Friday, March 26, 2010

Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi - Backlash by Aaron Allston

Spoiler Level: Medium - High

An enjoyable read, and surprisingly light.

This book's main focus is on Luke and Ben Skywalker, who have taken a detour from their original mission of trying to trace Jacen Solo's path and figure out where he went wrong. Now that they've run into the Lost Tribe of the Sith, they're more concerned with catching Sith apprentice Vaestara before she can notify her fellow Sith about the evil presence in the Maw that was discovered in Abyss.

This leads the entire gang to Dathomir, including Han, Leia and Allana. Vestara has joined up with a Dathomiri clan, which leads everyone to wonder what her game really is. There's a lot of action and character development, and even some fun flirting between Ben and Vestara.

Meanwhile, both Jag Fell and Admiral Daala are facing conspiracies out to to overthrow them as the leaders of the Empire and the Galactic Alliance. A group of Imperial Moffs and Alliance senators like the idea of restoring the Empire to its former glory. Yet I get the feeling that there's another conspiracy running deeper that we haven't seen yet. Or, I could just be misunderstanding the hints and maybe it is all the Moffs. Either way, it's making Daala more of a sympathetic character as she tries to learn from her mistakes.

Although it's a very enjoyable read and a pleasant change from all the heavy storytelling that's been going on in the books over the last few years, I also felt like it wasn't really adding much to the overall arc. Laying down some new groundwork for the rest of the arc, sure, but by the end of Book 4 I feel like events are still no closer to providing any answers than they were at the end of Book 1. It would be nice to have gotten at least a hint of what's making the Jedi go crazy.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Spoiler level: high

My daughter loves these books, so we went out to see the movie last weekend.

It's a fun little movie. It definitely brings back the horrors of high school life. Well, middle school life, but it was called Jr. High back in my day, and it didn't improve in the slightest in Sr. High, so same difference. No matter what you call it, it's still a world of ridiculing over some of the most microscopic, pointless details.

Our hero, Greg Heffley, is trying to not only survive but thrive in middle school, and find a way to be remembered in the year book. Which of course means a lot of selling out of his own values and his friends, only to learn in the end that the values of middle school are all meaningless. And it manages to do it without getting sappy.

The big example of this throughout the movie is the Cheese Touch. There's a piece of rotting cheese on the basketball court, and anyone who touches it now has the "Cheese Touch" and is shunned. The climax of the movie has Greg holding the cheese high and telling the class how pointless it is and that he's no longer afraid of the Cheese Touch, and that they can all be free of it if they want to be.

When we left the theater, my wife asked my daughter if they had anything like the Cheese Touch in her school.

"Oh yeah," she answered. "We have the Pineapple Touch. Supposedly someone wiped a booger on a picture of a pineapple painted on the wall in the hallway, and now if anyone touches the pineapple, everyone says they have the Pineapple Touch."

"So, have you ever gotten the Pineapple Touch?" my wife asked.

"Yeah. I told them they were all being stupid and rubbed my whole body against the pineapple. But now they've painted over the pineapple so I'm stuck with it."

"Well good for you!" I said. "I was going to ask if you got the point of the movie, but you already got it from the book!"

"Actually, that scene wasn't in the book," my daughter replied. Which makes me even prouder of her. But I digress.

Speaking of boogers, there's a good amount of juvenile humor featuring boogers and pee, but hey, that's the target audience.

So all in all it's a fun little movie, much in the same vein of "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide" but without the slapstick. My daughter really enjoyed it and so did my wife and I.

Friday, March 19, 2010


I've never seen a Miyazaki movie I didn't enjoy, and Ponyo is as charming as his other work.

On the animation side... is it just me, or was the animation very uneven? For example, in Fujimoto's underwater dome, the second time we see it people have air bubbles coming out of their mouths, but the first time they didn't, so I was initially confused if it was full of air or water. It just seemed that the animation was more detailed in some scenes (like the rain storm) than in others (like every scene before the rain storm). Joy felt the more simplistic animation in some parts of the film was intentional. I know Miyazaki is famous for "every blade of grass moves" in his animation, so were my expectations too high?

Overall I have to say I wasn't wowed, but I enjoyed the film itself. Miyazaki never disappoints. Ponyo and Sosuke are both charming characters, and it's great to see their devotion to each other.

Plus I think it's great that I live in an age where I can rent the latest Miyazaki movie from a mass-produced mainstream Redbox for a buck and have it be a faithful, uneditd, high-quality dub. (Or I could have even watched the sub! But we were renting it for Mylene, who prefers dubs.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The 4400: Promises Broken by David Mack

Spoiler level: Medium - High (both for this book and for The 4400: Welcome to Promise City.)

I know I can always expect two things from a David Mack book: a lot of action, and a high body count. After reading his Star Trek: Destiny trilogy, I also knew he had the ability to tie many different plot points together brilliantly. So after tearing through The 4400: Welcome to Promise City, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from Promises Broken.

I was still a little shaken, however; after Greg Cox's character-rich Welcome to Promise City, David Mack's arc-heavy follow-up feels a little jarring. Especially the radical switch in philosophies between Kyle Baldwin and Jordan Collier. In Welcome to Promise City, Collier is still willing to sacrifice half the world's population to make the other half promicin-positive, while Kyle still believes him to be an honorable man who would never force promicin on anyone. And while this is true on the face of it, Collier is more than willing to sit back and let others do it for him.

However this book picks up "a few months" after the previous book, and right off the bat we see their perspectives have changed; Collier realizes he's headed towards a shooting war with the US government. As a result, he's decided his previous philosophy was wrong, and is now willing to try to live in peace with promicin-negative people. Kyle, on the other hand, has been guided by his promicin alter-ego Cassie into believing war is the only answer. We saw him start to be lead down this dark road in the previous book; he was resistant to it then, but now he's completely embraced it. Each book works just fine, and the two perspectives work fine when you can accept that time has passed between them, but reading them back to back made me feel like there should have been another book in between the two to show us their reversing in philosophies more gradually.

That aside, the book is a non-stop action ride as everything between the US government, The 4400 Movement and the Marked all collide, bringing the entire 4400 series to a satisfying conclusion. And just like the series, it ends raising the stakes with the potential of taking the series to the next level, and opening some new doors if they decide to publish any more books.

Which considering that this book was published in October and nothing new has been announced since then, I don't have a lot of hope of any more books coming at this point... but hope is still there. And if not, if this is truly the ending of the story of The 4400, then it's a good one. Many thanks go out to David Mack, Greg Cox and Pocket Books for making it happen.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The 4400: Welcome to Promise City by Greg Cox

Spoiler Level: Low for this actual book; High for the TV series.

The thing I loved most about The 4400 was not just that it told the story of what happens when ordinary people are given extraordinary powers, but that it didn't try to hide it and act like "this could all be happening in secret at this very moment." No, The 4400 were brought back in a giant ball of light in 2004, and everyone saw it happen on CNN, and the world has never been the same since. It's not just a story of how power changes people; it's a story of how people change the world.

The end of each season always upped the stakes. When the final episode aired, an airborne outbreak of promicin had spread through Seattle, killing thousands of people... and giving thousands more abilities.

It was a really lousy place for the series to get canceled. Personally, if I got super powers but lost a loved one in the process, I'd hardly consider it a worthwhile trade. I couldn't wait to see how the people of Seattle (now renamed Promise City by The 4400 Movement's leader, Jordan Collier) were going to react to this.

Thankfully, Pocket Books has come to the rescue with two new books continuing the story. I read through the first book, Welcome to Promise City, within 48 hours, which is pretty dang fast for me. It's that good.

The plus side is all the characters are here and in perfect form, and it feels like they never left. Richard Tyler gets a lot to do again as well, and it's a very welcome return. And the stakes continue to get upped-- those outside Promise City fear that someone will try to weaponise promicin and deliberately infect other cities around the world. And not everyone in Promise City necessarily thinks that's a bad idea. The result is escalating conflicts that may very well lead to a full-scale war between Promise City and the US military.

The down side is that being a two-book series and not a thirteen-episode TV series, the bulk of the attention is on the main characters and the main plotline, and not about what life for the average person in Seattle has become like. It acknowledges that about 18,000 out of 4 million people were affected by the outbreak, and that about a third of the people unaffected have fled Seattle. Many of the people infected have joined Collier, but it acknowledges that not everyone agrees with him and that some people are even not happy to have gained abilities. These are the characters I wanted to meet, which we undoubtedly would have been able to if the show had gone to a fifth season. But as it is they're simply not relevant to the larger arc, so they've had to be pushed to the sidelines.

But the larger arc is still a very gripping tale, and everyone in this book is completely in character. It feels like a great visit with some old friends. Greg Cox has done a great job continuing this series, and if you liked the show, you'll love this book.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Fire Bomber - "Re.FIRE!!"

Well, this shows how far out of the anime scene I've become... this album came out last year, and I didn't even know about it! Pretty bad for a guy who named his kid after one of the characters in it.

Re.FIRE!! was put out to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Macross 7. Story wise, it's a reunion album for the band-- apparently Basara never returned to City 7 after Macross Dynamite 7, so Fire Bomber was no more. But for this reunion album, Basara worked with the old gang virtually to create a new reunion album: hence, Re.FIRE!!, featuring two remakes of classic songs, and -- be still my heart-- ten all-new Fire Bomber songs!

In the real world, I was a little worried. When Macross 7 ended, the band who did Fire Bomber's music, Humming Bird, went on to do theme songs for other anime shows and a bunch of albums of their own. I eagerly went after these albums, but I usually wound up disappointed. It turns out Fire Bomber has two very important elements that Humming Bird doesn't have: keyboards and Chie Kajiura. As much as I love Yoshiki Fukuyama's sound (and he ain't hard on the eyes, either), Humming Bird was definitely not Fire Bomber.

The thing is, the last few Fire Bomber projects started sounding more like Humming Bird than Fire Bomber. Chie Kajiura's voice on Dynamite Fire!! are more backup vocals than duets, for example. (But seeing as how Mylene and Basara spend most of that story apart, it makes a certain amount of sense, I suppose.)

So while I was definitely excited about Re.Fire!!, I also approached it with a little trepidation. After all, I'm not the same guy I was 15 years ago. I guess that's why they say you can't go home again.

The first few songs, "Bullet Soul," "Burning Fire" and "Daimon," seemed to bear that out. Very Basara and guitar heavy with Mylene providing only back-up vocals on the first two tracks. Which is okay in and of itself, as long as it's only part of the album and not the whole thing. But it's kind of a shame because "Daimon" sounds like just the kind of song that Mylene would normally get.

Up next is "Love It -AD 2060-," Mylene's anniversary remake of one of the original Fire Bomber songs. On the one hand, it's an odd choice, since it was never actually used in the anime. On the other hand, it was definitely my all-time favorite Mylene song and possibly even my all-time favorite Fire Bomber song, so I just have to assume someone else liked it enough that they felt it deserved the spotlight too. While the remake is nice, the strings in the original version are completely abandoned here, and so the song loses something very special. I can understand the changes-- I've always said, if you're going to remake a song, then don't just copy it, remake it-- but the melody of the strings should have at least been kept, even if it wasn't done with strings this time. But that's just me-- again, I hold the original so high that I doubt anything would have come close for me.

"Big Bang" has some nice horns in it towards the end. Between that and "Love It -AD 2060-" I was definitely starting to warm up to this album.

The turning point came in the next track, "Ready GO," Mylene's first full-vocal original on the album. It totally swept me away. Bouncy melodies, Chie's voice, airy backgrounds-- this is what Fire Bomber's been missing. This is probably my favorite track on the album.

By this point what I really wanted was a good old fashioned Basara/Mylene duet. And the next track, "Song of Eternity," totally delivered. Both voices featured prominently and playing off each other. It's more of a ballad than their other big duets, but the few English lyrics give it that same feel of love & music having the power to change the universe. Again, absolutely awesome.

By now I'm in the right mood, my fears have been allayed, and I thoroughly enjoy the remaining tracks. "Stardust Highway" is a fun fast-paced Basara song, "Plastics" another Mylene song. "Totsugeki Love Heart -AD 2060-" is the second remake, and much more successful for me than "Love It -AD 2060-" was. "Magic Rhapsody" is a hard-rocking duet in the vein of "Holy Lonely Night." And the album closes out with a Basara ballad, "Waiting for You." And it's easy to picture Basara walking away, his guitar slung across his back, still wandering the galaxy and singing for anyone who will listen.

Giving the album a second listen and knowing what to expect, I found myself getting into the first three tracks a lot more as well. All in all, Re.Fire!! is a wonderful album, a welcome return of the Fire Bomber sound, and a much better "final album" for the band than Dynamite Fire!! or ZZNKQB / Zola - Radio Fire!! Thanks, guys!!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Star Trek: SCE - Foundations by Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore

Spoiler level: Low to Medium

Pocket Books' new Star Trek book for March is a MMPB reprint of last year's trade paperback New Frontier: Treason by Peter David. Since I already read that one when it first came out, I opted to read S.C.E.: Foundations instead.

The S.C.E, for the uninitiated, is the Starfleet Corps of Engineers. Pocket Books took an offhand comment by Carol Marcus in Wrath of Khan and turned it into an ongoing eBook series. Set in the Next Gen era, the series follows the USS DaVinci, a Sabre-class starship full of some of the best engineers Starfleet has to offer, solving messes that other planets and starships find themselves in. You know when Picard makes a captain's log saying "I've notified Starfleet Command of the derelict spaceship we discovered..." as the Enterprise flies off into the end credits? Well, the DaVinci is the team that Starfleet then sends in.

The eBooks run around 100 pages each, and it very much has the feel of an episodic television format. So SCE is kind of the Star Trek TV show that wasn't.

Foundations, by contrast, is a 300-page novel (originally published as a three-part eBook story) set in the classic-TOS era. (And isn't that an awesome cover?!? I love the worn look.) It shows how the SCE got its start, and it turns out Scotty had a lot to do with it. Although the story is all one novel, the three parts tell three separate stories of Scotty's life: just before accepting the job of chief engineer aboard the Enterprise, during TOS immediately following "The Return of the Archons," and two years prior to Wrath of Khan.

And surprisingly... it's kinda' dull.

Scotty is a great character, but part of what makes him great is (a) his love of the Enterprise, and (b) his different layers. Scotty was the kind of guy who would rather spend his downtime just studying engineering books, but every time you got him on shore leave he was getting in fights or carousing with women. And of course, his love of scotch is no secret. So yeah, you're darn right he'd rather stay on the ship during shore leave, because otherwise he knows he's gonna get into trouble. (Remember that great scene in Wrath of Khan when Kirk comes aboard the Enterprise, and Scotty says to him "I had a wee bout, but Dr. McCoy pulled me through." "'A wee bout?' A wee bout of what?" Kirk asks. "Shore leave, Admiral," McCoy mutters in Kirk's ear, who just turns away and says "Ahhhh.")

However, the Scotty portrayed here is really only interested in engineering. He even gets reuinited with Tomar, his drinking buddy from my absolute favorite Scotty scene ever in "By Any Other Name," and the two just pass off the incident with a little mild embarrassment. The layers just aren't there. If it wasn't for his accent, the lead character could have been anyone.

Having said that, the parts that are follow-ups to "Return of the Archons" and "By Any Other Name" are interesting, and the framing sequence with the regular SCE crew is enjoyable. Plus it introduces the USS Lovell, which became a part of the Star Trek: Vanguard books. So all in all it's a worthwhile read, just not the exciting epic I thought it would be.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Star Wars - Crosscurrent by Paul S. Kemp

Spoiler level: low to medium

As I mentioned in my review of the Lost Tribe of the Sith eBooks, I almost didn't read this book. I generally don't read any of the "side-story" books that aren't about the Skywalker/Solo lineage. I'm not a gamer, so I have little to no interest in Kyle Katarn and even less interest in his apprentices. But the Lost Tribe of the Sith, both in Omen and in their own eBook series, has really perked my interest in the ancient Sith, so I gave it a chance.

The book starts out in two time periods: one focusing on Jaden Korr shortly after the Legacy of the Force series, and the second focusing on two Sith dreadnoughts, the Omen and the Harbinger, 5000 years earlier. From there we see what happens to the Omen to lead to the Lost Tribe of the Sith eBook series and Fate of the Jedi: Omen book, and we see the Harbinger brought to the "present" to face Jaden Korr.

One of the reasons I was never really into the "Old Republic" stories was that the technology seems too close to the current era; for being anywhere from 5000 - 1000 years in the past, I feel like the technology levels should be radically different. I still had that problem with this book, but the characters are so enjoyable to read that I was able to forgive it. Jaden is full of self-doubt after the events of the Legacy of the Force series, losing his faith in the Force and himself, and this book is his quest to find some answers. Relin is a Jedi of the Old Republic, fighting against his own former padawan Saes, a Kaleesh (the same species as General Grievous, but without the droid parts) who has fallen to the dark side and joined the Sith, a betrayal that still hurts Relin deeply. And my favorite characters in the book are undoubtedly Khedryn and Marr, the crew of the salvage ship Junker, who end up helping Jaden on his quest.

Another advantage to the "side-story" adventures is that, since nearly all the characters were created for this book, no one is bullet proof. Not that there haven't been major deaths in the main Star Wars books, but the odds of Luke, Leia or Han being killed off are pretty low. Here there are no guarantees of anyone getting out alive.

I really enjoyed it, so I'll probably start reading more of the side-story books in the future.