Saturday, February 26, 2011

Book #9: "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" by Mark Haddon

If I've discovered one thing in the course of reading and reviewing books for the Cannonball, this is it: It's much, much harder to review a great book than a bad one. It's so much easier to list all the wrongs of a bad book, to make the review humorous or to rain insults down on an incompetent author. But reviewing a good book? That's always difficult.

This was a great book. It's a story told from the point of view of Christopher Boone, a 15 year old with Asperger's syndrome. He is great at mathematics and very logical, but has little to no social skills and has trouble communicating with anyone he is not familiar with. He lives with his father, a simple man who sometimes loses his temper when he can't understand what Christopher wants.

The story begins with Christopher finding his neighbor's dog dead in the garden. Due to his love of detective stories (because of their use of logic) he decides to investigate the dog's death and find out who killed it. But he runs into trouble when people get angry or bothered by his inquiries, so much so that his father forbids him to continue the investigation. But Christopher, who has trouble understanding people's motivations and non-specific requests, finds a way around his father's orders and continues to investigate. Along the way he finds out some unpleasant things about his father and decides to run away, which throws him into a completely unknown and very confusing world as he tries to find his way around.

It's one of those stories where the things that happen to a protagonist may not be that spectacular or exciting, but because the character is so different and lives in his own little world, just going down an unknown street is an epic adventure. Christopher's voice is so strong that you get completely immersed in his story, feeling his terror at what we would consider every day things, like taking the train or having a conversation with a stranger.

In short, Haddon does a terrific job of showing the workings of Christopher's mind; how he uses his condition to work out problems, in ways that most of us wouldn't even begin to think of. It's hard to say exactly why this book is so great--it's just the way the character is written, the humor of the writing, and how you feel sympathetic of the character without feeling sorry for him. I read that Haddon based Christopher on people he knew who suffered from similar conditions to the character's, and it helped me to appreciate that Haddon doesn't consider his character as inferior, just different. And so, it's a different book from anything I've ever read, and I'm glad I finally decided to read it after many years of having people recommend it to me.

See? That was probably grossly incoherent. It's just damned hard to really explain that "I loved it, but it's hard to describe exactly why--you should just read it" feeling. Specially when any description of the story doesn't really do it justice. So I'll conclude by just saying this: It's a great book. You should read it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book #8: "Heart-Shaped Box" by Joe Hill

What a great book this was. I've had people recommend it to me for ages; a lot of people going with the "He's like his dad...but BETTER!" line of encouragement. Well, I'm glad I listened.

Joe Hill is Stephen King's second son, and as much as I'm tempted to compare his writing to his father's (of whom I am a big fan, as you probably know) I think it would be doing him a disservice. Based on this book, I think his writing stands alone.

Heart-Shaped Box is a ghost story, and probably the best one I've ever read. The protagonist is Judas Coyne, a retired heavy-metal star who now lives in an isolated farm, his only company a cheery assistant and his current lady-friend, whom he calls Georgia (because it's easier if he doesn't call her by her real name). He has a bizarre collection of morbid objects--including a real snuff film-- and when someone informs him that a real ghost is being sold on e-bay, he buys it immediately, if only because it sounds pretty cool. The ghost (of a woman's deceased father) is "sent" in the suit the man was buried in, and soon Coyne starts seeing the old man around his house. At first he seems harmless, but it becomes increasingly clear that both the sender and the ghost don't have the best of intentions towards Coyne. After some pretty terrifying stuff starts to happen, Coyne and Georgia decide to track down the sender as a ways of getting rid of the ghost, and things get progressively weirder and more dangerous.

I don't want to give too many details as to that "terrifying stuff" (as I so eloquently put it), as it's definitely something you should be surprised by. I confess I don't read a lot of ghost stories, but I've never heard of a ghost being quite this terrifying and evil before. The best way I can put it is that it creeped me the hell out, so much so that I couldn't quite walk around the apartment at night without feeling completely disturbed. It's the kind of book that gets under your skin, and even now (almost three weeks after I finished it) I still feel slightly perturbed at the idea of this ghost following me everywhere.

The writing is well paced and lacking in any unnecessary embellishments, and Hill creates a great feeling of tension and suspense all through the book. Judas Coyne is not exactly a sympathetic character, and sometimes it's hard to get a hold of him as a person, but it works because you're not exactly sure what he's going to do or say next. He's a stranger, and that works really well in the context of the story, as we slowly learn more about him but still don't know him at all. And still, it's a powerful story, one that lingers in your brain, It makes you care about what's happening and it's never boring.

I look forward to reading more of Joe Hill's work, because this book just blew me away. And just because someone might ask, I can't really say if he's better or worse than his father. I know Stephen King's work too well and I like it too much to make comparisons. They might write in vaguely the same genre, but their writing styles are completely different. And that's a good thing for both of them.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Figgy's Favorites: RomComs Edition

I think you all know by now that despite my Tough-Talkin', Hatin' exterior, I'm kind of a big softie inside. So, while I despise everything related to Valentine's Day (except for the cheap chocolate tomorrow), I figured this was a good a time as any to write this list.

You should also know that I love Romantic Comedies. I watch them obsessively. All of them - hell, I've watched everything Kate Hudson has ever made (so now you know why I hate her), just because I want to find the gems amongst the piles of crap that Hollywood produces year after year.

These are the gems. They're the movies I'll sit and watch over and over again, the ones who'll get me all blubbery and grinning like a fool every single time I watch them. They may not be cinematic genius--most of them riddled with the same cliches as the bad ones-- but they make me happy.

For all intents and purposes I'm using this basic definition of a RomCom: A comedy centered and revolving around a love story. I like this definition because it gives me a more narrow field to work with, and because it excludes a lot of comedies that just happen to have a romance in them but that I wouldn't classify as RomComs. Some examples of this are Shaun of the Dead or High Fidelity; two great movies, but not RomComs to me. I know some people might not like that definition, but it works for me. So: Comedy and a love story at the center.

1. Bridget Jones' Diary

Best Moments: The confession, of course. The birthday scene (that look he gives her across the table? Sweet jeebus) and of course, the kiss at the end. That kiss. Ooh, honey pass me the fan.

Best Assets: Zellwegger whom I will always love for this movie alone, Colin Firth's accent and sexy stares, Hugh Grant being deliciously evil, Bridget's Parents (Slugworth and Madame Pomfrey!), Gaius Baltar as the gay friend, the soundtrack.

Best Line(s):
"Wait a minute...nice boys don't kiss like that."
"Oh, yes, they fucking do.

Dumb Thing To Get Over (But that you can get over pretty easily): Trying to make us believe that Bridget Jones is fat. But the whole point of the character is that she thinks she's fat but isn't.

2.The Truth About Cats and Dogs:

Best Moments: The conversations between the girls, the visit to the department store, the photo session, and of course, the phone conversation. Gets me all oogly every single time.

Best Assets: Janeane Garofalo at her most awesome, Ben Chaplin's accent, the dog, Uma Thurman being thoroughly likable for the first time ever.

Stupid Thing to Get Over: The ridiculous premise, the idea that Janeane Garofalo isn't as beautiful (if not more) than Uma Thurman.

Best Line(s):
"What's wrong, Abby?"
"Nothing that a rooftop and an AK-47 won't fix"

3. While You Were Sleeping:

Best Moments: The scene where she first meets the family, the Christmas dinner, the wedding, the first visit to the apartment.

Best Assets: Sandra Bullock at her most adorable, Joe Junior, Bill Pullman looking like a sexy carpenter, Peter Gallagher's insane eyebrows, the entire, ridiculously lovable family.

Stupid Thing to Get Over: The lie is pretty flimsy, but works perfectly. Also that anyone would fall in love with Peter Gallagher and his eyebrows.

Best Line(s):
"I'd say that she gets under your skin as soon as you meet her. She drives you so nuts you don't know whether to hug her or, or just really arm wrestle her. She would go all the way to Europe just to get a stamp in her passport. I don't know if that amounts to insanity, or just being really, really... likable. "

4.Bringing Up Baby:
[Note: I suppose this would fit in better under the "Slapstick Comedy" genre, but I'm putting it on here because I can.]

Best Moments: Oh, all of them. The whole movie is a succession of hilarious scenes and brilliant moments. If forced to pick one, I'd say the whole scene at the restaurant.

Best Assets: Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Need I say more? Well, the leopards are pretty great, and Hepburn's wardrobe is amazing. George the dog is great.

Stupid Thing to Ignore: If you're really picky, the Walking Irish Stereotype can be a bit much for some people.

Best Lines:
"Now it isn't that I don't like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I'm strangely drawn toward you, but - well, there haven't been any quiet moments

5.Sleepless in Seattle:

Best Moments: the entire radio conversation at the start, Meg Ryan and Rosie O'Donnell watching An Affair to Remember, then Rita Wilson describing it, the guys "crying" over The Dirty Dozen.

Best Assets: Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, both completely sweet and believable, the fact that this movie manages to convey chemistry between the two of them without them ever talking to each other, the kid who plays Jonah, the whole supporting cast (Rita Wilson, Rosie O'Donnell, Victor Garber, Bill Pullman, David Hyde Pierce).

Stupid Thing You Need to Ignore: Jonah somehow manages to fly from Seattle to NYC way too easily. Things were more relaxed in the 90s, but not that relaxed.

Best Line:
"You don't want to fall in love. You want to fall in love in a movie

6.Four Weddings and a Funeral:

Best Moments: All of the weddings, Rowan Atkinson as the priest, the girl learns sign language for the deaf boy, the final scene, John Hannah reading the poem at the funeral.

Best Assets: Hugh Grant as his most stammery, John Hannah and Simon Callow, Kristin Scott Thomas, the horrible wedding clothes, the pretty scenery, and Duckface.

Stupid Thing You Need to Ignore: Andy McDowell.

Best Line:
"In the words of David Cassidy in fact, eh, while he was still with the Partridge family..."I think I love you,"

7. When Harry Met Sally

Best Moments: The first conversation in the car, the conversation during Casablanca, the double date, the grand speech at the end.

Best Assets: Meg Ryan's hair, Billy Crystal's line delivery, Carrie Fisher, the horrible 80s wardrobe, the chemistry between Crystal and Ryan.

Stupid Thing You Need to Ignore: Billy Crystal is not a pretty man.

Best Line:
"I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible."

8.Love, Actually:
[I know a lot of people hate this one...but a lot of people hate fun, too.]

Best Moments: Laura Linney finally kisses her gorgeous man, Andrew Lincoln with the boards, every scene with Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant dances, Colin Firth in a pond again, every scene with Bill Nighy.

Best Assets: an incredible cast. Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. Liam Neeson. That girl who sings "All I want for Christmas".

Stupid Thing You Need to Ignore: I don't like the storyline with the kid, or the Colin-goes-to-the-US, or the way the Laura Linney story ends. But everything else is pretty great.

Best Line:
"-Well, I was worried. I thought it would be something worse.
-Worse than the total agony of being in love?"

9.10 Things I Hate About You:

Best Moments: Heath Ledger sings (see above), the party (and the bit with the swings), the prom, Joseph Gordon Levitt tries to recruit Heath Ledger.

Best Assets: the cast, including Heath Ledger at his sexiest, Joseph Gordon Levitt being adorable (though he does nothing for me), Julia Stiles being great, the dad, the gorgeous location, Allison FRAKKIN Janney.

Stupid Thing You Need to Ignore: The stupid bet, because it's formulaic. But it's pretty easy to forget that it even exists sometimes.

Best Line:
"-Where did you come from? Planet "Loser"?
-As opposed to Planet "Look At Me, Look At Me"?

10.Ever After

Best Moments: the gypsies, the scene at the library, the bit with the ruins, the ball...hell, every scene that the two have together is quite wonderful.

Best Assets: Drew Barrymore's at her most lovable self, Dougray Scott managing to look hot even while wearing a giant cup, Angelica Houston, the beautiful locations, the couple that plays the King and Queen.

Stupid Thing You Need to Ignore: Leonardo da Vinci. It's so dumb it's kind of hilarious.

Best Line:
"-It is not fair, sire. You have found my weakness, but I have yet to learn yours.
-But I should think it was quite obvious.

11.The Matchmaker
[Yep, Janeane Garofalo again. I love her so much]

Best Moments: the singing contest, the pretend family fools the Senator, the whole trip to the Inishmore.

Best Assets: Janeane Garofalo, all of those delightful Irish accents, the scenery, Dennis Leary.

Stupid thing you need to ignore: The sex scene is terribly unsatisfying.''

Best Line:
"-Is being an idiot like being high all the time?
-No, it's like being constantly right."


Honorable Mentions:
-You've Got Mail
-The Philadelphia Story
-It Happened One Night
-The Wedding Singer

So, there you go. Hope you get around to watching the ones you haven't seen. And please, be kind in the comments. Remember that these are my personal choices, and I never claim to have flawless taste. So add your own, or fight me if you must.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Book #7: "Dead Until Dark" by Charlaine Harris

A few of you might know that I am a huge fan of HBO's True Blood series. It's a trashy, hilarious, bizarre show that can be alternatively brilliant and mind-numbingly stupid. For all its flaws, it's quite addictive-- the presence of the gorgeous Alexander Skarsgard doesn't hurt, either, nor does the fact that he's often almost completely naked in it. A lot. And he's tall


OK! Back to True Blood. It's one of the million shows that's cropped up lately that features vampires, with the one stand-out feature being that these are vampires done right. It's based on Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series, of which Dead Until Dark is the first book.

Sookie Stackhouse lives in the small, unsophisticated town of Bon Temps in Louisiana. She happens to have the ability to read people's minds, a "condition" that's turned her into a bit of a loner, though she's smart and very self-reliant. The story is set in a world where vampires have come out from hiding and are starting to mingle in human society, thanks the invention of synthetic blood, a nutritious (though not entirely satisfying) substitute for human blood. So, right off the bat we've got a pretty interesting premise. The vampires are the monsters we've all come to know and love: human-like but not really human at all, they're dangerous and feel almost no emotions aside from hunger and lust.

One night a vampire named Bill Compton comes in to the restaurant where Sookie works, and she is immediately drawn to him. It helps that he's the only person whose thoughts she can't read, which makes him a welcome relief. They strike up a strained sort of friendship that quickly develops into physical attraction and lust. The slow build-up of their romance is just flat-out fun to read, because Harris makes the whole thing really bizarre and unusual, so it's not at all your typical romantic story. Meanwhile, there's a serial killer going around Bon Temps killing girls who sleep with vampires, which doesn't bode well for Sookie and her new friend (if you've watched the show, the story is the same as that of the first season). There's also a great cast of colorful supporting characters, which includes some really creepy vampires as well as violent rednecks, wise grandmas, bumbling policemen and even a shape-shifter. Add to that the tensions between humans and vampires, Vampire Elvis and vampire groupies and Sookie's got quite a full plate on her hands.

Told from Sookie's point of view, the book is short and lively, and the problems that usually come with first-person narration are nicely glossed over by Sookie's telepathy. She doesn't have to keep wondering what other people are thinking because she already knows. It was also a relief to see that the Sookie of the books is exponentially less annoying than the Sookie of the series. She's still impulsive and reckless, but she's a lot more likable and sympathetic. Vampire Bill is also much more palatable, being less whiny and delicate and more of a believable anti-hero. I missed the presence of Tara, so I'm guessing she was created specifically for the show.

Dead Until Dark was a fun little introduction to the series. It's saved from being just another silly book about vampires by Harris' great sense of humor and her quick, fun writing. The book is pretty gory and violent at times, and I liked that it didn't seem to take itself too seriously-- it won't win any prizes for sophistication, but it doesn't care. I honestly can't wait to read the rest of the series. At least it'll be a fun way to pass the time until the show comes back and we get more of Eric Northman.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Book #6: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" by J.K. Rowling.

Remember when I said that I wasn't going to re-read this book until after the movie came out? Yeah, I lied. I do that a lot. But, come on, the thing was $3 at a used-book store and I couldn't resist.

I think I've said enough about the series in my reviews of the other books (here, here, here, here) to go over it all again. Long story short: Formulaic but almost always enjoyable; good, fun characters and progressively more interesting stories; flawed, but never boring.

That being said, Deathly Hallows is by far the most mature and the darkest book of the series. Our three heroes are on their own as they decide to not return to Hogwarts and spend all their time trying to find and destroy the Horcruxes left behind by Voldemort. They have almost no information to go on, so there's a lot of guesswork and, as usual with Harry Potter, a lot of incredibly lucky coincidences. We're also introduced to a new mystery, that of the Deathly Hallows, which seems to be related to the main quest but isn't really important until the very end.

The best thing about the book is the way that Rowling manages to convey to us just how alone and isolated the kids are this time around. Before, Harry always had adults to rely on when things got dicey. This time around, however, the trio really must rely on what little experience they have (and Hermione's genius), and sometimes their plans go terribly wrong. They're still just teenagers, after all. They have volatile tempers and moments of silliness, all while being quite justifiably terrified and lonely. There are moments when things get downright horrifying-- the trip to Godric's Hollow is a brilliantly told episode right out of a horror story.

The biggest problem for me is the pacing of the story. Rowling has set up a great, complicated, dark mystery for the readers, and for once she is completely free to break away from the well-known formula, just by taking the kids out of Hogwarts. But she wastes the opportunity to do so. Instead, we have the same exhausted formula as with the other books: one long period of mystery and dead-ends, and all the revelations are crammed in at the end of the school year. I understand the logic behind it (they have little time as they progress, etc), but the last fourth of the book just feels terribly rushed. You get used to the slow but comfortable pace of the camping and investigation, and then BLAM! Suddenly you're thrown into an 150mph dive where you get no time to breathe, only a barrage of exposition and information that's just hard to keep track of. It works in the context of the story, but there's just no moment to rest, and that becomes a problem after the rest of the book has been so deliberately paced. I think that, by limiting the timeline to one year, it cheapens the value and difficulty of everything that the kids had to do. This was supposed to take them years, to be incredibly difficult, and when they solve the mystery in a year, you just get the feeling that it wasn't really that difficult to work out. Would have been much easier if Dumbledore hadn't been such an uncommunicative ass.

Luckily, it's only a problem I felt until I was done reading. As you're reading that last fourth of the book is exhilarating, surprising and shocking. Rowling brings out all the big guns, taking things into unexpected, darker territory, and it's a thrill to read. There are moments where the writing it just beautiful--you feel that you're right there on that crazy journey with Harry, and it's a testament to the characters Rowling has created that you feel incredibly deeply for them when they're faced with their final choices. It's beautifully done.

...Until you get to the epilogue. I don't even want to get that into it, because it'll just lead to another long, angry rant (Scorpius? REALLY?). Let's just say that the book ends too abruptly, and the epilogue is far too cutesy and clumsy to follow such an epic ending. There are so many questions unanswered, so many reunions we needed to see but never happened, that we needed so we could feel like the adventure was over for now. It's just terribly unsatisfying. I get the feeling that maybe Rowling was forced into writing a happy epilogue, and so it just feels tacked on and forced. It's too bad, really, because the rest of the book is a great read, and nice, concise ending to Harry's story. It came very close to being perfect, and I was left wanting a little more.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Book #5: "The Life of Elizabeth I" by Alison Weir

I'll get this one out of the way quickly. It's hard to write about non-fiction books, and I've never quite got the hang of that.

Read this one. It's an incredibly detailed biography of a truly extraordinary woman. It doesn't romanticize or embellish anything, but neither is it dry and lifeless. It would be hard to do that, with such an incredibly story to tell. Alison Weir does a flawless job of relating the life of Elizabeth I, from the moment she was became Queen until the moment she died. But she doesn't just list facts and gathers information from different books; she makes sure to connect the life of Elizabeth to everything that was happening at the time. You can't disconnect a person from the times they lived in, and trying to add modern sensibilities (I'm looking at you, Phillipa Gregory) just belittles their story and insults their legacy.

Weir did extensive research not only into Elizabeth's reign, she looked into everything that went on around her: how she dressed, how she walked, how she spoke, wrote and loved. She goes into great detail about the people who surrounded Elizabeth, how they were affected by her and how she affected them.

It's one of the best biographies I've ever read. A big, heavy book that took me (a pretty fast reader) almost a month to read. But I was never bored. I never got tired or had my mind wander. This book was so rich in detail that I would gladly read it again sometime. I can't recommend it enough.