Sunday, December 14, 2003

"Lord of the Rings" adaptations surpass expectations

No one was a bigger doubter than me when New Line Cinema announced its intention to put J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" on film. Visions of the disastrous animated adaptations of the books swirled in my head, and I imagined Ringwraiths that acted like Jason Voorhees and a Gollum with razor-blade tipped fingers. Those were, after all, my biggest reference points for New Line.

Then I began to hear about this New Zealander named Peter Jackson, who was a devoted fan of the books, and I began to see some of the early stills and notes from the movie via the Internet. Those little things piqued my curiosity, but I still wasn't convinced.

Once upon a time, I had a yearly date with Tolkien's trilogy, well, actually with all four books, because I include "The Hobbit" in the cycle. The month before the first film opened, I realized it had been several years since I visited with my old friends. I passed over the leatherbound version and the shiny, new version with illustrations by Alan Lee that hold a place of honor on my bookshelf. Instead, I dug out the old, torn, stained and dog-eared paperbacks from my youth and dived back into the world of Middle Earth.

I read the books with a passion that I hadn't experienced them with since the first time I picked up "The Hobbit" in seventh grade. I knew, after all, that this was the last time I'd see Middle Earth through my own eyes. This was the last time, I'd see my own personal vision of Tolkien's lands and characters. I knew my perception of the story in future readings would be clouded by visions of Elijah Wood and Ian McKellen (who, by the way, is about as close as you can get to my original vision of Gandalf.)

Then came the day when I sat in a darkened theater, waiting with a mixture of excitement and trepidation to see those words that were burned into my memory scroll across the screen - "One ring to rule them all, One ring to find them, One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them."

I knew they'd trump up the romantic angle and leave some other things out - it is Hollywood after all. But I'm happy to report that the films were nowhere near the disaster that I expected. In fact, they were better than I had ever imagined they could be. Oh, I've got quibbles, of course, but no major complaints. Among the quibbles that my colleagues are tired of hearing about:

· No Tom Bombadil. OK, I know he wasn't really essential to the plot of the books, and I know that sidetrip has little bearing on the story. But I still would have liked to see the barrow wight scene.

· Arwen's calling of the river at Rivendell. I thought the change in the story undermined Frodo's character a bit, and we all know it was Gandalf who crashed the river down on the Nazgul. Arwen was hardly in the book, but of course, Hollywood needs the romance.

· No final come-uppance for Saruman. This one probably bothers me more than any other. I wanted to see the scene where Gandalf confronts Saruman after the fall of Isengard. I also think viewers need to know Saruman's fate. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait for the DVD for the Gandalf scene. As for the other, apparently Jackson didn't shoot it at all.

But for every quibble I can find, there are 10 things that Jackson and Co. got right. Among them:

· The hobbits themselves. Realistically, I know it's done with camera angles and digital tricks, but when I see the actors who played hobbits in another setting and see they're human-sized, I do a double-take.

· The casting. I haven't seen a single bad casting decision. No one in the world could have played Gandalf and Saruman but Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee, and Jackson nailed the other characters just as well.

· The battle with the Balrog at Khazad-dum. Could it have been done more perfectly? I don't think so. Of all the scenes in the movie, this one was probably the most true to the vision I had in my head.

· Gollum. Without a doubt, the most incredible CG character of all time. The viewer has no trouble at all believing that he's 100 percent real.

In the end, the movies have been much truer to the books than I expected. I do feel a twinge of sadness that Middle Earth no longer belongs to me alone. Even though millions of people have read the books, before the movies, they were a much more personal experience. Now everyone shares the same vision - but at least it's a good one.

Now if we can just convince Peter Jackson to take on "The Hobbit." I know it's going to be done now, and I really don't want to see anyone else at the helm.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Review: "Blade Dancer" by S.L. Viehl

S.L. Viehl has already made a name for herself in the science fiction world with her "Stardoc" books, but now she introduces a new character to that universe with "Blade Dancer" ($22.95, Roc).

Jory Rask is a pariah on the xenophobic world of Terra. She's a half-breed, the product of a brutal rape of her Jorenian mother by a Terran mercenary. Blessed (or cursed) with a Terran appearance, she's been able to hide her heritage through the use of a pair of gloves (to conceal her sixth finger) and goggles (to hide her pupil-less eyes.) She's done fairly well for herself, becoming one of the top runbacks in the professional shockball league (basically the science fiction equivalent of Deuce McAllister.) But when her mother dies, that all ends.

Jory is caught burying her mother in the desert, and her heritage comes out. The formerly honored player is mistreated, shunned and deported.

She catches a flight to her mother's homeworld in hopes that they'll take her in, but along the way, she runs into a blade dancer, one of a group of elite galactic assassins. He takes an interest in her, challenging her to a fight and inviting her to the planet Reytalon for training.

Jory refuses, but once she gets to her mother's homeworld, she doesn't get quite the reception she expected. Furthermore, she discovers it's not really a place she wants to live. So, keeping a promise to her mother, she seeks out the handful of others on the planet like her. When she locates them they find a common bond and a common goal, revenge against Kieran, the Terran mercenary responsible for their outcast existence.

On the surface, "Blade Dancer" is a typical revenge tale, but Viehl handles it with a flair that makes it far more engaging than the average action movie fodder.

For one thing, Jory is a very believable character. Though she sports the stoic façade of the average action hero, there are aspects of her character that reveal her as a real person with real feelings and fallibilities. The reader is able to feel for her and sympathize with her even as she's training to be a cold-blooded killer. Though some aspects of that training may repulse readers, they still feel that connection with the character. That's a balance that's sometimes hard to achieve.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about "Blade Dancer" is its honesty. While a lot of science fiction writers try to dress an adventure tale up in heavy-handed philosophical trappings, Viehl's writing style is as unpretentious as this tale of revenge.

She never pretends the novel is anything but what it is - a breathless action tale that will keep readers turning pages.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Review: "Dead on My Feet" by Wm. Mark Simmons

Having grown up in this area, I never suspected there'd be a vampire presence here, but now the place seems to be overrun with them.

Charlaine Harris planted them here in her Southern Vampire series, and now local author Wm. Mark Simmons brings his half-vamp character Chris Cséjthe to town in "Dead on My Feet" ($24, Baen Books).

Simmons began the story of Cséjthe (pronounced Chaytay) in 1996's "One Foot in the Grave." Even in a world of vampires and werewolves, Cséjthe is an oddity. He's neither living nor dead, a half-vampire. Simmons' variety of vampirism is a virus with two parts. Cséjthe got one, but not the other, which makes him of great scientific interest to all of the vampire clans (which seem more like Mafia families).

Cséjthe just wants to be left alone with his werewolf girlfriend Lupé (and don't forget the ghost of his dead wife), so he packs up and moves to a most unlikely place. You guessed it - right here in Monroe. He's provided a new identity - Sam Haim - and opens a detective agency.

When he's hired to check out a local psychic, he expects a quick debunking. Instead, he gets a dire warning. The story that follows is a wild ride that includes a killer virus, a global conspiracy and an army of long-dead Civil War soldiers. Oh, and did I mention that the vampire clans finally catch up to him?

Simmons says his books are not your typical vampire novels, and he's not kidding. There are no overwrought, Goth-poet, tortured souls here (OK, maybe a couple, but they're bearable). Instead his characters are more like real folks with real problems on top of their supernatural woes.

Simmons has never met a pun he didn't like - a trait that he's quick to cop to - but in these novels, as well as in his "Dreamland Chronicles," they usually seem to work. You'll hit a groaner every now and then, but for the most part, the puns enhance the humor.

Part of the fun of reading Simmons' books is picking up on all the references. Sprinkled throughout are allusions to movies, music and all things pop culture. You'll get some and miss some, but there should be a few for everyone.

"Dead on My Feet" and "One Foot in the Grave" are a good mix, blending plenty of light and funny scenes with some dark and downright menacing moments. It also helps that the first book features one of my favorite lines from a vampire novel. Cséjthe is practically forced to attend a support group in the vampire enclave to help him deal with the changes (yes, they have support groups). When he's asked to speak, he stands up and says, "I suck, therefore I am."

Unfortunately, "One Foot in the Grave" is out of stock in most places right now, but Simmons hopes it will be back on shelves soon. Until then, you can still enjoy "Dead on My Feet" as a stand-alone and catch up on the backstory later. It's a lot of fun, and you might find a few things you recognize.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Interview: Mark Simmons


Mark Simmons leads a secret life. He has quite a few skeletons (mostly of Civil War soldiers) in his closet. He hangs around with werewolves and voodoo types. He has bloodthirsty friends. Surprisingly, he wants everyone to know about it.

Simmons, who has been general manager and program director at public radio station KEDM for about 10 years, can not only be found on the airwaves, but on bookshelves as well. His latest novel, "Dead On My Feet," was released by Baen Books earlier this year and brings his half-vampire character Chris Cséjthe home to Monroe.

Simmons, tired of seeing every story set in New York or Los Angeles, wanted to offer a different view, but he admits, initially, to having second thoughts about bringing vampire clans and ghouls of all sorts to town.

"Whenever you set something in familiar territory, it helps ground the story," he said. "But there's also the external aspect of people wanting to think that you mean something or you're saying something about the real place. Whenever an author writes something, there are always friends and acquaintances who try to figure out if they're in the book."

Simmons assures local folks that none of them appear in the book, though the name of one prominent local restaurateur is mentioned. He admits to including some friends, but no one from our neck of the woods.

Then there are some of the events of the book, which include a white supremacist group - from up north, no less - in a battle against long-dead Civil War soldiers (Union and Confederate alike) who are protecting their country, and a corporation with a killer virus bent on world domination. Those were other reasons he chose not to use real places and faces.

"Sometimes people will misunderstand things you're trying to do, especially humor," Simmons said. "I was thinking, if somebody skims this, they're going to think, `well, here comes another Yankee, writing another story to make fun of us.' If I made fun of anything, I did make fun of the fact that our life here is kind of quiet."

That quiet life is part of what initially drew Simmons to Monroe. He worked at radio stations in southeastern Kansas and the Kansas City area in Missouri before turning to public radio. He had a choice between accepting a position as operations manager and program director at KEDM or one in Bridgeport, Conn.

"It was a tough decision," he said. "But it was so beautiful down here, and what impressed me was the strength of the arts."

A year after joining KEDM, Simmons also took on the duties of general manager, and he's now an adjunct instructor in mass communications at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. All of which leaves little time for writing, but he still manages to churn out books, if at a bit slower pace.

Simmons thinks one of the things that attracts readers to his books is the strange blend of genres. His "Dreamland Chronicles" trilogy layers a fantasy tale on a hard science fiction framework, while the Cséjthe books blend fantasy and horror with a touch of science fiction thrown in. But all of the books have a common element - humor.

"For balancing humor and horror, I admire Hitchcock for what he was able to do," Simmons said. "He can make you believe in some scary situations, but still make you laugh."

Simmons said he likes to think that his books achieve that same kind of balance. He wants them to be funny, but he also wants readers to take the story seriously. His publisher for the Cséjthe books thinks he's achieved that goal. Toni Weisskopf, executive editor of Baen Books, said several people had recommended Simmons' work to them before they read "One Foot in the Grave."

"Once we read it, we enjoyed Mark's storytelling and his wry, allusive sense of humor," Weisskopf said. "Mark's hero has to walk the fine line between what's wrong and right, and it's rare these days to have an author who knows where the line is drawn, let alone can deal with moral decisions with such a light touch. Simmons manages it with flair."

While the books are funny, Simmons doesn't want people to get the idea that they are for kids. They draw on legends and history, which are often bloody. He said he'd classify them PG-13 with the movie ratings system.

"There are worse things you'll see on TV on most given nights, but it's not `Bunnicula' or `The Monster Patrol,'" he said. "There is violence and there are bad things that happen to some of the people in these books. The most horrific stuff is actual history."

Simmons, though he says he's not a fan of vampire stories himself, said he does try to stick with the conventions of the genre. He began writing the stories as a way to have a little fun with "the genre that will not stay dead," but he also has respect for the conventions. So sunlight, holy symbols, garlic, all of the usual suspects play a big role in his books.

"If it's convention, it's like being on the road and staying between the lines," he said. "But it's seeing how far you can go and still stay between the lines."

That, he says, earns him some fans from the community of vampire followers. Much like his poking fun at fantasy and science fiction have earned him fans among those genres.

"I'm true to the rules, and yet, we all have a little bit of a `Mystery Science Theater 3000' attitude after a while," he said. "How many times can we go back to the coffin and tell the same story over again without it just being old?"

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Review: "Death Masks" by Jim Butcher

Settling down with the latest installment of Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" is becoming a pre-Halloween tradition for me.

The tales of a wizard private eye are the perfect books for the haunted season. They've got plenty of creeps and nasties, but they're more fun than frightening. His latest, "Death Masks" ($6.99, Roc) continues the trend.

This time, Harry Dresden's in a world of trouble (as usual). The war between the Red Court of vampires and the White Council of wizards - a war that Harry was at least partially responsible for starting - continues. Harry is given a chance to end the war by fighting a duel with a representative of the Red Court, a cunning vampire named Ortega.

As he prepares for the duel, he gets a visit from a representative of the Vatican. The Shroud of Turin has been stolen and is suspected to be in Chicago. The priest has contacted the police, but doesn't trust them and has been pointed toward Harry. The problem is, a lot of other people are looking for the Shroud, including Harry's friend Michael Carpenter and two other Knights of the Cross, the local crime lord and some really nasty demons.

Could anything else go wrong? You bet it could. In the middle of all of this Harry's old girlfriend, now half-vampire, saunters back into his life.

As you can probably tell, this tale of Harry Dresden is far from boring, but it's not nearly as chaotic as it sounds either. Despite everything that's going on, Butcher still makes the story flow and manages to tie it all together.

But most importantly, the stories are a blast. Butcher doesn't mind poking fun at his own genre, even at a master of it. Consider a scene where Dresden is caught somewhere he shouldn't be - an art auction run by the local mob boss where Harry suspects the Shroud will be sold. The mob boss confronts him by saying he didn't realize Harry was an art collector. The rest of the conversation goes like this:

"`I am the foremost collector of velvet Elvii in the city of Chicago,' I said at once.

"`Elvii?' Marcone inquired.

"`The plural could be Elvises, I guess,' I said. `But if I say that too often, I start muttering to myself and calling things `my precious,' so I usually go with the Latin plural.'"

If that passage gives you a chuckle - or a good belly laugh if you're a Tolkien fan - there are plenty more where it came from.

With most ongoing series like this, I find my interest waning after four or five books, but five books in, I still love the "Dresden Files." They're fast, they're fun, and I'm looking forward to the next one.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Review: "One Knight Only" by Peter David

The return of King Arthur takes a dark turn in Peter David's latest novel "One Knight Only" ($23.95, Ace).

In his last Arthurian novel "Knight Life," David introduced us to Arthur Penn, the man once known as King Arthur, returned to our world in a time of need. In that book, Arthur was a plainspoken man who was steered into politics by his adviser Merlin and became mayor of New York.

Now, Arthur Penn is the president of the United States. But today's world isn't Camelot, and his presidency is a far cry from a happy one. Merlin has been taken from him, and his most loyal knight Percival has been given a position that requires him to be away from Arthur. (He is, after all, a questing knight at heart.)

A terrorist named Arnim Sandoval strikes from hiding in the country of Trans-Sabal. Two previous presidents have failed to capture or kill Sandoval, but Arthur vows to continue the fight despite the urgings of his advisers. But when Sandoval strikes close to home with an assassination attempt that puts his beloved Queen Gwen in danger, things change. Now, it gets personal.

I'm not really sure what to think of David's latest novel. "Knight Life" was a light-hearted book that poked fun at today's politics. "One Knight Only" has a much darker and more somber tone. While there are still a few laughs in the book, much of the humor is drained by the ominous events that may strike too close to home for some people.

"One Knight Only" is the second fantasy/science fiction novel I've read recently that used the events of Sept. 11 (or a thinly veiled version of them) as a central focus, and I'm not really sure how I feel about that. On one hand, fantasy has always been a bit of an escape to another world; on the other, both of the books were good ones.

Much as in "Knight Life," David uses his fictional tale as a vehicle to discuss current issues without beating his readers over the head with them. He offers some interesting takes on the current political situation, but manages to walk the line and never cross over into telling his readers what they should think.

The character of Arthur is engaging, though admittedly some of the other characters are a little more like window dressing. The book also has the usual cast of historic and mythological walk-ons, including an appearance by Gilgamesh. (Yes, that Gilgamesh.) Those add great fun to the story.

Despite the turn in tone between this book and the last, it's still a good read. In these two books, David has offered up one of the most intriguing and interesting takes on the Arthurian legends yet.

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Review: "The Pixel Eye" by Paul Levinson

The World Trade Center attacks make their way into science fiction with Paul Levinson's "The Pixel Eye" ($24.95, Tor).

The book is part of a series featuring Levinson's near-future NYPD forensic scientist Phil D'Amato. He serves in a world that is running scared from terrorism, and almost anything is suspicious. (Sound familiar, yet?)

D'Amato is called upon to investigate the disappearance and reappearance of squirrels around the city. He thinks it's a joke, until he uncovers secret research using hard-wired rats as spies. That puts questions in D'Amato's mind. Could the missing squirrels be part of a terrorist plot?

That question sends D'Amato spinning in a web of intrigue as he gets tangled up in a top secret Homeland Security project which may or may not give him his answer.

While science fiction usually deals with far-flung worlds, times and ideas, Levinson decides to take the genre in another direction. Though I haven't read the previous volumes in the Phil D'Amato series, "The Pixel Eye" is a very timely tale that reflects a lot of the things going on in today's world and a lot of the same issues that Americans are grappling with every single day.

As D'Amato is pulled further into the plots of the government, he's forced to confront the issue of freedom vs. security. It's one that's on a lot of people's minds these days.

The problem for Levinson may be that the subject matter outweighs the story. While in most detective-style mystery novels, the main attraction is the lead character, I don't really remember much about D'Amato. I do remember the thoughts the storyline sparked in my mind. That alone, makes it a book worth reading.

"The Pixel Eye," much like Orwell's "1984" and Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," presents a chilling vision of the future that hits way too close to home for comfort. Levinson's book is not quite as heavy as those two venerable volumes, but it touches on some of the same themes. It's not a book for escape from the problems of today's world, but rather one that will make you face them.

Though there are those readers who dismiss science fiction as escapist and less important than other literary works, books like "The Pixel Eye" defy that perception of the genre. Levinson's latest is a thought-provoking book that should be on anyone's reading list.

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Review: "Fluke" by Christopher Moore

I came late to the humor of Christopher Moore. I'd never heard of him when I picked up his last book "Lamb," and all I can say is better late than never.

"Lamb" was easily the funniest book I've read in years. It left me lying on the floor with tears of laughter in my eyes. So I was eager for Moore's latest, "Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sing" ($23.95, William Morrow).

Nathan Quinn is a biologist working out of Hawaii who is completely obsessed with discovering the reason that humpback whales sing. He's been in pursuit of that holy grail of science for years, but this season, things are about to change.

First, his crew gets two new members - a flirtatious assistant named Amy who isn't really what she seems and a wanna-be Rastafarian surfer-dude named Kona who is actually a middle-class white kid from New Jersey. Along with the salty photographer Clay, they make an odd science team, but then, this is odd science.

Nate's obsession deepens when he spots a whale with strange fluke markings. Though he's reluctant to tell anyone, he could swear the whale's tail had writing on it - the words "Bite Me." His search, and Kona's unwitting aid, bring him closer than ever to discovering the true message in the whale song, but there are forces in the sea that don't want him to find it. He's about to meet them face to face.

"Fluke" is not as laugh-out-loud funny as "Lamb," but it's a whole lot weirder. The story requires some serious suspension of disbelief, but if you can do that, it's great fun.

As with "Lamb," Moore's characters in "Fluke" are colorful and interesting. You want to continue reading the book just to get to know them a little better and figure out what makes them tick.

In addition to the light-hearted nature of the story, there's also some good information about whales and whale research. Moore doesn't beat readers over the head with it in the story, but dedicates serious space at the end of the book to the real issues.

Though not quite as strong as "Lamb," "Fluke" still provided me with plenty of chuckles and a few good belly laughs. I've been converted. I'll be reading Moore from now on.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Review: "The Wolves in the Walls" by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

When the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over.

No one's really sure why it's all over, or even what it is. But they all say it, so it has to be true, right?

The wolves do indeed come out in "The Wolves in the Walls" ($16.99, HarperCollins) the latest children's book from master fantasist Neil Gaiman.

When Lucy begins to hear scratchings and rustlings in the walls of her home, she knows the wolves have come. The problem is that no on in her family believes her. When she brings it up, they all think she has an overactive imagination, and they all tell her the same thing - "When the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over."

The book gets even more weird when the wolves do decide to come out. They take over the house, running Lucy and her family out. Lucy's parents and her brothers begin to consider all of the places they can move to get well away from the wolves, but Lucy doesn't want to live anywhere but her house. When she decides to go back in and confront the wolves, everyone gets a surprise.

I've been a fan of Gaiman since reading his "Sandman" comics in high school (and no, it's not about the guy from Spider-Man that can turn himself into sand.) He's one of the most inventive writers out there. "Good Omens," his collaboration with Terry Pratchett further reinforced that opinion, and his novels "Neverwhere," "Stardust" and "American Gods" are some of the best out there.

"The Wolves in the Walls" has the same kind of twisted humor you'll find in his other books, but the story remains light enough for young readers.

Artist Dave McKean worked on the "Sandman" books and also illustrated Gaiman's other children's books, "The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish" and "Coraline." His illustrations are the perfect match for this story - creepy, but whimsical at the same time.

While it's a picture book, it might be a bit too intense for very young children. There's no violence or anything really questionable that parents should be concerned about, but some of the wolf drawings might bring a bad dream or two to the truly young. Think of it as a more intense version of "Where the Wild Things Are."

In the end, though, as creepy as the story is and as scary as the wolves may be, little Lucy finds a way to triumph by using her wits. Despite his affection for the darker stories, Gaiman manages to show children that their nightmares aren't as bad as they think, and all you have to do is stand up to them. And he does it in a way that can provide an interesting diversion even for his adult fans.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

Review: "Something from the Nightside" by Simon R. Green

The opening of Simon Green's "Something From the Nightside" ($6.50, Ace) may seem very familiar to you.

It begins in a low-rent private eye's office. You can almost visualize the black and white screen, smoke rising from an ashtray as the stereotypical private eye voice gives you the rundown on his life in monotone. Then, the shadow of a shapely female form falls of the frosted glass window. Joanna Barrett enters. She's a rich, prim and proper looker whose daughter has run away from home. She's exhausted all other avenues, and the private eye, John Taylor, is her last hope.

That's where the familiarity ends, though. You see, Joanna's daughter is lost in a place called the Nightside, an area of London that can only be reached by magical means. It's home to any number of strange and unspeakable creatures, and many of the hidden monsters of our own world go there to act on their most base desires. Despite that, Taylor feels quite at home there. He was born there.

The rest of the book resembles a very twisted Harry Potter. Taylor was orphaned as an infant and raised by a string of caretakers who didn't really want anything to do with him. In our world, he's a nobody - a cheap private eye in the low-rent district. In the Nightside, he's something of a legend, but even he's not really sure why.

Despite the striking similarities, this isn't a kiddie tale. It's dark, macabre and often violent, but at the same time has a very tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. It's both an homage to and a send-up of the classic hard-boiled detective tales.

The supernatural detective story has grown into one of the most popular subgenres in fantasy, and despite my initial resistance, it's also grown into one of my favorites. Writers like Laurell K. Hamilton, Jim Butcher and Wm. Mark Simmons have all endeared me to the genre.

Like the hard-boiled subgenre of mystery, the stories are very similar to each other, but unlike mystery, fantasy writers have a lot more to work with and a lot more leeway from readers to do things in a different way. That creates a situation where writers can put a wicked twist on the story.

Green does just that in "Something From the Nightside." His Nightside brings to mind the London underworld of Neil Gaiman's excellent "Neverwhere." But where the characters that populated Gaiman's world were a bit like twisted fairy tale figures, Green's are closer to silver screen action heroes and horror monsters. The approach is perhaps not as refined as Gaiman's, but just as much fun.

The mark of any good detective novel is whether or not readers buy into the private eye and want to read more stories about the character. That being the case, Green succeeds here. I'd love to visit the Nightside again.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Review: "White Wolf" by David Gemmell

One thing I've always loved about David Gemmell is that he doesn't rest his career on the strength of one character.

While some fantasy writers create a hero that fans love and ride him into the ground, Gemmell rarely spends much time with each character, instead preferring to look at the big picture of his worlds.

He was even able to tell the tale of one of his most fascinating characters - the Jerusalem Man, Jon Shannow - in three books.

That said, there's one character that Gemmell can't resist returning to, a fan favorite - the axman, Druss the Legend. He goes to the well once again in "White Wolf" ($24.95, Del Rey), and there's still plenty of water to be found.

True to form, though, the novel is less about Druss, and more about the people around him. The Legend doesn't even appear until the book is almost a quarter of the way over. Instead, we're introduced to Skilgannon the Damned, a famed and vicious Naashanite warrior who, regretting some of the horrific acts he was commanded to perform, has fled his homeland and sought refuge in a monastery.

Then, there's Rabalyn, a young boy from the village near the monastery, who is known as a bit of a ne'er-do-well, but has taken a liking for a teacher from the monastery.

Things go badly for both of them when hard times begin to impact the town and sentiment turns against the priests.

When one of the brothers is attacked, Rabalyn defends him from the town bully, who also happens to be the son of the town's mayor. Angered that he has been thwarted by Rabalyn, the bully sets fire to the boy's home, killing his grandmother. In his rage Rabalyn exacts his revenge in front of the entire town, including the boy's father.

Seizing the opportunity to resolve a debt the city owes the church, the mayor claims the boy is being sheltered there and leads a mob of townspeople to get him. When they attack, Skilgannon's true nature comes out, and while he saves the priests from destruction, he finds himself cast out.

As Skilgannon and Rabalyn set out to find their futures, a chance meeting with Druss changes the course of their lives - and possibly the future of the lands of Drenai as well.

Give Gemmell a tortured and haunted hero, and he's in his element. All of his most fascinating creations - Shannow, Druss and now Skilgannon - share that characteristic, and he handles the brooding, troubled type well.

At the same time, Gemmell's heroes are much more accessible than most. They're a down-to-earth sort.

I can easily imagine sitting around having a beer and trading stories with Druss (I imagine him as a larger, quite congenial version of Sean Connery.) In fact, the picture of Druss is so strong, you can almost hear his voice as you read the words on the page.

Gemmell is one of the best fantasy writers going these days, and I'm glad to see that his work is catching on with the American audience. Here's to many more great tales to come.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Review: "Sound of the Beast" by Ian Christe

"Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal" by Ian Christe ($24.95, HarperCollins) chronicles the rise of heavy metal from Black Sabbath through the nu metal movement of today.

While the book may draw the criticism of some who would argue that Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix were the originators of metal, once it gets past that, there are few who will argue with the rest.

Plenty has been written about Zeppelin and Hendrix, and I'd venture to say there are few metal fans that aren't familiar with those artists and the profound effect they had on the music that would become heavy metal.

But being firmly entrenched in the Black Sabbath camp, I can find very few faults with Christe's account of the music I love.

The book begins with the Sabbath story and traces the music through the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

From there, Christe picks up the story of Metallica. At first, I was a little disappointed in his treatment beyond that. He spends a great deal of time on the rise of the Bay Area Thrashers - even more than on Sabbath.

On second thought, though, I had to admit that few bands have had a greater impact on the music than Metallica.

Christe offers nods to all of the other influential bands, though he doesn't spend as much time with them.

He also drags out some obscure bands that made a contribution - even a couple that I wasn't familiar with.

If the book has one fault, it is that Christe is a fan - and obviously so. If you're looking for an objective portrait of the music, look elsewhere.

He wears his likes and dislikes on his sleeve, and it's easy to tell who his favorite bands are.

At the same time, it's Christe's passion for heavy metal that really makes the book sing - or, in this case I suppose, scream.

I'd much rather read a stirring account like this from a fan that I occasionally disagree with than a rote recitation of the lineage of metal from some music historian who could care less.

Christe also incorporates lists of essential recordings at various points in the book. I disagree with a lot of them, particularly the overall list, but that's part of the beauty of those kinds of lists.

They get fans talking, opening up a dialogue that may lead people to something they've never heard before.

As a fan, it seems foolhardy to me to attempt to sum up the entire heavy metal experience in less than 400 pages. It just can't be done. But with "Sound of the Beast," Christe has done it as well as I think is really possible.

Friday, July 04, 2003

Movie review: "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines"

I'll admit it. I'm a sucker for a Schwarzenegger action flick. I have been ever since I saw his portrayal of Conan the Barbarian in the early 1980s.

Whether Ah-nuld's swinging a sword at a giant snake that used to be James Earl Jones, tracking down the baddies who kidnapped his daughter or unloading a machine gun on an invisible alien, I've probably seen them all and enjoyed quite a few of them them in a mindless sort of way. (His attempts at comedy are another story altogether.)

That being said, I was still a little leery of a James Cameron-less Terminator movie. But relatively unknown director Jonathan Mostow has done a good job with the third installment.

Ah-nuld is back as the character that turned him into a major action star, and he's been sent through time once again to save John Connor (Nick Stahl) from a new Terminator model that's here to kill him. Sound familiar? If you've seen 1991's "T2: Judgment Day," it should. Still, it's deftly handled, and there's also a nice twist at the end that I won't give away here.

John Connor is now an adult. Judgment Day has been averted thanks to the efforts of Ah-nuld, John and Sarah Connor in "T2," but John's still not convinced that the battle is over. He has no ties to anything that can mark him. He's invisible. Of course, that doesn't stop the new T-X, played to the hilt by Kristanna Loken, from tracking him down. The T-X is actually after his future wife and first lieutenant in the coming war, Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), but she stumbles onto both of them after Kate catches John breaking into the veterinary clinic where she works.

As usual, Ah-nuld arrives right on schedule to whisk the pair out of danger. They then lead the T-X on a merry chase to find Brewster's father - who is in charge of the revamped Skynet program which will bring about Judgment Day - and keep him from sending the system online to fight a virus that seems to be taking over all the computer systems in the world.

As with most action movies, you have to leave logic and reason at the door when you go into the theater. You can't wonder about how the T-X gets buried in the rubble of a wall early in the movie and emerges not only unscathed but without even getting her clothes dirty, but then later in the movie gets buried and emerges without skin or legs. If you stop to consider things like how Kate, John and Ah-nuld get into a top secret government building without being noticed, you'll drive yourself crazy. If you forget about it, shovel some more popcorn into your mouth and enjoy the ride, it's a great summertime movie.

That's another way this movie reflects "T2." It's pure special effects and action fun. While the original "Terminator" was a dark, brooding movie. This one's an excuse for chases, explosions, cool effects and rapid-fire one-liners from Ah-nuld. In fact, I'd venture to say that at least half the fun of a "Terminator" movie is seeing Schwarzenegger deadpan lines as a robot, erm, I mean cybernetic organism. Think of how many have entered the pop culture lexicon - "Hasta la vista, baby," "I'll be back."

You expect the special effects to be great in "T3," and for the most part, they're impressive. Perhaps not as groundbreaking as "T2," but certainly more polished due to advancements in the technology. The T-X character is also an interesting development. The robot skeleton gets a new look and this time, it's covered with a morphing metal that allows it to change into anything it touches. Then there's the handy dandy arm attachment that turns into whatever tool or weapon it needs.

Loken does a remarkable imitation of Schwarzenegger's original character as she stalks across the screen showing no trace of emotion or humanity. It's also kind of fun to watch a 100-pound woman tossing Ah-nuld around like a rag doll.

Outside of one chase scene that goes on far longer than it probably should, and the "I'll be back" jokes that get a little stale by the end of the movie, "T3" is a well-done and entertaining joyride. It's just what you expect from a summer movie, and exactly what you hope for (but don't always get) from a Schwarzenegger flick.

Sunday, June 29, 2003

Review: "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" by J.K. Rowling

The cover of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" ($29.99, Scholastic) lets the reader know exactly what to expect inside. It's a dark cover - black and deep shades of blue - appropriate for the troubled state of mind Harry's entering in the fifth volume of J.K. Rowling's series.

Those middle teen years are bad enough for most people, but when you've got an evil wizard plotting to kill you, they're much, much worse. That's what Harry is finding out in "Order of the Phoenix." The problem is, no one seems to believe him. The Ministry of Magic is officially denying the return of You-Know-Who, and with the exception of a few of his friends and teachers, most in the wizarding community consider Harry's story the tall tales of an attention-seeking teenager.

Harry is also dealing with one of the toughest years of school at Hogwarts. The O.W.L. achievement tests, which will likely determine the path of his wizarding life, are coming up. He's dealing with yet another Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (one who has her own agenda and rivals Snape for sheer malice). Dumbledore seems to be ignoring Harry, Hagrid is missing in action and Sirius is stuck in London in hiding. Add to that a love interest and a particularly nasty house elf (sort of the anti-Dobby), and Harry's an emotional wreck - but he's still got to deal with the return of Lord Voldemort.

I was worried when it was announced that "Order of the Phoenix" would be nearly 900 pages long. "Goblet of Fire," the fourth book in the series, wasn't even that long and it felt uneven and padded in places. But all of the problems of that book have vanished just like Harry's fouled-up potions in Professor Snape's class. "Order of the Phoenix" easily justifies its length and then some.

There's no lengthy recap of what's happened before, just a headlong sprint into the action that takes the reader all the way to the finish line.

For adult readers, "Order of the Phoenix" is perhaps the most satisfying of the five books so far. There's an emotional depth that hasn't been present in the previous novels. Adults who have been there and teens who are currently going through that phase of life will easily relate to Harry's struggles. They're something everyone's been through - even those of us who didn't have a dark wizard trying to kill us.

Some of the subjects may be a little heavy for readers on the younger end of the spectrum, but they can still enjoy the whiz-bang action and engaging characters that have become Rowling's signature.

The ability to evoke strong emotions in a novel is becoming a rarer and rarer commodity. I love a book that can make me cheer for the good guys and absolutely despise the baddies. As with most of Rowling's work, I did both with this book.

Though "Order of the Phoenix" took three years to arrive, it was well worth the wait. It's obvious that Rowling spent that time focusing on quality, and she has delivered the best installment of the series so far.


Sunday, June 15, 2003

Review: "People of the Owl" by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear

Thousands of people visit Poverty Point in northeastern Louisiana every year, but no one's ever seen it in quite the way Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear present it in their latest book, "People of the Owl" ($25.95, Forge).

The book is the latest installment of the Gears' "People" series, which chronicles the prehistory of North America through fiction. In the novel, the familiar Poverty Point is transformed into a thriving hub of Native American life called Sun Town by its inhabitants.

We're introduced to six distinct clans that live in the different sections of the city. For years, the Owl Clan has held the reins of power in the matriarchal city, but the reign is coming to an end.

Wing Heart is the last female of her line but determined to hang on to her power. When her brother dies, she has to rely on her sons to perform the duties of Speaker. Her eldest son, White Bird, is perfect for the role. He's daring and heroic and has just returned from an amazingly successful trading journey far to the north. The other son is less likely to offer any assistance. At 15, Mud Puppy is a dreamer who seems a little slow-witted to most people.

When things go wrong, though, Mud Puppy, now known as Salamander, is thrust into the role of leader with all the political machinations and intrigue that go along with it.

Even though I've visited the Poverty Point site a number of times, the Gears were able to transform it into a new place for me, a much more vibrant place. Several of the ideas they presented in "People of the Owl" were intriguing to me.

One of the biggest battles the Gears say they face is against Native American stereotypes, and I understand that statement a little better after reading the book. There's a tendency to think of Native Americans as the warlike savages of the old Westerns or as an idyllic grand, noble and wise race.

There were certain elements of the book, such as the political backstabbing and intrigue, that I initially had trouble accepting. But the more I read, those things began to make sense. After all, we're not talking about mythical creatures, but people with all of the same virtues and vices that people have always had.

Though the people and events in the book were obviously fictional, I had the feeling that they could have been real. It also helps if you're familiar with the site and can visualize things more vividly than someone who hasn't been there.

It's been a few years since I visited Poverty Point, but after reading "People of the Owl," I'm ready to go back to perhaps sit at the top of the bird mound where Mud Puppy found his spirit guide or imagine the buildings of Sun Town sitting on the ridges.

With "People of the Owl," the Gears have accomplished what they intended. The book delivers what any novel should - an exciting, intriguing story with believable characters the reader can care about. But at the same time, by the end, I felt I understood the original inhabitants of Poverty Point just a little better.

Interview: Kathleen O'Neal Gear

Anyone who has ever visited Poverty Point has probably wondered what life was like at the site 3,500 years ago, but archaeologists Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear took it one step further.

Their latest book, "People of the Owl," is set right here in our back yard and tells a fictional tale of a time of tribulation for the tribes that lived there. It's the 11th book in their series, commonly called the "People" books, that uses fiction to teach about Native American cultures.

"What we are doing in the novels is detailing 15,000 years of North American prehistory," Michael Gear said. "The important thing about doing a novel is that you can put real people there in that time. People can relate to fictional characters in a story better than they can to dry facts in an archaeological report."

Kathleen Gear agreed that fiction can make a powerful teaching tool.

"What we try to do is entertain at the same time we educate about North America's archaeology," she said. "If we have done our jobs well at the end of the book, the people who read this novel will understand Poverty Point culture because they have lived in that time, in that place, with those people."

The Gears said they began writing the series because they thought Americans' knowledge of the continent's past was woefully lacking. With 16 million copies of the books in print worldwide, the Gears may be making some headway in their battle. They're surprised by the popularity of the series, which has now been translated into 18 languages, but they say they still have a long way to go.

"More Americans can name archaeological sites in Cambodia than in their own country," Michael Gear said. "In a sense, it's the world's lost heritage. We don't think of North America as being a lost continent, but its prehistory certainly is."

During their research for "People of the Owl," the Gears went to great lengths to find out all they could about Poverty Point. They spoke with local and national experts, analyzed the archaeological reports and used an ethnographic analogy, which means they studied the social, political and religious structures of other tribes in the region and tried to fill in gaps in the archaeological record.

"Archaeological data is like a shredded black and white photograph," said Kathleen Gear. "We piece it back together as best we can, but there are huge gaps in the information. At the Poverty Point site, for example, only one-half of 1 percent of the site has actually been excavated."

With so little to go on, the Gears say it's tough to try to give an accurate portrayal of what life might have been like at the site. But they do try to back everything in the book up with facts.

"Everything that we speculate on in the book is something that we can support to our academic colleagues," Michael Gear said.

As an example, he points to the fact that there are six clans in the book. The idea is based on geography and culture. He said the layout of the city itself indicates that there were six divisions, and the cultures that are descended from Poverty Point all hold the number six sacred.

One of the things the Gears most enjoyed about the study of Poverty Point was doing research on the Poverty Point objects, which are the clay objects the natives used to regulate the temperature of their ovens.

"We did a study to find out what they were cooking in the earth ovens, and there were a couple of things in there that are still a mystery to us," Kathleen Gear said. "We found spruce cells and sage. There isn't spruce for miles, and the closest sage is in southern Missouri. They must have been importing these things, and we're still not sure what they were using them for."

The Gears say they find Poverty Point fascinating for a variety of reason, the biggest being that it could be the first city in America. Michael Gear points to the massive moundworks, the population of the Macon Bayou area in general and evidence of trade with tribes as far away as current-day Wisconsin.

"We think that we're justified in making the assertion that it's America's first city," he said. "We think that Poverty Point is where a lot of the ideas came together which would create the eastern culture which would terminate in people like the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Tunica, Caddo and Cherokee. It's the place where everything starts."

As for the Gears, they'll keep writing the "People" books, and they have plenty of cultures left to explore.

"All that we've done so far is touch - just barely touch - the most important cultures in North America," Kathleen Gear said. "There are thousands of cultures left to study. We've only surveyed about 4 percent of North America for archaeological sites, which means there is an extraordinary amount out there that we still don't know."

Sunday, June 01, 2003

Review: "Club Dead" by Charlaine Harris

A lot of folks might roll their eyes at the mention of a vampire story, but when it happens in your own back yard, it's a different matter. In "Club Dead" ($6.50, Ace Books), Charlaine Harris returns to the fictional northern Louisiana town of Bon Temps and her heroine Sookie Stackhouse.

This time, Sookie's vampire boyfriend Bill Compton disappears while on a secret mission from the vampire queen of Louisiana, who has sent him to treat with the Mississippi faction. The Louisiana vampires can't risk a war with Mississippi by moving openly to find him, so that leaves it up to Sookie and her guide, a suave werewolf named Alcide Herveaux.

But Sookie isn't sure she really wants to find Bill. She's discovered that at least part of the reason he went to Jackson was to meet a former lover, another vampire. In fact, Sookie's not entirely sure that Bill even wants to be found.

Before you roll your eyes at the plotline, know that this isn't your typical vampire novel. If you're imagining a redneck Lestat, think again. Harris' vampires are rougher and less refined than Rice's, and these books don't take themselves too seriously. Unlike many vampire novels with dark, gothic moods, these books are intended to be fun - and they are. Quite a lot of fun, in fact.

While the town of Bon Temps is fictional, there are plenty of local landmarks for readers to associate with. During the course of the stories, action happens in Shreveport, Jackson, Ruston and even right here in Monroe.

Harris, who lives in Magnolia, Ark., is also able to capture the character of our area pretty well. While I did groan at a few stereotypical characterizations, I also had to admit that for the most part, she gets it right.

As an added bonus in "Club Dead," Harris offers a possible explanation for quite a few tabloid stories in the character of Bubba. I won't reveal the secret. I'll leave that to the reader to find out, but it's an original idea that had me rolling with laughter.

"Club Dead" is the third in Harris' "Southern Vampire" series, and it's just as lively and entertaining as the first two. They're part horror and part mystery with a healthy dose of biting (pardon the pun) humor.

If you're looking for darkened corners, melodramatic images and dialogue and "proper" vampires, I'd suggest you find them somewhere else. If you're looking for a fun supernatural romp across a Southern landscape, you won't do much better than Harris' books.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

Review: "Mojo: Conjure Stories" by Nalo Hopkinson

When she emerged on the scene through the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest a few years ago, Nalo Hopkinson was hailed as a breath of fresh air in the science fiction and fantasy world. Her first two novels "Brown Girl in the Ring" and "Midnight Robber" and a short story collection "Skin Folk" have earned awards and critical acclaim.

Now Hopkinson tries her hand at editing with the collection "Mojo: Conjure Stories" ($13.95, Warner Aspect.) The good news is that she's just as adept at choosing stories as writing them.

The 19 stories in "Mojo," all focus on the spiritual and magical beliefs of western Africa, the source of the term mojo and much of what it stands for. The book contains a nice mix of well-known authors (Neil Gaiman, Tananarive Due, Barbara Hambly) and relative unknowns who have stories to tell that are just as good, or sometimes better, than their more popular counterparts.

The collection takes the reader on a ride through time from the days of plantations to the present. It also offers insights into a culture that has been largely overlooked and a belief system that has been lost to most of the world.

While many people are aware of these traditions, their knowledge goes no farther than the storied voodoo doll (a stereotypical symbol which "Mojo" happily avoids). While the tales in the book are mostly fantasy and horror, they still manage to break down the image of the wild-eyed old woman sticking needles into a doll.

One of the most haunting stories in the book is "Fate" by Jenise Aminoff, in which a mother has a premonition that her son is about to die. To keep him with her a little longer, she invokes the power of a tricky spirit, which, of course, turns out to be not a very good idea.

The voices in "Mojo" are another real treat. A particular favorite of mine is Andy Duncan's "Daddy Mention and the Monday Skull." A wanderer relates the story of the legendary convict Daddy Mention who, after hearing a musical group formed by prisoners on the radio, tricks a malevolent swamp spirit into giving him singing abilities so he can get out of prison. He gets his wish, with one catch - his singing voice only works on Mondays, the same day the spirit may emerge from the swamp and exact its revenge.

For all its magical leanings, "Mojo" also has appeal to readers of mainstream fiction. Many of the stories tackle real-world issues, and there's also much humor to be found.

The only bad thing about this book is that it didn't include a story by Hopkinson herself. All in all, this is a collection with some powerful mojo.

Sunday, April 27, 2003

Review: "A Clash of Kings" by George R.R. Martin

In general, books that have the audacity to pronounce themselves "The Fantasy Novel of the Year" on the cover, fall far short of that lofty title. Occasionally, there are exceptions, though. One such came a few years ago, George R.R. Martin's "A Game of Thrones," the debut novel in his "Song of Ice and Fire" series.

At first I scoffed at the title, but Martin's work quickly convinced me.

The book introduced us to a land in turmoil. The ruler of the Seven Kingdoms has been slain and seemingly all of the royal families have a connection to the throne - and each one intends to stake its claim, often brutally. It's a world descending into chaos, with the ominous and ever-present threat in the motto of the Stark family - "Winter is coming." Indeed, a bleak and icy winter from the looks of things.

The two successive volumes, "A Clash of Kings" and the latest, "A Storm of Swords" ($7.99, Bantam Spectra) have built on that story, adding layers of intrigue, action and suspense.

Of the three ambitious, sweeping fantasy epics that came out of the 1990s - Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time," Terry Goodkind's "Sword of Truth" and "A Song of Ice and Fire" - only Martin's continues to achieve the same quality found in the first installment.

Jordan's story has gotten bogged down in near endless subplots that have made the past few volumes practically unreadable. Goodkind's series seems to have lost steam, with many of the story lines seeming contrived just to keep the tale of Richard and Kahlan alive. With his series, Martin has managed to avoid those pitfalls.

Martin has kept a firm focus on the primary storyline of his series. While his story is just as complex as Jordan's, with almost as many subplots, Martin weaves them into a seamless whole that advances the main story at all times.

Though Martin does a lot of head-hopping, dropping in regularly on the numerous characters of the books, he also manages to keep the flow. The drastic shifts are not jarring to the reader, but rather segue smoothly into each other.

The books feature powerful characters - both the kind you want to cheer for and the kind you love to hate. But they're also not all cut-and-dried, good or evil. The shades of gray that exist in real-life are very apparent in Martin's work, and his world is much richer for it.

With any luck, the fourth volume of the series, "A Feast for Crows" will be out in hardcover before the end of the year, but nothing is guaranteed, as Martin is still writing it. As anxious as I am to get my hands on it, I hope he takes his time. I'll wait a few extra months for continued quality.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Review: "Sometimes the Magic Works" by Terry Brooks

Terry Brooks knows a little something about magic. His "Shannara" series has introduced millions of readers to fantasy fiction. Now, in "Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life" ($22.95, Del Rey), Brooks attempts to share the knowledge gained from his success with other would-be writers.

Much like Stephen King's excellent "On Writing" of a couple of years ago, Brooks' book looks at publishing through his own experiences. He illustrates some of the pitfalls and pratfalls of the writing life, and through those stories imparts wisdom to those who hope to follow in his footsteps.

Brooks begins by offering a moving tribute to the people who gave a young writer of Tolkienesque fiction a chance, one of fantasy's most influential couples, Lester and Judi Del Rey. Without the Del Reys, as Brooks points out, there may not be a market for fantasy fiction today.

From there, Brooks covers everything from the incredible success of his first book "The Sword of Shannara," which was the first work of fiction to top the New York Times best-seller list, to the disappointing sales of his attempts to break out of the "Shannara" world 20 years later. He shows aspiring writers that even the most successful fall down sometimes.

One of the most interesting stories in the book deals with his work on movie adaptations. Brooks recounts a nightmarish experience while writing the adaptation of "Hook," in which he was not allowed to see sets, costumes or even talk to key figures involved in the film. He tells of major rewrites as the script of the movie seemed to change on a whim and vowing to never again write a movie adaptation.

Then, of course, came the call from George Lucas, who wanted Brooks to write the novelizaton of "Episode I: The Phantom Menace." Unlike the experience with the former film, Lucas welcomed Brooks into the inner workings of the movie, and even allowed him to change things and write scenes that didn't appear in the big screen version.

Brooks dispels the myths of glamour and fame that some people have about writers when he speaks of book signings where no one shows up. He also tackles the belief that once you write a best-seller, you're set in the publishing world when he talks about having to throw out 375 pages of his second novel and start over from scratch.

Actually, the only place the book gets bogged down is when Brooks begins to discuss tips and techniques. He offers some good advice for aspiring authors, but those two chapters seem to really interrupt the flow of the book.

Besides, the real learning in this book comes not from rote recital of technique, but from watching the progression of Brooks' life. The outlining and characterization is not as important as learning that even a perennial best-seller like Brooks still has frustrations, disappointments and challenges.

In the end, Brooks succinctly captures the spirit of the entire book in two pages. Really, in one line: "If you don't think there is magic in writing, you probably won't write anything magical."

Ultimately, though, the true test of any book on writing is whether or not it inspires. In that, Brooks' book passes with flying colors. In this volume, Brooks' deep love of writing is apparent, as is his appreciation of the talents and success he's been given. That spirit is infectious and should drive any young writer back to the keyboard.

Sunday, March 30, 2003

Review: "The Thief Lord" by Cornelia Funke

Over the past couple of years, I think I've seen the words "the next `Harry Potter'" hundreds of times. The phrase is used so often that it's become a cliché.

Still, I've read most of the books that make that claim, and while some were very good reads, none really came close to living up to the billing. I expected a similar reaction to Cornelia Funke's "The Thief Lord" ($16.95, The Chicken House/Scholastic Inc.).

I was surprised to find that, while reading this book, I did think of the boy wizard. "The Thief Lord" captures that same spirit of adventure and sense of wonder that I found in the first "Potter" novel.

After their mother's death, Prosper, 12, and Bo, 5, flee their native Hamburg, Germany, for Venice - a city their mother has often described to them as a magical place. The orphans are running from their aunt and uncle, the totally unlikeable Hartliebs, who only want to adopt Bo and want to send Prosper away to boarding school. ("We'll get Bo a dog and see just how quickly he forgets his brother," snips Esther Hartlieb, when asked about separating the siblings.)

Once in Venice, though, the young brothers have to find a way to support themselves. They're taken in by a group of orphans that live in an abandoned movie theater and are led by Scipio, who calls himself "The Thief Lord." While Prosper has some concerns about Scipio's nefarious activities, their friend has taken care of them well. He breaks into some of the richest houses in town, and they fence the goods to a less-than-reputable merchant.

But that's about to change. The Thief Lord has just been offered a job that will allow all of them to give up thievery.

When the Hartliebs track the brothers to Venice, they hire a detective to find the children. In the course of his investigation, he uncovers a secret that suggests Scipio's exploits are not quite as daring and his life is not quite as adventurous as he claims. This drives a wedge between the other orphans and their one-time leader, but when they attempt the heist without Scipio, they get more than they bargained for - and all the adventure they'd ever want.

While "The Thief Lord" is - at its heart - a fantasy, it's not the kind of witches and wizards fantasy of the "Potter" series. In truth, aside from the unpleasant aunt and uncle, it bears little resemblance to J.K. Rowling's books. It's actually more akin to Dickens.

In spirit, it's a blend of "Oliver Twist" and "Harry Potter," with a dash of "Something Wicked This Way Comes" thrown in for good measure.

For parents who are worried that the book may glorify theft, it's no worse than Dickens' classic. As we read of Scipio's supposed exploits in the beginning, perhaps it does a bit. But as the story unfolds, the children in the tale begin to understand that dishonesty doesn't pay. But Funke isn't heavy-handed with the moral of the story, either.

"The Thief Lord" is one of those rare books that can take a child on a rollicking good adventure or take an adult back to the days when he longed for that same adventure. Just this once, perhaps, dubbing it "the next Harry Potter" isn't overkill.

Sunday, March 16, 2003

Review: "Golden Fool" by Robin Hobb

Often the second book in a trilogy is the hardest to slog through. In most cases, trilogies start with a bang and end with a bang, and the middle book is just a bridge between the two. But that's not the case with Robin Hobb's "Golden Fool" ($24.95, Bantam Spectra). If anything, "Golden Fool" is more dynamic and engaging than its predecessor, last year's "Fools Errand."

FitzChivalry Farseer, the illegitimate heir to the throne of the Six Duchies, is believed by most - even his own daughter and her mother - to be dead. But now, Fitz has been thrown back into a world he thought he'd left behind, the courtly intrigue of Buckkeep.

Fitz - masquerading as Tom Badgerlock, servant of Lord Golden - finds himself walking the same secret paths he walked as an apprentice assassin so many years ago and again reporting his findings to his former master Chade Fallstar. He has been asked to teach Prince Dutiful the Skill magic of the Farseer line - an art Fitz knows precious little about himself - and also to teach the prince to control the feared and reviled Wit magic. On top of all of this, he still grieves for the death of Nighteyes, the wolf he was bonded to for so many years, and his adopted son Hap has been caught up in city life and is straying down the wrong path.

Dutiful has been betrothed to an Outislander princess in an effort to make peace with the longtime enemies of the Six Duchies, but the princess' party holds some interesting secrets. At the same time, a strange delegation from Bingtown makes things even more interesting.

Then there's always the issue of the Wit magic. While Kettricken has declared the execution of the Witted illegal, it still continues in some areas. A militant faction of the Witted that call themselves the Piebalds continues to threaten the queen. What's worse, the Piebalds may know two dangerous secrets: that FitzChivalry Farseer still lives and that Dutiful possesses the Wit.

If that sounds like there's a lot going on, well, there is. But Hobb handles it masterfully, just as she always has.

Hobb's "Farseer" trilogy of a few years ago easily ranks among the best fantasy works of the past decade, and "The Tawny Man" is shaping up to be every bit as good.

Hobb is a master of manipulating human emotion. Her characters, particularly Fitz, work so well because it's easy to relate to them. Many of his problems arise from situations the average person has been through (always saying the wrong thing, misjudging others, having everything you do go awry), and you can easily put yourself in his shoes. At times, you want to jump into his head at critical moments so you can help him make the right decision for once.

Just for the record, I do miss Nighteyes. Despite the focus on Fitz in the "Farseer" trilogy, Nighteyes was always the real star in my view. But the loss of the wolf plays into the storyline well, allowing the reader to feel the void left by Nighteyes almost as keenly as Fitz himself does.

It's rare these days that a book keeps me turning pages well past the time I know I should put it down and turn in for the night, but this one did. "Golden Fool" proves again that Hobb is one of the best in the business.


Sunday, March 02, 2003

Review: "The Briar King" by Greg Keyes

Greg Keyes' latest book "The Briar King" ($24.95, Del Rey) is just the kind I love - and the kind I've come to dread.

It's a complex story with a number of different threads and some nice twists and turns - epic fantasy at its best. Keyes has promised a four-book cycle, and that's what worries me. These days, the number of promised books tends to grow with the success of the series - witness Robert Jordan's unending mess of a story. And judging by the first installment, this should be a very popular tale. If Keyes can deliver in four books, though, this series, called "Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone," could be one of the best I've come across in several years.

"The Briar King" takes on one of the great mysteries of American history - the lost colony of Roanoke Island. In 1587, more than 100 English colonists settled on the island, the first English settlement in America. Within three years, the colony had vanished without a trace, leaving only the word "Croatoan" carved in a tree.

In this book, Keyes speculates that the colonists were transported to a new world - in the most real sense of the word. There they were enslaved by creatures known as the Skasloi until Virginia Dare (if you've studied the Roanoke Colony, you'll know she was the first English child born in America) led the people in an uprising against their oppressors. But in order to free her people, Dare invoked a power more ancient and dangerous than the Skasloi. Now, generations later, her descendants may have to pay the ultimate price for their freedom. The legendary Briar King, a creature of myth and fable, has awakened to the world.

While "The Briar King" starts a little slow, laying the foundation of the story, about halfway through the action picks up. From there it's a thrill ride to the end with plenty of treachery, revelation and even a few bombshell surprises.

In truth, most of Keyes' characters are fantasy standards - the low-born warrior who gains knighthood through an act of valor, the headstrong (and a bit spoiled) princess who vows to marry for love and not duty, the grizzled woodsman, the foppish swordsman who is about to meet his match, the young monk who is learning that the church isn't as holy as he thought. Fantasy fans have read about these characters a dozen times in a dozen different books, but Keyes manages to take the basic archetypes and breathe new life into them.

He also has a deft hand at weaving together seemingly unconnected threads to form a bigger story, and his cliffhanger style of ending chapters keeps the reader hanging on and wanting to know what happens next. In those ways, "The Briar King" reminds me a great deal of George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series. That's not to say it's a knock-off, but rather a story as well-crafted and intriguing as Martin's. "The Briar King" offers one of the most promising starts I've seen since Martin's "A Game of Thrones." I hope the follow-up is as good.

Sunday, February 16, 2003

Review: "Crossroads of Twilight" by Robert Jordan

Poor gullible me.

Upon finishing Robert Jordan's last book, I threw it across the room and swore I'd never read another volume of "The Wheel of Time." But when "Crossroads of Twilight" ($29.95, Tor) hit shelves last month, I felt like there was some unfinished business between myself and Mr. Jordan. After all, I've spent more than a decade with this series and invested my time into reading the nearly 10,000 pages so far. I really wanted to see how everything turns out. Against my better judgment, I borrowed a copy.

I'd love to offer a plot summary here, but I can't. There isn't one. In fact, the main story of "The Wheel of Time" hasn't moved forward a single inch in four books and nearly 4,000 pages. "Crossroads of Twilight" again gets bogged down in Jordan's out-of-control subplots. The series has turned into a gigantic soap opera, but instead of getting snippets of the myriad subplots daily, Jordan's fans have to wait 1-2 years between installments.

I like complex stories as much as the next reader, but there's a point where complex crosses the line into confounding. Jordan has created so many forks in the road that he can spend precious little time with any of them in nearly 700 pages. I had hoped he'd begin to tie up some of those loose ends in the tenth volume, but no such luck. I believe the truth is that Jordan doesn't have any idea how the story is going to end. I get the feeling he's just buying time until he figures it out.

This is all the more frustrating because the series had such promise. Back when I first picked up "Eye of the World" in the early 1990s, I thought it was the best thing since Tolkien. It was a well-written, intriguing opening to what was supposed to be a five or seven book series. Now, the estimate is 13, but based on the pace of the last four, I'd say that's a generous estimate. At this rate, it may never end.

Once again, Jordan has topped the best seller list, so apparently someone is still interested, but "Crossroads" was one of the most disappointing reads I've ever forced myself through - even worse than I expected. If you haven't picked it up yet, you won't miss much by skipping it and waiting for the next one.

I can only hope that one day someone releases an abridged version that boils the good parts of the story down to that five or seven book series. I'd really like to find out how things turn out, but I don't think I can make it through another volume like "Crossroads."

The only good thing I can say about this book is at least I didn't spend any money on it this time.