What I Read in January

January was a good month of reading for me.  My goal for this year is 50 new books, which means a little over 4 a month and I’m already ahead of pace.

The Master Mind of Mars

E.R. Burroughs

After five books, Burroughs Barsoom stuff was starting to feel a bit stale. He had been telling the same basic story over and over. With Master Mind, Burroughs does something completely different. Instead of a straightforward adventure story, this is a combination of that and of social satire. Ulysses Paxton is transported to Mars, just like John Carter was, and ends up helping out Ras Thavas, a mad scientist who is experimenting with brain transplants. The story balances critiques of the anti-religious city-state that Thavas calls home and their rival religious fundamentalist city. Though there is some token mocking of Thavas’ compatriots, it is mostly a take down of the fundamentalists. Though there is plenty of adventure and mad science, the memorable part of the Master Mind of Mars is the satire. It is plenty entertaining. It isn’t a mean critique, but it is an accurate one. While I prefer the first few books for their novelty and sense of adventure, at least this story has its own identity. Good stuff.

The Fighting Man of Mars

E.R. Burroughs

This is back to the straight adventure, but with the same energy that the first few books had. It helps that the protagonist is a normal Martian and not the superhero like John Carter. Tad Hadron is just a guy. Plus, there are several twists on the original formula. There is Tavia, a slave girl that Hadron saves who, unlike most of the rest of the female characters in the series, as competent a fighter as most of the men. Then there is the kidnapped girl, Sonoma Tora, who turns out to not be worthy of Hadron’s devotion. In all it is a worthy addition to the series, if not quite as interesting as Master Mind is.

The Eye of the World

The Spy

Clive Cussler and Justin Scott

This is the third of Justin Scott and Clive Cussler’s Isaac Bell adventures. They take place in the early 20th century, with a focus on then cutting edge technology. Instead of taking place primarily in the west and dealing with train and railroad policing, The Spy is set on the east coast and is features a mystery about a saboteur trying to disrupt the makers of brand new battleship technologies.

These are very much guilty pleasures for me. The setting, in the time of Teddy Roosevelt, is one of my favorite time periods. Isaac Bell is the prototypical hero, perfect if not particularly interesting. This is just a fun book. The supporting cast isn’t quite as vibrant as it was in the previous two books. The villain is good though. He is a bit obvious, as there really isn’t much mystery as to who is behind it. The Spy is a fun little adventure, but nothing remarkable.

Assassin’s Apprentice

Robin Hobb

This is the first book in the Assassin’s trilogy, which is the beginning of a series of books taking place inside the same world. This came highly recommended and though I liked it, Assassin’s Apprentice didn’t really blow me away.

The plot follows the early life of young FitzChivalry Farseer, the bastard son of a prince who is trained to be an assassin for the King. It is a very slow building book, leisurely setting introducing all the players in the royal court and Fitz’s other friends. Also, it lays the seeds for a conflict that I assume is going to run through the trilogy. Other than his training, the novel mostly focuses on a growing conflict with pirates who kidnap villages only to return them as lifeless zombies.

That storyline is put off for the next book, while the climax of this one deals with a somewhat rushed plot to usurp the throne. This is one of my complaints with Assassin’s Apprentice. The other problem is some funny POV stuff near the beginning, where the prose shifts from past to present tense for a bit an annoys the crap out of me.

Still, I see why this series has the reputation it does. It didn’t love this particular book, but I did like it quite a bit. If the next two parts of the trilogy can payoff this one’s set up it will make for a wonderful series.

Calvin and Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book

Bill Watterson

You should like Calvin and Hobbes, this is an essential part of any healthy person’s life. This is a small collection of the comic’s strips, a mere taste of what C&H has to offer, but it does have the added benefit of commentary from Bill Watterson. I find that sometimes with commentary like this it is possible to learn too much about the creator of something, that they are not quite as brilliant as their work would suggest. That is not the case here. Though I do not agree with everything Watterson writes, especially about the effects of merchandising his comic, I definitely respect his opinions. This is a definite must for fans of Calvin and Hobbes.

Sheepfarmer’s Daughter

Elizabeth Moon

Another first volume, this one obtained from the Baen Free Library, this is the first part of the Deed of Paksenarrion. Sheepfarmer’s Daughter is somewhat dry, almost like a historical recounting of an actual military campaign. It is a very heavily military and D&D flavored fantasy, one that focuses on the daily lives of low rank soldiers.

Paks is the large daughter of a farmer, who runs away to join a mercenary company rather than marry the man to which her father has betrothed her. This book covers her early training and seasoning, ending with her starting to realize her potential as a paladin. The world is not especially interesting, it is simply a boilerplate fantasy setting. All the stock fantasy trappings are here, with nothing to make is stand out at all. That in itself is not a deal breaker, but there are other problems. Like the flat characters. Other than Paks, nearly everyone else is just one or two character ticks around a name. The only somewhat interesting part is the battles themselves. They are well written, but it is not enough to overcome the tedium of the rest of it.

The Lure of the Mask

Harold MacGrath

This is an old adventure/romance novel that is somewhat light on both adventure and romance. While there is a thread of something truly interesting here, with the mystery of the anonymous singing woman and her masked identity, the plot is too reliant on coincidence. Events happen, but the characters do little to shape or even participate them. And there is a startling lack of payoff. Everything works out because that’s how novel’s end, not because the character’s actions came naturally to this conclusion. There is little reason to revisit this 100 years after it was published, there are better examples of the genre and from the time period. However, I can’t say there wasn’t a kind of inconsequential charm to

The Secret World of Arrietty Review

Anytime a new Studio Ghibli film comes out is time for celebration. Especially when Hayao Miyazaki is at the helm. Even his lesser works, like the recent Ponyo, are still better than nearly any other animated films released in any given year. Miyazaki did not helm The Secret World of Arrietty, but he did write the screenplay and oversaw the production. First time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who worked as an animator on several previous Ghibli films, proves his worth here. Arrietty is a wonderful film.

The Secret World of Arrietty is the story about the relationship between Arrietty, a tiny Borrower, and Shawn, the sick young boy who moves into the house where Arietty and her parent live. She and her parents are Borrowers, people about six inches tall that live under the floorboards. They sneak around at night to borrower everything they need to live, like sugar cubes and the occasional tissue. They are careful to not let any of the big people to see them, lest their curiosity accidentally, or intentionally, doom the tiny folks. Despite this, Arrietty and Shawn form a friendship that simultaneously proves that interaction with people need not necessarily doom the Borrowers and that avoiding them is absolutely for the best. As a side note, Spiller, a wildman borrower who helps out Pod, steals both scenes he is in.

As always from Ghibli, Arrietty looks amazing. The animation quality is top notch, and the settings and backgrounds are absolutely beautiful. There is always some piece of beauty on the screen to take in. The film’s greatest triumph is the sense of scale. Nearly everything in the world of regular people, called Beans by the Borrowers, are a danger to them or has an alternate use. Nails not set flush are used as precarious steps, a pin becomes a makeshift sword and fishhooks with some line are used are repelling equipment. The interaction between the big people and the Borrowers are believable in a way that they could never be in live action. The film is worth seeing for the scale alone.

The sound is also mostly good. Wil Arnet as Pod does a bit of a Christian Bale Batman impression, but he is perfectly calm and unruffled at all times. Amy Poehler’s Homily is his opposite, always excited and on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The other voices are mostly very good, if only because they don’t draw attention to themselves. Except for David Henrie as the sickly Shawn, who sounds completely lifeless. The music is mostly excellent as well. With the exception of the awful ending credits song.

The middle part of the film is almost painfully slow at times. Arrietty tries to blend the adventure of many of Miyazaki’s movies, like Princess Mononoke and Castle in the Sky, with the more slice of life styled film’s like Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro, but in the end doesn’t really satisfy as either one of them. There is not action for an adventure movie, nor enough reflection for magical drama. But what is there is eminently entertaining. From a narrative standpoint, The Secret World of Arrietty is somewhat empty, but it has heart and beauty and that makes up for a lot.

The Grave is No Bar to My Call

Wheel of Time Reread Part 2: The Great Hunt

Before I get started with The Great Hunt, I’d like to remind everyone that there is now a firm-ish release date for A Memory of Light, the last book in the Wheel of Time series. January 8, 2013. That is a little later than I was expecting, but I am much in favor of taking the time to get it right rather than getting it out as fast as possible. No matter how long it takes, I’ll still think it was too long a wait anyway, because I want to be reading it now.

On with the hunt. We start with Rand practicing his sword fighting with Lan. Even an oblique a compliment as Lan telling Rand he is good enough not to stab himself in the foot is, from Lan at least, an indication that Rand is pretty damn good with a blade already. Despite the mistakes she makes leading the boys, Moiraine plays Rand perfectly here. Rand would likely do the opposite of what Moiraine wanted him to do, but at the very least he wants to know where she intends to lead him before he follows. By ignoring him, she gets him to delay his decision. If he doesn’t know what she wants him to do, how can he avoid doing that? In addition, he is so far from home and has just had him world ripped from him completely. Where would he go? Continue reading

Psych Out

For the last couple of years, my favorite currently airing TV show has been Psych. As much as I like it, I apparently missed more than half of season 5 when it aired. Watching those missed episodes have just reinforced how good the show is. It isn’t anything especially terrific or revolutionary. Its just the usual detective show with a bit of fake psychic misdirection and a more comedic bent than usual. However, the cast and writing is strong. While Psych does engage in some of the popular but often lazy trend of replacing actual jokes with references to trivial bits of pop culture from the 80’s, Psych does more than that. It integrates those references into the fabric of the show.

The Holmes and Watson of the show are Shawn and Gus, played by James Roday and Dule Hill. Shawn is the brilliant and highly perceptive, though at times almost sociopath, detective. He poses as a psychic at first to avoid suspicion in the crimes he solves and later because he is stuck in the lie. Actually, after the first few seasons there is much less focus on making Shawn’s psychic abilities seem believable. Gus is Shawn’s often put upon partner. At first he seems just someone for Shawn to bum rides and bounce dialogue off of, but he does bring more to the table than his car. Gus may not share Shawn’s perceptive abilities, but he has a deep knowledge on a wide variety of topics, helping Shawn tie together clues he otherwise wouldn’t know what to do with. What the show does really well is show the two as real friends. Shawn may play constant pranks on us, but Gus gets his in and even if he would never admit it, he actually likes the uncertainty that comes with Shawn’s eccentricity.

The supporting cast is also great. There is Shawn’s retired detective father, who hates Shawn’s refusal to be responsible. He begrudgingly helps out while also trying to teach Shawn lessons. Then there are the actual police. Psych does a great job of not making the cops seem incompetent while also letting Shawn and Gus solve the case. Detective Lassiter is butt of most of Shawn’s jokes, but the show makes it clear that he is normally a terrific officer. His partner, and Shawn’s eventual love interest, is Juliet, who is just as good a detective as Lassiter and more willing to help out Shawn and Gus. Despite the antagonism between both Shawn and Lasseter, there is camaraderie among all member of the group.

Where is shines is in the often inventive crimes. Of course a trip to see an old friends new summer camp turns into a slasher movie inspired episode. Shawn and Gus are nearly constantly referencing old movies and TV shows, but usually in ways that actually pertain to the situation. They made several Karate Kid references in the episode when they were dealing with a kidnapping that involved a martial arts dojo, but they restrained themselves to one when Ralph Macchio guest starred.

While the show is very joke-y, it does get serious occasionally. Like the season finales that feature the Yin/Yang serial killers, though the 3rd one is a bit of a let down. In those episodes the stakes raise and most of the jokes disappear. And the show still works. The base detective show is strong enough to get by without the humor. But the show is about the humor. It can be taken away for special episodes, but those would lose their pop if the whole show was humorless.

Psych is possibly the most pleasant hour of programming on TV. It isn’t really a show to get excited about, but it just so easily entertaining. There is currently only one other show I make sure to watch. (I ain’t got no fancy DVR) I can feel that Psych is nearing the end of its run, it is getting ready to finish up its sixth season, with at least one more to come.  So I want everyone to enjoy it while it lasts.

Its a Monster Tale

I’ve just beat Monster Tale, a fun little game from the makers of Henry Hatsworth that should be better than it is. Not that it isn’t good. It’s very good. But Monster Tale does a lot of things so very wrong that I have a hard time not feeling disappointed. It had gorgeous 2D graphics, pitch perfect control and mechanics and possibly the worst map I’ve ever seen in a Metroidvania style game. The map is only the start of the games problems. Still, it manages to be simply fun to play.

Monster Tale is about a young girl, Ellie, who is sucked into Monster world and finds a monster freshly hatched out of its egg. So she teams up with the baby to try to find away home, quickly running afoul of the other children in monster world, who are less eager to return home, instead being content to rule over the monsters with an iron fist. It is fun and childish in wonderful video game tradition. The abilities Ellie gains as the player advances all fit seamlessly into her moveset. In the end she is an easily controlled destructive force.

The game is set up like Metroid or recent Castlevania games, with a large connected map rather than separate levels. While running around is fun in and of itself, the map design is atrocious. Instead of the having some exploration available at all times, Monster Tale forces players along the one path that can open up more of the map. The openness is not there to facilitate exploration, but to pad the game length. The game hides power-ups behind doors that you need another power-up to open. Not a chunk of map that also has a power-up, just a room with a power-up. Meaning that to get power-up A, you must acquire power-up B and then backtrack all the way across the map. The game is about 40% backtracking. But as I said, it is a lot of fun to just run through the world.

At least its fun for the first half of the game. After that the enemies start taking so many hits to kill that it becomes a chore. Maybe its because I never got all the purchasable upgrades (because they cost so much) but the enemies take way too long to kill. My problem may also lie in how little I used my monster companion. I did use him some, but while the idea of the A.I. controlled monster is great, he seemed largely pointless through most of the game. I gave him whatever items I found, leveled him up in forms that seemed useful, but mostly I used him to solve switch puzzles that he is required for.

In the end, Monster Tale is a charming, if flawed game. It is more fun than it is frustrating, but it is somewhat frustrating. At times there are glimpses of the great game this could have been, the second coming of Symphony of the Night or Super Metroid. Most of the time it is hard to escape the egregiously bad map design and hit absorbing enemies. It is definitely a game to grab if you find it for cheap, but don’t expect great things.

Reading Some Comics

Over the last several months I’ve been reading a pair of 4 issue mini-series comics: Mystic from Marvel, written by G. Willow Wilson with art by David Lopez, and Bonnie Lass from Red 5 comics, by Michael Mayne and Tyler Fluharty. The two of them share several superficial similarities, like being 4 issues long, having female leads and sharing a similar art style. I also really like the first issue of both series. Unfortunately, as they came to an end Bonnie Lass kept up the quality of the first issue and Mystic faltered badly. Perhaps by comparing the two I can show why one worked and the other didn’t.

Both of them had good first issues. Bonnie Lass sets up its cast and the plot efficiently and effectively. It isn’t an especially complex story, but it gives the reader a quick impression of Bonnie, Ben and Trick as well as their quest. The crew finds a treasure map and are pursued by mercenaries hired by a menacing, shadowy figure. It also sets up Bonnie’s oedipal complex-ish thing. (her father is married to the sea and she wants to take it from him and replace him as the world’s premiere buccaneer.) Mystic starts similarly strong. It introduces Genevieve and Giselle, two orphans who are close as sisters despite diametrically opposed viewpoints. They live in a downright Dickensian orphanage in their flawed steam punk world where the magic that gives the world its wonders are reserved only for the rich and powerful. By the end of the issue, one of the girls has realized the others dream of being chosen to learn the “Noble Arts,” setting up a conflict inequity of the world tears the former friends apart.

Mystic’s story is obviously much more complex than Bonnie Lass’s story. The problems arise with how they follow up on the first issue. After the first issue, Bonnie and her crew search out the treasure on the map and constantly fight with the mysterious shadowy man from the first issue. (I’m trying not to spoil too much because you should read it yourself) Everything from that first issue is followed up on in the next three. Though it is a simple rather simple story, it is executed very nicely. Mystic, on the other hand, gets increasingly muddled and confused after the first issue, squandering the fine set up of the first issue and ignoring the central conflict. Instead, it gives the reader some Mean Girls or Harry Potter-esque magic school hijinks.

Mystic focuses on Giselle, the girl chosen to learn magic and her struggles at the school while almost completely ignoring Genevieve, who is left on the street using her self taught skills to help a group of revolutionaries. The first issue showed that the world is corrupt, that it needs to be fixed, but the rest of the issues ignore that. In the end the story of two friends on opposite sides of a growing conflict is swept aside for a much less interesting story about saving the world from some generic apocalypse. There is no resolution between Genevieve and Giselle, any confrontation or reconciliation is put off.

That is the real problem with Mystic. It is written like the first 4 issues of a supposedly longer tale, setting up storylines and characters that will never have a chance to matter. Because there likely will never be anymore Mystic. Bonnie Lass tells a 4 issue story in its 4 issues. There are hooks for further stories and adventures, but it tells the story it has space for. Mystic has much greater ambitions, but doesn’t have the space to realize them, leaving it a anti-climatic disappointment.

If more of either of these series were to come along, I would probably by them. Bonnie Lass was good enough that I am eager for more. More Mystic might make good on the promise that the first issue showed. But I don’t see people pounding down the doors to get more of something as disappointing as Mystic turned out to be in the end.