Chronicles of the Black Company
By Glen Cook
I heard about Glen Cook's Black Company books via a discussion in the forum, wherein Raja (of Strobelight Review fame) thanked another member for recommending it to him. Now I, in turn, have to thank him for turning me on to this series, because it's the best fantasy I've read in quite some time.
Chronicles of the Black Company is a collection of the first three of Glen Cook's Black Company novels, which follows the exploits of the titular mercenary company over the course of a war between the forces of good and evil. That description makes this seem like just another standard fantasy series, though, which couldn't be further from the truth. To begin with, the Black Company is on the wrong side of the war--they work for the bad guys. But there's more to it than that, because the sharply defined morality that you're used to seeing in fantasy worlds isn't present. There sometimes seems to be little distinguishing the two sides in the conflict, other than that they are fighting each other. The whole thing is presented from a ground-level view with a gritty realism that has more in common with Vietnam War fiction than Tolkien.
I can't recommend this series highly enough. The collection containing the next three books is already out, with the following collection coming soon, and I can't wait to get my hands on them.
Started: 12/12/2008 | Finished: 1/8/2009
Marley and Me
I had some serious misgivings about this one when I first heard it was going to be made. I loved the book, but I just didn't think it was the sort of thing that Hollywood would handle right. When I heard that Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston were going to be the leads, my suspicions deepened. With that kind of cast, I figured the movie would turn out to be a slapstick-y mess--pretty much Beethoven with a lab. But, I am happy to say that the movie exceeded my expectations.
I still don't think that the movie really should have been made--nothing is really added to the experience in the transition to film. They also changed the story in ways that I thought were quite unnecessary, turning John Grogan into a man trapped in a domestic life he doesn't want, dreaming of being a hotshot reporter. Still, the filmmakers managed to capture a lot of what I really loved about the book and, sure enough, I cried at the end. Owen Wilson particularly surprised me by turning in a performance with some real emotional depth to it beyond the normal bumbling comedic hero he usually plays--though, in retrospect, I shouldn't have been all that surprised, as some of his work with Wes Anderson has also been pretty heartfelt.
All in all, it was a pretty good movie, and I think if you like dogs and haven't read the book, you'll probably like this version of Marley and Me.
Viewed: 12/26/2008 | Released: 12/25/2008 | Score: B-
Peat Smoke and Spirit: A Portrait of Islay and Its Whiskies
By Andrew Jefford
Before sitting down to write this review, I poured myself a glass of Bruichladdich single malt scotch. (The Links Torrey Pines edition, to be precise.) I bought the bottle earlier in the day, inspired largely by what Andrew Jefford wrote in Peat Smoke and Spirit. The scotch is good. So is the book.
A large portion of Peat Smoke and Spirit is, as the title would lead you to believe, about the distilleries of the Scottish island of Islay, and the whiskies they produce. That alone would be enough for me, and Jefford certainly describes the liquor beautifully. But the book encompasses so much more than that--more or less everything about Islay that you could want to know, from the history and geography and people to the flora and fauna and even the geology of the island. Having now read all about it, I have to say: I can't think of any place with a comparably inhospitable climate that I am so keen to visit. Jefford's love of the place is quite apparent from the way he writes about it--the prose is rich and inviting, never dull for a moment--and it really made me want to experience it for myself.
I think just about anyone with an interest in scotch or Scotland will enjoy this book. Just be aware that reading it may make you thirsty.
Started: 10/27/2008 | Finished: 12/8/2008
By Dan Simmons
It may not be completely legit to review all four of Dan Simmons' Hyperion novels in the same article--it's questionable whether the series functions as a single, cohesive whole, or two parts, or four. One review is less work for me, though, which makes me considerably less likely to quit. (Please, don't hurt me.)
The four novels of the Hyperion series--Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and The Rise of Endymion--easily split into two parts. The first two books follow a group of characters on a pilgramage to a planet on the edge of a huge interstellar empire--each one hoping to find the answers to the mysterious events of his life, while the rest of humanity is on the brink of war. The second two books are set several hundred years later, showing the aftermath and resolution of the events in the first half of the series.
The first book is just fantastic. Structurally, Hyperion resembles The Canterbury Tales--each of the pilgrims telling his own story to the rest as they move toward their uncertain destination--and it's very well done. Each story is distinct in style and memorable in its own right, and Simmons weaves them together wonderfully. In fact, if the series had ended with the first book, I think I wouldn't have minded, despite the fact that it ends in a cliffhanger.
The second book wasn't quite as interesting from a writing standpoint as the first, but the ideas presented were interesting and it provided what I thought was a very satisfying resolution to the action in the first. Several mysteries remain by the end of Fall, but somehow they seemed to be the sort that didn't need explaining.
Unfortunately, the third and fourth novels didn't really live up to the first two. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy them at all, but big chunks of the text got bogged down in discussions about human history and the nature of the universe. Even when there was action taking place, I often found myself skimming over the scenes, just trying to see what happens next.
Overall, I'd say that this series was worth the read, but I most likely won't come back to it.
Started: 7/21/2008 | Finished: 9/24/2008
Marley and Me
By John Grogan
Ever since Juliette and I got our dog, Cooper, people have been telling us that we had to read Marley and Me. Juliette finally got around to it as part of her annual summer reading kick and convinced me to pick it up next. After V, I needed something easy to read that would get me emotionally involved. Well, this fit that bill perfectly. I'm always a little suspicious of bestsellers, but this was just great.
As a dog owner, there was a lot I found familiar, both in the highs and lows of Grogan's life with Marley. Cooper isn't anywhere near as neurotic as Marley, but he has had some bad times, and in Marley's antics I could recognize some echoes of Cooper's worse moments. And, likewise, the joy of having such a loving, faithful companion is something that, I think, all dog lovers will recognize.
It's strange how having a dog has changed my outlook on this sort of thing. Just a couple of years ago, I don't think that I would really have connected with this book. All of this dog stuff just seemed a little silly to me. And now? Well, I can tell you that by the end of this book I was literally bawling.
Marley and Me was hilarious and heartwarming in turn, and I have to agree that it's a must-read for any dog lover--assuming there are any left who haven't already read it.
Started: 7/12/2008 | Finished: 7/20/2008
The Dark Knight
So, as usual, this review is very late. So late that surely everyone who wants to see it must have done so. I do have a good excuse this time, though. But enough of that--what did I think of the movie? Well, I have to say, I had very high expectations going in and I was not disappointed.
Naturally, most of the buzz surrounding this film centered around Heath Ledger, it being his last completed film. And, indeed, his performance as the Joker was simply amazing. Nicholson's Joker (in Tim Burton's Batman) certainly must have been a shock to people who were used to seeing Cesar Romero in the old TV show. But as far as Nicholson took his performance, Ledger did that much more with his Joker. The amazing--and kind of scary--thing about Ledger's Joker is that he seems so plausible. And that plausibility is, in part, what makes The Dark Knight seem like less a superhero movie than a thriller that just happens to have a superhero in it.
I think that difference in tone is a big part of what makes this such a good movie. I mean, we're all getting a little sick of the superhero thing, I think. There have just been too many of them in the past few years, and they're all kind of running together. It's mostly the same combination of special effects and superhero angst. So, seeing a movie like this one where the film doesn't really revolve around the title character is quite a breath of fresh air.
What else. I have tended to like Aaron Eckhart in the other movies I've seen him in, and I continue to like him in this one. (Just a note, the rest of this paragraph will contain some mild spoilers for those who are unfamiliar with the Batman universe.) He did particularly well in this one leading up to his change into Two-Face, giving his performance just the right touch to show us an bright, upstanding District Attorney while hinting at what he will become. Unfortunately, he didn't really manage the transition into villain quite as well--his wrath at the end of the movie just came off as a little cartoonish.
As usual, Michael Caine was a pleasure to watch, and if Christian Bale and Maggie Gyllenhaal were good without being great, that's OK because the movie wasn't really focused on them. (It really only disappoints at all just because I've seen both of them do really amazing stuff in the past.) Similarly, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman got the job done and I can't find any flaws with their work here, but they also didn't particularly wow me--which they shouldn't have.
This is the last movie I saw before my son was born, which means it'll be the last one I see in the theaters for a while. I'm glad that I'm ending this run on such a high note.
Viewed: 7/19/2008 | Released: 7/18/2008 | Score: A
I'm really disappointed that I saw this as a movie before I saw it on stage. Mamma Mia! has been one of Juliette's favorite musicals since she first saw it in London, eight years ago. (She's since seen it three more times.) So it's no surprise that she was excited about the film. Still, I was a little apprehensive, as I often am about film adaptations of stage musicals. After all, I just about died laughing when I saw Jason Alexander and Martin Short in the L.A. production of The Producers, but the movie version was so lame I hardly cracked a smile. As it turned out, I was right to be suspicious.
One of the biggest obstacles to successfully adapting a stage musical to film is that acting styles are so different between stage and screen. On stage, everything tends to be big, from movements and facial expressions to tone of voice. On the other hand, the camera can capture every tiny detail, so performances tend to be much more subtle and realistic. But subtle and realistic don't work well in a genre where people burst into song out of nowhere. Back in the days of, say, The Sound of Music, film actors were much more presentational in their performances, and, besides, Technicolor just didn't look much like real life. Nowadays, though, a movie has to actually work to be that way. When you look at films like Moulin Rouge or Chicago you see a much more stylized approach to the visuals and performances. Even films that take a more realistic style like, say, Rent or Hairspray, still have a feeling of fantasy to them. Mamma Mia! just didn't have that, and most noticeable way that affected the movie was to make the songs stick out like sore thumbs. That could have been alleviated with some better film and sound editing, but, unfortunately, it wasn't. Especially in the first half of the movie, the songs all just kind of came out of nowhere. It was very jarring.
Another problem? Pierce Brosnan cannot sing. What's more, he knows it. Man, there is little that is more uncomfortable than watching someone sing who knows he's doing a bad job. I respect Brosnan as an actor, but I really think he needs to stick to non-singing parts from now on.
And, of course, as always, I couldn't stand Meryl Streep. Here's an actress who is completely aware of the degree to which she is praised, and it comes out in every moment of her performances. There are few performers I've seen who seem more self-indulgent.
But, despite all that, it wasn't all bad. Juliette and I both particularly liked Amanda Seyfriend, who played Sophie, the girl looking for her father. As Juliette put it, she was "the perfect blend of beautiful and cute." I couldn't agree more--she was just radiant in this film, and her performance had this youthful exuberance that was delightful. What's more, she was an excellent singer, by far the best in the show.
Christine Baranski and Julie Walters were also quite good, and while Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard were both shaky on the vocals, they did alright and were fun to watch.
So, I can't say that I particularly enjoyed this movie, but I got a sense of what the stage play must be like and I'm sure it's much better. Hopefully, having seen the film first won't have ruined it for me.
Viewed: 7/18/2008 | Released: 7/18/2008 | Score: C+
By Thomas Pynchon
This may be the best book I've ever read that I didn't like. Thomas Pynchon is described by some as the one of the world's greatest contemporary writers, which piqued my interest. And his reputation for dense prose didn't scare me too much, after all, I adore Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gene Wolfe. So, I figured, what the hell? Well, over five months passed before I was done with V, and despite the fact that the book was beautifully written, it was a real slog. I just didn't connect with it. Most of the time I didn't even really know what was going on. Individual lines or even entire scenes would be great, but seemed to have only the most tenuous connection to the rest of the book. Things just happened, for no apparent reason and with no apparent direction. I think that was likely the point--after all, life is, for the most part, aimless and random. But by the end of this book I didn't feel like it was really a worthwhile trek--rather than feeling entertained or enlightened or otherwise enriched, I felt like the author had been messing with me. Maybe I'm too much of a philistine to be able to appreciate a book like this, but if that's the case, I can live with it.
Started: 2/1/2008 | Finished: 7/11/2008
Like just about everyone I know, I'm a big fan of Pixar. I still haven't gotten around to seeing Cars and Ratatouille, but I've seen the rest and I love all of them. In some ways, this movie is the best of the bunch. As always, the animation has continued to get better and more beautiful--which, considering that the first half-hour or so take place in the middle of a giant garbage pile, is saying something. But what really amazed me was the quality of the storytelling. It's an amazing accomplishment to be able to take two characters who each utter no more than four or five distinct phrases throughout the entire film and make them not only sympathetic but lovable and even relatable. There was virtually no dialogue for the first thirty minutes of the film, and yet it was never boring. And the exposition was about the smoothest I've ever seen. I don't know that I can say that this is my favorite of Pixar's films--for now, that honor still goes to The Incredibles--but despite that I think that this is one of the best executed animated films of all time. I don't know how Pixar is going to top WALL-E, but I can't wait to find out.
Viewed: 7/12/2008 | Released: 6/27/2008 | Score: A
I've become quite a Will Smith fan over the past couple of years. Certainly the last two films I saw him in--I Am Legend and The Pursuit of Happyness--were very good, and besides being a good actor, the guy just seems really likeable. That might be the only real problem with his run in this movie--the title character is a real jerk, but despite John Hancock's uncouth manner, I couldn't help but like him. Really, though, that's a minor complaint, and I quite enjoyed Hancock. It fulfilled pretty much all of my expectations, being funny with good action. It even managed a few moments of poignancy. All in all, a good experience.
Viewed: 7/5/2008 | Released: 7/2/2008 | Score: B+