Sunday, December 29, 2002

Review: "Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life," by Barnaby Conrad and Monty Schulz

I have to admit that I'm not the biggest fan of "Peanuts." I liked it when I was a kid, but as I grew older, Charlie Brown and his pals lost their luster for me. Most of the time when I turn to the comics page now, my eye skims right over it - with one exception. I love the strips that feature Snoopy's thoughts on writing.

For a while now, I've had a couple of Snoopy comics hanging over my computer at home that sum up the writing experience for me. One features Snoopy writing a letter that I've often wanted to write back to publishers. It reads, "Gentlemen, Regarding the recent rejection slip you sent me. I think there might have been a misunderstanding. What I really wanted was for you to publish my story and send me fifty thousand dollars. Didn't you realize that?" I'm afraid my luck probably wouldn't be any better than Snoopy's, though.

But those thoughts on writing are why I got really excited about "Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life" by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz ($19.99, Writer's Digest Books).

For this book, the authors asked some of the most well-known writers in the world about their favorite "Peanuts" cartoon on writing. Among the contributors are Ray Bradbury, Danielle Steel, Clive Cussler, Sidney Sheldon, Fannie Flagg, Dominick Dunne, William F. Buckley Jr., Sue Grafton, Ed McBain, Julia Child, Elmore Leonard and more.

The bits from the writers are often interesting, sometimes infuriating. Some, like best seller Steel, made me groan. She goes on and on about how tough the writing life is. I wanted to say, "If it's so bad, surely you've made enough money to quit."

But most are a bit more light-hearted. They're funny, humble, even inspiring. Take for instance Flagg's tale of how she became a writer. Her joy in the act of writing shines through the essay. Others, like Bradbury, recount tales of the bumps and potholes on their road to success, and express their gratitude that they're able to make a living at something they love.

But the real star of the book, as we all know, is Snoopy. My favorites are his takes on rejection slips. Anyone who has started a collection of those little multi-colored slips of paper can understand Snoopy's frustration. Those insidious little phrases like "not right for us at this time" or "doesn't meet our present needs," translate to something more like "you stink" in the mind of the aspiring writer.

One particular cartoon - one of the ones that hang on my desk - cuts to the heart of it. It shows Snoopy retrieving a rejection from the mailbox. It reads, "Dear Contributor, Thank you for considering us with your manuscript. Has it ever occurred to you that you may be the worst writer in the history of the world?" I've certainly gotten a couple of letters that made me feel that way.

It works the other way too, though. There's one strip where Snoopy gets an acceptance, of a sort. It says, "Dear Contributor, Thank you for not sending us anything lately. It suits our present needs." I know there are a few editors out there who have wanted to send me that one.

I was disappointed that I didn't see one of my favorites in this book. It's the final one of the three next to my computer. Snoopy receives a letter that reads, "Dear Son, Thank you for considering us with your letter. We regret, however, that it does not suit our present needs. Sincerely, Mother." The final frame shows Snoopy sitting dejectedly on a rock, thinking, "Even my letters home get rejected."

"Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life" provides a fun break for any writer or "Peanuts" fan. But now, it's time to get the nose back to the grindstone and start writing again. Let's see ... how should I start? Oh, I know.

It was a dark and stormy night...

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Review: "Night Watch," by Terry Pratchett

In "Night Watch," Terry Pratchett treats fans to a fun trip into the history of the city of Ankh-Morpork through the eyes of everyone's favorite City Watch captain Samuel Vimes.

When Vimes pursues a criminal named Carcer, accused of killing two coppers, they find themselves locked in a fight atop Unseen University, the school for wizards. As a storm rages around the two combatants, a freak accident sends Vimes through the roof of the school and into darkness.

When he wakes, things are a little strange. He soon finds that he's been transported back in time to his very first days as a copper. He takes on the identity of John Keel, a watchman who took Vimes under his wing in those days. And indeed, Vimes meets the younger version of himself in Lance Constable Samuel Vimes.

The times are turbulent ones for the city of Ankh-Morpork. The current patrician is completely insane, and the man plotting a revolution to take his place isn't much better. The streets are about to erupt in violence, and the results are one of the last things Vimes wants to relive. Unfortunately, it appears he's going to have to, despite his best efforts to change history.

What's worse is that Vimes discovers Carcer has come through with him, and he has a plan to change history himself - by killing one of Vimes' selves.

If my count is correct, "Night Watch" is Pratchett's 28th novel set on his whimsical Discworld, and in all those books, neither the place nor the characters have lost their charm.

The story itself is perhaps not as funny as some of the previous tales of the City Watch, but there are still plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments.

The real fun of this installment is getting a chance to see how things were before Vetinari took over as patrician and before Vimes overhauled the City Watch. Readers caught glimpses of it in Pratchett's first novels about Vimes, but never knew the whole story.

In "Night Watch," readers get to see younger versions of watchmen Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs, a Vimes who isn't nearly as savvy and cunning as the current version, watchman Reginald Shoe - before the unfortunate accident that made him a zombie - and a young, but skilled assassin named Havelock Vetinari. Oh, and there's also the birth of a legend, Ankh-Morpork's greatest salesman, "Cut Me Own Throat" Dibbler, who we find out actually got his catch line from Vimes - at least in this timeline.

Time travel stories can be tricky when writers let themselves get bogged down in the "rules." Fortunately, Pratchett throws all that nonsense out the window and just has fun with it. Of course, that's been Pratchett's trademark all along. He approaches everything about the Discworld with an anything goes attitude, and perhaps that's why the series has lasted so long without becoming stale.

Friday, December 20, 2002

Movie review: "The Two Towers"

Being a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's books, it was with more than a little apprehension that I entered the theater this time last year to see the first installment of Peter Jackson's silver screen version of "The Lord of the Rings." But "The Fellowship of the Ring" was so impressive that when I lined up for the opening of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" on Wednesday, I had nothing but excitement and anticipation.

Apparently I wasn't the only one. After what seemed an interminable wait for the lights to go down, the packed house broke into applause as the trailers began to play. After that, it was off to Tolkien's magical land of Middle-Earth.

For those worried that this one can't live up to the hype, forget about it. If anything, "The Two Towers" outshines its predecessor. It has all of the amazing effects and gorgeous settings, but it injects a healthy dose of action into the mix. The most hardcore Tolkien purists may be disappointed a bit by the trumped-up battle scenes, but no one else will. They're fantastic eye candy and make for some compelling dramatic moments.

Jackson does take a few liberties with the story, but the changes are primarily cosmetic - a slight tweaking of the timing, a few minor scenes removed, a brief continuation of the Arwen/Aragorn thread and the delay of a couple of scenes for the third film due next Christmas. All in all, there was nothing that I really missed, and I'm pretty picky about that sort of thing.

If you haven't read the books or seen the first movie, you might want to check it out before going. Like the books, the film version of "The Two Towers" dives right into the action without any backstory, and there's a good chance you could be lost if you're not familiar with the tale.

The movie opens by telling the story of Gandalf's fall from the bridge over Khazad-dum and his ensuing battle with the Balrog. The effects are stunning as the wizard and the computer-generated demon battle while plummeting through the center of the mountain. It also prepares viewers for one of the key twists in the movie, (the wizard's transformation into Gandalf the White.)

From there, the story continues its march to the final showdown with Mordor. With Gollum as guide, Frodo and Sam move along on their journey to Mount Doom with the one ring becoming a greater burden, while battle is joined in the rest of the world. Saruman's forces move against the kingdom of Rohan, while Sauron's armies converge on Gondor in an attempt to crush the human lands between them. The elves are boarding the ships that will take them to the Grey Havens and the dwarves are locked in their mountain halls. It's a bleak picture for the world of Middle-Earth, but despite that there are strong threads of hope and determination running through the movie.

Overall, "The Two Towers" is a very intense film, but Jackson also knows where to provide viewers with a laugh from the dwarf Gimli or one of the hobbits to break the tension.

Jackson's casting continues to be picture perfect, with the choice of Bernard Hill as Theoden, Miranda Otto as Eowyn and Brad Dourif as Grima Wormtongue. Despite the excellent casting, it's a computer-generated character that really steals the show.

Viewers became acquainted with Gollum briefly in "The Fellowship of the Ring," but he takes a larger role in "The Two Towers." We learn that he was once named Smeagol, and there's a particularly impressive sequence as the two distinct personalities emerge and battle for control over the creature. Gollum/Smeagol is the most fully-realized and believable computer-generated character that I've seen, and he was able to draw a wide range of emotions from the packed house in the theater - laughter, pity, disgust and even perhaps a bit of fear.

Of course, there's always a character or creature to look forward to. In "The Fellowship of the Ring," it was the Balrog. In "The Two Towers," it's Treebeard and the Ents. I had nightmares of the great tree-herders looking like the talking trees from "The Wizard of Oz," but Jackson has done a magnificent job of bringing them to life. They're not exactly what I imagined while reading the books, but they're still very impressive.

In truth, there are times in the movie when the viewer knows everything on the screen is computer generated, but it hardly seems to matter. You get caught up in the swirl of the story, and everything is completely believable.

With his version of the second installment of Tolkien's trilogy, Jackson ratchets up the drama and excitement for the conclusion, "Return of the King," which promises to be the best of the three films. The only downside I can see in "The Two Towers" is that we have to wait another year to see the conclusion.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

Review: "The Thousand Orcs," by R.A. Salvatore

After nearly a decade and a half of tales about the dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden, the story has come full circle in R.A. Salvatore's latest, "The Thousand Orcs" ($25.95, Wizards of the Coast).

The book marks a new beginning for Drizzt and his companions, opening a chapter that promises to bring the series back to its adventurous roots, while still retaining some of the introspective aspects of more recent volumes.

As the book opens, Drizzt and his companions are once again on the road to Mithral Hall, only this time to stay. The old dwarven king Gandalug has died, and Drizzt's friend Bruenor Battlehammer, the dwarf responsible for the retaking of the ancient dwarven home, has been named the new king.

But Bruenor is reluctant to chain himself to the throne of the dwarven kingdom. He still longs for the freedom and adventure of the road. A chance meeting with a pair of dwarves from a neighboring stronghold who had been attacked by orcs on the road, provides the perfect opportunity for him to duck his duties for a little while longer. In the process of tracking the band of orcs, the companions uncover a more sinister plot. Someone has united the orcs with the frost giants of the north and given them direction and a mission - to capture Mithral Hall and kill Bruenor and his companions.

There are also problems on the political front for Bruenor. Since the reopening of Mithral Hall, Bruenor's kin have been taking business from the metalsmiths of Mirabar, a mixed community of dwarves and humans. A visit by Bruenor breeds discontent between the two races, ultimately leading to a confrontation that threatens to rip the community apart and shift the balance of power in the region to Mithral Hall.

In an interview earlier this year with The News-Star, Salvatore said he was more excited about the new tales of Drizzt Do'Urden than he's ever been. This volume should have the same effect on Salvatore's fans.

For them, reading "The Thousand Orcs" may be a little like jumping on a time travel machine and dialing up the late 1980s. The book captures the spirit of Salvatore's "Icewind Dale" trilogy, the tales that began the story of the dark elven ranger.

Like "Icewind Dale," it's a tale of the companions, free and for the most part happy, on the road to adventure. But at the same time, there's a bit more depth than the original trilogy. The political maneuverings between Mirabar and Mithral Hall are a nice touch and promise to make things interesting over the course of the next two stories.

There's also a much darker feel to this story than the first books. Salvatore promised to shake up the lives of his characters in this latest chapter, and he certainly has. Without giving away any of the twists and turns, I'll just say the ending should leave long time fans more excited about this series than they've been in a long time.

"The Thousand Orcs" shows Salvatore fully recovered from the lull his "Forgotten Realms" books went through in the mid- to late 1990s. The book kicks off the "Hunter's Blades" trilogy which promises to revitalize characters that are in need of some change. I can't wait to see what happens next.

Sunday, December 01, 2002

Review: "Bradbury, An Illustrated Life," by Jerry Weist

Like his famous Illustrated Man, the images in "Bradbury, an Illustrated Life: A Journey to Far Metaphor" (William Morrow, $34.95) tell a lot of stories.

The coffee-table biography written by Jerry Weist does tell the tale of Ray Bradbury's life, but it could just as well have been billed as an overview of science fiction and fantasy in the 20th century. Few writers, if any, have had the kind of impact on the genres as Bradbury has. From his earliest publications in the 1930s to his current works, Bradbury has consistently set a high standard for other writers to follow.

Following the introduction by Bradbury himself, the book opens on photos from the 1934 World's Fair's 1,000,000 B.C. exhibit, which was perhaps the inspiration for one of Bradbury's most famous stories "A Sound of Thunder." At any rate, the exhibit certainly left an impression on him and helped set him on his path.

The first chapter of "Bradbury, An Illustrated Life" is a treasure trove for lovers of classic fantasy and science fiction. As we read about the things that shaped Bradbury's life and his love of all things weird, we can enjoy classic covers and illustrations from H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Amazing Stories magazine, as well as early comic strips and stills from classic horror films.

Over the next 100 pages or so, the book takes us on a trip through Bradbury's most prolific years. From covers of Weird Tales where his stories ran alongside luminaries like H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, to his numerous novels, they're all represented. There is an extensive collection of illustrations that have accompanied Bradbury's stories in magazines, as well as the various incarnations of the covers of some of his most famous books.

On the pages dedicated to books like "Fahrenheit 451" and "The October Country," you can follow the trends in the publishing industry from the stark covers of the 1950s to the funky '60s and '70s versions and the slick covers of the '80s and '90s.

Later, we're introduced to images from the silver screen, small screen and even stage adaptations of Bradbury's work.

But it's not all about the writer's considerable legacy. We also get to steal a few glimpses of the real man behind the typewriter. Images of Bradbury enjoying himself on classic movie sets at the Los Angeles Film Society or at his cluttered desk or surrounded by friends are scattered throughout the book. Particularly interesting are the drawings and correspondences by Bradbury that are sprinkled throughout. More than anything else, these offer insight into the real man.

"Bradbury, an Illustrated Life" is a gorgeous and informative tribute to the true master of the speculative genres. If you've got a Bradbury fan on your Christmas list, this volume would be the perfect gift.