Monday, November 30, 2015

Books – Biker by Mike Baron

Somewhere inside biker Josh Pratt is a good man. Accepting Christ in prison, Josh has bent a few rules with the help of his lawyer and become a private detective. He’s trying to keep on the straight and narrow, but when his new girlfriend asks him to find her friend’s missing son, kidnapped by his biker father shortly after being born, he reluctantly accepts. Pratt has no idea he’d be better off kicking a hornet’s nest and running screaming through the horde. Josh infiltrates biker culture and finds a lead—the boy’s father is a criminal and a very dangerous man. He is also one of the most feared gang enforcers in the world. Now Josh has to find the boy, deal with his crazy new girlfriend and protect everyone in his life from the boy’s sadistic father. And make it to heaven. All in a day’s work. 

Writer Mike Baron is one of finest comic book writers the field has ever produced, creating Nexus, the Badger, the Butcher and many other memorable characters (and if you look hard enough, you can catch up with the Badger in his Biker cameo). Here he turns in an action packed novel about a conflicted man trying to do the right thing, but having to break a lot of clavicles to do it. Josh Pratt may be a Godly man, but he’s still tough as nails and will do what the situation requires. If I had one criticism of Biker, it is that Pratt needs to break a few more heads. He does diffuse a few situations by bravado alone before they get out of hand. Baron is such a great hand-to-hand combat writer I would have loved to have read a few more brawling fistfights. Still, a superb read with a fun plot, great pacing and some white-knuckle action. How many other books will you read this month where the protagonist faces off against a mountain lion with a pocketknife? I loved it! 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book Reviews

A look at some recently read books. First, two licensed novels in familiar universes, handled in vastly different manners. Then, the first in a wonderful new 19th Century supernatural series. 

Star Trek Mirror Universe: Sorrows of Empire by David Mack 

Mack knows the Star Trek Universe like the back of his hand. Here he takes a cue from part of evil Spock’s final speech in the original series episode Mirror, Mirror. He continues the ideas and events from that show. In the episode, evil goateed Spock admits to our universe’s Kirk that on its present course, his empire will fall within the next 140 years. Kirk tells him that is an illogical waste of resources and mental and physical capital. In this novel, after much consideration, Spock agrees and goes about changing things. He uses the assassination device in evil Captain Kirk’s quarters to gain mastery over the Enterprise, then uses that, guile and strategy to become the undisputed ruler of the formerly evil empire. Along the way he finds some surprising allies who support his mission, including a familiar character as a mate/partner. Of course his realignment strategy requires attitude adjustments from those presently in power, and Spock and his team have to contend with major resistance. The kind with large, destructive weapons. 

The story takes place over at least a decade, with Spock’s ultimate triumph depending on his ultimate defeat—but the timing has to be perfect. Will he end up betrayed and going down in flames too soon? Will his allies stay with him to the end despite the cost? The answers are a blast to discover. 

I actually don’t read many licensed books on any property, most of them just aren’t very good. Because I love the Mirror Universe I thought I’d try this one, and it was outstanding. This is the first Star Trek novel I’ve read by David Mack. It will not be the last. He has a real handle on the voices of the ST characters, even ones in the Mirror Universe. An excellent read. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Star Wars: Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne 

On the other hand, here is media tie-in fiction gone horribly wrong. I like Hearne’s modern urban magic series The Iron Druid Chronicles well enough, but this novel about Luke Skywalker directly after destroying the Death Star is a total loser. I feel a bit bad for Hearne, it must be tough writing a novel about this period in the Star Wars Universe. Luke has not started his Jedi training and doesn’t know his true heritage. He has only minor use of the Force, and is basically a callow, foolhardy young man. But that is no excuse for this wincing, teeth-grindingly awful story. It is in turn bland and soulless. The writing is totally generic and boring science fiction. Luke goes on a quest with a rich merchant’s daughter to find ... something, I forget what. Her father is a caricature of a character who would be played in the movie by a preening Brian Blessed. I suffered about a third of the novel, up to the point where Luke and the girl go into a fast food restaurant (yes, a Space McDonald’s), and Luke tries to move a spilled noodle on the table with the power of the Force. That was dumb enough, but the author made a big deal that Luke ordered what he called “Nerf nuggets.” At first I laughed. That was stupid but funny. But they just kept saying it. The girl said this joint had the best Nerf nuggets. Luke orders the Nerf nuggets. He proceeds to sit down and complement the chef on the Nerf nuggets. It was as if Hearne was intentionally trying to ruin the book. I finally thought, if another character mentions Nerf nuggets, I am outta here! The next sentence had an undercover operative telling Luke where he needed to go and his code words. His code words? You guessed it—Nerf nuggets. I instantly stopped reading and my teeth stopped grinding. I suggest you don’t start unless you have a high tolerance for mediocrity. Awful. 

Rating: I didn’t finish the book, so no rating. 

Things Half In Shadow by Alan Finn 

Edward Clark is an up and coming crime reporter, engaged to a fiancée from a wealthy family. He’s definitely on an upper track in the Philadelphia of 1869. At the suggestion of his editor, he decides to investigate and expose some of the more popular mediums operating in the city. Mourning their recent Civil War dead, the populace of Philadelphia have made consulting mediums a fashionable activity. When he exposes young and beautiful medium Lucy Collins as a fake, he doesn’t realize the length she will go for revenge. 

Being blackmailed by Lucy for secrets from his own past, Edward realizes she may not actually be such a bad sort after all—maybe—and they end up working together to investigate other Philly mediums. When popular medium Lenora Grimes Pastor is viciously murdered during a séance—a séance where Edward and Lucy were in attendance—suddenly both are under suspicion as suspects. Edward vows to find the real killer—no matter where the twisty road leads him. And he has no idea how desperate the killer is to keep that information secret. 

Writer Alan Finn is a wonderful new voice in fantasy. He weaves a compelling plot and vivacious characters into a novel I couldn’t put down. Edward’s life of secrets, held for the best reasons, is torn down around his ears and he could lose all he holds dear. Lucy Collins is a total fake and grifter, but does she have a reason to be such? How does her own background make her a sympathetic character, despite her sins? And was Lenora Grimes Pastor that rarest of all rarities—a person with real powers to talk to the deceased? All questions are answered in a breathtaking resolution that leaves the reader wanting to know more about these characters and their world. I did email Alan Finn to tell him how much I enjoyed this book, and he did reply to let me know there would be more in the series. I can’t wait! Highly recommended. 

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars

Monday, November 16, 2015

Comics Capsule Reviews

Manifest Destiny #18: Nice to see a creator owned book last eighteen excellent issues. I’m not sure a new DC or Marvel book will ever last that many issues again. Readers can also tell Chris Dingess is a writer rather than a comic book writer—that is, Dingess comes from television and has read things other than comics in his life. He knows plot, pacing and character better than anyone writing a mainstream superhero title these days. In this issue, Lewis & Clark, well into their supernatural tour of America, complete their uneasy truce with the tribe of cannibal/bird beings they discovered. They then fulfill their true mission, making the Louisiana Purchase safe for American settlement. They carry out that mission with surprising, but probably necessary, brutality. A riveting book that never fails to entertain or surprise. Matthew Roberts’ art is horrifying and tremendous, as always. Excellent. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

Miracleman by Gaiman and Buckingham #4: While Alan Moore’s Miracleman stories are among the best superhero comics has ever had to offer, when Moore left Neil Gaiman took over the title. Marvel is reprinting those stories, eventually along with some new material. I read these books when they originally came out in the ‘80s and have fond memories of them. Now I’m not sure why. 

Gaiman has a folksy, breezy writing style that runs hot and cold for me. I generally enjoy his work, at least the little to which I have been exposed, but he’s not an absolute favorite. These thirty-year old stories vary from terrible to slightly better than terrible. I appreciate that Gaiman wanted to go in a different direction from Moore, but the direction he chose was directionless. His decision to leave Miracleman out of his Miracleman stories was odd as well. He probably decided, rightly, that no one will do Miracleman better than Alan Moore, so why try? But if that is the case, why bother? It all seems like such a waste of energy and ideas. 

In issue #4, Gaiman revisits Liz Moran, the hapless wife of Miracleman alter ego Mike Moran. Mother of two of Miracleman’s wonder children, Liz is in a new relationship and raising one of her wonder girls and a stepchild. She reads them a fairy tale about her and Miracleman’s first child, Winter, now world famous and revered. This type of storytelling is Gaiman’s security blanket, as he loves writing fairy tales. It’s all so blah ... good but not great. I really wonder why I liked this back in the day. It’s also worth noting that Mark Buckingham’s art style was nowhere near as polished and gleaming as his later work in Fables. Here he is sketchy and his art is not attractive. At $5.00 per issue (for a reprint!), this book is not worth a nostalgic look into the past.

Rating: *** out of 5 stars 

Paper Girls #2: The Paper Girls are Tiffany, K.J., Erin and Mac. They are 12 years old and deliver papers from their bikes for a living. Taking place in the 1980s, one Halloween night they catch some real monsters. But what kind of monsters? Space aliens? Dimensional travelers? And what is with the familiar (to modern readers) logo on one of the monster’s strange electrical devices? With their parents missing and the town being evacuated, the girls better figure out what is going on—quickly. 

New from writer Brian K. Vaughn and artist Cliff Chaing, the story puts these young girls through their paces, as they have to deal with angry parents, non-paying subscribers, villainous space-thugs and doomsday devices. Are they up to the task? I’d guess possibly not, but then Erin would hit me in the face with her hockey stick. So I say yes! An enjoyable read with an outside-the-box plot. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Birthright #11: Birthright is probably the best regularly published book on the market right now. Full of action, emotionally conflicted characters and a rollicking good story, I devour every issue cover to cover. 

Brennen is getting used to his younger brother being a now older hero returning from another dimension. He’s even helping Mikey destroy evil sorcerers hiding on Earth. But he is also aware that Mikey is not telling him the whole truth. Trying to explain his time in Terrenos, Mikey tells Brennan the story of the time he violated his trainer’s orders to rescue a young maiden slated for human sacrifice. He succeeded and learned sometimes he has to do as his conscience dictates. He doesn’t explain why he later accepted service with Lore, the evil tyrant he was sent to Terrenos to eradicate. What’s more, Brennen now has his own spirit guide from Terrenos to help him figure out if Mikey is good or evil ... and if evil, how to save his soul. A top-notch fantasy, full of twists and turns that never let up. Highest recommendation. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

The Twilight Children #1 & 2: I haven’t had much exposure to writer Gilbert Hernandez’s magnum opus, Love & Rockets. But artist Darwyn Cooke is an absolute master of the comics medium. Here they team for a new story involving a small, beachside community and some odd supernatural events. The characters are intriguing; a cheating wife, her husband, her lover, a beach bum who lost his family in a fire many years before, and three children who are friends. When large opaque orbs are seen floating on the ocean and eventually float into town, the curious villagers try to capture them. Refusing to be corralled, the orbs end up floating through homes and business in this sleepy town. A young scientist arrives to study the orbs. When the kids find an orb in a cave, they reach out to touch it. That’s when the orb explodes, taking their eyesight but leaving them otherwise unharmed. Then a strange woman with white hair appears on the beach. Is she connected to the orbs? 

In issue #2, the orbs demonstrate even wackier behavior, whisking away some citizens who get too close. Some reappear naked in trees, others don’t return at all. Meanwhile, the silent, white-haired stranger makes friends with the village folks. But what is she hiding? 

Hernandez and Cooke have crafted a seriously deranged sci-fi fantasy mystery that commands the reader’s attention. Cooke’s art is wonderful. A brilliant story I can’t wait to see unfold. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Judge Dredd Classics: The Dark Judges: This hardcover graphic novel reprints two of the most famous Judge Dredd stories; Dredd and Psi Judge Anderson against the Dark Judges. Judge Dredd of course is from Britain’s weekly 2000 A.D. anthology comic. Set in a fascistic future, judges have the right to be judge, jury and executioner to a crime-ridden populace. 

The Dark Judges come from an alternate dimension. They are Judge Mortis, Judge Fire, Judge Fear and finally their leader, Judge Death. In their dimension, they have decided that all crime is committed by the living, so living itself becomes a crime. When they have dispatched all living things on their world, they find a way to Earth to finish their grisly work. Enter Judge Dredd, who finally finds harsher judges than himself. Beautiful and tough Judge Anderson, a mind reader from the Judge Psi Corps, steps in to help him. The art for the first storyline is by Brian Bolland, and the characters have never looked better. Despite causing major destruction, Dredd and Anderson finally manage to put the Dark Judges back in their bottle. This story also contains one of my favorite single comics panels of all time, as Judge Fear proclaims to Dredd: 

“Gaze into the face of Fear!” As Dredd puts his fist through Fear’s head, he proclaims, “Gaze into the fist of Dredd!” Inspired stuff! 

The second story is from Judge Anderson’s solo title. Dredd is involved, but she is the star. The Dark Judges, their bodies destroyed but their spirits clinging to life, manage to trick Anderson into coming to their dimension and freeing them. They end up causing twice the destruction to Mega-City One they did the first time around, and Judge Anderson is now under investigation and suspension for freeing them. Will she be able to fight the Dark Judges under house arrest? Let’s just say if you don't think so, you don’t know Judge Anderson. A nice hardcover package of two of the best Judge Dredd stories. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Movies – The Martian

The novel The Martian was the best book I’ve read so far this year (find my full review here), so how did Hollyweird handle the movie version? Outstandingly. 

As in the book, astronaut Mark Watney is a botanist/engineer accidently left stranded on Mars when a freak windstorm descends on his exploration team. Left for dead, Watney has to figure out how to survive on a hostile planet with little food or water for 900 days, until NASA can mount a rescue operation. How he does so, with many twists and turns and a lot of sciencey-type stuff, is as fascinating to watch as it was to read. 

Screenwriter Drew Goddard’s (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) script takes just what it needs to from the book to make a tight, suspenseful screenplay. Director Ridley Scott has unleashed his best film in years, making the science of the story work fine despite the audience’s ignorance of engineering or botany (speaking strictly for myself). Scott’s once brilliant work has degenerated to boring political correctness in recent years; it’s good to see he can still focus enough to tell a clear, agenda-free story. Casting is spot on, as the race and nationality of some characters are changed from the book, but still resonate with their literary cousins. Main character Watney is portrayed by Matt Damon, at best a flavor-of-the-day but never a great actor. Whatever he did to achieve this particular performance I hope he continues doing. Damon reflected the loneliness and humor of Watney perfectly while keeping the audience interested in the daily drudgery of living alone on an alien planet. 

The ending is a triumph (did you think it wouldn’t be?) perfectly handled by the cast and the deft hand of director Scott. The Martian movie is an excellent companion to the novel, which I suggest you read first. It’s fantastic. 

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5