Monday, February 09, 2015

Movie Review - Jupiter Ascending

From the initial trailers, Jupiter Ascending looked like a fun and exciting sci-fi flick with some refreshing new creativity and ideas. From the trailers, I knew that Jupiter Jones (a lower class girl in Chicago) has somehow been identified as "alien" royalty and as a result she has become the target of some very high profile groups in the universe. Beyond that, I knew very little. I didn't read or hear any previews or reviews so I went into the movie with moderate to high expectations for a good new science fiction movie.

The movie starts out with narration from Jupiter explaining that she is an illegal alien living in America. Not an "outer space" alien but she tells the story of her parents tragic life back in Russia and how she (Jupiter) was born while her mother's family were traveling across the ocean to sneak into America. We then have a few scenes showing her misery as she goes through her day-to-day life working with her mother and her aunt as cleaning ladies for homes around the city.

We then get a glimpse into the aliens. There are multiple races...some look distinctly "alien" ranging from reptilian to some sort of monkey like faces and other varieties. The main aliens we'll be dealing with in the plot are distinctly human in appearance. We are later told (spoiler) that they ARE human and that technically the Earth's human race is descended from this alien race.

The main group of space-humans we deal with are a trio of siblings from an ultra-powerful family called Abrasax who apparently owns a large chunk of the universe. Their parents have died and in stereotypical "rich family" fashion, the 3 kids are squabbling over inheritance and trying to figure out how to one-up each other and become the richest and most powerful. Apparently the Earth is one of the most valuable planets in their inheritance and as a result, they all set their eyes on it. Even more important than the value of the planet is the existence of Jupiter Jones...who we learn is the 'genetic reincarnation' of their mother and as a result she has the power to re-claim the inheritance that came from her death.

Each sibling has his or her own distinct plans and motivations ranging from the simple murder of Jupiter to convoluted psychological and political maneuverings. Each sibling has hired different forces and individuals to carry out their plans. Caine is one of the hunters and when he learns Jupiter's true identity he works harder to try and keep her safe from all of the other parties involved.

Right from the start I enjoyed the storytelling aspect of the movie. I really liked the way Jupiter narrated the early life of her parents and the way the movie transitioned to the story of her current life and the intrigue and plots of the Abrasax family. The transitions and the story felt very personable and "real" (as real as can be imagined in a sci-fi story like this). I was quickly drawn into the film and found myself excited to find out what was going to happen next.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Book Review - Forcing the Ace

As a kid, when asked "what do you want to be when you grow up," one of my answers was always "Magician." I had a collection of books on magic, magic props and often performed magic tricks in my elementary class talent shows. My goal never came to fruition but it did make the premise of Forcing the Ace appealing to me.

In Forcing the Ace, we follow the life of Alex, a teenage boy with aspirations of becoming a professional magician. He has significant enthusiasm and talent for magic but has less devotion or skills for the other elements in his life, particularly his schoolwork, much to the chagrin of his surgeon father.

In the first chapter of the book, Alex is performing in a local magic show with the hope of attracting the attention of a sponsor for a professional magician competition. Unfortunately, his act ends with a significant injury to his hand and it looks like his hopes for the prestigious competition are shattered. His luck changes when he is noticed by Jack, a retired magician who tells Alex that he'll sponsor him but only if he pairs up with Zoe, another teenage magician from the town. Alex has always been a solo act and has no desire to share the glory with anyone but he reluctantly agrees and they begin training.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Book Review - Words that Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What PeopleHear

Decades ago I was sitting in my Sophomore High School English class and we had an unexpected visitor. A previous "English Sterling Scholar" for the school stopped by to visit with our teacher and he was asked to give us an impromptu presentation. He'd gone on to major in English and was currently doing an internship on a speech writing team for one of our state politicians in Washington D.C. I remember him saying that he had a lot of people telling him that his English degree would be useless and he should choose something else. He told us that they were wrong and that there were plenty of job opportunities for people with English degrees. In fact, he suggested that a degree in English would be vital since more and more the future will have a dire need for people with the ability to write, read and understand language. He talked a bit about his experiences with political speech writing as well as opportunities to be professional writers for executives, colleges, research groups and others. I didn't have a great passion for politics so even though the speech writing thing sounded fun, I focused more on his points that an English degree had value. By that time I'd more or less decided I wanted to study English literature and writing but I had no idea what career might come of it. I definitely don't credit his entire impromptu speech as the impetus for my educational choices, but he did help me feel more confident in my plans.

I was given the book "Words That Work" as a gift by someone who knows my love of language and writing. Just glancing at the title I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from the book but I dove in, eager to find out. The author, Dr. Frank Luntz may well be one of the "end results" of the path started on by my visiting English Sterling Scholar mentioned above. Dr. Luntz has a passion for language and has taken that passion not only to Washington D.C. as a speech and campaign writer but also to numerous high profile corporations and non-profit groups. He stepped beyond the "simple" role of being "just" a speech writer and has taken on a role of helping a person shape their language into the best possible form for the desired message.

Much of the book includes anecdotes and references to real-world experiences that the author had with some politician, executive, or other highly visible individual. Truly he has had a star studded career having worked with US President's, Congressional/House Majority leaders, Fortune 100 Executives and Hollywood stars. Many of his stories were rather funny even if only for the unfortunate results of poorly structured language. I had a hard time relating directly to the many examples that were deeply entrenched in political or corporate dealings. still, the construction and results were intriguing.

The subtitle of the book "It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear" was the main focal point that Luntz returned to again and again. He presented a number of rules and bits of advice to help ensure your message is received in the way you intend. The first step, of course, is to make sure you are personally very clear on the desired message. After that, you need to very carefully and methodically analyze and choose words with special focus on your audience. Every listener comes with his or her own paradigms or prejudices which can taint certain words or cause even a seemingly simple and straightforward message to be misunderstood.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Books Read in 2014

For the past few years (20132012, 2011, 2010, 2009) I've had a goal to read and review a bunch of books over the course of each year.

My goal has been to average a book per week and end up with 50 books read and reviewed at the end of the year. I usually don't include smaller books (early middle grade, picture books, etc) unless I feel really strongly about them.  In 2013, I was significantly below my goal.  Oh well.

This year (2014) I plan to improve on my downturn in 2013.  If I hit 50, great, but at the very least, I hope to reach 40 books read in 2014.  I will also try to share all of my reviews here so you can get a feel for what I liked or didn't like.  That said, I generally only pick up a book to read it if I feel like it "speaks to me" in some way, so chances are, most of my reviews will be fairly positive.  Even then, I'm sure I'll come across some stinkers.  :)

If you have any suggestions for books to read or ways I can make my reading goal more exciting, please let me know.

And now, without further ado, here's the list of books I've read so far in 2014:
(I will be updating this post each time a new book is read/reviewed)
  1. The Martian
  2. The Forbidden Stone (The Copernicus Legacy Book 1)
  3. At First Light
  4. The Orphanage of Miracles
  5. The High Druid's Blade
  6. The Conjuring Glass (The Phoenix Girls Book 1)
  7. The Bluest Eye
  8. Frostborn (Thrones and Bones book 1)
  9. Death in Venice and other tales
  10. Shell Game (Kingdom Keepers #5)
  11. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  12. Around the World in Eighty Days
  13. The Rule of Thoughts (Mortality Doctrine #2)
  14. Rat Runners
  15. Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear
  16. Forcing the Ace
And for additional reference, here's a link to my "to be read" list over at Goodreads. This list includes purchased books on my bookshelves (but not read) as well as tons of books that have been recommended to me over the years. As you can see, the list is huge...and never really shrinks since there are always new recommendations coming in. So tell me...what good books have you read lately that I should add to my list? Any that I "MUST" get to ~immediately? :-)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book Review - Rat Runners

The blurb for Rat Runners had a number of things that grabbed my interest. The whole concept sounded pretty fun. Some of the preview blurbs called it an "Oliver Twist for the 21st Century" and "Blade Runner meets 1984."

Set sometime in the future, the story takes place in a dystopic London where high tech security organization WatchWorld keeps crime and violence under control through the use of countless street cameras, drones and satellites as well as "Safe Guards" patrolling the streets and buildings of the city. The cameras and drones are equipped with state of the art hardware and software to allow them to quickly analyze video and audio to quickly pinpoint crimes as they happen.

The technology goes a step beyond that with X-Ray scanning, audio analysis of voice and even heartbeats and chemical/sensory analysis of increased body temperature or sweat. The "Safe Guard" is a human wrapped up in armored technology in a way that reminded me of RoboCop but without being wholly roboticized. The human inside is given orders and information on their visor and is shielded from the outside world in a way that eliminates the appearance of humanity to an external viewer.

WatchWorld has full control and autonomy to stamp out crime in whatever way they see fit. Naturally this pushes the criminal element "underground" into "voids" they've created to keep out the peeping eyes of WatchWorld. Even though the general public allows WatchWorld to carry out this intense level of surveillance, the public wants to maintain at least some privacy for their children. As a result, the criminal underworld uses children and young teens to help with their legwork above ground. The book title comes from the skinny alleyways, nooks and crannies that the kids run through to avoid being caught on camera or stumble across a Safe Guard patrol. Because even though WatchWorld can't explicitly spy on a child, if they have enough suspicion that the child is involved in illegal activities, that rule changes.