Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Great Reread Project Mark III - The Letter G


After such a success with The Eyre Affair I found myself at the G’s. I have a surprising number of G authors that I actually enjoy rereading. I’d reread Parke Godwin’s Firelord (great take on the Arthurian legend, and if you haven’t read it, you really should. Arthur as he probably never was, but should have been) a couple of years ago and last time around I did Mira Grant’s Feed (another excellent book. I describe it as the zombie book for people that don’t normally read zombie books), my eyes lit on Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. Austin Grossman is the twin brother of Lev ‘The Magicians’ Grossman, and I actually saw Soon I Will Be Invincible before I’d heard of Lev or seen The Magicians. Of the two brothers I prefer Austin’s books to Lev’s. I was taking a bit of a chance with Soon I Will Be Invincible, as I’d only read it once and that was a few years ago when it first came out, and while I could remember enjoying it, I’ve had my memory play me false (or my tastes have altered) a few times during this reread project.

Soon I Will Be Invincible is one of the earlier entries into the burgeoning super hero sub genre. I still think of the books I’ve read in that vein that it’s one of the best. It reads a little bit like a crossover between two eras of superherodom. There’s the Golden Age characters mixing with the more modern type ones. It’s a bit of a love letter to comics, which for a former hard core collector like me, is awesome.

It’s written in first person, from two different points of view, the chapters alternate between old style super villain Dr Impossible (and it’s really refreshing to see a book written from the view point of the villain) and rising new heroine Fatale. Like Austin Grossman’s other books (he’s written 2 since Soon I Will Be Invincible: YOU and Crooked, also both excellent, particularly Crooked) it’s a fake autobiography. It mostly centres around the disappearance of the world’s most powerful and most loved super hero; CoreFire, and he’s also Impossible’s greatest nemesis, and for that reason everyone suspects Impossible of being behind CoreFire’s disappearance/death, even though he was in custody at the time.

Impossible, in particular, spends a lot of his time in the book going back through time explaining his origin and the connection between he and CoreFire. Fatale’s relationship with the missing hero is different, she never met him, even after she had the implants that turned her into a cybernetic crime fighter, she was a fan and finds it hard to fit into the team he left behind and find her own place within it.

I don’t know how much Grossman based on known heroes, but I get a lot of the Superman Lex Luthor story from the struggle between Impossible and CoreFire. The main differences are that Impossible has super strength and seemingly some invulnerability to go with the big brain he never tires of telling people about and that he was ironically responsible for creating CoreFire, or rather turning him from a good looking jock to the world’s mightiest hero.

The first time I read Soon I Will Be Invincible I polished it off over a weekend, it’s that sort of book, you just keep on reading to find out what happens next. I didn’t read it quite that quick this time, but it had the same effect on me. I often read more than I intended just to read that little bit more. I didn’t remember many characters apart from Impossible, Fatale, CoreFire and Damsel, but this time the character of Elphin really fired my synapses. She was the last remaining elven or fairy warrior on Earth, possibly the only one of her kind anywhere. That was reminiscent of some of the characters I can remember Marvel using, like Hercules and Thor, they also had an actual elemental being in Meggan in Captain Britain (that was a majorly weird, but very good title in its day) and DC also dabbled in mythological heroes with Wonder Woman and her Amazonian background. I don’t think Austin Grossman does sequels (he hasn’t yet), but I’d definitely be up for some more stories about some of the more peripheral characters in Soon I Will Be Invincible, especially Elphin.

Let’s hope H can live up to F and G.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Great Reread Project Mark III - The Letter F





I was definitely in a bit of a rereading slump (the last 3 letters turned into DNF's effectively), so I decided to go back to an old favourite.

Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair has been one of my favourites from the first time I picked it up when it was originally published. I've read it a number of times and I even gave my original copy to a friend when she went overseas. I have since replaced it.

To be honest I don't think I'd ever encountered a book quite like The Eyre Affair. It's fairly extraordinary, especially as a debut novel. It's a love letter to literature. It isn't necessary to be widely read to enjoy The Eyre Affair, but it does help and if a reader doesn't at least have a decent working knowledge of the plot of Jane Eyre, then they're not going to get one of the book's main jokes.

Being a child of the 80's I quite liked and saw the fun of Thursday Next's alternate 1985. How alternate? The Crimean War is still raging nearly 130 years after it ended in our reality, extinct animals like dodos have been cloned and make good house pets, and these people love their classic literaure: performances of Richard III are like repeat screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in our world (I think the audience participation screenings have largely died out now, but they were big in the 80's).

The plot is pretty out there. Arch villain Acheron Hades has stolen Jane Eyre from her book and os holding her to ransom from a literature loving public, and it's up to feisty LiteraTec operative Thursday Next to get her back. She will travel through time, into Wales, and the world of fiction itself to save Jane and her uncle Mycroft.

It was a wonderful and original excursion, and it never pales on subsequent rereads. Fforde was quite prolific for a number of years after writing the book. He wrote 6 further Thursday Next novels, the related Nursery Crimes duology, 3 volumes of the YA series The Last Dragonslayer, and the first book of a planned trilogy Shades of Grey. He hasn't published anything since 2014, but is supposed to have 3 books scheduled for release in 2018, including the long awaited second book in the Shades of Grey series (I've heard about that one before, so I'll believe it when I actually see it).

If G is anywhere near as good as F, I'm back in business in this reread and will have temporarily banished the suck fairy.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Great Reread Project Mark III - The Letter E

Image result for The Elenium



I have to admit I'm not having an awful lot of luck with the reread project this time around. Of the 5 letters I've done so far I've only been able to carry 2 of the entries through as far as I wanted.

It could have something to do with the last 3 things I've selected being published 20 - 30 years ago and my own tastes and views having been altered considerably in that time.

This one requires some explanation. In the 80's David Eddings was one of the biggest if not THE biggest name in fantasy. Despite the popularity of the books, they weren't very good, They were old fashioned, riddled with cliches, repetitive, fairly racist and sexist by today's standards and he commented some major offences against the English language when he tried to use archaic speech patterns with words like thee and thou. Even with all that they were entertaining and easy enough to read. Back then there wasn't a whole lot else to choose from in the epic fantasy field either, so that helped.

Their legion of flaws doesn't make the books great subjects for a reread. I reread Eddings' first fantasy epic The Belgariad some years ago and found it a real chore, although I stuck it out to the bitter end and read the whole thing. From memory the trilogy The Elenium was a little better than The Belgariad, so I decided to give it a whirl.

That was a mistake. Admittedly the hard bitten hero Sparhawk is a little less annoying than the wholesome Garion, and his companions are more interesting, although they mostly stick to the same stereotypes. Having reread a book and a half of it, I've become convinced that it would have been a better series if they were written from the point of view of the child goddess Flute.

When I found myself regularly reading chapters and thinking I'd already read them because the author felt the need to repeat things so often I gave up.

The Elenium has a harder edge than The Belgariad and some of the characters are better written., admittedly most of them have direct analogs in The Belgariad, Flute is at least original. There's actually a half decent book in there trying to get out, the author just didn't have the skill, possibly the will to make it happen.

I really hope the letter F gives me an upturn.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Two Authors - Similar Ground



I haven't ever done this before, this isn't precisely a review, but more of a comparison between two authors who have some things in common in terms of what they tackle and how they go about it.

I'll cover Marissa Meyer first. Marissa Meyer published her debut novel; Cinder, in 2012. Cinder was the first book of the Lunar Chronicles. It was an anime inspired reimagining of the Cinderella legend. It was followed by Scarlet (Little Red Riding Hood), Cress (Rapunzel) and Winter (Snow White). The Lunar Chronicles were popular enough to spawn a prequel (Fairest) and a book of short stories (Stars Above). Given the popularity of the romance infused, anime inspired fairytales, the characters and the world that Meyer created, moving away from it was a fairly brave move for an author to make.

I felt Marissa Meyer took other risks with Heartless. It also involved a much loved fairytale (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland), it was however set largely in a world that was very similar to Lewis Carroll's original, as opposed to the Lunar Chronicles world which was a futuristic Earth and vastly different from those of the stories that inspired it. It was also a prequel, whereas the Lunar Chronicles were a retelling of the originals. Audiences love series today, and by it's very nature Heartless is a standalone book. The author also chose to focus on a fairly unpopular character from the original; Heartless is the story of the Red Queen and how she got to be the character audiences encountered in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Now onto Danielle Paige. Danielle Paige released Dorothy Must Die in 2014, she had already had a a prequel novella (No Place Like Oz) set in the world and using some of the characters published electronically by Harper Collins, before the novel was published (it and two other related novellas were later published as paper books). Paige's series dealt with the world of Oz. It differed from what Meyer had done, in that she told reimaging's and the Dorothy Must Die books were sequels of a kind to Frank L. Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She did also use characters and settings from some of the other Oz books. Like the Lunar Chronicles (I suspect the two series share an audience, aside from myself, I'm not their target audience at all), they were popular enough to have related books of short work released, and there's actually a 4th novel in the original series scheduled for release later this year.

After having success with her first series, Paige also took a chance by moving away from it. Stealing Snow is a take on Hans Christian Anderson's classic The Snow Queen. Anything related to that story due to Disney's Frozen is almost guaranteed to be successful, this is despite the fact that about the only thing Frozen and The Snow Queen have in common is a character who can control ice and snow. Stealing Snow ultimately takes less risks than Heartless. It's a reimagining of a popular story, currently riding a wave of success that the public can't seem to get enough of, it's also the first of a series (it does standalone, but has sequels planned) and it features a fairly likeable protagonist.

I felt of the two Heartless was the better book. Possibly because I'm more familiar with it's source material than I am with that of Stealing Snow. I also think it was better written and the author stretched herself more. The romance angle aside, Heartless is an ambitious undertaking, it's vastly different to what Marissa Meyer did with the Lunar Chronicles in style and setting. Even the characters are very different. She uses multiple types of story, there are elements of an Austenish comedy of manners, a Regency Romance, the sort of surreal children's story that Carroll originally wrote and a whodunnit. At times I wasn't sure I was reading the same person that wrote the Lunar Chronicles.

Stealing Snow doesn't stretch Paige's talents anywhere near as much. Snow isn't a long way removed from the protagonist of the Dorothy Must Die books; Amy Gumm. She has that same snark and tough girl exterior. It uses one of the same story devices. In Dorothy Must Die, Amy is whisked from Kansas to Oz when a tornado snatches up her mother's mobile home and in Stealing Snow, Snow enters Algid by means of a magical mirror. In both series the protagonist enters the other world to put everything right. Stealing Snow starts with Snow in a psychiatric hospital called Whittakers and housed with other patients who have delusions. The way Snow talks about them is rather like introducing a super hero team and their powers. I was kind of hoping that they'd appear in Algid with their powers real like Snow's were (maybe they will in future books), but once she got to Algid it followed a far more predictable path. The start had me thinking that the author was going to do something like Normal Again, but it was not to be.

Both are good books that will catch and hold a reader's attention, and will no doubt retain the author's existing fans and garner new ones, it's just that on my reading Heartless took me in more than Stealing Snow did.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Great Reread Project Mark III - The Letter D

Last time I did this I went for Dave Duncan's The Reaver's Road (the first of his Omar the Storyteller books), unfortunately while I liked it and it's sequel (The Hunter's Haunt) the first time around, this time I just couldn't get into the whole send up of the sword and sorcery genre and it turned into a DNF. I wasn't sure who I'd do for D this time and I settled on John De Chancie.


John De Chancie wrote a number of science fiction and fantasy books back in the 80's and 90's. He is possibly best known for the Castle Perilous series.

These were short, funny fantasies that were quite popular at the time, along with writers like Craig Shaw Gardner, Robert Asprin and even some of Esther Friesner's work.

There were 8 of these originally (I believe a 9th; the Pirates of Castle Perilous was recently published) and because they're all pretty short by today's standards (I don't think any of them would break 300 pages) I thought I'd be able to read all of them.

They haven't exactly been visited by the 'suck fairy', but I did have to call defeat part way through Castle War! (the 4th book in the series). Partially this was my fault. They came out in 6 month intervals, and that's really how they were designed to be read. It is possible to overdose on something and the Castle books are an example of that. Shotgunning them the way I was only really showed up their flaws and took away from my enjoyment of them. They've dated terribly, as well.

The idea is pretty cool. A castle located in a place of it's own in space and time, which has 144,000 doors, each of which leads to a different world or reality. Unfortunately I don't think the author's imagination was up to the task and many of his worlds wound up becoming rather pedestrian. There was a lot of promise in the world that one of the lead character's; Snowclaw, hailed from, but it was never really explored.

I also found the inhabitants of the castle kind of boring given that premise. Most of them, Snowclaw excepted, were humans, who came from either Earth or a world very like it. There was a race of sentient dinosaurs in the first book, but they disappeared partway through that and weren't seen again by the time I bailed. They may have reappeared in some of the later books, but they can't have made much of an impact as I can't remember them.

I liked Gene initially, until he turned into a raving chauvinist in the 3rd book, something that turned me off the character and the books, and was evidence of how badly they'd aged. I did like Linda and Snowclaw, although the latter was really used as comedy relief most of the time. I found Incarnadine, the ruler of the castle, rather hard to take at the best of times and kind of wished he'd get lost in one of his castle's many aspects and not return.

Another thing that dated the books was the introduction of computers in the 3rd book. What computers could do and were in the late 80's, are a far cry from what they are now, and they simply didn't work in the concept. It's kind of weird when they're talking about mainframes and floppy drives, booting up programs and separate scanning machines, and I sit there and look at my phone and my tablet and think of streaming data and the cloud.

The one thing that kept popping into my head while I was reading them was how like Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree books they were. I doubt John De Chancie had ever even heard of Enid Blyton, let alone read her Faraway Tree books, but they were very similar in concept and execution, although I kind of think Blyton did it better and with more spirit.

Possibly I would have been better digging out Tom Deitz's David Sullivan books.

The letter E has me worried as I'm going back to David and Leigh Eddings. The last time I did that it was The Belgariad, and that was an epic that aged very badly.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Good Dinosaur 2015


To say that The Good Dinosaur is an odd film is kind of understating it a little. It's definitely a film that makes some strange choices, and I think those are what lessen it as a film, especially considering that two of them really don't have to be made at all.

It's probably the first Pixar film I can really recall where people asked 'Why?' (okay, I said that with both of the Cars films and I'll say it again with the third one, but I know the answer, and that is marketing). The Good Dinosaur had mildly traumatised children walking out of screenings, some of them didn't even make it to the film's ultimately happy ending.

The first question I asked was why was a film that was clearly an homage to the Western about dinosaurs? The film's explanation is that the meteor that struck the Earth millions of years ago and caused the demise of the dinosaurs, narrowly missed, so the giant creatures evolved to raise crops, cattle and families. Whereas humans did appear, but never got past the animal stage, which is why they behave more like dogs than advanced primates.

My own personal theory here is that Pixar were working on an homage to the Western and probably had included something about the friendship between people and dogs. Before they could complete that idea the dinosaur boom hit (Jurassic World) and Disney wanted something about dinosaurs, so they shoehorned them into the Western concept and made the dogs into primitive humans. Spot, being basically a dog that resembles a person is one of those odd ideas that didn't need to happen. He never speaks and most of the time he moves more like a dog than a person, so why not just make him a dog?

Then there's the issue of Henry, the father of Arlo the central character, dying. This really shocked and upset a lot of younger audience members and it simply didn't need to happen. Here's where the inner writer in me rewrote the film. Basically at the heart of it The Good Dinosaur is about Arlo getting lost and discovering himself and finding the courage to make his mark on the world, while trying to get back home.  The entire scene with Henry falling into the river and drowning simply doesn't need to be in the film. Arlo can run off after Spot when he finds that he's been raiding their crops again and get lost. He can be mad at Spot for getting him lost, he can still have sympathy for Spot losing his parents, just because he still has parents doesn't mean he won't understand what it is to not have them, after all he's completely lost with only the slimmest of hopes that he's ever going to see his family again. Just because Henry is still alive doesn't mean that the farm can't fall on hard times and need Arlo more than ever before, in fact that would give Arlo the impetus to chase after Spot.

The presence of the cattle herding dinosaurs only seemed to be there to help establish the film's Western cred. I still don't understand the vicious, opportunistic pterodactyls, who also more than likely entered the nightmares of young film goers. Again they could have engineered a dangerous, desperate situation for Arlo and Spot to find themselves in without those characters.

Now having said all that I have to take my hat off to the animation again. Not so much the dinosaurs and Spot, who were very cartoony (in fact Spot kept reminding me of the vicious baby caveman from The Croods, another animated prehistoric tale), but the scenery was amazing. I had difficulty believing that it was animated and not simply film stock that they superimposed their animated characters onto. Pixar and animation in general had come a long way from Toy Story in 1995.

The humour and heart that had characterised even the worst of the Pixar films (and there were really only two of those for mine) was largely absent from this one. Audiences tended to agree with my views on The Good Dinosaur. It was Pixar's lowest grossing film ever.

Casting:

I think they went for strong casting to try and make up for the film's other shortfalls. The excellent Jeffrey Wright voiced the ill fated Henry, which as a homesteading farmer dinosaur was a departure for the actor having previously played roles like CIA agent Felix Leiter in two Bond films and the technical savant Beetee in two of the Hunger Games films.

Frances McDormand's considerable talents were wasted with her playing the rather predictable mother figure as Ida.

Steve Zahn was well cast as the insane leader of the pterodactyl's; Thunderclap. He plays crazy well.

Not really sure why Anna Paquin was cast as a female cowboy T-Rex. Every time she spoke I kept seeing Sookie Stackhouse. A clever move might have been to get Joan Cusack to do this. Would have tied nicely into her voicing of cowgirl Jessie in the Toy Story franchise, and as we've seen Pixar like to use actors they're familiar with.

Sam Elliott as the crusty old patriarch of the herding family was perfect casting. I could just see Elliott in this role, shame that they couldn't find a way of giving the T-Rex a handlebar moustache.

John Ratzenberger played  a cameo as Earl, one of a member of cattle rustling velociraptors.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Inside Out 2015


After another related work in Monsters University I had been hoping for something new and different from Pixar and I got it with Inside Out. Like Up and WALL-E, the title was maddeningly vague, and Pixar don't do a whole lot of detailed pre release work, because they don't need to. What I could get about Inside Out made it look like an animated version of Herman's Head.

Herman's Head was a fairly short lived sitcom that focused on average guy Herman and the four 'emotions' that lived in his head. Inside Out does a similar thing, only Riley is an 11 year old girl and she has five people that live in her head and control her emotions, thoughts and memories. They are Joy, who seems to be the leader, Sadness, who the other 4 (especially Joy) seem to try and marginalise, Fear, would have been known as Anxiety in an adult, Disgust, a trendsetter and Anger, a short squat fireplug whose head explodes and catches fire whenever riled up, which is often.

When Riley's Dad gets a new job in San Francisco and takes his family from Minnesota to California, the girl's life is turned upside down. She has to leave her friends and the life she's always known and start all over again at the other side of the country, being 11 and transitioning from childhood to puberty is hard enough without adding that on top of it.

Inside Out did something that I don't think Pixar had ever attempted before, it told 3 stories concurrently. There's the story of Joy and Sadness, accidentally removing themselves from headquarters and having to navigate Riley's mind to get back there and take control again, being helped, or hindered depending on how one looks at it, by Riley's old imaginary friend Bing Bong. An unusual character; a mix of cat and elephant with a bit of dolphin, composed on fairy floss and who cries tears of candy.

Story 2 concerns the remaining 3 emotions, trying to run the show on their own and generally doing quite badly at it, especially when Anger takes the reins.

And the 3rd story is that of Riley dealing with the outside world and her own life, as well as her relationship with her parents. On that note, Pixar finally did some realistic looking people. The temptation would have been to focus on Mum's glasses or Dad's moustache and make them into caricatures, but they didn't. While I think Disney benefited more from Pixar's expertise than Pixar did from Disney's, the partnership between the two may have helped with animating people.

For the first time I think they actually 'killed' a character, with Bing Bong being lost and disappearing in the memory dump. The journey through Riley's mind was an adventure in creativity with abstract thought, the world of imagination, dreams and subconscious all making an appearance, and I almost forgot the train of thought. I did also appreciate Riley's imaginary boyfriend from Canada.

Inside Out took chances and it reminded audiences that the company could still produce intelligent, amusing films that appealed all both children and adults for different reasons. It is a joy to watch and for me actually improved on rewatches. It was a welcome return to form.

One thing I did find interesting was that when we got a peek into other people's heads they had the same 5 people, but they all had a characteristic of their host in common (Dad's all had moustaches, a teenage boy's all had his curly hair, a classmate of Riley's had the blue streak in their hair) and they were all the same gender as their host, but Riley's had no distinguishing feature in common and they were also of different genders, with Joy, Sadness and Disgust all being female and Fear and Anger being male. It may change when they press the Puberty button which appears at the end which Joy dismisses as not being important.

Casting:

Getting the emotions right was important and Amy Poehler was a great choice as Joy, the character being similar to the one that made her name in Parks and Recreation. I suspect Phyllis Smith's Sadness was not unlike the character she played on The Office. Diane Lane and Kyle Maclachlan were a good pair as Mum and Dad, and I could see them playing the same roles if they'd done a live action version of the film.

A Pixar stalwart in Richard Kind got the biggest role he'd had since A Bug's Life as Bing Bong. John Ratzenberger's cameo as Fritz passed almost unnoticed, and to be honest this time I wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't appeared at all.