Friday, July 30, 2004

Star of Danger: A Review

In "Star of Danger" we get to see one of the earlier works of Marion Zimmer Bradley. First published in 1965, it was the fourth Darkover novel written. The reason this is worth mentioning is that even thought it was only the fourth novel published in the series, it is the twelfth novel in chronological order, and if the "Clingfire Trilogy" is counted (which was mostly written by Deborah J Ross in the years after Bradley died), "Star of Danger" is the fifteenth novel in chronological order. It is in this order that I am experiencing the world of Darkover, from the earliest era of the planet through to the novels that take place deeper in the chronology. Bradley had not yet developed many of the ideas that would encompass the world of Darkover and she had not yet begun to truly tie these novels together. One theme that does remain strong throughout the entire series, including this novel has to do with the clash of cultures.

Larry Montray is a Terran youth who arrives on Darkover for the first time with his father Wade. For years, Larry has dreamt of traveling to distant planets and experiencing alien cultures, but when on Darkover he is not permitted to travel outside the Terran Zone. It is only through disobeying that he is able to maintain a friendship with a young Darkovan native named Kennard Alton. Kennard is a son of the powerful Alton clan on Darkover, a clan which holds much authority on the planet. Even though Larry is forbidden to leave the Terran Zone, he is invited by the Altons to spend several months with the family at their countryside estate. This is a huge opportunity for Terran Intelligence as the ruling class of Darkover is very restrictive regarding who is permitted to roam freely outside the Terran Zone. This is nearly unprecedented access. But to Larry, it is simply the fulfillment of a dream and a chance to spend time with a friend. It is also the beginning of an adventure that risks the lives of both Larry and Kennard, as well as the still tenuous relationship between Darkover and Terra.

Bradley uses this novel, as she does with most of the Darkover series, to explore a culture clash. In this case, it is Larry Montray who is out of his element. Larry is thrust into a situation where everything that he knows is alien to the life he is living on Darkover and he tries to fit in as best that he can. But, the difference of culture also causes conflict in his friendship with Kennard.

"Star of Danger" is a relatively short novel, coming in at just over 200 pages, but it is packed with action and adventure. So much so that one might thing this was geared towards a slightly younger reader, but the storytelling is such that any reader of fantasy can enjoy this book.

My only complaint about "Star of Danger" has to do with continuity, but because this book was written so many years before the rest of the series and Bradley has always been willing to sacrifice continuity if it would help telling a particular story. The continuity issue that I am referring to in this book has to do with Larry's father, Wade Montray. Wade is a minor character, and he did admit to having been on Darkover before, but the text suggests that Wade does not know nearly as much about Darkover as we see in the "Renunciate Trilogy". It is also surprising that Larry does not know about this, because I would have expected that he would have learned about his father and grandfather's role on Darkover. In particular, I would expect Larry to have known about his grandfather, who had a prominent role in the Terran government on Darkover. Again, since this was written years before the bulk of the series, and with Bradley's willingness to sacrifice continuity for the good of the story, this does not trouble me as much as it otherwise would, but since I am reading the series in chronological order it was a small distraction.

Overall, "Star of Danger" was a short, enjoyable reading experience. I have long been a fan of the Darkover series, which doesn't seem to get nearly as much attention as it should merit. This is good, but not great fantasy (and overlaps with science fiction at times). Most of the Darkover novels can stand alone, and this one certainly does, so it may be a good entrance point into the world of Darkover.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Angels and Demons: A Review

Before the incredible success of "The Da Vinci Code", Dan Brown wrote "Angels and Demons", the first book to feature Robert Langdon as the protagonist.  Langdon is a Harvard professor and a symbologist.  He studies and lectures on religious symbols and is an expert.  His assistance is requested when there is a murder in a highly advanced scientific community.  While Langdon questions why he is being asked to investigate a murder with no police involvement the reason is clear when the nature of the murder is revealed: burned into the chest of the victim is the symbol for the "Illuminati".  The Illuminati is a secret organization which has its origins in the time of Galileo.  The Illuminati were scientists persecuted by the Catholic Church and the organization became rabidly anti-Catholic. 

While bringing the Illuminati into the story certainly adds complexity to "Angels and Demons", the stakes are raised once more when the murder leads to a theft of a small amount of man made anti-matter.  This is significant because up until the murder victim, nobody had ever created anti-matter on earth and this is a highly volatile substance that even trace amounts can cause a great explosion.  The amount of anti-matter stolen is enough to completely destroy city blocks and with the anti-Catholic nature of the Illuminati, the threat of the stolen anti-matter is directed at the Vatican.  This is where Robert Langdon comes in.  He has to follow a trail of symbols to stop a series of murders and the eventual destruction of the Vatican itself. 

In the hands of a lesser writer, this could be an absurd story that fails to work on any level.  Amazingly enough, Dan Brown has written a tight, fast paced story where the tension increases and increases as Langdon tries to unravel the symbols that provide a trail of clues to each potential murder victim and the danger touches the highest levels of the Vatican.  "Angels and Demons" should not be as interesting as it turned out to be.  This is a book that should be so heavy in detail that it weighs the narrative down, but it doesn't.  "Angels and Demons" is a gripping story that pulled me in and did not let me go until near the end when Brown may have used one twist too many and the book finally did venture into the absurd.  That one absurdity aside, the 9/10 of this book that worked was so good that I feel compelled to use that grand cliche about literature: "it was a real page turner".  In this case the cliche is absolutely true.  "Angels and Demons" is a "real page turner". 

There are many similarities to "The Da Vinci Code".  The theme and many of the events are remarkably similar, as are the villains and the ties to the Catholic Church, but where "The Da Vinci Code" was obsessed with the ideas of the conspiracy "Angels and Demons" tells a better story.  "Angels and Demons" is the better book of the two (so far) Robert Langdon novels, but the ideas of "The Da Vinci Code" were far more interesting and controversial, which explains the difference in sales.  If you haven't read "The Da Vinci Code" yet, start with this one. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The Bourne Supremacy (2004): A Review

A film by Paul Greengrass

"The Bourne Supremacy" is the sequel to the 2002 film "The Bourne Identity".  Both films are adaptations of Robert Ludlum novels, but this adaptation may be a bit looser than the first film because it has to maintain any plot and story changes that were first introduced in the first film.  A film has to be able to stand on its own, separate from the book, and since I have not read "The Bourne Supremacy", I can only judge the film on its own merits.  There are quite a few. 

In "The Bourne Identity", Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) was shot and left for dead.  When he awoke, he found that he could not remember anything about himself or his past.  The film became his quest to find out who he is, and why people are still trying to kill him.  What he discovers is that he was a former agent of the CIA, a trained killer, but that is who he was, not who he is.  All of that training was imprinted so deeply in him that even though he couldn't remember who he was, he was able to call on that training when the situation required, and it was required often.  By the end of the film, Bourne had made his break from the CIA and warned them to leave him alone, because even a hint of the CIA on his trail would bring the wrath of Bourne upon them. 

The story picks up in "The Bourne Supremacy" a couple of year later in Goa, India.  Bourne is living with Marie (Franka Potente), the woman from the first film, on the seashore.  He still can't remember much of his past life, though he has nightmares that gives him hints that there is something more, something deeper that he is missing.  That something starts creeping up on him when he spots a man in the marketplace who shouldn't be there.  The man is nobody that Bourne recognizes, but Bourne knows that his cover is blown and that he is in danger again.  Bourne's assumption: The CIA is after him again, and this means that Bourne is going to take the fight to the people responsible. 

What the viewer knows, and Bourne does not, is that the CIA is not after him, at least not yet.  Somebody else is targeting Jason Bourne, and that same somebody else is also targeting the CIA by framing Bourne for a double murder of two CIA agents.  This adds an additional layer onto the story because as both Bourne and senior CIA operative Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) are in the midst of a potentially deadly "dance" with each other, the viewer knows that something else is in play. 

For those tired of how tedious the James Bond franchise has become, may I suggest the Jason Bourne franchise.  The series is going in a completely different direction than James Bond, as Bourne wants nothing more than to be left alone with his fractured memories, but as an entry into the genre of the "spy/espionage" film, the two Bourne films are a breath of fresh air.  Why are they a breath of fresh air?  Because they are both exciting and interesting movies. 

Not having to spend as much time setting up the story as its predecessor did, "The Bourne Supremacy" is an extremely fast paced, exciting movie.  This time Jason Bourne is the one driving the story as he tries to get to Pamela Landy and the CIA and stop them from going after him.  This time it is self-preservation that drives Bourne, rather than self-discovery.  Bourne is pushed back into a life that he wants no part of, but he is prepared to do what it takes to be able to put the life behind him. 

Matt Damon embodies Jason Bourne seamlessly.  There is a palpable sense that Bourne is a dangerous man even when is sitting silently, or walking down a street.  Damon would not have been an actor that I would have expecting this transformation from, but he works as an action star as well as a spy capable of such violence.  This leads me into the style of the action itself.  The camera work/editing is jolting and jerky.  When Bourne fights, I got a sense of the speed and intensity of the fight, but I also felt jerked around too much by the camera.  The cuts were too quick, and too glaring for my taste, but were still effective for the movie.  It just made some sequences harder to follow than may have been necessary. 

There is a frantic pace to the film that is appropriate to the type of story that is being told, but the best scenes are those were the characters are standing around talking.  Scenes with the CIA agents, or between Bourne and the CIA, are what the story is built on and do not slow down the pace or the tension in "The Bourne Supremacy".  There is still one more Jason Bourne novel written by Robert Ludlum, so perhaps we can expect one more movie (two more if we count the Bourne novel written by Eric Van Lustbader).  I can only hope, because the Bourne franchise has proven to be an intelligent, exciting action franchise.  That's a good thing. 

Friday, July 23, 2004

I, Robot: A Review

"I, Robot" is the classic science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov.  It kicks off the best selling Robot/Foundation series, though when "I, Robot" was first published it was not intended to be a part of any larger series, nor were Robot and Foundation originally connected.  While the format of "I, Robot" is loosely a novel, it is truly a collection of short stories that is bridged by a common thread and text that connects all stories together. 

The tie that connects these stories together is Susan Calvin, a robopsychologist.  At the start of the book, Calvin is retiring from her position at U.S. Robotics.  A reporter is trying to get her thoughts on the history of robotics, but not the official position, more of her personal impressions.  Calvin was at U.S. Robotics when the first truly "thinking" robots were released for sale and was at the forefront of figuring out why some robots were acting the way they were.  The format of "I, Robot" is such that Calvin is essentially giving a little bit of background which moves into the short story, giving an episodic feel to the book. 

As the stories move in chronological order, the reader is presented with the evolution of robots, starting with "Robbie", which deals with the relationship a little girl has with her robot, Robbie.  Robbie was designed as a playmate for a little girl and her parents feel that she has become too attached to the robot and has forsaken real friends.  Robbie is an earlier design robot: large, clunky, and without the ability to speak.  The subsequent stories show the development of robots and include: a mind reading robot, a robot who does not believe it is possible that a human could create a robot, and one that may even end up ruling the world.

Through these stories, Asimov has set up the Three Laws of Robotics, which are:

1 - A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.2 - A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.3 - A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These Three Laws are the driving force within each of the stories.  What is interesting here is that all of the stories are something of a "whodunit".  Something is not working exactly right with a robot and it is up to Susan Calvin, or the team of Martin and Donovan to figure out why a robot is not working how it is expected to.  Each time, it has something to do with the Three Laws and everything makes sense within the confines of the Three Laws: Calvin, Martin, and Donovan just have to figure out what. 

The writing style here is simple, and easy to read.  Despite the fact that there is little "action" happening in the stories, they move along quickly.  These are stories of humanity and science and the robots seem to fit into both categories at the same time.  "I, Robot" is rightly considered a classic of science fiction and these are simple little gems with a depth of complexity that makes everything fit together. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Orson Scott Card loved I, Robot?

I enjoy reading Orson Scott Card's column on his website Hatrack River. Card is the author of the incredible Ender's Game, a science fiction novel that is so good that it transcends the genre.  In his column, Card reviews everything.  Books, movies, local restaurants.  Sort of like what i want to do, only with a higher literary quotient that i seem to be capable of right now. 

He recently saw and reviewed the film adaptation of I, Robot, which from the previews looks like a big steaming pile or turd laid on top of Asimov's work. Card went in with that expectation but it turns out that he loved it.  Loved.  To quote Card,
"I, Robot is better than the best movie I could have imagined coming out of Asimov's robot universe. It's a relief to know that, in the right hands, a great work of science fiction can be made into a film worthy of the original."
Worthy of the original?  I typically don't agree with Card across the board on movies (and i don't read the same books as he does), but that is an exceptionally bold statement.  I like getting a different perspective on movies, and Card always provides that.  Now i'm torn between seeing it and not.  It was always going to be a rental, and with Spider-man 2, The Bourne Supremacy, and even King Arthur (I'm a sucker for any movie that brushes up against Arthurian legend) to see, I don't think that i'll make it to I, Robot anytime soon. Not unless someone wants to pay me to watch and review it, anyway. Any takers?

Card's thoughts on I, Robot can be found here.

P.S. Orson Scott Card was not very to the historical aspects of King Arthur in his latest column.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The Zombie Survival Guide: A Review

In the vein of a traditional, realistic survival guide or the U.S. Army handbook comes Max Brooks’ “Zombie Survival Guide”.  Max Brooks gives exhaustive detail on what exactly a zombie is, what weapons to use, and in general just how to survive a zombie attack.  Even though “The Zombie Survival Guide” is typically catalogued in the “humor” section of the bookstore, Max Brooks plays this seriously.  At no point in this book is there any impression given that this is not fact and that this topic is one that should be taken very, very seriously. 
Brooks begins with the how Zombies are created and what it is the causes the reanimation.  Apparently it is a drug/chemical called Solanum.  When Solanum is entered into the blood stream (which can happen from a bite, or from being sprayed by infected blood) it leads to death but the Solanum then causes reanimation into a zombie.  Brooks discusses various facts and misconceptions about zombies.  For example, zombies do not have superhuman strength but what gives the illusion of this strength is that a zombie is unable to feel pain or get tired. 
Max Brooks moves on to discuss the various weapons that can be used to combat a zombie, and this too is exhaustive.  Included in the discussion are handguns, axes, rifles, assault rifles, flamethrowers, swords, pikes, fire, acid, hammers and many others that fall both inside and outside of these categories.  Brooks discusses the pros and cons of each weapon (and class of weapon), just as one might hope for in an actual survival guide. 
This volume also contains information about the four classes of zombie attacks which range from an isolated attack to having to live in an undead world.  Anything that the reader can possibly need to know to equip himself (or herself) to survive a zombie attack is contained in this book, and make no mistake, the point of this book is survival at a basic level. 
The greatest strength of this book is also its greatest flaw: Max Brooks does not wink at the reader or let the reader in on the joke.  As presented, this book is factual (though widespread media coverage has been either suppressed or manipulated) and straightforward.  If zombies attack, this is what you do and how you do it.  The joke, of course, is that there is no such thing as a zombie.  The straight forward zombie survival guide borders on being absolutely brilliant.  The greatest flaw is also the fact that this book is very straight forward and dry reading.  It reads like a manual, but the manual is for something that does not exist.  If zombies really do exist, we’ll all be in for a world of hurt. 

Monday, July 19, 2004

That's not the book i read!

I've been seeing trailers for I, Robot on television and in the theatres and it made me wonder about the source material.  The movie, as advertised, is inspired by the book of the same title.  Inspired.  Uh oh.  Just once i think i'd like to see a movie claim to be "an adaptation that is faithful to both the text and spirit of the original work".  But that may be asking for too much. 
I am convinced that i've read I, Robot before, probably when i was twelve or fourteen.  I remember several of the stories, but i don't remember if they were from this book or from Asimov's collection of short stories.  Whichever it was, i don't remember teeming masses of robots attacking humans or punching through a windshield while saying "your vehicle just had an accident".  That seems alien to Asimov's work.  What did i decide to do? 
Read the book, of course.
I was right.  The preview tells me that the movie has next to nothing to do with the book.  Except for a few things that i could tell from the preview.
1: The title.  Both the book and the movie have the same title.
2: The Three Laws of Robotics. 
3: The company U.S. Robotics
4: the name of the robo-psychologist Susan Calvin
And in case you weren't familiar with the Three Laws of Robotics:

1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Now, with the first law being the strongest of the laws imprinted on the robots, please tell me how the preview makes sense.  Please.  I know, i should watch the movie first, but i don't think i want to shill out the $9 right now.  I'll wait for Netflix. 
By the way, I would highly recommend the book as well as Asimov's collections of short stories.  There are some top-notch stories in the multi-volume collection.  Excellent stuff.  My favorite is "The Last Question", which i think is one of the best stories i've read. 

Friday, July 16, 2004

Monster (2003): A Review

A film by Patty Jenkins
Roger Ebert listed “Monster” as the best film of all of 2003.  Charlize Theron won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos.  For months before the Oscars the talk had been about how amazing Theron’s performance was and how not only was it the best performance of the year, it was one of the best performances in years.  This is a lot of high praise that raised my expectations on exactly what it was that I was going to see in “Monster”.
“Monster” is based on the true story of Aileen Wuornos.  Aileen lived as a prostitute in Florida and became a serial murderer, killing her prospective clients.  As the film opens, Aileen is sitting under an overpass and is reflecting back on past events, specifically her meeting of Selby (Christina Ricci).  After meeting Selby in a bar, Selby quickly becomes Aileen’s best (and only) friend and also her lover.  They are both very lonely and needy people.  For the love of Selby, Aileen wants to clean up her life, quit hooking, and find a real job so she can support Selby.  Unfortunately for Aileen, she is unable to find a job because she has no work experience, no resume, and a huge chip on her shoulder that prevents anyone in a position to help to even want to help her.  Selby is demanding, telling Aileen that she needs to start hooking again because they don’t have any money, she is hungry, and this is one thing that Aileen can do to support her. 
When she is raped by one of her clients, Aileen finally snaps and kills him.  She tells Selby that this was a one time thing, but after this first murder she starts killing and robbing her other clients.  It is at this point where we start to see Aileen crack under the pressure of what her life has become.  She feels that from day one she never stood a chance.  She was sexually abused as a child and by age 13 was pregnant and a prostitute.  This is her life and she has no opportunity to improve her life.  Her experience trying to find a legitimate job is proof of this.  “Monster” is the story of Aileen Wuornos and it is brutal and unflinching. 
It is impossible to separate the performance of Charlize Theron from the rest of the movie.  “Monster” is built on the raw power and pain of Theron’s transformation into Aileen Wuornos.  This transformation was both physical and emotional.  Charlize Theron is a strikingly beautiful woman and early in her career the roles she became known for were little more than the beautiful wife/girlfriend/woman (Legend of Bagger Vance, The Devil’s Advocate, The Cider House Rules).  “Monster” required a physical change in the appearance of Theron’s face and the make-up helped change the beautiful Theron into the ugly Wuornos.  The other part of the transformation is that Wuornos was a tormented, pained, and angry woman and this required Theron to not simply be a woman acting but rather to “become” Aileen Wuornos.  She succeeds. 
During the first half of the movie I could not figure out why Theron had won the Academy Award for Best Actress.  She had become Aileen, but the performance was nothing terribly impressive for the first fifty minutes.  But when Selby confronts Aileen to return to being a prostitute, that scene nailed it for me and brought Theron’s performance to an entirely new level.  The raw emotion Theron conveyed carried the movie.  The performance became more emotional, angry, vulnerable, fearful, and edgy and at no point did I think that this was Theron acting.  I saw Aileen Wuornos. 
The movie itself, without Charlize Theron, did not feel to me that it was telling a story that could not have been told on a made for cable (because of the content) movie.  But the movie is not so much about the plot and about the story, but rather about the performance and transformation of Charlize Theron into Aileen Wuornos.  The performance makes the viewer capable of feeling pity for Aileen without excusing her actions.  I don’t feel that there is any question that Theron deserved the Oscar for “Monster”. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Cross Purposes: A Review

“Cross Purposes” is a two man play which is set near and in Jerusalem during the week leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. The focus of this play is on Jestus and Dysmas, two con-men. Jestus and Dysmas were guilty of the murder of Lazarus and they are shocked, and a little relieved, by the reports that Lazarus is still alive. It doesn’t make any sense, because they know they killed him, but Lazarus is alive and this provides the opportunity to get away with the crime. Not only did they murder Lazarus, but they also stole some of his property. The play shifts scenes several times and works its way through Jesus’ final week. We are given glimpses of Jesus with his disciples and the Pharisees condemning Jesus. All of this is building and moving together to that Friday when Jesus is crucified and how this all comes together with Jestus and Dysmas.

While it seems that initially the play starts out with a lighter, almost comedic tone in the opening scenes, the power of the story and the impact of what is going on starts to come through. Barker calls this play “a theatrical celebration of Easter week, told through the eyes of the people who were present in Jerusalem at the time.” This play is intended for for production in a worship setting. This book contains instructions and suggestions for how the play be performed. The suggestions are along the lines of how to use the cast (written for two men, it can be performed by a larger cast) and brief comments on the staging of the play and props.

The potential problem with looking at a play as literature is that a play is ultimately intended to be viewed as a public performance, rather than reading the play privately. A well written play, however, will allow the reader to be able to visualize the play even though there is nobody performing it. “Cross Purposes” is such a play. I was able to “see” how this play could be staged and performed and feel the power of what it would be like to be in the audience for a production of “Cross Purposes.”

A note on my bias: I was a student at Northwestern College of Iowa where Jeff Barker is a professor in the theatre department. I was also a student of Barker’s in a playwriting class he taught in the fall of 1999. I have attended several on campus productions of his work and have always been impressed with the quality of his plays. Potentially, this has shaded my reading of “Cross Purposes” to view it favorably, but it is also with the understanding of the quality of work that Jeff Barker produces. This quality of work begins on the page but stretches through to the direction and production of the play. I feel that the quality is present in the script and this helps me visualize the quality of the production.

The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: A Review

“The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys” takes the reader back to the origin of the Hardy Boys Mystery Series and the Nancy Drew books. While the two series have Franklin W Dixon and Carolyn Keene listed as the authors, neither author actually exists are a person. They are both creations of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was the “writing factory” started by Edward Stratemeyer as a means to churn out book after book in a series that he conceived of. He would contract an author to write a book with the requirement the author sign away all rights to the book and to remain anonymous. This led to the birth of Franklin W Dixon and Carolyn Keene (as well as the Tom Swift series, among others).

This book is the history and evolution of these two iconic series for children. The reader is shown how society has influenced the content of the novels, both in the language used as well as the plots. When the Hardy Boys first began in the late 1920’s and into the 30’s, there early volumes contained numerous racial stereotypes, both among the bad guys as well as the Hardys’ friends. Later editions would edit these stereotypes out. This book follows the series through their various authors as well as the change in the focus of the Syndicate after the death of Edward Stratemeyer.

One thing that the authors of this book try to do is tie both series into the society of the time (whether it is the 1930’s of the early series, the 1950’s or the 1980’s). This attempt is what I found less successful or interesting about the book. There are numerous sidebars and pictures and captions about the America’s youth during each era and how the books impacted the youth and I felt that this information was extraneous and unnecessary.

What is most interesting about this book is the evolution of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. The characters changed over the 75 years and the books continue to sell. This coverage was the best part of the book and is what I would recommend for the reader. Nothing would be lost by just skipping the sidebars. I do feel that the authors have overstated the influence of these characters, but I cannot question the popularity of the Hardys or Nancy Drew.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Dune: House Corrino: A Review

“House Corrino” is the third and final book in the “Prelude to Dune” trilogy, otherwise known as the “House” trilogy. To understand this story, it is necessary to have first read “House Atreides” and “House Harkonnen” because the plot lines that started in the first book build to a climax in “House Corrino”.

By the time that we get to this novel the former rulers of Ix, House Vernius, had long since been deposed with the last scion of the ruling family living under the protection of his friend, Duke Leto Atreides. Leto and Rhombur (the last of the Vernius family) are working together to finally reclaim Ix from the Tlielaxu and return Rhombur to power. Leto’s mistress, the Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica is pregnant with his child. Leto wants a son, but the Bene Gesserit need a daughter from Jessica and Leto for their breeding program which is only one generation away from completion.

Meanwhile, Shaddam IV, the Emperor of a Million worlds is seeking an alternative to the Spice that runs the Imperium. Spice is native only to the planet Arrakis and Shaddam wants an artificial source of Spice that he controls. Shaddam is playing both sides of the game, working to control Arrakis through the planet’s overlord Vladimir Harkonnen as well as trying acquire a synthetic spice from the Tlielaxu on Ix.

If this sounds complicated, the reason is simple: it is complicated. Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson are weaving multiple storylines together to build a whole that is far grander than any of the parts. Brian is the son of the creator of the original 6 book Dune series and he has taken on an ambitious project: to write a prequel series that can complement the original books, expand the universe that Frank Herbert crated, and stand on its own merits. While different in style and theme than Frank’s work, the “Prelude to Dune” novels are fully a part of the greater “Dune” universe and are worthy additions to the series.

What makes the challenge of writing these novels even tougher is that as a prequel trilogy with characters that we will meet in Frank Herbert’s classic (in every sense of the word) novel “Dune”, the authors have to create a story that fits within the continuity of “Dune” yet is compelling enough of a story to stand alone. Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson are to be commended for their success. This trilogy fits both requirement and has surely led more readers to discover Frank Herbert’s “Dune”.

Jacob Koczman and the 800 meter finals

It was a personal best by four tenths of a second (.4), which at this level is no small feat. It was clear from watching Jacob run on the television that he ran his best (his time bears that out), and that he was also unhappy with how he placed after the race. That's natural, but i hope that when Jacob can get some distance from this race and some perspective that he can take satisfaction from what he did. Coming from a small college like Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, Koczman was able to not only compete at an elite level but qualify for the Olympic Trials. How many hundreds of runners try to qualify and fail? How many thousands of runners (and would be runners) only dream of being able to just qualify? 30 men ran in the Trials for the 800 meters. These are the elite of the elite in American running at that distance. Jacob ran so well that he beat 22 of them. 22 men of these elite did not make the finals. Jacob did. I hope that when he gets the perspective he can look and be proud of his incredible accomplishment. I know that i'm impressed.

Men 800 Meter Run

World: W 1:41.11 8/24/1997 Wilson Kipketer, KEN
American: A 1:42.60 8/28/1985 Johnny Gray, Santa Monica T
Stadium: 1:45.67 7/23/2000 Mark Everett, unattached
Name Year Team Finals

1 Jonathan Johnson Texas Tech 1:44.77
2 Khadevis Robinson Nike 1:44.91
3 Derrick Peterson adidas 1:45.08
4 David Krummenacker adidas 1:45.67
5 Jesse O'Connell Unattached 1:46.55
6 Jebreh Harris Holyfield Intl. 1:46.66
7 Samuel Burley Asics 1:46.84
8 Jacob Koczman Indiana Invaders 1:47.06

Monday, July 12, 2004

Master and Commander: A Review

“Master and Commander” is the first book in the twenty volume Aubrey-Maturin series. It is in this volume that we are first introduced to Jack Aubrey, a newly made captain in the British Navy. He is still a young man and eager for his first command. Aubrey is given command on the H.M.S. Sophie, a much slower ship than Jack had hoped for. Early in the novel Jack Aubrey meets Stephen Maturin, a surgeon. They meet at a small concert at a party when Maturin elbows Aubrey in the ribs because Jack was unconsciously conducting the music along with the conductor, and thus annoying Maturin. Somehow a friendship begins and Jack asks Maturin to join him on the Sophie as the ship’s surgeon. As Maturn is struggling financially and genuinely likes Jack, he accepts. This begins a great friendship as well as the story of this novel.

“Master and Commander” does not have a plot, in the traditional sense. It is an in-depth look at life in the British Navy and what life at sea is like, both for the common sailor, but mostly for the Captain. Patrick O’Brian takes the reader from naval battle to naval battle, through numerous pages on the art of sailing and loads the book up with nautical detail. There is an incredible level of realism to “Master and Commander” and the story is well told.

There are two ways that this book can be read. The first is for those with a love of the nautical detail (or those who want to immerse themselves into that level of detail). The language and detail can be savored, and I’m sure this is what O’Brian intended with the historical accuracy and all the effort that went into creating this novel. The second way to read this book is for the average reader and this allows for a little bit of skimming and not trying to grasp and fully understand every little detail. The second reader will probably enjoy the book more this way than should he (or she) try to force through all the detail. Little, if any, of the story will be missed this way, but it makes the novel easier to digest. The nautical detail is very heavy and the novel moves at a very slow (though still interesting) pace.

The Stepford Wives (1975): A Review

A film by Bryan Forbes

This film is the first “Stepford Wives” movie and is adapted from Ira Levin’s novel of the same name. The tone of this film is much different than the newer version. The new “Stepford Wives” is more of a comedy, but this version fits into the horror/thriller/suspense genre. It deals with an idea that should scare the feminist movement: that men would rather trade their wife in for a human looking robot than have a strong woman as a mate. When this movie was released in 1975, “The Stepford Wives” had a social identity and a social relevance to the feminist movement. In that vein, the movie might have been more powerful twenty years ago, but I can only react to how it played today.

Walter (Peter Masterson) and Joanna (Katherine Ross) are moving from the big city to the smaller town of Stepford. Joanna is unnerved by the women of Stepford. They all seem to be very happy and content in their lives…lives that are solely focused on pleasing their husbands. Joanna thinks that something is wrong, and seems to get confirmation when new residents who start out normal begin changing dramatically to the “Stepford” type wife. The tone of this film leans towards suspense as tension is building throughout the film as hints are given and Joanna’s fear mounts as to what is happening and what may very well happen to her.

The movie has a great idea behind it. The whole concept of Stepford is wonderful for a movie (and a book, too) and it should work much better than it does. The problem is that the acting was not very good, but that may be because the dialogue the actors were given wasn’t much better. A big example of this is the character of Bobbie (Paula Prentiss). She comes off as a very hokey character, somewhat hickish, though the character has pretenses of being a true feminist. No character is truly given a chance to develop or show a personality, not even the characters which are supposed to actually have a personality. “The Stepford Wives” was just a disappointing movie, though I can imagine it had more of an impact in 1975, but surely not for the quality of the picture. The impact must have been for what the movie was about. The only thing I found truly interesting about “The Stepford Wives” is that this is the film debut of a young Mary Stuart Masterson (the son of Peter Masterson).

The 29 Day Jeopardy Champ!

Has anyone been watching Jeopardy lately? Ken Jennings is the 29 day champ. The man has been unstoppable. When i started watching this two or three weeks ago, i wondered when exactly it was that Jeopardy lifted the rule about only being able to win 5 days in a row. reports that it was last september.

I used to yell out the answers sitting on the couch while watching the show. Now, for politeness sake, i yell out the answers in my head and occasionally quietly speak an answer or two. Some days i think i could do well, but i'm sure i'd freeze if i actually made it on the show. Or, worse, i'd get the category of "Foods that begin with the letter Q".

I was watching last week, and there was a woman who was playing just like the fans at home. She forgot to buzz in several times and once tried to buzz in twice (after answering incorrectly). It was kind of sad, and Alex Trebek even called her on it and mentioned that she wasn't playing home. That could be a tough transition, because i know that while i'm on the couch i answer the clue, but not in the form of a question.

Are you kidding me?

He's run twice now and both times the races have not been televised. I'm biased, of course, but my interest in the triple jump and pole vault pale in comparison to my interest in, say, the 800 meters (or any distance run). But, checking the results again this morning, Jacob ran the first heat of the semi-finals and placed fourth, thus qualifying for the finals in the 800 meter Olympic Trials. His time was slower than the quarterfinals, but even a world record holder (Tim Montgomery) or defending Olympic Champion (Marion Jones) has to place high enough in the finals to make the team. Jones and Montgomery did not. Here's hoping that Koczman can. Here's hoping that the 800 meter finals will be televised.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Koczman to the Semi-finals!

I watched the first day of the Olympic Trials last night and was looking forward to seeing Jacob run. After the first hour i was starting to worry that the event wasn't going to be shown, and it mostly wasn't. Highlights were shown of two heats of the 800 (out of the three that were ran) and since i didn't know which heat Jacob was in, i was trying to see if i could spot him. But i couldn't. I checked the USATF website this morning for the results and Koczman qualified for the semi-finals with the 15th fastest time out of 16 qualifiers.

The great thing about track and the Trials is that it doesn't matter if you have the world record or are the favorite to win a medal, you have to get it done on the track that day to advance and to make the team. All it takes is qualifying to the next round.

Congratulations, Jacob, and good luck in the semis! Who would have imagined that an alumni from Northwestern College of Iowa, a NAIA Divison II school is still in the hunt for a berth on the Olympic squad?

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Does the world need another Police Academy movie?

I probably like the Police Academy movies more than the next guy, but do we really need anotherPolice Academy movie? Seriously.

Jacob Koczman and the Olympic Trials

A guy i went to college with is in the Olympic Trials for the Men's 800 meter run. Looking at his time, he was fast in college, but not that fast. Jacob is a very nice guy and friendly. Good job and good luck, Jacob!

Entrants for the Trials
Jacob is currently ranked 20th in the 800 meter trials

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Matchstick Men (2003): A Review

A film by Ridley Scott

With the track record of Ridley Scott in mind (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Thelma and Louise, Black Hawk Down), any time the man makes a new movie I am automatically interested in it. He has a history of creativity and excellence in filmmaking and any new movie that he directs is worth giving a chance. It was with high expectations that I went into “Matchstick Men”, a story of a con-artist.

Roy (Nicolas Cage) and Frank (Sam Rockwell) are partners in the art of conning people out of their money. As Roy explains in the film, he doesn’t steal people’s money, they give it to him. They are mainly working small phone scams for smaller payouts (though Roy seems to be well off considering the size of his house), but Frank is looking to get a big score, which Roy agrees to work. Simple enough, but Roy also has some serious issues. He is compulsive (he must turn the locks or open and close doors three times before actually opening the door all the way), somewhat manic, and he has trouble dealing with the outdoors. Neatness/cleanliness is another issue. Roy is a man with tics.

Into this imperfect, but somewhat structured life comes a big change: Roy’s daughter Angela (Alison Lohman). When Roy accidentally knocks his supply of medication down the drain, Roy has to start searching for a psychologist who will prescribe some more on short notice. The doctor he does find also suggests that Roy gets in contact with his daughter, whom he has never met. Angela is a breath of fresh air into Roy’s otherwise empty life, but it is also causing some conflict into the big con that Roy and Frank are working on.

My expectations may have been too high, because I wasn’t overly impressed with “Matchstick Men”. For the first half to two thirds of the movie, I just could not engage with the characters. Part of the problem probably lies in the fact that I do not care for Nicolas Cage as an actor. It just seems like he is trying too hard to create a character through personality tics (with the notable exceptions of Leaving Las Vegas, and The Family Man). His characters are just not likeable, or interesting enough for me to engage with, but I understand that this is just a personal perception.

The shining star of the movie is Alison Lohman (also in White Oleander) who was nearly 10 years older than the age she was playing in the movie. She can act and look so young and vulnerable despite being in her mid 20’s. The rest of the acting was well done (though I still don’t care for Cage), but it didn’t all come together like I would have expected. The idea of the “con” runs throughout the entire movie and there are several twists along the way, but this is a fairly lightweight movie up until about three quarters of the way through the movie when it completely changes in tone (and oddly enough becomes a better movie). I hoped for so much more from “Matchstick Men”, but I didn’t think it lived up to the promise of what it could have been with the talent involved.

A novel about assassinating a president?

This article at tells of a new novel coming out that deals with a man intending on assassinating President Bush. I've read several books where there are attempts on the life of a president, but usually it is an unnamed president, or a generic president, or a fictional president. Not a real man currently in office. I find that moderately creepy.

Of course, i find it moderately weird that someone wrote a book called Goerge Bush, Dark Prince of Love. I woefully admit that i read the book, too.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Marlon Brando dies at age 80

The story.

While Brando has not done much of note in the past decade (the passable The Score aside), he is one of Hollywood's legendary actors. He could have been the greatest ever (some say he was), but after roles in On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, Guys and Dolls, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now, he just sort of disappeared in the 1980's. While these films are enough to cement any man's legacy, when Brando made his return in the late 80's, he was in a string of disappointing movies, of which i have only seen one or two. Brando walked away from Hollywood when he was on the top of his game (though it can be said that by Apocalypse Now he was already out. When he was in his prime, the man was simply a wonder. I can only wish that he would have held on to his passion and continued to the level of work that he was capable of. What a filmography he would have had!

Good night, Mr. Brando. You shall be missed.

Roger Ebert Reviews Spider-Man 2

Film Critic Roger Ebert gives a very nice review of the new Spider-Man movie. High praise, indeed.

I wasn't dying to see this movie, but i was interested since Spider-Man (along with the two X-Men movies) was one of the better comic book adaptations in recent memory.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

How can you review a 900 page book in 24 hours?

That is the question posed in this article from Slate. It is a fairly interesting article on how all of these reviews of the memoir were posted so quickly. Normally, reviewers are given advance copies well before the publication date. Shoot, i've even recieved a couple of advance copies because of my reviews Which reminds me, i should get back to work on reading Alexander Hamilton. It isn't very advance anymore. Whoops. But back to my main point. The publishers of Clinton's book, Knopf, decided that there would be no advance copies released until the day of publication...which makes one wonder how some of these reviews were turned out in 24 hours. Even speed readers would have trouble with that one. This article explains how it all went down.

Side note: While i didn't expect one because i'm not actually employed as a reviewer and haven't yet (key word) attempted to seek employment as a reviewer, i would have loved an advanced copy of My Life.

The Paradise Snare: A Review

Han Solo is one of the most beloved characters in the Star Wars Universe, and he has been since the first film was released. With “The Paradise Snare”, author A.C. Crispin brings us the first part of the story of a young Han Solo and shows us what made him into the rogue that we have come to love. Han starts out working (indentured, it seems) to a criminal named Garris Shrike. He finally wants out and there is no way that Shrike will let him. But, with the help and sacrifice of his wookiee friend, Dewlanna, Han is able to escape and find a job as a pilot on the planet Ylesia.

On the planet, Han is assigned a bodyguard, Muuurgh, who is as much guarding Han as guarding Ylesia against Han. Ylesia has a secret that relates to the spice mining it produces. It is supposedly a religious community which the pilgrims voluntarily work, but Han soon feels that something isn’t quite right. He meets a pilgrim, #923 (we do later learn her name), and starts falling for her and wants to rescue her as well as rescue himself from the soon to be hopeless situation on Ylesia.

This book was much better than I expected. It succeeds at doing several things all at once. First, and most importantly, it is an entertaining story in its own right. Second, it starts giving hints and clues and examples of how Han Solo became the man he was in the movies. He distrusts religion and holds himself back from falling in love. He is friends with a wookiee. Why? The set up begins in “The Paradise Snare”. Third, this book sets up more Han Solo novels in the future (two more books of this trilogy) and makes us wonder how a boy dreaming of being a soldier in the Empire grow up to fight in the Rebellion? Within the context of Star Wars, this was a good story.