out soap-opera-style storylines on live TV? If you don’t get it, I can’t explain it to you. But I’ll try:
I grew up with professional wrestling, so I might be somewhat biased. My dad and I used to watch together when I was little, and still one of the coolest memories I have is when my dad surprised me and my sister by driving us up to Toronto so we could go watch a WWF House Show. I’ll never forget watching the Undertaker fight Ric Flair in a Steel Cage. For me, it was ingrained from a young age. I was a Hulkamaniac back in the 90’s, and proud of it.
So…if you know its fake, why do people even care? That’s kind of a complex question. Through the 90’s into the 2000’s Professional Wrestling became Sports Entertainment, which to be honest is probably a more accurate term for what these people do. While still fraught with danger, the punches and kicks and throws are not real…but at the same time there’s only so much you can fake about getting thrown off of a 20-ft cage or getting dropped through a table.

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                 Oh Lord, Its a Chokeslam

But that’s not even the key appeal. What’s fun about it is cheering or booing your favorite face or most hated heel, and letting yourself get caught up in the moment. It takes a certain suspension of disbelief, sure. But that’s also why it can be fun. In the same way you might not understand a sports fan’s devotion to a crappy team, you won’t get a WWE mark. It’s about being invested, but in this case there’s the wink and a nod that the actual competition is fake, and the stories are fabricated.

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                 That…doesn’t look very fun.

For lack of a better term, it’s live reality TV (which is also scripted) where people get body-slammed and hit with chairs. Probably closer to a soap-opera than a TV show, since it’s often a little over the top. Why do people like crappy reality TV shows? Because you just want to see what happens next. I would caution people not to judge too harshly until you go to a live WWE event. The real magic of these characters, men and women alike, is how they can manipulate a crowd, and sway them to cheer riotously or boo vehemently with little more than a few words or choreographed fight moves.
Like it or not, this is probably a mutation from Shakespearean theater more than television, and it’s the most successful, long-running theatre drama in history. It’s live, over the top, and designed to get live crowds roaring and invested. That’s right, word nerds. Never thought about the relationship there, did ya? I now fully expect Old Bill’s ghost to haunt my dreams for eternity. Totally worth it.

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And neither does that (The Walls of Jericho)

If you want to read something that kind of makes sense of all this, try Have a Nice Day:  A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks, the Mick Foley Biography. Even a snooty literary nerd will respect how well this is written, as it tells the story of an ugly, out-of-shape kid with dreams of becoming a pro wrestler, and all that it took to get there. If you ever wanted to try and understand the appeal of pro wrestling, read this book. You should probably read it even if you don’t want to understand.

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    Pure Awesome

Once more, I’ve tried to explain the unexplainable. I expect your thank you letters soon.
Signing Off.

Avengers: Age of Ultron – A Review

avengerville-the-avengers-age-of-ultronThe second biggest summer blockbuster every (by dollars), and second only to its predecessor, released a few weeks ago. In case you hadn’t guessed, its Avengers: Age of Ultron (heretofore referred to as Avengers 2) and it definitely deserved the hype. We all know the big-name cast, the insane special effects, and cool Easter Eggs are inferred in every Marvel movie, especially the Avengers franchise. Avengers 2 had all of this in spades. James Spader was creepy, terrifying, an thoroughly enjoyable as Ultron’s voice. The original cast was excellent as always, and the two new additions (The other Olsen as Scarlet Witch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, aka Kick-Ass as Quicksilver) performed admirably, although Russian accents were occasionally beyond them. And the Vision was a well-executed inclusion, although he did not have a great deal of screen time.

SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 26:  (bottom L-R) Actors Cobie Smulders, Robert Downey Jr., Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Brolin. (top L-R) Actors Chris Hemsworth, James Spader, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chris Evans attend Marvel's Hall H Panel for "Avengers: Age Of Ultron" during Comic-Con International 2014 at San Diego Convention Center at  on July 26, 2014 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney) *** Local Caption *** Cobie Smulders;Robert Downey Jr.;Elizabeth Olsen;Josh Brolin;Chris Hemsworth;James Spader;Paul Bettany;Jeremy Renner;Mark Ruffalo;Samuel L. Jackson;Aaron Taylor-Johnson;Chris Evans

The key difference you’ll notice between this movie and its progenitor lies in the “down-time” scenes where the Avengers gather, occaionally with other heroic types, and commiserate. They aren’t forming a team anymore, and Joss Whedon was free to do the things that made him famous and made Firefly incredible, and that’s witty repartee. The Thor’s Hammer scene was classic. It also enabled him to introduce a familiar idea of the star-crossed lovers, with Black Widow and the Hulk. I found these scenes to be endearing and well-integrated, and helped provide some backstory to the solo-movie-bereft Black Widow, including spy training and forced sterilization. We also got a focus on Bruce Banner as a person, which as one of the reasons I enjoyed the Edward Norton version of the Hulk. And, we get a lot more Hawkeye. I don’t want to spoil any of his surprises. So all the non-solo members had their day in Avengers 2.

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So why didn’t this movie perform as well as Avengers 1? I couldn’t say for sure, but my guess is slight Superhero fatigue. Clearly everyone is willing to shill out the big bucks to watch and all-star cast put on costumes and fight some CGI robots. Part of the problem we may be seeing with the Marvel Movie Universe is the gradual build. Guardians was a great movie and performed well at the box office. Avengers 2 delivered but not as triumphantly as Avengers 1. Building to a gradual climax over the stretch of several integrated movies may leave some more casual movie watchers thinking they’ll wait to see the big one in 2016. I fear for the performance of Ant-Man later this summer, as a lesser-known superhero (Although Paul Rudd brings some pretty impressive star power) following a potentially fatiguing blockbuster, could mean it under-performs. All I know is I will continue to go watch these movies as long as they make them, and Avengers 2 was well worth the money, which is the highest praise I can give.

Signing Off.

Know No Fear – A WH40K Novel by Dan Abnett

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OK this one was 100% nerd fiction all the way, but it did have some intriguing elements the somewhat-less-nerdy may even appreciate. One of the few Warhammer 40K novels at the local library, it’s the latest Horus Heresy book that I’ve read. That is probably greek to most of you, so in summation: The Horus Heresy series (Now ~30 books strong) tells the history of the major events that brought about the grim darkness in WH40K. In more esoteric news, this series represents the best writing in the Black Library/40K universe, and numerous titles (including this one) have hit the NYT bestseller list for trade paperbacks.
As I’ve been writing, all you’ve heard is probably Nerd nerd nerdy nerd nerd (Unless you’re a WH40K initiate, then I of course have your rapt and undivided attention) and that’s ok. If you made it this far, I won’t bore you with plot synopsis most folks won’t understand. Suffice it to say Dan Abnett strikes again. Know No Fear one is fast paced, full of action and intrigue, and has a sad, somber tone following the cataclysmic destruction of an entire planet.

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What sets this book apart from just about any other sci-fi novel I’ve read (and I’ve read plenty) is how the planet Calth is destroyed. Any Sci-Fi fan is familiar with the many different and varied explanations for space flight: engines, thrusters, rockets, “burning”, gateways, hyper-sleep, Infinite Improbability. An analysis of the many fictional means for traversing the void could fill several books on its own, as could the myriad of fictional solutions to Faster-Than-Light travel (Hyperspace, Warp, Dimensional Bending, more gateways, and as ever the Infinite Improbability Drive). Also many and varied are the vehicles for this transportation, from small fighters to gargantuan battleships. What we see in Know No Fear from Abnett is the closest thing to a realistic description of the sheer immensity of forces these theoretical modes of interstellar transportation employ, and what could potentially happen if they were employed nefariously.
Essentially what happens is a gigantic starship (~2-3 km in length), made of hybrid metals and steels, is run into a planet at “real-space” speed, just shy of the speed of light. It rips through orbital shipyards and other huge space vessels along the way. Abnett paints a captivating, artistic picture of the pure destruction and complete devastation this ship causes on its bullet path to the planet’s surface, and describes the impact quite antiseptically as “extinction-level”. Then he reminds us that to the people on the planet’s surface, the 4-5 page description of grueling destruction would be nothing more than a red flash, followed by a marrow-rattling earthquake planet-wide. Sort of a jarring reminder at the kind of forces us Sci-Fi writers and enthusiasts play with in our prose.

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If you’re interested at all in a scientific approach to this kind of global-scale destruction, or you want to include it in your own writing, I suggest reading this book for ideas or just the experience. It was quite captivating, and may even appeal to someone that’s not a Sci-Fi geek.
The End.
Signing Off.

If You Don’t Get It I Can’t Explain It To You Vol. 2: The UFC

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Why would you watch sweaty shirtless men and occasionally some sweaty workout-clothed women hit each other and roll around on a mat? Unless you’re by yourself with the lights dimmed and the romantic music on, what’s the appeal? If you don’t get it, I can’t explain it to you. But I’ll try:
I was actually living in UFC-mecca, aka Las Vegas, Nevada, when this sport started entering the public consciousness in a big way, so I might be a little more sensitive to the UFC than most folks. Also, there’s a west coast bias to UFC Fandom due to most of the Live PPV events taking place late in the evening (9-10pm EST) and often not staging the best fights until midnight. That can make it less accessible to those of us here on the East Coast. I’d love to say I watched all the really old Ultimate Fighting Championships, where they basically put a bunch of angry people who could fight in a ring, didn’t make any rules (regular groin-punching was common), and let them go at it. But I wasn’t.
I started getting into it in 2004, when the reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) went on the air, and I was hooked. That first season told the story of these men putting their lives on hold and struggling to get a UFC contract. It culminated in, to me, the best and most important fight in the history of the UFC, Stephen Bonnar vs. Forest Griffin to win the show, a UFC contract, and a new Range Rover. If you want to understand why I like the UFC, watch that first season (TUF kind of goes off the rails after that, and isn’t as fun) and the final show. Bonnar and Griffin, two of the funniest most likable blokes in the house, go out in the finale and put on a show. They could’ve tried to be technical with takedowns, submissions, etc. but instead, they decided to stand and punch each other for 15 minutes. It was so epic that Dana White and the UFC decided to give both men UFC contracts afterwards.

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And that’s kind of the appeal of the UFC in a nutshell. Some of the fights can be overly technical, and even somewhat boring. Only the most educated of fans can appreciate the nuances of the chess match of Jiu-Jitsu that involves leverage, bluffs, feints, and position. To most folks it looks like two sweaty dudes rolling around on a mat while people watch and yell (some folks have used the term “homo-erotic” and I sadly can’t say its inaccurate). Even then there’s the dreaded “lay and pray” tactic that involves a wrestler essentially tackling and laying on top of an opponent till the time runs out. Even educated fans hate that.

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UFC is the closest thing we have to legal, condoned bloodsport in the modern world. That can be a turn-off to some people, and in the last decade Dana White (CEO) has strived to make it as accessible, regulated, and mass-appealing as he could. And overall he’s succeeded. UFC has supplanted boxing as America’s #1 combat sport. He’s turned what was a laughable stable of thugs and uncontrolled violence into a pulse-pounding, controlled competition between two highly-skilled athletes. His biggest draw, a female fighter named Ronda Rousey, is in blockbuster movies and on Sports Illustrated covers. The sanctioning and control removes some of the guilt viewers feel at watching two grown men strive to hurt each other, and that ingrained desire to watch violence that we all have, but may not want to acknowledge, can be exercised in a healthy way.
For the most part, the competitors are college-educated and diverse, and generally disciplined and well-behaved. One of the tenets of all the martial arts that can form the basis or a component of their training is self-discipline. With a few notable exceptions (War Machine, Thiago Silva, Rampage Jackson, and most recently John Jones) the UFC stable is full of potential role-models, I’d even say more so than an NFL Roster. These athletes weren’t babied or sheltered from consequences and reality the way many prodigies in other sports are, and the very vast majority have earned their way into national prominence through hard work and dedication. Yes, they try and hurt each other for a living. No, that doesn’t mean they’re bad people.

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The UFC may not be for everyone, but I encourage everyone to at least give it a try. They have plenty of events on cable channels and every few months on broadcast TV (Fox). You might be surprised to find that internal bloodlust likes to be sated once in a while. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it. Millions of people have, and we’re ok. Mostly ok.
Signing off.

In the Shadow of Gotham – A Book Review

n298871I believe this is Mrs. Pintoff’s first novel, and its a good one. Not great, but good. The setting is one of the most captivating parts, a turn of the century who-dunnit incorporating the advent of criminal psychology. I did not check if Pintoff’s historical events that coincide with the murder-mystery (crooked mayoral elections in NYC…Lord that could be any time) but I didn’t feel like I needed to. She breathes so much intense historical life into Old New York you can feel the grit and the grime in your teeth as you read. An avid fan of psycho-thrillers like Silence of the Lambs, I found it intriguing to walk through the beginnings of criminology, and the adverse reaction (that also fit masterfully into the setting) to endeavoring to understand the criminal mind rather than simply punish it. The beginnings of Crime Scene Investigation are also present, with primitive photographs and fingerprint kits all employed by the Police (and their associates) in an attempt to catch the killer.

The inevitable swerve is fairly well executed, but I found myself wanting for more hints about the true killers identity. I had half of it figured out, but the other half felt a bit too conveniently Deus Ex to me. But maybe that’s just me. As far as the plot and storyline go, its standard fare without a lot of chances taken, allowing the depth of detail in the setting to shine out from the crowd. The main character is…fairly likable, but doesn’t have a great deal of personality. I think Mrs. Pintoff fell into the trap of forcing the narrator to be a lens to see the story through, and not much else. He never feels very vibrant or alive, the side characters and interactions are much more interesting than his daily routine. His personality is told to the reader rather than slowly and subtly revealed through dialogue and action. In fact, a lot of the prose relied on direct, blunt-force revelation over hints and understatement, which left in the precarious position on occasion of continually turning the pages and not really knowing why.

Between the narrator and the dialogue, the whole book felt a little antiseptic. The only color we really get is when the blue-collar blokes and the low-life criminals are injected into the story, and there’s definitely not enough of them included. When the academics and the cops talk to each other, it feels forced and stilted. In many places there’s extended, intense explanations of psychological theory that just feel unnecessary and repetitive. The main character often eminds the academics they need to not waste time and solve the crime, but only after we get about a page and a half of exposition. This may be an attempt to re-create period-appropriate diction and speech patterns, but its more a distraction than anything else. A few key side characters have a semblance of vim and vigor, but an equal number amount to faceless names on a page, interchangeable and indistinguishable to the reader. This actually hurts the swerve as well.

Overall, I’d say 3.5 out of 5 Gargoyle Statues. Pintoff does stellar work in creating a living, breathing turn-of-the-century (ish) New York City for the reader. I just wish some of the characters felt as alive as the city did. I enjoyed reading it for the setting and the very interesting (but sometimes unnecessarily distracting) references to the dawn of the criminology age as well. If you like serial killers and police procedurals of any type, this will be right up your alley. If the current network TV lineups are any indications, 90% of you fit into that category.

Crap. Maybe that means I should write one.

Signing Off.

A to Z Challenge – Z

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My theme for the A to Z challenge is Villain Archetypes.

Yes, 26 descriptions of some of your favorite villains of literature, TV, and movies.

April 30 –  Z is for Zombie and (god)Zilla

The final post of the challenge, and I’m going to cheat a little. The last archetype I’ll discuss is the Zombie and (god)Zilla, which is my lame-ass way to bring up and include the non-sentient, non-conscious, and/or non-human antagonistic forces that are so near and dear to my heart. What the hell am I talking about? I’m talking about zombies, monsters, forces of nature, anything that doesn’t think critically and consciously about their actions. These are the Godzillas, the Zombies, Jaws, Giant Squids, even Tornadoes, Volcanoes, and Hurricanes. It could be alien, animal, natural, etc. Basically, anything that, simply through behaving along its normal, survival instinct or inherent design creates a dangerous and terrifying situation for the protagonists. They’re cool, terrifying, and sometime fascinating to the audience. A well-crafted and creatively transcribed monster can be the creepiest, most chilling villain in all of fiction. They’re often the base point of movies, comics, and books, while the human characters essentially provide a backdrop for the Zombie/godZilla to be painted on.

Why is this (sort of) archetype my favorite? Because they’re just so damn cool. There aren’t any human characteristics to hate, just excellent special effects and descriptions that capture the imagination. These villains don’t fit the redeemable or irredeemable paradigm; they’re just exactly what they’re supposed to be. You can’t hate them or despise them, because they’re doing what they’re designed for. All that leaves is the awe, fear and respect for the protagonists and the audience to feel. These antagonistic forces are captivating because we can’t relate or understand them as an audience. Often they’re exaggerated versions of natural creatures, or more often supernatural things with base instincts derived from nature. I love a good, well-crafted human villain as much as the next guy, but a giant (or not so giant) scary monster, unthinking but cruelly intelligent, is a story in and of itself.

Everyone has a favorite monster movie. Or Zombie movie. Or book, or any kind of fiction with an antagonist that fits into the Zombie/godZilla archetype.They can be campy, suspenseful, horrific, science fictiony, and even fantastic. While their origins vary, their level of awesomeness tends to be constant. The lack of cohesive thought often means the Zombie/godZilla are almost included in the setting, and will have some human storyline surrounding them. Many times, a corrupt human arch-villain is involved as well, to grant a little more relatability to the storyline. My favorites involve the unthinking beastie proving to be the demise of the arch-villain, in the most delicious and satisfying way possible.

Some Great Zombie/godZilla examples:

  • Godzilla (der)
  • The Cloverfield Monster
  • Tyranids (Warhammer 40K)
  • The Relic (Book and Movie)
  • Jaws
  • Aliens (The Whole Franchise)
  • Cthulu (and the associated pantheon)
  • The Creature (White Shark)

As I wrap up my first A to Z challenge, I feel accomplished. I didn’t think I’d get through it, but I did. I really appreciate the visits, likes, and comments.

Signing Off