Friday, September 30, 2011

The Movie-Book Cycle

When you see a movie whose top-billed stars are Scott Glenn and Jurgen Prochnow, but which also stars a young Gabriel Byrne and Ian McKellan, I ask you, do you have any choice but to watch it?  No, of course not!  Especially not if it's available streaming from Netflix.  So Mike and I watched The Keep a few weeks ago.

It started out great--in the way an '80s horror movie about Nazis that takes place in an abandoned castle is great.  And then it kind of fell apart, with characters who appeared out of nowhere, did rather pointless things for no discernible reason, then wandered away.  Also there was one key, pivotal prop--a major plot point--that was clearly made out of a flashlight, a ruler, and some duct tape.

But the seed was there of a good horror story, and even the movie was a) good for at least half of it, and b) fascinating in its awfulness when it fell apart.  You could see Michael Mann didn't know how to give enough information about these non-chatty characters in the time he had; the screenwriter didn't know how to convey Magda's inner struggle, and nobody quite knew how to balance the mystery of The Evil Force between pedestrian TMI and so mysterious you can't figure it out.

The only solution, of course, was for me to read the book.  I'm only halfway through, but I can tell you now that I'm not going to have much to say at the end to anyone who hasn't seen the movie.  The book does very well by comparison--in fact, it was doing very well as a stand-alone horror novel, striking a very interesting balance between the Nazis and The Evil Force.  Some of the Nazis are horrifying people while others are just folks who grew up in Germany and joined the army and did what they were told.  The Evil Force is killing them--which is good, for the most part--but then, it's killing pretty indiscriminately.  Both sides are a threat to Magda (why is a Jewish woman named Magda?  I'm not wrong to think that's usually short for some version of Magdalena, which is not so much a Jewish name, right?) and her father.  It's a pretty good setup with some tension.

It kind of falls apart, though, because (and this is sort of a spoiler, I'm sorry), the plot kind of hinges on her reserve and introversion and how the mysterious Glenn causes her to react with unprecedented longing and fascination.  And you know how science fiction writers really shouldn't write sex?  Ultra-libertarian horror novelists probably shouldn't write about burning passion from a woman's POV.  We'll just say I'm left with doubts.

Also (major, MAJOR spoiler), the evil which is vague and unnamed in the movie is explicitly named a vampire in the book.  I hope I don't seem narrow-minded when I say that I am so over vampires.

I'm still reading the book, though.  Mostly because I'm picturing Jurgen Prochnow as the sympathetic Wehrmacht captain and Ian McKellan as the ailing old scholar.  As awesome as I think Scott Glenn is, he's not quite suave enough for Glenn--I'm going with more of a young Roy Scheider kind of thing.  Now we just need a role for Ray Wise and we're all set.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I'm Swooning, or MumbleMumbleDragonsMumble

How is it I think of myself as "not a dragon person?"  It's not like I've read a million books about them to reject, and Tooth and Claw was marvelous.  True, that Mercedes Lackey romance whose name I can't remember was awful, but I can't really blame the dragons for that.  Although...yeah, well, it was a dragon fail.  But also a fail on so many other levels!

But now, here, Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon has appeared before me, and I've read it.  And thank God she's already written five of them, because I intend to read them all by tomorrow morning, if possible.  I'm hooked, seduced, bewitched--I am at the mercy of Ms. Novik and Temeraire.

Temeraire is the name of the dragon, and Laurence is his handler/partner/captain.  It's the Napoleanic war, and besides a navy, each nation has a fleet of dragon-mounted aviators.  The huge creatures carry crews, bombs, and occasionally natural weapons.  Laurence is effectively drafted into this force when the naval ship he captains captures and hatches a valuable dragon's egg.

The research in this book is impeccable, to the point where I can't even imagine writing something that is so successful in historical accuracy, creative worldbuilding, and compelling characters. 

And make no mistake, the characters carry the day.  Laurence is a good navy man out of place among the libertine aviators.  He's strong and likeable and everything you want in a hero.  And he just adores Temeraire, his clever dragon partner.

The warm, affectionate relationship between Laurence and Temeraire is at the heart of the book as the dragon grows up and learns about the world and they figure out together what it means to belong to each other.  To see a guy in uniform so undone by what is essentially a smart, funny kid is just disarming.

That's Brenda's word for the book--charming.  And I am charmed off my feet.

Oh, and by the way, speaking of Mercedes Lackey?  This partnership is a very much more realistic, comprehensible, well-constructed version of all the emotional bonds that her characters magically have with sentient animals.  It's not psychic, though--it's just about affection, loyalty, and partnership.  You know, real world stuff.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Would you marry someone who's been married eight other times before?  Not polygamy, not a serial killer--serially divorced.  It's an easy question to answer in theory--that guy is a bad bet.

But that's in theory.  In fact, you only really need to answer this question when you know and love someone.  To get married eight times you need to be charming, but there's a level of charm that will beguile eight women without descending into cheap illusion.  There's a guy who's sincere and loving, hopeful and talented, and he wants to marry Bess.

Now, if you read the back of the book, you'll think The Ninth Wife, by Amy Stoll, is a heartwarming road trip book about a 35-year old-woman, her sassy gay friend, and her bickering grandparents searching for details about her boyfriend (fiance?) Rory's past.  That's pretty much literally what the cover says.

That description doesn't do the book justice at all.  It sounds like silly, bubbly chick lit.  It sounds lame or stereotypical, but it's not any of those things.  I'm not going to tell you it's ponderous or even deep or literary.  But it's thoughtful and sincere, and Bess is a sincere, thoughtful character who, at 35, is not at all desperate, but would really like to be partnered.  I think that the threads of sadness are actually what save the book from being fluffy--her gay best friend lost his partner and is putting a good face on it; her aging grandparents are showing wear around the edges of their 65-year marriage. 

And then there's Rory--a single, romantic, 45-year-old man who keeps secrets would be very easy to make unlikeable or "perfect but misunderstood," but Rory is neither.  The stories of his marriages are fascinating, and I've found myself, in spare moments nowhere near the book, running tallies of his exes and how they wound up together and how, though eight is a very large number, each one makes so much sense as its own story.

If the theme of this book is what a partnership means and how it works, the question of the book is what relevance the past has on the present.  I have to admit that I found some of the conclusions the author seemed to reach a little weak--being "a different person" than you were back then is a really complicated concept, and I think she just lets it fly past too easily, whether the character believes it's true or not.

I don't read a lot of chick lit, preferring to get my comedy and romance elsewhere.  I was really pleased to find this book.  It wasn't a classic and I don't expect it to go down in history, but I finished it yesterday and I strongly suspect I'm still going to be tallying off Rory's ex wives tonight, trying to decide which choices were his best and his worst, which were understandable and which totally misguided.  If just for that, it was worth it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Night In the City

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist moves very fast.  I'm pretty sure it's short--hard to tell on a Kindle--but it just pounded past, very much like I imagine a late night wandering from club to club in New York might.  Actually, I would honestly find that experience a drag, but reading about people excited about music is much more exciting to me than listening to music, because I'm weird that way. 

And these kids are excited about music.  They're the most endearing music snobs you've ever read about, including Nick Hornby characters, because there's no superiority to them.  They just love what they love.  They're kids, for crying out loud.  That's hard to remember sometimes--there are a lot of sexual situations, remembered sex, implied sex, etc.  There's a lot of independence, a certain amount of experience.

But there's also a really refreshing uncertainty.  These kids are intelligent and articulate, but they're really, really confused about how they feel.  They know firmly what they want, but it does change every few minutes or so.  Nick wants his girlfriend Tris back, or barring that not to look like a passed-over loser in front of her.  Norah wants to make sure that her drunk friend Caroline gets home, to figure out what she wants from her ex Tal, and oh yeah, is she going to Brown or a kibbutz next year?  And maybe she wants Nick a little, too. 

They meet at a queercore (did you know that was a word?  I didn't) show, then go to a burlesque club, then a punk show, walk around the city, stall the car, run into exes, eat borscht.  The talk and flirt and stomp away from each other.  The point of view switches back and fort from chapter to chapter--presumably the authorship does, too, between the two writers, Rachel Cohn and Dave Levithan.  Both voices are smart and sharp, but they're firmly different, independent of each other.

Now I have to watch the movie.  I do not picture Michael Cera in the Nick role--Nick is a hot, confident guy who's feeling vulnerable because he's been dumped, not an adorable dweeb with puppy-dog eagerness.  Honestly, as much as I dislike Zac Efron because he always looks so smug (and Nick is not smug), it's his role, really.  Well, if it came out now it would be.  Norah, I can't remember the actress's name, but she's perfect--tough and vulnerable.

This isn't much of a review, I guess--the book moved very fast, things happening one tumbling over another, with occasional digressions into describing how awesome the music is.  It took me about four hours total to read.  Four really good hours--worth your time.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Not As Peculiar As You'd Think

It was the cover that got me--Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children had the most intriguing cover.  Combined with the photos scattered throughout the book, it was just irresistible.  And the author's name is Ransom Riggs--how awesome is that?

I ended up enjoying the book, but not the way I expected to.  Most of the things that I was drawn to turned out to either not amount to anything or actually be the weaker points.  I expected something kind of mysterious, odd, mystical.  While there was a sense of mystery here, the story was told in a very straightforward way. 

Jacob is a teenager in Florida, living a fairly typical life and very close to his aging grandfather.  All his life he's listened to his grandfather's stories about his childhood being chased by monsters and his life of travel, but Jacob's come to understand that these stories are really about his grandfather's experiences during the Holocaust.

Then his grandfather dies, suddenly and violently.  Jacob is plagued by nightmares, and follows his therapist's advice to trace some of his grandfather's history to try to understand what happened to his grandfather, both long ago and when he died.

The photographs throughout the book are charming, but there are definitely places where they seem to be crammed into the story a little.  There's also a stretch in the middle where there are quite a few Knowledge Dump moments--two characters have a conversation where fantastic elements are defined, explained, and laid out, complete with interesting names, historical references, and explanations of alternate physics. 

It gets a little clunky in places, is what I'm saying.  But I'm also saying that I really liked the main character--I liked that he was innocent and scared and gutsy honest.  I liked how the forces of evil gathered around the edges of things and then advance in a rush.  I liked the setting, on a picturesque island off the coast of Wales. 

I couldn't decide if the ending was a first-book-in-the-trilogy cliffhanger, or if it was more of a then-they-went-off-into-the-wide-world-for-adventures launch into the characters' future.  I don't know which I hope it is, either.  If there was more to read, though, I'd absolutely read it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Highest Hopes

Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow has become one of my favorite books.  It deals with some of my favorite subjects—religion, anachronism, first contact—in a wonderful story.  And if the characters make mistakes that only someone who'd never seen an episode of Star Trek would make, well, I can suspend disbelief a little bit.  It's a stretch—I mean, have you never taken an anthropology class?  If not, why are you on a first contact mission?—but since this is really my single critique of the book (well, that and how did the Jesuits jump to such crazy conclusions? But really, just those two), I think that speaks to how well-written, well-thought-out, and well-researched it is.

The sequel, Children of God, is wonderful as well.  It's more about redemption and social evolution, and how time and experiences change us into people even we don't know.  The end is a bit facile, but it's so good.

Doc: A NovelSo I hope you can imagine how excited I was to hear that Russell was releasing a novel about the life of Doc Holliday, famous gunslinger and friend to the Earp brothers, hero of the OK Corral.  I've been reading Doc for weeks now and barely made a dent in it, which makes me very sad.

It's actually not that it's not enjoyable.  It's well written, well researched, and easy to follow.  But it's not a very good novel.  It's actually a really good nonfiction book--a very readable biography.  Most of what happens is told rather than shown, and the parts that are shown are written in a style that makes it very clear that she's drawing from contemporary accounts, letters, and recorded recollections.  

There are also dramatized moments--a private conversation between Doc and his girl Kate, a description of an average day at the poker tables.  They are few and far between, and read like nonfiction.  I think these are the moments that forced the author and publishers to label this a novel.  I think that's a crying shame, because it doesn't work as a novel.  

All characterization is done from the outside, and it's done through the unskilled eyes of contemporaries, not through the careful application of relevant details that a novelist can envision but a researcher can't confirm.  We get almost no inner lives of the characters, but a lot of expository back story--including very thorough back stories what appear to be very minor characters.  This adds texture, but telling about the life of Wyatt Earp's friend Johnnie through the point of view of a train trip taken by his childhood pastor to perform a funeral is perhaps overkill.  Especially when you then get into the personal background of Johnnie's childhood pastor, just because (as often happens in nonfiction) that information is there.

TombstoneAnyway, I'll finish it.  And I'll know a lot more.  But I will not have as clear a picture or sympathetic a portrait of Doc Holliday as I did after I watched Val Kilmer's wheezing, drawling, melodramatic performance in the very enjoyable movie, Tombstone

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ugh, Romance

Remember I was talking last time about Lord of Danger?  Yeah, I take back any optimism I had about that.  My hope now is that the amusement I'm feeling at how bad it is will coast me through to the finish line.

The premise is interesting--he's a mysterious court magician, educated, scheming--and she's a quiet, intelligent girl raised in a convent who's given to him in marriage by her wicked half-brother.  He's evil, but not really; she's innocent, but ready to become worldly.  Great setup, if somewhat cheesy writing.

But then...nothing.  More of the same.  They gaze, he longs, she burns.  You need something else--court intrigue, conspiracies, some kind of event besides stilted conversations and uncomfortable dinners, with the occasional stolen kiss.

I've let go of a lot of books lately, but I think I'm going to stick this one out.  Wish me luck.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011


Lord Of DangerIf you look at my Goodreads sidebar, you might be wondering about a book called Lord of Danger, by Anne Stewart.  You might not be wondering, I suppose, but I like to think you look at the cover, and you look at a title like Lord of Danger, and you think that maybe it's a melodramatic romance.

Blame Unshelved.  Specifically, this strip.  I can't tell you what drew me in, but I've wanted to read this for months, ever since I read that corny, cheesy summary.  And I hadn't read a cheesy romance in ages and ages.  This is everything I could have hoped--simple, heavy-handed, trite, sexual.  I can't say I'm loving it--honestly, I might be able to write something of this quality--but I'm enjoying the heck out of it.

(Link fixed: sorry, loyal readers!)

Monday, September 05, 2011

Anthropological Ethics

I can't even remember where I happened upon The Unlikely Disciple; I heard of it, and the library had it, and suddenly, magically, I'm reading it.  There are a lot of layers to this book--even more than the author, Kevin Roose, intended, I think--and even more complexity to my reactions to the book.

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University
Let's start with the very top level of my reaction; am I the only one who's kind of put off by all these "I did this kooky thing for a year so I could write a book about it" books?  Even when the actual thing they're doing is very interesting to me, even when it's lighthearted, even when it's straightforward, it's kind of--opportunistic?  Mercenary?  And the fact that this guy is barely 20--there's something presumptuous about it.  That's the word--presumptuous.

The author is a sophomore at Brown University who decides that he needs to de-other-ize Christian fundamentalists by spending a semester at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, an evangelical Christian college.  He does this on his own, not through academia--he gets a semester off from Brown, applies to Liberty University, and heads off.

Okay, another level of my reaction--this is amateur anthropology.  This is a college kid doing something that an entire academic discipline has perfected over the course of generations.  They have a very strict set of ethics and standards of behavior that have been developed.  An anthropologist going "under cover" to do fieldwork has to plan out ahead of time what they're going to tell people, how much they're going to lie, etc.  Then they have to run this plan by a board of their peers for feedback, to evaluate how the subjects/natives/etc. will be affected emotionally and psychologically by finding out the truth. 

Kevin makes a lot of decisions based on what kinds of conversations would be awkward.  He describes the process of making these decisions as though the thought this 20-year-old kid put in is the equivalent of a peer review board.  He lied on his application, lies regularly about his testimony--all definitely necessary to fit in, and mentioned, but not really dealt with on the higher level I'd like to see.

At first I thought it was an inconsistency that he seemed to conceive the project based in large part around the political views of the conservatives he expected to meet, but his experience at the school is based a lot more around the social experience he's having.  I think the social story is more compelling, in large part because the author is a college student.  He's clearly very smart and thoughtful, but there's a lot more depth to his social perception than there is to his political discussion.  He's a thoughtful liberal whose opinions are well-considered, but ten years in the world will give him more exposure to people along the political spectrum than half a Brown education could, and his perceptions would be different in that case.

But Liberty is a different enough social experience--gender relations, the omnipresence of God, the purposeful life these kids are working so hard on--is enough to make a very interesting book.  Roose writes well, does plenty of research, and presents what he has to say really well.  There's an element of watching him coming of age amid the broader cultural observations, which can be a little distracting, but it doesn't detract much from the book. 

For me, the most interesting part is just seeing how these kids live.  However I feel about evangelical Christianity, the fact is that these students are driven, focused, and part of what looks like (and tries to be) a monoculture.  Meeting them individually, seeing how they process it and what questions they ask of their world, is definitely worth the read.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

A Little Off Topic

It's sort of a book--Gunnerkrigg Court.  It's actually a webcomic that I learned about when Amazon sent me their "what's new in comics" email.  I've been reading it voraciously online for a few days now, to the point where I just sent a donation to the guy's website because I'm so grateful for this free awesomeness. 

Gunnerkrigg Court, Vol. 1: OrientationIt's fantasy about a girl named Antimony, who was raised in the hospital where her mother was an invalid and her father a surgeon.  Her mother has died, and now she's come to a boarding school, Ginnerkrigg Court. 

The school appears to be located in an enormous, largely abandoned industrial complex.  I won't say "strange things start to happen," because it's just a strange place, and Antimony is not so normal herself.  Across the river is the deep forest; various creatures populate hidden rooms, and instructors may or may not have other responsibilities besides teaching.

Gunnerkrigg Court Volume 2: Research
Antimony is a quiet, somewhat odd girl, but she is quickly befriended by the perky science fiend Kat, and the two best friends explore the school and learn more about ghosts, robots, fairies, and the various gods of the dead. 

The illustration is clean, the lettering elaborate, and the pace snappy.  There's no unwieldy exposition, but you're never confused for more than a panel.  The chapters are self-contained enough to keep things moving, but there are definitely overarching stories, mysteries, and characters to learn about.

Gunnerkrigg Court, Vol. 3: Reason
I kind of wish I had more to say about it, because I'm enjoying it so much.  But I guess what I like best is that, from the very beginning, I felt like an "insider."  That great feeling when something happens in the book you're reading that only people who know and love it as well as you do could appreciate?  It's right here, from page one.  Well, maybe page 5, but still--so good.  I highly recommend it.