Book Review: I Am the New God

I Am the New GodI Am the New God by Nicole Cushing
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Gregory Bryce is a typical college student in the 1980s, dealing with school, his roommate, and his impending apotheosis. Wait, what? That’s right. Gregory has been receiving correspondence from someone known as the Hierophant claiming knowledge that Gregory’s destiny is to become the new God, rising up to usurp the old and weakened Christian God and take control of creation. You know: Typical college hijinks.

In Nicole Cushing’s I Am the New God this is exactly what we get. Slowly, things are revealed about Gregory’s background, such as his stint in a mental institution, that he’s been on medication, and that he’s recently stopped taking that medication. Gregory at first does not believe the Hierophant, but slowly begins to warm up to the idea as he begin to complete the seven tasks the Hierophant has laid out for him to complete his rise to become the new God. But the question becomes whether this is real or if this is all part of Gregory’s (and the Hierophant’s) madness.

That’s what was so fascinating about it. The reader is genuinely left in the dark through most of the book about whether this is real or if we are simply reading the mind of a certifiable madman. From the violent mutilation of his roommate to his creation of a new life form named Hop Frog (clearly a tribute to W.H. Pugmire), we don’t know what’s real and what’s not, especially given that it’s written mostly from a shifting first person perspective. It becomes both fascinating and disturbing to see into the mind of the potentially insane.

The book is still a horror novel and there are many incidents of violence and gore, so reader be warned. Admittedly, the gory violence is not as much as it could have been, and Cushing seems to have exercised some restraint in order to put a greater focus on the story. In fact, I can’t say that any of it is gratuitous. All the violence, while creepy and horrifying, actually serves a point and furthers the plot. Like a slaughtered buffalo, nothing is wasted. The text has a good flow and the story ramps up to the ending at a pretty smooth pace.

If I have a criticism, it would be the changing perspective. While it can be interesting switching first person narratives between Gregory and the Hierophant, as well as the third person perspective of police investigators, at the same time the effect is also jarring and can pull the reader out of the book with the sudden shift. I respect Cushing for this bold choice, but I don’t think that it quite had the effect she was looking for.

A sublime piece of horror fiction, I Am the New God is definitely worth a read. With only minor quibbles, I can heartily recommend this book, especially for horror fans for a unique take that leaves the reader guessing until the end, even if they think they’ve figured it out.

I Am the New God by Nicole Cushing earns 4.5 completed tasks out of 5 (because, really, who’s got the time for 7 tasks).

Note: This review is based on a review copy sent for free from the publisher through NetGalley. This did not affect the content of the review in any way.

Book Review: Phoenix Island

Phoenix IslandPhoenix Island by John Dixon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Carl Freeman has gotten in trouble one too many times. So when a judge orders him to a remote island boot camp for troubled orphaned youth (pretty specific criteria for entry there), at first it seems like a harsh punishment and environment to send a sixteen year old kid into. That is before Carl and his friends discovers that not all is as it appears to be on Phoenix Island and things go from harsh to hellish.

Thus begins (and I do mean begins) the story of Phoenix Island by John Dixon, a respectable if flawed first novel that also served as the basis for the short-lived CBS series “Intelligence.” Things ramp up pretty quickly and the reader doesn’t have to wait long for the ugly side of Phoenix Island to come to light. And that’s part of the problem. More on this in a moment.

Carl is likeable and maddening at the same time. He is a young boxer who has a short temper, but what really sets him off are bullies picking on the weak. Carl has a noble streak in him, and most of the times that he’s gotten into trouble have involved him stepping in to defend someone who couldn’t defend themselves. It’s a likeable if simple trait in an age where anti-heroes seem to be the order of the day. But he also tends to revert back to boxing metaphors for nearly everything, which becomes annoying. I understand that this is Dixon’s background, but he need to realize that not everyone is as into boxing as he is and the boxing metaphors become distracting.

The problem with his character come in with his naiveté. Carl, quite frankly, is not that smart. And this is where the above mentioned problem begins to rear its head. It quickly becomes obvious that something is very, very wrong on Phoenix Island. And yet Carl and his friends play along for a lot longer than someone with the aforementioned noble streak should. And as they piece it together, I felt myself wanting to scream at the page what is so blatantly obvious that they just don’t seem to grasp. This might be a way of trying to show that they’re inexperienced kids, but I found it frustrating and it starts to bring back the previously suspended disbelief very quickly.

Aside from the rather frustrating character flaws that seem to be extremely plot-convenient, the plot runs very quickly. As I mentioned earlier, things ramp up fast, so there’s not much of a preamble before the meat of the book starts. It becomes a roller coaster of action and espionage. As a side note, the reader would be well-advised not to get too attached to any of the characters as Dixon seems be taking a cue from George R. R. Martin, and Dixon does not shy away from the darker, more violent aspects of Phoenix Island.

With characters that are likeable but frustrating, a fast but oddly convenient plot, and a dark if somewhat unbelievable tone, Phoenix Island is an easy read and at the very least a respectable first book despite its numerous flaws. I understand that this will be the first part of a series, which based on the ending of this one can only illicit the response of “Well, duh!” I will be reading the second book and watching to see if Dixon learns from the mistakes he made with Phoenix Island. There is definitely a budding talent here, but he could use a little more refining.

Phoenix Island by John Dixon earns 3 brain chips out of 5.

Note: An electronic copy of this book was provided to this reviewer by the publisher for free through NetGalley. This has in no way affected the content of this review.

Do Us A Flavor 2015: The Unretching

ThumbnailLast year, I decided to write a review covering the Lays “Do Us a Flavor” contest, mostly out of boredom and because I hadn’t written anything for a while. I thought it would be something fun to do, although it turned out to involve a great deal of suffering through some truly awful and misguided attempts at new potato chip flavorings (I’m looking at you, Mango Salsa; I still can’t forget the taste of it).

I have decided to do this once more. Lays has released a slew of new potato chip flavors again and asked us to pick one. I have tried them all. Here is my take on the 2015 entries:

DoUsAFlavor2015

The first one I tried was the “Southern Biscuits & Gravy.” On opening the bag, the first thing one always gets is the smell. With these, the bouquet is very subtle and almost unnoticeable. As for it’s taste, the first impression I got was that it reminded me of the classic “Sour Cream & Onion.” But it doesn’t finish that way. The finishing taste is a hint of gravy. This one isn’t bad, but it’s not great either. The flavor is very subtle and not in-your-face like some of the other flavors. I could ultimately take or leave this one.

Second came the “New York Reuben” chips. Opening the bag reveals the distinct scent of pickles and is quite strong. As for the flavor, it is equally as strong but somewhat confused. It has that briny pickle taste but with a smokiness added to simulate savoriness. It actually does a decent job of trying mimic the taste of corned beef, although not perfectly. And that’s the problem. The taste of the potato chip itself seems to throw things off just enough that it come off more like someone tried to smoke a pickle. It’s as if the chip can’t decide whether to be pickle-flavored (and some of those are actually good) or barbeque-flavored. Still, I have to admit that it’s a decent attempt.

Third on the list were the “West Coast Truffle Fries,” which come in the wavy variety. The scent is very subtle, and isn’t much beyond a regular potato chip, and the taste is likewise very difficult to discern. It starts with a subtle herbiness, but finishes much heavier than it starts with. It’s as though the wavy chip flattened out and tried to coat my tongue. The taste is lasting, and doesn’t leave very quickly, even after I rinsed my mouth out. Ultimately, this one tastes the most like a regular potato chip, but it has a weird texture and aftertaste.

Finally, I came to the “Greektown Gyro,” which is of the kettle-cooked variety. The first impression is, as usual, the scent of the bag, and it does not leave a good impression, smelling like an old gym bag that hasn’t been cleaned out in years. As for the taste, the first thing that pops up is the gyro dressing, which isn’t a bad approximation. Next comes a slight taste of flour (for the pita bread) and a smokiness which is clearly supposed to simulate the lamb, although doesn’t manage to pull it off. Where the biggest problem comes in is with the kettle-cooking. It throws everything off and not only doesn’t make for an appropriate texture but also overpowers a lot of the other flavors in the chip. The flavor also doesn’t last, and after about three chips, I stopped tasting the flavoring at all.

Ultimately, while each one has its good and bad parts, the selections this year are far better than the chips last year, or at the very least none of them made me want to retch (seriously, who let that Mango Salsa chip pass testing and get out onto the street?). If I have to pick a particular favorite, it would be the “New York Reuben.” While not perfect, I can definitely tell what they’re going for. Plus, I have a soft spot for New York deli food and pickled foods in general, so I’m not exactly unbiased. With much better selections this year, maybe next year Lays will have flavors that are actually good.

And the 2015 Oscars Should Go To…

WritingAnother year has come and gone. I’m doing a repeat of my previous years’ projects in which I endeavor to watch every single Oscar-nominated movie in every category. Last year, I was able to write full reviews for each movie. This year, due to extenuating circumstances, I lacked the time to write full-length reviews (I had the flu, plus my mother has been in the hospital). However, I have still watched as many movies as possible and will cover the possible winners in brief here. As with previous years, there were some movies that I simply could not see. This year, I missed three films: “The Salt of the Earth” (nominated for Best Documentary), “Wild Tales” (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film), and “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” (nominated for Best Original Song). And, as usual, for those categories, I’m simply going to ignore those films, which may or may not skew the results. We’ll see.

I will be live tweeting the Academy Awards, so follow me now.

Best Picture
My pick: “Boyhood”
What will probably win: “Boyhood”
Why: Word of mouth began to spread around the release of “Boyhood” because of the magnitude of the project, filming with the same actors over 12 years. But this movie was released during summer, not the typical prestige season of autumn and winter when studios are trying to get people to talk about their movies. And people were still talking about it. “Boyhood” is a film with staying power. If a film tried to ride solely on the gimmick of being filmed over such a long time, it wouldn’t have that. However, this film told a touching story of a family and shows how they evolve as individuals and in their relationships to one another over the years. Often, if you don’t relate to all of the characters all the time, at least at some point you can relate to at least one of the characters and say “Yeah, that’s kind of how I feel/felt.” “Boyhood” was a great film and the producers deserve this award for what they’ve achieved.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
My pick: Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”)
Who will probably win: Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”)
Why: While there’s a potential for upset, the big buzz is around Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking, which is something to behold. If you watch older and newer videos of Professor Hawking, Eddie Redmayne has every subtle movement and gesture down pat, and manages to convey emotions through the tiniest movement, even just his eyes. This takes tremendous skill. While there did seem to be some buzz about Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in “The Imitation Game,” much deserved though it was, it has been more recently overshadowed by talk of other performances and by Cumberbatch’s interview blunder, which came at quite possibly the worst possible time during awards season.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
My pick: Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”)
Who will probably win: Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”)
Why: This was a hard category for me to decide on this year, primarily because while I found the nominated performances quite good, something about each one didn’t quite click completely right. But if you want a front runner, it would be Julianne Moore. Now, in this case, I’m a little biased against this performance. Having watched my grandfather suffer through Alzheimer’s, I didn’t completely believe Moore’s performance because it didn’t match entirely with my personal experience. Still, the role she plays is touching and memorable, no pun intended. Of the five nominated performances, this one would be my pick.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
My pick: J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash”)
Who will probably win: J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash”)
Why: The old saying goes that audiences will hate a good villain, but love a great one. And Simmons portrays a great villain in “Whiplash.” As a tyrannical music teacher, you hate him and his abuse of his students, and yet part of you knows that he’s pushing them to be their best in the way he knows how. Among the performances in this category, Simmons by far stands out. Hopefully, he won’t throw a chair at anyone’s head if there’s an upset.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
My pick: Patricia Arquette (“Boyhood”)
Who will probably win: Patricia Arquette (“Boyhood”)
Why: Arquette’s performance in “Boyhood” is really the only one in this category that people won’t shut up about, but with good reason. Not only did she stick with the role for 12 years, but she really put in a great performance throughout the entire process and shows an evolving, relatable character. This one I’m most comfortable saying is a lock.

Best Achievement in Directing
My pick: Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Birdman”)
Who will probably win: Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”)
Why: Finally, we get a divergence where I will probably disagree with the Academy’s choice. This one I’m not entirely sure about, and it could go either way. Iñárritu should win. “Birdman” is a marvel to watch, driven heavily by excellent directing and some clever editing. But Linklater may have the edge just because of the sheer scope of filming “Boyhood.” While Linklater certainly does an admirable job in the director’s chair, “Boyhood” felt like it was more heavily producer driven. Admittedly, Linklater fills both roles, but this is the Director award, so I’m sticking with my personal pick of Iñárritu.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
My pick: “Birdman”
Who will probably win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Why: This one is almost a three-way tie for me between “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Boyhood,” and “Birdman.” I would ultimately pick “Birdman” because the screenplay feels more unique and leaves a lot to the imagination. I will not be at all disappointed if “The Grand Budapest Hotel” wins, and I’ll admit that I have a weakness for Wes Anderson’s films, but “Birdman’s” screenplay feels more edgy and demands your attention.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published
My pick: “Inherent Vice”
Who will probably win: “The Imitation Game”
Why: “Inherent Vice” likely doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hell of winning, but I like Paul Thomas Anderson’s work and he did a commendable job attempting to adapt a book that doesn’t lend itself all that well to the big screen. Just the fact that he had the guts to try to adapt Pynchon deserves some points, even if it felt clunky at times. But “The Imitation Game” is a much more accessible film with a sturdier screenplay, giving it the popular edge.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
My pick: “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”
Who will probably win: “How to Train Your Dragon 2”
Why: I’ll admit that I have a weakness for Studio Ghibli films, but “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” while having a beautiful story, is also visually fascinating to watch. The art style is enchanting, but the story may not be the most accessible to some audiences. Don’t get me wrong. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” was an excellent film and was possibly better than the first one, but for a truly magical film, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is the correct answer.

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
My pick: “Tangerines (Mandariinid)”
Who will probably win: “Ida”
Why: This is where it gets tricky because I was unable to see one of the nominees (“Wild Tales”). In addition, the nominees in this category make me wonder if Hollywood needs Prozac or something, because these films are so depressing. Then again, the four I saw are from Russia, Georgia/Estonia, Poland, and western Africa, so not the happiest of places. My particular favorite was the Georgian/Estonian film, “Tangerines.” It tells a defined and concise story set during the War in Abkhazia. With well-defined characters and the story of a war told on a small scale, it’s a well-made film. The winner, however, will probably be “Ida.” You know that when a foreign language film receives nominations in categories other than the Best Foreign Language film category, the Academy will take notice. Unfortunately, I did not particularly like “Ida.” Not only is it bleak, but the character changes seem too convenient and happen solely to move the plot along. Not a fan of this one.

Best Achievement in Cinematography
My pick: “Birdman”
Who will probably win: “Birdman”
Why: Likely a lock for Cinematography, “Birdman” is well deserving of this award. The camerawork is amazing. With the lengthy shots, movements, and very precise framing, it is a technical wonder and the camera takes the audience from their seat to being a participant walking around the set and observing everything going on.

Best Achievement in Editing
My pick: “Boyhood”
Who will probably win: “Boyhood”
Why: Taking 12 years of footage and editing them together as the actors evolve into a cohesive story is no easy task, but this was accomplished with great success in “Boyhood.” In fact, due to the nature of the film’s production, editing would have become so crucial that a poor job could have completely destroyed the film. But make no mistake, it was done and done well.

Best Achievement in Production Design
My pick: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Who will probably win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Why: While the sets of several of the nominees are interesting to watch, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” creates a delicate mix of grandeur, humility, and style. In creating a fictional hotel (among other settings), artistic stylizing and imagination are combine with technical prowess to create a borderline fantastical but ultimately believable setting.

Best Achievement in Costume Design
My pick: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Who will probably win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Why: Similar to production design, the costumes are loosely based on actually uniforms and clothing but then artistically changed to create a fictional but believable setting. Most of what I said above for Production Design applies here.

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling
My pick: “Foxcatcher”
Who will probably win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Why: This one is difficult. My vote is for “Foxcatcher” because of the way they disguised the actors and made them look like the actual people their parts were based on to make a film based on a true story. Admittedly, this wasn’t entirely makeup, and I have to give props to the actors, especially Steve Carell who is unrecognizable not just because of the makeup but the way he loses himself in the character. However, the award will likely go to a film slightly more accessible to a larger audience, that being “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
My pick: “The Theory of Everything”
Who will probably win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Why: The musical score for “The Theory of Everything” adds greatly to the emotional states of achievement and loss, and creates an atmosphere befitting the grandeur of Stephen Hawking’s endeavors. However, again, I feel the award will likely go to “The Grand Budapest Hotel” simply on the grounds of accessibility.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song
My pick: Everything is Awesome from “The Lego Movie”
Who will probably win: Glory from “Selma”
Why: Just for comedy and its satirical value, Everything is Awesome is…well, awesome! However, Glory from “Selma” is the likely winner, and I expect it to be influenced heavily by those angry that the film received only two Oscar nominations and wanting to ensure that it wins at least this one.

Best Achievement in Sound Editing
My pick: “Interstellar”
Who will probably win: “American Sniper”
Why: Sound editing was crucial to “Interstellar” in creating these alien worlds and environments, which requires artistic talent and not simple sound mimicry. However, this award more often than not seems to go to war movies, hence “American Sniper’s” likely win.

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
My pick: “Whiplash”
Who will probably win: “American Sniper”
Why: If “Whiplash” doesn’t get this award, it will be an absolute travesty. The film is so dependent on its precise sound mixing and would have fallen flat on its face otherwise. And yet, there are times during the film that you just want to close your eyes and listen to it rather than watch it, because the sound mixing is that good. However, again, war movies seem to have an advantage in the sound categories, and I’m not entirely confident that the Academy knows what it’s doing with these technical awards.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects
My pick: “Interstellar”
Who will probably win: “Interstellar”
Why: First, “Interstellar” had a lot of buzz behind it. Secondly, the visual effects are used to convincingly create alien environments that could theoretically exist. It’s fantastical and yet the visual effects artists use restraint to make sure it’s believable, something that was crucial to this film’s success.

Best Documentary, Feature
My pick: “Citizenfour”
Who will probably win: “Finding Vivian Maier”
Why: If ever there was a film everyone needs to see, it would be “Citizenfour.” Filmed mostly in a Hong Kong hotel room, Laura Poitras and Glen Greenwald interviewed Edward Snowden before and during the process of the NSA’s spying activity coming to light. It is an issue that seems to have been buried under other stories since it first broke and is an important reminder of what is happening in the United States and around the world. However, over the last couple of years, Hollywood has gravitated to more of the feel-good documentary, of which “Finding Vivian Maier” would be the most qualified to fit the bill.

And that’s it. We’ve made it through another year. Congratulations if you’re still reading this!

Bet You Can’t Eat More than One

WritingI had originally planned on making a vlog about this, but I need to figure out a better way to do that because my camera software was giving me really cruddy quality, so much so that it would have been embarrassing to post something that bad. So instead I’m writing up my opinions. It’s not as fun, especially since you don’t get to hear me loudly swear after having one of those chips (guess which one), but we do what we must. Hopefully, I can later get the webcam working properly and do some more vlogging. Not abandon this blog at all, but rather supplement it.

Anyway, a little background: Last year, Lay’s potato chips ran a contest for new flavors with three choices. The winner was “Cheesy Garlic Bread,” which was okay but tasted too much like a lot of other chips on the market. Then again, that was probably why it won. It had the most universal appeal. The other choices were “Sriracha,” which was spicy but good (although I love Sriracha anyway) and…”Chicken & Waffles.” The Chicken & Waffles chips were vile on the first taste, but it was also probably because it was hard to anticipate what they would taste like. It was hard to tell. They were mostly sweet and salty, but in a weird way (definitely more sweet than salty, like they had been soaked in syrup). However, they quick fell prey to the Lay’s curse (“Bet you can’t eat just one”), and while they didn’t really get better, they became very addictive. One of the ingredients must have been crack.

This year, Lay’s is at it again, this time holding the contest with four contenders: “Bacon Mac & Cheese,” “Mango Salsa,” “Wasabi Ginger,” and “Cappuccino.” I got my hands on all of them, as seen below, and tried them in the above order, going from what seemed the most normal to the most bizarre.

Lays Chips

Now for a quick confession. I actually tried the Bacon Mac & Cheese chips a week ago at a friend’s house, so I already knew what they tasted like. And they taste fairly normal. They use the potato chip as the starch base (the Mac part of it) with the cheese flavor. What makes it different is that it has a bit of a smokey taste and just a hint of savory. Overall, it meets expectations and seems fairly normal. Basically this year’s Cheesy Garlic Bread.

Next came the Mango Salsa. Now, I’m not sure what I expected this to taste like. First, it only comes in the Wavy variety of Lay’s chips, so it’s a little thicker. After putting it in my mouth, I audibly cursed, to give this a G-rated phrasing. These chips are sweet. Way too sweet with a weird flavor that seems like they were trying to mimic the taste of mango salsa but failed miserably, overly sweet rotten tomatoes. It was like eating diabetic vomit. These chips need to be avoided at all costs.

Third on the list was Wasabi Ginger. This one only comes in the Kettle Cooked variety. I was confused about what to expect. This was basically a sushi restaurant chip, except that there’s one problem: To my understanding, you never eat the wasabi and the ginger together, or at least I never have. The wasabi flavors the food while the ginger cleanses your palate for the next bite. So seeing them together was odd. And it tastes just as weird. Not necessarily bad, but definitely weird. First, there is a definite wasabi taste, although it doesn’t have the spiciness that I would typcially associate with wasabi (which I should have been able to tell because, on opening the bag, I was not hit in the face by a pungent aroma as I expected; in fact, the bouquet was very subdued), although I should note that my wife disagrees with me about the spiciness. Where it getting very confusing is the ginger. Ginger tends to have a bit of a kick to it, but in this case it’s just sweet. So altogether, this chip is like a sweetened wasabi that’s been sitting out too long and has lost its potency. Ultimately, it did not meet my expectation, and I was rather disappointed. A weird and unique flavor, to be sure, but a bit of a letdown.

Finally came Cappuccino, one that I had no expectations for because, well, how does one get a potato chip to taste like cappuccino? To their credit, they actually did. It tastes like a sweet cappuccino with the taste very reminiscent of the foam on top. Unfortunately, it has two problems. The first is that it’s too sweet for my tastes. The second is that the cappuccino taste is immediately followed by the potato chip taste which doesn’t mix well. It’s a flavor that’s too confused about its own identity to be good. Admittedly, it’s not as bad as I was expecting, but it still has major problems.

So, to sum up, from best to worst I rank them as Bacon Mac & Cheese, Wasabi Ginger, Cappuccino, and Mango Salsa. And the Bacon Mac & Cheese still seems to hover around average as far as potato chip flavors are concerned. Excessive sweetness seems to be a common theme with the other flavors.

Kind of a disappointing year for chip flavors, come to think of it.

Update: My niece and nephew tried them and had similar reactions. In fact, my niece had to run to the trash can and spit out the Mango Salsa chip. Yeah, they’re pretty bad.