Reviews: Prince of Persia, The A-Team, The Losers, Iron Man 2, How to Train Your Dragon

June 27th, 2010

Prince of Persia - 7/10

Pretty but silly. Unsurprisingly, they dropped historical elements into a multi-millenium blender, but as escapist fluff it was a fun movie to watch.

The A-Team - 7/10

A fun movie if dumb as a bag of hammers; the actors all fit nicely into their respective characters, including to my surprise Face, the bad guys were quite bad, the explosions were copious.

The Losers - 6/10

Although the characters were quite good, the movie never quite escaped from its own stupidity. And when I say the characters were good, I mean the protagonists - the bad guys were so unbelievable as to be moronic. Not even rising to the level of paper cut-outs. Every time any of them were on screen one could only ask "WTF?"

Iron Man 2 - 8/10

Gorgeous to look at, silly but well held together, and chock full of action. I'm a little worn by Tony Stark's self-pity - but then, I always was in the comic book as well, so at least it's accurate to the source material. They brought in the second Iron Man (James Rhodes) with too little introduction, but all of the actors did a bang-up job. Scarlett Johansson, although hot enough to create plasma, is quite simply not well-suited to be Black Widow. But that's just quibbling.

How to Train Your Dragon - 9/10

An excellent film. Simply excellent. It's so compelling to watch, and so inherently grounded in fantasy, that niggling questions never arise, and you can take things at face value and simply enjoy them. Also, the protagonist reminded me strongly of Ian Fagan.

Reviews: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Furies of Calderon, Academ's Fury, The Age of Napoleon, Changes, Empire of Liberty

June 27th, 2010

Well, we're moving back to Washington D.C. (actually, Virginia) this week, so if I want to not lose track of what I've read I better get it down!

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson - 9/10

A superlative finale to the "Girl Who" series by Larsson. It's a damn shame he died, I have to say; although it's kind of obvious that he wrote these books at least partially as wish-fulfillment fantasy, they are nonetheless compelling reading, with intriguing characters and well-paced action. I'm sorry to have reached the conclusion, but I am eminently satisfied with that conclusion.

Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher - 6/10

I wanted some light fantasy reading for an airplane trip, and this was it. Somehow it never grabbed me - the characters were not very interesting, nor was the fantasy world they were set in. I enjoy Butcher's other work but this series wasn't intriguing.

Academ's Fury by Jim Butcher - 6.5/10

Of course, it was a five-hour flight so I'd bought the first two. This one was somewhat better, introducing more complex characters and a more intriguing world, but the way he shuttled back and forth between ongoing battles at the end was annoying rather than gripping, and ultimately I doubt I will continue the series.

The Age of Napoleon by J. Christopher Herold - 7.5/10

I've been looking for a good book on the Napoleonic period, and Napoleon himself, so I picked this up. It's a bit dated at this point (containing asides to cold war and decolonization themes, the book was published in 1963) but offered quite good baseline coverage of the period and of Napoleon himself. I'm still seeking an excellent book on the subject, but Herold's entry did good work, was enjoyable to read, and particularly succeeded at stitching all of the disparate elements of Napoleon's arc through history together into a single coherent story.

Changes by Jim Butcher - 7/10

The latest in the Dresden Files novels, it was a good read but grimmer than earlier novels in the series, and that doesn't make it more compelling. Despite the fact that "important things happen", this one felt like filler.

Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 by Gordon S. Wood - 8/10

Another excellent entry in the Oxford History of the United States series. What happened after the American Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution? A surprisingly forgotten period of turbulence, uncertainty, and long-reaching precedents. Wood approaches the period more from a societal than a chronological or event-based narrative, and it serves him well; knitting together dates and events with societal change is a difficult art and Wood succeeds well if not flawlessly. My personal predilection is for a more event-driven narrative, but nonetheless an excellent and worthy book.

Reviews: The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings, King Leopold's Ghost, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire

May 20th, 2010

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie - 7.5/10
A promising start to a "dark" fantasy series. The characters are intriguing, the world is not particularly complex but nonetheless interesting, the plot moves along well. It spoke well for this book that although the pacing seemed a bit slow, I was always interested to see what came next.

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie - 7/10
Second in the 'The First Law' series. Very similar to the first, good writing, interesting story, intriguing characters. At the end of this one I did wonder, given the pacing, how on earth Abercrombie was going to wrap things up in only three books.

Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie - 5.5/10
...and everything sort of collapses, leaving me cold on the entire series. Lots of exciting things happen yet at the end I could only ask: what was the point?
I like "dark", "gritty" fantasy - I cut my teeth on Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (still some of my favorite books), tore through Glen Cook's Black Company series. Yet Abercrombie seems to inflict tragedy on his characters only for the sake of making the book dark, not because it logically follows or in any way improves the narrative. Narrative events should have meaning, not simply get inserted to maintain a certain tone. As I feared at the end of the second book, he ties everything up with a quite unsatisfactory knot and by the end really leeches out the importance of much of what has gone before - even within this book itself.
Which is a shame, because in the micro the writing is quite good and pulls the reader along. But this book really flubs the macro, leaving me shaking my head.

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild - 8/10
Just because I really like it, here's the poem from which the title is taken:

Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.

A fantastic work of non-fiction, detailing the colonial catastrophe that was the Belgian Congo, and revealing the individuals involved both in begetting it and in exposing and condemning it. Very well crafted and presented, and performs marvels in gleaning from very scant documentation the daily operations and life in a particularly afflicted place and time.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson - 8.5/10
Reading this book once again had me wishing I could read Swedish, as I know I missed a fair amount in translation. Nonetheless, a wonderful outing, with compelling characters, a really well-woven story, and crackerjack writing. I particularly appreciate it when a novel has the reader making discoveries as the characters do, rather than allowing the characters to possess knowledge the reader does not have, or trying to whip out an "aha!" moment based on information the reader was given but not made aware of its significance. Larsson really brings you along as the story unfolds. A great read.

The Girl who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson - 8/10*
Also a really compelling book - as with the prior novel, I was eager to get on BART to and from work each day so that I could read more. The asterisk, however, is there because The Girl who Played with Fire doesn't really have an ending. It reaches a climax immediately prior to the last page. From reading the descriptions of the third novel ("picks up immediately where the prior book left off"), it's clear that this book is actually only the first half of the entire story. A great first half, but not a complete story.

'Nother Band Name

April 25th, 2010

"10 Car Train" would be an excellent band name, especially for a group from the Bay Area.

I waffle on whether the numeric or alphabetic form would be better. I like the numeric a touch more, but "Ten Car Train" is easily abbreviated to "TCT", which sounds like an explosive narcotic.

Reviews: The Burning Land, Revolutionary Characters, Empires of the Atlantic World, Mysteries of the Middle Ages

April 19th, 2010

The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell - 7/10

Another enjoyable story in Cornwell's Anglo-Saxon series. Nothing to write home about, and Cornwell really stretches credulity in the way he returns Uthred to the side of Wessex, but a fun read nonetheless.

Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different by Gordon S. Wood - 8.5/10

I have read enough of Gordon Wood's opinions - he critiques history books for the New York Review of Books - to know that he is, shall we say, crotchety. Surly. Grumpy. Persnickety. I suspect I might be too, were I in an academic discipline where deconstruction and "political correctness" are so very much run amok. That said, he's also damned well-informed about early American history, and this collection of character portraits of the founding fathers is both concise and horribly interesting. I think he really drives home the understanding that the Founding Fathers were men of a very different era than the one they gave birth to. These character sketches are a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the men who shaped this country at its inception.

My favorite quote, which was good enough for Wood to use it twice in this book, is from Ben Franklin, writing about John Adams: "I am persuaded that he means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses."

I'm looking forward to reading Woods' contribution to the Oxford History of the United States series, the recently released Empire of Liberty; it's already receiving excellent reviews.

Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 by John Huxtable Elliott - 8/10

An interesting book which compares the British experience in the New World with that of the Spanish. Aside from starting a century earlier, the Spanish essentially became overlords of two large, existing cultural entities (the Incas and the civilizations of central Mexico), whereas the English started later and their relations with the natives were those of neighbors (frequently bad ones) rather than overlords.

The book delves much deeper, of course, although the scope of the work is such that even at 608 pages it really only shaves the surface: two continents' worth of differing experiences across three hundred fifty years, and even leaving aside the French, Portuguese, etc, the book skips much and gives much more only a bare mention.

Even so, it's packed with solid information and written well; it flows in a way that keeps the vast amount of data from being laborious. Most of the English colonial experience I was already familiar with, but much of the Spanish experience was new to me, so I enjoyed a fairly large amount of learning.

It amused me that the author was very much aware of the "yo-yo" nature of this book, namely that it turned constantly between similarities and differences. 'In this fashion, these colonies were alike, but in this fashion different, but even there these elements were similar, but of course these differences are evident...' It's not a flaw, nor do I know how else one might have dealt with the subject (particularly given that the book is quite precisely a comparison) but it was a humorous bit of self-knowledge.

Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World by Thomas Cahill - 4/10

Lots of interesting information in this book, which can best be described as "Unconnected Medieval People I Find Interesting, by Thomas Cahill". That said, there are enough places where he makes deliberate errors of conflation or omission that I dare not trust any of the material he presents; and he veers constantly into editorializing about current issues (e.g. the invasion of Iraq or the Catholic pedophelia coverup) so that the entire work basically becomes the quasi-historical grounding for Cahill's opinions. The fact that by and large I agree with him does not lead me to view the book with less distaste.