Wednesday, December 29, 2010

read: Shades of Milk and Honey

Shades of Milk and HoneyShades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't think I'm in the target demographic for this book. But I enjoyed it, anyway. I just allowed the story to take me where it wanted.

Where it took me was to a genteel world of preaning society, where appearances and reputations are put above personal needs and desires. It's a world where art and culture take precedence over doing real work and the magical art of glamour has been added to the mix. To my naive perceptions and untrained modern eye, the author does a fine job of bringing this world alive, weaving together the fantasy and romantic aspects of the novel in a way that kept me turning pages right through to the end.

I wish a few more mysteries had been introduced sooner. It took a while for the tension to build, other than the romantic frustrations of the main character. And while the actual Jane Austen may have intended to make deeper commentary on her society, I don't think that's how this homage was intended at all. It's really just a light entertainment, and (to quote Mr. Vincent from the novel) "Illusions should be entrancing without someone looking behind the scenes to see how they are made." [More]

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

read: Leviathan

Leviathan (Leviathan, #1)Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What works for me is the richly-built world, the well-rounded and differentiated characters, and the rousing adventure story. All these jump out from the very first page and don't quit until the end of the book. The different viewpoints on science, engineering, and politics came alive on every page.

Some things didn't work. The juvenile and repetative PG-rated swearing became tiresome after a while. The premise that a girl could pass for weeks and weeks as a boy in the closed in environment of an airship did not quite ring true. The young main characters tended to act quite a bit younger than their age, which seems the opposite of what would be typical for the time period when children would tend to grow up more quickly than they do now. [More]

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Friday, November 26, 2010

"Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" [B-]

Of course, the plot and the visual effects didn't always make sense. And the dialog was sometimes jolting in its modernity. But after all, this is a video game turned into a rollicking fantasy adventure movie. It's not supposed to make historical, geographical or scientific sense.

It is rollicking. It is full of adventure. I thought it was a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I" [C+]

Since I haven't read beyond the second book in the series, it's impossible for me to say if this film is too meandering and maudlin due to the original story or the screenplay or the directing. My guess is all three.

The first 30 minutes or so actually worked fairly effectively. There is a sense of loss and danger. There is a thrilling escape. There is a growing threat. Then we spend two hours wandering from place to place with no clue as to why we are anywhere. It's just a series of set pieces that eventually start adding up to something. Then we finally and surprisingly find the one person who can fit all of the pieces together and we get an information dump about what is going on (at least it's a somewhat interesting and entertaining dump).

High marks still for special effects and world building (although the number of people working at the Ministry of Magic seems implausible to me). Decent marks for acting, based on what they had to work with (the romances here seem to have been written by George Lucas). Low marks for storytelling and pacing. I'm glad this will all be over soon.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

read: Our Kind of Traitor

Our Kind of TraitorOur Kind of Traitor by John le Carré

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure what to think of this book. On the one hand, the prose has the usual deft touch of the master. The characters are rich and engaging and the settings colorful. I enjoyed almost every page once it got going. On the other hand, "where's the beef"?

I never really cared what happened to the characters. I think this is because I was never captivated by their needs or their motivations. And when the last few pages started rushing toward me, all I could think was that the ending was going to be tragically unsatisfying or awesomely wonderful. It was unsatisfying and unfairly left a majority of the plot threads dangling, including the ones that I actually did care about.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Films of the Season

Just this morning I got to thinking about the quickly approaching Christmas season and the associated films and television specials I look forward to each year. I've decided to turn my mental list into an actual list (in no particular order):
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas
  • Ruldolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (tv)
  • A Christmas Carol (either the 1951 b&w classic with Alastair Sim, or the 1984 tv version with George C. Scott; though I'm also a sucker for the 1970 musical Scrooge with Albert Finney)
  • Miracle on 34th Street (1959, b&w)
  • It's a Wonderful Life (b&w)
  • Elf (new classic)
  • A Christmas Story
  • White Christmas (or Holiday Inn, or both)
  • The Santa Clause (almost a guilty pleasure)
That just happens to work out to ten. Some also-rans and guilty pleasures are worth mentioning: The Bishop's Wife, Jingle All The Way (with the governator), Die Hard, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Muppet Christmas Carol, any Andy Williams Christmas Special, and if it ever makes it to video John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why, Yes, I am writing a novel this month

I actually did start on a new NaNo novel last week. Only about 1200 words, so far. But I'm just getting started and think I can catch up.

read: Hollywood Tough

Hollywood Tough (Shane Scully, #3)Hollywood Tough by Stephen J. Cannell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like much of the television that Stephen J. Cannell has written and produced. It turns out that his fiction writing isn't too bad, either. I liked this. It's not ground-breaking or earth-shattering or by any means awe-inspiring. But it is pretty good, down-to-earth, fun, detective fiction and kept me turning pages.

Keep in mind that Cannell is a television writer, so the plots and schemes of Shane Scully and the characters around him are suitably ridiculous and far-fetched. Taking that as a given, the plot is inventive and keeps you guessing. The characters were colorful and well-drawn. The settings might be a bit fuzzy, if you weren't completely familiar with them from hours of network television set in Los Angeles. The prose was easy on the eyes and inner ear, except for a few times where paragraphs suddenly began with the word 'Suddenly' several times in a row. [More]

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Friday, October 22, 2010

"Taken" [B+]

Every father's worst nightmare comes true and the father becomes the worst nightmare of the men who kidnapped his daughter. It helps that the father has mad spy skills on the order of Jason Bourne. This is stripped-down, action-packed story telling of the highest order. Yes, it's over-the-top. But it's an enjoyable ride if you like this sort of thing.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

read: Dot Dead

Dot Dead: A Silicon Valley Mystery (Silicon Valley Mysteries)Dot Dead: A Silicon Valley Mystery by Keith Raffel

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was expecting some high-tech shenanigans and corporate power plays. The little bits of that in the story only provided background. This was a simple, suburban murder mystery. It could have taken place anywhere, not just Silicon Valley.

The good: There was a mystery to solve, and it unfolded through the course of the book without telegraphing too much too soon. The prose was decent with occasional highlights.

The bad: The pace was leisurely. The cast of characters were all too laid back, including the hero and the villain. There needed to be more conflict and more suspense. I found myself skimming and skipping without missing much of the plot at all. The wrap-up did rely on a few coincidences.

Two stars means I found it to be average, but not bad.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

read: Bodily Harm

Bodily Harm: A NovelBodily Harm: A Novel by Robert Dugoni

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After three books, I think I've decided that I would want David Sloane as my lawyer, since he always wins. But I wouldn't want to hang out with him. It's not that he's not a nice guy. He's terrific. The problem is that the people around him tend to get shot or abducted.

The story begins a bit slowly, just setting up the situation with a bit of mystery. But once it takes off, Dugoni keeps you turning pages in true thriller style trying to keep up with what's happening and why. The writing is crisp and clean. Characters and locations are vivid. The ending is a real twist that I didn't see coming (but should have). [More]

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Monday, September 27, 2010

read: Ancestor

AncestorAncestor by Scott Sigler

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"It was OK" sums up my reaction pretty well.

The author obviously put in a tremendous amount of work to get the technology and biology to a believable state. And it all makes a certain amount of sense within the world of the book. The problem is that it never came alive for me (ironic for a story about creating life). Everything and everyone is described in cold, calculating terms. The settings come across as laundry lists of geography, structures, or items, as appropriate. Likewise, each character comes with their list of identifiers and quirks, but they never quite make it off of the page.

I will give Mr. Sigler credit for creating a pretty slam-bang plot. There are plenty of thrills and the promised violence. Although I was skimming many pages, I did push through to the end to find out how things would get wrapped up. [More]

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"Date Night" [B-]

A nice suburban couple realize they're in a rut and try to add a little zest to their life. Forced to 'steal' another couple's reservation at a popular restaurant, they are soon paying for that indiscretion and running for their lives (and repeatedly criticized for it by cop and criminal alike).

Carell and Fey do a believable job as a married couple who love each other, but need some time to keep their romance alive. The script gives them plenty of moments to discover what's right and wrong with their relationship and work through it in a relatively believable fashion, given all the mayhem.

Not all of the jokes work and not too many of them are outright hilarious. But this is a funny movie.

"When In Rome" [C+]

This film's main issue is that it's just trying too hard to be funny and heartwarming. Occasionally, it succeeds. More often, it's either strained, boring or awkward. It's full of actors mugging for the camera, trying to do something with a script that's never quite sure where to go.

One place it doesn't really go is Rome. Most of the action happens in New York. And even many of the Rome scenes were actually filmed in NYC. I'd call that false advertising.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Resident Evil: Afterlife" [B-]

As expected, this didn't make a lick of sense and really wasn't necessary after the previous installment. But it was extremely well done. Even so, the 'bullet-time' sequences got a little old after the 10th or 12th time. I guess they probably looked pretty cool in 3D (I watched it in good ol' 2D).

Resident Evil: Afterlife (IMDb)

"Crazy Heart" [B+]

This film is highlighted by Academy Award-worthy performances (Jeff bridges won) and music (also won). And it gets high marks for keeping the audience guessing as to how things will turn out. Directing is solid. But the script and story are a little meandering, sort of like Bad Blake's life.

I'm happy to report that as hard as it is to watch even a fictional character throw their life away and hit bottom, this film is not as depressing as it might sound from the description. The characters are smartly written and feel solidly true. The ending is satisfying, if not the sort that Hollywood typically churns out.

Crazy Heart (IMDb)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

read: The Incredible World of Spy-Fi

The Incredible World of Spy-Fi: Wild and Crazy Spy Gadgets, Props, and Artifacts from TV and the MoviesThe Incredible World of Spy-Fi: Wild and Crazy Spy Gadgets, Props, and Artifacts from TV and the Movies by Danny Biederman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a fun fluff of a book that will appeal to anyone with fond memories of the spy films and television shows of the 60s and 70s. Built around photos of various props and costumes from these shows, the author briefly sets the context, history, and theme of each show, rundowns most of the main characters (and actors), and expounds on each particular item with amusing anecdotes.

Coverage is heavily weighted toward the James Bond films, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.", "Mission: Impossible", and "The Wild, Wild West". Other shows like "Get Smart" and "The Avengers", along with more recent films like "Austin Powers", get good mentions, too.

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read: Quantico

QuanticoQuantico by Greg Bear

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first third of the book really had me wondering if the pages of my Greg Bear science fiction novel had been secretly replaced with the pages from some randomly average thriller about post-9/11 terrorism. Then the science started appearing and things got more interesting.

The realistic portrayal of the remote possibility of unknown parties acquiring and/or manipulating bio-terrorism materials is quite unsettling and thought provoking. This is not a great book. But it was ultimately satisfying and I will probably give the next one in the series a try. [More]

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

read: Troublemaker

Troublemaker Book 1: Alex Barnaby Series 3Troublemaker Book 1: Alex Barnaby Series 3 by Alex Evanovich

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book didn't work for me. The story fails to create any real tension. The situation seems overly contrived. The ongoing narration trying to tie it to the previous Alex Barnaby stories are flat. The art is totally out of sync with the characters created in Metro Girl and Motor Mouth. I won't be bothering with the follow-up chapters.

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read: Clementine

Clementine (The Clockwork Century, #2)Clementine by Cherie Priest

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cherie Priest scores another hit in her rich world of an alternate 19th Century USA in which the Civil War is stretching out for decades. She creates very distinctive lead characters and then does a good job of putting them through the ringer in this short (208 pages) book, picking up the thread of a plot about escaped slave and air pirate Captain Croggin Beauregard Hainey, who had a small part in the novel Boneshaker. In pursuit of him is a new character, too-famous-to-be-a-spy ex-Confederate spy Maria "Belle" Boyd, now working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency on behalf of the Union Army. The whole thing is an enjoyable and all too short romp that reminded me of one the better episodes of The Wild Wild West. Belle Boyd would certainly give James West a run for his money. [More]

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

"Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" [A-]

The unreality of Scott Pilgrim's world in many ways is actually more compelling than the unreality rendered in Inception. And it's just as well done. And more novel, with video game and pop culture references used in ways that have not been seen before and a sense of pacing and humor that just won't quit.

The script does a good job of taking us through the story of Scott's journey through the "league of seven evil exes", which is also a voyage through discovery of Ramona and himself. The acting and directing are suitably tongue-in-cheek, without be too cheeky. The special effects serve the story, rather than the other way around. And even though the entire film is about video game fighting, its climax doesn't fall into the action movie trap of depending on the repetitious raising of shoot-em-up heroics for the fate of the world. It all stays relevant and personal.

Definitely an awesome summer movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen, but will probably do better business on video.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

read: Agent to the Stars

Agent to the StarsAgent to the Stars by John Scalzi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John Scalzi notes that he wrote Agent to the Stars as a 'practice' novel. As someone with several first-draft practice novels hidden on my hard drive, I should probably be intimidated by how good this one is. On the other hand, I have no doubt quite a bit of work, and several drafts, were put in before 'Agent' ever saw the light of day.

I detected several signs of a first novel. A simple plot. Long sections of exposition. A sudden romance. Obvious foreshadowing. Aliens that are a bit too conveniently anthropomorphic (not in appearance, but thought and speech patterns). Even so, 'Agent' is a quick, humorous read that skewers both science fiction tropes and the entertainment industry with an interesting concept, some plot twists that keep you guessing, and fun, colorful characters.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

read: The Stepsister Scheme

The Stepsister Scheme (Princess Novels, #1)The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jim C. Hines weaves a marvelous yarn about three princesses in a world where magic has consequences, fairies are real, and 'happily ever after' isn't the end of the story. Unlike many recent books that take classic stories and try to make them into 'Buffy the Vampire/Zombie Slayer' or a series of films that makes fairy tales all about pop culture, this book takes a fresh approach to these traditional stories without getting too far out of character.

Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella know about the legends that are being told about themselves and each other. Legends that are only partially based on the truth. In due course, we learn more about what 'really' happened to each princess, all because Cinderella's step sisters decide to fight back.

Rather than add a thin patina of quaintness over a modern story with modern characters, the author creates a familiar world still a long time ago and far, far away and extrapolates what makes sense in that world. The result is a well told story that has both humor and danger and is just plain fun to read.

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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hawaii Five-O Again

Anybody excited about the new 'Hawaii Five-O' starting this fall? I'm skeptical, but might watch it to see what they do with Daniel Dae Kim ('Lost') and Grace Park ('Battlestar Galactica'). In the meantime, the new opening sequence, with a brand new, yet retro, version of the theme is out. Thanks to Ken Levine (Hawaii 5 0 -- then, now, and the one that didn't sell) for pointing out good renditions of the original and new versions, plus a remake from 1998 (starring Gary Busey?), of which I was not previously aware.

Bonus #1: The Ventures performing their version at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (jump to about 7:10 or follow this link)

Bonus #2: One more for those that can't get enough

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Finished Something

Granted, it's only a first draft of a very short story (about 1200 words), and it's not even science fiction or fantasy. But it's something. And I wrote it in just one day.

The impetus is a fiction contest for an upcoming writing conference. I took another class, "Introduction to Mystery Writing", with Leslie Adkins, on Saturday and she mentioned the conference and the fact that it's a small enough conference that the number of entries into the contest that goes with it is even smaller than usual, increasing the chances of winning. To top it off, she sounded pretty disappointed in the quality of entries in some recent contests. With my usual attitude of "I can probably do better than that", I figured it was worth seeing what I can come up with.

I pulled out an old story idea and went to town, getting the first few paragraphs down in the morning and then stewing about it off and on during the work day. By the time evening rolled around, I had some good ideas and spent a couple of hours finishing it off. I thought for sure I had written more than the 1500 words called for. But when I ran it through word count, it looks like the story has a little room to grow, if it needs to.

The next step is to write an alternate story, completely different. Then come back and do a second draft of this one, followed by a second draft of the second one. I have about a month to select one, finish it off and send it in. If I do it, it will be the first story I've submitted for more than casual reading since my really bad fourth-dimension story I did for a class in high school.

In any event, it feels good to actually finish something, no matter how small.

Friday, July 30, 2010

read: The God Engines

The God EnginesThe God Engines by John Scalzi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novella appears to be very different from the novels, such as Old Man's War, for which Mr. Scalzi is better known. Indeed, he warns us that it is dark fantasy, rather than science fiction. I found it to be a bit of both. And, in a way, it's not really that different from his other books after all.

The first part of the book does a good job of getting us into the world, a world where faith is central to not only life, but even the operation of starships. It also introduced us to the captain of the starship, an honorable man, and his ship's priest, a perhaps not so honorable man. The latter part of the book follows them on a special mission where they must again grudgingly work together. It is here where both their faith and honor are tested and the truth about it all is revealed.

What starts out as a story with the feel of science fiction with an overlay of dark fantasy becomes a rather shocking bit of horror. Be warned that there is violence and sex and an unflattering view of religion. But it's really not as bad as that makes it sound. And the writing is whip smart.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

"Toy Story 3" [A]

I might as well chime in and say how great this movie is. Seeing as how I'm the last person in the world to see it, it continues to rack up millions of dollars in box office, and has a 99% 'fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes (!), there isn't much that I can add. I laughed. I cried. I had a lot of fun for 103 minutes. And I didn't bother seeing it in 3D.

Toy Story 3 (IMDb)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

"Inception" [A-]

Well the big question that everyone needs to talk about with this movie is one that I won't write about or even hint at beyond what I just wrote because it would spoil the film for the three people that haven't yet seen it. Inception gets an 'A' for it's original ideas and clever writing, amazing direction, production values, and editing, and for the top notch cast and acting. It is indeed the thinking person's action movie. However, that's also where I have to mark it down a little.

Why all the action? Is this what happens in most people's dreams? Car chases and shootem-ups? That seems to be the implication, because it keeps happening over and over again. At least the director didn't completely fall into the action movie trap. The sequences are truly thrilling and interesting and are tied together into a genuine story with a genuine climax and payoff. I concur that this is the must see film of the summer.

Inception (IMDb)

Friday, July 23, 2010

read: Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (P.S.)Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've only read one other book by Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen's Union), but I will definitely be reading more. And I'll probably be revisiting this one.

He's won a Pulitzer prize, but he has a unique way of crossing from that supposedly more literary world into the realms of what is usually referred to as 'genre' (mysteries, science fiction, comics, and pulp). This collection of essays, as the title suggests, provides a sort of map between his two worlds. They are eloquent ruminations on not only his own life and background and work, but also the works of others (his insights into Cormac McArthy's The Road by themselves make this book worth investigating).

This volume is definitely (as others have pointed out), a 'defense of genre fiction'.

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read: Twilight

Twilight (Twilight, #1)Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I gave it a shot. I had to see what the fuss was about. I suppose if there weren't plenty of other (not necessarily even better) books waiting to be read, I might even have finished this. But I don't see the point. I gave up after 115 pages.

I know how it turns out. I don't like the first-person narrator's voice. Nothing happens for pages at a time, except brooding. In fact, I'm over 100 pages into the 500 page monstrosity and Bella has just now been told about the Cullens being vampires. That's 100 pages of teenage whining, angst, and anxiety before a real issue arises and it's still presented as something to brood about, rather than take action.

I can deal with a book that's slow. It took at least 100 pages for The Windup Girl to really click for me. But I could tell that something big was truly brewing in those 100 pages.

It's not all bad. Otherwise, I would have only given it 1 star. The actual prose is pretty passable. The characters and settings are fairly well drawn. They're just buried under tons of nothing. There just not enough to engage me. Moving on.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

"Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" [B+]

I was surprised by how much I liked this movie. It had very mixed reviews from critics and was not a big hit at the box office. The issue with the critics is probably that it's a genre film. The box office may have only to do with marketing, because there's really nothing here that Harry Potter didn't have:
  • Popular source material (book series)? Check (OK maybe not as popular)
  • Appealing young stars? Check
  • Bankable stars in supporting roles? Check
  • Action and adventure? Check
  • Chris Columbus directing? Check (he did the first two Potter films)
Some of the problem may have also been timing. Percy Jackson came out while there was a lot of buzz about another movie about Zeus and Olympus Clash of the Titans. Too bad, because Percy Jackson seems to be the better film. By bringing the story into modern time and making it more accessible and less obscure, the story is quite fun and the directing moves it along with alacrity. The visual effects are effective support for the story, rather than the focus of the story.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (IMDb)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

read: Sandstorm

SandstormSandstorm by James Rollins

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sandstorm started out in London with a literal bang and ended with a storm of supposedly epic proportions in an ancient desert city. But by the time it did, I didn't care anymore. All I saw was a swirly world of sand, glass, and static electricity populated by cardboard characters. The good ones would probably survive and the bad ones wouldn't and so what. What happened in between was pedestrian and predictable thriller fare with too many guns and action and not enough thrill.

Anti-matter? Bucky balls? Parthenogenesis? Underground cities? It all adds up to too much to suspend disbelief. More like 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls' than 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', if you want an Indiana Jones comparison (and Rollins apparently does, naming one character 'Omaha' and having another repeatedly calling him 'Indiana').

The characters never really clicked for me, although the settings were pretty vivid. The plot started unraveling for for me when the big puzzle turned into a simple map to a city that wasn't lost, but sealed. If you intentionally hide a city, why do you leave a map to it? And if you do, why do you make it a puzzle? In the end, there was absolutely no point for anyone to go there, anyway.

Which is pretty much how I felt.

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Personal note: The most remarkable thing about this book is that it was the first book-length fiction I read (and finished) on my electronic book reader, a Barnes & Noble nook.

Friday, July 2, 2010

read: The Windup Girl

The Windup GirlThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think the only reason it took me over a month to read this book is that it kept putting me to sleep. That doesn't mean it's not good (although I waffled about that toward the beginning). I think it's just because I read it at bedtime and it's not exactly action-packed. In fact, it's quite sedate. So after three or four pages, my eyelids kept slamming shut, even though I wanted to continue reading.

It's a haunting story of a city, Bangkok, in a future suffering from the sins of the present. Rising oceans threaten to flood it. Genetically engineered food and animals haven't worked out quite exactly as they were intended. Fossil fuels are no longer plentiful and cheap. All of these are presented in ways that require little suspension of disbelief. Only a sense of wonder.

The characters and setting kept me turning pages. They are compelling and vivid, with genuine goals and obstacles. Driving the plot are true mysteries, believable villains, and unexpected twists. This is by no means a happy story, on any level. But it is one worth reading.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

2010 (Down to Earth) Locus Awards

First of all, congratulations to all of the winners and nominees for the 2010 Locus awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

I suppose I could have actually attended some of the festivities, given that they took place just across the lake in Seattle. I wasn't paying close enough attention. Maybe next year.

Somehow, this year I have been paying enough attention that I've actually read many of the winning and nominated stories a priori, rather than catching up to them post facto, which is my usual modus operandi. Looking back, I probably read one or two winners from 2008 and 2009 before they got awards. For quite a while before that, I was totally not paying attention and barely kept up with any.

I think my greater hip-ness this year is due to following the blog and/or Twitter feeds for several prominent authors. My desire to become an author, though perhaps not an award-winning one, has pushed me to pay better attention to what's happening in the industry. As such, and as I look at this year's Locus winners, I actually do see what might be termed a trend: the novels are all Earth-bound.

Starting with the winner for Science Fiction Novel, Boneshaker (Cherie Priest), we have a science fiction story not only not set somewhere out in space, but set on an Earth of the past that never was. There's a lot of this going around. I like it. But it's not Ringworld. One of the nominees that's already on my to-be-read list, Galileo's Dream (Kim Stanley Robinson) sounds like it involves a bit more outer space and future. But then the winner for Young-Adult Novel, Leviathan (Scott Westerfeld), is back on Earth in the steampunk mold. This time in the era of WWI, rather than the Civil War.

My perception of fantasy novels is that they are generally set in some indefinite past time and place (e.g., Middle Earth). This year's Fantasy Novel winner, The City & The City (China Miéville) ignores that and takes place in some indefinite present time and an indefinite Earth-bound pair of cities. A very trippy read, but also close to home.

The three nominees for First Novel of which I have first hand experience or knowledge, including the winner, The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi), are also very down-to-Earth. The Windup Girl is a hard science-fiction novel where the science of the future has been pushed back to rely on technology of the past, due to oil shortages and greenhouse gasses. Lamentation (Ken Scholes) seems like it might be on Earth and hints that it's in some post-Apocalyptic future (or could it be on another planet, ala Le Guin's Dragonriders?). And Norse Code (Greg van Eekhout) is pretty obviously (based on the sample chapters I saw) set in the gritty urban streets of Earth.

So does any science fiction get the reader into outer space or into the future? I have to admit I'm not current on short stories or the other short forms, like novella and novelette. And I haven't read or gotten familiar with the other novel nominees. But judging by the titles, I'm guessing at least some of them do. And I know for sure that the winner for Anthology does. I'm several stories into The New Space Opera 2 (Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan, eds.) and it's chockablock with characters and settings that are not of the the Earth or of its past.

Will the Earth-bound story continue to dominate science fiction and fantasy awards? It seems like there is an awful lot of action in the steampunk, alternate history, and urban fantasy realms of fiction. I'm sure that these up and coming authors will continue to charm us with visions of Earth past, present, and future. I'm just as sure that there are other authors who will beguile us with stories set on other planets and in other galaxies.

In the meantime, though, I hope that there will always be room for down-to-Earth adventures. So I'd better get back to work and finish my science fiction mystery story set in an alternate 1950s where we're about to get the space age for which we wished.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" [B+]

Terry Gilliam's latest fantasy is successful in its extreme audacity, in its ability to create actual dream worlds and draw the viewer willingly into them along with the characters. As I recently wrote, part of my enjoyment of a film derives from how well it delivers on its promises. The very title of this one promises the unusual, even more than other Gilliam projects like Time Bandits, Brazil, or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It definitely delivers the unusual.

As long as you allow yourself to be cast about on an ocean of a plot, blown by the wind and tossed by the waves, rather than pushed down a narrow river, there is plenty to enjoy here. The acting is as manic as necessary, even from the redoubtable Christopher Plummer. The shadow of Heath Ledger looms large. But typical for Gilliam, the sets and props, even those in the real world, are what scream for your attention. Surely in those cut out and pasted together bits and pieces, harking back to the Monty Python animation, must be the details that will bring clarity to everything.

But there's not. And the film continues and ends in a mushy, yet satisfying, mess. The plot is fulfilled and it is not. The characters grow and they remain the same. But the battle was glorious.

Monday, June 21, 2010

"The A-Team" [B-]

My enjoyment of a film generally turns on whether or not it delivers what it promises. The A-Team delivers. It's full of action, jokes, and camaraderie. Don't try to delve too deeply into motivations or plot (I saw one of the main twists coming a mile away). Don't think too hard about the plausibility of any of the exploits (this is about a 15 on the 10-point implausibility meter). But it is a lot of good loud fun.

The A-Team (IMDb)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

"New Moon" [C]

There's some sort of compulsion for those who live in the Pacific Northwest to watch just about anything set or filmed there. That's the only excuse I have for actually sitting through this from beginning to end. The scenic photography is often fantastic. But that's it. The story is opaque. The motivation of the central characters is incomprehensible. The pace is glacial. The acting is monotonal. It's all rather monotonous.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"The Road" [B+]

This may not seem like much of an endorsement, but the film is just as bleak and almost as heart-rending as the book. It's an endorsement, because bleak and heart-rending are the point of Cormac McCarthy's story of a post-apocalyptic world. Yet it's also heart-warming to witness the father's love for his boy, and for life, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

From the beginning you wonder if this can have a happy ending, especially in the classic Hollywood vein. For a while you keep hoping for one, and then you realize that such an ending would demean the journey. It ends pretty much the way it must end. And that is as satisfying as it gets.

Interestingly, the film actually flinches and diverts its eyes from some of the atrocities the book includes. That's a switch from other films that always seem to want to add more violence and gore. It's probably better this way, because it makes the film a little more accessible and human (in the face of inhumanity).

It's too bad this didn't have more life at the box office. It's really good. So is the (Pulitzer Prize winning!) book.

The Road (IMDb)

Friday, June 4, 2010

About Bill

Over at WordPress, I've launched a new blog specifically About Bill ( The first Bill in the list: Bill Nye (The Science Guy).


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

not read: You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I've checked this book out of the library three times and have yet to finish it. This most recent time, I did not even crack it open, even though I had an inordinate amount of free time for one reason or another. I think the reason really boils down to this - it's not well written. On top of that, it's boring.

I think the ideas that Mr. Lanier brings up are interesting enough. The thought that current technology is affecting how people interact with each other and the world and perhaps even how they think is getting wide attention. But that is probably the book's problem. It needs to stand out in a sea of similar speculation. But all that this book has to offer is speculation. It's a series of disjointed anecdotes and observations by the author - an extended opinion essay. I made it almost half way through the book and I do not remember being offered a shred of substantive supporting science for the allegations being made.

And did I mention it was boring? It's almost as if the author expects the reader to pay attention and put up with any and all rambling simply because he is such an interesting person. Sorry. This book goes back to the library again, this time for good. I think I know where I saw an 'executive summary' of it. Maybe I'll make it through that.

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Monday, May 31, 2010

read: The Jury Master

The Jury Master The Jury Master by Robert Dugoni

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
How fast I get through a book is a pretty good gauge of how good a book is. The ones that don't work seem to take forever, both figuratively and literally. The good ones fly by. I just blew through this one in a week, and that's not a mean feat for a novel of 450 pages that only gets picked up at bedtime.

I enjoyed this book a lot. Even a little more than its sequel, Wrongful Death: A Novel. The third David Sloane novel, Bodily Harm: A Novel, is queued up and will get consumed soon.


Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" [B]

A minute into the closing credits, it occurred to me that what I'd just seen, the whole hour and a half, was reminiscent of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine - an absurd primary color world that even the characters don't quite understand. No, there isn't a cartoon rock band or blue meanies, but there is a struggle to find one's identity. In this instance, the seeker is a young inventor who's always felt like, and been treated as, an outcast.

When one of his inventions finally works, and seems to solve the problems of his community by producing food from water that literally falls from the sky like rain, he seems to be accepted. Obviously, this will lead to problems. However, the problems have to escalate to the usual level of worldwide cataclysm to be solved. And then they must be solved in usual manner of epic battle. Thankfully, this typical story plays out in imaginative and entertaining fashion. You've never seen food issues like this before.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (IMDb)

"Surrogates" [B-]

Surrogates asks an interesting what-if question and ultimately comes up with a thought provoking twist on an answer. What-if you could replace your public persona with an android of any shape, size, color, or sex? Of course, not everyone would think that's a good idea and not everyone could afford it. This film lightly explores the former idea and seems to ignore the latter. It also only touches on the implications for real interpersonal relations and pretty much ignores the problem of personal fitness for a population forever reclining in their avatar pilot couches.

Rather than explore these issues, it uses the full arsenal of modern special effects to create a standard story of political and economic intrigue with this science fiction premise laid on top. But it does work as an action-mystery movie, even though Bruce Willis does seem to be a bit bored with it at times.

Surrogates (IMDb)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"Iron Man 2" [B+]

There's plenty of action and plenty of story in this direct sequel to the previous Iron Man. That keeps things moving along at a furious clip. And it makes each scene shimmer and snap with electricity, technology, and drama. The problem is that there is too much going on. Too many story threads. Too many technological leaps by solo inventor-physicists. Too many family conflicts. Too much political and corporate intrigue. Too many robots on the screen. The script could probably have been dialed back by 20-30% on all of these indices and still been a heck of a flick and easier to follow.

Even so, I liked it a lot, especially the subtle touches of Howard Stark's Disneyesque appearance and the syncronicity of his City of Tomorrow with EPCOT (and the similarity of the song "Make Way For Tomorrow Today" with "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" from the GE/Disney Carousel of Progress).

Iron Man 2 (IMDb)

read: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
As much as I wanted to, I didn't make it through this. The first few chapters narrated by Dr. Impossible were captivating. I loved his voice - both the actual voice actor on the audiobook and the tone and attitude of the character himself. But then the super heroine spoke. While the voice actor for this heroine was creditable, the attitude and role of the character were insufferable. All she did was dump information about herself and the rest of the super hero camp. Then I noticed that Dr. Impossible was starting to do the same thing. Both of them were doing a lot of telling with only a little showing and both first-person narrators were dumping more information than they could have possibly been privy to. The author was simply showing off. In my mind, the author also didn't help things by writing in the present tense, rather than past. I'm sure this was a stylistic choice, and it worked for some scenes, but really felt wrong for most. Other reviewers have pointed out similar takes on superheroes that were done better. I may have to give one of those a try.

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read: Jane Slayre: The Literary Classic...with a Blood-Sucking Twist

Jane Slayre: The Literary Classic... With a Blood-Sucking Twist Jane Slayre: The Literary Classic... With a Blood-Sucking Twist by Sherri Browning Erwin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is first of the paranormalized classics I've gotten to read (mostly, I'll admit, because I managed to snag a free copy from I found to be pretty good, page-turning fun.

The original classic is not one that I've read (other than a quick skim of the first chapter and a recent watching of the 1944 film version with Joan Fontaine and Orson Wells), so I can't fully vouch for the harmony of this version with the plot, characters, tone, or style of Miss Brontë's volume. But I can say that it satisfied my own inner ear and expectations.

The Buffy-zation of Jane and her world was mostly seamless. Once one accepted the fact that vampires, zombies, and ultimately a werewolf or two inhabited her world, allowing her to become a kung fu fighter in petticoats was an easy step. At a few points I felt the author threatening to strain my suspension of disbelief. But these quickly resolved and the story continued with consonance.

There are a bunch of these books coming out now (I've even spotted one based on Huckleberry Finn). It's tempting to read them all. But I'm certain I could not survive on an exclusive diet of this dish for an extended period. I nonetheless plan to snack on a few in the coming months.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

"The Princess and the Frog" [B+]

There's plenty of character in this latest Disney animated feature. And I'm not just referring to the people and animals written into the story. There's also the animation itself, which is refreshingly not computer generated. There is a warmth and style to this film that is missing from the slick pixels that have been beamed at us lately.

The characters have plenty of character, too, even if they are a little more PC than in the past. There's a dreamy girl who is a workaholic longing to fulfill her daddy's dream of opening a restaurant, rather than waiting for a prince to come like her rich girlfriend. She winds up matched to the dreamy prince who does comes to town, seeking a bride to bail him out, since he's lost his inheritance. He manages to get bamboozled by a witch doctor and get them both turned into frogs. This makes it much more convenient for them to fall in love, since we can now dispense with any of the questions about race that plagued the humans in New Orleans in the 1920s.

The one thing this typical musical Disney show is missing is memorable music. Usually there's at least one tune that gets stuck in your head. But Randy Newman's score is sadly lacking in that department. There's no "Bare Necessities", "Under the Sea", or "Hakuna Matata". Oh, well. We'll just have to be satisfied with the clever animation.

The Princess and the Frog (IMDb)

"The Men Who Stare At Goats" [B]

"Weird" That's the word I hear quite a bit after viewing an off-beat film with my spouse. This time around, I have to agree 100%. This movie is pretty weird. Then again, you'd have to pretty much expect that, based on the title and the posters and the trailer.

Loosely based on allegedly real incidents from the 1970s and 1980s and tied together with a framing story set in the modern Middle East, the film surveys various tactics and methods of mind control with which the Army secretly experimented. The storytelling has an odd tone where one is never quite sure if what is on screen is supposed to be serious or a joke. There are some moments of genuine drama. But these are overwhelmed with enough humor that the end result is really more of a farce than a thriller. "Weird."

Acting and directing is first rate. I couldn't help but get bumped out of the pseudo-reality though, every time Ewan McGregor had to hear or say a line referring to Jedi. I'm sure he was biting the inside of his cheek.

The Men Who Stare at Goats (IMDb)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Young @ Heart" [B+]

If these feisty old folks singing rock and roll don't capture your heart, then you're dead already. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what this documentary would be like, given the title, subject matter, and wide publicity. Even so, I found myself literally agog for the first 10 minutes or so and had to (self) consciously close my mouth. After that I was constantly smiling (except when I was almost ready to cry), and laughed out loud more than once.

The filmmaker gets us up close and personal with the members of the chorus, yet he never really puts them on display as any sort of freaks. He shows how mightily they work for their performances. And he shows how mightily they are received by their real audiences. And how mightily they relish their opportunity to celebrate life, even when some of their number pass out of this life. This is a film about life and joy.

Young @ Heart (IMDb)

Friday, May 7, 2010

read: The Sorcerer's House

The Sorcerer's House The Sorcerer's House by Gene Wolfe

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The moment I saw that Neil Gaiman had given this a high rating, I put it on my reading list. But once I got several days into it, I knew there were problems. I was reading it at bedtime and it was putting me to sleep too quickly.

Maybe I'm one of those lazy readers that Neil mentions in his review, but I never quite "got" this book, other than it's written as a series of letters to and from an ex-con who starts out as a squatter and becomes the owner of a house with odd properties and odd characters hanging about.

The writing is clear, if oddly flat for such a fantastic situation. This may be consistent with typical letter-voice, but made the reading uninteresting. Sorry to say that because I found the writing so flat and, I skipped through the book. That means I probably missed some interesting parts and clues to the puzzles to which other reviewers have referred.

Gene Wolfe has such a huge reputation that I will have to read something else he's written. I am presuming it will be better than this. [More...]

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

read: Little Fuzzy

Little Fuzzy Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When John Scalzi mentioned this book on his blog, I knew it would be classic and quaint. But I expected it to be a little more timeless. I look forward to seeing what Mr. Scalzi does to update it.

In the meantime, I listened to the audiobook to see what the hubbub was about. Wow. Piper wrote a future that is just like our present, except we have travel to other worlds, contra-gravity, and verdicators (advanced lie detectors). Overall, the story was interesting enough and pleasant enough. However, I found the writing fairly clunky. I also disliked some stereotypical characters and a bit of deus ex machina at the end. Nevertheless it was enjoyable. [More...]

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

"Fantastic Mr. Fox" [B-]

Maybe my expectations, based on all of the positive reviews and an Oscar nomination, were too high. Maybe I was too tired. Maybe the storytelling was not compelling or the characters too flat or the dialog too low key for an animated film or the world made even less sense than Wallace and Gromit's. For whatever reason, the only things that I liked about Mr. Fox were the animation and the music. I don't really understand what all of the buzz was about.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (IMDb)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

read: Lamentation

Lamentation  (The Psalms of Isaak, #1) Lamentation by Ken Scholes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
What was it that kept me reading this book, even as it kept grating on my nerves and frustrating my brain's attempt to analyze it? A big attractor was the cast of clear-cut and appealing characters, each of whom were of a type, but only a couple were a stereotype. Another was the interesting world, which is something like medieval times, but not quite, and included some intriguing modern touches and hints that there is (or could be) a rich history. This made the fantasy a bit more like science fiction. Probably most of all is the unfolding story, with layer upon layer of intrigue.

But what did grate on my nerves? Let's start with some of the writing quirks. How about the use of "magicks"? Really? We couldn't come up with a new word or a different word for something that acts like magic, but isn't? Then there's the matter of repetition, of "magicks" and "Whymer Mazes" and "scouts" and "salted knives". It reads like a whole city talking about nothing but Rubik's Cubes and Quantum Leaps all day for years. And if you've got mechanoservitors and iron ships that are steam powered (the latter implied by the former), where is the industrialization that created them? Why does a worldwide society seem completely stuck in a single age, technologically and otherwise, for thousands of years?


Saturday, April 24, 2010

"How to Train Your Dragon" [B+]

I have to agree with all of the critics and fans, this is a great animated film. And I didn't even see it in 3D. I didn't need to. I could tell exactly which scenes were framed to take advantage of 3D. But I'm a little over that, myself.

Not much to say, other than good story, good characters, good pacing, fun times. One question: why do ancient vikings speak with a Scottish accent? I'm sure there's an explanation somewhere.

How to Train Your Dragon (IMDb)

Friday, April 23, 2010

read: On The Road

On The Road On The Road by Jack Kerouac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is another one of those books you always hear or read about, but never read. I listened to an excellent audiobook version read by Matt Dillon. He totally nails the voice of proto-hipster Dean Moriarty, as well as Sal Paradise the narrator and others.

This is definitely a character driven story. There is very little plot. Yet, you follow along, waiting to find out what each person will do next, hoping that they will eventually make a good decision. Pseudo-spoiler: they never do, not until the very end. Sal finally chooses sanity and home, over what his now burnt-out "friend" Dean offers.

Kerouac writes prose full of high style and colorful descriptions of America of the late 1940s - a literary snapshot of an era. That's the reason I give it high marks.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Write or Flight

I almost succumbed to the urge to just dive in and start writing this morning. The opening scene started trying to write itself before I got out of bed. But this approach has not worked out too well for me in the past. That gets me a few chapters before the plot peters out, the antagonist stays missing in action, and total frustration sets in.

Thankfully, I managed to coral that thought (though I need to jot down another note about it) and convince myself I need a better roadmap of where the story is going before I start.

Back to the outline. My high-level points looked pretty good, so I started drilling down on the first couple. I have to say, the story is starting to look fairly decent. If I can keep this up, I may have the outline done this week and be able to start really writing by Monday, maybe even this weekend.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Does Noir have to be All Black?

My current writing project takes place in the 1950s and I have been seeing it as more or less a detective story (albeit with science fiction elements) in the hard-boiled tradition of the era (e.g., Hammett, Chandler, et al.). But after recently viewing several more noir films, of which many are based on such novels, it suddenly dawned on me that most, if not all, of these stories have no real winners, and perhaps no genuine heroes.

Yes, yes, you say, I should have seen that all along. That's the very definition of hard-boiled novels and film noir. Everyone is out for themselves. Everyone is a rascal. And nobody wins. Even the victims turn out to be guilty of something, if not the major crime. And sometimes an apparent victim is the antagonist, perhaps the murderer. The hero almost never survives the story as a genuine hero. They're one of the biggest rascals of all, in order to survive. And even the antagonist turns out, at times, to be a victim. What a world!

But in my mind, my protagonist needs to be a hero, at least for the most part. I guess what I've discovered is that in order to be hard-boiled, he's going to have to do something rash, and calculated, and wrong. Certainly, every protagonist has flaws. But this is probably something more, something dire, something with adverse consequences. It's going to cost him. And it may cost somebody else. But that's good. It's good to know these things about my hero and what it's going to take to make what I hope is a compelling tale.

Noir is black. And in literature, film, and art, black usually represents bad. But in film noir and hard-boiled literature, bad is what makes it good.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" [B-]

Enjoyment of this film is all about expectations. If you're expecting a serious war movie or deep examination of the heart of a warrior, you will be sadly disappointed. If you're expecting an all out Saturday-morning cartoon brought too life, you will be pleasantly surprised. The plot almost holds together. The production values and acting don't get in the way. Most of the CGI and effects work. The action is non-stop.

There are some plot holes. Why are they transporting such a small case over land, when it would be safer and quicker to take it by air? Why does the President of the United States have a British accent? Why is the Joe base virtually uninhabited when the warheads are being stolen, when it was populated by hundreds of 'Joes' just a few hours earlier?

Luckily for the producers, all of that is relatively easy to overlook. This movie is not the clinker that some comic/cartoon translations turn into. It's pretty fun.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (IMDb)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"Appaloosa" [B]

This is not a thriller by any means. It is at times intense, but the pacing is stately, though not brooding. This seems intentional by director Ed Harris. It is not a buddy comedy or a romantic comedy, though it exhibits some undertones of both. This is absolutely intentional by writer Ed Harris. And it's not your classic Western. The shootouts are realistic and over before you know it and none of the characters are superhuman. No. This is gritty, down to earth, offbeat and competently done. Enjoyable if you have patience and interest.

Appaloosa (IMDb)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

"Sherlock Holmes" [B]

I suppose I didn't mind the somewhat revisionist tone Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. brought to the Sherlock Holmes mythos. Updating the classics for modern audiences is to be expected. The approach did excel in bringing the time period and characters to life. The problem is that what works in the Holmes stories, including this one, is the repartee between Holmes and Watson as they go about their detecting duties. And there was not enough of either, here. The plot was overwhelmed by fights and chases, with the detecting bits just tacked on at the end with quick revelations, where I half expected Adrian Monk to utter "Here's what happened." But at least with Monk we got to see him actually follow the trail of clues.

Sherlock Holmes (IMDb)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Zombieland" [B+]

It's great when a film knows exactly what it is and where it's going and succeeds in delivering on the promise. Zombieland is about surviving the zombie apocalypse with some amount of dignity and humor and killing zombies. It also manages to squeeze in some sentimentality and love. Not a family movie, but fun for discerning adults.

Zombieland (IMDb)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

read: Coma

Coma Coma by Robin Cook

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I was expecting more from this book. After all, it was a best-seller and launched both a major motion picture and Robin Cook's career. I'm not entirely sure why. Somehow the story manages to stumble along and keep the reader interested, but it has a number of problems. I personally hung with it only because I knew something would (or should) eventually happen. The characters are unsympathetic and stereotyped (to this 21st century reader) and the plot is thin. To top it all off, the writing is overwrought and overburdened with medical terminology (yes, I know it's a 'medical thriller', but still) and repetitive introspection and self-loathing. Disappointing. [More...]

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

"The Hurt Locker" [A-]

This is intelligent and compelling film-making at the highest level. The director succeeds in making the viewer a member of the bomb diffusing team. You're concerned. You're scared. You make it out alive. Or not.

The Hurt Locker (IMDb)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"The Informant!" [B+]

A light, entertaining film that works on a number of levels. Matt Damon is rock solid. All of the supporting characters are well done with several surprises mixed in (watch for Tom Smothers). Nice to watch a movie that doesn't end in a gun battle or a car chase.

The Informant! (IMDb)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

read: Pirate Latitudes

Pirate Latitudes Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Nothing to see here. Move along. This isn't the pirate book you're looking for. You want action. You want colorful characters. You want thrills and suspense. That's all stuff that Michael Crichton can provide. We've read it and seen it before, in The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, ER, and others. But this book doesn't deliver the same goods.

Instead, we have a bare-bones plot filled with stereotyped characters and pedestrian writing. The entire time I read it, I kept wondering when the wonder would kick in and it never did. I'm convinced that Mr. Crichton never intended for this version to be published and would be sadly disappointed that it was (or as murph wrote on his behalf, "If only I'd have encrypted my hard drive...."). Well researched, but woefully under-executed, you're better off watching Pirates of the Caribbean for the 14th time or reading the non-fiction The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Love Happens" [C+]

An odd love story that doesn't know if it's tragic or comic and never seems to generate heat or sparks. It would have helped if there were better chemistry between the two actors. Burke (Aaron Eckhart) is too obviously damaged goods, but we don't get any real clues about exactly why until the big reveal at the end. Oops. Eloise (Jennifer Aniston) is also damaged goods, whose chief talent, besides arranging flowers, is to act more interested in this odd man than she really is. Really just an average story [C], but gets an extra point for showing off Seattle (with the usual caveats about unrealistic geography).

Love Happens (IMDb)

"Alice in Wonderland (2010)" [B]

As expected, this Alice in Wonderland was a visual sensation, though I'm not sure the 3D added as much as it seemed to for Avatar and Coraline. One problem I have with 3D is that it seems to blur even more than 2D during motion sequences, which is distracting. I could barely make out all of the supposedly delightful bits that Alice fell past as she traveled through the rabbit hole. Once in Wonderland (or Underland), it seemed better.

There is definitely more story to this Alice than the classic animated version. Even so, the characters, with rare exception, did not move beyond the stereotype with which they were branded. Pity. That would have added a dimension. At least Johnny Depp got to stretch his acting chops by being both mad and devious. But why, exactly, did we need to have a grand battle in this story?

Go see this in a theater, but keep your expectations in check.

Alice in Wonderland (2010) (IMDb)

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Up in the Air" [B+]

Very snappy and stylish for the first half of the film. It almost made you want to be that guy, the one you see that gets tens of thousands of miles a year, that gets to stay in nice hotels, and wear nice clothes, and eat nice meals. But that's an important almost, because you still feel the emptiness of his existence, even though he doesn't see it yet. The second half is slower and more heartfelt. Yet, the two halves work together and tell a complete, though unfinished, story.

I thought Clooney was first-rate, as was the supporting cast. He starts out with just the right touch of smarmy professionalism--the same trait that he brought so well to Michael Clayton, where he also did a bang up job--that he then turns ever so delicately, with director Jason Reitman's help, into heartbreak in the second half. Good script, too. I can see why it got all the Oscar nominations.

"Up in the Air" (IMDb)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

"Battlestar Galactica: The Plan" [B-]

I appreciate what it tried to do. Sometimes it succeeded. Not very compelling. If I didn't remember enough of the series, it would have been incomprehensible. This is not good, a work should be able to stand on its own.

"The Plan" (IMDb)

Friday, March 5, 2010

read: Isle of the Dead

Isle of the Dead Isle of the Dead by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I was never sure if this book was science fiction trying to be a little bit fantasy or vice versa. Zelazny systematically avoids giving us enough detail to make it clear. From the first sentence, it is philosophical. At times it seems merely a prose poem reflecting on life, death, love, wealth, and revenge. The sparse story is just a wireframe on which to arrange those deeper thoughts. Yet even these seem belabored, cold, and distant. The only character that comes alive is Frank Sandow. In the end, I wonder if we really care about him (or were even meant to).

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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Are there rules for writing fiction?

"You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you're writing." --Gene Wolfe (via Neil Gaiman)
Quick rules for tightly plotted fiction --S. Andrew Swann

It can be confusing. According to some, there are no rules for writing fiction. Many of these folks feel that following a set of rules will make writing something mechanical. Others are only too willing to share rules and advice about writing, via books, web posts, and classes. And herds of us spend an inordinate amount of time reading their advice.

What's a new writer to do? Should they dive right in, assured that there are no rules and no matter what they do, it's right for them? Or should they study, study, study the subject of fiction until they've somehow absorbed the available wisdom and then tentatively wade in?

“Writers write. Everyone else makes excuses.” --Jack Bickham

My best understanding, from trying to do my own writing and reading several books and countless web posts on the topic, is that (as in most things) there is a happy middle ground. Indeed, the most repeated common wisdom on the subject is that writers should write (and read). But that doesn't mean one shouldn't seek help and wisdom from those who have already written.

I find it quite helpful to read about what others have done and are doing. Does that mean I'm going to blindly follow someone else's process? Obviously not. Everyone has to approach it their own way. And not every piece of advice covers every situation.

Take, for example, the excellent post from Mr. Swan I linked to above. I think what he has to say on plotting, based on obvious success and positive feedback, will definitely help me when I'm writing my plot-driven work ("Every scene... Introduces a problem. Makes an existing problem worse. [or] Resolves a problem."). It gives me one more ingredient to think about; another lens for viewing and reviewing. But his one-page post barely touches upon characters and character-development. He doesn't even try to discuss setting. He doesn't say whether he's an outliner or a panster. He's only addressing one piece of the puzzle, and only from his own perspective.

So, I will read the advice of others. And I may even try to heed it, depending on whether it seems to make sense and works for the book I'm writing right now. But most of all, I am going to try to do more writing than reading about writing. For that is the trick to getting things written.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

read: Rocket Science

This blog must make it seem like all I'm doing these days is read. I am writing, I promise. Oddly, this book is related to the novel I'm writing: what if, just after WWII, an unsuspecting, average guy found himself pursued by foreign agents, military police, and mobsters because of something that may not be of this Earth? That's not exactly where I started with my story, but it's where I seem to be heading. And so did Jay Lake in his first novel, Rocket Science (review below). Thankfully, his plot, setting, and characters turn out to be radically different from mine. But that doesn't mean I won't be borrowing a few ideas.

Rocket Science Rocket Science by Jay Lake

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In Rocket Science, Jay Lake has populated a small post-WWII Kansas town with likable folks, Nazi agents, Communist spies, traitors, mobsters, military police, and a flying machine that's not of this Earth. He blends them together in a tale that is a page turner from start to finish, with the biggest surprises at the end. [More...]

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

read: The Shack

The Shack The Shack by William P. Young

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Why is The Shack so popular? Answering that question is the reason I picked up and read this book. Short answer: Probably because it's so easy to read and seems to offer spiritual insight. But for me it was a mixed bag on both fronts, ultimately leaving me underwhelmed. [more...]

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Look to the Stars

I just moved some book notations to GoodReads from ancient scrawls in InfoSelect. In the notes was a reminder of what I had in mind when I gave each book from 1 to 5 stars. I think they still work:
***** WOW - everyone must read this book
**** Good - I would recommend it
*** OK - Read it if you like this sort of thing
** Whatever
* Yuck
- Why did they print this?
I also have a grading system for films, correlating the Yahoo! Movies grading system (which used to have the associated text) and the IMDb 10 star rating system.
10 = A: Outstanding
9 = A-: Almost perfect
8 = B+: Memorable
7 = B: Good
6 = B-: Fair
5 = C+: Flawed, but worthy
4 = C: Mediocre
3 = C-: Disappointing
2 = D: Dreadful
1 = F: All-time worst
Yahoo! also allows A+ for films. But I've always thought that A was as high a grade as anyone should get. And below C-, I don't bother distinguishing "+/-". What does it matter at that point?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

read: Boneshaker, Little Brother, Wrongful Death

Some other recent reads that I neglected to post here:

Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century, #1) Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The setting, as unbelievable as it was, was fun and exciting. The characters were well drawn and likable and unlikable as appropriate. I read it as fast as I could, but wanted more when I was finished.

Little Brother Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is an absolutely fantastic book. What it mostly is about is fear and civil rights and personal responsibility. But for all of that, it's a very strong, personal story with plenty of action, adventure, and suspense.

Wrongful Death: A Novel Wrongful Death: A Novel by Robert Dugoni

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

About a fourth of the way in, the book became a thriller. Nice crisp writing. Setups that seemed to be headed in one direction and then surprisingly, but logically, taken in another. I was kept up reading way too late.

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