The Art Of Reviewing, Oh And Some Flash Fiction

I feel like I haven’t had a good rant in a while, so when I came across the following review of Theft of Swords on Strange Horizons and skimmed all of the comments in response to that review, I felt like I needed to get my rant on.

To review is to provide an opinion, an appraisal based on a set of criteria that is personal to the reviewer. I like books that are fun, set in strange places, and full of colourful characters. If you want to call a book garbage, you should provide evidence based on the criteria by which you judge a book. Similarly if you want to provide lavish praise of you new favourite book, tell me why you think it is deserving of your lavish praise.

In the Strange Horizons review, reviewer Liz Bourke says the book is rubbish and one of the worst books she has ever read. She then goes on to provide evidence of why she thinks it is one of the worst books she has ever read. And that should be fine with everyone, because if you apply her criteria for what makes a good book then you will see that Theft of Swords does not perform so well. If you apply my criteria for what makes a good book then you will see that Theft of Swords performs quite admirably. We are different people, we have different tastes, and it is differences like this that make us unique individuals, a quality that should be celebrated.

For reviewers like myself and Liz, writing a scathing review of a very popular book makes the fans of that book very angry. They take it as a personal affront, a well publicised article that calls them stupid for liking a book that they shouldn’t, and they come together from all corners of the internet to vent their fury via the comments section. Rarely do they try and understand the reviewer’s criteria or point of view, more often they accuse the reviewer of bias,  accuse them of a failure to understand what the book is all about, or assert that because the reviewer does not like the given genre they are not qualified to have an opinion on the genre. They do not want to engage with the reviewer on the content of the review, they want the reviewer to change their core values so that they align with their own values.

For me the choice is easy, find a reviewer whose values you can relate to, and appreciate that other people have different values. Liz is well within her right to review the book, and for those share her values (ie. the regular readers of Strange Horizons) the review will act as a handy guide not to bother with that book. This is not a bad thing, and for the author Michael Sullivan, he now knows if he wants to appeal to the target audience that Liz is a member of, he will have to fix all the issues she identified with the book.

In the end I had a couple of problems with the review, not that she disagreed with me, but because of her not so subtle attack on a group of people based on their personal choice, and her lack of consistency. It can be hard for people to see past the emotion when they see something like “I want to hunt down every single soul associated with the decision to give this series the imprimatur of a major publishing house and rub their noses in it like a bad puppy”. In this case Liz has gone away from critiquing the book based on her own person criteria and has decided to take aim at a group of people because they dared to have a different opinion to her.

As for her lack of consistency, it appears that after reading a few of her previous reviews the criteria Liz used to judge Theft of Swords is not the same as what she has used to judge similar books in the past. Consistency is a very important part of being a reviewer as it demonstrates a level of competency and integrity, instilling a measure of worth in your reviews. If you are the sort of person who will change your criteria to give a book a bad review because you disliked it that much, how are people supposed to take stock in the words you write? You will find people quickly losing respect for your reviews, and to be honest how could you ever feel satisfied providing an opinion on something when absolutely nobody is willing to respect it?

Anyway enough of my rant, who wants some flash fiction? I call this one Travel Bug. Feel free to review it 🙂

Travel Bug

White knuckles gripping the arm rests, toes curling up inside his boots, Strub closed his eyes and tried to relax his breathing. It didn’t help. He could feel the momentum shift as they started forward, hear the increase in pitch as more power was applied to the engines, smell the sour odour of sweat that his nervous body had been producing ever since he climbed aboard this death trap.

Turning his head to the side he instantly regretted opening his eyes, buildings and trees rushed past the window in a blur as they picked up speed. The tenuous control over his breathing evaporated in a flash and he started to hyperventilate, his panicked terror visible for all to see.

The aircraft gently pitched upwards and left the ground, Strub letting out a sharp yelp as his stomach churned.

“Easy there Strub,” came a smooth calming voice from beside him. “Relax.”

Strub felt the word of power envelop his body, immediately releasing the tension in his muscles and slowing his heart rate to a more manageable level. As his body sank further into the chair his mind sank into unconsciousness, his fear and anxiety drifting away as the power continued to cleanse his spirit. He heard snippets of bickering from somewhere far away, but he was too comfortable to even bother processing the words. He was at peace.


“Damn it Jed you went too far again” snapped a voice laced with frustrastion. “I am not bringing him out this time.”

“Aww come on Leon, he was starting to upset the other passengers. I didn’t have a choice.”

“Dont make excuses with me, boy. You put him there, you can go and bring him back.”

“Stupid Strub,” Jed muttered under his breath. “I hate flying.”


New X-Men Film is Definitely First Class

I like my lazy Sundays, a sleep-in followed by some PS3 (Lego Pirates of the Caribbean if you are interested), a quick tidy up of the house, and then out with Alaisdair and Tim for sushi, movies, and Max Brenner. The movie this Sunday was X-Men: First Class, a prequel to the X-Men trilogy set in 1960 before the establishment of the mutant academy starring James McAvoy as Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr (better known as Professor X and Magneto).

Let me start by saying that this movie really shows up all previous X-Men movies, making them look quite dated. It may be set in the 60’s but the special effects are simply amazing. It is all backed up by an excellent story that ties in well with the main series, the references to other movies are subtle, and the cameos are fun. But this not just a super hero story about saving the world, this is a film that blurs the lines on what ot means to be good, what it means to be evil, and what it means to be human.

The acting is top notch, James McAvoy delivers another solid performance but Michael Fassbender really steals the show here, showing just why he is fast become one of the most saught after talents. And of course there is January Jones…

January Jones is reason enough to go see X-Men: First Class

X-Men: first class has far surpassed my expectations for X-Men films. It has charm, it has flair, and it has a fantastic story filled with likeable characters. It’s going straight to the top of the list for best movies this year.

On Stranger Tides… Well At Least They Got The Strange Bit Right…

There has been a lot of bad press about the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, the general concensus being that brilliant actors putting in brilliant performances are being let down by a boring story with substantial issues.

Well at least they got the "Strange" bit right...

 All lengthy franchises cop their fair share of abuse (both justified and unjustified) by the time they hit the fourth instalment, but this is Pirates of the Caribbean and any movie that has pirates is almost definitely better than the picture being painted by all those pesky review sites. Pirates inspire great works of creativity, just have a look at the latest from The Lonely Island:

Well the pesky review sites were right, Pirates 4 showcases some of the strongest acting and some of the worst story telling in the franchise to date… in fact I will go as far as to say the story was a steaming pile of shit clearly trying to cash in on an established brand name. It’s a shame because the three previous films all had very tight storylines with all the loose ends wrapped up at the end of the third film. There was nothing that needed explaining, no reason to make a fourth movie, and yet here we are talking about it and with the amount of money being made at the box office I expect that we will be here again soon talking about a fifth movie.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the actors in this movie, it looked and felt like they were giving 100%. Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom and Jack Davenport are notable omissions, but they are hardly missed as newcomers Ian McShane and Penelope Cruz step up to the plate and deliver two very polished and likeable characters. Johnny Depp is once again fantastic portraying the iconic stylings of Captain Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush fully embraces the role of Barbossa, looking like he was having a lot of fun. Keith Richards got another cameo with brief but memorable line – “Does this face look like its been to the fountain of youth?”.

The big issue for me was that the story was completely lacking in direction and cohesion, throwing in random subplots that go unresolved for the whole movie and add absolutely nothing to the main storyline. I spent the whole movie asking Nicole why… “Why do you think they did that?” “Why was the Captain Jack impersonator impersonating Captain Jack?” “Why did she grow legs if she couldn’t use them?” “Why is everything so dark and foggy?” “Why did they film this in 3D and have 95% of the movie shown in 2D?” It just seemed like the director was being lazy relying on the name, his actors,and that 3D gold mine to sell tickets rather than solid story writing and creative cinematography.

All in all this movie was a big let down, not the worst movie I have seen this year but pretty close. I went in to the movie expecting to be entertained, and to some degree I was entertained. But I also felt confused, bewildered, and bored, three feelings that I should not feel coming out of a movie. Given the success of this movie I think its safe to assume that a fifth will be made, and given my attachment to the franchise it is safe to say I will watch it. But I have been stung now, and if the fifth movie is anything less than brilliant I will not be seeing another.

You’re Big. Thor Bigger.

For those who are not big into comics, The Avengers is what happened when Stan Lee decided to create a team of all the greatest superheroes in the Marvel universe.  The Avengers have had many members since the first edition back in 1963 with notable members including fan favourites like Captain America, Wolverine, Spider-Man and The Hulk, and lesser known characters like Iron Man, Hawkeye and Thor.

Back in 2005, Marvel Studios had an idea, a 10 year plan with nine films that would revolutionise the comic book movie industry. They wanted to create a movie about The Avengers but to do this they needed  a clean slate, meaning reboots to established franchises (ie. The Hulk, Captain America and Spider-Man) and the creation of new franchises for the lesser known characters (ie Iron Man and Thor). These franchises now share the same history, there are cameo’s by different characters in each movie (like Samuel Mother-Fucking Jackson as Nick Fury), each movie has an after-credits scene that hints at what will be in the next movie,  and they are all contributing to the fast building anticipation for The Avengers movie.

Last night Nicole, Alaisdair and I went to see Thor, the latest piece in The Avengers puzzle. For those that dont know, the Marvel character Thor, all his brethren, and the frost giants are adapted directly from Norse mythology, with Marvel going to great lengths to explain the existence of Asgard via science (read more about Norse mythology here:  Thor (played by Aussie Chris Hemsworth)  is a hero, a stereotypical hero, the God of Thunder who wields the enchanted hammer Mjolnir. He is young, headstrong, cocky, and supremely confident in his own ability to fix everything through brute force. After re-igniting the war with the frost giants Thor is banished to Earth as a mortal, his powers stripped until he becomes worthy of them once more.

For the ladies… and Alaisdair.

As we have come to expect from Marvel Studios, the audio and soundtrack and visual effects were absolutely stunning.  Asgard looked amazing, and I loved the way they brought the Bifrost Bridge to life. Simply amazing. Their outfits were fantastic, the frost giants just looked scary, and the fight scenes were well choreographed.

There wasn’t a great deal to the story but then again this movie wasn’t really about the story. Natalie Portman plays the love interest, and she plays it very well, but in the end were not really all that interested in what’s happening on earth. We want to know what’s happening on Asgard and what is happening with those bloody frost giants. The main purpose of this film to provide the audience with an entertaining history lesson about Thor that will make The Avengers a better movie, and Marvel Studios certainly achieved this. There is a key word here that sums up my whole experience with this movie, and that is entertaining. This movie is so much fun from start to finish, the acting is great, the humour is funny, and as I have already said the visuals are amazing.

I didn’t like the 3D, it was barely noticeable and in the scenes were it was noticeable it was poorly implemented. There was probably 5 minutes worth of good 3D (the credits and the Bifrost transportation) 15 minutes of blurry headache inducing 3D (some of the full on action sequences tried very hard to make me queasy) and 100 minutes worth of me wearing stupid 3D glasses whilst watching a 2D movie. I think Jon Favreau said it best when he mentioned at Comic-Con that “Cowboys & Aliens has been filmed in glorious 2D”.  I’m over the whole 3D experience and unless James Cameron is onboard and doing it right like he did in Avatar, I don’t think I will bother with 3D films again if I have the choice.

In summary, Thor has really kicked off the American summer blockbuster season with a bang. Big heroes with cheesy one liners doing big action sequences, its got everything I love about a superhero movie and is going up to #2 on my list for Best Movies of 2011