Friday, May 29, 2015

Movie Review - Sphere

Based on the book by Michael Crichton
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Liev Schreiber, Peter Coyote, Queen Latifah, Marga Gómez, Huey Lewis, Bernard Hocke, James Pickens, Jr., Michael Keys Hall, and Ralph Tabakin
Release Date: February 13th, 1998
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Psychologist Norman Goodman has been called to a crash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He assumes it's just another normal plane crash where he is there to help the survivors. Instead it's an alien space craft that has crashed and the bogus report he doctored up for the Bush administration is being used as the protocol for contact with these unknown entities. The rest of the team is made up of friends he randomly picked, including an ex patient and lover, Beth, who might have some severe issues as well as a prescription drug dependence. No on in the team is excited to head to the bottom of the ocean, but curiosity wins out. Though they are quickly disappointed. The ship is American, from the future. The only thing of interest is a giant, obviously alien, sphere. Plans are soon made to return to the surface because they were only brought in if this was first contact. No one to contact, no point in keeping the bogus response team on call. Then one of the team, Harry, goes inside the sphere and everything changes. They are trapped on the ocean floor and they soon start to die in quick succession. But what or who is manifesting these attacks?

After the disappointment that was Congo followed by the abysmal Spielberg interpretation of The Lost World most of my hopes for a decent adaptation of Sphere went out the window. Yet I was still there at the theater opening day despite all my reservations about the bad stunt casting and my total conviction that Samuel L. Jackson wouldn't work for Harry, I really was routing for Andre Braugher to be cast, and as for Dustin Hoffman, well, more on that later. I was disappointed. I knew I would be, which might have clouded my judgement a bit I will admit, but it couldn't be helped. Re-watching the movie for the first time in seventeen years it wasn't as bad as I remembered, and it was a shock to me that it's been seventeen years. Sphere's adaptation is still highly flawed, but they tried, unlike Congo and The Lost World, and in there, somewhere, is the essence of the book, you just have to set your expectations aside.

The main problem with Sphere is that it is a psychological thriller about the human imagination that someone decided it needed to eschew the understated and spell things out in letters that you can read from outer space. Because everyone knows that us consumers haven't a brain cell to share between us so go big or go home. Why be subtle when you can be direct? The movie takes away the sophisticated and psychological and hits you over the head with a big stick. Instead of drawing out the suspense and slowly building it by letting us acclimatise to the habitat under the ocean and making us feel that it's a safe haven, as the book does before the terror sets in, we go straight to Queen Latifah being killed by jellyfish.

We have known Queen Latifah's character all of two seconds before she's killed so we have no investment here. The book has periods of calm and intense action, creating more suspense. Here we have constant action, people running around a screaming, now there's a fire, but not a small fire, it's now Backdraft underwater, and Peter Coyote is cut in half by a door! Ah yes, doors, such an easy way to die! Because when in doubt panic and shout! I wanted the multiple interpretations and ambiguity that made the book something you want to go back to again and again, whereas the movie is just one and done. The prime example is instead of keeping it a secret as to who went into the sphere and then drawing out the reveal as to who is doing the damage, just show Norman going in right away. Spell it out for us dummies. I don't think it's surprising that I haven't watched the film since I saw it in the theaters, I'm also not surprised it bombed. Because once you get to the end and there's a flying golden orb shooting out of the ocean into the depths of deep space, if you were in any doubt as to the obviousness of the storytelling, well, your doubt would be gone.

The lack of subtlety translates itself well with the highhanded score. Here more then anywhere else we are repeatedly hit over the head with this epic score worthy of a Jules Verne adaptation. I would love to see this movie recut with a different score because I think this, more then anything else, could help up the psychological terror. Think of how spooky it would be with just silence and little bursts of music. When I think of what the ocean floor must be like, silence with a slight sonar ping is what comes to mind. There's a reason that Jaws has so little music, it works! Here it feels as if the secondary habitat just might contain the Phantom of the Opera testing out his skills in the South Pacific. 

But what annoyed me most of all, aside from that horrid opening credits with the font going from sans serif to serif when it hits a spherical shape coupled with the movie's primary font, was the drastic shift in characters. All the characters across the board seemed to have a drastic downshift in intelligence, Norman is more a putz with any of his good lines being given to Harry, but never is that more clear then with Beth. Beth is complicated yet fiercely intelligent in the book, here she is debased by being sidelined by making her nothing more then part of Norman's backstory. Yes, by all means take this strong and interestingly complicated character and make her a bimbo with many issues, a prescription drug habit, and a chip on her shoulder from a very inappropriate affair with Norman. In fact it strains credulity that Dustin Hoffman could have ever in any known universe pulled Sharon Stone.

Speaking of Sharon Stone, I do wonder how much the character shift was based on casting. Samuel L. Jackson was a big star, this movie falling right between Pulp Fiction and Star Wars, so they beefed up his role. Sharon Stone, the femme fatale, well, obvious sex her up and drop down that IQ. What annoys me though, is aside from Dustin Hoffman, this was a perfectly cast movie. If the characters had stayed in line with the book this could have been the best adaptation of a Crichton novel yet! And I seriously take back any doubts I have about Samuel L. Jackson, because him and Sharon Stone made this movie work to a certain extent. It's Dustin Hoffman where everything falls apart. He just might be one of my most hated actors ever. I have liked him in all of two movies, Hook and Kung Fu Panda. That is it. He is an annoying putz that I just want to smack. He has no range and is almost always playing the same character. Hoffman is doing a disservice to the character of Norman, but the worst was having Norman say that he falsified his report to the government. Yes, I can see the Dustin Hoffman Norman doing this. The real, true Norman? No way!

Putting aside the bad casting what it all comes down to is that a movie needs to be a movie and a book needs to be a book. For some reason the movie, despite going off on wild tangents, kept trying to force the book's structure onto itself. With that horrid font setting up sections like "The Monster" it felt like the movie was too scared to try to find it's own identity and therefore clung to a gimmick that worked in the book because time was spread out and there were gaps between the manifested attacks in which tension built. By having the movie be in your face every second, well, sometimes those little sections would be mere minutes apart and just took away from the film. The only time the movie really just broke away from the book was in the hallucinatory ending in the sub that felt so forced I actually was feeling sad for the movie. Sphere just didn't know how to be it's own thing and it died a pathetic death. You can watch it for the potential, but it was wasted and might just leave you depressed. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Book Review - Michael Crichton's Sphere

Sphere by Michael Crichton
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: May 12th, 1987
Format: Paperback, 371 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Norman Johnson is a psychologist who is often asked to come to plane wrecks to help the survivors. But years earlier he worked on a secret project for the government wherein he was asked to think about the hypothetical event of the wreck being extraterrestrial in origin. He thought it was all a joke, but took the job because with a wife and a family who was he to turn away good money? It was no joke. He is now in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and before him are the candidates he had suggested would make the ideal welcoming party. There has been a crash. This crash though is unlike anything he could ever have expected. The "vessel" lies at the bottom of the ocean and has been there for hundreds of years.

Though nothing is as it seems. As the team settles into the habitat on the ocean floor they prepare for their first sojourn to the ship. At first glance the ship, while old, is obviously man made and comes from the future, but returned to Earth's past by mistake. While they wrap their heads around this conundrum they stumble on a sphere in the hold. This, unlike the ship, is obviously of alien origin. Back in the habitat things start to subtly change. An ocean devoid of life is now abundant in everything from shrimp to jellyfish. But there's something else out there too. A creature communicating with them via their computers. An entity called "Jerry" who is going to pay them a visit that they might not survive.

Sphere is really the book that started my Crichton obsession. Prior to Sphere I had just engaged in a dalliance with Crichton. I'd read Jurassic Park for high school biology and Rising Sun for fun on vacation one year in Door County. I believe it was on that vacation that I picked up Sphere at this bookstore in Sister Bay that was noted for having a Piggly Wiggly as part of the same complex. Ironically I mentioned to a few family members that bookstore was still there and they totally remembered it more for the convenience of the Piggly Wiggly then anything else. Yet I remember it as the bookstore that over the years became a goldmine for Crichton's books. During that trip I was too engrossed in Rising Sun to start the new book, but when I finally did pick up Sphere it became my go-to Crichton book for many years.

The most successful of Crichton's books all deal with a small group of individuals in a remote location fighting to survive. Yet in his other books the threat is very defined. Jurassic Park and The Lost World have dinosaurs, Congo has Apes, Prey has nanotechnology. Clear, definable villains. Whereas Sphere... technically it's our own subconscious fears, but it's also the manifestation of these fears. The threat is far more amorphous, and therefore far more scary. Sphere, for all intents and purposes, is basically a haunted house story at the bottom of the ocean. All the manifestations can't be easily explained and slowly, one by one, people start to die. There are only a few survivors and the ending is left open to interpretation. If by this point you're not thinking of Shirley Jackson and The Haunting of Hill House I'd say there's something wrong with you. That urgency and fear that you only get when being told a particularly great ghost story, here it is hiding in the guise of a popular thriller.

But the book doesn't just dwell on supernatural fears, Crichton is able to work in technological fears as well. He would, of course, in later novels take this idea further, but I think it's the simplicity of how "Jerry" is handled that makes it all the scarier. Jerry as the ersatz voice of the threatening entity using the computer interface makes me think of WarGames. The truth is, no matter how technology has advanced, when one thinks of the world being destroyed by computers it all goes back to the simplicity of WarGames. A computer that is childlike in it's interactions, unable to grasp the result of these interactions, that is what our fear is, childlike ignorance. Sometimes simplicity is the best way to get a concept across. Not to say that either Sphere or WarGames is simple, but the underlying concept is and that's what makes for something lasting.

Despite the lure of the supernatural and the fear of the technological, I can't quite put my finger on why Sphere was and is so resonant with me; but it sends chills up my spine and has resulted in many a sleepless night. I can't count how many times I've read the book, yet if you were to ask me to summarize the plot in detail I don't think I could do it. Sphere leaves more images and impressions then anything. The phosphorescence of mysterious sea life as it appears outside the habitat. The ominous clanging that can only mean one more person is dead. That feeling that you are isolated from the whole world and no one is coming to rescue you. Delicious.

Sphere is like a fever dream more then anything else. There's a detachment coupled with a frenzy to live, yet after it is all over you can't quite remember how it ended. Think back to books you retreated into as comfort reads when you were sick. The book swirls around you and you are being entertained and comforted, yet at the same time you're not quite sure what is going on. There's characters, there's a narrative, yet there's your detachment. Re-reading this book after so many years while actually being sick heightened this feeling. The book was exactly as I had remembered it, yet totally different. Of all Crichton's works this one is the loosest and most open to interpretation. What really did happen? Only the dreamer knows.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

Murder at Beechwood by Alyssa Maxwell
Published by: Kensington
Publication Date: May 26th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"For Newport, Rhode Island’s high society, the summer of 1896 brings lawn parties, sailboat races…and murder.

Having turned down the proposal of Derrick Andrews, Emma Cross has no imminent plans for matrimony—let alone motherhood. But when she discovers an infant left on her doorstep, she naturally takes the child into her care. Using her influence as a cousin to the Vanderbilts and a society page reporter for the Newport Observer, Emma launches a discreet search for the baby’s mother.

One of her first stops is a lawn party at Mrs. Caroline Astor’s Beechwood estate. But an idyllic summer’s day is soon clouded by tragedy. During a sailboat race, textile magnate Virgil Monroe falls overboard. There are prompt accusations of foul play—and even Derrick Andrews falls under suspicion. Deepening the intrigue, a telltale slip of lace may link the abandoned child to the drowned man. But as Emma navigates dark undercurrents of scandalous indiscretions and violent passions, she’ll need to watch her step to ensure that no one lowers the boom on her…"

Cozy murder mystery, gilded age, yes. A hundred times yes!

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Published by: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: May 26th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 176 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"For the 75th anniversary of her birth, a Deluxe Edition of the master of the literary supernatural’s most celebrated book.

Angela Carter was a storytelling sorceress, the literary godmother of Neil Gaiman, Audrey Niffenegger, J. K. Rowling, and other contemporary masters of supernatural fiction. In her masterpiece, The Bloody Chamber—which includes the story that is the basis of Neil Jordan’s 1984 movie The Company of Wolves—she breathed new life into familiar fairy tales and legends in a style steeped in the romantic trappings of the gothic tradition. This edition features a new introduction by Kelly Link, the Nebula and World Fantasy Award–wining author, one of a new generation of writers who’ve been inspired by Carter’s brand of fantastical, subversive, boundlessly imaginative fiction.

For more than sixty-five years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,500 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators."

Seeing as how many authors say that they were inspired by this book it makes it a must read... add to that this gorgeous new addition... damn you Penguin, just take all my money. TAKE IT!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pink Carnation Spotlight - Tom Mison (Augustus Whittlesby)

Augustus might have been the hardest character to ever cast in my dream Lauren Willig Miniseries. Why? Because it's hard to find an actor who is stellar and who can pull off long hair and a flowing shirt. Hence when Tom Mison appeared for the first time as Ichabod Crane all my casting worries were over.

Name: Tom Mison

"Dream" Character Casting for the Lauren Willig Miniseries: Augustus Whittlesby

First Impression: Lost in Austen! Usually in any adaptation or Pride and Prejudice inspired movie or miniseries I always fall for Darcy. I mean, it's Darcy, how can you not? But there was something so naively sweet about Tom's portrayal of Bingley that I instantly loved him. If you doubt his awesomeness just watch his face as Amanda sings "Downtown" in a scene sadly cut from the DVD release and hopefully all your fears will be assuaged.

Why they'd be the perfect actor for the Lauren Willig Miniseries: Aside from being totally awesome? Well, as I said before, he can pull of long hair and a flowing shirt. Plus he has an ability to morph into his roles so you might see him in Lost in Austen or Parade's End and think him rather naive, dim, and vacuous, and then you see him in Sleepy Hollow, and wow, depth, intensity. That one scene where he makes the OnStar lady cry? Fabulous.

Lasting Impression: Sleepy Hollow, oh yeah. I had pegged him as the sweet dimwit for so long that to find he had this range, amazing. Almost kept me watching the show when it went into a step downward decline. Almost.

What else you've seen them in: While Tom doesn't have the longest resume in just any one category, he's only been acting for ten years, he has made a name for himself appearing in British mystery staples from Poirot to New Tricks to Lewis. He's been in a few films, such as Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, but it's in miniseries like Parade's End and Lost in Austen where he really shines. And yes, I did actually like him more then Benedict Cumberbatch in Parade's End, if you can believe it! Plus his episode of Lewis, amazing! Like one of the best they ever did, totally memorable! Long live Dorian Crane! Now I kind of want to go watch that episode. Also look at the more modern flowing shirt!

Can't believe it's them: Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Really Tom!?! Yes, yes, I know lots of good actors were on this series, and yes, I can shamefully say that I know this because I watched all four seasons. But still? At least you were in the first episode, before it got really into the tacky.

Wish they hadn't: A Waste of Shame. I mean, yes, it was only his second job, but still... I don't care that it's a who's who of amazing talent from Tom Hiddleston to Nicholas Rowe, it was a boring look into Shakespeare's sonnets. It was really just "a waste."

Bio: Tom was born in England, obviously because of that drool-worthy accent. Instead of what would be his time spent in a typical high school stateside he went to Hurtwood House which specializes in drama and music. He then went on to Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Acting where he won a trust award named after Sir John Gielgud! The teachers there advised him that he should go for period pieces, and I can not disagree on their recommendation! When he left school he found steady work in theatre which he still loves and goes back to nearly every year. In fact, when does Tom have a spare minute? He's balancing stage, film, television, and even radio, having 35 credits in only ten years! But it was with Sleepy Hollow that his fame really rocketed into the stratosphere creating a huge fandom. And despite his saying "I can't be described as a sex symbol; I think it's ridiculous." Ridiculous or no, it's now a fact of life you're going to have to adjust to Tom. Also, please come to Wizard World Chicago, I will discreetly fangirl all over you.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Pink Carnation Spotlight - Kristen Bell (Emma Delagardie)

The Garden Intrigue had me scratching my head a little trying to find just the right couple, my brain was like some bad casting session throwing random people together until I finally found my Emma. Augustus would still take some time, but without a doubt, once I thought of Kristen Bell I looked no further.

Name: Kristen Bell

"Dream" Character Casting for the Lauren Willig Miniseries: Emma Delagardie

First Impression: Was actually in Deadwood. I have a tendency to forget it's her, but her fate on those two episodes, um, that's not hard to forget. It was fun recently re-watching all of Deadwood and seeing her again now that I'm such a fan.

Why they'd be the perfect actor for the Lauren Willig Miniseries: Firstly, she's a petite blond and is American. But more importantly, she has sass. Can't you just see her at one of Augustus's readings with her heckling him? I sure can. Kristen Bell, bring on the snark! But alternately, Emma is a nurturing motherly character, and Bell is a marshmallow, and I think she can totally bring the fierce mamma bear aspect too. And if you doubt her child rearing instincts, watch her as Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins Quits, if not just for how funny it is.

Lasting Impression: Um, Veronica Mars people! I am a Marshmallow! I kickstarted the movie! I was seriously hooked after just seeing part of one episode, it didn't hurt that in that episode they were watching Colin Firth's version of Pride and Prejudice. But in all seriousness, if I could I would totally be Veronica Mars when I grow up.

What else you've seen them in: While known for making cameos in all of Rob Thomas's works, including Party Down and hopefully iZombie, most people probably now know her as the voice of Anna in Frozen. Yep, Bell does independent AND mainstream, because she's that versatile. And although only seen in the finale, she was known for years as the voice of Gossip Girl. But aside from Veronica Mars her most memorable role to me was as Sarah in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, because seriously, who would choose Russell Brand over Jason Segal!?! Oh, and she's in the show House of Lies, but I haven't watched it yet so I can't give you an opinion on it.

Can't believe it's them: She's in Pootie Tang!?! Seriously? She was actually in this? I can't stop laughing! Pootie Tang!

Wish they hadn't: Heroes. Seriously. How did such a strong show go so wrong? Also, her character was lame and then she was involved with Sylar and then didn't he kill her? Lame lame lame. Plus that haircut isn't helping her. Plus how is this show coming back?

Bio: Bell was born in Michigan where she got the acting bug freshman year in high school, going on to star in her school's production of The Wizard of Oz. Right after graduation she went to New York to study at the prestigious Tish School of the Arts majoring in musical theatre, but failed to graduate because she was offered the role of Becky Thatcher in the Broadway musical version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. After staring in many plays and musicals on Broadway she finally headed to LA where in under two years she was headlining her own show for UPN, aka, the fabulous Veronica Mars. Since then she's been constantly working in both big budget movies, she's freakin' Anna from Frozen! And small movies, Veronica Mars is back! With her husband Dax Shepard they made commercials for the Samsung Galaxy Tab S that are hugely popular and also showcase their expanding family. She also does tons of work for charities, from the ASPCA to Invisible Children. Basically she is all round awesome!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Movie Review - Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park
Based on the book by Michael Crichton
Starring: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Ariana Richards, Joseph Mazzello, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, Wayne Knight, Samuel L. Jackson, Cameron Thor, Miguel Sandoval, Gerald R. Molen, BD Wong, Richard Kiley, and Greg Burson
Release Date: June 11th, 1993
Rating: ★★
To Buy

After the death of a worker on his theme resort on an island off the coast of Costa Rica, John Hammond has to agree to an inspection that his investors are demanding through their lawyer Gennaro. Gennaro is bringing in the mathematician Ian Malcolm as his auditor, seeing as Malcolm did projections for the project and predicted it's failure. Hammond brings in paleontologist Doctor Grant and paleobotanist Doctor Sattler, as people with a vested interest in his idea as well as being dependant on his grant money to fund their dig. The truth of Jurassic Park is that they have brought dinosaurs back from extinction to serve as the attractions in an amusement park. Hammond has also brought his grandchildren so that his "guests" can see that the park is designed with children in mind. Of course no one listens to Malcolm's dire warnings and everyone is enraptured by the novelty and majesty on display, never thinking about the risks; and for some, only the monetary rewards. But it is one person thinking about his own monetary gain that puts everyone's lives in danger and the future of the park in jeopardy.

Prior to this past weekend I had only seen Jurassic Park the once. At the one dollar budget cinema. With my mom. After I read the book for my high school biology class. What can I say? There weren't Muppets in it, teenage me wrote it off. Of course I'd catch bits and pieces over the years on TV, those "famous" and "memorable" scenes that everyone remembers, but never did I sit down and watch it in it's entirety. Unlike the book which relied a little on that adolescent knowledge of dinosaurs that still resides in us all, there is no doubt in my mind that Spielberg made this movie for eleven year old boys; as evidenced by the fact that my brother has seen this film innumerable times in the theater and I'm sure if pushed could have recited the movie word for word. Re-watching it with him I was alerted to not only when the "big scenes" were coming up, but also when the funniest ones where, ie, when Tim gets electrocuted. Overall though I was left with this impression of mystification. This was the highest grossing film until Titanic came out? Seriously!?!

I really wish I could read the script that Crichton wrote, before the exposition and violence was removed; in other words, before talking DNA cartoons took over the exposition. It was like having that stupid talking paperclip in Word pop up to annoy you, offer no good advice, and then stick around long after he'd worn out his welcome. There is no way around the fact that Jurassic Park is schlocky! Yes, I know, I was shocked by schlock! That little talking DNA cartoon is symbolic of everything that went wrong with the new script from a man most known for the unwatchable Death Becomes Her. The plot was streamlined almost into irrelevance, the characters became more stereotypical, look at Doctor Sattler mooning over children and sighing wistfully over her ticking biological clock, Hammond isn't a bad guy, he's just an old showman, not that Spielberg would be that obvious to show his hand and his simulacrum, oh yes, he would. And how can we hook those eleven-year-old boys? Add bathroom humor. Literally. Gennaro, who in the book has depth as a family man and as a lawyer really steps it up to be a hero dies ignominiously on a toilet. What The Hell Spielberg! Plus dino snot! Oh, and, heaven forbid carnivore and herbivore are too complicated, let's call them meat-o-saurus and veggie-o-saurus.

If it wasn't for the dumbing down of themes and concepts, then time itself would have destroyed this film. Yes folks, it's time to talk about CGI. Old school CGI, which is exactly what Jurassic Park is, is laughable. I've heard it said that if I were to watch it on Blu-ray it would have been worse... but it was bad enough already. The majestic scenes of the dinos grazing across the fields looks like a bad children's book illustration, but really, it's the fake lake that made me laugh out loud. The truth is technology is changing so rapidly unless it's a physical effect whatever technology was used to make it is already obsolete by the time the movie comes out and as time goes on it looks worse and worse. Thankfully, and surprisingly, there aren't that many dinosaurs in the movie and quite a fair amount of them were made as animatronic. The animatronics hold up far better then any of the CGI, but there's still a schlockiness to them. There's a jitter to the dinosaurs that made me repeatedly think of Gremlins and other low budget horror films. Not to mention the baby raptor looks like the chestburster from Alien... a franchise Stan Winston and his team worked on, so, not that unfair a comparison. Unless you have some special connection to this film you will only be able to see all that is wrong and nothing that is right.

The main aspect of the film that as a designer drove me up the wall is that while in the book they are more then a year away from the launch of the Park and haven't yet moved onto branding and merchandise, here the park is fully branded thanks to Chip Kidd's iconic logo and get your t-shirts while they're hot! It should be noted the in the movie the park isn't opening for over a year as well. I want to know if this was a subtle way to make the "Park" seem real, more like Disneyland, or if it was just to sell merchandise. I want to think it was the former, but the cynic in me knows it was the later. Re-watching Jurassic Park I realized that the entire movie was made to sell merchandise to those rapt eleven-year-olds. As certain scenes came on my brother would be saying things like, oh, you could buy that raptor enclosure as a playset, or the whole visitor's center was another playset. In fact, he pointed out that Jurassic Park was the last big movie to bother with elaborate playsets. But not to fear, it didn't just have playsets and action figures! There were video games and t-shirts and stuffed animals. You name it, Jurassic Park had it. The biggest irony being the ride at Universal Studios! Seriously?!? Do you not get the irony here?

There are two redeeming factors to the film. The first is that Doctor Grant is insufferably rude to those annoyingly precocious children and it gave me some ersatz joy to see the snark seeing as for the entirety of the book I wanted those brats dead. Secondly, and most importantly, the genius that is Jeff Goldblum. It doesn't surprise me in the least that when a sequel was thought of they wanted it to be all about Ian Malcolm. Of course it had problems canonically because Crichton killed off Malcolm at the end of the first book, but that was easily solved with some retconning and a joke from The Princess Bride. Someone on this film had the genius idea to basically let Jeff Goldblum wander around set being Jeff Goldblum. He has a natural insouciance that is needed in the film, not to mention his wardrobe. The film distinctly gets progressively worse the less screen time he has. In fact, this film might have been the start of my Goldblum obsession, and yes, I do love Transylvania 6-5000, proving that I can love and embrace schlock; just the right kind, and Jurassic Park ain't it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Book Review - Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: January, 1990
Format: Paperback, 399 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Paleontologist Alan Grant is working in the Badlands of South Dakota on his dig site with his student Ellie Sattler. Alan's been working the site for many years thanks recently to a grant from billionaire John Hammond. For awhile he was funded by Hammond's company InGen, but the hassle of dealing with their apparently irrelevant questions about dinosaurs made him sever ties with them. Those ties are going to be tested in the next few days. An apparent dinosaur has been found on the coast of Costa Rica, inland from Hammond's private island. Hammond has asked Grant and Sattler to come to this island for an "inspection." It turns out that Hammond has been building a theme park and his investors are getting jumpy. By bringing a group capable of assessing the safety of the island together Hammond hopes to quell the dissent. Though the shocking truth of the park rattles Grant. Hammond has been able to genetically recreate dinosaurs and has made these newly resurrected creatures the theme of his resort. Another one of the assessment group, mathematician Ian Malcolm, is predicting doom and gloom, saying that his projections show that Jurassic Park is inherently dangerous. To prove Malcolm wrong Hammond has invited his two young grandchildren along to show the parks safety. The park isn't safe. Malcolm was right. They will be lucky to escape with their lives.

Jurassic Park was the beginning. The problem I've always had with school is that I only want to take what I'm interested in. College, aside from those pesky prerequisites, was ideal for me in that my entire schedule could be tailor made to be art, art, and more art. Whereas high school, high school was not. I would attempt to delay the inevitable as long as possible. One way I did that was to not take science freshman year. Sure, this meant that I was then taking science with the grade lower then me, but it meant that I had a year with no science, so it was totally worth it. And it's not that I hate science, well, I have issues, let's put it like that. But aside from physics, my brain isn't programed that way. It's a subject I would rather avoid if I can. Luckily I had a biology teacher who understood that for some students cutting apart a fetal pig wasn't the highlight of their week. And don't get me started on microscopes, they make me all cross eyed, I just can't stand looking through them! So my teacher had other projects that could be done to boost our scores, and while aligning myself with the Australian foreign exchange student who loved to cut things helped out some, I was needing to do some of these other projects badly. One project I did was I got to build a cross section of a plant cell out of clay and then paint and label the whole thing. I loved building it and my teacher loved it so much he asked to keep it. Another project option was to write a book report on Jurassic Park. The movie had just come out over the summer break and was still dominating theaters. I devoured the book and was desperate to have my own slice of real amber. Thus began an addiction that would take in everything Crichton has ever written.

Coming back to the book over twenty years later was a surreal experience. While I have read the sequel a fair few times I haven't picked up Jurassic Park since that book report when I was a sophomore. More then any of Crichton's other books Jurassic Park has become part of our culture. It is THE book that people associate with Crichton. It has spawned a franchise that is part of our collective unconscious so much so that even Weird Al has parodied it with his album artwork for "Alapalooza." When the movie came out it tapped into the zeitgeist and hasn't left. The problem this creates in reading the book is that the visuals from the movie are burned into our brains. The book and the movie have become so intertwined that you can't just read the book without having the key visual images come to mind. The T-Rex doesn't just attack the tour, the glass of water must first ripple to draw out the tension. The T-Rex must roar and the banner must fall. And you know what? These scenes aren't in the book! But you expect them to be, you picture them anyway. While I love movies, there's a part of me that wishes there was some way to keep the book and the movie separate and have no cross contamination.

As time has passed the movie has replaced the book in my brain, but it's time that's the real villain in re-reading Jurassic Park. The truth is I've grown up. I'm no longer a teenager, not that I'd want to be, but there are certain things unique to being a teenager, in particular a teenager with a little brother. And that is I've lost my knowledge of dinosaurs. When you're a kid there's something mystical that makes dinosaurs an all consuming passion, especially for boys. Most of my childhood was taken up with dinosaurs. My brother's bedroom was papered with every kind of poster of a dinosaur you could imagine. I remember when the Milwaukee Public Museum had their grand opening for their dinosaur exhibit and we were there. Since that day I have had nightmares about the Tyrannosaurus ripping out the guts of that Triceratops that is on gruesome display, forever trapped in that horrific moment. Back then if someone where to say a dinosaur name I'd instantly know the visual. Now, not so much. I have three dinosaurs in my brain now that I can instantly recognize, Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, and Triceratops. There are seventeen varieties of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. I have no idea what they look like and this is a big problem when trying to visualize the story. I muddle their names and I don't know one from the other. The confusion that results saps the fear from the book for me.

To have a thriller that no longer has any fear kind of defeats the purpose of the book. Because the fear of the dinosaurs is the only thing driving this book forward. Therefore I had no drive to keep reading it and instead of devouring this book I kind of leisurely strolled to the end. The characters, especially Lex and her grandfather, are so annoying that you are rooting for the dinosaurs to kill them; preferably in a long and agonizing manner. There are so many plot problems with the book that I felt like thumping my head against a wall. Why does this have to be the most popular of Crichton's books? There are so many better ones! The secondary plot though drove me to distraction. So, while they're out in the park they see some raptors jump on board the ship to the mainland and then they have 18 hours or whatever to get ahold of the ship to tell them to turn around. Grant mentions this every few hours to remind us of this totally unnecessary plot contrivance. Why is it unnecessary? Because we have pretty much stated the fact that dinosaurs have already made it to the mainland so what's three more raptors? Also, if it's to add more urgency to their trek through the park, I thought just surviving would be enough?

But I quibble. I pick. This was an ok read, far more enjoyable then the book I'm reading at the moment. Crichton has a similarity to his books but also a breadth to his subjects that feels like home and it's fun diving back in after all these years. I wouldn't be the critic I am today with my love of reading if Crichton didn't spark it. And the more I re-read Crichton the more I see how eerily accurate he was in predicting human behavior and trends. His books are just as relevant, if not more so, then the day they were written. I know the scientific community never liked Crichton being so outspoken and were always criticizing his views, perhaps because his hits were too close to the mark. I wonder what he'd have to say about companies like Monsanto and what they've been up to. I mean, sure, in Jurassic Park we are given a worst case scenario of scientific advancement being made just because they could without thinking of the long term consequences of releasing dinosaurs back into the world; but look to the smaller scale, to the GMO crisis that abounds now! Think about a company like Monsanto spraying a field of corn with a pesticide they're not quite sure what it will do and they end up with rat stomachs exploding. Hammond is the epitome of the problem, nearsighted people looking for their own glory; go hang the world. More and more the world is being made up of these people. Malcolm is right, it's not about the earth surviving us, it's about us surviving us.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

Illusionarium by Heather Dixon
Published by: Greenwillow Books
Publication Date: May 19th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 368 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"What if the world holds more dangers—and more wonders—than we have ever known? And what if there is more than one world? From Heather Dixon, author of the acclaimed Entwined, comes a brilliantly conceived adventure that sweeps us from the inner workings of our souls to the far reaches of our imaginations.

Jonathan is perfectly ordinary. But then—as every good adventure begins—the king swoops into port, and Jonathan and his father are enlisted to find the cure to a deadly plague. Jonathan discovers that he's a prodigy at working with a new chemical called fantillium, which creates shared hallucinations—or illusions. And just like that, Jonathan is knocked off his path. Through richly developed parallel worlds, vivid action, a healthy dose of humor, and gorgeous writing, Heather Dixon spins a story that calls to mind The Night Circus and Pixar movies, but is wholly its own."

OK, yes, perhaps I'm hoping to find the next Night Circus...

The Hanged Man by P.N. Elrod
Published by: Tor Books
Publication Date: May 19th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"On a freezing Christmas Eve in 1879, a forensic psychic reader is summoned from her Baker Street lodgings to the scene of a questionable death. Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury (named after her godmother, the current Queen of England) is adamant that the death in question is a magically compromised murder and not a suicide, as the police had assumed, after the shocking revelation contained by the body in question, Alex must put her personal loss aside to uncover the deeper issues at stake, before more bodies turn up.

Turning to some choice allies--the handsome, prescient Lieutenant Brooks, the brilliant, enigmatic Lord Desmond, and her rapscallion cousin James--Alex will have to marshal all of her magical and mental acumen to save Queen and Country from a shadowy threat. Our singular heroine is caught up in this rousing gaslamp adventure of cloaked assassins, meddlesome family, and dark magic.

"Murder, mayhem and tea--a well-bred Victorian urban fantasy thriller. Prepare, o reader, to be enthralled."--Patricia Briggs, #1 New York Times Best Selling Author of the Mercy Thompson series on P.N. Elrod's The Hanged Man."

Patricia Briggs recommends, well I must listen!

That Summer by Lauren Willig
Published by: St. Martin's Griffin
Publication Date: May 19th, 2015
Format: Papervack, 368 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"2009: When Julia Conley hears that she has inherited a house outside London from an unknown great-aunt, she assumes it's a joke. She hasn't been back to England since the car crash that killed her mother when she was six, an event she remembers only in her nightmares. But when she arrives at Herne Hill to sort through the house--with the help of her cousin Natasha and sexy antiques dealer Nicholas--bits of memory start coming back. And then she discovers a pre-Raphaelite painting, hidden behind the false back of an old wardrobe, and a window onto the house's shrouded history begins to open...

1849: Imogen Grantham has spent nearly a decade trapped in a loveless marriage to a much older man, Arthur. The one bright spot in her life is her step-daughter, Evie, a high-spirited sixteen year old who is the closest thing to a child Imogen hopes to have. But everything changes when three young painters come to see Arthur's collection of medieval artifacts, including Gavin Thorne, a quiet man with the unsettling ability to read Imogen better than anyone ever has. When Arthur hires Gavin to paint her portrait, none of them can guess what the hands of fate have set in motion.From modern-day England to the early days of the Preraphaelite movement, Lauren Willig's That Summer takes readers on an un-put-downable journey through a mysterious old house, a hidden love affair, and one woman's search for the truth about her past--and herself."

The original cover I don't think did justice to the awesomeness of this book. I approve of this new cover!

Sidney Chambers and The Forgiveness of Sins by James Runcie
Published by: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: May 19th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 416 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The loveable full-time priest and part-time detective, Canon Sidney Chambers, continues his sleuthing adventures in 1960's Cambridge. On a snowy Thursday morning in Lent 1964, a stranger seeks sanctuary in Grantchester's church, convinced he has murdered his wife. Sidney and his wife Hildegard go for a shooting weekend in the country and find their hostess has a sinister burn on her neck. Sidney's friend Amanda receives poison pen letters when at last she appears to be approaching matrimony. A firm of removal men 'accidentally' drop a Steinway piano on a musician's head outside a Cambridge college. During a cricket match, a group of schoolboys blow up their school Science Block. On a family holiday in Florence, Sidney is accused of the theft of a priceless painting.

Meanwhile, on the home front, Sidney's new curate Malcolm seems set to become rather irritatingly popular with the parish; his baby girl Anna learns to walk and talk; Hildegard longs to get an au pair and Sidney is offered a promotion.

Entertaining, suspenseful, thoughtful, moving and deeply humane, these six new stories are bound to delight the clerical detective's many fans."

For any of the Grantchester withdrawal ills, from missing the show or needing a new book, this will help with what ails you!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Movie Review - Rising Sun

Rising Sun
Based on the book by Michael Crichton
Starring: Sean Connery, Wesley Snipes, Harvey Keitel, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Kevin Anderson, Mako, Ray Wise, Stan Egi, Stan Shaw, Tia Carrere, Steve Buscemi, Tatjana Patitz, and Michele Ruiz
Release Date: July 30th, 1993
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Lieutenant Web Smith is home with his daughter and mother when he gets a call to come to the Nakamoto Corporate Headquarters in downtown Los Angeles because there is a need for a liaison. Web receives a second call on his way to the crime scene to bring along the retired Captain John Connor who is an expert Japanese liaison. Connor explains to Web that they aren't so much going to a crime scene as the scene of a negotiation. Everything Web knows about police procedure will be thrown out the window while dealing with the Japanese. The Japanese want the case resolved swiftly and they see to it that the conclusion they want reached is easily found. A little too easily. Despite the case being swiftly closed Smith and Connor keep digging, thinking that perhaps the truth of the death of Cheryl Lynn Austin is more important then a quickly solved case. The Japanese do not see their continued investigation as beneficial to their interests and will do anything to stop it, even smear Smith and Connor's names in order to silence them. But with more deaths, threats, and the Yakuza, the cops are quickly learning the hard way that business is war.

Rising Sun is easily one of the better Crichton adaptations out there, and this isn't surprising because Crichton was more actively involved, being one of the co-writers of the script. In fact I would say that the only adaptations of his books worth a damn are the ones he sought to have some control on. Unlike other authors, because of his experience in film, Crichton understands the need to make a good movie instead of slavishly sticking to the book and in the process maintains the spirit of the book as well as creates an enjoyable movie. Having not watched Rising Sun in years I spent a good twenty minutes just in awe of the sheer 90s ness of it all until I became fully sucked into the story. I was also a little shocked that my parents let me watch it when it came out on VHS. Despite having lived through the 90s there's a time capsule quality that this movie represents for me. Those shoulder pads in men's suits! Oh, and those overly pleated pants! Seriously, Sean Connery's pants are flowing in the breeze on that golf course! Is Cheryl Lynn wearing a jumpsuit? Yes she is. But the key sign you're watching an early 90s movie? As my brother says, no movie of this era would be complete without a chase scene through a construction site!

While the film does maintain a fair bit of the hardboiled feel of the book, by not being a period piece it loses the timeless vibe of the source material and decides instead to go for something more bankable, aka, a buddy cop movie. You might not realize at first that you are watching a buddy cop movie, but pay close attention to the dialogue and you can be in no doubt, "sempai, apple pie!" They have taken Lieutenant Smith, who in the book is a questioning but indulgent narrator there to learn from Connor's knowledge and turned him into "Web" Smith, the smart-mouthed sidekick to Sean Connery. While this might seem like a ploy to turn the movie into the next Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon, instead it is just taking the antagonism that is racing through Smith's inner monologue and putting it on the screen in a format movie audiences would recognize versus falling into the trope of using a narrator and then making it cheesier then the theatrical release of Bladerunner. But there is no doubt in this duo that despite the buddy cop trope of the newbie getting the girl that it's really Sean Connery who will have his bed being warmed at the end of the film.

But the change of Smith isn't just about creating a buddy cop dynamic, there's a subtly and cunning in this change. When the book was released the major sticking point for readers was the overtly racist tone of the book. Rising Sun read as an anti-Japanese tract disguised as a thriller. Thankfully it's obvious in this day and age that this would be unacceptable to movie-going audiences. So how do you take source material that is racist and maintain some aspect of this without alienating your audience? You deflect and transform it. Sad as it is to say, but for us Americans we are more familiar with racism when it falls along a strict black and white line. While this is not acceptable, it is more relatable; especially within the buddy cop genre where the dynamic is often to have this pairing of black and white. The black character is more outspoken and not willing to put up with this shit and occasionally uses "massa" ironically or angrily. By having Snipes say such "empowering" things as "No, you get the senator's car! Wrong guy, wrong fucking century!" the movie is putting the "accepted" racism on view for all while casually deflecting the anti-Japanese sentiment of the book.

The biggest example though of making sure this movie wasn't anti-Japanese, besides the fact that they wisely cast Japanese actors, is in the end when the killer is revealed. It comes as no surprise when reading the book that the killer is the representative for the Nakamoto Corporation whom Connor and Smith dealt with the most. But despite keeping this character complicit in the crimes, despite a totally unwarranted name change for the film, he isn't the killer. Instead the killer is a privileged white yuppie. Bob Richmond is the perfect villain. He has aligned himself against his own country and is disgustingly obsequious and rich. Everyone watching the movie can be pleased that this entitled jackass gets what he deserves all while not unnecessarily persecuting the Japanese in a hateful rant like the book. Of course the murderer's actual guilt might be more ambiguous then in the book, but we are still given an ending that won't ruffle any feathers and gives us a satisfying sense of closure.

Though there was one aspect of the book that was lost in translation. While the movie toned down the anti-Japanese sentiment it virtually eliminated the corruption of political officials. In the book Senator Morton is a Kennedy-esque playboy caught up in the murder. He sleeps around, he drinks too much, his vices bring him down. Here though they justify his affair with Cheryl Lynn because he has an invalid wife, and as for the drinking? It's gone. To me the elimination of governmental corruption wasn't done to streamline the movie or to keep our focus. It felt too much like a purposeful omission and it got me to thinking, while it's not wise to harbor anti-Japanese sentiments, it's the politicians that are the true untouchables. Think about it? Right now even the most corrupt of politicians are being considered as viable candidates for the Presidential election next year! While we can "learn" to become accustomed to certain types of racism that they are allowed into our films as the lesser of two evils, say something against a politician and that's the end of you. The double standards of life are here on full display, and once again, if we look for it, we realize that which isn't shown might be the most important.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Book Review - Paul Magrs's Lost on Mars

Lost on Mars by Paul Magrs
ARC Provided by the publisher
Published by: Firefly Press
Publication Date: May 14th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 336 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Lora and her family have a harsh life on Mars. But they aren't like the townsfolk, they are heartier. With their homestead out on the prairie, growing their sustenance out of the strange Martian soil, they are true pioneers. For all the destructive forces on the inhospitable planet working against them they have each other. Even Lora's grandmother who is almost more trouble then she is worth has her place; she was part of the initial colonization of the red planet. Though something is coming, the harsh yet manageable routine of their lives is about to be upset when the disappearances start again. They've happened before, the whispers that Martians still exist and sneak into their dwellings at night and whisk people away never to be seen again. Though no one is willing to believe it is happening again. One night when Lora is staying in town she sees them. Strange creatures dancing through the streets. The next night her grandmother is taken. The small township is still unwilling to believe the truth in front of their eyes. The sheriff would like nothing better then to ignore this problem, and then his wife disappears too. Though Lora's breaking point is the disappearance of her father.  

With her father gone and her mother struck down with grief that she self medicates, Lora becomes the head of her family and she decides that they are no longer safe and should head out into the wasteland to save themselves. Calling on the townspeople to join them they pick up five more travellers. Ma, Al, Hannah, Toaster, Aunt Ruby, the Adamses, Madame Lucille and her husband all put their lives in Lora's hands. It's a harsh journey with untold hardships and eventually flagging spirits. Madame Lucille's husband is the first casualty, followed by their pack animals. When they are set upon by unknown creatures and separated, Lora and her brother Al learn that there is a secret City Inside. The complex city with all it's decorum makes Lora long for the simplicity of her family's homestead. Though the City Inside is now their home. A home full of secrets and dangers that might prove more deadly then anything they faced while trekking across the red planet. But their might also be hope there as well.

The wonderful thing about Paul's books is that they will never be what you expect. Some people might not like this, but personally I think that a great story surprises you and takes you to new lands and shows you new experiences that you would never have had if not for the words between the covers. To be surprised and delighted by the narrative voice is something that every true reader longs for. And Paul's voice is so unique, with each book he has written being it's own voice but somehow all part of him. When Megan from Firefly Press contacted me to see if I was interested in reviewing Lost on Mars I jumped on this opportunity. The promotional material gave me an interesting if eventually narrow view of what to expect. Seeing as Paul and I have previously discussed our love of Laura Ingalls Wilder, me being practically raised on the books what with being born in the same state as her, I was picturing Lost on Mars very much as Little House on the Martian Prairie. But, being Paul, he turned all my expectations on its head and gave me an odyssey that is Little House on the Prairie meets Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy meets Priscilla Queen of the Desert, with Roald Dahl and The Wizard of Oz and maybe even some Mad Max thrown in for good measure but all somehow something only Paul could have written.

Lost on Mars has two very distinct halves. There's the first half which is a pioneer tale of trying to survive the Martian wastelands and then there is the second half with the City Inside which is a Jules Verne Victorian epic that raises the book up to a new level that makes you extremely sad to part ways at the end while you keep your fingers crossed that the next installment won't be too far in your future. At first I was wary of this abrupt change in the story. The two worlds couldn't seem more apart yet somehow it was a natural transition. If not for this transition I don't think the book would have worked. By the time Lora and her compatriots are captured I had tired of their journey and the relentlessness of their life and bickering. The Martian abductors were a little too much like the Ninnies for me, and while I do like how the worlds of Paul's books are permeable and have a fluidity between them, the love I have for The Ninnies is so strong that I want them to remain their own thing. Therefore this switch up made the book click. It also added a level of mystery that Martians abducting people for dinner lacked. Plus the possibilities inherent in this new city are literally endless, which again makes me impatient for the next installment.

The reason that the City Inside is so fascinating to me, besides the fact that it's basically a Dickensian Christmas on Mars, is that Paul has this ability to imbue everything with life and personality; from cities to homes to utensils. Objects get sentience and smarts. Humans have a deep seated need to bring the world around them to life. Whether it's naming your car to your house, we anthropomorphize everything. One of my favorite characters on Red Dwarf was Talkie Toaster. He was uppity, full of his own importance, was always looking for a way to bring up bread products, and held his own with characters played by real actors. Enter Paul Magrs and his cast of characters. In his Iris Wildthyme books we have Barbara who is a vending machine, as well as Art Critic Panda, but he has said that he is in no way an object so I mustn't talk of him as such. In Lost on Mars Paul imbues life into a sunbed called Toaster. Toaster is easily one of my favorite characters. Besides being living history as well as a member of the Robinson family, the thought of him running across the Martian plains like a little gangly robotic dog makes me smile. He's just as real, if not more real, then some of his "human" compatriots.

As for those humans. For a YA book Paul doesn't flinch on showing the harshness of human nature. There is no sugar coating. Everyone is in it to save themselves, as seen when the ragged band of travellers stumbles on an abandoned ghost town. The adults descend on the supplies like a pack of jackals; and like those vicious carnivores they are willing to fight off anyone interested in their kills. The darker side of human nature is fully explored from cowardice to self interest. The townspeople are willing to ignore the disappearances because they don't want their lives upset. It's for the greater good to turn a blind eye, as has happened more times then we can count in our own very human history. They follow Lora because they can't be bothered to take the responsibility or initiative themselves. What compromises will man put up with in order to maintain peace?  What will man do to survive? A pack animal that is loved and cared for is nothing but food at the end of the day, even if it has learned language. This is very much mirrored by the Martians own thoughts. While humans may be their intellectual equals, with art and history, they need the food more. To see the humans actions mimicked by an alien race shows in stark detail the wrongness of our thinking.

But there was one thing above everything else that made me connect to this book and that's it's literary pedigree. The Martian landscape and the settlers lives have been shaped by literature, from books being the most prized of possessions to the naming conventions of pets and even their town, "Our Town." Even the ships they arrived on where named from literature! It's all the little asides, the little jokes slid in that reinforce the importance of literature and will hopefully spark the reading bug in anyone who picks up this book. When Lora's last name of Robinson was finally revealed, a smile spread across my face at the thought of the original Robinson family, that of The Swiss Family Robinson. But it's this lovely combining of literature and their lives that makes the world and in particular the City Inside a kind of dream state, as if you were to wake one day within your favorite book. The arrival at the City Inside with them waking within a poppy field to see the magnificent metallic green city was a frisson of Ozian joy. Not only is this a great story, it harks back to other great stories and sets itself up in the grand literary cannon of our times that is now so meta in nature.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Book Review - Michael Crichton's Rising Sun

Rising Sun by Michael Crichton
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: January 27th, 1992
Format: Paperback, 339 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Lieutenant Peter J. Smith left homicide for the more stable hours and better pay of being a Special Services Officer. He's called in when a diplomat gets drunk or there's a translator needed at the scene of a crime. When he gets the call to come to the scene of a murder that occurred during the Nakamoto Corporation's grand opening of their new Los Angeles headquarters Smith's world gets turned upside down. The first thing that happens in this unusual case is that he is requested to bring Captain John Connor with him, who, while in semi retirement, is fluent in Japanese and has a divisive relationship with them. Up on the 46th floor the victim, Cheryl Lynn Austin, seems to be nothing more then an inconvenience. But as the two cops dig deeper Cheryl had strong ties to the Japanese community and quite probably was a pawn in their business. The one clear thing is that the Japanese will do anything to delay and obfuscate the investigation so that the police reach the decision that is most convenient to them. This is business and to them business is war; casualties are to be expected and they are willing to exert pressure where it is needed, even on the police.  

Rising Sun has the unique distinction of being the first Michael Crichton book I read under my own steam. This wasn't homework. No matter how great Jurassic Park is it still was for school not for me. Therefore reading Rising Sun was something to luxuriate in, so obviously I took it on vacation with me. Though me and reading on vacation oddly don't go together very well. I have several books that have taken long journeys with me but were never picked up once on that trip. Pride and Prejudice went to D.C. and New York, Soul Music went to Ontario, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy went to San Francisco, Thyme in a Flask went to Arkansas, and I never read a page of any of them while on vacation. There's just too much else to do. But there's something about the driving force of the narrative in Rising Sun that made it different then all these other books.

Despite being set during a chilly February in Los Angeles, I will always associate Rising Sun with the heat and humidity of a Wisconsin summer in Door County. We had a three bedroom suite at the Pheasant Park Resort in Sister Bay. I had the dubious honor of having the room with the whirlpool tub. Which was right next to the bed. In a room that didn't have air conditioning. And yes, everyone insisted on using the tub. Let it be known this is a mistake I never repeated. Even if the room hadn't conspired against me to keep me awake all night the book would have anyway. I lay up all night sweating through what little sleepwear I had on being just absorbed by the story. While yes, I had read quite a fair amount of The Cat Who... mysteries by Lillian Jackson Braun at this time in my young life, there's nothing like the first time you read a well plotted mystery, and that is exactly what Rising Sun is. Re-reading it all these years later I again devoured it in only two days. But it's amazing how much more insight I have over twenty years later.    

What sets Rising Sun apart from almost every other book Crichton wrote under his own name is that it doesn't hinge on his two most used tropes, advanced technology going awry or medicine. This book can in no way be classified as science fiction and this makes it unique in his canon. In fact it almost feels as if Crichton felt the need to show that he could write a solid mystery without any gimmicks. He wrote a straight up first person narrative that has this noir vibe that I didn't pick up on back in high school. In fact, having recently read Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest you can see the similarities and how Rising Sun would fit perfectly in this hardboiled genre. There's organized forces working against the protagonists, there's the cynical attitude of both Connor and Smith to the Japanese, by the Japanese running a slander campaign against Smith you question his reliability, turning him into an anti-hero. Plus, hardboiled fiction is known for it's unlikable characters, even the murder victim is unsympathetic in this case. Crichton excels at this genre and it's no wonder that Hard Case Crime jumped at the chance to publish his John Lange back catalog. I should probably get to reading those.

Though despite all the good there is about this book with it's mystery and driving narrative there is some severe xenophobia going on here. The xenophobia I think is oddly why the book correlates well with hardboiled fiction because writing of that era wasn't culturally sensitive. So yes, while this book entertains me, an older, wiser me is sitting back and going, damn, that's a little racist don't you think Michael? How about we tone it down a bit, make it less of a one sided argument? And saying the Japanese are more racist then Americans doesn't really help your cause, it just makes it seem even more vindictive. With the rants against the Japanese, as well as a few aimed at the Germans, I felt like I was having a dinner conversation with an embittered elderly relative who survived WWII and was going to take their hatred to the grave. Side note, my great aunt did take her hatred to the grave. So, all in all, I can see why this book got mixed reviews. It's a good story, just maybe a little too polarizing and vindictive.

But there is an ironic truth nestled in the vitriol against the Japanese. Their "Saturday Meetings" in the book where they are deciding what to do about America, well, if the meetings were real or just the imaginings of Crichton, they have turned out to be oddly prescient. Basically Crichton states that the Japanese could see us going to hell in a hand basket, and really, look at the world around us? Unemployment, unrest, looting, riots, protests, murders! I mean, what if there was a time that we could have changed the course of our country and turned a blind eye instead? What if there was something we could have done to not get where we are? As usual, after reading some Crichton you are left with more to think about then when you started and also wondering if perhaps he was some kind of precog...

Monday, May 11, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: May 12th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"From a bestselling writer, a story of unexpected friendship—three women thrown together in college who grow to adulthood united and divided by secrets, lies, and a single night that shaped all of them.

When UC Santa Cruz roommates Anna and Kate find passed-out Georgiana Leoni on a lawn one night, they wheel her to their dorm in a shopping cart. Twenty years later, they gather around a campfire on the lawn of a New England mansion. What happens in between—the web of wild adventures, unspoken jealousies, and sudden tragedies that alter the course of their lives—is charted with sharp wit and aching sadness in this meticulously constructed novel.

Anna, the de facto leader, is fearless and restless—moving fast to stay one step ahead of her demons. Quirky, contemplative Kate is a natural sidekick but a terrible wingman (“If you go home with him, might I suggest breathing through your mouth”). And then there’s George: the most desired woman in any room, and the one most likely to leave with the worst man.

Shot through with the crackling dialogue, irresistible characters, and propulsive narrative drive that make Lutz’s books so beloved, How to Start a Fire pulls us deep into Anna, Kate, and George’s complicated bond and pays homage to the abiding, irrational love we share with the family we choose."

Beyond excited for Lisa's foray into non-Spellman territory on her own.

Lost on Mars by Paul Magrs
Published by: Firefly Press
Publication Date: May 14th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"With the scale and scope of the great science fiction epics, Lost on Mars tells the story of Lora and her family, third generation human settlers on the red planet who are strugging to survive in incredible circumstances. The family clings to life on a smallholding in the desert landscape, surviving storms and sinister rumours of unexplained disappearances - until one night Lora sees the Dancers. When her father and grandmother disappear themselves, Lora's family is driven out to seek a new life across the plains. But none of them are ready for what they find - the beautiful, dangerous City Inside."

The last few months have been a veritable treasure trove of new books for fans of Paul. Can not wait for more!

The Storyteller: Witches by Jim Henson
Published by: Archaia
Publication Date: May 12th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 112 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Jim Henson’s The Storyteller is a beloved celebration of fairy tales and folklore. After releasing a critically acclaimed graphic novel we’re thrilled to share more of The Storyteller’s magic. In the spirit of Henson’s inventive imagination, this hardcover collects four stories of witches and witchcraft from all over the world. Each story is told by different a different writer and artist, exploring classic witch stories and fairy tales through an incredible blend of art styles and storytelling techniques, and taking full advantage of the visual medium."

Seriously, no matter how much time has passed, my love of The Storyteller has never waned. NEVER!

Kisses and Curses by Fierce Reads Authors
Published by: Square Fish
Publication Date: May 12th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 400 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Beloved of readers and booksellers, our Fierce Reads program has garnered tons of enthusiastic fans since its inauguration in 2012. Now, the authors you know and love are coming together in one book! With standalone short stories from a handpicked set of FR authors, this fabulous collection will often feature characters or worlds from existing Fierce Reads titles. Extended, personal introductions from each author will make this a must-buy for fans as well as a fantastic portal for engaging new readers with the program. With a wide range of genres and subject matter, there will be something here for everyone!"

Seriously, I would have to buy this book if it was just Marissa Meyer or Leigh Bardugo or Ann Aguirre, and to have them and more? Heck yeah!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Movie Review - Timeline

Based on the book by Michael Crichton
Starring: Paul Walker, Frances O'Connor, Gerard Butler, Anna Friel, Billy Connolly, David Thewlis, Neal McDonough, Matt Craven, Ethan Embry, Michael Sheen, Lambert Wilsone, Marton Csokasr, Rossif Sutherland, Patrick Sabongui, and Steve Kahan
Release Date: November 26th, 2003
Rating: ★
To Buy

Professor Edward Johnston is teaching at Castlegard in France while excavating the site. The tech company ITC is funding the excavation and this has Johnston wary. ITC keeps suggesting places to dig and they are a little too spot on. Suspicious of their involvement and accuracy he decides to head to New Mexico and confront Robert Doniger, ITC's president, leaving the site in the capable hands of his assistants, André Marek, Kate Ericson, and Josh Stern. A few days after the professor's departure there is a cave in at the monastery site which leads to the discovering of a note from the Professor saying that he is in 1357 and needs help. The carbon dating proves the legitimacy of the note and Johnston's son Chris calls ITC and confronts them about the disappearance of his father. They promise a full explanation if they come to their headquarters in New Mexico.

Arriving in New Mexico the team is told that ITC's interest in their work and in Castlegard is because while trying to figure out how to transport three dimensional objects ITC discovered a wormhole to Castlegard in 1357. The Professor went back to 1357 and is now trapped there. ITC plans to send his team to bring him back because they are the most knowledgeable about the time and place and have a higher chance of success then they do. Of course ITC doesn't bother to warn them of the dangers of the time period they are entering or even the dangers of the technology used to get there. ITC has one goal, protect their ass and assets. If that means stranding people in 1357, so be it. But the Professor and his rag tag crew have more heart and determination then ITC gives them credit for and they're not going down without a fight.

Despite my continual disappointment with Michael Crichton adaptations I was willing to give the Timeline movie a shot. I mean, I didn't really like the book to begin with so how could they make it worse? Oh how naive I was. I should have realized that a mediocre book made into a movie with one of my most hated actresses ever, hello Frances O'Connor, would be nothing but a failed attempt at a blockbuster. Riddled with cliches, hello new character François, you shall be playing our Redshirt today, the movie actually dumbs down a fairly dumbed down book. The plot was streamlined, the women were sidelined, if it wasn't for the the pure visual appeal of trebuchets in action there is nothing worth remembering in this movie. The only joy I got out of re-watching Timeline all these years later was realizing that the despot Lord Oliver was played by a then unknown Michael Sheen, who obviously got that he was in the movie equivalent of Medieval Times and camped it up accordingly.

What shocked me most about this adaptation was the dumbing down, the softening of everything across the board, from plot to characters to hearts to women. Taking each aspect in turn, the plot was striped bare of anything redeemable. Instead of having ITC actually creating this interesting technology, it's just something they stumbled upon. There's a wormhole, we don't know how we found it, we don't know why it works, we don't know what we'll use it for, we don't know if there's a purpose to it, and we won't give you an answer after two hours, just go with it OK? So you have taken the sole interesting aspect of the book, technology that as time goes on looks actually plausible with the research being done at CERN and made it a MacGuffin. Thanks a lot. That's sarcasm. I'm sure the people behind this movie surely aren't able to grasp this, hence me spelling it out. Wormholes creating love stories and two hour battles and chances since 2003!

If dumbing down the plot wasn't enough, all the characters were made into idiots! They are literally stupider, as if their minds have been softened into jelly. Firstly, Paul Walker as Chris isn't even an archaeologist, just Professor Johnston's drifter son trying to get into Kate's pants. As for Kate, she's just a general archaeologist, who doesn't have an eidetic memory for architecture and a passion for climbing. Marek isn't the Medieval scholar who has mastered all past languages, that's what we now need Redshirt François for, instead André can wield a sword and shoot an arrow and rescue fair maidens. And the newly renamed Josh as played by Ethan Embry? He's just there for his frosted tips, his 90s goatee, and to try to get his friends home gosh darnit! Plus, by having Doniger stumble on the wormhole our one guaranteed smart person has been replaced by a bumbling David Thewlis, the go-to bumbler.

As their minds all melted into no existence apparently their hearts took on new properties, much like a certain character from Seuss, "Well, in Whoville they say – that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day." Because the characters don't have the mental capacity anymore to understand the harsh realities of France during the Hundred Years' War, well obviously they're going to cry at every freaking death. In the book they personally lay waste to a lot of French and English troops, because it was a fact of life, a fact that scholars would understand, especially Marek. Instead all the characters are weepy. Understandably they'd get upset over the loss of their friends, but to go into full convulsive shock on killing someone? If it's you or them, I think survival instinct should be kicking in, not the instinct to cry. They seriously have red rimmed eyes for the whole movie! And then they even soften the heart of De Kere. Instead of being a complete and total psychopath who loves to kill, here he's totally not evil or a danger at all really, he'll even kindly tell you his tale of being misused by ITC instead of killing everything in sight like an enraged kitten.

But nothing pissed me off more then the softening of the women. I know a lot people go on and on about how books and movies don't give us strong female role models, and while I'm aware of this fact, well, I've never been that bothered by it. If it doesn't have something for me, obviously I won't read or watch it so it's not like I'm supporting this trope. Re-watching Timeline so close upon re-reading the book I was struck by how they had stripped out the female empowerment and made it almost painful to watch if you are in any way a feminist. The objectification was extreme, they were literally objects for the manly men to protect! Firstly two of the strong female roles, that of Gomez and Kramer, well, they became guys! While I had my issues with Kate in the book, she at least wasn't a helpless woman and a weepy mess. But the true kicker is Claire. Lady Claire isn't a pawn in the book, someone for Marek to rescue, she would be insulted. In fact Marek loves her in the book because she is playing every single angle, she's scheming, manipulative, and always looking out for herself! She's not a banner flown from the highest tower as a rallying point! She's looking out for herself any way she can!

Though this softening of females and hearts is a two edged sword because the result of this mushiness is that instead of being pragmatic the film is able to add a little romantic love, a little chivalry. But chivalry as we see and as was depicted by the Pre-Raphaelites, not chivalry as it existed then, which was about honor and protection, not giving your life for true love. And this romanticism of the past leads to the only redeeming feature of the entire movie, and that is Gerard Butler. He brings so much passion to the role of Marek that the romance of living and dying in another time for true love just makes the tear ducts a little moist. Earlier in the movie when he is describing the unique love depicted in a sarcophagus they found on the site and later when he realizes it's himself, you see the one true thing in this film, the everlasting quality of true love. It might not have been what Crichton wanted, but it raised the film out of the trope-tastic mire it had bogged itself down in for a minute and made me watch a few too many Gerard Butler films... hint, avoid Shooters, even with Ioan Gruffudd it's unbearably bad, and check out Dracula 2000 instead.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Book Review - Michael Cricton's Timeline

Timeline by Michael Crichton
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: November 16th, 1999
Format: Hardcover, 444 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Robert Doniger and his company ITC make components for MRI machines. Or at least that's what everyone thinks. ITC though has a vast portfolio of different investments, one of them is an archaeological site in the south of France on the Dordogne River. The site is lead by Professor Edward Johnston and his team; André Marek, a man who wishes he lived in the period he studies, Chris Hughes, who is like a son to Johnston and specializes in studying mills, Kate Erickson, an architect student who has transferred to the study of history, and David Stern, their resident geek. The site is thrown into uproar when a representative from ITC comes to do the yearly inspection of the site and makes references to things that the researchers themselves don't even know about. Johnston demands an audience with Doniger and returns with the representative to New Mexico.

Days go by and Professor Johnston isn't in communication with his team when in the ruins of the monastery they find a note from him saying that he is in 1357 and needs help. Everyone thinks it's a joke until all the tests prove that it is legit. Marek contacts ITC to question them about this development and he is told to pack his bags and pick three other team members, they are to be on a plane to New Mexico in the next hour. With Chris, Kate, and David all onboard, they are let into the big secret that ITC has been carefully guarding. ITC has developed time travel, of a sort. Really it's traveling to different times in parallel dimensions, but that is how they knew so much about the site in southern France, they'd been there when the castles weren't ruins; and due to a little accident, Professor Johnston is there now and has no way back. ITC thought it prudent to send back the only people who know the site and know what the Professor would be doing, aka his team. ITC convinces them to go on this rescue mission, but they cleverly omit the dangers and risks that the team will face and the fact that not everyone might come back alive or at all.

By 1999 I was a true Michael Crichton junky. I had powered through his whole back catalog and aside from a few blips here and there I adored every single volume. Sadly, having read all his books I could do nothing but re-read my favorites while waiting for the next book to come out. And when Timeline came out in November of 1999 I didn't see it for what it was; the beginning of the end. While two of his future books would come to be my most hated of all Crichton's books, Timeline was the one that started the slide in quality. By all accounts I should have loved this book. It's time travel, it's knights, it's amazing new technology, it's a snooze. I remember struggling through this book. Over a month after I had bought it as I unwrapped my Christmas presents I asked my parents to be excused from going to the relatives for our traditional holiday festivities. I was damned if I would waste more time on this book so I resolved to power through it all Christmas day so that at the end of it I could revel in my new books and move on. I curled up on my couch and before my parents even got home I had finally finished Timeline. And in 2004 before the movie came out I struggled through it again. And now, despite my history with this book, I braved it's pages once more and can say that yes, it doesn't improve. Even a decade didn't improve it one little bit, aside from reaffirming my desire to never be transported via beams or lasers. In fact, I think I found Timeline even more annoying this time around.

The overall problem with this book is that it hinges on a faulty premise. There is NO REASON for the grad students to rescue their professor. What's in it for them? Up until his disappearance into the past he's had a total of about two lines and we're supposed to believe that these four students are willing to sacrifice their lives for him? Why? Is he really that awesome? Chris, who views him as a father figure might have some reason, and he's the most hesitant! But other then that there is NO REASON. Stern made the right choice. Stay behind, survive. But the lack of character development isn't just in Professor Johnston, though he is the most obvious. None of the characters are developed in any tangible way. They are astonishingly ignorant and two dimensional, so much so that I have no idea how they even got into grad school. Here's the evil English warlord, here's the female grad student who can be independent, but when a man rescues her she'll swoon and think about marriage and happily ever afters. There is no depth, no development, no reason to root for these characters and hope they make it back to their own time.

The two dimensionality extends into the worldbuilding, as in, here's a cookie cutter Medieval World, go play in it. For all the trash talk of Disney and immersive experiences, I gotta say, I think Disney would do a better job then Doniger and ITC. Disney would at least have a PROPER MAP! I mean, I thought that I had misremembered and that my compass disorientation was because I wasn't paying attention to the included map, but I was wrong! It's the book, not me! At one point the Green Chapel is in the woods to the east about two miles, later it's only a quarter mile to the north? Geographic orientation be damned! Plus how are they getting so easily across the river when there aren't that many boats? Plus all the knights and lords are so basic you can't tell one apart from the other. Plus which castle is which? Their names are bandied about and switched so much that not only is this novel really really flat, but also confusing as hell. It's just adding problems one on top of the other for readers, plus, plus, plus. Plus for the first hundred or so pages, it just made my head hurt.

Re-reading this book after so long I realized it's like a really bad episode of Doctor Who without The Doctor; but not cool like "Blink" but lame like "Love and Monsters." Oh, and give him the worst companions ever, lets say Mickey, Adric, and Peri. So, it's Mickey, Adric, and Peri wandering around and killing people left and right and getting no closer to saving The Doctor because their combined stupidity is so staggering you are blown away. But even if The Doctor wasn't present look at the name of the show, Doctor Who! He is the driving force, much like Professor Johnston should be but isn't. Yes, this book came out in 1999, but the thing is time travel and science fiction already had set expectations for a narrative that had nothing to do with re-launching Doctor Who. The readers of this genre are smart and savvy. We expect the best out of a book we're expending our time on. The thing that struck me most is that this is really time travel for dummies. It's like The Da Vinci Code, written with the masses in mind, not bothering with those readers who might actually have an intellect.

Which brings me to the fact that I am capable of independent thought and therefore I will now poke holes in Crichton's theory of time travel. Can we really call it time travel? He even says it's more like space travel, because you are not going back along your own timeline, but you're crossing over into a parallel dimension that is almost but not quite the same. Which means we get into a paradox of parallel universes. How do they know that they can effect their timeline? If they aren't in their universe how can they A) be sure it's historically accurate and B) get the note from the professor. To tackle A, let's look at the mill. Chris is surprised to see the mill has four not three wheels as he thought. What if the difference between our universe and the one they go to is just that there's one more water wheel? Chris, hard as it may be to believe, might be right. As for B, how exactly did the professor know they were going to find his note for help? He's in another freakin' universe! The fact is small differences in dimensions would really add up which in turn makes the book not add up. Yes, I am probably over thinking this, but I just want it to be better, to be so much more, not Medieval Dan Brown! But I think I have proven beyond a doubt that re-reading Timeline can't magically change what's written.

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