Saturday, September 22, 2018

Star Wars (The New Jedi Order Book 4) Agents of Chaos I : Hero's Trial by James Luceno -- (Book Review)

Star Wars (The New Jedi Order Book 4) Agents of Chaos I : Hero's Trial 
By James Luceno
Published by Del Rey, 2000
Ebook Price: $7.99

Han Solo has pretty much been missing from the New Jedi Order series since the death of Chewbacca in book one. He retreated to Coruscant to drink and mope around the apartment and hasn't done a lot. In book 4, Hero's Trial, he's back front and center. After a brief period of peace on Kashyyyk to attend Chewie's funeral, Han finds himself right back in the middle of things as an old friend named Captain Roa seeks his aid in hunting down one of their former colleagues amed Reck Desh. Why are they looking for Reck? Reck leads a group called the Peace Brigade that is helping the Yuuzhon Vong in their quest to conquer the galaxy. Roa holds Reck responsible for the death of his wife and Han is seeking revenge for the death of Chewbacca, so their interests are aligned. Han wants to take on this mission all quiet like and wants no help from the New Republic or Leia and Luke. He doesn't even want to use the Millenium Falcon on the run because it just reminds him of his missing co-pilot.

The other main plot thread of the novel is that the Yuuzhan Vong have realized that the Jedi are the biggest threat to their plans. The main Vong baddie of the book, a priest named Harrar, has come up with a way to eliminate the Jedi in one fell swoop. He enlists the aid of an assassin priestess named Elan to do the job. Her mission will be to pose as a defector and gain the trust of the New Republic by giving them intel on the Vong's battle strategies. Once she gets a meeting with the Jedi she will activate a lethal bioweapon that will kill them all.

The cool thing about the New Jedi Order series to me is that since there are so many volumes, the writers have so much more opportunity to develop characters than they would in a six hour movie trilogy. You can take your time building up plot and characterization, focus on different characters or plots and you don't have to put all of your bang in one book. For example, by the end of book four of this series, Luke Skywalker has only really had one big fight scene and I think that was two books ago. You can kind of have him hovering in the background and not in the forefront because you have so many volumes yet to come. You feel like he will get his soon enough.

Han so far, except for book one, has been treated similar to Luke. I feel like the first 3 books were about setting up Han and Leia's kids as characters in their own right. This volume was the first to focus on one of the original trilogy characters almost exclusively.

I enjoyed this book even though I felt a bit cheated that Han's trademark blaster pistol saw very little action since his gun's power pack wasn't charged for a majority of the novel. It was also a bit disappointing that he wasn't piloting the Falcon. Those are minor squabbles though. I will definitely be continuing the series and am curious to see what happens in the next book.

My Grade: B

Monday, September 3, 2018

Petronille by Amelie Nothomb

By Amelie Nothomb
Published by Europa Editions, 2015
Print Price: $15.00

The author of this book, Amelie Nothomb, is also the main character and narrator of the novel. While the narrator shares factual data about her life, it's hard to know how much of this book is based on Amelie's real life and how much is imaginary. I didn't like the book enough to research further.

As the book begins, Amelie is already a successful published writer. The main thing she likes to do in her spare time is drink. And not just drink, get DRUNK. Her beverage of choice is champagne. If she gets drunk from it, Amelie is able to enter into a shamanistic realm of ecstasy. The only problem she has is that she has nobody to share her experience with. So she goes on the hunt to find a "comvivium", or drinking buddy.

At a signing for her newest book she meets Petronille Fanto, a young student in her early 20s who looks like a 15 year old boy with her jeans, short hair, and leather jacket. In Petronille she believes she has found the companion she has been searching for. The rest of the novel chronicles their on again off again friendship and drinking over the years as Fanto also becomes a celebrated writer.

Well, there is all kinds of hype all over this book on the inside jacket and front and back covers, most of which is WRONG.

First of all, there is a blurb saying the book is "an ode to friendship" and another stating "...a fascinating novel about the friendship between two women." To me, I never felt that Amelie and Petronille were "friends". There was no warm-hearted back and forth, no bond except of drinking. I saw them more as acquaintances that just crossed into each other's lives here and there. I never got the feeling they were more than that. The way it's blurbed on the back, it makes it sound like this novel is akin to the My Brilliant Friend series by Elena Ferrante, probably intentionally.

With all the hype for Nothomb, I feel like Europa is trying to guilt trip you into thinking this is an important book and that the author is an important writer. Amelie is the author of "...over 23 best selling novels...". She has published a novel a year, every year, since her debut. She's won all kinds of prizes. She's a "literary sensation". And besides that, she's just a cool person with "unconventional thinking" and an interesting "public persona".

Ok, Europa, I am NOT drinking your Kool-Aid. You need to back your nose, indeed your whole head and body out of this author's ass. That's how far you've oversold this writer. This is not an important book. Amelie is not an important author. Danielle Steel writes a lot of books, doesn't mean she's good. I'm supposed to be be somehow impressed that she cranks or hacks out a book a year. I'm supposed to be impressed that she writes bestsellers. Have you seen the American bestseller list and what kind of crap gets on THAT?

And Europa is also trying to sell me the "personality" of Nothomb. Like she's some kind of literary Kim Kardashian. Oooo, everyone in France thinks she's interesting, you will too! She just looks like a middle aged woman that wears stupid hats to me.

As for the story itself, it's pretty flimsy. It goes pretty much like this: "Petronille, do you want to get drunk on champagne?"...."Sure, Amelie!"....drinking commences. If this book is even MILDLY autobiographical, Amelie Nothomb must be the most vapid and shallow person I ever hope NOT to meet. They never talk of anything with any substance. There is no wisdom. No insight into the human character. They just like to get drunk. In my world, if all you do for fun is get drunk, you are an ALCOHOLIC.

Don't get me wrong, there was ONE amusing scene. When the two women go on a skiing trip and just let the champagne bottles chill in the snow. Then they have the bright idea to ski holding a bottle in one hand and a pole in the other. Petronille even decides to take swigs AS she's skiing. If they had cars they probably would have been doing the DWI scene as well and gotten someone killed.

If this book had been longer than 122 pages I don't think I would have made it through the whole thing. She has another novel coming out from Europa next week and I will definitely skip it. I don't buy into her hype, her characters, her writing, or her themes (are there any?). Meg by Steve Alten was a better book than this!

My Grade: F 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Life of Captain Marvel #1 (Comic Review)

The Life of Captain Marvel #1
Written by Margaret Stohl
Art by Carlos Pacheco and Marguerite Sauvage
Published by Marvel, $4.99

Carol Danvers has a lot of anger inside her because of her childhood. Her father was an abusive drinker and her brother seems to have inherited the drinking side of that lineage. She doesn't really have a good rapport with her mom either because she subliminally has no respect for her because she put up with her husband's behavior for so long. Issues from her childhood are starting to effect her work as a superhero. She just lays into supervillains and with her super strength, that's a dangerous situation. In this first issue, Carol decides to go home and face the past and try to make some sense of it, and maybe put the demons to rest.

I've never really been a fan of the modern version of Captain Marvel. I liked the character back in the day when she was known as Ms. Marvel in her own comic and when she was an Avenger back in the late 70s and 80s. But the new version of her character with its lesbianish overtones and Marvel's attempts to turn her into a feminist icon leave me cold. Marvel has been trying to shove her down our throats as hard as DC has been doing with Cyborg. Both companies have been trying for YEARS to elevate these unimportant side characters into full fledged holy trinity status with Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor, Superman, and Wonder Woman. And I've just never drank that Kool-Aid.

The first half of the book was exactly what I had expected, Carol walking around with her boy's haircut and men's clothes. But something miraculous happens towards the latter half...Carol's hair grows out, she starts wearing women's clothes and appears, dare I say it, FEMININE! I guess I could give kudos to Marvel for not being afraid to design Carol as a woman again, but the cynical part of me thinks they're only doing it to match her up with the look of the new Captain Marvel movie coming out early next year. The same thing happened with Aquaman a few months back. Whatever, the reason, the turn away from her old look is refreshing and gives me hope enough to buy the second issue.

I thought it was really cool that Life of Captain Marvel did exactly that, it focused on her LIFE. Emotional issues and scars that happened to her outside of superheroing. It made me care about her character. Made me have more interest than if she was barreling around the galaxy with Alpha Flight. So I loved that aspect of the book.

Tony Stark as Iron Man in this book was again an attempt to connect the book to the Iron Man as seen in the movies. He LOOKS like the Marvel comic book version but acts and talks exactly like Robert Downey Jr. To me, the movie version of him is quite jarring in the comics. There's even one panel where he lifts his arm and exposes his midriff like he's a millennial. His body is 22, but his head is like 38. It's quite comical how writers now need to try to make all the characters seem like hipsters.

I will definitely be buying the next issue of this book.

My Grade: A-

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Meg by Steve Alten (Book Review)

Meg (Revised and Expanded Edition)
By Steve Alten
Ebook Price: $5.99

The Mariana Trench, located in the Pacific, is the deepest part of the ocean and is seven miles deep and 1,550 miles long. You hear the quote that we know more about deep space than we do about our own oceans and it's true. You wouldn't think anything big would be alive down there in the cold dark...but underwater volcanoes have created somewhat of a greenhouse effect on the ocean's bottom. A layer of heated ash has formed a canopy deep below that allows a strata of undersea life, including giant cuttlefish, dinosaurs...and megalodons, huge sharks that grow up to 80 feet long!

Two groups of people have converged on the Mariana Trench for different reasons. The Defense Department has sent a Navy ship along with scientists to retrieve mysterious manganese nodules. The pilot of the sub sent down to get the nodules is Jonas Taylor, a naval commander. There is also a research ship studying underwater volcanoes in the area.

During the naval dive, Jonas has a run-in with a megalodon and lives are lost. Since Jonas is the only survivor of the dive, the Navy thinks he's crazy when he tells them his sub was attacked by a giant shark. They believe he is delusional and he is dishonorably discharged from the service.

Jonas spends the next seven years going back to college to get his doctorate in marine paleontology, with a specialization in megalodons. When an old friend asks for his help in figuring out what is going wrong with an earthquake early detection system set up in the Trench, Jonas begins to find himself drawn back toward making another dive, and facing an old terror.

This revised and expanded edition of Meg also includes the prequel ebook Meg: Origins so if you buy this edition, don't make the mistake of also buying that.

I'll start this review by saying this is one of the most awful books I've ever read. But saying that, I couldn't help but also enjoy it. It was the horrible fascination of looking at a train wreck, a car wreck, and a plane crash all at the same time. What was my first inkling that it was going to be bad? When one of the characters studying the underwater volcanoes sees a blip on the boat's radar and his first statement is to say its a megaladon! Bear in mind, this is before ANYONE has seen a meg in the book or is even LOOKING for one, or even comprehending there are megs still alive in the trench. But for some reason, this character is just AUTOMATIC....ITS A MEGALADON!! It was so comical.

At the beginning of the book, the author Steve Alten argues, and I would say a bit tongue in cheek, that megs could really be alive swimming somewhere down in the depths and offers flimsy scientific evidence for this....but then includes a scene where a T-Rex takes on a meg even though megs didn't exist in the same time period as the dinosaurs. It is fascinating to think that early humans might have actually glimpsed one of these behemoths though, or might even have had to fight against them.

There are some other far-fetched components of the book, like dinosaurs evolving gills, but once you realize this is a pulp novel, reminiscent of the early 1930s with modern trappings, you start to relax and let the fact that Meg is the anti-Moby Dick wash over you and you begin to enjoy its horror much as you would an Ed Wood film.

All the main male characters are good looking and physically fit and all the women are beautiful and have big boobs. They engage in infantile Me Tarzan You Jane relationships right out of early Clive Cussler or bad 1970s paperback adventure series.

There was also rampant drug abuse of prescription medications all through the book. I was kind of amazed how many tranquilizers the pilots and crew of the deep sea subs took when they were operating equipment worth millions and millions of dollars. And the fact that the main character who was supposed to be the best sub pilot had problems with claustrophobia! Doesn't seem like that would be your best line of work!

Something else that created a lot of drag on the narrative, at least at the beginning of the book, were these abrupt info dumps of "non-fiction" material  that just suddenly appear right out of Wikipedia. You'll be following the plot with the main character Jonas going down into the trench and then out of the blue, you'll have an encyclopedia entry about the trench or megs etc. It was quite jarring and thankfully they ended after the first 20-30% of the book.

I liked the fact that all the bad people in the book get killed. In Steve Alten's universe, anyone that's even slightly on his bad side is killed in one manner or another. Don't get me wrong, innocent people die in this book, but all the jerks...even those on the periphery meet their maker sooner or later. In that way it's very old fashioned.

One scene in the novel pretty much sums up the whole volume and it's the subject of the cover art of the edition I read. A surfing contest is going on (have no idea WHY it wouldn't be cancelled with a megalodon on the loose). The meg appears to chomp on the contestants but one surfer is able to juke and jive around the attacking shark, makes it to the beach on his board, WINS the contest, AND asks a pretty girl spectator to go out with him!

If you can read the preceding paragraph and laugh, then you'll get some enjoyment out of this book. If you roll your eyes in disgust, then skip it.

My Grade: A-

The movie version drops in about 3 weeks. Produced by communists, it will probably be very bad.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp (Movie Review)

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Directed by Peyton Reed
Screenplay by Chris McKenna, Paul Rudd, Erik Sommers, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari

It's been a while since I've seen the original Ant-Man or Civil War, so I was at a bit of a loss at the beginning of this movie when it started. Apparently, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) broke the law when he joined forces with Captain America and his pals to fight against the Avengers and was sentenced to two years of house arrest. If he can just manage to stay out of trouble for three more days, his sentence will be over and he will be a free man. But we all know THAT'S not going to happen!

Decades ago the ORIGINAL Ant-Man and Wasp (played by Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer) had to disarm a missile that was threatening innocent lives and the only way to stop it was for the Wasp to shrink all the way down to the subatomic quantum realm. Problem is that when you shrink that small, there's only a very small chance of ever coming out alive. Dr. Henry Pym and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) just assumed she died there. But then Scott Lang has a dream about Janet, the original Wasp, which leads Pym and Hope to believe that she might still be alive somewhere in the subatomic realm.

The basic plot of the movie is all the heroes banding together to find Janet Van Dyne. The problem besides finding a method to locate her is that the tech they need is in the hands of an unsavory black market dealer named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) who wants a slice of  Pym's tech as well. And he's willing to kill to get it. Complicating things further is a mysterious entity named Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) who wants the tech as well...and her ability to phase-shift at will and fighting skills makes her a formidable adversary.

There are a LOT of things to like about this movie. The cast is top of the line and did a great job. I haven't seen a lot of Evangeline Lilly's work except for the Hobbit movies and the previous Ant-Man but she's always interesting to watch. She had to show a lot of range in this film and she pulled it off brilliantly, from hard ass attitude to vulnerable and fragile hope (sorry about the pun). All the action scenes in the movie are done with a lot of imagination and energy but I especially enjoyed a solo fight the Wasp has towards the beginning of the film.

Of course, the old vets Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Laurence Fishburne are consummate pros and probably needed very little direction. It was really cool to see that trio together because I don't think they've ever been in one movie as a trio. So to see them work together is a treat.

Hannah John-Kamen as Ghost does a good job and continues the trend of Marvel villains not being clones of Dr. Evil, but have their own motivations and tragedies that have brought them to the point of doing evil things. Sonny Burch on the other hand, is just there to chew up the scenery, much as Klaw did in The Black Panther. Andy Serkis had some very sharp teeth for that job, Goggins is also more than up to the challenge and seems to be enjoying himself.

The action sequences were really fresh because Ant-Man, Wasp, and Dr. Pym have shrinking and enlarging abilities which they activate seamlessly but they can also do the same to objects as well. I loved that Dr. Pym carried a whole collection of vehicles in a old Hot Wheels case identical to one I had as a kid. Or for example, when some bad guys are trying to make a quick exit from a room, they are blocked by a enlarged salt shaker! The special effects were on point, mixing spectacle and retro fun in just the right amounts.

The only thing I didn't like about the movie was the "Marvel Witty Patter". At certain points, and you see them coming a mile away, Paul Rudd and/or Michael Pena just go off on annoying tangents. They play word games or endless variations of  "Who's on Second?" and at some point it just wasn't funny to me. Same thing happened with Thor Ragnarok. It's so awkward and jarring...the movie is flowing along fine and then all of the sudden, it's like someone hits "Comedy Button" and it's completely out of context of the movie....and then after a few minutes, someone says "Cut, Back to Main Movie". I guess it's a minor complaint, but most of the comedy scenes/arguments/dialogue did not work for me at all.

I have to say, when the first Ant-Man movie was announced I thought it was the dumbest idea I had ever heard. But I was pleasantly surprised with the movie and its success. Without the addition of the Wasp in this second installment I don't think Paul Rudd would have been interesting enough to keep my attention. It was only a one time deal. But Evangeline, just like in the movie, makes Ant-Man MORE. I look forward to the next film in this series.

My Grade: B+