The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

Orcs Be Racist?

angry orc

This was a recent hot take on the interwebs, and I love the low hanging fruit so…

https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/problematic-orcs

I actually have a little expertise in this (as much as one can about a swords & sorcery race that doesn’t exist). I have read the D&D Player’s Guide & Dungeon Master’s Guide cover-to-cover, and written a novella about orcs. So I’ve done my research. I mean, I’m not savvy on the history of orcs in fiction, but I’ve got some stakes as a fiction writer.

So the big debate is whether orcs are a stand-in for Black people, either in the tribal African “Shaka Zulu” sense or the “genetic predisposition” sense.

There has never been scientific evidence that Black people intrinsically violent or unintelligent. Could you see Idris Elba or Dulé Hill as an orc?

orc and bunny

This is all conjecture. It’s circular reasoning — you’re starting with the conclusion and then cherry-picking the evidence that supports it. You have to assume the premises are true to accept that the conclusion is true. I know this is true because what if I said “Hey, I think orcs were based on cowboys. They’re both violent, unintelligent, and uncivilized. How do we know Tolkien didn’t have vicious American cowboys in mind when he wrote Lord of the Rings?” I could do the same thing with Romans, Mongolians, or frontiersmen like Davey Crockett and Jeremiah Johnson.

I’m not gonna rehash the history of orcs. That’s what the Wikipedia page is for, so check that if you’re interested. Suffice to say, the word “African” or “Black” (in the context of race) does not appear in the page. Point one.

Second, orcs were brought into modern usage by J.R.R. Tolkien, an author from a land where they don’t have systemic racism. There weren’t Black slaves in England. There weren’t phrenologists and quacks trying to prove Africans as inferior so they could justify slavery. That was America. Meaning they weren’t conceived as a mock for Darkest Africa.

orc family

However, fantasy writers have a history of making their races as caricatures of existing cultures. Dwarves have been stereotyped in lots of places as being Jewish (obsession with gold, semitic-sounding language) and/or Scottish (since most Fantasy is vaguely British-based, dwarves resemble Celts best in terms of behavior, history, and relationship). So the idea is not without merit. But like Belle and Stockholm Syndrome, even if the circumstances are ripe for it, there is no evidence associating the culture of orcs to African-Americans.

The original argument was presented in the context of Dungeons & Dragons, a modern day game that is ever-changing. Let’s talk about orcs in that context.

Death of the Author– No

Someone noted that if you play as an orc, no matter the class, you take a -1 penalty to your intelligence score. That means the smartest orc can never be smarter than the smartest human. (The reverse is not true, since stats can’t go below zero – the dumbest human is as dumb as the dumbest orc). Extrapolate that out and that means the average orc is dumber than the average human.

But is this legitimate? You’re trying to apply biological, psychological, and sociological traits with game statistics. A person’s logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, reasoning, creativity, problem-solving, etc. cannot be reduced to a simple number.

D&D is a game. You need balance in a game. Like in any Madden NFL game, a character might be a 99 for catching in real life, but has to be reduced to 90 or else one team is going to dominate or exploit a mechanic or something.

In most RPG games, there is some kind of “brute” playable character–something with high strength and low intelligence. Something that’s strong when it comes to melee or physical attacks and weak to magical attacks. The INT penalty is a game mechanic.

pensive orc

And keep in mind this is the same game where being “evil” is a naturally occuring trait. (Which goes into a whole big about the nature of evil and nature vs. nurture and condensing motivations to a 3×3 grid and do you kill the orc babies and so on). This wasn’t meant to be a universe, it was meant to help with role-playing. All monsters have some innate descriptors — mermaids, nagas, ettins. Some have characteristics they share with existing cultures. Some do not.

Death of the Author – Yes

In the excerpt, it says “an orc trying to live within the confines of civilization is faced with a difficult task.” Fine, but is the author is assuming that said orc was raised among other orcs and will have culture shock? Or is the author saying orcs are born “uncivilized” like primates?

Orcs started in D&D as monsters. They were enemies to fight that you didn’t have to worry about the moral implications of killing. Something more challenging than animal-like monsters. That’s how Tolkien envisioned them too. Orcs live for battle. They want to prove their strength.

Then D&D got popular and expanded. Then orcs became a race that people wanted to play, to add flavor to the game. The game designers obliged, but they had to keep the orc as an orc, otherwise it wouldnt be an orc. That meant integrating a fighty-shouty monster into a world where the apex citizens had civilization and culture and highly advanced problem-solving skills.

That meant you had a monster that had to live among human kind. Kind of like the Klingons in Star Trek: The Next Generation. They had the same stats as a monster, but were living among humans (and dwarves and elves). They’re not human, but apparently they can breed with humans, because there are half-orcs. And that gets into all kinds of issues I don’t have the wherewithal to comprehend.

pretty like an orc

That’s the thing–in D&D, anything goes. This is not a set world. Not a set culture. There’s no such thing as canon. All Wizards of the Coast provides is world-building. The characters and stories and situations within are created by the millions of game players worldwide. That means an orc could be a savage race in one game session and a tribe of noble warriors in another. Or a race of bunny-farmers in another.

My question is–where is the Black person in all this? When do they show up? Cause I haven’t seen it. What makes you think when we talk about orcs, we’re really talking about Black people?

It’s all BS and pot-stirring. D&D is meant to be played how you want. Anything in the book is a suggestion. A helpful guideline. An approach to impersonation. Play the orc how you want. Maybe he’s a sophisticated guy with a monocle who sits in an upholstered chair smoking a pipe. As long as the orc has a reason for getting to that station in life, it’s fine.

An orc is an orc is an orc. If you see something else, that’s your own Rorschach test.

female orc and knight love

Robots vs. Fairies

robots vs fairies close

So last month I read “Robots vs. Fairies”, a collection of short stories. I was a little disappointed because it wasn’t so much “versus” as “here’s robots and now here’s fairies” (except for one story at the end). But at the end of each story, the author declared whether they were “Team Robot” or “Team Fairy” and why. Even though the split is even, it felt like Team Fairy came out the winner. But I thought it’d be fun to declare my allegiance, even though I’m not part of the book. (They didn’t even *ask* me! *sniffle*)

Even though I probably read and produce more fantasy than science fiction, I play for Team Robot. This could be because of my unyielding loyalty to Johnny 5. It’s been demonstrated by my unyielding criticism of any other robot media because I know how computers work and how robots shouldn’t. I like computers, I like autonomous devices, I like the droids in Star Wars. I’m harsh because I care so much, like Anton Ego in Ratatouille.

anton ego robot

Stories with fairies are intrinsically lacking cohesion because it’s magic. Rules change from one book to the next. And sometimes they aren’t even consistent in their own universe. This is because fairies are tricksters and shapeshifters. The fey realm is unpredictable, emotional, and quick to react. In Magic: The Gathering, most of the fairy creatures are blue, the color of trickery and manipulation.

Of course, this is not a sufficient reason for taking one side over the other. I love fantasy and there are more stories with fairies that I like than ones that I don’t.

But here’s the thing. Stories about fairies and the fey realm are about how people in power treat us. It makes for good story fodder: a chosen hero, antagonist with impossible powers, mystery, vibrant settings. But stories about robots are about how we treat those under our power. (Ladies, this is why you always you should always go out with a guy who has a pet or grew up with pets. That way he knows how to care for something other than himself.)

Asimov’s “I, Robot” did it first and did it well, if you want an example. It kinda started the baseline theme for many robot stories, which is “where do you draw the line between tool and living being?” We’ve seen the results of slavery, we all know it’s terrible. But are you allowed to use slaves that aren’t human? That only differ in how they were created? How should we act towards those we hold absolute power over? The best novels provide questions, not answers.

Robots are basically slaves. It’s a paradigm you simply can’t avoid. And you shouldn’t avoid it. It’s something that needs to be reconciled. Think about the droids in Star Wars. They’re clearly intelligent, aware of their self as a separate entity from others, and respond to stimuli. Yet they are constructed, not born and grown over time. I think if we created autonomous intelligent robots, we’d treat them the way they do in Star Wars. Kinda like disposable pets. You can talk to them, but don’t get too sad if they explode, and you have no qualms using them as a meat/metal shield. Droids may be invaluable and expensive, but Luke’s not above using them as tools for getting into Jabba’s palace. C-3P0 and R2-D2 could have been easily destroyed without ever setting foot off the sand. And even Poe Dameron treats BB-8 like a puppy.

poe dameron bb-8 star wars

He even scratches his belly. Who does that with a robot? What does that accomplish. I think, even as much as I love robots, I can’t treat them different than a tamagotchi. Those stupid little eggs were meant to mimic a living creature — something that needs food, attention, and sleep. If not, it dies. But none of it’s anything more the programming. And the only way it can “die” is to be beyond repair. Does that do something to empathy? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure what the point of this post was. Anyway, here’s a robot and a kitten.

robot and kitten cat

The Books I Read: January – February 2018

bookshelf books

The Elven by Bernhard Hennen

It took me two months of dedicated reading to complete this. Of course, I took breaks along the way, but still, I feel stories can wear out their welcome. We’re not in the era of television-less-ness anymore. We don’t need War and Peace to keep us occupied. And this is a callback to those kinds of books. It’s a saga rooted in high fantasy and Norse/Germanic myths (like elves and dwarves).

We’ve got three main characters. Two are elves who have been rivals for a girl elf’s love for whatever thousands of years elves live. The last is a viking who gets treated like the comic relief throughout the book. Seriously, you think he’s going to be a badass, but the elves treat him like Gimli in the Lord of the Rings movies. Every place they go, the elves cluck their tongues at him for drinking, fighting, and being crude (although no more than any normal viking) and go “look at this boorish human, ha ha”. They’re like Legolas in every way–eagle vision, can do magic, nimble, skilled warrior, and so on. Very few female parts that don’t involve a queen or someone more important’s daughter, so don’t look here for any diversity.

It is well-written, it’s just so damn long. You forget who characters are, what places are. There’s a map in the beginning but it only covers a small portion of the world. Maybe I’m a dummy, but if you’re going to make a novel this big and sprawling, add a few cheat sheets in there.

And as a result, I don’t think I can recommend this book. It’s good enough for a normal size novel, but not for something this long. It took me eighteen hours–I could have read three or four other books in that time. I can’t help but think I’d have been better off continuing The Expanse.

futuristic violence and fancy suits david wong

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong

I found a few books recommended for people who liked “Ready Player One”. And I needed it after finishing some long fantasy sagas. I wanted something funny and contemporary. I’d read David Wong before and liked it so I thought this would hit the spot.

And it did. Wong’s not good at titles (or is he too good?) but it’s exactly what’s on the tin–fast action and men-in-black doing gratuitous violence. It’s a big that stew that combines cyberassasins, superheroes, horror movies, anime, future dystopia. Much of them reflect (but aren’t directly coded as) eighties weirdness like “Rock and Rule” and MTV’s bizarro years.

It’s not a story that holds up to scrutiny. The plot moves so fast you don’t have much chance to learn character backstories or reflect on anything. You’re onto something new before you can digest the old. Characters turncoat from bad to good without explanation. Plot coupons come from nowhere. Chapters are short and action-packed. The character is dragged through events by the seat of her pants, rather than making decisions for herself. And none of the cast is likable. It’s like a Jason Statham movie.

So this should only be used for amusement and entertainment. It won’t give you anything profound. It won’t be taught in high school. But it is a great book for a reader who likes Marvel movies and video games. It’s a trip and a joke and an action movie.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

This is the story of a twelve-year-old girl coming to terms with the absence of her mom. It’s told in two parallel narratives. One is in present-time, on a road trip with her grandparents. The other is the story she tells to her grandparents that involve her mom and what happened with her and her dad after she left.

The classic trifecta ensues: 1) they move somewhere she doesn’t like 2) Dad starts seeing another woman 3) No one in school likes her. In the process, she befriends another girl, and HER mother leaves. This is the interesting part, as our main character gets a taste of what a pill she was, having to console someone in the same situation.

It’s a good story, especially if you know what a broken home is like. And the style, full of odd quaint country expressions and quirky humor. It’s not a cheesy Hallmark story. It reminds me of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie or “Holes” by Louis Sachar or “I Am the Cheese” by Robert Cormier. All of these have an unreliable narrator and implication of something sinister going on below the surface.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I was nervous about reading this at first. John Green highly recommended it, dedicated a whole vlog to it. But in the past, he’d recommended Kendra by Coe Booth, which I didn’t like. And The Boy in the Black Suit was only so-so. So I thought this genre wasn’t for me, because I couldn’t be more white and it’s a big leap to sympathize with… what are we calling them now? Underprivileged minorities? Then I saw it on a bunch of Year End Top Ten lists and thought I’d give it a try.

Days later, I was still thinking about it. Yes, it’s an “issue” book, but it’s more about the aftermath of what someone goes through. Other issue books miss the point entirely, skipping over roots & causes and capitalizing on a hot button to sell books (like 13 Reasons Why or This Is Where It Ends).

Our main character is split between two worlds. By day she goes to school in a white neighborhood full of preppies, thanks to a school voucher. By night, she’s back in the ghetto, with her family of half-siblings and Dad who’s done time and now runs a grocery store. She never lets either side know of her other life because she’d be called a traitor or ostracized for some other reason.

That all changes when she witnesses a cop shoot her friend and can’t toe the line anymore. But it’s more about what her neighborhood goes through, how they react, from gang leaders to barbers, and the whites & lawyers reactions. It’s about what it means to be “ghetto” when that’s your life, not just a thirty-minute sitcom. Even when you live among gangs and broken families, a young black teenage girl can still want daddy snuggles. No one is a one-note or ghetto caricature. It’s modern life and helps a great deal with empathizing and sympathizing and, most of all, understanding the POV of “Black Lives Matter”.

Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer

It’s a solid C. The main character lacks a “Save the Cat” moment, so he’s not very sympathetic. And women won’t find anything for themselves here. The only female in the book is the person the main character is trying to ask out. She’s a prize to be won. Also there’s no plot, no bad guy, no goal (either inner or outer) besides “learn a thing”. So it’s a little like Disney’s The Sword in the Stone in that way. But at least in that movie, Merlin was grooming Arthur to be king. Here, the wizards’ objective is to live easy bachelor lives, geek wish fulfillment, and to conjure burritos whenever they want.

After that, you’d think I’d give it a low rating. But despite its flaws, I realized, halfway through, that I still wanted to know how it ended. This is what I wanted Wizard’s Bane to be–a computer programmer in medieval times using programming to do magic.

This is a book for people who like comic strips, not characters. It’s light-hearted, fun, and humorous. But keep in mind that means the plot is going to be held by shoestrings. So don’t come in with expectations of Harry Potter.

Also, the cover is bupkiss. There’s no video games here.

The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

This was way better than I thought it would be. King’s known for horror, not high fantasy. Before this point, the only other fantasy he wrote (if you don’t count The Gunslinger, which goes beyond genres) was The Talisman. And after this point, he didn’t go back to it for a long time. So I thought it would be a disaster. When an author writes outside their wheelhouse, you get wary. But it was also written in 1987, around the same time as It, Misery, and Skeleton Crew. And before he got sober.

The whole book has a fun storyteller vibe, like an old man in a tavern telling you the saga of King What’s-his-face. And since it’s a secondary world, you don’t have to worry about those Stephen King cliches.

However, the weird thing is the story never seems to start. It keeps describing characters, giving anecdotes, showing the history of the kingdom, etc. but you’re halfway through the book and the inciting incident hasn’t occurred. The narration consistently feels like it’s building towards something all throughout, which is disconcerting.

But overall, yes, I recommend it. It’s a good book even for the non-Stephen King fan and I plan on reading the sequel.

John Dies at the End by David Wong
(reread)

I remember reading this when it was free online, many many years ago. At the time, it felt like a life-changing work. So many books consist of dull introspective characters, plodding plots. This was a story for the MTV generation, with creative monsters, gross-out moments, and complete rejection of post-modern literary crap.

But it’s a flawed narrative. Many scenes take up space and reflect what you’d see in a movie. They don’t drive plot, reveal character, or restate theme. Also, all the events happen without being tied together, so it gets long and boring when the characters don’t want anything except to survive.

It’s like a Transformers movie: every scene is framed as MAXIMUM importance… which means nothing is important.Things happen, but you don’t care. It’s not a character-based story, it’s event, then event, then event. There’s no quiet scenes where we get a chance to absorb the impact. There’s sort of a beginning but there’s no middle or ending. The imagery provides information that isn’t necessary, like reading a book while listening to a different one. It’s all spectacle and no information.

Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View by various authors

This is an anthology of short stories that tells the story of Star Wars, but from the point-of-view of all the little characters that don’t matter. Like the Jawa that finds R2-D2, the Tusken Raider that cold-cocks Luke, various droids and rebels, even the stormtrooper that bonks his head on the doorway. All the parts that didn’t even earn scale.

It’s actually one of the better short story collections I’ve read. Maybe because A) there’s one unifying element tying them all together and leading to a conclusion and B) it’s Star Wars. It was enjoyable, but not pull-you-in enjoyable. There is a LOT of time spent on Tatooine. I think there’s a story for every character in Mos Eisley. If you like Star Wars, this is definitely worth looking into.

The Books I Read: November – December 2017

bookshelf books

eliza and her monsters
Eliza and her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Eliza lives with a sitcom family of annoying siblings and health-nut parents who just “don’t get it”. They don’t get computers, they don’t get the Internet. They think the way to live life is out of doors, socializing face to face. And that’s not the only place to find friends and success. Especially for severe introverts like Eliza.

Eliza is just a high schooler who writes a webcomic. A damn successful one. From the sound of it, it’s on par with Penny Arcade and xkcd in terms of popularity, but more dramatic (and made in manga style with space-existential elements). But on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog, and Eliza’s anonymity keeps her creative. Then she meets a new student, accidentally defending him against some bullies, and learns he’s the premiere fan fiction writer for her comic.

This is a story about two people who find each other and bond through the thing they both like. It’s like a John Green/Rainbow Rowell hybrid, which is high praise. I loved it. This is a great cozy romance for people with social anxiety. And a much needed contrast to “The Selection”. In here, people are a little broken. They don’t follow predictable stereotypes. They make bad decisions, decisions that hurt people, not Hallmark-movie pulled punches. I heartily recommend reading it.

heroine complex sarah kuhn
Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
(unfinished)

It took very little time for me to realize I did not want to continue this book. The killer was that all characters are douchebags or toadies right from the start. It’s not a story about superheroes, it’s more like the “assistant to a diva” you see in so many cookie-cutter films and shows. It’s a trite way to provide conflict between females without any violence (or gravitas). And they’re always the same–a beleaguered assistant, a jerkass boss, and the fiancee straight out of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”.

The superhero doesn’t even have real powers. She’s a Black Widow-like gymnast, but only concerned about training and publicity. She’s less concerned about the demon cupcakes she’s fending off than getting good shots of it for Instagram.

Then the big conflict in the first act is that she gets a zit and how is she going to go to her party looking like that and what’s her assistant going to do about it? I don’t remember clogged pores playing a big role in the Dark Phoenix saga or Batman: Hush (although maybe that’s why he had the bandages). I wanted a superhero story, not another “The Devil Wears Prada” knock-off.

stephen king night shift
Night Shift by Stephen King
(reread)

I couldn’t sleep one night and this was the only thing around. I didn’t feel like starting a whole new novel when I was about to get one from the library. Maybe it was because I’d finished Danse Macabre recently that I’d gotten a taste for the King. It’s certainly better than “Just After Sunset”.

Officially this is a re-read, but it had been so long ago, jumbled with other short stories from different collections, and totally out of order, that it felt fresh. I liked the majority of the stories and was able to skip the bad ones. But those weren’t many (mostly the Salem’s Lot tie-ins) Could be useful in a study of the short story, except that it’s from 1960-1970s sensibilities, so I don’t know how useful it is for learning how to break in now.

daughter of smoke and bone laini taylor
Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor
(unfinished)

I love going into a book with no expectations, but it rarely happens. There’s no almost no way you can look at a book without reading the summary. Thus you gain a little foreknowledge of its content (or at least what the marketing wants you to believe). So you already know the setup going in. But then you still have to get through the setup the novel provides. So really, you’re waiting for the book to start while you already know how it starts. But I digress.

This book is not for me. I’m sure it’s a great book, but it has content I care not one whit about. I first noticed when it was talking about the beauty of Europe and architecture and quaint little apartments and bistros and bars. Maybe I’m a fuddy duddy patriot who rarely gets past his own front door, let alone to another state for a vacation, but I have zero-to-no interest in architecture and antiques. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it has value. It’s clear the author doesn’t think that way, and that’s great for her. Every page reads like a love letter to old Europe, like it’s some fairy tale land. But that’s not for me.

The main character is an American girl studying art in Prague and I’m immediately reminded of Tithe by Holly Black (which I also didn’t finish) and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (which I regretfully did). I’ve seen this before too, and it smells of entitlement. I resent for those going into passion majors, like art history, because then they complain there’s no jobs for them, when they should have taken classes in something that can translate to a paying job. And of course, the first plot point is boy troubles.

But the style is damn poetic. It uses similes I’ve never heard of. It’s worth reading for the writing technique, even if the plot isn’t especially compelling. It’s worth sampling the first few chapters alone just to see the way Taylor writes. That alone can interest a reader. I kept going to see if there was maybe something else valuable.

Then the “Beauty & the Beast” stuff starts. The main girl is connected to the demon world in some way–her adopted dad and all his friends are demons, but he keeps a King Triton-esque wrap on her activities (the dad even looks like the Beast™). Then an angel soldier starts waging jihad on them, and he’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen… She can’t stop thinking about him, has butterflies in her stomach… even though he unleashed the fire of God on everyone she knows. Someone here is in love with the idea of being in love, like Bella in Twilight. This star-crossed romance is also not my thing. I needed less attention on the relationshippy-ness and more on her family.

Now don’t take this to mean I don’t or can’t read books intended for female audiences. I loved “Eleanor & Park” and “Ella Enchanted“. I think the big stopping point was that this book lacked a character to identify with, which is totally not the book’s fault. I’m a 36-year-old straight white male computer programmer with two kids and a mortgage. There’s no cushion shaped for my butt in these pages. It could be fine for my daughter… when she turns sixteen.

crash override zoe quinn gamergate
Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate by Zoe Quinn

It’s hard to read a book like this in a time like 2017, but it’s necessary. Christ, how naive we were back then, when “ethics in journalism” was all we had to worry about from the alt-right. But I’m getting off track.

GamerGate was a phenomenon filled with false information, fake news, lies, damned lies, statistics, and damned lying statistics. But in 2014, we had no precedent for this kind of thing. This was the shining premiere of famed Men’s Rights Activists Toby Fair and Actual Lee. But after the Kotaku posts and Reddit threads, there’s a person at the end of the computer, and this is her story how a bunch of assholes made a her life miserable by publishing personal information and online harassment.

Only half the book is really the tale of GamerGate from Zoe Quinn’s perspective. The other half is what can we do about it–what’s wrong with the current state of online bullying and what the police and congress can’t or don’t do about it (meaning they’re woefully behind the times). I would rather have a book on the whole GamerGate scenario, dissecting the truth and laying it out in narrative non-fiction. But I can’t judge the book based on what I wanted, only what it is.

And I guess it depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for Zoe Quinn’s side of the story, it’s here. If you’re looking for information on how you can further the cause of stopping online harassment and bullying, it’s here. But the two tastes don’t taste great together. It’s not a memoir, it’s more of an advocacy book. But it’s all difficult to get through (because it’s so disgusting to read about) and given everything that’s happening in the world today, it’s hard to give such things serious thought with nuclear war and white supremacy on the horizon.

Zoe Quinn’s a surprisingly good writer for being an engineer/coder (but then again, so am I). I’d only recommend this book if you’re at all interested in GamerGate (maybe you are, having been a front-of-the-caution-tape witness), but not if bigger political issues flip your cookie.

shamer's signet lene kaaberbol
The Shamer’s Signet by Lene Kaaberbøl

A little slumpier than the first, but I don’t mind giving three heaping stars to it. It doesn’t feel like much in the world has changed. It’s not like great advancements in the personal life or life of the world change greatly in this book. No huge revelations, no new characters. Even the old characters aren’t seen much or developed upon. In other words, this is not “The Empire Strikes Back”. It more feels like an addendum or sequel, rather than the continued story of Shamers.

That being said it’s still a good book. This time you get a POV of her older brother (technical note: the book switches back and forth between Dina and Davin and I had trouble discerning whose POV was which, until I noticed their names at the beginning of each chapter). He acts like a typical hothead-fighter, wanting-to-prove-his-warrior-mettle, like Wart from “Sword in the Stone” or Taran from “The Black Cauldron”. But Dina’s got the biggest story arc and you feel more for her.

There’s more action and less world-building/plot development. I get the sense the author didn’t plan for a series, unless she’s setting up some real far-reaching dominoes. Still, I recommend it and will be reading more in the series. Plus it’s fun to write that O with the slash through it.

Books I Never Finished But Wish I Did

unfinished painting meadow sky paintbrushes

In case you can’t tell my attention span is very squirrel. The only times I’ve not finished a book is if I strongly believe I’m not going to get anything out of it: books that are terribly written or outdated non-fiction. It’s not them, it’s me. There are books I simply cannot get through. I cannot find a way to get them to work for me. So this is my apology to those books.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

I know, I know. Me, a fantasy author. Never read all the books in the trilogy. I saw the movies, and I love them, but the books I just can’t work through. I guess there’s too much detail, too many side bits, too many aspects that are irrelevant. The action isn’t “action-y” enough. It’s too literary, like like it’s not aware that it’s supposed to be exciting.

I did finish “The Hobbit” and “The Fellowship of the Ring” (even made it past Tom Bombadil), but got lost in “The Two Towers”. It didn’t make sense why they were splitting up when destroying the ring was their single hope of killing Sauron. The storyline got too split, I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to latch onto. I had been so used to following stories with one single protagonist.

Chances of going back to it: Medium. I think I’m in a good place to read it now. But my question is… why? The movies are already out, they follow the book quite well. As Scalzi said, maybe cinema is the better medium to tell this story.

East of Eden

Before I had access to a public library or eBooks, the only real access was my bookcase. Fortunately, I had just moved in with my fiancee, and she brought a few shelves worth. Unfortunately, she is a history teacher. So all she had was non-fiction, historical fiction, and classics.

So I picked this up and got about halfway through. I can’t quite remember why I stopped, but I’m pretty sure it had to do with the story never seeming to go anywhere. There was no protagonist, no one with a goal, no one to get behind. I guess it’s supposed to be considered more of a work of art or modern epic. All fluid with poetry and description. The side characters were more interesting, like the Asian cab driver who only spoke pidgin English because that’s what people expected.

I understand it’s a Nobel Prize Winner, but I just can’t get through it. I don’t want to get through it. It’s so mild that an average talk show has more interesting events. The burn is too slow, and it’s too in love with its bible metaphors and themes to punch up the plot. I guess it’s one of those things where it’s a book for literary supermen who can appreciate all those nuances. The funny part is that I finished up to the point where the movie starts off, so I feel like I got the complete story.

Chances of going back to it: Low. Post-modern literary fiction? No thank you.

Atlas Shrugged

I asked for this book for Christmas when I was in high school and I cannot for the life of me figure out why. I knew nothing about Ayn Rand or her books or beliefs (or even that she was a girl). Just hearsay and scuttlebutt. I had no idea what the book was about. I didn’t even know how much of a doorstop it was until I opened the present and saw it. (Funny aside: that year I also got Ender’s Game and The Perks of Being a Wallflower — you can tell I had no idea what kind of books I wanted to read yet).

Like the others above, it suffered from “When does the story start?” syndrome. The prose was so overloaded, I couldn’t gather anything about what was happening. I knew there was something called Rearden Steel, and there were lots of business concerned about it. But beyond that, I couldn’t grasp it. I didn’t know when which characters were talking.

There’s a lot of politics and economics. Two subjects I’m not terribly interested in. I think I didn’t get more than 10% through. Maybe 5%. And keep in mind, I went in with no biases. I didn’t know objectivism from chauvinism. I was too stupid to understand I was being preached to, sold something. But fortunately the poor plot construction took care of that.

Chances of going back to it: Very low. I got all I need about objectivism from Bioshock, thank you very much.

The Great Gatsby

I’ve tried to read this book twice and failed each time. The writing is very flowery and poetic. There’s as much time spent on describing events as a person’s nose. It’s also got the “classic” and “often read in school” stamps of shame on them. It’s supposed to be praise, but for people like me, that’s a message that says “stay away”. It means “nothing happens in this book”. Characters exist for the sake of metaphor and message and literary-ism, not for entertainment.

The big stopping point for me was the characters. I could not follow such unlikable people through any sort of journey or time commitment. And really, who would? They are so short-sighted and misogynist and materialistic and hate being rich.

However, that’s the point. They’re supposed to be unlikable. They’re supposed to be jerks, because they’re a cautionary tale. They’re examples of why America went into such downfall in the twenties. It’s about a hub character observing everything that happens around him, and how Citizen Kane really just wants his Rosebud.

Chances of going back to it: High. I saw the movie. I have the cliff-notes. I understand what kind of novel it’s supposed to be. And it’s short. Third time’s the charm.

Boneshaker

See my original review here. I guess I’m not as into steampunk as I thought. Maybe it works better in a visual medium, where you can see all the clanking gears and Victorian dresses. Although, that wasn’t the big flaw with this book.

The opening chapter is what intrigued me to read. But the following chapters seemed to have nothing to do with it. I’ll tell you like this: I eventually skipped to the end and found all the plot questions answered in the last two pages. Everything that takes place in the middle does not matter to plot or character development. It’s just action, action, action, with no consequences or character development.  And the need for an understanding of Seattle’s topography.

Chances of going back to it: Low. I’ll just see the movie.

Honorable Mention


The Second and Third Book of Swords

My college roommate lent me these when he found out I was writing a fantasy novel. They’re high fantasy books that revolve around twelve swords, forged by gods, that all have different features. One slices through dragons like butter, another gives good luck, another can kill from a distance, and so on.

I finished the first book. It was all right, but kind of tedious. When you’ve got a great concept like this, it’s a shame to see it wasted by tedious prose and cliche trappings like Tolkien-esque overwriting and characters walking around.

Like most of the others, I don’t blame this book for making me quit. I just wasn’t in the place at the time to read it. To read anything. I hadn’t cemented myself as a writer. I was just trying to survive college. I was in a hard major, I was depressed, I had no friends, I hadn’t the time to devote to reading for fun.

The problem is I can’t find these books anywhere. They’re not even in the Minnesota public library network. They’re not available to buy. I can’t even pirate them. I’d love to try them again, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen soon.

Chances of going back to it: Medium-high, if I can find them.

The Books I Read: July – August 2013

bookshelf books

she hulk diaries marta acosta
The She-Hulk Diaries by Marta Acosta

I had high expectations for this book — a novel about a superheroine who usually doesn’t make it past the comic books. I was hoping that, since Jennifer Walters is a lawyer, the book would be about some courtroom drama, a la John Grisham, but with the added complication of superheroes.

Despite it being The She-Hulk Diaries, She-Hulk is barely in it. It’s more about Jennifer Walters, her human form, and her “girl problems”. The crux of the story is Jennifer tooling around, talking to her friend, and trying to get a job. She spends way too much time obsessing over boyfriends — past, present, and future. I don’t mind romantic relationships, but she spends more time thinking about them than I prefer in my protagonists. Especially ones with a higher calling.

When she transforms (apparently she can do that — I thought she was always “on”), “Shulky” takes control. She’s not so much a raging beast as a party girl. Walters sits back and waits for her to finish her C-list heroics, then whoop it up at the opening of “pLace”. Thus the story feels like those chick lit novels scattered all over Barnes and Noble. You know, the ones with pop art and cocktails on the cover. The text is full of teenspeak, lists, quirky tidbits (even the place she works is named QUIRC), and short attention span writing.

The whole reason I like She-Hulk is because she’s not bogged down by these female tropes. She’s a super-strong, green-skinned women who uses the skills she’s fought for more than the ones she inherited. She’s confident, self-actualized, and capable, but has the hang-ups that freaks like the Thing and Beast have. That’s what makes her fascinating to me.

But in this she’s just another woman with insecurities, passive-aggressiveness, and a positive but cowardly attitude. The She-Hulk I want wouldn’t be worried about her ex’s fiancee. The central conflict of this book is whether or not the rock star guy she had a one night fling with still remembers her. It’s a plot that would be immediately resolved if the main character just TALKED TO THE PERSON.

I don’t want a She-Hulk that acts like Ally McBeal (even though Iron Man was in both). I don’t get any sense that any of this matters to the world, to Jennifer, and not to the reader.

shadow moon george lucas chris claremont
Shadow Moon (Chronicles of the Shadow War, Book 1) by Chris Claremont and George Lucas
(unfinished)

One word: overwriting. To the point it’s unreadable. I made it through one hundred pages, and only one thing happened.

I was excited when I learned there was a written sequel to Willow, one of my favorite movies. One that goes beyond favorite because I grew up with it. You’d think the sequel, written by the movie’s writer/director and a famous writer of “X-Men” could make magic, but they didn’t. The novel seems so far removed from the original movie, it can hardly be called a sequel. They don’t even call him “Willow” anymore. It’s something like “Ulfric Goodmoon”. And nobody returns except the annoying Brownies are still with him. They’re not as charming in print.

I stopped reading before it ruined my nostalgic memory for the little dwarf that could, the greatest swordsman in the world, and a woman who actually had some agency and character in a time when Conan the Barbarian’s love interest got five words spoken to her.

absolutely true diary part time indian sherman alexie
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

This is a good book. I find it a shame that Sherman Alexie hasn’t written more. I was partly influenced to read this because I’d read and enjoyed “Reservation Blues” and partly because it had made so many “Best of Year” lists.

There’s very little that has influenced my opinion of native Americans in today’s culture than Sherman Alexie. He’s about my only source. Everything else, I can’t take at face value. I guess it’s like being black, you have to be it to understand, otherwise you just don’t get it. The story is enormously entertaining. It gets real, but there are also some loose ends, like his seizures and stuttering that don’t figure in.

scalzi the human division
The Human Division by John Scalzi

I really want Scalzi to branch out into new IP. He did so with Redshirts, which has now won the Best Novel Hugo. But then he went back to the OMW universe with a semi-serialized e-Book experiment.

It’s… I’m not sure what to say about it. It’s still Old Man’s War, it’s still Scalzi. It still feels like a novel, although it rests on a much more inconclusive cliffhanger than The Last Colony did. If you liked any of the other Old Man’s War books, you’ll like this too. Maybe a little bit less. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I like novels, and not a series of short stories. That’s just me.

speak anderson book cover
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

On the way to pick up “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”, my eye caught this. I remembered Jim C. Hines talking about it, and remembering that it was about rape and selective mutism. Two subjects I’m interested in learning more about.

I was on-board with it for the first few chapters. A high schooler disaffected with life? Sign me up. But the story never starts. There are hints dropped here and there, but there’s no concrete narrative. No real goal or obstacles for the protagonist. Just a lot of complaining and sarcasm. There’s only so much vitriol I can read before I need a story or something.

And there’s an element of painting with such a brush of perspective. Not every high schooler is as vapid and mean and stupid as the characters herein. It’s like “Daria” the book, but played straight, which doesn’t work.

Then I finished it and read about it, and apparently it’s called a “problem novel” (a.k.a. social novel), which I went “this is a thing”? It’s a book where a social problem is illustrated through the characters in the book, and it’s not so much about the story but about the effects on the character. The story comes from the sociological theme, not the events or milieu.

So what I was complaining about in Speak speaks more about the mentality of the victim. It’s not just general grumpiness, it’s also about identity crisis. It’s not about the character trying to solve a problem or wanting something. It’s about illustrating what happened after the event. Like a denouement kinda thing. It makes me think that this may not be a novel I can judge as aesthetically as others I’ve read.

twilight sparkle my little pony book
Twilight Sparkle and the Crystal Heart Spell by G. M. Berrow

Um, I didn’t read this. It was… it was research. For my kids. But it’s at too high level for them right now. Yes, that’s it.

eleanor and park
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

This is the best book I read for this time period. Months later, and I’m still thinking about it, wanting to revisit it. Just like Looking for Alaska. In fact, I heard about the book from John Green, who does a much better job of reviewing it than me.

It’s a YA romance about two teens in 1986. Park is half-Korean, but well-off. Eleanor comes straight out of Scalzi’s “Being Poor”. The novel slowly, methodically treads the course of their relationship. From the first idle glances, to words exchanged, in and out of misunderstandings, parental involvement, and their own sense of self-worth. These are two one-winged angels that need to hold onto each other in order to fly.

It’s a love story that’s not ridiculous Harlequin bodice-ripping or teen Dawson’s Creek drama. It perfectly illustrates the emotions, the awkwardness, the time when holding hands was enough. I don’t know how Rowell was somehow able to write such small things with such intensity — the first phone call, the little gifts and mix-tapes, waiting for no parents in the house, the first make-out session. I feel like an old man, looking at photographs. And each picture brings me to that reality. Just for a moment, I’m back there.

It’s also surreal that Eleanor looks almost exactly like my wife and that Park likes comic books and geeky stuff.

unnatural creatures neil gaiman
Unnatural Creatures: Stories Selected by Neil Gaiman edited by Neil Gaiman

Well, this ended up the same as the other short story anthologies I’ve read. Some I liked, and some I didn’t. Anthologies are always a crapshoot, and they’re always harder than a novel. I gotta get used to another universe and writing style every 5,000 words. I gotta figure out the new protagonist and plot goals over and over again. It’s a no-win situation. If you don’t like the story, it’s a slog. If you do like the story, it’s over too quickly.

The only reason I read this was because Neil Gaiman’s name was attached to it AND I found it easily at the library. Failing those events, I wouldn’t have picked this up.

chris kluwe beautifully unique sparkleponies
Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies by Chris Kluwe

This book consists of very short essays, most not more than 2 pages, about various topics, mostly sociological and political, and reprinted from Kluwe’s earlier printed articles. They’re all very angry, like someone’s LiveJournal rants, but aimed at a newspaper audience. Some feel like Andrew Ryan’s audio diaries.

He has creative writing in his similes, but really, he’s not telling me anything I haven’t heard before. And moreover, there’s nothing positive in this. Everything is bad, bad, wrong, wrong. I wanted a little glimmer of optimism, if for nothing else than to clear the palate. I want to know about things he likes.

Also, I was hoping for more personal stories, like what it’s like to be a pro football player and a geek, balancing family, nerdery, and footballery. (To his credit, there is a chapter that explains why he doesn’t include those sorts of things). I like stories, I like anecdotes. I guess I was expecting this to be more memoir-ish, plot-based, and not a collection of angry rants with creative swears.

peter pan barrie
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
(reread)

A re-read. After this, I plan to re-read Tigerheart. This is all in preparation for Fearless, the unexpected sequel to one of my few five-star books.

Peter Pan still holds up, but I think it serves better as a book that’s read to you, rather than one you read. The great thing is that Barrie sets up a huge world, but only ever shows a tiny sliver of the stories that exist in it. I think that’s kept up the appeal of Neverland. I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we see a renaissance like Wizard of Oz today.

Analyzing the Disney Villains: The Horned King (The Black Cauldron)

horned king black cauldron
THE HORNED KING
Origin: The Black Cauldron (1985)

This is one of the first Disney movies I remember seeing a commercial for. I didn’t see the film, obviously. It looked too adult and complex (in 1985, I was four). Also, I had already ruined my movie privileges by running up and down the theater aisles during E.T. (according to my mom).

I’m torn on where to place this one. The Horned King acts much like Sauron (or rips him off). Both are dark entities who are unambiguously evil and may or may not be dead. When it comes to action, they don’t get out much. They even both have the same kind of slaves for their dirty work — gobliny-orcs, dragons, and enchanted humans.

motivation black caudron magic green

Motivation: The nice thing about dark overlords like this is that their motivation is always clear — getting or keeping some power-giving macguffin. In this case, it’s something called a Black Cauldron, which will allow him to create an unholy army of the undead (cue Bruce Campbell).  That search starts with kidnapping Hen Wen, the psychic pig (yes, I really had to write that).

Power’s always good, but what does he intend to do with it? We know that there’s a war being fought, but it’s offscreen, and we never see a hair of it. Is he going to take over the world? Well, that’s nice, let me know how that turns out. I’m sure it’ll look as great as your castle when you’re through.

charstrengths horned king black cauldron

Character Strengths: Unlike Sauron, The Horned King can be a classic deadpan snarker. That means there’s something going on behind those red eyes beyond simple power hunger. Unfortunately, we never find out much more than that, as the movie focuses greatly on the band of heroes. I forgive him for that though, because if you can rise to the top and amass an army, there’s obviously a long, unpadded resume in your folder.

evilness horned king black cauldron

Evilness: Being a lich, he’s not exactly in the cavalcade of family-friendly Disney villains, which is a breath of fresh air. I do like this guy’s look. It’s very Tchernobog. Also, the antlers, which you’d think would be lame,  give him a more natural majesty, like a stag. I guess that was a design decision because otherwise, he’d just look like Skeletor.

He gloats, he taunts, kidnaps a princess, chokes out the minions who fail him. But is this any better than a video game villain? He’s successful in some endeavours, like obtaining the pig and obtaining the cauldron. But is that because of his own ability, or Taran’s inability?

tools black cauldron horned king

Tools: Where there’s a whip, there’s a way.  Horny’s best asset is the drones at his disposal, mostly consisting of goblin fodder (and points for Creeper, the weird little gremlin). But he also has some gwythaints (dragons) and human soldiers.

However, where’s his personal powers? Where’s his magic? His fighting skill? How did he get to the top in the first place? What does he do?

complement black cauldron taran horned king

Complement to the Hero: Pretty classic Joseph Campbell “Hero’s Journey” stuff here. Big bad king versus little peasant boy with big dreams and a few friends. The Horned King actually gets some shots in, coming face-to-face with the boy well before the climax.

Taran’s basically incompetent and boyish, and ultimately fails in his task. In fact, the only reason he wins is because he was sorta kind to a monkey-creature with suicidal tendencies (who sounds and acts EXACTLY like Gollum). It’s too bad when you have to subtract points from this category not because of the villain, but because the hero is a moron.

fatal flaw horned king black cauldron

Fatal Flaw: I’m sure it comes as no surprise that this movie is heavily Don Bluth-isized. It was his last movie before leaving Disney, and you can tell by the signature animation, dark and edgy color scheme, the tons and tons of mist, and loose plots.

You know how the cauldron gets destroyed?  The Horned King conveniently leaves to watch his newly-created army march out of the castle. This leaves the cauldron, the 100% key to all his power that he always wanted, alone with the heroes. Even James Bond’s villains weren’t that stupid. At least Sauron had an excuse that he was an eyeball at the time.

method of death horned king black cauldron

Method of Defeat/Death: After NotGollum jumps into the cauldron, it reverses the polarity strong enough to make Donatello proud. All the skeletons fall and get sucked into the new Dyson cauldron. The king, on his way back, half-heartedly tries to push Taran in, but he cannot escape the awesome sucking power. The cauldron rips away his sorta-flesh and there’s a big explosion.

And since he’s a load-bearing king, the castle collapses. Bluth really pulled out the stops for this one.

final horned king maleficent black cauldron
Eww.

Final Rating: Four stars

PREVIOUS ANALYSES:
Mother Gothel (Tangled)
Cobra Bubbles (Lilo and Stitch)
Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians)
Madame Medusa (The Rescuers)
Captain Hook (Peter Pan)
Amos Slade (The Fox and the Hound)
Madam Mim (The Sword in the Stone)
Claude Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Scar (The Lion King)
Prince John (Robin Hood)
Edgar (The Aristocats)
Ratigan (The Great Mouse Detective)
Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)

Words that Take You Out of Fantasy Settings

flower city fantasy castle

Last night I was tossing and turning because I was worried about my new novel. It’s a first draft, it should be written badly, but that doesn’t stop me: it’s boring, the characters are flat, there’s not enough action, I’m wasting my time on scenes that don’t advance the plot. Stuff like that. And the biggest problem that I’m glossing over is that, while I’ve done a lot of world-building, I haven’t done a lot of terminology obscuring.

What that means is changing those certain words that pull you out of the fantasy setting. For example, I had one character say “the heavens”, referring to up there. Well, this is an alternate world. There’s no bible, there’s no Jesus, there’s no angels, there’s no Judeo-Christian God. So there’s no such concept as heaven. It’s that kind of subtle thing that makes fantasy writing so hard.

Another character refers to the “cafeteria”, because this is a school. Well, no one ever used that term in Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons. But what the hell am I supposed to call it? It’s not a dining hall — it’s too small for that, and Harry Potter used that term already. It’s not a pub, not a “chamber of food”. And Thesaurus.com is no help. I went with Eatery, but that might change. And I’m not going to make up a word and have them eat at the shminga-shmingy. That’s lazy writing.

I ran into this problem a few times when I wrote the initial short story, but I was barely trying there. I was using words like “pizza” and “boo-boo”. But why couldn’t pizza exist? It’s cheese, bread, and tomato sauce. Do I have to call it something stupid like tomato bread? Or flaffalaffa? Plus, I feel like I’m distancing too much if I obscure everything in a huge ‘Name of the Wind’ style formed culture. This book is really supposed to be “Looking for Alaska” meets “Harry Potter”.

There should be a list of terms that don’t fit in fantasy novels. Someone should come up with that, like a custom dictionary. Mary Robinette Kowal made up with a custom dictionary for her regency novels. She compiled all of Jane Austen’s writings and made a word list. Any words in her novel that didn’t show up, she changed. There were some wibbly-wobbly terms: ‘rinky-dink’ is in the word list, but doesn’t fly today. But a common word like ‘blink’ was not a match.

This would make an excellent crowd-sourcing project. If you guys can think of any words that commonly pull you out of fantasy, let me know, and I’ll add them here. I’ll even make a macro for it.

Or point me in the right direction of an already established dictionary (I can’t believe I’m the only one to come up with this idea).

The Worst Movies I’ve Ever Seen

dustin hoffman exasperated

The other day, my wife was talking about the worst movies that her parents had ever seen (the winner was something called Zardoz). But then she said their worst movie probably wouldn’t hold a candle to what I’ve seen. She tells the truth — The Evil Dead, Night of the Creeps, and Dragon Half are just some of the staples in my DVD library. And those are the ones I like.

Even though it’s easy to make a bad movie, no one’s really sure how. Some involved people whose head was up their own ass, making “films” with a “message”. Some knew they were making trash and didn’t care. Some were just mixed scripts, different cinematic visions, or something out of left field. The strangest coincidences can lead to the greatest movies (The Wizard of Oz‘s four directors) or the worst (Superman II‘s multiple directors). There are some movies even MST3K didn’t touch (Like Child Bride for one).

I love my movies. I hate pausing or stopping in the middle, even to go to the bathroom. I only watch movies when I can dedicate enough time to its full length. As I result, I’m always griping about how I never have time to watch my movies. It is very, very rare that I stop watching any movie with the intention of never finishing it. I’d like to say it’s to be respectful to the story, that stories should be finished. But it’s probably more that I have OCD and need to know how something ends. But there have been exceptions, a few I’ve stopped watching before completion (or wish I had).

There’s a distinct difference between a movie that’s so bad it’s good, so bad it’s bad, and just… intolerable. These are my top five intolerables (along with some honorable mentions).

I was excited when I saw the trailer for this one. I love fantasy movies. But a fantasy that’s a comedy? It’s about time. There’s no reason you can’t put these two great tastes that taste great together. Plus Natalie Portman? I was hopeful. I was ecstatic. I was anticipating a fantasy-genre comedy meant that spec fic was on its way to be legitimized.

“Your Highness” took a shit over all that.

And it was almost a literal shit, since that’s what all the humor was: juvenile fart jokes, weed humor, dirty pranks, and swearing. Let’s make a list of what does not belong in fantasy — weed, conventional curse words & slang, minotaur rape. Does not compute. Even the thirteeniest-year-old D & D player wouldn’t find this movie funny.

Not to mention our main character is the most unlikeable, laziest douche I’ve ever met. Yes, it makes sense for a prince to be unambitious and hedonistic because of his position. But it’s not okay to make that misogynist prince the sympathetic character.

I was sooo close to shutting it off. Sooooooo close. The only thing that stopped me was that I was watching it with someone, and I didn’t want to be rude, even though the movie was my choice. Which is like making dinner and then realizing you used salt instead of sugar. But you keep eating it for the sake of convention. This movie offended me in the worst sense – my literary sense.

The first time I saw this, I turned it off just about after the credits were done, when Meg Ryan is flitting about her bookshop, smiling and humming with her chirpy, perky voice, smelling flowers and fawning over books like they’re precious gems. (And yes, I said that and I’m a writer.)

Who wants to see a movie about Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks texting? Tell me who needs to see that? I certainly don’t. I guess the big deal was that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan were reuniting for the first time since Sleepless in Seattle. Except people forgot that, in that movie, THEY DON’T SHARE ANY SCREEN TIME.  So who cares if they’re reuniting?  They never united in the first place! Fortunately, I never got to the part where Tom Hanks becomes the most uncharacteristically unlikeable character he’d ever played. Never thought I’d see that.

And I didn’t.

This kept popping up in my Netflix recommendations list, so I finally gave up and queued it. Boy, am I sorry I did. I like geek humor — there’s not enough of it out there — and I had just come from listening to the utterly hilarious Penny Arcade D & D games on podcast.

This is so totally different than that. This seems to be a low-low-low-budget independent comedy about some RPG gamers that follow the old trope of “the character is the avatar”. Unfortunately, every character is a jerk. One player keeps trying to have sex with everything, even in the throne room in front of the king.

There’s ten minutes (or what feels like ten minutes) where the a player is arguing with a DM about how he wants to play a certain character that doesn’t fit the universe/rules. That goes on for a while, and finally the DM relents, until the player tells him that he wants do something that violates ANOTHER rule of the universe they just went over.

It’s like someone made a full movie version of the Dungeons & Dragons audio bit. Except much, much worse. All the characters do is bicker over petty shit and act like stereotypes. All the potential in this kind of comedy died because it was about the passive-aggressive, argumentative, horndog geek. I stopped watching partway through when I realized the movie was just a waste of my time.

(Editor’s Note: Apparently, I’ve talked about this movie before and didn’t realize it, until I was Google Image Searching for pictures and my own blog entry was the first hit.)

A long time ago, I read a list of fifty movies that few people had ever seen and should. There were several good discoveries like The Arrival, Pulse, and Birdy. But not all of them, like Testament and Time After Time. And for some reason, The Winslow Boy was on there. I should have known this would be crap when there was no known stars, no science fiction elements, and a lot of British looking things.

This is based on a play about a boy who gets kicked out of his wealthy private school and goes back to his wealthy house, where his wealthy parents fret about what their wealthy neighbors will say and their wealthy daughter marrying the wealthy naval captain and I just don’t fucking care. Let the little kid suffer. Give me people with some real problems.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say this movie takes a shit all over my childhood is confusing, at best. Muppets had been on a decline ever since Jim Henson’s death, as one would expect. Yet they continue beating the dead horse to the ground, squeezing

every…
last…
drop.

But the biggest nail in the coffin, the moment we knew it was all over, was Muppets from Space. The plot rips off Close Encounters of the Third Kind and adds the schmaltz of Follow That Bird. It’s the Muppet equivalent of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” — a totally unnecessary sequel, focusing too much on the new, unlikable characters, D-List guest stars, and corruptions of existing characters. All the charm Henson gave to the muppets is gone. It even has the “nuke-the-fridge” moment of Gonzo finding out he’s an alien.

No. You can’t do that. Gonzo has never had an origin story. He’s not supposed to. I know all the other muppets are some kind of stylized animal, but Gonzo is a “weirdo” or “whatever”. He always has been, he always should be. Next you’re going to be telling me his fur is made of midichlorians.

The muppets can be good again, but if you try to make them the same as Henson did, you’ll fail. If you deviate too much from what Henson wanted to do, you’ll fail.  It’s a delicate balance, and this movie never even tried to do either. The magic is back, my ass.

Honorable Mentions

Scream 2 – Speaking of unnecessary sequels, boy, this certainly… was one. I never got the appeal of the first Scream movie, but at least it was watchable. Someone pointing out all the tropes and errors in a slasher flick is like someone saying wrestling is fake. Everyone knows that.  Doesn’t change the fun of watching.

But Scream wasn’t even about that. Past the one or two bits of self-referential humor, it was a knock-off of “masked-man-with-a-knife” movies like Halloween. And those are tame by today’s standards. But then you make a movie that’s exactly the same thing? No thank you.

The Family Man – Speaking of unnecessary sequels, let us not forget the unnecessary remake. I liked this movie the first time I saw it, when it was called “every It’s a Wonderful Life parody in a sitcom”. Could there be a more blatant plot steal than this movie? Starring Nicolas Cage — our era’s Kevin Costner? You can call it a modern-day version or a homage all you want.  I’ll call it like I see it: “transparent copy”.

Jabberwocky – My dad told me this was one of the later Monty Python movies, since I’d already seen Holy Grail, Life of Brian, Something Completely Different, Meaning of Life, and the entire “Flying Circus” series.

My dad lied. It’s directed by Terry Gilliam and stars Michael Palin, but contains nothing Pythonesque or funny. I don’t remember a damn thing about it — my mind tuned out for its duration.  When the credits rolled I asked “It’s over? Why? What happened?”

A Walk To Remember – Mandy Moore is hot. She’s especially hot as a demure, upbeat, moral girl with cute bangs, brunette hair, and long flowing dresses. She’s especially hot when I apply my imagination and… oh, wait. Sorry, I need to save that for my next fan fiction. Anyway, this movie told me everything I need to know about the works of Nicholas Sparks — characters acting implausibly, bubbly afterschool specialness with strong Christian overtones, and plots that just don’t work.

Malcolm in the Middle – I know this isn’t a movie, but I had to include it.  I hate, hate, hate, hate, HATE this show. Everyone is an absolute dick to each other.  For no reason. Nobody is redeemable.  Nobody gets punished for being an idiot.  Nobody experiences consequences for their behavior. They’re bad people who are bad at being people. They’re jerks. They’re bullies. They’re sociopaths. Parents and kids alike.

I hate every fucking second of this show. I hate their stupid expressions, their yelling, that theme music. I hate fucking Frankie Muniz’s retarded, jaw-dropped expressions and wide-angle lenses. I hate that boy with the big ears. I hate that shrewish mom who can’t stand her own family, which she helped create. I hate that ridiculously ignorant motherfucker of a dad who’s got the maturity of a dog. They’re trailer trash, and they should all be lined up and shot.

Stuck on You / The Bourne Identity – There’s no real reason to lump these two together. The only commonality is Matt Damon, who I don’t like as an actor. He did Good Will Hunting and then nothing else, (except maybe for The Departed, but that also had Martin Scorese and Leonardo DiCaprio on its side).

Stuck on You – I don’t get why everyone’s so in love with the Farelly brothers. Ooh, it’s a Farelly brothers comedy. What does that even mean? Who are they? Why is this a selling point? Their movies aren’t good: Shallow Hal, Dumb and Dumber, Hall Pass. This is not how you advertise.

The Bourne Identity – I cannot imagine a more tedious action movie. It’s based on a book that’s twenty-two years old, meant to compete with James Bond. Well, then it should have come out the same time as James Bond. Brainwashed assassins? Been done. Car chases? Been done. Government agent being chased by his own people? Been done. One man crusade? Been done. The story’s full of cliches.  It’s like no one told the movie makers that the 90’s happened.

Westworld – I already mentioned my problems with this in my “Top 5 Movies That Need To Be Remade”. Basically, it’s a great idea that had piss-poor execution. There’s no conflict until 80% of the way through, when it becomes a technology-gone-haywire/Terminator rip-off.

(Editor’s Note: Unlike “Dorkness Rising”, I wasn’t the first hit on this one. Boo.)

Eraserhead – David Lynch doesn’t make movies. He makes films. Films are art. Again, no idea why everyone’s so in love with this movie. Yeah, it’s got some great imagery. Got some fucked-up ideas, some creepy shots. But it’s all mish-mashed together with a story so incoherent, full of deviations, it has to be constantly interpreted and analyzed, which is the sign of a lazy writer.

Down Periscope – Kelsey Grammer stars in “Police Academy in a submarine”. Sounds like a winning formula to me. Especially with the Police Academy movies getting such high marks. And star power like… Rob Schneider and Harland Williams. There’s no way this couldn’t be chock full of hackneyed, played-out jokes, toilet humor, and a script that sounds like it was written on the plane ride to the studio.

Transformers III: Dark of the Moon – I thought it was necessary to include a contemporary movie in the list, just to show that intolerable movies don’t solely exist in the eighties or low budgets. Blockbusters can be just as bad. Five or ten years from now, people are going to look back at Transformers and say “This was a top grossing movie!? It’s nothing but CGI and people falling!” And who thought Shia LaBeouf was a good idea for this role?  He’s going to make some bad career decisions, fade himself into obscurity, and end up on one of Dr. Drew’s rehab shows.

Killjoy – You already know what you’re in for when you’ve got a direct-to-video horror movie with African-American urban youth and a killer clown. Channel Awesome’s review provides a nice summary of what you’re not missing. The only reason I’m including it is this movie was a bit of a stepping-stone in my writing career. In the sense that, when I saw it, I thought: “I can write better than this. If this guy could get his script made into a movie, there is hope for me.”

Reign of Fire – I saw this one in the theater, and I was excited. I thought “Ah, finally, a movie that combines fantasy and science. We’re going to find out how dragons work!” as I was misled by dialogue in the commercial/trailer: “two glands in the mouth secrete separate chemicals, combined with exhalation — natural napalm”. In fact, this is the only line that even gets close to anything resembling science. The other 89 minutes is a tedious, post-apocalyptic cheesefest that belonged on the “Sci-Fi”/”SyFy” channel, but somehow got upgraded with thanks to Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey.

The Books I Read: January – March 2011

bookshelf books

mockingjay suzanne collins
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

The final book of the Hunger Games trilogy (see Hunger Games first & second and Catching Fire reviews). There are things I liked about the book and things I didn’t. I liked Katniss’s role as figurehead of propaganda — how she both embraces and rejects the role. I like that the ending is like another Hunger Games, but where Catching Fire just repeated it, Collins did it a little different with the infiltration.

My biggest problem were the parts in-between all these exciting bits. The constant question of Peeta hangs over everyone’s head. I’m sure some readers liked that, but I got sick of it. It stopped the story for me, like there had to be pause to give the girly-girls a Twilight-esque romance to fawn over.

I’ll never understand how girls get on this Team This or Team That mentality. They must like to argue about boys they can’t have, I guess. I think the trilogy is worse for it, but really, that’s a small part of the book. I think it’s an excellent end to the trilogy, and I like that Collins didn’t cop out on the conclusion, that it finishes the way it began (spoilers!).

how to train your dragon cressida cowell
How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

I saw the movie on Netflix and thought it was pretty awesome. The book? Eh… not so much. I know the scriptwriters chopped up the series to make the final movie, but the book reminded me of a Nicktoon — one of the bad ones that was just gross-out humor and bad Korean animation, trying to be Ren & Stimpy. The book is in the form of journal/account of the protagonist, complete with crude sketches, ink splotches, and the occasional full-page joke meant to increase page count. It has shades of Roald Dahl, but it’s a poor imitator. See the movie instead.

shades of grey jasper fforde
Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

For book club, and one of the few books I was glad I read afterwards. The problem is it’s really hard to understand because the world is so different. A lot of times, it’s hard to tell if the book is trying to be a comedy or not.

For example, the social structure for the entire world is based on how much color you can see, because an individual can only see one color at a time (reds, blues, oranges, etc.) due to some unnamed cataclysm. People who can see 70% red or so are strong candidates as community leaders and thus, people are very concerned about who to marry in order to produce offspring that can see a lot of color. People who can’t see much (greys) are considered lower class, like slaves. And no one can see in the dark. You get home before it gets dark, or you get killed.

If you thought that was silly, consider that spoons are a rare treasure. You must always keep your spoon, and I guess it’s tied to your postal code, so if you don’t have a spoon, you may as well not exist Add to that a naked man who everyone ignores because the social rules say he doesn’t exist, a giant puzzle everyone works on, colors that can kill, and the last rabbit, and you’ve got a “different” novel.

But if you can get past the learning curve of world-building, it’s quite a good novel. The story keeps you going, as you want to find out more why, why, why. There are whys here — the spoons and the colors aren’t just arbitrary, even though they’re not explained. It’s not for casual readers — you will be tested — but it’s worth the drive.

sandman slim richard kadrey
Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

This has been on my “to-read” list for a long time, ever since I heard about it on Boing Boing and read Butcher Bird/Blind Shrike. Plus the summary intrigued me. It’s just a guy who escaped from Hell with the intention of killing everyone who put him there. Simple as that. There’s no reluctant hero, no romance, no quest, no internal struggle, no touchy-feely. Just a guy who’s going to kill you all. The best part is that the novel delivers what it promises, but then it delivers more. So much more.

I’m not sure if I’m going to read the other books in the sequence. But if I do have time, it sure would be nice to.

roll the bones
Roll the Bones edited by Ignatius Umlaut and Del Beaudry

Hey, look it’s me! Why, yes, I am in this book. Which means I’m a registered author. Granted, I’m part of a large anthology, but it’s a start. At least I get my own Goodreads profile and a link in Amazon. Hopefully, I’ll be able to capitalize on that once I’m published with a real book.

I wanted to get a feel for my contemporaries, so I read the rest of the stories therein. I was surprised how many of them had the same flavor, and that flavor wasn’t the same as my story. Makes me wonder how I got picked in the first place. There are a lot of dungeons, a lot of Red Sonja women, a lot of magicians and dagger-carrying rogues. I hesitate to make any judgements on the book, because I’m in it, I don’t think I could be impartial.

the demolished man alfred bester
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

Another book for book club, this one chosen by the only other guy in it. But he’s a guy after my own heart, and he picked the very first Hugo award winner. There are telepaths/psychics and since they can read your mind, murder has mostly become a thing of the past (a la Minority Report). Unless you’re Ben Reich, CEO of one of the world’s two biggest companies. The owner of the other is your rival, and you want to kill him for obvious reasons. How do you do it with all these telepaths watching? Well, that’s the question, and it becomes a thrilling cat-and-dog game between the guy who may have committed the perfect crime and the telepath detective pursuing him.

At least it would be more thrilling if it wasn’t so antiquated. Alfred Bester wrote radio serials and it shows. I kept hearing old episodes of The Shadow in my head during the dialogue. There are definite signs of its age — a lot of the sci-fi tropes like common space travel that we know are implausible today are in place, and the storyline starts getting scrambled as you get further in the book. Suddenly everyone is someone’s relative a la Star Wars. It reminds me of when I started to write, I was trying to get all artsy by making the page into a canvas and playing with word shapes. Not that I’m comparing myself to Alfred Bester.