Movie Review—‘Arrival’

[Arrival Poster]
Photo courtesy of IMDb

Arrival’ (2016)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Eric Heisserer (screenplay), Ted Chiang (based on the story “Story of Your Life” written by)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Drama | Mystery | Sci-Fi | Thriller
Paramount Pictures
PG-13
Log Line: When twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors.

Boy, did I need to see this! 2016 was a tough year for many reasons, both generally and personally. It’s not often I watch a movie twice in a row, but after seeing ‘Arrival’ the first time the other night, I couldn’t wait to put it on again. I’ve always been a huge Amy Adams fan—two of my favorite movies of hers being ‘Enchanted’ and ‘Julie & Julia.’ She’s one of those rare actors who can exhibit both vulnerability and strength at the same time and break your heart in the process. And as a professor of linguistics trying to solve an impossible mystery, she is at the top of her game.

I won’t recount the story here—you can watch the trailer for that. But I will point out a few things I felt made this film—nominated for eight Academy Awards at the time of this writing—brilliant. First off, the writing. The story by Ted Chiang is filled with a profound sense of human longing—a longing to connect with something bigger. Many people interpret this as a search for God in our lives, and I happen to believe that. But I think, in general, people want to feel a part of something outside ourselves. Something that gives life meaning and us a purpose. The screenplay, based on that story, captures this feeling beautifully and reinforces it throughout so that by the time you arrive at the end, you can see.

The direction and cinematography were perfect for this kind of storytelling. Everything that happens is seen through Louise’s eyes, and we unravel the mystery with her. As if things weren’t difficult enough trying to decipher an alien language, she is always surrounded by strangers—army personnel and CIA operatives—whose purpose she can’t fathom and who seem to be in opposition to what she’s trying to accomplish. Inside the massive floating spacecraft, we lose our sense of direction. And the playing with time itself throughout is hypnotic.

Of course, any good movie has lots of conflict, which in this case is presented in the form of people’s paranoia about the aliens. The armies of the world all want to know what the aliens’ purpose is in coming here and, judging from their actions, they are all on a hair trigger. The director Denis Villeneuve captures this intense struggle with simplicity and clarity. And to balance things out—because not everyone in the military can be bad—we have the character of Colonel Weber, who is just trying to understand. Oh, and that soundtrack! Pay attention to the horns every time we see the aliens.

In the wrong hands, ‘Arrival’ could have turned into ‘Independence Day.’ Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed! No doubt, I will see it again.

You can find this review at IMDb. Now, check out this featurette.

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THE DARK DOZEN—Buy a Book, Save a Life!

I promise to be brief. A kind gentleman named Al Scarborough is in need of a new heart. When I was asked to participate in this project, I didn’t hesitate, though I’ve never actually met Al. So here’s the deal …

Twelve authors—including me—got together and contributed one short story each to a new horror and sci-fi collection called The Dark Dozen. All proceeds go to Al’s GoFundMe project. If you want to learn more about Al, you can read Maer Wilson’s blog post, “How My Chihuahua Almost Killed Al.”

You can find the book at Amazon. Just do it.

Book Blurb

[The Dark Dozen Cover]

This fund-raising anthology of Horror and Sci-Fi short stories was created to benefit Altoine Scarborough, a man in desperate need of a heart transplant. The stories, cover art, formatting, editing and compilation were all donated. Every penny of the royalties we receive will go to Al’s GOFUNDME project.

Vampires to ghosts to monsters—and futures we won’t want to see come true—fill this collection of dark stories that are sure to give you chills. This stellar, fan-favorite group, which includes award-winning and best-selling authors, brings a unique voice to some familiar and not-so-familiar creatures. Join Travis Luedke, C.N. Lesley, Danielle DeVor, Maer Wilson, Steven Ramirez, Jody A. Kessler, Louann Carroll, Ross G, Homer, M. Joseph Murphy, Robert P. Wills, Karenne Griffin, and Allan B. Anderson for a trip into the Darkness.

Available now at Amazon.

The Monster Mash—Creating Believable Beasts

[Lauren Scharhag]Guest post by Lauren Scharhag

I grew up in the 80s. It was a magical time when bug-eyed, glowing-fingered aliens crashed in suburban back yards, when heroes rode luckdragons, when David Bowie danced with goblin puppets, when nightmare creatures battled for the fate of a flawed purple gemstone … well, you get the idea.

For me, the creatures of science fiction and fantasy are just as compelling as the main characters in the story. Anybody writing in the genre knows how important world-building is. Part of good world-building is creating believable creatures for your distant planet or magical realm.

Here are some things to consider when designing your monsters from the claws up:

Magical or Cryptozoological?
Is your creature born or conjured? Did it hatch from an egg, or did a rabbi scoop some mud together and slap a sign on its head? The way a creature comes into being tells a lot about what its habits will be like, where it lives, what it subsists on, etc. Magical creatures don’t have to be as convincing from a biological standpoint—or stand up to close scrutiny at all, for that matter:

  • Don’t feed a mogwai after midnight. Um, isn’t it technically always “after midnight”?
  • How the hell does a Pegasus fly? Does it have hollow bones like a bird?
  • What about Beholders? How do they—ahhh, you know what? Never mind.

As magical creatures, it’s part of their charm. But if we’re talking about an animal that is born or hatched, this takes a little more thought.

What Is Your World Like?
What is your world’s climate like, its ecosystem, its culture? Animals adapt to their environment to survive. Consider how the animal might have evolved in relation to where it lives. Is the animal native to the area you’re writing about or did they come from someplace else? If they’re not native, how did they get there? How do they interact with other species?

Some of my favorite fantasy beings are the elephant-like Mulefa from Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. Now, it helps that he was writing them from the point of view of a scientist who made keen observations regarding their anatomy, habitat, social behavior, etc. But Pullman obviously put a lot of thought into their ecology. A species of pod-bearing tree combined with some solidified lava beds gives the Mulefa the means to move—and I don’t mean that in the sense that they use pods for transportation. I mean they have evolved in such a way that they now require the pods to peregrinate, attaching them to spurs on their legs and zooming around on them like Tony Hawk.

I was blown away by the level of detail, planning, imagination and originality the Mulefa required. How in the world did someone dream something like that up?

Real Creatures, Alive or Extinct
Start with real critters. I know this seems like a no-brainer, but coming up with good, convincing and memorable creatures for your book has to be more than a Horse of a Different Color (enchanting though that rainbow-hued equine was, he was still just a horse with a dye-job).

I co-author a series called The Order of the Four Sons with Coyote Kishpaugh. It takes place across multiple dimensions. In the second book, the heroes find themselves marooned in an inhospitable, desert world called Carcosa. Keeping the Mulefa firmly in mind as we began to design the world, we gave a great deal of thought to what sort of flora and fauna could thrive under its harsh conditions. We researched animals and plants that live in the Australian and Saharan deserts, as well as Death Valley. To give the animals an otherworldly bent, we turned mainly to creatures that have gone extinct like the Tasmanian tiger for inspiration.

We also took into consideration the symbolism of the place. We have stranded the heroes in a world where everything is either aggressive or toxic. We looked at some of the fiercest-looking desert dwellers we could find, like the Solifugae, an order of desert spiders that can get quite large and look like an ungodly mixture of arachnid and scorpion, with pale, segmented bodies and pincer-like mandibles. They’re not terribly threatening to humans, but the point is, they look scary.

Another type of creature we looked at was some sort of animal to transport people around our deadly fantasy desert. Ultimately, we found our way to tapirs, an endangered South American animal with a prehensile snout (maybe Pullman influenced me even more than I realized!). Related to horses and rhinos, tapirs are decent runners, so with some alteration, we thought they would make fine pack animals. In the course of researching them, we found out that tapirs appear in Asian folklore. In Korean, their name is maek, so we named the creatures “meks.”

Finally, there are the real, live animals that share space with you. I can’t tell you how many creatures in my oeuvre have been influenced by an ugly, runty, squinty-eyed, foul-tempered little cat I found by the side of the road one day and decided to bring home. She has way more attitude than a five-pound bundle of dirty-looking orange-brown fur ought to have, but she’s my little beast, and I love her. Without her, I wouldn’t have stories full of dragons, mermaids, ehlems and man-eating blobs. At least once a day, I pay homage to my little feline muse with offerings of tasty treats. She seems as pleased with this arrangement as I am.

So all those hilarious pet stories you love to tell at parties? Yeah, turn those into fantastical adventures.

Barring that …

Tap into Some Folklore
There’s an entire world of myths, legends, fairy tales and folklore from which to draw inspiration. From kitsunes to skin walkers, from djinn to Baba Yaga—there’s always some creature or entity begging to be remade into a new story.

Obviously, you have the perennial favorites: vampires, werewolves and zombies. Personally, I find those to be a bit tired, but even they can have new life breathed into them—reanimated, if you will. (I know, I know. Feel free to throw things.)

To use another example from our books, in The Order of the Four Sons, we have an Eastern European sorceress who practices necromancy. Eastern European folklore is rich with blood-suckers and the undead. We came up with creatures called eretics, a sort of zombie en flambé. The amount and type of magic it takes to raise and sustain them burns their flesh, so they’re blackened, red and quite disgusting as they lumber about, flaking off patches of skin and doing their mistress’ bidding.

Another resource is the good ol’ D&D monster manual. I’m not saying to blatantly rip something wholesale from the Eberron or Forgotten Realms playbooks or whatever. What I am encouraging you to do is a monster mashup—create composites. Synthesize. It’s amazing what sort of literary Frankenstein might emerge. A fang here, a bit of drool there, some galvanic action and voila! Your creature will be up, wreaking havoc on a poor, unsuspecting populace in no time.

I hope you find my thoughts on monster-making helpful. Thanks for reading, and best of luck dreaming up your own ghoulies, ghosties and three-legged beasties!

Book Blurb

[The Order of the Four Sons Cover]

For centuries, two ancient, magical sects, the Order of the Four Sons of Horus and Starry Wisdom, have battled for possession of the sacred, powerful Staff of Solomon. Whoever possesses the staff can open doors to other dimensions—or rip open the very fabric of existence.

The staff was broken into pieces and scattered across the cosmos.

Now, a member of the Order, Fernando Rios, has disappeared in a small Missouri town.

When a team is sent to investigate, they discover that Rios was close to finding one of the lost segments.

The problem is, he wasn’t the only one.

The Order of the Four Sons by Coyote Kishpaugh and Lauren Scharhag is a classic tale of good versus evil. An epic, magical journey of fantasy and adventure.

Join members of the team, Colonel JD Garnett, novice mage Kate West, Detective Ryan Murphy, scholar Doug Grigori, and field techs Bill Welsh and Cecil Morgan, as they race to stop evil from destroying not just Earth, but a myriad of worlds.

And life as we know it.

Where to Buy
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About the Author
Lauren Scharhag is a writer of fiction and poetry. With Coyote Kishpaugh, she is the co-author of The Order of the Four Sons series. She lives in Kansas City, MO with her husband, two cats and a squinty-eyed beastling. You can find Lauren on Twitter, on Facebook and on her blog, www.laurenscharhag.blogspot.com.

PLAYER PIANO—Long Live the Ghost Shirt Society!

I first read Player Piano in college, although I had been introduced to the world of Kurt Vonnegut in high school, courtesy of his hilarious sci-fi novel The Sirens of Titan. Player Piano was actually Vonnegut’s first novel, published in 1952 after he’d spent some three years working for GE in Public Relations. Apparently, it was there he learned how managers and engineers were held in such high regard, changing the world one machine at a time.

Vonnegut’s cautionary tale, filled with the dark comedy of a wise, plain-speaking jester from Indianapolis, was perfect for a postwar American audience moving inexorably toward an automated society. But reading it again now, I see a new relevance. We are in the midst of another transformation led by the Internet of Things and pricey wearables. And if you can believe the predictions of Ray Kurzweil, soon we will become the machines—a perfect blending of flesh and titanium.

Player Piano is brilliant and still relevant. If you haven’t read this book, I encourage you to give it a try. Sure, you’ll laugh, but watch out. The next time you are chatting up Siri, you’ll shudder. Long live the Ghost Shirt Society!

You can find this review at Amazon US.

Book Blurb

[Player Piano Cover]

Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel spins the chilling tale of engineer Paul Proteus, who must find a way to live in a world dominated by a supercomputer and run completely by machines. Paul’s rebellion is vintage Vonnegut—wildly funny, deadly serious, and terrifyingly close to reality.

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“The Laptev Virus”—A Worthy Successor to “The Andromeda Strain”

Okay, let’s get to the point. I thought The Laptev Virus is a great read. For me, this is a solid sci-fi story rooted in actual science. As an author, I like to come up with some pretty bizarre situations myself. And usually I find myself making everything up—taking care to at least make the premise believable so as not to lose the reader. But it’s refreshing to read a story written by a scientist. This author not only has a wonderful imagination, but she has the scientific chops to back up what she’s selling. And trust me, when it comes to megaviruses, it ain’t pretty, folks.

Michael Crichton, an author who was also a physician and had a wicked imagination, was great at combining real-world science with entertaining fiction. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed The Andromeda Strain so much—both the book and the movie. To me, the key to any memorable story is that it must be plausible. And like Crichton’s work, The Laptev Virus challenges the reader. There’s a lot of technical jargon in the book, but it serves a purpose. As an example, I am now terrified of cats!

So if you like sci-fi backed by solid research, then I can heartily recommend this book.

You can find this review at Amazon US.

Book Blurb

[The Laptev Virus Cover]

In this hard sci-fi techno thriller, scientists have recently discovered the existence of megaviruses: viruses up to a thousand times larger than any viruses that we have known before. What if one of these newly found viruses was a human pathogen? Christy Esmahan’s fourth novel, THE LAPTEV VIRUS, begins with the discovery of just such a virus in the Laptev Sea basin by a company drilling for oil. Investigators in Houston race against the ticking clock of the short Arctic summer to discover a way to protect workers from the virus before competitors drain the basin of its rich resources…and before anyone else dies from the hemorrhagic fever that the Laptev virus causes.

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“Tales to Count On”—Subtle Humor Flavored with Dread

I love this collection of stories! And I especially appreciate that the author is as comfortable in the past as she is in the present. Two of my favorites are “Him” and “The Map Room.” The writing is precise and well researched—two qualities that as both a writer and reader I value tremendously. And the tone … What to say about that? For me, the best way to describe this author’s voice is, subtle humor flavored with dread—a little like some of the best ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes. Reading each story is like finishing a nice cup of tea, only to discover something unsettling at the bottom. If you are looking for the fun and the unusual, I recommend this collection. Oh, and don’t forget the tea.

You can find this review at Amazon US.

Book Blurb

[Tales to Count On Cover]

Curl up and enter the eclectic world of S. R. Mallery, where sad meets bizarre and deception meets humor; where history meets revenge and magic meets gothic. Whether it’s 500 words or 5,000, these TALES TO COUNT ON, which include a battered women’s shelter, childhood memories, Venetian love, magic photographs, PTDS fallout, sisters’ tricks, WWII spies, the French Revolution, evil vaudevillians, and celebrity woes, will remind you that in the end, nothing is ever what it seems.

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It’s Spring—Time to Kill Some Zombies!

[TMWID Axe Detail]Wow, I thought this day would never come! Sorry, it’s just that I’ve been slaving away since last fall, trying to cook up a killer sequel to my zombie novel, Tell Me When I’m Dead. When I started on this journey over a year ago, along with Dave, Holly, Warnick and the others, I imagined that a story about an antihero forced to confront a plague of flesh-eating “draggers” in his little town of Tres Marias would essentially be a one-off—a roller coaster to hell that would explode into a fireball. Let the poor guy suffer, save his wife, kill the bad guys who, in the midst of the terror and the mayhem, want to take over the world. Then send him home.

The problem was, once I got through the craziness of twenty-seven chapters of running, fighting and killing, I realized that there was still so much to tell. How did the outbreak begin? Would those responsible ever be brought to justice? I just had to start a second book. Well, now that it’s finished, I can assure you, it’s going to be even darker and more hellish.

In the meantime, I wanted to give you the chance to read the first book—and save money, too. So from May 2nd through 6th, I am offering Tell Me When I’m Dead for 99 cents. (The normal price is $3.99.) So far, the book has received many four- and five-star reviews. Go ahead, have a look.

[Tell Me When I’m Dead Book Cover]

Amazon US
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Amazon Reviews
“There’s a difference between reading a book and watching a movie. I can get scared with either, but there are scenes in books that I can picture vividly for a long long time afterward, and this book has plenty of those.”

“Holy cow, what a great page turner this was. I thoroughly enjoyed a hero that had issues, and was working through problems—definitely someone I could relate to. All the other character in the book- well written and also fun to read and learn about. Until you lost one. Then it’s “NO!! NOT HIM!” I tell you, Steven Ramirez kills more people than all the Whedon brothers combined!!”

“This is one helluva zombie book! Steven Ramirez takes us on a bloody, terrifying ride through this hell on Earth he’s created, giving us plenty of backstory to skillfully develop his awesome characters.”

“One word of advice: I don’t often yell at my eReader but I did after reading the last line of this book. I won’t ruin it for those of you who haven’t read this yet but I will tell you it left me a hot, angry mess. Why, oh why, isn’t there a sequel yet? Get on that, would you, Steven!”

“So fasten your seatbelts and take a wild slay ride into hell in North California where if you are lucky dinner will not be served on a splatter. A FIVE STAR gorefest and a must read for all zombie fans looking for something fresh and still warm.”

Blurb
If the zombies don’t kill you, people will.

Lucky to have made it to his early twenties, Dave Pulaski wandered through life lost and drunk with his best friend Jim. Then came Holly. She made it her mission to clean him up. And he finally did it. Two years sober, Dave has plans for a family, a steady job and college.

One night Jim disappears, leaving a grisly trail of animal carcasses and murdered bodies. Now Missy, the woman Dave cheated with, threatens to destroy not only his marriage but his sobriety. Between Missy’s jealous demands for attention and the police investigation focused on Jim’s disappearance, Dave’s neatly ordered world quickly spirals out of control.

Amid the wreckage of Dave’s personal life, a contagion brings chaos to his hometown of Tres Marias. The condition, known as “the jimmies,” infects hundreds and kills quickly. But the dead find no rest. They rise as ravenous flesh-eaters.

Dave soon learns that “not all draggers want to eat your flesh, some want revenge.” And Jim and Missy, both infected, each want something from Dave.

The quarantine of Tres Marias creates hell on Earth. Badly outnumbered security forces are no match for the growing hordes of undead.

Follow Dave, Holly and a small band of heavily armed soldiers and civilians as they fight to survive looters, paramilitary nut jobs and the zombie apocalypse.

If the zombies don’t kill them, the wackos surely will. Nowhere is safe.

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