Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Book 96: The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades is John Scalzi's follow up to Old Man's War and he goes in depth with the mysterious Ghost Brigades from the first novel. The Ghost Brigades are elite Colonial soldiers engineered and changed from the DNA of dead humans. Those who die after signing up to be part of the Colonial Defense Forces have already given their DNA to the CDF and their death allows the CDF to use that DNA as a template to redesign the Ghost Brigades into something more than human and much more deadly.

In Old Man's War we were introduced to Jane Sagan, an elite soldier engineered from the DNA of the wife of that novel's hero John Perry. Jane is one of the two primary characters of The Ghost Brigades and through Jane as well as Jared Dirac, a rookie (meaning newly born) elite soldier we learn the truth about what the Ghost Brigades are and about the soldiers. This is not the main point of the novel. The novel's storyline revolves around the Brigades on a mission to find a scientist, Charles Boutin, who betrayed the Colonials to an unfriendly alien race. Dirac holds the key to finding Boutin because Dirac was created with Boutin's consciousness, a consciousness which has not come forward yet so Dirac has no idea that he is also somebody else.

Old Man's War
raised a perhaps unfair level of expectation for all future work of John Scalzi. There was a sense of discovery and wonder about that first book that would be difficult to match. The newness has worn off a little bit in The Ghost Brigades but Scalzi's high level of quality and craft in writing a fast paced, interesting, original, intelligent, action packed, compelling science fiction novel is enough to keep me coming back for more. The Ghost Brigades is not Old Man's War and nor should it be. The Ghost Brigades is a damn fine book with a story I was not yet prepared to have end. Scalzi is the science fiction author to watch.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Dead Like Me: Season 2

Dead Like Me had a closing moment that was a fitting end to the show's brief run. It was the morning after Halloween. Reggie and her mother fell asleep at George's grave. George (Ellen Muth), in the early morning dropped some candy on the blanket and tucked the blanket over her sister and mother a little bit better. Then, as she was walking away, Reggie saw George. George turned, and smiled. The closing line of the show, in voice over, was "it isn't so bad, being dead like me".

George, as we find out in the first episode, is dead. She is killed when a toilet seat falls from the space station and lands on her. Instead of moving on to the afterlife, whatever that is, George is tapped to be a Reaper. It is the job of a Reaper to take the soul of a person just before death so that they do not feel the pain of the death and then lead that soul to the afterlife. George has been at times angry and bitter, but the show has been her maturity to a young woman instead of a girl.

Even watching Dead Like Me on SciFi where I lose a little bit of the vulgarity from the original Showtime airings, Dead Like Me is a great show. I have looked forward to my Tuesday evenings with two new episodes. Alas, I have closed the book on another excellent show that beats the pants off of most of what is on television right now.

Movies: October 23 - 29

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972): This early Woody Allen movie takes the once controversial non-fiction book of the same title and turns it into a series of comedic vignettes about different aspects of sex. It is a potentially interesting idea, but I do not think it turned out too well. Because each vignette was fairly short the film moved along briskly (it also clocked in at less than 90 minutes), but few of the vignettes were engaging. The one with the giant Breast made me feel as if I were caught in a bad Philip Roth novel, but the one that is worth mentioning is the final vignette about what happens during ejaculation. It sounds a little gross, but Burt Reynolds led a crew inside a man's body and controlled all of the body's responses, so we're seeing it from the perspective of a crew trying to make everything work the way it should. This one was decent, but the rest were disappointing and not very funny.

The Sugarland Express (1974): Steven Spielberg made his theatrical debut with The Sugarland Express. Goldie Hawn stars as Lou Jean, a woman who helps her almost ex husband escape from a prison release program so they can go on the run and try to rescue their young son from the foster parents the state of Texas placed the child with. Much of the movie is Goldie and company on the run with a whole platoon of police cars chasing them. By platoon, I mean perhaps a hundred police cards all chasing. Spielberg does a very good job with the chase scenes and the movie has an Anti-Spielberg ending, but I did not feel I was given the opportunity to get a sense of the characters. As near as I can tell the state was completely right in taking the child and so it was difficult to feel for the "heroes" of the movie. Supposedly this is a true story, but I do not know much about the reality versus the movie. Despite the flaws of the movie, this is a strong debut for Spielberg.

Unconsumed: How the Universe Got Its Spots

I have had How the Universe Got Its Spots on my "To Read" list for several years. I finally figured that since the book was so short (less than three hundred pages) that I will just get it from the library and go. The book is a science / cosmos type book written by Janna Levin as letters to her mother explaining what it is that she does and what it is that she is so fascinated by as a scientist. The book came highly recommended from whatever source I found the recommendation years ago.

Thirty pages in and I have to stop. Levin is explaining the early bits of science working her way up to today's science and I know that it is necessary because we need to know where science came from to even be able to grasp what it is doing now. I got that from Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time)and Carl Sagan (Cosmos) and will probably get that from Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe) and other writers. But Levin is boring me. I do not know if it is her style or what, but I have no interest in continuing with this book.

So: Unconsumed.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

that damn hobbit

Been watching Season 5 of 24 and Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee) got to take over command of CTU for a while.

That hobbit sure was messing stuff up. Damn.

Book 95: The Complete Peanuts 1959 - 1960

The Complete Peanuts 1959-1960 is another two year collection of the Peanuts comic drawn by Charles Schulz. This is a very nostalgic set for me because many of the strips in this collection are also collected in The Peanuts Treasury, which I had as a child. Strips included here are Linus and Mrs Othmar with the eggshells, the icicle of doom, happiness is a warm puppy, the freeway, more of Charlie Brown being a Goat, the first Appearance of Sally Brown, Sally's crush on Linus, the Mad Punter, more Great Pumpkin, and a couple of sequences that feel like the Christmas special, and the first appearance of Lucy having a psychiatrist booth and dispensing advice. This is the fifth collection of Peanuts and these early years are some of the best work that Schulz has done.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Six Word Stories


Wired online Magazine has some talented authors write a complete story in only six words. Wired references Hemingway's
For Sale: Baby Shoes, never worn
, which really is a complete and painful story, and then lets the authors take over. Contributers include: Joss Whedon, David Brin, Stan Lee, Neil Gaiman, Kevin Smith, Alan Moore, Margaret Atwood, Michael Moorcock, Orson Scott Card, and others.

Movies: October 16 - 22

Columbo: Murder by the Book (1971): Steven Spielberg directs this early episode of Columbo starring Peter Falk as the ruffled detective. This mystery here features the murder of one half of a best selling writing team by the other half of the team. Because the authors here are mystery writers the killer tries to be very clever in setting up the disappearance and murder and is very arrogant in his dealing with the police and detective Columbo. Detective Columbo plays his role of a somewhat bumbling clueless detective to disarm the suspect, but Columbo picks up on the little clues that give hints towards the killer and asks pointed questions that do not seem to be to the point but give Columbo exactly the information that he needs. The strength of the episode is in the acting of Peter Falk and not so much the direction.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003): This is the second time I have seen the movie, but the first time Sandy had the chance or the inclination to watch it. We hoped to watch it before we went to Disney World to prepare for the ride, but we did not get the chance and apparently it does not make a bit of a difference. Pirates tells the story of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), a pirate without a ship who is searching for the Black Pearl, an infamous pirate ship. Sparrow is, let us say, flamboyant. He has been described as a drunken Keith Richards, but I do not know how accurate that description is. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) is a blacksmith who has fallen in love with the governor's daughter Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley) and when Elizabeth is kidnapped by another group of pirates (those of the Black Pearl), Will joins with Jack Sparrow to rescue her, though Jack has his own agenda. Pirates is a comedic action pirate movie and is a lot of fun to watch. In a major surprise, Depp was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Jack Sparrow. This is all the more amazing because actors in comedies and action/adventure movies generally do not get nominated for major awards. It was richly deserved.

Life Stinks (1991): This Mel Brooks movie is a comedy with a message. Life Stinks deals with the homeless, the bums, the poor people and tells a story about how they are looked at, treated, and the responsibilities of those with wealth. And, it is a comedy. Mel Brooks plays the richest man in America who takes a bet to live on the streets for 30 days and if he wins the bet he will win half of the land he wants to acquire to renovate part of the city. Brooks has to deal with all of the troubles and issues that plague those without homes and he shows us part of what life might be like for those poor and homeless and he tells us that life stinks. This is surely one of his best films and was a return to the early days of Mel Brooks before he started with all of the parody films. Life Stinks is not perfect and Lesley Ann Warren's dance sequence seems totally out of place, but this is a film with heart and that clearly meant something. Brooks only made two more movies after this (Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It), and I hope that he has one more in him and that it isn't a parody.

Bananas (1971): Woody Allen's third feature film has Allen playing essentially the same character he always does somehow getting involved in the revolution of the fictional nation of San Marco (feels similar to Cuba). Throughout the film he and several other characters are working their way through a storyline by making jokes of everything and Allen gets all the best lines. But, doing so is so distracting and inappropriate to the plot that Allen keeps pulling me out of the movie. There are some moments that deliver, though. The first moment is the opening of the film where we have Howard Cosell himself doing a broadcast from San Marco where he views the revolution as a sporting event. It is perfect because Cosell is so serious about it. The second is closer to the end where Cosell does the same thing with marital intimacy. The third moment that stands out is a television ad within the movie for "New Testament Cigarettes" which is shot as part of a church service. "I smoke them", says the priest, "He smokes them", pointing to heaven. That one made me laugh. The rest of the movie, however? You can skip this one. I am working on watching all of Woody Allen's movies, so I'm stuck.

One more thing to mention: Woody Allen playing a scene where he is supposed to be comedic and absurdly sexy is just creepy. Makes my skin crawl.

Flags of Our Fathers (2006): Clint Eastwood takes the book by James Bradley and makes it into an excellent picture about Bradley's father and the truth behind the famous picture of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II. I have not read the book, so I cannot speak to how closely it compares, but Eastwood's film tells three stories. First is the story of the picture and the national tour which the flag raisers are ordered (they are still soldiers) to go on to promote the war effort and war bonds. But there is no simple truth about the picture. The men who are on the tour are not the men who raised the flag the first time. There is more of a story behind the raising of the flag and why the United States promoted the picture and flag raisers the way they did. The soldiers on the tour flash back to the invasion of Iwo Jima and the fighting there and that leads us into the war portion of the movie. The battle sequences are as brutal as any war footage in any movie. The famed brutality of the opening to Saving Private Ryan is eclipsed by some of the sequences in Flags of Our Fathers. The third storyline has James Bradley learning about what his father, John Bradley (played by Ryan Philippe), did in the war and about the truth of the flag raising. The sequences with the son are the least interesting and effective to me, but necessary as it gives a reason to explain what happened to the flag raisers after the war was over. Flags of Our Fathers is a powerful, well constructed film which jumps between the various storylines to tell a single narrative.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

red envelopes

Once again I am a subscriber of Netflix. Letting my membership lapse for a year means that my membership is counted from October 2006 rather than February 2003 (I think), but I guess that doesn't make too much of a difference.

It's good to be back. This sure beats hoping the there won't be a hold at the library on the movies I want to watch.

In the couples of weeks I have been back with Netflix I've rented the following:
24: Season 4 - Disc 5
24: Season 4 - Disc 6
Columbo: Season 1 - Disc 2 (for a Spielberg directed episode)
X-Men: Last Stand (2006)
Life Stinks (1991)
Bananas (1971)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

I like managing the queue and moving stuff around and all that jazz. This time around I am going to keep a smaller queue (20 or so movies that I want to see, plus anything my wife wants). This way I'll add something and actually get to see it within a reasonable amount of time. Last time I was with Netflix my queue stretched to the maximum of 500 movies and then I deleted 300 of of them and I was constantly pushing movies to the top of the queue. I think I had the same movie at #100 for two years.

I still have my old queue on a word document on my computer at work, so I can still find add what I once had. It's just so much more manageable now. I like that.

So, yay for red envelopes.

Book 94: A Briefer History of Time

I read Stephen Hawking's original A Brief History of Time almost ten years ago and thought enough of it that I bought a copy. In that volume Hawking attempts to explain in reasonably simple language what science knows about the history of the universe, the origins of it, and what we know about the universe today and potentially its future. Fascinating.

A Briefer History of Time is a an updated version of the original book. The content has been slimmed down a bit to give simpler explanations of the scientific concepts, but Hawking has also added information to become up to date with scientific advances since the original publication.

The result is the book is still rather confusing because these are still difficult science concepts that are way beyond my experience and knowledge, but Hawking does an excellent job putting these concepts in as simple a manner as possible. They are just difficult to grasp to someone without a science background.

Still, this is an interesting book and one which when taken with other science books will hopefully have enough material stick so that I'll better remember and grasp other concepts.

A note about another "Hawking" book. The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe is not supported by Hawking. He wrote the essays years ago and the text has appeared in other books. His official website disavows The Theory of Everything because Hawking was not involved in the publication and does not approve of it.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Book 93: Armageddon's Children

Terry Brooks revisits the world of his greatest work: The Word and the Void. That original trilogy was set in a modern day United States where there are demons working for the Void trying to turn humans to acts of evil to twist the world to be a more violent, dangerous, and lost place. John Ross, a Knight of the Word, fought daily against visions of the future that he had to try to prevent. Ross's visions were of events that could happen in his own lifetime and for all of Ross's success, all he did was delay the inevitable. Armageddon's Children is set some eighty years after Angel Fire East and the world is a ruined place and things are only fixing to get worse. Pollution is out of control, a nuclear war occurred, the humans which are "safe" live in compounds (like Seattle's Safeco Field) warded off against the outside world. Those compounds are all under siege and they are falling day by day until there will be nowhere left to run or hide. In Seattle there are gangs of children calling themselves Tribes. Adults have failed them and street children are not allowed in Compounds so they must survive by becoming their own families and looking out for each other. Humans who had been caught outside for too long and who somehow survived drinking radioactive water and eating off of the poisoned land have mutated. This is our world, only broken. This could be our future.

Terry Brooks works on four storylines in Armageddon's Children. One storyline is of a Tribe of children in Seattle called the Ghosts. The Ghosts are led by an older boy named Hawk who is just trying to keep his family alive. It is through Hawk's eyes that we see what his world and our world has become. Two storylines have to do with the two known remaining Knights of the Word: Logan Tom and Angel Perez. Logan Tom has been sent by The Lady to find the Gypsy Morph somewhere in the Northwest. The Gypsy Morph is a being of great power and magic and which we know was somehow born to Nest Freemark after Angel Fire East. Before I mention the last two storylines I need to mention what had been previously rumor and conjecture. Up until the announced publication of this novel it was suggested that the Word / Void Trilogy could be the world before The Great Wars that ruined the world and slowly evolved into the Four Lands that we know in the Shannara novels. This was always a great theory. In interviews before the publication of Armageddon's Children Terry Brooks finally admitted that this was true. That in his next trilogy he would start bridging Word / Void with Shannara. So, that brings us to storyline number three: Angel Perez. Angel Perez is another Knight of the Word who has been fighting to rescue as many children as possible before compounds are overrun by the demons and Once-Men. She is given a new mission: to find the Elves and to help them find some Elfstones. Now, elves have nothing to do with Word / Void, but have everything to do with Shannara. And that brings us to storyline number four: The Elves. We actually find out about the elves before we find out about Angel Perez and when they appear and they mention the Ellcrys, longtime readers of Terry Brooks knows without question that the two series have now been linked. The Ellcrys has given one of the Chosen a mission: to find the seeking elfstones to located the Loden Elfstone to carry the Ellcrys out of the Oregon woods whole. This may not make sense to readers who have not read Elfstones of Shannara or The Elf Queen of Shannara, but Brooks makes these concepts fairly clear even to newer readers of the series.

So, that's what Armageddon's Children is about. Is it any good? Yes. The more Brooks stays to the feeling of Word / Void the better the book is. I know that we're bridging to a more traditional fantasy series, but he gives better description and characterization and storytelling when he is working in the more natural setting of Word / Void. There are references a plenty to the previous trilogy and several references to things we know from Shannara and even an explanation of why there are demons walking the land considering the nature of what we know of the Ellcrys. The primary complaint is that this is the first book of a trilogy so Brooks spends 350 pages setting stuff up and giving us some action and storytelling, but nothing is resolved. He ends with a cliffhanger (almost literally) and rolls right into Volume Two of this trilogy. Brooks does not tell a complete story. Let me contrast this with his four book Heritage of Shannara series. Each book told a complete story while still building to the larger story of the series. That is what is missing here. It is not a book that can stand alone, but because of the ties to the excellent Word / Void series it is a harkening back to when Terry Brooks was writing strong fantasy with solid description. Brooks intentionally stepped away from that, publishing a book a year and desiring to write faster, more action packed novels rather than longer works of greater quality. He sacrificed quality for quantity even though his sales did not decrease. This is a step back towards some of that quality, though I know that is because he is forced to be more descriptive about the world as it has changed from Angel Fire East and is nothing like The Four Lands. This book is designed as a book where new readers can step in and not feel lost because they haven't read 20 books on both sides of the timeline but will also reward longtime readers. Armageddon's Children is a success in for both groups of readers and while not perfect it is a strong work in the catalog of Terry Brooks.

Book 92: A Cats Diary

Stephen Hanan played Gus, Growltiger, and Bustopher Jones in the original Broadway production run of Cats. Fresh from the London stage there was only an inkling that the show would be a great success and no true idea that it would be the longest running show in Broadway history. During the time he auditioned and through the rehearsals and opening week Stephen Hanan kept a very detailed diary of his experience as part of the first Broadway cast of Cats. A Cats Diary details Hanan's thoughts and experiences as he auditioned and the rigorous work that went into rehearsal and the production. He details the changes the show underwent as the cast, choreographer, and director tried to find what would work best for all involved and give the best possible show. As a fan of the show (I saw a very well done production at a regional dinner theatre and then the national touring production, the dinner theatre was superior), I found the behind the scenes look at one actor's experience of Cats to be fascinating. Unlike what I would expect from most diaries, Stephen Hanan is very detailed and writes out complete events and complete thoughts and writes well that there is a narrative that forms over the course of the hundred pages of diary entries.

My only real quibble is that footnotes are printed in a cursive font, as if Hanan had handwritten the footnotes into the book to explain people and things that wouldn't be obvious to the casual reader. The footnotes were difficult to read.

Hanan's strength is in the descriptions and that his personality comes through in the text of the book. A Cats Diary is a wonderful resource to those who are seeking to learn more about what goes on to produce a Broadway show and what some of the actors go through.

Book 91: Ill Wind

Ill Wind is the third mystery written by Nevada Barr featuring U.S. Park Ranger Anna Pigeon. After solving murders in Track of the Cat and A Superior Death, Anna is now working as a Ranger in the Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. She is in her forties, a widow, has a little bit of a late night drinking problem, but is passionate and skilled in what she does as a Park Ranger. Ill Wind starts out without revealing the primary mystery of the novel. The possible bad guys are all presented first, though some of them do not seem very bad. Anna is called to get involved in a domestic dispute because in the Park the Rangers have to act as police, but this is not a novel about a domestic dispute. Is this storyline misdirection or is there something else going on? When a young girl dies up on the Cliffs because she can't breathe the assumption is that it is her asthma and being up at 7000 feet. Then another death. Finally a third. Anna figures out the timing of the deaths and starts investigating.

The thing about having a Park Ranger as the heroine of a novel is that the setting will always be part of the story. It matters that this story is set in Mesa Verde just as the settings of the two previous mysteries mattered. It is park of the story and wrapped up in the story and it allows Nevada Barr to give very scenic and natural descriptions and get murders out of the city and into a completely different environment, which in turn gives these books a completely different feel than one might expect from a urban murder mystery. Barr tells the story well and while she may have tipped her hand early, I know I did not pick up on the true culprit. That's a positive because up until the Reveal I felt that nearly anyone could be at fault.

A good, reasonably short mystery.

Monday, October 16, 2006

24: Season 4

Phew! That was a brutal season of 24 and I mean it in the best way possible. The producers kept building the tension and building the tension and letting off a little steam only to build it some more. I remember when Season 4 was just starting to be broadcast on television a couple of years back there were articles regarding the content of the show and controversy because it features at the beginning of the season a wholesome Arab family working as part of a terrorist network to set off something big. The controversy was that 24 would show Arab Americans in a negative light and that the majority of Arabs in America are law abiding and very much not terrorists. True. But…that complaint missed the larger picture of if you are going to tell a story, on television, film, or in a book about a terrorist acting against and within the United States the most logical and topical terrorist would have to be Arab. Anything else would be avoiding the discussion of what is really happening and 24, happily, refuses to do so. The reason I say happily is that when the Tom Clancy novel The Sum of All Fears was adapted to a film the producers took the still topical plotline of Arab Terrorists with a nuclear bomb in the United States (and consider that this was written before 2001, as was his novel Debt of Honor which predicted the nature of the attacks) and changed the Bad Guys to be Neo-Nazis. I still haven't watched the movie with the Clancy commentary track, but I can only imagine that he was disgusted. Neo-Nazis are not a credible Bad Guy in today's world, but considering that we have been attacked by Arab Terrorists and are continuing the fight against Arab Terrorists then a storyline about terrorism and American pretty much has to feature Arab Terrorists or the storyline will lost most of its impact.

24? All impact. First the threat to meltdown the nuclear reactors (all of them), the attempt on the President, the nuclear warhead. This was a big, big season and it was an astounding season with old characters coming back into the mix. This was the single most thrilling and exciting and powerful season of television I have seen: Period. I love other shows*, but this season was it. 24 has been getting better each season and I really don't see how this will be topped.

The first Episode of Season 5 was broadcast this morning on A&E, so I'll find out and catch up to Season 6 before it airs in January. Can't wait!

*Buffy, Firefly, X-Files, Joan of Arcadia, Dead Like Me, My So Called Life, Angel, Alias, Lost, Eureka, Sopranos. All excellent shows that I have loved and still are favorites. While I would take the collected work of some of these shows over 24, Season 4 of 24 is still the single best season of television I have encountered.

Book 90: Mosaic

Mosaic is an early novel espionage thriller author Gayle Lynds. In this novel she takes several acts which initially seem to be unconnected and weave them together to tell a fast paced, exciting story of mysteries and violence. Plot Point 1: an old man has been put into a high security retirement home where he has been deemed insane and unfit to manage his massive fortune. He blames his sons. Plot Point 2: Creighton Redmond, a retired Supreme Court Justice, is running for President of the United States and is engaged in an illegal scheme to discredit his opponent. He does so with the best intentions, honestly feeling that he would be an excellent President. And his family would gain even more wealth and power. Plot Point 3: Julia Austrian is a world class pianist. She is blind (not from birth) and regains her sight in time to see her mother murdered in front of her during a robbery attempt and she sees the killer's face. Then she loses her sight again. The investigator at Scotland Yard is blackmailed to cover up the investigation. Plot Point 4: CIA agent Sam Keeline is in the bad graces of his Deputy Chief of Intelligence Vince Redmond and when Redmond intercepts a letter sent to Keeline claiming it contains classified information, Keeline is suspicious. Not knowing about any of the other plot points he starts a different investigation about the famed Amber Room (a treasure lost during the Nazi Era) which leads him to Julia Austrian.

Lynds weaves all of these plot points together so that they are all connected and intertwined and runs the story from there in directions I certainly did not expect. There are a couple of points that come up that feel fairly standard (romance, anyone?), but Lynds tells the story well. A former Supreme Court Justice trying to steal an election is interesting in itself and one wonders if such a thing is possible and then we wonder how Redmond could possibly lose the election in time. Will Julia recover her sight again and will Keeline be able to protect her? Gayle Lynds makes these questions matter.

While later novels like The Coil and The Last Spymaster have tighter storylines with fewer loose threads, Mosaic is still an exciting read and sure to please readers looking for a fast paced suspenseful story.

Movies: October 9 - 15

Dirty Pretty Things (2002): I was fairly disappointed with Dirty Pretty Things. I remember Roger Ebert giving this film quite a bit of praise when it was first released and it was the first English language film of Audrey Tautou (Amelie), so I had fairly high hopes. The subject matter, however, is a bit difficult. Dirty Pretty Things is set in a hotel in England where there is some black market organ harvesting going on. Audrey Tautou and the male lead are both illegal immigrants so they already need to stay quiet about their own existence but they get drawn into this world unwillingly. The movie is sad and uncomfortable to watch, but it is not the sadness or discomfort given by the far superior (and completely unrelated) film Hotel Rwanda. There are levels to sadness and discomfort and quality, and Dirty Pretty Things is a film that within 25 minutes I did not want to watch. I finished the movie, and the movie improved somewhat, but not enough to enjoy or praise the movie.

X-Men: Last Stand (2006): I was less excited for the third X-Men movie than I would have been before I found out that Bryan Singer was leaving to direct Superman and that Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) was stepping in. I did not expect Ratner to ruin the movie, but I feel Singer tends to produce higher quality films than Ratner does. I did not trust Ratner's vision. It is difficult to say exactly what Singer had planned for X-Men 3, but it was clear he was setting up the Dark Phoenix Saga. X-Men 3 had some Dark Phoenix, but the movie also crammed in the Mutant Cure from Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men books. Either storyline is more than enough to fill up a movie, but pushing them both together in less than two hours means that much will be lost. The Mutant Cure storyline got the most attention, and this is a great storyline, but the whole thing was rushed. Dark Phoenix is introduced, but then it is ignored for a while the Cure storyline is pushed to the front, and then both storylines converge. Certain acts towards the end were well done and well told, though one major character death is undone in a short clip after the credits roll. That was disappointing. X-Men: Last Stand is a fast paced Superhero movie that is better than most would expect considering the director involved, but the storylines are given less attention than they should.

Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2005): This is a documentary / concert film for a block party that Dave Chappelle organized in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. Chappelle gathered together an incredible lineup of performers including Mos Def, The Roots, Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and perhaps a one night only reunited of The Fugees (Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, etc). There were a couple of other performers, but these are the ones who I knew. Chappelle goes back to his old neighborhood and gave Golden Tickets to some of the residents and brought them to New York as well. The coolest thing he did was bring an entire marching band to perform and they joined Kanye West on "Jesus Walks". As a concert film, Block Party features some fine, powerful performances. As a documentary about setting up the concert the film is not quite as impressive. It is worth watching just for the music, though.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
(2004): Somehow the filmmakers decided it would be a good idea to try to fit the first three Lemony Snicket books into one movie. By the end of the first hour we were midway through the third book. This means that all the storylines were rushed. They were staying with Count Olaf for a short period of time, but then the sequence with Uncle Monty and the Reptile Room was very, very short. The movie barely gives us enough time to care about the Baudelaires, let alone the Guardians. Uncle Monty is one of the most sympathetic of all the guardians, but there is no time to care for him. Time for the next Guardian. The film brings us from set piece to set piece without lingering over everything. The movie has the overall tone and style of the novels, and it is reasonably faithful to the storylines of the novels. I don't quite remember the spyglass organization, but I imagine it is being used as the early version of VFD. The characterizations of the characters were well done, but the movie did not amount to anything and because the viewer is not given any time to care about anything that is going on it is a bit of a mess. Not worth the time spent watching it.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Book 89: Old Man's War

On his 75th birthday John Perry visited the grave of his wife and enlisted in the Army. This is one hell of a opening premise for a novel. This itself raises all sorts of questions about the nature of the story and the world behind the story. What sort of an army is this that would accept a 75 year old man? Why would a 75 year old man think about joining the army? What sort of world / universe is this that such a situation is even possible? What's going on?! The hook, well, hooked me. This is John Scalzi's debut novel and it is a doozy. I can see the cover blurb now "Old Man's War a doozy. - some reader" But really, how best to get my excitement for this book across without using the usual tired cliches that come up? A real page turner? Yep. A wild ride? That too. A modern science fiction masterpiece? A bit presumptuous perhaps, but the book was on the Hugo shortlist and managed to thrill and excite me for old men in space far more than Clint Eastwood's movie Space Cowboys did. How's that for a recommendation? "Better than Space Cowboys! - some guy"

Okay. Here's the story: The novel is set on future Earth where Humankind has been colonizing the Universe. The Colonials have pretty well kept the rest of Earth stuck on the planet except for those who are willing to volunteer for the Colonial Army. The mortality rate is very, very high and the service is for a minimum of two years up to a maximum of ten years at the discretion of the Colonial Army. Those who survive will be given a new life and a homestead on a colony. This is the only way off Earth and into the Universe at Large. The Colonials are battling a variety of alien races for planets to colonize. Scalzi gives us an impressive variety of alien life. Very creative. Back to the plot description: The Colonial Army will only take men and women from America at the age of 75. The Earthbound senior citizens assume they will be made young, though nobody knows how. How else would a 75 year old be able to fight?

The reality is far different than they or the reader could expect. The story is far more thrilling than I anticipated. There is part Full Metal Jacket with the training and part just military science fiction told with appropriate humor for the situations. John Scalzi introduces the reader to a novel and a world far greater than the slim 300 pages would suggest. There is storytelling and narrative depth here, though the story moves along very fast.

Few novels make me sit up and say "Damn!" but Old Man's War did and Scalzi does simply an excellent job here to write fun, exciting, memorable science fiction that is nowhere near as dense as the work of Peter F Hamilton (and I like Hamilton, don't get me wrong). This is accessible science fiction that is a true joy to read.

There. Did that get my excitement for Old Man's War across?

Book 88: The Crystal Star

The Crystal Star opens with a bang, of sorts. The children of Han and Leia have been kidnapped while Leia is out on a diplomatic mission. Leia feels that somehow the Dark Side of the Force must be involved, though the diplomats she is meeting with suggests that it is just the local custom of kidnapping for social status and that it is part of a local tradition. Leia feels otherwise and she is right. The children are kidnapped by the Lord Hethrir who takes the children and tells them their parents are dead. Somehow he is able to block their limited and young ability to use the Force. Meanwhile Han is on vacation with Luke. Luke is searching for missing Jedi and their travels take them close to a planet which is slowly dying and turning to crystal. This is messing with Luke's ability to sense with the Force and Vonda McIntyre gives the reader a very different spin on Luke Skywalker. Rather than the hero, we have a despondent and sluggish man who is not thinking rationally. It is a different spin on Skywalker and may be disappointing to many readers. Luke is less of a presence in this novel anyway as the focus is more on the kids in captivity and Leia's attempts to rescue them. Luke and Han are almost a side plot which eventually gets pulled into the main storyline as it all comes together in a mess of villainy.

My biggest problem with The Crystal Star is that it focused far too much attention on the Solo children. Sure, they will eventually become major players in the Star Wars Universe and sure, the readers needs to be introduced to the characters so they don't just show up one novel as fully formed characters who we have not had the chance to get to know, but I think Anakin is three years old, which would put Jacen and Jaina around five. Unless Anakin is only two. I'm not sure, but they are a bit too young to get such a large role. Roger MacBride Allen did a far better job with the children in the Corellian Trilogy which was only set a year or so after this novel. They're no Ender Wiggin, I'll say that much.

After the children my complaints have to do with the storytelling. There is nothing wrong with having Luke's mission go poorly, but everything felt rushed. Leia spent so much time wanting to find her children but not really following them until all of a sudden she knows exactly where they are and the kids and everyone end up in the same place with Han and Luke. Sorry, I guess that is a bit of a spoiler, but come on now. Really? The novel might have been better served by focusing soley on Leia and the children with perhaps a cameo at best of Han and Luke. Not the wasted chapters with no real story development, though we do get a bit of Han's past came to light.

Bottom Line: Even fans of the Star Wars novels should skip this one. It does nothing, or little to build on future stories (a minor character or two from this book may appear in future volumes as Jedi) and it does not resolve any ongoing storylines. The book is essentially self-contained and reading a basic summary would be just as enjoyable as reading this novel.

Book 87: To Green Angel Tower

To Green Angel Tower is the massive concluding volume to Tad Williams' epic fantasy trilogy Memory, Sorrow, Thorn. The novel weighs in at just over a thousand pages and the paperback edition has frequently been published as two volumes. Here Prince Josua has gathered refugees from this brother the King Elias and the Red Priest Pyrates at the Stone of Farewell (also the title of the second volume). At this point Josua and the good guys have an idea of what they are up against. Not only is Elias a bad king and under the influence of the evil Pyrates, they are also up against the The Storm King who has been dead for 500 years but whose spirit is still strong and full of hatred and the Norns. The Norns are the cousins of the Sithi, a long lived race of near immortals of great power. The Sithi once held all the land the humans now hold. The Sithi have accepted humanity's right to live and live in exile from their former homeland. The Norns seek to take their lands back and destroy the humans. To say that the odds are stacked against Prince Josua and his allies is to downplay the situation. The situation appears to be nearly hopeless.

The hero of our story is not Josua, however. The hero of our story is a young man named Simon. Simon started in The Dragonbone Chair as a kitchen scullion in the caste Hayholt and before long is on the run and finding his true destiny. By the beginning of To Green Angel Tower Simon, now called Seoman Snowlock for his slaying of a dragon and recovering one of the three legendary swords, has become a major player in his world. He has befriended the Sithi, some of the trolls, a princess, become a warrior, slain a dragon, recovered the sword Thorn, and has become part of Josua's inner circle. Still, Simon is a young man just discovering who he is and he has not yet grown as confident and mature as he will.

To Green Angel Tower brings the story to a crawling conclusion. At some point Josua and Simon and the allies will make a push to claim the throne and before that to claim the two missing swords Minneyar and Sorrow. They will face the great conflict from the Norns and will seek to bring healing to the land. They do not know how and neither does the reader. Tad Williams has one thousand pages to wrap the story up, so there is plenty of time. Tad Williams uses every page in the book to get us there, and by that I mean that he takes a really long time. One would think that after the first 1200 pages or so covering the first two volumes that we would be farther along, but in a very real sense the story has a long way to go because Josua does not know how to get the swords and has no idea how to overcome the enemy. One thing the reader has to understand is that the story moves slowly. Creeping along slow. Slow like the author doesn't quite know what to do next so he will keep writing more and more until he figures it out. Eventually he does.

So, here's the thing: Memory, Sorrow, Thorn is a very traditional high fantasy story. This is what is typically called "kitchen boy" fantasy because the hero is usually a servant of some sort, often a kitchen boy like Simon, with no parents and real hope to be anything more than what he is. He dreams, of course, but no real hope of becoming more. Something happens and the kitchen boy goes on a grand adventure and learns that he has a great skill or power, gets involved with the powerful men and women of the land who accept him as an equal, and more often than not finds something out about his own heritage which involves some sort of grandeur. This is a staple of the high fantasy genre and this is exactly what Memory, Sorrow, Thorn is. That's fine. It is what an author does within the genre that matters, not the trappings of the genre. This series is both very ordinary, but also well done up until the end. Williams gives us such a slow build that many readers would have quit a thousand pages ago and it is recommended that new readers give the first book at least two hundred pages before making a judgment on the book. There is some promise in the story as Williams makes some of the familiarity seem new. If one gets to the meat of the story, there is an exciting story here. With a good editor Williams could cut several hundred pages out of this book (and from previous books) and really make a moving, tightly paced story that still gets all of the detail (unlike what Terry Brooks is doing with his most recent novels which is all pace and no detail). Still, when I got deep into each novel and especially To Green Angel Tower I was wrapped up in the story and shortly before the end Williams makes some bold moves for such a traditional novel and does a couple of unexpected things to characters which is true to the story and characters and I was impressed.

Then we got to the coda and Williams betrayed the sacrifices of what came before. Note how I am trying not to spoil exactly who made these sacrifices or what the sacrifice entailed. Right before this coda of an ending which wraps everything up I am sold. Williams hammered home a great ending and then he went and undid everything that came before with one more chapter. He revealed too much, gave the reader too much and the ending lost all the power it had up to that point. One thing had been hinted at for a while regarding Simon, so I understand even though I wish Simon's fate could have come about without the family history. The other couple of characters who sacrificed at the end meant nothing after the coda. Betrayal by the author who apparently needed an extra happy ending to close out the trilogy.

If Williams did the same thing with the Otherland series I might be done with him.

Final Analysis: Slow moving traditional fantasy that has a strong story buried in with the lazy river of a plot but a feckless tacked on ending after the final battle which invalidated the power of said final battle.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Movies: September 25 - October 8

Sweet and Lowdown (1999): I know that Sean Penn is one of America's best actors and I agree that he is a talented man and in the right movie he can really shine. But sometimes I want to kick him in the throat. As the self-absorbed lead character in this Woody Allen film, Sean Penn needed to be beaten. He is an extraordinarily talented guitar player and front man for a 5 man band, but he also treats everyone poorly and is more than a bit of a primadonna. Now, I understand that this is who the character is and Penn played the role as given extremely well, but sometimes an unlikeable character can still be watchable and interesting on screen. Not so here. Samantha Morton did well as the mute love interest of Penn's character and she was sympathetic (though assuming she isn't mentally slow, she should have realized what sort of man Penn was from the start), but Penn's character was so obnoxious I had a difficult time becoming absorbed into the movie and flowing with the story. Not so much of a recommendation here.

And yes, this was the only movie I watched for these two weeks. That's what vacations do (though I did finish three or four books on vacation, so there you go)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Jericho, Battlestar, Eureka, 24

Oh, let's see. When I returned from vacation I had some decent television to watch. First up was episodes two and three of Jericho. The impression that I'm getting here is that Jericho is a solid show, but ultimately unsatisfying. There is good character and human moments and storylines and it is clear that the story is about the reaction of the town of Jericho to multiple nuclear explosions in America, but my deepest interest is still focused on the behind the scenes. How many nuclear explosions? Is it limited to just America? Are the cities on the map the only cities or the only cities that we know of yet?

I will say that it was chilling watching the "St Louis Cop" putting push pins on the map of the United States to mark the cities that were attacked.

This past friday marked the season premiere of Battlestar Galactica. Some people have serious issues with how Battlestar is progressing and how the producers are not delivering on the promise of the show and being heavy handed. I see her point, but Battlestar remains one of the best things on television today (excluding, perhaps, 24). There is great entertainment, mostly solid storylines (even though some get dropped), compelling characters I deeply care about (Starbuck, Roslin, General Adama), and a setting that feels real despite being distant science fiction. It's not perfect, but nothing is.

Eureka was a pleasant surprise on Sci-Fi this summer. A talented, yet personable U.S. Marshal ends up in the hidden, classified, scientific town of Eureka where the residents are nearly all scientists working for the government and there are quirks, oddities, something deeper behind the scenes, and a lot of fun. The Marshal ends up staying on in Eureka due to an odd assortment of circumstances and our show follows the Marshal each week as he figures out the town and deals with situations that arise while not fully understanding. It was a short season of perhaps 12 episodes, but the show maintained a high level of quality throughout. Season 1 was more "one off" episodes than building a story arc, but I think the next season will work more overall story arcs. Sci-Fi is doing something right with their developed programs. Movies, less so, but their original programming is excellent.

24 is unreal. I have four episodes left in Season 4 and the show just gets better and better. The producers and writers are unrelenting and completely honest with their characters and have strong integrity with their show. While we expect Jack Bauer to live, no other character who ends up in the line of fire is assured survival and some that a weaker producer would let live do not live. Moreover, horrible acts do sometimes occur against America because CTU is not perfect and not everything can be prevented. While it may be a bit much that one man can be at the center of all of these events over multiple seasons, that's the premise of the show and with that premise I am coming to feel that 24 may be the best damn show on tv. I expect to be caught up with the show by the time Season 6 airs in January, so I'll finally be watching the episodes as they air.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Codex Derynianus: Second Edition

I had been looking for Codex Derynianus since the first edition was released in 1998. At that time it was a limited edition that quickly sold and second hand copies were extremely expensive and frequently over one hundred dollars. No library carried it. The book is some sort of guidebook / history / encyclopedia of the Eleven Kingdoms in Katherine Kurtz's Deryni Universe. It has been one of my favorite fantasy series for some time, though I far prefer the novels set earlier in the chronology. The world itself is ours, though a thousand years ago. It has the same religious backgrounds, but there is a race with the ability to do magic called the Deryni. The church has persecuted them mightily and there is much to do with the kingdom of a land called Gwynedd, which is located where our England is. It's a brutal fantasy series, but is fantastically written.

When Katherine Kurtz released a second edition of her Codex Derynianus I was finally able to locate a copy through my local library and I found out what the book really is. This is essentially an encyclopedia of her created world with entries on every single character that appears, every location mentioned or visited, and every kingdom and ruler. These entries are written in a form as if someone 1130 wrote the entries and his personal opinions (not those of Kurtz, but the fictional character) come through, especially when writing about the Deryni persecutions of the past and Hubert MacInnis.

There is also a timeline of the Eleven Kingdoms which gets into a good amount of detail when covering the events of the novels. It is this timeline that finally gives us hints of what went on in the year 948. I bring this up because that is the single year that has interested me the most in this series. It is 20 years after The Bastard Prince and is not covered in any novel, but Kurtz includes genealogies at the back of her novels and quite a few of the major characters presented in her books all die in 948. This is not likely a coincidence. Kurtz is at her best when she is the most brutal to her characters, so I imagine that when she gets around to writing the 948 book, it'll be a very good one. The timeline gives some coverage to what happened in 948, but I doubt that it tells the whole story.

So, Codex Derynianus is a good resource for those looking for background and reminders on the characters, events, and locations of the Deryni novels of Katherine Kurtz. It is clearly not a novel and thus not truly an exciting read. It's a fantasy resource for the work of one author. In that sense it is excellent, but for the average reader of fantasy I can't recommend it.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Book 86: The Penultimate Peril

Here we go, the next to last entry in the long running A Series of Unfortunate Events. Once again Lemony Snicket has written a fast paced, though longer, novel dealing with the unfortunate lives of the Baudelaire orphans and their attempts to evade Count Olaf and find out the mysteries of VFD and claim their lives as their own.

By this twelfth novel there is little to say that hasn't been said and there is a strong similarity between each novel. In The Penultimate Peril the Baudelaires are at the Hotel Denouement and begin to see some of the characters and villains from previous novels all gathered together. Truly, Snicket is setting us up for the big ending.

What is truly interesting about this novel is the examination of Right and Wrong and how when the series started everything seemed so clear cut, but now the Baudelaires are questioning whether doing a wicked act for a good reason is Right or Wrong and question if it is possible they are becoming Wrong like the villains who have persued them for so long.

Still, thirteen volumes is an awful lot of time spent in one series and I only hope that Snicket can end on a strong note. I feel that he can, but we'll see.

Book 85: So Big

In the early pages of So Big we learn that So Big is the nickname of Dirk DeJong, a young man who has long outgrown the childhood name from his mother, Selina. At this point I figure that the novel would be about the title character, but So Big is really about his mother Selina. Selina takes a job as smalltown schoolteacher in Illinois knowing that in two years she will be eligible to work in a city school and be better paid (the novel is set in the late 1800's). In High Prairie Selina finds out that she is nothing like the hardworking and hard lives of the farmers and farming families of the town. High Prairie is an education for her and when she surprisingly marries one of the farmers her life is ultimately linked to the town and the farming life, one which she never would have anticipated. She hopes, of course, for a better life for her son and struggles to do the best she can for him.

So Big
won the 1924 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is a fine novel of argrarian literature. Edna Ferber does well in capturing the hard lives of the farmers without either idealizing their struggle nor demeaning their lives. Literature of this sort (such as A Thousand Acres, which also won the Pulitzer) is strangely appealing to me since I have no real ties to the farming life and have never worked on a farm, but when written well it comes across with great passion and compassion in a novel.