Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Interview: John Noble of "Return of the King"

Australian actor John Noble has been a bit surprised by the mixed reaction to his latest film, "One Night with the King," a retelling of the story of Esther from the Bible.

"I suppose it's natural, so many people in America have so much investment in Christianity and so much investment in the Bible, they're not all going to agree with each other," he said. "That's been an interesting observation for an Australian sitting here in Los Angeles observing it for the first time."

In the film, Noble plays Prince Admatha, a powerful prince in the court of a weak king who plots to put himself on the throne, but is ultimately undone by Haman, an Amelekite who twists Admatha's trust and uses it for his own advancement.

It's a dark role, something Noble is familiar with. He's probably best known for his performance as Denethor, the mad steward of Gondor and father of Faramir and Boromir in "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

"These sorts of powerful characters are always very interesting to play because they're complex," Noble said. "By our standards, they come out of the dark side more than the light. Like a lot of politicians, I'm afraid, they may have good intentions, but at the end of the day they manipulate what they will to get what they want."

Though some actors might shy away from taking on villainous roles, Noble thinks it offers a freedom to explore places that he would never dream of going in real life.

"The reality is that everyone's got a dark side and most of us live in denial of it," he said. "I know some people are quite scared of it and don't want to go there, but I've always felt it was in interesting challenge and a personal exploration as much as anything else."

In "One Night with the King," Noble also finds himself working beside bona fide film legends like Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole. He relishes the chance to work with some of the best in the business, but once on the set, admiration has to be put aside, he said.

"I had the same thing to a degree when I did some scenes with Sir Ian McKellen," he said. "I knew and admired his work for a long time, and to actually get on stage with him was terrific. But you can't say 'oh, my goodness me, I'm working with a legend here.' You take the opportunity of riding with the best of them."

Noble certainly knows about being among the best with his role in the phenomenon that was "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Even though he's aware that no matter what he does, he'll be remembered for the role of Denethor, he had no second thoughts about jumping at the chance.

"All of the people involved in 'The Lord of the Rings' were very fortunate people," he said. "In a lifetime, you may get one or two defining roles as a character actor. That was certainly a defining role in arguably the greatest film of all time. It's a bit surreal actually to have been involved in that in some ways."

Though he knew the potential of the films going in, he said there was no way to be prepared for what the movies turned into.

"I knew how good it was," Noble said. "I knew by the standard of everything that was happening how good it was. I knew that there were many, many people around the world that were Tolkien fans. I was conscious, because I wasn't involved in the first film at all, but I saw the reaction around the world and the incredible amount of chatter on the Internet. It became a worldwide phenomenon before it opened. In terms of what it finished up being, 11 Academy Awards and all those things, I don't think you can predict that to be honest. I think it's beyond dreaming."

Noble also has a lot of excitement about his next project, "Risen," which tells the story of boxer Howard Winstone.

"He was a young boy from the Welsh mining valleys who had four of his fingers cut off when he was 16, but went on to box and become world champion," he said. "It's a pretty inspiring story."

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Review: "Greywalker" by Kat Richardson

Seattle private investigator Harper Blaine is having a rough time in Kat Richardson's debut "Greywalker" ($14, Roc).

She was finishing what she expected to be a routine case by confronting the perpetrator of a petty fraud. Things go awry when the suspect goes crazy and beats her to death. For two minutes, Harper is officially dead before being revived by paramedics, and then things get weird. Her experience has given her the strange abilities of a greywalker, someone who is able to see ghosts and even cross over into their world.

Shortly after being released from the hospital, she's back on the job working two cases. One, finding the son of a rich socialite who has disappeared from college. The other, finding a parlor organ for a mysterious client. Both prove to be much more than Harper could have ever planned for.

I've become quite the fan of these supernatural detective stories over the past few years. The best ones get the action started early and keep it fun. That's perhaps the only problem with Richardson's debut. A lot of time is spent trying to explain Harper's abilities and showing her learning to use them, and in the early going it gets bogged down a little in the technicalities. Most folks who are going to pick up this book will be willing to accept her abilities and learn as they go along instead of having them explained.

About halfway through the book, when Harper finds her missing person, business picks up and from there the book moves at a much faster clip and heads in a direction that fans will be much more familiar with.

Richardson's story is well done and enjoyable, though I have to admit that I had a bit more trouble identifying with Harper than similar characters in other authors' work. I do like the fact that Richardson's heroine doesn't have to jump in bed with every supernatural character that walks through the door, as often happens in these tales.

"Greywalker" is an intriguing debut, and I'll be very interested to see what Richardson does with the next installment now that the groundwork is done.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Review: "Firebird" by R. Garcia y Robertson

It takes a little audacity to open your novel with the words "once upon a time." It takes even more to close them with another very familiar phrase, which I won't give away here. Fortunately, R. Garcia y Robertson's "Firebird" ($24.95, Tor) lives up to the opening line.

Given to the Bone Witch at a young age, Aria has grown up knowing very little about who she is, but she does have some vivid fantasies. So far, she's lived a simple life, but that changes when, while out gathering fungus, she runs into a wounded knight riding away from the burning city of Byeli Zamak. When she offers him aid, her life changes forever, as she's swept up in an adventure that takes her far away from the simple woods life she's known.

It's hard to offer a synopsis for "Firebird" because Garcia y Robertson leads the reader through so many deft twists and turns of the story that I don't want to give anything away. The plot involves returning a firebird's egg to its nest atop a mountain but there's much more to it. There's a lot of adventure packed into the 320 pages of this tale, and it happens fast and furious.

The story itself is an interesting mix. It's part fairy tale, part alternate history and part bawdy romance. While the overall feel of the book is that of a fairy tale, it's certainly an adult fairy tale. It does have a few raunchy moments and some very dark moments.

At times, perhaps, Garcia y Robertson's fixation on the romantic dalliances of his characters distracts from the story at hand. Some seem a bit unnecessary, but they don't prove too distracting for what is a very good story.

The world of "Firebird" is also interesting, set largely in a slightly modified version of medieval Russia known as Markovy that mixes in magic and mythical creatures. It calls upon legends and themes that fantasy often ignores.

While "Firebird" was my introduction to Garcia y Robertson's work, it certainly makes me want to revisit some of his previous books. It's an engaging read with a sense of wonder and imagination that has by and large been lost in the genre.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Review: "Fall of Knight" by Peter David

Arthur Penn, former president of the United States, plans to live the rest of his life peacefully sailing the world on his yacht with his wife Gwen in Peter David's latest, "Fall of Knight" (Ace, $24.95). The only problem is the former first lady was shot by a terrorist and medical experts from all over the world said she would never come out of a coma.

When a satellite photo of Arthur and Gwen apparently living happily ever after shows up on the news, people want answers. Perhaps telling the truth — that Arthur is, in fact, Arthur Pendragon, king of Camelot, and he healed his wife with the Holy Grail, which he won in a battle against Sumerian legend Gilgamesh with the aid of a Moorish Knight of the Round Table named Percival and a Noah-like sailor named Ziusura — was a bad idea.

Proving the claim by using the Grail to treat a fallen journalist covering the story turns out to be an even worse idea as, suddenly, Arthur finds himself besieged by people needing help and even as the focus of a new religion.

But the worst is yet to come when Merlin discovers that the Grail's companion piece, the Spear of Destiny, is also back in play, and the combination of the two could have disastrous results. Unfortunately, before he can warn Arthur, he's imprisoned by Nimue, the Lady of the Lake.

The third book in David's satirical modern-day Arthur trilogy provides as many chuckles as the first two, and just as much food for thought, as well. While telling a fun adventure story, he also skewers several aspects of modern life from politics to religion to frivolous lawsuits.

Those prone to being offended may want to give the book a pass. The story deals with two legendary items closely associated to Christ — the cup he drank from at the last supper and the spear that pierced his side on the cross — and some of the fictional revelations in the book are a bit irreverent. It is, after all, a comic fantasy. But at the end of the day, the story serves more as an affirmation of faith.

Even more interesting to me, a long-time devotee of the Arthurian legends, is the story that serves as the backdrop for "Fall of Knight." Without giving anything away, I'll just say that it's a tale of Merlin and the origin of Excalibur that rivals any other that I've read.

The trilogy, which also includes the books "Knight Life" and "One Knight Only," is a fun update on the Arthurian legends. I'd definitely recommend it for Arthur buffs with a sense of humor.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Interview: Ron White

Though he came to fame through the family-friendly Blue Collar Comedy movie series, Ron White advises folks not to bring their kids to his solo shows. During those shows, he saunters across the stage sipping 25-year-old Macallan scotch, puffing on a cigar and liberally peppering his speech with expletives. This definitely ain't a Blue Collar show.

"People bring their kids and say, 'oh, you're not going to say any words he hasn't heard,'" White said with a laugh. "Yeah, well I'm going to say them in a new order, and sometimes that's all that matters when it comes to words is what order were they said in."

White is unapologetic about his language on stage. It's not profanity just for profanity's sake, he says. He only includes it if it's funny. Which is why he was upset when the distributor of his latest record, "You Can't Fix Stupid," chose to issue a bleeped version so it could be sold in Wal-Mart.

"The stupid thing is, if we had released it like we did the last one that made a gillion dollars, just don't give it to Wal-Mart because Wal-Mart will put the DVD in their store uncut," he said. "It makes no sense at all, and it will sell like hotcakes."

Ultimately, though, the records don't really matter to White. His true love is the live show, being up on stage in front of the crowd. In fact, he uses very little material from his first two records in his live show and says he may never do another recording because he wants fresh jokes for the crowd.

"The only thing I care about is the live show," he said. "I wish I hadn't put out the last album because then I could have all this stuff and people would have never heard it. I want to do shows that people have never heard."

Of course "You Can't Fix Stupid," was the No. 1 comedy album in the country for nine weeks, and he said it's still selling well. But you still won't hear many of the jokes in his live show.

"I'm not concerned about being a top-selling recording artist," he said. "I'm more concerned about having a live show that people respond to instead of clap to because they're getting beat up. I'm just now getting back to that. If you see me release a new record, you can bet I just quit touring."

White also has a new book on shelves, "I Had the Right to Remain Silent ... But I Didn't Have the Ability."

"It's a book with big, big margins, large print and lots of pictures," White said. "Perfect for any man. It's a toilet book, put it up on the back of the commode."

White admits that there are a few road stories in the book that, in hindsight, he wishes he hadn't told, but ultimately he thinks they'll help sell the book. Not that he really cares.

"I'm not an author, I'm a comedian," he said.

It's the same reason he regularly turns down movie and television offers. He said the schedule would take away from his career as a comic.

"You can't do standup comedy and do those things, too, so I don't want to do it," he said. "I'm fortunately in a position where I don't do anything I don't want to do."

He is however working on an animated series, which only requires him to do voicework once a week. He's pleased with the way the project is coming and hopes someone will pick it up.

White and the other Blue Collar comics recently wrapped up their third movie, "One More for the Road," which White said emphatically will be the final movie in the series. Jeff Foxworthy is semi-retired, and Larry the Cable Guy and Bill Engvall, like White, are busy trying to extend the success they've received from the series.

"We had a great ride," he said. "We're all still dear friends. If Jeff wanted to get together and do another live show for the troops or for charity, if there were some reason for all of us to get together for some cause, we would do it. But you've got to find Jeff; he's out killing (stuff)." (Foxworthy is an avid hunter.)

As for White, he's completely happy with where his career is right now. He tries out new material every week at open mic night and his shows continue to be sold out. Even his wife, the butt of many of his jokes, doesn't mind the ribbing.

"She cashes the checks, so she doesn't care," he said. "Everybody in my family knows the show's off-limits. It's probably not about her anyway. It's just a joke I wrote. If I tag your title to it, you can't come tell me about it."

Most of the jokes, however, are based on events that really happened to friends or family members, but they're changed for comedic purposes. One exception may be Cousin Ray, who has been the butt of jokes about hunting and being a homophobe.

"Cousin Ray is the real deal," White said. "But he loves being in the show."

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Review: "The Blood Knight" by Greg Keyes

Epic fantasy can be a tricky thing. Fans of the genre expect complex stories with tangled subplots, but sometimes they can get too tangled. Just ask Robert Jordan, whose once-promising Wheel of Time series grew so many heads that it stalled somewhere around book six and has only barely inched forward in the last four or five volumes.

With "The Blood Knight" ($25.95, Del Rey), the third of four installments of his Kingdom of Thorn and Bone series, Greg Keyes has managed to weave his subplots seamlessly and avoid the pitfalls that so many other authors have fallen into.

In this book, Anne Dare, the exiled princess and rightful heir to the throne of Crotheny, has returned to try to muster support and remove her usurper uncle Robert from the throne. While that battle rages, there's a bigger battle being fought in the world as a whole. The legendary Briar King walks the earth again, some say to reclaim it from man, and with him comes a host of creatures thought to be children's tales and myths. Just whose side they're on is open to debate.

The head-hopping style that Keyes adopts in his storylines will immediately remind readers of George R.R. Martin's recent works, but Keyes manages to stick rigidly with his tale with few wasted words. Action and conflict rule every line of the book with little time for the overlong descriptive passages and asides that often crop up in the genre. Keyes gives his readers what they need to know, when they need to know it, and the result is a fast-paced sprint to the finish in a genre that often prefers meandering strolls. It's a refreshing approach that keeps you wondering what's around the next corner.

Keyes' characters are likeable and easy to connect with. And just when you think he's falling into the conventions of the genre, he surprises you with a deft twist.

"The Blood Knight" should satisfy the most hardcore epic fantasy purists as well as the occasional reader of the genre. A lot of the other writers working in the genre could take a few lessons from Keyes.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Review: "Throne of Jade" and "Black Powder War" by Naomi Novik

It's always nice when you get to read the books in a series back to back. Usually in fantasy series, you get hooked with the first book and then end up waiting a year or more for each installment, in the process forgetting a little about each world and story. So it was nice to see Naomi Novik's most recent two books in the Temeraire series, "Throne of Jade" and "Black Powder War" (both $7.50, Del Rey), follow hot on the heels of the first book, "His Majesty's Dragon."

I was truly impressed by the first installment, and immediately immersed myself in the second and third tales. For those who missed my review of the first book a few weeks back, Temeraire is a dragon intended as a gift for Napoleon from the emperor of China. His egg was intercepted by a British ship during the Napoleonic Wars, and he ended up bonded to the ship's captain Will Laurence.

In "Throne of Jade," the Chinese royalty have decided that Laurence is not fit to be a companion to a Celestial dragon, intended only for royalty. So he and Temeraire have been called to China, where they expect attempts to separate them from each other. In the process, they find themselves embroiled in a struggle for power between the emperor who is open to communication with the Western world and a faction led by a prince who opposes Western influence.

Having struggled through their confrontation with the emperor of China, Temeraire and Laurence expect to soon return to England in "Black Powder War." Temeraire, much to Laurence's dismay, is excited about the possibility of bringing the living standards of England's dragons up to those of China's, who are treated as equals, and often betters, by humans. Instead, they get an urgent missive ordering them to go to Istanbul to retrieve three dragon eggs purchased by the British government. Their ship damaged by a fire, they are forced to travel overland where they face not only the challenge of the journey and ongoing war, but also a Celestial who feels wronged by them.

I love dragon tales, and Novik's books are easily the best dragon stories I've read in years. Hers is a rare and refreshing original take on dragons, imagining a hierarchy and community of dragons on a scale that has rarely been attempted.

Making the stories even better is the fact that Novik is also an excellent writer with the skills to bring her creation to life and make the reader care deeply about Temeraire and his captain. When you're reading a story where the characters are wronged and you find yourself trembling with anger at the injustice, you know the writer has crafted something powerful. It happened to me more than once during these books.

If you're a lover of dragon tales or a fan of historical military adventure (who can accept the existence of mythical beasts, of course), do yourself a favor at check out this series.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Review: "His Majesty's Dragon" by Naomi Novik

Having read fantasy for more than 20 years, I think I've seen dragons used in just about every way possible. But on rare occasion, I'll run into a book like Naomi Novik's "His Majesty's Dragon" ($7.50, Del Rey).

Originally published under the title "Temeraire" in the U.K., the alternate history begins aboard the ship of British Capt. Will Laurence during the Napoleonic Wars. When Laurence captures a French frigate, he's thrilled to discover a dragon egg in the hold. He's less thrilled to find it is near to hatching. Knowing the dragon's value to his country's Aerial Corps and knowing it must be bound early to be controlled, he and his officers draw straws to see which one will attempt to harness the dragon. But when the egg hatches, the beast ignores the man attempting to harness it and instead bonds with Laurence. Knowing his duty, he accepts that he will have to give up his proud and comfortable Navy life to become an aviator.

As the dragon, named Temeraire after a ship Laurence once admired, grows, the captain's reluctant sense of duty gives way to a deep affection for the dragon. The bond is strengthened when they discover that Temeraire is, in fact, a Chinese Imperial dragon, an extremely rare and intelligent breed and further through their experiences in training and action.

At heart, this is the story of a man and his dragon, and with Novik's considerable talents, if it were left at that it would probably still be worth a read. But here she gives us so much more, including a completely different view of fantasy's most popular creature.

"His Majesty's Dragon" reads a bit like one of Patrick O'Brian's naval adventures, except, of course, that it takes place hundreds of feet above the ground. Full crews scrambling around atop a moving dragon, cheating death with every move, provide for some truly awesome imagery.

Even more interesting is the personality that Novik injects into her dragons. Each beast is as distinctive and well-developed as her human characters, perhaps even moreso at times. It leaves the reader longing to meet more of them.

Though this is Novik's debut, it certainly doesn't read like one. In fact, "His Majesty's Dragon" is easily one of the best fantasies I've read in a long, long time. It's a must-read for both dragon-lovers and fans of historical adventure novels.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Review: "Proven Guilty" by Jim Butcher

Whenever a new installment in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files arrives on the shelves, it's bad news for the books in my to-be-read stack. They're all going to get bumped down a spot.

Since discovering Butcher's wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden with 2001's "Fool Moon," the tales of the modern-day magician have consistently entertained me more than any other writer in the past five years. His latest, "Proven Guilty" ($23.95, Roc), is no exception.

The secret war between the Red Court of vampires and the wizards' White Council is heating up, and Dresden, a newly named Warden, has been given a covert mission to find out why the Summer Court of the fey isn't aiding the wizards. But Harry's got bigger problems on his plate. He's fighting an inner battle against the fallen angel Lasciel, who is trying to tempt him to unleash her power. More pressing, he's just gotten a report of some big-time black magic going down in his hometown of Chicago.

When fans at a horror convention suddenly start becoming targets of the big-screen monsters they're celebrating, Harry is on the case. But when he discovers the source of that magic, it hits Harry close to home and may force him to further stretch his already strained relations with the White Council.

"Proven Guilty" turns out to be one of the best installments in the series so far, as it shows the series maturing, with plots and character motivations digging deeper than just battling the bad guys. It tackles some tougher emotions and questions about good and evil, graying a line that's been fairly clear in the previous installments.

There's also a lot more fun to be had here as Butcher tosses out pop culture references a little more easily than in past volumes. While he often doesn't use the real names of the Hollywood baddies, horror fans will recognize a lot of popular monsters, and even a few obscure ones, here.

We're eight books into the Dresden Files now, and instead of running out of steam, the series seems to be getting stronger with each volume. With a two-hour Dresden Files pilot directed by Nicolas Cage set to air on the Sci-Fi Channel this summer, it's a safe bet we'll be seeing a lot more of Harry Dresden. That sounds like good news to me.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Review: "Traitor to the Blood" by Barb and J.C. Hendee

I've got several of the Noble Dead books by Barb and J.C. Hendee in the box of books I plan to read some day. They've always looked interesting to me, but I've always seemed to get them at a time where I was just tired of vampire books.

When the latest in the series, and their hardcover debut, "Traitor to the Blood" ($23.95, Roc) arrived, I decided it was time to give them a shot.

The story centers around vampire hunter Magiere, who is a dhampir or half-vampire, and half-elf Leesil, who spent his early years as a captive assassin to Lord Darmouth. Traveling with them is a scribe named Wynn and an odd dog named Chap, that is really one of the fey. They're being tracked by Chane, a vampire that Magiere thinks she's killed, and Welstiel, who resurrected Chane and hopes to use Magiere to help him overcome his need for blood.

They arrive in Venjetz, Darmouth's city, to help Leesil come to grips with his past and discover what happened to his parents when he fled Darmouth's service. Through Welstiel's manipulations, Magiere finds herself in service to Darmouth as a vampire hunter, while Leesil has connected with a friend of his parents, Byrd, an innkeeper working with a resistance movement seeking to assassinate Darmouth and free the people. Of course, in the Warlands, things are not quite that simple.

I'm picking the story up in the fourth book of the series, and to be honest, I did feel at times that I'd understand the story a little better if I had been familiar with the first three books. On the other hand, the authors do a fine job of filling in the necessary details to make sure that readers picking the book up for the first time aren't lost and can enjoy the story.

Based on comments I've read, the previous three books offered a lot of action and battle with vampires, but this story is more of a fantasy in which one of the main characters just happens to be half-vampire. It deals much more with political maneuverings and intrigue than with stakings and beheadings, and there are some nice twists and turns to the story.

"Traitor to the Blood" holds appeal for both the fantasy fan and the vampire novel fan, whether or not you've been introduced to the characters before. It's a solid, enjoyable novel, and I'll be digging the past books in the series out and moving them to the top of the to-be-read stack.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

More updates

Six new book reviews are now available on the books page. Enjoy.

Fire up the grill

I don't have anything against vegetarians. Really, I don't. I will occasionally give the vegetarians I know some good-natured ribbing, but ultimately, I'm a live and let live kind of guy. You respect me and leave me alone, and I'll do the same for you.

Which brings me to the vegetarians that I don't like -- the ones who are on a crusade to recruit me into their ranks. If you're one of those, let me make things real simple for you -- not gonna happen. In the words of the great philosopher Ron White, "I didn't claw my way to the top of the food chain to eat carrots."

What brings this to mind is the Great American Meatout on March 20, which I've been getting press releases about that tell me how unhealthy, insensitive and evil I am for eating meat. Sorry, I've never been big on guilt trips, and you're not going to lay one on me.

Let's put aside, for a moment, the fact that, to me, the title of the event is a bit of an oxymoron, and just talk about the menu at the "lifestivals," which includes items like veggie-burgers and veggie-hot dogs. Having tried a couple of veggie burgers over the years, I've got to say I'd rather eat the box they came in than the burger. It's always been odd to me that these people are so dead set against eating meat, yet what do they fashion their own cuisine after? Meat. Seems to me, if you're craving meat, then perhaps you're not quite as vegan as you'd like to think you are.

Like I said at the beginning, I've got no problems with vegetarians. If you're a vegetarian and you're happy that way, I'm happy for you. If you feel healthier, if you feel better about yourself, then that's great, keep doing what you're doing. If you don't want to eat a real hamburger or hot dog, I'm certainly not going to try to talk you into it or force you to do it. All I ask is the same consideration in return.

As far as the Great American Meatout goes, I plan to celebrate it in the best way I know how -- with a nice, big, juicy, medium rare steak.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Back from the dead

Just trying to get this place updated a little bit. With the new kid and trying to balance two full-time jobs at the office, I haven't had a whole lot of time to devote to the place (or anything else for that matter). But I've finally gotten around to getting some fresh content up. Nine new album reviews posted tonight -- and some pretty good stuff at that. I'm also working on updates on the book side. I've got six reviews ready to go up there as soon as I have time to get them posted.