Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Short, Fun, Geek Read: Peter David's Long Night of Centauri Prime

David, Peter. The Long Night of Centauri Prime. Del Rey, 1999.

Babylon 5, a space station from 2057, was once the galaxy's last, best hope for peace. It failed, but along the way, it offered science fiction fans of the past a chance to imagine a future directed by Vorlons and Shadows and inhabited by humans, Cantauri, Narn, and Minbari (as well as almost countless minor races). Over five seasons, J. Michael Straczynski introduced us to this future galaxy, whose races and inhabitants struggled with many of the issues hotly contested, even today, on the continents of planet Earth. He also allowed us to fall--just a little--in love with characters such as hapless Vir (a Centauri), passionate G'Kar (a Narn), devoted Lennier (a Minbari) and a lot of humans.

The Long Night of Centauri Prime is set at the very end of the Babylon 5 television series (obviously excluding the Season 5 finale), primarily on the Centauri homeworld. Readers of this novel have a front-row glimpse into the life of Londo Mollari, whose rising status on the Centauri homeworld and acquantance with some troublesome associates gives him at once ultimate power and complete helplessness. Alone in the midst of his people, Londo must fight demons he never imagined existed, and watch as his world hovers between destruction and slavery.

Having seen the entire televison series on which this novel is based, I can't speak for its suitability for non-sci-fi geeks or those who haven't yet entered the world of space stations where aliens and humans can mingle and come to understand one another more fully. For a fan of the series, however, this book (and the two that follow) provide a fitting epitaph and patch up several of the holes left unfilled in the final episodes from Straczynski's universe. There are spots where the dialogue seems weak, and moments where the plot runs ahead of the literary elements, but, all in all, this is an enjoyable read, and well worth the time spent savoring a few last glimpses of characters and places I'd seen on camera for five short seasons.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Quick Thursday Read: Another Noel Streatfield

Streatfield, Noel. Far to Go. First published 1986.

Far to GoMargaret Thursday, as heroines go, is perhaps not the most typical young woman ever to live in lines of ink. An orphan with a harrowing back story whose theatrical skills are in high demand, she is at once both infuriating and fascinating. Streatfield's Far to Go begins with her escape from a touring show in which young Margaret has played the role of Little Lord Fauntleroy, and continues with her introduction to the London stage (and, in the process, bits of the London underworld, where a few shady individuals still recognise her as a hapless orphan). The novel moves quickly, and the story is entertaining, but Streatfield seems to focus more on details (Margaret's lace-trimmed pantaloons, and the days upon which they are to be worn, are a frequent source of contention between the little girl and her guardian) than on character development, and although Margaret has a very exciting life and meets some very interesting individuals during the course of the book, there is little to remember fondly when the volume has closed. Even as I was thrilled to see Posy Fossil reappear in The Painted Garden, I would be less interested in finding Margaret Thursday in another Streatfield novel.

Despite its limited character development, Far to Go is still a fun and fast read. Margaret's rehearsals, and her growing understanding of the complexity, flexibility, and dedication required of an actress, offer an entertaining look at the London theatre of yore. Her encounter with her past is exciting, and the book is full of adventures. For a younger reader with a little more imagination than I, her character's shortcomings might provide the space for a fully-fleshed-out literary friend, with whom a younger reader can enjoy Margaret's own adventures. Though it discusses some weighty issues, such as child labor and kidnapping, the novel is clean and fairly non-graphic when it comes to these points, and it could be safely enjoyed by most children over eight or nine years of age. For Streatfield fans, it provides a fresh departure from some of his other, perhaps more wonderful, but also more typical, works of literature.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

An Old Favourite: The Hawk and the Dove.

Wilcock, Penelope. The Hawk and the Dove. Crossway, 2000.

I first read Wilcock's The Hawk and the Dove when I was a little girl, but although this reading was at least my third, it never grows old. The Hawk and the Dove is a short frame novel, set partly in recent modern times, where a young girl named Melissa, struggling with her faith, friends, and school, turns to her mother for stories that will encourage and support her. These stories are set in a fourteenth-century monastery, where the monks governed by protagonist Father Peregrine face trials, triumphs, and everyday life. Wilcock's book (and its two sequels, included in this edition) teaches faith, courage, and perseverance; her monks, though devout, are flawed and human, and the lessons Melissa learns will benefit nearly any reader. This book is my second-favourite book of all time; it's short and moves quickly, can be easily read as short stories over a longer span of time, or in a single sitting (I find it difficult to set down!). It would work well for a Bible study or devotional, and makes a perfect gift, partly because it's a surprisingly unnoticed book, even in the world of Christian fiction.

Buy The Hawk and the Dove; read The Hawk and the Dove; give The Hawk and the Dove to your friends. There are very few books I would recommend so strongly.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Painted Fiction: Noel Streatfield's Painted Garden

Streatfield, Noel. The Painted Garden. First published 1949.

Although I'm familiar with many of Streatfeld's mainstream works, I'd never heard of The Painted Garden, also known in the States as Movie Shoes. The interwebs suggest that Movie Shoesis a heavily abridged imitation of the British original, so I'd recommend looking a little harder to find the original, which maintains the original Streatfield charm while offering a humorously sharp critique of American society.
Movie Shoes
The Painted Garden follows the lives of three young English children who visit their Aunt Cora in America and are, from almost the very moment of their arrival in New York, quite critical of the ways in which America differs from their beloved England. Many of the distinctions Streatfield emphasizes are still present today, and as the book progresses, the children slowly learn that different doesn't always mean worse. Two of the children come to America with well-developed artistic talents that enable them to find jobs for themselves in the Califormia society into which they enter, while Mary struggles to find a place and a purpose for her long stay. Highlights of the book include a cameo reappearance of Posy Fossil from Streatfield's first book, Ballet Shoes, as well as the gently emphasized critique of America's public transportation system. Although this book was initially intended for children, it is well-written, engaging, and an ideal volume for ex=pats who wish to reminisce about old England (or even old America).

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Maeve Binchy's Whitethorn Woods: A Novel in Short Stories

Binchy, Maeve. Whitethorn Woods. Random House, 2007.

Although Whitethorn Woods is officially listed as a novel, and structurally works as one, my appreciation for this book by Maeve Binchy is primarily related to its secret identity as a collection of thematically based short stories, all of which feature individuals from or visiting the small Irish town of Rossmore. Perhaps my appreciation for the character-driven chapters rather than the novel as a whole is due to my general disinterest in the volume's most overarching theme, which relates to the preservation of a purportedly magical well located on the outskirts of Rossmore.

Broad themes aside, Binchy manages to craft interesting short stories around the lives of more than a dozen Rossmore inhabitants in such a way as to keep her characters both believable and non-stereotypical (in most cases). Several of her stories contain surprising twists as Binchy prepares to move on to her next chapter/character, and often she manages to neatly link together two characters whose lives have overlapped in passing (and she kindly does this within the space of two or three chapters, which makes it much easier to remember the characters in the first place).

This book is perhaps one of the most lovely short-term reading books I have encountered; while its structure makes it awkward to read in one or two long stints (my common method of enjoying a novel), it would work well in the bathroom, on a commuter train, or at the hairdresser's. Reading each chapter in isolation removed much of the irksomeness of the overarching well-story and allowed me to savour Binchy's colourful characters and imaginative plot twists. As an aside, the book moves very slowly and I nearly left it half-read at several occasions; for me, the strength of her stories becomes much more apparent halfway through the volume.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Scholes' Lamentation: Very Little to Lament

Scholes, Ken. Lamentation. Tor, 2009 (2008).

The fantasy worlds of modern authors really haven't made as much of an impact upon me as they might have, of late, but Scholes' Lamentation manages to emerge pretty well from the sludge of would-be Tolkiens and not-quite Le Guinns that have plagued the fantasy bookshelves of late. Lamentation is set in a far-off world on an apparently quite compact continent, and the novel opens with the destruction of the ancient city of Windiwir, home to most of that continent's knowledge. The narrative is told from the perspective of several key characters, which allows Scholes to keep the novel's focus on major players in several key players all at once, and the plot is strong but well supplemented by rich description.

Although Scholes' reliance upon stylistic elements introduced by Tolkien and the Star Wars canon is pretty clear, and although the narrative voice (unfortunately) doesn't change with each shift of narrator, there are many good things about this book. The choice of narrators is excellent, giving readers insight into certain villainous activities about which other characters are unaware, and keeping two key characters, in particular, far enough from the various narrative voices to maintain crucial elements of mystery and surprise. Scholes' women (all two of them) are interesting, strong, and likeable, and I might be inclined to read the sequel of this text if only to watch their further adventures unfold. On the other hand, while the possible heroes are flawed enough to be interesting, the major villains of Lamentation are dry and uninteresting.

I enjoyed this book, and would not be opposed to reading at least one of its four intended sequels (not all of which have yet been published) but I hope that future volumes in the saga will be less derivative and more complex.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Limitless: Should've Limited Production

Limitless. Dir. Neil Burger. Perf. Bradley Cooper, Robert de Niro, Abbie Cornish, Andrew Howard, Anna Friel, Richard Bekins. 2011.

Well, there you have it: Having seen the trailer above, you have just seen the entire plot of Limitless, with the only omission being a small (but, I confess, intriguing) plot twist at the end. Writer Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is given a drug that allows him to tap into his hidden potential, enjoys the benefits, and eventually learns (though a little too late) that actions have consequences. In Limitless, these consequences include lost days, drug addiction, and the disintegration of relationships. The benefits include getting to work with Robert de Niro, whose performance is (as ever) impeccable but (on this occasion) severely hampered by a stultifying script.

Limitless as a concept is a good one, and although my expectations, based upon the preview, weren't outrageously high, I was heavily disappointed. Morra's character makes an entire series of idiotic decisions, and the consequences should have been even more dramatic than they were; the main message of this film seems to be that most actions have consequences, but money changes everything. Nowhere in the film does Morra ever seriously weigh his options and their potential outcomes, and by the time the numerous flashbacks return us to the moment in Morra's life at which the film begins, every moment is tedium. From this relative boredom we are quickly led into the world of bad gimmicks of the sort a teenager would use to disgust his friends. Throughout the slow monotony of these ill-written scenes, Bradley Cooper does a competent job acting as the imbecilic slug you'll love to despise (and hope to see crushed into a thousand pieces by a truck (the second scene in the film, where he jaywalks across the street, would have been an ideal moment for this potentially delightful moment).

Add to the script's failings some truly nauseating special effects, in which the crew seem determined to impose seasickness upon viewers by means of an almost unending motion blur, and this film is one you'll love to miss. Its only redeeming attributes are the acting performances of Robert de Niro (a methodical, demanding madman), Richard Bekins (whose physical performance provided the most elegant foreshadowing in the entire film), and Anna Friel (perhaps the most memorable female character, although she's only a cameo). Having caught this inspid drama at a local off-run theatre, I'm left wishing I'd spent my one dollar on a Snickers bar instead, which would at least have saved me one hundred and five of the dullest minutes of my life.