Saturday, January 29, 2011

Girl on Book Action: Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
ISBN: 978-0-575-048248-9

Springtime in Styria. And that means war. 

There have been nineteen years of blood. The ruthless Grand Duke Orso is locked in a vicious struggle with the squabbling League of Eight, and between them they have bled the land white. While armies march, heads roll and cities burn, behind the scenes bankers and priests and older, darker powers play a deadly game to choose who will be king. 

War may be hell, but for Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in Duke Orso’s employ, it’s a damn good way of making money too. Her victories have made her popular – a shade too popular for her employers' taste. Betrayed, thrown down a mountain and left for dead, Murcatto’s reward is a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance. Whatever the cost, seven men must die. 


My Thoughts:

Who doesn’t love a story about revenge?  I know I’m a fan, but I also hold a mean grudge (clearly you don't want to mess with me, so you'd best be a fan, too).  While I haven't read all too many books dealing just with the topic of revenge, this struck me as ranking high in the vengeance-genre.  Obviously, I'm a nit-picky (and lapsed) English major so I have a few issues with the book.  I do want to stress that I enjoyed reading it and regardless of any criticism it was a fun story.  Ah yes, the reviewer’s disclaimer, a feature I’m sure you all appreciate.

A particularly well-done facet of this novel was the fact that, while the book was enjoyable, I didn't really sympathize with any of the characters.  Every time I started to feel a connection with them, they would do something to make me disengage.  Despite the overall unlikeableness of the characters, the book managed to remain accessible (which is no small feat).  Clearly, these are not good people.  There are no noble soldiers here with high ideals and a spotless moral code.  Best Served Cold is a story of mercenaries, poisoners and criminals.  All of them are capable of betrayal and all of them are betrayed.  Abercrombie never lets you get comfortable in identifying with any of them.  Now, you might worry that having no emotional connection with any of the cast is a problem, but I found that it didn’t detract from reading the book.  It was actually refreshing to feel more like an observer than the protagonist’s friend or well-wisher.  Ultimately, this novel is a story of anti-heroes and it was remarkably successful.

Ah, but now comes the nit-picking!  I know you were waiting for it, like blood-thirsty scavengers of the literary world.  While the design and execution of the untrustworthy characters was excellent, there was a lot of heavy-handedness in the morality department.  This consisted mostly of bashing me over the head with the idea that revenge only leads to more revenge in an endless cycle of violence.  Most of the characters express this idea at least once over the course of the book and it started to irritate me.  About halfway through I was ready to yell at the characters to tell them that “I KNOW IT’S A FUTILE CYCLE, STOP TELLING ME!”  Alas, I’m not a crazy person so I remained politely silent and only yelled a little in my thoughts.

Honestly, the book also managed to surprise me with some of the betrayals.  Some of the plot-points were obvious, but others were masterfully wrought and I only saw the build up to them after they had happened.  It’s difficult to pull that off without seeming like you’re just throwing in plot-twists for the sake of it, but all of the twists and turns here made sense and added to the suspense of the quest.

That said, the novel could have been 100 pages shorter and it would have been just as good.  In fact, it could have been better as the end really started to drag for me and I trudged through the last 150 or so pages waiting for the pay-off rather than enjoying the action.  Maybe cutting back on the moralizing earlier on would have made a difference in that respect.

My final words?  If you like revenge stories, interspersed with quite a few large battles, politics and numerous betrayals, you will enjoy this novel.  If you prefer to read books with characters you like and want to bring home to meet mom, then you’d best stay away.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Weeks Too Late: the H.P. Lovecraft Collection 1 & 2

The H.P. Lovecraft Collection. Volume 1: Cool Air Directed & Written by Bryan Moore. Volume 2: Dreams of Cthulhu: the Rough Magik Initiative Directed by Jamie Payne Written by Stephen W. Parsons.

Preconceptions: Hot off of enjoying the HPLS produced Call of Cthulhu, I wanted to see more stuff chalk full of tentacled horrors (but not Wicked City, anything but Wicked City-if you don't know what I'm on about, don't look). It turns out that the good ol' Netflix had a Bravo Canada series I'd never heard of called the H.P. Lovecraft Collection. Similar to the much touted (by me) Masters of Horror, this is a series of unrelated short films based on Lovecraft's writing. Really, it seemed like Bravo Canada of the distant past wanted to make a nice present for me. Thanks Bravo Canada.

General Review: Perhaps present was too positive a word. I always feel bad when I find something not a lot of people have heard of (this thing doesn't have a Wikipedia entry, for goodness sake) and then, instead of telling them about this great new thing, proceed to tear it to shreds. I really wanted to like this collection (and I figured I'd watch two so that you, the reader, would be getting at least an hour and a half of my time). I like the concept and hell, I liked the network when I was back in Canada. Unfortunately, I need to kick this particular tiny puppy that only wanted me to love it. I'm sorry puppy.

A brief plot run down in case you haven't heard of this series. Cool Air is the story of an awkward writer (I wonder if Lovecraft was the first horror writer to just write about himself over and over again?) coming to a city (probably in New England, that's where horror lives apparently), getting rooms in a run down apartment complex and meeting a mysterious doctor with an even more mysterious condition. The inappropriately long named Dreams of Cthulhu: the Rough Magik Initiative (I see a lot of committee thinking going into this title) is very loosely based on some ideas from the Call of Cthulhu. A shady government official (ala the X-Files) is researching a series of violent crimes caused by supernatural interference. He goes to bother a psychologist who ran across this sort of thing during war-time and forces him to have a series of flash backs.

Let me give my unnecessarily blunted torture implements a rest for a moment and discuss some of the positives. I liked the complete difference in tone and style between the two shorts. Cool Air was a slower-paced, more thoughtful piece and Rough Magik a 'splode-em-up war movie. The casting in Cool Air was a bit clever dick-y, making the main character look like Lovecraft. It was a nice bit of lantern hanging given that the character might as well have been called Howard.

And now, the rusty tools, if you please. Both Cool Air and Dreams suffered from 1990's style TV actors. I know neither script was exactly HBO quality, but a higher calibre of guy saying the cliche war lines ("stay frosties" and "I won't leave you behinds" were thick on the ground in Dreams) or sinister government agent lines (yes there were plenty of "there's more going on here than you could possibly knows" as well) would have made them easier to swallow. Perhaps worst of all was the Italian landlady in Cool Air who might as well have been asking if we wanted some Tootsi-Fruitsi Ice-a Cream. And watching our Lovecraft stand-in faint was easily worse than seeing a 16 year old drama student doing it. Strangely, the weird old men in both shorts were both a cut above the rest of the cast (though I could have done without the doctor's accent in Cool Air).

The fault wasn't entirely in the acting. No, they didn't sell the eye rolling-ly over used lines, but they didn't write them either. Moore, at least, seemed to be trying to keep things Lovecraft-y, but Parsons, ugh, Dreams read like X-Files fan fic (fortunately it wasn't slash). The directing of Cool Air was standard film student fair, not exactly bad, but a bit much at times (our writer character standing in front of a padlocked door, looking down at the lock with despair and holding it in his hands mournfully before moving on, for example). Dreams utterly failed to make me think I was watching something with a bigger budget.

Hopefully, this is enough puppy kicking to keep you guys from wasting your time with the intriguing, but lame H.P. Lovecraft Collection. Overall, I have a lot more forgiveness for Cool Air and than I do for (big breath) Dreams of Cthulhu: the Rough Magik Initiative. Cool Air was kinda boring and the twist was telegraphed, but it felt like a failed experiment rather than more of the same dross. Dreams of Cthulhu: the Rough Magik Initiative (pant) was strictly more of the same old same. Ignoring my own advice I'm probably going to check out a few more of these episodes idly (I dug the glimmers of cool I saw) but I can't recommend anyone else bothering.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Girl on Book Action: Black Powder War by Naomi Novik

Black Powder War by Naomi Novik
ISBN: 978-0-345-48130-6
Aside:  Since this is the third book in a series, I will warn you now that the blurb will likely have spoilers for the first two parts.  Should you wish to avoid those, but are interested in the Temeraire series you can read my review of Part One here!.


After their fateful adventure in China, Capt. Will Laurence of His Majesty’s Aerial Corps and his extraordinary dragon, Temeraire, are waylaid by a mysterious envoy bearing urgent new orders from Britain.  Three valuable dragon eggs have been purchased from the Ottoman Empire, and Laurence and Temeraire must detour to Istanbul to escort the precious cargo back to England.  Time is of the essence if the eggs are to be borne home before hatching.

Yet, disaster threatens the mission at every turn – thanks to the diabolical machinations of the Chinese dragon Lien, who blames Temeraire for her master’s death and vows to ally herself with Napoleon and take vengeance.  Then, faced with shattering betrayal in an unexpected place, Laurence, Temeraire, and their squad must launch a daring offensive.  But what chance do they have against the massed forces of Bonaparte’s implacable army?


My Thoughts:

After reading Throne of Jade way back in September, I wasn’t in a mood to get back to Temeraire for a while, but since book three has been sitting on my to-be-read shelf for some time, I thought it was about time to give him another go.  I have to say, I enjoyed Black Powder War quite a bit more than its predecessor, even though it features various new and long journeys, thankfully none of them by sea.

One of the things that worked for me in this book is the inclusion of several new, rather charming characters.  The first of these is Tharkay, the messenger and guide.  He’s a sneaky sort and likes to disappear without notice in the midst of things only to come back and save the day.  Of course, by that time everyone has cursed him for being a coward and deserter.  Just my kind of guy, really.  Another is the band of feral dragons that Temeraire and his crew encounter on their long overland journey.  I can’t quite put my finger on why I was so pleased with them, but I was charmed with their brazen and blustering leader Arkady, as well as some of the others.  Last, is the new hatchling – and I’m not even going to try to spell her name – with her forceful personality and bristling temperament, fitting for a fire-breathing dragon.

Temeraire has a larger role again in this novel and since he is by far my favourite character I was happy to see it.  I have to admit, at times the things this dragon says make me snort with laughter.  Sometimes, I wish that the books were told from his point of view instead of Laurence’s.  I find Laurence to be unlikeable which does nothing to lessen this desire.  He’s well-written, but really gets on my nerves sometimes.  At least he’s showing considerable growth in each installment, which makes him less irritatingly rigid and formal.

Spoilers ahead!  The story did feel like it was dragging again in certain parts.  Primarily, things slowed down late in the second act and then the ending felt abrupt. I think after all the trouble taken to describe the wretched crossing of the Prussian states and Napoleon doing a great job of conquering all, a last chapter to wrap things up and see Temeraire and his crew back to England might have been nice.  It’s clear that they are safe and able to return to Britain after their ingenious escape, but there were a few loose ends I wanted to see addressed before the book was over.  Of course, I have no doubt that all of those will be sorted out in the next installment.  And yet, this fact does little to lessen the sense of this book being somewhat incomplete.  The seas are once more spoiler-free.

Overall, I still love the setting, the alternate history and the dragons.  I enjoy seeing how different cultures approach the dragons, too, which all the travelling really highlights in each of the novels.  This is to say, despite some minor disappointments (and still not liking Laurence very much) I’m definitely going to be picking up further installments to see what Temeraire does next.  I’m especially intrigued to see how he fares with improving the conditions of the dragons and how the humans treat their draconic partners.  Also, I hope Tharkay stays on and the feral dragons, especially Arkady.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Weeks Too Late: Inception

Inception. Directed & Written by Christopher Nolan.

Preconceptions: I love Christopher Nolan. He is one of my favourite directors, perhaps even my Caitlin R. Kiernan of directors (to get this joke, please see just about any entry of this blog where we endlessly praise CRK). Through various mischance, I missed seeing Inception in the theaters. I even went so far as to show up at a theater and find that it had left the previous day. As I tapped my foot, impatiently waiting for it to come out on DVD I heard good things. I heard that it was extremely intelligent and expected a lot from the viewer, that it was beautifully shot and that DiCaprio out-did himself. When it arrived I shut the blind, pressed play and waited to be transported.

General Review: Well, it was beautifully shot. Christopher Nolan is still one of my favourite directors. He made a number of impossible things look believable. The colour pallet was gorgeous and the scope was vast. Unfortunately (and I fear I may have more than a few people disagree with me here) it just wasn't that well written. I don't know if it's because Nolan works better when writing with his brother or if it's because this was an earlier piece of his writing and he's matured since then, but it simply wasn't up to the level that I've come to expect. It was both dated and derivative, culled from cliff notes from a Philosophy 101 class and from the scripts of both the Matrix and What Dreams May Come (another visually stunning, but clumsily handled piece).

Don't scan the next paragraph if you haven't seen it and fear the incredibly telegraphed plot spoilers.

It wasn't just the town bicycle concept of entering the dream-scape using sci-fi technology that bothered me. I knew that was the premise going in and I figured Nolan would do something new with it. The main emotional plot, DiCaprio coming to terms with his wife's death, was clunky and unnatural (and weirdly similar to the plot of Shutter Island). All of the dialogue on the subject was stilted and melodramatic. Also: ridiculously close to the plot of What Dreams May Come. Finally, the "it's supposed to make you think, but all it did was make me roll my eyes" ambiguous ending was forced to M. Night Shyamalan proportions (don't worry, I won't write what it is even in the spoilers section).

Here endth the spoilers (but not the complaining).

Some of the melodrama in the writing could have been mitigated by stellar acting. Stellar acting was nowhere to be found. I've been a fence sitter about DiCaprio for a long time. I haven't fallen in love with his performance in anything, but I don't feel as though it's been a true detriment either (though that accent in Shutter Island was a near thing). He was a handicap to Inception (coincidentally, it was another movie where they say the title over and over, though not a Western this time). He didn't sell the bad lines and worse, he didn't sell the good ones. Marion Cotillard was mumble mouthed and shallow, not at all the complex and alluring character that everyone kept telling us she was. In fact, their entire performance could have been outdone by a couple of hand puppets. I've been quite partial to Ellen Page in the past, but she fell flat in this as well. When she attempted to discover what DiCaprio was hiding from the team, it felt like shrewish nagging and prying and not at all as though she was helping him for his own good.

The exposition was endless. For a movie touted to expect a bit of wit from its audience, it drove home every plot point with all the subtlety of a railroad spike in the head. Every term was explained again and again so that us morons in the audience would have time to catch on.

All the cleverness and sparkle lacking in the writing and acting could be found in the directing. There were some absolutely astonishing shots. As I mentioned above, we were shown several impossible things that became totally believable due to the skill with which they were portrayed. The fight scene in shifting gravity was seamless (much to the credit of Joseph Gordon Levitt of cute boy review fame) and the sets and locations were stunning. Also: credit where it's due, the idea of making a movie about the subconscious also a heist movie is pretty cool.

I feel badly saying so many bad things about Inception given how skillfully it was directed, it was a treat to watch Nolan use a huge budget to good effect. The plot, the dialogue and the acting just weren't there. I'd still go see something with his name on it strictly because his name was on it but this one wasn't a win in my books.

Aside: Am I a dummy who is reading too much into this, or were some of the characters meant to represent DiCaprio's boring and shrill subconscious?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Girl On Book Action: A Special Guest Review on the Child Thief

The Child Thief by Brom
Lyn here, from Lazy Lady (, doing a guest review! I'm not sure that I will be able to review anything properly, but I'll give it a shot. One of the last books I read (well finished reading anyway) was a dark fantasy novel, The Child Thief by Brom.
I picked up this book because I liked the cover. I had no idea what it was about and I had never heard of Brom before. It was in the crap box at work so I figured, why not? (I work for a newspaper and we get books and CDs and such things all the time, but we don't really review stuff so it just goes in the “crap box” and is up for grabs for anyone who wants it).
Like so many before me, I am fascinated by the tale of Peter Pan, the romantic idea of an endless childhood amongst the magical playground of Neverland. But, like so many, my mind’s image of Peter Pan had always been that of an endearing, puckish prankster, the undue influence of too many Disney films and peanut-butter commercials. That is, until I read the original Peter Pan, not the watered-down version you’ll find in the children’s bookshops these days, but James Barrie’s original –and politically uncorrected—version, and then I began to see the dark undertones and to appreciate just what a wonderfully bloodthirsty, dangerous, and at times cruel character Peter Pan truly is.” -Brom
Now, time for the actual review:
This dark retelling of Peter Pan was beautifully and disturbingly written. The horrors of Peter's past and the pasts of The Devils ("lost boys" equivalent in this story) are harrowing, but gave the story's many character-developments strength and insight without the reader feeling labored to get through them all.
I'll be honest though, the beginning of the book made me put it down for a bit so I could mentally prepare myself for what might come as I continued reading. I won't give too much away, but it has to do with a little girl and her abusive father. But I want to be clear, Brom doesn't abuse the dark material he put in this book. It was necessary and it wasn't exploitative, just hard to get through as a beginning of a book.
After the initial shock though, I found myself unable to put the book down. This world combined elements of the Peter Pan I grew up with as well as Arthurian mythology (as well some others thrown in the mix) held me spellbound. The way Brom mixes these many magical sources as well as the modern world (where, of course, Peter comes to bring children to Avalon–the equivalent of NeverLand in this retelling) was seamless and really added so much depth and richness to the story. He was very detailed but without being over-detailed, which is something I find to be tiresome in books.
I do feel like the ending, was a bit rushed. Maybe that was intentional, as the climactic pace picked up and a lot was going on all at once, but I felt like I needed moments to breathe. I'm not saying there should have been pages that take you away from the action at the end; however, there could have been more moments, captured in the length of a few sentences, that show the calm of a scene before the insanity of war and magic take over it. Little breaks to help the reader not feel overwhelmed (and I don't mean “overwhelmed in the good, “lost in the moment,” way). Also, subsequently, the hurried nature can leave the reader with sense of “wait, what just happened?” at the end.
Brom also has some wonderful illustrations in the book. There are glossy color illustrations in the center, but there are also illustrations through out the book that help the reader better envision the world that Brom created for this Peter. As I read, I found myself constantly flipping to the character illustrations to help myself see what Peter or Nick (the other main character of this book, the last of the kids Peter brought over) is seeing. There is no illustration of Nick, by the way. I feel this is to allow the reader to put him/herself in Nick's shoes better. Brom also created a map of Avalon that I also would turn to reference as I read and journeyed with the characters.
This book is one that I would recommend to anyone (as long as I thought they could handle the dark material in it).

Friday, January 14, 2011

Announcement: Upcoming Guest Post by Lyn "the Lazy Lady" Brantley

That's right, we've got another excellent guest blogger coming to join us this weekend in the "Doomwench is Swamped" series.

Lyn writes one of my favourite blogs (Lazy Lady) where she tries to shame herself into living a tidier and more productive life. She's also a ridiculously skilled graphic designer (the creator of Vampire Stalin no less) and a noted mustache enthusiast.

She'll be joining us tomorrow with a review of the Child Thief by Brom.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Weeks Too Late: The Call of Cthulhu

The Call of Cthulhu. Directed by Andrew Leman & Written by Sean Branney.

Preconceptions: I make no bones about being a fan of Lovecraft and (even more so) of Lovecraftian fiction. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for television and movie adaptations. Ineffable cosmic horrors don't really lend themselves to visual portrayals. In TV, you really need to eff. I have a patronizing fondness for the Lovecraft inspired in the Mouth of Madness. Dreams in the Witch House (a short made for the Masters of Horror series) was a fairly true adaptation to the source material and that's really all that can be said of it. Dagon was a fun to watch, but utterly dreadful re-imagining of Shadow Over Innsmouth. This particular movie was made by the HP Lovecraft Historical Society (if you haven't heard their recording of a Shoggoth on the Roof, go check it out, I'll wait). But despite their fun musicals, I've seen too many bad home-made Star Trek episodes to be entirely excited about a fan film.

General Review: I do not often have the attention span to enjoy silent movies. Oh, there are a couple, Metropolis and Nosferatu being the obvious examples, but typically I'm all about the Talkies. The thing that surprised me the most about this flick was that I didn't have time to get tired of the format. Admittedly, it was only just over 45 minutes long, but the length of the film was less notable than the pace. We moved quickly from nightmares, to sanitariums, to derelect vessels, to hellish islands. The plot didn't drag its feet any more than the setting and I didn't once look at the clock to see how much longer the movie would be.

The format also hid any number of the usual fan film pitfalls. The actors didn't seem stilted and unnatural the way they so often can in an amateur production. Some of this was because they didn't speak, but a lot of it was that they were supposed to seem forced to mimic the 1920's style. Any flaws in the sets and special effects were hidden by the slightly murky black and white. And choices like using "rubber ducky in the bathtub" technology to show ships at sea looked stylistically accurate, rather than being the only option available to the director.

There really weren't any amazing break out performances, acting-wise. Nobody disgraced themselves but I don't feel myself wanting to burble on about any of the actors the way I do the director. The score was very accurate, reminding me of the type of music I've heard in the silent flicks I've seen (usually ones that Doomwench has coaxed me into watching). There was a particularly good bit of scoring, where all the characters are out in the swamp and everyone has been talking about drumming and slowly a drum beat weaves its way into the music.

Speaking of burbling about the directing, let me do some more of that. Leman walked a fine line in his nightmare sequences between betraying Lovecraft's signature indescribable horrors and irritating his audience with a bit of shadow play and no monsters. I can honestly say I haven't seen this difficult device so well used in a film. I never doubted the monsters, but they weren't in spotlights where I could see every glistening intestine, either. The set of both the island and the nightmare world were fine examples of the whole "sinister angle" thing that I'm so fond of. Capturing these difficult visual themes took a truly talented individual.

It is entirely possible that I'm some years late getting to this particular party (wouldn't be the first time). It's even likely that the bulk of you have already seen this and are rolling your eyes at my glowing review of ancient news. But I figured if I hadn't seen it, there were at least a couple of people out there who might be clued in by me mentioning it. Consider yourself clued and check this out. A final exciting feature of this movie is that it is up in its entirety on hulu, so if you're an American reader, you can click here to watch it.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Girl on Book Action: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
ISBN: 0-441-47812-3

Blurb (this week it comes from as there is no blurb on the back cover):

Genly Ai is an emissary from the human galaxy to Winter, a lost, stray world. His mission is to bring the planet back into the fold of an evolving galactic civilization, but to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own culture and prejudices and those that he encounters. On a planet where people are of no gender--or both--this is a broad gulf indeed. The inventiveness and delicacy with which Le Guin portrays her alien world are not only unusual and inspiring, they are fundamental to almost all decent science fiction that has been written since.


My Thoughts:

First, I have a confession (one that might not surprise you if you’ve been reading the blog for a while): I don’t read a lot of science fiction.  A strange thing, really, considering that I enjoy Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Space Above and Beyond…the list goes on.  Apparently, I like my sci-fi when it’s visual, not when it’s written.  Perhaps I haven’t read enough good sci-fi stories and if you, dear readers, have suggestions (other than Caitlin R. Kiernan’s amazing stuff) I’d be happy to hear them.  All right, now that that’s out of the way, let me tell you about The Left Hand of Darkness.

I didn’t go into reading this book completely ignorant – I’d read some feminist critiques of its use of the male pronoun for the ungendered Gethians, but mostly I had heard good things about the novel.  I’m not going to address the pronoun thing.  I think going into that misses the point and ignores the fact that in 2011 a book published in 1969 is already a historical document, so you can see the pronoun use as a sign of the times.  For me, the focus of the novel was not he/she/it but rather the ideas about what it means to be human.

A critical part of sci-fi, or any piece of fiction, is the world building.  In order for the reader to lose themselves in the story, the future or alternate universe (or whatever) of the story needs to be believable and Le Guin does a wonderful job of creating the societies of Winter,  making their cultures and traditions come to life.  Learning how to navigate through this other culture alongside Genly Ai was a successful approach to bringing the reader into the story and the world. 

I think one of the most effective parts of the whole narrative was the trip across the glacier.  In less skilled hands, a long passage of two characters traveling through snowstorms and snow blinds for a good chunk of a book would be boring, but here it was intense and thoughtful.  Since Winter is a planet in an Ice Age, the cold almost became a character, as did the snow and these two forces are brought to their peak as Estraven and Ai make their covert crossing.  (As an aside, I think my ability to use escapist fiction is broken.  It's winter and I seem to be reading novels about cold places instead of warm ones.)

Something else I wanted to at least discuss briefly is that at times I felt like I was reading philosophy rather than fiction, but not in that “this is so dull” way that I sometimes feel about philosophical interjections in novels.  Le Guin presents a nuanced, thoughtful perspective of humanity and how dualities shape societies.  Science fiction doesn’t really evoke philosophical discourse for me, when I think of it, but maybe it should.  There is very little “hard science” in this novel, instead it takes an approach that focuses on people, how they live, how they perceive the universe and their place within it, how that changes when a traveller from another planet arrives.  Maybe that’s where I’m wrong about sci-fi as a literary genre and I should give it a better standing in my reading priorities.  I care more about these topics than about “hard science” which my lit-major brain has trouble comprehending (a short-coming I wish I could remedy, but I fear the science-understanding part of my brain has atrophied).

I feel like I haven't said a lot about the story itself, but that I've managed to give you my impressions of the book, anyway.  It has more than piqued my interest in reading more sci-fi, which is a hearty recommendation on its own.  It's a good book that is focused enough on characters to interest those scared off by hard sci-fi and I think it might prove to be a gateway drug for me!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Weeks Too Late: True Grit

True Grit. Directed & Written by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Preconceptions: Well, it's been a while since there was a movie I wanted to see badly enough to pull myself out of torpor and go see it in the theater. Few directors inspire the unabashed glee that the Coens do (despite my lukewarm reaction to a Serious Man), plus I love Westerns.

General Review: I keep thinking that I like Jeff Bridges okay, but that he is an actor without a ton of range. I don't know why this idea has jammed itself into my head like so much trepaning needle, perhaps it's that I'll always think of him as the Dude from the Big Lebowski (the Coens may as well given the line about Cogburn abiding). True Grit is just another reason why I should remember he's an excellent actor that I enjoy watching (so I'm certain I'll have forgotten by the time this posts). Cogburn was overall likable, utterly reprehensible and not at all the cartoon that the anti-hero has become. And while credit is certainly due to the writing, Bridges also gets a whole pile of credit chips. All the main actors deserve some, while I'm giving away praise. Hailee Steinfeld played a believably strong, but not super human 14 year old girl (Mattie Ross). Seeing events unfold from her perspective was a directorial choice that worked beautifully. Finally, Matt Damon was wonderful as the buffoonish but dogged LaBoeuf. He played comedy of the the over-starched extremely well.

It's telling that, for a change, I spent the entire movie rooting for the good guys. Too often it's the black hats that are layered, interesting, and lets face it, sexy characters. Not the case in True Grit. The heroes were entertaining and insightful characters and the baddies were grotesque and savage (a tip of the hat to Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper for their displays of brutishness)

The directing (to no one's surprise) was a cut above. There was enough of the Coen's signature surreality that I knew instantly whose movie I was watching, but it didn't overwhelm the sensibilities of the story.
This was a movie that knew how to keep my interest when there weren't fights going on (unlike certain
other recent Westerns I could name). The characters and dialogue were more than compelling enough to keep me engaged. I don't need to insult the Coens by mentioning that this was more than competently directed. The barren setting was gorgeously shot, particularly the starry sky sequence (you'll know it when you get to it) and I wasn't once confused or given motion sickness by the cinematography. And on a slightly feminist note, it was nice to see a strong, young female lead who managed to be tough without needing superpowers or being ridiculous.

As a hard boiled critic with nothing to lose, I'm loathe to say that a movie is without flaws. Even a movie that was practically made with me as its target demographic isn't entirely safe from my anonymous internet claws. With everything else being so well constructed, I was surprised by the blandness of the score. It was slightly too bombastic during the fight scenes and utterly forgettable for the rest of the movie. It could have been put behind any big budget movie of last year and it would have fit in just fine. It was generic and could be interchanged with any other uninspired score.

True Grit was well worth leaving my Netflix dungeon and venturing out into a theater. It was nearly two hours long, but the time simply wooshed by. The acting, writing and directing were all a remarkably high calibre. Even if Westerns aren't exactly your thing, I think you'll dig it.

Aside: I'm not sure if it's a common thread in many Westerns, or just something I've noticed in the last few I've seen, but jeeze louise, they like saying the title of the movie in the movie.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Girl on Book Action: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
ISBN: 0-486-45404-5


Bored and unhappy in a lifeless marriage, Emma Bovary yearns to escape from the dull circumstances of provincial life.  Married to a simple-minded but indulgent country doctor, she takes one lover, then another, hastens her husband’s financial ruin with her extravagance, and eventually commits suicide.


My Thoughts:

Every so often I look at the shelves of books I’ve read and chide myself for the overabundance of fantasy and horror novels which isn't at all balanced with “literature.”  When these moods hit I tend to find some classic that I haven't read yet and force myself to ignore the siren-song of the new Catherynne Valente book (oh yes, someone was a lucky Doomwench and Cthulhu saw fit to bring it wrapped in tentacles and madness) in order to read a book most likely written by a dead white man about the depredations of women…I mean, proper literature.

Now, I won’t say that I hated Madame Bovary, nor am I trying to imply that I don’t enjoy novels written by dead white men, but I also didn’t like Flaubert’s novel.  You could read it as criticism of the way women were treated. You could read it as a commentary on how the lack of possibilities (other than marriage to men) drives them to behave like Emma. There are all kinds of social criticism that can spring from this novel, but I'm a lazy and jaded reader and in my cranky old age I don't want to try and pry these meanings from this book to redeem it. The novel showed all women in a poor light and that made it hard to read.  Perhaps my pallet has become less sophisticated, who can say?  All I know is that when the end came I was relieved, because it meant I could move onto something else.

Undoubtedly, part of the problem was my foolish hope (despite what it said on the back cover) was that there would be some positive experiences for Emma, not just illusions and wishful thinking.  I was disappointed, so sorely disappointed.  When it comes down to it, none of the relationships she has are based on reality.  They are all constructed based on things she’s read in novels and idle day dreams of what she’d like her life to be like.  Honestly, I can’t really blame her.  Living as a country doctor’s wife sounds like it was beyond boring.   If she'd had more sense about money or some other redeeming features, I could have enjoyed the book more. Then again, where would she have learned responsibility with money or any other skill. I spent the whole novel pitying Emma but not really liking her. The novel was an exercise in futility of feeling. How could anyone have  expected her to turn out any different than she did? She was so feeble-minded and no one took the time or care to instill common sense in her.  Ugh.

The only thing that saved the book from being a waste of time was the language.  There were some lovely passages and the ending was well done.  Emma’s death scene and Bovary’s mourning were sad and heartfelt and for once didn’t set my feminist teeth on edge.  At least Flaubert knew what he was talking about when it comes to mourning (I suspect he knew what he was talking about when it comes to bored middle-class Frenchwomen, too, but alas, that didn’t make for a story I enjoyed).

Enough of my complaining.  I am glad I read Madame Bovary.  It’s another classic crossed off my list and now I’m ready to get back into reading delicious fantasy novels (some of which really should be considered literature) without feeling guilty.  The English major in me is once more appeased.  My final thoughts on Madame Bovary are that I wouldn't recommend it. Well, I wouldn't recommend it unless you're a completionist like me and need to one day be able to say that you’ve read all of the major classics. The whole affair made me feel thoroughly sad, and not in the profound way some literature will effect me. Rather, it was a sort of mundane, pitying and grubby sadness (much less grand and fun).  It's possible that I might have enjoyed the novel more if I had read it at a different time of life. It might very well be that Flaubert reads more gracefully with a less cynical eye.Knowing what I know about the piece, I might try to read it again later with
fewer expectations.