Sunday, April 30, 2017

Books - The Flame Bearer, Monster Hunter Memoirs: Sinners and A Head Full of Ghosts

The Flame Bearer by Bernard Cornwell

Historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell is probably my favorite current writer. Cornwell’s Saxon Tales—now known collectively as “The Last Kingdom” due to the successful TV show—are among his best work. And of that work, The Flame Bearer is the finest novel so far. I think it may be destined to become one of my all-time favorite books.

The Flame Bearer is packed with a plethora of ingredients for a successful story—passion, war, subject expertise, larger than life characters and a rocking good tale well told. In this, the tenth book of the series, Uthred of Bebbanburg returns to the fortress he was robbed of as a child to retake it by force and become its lord once again. This is a culmination of nine books worth of war and toil. Uthred has served King Alfred and now serves his son King Edward in order to make a united kingdom of all of Britain’s English-speaking peoples. As the novel unfolds, three of the four English kingdoms are united under Edward, all that is left is Northumbria, the northern part of what is being called Englaland.

Edward is facing resistance on several fronts—the Danes to the north mostly, and the Scots north of them. Against this backdrop, Uthred, with his son Uthred and all the warriors he can scrape up, launch their final plan to invade the fortress of Bebbenburg, stolen from him by his uncle while he was a child and now run by his cousin, who has no intention of handing it over peacefully. Of course, Bebbenburg is impregnable, impossible to breach on land and with limited access from the sea. This is what I love about Uthred. He’s sneaky and clever. From a young man serving Alfred, he has used deception, subterfuge and his enemies’ weaknesses to win battles where he is far outgunned (outsworded?). Currently Bebbanburg is being sieged by the Scots on land and the warriors inside are getting hungry. Uthred’s cousin is casting his net for other allies in Britain, and may have to forge an alliance with the hated Danes to keep his fortress. Uthred uses all these things to his advantage to try and get through Bebbanburg’s massive sea gates and fight hundreds of tough and experienced warriors by whom he is massively outnumbered. Cornwell’s bag of tricks is seemingly endless as Uthred outwits his opponents time after time, although not without cost.

Cornwell is one of the finest battle writers living, and the battle of Bebbenburg is one of his greatest literary achievements. At one point, Uthred is standing in the middle of the chaos, with warriors fighting to the death in the shield wall, surrounded by his enemies on all sides with little hope. That is when he is filled with battle-joy and knows that he will win this day or die. It’s a brilliant scene, evoking another age, a brutal way of life and the kind of men it took to thrive in that time.

Only the cleverest of men could win a battle with such odds. My money is definitely on Uthred. Regardless of success or failure, Northumbria still needs to be absorbed to make a united Englaland and the Danes are still a force to be reckoned with. So thank goodness Uthred’s story must continue. I hope it goes on for a while—I could read these books for the rest of my life.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Monster Hunter Memoirs: Sinners by John Ringo and Larry Correia

John Ringo’s Chad Oliver Gardenier is a bit of a scoundrel. As seen in the first book in the Memoir trilogy, Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge (see a review here), Chad is a proud American and former military man now earning his living liquidating monsters for the private firm Monster Hunter International. Making a quick exit from Seattle after an altercation with the trailer park elves (he swore she told him she was 80!), he needs a quick transfer to another division of MHI. His only request? Anywhere but someplace with heat and humidity. So where does he end up? New Orleans of course!

Turns out the Big Easy needs help from someone like Chad, because something big is going down there. The monsters are getting larger and more dangerous, the werewolf population is growing exponentially and the vampires are feeling so crowded out they are rooting for MHI. Unheard of!

Sinners tells the story of Chad’s relocation to his new city. Despite the heat, he comes to love the culture, the food and the people. In a surprising development, he also begins to put down roots, buying a house and finding a place on the wall for his precious sword, Mo No Ken. The story is a quick read, not because it’s a short book, but because it moves at lightning speed. Chad goes from one emergency to the next, and things get particularly out of hand during the full moon. Especially when the combined forces of MHI, the federal government’s Monster Control Bureau and the local police can’t contain the craziness!

Through it all, Chad remains a unique character. He loves the ladies, bonds with his friends and coworkers and showers hellfire on evil monsters. In Sinners, he manages to take on groups of werewolves, magic killer frogs and giant mole rats. He gets little sleep as he hunts bad things through graveyards, city streets and on top of the local baseball stadium. Throughout the pandemonium, he retains his sense of humor and manages to grow as a character and a person. I love reading about this guy.

Sinners rewards readers with intense, non-stop action and characters to love, hate and care about. But don’t get too attached to anyone. It is Monster Hunter International, after all.

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

I hate to give away one word of the plot to this edgy horror thriller. Tremblay proves he’s a writer to watch as he spins the very modern tale of a middle-class family eroding bit by bit. All I will say is that the story is told from the point of view of an eight-year old girl, all grown up in the present, working with a reporter to write a book about the time her older sister was possessed by a demon. I read this novel in two sittings, in the second I just couldn’t put it down. In turns it is fascinating, horrifying and riveting. And that ending ... that one will stick with me for a while. If you like well-written horror, read this book! But try to have someone else in the room with you, preferably saying prayers. You'll thank me when the hair on the back of your neck starts to rise. It’s terrifying, in the best way possible. Highest recommendation.

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Television: Iron Fist (Netflix)

*Slight Spoilers*
In many ways, Iron Fist is a typical Netflix Marvel show. It has an ensemble cast, is very street-level and down-to-earth and contains a minimum of superpowers or the supernatural. While not bad, Iron Fist is the weakest of the four shows that make up Marvel Netflix Phase 1, which also includes Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.

Finn Jones plays the title character, and this is where the mediocrity begins. Jones has virtually no Kung Fu skills (he started training weeks before shooting began), but to me this is actually not a huge deal. He’ll probably play the character for years and can learn as he goes. He just has no grit, no gravitas as an actor. He is not leading man material, as Charlie Cox is in Daredevil and Mike Colter definitely is in Luke Cage. He’s a little boy who’s probably great as a supporting actor, but is not strong enough to headline his own show.

Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing
The good? Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing. She’s beautiful, tough, terrific and a martial arts expert—everything Jones is not. Most of the choreography and action sequences are good, especially where Henwick is involved. When Jones is fighting, you can see what they were trying to do and it somewhat works. An experienced martial artist would have knocked those scenes out of the park. The plot wasn’t bad, as they took at least some inspiration from the source material—Danny Rand, thought dead for years, returns to America and attempts to regain his legacy. The writers deviated totally from Iron Fist’s origin and how he was thought to be lost, and this is a mistake. It was handled much better and more excitingly in the comics.

The sub-plot of the Meachum clan, New York’s most dysfunctional family, is also worth watching, mostly for the work of David Wenham as Harold Meachum. You never knew what the actor or character would do next, and that was enjoyable.

The bad? Everything else. First off, these shows go on too long. Writers put 8-10 episodes worth of story into 13 episodes. What is so magic about the number 13? Every Marvel show has dragged in the middle of the series because of not having enough story to propel the narrative. Jessica Jones probably had the best pacing, but Iron Fist would have been a lot tighter at eight episodes. The worst sin Iron Fist commits is (*spoiler*) not using a costume.

A brief aside—in around 1990, I attended a panel at the Chicago Comicon regarding the upcoming Flash TV show on CBS. The DC writers who consulted on the show addressed some of the challenges they had working with CBS network brass. CBS was uncomfortable with the Flash costume. They didn’t want the hero, Barry Allen, to wear one. “Does he have to wear a costume?” one exec asked directly. One of the DC panelists said, “I told him, if we don’t use a costume, we might as well call him ‘The Jogger.’” Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to “Iron Fist: Kung Fu Jogger.” For most of the series, Danny Rand dresses like a homeless man and has a fuzzy, unkempt beard. He really looks terrible. The comic book Iron Fist is clean-shaven and has a cool costume, which has gone through several iterations over the years. The ‘70s one is somewhat kitschy, I understand they probably couldn’t use it, but they must use the mask, it’s iconic. Today’s tracksuit costume would work and probably wouldn’t be too wince-inducing. It’s bad enough when Hollywood studios mess up costumes or refuse to use them—costumed superheroes are their source material! However, when Marvel Studios itself refuses to use costumes—what hope is there? They’re turning their back on their own stories and history!

This is Iron Fist
So Danny Rand, Kung Fu Jogger, goes through the entire series without showing the mystic part of his city, K’un L’un, without fighting the dragon that gave him his powers in the comic, and forgoes the classic and iconic Iron Fist costume. He’s just a homeless dude who whines a lot and knows a smattering of Kung Fu. Colleen Wing makes it watchable, but without her the entire series falls flat on its face.

Also acceptable as Iron Fist
For the second series, if there is one, I’d suggest replacing Finn Jones with an actor who knows Kung Fu and looks like they could kick someone’s ass (although that is unlikely to happen). Secondly, put him in his costume, even if it’s just the mask! Thirdly, turn up the supernatural aspects of Iron Fist! Show K’un L’un! Have the Iron Fist itself as smoking and steaming, not just glowing slightly. This show could be so much better with just a little tweaking, even if they kept Jones as the title character. Marvel, please stay truer to your source material.

This is not Iron Fist

Rating: *** out of 5 stars

Monday, April 17, 2017

Convention Report: Indiana Comicon

The Warriors Three - Adam, ye author & Travis
This weekend for the first time I attended the Indiana Comicon in Indianapolis. My friends Adam and Travis and I braved the wilds of Indiana in Adam’s van—a comfortable ride with plenty of room for a change. We arrived about the time the con opened, and getting in was probably easier than any other con I’ve been to. We just showed our pre-paid passes at an empty registration stand and walked in. I rarely arrive as the con starts, but I may have to start doing that.

Neal Adams with Mrs. Adams
The exhibit hall was large, typical for a downtown convention center. One of the first things I noticed was that there were already lots and lots of lovely cosplayers, but not many comics dealers. More on that later. We walked the hall and took in the breadth of exhibits. Who should be one of the first people I run into but my favorite comics artist of all time, Neal Adams! Adams had his wonderful art spread around him for sale, along with prints, books and sketches. Neal attends a lot of cons these days, I see him just about everywhere I go. I wish he didn’t charge $30 for an autograph (free with the purchase of a print), but if that’s what the market will bear, go with God, Neal.

Ace writer Gerry Conway
Next was a conversation with one of my favorite Bronze Age (the ‘70s, basically) comic writers, Gerry Conway. Conway has had an illustrious career, co-creating everything from the Punisher and Firestorm to writing the first inter-company superhero crossover between Marvel and DC, Superman vs. Spider-Man. He later got into TV writing and wrote a ton of Law & Order scripts. He’s a busy, creative guy and very enthusiastic about his work. We chatted for a moment and he signed a few comics for me.  

I had the pleasure of meeting Dan Wells, a prose author whose books I’ve enjoyed quite a bit. His John Cleaver series is a hoot—it’s about a young serial killer who is trying to fight his programming and ends up turning his “talents” on the supernatural. Sort of a Dexter who only kills demons. Start with I Am Not a Serial Killer. You’ll like them. I picked up one of his newer books, Bluescreen, which he described as “futuristic cyberpunk.” Nice guy.

Bluescreen by Dan Wells
Cary Elwes entertains a crowd
There were a few celebrities I wanted to meet, but the lines were very long. Cary Elwes was the hit of the day, his line was always hours long—too long and boring for me to stand. I did go to Elwes’s presentation, where he shared movie anecdotes and answered questions. Most of his war stories were about The Princess Bride, a true classic. He told one story about how he broke his foot the first week of shooting, showing off on Andre the Giant’s four-wheeler. He thought he would be fired, which he obviously wasn’t. His other Bride tale, about Andre’s huge fart in the middle of a take, had everyone in stitches of laughter. He couldn’t complete the take after that, not being able to keep a straight face. He then answered questions from the audience, asking each participant’s name and interacting with them. He came off as a total mensch who loved his job and was infused with energy. He left the con with a giant bag of cash.

I was very much looking forward to meeting Millie Bobby Brown, the young actress who played Eleven in Stranger Things. She cancelled Saturday at the last minute and was only there Sunday, so I missed her. Too bad, I really loved her performance in ST.

The still beautiful Nichelle Nichols
The one actress I did get to meet was the second Star Trek Original Series cast member I’ve met, Nichelle Nichols (I’ve had the pleasure to meet Shatner, detailed here). Her line was fairly long, but I took a chance and dived in. As always, to relieve the boredom I struck up conversations with other folks in line. The young couple in front of me was from Michigan. The woman’s father was a big ST fan and she was raised with the Original Series and Next Generation. Her boyfriend was dressed like a S.H.I.E.L.D. security agent, so he was into geekdom too. The couple behind me were even more entertaining. They had a gorgeous action figure of Nichols as Lt. Uhura, her character on Star Trek. The man told me, totally seriously, that he was going to ask her to sign the figure, “F--- William Shatner.” I managed to not roll my eyes, but I wanted to point out that was rude and unprofessional, and why add that negativity to the world? But who knows, maybe she did it. My gut tells me no, though. Nichols looked way too experienced to suffer fools, regardless of her relationship with Shatner.

I chose a great (and sexy) Lt. Uhura photo from Nichols’ assistant for her to sign. Her assistant put a Post-It on the photo with my name so I could have it personalized. She greeted me warmly with a smile and hearty “Hello Jerry!” I would think actors tire of discussing the same shows or characters all day, so I said, “Hello Ms. Nichols! I’m here for Snow Dogs, were you in another show before that?” She took a beat and realized I was joking, then laughed and said sarcastically, “Very funny, Jerry.” She smiled and passed the signed photo back to me.

Quick digression, Snow Dogs was a Disney comedy out around 20 years ago, with Cuba Gooding and James Coburn. Nichols played Gooding’s mother. I think she was amused by the reference—I’m sure no one else brought up that one!

Avengers #38
Then, on to the comics! My biggest criticism of the Indy Con was there were not enough comic book dealers. There were probably around 15 or so—way too few if the event is going to call itself a comicon. Celebrities, prop weapon booths and gaming booths are fine—but comicons should have comics! That said, I managed to fill several holes in my Avengers collection, then buy some ‘70s Batman and Superman books. The selection that was there was good, there just wasn’t that much to choose from. But I did manage to pick up the much elusive Avengers #38. For some reason that book is extremely hard to find, and when I do it looks like someone drove a truck over it. This one was in great condition at a reasonable price. I bought a few other old Avengers, so I just need three more books to complete a Silver Age Avengers set. Time to take a 2nd mortgage on the house!

I was a bit concerned with Adam and Travis being entertained—I’d stood in autograph lines and searched for comics for hours and the day was getting late. Turns out I had nothing to fear; they are both into board games and had found the gaming room. Everyone was busy all day. At the end of the day we headed off to see a comedy magician performing at the con, only to find they switched the times at the last minute and we missed him! Things like that happen at cons, but it was a bit disappointing, as I love up-close magic and that was this performer’s specialty.

Overall Indy was a good, but not great, con. Some things they could control, some things they couldn’t. But for Pete’s sake, get more comic dealers!

No con report would be complete without photos:

Princess Serenity from Sailor Moon

One of many Poison Ivys

Love the Original Series uniforms

Character from Homestuck

Very nice Black Canary and Matt Murdock


A great Bane and Mr. Freeze. The silver makeup was cool. 

Thought this was Monty Python's Black Knight. Turns out it's from a video game. 

Heroes vs. Villains

A slightly constipated Logan


This Spawn must have been 8 feet tall

Savage Dragon. He got upset when someone yelled "Fish Police!"


Make mine Ms. Marvel!

On to the Cincinnati Con in the Fall!