Sunday, September 30, 2012

Podcast Review: The France Project

 This is a new show from podcasting veteran KatiaGrimmer-Laversanne, an Australian who has lived for 10 years in France, and is married to a Frenchman. Her prior podcast, the excellent Katia & KylieMac Show, ended earlier this year after six years and nearly 500 episodes. In that show, she and her American co-host explored life in Paris from an expatriate perspective.

This show covers similar territory, but this time Katia is more comfortable in her adopted country. She is still an outsider in France, but she has garnered much experience, knowledge, and friends in her decade living there.

Two episodes of the France Project have been released as of this writing, and they are made up of short segments of Katia interviewing different people with connections to France. In the first episode, she spoke to a range of interesting people (tourists, an author, and an American diplomat) about their experiences in France, and what makes the country so appealing to foreigners.

In the second episode, she covers the topic of "stereotypes." She talks to foreigners about how their experiences in France differed from their expectations, and then has a long chat with a world-traveling Frenchman. In his segment, he talks about the stereotypes he has faced around the world. It was interesting hearing him explain how France is viewed very differently around the world. His main message seemed to be that he rarely eats frog legs.

This new show is an excellent opportunity for anyone interested in travel, foreign cultures, or interesting conversation.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Walking Dead, issues 13-24

Written by Robert Kirkman, with art by Charlie Adlard.  

This volume of the hardcover collection covers the survivor's new life in the prison. The symbolism of our survivors choosing to live in such a location smacks the reader square in the head, but the location also makes sense. There are fences, gates, separate rooms (cells), an infirmary, a playground, and a dining hall. And there are already a few people living there, our crew quickly discovers.

There are (of course) some deaths among our crew, but by this point readers are used to that brutal fact of life. This volume is mostly known for the addition of Michonne to the cast. Now that she has appeared on the TV show, the comic that contains her first appearance (#19) has greatly appreciated in value. She is helpful with battling the undead, as her sword skills are very strong.  How exactly she survived so long without being in community is a mystery, but her solitary journey seems to have left its marks on her. Like almost everyone (to varying degrees), she seems a little bit crazy.

These issues see the departure of previous artist Tony Moore, and the arrival of Charlie Adlard. The black-and-white aspects of these books makes the artist's style and skill more noticeable than in books where color can be a distraction. By reading these many years after the fact, I know that Moore does not return, and this knowledge makes me more accepting of the change than some who were reading the books as it originally came out.

Kirkman is expert at balancing the gruesome nature of the world and its violence with the necessary character moments to make us care about what happens in the world. It's the psychology of the survivor that is on display as much as the zombies are. And it makes for a riveting read.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along!
Just do the following:

Grab your current read.
Open to a random page.
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.

BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

From chapter 4 of Last Call, by Tim Powers: "Crane had been asleep then, dreaming again about that long-ago game on the lake. Had the dream conjured up some frail ghost of Susan? Or could the house itself generate some replica of her?"

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Guys -- Busy Week!

During this past week, we released three Book Guys Show episodes. Yikes!

Episode 049 was our standard weekly episode. Paul talked about Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan 1942 – 1945 by Barrett Tillman, and I then lightened the mood by talking about the early Stuntman and Black Owl comics I have reviewed here. On the technology side, we also talked Amazon & Audible’s new Whisper Sync.

I missed Episode 050, but my co-hosts did a pretty good without me on the "Talk Like A Pirate Day" special. In addition to covering books about pirates, they had a pretty insightful discussion on piracy of books, movies, and music.

Episode 051 was a panel from a Toronto comic convention featuring actor and author John Barrowman. Known mostly for his portrayal of Captain Jack Harkness in Doctor Who and Torchwood, Barrowman also talks about his upcoming role in the comic-based "Arrow" TV show, as well as the Torchwood novels that he and his sister have written.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Book #54

Illusion, by Frank Peretti. Unabridged audio.

This review first appeared on The Spirit Blade Underground blog.

When the book (and later movie) The Time Traveler’s Wife was released, there was much discussion about whether it was a genre story or not. Yes, there was time travel, but the main dramatic through line was a love story. So was the book science fiction? Or was it just a romance novel, placed in a sci-fi setting? 

I felt a similar tension reading Frank Peretti’s newest novel, Illusion. Peretti single-handedly brought unsterilized and unsafe storytelling to Christian fiction with his novels of spiritual warfare. But this latest novel more closely resembles The Time Traveler’s Wife than his classic This Present Darkness, especially the first half of the novel.

Dane and Mandy were a Christian married couple, who had a long career as a popular magic act. Their forty-year relationship ended when Mandy died tragically in an auto accident. Shortly thereafter, a woman who may or not be the nineteen-year-old version of Mandy from four decades before arrives in present day, throwing her and others into confusion. Teenaged Mandy starts to earn money as a street magician, and does demonstrate actual strange powers. She crosses paths with sixty-year-old Dane more than once, and the pair find themselves strangely drawn to each other.  I admit, there is a mild "creep factor" about this, given the apparent 40-year age difference.

It does take a few hundred pages, but the novel eventually moves into solid sci-fi thriller territory in its second half. The explanation of how Mandy moved forward in time, and the source of her strange powers, is done well, as are the motivations of the scientists (mild spoilers) who caused it to happen.
The Christian nature of the story is very subtle, and I appreciate that. Mainstream Christian art does not do subtlety often, or particularly well, and it is welcome here. There is no sense of being preached at, at any point in the novel. 

As a story about magicians should, this one contains lots and lots of doves. To those familiar with traditional Christian iconography, these references to the Holy Spirit as helper, companion, and comforter are quite well-managed in the novel. There was a strong theme of fate/destiny, as well, as Dane & Mandy always seem to find each other, no matter the circumstances of their increasingly twisted timelines.

There were a few aspects of the plot that did not make sense, events that happened in the novel (or character reactions to these events) that seemed unrealistic. But these moments did not pull me out of the overall flow of an otherwise solid story.

Frank Peretti does a more than serviceable job narrating the audio version of this novel, although I usually prefer professional actors as readers. I saw Peretti give a talk at a Christian festival more than two decades ago, and his experience on the speaker circuit serves him well here. He is definitely above average among novelists who read their own work.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Retro Review: Stuntman #1 & #2

 Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's first non-DC or non-Marvel work after they returned from World War II was Stuntman, a character they created for Harvey Comics.  Former circus Acrobat Fred Drake stops a criminal ring at his failing circus, taking the moniker of Stuntman, complete with colorful costume and cape. The first two issues of this comic were published in April and June, 1946.

Drake's resemblance to actor Don Daring (who fancies himself an amateur detective) gets him a gig as Daring's secret stuntman on set -- though he does later become Daring's official stuntman. Daring finds himself getting into trouble on a regular basis, and Drake comes regularly to his rescue, sometimes as Daring's double, sometimes as the costumed Stuntman. Beautiful actress Sandra Sylvan plays roles of varying importance in most of these stories, as well. Whether the setting is a movie set, a theatre, or an insane asylum, trouble manages to find a way to Drake and Daring.
There are a few oddball aspects to these stories. It doesn't necessarily make sense that a character named the Stuntman would have a secret identity who is .... a stuntman. And the notion that two men could pass themselves off as each other, save a fake moustache, strains credulity. But the golden-age silliness aside, these stories are a treat to read. Simon's writing reveals a nice sense of humor, as well.

There is no Kirby crackle or Kirby machines in these stories, but these are definitely Kirby characters.  I am not an art critic, but the some of the villains and other oddball characters are portrayed in distinctively Jack Kirby manner. There are some very fun and energetic panels, and dynamic action scenes in each story.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Book #53

Tintin and the World of Herge: An Illustrated History, by BenoÎt Peeters. Hardcover.

The three years I spent in Thailand, from age 9-12, were important to me in many ways. Among the many things I learned form living in a totally different culture from the good ol' USA was how awesome Tintin was. My sixth-grade teacher was a tough guy most of the time, but when we finished our work, we were able to dive into the pile of books he had in the room. And mostly what he had for us was Tintin. I have been a fan ever since.

 This book is a nice combination of separate features: it is a brief biography of Herge, a description of his career, and an analysis of his work, both the Tintin and non-Tintin work. The development of his stories mirrored Herge's own interests, so the reader can see Herge's own interests change, from exotic foreign locales to scientific exploration to mystical experience.

George Remy was born in Belgium in 1907, and by the time his drawing were appearing in magazines in his early twenties he had taken the nom de plume Herge. His career was growing well as world war was breaking out around Europe. The impacts of the war on Herge was discussed, including a two-year ban on his work being published.

The bulk of the book is devoted to discussing and analyzing the Tintin works. Each of the 23 published stories is reviewed in 4 to 6 pages of text and art, as is the never-completed 24th story, Tintin and Aplha-Art. The stories about the revisions of the earlier Tintin works was very interesting -- how the drawings were re-worked for each revision, how coloring was introduced to the books, and even how some parts of dialogue were changed as Tintin developed a more international fan base. Many of this book's illustrations demonstrated these differences.

The illustrations are probably the strength of this book. There are literally hundreds of photos and illustrations in here, and they add a tremendous depth to the discussion of Herge and his most famous creation.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Book #52

Unnatural Acts, by Stuart Woods. Unabridged audio.

This novel opens with a terrific memorial to Elaine Kaufman, the real-life person whose real-life restaurant served as a prominent setting in almost every one of Woods' novels. The running joke in this one of where Stone Barrington and Dino Bichetti would eat dinner not that Elaine is closed was a nice touch.
Police officer turned lawyer Stone Barrington, along with his former partner and current NYPD man Dino take, on the case of a hedge fund billionaire. His drug-dealing son needs some sense talked into him, and Stone's old buddy Herbie Fisher is just the man to do that.

Much of the main plot focuses on Herbie, as a matter of fact. His good luck continues in this book, as his career as a lawyer progresses quite well during this novel. He shows skills and knowledge that were only hinted at when Fisher appeared in previous novels. An humorous touch is that Fisher tries to rebrand himself as "Herbert" or "Herb", but the narration continually calls him "Herbie. "

Stone and Dino turn up when they are needed, but as much of their time on the page is for character
development as it is for plot. I continue to get the feeling that Woods is wrapping up some loose ends in his novels. The ongoing cast continues to shrink, and I wonder if Woods is preparing an exit strategy for these characters, and that a final novel in the series will arrive at some point in the future.

As always, narrator Tony Roberts again does a fine job narrating this book.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Guys Show report!

Since the podcast has come back from hiatus, we have produced four shows in four weeks -- and some of them have even been good!

The current cast of co-hosts is Paul the Book Guy, Sir Jimmy, me, and Padre SJ (Robert Ballecer). What we talked about during the most recent episodes has included:

Episode 046 -- Kevin J Anderson's new book Clockwork Angel, the Tim Tebow biography, and Daniel Suarez's novel Daemon.

Episode 047 -- Excellent guests Phil Neisser and Jacob Hess, the authors of You're Not as Crazy as I Thought (but You're Still Wrong). They are a liberal and a conservative, and talk about ways to discuss these contentious political issues in a respectful manner. We also talked about Ender's Game and The Law of Superheroes, both of which I have reviewed on this site.

Book #51

The Child Who, by Simon Lelic.

Simon Lelic is not afraid of tackling difficult topics in his novels; he seems to relish them, in fact.  His first novel, the award-winning A Thousand Cuts, revolves around a teacher who goes on a shooting spree at his school. In this one, he writes about a 12-year-old boy who has murdered a classmate.

Not only does Lelic write about tough subjects, he digs in deeply, examining the issues unflinchingly, making them even more uncomfortable. The main character of this novel is Leonard Curtice, a barrister in small-town England who is brought in to defend the accused murderer. By mounting a vigorous defense, he earns the condemnation of his neighbors. Threatening letters appear at his home, "encouraging" him to just allow the boy to plead guilty and face the consequences. Curtice ignores the threats, but when his own daughter (the same age as the victim) disappears, the tension is cranked up even further.

Lelic's strength is in his characterizations. There are wonderfully uncomfortable interactions between Curtice and his wife, Curtice and his colleagues, Curtice and his client, and Curtice and his client's parents. Lelic lets us into Curtice's thoughts so deeply, that despite his major flaws, we understand why he won't back down from representing the child, and even why he sees there is a viable defense to be mounted. We don't approve of all his actions (hiding the threatening notes from his wife, for example), but we understand them.

This book moves at a very nice clip, is emotionally engaging, and the ending is quite strong. The unraveling of the mystery of the daughter's disappearance is satisfying, both in terms of plot and character.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Retro Review: The Black Owl

Joe Simon & Jack Kirby produced stories of "The Black Owl" character for Prize Comics. These three stories are collected in the hardcover "Simon and Kirby Superheroes," released in 2010, which reprints all of the pair's work for non-Marvel and non-DC publishers. This is the first in a series of reviews of stories from this fascinating volume.

Although not created by them, these issues show glimpses of what the collaboration would eventually produce. A non-powered character, Black Owl is the altar ego of society millionaire Doug Danville, and swashbuckling adventurer with a passion for righting wrongs. Since he was an existing character before Simon & Kirby got their hands on him, there is no origin story given, nor is their an explanation of how the dark-haired Danville becomes the blonde-haired Black Owl. The lack of black in his costume struck me as odd, as well, considering the character's name.

Their stories ran in Prize Comics #7, #8, and #9. In issue #7 (December 1940), Danville's private detective girlfriend Terry Dane takes a job at the castle of an eccentric millionaire who requires his guests to wear period clothing. This quirk allows Kirby to present us a range of interesting visuals, as does the medieval setting. Danville crashes the party, and then convinces Dane to allow him to accompany her. But the mysterious villain The Whistler also shows up, and he wants the millionaire's prize possession, the actual Arthurian sword Excalibur. A dynamic fight scene ends the action, but the final caption ("Is the Whistler really dead?" leads us the next issue.

Issue #8 (January 1941) answers the question -- no, the Whistler is not really dead. This time, Danville, Dane, and the whistling villain all show up on a ship. In a humorous scene, Dane sees through Danville's attempt to disguise himself as a sailor. This high-seas adventure is definitely a sequel to the prior story, and in a very dramatic few panels, the Whistler sinks beneath the seas gripping Excalibur.

Issue #9 finds our hero facing down criminal mastermind Madame Mystery. The plot in this one is a bit flimsy -- the confrontation comes as a result of a unscrupulous newspaper editor planting a fake story. But the action is top-notch, and the dialog between Danville and Dane is crisp.

These stories are not ground-breaking, but they are entertaining. Simon and Kirby were working on the first Captain America stories at the same time, so I can excuse them for producing merely average stories for the Black Owl. Fun stories for sure, but nothing like what they would produce in later years.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book #50

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card.

This has been on my to-read list for years. But it was during a recent conversation on the Book Guys podcast where discussion of this particular version, the multi-voiced audio version, was specifically recommended. It seemed like a good time to take the plunge and finally pick up this SF classic.

Earth has been attacked in the recent past by the Buggers, alien beings whose most recent attack was barely beaten off. Since that, Earth has been preparing for the inevitable counter-attack, and have recognized that their greatest assets in the war may very well be her children. Their age makes them the only Earthlings who can be trained to fight in the zero-gravity environment of space warfare.

Ender Wiggin, the youngest of three children, is tabbed as humanity's only hope to fight off the Buggers -- his skills, instincts, and personality have been noticed by the government. Recruited into Battle School and groomed to be a commander, Wiggin faces many challenges from his superiors and colleagues. His age and size make him a target for bullying, but he is eventually able to gather a team of trusted child colleagues, and eventually breaks every training record ever.

Through a terrific twist that I won't reveal, Wiggin leads his team to victory over the aliens, although the experience leaves him troubled. The end of the novel explores the effect that committing genocide has on a young person, and adds a depth of emotion to the action-adventure story that makes up the majority of the novel.

This book is rightly considered a classic, a terrific, thoughtful novel that deserves the praise it has received.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along!
Just do the following:

Grab your current read.
Open to a random page.
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.

BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

From disc 6 of the multi-voice audio version of the sci-fi classic Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card:  "In spite of all her misgivings, Valentine was having fun being Dimosthenes. Her column was now being carried on practically every newsnet in the country, and it was fun to watch the money pile up in her attorney's accounts."

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Book #49

The Law of Superheroes, by James Daily & Ryan Davidson. Paperback.

Would the 2nd Amendment apply to Cyclops' eye blasts? Does Superman need to pay income taxes on diamonds he squeezes from coal? Could Doomsday be charged with murdering Superman, even after the Man of Steel came back from the dead? With the exception of the characters in the Pixar movie The Incredibles, very few superheroes have faced these questions.
A pair of lawyers from the Midwest have decided to ask these questions in this engaging book. Legal tomes are not known for being readable and accessible, but this one manages to be.  I am not a lawyer, but I understood almost everything the authors were talking about. The Law of Superheroes covers a range of basic legal issues, such as the US Constitution, evidence, contracts, and administrative law. The authors' focus is on the US courts and legal system, although many of the concepts are applicable in courtrooms around the world.

By using examples from published actual comic book plots, and from "hypothetical" cases involving heroes and their situations, Daily and Davidson bring comic readers into the process of legal analysis. They cite actual cases as precedents, using how courts have actually ruled in "real-world" cases to hypothesize how they might rule in "superpowered" cases. At least, they explain the thought processes that lawyers and judges would engage in, as they weighed this type of situation.
This book is scheduled for an October release. Anyone interested in either the law or superheroes (or both) should consider picking it up.

Note: I received this book for review, free of charge, via the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.