Suspension

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“The night HE came home…”

Bullied by her peers at high school, Emily (MacNevin) takes refuge in drawing. Although, rather than high art, her preferred method of expression is horror comics: working on these in class is what gets her the titular punishment, imposed by a disapproving teacher. Emily’s strip depicts the havoc wreaked by a serial killer – who might (or might not) be inspired by her absent father. However, the line between imagination and reality becomes blurred, and on the night of a student party to which Emily has not been invited, someone starts stalking and murdering those who have tormented her. Looks like Daddy is out, and protecting his little girl – or, is he?

Oh, what the hell: when the sleeve (right) can’t even be bothered to avoid a major spoiler, why should I? Turns out Emily’s mind has snapped entirely, and she’s actually responsible for all the deaths. Otherwise, as my tag-line suggests, there’s more than a little of Halloween here, not least in the look of the killer, whose bland, white mask is more than an echo of the one famously worn by Michael Myers. Indeed, this feels as much of a homage to the slasher films of that era as anything; that’s likely the charitable way to view it, at least, since the supporting characters, situations and even specific kills contain little in the way of originality.

The most interesting thing is likely the effort put into fully developing Emily’s graphic art, beginning with the highly-stylized opening credit sequence. From here, it moves into a female masked killer – I’m guessing, intended to represent Emily’s idealized version of herself – who captures, tortures and dispatches other killers, recording it all on film. It’s a shame this angle isn’t sustained for, to be honest, it’s a good deal more imaginative and possesses a lot more potential, than the rehashed tribute to 80’s horror into which this quickly devolves.

It’s both too much, and not enough – the comic story occupies excessive screen-time in the first half, which could have gone to better development of the “real life” characters or setting. On the other hand, it could also have danced for longer along the line between Emily’s fantasies and reality. Instead, it occupies a mediocre middle, with only one plot element which surprised me – and it was almost a sidelight, not anything to do with Emily’s desire for ultra-violent revenge on her peers. MacNevin isn’t bad in the role; she has a nice, “everygirl” quality about her that generates empathy, along with the devotion she shows to her apparently mute kid brother.

The gore is plentiful enough, and Lando (veteran of many a shaky SyFy Original Movie) has a decent enough eye. The problem is mostly the script, hampered by its apparent unwillingness to commit to being one thing or the other. The result is not a slasher, nor a psychological exploration of homicidal imagination, and instead is a half-baked combo, which satisfies as neither. 

Dir: Jeffery Scott Lando
Star: Ellen MacNevin, Taylor Russell, Courtney Paige, Steve Richmond

Strip Club Massacre

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“Secondary staged carnage.”

After Megan (Watson) loses her job, boyfriend and the roof over her head in the same day, she decides to head off to Atlanta, where friend Amanda (Riggs) puts her up for a bit. Amanda’s boyfriend (Rollins) is manager at a strip club, and gives Megan a job as a cocktail waitress. But after realizing the gap in earnings between those employees who keep their clothes on, and those who don’t, Megan decides to make the jump into strip-tease. This rapidly brings her into conflict with Jazz (Brown), another stripper who rules the club through terror and intimidation, along with the help of her cronies. She takes it upon herself to make Megan’s life hell. However, she can only be pushed so far, before Megan and Amanda, push back.

A classic grindhouse title, which somewhat delivers on its premise: nearer to the “massacre” than the “stripclub” side, I’d say. Indeed, it’s rather more restrained in terms of nudity than I’d have expected. The gore, on the other hand, is plentiful in volume, if not necessarily quality: some of the special effects count as “special” in roughly the same way as “special education”. The story is basic to the point of simplistic: Megan is somewhat sympathetic, yet you’re never brought along on her descent into psychotic violence. It’s more like a switch is suddently flipped: I can imagine the film-makers thinking, “Right, 15 minutes to go, enough of this characterization nonsense, time for the rampage sequence.” It’s still about 20 minutes too much, and this perhaps needed a better outside hand, to cut down on what often feels self-indulgent fan fiction.

The most interesting character in all this is probably Jazz. If Brown looks familiar, you should probably be somewhat ashamed of yourself. That’s because she was previously known as Misty Mundae, and starred in a large number of films with titles like Gladiator Eroticus, Lord of the G-Strings and Spiderbabe. About which, I know absolutely nothing. :) She has now moved on from such things, and clearly knows her way around a script in a way that Watson (understandably, this being her feature debut) doesn’t. Jazz thus becomes hateable, in the same way Megan should have been likeable. She’s a vicious, coke-snorting bitch, who treats the club as if it were high school, and Jazz head cheerleader. A great villain, they should have made the film around her.

As a result, Jazz’s death is about the only one which packs any kind of emotional impact – it’s not too dissimilar to one I saw in La Esquina del Diablo, actually. The rest are mostly exercises in sloppy gore – as noted, some of which work, others which don’t. For instance, the (male) death by crowbar rape is perhaps more likely to put you off tacos than anything. [They could at least have used a fireplace implement, and had Megan cheerily quip, “How’s that for strip poker?”] And why does Amanda enthusiastically join in the mayhem? No credible explanation is ever offered. It’s all very clearly a small-budget effort, made with more passion than anything else. Unfortunately, outside of Brown, it does little to escape the obvious limitations imposed by its resources.

Dir: Bob Clark
Star: Alicia Watson, Erin Brown. Courtney Riggs, Stefan Rollins
a.k.a. Night Club Massacre

Sorcery and Science, by Ella Summers

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

The blurb for this one reads, “Terra Cross is just your typical paranormal princess. She plays poker with goblins and leprechauns. She savors her morning muffin from the Pacific Sunrise Bakery in suburban California. She solves galactic crime cases. And on a particularly wild day, she can even see into the future.” It is somewhat inaccurate, at least as far as this novel goes. I don’t recall any poker at all, muffins appear once, and as for the crime-solving… Well, sorta but not really. There is, however, likely good reason, since the novel is a prequel to Summers’s “Sorcery and Science” series, in which I presume Terra does more of the above.

This is both a blessing and a curse. It allows this book to stand on its own: you reach the end, and there’s a fairly well-defined line drawn beneath the fates of most characters. On the other hand, it does require a clunky jump in the epilogue to tie into the body of the series. Not much more than, “we moved to the other end of the galaxy and started a private-eye business.” Wait, what? It almost works better if you skip that, and treat it as the first volume in its own, standalone series. The paranormal princess aspect makes more sense this way, in a universe where advanced technology and magic co-exist, and Earth is being carefully blocked from knowledge of both. Vampires, witches, elves, etc. all have their own realms, making varying use of the “sorcery and science” from the title.

Cross is the daughter of the mage’s king, but likes to sneak off on adventures with her best friend and mage enforcer, Jason. However, they bite off more than they can chew when chasing after a renegade scientist-wizard, Vib. He is creating an advanced breed of super-mages, with multiple, shared talents instead of the standard limit of one type of magic per person. Needless to say, this research – despite being way beyond the pale – is of great interest to the competing races. Terra and Jason find themselves not just fending off Vib’s creations; they also becomes pawns in the political battle for dominance between the various forces that seek to control the galaxy.

I generally enjoyed this, once I got past Summers’s fondness for prose which tends toward the over-descriptive, it seems especially when it comes to colours, for some reason. The world she crafts is quite an interesting one, and the techno-pagan blend of SF and fantasy is intriguing. While Jason is the more action-minded of the duo, Terra becomes more active later on, especially after taking one of Vib’s experimental concoctions, out of desperation. It allows her to use some of Jason’s talents, which are significant;y more combat-oriented than her precognitive ones. 

The sudden right turn at the end, to tie it into the main body of the series, leaves me uncertain whether I would want to continue, since it appears potentially rather different in tone. Not least, I get the horrible feeling there’s going to be one of “those” love triangles, putting the heroine between Jason and the dark, brooding vampire commander she encounters. Fortunately, that was only hinted at in the prequel, and what’s here was, overall, pleasant enough.

Author: Ella Summers
Publisher: Currently only available as part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

Sailor Suit and Machine Gun: Graduation

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“Fails to make the grade.”

The 1981 original movie of which this is a part-remake, part-sequel, made an impression with some solid performances, lurking behind an obviously exploitative title. This? Not so much, despite sharing many of the same elements. For example, both films cast a pop idol singer in the lead role, and the central concept is similar – a schoolgirl finds herself suddenly thrust into the mantle of a Yakuza boss. Here, however, we initially find Izumi Hoshi (Hashimoto) already having gone through the situation she inherited after her uncle was assassinated. She took revenge on his killer’s after which her gang, the Medakas, was disbanded. Now a high-school senior, her sole retained asset is a small coffee-shop, though Izumi has trouble getting the employees, her former minions, to call her “Manager” rather than “Boss.”

She is dragged back into the underworld when a classmate begs for help in her problem with a sleazy “model” agency. It turns out that behind the agency were the gang who were once her enemy, the Hamaguchis, who are also selling drug-laced cookies on her turf. When one of these disco biscuits leads to the death of a schoolmate, Izumi decides to come out of retirement and take up arms once again. Unfortunately, she takes her time about it. Indeed, after the flashback which opens the film, you’ll have to wait 100+ minutes for the next machine-gun moment; in between, it’s entirely sailor-suit. There’s also an extended subplot involving Yasui (Ando), a corporate raider with plans to redevelop the entirety of Izumi’s neighbourhood, whether the inhabitants want it or not.

At virtually two hours long, it has huge pacing problems: that running time isn’t much more than the original, yet here, it drags terribly, and desperately needs to be at least thirty minutes shorter. It doesn’t help that Hashimoto is almost entirely bland, with nothing here to distinguish her from the millions of other idols. [The Hello Kitty tie-in marketing shows more personality, even if they replaced the machine-gun with a pop-gun!] This generic portrayal might make more sense if she was initially still an innocent schoolgirl, as in the original. Here, we’re supposed to believe she’s someone who has been the head of a Yakuza gang and come out the other side? I’m not buying that in the slightest.

In the film’s defense, I’ve read reviews suggesting elements of social satire which are likely not apparent or meaningful to a Western audience, such as the property shenanigans. That doesn’t do much to excuse the main issues, however, and even local critics were largely unimpressed by a largely forgettable feature, that only occasionally reaches the level of moderately interesting. Managing to waste such a cool concept, and in particular the iconic moment where the heroine sprays her automatic weapon while yelling “Kaikan!” – roughly translatable as “Feels so good!” – should be a jailable offense. I guess it’s nice to realize that pointless remakes are not purely a Hollywood problem.

Dir: Kôji Maeda
Star: Kanna Hashimoto, Hiroki Hasegawa, Masanobu Ando, Takurō Ōno

The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2actionhalf

Almost all the action heroine novels I’ve read of late have been Volume 1 in a series. While not necessarily a bad thing, this does tend to lead to a sense of unfulfilled resolution. “Happy ever after” is frequently replaced by a semi-cliffhanger, intend to separate the reader from their cash for Volume 2. It rarely works, and is more likely to annoy me. After all, I’ve invested significant quantities of time (if not perhaps money; these introductory items tend to be of the 99-cent variety, so I guess the buyer should beware) in each tale, and to be left dangling is frustrating. That’s why it was especially nice to read a book like this, which tells a complete story, with a beginning, a middle and a solid, satisfactory end.

It plays like a feminist version of a Grimm fairy tale. The heroine is 15-year-old Rhea, a miller’s daughter whose life is upended after a member of the local nobility, Crevan, requests her hand in marriage. This comes as a shock to everyone, not least Rhea. Her parents are hardly in any position to refuse, and Rhea is packed off to Crevan’s manor, where a further shock awaits her. As the title suggests, she’s not exactly the first proposal – and the other six women are still present on the estate, from which no escape is possible, since it’s like the fairy-tale version of the Hotel Californa. Nor are they in the same status as which they arrived, for Crevan has a very nasty agenda, taking one precious thing from each of his betrothed. There’s the clock wife, for example. And you probably don’t want to know about the golem wife. How can Rhea escape the fate of the previous brides, given she has never battled anything nastier than an upset swan?

The fairy-tale aspect is mostly in the characters. Rhea is good and pure and kind, like all the best princesses. Crevan is the archetypal “wicked stepmother” of proceedings: evil for no more particular reason than because the plot requires it. Indeed, he’s entirely absent from the great bulk of this, popping back occasionally to give Rhea a new task. But the heroine here is a good deal more pro-active than your classic Disney princess, and there is absolutely no Prince Charming, who’s going to sweep in and rescue her. She’s entirely reliant on her own wits, bravery and persistence, and the story is all the better for that. The feminist aspects are obvious, though are handled lightly enough to be non-didactic; Rhea’s problems are as much a result of class problems as gender ones.

The fantastic elements, such as the wild and bizarre domain where the clock wife resides, play more like Lewis Carroll. Indeed, I got a strong Tim Burton-esque vibe overall here; maybe Helena Bonham-Carter could play one (or here’s an idea – all?) of the previous wives. Kingfisher (the awkward name is actually a pen-name for Ursula Vernon, intended to separate works like this from the children’s books which are her bread and butter) has a darkish wit to her writing as well. That comes through particularly in Rhea’s internal monologues, and gives her a grounded and common sense feel, which is especially appealing. Ironically, it’s one of those cases where I wouldn’t actually mind further stories in the series.

Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: 47North, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

Scars

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“The 19th cut is the deepest.”

Scar (Cole) has anger issues, which we see in the opening scene, where she stabs her boyfriend to death. Scarlett (Kimmel) makes her living by having affairs with married men, then blackmailing them. The two women team up after Scar rescues Scarlett, when one of her extortion targets is beating her up in an alley. The pair subsequently begin an odd relationship, peppered with bursts of brutal violence against men. The police investigation, led by Detective Mike (Wells) passes over them, but Mike begins a relationship with Scarlett, until he begins to suspect that her friend is involved in the string of killings.

There’s an off-kilter style here, in a variety of ways. Scar and Scarlett spend a lot of time sitting around the latter’s apartment watching news broadcasts. These mostly appear to be about the conflict in the Middle East. While unclear, I guess the film is making a comment about male violence on a global scale by juxtaposing it with more up close and personal violence by women? Robb’s visual approach, in his directorial debut, is also a bit different, shall we say. He often seems content to park the camera in a fixed position,. and let events unfold in front of it (or, in certain cases, somewhat in front of it) as they may. He’s a big fan of about half a second of black screen between scenes too, and the use of deliberately inappropriate classical music. Not sure how effective any of this is; for instance, the static shots give a distancing feel, almost as if you were watching on CCTV. Hey, at least it’s making an effort.

That last sentence could be an accurate summary of the film as a whole. It’s clearly trying, and given the limited resources, it isn’t a disaster. But neither was this very successful at holding my interest for the entire duration. There isn’t much in the way of a character arc for either Scar or Scarlett. Right from the start, Scar is the obviously more psychotic one, and Scarlett is better able to conceal and control her impulses. That’s how it is for the rest of the film, although there was a while where I thought we were going down the Fight Club route, with Scar being a manifestation of Scarlett’s darker side.

On the positive side, the two leads deliver decent performances, and the violence – mostly in the form of repeated stabbings with the traditional weapon of movie psychos, the carving knife – is unflinching and credibly brutal. Part of the problem is, we’re not really given much reason to empathize with Scar or Scarlett. While there’s an implied suggestion Scar’s boyfriend is abusive, there’s nothing to suggest the punishment she unilaterally imposes is anything close to fitting the crime. Meanwhile, Scarlett is a manipulator, also depicted without much in the way of redeeming features. The results are watchable enough, yet left me feeling little or no impact, emotionally or intellectually.

Dir: Sean K. Robb
Star: Danielle Cole, Neale Kimmel, Matt Wells, Eric Regimbald

Survivor (2014)

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“The post-apocalyptic horse whisperer.”

Arrowstorm Entertainment appear to have quietly become a minor creator of action heroine flicks. We’ve previously written about several entries in their Mythica series, and also Cyborg X, but seem to have missed this one. As in Mythica, the “name” star here is Hercules himself, Sorbo, who plays Captain Hunter. He’s in charge of one of seven interstellar ships, dispatched from Earth after the conditions for life here became increasingly precarious. Having spent four decades in space, they pick up a message, but when attempting to reach its source, go through a wormhole and their shuttle craft disintegrates. Hunter and his crew are scattered across the surface; with the captain having a broken leg, it’s up to his most highly-trained recruit, Kate Mitra (Chuchran) to rescue him.

Which would be fine, if that’s what it was. The first half of the film, in particular the section which has Mitra battling her way across the unforgiving landscape, and against the creatures (both humanoid and… not so much) who inhabit the planet, is actually pretty good. Chuchran looks thoroughly convincing, possessing actual muscle tone; the production makes good use of the Utah landscapes; and the lack of dialogue here may well work to the movie’s benefit. It’s undeniably a distraction how evolution on this alien solar system managed to produce something looking exactly like a horse. This is explained… but I have to say, the reason is something I had strongly suspected before it was delivered, and had been hoping I was wide of the mark.

Sadly, I wasn’t, and the film’s second half is considerably weaker. This stops focusing on its main strength – the heroine – and doesn’t live up to the poster tag-lines which use both the worlds “only survivor” and “alone”. She turns out to be neither, and the plot disintegrates into some kind of squabble between the tribes of local inhabitants, along with a couple of (somewhat convincing) monsters. Combine this with the explanation mentioned above, and my interest evaporated – in the same way the oceans back on Earth apparently had, according to Kate’s opening voice-over. Rather than going in an original direction, as had been the case earlier on, the influences become painfully obvious, and this film does not benefit in any such comparison.

From the technical point of view, this isn’t too bad, especially considering the budget was so low, a significant fraction came through Kickstarter. It mixes CGI and practical effects to generally decent effect; the odd shot looks ropey, and some of the “mutants” are a little Halloween-esque, but I’m gradually learning that comes with the Arrowstorm territory. There is just a strong sense of unfulfilled potential; in Chuchran, they had someone who could have been capable of carrying the entire film on her own. To see her character largely shuffled off to the side during the latter stages was a bit of a disappointment, and I hope future projects will offer her the opportunity she appears to deserve, based on a solid showing here.

Dir: John Lyde
Star: Danielle Chuchran, Kevin Sorbo, Rocky Myers, Ruby Jones

Senora Acero

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“The mother of unintended consequences.”

It’s supposed to be the happiest day of her life for Sara Aguilar (Soto). She’s marrying respected police commander Vicente Acero, legitimizing a relationship that has already given them a son, Salvador. But masked hitmen attack the party, killing her father – by the end of the day, Sara has also become a widow, the cartel having taken revenge on Vicente, for the three million dollars he apparently stole. To Sara’s horror, it turns out her husband-to-be was no less corrupt than anyone else. When Salvador then falls desperately ill, and in need of highly expensive health-care, there’s only one way Sara is going to be able to fund his treatment.

It’s a decision which brings her into conflict with a whole slew of people. Her main enemy in the first series is Indio Amaro (Zárate), a local gangster responsible for killing Vicente. He has vowed to make Sara’s life a living hell – not least because following that murder, she chopped off two of his fingers in a frenzied attack. There’s also Enriqueta Sabido, the owner of a local beauty salon where Sara gets a job after being thrown on her own resources; she also does (bad) plastic surgery in the back. And even her own sister, Berta, is jealous of Sara for marrying Vicente, and who blames her – with some justification, it has to be said – for everything bad that happens subsequently.

She does have allies, though I wouldn’t be selling any of them life insurance, if you get my drift. They include honest cop Elio Tarso; Colombian dreamboat Manuel Caicedo; and even an affable cartel boss, Miguel Quintanilla, who possesses a quite fascinating collection of suits. [The white ones make a terrible background for subtitles, producers please note.] However, it’s mostly Sara’s motherly inclinations that lead to problems, whether financing a transplant for Salvador by any means necessary, or demanding her cartel employer close down the tunnels through which drug-carrying kids are employed to cross the border, because… Well, Sara doesn’t like it, that’s why.

But it is actually fairly rough on occasions: for instance, the removal of Indio’s fingers is well-staged, and revisited frequently [this show loves its flashbacks, more than any other I’ve seen to date – sometimes even revisiting scenes from earlier the same episode]. There’s another scene where Indio is torturing someone for information. He has them stand on a bed of spikes, then breaks their ankles to ensure they can no longer support their own weight. While mild in terms of cartel acts – some of the stories I’ve read would make your hair curl – the show is relatively brutal by the standards of the telenovela, and contains more bloodshed than most.

The obvious influence is another Telemundo production, La Reina Del Sur, with which it shares a number of crew, in particular writer Roberto Stopello – its heroine is even name-checked explicitly here, in one episode toward the end. Both share protagonists who are dumped into trouble after the demise of their other halves, and find the only way out is to get their hands dirty and become part of the criminal underworld. Despite this, the leading ladies share a strong sense of morality, with lines they won’t cross, and despise the exploitation of others – in Reina, it’s trafficking in women, while here it’s the use of children that provokes the central character’s ire.

Notwithstanding the double-meaning of her married name in the show’s title – Senora Acero can be translated as “Woman of Steel” – I find there’s a certain hypocrisy to Sara, compared to Teresa Mendoza. She’s strident about only wanting to be involved in money laundering rather than the drug trade, which seems a perilously thin moral distinction to me. Where the heck does she think the money she’s taking across the border comes from? It’s an almost privileged attitude, which seems to permeate her character from the start. For me, this left her less appealing, in comparison to her telenovela sisters, and this central weakness may be the show’s biggest flaw.

It’s a bit of a shame, as the supporting cast are fun to watch, on both sides of the coin. The villains are led by Acasio “Don Teca” Martínez (Reséndez), a cartel boss who has longed after Sara from afar, since he was a geek in the local barrio. Now, he has a shrine to her at the back of his office, and wields his power in a creepy stalking campaign, designed to drive her into his arms at any cost. Meanwhile, on Sara’s side is Aracely Paniagua (Litzy), a good-hearted former hooker and drug addict, who just can’t seem to escape her past, which keeps dragging her back in. She offers a more traditional telenovela heroine, almost harking back to Victorian melodrama.

The music in the show is interesting… Norteña band Los Tucanes de Tijuana produced and performed a song for it, titled “La Señora de Acero”, which the series incorporates, as having being commissioned by one of Sara’s drug-cartel bosses in her honour. It’s the usual oompah laden nonsense (I don’t like country & western either!), and far more fun is the bombastic score that accompanies the tensest moments. I’ve not been able to pin down the creator – it may be Rodrigo Maurovich, credited for “musicalization”, or it may be stock composer Xiaotian Shi. But it’s so wildly over-dramatic, swelling ominously to a crescendo, even when no-one is doing anything more than staring at a door, I can’t help but love it.

Back before the show had even begun to air, in mid-2014, there was an option apparently granted to USA Network to produce an English-language version of Senora Acero. Nothing appears to have come of this, and it was only a couple of months later that the station ordered a pilot for Queen of the South instead. Having seen both Mexican series now, as well as the USA Network remake of Reina, the choice was probably a smart one. The darker storyline of Reina likely renders it more easily adaptable. I’d be hard-pushed to imagine this, really a story of maternal instincts gone wrong, being able to make an effective transition to the gritty series which USA apparently wanted.

Despite this diss by the American market, unlike Reina, the show wasn’t one and done. Senora Acero almost doubled its US audience over the four-month run, its finale winning its time-slot in a number of key demographics, regardless of language. And, so, a year, later season two began, with another 75 episodes, and a third season, with a monstrous 93 episodes, started last summer. [The most recent installments appear not to involve Blanca Soto, for reasons which would require major spoilage to discuss…] All three are currently on Netflix, and I’ll confess some of the pics used here are from them – but at somewhere north of 50 hours of viewing per series, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for in-depth reviews of the later seasons!

Star: Blanca Soto, Jorge Zárate, Litzy, José Luis Reséndez

Staff Sergeant Belinda Watt, by Tom Holzel

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

This self-published novel was recently donated by the author to the library where I work, a kindness that we appreciate. The author and I are both members of the Action Heroine Fans group here on Goodreads, and I was intrigued by his posts there about the book. Understanding (from experience!) the frustrations of waiting for reviews in today’s glutted book market, and being a fan of kick-butt female protagonists myself, I’d hoped to help him out with a good review, though he didn’t donate the book with any such expectation. As my rating indicates, my reaction wasn’t as positive as I’d hoped, so I would have refrained from writing a review at all; but Tom graciously indicated that he didn’t have a problem with a less than stellar review.

I’ll say at the outset that if you like to discover the plot of a novel (as opposed to the basic premise) for yourself as you read it, I would NOT advise reading the cover copy, which gives away a fair bit of the plot. Suffice it to say that our chronological setting is the year 3177. Chapter 2 begins –and Chapter 1 is just a one-page set-up; chapters here tend to be quite short, which helps the plot flow quickly– with our title character, a cook from Idaho in the Galactic Federation army (who’s recently been discovered to have extremely good natural marksmanship skills with a rifle) being acquitted by a court-martial of murder charges in the killing of her commanding officer, General Bloodworthy. The physical evidence overwhelmingly proved that General Bloodworthy had been raping her at the time. But the late General was the head of the Guardian Council, a semi-secret cabal of “right-wing” army officers who are suspected of self-serving and illegal behavior aimed at advancing and protecting their own members; and their power within the military makes them “virtually unstoppable.” Since it’s pretty plain that the Council will murder Belinda in retaliation for Bloodworthy’s death, Intelligence officer Lt. Col. Andrew Jackson Jones conceives the idea of spiriting her off-world for her own protection. (Why an Intelligence officer is serving on the Judge Advocate’s staff in the first place is only one of several unexplained problems here.) So these two characters take off for the stars, and the plot takes off along with them.

Holzel’s fictional universe has similarities to that of many other writers in the SF tradition: FTL space travel, a galaxy-spanning Federation, etc. But he puts his own original spin on this. Here, the Federation extends into several different galaxies, reachable by navigating through wormholes associated with black holes. There are, however, not very many habitable planets out there, and the few there are are populated by alien species that are all pretty much humanoid (this is explained by convergent Darwinian evolution adapting them all to similar conditions). Earth turned out to be the most technologically advanced of the lot (that, and the distances involved, might serve as a plausible explanation for the old chestnut about why, if there are alien civilizations out there, we’ve never picked up their radio waves, though Holzel doesn’t mention this). Jones and Belinda’s destination is the far-off, Jupiter-sized planet Magnus, a major source of a mineral that’s critical to FTL travel. The planet’s ultra-rapid rotation reduces its gravity around the equator to Earth-like levels, and its extremely strong magnetic field prevents electricity from being transmitted on the planet’s surface. As this discussion indicates, this novel is very much in the “hard” SF tradition. The effects of the planetary conditions on local technology are worked out in some detail, which will please fans who like that sort of thing. (Personally, I’m much more of a “soft” SF fan.)

I’m not scientifically knowledgeable enough to understand or evaluate much of Holzel’s above use of actual science, though I would say that it comes across as plausible. My interest in fiction, in this or any genre, is more in the human and literary elements of the stories. On that level, the plot is predictable, has serious logical gaps (beginning with the fact that the military even tolerates the Guardian Council to begin with, or that they would let a serving soldier simply go off planet with no orders), and IMO makes excessive use of coincidence. Some readers have found Belinda too passive; I’m not sure that criticism is entirely fair, since she grows here from a fairly naive and passive young woman to a greater maturity. But the characterizations are not well-developed, and I particularly don’t feel the romance as believable. (Jones treats Belinda with a degree of duplicity and manipulation that’s more or less treated here as just an example of how boys will be boys, but which I don’t think most women would or should accept.)

No serious Intelligence officer would confide his mission to total strangers the way Jones does twice here; and I seriously question whether it’s physically possible for one crucial plot point to have happened the way it did. The Galactic Federation’s policy of paternalistically controlling interstellar trade (to “protect” other species from the “bad” competition) and Exporting Democracy strikes me as a naive extension of the worst aspects of globalist American foreign policy extrapolated onto an inter-galactic scale, and the cavalier attitude of the characters towards mass destruction of innocent life with a tactical nuke was a really serious negative for me. There are also repeated editing issues, numerous plot points that are inadequately explained, and not much world building outside of the technological area. (A minor quibble is the unexplained variation in Belinda’s name, which seems to be random; I could understand “Bea” as a plausible nickname, but she’s also sometimes “Linda” rather than Belinda.)

On the positive side, I was interested enough in the story to finish it. There’s a certain amount of bad language (though I don’t recall any obscenity –there might be some I’ve forgotten) including religious profanity, but it’s probably within the bounds of realism for the milieu. Although there’s no explicit sex, there are sexual situations, and Belinda tends to be a frequent target of sexual harassment and rape attempts. However, this isn’t condoned, and it’s dealt with forcefully. I don’t think the “moral tendency” of the novel would be to encourage that sort of thing in any sense.

Author: Tom Holzel
Publisher: Self published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Stoner

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“On Her Mao-jesty’s Secret Service”

This production had a long, convoluted and quite interesting path to the screen. While Lazenby was always on board, the original plan was for him to be a Western bad guy, going up against Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba. But Lee’s death – oddly, he was supposed to have had dinner with Lazenby that night – resulted in Chiba quitting, and Warner Bros then also backed out of their worldwide distribution deal. It was reworked as a much smaller film, at less than one-tenth the original budget (although at around $850,000, was still very expensive for the time, location and genre), with Lazenby now teaming up with Angela Mao.

He plays rough, tough Australian cop, Joseph Stoner, who heads for Hong Kong after his sister gets hooked on the new, super-powerful aphrodisiac “happy pills” created in the laboratory of evil drug kingpin, Mr Big (Hwang). She’s Taiwanese cop Angela Li, sent undercover to bring him down. Eventually, they join forces, but this isn’t until well over an hour into the film. To that point, they are each investigating in their own way Mr Big’s activities. Stoner’s approach appears to involve doing an impression of a bull in a china shop, while Li uses a smarter approach, to infiltrate the temple which is the distribution hub, posing as an innocent vendor of soft drinks. Both eventually end up in the same place – a cage in Mr Big’s lair – leading to a creepy scene where she has to fend off a happy pill-crazed Stoner.

It’s interesting that, in both the dubbed and subbed versions, Mao gets top billing ahead of Lazenby, despite the latter’s fame for having played 007 a few years previously. It is very much a two-hander, with each getting their own share of screen time. Lazenby does a surprisingly impressive job with the more physical aspects, and apparently put in a great deal of training. The problem is – as with his portrayal of James Bond – the actor’s inability to convey any emotions with the slightest degree of conviction. Even when talking about his sister, he might as well be reciting sports scores. Still, there’s plenty of funky seventies style to appreciate, such as the rotating desk apparently bought by Mr. Big from a yard sale at a local TV news-room.

Mao is, for our purposes, the true star, and I’d be hard pushed to say this would have been improved by the presence of Sonny Chiba. You have to wait quite a while for any significant action from her though, coming when she sneaks into Mr. Big’s headquarters. This unfolds in a way which suggests Bruce Lee’s foray from Enter the Dragon, and you wonder if this was part of the original script, intended for him before his untimely demise. On the whole though, I’d rather have dispensed entirely with Lazenby, and given the entire film to Mao, for this demonstrates that brains is often more interesting to watch than brawn.

Dir: Huang Feng
Star: Angela Mao, George Lazenby, Betty Ting, Hwang In-shik
a.k.a. The Shrine of Ultimate Bliss