Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Movie Review: Iron Sky (2012)

Any movie where we can cheer at plucky heroes with more balls than brains taking on Nazi stooges is a good movie in my book. When those Nazi stooges are invading Earth from the Moon, that's when you're stepping into a whole new world of weird. Iron Sky is a Finnish-German-Austrian collaborative project made as a "sci-fi comedy" about a secret Nazi moon base colonized in the last days of World War Two. Being the industrious little fellows that they are, the Nazis have constructed a massive base, developed flying saucers and other technologies, and constructed the Götterdämmerung, "the largest engine of war ever built", a mammoth, Independence-Day alien mothership-sized flying saucer with cannons so powerful they can literally blow a hole in the moon.

The movie is set in 2018, and in an attempt to win support for her reelection, the President of the United States (clearly a Sarah Palin clone) sends a black male model to the moon with another astronaut as a publicity stunt. The two space-farers stumble across the Nazi moon base on the dark side of the moon while one of them is unobtrusively looking for something referred to as "Helium-3".

The Nazis capture James Washington (the model) and discover that his cell phone is more powerful than the computing power of their entire base - the Nazi technology is capable, but clearly relies on computing size, rather than computing power - banks of blinking "computer lights" that fill entire rooms, so on and so forth. I actually dug the aesthetic they went with - it isn't necessarily original, if you're familiar with WW2 "Weird" or Sci-Fi of the 30's and 40's, but it still looked good. The Nazis realized that if they had a few of the "telephone computers" they could harness their computing power (somehow...?) and use it to make the Götterdämmerung fly - their current technology was able to build it, but not good enough to get it airborne and operational.

Unfortunately, while the Nazis can figure out how to use the computing power of a cell phone to launch a gigantic flying saucer, they apparently can't figure out how to charge its battery. Klaus Richter, one of the Nazi officers, volunteers to go back to Earth and acquire more of this advanced technology, then bring it back for them to use. There are some humorous moments where Richter has a fling with Vivian Wagner, the President's publicist, who sees the snappy-dressing Nazi and his "Earth Specialist" fiance and begins to use carefully edited snippets of their Nazi rhetoric as the President's new political platform. This is definitely where the film goes off the rails a little, but it still elicits a laugh or two.

Overall, Iron Sky is a sci-fi comedy with a few eye-rolling moments, a lot of chuckles, and some amusing "in jokes", referencing other science fiction films, WW2 history, all mixed with a healthy (or maybe not quite healthy) dose of biting political commentary. Nevertheless, while it's understandable why in the highly competitive theatrical release market this never made it onto the big screen, I still think it comes in - both technically and artistically - a solid cut above your average direct-to-DVD sci-fi movie / SyFy premiere movie.

Here's the YouTube trailer for the film. Even if you don't check out the movie (available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Streaming), check out the trailer:

Monday, March 11, 2013

Operation Arrowhead now Available in EPUB

I've now made COMMANDO: Operation Arrowhead available in EPUB format, both through Kobo, as wel as through the electronic media publishing platform, Gumroad. You can find the Gumroad sales point right here on this blog, along the right hand side of the page (I sell both MOBI and EPUB versions there). The Kobo entry for Operation Arrowhead can be found by clicking here.

This is really an experiment to see if it's worth losing the benefits of Amazon Select in order to expand into the EPUB market. If the benefit doesn't outweigh the cost, I may take the book down from the alternate sites and stick with Amazon. Alternatively, because Select membership is a 90 day contract, I might go 90 days on Amazon Select, then 30 days off, and so forth.

One of the greatest benefits of publishing on your own is that you can always experiment in any number of ways, in order to find the strategy that works best for you and your readers.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Movie Review: Skyfall (2012)

Better late than never? I'm actually ashamed to admit that this is the first Bond movie I did NOT see in the theater in close to 20 years. The end of 2012 was just too busy for me and it never worked out, something I'm really not happy with. However, being able to rent the movie on Amazon Instant in HD, on a television good enough to make it worth the viewing, does alleviate my guilt to a small degree.

Also note, I'm not going to give a review of the plot. Click this link to read that if you haven't seen the film. I'll try to avoid spoilers, but hey - it's a Bond movie.

I have mixed feelings about this film. On the one hand, although there are a few very cool nods to the fact that this is the 50th anniversary of the Bond franchise, this really isn't a "Bond Movie", or rather, it's sort of half a Bond movie. The first half of the film is very classic Bond, but I felt like the second half was something much darker, much more dramatic - more of a character introspection piece, delving into Bond's past far more than any previous film has done.

First, there's also the very complex interactions between Bond and M, far more than the typical verbal fencing that has taken place in all previous films. Examining the role of the Agent (or as Bond says, "Provocateur") and how it fits with M's role of the Controller (or as Bond says, "Bitch"). Judi Dench has always been very good at portraying M as someone who always puts the Mission before the Agent, no matter what. This is obviously a hard burden for her, but one that she has accepted without complaint. As well, Bond has come to terms with his role as Agent, understanding that ultimately, he is an expendable, if expensive and rare, asset. His interaction with Eve after his "resurrection" shows that he knows perfectly well she did what she had to do, and there were no hard feelings - Bond would (probably) have done the same thing in her place.

Also interesting was the comparison between Bond and Silva. It is made clear to us that Silva is Bond's possible dark future self - a reflection of what Bond could become, if he allowed emotion and ego to overshadow his duty. Bond recognizes this, of course, but whether it is out of a stubborn, personal refusal to be anything like Silva, or an understanding that he needs to rise above the comparison and hold the Mission above all else, he rejects his dark reflection and owns his role in the bigger picture.

Finally, the visit to Skyfall Lodge, the trip into his childhood, is very out of character for a Bond film, but in this case, I think it suits the second half of the film quite well. What path will Bond take - the road to becoming his own person, or returning to his role as Agent - Instrument really, of MI6.

All in all, I really enjoyed the film. It took a very unexpected path, but frankly, after 22 previous films, I didn't need to see Yet Another Bond Movie.

Lastly, to go all gun-crazy for a moment, it was nice to see the PPK/S in use - Bronson's adoption of the P99 was fine, but the nod back to the classic Bond gun (although according to the original Dr. No pistol carried by Sean Connery was a Walther PP, not a PPK) was welcomed. The "palm reader" should have been cut, however; giving an agent a pistol he can only use bare-handed is foolish, never mind a weapon that is packed with technology that can fail, be hacked, or otherwise compromise the integrity of the weapon's usefulness (never mind that it means Bond would be leaving fingerprints not only on the gun, but wherever he went). A secret agent is going to want an anonymous, disposable weapon that in no way ties itself to him, never mind his government, and the weapon needs to be able to function with gloved, dirty, or even bloody hands. This little detail should have just been left out.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Book Review: The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley

While researching another project I might kick off this year, I decided to read the original Zorro story, The Curse of Capistrano. Originally released as a five-part serial in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly in 1919, the story was turned into a film, The Mark of Zorro, in 1920 and it was later published as a novella in 1924 under the film's title.

The story is pretty straightforward. Don Diego Vega is a listless, effete caballero by day, a fearless, swashbuckling vigilante by night. He punishes the wicked and avenges the innocents who are exploited by noblemen, crooked merchants, and violent soldiers. As the "bad guys" hunt for Zorro, he's thwarting them at every turn, while "Don Diego" is friends with all the soldiers and nobles who are trying to hunt down his alter ego, and he's casually pumping them for information.

I'd love to know more about the reaction readers had the first time they were introduced to the story. Although the reader isn't told who Zorro is until he unmasks himself at the very end, reading The Curse of Capistrano, it is immediately obvious that he and Don Diego are one in the same. On multiple occasions Don Diego departs a place, and Zorro appears minutes later, and then as soon as Zorro leaves, Don Diego returns, astonished that he's missed Zorro and bemoaning "These violent, turbulent times!".

Most everyone in town loves Don Diego, as he's rich as hell, politically well connected through his father, friendly and warm with people from all stations in life, and as one person in the story put it, "no more adventuresome than a lizard sunning itself on a rock". He's a disappointment to his father and the woman he is wooing because he's such a lackadaisical slacker, but of course, Don Diego is putting on a show, so that no one could ever suspect he's the fiery, dashing Zorro. I found myself actually laughing out loud at some of Don Diego's comments about how fatiguing life is for him, and how burdensome it is to expend effort on anything beyond dreaming about "the poets" and meditating on life.

But although the plot comes off as a little hammy to a modern audience, the book definitely has plenty of action. There are swordfights and gunplay, dramatic chase sequences and capers all throughout the book. Zorro is a master swordsman and McCulley is able to write some really engaging fight sequences. Zorro isn't a bloodthirsty character, and although he does kill when he has to, by and large he only wounds or disarms his opponents - he knows most of them are simply doing their duty to oppose him, nothing more. He uses a pistol on occasion, but usually as a means to hold his foes at bay when he is outnumbered or doesn't have the time or tactical advantage needed to challenge someone to a duel.

Overall this is a great story, and lays the groundwork for almost a hundred years of Zorro tales to come. Its immediate popularity is evident, with a movie being made only a year after it was released, and he's definitely the archetype upon which many of the later "masked vigilante crusaders" of later generations are built.

The Curse of Capistrano is available on Amazon as a Kindle ebook (that's how I got it) and I'm sure it can be found in EPUB as well as reprinted paperbacks, more than likely as The Mark of Zorro. If you can, pick it up - you won't regret it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

GUEST POST: Hanging Out With the Iraqi Armed Forces by Sean McLachlan

Today I'm featuring a guest post by Sean McLachlan. Sean's not only a blogger and professional writer, but he's also recently started writing travel articles. Today we're taking a look at his experiences with the Iraqi armed forces...

Hanging out with the Iraqi armed forces

Sean McLachlan

In Iraq, there’s a bewildering variety of armed forces everywhere you look. There’s the army, national and local police, private security groups for political parties and religious sects, local militias both legal and illegal, and terrorist groups. Individuals can be in more than one force and the factions are tied together in a complex web of alliances and rivalries.

A few months ago I spent three weeks traveling in Iraq and got to spend a lot of time with the Iraqi police and a fair amount of time with the army too. Tourism in Iraq is still in its early stages and only a few companies have permission to go there. Individual tourism is forbidden and all groups have a police escort and occasionally army escorts as well.

It’s difficult to make any generalizations about the armed forces in Iraq. Some are armed with AK-47s, some with M-16s. Some wear Kevlar, some don’t. Some drive around in APCs or Hummers while many simply pile into the back of pickup trucks protected by sheet metal, making lovely targets for anyone with an RPG.

Below are some images I gathered while touring the country.

When we passed through the Sunni Triangle we got an escort of Special Forces

Oh wait, make that “Spacel Forcas”. It looks like The Punisher is popular in Iraq!

 The army guys get to ride around in pimped-up Hummers.

 Here’s their logo.

Mostly we were provided with regular police. They tended to be more laid back than the Army guys. Here’s one gathering fruit by the side of the highway.

Here’s some detail of the police insignia.

The police have some Hummers and APCs, but mostly have to use pickup trucks with a bit of armoring. I doubt that the sheets of metal on the sides could stop a bullet.

The green uniform is national police. The guys in the blue uniform are from local police. They’re on the roof of Saddam’s palace in Babylon.

Two members of the national police guarding the gate of Babylon. Note that they’re wearing different uniforms than the other national police I’ve shown. This may have been because of supply problems, regional differences, or some other reason. I could never get a clear answer.

Accompanying us 24/7 were two plainclothes officers from the Interior Ministry. Here’s Captain Ali shooting at a not-too-distant can. He fired four times and missed each time. That wasn’t terribly reassuring.

In general the Iraqi armed forces, like the Iraqis in general, were welcoming and interested in talking with us. My few hundred words of bad Arabic got put to the test every day. A couple of them proudly told me they had served with the Coalition forces. One even had photos of himself and his U.S. Army buddies on his cell phone.

This is very much a once-over-lightly look at the Iraqi armed forces, so I’ll be hanging out in the comments section if you have any questions.

Sean McLachlan has written numerous military history books for Osprey and is the author of the novel A Fine Likeness, set in the American Civil War. You can read more about his travels in Iraq in the online series Destination: Iraq.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Some Companies Just Don't Like Money

One of the writers I know recently put his novel on Barnes & Noble's Pubit! self-publishing platform. He told me that the process was nowhere near as smooth or full-featured as Amazon's, but he had taken his book out of KDP Select and was now branching out. After getting through a few technical challenges, he finally uploaded his book and it went live.

About a week passed and there were no sales. Discouraging, but hey, it happens. Then Saturday I get an IM from him, and he tells me to go look at the book and read the review on B&N. I zip over there and see a one-star review, which is never good. Then I notice it says "Wrong Book". So I start to read...

It appears that at least the free sample of my friend's book was replaced by someone else's Erotica.

Really angered and annoyed by this, my friend goes looking for Pubit's help portal. Apparently all you can do is email Pubit directly - there is no specific support page, online form, chat feature, or other support tool. A polite but firm email was sent off, and fingers were crossed.

48 hours later, and nothing.

My friend, desperate to somehow make it known that this was not his error, goes to add a comment to the one-star review, as you can do on Amazon. No such luck with B&N. He then tries to post his own "review" just to let everyone know what's happened. Apparently B&N sequesters these in a "Your Review" section that only you can read. There's literally no way to alert a browser to the fact that this is Pubit's screw-up, not his.

My friend has now pretty much given up. Checking out the Pubit support forums, he sees that many authors are disheartened by the site's lack of author support, and many are taking their titles off and moving to other solutions. My friend has told me that if he doesn't hear from Pubit by tomorrow, he's taking down his book.

I think it's pretty clear that Barnes & Noble is in a fight for its life right now. Amazon is dominating the book market and with the closing of Borders last year, B&N can't help but feel the cold breath of Death blowing on its neck. If that's the case, and you KNOW ebooks are the Big Thing right now, why on earth would you go to apparently great lengths to ensure your self-publishing / ebook platform sucked rotten eggs? Why would you all but invite users to go somewhere else, frustrated with the way your company handles their relationship? Do you want to go out of business?

No company is perfect. Amazon has done some things to annoy authors and customers, and yes, I've had a few bumps in the road using KDP, but by and large they have had excellent customer and client service with me over the last few years. I've seen bad reviews on Amazon related to a technical issue, and I've seen the author or another reviewer comment on that review and help clarify matters. I've had support chat sessions with Amazon staff and received prompt help. They know the support is worth the price.

Yeah, building a full-featured service costs money. But I think in this current business climate, you gotta spend money to make money. If B&N can't do that, users are just going to go someplace else. I was originally going to publish my books through Kobo and Pubit, but now I think I'm going to stick with just Kobo, and rather than Pubit, go with a service like Gumroad.

Sorry Barnes & Noble. You lose...

Friday, March 1, 2013

Killer Instincts is Free Today - For the Last Time!

Click Above to go to the Amazon Page
For various reasons, I'm opting out of my next round of Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing Select for both my Commando novel and Killer Instincts. While this means I'll be able to sell digital copies of my novels in other venues, it also means I won't be able to do free promotion days through Amazon as easily (you have to do weird price-matching games via outlets that let you do free books on an indefinite basis).

So if you're curious about my debut novel, described by one reviewer as "Death Wish for the Twenty-Teens", head on over to Amazon today and pick it up for free. And, if you don't have an ereader or have no interest in ebooks, you can still buy the trade paperback for $9.99, which is a pretty good deal as far as trade paperbacks go.

From Amazon's Product Description:

While on spring break in Paris, 21-year old William Lynch learns that his family has been murdered and his home burned to the ground, the brutal act of a Boston crime syndicate.

William vows to seek revenge and hires Richard, a grizzled, mysterious ex-mercenary. For a hundred thousand dollars, Richard offers to train the college student in the ways of the killer-for-hire, giving him the skills he needs to seek vengeance on his own terms.

As William matures under Richard's tutelage, he never counts on what happens when he awakens the killer within him...

KILLER INSTINCTS is a story of revenge and retribution in the style of Brian Garfield's vigilante killer novel DEATH WISH, mixed with Charles Bronson's classic assassin-in-training thriller film, THE MECHANIC.