Sunday, August 21, 2016

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) #reviews

Famed archaeologist/adventurer Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones is called back into action when he becomes entangled in a Soviet plot to uncover the secret behind mysterious artifacts known as the Crystal Skulls.

Concluding our epic revisiting of the Indiana Jones franchise, we reached Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Since a fair amount of time passed in real life, this is reflected in Crystal Skull. We hook up with a much older, much more reflective Indy in his autumn years. That being said, he still possesses a typical Indy habit of landing himself in hot water.

This time the Soviets have replaced the Nazis as villains, and we find ourselves in a milieu in the grips of the Cold War, set up  against the deliciously evil Dr Spalko (played by Cate Blanchett, who remains one of my favourite actors).

While McGuffins present in previous films were of a sacred nature (the Ark of the Covenant, holy stones, Holy Grail) the object everyone's gasping after this time is a crystal skull pilfered from a Native American tomb. What follows is a typical wild race to a location filled with hostile natives, traps and certain death.

What I loved about this film is that it refers back to previous instalments by bringing Indy back with the indomitable Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) from Raiders and some fresh daredevil blood with Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf). There's a shift in dynamics since Indy isn't quite as spry as he used to be, so Mutt is there to play active sidekick.

I was prepared not to like this film – after all, how often can you reprise the same characters until the Law of Too Much Awesome kicks in. I'm not going to lie – the ending was epic, and most certainly *not* what I expected – but I enjoyed the ride and the film held a solid internal consistency. There's nothing higher grade with an Indiana Jones film. It's action. It's humorous dialogue. Granted, a few of the gags were just downright awful (the scene involving quick sand and the snake rope – I was like, nope, that's really the kind of humour you'd expect to entertain a five-year-old) but overall the movie engaged me, made me smile and scratched the right itches I have for an Indy film.

The epilogue was suitably heartwarming and tied up enough "happy for nows", and they *could* have left well enough alone there with Indy's stories and have been fine, but yeah *sigh* ... they're busy with Indiana Jones 5 with Harrison Ford ... And I'll be honest, I'm dubious on whether it's right or whether it's practical for them to do this. Crystal Skull is a perfect stopping place. If anything, breathe fresh air into the franchise by telling the story of his granddaughter, if Disney absolute has to. I pray (and this is something that may even drive me to feeling slightly religious) that the screenwriters don't fuck this up. PLEASE don't fuck this up. I've a soft spot for my favourite professor. He's getting old and creaky, and I'd like his story to end well, without it becoming cringe-worthy.

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Saturday, August 20, 2016

A Letter Home by Winter Wren (Celt Mom) #reviews #fanfiction

Okay, I've decided to start reviewing fanfiction because of late I've been finding stories that really work for me on many levels. What I discover in the fics that I love is that they take the usual tropes and put a spin on them that is memorable. A Letter Home by Winter Wren (over at AO3) has hit me in the feels. There're a lot of Dragon Age Inquisitor fics doing the rounds that are basically a retelling of DA:I from the Quizzy's point of view, and yes, all too often they're female Lavellan getting it on with a certain bald apostate hobo elf, so what Winter Wren has done has been fresh – for me, at least.

(Hey, I'm guilty as charged with writing mainly Solavellan smut, but jawellnofine, this is fanfiction we're talking about.)

Okay. So, I'm no huge fan of The Iron Bull. I appreciate him as a character, and as Patrick Weekes said in this most excellent interview that I totally recommend listening to, it would have been so easy to make Bull really one-dimensional. And yet ... He is a character who has surprising depth beneath that tough façade. Unfortunately he just never blew my hair back (though I admit that I had the horrible feels at the end of my second run through the Trespasser DLC, and now I will forever feel bad for all the Vashoth running around southern Thedas post-Trespasser in that particular version of the game).

And I so didn't see myself reading an entire fic featuring a Bull romance with a Vashoth Quizzy, but there you have it. I pretty much ate through and loved all of A Letter Home, even though it didn't truly cover fresh ground considering it's a reconstruction of the main game narrative.

Yet Winter Wren does absolutely amazeballs OCs. Her characterisation is beautiful, and she seamlessly blends in backstory in such a way to flesh out her characters without resorting to reams of exposition. Anaan Adaar (the Quizzy's father as wonderful secondary character) and Inquisition agent Turner's moments together are priceless – the unlikely friendship warms my heart. I particularly loved how Anaan interacted with Varric over an evening of Wicked Grace (I'd been dying to see the two hang out since the beginning of the story). My inner editor did very little twitching (as in I was more than happy to overlook a few bumps because the writing is so smooth), and in fact I'd happily say here is one fic writer who could most certainly file off the serial numbers and give it a go writing novels. Dialogue as well, between characters, is lively and sparkling, and had me chuckling at a number of points. (Note to authors, yes, characters can make off-colour jokes from time to time, and embarrass each other, or tease, and it's fun, and makes things feel more authentic.)

Essentially, this is the story about Bull coming to terms with his life after the Qun, and Meraad Adaar getting a handle on her role as Inquisitor while also processing issues from her past and finding love in a most unexpected way. The two together make a beautiful couple and yes, this is heavier on the romance angle, but the action sequences (especially the dragon hunt in the Hinterlands) are solidly executed.

There is more, and I'm looking forward to the other stories.

I will be reviewing more fanfiction as I go along, but my preference is for IPs that I'm familiar with and stories that resonate with me, mostly Middle-Earth and Dragon Age; and as such, I am not open to queries to read stories.

Friday, August 19, 2016

INSPIRE! In conversation with Cat Hellisen, author

Cat Hellisen and I go way back, all the way back to Cape Town's Sanctuary nights at the old Purple Turtle during the late 1990s where DJ Reanimator used to spin Bauhaus and Einstuerzende Neubauten ... okay, no, wait, that's ancient prehistory. But it's safe to say we've known each other for years, and Cat's one the people who's helped inspire me to attain the highs (and helped keep me going through the lows) of this thing called SFF publishing.

Not only is she the creator of some of the most profound, nuanced fantasy I've read in recent years, she also possesses a keen understanding of SFF as a genre, and I value her opinion when it comes to our discussions about this industry. If you've yet to check out her novels, go take a gander at her Amazon page

So, without further ado, here's a transcript of a little dialogue we had this week, in which we discuss world building, theme and trends in SFF...

ND: Stories and the world around you – I've loved recognising bits of the world I know in your stories (like Pelimburg in your Hobverse) or even the way you've portrayed Joburg in Charm. With your recent move to Scotland, are there parts of your new space that inspire you? That may creep into the story?

CH: I'm very much influenced by my environment (to the point that you can tell which of my books are written in what season) so there are definitely elements that are going to take root in the story soil. The book I'm working on now has a quasi-European setting, so it kinda helps to be in Scotland. Not that the landscape is Scottish particularly, but I know exactly what a jackdaw sounds like now, and elements like that will inform the text. It's also pretty amazing to be in a country where I can go walk around the ruins of castles and forts, where ancient churches are as much a part of the landscape as shopping malls. To be able to get close-up looks at old stone work and so on, or go into the caves where Saint Margaret went to pray - they help with building a mental picture for me as I write.

ND: Do you have any idée fixes? For instance, reading Marguerite Poland’s books, she often brings in the theme of birds that convey a theme. Are there any favourite, small details in real life that have crept into your stories – little Easter eggs as such that people have picked up on? 

CH: I don't know if I'd call them idée fixes, but there are definitely recurring elements from my psychological landscape that litter my writing and I do rather like that. I always think of JG Ballard and his empty swimming pools, or John Irving and his bears. I don't set out to incorporate these motifs, but they're obviously things I fixate on: labyrinths, and the Space Between Worlds (which sometimes doubles as the labyrinth), masks, birds, and water. As far as themes go, I remember someone once telling me that my constant theme is broken boys saving each other, which is a little unfair because my girls are just as broken, but they wear better masks.

ND: We appear to be seeing what appears to be a new wave of readers (and authors) of SFF who're getting into the genre in the wake successes like Twilight, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, yet when I've spoken to them, very few have heard of classics such as Ursula K LeGuin, CJ Cherryh, Katharine Kerr and others of their ilk. I know this discussion crops up often online on the lists, but if you had to make a checklist of must-read fantasy authors, who would you suggest and why do you think it's so important for others to read outside of their comfort zone?

CH: Read outside your comfort zone because you never know what wonder will strike, what new concept or thought. For fiction, if people are coming from a tradition of Harry Potter, I'd definitely suggest they read Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci series, and le Guin's marvelous Earthsea books. I began my speculative education on my father's library hauls, so I had a grounding in classic SF - in Asimov, Aldiss, Poul Anderson, James Blish, etc, but I veered away from them and toward writers like Tanith Lee, Clive Barker, Octavia Butler, Tim Powers, Gene Wolfe, Poppy Z Brite and Mary Gentle. If they're looking for more modern writers there is a wealth of new and less-new speculative authors - I'd suggest looking at presses like Small Beer, Apex, and Solaris. Weightless Books is an ebook store that stocks a range of good small press work.

I also encourage people to read widely on the subjects that fascinate them and go right back to the key works in that field. The more you know about the world and history and politics, the more informed and nuanced your work will be.

ND: What are some of the issues you pick up in contemporary SFF that you suspect are related to the paucity of authors’ source material? For instance I’ve encountered so many writers who’ve been inspired because they’ve read Twilight or The Hunger Games, and that is pretty much the first experience they’ve had with truly reading – and now they want to go out and create. Yet in one case, a lady returned to me saying that when I’d turned her onto reading Wuthering Heights, she’d struggled because of the unfamiliar vocabulary. And her writing showed this paucity that no amount of editing could fix.

CH: It depends what you're reading. Yes, some of the larger houses put out work that is strained by the writer's lack of familiarity with the genre, and these books end up reinventing the wheel, or serving us the same old pap in a plastic bowl, but there is also great stuff coming out, often from smaller presses. As you say though, the great stuff with the better ideas and higher level of writing comes from writers who are readers, and you can spot it instantly in their work. They are the writers who make Classical references that they expect their readers to get without hand-holding, or whose books are a conversation with the stories that have come before. They use language skilfully and play with words in a way a less-well read writer simply can't.

It's become a bit of a cliche to say it, but I believe that you cannot be a decent writer if you are not first and foremost a reader.

ND: Do you think the bigger houses should (or would) look at starting up smaller, boutique imprints or do you think those small presses and co-operatives that are starting up in this literary vacuum are going to fill that need for readers and authors? Considering, especially, the high overheads attached to even bringing out an anthology (there are hidden costs readers generally aren't aware of). What do you see as a possible future for publishing.

CH: I have no idea what the future holds. I'm tentatively going to suggest that it's going to carry on pretty much as-is, with the large presses putting out big names and sure-fire type sellers (celeb bios, On Topic Thrillers, etc) and taking the occasional chance when marketing allows, and the smaller presses will fill the niches with more interesting stuff, and some of those smaller presses are going to become larger and larger and forces to be reckoned with. And so it will go.

I am very excited about the co-operative model because I think this is where the mid-listers are going to congregate. In recent years the concept of the mid-list author who is not a household name, but built up a decent fan base over a collection of novels, and now sells consistently, has all but been eradicated. You either make it big out the box, or you're dumped for the next New Author Who Might Make It Big. Writing generally improves over time, so writers aren't really getting the opportunity anymore to build their audience and develop their voice. And I think that's where co-ops and small presses are going to come in.

ND: One thing that I've always appreciated about your writing is its layering and nuance – how do you approach this?

CH: Thank you kindly! It goes back to the reading non-fiction thing. Being curious about the world you actually live in is a great way to enrich your imaginary worlds. And twitter is not the world. Go walk outside, go explore aimlessly, go to the library and grab a book from the history section that looks interesting. Find out about your family secrets and stitch them into your own stories.

On a writing level, I approach it by revising, revising, revising. I need all that information in my brain to get embroidered into my writing, and that only happens with revision. Layering is one of the most important aspects of revision - going in and reworking the warp and weft, strengthening the story where it needs strengthening, unravelling the bits that are tangled nonsense. To drag this metaphor on to its inevitable conclusion - you don't make story out of just cloth tacked together, you need shape, you need strengthened seams, you need hidden pockets, silk linings, buttons and embroidery.

ND: I’ve always tried to explain to authors that adding layering is about engaging the physical senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell – but also about engaging with emotion and intellect. Often writers think it’s fine to have a ‘laundry list’ of descriptions but don’t quite immerse how environment or events relate to the character. How would you suggest they break through this barrier to making their writing flow?

CH: Ah, the laundry list. Description of physicality and mannerisms is not characterisation. If a person had to describe me as only "a loud chubster with dyed red hair, wearing mum-jeans." It might be accurate on some level, but it would tell you nothing about who I am. It would be fine if you were writing me as a once-off character who merely imparts some information to our Intrepid Hero, but if I was a main or secondary character, there needs to be more there to make me a human, to make me a character the reader feels they know.

That means adding dimensions that are more than just surface, superficial description. I talk about interiority - what emotion do they feel, how does it physically affect them, what do they sense. "Get inside their head" is a favourite critique which I think you know I've levelled at more than a few betas. Ask yourself questions about why a character does something in your book - build them a back story. Write it down if necessary. But a real character has a history, and it lies under the surface of everything you write about them, and informs every on-page decision they make.

ND: And for you, if you had to pick some of your all-time favourite characters/characterisation, who is this and why do you think the author nails it in this particular case(s).

CH: Ah wow this is a tough one. So many good works out there, and what's a favourite? My favourites change over time, though there are a few constants. I'm a sucker for a certain character type, I won't pretend otherwise. I love Howl and Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle, Pie'oh'pah from Barker's Imagica, Tenar (and Ged) from The Tombs of Atuan. Actually, Ged is a very good example of a character who grows and changes through the books. In A Wizard of Earthsea, he is cocksure and difficult to like, and power gives him an arrogance that ultimately is his downfall. I like Ged better in Atuan, where he's a little wiser and a little more broken. If you read the Under the Poppy trilogy by Kathe Koja, following her two puppeteers and sometime spies, you get a pretty good idea of the characters I love.

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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) #film

When Dr. Henry Jones Sr. suddenly goes missing while pursuing the Holy Grail, eminent archaeologist Indiana Jones must follow in his father's footsteps and stop the Nazis.

Indy's entanglements with the Nazis as arch-villains are pretty much stock standard fare for his exploits. At least by the third in the series, it's on the verge of becoming – dare I say it? – old hat. Nevertheless, Last Crusade is, in my mind, a stronger film than its predecessor in that it delves into the complicated relationship Indy has with his father (played by Sean Connery), as well as a final test of faith. We see Indy on the trail of rescuing his dad from the Nazis, with the aid of a femme fatale archaeologist Dr Elsa Schneider. She *is* rather distracting but she's far from the damsel in distress.

Of course the rescue mission does not go off smoothly. There are comical moments, when Indy and his dad are tied to a chair with the room burning around them – possibly one of my favourite Indy routines. The humour is silly, but so charming.

And of course the action, the stunts – they are typically edge-of-your-seat. Their journey eventually takes our heroes from Venice crypts and German castles to a mysterious city (in reality this is none other than The Treasury in Petra, Jordan, which is still on my bucket list of places to visit). As with each Indy film, there is a central theme and with this one it's a quest for the Holy Grail – which will allegedly gift the user with immortality. (Not a good thing for Hitler to have, no?) Indy and his dad take opposite stances, with Indy having chosen rationality his entire life while his dad has devoted his life to chasing a so-called magical object with all the fervour of a religious convert.

I need to digress here to this most excellent article by Leah Schnelbach about the religious themes running through this movie. Yes, it's a long article, but when you're done you'll possibly agree that the Indiana Jones films have far more substance than your bog-standard action films. Each time Indy has his brush with the supernatural, he clings stubbornly to science and reason, despite his experiences. Whether this is just his refusal to be swept away by that for which he has no logical explanation or him merely taking things in his stride, we're never quite sure, however he has perhaps his most important test in this film.

The Treasury in Petra, Jordan. Picture: Wiki Commons
The pacing with Last Crusade is tight – there's often little respite from one challenge to the next. Though the mechanisms of the dangers they face are not authentic, yet they have that fantasy elements that blend well and add a hyper-real, epic feel to the films – none of this will happen in real life but it's thrilling to watch. The slight slapstick edge is just right without feeling overdone as it had in Temple of Doom.

I admit that the first time I saw this film I didn't really love it as much as I did the previous ones. Second time round, I was assailed by the feels because of the father-son element. Harrison Ford is visibly older, and so is Indy – perhaps wiser but still the daredevil. I guess what makes Indy one of my perennial heroes is the fact that he thinks on his feet, often solving puzzles that I know for a fact would see me dead within instants. He has passion driving him – for knowledge, for discovering old secrets and revealing (and preserving) them for the good of mankind. Yes, he's a bit of a rogue, but his heart is in the right place. This film's a keeper.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Royal Assassin (Farseer Trilogy #2)

Title: Royal Assassin (Farseer Trilogy #2)
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Voyager, 1997

I lose no time telling folks how much I love Robin Hobb's FitzChivalry stories, and this current review represents my second read through of Royal Assassin. Unfortunately, I'd let time slip between book 1 and 2, so I had to scramble a bit to pick up the threads – and this is most certainly a series that I recommend reading back to back. This is due to the huge cast of characters in addition to the multiple, nuanced plot threads.

We resume with Fitz in the Mountain Kingdom, after he has foiled a plot instigated by his half-uncle Prince Regal, whom we've all come to love to hate by now. Months pass before he is well enough to travel back to Buckkeep, and in that time he suffers seizures. He really has lost much confidence.

He returns to a castle where King Shrewd is ill, and it's clear that Regal is machinating to take power (and ruin the kingdoms while he's at it). Prince Verity is tied up trying to protect the duchies from the Red Ship Raiders and, if that's not enough, the woman Fitz loves now works for Patience – his biological father's widow. Plainly put, it's a tangled mess, and Fitz's decisions don't always work out for the best.

We learn more of Fitz's Wit magic in his relationship with the wolf Nighteyes, whom he rescues from a trapper – and to me, this symbiotic relationship is one of the most beautiful friendships I've ever encountered in the written word. Hobb understands her subjects, be they people or animal.

Fitz suffers terribly, that is all I will say for fear of spoiling the story. By the end of the book, he really has gone through a crucible – especially since Prince Verity is no longer there to protect him, as he's gone haring off hunting for the fabled Elderlings to help against the raiders. Hobb offers potential twists that lulled me into expecting one outcome, only to have my expectations dashed as the story plunges ever more into yet another nadir. So far as the Fitz stories go, this one is perhaps the bleakest. And yet it is not without a glimmer of hope, and the ending is just perfect.

My thoughts on having reread are that I'd missed a lot of the nuance when I'd read this when I was younger. Hobb's staggering ability to perceive the hearts of her characters blows me out of the water. Even Regal's motivations are understandable. He's not a one-dimensional Disney-esque villain but one would almost wish that twisted creature that he is, it would be possible to redeem him.

Those who're fiending after fast-paced, action-packed adventures had best move on. As always, Hobb's writing rewards the patient reader who revels in a slowly unfolding epic masterpiece. Not a single bit of information or action is without some sort of impact later on in the story. There was no saggy middle-book syndrome with this installment.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Shining (1980) #review

A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where an evil and spiritual presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from the past and of the future.

I have a terrible admission to make – but better late than never, amiright? I only watched The Shining for the first time this year. Yes. I’ve been lurking around on this planet for more than 30 years and I’d NEVER EVER EVER watched this masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick.

Also, I absolutely loathe Jack Nicholson. I don’t know what it is about him – his face, his voice. I agree he’s a fantastic actor but he makes my flesh crawl and he was perfect for this role as Jack Torrance, the author who simply cannot get into his novel. The true star of this film is his long-suffering wife Wendy, who somehow keeps it all together when everyone else around her is going completely stark-raving bonkers. Little Danny’s premonitions are creepy, but even creepier still is the location.

Kudos to the set dressers and builders – the interiors of the Overlook Hotel are phenomenal and a fitting tribute to all that is awful about late-1970s décor. Kubrick manages to make me feel horrifically claustrophobic and paranoid all at once. Trapped like Jack and his family, we can only sit back and watch how Jack spirals into madness, and we know things aren’t going to end well. All the while poor, dear Wendy comes to realise she needs to get herself and her son out of this place – easier said than done when the inevitable blizzard cuts them off from the rest of this world. And she’s resilient, tenacious, and she’s a mother who’s absolutely terrified beyond all belief yet she just doesn’t give up.

Yep, there are the tropes, like the magical negro and the psychic children tropes, but Kubrick plays them well. Besides, the tormented author with writers’ block is possibly one of the oldest literary tropes in the box.

I’ve heard so many people go on and on about why this film is a pinnacle of its art, and I can see why. Everything holds together – the tension, the dialogue, the characterisation. I’ll be honest and say it’s not my sort of film because I’m a shallow creature with simple tastes for nubile androgynous elves, but I watched it from start to finish without even getting distracted by my social media feeds because it was simply perfection. The horror is at times subtle, be it the growing sense of menace of a toxic environment or it’s overt, shocking in the flashes of atrocities that Kubrick depicts. (Let me not remember that hotel in Ireland where I had to hang my bedspread over the multiple mirrors before I could get to sleep.)

I’m also aware that this film has been picked apart to death by film aficionados who’ve read all sorts of meaning into things, and that in itself is a fascinating topic to delve into if you’ve got time to waste. Go trawl YouTube if you number among the idly curious. And if you’re a sad old fart like me who waited until her late-30s to see this film… I’m just going to shake my head at you. Watch this fucking film. Seriously.

No. I haven't read the fucking book yet. I'll get there. When I'm 50.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) #reviews

A documentary team films the lives of a group of vampires for a few months. The vampires share a house in Wellington, New Zealand. Turns out vampires have their own domestic problems too.

It’s not often that I’ll laugh until my sides hurt, but directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi pushed all the right buttons for me with their mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows – and I dig vampires, as some of you may already know. I can compare this to The League of Gentlemen meets the vampire genre as we get to know Viago, Vladislav, Deacon, and Petyr, who cohabit in the prerequisite crumbling domicile in the midst of a Wellington suburb in New Zealand. Add their minion (and mum) Jackie to the mix (who clearly has ambitions to be undead) whose work includes procuring and disposing of suitable victims on the off-chance that they'll turn her. (Hint, they're far too comfortable with the status quo.)

Of course their idyll isn’t long-lived, and when one of the vampires accidentally creates a new (modern) vampire, the pecking order is thrown out of kilter, with side-splittingly hilarious consequences. (And of course there are many laughs at the Tweelighters’ expense.)

Okay, the gags are really silly, but if you know your tropes, you’ll end up with a belly ache, like I did. Especially when the werewolves entered stage right… Honestly, I don’t know when last I’d seen a film that was just so much fun (thank you, Netflix). And yeah, this is one I’ll watch again some time in the future. Considering how stolid and unwieldy most of the mainstream cinema fare is nowadays (especially from the US), this is a waft of bloody good (and gory) fun.

There’s not much else to say, other than the fact that the characters were incredibly well put together, and the humour is spot on. So many cringe-worthy awkward, and irreverent situations, but oh so worth it.