Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Genre Character of the Week: Bode Locke

A few months ago while listening to the Scotch & Comics podcast, I was introduced to Joe Hill’s Locke & Key. The story, following the Locke family after a terrible incident involving the murder of the husband/father, involved the family relocating to the family home in Lovecraft, MA, and the mystery they discover there. Although all the characters are incredibly well conceived and fleshed out, my personal favourite is the youngest of the three children, Bode Locke.

Bode is the archetypal little-kid character often found throughout horror and dark fantasy stories, and although there is a lot going on with his older two siblings as they explore their new home, Locke House, it is Bode who begins to find the secrets of the home, including the thing in the Well house and a strange key which opens a door that sends the keyholder on quite a journey.

What I like best about Bode is that for all the horror that has gone on in his life (the death of his father was extremely traumatic, read the series to find out more), he sees the house, the key and his new life exciting. Things that would terrify the normal person (me included) are simply considered “COOL!” by Bode. Let me tell you, that little kid is pretty amazing.

If you haven’t checked out this series yet and are in any way a fan of dark fantasy and horror, you are really missing out.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Review: Ride the Nightmare

For the last few months my author of choice has been Richard Matheson. In the past I've worked my way through Michael Crichton, Pierre Berton, Terry Pratchett and a few others, simply working my way from oldest to newest, a book a month.

Although I was most familiar with Matheson in his horror and dark fantasy work (I Am Legend, Hell House, The Shrinking Man), he worked in all sorts of genres, and just a Elmore Leonard started out in Westerns before moving to the crime novels he was later famous for, Matheson began writing crime novels and thrillers. So far I've read Fury on Sunday, Someone Is Bleeding, and Woman; all of which were novels involving a relatively terrifying evening or few evenings in the lives of relatively normal people (although Woman has a decidedly Twilight Zone feel to it).

Ride the nightmare follows a married couple and their young child over the course of about 24 hours and involves mistaken identity, escaped criminals and a lot of punch for a novel that is only about 120 pages. If you've read a lot of crime novels the twists may not be too surprising to you, but the feel throughout the book is really great, the tension just builds and builds and the stakes get higher and higher.

I read the story in a collection called Noir, which contains three of Matheson's early books, and honestly, it was a lot of fun. Next up for me is actually a war novel called The Beardless Warriors, but as that is my February Matheson book, it'll have to wait.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Things I've Noticed: Clearing out the PVR can be pretty exciting

So over the last couple weeks my wife and I have been deciding between our current cable/phone/internet provider and the competition. Both sides have put up a pretty good reason to either switch or stay, and in the end our choice works best for our needs (I hope), but an interesting side-project in all this is that we have been working for the last two weeks to empty our PVR.

The Personal Video Recorder (PVR) is in some ways like a VCR, but unlike the older machine, which could be programed to tape television at a certian tie, the PVR can be programmed to tape shows or complete series at any time they air. Like a show featuring Australian crime-fighting teenaged mermaids? Annoyed that it only airs at 2:15am? No problem, the PVR will tape that series until you have dozens and dozens of episodes backlogged on your system, stopping you from watching your current prime-time favourites!

Okay, so there are some bugs, but what the heck, all new technology needs to be better understood by the users so that they can access it more effectively.

Our PVR lists a percentage of total space used (rather than number of programs) and over the last two weeks we went from 89% to 5% (last nights episode of Eastenders and The Finder). Over the course of this week I've learned a lot things.

1) Some shows work better if you watch them in a smaller period of time, AMC's Hell on Wheels (10 episodes) was a pretty fun show to watch at two episodes a night, but I think it may have lost something for me if I simly watched it weekly.

2) High Definition (HD) shows take up a lot of space, and unless the show is visually striking (mostly Special Effects heavy shows) the need to see it in HD isn't really that great.

3) You (well, I) feel a great sense of accomplishment when I get the PVR down to zero, like I've defeated a boss in a video game.

Bookmonkey vs. PVR


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Genre Character of the Week: Samuel Vimes

One of my favourite times of the year is in January, when I go looking through all my lists to figure out which new books by my favourite authors are due out over the next year. In 2011 I had a list of six books I was looking forward to above all others, all of which except two ended up as reviews on my blog (the first missing title was Dead Reckoning, by Charlaine Harris, but as it was book 11 of an ongoing series, I couldn’t figure out how to review it without giving away massive spoilers). The final book was Terry Pratchett’s Snuff, featuring my favourite character in his Discworld stories, Samuel Vimes.

A few years ago I reviewed Matthew Scott’s Thraxas, a novel which paired the hard-boiled detective novel with a fantasy setting. In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, the author has satirized and parodied so many types of stories with his own fantasy world I wouldn’t know where to begin (but I suppose if you want to, you should start with The Colour of Magic, which parodies everything from classic fantasy to tourism and even Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser), but for me my personal favourite novels are his cop stories, which he calls his City Watch novels (including, Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud!, and Snuff) and a major part of this is the captain of the city watch, Samuel Vimes.

Now, a huge part of what I like about Sam is his growth throughout the series of books he features in, and like one of my favourite SF Genre characters, Miles Vorkosigan, Sam does an awful lot over the course of these stories. But looking back at his character in his first book,Guards! Guards!, Sam comes across as a good cop, trying to balance his own views about the importance of law and order with his experience in leading the city watch of Ankh Morpork, a wretched hive of scum and villainy if there ever was one.

In the end, he’s a decent guy trying to do his best in a less than great situation, something we can all aspire to.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Book Review: The Five

It’s not a secret that Robert McCammon is one of my favourite authors. Whether he’s scaring me with novels like Mine, or Stinger, giving me a sense of wonder with a story like Boy’s Life, or simply looking at history from a different (and sometimes fantastic) point of view like the Matthew Corbett novels or The Wolf’s Hour, I know when I pick up a new McCammon novel, I’m in for some fine storytelling.

The Five might be my favourite book of 2011.

It’s a little hard to tell right now, as I just finished it this morning, but the story, which follows a rock and roll band called The Five on a nightmarish road trip through America creeped me out, made me feel sympathy for all of its characters (even the bad guys) and did the amazing trick of being a book about music that had me feeling the way I do when I hear great bands play. The band felt real to me, in fact, overall I can’t think of any character’s who came out as two-dimensional in the story. It was really great, in both the big thrill and quiet character development moments.

In the end, the book does an amazing job of being a dark fantasy novel about rock and roll that shows the transcendent power of music.

Seriously, a great read.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thing I've noticed: Sometimes I need to weed my television

One of the most underrated jobs in the library field is that of weeding, that is the process of removing books and other materials to make space for new ones. I think the reason for this is that at the most basic levels of library work, we kind of want to be archivists – we want to acquire new materials and never let go of old ones, because what if someday we need that title? What if some future student, or kid or just a regular reader comes into our building looking for a title and when they don’t find it they decide to leave and spend the rest of their days complaining about how useless the library is?

Here’s the thing, weeding is necessary to make space. Sometimes books are ridiculously simple to weed (computer manuals, legal texts, etc.), but eventually you need to make the hard choices and decide which books you own need to go and which need to stay.

Last week my wife and I decided to weed our viewing habits.

First off, a little context, most nights we watch about three hours of television (not including commercials, which we usually skip past); a show with our kids and then a couple hours for ourselves. Depending these are current shows, TV shows on DVD or sometimes movies, depending on our mood and the fact that we now use a PVR (Personal Video Recorder) means that we aren’t locked into any specific time to watch any show (the concept is called Timeshifting in Communications Studies and a great example of it is to think back to your viewing habits before you had a VCR if you are my age and realize that a lot of what you watched came down to what was on, rather than what you wanted to watch).

There are three good times a year to do some TV series weeding, these being late August, early January and late May – or if you will the times when current series are about to begin or end.

We try to have a one-to-one trade policy. If there is a new series coming out (such as Alcatraz) we look at the length of the show (1 hour) and try to find a comparable show we are already watching that maybe we have been losing interest in (such as Persons of Interest) this way we keep our evenings free for other stuff and can be reasonable sure that the series we watch are actually the series we want to watch. Sometimes we’ll continue to tape a show for a few weeks until we decide whether or not we’ll want to go back (for example we just started taping 30 Rock, so Whitney is currently on notice – we’ll tape both for the next two weeks, but then a choice will be made).

I know this may seem like over thinking our viewing habits, but considering that I enjoy watching television, why shouldn’t I take a little time out of my life to make sure I’m enjoying it the best I can?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Genre Character of the Week: The Duke De Richleau

Okay folks, we’re going old-school this week with one of my favourite characters from the Hammer Horror films of the ‘60s, The Duke De Richeleau (pictured left) from the 1968 film,The Devil Rides Out, as played by Christopher Lee.

In the film, the Duke is called to the south of England to visit the son of a friend and upon his arrival discovers that young Simon may be involved with Satanists. The young man’s home has all the trappings of Satanism, and as the Duke is something of an expert in the field, he and a small group spend the rest of the film attempting to save their young friend and stop this evil group as well as the Devil himself.

Here’s what I love about the character; he is an expert in Satanism and the occult. There isn’t really any backstory given for why he is so well versed in such a strange area of study, but his calm and steady demeanor allow him to put up a great fight against the ultimate evil. Christopher Lee (who scared me as Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy in earlier Hammer Horror Films) plays the good guy in this film and honestly he’s pretty great.

Add to that the fact that the screenplay was written by one of my favourite authors, Richard Matheson, and that the story was based on a book by Dennis Wheatley (British a writer of thrillers and occult novels from the 1930s through the 1970s) and that this was actually the second of eleven novels focusing on the Duke and I’ve got to say, the film is a treat and I’m really looking forward to checking out these other novels.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Book Review: Bug Jack Barron

As someone who has spent the last four years getting a degree focusing on media and communications studies, reviewing a science fiction novel focused on a media personality in a dark future may be a troubling prospect, what with all the bias and educational background and all. Luckily for you my dear readers, I will have none of those problems.

Just in case you were worried.


Here’s the thing, for the last few years I’ve been working my way through David Pringle’s SF The Top 100 books published in English from 1945 – 1985 and although I loved the books of the ’40s and ‘50s, a lot of the stuff in the (especially late) ‘60s just came across as flowery/free-form poetry that took forever to make its point and often could have been cut way down. But now, after reading my Moorcock and Burroughs and Ellison I come across this book and all of that writing style suddenly came together into something that I just loved.

In the world of Bug Jack Barron (by Norman Spinrad), Jack hosts a massively popular television show (think a mixture of Oprah, Larry King and mid-nineties Jerry Springer) and is considered to be the voice of the people. In reality his persona and show are carefully crafted products, working to establish the perfect balance between sensationalism and legal tap-dancing. Jack is focused on making cash and although years ago he was something of a rebel, these days he simply grooms that image to play better to the audience. Inevitably he gets involved with a story bigger than anything he could have imagined.

The story itself focuses on roles of the media, ethical dilemmas and the concept of immortality. It’s a lot of fun and although the style of prose takes a while to get used to, it is definitely worth your time.

A Great read.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Things I've noticed: I need to read some recent Science Fiction

Today I finished reading the 1969 novel Bug Jack Barron byNorman Spinrad (I'll do the review on Monday) and was happy to find an afterward written by Michael Moorcock. As I worked my way through his five page essay on the book, he mentioned a large number of popular science fiction books written in the late sixties, and I realized that over the last couple of years I had read 95% of them.

This isn't actually a problem as the late '60s had all sorts of great Science Fiction being published. It's just that as I was congratulating myself for being so familiar with the books written in the decade before I was born I realized that with the exception of books written by the authors I follow and a couple recent Hugo winners suggested to me by my BFF Mike, I haven't really read any of the great science fiction that has been published in the last ten years.

In a way I feel like the music lover in 1969 who says "I'm a huge folk and rock music lover, and am totally familiar with all the classics of yesteryear; no I didn't go see that Woodstock thing earlier this year, even though it was playing just down the road, but let me tell you all the great things that were happening fifteen years ago."

Okay, not exactly like that, as '50s rock and roll (like '60s Science Fiction) is definitely some of the best, but mostly I mean that I need to get into some stuff that is still available in regular bookstores.

So I guess I'm going to try to swap out every month - first a science fiction classic, then something written after my youngest daughter was born (1997), and hopefully this will get me a little more balance in my reading.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Genre Character of the Week: Stargirl

Last month for one of my book clubs I read the first 11 volumes of the Justice Society of America, which ran from 1999 to 2006 (considering the majority of these characters started out in the 1940’s, I use the term first very loosely), and although the team had a lot of members joining and leaving throughout the run, it did re-introduce me to this week’s genre character, Stargirl, aka Courtney Whitmore.

I was first introduced to the character in James Robinson’s Starman, where she comes across as kind of an arrogant jerk, totally taking the work of her partner (and Stepfather) for granted and basically coming across as a very selfish teen. In the end of Starman (mild spoiler), Jack Knight passes on his Cosmic Staff to Courntey and she changes her name from the Star-Spangled Kid to Stargirl. At the time I readStarman, I couldn’t help wondering, why her? I mean, she doesn’t really come across as even mildly heroic in the series and I couldn’t follow Jack’s logic as to why she should take up where he left off.

Luckily, after reading the Justice Society of America series, I now have a much better idea. Here’s what I really liked about Courtney; she is learning as she goes along, she’s not afraid to admit when she’s wrong, and honestly, she is the only superhero I can think of who wears braces for her teeth. Her relationships throughout the run on JSA run from friendships to romances (and specifically one of the best uses of the “but you don’t know him like I do” excuses I’ve ever come across in genre fiction) and unlike a lot of the other heroes, you actually get to see her mature through the series.

Honestly, a pretty cool superhero.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

First Impressions: The Boys

Like the film Super, I’d been looking at the Garth Ennis comic book series The Boys for a while now. Here was my basic problem – I really enjoyed my first experience with Garth Ennis (Preacher is a really violent, but fun romance with vampires that sits pretty high in my favourite comic book series), my second experience was his run on The Punisher for Marvel comics, which I really liked at first, and then seemed to quickly devolve into a simple horrible-villain-is-horrible-then-the-Punisher-shows-up-and-kills-him cycle that I got pretty tired of pretty quick.
The a few years back The Boys came out, and as I was actually shying away from superhero comics at the time (novels however, like Superfolks by Robert Mayer still made it on to my reading lists and thank goodness, because that book is amazing!) I really didn’t have any interest in checking out some kind of (literal) hero-bashing story filled with morally bankrupt superpowered jerks.

Then in December I had the chance to check out the first few trade paperback collections of the title from my local library, and as I had a bunch of time I thought, Why not?

So, what did I think of the first few collections of The Boys?

Well, they were hyper-violent and full of adult content, but so was Preacher, they did indeed involve many issues where our "heroes" beat the ever-loving crap out of their world's Super Heroes; the stories were filled with concepts and ideas that made me sad or upset with the idea of a world wherein super powered folks weren't really doing anything for the common good, then I started getting angry, and you know what - that is kind of the point.

The main characters are the last line of a defence in a world where super-heroes accidentally kill civilians and then have the victim's families bought off by lawyers. The whole point is that you (the reader) are supposed to be disturbed and angry about what these people in positions of power are doing, and then realize that someone needs to stop them. Like Preacher, the series does have a romance angle at it's centre and yes, you end up caring for the main characters.

Is this a title for everyone? No. Is it interesting? Yes, and as a free read does it work for me? Yup. Although I wouldn't own the series, I am interested in seeing where the creators are going with it and as long as I can keep reading it from my local library, I'll keep following the series.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Things I’ve noticed: Sometimes violence in videogames can mess with your head

This morning I was talking to my nineteen-year-old daughter about the game Infamous. I wrote a review of it earlier this week and she is currently working through the game herself. She explained to me that at one point in the game while stopping a prison break, she witnessed one of the villainous dustmen shoot a police officer with a rocket launcher and although she had been knocking out dustmen up to that point, she made a special effort to kill this one.

It’s funny, as neither character were actually real people (sorry ReBoot – maybe they were, but for the purposes of this post let’s assume they weren’t) there should not have been any specific reason for her to target this one villain over any others, but I suppose the fact that as the main character in the game, it was within her power to theoretically stop the villain before he blew up the police officer, the least she could do was get revenge.

I guess that is one of the biggest draws for me when it comes to video games; unlike books, movies and TV shows, video games are the one medium that let me (the player) take direct action and an effect on the game world. This was the same draw for me into the world of Role-Playing Games when I was younger. Whether I was a Fighter, a Vampire or a cyborg-dwarf Shadowrunner, I could do things in the game that would have consequences.

It’s funny, but in a way I feel pretty good about my daughter’s reaction; I mean, sure she brutally beat a (virtual) guy and then threw a grenade on him for good measure, but the part I’m talking about is the fact that when she saw something that she found unacceptable, she did something about it. It makes me feel (virtually) proud.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Genre Character of the Week: The Crimson Bolt

I had heard about the movie Super a few years ago and as I’ve enjoyed the films of James Gunn whenever I’ve caught them (Slither is my current favourite, but Lollilove had a nice mockumentary-feel throughout) so the idea of a super-hero film starring Rainn Wilson (Dwight from The Office) sounded like something right up my alley.

A number of obstacles soon started to form however; it didn’t play in any of my local theatres, and review after review of the film left me feeling less enthusiastic about the film. The movie came out on DVD earlier this year, and it sat on the shelves at my local department store for $25 – which is a little steep for me to purchase a movie without watching it first. Even my online DVD-rental place didn’t have it. Then, while grocery shopping with my BFF Mike last week, I found it in my local Safeway for $5, so I snapped it up. Which leads to this week’s genre character, Frank D’Arbo, aka The Crimson Bolt.

Frank (played by Rainn Wilson) is a short-order cook, married and a pretty simple guy; he loves his wife and one of his favourite memories is of helping the police. One day his wife leaves him for a jerk named Jacques played by Kevin Bacon and Frank breaks down.

Finding inspiration in a Christian-themed super hero show called The Holy Avenger (played by Nathan Fillion) who saves children from a devil with the power of Christ, Frank decides to become a superhero, after all, in the words of the Holy Avenger

"All it takes to become a superhero is the choice to fight evil"

So Frank sets out to stop crime, and the movie follows him as he stumbles and bumbles his way through his new life. Personally, I enjoy the fact that the violence in the film is very realistic and does a good job of showing just how vicious Frank can be with criminals. I found that the similarly-themed film Kick-Ass sort of glorified the violence that the main character caused, and I felt this film did a better job of dealing with the themes of religion, self-worth and redemption better than the other.

Frank comes across as a simple guy pushed too far. He is not unlike Michael Douglas in Falling Down (one of my favourite non-genre films) in that he wants to live in a world where right and wrong obvious and separate. Although the film won’t be for everyone, I actually ended up liking it and yes, it will stay in my DVD collection.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Game Review: Infamous

As I've been off on vacation for the last couple of weeks, I was able to finish my most recent game for the PS3, Infamous. The game is a sandbox-style game (wherein you can follow a main story, do side missions or simply explore the environment) and follows a bicycle messenger named Cole MacGrath who begins to develop super powers after being at the epicentre of a massive explosion.

The game itself was a lot of fun, as the explorations through the city showed me a lot of really neat environments and allowed me to interact with the cities population. Actually one of the best parts of the game, in my opinion, was the ability to be a jerk or a decent guy throughout and have your choice actually affect the gameplay. Playing as a good guy, I eventually had a lot of people helping out in my battles and being friendly to me overall. I'm looking forward to coming back to the game at a later date and trying it out as an evil guy, so the replay offered by the game is actually quite high.

The graphics were fun, the story was engaging, and although there were a few glitches (mostly falling through parts of the environment that should not have let me fall), overall this was a really fun play. I'm excited about checking out the sequel as well, but next up for me is the sequel to one of my favourite games for the PS3 so far, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. This new title, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, looks like it's going to be a lot of fun.