Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories, #1)Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my first experience with Mary Robinette Kowal, and I'll definitely be looking for more of her work. This is a lovely immersion into a world of "Jane Austen meets Susannah Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell)". It poses the question, "What if the gentler arts of early 19th century high society included a magical manipulation of the senses?" Picture, say, the Bennett sisters sitting doing their daily handiwork which might include embroidering underthings, knitting socks, pressing flowers, and using magic to brighten dull corners of a dark room with artfully placed lumination or add soft music to a dinner?

This tale quite charmingly evokes the tone, plot style, and romantic entanglements of any given Jane Austen novel. At the same time there are moments of interpersonal drama and even a little bit of high action toward the end to keep a modern reader entertained. Our heroine, in typical Austen fashion, is the sensible sister who has resigned herself to spinsterhood. Her younger sister is a full-on Maryanne Dashwood type: all emotions and selfish melodrama with suitors to spare. What will become of them? At right around 300 pages, it's not a huge time investment but enough to paint a detailed picture of English country life in the upper classes just after the beginning of the 19th century. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Relentless, by Dean Koontz

RelentlessRelentless by Dean Koontz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reader reviews on this one seem pretty polarized. I see a lot of "Dean Koontz can do no wrong and I loved this...more please!" at one end and "What the blue blazes was that supposed to be?! What a hack!" at the other. Ironic because, well, you know, the story in question features an author who gets one bad review on his latest opus...but is it just a bad review, or an omen of much worse to come (cue horns &  strings: "duh Duh DUH!")

My bias is that Koontz is a very fine writer, and I love everything I've ever read by him to one degree or another. Some of his novels are works of fine art and deserve to be re-read, some are nerve-wracking page-turners that give an E-ticket experience but are not nuanced enough for me to want to own my own copy. This one is not what I would call one of his best, but hardly worth the bile that some folks feel must be hurled at it.

What I liked were the usual Koontz hallmarks: believable protagonists, believable dialogue, good pacing, well-researched technology, and a bit of humor to offset some of the grim content. Some people thought it was a bit too lighthearted, but I just imagined it as directed in film form by, say, the Cohen brothers or Wes Anderson, and then it worked just fine. There is also, big surprise, a charming dog, which seems to throw some people into a tizzy. Folks, if you don't like the inclusion of a good natured, smarter than average dog in your fiction, then don't read Koontz! Seriously, that's like picking up the "Twilight" series and then whinging about all the vampires.

What I had a bit of trouble with were things that involve spoilers, so…


The book moves along at a nice brisk pace, with few quiet moments as per a good page-turner, then suddenly ramps into high gear in the last few chapters. This sounds reasonable, but at the same time we’re bombarded with a slew of new characters and an over-arching organization not previously hinted at. Is Shearman Waxx working for the mysterious “triskelion” organization or his creepy mommy? Is the triskelion group a legit black project or some kind of private body that has hacked in to the Fed? Disturbing genetic experimentation is hinted at, or at least some kind of personal breeding program, by Evil Mommy, explaining the existence of Waxx and his also creepy “son”. Then we have little Milo and his science projects. It’s no surprise that his gadgets save the day at the end, because the kid has “deus ex machina MacGuffin” stamped on his forehead from the get go, but Koontz never really develops that thread other than to keep talking about Milo’s obsessive tinkering. I don’t need the schematics handed to me, but where does this knowledge come from? Does he have some kind of extra-terrestrial tutor? Pan-dimensional? Supernatural? All of the above? I just think there needed to be a little more explanation to make it seem less like a plot-convenience at the last minute.

What bothered me the most was the extremely hideous sadistic cruelty of Waxx and his cohorts. I can understand his groups cultural agenda, but that in no way explains the series of grotesque murders and complicated cover-ups. It just seems out of proportion to me given the otherwise generally light-hearted tone of the book. We’re talking “Silence of the Lambs” level horror, here, and in fact our hero, Cubby, references that book/film at one point, saying “I know what happens to people who go in to Gumb’s house.”

All that said, I still enjoyed it and it was worth reading through. Or listening, in my case.

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Old Man's War by John Scalzi: classic sci-fi

Old Man's War (Old Man's War, #1)Old Man's War by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Starship Troopers meets Ender's Game meets, um, Sunshine Boys? However you tag it, it's a really good story. It's mostly Starship Troopers, the wonderful Heinlein novel, not the weird fascist Verhooven film, without coming across as an homage or pastiche. It stands on its own as a tale of interstellar colonization and combat with a very human face.


My only real quibble is the position of the Earth-based forces as "kill 'em all" colonists. Basically, it makes us the evil invading aliens wherever we go, and that position is never explained. Did we try diplomacy at one point and give it up as a bad job? Oh, well, it's Scalzi's world and he writes a compelling tale within it.

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

2012 and other disasters

My husband and I thought it would be fun to watch Roland Emmerich's "2012" on New Year's Day, but it didn't arrive at the library in time, so we watched it tonight. Boy, gone are the days when I could blithely enjoy a good disaster movie and just go along for the ride. Maybe I'm just jaded. Maybe I just know too much casual science. I know I am a lot pickier than I used to be about story and character in the books I read and the films I watch. All that said, this movie is pretty awful, instead of awe-ful, which is what it should be. Seriously: it's a global disaster movie. How can it not be gripping and awesome and breathtaking? I'll tell you how; by falling prey to the "wouldn't it look cool if..." trap that plagues successful directors with huge budgets, big imaginations, and little grasp of reality.

Just because you can do anything these days, courtesy of amazing Computer Generated Imaging technology, it does not mean you should do it. Stephen Sommers slipped on this banana peel in "Van Helsing", which should have been a fantastical adventure with studly heroes, stunning heroines, and scary monsters. Instead, after an affecting opening sequence featuring Frankenstein's monster, it was one scene after another of over-the-top CGI enhanced shenanigans rendered soulless by their sheer preposterousness. What a waste of a fine cast and a usually good director. After the twin successes of "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns", both fun adventure movies with a fair amount of silliness and improbability, supernatural elements aside, I guess Sommers decided to go crazy and make the monster movie he always wanted to see as a kid. Unfortunately, I think he let his inner kid write it, too, because almost every scene seems to have been written by a group of fourteen year old boys saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if THIS happened?!" and "Yeah, and then THIS could happen!" That's nice, boys, but I'd like a plot along with those wicked cool  moments, thanks.I case you think I'm being too picky, try watching it sometime with the director's commentary track. I only made it about five minutes in because Sommers literally verifyies my suspicions by saying things like, "OK, this is so cool right here.", "Isn't this awesome?" and so on. To further substantiate my theory, I listened to the actors' commentary track, which actually made the film enjoyable for me because I love hearing the behind the scenes stuff. Mostly they talk about how they pranked each other during the filming and what it was like to work with such a good cast on a fun set. The nail in the coffin (pun intended) is when they break at one point from talking about tangential things to comment on the actual scene in progress...and none of them can remember what the scene is actually about, just that it was fun to shoot. Yeah, when your actors can't figure out the story, you have a problem.

Roland Emmerich can make a good film. "Stargate" is one of my favorite adventure sci/fi films ever. "Independance Day", for all its flaws, is also on my list. "2012" makes "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" look like both thoughtful documentaries and cerebral dramas by comparison. He uses the same template as in ID4. He starts with a Scientific Discovery followed by Tough Decisions for world leaders. He then assembles a varied cast of characters dotted around the country and even the world, in this case, and attempts to weave them together toward inevitable intersection at the climax. It works for me in ID4. In this film I never really feel like I get to know anybody, and the writing is so contrived and cliched that nobody seems real. It's like watching a Saturday Night Live sketch pasted over an Irwin Allen disaster movie. The worst and most annoying offense is unrealistically adult dialogue for child characters. I have no patience for writing kids who act like miniature world-weary, worldy-wise adults. If the kid has been living on the streets of Calcutta or in a boxcar in the wilds of north England since infancy, then I might buy it. If the kid is an urchin who has learned to be tough and goes through life with an earnest solemnity, like Miette in "The City of Lost Children", then I believe it. Not so much in a couple of privileged white kids living in suburban Los Angeles.

Then there's the science. For more on this, just Google "2012 bad science" and bask in the pages and pages of blogs and websites, including one from NASA, taking this film to task for its flagrantly fanciful crimes against physics, geology, plate tectonics, and fluid dynamics. I will not presume to give an exhaustive list of all the faux pax in this film, but I don't mind mentioning a few. Bear in mind that I am a Drama major, not a scientist, and these were things bothered me all the way to the end of this expensive film. 1. Neutrinos can not "evolve". They cannot interact physically with our environment and turn into microwaves and overheat the Earth's interior. Really, that was their choice of trigger events? 2. The Earth's crust is a bit more than a few hundred feet thick...by many miles. The shots of bits of the pacific plate tipping L.A. into the sea? Um, no. 3. I don't care how big the earthquake is, and 8.5 is pretty big, even 9.5 later in the film, but cracks hundreds of feet deep can not magically appear going down to the red-hot, plastic (not molten) mantle. See point #2. 4. Tsunamis only get big and destructive as they hit shallower water. Out in the open ocean a tsunami from even a massive earthquake might only be as big as a few inches or maybe feet, not hundreds of feet tall and able to capsize an ocean liner. By the time they hit land, we might be talking about ten to twenty foot-high surges, which on its own is really scary. Look at the footage of Kesennuma, Japan from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami(s) to see how terrible even five to ten feet of water can be. In this movie we have waves thousands of feet high powered by terrible earthquakes alone. It is so preposterous that it took the tension out of scenes that should have been awesome. Not only that, but there is no way that even a thousand foot high wave could have reached the Himalayas. Look on a map sometime. I wish the makers of this film had done as much.

I could ramble on about it, but I think I'll just content myself with waiting to see the upcoming dramatization of the 2004 Thailand tsunami, "The Impossible", which looks to be a lot more awe-inspiring and compelling. Realism is like that.

Monday, January 07, 2013

The Lake House, by James Patterson

The Lake HouseThe Lake House by James Patterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Despite Patterson being one of the biggest, as in most books sold, authors in the land, I hadn't heard of him until recently. I thought I'd try something of his, and found this at my local library. The edition I listened to is actually from Time Warner, and features Stephen Lang and Hope Davis as narrators. My assessment? If this is representative of Patterson's typical work, then I'm not sure what all the hoopla is about.

This is a thriller dealing with genetic modification and the consequences thereof, but to me it reads like a Young Adult supernatural thriller. The main characters consist of a small animal Veterinarian, an FBI agent, and a handful of genetically altered kids who have escaped from a horrific "research center". In the hands of Michael Crichton or Dean Koontz, this would have been a page-turner. All I found was a lot of melodramatic dialogue and internal monologues, with very little attention to detail regarding the nefarious plan of the Evil Mastermind behind all of the mayhem.

*spoilers* (sort of...it won't ruin the story for you)

The escaped children are marvels of successful recombined DNA: physically fit and super-intelligent...and yet they are constantly endangering each other and the adults trying to help them by flying around like nincompoops, yelling at each other, and generally demonstrating tactical imbecility while they know they're being actively hunted by assassins.

At one point I caught myself comparing all of the exclamations over the "magnificent, beautiful children" to Bella's constant gushing over Eward in the "Twilight" books, and that's where I threw in the towel.

I finally lost patience about 2/3 of the way through, and skipped to the end, where I was left feeling nothing for the characters and still unsure who the protagonist was supposed to be. Maybe I just picked one of his lesser efforts.

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Friday, January 04, 2013

That Old Ace in the Hole

That Old Ace in the HoleThat Old Ace in the Hole by E. Annie Proulx
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Proulx's books is like watching a Cohen brothers movie, which is to say utterly unique. As another Goodreads reviewer commented, the setting of the story is as important and vivid as the characters. The characters themselves are strange yet familiar, larger than life yet homey. As in "The Shipping News", we are treated to numerous vignettes from the past which gradually intertwine with present events in a disarming way. It's fine writing. The Cohen-esque quirkiness may be offputting at first, but give it some time. I listened to the audio version read by Tom Stechschulte, and his rough-hewn and nimble timbre perfectly complements the text.

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