Sunday, December 31, 2000

Review: "The Truth" by Terry Pratchett

"The truth shall make ye fret."

Misprint or not, a lot of people in the city of Ankh-Morpork are learning that statement is accurate. In Terry Pratchett's "The Truth" (HarperCollins), the Discworld's largest city has gotten its first newspaper, and it's shaking things up.

William de Worde writes a newsletter for a few select clients when he runs into - or rather, is run over by - a group of dwarves who claim they have discovered how to turn lead into gold. They're not lying. They've invented moveable type, and de Worde's life is about to change.

Meanwhile, the Patrician has been imprisoned for murder, but de Worde doesn't think the facts add up. So, he embarks on the Discworld's first investigative report. Along the way, de Worde has to tangle with a competing tabloid-style publication, a couple of very unique professional hit men, the city watch and even his own father.

"The Truth" is Pratchett's 25th foray into the Discworld and goes a long way toward re-establishing his status as the king of comic fantasy.

After a number of disappointing and unfunny books like "Jingo" and "The Last Continent," Pratchett's last two offerings - "The Fifth Elephant" and "The Truth" - have re-invigorated the series with the same satire and sharp parody that his devoted readers have come to expect.

A former journalist, Pratchett has a remarkable grasp of how the newspaper business really works, and he uses that to great comic effect in "The Truth." Fantasy or not, the book does paint a fairly accurate portrait of the day-to-day life of a journalist.

This book also offers something the Discworld has needed for the past few years - new faces. Long-time fans may be disappointed in the change, preferring to read more tales about old friends like Rincewind the Wizzard, Granny Weatherwax and Sam Vimes and the city watch. But, despite recent successes featuring Sam Vimes ("The Fifth Elephant") and Granny Weatherwax ("Carpe Jugulum"), it seems these characters may be running out of stories.

While favorite characters from past Discworld novels - like Vimes, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Foul Ole Ron, Gaspode the Talking Dog and, of course, Death - do pop up in "The Truth," the spotlight is on new characters. And some of them are quite entertaining.

De Worde, the son of a rich Ankh-Morpork socialite, wants to prove that he's different from his father, but instead finds out he's more like his family than he'd like to admit.

Otto Chriek, a vampire photographer, reduces himself to a pile of ash every time he takes a flash photo.

But most interesting are the two hitmen, Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip. Mr. Pin is the brains of the operation, and the more intriguing Mr. Tulip supplies the muscle. Tulip is a brutish, foul-mouthed thug with a very fortunate speech impediment and a surprisingly keen eye for art. Unfortunately, the ending of this book seems a bit final for this pair, but as long-time Pratchett fans will attest, anything is possible on the Discworld. What else would you expect on a disc-shaped world perched on the back of four elephants who fly through space on the shell of a giant turtle?

As always, there are a number of inside jokes that only regular readers of the Discworld books will fully appreciate, but unlike most series, no prior knowledge is required. "The Truth," like all of Pratchett's books, can be enjoyed by newcomers to the Discworld as well as well as regular visitors.

"The Truth" is the best entry in the Discworld series in years, rivalling Pratchett's early works like "Sourcery," "Reaper Man" and "Equal Rites." It's nice to see Pratchett back at the top of his game, and it's nice to know there are more good things to come on the Discworld.

Sunday, December 17, 2000

Review: "Servant of the Shard" by R.A. Salvatore

Shortly after discovering the fantasy genre in junior high, I turned my attention to the shared worlds of what was then TSR. I was an avid Dungeons and Dragons player - and it seemed only natural to dip into the fiction set in those worlds.

Over the years I drifted away from those worlds and their stories, losing interest as the first generation of writers and characters were retired. Still, every now and then a book by one of the writers or about one of the characters I really liked during those years pops up.

When that happens, I just can't resist picking it up.

In "Servant of the Shard" (Wizards of the Coast), R.A. Salvatore again turns his attention away from his scimitar-wielding dark elven hero Drizzt Do'Urden. Instead he focuses on two of the most intriguing villains of the series, the assassin Artemis Entreri and the drow Jarlaxle, leader of the mercenary band Bregan D'aerthe.

The pair have formed an alliance to move Bregan D'aerthe's interests to the surface world, but there are obstacles. Jarlaxle now possesses the crystal shard Crenshinibon, and it has plans for greater conquests.

Its influence over Jarlaxle also leads to dissension among the ranks of Bregan D'aerthe, as two of his most powerful lieutenants plot an overthrow.

Salvatore began this series in the late 1980s with the rousing adventure of the Icewind Dale Trilogy, which introduced us to most of the major players. He continued with the more somber and introspective Dark Elf Trilogy, that provided insight into the character of Drizzt.

After that, the series began to grow stale. The same plot line was repeated several times: One of the drow royal houses, seeking favor with the Spider Queen, attempts to kill or capture Drizzt and is soundly thrashed by the heroic ranger and his companions.

But with the last couple of offerings, Salvatore has shifted directions for the better.

One of the best aspects of this book is the development we see in the characters, most notably Entreri. When we first met the assassin in the Icewind Dale Trilogy, he was a brash 20-year-old with only one goal - to prove that he was the best swordsman in the world.

That meant engaging Drizzt in combat and slaying him.

As "Servant of the Shard" opens, we see a much different character. While his mind is sharper than ever, a middle-aged Entreri is facing the fact that he's lost a step and the inevitable time when younger assassins will seek to add a notch to their belts by killing the famous Entreri.

Through the course of this novel, Entreri is brought face-to-face time and again with the conclusion that he has been working toward.

By the end of the book he's questioning the choices of his life, but in a way that's uniquely Entreri.

Jarlaxle has always been confident and calculating. He's quick witted, agile and prepared for almost anything that can be thrown at him.

The mercenary leader is one of the few males to hold any power in the matriarchal drow city of Menzoberanzan. That changes when he takes possession of Crenshinibon.

The artifact begins to control the usually wily mercenary through subtle manipulation. When Jarlaxle is forced to face the fact that he's been duped, he gets a new outlook.

This book is also unique in that both primary characters are "bad guys." Still, they are intriguing characters and Salvatore manages to create sympathy for even a couple of cold-hearted killers.

"Servant of the Shard" also pulls in a couple of characters we haven't heard from in a while: the priest Cadderly and his wife, the fighting monk Danica.

It was interesting to see the changes that have come about in the years since Salvatore's Cleric Quintet.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Salvatore book if there weren't a few intense fight scenes. Salvatore does combat better than any other writer out there, and there are plenty of intricate battles in this volume.

The descriptions put you right in the middle of the action - so close that if you're not careful you could get cut.

Salvatore has expressed an interest in checking on Drizzt and his companions in the next volume. That would please fans who have complained about the dark elf's small role in the last two books.

But for some, the change in direction has brought a new outlook to the Dark Elf series, and those will likely think this is the best offering in quite a while.

"Servant of the Shard" is a refreshing departure for the series, breathing new life back into a tale that was growing stale.

Sunday, December 03, 2000

Review: "God, Guns & Rock 'n' Roll" by Ted Nugent

The title and the cover of Ted Nugent's new book tells the reader just about all he needs to know when deciding whether or not to pick it up.

The jacket of "God, Guns & Rock `n' Roll" (Regnery) features Nugent with his Gibson Byrdland slung around his waist, a double-barreled over-and-under shotgun on his shoulder and an American flag in the background. The message is clear: anti-hunters, anti-gunners and anti-rock `n' rollers need not apply.

If the cover doesn't convey that message, then the first few pages will. Nugent loads up the automatic and blasts away at gun control advocates, media portrayal of guns and gun owners, animal rights groups and anything else that gets in his way.

Ted shoots straight and speaks his mind. That may be a little hard to stomach for those that disagree with his views, but for those who do agree with his opinions, it's a refreshing blast. Don't expect any political correctness, double talk or backing down. As Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry says on the back cover, whether you agree or disagree with him, you know exactly where you stand with Uncle Nuge.

His strong opinions and no compromise attitude have always drawn the ire of his mostly liberal counterparts in the entertainment industry and have even alienated a few of his fellow sportsmen. Ted doesn't care. In response to the fellow hunters and shooters who disapprove of his methods, he compares it to someone rescuing a drowning child and then having the parents throw him back in because they didn't like the way the rescuer swam.

If you pick up "God, Guns & Rock `n' Roll," you'll soon find out that Nugent's highly-publicized views on hunting and the Second Amendment are not the only things he has very strong opinions about. Even the most avid gun control advocate or anti-hunter couldn't disagree with his views on drugs and alcohol. A spokesman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving and an officer in the DARE program, Nugent takes pride in the fact that he has never indulged in drugs and alcohol.

Nugent credits hunting for filling a void that he says others try to fill with drugs and alcohol. He points to a long list of talented entertainers - Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, John Belushi, Bon Scott and others - who have died as a result of drug and alcohol abuse. "They got high, and they're all dead. I went hunting, and I'm still Ted," Nugent writes.

Nugent also has some intriguing thoughts on gun safety. Since the gun has been glorified in television, movies and even music for so long, he reasons there's no way you can keep a child from being fascinated by firearms. The logical approach, according to Ted, is to teach them as much as you can about guns - especially about gun safety.

But once you get past Nugent's activism, you find the real beauty of this book. For a guy who is "just a guitar player," Nugent has the uncanny ability to put the reader next to him on the hunting trail. His vivid descriptions allow the reader to see, hear and smell the same things Nugent does in the woods.

The scenes are ones that will connect deeply with those who enjoy the outdoors. Every hunter will recognize the heart-thumping, pulse-pounding close encounter with his quarry; or the absurdity of laying flat on your back in the mud, one boot-top still sticking out of the muck, but laughing like a madman because you're happy to be alive in the woods; or the keen sense of pride a father feels in a child's display of skills.

Nugent closes with a few stories of his friend and mentor Fred Bear. He tells of how he had to convince Bear that all rock `n' rollers were not "drug-infested anti-hunters," and how the death of Bear inspired the most powerful song Nugent has ever written, the haunting "Fred Bear."

Sandwiched in the middle of the book is a collection of photos, illustrating Nugent's everyday life. It includes numerous photos of his family, a few on-stage photos and a few hunting photos. It also shows him rubbing elbows with everyone from fellow rock `n' rollers to conservative leaders.

If you're a member of PETA or Handgun Control, Inc., you'll probably want to give this book a pass. On the other hand, if you believe in the Second Amendment, the Spirit of the Wild and the power of rock `n' roll, then crank up "Stranglehold" on the stereo, sit back and prepare for some full bluntal Nugety.

Tuesday, October 31, 2000

Review: "Graven Images" edited by Nancy Kilpatrick and Thomas S. Roche

Since the beginning of time, people have made statues, carvings and other images to represent whatever gods held sway in their civilization. Many of these have been swept away by the tides of time and change, but some are still with us.

In "Graven Images: Fifteen Tales of Magic and Myth" (Ace), editors Nancy Kilpatrick and Thomas S. Roche pull together stories that deal with representations of deities of past and present. Beginning with ancient Greece, Egypt and India the stories progress chronologically through modern times.

The book brings together some established fantasy and horror writers like Robert Silverberg, Tanith Lee, Jack Ketchum, Esther Friesner and Lawrence Watt-Evans, with some lesser-known names like Lois Tilton, Kathe Koja and Kathryn Ptacek. Some stories stick entirely with the theme, while others hang on by a tenuous thread, making for an interesting variety.

One of the best stories in the book has little, if anything at all, to do with deities. Lawrence Watt-Evans' "Heart of Stone" tells the story of a woman trapped in a wall of a wizard's home. When the wizard is killed by superstitious townspeople, she spends a great deal of time alone, before a con artist happens upon the ruins of the house and tries to use her for his own gain. He soon finds that the townspeople he's trying to fleece still harbor their ill will toward magic and its practitioners.

There are a number of other very intriguing tales in the collection. Lois Tilton's "The Goddess Danced" tells the tale of a young girl horribly scarred by an attack from a local bully and cast off by her family to the only people that will take her -- a family of beggars. After years of abuse from her husband's family, the girl develops a bond with the goddess Kali.

In "Shaped Stones" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, a family of orphans in the Great Depression is taken in by a wealthy magician who has designs for one of the orphans who possesses a magical gift. "Mud" becomes a mortal enemy in Brian McNaughton's World War I tale. And in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's "Giotto's Window," a man begins to see monstrous visions of other people and his doctor is not sure he's insane.

The only low point of the book comes from veteran Gene Wolfe. His "The Eleventh City" has an intriguing idea based on a story from the fifth chapter of Mark, but it's written as a memo between a university researcher and his superior. Unfortunately it also reads like a memo, with no emotion and nothing to hook the reader.

The other 14 tales in the book more than make up for the one slow point near the middle. The book ends with a bang as three powerful tales are stacked up back-to-back. Jack Ketchum and Edward Lee's disturbing "Masks" plumbs the darker side of human nature, and what some are capable of when their faces are hidden. Kathe Koja's "At Eventide" looks at a woman given an incredible power and an opportunity to repay the attacker that gave her this "gift." Finally, Tanith Lee's "That Glisters Is" offers a dream-like view of "the other side."

In the introduction, the editors set some lofty goals for the book. They promise tales that will offer some insight into spirituality. Many of the tales in the book succeed in doing that. What the editors have truly succeeded at, though, is bringing together a collection of interesting and intriguing tales that take a look at the past, and in a few cases, perhaps even the future.

Friday, October 27, 2000

Review: "A Kiss of Shadows" by Laurell K. Hamilton

Almost every culture has tales of the folk of Faerie. In the legends, a meeting with the fey can change a person's life - sometimes for better and often for worse. Whether cruel or kind, the fey are usually depicted as reclusive and rarely encountered.

That's not the case in Laurell K. Hamilton's "A Kiss of Shadows" (Ballantine Books). Hamilton envisions a modern world where all you have to do to find the folk of Faerie is walk down the street, and the impact they can have on a human life is very limited.

After President Thomas Jefferson invited the fey to migrate to the United States from Europe, they chose a group of earthen mounds in Illinois for their court - and they have become a public fascination. So much so that often humans alter their appearances to resemble the fey.

Merry Gentry is a parte sidhe, part brownie and part human detective in Los Angeles. She also happens to be Princess Meredith NicEssus, a member of the Unseelie Court hiding from assassins sent by her aunt, Queen Andais. Merry has the double curse of being of mixed heritage and of having little magical power - a combination that makes her a target for her elven cousins.

After hiding successfully for three years, Merry goes undercover to catch a human who is using a forbidden faerie love potion to seduce and rape women. She uncovers an even darker secret - but when the suspect is killed by magic, Merry is arrested and her cover is blown. She soon finds herself on the run again.

While fleeing a group of dark fey known as the Host through the streets of L.A., Merry unleashes a terrible magical power for the first time, stunning her enemies and herself. Instead of ordering her death, the queen invites Merry to return to court and makes her an even more intriguing offer, one which earns her the hatred of the queen's son and once-sole heir Cel. But the price of the queen's "kindness" is high, and if Cel's minions have their way, it could cost Merry her life.

Part fantasy, part hard-boiled detective novel and part gothic horror, "A Kiss of Shadows" is a unique beast. Hamilton has created a fantasy world where magical beings have to handle familiar problems - traffic, delayed flights and paparazzi - while at the same time dealing with magical issues and court intrigue.

She has peopled our own world with fey races both beautiful and horrible, and then made that world real enough to hold the reader's attention. Hamilton does this mainly through a cast of interesting characters. Even her secondary players are intriguing, with distinct personalities and stories to tell.

While this is, in essence, a fairy tale, it's definitely an adult fairy tale. There are a number of graphic scenes during the course of the book, brought on by both the violence and sexual attitudes of fey society. Far from being gratuitous, though, these threads instead seem to weave the story into a more intricate tapestry.

The overall feel and mood of the novel reminds me of Anne Rice's first few vampire novels. But in many ways, Hamilton's vision surpasses Rice's, offering a richer world to be explored.

With "A Kiss of Shadows," Hamilton has managed to avoid most of the clich├ęs of the fantasy genre - and at the same time, she has laid a fertile groundwork for future tales of the sidhe court. This could be one series worth getting involved in.

Sunday, October 08, 2000

Review: "On Writing" by Stephen King

What aspiring writer could resist a book on the craft from one of the most successful authors in the world?

In Stephen King's "On Writing," (Scribner) readers may get something slightly different from what they bargained for. Instead of offering yet another instructional book on the craft, King has instead chosen to show how his life experiences have shaped his fiction.

The first half of the book is more of a memoir than a how-to-write book. In this, the most intriguing part of the book, we follow King from his childhood in a dysfunctional family, through school and his first novels, to his battle with drugs and alcohol in the early to mid-1980s. With scenes that are sometimes humorous, sometimes touching and often graphic, we get a feel for the person behind the most successful horror novels in the world.

While his story is probably not that different from many other people, if you are familiar with his work, you'll see the traces of it in his early life. When he replays some of the scenes of his childhood or young adulthood, you can see elements from a number of the stories he's written.

One of the most insightful of these stories is about the novel "Misery." Written at the height of his dependence on drugs and alcohol, it turns out the novel is a statement about his condition at the time. Annie Wilkes represents the drugs and alcohol which tortured and imprisoned King, just as Annie did the fictional writer Paul Sheldon in the novel.

Eventually, with the intervention of his wife Tabitha, King would get his act cleaned up - which brings him to the intended purpose of "On Writing."

The middle section of the book is where King gets down to the nitty gritty of the craft. He offers ideas on inspiration, work ethic and a few on editing and grammar. This section, while informative and helpful in a lot of ways, is also the dullest part of the book. With the exception of a few jabs at some of his contemporaries and the occasional humorous anecdote, it's a pretty standard how-to-write manual.

The final section of the book discusses the 1999 accident that almost killed him, his struggle with recovery and the problems he encountered when he first began to write again.

This section provides one of the most poignant moments in the book. King is laying broken at the side of the road. "My lap appears to be sideways, as if my whole lower body has been wrenched to the right," he writes.

Bryan Smith, the man that ran over King, comes down into the ditch and sits cheerily on a stump.

"Please tell me it's just dislocated," King says.

"Nah," Smith replies, still cheery. "It's broken in five, I'd say maybe six places."

"Some weeks later, it occurs to me that I have nearly been killed by a character right out of one of my own novels. It's almost funny," King writes.

Indeed Smith, or at least King's description of him, does resemble some of the characters the author writes about - as do so many other things King reveals in this book.

While "On Writing" is not likely to become a textbook for college creative writing courses, it does provide an entertaining glimpse into King's life and the things that shaped his writing. Which is, I think, what most of his fans will want out of it anyway.

Sunday, October 01, 2000

Review: "Faith of the Fallen" by Terry Goodkind

In the world of fantasy fiction, the never-ending "saga" has almost become the norm. If a writer's first book does well, it seems the series will continue until the end of time.

In most cases, these turn into downward-spiraling, longwinded and boring repeats of the same story. Or worse, disjointed collections of scenes that stretch back to the last books and ahead to future books, with no self-contained story in each volume.

I thought Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series was headed down the first route after reading the last outing, "Soul of the Fire" - a good, but far from exceptional novel. To an extent, the sixth book in the series, "Faith of the Fallen" (Tor) follows that trend, but it still manages to entertain.

The book opens with the New World still under threat from the Imperial Order, a seemingly unstoppable force that considers itself to be "bringing light" to the world. The leaders of the New World resistance, Mother Confessor Kahlan Amnell and Richard Rahl - the Seeker of Truth and the first war wizard to be born in generations - have gone into seclusion. Richard has taken his wife to his boyhood home in the Westlands, so she can recover from injuries received in an attack at the end of "Soul of the Fire."

They are happy there, but as usual that happiness is short-lived. Kahlan and Richard are soon split again when the Sister of the Dark Nicci binds Kahlan to her and promises Richard that his wife will die if he doesn't join her on a journey to the Old World.

While Richard is held captive by Nicci, Kahlan is again forced to betray Richard for what she considers the greater good. Meanwhile, Richard again is able to win over people that should be his enemies.

In all honesty, Goodkind doesn't cover much new ground with this book. He returns to familiar story lines from "Wizard's First Rule" and "Temple of the Winds," but he does it so incredibly well that the reader doesn't mind. Despite the very similar plot, I kept turning the pages as Goodkind exquisitely tortured his characters, making me believe that this time there was no way Richard and Kahlan would win.

Goodkind offers hints of hope throughout the book, only to snatch them away.

A great victory for Kahlan over the Imperial Order turns into a defeat when scouts spot another quarter of a million reinforcements joining the invading army. A look in Nicci's eyes says that perhaps she's finally getting what Richard's been trying to explain, but in the next passage that excitement is quelled when you realize she has missed the point again.

Nicci herself is an interesting character. Despite the fact that she's seemingly despicable and devoted to evil, the reader actually wants to like her. I hated her for most of the book; but at the same time, I wanted her to finally see the truth and join the "right" side.

Goodkind does tread some new ground in the theme of the book. Whether intentional or not, there are some strong statements about freedom and the value of hard work that offer a satisfying framework for a good story.

The book ends with the threat of the Imperial Order still hanging over the Midlands, and its current position on the best seller list assures we'll see a seventh book in the series.

In a genre that's dominated by writers who tend to stretch stories to much greater lengths than they need or deserve to be, I think Goodkind delivers one of the best punches. Even so, there's a limit to how much longer he can keep this story alive.

Like all such "sagas," Goodkind's series is approaching the point where everyone but the hardcore fans loses interest. Perhaps it's time to wrap up this story and move on to something else.

Realistically, that probably won't happen as long as he's hitting the best seller list with every volume - so I just hope he can infuse a few more books with the magic that kept me turning pages in this one.

Saturday, September 30, 2000

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

To use the vernacular, at the start of the second book in Martin's Song of Ice and Fire Series, all hell is breaking loose. Four different men have proclaimed themselves the rightful king, and everyone is at war with everyone else. To add to the mayhem, the long winter is near and a new threat is forming in the wilds on the other side of the wall.

I seem to be developing a pattern. I dive into the first book of a series and love it, then when the second book gets here, I can't muster as much enthusiasm. I think it likely has to do with the fear of another out-of-control Robert Jordan-style neverending saga. Whatever the reason, this book didn't keep me turning the pages like the first did, but it didn't lose me either.

It's really been too long since I read this to give an in-depth review, so instead I'll just offer a few general thoughts. There's still plenty of action, intrigue and betrayal, and it's a worthy successor to the first novel. I was a little disappointed at the end of "A Game of Thrones" when a lot of things were left hanging. This book was the same, resolving a few things, but leaving much more open for the next volume.

All in all, this was an enjoyable book. The jury's still out on the series as a whole, though. It can go very well or very badly from this point. I'm just hoping there's an end in sight.

Thursday, August 10, 2000

Hollywood rarely does justice to favorite stories

There are some movies that just shouldn't be made.

Everyone has that special thing they want to keep just the way it is. For me, it's usually a book. But I suppose it could also be a television show from the past or a classic movie - anything you have special memories of. Whatever the case, Hollywood's vision never seems to equal your personal vision.

Hollywood seems to be picking on my memories lately. Most notably, filming has begun on the first installment of my all-time favorite, J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." I've watched the developments on the Internet with mingled interest and reluctance. So far, it looks promising. Director Peter Jackson has sworn to stick close to the original, but already he's deviated from it in a couple of ways. Such is the way in Hollywood.

The job of producers and directors is to put people in theater seats. In the process, they generally weaken good stories with cheap sensationalism. For some perfect examples, let's take a look at some of the movies derived - and I use the term very loosely - from the works of my other favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe.

I don't recall ever seeing a film based on Poe's work that stuck closely to the original. As much as I like Vincent Price, his Poe films are the key offenders.

Poe's tale of a prisoner of the Inquisition wasn't good enough for a screenplay of "The Pit and the Pendulum." Instead, Hollywood had to turn it into the story of a jealous husband seeking revenge on his adulterous wife and her lover. Where did that come from? And how about "The Masque of the Red Death?" It's an already eerie tale that could have been transformed into a wonderful film. Instead, some genius decided it would be that much better if he injected some satanism into it. Huh?

But the Price films aren't the only ones to butcher Poe. I won't even get started on the Hollywood version of "Morella," which bordered on pornography. I honestly can't remember any sex scenes in the Poe story.

Recently there have been remakes of Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" and Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" that had very little to do with the originals. I enjoyed "Sleepy Hollow," but I've read Irving's story at least a half-dozen times and don't remember most of the things that happened in the movie.

At least in those films you can see a resemblance to the original. Sometimes really strange things happen in Hollywood. A few years ago, there was a movie called "The Lawnmower Man," which bore absolutely no resemblance to the Stephen King tale of the same name. That didn't stop them from plastering his name all over it - at least until he sued them.

All that being said, I took a stroll down memory lane on the silver screen over the weekend that surprised me a little.

Up until a few years ago, I was an avid comic collector. While my collection is not nearly as impressive as some others I've seen, it's certainly not one to snort at, either. If you delve into the boxes, I'd guess that 65-70 percent of those comics are "X-Men" or "X-Men"-related titles.

Given my past experience with Hollywood, it's understandable that I was a little apprehensive when I settled into the seat to see my favorite comic brought to life.

I'd heard very good reviews of the film from other comics fans, but my expectations were colored by memories of past comic flops. Too often movie versions of comics appeal only to readers of comics. Or if they try to broaden their audience, they end up ruining things for the comic fans and appealing to neither audience.

"X-Men" managed to strike a balance that few other comic movies have attained. While there were plenty of in-jokes and allusions for the comic fans, a viewer doesn't need prior knowledge of the comic to enjoy the movie.

As far as Hollywood's vision of my favorite band of crime fighters goes, I was pleasantly surprised. I knew Patrick Stewart would make a fantastic Professor X. There was really no one else for the role. And I was fairly certain that Sir Ian McKellan would be great as the X-Men's archrival Magneto. But the real surprise of the movie for me was a newcomer in the role of my favorite quick-healing, razor-clawed, bad attitude Canuck.

When unknown Hugh Jackman was announced as Wolverine, my initial reaction was "who?" Much to my surprise, Jackman was really able to capture the essence of the character that I've come to know so well over the years. I was impressed.

Likewise, wrestler-turned-actor Tyler Mane was perfect as his old nemesis Sabretooth. In fact, most of the characters were cast well.

The script itself was written to resemble a comic book plot. First the characters are introduced, followed by a lot of action. At the end, most things are resolved, but there's still plenty of fuel for the next issue, or in this case, the sequel.

The effects also gave the movie the feel of the comic. One particular scene sticks out in my mind. Near the end, Storm rises from an elevator shaft, lifted by the winds, with lightning burning in her eyes and gathering around her. In that moment, I wasn't in the theater anymore. I was inside the comic, and Halle Berry had become Storm.

Of course, there were the typical disappointments that go along with movie versions, but they were relatively minor. One was the decision to meld the characters of Rogue and Jubilee into the Rogue of the movie. I missed the fiery-haired, fiery-tempered Southern belle of the comic. I also missed her banter with another of my favorite characters, the Cajun X-Man Gambit.

On the other hand, I can likely look forward to seeing Gambit, Psylocke, Beast, Nightcrawler and other favorites in the sequels. If they are as well-made as this one, I hope the franchise lasts quite a while.

For now, "X-Men" gives me some hope for the upcoming "Lord of the Rings" movies. It proved to me that Hollywood can occasionally get it right. Well, almost.

Thursday, July 20, 2000

Review: "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" by J.K. Rowling

After an eventful trip to the Quidditch World Cup, Harry and his friends return to Hogwarts for their fourth year. When they arrive they're disappointed to hear that the schools annual Quidditch tournament won't be held this year -- until they find out there's something more exciting on the way. For the first time in over a century, the two other magic schools will come to Hogwarts for the Tri-Wizard Tournament. But when Harry's name somehow comes out of the Goblet of Fire as a fourth champion, things take an interesting turn.

Never in my life have I pre-ordered a book -- until this one. Having read the first three in a frenzy, I eagerly anticipated this fourth book. While I wasn't disappointed, this is certainly not the best of the four either.

At 734 pages, this is a hefty book -- especially when you consider its intended audience. And it had all the earmarks of a rushed production schedule. It was riddled with minor errors that should have been caught. Most people can overlook those, but they just take me out of it. The book could have also used some tighter editing.

The biggest disappointment for me, though, was the death of a key character (I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it.) For a writer who has excelled at getting me emotionally involved in the previous three books, she didn't put much impact into the death of this character. It was more like "oh, he died, let's move along."

Don't get the wrong idea, though. While I do have some nitpicks with this book, I still enjoyed it. Even though I'm a journalist myself, I thought the corrupt journalist Rita Skeeter was a nice touch, and it makes a point that we of that profession should keep in mind. Rowling broadened the scope of her world by introducing a pair of rival wizarding schools that bring a great number of possibilities to future books. She also left a little tension at the end. With Voldemort back in the world, Harry is still dangling in the line of danger.

Don't let the fact that this one is not quite as good as the first three steer you away from it. This volume moves at a more leisurely pace, but if you liked the first three, you'll probably enjoy it. Let's just hope Rowling and her publishers take a little more time with the fifth volume.

Saturday, April 01, 2000

Review: "Dragons of a Fallen Sun" by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

The Chaos war has been over for 40 years. The gods have abandoned Krynn. The old magic left with the gods, the new magic is fading. Great dragons hold most of Ansalon in their tyrannical grip. This is the state of Krynn when the kender Tasslehoff Burfoot, thought killed in the Chaos War, reappears using a time travel device that he was given by Fizban.

But something else has also arrived in the world of Krynn. A young healer named Mina, who quickly wins an army and leads it to battle in the name of the one God.

After a five-year absence, the originators of the Dragonlance series return to the world of Krynn. Can they breathe life into the shell of what's left of Dragonlance? That remains to be seen, but this book is a good start. My eye hadn't wandered toward the Dragonlance rack in years when "Dragons of Summer Flame" hit the shelves in 1995. That drew me back, but the fascination was short-lived. Then, in 1998, Margaret Weis' "The Soulforge," the first book of a new Raistlin trilogy, pulled me back in. This book manages to keep me interested enough to be looking forward to the next installment.

We lose another old friend in this book, but we gain some new ones. Despite the slightly contrived appearance of Tasslehoff, the rest of the book is intriguing. Mina and her mysterious God get my curiosity up, and Palin's fall from grace is also quite interesting. At times, he reminds me very much of his uncle.

The only problem I see with this book is the same thing that bugs me about Weis' Raistlin trilogy -- it could have used some tighter editing. We're assaulted by pages of backstory that isn't really necessary to enjoy the novel. Those who have read the previous novels already know this, and those that haven't don't really need it. More annoying than that are times like the one when we first arrive in Sanction. Weis and Hickman provide a detailed history of what has happened there in recent years. The facts the reader needed to know could have been given quicker and kept the story moving forward.

Despite these few bogs along the way, the book was more satisfying than I expected it to be. Who knows? Perhaps the return of Weis and Hickman is just what the Dragonlance world needs. I know I'll be watching with interest.

Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Review: "The Fifth Elephant" by Terry Pratchett

The dwarves are about to choose a new Low King, and Lord Vetinari needs to send a diplomatic envoy for this very delicate occasion. Who does he choose? Sam Vimes, of course. Likely the most undiplomatic member of the city watch (with the exception of Detritus, of course.)

So with his lady wife, a monstrous troll (Detritus), an assassin with the mannerisms of Billy Bob Thornton's character from "Slingblade" and a dwarf who wants to show her feminine side in tow, Vimes dons a pair of ruby red dress tights and crosses the countryside. Of course, where Vimes goes, crime is usually close behind.

Just when I was beginning to doubt that Pratchett would ever make me roll with laughter again, he unleashes "The Fifth Elephant." After a number of mediocre works, it's nice to have a truly funny book from Pratchett again.

After the disappointment of "Jingo," the last city watch novel, Pratchett returns to Vimes and Co. with a vengeance. Behind the primary plotline of Vimes' diplomatic mission is another with Carrot and Gaspode the talking dog chasing the werewolf Angua on Vimes' heels. Not to mention the havoc that Fred Colon, having been left in charge of the watch in Vimes' absence, is wreaking in Ankh-Morpork. It all comes together into one of the best books Pratchett has given us in years.

Still even as good as this book is, it doesn't match up with his early Discworld novels. I have to wonder if maybe it's not time to find some other characters to focus on. I've noticed that when Pratchett picks a character, whether it be Rincewind, Death, the witches or the city watch, the first few books he does about them are fantastic, then they begin to taper off. I think the introduction of some new elements into "The Fifth Elephant" is really what brought the spark back.

That thought aside, there's not much negative I can say about this book. The only thing I didn't like about it was the horrid hot pink and turquoise cover that American publisher HarperPrism put on it. Why they have to change the covers from the UK version I don't know. But if they absolutely have to, why hot pink and turquoise? Yick.

If you're new to the Discworld, I still recommend you check out the earlier novels first. But, if you're like me and have had a waning interest in Pratchett's novels, give this one a shot. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, February 25, 2000

Review: "Sailing to Sarantium" by Guy Gavriel Kay

People had long recommended that I check out Guy Gavriel Kay by the time I got around to picking up "Tigana." I was sorry I'd waited so long. That's why I snapped up "Sailing to Sarantium" as soon as I saw it on the shelf. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for Kay has now waned.

When the mosaicist Martinian gets an imperial summons to Sarantium, the most magnificent city in the world, he asks his assistant Crispin to go in his place. The reluctant traveler will face a number of perils, including a god, on the road. But that's nothing compared to the things he faces when he reaches the city.

I almost put this book aside after I was 50 pages into it and hadn't even reached the first chapter. You heard me correctly - 50 pages of prologue. Of course the essential information could have been condensed into less than 10. Kay follows that with a lengthy introduction of a courier, who then disappears from the story. True, he returns to play a role at the end, but he certainly doesn't deserve the intro he gets.

By about page 150, I was thoroughly disgusted. Then, Kay finally starts the story. Trim the first third of the book to a couple of chapters, and you've got a decent novel. In it's current form, though, the whole book seems like a setup for something. The problem is that Kay never gives the reader the payoff.

There is some remarkable imagery in the novel, and again, I find his historical approach fascinating. But those things weren't enough to salvage a story that never really got going.

For me, this book was terribly disappointing. I've heard some hardcore Kay fans say they like it, but I just didn't get it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2000

Review: "Stardust" by Neil Gaiman

The town of Wall stands at the edge of Faerie, and no one ventures past the wall of the city, except during a festival that happens only occasionally. Tristran Thorn is different, though. He's in love with a village girl named Victoria Forester. One night they see a falling star and he vows to bring it to her. Tristran steps through the gap in the wall and into an adventure complete with ghosts, unicorns, witches and, oh yes, a fallen star.

I read this immediately after Orson Scott Card's "Enchantment," so I got my dose of fairy tale fare. Luckily I enjoyed both of them greatly.

Gaiman's "Stardust" is a rousing tale of adventure that takes everything I liked about his first solo novel, "Neverwhere," and improves on it.

This story features likeable characters and an interesting enough story, but what really makes it special is the way it captures the fairy tale atmosphere. The characters and settings are exaggerated and over-the-top just like the classic fairy tales, but at the same time Gaiman manages to avoid being cliched and silly.

After reading "Neverwhere," I was convinced Gaiman was going to do big things in the fantasy genre. "Stardust" only reinforces that belief. Whether you're a fan of Gaiman's comic work, or whether you've never heard his name, this is a book you shouldn't miss.

Tuesday, January 25, 2000

Review: "Hogfather" by Terry Pratchett

It's too bad that I couldn't get this review up before Christmas, or Hogswatch to Discworld fans. It's the kind of book that can help put you in a lighter mood during the holiday season, but I think you can enjoy it just as much after the holidays are over.

Everyone who's familiar with the Discworld is familiar with its anthropomorphic personifications, particularly its most (or least) popular one - Death. In this novel, the Hogfather has gone missing, and if Death doesn't fill in, delivering gifts to children all over the world, "the sun will not rise".

Throw in Death's granddaughter, Susan, the Oh God of Hangovers, the Cheerful Fairy, and an assassin named Mr. Teatime (that's Teah-tim-eh), who has been hired by a group known as the Auditors to kill the Hogfather, and you have a wickedly funny tale as only Pratchett can tell it.

I have to say that I've been a little disappointed with some of Pratchett's more recent efforts, compared with his early works, but this book had me in tears I laughed so hard. It's not his best, but it's definitely a worthy addition to the Discworld collection.

It's truly a shame that us fans in the US have to wait so long for Pratchett's books. This volume has been out in Europe for quite some time. Fortunately, though, he continues to make them worth the wait.

Tuesday, January 11, 2000

Review: "Heir to the Shadows" by Anne Bishop

I read the first book in this series, "Daughter of the Blood," back in 1998, and it was one of my favorite books of that year. This book continues the story well and is an enjoyable read, but in my opinion it just doesn't stack up with the first one.

The problems with this book are not overwhelming. The main thing is that Bishop seems to have tried to cover too much ground too quickly. Despite its 482 pages, it seemed to me that I sprinted through the entire book, never taking any time to admire the story.

There were several moments in the book that I felt could have made for some fantastic drama. If I had to put my finger on one thing this book was short on, it was tension. Bishop seems to be tightly focused on the plot to the detriment of other areas of the story. Whenever a scene came along that could have been tense and edgy, she seemed to glaze over it to get to the next step in the plot.