Sunday, June 30, 2013

Theatre of Revolt - A slightly Outdated Treatise on Modern Theatre

Robert Brustein is a well-known academic in the theatre world, having established the Yale Repertory Theatre when he was working at Yale and established the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University, where he currently teaches. "The Theatre of Revolt" is one of his early books on theatre, published in 1962. He covers the modern theatre (late 19th and 20eth centuries) and approaches the authors he has selected with a common faculty of being part of "The Theatre of Revolt". The Revolt he mentions is indeed against the centuries old classical theatre starting with the ancient Greek writers (Sophocles at al) continuing with the Bard and coming as far as the works of Racine.

In the introductory chapter he classifies the works he will cover in the book into three threads which he calls the messianic, social and existential.

He starts with Henrik Ibsen and shows that although he started with messianic epics like Brand, Peer Gynt and Emperor and Galilean, he is more known for his later-era (modern phase) masterpieces such as A Doll's House and An Enemy of the People, ending with Hedda Gabler. Brustein covers the earlier, less-known period to show the hints of revolt in the plays of this master playwright more known for his subtle and quiet plays.

He continues with August Strindberg, who he shows to have reacted to several of Ibsen's play which he interprets as trying to undermine the masculine case. Brustein brings some Freudian interpretation to the perceived "woman-hate" Strindberg has sometimes been accused of. He covers two plays from Strindberg that explains his "worship" of the masculine: The Father and Miss Julie. He also covers The Dream Play, a grim phantasy reflecting Strindberg's contradictions.

The next revolter is Anton Chekhov. Brustein admits that it may seem like a strange choice to include a playwright who seems to be the gentlest, subtlest and the most dispassionate of all the great modern dramatists, but he proceeds to show that there is a revolt beneath the surface of most of Checkov's plays, but the technique he uses it does not expose it too openly. He covers The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard to support his position. This section probably contains the most interesting analysis in the book.

The next section is about Bernard Shaw, who supported a "frankly doctrinal theatre" to replace the "romantic" - a point of view fitting his socialist background. Brustein covers two epic plays by Shaw, Man and Superman and Back to Methuselah, rather than my favourite Pygmalion.

Brustein covers Brecht in the next section, but I was a bit disappointed by his treatment of Brecht as someone who is extremely divided by his ideological background and his uncertain convictions (my disappointment was stronger since I had bought the book specifically for the chapter on Brecht). He claims that Brecht was very much influenced by Büchner's Woyzeck and puts most of Brecht's work in the Existential Revolt category. I believe this is quite odd for someone who has almost single-handedly invented the Epic Theatre and introduced so many different techniques - such as Verfremdung (alienation) in contrast to techniques of identification actors used. He covers In the Jungle of the Cities and then tries to balance it by covering The Threepenny Opera in great length as well, then goes into Mother Courage and Her Children.

The next chapter covers Luigi Pirandello, especially his plays about the Theatre, including Six Characters In Search of an Author. Brustein favors Pirandello's Henry IV with its post-modern plot.
Brustein next covers Eugene O'Neill. Understanding that he should have at least one American playwright in his book, I can not imagine how he can not include Tennessee Williams, much more of a rebel than O'Neill. With this bias, I did not enjoy this chapter at all.

He concludes the book with an analysis of Antonin Artaud, the creator of Theatre of Cruelty and Jean Genet, its major practitioner. Although this chapter is a good analysis of this genre, it is surprising that he does not include Samuel Beckett, who had published most of his masterpieces by the time this book was written. Brustein acknowledges his error in the Preface to the 2nd edition he wrote in 1990, but the damage is done.

So, I would have given this a much higher rating if I did it in the 60's, but in this day and age the book seems a bit outdated, although some of the analysis is revealing and instructive.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Asperge's Syndrome and Murder in Jodi Picoult's "House Rules"

Jodi Picoult seems to work with a formula that mixes two themes in a book and tangles them within each other. Sometimes this combination works and sometimes does not (In Mercy, it certainly did not work for me when she covered euthanasia with the story of an unfaithful husband and on top of that included families of Scottish descent with all their traditions).

In House Rules, she is tackling Asperge's Syndrome at the same time she's looking into the strange quirks of the U.S. Legal System. Jacon Hunt is a very bright young man but he has been diagnosed with Asperge's Syndrome and consequently lives his life under self-imposed or seemingly immutable rules, a trademark of the syndrome. His main hobby is forensics, he watches TV series about forensic science and uses every opportunity to have crime scene simulations at home.

When his special needs teacher disappears and is found dead, he becomes an immediate suspect. His mother does her best (by herself, since her husband had left when the two children were young) to protect him during the trial and when he is under custody, but starts to wonder if he had maybe done it.

It is an interesting book in that it introduces the nightmare of an Asperge's patient and also highlights the total lack of knowledge in the Legal system about such patients and their rights during legal proceedings. Picoult keeps the tension high all throughout the book and also varies the perspective by switching from character to character in the narrative. All in all it is interesting as a crime book (almost a whodunit) but also as an insightful novel introducing a relatively unknown illness and its destructive effects on the individual and the family.

The Process of Dramaturgy - A Guiding Handbook on Dramaturgy

Dramaturgy is one of the "invisible" disciplines in the theatre, since its practitioners are typically projected externally during a production. Many people not involved with theatre might not even know the existence of this discipline, which is crucial for the proper staging of a play.

The Process of Dramaturgy (published in 2010) by three established dramaturge and academicians sets the stage for a proper process of dramaturgy to be applied. They cover this vast subject in three areas: Pre-production, Rehearsals and In-Production. For the pre-production phase, the book concentrates on the "hunting and gathering" tasks, ranging from producing the Dramaturg's Book, establishing a dialogue with the Director to setting up a conceptual / theoretical framework for the play. For the Rehearsals area the book focuses on the task of keeping the continuity. They also provide a lot of hints and hints for a New Play Dramaturg, who may have the chance to have the playwright also be involved - along with the Director - in the Premier production. This seems to be a new challenge, but also a good opportunity to improve the play itself with direct intervention and contribution from the playwright. The last section of the book is about the actual production. There is also a case study about the staging of Biloxi Blues by Neil Simon.

The book by itself can not be taken as a full-fledged instruction in Dramaturgy, for which you would need other books (such as "What Is Dramaturgy?" by Bert Cardullo) but it gives a very good checklist of things a dramaturg would have to thrive for and would be useful in academic environments and amateur/semi-professional groups.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

No mercy for the reader in Jodi Picoult's Mercy

Jodi Picoult's Mercy is attacking several topics at once. Cameron Macdonald is the police chief of a small town in Massachusetts that is full of people of Scottish origin. He has inherited the job from his father, who inherited it from his own father and so on. One day his distant cousin Jamie drives to his office with his dead wife beside him in the car and confesses that he has killed his wife out of mercy, due to the fact that she has an incurable cancer.

While the town residents take their respective positions for and against Jamie, Cameron falls in love with Mia, who is assisting his wife in her flower-shop. The mercy killing angle going in parallel with the affair make up an odd couple. After the middle of the book I had the impression that I was reading two separate books somehow mixed up in printing and have ended up under the same cover. It is really difficult to see what kind of parallel Picoult is finding between the concept of mercy killing or euthanasia and the exploration of infidelity, since these two themes do not seem to hang together well. I think she started with a good intention but the two stories somehow drifted apart and this resulted in a book which becomes confusing and rambles on without any apparent reason.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Can history be changed? The Butterfly Effect....

The Kennedy Assassination is one of the fixations of a few generations of Americans and the conspiracy theories that go with it have motivated people to write numerous books and shoot numerous movies with that subject.

Stephen King is taking on this task now. His protagonist Jake Epping is a teacher who has been recently separated from his wife. He is friends with Al, the owner and cook of Al's Diner. One day Al confides in him. He is diagnosed with cancer and is in the terminal stage. He wants to share a secret with Jake. He has discovered a time-space anomaly (a "rabbit-hole") in his diner. Sending Jake through the anomaly so that he can experience the past, he explains what he has in mind. For some reason the anomaly is opening back in time in the year 1958, 5 years before President Kennedy is assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, or someone else, if you believe the conspiracy theorists.

Al explains that the rabbit-hole resets itself every timesomeone goes through it and he has done hundreds of trips, acquiring information that could be useful to prevent the Kennedy Assassination. Now that he's dying and his diner will soon be seized by the bank, he wants Jake to go back and stop the Kennedy Assassination.

Jake first tests the ground by going back and changing the past (thinking about the 'Butterfly Effect' all the time) by trying to change the destiny of the janitor who had lost his whole family to an abusive father. When that works - sort of - he decides to take on the big task and goes back. With his knowledge of the future and detailed notes he has with him, he can get a lot of money from bets.

What he does not know at the time is that the past is quite resistant to change and literally will do anything to prevent being changed. Maybe the trips do not completely reset the effect of earlier trips...

Worst of all is his new hindrance : He has fallen in love with Sadie, a young teacher who is now the love of his life. Can he risk losing her in his noble task? What would happen if he succeeds to prevent the assassination? What would the "Butterfly Effect" result in? As he is following the complicated itinerary of Lee Harvey Oswald as the calendar gets closer to 22 November 1963, he is trying to make sure he does minimal change to the past until he gets the opportunity to cancel the big event.

King is not really interested in a science-fiction background in his time travel story. He is interested in telling about a great love story and maybe - a little bit - all the values we have lost from the 60's. It is a moving book and very enjoyable. I can easily see a movie deal out of this book, which would work quite well.

I had also liked "The Butterfly Effect", the 2004 movie with Ashton Kuscher, which went far to show what the effects of changing the past may do to the world.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Koontz in an Old Novel

Laura Shane seems to be protected by a mysterious stranger throughout her life, especially when she is targeted by a pervert in the dormitory she's staying with other orphaned children. Several years later the mysterious protector appears again and tries to protect her from attackers who seem to have come out of thin air. Are these time travellers from the future? Why are they trying to kill Laura?

This is Dean Koontz' novel from 1988 and it is unexpectedly good. It is a little bit difficult to follow, but very enjoyable.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Baldacci has Government Secret Agencies tackled

Baldacci keeps turning out interesting books whereas writers like Tom Clancy are in great decline. This book does not have the familiar protagonists Baldacci likes to write about (e.g. Oliver Stone, Maxwell & King). It is the story of a contract killer, Will Robie,  who works for a clandestine agency within the bowels of the U.S. government to eliminate threats that can not be handled through regular means. One of his missions goes awry when he refuses to kill the woman he is assigned to kill, as a sniper kills the woman and her child.

>WHile trying to find out what has happened and escaping certain death due to his refusal to carry out his mission, Robie teams up with a teenage girl who has just witnessed her mother being killed. Right afterwards they escape together from a bus with a killer targeting one of them when the bus abruptly explodes.

The story is complex and the plot is elaborate, so Baldacci comes up with another enjoyable book, albeit not extraordinary for him.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Parallel Universes and Koontz

If I were to guess who could write a fantastic novel that explains the parallel universes theory embedded in quantum physics without using a single scientific reference but still making it believable, I would probably have said Dean Koontz. This extraordinary novel published around 10 years ago has somehow missed my attention and I discovered it lately.

It uses the technique of parallel and seemingly independent flows about seemingly unrelated people, only to join their fates together and bringing the book to an ending that is extremely full of hope.

The book is narrating the story of Junior, who suddenly kills his wife who he loved almost to a degree of worship; the story of Seraphim who was raped and could not tell anyone and now has to go through a soon-to-be-revealed, secret pregnancy and Agnes, who has to raise his newborn child without her husband who just perished in a car accident trying to get her to the hospital. Along with these three main streams of narrative, there are various side characters who take on a much greater role later, such as the rogue cop Vanadium who can literally make coins (quarters) disappear.

Koontz has an interesting style that is sometimes difficult with his references forward and backward in time. The style reminds me of another Koontz book, Life Expectancy, published in 2004.

This is one of his books I enjoyed most, possibly because of the parallel universes link, but in general it is a well-developed story with its share of scary psychos and genuinely "good" people.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Tom Clancy's Unbelievable Decline

I wonder what has happened to Tom Clancy. He keeps bringing out books co-authored with different authors and the quality goes down and down, suggesting that he is probably lending his name to these projects and the books are actually written by his co-author. In this book he is contemplating a scenario that Mexican drug cartels and the Taliban are cooperating and the U.S. is trying to stop them with mixed success. Too long and convoluted sections, mildly interesting plot and a big disappointment....

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Books about Playwriting

I started to read some interesting books about theatre and the art of writing plays. Here are some initial impressions:

David Edgar is an established British playwright and he is sharing some of the techniques he believes to help successful plays in this well-written book. Using examples from classical and modern plays, he emphasises the aspects of a play that he sees as important and suggests several techniques which help to improve that particular aspect of a play. It is an easy-to-read book and gives readers and aspiring playwrights a few good directions to improve their skills in reading or watching a play as well as writing plays.

This is a book that goes into a lot of the practical aspects of writing and staging plays. It spends less time on the techniques for writing plays but more on producing several drafts of the play, the right time to send it for review or inclusion in a repertoire, the business aspect of staging plays, amateur vs. professional groups, rehearsals and other details of production. Certainly a complementary text on any books you may read about writing plays. Tim Fountain is a British playwright who has a lot of experience in these matters and narrates these in an easy-to-read, practical style.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Ender's Game Series - Books with Conscience

Ender's Game

Being a SF fan since I was probably 14 years old, it is difficult for me to explain why I haven't read any of the Ender books from Orson Scott Card. Of course it is never too late, so I started with the first book in the series.

Card tells us the story of Ender (Andrew) Wiggins who is the "third" child of an overpopulated Earth of the future where you have to give away a lot of your rights and privileges to have more than two children. Humans have barely defeated the "buggies", or insect-like aliens who have almost devastated the Earth with their superior technology. Earth has one last chance to avert the disaster that can strike them if the buggies attack again, and this chance relies on genius children playing sophisticated wargames in order to raise tomorrow's commanders.

It is a thrilling narrative with a lot of morality questions and a surprise ending. Card has learned a lot from Ursula K. Le Guin in terms of style and even uses one of her inventions in the novel as a tribute. Highly recommended if you like SF which is more than blast-them-up-aliens.

Speaker for the Dead

The second book in Orson Scott Card's Ender series has a completely different style. Continuing the story from the first book, Card brings us to the far-away colony of Lusitania which has a Catholic society mostly of Brazilian/Portuguese origin. He goes to the planet to speak about the life and death of two colonists who have been killed by the "piggies" endogeneous to Lusitania, in his capacity as Speaker for the Dead. Leaving his sister and accepting the fact that more than 20 years will pass in the trip (although subjectively a few weeks due to relativistic  speeds) and things may change, he is also carrying a terrible secret with him. Shunned by the colonists, he tries to establish contact with the piggies, risking a death as terrible as the ones instilled on the two humans previously.

This is a very philosophical book and might be difficult to read at times (due to slow and heavy narrative), however it establishes Card as a prominent SF writer with larger-than-life plots.

I did not like this book as much as the first Ender book, but would still recommend it. Note also that both books won the Nebula and Hugo awards (most important awards for the SF genre).


The third book in Orson Scott Card's "Ender" series is a long series of philosophical discussions and little action. This time we are in Lusitania, the setting of the second book, but frequently brought to Path, another colony planet which has lots of "Godspoken", namely privileged people who are very intelligent but also have to go through obsessive rituals to respond to "Gods' requests". While Ender is trying to keep in balance the three societies in Lusitania, he is also searching for the origins of the Intelligent Software "Jane" and trying to understand how it came into being.

I think not everyone would enjoy this book, which is a mix between a Quantum Theory textbook and religious script, however Card raises very human issues and encourages the reader to think about extreme situations where all the values of humanity have to be questioned.

The fourth book of the Ender novels from Orson Scott Card is again a massive tome of a lot of dialogue and little action. This time Card is pursuing the events at the end of Xenocide, which has really not reached a conclusion. This book is focusing on the struggle to keep Jane, the sentient computer program, alive against the wishes of the Terra Congress which is trying to get rid of her. At the same time, Ender is coping with the strange situation of having to control unconsciously three individual bodies with three manifestations of his aiua (soul?). Lusitenia is still in danger of being completely annihilated with a supermassive bomb and everyone is arguing their version of philosophical and theological conjectures. It is a difficult book to read and not everyone would like this style, however I found it quite readable. This is officially the end of the original Ender books but there are more shootoffs that go into the details of some of the earlier stories.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Nora Roberts' Formula Works Again

Nora Roberts'  books have a typical formula: It is a mix between a Harlequin Romance (admittedly a bit more 'saucy') written for a female audience and a Jeffery Deaver-style crime novel. This formula once again seems to work in "The Search". Fiona Bristow is living in a small island community and operating her Dog Training business. She is actually hiding a secret in her past. She had been kidnapped by a serial killer but has escaped, but has paid for this when the escaped killer comes back and kills her boyfriend. Although this has happened several years ago and the serial killer has been caught and convicted to life without parole, she has still not completely immersed herself back to normal life. The she meets a carpenter who lives next door and brings his dog for behavior training.

There is a romantic interest and everything seems to be getting better, but then the murders start again.

Yes, Nora Roberts' books seem to be formulaic but they seem to work and I enjoyed this one as well.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Jeffery Deaver's Musical Debut

Jeffery Deaver is back with another novel featuring his "kinesics" expert Catherine Dance. Dance is helping local law-enforcement authorities in Fresno to track a killer who seems to be obsessed with young Country music star Kayleigh Towne. They have already pinpointed an aggressive fan, Edwin, who does not shy away from getting close to Kayleigh in the wake of an upcoming concert. But is he the one who has planned and executed several murders seemingly inspired by Kayleigh's latest song

Jeffery Deaver is notorious for his twist-and-turn plots that keep the reader guessing and failing and guessing again. This is another example of this successful formula. A bit slow-evolving, the book catches up later and becomes another enjoyable Deaver adventure. There is also a surprise appearance by the other main Deaver protagonist, Lincoln Rhyme.

The songs forming the background of the book are actually real songs composed by Deaver himself  and there is an album featuring the songs that you can buy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Second World - The Future of Virtual Reality

This is an interesting book. Written around the time cyberpunk was rocking the science-fiction world, it was published much later, in 2008 due to the fact that the publishers did not think much of its presence, until several years later, when the technologies mentioned in the book are no longer totally fiction.

The book depicts a world in around 2044, where Europe and the Western world has been separated from the rest of the world by walls and a mega-virtual-world called Second World (or The Brick) has permeated every aspect of real life. Regulated and monitored by governments and the United Nations, this Second World is as real as it gets. When the U.S. President gets kidnapped in Second World, a GameMaster from the U.K. is brought to find him. As he gets dragged into the controversy he realizes that he is becoming targeted as the prime suspect. Clearing himself requires him to go and beat the dragons and reach the ultimate goal of gamers.

Very interesting treatment and dynamic narrative. Apparently 3 more books are in the planning stage.

Parallel Worlds and Creating Universes

I had read the previous two books of Brian Greene with fascination. In the Pulitzer-Prize finalist The Elegant Universe, he explained String Theory to a non-physicist using very rich descriptions. In The Fabric of the Cosmos he widened the scope to explain many physical phenomena, using Quantum Theory as a basis. In this latest book, he is taking on the concept of parallel worlds. The math and physics used is much heavier than the other books, but he has a way of explaining these in an understandable language - at least to an engineer. The concepts are a bit mind-boggling, but that's expected.

Games and a Better World

This is a very exciting and interesting book for an avid gamer like me. Dr. Jane McGonigal has been with the gaming industry for a while. She has started to notice that games have far more positive effects than just being a way to pass time or to have escapist fantasies. She summarizes the positive effects of games in a variety of "fixes" where she shows how games can be even better than real life. She argues that individuals can have a much richer life experience especially  if they pursue collaborative games with a social theme (massively multiplayer collaborative games included) and that people can have a real effect on the real world around them.

Giving examples and references to real social games that have been created in the past for such purposes she proceeds to show what benefits the intellectual energy flowing into these games might accomplish. After all the negative media attention games have had after tragic events like Columbine or the Norway murders recently, it is good to see a positive angle on computer games. Certainly a book to read and discuss.

Characters with life

This novel from Karen Fossum, a Norwegian crime fiction writer starts with an interesting premise: What if one of the characters an author is creating confronts the author and asks to have a say in his fate? This is what happens to the author in this novel. A character who was number two in the queue of characters that could potentially be part of a successful book slips into her room at night and asks to be processed with priority.

The events in the novel unfolds after this request. The character is a shy man working in an art gallery and has little contact with fellow human beings. One day a junkie from a nearby park drops by the art gallery and he offers her a cup of warm coffee. It would be very difficult to get rid of her andy the whole destiny of the character changes after this seemingly humanitarian decision.

Interesting concept, but the handling of this was not really done properly and the ending is pretty unbelievable. Missed opportunity, in my opinion.

The Life of Bach

This is a book by a Harvard Professor and it really shows, in the painstakingly described details of the effort to reconstruct Bach's life in many towns in Protestant Germany in the early 18th century. However, the book does not go into an analysis or evaluation of the genius of Bach in the music world except when it's trying to explain how or why he did or did not get a particular job in his career. It does not describe any details of his personal life or his character. This could of course be due to the fact that the man has not given away any hints in any correspondence and there is very little evidence survibing, except for church records describing official transactions or payments to him. This reduces the value of the book for me (as compared to something like "Gödel, Escher, Bach" which looks into the genius behind the man. Still mildly interesting in understanding the 18th century music establishment of Germanic city-states.

Monday, April 02, 2012

What could be the cost of eternal life?

I had thoroughly enjoyed the book Logan's Run when I read it in the 70's. It described a dystopian future where anyone who reached the age 21 (shown by a crystal which turns black at age 21) is ritually killed, in order to prevent overpopulation and other problems. Logan, a Sandman whose duty is to enforce this system, helps a fugitive, Jessica and becoemes a fugitive along with her. Pursued by his ex-co-workers, they try to find the legendary Sanctuary where Runners might find refuge.

This insightful novel was later adapted to the cinema in 1976 starring Michael York and Jenny Agutter. The movie was OK and enjoyable.

The 2011 movie In Time, starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried hace a very similar central theme. In the future world of this movie, humans have been genetically engineered so that they stop aging after they are 25, and they are given 1 year to live. However they can earn more time by various means (including actually working, stealing and other means). Once their (clearly visible) body clock reaches 0, they drop dead on the spot.

In this dystopian future, time is the currency. You can also see the reflection of today's capitalist society where nobody cares about fellow human beings (not giving them even a minute even though they are about to die). Shocked by his mother's unexpected sudden death, Will Salas embarks a journey to take revenge on the society, and especially the very powerful people who run it.

I am impressed by Justin Timberlake's strong portrayal of Will Salas (the first time I had watched him was in the Facebook movie). Amanda Seyfried is a graceful companion to him. The conclusion of the movie is a bit weak, but it is an acceptable handling of an interesting concept, with a few hot action scenes thrown in.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Mistborn Book 2 : The Well of Ascension

{EAV:946bfee5f3c91f11} In the second book of the Mistborn series, Brandon Sanderson looks at the events after Vin has taken over the protection of the city Luthadel along with Elend Venture and is trying to resolve some more mysteries from the Lord Ruler's past. As several armies are sieging the city and watching each other to see signs of weakness, Vin has to come to terms with her wild nature and has to discover even more powers that she is not aware of. It is a good sequel to the first book, but seems to lose focus from time to time, then wraps up properly towards the end and opens up new questions that will haunt us until we read the third book.

Fantasy with a Physics background : Mistborn

It is difficult to come up with a different concept in the Fantasy Genre since masters like Tolkien have covered almost all the important plot elements. Exceptions on this rule are authors like Ursula K. Le Guin who has focused on the human elements, Robert Jordan who built elaborate worlds and George R.R.Martin who combined elements of medieval earth kingdoms with strong fantasy elements. Sanderson does this successfully as well, when he creates a world where Allomancers use metals to perform extraordinary feats. Vin is a Mistborn who combines all of the talents of Allomancers but is not aware of her powers. Being part of a group of thieves, she is trying to survive in this harsh world of Nobles and skaa (poor common people). She will be a key element in the rebel against the immortal Lord Ruler. Good plot, novel fantasy elements. Surely a good opener to the Mistborn series.

Poe's Torment : The Blackest Bird

Big disappointment. Joel Rose brings us to the dark world of 1840's New York and follows a murder mystery that brings our attention to the famous poet Edgar Allan Poe. However, the mystery and whodunit aspects are lost in the archaic use of language, uninteresting and long passages that are reflecting the author's knowledge of those times rather than contributing to the mystery and we are left with a bitter taste in our mouth when the book is finished.

Biography of a Visionary : Steve Jobs

It was exciting to read this candid biography about this troubled man who was so influential in building the personal computer industry and reinvented himself and his company to bring mobile computing a completely new vision. It is a fair treatment of the virtues and vices of Steve Jobs and contributes to a much better understanding of some of the decisions along a long career. Certainly a book to be recommended.

Another Nora Roberts Mystery : Angels Fall

Nora Roberts has once again created a compelling atmosphere for this thriller. Reece comes to this small Wyoming town, getting away from the horror in her past. As she takes on a cook job and tries to relax in this forgotten corner in the middle of a terrific nature, she will find out that it is not always so easy to leave the past behind.

Roberts builds up her story slowly, and you keep wondering how it is going to develop. Of course she uses typical 'whodunit' plot mechanisms (after all, Agatha Christie probably used all possible plots in her novels) but the result is not obvious at first. Character development is also given at an appropriate level so that the story does not stagnate or get boring.

The book version of a cult film : 2001 A Space Odyssey

I had seen the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" in the early 70's. It was an amazing movie for its time, the gorgeous visuals from Kubrick, great soundtrack and a mysterious, unexplainable plot that put the movie in a cult status. The ending of the movie was also very abstract and did not offer much of a clue about the meaning. In the book, the omniscient author explains a lot of stuff and I think this makes it less interesting. All in all a good book, but not as impressive as the movie.

The Camel Club is Back! : Hell's Corner

Oliver Stone is back! The most interesting protagonist i Baldacci's books, introduced in The Camel Club is back in this book, following a terrorist incident that occurs in front of the White House, assisted by a British MI6 agent and gets tangled with a complex conspiracy. I am surprised that the Camel Club series has yet to be adapted to big screen, since it is a natural for cinema.

The new Clancy : Dead or Alive

When I see a famous writer co-author their book with a relative unknown, I usually get a negative feeling. Someone like Tom Clancy would do this for one of few reasons: He may have run out of steam and needs a fresh player, or he may be putting his name on a relatively novice writer's book.

I had more or less written Clancy off when I read his Teeth of the Tiger. Telling the story of an attempt to catch a world-known Islamic fundamentalist terrorist, it used Clancy's popular themes and narratives, but did not really go anywhere, unlike his many best-sellers.

Dead or Alive continues the story. To my surprise, it is a well-written book. Okay, it does  not have the wild plot elements Clancy used in his previous best-sellers (notably Executive Orders, which eerily shadows the still-to-come September 11th) but the action is fine. It will probably map veteran readers happier as compared to newcomers, since it has a lot of the old friends. Jack Ryan senior is back, and it is obvious he will have a big role in the next book.

Book 2 of A Song of Ice and Fire : A Clash of Kings

This second book of George R.R. Martin's series "A song of Ice and Fire" is concentrating on the efforts of several kings to defeat their opponents and rule the realm of Westeros. The second book starts slower than the first, but gets more interesting with lots of small or large battles, betrayals, reversals of fortune and similar acts that made the first book so interesting and triggered a much-acclaimed TV series. If you can keep up with the multiple parallel stories which cross each other, diverge and come back again later, then you will enjoy this book as well.

Book originating classic Movie : Ben Hur

The 1959 movie Ben Hur is one of my favorites. Although it has a subtitle "A Story of the Christ" the William Wyler movie has under-emphasized the Christian theme and concentrated on the revenge. Charlton Heston is superb in his portrayal of Judah Ben Hur, especially in the chariot race scenes and in general.

I discovered the Kindle edition of the original Lew Wallace novel and downloaded it with excitement. Oh God! What a bore! It is very long, didactic, uses a very archaic style. The scriptwriter was very skillful, to carve a good story out of an awful text.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Game of Thrones : The Tudors crossed with High Fantasy

Lately my appetite for fantasy books was whetted by the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. The downside of that series was that the books were quite long and the plot took so long to develop. Of course this helped create a very complex background and would create a large community of fans who devoured every detail in the 13 (soon to be completed in 14) books.

The newest fantasy series that took this genre with a storm is A Song of Ice and Storm by George R R Martin. The fifth book has just been published and it looks like the series has another two books to be published.

A Game of Thrones is the first book of the series, and it has just been covered in a very successful HBO TV series (first season covers the first book, but the whole series is named Game of Thrones and the second season is sure to be filmed). The book is - in contrast to the Wheel of Time series - very action-oriented. Although it presents lots of characters and a complex history, it has proper progress in every chapter and seems to have been written with a cinematic representation in mind. Although there is very little hint of supernatural in the first book, the signs are there, hinting that there will be more coming.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and will be starting the second one in the series soon.

Wheel of Time : Lord of Chaos

This 6th book in the Wheel of Time series has some extraordinary events, new alliances and new enemies. As Rand is moving to extend his reign to other lands and to prepare for the final battle, the Tower is preparing to strike at him, just like the renegade Aiel tribe the Shaido. Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve are increasing the variety and scope of their abilities, with surprising impact on their status within the Rebel Aes Sedai.

Aes Sedai from the Tower are moving against Rand, planning to capture and bring him to submission.

It is obvious that things will soon light up as the books unravel more action towards the Final Battle.

Wheel of Time : The Fires of Heaven

The Forsaken have been released already and making trouble for Rand in this 5th book of the Wheel of Time series. Perrin is getting married, the Rebel Aes Sedai are trying to survive and observe what the new Amryln Seat is trying to do.

While the Forsaken are springing their trap for Rand, Nynaeve is having her battle with one of them as well.

Things are starting to move and the series is getting more dynamic with each book.

Wheel of Time : The Shadow Rising

Perrin goes back to his hometown to protect them from the evil; Rand is trying to get the support of all the Aiel tribes; Egwene, Nynaeve and Elayne are roaming the dream world of Tel'aran'rhiod searching for lost and powerful artefacts and also actively searching the renegade Black Ajah.

Elaida is plotting a takeover of the Amryln Seat that will make the Aes Sedai split and the Tower broken.

Things are brewing in this 4th book of the Wheel of Time series, and if you can patiently follow the slow tempo, you will be rewarded with even more characters and events setting up the stage for later books.

Wheel of Time : The Dragon Reborn

This is the third book of the Wheel of Time series. In the previous one Rand had for the first time used the One Power in Falme to defeat a great collection of forces which included the Seanchan, who used captive Aes Sedai to crush enemies. Now that he has been identified as a possible Dragon, his enemies multiply. Rand is also desperately trying to control his newly apparent powers, which always threaten to destroy him and the ones around him. Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve survive the ter'angreal to become Accepted  on their way to become full Aes Sedai.

The Aiel show themselves in this book and show their allegiance to Rand. They all descend on Tear, to accomplish one more step in the Prophecy about the Dragon Reborn. A slow-moving book, introducing many complexities to the story and preparing the next books.

Wheel of Time : The Great Hunt

The second book in the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan follows the adventure of Rand al'Thorn and his friends as they are trying to get back the stolen Horn of Valere (which will be needed - as Legend says - in the Final Battle against the Dark One).

As Rand tries to resist the temptation to use the One Power in this dangerous journey and tries to avoid being manipulated by the Aes Sedai, he is also denying the claim that he is the Dragon Reborn, who will fight the battle against the Dark One before the World is broken again.

Another hefty tome which can be sometimes difficult to follow. One thing that puzzles me is that the Dark One is so lame (OK, he is bound by several locks and can not come into the world, but still....)

A little bit repetitive in its structure, it still introduces a lot of new characters and races/creatures to make one wonder how the story will continue.

The Wheel of Time : Great Fantasy Series

Another fantasy series in the Lord of the Rings style. Some of the themes are familiar, such as the Dark One rising again and simple individuals discovering their skills and prominent role in preventing the Evil that is rising. This hefty tome of almost 700 pages has a slow pace but slowly engages you more and more to the story.

Although the story seems to be properly concluded, you wait for the next book, knowing that there were 13 books in total in the lifetime of Robert Jordan, who passed away.

Terror in London

A fast-paced novel from British author Michael Robotham. It starts with the protagonist Sami Macbeth going out of the London Tube just after there has been a major explosion in the same wagon he was in. Then the story is told from the beginning.

The story is gripping and told with a flowing narrative with British humor interspersed with an action adventure. The resolution including the ending is a bit weak in this otherwise exciting novel. I think it would be a great movie material.

Allison Croggon and the Pellinor series

It is always difficult to evaluate fantasy books without comparing them to genre classics like Lord of the Rings or Earthsea.

Allison Croggon has created a familiar atmosphere in the first book of her Pellinor series named The Naming, introducing Maerad, a common slave girl who discovers that she is a Bard (a sort of Mage) and is the sole survivor of the House of Pellinor. Pursued by the Dark, she runs from location to location meeting other Bards and trying to sort out friend from foe.

I found lots of themes from classical fantasy books, put together in a decent story. The rendering was harsher than expected with some bloody magic/battle scenes (book is recommended for 12+) and of course we have to read the later books to solve/understand a lot of the puzzles introduced. All in all this Australian writer has done an acceptable job and has put out a readable series.

The second book, The Riddle, follows Maerad as she continues running away from the forces of the Dark and meets more formidable enemies. We learn more about the world of the novels and the past of some of its heroes and villains. Maerad discovers more of her powers but also realizes that there are many missing parts of the puzzle she has to solve in order to stop the Dark. It is a good continuation to the first book and an enjoyable fantasy novel in the tradition of Tolkien and LeGuin.

The third book, The Crow, follows the story of Hem, Maerad's recently-discovered brother, who has been sent to the South to hide from the agents of the Dark. However, trouble is brewing in the South close to Den Raven where the evil Nameless One is assembling his armies for a final assault into the Kingdoms and Annar.

Hem discovers his strengths and weaknesses whereas we do not hear from Maerad in this volume. However Hem will discover something that will tell him how he might help Maerad in her quest to find the second part of the lost song in order to stop the Dark from ruling the world once again.

In the fourth book "The Singing" we find Maerad and Cadvan struggling with the onslaught of a formidable army including several elemental beings whereas Hem is looking for Maerad along with Saliman. Finally reunited, brother and sister now have to make the Treesong whole again, but this is not as easy at it seems.

Somewhat low-key ending to an enjoyable series. I think it could be good movie material.