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New Story Alert! Future Embodied

future embodied cover

It’s Random Friday. Today I will randomly plug a science fiction anthology which has published one of my short stories. It’s called Future Embodied. Editors Jason Andrew and Mae Empson decided on a biotech theme, so each of the stories explores some aspect of the way technology might alter our lives/bodies in the future.

My story is called “Autoimmune” and it follows a Médecins Sans Frontières doctor who revives epidemiology in the United States after a mysterious disease strikes down people with computerized immune systems who theoretically shouldn’t be able to get sick. As an armchair epidemiologist, lots of people falling mysteriously ill is one of my favorite topics, so if (like me) you can’t get enough of books like The Hot Zone and movies like Outbreak, check it out.

Future Embodied comes in both print and e-book versions and the book’s website will show you where to go to get one.

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DVDs for April 15, 2014

mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

If you like snazzy, colorful, Life magazine photos about people’s experiences, this movie is for you. It follows an archivist as he tracks an elusive photographer across the world looking for the missing photo negative he needs for the cover of the magazine’s final print issue. The story will resonate particularly well with people who have boring lives and who frequently daydream about having adventures, like the titular character does. Read my review for more.

Buy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

nut job

The Nut Job

If you’re not already sick to death of heist movies, here’s another one. It features squirrels trying to steal nuts from a store so they can survive the winter. Sounds cute, right? It would be, if the lead squirrel wasn’t a self-centered, backstabbing jacka** who lost the winter food supply to start with and is only helping get it back because the store is a front for human bank robbers. A much better animated animal-related food-heist movie is Fantastic Mr. Fox. Rent that one for the kids instead.

Buy The Nut Job on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

philomena

Philomena

This is another nice, quirky British comedy-drama. Steve Coogan plays a jaded journalist who helps Judi Dench’s character find the son the Catholic Church forced her to give up many years ago. Philomena herself is a real person, as is her son, and though they do take a few liberties in the name of story structure, it’s mostly accurate. It’s also an indictment on church adoption policy and a heartwarming buddy/road trip movie, without all the cliches you usually expect (oh no, the car rolled into a pond, etc.) Check it out.

Buy Philomena on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

ride along

Ride Along

Speaking of comedies that are loaded with cliches, here’s Ride Along. A wimpy, video-game obsessed security guard (Kevin Hart) accompanies his fiance’s cop brother (Ice Cube) to work in order to prove himself. The only thing he really proves is that he can get increasingly squeaky and hysterical in response to danger, which I guess is supposed to be funny. Rent it if you must, but the poor dialogue and the lack of original situations for the duo to face will make you wish you’d rented any other buddy cop movie ever made.

Buy Ride Along on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

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Book Review: The Bicycle Teacher by Campbell Jeffreys

Continuing to clear the backlog of free Goodreads books I have reviewed (and sticking with last week’s 1980s Berlin theme) here is The Bicycle Teacher by Campbell Jeffreys, available now from Rippple Books (yes, I spelled that correctly).

bike teacher cover

Michael, a disillusioned Australian mechanic, breaks his family’s cycle of poverty by moving to East Germany, where he finds love and the opportunity to move up in the world. But can it last?

This book isn’t for everyone. Michael’s virulent belief that life is better behind the Iron Curtain may alienate die-hard capitalists, but I found it fascinating. Until now, all the books I read about the USSR featured repressed intellectuals wanting to escape to the West. But looking at things through the eyes of an everyman like Michael, it’s easy to see the appeal of community and guaranteed subsistence, even if it means never achieving wealth or greatness.

Jeffreys cunningly constructs a mirror between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in East/West Germany and East/West Perth, and because Michael is trying not to become a bitter, angry drunk like his father, his experience has a universal appeal.

Jeffreys has a gift for description and has obviously done his research into Cold War era Berlin. His matter-of-fact style and attention to detail makes it easy to picture cities, events, and people. One of my favorite descriptions is: “he had a stringy mustache that seemed to start from deep within his nose.” The only time the descriptions get weighed down by metaphor is when Michael gets maudlin, as the book is written diary-style. For the most part the story stays focused on Michael and his personal experiences, though toward the end it did stray a little further into politics than I usually like to go.

I wanted to like Michael, and for the most part I did. He seems like a real person with good qualities (he works hard, helps his neighbors, loves his family) and bad ones (he’s judgmental, a bit homophobic, and extremely thick when it comes to the machinations of his wife’s cousin). However, I didn’t feel like I really connected with him. The bare-bones writing style told rather than showed his emotions, making him seem a bit cold and distant.

I would recommend The Bicycle Teacher to people who normally read travelogues or memoirs and to anyone who’s interested in hearing about the ‘other side’ of the Cold War (ideologically speaking). It’s a strong effort, so I rate it:

category 4

This review brought to you by:

american russian pants

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DVDs for April 8, 2014

smaug

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

Attention my one friend who likes these movies (hi, John): the longest movie in the world is now available to bore you right in your own home! If you’re the type that likes the extra long, extra boring re-cuts (hello again, John) then you’ll want to wait for the extended edition. This one only has a few featurettes. For those of you who aren’t familiar, this is the second film in a one-book trilogy about a hobbit and some dwarfs who are trying to kick a dragon out of a mountain. There’s a lot of filler. Read my review for more.

Buy The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

grudge match

Grudge Match

Other appropriate titles for this film would be Bum Fights: The Movie and Battle of the 80s Has-Beens: a sort-of Music and Lyrics Spinoff (but not really). It features creaky old Sylvester Stallone and flabby old Robert DeNiro as a pair of aging boxing rivals who agree to make a spectacle of themselves in public for money by fighting a rematch. If you want to see a comedy where 9/10 jokes are in the vein of “I’m too old for this sh**”, this is the movie for you. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.

Buy Grudge Match on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

marked ones

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

Otherwise known as Paranormal Activity: The Other Side of the Tracks. Whereas the previous films have all featured hauntings among white suburban families, this movie switches things up a little. It’s still found footage and it’s still connected to the overarching story, but it’s about an inner-city Hispanic kid who gets possessed after he sticks his nose in his weird neighbor’s business. It’s rather a lot like all the other possession movies, but if you’re into horror I still think you should see it. There’s a scene where the kid pulls a worm out of his own eyeball.

Buy Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

august osage

August: Osage County

I am not a fan of dysfunctional family dramas, especially not when they’re adapted from plays, because there tends to be too much talking and not enough happening. That’s the kind of movie this is. Here’s the extent of the story: there’s a family crisis, the whole family comes home, they squabble a lot until the movie’s over. There are a lot of famous people in it, but that’s because they like to flex their acting muscles by getting all worked up and yelling at each other, not because the story is good. Critics like it, but normal people… not so much.

Buy August: Osage County on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

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Book Review: Going Over by Beth Kephart

This Random Friday book review is Going Over, a teen historical romance by Beth Kephart. It’s new this month from Chronicle Books. I won a free copy in a Goodreads giveaway.

going over cover
It’s 1983. Wild graffiti artist Ada and cautious astronomer Stefan are dating from opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. Ada wants Stefan to escape from East Berlin. But does he dare?

This book is right up my alley (YA, Cold War, etc.) but we got off to a rocky start. At first Ada seemed selfish to me. She threatens to break up with Stefan unless he risks his life trying to escape. As I learned more of Ada’s secrets, I understood why she needed him with her. She’s strong, but even the strongest person can only handle so much alone.

At sixteen, Ada is already working in a daycare to help her damaged mother and grandmother eke out an existence in a squatter’s village. She’s also trying to protect a little Turkish boy and his abused mother. Ada deals with her feelings by spraypainting them onto the Berlin Wall. Her pictures sound so evocative that I wish I could see them. I also wish the book was a little less cagey. Unpleasant events are never explicitly stated – just hinted at. I’ll always wonder if things were really as bad as I thought.

Ada has plenty to do right from the get-go, but Stefan’s story gets off to a slow start. He spends the first half of the book waffling over whether to try and cross the wall. He’s caught between memories of his visits with Ada and his grandfather’s ill-fated escape attempt. However, once he reveals his desire to pursue a career not open to him in the East and starts gearing up to implement his crazy escape plan (which is based on a true story), he becomes a lot more interesting.

While I enjoyed the plot and characters, I wasn’t keen on the writing style. Ada and Stefan’s stories are told from two of my least favourite perspectives: first person present (I do this, I do that) and second person present (you do this, you do that). First person present is popular in YA because it helps create immediacy, but second person present is unusual and irritating. The author also makes some strange grammatical choices. I assume they’re meant be poetic, but I just found them difficult to swallow.

The author obviously did a lot of research into Berlin, the Cold War, the problems faced by Turkish immigrants, and graffiti. However, I don’t think Going Over is a good introduction to any of these topics. Description and explanation are sparse. This isn’t the first book I’ve read about Cold War Berlin, and even I didn’t understand what was happening at times. To avoid confusion, I suggest reading a few Wikipedia articles before picking up this book.

A good effort, but it didn’t blow me away. I rate it:
category 3

This review brought to you by:
east german graffiti

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Trailer Reviews for March 28, 2014

NOAH



Literal bible interpretations are not my cup of tea, for the same reason dumb action movies are not my cup of tea. They put something that’s obviously impossible up on screen for dramatic effect and I have an aneurism. Jazzing it up with famous actors and special effects isn’t going to suck me in. Especially not for this movie. I almost had an aneurism just watching the trailer. All the animals in the world will not fit on a boat. Especially not the boat Russel Crowe and his family just built. And while we’re on the subject of boats, that is not a boat. That is a box. It’s too long and it’s not even sealed up. It would crack in half and sink faster than the Titanic. You can say magic helped them all you want, but if they’re floating on magic, why do they even need a boat? I’m really glad I haven’t seen Muppets Most Wanted yet. Otherwise I might have had to go to this.

BAD WORDS



Hmm. I’d see this before I saw Noah (I’d probably watch a Transformers movie before I saw Noah) but I don’t think I’d like it very much. Though I think the concept of an adult technically allowed to compete in a spelling bee because he never passed 8th Grade could be funny, the tone here is too mean and angry to be funny. It would have to be sillier and more heartwarming before I’d go for it.

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Divergent Review

poster from the Summit Entertainment film Divergent

Teen dystopia is popular right now, largely thanks to the huge pile of money made by the Hunger Games series. What set The Hunger Games apart was that it was successful not just as a book trilogy but also as a film series. Now studios are throwing more teen dystopian novels on the adaptation bandwagon. But will lightning strike again for Divergent?

In a world divided into factions based on personality traits, a teenage girl joins the bravery faction to hide the fact that she doesn’t belong in any one category.

I read Divergent about a year ago and really liked it. As far as I can remember, this movie is exactly the same as the book, which should make fans happy. Nothing’s been changed and as far as I can tell nothing important has been left out. Except, perhaps, the people who came to see this movie without having read the book first.

Read More

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Trailer Reviews for March 21, 2014

DIVERGENT



I’ve been looking forward to this movie. The book is excellent. It reminds me a lot of how we’re always trying to put people in boxes with those personality tests – like there are only sixteen kinds of people in the world. I fully expect the movie to be as good (or better) than The Hunger Games, provided they steered clear of all that shaky-cam that plagued the first Hunger Games movie. The trailer says it does. Woot! Bring on Friday!

MUPPETS MOST WANTED



It’s a shame this movie opens the same week as Divergent, because everything about this trailer makes me laugh. “Kerrrrrmeet da frog heeer.” Dominic Badguy. “Thees is my car. Eet is illegal now for eets massive size.” “Turn dem back on, I can’t see anything!” I’m dying over here. The good news is that there’s nothing I care about coming out next week, so I can just wait and do the Muppets then. ERMEGERD MERPERTS!!

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DVDs for March 18, 2014

frozen

Frozen

Frozen is the big-deal cartoon cartoon of the year (it just won an Oscar) but to me, this confused story about a princess trying to get another princess to unfreeze their land is just Disney’s first, fumbling attempt to bring their damsel-in-distress musical model into the 21st Century. The reindeer is cute and the twists on convention are amusing but the songs all sound the same and the plot meanders all over the place. Check out my full review for more.

Buy Frozen on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

saving mr banks

Saving Mr. Banks

If you’ve ever wanted to see a Disney movie about how they get the rights to make movies, this is for you. It follows the (sort of) true story of author Pamela Travers and her twenty year fight with Walt Disney over the rights to her book Mary Poppins. Travers is portrayed as unpleasant and Disney as a giant man-child and their battle is less interesting than the flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in Australia. It’s not strictly true to life but it does make a compelling movie. Read my review for more.

Buy Saving Mr. Banks on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

american hustle

American Hustle

This movie won a bunch of Golden Globes but no Oscars (as is usually the way with Golden Globes and Oscars) and is almost as popular as David O. Russell’s last movie, Silver Linings Playlist. It didn’t appeal to me, but if you like crime dramas where everyone’s in over their head and nobody’s quite sure who’s going to be conned by who when, then you might. It follows a pair of con artists (Christian Bale, Amy Adams) and an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) who worm their way into mafia circles in New Jersey.

Buy American Hustle on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

mandela

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

This film, which is based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, is a school history style overview of Mandela’s life, starting with his childhood. It chronicles his opposition to South Africa’s racist Apartheid policy, the time he spent in jail, and his decision to pursue a peaceful resolution. It ends with him becoming president. Since this movie is more about ideology and personal struggle than chronicling the violence of the time, it’s not too gritty to show to young people. With a PG-13 rating, it’s appropriate for classes of junior high schoolers and above.

Buy Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

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DVDs for March 11, 2014

book thief

The Book Thief

A lot of people have flipped their lids over this movie and the book it’s based on. It’s a Nazi era story narrated by Death which follows an illiterate girl who steals books and shares them with the Jew her foster parents are hiding in the basement. As a ‘kid in the Nazi era/Holocaust’ movie, it’s decent. I’ve definitely seen better (Life is Beautiful, Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Devil’s Arithmetic, etc.) But as a film adaptation it can’t help but be miles better than the source material, given how sparse and confusing the writing was.

Buy The Book Thief on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

out of the furnace

Out of the Furnace

As I mentioned during my trailer review, Out of the Furnace can best be described as Winter’s Bone starring Christian Bale in the Jennifer Lawrence role. A desperate person (Bale) ventures into rural crime gang territory looking for a missing family member (in this case, a brother). It necessarily takes more of a turn into revenge thriller territory though, because we don’t have the dramatic angle of the searcher being a young dependent about to be turned out on her ear. There’s nothing new or particularly enthralling here.

Buy Out of the Furnace on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

homefront

Homefront

If you’re looking for a crime thriller with more shooting in it, skip Out of the Furnace and rent Homefront. It’s a paint-by-numbers action film starring Jason Statham as a burned out DEA agent who retires to a small town with his daughter to recover from an incident involving a tragic death. But guess what? Drug dealers in this small town want to cause another tragic death (of his daughter this time) over a bullying incident at school (yes really). Commence shotguns, explosions, and hero redemption.

Buy Homefront on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

inside llewyn davis

Inside Llewyn Davis

I like Garrett Hedlund, but if he keeps choosing bit parts in meandering period films about the messed up lifestyles of struggling artists, I’m going to have to jump ship to save my sanity. It’s not that the acting is bad. The movie is full of famous people looking to expand their range as actors. The problem is that they’re playing characters I can’t care about who wander through a story where nothing seems to be connected to anything else. If you like glacier-paced, introspective indie dramas, this will appeal to you. As you can probably tell, it didn’t appeal to me.

Buy Inside Llewyn Davis on DVD or on Blu-Ray.

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