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March Book Reviews

April 9, 2012 1 comment

A decent month of reading in March, mostly populated by fantasy, with a bit of Western in there too. Also the month in which I picked up an iPhone app that allowed me to catalogue my library. Not really a good thing to do to someone who has problems keeping his obsessive-compulsive tendencies at bay at the best of times…

Tongues of Serpents, Naomi Novik: Being an even-numbered offering in Novik’s “Temeraire” series, it shouldn’t be too surprising that this book mostly concerns itself with new lands and interesting cultures, nor that it isn’t quite as gripping as the action-oriented, odd-numbered books. Stuck in Australia, far from the Napoleonic wars, Captain Will Laurence and his dragon Temeraire indulge in some personal conflicts and a long chase across the outback, ending in a brief fracas that does more to set up plot points for later stories than provide a satisfying ending in and of itself. Still eminently readable and interesting as an alternate fantasy-history, this series is in danger of becoming just a little too predictable.

The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie: Populated with broken, angry, epically flawed characters, the first book in Abercrombie’s “First Law” trilogy is gritty stuff, with hints of high fantasy and ancient powers interspersed with brutal violence and Machiavellian politics. Although very much the first third of a larger story, there’s enough here for the reader to get their teeth into, even if most of it does come by the way of characters who refuse to be as predictable as they might be in another author’s hands. Whether the rest of the trilogy lives up to this impressive start remains to be seen, but Abercrombie has done all that he needed to encourage readers to pick up book two.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt: A laconic, darkly humorous tale of the dysfunctional relationship between two hired-killer brothers in the Wild West, this is as much as anything a homage to classic Western tales. Narrated by the philosophical, fatalistic Eli Sisters, it’s packed full of incident and strangeness yet always remains within orbiting distance of reality, or at least as close as Gold Rush-era California ever got to reality. Very deserving of its critical acclaim, it retains an oddly gentle and thoughtful tone throughout, even in the face of the high level of violence and death that accompanies its protagonists.

The Broken Sword, Poul Anderson: Some classic fantasy, born from a melding of Norse and Celtic myth and folklore, telling the tale of a doomed hero, his changeling replacement and the woman caught between them. Anderson wastes no words as he sets up a layered world of gods and faerie creatures, all operating parallel to the course of history, and the passions that drive his characters and full-blooded, whether they are dark or heroic. As with any good mythic tale, there’s an undercurrent of tragedy that emerges to dominate as the tale comes to its end, with a sense of a world coming to an end as myths and legends die, but this is a rich enough offering to stand with the best of the myths that have been hallowed by the centuries.

Before They Are Hanged, Joe Abercrombie: As his “First Law” series continues, Abercrombie takes the characters he’d introduced in the first book and throws them into the deep end, whether it’s war, a siege or a journey to the end of the world. Those characters and their multifarious flaws are what gives this series its punch, though as the author opens up the myth-making behind his world, he increases the sense of real consequence to the wars and struggles he presents. If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that after two books, the story doesn’t feel like it’s two-thirds over: there’s a lot of wrapping up to be done in the pages to come.

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February Book Reviews

March 2, 2012 2 comments

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Bookshelves: slightly dusty. My mother would not approve.

A shorter month than the rest but longer than normal. And more reading than I managed to do in January, mostly because I managed to clear away the Banville blockage that was keeping me from the printed page. After that, I had to resort to some lighter and more enjoyable fare…

Eclipse, John Banville: Employing his mastery of the English language to depict an episode in the life of a self-absorbed actor, Banville delivers a piece that is self-consciously a work of art as much as it is a novel. Concerning itself with things occluded and an inability to comprehend the inner workings of the world and the human mind, it allows the reader to marvel at the author’s ability to spin words according to his will, but engagement with the narrator’s life falls by the wayside. A novel so involved with emotions should not perhaps be so cold, but it engages the intellect where it fails to spark the soul, making it an intriguing exercise rather than an absorbing read.

Empire of Ivory, Naomi Novik: For the fourth book in her “Temeraire” series, Novik once again sends Captain Will Laurence and his eponymous dragon on their travels, this time to darkest Africa. It’s a more successfully depicted journey than the second book’s trip to China, due largely to a greater sense of threat and urgency, and Novik continues to fill in the corners of her world, providing yet another slant on the notion of a Napoleonic world with dragons. It’s not wholly successful, as the final third of the book is largely detached from what comes before, but as before it’s the strength of the characters and their utterly believable emotional ties and dilemmas that pulls the whole thing through.

Victory of Eagles, Naomi Novik: The fifth book in the “Temeraire” series would serve as a surprisingly poignant point of closure, if not for the fact that there’s more of this fascinating world to explore, as the final chapters make clear. Ramping up the action right from the start, Novik for the first time makes the dragon Temeraire an equal point of view character with his captain Will Laurence, and it’s a mostly successful move, even if Laurence’s personal history and reactions to the situations he finds himself in remain the core of the book. Some impressive battles and well-thought out strategy and tactics keep the whole thing moving, but surprisingly, a lack of copy editing in the version I read gave an unpleasant feeling that the whole thing was rushed into publication.

Redbreast, Jo Nesbo: A Scandinavian crime thriller that wears its moral message more lightly than Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, this is an engaging and clever read that only suffers by not being wholly complete in and of itself. Nesbo’s Harry Hole is an appealingly dogged and down-at-heel detective, and the World War II story and aftermath that surrounds his latest case will make it all the more enticing for history buffs. However, the real draw lies in the vivid characters and interesting world that Nesbo has created, as well as the jolts of horrible violence that occasionally intrude on all of them.

December Reviews

January 2, 2012 Leave a comment

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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.

November Reviews

December 1, 2011 2 comments

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November was a month of major readjustment for me, keeping me busy and reducing my opportunities to add to this blog. Hopefully that will change in the weeks to come. In the meantime, here are some reviews of the books and movies I managed to avail of during the month.

Book Reviews

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson: Written with the full cooperation of the Apple founder in the years before his death but without his editorial interference, Isaacson’s in-depth review of Jobs’ life reveals him to be a complex, often unlikeable, character who is redeemed by a life trajectory that saw him learn from his failures and recover to change a range of global industries. Isaacson’s interest is in Jobs the man rather than Jobs the technological pioneer, and this book is likely to disappoint those who have criticised or lauded him over the years from within the technology industries, but as a portrait of his personality, it’s exhaustive. It’s not likely to become a classic of the biography field, but as a portrait of Jobs himself, it will probably never have a rival.

Temeraire, Naomi Novik: Taking fantasy out of its traditional faux-medieval setting can be tricky, but Naomi Novik manages to make it very rewarding as she delivers a Napoleonic-era tale embellished by the addition of dragons. Not only is the impact of dragons on the world carefully thought through, but the characters are rendered with due care and attention to detail, creating an overall package that is emotive without being overly sentimental. One of the best new fantasy offerings in years, it not only tells a fine tale but also sets up a world that most readers will be keen to explore in subsequent books in the series.

Movie Reviews

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: One of the finest assemblages of British acting talent in years (all white and mostly male, mind you) offer up a masterclass in acting as they move through a spy thriller where the smallest gesture or glance carries a novel’s worth of meaning. Based on the Le Carre book, this is as far from James Bond as you can get, with the unravelling of the treachery at the heart of the plot requiring patience and psychology, with guns kept off the screen except for a few moments at the beginning and end of the film. A film about loyalty and betrayal as much as it is about the Cold War conflict it depicts, it is intricate enough to reward repeated viewing if you’re determined to winkle out all the nuances on display by the first-rate cast.

Wuthering Heights: Taking the latest shot at the classic tale of gothic moorland romance, director Andrea Arnold strips away the framing narrative and minor characters to deliver a version that proves heavy on the atmospherics but somewhat muted in terms of passion. Extreme closeups are seemingly meant to remove the emotional distance between the audience and the cast, but everything proves to be downplayed to the point where the adult character of Heathcliff, more central than he is in the book, never quite escapes the sulky victim of circumstance he’s portrayed as in his youth. The film itself is stark and easy to follow, even given the lack of dialogue, but for all of its apparent efforts to get to the heart of Emily Brontë’s tale, it doesn’t reveal much worth knowing.