Friday, October 31, 2014

Hell House by Richard Matheson

Title: Hell House
Author: Richard Matheson
Publisher:  Viking Press (1971)

I think this final title of our year might be the third Matheson book in our joint post series. A moment, please, while I do a quick search... For once, my memory serves me well. Here's the first we did and then another earlier this year for a second go. I was hoping third time's a charm for me and this author - who I don't click with - but, alas, it's clearly not meant to be. At least I know for sure now and can comfortably move on from Matheson's backlist.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here. 

Click here for Michael's film review of The Legend of Hell House
at It Rains... You Get Wet

Title rivals Florence for the best thing about the book. It sounds cool, it’s succinct and apt. (As you’ll see, I’m really reaching for anything positive to say about this book; don’t say I didn’t warn you, if this is a novel you like, you won’t like this review.)
Two mediums, a scientist, and an assistant have one week to take on the powerful, clever, cursed, and diabolically haunted Hell House.

What works: 
Florence. There are essentially 4 characters in this novel (not counting the house) but only one of them is well-characterized. When Florence first appears it seems like she’s going to play the ‘dippy sensitive’ role but she turns out to be a very well-rounded character. She is quite sensitive (she’s a medium so I’m using this word more in those terms) and very empathetic, both of which turn out to be great strengths and great weaknesses in her time in Hell House. It was also a cool feature of her character that her communion with the dead was intimately tied to her monotheistic faith.

The mystery-related dramatic tension. This story is a melding of a haunted house story and a mystery. The dramatic tension related to the mystery periodically created moments of tension and excitement.

What Doesn’t: 
So many things!!! The writing is poor, the dialogue is uneven, and the characterization is not well done (Florence excepted). It’s sexist, misogynist, and homophobic. One could argue that it is the characters/house who are these things but I could argue (and do!) that choices were made by the author that go beyond simply assigning characteristics. This not being my first Matheson book, I am seeing a definite pattern in his choices as an author and they’re a problem. (I’m also pretty sure he’s of the school of thought that says ‘but there’s no reason for it.’ Gross!) 

It features extreme sexual violence against women whilst the men are attacked in multiple, non-sexual ways and usually via their perceived mental faculties. 

ScienceFail: The scientist’s arguments are built upon completely unscientific reasoning. I’m not referencing the scientific reasoning of house hauntings (clearly I’m buying that conceit if I’m reading) but he’s supposed to be a physicist and he doesn’t even know how to build a case using the scientific method. 

The Ending [major spoiler to come, highlight if interested]: After spending the length of a book with a super powerful villain puppet mastering every single scene, he is defeated by what amounts to name calling. Seriously? Name calling? (And while we’re here, the villain’s motivation is that he’s short????)

Overall: Skip this one, it sucks.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 1 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

(Mostly) A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

Title: The Earthsea Quartet* 
Author: Ursula Le Guin
Publisher:  See note

As I recall, this month kicks off The Slide (made infamous by Michael:) and I've found The Slide started early this year. What with connection problems and a hard drive crash making computer/digital work more trouble than it was worth for most of the month, and Spring weather keeping me outside, it's no wonder Sept has flown by. October here already? No way, I'm just not ready. But instead of thinking of time passing us by at Ludicrous Speed, let's talk books.

*note: This quartet volume was issued by Penguin in 2012 and includes A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1972), The Farthest Shore (1973), and Tehanu (1990) 

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here. 

Click here for Michael's film review of Tales from Earthsea
at It Rains... You Get Wet

This review, as hinted in the title, will be mostly about the first Earthsea book but I did pick up the quartet edition with the ambitious goal of getting through all four since the movie purports to be inspired by the entire Earthsea world (in reality it seems to mostly focus on the third book). In A Wizard of Earthsea a young boy from Gont, an island in the northern area of Earthsea, shows promise at the arts of witchcraft and wizardry. He is taken as an apprentice by the old wizard in residence. His headstrong ways don't mesh well with the old wizard and he eventually goes to a fancy school for kids with his talents. His boastful nature ends in a spell that releases a shadow which he will eventually have to face. The subsequent books follow an older and usually wiser wizard as he accomplishes some of his greatest deeds. This last bit we know as the reader as it's implied that his deeds are known throughout Earthsea via songs and poems.

For all the grandeur that is implied by great deeds, wizardry and poems, Ged is a rather isolated individual. Many of his adventures he chooses to go solo or is accompanied by only one other person. He is accustomed to harsh conditions and silence. While not unfriendly, it often seems as if his mind is somewhere else entirely. He has a subtle sense of humor and a soft spot for young, headstrong people. As you might guess, Le Guin's deft hand at characterization is on full display in these books. Add to that her exquisite writing and it seems like a slam dunk for an excellent time as a reader. I know this is true of many readers but the Earthsea stories just don't hold my attention. It was for this reason that I chose this title (and I'd been wanting to watch the movie). I wanted to give them one more try as I'm such a Le Guin fan but I must face it that these aren't the stories for me. I can't even quite put my finger on what it is but I find it so easy to put the Earthsea books down and do something else.

It's a wonderfully built world that is at once completely fantastical and readily accessible. The characters feel real and their actions true. Yet I remain unhooked. I stopped reading about halfway through the third book and I think the second half of the second book was probably the most engaging. I like the creativity and the subtle interweaving of the tales as you progress through Ged's life but, again, it was always so easy for me to put the book down. I find it fascinating when I am blown away by excellence of craft but not at all engaged. It's an odd reading experience.

One thing that kept coming to mind while reading was that it would be an excellent book to read aloud with a group. The language and style lend itself perfectly to an epic saga to be shared aloud. And I do mean shared! I don't think it would quite fit the bill to just listen to an audiobook. I don't know if anyone actually reads aloud together after the age of picture books, etc but these would be the books to do it with.

So is Ged able to face the shadow creature he unleashed? Well, after a side quest with a dragon and an encounter with a powerful royal couple, he does turn his mind more fully to the shadow. What happens after that is only for those that read to the end. 

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Star Wars Love Poem

So happy to have internet changeover complete and good connectivity back. For many reasons obviously but also because I got to play swtor and this happened:

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

Title: The Andromeda Strain
Author: Michael Crichton
Publisher:  Knopf (1969)

I assume we'll all be glued to our televisions this weekend for the opening games of college football but if you need something to read during halftime this title might be just the thing. It's short, on point and a little educational, too. That is, if you're interested in late 60s cutting edge technology. That statement has a hint of sarcasm but it's unintended. It is actually interesting to read this sci-techno thriller a few decades post-publication.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here. 

Click here for Michael's film review of The Andromeda Strain

When two Army personnel attempt to recover a research satellite that made an unplanned re-entry landing in Arizona, they encounter a town whose inhabitants have fallen prey to a fatal attack. Before much longer, they too have died. Their commander activates Wildfire and five civilian researchers begin a 5 day race to understand and contain an extraterrestrial pathogen. 

I've always thought of TAS as the first of Crichton's novels in which his signature style began to coalesce. It always felt like the first of the type of novels that garnered him the most fame: a group of very smart, qualified people come together using the latest technology to resolve a crisis. It's a style of novel I've always enjoyed (Jurassic Park anyone?) and while I don't think this is his best, it's still an enjoyable Crichton story.

After the Wildfire team has examined the stricken town and brought the satellite to their super secret lab facility, you learn a little about how each of them examines a scientific problem and you learn a lot about bacteria and the scientific tools available to researchers in 1969 (at least, if they had unlimited resources). There is a lot of technical detail in this novel and Crichton hadn't yet mastered how to incorporate it within the dramatic narrative. The book is introduced as a recounting of "recorded events" but it strays too often into the personal to keep to that structure. It's a flaw of the novel but if you like techno-thrillers this will probably still be a fun read despite the thriller aspect not really starting until the last few pages (however, if you don't like them, this is probably not the one to start with). 

My two* big complaints have to do with the loaded language Crichton so often used not coming to anything in the end and, well, the ending. The loaded language went nowhere and the end wasn't very satisfying. Obviously, I can't go into detail as it would be a major spoiler but let's just say that the ending - while not inconceivable - was unlikely and, what's more important, pretty meh. Actually, there is something I can share to illustrate my point. If you were to take all the information learned by the researchers (plus what the reader gets to know) and tried to use it to reach The End you probably couldn't do it. There certainly isn't any rule that a writer must provide the reader with a roadmap to the end but it's hard not to think: well, what'd you [author] bother with all that detail for if I couldn't use it for anything? So let's call this one a journey type of book. If you enjoy technological details and what-if situations then this title will satisfy. 

*I was mighty tempted to do a science nit pick review but decided to pass. Crichton novels do so much better than average on that type of thing that it just seems mean to pick out all the mistakes (and I've already done it to him once:).

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Reading Roundup

I haven't exactly been reading (or posting!) up a storm lately but here are a few recommendations which will give an idea of what I have been reading lately and whether or not I enjoyed it.

currently reading
The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (still!)

The Virgin and the Whale by Carl Nixon
--slow starter but some interesting developments as it goes
Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox
--very cool premise, world-building done well
(Dreamquake is the follow-on to above, I'm not sad I read it but I probably wouldn't have been sad to have missed it.)
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
--always enjoyable to read old favorites, the series is good but YMMV A LOT with the most recent
Hombre by Elmore Leonard
Clarkesworld: Year 5 (short stories)
I Do Not Come To You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
--a bit up and down for me but, in the end, i enjoyed it
Salvage by Alexandra Duncan
--cool premise, good world-building
Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale (audiobook)
--much like LK, any NB is better than no NB but I'd feel less than truthful if I didn't state that I thought this was the least satisfying performance of LK's backlist so far
She-Wolves by Helen Castor
--the last of the non-fic that I read surrounding powerful women in England's history

not recommended
The Widow's Daughter by Nicholas Edlin
The Memory of Love by Linda Olsson
Divergent by Veronica Roth
The White Princess by Philippa Gregory 

Bluestocking in Patagonia by Anne Whitehead
Bitten by Kelley Armstrong
In Search of an Impotent Man by Gaby Hauptmann
The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken by Tarquin Hall
--however this one did reference a book that sounds really good so I'm glad for that even if I didn't like this one enough to finish it

What have you been reading lately?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Alan Rickman Reel: Michael Collins

My household are big fans of Alan Rickman. As such, we decided to review his films from start to finish. Using IMDb, that put us starting with Die Hard (Die Hard!!!!) and we knew Dogma and Galaxy Quest would be in there, too. Not to mention all our other favorite Alan Rickman films. Plus, you know, we thought we'd discover so many more fun movies. That is probably still true but we've been discovering some real duds in our journey and it's sucking the fun out of this activity. As such, we've decided to keep going in chronological order but to focus on the ones we like or what sounds good to us.

If we skip one of your favorites feel free to make a case for it in the comments. Links to previous reviews can be found below, under the cut.

Dr Musacha: This movie is 2hrs and 13min long.
sgwordy: It feels it.

sgwordy: Alan Rickman wasn't in this all that much.

Dr Musacha: I think we've found our first thing that Alan Rickman DOESN'T do well in a film, as his Irish accent left a bit to be desired.

sgwordy: So true. It's really the first genuine fail we've seen out of him. He was in good company, though. The accents were pretty crap all around. Were you able to get a handle on his character at all?

Dr Musacha: He came across as nothing more than a foil for Michael Collins, which is weird because he was portraying a real person and so probably had more depth than that.

sgwordy: I agree and actually find that emblematic of the entire film. I assume everyone had more depth but the film wasn't successful in communicating that.

Dr Musacha: Agreed, I kept looking at Julia Roberts (an otherwise talented actress) and thinking, "Why are you here? There's nothing for you to do in this movie."

sgwordy: And, what's worse, is that I got to the end and, quite without irony, mentally wondered why so many people were at Michael Collins' funeral. I think that's a real problem when making a historical drama. Speaking of the historical part... how was Alan Rickman in the costumes in this one?

Dr Musacha: He was mostly in suits but he did have the weird looking glasses.

sgwordy: He wore glasses?

Dr Musacha: I thought so. Anyway, not his best look.

sgwordy: I'm starting to forget what he looks like in regular clothes.

Rate the movie on a scale of 1 to 10:
Dr Musacha –6
sgwordy –6
Was Rickman the best thing about this movie?
Dr Musacha – No. I give the nod to Aidan Quinn's character.
sgwordy – No, making fun of the terrible accents was.

In the context of his body of work, on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate Rickman as Rickman?
Dr Musacha –3
sgwordy –2

Favorite Rickman quote from this movie?
Dr Musacha: That's no excuse for obscenities.
sgwordy: Ditto.

Must Read!

16. For the first time in his life, he found himself imagining a future together with someone. He was embarrassed to tell her this but he had never really been in love with the women he had dated. “Well who would play me in this rom-com of your life?” she teasingly inquired. “You have such beautiful olive skin,” he crooned, “so you can be a person of color or racially ambiguous in the book but definitely a white woman in the movie.”

Don't miss the whole article here!

Science is Cool!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

It's more than the paper.

I'm not picky about how I get my stories. I'll read on my computer, my phone, my tablet, in my books, in the books at the library, on my eReader, listen to audio (thanks to Michael:); I'll read in any format, anywhere. I like stories, I like learning, I like reading.

I also like going on vacation.

(This probably seems like a non-sequitur but stay with me.)

And going to movies, and spending time with my animals, and getting new bikes occasionally, and getting credit for what I do at work, and being recognized for my intellectual output, and being able to eat dinner/have a roof over my head, and buying video games, and (did I mention?) going on vacation.

I get to do all those things I listed because I am compensated for my work in the form of money. Yay, money.

The price of a book is not just (or even mostly) the paper.

"Unlike retailers, publishers invest heavily in individual books, often for years, before we see any revenue."

And behind the publishers are all the people (hello authors and all the rest of you!) who have worked for years to create what ends up on paper. They deserve to get paid for their work.

(Don't you like getting paid for your work?)

So, folks (and fucking Amazon!), quit complaining about the price of ebooks. It's (a lot) more than the paper.

(This, incidentally, is why I don't participate in piracy. Everyone deserves to get paid for their work.)

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Smuggler Tradition

(I'm the one in carbonite, not the one with his back facing the camera.)

Monday, August 4, 2014

Alan Rickman Reel: Sense & Sensibility

My household are big fans of Alan Rickman. As such, we decided to review his films from start to finish. Using IMDb, that put us starting with Die Hard (Die Hard!!!!) and we knew Dogma and Galaxy Quest would be in there, too. Not to mention all our other favorite Alan Rickman films. Plus, you know, we thought we'd discover so many more fun movies. That is probably still true but we've been discovering some real duds in our journey and it's sucking the fun out of this activity. As such, we've decided to keep going in chronological order but to focus on the ones we like or what sounds good to us.

If we skip one of your favorites feel free to make a case for it in the comments. Links to previous reviews can be found below under the cut.

Dr Musacha: Doesn't she know this is the initial, charismatic Austen guy so he's going to be all douchey?
sgwordy: No, I don't think she does. This is her first Austen.

sgwordy: Following up Mesmer with this title puts you watching two costume dramas in a row. I know that's not your cup of tea, but was Alan Rickman able to counter the costumes in this one after failing so utterly in the last one?

Dr Musacha: Yes, I think so. Also, this was just a much better movie. I mean much better! In fact, nothing could have made me like this more than watching Mesmer just prior.

sgwordy: (laughs) We hate Mesmer. Speaking of costumes, I'm not really into the whole people in uniform thing but holy shit Rickman was wearing the hell out of those regimentals at the end.

Dr Musacha: Totally agree. He pulled off all the costumes much better than Hugh Grant.

sgwordy: Oh hell yeah. I think he wore his costumes better than anyone else in the movie.

Dr Musacha: Yeah, but I thought Emma Thompson looked great in some of her costumes. You've told me before that this isn't your favorite Austen title, how was it to re-visit?

sgwordy: As a movie, it's certainly grown on me. I enjoy it much more now than the first time I saw it. I think I've seen it 4 or 5 times at this point. As characters, Marianne and Edward get on my nerves and I've never been able to reconcile myself to the fact that Colonel Brandon and Elinor don't get together. They are so perfect for each other. Also, I tend to dislike Ang Lee movies more often than I like them. That's the part that's grown on me. I like his direction in the film now whereas I didn't previously. Up and down tastes aside, it's definitely written and acted well.

Dr Musacha: I thought the acting was the best part of the movie. Kate Winslet absolutely crushes it, Emma Thompson is always great, Alan Rickman is why we're here, and even Hugh Laurie adds something. Hugh Grant was the only bad apple and I can't even tell if that was his usual bad acting or a limitation of the role.

sgwordy: I'm no Hugh Grant fan myself but if there's anything his limited skill and personality could pull off it's Edward Ferrars. Seriously, Elinor! What were you thinking? By the way, I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of the acting.

Dr Musacha: The only role I've liked Hugh Grant in is the first Bridget Jones. I find him completely believable as a smarmy jackass.

sgwordy laughs

Dr Musacha: From what we've seen of Rickman so far this is a bit of a departure. For lack of a more widely accepted term, he's playing 'stoically broken-hearted.' How did you find him in that role?

sgwordy: Wholly affecting. I can't emphasize that enough. My sympathy was completely with him. That type of thing can so easily fall into sad sack territory (see any number of Hugh Grant films) but Rickman brings such authenticity to the emotion. When he's quietly backing out of the door after bringing Marianne's mother to her I just want to cry for him. Then when Marianne calls him back to say thanks I well up a bit. The characterization and writing help on that, too, I think. It's clear that Colonel Brandon acts because he is genuinely compelled to not because he's looking for rewards. What did you think of Rickman here?

Dr Musacha: Another standout performance, and you can really start to see his range as we move through his movie career...we're a far cry from wise cracking villain Rickman at this point.

Rate the movie on a scale of 1 to 10:
Dr Musacha –7
sgwordy – 8

Was Rickman the best thing about this movie?
Dr Musacha – I think I have to give the nod to Emma Thompson, but he's very close.
sgwordy – Yeah, she's quite amazing in it, I go with her, as well.

In the context of his body of work, on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate Rickman as Rickman?
Dr Musacha –7
sgwordy –9

Favorite Rickman quote from this movie?
Dr Musacha: Marianne Dashwood would no more think of me than she would of you, John.
sgwordy: Give me an occupation, Miss Dashwood, or I shall run mad.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Hombre by Elmore Leonard

Title: Hombre
Author: Elmore Leonard
Publisher: Ballantine (1961)

I've heard some of the folks in Cali are enduring a hot, dry summer. Lucky, lucky you, Michael! But, turns out, lucky me, way down south; the days are getting longer and I saw some buds on the Wisteria climbing my porch. Also, my chives are bustling about making lots of new shoots. Yay, spring! I can't wait. But we're not here for me to yap about how happy I am that winter is ending. It's booky/movie time!

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here. 

Click here for Michael's film review of Hombre

An unscheduled, impromptu stage (of the wagon variety) is carrying six passengers from Sweetmary to somewhere else in Arizona. Each passenger has a unique and urgent reason to be making this journey. They each seem pretty solitary (even, oddly, the husband and wife) but they are quickly united in their disgust at having a man in the stage who lived for a time with the Apache people at San Carlos Reservation. When the stage is robbed, motivations and alliances become even more confused.

...if they knew he'd been living like an Apache most of his life, right up until a little while ago? Would it make a difference to them? I had a feeling it would. I didn't think of myself as one of them, then; now I don't see why I should have left myself out.

The above is from our narrator, Carl, who does a relatively good job at analyzing his own reactions to John Russell (the titular character) and, even when he doesn’t, his first person perspective is consistently thought-provoking for the reader separate from whether or not he manages genuine self-reflection.

...he reminded you of ... almost everyone of them you ever saw: all made of the same leather and hardly ever smiling unless they were with their own look-alike brothers. Then they were always loud, loud talking and loud laughing.

The scene from which that quote derives occurs early in the novel but remained with me throughout. Here is an instance when Carl absolutely dead-on describes a couple of seemingly minor players in this drama by comparing their hard, blustery behavior to each other. (Carl, by the way, defaults white as he only ever specifically notes when people are not.) His choice of words paints an immediate picture and becomes more real as the story progresses. On the other hand, he gets quite a few of his first impressions wrong. 

It's easy for the reader to do this, too. Leonard has quite cleverly crafted this story, with this narrator, to leave a lot for the reader to decide. On the surface, it’s a reflection of the youth and inexperience of the narrator, below that it's a lovely piece of craft on Leonard’s part. In fact, if you read this closely, paying attention to the many perspectives and prejudices that are revealed from beginning to end, it’s clearly about more than just the narrator's fascination with John Russell.

"How come you didn't tell them?"
"Tell them what?"
"That you're not what they think."
"Does it make a difference?"
"Sure, they're wrong. But is it easier to convince them of it or just forget about it? You understand that?"
"I'm learning," Russell said.

On top of what can only be described as a sociological study it’s a pretty exciting hold-up. My experience of Westerns is limited (and, unfortunately, mostly negative) so maybe the way this plays out is a dime-a-dozen situation but it doesn’t feel like it. Buried in the straightforward robbery are a multitude of motives, betrayals, victims, and aggressors. 

And I haven't even mentioned Mrs. Favor or Kathleen McLaren. My thoughts on Mrs. Favor would be a huge spoiler so I'll skip them, and McLaren could easily have a post of her own (hell, she could have her own book) which will make this too long so I'll just say: check this title out! Leonard's characters certainly don't disappoint (in a fictional way. i don't think i'd actually like to know any of them:). Also, it's quite a delight that this book is concise and focused. No extra fluff, it gets right to the point. How refreshing!

"I got a question," Russell said.
Braden was squinting to make out Russell in the window. "Ask it," he said.
"How you going to get down that hill?"

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Alan Rickman Reel: Mesmer (and a change-up)

My household are big fans of Alan Rickman. As such, we decided to review his films from start to finish. Using IMDb, that put us starting with Die Hard (Die Hard!!!!) and we knew Dogma and Galaxy Quest would be in there, too. Not to mention all our other favorite Alan Rickman films. Plus, you know, we thought we'd discover so many more fun movies. That is probably still true but we've been discovering some real duds in our journey and it's sucking the fun out of this activity. As such, we've decided to keep going in chronological order but to focus on the ones we like or what sounds good to us.

If we skip one of your favorites feel free to make a case for it in the comments. Links to previous reviews can be found below under the cut.

Between this movie and the blurb for Close Your Eyes, we've been inspired to change our Alan Rickman Reel rules!

sgwordy: Wow! That movie was really boring. But mostly just bad.

Dr Musacha: Yep, boring and bad. I think we're done here!

sgwordy: Whoa, deja vu! I totally agree. Should we just skip to the summary or do we need to say anymore about how we're changing our strategy?

Dr Musacha: I might have had to stab my eyes out if we were subjected to more movies like this so thumbs up to the new strategy.

sgwordy: (laughs) On to the ratings then. And we're almost positive we'll have a better review up for next time.

Rate the movie on a scale of 1 to 10:
Dr Musacha – 1
sgwordy – -5 (that's a minus, to be clear)

Was Rickman the best thing about this movie?
Dr Musacha – Interestingly, he won a film festival award for his acting in this movie. So according to Montreal, yes.
sgwordy – There was nothing 'best' about this movie (suck it, Montreal!)

In the context of his body of work, on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate Rickman as Rickman?
Dr Musacha – 2
sgwordy –3

Favorite Rickman quote from this movie?
Dr Musacha: I deal with all kinds of derangements.
sgwordy: Cleaning the house!

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

Title: The Bourne Identity
Author: Robert Ludlum
Publisher: Grafton Books (1980)

It's hard to believe that Michael and I are already past the halfway mark for our annual joint reviews. In fact, we're past 2014's halfway mark, as well. Is this year flying by for anyone else? I'm just happy we're past the winter solstice down here as the days are getting longer again (even if I can hardly tell:). It's also a fun time of year as the Matariki constellation is up in the nightsky which signals the Maori New Year. It's celebrated with a weeks long festival and many different events and activities. But, anyway, on to this post, shall we?

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.
Click here for Michael's film review of The Bourne Identity

This title was my pick and I chose it for the movie. I don't even care for the book all that much (this is my second read-thru). I realize that's pretty goofy since I get the book assignment but I wanted to chat about the movie with Michael so obviously this was the only way. Ok, probably not, but I like any excuse to watch the film again and am really excited for its review. But for now I'll commence with AW's trusty format that always saves my bacon in situations like these.

At what point does an author get to pass by the excitement of consistently publishing and move on to the thrill of being so successful that the author font is bigger than the title font? I've always wondered that. In any case, this cover is pretty forgettable design-wise.

A man is fished out of the Mediterranean with serious gunshot wounds and no memory. Lucky for him, an exiled British doctor takes an interest in the man's health and works hard to keep him alive. The doctor's interest derives from the fact that he's deduced the man is a government agent (most likely American due to his dental work:) from his language proficiency and the surgically implanted negative in the man's hip. The negative (which gets read using a slide projector - hee!) has a Swiss bank account number on it. The man could be the doctor's ticket out of exile. So, recovered, off the man goes to Zurich to try to discover his identity and access his bank account. Almost immediately after obtaining the account funds, people start trying to kill the man who has amnesia. He has learned his name is Jason Bourne. That doesn't do anything for his memory but at least he still remembers how to be a spy and stay alive.

What Works:
The plot. The premise above does not do justice to the twists and turns of this story. I'd include more details but if you're familiar with the work you don't need them and if you haven't read it I don't want to ruin anything. It's a long enough book without me spoiling the reasons to keep going. Suffice it to say he is a spy but when almost everyone you encounter is out to kill you (including those representing your own government) you have to start to wonder just what kind of spy you are.

The psychoanalysis. This aspect of characterization/characters isn't as popular as it once was because, I think, laypersons understand so much more about psychology these days. However, the late 70s and early 80s are peppered with these asides and it works well here. Almost everything about this novel is over-written but don't hold that against this aspect of the book. It serves the character and plot well and doesn't feel like a convenient device.

What Doesn't:
The writing. I'm sure the not-so-subtle hints from above let this one out of the bag already but it's not well-written. And if you thought those italics were annoying consider it my way of preparing you for this title. I don't think I've ever seen so many italics in one book. Also, dozens of paragraphs started with Now! I kept wondering if Ludlum didn't have any faith in me as a reader. On top of the italics everyone shouted or roared or screamed all the time (even when being quiet was really, really important) and usually with !!!!!!!

The length. The copy I read had 566 pages and I think 350 would have been a whole lot better. It makes for a really repetitive read. I wanted to get lost in the action and the suspense but it was hard to do amidst the constant plot recaps. You definitely will not get confused by the plot. It will be explained many times. You will not ever wonder why characters do what they do. You will be told multiple times. You'll never forget what Bourne does or does not remember; he will tell you over and over.

This is a book with a great premise and an awesome plot. Sadly, it gets in its own way making it more of a slog to read than a page turner. I'm tempted to look into Ludlum's earliest books going on the assumption that he was probably more heavily edited in his early days. If his plots were always this good, I could definitely go for something shorter and more tightly constructed.

NB: This book is dated in its technology and in its demographics. While the demographics thing did bother me I don't mind books with older technology. I was entertained by the microfiche and switchboards  and telegrams (and not just because I remember using them, well maybe not the telegrams:). Oh yes, it was also written at a time when the US dollar had considerably more value.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Monday, June 23, 2014

Alan Rickman Reel: Closet Land

My household are big fans of Alan Rickman. As such, we've decided to (continue) review(ing) his films from start to finish. Using IMDb, that puts us starting with...

Die Hard (DIE HARD!!!!) and continuing with...
Closet Land (yeah, we know it's out of order:)
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

The trailer makes it seem a lot less terrible than it is!

sgwordy: Wow! That movie was really weird. But mostly just bad.

Dr Musacha: Yep, weird and bad. I think we're done here!

sgwordy: Haha, it's tempting to leave it at that but our adoring fan expects more. Actually, I did have a question. The set-up is pretty interesting so most of the terrible is in the execution. Would it have helped the movie at all if the cast had been two men or two women rather than one man and one woman?

Dr Musacha: Fine, this is for you, Fan. :) Maybe, but Interrogator was so unhinged that it didn't feel like an official proceeding. I really like dystopian police state stories (like 1984 and V for Vendetta) but in this case the threat never hit home with me because the whole situation was so surreal. Instead of making me feel like Victim had become another casualty to the philosophy of safety over civil liberties I just kept wondering if Interrogator was some random, well-dressed sexual predator who had kidnapped his latest victim to torture.
sgwordy: I felt the first half of the movie did a much better job of playing into the police state idea (you don't really know since the movie never leaves the one room) but the second half became mostly about the torture and Victim's psychological resistance to it. The police state threat disappeared and it just became a torture film. Speaking of that, even if it had been a good movie I still don't think I would have liked it as I really, really don't like watching torture. Even implied torture is really unsettled for me as a viewer.

Dr Musacha: With only two actors and one set, Rickman and Stowe have a lot of room to explore their skills. Did you think Alan Rickman took advantage of that?

sgwordy: I think his performance was uneven to tell the truth. At times I thought he was dead on for the zealous police interrogator but at other times it felt more like scenery chewing. That might have a little to do with the surreal aspect you mentioned. What did you think?

Dr Musacha: I think Alan Rickman is a master of threatening violence but when he moved into the actual violence I think he wasn't the right actor for the role. He's more of a controlled menace type of actor.
sgwordy: I would agree with that. Any other thoughts? I'm ready to move on from this one so nothing from me.

Dr Musacha: Despite my thoughts on Rickman as this particular villain my dislike of the movie didn't have anything to do with him or Stowe. It was the writing and the tone. There aren't any actors you could put in this film that would make me like it more.

sgwordy: On to the ratings then.

Rate the movie on a scale of 1 to 10:
Dr Musacha – 2
sgwordy – 2
Was Rickman the best thing about this movie?
Dr Musacha –No but he did have a couple good one liners.
sgwordy – Naw, but what was really?

In the context of his body of work, on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate Rickman as Rickman?
Dr Musacha –3
sgwordy –3

Favorite Rickman quote from this movie?
Dr Musacha: I don't smoke.
sgwordy concurs

Friday, May 30, 2014

Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard

Title: Empire of the Sun
Author: JG Ballard
Publisher: Gollancz (1984)

The bad news is, winter has truly set in for us here in the Southern hemisphere. The good news is, it's perfect reading weather. We actually got some snow on Monday! But then, the high yesterday was 15C (60F) so you just never know. "Four seasons in a day" is a common refrain from Dunedin-ites. The fire is going again tonight, though, so we're back to good reading weather. Despite my love of reading, anyone who wants to send some sunshine my way is more than welcome. This month's pick was actually perfect for me here, a light summer read it is not.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of Empire of the Sun

Jim is an 11 year old Shanghai resident born of British parents. When Japanese troops begin the occupation of the International Settlement in Dec 1941, he becomes separated from his family. For several weeks he manages to reside in abandoned suburbs but he is eventually interned at the Lunghua civilian detention center where he will remain until the war is over.

It's immediately apparent that Jim is a clever child with a boundless imagination. He's also cunning, ambitious, vulnerable and supercilious. The point of view is probably best described as third person close and it's used to great effect in that Jim hasn't yet learned to hide (or modify?) certain aspects of his personality. So you meet him, warts and all, at a time when he is still pushing the boundaries of what is socially acceptable for his particular culture group. At one moment you're appalled by his cruelty and the next heartbroken by his vulnerability. It is an unsettling dichotomy that remains until the final page and, somewhat unexpectedly for this reader, becomes integral to Jim's ability to survive.

Because the point of view is so entwined with Jim's perspective it can be hard to know how reliable his interpretations are. I like to think this was a deliberate choice by Ballard to allow the reader a hint of the daily instability Jim experienced. He is a capable survivor who is always willing to try new strategies to obtain food or allies (transient though they may be). He forms several attachments but, as all his other fragile forms of security, they are tenuous and likely to be abandoned when needs must. And, inevitably, needs must.

This autobiographical novel is presented in four parts but focuses heavily on Jim's experience with other ill prisoners trying to get to Lunghua (where, it is thought, conditions will be better) and his last weeks in Lunghua before the war ends. As such, he and his fellow prisoners are severely ill and/or malnourished. The extraordinary lengths the mind will go to survive horrific experiences are often seen in parallel with the lengths the body will go to accommodate deprivation. It is not a book that is easy to read while eating or before trying to go to sleep.

Parts of his mind and body frequently separated themselves from each other.

Empire of the Sun is the first book in a long time to make me want to read it again even before I had finished. This, I think, is directly related to the unreliable nature of a child's interpretation of what is going on around him. Jim is canny and quick to react to circumstances but he is not always able to parse motives.

...and face up squarely to the present, however uncertain, the one rule that had sustained him through the years of the war.

There are several instances of leaving Jim's perspective. They are as glaring for their oddity as for their departure from what is otherwise a technically superior piece of writing. I eventually got used to them but, if I do end up reading this one again, I'll be paying more attention to when and how they are used. It's hard for me to believe they aren't on purpose. It's just too good of a book for something like this to be accidental.

There are several reasons I can see myself re-reading but two things in particular stick out to me. A British doctor, Dr. Ransome, becomes something of a father figure to Jim in the camp. During several of their interactions there is a tacit recognition of a "hunger" in Jim. It's nothing to do with food but choosing the word "hunger" when "desire" might have worked heightens its importance as something vital to Jim's life. At a glance, it seems to be a hunger for his own death. Even though that was my initial response I quickly discarded it. If anything, he was plagued by his inability to not try to survive. In time, I came to think it was a hunger for any death not his own as he has been forced to see every life in direct, intimate competition with his. I would have liked to quickly discard such an attitude for anyone, much less a young teen, but I never could. War is a fucking nightmare.

Lastly, I was fascinated by Jim being immediately referred to as Jim in the text though his family and friends call him Jamie. It's not until he meets Basie, a sometime ally of Jim's despite Jim's enduring distrust, that he is christened Jim. In less subtle hands the switch from Jamie to Jim might have been used to represent loss of innocence, etc but readers are introduced not to Jamie but to Jim. It's that peculiar mix of cruelty and vulnerability that stretches from beginning to end. It's quite possibly a suggestion that he already had the qualities needed to take him through the war.

He resented Jim for revealing an obvious truth about the war, that people were only too able to adapt to it.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post.

rating: 5 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Monday, May 26, 2014

Reading Roundup

My oven broke. :(
I discovered this in the middle of prepping my favorite egg/pastry thing. :(

Books are my friends again. :)
(Plus wine is a good alternative to cooking - ha!)

currently reading

The Greatest Traitor by Ian Mortimer
Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (audio, not very committed to listening, will probably take months to get through this at the rate I'm going; especially as a little birdie told me "The Boulton" is recording again:)

Mutuwhenua by Patricia Grace
The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
--had one slight nit pick: I wish there had been more about non-French foreigners living in England otherwise very fun way to learn some history (also, I have no idea how I ended up reading so much 14th Century English history stuff at once but there it is)
Kraken by China Mievelle
--too delightfully weird not to recommend

recommended with reservations
The White Queen by Philipa Gregory
The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (see here, here and here for details)
The Great Gatsby narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal 
Isabella by Alison Weir (extreme reservations, see here)
Misery by Stephen King

not recommended
The Red Queen by Philipa Gregory
Lives We Leave Behind by Maxine Alterio
The Birth House by Ami McKay
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

--interestingly these are all historical fiction. the thing is, there is so much good his. fic. out there that the subpar stuff just can't hold my attention. I should mention that The Name of the Rose has a lot of technical excellence but too little of the actually-want-to-read-it quality.

Red Rabbit by Tom Clancy
The Road from Midnight by Wendyl Nissen

What have you been reading lately?

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Title: Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic (2010)

I'm pretty sure I'm continuing with these reviews because I am IN LOVE with the covers. Cannot rave enough about how much I love these simple, elegant covers.

Anyway, finished up this trilogy and I remain conflicted. There is so much I like about the trilogy and so much that just irks me no end because it could have been better. This could have been an out of the park kind of story but because of a few things that, to me, seemed like laziness the trilogy ends up being a stunning hook with meh execution. Thankfully, this third installment didn't have any new issues, just more of the same (though not, thank goodness, more of the same in terms of plot. two was a rerun of one but this is definitely a step forward in the action).

I still think the world building is the biggest fault so why don't I pick on that some more? Something I forgot in the first book is that if you're living close to starvation and then you gorge yourself with food, you will be sick. The throwaway line on the train of taking it easy on the food for one day is not enough. And even if you are the kind of person who can bounce back in one day from a lifetime of near starvation, the richness of the food described would be so far beyond what your body could handle without acclimation that you'd still be getting sick.

Also, I have to ask again: why does District 12 exist? Hover crafts and insta-parachutes we have but technology for cheap, automatic coal mining labor we do not? I ask this again because of what happened at the end of book two. SPOILER, highlight if interested: District 12 gets destroyed. As in, IT'S FLATTENED and the people all die or leave. So no one is mining coal in Panem any longer??? Hunh???? You get some announcements of the shortages in the capital but coal is used for a ton of shit, most famously POWER! Are they fully nuclear power? How do they manage this when it turns out District 13 was the center of their nuclear technology and it hasn't been supplying the capital for 75 years? World building matters, people!!!!

Book three gives a pretty good estimate of the total amount of people living in District 12. Turns out it's even higher than I guessed making the idea of only two people hunting in the woods even more ridiculous.

Came by this line: "Patches of my former self gleam white and pale." Doesn't she have olive skin? The line is specifically about skin and that really threw me for a loop. All that business about the distinct looks of the people in District 12 based on their class and then this discrepancy? It's little things like this that time and time again bumped me right out of a narrative I would have preferred to be immersed in.

And maybe that's why I'm so annoyed. There was so much I liked that I wanted to be totally in the moment. I didn't want these things cropping up again and again to ruin a story I was enjoying. With that in mind, I'm going to link to M.'s goodreads review because I think she does a great job of pointing out the best stuff about this final installment. I did want to expand on this point: "the author continues to portray female characters in strong and active ways." To that I would add "when they show up!!!!" I was really excited to see more women in book two (with the potential for even more in book three) but that was not continued into the finale. I'm not talking about the background and peripheral characters (they are nicely peopled with males and females). I'm talking about the characters that really make a difference in Katniss' life. If you list all the characters most important to her and most important for the progression of the plot they are almost all male. The only females I can come up with are her sister and Coin. That's a disappointment.

To sum up: proceed with caution. :)

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sunday, May 25, 2014

For Cat Lovers

Really, there is so much that entertained me in this article but the real question is: do you think your cat has what it takes?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Mutuwhenua by Patricia Grace

Title: Mutuwhenua: The Moon Sleeps
Author: Patricia Grace
Publisher: Penguin (1978)
-not sure if Penguin was the original publisher

From the publisher:"This is the story of Ripeka, who leaves her extended family and its traditional lifestyle to marry Graeme, a Pakeha schoolteacher. In the strange world of the city, Ripeka discovers that she cannot make the break with her whanau and that the old ways are too strong. Patricia Grace s first novel is a powerful, moving story of contrasts – between light and darkness, old and new, young and old, and Maori and Pakeha."

I don't have much of a coherent set of thoughts to share on this one. I just really loved it so want to recommend it. This isn't my first Patricia Grace novel but it's certainly my favorite so far in terms of style and structure. I was so drawn in by the writing. It's absolutely gorgeous. You can roll the words and phrases around in your mind and just delight in them.

Ripeka/Linda is a very sheltered young woman who dreams of a life bigger than the one she has (a restlessness almost anyone can relate to). But she is also a young Maori woman struggling to reconcile her identity/heritage, as passed to her from her elders, with her daily experiences and desires. Grace's portrait of Ripeka's journey is immediately accessible and compelling.

I'm still conflicted on the ending though. And by "still" I mean I can't stop thinking about it or determine how I feel about it (that's feeling on a personal level and on a character level). Any details would be huge spoilers but I have hopes of finding another reader of this title for discussion. And you have to appreciate a book that can get in your head like that and not let you go.

On another note: I follow and participate in discussions about representation and equality in media (especially books cuz, you know, bookworm!!!!) and so was really struck by Ripeka's thoughts after an interaction with her boss and the books she reads (another bookworm! yay!).

...And [I] thought of the books I’d read. In the books I’d read there was only one thing that ever happened to us girls. We didn’t become famous or have interesting or extraordinary lives of our own, or even uninteresting and ordinary lives. We either got ourselves into what is known as ‘trouble’ or we lay about giving some bloke hot sex. And that was all. Nothing else. Except sometimes we did ridiculous things in Pakeha kitchens, like ringing the fire-alarm instead of the dinner-gong because we didn’t know the difference.
  And sometimes we were given the romantic treatment. Soft brown eyes, soft mellow voice – like soft in the eyes, soft in the voice, soft in the head. No one ever had speckled eyes like me or a voice that squeaked now and again and sometimes lost itself altogether. Or sang flat, bathed once a day, and wouldn’t touch beer. Mr Neilson often made me think of the books I’d read.

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

I expect better!

I recently read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (pub. 1984) and was pretty astonished at the language used by a scientist and non-fiction writer regarding individuals with severe mental impairments. (Lucky for me, a friend read it at just about the same time so we were able to vent in a flurry of email exchanges.) Initially, I was only annoyed at the lack of scientific detail. I chalked that up to it being pubbed in the 80s, the scientific literacy of laypersons has increased enormously since then so I can't exactly blame an author/publisher for being aware of the contemporary landscape. But that offensive (and inaccurate!) language was just inexcusable. So, ok, pass on that author and moving on...

And, bam! It happens again!

I just finished Isabella (pub. 2005) and the author was at pains to explain some of the differences between current and 14th Century English (and Welsh, Scottish, French:) cultural norms. She, like many historians, believes that Edward II was gay or bisexual. There's some explanation about how that wasn't an accepted lifestyle at the time (if only it was 100% accepted now! dare to dream!) and its relevance to the events of the book. She later says that he was capable of (or not revolted by?? can't find exact sentence) "normal sex" since he had not only 4 children with his wife but at least 1 extramarital child. Um, "normal" sex? Looks like maybe you just gave yourself away on that one.

In another instance she describes Isabella as "highly sexed." Hunhhh????? Isabella is thought to have been a woman interested in sex (omg, alert the presses) and so she's "highly" sexed? WTF???? By the author's interpretation, Edward II had two long-term extramarital lovers, a wife with whom he had children (and so, presumably, sex), and numerous (brief) liaisons with lovers before he was married and some after. Where is his description as "highly sexed?" Looks like maybe you just gave yourself away on that one.

And there's this: "Reginald, a widower, was dark of colouring and character." Some of the main players had their physical descriptions relayed but not over many and certainly not such a minor dude as this one (he was featured in ~4 paragraphs) but, dang, it's fun to lump "dark" coloring in with character because it just sounds great and, hell, there isn't a significant portion of the population that still suffers from stereotypes of "dark" being bad! Looks like maybe you just gave yourself away on that one.

So, yeah, it appears that 21st Century historians are as likely as 14th Century historians to say that gay/bisexual individuals have "abnormal" sex, women who like sex are unusual*** and to be described differently than other women (and men, natch, who are clearly always up for it), and "dark" characters are bad and match the "dark" color nicely. Ugh! Ugh, ugh, ugh!!!! There goes another author.

The shame about all this is (I mean, other than the obvious), these academics/scientists write on some really interesting topics. I want to know these things. I want to learn these things. However, I am past the point of being willing to sift through offensive garbage to get to the good stuff. It's unacceptable anytime but certainly in works of academic rigor.

Come on, people, I expect better!

***ETA: or more likely in the 21st Century??? Just read a very edifying passage in The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England (thanks for that, Beth!) and it seems the flack that Isabella was catching for her behavior was more because she was a queen rather than because she was a woman. (Though they weren't exactly shy with the "woman is the root of all evil" stuff, be she a queen or no.)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Science is Cool!

Sadly, I did not see one of these when I was in Australia last week. I did see one of these.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic (2009) 

Technically, this isn't going to be much of a book review. I thought Catching Fire was The Hunger Games again so just check out my review of that. Once it became apparent that the second book was pretty much a plot rerun, I expected to end up not finishing it. Turned out, I kept going and am glad I did. Yeah, it's a rerun, but it's an improvement so it wasn't so bad. Ok, Peeta's backstory still sucks but Katniss is just as AwesomeSauce as ever, has a way better ending and she has more female allies. Yay!

Sadly, the world building is still awkward so that's what this post is about. My nitpicks, in list form:

1. District 12 is constantly described as a low population district with very high starvation rates. To not run out of people, they are going to have to find food. And apparently there are woods with game that can be accessed. Desperate, starving people are going to attempt to scavenge no matter how scary those woods might be. It never felt realistic that only Katniss and Gale would be doing this.

2. Katniss' constant conflation of physical affection with marriage just does not track in a place this desperate. People are starving, dying in the mines, can't afford medical care, etc and marriage as the answer to being attracted to someone just does not seem relevant. Now, if Katniss is not interested in pursuing an intimate relationship with anyone then more power to her, but the immediate jump to 'don't want to get married so can't be intimate' doesn't work. She has a lot more reasonable and topical reasons to not be interested in relationships. Stick to those.

3. How does this place maintain any kind of phenotypically distinct merchant class? Again, small population with practically no money. The merchant class is going to be tiny. Even if you get to marry first cousins its phenotype is not going to last long.

4. The capital has hovercrafts and genetic engineering for large mammals and they can't find a better way to mine coal than with humans? Why does District 12 even exist?

5. Where did Katniss get those excellent boots (pre-Games)? (Hey, I described these at nitpicks.:) How would she have found anything valuable enough to trade for those? Or did she make them herself? It's just weird to relate all these reasons why a family is one bad week's hunting away from starvation and then describe supple, leather boots.

Well, these are all I can think of from memory. I have had to return the books so I can't look up some more of the issues but, oh well. I have moaned enough. Oh, wait. Guess not! My biggest annoyance with these books is Collins' decision to have both Gale and Peeta be in love with Katniss. That entire subplot feels so forced. I just try to ignore it.