Thoughts on speculative fiction. Join in the conversation on books, television and film. I review everything I read or watch from the world of the imaginative and the fantastic.

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September 25, 2014

Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Every novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafon features dark mystery, gothic architecture, shadows of Barcelona, and a love of books, and his latest English release Marina adds to that teen romance and absolute horror. Set in the late 1970s, the year is later and the cast of characters is younger; Oscar Drai is a schoolboy falling in love for the first time, not just with a pretty girl but with her secrets, and the mystery that takes hold of the two of them. The couple follow the mystery — namely a woman dressed all in black with a black veil hiding her face — to the Sarria cemetery and spy on her as she grieves at a grave embossed with the symbol of a black butterfly, and for their curiosity, they are ensnared in an old unsolved case that’s coming back for vengeance.

Originally published in Spanish in 1999, Marina was translated this year by Lucia Graves, the translator for all of Zafon’s internationally acclaimed novels. Intended for a young adult audience, it’s a shorter read meant for one mesmerizing sitting. In this Zafon novel the love of stories and storytelling is embodied in Marina, the character of the tragic writer.

While not the darkest of Zafon’s works, Marina is probably the scariest; the theme of man playing god turns scary when a scientific attempt at immortality leads to animated corpses, violent and angry, and acting out the revenge of their master. More captivating is certainly Oscar’s relationship with Marina and her father Germ├ín, a surrogate family for him and the first he has ever known, and Zafon’s classic uncovering of history and old wrongs that would have been better left in the past (except for the sake of our literary enjoyment.)

August 5, 2014

The balanced Guardians of the Galaxy review

Guardians of the Galaxy is the buzzworthy space action flick of the summer, with its August box office record-breakage ($94 million), a trailer that leaves the mainstream audience giggling but with very confused expectations, and the rave reviews from critics and your Facebook friends alike. It's worth the ticket price, but not your first born child, just in case there was any confusion going by what your friends posted in your Facebook news feed. Enjoyable, and nice and short at 121 minutes, and silly. I'll even go as far as to say fun, with characters, and visuals. I'm avoiding modifiers and superlatives for fear of being misinterpreted as having composed what could be called a rave review in any way. I liked it, and I recommend it.

The one bit of hyperbole I will agree with is where Zaki from Huffington Post calls it "the most confident bit of sci-fi world-building I've seen since the original Star Wars," to which I will add, if only because there hasn't been anything close to a strong attempt at sci-fi world building since Star Wars.

But while unique in the immersiveness and detail of its intergalactic universe, and perhaps in its heroes, it just wasn't unique in its story. Swashbuckler and carefree space adventurer with a Han Solo mien foolishly strikes out apart from his treasure-hunting boss and gang of thugs to slip away with the booty for himself: a silver orb thingy that everybody wants and nobody knows what it really is. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is then chased through the galaxy by the likes of bounty hunters Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel, apparently), and assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana). When he ends up in jail with them, they become friends (with the addition of Drax, played by WWE wrestler Dave Bautista), fusing together into an Avengers-like team only much stranger. I mean, Rocket is a genetically engineered raccoon who suffers deeply for being the only of his kind and the mockery that goes along with it, and who knows what Groot is? And why is Zoe Saldana green?

The story from there is that Peter Quill's orb turns out to have some kind of world-destroying cosmic capability that makes it insanely dangerous and it's about to fall into the malevolent hands of some big deal bad guy named Thanos, played by Josh Brolin, who is wonderful and completely unrecognizable, which is less wonderful, because had I known it was him I would have actually paid attention to the otherwise cliche and yawn-worthy big bad guy monologue. The rest of the movie is spent trying to keep the orb away from Thanos and then trying to get it back from him. With giant space ships crashing into planets and all that fun Marvel stuff, plus some fighter pilot maneuvering and hand to hand combat.

I have to compare it to The Avengers — only quite a bit better — in that the first two thirds of the movie are very strong, and the end falls flat. There are a lot of comparable plot points. The defeat of one of the big bad guys is essentially a punch line: in this case there's no Hulk smash, only Peter Quill breaking into dance suddenly at the moment of his defeat, distracting Ronan the Accuser so they can destroy the warhammer and use the orb thingy to kill him (it's a much funnier punchline than "Hulk smash" if you ask me.) There's also the saving grace, which was another problem I had with the Hulk in The Avengers, which actually makes sense in Guardians of the Galaxy — Groot protects the group, sacrificing himself (although he comes back much cuter). None of this to say that Guardians of the Galaxy was bad, just that it had similar flaws.

The jokes and the prison break scene are what make it good. Kudos to Marvel for casting an actor, Chris Pratt, as star hero who can actually do comedy. This could have gone so wrong had they given those one liners to a type cast tough guy action hero. Instead, there's a humorous overtone on a colorful space adventure that will make you smile, even if it's silly, and won't leave you with too many frustrations of the plot-hole or inconsistency variety. How's that for balance?

July 28, 2014

Mad Powers by Mark Wayne McGinnis

The latest book from Best-Selling Amazon author Mark Wayne McGinnis is available now: get Mad Powers on Amazon.

Mad Powers is a paranormal thriller. It's nice to see the author expand into new territory genre-wise, and as usual he does it with original writing, unique and lovable (as well as intentionally hate-able) characters, and a very different kind of story.

This is the story of Rob Chandler, an agent who loses his memory in a car crash that simultaneously gives him new mad powers to read and meddle with people's minds. Previously a novella in which Rob struggled through the days following his accident with no idea how to find out his true identity and suspecting his life may still be in danger, it's now a full-length novel that ends up somewhere completely unexpected. I won't ruin it for you, but suffice it to say, there's a thrilling mission waiting for Rob once he figures out just who he is.

The way Rob discovers tapping in and then makes use of its power to get through obstacles and out-smart his antagonists, even with the disadvantage of amnesia, is enjoyable, thrilling, and often-times really humorous.

If you like Dean Koontz, this will be very much up your alley; some bits reminded me of Watchers. Another entertaining, fast-paced page turner to curl up with on the couch (and stay there until you finish). The only downside is that you'll be dying to find out what happens next, and you'll just have to wait for the next one.

July 15, 2014

X-Men Days of Future Past [review time]

Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ellen Page, Halle Berry and Peter Dinklage

The verdict is in, and surprisingly enough, X-Men: Days of Future Past is the best X-Men movie to date, and that's saying something, given that First Class was a very impressive return for the series.

I didn't think they could top superheroes meet Cuban missile crisis, but I was wrong: what topped it was genocidal AI super-robots that can adapt to any mutant power (thanks to genetic engineering and Mystique's DNA). Why is that good? Well, it borrows perhaps from Terminator, (okay, yeah, maybe a lot), which means a dark dystopian theme and Matrix-esque end of the world visuals, plus it's a fitting return to what X-Men is really all about — humanity's rejection of its own evolution: the mutants.

Days of Future Past opens on a future where the world has essentially been destroyed by a war between humanity and mutants, one where humanity's weapon is the Sentinel, a contracted military weaponized robot with AI, mutant-exclusive targeting and an ability to adapt to counter any mutant's ability. To establish the strength of the Sentinel, a small band of mutants faces off against one, and all of them, no matter how cool and badass their power, get killed. Since we care about some of those characters, like Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), luckily it turns out that Kitty's band of mutants have been evading the Sentinels when she sends someone back in time to deliver warnings of the attacks. None of them are actually dead, and the group rendezvouses with more important named characters: Xavier, Magneto, Storm and Wolverine.

Once the badass invincibility of the enemy is established, the plot is hatched, and it's the same you've come to know from the trailer: Wolverine volunteers to go back in time and stop this future from happening. That's because Kitty's ability to send a consciousness back is limited, and going so far back would destroy the average mind, tearing it physically apart, or something, so Wolverine is the only one who can simultaneously heal his brain as it's being rent asunder. Or something.

Time travel is overdone in general and I winced every time Wolverine had to repeat that he was from the future or assures Xavier and then Magneto that "you sent me," but what was done nicely was the overlap of past and future, where scenes cut back and forth between the 70s and an apocalyptic world some decades (as in less than a century) later. Our 70s gang spend valuable screen time simply grouping together and then trying to track down Mystique and stop her from murdering Bolivar Trask, played by Peter Dinklage, who invented the Sentinels (and it was his murder that allowed Mystique to be captured and her DNA replicated to allow the Sentinels to transform and adapt like she can). After many attempts, which admittedly gets kind of old fast, Xavier isn't getting through to her, and time is running out in the future due to some nonsensical mechanic where the course of events won't be changed until Wolverine wakes up from his dual-consciousness nap in the past, and the future gang are getting picked off and killed by Sentinels, unable to run while Kitty's doing her voodoo thing with Wolverine's body (note: if that makes no sense, I apologize. It's confusing. Maybe go see the movie instead of reading a spoiler-full review).

Where the strength of First Class was the character development and complexity drawn out from Xavier, Erik and Raven, Days of Future Past actually has its strong point in its plot, which is refreshing, and said plot just relies heavily on the dynamic established in the first film. Except that in the ten year gap Xavier's feelings toward Raven have become surprisingly love-triangley, and while he continues to act as a surrogate older brother or guardian to her, he also resents Erik for taking her away from him, getting inside her head and making a killer out of her to fight his, Magneto's, war. That said, if you don't remember First Class or haven't seen it, that whole dynamic might come across as more of a hot mess.

That doesn't mean there's no good character drama, though. From the trailer you may have been wondering, like I was, why James McAvoy seemed to be up walking 'round again as if he's not a paraplegic. Not telling. Suffice to say, young Xavier has more development where that came from, not to mention more struggles with his relationship with Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence. It's all very tragic and puts X2 and X3 in perspective to see these men with their utter bro-mance continually at odds with one another on what should be a theoretical matter but in practice is very bloody (whether to fight a war, humans versus mutants, or to try to live peacefully). Even in the future, you'll get a lamentation from Ian McKellen that their friendship was strained by foolish young passions, but never an actual admission that he was wrong. It's subtle, but it's there. The man ain't changing.

The best moment of the entire thing was hands down Quicksilver's superspeed mischief set to Time in a Bottle by Jim Croce. Evan Peters was silly and hilarious. A deserving addition to the ever-growing cast of mutants.

I'm okay with the ending. There's probably room for debate there but as someone who is very familiar with but not a comic book nerd addict of the X-Men canon, I was quite happy to see Famke Janssen and James Marsden alive and beautiful as ever. Hopefully Cyclops and Jean Grey are alive enough now to make it into the third installment, X-Men: Apocalypse, and hopefully there won't be another apocalypse, because this dystopia was already pretty close to the end of the world as humans know it.

I seem to have made it through an entire review without ranting about any particular flaw. Did I miss something? No one disagrees with me that this was even better than First Class, right? Well if you do, bring it on. Tell me I'm wrong. Oh and if anyone found any plot holes, particularly time travel related plot holes, do tell!

June 5, 2014

A New Scrapyard Ship book by Mark Wayne McGinnis: Realms of Time adds history to the space adventure series

The next book in the Scrapyard Ship series by Mark Wayne McGinnis is out, and first of all, the cover art is incredible. I love it. Get Realms of Time here.

The stakes increase in the fourth Scrapyard Ship book when Earth is threatened, not with destruction per se, but with time altering drones meant to send the entire planet back approximately 100 years. Jason takes action against the drones, only to worsen the situation; the five drones place on five different continents are knocked out of sync, meaning that Earth is divided up into multiple varying time realms. In order to disrupt the drones and return Earth to its correct timeline, Jason and his team need to travel through these time realms, some in the recent past, some millions of years into prehistory, and some in the future.

What does that mean? It means a series beloved for its space travel adventures now meets historical fiction, and new storylines that are detailed, expert and very satisfying. There's still space action to come to the galaxy, where the Allied forces gear up to assault the Craing worlds and end their conquest once and for all, but Realms of Time adds a new flavor to the series. Plus, you still get to see Jason maneuvering through what always appear to be impossible situations until you see his clever solution, the gang's dynamic growing and changing, Mollie developing while remaining amusing as ever, not to mention getting to know Dira a little better.

Fans who've been dying for more of the story get another satisfying piece, gearing up for a resolution. Enjoy!