Friday, July 29, 2005

The Looniness of the Long Distance Runner

Friday, July 29, 2005 0
After agreeing to sponsor a friend of his for the NYC Marathon, Russell Taylor decides that he would like to run that marathon the following year. Taylor is nearly 40 years old and is not a runner. "The Looniness of the Long Distance Runner" is Taylor's account of training for the NYC Marathon. The subtitle for this book covers exactly how crazy he is: "an unfit Londoner's attempt to run the New York City Marathon from scratch".

Russell Taylor is, apparently a humor writer, and so this book is filled with humorous observations on running, training, races, and why exactly he is doing this. Some of it is actually quite funny and I honestly found myself chuckling out loud a couple of times. Unfortunately, when I wasn't chuckling I was reading and hoping that something interesting would be on the next page. Often enough there wasn't. As a runner I am drawn to books about running and about marathons so I figured this book would be a natural fit, but it was a struggle to get through this one. Taylor includes a section of his training diary and that section was the single least interesting part of the book. It just dragged on and on and on. Sort of like this review.

Then Taylor gets to the races. As a part of his training Taylor ran several races and his racecourse descriptions and his feelings during the race (he made some interesting decisions as to which ones to run) were fascinating and funny. Once again I started enjoying parts of the book. The marathon itself seemed a little skimpy in the description.

I just can't recommend "The Looniness of the Long Distance Runner" to anyone. There are far better books about one man's journey to race (try "To the Edge" by Kirk Johnson for a more interesting book about an ultramarathon), and unfortunately when the humor stops there isn't much here to hold my interest. Pass on this one.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Spoiling Harry Potter for Tom Hanks

Thursday, July 28, 2005 0
I love it! I first saw this on July 20th, the day after I finished the new Harry Potter (thank goodness!) and it made me laugh out loud. That may not be a good thing considering I'm in a cubicle in an office, but I think this is great.

Be warned, however, that this short video will completely spoil the main surprise of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

You have been warned.

Now go watch it if you haven't seen it and you already know.

Here it is!

Netflix Lists

I've just started using this feature on Netflix where I can create lists of movies. I guess it can be used for anything, but I'm using it for stuff that I want to see someday but don't want to put in my queue. With a queue that can hold 500 movies why would I possibly want to not put something in it? Excellent question, I'm glad you asked. I had my queue maxed out once, that's how I know it can hold 500 moviess. When I maxed out the queue I realized two things: first, I'll never be able to make it through this list of movies and I won't feel like I'm making it through the list. Second, I can't add to the queue if it is full. So I purged and purged and purged and I'm down to a reasonable level.

So, now I still have 174 movies in the queue, but it feels like I'll be making progress moving through the DVDs this time around.

And plus the lists are a way to sort things. I have a list for documentaries (if I get the itch to see some Ken Burns flicks I'll just move them over to the queue) and for TV on DVD (a reminder to watch Farscape someday) and stuff like that.

I think it's going to be quite useful for me. It reminds me that yes, I did want to see this movie but it doesn't stick in my queue for two years.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Manifesto

Wednesday, July 27, 2005 0
Stephen King had an interesting column in Entertainment Weekly this week. Every few weeks he covers pop culture stuff and often I breeze through the article and by the time I'm done I've already forgotten it. This one stuck a little bit. He writes about what he likes in pop culture today and a lot of it resonated. He likes the classic country feel of Alan Jackson, but also the new "hick hop" of Cowboy Troy (country mixed with rap). With a parting shot at self important critics, he then closes the article with reference to Confederate Railroad's "Trashy Women" and that sold the entire article for me. It's been so long since I've heard that song and while not something I want to listen to every day, it's a nice tacky fun way to end.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Over There

Tuesday, July 26, 2005 0
Anyone planning on watching Over There on FX this week? Over There is, supposedly, a gritty and realistic look at the current war in Iraq but it is not intended to be political and rather will focus on the soldiers themselves. This is fiction based on reality. I don't know anything about the storylines or what the story arc is going to be, but I do like military movies and books, so I'm intrigued.

Plus FX is doing it and they have been doing some highy regarded work in The Shield, Rescue Me, and Nip/Tuck. Not that I've watch a single episode of any of it. The Shield interests me, in part because it stars the Commish and this season has Glenn Close in a guest role. A Netflix, I suppose.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Harry Potter and the Discussion of Plot Details

Thursday, July 21, 2005 1
If you have not read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and do not want to know what happens in the book I would strongly advise you to wait until I post a new blog entry about something else because I'm going to be writing about major spoilers from the book and what I think about them.

You have been warned...all four of you.......


I'll start with the title. I spent most of the book thinking that I cleverly figured out that the HBP was Lily Potter, Harry's dead mum. It probably would have been too obvious if it was Lily. Slughorn, the new potions professor (Snape finally got his dream job of Defense Against the Dark Arts), said that Lily was one of his favorite students and was a natural at Potions and used unorthodox methods to work the potions. Harry seems to have an affinity for the HBP. Lily was at least muggle born, I don't remember if she was Half Blood.

But it was Snape, which makes more sense because Slughorn didn't talk about Snape all the time the way he did with Lily. And Snape was always the potions master and brilliant at it and Lupin had gone to Snape to help keep the werewolf in him under control. I don't know if this will have a larger impact in the series or it was just something to do for the book.

Speaking of Snape...

Here's what throws me about the big ending of the book: Snape murderers Dumbledore with the killing curse, the one that the only one who ever lived after being hit with it was Harry himself. But early in the book, like chapter two or three Snape is revealed to have been a Death Eater all along and that he fooled Dumbledore. He tells this to Draco Malfoy's mother (his father, Lucius, is now in Azkaban prison) and Beatrix Lestrange, the killer of Sirius Black (and torturer of Neville Longbottom's parents). To seal the deal, Snape agrees to take an Unbreakable Vow to help Draco Malfoy do whatever it is he is commanded to do by Voldemort. An Unbreakable Vow is one which the person bound by it must either fulfill or die. Breaking the vow will kill the bound wizard.

Why give this scene away for free? What I mean is that Jo Rowling has spent five books telling us that Snape is a good guy. He may dislike Harry and Harry's father and Sirius and pretty much everyone else, but he is a redeemed former Death Eater working for Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix. Why give away a scene like that telling the reader he is evil if Rowling will give us hints for five books that Snape, while sneaky and nasty, is a good guy and a protector?

Because he still is.

What if Snape then tells Dumbledore about what he vowed to do and Dumbledore agrees that he must go through with it no matter what the cost? What if that is what Hagrid saw Snape and Dumbledore arguing about? What if Dumbledore was not pleading for his own life, but rather for Snape to do it?

It's never shown on screen, but I think this is how it happens. Snape takes the vow to convince Lestrange and Malfoy that he still serves Voldemort. He is still under orders from Dumbledore to do this. Snape tells Dumbledore about the vow and about everything he learns from Malfoy. When the time comes Malfoy can't murder Dumbledore and if he doesn't Voldemort will kill him. If he doesn't, and Snape doesn't help, Snape will die from the Vow. Dumbledore pleads, just as he pleaded with Malfoy for Draco to leave Voldemort behind and let the Order hide him and Narcissa. But Dumbledore pleads for Snape to kill him as this will save Draco, keep Snape in place, and give Harry the last bit that he needs to finally be able to confront Voldemort and win. And live. So Snape kills Dumbledore. His reaction? Rage. Disgust. At whom? Not at Dumbledore, but at himself, at Malfoy, at everyone. Dumbledore was the only person to really trust Snape for years and Snape just had to kill him.

Now Snape really is outcast. Nobody will ever trust him again. He isn't a Death Eater but has to pretend to be. When he ran he could have attacked and stopped Harry but instead only blocked Harry's curses. Snape didn't strike out except to stun on his way out of Hogwarts.

My interpretation: Snape is conflicted and internally brutalized because of what he just did and he never turned his back on the Order and is still fighting Voldemort as he can and what was done was done with knowledge of Dumbledore and, dare I say, the blessing.

The other thing that makes me think this is that had Jo Rowling never revealed early on that Snape was still a Death Eater the murder of Dumbledore would have been even more shocking and would have been a true betrayal. But now we're expecting it and Rowling never gives something this big that early in a book unless there is a reason for it.

Side: I also think that Draco will be redeemed, that he'll turn away from Voldemort. He won't be a major player, but he'll betray Voldemort.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Ice Princess

Monday, July 18, 2005 0
Casey Carlyle (Michelle Trachtenberg) is a science geek. There is no simpler way to say it. She is an excellent student who gets straight A's and her physics teacher believes that she has the chance to gain a major physics scholarship. To make the most of this chance she needs to spend the summer before her senior year of high school working on a project which demonstrates a practical application of physics and her teacher suggests that she "makes it personal". Casey may be a science geek, but the earliest scenes of the movie show Casey gracefully skating on a pond near her home. Inspiration for her physics project hits while watching a skating competition on television with a friend. Casey realizes there has to be a mathematical formula for the jumps and spins performed by a skater and this can be used to help improve the form of a skater.

Casey goes to the Harwood Skate Center run by Tina Harwood (Kim Cattrall) a former world class skater. After a brief bump in the road, Casey is allowed to film Tina's skaters and work on her science project. After Casey thinks she has her work figured out she goes to the rink with a friend to film her practical application. She attempts to land a jump and amazingly enough, she does, and with perfect form. Casey begins taking lessons from Tina and starts focusing more on skating than on her studies. It becomes something of an obsession, much to the dismay of her mother Joan (Joan Cusack), who is much more into intellectual pursuits and is something of a feminist. Casey, however, is starting to pursue her dream of seeing how far she can go in figure skating.

Much of this movie is fairly standard stuff. Whatever obstacles are placed in Casey's way will be overcome with some pluck and perseverance. There is a boy to impress. Casey is something of the "ugly duckling" of her school because of her brains and how she starts babbling about science when gets nervous. There are moments, particularly in the skating scenes, that we fully expect to see and we are not disappointed. Somehow, though, there is enough charm and realism and good performances that "Ice Princess" works. Michelle Trachtenberg does a very fine job as Casey and makes her a believable student as well as skater. I'm sure a double is used, but very often it looks like Trachtenberg herself skating. The movie also avoids several cliches by having a popular student (Hayden Pannettiere) who snubs Casey early on also be Tina's daughter and a skater. But Gen befriends Casey when they finally have something in common and it turns out that Gen is a decent person and not the standard snob that I expected when the character was first introduced.

The DVD contains a series of deleted scenes which are pleasant enough, but do not add to our understanding of the characters or make the movie work better. There are two music videos, and a commentary track featuring some of the kids who were in the movie. As far as special features go, this is pretty standard and is probably worth watching just once.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by "Ice Princess". I thought it was going to be horrible to watch and I was very wrong. I am as far from the target audience as you can get (a 26 year old male), but enjoyed the movie. It's not great or deeply original, but it is very pleasant. It is a true family film and I suspect that the teenage and pre-teen girls will love it. Rated G, parents have nothing to worry about if they let their children watch "Ice Princess" unsupervised.

Grade: B

characteriskilledbyblank.com

I have the book. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is in my grubby little hands. I was able to pick it up around 6 pm on saturday. I had no interest in going to one of those midnight Harry Potter parties where folks are dressed like Dementors and stuff, and the book would still be at the stores in mass quantities when I was able to get it. I had hoped to pick the book up a little bit earlier in the day than I did, but such is life.

I also know who the big death is. Not because I've read that far, I'm only on page 244. Sandy, my wife, was looking at HP spoilers saturday morning and while she wasn't telling me what happened in the book (just kept teasing me that she would) the link to a spoiler website was left in the drop down cache of previously viewed websites. She didn't realize that, nor did it occur to me. So, when I went online later that afternoon when she was out at the store I clicked the drop down to get hotmail (too lazy to type it in myself) and I see the website address: characteriskilledbyblank.com. Replace "character" with the name of the character who gets killed and "blank" with the name of the killer and you have a website address that is one big spoiler.

But it's okay. I'm not sure it ruined any suspense for me because "character" was one that I had seriously considered as the one to die. I just thought it might be in book 7, but this actually makes a little bit more sense the more I think about it. The real surprise is "blank". I didn't see this one coming, and I don't want to say more about it because...well, it just wouldn't be fair.

But Rowling is doing interesting stuff with her characters and to be honest I question the choice of "blank". Not because it is "blank" but because of something else.

Arg! It's tough when you want to talk about it but don't want folks to have major storyline points revealed two days after the book is released!!!!

Friday, July 15, 2005

quoting the movie reviewers

Friday, July 15, 2005 0
Have you ever wondered how fresh and original the men and women who review movies are? They (we, if on an odd moment take myself more seriously than I possibly should) complain that movies aren't original and praise the ones that are. But what is it that the reviewers actually say?

Here is a sampling:
FRESH & ORIGINAL
“Excellent...refreshing...stellar...a real winner.” (The Last Place On Earth) - Houston Weekly
“Fresh and funny.” (Inside Deep Throat) – Peter Travers
“…fresh, dazzling and often hilarious!” (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) – Paul Fischer
“A fresh family film with high-octane fun.” (The Pacifier) – Guy Farris
“Fun, fresh, confidently original and engrossing.” (Batman Begins) – Lisa Schwarzbaum
“A smart, touching and original film.” (The Ballad of Jack and Rose) – David Ansen
“Clever, funny and original.” (Bewitched) - Francine Brokaw, LA Family Magazine
“Moving. Funny. Original.” (Me and You and Everyone We Know) – Thelma Adams
“A wonderful offbeat and original comedy.” (Me and You and Everyone We Know) - Carina Chocano
“It's original, complex, delicate, tender, poetic, daring! (Me and You and Everyone We Know) – Roger Ebert
“One of the most original, daring, intriguing and honest films of the year.” (The Talent Given Us) – Roger Ebert
“The most original film in years!” (Sin City) – Dean Richards
“Original. Classic.” (Constantine) – Shawn Edwards

“Totally original.” (Mail Order Wife) - Russell Scott Smith, NY Post
“Totally original and exhilarating, fresh, dazzling and often hilarious!” (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) – Paul Fischer
“Utterly original from top to bottom.” (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) - Sam Hallenbeck
“The most wondrously original, most outrageously entertaining cinematic spectacle of the year!” (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) – Todd David Schwartz



I think that I may be enjoying reading this too much. I found it here and it makes me think about what it is that I say when I write up my l'il reviews for the blog and Amazon. What phrases might be a bit overused? How can I word things better (I know, Ice Princess is going to be tough)?

I can't even take credit for discovering the article, because I found the link on the Rocchi Report.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Gardens of the Moon

Tuesday, July 12, 2005 0
"Gardens of the Moon" is the first book in a proposed ten volume series titled "The Malazan Book of the Fallen". To call this an epic fantasy would not do justice to the potential scope of this book and series. Steven Erikson has most often been compared to George R.R. Martin ("A Song of Ice and Fire") and for good reason. Erikson is writing a long running series set in a medieval styled realm with a good deal of political talk mixed heavily with battle. The tone of the book is very dark and gritty, despite characters displaying good humor. This first volume is a bit daunting to begin because Erikson dumps the reader into the intrigue of his world with very little warning or exposition. What we know from the start is that there is a woman seeking to overthrow the Emperor of the Malazan Empire, many underhanded dealings regarding the missions given the mage soldiers, a young boy named Ganoes Paran who wants to be a soldier, and a hardened veteran who is angering this woman who is already claiming to be Empress. But this is just the exposition given in a short prologue. The meat of the novel begins several years later.

Several years later Paran is a captain in the Malazan Army. He is assigned to lead the legendary Bridgeburners. The Bridgeburners are being sent on every nasty mission the Empress Laseen can come up with, mostly in the hopes of the Bridgeburners being destroyed by attrition. Her problem with the Bridgeburners is that they are a reminder of the deposed Emperor and of the old battlefield glories of Malazan. They are a beacon to any who may consider revolt against the Empress. But Laseen's reach and ambition is far beyond getting rid of the Bridgeburners. She has turned her eyes to the city of Darujhistan. Darujhistan is one of the largest cities in the world, but while Laseen has turned her eyes to that city Malazan also faces a threat from a non-human race called the Tiste Andii and their magic. There is also another sub-plot regarding a young girl who has her soul taken and been turned into a ruthless killer, and another storyline featuring several different characters in Darujhistan.

Confused yet? This is only the tip of the iceberg, but to go into greater detail may spoil some of the surprises found in "Gardens of the Moon". It is also a book that is very difficult to adequately describe in a relatively short space. The viewpoint that Erikson gives the reader is that of the common soldiers and mages and peasants. We seldom get to see things through the eyes of those who hold real power. Laseen is never given a viewpoint, nor are the nobles or many commanding officers of any real rank. But this is where the sense of discovery comes in. As far as I can tell, Steven Erikson has built up a very rich world but he only gives us bits and pieces of what is really going on. With each character and with each chapter we get a little bit more of the overall story and more often than not what we think is going on is only a small piece of the whole, and since this is Book One, what we learn by the end is still only a small piece of an even greater whole.

While some time is spent trying to figure out who these characters are and how they relate to each other and the world, this is fascinating fantasy novel and one of the best opening novels to a series in some time. It compares well to "A Game of Thrones" except that it is a bit more confusing from the start. I understand that this series starts to come together a bit more in the next two books, and that may be a high price to pay for some readers who want to fully understand what is going on early, but I feel that the time invested in reading this book (and ultimately the series) is going to be worth it. Because the US publishing of this series is behind that of the UK, we are only just getting Book 4 where the UK is already on 6 and waiting for 7 (maybe 8), which means that we can expect to see each subsequent volume in a reasonable amount of time (unlike George Martin).

The bottom line for this book is that it is well worth the time spent reading it and it marks the beginning of what may be one of the best fantasy series ever written. I have read elsewhere that each subsequent book is better than the one before it. If that is the case, and this book is already quite good, it bodes well for the future of this series. While a 10 Book series may seem daunting, know that Erikson is almost done and he has a specific plan on how to finish it and seems to be churning out high quality books at a fairly good clip. If you like the fantasy of George Martin then this is certainly one to check out.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Ice Princess....yay?

Monday, July 11, 2005 0
Friday afternoon I received an e-mail from somebody at Buena Vista Home Entertainment asking me if I would like a free DVD copy of Ice Princess. The only stipulation is that I have to watch it, and review it on Amazon.

I accepted.

Last november Buena Vista offered me King Arthur, which I happily accepted. That was pretty cool. Three weeks after that I had another offer, this time for The Village. I turned it down with the explanation that I had already reviewed it on Amazon and that I hoped that I would still have other opportunities to review movies for B.V. That was six months ago and this is the first time I've heard from them since. I think what I should have done is accepted the offer, deleted my old review on Amazon and posted a new review after watching the DVD. I probably missed out on some offers in the past six months.

And so, I'm accepting Ice Princess. If I turn it down, I may not get the chance for another free movie.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge

Sunday, July 10, 2005 0
Five years after the events of the first Elm Street movie, Fred Krueger (Robert Englund) is back. Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) and his family have moved into the house that was previously owned by Nancy’s family. The legend around school is that Nancy went crazy after seeing her boyfriend murdered across the street. These are, of course, the events of the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street“. Jesse has horrible nightmares where his classmates are being killed and he is being terrorized by a guy with a burned face, a striped shirt, and a metal claw for a hand. We know this villain as Freddy Krueger. It seems that after being vanquished by Nancy in the original, Fred has been waiting to haunt the dreams of another teenager on Elm Street. With Jesse it begins again.

It starts at nightmares, but slowly Freddy Krueger is influencing Jesse’s actions and when Jesse goes to sleep, Fred Krueger comes out to play. Jesse’s friend Lisa (Kim Meyers) is concerned and wants to help, but Jesse won’t fully explain what is going on inside him. But as Jesse’s behavior becomes more erratic, a teacher is killed, and he can’t trust himself to sleep, it is clear that something is wrong. Freddy Krueger may get his revenge.

Directed by Jack Sholder this sequel (the first of many) of “A Nightmare on Elm Street “ is a disappointment. The original movie could be considered just a “slasher flick”, but it was also a good movie. I was surprised by that. But this sequel is nothing more than a cheap slasher flick, though not with as much slashing as one might think. It is missing the psychological games that Fred Krueger played in the first movie and even messes with some of the “rules” that the first movie seemed to have set up. Fred Krueger could kill in dreams, but here he is possessing Jesse. But this isn’t really the problem. The problem is that the movie isn’t scary, suspenseful, creepy, or even just good. Robert Englund, when he gets the chance, is able to play Krueger as this creepy boogieman who can rightfully frighten anyone, but this movie doesn’t give Englund much to do and when the camera is off Krueger the movie is worse. My last problem with the movie is the ending. I won’t spoil it in case anyone wants to find out for themselves, but while it does make a little bit of sense, it is incredibly weak and anti-climactic.

Hopefully Part 3 will be better. Part 2 wasn’t the worst movie ever, but it was a disappointing sequel to a good movie.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Shark Tale

Saturday, July 09, 2005 3
I'll admit it. I only watched the first 20 minutes of the movie last night. It just wasn't any good. I think the problem that I'm running into is that in animated movies where the characters are animals, they should act as much like animals as possible. Like Finding Nemo. But with Shark Tale, this exact story could have been done live action with the actual actors and there would have been almost no difference, and this includes behavior. Oscar (Will Smith) dreamed about having a widescreen tv, a playstation, and every behavior was human but performed by a fish. It kind of takes you out of what happens. But I'm sure a 7 year old would love it.

My other problem is not limited to this movie, but when the entire plotline can be resolved by a character not doing something incredibly stupid which he knows is stupid, it just bugs me. Like Oscar was given a precious gift from his friend/girlfriend voiced by Renee Zellweger. It was worth 5000 clams (get it?) and Oscar went to give the money to his boss because Oscar owes the money. But his boss was at the racetrack and instead of giving the money to his boss, he gambles it. And his boss is now only a short distance away.

Hello?

That kind of thing just irritates me a little bit more these days.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

This Man's Army

Tuesday, July 05, 2005 0
Andrew Exum enlisted in the Army thinking that military service would be a good way to pay for his education at the University of Pennsylvania as well as serve his country in peacetime. He thought that he would likely serve in peacekeeping duties in Europe or perhaps Africa, but not actually see combat. There was value, in his mind, of Army service even in the peacetime. He had enlisted in the Army ROTC as a student and became an officer in 2000. September 11 changed the nature of what his service would be.

"This Man's Army" is Captain Exum's story of his time as a soldier. He details his reasons for enlisting, what sort of upbringing he had, and what his experience was in training and on the battlefield. Exum offers a fresh perspective of the life of an Army officer. While books like Anthony Swofford's "Jarhead" and Joel Turnipseed's "Baghdad Express" offer accounts of the modern day disillusioned soldier (both about Gulf War I), Captain Exum is a motivated leader of men who takes pride in his work, his platoon, and his Army. He does not blindly accept political rhetoric, and unlike many military men Exum is far from being a staunch Republican. He struggles to fit what he must do as a soldier with his beliefs as a Christian, but accepts that there are times that fighting for the greater good can supercede personal belief.

Readers looking for a book filled with combat and blazing guns should look someplace else (perhaps Evan Wright's excellent "Generation Kill"). "This Man's Army" is the experience of Captain Andrew Exum, and while the nature of his service did include quite a bit of risk, stress, being shot at, and completing valuable missions in Afghanistan; there are not many gun battles or what would traditionally be thought of as "battlefield combat". Yet, "This Man's Army" is compulsively readable and was a book I did not want to put down. Exum's descriptions of his training, going through Ranger school, and his style (and experiences) of leadership is fascinating. While I am glad that Exum is out of harm's way now, I wish he was still able to serve in the Army because our military and our country needs more men of his character and apparent ability. He is the sort of man I want protecting our country.

Captain Exum also gives an excellent description of how a soldier comes home and tries to adapt to a life where he does not have a rifle in his hand. How he has to adapt to paying for things again, fight the feeling that he is "entitled" to things because of his service, and just become a civilian again.

Something else that I found very interesting was that if he wasn't injured (outside of combat), Exum would have been part of the mission which rescued Private Jessica Lynch. Having to watch that on television was a very difficult thing for Captain Exum, not the least of which because he was still in uniform.

Overall I found "This Man's Army" to be an excellent account of Andrew Exum's time in the military and what one possible experience of a modern day soldier is. It isn't exactly what one might consider a traditional war memoir, but this is also a different kind of war. I would recommend this book without hesitation, just with the understanding that there is a very small amount of actual combat or field action.

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Family Trade

Friday, July 01, 2005 0
“The Family Trade” is the first volume in a new series by Charles Stross called “The Merchant Princes.” I would assume this series is going to be a trilogy, but I could not find this stated. In theory, the type of world Stross created would allow for as many volumes as the author can think up stories. There will definitely be a sequel, “The Hidden Family”, and the structure of this first book is such that it feels like the beginning of a trilogy.

Miriam Beckstein is an investigative reporter for a technology magazine in Boston. When Paulette, a co-worker and researcher at the magazine brings Miriam an exhaustive stack of research on a story Miriam is working on, what they discover is strong evidence of corruption and money laundering. Bringing it to her editor, Miriam is promptly fired and soon receives death threats. Paulette, for being involved is also fired. The cause has nothing to do with the offense except that the company that owns the building the magazine works in (and possibly the magazine) may be implicated. Miriam goes to her adoptive mother to tell her about being fired and her mother says it is time Miriam knew a little bit more of how she ended up in the care of the family she did. She also gives Miriam a shoe box containing some of her true mother’s belongings.

When Miriam gets home she opens the box and discovers a locket. The locket has a strange pattern and when she focuses on the pattern she finds herself in the middle of a forest with no sign of civilization except for a horseman riding towards her holding a machine gun. She focuses back on the locket and returns home. This is the true beginning to the story. As an investigative reporter, Miriam needs to figure this out, to find out what happened or if she is simply going crazy. While going crazy might work for a short story, it would be a pretty poor opening for a fantasy novel if the fantasy world isn’t real. It is, of course, and she begins to investigate what this medieval styled world is like and what is all about. She soon learns that she is part of the aristocracy there, but that things are darker and more dangerous than what she expected.

As a long time fantasy reader I think the idea behind this book is fascinating. I want to know how these worlds are connected, why, who and how this was discovered. I want to see further interaction between the worlds as Miriam discovers how this works and what her place is in either world. I even want to know what happens in the next book. I just want someone else to write it.

See, “The Family Trade” is a very interesting concept and Miriam Beckstein is a smart woman who behaves in a much more realistic way than most fantasy characters who get plopped into a strange new world. Most behave as if they know everything or as if they can know nothing. Miriam seems to learn and it makes sense how she figures things out, even if there may be jumps in logic which don’t work for me but might work for a reporter. The problem is the writing, especially early on, is just cheap and weak. Here’s an example of page four of the paperback and where I almost gave up:

“Back upstairs, fortified by an unfeasibly large mug of coffee, she had to work out what to wear. She dived into her closet and found herself using her teeth to tear the plastic bag off one of the three suits she’d had dry cleaned on Friday --only to discover it was her black formal interview affair, not at all the right thing for a rainy Monday pounding the street--or at least doing telephone interviews from a cubicle in the office”

Bear in mind this is just after Miriam fled downstairs and switched on the coffee percolator. The beginning of the book was all like this and while it did get somewhat better, this was still the same tone that was used throughout the book and it simply downgraded what is, at heart, an interesting story.

In the hands of another author I am sure I would have loved this book and would be excited to read the second volume. As it stands, I didn’t and I’m not. I am interested enough in the core story that I’m actually considering it, but I can only hope that the writing style improves somewhat.

The bottom line is that as a first book in a series, this is not a complete story. The pace is fast enough that this is a book that will be finished fairly quickly and the idea is interesting enough that I still do want to know what happens next. The way Stross phrases sentences, ideas, and paragraphs just leaves a little to be desired.
 
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