June 14th

Day 166 — Spent a quiet day just recuperating — again, some more, still.  FINALLY, finished A Breath of Snow and Ashes, by Diana Gabaldon.  A huge lug of a book.  The first I’d read of these Jamie Fraser/Outlander stories.  Pretty sure it’s going to be the last.  Way too bloody long!  1439 pages!  Christ, she could have written 3 half-decent novels in that amount of pages, instead of this one over-long, over-blown compilation of scenes from a television series.  (I don’t know if these stories have been adapted for television, but, man, she sure writes like they are.)  The disappointing thing is that I wanted to like the story, wanted to like the characters, but in the end they are all just so manufactured.  Ah, well, I had to do something to occupy myself while I was sick.

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It’s late on a Saturday night. . .

Just a quick post to review a book and a movie.

First, the book:  Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

This was an okay book.  I was more than a little disappointed in it, because I had heard such great things from others who’d read it.

It should have been a wonderful story, but, for whatever reason it lacked real emotion.  The truest parts in the story take place in the nursing home where the elder Jacob recounts his tale of life in the early 1900’s working for a travelling circus.

The story has all the elements of a great story — love, betrayal, hardship, cruelty, mental illness, circus life, depression-era trials and tribulations, animals — it truly has it all.  None of it, though, ever connected with me.

And, I think, after having a couple of discussions with other people who’ve read the book, the reason is that it was written with a screen option in mind.  It doesn’t say that on the dust jacket, but while I was reading it I would come across a scene and immediately I’d think:  Well, won’t that play out well on the screen.

Call me jaded, cynical, harsh, whatever you want, but I find this to be true with a lot of the books being written today.  Anything popular, that is.  It’s like the authors are giving us the outline of a story, they’re providing a bunch of scenes that are loosely connected, but they lack any real art.

I find it very difficult these days to find books that really grab me.  Even The Hunger Games (which I recently reviewed), good as I thought they were, were obviously written with a movie in mind.

Gruen’s writing is solid, though I found it seemed to plod where it should have sung.  For some reason I can’t fathom she chose to throw in various sordid sex scenes — usually portraying grotesque or deviant behaviour.  These were rather jarring and other than acting as a contrast to the ‘pure’ love Jacob feels for Marlena, I couldn’t discern any reason for including them.

For me, this book, which should have been so full of life and emotion, fell flat.  It began with an anti-climactic whimper; and ended on an absolutely improbable and ridiculous notion; it was, when all is said and done, about as second-rate as the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth was.

I’d rate this book:  2.5 stars

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Now, for the movie:  War Horse by Stephen Spielberg.

This is a lovely movie.  I was afraid to see it because it deals with: war, and horses in war.

I did not want to see animals suffering; I just can’t stand that.  And, I can’t stand movies about war — I can’t stand thinking of humans suffering.

So, usually, I do my best to avoid both those themes in movies, but, I had heard how good this movie was and had been assured that it wasn’t very graphically violent.

It isn’t.  The worst part involves the Germans’ treatment of the horses, how they used them til they died in the hauling of heavy artillery.  But, thankfully, that is a very small part of the movie.  The British are shown as being far more compassionate towards the horses, but I think there just might be a little historical bias involved.

The hero of the story, a horse named Joey, is a ‘miraculous’ horse.  He was raised and trained by a young English lad who treated him with kindness, intelligence and love.  Those traits were imprinted on Joey and when he goes into service as a war-horse he continually demonstrates a depth of character that astounds all those (save the evil German in charge of getting the big guns up a steep hill so that he can shell the peaceful French community below) he comes in contact with.

While I was watching this movie I couldn’t help thinking of stories like The Black Stallion, My Friend FlickaBlack Beauty and Beautiful Joe.  All great stories about the plight of much-loved animals who because of unfortunate circumstances suffer mightily before they finally find peace and protection with people who love them. It took me back to the days when I was a girl and couldn’t get enough of the Famous Dog or Famous Horse Stories compilations.  (I used to make my mother crazy because I’d either be blubbering about the horrible treatment the animals I was reading about endured, or, I was wandering about enraged and fraught with righteous indignation because of it.)

I know this movie was a play before it was a movie, and you can easily see how it would play out on a stage.  Whether or not a make-believe horse would have the same emotional wallop as a real one though is something I’d have to debate.

It’s a beautiful, heart-felt story, something big and lovely and innocent.  It made me cry and it made me smile.  What more can you ask from a good story?

I’d rate this movie:  4 stars

Friday, March 23, 2012 The Hunger Games Review

Okay, so I’m going to attempt this again.

Big drum roll, and. . .

. . . the CUPE convention is done.  I only have a half day of a parliamentary procedure class to get through tomorrow and then I’m on my way home.  Yay!

Now,for The Hunger Games.

I finished the trilogy about 3 weeks ago.  I enjoyed the series, though got through the first two books a lot faster than the third.  This was for two reasons:

1.  the first two books are better
2.  I didn’t have as much time for reading with the third book as I did for the first two

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed these books.  Because they’re written for young adults I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Collins, though, writes quickly, clearly and with definite purpose.  And these books aren’t all about girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl finds boy again, girl lives happily ever after — Collins deviates from that formula just enough to make these books smart, intelligent and gritty.

I found myself really liking and caring about Katniss Everdeen, her friends, and family.  Collins creates a female protagonist who is very real; she’s got definite problems and they don’t just go away because a boy comes along.

The books are incredibly violent and deal with some pretty deep themes, which given the age they’re written for might seem surprising, but, if you stop to think about it, maybe not so much.

After all, Collins’ audience is one that watches movies like Saw, Hostel and the like, and that also plays some of the most violent and gruesome video games ever made.  These kids have been raised on this kind of material.  What Collins does do, though, is provide a backdrop of psychological terror and consequence that the characters in her stories must suffer as a result of the world they inhabit. It’s not just about who is stronger, and characters don’t get the living shit kicked out of them and then stand up victorious with barely a scratch to show.  And I think this is the real genius of her tale.

Katniss’ world is one of horror and hardship, but it’s a world she’s used to; she’s not looking for a knight in shining armour to come along and make it all better for her.  Despite her many problems, all she’s had to endure and all the horror that awaits her after winning the Hunger Games, Katniss survives because she thinks for herself.  Collins gives us a young female character who is fiercely independent, flawed and resourceful.  She is often wracked with self-doubt, as most girls that age are, but she never gives up on herself.

I hope that girls everywhere get that message.  The world is a messy place and you better be prepared to handle it on your own terms.  Bad things happen, but you can rise above them — and you don’t need anyone to hold your hand while you do.  No one makes it out of life without scars, it’s how you wear those scars that determines who you are.

Now for the nitty-gritty about the books themselves.  The first two were an incredibly fast read.  Book three, not so much.  It felt, as it does with most trilogies, not including The Lord of the Rings, that by the third book Collins was beginning to run out of steam.  It seemed rushed, like she just wanted the story to be over.  She does a credible job of ending it all, without the usual trite, happily ever after baloney, but I found it left me feeling a little flat.

Because these books were written specifically for a younger audience I often found myself frustrated by the lack of depth regarding secondary characters.  I found this especially troubling when it came to President Snow.  I wanted more — more history, more detail, more reaction.  It often felt like Collins took an ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ approach to her characters.  Still, in all, the books captured my imagination, and not once did I ever think ‘oh, get on with it, will you!’

Was I sad when they were finished?  No.  Did I wish they hadn’t ended?  No.  Did I find myself entertaining thoughts of a fourth book?  No.

If I were to use a star rating here’s what it would look like:

Book One, The Hunger Games — 5 stars
Book Two, Catching Fire — 4 stars
Book Three, Mockingjay — 3.5 stars

Wed. Feb. 23 — The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo — short book review

For Christmas, the teacher I work with gave me all 3 books in Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy.  The first of these is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

It took me about 3 weeks to read — I don’t have tons of time to just sit around reading — like I often wish I did, so I read it mostly in 15 minute to 1/2 hour snatches of time.  I did manage a couple of times where my reading was uninterrupted for about an hour, but mostly I had to read on the fly.

I had high expectations for these books, because I’d heard so much about them.  Steig Larsson, who I know nothing about, comes off as some kind of wunderkind, or literary folk-hero because he died so abruptly and left behind an unfinished fourth book that has something to do with this series.  It is tragic that he died, but before these books and movies hit the big-time I had never heard of him.  That said, he is, in my opinion, a good writer, not a great writer.

I enjoyed Girl, but it took almost a third of the book before I did.  In fact, I was about ready to call it quits — I’ve said before that I can’t waste my time reading something that is boring or seems to be going nowhere — and that is what this book was like in the beginning.  I’m glad I hung in there, though, and I realized once I got past that dull first third that everything Larsson had bored me with was essential to the story that was coming.

It’s easy to tell that Larsson was a journalist — it comes across in his writing — and really shows in the parts of the book where he is describing the world of financial journalism — I tried not to let this detract from the rest of the story as I read.  The plot, setting and flow of the novel is cleanly and clearly laid out, you can see how he must have written each part separately and then seamed them together.  This, more than anything, (once you get past the first third of the book) is what makes this book a fast, easy read.

Although there is a large cast of characters in this novel, the two main ones, Mikael Blomkvist (I stumbled over that last name each time I read it) and Lisbeth Salander (somehow I always thought ‘salamander’) are never lost, though it takes a long time for us to get to know Lisbeth.  Which was weird for me seeing as she is the girl in the title of the book.  I don’t quite know why Larsson chose to center the books on her, as it seems to me most of the story was about Blomkvist.  Lisbeth was secondary — she is drawn in, eventually, to help him in his quest to solve a decades-old crime and clear his name after a libel conviction.

I can’t say I ever came to really care for either of these main characters.  They’re too, oh, I don’t know, character-y-ish.  Mikael is good-looking, normal, hard-working, full of integrity.  I imagined George Clooney.  Lisbeth is quirky, conflicted, haunted, edgy, border-line psychotic.  I imagined a young Juliette Lewis with hair dyed black.  Though I say I never came to care about them, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t interested in them.  Larsson puts them in some pretty scary predicaments and gives enough background about them that you can’t help wanting to know what will happen to them, but, in the end, they never felt like real people to me.

And, though the title says she is the girl with the dragon tattoo, we never get to know the reference behind that.  I guess it has something to do with her toughness and fiery determination — but that sounds like too much of a cliché.

Oh, and something else about these books — sex.  It’s like Larsson wanted us all to know how crucial sex is to one’s ability to have a healthy, meaningful life.  And that European’s are not all hung up about sex the way North American’s are.  It’s okay to have multiple partners, and open marriages and bisexual relationships. And anytime you’re not feeling quite right — well just hop into bed and, though problem not solved, you’ll just start to feel better after some good ol’ wholesome sex.

All in all, I would say that these books, at least the first one, are a good read for the beach or during a week-long holiday.  I’m reading something else before I pick up the second book The Girl Who Played With Fire. I need a break from all those Swedish hard-to-read, harder-to-say names.

The Bishop’s Man

The Bishop’s Man

Written by Linden MacIntyreLinden  MacIntyre Author Alert Category: Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 416 pages
Publisher: Random House Canada
ISBN: 978-0-307-35706-9 (0-307-35706-6)

Pub Date: July 28, 2009
Price: $32.00

The Bishop’s Man was not what I expected.  It was not full of gut-churning details about abuse perpetrated by priests, but rather a story of how one very conflicted man tries to do the right thing while working for a tyrannical system that is interested only in saving itself.

Sounds pretty cut and dried, but it’s not.

Essentially, the book is a large character study.  First, of the main character, the Bishop’s man, secondly of Newfoundland and the East Coast communities most affected by the scandals of the Catholic church. It makes you look and think beyond the sensational headlines and question why this horror happened, and continues to happen.

MacIntyre’s writing is sparse and clean; it’s very straightforwardness lends itself perfectly to the telling of this story.  You never forget that you’re an observer, you never get too emotionally involved.

That’s not to say I didn’t sympathize or agonize with/for the people in the story, but it was from a point of observation — I didn’t jump too readily to general assumptions about what was going on.

The message in this book is that life is complicated, there are no easy answers and that the men placed in such powerful positions are, in the end, just men, not Gods, and that accountability is highly personal.

I would highly recommend this book.  It sure opened my eyes to what some men choose to  sacrifice in order to serve a God who may or may not exist, and what they choose to tell themselves when that faith, naturally, begins to waver.

It’s no bloody wonder alcoholism is so rampant in Catholic communities.

The Last Oracle, James Rollins

The Last Oracle
Author: James Rollins
Published:  2008, Harper Collins, New York, NY

This is the first of these books I’ve read.  And, it will be my last. 

I was given this book as a gift; the blurb on the back of the book sounded very interesting so I had fairly high hopes starting into it.  It’s an espionage thriller with a plot involving bioengineered autistic children, a threat to annihilate all the world leaders and replace them with one puppet controlled by an evil military regime, and mystic ties to an ancient civilization of oracles.  Unfortunately, it’s just over-blown pulp fiction.

Rollins is an adequate writer; he keeps his story moving along in a nice, formulaic style.  He has pretty good research backing up his plot, though it’s not as in-depth as say, Dan Brown’s.  (The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons).  Rollins, a considerably better structural writer that Mr. Brown, but lacks Brown’s creative imagination.  His characters are merely wooden stereotypes.  I think the most interesting one so far is the obviously twice-doomed Monk.  Everyone else is just flat and uninteresting, even the children the evil Russians have experimented on.  Which really, is quite sad, because you’d think with children involved, the emotion would be ramped up.  Oh, and don’t forget the animals. 

This book, as I’m presuming is the same with the others, was clearly written with the idea of a movie deal in mind.  I can just see Nicholas Cage in the role of Commander Gray Pierce (are your eyes rolling?), Rollins’ steely eyed, square-jawed, university degree-d hero.  Then add a big guy like The Rock to play his sidekick, Kowalski; a petite, little known blonde actress to play the smart,  bookish though very attractive Dr. Elizabeth Polk, and a host of other lesser-known but recognizable actors to play the other assorted characters that overrun this story.

It’s your typical spy/thriller with lots of guns, swords, globe-trotting, ties to ancient history and racial stereotyping.  Only the Americans are good enough/smart enough/resourceful enough to save the day.  But wait!  He does throw in an American villain or two — just to keep things kind of realistic, I guess. 

The problem, for me, is that I could have liked this book if only some effort had been put into making me want to like it.  it’s an interesting concept, but I’m reading it now simply to see if it plays out the way I’ve imagined it will.  I’ve seen enough of these kinds of movies to have a pretty good idea of the outcome. 

If you like books you can read with your eyes closed, then this one’s for you.

Just After Sunset — finished

I finished Just After Sunset by Stephen King right before Christmas.  I have to say I loved it.  Mr. King has re-discovered that old familiar voice we devoted fans of his love to hear. 

The stories are smart, funny, poignant and relevant.  Even the final story, as disgusting as it was.  The thing with King, when he is at his best, (and I would have to say Just After Sunset is representative of some of his best work in a long, long time), is that he draws you into the story effortlessly.  Once there, you feel as though you know these characters, these situations.  And that’s because you can relate them to your own experience, your own deep, dark thoughts and hidden fears.  It’s a fun ride.

Of the thirteen stories that comprise this collection I’d have to say my favorites are: 

Harvey’s Dream
Willa
The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates
Ayana
The Things They Left Behind and
The Gingerbread Girl

Each of these stories touched a personal chord within me, that made me sit back and think: “yeah, exactly” or made me shudder with the very real possibility that there but for the grace of God . . . 

I particularly liked Willa, because I could see myself in her.  The practical, logical, let’s just face this situation for what it is attitude she has, and, of course, it’s a nice little love story.  The writing in this one is tight, clear and unsentimental, but at the same time very evocative of the emotions people in such a sad situation would experience.  Highly recommended.

The Gingerbread Girl is just a great survival story.  It’s exactly what we would imagine we would do in a situation like that.  (Whether we could pull it off like the heroine in the story is doubtful, still the imagination likes to think we could.)  I just loved this one.

Ayana has shades of The Green Mile all over it.  It’s a gentle story about kindness and paying it forward and just what that costs.  The writing is superb.

The Things They Left Behind, although a little ‘out there’ for me was wonderfully written and a take on 9/11 that I hadn’t read before.  King captures beautifully that sense of hopelessness some of the survivors of that terrible day experienced.  It’s a tale of atonement and personal guilt when neither is justified. 

And, although I didn’t mention it in my favorite’s list I’d have to say the end story, A Very Tight Place, has stayed with me.  It’s full of the usual themes, guilt, fear, hatred, madness, over-wrought emotion, violence and the imagination’s desire to do nasty, nasty things to people we can’t stand or understand.  Suffice it to say it’s a great, satisfying, albeit yucky, read. 

Anyway, I hope you’ll give this collection of short stories a try.  If you’re a die-hard fan like me you’ll love it.  If you’re a newbie I think you’ll be surprised at just how wonderful a writer Stephen King is. 

Post me and let me know what you think.

Just After Sunset, Stephen King

Just After Sunset is a collection of short stories SK wrote a couple of years ago.  I got the book last year, either for Christmas, birthday or Mother’s Day.  It’s a sad statement on how busy I’ve allowed myself to get that it takes me this long to get around to reading a book.  I think it’s only about the fourth book I’ve read this year.  Maybe fifth.  I used to read voraciously, one or two books a month.  (That’s voraciously for me.)  Now, if I manage to get 1/2 an hour a night before I go to sleep I’m accomplishing something. 

Anyway . . . whining about my poor time management skills isn’t what I started this post about.  It’s supposed to be about Just After Sunset. 

In the preface SK says he wrote these stories after being asked to judge a short story contest.  He says doing that re-awakened in him a desire to write short stories as he once had — with passion and a sense of urgency for getting the story told.  In his younger days, when writing meant feeding the kids or putting gas in the car, short stories were his stock and trade.  They paid the rent while he was working on the big stuff. 

I can remember literally devouring his collections of stories when I got my hands on them.  They were like a special treat and I would read them like I would occasionally binge on chocolate.  These days I don’t have time for binge-reading, and maybe that’ s a good thing.  I’ve also got a few years of University lit classes under my belt, so I’ve got a somewhat more refined skill-set in use when I’m reading now. 

When I used to read, I read strictly for pleasure, now I read with a more critical eye — I’m looking for plot, construction, reference, tone — all the boring stuff they teach you about in school, or try to at least.  I’m just lucky enough, or geeky enough — have it your way — to find that stuff not boring at all, but fascinating.  And when I’ve applied my newly acquired critical eye to a few of Stephen’s latest books I’ve come away a tad disappointed.  They all seemed to be lacking something, seem to be forced in some way that when I finished I felt a little sad, a little disappointed, because the man seemed to have lost his way.  But I’m a devoted fan, so I’ve hung in there, waiting.   Hoping. Praying he’d get the ‘feel’ back. 

Well, I think he has.  Just After Sunset is a fun read.  The stories roar along like a freight train and when I’m reading them I’m gone.  That’s what SK used to do for me, he’d transport me right the hell out of where ever I was, and take me on crazy ride.  I’d be jammed into some small compartment with people I didn’t know, some of whom I really came to care about, others whom I wanted to hide from, others whom I’d weep over as they fell or were pushed from the open doors of the speeding cars.  And to come back from that ride was agony, all I wanted to do was stay there and see it through to the journey’s end.  And when the book was finished?  I felt the way you do when you just don’t want to leave the party even though you know it’s over, that the door is closing, you’re waving goodbye, but you wish, real hard that the host will say: “Aww, what the hell!  Let’s keep’er going!”  And I’d put the book away on my bookshelf with my growing collection of Stephen King’s books and I’d start waiting, right there, right then, for his next one to appear.

Of course, I’m reading this one a story at a time, a few pages at a time.  The cool thing is, I can’t wait to get back to it every evening before I turn in for the night.  The other cool thing, my critical eye hasn’t found anything to bitch about.  So far, it’s all good. 

This was taken in August this year. We were on our motorcycle trip out East and back and we swung into Maine, well, because we were THAT close and I just had to do the dopey fan thing and go see where Stephen King lives. I was too chicken to go and knock on the door, although the gate was open and there were cars in the driveway. I'm guessing it was just groundskeepers and housekeepers -- Mr. King was probably in Florida. Still, it was a great big thrill.

The Horse Whisperer

I finished The Horse Whisperer.  I really enjoyed re-reading this story, but in the second reading I came away with a feeling that the whole story seemed to end before Tom and Annie consummate their love.  Once they’re together the whole thing is pretty anti-climactic.  The love-making is clichéd, and you can see the end coming from a Montana-mile away.  The most important character in the story, Grace, gets short shrift, and to kind of make up for it, I suppose, Evans turns her into a female version of Tom.  This is an amazing transformation for a fifteen-year old who has suffered unbelievable physical and emotional trauma.  Even Pilgrim, Graces’ badly maimed and brutalized horse, is miraculously cured and becomes himself again, although with a few scars that make him even more handsome than he was before. 

This is a book to read once, in my opinion.  A great summer or Christmas break read — you’ll cry, and then you’ll want to run out and fall in love with a cowboy and buy a horse.

Update on The Horse Whisperer

The reading is going slowly.  Too much else going on.  But. . . I am enjoying the book every bit as much as I did before.  Evans is a good writer, he  conveys everyone’s pain (even the horse’s) in a genuine way that doesn’t descend into melodrama.  Pain is a major character in the story and, as such, you don’t want to get tired, sick or bored with it, and Evans makes sure that doesn’t happen.   Annie is interesting.  I don’t remember liking her all that much the first time around.  This time it’s different.  I think I understand her a little better.  Her pain is really what makes this story as interesting as it is.  The horse, her daughter, although their pain is horrific, it’s visible.  You’ve really got to work to understand what’s going on with Annie.  Anyway, I’ll post again, hopefully soon.

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