Dave's Free Press: Reviews

being why I think things suck and/or rock


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Wed, 8 Jan 2014

The Hobbit, pt 2

for the film,
for the technology,
for the use of technology

So I went to see The Hobbit, part 2, at the Imax. In 3D, despite my misgivings from last time. It is again a jolly fun romp, and worth seeing.

The technology still has problems. Scenes with lots of movement are blurry and juddery. If I didn't know better I'd swear that they'd run out of time on the rendering farm to render all the frames, and so just doubled frames up to drop the effective frame rate from 24 fps to 12 or 18 fps. Apart from this, however, the use of 3D was a lot more effective. It seemed in the previous film that there were only a small number of layers at different distances from the viewer. This time, it looked far more like true 3D. In some sequences it was very effective indeed.

However, there are still problems. People often look like 2D cutouts in a 3D scene. I can only assume that this is because Peter Jackson had an attack of the OMGWTF3DBBQLOLLERSKATE and so made all the CGI components (and they're present in most shots to some degree) have more depth than they should. In some cases he went way too far, and while the 3D was very effective it made me a bit dizzy. Yes, spinning and falling down a shaft would do that to a soul, and he recreates the feeling faithfully. However, it needs to be remembered that his film is a work of entertainment, not a training simulator for astronauts, and so he needs to tone it the fuck down.

Last time, I was decidedly "meh" about the whole 3D thing, giving the technology just two stars. This time, I can say that it definitely helped in some places. Perhaps the technology has moved on, or perhaps the director and his post-production crew, with a bit more 3D experience under their belts, are simply better at their craft. Whatever the reason, I'm reasonably positive about it, and I now think that 3D can add to a film. This one, however, I think I'd still prefer to watch in 2D.

Posted at 01:20 by David Cantrell
keywords: film | geeky
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Tue, 6 Aug 2013


Back in October last year in another Interwebby place I mentioned Quorn, and I was very rude about it - I described this picture of Quorn "sausages" as looking like "a plate with two turds and some vomit on it".

I had eaten it many years before, but not recently, and so, on the premise that it had improved since, was persuaded to try it again.

I had to be persuaded though, because I am firmly of the opinion that meat replacements are just plain lazy, they fail because they are never as good as meat, and they give vegetarian food a bad name. It's no surprise that non-veggies who have been exposed to dishes with meat "replacements" in them think that veggie food is bland rubbish consisting solely of plastic, mud and lettuce.

Here follows the two mini-reviews that I wrote. First, Quorn "Chef's Selection" sausages:

They were fucking awful. They had no real texture, just a smooth homogeneity. They tasted of powdered onion and garlic with some unidentifiable herbs and spices. I'm not sure if they're better or worse than cheap stupormarket sausages, because it's so many years since I bought crap sausages, but they're certainly in the same ballpark although they cost twice as much.

For the love of god: vegetarians, avoid these sausages.

Any chef involved in selecting them should be shot in the head with a bolt gun and turned into better sausages. A few days later I tried Quorn "Lamb style grills in a mint and rosemary glaze":

What the packaging should have said is "tasteless dry thing that looks like an insole from a small boot with no flavour and a bland texture, in a mint and rosemary glaze". Quorn: consistently shit.
Posted at 17:03 by David Cantrell
keywords: food
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Sun, 21 Jul 2013

Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis

The last time I reviewed a book which smashed together the second world war and magic I was not very polite about it. I can say far nicer things about this one. To start with, the cover art is better. It's still not great, but it is at least better. It also has sympathetic characters with real relationships and the story makes sense. Well, it makes as much sense as any story involving magic can.

The broad outline is that Evil Nazis created one of the Wunderwaffen before the war, by using training and electricity to create a handful of super-soldiers who have magical abilities. They all have different abilities, and look suspiciously like a comic book superhero team: there's the one who is super-strong, the one who burns things, the seer etc. The war goes badly for the good guys who have to, in turn, use magic to defend Britain. In a very nice twist which differentiates this from just about every other story involving magic, magic is not just something that some people can do like running fast or being good at drawing. It has costs. Very serious costs, which we see eating away at characters' consciences, bodies, and even sanity.

I do have a few bones to pick though. The book suffers from American Author Syndrome. Much of it is set in London, but he gets enough little details wrong to be very jarring. In particular there is the mortal sin of not using road names properly: a character talks of "Shaftesbury" and not Shaftesbury Avenue, and of "Trafalgar" but not Trafalgar Square. If the people speaking were Yankees this would be acceptable - it's an error that they make in real life. But they're not. These characters and English and German, both of whom speak of their streets by their full names - and Germans speaking English carry this excellent habit over into the foreign tongue.

I also have a problem with the inconsistent treatment of the seer's abilities, and what is done with them.

She is shown as being able to foretell the future, but somehow this also manages to let her know what the Chain Home radar stations are. Her intelligence is passed to the Luftwaffe, who promptly destroy them, thus winning the Battle of Britain, hence the British use of magic to defend the isles. But this is all rubbish. In reality the Germans had some idea what Chain Home was, and they did try to destroy it. They failed, because the open lattice structures were just about impossible to destroy using 1940 era bombs and bombing accuracy. And even if they had succeeded, Chain Home was but a small part of the air defence system. It's loss would not have lost the battle.

However, these are minor matters, the latter being necessary to set up the great struggle between evil and ... good corrupted into evil. I enjoyed it immensely, and will be reading the two sequels which deal with the cold war, in which the Soviets have captured the German super-soldiers and didn't stop at the Elbe but carried on to the North Sea.

Posted at 18:10 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | fantasy
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Thu, 11 Jul 2013

Breakthrough, by Michael C. Grumley

This is, I think, the author's first book, and is self-published. I have to be honest, it shows that it's his first, with some fairly elementary and annoying errors.

He says on his website:

[I] dreamed of writing action thrillers the way he thought they should be written; stories with unique plots that move and keep the reader guessing until the very end. Enter Breakthrough, a story with a fascinating plot which takes the reader on an exciting ride and makes it virtually impossible to guess the ending.

and he does a pretty good job of achieving that. This book's plot does keep moving and keep the reader guessing, it is an exciting ride, and the ending is unexpected. He's definitely got the right idea, but needs to work on the execution.

Here are some of the execution errors that I noted in the first few pages.

Much of the action occurs near the Bimini islands of the Bahamas. The Bahamas are not in the Caribbean, but in the North Atlantic, but I could live with that if he said they were in the Caribbean or in the Caribbean Sea. But we get the Caribbean Ocean. A speed is given in knots per hour, but it should be just knots. A vessel is described as a "nuclear class submarine", which is incorrect. There are many classes of nuclear submarine, which have class names like Trafalgar or Astute or (for the Yankees) Lafayette or Los Angeles. These are all little things. Tiny, even. But they're like midges - tiny, obviously wrong, and bloody irritating. An editor should have spotted them.

I have a much bigger bone to pick with some of the science. One of the characters has her scientific reputation besmirched because people don't believe her "calculations" that sea level is dropping. It really is dropping in the story, dropping substantially, and it would be utterly trivial to measure it, but apparently no-one thought of, oh, I don't know, looking at a tide gauge. What happens near the end at Tristan da Cunha is ridiculous in itself, but its effects are even less believable. But my biggest beef is with a couple of little aspects of the story itself. The main bad guy is a silly cardboard cut-out. But worst is (and I can say this without actually giving away anything that matters) the way all the dead good guys come back at the end. Laughable.

So, having ranted and moaned for 400-odd words, what do I think of the book? I think surprisingly well of it actually, partly because I didn't spend much money on it. It's only £2 on the Kindle. And for your coupla quid you do get a decent story that whiles away a few hours, which is the raison d'être of fiction. I hesitate to recommend it, but neither can I say you should avoid it. And, in the hope that the irritations will go away as Grumley gains more experience as a writer and publisher, I'll keep an eye out for his next book.

Posted at 00:09 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi | thriller
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Thu, 4 Jul 2013

Intrusion, by Ken Macleod

This horrible dystopia sits firmly in the tradition of British science fiction from the 1930s to the 50s. It's an exploration of a society that, while being on the surface far less intrusive, is actually as controlling and conformist as anything Huxley imagined in Brave New World. And while there's no Armageddon, it's concerned with the little people, the middle class, their family life, and their un-looked-for struggle to survive against overwhelming events, in the vein of John Wyndham and John Christopher's "cosy catastrophes". And to cap it all there's even a touch of Orwell's 1984 as the protagonists are tortured into conforming.

One of the most important things to take from it is the idea that what might seem like restriction and control of just one section of society and so not something for everyone to be overly concerned about is actually a symptom of a far deeper rot and so we should all care. In this case it's women who are most obviously repressed, with an alarming lack of bodily autonomy and restricted from most workplaces because of the "dangers" of "fourth hand smoke" leeching out of the walls having been put there by smokers decades ago. The restriction is for the sake of their unborn, nay as-yet-unconceived children. This is, of course, justified. Using science! And that is my biggest gripe with the book. The justification is nonsense, and Hope, the protagonist, is supposed to be well-educated but blithely accepts it:

'But working in offices where people once smoked thirty years ago doesn't seem so risky [as compared to mining].'

'Oh, it isn't', said Crow. 'But it's still risky. That foul stuff leaks out of the walls and floors for decades.'

'Only in tiny amounts,' said Hope.

'Yes!' said Crow. 'That means it's actually riskier than smoking itself, because the amounts are so tiny. I mean, we're talking about femtograms per cubic metre. You know how small that is? It's smaller than a subatomic particle! When you had actual smoke particles in the air, you could at least cough ... these nano- and femto-particles can slip right between the molecules and into your lungs and bloodstream.'

'Yes, well I do understand that', said Hope.

This is especially ridiculous when we see that the society of the novel has a good grounding in physics, physical chemistry, and the behaviour of atomic and subatomic particles.

As the story unfolds we see that while the repression of women is the most visible repression - official policy even (although, of course, the state wraps it all in a veneer of deep concern for womens' welfare just as in the 19th century) - everyone else who dares to rebel even a little bit is also targetted eventually.

So much for the synopsis and my political ranting. I suspect that, as is often said of Sir Thomas More's Utopia, you can find something to suit your own pre-conceived notions (I'm too polite to call them prejudices) in any dystopian or utopian novel.

Of course, to be a good novel we need more than a sound political basis and auspicious antecedents. We need an entertaining story whose world and plot make sense, and we need it to be inhabited by people. Macleod, as expected, does just fine. I have minor quibbles about a couple of points in his world - the unwarranted acceptance of ridiculous pseudo-science mentioned above, and the efficacy of "The Fix", the seemingly magical pill whose acceptance the whole story revolves around. And, again barring the above, the characters are people, not just puppets obedient to their master's will. They have doubts, fears, love and joy, and they behave and speak believably.

I have no hesitation in giving this book top marks.

Posted at 22:49 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | fantasy | sci-fi | thriller
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Sun, 26 May 2013

Already Dead, by Charlie Huston

I bought this book because some other author recommended it on their blog. That's a great way to find good things to read, and you should do it too. Most authors, at least in so-called genre fiction, have one these days, and I recommend that you track down those of your favourite half dozen and read them occasionally. You'll learn a lot about reading and writing, about how the publishing industry and book trade work, but most importantly, you'll learn about more authors to read. In this case, I wouldn't have bought the book without a recommendation, because a cursory glance at the description on Amazon makes it look like a vampire book. And even worse, it's a mis-spelt "vampyre" book.

The "vampyres" of this tale aren't, thankfully, some magic walking corpses, but are people with a disease - one caused by the also annoyingly mis-spelled "Vyrus" - which makes them crave blood and be unusually sensitive to sunlight. The hero of the tale, one Joe Pitt, is one of them, and manages to live alone instead of in one of the vampire "clans" that make up the criminal underworld of his city, by doing odd jobs for the clans and working as an enforcer and private investigator. So really it isn't a vampire tale at all, it's a noir crime thriller.

It has all the clichés that you'd expect in that genre - the loner hero, violence, fast-talking, double-crosses, femmes fatales and so on - but rises above being cliché by extremely sharp writing, great humour, and a wide variety of characters (there are few mere cardboard cutouts) with distinctive voices. There are a couple of somewhat irritating questions left unanswered at the end, for which I deduct a star, but perhaps they are answered in a sequel, of which there are four. Overall, I recommend this book.

Posted at 20:50 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | crime | horror
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Sun, 19 May 2013

The Apocalypse Codex, by Charles Stross

This fourth book in Stross's Laundry series is, apparently, like the previous ones, written in a pastiche of some other author's style, but this time it wasn't one that I recognized. It's also a damned fine read.

Many series get tired after a while, as the characters stop developing or worse, develop into one-dimensional archetypes. This doesn't happen here. We learn and see more of both the characters and institutions. We also have a well-developed antagonist, one who is (of course, this is a Laundry book) utterly evil, but for the best of reasons and thinks he is on the side of the angels.

However, I feel that the ending was rather rushed and not particularly believable. No sensible bad guy would leave one half of his Doomsday Device utterly unguarded, especially when he knows that the opposition are in the field. And the idea of the double double-cross and subtle but quick manipulation by the Black Chamber of institutions and individuals is frankly silly. For that I deduct one star. I'd deduct more except that the rest of the book is so gloriously fun to read, deftly combining horror, action and comedy as we have come to expect from the series.

I recommend this book, provided that you have read the previous installments. If you haven't, then you should read them first.

Posted at 19:07 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | comedy | horror | sci-fi
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Mon, 13 May 2013

Rule 34, by Charles Stross

This is a sequel to Stross's earlier Halting State, although you don't need to be familiar with the earlier work to make sense of this one.

It's a page-turner alright, filled with believable characters having an awful time for our entertainment, and the text sizzles with humour. You'll have to be a geek to understand all the little jokes, but that's not a pre-requisite for enjoying the book, you'll just get more out of it if you're from the right background.

Unconditionally recommended for all but the most puritan of agèd aunts, as it gets a bit nasty at times.

Posted at 19:50 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | crime | sci-fi
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Tue, 7 May 2013

Railtrack and Other Letters, by John Hein

I read this between overs while having a rock 'n roll weekend watching cricket at a country house. It's good fun, but I'm glad it wasn't any longer than it is, as trolling gets boring after a while. Mr. Hein stops at just the right length.

Posted at 13:09 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | comedy | transport
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Sun, 5 May 2013

The Martian, by Andy Weir

"I'm pretty much fucked. That's my considered opinion."

That's how this book begins, and it is, unfortunately, how you are too if you want to read it. It was available on Kindle, astonishingly cheaply, but is no more, as Weir recently sold publication rights to Random House. It is scheduled for re-release in February 2014.

It is the tale of how, after an accident on a manned mission to Mars, one astronaut is left behind, his fellow crew members believing him to be dead, and how he survives. Our Hero, Mark Watney, is primarily a botanist, but has also been cross-trained as a mechanic and has some background in chemistry, and it's a simple story of how he uses these skills to overcome problem after problem, difficulty after difficulty, to survive, regain the ability to communicate, and eventually to be rescued. It is a paean to creativity, stubbornness, and to having paid attention in school.

For the vast majority of the story Watney is the only character, and thankfully he feels like a real person. The few other incidental characters are also fleshed out enough that we can sympathise with them. The story bounces across the Martian landscape at a steady pace, and it's hard to put the book down. And Weir has a wonderful turn of phrase:

" Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshipped. "

I loved this book, and if only you could read it you would too. Make a note in your diary so that it reminds you to buy a copy next year when it becomes available again. In the mean time, Weir has several other works available on his website.

Posted at 14:03 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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