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December 3, 2013 / minusbar

Katniss returns! (Movie Rant – Catching Fire, and Battle Royale)

Movie Rant – Hunger Games: Catching Fire

(FIRST MOVIE SPOILERS)

Okay, so the first film in this series based on the YA novels by Suzanne Collins was good, but left me with a bad taste in the mouth due to the borderline plot rip-off from Battle Royale, a novel by Japanese writer, Koushun Takami; it was later adapted to film in 2000 (Japanese language). Now I am assuming you are aware of the plot of the first film in THG (The Hunger Games) if you’re reading this; if you’re not, well you can stop reading now. Buckle your seatbelts and prepare for ranting, raving and maybe a bit of reviewing!

Okay, so Battle Royale is a story where children are picked from school districts in Japan and imprisoned in a man made dome-like wilderness. Only one student can survive, and they are forced to kill each other to win. Sound familiar? Why yes, yes it does. Despite the unoriginal content of THG, it was still an entertaining movie due to entertaining action sequences and the breakout star, Jennifer Lawrence. So it achieves an award for being a good popcorn flick, but the second film, luckily, has a considerably more ambitious goal.

Catching Fire is a good movie, with a great cliff hanger, possibly even too good, as it leaves you feeling  the story segment is a bit incomplete. Now try not to judge me too harshly for not knowing the story going in, but the books just didn’t interest me. I read what I personally enjoy, and that does not often include YA books. But the impressive thing is the vast increase in the stories scope. With so many plot opportunities opened up with this installment in the series, I am rather intrigued to see what will be done to tidy everything up with a pretty bow and leave moviegoers with the warm and fuzzies.

The other drastic change from THG to Catching fire is the significant increase in scope, both politically and in cast. We always knew there was a darkness in the capital, but now we’re really getting to see the politicians of the infrastructure up close and personally. On the other hand, some of the pompous rich people start to seem a bit more human as well. Could that be a tiny conscience sneaking up on the heartless buggers? I think “yes.”

The first film was a solid 6.5/10 for me. While Catching Fire was not quite amazing, the increase in plot originality and character base has me excited to see the conclusion. The film struggles with pacing at times, and the newer character members don’t quite get the backstory and screen time I would have liked to flesh them out, but it’s heading in the right direction and I can confidently say the film improves an entire point, to rest at the respectable rating of 7.5. There’s something to be said for ending strong, and this certainly did that.

Thanks,

Roger Bellini

December 2, 2013 / minusbar

The Loki show has arrived! (A belated review of “Thor: The Dark World”)

Movie Review: Thor: The Dark World

As many of you are probably aware, Thor: The Dark World, directed by Alan Taylor, premiered semi-recently. There was (and still is, for those who haven’t seen it) a huge amount of hype about the movie. As an avid fan of the Marvel movies, I was very excited to go see it–I was not disappointed.

First of all, I was extremely pleased with the character development. I was so glad that Taylor decided to give the characters more dimensions. This was especially evident with Thor and Loki. Thor, for one, was not simply an attractive lump of muscle. He had feelings. He showed his feelings. He did not explode (that hardly counts as a spoiler). Loki’s development was similar; we see a little bit of the deranged reasoning that makes him tick. The dynamic between the two, however, was priceless. Thor is no longer the naive, trusting fellow he once was, and Loki is forced to realize this. Their subsequent actions reflect this change. While a was a bit let down about Jane Foster, it wasn’t the end of the world. She simply was someone to rescue (albeit a sassy someone).

The scenery was breathtaking and the action was not overdone. If you have problems with objects moving too quickly though, be warned; there are several fast-paced scenes that were somewhat hard to follow. On the opposite end of the spectrum there were also parts that I wanted them to get on with it. Taylor managed to strike a happy medium most of the time though.

The plot (I shall reveal nothing important) was good. It was a continuation of both the first Thor film and the Avengers. Though if you prefer all of your loose ends wrapped up neatly at the end of a movie it would be misleading to say that this was perfect. Of course, we will just have to look forward to the next Thor movie!

I was very satisfied with Thor: The Dark World in the end. If you go see it I hope you are as well.

Thanks,

Molly Chenault

November 1, 2013 / minusbar

Book Review: Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A tale of Atomic Love, by Mercedes M. Yardley

Book Review: “Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love” by Mercedes M. Yardley

Her mama always said she was special.

His daddy called him a demon.

But even monsters can fall in love.

Montessa Tovar is walking home alone when she is abducted by Lu, a serial killer with unusual talents and a grudge against the world. But in time, the victim becomes the executioner as ‘Apocalyptic’ Montessa and her doomed lover, ‘Nuclear’ Lulu, crisscross the country in a bloody firestorm of revenge.

I’m going to start with this statement: Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A tale of Atomic Love is a very short book that packed an enormous punch. I have never been so sucked into a story in only 98 pages–and I am very serious about this. Wherever Mercedes Yardley is, she should get a high five.

Now let me explain.

My first qualm was about the length. 98 pages (at least on my device)? That’s it? That’s barely filler for many sci-fi/fantasy/horror books. I was concerned that the plot would suffer, not to mention the development of the characters. However, although I did read the book in one setting (I couldn’t stop), I shouldn’t have worried. The plot unfolded quickly, but it wasn’t forced. It flowed naturally until the very end. I was actually impressed with how thorough the storyline was–it was better than some books I’ve read that weigh in at over one thousand pages.

The characters also came to life for me as I read. While there were a couple of supernatural elements involved, the two protagonists (Montessa and Lu) are very real people that I could relate to. Well, not the serial killer part, but their humanness. I was impressed  with Yardley’s subtle addition of clues to each of their pasts that gave a sense of why they are the way they are. I quickly became very attached to both of them, and may have shed tears at certain points throughout the novel.

The last point I’m going to touch on is the actual writing. I think that this novel was one of the most enthralling and fascinating, and it was the engaging writing style that made it so. I enjoyed the descriptions (they were all very fiery and destructive, but in a beautiful kind of way), and of course the dialogue. While I would like to warn potential readers that the novel is very violent and bloody in parts, that only made it even more interesting for me. After all, it’s not every day that you identify with two serial killers.

I would highly recommend this book, and right now it’s on sale for $2.99 here!

Thanks,

Molly

October 30, 2013 / minusbar

Book Review: The House of Hades, by Rick Riordan

Book Review: “The House of Hades” by Rick Riordan

At the conclusion of The Mark of Athena, Annabeth and Percy tumble into a pit leading straight to the Underworld. The other five demigods have to put aside their grief and follow Percy’s instructions to find the mortal side of the Doors of Death. If they can fight their way through the Gaea’s forces, and Percy and Annabeth can survive the House of Hades, then the Seven will be able to seal the Doors both sides and prevent the giants from raising Gaea. But, Leo wonders, if the Doors are sealed, how will Percy and Annabeth be able to escape? They have no choice. If the demigods don’t succeed, Gaea’s armies will never die. They have no time. In about a month, the Romans will march on Camp Half-Blood. The stakes are higher than ever in this adventure that dives into the depths of Tartarus.

 

As you’ve probably guessed from the description, this is not the first book in this series. It is, in fact, the fourth book in Rick Riordan’s “The Heroes of Olympus” series. If you are familiar with his first series, “Percy Jackson and the Olympians”, it comes after that chronologically. As an avid fan of anything to do with Greek or Roman mythology, I have been reading this new series of Riordan’s almost since it came out. This is probably the most anticipated book (so far), since the last one ended in a massive cliffhanger (understatement of the century). Since the events of the last book influence the plot of The House of Hades, I advise reader discretion beyond this point, as there will be potential spoilers.

Have you ever heard the phrase “everything you hoped and dreamed of”? In my experience it’s usually used sarcastically. In the case of The House of Hades, however, Riordan lived up to his reputation as a wonderful storyteller. I couldn’t have asked for a better continuation to the story.

I think the thing I most appreciated while I was reading was the pacing. The book starts off with a bang and does not let up until the very end. There is some sort of unexpected twist or element in almost every chapter, and the action sequences leave little to be desired. Not only does this draw the

into the story, but it also packs an insane amount of information into only 587 pages. In my opinion this only makes the book better–you can read it multiple times and perhaps discover something you didn’t notice every time. That doesn’t mean that the plot, once it’s been laid out, is extremely complicated. It’s actually quite easy to follow, provided you’ve read the other books and are up-to-date with previous events (some going back to the first series).

The story is told from multiple points of view, all narrative from one of the main characters. As is standard procedure for Riordan, each chapter is told from one character’s point of view. Once again, it is easy to follow. It actually enhances the story even more, since not all characters are together all of the time.

Finally, the actual plot was decidedly satisfactory. Even though I was furious (once again, an understatement) after realizing that I had to wait almost a whole year to find out what happened after the cliffhanger in The Mark of Athena, I was not disappointed. In fact, it was even better than I could have imagined.

Although Rick Riordan’s work is intended for pre-teen to teen audiences, I have no trouble recommending it to people older than that. If you enjoy an action-packed story with mythological elements and plenty of humor, I think that you will definitely enjoy his books. The best part? He’s only gotten better over time. The House of Hades is one of my favorite books that he’s written–and I’ve only read it once so far.

If you’d like to check it out, you can find it here!

Thanks,

Molly

October 28, 2013 / minusbar

Book Review: The Emperor’s Blades, by Brian Staveley

Book Review: “The Emperor’s Blades” by Brian Staveley

Under the recommendation of Peter Ahlstron, assistant to Brandon Sanderson, I took an interest in The Emperor’s Blades. I figured a guy like him who makes a living working and reading for Brandon Sanderson probably had pretty good taste in epic fantasy. That hunch definitely paid off. Brian Staveley’s debut novel was a wonderful debut to what will no doubt be an epic fantasy trilogy. This is the first in his “Chronicles of the Unhewen Throne” series.

Like Sanderson, Staveley’s novel leans heavily on well fleshed out world building and visceral descriptions that pull you into the story he’s created. The backdrop is mesh pot of elements of Asian and Middle-European cultures, intertwined wonderfully to create something that is both familiar and uniquely different all at once. All of the fantastical elements of folktales are brought together with the more realistic intrigue and deceit of politics and religion. I’m not particularly a fan of too many political twists and turns in my fantasy, but it’s hard not to enjoy it in examples like this when it is done so very right.

Despite all of the wonderful elements of the world building, the true strength of The Emperor’s Blades is in the characterization. The three children of the previous emperor are the leads, Kaden, Valyn and Adare, . Kaden is the successor to the Annurian throne, and a monk striving to learn a meditative state called the Vaniate in a remote monastery, Valyn is in training to become an elite warrior known as a Kettral, and Adare is in the capital having to deal with the immediate aftermath of the death of their father. While they all share the spotlight, the heart of this story really seems to rest with Kaden and Valyn, and their bond as brothers. I enjoyed seeing how the two brothers lives take them on such distinctly different paths, both experiencing growth in their own way. Because of this and the Asian feel to the world, I kept being reminded of a quote from Miyamoto Musashi: There is more than one path to the top of the mountain.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about a bit about the magic that Staveley has crafted. The world is filled with creatures, monsters gods, and men with the ability to manipulate the world around them known as leaches. Despite the mystical and monstrous things within, the story handled magic in a very grounded way. All power seemed to come with a weakness, and no one element trumped all. It’s nice to see so many unique creatures and elements all forced to fight on leveled ground. Ultimately, this approach to the world made for nail-biting suspense while reading because everyone in his world can bleed, and ultimately die.

This book had wonderful pacing. The fast tempo of the scenes with Valyn are balanced well with the more thought provoking chapters focusing on Adare and Kaden. While the beginnings are not always action packed, it’s abundantly clear that a story is being told, so these developmental chapters read very smoothly while leading you into a very fulfilling ending. This one comes with a high recommendation from me.

 

October 26, 2013 / minusbar

Author Interview: Brian Staveley (The Emperor’s Blades)

Author Interview: Brian Staveley (The Emperor’s Blades)

Today’s interview is with Brian Staveley! His debut novel, The Emperor’s Blades (book one of the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne), is scheduled to come out in March of 2014. I have the privilege of reading an advance copy and working with Brian on an anthology I created called Neverland’s Library. If the interview catches your interest, pick up his book and give Neverland a try as it has a story set in his Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne series.

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I live on a long dirt road in rural Vermont, where I divide my time between writing, baby-wrangling, running trails, trying to play the banjo, and various home repairs that multiply at a truly astounding rate. My debut novel comes out in March of 2014.
Get to know him at: http://bstaveley.wordpress.com/
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Bold writing – Me       Regular text – Brian

First, thanks for taking the time to chat with me!

My pleasure.

My first question is one that I ask in almost all of my interviews, since the standard bios tend to bore me. Can you tell me a funny true story about yourself?

Sure.  When I was writing the first draft of The Emperor’s Blades, I lived in Laos. There was a large hill in the center of the town where I lived – 274 steps to the top, if I remember correctly – and on top sat a small Buddhist monastery. When I needed a break from writing, I’d go run stair repeats on the hill. The monks at the top thought this was both perplexing and hysterical, and often a small crowd would gather to chant “Faster, faster, faster!” One afternoon, while trying to go faster, I took a fall near the top of the stairs. An older monk approached me to see if I was alright. He was shaking his head. “Not smart,” he told me, pointing at the stairs. “Not smart.”

Haha.. That also explains the large Asian influence on The Emperor’s Blades setting.

Yeah. I spent half that year in Loas, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, and Thailand. I don’t think of Annur as analogous to any particular place in our world, but different aspects of those cultures seeped in…

So The Emperor’s Blades is your first novel, is this also your first published work? If so, I am quite impressed.

First novel, first published work, unless you count a few poems and articles on poetry that have appeared here and there.

So around how long had you been writing this novel?

A tricky question. I spent five years working on what ended up being The Emperor’s Blades.. but that time included the writing of an entirely different novel (with the same characters) that won’t ever see the light of day. I also have about 100K of material that follows an entirely different character in the same world. I would like to return to that at some point, perhaps as a stand-alone novel.

On that topic, can you tell me about something from a previous iteration that did not make the final cut of the book? I always find it interesting to see how a novel evolves and changes before the official release.

The first book I wrote began with Kaden’s departure from the monastery and Valyn’s departure from the Qirin Islands. It didn’t include Adare at all. Instead, there was a young Urghul girl forced to fight in the Killing Pits. The main antagonist was a different character. It was 300K words. And I planned to write seven books. That, needless to say, was not going to fly with any editor or agent in the world.

So what can you tell me about the inspiration behind the magic system you’ve created with leaches?

I want a few things out of my magic. First, the ability to use magic needs to affect the character of the people who use it on a fundamental level. The leaches in my book become so sensitive to and reliant on their wells (source of power) that many of their crucial traits and decisions are influenced by those wells. Even the “good” leaches are twisted by their abilities.

Second, I wanted magic that would offer the possibility for mystery and exciting reveals. The fact that each leach has a different well means that no one, reader or other characters in the novel, starts out with an understanding of who can do what when. This uncertainty opens up heaps of dramatic possibilities, most of which I’ve tried to exploit. There are strict limits on the abilities of leaches. Those limitations are revealed over the course of the books

Third, I wanted magic and magic users to occupy a very precarious place in the world. If you have wizards or warlocks or whatever that are extremely powerful by dint of their arcane abilities who also occupy a top rung of the social ladder, it’s very difficult for anyone to challenge them. I like the idea that magic users suffer from rampant social persecution. The natural place to look here was, of course, the treatment of suspected witches in Europe and America. Like those poor souls, the leaches in my book are hunted down and murdered. Except, of course, by those who think they can be controlled and used secretly for a larger purpose.

So what character was the most enjoyable for you to write, and vice versa?

So tough. My relationship with the various characters is much like my relationship with the real people in my life: sometimes I find them irritating, sometimes I love them, sometimes I’m curious about them, sometimes I want to hang out with them all day long, and sometimes I just don’t want to see them for a while. Each of the three siblings has something that the other two do not –different skills and neuroses, different goals and challenges – and that keeps me going back to all of them. I’m thrilled that Adare gets more air-time in Book II.

Yea, while she’s a main character, this book definitely felt like it was about Kaden and Valyn.

No doubt. Book two doesn’t feel like that at all. Adare is absolutely central, plot-wise, and I’m almost certain she has the most words and chapters devoted to her. I wanted the story to begin mostly on the periphery of the Empire to move toward the center. As it does, Adare’s role and decisions become more and more critical.

Without giving too much away, can you tell me a bit about the bad-ass beasts you created? Especially those birds the Kettral fly on!

The Kettral (the name refers to both the birds and the soldiers who fly them into battle) are a result of my desire to incorporate something like modern special forces into a fantasy novel. Helicopters play a large role in modern warfare, and the Kettral became my helicopters. Like their modern equivalents, they serve as transports (usually five soldiers fly in a Wing) and actual weapons of war – the beaks and claws of a bird with a seventy foot wingspan are nothing to toy with.

Poachers would definitely be wary of that….

And I wanted monsters, so I put in monsters. I don’t want to reveal too much, but it was crucial to me that the nature of the monsters prove relevant to the plot. I didn’t just want big scary things for my characters to fight, but things that would change who my characters are, that would challenge them at their most vulnerable points.

I love Lord of the Rings, for instance, but  many of the monsters in that book seem a little arbitrary: the barrow wights, Durin’s Bane (the Balrog), Shelob. Don’t get me wrong, they’re wonderful, memorable, terrifying creatures, but it seems to me that each could just as easily been something else.

So one of the most fascinating aspects of the story, for me, was the concept of Vaniate, and how it relates to the God-like Csestriim creatures who men are descendant from.

In my pantheon, the young gods are the gods of emotion. Before the coming of the young gods, there are only the gods and the Csestriim, a race of creatures that live lives of perfect reason, unclouded by emotion. With the arrival of the young gods, the offspring of the Csestriim become “tainted,” at least to the Csestriim point of view. These tainted creatures are the first humans. They possess the rationality of their forebears, but all tangled up with the threads of emotion. Some humans, however, those who devote their lives to the study, can achieve the vaniate, a state of emotional emptiness almost identical to that in which the Csestriim lived their natural lives. The Shin monks have devoted themselves to just this pursuit, worshipping the mysterious Blank God, the oldest of the old gods.

For those who have yet to write a book of their own, how does it feel to control all of the political and religious strings in your characters life? Does the power get to your head?

Sometimes I feel like they’re actually pulling my strings. Especially in a multi-volume epic, you start to find you don’t have as much freedom as you might think. Decisions made by the character in chapter two of the first book need to be acknowledged in chapter twenty-two of the third, regardless of what I might prefer to have happen. I’ve been forced to chuck entire scenes that I really liked because they just weren’t consistent with events that are already there in book one. I would advise any would-be writer to consider the initial conditions and characters very, very carefully, because those conditions are going to affect events for the rest of the book/series.

Last question, and a very serious one. The zombie outbreak starts tomorrow. What’s your plan?

Get to an island.

There are a couple of movies in which zombies can cross water, but in most, water proves an absolute barrier.

Find the right size island in the right latitude and you can farm and fish quite readily. It’s defensible against human invaders.

I could go on. I think the medium and long term strategies are pretty clear. The crucial question, in my opinion, is what you would do in the very first hours. For instance, how long do you spend gathering supplies, trying to connect with friends and family, etc. That’s where you’re likely to make major and irrevocable mistakes.

Thanks so much for enduring my interrogation. Hopefully readers will be welcome on your island paradise, should the time come.

As long as they all have useful skills. After all, someone has to take care of the guy who spends all his time glued to a computer making shit up!

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The emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.

Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it’s too late.

An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test.

At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor’s final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing—and risk everything—to see that justice is meted out.

 

October 23, 2013 / minusbar

Book Review: The Blood of Whisperers, by Devin Madson

Book Review: “The Blood of Whisperers” by Devin Madson

The Blood of Whisperers”  by Devin Madson is a fine example of why I love reading books by debut authors. It’s a risky thing to go into a book knowing so little about the title, but I read up on the indie publisher, Cloudburst Books, and was impressed by how professionally they’ve handled this, their debut release. With an amazing cover and an intriguing back-cover synopsis, I went in blind. This often leads to some terrible reading and more grammatical errors than I dare speak of, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover yet another solid debut from an author that I now count myself as a fan of.

This book is the first in the Vengeance Trilogy, which is also the title for a trilogy of Korean films by one of my favorite directors, Park Chan-Wook. While the stories are unrelated and the time-period is significantly different, they shared the same soul; both are about people who have been wronged and pushed to do whatever is necessary to make those responsible for something pay. Regaining former glory and honor comes second to their desire to inflict pain and vengeance.  As the Chinese proverb states, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

The stories protagonist role is shared reasonably equally amongst Endymion, Hana and a man known as the Monarch. Each of these characters motives are distinctly different, but they all share a birth claim to a throne that is currently held by the usurper and former General, Emperor Kin. Eventually all of their paths intertwine due to the hand of Malice, a man, and Empath, whose name more than befits his character.

Endymion is an Empath struggling to find out who he is, and gets tied into a political rebellion through his desire for revenge on Darius, a man who deprives him of this knowledge and casts him out as a traitor. You’re probably wondering what an Empath is now, and so was I. What powers this entail is not made entirely evident for much of the story, and even once the book was completed I felt as though there was still much to learn about them. This mystery was actually quite enjoyable, as readers discover this gift with Endymion. In a nutshell though, Empaths have the ability to read emotions and memories in other people by being in close proximity or touching them. Through these emotions, they can also induce pain.

Hana’s character was one of the most versatile, as she is a woman in a society that views women as secondary to the will of men. Her forward thinking and tough life have hardened her to become a competent and ambitious lady with her own desire to sit the throne and claim her families’ rightful place upon the crimson throne. She possesses a strong moral compass and more than holds her own in a fight, which made her a very likable and easy character to root for.

The Monarch is an interesting character, and one I would love to talk more about than I will. He’s the leader of the rebellion to overthrow Emperor Kin, and a charismatic and brutal warrior who will do any and all things necessary to attain his goal, including allying himself with Malice. He and Malice are definitely the piece movers of the novel, and because of that they are the hardest to talk about without providing spoilers. Suffice to say, this novel only scratches the surface of their character and I look forward to discover more about their path in book two.

Despite all of these interesting characters being bound to collide in a gritty blood bath, I was surprised at the lack of violent confrontation in this novel. Normally this would be something that would bother me, but the use of description and details, along with the political cogs and intrigue of the story, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the story for what it was, a story. This novel rides on the back of great characterization and beautiful world building. In book two I suspect the gauntlet will be thrown down, and I suspect I will be extremely grateful for the attachments that the characters have forged with me as a reader.

This is a wonderfully realistic and gritty world that is exploding with potential. The story is complete and satisfying, yet it’s also evident that we’ve seen but a small piece of a much larger tale. I would best describe her work as a darker version of the international best-selling Tales of the Otori series by Lian Hearn; this is praise that I do not give lightly, as she is a personal favorite of mine.

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