Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Melancholy Of Haruhi Suzumiya (Haruhi Suzumiya Vol. 1)

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. English translation originally published by Yen Press, 2009. Approx. 200 pages (some interior illustrations).

As mentioned in other reviews, I've been out of the anime loop for well over a decade. I am aware of some of the powerhouse series that have come and gone within that span, but I've only just gotten around to trying to catch up on them. Also, I've mentioned how wonderful the prevalence of these light novel translations has become. I mean, talk about the best of both worlds - book format and anime themes. So, I decided to take a break from the SAO novels, both to allow me to catch up on the show, and avoid series fatigue. In doing so, I perused my local library's catalog of light novels and came upon this one. I knew that Haruhi Suzumiya had had a huge impact upon its release, so now was the time to see what all the hubbub was about. As I wait for one of my friends to lend me his copy of the series, I tore into this, the first light novel.

First, the blurb:

Haruhi holds the fate of the universe in her hands . . . lucky for you she doesn't know it!

Meet Haruhi - a cute, determined girl, starting high school in a city where nothing exciting happens and absolutely no one understands her.

Meet Kyon ­­- the sarcastic guy who sits behind Haruhi in homeroom and the only boy Haruhi has ever opened up to. His fate is now tied to hers.

Meet the S.O.S. Brigade - an after-school club organized by Haruhi with a mission to seek out the extraordinary. Oh, and their second mission? Keeping Haruhi happy . . . because even though she doesn't know it, Haruhi has the power to destroy the universe. Seriously.

The phenomenon that took Japan by storm - with more than 4.5 million copies sold - is now available in the first-ever English edition.

Fair enough cursory summary. And, to be honest, I really don't want to go into too many details, since it's a lot more fun to see them unfold as you turn the pages.

Even though Haruhi is the literal center of this universe, the story is told (via first person perspective) through the eyes of Kyon. Kyon is a young man, just entering his first year of high school, who finds himself sitting at a desk in front of this enigmatic and infamous young lady. A bond of sorts between them grows, perhaps due to Haruhi's declaration that she wants nothing to do with "ordinary" people, being much more interested in aliens, spies, and those with ESP (Kyon had, as a matter of fact, been lamenting over growing out of belief of just those kinds of entities in the prologue).

Haruhi is a bit of an odd bird; cute as a button, but bossy, domineering, and standoffish. With Kyon in tow, she proceeds to create the SOS Brigade, all to satisfy her quest of finding the interesting character types that she mentioned in her homeroom introduction. In the process, she enlists a few other members as well.

As the story progresses, each of these characters divulges to Kyon who they really are, and what their inherent interests in Haruhi are. These all seem to be along the lines of Haruhi being some god-like entity; one upon whom the actual fate of the world is contingent upon. One thing they all seem to agree upon is that Kyon is the linchpin to maintaining Haruhi's interest in keeping the world as it is.

Again, I don't want to go into too much more detail, for the sake of letting readers enjoy the story evolution on their own.

As far as English translations go, this is, without a doubt, one of the best that I have ever read. This is an immensely readable, accessible, and enjoyable book. I'm sure it was like that in its original Japanese text, and I'm glad it got a translation that does it justice. One particular highlight is in conveying the emotions behind what are usually facial responses in the anime; it isn't easy to transfer those moments to paper and prose, but in this novel it is done right.

Another thing I must praise is how the story grabs you and drags you along. I have to admit, at first I didn't see myself finishing this book - Kyon's sardonic humor makes him a great lead, but it is really hard to like Haruhi at first. Then, the reader finds themselves unwillingly dragged along by here - much like Kyon himself. There is something special about her there, that is for sure.

And then, before you know it, it's over. Now, I will probably read the next installments, but in my own humble opinion, this book works great as a one shot deal. I mean, it tells a complete story, with a wonderful, playfully ambiguous ending. It's the type of ending that is structured in a way that any conclusions that the reader draws can be validated with previous cues - a true payoff for the reader's investment.

This leaves the reader with a true mystery; should the book be taken literally, or is it all constructed within the imagination of an unreliable narrator such as Kyon? Again, I'll be seeing what direction they take it in the subsequent volumes, as well as the anime, but I'd recommend again enjoying this book as a standalone piece. It's well worth it.

Cover:

I think the hardcover edition of this book has a dustjacket with a more manga-inspired cover. This edition, the paperback, has the cover shown above. I really like this cover. The color and font are playful and eye-catching, and by just showing a silhouette, rather than an actual anime character, it doesn't isolate readers that might otherwise turn their noses up at a light novel.

The few interior illustrations are fairly basic. There are some nice color pics inside, as well as a welcome manga sample excerpt.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Terminator

The Terminator by Shaun Hutson. Originally published by Star, 1984. Approx. 165pgs.

One novelization that has definitely been on my radar this year is for The Terminator. I mean, this movie remains iconic, even over thirty years after its initial release. So, the curiosity surrounding how the novel turned out is quite high. I knew that Randall Frakes had done the novel work, and also that this book runs very high in the secondary market (lowest prices rarely fall below $30). However, I didn't realize until perusing some blogs lately that The Terminator actually had two novelizations. Indeed, it turns out that the Frakes book is actually the second one released; the first being penned by British author Shaun Hutson, best known for spinner-rack horror novels (as well as WWII books and some Westerns). Better yet, it is the more affordable of the two (I snagged this copy for about $6, after shipping), and most reviews of it were positive. So, I got a copy and tore right through it. How was it? Read on...

As with other novelizations, we have no idea what version of the script the author had to work with, or if anybody had already been cast. I will say this; Hutson's novel adheres very closely to the finished movie. Also, the characters are described well enough to assign the actors too (especially Traxler). There are some minor differences in background characters, and certain locations have different names as well (sadly, Tech Noir is known as Stoker's in the novel).

Now, knowing that the novel plays out very close to the movie, what then is the draw of reading the novel? It all falls on the writing style of the author. I was not familiar with Hutson prior to this novel, and I was interested to see how a horror specialist would handle this story, which actually does have some horror elements in it (I can remember being pretty scared of the Terminator skeleton as a 10 year old back in '84). Here's the thing: Hutson has a really sharp, detailed writing style that moves at a brisk pace. He is very descriptive, and shrewd enough to focus on the details that matter. Case in point; when describing a rainstorm that breaks a few days of continuous L.A. heat, he also describes how that torrential downpour - something that should be a welcome respite - actually releases all the saturated stench of the City. Growing up in a major city, in the same time period, this gave me PTSD-level flashbacks. He also employs a kind of colloquial, conversational tone as well. For example, when discussing some of the food at the restaurant Sarah works at, he outright calls it "junk". It might seem like poor or puerile writing, but believe me, when you are flipping the pages, it is all part of the flow. You don't always have to use lofty terms such as "gastrointestinal abomination"; sometimes junk is just junk. Writing is about picking the right word at the right time.

The real area in which Hutson's extremely descriptive style yields noticeable dividends is when he is talking about wounds and injuries. It may be his horror chops flexing, but the man can write some serious gore. The shooting scenes from the movie are rendered here in such a realistic manner that you can almost see, feel, and even smell it. Even the scene where the Terminator is removing his damaged organic eye; the way Hutson describes it, it makes you wince, even though you know the Terminator doesn't register pain.

Also, the few sex scenes in the book are nicely squishy, and slightly over-broiled. I'm sure this was a nice draw for young male readers back in the 80's.

I mentioned before that the novel and the movie follow pretty much the same track. However, as with most novelizations, there are scenes in the book which offer more detail than what we saw on the big screen, and there are some additional scenes as well. One plus is that in the book we get more of Traxler and Vulkovich, who were always a great team. We also get to see the scene of the second Sarah Connor's murder, and there is also a moment where we realize that destroying Cyberdine was something that Sarah was contemplating from the beginning.

There really isn't anything that I can say as a negative regarding this novelization. I mean, it tells the story we all know and love, and it gives us some fresh takes on it, all slathered in gory gobbets. I will say this; I got my copy from a UK seller. So, there are some "British" variations on words here: dumpsters are garbage skips, apartments are flats, and speedometers are just called speedos (which gets weird, since there are numerous car chases, and when Kyle Reese "looks down at his speedo", you suddenly have a vision of him sitting there in a bathing suit). Also, Hutson has a tendency to use the term "precious seconds" very often. Car hitting a bump while speeding? It'll fly for "precious seconds". Terminator aiming a gun at your head? He'll be zeroing in for "precious seconds".

Oh, and the character is referred to as "Terminator". Not "The Terminator". "Terminator". It takes a little bit to get used to.

And, lastly, Arnie's iconic line is slightly different here. Be forewarned.

All in all, this is an excellent novelization, and it won't cost you your retirement fund to own. Hopefully, I can get a copy of Frake's version sometime this year and do a comparison.

Cover:

The cover of the novel is simply the movie poster. Given that this is one of the greatest, most iconic posters of all time (hell, I still want a pair of Gargoyles), it's a winner.


Monday, May 22, 2017

This Long Vigil

This Long Vigil by Rhett C. Bruno. Originally published December, 2015 by Pervenio Corp. Approx. 20 pages.

Last June, I concluded my review for Rhett C. Bruno's ambitious bounty hunter novel Titanborn with the observation that he has introduced a universe that is fertile ground for additional stories. This Long Vigil, actually published back in 2015, While this emotional short does take place in the same universe, it is not connected to the story of Titanborn protagonist Malcolm Graves. Let's take a look at the blurb before we get to the review.

After twenty five years serving as the lone human Monitor of the Interstellar Ark, Hermes, Orion is scheduled to be placed back in his hibernation chamber with the other members of the crew. Knowing that he will die there and be replaced before the ship's voyage is over, he decides that he won't accept that fate. Whatever it takes he will escape Hermes and see space again, even if it means defying the regulations of his only friend -- the ship-wide artificial intelligence known as Dan.

The story here revolves around Orion's "last day on the job". We watch as he goes through the mundane motions of his daily tasks, eats the same nutrient-balanced food equivalent, and engages in games of riddles with Dan, the AI that overseas all the major operations of the Hermes. 

And yet, something keeps niggling at the back of Orion's mind. Is it a feeling of doubt, of desire, or both? These feelings are exacerbated as he finalizes his choice for his replacement monitor. Day in, and day out, he witnesses births and deaths which occur in stasis tubes. It is Inhabitant 2781, the beautiful young female who is the forerunner in his replacement choices, that apparently spurs the escalation of Orion's desire to want.....well, to want more.

So, Orion has to make the first true choice of his lifetime. What comes out of it is a sobering, emotional tale. You might be expecting something with an element of danger, or perhaps the kindly Dan assuming a dictator role, but that isn't this story. This is a story that reminds us that the tough choices are often the tough choices because they do not come with guaranteed happy endings.

Orion is a nicely done protagonist. We can sympathize, for sure, with the frustration associated with a mundane life of set tasks. At one point I wondered, what is it that drives him to desire "freedom"? It isn't as though he is shown trying to gather additional intelligence on the "worlds out there". But, then you realize, it is basic human nature to try to see, learn, and know what is a step beyond the familiar.

As in his Circuit books, Bruno gives us an AI that is more compelling than the human character. Dan is a system akin to HAL or AUTO, As the story progresses, we wonder if his efforts at rapport are genuine, or set algorithms in place to maintain the mental sanity of the human element on the ship. However, as the story reaches its climax, it becomes apparent that the concern was in fact genuine (or was it?).

There you have it; a fully-realized, emotional tale packed into an economical wordcount. Give this short a read.

Buy it here.

Visit Rhett's site.

Recent TNL interview with Rhett C. Bruno.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Gorgo

Gorgo by Carson Bingham. Originally published by Monarch Books, July, 1960. Approx. 141 pages.

Ok, so here we go with another movie novelization. Most of you who follow the blog know that I am a fan of Godzilla, as well as other giant monster (daikaiju) films. Now, as we all know, the good ol' U.S. of A and Japan are not the only countries to have made giant monster movies. Many others have stepped into the ring, with varied results. Some are great, and some only maintain their notoriety through their lasting mediocrity. Back in 1961, England, land of fish, chips, great actors, and inclement weather, offered the world "Gorgo". It was....well, it's not a bad film.


The acting is pretty wooden, the production values are decent, London makes a great destruction destination, and the costume is clunky as all hell (makes you truly appreciate the Godzilla suit actors). The leads are pretty forgettable, and there's an annoying kid who looks like he was plucked out of a Lassie sequel. And, for some reason, it's not as much fun to watch Brits run in terror as it is Japanese people. Must be the stiff upper lips.

You could say, in the end, that Britain got a Participation Trophy for its involvement in the global kaiju film trade.

Honestly, it's not much to be proud of. Even North Korea won one of those.

All that aside, Gorgo still has its fan base. It even had a comic run with Charlton Comics as well.



But, did you know that Gorgo had a novelization as well? Back in 1960, American pulp novel producer Monarch Books released a treatment of the movie. Let's take a look at the blurb on the back:


If you've actually seen the movie, something about that description will be glaringly odd to you. Namely, who the heck is this Moira character? Gorgo is a movie that is exceedingly bereft of women/romance. If you've seen the Mystery Science Theater treatment of the film (I was going to link it but it's no longer available due to copyright. So much for share the tapes.), Segment 5 of that episode centers around Crow and Servo making a "Women of Gorgo" calendar; the joke being, of course, that there are no women to include on it. So, who is this mysterious, virginal, Moira? Well, more on that in a sec. The way that the novel is structured, it is almost segmented into three parts; and it's best to look at each one at a time.

The opening portion sets the story for us: we meet Joe and Sam, two American salvage trawler operators working off the coast of Ireland. A freak storm tosses them, landing them on the Island of Nara. The crew receives a frosty welcome, courtesy of the shady harbormaster, McCartin. There's more afoot: strange happenings are claiming the lives of local sailors/fishermen. This comes to a head when a nightmarish, prehistoric beast rears its head off the shore. Joe and Sam strike a deal to capture the monster. Then, after making a deal to tender it to the Irish authorities, conniver Joe sells the beast to the owner of Dorkin's Circus in London. Monster in tow, they head off.

This opening act was actually a bit of a surprise. I was expecting some real pulpy, purple, mediocre stuff here. But Bingham (actually a pen name) gives us some authentic seafaring scenes. He even creates some suspense and tension in underwater scenes featuring Gorgo. He fleshes out the leads as well; instead of stiff, B-movie vets, we get a pair of brawling sea dogs (actually, he makes Joe into a yellow-eyed, murderous one).

All fine and good. Then, we get to the second portion; or should I say, the Moira portion. A bit of perspective here; Monarch Books was, as mentioned, best known for pulp books. For an idea of their average offering, let's take a peek at some ads from the back pages of Gorgo:


So, I'm guessing someone at Monarch took a look at the Gorgo material and announced "You know what this needs? It needs a dame angle." And, that's what it got. Enter Moira, a completely naive, consummately buxom young lady living in isolation on Nara. Her and Sam fall predictably hard for one another; to the chagrin of both her dictator-like father, and wolf-eyed Joe. They romance one another, while Gorgo languishes firmly in the background, trapped in a net on the ship. Joe makes a play for her, getting it into Sam's head that she's using him. Sam, in turn, ends up believing whoever is talking to him at the moment, leading him to keep flipping like an epileptic pancake. It's pretty funny. There's a lot of what they used to call "heavy petting". Moira can't seem to move without her clothes hugging and accentuating her ample, nubile curves.

To be honest, this is all a lot of fun. I mean, it is the stuff right out of the time when men's men needed to fight off blood-thirsty weasels and win the swooning girl.

Man, do I remember those days.

What exactly does this have to do with Gorgo, the plot, or the movie it is based on? Absolutely nothing. But then, to play devil's advocate, it's a better substitute than the boring bits in the film.

Finally, we get to the meat and potatoes of any monster film/book; the arrival of the beast. Well, it's no secret (heck, it's mentioned in the linked trailer above), that the captured Gorgo is actually just a baby, and a two hundred foot tall mother is coming to claim it.

I'd say Bingham does this portion fairly well. To be honest, there's not a lot of detail surrounding the monster itself. I don't know if he didn't have a final model to work from, or just couldn't write about Gorgo's flipper ears and over-sized claws without it sounding silly. He even seems to be poking fun at it at one point, mentioning that its motion look more like "someone doing calisthenics" than anything else.

The scenes of destruction and chaos are done well, though. We are given a nice panoramic view of London being destroyed; and it comes off with a realism that trumps what made it to the screen. Heck, throughout the book, the portions which match the movie are all done in a serviceable manner. The problems usually arise whenever Bingham tries to shoehorn Moira back into the narrative. Case in point: one laughable moment when Joe, Sam, and Moira escape an underground rail tunnel after a water main break. Never mind all the collapsed buildings and bodies floating by. Moira turns to Sam, her wet clothes dutifully clinging to her form, and proclaims "Sam! Tis cold I am!" Yeah. Okay, sweetheart. That's the primary concern as London is being destroyed and we are making our egress over the bodies of the fallen.

Other scenes that elicit a good chuckle revolve around London's military defense. Why exactly would you line up your tanks on flimsy bridge to fight a monster that just recently flipped over a Navy destroyer like a dollar store toy boat? Why would you set the Thames on fire and then act surprised when a gust of wind carries the flames to the wooden roofs of nearby buildings? These things make no sense; not in the movie, and certainly not in a book.

And there you have it in a nutshell. The book is not great; but then again, the movie wasn't great either. However, the book is not amateurish, which is what I had feared. The introduced scenes with Moira add a little 'excitement' to the boring parts, but the incongruity of these scenes cannot be overlooked. This is a book whose greatest assets, as well as weaknesses, lie in how dated it is. It is irrefutable fun for giant monster enthusiasts, completist collectors, and fans of novelizations. For all others, you might want to pass. This book does not usually come cheap (this copy set me back about $25 after shipping), and that's a lot of buck for a little bang.

Cover:

Decent grab from the movie. The reddish hue is a nice touch; but honestly, they should've used a different tone, so as to be able to showcase Gorgo's famous blood red eyes.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Sword Art Online 2: Aincrad

Sword Art Online 1:Aincrad by Reki Kawahara. Originally published by Yen Press/Hachette Book Group, 2015. Approx. 242 pages (some color and B&W illustrations as well).

Wow, I can't believe that it's been over a year since I read and reviewed the first light novel in this series. Even sadder, in that time, I've only watched the first three episodes of the show. I must say, I was taken a bit by surprise at how much I enjoyed this title, even to the point where I've begun buying the rest of the novels (they do look quite nice on the shelf). Yes, I am indeed becoming quite the fan of SAO....

Well, maybe not that much of a fan.....

Moving on to Volume 2. I wasn't really sure what to expect in this volume, especially since Volume 1 brought the Aincrad arc to a sufficient close. What Volume 2 actually amounts to is 4 vignettes covering girls that were background characters in the story. Again, since I haven't watched all of the anime, I don't know yet how prominently these girls figure in the show (although Sachi's story, "Red Nosed Reindeer", was the third episode of the show).

The Black Swordsman (49pgs): This story tells how Kirito and Silica the Beast-Tamer first met. This story, to be honest, really isn't that good. Although it is written in the same fun, honest manner, it is just made up of so many "it just so happens" coincidences that it beats your suspension of disbelief over the head. Beast-tamer isn't an official class, but Silica just happens to be one. Monsters don't form emotional bonds with their tamers, but her dragon Pina just so happens to. When it dies; sacrificing itself for her, Silica just so happens to meet Kirito, who just so happens to know about a place to revive it, but it must be done within a time limit set to  necessitate urgency, yet allow for some narrative growth. Well, actually, there was some planning afoot in all the meetings; but still, it comes off as a bit corny.

There is conflict, although by this point in the story Kirito is so "OP" that there is no sense of tension, or risk, involved.

The bonding aspect of the story is fun enough. The problem is that, well, Silica is just kind of annoying. She seems nice and honest enough, but teeters off into being impetuous too easily. Of course, she develops a raging crush on Kirito. I mean, this is all fairly rote and tropey; and usually, the SAO stuff is tropes done right. In this case, not so much so. Still a fun enough story.

Warmth of the Heart (60pgs): The second story tells of how Kirito and Lisbeth the Blacksmith became friends. Lisbeth is a teen blacksmith, of unparalleled skill, who is also hardworking, shrewd, and playful in a teasing manner. She is also Asuna's best friend. However, one day, a mysterious swordsman in black walks into her shop, requesting a one of a kind sword.

In the process of testing her wares, Kirito breaks her best custom sword. The two make a pact to search for a mysterious metal, to see if Lisbeth can fashion a unique sword from that.

The rest of the story details their growing friendship. There is a time in the story, when the two of them are trapped for a bit, which is very effective for portraying the need for basic human interaction - and feeling - that so many trapped in the game are forced to do without. 

For all the falseness of the first story, there is a real touching honesty and depth of emotion in this tale. Maybe it's just that I like Lisbeth a lot more as a character than Silica; who knows? Either way, I think that this story is just better written, overall.

The Girl in the Morning Dew (66pgs): This installment tells the story of Yui, a mysterious young girl found in the woods by Asuna and Kirito during their honeymoon. Exploring the woods after hearing rumors of a 'ghost girl' seen lurking therein, they come upon a lost waif, whom they take in and assume a parental role over. This girl looks to be about 8, yet has regressed in speech to a toddler level (they know she can't be that young because NerveGear has strict controls that prohibit anyone under 13 from logging in, which totally explains how Silica was able to do it at 12). This girl is obviously not a 'ghost', or an NPC. However, she doesn't have stats either - so they can't peg if she's a player or not. So, they decide to head to the Town of Beginnings to see if they can locate her guardian.

There are no answers to be found in the Town of Beginnings, but there is a dilemma - the once respectable Army Guild has devolved into something akin to an extortionist mafia. After befriending a young woman running an impromptu 'orphanage' (again, how young are these kids if they aren't supposed to be under 13?), our intrepid couple sets to right things again.

For the bulk of the story, Yui takes a backseat - mumbling the occasional baby-talk. It isn't until the very end - where the situation allows for convenient exposition - that we get to find out what is going on. At that point, the book really tries to shoehorn in an emotional climax. It's a bit forced, to say the least.

This isn't the worst story in the book, but it isn't great. It's fun enough to see the young newlyweds playing at parenthood, and the new characters are decent. That's really all I can say here.

Red-Nosed Reindeer (41pgs): Reki Kawahara truly saves his best for last here. Readers of the first book will remember that perennial lone wolf Kirito did spend some time with one guild, the Moonlit Black Cats. His subsequent lies to them, in withholding the extent of his power, and their resultant death, hang heavily around his neck like an albatross. However, the heaviest cross he bears is in regards to Sachi, a timid young girl who was a member of the MBC. Poor Sachi, whom he promised would not die - whom he promised he would keep alive. Yeah, the anime goes right into this story on episode 3....


So, yes, Red-Nosed Reindeer tells the story of that doomed guild. It is told in partial flashback format, with the current events centering on Kirito preparing for a special boss quest. The rumor mills have it that when the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve, a boss named Nicholas the Renegade will make an appearance, with a bag full of goodies for anyone that can beat him. Best yet, the rumors have it that there might be a resurrection item involved - allowing Kirito to save Sachi, or die the ignoble death he believes he deserves in the process.

Okay, the melodrama is ramped up over 9000 in this story. But, it's all ok, because this is by far the best story in the book. I pondered on that for a bit, and then it hit me - this is the only story told in first-person POV, from Kirito's viewpoint (Warmth of the Heart is the only other first-person POV, but for Lisbeth). Kirito is by and far the heart and soul of this series, and Kawahara is writing on a higher level when he gets inside his head. This story, by far, carries the most gravitas; anger, despondency, and sorrow.

Supporting characterization isn't very strong here; we have an overly emotional appearance by Kirito's friend Klein. Sachi, in the book and in the anime as well, is a pure avatar of the shy, quiet girl that the hero is compelled to want to "care for". Somewhere, in every man's fragile ego, is the need for validation via a proxy such as this. She was made for this role. The rest of the MBC is barely realized. We don't even get their names, save for Keita (the leader) and Tetsuo (the mace-user). Just reading the book, you might not have any idea what they even look like.

Which is why we have the internet.

But, in the end, this is Kirito's story to tell, and it is told very well. Actually, in a way, it is Sachi's story to tell as well, which leads us to the name of the story, and...

...and we'll just leave it at that.

Cover:

Like I said about the last volume, if you like the character design, you'll dig it. Asuna looks better on the cover than Silica, but it is still vibrant and well put together.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Long Time, No See!

How's everybody doing? It seems like only yesterday I was declaring that I wasn't going to let the blog start to languish again, I was going to commit myself to writing, etc., etc., etc....

Well, I did tell the truth; but I didn't do what I said I would. Make sense?

I had a strong January on the blog, and I was really happy with that. I was making up for lost time with The Beast Arises books, and dipping into some classic paperbacks.

Then school happened again. I'll be honest, I haven't been ready for the sheer volume of writing I've had to do this semester. So yes, I told the truth; I've been writing. Heck, I've been writing my ass off, but just not about books, which is something I love to do.

And, just like that, what little free time I had for blogging *poof* disappears.

Meaning, I get to read a lot more of:


And a lot less of:


.....and there was no rejoicing.

Well, enough complaining. I actually have some stuff to post, and then an announcement at the end.

First is a post/rant from MightyThorJRS, who is a damn fine reviewer (if you haven't read his stuff already), and a really cool dude. He touches on some of the - how should I call it? Blog fatigue? Reviewing fatigue? - we all feel from time to time. Trying to hurry to keep in line with the newest releases. Having the self-imposed pressure of what to write in a review interfere with your actually reading enjoyment. I know, no one asked us to do this. Just one of those weird kind of things. Anyway, check it out over here.

Secondly, I'm sure you are all familiar with The Combat Phase podcast, right? Well, in episode 188, recently released, Kenny over at TCR does what I've been dreaming about doing for the past few years - actually having a broadcast interview with Peter Fehervari! Seriously, you need to set aside an hour and forty minutes of your time to listen if you are as big a PF fan as I am. Because, finally, you get to hear him open up on these deep, psychological, wonderful, and terrifying stories he's been crafting over the past few years. So, seriously, give it a listen.

Listen to it here.

And, I must add, at the end, Peter Fehervari gives a quick shout out to the blog here; and, I know I'm a pretty emotional guy by nature, but it really did mean the world to me. More than a few times, I've really been on the verge of closing this blog down, and it's been him a few times that encouraged me to keep at it. Sometimes you need someone like that at certain times.

Alright, enough with the treacly waterworks. But honestly, I did cry a bit at that; see, I told you I'm an emotional mess.

On to the announcement.....well, see how I just talked about not quitting this blog? Well, actually, I am kind of quitting this blog.

I am joining up with my friend Rob, one of the admins over at the Warhammer: Artwork, Books, and Models Facebook group, to make a new review blog called:

Voxcasts From The Void

Please bookmark that and stop by. All of the Warhammer stuff I review going forward will be over there; hopefully, combined with his output, I can get a steadier flow of reviews up.

For the time being, any and all other titles I review I will put up here. I don't yet know how that will change over time. I'm honestly not ready to let go of this blog; there are too many good memories tied up in it.

So please, check out the new blog. The first post is up already - a review of The Last Son of Dorn (The Beast Arises #10).

Alright, hope to see you all here, there, or somewhere. Thanks as always for coming by.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Thing

The Thing by Alan Dean Foster. Originally published by Bantam Books, June 1982. Approx. 250 pages.


What is it that captivates us about movie novelizations? Is it the potential of "finding out what happens" before all the other rubes waiting for the release of a movie? Is it the promise of some additional character background detail; expository nuggets that perhaps were not truly fleshed out in the film? Growing up in the late 70's and early 80's, before Wikipedia and Director's Cuts, these were legitimate draws. Heck, a movie novelization was often the only way to "re-watch" a movie if your family didn't have a VCR yet.

It's fairly safe to say that the heyday of the movie novelization has passed. They still exist, but their cultural significance is somewhat diminished. Video game novelizations, on the other hand, seem to be enjoying a robust market/audience.

The myriad novelizations of my youth run the gamut in quality. There are gems, and there are ones that pretty much put the draft of the script into paragraph form.

One thing is for sure, however. No discussion of movie novelizations will go long without mention of Alan Dean Foster; the man regarded as the best and most prolific in the genre.

I have no idea how much information is given to an author in advance; how many specifics or details on characters, places, etc. I will say this, though: ADF always turns in consistently detailed, vibrant settings in his works.

With the movie novelization diatribe done (I think I am going to try and revisit some classic ones this year), let's look at ADF's novelization of The Thing.

Well, before I get started, I need to clarify...does anyone need a plot synopsis for this? I mean, is there anyone left who hasn't seen this science-fiction classic? If not, go do so now, then come back and we'll discuss how this novel stands as both an independent work and as a companion piece.


Plot similarities and differences:
The core structure of both the movie and the novel are the same for the most part (bearing in mind that this is the novelization of a movie that is a remake of a movie that was a novella adaptation). If I remember correctly, the novelization is drawn from the second draft of the movie script; so while there are structural similarities, the spiritual essence is different (seeing the evolution of script drafts to final film gives you a good perspective of just how talented a filmmaker Carpenter is).

Some scenes from the film are not present in the book: I am assuming that they spawned from the collaborative process between Carpenter and Bottin.

Also, there are scenes present in the book which did not make it to the final film: most notably the "dog chase" scene (no, not the opening scene with the helicopter pursuing the "dog-thing"), and the suicide of one of the team members (giving the novel a distinctly 80's "splatter scene"). The dog chase scene is a good one, to be sure, however it has the distinct feel of a traditional Hollywood action scene. I can see where this might have been omitted for either being too costly a scene, not necessary to the overall plot, or both.

Other than that, the ending is fairly different. The location of the finale takes place in a different part of the compound, and the final moments themselves, well, I think they end on a most "positive" (not necessarily upbeat) note. It is slightly open-ended, but with a kind of salvation in sight; unlike the nihilistic, bleakly ambiguous ending of the movie.

Characters:
So, what information does a movie novelist usually get beforehand? I've seen some movie scripts, and I remember they might have a short paragraph description of each character as they are introduced. Is that all the novelists get? Do they get additional notes?

Well, to be honest, it's kind of difficult to reconcile the characters in the book to those in the movie. I mean, they weren't cast yet, so that's that. And it is a testimonial to what was some of the best ensemble acting that we've seen in cinematic history.

The problem is that these characters are hard to identify overall. And, again, I'm guessing that ADF didn't have a surplus of detail heading into this task.

I was going to gripe a bit about how lead character R.J. MacReady gets the thinnest characterization of all. He's fairly withdrawn, as in the movie. The best scenes in the book show hints at some mental trauma carried over from a stint in Vietnam. I was going to say how a little exposition would have enriched the depiction, but then I remembered - in the 80's, we all knew someone who had been messed up by the events in 'Nam. Usually, it was enough of an explanation just to say that someone had "seen some shit over there", and that was sufficient. Taking that into consideration, it remedies any complaints about the characterization.

My remaining complaint is that Childs is not the formidable figure that he is in the movie. Well, a lot of that has to do with the irrefutable coolness of Keith David, but a major part of the climax of the story is the "chess match" between MacReady and Childs. If they can't be seen as equals, it's all for naught.

Other than that, there are slight differences, but you can attach the faces from the movie, and it'll help a bit. Palmer is presented in the book as a more youthful grease monkey than the burned out stoner in the film, and the Clark we get makes you really appreciate all that Richard Masur put into his role.

Interestingly, the character of Windows is called "Sanders" here. This is funny, because it was originally supposed to be "Sanchez", and the character still speaks Spanish at points in the book.

Setting:
The one aspect where the book trumps the movie. Rule One in ADF's novelization playbook: make the setting come alive. Go back and read any of his novelizations. They usually start with an in-depth description of the scenery. Bringing the area to life will help draw the reader in.

I wonder how much research, how many phone calls and interviews back in the pre-internet age he had to undergo to compile what comes off as a very accurate description of living and working at an Antarctic outpost. The tools and machinery, the day to day protocols involving everything; even seemingly mundane but actually critical details like dressing properly to step outside.

Remember, in the movie, the team members are stepping outside in shirts, hatless, etc. I get it; we need to see the actors to recognize them. However, they are dressing lighter than we do for Upstate New York winters, and it doesn't add up.

In the book, the full ramifications of the environment are recognized - the unforgiving, killing cold, the months of impending darkness as winter sets in, the feeling of total and utter isolation as no help can be reached. The movie plays well on the distrust of the team members; the book utilizes the isolation and claustrophobia to a better extent.

The creature:
Well, there's no way the book was winning this one. The effects that Rob Bottin brought to the table in the film version are incomparable. He is a genius in his field, and The Thing is his magnum opus (with his effects for Legend coming in second). Again, what tools ADF had to work with, we'll never know. He does indeed create a quite formidable creature for the book; playing off the terrifying screeches and bizarre transformation effects. Also, ADF demonstrates the formidable physical power of the Thing, further making the dog chase scene a helpful addition to the book.

As a comparison to the movie monster effects, it's a no-brainer. But, if you evaluate this as a creature that features in a book randomly picked off of a shelf, it's not too shabby.

Final thoughts:

I always knew this was going to be a tough one to give an unbiased review for. When you consider the movie, there are so many elements that elevate it to the masterpiece level - and you really can't rank them. You are nowhere without Carpenter's direction, Bottin's vision, the ensemble acting, Morricone's score (again with Carpenter), and Lancaster's script. That Foster could churn out a novelization of this caliber from what we assume are a script draft, some notes, and maybe some sketches is pretty amazing.

The Thing: the movie novelization works as a companion piece to the movie. Not exactly "separate but equal"; it is both similar and different in equal amounts. It excels as a novelization. It works as a standalone sci-fi/horror title, albeit one with fairly thin characterizations. It even surpasses Peter Watts' annoyingly pretentious short story "The Things".

If you are a huge fan of the movie, or a movie novelization fetishist, this title is a must have. Be aware, the costs in the secondary market run fairly high.

Final Score:

8/10

Cover Score:

Plenty of covers abound for the novelization. This one is what it is. It's creepy, it's desolate, it works.

Cover Final Score:

5/10


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Watchers In Death

Watchers in Death by David Annandale. Book Nine in The Black Library's "The Beast Arises" series. Originally published August, 2016. Approx. 191 pages.

The Beast Must Die ended with a brutal loss at Ullanor for the Imperium, as well as the loss of the Primarch Vulkan, who gave his life going toe to toe with a monstrous being most assumed to be the Beast himself. However, upon returning to Terra, Koorland is dismayed to still here the perennial chant of  "I Am Slaughter" being broadcast from the ork attack moon hovering over Terra.

A new approach is most definitely in order. Which brings us to Watchers in Death.

After conferring with Grand Master Vangorich, Koorland realizes that instead of massive frontal assaults against the orks, the Astartes should custom make 5 marine mixed-Chapter "kill teams" to conduct surgical strikes and precision kills. Never mind the fact that at the climax of The Beast Must Die, a kill-team of various Chapter Masters failed in their task of taking out the Beast, but I digress.

Koorland proposes the notion to the Council of High Lords, knowing full well that a) they will balk at the notion and oppose it vehemently, and b) he's going to do it anyway. As to why the High Lords are perfectly fine with planetary assault forces composed of mixed Chapters at full strength, but fear the notion of 5 member teams (I'm assuming they are worried that they might be utilized for purposes of assassination, at which point I'd remind them about Vangorich glaring over their shoulders).

So, there's a lot on the line going into this installment. There's the sense of urgency, and the palpable tension between Koorland and the High Lords. Ergo, this should be a slam dunk for Annandale, whose prior two installments were fairly strong.

The problem is, the finished product is anything but a slam dunk. While not bad in the least, Watchers in Death is, in areas, flat and mundane. It just shouldn't be this was. Let's have a look-see...

Characters:
Much better here than in some previous installments. Koorland is still showing maturation and increased capability as a leader, but we aren't seeing enough of the rage, sorrow, and loss that must be huge drivers for him.

We get to see more of the High Lords in all of their conniving action again. I would implore writers of this series (well, the series is already over, but you know what I mean) to not lose focus of the importance of these characters, as their appearances have been a bit lean lately. Especially of interest in Ecclesiarch Mesring's further mental declination into madness in the light of his impending death.

Also enjoyed was the continued duel of one-upmanship between Inquisitorial representatives Wienand and Veritus. This is enhanced by one of the story's subplots - a covert mission to determine whether or not the secretive Sisters of Silence (they of the infamous Sister of Silence audiobook) still exist.

However, not all of the characters fare this well. Also, I need to mention; for all the positives that I mentioned, there still, in my opinion, needed to be a bit more. We should've seen more of the fallout of Koorland's Deathwatch mandate across the entire swathe of High Lords; how it affected each of their positions, spheres of power, and machinations. And, I really don't think that is asking too much, either - Watchers in Death is definitely one of the leaner tomes in the series. An extra five pages for character development would have worked absolute wonders.

Also, the members of the first Deathwatch units are, to be frank, a tad dull. First of all, there is a frustrating lack of diversity in the initial groups. They are populated primarily with Space Wolves, Dark Angels, Ultramarines, and Blood Angels. This same assortment is applied to all three of the original teams. There is nothing spectacular about these characters, either, and I had a hard time with both keeping up and caring to. I could tell you that the Space Wolf would be the growly one, and the Dark Angel would have "ie" in their name somewhere. There was a librarian in each team. That's about it. For the initial group that would set the standard for how this method would turn the tide in the battle against the Beast, it's a pretty boring batch.

One last note: it's nice to see an appearance by Annandale's best character from his entries, Galatea Haas, even if her job here is little more than a cameo.

Plot:
Not much to say here. Koorland proposes the idea, the High Lords balk. The teams assemble; there is a cringe-worthy moment that explains why they choose to wear black. Then, they go on a few missions to show how effective this dynamic is. Plus, Wienand, Veritus, and Thane go on their SoS wild goose chase. It tells the story, to be sure, but that's it.

Action:
One of my traditional sticking points with Annandale. I believe him to be a meaningful writer; therefore, he only really writes well when there is something of import. When he was describing the Proletarian Crusade, there was a faith based charge on the line. The participants were getting swept up in the the ideology of their ultimately damned maneuver. And Annandale was able to invest the reader fully in that.

With standard action sequences, that engagement is not present. It ultimately devolves into familiar territory: boltguns crack, bones crunch, combatants die in scores, swathes, and droves. There are literal mountains of the dead.

Also, we want the Deathwatch teams to succeed, but the processes of their tasks become methodical.

What Annandale excels at is the aftermath(s). Whenever a Deathwatch team takes out an ork target, the fallout is usually quite amazing (won't go into too much detail because of spoilers).

All in all, Watchers in Death is a good entry. Should have been great, but it is definitely a step above average. I would like to commend Annandale for three strong entries in this series.

Final Score:

7/10

Cover Score:

Ah yes, the extremely photogenic, if a bit Robert Pattinson-y, Deathwatch kill team member. This is a great picture. I only have a few things to mention here: first of all, there's no real rhyme or reason to that hairline. Second of all, the picture of the Marine himself is so well done (look at the original):


....that it's a real shame that the final cover had to cut the heavy bolter off midway through. I understand it's a formatting issue and all, but it throws off the overall effect. Still a great picture.

One last minor quibble: the mark of the Inquisition is in plain view on the pauldron; and, at this point, the Deathwatch are not yet under the Inquisition's purview. Nothing really damning about that; the picture still stands as a fantastic piece of art.

Cover Final Score:

9/10

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Beast Must Die

The Beast Must Die by Gav Thorpe. Book Eight in The Black Library's "The Beast Arises" series. Originally published July 2016. Approx. 163 pages.


It took me nearly half a year to finish this book, and now it has taken me almost a full month to compose the review. Roughly three drafts later, I'm going to try and condense this to a few paragraphs and let you know the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I have to admit, I am feeling some real exasperation with this series as a whole. Were it not for the fact that the books were already sitting on my shelf, paid for and waiting to be opened, I might have given up already.

So, taking that into consideration, I want to put out here a reminder of some of the issues which I already have with the series as a whole. This way, if I teeter to complaining about them, it won't seem as solely an indictment of Mr. Thorpe.

Issues plaguing the series as a whole:

Wants to convey a aura of political intrigue, and manipulation. Final result is more in tune with bumbling and incompetence. Shady or not, the High Lords still preside over the day to day operations of an Empire that spans thousands of planets. They are not, you know, stupid.

Neither are Space Marines. These are genetically enhanced super soldiers, molding in the image of the original master of said Imperium. Again, super soldiers. In normal times, each individual Chapter may be tasked with the protection of an entire sector. They are not incompetent on strategic, tactical, or logistic levels. Please do not present them as such.

Another thing I want to mention before an in-depth analysis of the book is that this book is a bit light on plot. For his second entry series, like his first, Thorpe has opted to give us a book which is one huge battle set-piece. In The Emperor Expects, it was an epic naval battle. In The Beast Must Die, it is the assault on Ullanor. I have no problem with this ambitious move, but it also bears mentioning that the ancillary story lines see no advancement via this installment.

Also, we all know that tastes vary from reader to reader. With this in mind, I try to minimize criticisms based on style. For example, I've seen many cite Thorpe's flowery descriptions as a reason for not liking his work; however, I personally believe that that is when his work is at its most engaging. With that in mind, any complaints that I lodge will be when something just doesn't make sense.

Now, on to the review:

The Good:
No doubt about it, Gav Thorpe is a master architect of worlds. He has been instrumental in making the 40K universe what it is today; and that is predicated upon the sheer scope of his imagination. He brings the imaginative worlds of this shared universe to true life with his prose.

Also rendered with vivid detail are the diverse assets of all the factions in play here: the Adeptus Astartes, the Imperial Guard, the Adeptus Mechanicus, and, the chaotically jury-rigged machinery of the orks themselves.

I also give high marks (for the most part) for Thorpe's action sequences. When your choice is to make over 90% of your book one continuous action scene, the fact that you are maintaining a roughly 80% efficiency rating at it is still fairly impressive. Again, as mentioned before, it goes to my personal taste. I like when Thorpe uses vividly descriptive and comparative terms to bring his scenes to life and imbue them with a true sense of scale. I personally do not like Warhammer fiction that reads like "And then the Fist Exemplar, wearing Mark III armor, fired an incendiary round from his something-pattern bolter, hitting the 30 meter tall gargant." But, I'm sure some people do.

What doesn't work so well for the action scenes is that we don't have enough "eyes on the ground"; in my opinion, it would've worked to have a few more characters, giving us a few more viewpoints, and really invested us in what was at stake here. However, speaking of characters....

The Bad:
Yeah, characters and dialogue just aren't Gav's strong suit. His characters all kind of go along with the emotional current of the narrative, rather than being the forces driving it. There is nothing added to these characters in this book. (although I must say, there are epigraphs for some chapters which take snippets of Vulkan's inner monologue, and they are fantastically done)

In fact, there are some scenes which are just kind of painful. Which leads us to....

The Ugly:
Be forewarned -  there may be minor spoilers and major griping ahead.

A note before the rant begins: one thing I did not mention in the review for The Hunt For Vulkan (in order to minimize spoilers) is that Vulkan is indeed found. It is a moment of excellence for Annandale, because he truly conveys the sheer awe that even a super human like an Astartes would feel when a true living legend appears before them. It was truly an awe-inspiring moment.

Fast forward to preparations for the assault on Ullanor, and we have Koorland stomping his foot like a petulant child and shouting "I am Slaughter!" over and over at Vulkan. That was the moment that led me to put the book down for a few months.

Then, we have the issues with strategy, as I mentioned before. This massive assault force reaches Ullanor, and SPOILER!!!! the orks are utilizing pretty much the same technique that they employed to dismantle the Proletarian Crusade in seconds (just lay low for a while). And the Imperium forces fall completely for it. I am assuming the preparations and transit to Ullanor took a few months; and, in that time, the combined strategic minds of the Space Marines, Imperial Guard, and Adeptus Mechanicus could not come up with a solid attack plan as well as a half-dozen contingency plans? Really? In all honesty, it takes quite a bit to rustle my jimmies, but that left me quite rustled.

In closing:
I don't want to get too caught up in the complaints. I want to reinforce that for all of its flaws, there is a lot of good in The Beast Must Die. Read it for the grand action sequences, including a rousing climactic battle.

Final Score:

7/10

Cover Score:

As always, a fantastic cover. Why they chose the Adeptus Mechanicus for this installment, I have no idea. They figure in the book, they are written very well in the book, and I truly wish that they had featured more in the book.

Cover Final Score:

8/10