Monday, December 31, 2012

Kalpar Vlog: Iron Sky Review

Well, dear readers, we have once again come to the conclusion of a calendar year. So if you find yourself with a half hour and nothing better to do, watch Kalpar be sad about things! It's entertainment, apparently.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett

Recently I decided to go back to the excellent Discworld series and read the young-adult novels that tie into that universe, which are also written by Terry Pratchett. I initially had no real interest in these books, assuming that as young adult fiction it would be somehow less developed than what I had come to expect from Discworld. Fortunately for me, a friend advised me that the only real difference between the young adult novels and the regular Discworld novels is that the protagonists are younger than the usual Discworld protagonists. Otherwise they are just as enjoyable as the adult Discworld books and I myself did not notice a significant change in reading level. I would definitely recommend this book for teenagers, adults, and those younger kids with a very high reading level.

The Wee Free Men is the first book in which we meet nine-year old Tiffany Aching, a resident of a region known as Chalk on the Disc. Tiffany, unlike most children, pays careful attention to the world around her and is constantly asking questions. She's the kind of child who wonders why the witch in the fairy tale is automatically evil, no questions asked, and why Jack gets away with killing a giant and stealing the giant's gold when he's clearly not bright enough to realize a cow is worth more than a handful of beans. (Tiffany's also the sort of child who reads the entire dictionary from cover to cover because no one told her otherwise.) So when creatures out of her storybooks start cropping up in Chalk and Tiffany's little brother, Wentworth, goes missing, she decides someone has to do something about this and that someone is her. Fortunately she's got some fearsome help as well, the Nac Mac Feegle.

Overall I really enjoyed this book and felt it touched on some really deep issues, specifically an emphasis on paying attention to details and thinking critically. Tiffany's main strength in the novel is she's able to keep calm during a crisis and think through a situation logically rather than jumping to conclusions which can be extremely dangerous. Plus, she's got an entire clan of pictsie warriors backing her, which helps more than you'd think. I also really enjoyed the message of speaking up for those who don't have a voice of their own and I think that's a really good call to action for people of all ages. I can really see a family reading this book together and discussing the issues covered in this story.

Overall this is another great example of the quality writing I have come to expect from Terry Pratchett, and has a strong, well-written female protagonist who I think a lot of awkward children who don't fit in can really relate to. I will definitely be reading the rest of the Tiffany Aching stories in the future and would highly recommend these for fans of excellent fantasy stories.

- Kalpar.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Kalpar Lecture: The Bolo Series

Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a Bolo was stirring, not even the Maus.

Well, here's a special early Christmas present to all my readers, I hope you enjoy the video as much as I had fun making it.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Raiding the Stacks: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Our Raiding the Stacks feature comes a little early this month in preparation for Christmas. This month we're taking on the out-of-copyright classic, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Now, I'm sure all my dear readers know this plot forwards and backwards, so I won't go through the plot of this story. In fact, A Christmas Carol is by far and away my favorite Christmas story. But instead of talking about the plot, I want to talk about the importance of A Christmas Carol to the development of Christmas as a holiday that we know and love today. Despite having been written over a hundred and fifty years ago, A Christmas Carol remains a central part of many people's Christmas traditions and its message of charity and goodwill towards our fellow man is still a timely message.

By the early nineteenth century, Christmas had become a relatively unimportant holiday that was rarely celebrated. In previous centuries Christmas had a strong religious focus and was celebrated largely in a community setting with events such as the wassail, but in an increasingly urban population the old celebrations had significantly reduced significance. What is important about A Christmas Carol is that it invented, almost from whole cloth, many of the traditions that we perpetuate today. Family gatherings, songs and games, turkey dinners, and charity towards the less fortunate are all aspects that Dickens wove into A Christmas Carol and remain essential parts of our current celebrations. In addition, the message of charity towards the less fortunate and the need for social change remains important today, perhaps even more so because of the ongoing global economic recession.

In regards to the actual text itself, it's a rather short story. I know, I was surprised too! Something short from Dickens! The weird thing is it feels far too short for a well-developed story. All of the essential elements of the story are there, of course: Scrooge, the ghosts, Bob Crachit and Tiny Tim. The problem is that the story feels almost fragmented to me, with many important pieces of dialog glossed over in a paragraph. While I understand that this is a short story, which enabled Disney to make a very short special with their classic characters, I felt like it could have been just the slightest bit longer to provide more depth to the characters and situations. Of course plenty of people have obviously enjoyed this story for a century and a half, otherwise we wouldn't have it today, I just wish it took longer than about two hours for me to read the story. I honestly think that you'd be better off going with one of the many film adaptations as part of your holiday traditions

 If you really want to enjoy this Christmas classic this year, I definitely recommend either A Muppet Christmas Carol, or Scrooged with Bill Murray. The Muppet version has plenty of awesome songs that you'll remember throughout the Christmas season, and Scrooged is a hilarious 1980's update of the classic tale. Obviously there are dozens of adaptations and versions you can watch with your family and friends this Christmas and I encourage you to find one that you love. I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas this year and I leave you with this song from A Muppet Christmas Carol.

- Kalpar

Friday, December 14, 2012

One Year Anniversary!

That's right, it's now been a year since the blog's been operational! More or less! And somehow I've managed to post something every Thursday for a year! That's...a lot longer than I thought this would last. Well, anyway, barring nervous breakdown or robot invasion we shall continue forward with the reviews and videos into the next year! (And hopefully I can recruit some more people for the blog too. You know who you are.) Anyway, enjoy the celebratory video!

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Redshirts, by John Scalzi

So a couple of months ago I heard about the then-new novel, Redshirts, which was a ruthless satire of Star Trek and other poorly written science fiction shows with massive death tolls. Being the complete sci-fi nerd that I am, I was eager to crack the pages of Redshirts and discover Scalzi's own insights into the lower grade of science fiction.

For those of my readers who are unfamiliar with the concept of a redshirt, (which is probably none) let me provide a brief explanation. In Star Trek: the Original Series it was very common for Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and some poor sap in a red shirt to beam down to the planet the Enterprise was orbiting that episode. Inevitably, Ensign Skippy in the red shirt would get eaten by a monster before the commercial break to raise the stakes for the main characters (who, of course, were never in any real danger thanks to plot armor). By the end of Star Trek's three-year run a total 13.7% of the Enterprise's crew had died, the vast majority being the eponymous redshirts. Since then redshirt has become a term for any expendable character who gets killed mostly for cheap shock value. Actual red shirts are, of course, optional.

Redshirts focuses on the events surrounding the Universal Union's flagship, the Intrepid, where strange things happen. New crew members Andy Dahl, Maia Duvall, Jimmy Hanson, Finn, and Hester notice that not only is everyone terrified of going on away missions, but the senior officers occasionally act just downright strange. Together they compare notes and discover that there might be more to the mysterious occurrences on the Intrepid than what meets the eye, provided that they can live long enough first.

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel and its take on a plethora of science-fiction tropes. In addition, it had plenty of leaning-on-the-fourth wall humor, which is a particular brand of humor I enjoy and can be very hard to do well. I will admit that the book got almost too meta for me towards the end, but I still think it was a very well-written book from Scalzi. Furthermore this book has some great advice for aspiring science-fiction writers on how to avoid common pitfalls of the genre. Or at least, how to avoid making the deaths of redshirts completely meaningless.

Another point I want to make is that I was expecting this book to be a little more lighthearted than it was, sort of on the same grade as Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but this was a far more serious book than I anticipated. By all means, it's still an excellent book, but if you haven't read this yet the keep in mind that it is by no means a laugh-a-minute satire. I definitely went into Redshirts with the wrong expectations and had to adjust to the more serious tone.

Redshirts is definitely a must-read for any sci-fi geek, however, if you're not a fan of Star Trek in specific or a fan of sci-fi in general, then this book really doesn't have a lot to offer you.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Look Back: The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

As my two readers are probably already well-aware, a film version of The Hobbit is coming out later this month. Well, the first of three planned movies, and while I am a little wary of the decision to split The Hobbit  into three separate films, I am still excited over more of the Lord of the Rings universe being brought to the silver screen. I also decided that this was an opportune time to take another look at the fantasy classic.

I actually have many fond memories of The Hobbit, because when I was much younger my mama read The Hobbit to me, along with other books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Alice in Wonderland, and The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Along with inspiring a life-long love of reading, The Hobbit was responsible for my eventual decision to read The Lord of the Rings on my own and a continuing interest in the fantasy genre. Looking back at The Hobbit I find it is still an excellent fantasy book but has an incredible difference in tone from Lord of the Rings.

First, I want to provide a little bit of background information for my readers about the origins of The Hobbit, which is just one part of Tolkien's vast body of work. The Hobbit is actually Tolkien's first published book and was the first tantalizing glimpse into the world that would become Middle Earth. The first edition of The Hobbit was published in 1937 and was received with great critical acclaim. Tolkien was asked almost immediately for a sequel and began working on the text which would become The Silmarilion and The Lord of the Rings, although The Lord of the Rings would not be published until the 1950's, and would literally create the modern fantasy genre. In a way, The Hobbit is an important harbinger of an era that would eventually bring us Dungeons and Dragons and the wonderful world of Discworld.

As I mentioned earlier, when I mentally compared The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings there was a striking difference in tone between the two works. An important thing to remember about The Hobbit is that it was written as a children's book and has a much lower reading level than The Lord of the Rings. So while Lord of the Rings is this vast, sprawling epic that includes numerous countries and battles between large armies, The Hobbit is (mostly) a story of Bilbo and thirteen dwarves going on a treasure hunt and the various challenges they encounter along the way. In addition, the stakes are much, much lower in The Hobbit than they are in The Lord of Rings. If Frodo fails in his quest, then all of Middle Earth is covered in darkness and ruled by Sauron. If Bilbo fails in his quest, then Thorin and Company just don't get their gold back. It simply isn't set on the same scale. Of course, this should not be inferred to mean that The Hobbit isn't as good, because it still is an excellent fantasy novel, but it was a little jarring to go back to a much smaller scope.

If you haven't read The Hobbit by now, I'd definitely suggest you read it before going into the first movie this month. It's a much easier read than The Lord of the Rings and you won't have to wait until 2014 to see how it all ends. If you're a parent with young-ish children this is also a great book to read together and hopefully will spark a love of fantasy in future generations as it has in its seventy-five years of existence. And remember, always be careful around dragons, even if they appear to be asleep.

- Kalpar