2011 Book Review Part 3

It wasn’t my intention to group similar books together, but it seems to have worked out that way.  Thus, this will be the comic post because I read quite a few graphic novel collections this year.

Alan Moore is one of the most highly-respected writers in the comic medium.  He has also gained an infamous reputation for slagging off virtually everything in the comic industry that isn’t his.  And whether or not you agree with is criticism of the modern comic industry, there is no accusing the man of being a hack.  Alan Moore has done much to influence the comic industry and propel it beyond escapism into postmodernism and philosophical territory.  This year I read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for the first time.  Of all his work that I have read (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The Killing Joke, and that Green Lantern story that has fueled most of Geoff John’s run), League may well be the most fun.  I enjoy the concepts of British Victorian Adventurers forming a secret league to fight evil, specifically evil that threatens the British Empire.  Not only was the first collection a fun read, it has made me curious about the other characters that I have not read, from Fu Manchu to H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon.  I also can’t help but wonder if Moore was influenced by Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton Family, or if he came up with this similar but distinct idea on his own.  Regardless, linking together these similar examples of adventurers is a fascinating exercise and the world Moore created is a fun conceptual playground.  His use of the Invisible Man is a bit disturbing, however.

Spurred on by the premiere of Once Upon a Time, I decided to revisit a series with a similar concept.  Bill Willingham’s Fables comics series by Vertigo likewise deals with fairy tale characters in our world, but that is where the similarity ends.  While the characters in Once Upon a Time have forgotten their pasts due to the curse enacted by The Evil Queen, Fables shows a group of exiles forced out of their homeland by a mysterious adversary who has been conquering the fable world.  The collections Legends in Exile and Animal Farm set up the two primary mundane world locations, the Fabletown ghetto in New York City and The Farm in rural upstate New York.  The city location houses the human fables, The Farm houses the non-humans.  These two collections lay the groundwork for the series.  It is quite imaginative and a lot of fun.  The first collection reads a bit like a television pilot.  It is the weaker of the two.  Animal Farm, however, finds its footing quickly as Snow White and her sister Rose Red must put down a rebellion led by the Three Little Pigs.  Animal Farm also introduces regular series artist Mark Buckingham, who is just brilliant.  If you don’t like the typical comic art cliches of men with six-pack abs and women with busts larger than their heads, Buckingham is your artist.  His characters look realistic and are realistically proportioned.  A warning, however: As Fables is a part of the Vertigo imprint, it is meant for mature readers.

The most-represented author on my reading list for 2011 was Grant Morrison.  I read six of his books this year.  You can probably tell I am a fan.  For Christmas I got the first volume of New X-Men: The Ultimate Collection.  In this title, Grant Morrison turns his deconstructionist eye to Marvel’s X-Men and attempts to re-imagine them for the new millennium.  Not all readers enjoyed what he did, but I feel he breathed new life into characters that were growing stale and uninteresting.  It seems that The X-Men were not developing beyond their 1980s archetype portrayal, and Morrison was not satisfied with this.  He changed their costumes.  He shook up Scott and Jean’s marriage.  He introduced a score of new mutants who couldn’t possibly pass as human.  And he introduced the idea that humanity was dying out, slowly being replaced by homo-superior and that a new race was evolving from homo-superior, one that would be more powerful than the mutants that humanity feared.  There is a wealth of interesting concepts here.  But with Grant Morrison, there always is.

The second Morrison book was volume two of his run on Animal Man.  It is a bit hard to review this work as I haven’t read volume one.  I found this one in a used book shop and bought it for fear of it not being there on the next visit.  Animal Man was one of the works that catapulted Morrison to stardom and it is well written.  The central concept seems to be about comic characters becoming self-aware as their Silver Age past is re-written for the darker modern era.  Suddenly faced with two sets of memories, sentience starts to dawn.  I’m eager to finish this series one day.

Finally, we have Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory, all four volumes of which were a birthday gift.  Outside of his work on Batman, this may be my favorite Grant Morrison project.  He revives the long defunct Seven Soldiers team by bringing together seven very different, some forgotten, heroes to fight a race f ofuturistic insectoid scavengers known as the Sheeda.  The Sheeda ravage the earth every few millennia to supply their own society with technology and sustenance.  Then they allow humanity to rebuild for the next harrowing.  The four volumes were collections of seven miniseries with bookends and the pieces of the plot were scattered across the various books, often given out of order.  This is a series that rewards multiple readings.  Each hero encounters his or her own pieces of the puzzle and no more.  The reader must do the work of putting everything together in the end.  Each hero is even ignorant of his or her own place in the team as the Sheeda attack any gathering of seven for fear of the prophecy that would usher in their destruction.  Thus, the Seven Soldiers of the title are working as individuals with no knowledge of one another, their actions guided by a mysterious group of men that exist just outside of reality.  I’ve given away enough of the plot, but there is so much more that I haven’t even touched.  If you enjoy high-concept fiction and don’t mind putting effort into piecing together complicated plots, you will probably enjoy this series.

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2011 Book Review Part 2

Today I continue reviewing my reading list from 2011.  I’ll start this second post with In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan.  I don’t often read health books, but this one was recommended and it was rather compelling.  The basic premise is that we have stripped our food into component vitamins and minerals.  In doing so, we don’t really understand how these vitamins and minerals work together in their natural state (in food) and we have over-processed what we eat, thinking by infusing the correct combination nutrients we will improve our health.  In reality, our society seems to show the opposite.  We are overweight and unhealthy with chronic diseases becoming the norm.  It is an interesting book.  Well worth checking out.

A few years ago I read the description of Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.  I thought it sounded like just the thought-provoking material I needed being a Christian in a quick-serve society.  The very idea that being obedient over a long period rather than quick spiritual fixes seemed refreshing.  Unfortunately, I found the book to be quite dry and dull.  There were a few moments that captured my imagination, a few concepts that made me excited, but these moments were just that: few.  This was only my second time of reading Peterson, and I was sorely disappointed as I enjoyed the previous book quite a bit.

On the subject of sophomore disappointments, Why We Love the Church by Ted Kluck and Kevin DeYoung was a letdown from their previous book Why We are not Emergent.  I found the latter to be interesting and informative while the former was a bit dry and had some heavy Reformed theology leanings.  While I don’t have a problem with Reformed Theology, per se, those who propound it can come across as narrow in their focus, espousing their view exclusively and dismissing other voices.  This particular leaning aside, it isn’t a bad book, just be aware of this going in.

Then there was Love Wins by Rob Bell.  I’ve debated what to say here, as I’m trying to be brief and this book can’t really be discussed in brief.  Suffice it to say, I think Bell is trying to make a point about Christians rigidly defining our view of Heaven and Hell, but in doing so, he carelessly implies views that are not only unorthodox but not really scripturally based.  Rob Bell writes as an artist and he is throwing his hat into the theological arena.  He needs to be clear and he needs to build good, strong arguments.  I don’t believe he does this.  Perhaps the lesson to take from this book is that Christians need to be thoughtful when establishing what they believe, rather than blindly accepting what leaders tell them is the truth.  They may end up believing what church leaders say, but it is far better to own your beliefs because it helps you to be sensitive to those who are not yet convinced.  You understand the struggle and the questions better.

A spiritual search was the focus of Peter Gilquist’s memoir Becoming Orthodox, where Gilquist chronicled his journey from evangelical Christianity to Eastern Orthodoxy.  I read this because I wanted to understand more of this branch of Christianity.  I have often had difficulties with the expression of visible mainstream Christianity in America, so I admit that this book was one that aided my particular search.  I enjoyed Gilquist’s writing and appreciated his explanations of various tenants of Eastern Orthodoxy.  While I still find aspects of it appealing, I am not in any place to consider a conversion.  Anglicanism, however, does seem a bit appealing, which brings me to my next book, Simply Christian by N.T. Wright the former Bishop of Durham.  I have been a fan of Wright’s work for a couple of years now, and found Simply Christian to be accessible yet challenging.  He recreates a view of Christianity that sacrifices nothing, but gives a fresh way of looking at the faith.  I also appreciate that Wright is willing to meet readers where they are.  He confronts current ideas and attitudes and shows how they reflect the broken nature of our world, then explains how Christianity confronts these ideas.  If Christianity seems stale or overly familiar, this is a good book to visit.

2011 Novels in Review, Part 1

A few years ago, while in a particularly sadistic mood, I resolved to read 52 books a year.  For the first two years, I succeeded in this.  Every year since then, however, has been marked by failure to meet this goal.  For 2011, however, I decided that it would be better to have a more realistic goal for my current place in life.  So, I counted up the books read in 2010 and added 20% to that total.  Twenty-percent seemed like a decent amount of growth to me.  Thus, my 2011 goal was to read 28 books.

For the final blog posts of the year, I want to look back over the year of books and see what I liked, what I didn’t, and what I learned (if anything).

Source: Wikipedia

We will start by going back to January.  Snow was on the ground and I was lamenting my lack of boots.  I had the day off work due to the snow so I was able to progress through The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.  This was a novel that couldn’t have had a setting that stood in greater contrast to Missouri.  The book took place in Los Angeles during the summer and had a brief interlude in Mexico.  The story concerned the investigation of the real-life Elizabeth Short murder over the course of the late-1940s. I was brought to this book because of a film-noir kick that I was (and still am) on.  I had watched the Brian De Palma adaptation and felt that the film had an interesting story at its core but was poorly told.  The novel was much better and the themes of obsession that hounded the main characters were much easier to see and believe in the book.  The book was compelling and well-written, but the content was quite disturbing.  Truth be told, given the details of the Elizabeth Short murder, there would be no way to tell this story without disturbing content.  Suffice it to say, this is not a light read.  But it is an excellent example of the neo-noir genre.

Source: Wikipedia

A second noir entry from this year was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.  I had heard some of the old Philip Marlowe radio episodes with Van Heflin and Gerald Mohr but this was the first of the Marlowe novels I had read.  The prose was quite enthralling.  Marlowe is a great narrator and his observations are witty and sarcastic.  This book was definitely genre-defining as I could see many of the influences in later films and novels traced back to here.  The mystery, one of blackmail and later murder, is compelling and it works.  There are very few leaps of logic for this story.  I was also amazed at how Chandler wrapped up some peripheral mysteries along the way.  The red herrings weren’t as unrelated as we had been led to believe.  Excellent stuff.  Also of note is the BBC Radio 4 adaptation that aired early this year.  It condensed the storyline into an hour and a half drama without skimping too much.

Source: Wikipedia

A third noir novel was The City and The City by China Mieville.  What made this novel unique, and one of my favorites of the year, was the ambiguity of whether or not this story was strictly realistic or a fantasy.  I reviewed the novel in more detail here, but for brevity’s sake, I thought it was a well-crafted murder mystery with some amazing philosophical depth that could be used to analyze just about any culture that has things it wants to ignore.  The two cities of the novel overlap, either topographically or dimensionally, and must “unsee” one another or risk invoking breach.  In truth, the potential sci-fi elements of the novel can be completely ignored and it can be enjoyed as a murder mystery involving a politically inconvenient investigation.  This was my first time to read Mieville and it will not be my last.

Source: Wikipedia

For quite some time the bookshop where I worked would store overstock books in the employee restroom.  The temptation to read on the toilet was quite strong.  It’s only fair, I feel, as many of my co-workers play on their cellphones or text in the bathroom, what is the problem with me reading, so long as I don’t take too much time.  Besides, sometimes the bowel movements are not very cooperative.  Anyway, over the course of 2011, I read A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room two or three pages at a time.  While it was amusing in many places, I can’t say it was a book I would purchase.  I truly want to enjoy the series, especially given the dark humor, but having now read the first two books, I find the series somewhat underwhelming.  I contemplated reading the third book, but when I saw Count Olaf returned for the third time, I started fearing the series would grow formulaic.  I may return to it some day when my “to read” piles have seen more progress.

Source: Stephen Lawhead's website

Sadly, another underwhelming book was Stephen Lawhead’s The Skin Map.  It started from an interesting premise, basically that reading the ley lines could transport people to alternate realms of existence, other times and places.  Honestly, it seemed a bit Doctor Who to me, and that is a good thing.  But as I read, I didn’t find the main character very engaging and found the sub-plot about his girlfriend starting a coffee shop in medieval Prague the most interesting part of the novel.  With all the action, adventure, and mystery of the novel, and I gravitate toward the food service sub-plot.  The must be something wrong with me.  I truly want to like this series, but at the moment, much like A Series of Unfortunate Events, I’m putting it on the back burner.  I love many of Lawhead’s Celtic books.  His retelling of the Robin Hood mythology as Welsh history was particularly engaging.  But with The Skin Map, I almost felt as if his writing style had been simplified.  Perhaps he wanted to make the book more accessible to those reading him for the first time.  Perhaps the shift was unconscious.  Regardless, I felt that, while the concept was great, the execution lacked something.

I think this is enough for part one.  Look forward to part two soon.

Doctor Who Story Number 046 – The Invasion

Written by Derrick Sherwin and Kit Pedler
Directed by Douglas Camfield

After dodging a missile, The TARDIS materializes in a compound owned by International Electromatics, the world’s largest electronics manufacturer. The Doctor decides it is time to visit Professor Travers, but soon becoming involved in a military investigation into the operations of Industrial Electromatics and its mysterious owner Tobias Vaughn.

“Packer!”

Normally I try to take a few notes on each episode and compile my final thoughts from there.  This time around, however, my notes are quite sparse and end partway through episode two.  I really enjoy this story.  It has my favorite Who director, my favorite Doctor, my favorite recurring villain, some great music, and Kevin Stoney as the human face to the alien invasion.  Honestly, I’m not sure Doctor Who ever produced an actor who played the antagonist as well as Kevin Stoney.  He sets the standard for villains.  He was great in The Daleks’ Master Plan and he is great as Tobias Vaughn.  Pairing him with the bumbling sadist Packer helps to lighten the tone.  The two make a great double-act.  Packer’s anxiety as plans start to crumble at The Doctor’s interference is wonderfully contrasted by Vaughn’s cold calm.  The implication that his body has been partially cyber-converted is downright creepy.  And his characterization holds throughout.  Vaughn is a brilliant mastermind.  He anticipates the eventual betrayal by The Cybermen.  He has prepared for it.  When it finally comes and he loses control, Vaughn sides with The Doctor, not for the good of humanity, but for revenge against his former allies.  For me, Tobias Vaughn is the real villain of the story.

This isn’t to discount The Cybermen.  I feel like The Cybermen have never been better than they have been in the 60s.  They weren’t played for humor as they often have in Cymru Who.  They were meant to scare.  Scenes of an insane Cyberman in the sewers, the invasion in the streets of London, The Cyberman who appears when Vaughn calls for Packer, these are all chilling moments.  Sadly, after the death of Vaughn, it all falls apart a bit.  The Cybermen are dealt with quite systematically and with little challenge.  It is a shame that after seven great episodes, the ending unfolds by-the-numbers.  I think this is probably the only weakness in the story.

Episodes one and four are missing from The Invasion.  For the DVD release, Cosgrove Hall’s animation team was commissioned to provide animated visuals for the soundtrack.  For the most part, I love the animation, but I feel that the work in the first episode is perhaps the best.  The arrival on Earth, combined with Don Harper’s music, is eerie.  The tone that is set is quite ominous and paranoid.  In all, I think the animation works well for this story and I think the idea of animating incomplete episodes is wonderful.  I’m excited to see further animation (from Big Finish) for the Reign of Terror DVD release.  It is worth pointing out that now that Galaxy 4 is incomplete (rather than completely lost as it once was) it would now qualify for animation status.  Just a thought.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that this is the first story where UNIT appears.  Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart informs The Doctor and Jamie that the para-military organization was created following the Yeti invasion.  We see here the format for season seven and beyond.  The Invasion is basically a preview of the Pertwee era.

Final Verdict: There is very little about this story that fails to work for me.  Eight episodes of Doctor Who will rarely fly by as fast as these.  If I were going to pick one story from the Troughton era to show to a new fan, it would be this one.

 

Coming Up Next: The next story is, of course, The Krotons.  The only problem is that I don’t have it.  The Region One DVD release is scheduled for some time in 2012, but no exact date is set at the time of writing.  At one time the serial was available for viewing on the BBC Worldwide Channel of YouTube, but for some reason it is no longer available for viewing in the United States.  I’m pretty sure I could get the story on iTunes, but I don’t know if I want to pay money for the digital copy, then more again for the DVD.  I could change my mind in the next few weeks if I start getting desperate for more Doctor Who content for the site.  Otherwise, expect a bit of a break from the classic series reviews for the time being.

And if I don’t see you here before then, a very Merry Christmas to all you at home (yes, I went there).

Grimly Shuffling Forward

I usually go to YouTube to find a specific video or check some channel that I enjoy, but after those videos have finished, I start checking out the recommended or similar videos and the next thing I know an hour has gone by and I can’t even remember why I was on the site to begin with.  Oddly enough, this is almost how I feel about watching Grimm.  The intriguing premise brought me to the show.  I like most of the lead characters.  But in the end, the similarity of the plots and slow pace are irritating me.  I want the show to go somewhere.  I’ve watched six episodes so far and apart from populating the mythology with diverse re-interpretations of fairy tales, the show just isn’t moving beyond the monster-of-the-week format.  Whatever arc is being told in this show needs to fire an unmistakable shot across the bow of the . . . um.  Okay, the metaphor fell apart, but I think you take my meaning.  For crying out loud, Once Upon a Time has already killed a major character, and I expect that show to fall apart at any minute.  But despite this fear, at least I feel like the show is going somewhere.

Here are some ideas that I think would make the show more interesting and shake things up a bit.

Another Grimm – One aspect I enjoy about the show is that Nick isn’t quick to fall into place.  Just because he is a Grimm doesn’t mean he kills indiscriminately.  Truth be told, he is a cop first, and a Grimm second.  I love this part of the show.  However, I think it is time to more fully draw him into this world and having a new Grimm show up to train him would be good.  Nick would be forced to protect the friends he has made thus far and make the choice between truly learning from his brethren or arresting him for unprovoked attacks on those he hunts.  This could lead to future stories where Nick would be an outcast from the Grimm line.

Surprise reveal – Nick’s girlfriend has been a wasted character thus far.  What better way to shake up the show than to reveal that she is an as yet uncataloged creature that worked her way into Nick’s life to watch him.  Or perhaps she could be part of the group of hunters like Captain Renard.

Regardless of where the show goes, I think it is time for it to start playing some major cards.  I’d like to keep up with it and see where it goes, but next year looks to be busy and I don’t know if I will have time.  But if something compelling happens, I’ll be sure to make time.

What do you think Grimm needs?  Do you think it is fine just the way it is?

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Directed by Guy Ritchie

Last week saw the U.S. release of the new Sherlock Holmes film, A Game of Shadows.  Being slightly behind the curve, I only recently saw the first movie.  In short, I didn’t like it.  Keep reading to learn why.

Sherlock Holmes: Steam-Punk Hero

Perhaps it is somewhat presumptuous to say so, but I love the character of Sherlock Holmes because I sympathize with him.  I sympathize with the tedium of everyday existence.  I understand the need to exercise the mind in a way to squeeze some sort of interest out of one’s surroundings.  I’m the type of person who spends a lot of time in his own head.  I’m happiest when I’m learning a new concept or trying to solve some sort of puzzle.  As such, I feel quite protective of the character of Holmes and Watson.  To me, the most important aspect of Sherlock Holmes is character.  To a degree, the story matters very little.  Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are not mysteries or “whodunnits”, they are adventures.  The clue is in the title.  Doyle crafted a series of stories suitable for the characters who inhabit them.  As it has been stated elsewhere, Sherlock Holmes stories are not detective stories, they are stories about a detective.  Thus, character is very important.

In Guy Ritchie’s imperfect interpretation, Watson is spot-on.  He is engaged in Victorian society.  He has a fiancee.  Jude Law plays the character to perfection.  No, what irks me so much about Guy Ritchie’s film is the character of Holmes.  His social inadequacies make him quirky.  His intellectual machinations often lead him to humorous situations.  In essence, the Holmes of this film is an intellectual idiot.  He is a bumbler who just happens to be very observant and able to put clues together.  And, being a Hollywood film, he is a good fighter.

I have no objection to the story itself.  Again, being a mystery in the style of Agatha Christie or P.D. James isn’t necessary.  An apocalyptic cult leader returning from the dead works on the fringes of the Holmes canon in much the same way the giant rat of Sumatra conjures images of the supernatural.  Doyle himself even tackled vampire lore in the Holmes canon. It is the title character himself who falls short in this adaptation.  Honestly, we don’t have Sherlock Holmes in this movie, we have “Robert-Downey-Jr.-Fresh-Off-Iron-Man-Playing-Sherlock-Holmes”.  Admittedly, as titles go, that would have been a mouthful.  This was an action film first and foremost.  Being male and having no particular attraction to Robert Downey Jr., I was unable to get past the flaws in portrayal.  As one of my co-workers advised me, I tried to think of the film as “action” rather than “Sherlock Holmes”.  But the other characters continued to call Downey “Holmes.”  I was unable to set aside my preconceived notions of who Sherlock Holmes is.  Perhaps if I had shot up on cocaine, I would have found it easier to engage with the movie.

Once Upon a Time – The Shepherd

Written by Ian Goldberg and Andrew Chambliss
Directed by Victor Nelli

The amnesiac David Nolan must decide to return to the wife he doesn’t remember or Mary Margaret, whom he is deeply attracted to.  

“I think this belonged to me.”
“Really.  Are you sure?”
-David and Mr. Gold

For the most part, this episode was a return to form.  And while Emma Swan was rather irritating and the CG was terrible, the emotional struggle of David and Mary Margaret made the episode satisfying.  First, I was nervous as to how this struggle would be dealt with.  All too often, the Hollywood answer is to “follow your heart.”  But how does one follow their heart when they exist in a dual state?  Prince Charming was married to Snow White, but David is married to Kathryn.  So far as we know, this new world, this mundane world, features fully-realized relationships.  How does one reconcile faithfulness?  Ultimately, David’s greatest crime is, as Mary Margaret said, leading her on.  Ultimately, David chose his reality, and that reality was Kathryn.

Rather than recap the story (which is still available on ABC’s website), I wish to engage in some wild speculation.  You see, I’m still holding this show at arm’s length.  The writing (for the most part) is good, but American television tends to fail on the long-running arcs.  I’ve mentioned before that I feel the best path for Once Upon a Time to take is to deal with arcs on a season by season basis, but I feel this is quite unlikely as we have been told that when the curse breaks the final battle will begin.  This leaves only two large arcs: Break Curse, Fight Battle.  Fair enough.  However, I would like this show to do something unexpected and mind-bending.  We have been told (in the opening sequence) that the fairy tale characters are now living in our world, but how much more interesting if they weren’t.  What if it is the same world?  What if the only thing that has changed are memories and perceptions of reality?  So what would this mean?  I believe that the rules would be the same.  We have seen that agreements hold, regardless of where they were made.  We have seen remnants of the old world (glass coffin, most of Mr. Gold’s shop).  If this were a different world, why would the old world exist in it?  I believe we are being told what Regina/The Queen believes to be true.  Mr. Gold / Rumplestiltskin may have crafted something more deceptive: two worlds which are really one.  Storybrooke IS the fairy tale world.  The greatest hindrance to breaking the curse, then, would be if everyone decided to stay because they chose Storybrooke as reality.  This may all be incorrect, but it would certainly be unexpected and so far, it fits certain clues we have been given.

What do you think?  Is my theory crazy?  Can you see evidence that I am wrong?  Comment below.