Friday, January 18, 2008

Review - Brian Caswell - Loop

Brian Caswell has two talents that a strongly admire; the ability to create characters that will capture your attention and emotions from the start, and the ability to subtly insert moral lessons in his work while still keeping it (mostly) lighthearted and entertaining. His latest anthology, Loop, contains a mix of both speculative fiction and realistic stories which are all examples of what makes Brian Caswell an important Australian author. The stories have an elegance and a simplicity about them, Caswell only ever tells you enough to allow you to develop a relationship with the characters, have a little fun, and explain the point of the story before ending it. He keeps the language basic as well, making the book accessible to readers of all ages.

The speculative fiction is actually the weak suit in this collection. While they all feature Caswell's special talent for making believable and sympathetic characters, the concepts of the stories are usually things that have been done before, sometimes even by Caswell himself. They show a different side of the story, or illustrate a point that others may not have thought of, but there is still really nothing new here. The stories are still well crafted and fun to read, just not as mind blowing as I have found some of his other short stories and novels.

The real life tales are where the volume becomes truley amazing. They show fear, courage, loyalty and determination, sometimes from the most unlikely of sources. One of the things that I like about Caswell's stories is that he sometimes chooses a surprising viewpoint character In November was the first story in the volume that really made me sit up and pay attention. It stuck an emotional cord with me because of the content, but it was also interesting from a style point of view. The story is told by a year 10 student, whose brother's best friend has gone missing just before the year 12 exams. Through her eyes we gain an understanding of not only why he acted the way he did, but also a little of her brother's motivations, and her own thoughts on how much more she appreciates just being a normal kid - without the pressure of everyone's expectations.

Truly, Madly, Deeply... also uses a viewpoint character who is not the hero. The story is about Nicole (good choice!) who is gutsy to the point of recklessness, but the story is told through her brother, who is somewhat of a wimp. We get to see and understand Nicole a bit better because of this distance, and the viewpoint character also tells his own story, quietly and modestly in the background..

The viewpoint character of Running the Majestic is very much the hero - albeit an unlikely one. Poor, honest and hardworking, the protagonist is a character with simple tastes. He is really passionate about movies, and charms you from the start with his candid observations of the things people do in cinemas that drive everyone else insane. It's a classic short story, only long enough to give you all the information you need before it finishes, but it has such a nice message. It's probably my favorite story from the volume.

The other story that could contend for favorite status is Under the circumstances. This story makes me cry; I get teary every time I read it. I won't go into it too much, it's the kind of thing you need to read for yourself, but it's truly an example of how Caswell can get you emotionally involved with his characters, and then encourage you to learn from their experiences.

This book will appeal to a variety of readers: for those who want to analysis it, it provides a good example of style, tone, characterization and message for YA; and for those that just want to read it, it will take you on many short, fun and inspiring adventures.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Mini Movie Review - The Water Horse

My first impression of the Water Horse, based on the book by Dick King-Smith, was that we were finally going to be treated to a traditional children's movie, full of the joy of discovery and the value of friendship. I took my whole family to this movie, rather than something like Golden Compass or Enchanted, because I thought that it would be a nice movie about a cool little critter that everyone would enjoy. The reviews that I read on the internet seemed to support this, saying it was suitable for the whole family, and I remember the preview looking happy and fun.

So why did no-one tell me that it's actually a world war 2 movie in disguise? The movie has some quite serious undertones about the folly of war, and most of the action of the movie was tension between the various male adult characters, the young male protagonist and his mother. The CG on the water horse itself was spectacular, it was a really cute little dude that it was easy to fall in love with, but it didn't get nearly the screen time it deserved. The last half hour of the movie were particularly tense and upsetting, and although the movie ultimately had a happy ending, I don't expect that kind of mental turmoil in an innocent kids movie.

I'm thoroughly sick of war movies masquerading as fairytales. Pan's Labyrinth is excused because I knew nothing about the movie before I saw it - I didn't even know it was rated MA until I was in the cinema, but if this tread continues, I will be very unimpressed.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Review: Snow Crash / Diamond Age

Snow Crash is one of those books that just by reading the first chapter you are a better person - it's that damn cool. Authors often put a lot of effort into making their opening pages memorable - but I still don't think I've read or heard anything that caught me in quite the way Snow Crash did. Even if you have no interest in reading the book itself, I strongly encourage you to read that first chapter, or even better have it read aloud to you Snow Crash and Diamond Age are two very similar novels, both written by Neal Stephenson, that interweave moral and intellectual lessons amongst an incredibly realistic, fantastic and sexy cyberpunk world.

The world is a logical progression of our own, where everything has been compartmentalized and corporatised until everything from housing estates to homeland security is run as a franchised business. It is presented from the point of view of a variety of characters, the main characters exist somewhat outside this social order and are able to get a good glimpse of the way that all the different factions fit together, while the minor characters show what life is like for those strongly affiliated with a particular faction. The story mainly follows two main characters, Hiro and Y.T. Hiro is a freelance hacker, and Y.T. is a Kourier: a skateboarding delivery girl in an age where skateboarding along behind cars is not an extreme spot - it's a career. They are as cool as you could ever want too characters too be, always acting with confidence and style, yet getting into enough trouble for them to never be truly arrogant.

For the purposes of this blog, the book is interesting in the way that it is in some ways similar to a YA novel, only it's a YA novel for a 20 something guy. As well as having all the good characteristics a typical 20 something male would want to have, Hiro also has something in common with most male geeks I know, which is a sense that even though they know what they are good at, they haven't quite worked out how to use it yet Hiro is a great role model, because he is a kick arse male character who isn't afraid to try and work out what the hell is going on with his life. Similarly, for girls, Y.T. is a rockum sockum young women who is never ever afraid to say what she thinks. They both act with honor, but in a 'this is obvious' way rather in a preachy way.

The setting and early plot would both be suitable for a young adult audience, but the only thing that makes me hesitate before thrusting the novel into the hands of every person I meet is the heavy intellectual info dumps during the middle of the book. While they are not very subtly written as conversations between Hiro and the librarian, and they are arguably important to the plot, they are still quite heavy reading in the midst of this otherwise fast paced and engrossing book. While I really support Neal Stephenson's attempt at educating people through literature, and find the content of Crytoponomicon fascinating, I just found that I don't always have much interest in Sumeraian history. Some parts of it were interesting, but mostly even I was just waiting to get to the action again.

Diamond Age is also almost suitable for young adults - everything up to the underwater sex cult is fantastic. The book is also more YA in theme, focusing on an incredibly special volume called The Young Ladies Illustrated Primer and the people who have interactions with it. There are four main viewpoint characters, John the creator of the book, Nell the little girl who finds it, Judge Fang, who becomes curious about it's whereabouts, and Miranda, the voice actor who narrates it. Rather than presenting a broad view of the world, Diamond Age instead focuses on every day life for individuals of the various factions, and these characters provide a good cross section. The world of Diamond Age is very similar that of Snow Crash, but the franculates are more society based, rather than business based. One of the particularly interesting aspects of the book is the lifestyle of the Neo-Victorians, a group of society which is focussed on proper behavior, and making things the old fashioned way, but who also happen to be some of the best nanoengineers. It's a curious mix of cyber and steampunk, that will most likely be a good read for anyone interested in either genre.

However it's not just the fantastic setting that drives my fascination with this story, mostly it is the book it is about. Imagine for a moment growing up with a book that taught you everything you needed to know about the world, tailored just for you. It could teach you how to read, how to fight, how to survive, or how not to be completely brainwashed by the perfect society you live in. It observes the world around you and teaches you what you need to know - using your friends and family to fill the roles of classic mythological archetypes, and educate through fable. This is a particularly interesting idea to me, because in case you haven't noticed by now, the idea of educating through literature is one that fascinates me. The book may be more about the concept of education through literature than it is actually doing it, but just like Snow Crash, I consider it inspirational to a group of people that don't usually have fiction targeted at them, in this case teachers and parents.

Both books can be read on a number of levels, from the purely fun to the deep and meaningful. Usually I think that liking books is an individual thing, that not everyone will like every book, but I am willing to make an exception in this case, especially for Snow Crash. I strongly encourage you to give one or both of these books a try. As I send in the beginning of this review - even if you don't get much further than the first chapter, you'll still be a cooler person for it.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Movie Review - Golden Compass

Whenever I hear about yet another childhood favorite being turned into a movie, I'm always at least a little scared, if not outright terrified, about how they are going to butcher whichever beloved book they have just turned their sights upon. Fortunately, I am often good at forgetting about the rumours until I actually see a preview - and in the case of the Northern Lights adaptation this was probably a good thing. The preview alone blew me away by creating exactly the right atmosphere and sense of wonder that I experience while reading His Dark Materials trilogy, and the movie itself doesn't disappoint.

One of the biggest problems with book to movie adaptations, is trying to convey all of the subtle information that comes across in the book in a two hour movie. While I can't comment as to how Golden Compass does this from the point of view of someone who hasn't read the books - I found it really interesting that at the start of the movie they gave you a short summery of what the world was about, nothing to do with the plot of the books, just enough so that anyone new to the series would understand what it was that made this world different to our own.

Not that the beautiful buildings, magic flying ships, horseless carriages and little critters everywhere wouldn't give this away. The CG on the movie is fantastic in it's effortlessness, it creates a fascinating world that at the same time inspires a sense of wonder, and is completely believable - to anyone willing to enter the worlds of fantasy at least. The daemons are dealt with particularly well. For those unfamiliar with the series, daemons are essentially the equivalent of having an imaginery friend that is real. Everyone has a daemon, who can change shape until puberty, and who then settles on a form that is somehow appropriate to your personaity and stataion in life. So pause and think for a moment, about how much effort went into giving every single actor in the movie their own little CG pet. The daemons are seamlessly inserted into every scene, and actually quite clever in how they give you little clues about the roles of all the important characters.

The most important character in the movie is obviously the protagonist, a young girl called Lyra. One of the reasons that I am so fond of the this book/movie, is that Lyra is a phenomenal role model for both boys and girls. Loyal, smart and very brave, Lyra is called to demonstrate these qualities over and over again through the movie, and does so without complaining once. She is able to express her fears to her daemon Pan, but that never shakes her resolution about what she has to do.

The actress playing Lyra was a bit older than I expected, and while this changed the character somewhat, it was an acceptable trade off for having someone capable of playing the character of Lyra with the depth it needed. All of the other actors in the movie were fantastic - as you would expect with the number of big names it attracted. This was in some ways a slight disadvantage, because being able to play 'spot the celebrity' broke the realism of the movie a little, but the actors were all so well cast for the roles that they dragged you right back in again. Sam Elliot as Lee Scorseby deserves an honourable mention, because while I had never ever imaged that character as being such a cowboy as soon as I saw him on screen I realised it was perfect, and I will never ever be able to see him any other way.

The last thing that really impressed me about this movie is how close to the books it actually is. I kept waiting for them to change something, to do something that loyal fans would get upset about - but they really didn't. The only changes came towards the end of the movie, and you could see exactly why they changed things the way they did. They even left in parts of the books I was sure they would skip for 'pacing reasons'.

It still ends up a very long movie, and it may seem to jump around a little for people not familiar with the book, but overall I think that it is a wonderful and engaging story matched with awe-inspiring visuals. It may have recieved mixed reviews in the critical press, but I loved it and hopefully you will too.

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