Series Condition: The Royals, Masters of War

I think most writers would kill to come up with a idea as awesome as Rob Williams’ premise for ‘The Royals: Masters of War.’ Here it is: Royal blood is truly divine, and every king, prince, princess, duke and emperor across the planet has been granted superhuman powers by birthright. Now throw those super-powered nobles into the catastrophic turmoil of WWII and let’s see what happens!

royals_mastersofwarWriter: Rob Williams
Artists: Simon Coleby, Gary Erskine
Total Issues: 6
Published: 2014
Publisher: Vertigo (DC)

Royals is a mini-series, written with a sort of ‘just-the-hits’ mentality. It has a very clean, driving narrative which makes it a fun, easy read. It’s like a summer blockbuster, if summer blockbusters had subplots involving euthanasia, genocide, and incest.

Our heroes (and anti-heroes) are the British royal family. Sorry, these are all characters from an alternate history. So you don’t get to see a teenage Queen Elizabeth kicking Nazi booty. But we do see other historical figures: Churchill, FDR, and Eisenhower, to name a few that I noticed. And a lot of the big WWII milestones are there. As I mentioned, the book has a ‘just-the-hits’ mentality, so we see our nobles fighting at Midway, Stalingrad, and Normandy. It’s kind of like a video-game in that the characters seem narratively obligated to battle in a snow level, a water level, an urban landscape, etc.

The Immortal Emperor!!

But the story does have some nuance as well. The series plays nicely with our basic understanding of 20th century history. It turns out that after this timeline’s French and Russian revolutions (which were just as lethal for super-powered royals as they were for ours), the other monarchies decide to downplay their powers, and to not use them to interfere in the affairs of commoners. But England’s Prince Henry sees the atrocities of the blitz and decides that he can’t stand idly by. So we’re treated to the gratifying scene of a ’superman’ decimating Nazi planes and troops. (Side note: Thank you Authority and Invincible for setting the trope of superhumans punching through the skulls or torsos of mere mortals. It’s pretty gnarly.) Of course, that one moment of patriotic gratification has unpredicted consequences, as monarchs and emperors on the Axis side begin to wade into battle. Things escalate quickly, and you shouldn’t expect Henry’s war to end like WWII ended for us.

Our hero, flying through Nazis

The first issue starts with a ‘flash-forward’ in which we see Henry battling a shadowy Nazi super-soldier. Henry mentions regret for drawing first blood, anger at a mysterious betrayal, and a thirst to avenge his beloved sister. Obviously we’ve seen this flash-forward technique before (I remember American Hustle used it. Breaking Bad used it a few times. Goodfellas and Fight Club as well?). I researched and found out the dramatic term is ‘in medias res.’ So that’s good to know. This scene effectively sets up the mysteries that will run throughout this short series. Who is this German badass? How can Prince Henry beat him? What happened to his sister, and who betrayed them? Williams’ plot plays out all of these mysteries quite nicely.

Related link: Series Condition: Invincible, or that other great long-running series written by Robert Kirkman.

Line of Descent

James Derry:

Thanks so much to Ana from https://anaslair.wordpress.com/ for the thoughtful & insightful review for Line of Descent!

Originally posted on Ana's Lair:

Title: Line of Descent

Author: James Derry

Genres: Fantasy, Horror, Paranormal, Thriller

Length: 248 pages

Source: Author

Format: Mobi

Rating: 3.75/5

Premise:

Following her mother’s funeral, Elise finds that, due to the betrayal of those she considered closest to her, she is in the process of being taken over by an entity. During the course of the 7 days it takes for the transcendence to occur, she can only count on her very recent best friend Mallory, who does not even know about Elise’s ability to see auras. Can Elise get through this and save Mallory in the process?

Review:

Line of Descent has some very unique elements, like the way Elise views auras. She does not only see colours – they are flower shaped and accompanied by smells and it is all exquisitely complex. Add that to a secluded environment (an estate on a peninsula owned by her filthy…

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Movie gems on Netflix

I used to have a problem with Netflix, back when most of their business involved mailing DVDs. I had this theory that they were punishing their customers who used the service a lot in favor of their customers who barely used the service at all. I wasn’t the only one who thought there was something shady going on.

But that was a long time ago, and now those red Netflix envelopes seem as charmingly antiquated as the video stores they helped push out of business. All of those old conspiracies have been forgiven, and Netflix’s streaming service is easily my favorite source of ‘moving picture’ entertainment.

These days, my biggest problem with Netflix is that they seem to be weirdly tight-lipped about promoting their movie acquisitions. Sure they have ‘Popular Now’ and ‘New Releases’ sections on their site and their app, but those don’t seem to be particularly well curated. When a big, buzz-worthy movie is available (or going to be available in a month) on HBO or Redbox, they make sure their consumers know it. Netflix seems to hide away some of their best movies like a trendy nightclub on a back alley in L.A.

So I’m not surprised that CNN and EW.com have taken to publishing lists of all of Netflix’s new releases at the beginning of each month. Some would say that’s too much of an ‘advertorial.’ I say it’s a needed service. With that being said, I want to offer my own list of three movies that I recently watched on Netflix and enjoyed. Perhaps you would enjoy them too.

chefChef (2014)
In 1996, actor/writer Jon Favreau used the 90s’ retro swing dancing craze as the backdrop to his story about twenty-something single guys living in L.A. With Chef, he’s focusing on a new trend and a new phase of adulthood. This decade’s trend: foodies / food trucks. The phase of adulthood: fatherhood. Nearly twenty years have passed, and it’s interesting to compare the cultural and technological differences between both films. In Swingers, Favreau’s character famously struggles with a prospective date’s answering machine. (Remember answering machines?) In Chef, the protagonist runs into disaster when he experiments with an innovation from this decade: Twitter.

Chef is mostly about a man struggling to balance his desire to be a good father with his need for professional and creative fulfillment. The pace and story is self-assuredly low-key, interspersed with lots of surprising co-stars (Robert Downey, Jr., Dustin Hoffman, Scarlet Johansson) and lively montages of mouth-watering food. Do not watch this movie on an empty stomach!

perfumePerfume: The Story of a Murderer (2007)
This movie, based on a 2001 novel by Patrick Suskind, reminded me of the grimily wonderful work of Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). Perfume is about a man who suffers through an impoverished childhood among the most horrid smells that 18th-century France has to offer. Facetious spoiler alert: this was a pretty odious period in man’s history. Another facetious spoiler alert—or maybe you have gleaned this from the movie’s title: the man becomes a serial killer. He’s obsessed with distilling a perfect scent from the essences of the beautiful women he kills. Our anti-hero stumbles into great success working with the proprietor of a fine perfume shop (played by Dustin Hoffman) and soon his olfactory obsessions create a sensation among the upper echelons of French society.

howilivenowHow I Live Now (2013)
This film is also based on a book, a YA novel written by Meg Rosoff in 2006. A high-strung American teenager named Daisy arrives at her cousins’ bucolic English country house just as World War 3 breaks out. For the first act of the movie, Daisy is fixated on the typical social concerns of a teenager, on a new crush, and on a nearly unhealthy obsession with hygiene. We follow her perspective (which rarely rises above navel-gazing), so we only see vague hints of the coming calamity.

Daisy is frolicking in the forest with her new friends when they hear the distant rumble of a massive explosion, Then they are standing in an eerily beautiful snow flurry of gray ash. The teens naively decide they’ll be safe on their idyllic, isolated estate, and Daisy and her beau keep up their love affair despite signs of carnage in the distance. But soon they are all swept up by the tides of war. The last half of the movie turns quite brutal. I have to give the movie props for never making Daisy into a super-likable, wholly heroic character. Daisy does not outgrow her ‘personality flaws’ (her obsessive compulsive nature, her nearly anorexic focus on willpower, her puppy-love idealism). Instead, these ‘flaws’ become the source of her strength as she fights to reunite and save her cousins. But if you’re the type of viewer who like your YA heroines to be more like Katniss Everdeen, Daisy might leave you feeling cold.

See the difference?

See the difference?

One minor frustration with the movie: the causes and factions of the war are never revealed. At the end this is explained as part of the point. We can’t ask the world to make sense. Still, in these times of ISIS recruits and Russian expansion spreading across sovereign borders, it would have been nice to have a better idea of who’s causing all these atrocities. Still, I thought it was a very harrowing and haunting film.

How about you? Seen any great movies/shows on Netflix lately?

I just read: Grasshopper Jungle

grasshopper_jungle_imageAh, the changes that come upon a man as he enters fatherhood. They are many, varied, and often slightly depressing. One of the more trivial of these is my changed perspective toward books in the Young Adult genre. It’s probably not surprising that I now read these books from the vantage of the father of the young protagonists. If a young character dies, I no longer think: ‘Dangggg, that was uncool!’ I think, “Damn… They had so much life ahead of them, and how horrible it must be for that kid’s family.” With this new, more thoughtful perspective, I was particularly wrenched when I recently read another YA book, ’We Were Liars.’ That ending haunted me. Whereas my callous fourteen-year-old self would have been like: “Wow, that was a gnarly way to end a book! Still, it could have used more boobies.”

I’m sure my fourteen-year-old self would have found parts of Grasshopper Jungle very gnarly indeed. It is steeped—dripping—with adolescent gnarliness. I dare you to find a book that spends more time on sperm, balls, or poop. You won’t be able to do it. This is one YA book that completely immerses you into the persona of it’s sixteen-year old narrator, who is extremely horny, confused, and way into over-sharing. The immersion is so complete, that I never shifted into ‘reading as a parent’ mode. I was right there as a peer for Austin’s wild ride. I also felt like I needed a shower when the ride was done.

Here is the gist of the book:
Austin is an Iowan teenager who thinks he may be bisexual. He’s beginning to realize that he’s in love/lust with his girlfriend and his best friend, Robbie. Austin is struggling to come to grips with his feelings when he and Robbie inadvertently unleash an infestation of mutated, man-sized insects that might bring about the end of the world. Yes, the book goes full-bore into the schlock atomic sci-fi of the 1950s. And I decided to give it a try because I’m a sucker for coming-of-age, apocalyptic books.

Grasshopper Jungle is clearly aiming to go over-the-top. At some points it’s a horror-show comedy. Sometimes, it’s a bawdy parody of American masculinity and the military-industrial complex. (And the agri-industrial complex, if that’s a thing.) Sometimes it’s even a generational tale of Polish immigrants (Austin’s ancestors) striving through tragedy to eke out a happy life for themselves in America. But the book bounces around a lot between all these things. It’s too punk-rock to focus on just one or two defined themes.

Perhaps my biggest complaint of the book is its distinctive voice. Austin is a narrator with OCD, meaning he repeats himself a lot. I get what the author is going for here. Austin considers himself a sort of historian, and reiteration can be a powerful tool for recording history (‘lest we forget’). Also, Austin’s meticulous, snarky repetitions take on a quality like recurring lyrics in a punk-rock song. But all of these semi-lyrical, jokey repetitions might have worked better in a shorter book. Grasshopper Jungle is 390 pages long, and its restatements and re-phrasings make the book a trudge to read in some parts.

Then the end of the book comes all-of-a-sudden, and we have no resolution to Austin’s bizarre love triangle. In fact, there really isn’t much actual romantic conflict in the book either, except for the questions swirling in Austin’s head.

My final analysis is that Grasshopper Jungle is all about bombast and hormones. It created a unique voice, and it makes for an enjoyable read (even if it could have been a bit shorter). Overall, I’m glad I read it, but I’m not sure I would recommend it.

I just read: We Were Liars

91icZ9KND7L._SL1500_I love a good beach book. In fact, at some point I’ll have to write a post about my top ten favorite books I’ve read at the beach. I’m pretty sure ‘We Were Liars’ will make the list.

I added this book to my to-read list a while back, I didn’t really remember what it was about when I decided to check it out over my kids’ Spring Break. I skimmed over the description very quickly. Wealthy family. Private island. Young adult. Sounded similar to LINE OF DESCENT, so that’s probably why I was initially interested in it.

I have to say the title of the book made me think of spoiled, cynical rich kids—something like Bret Easton Ellis might write. I expected characters that would mope, ‘Look how messed up we are since our parents are rich,’ and I wasn’t really looking forward to something like that. Thankfully, there wasn’t much ‘rich kid’ angst. More of just the good old-fashioned regular kid angst.

The book’s eponymous liars are mostly likable, goofy, and insecure teenagers. They still play with Legos and Scrabble. Their hands are scrawled with the titles of philosophy books they want to read. They use terms like ‘sexual intercourse.’ There are some bits about underage drinking and prescription pills, but nothing too hardcore.

The liars are three cousins, part of the WASPy Sinclair clan, and one other friend who is of Indian descent. Every summer the Sinclairs gather at their private island in New England where they bask in the sun or ruminate on setbacks of the previous year (deaths, divorces). And sometimes the adult Sinclairs bicker over their assumed inheritances.

The author E. Lockhart has a great, clean writing voice. Very well suited for a young adult book. Her classic style and the setting and characters reminded me of Lit-class must-reads like The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye. In fact, take away the few modern references (iPhone games, President Obama) and the book has a distinctly timeless quality to it. It could have taken place in the 1920s or the 1960s. That makes sense, because the Sinclairs’ beach estate is an isolated world of its own. The liars mention that nothing else seems to exist while they are on the island together.

Lockhart uses a canny literary trick: occasionally she allows the first-person narrative to drift into free verse poetry. It’s very cool effect that breaks up the flow of her prose, adding emphasis or creating a momentary daydream quality to a scene. She uses this trick very sparingly.

“I had come here to this island from a house of tears and falsehood
and I saw Gat,
and I saw that rose in his hand,
and in that moment, with the sunlight from the window shining in on him,
the apples on the kitchen counter,
the smell of wood and ocean in the air,
I did call it love.”

I feel like I don’t want to talk to much about the plot, because I want to avoid spoilers. I’ll say it’s very character-driven, which is great. There are lots of jumping back and forth in time, which sometimes gets a little confusing. Lockhart’s very economical with her paragraphs, which means sometimes flashbacks come on with whip-quick speed. And the book switches to new moods and plot developments just as quickly. Since I didn’t read much of the product description, I was surprised and intrigued when the story took a turn toward a mystery.

The mystery develops very nicely, but I have to say I was thrown off-balance by its resolution. I think I would have liked the book better if the mystery had been paid off in a completely different way. Even then, the ending was very sad and touching, and I think I will be thinking about this book for a while. As a reader, what more could you ask for? This was one of the best young adult books I have read in a long while.

Hey jealousy

jealousmuch

Maybe I’m just a highly evolved person. Or maybe I’ve watched too many Jerry Springer episodes. But I have a hard time grasping the idea of jealousy as a motivating emotion.

I feel like I don’t get jealous. Yes, I’m one of those people. Although if I analyze the times when I feel standoffish, or intimidated, or curmudgeonly around other people, I’m sure I could ascribe those feelings to some form of jealousy. Or maybe they come from some other scarred and socially-unacceptable part of my psyche. Like I said, I have a hard time fully grasping the essence of it.

I think my confusion started with Jerry Springer. I saw too many episodes that started like this: A 300-pound man walks on stage wearing a pink micro-mini dress with peekaboo panels to show off his hairy belly. The audience boos and acts disgusted. He waves his finger at them and declares, ‘Y’all just jealous!’

‘Y’all just jealous,’ has become the rallying cry of anyone who refuses to accept the slightest bit of criticism (or good sense). To these people, haters are everywhere. Always drinking they Haterade.

Haters think being 16 and pregnant is a bad idea. Y’all just jealous
Haters won’t ‘leave Britney alone.’ Y’all just jealous
Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate.
They refuse to congratulate.

In fact, jealousy has become such a ubiquitous, expected thing that sometimes its apparent absence is viewed as an insult. Consider the following exchange:
“Sia has such a pretty singing voice. Don’t you think so, Brenda?”
“I guess.”
“Aren’t you jealous of how talented she is?”
“Not really.”
“You won’t admit you’re jealous?”
“No, I won’t say I’m jealous of Sia. I’ll say I admire her, but not that I’m jealous. That context is too negative.”
“God, Brenda, I don’t even know why I hang out with you.”

In a post-Kimye world, it’s not surprising that anyone would develop an overly-sensitized and cartoonish notion of jealousy. And this is a problem for me because, as a writer, I’m supposed to render any character’s emotion, no matter how vile, as realistically (If not relatably) as possible. So where can an author turn for an example of a character that is truly, undeniably jealous?

Cain, for one. He was probably the original hater.

Or Iago? He is considered one of Western culture’s greatest villains. And no, I’m not talking about the animated parrot. I’m talking about Shakespeare’s character from the tragedy ‘Othello.’ Iago’s plots make him the epitome of jealousy. If Cain was the original hater, then Iago was the first ‘frenemy.’

Except both of these examples exist in a sort of heightened, poetical reality. They’re not necessarily relatable.

How about the narrator from John Knowles’ novel ‘A Separate Peace?’ Here is a more conflicted, more ambiguous type of jealousy. The narrator, Gene, becomes good friends with Phineas, who is perfect at everything. Gene is impressed and intimidated by Finn, and eventually his jealousy manifests itself in one impetuous but devastating act. I like this portrayal of jealousy, because it is paired so closely with remorse and self-loathing.

And maybe that’s a good way to look at jealousy. It’s a catalyst emotion, it’s a ‘companion’ emotion. Anger and self-consciousness and resentment can all stem from jealousy, or jealousy can color those emotions. John Knowles has an excellent grasp of this. And he wrote a book that is read in tenth grade literature classes across the country.

Now, aren’t you jealous of him?

Quick notes about Redbox

1. I’m being 100% genuine when I say that I consider it one of my greatest achievements that I was able to wait to watch the movies ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Interstellar’ until they came out on Redbox. I set a goal for myself, and I was able to stick to it.

When these movies hit the theaters, I knew that my greatest challenge would be waiting 6-7 months and avoiding any spoilers (I didn’t read the ‘Gone Girl’ novel). That meant avoiding the mini-departments in Entertainment Weekly and avoiding the Academy Awards telecast altogether. I stayed away from Twitter (not actually that big of a deal for me), and I turned the channel whenever any comedian or late night host mention either movie. As a result, I was able to watch both DVD releases with fresh eyes. And I enjoyed both movies very much. Ahhh. Mission accomplished!

And then just a week after I watched Gone Girl, Rob Kardashian (of all people) tweeted a spoiler about it as a ‘shocking’ commentary on his family, and CNN posted it on their home page. I made it just by the skin of my teeth!

2. God bless Redbox. They offer us 2-3 hours of entertainment for about $1.20. What else in this world can occupy that much time and only cost you six-score bits? Hardly anything. And yet every week Redox sends me coupon codes. Wow, Redbox is really dedicated to value.

3. The cheapness of Redbox DVDs reminds me of the pricing craziness around ebooks vs. printed books. You would figure with all the costs required to produce and ship DVDs across the country would mean they would be priced at least as much as the movies delivered digitally through OnDemand. But OnDemand movies are nearly 3 times as expensive as Redbox DVD rentals.

I guess the publishing industry and the movie rental industry are configured similarly; they’ve been distributing physical copies for so long that they aren’t willing to rework their business processes for the digital age—or to undercut the value of their physical output.