Monday, July 31, 2006

Movies: July 15 - July 30

Monday, July 31, 2006 1
Love and Death (1975): I was surprised by how silly this early Woody Allen flick was. Allen puts himself as a peasant in Russia as Napoleon prepares to invade. Allen is trying to woo his second cousin (Diane Keaton) but she loves every other man including his brother. Allen reluctantly goes off to war while protesting the war and ends up a hero and then involved in a plot to kill Napoleon. Like Mel Brooks, everything is an occasion for a joke. Silly, but funny.

The New World (2005): Terrence Malick's most recent movie takes Colin Farrell, casts him as John Smith, and explores the first interactions of the Jamestown Colony with the natives. When Malick hits he makes The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven. When he misses he makes Badlands and The New World. It's a movie that is pretty to look at, but is aimless and meandering and doesn't seem to actually go anywhere. Malick is a visual storyteller, but he forgets the story in the telling sometimes.


The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement
(2004): I'm sure I'm not supposed to like this movie. I am not the demographic, but the first Princess Diaries was very cute and Anne Hathaway does a great job in both movies. This time, Princess Mia (Hathaway) has now graduated from college and she knows that she is a princess of Genovia. Her grandmother (Julie Andrews) plans on having Mia inherit the crown, but John Rhys-Davies wants his line to inherit and brings up and old law where women must be married by the age of 21 to inherit and Mia only has a short period of time to find a suitable partner. One can guess how the movie turns out, but like the first movie this one is very cute and pleasant and family friendly.

Clerks II (2006): I plan on writing about Kevin Smith's latest movie, but suffice it to say that I loved, loved, loved this movie. While this may not be one of the prestige pictures of the year, this will be one of my favorites of 2006 and will almost certainly make the top 10 best/favorite movies of 2006 when I'm able to put the list together in two years.

King Kong (2005): 45 minutes into the movie and they're still on the boat. The damn ape doesn't appear until the 70 minute mark. The flick picks up a bit when they get on the island and there is the title ape involved, but even with the major action set pieces I was fairly bored. I felt bad for Kong because of how the humans treated him and I wished they let him be in his home jungle that has nothing to do with the rest of the world. Sigh. As a movie, though? It felt empty. It wasn't worth three hours of my time and after Lord of the Rings I think Peter Jackson could/should have been able to do better. But perhaps this wasn't the project to do it on.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987): The third Elm Street movies finds Freddy haunting another group of teenagers. These kids have been put into a mental hospital because they can't handle the nightmares from Freddy Krueger and they refuse to sleep. A young woman who specializes in sleep disorders is brought into the hospital to help with the therapy. Her name is Nancy and she was the surviving Elm Street kid from the first movie. Lots of creative horror and a couple of gruesome images in the nightmares (the sleeper walker made me cringe) and this is a much better Elm Street than part 2.

The Aristocrats (2005): This is a documentary about a joke. The joke begins with a standard frame: A man walks into the office of a talent agent and says "I have this great act that you would love. It features my whole family." The rest is up to the comic to describe the act as long as he ends with the talent agent asking what the act is called and the answer being "The Aristocrats!". It isn't that the punchline is funny, but the joke is typically the most depraved acts of a scatological nature, incest, bestiality, and whatever other filth the comic can fit into the telling. It's typically a joke that comics tell other comics rather than perform on stage. Everyone from Drew Carey to George Carlin to Sarah Silverman to Bob Saget to Gilbert Gottfried to Chris Rock, Robin Williams, and Whoopi Goldberg told their versions of the joke and they were all filthy (Saget in particular is a filthy man). The documentary is interesting to see how the comics view the creation and telling of the joke. Carlin is the most interesting in giving his joke telling theory. The joke itself isn't that funny except in the excess of filth. More shocking than funny.

Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic (2005): This is Sarah Silverman's one woman comic show, though it is framed with a couple of documentary movie set pieces, but really the heart here is her show. She does a routine for about an hour telling her stories and singing some strangely funny songs. Silverman is, as seems to be the method these days, filthy. She comes up with some foul stuff and is sometimes funny in the telling. Othertimes I'm staring at the television blankly. This was kind of disappointing because I read very positive comments from Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere when this first came out, but Silverman isn't my kind of comic I suppose.

Book 60: Smashed

Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood is Koren Zailckas’ memoir of her life with alcohol.  In the prologue Zailckas writes that she had read some articles about why teenaged girls start drinking and drink to excess and she found that in her life and in the lives of the girls she knew the articles did not approach the reality of why teenaged girls really drink.  It wasn’t out of rebellion as was suggested, but rather out of a feeling of alienation and issues with self esteem.  These were the girls she knew and met who drank to excess at a young age.  Smashed begins just before Koren’s first drink at age 14 and follows her through high school, college and true adulthood and ends with her decision to stop drinking in her mid twenties.  Along the way she gives a very experiential account of herself and alcohol which presents the idea that her story is a fairly accurate representation of other girls and alcohol.  We follow Koren as she has her first drink, her first time drunk, her first blackout, the college parties, the trips to the hospital and waking up in strange places, the disappointments in herself and her family and the discovery she has that all of her friendships are based around alcohol and drinking and that she doesn’t know how to act around people if she isn’t drunk. 

 

This is a scary book for parents because it shows a side of their daughters which they might not want to see and certainly would not want to admit.  Koren’s parents were not blind, but also seemed to truly not accept the level of abuse that Koren was putting herself through.  That’s the perception I have from Smashed.  But it is eye opening because it gives me something to think about in the hopeful event that I someday have a daughter.  It is something to be aware of and in that regard Smashed is an important book because of the impact in may have on other younger girls as well as on parents and parents to be.  That Koren Zailckas is able to present such a readable account of her being drunk for more than a decade and make it informative about the cycle of her experience and the consequences, the author is to be commended.  I hesitate to say that this was an enjoyable book to read because it is about such a negative and harmful subject, but Koren Zailckas is able to tell her story well and pass along a message at the same time. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Book 58: The World Before

Wednesday, July 26, 2006 0
At the end of Crossing the Line the entire bezeri population of Bezer'ej was destroyed by a nuclear bomb laced with cobalt. They were killed as an after effect of Lindsay Neville attempting to destroy the c'naatat organism that had infected Shan Frankland (human) and Aras (wess'har) and which would be a disaster for the human race back on Earth should any government get their hands on it. C'naatat grants the host near immortality, though at the cost of making the host different than the species it once was. Frankland can never go home to Earth because she would be a lab rat for centuries and Aras can never be a true part of Wess'har society. Also at the end of Crossing the Line, Shan Frankland died. One of the very few known (or believed) ways to kill an organism infected with c'naatat is the vacuum of space. Frankland deliberately stepped out of a ship without a suit so that Neville would not have the satisfaction of killing Frankland herself.

Now in The World Before the wess'har are gathering for a potential war against Earth. Since it was humans who were responsible for the genocide of the bezeri and that there is a line of responsibility back to Earth, the only thing that will save humanity is if they act in accordance with the wess'har notion of personal responsibility. The more people who try to cover for those responsible or make excuses, the worse the wess'har response will be. The Wess'har on Wess'ej have called their more aggressive kin from their home planet to help and these wess'har will take a stark response. Meanwhile Aras is trying to come to terms to the loss of Shan Frankland, his isan (a wess'har term for wife). Frankland was the only known individual to also be infected with c'naatat and he loved her. But, now Aras learns that Ade Bennett, a marine and a good man has been infected in the fight to capture Frankland (from the previous book) and a bond grows between them. Frankland is presumed dead because she was lost in space without a suit, but c'naatat is highly adaptable and anyone who read the first two volumes has to be asking the question: Is she really dead?

After the power of the first two volumes and the shocking end to Crossing the Line, The World Before has a lot to live up to. Karen Traviss has proven herself a talented novelist and one who can tell a brutal story and make it compelling like nothing else. But while The World Before has a lot going on, it feels more like a middle book than the middle book did. The novel serves to set up Matriarch far more than it does to advance a storyline here, and that's not a bad thing, but it does knock the novel a peg or two down below the first two volumes of the Wess'har Wars. What this means is that the writing is just as sharp, the emotions just as strong, but that the story doesn't have quite the same punch of narrative imperative that the first two did. There is resolution for the characters and so on a personal character scale, the novel completes a story arc, but it sets up a grander story arc that is not at all complete. To say that The World Before is a peg or two below City of Pearl or Crossing the Line only means it isn't quite as excellent as the previous novels but that it is also still far above nearly every other science fiction and fantasy novel I have read in years. Karen Traviss has set the bar awfully high for herself.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Book 57: Outbound Flight

Monday, July 24, 2006 0

In his previous six Star Wars novels author Timothy Zahn has been alluding to some Jedi project in the past called Outbound Flight.  Now, as I have only read the first three Thrawn books Zahn has written, I don’t know what he does with Outbound Flight in the duology or Survivor’s Quest.  But, now, with Outbound Flight, we get the story of exactly what this project is and how it connects to Luke Skywalker’s time.  In short, the project is the brainchild of Jedi Master Jorus C’Boath (we later meet his Dark Side Clone) and it takes 50,000 civilians and a handful of Jedi out into the Unknown Regions of space to hide out and gain strength and increase the number of Jedi until a time when the Republic needs them.  What C’Boath doesn’t know is that he is being manipulated by Chancellor Palpatine…better known as Darth Sidious, the future Emperor.  This novel takes place in between Episodes 1 and 2. 

 

Like most Star Wars authors these days, Zahn is telling multiple stories at once.  He also tells of some human smugglers escaping the Hutts and ending up in Chiss territory.  The Chiss inhabit the Unknown Regions and up until this point neither the Chiss nor the Republic knew about each other.  The Chiss military commander these humans meet happens to be Thrawn (shocking, Timothy Zahn writes a novel about Thrawn).  Thrawn is the non-human Grand Admiral we meet in Heir to the Empire as one of the great threats to the New Republic after Return of the Jedi.  This novel shows us how he learned of the Republic, where he met Sidious, and why he might want to ally himself with the Empire.  The two storylines of Thrawn and Outbound Flight comprise the core of this novel and eventually they will intersect, as one can imagine. 

 

Yes, but is it good?  I guess so.  Maybe it is because I still have three more later volumes to read which should pique my interest in Outbound Flight even more, but I had the feeling of “Oh, is that all?”  It felt like Outbound Flight should have been this grand thing, and all we have is the fall of a Jedi, some infighting, and the military genius of Thrawn.  And?  And nothing.  This is one of those novels I finish and think that everything that happened just doesn’t matter.  Outbound Flight serves to tie things together and illuminate events and individuals that were only referenced novels written years ago, but it doesn’t seem to have importance. 

 

Yeah, I’m disappointed.  I’ve read some really great Star Wars novels.  This isn’t one of them.  It’s not one of the bad ones, but in the grand scheme of things…I’d just as soon skip this one. 

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Disgaea: The Hour of Darkness

Thursday, July 20, 2006 0
You are Laharl, a demon prince of the Netherworld who has been asleep for years. Laharl awakes to find that his father is dead and that he needs to claim his rightful place as Overlord of the Netherworld. Disgaea is Laharl solidifying his place and encountering new adversaries. The first thing that must be said about this game is that it is a very funny game. So much of the dialogue and character interaction is played for laughs while advancing the story.

Disgaea is a strategy RPG. You have a home base (the castle) which you can wander around in. It is a smallish castle. But it is from this castle that everything in the game starts. The actual gameplay takes place on "maps" or "grids" where you set your characters and move them into the best position, turn by turn, to do the most damage to the enemies or also maneuver themselves to attack your characters. This is a turn based game and you can think of the grid as a chess board. It's a chess board with height and obstacles and environment and certain tiles have special properties (attack +50%, invincibility, etc), but that is the way the grid plays out. From the castle you can also purchase items and weapons, go to the "Item World" in which you can fight inside an item to increase the item's stats, or go to the Dark Assembly where you get proposals passed to open new maps or get better stuff at the stores, or create new characters.

The name of the game here is fun. This is a fun game to play and I didn't notice how much time I spent playing until I checked the game clock. For those gamers who aren't sure if they would like a strategy RPG, this is probably the game to try because it is superior to the rest. For those who do like RPG and Strategy games, it doesn't get better than Disgaea. It's a game with lots to do. I spent nearly 80 hours on the game before finishing the story and there was plenty left to do. Good thing there is a "New Game +" mode to go back through the game and make different choices (for multiple endings) as well as working on unlocking those new maps and creating different character classes.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Book 56: The Hidden Family

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 0
After being very disappointed with The Family Trade I swore off ever reading another book by Charles Stross. The book was simply bad with poor writing, cliche, and poor description. Yet, the more I read about the author and the book the more I saw that his work is well regarded and acclaimed. I couldn't figure it out. Sure, The Family Trade was not challenging to read and had a good idea behind it, but Stross turned me off in the first ten pages of the book when his protagonist dove into her closet and ripped open a bag with her teeth. The rest of the book did not get worse, but nothing changed my initial impression of the book or the author...from this one book he seemed to be a rank amateur who got a chance to publish his book and not the award winning science fiction author he is. But as the positive reviews kept piling up I was getting curious about The Hidden Family. See, The Hidden Family is actually the second half of a book that was originally called The Merchant Princes. The book began with The Family Trade and was split by the publisher. Supposedly the story was much stronger when taken as a whole. I was curious where Stross would take the story and decided to give Charles Stross one final chance with the full expectation that I would be thoroughly disgusted.

In the first volume Miriam discovered that she was parting of the ruling elite of a Clan of Six Families...but this Clan is not part of the world in which she lived. She lived in our modern day Earth as a technology journalist. When she is about to break a huge story with a scandal she finds herself hunted by men who want to kill her. The threat is far greater than she imagined and her history is not what she expected. She is given a shoe box by her adopted mother which contains a locket belonging to her real mother (now deceased). The locket transported her to an alternate world which has not risen above the medieval ages in terms of technology and lifestyle. It is in this world that she has a family, a powerful family...some of whom wish harm upon her. Throughout the novel she tries to learn what is truth and tries to keep herself alive. In the end she learns about a hidden sixth family and a locket which may lead to a third world.

This catches up to The Hidden Family and does not quite cover the novel but is as good as can be done in a short paragraph. In this book Miriam explores the third world and tries to set up a business so she can strengthen the Clan and her position, legitimize the business of the Clan, and stop the attempts on her life. This is actually far more interesting than one might think. Stross is able to make each of the three worlds feel very different and very real. There is a true sense of discovery in The Hidden Family as we learn the nature of this third world and several other surprises about the "hidden family" and also her own family.

With how disappointed I was with The Family Trade, I expected to loathe The Hidden Family. I didn't. I didn't "love" the book, but I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and Stross has written an interesting fast paced novel. There is still an awkward line or three, such as characters talking about almost getting "rubbed out" rather than almost being "killed", but nothing is nearly as distracting as the first novel. Stross has somehow made setting up a business an interesting plot point and that he is able to do so in a book that was written as part of the same larger novel which contained the dreadful The Family Trade is remarkable. I don't understand how the first half of the book (FT) could be so bad and the second half (HF) be decent enough that I will read the third volume. I don't know if I would have enjoyed a full 600 page Merchant Princes because I think the first half would have tainted the second half, but given a year or two break in between reading the volumes I was able to enjoy The Hidden Family. It is quite possible that Stross is an ideas man who isn't able to execute as well as he can think up interesting story ideas, but it will take a read or two of his science fiction to know for sure.

hmm - The Family Trade

Found my old review of The Family Trade.  It wasn’t as negative as I expected it to be.  I think the longer the book percolated in my mind…the worse my opinion became.  

Monday, July 17, 2006

Book 55: Crossing the Line

Monday, July 17, 2006 0

In City of Pearl Karen Traviss introduced us to Shan Frankland, an Environmental Hazard cop (En-Haz). Frankland, on the brink of retiring, was sent to Cavanagh’s Star II on a mission that because of a Suppressed Briefing she would not remember until certain words and locations triggered the memory. Frankland is a hard woman, a hard cop, and one who has let her personal morality influence how she does her job. She is very capable and when she needs to act, she does not hesitate. On CSII, Frankland discovers the surviving human colony, but also the alien Aras of the wess’har. Aras has been modified by a symbiotic disease called c’naatat which has given him extraordinary long life as well as making him incredibly difficult to kill. It has also alienated him from his own people. He is literally untouchable, and the wess’har are a physical race. Frankland sides in every dispute with the native humans, wess’har, and bezeri over the scientists and military that is under her command on the mission, but there are disputes and accidents and in the end Shan Frankland is infected with the c’naatat. She will be changed by it, making her more and less than human. She decides to remain with the wess’har and to attempt to serve them as she can to help prevent a possible conflict with humanity.

This brief and dirty synopsis brings us up to Crossing the Line, the second novel in the Wess’har Wars. Shan Frankland is adapting to c’naatat and being cut off from humanity. She knows that she would be used to duplicate the c’naatat for human use and the last thing humanity needs is fast breeding humans who won’t die. Frankland advises the Wess’har leadership of ways to “discourage” Earth from sending any more ships or fleets to CS2. There would not be much of a book here if there was not a further human intrusion on CS2, so it spoils nothing to say that the potential conflict is not over, and there are personal issues from Frankland’s former team to contend with.

Karen Traviss is very quickly becoming one of my favorite science fiction authors. Her writing is sharp and the characters she chooses to focus on are drawn out very vividly. We can tell who is talking or thinking by how they think and talk, even if names are not given. The primary characters have a distinct voice. If I spend time thinking about it, Crossing the Line does suffer from “Middle Book Syndrome”. While there is a clear beginning and end to the book (and this is a huge plus), the ending serves to set up The World Before. Karen Traviss writes character driven science fiction. The character of Shan Frankland is central to the story here and she is not a placeholding character which could be substituted by just anyone. Her beliefs drive her actions and her actions are what drive the plot of the novel. Everything that Frankland does is consistent with her character and the good decisions have negative consequences and her wrong decisions have consequences as well. Frankland feels real, all of Traviss’s characters do. She even creates a believable alien culture. The pace of Crossing the Line is a little bit odd because throughout the novel Frankland is working to prevent something, so there is a narrative tension but not a real hard driving pace. It’s more of anticipation. I will absolutely not spoil the ending here, but I was left shocked by how the novel ended and the “event” changed the nature of where the series could possible go. Very powerful.

There are certain things that I know will occur in the next volume because of how Traviss set up the characters and situation, but I don’t know to what extent or how much, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next. The joy is in the discovery when books are as well written as the work Karen Traviss publishes.

Friday, July 14, 2006

catching up with the movies: May 1 - July 14

Friday, July 14, 2006 0

Since I haven’t been to a theatre since…Brokeback Mountain early this year, all of my movie watching has been on DVDs borrowed from the library and recorded on my DVR from the free premium channels we get each months from Dish Network (this month: Starz Comedy).  I realize I haven’t been writing too much about the movies.  Since I’m far too lazy to go back and find what the last movie I posted about was, I’m going to start with May 1 and get to today. 

 

  1. Paper Clips (2004): This documentary about high school kids in Tennessee doing a class project on the Holocaust (Shoah).  Their teachers wanted to teach about tolerance and the topic they chose was the Holocaust.  One kid said he didn’t know what six million looked like, and the teacher didn’t either, and so after some research and thought they decided to collect paper clips.  They started writing letters and eventually the clips start piling up, often with an individual story attached on why somebody sent the clip.  It’s a fairly interesting documentary, a unique subject, and moving to see what the kids accomplished with what was originally simply a school project on tolerance.

 

  1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005): Tim Burton and Johnny Depp take on Roald Dahl and Willy Wonka.  Depp is in full weirdness mode.  I miss the orange Oompa Loompas, but it’s a decent enough movie.  I can’t help comparing to the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and I think I prefer the original.  This one is well done, but not exceptional.

 

  1. Cinderella Man (2005): Great, great movie.  In a sense it is your standard down on your luck story with a great comeback and lots o inspiration.  Russell Crowe proves once again why he is one of Hollywood’s Top Leading Men and it is a shame that the phone throwing incident perhaps soured the attention this movie received.  This should have been a Best Picture nominee and should have made $150 million.  It’s that good.  There were a couple of moments when I felt choked up and tears welling up in my eyes (the scene with Crowe getting unemployment money, and the climax).  This is how movies should be made.

 

  1. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004): All that technology gone to waste.  It’s a pulp novel on screen, with that old time adventure feel to it, but it’s actually fairly dull. 

 

  1. Memoirs of a Geisha (2005): I thought the book was fantastic; and the story of a poor young woman being raised and trained to be a geisha but conspired against is a decent story, but the movie didn’t capture the magic.  It looked pretty, but what works well on the page doesn’t translate to screen.

 

  1. George Washington (2000): Sad to say, but I don’t remember too much from this movie.  Nothing to do with the former president, really, just the George Washington neighborhood of an inner city.  You’ve got some fine performances by some young actors, but I couldn’t tell you too much about the story.  Fairly urban, well done, but it doesn’t capture my imagination.  Part of the Criterion Collection, though.

 

  1. Hustle & Flow (2005): Yes!  The story of a pimp who wants to follow a dream and become a rap star shouldn’t be something I want to watch.  I don’t want a pimp to succeed.  I don’t want to feel for his character.  But I do.  It’s the story, but it’s the talent of Terrance Howard (also in Crash).  Good soundtrack, fantastic movie.  Not for the kiddies and the language may be a turn off, but fantastic movie.

 

  1. Howl’s Moving Castle (2005): An animated movie by master Hayao Miyazaki.  I enjoyed it more than I expected, but it wouldn’t rank with my favorite Miyazaki movies.  It’s the story of a young woman who is cursed by a sorceress who turns her into an old crone.  The crone leaves her family’s home and ends up stumbling across this moving heap of junk which is actually the home of a wizard named Howl.  Hijinks ensue.  Not slapstick by any means as there is a depth of emotion and storytelling here, but there are quite a few comic moments. 

 

9, 10, 11. 28 Up (1985), 35 Up (1991), 42 Up (1999): The Up Series is a series of documentaries every seven years following the same fourteen children from Age 7 through adulthood to see how they change and what we can tell about them from when they are seven.  This is a British series, though I believe there is an American version in the works.  These three movies are ages 28, 35, and 42.  The series is interesting in theory, but I wasn’t exactly enthralled.  They’re just ordinary people and at times I was bored.  Some stories are heartbreaking, two kids dropped out several films ago, and others are snots.  But as a whole, they are just normal working folk.  The series takes kids from all strata of society and economic background, so we can see a range of expectation and a range of life.  I wouldn’t rush out and buy the set, but it is an interesting experiment.  There is one more film, 49 Up and I think that may finish the series. 

 

12. Shadow Boxers (1999) : This documentary film follows several female boxers and explores their motivations, training, and lives.  It doesn’t explore every aspect of the sport, but Lucia Rijker is one of the top boxers in the world, I believe, and she also was Blue Bear in Million Dollar Baby (Hilary Swank’s last opponent).  Interesting flick.

 

13. Team America: World Police (2004): The Puppet movie from the guys who made South Park.  Trey Parker and Matt Stone take on Hollywood, liberals, and some conservatives as they bash everybody in mocking America’s self assumed role of policing the world.  Funny, but not worth watching twice. 

 

14. Capote (2005): The movie that wins Phillip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar for Best Actor, and deservedly so.  Great actor, great performance.  This is the story of how Truman Capote wrote the true life murder story In Cold Blood.  The movie comes off a bit cold.  Well done and well crafted, but cold…  It was difficult to engage with any of the characters, though every actor did an outstanding job. 

 

15. Bewitched (2005): Crap.  Next.

 

16. The Constant Gardener (2005): An adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel and one which worked very well for me.  A British Diplomat to an African nation is devastated when his wife, a younger activist is murdered.  As he investigates what happened he learns of a deeper conspiracy but also comes to appreciate his wife more.  Ralph Fiennes stars.

 

17. The Corporation (2005): An overlong (2.5 hours) documentary regarding the history and impact of corporations in this country and around the world.  Mostly negative in perspective, though it does raise interesting points about corporate ethics.

 

18. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993): Animated Batman flick.  Not bad, but I had heard this was one of the best things ever and it’s just decent.  It’s a good Batman story that touches on character origins and sets up future Batman animated movies, but I’m not rushing out. 

 

19. A History of Violence (2005): Outstanding!  A minimalist tale of a man who seems to have a good small town life, but he has a past he has escaped, or so he thought.  When he stops a robbery at his store he becomes a celebrity of sorts and men from his past come looking.  This is an excellent quiet movie with shocking brutal acts of violence that end quickly but the repercussions last.  Loved it.

 

20. Hellboy (2004): Adaptation of a graphic novel.  Better than I expected, but amounts to nothing.  Whatever.

 

21. My Date With Drew (2004): Now this is a cute movie.  A guy wins $1100 on a game show (it’s the pilot, so low prize money) and rather than spend it on bills and productive stuff which would leave him just as unhappy a month later as blowing the money, he decides to take 30 days to see if he can get a date with Drew Barrymore.  The fact that this movie was released tells you something about how it will turn out, but watching this guy try to make contacts and go through the 30 days…it’s worth watching.  He has a great personality and a fairly original idea for a movie, and it is a sweet little film.  The 30 day restriction is because if he returns the camera to the store within 30 days he doesn’t have to pay for it. 

 

22. March of the Penguins (2005): Another documentary, I must watch more than I think.  This movie follows penguins in Antarctica as they trek 70 miles to mate and raise their children while surviving the harshest conditions.  Good movie.  Not this amazing groundbreaking documentary, but well narrated by Morgan Freeman and it’s a good movie.  The baby penguins are cute.  Yeah, that’s a selling point for me.  I need to go watch a manly movie, excuse me.

 

23. Mad Max (1979): A manly movie, good.  Mel Gibson was not yet a star when he made this movie.  It is set a few years in the future in Australia and some calamity has occurred (or Australia is a rough place).  Motorcycle gangs roam the roads causing havoc, and the police are their own gang, though working for the greater good.  Gibson is a top officer and when tragedy strikes he goes to get revenge against all that had a hand in the tragedy.  The movie holds up fairly well today.  There is quite a bit of down time in the movie, but it is something of an odd classic…or better put, it is an iconic role for Gibson

 

24. Munich (2005): Spielberg’s latest film tells the story of the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics where Palestinian terrorists killed Israeli athletes.  This is their response as Israel sends men to kill those responsible for the planning.  Eric Bana (I think) leads a team of 5 across Europe on a mission of assassination.  It is brutal and it makes some of the men question what they are doing and the moral position of why this is a proper thing to do.  Well made and thought provoking, Munich still is lacking something.  The film tackles a tough subject without passing judgment or telling us what to think, but something is missing that would make this one of the best films of the year/decade.  It should be, but it isn’t. 

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Book 54: The Champion Maker

Thursday, July 13, 2006 0

Nick Vance is a washed up former world class runner.  He was a favorite to win Gold in the 1500m in the 1980 Moscow Olympics before the boycott, then his wife committed suicide and twenty years later he ended up writing for a running magazine and drinking too much.  That is, until he is sent to write a piece on a high school kid nicknamed “Bullet”.  Bullet is a phenom.  He excels at both the 100 meters and the 1600 meters, which is a rare double and he can move up to the 3200 meters with equal success.  He has all the talent in the world, but a chip on his shoulder and he isn’t putting in the work to become truly world class.  Nick assignment turns into an opportunity for both as Nick begins to coach Bullet for the Olympics in just a few months.  By the end of his senior track season, Bullet has already set a World Record in the 100 meters and still wants to double in the 1500….until he tests positive for an illegal substance and everything starts crashing down.  Bullet is clean, though.  Nick and Bullet try to clear his name and his eligibility before the Olympics. 

 

If this was the entire story I would have been sold.  I am very interested in running and combining elite running with a thriller with twists and surprises is a great idea.  It’s even plausible so far.  There is a conspiracy going on here and the possibility of high technology and I buy it.  But this is only two thirds of the overall story.  The other third, which gradually comes together with the main story of Nick and Bullet, is that of a mysterious young woman named Cassandra.  Cassandra has ESP.  She can read people’s minds and get glimpses of the future and her future is intertwined with Bullet’s.  This isn’t a spoiler of any sort because if Cassandra had nothing to do with Bullet we would have a very unfocused novel.  In what way she is intertwined with Bullet, I’ll leave that to the reader’s imagination. 

 

I am more than willing to accept technologies and techniques that are far more advanced than what the average person knows about.  I’ll accept secret government conspiracies and double dealings.  The Champion Maker is a thriller; it is part of the genre and is what the thriller deals with.  So, the core of the novel is grounded in reality, though Bullet’s World Record against high school competition raises the eyebrows in the runner in me.  There may be new technology and technology that pushes the boundaries of what we know, but it’s grounded in reality.  Into this world grounded in reality is a girl with ESP and can see the future.  My Implausibility Detector goes off at this point.  I read science fiction and fantasy, so I am more than comfortable with any sort of extra sensory talents or abilities.  But it has to fit the world the author creates.  Kevin Joseph has written a world that is our world.  So, he grounds his characters and technologies and threats in what is real and what is possible.  While ESP may or may not be real and may or may not be possible, it jumps out as being entirely unnatural to the world the rest of the characters inhabit.  It is a distraction and knocks the book down a peg or two.

 

Once I turned off my Implausibility Detector, I found The Champion Maker to be a fairly enjoyable, fast paced book.  It’s nothing that I would rush out and tell everyone I meet that they have to read this book, but it was decent and it wasn’t a waste of my time.  The novel is not anything remarkable, but it was a quick read that offered some excitement, action, and running.  If Kevin Joseph had left the whole ESP thing out of the book, I’d have been happier.  There is an explanation in the novel of why and how, but it doesn’t fit the tone and style of the rest of the book.  It seemed to offer the author an easy way out of situations.  Deus Ex Machina?  Deus Ex ESP.

Book 53: The Giver

It is a seeming Utopia.  The children are all well mannered.  The adults are content and behave in ways that benefit society.  Everyone knows their place in society and all are content.  It has to be a complete fraud.  This is the world The Giver inhabits.  The society rewards those who emphasize how they are the same as everyone else; differences are not to be discussed.  It would be rude to discuss differences, and there are few differences as it is. 

 

Jonas is eleven.  He is soon to turn twelve in The Ceremony of Twelve.   Each December all of the children have a Ceremony graduating them into their next year of life and education and they are granted certain privileges at each step.  In a society of sameness, Jonas is somewhat different.  He is one of the very few with blue eyes and every now and then he sees a flicker of…something…but it doesn’t last and he doesn’t understand.  At the Ceremony of Twelve all of the new Twelves are appointed their new jobs which they will do for the rest of their lives.  Jonas is set apart even here when he is selected to the Receiver of Memories.  It is the most honored of all occupations and only one person holds the position in the entire community.  It is a great honor.  It is also the event that shows Jonas just how different the Sameness is. 

 

Lois Lowry won the Newbery Medal for this book, which is perhaps the highest literary honor for fiction written for children.  The Giver is deserving of this award.  The Giver is written simply and is easy to understand, but there is a real depth to the storytelling and the lesson that Lowry is presenting here.  Lowry has written about a society which has embraced being the same so deeply that any aberrations will be punished (to a greater or lesser extent depending on the violation) and something has been done that the citizens only know a certain amount about themselves and their world.  It is very limited even though everybody believes they are truly happy, and perhaps they are.  But the Sameness comes at a great price: The Receiver is the only individual who truly knows all of what was given up and what the rest of the world holds.  He knows the very good and the very bad that the world has to offer.  It is a crushing weight.  The subtle message as Jonas learns all of this is that it is differences which need to be embraced and should not be something to fear.  Differences are what make life truly interesting and worthwhile.  But there are some out in the world who want to eliminate some differences because it makes them uncomfortable and The Giver is something of an answer to any sort of prejudice and misunderstanding and celebrates those who go out of their comfort zones to really see what differences are. 

 

What makes The Giver so remarkable is that it is a novel that works both for adults and for children and is highly readable for both age groups.  Adults can enjoy the book just as much as a child, though perhaps in a different way.  Highly recommended. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Book 52: Sword of the Lictor

Tuesday, July 11, 2006 0
I am frustrated by Gene Wolfe and The Book of the New Sun.  It began with such a strong effort in Shadow of the Torturer and and I thought that first volume boded well for the rest of the quartet.  We meet Severain, an apprentice torturer and he ends up being exiled to take up his position as the town torturer/executioner in Thrax, a distant town.  It took two volumes for Severain to actually make it to Thrax and he had quite an adventure and it was questionable whether or not he really wanted to go or if he would go at all.  Now that he is there at the beginning of Sword of the Lictor (volume 3), he promptly acts in such a manner that he must escape and leave the woman, Dorcas, he had been traveling with.  Dorcas had been slowly leaving him anyway.  He spends the entire novel wandering, having odd adventures which he neither seems to intend nor reject.  He is there, so he acts.  Nothing more, nothing less.
 
This is what is frustrating me so much: I have no idea what is going on anymore.  Perhaps the fault is all mine, that I am confused and this truly is a masterpiece of science fiction and fantasy, but I don't see it.  Nothing seems at all connected, the characters are all fairly shallow and flat, and the only one with depth (Severain) is incomprehensible to me.  While I thought the first volume was well done and The Claw of the Conciliator was an absolute mess, The Sword of the Lictor is somewhere in between, though far closer to mess than well done.  Severain is getting closer to something, but I couldn't say what. 
 
I'm just disappointed here.  A series I had high hopes for has pretty well fallen apart.  I know I will finished the Quartet (Tetrology?), but I don't think I'll read the Long Sun or Short Sun books unless someone can tell me they are significantly different/better or maybe easier than the New Sun

Monday, July 10, 2006

Book 51: Ambush at Corellia

Monday, July 10, 2006 0
Ambush at Corellia is the first volume of the Corellian Trilogy by Roger MacBride Allen.  Han Solo is headed back to his home planet of Corellia for the first time in decades to attend a trade summit with his wife, the Chief of State of the New Republic, Leia Organa-Solo.  It will be something of a rare family vacation as they are taking their children, Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin.  Corellia is nominally part of the New Republic, but it is a planet (and system) at risk of falling apart and falling away.  Years of forced rule have made many there fairly insular.  Before they leave for Corellia, Han is warned by a member of New Republic Intelligence (NRI) that Corellia is not safe and that there is a mission in place.  Han could support the mission by acting in such a way to make people suspicious of him.  This is Han's normal behavior, so there isn't much of a stretch.  The agent who warned Han is nearly killed upon arrival in the Corellian spacelanes.  The Millenium Falcon is ambushed by a staged attack perhaps meant to frighten Leia. 
 
Once they set foot on Corellia Han and Leia see that the situation is much worse than they had anticipated.  The entire star system is on the verge of imploding (meant as a societal term, not a a physical stellar term).  The risk to the New Republic is great because there are not strong ties keeping the fledgling government together.  It has only been 14 years since Return of the Jedi.  As the novel progresses we see just how big the threat is to the New Republic and to the Corellian system. 
 
Happily, the nature of this threat is quite a bit different from other Star Wars novels.  We are not faced with the "superweapon", not exactly, and it is more of a political threat than a galactic threat.  There is still action and there is still intrigue, but Ambush at Corellia has a different feel to it than many other Star Wars novels.  It doesn't "feel" like the same old same old, and I've read at least sixty of them by now.  Roger MacBride Allen has done a good job setting up the trilogy.  The scope of the story is enlarged and we get a glimpse of what is to come, but we don't know exactly how this is going to play out.  Sure, our heroes are very likely to live, but we don't know what is going to happen to them or what is going to happen to Corellia.  I had one of those "bad feelings" that this was going to be a crappy trilogy like the Black Fleet Crisis, but I'm very happy to be wrong.  This was a solid opening novel.  I hope the following two novels expand on the story and improve on a solid beginning. 

Book 50: Planet of Twilight

Planet of Twilight rounds out a loose trilogy which started with Children of the Jedi (Hambly) and Darksaber (Kevin Anderson).  The connection here is that Luke fell in love with a Jedi named Callista and she has lost her powers.  So, she leaves Luke to try to find someway to regain her powers so they can be together.  Nice and soap opera-ish.  That's the connection.  In Planet of Twilight, Leia is on a secret diplomatic mission to Nan Chorios to meet with a leader of a minority faction on the planet who wishes to join the New Republic and seeks assistance.  Leia receives a message to avoid the planet and to not trust the man she is meeting.  Luke receives the same message, only he realizes the message is from Callista.  So while Leia is doing her secret meeting thing, Luke is also going in undercover (the majority of the planet is hostile to outsiders and the New Republic) to find Callista.  Meanwhile, an ancient plague is unleashed on the diplomatic fleet and Leia is kidnapped.  What will happen next? 
 
*Yawn*.  Excuse me. 
 
The problem here is that this book has no lasting implications for the greater Star Wars universe.  Sure, the Death Seed Plague should be this big dangerous thing, and it is...sort of.  I guess I just didn't believe the stakes.  Hambly is a reasonably competent author and I had read one of her non-Star Wars books over a decade ago and enjoyed it.  Star Wars can be a lot of things in that hands of different authors, all valid.  One thing it should never be is boring.  I understand that this is in the eye of the beholder, but this beholder was weary of the novel midway through.  Han and Chewie are just running around not accomplishing anything.  Leia is a captive for a while until she isn't.  Luke goes sort of undercover looking for Callista until he realizes Leia is in trouble and none of it amounts to anything.  All these pages spent describing stuff and I'd swear that nothing actually happens.  The ending of the book with the extra "twist" comes completely out of left field and whether this is setting something up for a future volume or not, it was so random to be absurd. 
 
So.  Skip this one. 

Friday, July 07, 2006

Book 49: Parable of the Sower

Friday, July 07, 2006 0
Parable of the Sower is a stark imagining of our future by author Octavia E. Butler.  The future is grim.  There have been environmental and economic disasters and America is a broken land.  Water is more expensive than gasoline and those with jobs live in walled enclaves and only leave when they absolutely must.  It is said to venture into the open city that people must travel in groups and well armed.  Food is precious and almost as rare as water.  To help provide a better understanding of the world it should be pointed out that dogs run wild now.  Owners can no longer spare the money to buy dog food and dogs eat meat, meat which now must be saved for humans...dogs are an unnecessary expense and live as scavengers and hunters...perhaps like wolves. 
 
Lauren Olamina is eighteen.  She is the daughter of a preacher and teacher but she doesn't believe in his god.  She has found, or formed, her own.  Lauren believes in something called Earthseed.  It is a different way of viewing God, that God is absent and that God exists to be changed by humanity.  The viewpoint makes a bit more sense in the novel.  Lauren also suffers from "hyperempathy", an imaginary but very real disorder where she can physically feel the pain of others.  If someone breaks an arm and she sees the injury, she physically feels all the pain from the injury.  It works the other way, with pleasure, but there is far more pain than pleasure in the world.  The disease is all in her mind, and she knows it, but she still feels the pain.  It can incapacitate her and so is a great liability the way the world is today. 
 
At some point in the novel the city/compound/community Lauren lives in is overrun by the homeless, the vagrants, the violent.  Most are slaughtered, Lauren escapes because she planned for such an occurance.  She begins a trek north to find a place to live and settle and found the first Earthseed community.  Along the way she picks up people who are willing to trust and travel together in this time of distrust and danger. 
 
Octavia Butler is one heck of a writer.  As brutal as the world is, Butler tells a very human story of survival and hope for the future.  Lauren Olamina may bother some readers because she does not develop much as a character.  She is a very intelligent young woman who has done a lot of thinking about Earthseed and about how to survive in the world and is willing to take any bit of information regarding survival that she can from anyone.  She knows she needs to learn, but she is the same character at the end that she is at the beginning.  So, the character development isn't there, but Parable of the Sower has raw power.  The destruction of society and the situations that Lauren and company find themselves in...it is astounding to think this could be a vision of the future.  But Butler's storytelling is excellent as she brings the reader along on a journey through a wasted California in Lauren's need to found Earthseed.  I do not know what Parable of the Talents will bring this storyline, but I am willing to find out. 

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Book 48: City of Pearl

Thursday, July 06, 2006 0
Before I started reading City of Pearl I was most familiar with author Karen Traviss because of her first two entries into the Star Wars Universe. She is the author of Republic Commando: Hard Contact and Republic Commando: Triple Zero. These are easily two of the best Star Wars novels. City of Pearl was a well regarded debut and I had been meaning to pick the book up for months. Now I wonder what took so long.
Like the Republic Commando novels, City of Pearl focuses on the "guys on the ground". Shan Frankland is an officer in Enviromental Hazard Enforcement. What this means is that Frankland is an eco-cop. In 2299 the Earth is a pretty messed up place. Corporations own patents on every variation of seed and probably DNA on the planet. Farmers can only grow what they can buy and most seeds are terminator seeds, which means the seed dies after one planting thus making the farmers, the economy, and pretty much everyone who wants to eat, entirely beholden to corporations. Frankland's job is to enforce the laws of the planet (and beyond) in order to protect the environment from being harmed even more. She is a hard edged cop, very intimidating and willing to act without hesitation. She is also one of the few who have not accepted some sort of modification to her DNA and body to better do her job. She's just good at it.
But this is background. A senator from the Federal European Union offers Frankland a mission to a faraway planet which had been colonized by humans. The catch is that Frankland won't know exactly what the mission is after she accepts it because she is given a Suppressed Briefing. This is a drug which will inhibit the memories of the previous conversation and the memories will only return in time and when certain things trigger the memories. The Senator has her reasons and Frankland apparantly has her own reasons for accepting when she was about to retire. The mission will, because of space travel, take one hundred and fifty years of Earth time by the time Frankland returns. Everything and everyone she knows will be long gone when she comes back. Still, she accepts.
Cavanagh's Star II is the planet. Besides the remnants of the human settlement, the planet is claimed, one way or another, by three alien species: The Aquatic bezeri, the invading isenj, the harshly protective wess'har. The peace is uneasy because the wess'har have a blockade of CS2 to prevent the isenj from returning. Like everyone else, they have their reasons. The bezeri truly call the planet home.
But this is starting to get overly complicated in the description. Shan Frankland finds herself as the civilian commander of a group of marines and a team of scientists. The scientists work for corporations and want to take as many samples as they can. The humans on CS2 live in a very ecologically friendly manner and refuse to let samples be taken. Frankland finds herself siding with the natives and with the wess'har, of whom she meets Aras. Aras has a long history of protecting CS2 and the humans and he is willing to destroy Frankland's ship if necessary to protect the world.
What Karen Traviss has done here is create a military, environmental, character driven science fiction novel that doesn't hit the reader over the head with any of the points. It's quite remarkable, really. Traviss, as one might except after reading her Star Wars work, is quite adept at writing from the perspective of the soldiers. They are hard working and pragmatic and respect strong leadership and Frankland's leadership is stronger even that the military commander on that field. Frankland has to balance the requirements of the natives, the wess'har, and her own people. She also needs to discover what exactly her mission is on CS2. She hasn't found all of the trigger points to bring the briefing to the front of her mind. All of this is well written by Karen Traviss. Her focus on the characters rather than the over-reaching ambitions of the folks with true power is what is so fascinating, that she writes about the people who actuall do stuff and she writes it well.
City of Pearl is one of the best science fiction debuts I've read, though I admit I am not widely read in the genre. The only part of the novel that did not work was the cliche of using apostraphes in naming. In this case it was for some alien names rather than human, but still, I don't like it. There is much here to like, however. Traviss's use of flashbacks for Frankland was very effective as the flashback with the gorilla is one of the most memorable ones I've read and it really put the character into perspective and gave a good idea of why Frankland is the way she is. Excellent writing, excellent story and I cannot wait to read Crossing the Line, the next volume in the Wess'har Wars.

The First 50 Books of 2006

I am currently working on a little goal of reading 100 books this year.  Last night I finished book 50 on the list.  I am a little bit behind schedule since at this pace book 100 would be finished on January 10, but I'm close.  I'll just need a good run somewhere in the next six months to push through some reading.  It's been a good couple of weeks with some really good books.  My personal highlight of this list so far is discovering Octavia Butler.  Her work is fantastic, especially Kindred
 
And without adieu, here are the first 50 books I've read this year. 
 
 

1. His Family - Ernest Poole

2. Tributes II - Dave Meltzer

3. Stone of Farewell - Tad Williams

4. The Best American Short Stories 2005

5. Shadow of the Torturer - Gene Wolfe

6. The Complete Peanuts 1957-1958 - Charles M Schulz

7. The Three Incestuous Sisters - Audrey Niffenegger

8. I, Jedi - Michael Stackpole

9. The Astonishing X-Men: Gifted - Joss Whedon

10. Mad Ship - Robin Hobb

11. Kafka Americana - Jonathan Lethem

12. The Best American Sports Writing 2005

13. Starfighters of Adumar - Aaron Allston

14. A Feast for Crows - George R. R. Martin

15. Flight of the Nighthawks - Raymond E Feist

16. The Astonishing X-Men: Dangerous - Joss Whedon

17. Wicked - Gregory Maguire

18. Children of the Jedi - Barbara Hambly

19. The Kitchen Boy - Robert Alexander

20. The Nomad of Time - Michael Moorcock

21. The Reality Dysfunction: Emergence - Peter F. Hamilton

22. The Claw of the Conciliator - Gene Wolfe

23. Finding Serenity - Jane Espenson

24. Hyperion - Dan Simmons

25. A Knight of the Word - Terry Brooks

26. Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader - James Luceno

27. Legacies - L.E. Modesitt, Jr

28. The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005

29. Railroaded! - Whitfield Grant

30. Angel Fire East - Terry Brooks

31. Republic Commando: Triple Zero - Karen Traviss

32. The Last Spymaster - Gayle Lynds

33. No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy

34. Kindred - Octavia Butler

35. The Reality Dysfunction: Expansion - Peter F. Hamilton

36. Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury

37. Beasts of No Nation - Uzodinma Iweala

38. Death Comes for the Archbishop - Willa Cather

39. Memories of Ice - Steven Erikson

40. Cesar's Way - Cesar Millan

41. Darksaber - Kevin Anderson

42. Ship of Destiny - Robin Hobb

43. The Virgin of Bennington - Kathleen Norris

44. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith - Anne Lamott

45. Out of the Silent Planet - C. S. Lewis

46. Startide Rising - David Brin

47. Eric - Terry Pratchett

48. City of Pearl - Karen Traviss

49. Parable of the Sower - Octavia Butler

50. Planet of Twilight - Barbara Hambly

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Book 47: Eric

Wednesday, July 05, 2006 0
To say that Eric owes major plot points to Faust would be to assume that Terry Pratchett didn't get the joke...and we know the man gets the joke, he writes the jokes.  The front cover of the book is the first give away, the title is actually Faust (which is crossed out), then Eric.  So, we know going in that there is going to be a deal with the devil in return for something.  And there is.  Eric is a young boy (I think he was twelve)  who tries to summon a demon so he can have three (or more) wishes fulfilled.  Something about ruling the world, the most beautiful woman in the world...and...well, I forget.  He thinks he is summoning a demon.  What he gets is Rincewind, a fairly incompetent wizard who has been the focus of a handful of prior Discworld novels.  Since Rincewind can't really do anything right and he is trailed by some walking nearly sentient luggage which will attack anything that poses a threat to Rincewind, much to the dismay of Rincewind, Eric's wishes do not exactly go as planned.  We are taken to the beginning of time, hell, to the events of Iliad, and more. 
 
Rincewind is perhaps my least favorite protagonist in all the Disc, though I'm a big fan of the Luggage.  Somehow in this shorter Discworld novel I didn't mind Rincewind.  The pace was fast and it was funnier than many of the previous novels.  I know this is a humorous fantasy series, but I can't say there are any laugh out loud moments.  Hilarity doesn't exactly ensue.  But good humor does ensue. That's a plus.  
 
Pratchett writes situations that are funny or humor filled (having Helen of Troy being a middle aged mother of five by the time she is rescued = humor filled; the Universe beginning with a Paper Clip rather than a Bang = funny), so it is a breeze to read.  
 
This ninth Discworld novel was one of my better experiences on the Disc.   

Book 46: Startide Rising

Dolphins in space!  Whee! 
 
Startide Rising is the second volume in David Brin's Uplift Saga.  The premise behind this world, this universe is that every known race in the galaxy that has been able to travel to the stars and across space has been "uplifted" by a patron race.  No race, except the mythical Progenitors has been able to uplift (or "bootstrap") themselves.  Every race...except humanity.  This puts humanity in an odd position in the universe.  With no patron, they are not a client race and so even though humanity has been space bourne for a relatively short period of time (client races may remain in servititude for a hundred thousand years or more), they are beholden to no race...this makes humanity unique, hated, and potentially dangerous.  Humanity has uplifted chimps, dolphins, and as of this book are working on dogs. 
 
The premise of this particular Uplift novel is that the first flight "manned" by a primarily dolphin crew and captain stumble across a billions of years old wreckage of ancient space ships.  This discovery has set off an interstellar war among some of the oldest and most powerful "Galactics".  Very few of these Galactics have warm fuzzy feelings for humans.  The ship, Streaker, takes refuge on the planet of Kithrup to repair the ship and to buy time to figure out how to get home alive and share their discovery with Earth.  Kithrup holds galactic secrets of its own. 
 
I understand this novel won either the Hugo or Nebula Awards (SFF's Big Two literary prizes).  Startide Rising is very well written and is quite original.  Dolphins in space?  The concept of Uplift and the history of the universe hinted at in the novel is outstanding.  But I was not engaged by the novel.  I don't believe it is the mostly dolphin protagonists and the story being told from their perspectives (mostly, Brin uses a multiple narrator format), but rather for such a big novel, not a whole lot actually happens.  What occurs has huge implications for the series and this particular universe, because what the crew learns about Kithrup and the discovered fleet would change the very nature of how the Universe is perceived, but Brin was not able to sell me on the story.  Everything around the periphery of the story: Fantastic.  The story itself about the dolphins being on Kithrup and trying to repair the ship, investigate, and get back home...it felt a little empty. 
 
This is most disappointing for me because when I read Sundiver ten years ago, I loved it.  When I re-read Sundiver a couple of years ago, I still enjoyed it far more than Startide Rising.  From what I have been able to tell, David Brin is an ideas writer.  The storytelling can be just good enough and the ideas about the world or our future or whatever Brin is writing about can carry the story farther than the storytelling.  It did with Earth.  It didn't carry quite far enough with Startide Rising

Monday, July 03, 2006

Book 45: Out of the Silent Planet

Monday, July 03, 2006 1
Mere ChristianityThe Chronicles of NarniaThe Great DivorceThe Screwtape LettersThe Weight of GloryThe Problem of PainA Grief ObservedThe Abolition of Man.  Outside of his memoir Surprised by Joy, every book that I have read by C.S. Lewis has been outstanding.  His fantasy is a classic of the genre and it is recommended one reads Narnia at various stages of life to get the full effect, his essays are excellent, Mere Christianity is one of the more important and influential books in modern Christianity.  Why, then, did I hesitate for so long before starting the first volume of his Space Trilogy?  Did I have some premonition?  Everything else has been stellar. 
 
And then comes Out of the Silent Planet.  I couldn't have been more dissappointed.  It's the story of a man named Ransom who is out walking in England when he meets a man he knew back in school.  The man, and a cohort, knock Ransom out, kidnap him, and take him to another planet: Malacandra.  There Ransom escapes his captors and discovers various alien creatures and learns about their culture (not humanoid at all) and tries to figure out what exactly he should do next and where exactly he is.  Malacandra is far more familiar than he would have thought, and the reader can probably guess early on which planet we're talking about here. 
 
Fairly simple story, but it's all in the telling.  Lewis must have missed something that has served him well in his other fiction, because I could not have been more weary of this book.  The action is told in such a way that even when these big events are happening (travelling to another planet, first contact with a sentient alien race, speaking with a nearly divine creature), it feels like nothing is happening.  I'm not sure how that could be.  Lewis described creation in The Magician's Nephew and the end of creation as we know it in The Last Battle, and it was wonderful.  By the time I hit the fifth and sixth chapters I was simply waiting for it all to end.  It didn't matter.  Thankfully this was a short novel, otherwise I may have put it down without finishing, but I feel bad.  I wanted to like this book, I like the work of C.S. Lewis.  I'm sure somewhere in this trilogy there is a built in Christ story like the Narnia books, but I don't think I'm going to find out.  I can't imagine picking up Perelandra and trying to read it.  There are plenty of books by Lewis which I haven't read and I'm sure they are all far superior to Out of the Silent Planet
 
They'd have to be. 

Book 44: Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

Anne Lamott is most notably the author of Traveling Mercies.   That book was something of a spiritual biography as she wrote about her life having come to find a faith in Christ after years of drug abuse and bad decisions.  But her faith is not that which the average person or the average Christian would think of when they consider "faith in Christ".  Perhaps Lamott is more honest than most in that she willingly admits her prejudices, faults, and failings.  Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith is less memoir and more a collection of 24 essays regarding different aspects of her personal faith as told in a humorous and down to earth, salt of the earth manner.  She writes about screaming at her son and her desire to hit people with a wide variety of objects.  She writes about finding little bits of grace in unexpected and perhaps unwanted places in her life.  She writes about not forgiving her mother for years after she had died.  She writes about the grace in being able to give someone from her church a ham when the woman wasn't able to afford gas or food money.  Lamott writes with frankness, with attitude, with humor, and gets to the heart of Christian life roundabout ways. 

 

This isn't to say that Plan B is a perfect book, because I far prefer Traveling Mercies.  This is more an essay collection than a continuous narrative, and I would have preferred the narrative, but that's my prejudice.  My real gripe is Lamott's constant sniping at President George W. Bush.  You don't like him.  You don't approve.  We know.  It's obvious.  Enough, already.  Lamott doesn't build a case against Bush, not to any great extent, because this book and these essays aren't about that.  It's little pot shots that she admits is something she is working on in the "not hating" category.  It makes her human, but it's too much.  I didn't even vote for the man and it's too much.  Maybe once or twice and essay (or every three essays, but it feels like more) does a comment fly out.  It's distracting. 

 

But let me go back to the grace that Lamott finds bits of...

 

This is a decent book, but not the powerful work that Traveling Mercies is.  Anne Lamott is, and seems to be, an Earthy Christian.  She is of this world, is grounded in reality (though she may dispute that herself), and brings one heck of a perspective to Christianity.  She's not the contemplative that a Kathleen Norris is, but both are favorite authors for the Christian/Spiritual writing.  Given the choice to find an entry point to Anne Lamott, I would have to recommend Traveling Mercies instead.  Plan B is good, Traveling Mercies is better. 

 
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