Book Review: The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

Hi all!

Though I’ve reviewed a few books that didn’t pan out like I hoped, one of the things I enjoy about writing reviews is getting a chance to read things I might not have picked up for myself initially. I tend to wear blinders sometimes, focusing on those writers and genres I would normally pick up or consider picking up for myself. In the second half of 2011, my friends at Tor Books threw me a curve ball that I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy. Turns out I actually did!

The Half-Made World from Felix Gilman merges many genres to define its world, yet does so effortlessly. Sure, there’s a little steampunk, a bit of a Western vibe, a pinch of fantasy, and a smidge of alternate history, but it’s not like Gilman put them all in the blender and set it to puree. Each element is gradually introduced, from the psychologist Liv Alverhysen to John Creedmoor, an agent of the Gun and to Linesman Lowry, an agent of the Line – each of the three is seamlessly woven together around a single mysterious character, Liv’s patient – The General – and whatever secrets his addled mind may be hiding…

Quite honestly I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. Like many adventures, it begins with the three main characters starting out their journeys and ends in an explosive way when those three paths meet. And yet the way world elements are introduced, through flashbacks of the main characters, exposition in characters we meet along the way, and then through children’s books read along the way and snippets of conversation, it all seems so natural and organic that it gently tugs you along towards the conclusion.

The larger organizations of the Line and the Gun were quite intriguing to me and I only caught glimpses of their philosophies as the story progressed. The Line was easiest to figure out as the embodiment of progress. In this case, it was the railroad line and the Engines that drove things forward. The Gun was a bit more difficult. I believe the Gun falls on the side of rugged individualism and the Western spirit.

Beyond that, each side had an intriguing “spiritual” aspect that spoke to its agents in various ways. The Line almost seemed a bit like George Orwell‘s dystopian 1984, with the individual suppressed in favor of the larger machine. And the Gun, though I’m not a big fan of Westerns, hit me something like the lone gunman approach of many Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s.

The characters’ relationships with these disembodied leaders also varies a bit. A Linesman doesn’t dare question orders, just plowing forward at any cost. And Agents of the Gun seem to have a back and forth conversation with the “demons” inhabiting their namesake weapons. It was almost like the “devil on your shoulder” approach talking you into doing things you don’t believe you should.

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman is a tough book to pin to any one genre, but I think it should be enjoyable to anybody who likes their fantasy and science fiction with a bit of a philosophical bent. Now I’m going to have to see what else Gilman has written!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Cory Mon & The Starlight Gospel- Turncoats

Hi there!

What is it about the impending arrival of Spring that brings out great new albums? I know Spring is a few weeks away yet, but it seems that great albums are in bloom all over the place. Especially in the folk/rock arena, with artists such as Bobby Long, Lee MacDougall, and Wes Kirkpatrick all releasing albums in recent weeks.

Thankfully, the streak seems to be continuing with Cory Mon & The Starlight Gospel and their release Turncoats that just came out this week. Evidently it wasn’t the easiest project to work on together and there was a bit of turnover in the band lineup while recording. “There was a lot of turmoil,” says Cory. “Artistically, it didn’t work out, but we’re still great friends with everyone.”

Like many bands I’ve reviewed of late, it’s tough to pin down just one style for Cory and the band. They bring aspects of folk and Americana traditions while bringing in bits of country and rock for good measure. And Cory’s voice is the constant across all of it, with a sound that reminded me quite a bit of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy‘s lead singer Scotty Morris. The songs on Turncoats run the gamut from the Western-sounding “3 Step” and the Doors-sounding “Gypsy” to the Bossanova beach party groove of “Dr. Pleasure M.D.” and ’70s-style guitar groove of “Venus.”

Honestly, “3 Step” would be right at home in the soundtrack for a modern Western. (I hear Quentin Tarantino may be working on one and he should definitely give it a listen!) The awesome bass line and sliding guitars give it some serious texture, while it seamlessly slides into a more polished sound with electric guitar solos in the background. All of this along with Cory’s voice telling a dark story about fears of turning into something worse… “Catch me clutching to my crime. / Swear I loathe your jealous type. / You crave possession, now I find my own way home, way home…”

Then we literally slide (via electric guitar) into “Fever” where Cory growls the lyrics about a guy trapped by the love (perhaps lust) of a woman… “Fever / You’re in trouble son / She’s your fever…” It’s his father asking him why in the heck he’s being led by the nose. His father’s been there too – “You won’t catch me trippin’ over wise man’s robes / but why did you go and let her in?” All the while, there’s this amazing bass line and haunting guitars walking the song along.

And then there’s “Gypsy,” which almost has a Doors-feel with a “People are Strange” similar bass line and mixing up the beats and song styles measure to measure. This one is more upbeat than the first two tracks. It seems as though the person singing was looking for advice and may have been confused by the Gypsy offering hers. As he tries to figure it out, he’s playing with ideas… “I think I’ll move to Arizona, where it’s said the souls are warmer / Tired of all these strangers think they read my mind / Turn around they watch you fall, they watch you fall, they watch…”

The whole album mixes styles and rhythms with amazing ease. In “Dr. Pleasure M.D.” it has almost a bossanova groove that reminded me of a beach party, while “Venus” has a ’70’s style guitar that would be at home in many films of the era. It’s obvious that Cory and the entire band have a wide variety of influences, which they mix and match to meet the needs of a particular song.

Cory Mon & The Starlight Gospel offer a unique blend of musical styles that makes Turncoats a great album. If you’re looking for a new Americana band to give a try, I’d encourage you to pick this one up. It’s definitely not your parents’ version of Americana! Be sure to check them out on Facebook and MySpace for news and tour information! It’s available for download on Amazon on MP3.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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DVD Review: The Good, The Bad, The Weird

Hi there,

It’s been a long time since I watched a movie where every time I thought the action had peaked, it managed to one-up itself again. How director Kim Ji-woon managed to hold The Good, The Bad, The Weird together is beyond me. Somehow he blended spaghetti Westerns, classic war movies, chase scenes, horses, explosions, and some Quentin Tarantino attitude into a story that survives mostly intact from beginning to end.

At its core, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is about three men and a map. 1930s Manchuria in Ji-woon’s view is quite reminiscent of the Wild West of the late 1800s. Outlaws, natives, and armies are all fighting for land and resources to call their own. A treasure map is being sold to the Japanese, only to be stolen back after the transaction takes place on a train… Unfortunately, the train is being robbed by “The Weird” – Yoon Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song, The Host, The Thirst).

When Tae-goo robs the train, he stumbles into the car with the Japanese banker and robs them at gunpoint. As this is happening, “The Bad” – Park Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) and his gang are stopping the train and getting everyone off so they can get the map themselves. Unfortunately, the sudden stop causes Tae-goo to kill everyone he is robbing. While he’s trying to escape the train with his newfound wealth, “The Good” – bounty hunter Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung) and Chang-yi get into a gun battle.

The rest of the film is one long chase sequence. Tae-goo is chased and caught by Do-won and the two of them are chased by Chang-yi. Though Do-won initially only wants to bring in the other two criminals, eventually he starts to be enchanted by the idea of buried treasure. Ultimately it comes down to a showdown in the desert near the treasure. Who will win?

As I said in the beginning, the whole movie is a series of scenes “one-upping” each other. We go from trains and motorcycles to horses, Jeeps, and artillery. Near the finale, there is an amazing scene where you see an entire field of men on horseback chasing Tae-goo on a motorcycle. Of course, that’s right before the Japanese army starts launching explosives into the fray…

Is this a perfect movie? Not really. Was it fun? Heck yes!

Though I found at least one continuity issue where Tae-goo leaves a brothel in the desert with a group of rescued kids all together on his motorcycle in one scene and then a couple of scenes later the kids are gone and Tae-goo is alone… It didn’t really detract from the frenetic action of the 130 minute film.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird wants to be a Western, but its Asian roots are what makes this movie work. Sure there are horses, train robberies, and lots of gun battles – but the presentation, stunts, and wire work are definitely from the world of martial arts movies.

Beyond that, it’s non-stop action from the train robbery to the gunfight at the end and the subtitles never got in the way for me. I absolutely love Kang-ho Song. He has an amazing gift for portraying both the hapless hero and the knowing villain. Playing the simpleminded father in The Host trying to save his daughter, there was an “everyman” quality that really appealed to me. His portrayal of Tae-goo as a gleeful bandit seeking enough money to retire to a simple farmer’s life has that same quality.

There are several extras on the DVD, including some highlight reels, interviews, and behind-the-scenes footage. Of all the extras, it’s the “Making Of” features #1 and #2 that were the most fun. The chaos involved with the production was absolutely massive. How they could keep on track, filming on location in a Chinese desert with all the horses, people, and explosions is beyond me.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird was quite popular at several of the major film festivals around the world. It debuted (partially unfinished) at Cannes, was an official selection at the Telluride Film Festival, an audience award winner at Fantastic Fest, and won Best Director and Best Visual Effects at the Sitges International Film Festival … It’s also managed to make more than $44 million worldwide since its release in April 2010. Not bad for one of the most expensive films (with a budget of about $10 million according to Box Office Mojo) ever made in South Korea.

If you don’t mind subtitles and you’re looking for something fun, Asian, and Western, I’d heartily recommend that you check out The Good, The Bad, The Weird. It’s a ton of fun!

This review first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz