2016

It’s been quite the year. I live in America, which should tell you about everything you need to understand what I mean, but there’s been a lot of other stuff that went frontways, sideways, and just plain downhill this year.

But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to take a look back at what went right this year, at the things that I accomplished or enjoyed over the last twelve months. So that’s what we’re going to do.
The Writing Projects

In summary, this year I wrote a couple small pieces, most of a novel, and finished another that had been dawdling along. I also started looking for an agent for my first YA fantasy novel — more details on that coming soon, hopefully. I don’t want to go into details on unfinished/unpublished projects, but it was a reasonably productive year.
The Games

2016 was a very good year for my gaming roster. Among the best of the new releases I picked up were Pokemon Sun, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Hyper Light Drifter, Overwatch, and Fire Emblem: Fates. Dishonored 2 is still on the shopping list, but I hear only good things at this point. All of the five I listed were fantastic and highly recommended.
The Movies 

Oh, goodness… Zootopia. Civil War. Arrival. Doctor Strange. Star Trek Beyond. Zootopia. This was a good year for the theaters, in my opinion. And I’ve still yet to see Rogue One or Fantastic Beasts at the time of this writing. I’m looking forward to writing a Top Five for this in a week or so.
The Books

Surprising thin here. Brandon Sanderson gave us Calamity and Bands of Mourning in the first couple months, but aside from finding the Heartstriker series on Kindle I haven’t added any new authors to the roster this year. Butcher didn’t finish Peace Talks, and Rothfuss hasn’t finished Doors of Stone, bit hey, we can hope for 2017, right?

I did finally get around to listening to McCaffrey’s Dragonflight this year, which I really should have done earlier given my predilection for dragon rider novels. Pretty good stuff, even if I find both the protagonists unlikeable. But more on that if I get a review written. I also picked up all of Frank Herbert’s Dune books, and read through the first five. As always, one is never quite sure what one is getting into with him.
The Music

On the soundtrack front, we’ve got Zootopia and Fire Emblem: Fates as the frontrunners. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided also had some excellent beats, and I’m looking forward to picking up Pokemon Sum & Moon’s soundtrack. But I’ve also picked up The Blue Notebooks courtesy of Arrival, and added a little rock to the library. Given that music is a primary part of my support system for the work week, I’ll take all the good stuff I can get.

The Pens

Since I don’t have enough expensive hobbies yet, I picked up a few fountain pens over the course of this year. I’ll go into my experience and logic on this in more depth later, but suffice to say that it’s been a lot of fun learning about and working with my new toys.

Everything Else

I have a home, a PC, a car, a job, a family, and a God who’s looking out for me. I’m not starving, I’m not destitute, and I’m not dying.

Sometimes we can forget the little stuff, or let the bad overshadow the good. But it’s Christmas, and if we can’t think about what we’re grateful for now, what kind of life are we living? It’s good to take a step back from time to time, to keep things in perspective. 

I don’t expect 2017 will be easy. I expect it to be insane. But honestly, there’s only so insane, so terrible it can be. I’ll get through. We’ll get through. As adding as we don’t forget that it’s possible for us to do so. 

Merry Christmas, Internet. Make it a good one.

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Movie Ramblings: Arrival

arrivalposterThis is going to be one of the shorter reviews I write on this site, because to say almost anything about Arrival is to spoil stuff. If you haven’t seen any of the trailers, that’s a good thing. The trailers I saw were not spoiler-filled, but they don’t exactly carry the right tone, the right texture, of what this movie actually is.

Suffice to say that this is a beautiful, thoughtful film that is incredibly well put-together. It is a slow burner — at times too slow for my taste — so if you’re looking for something with a high energy level throughout, I’d suggest you try something else. And if you want action, this movie will not satisfy you, because there is very little.

But if you want a movie that knows what it’s about, drills down into that, and tells it in a compelling and dramatic way, then this might be your cup of tea. It will not give you all of the answers, but it’s an excellent piece of storytelling that I’ll need to watch again before I’m entirely sure I’ve got a grasp on it. I would definitely recommend giving it a try if you think the pacing might be for you.

Rating: Somewhere between A- and B+

Book Rambling: The Martian

the_martian_2014I plan to review The Martian in two parts: one for the book and one for the movie and soundtrack. Hopefully they’ll come out relatively close together. And I’m not going to say what The Martian is about, because you probably know by now.
I will admit, I avoided reading The Martian at first. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, and hard SF is not a genre I enjoy overly much. But I did pick up a copy before the movie came out and found that I actually enjoyed it quite a bit.
Here’s the thing: The Martian is funny. Most hard SF I’ve encountered has been very dry, more thought-provoking (or just plain boring) than enjoyable. The Martian manages to blend the two, thanks to Mark Watney’s personality. This is pretty much the perfect fit, from a technical angle as well as a psychological one, to strand on a dead planet for a year or two. His own zaniness is balanced out by the relative seriousness of the NASA crew trying to keep him alive until a ship can reach him, making for a good mix.
All that aside, I don’t think it’s a perfect book. The ending was a little flat for me, almost rushed. Also, there’s some intangible thing I can’t name that it just doesn’t have. I don’t feel especially compelled to read it again, and probably won’t for some time. Perhaps it’s the characters — as well-executed as they are, there were none that I really feel in love with. Perhaps it’s the simple nature of the kind of book it is — now that I know the story, it’s lost all of its mystery and surprise.
Either way, it’s definitely worth a read, even if you have seen the movie. But we’ll get into that later.

Verdict: B+
Content Rating: PG-13 or R, depending; there is a fair bit of language, but not much else.

Movie Ramblings: Zootopia

Yeah, yeah, I’ve been gone for nigh on a year now. Whatever. On to more important stuff.

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I have a lack of trust in animated movies — at least, ones that aren’t made by Pixar. I feel like I can rely on Disney to do what it takes to make a buck, and I can rely on DreamWorks to have juvenile humor and run their franchises into a pauper’s grave, but not much else. So when I go into an animated movie, I bring with me certain expectations.
This has backfired on me twice. One was with How To Train Your Dragon 2, which was a fantastic movie and hugely influential. If I were picking out moments that shaped the course of my life, watching that movie would be one of them — not on the same scale as realizing that I was meant to be a writer, but a bit of a turn all the same.
The other time these expectations of mine backfired was a week ago with Zootopia. I’d seen the sloth trailer (who hasn’t? They put it in front of Episode VII, for crying out loud!) but I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it. Disney, talking animals, yay. Even after Chris Stuckmann’s review of the movie hit YouTube, where he gave it an A rating, I was still unsure what I was in for.
I was in for a ride. A great ride, one I’ve already gone back to experience again. Twice in a week. I didn’t see Episode VII twice, but I went and paid to see Zootopia again in 3D, without regrets. Sometimes I don’t understand me.
But then again, I do. Zootopia gives me all the elements of a story that I really love. A well-realized world, a cohesive plot, good action scenes, a healthy dose of humor. And most importantly of all, strong characters.
A mistake I feel Disney made with Big Hero 6 was that they had too many characters as part of the core team, and none of them were really fleshed out enough. Zootopia keeps most of the focus to its two main characters and just lets the sparks fly when they clash together. They’re smart, funny, and relatable. They don’t act stupid just to advance the plot — there are reasons they do what they do. They make mistakes. They get hurt. They feel regret, and they bounce back, because that’s who they are. It’s brilliant. I can honestly say that I hope we see a sequel to this movie, which is not something I normally say about Disney’s works.
I do have one criticism of the movie, in that the first time I watched it I felt that it overplayed its message on racial prejudice. It just felt a little too heavy-handed at times. This didn’t bother me as much on my second viewing, but it was a bit of a detraction at first.

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The soundtrack also deserves mentioning, because it’s fantastic. Michael Giacchino is a composer I’ve encountered in many films, but not one I own much of. His work with Zootopia is freaking beautiful, easily up here with the best of my Hans Zimmer or John Powell tracks. It’s not a flawless album, and some of the tracks don’t carry the same weight, but the sheer emotion it carried my first time through was overwhelming, in a way I haven’t felt since I bought How To Train Your Dragon’s soundtrack and listened to “Forbidden Friendship” for the first time. I doubt the music will carry the same weight if you haven’t seen the movie, though I can’t hold that against it.

So, to summarize: well done, Disney. You’ve impressed me tremendously. Depending on how Finding Dory turns out, this may easily be the best animated movie I see all year. I have no doubt it’ll be in the top five of all 2016’s films.

Verdict:
The Film: A
The Soundtrack: A

Rambling about Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Cyberpunk in a genre that I have a fair bit of respect for, but a small pool of media that I actually like. The Deus Ex series gives us some great cyberpunk games, and when it comes to visual media Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner are probably at the top of the pack, but in terms of books I’ve found less books that I actually enjoyed. Neuromancer, as much as it is the grandfather of the genre, just didn’t work for me. (I should probably try it again at some point) That leaves me with Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash as basically the only cyberpunk book I really enjoy. (He has Reamde too, which has cyberpunk elements, but doesn’t really fit in my opinion.)

Well, I’m happy to say that I’ve found another one. In Ready Player One, Ernest Cline strikes some of the same notes as Snow Crash, but also goes beyond that. It shifts the focus away from reality and towards the virtual reality of the OASIS, but without trying to make it seem that this is a good thing. At least, not in the end.

Here’s the basic premise: the world is suffering from a decades-long recession and energy crisis. Meanwhile, all of the Internet, all gaming, and virtually all education has been consumed into the OASIS, a free VR network invented and managed by one man. When that man dies, he leaves his powers and his shares in the OASIS company to whomever can find a ridiculously well-hidden Easter egg in the game. Enter our hero, part of a subculture obsessed with finding the egg, and the first person in the history of the hunt to make a step forward. The book is about his quest to complete the hunt and gain ridiculous wealth and influence, but it’s also about his growth as a person as he tries to complete the hunt, and it comes to a satisfying ending.

I have some qualms with it — Cline puts in some really unexplained and tangential anti-theistic aggression, and the villains could have been more active against the hero directly — but it was definitely worth the read, and it’s one I’ll gladly keep on my shelf. We’ll give it an A- for quality and a PG-13 for content, mainly due to language.

Oh, and apparently Spielberg is directing a movie of it. We’ll see how that goes… this book’s pop culture references put The LEGO Movie to shame in terms of sheer quantity.

Rambling about Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

During spring break last March, I was checking Twitter while waiting for the propane grill to warm up and learned that Terry Pratchett had passed away. He’d been in poor health for a while, so I knew this was coming, but it was still a great loss. The man’s work is brilliant and under-appreciated in America, and we lost him far too soon.

To pay my respects, I decided to read through Guards! Guards! again. If you’re unfamiliar with Pratchett’s Discworld series, he has several different main characters who work their way through their own series within the greater whole, and this is the first books that features Samuel Vimes and the Night Watch, probably my favorite of the main characters. That said, at first glance they’re not main character material at all. More like your average everyday guards in a grimy fantasy city. Oh, and also the least impressive dragons I’ve ever read.

At the start of the book, the Night Watch is a complete joke, three tired old men with no real prospects. Then a dragon gets set loose on the city and Vimes is the only one who seems to care about finding out where it came from. Things kind of devolve from there; this is a comedy, after all. And I’m not about to spoil it for you.

It’s not my favorite of the Night Watch books, and at the same time it is. It’s hard to explain. At any rate, if you want to start in on Pratchett’s books, this is an excellent book to do it with. The Night Watch books are numerous and excellent, and include most of the Disc’s best characters at one point or another. Reaper Man is another good option, if you want to start with the Death books instead. (Yes, that Death. He’s quite a decent chap, really.). I’ve heard Wyrd Sisters is another good starting point, but I haven’t read it myself.

(Note to the wise: while The Color of Magic was the first book published in the Discworld canon, do not start there. It’s a hard slog and focuses around possibly the most minor of the main characters. And the most annoying.)