Monday, July 28, 2014

John Hartness: Back in Black

John Hartness is another North Carolina writer, whom I met a few years ago at a writer's conference, and let me tell you--he is a hilarious writer.

Back in Black is book #2 in his "Black Knight Chronicles" featuring the two kind-of-vegetarian vampire detectives, Jimmy Black and Greg Knightwood.  While trying to hide their true identities, this couple tries to solve mysteries at night, often running into crazy supernatural adventures.

I bought one of the original editions from when the author self-published this series.  Thus I had to wade through a few typos and a couple of instances of awkward writing.  I'll just assume these got fixed in the currently available edition and move on.

This book contains the same humor that existed in the first one.  The story is interesting and engaging.  The ending is satisfying.  We get to learn more about Hartness's world of vampires.  I particularly loved how both Jimmy and Greg struggled to be "vegetarian" as much as possible.  The fight scenes are hilarious.  The whole world is just plain imaginative and different.

I found myself distracted by only one weakness in the plot.  The case our vampire friends pursue is a series of brutal beatings of gay males.  Several times in the book, the plot freezes as one (or two, or more) of the main characters delivers a soliloquy about how we should accept gay people and allow gay marriage.  This is good for the author--letting us know what side he's on, even though he's from conservative North Carolina.  But I found the delivery to be flat, derivative, and preaching to the choir. It basically stopped the flow of the plot while not really adding anything.

In my opinion, Hartness missed a golden opportunity to have at least one of his main characters originally opposed to gay marriage, but then by the end of the book coming to learn that gay people are alright after all ... such as in the movie Philadelphia.  Such a sub-plotline would have had more convincing power to readers who happen to be more conservatively oriented.

Despite the one minor flaw, I highly recommend the first two books in this series.  They're funny with rich characters in a rich environment.  And dag nab it ... now I'm going to have to get the next book in the series.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Valerie Nieman: Blood Clay

Have you ever been in a hopeless situation, only to relive it over and over, wondering what you could have done differently?  Blood Clay, written by Valerie Nieman, explores one such incident that occurs in rural North Carolina.

Tracey Gaines is a Yankee who moves to the South to pursue ... she's not exactly sure what ... a change of pace?  An escape from her past?  At first, the natives are friendly.  But then when Tracey survives a vicious dog attack, she learns quickly how most of those friendly faces are just a facade.  Tracey tries to do the right things, but meets resistance and hostility wherever she turns.

Well, almost everywhere.  She befriends a local teacher, Dave Fordham, who has his own conflicted past.  He walks with a limp, and is basically a big wuss.  Or at least he looks like one.

What makes this book a joy to read are the real and complex characters.  Each person has major flaws, and no one is "good" or "bad."  Each person has their own desires and needs, and the events are believable.  In fact, when I was done reading, I had to do my own research to see if these events actually did occur.  As far as I can tell, it's all fiction--I think.

The only complaint I have is that in one or two places, I thought the stereotypes were a little thick.  However, these concerns are small in light of the complex story and the dramatic ending.

I highly recommend this book to all Southerners and Yankees.

P.S. You may wonder why a sci-fi reader like me is reading one of these human-interest stories.  Sometimes I just like to take a break and read something more down-to-earth.  Valerie Nieman is an author local to my city, and I met her at a couple of functions.  When she read from her book, I was hooked.  Valerie also happens to write sci-fi as well, and has even hobnobbed with some big-name authors at SFWA meets in the past ... and boy does she have some stories to tell.  There's even a little science in Blood Clay ... just a little.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

More Shows That Died in 2013

In my Blog Blitzkrieg (and all around catching up on stuff), I'll honor shows I used to watch, but ended or got cancelled in 2013.

First off, here are two shows I gave up on, which are actually still showing.

The Following - I think I watched about seven episodes before I realized I really wasn't interested.  The show relies way too much on techniques that made 24 famous.  The twists became so convoluted that they were almost predictable.  Also, the writers seemed to be too much intent on pushing the envelope on how violent a TV show could get.  Sometimes this is fun, like Kubrick in his movies.  But in the case of this show, I just wanted to see more story.  Instead I just got empty boredom.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D - I lasted about five episodes.  My kids watched it with me.  But with the other TV shows going on, this show didn't kindle enough interest to keep watching.  My kids loved to tear apart the science.  Other than that ... we all just lost interest.  Each episode was more of the same.  But of course, it's being renewed because of its franchise value ... I suppose.

Also, I'll throw in an honorable mention for Zero Hour, which got cancelled after only a couple of episodes.  I saw two episodes, and found it to be somewhat interesting.  It was like National Treasure for TV.  I think this show could have found a home with a larger audience, but when the show was on TV, it seemed as if nobody knew it was on.  Perhaps it died because of poor marketing.  For those who are interested, 13 episodes are currently available on Hulu Plus.

Now for the shows I watched till the bitter end...

Alphas (SyFy) - Technically, this ended at the end of 2012, but somehow I missed sending this off.  Overall, I was impressed with the cast and the complex relationships.  Some of the episodes were hit or miss, and we often saw a lot of "Strange of the Week."  But even with these weaknesses, the writers were able to get a good overall arc to the whole show.

My only complaint was that it had not finished when it ended.  The bad guy had won (temporarily).  Everyone was dead-ish.  But you knew that in the next episode, everyone would come back to life.  The baddie would be caught, and Season 3 would go underway.  However, this isn't what happened, and we have yet another good show that left us hanging.

Thanks a lot, SyFy!

The Office (NBC) - This show went on about seven seasons too long, but the show always seemed to find a way to keep me going with it.  When Michael left the show, the remaining characters were sufficiently funny.  Though, toward the end, there were a lot of plot lines that didn't do much for me.

The biggest slap to the head was the whole thing about Jim and Pam having marriage "issues."  I just found the setup to be heavily convoluted, and we all knew they'd work it out in the end.  Kudos for trying to tear them apart, but I wish they had gone with something a little more believable.

The final episode was satisfying.  We got to see Michael again, but not as much as I would have liked.  We finally got to see the end of the documentary, and how most everyone's life ended up, including a couple of good tear jerkers.  It was almost as good as the British final Christmas special.

The show had lots of memorable moments ... the Fire Drill, the Parkour, Dwight and all his antics, Jim and Pam's practical jokes on Dwight, Kevin sticking his feet into the hotel's ice bin, Pam's stupid mural, and so on.

I think I might watch the whole show on Netflix again ...

Touch (FOX) - Several times I complained about the science/math of this show.  It's all complete bunk, even though the writers tried to tie everything to the Fibonacci sequence (which does indeed govern all of nature, but can in no way be used to predict what's going to happen).  Pythagoras would have eaten up the doctrine, but ... I watched it despite this major annoyance.  The story lines were actually interesting.  Give me a good story, and I can overlook the <groan> pseudo-science.

In two seasons, I think the show came to a good stopping point.  It could have gone farther, but at least we weren't left with a big cliffhanger.  Martin is the new protector of the 36.  Jake can live with his father.  Amelia can lead a normal life.  The terrible Aster Corps is destroyed.  Yeah!

Though ... I have to say ... weren't there some parts where Martin was a lot like Jack Bauer?  Didn't you love the parts where he's all, "Don't hurt me--I'm just a dude watching over his son" and then he's all, "I told you not to mess with me"?  Jack Bauer trying to act like a wimp?  Yeah, right.  Sutherland is now permanently typecasted.  Especially when the baddie Ortiz was introduced in Season 2, I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn't watching 24.

Now the show is over, I'll have fond memories.  Good luck, Jake!  Go do your thing!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Orson Scott Card's Homecoming 4 & 5

Now I will review the last two books in Orson Scott Card's Homecoming Saga.  If you missed the reviews of the first three books, you can catch them here.

Book #4: Earthfall.

Out of the five, this volume was my favorite.  The ragtag group finally gets off the planet Harmony, and things happen more quickly.  The trip across space is cool.  Orson introduces two new races that had evolved into intelligent species on Earth in the humans' absence.  Also, we get to know more about the Keeper of Earth, some highly advanced something that communicates with humans through their dreams--not to be confused with the Oversoul, the supercomputer entity that talks directly to Nafai and others.

You can expect more of the same as from the older books.  Elemak and Mebbekew still try to find ways to kill Nafai, while Nafai and his allies try to stay alive.

Once they get to Earth, they have interesting interactions with the new aborigines.  The result is a very imaginative and interesting story.

Book #5: Earthborn.

The last of the series takes place 500 years into the future.  So right off the bat, everyone I cared about is dead.  The naming conventions have changed.  Women have been placed in a submissive role.  And people are starting to doubt the stories about Nafai and his family.

As a story, this one was my least favorite out of the five.  I could have stopped with Book #4, which had a satisfying end.  The new characters just aren't as interesting.  Some of the characters flip-flop more than politicians, and it's difficult to determine their true motives.

However, the book does enter into some interesting discussions about religion, women's rights and racism.  Unfortunately, the characters sound more like Socratic Dialogues rather than real human beings working out their issues.

The book ends in a good place.  However, there are still some questions unanswered.  The good news is that at least it's not screaming for a sequel.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Upcoming Break

Followers of my blog may know that I've been struggling with passing a certain Actuarial Exam.  As this exam contains the least amount of math out of all 9 exams (or however many there are now), it is not as easy for me to pass.  You can read about my love/hate relationship here and here.

If I pass this last exam, I will gain the Associate designation.  That would mean letters after my name, and I would become a "Qualified Actuary" who can become worthy to sign official Actuarial Opinions.  After years passing all these other exams, it would be a shame to give up now, only one exam away.  Thus, this time I'm going to try and throw everything at this exam, even going so far to give up many things that I love in the meantime ...

... including this blog.

But then again, I'm finding out that NOT passing this exam is also getting in the way of my life.  It pulls me down, adds to my depression, etc., etc.  I write fewer blog posts, compose less music, write stories slower, and so on.  I expect that if I hunker down and get this (stupid) exam over with, then my life will open up and become exciting again.

So, how I go ... I will first end with a blog blitzkrieg over the next two or three weeks.  I'll catch up with a few articles I've been meaning to write.  Then I will start the break and not return until November.  I'll miss you guys, but when I come back, I'm going to be more raring to go.