Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Romanov Prophecy

Title : The Romanov Prophecy (384 pages)
Author : Steve Berry (2005)
Genre : Historical Fiction (Action)
Rating : B

This month I Read...
My second Steve Berry novel (the first was The Third Secret); this one is less Cri-Fi, and more action. Set in modern-day Russia, where the people have decided they want to return to having a Czar as a ruler, Miles Lord, an American Afro-American lawyer on business in Moscow, stumbles onto a prophecy that implies that not all of the Romanovs were killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

What's To Like...
Lots of action from the get-go. It's heavy on historical references, which suits me just fine. Rasputin becomes a prophet, and Youssopov is re-made as a good guy.

The book is a page-turner, and Berry once again doesn't bore you with page after page of philosophical preaching. Take a note, Dan Brown.

What's Not To Like...
If there's such a thing as TOO much action, this is it. Essentially, this is a 384-page chase scene. The bad guys, professional assassins all of them, can't seem to hit an elephant from 50 feet away (much like in the movie Miami Vice, but that's a subject for another post). The hero finds the bad guys repeatedly and incredibly picking up his trail, and never figures out that his boss might possibly be tipping them off.

Finally, the plot pretty much plays itself out with no surprise twists. Berry could take a lesson from Brown in that regard.

Talk About Implausibility...
The most important parameter for any historical fiction is its believability. And TRP fails that in one key area.

No, I'm not talking about some of the Czar's family surviving. That's been a romantic, albeit highly unlikely hypothesis for decades.

Nor am I talking about the incredible inaccuracy of the assassins. You can rationalize that away as being subject to the divinely-inspired prophecies of Rasputin.

The unbelievable part is the opening premise that a majority of the Russian people would for some reason want to return to Czarist rule. Pigs will fly before that happens. Some Russians may want democracy; some may want a return to the Communist days; some may want some sort of uber-nationalism; and who knows, some may want Dubnutz to come stay with them after we throw his a$$ out of office next year. However, the one thing they can all agree on - no one wants the return of the Czar.

But I digress. The Romanov Prophecy is another solid effort by Dan Brown-wannabee Steve Berry. If it isn't quite on the same level as The Da Vinci Code, it's still a good read while we wait for Brown to get off his butt and put out another novel.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Elvenking - The Winter Wake

Artist : Elvenking
Title : The Winter Wake (2006)
Genre : Folk Metal
Rating : ***** ***½ (out of 10*)

This Week I'm Listening To...
Elvenking is an Italian Metal band, formed in 1997. In addition to Folk Metal, RYM labels them as being Power Metal, Prog Metal, Melodic Death Metal, and Alternative Metal. The Winter Wake is their third album, and the first one I've listened to.

What's To Like...
Amazingly, the lead singer actually sings, not grunts. Even more amazingly, the rest of the band actually harmonizes !

The musicianship is superb. The lead guitar player is fantastic, as is the (electric) violin player. Even the bass player shines. The whole album is done with an energy that Bruce Springsteen only dreams of now that he's a geezer.

The blending of the folk and the metal is seamless. And the songs range from straight-up Metal to a nice ballad duet.

What's Not To Like...
Very little. Some have complained that all of Elvenking's albums sound the same. Maybe, but I haven't heard any of the others yet, so this doesn't apply to me.

Others say that the lead singer's voice takes some getting used to, so perhaps he needs a voice lesson or two. Personally, I think the vocals are quite good.

Also, although all the lyrics are in English, it is sometimes evident that it isn't their primary tongue. Track 09, "Rouse Your Dreams" comes off sounding like "Rose Your Dreams".

Finally, and worst of all, it doesn't appear that Elvenking has any plans for an American tour. Indeed, they rarely seem to venture outside of Italy.

The History Of Metal...
In the beginning there was Black Sabbath. Who, it must be admitted (grudgingly to Al), did come up with a new sound. And the gods of Metal saw that it was good.

And for the next 20 years, no one did anything different from the BS sound. But no one complained, because it was so much better than Disco, and Punk was for weenies.

And in the early 90's, the gods of Metal were exceedingly bored and said, "C'mon you guys. Let's have some diversification."

And Black Sabbath-sounding Metal begat the following...
Black Metal

Almost Black Metal

Black & Yellow Metal (Stryper)

Goth Metal
Visigoth Metal
Ostrogoth Metal
Doom Metal
Heretic Metal
Castle Wolfenstein Metal
Pagan Metal
Death Metal
Near-Death Metal
Comatose Metal
Industrial Metal
Commercial Metal
...and a host of other Metals. And none of these sounded any different from each other, nor from BS Metal. But it gave the Metal Snots something to philosophically argue about while they were listening to the same old sh*t.

And in the mid-to-late 90's, the gods of Metal said, "Oh for Pete's sake, how 'bout a little creativity already?!"

And groups like Nightwish, Elvenking and Within Temptation came into being, and explored the mixing of Metal with other genres. Which offended all the Metal Snots to no end ("There goes the neighborhood", they moaned), but breathed some much-needed life into the genre. And caused all sorts of music-lovers to finally take interest in it.

But I digress. The Winter Wake is a wonderful album. Despite song titles like "Rats Are Following", this is light-hearted "elven-themed" material. If you're looking for music to sacrifice a virgin to Beelzebub to, this ain't it. But if you want great, energetic, talented Folk Metal, it probably doesn't get any better than this.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Acronym of the Day : "TPT"

TPT stands for Trailer Park Trash. It's closely related to White Trash ("WT") although they're not quite synonymous. TPT can theoretically come in any color, while WT by definition can live in places other than a trailer.

One should regularly check one's house for TPT, since if left unchecked, they can become quite a nuisance. They can often be found lying on a couch, snoozing in the spare bedroom, or rummaging through one's refrigerators in search of food and booze.

This has been a public service bulletin, put out by your local chapter of AA (Acronyms Anonymous).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Island in the Sea of Time

Title : Island In The Sea Of Time (608 pages)
Author : S. M. Stirling (1998)
Genre : Alternate History
Rating : A

This Month I Read...
IitSOT is part one of an Alternate-History trilogy where the island of Nantucket (and a bit of the seas around it) gets transported back in time from present-day to the Bronze Age of 1250 B.C. The first order of business is simply to survive the oncoming winter, since very few of the Nantucketeers are skilled in hunting, gathering, fishing, and trapping.

What's To Like...
This is the best Alt-Hist book I've read so far. The plot moves fast; there's lots of action; and the meticuous research by Stirling is obvious.

Unlike Eric Flint's 163X series, the Good Guys actually make a few mistakes here. And the Bad Guy, believe it or not, is not Evil Incarnate. He's ambitious, he's Machiavallian, and he's inventive. And he and his cohorts manage to spring a number of surprises on the Forces of Goodness, which is a pleasant change-of-pace.

The good guys' fighting hero is a gay, female black; which is certainly not stereotypical. And lest you think the author is trying to foist his bleeding-heart liberal philosophy on you, he also takes some rather reactionary pokes at gun-control, whaling, and tree-hugging. Yet all this is woven neatly into the plot. No page-after-page "preaching" such as Flint and even Dan Brown are given to.

Finally, there's actually a climactic ending to the book, even though it's just the first of three volumes. Robert Jordan could've taken some pointers here.

What's Not To Like...
There's too much space devoted to the technical part of sailing. Good lord, I feel like I'm reading a Tom Clancy novel.

Stirling gets fixated on a variety of things. To wit, the sounds effects of war; the fact that one's bowels 'void' as one dies in battle (and the consequent stench thereof); the 'down-hominess' of the Good Guys' political hero.

He also seems to spend a lot of time on the erotic thoughts of the lesbian pair. There's nothing wrong with Stirling giving us his insight in this matter, but you'd think that nothing else enters the minds of these two when they're not fighting and killing. Then there's the Bad Lady's penchant for S&M. Although Stirling handles the sex scenes better than Harry Turtledove does, one still gets the feeling that they're primarily there to make teenage boys hot and sweaty.

Finally, the tree-hugging AmerIndian-saving Pamela Lisketter is just too stereotypical to be believed.

We Are Yankees, Hear Us Roar...
It should be noted that, like Flint's 163X series, we once again have a small, intrepid group of Americans enlightening the rest of the non-American past-world with our superior technology, government, philosophy, and overall goodness. Just once, I'd like to see something like a modern-day Chinese army dropped into, say, 1700's America. Or maybe the entire nation of 21st-century France. Or the 20th-century British Imperial Navy. Let's reverse the roles for a change.

It should also be noted that Nantucket Island had an inordinate number of world-renowned history and industrial specialists on the Island at the moment of the time-swap. And a nearby Coast Guard steel-plated windjammer conveniently gets zapped into the Bronze Age along with the island.

None of these "picked nits" detract from the story, including the fact that a 100-pound Ninja babe can kick any-and-all 200-pound male, barbarian a$$. In reality, the odds of the present-day Nantucket surviving a year in the Bronze Age would be extremely long. Stirling is fully allowed to follow in Flint's footsteps (or is it the other way around?) and "stack the deck" in order allow the story to go on more than one winter.

But I digress. This book was a real page-turner for me. And ultimately, that's what counts the most when I read a book for pleasure. We'll give it a solid "A", and see whether the other two books in the trilogy can keep up the pace.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Nightwish - Dark Passion Play

Artist : Nightwish
Title : Dark Passion Play (2007)
Genre : Symphonic Metal
Rating : ***** ****½ (out of 10*)

This Week I'm Listening To...
Nightwish's sixth full-length studio release, and the first wthout dearly departed Tarja Turunen. 70 minutes of Symphonic Metal. Heavy on the "Symphonic"; light on the "Metal". Indeed, as with Within Temptation's most recent release (The Heart Of Everything), it could be said that there's more Hard Rock here than Metal.

What's To Like...
If you liked Nightwish's Once album, you're gonna love DPP. Tuomas Holopainen's songwriting keeps getting better and more complex with every release. The new female vocalist - Anette Olzon - is well up to the task of replacing a legend; albeit she's not as opera-oriented as Tarja. There's some hard rock; some soft ballads; a new plunge by Tuomas into composing Celtic music; two long proggy opuses (The Poet & The Pendulum @ 14 minutes, and Meadows Of Heaven @ 7 minutes); and of course, lots of superb symphonic arrangements.

What's Not To Like...
Not much. Two of the tracks are Nightwish's slaps at Tarja (Bye Bye Beautiful) and her husband/manager Marcelo Cabuli (Master Passion Greed). There is still a lot of bitterness there.

Is The Phrase "Metal Snot" An Oxymoron?
Most of the criticism of this album falls into two catergories. First, there are people b*tching because Tarja's gone. Second, there are Metal Snots out there who feel that Nightwish has "sold out", and has become too mainstream.

Folks, the old Nightwish line-up was doomed the day Tarja decided to promote her husband to being her business manager. The guy's found his meal ticket, and he doesn't want to share her earnings with the rest of the group. It was simply a matter of who was gonna dump whom. Get over it. And if you can't, be aware that Tarja's new album (My Winter Storm) will be released next month. We'll see if we can find a jpeg of its cover.

Metal Snots. I've met some. These are the folks that think that all vocals must be grunted, guitars are only allowed to thrash (heaven forbid that anyone should play a chord); and the lyrics have to center around devil worship. The "Metal Snottiness Winner" is he who claims to love the raunchiest Metal. As in, "Oh, you're into Cannibal Corpse. They're okay, I guess. But too mainstream for me. I prefer to listen to Rottweiler's Impaled Entrails". (Snorts). Of course, RIE is probably the Metal Snot's older brother's garage band, which plays for free and makes The Sex Pistols look like accomplished musicians.

Frankly, I don't think Nightwish cares a flying fig whether the Metal Snots like the direction they're going or not. DPP has sold more than a quarter million copies already, and it's been out less than a month. Tarja who?

But I digress. Dark Passion Play is a great album, and a candidate for "Best Of 2007". Nightwish is in Phoenix on 07 November. With a little bit of luck, I'll get my doctor's okay to attend the (stand-up only) concert.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Website of the Day

Dogs In Danger

The Sunday paper had a great article about this organization, which is trying to make a small dent in the 4 million dogs euthanized each year in the USA.

Friday, October 12, 2007

1634 - The Galileo Affair

Title : 1634 : The Galileo Affair (2004)
Authors : Eric Flint & Andrew Dennis (667 pages)
Genre : Alternate History
Rating : D+

This Month I Read...
1634TGA is the first "1634" book in the 163x series to make it to paperback. This time, the USE (United States of Europe) send a diplomatic mission to Venice to develop strategic political and commercial alliances. Coincidentally, Galileo is going on trial in Rome for his allegedly heretical teaching that the earth revolves around the sun, and not vice versa. The protagonists in the book get to be both the defense attorney for Galileo, and his potential jail-springers.

What's To Like...
There's 667 pages to make you feel like you're getting your money's worth of reading material.

There's a number of new characters to get to know. Most notably, the resident hippie-cum-chemist, Tom Stone ("Stoner") and his three raised-in-a-commune sons. By "new", we mean they didn't appear in 1632 or 1633. They are introduced in the Ring Of Fire - Grantville Gazette anthology, which we'll review some other time.

You get to get up close and personal with 17th Century Venice. And if you're burnt out on all the fighting and killing in 1632/1633, you'll find this a much lighter-hearted book.

What's Not To Like...
There's very little action. 600 pages into this book, you realize there's been a grand total of one botched assassination attempt, one street brawl, and one pointless murder. The rest is, how shall we say it, drama. Sheesh, if I want drama, I'll go read Wuthering Heights. We read Alternate History for the action, and of course, the advancement of a parallel history.

And that brings up the second shortcoming of the book. It doesn't contribute one bit to the new timeline. Oh, relations are established with Venice. And Galileo goes on trial. But none of the dozens of loose ends from 1632/1633 are addressed, let alone tied up.

Worst of all, the theme of this book, "The Galileo Affair" comes off as unbelievable and shoddily written. The Swiss Guards appear to be the 1600's equivalent of the Keystone Kops. And although Father Mazzare gives a brilliant defense of Galileo, the author(s) don't see fit to give us any details of it. Both sloppy and lazy.

Where Does This Road Go, and Why Is It Paved with Good Intentions?
It's hard to know who to blame for this book. One suspects 99% of this was written by Andrew Dennis, with Flint's only contribution being to add legitimacy to it by putting his name on the cover, and to make sure AD doesn't write anything into the plot that might interfere with whichever way Flint intends to develop his particular 1634 sequel.

Flint's approach to developing the 163x world is certainly well-intended. He's allowing a number of other writers to contribute whole volumes to it. In theory, that allows "other viewpoints" to come into play. In practice, however, it means you're going to be reading a lot of meaningless, tangential "fluff".

Two other 1634 books are out in Hardcover. 1634 - The Bavarian Crisis, and 1634 - The Baltic War. And Flint is supposedly working on 1634 - Escape From The Tower. So it appears we will be stuck in 1634 for quite a few years. And we'll be paying $7.99 for each and every plot-advancement, with the occasional rip-off of no plot-advancement at all. I suspect, therefore, that 1634TGA will be the last book I read in this series, at least until the paperback versions start showing up at the used book store.

But I digress. 1634 - The Galileo Affair is a well-meaning but ultmately boring tome. If you just can't get enough of 163x, this may tide you over until Flint finishes his 1634 contribution. But for everyone else, you won't be missing anything important if you skip this yawner.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy

Title : (The) Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (109 minutes)
Genre : Science Fiction (MPAA Rating : PG)
Rating : ****½ (out of 5*)

This Weekend I Watched...
HHGTTG was released in 2005, and decades of delays, which were in part due to Douglas Adams' lack of businessmanship, and in part due to waiting for technology to get to where some justice could be done to this novel. The movie got mixed reviews and left itself open for a sequel (The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe). But any plans to make TRATEOTU are apparently stillborn.

What's To Like...
The aliens are done to perfection by Jim Henson's puppeteers. The plot moves along at a swift pace - no dull spots in the entire movie. The humor is first-rate and varies between Adam's nonsensical wit, shallow slapstick humor, and the much-more subtle British humour. The cinematography is simply awesome.

What's Not To Like...
It's essential to read the book first. But it's then important to realize that Douglas Adams' book contains absolutely no plot. The beauty of the book HHGTTG (besides the nerdy wink-winks about "42" being the answer to everything, and admonishing other geeks not to forget their towel) is the pointless-yet-witty sermonettes by Adams. Alas, making a coherent movie from that is a daunting task.

So if you're looking for a faithful reproduction of the story, forgetabout it. The movie does include some of Adams' witty sidebar comments, but the majority are left out. Worse yet, the director actually invented a "storyline" for the movie.

Finally - did I mention this? - you have to read the book first. Liz didn't, and was bored silly after 10 minutes.

So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish...
There's really no middle ground for rating this movie. Non-readers will find it hopelessly confusing. Purists who revere the book and/or the chintzy TV series will hate it as well.

OTOH, if you recognize the shortcomings of the book (great commentary; lousy plot), then you will probably find this movie to be a real treat. In the end, it should be remembered that not even Douglas Adams himself could duplicate HHGTTG. The literary sequel (TRATEOTU) is mediocre, and Volume 3 (Life, The Universe, and Everything) is wretched. If there is a Volume 4 and 5 (and there is, IIRC), I don't think anyone has ever read them.

So enjoy the movie, relive the craziness, kiss a dolphin, and don't forget your towel.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Bruce Springsteen - Magic

Artist : Bruce Springsteen
Title : Magic (2007)
Genre : Rock
Rating : ***** ** (out of 10*)

This Week I'm Listening To...
The Boss is back, and this time he's decided to rock again. I guess he's had enough of being Mr. Story-Teller (Devils & Dust) and enough of being a folk-singer (The Seeger Sessions).

The Springsteen diehards are saying this takes him back to the Born To Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and The Wild, The Innocent and the East Street Shuffle days, but that's just wishful thinking. At best, this is a return to the Born In The USA days - when Bruce chose to "popify" his Rock & Roll in order to get more radio airplay.

What's To Like...
The tunes are all catchy little things, assuming you're cool with Bruce doing Pop-Rock. None of the songs come off as being filler. The East Street Band is back, including Clarence Clemons on saxophone.

What's Not To Like...
The studio mixing positively sucks. All the musical instruments seem to get pureed into a mushy background mix. I wonder if this was deliberate. If so, the studio engineer should be fired on the spot.

Bruce once again has a bad case of mumble-mouth. This started on D&D. Does this mean that The Boss' voice is shot? Or does he think that lousy enunciation comes off as being "sulkily brooding"? What's next - Bruce grunting like a metal vocalist? Let's hope not.

Then there's the small matter of repetitive lyrics. Here's a lame exercise to do - take the title phrase to each song (for instance, Track #1 is "Radio Nowhere"), then count how many times Bruce repeats it in the song. I'm sorry. We may tolerate a no-talent skirt like Britney doing this, but more is expected from the guy who wrote the brilliant tale-spinning lyrics for the TWTI&TESS album.

Finally, everyone on this album sounds ...well... tired. It's like Bruce's spirit wants to rock again, but the body keeps telling him to slow down cuz he's a geezer. The East Street Band comes off the same way. Are they feeling geezerish too, or did Bruce demand that they "tone it down" so as to not steal his spotlight?

Old Musicians Never Die, They Just Go From 45 RPM to 33....
Is it inherent that old rockers lose their pep? Maybe, maybe not. Let's look at the pro's and con's of this.

Rockers Who Have Become Geezers
01. Paul McCartney
Hasn't put out anything notable since "Uncle Albert". The last couple albums have been sheer schlock.
02. Lindsey Buckingham
Waited 14 years to put out a yawner. See my review a few months back for more details.
03. The Strawbs
Yeah, this is one of my favorite groups, but Deja Fou was painfully uninspiring.
04. Rod Stewart
The standard-setter for geezer rockers. His American Songbook series was pitiful. And he kept on doing it and doing it.
Now you might want to cut Rod some slack, since he was having voice issues. But consider the following...

Old Rockers Who Still Haven't Become Geezers
01. Meatloaf
He's older than me, he's had worse vocal problems than Rod, and he still puts 100% into his albums. Eat my shorts, Rod; and get back to work.
02. Carlos Santana
A high-energy act in the 1970's, who hasn't slowed down since.
03. Bon Jovi
I'm not a huge Bon Jovi fan (that's Liz's department). But listen to the "Have A Nice Day" album and compare it to "New Jersey" or any other early BJ stuff. The musicianship has evolved, but the energy level was, and remains, high.

Finally, "Tired Geezer Syndrome" should not be confused with bands who have lost contact with their Muse. In other words, the energy is still there, and so is the talent. But the creativity is gone. Some examples...

01. REO Speedwagon
Yes, Virginia, they still put out albums. They sound good, but nothing really jumps out and grabs you anymore.
02. Bad Company
2 good albums, followed by decades of "lounge-music rock".
03. The Rolling Stones
They lost their Muse halfway through Exile On Main Street, and have never got her back. What separates them from the rest of the Museless bands is - I don't think The Stones are even trying to find their Muse again.

But I digress. Springsteen's Magic has some serious flaws, but it's still a worthwhile acquisition. It's not a return to the Glory Days, but it's a step in the right direction We need to encourage Bruce to a.) get a better Mixing Engineer, b.) let the East Street Band shine a bit more, and c.) keep on rockin'. We'll give this seven stars, and hope that a "re-mastered" version of it comes out in the not-too-distant future.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

RIP - Robert Jordan

Robert Jordan (James Oliver Rigney)
10/17/48 - 09/16/07

We note and mourn the passing of Robert Jordan, author of Wheel of Time {"WoT"} series, due to a rare but deadly heart disease called Cardiac Amyloidosis.

He is also the apparent coiner of at least one acronym : "RAFO" ("Read And Find Out").

WoT's To Like...
The Wheel Of Time series has thrilled a great many fantasy readers, myself included. Set in an incredibly-complex passing of one age to the next, you have the standard Tolkienesque characters - the Ultimate Evil (The Dark Lord), who's about to become All-Powerful; his 12 Almost-As-Evils (The Forsaken); the reluctant pre-ordained Hero (Rand al-Thor; The Dragon Reborn), and his friends and colleagues, who intentionally and unintentionally further the progress and the prophecies concerning our hero.

All standard fantasy schtick, you say? Well, what sets Robert Jordan apart is his penchant for details, character development, and a mind-boggling set of sub-plots that somehow all seem to be part of a predestined plan.

WoT's Not To Like...
Hmmm. Well, at times the plot/progress seems to drag to a halt. The early books seemed to follow a fixed equation - Rand al-Thor bumping off two of The Forsaken per book. The math-types like me quickly calculated that we were looking at a 7-book series here, assuming the final book to be the Armageddon-ish battle with the Dark Lord, hmself.

Jordan must've decided that was too short, so he started to bring back the vanquished evilnesses in later books. So you eventually found that you'd invested a lot of reading-time, and hadn't really gotten anywhere. Indeed, a rough adding-up of the first eleven books shows I've read about 9,600 pages and 3.4 million words.

Then there's the small matter of loose ends. After eleven books about an ever-expanding universe, you got the feeling that Jordan had lost control of the storyline, and that he'd never be able to bring it to a coherent conclusion. I've seen this happen before - most notably with Robert Asprin and his "Myth" series. And it's happening with Eric Flint's "163x" series as well.

Jordan promised to tie everything up in the next book ("A Memory Of Light"), even if it took 1500 pages. Alas, that won't happen now, even if someone ghost-writes the last book. But to be honest, I seriously doubt Jordan himself could've accomplished that. There are simply too many sub-plots.

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass...
I'll resist the temptation to heap tons and tons of accolades on Robert Jordan. He was a good writer, maybe even a worthy successor to Tolkien. One grew to love the characters in his books, and to marvel at sub-stories he wove. Even when the plot stalled, the books were an interesting read.

We will miss him, and the WoT universe.