Friday, August 29, 2014

Microreview [book]: Paying for It

A guy gets drunk in Edinburgh and sometimes he investigates a murder.

Black, Tony. Paying for It. New Pulp Press, 2013.

I never really know how to write a bad review. I know how to write a review badly, but I’m never sure what to do when the book I’m reviewing wasn’t great, but I have to write something because I offered to post a review and this was the book that was on deck. I could trash the book, but that’s pretty much what the internet does. Plus, there's not much to trash, per se. I could write about something else—and I’ll do a bit of that here. Or I can just limit myself to legitimate critiques and keep it at around 700 words.

Paying for It, from Scottish crime novelist Tony Black, avoided the P.I. trope. That was a thing I liked about the book.

Gus Dury is a disgraced former journalist who drinks. His local bartender asks him to look into his son’s recent death—officially a suicide, despite suspicious circumstances. Gus accepts. We soon learn that the dead kid had been involved with Russian mobsters and dabbled in human trafficking. And so on. In many respects, this is a straightforward update of classic detective fiction—there’s the blond femme fatale, one His Girl Friday, some mildly flamboyant gangsters, a case the cops won’t touch. But Gus isn’t a P.I. Instead, he’s an opinionated drunk. Which is basically a P.I. without an office. But still not a P.I.

Some of the themes and character tropes in Paying for It rubbed me wrong. First, Gus Dury is an opinionated bastard. I’m not much of a fan of British music, movies, fiction—I do like their comics—so maybe that partly explains why Gus’s opining annoyed me. I am American, after all, and thus I assume we know better, even about comics. But it’s more the way Gus reminds me of an aging hipster, bitter about no longer being cool, about not understanding what cool is anymore. (Black does nothing to derail this impression.) And he’s roughly my age. Like Gus, my cultural tastes haven’t been refreshed much in the last few years. And yes I too have lectured people younger than me about things they should love—I am one class away from assigning The Road Warrior to my students. So yes, what I didn’t like about Gus are things I don’t like about me: I’m aging, I don’t like new music, I think kids are dumb. (Though I also think we were dumber than we remember and probably just as dumb as the kids currently and objectively are.)

Paying for It also featured alcoholism, the most annoying trope in crime fiction. Actually, second most annoying. (#1: the P.I.) I complained about this in my last review and I have complained about it before, but the alcoholic protagonist needs to be retired. Or drink a bit more responsibly. At least Black is realistic in his portrayal. Gus drinks, a lot. But he gets drunk. He feels like shit. He struggles with his alcoholism. He even tries during the book to dry out, though he ditches that plan quickly. I appreciate that Gus cannot drink obscene amounts of alcohol and continue working on a case. In fact, he doesn’t do a whole lot in the novel because he’s sitting around drinking and opining. It would have been more enjoyable had he been wittier or had better opinions. But, he’s a bitter drunk. In his later-mid-thirties. And the nineties were good.

Fortunately for Gus, the plot happens to him. Conveniently. Much of the story’s development entails Gus walking down the street and running into someone he knows who tells him something he needs to know. I’ve never been to Edinburgh. (Had plans to, but with the British pound trampling the dollar and all…) I doubt that in a city of 500,000 you randomly run into that many friends. While I do run into people here in Los Angeles—more often than one would think—they never have anything interesting to say, much less clues to offer that’ll break the case wide open. But, perhaps Edinburgh is a different place. I hear it was better in the nineties.

I can’t say that I hated this book, but I didn’t relish reading it. And this ultimately is the only criteria that matters. I’ll let a lot slide if I’m entertained. But a sluggish read gives me time to critique a novel. Paying for It was a slow read at 279 pages. It wasn’t so bad that I now refuse to read anymore installments from Tony Black. But the next one will probably sit on my shelf for a minute.

The Math

Objective Score: 5/10

Bonus Points: +1 for Gus not being a P.I.

Penalties: -1 for alcoholism; -1 for making me feel old 

Nerd coefficient: 4/10 "At least it wasn't a 600 page mystery novel"

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Thursday Morning Superhero

This is both a happy and sad week for me.  Happy because of all of the great comics that came out this week, but sad because it is almost time to say goodbye to some old friends.  I sure am going to miss The Sixth Gun and Mind MGMT, but there is something to a story having a beginning and end from its inception.  Both seem poised to give fans a satisfying ending and reason to reread the series on an annual basis.

Pick of the Week:
The Sixth Gun #42 - Becky Montcrief is without question one of the strongest females in all of comics.  The growth her character has had in Cullen Bunn's masterpiece is simply astounding.  From such humble beginnings, she is now poised to end this mess.  Things look bleak, but she has a plan that is absolutely terrifying.  Part of me is sad to see a story such as this come to an end, but Bunn has really delivered what seems to be an amazing ending to this story.  Brian Hurt outdoes himself once again.   The King of Secrets is one of the best character designs I have seen in some time.  I would love to see a talented cosplayer pull something like that off at SDCC next year.   This and Locke and Key go back and forth in terms of which series I recommend to new comic book readers.  If you have not read it go buy all of the trades right now.

The Rest:
Mind MGMT #25 - Matt Kindt is in the winding down stage of his epic spy tale and this week's issue was a great refresher and had a more subdued tone.  There is something very refreshing that the first two comic books in this week's post include strong female characters who have truly grown throughout their comic book journey.  Meru is set to take down the Eraser and prevent the new formation of Mind MGMT, but she may have to accomplish this on her own.  Without spoiling anything, I am very excited about the first step in the process that is revealed at the end.  Another must read series.

Saga #22 - The amount of truly amazing comics book this week is almost too much to handle.  Brian K. Vaughan took me on quite the roller coaster on this issue.  It started with some laughs, was utterly gut wrenching, and then shifted to horror.  The journey that Vaughan takes his reader on this week is emotionally exhausting and will probably hit very close to home for some.  Fiona Staples remains one of my favorite artists of all time. From the opening page (a reminder why I love this series), King Robot, and the conclusion of this issue, Staples is as talented and versatile as anyone in this medium.

Outcast #3 - The new Robert Kirkman book continues to impress and the slower pace was a welcome change.  This may have been the most depressing read of the week, but not in a bad way.  Kirkman has a great track record of creating complex individuals, and this issue felt like it was a great hint of things to come.  Definitely a series that is worth your time.

POSTED BY MIKE N. -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Microreview [film]: Los Ultimos Dias, a.k.a. The Last Days, directed by the Pastor brothers

Characters Flatter than a Flan in a Cupboard + Ridiculous Premise = Mierda

2013. Just look at these two goofballs and try to tell me you care if they live or die!

I really wanted to like this movie. Or more precisely, I really wanted this movie to be worthy of my appreciation. And it did have some things going for it, notably its exotic setting in Barcelona and focus on Spanish characters, and that it was in Catalan rather than English. It's always refreshing to have an apocalyptic story not about New York City (or even the U.S.), and to make matters better, the premise is, at first blush, interesting enough. In brief, the catastrophe that sweeps the globe isn't zombies or the Superflu or whatever: it's hardcore agoraphobia. That's right, going to the Agora (or in fact just going outside)=dead. Cool, right? Yes, this was a movie I really wanted to like.

But I didn't—at all.

This is partly my fault: I'd already seen another movie directed by the Pastor hermanos, Carriers, which I thought was very good to excellent, so going into The Last Days I expected at minimum the same level of greatness. But except for the beautiful cinematography and special effects, which successfully produced plenty of eye candy, a lush vision of this apocalyptic world, no aspect of the film connected with me at all. The characters, main and otherwise, were without exception irritating and unlikeable, which meant that the various harrowing challenges they faced left me entirely unmoved; it even got to the point that I hoped they'd just die and put themselves (and me) out of their misery.

Moreover, the premise and its implications for the plot can't withstand more than five seconds of consideration. Fatal agoraphobia? Even if we give you the benefit of the doubt on that whopper, hermanos, *nobody* would still be alive three months later. Just how, exactly, are they going to get food—or water? Ask yourself, reader: if no one could ever again transport anything (cars don't protect against "the Panic", as their uber-agoraphobia is called), how long could you survive just on the food you've got at home or at the office or wherever you are when you're stricken with the Panic? Unless your answer was "ninety days" or higher, you're dead by the time the non-flashback portions of the film get going, along with pretty much everyone, everywhere. (My answer was "one week, but only if I'm allowed to eat my downstairs neighbors".) And seeds, which inevitably pop up in formulaic apocalypse survival movies like this one, are not magic—so I have a hard time believing a useless office worker and a hippie artist could throw together an indoor greenhouse in a random building and then just become master hydroponic farmers, living there for like fifteen years off the offspring of one tiny bag of seeds!

And maybe this is a bridge too far, but Catalan is distractingly silly-sounding. I heard once that some king of Barcelona had a lisp, and consequently decreed, in a shining example of Harrison Bergeron-esque lowest common denominator politics, that all his subjects must speak with a lisp. But even if that'th not the real reathon Barthelonan/Catalan thpeakers lithp everything, lithping when you don't have to ith jutht uncool, ath well ath infuriating to lithten to! Thuck it up, Barthelonanth, and just say "Barcelona" like the rest of the world!

In conclusion, if you're searching for a cool apocalyptic movie in a non-U.S. setting, don't watch this (watch La Jetee, or if you're feeling less artsy-fartsy, one of the excellent apocalyptic anime movies like Nausicaa or Akira). If you're looking for a cool Pastor brothers movie, don't watch this (watch Carriers). In short: don't watch it.

The Math

Objective assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for a beautiful vision of what a world stricken with fatal agoraphobia might look like

Penalties: -1 for what? Fatal agoraphobia, yet people are still alive months later? -1 for the unappealing characters, -1 for all the other absurdities of the story, not least Catalan itself

Nerd coefficient: 3/10 "Just bad." And how!

Normally I'd blather on about how a ?/10 is actually a pretty good score, no really, but in this case, the tag line is all too accurate: a 3/10 is indeed just bad.

Zhaoyun, purveyor of apocalyptic and general sf/f literature and NOAF stalwart since 2013, hopes when the apocalypse does come nobody nearby is thpeaking Catalan.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


I've been traveling for almost a month now, with my handy iPad and a whole lot of ebooks and digital comics as my primary entertainment vehicle. So I figured: "why not start a new comics-related feature for Nerds of a Feather? Something (monthly) to complement Mike's awesome (weekly) Thursday Morning Superhero series!" Of course, since I sort of fell off the comics wagon a couple years ago, I was starting anew; and since I wouldn't be able to keep up week-to-week, I could just pick and choose interesting books from the last few years. I also decided to make a game out of it.

Scoring System and Rules

The scoring system I devised is based on a simple question: do I want to keep reading this book? Anything above a 2/5 is a "yes" and anything below is a "no." As with Nerds of a Feather scoring in general, 5s and 1s will be issued sparingly. The score sheet:

5/5: highly recommended.
4/5: strong overall but not as good as it could have been.
3/5: just good enough to read the next issue.
2/5: some limited potential.
1/5: objectively terrible. 

And here's how the game works. In true NoaF fashion, I chose 6 first issues to read. Going forward, I'll continue with each book that scores above a 3/5. Anything scoring below that threshold gets thrown out and replaced with a new book, starting from issue #1. After 6 months, we'll see who's still standing. Sound good? Good. Now on the books themselves... 

The Books: August 2014

Magneto #1 (Bunn/Hernandez Walta: Marvel, 2014)

Magneto has always been my favorite Marvel villain, in large part because he’s so relatable. You might be horrified by his methods, but you understand where he’s coming from. Part of you cheers him on; the rest of you hopes Charles Xavier can bring him to his senses. The new limited series appeals to the first part. It’s classic revenge-noir, where a force of nature wreaks horrible vengeance on those who deserve it. Cullen Bunn's writing is tight and Gabriel Hernandez Walta's art is nicely stylized. 5/5: highly recommended.

Brass Sun #1 (Edington/Culbard: 2000AD, 2014)

Brass Sun is stylish dystopian SF about a steampunkish society and a nascent rebellion against its theocratic religious order. The concept is sound and the art is quality, so I’m curious to see where things lead. Unfortunately, the first issue is weighed down from pacing issues, stilted dialogue and thin characterization. 3/5: just good enough to read the next issue.

The Wake #1 (Snyder/Murphy: Vertigo, 2013)

Scott Synder and Sean Murphy’s underwater SF adventure is one of the most talked about comics in recent memory, and issue #1 doesn’t disappoint. The writing is unusually fluid and the art has a pencil-heavy feel that suits the subject matter perfectly. I was, however, more than a bit annoyed that Snyder resorted to the “scientist adventurers gathered together by mysterious patrons” trope. I’d thought that AVP and Prometheus had killed that trope dead. 4/5: strong overall but not as good as it could have been.

East of West #1 (Hickman/Dragotta: Vertigo, 2013)

Another one I had high hopes for. Unfortunately, this steampunk-y/post-apocalyptic-y/Warren Ellis-y Western is a hot mess, weighed down tropeyness, lazy ultraviolence and one of the most egregious and annoying infodumps I’ve encountered in a long while. East of West #1 feels like a lot of other comics you’ve read, but diluted by time and repetition of the same themes over and over again. 2/5: some limited potential.

Hawkeye #1 (Fraction/Aja: Marvel, 2012)

I’ve never had much love for Hawkeye, but this book has gotten so much hype that I had to give it a shot. And I’ll give it this: Hawkeye a real departure from the Big Two way of doing things, even more than Magneto is. I mean, a fragmented narrative, no spandex action AND a story that’s pretty much about ordinary people struggling to get by? Progressive as that is (and it is), the storytelling doesn’t quite live up to the ambition—or the art, which is crazy good. Huge potential, not quite realized yet. 4/5: strong overall but could still be better.

The Last Phantom #1 (Scott Beatty/Eduardo Ferigato: Dynamite, 2010)

I grew up with the Phantom—well, with Fantomen, the Swedish version. But everyone knows that’s the best one (sorry, Lee Falk). This 2010 revamp gives the classic hero the “Vertigo grit” treatment, making it feel like a pulpier version of Scalped or Unknown Soldier. Unfortuntately, the book retains the Phantom’s central problematic: the hero is still a white man protecting an otherwise helpless African country. Why not make him black or mixed race? Seems like a missed opportunity to really update the franchise. Otherwise this is a decent enough read. 3/5: just good enough to read the next issue. 

...and there you have it! 5/6 books (Magneto, Brass Sun, The Wake, Hawkeye and The Last Phantom) will return in September, while we say happy trails to East of West. And without further ado, we crown our...

MONTHLY WINNER: Magneto #1 (Bunn/Hernandez Walta: Marvel, 2014)

Until next time! 


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator (2012).

Monday, August 25, 2014

Microreview [book] : Bloodlight - The Apocalypse of Robert Goldner, by Harambee K Grey-Sun

Available to buy via Author's own site here Do try and buy indie, though. Thankyouplease.

Well, I do seem to like a challenge of late. Moving house and becoming a dad in the same fortnight? Check. Trying to read anything whilst doing the above? Check. Try to read one of the more unusual and frustrating books I've encountered in a long time and then attempt a review whist His Majesty sits next to me decided when to interrupt with either window-shattering screams or window-shattering farts? Check.

First off, though, look at that cover. No, look at it! Awesome. And it conveys so much about the story so beautifully. I thought the title a little clumsy until I realised whilst reading that this is actually a prequel to Grey-Sun's 'Eve of Light' series of books which I was unaware of. I'll be honest - whilst flicking through net galley I spotted the cover. It's sort of the way I buy wine - 'oh cool label!'. However, this policy can lead to both a nasty glass of vinegar and a dull read.

Well, Grey-Sun doesn't do dull. He doesn't avoid tediously-lengthy passages at times (more of that later), but he also rarely let up throughout this novel on passion or focus, and can pierce the mind from the page more directly than most authors I've discovered lately, particularly in sci-fi/fantasy. He might take issue with the genre tag however; he - more accurately perhaps - describes the story in his preface as Metaphysical Fantasy. This comes up within a slightly odd warning that this is NOT a Young Adult novel but a dark and complex tale involving 'the nature of Reality' and 'the Creator'. Well, I am far from a young adult (despite often acting like one) but wouldn't have found this too dark or complex; in fact, it is suited to the turbulent, obsessive and intense mind of an adolescent more than any other age.

I don't wish to knock the book by saying that. The story superbly stays within the mind of Robert throughout, its singularity of perspective suited to the self-involvement of teenage life, and,  as he is a 16 year old, its landscape matches too. I've never been an African-American high-school kid in Virginia but it felt true enough to me, although given the constant opportunity to sample U.S. T.V. or film set in a high school any day or night here in Britain perhaps it just tapped into my cliche brain bank. It does though in depicting this world dwell far too long on certain elements; for instance, endless descriptions of wrestling and getting ready for wrestling and discussing wrestling. Maybe Grey-Sun likes wrestling. Maybe in the novels this precedes Robert wrestles a lot. But it's not important to the plot to the extent that we need to be left wading through the sections about it. I mention this as it is but emblematic of a wider issue of pace. Roberts journey towards revelations about himself is mysterious and purposefully slow but more intriguing character interaction would have added weight to his experiences, and instead we get a friend who we never see, various school acquaintances of minimal importance to the lead and a distant father.

However, the heart of the story and the parts that really quickened my pulse is the fantasy element, not the real world of friends and family. Throughout the body of the book we see Robert being distracted and even harmed by weird hallucinations and physical changes, which dramatically escalate two-thirds through. I sensed a superhero/mutant in the making, grounded in a world with fascinatingly-realised social, sexual and racial issues, a gentle, subtle alternate-reality (the First Lady has killed the Pres), and some great passages of adolescent soul-searching. The author also writes eloquently about both religion and music, and much of the novel flows well and feels to building to something powerful; it just takes too long to get there, and when it does, leaves confusion and a little disappointment.

Where it goes is a minefield of spoilers, so ignore this if you want to, but I should caution that you shouldn't be too excited, as the following sentence isn't exactly clear or comprehensible. SPOILER ALERT - So, basically, he has a virus that allows him to control light but also zaps his mind into other realities and communes with devil-angels and a mad giant lynx with tentacles. Kind of. I'm not much clearer than that. The final passages of the book put me in mind of Ballard, Pullman and Burroughs, and if the series  that follows is anything similar, I'm in. But like a drug that kicks after the music stops, the power of these wild half-answers to the mystery was dampened as I had by this point lost too much enthusiasm. Alos, unlike, say, the revelatory, exciting cliff-hanger end to Northern Lights, this felt like it had to stop short just as it got interesting. Perhaps the main series delve more clearly into the other-worlds of a God gone mad and vengeful angel creatures. And maybe my opinion is too filtered through baby-fatigue. Dear Author, I'm so sorry if I should be giving a 9/10 here, but I'll have to trust my heart (and indeed, many others review online; I checked to make sure I wasn't losing it as much as Robert) and stick with a...

Objective Assessment : 6/10
Bonuses: +1 for detailing the mind of an unusually intelligent and interesting teen; +1 for depicting racial issues without cliche (to my mind); +1 for some truly joyously-bonkers moments at the end
Penalites: -1 for dull patches; -1 for mistaking delay of excitement for amping excitement

Nerd Coeffiecient: 7/10 An enjoyable experience but not without its flaws

Written by: English Scribbler, contributor since 2013 and tired new dad

Friday, August 22, 2014

Microreview [film]: Paprika

Sci-Fi Anime Meets Surrealism

I only recently heard about Paprika when it appeared at No. 75 on Time Out New York's list of the 100 Greatest Animated Movies of All Time. It's tough to walk into a movie with such high expectations, and I know that colored my enjoyment of it, and left me perhaps a little more ambivalent about it than I might otherwise have been if I had come across it a different way.

The premise of this movie is amazing: A research team has created a device that can record an individual's dreams to video. The team has started secretly using the device — the DC Mini — for psychotherapy, and one of their first projects is Police Inspector Konakawa, who is investigating a murder while haunted by a recurring dream. But, like in Ghostbusters, it turns out the door swings both ways: getting dreams out of the heads of delusional, sick, or troubled people brings those dreams out into the world. This problem ramps up quickly after one of the DC Mini prototypes is stolen. Who the culprit is, what their endgame may be, and how a mysterious girl named Paprika and Konakawa's murder investigation all fit in is a mystery.

To be honest, it all remains a little bit of a mystery. The plot gets very, very confusing as each character's pursuits are developed, and as the walls between reality and surreality start crumbling. To be honest, I got a little lost as there was talk of Konakawa having actually killed himself, which made me question whether or not he was really alive, or really a cop, and where the film was trying to go. But though the plot points may be murky, the visuals are astounding, and the Japanese can really do the creepy doll nightmare thing right. The film has a great a atmosphere, with elements of cyberpunk, noir, and Surrealism filtered through an anime lens. The visual imagination of the film and director Satoshi Kon is something to behold, and the character work in the supporting characters is unique and interesting, even though the main character remains something of a cypher.

The Math

Objective Quality: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the "parade of everything," the recurring dream motif, +1 for just the sheer coolness of the melding of the dream world and real world

Penalties: -1 confusing me, -1 for minimizing its great setup in favor of a less-interesting crime thriller conceit

Cult Film Coefficient: 7/10

On other sites, that score would likely be higher. Check out our non-inflated scoring system here.

Posted by — Vance K. Cult film aficionado, former Surrealist, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Gen Con 2014

I survived my second Gen Con and am pleased to report that the gaming industry is thriving.  Dubbed the best four days in gaming, Gen Con set a new attendance record of over 56,000 unique visitors and weekend turnstile counts surpassing 184,000.  Last year I dubbed a winner of Gen Con, but this year did not have a feeling that one gaming company had a stronger show than another.  It really was a situation that the gamers are the real winners considering the innovation and creativity that this industry is producing.

Biggest Surprise - Munchkin Panic
I will admit that I had my reservations about the Munchkin branding of one of my family's favorite games.  Castle Panic and Dead Panic are staples on my gaming shelf that really deliver a great cooperative gaming experience that I didn't think would mesh with the Munchkin way.  I am happy to report that I was dead wrong and should learn to trust Fireside Games.  Justin De Witt took us through a demo and it was an absolute blast.  The great John Kovalic produced some stunning visuals for the game and the mechanics of treasures, castle cards, and curses created a unique experience that makes this a completely different experience than Castle Panic. I wish we got to try it with the mini-expansion that is included in the game to add even more Munckin to our game, but I appreciate that the game allows you to customize how much Munchkin you incorporate into your tower defense.

Best Event - Pandemic Survival
My friend and I had the good fortune of participating in Z-Man Games first ever Pandemic Survival event.  It brought together teams of two and had them compete in the same game of Pandemic in a valiant effort to save mankind from the four diseases that seek to wipe it out.  While we didn't fare as well as we had hoped (we were second to last), it was one of the highlights of the convention.  It was an absolute blast and I walked away feeling excited and that I was ready to play again.

Best of my Haul:
Enough about that. What about the games that I picked up?  One of the highlights is filling up the trunk of my car with the new games and hoping my wife isn't too upset with the amount of money spent.  Here are a couple of the notable games that I have already been enjoying with my family.

Machi Koro - It was great to finally play this game and bring a copy home to play with my son (he loves it!).  It is a game where the premise is simple and light in the early stages, but ramps up as you progress and unlock the ability to build new buildings and unlock special abilities.  Lots of tense moments late in the game as you attempt to roll for the card that will put you over the top.

King of New York - The sequel to King of Tokyo had a lot to live up to, and I am pleased to report that it is a worthy sequel to its predecessor.  What I love most about King of New York is that the player actually is a giant monster rampaging through the city.  You gain points and abilities for knocking down buildings, are fired upon by the military, and get to trek all over the city as you attempt to earn your 20 victory points.