Monday, May 27, 2019

Book Review: Hell Spawn by Declan Finn

Maybe it's a result of too many Marvel  movies, but I view Hell Spawn, the first in Finn's Saint Tommy, NYPD series, as essentially a superhero origin story. In the first action scene, Detective Tom Nolan discovers an ability he can't explain; his powers unfold at various points throughout the story; and the climax has him performing feats which would not be out of place in the next comics-based blockbuster.

However, I suppose the story is more properly classified as urban fantasy since the meat of the plot centers around a police investigation of a particularly nasty serial killer, and the story, while sprinkled withe a generous dose of the other-wordly, is firmly grounded in our time and place.

In other hands, the tone of the story could have turned intolerably dark, what with the gruesome murder of a child, the unrelenting stream of violence and the general feeling of evil presence gathering ever closer to the protagonist and those near and dear to him. What makes all the difference in this case is the setting, or rather its idealized version.

Seen through the eyes of the protagonist whose life has been dedicated to serving his community, we see New York City as a home to people who are decent, loving, loyal, and doing their best to make it in a harsh and imperfect word. Early on, Tom makes a point that even the criminals he encounters and arrests as part of his duties are generally good people who simply made the wrong choices and are capable of being reformed and rehabilitated.

The author is likely to catch flak for choosing two "outsider" groups, rather than native New Yorkers, to be the focal points of entry for the Big Bad. One of those is the real-life Mexican gang known as MS-13, and the other a national organization whose name is clear to anyone paying even marginal attention. As a narrative tool, though, this setup serves a purpose of creating an image of a city under siege from the forces of darkness which cannot be defeated by conventional means.

To put it simply, New York City of this novel is a community which is capable of producing a Saint, and in desperate need of one. We don't know why or how Tom Nolan gets picked for the job, but he accepts it whole-heartedly, which in itself tells us he must be the right choice.

From the title and the clear Catholic orientation of the novel, one might expect numerous pauses for theological discussions and explanation, but that's not the case. The required information comes to us in pithy chunks, never interfering with the pace or the steadily building tension leading to the climax. Ironically, the only time the story lagged for me is during a prolonged series of fights between Tommy and a large number of ... let's just call them the bad guys, to avoid spoilers. This probably would've worked better in a movie, where we could see and appreciate the graphic, intricately choreographed brawl rather than reading the blow-by-blow description. Perhaps having been spoiled by the fast pace of the book, I did not wish to slow down for anything, not even to enjoy seeing the hordes of baddies beat up over the span of several pages.

That minor criticism aside, the final confrontation with the Big Bad was fantastic, and as should be expected from the first novel in a series of many, left us with just enough of a resolution to want more. There are questions about both the nature of the upcoming threat(s) and about the extent on Tommy's current and potential powers. I'm looking forward to seeing where the story goes from here, but for now I unreservedly recommend Hell Spawn as a solid start.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

DVD Review: Outland

Some time ago, I read an article by a publisher of a sci-fi review magazine where he offered the following test to determine if a story qualifies as proper science fiction:

Can the story take a place on a bus rather than on a space ship without being fundamentally different?

Outland, an obscure movie starring Sean Connery at the low point of his career, cannot be set on a bus, but it most definitely did not need to be placed in space. It is, no pun intended, fully grounded in the traditional western genre in the theme, plot and pacing. There are even shotguns. Lots of shotguns. In a pressurized environment. All that's missing is the tumbleweeds. We do get treated to the sight of some gyrating balls of... something, but the less said of those the better.

The first part of Outland has all the promise of a Clint Eastwood flick. A stranger (Marshal O'Neil) comes to a small town (an mining space colony) administered by the corrupt (a skivvy manager and a group of "we-just-work-here" support personnel) for the wealthy (a corporate conglomerate). Then, after a brief flirting with a medical mystery, it pivots into an unabashed homage to High Noon and stays there to the extent that the viewer can predict nearly every beat. In fact there is a small twist towards the end that had me thinking, "Wait, that's not how it goes in High Noon!"As someone who believes that execution trumps originality every time, I don't offer this as a criticism but as a straightforward observation.

What is truly remarkable about the movie is just how much it is carried by the actors. Only two actors, to be precise. Sean Connery not so much steals every scene he's in as walks off with it unopposed. It was a treat for me as a fan to see him shine in a non-iconic role, making the most of a middling script and minimal character background.

Frances Sternhagen as Dr. Lazarus makes a respectable showing as a hard, cynical, plain-looking woman who does not get any softer or more attractive as the story goes on. What she does get, however, is a character arc and a few tense action scenes, which is just enough to make her memorable in an otherwise forgettable supporting cast.

The tale is not so much a battle of good vs evil, although there are clearly the good and the bad guys. O'Neil is not seeking to bring down the system (it's impossible) or even to save the colonists from what appears to be a mystery epidemic (they are not presented as particularly worth saving, much like the town denizens in High Noon). He, and to some degree Dr. Lazarus as well, want something more fundamental: the ability to look in the mirror and not turn away in disgust. In this case, it means doing the right thing and paying the price even if no one knows, and if it makes no difference to the harsh, uncaring, corrupt world in which they live.

In the image-obsessed modern world, where companies no longer advertise their social responsibility instead of products, and individuals measure their self-worth in the numbers of followers or likes, the idea of wanting to achieve SELF-respect might sound foreign. And that is the reason Outland, for all its flaws, is worth watching.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Hollywood In Toto Interview: Dystopian Writing For the Modern World

Last week I had the privilege of being interviewed by Paul Hair, a contributor to Hollywood In Toto website. Our discussion touched on the continuing appeal of dystopian stories, and how some of the themes in my writing differ from the common offerings of the genre.

HiT: How long did you live in the U.S.S.R. and when did you immigrate to the U.S.?
Marina Fontaine: I was born and grew up in the former Soviet Union. My family waited for 10 years to be allowed to leave the country, and I was 19 when it finally happened in 1987. It wasn’t easy to adjust to the new country, culture and language as an adult, but I am glad it happened this way.
I can truly appreciate what it means to be free since I have experienced the alternative first hand. It
the product book cover fontaine
also allows me to insert little details into my writing that might sound far-fetched, but come directly from my experience. HiT: Reviewers of “The Product” (Superversive Press, 2016) say there are similarities with George Orwell’s “1984.” But they also mention that it’s hopeful. Why did you make it hopeful when that’s not necessarily common with dystopian works?
Fontaine: After publishing my first novel, “Chasing Freedom,” which is set in the near-future United States and was meant to be grounded in the reality of this country, I decided to have a more traditional dystopian setting for my next project.
The society in “The Product” is further gone on the road to totalitarian rule, and more importantly, the population as a whole has no internalized understanding of the concepts of privacy, traditional family or even basic honor and empathy that we all take for granted.

Read the rest of the interview here. And when you're done, please explore the rest of the site for more author interviews, movie reviews and current cultural commentary. Enjoy!


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Book Review: Knight Training by Jon Del Arroz

Set in the world of For Steam and Country, this novella follows one of the original novel's more likable side characters, James Gentry, as he embarks on his quest to become a Knight. The story is fairly self-contained, so you can read this offering as an introduction to the world if you are hesitant to commit to the full-size novel.

This is most definitely YA, the old-fashioned kind, concerned with coming of age, first love and a youngster trying to prove his worth in the company of experienced and respected men. The love--or rather affection that might blossom into love--is sweet and innocent. The danger and violence,  while heave on the adrenaline rush, are not graphic. Most importantly, this story really is a journey, clearly one of many to come. James is a novice, and so, while brave and clever and quite capable, he is by no means infallible, and not invariably successful. The reader gets to witness the growth, the learning, the failures and triumphs along the way, unsure which part of the mission would succeed or fail and even who would make it through. While this used to be the standard arc of YA adventures, I was reflecting how rare such tales have become. For this alone, the author deserves credit.

The pacing is fast, pausing only occasionally to give us the needed insight into the world or the character's backstory and motivations, creating a fine balance between action and time to appreciate the bigger picture. The characters are as well developed as one might expect in a shorter offering--enough to know their main qualities and to keep them straight, but also leaving us with a desire to know more. The world is only described in relation to the main plot and James' backstory. You really need to read the other Rislandia novels to get the full picture, but it's not needed here. The idea of chasing down a traitor is fairly universal, so not much in the way of explanation is required.

The ending provides enough closure to the plot, but there are definitely many sequel possibilities, and the novella is already listed as part of a series, with the next entry available for sale as of last week.

Highly recommended to anyone curious about steampunk, or in search of a light, fun YA novel, and can be read as a stand-alone or in parallel read to the main Rislandia series.

Purchase Knight Training on Amazon

Monday, October 8, 2018

Kilt Blowing: A Play in Three Parts

While attending DragonCon this year, I decided to check out a kilt blowing event. Being, well, myself, about half way through I realized this topic would be great blogging fodder. Thus, here goes my semi-serious attempt to talk about something that's pretty impossible to even mention without giggling.

Kilt blowing as done at DragonCon is a performance art, and it tells quite a story.

Introduction: The Origin.

Some years ago, a mischievous young woman decided to investigate if the T-Shit slogan "If I wore anything under my kilt, it would be a skirt!" was an accurate representation of reality. So she did what every self-respecting social scientist does. She purchased a hand-held blower, approached a kilt-wearer at a DragonCon hotel lobby and while engaging him in conversation, "accidentally" pressed the ON button. After the third such "accident," hotel security decided that repeat demonstrations, even for the sake of scientific inquiry, were against policy. Still, the idea was born. The young lady made a suggestion to the Con Committee, and the research continues to go on, mercifully in a hall with adult-only access.

Part One. The Main Attraction.

After explaining the rules (no full frontal, but anything else is up to the participants) and passing out the ear plugs to the front rows in anticipation of much excited screaming, the hosts proceeded to invite the participants to the stage, where the aforementioned lady awaited with the blower. It became quickly obvious that the participants were not pre-screened neither by age nor by physical shape, but rather by their sense of humor and strict dedication to having fun. Come to think of it, even though the event has no direct relation to sci-fi or fantasy, it was highly appropriate that it took place at DragonCon, where people gather for the weekend to put aside their differences and enjoy the out-of-the-ordinary entertainment they can't get elsewhere.

The appreciative screaming by the ladies was indeed deafening (I was not quick enough to grab the earplugs, and boy did I regret it), and was dispensed in relatively equal amounts to bodybuilders, skinny geeks and respectable-looking seniors. The men did vary their performances to keep them interesting in spite of the repetitive nature of the event. Most of them were more funny than either sexy or revealing (although a couple of performers bared enough to justify the adults-only admission). And truth be told, my favorite of them all was a shirtless bodybuilding performance by one of the hosts, who was not subjected to the blower treatment at all.

I noticed quite a few men in the audience. Most were there to accompany their wives or support their performing buddies. Some, such as a young gentleman I met while waiting  in line, attended out of pure curiosity, which as good a reason as any.

Before we knew it, the allotted hour went by, and the blower put away, but the full experience was not yet over.

Part Two. Role Reversal.

Upon exiting the room, the audience members were greeted, loudly and enthusiastically, but the performers, who were lined up a couple of rows deep, along one of the hallway walls. And now I understood why so many of the ladies in the audience were so attractively dressed. While the main event was about men putting on a show for the overwhelmingly female audience, the women were now giving the men something to admire as well. As with the performance, sounds of appreciations were dispensed generously to all. High- and low-fives were given by the passing women to their admirers. It was essentially a recreation of an old "woman walking by a construction crew," done in a manner at once over the top and entirely safe, with not a tinge of disrespect.

And thus the full performance was concluded, with Marriott Carpet pattern beer cozies handed out to the attendees as thanks for participation. However, for those still paying attention after all the excitement, at about 2 AM in the morning, there was something else to observe.

Part Three. Coming Home.

As I was walking through the outer hallway to get to one of the Hyatt Regency famous "go down to go up" escalators, I noticed a group of women congregating along one of the walls. I recognized some of them from the audience,so I became curious why they were lingering.

The women were there to pick up their husbands.

This final touch, while unscripted, could not have been more perfect.

We live in times when certain political and cultural forces work tirelessly to re-define the roles of men and women in society. Having essentially won the fight for women's rights and equality, they are attempting to destroy or at least confuse the most intimate, ingrained component of the male/female relationship: rules of courtship and sexual attraction. While making any kind of social statement had to be the furthest thing from the event organizers and participants, nevertheless it brings home some important and timeless truths,

Generally speaking, men like to strut their stuff, to both admire and be admired by the opposite sex.
Generally speaking, so do women.
But when all is said and done, nothing beats coming home to a partner who loves all of you, body and soul.
And, to quote an old credit card ad, having a partner who supports you occasionally doing something outlandish, and waits for you on the other end with a hug and a smile:

Sunday, August 19, 2018

A Not-Quite Movie Review: The Meg

I fully intended to write a real review for this one. But then I thought: who am I kidding? What could I possibly tell you about the movie that you can't get from the trailer? If you pay attention, it gives out every major plot point, and more importantly, if tells you exactly what you'd be getting for the 10+ bucks should you decide to shell them out.

Thus, what follows below, is not so much the review as some thoughts, or more precisely, a sort-of open letter to those who might benefit from paying attention to what makes certain movies successful with the audience while most "serious" film critics scoff at their very existence.

To the collective brains behind Marvel, DC, and Star Wars:

This is how you write strong female characters who are interesting, brave, and superbly capable-- without coming across as Mary Sues, arrogant, or obnoxious.

This is how you, at the same time, write men who are admirable and unabashedly masculine, who respect the women and the choices they make, while never losing the protective attitude towards them. Not every man in the movie fits that description but enough do, to one extent or another.

This is how you write the dialogue that feels real even in the most implausible circumstances. (Marvel writers, to their credit, haven't lost that particular talent. The others, not so much).

This is how you take a corny piece of wisdom and make it work perfectly within the context of the movie, enhancing the big action scene instead of throwing a wet blanket over it. (Looking at you, The Last Jedi).

This is how you take a script where the viewers can predict most plot points, including who lives and dies, yet still have the theater goers holding their collective breath during the crucial moments.

The bottom line? The big secret? The reason why the first words out of my mouth after the credits rolled were "Forget superhero movies. This was better."?

  Forget the A-Listers (although the acting skills were adequate for the task). Forget the insane special effects (although the giant shark scenes and the underwater voyage into the uncharted depths of the ocean were well done). What you really need is good writing and respect for the audience.

Both are crucial.

Good writing without respect for the audience results in scripts that are too complex, too clever, too in love with the next plot twist and subverting expectations, too intent on Making a Point and Being Relevant, often neglecting the movie's main purpose: to entertain.

Respect for the audience without good writing gives us what's known as fan service, or pandering, or whatever term applies in a particular case. Checking off all the popular themes and whatever filled seats in the past doesn't necessarily work if there's no coherent plot and we don't care about the characters.

The Meg has a good balance. It appeals to the lovers of adrenaline-rush action, while providing enough human interaction and likable characters to make us invested. It switches effortlessly from camp to heartbreak and back to camp. It's not a great movie, but it's a good one. Let's make an effort, as consumers, to reward the good. If you want a couple of hours of pure fun that will leave you satisfied, go see this movie. The next Big Awesome Must See entry into one of the franchises will be here soon enough, but those are no longer the only game in town. And from where I'm sitting, it's not a bad thing.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

To Be Men: Stories Celebrating Masculinity

As most anthologies, this one started with an idea, or more precisely in this case, some "what if" thinking.

With endless submission calls for stories written by [insert an identity group of your choice], one category of authors has never been singled out for a special opportunity: Men.

A few of us were hanging around in the virtual space of social media, discussing this curious phenomenon, when someone came up with a question.

 Could we create a collection of stories written only by men?

The thought was amusing for a while, as we considered the reactions that would inevitably come from certain circles: the accusations, the outrage, the lectures as to how such things just "weren't done." All, of course, would ignore the fact that the exclusionary submission calls were very much done because, well, the fairness standards just aren't the same across the board.

But then, after we've indulged in our daydreaming and considered some of the possibilities, we realized something.

Trolling the hypocrites would've been fun.

But we were not trolls. We were authors.

Our readers deserved something special, something better than a joke, something that truly met their needs and left them satisfied.

We were going to give them good stories.

Stories about men as heroes and role models, fathers and mentors, hardened warriors and even fantastic creatures. Men who are interesting, capable and worthy. Characters whom you'd want to meet, to spend time with, to learn from, and whose stories will stay with you after the reading is over.

And just like that, the authors' gender became irrelevant.

The project went from a semi-joking discussion to a serious endeavor. A female editor stepped in to take charge, and Superversive Press picked it up for publishing.

In the end, the anthology brought together authors from different backgrounds, writing in a variety of genres, and of course both men and women.

As it should be. After all, the focus on quality is not exclusionary. It is, in fact, the most even playing field that could possibly exist.

Personally, although I tend to gravitate towards reading male authors, two of my favorite entries in this collection came from women (Monalisa Foster's Cooper and Julie Frost's Man-Made Hell).

I was delighted when my story Picture Imperfect, set in the world of my dystopian novel Chasing Freedom, made the cut. Now, having seen the full project come to fruition, and having read the stories from my fellow contributors, I am honored to be in their company.

If the concept of celebrating masculinity appeals to you, or if you are simply looking for something exciting and fresh to read, give this new offering from Superversive Press a try.

Happy reading!

The paperback edition is ready to ship, just in time for Fathers' Day.

The E-book is available for pre-order and will be officially published on June 16.