Reviews from the Kindle Aisle

I have become addicted to cheap fantasy.

(Muse:  Knowing what you fantasize about, you can color me shocked.)

Not that kind of fantasy, you nattering buffoon.  Spec-fiction fantasy.  A few months back, Mrs. Axe gifted me with a Kindle card and rather than download one magnum opus from a big author for $20, I decided to experiment and try some lesser-known authors, who had put their books out there at a low rate, hoping for a nibble.  Basically, I shot low to see what I would get, in terms of quality.  Going into this I did have a few ground rules:

1) I set my upper limit for any one book to a soft $2.99, though I could be persuaded a little higher.
2) I did look for books with good reader reviews, and lots of them.  Someone with two reviews, both of which were five stars, could easily be the author themselves under dummy accounts.  When they had two hundred, it seemed less likely.  3 stars was about my cutoff.
3) I would read at least one quarter of the book before passing judgement – and if I didn't like it, I would not feel guilty about finishing, since I paid little for it.
4) I will eventually go leave my own Amazon reviews, to help others as the reviews help me.  (This, I have not done yet.)

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised.  The books – and authors were a mix.  Some caught my attention; others aroused no more than polite interest, even though they were put together well.  A few blurbs:

Night of the Wolves (The Paladins #1), by David Dalglish.  This was an interesting little jaunt.  The story concerned two main characters, Jerico and Darius, Paladins from opposing orders, who are both assigned to a rural countryside area, where they preach their faiths and attempt to win the approval of the townsfolk.  In the meantime, the leader of a roving pack of intelligent wolf-like monsters from beyond the river attempt to unite the tribes of his kind, in best Genghis Khan style, for an attack on the human lands.  I rather liked this one.  The characters were distinct and full of flawed doubt and questioning.  The setting – while not inspiring – was functional and consistent.  There are other sub-plots moving around, including an apparent war between the paladin factions, straining the relationship between Jerico and Darius, even as they deal with the wolf problem.  The story is told in multiple limited third-person view, so you get a view from a number of character heads (though it was about two more than was comfortable).  Dalglish's website lists a number of books, so he's been quite prolific for the last few years.  This first book was free, so for those who like old-fashioned sword-n-sorcery battle tales, I recommend it.  I plan on getting the other two books in this series and going from there.  Amazon review rating:  4 stars, which seems about right.

War of the Fae, Book 1 (The Changelings) by Elle Casey.  This is a YA novel (which I didn't realize when I got it – so much for careful scrutiny of the reviews, right?) and as such, I think it's serviceable.  The tale opens with smart-mouthed Jayne Sparks, an over-smart teenager with a quick mind and quicker mouth.  After she and a male friend run away from trouble, they find themselves caught up in remote wilderness with several other runaways, where they are tormented by a variety of mythical creatures.  This one was okay.  I get that I was not the target audience, so maybe that's why I saw the twists and turns coming pages before they happened.  The writing and the gauntlet the characters run were a little reminiscent of Hunger Games (which was itself inspired by the Japanese novel Battle Royale).  Jayne is too precocious and sure of herself for me, especially for some of the character wrinkles that are later revealed.  The other characters come off as tentative or lacking individuality.  Technically, the book is well-paced and descriptive, and I stayed entertained long enough to make it to the end.  I can imagine teenaged girls really liking this one; as an old fart, I thought it was decent but that's about it.  Amazon review rating:  4.5 stars, whereas I'd give it 3.5.

The Black God's War (Splendor and Ruin, Book I), by Moses Siregar III.  The plot concerns the son and daughter of a king, both of whom inherited powers of war and peace by virtue of their ties to the Gods.  When their father insists on a sustained war with their ancient enemies, they ply their gifts as best they can, though the girl Lucia is beset by visions of yet another God, who torments her with promises of doom and death – for her and all her people.  You know, I should have liked this one.  The Amazon page acknowledges a few awards & praises the book has earned, the plot concept is sound.  It was right in my wheelhouse.  But try as I might, I just could not get into it.  I read about 100 pages in and finally put it down.  I am not sure why but it just wasn't my cup o'tea.  Amazon review rating:  4.5 stars but I can't give it one.

Adrianna's Fairy Tales:  Erotic Retellings, by Adrianna White.  Okay, I am still not sure why I read this.  The book retells three classic fairy tales from an erotic point of view:  Naughty Cinderella, Riding Red Hood, and Beauty and the Beast with Two Backs.  Up front, I would say there isn't enough erotica in the stories to justify the title.  When I want some smut, I expect some smut.  Even the notoriously bad 50 Shades series had more sex in it, page for page, than this did.  The writing was technically sound and the dialogue between characters felt natural but the characters themselves felt uni-dimensional and were not very interesting.  Plus, too much direct exposition.  We learn Cinderella is street walker because the author says it outright, rather than letting the described events make the point.  Even though it has a sale price now, it was free when I grabbed it – but I cannot recommend spending $4.99 on it.  Amazon review rating:  3 stars, but I would have to go 1.5.

I have a handful of others that I have not yet finished reading or yet discarded but when I do, I will be back with some more reviews.


An Unexpected Review

So ….

Even in my desert oubliette, we still get a little bit of culture over here – and in this case, "culture" would refer to being able to see new releases at the same time as in the States.  So I was able to take in "The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey" this last week.  Bottom line?  If I had to throw a "tl;dr" tag on this one, I would say that if you were devotee of Lord of the Rings, you would probably enjoy this one too.  If not, you might get bored.

I'll start with the negatives.  For one, it was waaay too long – and I say this as someone who still respects and honors Tolkien as the Godfather of the genre.  Peter Jackson took the 1200 pages of the Lord of the Rings series and stretched it to about 11 hours, in the extended versions.  The Hobbit is only 300 pages and at the rate of the first film, is on track for around nine hours of viewing time.  Naturally, this results in new material having to be added to fill in between gaps in the book.  I don't think a filmmaker has to be a slave to the source material and I don't mind new interpretations – but adding material for the purpose of drawing it out seems pointless.  Just tell the story.  Highlight for spoiler:  the scene with the stone giants was the absolute worst offender, having no impact on the film, other than to slow the pacing and show off special-effects wizardry.  It could have come out and saved eight minutes, without any harm.

And with all that screen time, the characters come across as cardboard-ish.  There are thirteen dwarves; even before the movie, I could have named all twelve (pause while you collect yourself from the revelation that I am a nerd).  But by watching the movie, you really don't get to know them very well.  Thorin, the leader and king in exile, is sketched out better than most but spends most of the film in a perpetual grumpy state.  He doesn't quite chew the scenery but close.  Just not enough time was devoted to character development.

Now having said all that, I will note a few positives.  The cinematography was unbelievable.  The Hobbit looks even better than the Lord of the Rings series; the vistas of New Zealand are absolutely breathtaking and the CGI effects blend flawlessly.  The goblin-infested mines in the Misty Mountains, the expanses of the Shire, Rivendell, the interior shots of Erebor (the Lonely Mountain) were all visually appealing.  The musical score was another success, and well-metered:  it was low-key at the right times and epic when needed.  I also have to say I enjoyed seeing the old actors from LotR return.  Ian McKellen (Gandalf) has noticeably aged and appears more withered than before – but Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) is, if anything, even more beautiful and regal than in the previous movies and does not appear to have aged a day.   And on whole, I enjoyed the translation of the musical numbers from the novel.  The singing dwarves added much-needed moments of levity to an otherwise bleak and depressing film.  The action was interspersed with exposition and chatting at the right intervals, so it paced fairly well.  I give the whole thing a B.

There are two more Hobbit movies scheduled:  The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and There and Back Again (2014).  At the end of the day, I think the three movies could have been compressed into two.  Despite that, I'll probably still be in line to see them both, and end up with them on DVD.

Just 'cause.

The Forever War (of the Sexes)

I guess I have been going old school lately.  I've been reading some older spec fiction, including much I had read before – mostly because it is fun to read something I haven't read in twenty years to see how it resonates with a newer, older, and (hopefully) more mature Stoneaxe.

I did read a new one:  The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.  It was an interesting look at how the soldiers in an interstellar war would be impacted by relativistic travel; that is, how they would age a few months physically while decades passed during their transit.  The soldiers return from their first tour to an Earth they do not understand, and vice versa.  (Given that the book was written in 1974, it seems an obvious Vietnam metaphor.)  They also experience the unpleasantness of spending years in transit, only to pop out and find the enemy has – in the wake of other defeats – upgraded their arsenal and that even though the humans began their voyage with a cutting-edge advantage, they come out of travel very much outgunned.  The main character was very believable and could easily have been a veteran of any Earthly war.

Overall, it was a decent book.  I enjoyed the application of physics to the combat and travel; it ain't nothing like Star Wars, folks.  SPOILER (highlight for reveal):  I didn't much care for the very end, with Mandaella being reunited with Marygay, against basically all logic and improbability.  I am not a softie for the happy ending but only if it makes sense in context.  I give the whole thing a "B."

One theme that Haldeman touched on was the evolution of gender status and roles.  In the early stages of the war, even though some of the women were soldiers, they were essentially expected to be compliant and sexually available to any man, any time.  To keep up morale, I guess.  Haldeman's statement is a little crass but I get where he was coming from.  Over time, as the soldiers travelled back and forth, they found society had embraced homosexuality – for the reason of keeping population down.  Then eventually, by the end of the novel, mankind has gotten away from sexuality almost entirely, and basically that men and women have become indistinguishable.

I only bring this up in the context of articles I keep reading about gender evolution in our society.  There seems to be a persistent message out there, that men and women are moving closer together in mode.  I don't see it, either empirically or scientifically.  Women are educating themselves to new heights and making their own money.  More power to them, I say; it doesn't obviate my argument but bolsters it.  If a woman can support herself, she doesn't have to glom onto any man that can provide her with protection and sustenance.  She'll hold out for one that really interests her.  That's fine but it calls to mind sayings about beggars and choosers.  The reverse to that statement is also true.  The more a woman has to offer, the better a man she'll hold out for.  A shrinking supply of men at the top of the food chain – however you define it, whether by power, attractiveness, or a snappy sense of humor – will be targeted by more and more women.  The idea to do better for ourselves is in our damn DNA, and nowhere does the idea strike more strongly than in mate selection.

When I debate with people (and I do) about the roles of men and women in society, I am sometimes told, "We're past that," or, "I'd like to think we have advanced enough that [idea x] is no longer the case."  Haldeman makes that argument a bit:  that the state of mankind waiting at the end of his war was an idealized homogenous society, where our basic animal instincts have no play.  Fanciful and to me, far-fetched.

Look, I'm not advocating that men and women should have different sets of rights or anything of the sort.  But to state that men and women are basically the same other than a set of interchangeable sexual organs is ludicrous.  Several hundred years of "evolution" can't overcome a million years of hormones and mating instincts.  Really.  After the asteroid lands, wait a few years as humanity is struggling to survive – then go out and do a straw poll among the humans living out there.  See how far we have "evolved."  I think you'd find we're not really fallen angels on the cusp of perfection and immortality – but really just risen apes, only a few steps removed from being ruled by our baser instincts.

Sometimes, I think folks make the mistake of thinking society can only develop in one direction – that is, that once we've reached a certain crest, we can never go back.  Not even history bears this out.  The state of our society – relative gender freedom, or dare I say, relative freedom period – is fragile and certainly not a guarantee of things to come.

Okay, ramble over.  I am sure I said it wrong.  One of these days, I'll get it right.

Little girls and big bows (and not the hair ribbon kind)

So ….

Since I came to the Middle East, I have been very much enjoying my Kindle.  It’s perfect for exercise time, since I don’t have to hold it open.  As I mentioned above, I downloaded The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, as it was on sale.  I finished this morning in the middle of a four-mile power walk on the treadmill.

Short summary:  set in Panem, a dystopian future America, the story concerns teenager Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to take her conscripted sister’s place in the Hunger Games, a gladiatorial contest pitting youngsters from around the country in a grisly battle to the death, until only one remains.  Katniss is plunged into the Games, with nothing but her bow-hunting skills and wits to save her.

What did I think?  Well, it was a mixed bag.  On the plus side the characters are believable and varied.  Katniss has a lot of turbulence under the hood and Collins lets the veneer crack at just the right times.  The melodrama never felt overbearing and I think the pace was dead on.  There was little deus ex machine; with only one real exception (a forgivable one in context), the characters mostly thought or fought their way through the plot in plausible ways.  I thought the world-building was thorough and was revealed in manageable chunks for the reader, to let the true nature of the society sink in.  And I can’t deny that it was a quick, pleasant read.  As light entertainment, it appealed.

In the neutral area, I can see the young adult appeal.  The writing style is quick and tumbles loose the way an adolescent thought process might.  It’s written in present tense, which tends to exhaust me reading-wise but after a while, I got used to it.  I don’t think the book gains anything from it, though.  I’ve read any number of “lessons” to be drawn, criticizing religion, godlessness, femininity, feminism, capitalism, and communism, and the Iraq War.  I think you will take away whatever you want.  Dialogue was passable.

On the downside, I saw the major plot twists coming a mile away.  That’s not necessarily bad (I am as much a sucker for cheesy entertainment as everyone) but it did lessen the suspense.  At no time did I think Katniss would die.  Also, the populations of the Districts seemed too small (District 11 is said to have something like 8K pop) to sustain themselves, let along others.  A dozen districts with similar pops and a capital full of useless choads would have had a total pop of 200K or so, which isn’t enough to sustain the industrialized wonder that is the Capital.  I am sure I am overblowing it but those kind of details tend to annoy me.  Finally, while the book has – as someone else put it (forgive me for not citing) – “it’s own cultural baggage,” the idea itself is derivative enough.  It’s been compared to the Japanese book Battle Royale (which I haven’t read) and the Stephen King books The Long Walk and The Running Man, both of which, in my opinion, were a more adult treatment and deeper character explorations.

Overall, I would call it a slightly above average – maybe a “B-,” if I were forced to give it a grade.  I know there are two more books (here and here for those who care).  I'll watch the movie once it makes its way over here.

I’ll probably read the others … you know, if they come on sale.

Arrrrrrrr? Click-clack. BLAM.

So ….

I am just returned from my most recent trip to the desert southwest.  Great visit, had a wonderful trip with Mrs. Axe.  En route, I put my new Kindle to the test (wonderful device, more on that later) while reading the novel "World War Z."

Written by Max Brooks (son of legendary comedian Mel Brooks), "World War Z" is written from the point of view of a journalist compiling a report for the United Nations a decade after the end of the Zombie War, comprised of eyewitness testimony from survivors.  The blurbs come from various government officials, military members, scientists, and ordinary citizens caught up in a whirlwind plague that spreads to every corner of the globe.

The book covers accounts of everything from the initial contagion in rural China, to the spread of the plague, to the collapse of every society around the world – some (India, Iceland, Japan) more total than others (America, Cuba, Micronesia).  The stories are visceral and raw; one character describes (SPOILER ALERT – highlight to read) a swarm of zombies EATING their way up a jam of cars on I-80 between Lincoln and North Platte in Nebraska, where the cars were so tightly packed that the occupants could not drive, or even open their doors to get away.  Having driven that stretch of road countless times, the description of that scene left my blood cold.  Brooks also wove real geopolitical threads into the story.  Countries argued with each other about the way forward, tempers flared, ancient enemies (notably, Jews and Arabs, but there were many others) refused to cooperate, even in the face of annihilation, and weapons of mass destruction flew as often as accusations.  The narrative also highlights survivor efforts to fight back, including desperate rear-guard actions, the adaptation of new tactics and weapons to the new threat, grim plans that doomed as many people as they saved, and a desperate three-month battle in the sewers beneath Paris.  Bolt-action rifles and training that emphasizes "aim for the head" (re: my title for this entry) replace tanks and bombs as the watchwords of the world's militaries.  Needless to say, the human world that emerges as the nations struggle to overcome the zombie menace is radically different in political, economic, and even ecological terms.

It's not perfect, though; the stories of survivors lack distinct voice, to my taste.  Sure, dialogue and word choices are varied but I rarely got a feeling of distinct tone from the characters.  Also, I had some issues with the basic premises of the world gov'ts using mountain ranges as natural defensive positions.  Zombies are humans, after all, and are perfectly capable of wandering across mountains, especially since they are not vulnerable to freezing, disease, or other cold-weather hazards.  Finally, the entire book owes its entire heritage to George Romero's ideas on the subject (few recent zombie fictions don't).  I don't think it struck any new ground in the genre and was, essentially, very derivative.

Overall, I rather enjoyed the whole thing.  It's light, it's a diversion, and there is something about the end of the world – viewed through the lenses of characters no different from the reader, on ground the the reader themselves might have trod upon – is always appealing. 

I give it 3.5/5 stars.  If you like zombies and don't go into it expecting it to break any ground, then you'll probably like this.

Scarier than Fiction

So ….

Four day weekend.  I would like to say I spent it reading, writing or doing something else productive.  The truth is that I spent a lot of time goofing off, cursing at the TV during football, and goofing off.  (Muse:  You said "goofing off" twice.)  So I did.  Some days, it's fun to be a slug.

But I did re-read an old favorite of mine:  The Most Evil Men and Women in History.

The book is a compilation of profiles and essays on the worst of the worst, baddest of the bad.  Each of the essays is quick and easy to read, and is written in a wry tone that flows very well.  The book covers a couple of Roman emperors (Caligula, Nero), a few British monarchs (Mary I and John I), some Russians (Ivan the Terrible, Rasputin), a handful of 20th century dictators (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin) and others.  Each chapter covers the person, their history, rise to power, and the terrible, terrible acts they inflicted.  A lot of blood is spilled on these pages.  Sadly, violence is a spectator sport and those who think otherwise have obviously never seen two mothers wrestling over the last copy of the season's hot toy at a Christmas sale.

There are some problems, too.  For one, the information on the older historical figures is often hard to separate from the propaganda.  There is a circle of thought out there that Caligula wasn't guilty of nearly as much brutality and deviancy as is laid at his feet – but was instead the target of well-run smear campaigns by subsequent emperors and historians.  Ditto Elizabeth Bathory.  Mary I and John I were brutal rulers but no more so than their contemporaries.    Will we ever know the total truth on these folks?  Probably not.  And anyone looking for a wide coverage of global history, the focus is more Eurocentric, and essentially Western Europe-centered, at that.

Sadly, much of the above paragraph doesn't matter; if even half the shit these people did was true (and for the more modern folks, it's harder to dispute), there are enough acts of evil to give anyone the shivers.  Humanity has infinite capacity for a rainbow of emotions – including, unfortunately, cruelty and inflicting pain.  For me, knowing what has happened in real life puts most fictional evil in perspective.  When you read about a cruel king who wants to wipe out the tribe of elves living in the forest, for no reason other than "just because" … you might think it's hard to believe.  It really isn't.

There is an entire series (Most Evil Women, Most Evil Dictators, etc., etc.) out there.  I've read a few; if you can pick 'em cheap, give an open-minded read.  Overall, they are great light reading, to be taken as such.  Enjoy!

The First Avenger

Mixed feelings today … I left my phone in my car, so I missed a chance to head downtown with a couple friends for a few beers.  But afterwards, instead of sitting around doing nothing, I went to see Captain America, so I made lemonade out of the lemons.

The plot of Captain America opens in the heady days of WWII, and concerns a young man named Steve Rogers – an underweight weakling with lots of health problems – who feels a strong sense of patriotic duty, but is betrayed again and again by his poor health, which keeps him from enlisting.  He meets Dr. Abraham Erskine, who tell Rogers that he can make him into something more.  A screening process and some experiments later, Cap is born.

Cap vies with head of Hydra Johann Schmidt (ably played by sure-thing villain-actor Hugo Weaving), revealed to be (highlight for spoilers) the Red Skull, one of Cap's oldest enemies and one of the most persistent and troubling villains in the Marvel Universe.  Along the way, there is plenty of action, explosions, and ever a few clever one-liners.  Tommy Lee Jones plays Col Phillips, the Army officer in charge of the special research division that gives Cap his powers, with the same terse wit he employed as Agent K in Men In Black.  Hayley Atwell is a servicable Peggy Carter; though her character was thin and predictable, Atwell does the best with what she has … but she is clearly intended as eye candy.  Cap's role was actually well-written and Chris Evans milks it for every high and low, every cheer and angst possible.

Cameos from the Marvel universe abound, for those who know where to look.  And, as always, an bonus scene awaits anyone who can sit through the credits to the very end (and who doesn'tt have to run to the restroom).

All in all, it was rather enjoyable and it was the plot line was basically faithful to the Cap's origin in the comics and subsequent transplant to modern times.  I enjoyed the mixture of myth and science employed in both Cap's creation and the weapons and devices employed by Hydra.  Fantasy or science-fiction?  Like a lot of comics, it's science fantasy.

The stage is certainly set for the Avengers next summer.   My bet is the Super Bowl for the first major commercial / trailer.