Friday, December 30, 2011

read: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (5 stars)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I keep thinking that a five star review is supposed to be reserved for a 'perfect' book. I wanted Michael Chabon's "Kavalier and Clay" to be such a thing. And for a while I thought it might be. Alas, there is no such thing as a perfect book. This might not be the 'Great American Novel'. But it still deserves five stars.

It deserves five stars for its rich prose, distinct characters, vivid settings, and strong story. That's not to say that we haven't seen similar characters and settings and themes before. But Chabon weaves them together in a way that sweeps up the reader and carries them along such that the pages simply fly by (most of the time). There's not only the pair of journeys from boy to man, including the classic loss of innocence. There are also the journeys from urban to suburban, from child to parent, and peace to war to peace.

It's not a perfect book. There are quite a few spots where the narrative loses focus and seems to get off track. It sags a bit in the middle. It's also lacking in universal appeal. It is definitely a male book, about manly pursuits and male bonding. There are few women and they are only there to illuminate the men in the story. But these are only minor quibbles.

This is a great book and highly recommended.

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" [B+]

My main complaint about the first Guy Ritchie/Roberty Downey Jr/Jude Law "Sherlock" was that there was not enough detecting and interplay between Holmes and Watson. That complaint is addressed in this entry, which doesn't exactly explore their relationship, ut does expand on it a bit. This feels a bit more 'Sherlock-Holmesy'. Here, too, is plenty of action, even some big guns and big explosions. The gamesmanship between Holmes and Moriarty is, appropriately, kept key. And they provide the inevitable climax. This isn't exactly your father's Sherlock Holmes. But do you really want it to be?

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (IMDb)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

read: Ganymede (5 stars)

Ganymede (The Clockwork Century, #4)Ganymede by Cherie Priest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I give up. I finally have to give one of Cherie Priest's books 5 stars. It's not perfection and it's not literature, but it's well written and darn good fun. I was disappointed to have reached the end, not because it was bad, but because I wanted more. This is the best story in the series so far. Since the others all got 4 stars, this gets 1 more.

This book, like the others, is full of wonderful characters, most with wonderful, arcane names. What's different is that in this one the relationships between the characters get explored a bit more richly and broadly. This is a result of a somewhat more laid back pace, which wasn't lazy, but does allow for more exploration of characters and the setting.

A few things didn't work. Much was made of leaving Andan Cly's airship somewhere to get refitted. But the result is glossed over or omitted. A supposedly shocking revelation was made about one of Josephine's girls. But the point of it eludes me. It did not seem to make any difference to the story. I felt a bit cheated by the climactic battle. There was tension and danger. (minor spoiler coming) But we were never given an all-is-lost moment. And then things wrap up quickly.

The next book in the series can't come out too soon for me.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

read: Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little (4 stars)

Microstyle: The Art of Writing LittleMicrostyle: The Art of Writing Little by Christopher Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book about finding the crunchy hidden meanings of words and phrases and then using them to efficiently deliver a message. Most of the examples are from advertising or headlines, with a few movie and book titles thrown in. Then again, it's not so much a book about how to do that as it is a book about how others have done it. In that sense, it's not very successful. On the other hand, for anyone that loves words and writing and wants to think a little deeper about how words work, it's an interesting, light read.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

read: If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't) (4 stars)

If You Ask Me: And of Course You Won'tIf You Ask Me: And of Course You Won't by Betty White

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very engaging book that's not quite autobiography or memoir or essay, but a charming mash of all three. Betty catches us up on her most recent activities, but also goes back to tell some anecdotes from the past. The audio book is an extra delight, because she reads it in her inimitable, expressive style.

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Green Lantern" [B-]

I was looking forward to this film so much, then didn't get to see it in the theater. Finally caught it on blu ray. I thought it was not so much disappointing as... disappointing. I mean, how can you be disappointed when there is so much Green Lantern action on the screen? And so much... exposition. I think they needed a script where there was much more story in the here and now and not so much set in the past and the future. Even though the fate of the world was at stake, it never really felt like it was. The stakes needed to be higher and more immediate. Without that, it was just a pretty decent superhero flick.

"Hugo" [B+]

I guess I'm a sucker for stylishly shot movies (as long as they don't suck, too). I definitely liked this movie. It is stylish and interesting. I relented and saw it in 3D. It was worth it. It's not actually science fiction, but it feels a little like it. It gives off the same sort of vibe.

I have to agree with other reviewers that there's not a lot of story here and the acting is a bit wooden most of the time. But that probably is the director's fault more than anything. The actors are always trying so hard.

This is recommended if you like film or historical fiction or both.

Hugo (IMDb)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

read: Wicked Prey (2 stars)

Wicked Prey (Lucas Davenport, #19)Wicked Prey by John Sandford

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Picked this up after I saw the TV movie for Certain Prey and all of the copies the library had of that title were checked out. The first quarter of the book was promising, although I thought the author did a bit of over-describing and there seemed to be a few too many plot threads.

A couple of things finally made me put it down. The plot involving his adopted daughter did not ring true. I 'get' the proposition that she's this mighty and independent young woman. But she's supposed to be only 14 and didn't even come close to acting it. In any other Minnesota family she would have been more than grounded. It also felt like we were almost spending more time with the multiple antagonists, rather than with Lucas Davenport's efforts to track them down. I got tired of wasting my time with those lowlifes and started skipping pages, always a bad sign. I finally threw in the towel about the middle of the book.

I may come back and try another Lucas Davenport title, perhaps Certain Prey (although the movie was not that great, either). Davenport does seem like a strong and smart character.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

"The Muppets" [B]

An even more 'meta' Muppet movie than usual, very self-aware and self-referential ("it's too far to drive... we can travel by map") and it worked. Quite a few funny bits. A few almost teary moments. A few overly cute routines. All in all, very fun.

The Muppets (IMDb)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

read: Drive (4 stars)

DriveDrive by James Sallis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A dark, compelling noir novella (158 pages) that vividly portrays a gritty underworld of crime and criminals, but shortchanges the reader on plot. The prose comes across like an Impressionistic painting, holding back on detail in ways that make your brain fill in what is missing. This works for characters and setting, but not so much on plot, which is a muddle.

We never learn the name of Driver, but we learn more about him in the book than in the film that was based on it. Here, he has a former life and a former family. We learn why he has the survival skills that he does. We still don't learn about his motivations and dreams, other than the need to survive. But the screenplay has the benefit of creating a richer now that includes a compelling through line of plot, cause and effect, in contrast to the book, which consists only of moments.

Like a pointillist painting, those moments eventually add up to a fuller, if still incomplete picture. And like the film, the book is a work of art.

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

read: The Alpine Advocate (4 stars)

The Alpine Advocate (Emma Lord Mystery, #1)The Alpine Advocate by Mary Daheim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the mood for some small town shenanigans and murder? This book is for you. You won't find pulse pounding thrills or crackling prose. This is a straight-ahead, pleasantly written, cozy mystery set in a little town that once existed, but was never like this.

There's a lot of setting up happening in the first half of this book. We're learning about Emma Lord, her son, her town, her former lovers, the eccentric staff of her newspaper, the equally eccentric population of the rest of the town, and a murder. At first I feared that it would all turn out to be too cloying and contrived to be tolerable. But the plot finally settled down into some reasonably intelligent sleuthing and the hints and allegations started mounting up.

This is a good example of this sort of fiction. I couldn't settle for only 3 stars, so it gets 4.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

read: The Jefferson Key (3 stars)

The Jefferson Key (Cotton Malone, #7)The Jefferson Key by Steve Berry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not an unpleasant read and there were parts that were thrilling, in a television thriller sort of way. I am new to Steve Berry's Cotton Malone and I would not recommend this as a way to get into it. It would have been easier to follow and I would have cared more about what was happening to the characters if I had already been through more adventures with them.

This is a lot of talking, posturing, plotting, threatening, and double-crossing, with just a touch of evil doing. There was a little jet-setting up and down the East Coast, but with little sense of adventure. The pirate lore was interesting, including the ties to the founding fathers. But I never quite bought into the modern pirates Commonwealth scheme.

I was glad to see from other reviewers, and even the cover blurb, that this is not a typical Cotton Malone adventure. I'll give him another try one of these days.

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

"The Blind Side" [B+]

Finally caught up to this after all of the Oscar hoopla. Amazingly enough, it's just about that good. I say just about, because there are obvious over-dramatizations of situations and timelines, and not all of the acting is really Oscar-caliber. I think all of that should be expected for a film 'based on a true story'.

Even so, it's a darn good film, with above average writing, acting, and directing. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

read: Hellbent (3 stars)

Hellbent (Cheshire Red Reports, #2)Hellbent by Cherie Priest

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was expecting another romp through the world of vampires in this follow-up to Bloodshot. I didn't quite get it. Sure, there was thievery, there was snarkiness, there was even magic this time around.

One thing I found to be missing was a compelling through-line of a story. This felt like three parallel stories that sometimes crossed paths. None of them really carried the book. Therefore, they each just sort ended. So did the the book.

Also missing: suspense. There were very few times I really felt like the characters had everything on the line. Perhaps this is due to the lighthearted tone of Raylene's narration. But I did experience a more suspense in the previous adventure.

Action and adventure were also missing here. There was a bit, here and there, like when Ray was trying to recover the magical bones. But mostly there was a lot of talking.

Even so, I'm caught up with these characters. I have learned to like Raylene's voice. It did keep me going for the length of this book and I will be back for the next adventure. I just hope it's more adventurous.

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

read: Stories I Only Tell My Friends (4 stars)

Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An AutobiographyStories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography by Rob Lowe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very engaging and easy to read autobiography. Rob portrays himself as naive and geeky in the early days. His good looks got him beat up in junior high, but helped him get acting jobs and girls later. He drops a lot of names and tells some great stories about movies, television, acting, and his many Hollywood friends. The seamier details of his addictions and breakups and controversies get politely swept under the rug (Mid-westerners don't talk about such things in public, I guess). It's nice to know he's now older, wiser, and happily married.

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Saturday, October 8, 2011

read: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom (2 stars)

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of FreedomPirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom by A.C. Crispin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was very excited when I heard this book was coming out. I loved the Pirates of the Caribbean films almost as much as the ride itself. To get some background on Captain Jack Sparrow would be a great treat. I even recommended it to a fellow fan, sight unseen. In other words, I was predisposed to like this book.

But I did not. I gave it a try. I slogged through it to the very end, after a fashion. I fully read the first third, speed read the middle third and skimmed the last. If it weren't for the fan boy in me, yearning to learn what I could about Jack, I wouldn't have bothered.

It's overly long. The first part of the book is filled with flashbacks that bring the story to almost a complete stop. They are interesting bits, but it would have been wise to find another way to tell that even earlier tale of Jack's history. Perhaps that is the main flaw of this volume. It is trying to tell two tales.

There are other flaws. I noticed quite a few annoying word repetitions - multiple sentences on the same page that started with or contained the same phrase two, three, or more times. This offended my inner ear. And I'm not pointing out Jack's constant use of the word 'savvy', which I expected, but also found it annoying after a while.

This is not to say the book is not without its highlights. There is the kernel of a good adventure, or two, here. There are flashes of good characterization, both familiar - Jack, Barbarossa, Cutler Beckett - and new. There is obviously good research into these and into seamanship. The result, however, is overblown, badly structured, poorly written, and over long.

I was disappointed. Your mileage may vary.

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Monday, September 26, 2011

"Morlocks" [C+]

Schlocky re-imagining of H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" with suitably bad dialog, cheap sets and costumes, and even cheaper (and bad) CGI effects. And automatic weapons. Go ahead and watch it. You know you want to. (from SyFy channel)

Morlocks (IMDb)

"Drive" [B+]

Drive is a smart, gritty film about a smart, gritty character navigating a city full of stupidity, violence, and greed. In that way, it owes a debt to the Spaghetti Westerns of Clint Eastwood. But it's also about cars and driving and heists and keeping your cool. Here we see the influence of Bullitt and all things Steve McQueen.

High marks for cinematic vision, cinematography, minimalistic dialog, great spaces and silences between characters, suspense, drama, and thrills. A couple of stars removed for some over-the-top violence and a script that could have been oh-so-slightly tighter. This is a great film.

Drive (IMDb)

read: Brief Lives (The Sandman #7) (5 stars)

Brief Lives (The Sandman, #7)Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Neil Gaiman changes things up again, giving us one long quest in this volume. It is still made up of several intertwining stories. As usual, there are rich characters and deep thoughts about life, death, change, that sort of thing. The art ranges from sketchy to artistic and Peter Straub's afterword wraps it all in a neat bow.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

read: Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream (4 stars)

RadicalRadical by David Platt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very good debunking of many commonly held views about Christian living and a rallying cry to a more Christ-centered life. The strongest arguments in the book are also its greatest weakness: Christians need to see themselves as ambassadors to an entire world full of unreached people, yet most of us tremble at the thought of even mentioning Jesus to a neighbor. If the only way to be a first-class Christian is to have a missionary mindset and a willingness to go anywhere, then most of us will probably settle for second-class and staying at home.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

read Bright's Passage (3 stars)

Bright's Passage: A NovelBright's Passage: A Novel by Josh Ritter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a sad little story about a World War I veteran from West Virginia with a rough upbringing and an even rougher adult life. It's no wonder he carries on conversations with his horse, whom he addresses as 'Angel'.

After his wife dies in childbirth, Henry Bright is on the run, with his infant son, from both a raging forest fire and his vengeful father-in-law. Along the way, the author weaves in flashbacks to childhood and the war and Henry starts questioning, ever more seriously, the wisdom of the advice offered to him by his 'angel'.

The writing shows that the songwriter/author has some serious storytelling chops. Many passages exude, as one might expect, lyric-like prose. It will be interesting to read his next book. Perhaps it will be longer and more polished, while keeping the heart and song shown in this one.

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Friday, September 9, 2011

read: Robopocalypse: A Novel (3 stars)

Robopocalypse: A Novel  (eBook)Robopocalypse: A Novel by Daniel H. Wilson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book, but found it frustrating. While it tried for the same collected eyewitness style that Max Brooks used for World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, I didn't buy that indulgence for very long. But all of the accounts sound the same. And many use vocabulary and diction that I felt to be beyond the purported author/speaker. Many of the chapters are labeled as being assembled from video footage and communication logs from various devices. Yet these are still delivered in the same first-person voice as the other chapters. All-in-all, the framing device felt convoluted and tacked on.

On the other hand, the concept and the storytelling within the chapters was quite captivating and thought-provoking. Most of the prose was easy to read, even though it could have been easily overwhelmed by technical babble. There were even hints of character development that could have been quite compelling in the hands of a more mature fiction author.

With a different approach and more editing, this book could have easily gotten four stars. As it is, I can only give it three.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"The Debt" [B+]

A good suspense story makes you think you know what's going on, but then wonder if you're right, and keep you guessing about what's going to happen next. "The Debt" is a good suspense story. It has an interesting structure because it actually begins at the end, twice. Then it goes back to fill in the history, and the details, and then... telling more would be a spoiler.

The writing, acting, and directing are all first rate, up to a point. That point is the ending, which doesn't quite ring true to the rest of the film. Other than that, I suspect there will be some award nominations coming for this work.

(The two beginning-at-the-ends are the 1997 framing story and the 1965 post-mission arrival of the team in Israel, both of which give away what happened to the spy team, but not what happened on the mission.)

The Debt (IMDb)

Friday, August 26, 2011

read: Killing Floor (4 stars)

Killing Floor (Jack Reacher, #1)Killing Floor by Lee Child

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pardon my French, but Jack Reacher is a Grade-A, Number One Badass. He has to be in order to go up against the psychotic, killer slime balls he encounters in the little town of Margrave, Georgia. He's the guy you want on your side in a fight.

The author does a good job of making him a likeable and sympathetic badass, just a guy minding his own business when things go horribly wrong and then go even more horribly wrong. Good thing, because he's the first-person narrator and you spend the entire novel with him. The body count is high when he has to fight back, first to survive, then to exact revenge. Perhaps it's a bit higher than it needs to be. But don't forget that Reacher's foes are psychotic, killer slime balls.

It's all over the top stuff. But it's well written and all seems highly plausible as the story unfolds. It's only afterward that you start thinking, waitaminute whatif...? Wouldn't...? But then you decide not to think about it too much and wonder what sort of trouble Reacher will be finding and fighting next.

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"Cowboys & Aliens" [B]

Does what it says on the tin.

I was glad to see that this actually worked. I was really hoping that Jon Favreau, who did such a good job on Iron Man (and not too bad on the sequel) would be able to pull of this high-concept mash-up. But I was also fearing that it could go horribly wrong.

Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and the other actors all bring life to their characters. The directing, as noted, is spot on. The special effects, including the creepy aliens, are up to par.

On the other hand, I was a bit disappointed in the whole bug-eyed monster approach. Sure, they're aliens, we don't really understand why or how they flew billions of miles across the galaxy to capture our kin and get our gold. But given that they did, I couldn't quite buy into the mindless kidnapper and killer vibe that they were given. It was a bit too retro. I fault the writing, which captured the Modernized Western genre just fine, but didn't do the aliens justice. It also made a muddle of the climax.

Even with its faults, I had a great time.

Cowboys & Aliens (IMDb)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

read: Buried Secrets (4 stars)

Buried Secrets (Nick Heller, #2)Buried Secrets by Joseph Finder

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This thriller is about as fine as they get. It has a gripping plot, interesting and distinct characters, unexpected twists, and realistic action. The clock is ticking from the very first page and doesn't let up until the satisfying end.

The author makes some interesting stylistic choices here. The story is told from both the first person and third person limited points of view. But the reader is never confused about why or where they are. The setting is, for the most part, confined to a few locations in the immediate vicinity of Boston. This is unusual for a thriller these days. Most tend to range a bit wider afield. But perhaps it was done this way to emphasize the confined world of the buried girl. It works.

The prose is smooth and easy on the inner ear. The dialog is easy to follow (except for a couple of spots where the back and forth goes on slightly too long without attributions or tags). Chapters are short to emphasize the action, sometimes only a single page. Character and place descriptions are a bit old-school, taking several sentences to tell us about something that many writers are now dashing off with a couple of adjectives and a hand-wave.

This is a great summer read. How long until the next Nick Heller book?

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Monday, August 15, 2011

read: Embassytown (3 stars)

EmbassytownEmbassytown by China MiƩville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a very ambitious novel and gets high marks for aiming high. On the other hand, it's not very reader-friendly. I mark it down for not doing its job of engaging the reader and drawing them into what seems to be a very interesting world. The reader's appreciation of this book will depend on their tolerance for befuddlement.

The first third is the most frustrating. Since a major theme of the book is language (or, in the case of the Hosts, Language with a capital L), the author dumps the user into an alien landscape using futuristic language with only a few reference points. This would not have been so bad if the reader were also given a story. Instead, we are given a memoir. Or rather, we are given a hodge podge of a bits of memoir by a narrator that we can't quite identify with.

When things finally start happening in the immediate, the book gets a bit more interesting and engaging. Yet I could never quite shake the feeling that I wasn't quite there, in the moment, in the place. Description is fleeting. Dialog is circumspect. Events happen in a jumble.

Is this a literary novel masquerading as a science fiction novel? Or vice versa? It's definitely not a light summertime read.

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Sunday, July 31, 2011

"Captain America: The First Avenger" [B+]

I definitely had a good time in this movie. Even as a comic book movie, involving completely preposterous science and revisionist history, it felt very grounded and down to earth. I think that's because it felt very character driven and character focused.

It also has plenty of action and plot. The whole thing chugs along at a nice pace, with decent writing, acting, and directing. There are good jokes and even a heartache or two. It's amazing how deftly it served up heaping helpings of patriotism and courage without ever quite wallowing in self-awareness or corniness.

I particularly loved all of the period details, especially the over-the-top retro-advanced gadgetry. It wasn't until afterward that I discovered the same director gave us The Rocketeer (another favorite). Recommended.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

"The Time Traveler's Wife" [B]

This is a sad, mystifying, mesmerizing study of life, love, and loss. Henry is unstuck in time, a little like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. While that story explores fate, free will, and war, this one leans more heavily on the themes of romance and relationships.

Languid is the best word for describing the pace of the writing, directing, and acting. It could only seem more lazy and hazy if it had all been filmed through a vaseline covered lens. Yet the plodding pace does meander somewhere and you do get caught up in the lives of the characters. But I think it misses the mark in not delving more deeply and sharply into why the characters are doing what they're doing. Why does Henry visit the little girl in the meadow? Why does she allow herself to get drawn to him so exclusively? Why do they make the choices they do? Yes, this film could have, and should have, gone more Vonnegut and explored more about fate and free will.

The Time Traveler's Wife (IMDb)

read: The Vault by Boyd Morrison (3 stars)

The VaultThe Vault by Boyd Morrison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let's be clear. Three stars means I liked The Vault. It had an intriguing but ridiculous premise, a tight plot with non-stop action, realistic situations and settings, and solid writing. It was very enjoyable and not easy to put down. That should have gotten it four stars, but I had to knock off a few points. A pretty decent summer read. [More]

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader [B-]

Perhaps if I hadn't been only half-watching this film while doing something else I might have more to say about it. As it is, I can only say that it only occasionally captured my attention. But I think it went something like this: annoying cousin, magical painting, quest to restore something or other, travel, meet strange folks, get a map, annoying cousin turns into dragon, found the swords of whoever (the quest), but one is missing, cousin-as-dragon learns his lesson and heroically saves the day and the final sword, everyone hugs and goes back to England. The End. Nicely shot, but script needed a does of something. Lots of wooden posing and speech-making passing itself off as acting. I suppose I should go back and read the book. I did like the books... and the other films.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (IMDb)

"Cars 2" [B]

They had me at "Finn McMissile" and "Holley Shiftwell". I had a great time watching this movie, mostly spotting all of the spy movie tropes being trotted out and listening to the engaging spy movie soundtrack. But I also enjoyed the great animation and all of the visual gags involving the international locations and associated ethnic stereotypes.

I suppose there was a plot in there somewhere. I'm sure there are even a few school-age kids and a few more adults who could follow it. There was a lesson about being yourself and friendship in there, too. But mostly it was a couple of hours of chasing, shooting, and talking cars. It was a great way to spend a rainy summer afternoon.

Cars 2 (IMDb)

"Megamind" [B+]

Very fun and very funny superhero, excuse me, super-villain, story. Reminded me alot of The Incredibles, except it the soundtrack was 70s and 80s rock, instead of 60s jazz. Good writing, good voice acting, some amazing animation, good heart.

Megamind (IMDb)

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" [B]

Well, it's over. I mostly enjoyed most of the Harry Potter films and the couple of books I read. I came to care for several of the characters. I appreciated the amount of craftsmanship put into the films as well as the books.

Unlike a franchise series like James Bond or Pink Panther, an epic story has a beginning, middle, and end. And this one is no different. And this was a pretty good end. That's not to say that Harry Potter is quite as epic as something like the Lord of the Rings, nor was its ending. The problem with spreading the story out over eight films, instead of three, is that most of the audience has forgotten what the stakes are. I know I did. Voldemort was after Harry, and vice versa, but why?

Good pacing, though very choppy and episodic. Good action, though a bit confusing in spots. And that points out a problem that I kept having: In the action sequences, rooms, buildings, crowds, and armies all seemed to grow and shrink in illogical ways to meet the needs of the individual shot, not to fit with the shots that came before or follow. I know it's a magical land, but really. Continuity is not this film's strong suit. Fun story, though.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (IMDb)

Monday, July 11, 2011

"You Again" [C+]

Predictable, on-the-nose comedy about a homely girl who was mistreated in high school and comes home to discover her big brother is marrying her biggest nemesis. There are some funny bits, but I found the writing stiff and stilted. The acting and directing were no better.

You Again (IMDb)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

read: Neverwhere

NeverwhereNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book kept me quite entertained over the course of a week and a couple of airplane rides. It is filled with interesting characters on a mad quest through a magical London that exists in parallel with the real London. The concept is not entirely original, but Neil's interpretation of Alice in Wonderland / Wizard of Oz is. The situations and motivations are darker and more sinister. The writing is, on the whole, rich, amusing, and inventive. I would not recommend this as a starting point for Mr. Gaiman's work. But it is a required stop on the journey. [More]

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

"The Adjustment Bureau" [B+]

This is a thoughtful science fiction film about people and their situation, rather than explosions. It's somewhat comparable to Stranger Than Fiction in that it examines free will and choices and does so without being too preachy or maudlin. In fact, there are some scenes of genuine suspense and tension. And there are cool special effects. Recommended.

The Adjustment Bureau (IMDb)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"X-Men: First Class" [B+]

Interesting approach, giving us an origin story as the fourth entry in a film series. But it kind of works here. We didn't need all this information for the first few films and by adding it at this point the experience is actually that much richer. I really liked the retro 1960s setting.

Good writing, directing, and acting all around. There are some very good scenes. It gets marked down a little because there are a bit too many scenes, perhaps because there are a few too many characters to cover with the story. The whole thing could have benefited by one more round of editing on both the script and the film. That would have probably taken out a couple of slower spots. And perhaps done away with the a couple of extraneous strikes to the head with the "us versus them" two-by-four. I think most people got the message well before the middle of the film. You don't have to keep going on about it.

All in all a fun flick for a rainy summer afternoon.

X-Men: First Class (IMDb)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"Super 8" [A]

Super 8 is one of those films that just keeps firing on all cylinders. When it's not making you jump, it's breaking your heart. When it's not tearing up the town, it's giving you down-to-earth drama. Everything about this movie just worked for me, from the script to the directing to the acting to the visual effects. This isn't a science-fiction movie with story elements tacked on. This is a story about people and the effect the science-fiction elements have on them.

Yes, there are a few stereotypes thrown in here and there. And there are plenty of explosions and gratuitous, anonymous carnage. But at it's core it's a story about kids at the cusp of growing up and how they are thrust into an almost literal crucible and come out the other side. The film is true to those characters and their situation and pretty true to the time period and setting. Those of a certain age will recognize songs and cars and events of the time. I loved every minute of it.

Super 8 (IMDb)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

read: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (Hunger Games,  #1)The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book grabbed me on the first page and wouldn't let go. The voice of the young first-person narrator was just right. It showed great inner strength, yet also demonstrated the right amount of innocence. Set in a future America that is familiar, yet terrifyingly different, the plot offers both high-concept sci-fi adventure hooks and down-to-earth living, seasoned with occasional self-examination. And it always keeps moving. Every twist is a surprise. Yet most of them feel 'right' and not set up. Adults as well as older youth will enjoy this book, even if it paints a picture that is predominantly bleak, sort of Logan's Run meets Survivor meets Lord of the Flies.

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Friday, June 3, 2011

read: Serenity: Those Left Behind

Serenity: Those Left Behind (Serenity, #1)Serenity: Those Left Behind by Joss Whedon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Pretty solid Firefly episode. The art and continuity were a bit uneven. But it was a pleasant return to this universe.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

read: We the Enemy

We the EnemyWe the Enemy by Ray Rhamey

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ray warns that this is provocative and it's for good reason. It's raw. and it's bleak. It reminds me of film noir. I had to set it aside after two and a half chapters. When I picked it up again, I still could not finish it. Maybe I'll look at it again some time.

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read: The Diamond Age

The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated PrimerThe Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Diamond Age is an ambitious book full of rich descriptions of life in an imaginary future based on the perfection of nanotechnology. That dense world-building is the joy of the novel. Stephenson does an admirable job of creating a future that extrapolates from our present and imagines the changes that certain technologies might have on society and relationships. There's also a story in there somewhere, but I had a hard time picking it out of the dense language, sparse dialog, and long exposition.

There were many sections of this book that really clicked for me. They drew me in and had me turning pages. But there were also long sections, where I no longer cared at all what was happening to the characters. I'm fascinated by the fact that so many people, including several awards committees, think so highly of this book. Stephenson is quite a writer. But quantity and quality of words aren't enough for me if I can't identify with the characters and their story. [More]

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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

read: Mercury Falls

Mercury FallsMercury Falls by Robert Kroese

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Occasionally amusing is as apt a description as I can apply to this silly book. I think what the author was going for was something more along the lines of consistently hilarious in the vein of Douglas Adams. Alas, it is somewhat wide of that mark. But if the reader allows themselves to overlook the underdeveloped characters, contrived plot, Scripture twisting, and sometimes stilted dialog, the story and pop culture references are occasionally amusing. [More]

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Saturday, May 28, 2011

read: Fables and Reflections (Sandman #6)

Fables and Reflections (The Sandman, #6)Fables and Reflections by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good mix of alternate history fantasy and myth-making here. It's interesting that Morpheus, The Sandman, is a key character in each tale, but only shows up for a small portion of each. As with all Gaiman stories, characters are key, and we get a wide variety. We also get a variety of settings and plots, showing that he is no slouch in those areas either.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

"The Green Hornet" [C+]

The car was cool. It was nice to see that Seth Rogan had plenty of budget to get the props right on his vanity project. It's too bad he didn't use some of it to hire a good writer and a better actor to play Britt Reid/Green Hornet. I think my biggest problem is that Seth decided to write and play Britt as a grating dolt, rather than a sharp newspaperman creating an ineffective persona. This results in zero believability that Reid has any chance of confronting and bringing down any criminals whatsoever, except by accident or by the actions of his accidental almost ally, Kato. Disappointing.

The Green Hornet (IMDb)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

"The American" [B+]

This film is about as dark and stark as they come. But it captures your attention and moves to its inevitable end like clockwork. It is stripped down, raw, and intense. It's hard to call the main character, Jack (or Edward?), the protagonist. He is cold and cruel and unbending. Yet by the end of the film, the audience has built up an affinity (affection?) for him, even though he is not that much different than when we first met him.

The American (IMDb)

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" [B]

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" proves there is plenty of swashbuckle left in the franchise. The first third of the film has plenty of action and humor and makes promises the rest of the film doesn't quite keep. That's only to say that things slow down a bit and the plot, such as it is, meanders and falters before coming back together for the final confrontation. I think my biggest complaint is that this entry does not have any true distraction from Captain Jack Sparrow. These films really need someone for the audience to identify with and have him bounce off. Other than that, don't bother to see this in 3D, but enjoy the ride.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (IMDb)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

read: Atlantis (Bob Mayer)

AtlantisAtlantis by Bob Mayer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good thriller has to have interesting characters, a good threat and plot that doesn't let up. Atlantis has all three. It also adds interest by bringing together the legend of Atlantis, the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle, and a plausible response to the threat. All these ingredients kept me turning pages and should have been worth four stars.

But I have to mark it down because it also has plenty of typographical errors, a jumble of character viewpoints and confusing settings, and occasional cringe-inducing prose.

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Thor" [C+]

Giving this movie a grade of C+ should not be taken as an indication that I did not like it. I actually enjoyed my time in the theater. But, grading it on the curve against other comic book movies, like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, I think a C+ is actually pretty generous. Thor is as bright and shiny and powerful, yet as empty and emotionless, as the Destroyer robot sent to Earth to kill him.

The plot and some of the acting is seemingly Shakespearean. Yet it only seems such. It borrows the pomp and swagger of the bard, but fails to deliver motivation for the characters. It is completely contrived and situation-driven. In that regard, this is just a comic book movie. The characters all behave with the shallowness of their comic book counterparts and bright colors and swirling action are an attempt to disguise it.

What saves the film from being a complete disaster is the obvious enthusiasm for the project by all involved. The actors and director are all in. The effects team does a bang up job. If one can ignore the emptiness below the surface of the silly story, as well as the unusual emptiness of the cities and towns of Asgard, New Mexico, and the Frost Giants world, one can have an amusing couple of hours.

Thor (IMDb)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

"Source Code" [B+]

Source Code takes its inspiration from the best episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits: ask a "what if" question about something just beyond the edge of our scientific understanding and explore the effect it has on the people involved. In this case, the "what if" sends an earnest and initially confused Army pilot on a new mission exploring the last memories of the victim of a terrorist bomb. Except he's not as convinced as the scientists that nothing he does will change the outcome of that explosion.

As he repeatedly experiences the victim's last eight minutes and repeatedly fails to either change the outcome or fulfill his mission to uncover the bomber and prevent another, more brutal, bombing, he becomes more and more convinced that he can make a difference for this train full of people. Even so, the audience wants to believe he is right, but becomes more and more convinced that the scientists know what they're talking about (even though the science is just as preposterous and under-explained as in any science fiction story).

Good acting. Good directing. Good suspense. The same big explosion seen from several angles. Decent special effects.

Source Code (IMDb)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

read: Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success

Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of SuccessBounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable and interesting book on the subject of nature vs. nurture. The author examines the now well known "ten thousand hours of practice" rule of expertise, using both anecdotes and research, and shows that it seems to apply even to so-called prodigies. He also examines the psychological aspects of performance and how it applies to both success and "choking".

There may not be, as critics have pointed out, anything totally knew or revelatory here. But it is well presented and easy to read, and a somewhat compelling introduction to the area. The final two chapters, dealing with doping and racial issues, seem a little out of place. But they do not overly detract from the overall message.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

read: Djibouti

DjiboutiDjibouti by Elmore Leonard

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I give up. I'm barely halfway through the audiobook and I'm not going to finish. I probably gave this more of a chance than it deserved, just because it was Elmore Leonard. It had to get better, right?

Nope. After the first couple of chapters of meeting some potentially interesting characters and traveling to an interesting place, all of the interesting departed the story. All that remained was a confusing mush of jumping back and forth in time between boring dialog (not typical of Leonard) about past events, those actual past events, and some current, so-called, action. Viewpoints are jumbled together. Voices are indistinct and many seem too Western. Even the reader had a hard time making it clear who was speaking.

But that all didn't matter much because I stopped caring about the characters long ago. Moving on...

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Friday, April 8, 2011

read: Water for Elephants

Water for ElephantsWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very character-driven book. But that means it's not the type of book I typically read: plot-driven science fiction, thriller, or fantasy. I guess I am glad it seemed to develop a sort of plot after a while. It's also a good thing that most of the characters are interesting and distinct. I ultimately found it to be quite a compelling story--at least part of it.

The part I found compelling was the circus part, the part set in the past, the part that dominates the book. The circus part is set in the Great Depression. This has the risk of being overly familiar and overdone, since both have been covered by probably hundreds of previous books and movies. Yet the author does a fine job of keeping her characters and situations just far enough out of stereotype to pull the reader into a fascinating world and keep them there.

The trouble I had with the book was the framing story that is set in a nursing home in present day. I felt like it diluted the parts set in the circus. The characters here felt a little flat and the situations a bit contrived. Really? The circus comes to town and sets up its tent across the street from where a former circus worker is living? Really? There are also several unresolved plot threads in this part of the story, which I have determined I'll just have to live with. My dissatisfaction with this aspect of the book was exacerbated real-life synchronicity of dealing with parents and other family members residing in such places.

One minor oddity of the book is that it's written in a sort of present tense ("He greets me with an awkward nod...", rather than "greeted"). I think this is an attempt to emphasize the presentation of the story as memoir, as a story being told. But it's a bit of a distraction until the reader adapts to it.

Even though this isn't the sort of book I usually read, I had intentions of picking up Water for Elephants long before I knew a film based on it was coming out. I wanted to read it because it is an example of a story written during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I wanted to see a story that began life during that 30 day scramble for words and made it into print. Having the film coming out just made it that much more urgent to read the book first.

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Sunday, April 3, 2011

"The Other Guys" [B-]

Will Ferrell does his riff on the buddy cop movie and it's fairly amusing. For a while. A little over half way through, I started wondering when an actual plot would show up, along with some new jokes. Obliviousness and absurdity alone cannot carry an entire film. The best part of the movie was the over-the-top performance of Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as the stereotypical movie hero cops who get a little too full of themselves for their own good.

"The Other Guys" (IMDb)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

"The Tourist" [B]

Well-shot, well-acted light meringue of a movie. Not quite action-thriller, not quite romantic-comedy, not quite enough of the absurd plot to really fill out an hour and three-quarters. Nevertheless, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie and Venice are captivating.

The Tourist (IMDb)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

read: Murder One

Murder OneMurder One by Robert Dugoni

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Dugoni's latest David Sloane legal thriller is actually more of a mystery than a thriller. But that isn't a bad thing. The author is in top storytelling form, weaving a complex plot that has the reader turning pages and trying to guess whodunit right up to the very end.

In previous novels, Sloane has gone up against government and corporate conspiracies with long arms and deep pockets that threaten his life and the lives of the people he cares about. There seem to be dangers at every turn. Now, year after his wife was murdered by someone involved in one of those cases, he goes back to work and tries to get back to living.

Before he knows it, he's romantically involved with Barclay Reid, another lawyer and former adversary, she's accused of murdering the drug kingpin she blames for the tragic overdose of her daughter, and he's put in the position of defending a criminal case, something he's never done. As the investigation unfolds, all of the evidence indicates that Barclay is guilty. Sloane and his private investigator friend Charles Jenkins struggle to make the all the pieces fit and find the real killer. At least this time his adversaries are straight-shooting cops and the legal system and some uncooperative witnesses. Sloane's heart and integrity are on the line, even if his life isn't.

Murder One is a fine addition to the David Sloane series. Robert Dugoni has filled it with colorful characters and local details that add life and depth to what might otherwise have been a dry police procedural. Highly recommended.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Chapter 3

Yes, I've started it. I wasn't even sure what I was going to do for it until I sat down. But I managed to find a way to transition from the two opening chapters I tacked on and slip back into my original outline. Not that I'll manage to stick to the outline from here on out. But you've got to start with something, don't you?

Anyway, 275 words, some research, and some reorganizing and we're still underway.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Is Through The Only Way Out?

I was trying to figure out why I don't seem to be very excited about working on my current writing project. I'm only a couple of chapters in on a Page 1 Rewrite (actually more like Page -100, since I decided it needed to start much earlier than the short first draft did). At this point I should still be enthusiastic about the new project and cranking away at it. Shouldn't I?

I think the problem is that I've spent almost three months on the outline and these first couple of chapters (and the chapters don't actually fit the outline, so it's out of date). When I work on something in NaNoWriMo, I get through an entire draft in 30 days. It's fun. It's exciting. It's nerve wracking. Without that pressure to be done with 50,000 words by a certain time, I've been doing my procrastination thing and stretching things out.

I need to just write. Today I did a skosh over 500 words and it feels a little better. But I still think I've been working on this one thing for far too long. Other projects are dancing around in my head. I've been writing them down as they come up, trying to stave them off. I'm tired of Winter and the project seems to be part of Winter, so I'm tired of it, too. It seems very appealing to take another break from the current project and start more in earnest on something new, something Spring-like.

But I'd also like to finish what I've already started. To date, since 2005, I've started a half-dozen novels and a few short stories. I've finished and submitted one short story (to a conference contest) and finished a decent draft of another short story. All of the novels are in draft-zero form, or less.

I think in order to finish something, however, I need to do it in a more compressed timeframe. Something more than 30 days, so I don't ruin my life. But certainly it must be less than four to six months. Simple math tells me that if I truly write 1,000 words a day, six days a week, I will have 72,000 words in 12 weeks, or 3 months. In that case, I would be well over half-way finished with a sizable first-draft before my week 6 malaise set in. Maybe.

Maybe it's worth a try. Then again, I think I'll see what chapter 3 of this work in progress holds for me tomorrow. I've heard that the "only way out is through."

Sunday, March 20, 2011

read: Bellwether

BellwetherBellwether by Connie Willis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wound up liking this slightly less than I thought I would based on the first several chapters. The tone is light, the factoids and social commentary are amusing, and the voice actress very talented. It was a lot of fun to listen to during my commute.

I thought the 'big' idea was intriguing, but it was slow to develop and got lost in the muddled love-story plot. Then it got wrapped up in a blur and a deus ex machina twist. Most annoying to me was the poor representation of how research is done and how computers are used. The research institute is used mostly as a means for critiquing institutional thinking and not for true advanced thinking.

All in all it was enjoyable and almost thought-provoking story.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

"Rango" [B+]

A wild, Spaghetti-Western fever-dream of a movie. 8 of 10 stars for anyone that loves Westerns, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and Johnny Depp. The writing is edgy and crazy (and definitely PG+ in a few spots). The voice acting and animation are crazy good. Sags a little in the middle, but the rest is worth repeated viewings. A new classic.

Rango (IMDb)

read: A Game of You (The Sandman #5)

The Sandman Vol. 5: A Game of YouThe Sandman Vol. 5: A Game of You by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This volume didn't click for me quite like the previous two did. Perhaps I had difficulty identifying with the characters. Maybe it was the confusion about what was dream and what was magic and how they related. Even so, the ideas and imagery were intriguing and the story pulled me along through to the end.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

read: Bloodshot

Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports, #1)Bloodshot by Cherie Priest

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had a few misgivings when I learned that the latest book by one of my new favorite writers was going to be an urban fantasy vampire story. Not my thing. I didn't make it even half-way through a crazy popular novel about sparkly vampires that's been made into crazy popular series of films. I finished, barely, a literary classic that had been paranormalized with vampires and zombies. But based on my delightful experiences with Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, Clementine, and Dreadnought, I had to give Bloodshot a try.

It worked for me. It kept me awake past my bedtime turning pages (which is more than I can say for the classic science fiction book I set aside). I'll tell you why. You can read the cover blurb for yourself.

Action. This book has plenty of action. One thing you must say about being a vampire master thief on the run from every police department including Interpol is that you don't lead a dull life. When Raylene isn't breaking into somebody else's warehouse or office, somebody is breaking into hers. This tends to lead to either a fight or a chase or both. The author does a great job with them all.

Adventure. This comes from being on the run and being a vampire. Raylene inhabits the night. She has to keep moving. Her latest job has her tracking down and stealing government documents about a secret project. This forces her to travel the country to follow clues and break into the aforementioned warehouses and offices and the reader gets to follow along.

Suspense. There are some good twists and turns here. I did see a couple of them coming, but not all. Secret government projects and mysterious men-in-black are not unfamiliar territory. But the author does a good job of weaving them into a fairly believable story (once you get past the bit about vampires existing).

Snark. I wasn't sure I would be able to tolerate Raylene's first-person narrative for the entire 359 pages. It grew on me. I mostly enjoyed it. I didn't find the humor to be laugh-out-loud funny. But the note of bemusement kept the tone of the story light.

I have a few complaints. There is at least one killing in the book that does not seem justified, even by Raylene's apparent moral code. Then again, she's a vampire, and a thief, and a killer. On at least one, maybe two, occasions I felt a little cheated by the ease and convenience of Raylene's escape from an impossible situation. This wasn't due to her skill or power, just a break that went her way.

But overall I was happy with my reading experience. I give it 4 stars out of 5. I'll be looking forward to the next Cheshire Red book, along with the next Clockwork Century book, and anything else that Cherie Priest writes.

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Sunday, March 6, 2011

"The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" [C]

This is basically an incomprehensible mess. The mythology is both inexplicable and insupportable. The writing and acting is insufferable. Why do I keep watching these? Perhaps attempt to understand this corner of pop culture. I was hoping this was the last one. But I see there are at least two more in the works. Stop me before I watch another one.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (IMDb)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

read: How Fiction Works

How Fiction WorksHow Fiction Works by James Wood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm of two minds on this book. On the one hand I can't remember what recommendation caused me to read it. And if all I'd had was the second half of the book as an example, I probably wouldn't have bothered. It rambles and jumps around so much.

On the other hand, the first sections, covering narrative and viewpoint, illuminated perspectives on writing that came as revelations to me as from on high. I simply have not previously approached fiction from that philosophical direction.

The author seems to be of two minds as well, trying to have his cake and eat it, too, philosophically. He seems to be simultaneously trying to appeal to the common reader and to the highly educated sophisticate. At times he succeeds. At others, he seems simply irksome. Like one of those know-it-all semi-intellectuals that are impossible to shut up once they commence to educate you about some subject.

Then again, perhaps it was just me, the reader, becoming impatient. If I decide I have a need to make time for this book again, perhaps I will revisit it and see if it is even more illuminating (or more irksome) the second time.

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

"The Ghost Writer" [B]

A very effective suspense thriller in the vein of Hitchcock. This is not surprising, given that the screenwriter and director intended that very thing. Marked down a little for several plot holes.

The Ghost Writer (IMDb)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"Despicable Me" [B+]

Despicable Me is a silly animated film with a ridiculous premise. Gru wants to be the greatest villain in the world, but is missing a key component needed for his latest diabolical plan. Enter three adorable orphan girls that he thinks will make it possible. Will they free him from his evil lifestyle? Or will he merely use them for his own gain? Anything is possible in this animated universe and the film insinuates itself into your heart, much like the little girls, creating an entertaining diversion.

Despicable Me (IMDb)

"The Social Network" [B+]

The Social Network somehow manages to take an unsympathetic character and a story that's too complex for words and create a fascinating and compelling story. It's not an uplifting feel good tale. But it is interesting and entertaining.

The Social Network (IMDb)

Monday, February 14, 2011

"Red" (B+)

"Red" is a rock-'em, sock-'em, shoot-'em-up action movie of the best kind. I must admit that most of the the appeal comes from the appeal of the cast. The plot is intentionally action-movie-typical - unknown bad guys are after the good guy for no apparent reason - so that we can focus on how the good guy will find his friends and get out of his predicament and how much fun the cast will have shooting guns and blowing stuff up.

The good guy is Bruce Willis, who plays yet another Jason Bourne inspired spy, except this spy was in action long before Jason Bourne was even a twinkle in his father's eye. To get himself out of his mysterious predicament, he hits the road and recruits his other retired spy buddies. It's a given that the casting and writing all borders on being stereotypical. But it's all done with enough panache and tongue-in-cheek that it can be forgiven and enjoyed.

Red (IMDb)

"Cop Out" [C]

Almost every moment of this film, I kept thinking how much it reminded me of "Beverly Hills Cop" and how much better that film was. It tries for the same silly buddy-cop movie feel, it has almost the same over-synthed pop music score, and it racks up a similar bad-guy body count.

What it hasn't got is a plot that makes any sense, writing that rises above junior high locker room humor, or a comic lead (Tracy Morgan) that does anything except shout his lines in a trademarked annoying monotone.

I wonder if Bruce Willis got roped into this with promises that weren't kept. He doesn't always look like he's having a good time. Perhaps he thought his co-star would be the new Eddie Murphy.

Cop Out (IMDb)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

read: Season of Mists (The Sandman #4)

Season of Mists (The Sandman, #4)Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A well-told, if (in the end) familiar, tale. What stands out is Gaiman's exquisite weaving together of multiple mythic traditions.

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read: Naked Heat

Naked Heat (Nikki Heat #2)Naked Heat by Richard Castle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

More plot, more action, more characterization, fewer television tropes. These are what I saw as improvements in this second installment of Richard Castle's crime novel series featuring Detective Nikki Heat, inspired by NYPD Detective Kate Beckett. Of course, Castle and Beckett are also just characters in a television show. The parallels between the two fictitious worlds are part of what makes this book a fun read. On the other hand, the parallel worlds are sometimes plain awkward. Even so, this is great fun for Castle fans. [More...]

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

read Billy Boyle

Billy Boyle (Billy Boyle World War II, #1)Billy Boyle by James R. Benn

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There's probably nothing basically wrong with this book, but I'm giving up on it after about 100 pages. It could be that it just doesn't meet my current need of story. Or maybe there's just not enough story.

The basic writing is pretty good. Good descriptions. Good distinctions between the main characters. They just aren't doing enough.

It's pretty slow. There are too many characters to keep track of right off the bat. I didn't really care about whoever it was that turned up dead. The spy threat hasn't been made real. I'm not really connecting with the main character.

I'm glad I got it free for my Nook.

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Sunday, January 9, 2011

"Knight and Day" [B]

Entertaining comedy action flick with absolutely no presumptions of being anything more. It could have been a very nice romantic comedy spy caper, but instead chose to emphasize the action too much. As a result, the human element is lost among all of the explosions and flying bullets and crashing cars, motorcycles, and aircraft.

Knight and Day (IMDb)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"Shutter Island" [B-]

Disappointing. That's the best summary I can think of for this movie. And I think the basic fault lies in the script. The actors acted the heck out of it. Scorcese did his usual admirable job of directing. There was suspense. And there was creepiness. There was great potential in the premise. But the story just didn't quite hang together. This is supposed to be a psychological thriller. So I give it a lot of leeway regarding fragmented scenes, hallucinations, and shifting point of view. But I think it needed to be quite a bit less obvious in order to draw the viewer in. And shorter.

Monday, January 3, 2011

read: The Sagan Diary

The Sagan DiaryThe Sagan Diary by John Scalzi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An odd little collection of philosophical internal monologues from a futuristic special-ops soldier being decommissioned. I never really quite bought the voice, which seemed much too mature and educated for a piece of meat grown in a vat, trained to fight at an accelerated rate, turned out to battle, and alive for only a relatively few years. But props to John Scalzi for good writing and experimenting with the form.

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Saturday, January 1, 2011

read: Dreadnought

Dreadnought (The Clockwork Century, #3)Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this book. So far, I've enjoyed all of the stories that are being told in the world of "The Clockwork Century". Dreadnought is the best so far.

The story is carried by a strong, richly drawn main character, Nurse Mercy Lynch, whose only flaw is perhaps being a bit too unflappable. Then again, her strength does not come falsely and she uses it to help others when needed. Surrounding her is a potpourri of supporting characters that, with the exception of some infantrymen, are also well-drawn and easy to distinguish.

The plot proceeds at breakneck speed, barely pausing occasionally for a little reflection and the binding of wounds. It's filled with airships, trains, and other battle vehicles powered by steam and reflecting the best minds of the century applied to the technology of war. And applied to war they are with credible descriptions of high-powered battles. [More]

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"TRON: Legacy" [B]

I'll admit that TRON: Legacy doesn't make any more sense than the original film did. Given the premise that organic life can physically exist in a virtual world, and given the continuation of the characters and settings created for the original story, the new film is a highly entertaining spray of pixels on the screen.

TRON: Legacy (IMDb)

"True Grit (2010)" [A-]

The 1969 rendition of True Grit with John Wayne was still an old-school epic Western, with rousing score, scenic vistas, and colorful characters. The Coen brothers have turned their 2010 rendition of the same story into a slog through a barren country populated by unwashed half-wits, unrepentant murderers, and half-redeemed lawmen. Both are successful in their own right. Jeff Bridges (the Dude) disappears into Rooster Cogburn a bit more than The Duke ever could, allowing the story to center more around the girl and her quest.

True Grit (2010) (IMDb)

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" [B]

I liked this film quite a bit. Maybe even a more like a B+ or even A-. I thought the main story actually worked pretty well. The sense of magic and wonder and the link to science was pretty cool (if a bit ridiculous and not always consistent). The visual effects were marvelous. The nods to Disney (and even Star Wars) were fun.

But I had to mark it down a point or two because I thought the love story didn't really work very well and I really didn't like the casting choice for the apprentice (on the other hand, Nic Cage turn as the sorcerer was brilliantly underplayed madness, for him). Otherwise, this is a fun movie that will no doubt stop my channel flipping when I next run across it.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (IMDb)