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December Reviews

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Nothing to with the reviews; just a nice photo.

I started writing these reviews around the beginning of 2011. At first they were mostly a writing challenge: sum up my reaction to a piece of work in three sentences. All the same, I stuck them up on my old LiveJournal, then brought them here too, as an aid to my own memory and recommendations to my few readers of the things that I enjoy. It’s nice to get a full year in, and this is probably an apt time for a review of the reviews.

The film reviews are fun, but as films don’t last long in the cinema these days, gathering them up in a monthly bundle means they’re mostly out of date by the time they’re released. The solution is to deliver them more quickly, either in longer format, so as to be worthy of a full post, or short enough to fit in a Tweet. I’ll probably go the latter way, unless I come across a film I really like.

The book reviews work best, as they’re not as time-limited as the film reviews. They’ll probably continue as they have been, though I’ll likely tinker with the three-sentence structure.

Game reviews were an occasional feature, and I’ve been thinking about them a fair bit as I’ve been working on working in that area. I hope to have more of those in the future, in a longer format and focused on the role of story in games. Specifically where it works, where it doesn’t, and why. Ambitious, but it’ll be helpful to me if no one else.

Without further ado then, on with the last reviews of 2011.

Books

Throne of Jade, Naomi Novik: With the second book in her “Temeraire” series, Novik slows down her narrative a little but maintains the high degree of plausibility in terms of both character and world-building that marked her debut. Both a sequel and a stand-alone tale, “Throne of Jade” suffers a little from the fact that its central conflict is wrapped in diplomacy and subterfuge, making the ending somewhat abrupt after a long, careful build up. Not that it needs to be saved, so high is the quality of the writing, but the utterly believable, sympathetic and well developed characters of the dragon Temeraire and his captain and companion Will Laurence make this indispensable for anyone who read and enjoyed the first book.

Anno Dracula, Kim Newman: A pseudo-sequel to Stoker’s “Dracula”, based on the idea that Dracula not only survived but succeeded in subjugating Britain, Newman’s book is a gleeful romp through Victorian-era tropes, with every page offering a plethora of in-jokes and references both subtle and obvious for the discerning and informed reader. The central mystery of the identity of a “Jack the Ripper” of vampire victims is revealed right away, making the chase to find the killer more of a vehicle to explore Newman’s vampire-dominated Britain. The weakness of the central plot and a pair of lead characters who are made distant by their experiences and attitudes make the book a little less visceral than it should be, but it’s a very enjoyable experience nonetheless.

The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey: Old-style science fiction from one of the masters of the genre, this is less interested in the nuts and bolts of a possible future than it is with the predicament of a woman who serves as the mind of a ship and has to deal with emotional entanglements with the fully embodied humans who pass through her life. McCaffrey invests her heroine with a feisty, yearning humanity, and the futuristic background adds colour without serving up too many anachronisms to jolt the modern reader. It’s the humanity of the tale and the journey the heroine goes on that has made this story endure, and it’s still worth a read, slim volume though it might be.

Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey: The first book in McCaffrey’s “Pern” series, over four decades old now, still stands up well as an imaginative and interesting creation, its telepathic dragons and celestial menace as solid as they were all those years ago. The relationships between the central characters are touched on a little obliquely, and there may be a shortage of detail for readers accustomed to lengthier fantasy and science fiction epics, but there’s a surprising amount of grit under the fingernails of the setting, with various twists and tricks used to resolve the plot. It’s hard not to get invested in wanting to know more about McCaffrey’s creation, with this story just one slice of a greater history, and indeed the lengthy series of books that continued from this one bears that notion out.

Black Powder War, Naomi Novik: Continuing the process of turning the more-or-less standalone first book into a globetrotting adventure series, Novik delivers perhaps the strongest involvement yet, introducing both a credible nemesis for her dragon-and-captain duo and a genuine sense of desperation. As always, the relationship between the two members of that duo forms the emotional heart of the book, and that relationship continues to evolve in realistic ways as they struggle to return home after the adventures in the Far East of the previous book. It proves amazingly successful as part of a series, both satisfying those who want to know more after the previous installment and whetting their appetites for yet more to come.

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, Toby Wilkinson: Not only does Toby Wilkinson manage to cram more than three millennia of history into an admittedly chunk history book, but he does so in a readable and even gripping form. Given the sources available the main focus is on the pharaohs and demystifying the idea of their Egypt as a glittering golden age but the character of Egypt and its people is well portrayed, even if sometimes there’s a feeling of political bias in the history. Even in as sizable a books as this, the occasional leaps of generations within paragraphs are inevitable, but although Wilkinson’s language dos get a bit casual from time to time, this is a great overview of Egyptian history for anyone interested in getting an idea of how it survived from Narmer to Cleopatra.

Films

Arthur Christmas: Just in time for the festive season comes an Aardman animated offering about succession struggles in the Family Claus and the subjugation of an entire race of elves under the North Pole. Well, not really (sort of): this is a polished kids’ film all about “the true meaning of Christmas” in a commercial, technological age, as we tend to see this time every year, and it successfully tugs the heart strings while providing some amusement for adults in the form of Grandsanta’s un-PC comments. It’s a long way from being the best of Aardman’s offerings, and it sags in the middle, but as an honest piece of Yuletide entertainment with some clever touches and too much in the way of product placement, it’s likely to become a fixture on Christmas TV schedules in years to come.

Take Shelter: Anchored by a powerful central performance by Michael Shannon, this tale of a man afraid that he’s slowly losing his mind is strong when it comes to depicting the effect of his affliction on his relationships but loses its way when it explores elsewhere. Shannon convinces as a man who cannot escape his belief that his apocalyptic visions are real, even in the face of a family history of mental troubles, and he has able support from Jessica Chastain as his loving but suffering wife. If the last five minutes of the film were missing, it would be a perfectly crafted and moving film, but as it is, how you feel on walking out of the cinema will depend on your investment in everythng that’s come before.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows: Guy Ritchie continues his steampunk-and-fisticuffs reimagining of the Holmes stories by throwing Moriarty into the mix and dropping everything that gets in the way of the bromance between Holmes and Watson. It’s not as sharp as the first film, and there are parts that feel distinctly ropey, but everything moves at such a pace that viewers will probably have to wait until it’s done to figure out exactly what might have been bothering them. It’s really nothing exceptional, but as an example of mindless, roller-coaster movie entertainment, with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law enjoying themselves in the lead roles, it will do nicely.

Missin Impossible – Ghost Protocol: Brad Bird is the latest director to put his own stamp on the MI franchise, adding a dash of humour and humanity to globe-trotting hijinks and gadgetry and delivering perhaps the most diverting of the films in the series so far. Tom Cruise is at his least smug, and there’s plenty of room for the other members of their team to strut their stuff as a plot that begins with an explosion in the Kremlin careens all over the world, eventually landing in the Far East for a few more explosions. It’s not the best film that anyone involved has ever done, but there are no discernable weak points and the whole thing is well worth the price of admission.

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