Friday, October 29, 2004

Book Review: Shadows of the Empire (Star Wars) - Steve Perry

"Shadows of the Empire" is a novel that bridges the gap between the events of "The Empire Strikes Back" and the opening of "Return of the Jedi". Han Solo has been frozen in carbonite and is being transported by the bounty hunter Boba Fett. Luke, Leia, and Lando Calrissian are following Fett in the Millenium Falcon with the hopes of rescuing their friend before he ends up in the hands of the gangster Jabba the Hutt. There is quite a bit more going on in "Shadows of the Empire" than just rescuing Han Solo (besides, we know from Jedi that Han will be delivered to Jabba's palace).

Prince Xizor is the head of the Black Sun criminal organization. Think of an extremely powerful and global mafia, expand it to a galactic scale, and that is Black Sun. Xizor is positioning himself as the top leader under Emperor Palpatine and directly in opposition to Darth Vader. This is something that cannot be done directly, because to openly oppose the favorite of Palpatine is a death sentence. Xizor discovers that Vader is instructed to bring Luke Skywalker to Palpatine, and after finding out that Skywalker is Vader's son, Xizor puts a death mark on Luke. If Vader fails to bring in Luke, and Xizor is not implicated, Xizor will rise in the favor of Emperor Palpatine. It is a fine line Xizor walks, but what else can be expected from the leader of Black Sun?

Leia becomes aware of the threat to Luke's life, and she works to save him (even without him knowing). She begins to contact Black Sun, always a risky venture, to learn what is happening and why. This brings Leia and the other Star Wars regulars (Chewie, Lando, the droids) to Coruscant and the heart of Black Sun.

Steve Perry has written a very good Star Wars novel. It ties in to the films, gives explanations for events in "Return of the Jedi" (ever wonder exactly why Leia is dressed as a bounty hunter?), and tells a compelling story in its own right. Xizor's plotting against Darth Vader is fascinating. This is old school Star Wars in the model (and era) of the Original Trilogy, and if that interests you this is the book to read.

Book Review: Mesmerized - Gayle Lynds

Beth Convey is a hard nosed, high powered Washington D.C. lawyer working on a divorce case for a multi-million dollar client. She is tough, and she is good. In the middle of the very stressful trial, just as she made a play that will win the divorce settlement she is aiming for, Beth Convey suffers a heart attack and collapses in the court room. To save her life, Beth Convey needs a heart transplant. She is fortunate enough to receive one, but this is the beginning of her troubles.

Upon receiving the heart transplant Beth begins to dream. She dreams she is a Russian and she dreams that she has been involved in some criminal activity. More than this, she is starting to crave Russian foods and Russian drinks, but is also starting to remember things that she never knew. She is suddenly familiar with weaponry and discovers a new affinity for martial arts. It is as if Beth Convey is remembering another life. Perhaps she is remembering the life of the original owner of her new heart. She is determined to find out.

Jeffrey Hammond is a former FBI Agent, but is now a reporter for the Washington Post. He is tracking and investigating former KGB spies in America. This may not be on the up and up, however. His former partner, Eli Kirkhart, believes that Hammond may be the mole (or have contact with the mole) in the FBI giving out state secrets. The lives of Convey, Hammond, and Kirkhart will all intertwine in "Mesmerized", the espionage thriller from Gayle Lynds.

Gayle Lynds writes a different kind of spy novel. In a traditionally male dominated field filled with authors and James Bond like male characters, Lynds gives a non-traditional look at the spy novel. To start with, Lynds gives us a strong female protagonist who is just as capable as any of her male counterparts. Having a female lead in a spy novel gives any story a completely different perspective. To top it off, Lynds tells a good story. There may be a cliche or two, but most genre novels have more than a couple. Gayle Lynds is a good story teller and works a fast paced thriller like a master. "Mesmerized" is just as good as her two Liz Sansborough novels, and is a welcome addition to the genre. This is one of her earlier works, so it is a little bit rougher around the edges than "The Coil", but if you are a fan of Robert Ludlum and spy novels, Gayle Lynds is a name to watch,

Book Review: The Plot Against America - Philip Roth

In "The Plot Against America" Philip Roth asks the question "What if Charles Lindbergh, instead of FDR, was elected to the Presidency in 1940?" After Lindbergh made his famous transatlantic flight, and after his child was kidnapped and later found dead, Charles Lindbergh began speaking out about the social problem that Jews are for America and for other nations. He was lauded by Nazi Germany, and was known as an anti-Semite by the Jewish population of America. When the Republican Party could not come to a consensus on whom to nominate to run against Roosevelt, and after four failed votes, Charles Lindbergh came into the Convention like a conquering hero and was nearly unanimously nominated. A week before this action, however, Lindbergh had made an anti-Semitic speech, and with the nomination, many Jews are fearful for the future. Lindbergh's main campaign platform is peace. He intends on keeping the United States out of World War II, and on this platform he wins in a landslide. Shortly after taking office he signs peace treaties with Hitler and with Japan and the United States can do nothing but watch as Nazi Germany begins to take over Europe.

All of the political details that shape the world are just to get the reader in the door and to open the book. It is one of the best ideas for a book, especially one written by Roth, which I have heard of. There could be an excellent political novel with this material, but this is all scenery. The story of "The Plot Against America" is told by 7 year old Philip Roth. This novel is told as if it were a real historical event and we its impact on the Roth family (the author uses the real names of his family). We see the paranoia of Roth's father regarding Lindbergh, whom he considers a Hitler in the making, and how that paranoia and fear only grows and starts to divide the family as Lindbergh's presidency continues. There is a program put into place in which a child (of a certain age) is taken out of the city and spends a summer in a rural community. Philip's older brother is one such child, and when he comes back home Sandy is heavily pro-Lindbergh and is highly critical of the fears of the Jews (including his father). This further divides the family. It is through the lens of the Roth family that the effect of the Lindbergh presidency and the changes it begins to bring to the country and to the Jewish population.

While this is not the novel I had expected, this is an excellent novel. Philip Roth is one of America's masters and he has proved it time and time again. "The Plot Against America" is no exception. Like "American Pastoral", the larger social issues of the novel are told through the experiences of a family. We get a sense of the growing fear of the Jewish population of America, even as riots begin to break out and America experiences its own Kristallnacht. We get a sense of what it may have been like in the early days as the Nazis were first beginning to rise to power and first starting to stretch out and persecute the Jews. This sense is tempered by American Democracy and how much more difficult it would be to have a full fledged fascist regime in this country; and yet, we also see how easy it is to begin. The one real flaw of this novel is the ending. There is no true resolution and (without giving away the ending), the reader does not quite get the sense of the lasting impact of Lindbergh's policies. The ending feels rushed, and unsatisfying. The journey Roth takes us on to get to that ending, however, is highly satisfying.


prosaic, adj

1. Consisting or characteristic of prose.
Matter-of-fact; straightforward.
2. Lacking in imagination and spirit; dull.


Thursday, October 28, 2004

Book Review: The Charnel Prince - Greg Keyes

The publication of "The Briar King" announced the start of an excellent new fantasy series. Greg Keyes had already published 6 previous fantasy novels, but "The Briar King" was absolutely stunning. "The Charnel Prince" continues the story set forth in the first volume. King William of Crotheny and his daughters have been murdered by his brother, Prince Robert. William's daughter, Anne Dare is on the run. There are strange goings on in the Church and some of the clergy have been involved in some dark magic. By the end of "The Briar King" the mythical Briar King has returned to Crotheny, nobody is quite sure why, or how, but only that it happened. From this point we begin "The Charnel Prince".

Anne Dare is in hiding. She was rescued from a massacre by the swordsman Cazio and she is now under his protection with nobody else to turn to. She sees assassins around every corner and to be honest, her fears are justified. She is the heir to the throne of Crotheny and somebody wants her dead. Cazio and Anne are accompanied by a mysterious drunkard named Z'Acatto. Queen Muriele only has a tenuous grasp on the throne of Crotheny. She is the regent for her half-wit son and with war threatening Crotheny, there is pressure for a new power to ascend to the throne. Muriele sends the knight Neil MeqVren to find her daughter Anne, to return her to Crotheny, but all Anne knows is that her family was betrayed and murdered, so she (and her protectors) suspect everyone.

Meanwhile, Aspar and Stephen (the King's holter and a former monk) are sent on a quest by the Church to find and to kill the Briar King. The King's Forest is being overrun by brambles and mythical monsters roam the land. The presumption is that the Briar King is the cause of this, and so must be stopped.

The new addition to this novel is in the character of Leoff. Leoff is a composer. What exactly is a composer doing in the midst of a high fantasy novel rife with swords and intrigue and a little sorcery? Good question, and one which I do not have a very good answer except to wait and see. The good news is that Leoff is instantly one of the most interesting characters in the novel and it will be fascinating to see how he develops. Leoff was commissioned by King Robert to join the court as the official composer of Crotheny. Leoff has earned the disapproval of the Church because his music is not traditional enough and may "stir the emotions". Unchurchly stuff, that. With King Robert dead, Leoff does not know if he will have a place at court or what his role might be if he does. But he intends to find out.

Novels in the high fantasy genre tend to all have a certain similarity to them. They are often set in a time that feels like the Middle Ages, have magic, swords, kings, perhaps a powerful religious organization, and have epic quests. The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone have all this, but Greg Keyes also succeeds in helping to set a new standard for the genre. Greg Keyes, along with a George R R Martin, is setting the bar very high in terms of excellence. One of the best things about this book (and "The Briar King") is that Keyes will start with familiar character types (Neil, Aspar, Anne, Cazio...these are all familiar characters), but how Keyes builds his world and his story is uncommonly well done. He takes cliches like the corrupt church and the headstrong princess and weaves such a masterful story that by the time you finish the book, you would have never have predicted this is where the story was going, that this is what Keyes was telling us. It is the sense of surprise and wonder that Greg Keyes has brought to his novels, plus a bit of brutality, that sets him apart and above many of his contemporaries in the field.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

banal, parse

Banal, adj, drearily commonplace and often predictable; trite.

parse, v, 1. to break (a sentence)down into its component parts of speech with an explanation of the form, function, and syntatctical relationship of each part. 3a. to examine closely or subject to detailed analysis, esp by breaking into components.

Source: American Heritage College Dictionary.

Its been a while since i've looked up anything in the dictionary and I bought a decent one a couple of years ago. It was high time to get some learning.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Movie Review: Mean Girls (2004)

A film by Mark S Waters

Being a teenaged movie starring Lindsay Lohan, "Mean Girls" was going to be a moderately successful movie no matter how funny or well made the movie actually was. It was aimed at a target demographic of teenaged girls (and perhaps teenage males who just want to look at Lindsay Lohan) and this demographic was going to see this movie. As I am not part of the target demographic and do not understand the whole Lindsay Lohan phenomenon, "Mean Girls" was something that initially held no interest to me. That was, until, I found out that the screenplay was written by Tina Fey. Fey is the best thing about Saturday Night Live (she is one of the head writers as well as co-host of "Weekend Update") and her writing hopefully would raise "Mean Girls" above being just another not very good teen movie. Mostly, it did.

Cady (Lindsay Lohan) was home schooled for her entire life up until this, her junior year of high school. To make her even more of a potential outcast she has been living in Africa because her parents were researchers there. When she arrives she immediately befriends social misfits Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and her very gay friend Damian (Daniel Franzese). Janis and Damian show Cady the ropes and explain the school's social structure to her. Janis points out the various groups and how the cafeteria seating arrangements are organized. There are the math geeks, the stoners, the hot asian girls, other groups, and The Plastics. The Plastics rule the school. The Plastics are the glamorous social elites who by their actions decide what and who is cool. The leader of the Plastics and the Queen Bee of the school is Regina (Rachel McAdams). Regina, along with the other Plastics Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried) also befriend Cady. They see Cady as something of an exotic and probably enjoy her ignorance as much as anything else and they see that Cady has not yet become a part of any other group. But Janis and Damian have another plan, that Cady infiltrate the Plastics and report back all the gossip on them so the gossip and information can be used against the Plastics. When Regina steals away the guy that Cady is interested in (who was Regina's ex anyway), Cady decides to get even.

One of the best things about "Mean Girls" is the comparison it makes between high school and the animal kingdom. The comparison is apt because it reflects Cady's perspective coming from being home schooled in Africa. Fights and slights and intimidation take on a more animalistic aura, which is made obvious through Cady's daydream imaginations of what is going on underneath the surface of a given situation. Tina Fey's writing has the viciously sarcastic bite that we also see on Weekend Update (some lines and jokes feel like they have been lifted directly from SNL), but she has also done an excellent job in taking a non-fiction book about girls in high school ("Queen Bees and Wannabees") and turn it into a fairly intelligent, funny, entertaining movie. Fey is also one of the movie's highlights as math teacher Ms Norbury.

"Mean Girls" does lose focus, however, and is maybe only have of a really good movie. The other half is simply any other teenaged high school movie. It is far superior to "She's All That" but does fall short of being as viciously interesting as something like "Heathers". The trap that it falls into is that instead of being clever and unique the entire way through the movie, "Mean Girls" becomes the same petty high school revenge movie (though with the Fey twist). The extra coda of an ending narrated by Cady doesn't help "Mean Girls" be any less ordinary.

"Mean Girls" is far better than I had expected it to be (not being part of the film's demographic) but it is not quite as good as it could have been. Still, I was very entertained by this movie and I did enjoy it. It was funny, sharp, and it is good enough that a general audience can enjoy "Mean Girls".

Monday, October 18, 2004

What I'm reading, What I'm watching

Having just finished watching Tupac: Resurrection and Super Size Me, I have the following DVDs on the horizon from Netflix Fahrenhype 9/11, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Star Wars, Flight of the Navigator, Singin' in the Rain, and In America. Not to mention i'm currently watching the miniseries Children of Dune.

Plus some good tv in Lost and Joan of Arcadia. Both of these shows are absolutely excellent, but in very different ways.

I just finished reading Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane. Excellent book. Lehane wrote the novel Mystic River, which was made into the movie. There is a brief intro to Shutter Island on Lehane's website, and it is really worth reading. There is a bit of a mystery in Teddy's investigation of the missing mental patient/prisoner, and it only gets more compelling as the story progresses.

Here's what i'm looking forward to reading whenever these books are released and they come through at the library:
The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth
Broker, by John Grisham
State of Fear, by Michael Crichton
plus a whole slew of fantasy novels coming out in the next year including new offerings from Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Raymond Feist, Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, Greg Keyes, Christopher Paolini, and hopefully George R R Martin (though let's not hold our breath on this one).

Movie Review: Saved! (2004)

A film by Brian Dannelly

The movie "Saved!" is a potentially controversial movie that just sort of slipped under the radar when it was released in theatres. At first glance, and without putting any thought into what the movie is actually saying, it would seem that "Saved!" is absolutely savaging the Christian community. The Christians in the film come off as hypocritical fools (at best) and the sympathetic characters are those with anti-Christian behaviors. But that is only the candy coating on "Saved!" The heart of the picture has to do with a portion of the Christian sub-culture which shows a public veneer of popular Christianity but has none of the heart or the message of what Christ taught. That is what "Saved!" is truly lampooning.

Mary (Jena Malone) is a senior at a very Christian high school in a very Christian town. Everything in her world is protected by the "Christian" label, from the music she listens to the Christian home decorators, and so on. The only thing that does not fit into her Christian world is her boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust), who has recently come out to her that he is gay. Since this is an affront to everything she knows and believes in, and she knows that God does not want him to be gay, Mary believes that Jesus wants her to sleep with him to de-gayify Chad. She does, and it doesn't. He is sent away to Mercy House, which is intended to get him the "help he needs". What comes out of this first encounter is that Mary becomes pregnant.

She does not know this at first, of course, so Mary slides into her life in high school where she is friends with the uber-Christian Hillary Faye (Mandy Moore). Hillary Faye is over the top Christian, but filled with bitterness which she takes out on her brother, Roland (Macaulay Culkin). Roland has been crippled since childhood and is wheelchair bound. When the Jewish Cassandra (Eva Amurri) begins school as the only Jew in the Christian high school, Hillary Faye makes it her personal mission to aggressively "save" Cassandra's soul.

Initially, Cassandra is the outcast in Mary's eyes but as her pregnancy becomes more pronounced she becomes closer to Cassandra because Cassandra is the only person who would not judge Mary. Funny how that works. As the movie continues we see the conflict between Hillary Faye, who has turned her back on Mary when Mary questions her attitude, and the outcasts (Mary, Roland, Cassandra). The movie builds, showing Hillary Faye's behavior to be increasingly anti-Christian with perhaps the film's signature scene having Hillary Faye angrily yell "I am filled with Christ's love" as she throws a Bible at Mary's back. Mary had questioned whether Hillary Faye knew what love was.

The ending of "Saved!" is somewhat over the top, but the portrayal of the Christian sub-culture is only somewhat exaggerated. Having gone to a Christian college I know that the characters in "Saved!" are distorted portrayals of actual people. The movie exaggerates the behavior, but these are very familiar situations and images and lines of dialogue to me. But, that is what this film is discussing, and perhaps exposing. The fakeness that some people can have when the cling so hard to the image of what a "good Christian" looks like that they lose sight of what it truly means to be a Christian and about the love that is central to the message of Christ.

"Saved!" is a movie that has a lot of heart and hopefully will find a home and a following on DVD. This is a smartly written and well acted movie (especially Mandy Moore and Macaulay Culkin), and one that is worth seeing.

Book Review: The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile: Conversations with Arundhati Roy

Originally titled "The Globalization of Dissent", "The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile" is a series of four interviews with author Arundhati Roy. The interviews, guided conversations, really, are conducted by radio producer David Barsaman. Roy is perhaps best known as the author of the Booker Prize winning novel "The God of Small Things", but she has also written three collections of essays dealing with such various subjects as the corruption of the Indian government, American Imperialism, and nuclear arms proliferation. This book touches on many of these same themes, but also deals with Roy's personal life in a level her essays have not.

The first interview "Knowledge and Power" was conducted in February 2001. As the title suggests, the focus of this interview is on knowledge and power and what both mean to Arundhati Roy. Roy discusses, as she does in her essays, the abuse of power by the Indian government and the arrogance of controlling knowledge. Roy mentions how knowledge can (and has) caused arrogance and corruption in the intellectual elites. Specific instances mentioned include the government letting Enron control and own so much of India's power structure, and the irresponsible destruction caused by the Big Dam projects. This interview paints, in broad strokes, a picture of the overall worldview of Arundhati Roy. This is fantastic stuff. In Roy we discover an intelligent, accomplished, passionate woman who has taken the very human responsibility of trying to make a difference in the world.

The second interview, taken in September 2002, is a much shorter essay. Titled "Terror and the Maddened King", the essay begins with David Barsaman questioning Roy about the charges brought against her because of the novel "The God of Small Things". This interview deals more with Roy's reaction to, and experience with, government bullying. This interview feels as if it is setting up a future discussion, that there is a reason why Roy and others must speak up to the injustices caused by governments and Empires of the world.

In the longest interview, "Privitization and Polarization", Arundhati Roy makes some bold, inflammatory statements. She writes "terrorism is the privitization of war. Terrorists are the free marketers of war - people who believe that it isn't only the state that can wage war, but private parties as well." (92) She then goes on to say that "Osama Bin Laden and George Bush are both terrorists". To the American reader this is a shocking and even inconceivable. Taken from a different perspective and reading how Roy explains her viewpoint, it is not as unbelievable as it seems. From the viewpoint of one who is against globalization and the bullying of the government of the American Empire, the connections in Roy's logic are understandable. She does make a point, however, to distinguish the American people with the political power machine. This interview was conducted in November 2002.

The final interview was conducted on May 26, 2003. The title here, "Globalizing Dissent", is particularly apt. While it is never stated directly, the primary theme running through this interview is the idea that the globalization of a "world economy", which Roy feels is the globalization of the American economy, is necessarily also globalizing a dissent against that same globalization. This, Roy contends, is why the world is seeing a higher amount of and more intense form of terrorism against the forms of globalization. It is seen against America in Iraq and Roy sees it firsthand in India. In this interview Roy talks about how the terrorism of George Bush in Iraq is doing nothing more than causing more and more of this dissent.

There is very much a strong tone of anti-globalization running through "The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile". Arundhati Roy is against the broad application of power which is wielded by the world's most powerful nation. She feels strongly about looking after all of humanity, not just those with power. Ultimately, that is what Roy is trying to accomplish.

The voice of Arundhati Roy is vitally important, no matter what one's opinion of her message. At the very least it is a point of view which should be seriously considered as an alternative. She makes very good points and argues them passionately and with intelligence. She suffers no fools and has no patience with an argument made from simple nationalism. This is an important voice, but perhaps one that many in the world will find uncomfortable as she argues against many of the foundations of Western Society.

The bottom line is that this book expands and explains Roy's essays and gives a deeper personal look inside the life and mind of an important writer.