Friday, November 29, 2013

Microreview [book]: The Secret Zombie History of the World, by Paul Finch, Matthew Sprange & Toby Venables (release date: Dec. 10th)

The Meat

   Aside from borderline examples like Frankenstein's monster, the concept of the zombie, especially the idea of masses of dead men walking (here's not looking at you, Sean Penn!) in a shambling ravenous horde and wreaking vengeance on the living is really a Cold War-era phenomenon. Associated with a killer combination of a seemingly innocuous but actually menacing technology (the radio, say) and Communist brainwashing in such classics as Night of the Living Dead, it's easy to see how fears of radiation and other double-edged advances of that era might have contributed to fears of the dead rising. Many zombie tales feature some kind of ghastly repudiation of religious faith as well, in which figures of religious authority are torn apart despite their protestations that the walking dead cannot be (probably because of the implications this has for Judeo-Christian notions of life after death).
   Given that background on zombies in popular culture, this collection of three novellas attempting to place zombie plagues throughout history was an intriguing twist. There was a slightly sophomoric match-up vibe, a 'zombies vs. _____' sense in all three: Vikings, knights, and British navy, respectively (needless to say, the good, or at least the living guys carry the day!). In each, the reader is presented with an intrepid leader (or, in the Welsh story, a maverick knight) whose can-do attitude and refusal to be cowed by the macabre attackers holds the key to survival.
   This collection certainly isn't for the faint of heart. Violence is in ghastly supply in all three, with the gore reaching ludicrous volume in knights vs. zombies, where the phrase "a porridge of brains" or a close variant appears something like five times. Given the slaughter, one might expect the knights vs. zombies tale to be a parodic take on violence in zombie stories, but unfortunately, it's deadly serious in tone, and even situations whose comic potential is tantalizing, truly low-hanging fruit, have all the laughs beaten out of them with bone-shattering force. In fact, given the patently absurd starting premise—just another day as a Viking/knight/sailor when suddenly the zombie horde is unleashed, but trusty captain/sir ____ leads the good guys to victory—it's surprising just how seriously all three stories take themselves.
   In fairness, for readers who genuinely thought "what's the only thing that can make gritty, horrifically violent stories of Viking/medieval/naval combat better? Zombies!", it can't possibly get any better than this volume.  All three stories are generally quite well and engagingly written.  But although stories where zombies lurk around each corner rarely open themselves to criticism for being slow or poorly paced, in this case all three felt rather slow or dull at times, whether it be the too-long introduction to the Viking crew (not to mention the irritating boy, a quasi-protagonist but not really the main character whose addition to the crew, on balance, only subtracted from the story's entertainment value) in story one, the incessant description using visceral metaphors for mortal injuries in story two, or the paragraphs-long exposition detailing the particulars of naval combat in story three.
   Also, and perhaps inevitably, these stories present us with entirely too much dramatic irony.  Obviously, the reader knows zombies will appear in the tale, so a protracted "What manner of foul beast is this?" kind of confusion among the characters loses its charm quickly. On that score, Vikings was weakest (page after page of "I think they're the walking dead." "Bah—impossible!" dialogue, etc.), and Navy vs. zombies was best ("What the?!—well, whatever.  Aim for the head!"). And speaking of the zombie's most famous weakness (head-shots, and not the kind actors carry around in their hip one-strap backpacks, either!), story two changed up the zombie formula a bit, Prydain Chronicles/Irish mythology style, but it felt less like an interesting twist and more like a jarring physical impossibility—what animates the dead body, if not the head?
   Conceptually, the most innovative of the stories is definitely story one, what I'm calling 'Vikings vs. zombies'. I won't spoil the story for you, but suffice it to say that there's a sinister yet seemingly impersonal force behind the zombies. This is a rarity: in most stories, the zombie plague is presented as retributive in nature, at least indirectly, so for example zombie hordes might be a result of capitalist society's excessive profit-seeking->ethical line-crossing in medical experimentation, etc. So too in story two, where British misdeeds call down a Welsh curse, or story three, where dirty family secrets come back to haunt our intrepid hero. But in story one, the Vikings are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (it took all my self-control not to reveal the big plot twist here!). I found this story to be the strongest and most memorable of the three.
   As with any anthology, 'grading' the book as a single work presents problems, so I've settled on a solution certain to please none and infuriate all: an average score, without caveats or explanations!

The Math

Baseline assessment: 7/10 (because having zombies invade history is an awesome idea!)

Bonuses: +1 for Vikings chopping the bejeezus out of lots of zombies and not even caring that they were doing so

Penalties: -1 for making such zany stories so serious, -1 for too much dramatic irony about zombies—methinks they did protest too much

Nerd coefficient: 6/10 "Still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore"

Check out our unique scoring system to see why a 6 means this book is better than, say, two thirds of all books ever!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Playstation 4: First Impressions


When both the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 were announced I reserved copies of both systems from Amazon.  I always intended on buying one, and decided to save $100 and opt for the PS4.  Like our impressions of the Xbox One, I will start with the console and move on to the games.  The console itself is very sleek and feels almost sentient.  The light along the top is often pulsing and changing color.  The updated Dual Shock controller feels more substantial than its PS3 counterpart and is one of the best controllers I have ever held.  I have not played a game that fully integrated the touchpad. but I feel that once developers embrace it the feature will shine.

The user interface has been updated since the PS3, but feels clunky compared to what Microsoft is doing.  As a bonus for purchasing on launch, I was given a month of Playstation Plus, Playstation Unlimited Music, and $10 to spend in the virtual store.  A nice way to introduce gamers to what Playstation is offering.  I purchased some Dr. Who episodes with my credit and found the video streaming service easy to navigate and use.  There is only one title to download with Playstation Plus currently, but I may pay for the full year depending on what titles are coming soon.

THE Games

Killzone: Shadowfall
As a father of two young children, I am not able to game as often as I would like too.  Since the system launch I have completed the first six chapters of this game and really dig it.  This is the most beautiful game I have ever played and the story is decent.  The controls are tight, the levels have offered a good amount of variety, and I feel it has an appropriate level of difficulty.  Not too tough, but you will be repeating some parts a few time before moving on.  My only real complaint is the AI.  The Helghast often wander past a fallen compadre or don't notice that if one of their friends is sniped.  If you are looking for a game to show-off what the PS4 is capable of, this is the way to go.  The touchpad on the controller is used to control your owl robot and serves as a speaker for audio logs.  One of my favorite little details is how the light on the controller changes to red when you die.  It is oddly satisfying to have an exciting death and to see your hands glowing red.  It is a gimmick, but I enjoy it.  I have not been able to take the game online yet, but look forward to engaging in some good old fashioned death matches.  If you have a PS4 this is a must buy.

This was initially going to be the only launch title I picked up, but was concerned after reading some early reviews.  Knack is a creature that is made up of relics and and starts most chapters quite small, but can grow to epic size by adding new relics during gameplay.  It is a fixed camera platformer that harkens back to the Crash Bandicoots from the Playstation days.  I have had a blast playing this with my six-year old son, but it has proven a little difficult for him.  Be prepared to die a lot, but I disagree with complaints that the game is too challenging.  Others have complained about the fixed camera (only created an issue one or two times for me), and that It is too repetitive.  It is repetitive, but I have enjoyed the story and enjoy a game that I can just pick up and play.  So far I have logged well over 12 hours and am nearing the game's completion.   While I wouldn't recommend this title to everyone, if you are looking for a family game or are a fan of Crash Bandicoot and similar style games, you won't be disappointed with this one.  Not sure that it will have a high replay value, so it might be worth waiting for a price drop as it is hard to justify $60 on this title.


Objective Score: 7/10. This will without question rise over time, but right now there isn't a lot that should cause you to upgrade right away.  I have had minor issues with the video streaming and Netflix apps, but this will only improve over time.  I want to state that I am very happy with my purchase and have no doubt that I will be enjoying this console for a long time.

Penalties: -1 for a lack of must have exclusives and the PSN issues. 

Bonuses: +1 for the free trial bundles, and for pure processing power that this beast possesses. 

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10. Like the Xbox One review, this will only rise over time.  Talk to me when Watch Dogs drops or the next Uncharted.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Xbox One: First Impressions

The Console

The new generation has finally made it. I picked up my One on Friday and haven't really stopped playing it since. First I'll cover some bells and whistles included in the new machine, then give a few words on the games I picked up. To begin with, let me say that it's quite impressive. I never bought the Kinect for the 360 because most of the games it was made for were created for kids. However, some of the hacks and off-label uses that were generated by have made their way into this iteration of the device. One cool feature is that it recognizes who is playing and will sign you in automatically. All you have to do is be visible in front of the Kinect's camera and it will sign you in, no questions asked. Instead of picking a single gamer profile to use as an automatic sign-in, assuming you have a family of gamers, it will simply recognize who is present and sign them in on its own. 

The box itself is a little bigger than the 360, but I much prefer the disc feeder in this one to the tray used in the 360. It makes discs harder to scratch and also easier to retrieve when ejected. The real place the new system shines, however, is in the voice commands. Simple statements like, "Xbox go home," return you to the Dashboard. Once there, you can start any of your apps or games by stating the name listed in the lower left hand corner. For example, "Forza Motorsport 5" will trigger Forza without touching a single button other than turning on the machine. While I wasn't sold on the Kinect as part of the package since I never used one with my 360, you can definitely mark me down as a convert now that I've seen it in action. 

the games

killer instinct

Killer Instinct comes with the console, although it operates in much the same model as today's MMORPGs and mobile games. You are given one character for free: Jago, shown above at right. The rest must be purchased either singly or in a group. It's a gorgeous fighting game, but I haven't really had the time to get into it with Forza 5 and Call of Duty: Ghosts staring me in the face. Many of Jago's moves are similar to those used by Ken and Ryu in the Street Fighter franchise, so he was a cinch to pick up being the SF aficionado that I am. The fireball is the same. The Sharyuken is the same. The only differences are some kick combos that I was lucky enough to figure out on my own. However, there is a move list provided if you're one to learn moves rather than just button mash until you figure things out like myself. I have yet to decide if I'm going to purchase the character pack for this game, but it's certainly tempting given the quality of the trial. 

Call of Duty: Ghosts

This game was a bit of a disappointment as anyone who has read about it knows it's not an Xbox One exclusive but rather a port with "upscaled" graphics from the 360 and PS3 editions. It looks a little better than Modern Warfare 3 and Black Ops 2, but it isn't a generation ahead. That said, it has a unique story line in which the countries of South America have banded together into Federation against the US. Don't worry gamergeeks, you learn this all in the first 30 seconds of the intro so I'm not spoiling any of the plot you don't figure out immediately. You're part of the resistance against the Federation and help try to restore the United States to its former glory in the campaign. 

There are also several new additions that I can't wait to try. One is called Squad Mode where you build your own squad and use it to take on other squads from around the world. You are able to train your squad members in various specialties to get the most well-rounded group of killing machines this side of Fort Hood. Finally, there's multiplayer. I'm not the biggest fan because I don't really enjoy getting massacred by a bunch of 8-year-olds with mouths like first-year Navy recruits, but I've given it a run, nonetheless. I just tried out Free-For-All because it requires the least amount of dedication (and I don't feel like I'm letting down squadmates with my lack of acumen), but there are twelve different multiplayer modes including Team Deathmatch, Cranked, Blitz, Search and Rescue, Search and Destroy, Infected, Kill Confirmed, Domination, Hunted, Free-For-All, Team Tactical, and Ground War. Don't ask me what all those mean because I haven't tried them all yet, but once my friends get around to picking up the one and Ghosts, I fully intend to explore each in its own right. For now, suffice it to say that this is a pretty good Call of Duty game, but my socks are still on my feet. They weren't blown off by the next round of CoD. 

Forza Motorsport 5

Finally, we've come to the place where this next-gen console REALLY shines. Forza 5 is every bit the newest breed of game. Although you don't have to beat them all to finish the game, there are 596 races in this gorgeous piece of gaming glory. This is clearly worth the $65 it costs, not to mention the jaw-dropping graphics that come inside that cute little green box. Aside from the human characters that appear in the pit, and they're are realistic as anything from Call of Duty, this game appears as photorealistic as anything I've every seen. 

One of the main changes in gameplay between this and the previous versions of Forza is that you only need to place in the top 3 spots in order to earn a gold medal. It is no longer required to win a race in order to consider that level conquered. Another one of the unique additions is the "Drivatar." Once you've completed three races, the game learns your driving style and uses it to enter you into races even if you aren't present to take part. You can win credits and XP from these races. It's the first time short of hiring a driver in Gran Turismo that I'm aware of where you can let your machine sit alone without even being home and improve your standings. One thing that bothered me was the inability to switch cars before loading the next race. I still haven't figured out a way to choose a different car or race without waiting for it to load the next track, which is a considerable amount of time. It's a minor inconvenience, of course, but one that adds up over time to drive you nuts. All in all, loading issues aside, this game completely lives up to my expectations and I can't wait to wake up tomorrow and play some more. I'm hooked. While the other two titles mentioned here are enjoyable, Forza 5 is full-on addictive, so beware. You've been given fair warning. 

the math

Objective Score: 8/10. I suspect this will rise to a 9 over time, but this is just the first round of games. One's a free/pay-to-play addition that comes with the console, one's a port, and one was built from the ground up for this console. As more games are designed for the One, I would imagine they will provide as much jaw-dropping wow power as Forza 5.

Penalties: Not enough original games that make full use of the console's capabilities were available on Day 1, or at least not enough with high enough scores on Metacritic to justify dropping $65 to play them. 

Bonuses: This is clearly a fantastic machine, as showcased in Forza 5. I look forward to seeing what they can come up with when the next Halo and Gears of War games come out. I suspect they will be amazing. 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. Again, I expect this grade to rise over time, but for the titles that are currently available, I just can't give it a 9. Come talk to me in six months :-)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Microreview [book]: Scratch One

Lange, John [Michael Crichton] Scratch One [Hard Case Crime, 2013]
Available via: Independent Bookstores; Amazon 

The Meat

A fairly dumb protagonist is essential for a good mistaken identity story. A normal person would probably notice something amiss with the initial delivery of a strange package or furtive encounter with Peter Lorre. But for a mistaken identity story to get anywhere, it should take the protagonist a minute to figure things out, to learn that she’s unknowingly walked into something serious, and that she should get a gun somewhere. Maybe a fake passport. If things are cleared up too quickly—no, I am most certainly not the person you’re supposed to meet at this train station—then the story ends. The right person gets shot. Roger Carr, fortunately, is slow on the uptake. Don’t let his Harvard law degree and job at a fancy New York City firm fool you: he’s pretty dumb. People mistakenly call him to schedule meetings, he obliges; someone gets shot while talking to him, he’s nonplussed. He’s dumb. But an American kind of dumb. Earnest dumb.

I would hate this guy in real life.

Scratch One is one of Michael Crichton’s early novels, written under the name of John Lange. Crichton was a medical student at the time who chose a wise plan B: write hacky novels. We all know how that turned out for him. Scratch One is the work of a journeyman storyteller: a terse, formulaic spy novel done well. The story revolves around Roger Carr, an American lawyer mistaken for an American assassin. It’s the late sixties and Israel is looking to buy arms on the European black market. Some agents working for “Arab nations” (Syria? Iraq? there are a few of them) need to stop this from happening, as well as to stop the Americans and French from stopping them from stopping the arms purchase. Everyone involved thinks Carr is a CIA assassin who is there to kill the agents looking to kill the arms dealers. There’s a car chase, a girl, sulfuric acid, the Monaco Grand Prix, Cannes, car rides, lunches, drinks, tailored suits, cars.

Crichton’s deftness as a storyteller is on display here. His prose is pure economy. There’s an unadorned terseness in the writing, clear description and snapping dialogue drive the novel. The storytelling is effortlessly paced right from the opening series of murderous vignettes. The book gets bogged about a third of the way through once Carr meets the love interest Anne—she’s charming, but their endless first date involved no gunplay or attempted poisonings. It takes Crichton about twenty pages too many to get back to the intrigue, but he then keeps that up for the rest of the book. 

Bonus points for a really well-written car chase, which is always an achievement. 

The problem with this book is its hero, Roger Carr. He’s not only dumb, he’s a bit of an asshole. A spoiled rich kid, the son of a senator, a Harvard legacy who got hooked up with job well beyond his capabilities. Towards the end of the book he becomes somewhat sympathetic, once the dipshit realizes his life is in danger—so I cared a bit whether he lived or died. While Carr might be unlikable, the rest of the book’s characters are an entertaining lot: Liseau, the cultured torturer; Brauer, the principled hitman; the cynical French intelligence officer, Vascard; Gorman, the boofonish American spymaster. And Anne, the well-read, car enthusiast dancer from Australia who has a thing for American rich guys who flirt like the internet.

Despite myself, I enjoyed Scratch One. There’s nothing terribly special or innovative about the novel. And I’ll probably forget the specifics by my second cup of coffee in the morning. But I read it in three quick hours, the surest mark of a good story, or at least a not terrible story.

The Math

Objective Score: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 each for '60s French cool and a well-written car chase

Penalties: -1 for rich assholes

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

Friday, November 22, 2013

Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time

mobile fun for free!

Finally, the sequel to the wildly popular mobile favorite Plants vs. Zombies has come out. I think this solidifies PopCap as THE makers of the best mobile games available. Between Bejeweled, Peggle, and PvZ, they've made some of my favorite mobile titles and they definitely have more depth and better programming than 98% of the mobile games out there. While I've enjoyed Hill Climb Racer, Angry Birds, and Army of Darkness, no single developer has come up with as many quality games as PopCap. 


There are three main levels in the game. The first is Ancient Egypt. Here the zombies are also mummies. If you're unfamiliar, you have to protect the home base, in this case a pyramid, from the oncoming undead. You choose the plants you're going to use in order to do so, then do your best to keep the mummy/zombies from making it into your pyramid to eat your brain. Each section has ten levels, starting with the Ancient Egyptian plane. Once you've completed the ten levels, you have to go back and win ten stars to move on to the next level, Pirate Bay, by re-playing enough of the first ten levels to win stars. Once you've collected ten stars, you can use a stargate to transport through time and space to the next plane and fight zombie pirates. 

The second level is Pirate Bay. As you can see, the zombies in this group of levels is made up of pirates (Didn't see that one coming, did you?). Unlike the previous levels, the planting grid isn't complete. There are planks that allow zombies to walk up to your plants. They also attack by swinging from ropes or being shot out of cannons across the water areas. They are easily repelled using something akin to jumping beans. These plants are shown here second to the bottom on the left with a cost of 50 sun points. They're very handy when repelling water-crossing enemies, but they quickly fall asleep after doing so and are extremely easy to eat. 

Finally, there's the Wild West group of levels. Along with upgraded plants that you earn along the way, these levels have train tracks that allow to you move a single, or sometimes multiple plants up and down the screen. This allows you to take care of different levels of zombie outlaws as they come along instead of being stuck in a single grid square watching those darn undead walk right past your three-headed pod shooter. This level also brings with it a new slew of enemies, including one old timer who clearly worked in a mine in his living years. This piece of maddening programming genius jumps the entire board, then returns to eat your precious plants from behind. I know he's why they created the two-headed plant, but the plant was  generally just so ineffective that I essentially chalked his kills up as a loss and shot the bastard from behind after he started to move back to their side of the board. 

the perfect segue

That's the perfect lead-in to discuss the various characters in this mobile masterpiece. First, we'll start with the plants. 

the plants

The plants are your friends. These are all that is stopping those blood-thirsty undead from chowing down on your medulla oblongata. Each has a special form of attack and their own advantages and disadvantages. They start out at a low price and you are able to open up more as you go along. For example, the first of the three plants above costs 150 sun points (you either collect these as they fall from the sky or make your own using sunflowers) and can punch zombies both in front and behind. However, he is limited to the single blocks on either side. The next plant fires boomerangs, or at least what appear to be boomerangs. It costs 175 sun points and doesn't pack much punch, but his attacks can reach enemies completely across the board. Finally, the coconut cannon is a whopping 400 sun points, but his attack will wipe just about anything it hits on the board. 

This next crop of plants was probably the most useful. The first is a fire breathing cousin of the venus flytrap. His fireballs spread three blocks wide and traveled two blocks ahead, giving his damaging flames a wide swath of destruction. The second is an artistic rendering of the pod shooters. These came in four forms. The first shoots a single pod, the second two, the third three, and the fourth fires a single pod in both directions, in front and behind. The third plant is obviously a corn cob. He fires a randomly selected piece of corn or pad of butter. The butter was particularly useful as it causes the zombies to pause for a brief moment until all of the butter has melted from their faces. It cost 100 sun points. The fire breather was 150. The pod shooters cost 100 points per pod, so the double-shooter cost 200, the triple shooter 300, and so forth. There are other plants available including a land mine and the aforementioned sunflower, but this gives you a general idea of what's out there. 

the zombies

Just like the plants, the zombies come in many forms. The first pictured above is the standard mummy, easy to kill and fairly slow on the approach. The one pictured next was the bane of my existence in the Ancient Egyptian levels. He uses his wand to suck up sun points as they fall from the sky or are created by your sunflowers. He starts sucking sun as soon as he steps on the board so it was necessary to have a long distance weapon like the pod shooter or corn cob to take him out quickly before he could steal too many of your precious sun points (which were used to buy more flowers). The next two come from the Pirate Bay level. The first wasn't so annoying on his own, but he was able to send out his pet parrot to eat your plants without so much as a "thank you." Again, it is useful to have a long distance plant to take this annoying fellow out as quickly as possible before his bird could do too much damage to the carefully constructed plant formation you have been creating. Although the punching plant (as I called it) is able to destroy the bird, not much else can stop it from chowing down on your sunflowers or other vital plant friends. Finally, there's the standard pirate zombie. He is the Pirate Bay equivalent to the first mummy. Slow and fairly weak, although when attacking in groups he and his cohorts could be quite annoying. 

The Wild West zombies presents its own set of issues, but I think Pirate Bay was probably my favorite level. At one point, cannons come out and fire midget zombies at your side of the map. Those little guys made the funniest noise and, although they were extremely annoying, they were also a source of never-ending laughter for yours truly. 

special gameplay

Not only were there the standard levels described above, but you could access special areas by collecting (or buying) keys. These would open up entirely new areas of the maps that had levels with specific requirements. For example, one level chooses which of the plants you could use by bringing them up a conveyer belt system on the left-hand side of the screen. You are normally allowed to pick six plants for each level, but in these special levels you had to take what you were given. Sometimes this proved to be quite useful, while others it gave the gamer a challenge that bordered on headache. 

The player moves from level to level via stargates. You can clearly see the star here that took you from Ancient Egypt to Pirate Bay. While I wouldn't exactly call it replay-ability, you were pretty much forced to go back and replay levels in order to earn stars and open the stargates. I found this mildly annoying at points because certain requirements were laid down before a level was begun. If you failed to meet these requirements (kill 15 zombies in 30 seconds or only use 12 plants), you failed to earn the subsequent star. While I don't necessarily care for linear games, being forced to go back and replay nearly every level in order to progress was a bit of an annoyance. If there was one drawback to the game, this was it. I would have preferred to have the game move in a linear fashion and offer bonuses for replaying certain levels. Don't get me wrong, you were richly rewarded for completing the levels while following the requirements. Still, forced replay isn't really my cup of tea. I like to have the option to replay a particularly fun level rather than being forced to do so in order to progress. However, it is what it is and I managed to amass enough stars to make it through all three levels without paying for the pleasure. 

closing arguments

PopCap has done it again. They managed to create a game that is fun for all ages, addictive, and original. If you are looking for the next gaming app to add to your handheld device or iPad, this is it. While they didn't really break any new ground as there are a plethora of tower defense games out there (the format seems to work well on controller-less devices), this is definitely one of the best. If you're as tired of Angry Birds as I am and Peggle is wearing thin after your thousandth hour, give this one a look. It's free both in the iTunes store and on Android phones, so you won't blow your load on a game that doesn't turn out to be all that you'd hoped. Instead, they operate on the much maligned pay-to-play system where the game is beatable without spending money, but there are plenty of opportunities for you to make it easier on yourself by dropping a buck or two on keys, stars, or special plants. I refuse to take part in this game structure for the most part, just on general principle. That said, there were lots of times I REALLY wanted to throw a few bucks at it in order to make the game easier. However, it isn't necessary to complete the game and you can play it successfully either way. All in all, Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time was a joy to play and just challenging enough to keep me coming back. I highly recommend you give it a shot and see if it's up your alley. 

the math

Objective Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for the leveling system that kept me coming back for more. It makes you want to keep playing to open up new and more powerful flowers with which to dispatch the undead.

Penalties: -1 for forced replay of completed levels. Once I've beaten a level I'm ready to move on. I don't want to have to go back and beat the same level again, this time with more stipulations on how I finish the task. 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. Well worth your time and attention. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

I am proud to report that Abraham's Army has raised over $2,400 for the month of Movember! To check in on my sad mustache or to contribute to the cause, click here.  Not a lot of books on my pull list this week, but very pleased with the titles I picked up.  The Wake from Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy was outstanding and a new Star Wars title from Dark Horse examines the life of Han and Leia's daughter.

Pick of the Week:
The Wake #5 - Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy should work on more projects together.  Murphy's ability to elicit emotion and horror pair perfectly with the heart-filled, dark stylings of Snyder.  This was a huge turning point in the arc that delivered on all levels.  It was exciting, terrifying, emotional, and surprising.   We learn that the rig was never the target, but that the mainland is what is at stake.  An all out charge is unleashed and our group of heroes make one last ditch effort to save the world.  It sounds cliche, but this story is anything but.  An absolute gem of an issue.

The Rest:
Star Wars: Legacy #1 - Taking place 138 years after A New Hope, Star Wars Legacy looks at the Star Wars Universe through the eyes of Ania Solo, daughter of Han and Leia.  She is a scapper who stumbles upon a communications droid that is carrying some valuable information for the Empire.  The first issue sets the stage nicely as the Jedi don't swear loyalty to the new Empire and the Sith seek to regain control.  It was confusing to think of the Empire as the good guys, but something tells me that power still corrupts.  Good debut for a series I will continue to read.

Daredevil #33 - Daredevils dance with the occult continued in this issue as he sought to gain some pages from the Darkhold, a mystical book.  While I enjoyed how light and fun this issue was, the monsters post-Halloween lacked their initial appeal.  It was a fine issue with a nice ending, but the monsters seemed out of place in a Daredevil comic.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Microreview: Misfits (TV series, UK, ongoing)

Now in its fifth series, 'Misfits' has become something of a left-field institution on British television. Its set-up is simple. On a bleak housing estate in an unnamed English town a freak storm results in those zapped with lighting becoming infused with super powers. The central characters are five twenty-something's doing community service together and, as they continue about the drudgery of cleaning graffiti or picking litter, they discover and deal with their new-found abilities and struggle with empowered adversaries that come their way. Although the central cast has altered since it began in 2009, the structure has not.

The whole saga has stayed within this framework, and remained within the sitcom-esque location of the community centre and surrounding housing estate. We never see the wider world, or any media or government reaction to the storm's effects (save for one alternate timeline). The location, Thamesmead, east of London, which appeared memorably in Clockwork Orange, is a perfect hive for the tale - isolated, with wide-open spaces and futuristic yet dilapidated architecture. This is a story told in a bubble, and that has allowed it a lot of freedom to keep a largely fun, darkly-comedic tone throughout. As in a sitcom, the central cast are appealing and likeable. As in a sitcom, there is an element of 'story-of-the-week', with life back to normal at the end. 

Yet, unlike your average sitcom, the action is fantastical, the cinematography beautiful, the music soaring, the violence bloody, the sex and humour dirty and rude. This is drama - dark, intense drama - that is undercut, undermined and yet elevated by sarcasm, self-deprecation and a free-wheeling, to-the-wind attitude. It's a little like Heroes if they let your little sibling and their mates rewrite it whilst drinking cider and casting themselves, then telling the producers to piss off before filming it on their phones. In short, it has a rebellious response to its own premise.

Like all rebellions, there are problems raised even as others are vanquished. The levity and twisting against the serious atmosphere a tale of superpowers gone wrong might bring (cheer up, Marvel, for Hulk's sake) results in some dilution of the emotional power of many moments. An incident of profound impact is often layered with a quip or a lurch into enjoyable yet one-note crudity. Most recently, for example, a main character's horrific transformation is thwarted by being bum-shagged by another whose power has become to remove powers with his, um, trouser wand. It's so (literally) bollocks-out dumb and desperately excessive it comes back around the corner from stupid nonsense and almost back to inspired.

Yep, it's silly. It's juvenile. It's about young offenders being young and offensive. It has sweary words. Irresponsible behaviour. A total disregard for the outside world or those in authority. Wanking. A surprisingly-large amount of wanking scenes. Invisibility. Time-travel. Flying. Baseball bat fights. And a zombie cat.

It is also moving, astonishing, profound and thrilling. Not always, and not always entirely. But when it hits high notes of these emotions, or of the above absurd daftness- or, even more impressively, both at once - it has few rivals in my recent television drama experiences.

I could go into the names of the characters, the superb actors (some of whom have gone on to bigger things), the course of the storyline, logistics. But I won't. Watch it. Don't wait for the long-mooted American remake. Ignore the reviews saying it has lost its way since the creator Howard Overman stopped chief writing duties and the original cast (spoiler alert) departed - it has merely evolved, as all good, individually-authored series should. Dismiss the fact it comes from relatively second-rate UK cable channel E4, a child of Channel 4 that usually shows reality or US sitcoms and generally has Big Bang on seventeen times a day (no bad thing til you realise the weekend has disappeared and you are still in pyjamas); although they hit the odd ball out of the cricket ground, like this and 'Skins'. Watch it and come back to me in the comment section below. Am I wrong? Do I just like sarcastic wankers too lazy to use their super powers to do anything useful? Am I just weirdly obsessed with zombie cats? Or is this one of best shows on TV of the last decade?

Mario Bava on Netflix

I have a soft spot in my heart for the 1963 Italian horror film Black Sabbath, directed by Mario Bava and from which the legendary band took its name. I first watched it on my fifteenth birthday, with a group of friends late at night after discovering that our local independent video store (International Video, it was called), had a VHS copy. It's a horror anthology film, with three separate closed-ended vignettes, and while watching it I eerily predicted the ending of one of the segments with a frightening level of detail, down to guessing the name of the "evil" character revealed at the end of the segment. It was creepy. Everybody looked at me funny and I had to swear I'd never seen the movie before. It was one of those odd moments where time seems to swallow its own tail.

I've seen both the American and Italian versions a few times in the intervening years, and a few weeks ago, just before Halloween, I had another urge to re-watch the movie. I was happy to find it on Netflix, and this discovery led me to another one -- the films from an out-of-print DVD series called The Mario Bava Collection have all found their way onto Netflix. So I've spent the last couple of weeks watching A LOT of Italian horror movies from the 1960s and 70s. It's been a lot of fun.

Mario Bava was a filmmaker who was imminently worthy of a two-volume "collection," but he isn't particularly well-known outside of die-hard genre circles. He was important in the evolution of several genres, so there's certainly a film history kind of appeal to watching his movies, but he was also an original and highly entertaining filmmaker, whose films continue to be evocative and engaging even when completely divorced from any historical significance they may have. He came of age in the Roger Corman horror-movie heyday of the early 1960s, tackling the kind of gothic horror films that were making Vincent Price an icon, and Bava went on to help shape the horror/thriller hybrid giallo films that came to embody much of Italian cinema in the 1970s and launched the careers of directors like Dario Argento.

Now we come to which of these films are available on Netflix for instant streaming. Black Sunday (1960) is one of these gothic horror stories, and it's a total standout among its peers. It starts with a witch being burned at the stake and having a mask of the devil nailed to her face (which is badass), and then leaps forward a couple of hundred years, when the witch's spirit grows restless. Black Sabbath, which I already mentioned, has Boris Karloff as a vampire (or, more specifically, a wurdulak), and features a genuinely moving and heartbreaking scene where a character has to confront what it costs to be a survivor among so many that have fallen under an all-consuming supernatural curse. One of a number of similar horror triptych films of the same vintage, it ranks among the best. The same year, Bava made The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), which was his last black and white film and is universally regarded as the first giallo film. It's not a great movie, and hews much more closely to the prototypical Hitchcock thrillers from which is cribs its name than to later (and bloodier) giallo films, but it has some genuine moments of humor and an interesting premise (a girl who reads too many murder mysteries thinks she witnesses a murder in front of the house she's staying in while visiting Rome), even if the mystery itself is kind of lame.

There are some Netflix gaps here in Bava's filmography, and the available titles pick up at the end of the decade, when Bava had fallen on hard times and was struggling to find distribution for his movies, but still managed to make interesting and visually striking films, even if they struggled at the box office. Bava used color to wonderful effect, and if some of his signature camera moves like zooms (so, so many zooms) and artistically out-of-focus shots lose a little of their appeal, his saturated color palettes never do. Movies like Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) don't necessarily hang together from start to finish, but they are beautiful to look at and have amazing sequences in them, such as a ghost that everybody except the killer can see. It's great stuff, and Bava would continue to jam non sequitur sequences into his later films, like Bay of Blood (1971), where he essentially invented the slasher movie ten years before its heyday by sending four horny teenagers to the woods and hacking them to bits in the middle of an entirely different plot about the murder of a wealthy dowager who has remarried and has people after her money. And yes, it is as awesome as it sounds.

After the success of Bay of Blood and a couple of other early 1970s hits, Bava regained total creative control over his movies and decided to make a surrealist tone-poem of a horror movie in Lisa and the Devil (1973). Telly Savalas maybe isn't the most convincing evil mastermind you've ever seen (especially if you remember Phil Hartman's parody of Telly on SNL for the "Player with Yourselves Club"), but the movie remains an engrossing and totally bizarre experience, even 40 years later. To try to piggy-back on the success of The Exorcist, the American distributor re-cut and re-titled the film The House of Exorcism, which is nearly unwatchable garbage, though, so stick with the Italian version.

I can't recommend these movies highly enough, and have to say it's one of the most consistent pockets of goodness I've found in Netflix's streaming offerings. There are a few other titles that I watched and haven't mentioned, and a couple more that I didn't get to, but Bava's output was never dull, and his films are uniquely entertaining. Check 'em out.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Microreview [book]: The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell

Woodrell, Daniel. Bayou Trilogy [Mulholland, 2011]
Available via: Independent Bookstores; Amazon

You may have noticed my slight obsession with Justified. Well, this has led me to seek out all things country noir. That, in turn, led me to Daniel Woodrell, a crime writer I'd heard a lot about but never read. I decided to start at the beginning, something possible now that crime/speculative fiction imprint Mulholland has re-released his debut Bayou Trilogy.

Country noir is a bit of a misnomer in this case, unless you take "country" to mean "red states." After all, the Bayou Trilogy takes place almost exclusively in the fictional Louisiana city of San Bruno, a smaller version of New Orleans marked by the kind of corrupt machine politics, rampant criminality and invidious ethnic/racial divides familiar to basically all major American urban centers in the 19th and 20th centuries. The racism is more severe and frontal, because this is the South, and the Cajun "frogs" give the stories a unique ethnic flavor, but the books could easily have been transported to, say, Newark and much would have remained the same. This isn't to say that the setting is unimportant. Actually it takes main stage, and as I'll explain in more detail later on, this is both the book's strength and source of its problems.

The Bayou Trilogy comprises three novels, originally published separately: Under the Bright Lights, Muscle on the Wing and The Ones You Do. All center on Rene Shade, ex-boxer and current police officer, a mostly incorruptible local boy who doesn't particularly want to play the game or by the rules. Sound familiar? Most of the time I imagined Shade played by Timothy Olyphant, only without the Stetson. I wonder if these specific books had an influence on Elmore Leonard when he concocted the Raylan Givens character a few years later? I know James Elroy once described Woodrell as a "bayou version of Elmore Leonard," so it's not beyond the pale to imagine the influence went both ways. Or maybe it's just my imagination.

Regardless, Shade is a good character. So are most of the other core characters--Shade's untrustworthy big brother Tip, his ambitious little brother Francois, his pool-hall owner mother, his pool shark father, his sharp girlfriend Nicole and, of course, the collection of low-down hustlers, grifters, mobsters, bent cops, even more bent politicians and thugs that populate San Bruno, and especially its racially-segregated, working class 'hoods Frogtown (white) and Pan Fry (black). If you like colorful characters in colorful places, this may be the book for you.

There are, however, times where it all gets a bit too cute. See, that's the thing about colorful characters and colorful places--a spoonful is memorable; a bucketload veers towards overkill. Both Under the Bright Lights and The Ones You Do spend too much time trying to convince the reader that Frogtown is "one helluva quirky/kooky/chaotic town." They do pick up nicely and finish on high notes--particularly The Ones You Do, which has an exquisitely abrupt ending. But Muscle on the Wing is the best of the three for the precise reason that it doesn't waste too much time on this kind of stuff. Still, I guess it's better to have too much personality than not enough.

Muscle on the Wing, as it happens, is near perfect noir. It's a short, compact novel centered on a crime gone wrong and an investigation that almost never gets off its feet. It's full of hard men and harder women, all of whom occupy the gray area between good and bad, and between lucky and unlucky. It's a bit reminiscent of James M. Cain, to a degree, as well as Donald Westlake's Parker novels--though not as relentlessly grim as the first or as nihilistic as the second. There are, perhaps more obviously, shades of Leonard and a hint of Chandler, though more in the effect than in style. Suffice to say, it's good. Very good.

Composite Math

Under the Bright Lights: 7/10. (Solid but unspectacular.)
Muscle on the Wing: 9/10. (Truly great noir.)
The Ones You Do: 8/10. (Wobbles a bit but ends perfectly.)

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. Well worth your time and attention.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Guest Post: Why I Turned my Back on the Masters by Ian Sales

Ian Sales has been published in a number of magazines and original anthologies. In 2012, he edited the original anthology Rocket Science for Mutation Books. He founded Whippleshield Books, through which he is publishing his Apollo Quartet of literary hard sf novellas. The first book of the quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, was published in April 2012 and won the BSFA Award for Best Short Story. It was also a finalist for the Sidewise Award. The second book, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, was published in January 2013, and the third book, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, will be published at the end of November 2013. He can be found online at

Like many science fiction fans, I started early - they do say the Golden Age of SF is thirteen, after all. During my teens, I read all the so-called greats: EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, van Vogt, Simak, Harry Harrison, Vance, etc. During the 1980s, I discovered contemporary science fiction, and in the late 1980s, when I joined the British Science Fiction Association and began subscribing to Interzone, I discovered good contemporary science fiction.

My reading diet wasn’t entirely genre. During school holidays, I’d read whatever was available--and that sometimes included the likes of Shirley Conran and Judith Kranz, not to mention countless thrillers. In the 1990s, I moved to the United Arab Emirates to work, and within a week of arriving I joined a subscription library. Unfortunately, it had only a small SF selection, so I was forced to widen my reading. I’d read some literary fiction over the years, but now I found it forming a substantial part of my reading. There were also a couple of remainder book shops in Abu Dhabi, and I’d often find US and UK paperbacks by obscure SF writers in them.

The more science fiction I read, the more literary fiction I read, the more I found myself wondering why the likes of Asimov and van Vogt and Heinlein were held in such high regard. When I started writing science fiction for myself in the early 1990s, I looked to the authors who were being published at that time, who were well-regarded among my peers in the genre, to see how it should be done. I wrote stories that were like those being published in Interzone, or in British genre small press titles of the time. No one was writing like Asimov, no one was re-writing Dune.

By the time I returned to the UK in 2002, I’d had little success with my writing. I’d finished the first of a commercial steampunk space opera (which landed me an agent but has never sold), and had also  learned that my favourite writers were either literary writers or writers of literary science fiction. They were the authors I wanted to emulate in my own writing. And let’s be fair, while people may still read the so-called masters, and some of their books are still in print, and you’ll find them cluttering up various lists of alleged SF classics... no one actually writes like them any more. Decades have passed since their heyday and the genre has progressed. Genre readers in the twenty-first century are more sophisticated. It’s only nostalgia that keeps the likes of Asimov and Heinlein in print.

Nostalgia is no basis for a career; writing like, say, van Vogt is unlikely to lead to publication. Van Vogt, of course, is famously one of the most successful writers to build a career on the advice given in a how-to-write book. He wrote his stories and novels in 800-word sections, each of which ended in a cliffhanger. Larry Niven, I believe, once wrote something like “prose should be as transparent as possible to let the story shine through”. That’s complete nonsense. Great literature is not remembered for its stories but for the way it tells its stories. Language is a tool and wielded with skill it can only add value to a work of fiction. Much of the plot of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, for example, is nonsense. But the prose is beautiful. SF authors who write beautiful prose, whose characters are more than super-competent cardboard cut-outs, who use subtext and motif and theme… these are known as literary science fiction. And none of the so-called masters qualify.

It wasn’t a difficult decision to choose to write literary science fiction. But it did come as a surprise to discover that I wasn’t very good at making things up. All that pie-in-the-sky stuff you find in SF… I can’t do it. I need a safety net. I need the real world in there somewhere, I need research. The very first story I published when I returned to writing short fiction in 2009 was about the Amber Room. That required lots of research. I’ve written stories featuring the Air Transport Auxiliary from World War II, the bathyscaphe Trieste, Nazi occult science, prosopagnosia, and even the lyrics from a death metal album.

When I decided to combine my fascination with space exploration and my writing needs, I stumbled across a writing space in which I felt comfortable. It happened by accident. Despite having a quite large collection of books on space exploration, it had never occurred to me to write about it. For a start, it wasn’t really science fiction - SF was all magical spaceships and habitable worlds. And it seemed a little old-fashioned - the last person to walk on the Moon did so 41 years ago. But back in 2009, I decided to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing by writing a story about Apollo astronauts. I never finished it in time, but later that year I pared it back to 1,000 words and published it as flash fiction. I’d enjoyed researching it and writing it so much, I wanted to try something similar at a longer length - novella-length, say. And so was born the Apollo Quartet.

As I’ve worked on the, to-date, three books of the Apollo Quartet, so I’ve found myself drifting to the harder side of science fiction while my writing has become even more literary. Now, even more so than before, I find the alleged masters, all those sf novels from fifty and sixty years ago, they have absolutely nothing to offer me - not just as a writer, but also as a reader.

I’ve tried rereading some of them. It did not go well. After rereading The Stainless Steel Rat a couple of years ago, I purged my bookshelves of everything by Harry Harrison. It wasn’t just the lumpen prose, or the fact you could set the story in the twentieth century without changing anything, it was that most of the sensibilities embedded in the story were offensive. Angelina is a psychopath because she was ugly (and had cosmetic surgery)? And Jim DiGriz falls in love her, even though she’s a murdering psychopath, because she’s now beautiful? WTF.

See--there’s another reason why I no longer read the alleged SF classics. Not only is the prose eye-stabbingly bad, the world-building little more than men in hats on alien worlds (i.e. middle America transposed to the galaxy at large), and the characters implausibly super-competent, but there are so many default sensibilities in those books which are now no longer acceptable. Women confined to the kitchen. Everybody is white. The galaxy is Anglophone. Natives need to be taught the “benefits” of civilisation, etc. I don’t want to read books by sexists and racists, and sexist racists--even if the writers were “products of their time”. Which is in no way an excuse. You’d think science fiction writers would be capable of imagining far futures populated by people other than white male Americans.

There are far too many books I want to read, and new ones appearing each year. I can’t see the point in choosing to read books which I will not enjoy, or which will make angry for the wrong reasons. Life is too short. And it pains me when I see those same bad books and terrible writers held up as not only emblematic of science fiction but also as the books and writers we readers of science fiction admire. I self-identify as a reader of science fiction but I find those bad books and terrible writers, those masters of the genre, an embarrassment.

Science fiction has much to offer readers. Done well, it transcends all genres of fiction. But it is also a genre with pulp origins, and it often seems that element of its heritage overpowers all others. I want to see that change, and I work toward making that change happen in my own writing. Turning your back on the so-called masters of science fiction is the first step in that process.

Friday, November 15, 2013

AiIP: Amazon Strikes Back

In what I can only assume* is in response to my boycott of Amazon in favor of pursuing sales through indie bookstores and other avenues, the sales giant and new face of publishing announced that indie bookstores can now sell Kindles and get a 10% cut of ebook sales.

Booksellers responded, in internet parlance, LOL.

And who can blame them? Even if at first blush it seems like something designed to partner up with brick-and-mortars, as a few booksellers point out in there: Amazon has never really done anything to help anyone but Amazon. This certainly fits that- 10% of the five bucks or so most ebooks cost isn't paying anyone's bills, and after two years even that goes away. To be fair, it is at least similar to the model that Kobo uses (I love Chuck from Village Books being super blunt in there). But in the end, the customer ends up at Amazon- or, like many people I have talked to- turned off to the bookstore for throwing in with Amazon.

That same Village Books blog has an excellent post about why it's better to link to a brick and mortar store (who probably sell online and can ship anywhere) than to Amazon (hint: Amazon doesn't care), but that hardly solves the ebook problem.

Which leads to the problem within the problem, namely that Amazon isn't even reinventing the wheel- they're just copying the already-flawed wheel. It's square, it's clunky and it doesn't work. Because if someone is buying an ebook, they're not going to go to a bookstore for it, are they? The overall model of bookselling needs to change in order for this to work.

The first dang thing that needs to happen is every copy of a physical book needs to come with a digital option, one way or another. Be it a code in the hardcopy, or something, just... make this happen. Please.

Secondly, there needs to be a way for those brick and mortar stores to sell directly, not through Amazon or even Kobo. Some indie version of the Nook (how it relates to a chain of bookstores, not how crappy and irrelevant it is). But those titles need to be available for download off that stores website, where that store gets a much larger cut than 10%.

And finally, the Mexican standoff of Amazon vs indie bookstores vs indie publishers needs to stop. Amazon is satiated by the above steps, but it still leaves indie publishers without a way to get their books into book stores. A lot of this is because printing costs can be prohibitive, but I would like to see indie bookstores be more inviting. If nothing else, by selling ebooks on their sites, but even better to have a process in place for purchasing books from indie authors.

I have harped on quality from day one, and I think this would help, since an author who has gone through the process of getting a book to print vs just uploading one to Amazon is likely better and more careful. With more and more authors going the indie route, it only makes sense for bookstores to include them.

I hope you're enjoying this little sojourn with me- I know it's a bit of a deviation from what this space usually is, but I feel this is important and want to highlight it. In any case, I have but one more piece on the subject for next month, along with some (hopefully) exciting announcements, which will put a bow on this whole thing. When I first talked to The G about this, and what it would contain, he suggested the 'Adventures in Indie Publishing' title. It's an adventure, for sure, and I hope you enjoy reading about it.


*this assumption is incorrect.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

Movember is going strong for Abraham's Army thus far.  The team has raised over $1,300 and you can contribute if you are so inclined here.   Big week in comics.  The first arc of Artful Daggers came to an epic conclusion and can be yours for under $10.  Head on over to ComiXology to pick up the best deal in comics right now!  Rick and his factions declared the first act of war, Andy Diggle's run of Captain America continued, and we have a NOS4A2 spin-off comic from Joe Hill!

Pick of the Week:
Walking Dead #116 - Rick has officially declared war on Negan and his first act of war was very impressive.  Rick scores a victory in the opening battle with, what appeared as a simple assault, ended up being a deceptive plan that will have major implications for Negan.  It didn't go exactly as Rick drew it up and Negan has, in addition to a new prisoner of war,  reinforcements en route from a nearby outpost.  I was curious if "All out War" would live up to the name and am pleased to report that it appears as if it will.  Looking forward to seeing how Negan responds and the implications it will have for Rick and the other factions.

The Rest:
Wraith #1 - Joe Hill has another title from IDW in Wraith.  This tells the story of Charles Manx from his phenomenal book NOS4A2.  We learn about Manx as a child and learn how he first came to travel on the inscapes and how he came into possession of the Wraith.   It was nice to see the imagery from NOS4A2 brought to life by the talented Charles Wilson, III.  Very fitting for this title and for Hill's type of writing, although anything from Joe Hill that isn't illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez seems odd.  Highly recommended for horror fans.

Artful Daggers #9 - The first arc of Artful Daggers has come to its conclusion and I highly encourage you all to pick up this title on ComiXology.  Hopefully we will get a trade version as other digital titles have had, but for under $10 you can pick up the first 9 issues in all of its digital glory.  This is a comic that will always keep you on your toes and is visually unlike anything I have ever laid eyes on.  The fate of the Tricksters remains up in the air and I am still not sure who to completely trust.  One thing I love about this title is how each issue inspires me to go back and re-read the series from the beginning.  Very enjoyable series.

Captain America: Living Legend #3 - The third chapter in Andy Diggle's Captain America story is a doozy.  Cap saves the Russians as they investigate the Deus crash only to learn that Volkov's powers have evolved.  The pacing, action, and Cold War feel make Diggle's run on Captain America memorable.  The ending panel sets up what should be an epic conclusion to this stellar mini-series.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Microreview [music]: Deltron 3030 - Event II

Available via: Amazon

The Meat

In The Year 2000, Dan the Automator, Del the Funky Homosapien, and Kid Koala (along with a whole raft of guest stars) made my favorite hip-hop album of all-time, Deltron 3030. The supergroup made a concept album set in the year 3030, where Deltron Zero and Automator were flying through the galaxy on route to an intergalactic rap battle. Along the way, they stopped off at different galactic locales, and the glimpses of the next millennium we got weren't exactly rosy. Corporations and technological determinism had combined into a pretty nasty mixture for humanity. Deltron 3030 was a concept album, but it wasn't slavish about adhering to its concept. There are a ton of verses, and even entire tracks, that read as commentary on the present, and can be listened to outside of the context of the album-as-a-whole. If you haven't listened to the original album, I cannot encourage you highly enough to do so. It'll blow your socks off. It's instupituous.

Now that brings us to the sequel, Event II, which just came out. The good news is, Pitchfork hated it, so you know right off that it's probably pretty good. And it is. On first listen, I was blown away by Dan the Automator's MASSIVE beats and fantastic production, but the songs didn't immediately jump out and differentiate themselves enough to grab me. But after a couple of days away from the album, I realized that I'd been walking around with several hooks from different tracks stuck in my head incessantly. It's impossible to think of this album outside of the context of the first one -- and it doesn't reach those heights -- but on its own merits this is a fantastic album.

Many of the trademark characteristics of the first album are present here: Del's wit and imagination deployed against a dystopian future, jaw-dropping musical compositions from Automator, great guest appearances, especially by Damon Albarn, tongue-in-cheek humor laced throughout, and interstitial skits that are genuinely funny and laid over strong enough music beds that they keep from getting tiresome on repeated listens. It's a darker album than its predecessor, with less humor laced throughout the actual tracks, and it cleaves much more closely to its concept for the duration, but Del is a smart, conscientious guy keenly aware of our modern world, and these are darker times than the late 1990s, when the first album was conceived and recorded. Standout tracks include "Pay the Price," "Melding of the Minds," and "Do You Remember." Kid Koala's turntabling contribution is more present on this album, and it has a wonderful impact on the album as a whole.

So here we are folks -- the year 3040. It took 13 years to get here from the year 3030, but in the future, things aren't running so smoothly.

The Math

Objective Quality: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for the gigantic beats throughout; +1 for remaining the standard-bearers for nerd-skewing hip-hop. Nerd-hop?

Penalties: -1 for a relative lack of compelling social commentary, when compared with its predecessor; -1 for an odd overuse of echo effects on random words throughout.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. Very high quality/standout in its category. Check out our scoring system here. A nine is kind of a big deal.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Microreview [book]: Drug of Choice by John Lange/Michael Crichton

Lange, John [Michael Crichton]. Drug of Choice [Hard Case Crime, 2013]

The Meat

Not too long ago a weighty package arrived from Hard Case Crime, one of my favorite publishers of noir and pulp. Inside were eight novels by popular science fiction writer Michael Crichton under the pen name John Lange. I'd never heard of these books before, or known that Crichton had once published pseudonymously. But apparently he did just that...while a student at Harvard Medical School. Let me just state, for the record, that this is insane. 

Later, even after Crichton became famous for books like The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, the Lange novels languished out-of-print and became sought-after collectors items. Why--I'm not sure. Perhaps Crichton was embarrassed by them? Or perhaps there was something enjoyable about maintaining the mystery? Either way, Charles Addai and the good folks at Hard Case Crime managed not only to convince Crichton to put them back in print, but to re-edit the books as well.*

I decided to start with Drug of Choice, a speculative mystery about a secretive research-and-development company and its experiments with psychotropic drugs. The book is the purest pulp, the kind of thing I've often dreamed of finding serendipitously in the paperback aisle of used bookstores. Yet those adventures are often weighted down by frustrating anachronisms, like "golly gee willikers" dialogue or the sexism/racism/homophobia that was once normative but is now (thankfully) objectionable. Drug of Choice is not saddled with these burdens.

The story is tight, a thriller with just the right balance of mystery and action, and has an appealing Twilight Zone sensibility to it. The writing is also quite clear and focused. Sure, it may lack even the slightest hint of poetry or symbolism, but Crichton's prose is ultra-efficient and smooth. I read the book over the course of four days, though I easily could have consumed it in one sitting. And I mean that as a compliment.

My only real criticism is that, while a good example of pulp fiction, Drug of Choice by definition isn't really aiming to be anything more than that. It's good fun efficiently delivered, but at the end of the day, that's all it is. And the ending is a bit convoluted, though it's by no means terrible.

Still, the themes of unethical research, corporate malfeasance and manipulation of individuals should resonate in today's world as much as they four-and-a-half decades ago, making this one I unreservedly recommend to those who like their fiction pulpy.

*How much be managed before passing away in 2008 is not clear.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for being purest pulp fiction; +1 for not buzzkilling with racism/sexism/homophobia, like so many contemporaries.

Penalties:-1 for not really transcending purest pulp fiction either; -1 for the goofy ending.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10. "A mostly enjoyable experience."

Monday, November 11, 2013

Microreview [book]: Dangerous Women, edited by George R.R. Martin et al

The Meat

So here's the thing: as I've mentioned before, anthologies kind of weird me out with their haphazardness, and this one's no exception. Reading it is like going on one of those bottom-drops-out amusement park rides, sending your stomach plummeting down into your socks (which feels icky) at times, then rocketing that very same stomach into the stratosphere far above your head (which feels great!). This simile is kind of getting away from me here, but suffice it to say that unbridgeable chasms in genre, writing quality, and story umph factor leave the hapless reader's head spinning.
   Would I prefer a collection of stories distinguished only by its bland, consistent mediocrity? No...but I would've been perfectly fine with an anthology limited to a single genre (sci fi, for example, perhaps with close cousins fantasy and horror in the mix too).  Within such an anthology, the quality of the writing and stories probably still would've varied enormously, but at least it would all be within the parameters of a vague, loosely defined, poorly understood genre!
   Anyway, when this hit or miss collection hits, it freakin' hits, and when it misses, it misses by mega-miles. One very solid hit which caught me by surprise was Brandon Sanderson's offering.  With only the flimsiest circumstantial evidence (Sanderson writes a lot of fantasy books), I had decided that Neal Stephenson was poking fun at Sanderson via the character Skeletor in Reamde, a man who writes prodigious amounts of totally forgettable fantasy literature, and consequently was prepared to dismiss this short story, the first thing I'd ever read by him, at the slightest provocation. Instead, all my haughty preparations were for naught, as I found myself flummoxed by an excellent story, one of the best in the entire book.
 Speaking of the best (and most memorable, thanks to the primacy effect!), Joe Abercrombie's offering, following an hour in the eventful life of the not totally accurately named Shy, is positively delightful. It's a nonstop barrage of Abercrombie's characteristic bleak situations+wry humor one-two punch, and it's a knockout, as is the endlessly resourceful protagonist, who will be familiar to fans of Abercrombie's latest gem, Red Country.
   It's so good, in fact, that it creates rather high expectations for the rest of the book, specifically the expectation that a) all the stories will be, if not as good, at least good enough, b) all the heroines will be, if not as cool as Shy, at least cool enough, and c) the rest of the stories will be, if not fantasies, at least close enough...none of which is quite true, sadly. I found myself recalling John Cusack's voiceover from High Fidelity, explaining the art of making a mix tape, and disagreeing with him: sure, you want to start off strong, and naturally it makes sense to pull back a bit on subsequent songs—you don't want to stack the deck with all your aces on top and nothing but comparative crap after them—but there's no reason to make the contrast within the mix tape/deck of cards quite so...extreme.
   Several stories are barely even fictitious! (The nerve of the writers, to think we readers want or expect history, when all the world knows we want stories that let us escape all that nastiness!) In fact, even the much vaunted George R.R. Martin, while exciting enough, is framed as a dry history, and as a consequence is just okay. One about What's Her Name, wife of Emperor Whosit, was particularly jarring, because for the life of me I wasn't sensing anything the least bit 'dangerous' about her, and the same worry had evidently occurred to the author, who noted that What's Her Name might have been involved in a conspiracy against Whosit later.  So why didn't said author write that speculative story, instead of sticking to such an unimpressive episode in What's Her Name's life? Sure, she was in danger the whole time, but it's not like she led a charge of knights to smite the evildoers or whatever. And if I'd wanted a book about women in danger who need to be rescued by (of course) men, I could've just read any of the vast majority of standard fantasy stories, or any of a fair selection of sci fi. No need to get my hands filthy 'gathering flowers' (anthologizing) for that!
   What I'm saying is, I have yet to find that rarest of creations, an anthology whose stories interact with each other, and are consistent enough in quality if not in content that the anthologized whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It's a shame I can't rate each individual story, but that would take forever—there are like a bajillion (to quote one of my other least favorite stories, about a conspiracy at a nursing home to help old people fight dementia with over the counter drugs—pure evil, and plenty dangerous too, right?) of them.  So I decided I'd review the anthology qua (a fancy-pants Latin word for 'as', because why just say 'as' when you could say 'qua' instead!) anthology. I think I have sufficiently disclaimed now: some stories in this collection are far better than the numerical rating below might indicate, and some far worse. In a way, having to assign a number value to a complex jumble of highly disparate stories perfectly reflects the essential lameness of anthologies, doesn't it?

The Math

Objective assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for Abercrombie's uber-heroine Shy, +1 for showing me that my a priori dislike of Sanderson (for writing such copious amounts of fantasy) was unfounded

Penalties: -1 for stunning unevenness in genre, over and above what one might expect of any anthology (I guess dangerous women isn't enough of a unifying theme/idea on which to assemble a collection), -1 for crappy, only quasi-fictitious stories totally not about dangerous women, and plus the book is like 700 whatever pages long—the editors easily could've cut a few of the lamest ones!

Nerd coefficient: 5/10 "equal parts good and bad"