Sunday, March 11, 2012

Catching Fire

by Suzanne Collins
-The Hunger Games Trilogy, Book 2-
(New York: Scholastic Books, 2010)
eBook, 404 Pages, 479 KB, Fiction

The sparks are igniting. Flames are spreading. And the Capitol wants revenge. Against all odds Katniss has won the Hunger Games. She and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark are miraculously still alive. Katniss should be relieved, happy even. After all, she has returned to her family and her longtime friend, Gale. Yet nothing is the way Katniss wishes it to be. Gale holds her at an icy distance. Peeta has turned his back on her completely. And there are whispers of a rebellion against the Capitol—a rebellion that Katniss and Peeta may have helped create. Much to her shock, Katniss has fueled an unrest she’s afraid she cannot stop. And what scares her even more is that she’s not entirely convinced she should try. As time draws near for Katniss and Peeta to visit the Districts on the Capitol’s cruel Victory Tour, the stakes are higher than ever. If they can’t prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that they are lost in their love for each other, the consequences will be horrifying.

I am completely blown away by these books. I can’t believe that it has taken me this long to get into them! What Collins has created in this series is nothing short of mind-blowing. Panem is a real and vibrant world that is nothing short of stunning. What was promised in The Hunger Games has been fulfilled in Catching Fire.

The Hunger Games promised a look into a world that was like nothing else that has been seen in young adult fiction in a long time. Honestly, comparisons to Battle Royale aside, the only thing I can think of that comes close to what Collins has created here are Stephen King’s novellas The Long Walk and The Running Man (both of which originally published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), but even that is not a real comparison (though The Running Man does come awfully damn close) because by creating Katniss Everdeen, what Collins has done is created one of the greatest female characters in literature. She is strong, she is sure of herself, she is intelligent, she is more than capable of handling herself and she is completely badass in every sense of the word. Yes, there is an annoying love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale, but that is not the main story here. The main story here deals with Katniss trying to survive in a world that has become increasingly hostile toward her in particular.

In particular what I loved about Catching Fire (I devoured this book) is the inclusion of additional tributes and the twist of the Quarter Quell. Talk about upping the ante! Collins is sadistic in her treatment of the various Tributes trapped in the arena (the deaths here are, if anything, more intense than those in The Hunger Games) and it really is something that such a violent book is marketed to young adults. However, none of the violence is gratuitous or done for the sake of violence, and it is always presented in the context of the rules of Panem, and that lifts these books above the normal fare and that do not descend into some kind of modern Grand Guignol where the imaginative deaths become the centerpiece. This isn’t Saw for the Tween Set, this is a carefully crafted allegory that shows the importance of being socially and politically aware, and all told in one of the greatest damn stories I have ever read.

Oh, and then there is the ending! What an ending! I cannot wait to pick up Mockingjay and see where Collins is going to take this. The stage has been set for big things, and I for one am excited to see how the story of Katniss resolves itself.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins
-The Hunger Games Trilogy, Book 1-
(New York: Scholastic Books, 2009)
eBook, 388 Pages, 482 KB, Fiction

Winning means fame and fortune. Losing means death. The Hunger Games have begun… In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before—and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

Okay.

Okay.

Deep breath.

I’ve read these books finally. I’ve jumped on the bandwagon, drunken the Kool Aid, and whatever other tired clichés you feel like trotting out.

This book has been on my Kindle for a very, very long time—practically since I got the darned thing two years ago—and I essentially forgot about it. I was peripherally aware of the books, but not enough to know what they were about or even about the hype surrounding them. Then I loaned a friend my copy of the eBook to her Kindle and when it came back, and I had finished Those Across the River, I decided what the hell. I might as well.

A day and a half later I was done with Book One and begging my wife to allow me to buy Books Two and Three for my Kindle so I could finish the goddamned series.

I don’t know what I was thinking I would find in Collins’ book. Another book trying to be Harry Potter. Another series trying to cash in on the Twilight phenomenon. Another crappy young adult series. What I didn’t expect was to be so drawn in to the series that I (A) couldn’t wait to read Books Two and Three and (B) that I was extremely glad I had a Kindle so that I could have them without any delay.

I’m not exactly sure what it was I enjoyed the most about the series. Was it the whole premise … sure there are similarities to Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, but there are plenty of other killer reality TV games-based plots that it would be unfair to Collins’ to belabor the similarities. (If that’s the case, then we might as well talk about Takami and the similarities to Stephen King’s novellas The Running Man and The Long Walk.) Anyway, Battle Royale aside, I love the way in which Collins’ handles the idea of the Hunger Games and creates the history of Panem. The sheer brutality of the world in which Katniss Everdeen lives is unbelievable, and yet … not really that unbelievable. The way in which politics and politicians have been dividing the country into various regions and working to deepening that divide is strangely similar to Panem’s Capitol’s work to keep the twelve Districts separate and unaware of each other.

I also really enjoyed the character of Katniss Everdeen. It was nice to encounter a strong and fairly independent female character in what is, essentially, a young adult novel after nearly a decade of having Bella Swan be the worst female role model for young pre-teen and teenage girls. This is not to say that Katniss doesn’t have her flaws … I am a little sick of the love triangles between a young woman and two young men, and while I understand that this kind of romance is more for the young adults in the target audience than for me, the 30-something, married adult male, but still … I don’t want to get caught up in arguments of Team Peeta vs. Team Gale anymore than I wanted to get caught up in arguments of Team Edward vs. Team Jacob. Why do young female characters need that? Why can’t Katniss succeed without a man in her life? I mean, she does for the most part, but the whole protector—or in Katniss’ case males: Peeta, Gale, Cinna, Haymitch—that need to watch out for the “girl” is a little disheartening. Luckily in this case, Katniss is, for the most part, a strong, independent and thinking young woman who takes her destiny into her own hands.

Then there is the sheer, unrelenting, exhausting experience of reading the actual action of the Hunger Games. When we finally enter the Arena with Katniss, what Collins has laid down on the pages of this book is a nonstop dash for the end. Once the Hunger Games started, I could not put the book down. The action is nonstop and the way in which Collins portrays the events in the Arena is so compelling that you almost feel as if you are there. In addition to the “feel” of the Arena, Collins has created some of the most inventive and disturbing traps, perils and hazards I have ever had the pleasure to read about in a “young adult” novel. From diabolical traps, to weather control, to dangerous wasps and genetically engineered monstrosities specifically designed to take away your reason and sanity … the Arena and its Gamemakers throw it all at the twenty-four Tributes. Oh, and there is blood. Copious amounts of it. Disturbing amounts, even.  More than one might expect in a young adult novel.

And yet, the violence and gore doesn’t seem excessive. I know that that might sound … odd, but it’s true. With the exception of the love triangle, everything that is in this book is there for a reason and advances the plot and deepens character development. I honestly can’t wait to dive into Catching Fire.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Those Across the River

by Christopher Buehlman
(New York: Ace, 2011)
eBook, 386 Pages, 422 KB, Fiction

Failed academic Frank Nichols and his wife, Eudora, have arrived in the sleepy Georgia town of Whitbrow, where Frank hopes to write a history of his family's old estate—the Savoyard Plantation—and the horrors that occurred there. At first, the quaint, rural ways of their new neighbors seem to be everything they wanted. But there is an unspoken dread that the townsfolk have lived with for generations. A presence that demands sacrifice. It comes from the shadowy woods across the river, where the ruins of Savoyard still stand. Where a longstanding debt of blood has never been forgotten. A debt that has been waiting patiently for Frank Nichols's homecoming...

I guess it’s been my time to be surprised by a book I’m reading when the plot takes a hanging left turn to a direction that I was not expecting. It happened with The Shimmer and now it’s happened with Those Across the River. Though unlike with The Shimmer, when it happened in this Buehlman’s book I was absolutely riveted and enjoyed every minute of the gear change that took place. Though, to be honest, I did not have very many expectations for this book to begin with, other than it was a horror novel and a period piece.

Getting into it, though I kind of figured that this would be another Deliverance clone crossed with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre … you know, standard horror fair: murderous, cannibalistic hillbillies. I was working with that hypothesis through a good half to two-thirds of the book until the actual secret of Those Across the River is revealed and oh boy … did I not expect what I got. It was a complete and utter surprise, and let me tell you, that is awesome. Very rarely have I come across a book that can hold its secrets so close to the vest for so long and I have to praise and laud the book that does. Really, when the secret comes, wow!

Aside from that, the rest of the book is absolutely wonderful. From the characters of Frank Nichols and Eudora to the residents of Whitbrow, Buehlman has created a rich tapestry of people that populate his little corner of the South. It is amazing to see them come to life and walk across the pages and the care and meticulousness with which Buehlman writes about their lives is absolutely captivating. This little Southern backwater is vivid under Buehlman’s hand and not in a sepia-toned, nostalgic kind of way. Rather, Whitbrow is vibrant and colorful, if a little on the rundown side, and when the blood begins to flow, and it does, it is bright red.

One of the only problems I had with Those Across the River is that it takes a long time to realize that this is a period piece.  At least it did to me. I couldn’t figure out until the third or fourth chapter, when it is stated explicitly that the story takes place in 1935. Until that point, I was bouncing back and forth from the 20s to the 40s to the 50s, unsure in what time, exactly, this novel takes place. But, that is a minor problem, and doesn’t detract too much from the enjoyment of the story, especially since it is resolved relatively soon and once the Nichols arrive in Whitbrow and the plot takes off in earnest, any concern I had about the time period were erased and I was pulled headfirst into the plot, trying to figure out the secret of Those Across the River.

More than anything, though, Those Across the River is all about atmosphere, and once the action moves to Whitbrow, there is no shaking the omnipresent sense that there is something fundamentally “off” about the town, its environs and the townsfolk. It is a sense of the uncanny, like how things in a mirror look correct, until you become conscious of the fact that the image is reversed, and then it just becomes … odd, but not in any way you could really put your finger on. That’s the sense of things in the first half to two-thirds of Those Across the River, and it is an absolutely delicious feeling, being so off-balance in a book.

Doctor Who: The Pirate Loop

by Simon Guerrier
read by Freema Agyeman
(London: BBC Radio, 2008)
MP3 Audiobook, 34.7 MB, 2.5 Hours, Fiction

The Doctor’s been everywhere and everywhen in the whole of the universe and seems to know all the answers.  But ask him what happened to the Starship Brilliant and he hasn’t the first idea.  Did it fall into a sun or black hole?  Was it shot down in the first moments of the galactic war?  And what’s this about a secret experimental drive?  The Doctor is skittish.  But if Martha is so keen to find out he’ll land the TARDIS on the Brilliant, a few days before it vanishes.  Then they can see for themselves.

So, when we ended the last Doctor Who audiobook, my kids immediately wanted to listen to another. My four-year-old daughter put in a request for something with Martha Jones, since Martha is her favorite companion of the Tenth Doctor. So, I dug through my digital archives and found this! The Pirate Loop not only starring Martha but read by Martha. How could I deny my daughter this opportunity?

The answer is … I couldn’t.

While my kids absolutely enjoyed this story, I have to say that it wasn’t exactly my favorite. While Agyeman’s performance/reading is spot on, I found that there were some flaws in the story that didn’t make The Pirate Loop as fun as it could be. Unfortunately, to discuss any of them would be to engage in some serious spoilerage so I’ll keep my tongue but just say that Guerrier employs a plot device that seems both lazy and overwrought, allowing him to do things with the characters that frankly, just aren’t all that fun … especially when you figure it out, which happens pretty early on.

That said though, there is a lot that is fun about this particular outing with the Doctor and Martha, chiefly the pirate characters as well as the Doctor. For the part of the pirates, for some one-off villains, they are surprisingly well-rounded characters that are a lot of fun. I mean, how can you not like six-foot tall anthropomorphic badgers in space suits with gold rings in their ears and Cockney accents?  Plus the image that Guerrier paints of these pirates is really quite vivid, and in a series where it is really easy to create some one-dimensional villains (i.e. the Slitheen, the Abzorbaloff, and the Autons to name just a few) it is nice to see some effort put into menacing the Doctor.

As for the Doctor himself, it never ceases to amaze me that the authors of these books are so able to capture Tennant’s persona as the Tenth Doctor and translate it so well into print, especially since Tennant’s Doctor is such an animated character, full of energy and little quirky movements and looks. So for that to come across in a printed format that is read by another actor is nothing short of amazing, and I am amazed every time an author pulls it off.

My reservations aside, though, my kids absolutely loved it, and I did enjoy myself, it’s hard not to be caught up in the Tenth Doctor’s manic energy, especially when you are experiencing the excitement of your children (who are HUGE fans of the series) listening to a new adventure in the Doctor Who universe.

Let the Right One In

by John Ajvide Lindqvist
translated by Ebba Segerberg
originally published as Låt den rätte komma in
(New York: St. Martin’s Griffin: 2008)
eBook, 480 Pages, 1586 KB, Fiction

It is autumn 1981 when the inconceivable comes to Blackberg, a suburb in Sweden. The body of a teenage boy is found, emptied of blood, the murder rumored to be part of a ritual killing. Twelve-year-old Oskar is personally hoping that revenge has come at long last—revenge for the bullying he endures at school, day after day. But the murder is not the most important thing on his mind. A new girl has moved in next door—a girl who has never seen a Rubik’s Cube before, but who can solve it at once. There is something wrong with her, though, something odd. And she only comes out at night…

I won’t lie. This is a book I have been waiting on for a very very long time. It has been in my TBR Pile for at least a year and now that I’ve finally sat down with, I could not put it down. What Lindqvist has created is a fascinating story of alienation, childhood angst and friendship that just happens to have a horror edge to it.

Though, I guess it is not a spoiler talk about this as a vampire novel, with the release of the films (both the Swedish adaptation and the American remake) everyone already knows that that’s what this book is about, but what I love about Lindqvist’s book is that the way in which he constructs the vampire mythology and morphs it to his plot. And what a plot it is. This is a vampire novel without much in the vampires. Oh, they’re there, but we rarely see the actual attacks. Everything is implied and done off screen (for the most part) and that makes this story much, much scarier than a story wherein the vampire is attacking and butchering everyone in sight.

That’s not to say that there isn’t any blood in the story, there’s plenty. But, by using fears of kidnapping, pedophilia and child murder and then making the main character—Oskar—a child, a particularly vulnerable child in his solitude and the tension is ratcheted up to eleven. And while we’re on the topic of Oskar, I found him to be a most interesting protagonist in that while you care about him and sympathize with him, he is a little on the distasteful side, but I suppose that that is part of it too, and perhaps some of my distaste for Oskar comes from recognizing some of my own twelve-year-old self in him, and that’s a little too close to home for comfort.

However, my own personal issues aside, the friendship that spring up between Oskar and Eli is very well portrayed by Lindqvist, who seems to have uncanny insight into the workings of a friendless twelve-year-old boy and as the friendship between Oskar and Eli develops, the writing portrays a real sense of longing and desire to belong, on the parts of both Oskar and Eli, that isn’t found in their current relationships—Oskar and his mother and Eli and Håkan. It is actually some very beautiful writing and the emotion contained therein is simply amazing.

But do not misunderstand me. This is first and foremost a horror novel, and there is plenty of horror and gore, especially in the last third or so of the book. What Lindqvist has done with this aspect is simply amazing ... especially as it centers around the characters of Håkan and Virginia, as well as the finale in the swimming pool as Oskar confronts the bullies that have pestered him throughout the book. Oh, and the conclusion is simply chilling.

P.S.: Apparently Lindqvist has written an Epilogue to the story titled Låt de gamla drömmarna dö(“Let the Old Dreams Die”) which immediately follows the end of Let the Right One In and further clarifies the relationship between Oskar and Eli, though to the best of my knowledge, it has not been published in English, and was only released in Sweden in 2011, so … looking forward to that.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Shimmer

by David Morrell
(Philadelphia: Vanguard Press, 2009)
eBook, 352 Pages, 525 KB, Fiction

When police officer Dan Page’s wife disappears, her trail leads to Rostov, a remote Texas town where unexplained phenomena attract hundreds of spectators each night. Not merely curious, these onlookers are compelled to reach this tiny community and gaze at the mysterious Rostov Lights. But more than the faithful are drawn there. A gunman begins shooting at the lights, screaming “Go back to hell where you came from!” then turns his rifle on the innocent bystanders. As more and more people are drawn to the scene of the massacre, the stage is set for even greater bloodshed. To save his wife, Page must solve the mystery of the Rostov Lights. In the process, he uncovers a deadly government secret dating back to the First World War. The lights are more dangerous than anyone ever imagined, but even more deadly are those who try to exploit forces beyond their control.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when I picked up this book and started reading, but it certainly wasn’t what I got.

I first came across this book when I heard an interview with author David Morrell about The Shimmer and hearing him talk about the Marfa Lights, which served as the inspiration for the story’s MacGuffin, I was intrigued. It sounded like something along the lines of an early episode of The X-Files (like Season One or Two, before they got into the whole alien invasion plot line and the series started going downhill). And that’s I got … for about the first third of the book. Then Morrell added in shadowy government operatives, national security threats, etc., etc. and Morrell lost me.

I really enjoyed the lead-up with the disappearance of Page’s wife, the mystery of the Rostov Lights, the history of the Lights, the mythology that Morrell creates around the Lights … it’s all very fascinating and Morrell spins a great tale. Then the military shows up and all the mystery and supernaturalistic elements go right out the window and The Shimmer goes from an episode of The X-Files to a novel by Tom Clancy and it just destroyed the spell that Morrell had been weaving.

That’s not to say that The Shimmer is a bad book, it’s not. It’s actually pretty enjoyable, it just switched gears on me so fast that I wasn’t sure what to do about it and it ended up slowing down what would have otherwise been a good ending by miring it in techno-speak and wrapping up the story arcs of characters that just weren’t that interesting to begin with and who I didn’t care about, taking valuable page time away from the Pages and Morrell’s mythology of the Lights, and in the end, that is what is most fascinating about this story, the Lights and what they may or may not be and the effect that they have on people, and unfortunately that all gets obscured by military jargon and military operations and the wonder and mythology is lost.

Doctor Who: The Day of the Troll

by Simon Messingham
read by David Tennant
(London: BBC Audio, 2010)
MP3 Audiobook, 63.3 MB, 2.2 Hours, Fiction

When the Doctor arrives on Earth in the far future, he is horrified to find the planet beset by famine and starvation.  England is a barren wasteland, and scientists are desperately seeding the ground to make the crops grow again.  But now it seems that something even worse is happening.  Karl Baring, the owner of the research facility The Grange, has been snatched away in the middle of the night.  His sister Katy was with him when he vanished, but is now in catatonic shock—so it is up to the Doctor, with the help of the scientists at The Grange, to investigate.  What is lurking under the old bridge, and why is it preying on people?  The Doctor must find out before it strikes again…

Since finishing my Master’s degree and not having an hour and a half bus ride Monday to Friday I haven’t had much need to fill time with an audiobook. In fact, I have been falling behind on my podcasts as well without that time. I know, I know … First World problems, right? Anyway, because I am now a stay-at-home dad I have had a lot of time in the car shuttling back and forth with the kids. I’ve “forced” them to listen to my podcasts but I wanted to also make the car rides a little more fun, rather than just us listening to local newscasts or political gabfests and whatnot. Then I remembered that I have a bunch of Doctor Who audio books stashed away, so I dug those out, uploaded one to my iPod and WHAM! Instant hit.

Luckily the kids are as big Whovians as my wife and I are, it also helps that this particular audiobook is read by David Tennant, the kids’ favorite doctor.

I’ve listened to some of these audiobooks in the past and they are fun, but I cannot tell you how much fun they are when I was listening to them with the kids. Everyone, especially my son, was totally in to them, and were very much caught up in the storyline and couldn’t wait to get back in the car to find out what happened next.

Now, I call that a ringing endorsement, but just in case you need something more, I will tell you that this is a consummate Doctor Who story with the Doctor appearing out of nowhere in a mysterious situation that has gotten overly weird and has a slightly supernatural aspect (in this case, a troll under a bridge) that you know that because this is a Doctor Who story (and not say, Supernatural or Dark Shadows) that there is an alien explanation, but you have no idea what it is, or how it will manifest itself. I must also say that The Day of the Troll is one of the most sufficiently creepy DW audiobooks that I have had the pleasure to listen to, and my kids loved that part of it too. In fact, my six-year-old son played at being a troll during the whole time we were listening to the story and well beyond that.


David Tennant’s reading is stellar, as if there could have been any doubts. His portrayal of the Doctor, while tinged heavily with emotion and loss on the show, still had more than its fair share of boyish eagerness and childlike enthusiasm, and that all carries over into Tennant’s performance here. It is a real treat to listen to Tennant, not only because he was the Tenth Doctor, but also because you can tell that he genuinely enjoys entering this world and having fun in it, inhabiting it fully. It is a lot of fun, and makes listening to The Day of the Troll an unadulterated pleasure.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Batman: No Man's Land

by Greg Rucka
(New York: Pocket Books, 2000)
Hardcover, 430 Pages, Fiction

“All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here. GOTHAM CITY: a dark, twisted reflection of urban America. Overcrowded, overbuilt, and overshadowed by a continuous air of menace, this gothic nightmare is a breeding ground for the depraved, the indifferent, and the criminally insane. It’s also the object of one man’s obsession. Forever scarred as a child from witnessing the brutal murder of his parents, Bruce Wayne has dedicated his life to protecting this city from its many predators, taking a form to inspire hope in the innocent … and fear in the guilty. He is the masked vigilante knows as the Batman. With Police Commissioner James Gordon, these two men have always fought to preserve law and order, side-by-side, struggling against a pervasive and relentless criminal element, working together to hold the line. Until now. Leveled by a massive earthquake that has left thousands dead and millions more wounded, Gotham City has been completely cut off from outside aid, transformed into a lawless battleground—a No Man’s Land—where the survivors are turning against one another, and where the city’s protectors are torn by a crisis that may consume them all.  Gotham now teeters at the edge of the abyss … and Batman is missing.”

So, after returning to school in 2005, spending four years getting my bachelor’s degree in literary studies, and then two very intense years getting my master’s in the same field … it has been a long time since I was able to read a book solely for the pleasure of it. Books have been read to be analyzed and written about, and I’ve made a pretty good “living” during my academic years doing this, and hope to parlay all of this into a PhD and eventually a career teaching English at a college or university somewhere. However, for the time being, I am between gigs (so to speak) and since I am unemployed, I have quite a bit of time on my hands. This is why I decided that it was time to retire Bryan’s Book Blog and start Reading Past My Bedtime, so that I could gain some perspective on reading and learn how to read and write about books in a non-academic way once again. There was a false start, but after some time (and a rebalancing of my medication and shedding some emotional baggage) I’ve decided to try it all again.

With books, though, it’s been harder to turn that off. I was originally intending to make the re-inaugural review of Stephen King’s most recent book 11/22/63. However, every time I started the book I only got a handful of pages into it, before I stalled and had to put it down. (I think I’ve been too traumatized and disappointed by King in the last decade (Lisey’s StoryDuma KeyJust After SunsetFull Dark, No StarsUnder the DomeMile 81) that I was extremely reluctant to dive back into a Stephen King story. It was as if I had a mental block of some kind. So I tried to move on to a book I knew I liked, The Shining, but after doing so much academic work (and basing a number of papers, including a stalled thesis) on this story, I simply couldn’t turn off my analytical brain. So, I decided to pluck a book off of the library shelf that I wanted to read for a very very long time … well, at least for the past eight or ten years or so: Batman: No Man’s Land.

Beside trying to use this to jump-start relearning how to read for pleasure, my six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter are really in to Batman and so it felt like a good thing to read (if only to backfill my spotty knowledge of the BatMythos). So, imagine my surprise when what I found was a great book. I guess I expected to read a half-assed adaptation of the comic book run of the No Man’s Land storyline that was really lacking because it was missing the visual element of the comic books. However, as I said, this was not the case, in fact No Man’s Land is a great story and Rucka really sells it, though considering he was one of the writers on the No Man’s Land arc in the Batman comics, it comes as no surprise.

What I loved most about this book and in particular the story as it fits into the overall BatMythos is the way in which the characters of both James Gordon and Barbara Gordon (here in her Oracle guise) are extremely well rounded and very much humanized.  As two of the characters in the comics who are very much vested in Batman, his disappearance from at least the first third to half of the story pushes these two characters well beyond their comfort zone. Commissioner Gordon must begin to take back his city on his own, without the help of the Bat, based on his own not inconsiderable intelligence and ability as a police officer. That he fails at times and that Rucka allows him to be angry with himself and others and even lash out at times helps the Reader to see further into Gordon’s mind and his personality. It turns Gordon into the main protagonist, whereas it would otherwise be Batman. As for Barbara Gordon, her role as Oracle (a kind of Batgirl-cum-Big Brother (Sister?) after being paralyzed by the Joker) allows Rucka to tell stories that one might otherwise miss in the chaos and aftermath of the earthquake. As with her father, the disappearance of Batman allows Barbara Gordon to vent her own anger and frustration and her own humanity, especially since she is trapped in her apartment (given that she is confined to a wheelchair and the power is out in her building, so no elevator). In this way, Barbara Gordon becomes our all-seeing Narrator, standing in for yet another role that would normally be filled by Batman.

Even when Batman finally does reemerge and begins to take back Gotham City, this does not push the Gordons to the second tier. James Gordon still stays the chief protagonist (after all it is his city that he is fighting for, and he has the biggest stake in it) and Barbara Gordon fully takes up the role of Oracle once more and it is her knowledge that continues to drive the action, and once the whole Bat Family is reunited with Tim Drake/Robin and Dick Grayson/Nightwing returning, and Cassandra Cain taking up the mantle of Batgirl and even Huntress being brought into the fold, the action really does drive to a rather climactic and sobering conclusion. Add to the mix some of the best villains in Batman’s Rogue Gallery, including Two-Face, The Penguin, assassin David Cain, Bane, and the Joker and Harley Quinn (who was brought into the DC comics canon from the Batman animated cartoon in this story arc) as well as Superman heavies Lex Luthor and Mercy Graves (who also made the jump from the animated Superman cartoon to the DC comic book canon in this story arc) and it really makes for one hell of a story. My favorite scenes … the ones where Batman menaces Lex Luthor; absolute gold!

All of this aside, if I did have one complaint about the book it is actually two things. First and foremost, while the story as a whole works, and while the various points of the plot are all necessary given that the story arc in the comics ran across nine months in nearly 100 issues spanning sixteen different titles … a 430 page novel doesn’t really cover it all, and a lot of it—especially in the middle—feels rushed (I’m looking at you Bane and David Cain plot points). In the end, though, Rucka does make up for it by finishing with one of the most intense and emotional climaxes I have ever read (though I think it hit me especially hard being a husband and a father). My one other “complaint” is that No Man’s Land is not a good gateway story into the Batman Universe. Not that it is meant to be or even should be, but as one of the only novel adaptations of the Batman comic books, it stands as an entryway whether or not it wants to be, but if these are the only real faults that I can find in this book, then it’s got a lot more going for it than it has against it.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Grey

directed by Joe Carnahan
starring Liam Neeson, Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney
Lidell Entertainment, January 27, 2012, 117 minutes
Rated R

After their plane crashes in Alaska, six oil workers are led by a skilled huntsman to survival, but a pack of merciless wolves haunts their every step.

I don’t want to sound like a hipster, but I have been genuinely excited about this film since I first read about it in Entertainment Weekly, I guess it’s been almost a year now.  The concept really spoke to me, and I was intrigued by the idea of these men trying to survive against the elements and a pack of wolves.  Since that time I have eagerly soaked up everything about this film, watched the trailers and clips, read the interviews, etc., etc. and in the end negotiated with my wife for some time to go and see it.

I was not disappointed.

However, I will say from the outset, that the trailers—while a lot of fun—make this movie out to be a one-note man vs. wild story; a story where after a plane crash these oil roughnecks need to outfight the wolves for their survival.  While there is that element to The Grey, there is also a very deep philosophical element to this story that surprised me and took this film to the next level for me.  What Carnahan has done is not just create Jaws with wolves, but has made an action thriller that is not just about physical survival but about mental and philosophical survival as well.  The Grey is a meditation on life, death and what comes in between.  It is a film about men trying to find their place in the world, and I know that this is a very loaded phrase—what place do men need to find? Every place in the world is a man’s place—and this is very true, the crisis of manhood is a false crisis at best, however, what The Grey accomplishes is it creates a space where men are able to acknowledge both sides of their nature: the bestial and the spiritual.

For me, it created a reflexive response within myself that caused me to ask, as the men in the film do, what it is I have that is worth fighting for.  Who can I rely on to help me fight for those things? God? Man? Myself?  There is a lot of questioning of the place of faith and spirituality in one’s life.  Who is God?  If He is a caring God, as religion would have you believe, why does He not intercede more often? How much of our lives are foreordained, or predestined by the hand of God, and how do these concepts affect our actions? If one is spiritual and believes in God, how does one account for the seemingly random and often destructive things that happen to people all the time—in the particular instance of this film the plane crash, the seemingly random choice of survivors, the pursuing wolves?  And if one is not spiritual, if one does not believe in God, what does that disbelief mean for these same events? Is life just randomly cruel? Is mankind inherently animalistic? Can man rise above his underlying animal nature and truly do something wonderful and/or beautiful with one’s life? These are all questions that come up in the film, and are discussed at length in the lulls between wolf attacks.  And while I’ve brought it up, let me say that the handling of the wolves in the film is very interesting.  There has been a lot of outcry and protest over the choice of wolves as the “monsters” in this film, and while those concerns have a place in a discussion, I will say that they are based chiefly on the trailers for the film which, as I have said, are somewhat misleading.  There is a lot more to the wolves in this film than just mindless beasts that attack and devour.

Most interestingly is that the pack structure of the wolves, Alpha male, Omega males, territoriality, organized and coordinated hunting, etc., etc. are used to not only create dangerous opponents to the men in the film, but it also is a mirror to the relationships and power dynamic of these oilmen.  There is an alpha, there is an omega, they become territorial, they look out for their own, they attempt to organize and coordinate their defenses, in short this is a film that explores how thin the veneer of civility is and what it takes to strip that away and what it takes to try and keep that veneer in place.  The wolves are simply the MacGuffin in this film that allows Carnahan to explore these issues.

On top of all of these philosophical issues, The Grey also features incredible directing, beautiful cinematography and some really superb acting, in all honesty, as much as the Academy Awards have become a joke, I really do hope that the film is remembered when it comes time to start making nominations because the film deserves that kind of recognition.  Director Joe Carnahan, stars Liam Neeson and Frank Grillo, screenwriter Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, editors Roger Barton and Jason Hellman, composer Marc Streitenfeld, all deserve to be nominated for their work on this film.  In particular I want to single out Liam Neeson and Frank Grillo for their performances.  Neeson is outstanding as Ottway, a man who is left with little left to live for after his wife leaves him and who must find what it is he needs to keep on going.  This must have been a particularly personal role for him seeing as filming began less than a year after he lost his wife Natasha Richardson in a skiing accident.  Though, Neeson is an excellent actor to begin with, and in this movie his badass quotient is raised considerably.  The actor with whom I was most impressed was Frank Grillo and his portrayal of ex-con John Diaz.  Grillo’s character, in the hands of a less-competent screenwriter, less-competent director or even a sub-par actor would have been easily one-dimensional and stereotypical: either the hardened criminal who is the human antagonist, or the con with a heart-of-gold beneath his tough façade.  Yet what emerges in The Grey is a portrayal that is exceptionally complex and highly engaging, and is easily the best performance in the film, even better than Neeson’s.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Grey, especially since it works on a couple of levels, the philosophical as well as the visceral.  This is not the bloody gorefest that is typical of such nature-run-amok films of this type (in fact, Jaws may be bloodier and more violent than The Grey, now that I think of it, and certainly your average episode of Bones or CSI on television is bloodier and gorier than this film is) but it does manage to pack in the thrills and has some real genuine scares and chills.  There are a number of extremely frightening moments and I will admit that there are two occasions that made me jump out of my seat, and while there is not a huge amount of blood spilled, there is enough to keep even the most hardcore of horror/thriller fans interested.  It also had one of the most intense and grueling plane crashes I have ever seen on film.

With its small single-gender cast, vast scope, a shocking sense of claustrophobia (given its locale in the Alaskan wilderness), the fight against bestial opponents and its shocking meditations on life, death, friendship and one’s place in the world, The Grey reminded very strongly of Neil Marshall’s 2005 film The Descent.  I don’t think I’m too far off in stating that what Marshall does in The Descent with expected female roles not just in film but in the real world as well and how they can be subverted and redefined, Carnahan does in The Grey but with masculinity. I’m still working through this idea, and may revisit it at some point in the future, but I really think there is something there that puts these two films into conversation.

In the end, given the current cost of ticket prices and the state of the economy, I guess the highest praise I can give this film is to say that I would gladly plunk down money to see this in the theaters again.  The Grey is a very surprising, incredibly meditative film that manages to deliver more than the usual amount of scares and chills that this kind of nature-run-amok film has.

I cannot recommend it enough.

P.S. Stick around after the credits.  There is a brief post-credit scene that while it might not elaborate on the film’s ending, it might help you come to terms with it.

Official Trailer

The Grey at IMDb

01/29/2012 – 06:10:00 PM