Sunday, July 26, 2015

Books – The Martian by Andy Weir

I’m totally in love with The Martian by Andy Weir. This book blew my mind. 

I saw The Martian on several of the best book lists for last year, but I passed on reading it. I’m not much on hard science fiction, and the idea of a guy stuck on Mars alone for an entire book seemed boring. It would take an exceptionally talented writer to pull it off. Enter Andy Weir.  

The Martian is the best book I’ve read in a long, long time and definitely the best thing I’ve read this year. I know it will end up being one of my all-time favorite books. In the near future, Mark Watney is an engineer/botanist on the second manned mission to Mars. When a freak sandstorm hits and the mission is scrapped, Watney is injured and to all appearances killed during the storm. His comrades are forced to flee the planet and head home, mourning their friend. The problem is, Watney isn’t dead. His suit auto-seals after a breech, and when he regains consciousness, he is abandoned on Mars with very little food and water and oxygen enough for a few days. It will be at least four years before a rescue can even be attempted, and that is if he can alert anyone to the fact that he is not dead. Chances are he’ll starve to death, freeze to death or suffocate long before anyone even knows he’s alive. 

That’s when things get interesting. I hate to ruin one sentence in this roller coaster ride of a novel, but I do want to encourage people to devour it. Mark pools his food, shelter options and oxygen, then finds simple but effective ways to extend them for at least a short period. On Earth, NASA discovers he is alive and finds some difficult but effective ways to communicate with him. He becomes a celebrity on earth with daily news stories and billions of dollars committed to saving his life. The problem is, even with peak efficiency from every party—a stretch under normal circumstances—his food will run out months before a rescue operation can be mounted.  

Weir is a genius and my favorite new writer. He writes Watney as an intelligent problem solver, but also a bit nerdy with a whimsical sense of humor. Watney’s internal dialog as he logs his daily struggles are a joy to read. His delight as he solves one devastating, unsolvable problem after another puts the reader in the place of this man who is doomed but refuses to give up hope. The planet keeps trying to kill him, and he keeps finding ways not to die. In the end, the bottom line haunts him and everyone on Earth ... he doesn’t have enough food to wait for a rescue attempt. Meanwhile, NASA is putting everything they have into brainstorming ways for Mark to survive. But their scientists are fighting nature, time, distance and politics (sometimes world politics) to save him. 

I won’t give away one more of the many setbacks and dizzying plot points faced by astronaut Mark Watney, the loneliest man on Mars. The Martian is a triumph of plotting, dialog and characterization. The characters are fully realized, the writing sharp and funny. I listened to the book on CD and lost count of how many times I guffawed aloud. Do yourself a favor and read this book. You’ll love it. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Thanks to ace writer Steve Wellington for the word-of-mouth recommendation. 

Presenting the 18' long, 1/6 scale Millennium Falcon

Who wants an 18-foot long Millennium Falcon? Um, I'd take one. 

And Hot Toys is ready to provide one. Yeah, I'm sure this will be affordable. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Comics Capsule Reviews

Alex + Ada #15
Alex + Ada #15: The loss of such a great comic will be a hard one to bear. After tracking the human experience, with all of its triumphs and tragedies, through the eyes of a sentient machine, the ride has finished. This final issue is a true departure, taking place over several decades. The situation is as dire as we thought—the authorities have seized Ada, and she is probably in pieces in a warehouse somewhere. Or worse. Alex has been sentenced to a long prison stay as an example to anyone else who wants to give their robot helper sentience. But as the years roll by, society begins to challenge assumptions regarding robot rights. Alex is released to a completely new world, a world much friendlier to his point of view. And that’s not the only surprise waiting for him. 

Comics don’t get better than Alex + Ada. Intelligent, challenging and engaging, this is everything science fiction, and comics, should be. Show this one to a civilian who hates comic books. Bravo. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

Archie vs. Predator #3
Archie vs. Predator #3: I have a high quotient for what is inappropriate in decent society, and I’m nigh unoffendable. But something about this comic just isn’t right. Writer Alex de Campi and artist Fernando Ruiz deliver a crossover between the Riverdale gang and the violent alien hunters known as Predators. The art is classic, cartoony Archie, which is disturbing enough, but the action is not. The Predator is right out of the films; ripping spines out of Riverdale regulars and leaving trails of blood through Pop’s Diner. Jughead’s severed head crammed inside a broken vending machine (at least he died doing what he loved) elevates AvP to theatre of the absurd. As the bodies are piled up and dismembered, Archie, Betty and Veronica mount one final Hail Mary effort to destroy the alien who has killed most of their friends. This book is weird. 

Rating: *** out of 5 stars 

The Fade Out #7
The Fade Out #7: Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillip’s latest masterpiece is a visual treat as well as a noir-laden trip through the movie business of the 1940s. The book started out slow, but the creative team, as well as the story itself, is now running on all cylinders. Screenwriter Charlie Parish, suffering from intense writer’s block, and up and coming actress Maya Silver, finally give in to their suppressed feelings and spend the weekend together. When Maya is called back to her movie set early, she and Charlie go right back to the dirt, grit and lies of Hollywood. Charlie is tempted to just take off, but he’s still working on what happened to Valeria Sommers, the murdered actress Maya replaced. And he’s hoping no one notices that his current script is ghostwritten by the drunk (and blacklisted) Lincoln Kessler. 

Dirty, sexy and full of bad people doing bad things, The Fade Out is another stunning success from the Brubaker/Phillips team. Brilliant. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

The Shadow #100
The Shadow #100: Dynamite is the perfect company to publish the Shadow. I suppose all the Shadow comics they have published add up to one hundred, ‘cause this is the Centennial issue. Says so on the cover. The book contains five excellent and pulpy Shadow stories. The best two are “The Laughing Corpse” by Victor Gishler and Stephen B. Scott, about the Shadow’s vengeance on a murderer, and “The Curse of Blackbeard’s Skull,” a prose piece written and with spot illustrations by Matt Wagner. The latter story is about secret college societies, a mystic skull, and murder. All stories portray the Shadow as the force for justice and vengeance that he is. A fitting package for a rare comics milestone. Don’t forget, the Shadow knows

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

We Stand on Guard #1
We Stand on Guard #1: I’m afraid I have to reject the premise of We Stand on Guard. In the near future, the United States declares war on Canada. And not just a cold war, or dropping a few bombs onto the vast wilderness. In this comic, the U.S. gleefully destroys major Canadian cities and revels in the civilian causalities. We send automated robots into the wild to kill insurgents—the ones we capture are sent to work camps. We put boots on the ground, destroy their air force and put our staunchest ally under martial law. Why? The book doesn’t make that clear yet, although one insurgent claims we wanted their water (it is in the future). If so, why wouldn’t we just ask? Canadians are so polite, after all. 

This book is a Liberal’s dream, and I suspect many Liberals wouldn’t question that America is capable of such actions. But is writer Brian K. Vaughn saying it? Vaughn is a Liberal, that was plain in his masterwork Y the Last Man. I’m not saying he believes America is capable of the actions laid out in WSOG. But the U.S. is portrayed as a violent, bloodthirsty nation who murders civilians in a surprise attack on an ally. Then we occupy that ally with major military force to subjugate, not liberate. Brian, our enemies do that, not us. 

The book is beautifully realized. Vaughn creates real and vibrant characters, and artist Steve Skroce continues to be a talented illustrator. But this entire concept will have to tread very carefully with me. I’ll give this concept some rope, but if I sense the strong whiff of actual America hatred put off by outlets like MSNBC, The New York Times and Ariana Grande, then I’m out. No one needs that kind of odium in their life. 

Rating: No rating yet, I’ll see where it goes. 

The Spirit #1
The Spirit #1: Most folks who know anything about comics are at least passingly familiar with Will Eisner’s creation The Spirit. Debuting in 1940, The Spirit was a comic book enclosed in newspapers, and for twelve years was superb and seminal sequential storytelling. Fresh takes have been attempted by new creators several times in the last few decades. Some of them have been fun pastiches, but no one has really captured Eisner’s original zeitgeist. If anyone has a chance to do so, it could be writer Matt Wagner. 

The Spirit is square-jawed do-gooder Denny Colt. When Colt is mistakenly declared dead, he decides to stay dead and fight crime as the masked hero the Spirit. In Wagner’s new take, the Spirit, and Denny, have been missing for two years. Crime is running rampant and Commissioner Dolan is trying to keep things under control. The Spirit’s girlfriend, Dolan’s daughter Ellen, has moved on to a new life and new boyfriend. And classic supporting character Ebony White, the Spirit’s assistant, is reimagined as a young P.I. in a much more politically correct version. There is a lot to like here, and Wagner puts his own twists on the characters and their world. Add the missing Spirit mystery and there is plenty of reason to come back for the next issue. It looks like Wagner will be inspired by, but not enslaved to, Eisner’s original vision.

Rating: ***½ stars out of 5 

Coffin Hill #20
Coffin Hill #20: The final issue that wraps up a riveting 20-part epic. This is yet another comic ending prematurely that will be much missed. Emma Coffin, the witch of Coffin Hill, has finally escaped her ghostly prison. Her descendant Eve Coffin is the only being standing between her and the total destruction of the town. Emma celebrates her liberation with some petty revenge, then faces Eve for a final showdown, daring Eve to try and stop her. A bloody and defeated Eve lies helpless on the black and white tiled floor of the Coffin mansion. But Eve may have one more trick up her sleeve ... Either way, a witch is going to burn tonight. 

It is sad such a quality book as this is going away. Writer Caitlin Kittredge has shown she has monstrous talent, as has artist Inaki Miranda. These two creators have proven they are incredibly gifted storytellers. I’ll be watching where they go from here. 

Rating: ***** stars out of 5

Monday, July 13, 2015

Reviews - Recently Read Books

I’ve taken some time to read actual books lately, so let’s look at a few novels that may or may not appeal to your reading sensibilities: 

- The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman 
The English Civil War between King Stephen and Empress Matilda is one of the most interesting parts of history, English or anywhere. After King Henry I’s heir dies in a shipwreck in 1120, he selects as heir his daughter Matilda. This was, to say the least, a controversial decision for the time. When Henry dies in 1135, Matilda’s cousin Stephen seizes the throne and sets off a decades-long Civil War. This is the backdrop of The Siege Winter. Neither Stephen nor Matilda play a large part in the novel—which is a shame, the book would have been better for it. 

When a roving band of soldiers headed by a psychotic monk attacks the child Emma, Gwyl, a kind mercenary archer, finds her in a field. He nurses her back to health, disguises her as a boy and becomes her protector. Eventually they flee to Kenilworth Castle, which takes turns being sieged by both Stephen and Matilda that winter for different political purposes. Meanwhile, the monk turns up at the castle and Gwyl prays he won’t recognize Emma. 

That’s as much of a plot as the book has. Events happen, but not much moves the plot forward. The characters are stock, the action almost non-existent (unusual for a story being told during a major war). The story is wrapped up nicely, but wastes the potential of being told during one of the most interesting historical periods. The authors do capture Empress Matilda fairly well, a cold, domineering woman with little charm. Stephen is barely mentioned, other than why he wants strategic Kenilworth Castle for himself. A decent tale, but one that could have used more meat on its bones. 

Rating: *** stars out of 5 

- NYPD Red by James Patterson and Marshall Karp 
NYPD Red is a special task force charged with protecting Manhattan's wealthiest and most powerful citizens. When several film industry executives are assaulted on the same day, Detective Zach Jordan and his new partner (of course his super-hot, married ex-girlfriend) Detective Kylie MacDonald are assigned to the case. [Slight spoilers] The killer is a frustrated extra who blames the film business for not making him a star. He has written a script and is making a movie in his mind of all the destruction he is causing, including murders and bomb destruction. 

No one sets out to write a bad book, or to do a mediocre writing job. However, while I enjoyed some of Patterson’s early Alex Cross novels, lately anything with his name on it has become emotionally detached “product.” NYPD Red is as bland as the product gets. We’ve seen it all before and done better. When the inevitable TV series is cast, it will be supermodels solving crimes committed by other supermodels. The antagonist is insane and comes up with the flashy, unlikely plan one only finds in popular tripe like this. I’ve read toothpaste tubes with more drama. With so many great novels available to read, do people really want this

Rating: ** stars out of 5 

- City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett 
Here is Amazon’s description: The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions—until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world's new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself—first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it—stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.

Yeah. That’s as inscrutable as the book itself. Sometimes I find good books by Googling “Best (choose your subject) novel of (choose your year). City of Stairs was on several lists as one of the best sci-fi novels of 2014, so I checked it out. After about 50 pages, I’d had enough. Kudos to anyone who could make it through this slog. The first part of the book reads like a small-town council meeting in Buttcheek, Iowa, with petty bureaucrats making petty decisions and having never-ending pointless conversations. Each new scene was like a trip to the dentist for a root canal. The protagonist was a traitor to their country and another petty functionary. Bennett’s city and character names are ridiculously complex and hard to pronounce. This is what they’ll have to read in the waiting room to Hell. Again, no one sets out to write a bad novel—not sure what happened here. I didn’t read the entire book, so no rating. 

- Sneaky People by Thomas Berger 
Finally, a novel worth reading. Of most of the novels I have read recently, Sneaky People comes closest to literature. In the 1930s, small-town used car dealer Buddy Sandifer has decided to murder his mousey wife and marry his busty mistress Laverne. Buddy is no genius, but he’s cunning and sneaky, he just has to figure out a way to do it that won’t come back on him. How about that Negro boy who washes cars on the lot? Surely he’d know someone. Buddy is racist enough to think that may work ... 

Buddy Jr. is Buddy’s son; a teenage boy obsessed with girls and 1930s sex manuals. There is a decency and honesty about Buddy Jr. that he must have inherited from his mother. 

Sneaky People is a snapshot of small-town American life in the early 20th Century. Everyone has their dreams and holds their secrets close. The book is about what happens when some of those secrets are pried from closed fingers and revealed to the world. The results are devastating. An excellent read. 

Rating: **** stars out of 5

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Real Superman

From my friend Matt Tauber in honor of my birthday yesterday. Now that's the Superman I know! 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Movies – Jurassic World

Jurassic World is a pleasant afternoon/evening at the movies. It breaks no new ground, has nothing of particular importance to say, and if you saw the first two movies it’s clear that the formula is kept safely intact. Of course Chris Pratt is engaging to watch—it’s been a blast to watch the actor become a superstar before the audience’s collective eyes. The scene where he stops a multiple Velociraptor attack with some training, an outstretched hand and the force of his personality is alone worth admission. 

I could go over the plot, but why bother? Man messes with nature, people run screaming, nature eats him. No surprises here. The movie is neither a mortal danger to hard-won women’s rights (as asserted by Chicken Little Joss Whedon) or a bloody gore-fest. This is just a two-hour window where you can turn off your brain, munch on some popcorn and enjoy some PG-13 chills with your family. Jurassic World is nothing more than fun, big-budget escapism. And sometimes that’s all right. 

Rating: *** out of 5 stars