Monday, April 30, 2012

Z: Scalzi

Wow, Z, am I glad to see you. I wasn’t sure I would make it all the way through the challenge, but here we are!

I’ll have to cheat for the last day. Otherwise my only option is Zucchini Warriors, a book I last read in the fourth grade. So, I’ll write about John ScalZi (no, he doesn’t spell it with a random capital in the middle). More specifically,

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Genre: Science fiction

I can’t top the publisher’s description: John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife's grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce--and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity's resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don't want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You'll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You'll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you'll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine--and what he will become is far stranger.

When I read Old Man’s War, I had this strange feeling of delight, and it took a while to recognize it as fulfilled nostalgia. I read books like this as a kid – moon bases, life on Mars, space expeditions using telepathic twins for communication, space battles against aliens, etc. I’m guessing they were written in the forties and fifties, before the average person realized how alone we are in our solar system. These books went out of style as hard science and reality pushed out the entertainment factor, but they’ve made a comeback, and they’re even better now, without the racism/sexism of books written in previous decades.

And that's it for Z! ~breathes sigh of relief~

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Y: Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded & You're Not Fooling Anyone

You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop by John Scalzi


Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded by John Scalzi

John Scalzi is one of my favorite authors. He’s a rare writer who actually makes a nice full-time living from writing AND is willing to talk numbers. He also writes one of the oldest, most-visited blogs on the internet. I believe the chapters in both these books are pulled from his blog, so theoretically you could read them there. That’s significantly more involved than just getting the books, though. As you can tell from the titles, they’re about writing, and they’re both amusing and insightful.

Because he’s just that awesome, John has a regular feature called The Big Idea, where authors talk about “the big idea” behind their new book. Considering his blog got something like 5.4 million visits last year, that’s a lot of publicity. Based on Big Idea posts, I’ve read:

Starters by Lissa Price

Fair Coin by E.C. Myers

Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Hounded by Kevin Hearne

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones

Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K.Jemisin

And other books that were profiled, but which I discovered elsewhere.

I’ll read tons more when the A to Z Challenge is over. J

John Scalzi’s work is everywhere: science fiction books, TV shows (he was a creative consultant for Stargate: Universe), nonfiction of all kinds, articles, blog posts, movie reviews, and his latest project – mobile games from Industrial Toys, a new video game company. I’ve even seen him on television – the Science Channel did a pretty cool “what if” program called Alien Encounters (on what it might really look like if aliens decide to visit Earth), and Scalzi was one of the people interviewed, along with Nick Sagan (Carl Sagan’s son), Neil Degrasse Tyson (director of the Hayden Planetarium), Jill Tarter (director of the SETI Institute), David Brin (astrophysicist & SF author) and other people in science research and entertainment. Scalzi also tours and does the big conferences. Paramount Pictures announced last year that it's making a movie of Scalzi's first book, Old Man's War, directed by Wolfgang Petersen.

For anyone, this is a lot. For a guy still in his early 40s, one has to wonder when Scalzi sleeps.

I think I first encountered his writing in the famous article on Being Poor that he wrote in response to “But they were warned, why didn’t people just hop in their cars and drive away?” comments that were everywhere after hurricane Katrina. I’m not sure where I read Being Poor (lots of media carried it), and didn’t know who he was at the time, and didn’t immediately connect the article with him when I discovered his fiction a few years later. His blog is truly entertaining – whether you want to read about books, science fiction movies, publishing industry news, interesting technology, occasional commentary on politics (or politicians), see great pictures of his cats, or anything else that’s caught his interest that day.

Since his name has a Z in it, I’m going to cheat and discuss his fiction for the next entry…

X: X-Men

Ah, X. Such slim pickings. Well, my choices were the Xanth books, Xanadu, and X-Men.

So we’ll go with the one I encountered most recently.

Genre: movies, science fiction

I liked this Marvel franchise just fine when I saw it in the theater. Enough that I saw X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand, as well as X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But not X-Men: First Class yet. I keep going back and forth over whether James McAvoy’s presence is enough reason to watch it.

Considering how many of them I’d seen, you’d think I’d be less…lukewarm about it. But this is one franchise I’ve watched more for special effects and the caliber of actors than for the story. The first one was pretty cool, though. I guess I'm in a Matrix situation here. I keep watching them, hoping one will come along that will match the first.
In the meantime, I watch X-Men for these folks:
Hugh Jackman
Halle Berry
Patrick Stewart & Ian McKellen
Rebecca Romijn

James McAvoy
James McAvoy again
Oh, what the hell. One more. :)

Hmm. Maybe I’ll watch First Class after all. J

Thursday, April 26, 2012

W: White Collar

HBO has been getting all sorts of accolades for its shows over the last few years. But for me, the network that truly hits the spot is USA. Burn Notice, RoyalPains, Suits… fun stories, awesome actors, great scripts, and a minimum of bloodshed. By far my favorite is
White Collar
Genre: television

Matt Bomer...~sigh~

Neal Caffrey is a charming criminal with exquisite taste in clothes and contraband (art theft, bond forgery, jewelry heists, etc) who finally got caught by his FBI nemesis, Peter Burke, head of the FBI White Collar Crime Unit. But three months before his sentence is up, Neal breaks out of maximum security prison hoping to catch his girlfriend before she disappears. It earns him another four years. In exchange for not going back to his prison cell, he wears an ankle monitor and teams up with Peter to track down other (usually) white collar criminals.

Tim DeKay

Neal (Matt Bomer) and Peter (Tim DeKay) have amazing onscreen chemistry. They’re like brothers, coworkers, rivals and friends all rolled into one relationship. The conflict between the honest law man and the wily criminal who truly know each other (and often trust each other against their better instincts and their associates’ advice) is just delicious. While I feel like this is one of many places where they could have had a show starring women that would have been brilliant, I have to say I really love these two guys in these roles. Television doesn’t get much better than this.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

V: Valentine's Day on This American Life

Valentine’s Day on This American Life
Genre: radio

Another This American Life episode for V. Rather than cover the idea of falling in love and the overwhelming emotion of it (which is normally the story we get in books or movies or when a couple’s telling us how they got together), this episode is about stories that happened to couples “decades after the moment their eyes first meet.”
In Act Two, Veronica Chater interviews her parents. They’d been married for 45 years, and in that time had never gone on vacation, and never been apart for more than two days. As her dad put it, “I detest shopping. I detest eating out. I detest motels. I detest beaches. I detest anything having to do with what most people go on vacations for. For me it’s the opposite of having fun. It’s a purgatory.”
So when Veronica’s mom decided to go off to a Mexican resort with a friend, Dad (a former cop and corporate security consultant) prepares for the vacation as if she’s going to a war zone. He’s completely convinced that “two na├»ve women” are just asking for trouble going to Puerto Vallarta by themselves (as they talk, it’s hard to tell whether his wife is more amused or insulted, but you can tell she’s been dealing with this quite calmly for years). He gradually works himself into a frenzy as the day gets closer and closer, even getting to the point where he invites himself along. He writes to the Mexican authorities to inform them he plans to come into their country armed, and wants to know what’s legal. When his friends tell him that was a really bad idea, he decides to stay home after all.
Mom prepares for her vacation by shopping, packing, writing out her itinerary, and preparing meals for Dad to eat while she’s gone, as he doesn’t cook. She’s more worried about how he’ll cope without her, which he thinks is ridiculous as she’s the one going off to another country. As she hands him the list of chores to do while she's gone, he's instructing her on how to jam her hotel room door shut with a chair.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. J

I’m the one in my marriage who’s super-vigilant about being safe, and it was fascinating and a bit uncomfortable hearing my viewpoint taken to such an extreme.
Act Three is about monogamy, narrated by a 39-year-old man who starts out by talking about the couple across the street, who have sex in their living room and can be heard from outside (and he’s not the only man in the neighborhood who knows and arranges to be outside at around that time).
It’s funny and thought-provoking. Somewhere in the middle he says:

That's why monogamy has such a bad reputation. It's boring. Monogamy is the habit of not acting on what you want. I even hate the word itself. It sounds so staid, so bourgeois. Monogamy, like a board game, the approximation of excitement.

Sometimes, of course, I hear about open marriages. Jung had one, Sartre had won, Henry Miller, Dickens, Freud. I hear about open marriages, and they seem like some fabulous, exotic city that I've always wanted to visit but never seem to get to. Istanbul, open marriages are like Istanbul. Some ancient, mysterious place where there are minarets and strange music, where one entire civilization suddenly ends and a whole new stranger one begins, a whole new religion even, the mysterious east. I've always wanted to go to Istanbul.”

Despite the quote, he ends up at a rather interesting conclusion, a different way of looking at monogamy than he did at the beginning. And it wasn’t the way most people look at it (whether they’re for it or not). Which is why I love This American Life. They always find new perspectives on familiar subjects. Of course, reading a transcript is not the same as listening to the story they've built using peoples' voices and music and whatever else. I highly recommend streaming This American Life online if you don't live in an area that has it on the radio.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U: Unveiled

As they’re all one series, I’m recommending ALL of Courtney Milan’s books starting with U (three novels and a handful of novellas). One of many things I love about her books is the heroes. Nary a brooding duke nor randy rake in the lot.   

Courtney Milan is not only an expert in Georgian/Regency/Victorian-era English law and law court decisions (and is (or was once) a lawyer in her day job), but she writes the most intriguing characters working through gut-twisting situations.

This series follows three brothers (mostly). Their deranged mother abused them relentlessly. They couldn't go to anyone for help because their mother was the respected widow of the local lord, and very charitable, besides. She let their sister die because it was "God's will". She named them each for Bible verses. Not Biblical characters. VERSES. Of course they all go by shortened versions - Ash, Smite, and Mark.

When Ash takes off for India to make his fortune, their mother tries to kill Smite by starving him in the flooded cellar. Mark rescues him, and they run away, surviving on the streets of Bristol before their brother comes back and finds them. Ash returns a rich man, determined to give his younger brothers everything he wanted and didn't have - an education at Eton, big houses, power. But Smite and Mark have now formed a bond that seems to exclude Ash, no matter what he tries. This is all backstory, but Milan does some awe-inspiring story-spinning with the psychological damage they've suffered.

Ash's story is Unveiled. As relentlessly ruthless as he is cheerful, he's set himself a mission to destroy the wealthy distant relation who refused to help them when they were in need. His love interest? The daughter of that family, who is equally determined to save her family from social and financial destruction.

Mark's story is Unclaimed. Mark is a sincere, funny, likeable guy who writes a hugely popular book on chastity. His love interest? A courtesan who's been hired by a political rival to take him down.

Smite's story is Unraveled. He is a dedicated magistrate. His love interest is a runner for the local crime boss.

There’s nothing contrived about the conflict between the two main characters in each book. Just look at that list! It makes me want to read them all again...

Monday, April 23, 2012

T: Timeline & Testosterone

Timeline by Michael Crichton
Genre: historical, SF, suspense/thriller

General premise A group of archeology students goes back in time to rescue their professor from 14th century France, and find out that medieval times were even more brutal and ruthless than they’d thought.

It’s a typical Michael Crichton book – brilliant scientists with little common sense, backed by corporations with dollar signs in their eyes, and a bunch of well-meaning, highly-educated people stuck in the middle. Crichton is pretty much the only author I admire who did zero character development. At least, that’s what I remember of his books – thrilling stories, cardboard characters.
Gerard, looking hot
and mysterious.

I saw the movie first. It was terrible. It shouldn’t have been – I still don’t get how they messed this up. BUT. The premise was so intriguing that I thought, “I’ll bet the book is just incredible.” And it was my introduction to Gerard Butler, looking ridiculously hot in 14th century period costume. J

There’s a jousting tournament in the book, so I’ll put in a quick plug here for the History Channel reality TV show Full Metal Jousting. It’s exactly what it sounds like – a bunch of guys competing in a modern-day jousting tournament for $100k. When I first heard of it, I thought, “You can’t be serious!”

And then I immediately set the DVR to record it.

I loved it. The guys came from all sorts of active backgrounds – one firefighter, one polo player, a couple of marines, a couple of rodeo cowboys, and then a handful of horse trainers, show jumpers, and a whole bunch of Medieval Times knights. That last bunch, oddly enough, were apparently at a disadvantage, because even though they were the only ones to have handled a lance before, theatrical jousting is not about eliminating your opponent. It’s about looking great in a saddle and falling dramatically out of it without getting hurt. They had to unlearn how they sat, how they held the lance, what to do when they got hit.

The horses were awesome. So gorgeous. So much personality. They ranged from those that were dependable but kind of staid, to those that took off like bullets, but constantly fought their riders for control.

And I loved the modern take on medieval armor.
Speaking of “manly men”…

Testosterone on This American Life
Genre: radio

This American Life is hosted by Ira Glass, one of the best story creators of our time. I don’t know of anyone else doing quite what he does. His radio show puts stories together around a theme for each episode. I’ve heard Ira Glass speak live twice, I’ve listened to This American Life for years, but it wasn’t until I tried to analyze how they put together such enthralling stories around usually-normal situations that I truly began to appreciate his genius, and the subtlety of it.
I could spend all day recommending specific TAL episodes, but for “T” I’ll stick with Testosterone. The First Act was an interview with a man whose body stopped producing testosterone for four months before the doctors figured out what was wrong with him. He talks about how lack of testosterone meant lack of desire for anything. And how unexpectedly pleasant it was, because if you don’t want anything, then you don’t psychologically want for anything.

Act Two was about Griffin Hansbury, who started out as a woman, but got testosterone injections and now lives as a man. This one’s particularly interesting, because you can hear the interviewer’s horrified fascination as Hansbury “confirms” pretty much every stereotype you’ve ever heard about men vs women, and, as the interviewer puts it, sets gender relations back about a hundred years. I put “confirms” in quotes because the testosterone injections meant that for a while, Hansbury (who is 5'4" and smallish) was walking around with the testosterone levels of two linebackers, and so I’m assuming the effect was somewhat exaggerated. Hansbury talks about everything from the change in his interest in science to how hard it is to concentrate around women. But he also talks about how he’s gone from being this really cool woman everyone admired to being a nerdy-looking guy who’s now caught up in this very male fight for dominance every time he steps out on the street.

Act Three follows the staff at TAL after they decided to get their own testosterone levels tested for the show. First they ranked each other, guessing who would have the highest levels. Everyone agreed on which woman would have the highest (except that woman), but for the guys it was a toss-up, because they each had traits that tend to go with high testosterone (one of them created the show and was the boss, one of them was muscular and balding, one of them played lots of sports, etc), but none of them considered themselves to be “manly men” (like NFL football players or whatever). And as the day of the results grew closer, more and more of them agreed that this had been a terrible idea and it would forever change the way they related to each other – but they still wanted to know who “won”.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

S: The Stranger, The Space Between Us, & Suits

The Stranger by Albert Camus
Genre: literary

It was written in French. I’m recommending Matthew Ward’s translation, done in 1988 or so (as opposed to what I believe was the more common translation, done by an Englishman in the late 1940s). I think the publisher’s description best sums it up: An ordinary man unwittingly gets drawn into a senseless murder on a sundrenched Algerian beach.
How it starts: "Maman died today. Or yesterday, maybe. I don’t know."

It’s relatively rare that I come to a classic as an adult, without it already having been ruined for me because I had to write a paper on it for a teacher who saw all sorts of things in it that I didn’t. But I found this book to be more interesting than many classics. At least, until it was “reinterpreted” for me at my book club meeting as representing Albert Camus’ relationship with the philosophy of existentialism (though I’ve since found out that Camus strongly refuted this idea). But I recommend it anyway, as a fascinating story in its own right. This is not a particularly likable protagonist, so if that’s important to you, you should probably skip it. But the way events spiral is, to me, a mark of good storytelling.

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
Genre: general fiction

The Space Between Us centers around Sera, an upper middle class housewife of an abusive husband, and Bhima, a poor woman who has worked in Sera’s household for over twenty years. A life-changing event connects the two of them, and they're forced to make choices they never imagined. The story is set in Bombay, India (Or Mumbai, if you’re below a certain age).

For most of the world outside Europe and the USA, having household staff seems to be the norm, and the relationships between people who know each other as well as family but are most definitely not family is complicated and sometimes painful.

Genre: Television

This is a fairly new show – the second season will be on television in June. Basic premise: Mike Ross has a photographic memory, and since being kicked out of law school, mostly makes a living by illegally taking the LSAT for people. While doing an (also-illegal) favor for a friend, he stumbles into a job interview for a prestigious law firm, and impresses the attorney so much that he’s offered the job, even though they both know the firm only takes Harvard grads.

So far the show is doing a lot less with Mike’s photographic memory (which was what attracted me to it to begin with) and a lot more with the web of lies he and his boss have spun. Still, I’m looking forward to the second season.

Awesome tag line: "Two lawyers. One degree." And Gina Torres (Zoe from Firefly) plays a founding partner of the law firm. J

Friday, April 20, 2012

R: Ready Player One

I don’t remember the actual 1980s, but where I grew up must have been a little behind the times, because I totally got the nostalgia factor of this book.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Genre: SF

In Ready Player One, it's 2044, and the road to riches is paved with '80s trivia - books, movies, music, and of course, arcade games. It's also peppered with modern geekery like Firefly and World of Warcraft, and namechecks classic and modern authors like Heinlein and Scalzi. Even if you've never heard of Duran Duran, or have no idea what a Commodore 64 is, you'll still be fascinated by how much pop culture Cline can cram into a fast-paced plot.

General premise An eccentric billionaire named Halliday creates a virtual reality universe and hides an Easter egg (one of many video-game terms explained in the book) on one of thousands of virtual planets. In a video clip that enthralls the world, he leaves his $240 billion fortune to the first person who solves all the clues, survives all the quests, claims all three keys, and finds the prize. The announcement video is a collage of clips from John Hughes movies and '80s music videos, a clue in itself.

Wade Watts, an orphan living in the crime-ridden, global-warmed, poverty-stricken post-apocalyptic future, is the first gunter (short for egg-hunter) to win the Copper Key, level one of the three-level quest. Overnight, he becomes a celebrity.

His achievement draws the attention of IOI, villains in the form of corporate gamers. Honest gunters have to know the trivia and solve the clues themselves, while braving dangers typical of FPS games. The cheating IOI employees, also known as Sux0rz, use proprietary software that allows them to work in groups as well as share knowledge, weapons and armor. This way (and unlike for everyone else), their avatars never really die.

IOI tries to recruit Wade, bringing his avatar to their blinged-out planet (even virtual riches cost real money) to impress him with offers of untold wealth. When Wade refuses, they come after him in the real world, intent on eliminating him so he doesn't win the money first. Wade is suddenly on the run in real life, complicating his ability to logon and continue his quest.

Much like with An Abundance of Katherines and The Black Prism, for months after reading Ready Player One I recommended it to anyone who spoke to me for more than three minutes. It has everything - evil villains who will stop at nothing, unrequited love, people who aren't what they seem to be online, and a bright but lonely boy who must find his prize before his enemies find him.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Q: All the Queen's Men

All The Queen’s Men by Linda Howard
Genre: romantic suspense

Linda Howard is an immensely popular writer - as you can tell from the size of her name vs the name of the book. Like many famous genre women (Janet Evanovich, Nora Roberts/JD Robb, etc), she started out in Romance (the only genre where, traditionally, being female wasn’t an obstacle to getting published), and eventually shifted into her own niche. She was a charter member of Romance Writers of America. Her first book was published in 1980, and she’s been pretty prolific – she has over fifty books in print, and a ton of short stories.
Linda Howard will always be one of my favorite authors, though for me, her last few books (entertaining as they were) don’t have quite the same unique freshness of most of the books she wrote in the late ‘90s through about 2007 or so. She seems to be moving into paranormals, though, so maybe she just got bored. She’s still an incredibly skilled storyteller, and I’ll still buy any suspense she writes, just in case that special spark comes back.
General premise The last time Niema Burdock met John Medina, she and her husband were part of John’s team on a CIA Black Ops mission to Iran. It went terribly wrong, Niema’s husband was killed, and afterwards Niema transferred to a stateside desk job.
Even though John is sure Niema blames him for her husband’s death, he can’t help keeping tabs on her. When he’s assigned to stop a French arms dealer who is supplying terrorists, he insists Niema is the only communications expert with the background and skills to help him infiltrate the dealer’s circle and plant surveillance bugs…

All The Queen’s Men is my favorite of Howard’s books. I liked the hero, the heroine, and the villain. But I would also recommend Up Close and Dangerous (a sabotaged private plane crashes on a snow-covered mountainside in the middle of nowhere), Cover of Night (the bad guys decide to hold up an entire “frontier” town), and White Lies (this is kind of an older one, so the hero is a bit, um, harsh, but the concept, far-fetched as it was, was well-executed).

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

P: The Pillars of the Earth & Prison Break

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
Genre: historical

Calling this an unusual book is a bit of an understatement. Ken Follett was already immensely popular for his political thrillers. And then he changed tracks, bringing everything about his previous books (fast-paced suspense, a deep understanding of human nature, unflinching violence, intricate political and family intrigue) to a book about building a 12th century cathedral. It's been on bestseller lists ever since. Who would have thought?
I’ll quote the Goodreads description:
This book tells the tale of a twelfth-century monk driven to do the seemingly impossible: build the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has ever known.

Everything readers expect from Follett is here: intrigue, fast-paced action, and passionate romance. But what makes The Pillars of the Earth extraordinary is the time—the twelfth century; the place—feudal England; and the subject—the building of a glorious cathedral. Follett has re-created the crude, flamboyant England of the Middle Ages in every detail. The vast forests, the walled towns, the castles, and the monasteries become a familiar landscape. Against this richly imagined and intricately interwoven backdrop, filled with the ravages of war and the rhythms of daily life, the master storyteller draws the reader irresistibly into the intertwined lives of his characters—into their dreams, their labors, and their loves: Tom, the master builder; Aliena, the ravishingly beautiful noblewoman; Philip, the prior of Kingsbridge; Jack, the artist in stone; and Ellen, the woman of the forest who casts a terrifying curse. From humble stonemason to imperious monarch, each character is brought vividly to life.

The building of the cathedral, with the almost eerie artistry of the unschooled stonemasons, is the center of the drama. Around the site of the construction, Follett weaves a story of betrayal, revenge, and love, which begins with the public hanging of an innocent man and ends with the humiliation of a king.

At once a sensuous and endearing love story and an epic that shines with the fierce spirit of a passionate age, The Pillars of the Earth is without a doubt Ken Follett's masterpiece.

Prison Break
Genre: television

Lincoln Burroughs, already a felon with a lengthy record, is accused of murdering the vice president’s brother and incarcerated at Fox River Penitentiary. The evidence is clear (fingerprints on the gun, surveillance video, bloody clothes), and his execution is fast-tracked through the system. His younger brother, Michael Scofield (a brilliant, successful, and squeaky-clean structural engineer), believes Burroughs is innocent and is being framed for the murder of someone many high-powered people wanted to kill.
So Scofield comes up with an elaborate plan to break his brother out of prison, has the plans (and the blueprint for the state penitentiary) worked into a tattoo that covers his entire upper body – and then holds up a bank and discharges a weapon, to ensure that he ends up in the same place as his brother.

Because one can't have too
many pictures of
Wentworth Miller. :)
This show has some of the best antagonists/villains I’ve ever seen. I love John Abruzzi the crime boss (played by Peter Stormare), and Robert Knepper does an amazing job as Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell. I love how Scofield’s ridiculously well-laid plans keep taking left turns as he meets up with real-world complications, and as the number of people breaking out of prison with him gets larger and larger.
This show has many things I eat up in fiction – ensemble cast, politics, intrigue, humor, wit, and super-smart people on opposite sides of the same issue. It won a stack of awards while it was on air. The second and third seasons were filmed in Texas. Lots of celebrity sightings around here. J

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O: One Dance with a Duke

Time for a romance novel!

One Dance With A Duke by Tessa Dare
Genre: Regency romance

General premise Spencer Dumarque, the handsome and mysterious Duke of Morland, is also known as “the duke of midnight”. He shows up at balls right at that hour, asks one of the young debutantes to dance (usually a gorgeous teenager awed into silence by his presence), and then escorts her in to dinner and disappears. Unlike her younger friends of marriageable age (and their mothers), Amelia d’Orsay isn’t impressed. Page 4 quote: “What other ladies saw as intriguing and romantic, she took for self-indulgent melodrama. Really, an unmarried, wealthy, handsome duke who felt the need to command more female attention?”

This time, though, when the duke arrives at the ball and reaches out for the girl next to her, Amelia grabs his hand, seizing the opportunity to spend several uninterrupted minutes with him so she can insist he forgive her brother’s gambling debts. This leads to a heated conversation on the patio, the arrival of unexpected bad news, and a midnight ride away from the ball. The next morning, the duke finds himself accused of the murder of an acquaintance, and (much to her chagrin) Amelia finds herself engaged to the arrogant duke to avoid scandal following their midnight disappearance.

Despite my love of Regency romances, the two most common “hero-types” in the sub-genre irritate me. That’s probably a charitable way of putting it. Anyway, there’s the brooding duke (the superior, rude, rich guy hiding a dark past and a heart of gold) and the romancing rake (the witty, handsome, ne’er-do-well who sleeps with lots of willing, attractive widows/actresses and is constantly in and out of trouble and gambling halls, but becomes monogamous and angelic once he meets his virginal true love).

Generally when I love a Regency romance, it’s because the love interest doesn’t fit either of these tired and tiresome tropes. Oddly enough, Spencer Dumarque definitely fits brooding duke-mode. But because we’re in his point of view for parts of the book, we know why he’s that way fairly early on, and it makes all the difference in the world for me. Not to get all spoilery, but when he finds out from Amelia that society views his midnight dance as the height of social excitement and mystique, his response is pure astonishment. But you’ll have to read the book to find out why he does the midnight dance. J

One Dance with a Duke is the first book of the Stud Club series. Yes, the name is a wink and nod for us modern readers, but the stud in question is actually a legendary stud horse called Osiris. The founder of the club is a popular member of society (genuinely liked by everyone because he’s thoughtful and friendly as well as rich, good-looking and well-connected) who created ten brass tokens giving access to this horse. The tokens can only be won, not bought, creating all sorts of excitement as men gamble for these tokens. The series is built around solving the mystery of who murdered the club founder.

History, mystery, romance, and horses. Works for me!

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Genre: literary/magical realism

Celia and Marco have trained their entire lives for an epic duel set up by their instructors, and the black-and-white Night Circus is the magical battle field. Despite their growing love for each other, leaving the fight is physically impossible, and only one of them can win.

This is one of very few books I've read that hurtled towards such a terrible ("terrible" as in "depressing", not "badly-written") end that I couldn't even begin to imagine how the author would resolve it. And then she did, and it wasn't tragic or ridiculous or eye-roll-inducing. It just made perfect sense. The world-building was amazing. And the magic seems to have no discernible rules, and yet feels completely believable.

The Night Circus is…enchanting. There’s a magical quality to the writing that fits the story and makes it all feel otherworldly. I hesitate to say too much, because the beauty of this book is so specific. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, but it will probably appeal strongly to the people who like it. I think it deserves the accolades, but as evidenced by Goodreads and other places where people write reviews, many people read the accolades first, assumed it would be like other books that have made waves in recent years, and then read it and thought, “Really? This?”

So I highly recommend this book, but no description is going to be quite right. It’s set in the late Victorian era for the most part, but it’s not really about historical or steampunk elements. It’s got magic in it, but it wouldn’t fit on a fantasy shelf. We watch Celia and Marco grow up, but it’s not a coming-of-age novel. It’s just beautiful, absorbing, and wholly its own story.

Tangent: I've heard a lot about the tortured artists who supposedly make up the bulk of the writing world, the people who suffer for their craft and whatnot. I have to say Erin Morgenstern is my idea of what a writer would be if I were making one up. She's quirky and adorable and takes cool pictures and says cool things and does cool stuff. Authors tend to be very...normal. Which is not at all surprising. It just doesn't fit with the popular narrative. Oscar Wilde and J.D. Salinger and the like were so unusual that they've come to define what people picture when they think "writer". I'd rather picture people like Morgenstern.
In a recent blog post, she wrote this passing comment:

In two hotel rooms on my tour the concierge left a bottle of wine and two glasses. I still cannot decide if it would be more or less depressing to have a single glass. Which one is a harsher reminder that you’re alone?
Something about that comment reminded me of how I felt while reading portions of her book. It made me smile, it made me think, and it made me sad.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

M: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) & Mirror Of Her Dreams

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
Genre: nonfiction, psychology

Just looking at this book makes me want to read it again. The subtitle describes it better than any description I can come up with: "Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts".

Written by two psychologists, it delves into all sorts of reasons why people dig in and defend beliefs or opinions even when they're clearly wrong and everyone involved knows it (e.g. why law enforcement officials might continue to insist someone is guilty or innocent because they originally labeled them as such, or why politicians make excuses and tell lies even when the amount of attention being paid is so intense that it’s only a matter of time until the truth comes out). It has chapter names like "Knaves, Fools, Villains, and Hypocrites: How Do They Live with Themselves?", "Cognitive Dissonance: The Engine of Self-justification", and "Pride and Prejudice...and Other Blind Spots".

This is a book I can safely recommend to everyone. It's easy to read, it's fascinating, and you'll never approach disagreement (or your own memory) in quite the same manner again.

The Mirror of Her Dreams by Stephen R. Donaldson
Genre: fantasy

Terisa Morgan lives in a fabulous New York apartment paid for by her neglectful-yet-overbearing father. When Geraden comes crashing through her wall-sized mirror looking for a champion to save his land, he insists she's the one he came to get.

This is one of my favorite books. It bucks the current (and I must say, IMO, very American) trend of super-active single-protagonist books. I know we like to read about people doing things and taking control of their own destiny...but there are other stories, too. Terisa spends most of the story being dragged into things she would never have done if given a choice, and it makes her story no less fascinating for me. I like books about cautious introverts. They're so rare in fiction now. Every time I hear that a recently-published book has an introvert for a protagonist, I know in a few pages that character will just turn out to be an extrovert who was having a quiet day and soon shakes it off.

This blog post is by Aliette de Bodard, winner of the Writers of the Future Contest, finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer , nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula, etc etc. She states what I feel (perhaps more strongly than I feel it), but in short, there are lots of valid stories out there. I remember feeling such relief as I read her post, because for many years now I'd feared the world had moved on without me.

I'm happy reading stories about individuals who control their own destiny, people who save the day, people who lead. But I'm also happy reading group stories, stories of people who aren't immediately equipped to deal with what life throws at them, stories where violence has lasting consequences for everyone involved, stories where someone isn't becoming a larger-than-life superhero in order to deal with problems. There's room for all of it on my bookshelf!

Think of the movie Training Day. His first day on the job as a narcotics officer, Jake (Ethan Hawke) is assigned to accompany Alonzo (Denzel Washington), and what follows is the most horrifying day of Jake’s life. Despite the awards they won (Denzel won best actor, Ethan Hawke best supporting actor), from a storytelling point of view, it’s Jake’s story we’re invested in, his thoughts, fears, and decisions that are the focus of the story, which makes him the protagonist. He spends most of the movie being dragged into things by Alonzo. I'm not sure he makes a single active decision until near the end of the movie. And yet it's one of the most thrilling, edge-of-my-seat movies I've ever seen.

I want more stories like that. Because while I’m entertained by people who always rise to the occasion, say the wittiest possible thing and do the best possible thing to resolve the current situation, I identify better with someone who’s overwhelmed by situations they’re not equipped to deal with, and have to muddle through solving problems, sometimes with the help of other people. As long as it’s written well, I see no reason why every single action that moves the story forward has to be the protagonist’s.

And that's it for M!