Sunday, April 23, 2017

Movie Musings: The Fate of the Furious



***Cross-posted from SuperversiveSF.com***

On one level, The Fate of the Furious is the easiest movie to review:
1. Great fun
2. Leave your brain (especially the part that understands physics) at home

And now, folks, your seat belts (HA!) because I will try to make this post deep. How deep? Glad you asked. I’m going to take the recent discussion of what qualifies as superversive fiction and apply it to this movie. If you’re rolling on the floor in fits of laughter, I don’t blame you. But stick with me here. Just because something is lowbrow, doesn’t mean it can’t be superversive, at least in part. And if we can see superversive elements in this piece of schlock, maybe they would become easier to identify elsewhere. Thus, let the experiment begin!

Aspiring/Inspiring. Our heroes are far from being role models, that’s for sure. But are they reaching for something higher? Are they attempting to improve the world, what little of it is in their control? The opening segment includes a prolonged drag-racing sequence that ends with Dom Toretto acting with both generosity and honor towards a person who really deserves neither. Much later, when the villainess questions why Dom seemingly rewarded the man who tried to kill him, the response is, “I changed him.” Does it work like that in real life? Probably not. Thugs don’t choose to join the side of light because of one event, not commonly anyway. Is it possible? Yes, I suppose it is. Is it something we’d like to occasionally see in our art? Absolutely.

Virtuous. I can see how this requirement can be viewed as problematic at first glance, but we need to remember that superversive heroes don’t need to be perfect. They do, however, need to know right from wrong, and more importantly, the story itself must be clear on the matter. An advantage of a well crafted dumb action movie is that the central conflict is very clear. The good guys are… maybe not all that good, not all of them, but they are working for a good cause. And the villainess Cipher, played with obvious delight by Charlize Theron, is as cold and vicious as they come. Her purported justification sounds vaguely noble from throwing around words like “accountability,” but at no point are we sympathetic or thinking, “Well, she’s kind of right…” Nope. Not even close. In this story, shades of gray are non-existent.

Heroic. This one is easy. Unlike in some of the other entries in F&F franchise, the protagonists’ motives here are mostly pure: family, loyalty, honor and oh yeah, saving the world. There is revenge mixed in for some, and an opportunity for a second chance for others. In particular, Deckard (Jason Statham), a villain from one of the previous films, is at first hard to accept as one of the good guys, but he does redeem himself in one of the more spectacular and absurd scenes in a movie that’s full of them. In the end, they all rise to the occasion and do what they must to fight evil, no matter the cost. Additionally, in what to me is the stand-out moment of the movie, Letty bets her life, without hesitation, for a chance to reach and save her husband who appears to have gone rogue. It plays much better if you know the history of these characters, but it’s powerful in either case.

Decisive. Again, easy, as per requirements of the genre. The protagonists don’t have time to agonize over their choices, in part because there aren’t too many. Saving the world is a non-negotiable goal. While there are heart-breaking scenes, we see not a hint of the modern “why me?” angst that has infected even many of the superhero movies. They hurt and they grieve, but never stop moving towards the goal.

Non-subversive. You’d think a movie in a franchise built around essentially glorifying outlaws would be subversive by definition. Not so. This entry in particular has a villainess whose main intent is destruction of the current order, but there’s even more than that. In one of the obligatory Villain Exposition scenes, she’s intent on convincing Dom Toretto, the man who values family and faith, that he is wrong in his priorities. It’s not enough for her to use Dom’s skills. She has a need to destroy who he is, to prove that his life has no meaning, and by extension, no one’s life has meaning. This is an important point. If life is of no value, if family, faith and honor are but an illusion, then mass murder is a perfectly acceptable stepping stone to one’s goals. The villainess is a nearly perfect embodiment of subversion. She would not, in fact, be out of place in an old-fashioned fairly tale, from the time before our culture has developed a need to understand, justify, and sympathize with villains rather than to advocate and celebrate their unconditional defeat.

There were other things that are remarkable on that front. For all the banter and joking around, there’s not a hint of irony when it comes to good old fashioned values. Dom talk constantly about family as if it’s some kind of magic mantra needed to pull him back to the light. (One reviewer commented that at times the movie has a feel of a GOP convention, with the word “family” being mentioned over 50 times.) They pause before a meal to say grace. Crosses figure prominently, both in the visuals and once actually in the plot. Two young hot-blooded men are courting an attractive woman, but that’s where it stays. There is no obligatory danger-inspired hookup, but on the flip side, no blanket rejection of men or romance either. It’s a small scene, fun and light-hearted, but also old-fashioned. And in the end, for all the ridiculous special effects and action, I think this is one of the reasons the franchise has endured. These movies entertain and amuse without tearing down, and they leave you, if not inspired, at least satisfied with a simple tale that shows the world working mostly as you know it should. Not so bad for a piece of dumb action after all.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Book Review: Live and Let Bite by Declan Finn

I admit, I started this book with a bit of trepidation. The Big Bad in the previous installment was so big and so bad and so near-indestructible that trying to top it could very well veer into the ridiculous (think some of the more unfortunate James Bond movies, for example). Wisely, the author didn't go that route. Oh sure, there's a worthy adversary for our favorite couple and their merry crew, but this novel is more concerned with adding more layers of plot and character development in between the 'splosions and bursts of machine gun fire. Yes, we get machine guns added to the mix this time, because, well, why not?

The story starts off... angsty, for lack of a better word. Marco and Amanda are separated, causing much brooding for them and pain for the baddies. When those two brood, the soundtrack is more death metal than country, if you get my drift. In the meantime, Merle the international man of supernatural mystery, discovers/confirms a connection between the U.N. and the vampires, both of whom, it so happens, want Marco dead at all costs. The rest of the plot revolves around our heroes facing and dealing with the new super-assassin, while trying to finally resolve their feelings for each other.

That last part, in my opinion, takes up most of the energy of the novel. Let's face it, in an ongoing series we can't be overly worried if the main characters make it through the next chapter. Finn is not entirely averse to killing someone we care about, on occasion, but he hasn't been affected by the Joss Whedon disease (looking at you, Terry Goodkind, grrr...) and let's hope he never does. So the assassin subplot becomes more of a "journey, not a destination" kind of deal. You know she will be defeated. You don't know how, or why she's on the job in the first place, or even who the heck she is. Also, did I mention 'splosions? So there's a lot of pure fun to be had along the way, but to really make us care, there has to be something else. Something beyond the heroes' survival to the next installment, and beyond the intellectual challenge of solving the fundamental mystery of the overarching plot. That leaves us with...

If you guessed, "romance," congratulations! You're in for a treat. If not, and if your reaction is, "Oh no, not that!" rest assured that it's not your usual YA drama. These are serious people, with the fate of, if not the world, at least thousands of lives on their shoulders, who cannot function at full capacity till they address what is delicately called the issues of the heart. I'll give no spoilers in this regard since I consider this particular narrative thread the most suspenseful. Suffice it to say that there is a level of progress achieved, with hints of more to come. Stay tuned and wait for the sequel.

Purchase Live and Let Bite on Amazon



Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Awards and Amusements

It's that time of the year: the snow is melting, the new flowers are blooming, and the book awards season is coming into full swing. Unlike with the Oscars and other movie-oriented awards, where audiences tune in to see lavish dresses and occasional on-screen celebrity meltdowns, most of the book awards entertainment comes from--you guessed it--reading. Thus this week's roundup for your online entertainment.

First, an award that's near and dear to my heart, as I co-founded the group that runs it:

Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance 2017 Book of the Year.




The competition for this one was stiff, with the Top Two contenders vying for the lead until the final hours. In the end, Peter Grant claimed the first place with his Post-Civil War themed Western Brings the Lightning.  John Ringo/Larry Correia collaboration Monster Hunter: Grunge came in second, and John C. Wright's wildly imaginative fantasy Iron Chamber of Memory rounded up the Top Three.

For complete information on the award, full list of the finalists as well as the nature and goals of CLFA, please visit Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance website.

(I especially recommend the visit to those who had the misfortune of visiting a certain blog, where some of the commenters took it upon themselves to re-write both the nature and the history of CLFA to suit their narrative. Amusing as it was to read the conjectures, it is important for the truth to come out, and going to the source is usually the best solution. Also, please feel free to post questions in the Comments section.)

Second: The Hugo Awards finalists have been announced.

I'm happy to see John C. Wright's excellent short story from God, Robot getting the nod, even if the environment surrounding this particular award is guaranteed to keep him from winning.

The same comment applies to Jeffro Johnson and Castalia House blog, in their respective categories.

If you're looking for more analysis, here is some from Declan Finn (I think the headline provides a hint of how he feels, but you may want to read the whole thing to be sure). Jon del Arroz crunches some vote numbers, for those who are into math. And finally, since I promised amusement, John C. Wright, in the comments on Vox Popoli blog, reacts to receiving the nomination. Kind of.

Third: The Dragon Awards nominations are open.



Larry Correia provides this timely reminder as only he can. Personally, since the eligibility period for that one runs into the current year, I'm holding off a little longer. But there's no doubt that for sci-fi and fantasy fans, this is the award to watch (and for the authors, to strive to win).

I guess this is a good time to mention that I will be going to Dragoncon this year, for the first time ever, and for some reason have been accepted as an Attending Pro. Soooo, if anyone has hints and tips, or wants to meet up, please comment below. Hope to see many of you there!

Till then, as always, Happy reading!



Sunday, March 26, 2017

Book Review: Renegades: Origins by Kal Spriggs


As the title implies, this novel, while following a coherent and moderately exciting plot, is more of a collection of shorts giving us individual characters' history and insights into what makes them tick. If you like your fiction character-oriented, but shy away from the so-called "literary" works where that's ALL you get, this one is for you. Each part of the plot is told from a different POV (some characters get more than one chapter, and a couple don't get any, but that's the general structure).

There's a risk to this method of storytelling because the readers' engagement hinges on whether or not they like the characters and care what happens to them. For that reason, it took me a while to get into the story. At first glance, these characters can appear obnoxious, annoying, or both, and even though I intellectually knew they were the good guys, at least in comparison to their opponents, I honestly wouldn't have minded to see at a couple of them knocked off. I am, however, a patient reader, and was willing to give the story a chance to convince me otherwise. I'm happy I did because the characters do grow on you, and as it happens, the story as a whole gets better until, about half-way through, I was overstaying my lunch hour to finish a particular section.

One thing the author does very well is managing a large cast while never confusing the reader or making the characters seem interchangeable. The three aliens not only come from vastly different species, but have different goals, personalities and, strangely enough, considering two of them happen to be psycho killers, enough quirks and hangups to make them both entertaining and relatable. In fact, somewhere along the way, I realized that Rastar is actually what Jar-Jar Binks should've been in George Lucas were a half decent writer: funny, friendly to the point of annoyance, but with a heart and skills of a mighty warrior. In case I didn't hate the Jar-Jar character enough, now that I see the possibilities, I'm even happier that Lucas has given up his death grip on Star Wars. But I digress...

The humans are interesting as well. All of them are running, not just from their former alien jailers, but from the things they've done, or are accused of having done, and in some cases, just things that live as unending nightmares in their heads. While some of them are natural jerks, there's usually a reason for what seems to be irrational or downright immoral behavior. I won't give it away because the slow revelations of their backstories is what makes this work special, but I have to give the author credit for understanding the difference between and explanation and an excuse when it comes to the characters' more questionable actions. Redemption, or at least a second chance, is one of my favorite themes, and is very much the thread that unites both the characters and the overall story. While it's impossible, or desirable, to resolve all of the issues in what is by design an origin story, we're given hope that the characters, both human and alien, will find a satisfactory conclusion to their individual stories when all is said and done.

If you're expecting wall-to-wall action or a One Hero Does Everything type of tale (not that there's anything fundamentally wrong with those), go elsewhere. However, if you're looking to meet some interesting people and aliens in space and watch them fight for their lives while also battling their inner demons, this is your kind of story.

Purchase Renegades: Origins on Amazon

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Guest Promotion: Dating the It Guy by Krysten Lindsay Hager

Krysten Lindsay Hager is a fellow author I "met" through Clean Indie Reads Facebook group. While I don't limit myself to reading strictly clean fiction, I think it's important to give readers a variety of choices. Clean fiction, once used limited mostly to Christian publishers, it's beginning to gain traction in the mainstream. There are plenty of great stories out there without excessive violence or explicit sex, and I'm happy to do my small part to help them get read. (Full disclosure: my own novel Chasing Freedom has been accepted for listing on Clean Indie Reads website and will be linked there within the next couple of weeks).

And now, for Krysten's new offering:




Dating the It Guy by Krysten Lindsay Hager
YA contemporary romance
Published by Clean Reads

Blurb:
Emme is a sophomore in high school who starts dating, Brendon Agretti, the popular senior who happens to be a senator's son and well-known for his good looks. Emme feels out of her comfort zone in Brendon's world and it doesn't help that his picture perfect ex, Lauren seems determined to get back into his life along with every other girl who wants to be the future Mrs. Agretti. Emme is already conflicted due to the fact her last boyfriend cheated on her and her whole world is off kilter with her family issues. Life suddenly seems easier keeping Brendon away and relying on her crystals and horoscopes to guide her. Emme soon starts to realize she needs to focus less on the stars and more on her senses. Can Emme get over her insecurities and make her relationship work? Life sure is complicated when you're dating the it guy.


Short Excerpt:
“By the way, did you hear Lauren got into Senator Agretti’s old school?”
“Seriously? I wonder if she applied there because Brendon did,” I said.
Margaux snorted. “Duh, of course. Seriously, she might as well just pee on him to mark her territory.”
“Margaux, shut up,” Kylie said.
“Whatever. Anyway, the important thing is if Brendon knew she was applying there,” Margaux said. “Em, do you think he knew?”
I hoped Lauren was just trying to follow Brendon, but what if they had planned this whole thing while they were dating? What if he convinced her to apply there so they could go to college together, wear matching American flag sweaters with big scarves while drinking hot chocolate, and jump into leaf piles just like a preppy clothing catalog. At least now I didn’t have to worry about them reciting poetry to one another in South Bend, but still, what if they had made plans to go to school together?
“Don’t worry about it,” Kylie said. “She was probably trying to follow him—like she always does. She’s so pathetic.”
Kylie was trying to make me feel better, but Lauren was far from pathetic. After all, she was pretty much the “Most Likely to Succeed” poster girl. While she was out overachieving and saving the world without messing up her perfect, bouncy hair, I was trying to get through each day. I tried to push away the image of Lauren and Brendon holding hands and drinking hot chocolate under a stadium blanket.

Purchase:
Barnes and Noble: http://bit.ly/2m5y9OC


 Follow Krysten

Bio: Besides mining her teen years and humiliating moments for her novels, ​Krysten is a also a book addict who has never met a bookstore she didn’t like. She’s worked as a journalist and writes young adult, middle grade, new adult, and adult fiction as well as humor essays. She is originally from Michigan and has lived in Portugal, South Dakota, and currently resides in southwestern Ohio where you can find her reading and writing when she’s not catching up on her favorite shows (she's addicted to American Dad to the point where she quotes episodes on a daily basis and also loves Girl Meets World). She's also a third generation Detroit Lions fan.
Krysten writes about friendship, self-esteem, fitting in, frenemies, crushes, fame, first loves, and values. She is the author of True Colors, Best Friends...Forever?, Next Door to a Star,  Landry in Like, and Competing with the Star (The Star Series: Book 2). Her debut novel, True Colors, won the Readers Favorite award for best preteen book. Krysten's work has been featured in USA Today, The Flint Journal, the Grand Haven Tribune, the Beavercreek Current, the Bellbrook Times and on Living Dayton.

Praise for Dating the It Guy:
“A sweet, endearing story—you’ll fall in love with Emme just like I did!” --Kimber Leigh Wheaton, YA/NA author

"Hager's authentic characters will resonate with readers of all ages as they are immersed in the story  - complete with teen drama and angst, but also the relationships which make it all worthwhile." --  Leslie L. McKee, book reviewer, Edits and Reviews by Leslie

Friday, March 17, 2017

Netflix Review: Downfall



Downfall is a strangely compelling film. Not only do we know the ending, and the fate of all major characters, before we start, but we also have no heroes to root for, and the villains... well, we really couldn't hate them any more, could we?

And yet, unlike so many yawn-inducing historical dramas, this one holds our rapt attention throughout, and leaves us with much food for thought afterwards. Why is that? Are we still so fascinated with all things Hitler? Do we find satisfaction in seeing evil men and their immediate enablers get their due? Does the girl-next-door character of Traudl Junge provide enough of a different perspective to make us care--something impossible to do with the more important historical figures?

I suppose all of the above are true, but there's more depth to this particular version of the well-known story. The claustrophobic setup, both in the physical location and in the sense of immediate, inevitable doom, allows us to see all the players as we perhaps had not seen them before, at least outside of obscure historical documents.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the claim that Downfall humanizes Hitler. Some would even say he is shown as sympathetic. I admit there are moments where, having been accustomed to think of him as an abstraction, a stand-in for "monster," the viewer is surprised that he is, after all, just a man. He is kind to his employees. He clearly loves Eva. He personally makes sure his dog dies a quick death rather than starve in the ruins of Berlin or be shot by a passerby. It's almost tempting, especially considering his many temper tantrums, the best of which has been turned into a Youtube sensation, to attribute the horrors he inflicted on the world to insanity.

That, however, would be a lie. After all, the movie provides us enough moments of Hitler, perfectly relaxed and coherent, casually dismissing compassion as weakness; refusing to grant mercy to his former associates and German people alike; and counting the destruction of Jews as his crowning achievement. He might be delusional in some ways, particularly in his insistence during the first half of the movie that a military victory is still possible. But he isn't insane. If anything, while most of his underlings (and his lover, for that matter) spend their remaining time drinking themselves into oblivion, Hitler doesn't as much as break his dietary restrictions. His very last meal is vegetarian, and he makes a point to thank the cook after he is finished.

Nor is Hitler alone in this duality. Martha Goebbels is at once a proud mother and a cold-blooded killer. She also is sane, at least by legal definition, choosing loyalty to her lost cause over life itself. In perhaps the best demonstration of the power that evil ideals can have over seemingly normal human beings, she methodically poisons her children in their sleep. If the future is not the way she had envisioned, then it's not worth having. In her mind, it's as simple and logical as that.

Mind you, there are a few sympathetic characters sprinkled in: a father trying to convince his last remaining child to come home from the street fighting; doctors trying to save lives in the midst of carnage; even one of Hitler's close associates risking his life in coming back to Berlin in the last-ditch attempt to convince the boss to give up on the needless destruction. And then, of course, there is our nominal protagonist Traudl Junge, a young secretary who is so clueless of her surroundings that she takes the appearance of the Goebbels children in the bunker as a sign of hope rather than a harbinger of doom. The scene when she finally understands the truth is one of the more heartbreaking moments because we realize just how very innocent she is.

Except... as the older, wiser Traudl reminds us at the conclusion of the story, youth is no excuse, and it wasn't a case of true innocence, but willful ignorance. At the age of twenty-two, this smart, poised woman went to work for one of the most evil men in history and ended up providing a measure of comfort to him in his last days. As sins go, it's a minor one, but it's easy to understand why she spent her life feeling guilty for not choosing a different path.

I think in the end, Traudl is the character who discovers the lesson of the movie, and the reason it's so fascinating to watch. Fantastical creatures, cackling hags and monsters under the bed make for great fiction because storytellers are able to distill evil to its essence. But in real life it's very likely to appear only as a middle-aged man with funny hair who loves his dog and eats his spinach. As the last line of the movie reminds us, it's possible to find out the truth. All we can hope for in our own lives is to see the truth before it's too late.

Highly recommended.

Purchase Downfall on Amazon

Traudl Junge's memoir on Amazon

Thursday, March 2, 2017

CLFA 2017 Book of the Year Voting is now Open!

No obnoxiously over-priced gowns. No celebrities telling you how unworthy you really are. No falling props or envelope malfunctions. Just great books by freedom-loving authors, and you decide who gets the award! My novel Chasing Freedom is among the finalists.

From Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance website:

The nominations are in and counted, and the CLFA is thrilled to present our ten finalists for the CLFA Book of the Year 2017!
Beginning in January 2017, CLFA members have been hard at work, compiling a list of our favorite 2016 releases. We ran several rounds of voting to refine the list to the top ten in the survey. For the final winner, we always open up voting to the public.
Click here and follow the big red button to vote. Good luck to all and may the best book win!