Saturday, January 19, 2008

Review: "Outrageous Fortune," by Tim Scott

Think you’re having a bad day? Could be worse. Ask Jonny X67, the main character of Tim Scott’s new novel “Outrageous Fortune.”

Jonny’s having a really bad day. He’s just come home to find out his entire house has been stolen. In its place, he finds a card that says “Don’t You Hate When This Happens?” with a phone number. He’s had a fight with his girlfriend. He’s about to be abducted by four bikers who have named themselves after the four horsemen of the apocalypse who want him to assassinate God, and he’s being hounded by a militant encyclopedia salesman.

Scott’s debut is a zany, fun and inventive ride that reads like Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore sitting down for a book club discussion of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer.” It’s often funny and just a little goofy. Scott creates a world where record companies have taken over California, and everyone lives in zones that are based on their listening preferences. (I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t at least get to visit Heavy Metal in the course of the novel.) Elevators tell knock-knock jokes and long to travel, people have phones and debit systems transplanted into their bodies, humans can catch ad viruses that pop up around them randomly and one of the hottest spots around is the most inconvenient bar in the world.

But under the flashy world and fun, there is a very serious side to the book. Scott presents, in a light-hearted way, some very real criticisms of our technology driven world, our search for convenience and our loss of privacy. There’s certainly a little bit of Orwell’s Big Brother in the Zone Securities police force which tracks people through implanted chips and can seemingly arrest and dispose of them with impunity. There’s also a warning here about the dubious uses of technology in the wrong hands, though I won’t go into that because I don’t want to spoil anything.

“Outrageous Fortune” opens with a strange and intriguing scene and continues to delight with its oddball world and keep the reader interested by the unfolding puzzle of a plot. It’s a great debut from a promising new voice.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Armchair QB: Final thoughts on the 2007 season

I took a few weeks off to reflect on the disappointing 2007 campaign before sitting down to write my wrap-up because I wanted a clear head to look at the whole picture.

I'm disappointed. All Saints fans are. But the fact of the matter is that I still believe that this team is on the cusp of becoming one of the elite franchises in the NFL. Yes, I know we've thought this before, and there are some odd parallels between the first years of Jim Haslett and Sean Payton. Haslett took over a team that was 3-13 and in disarray, finished 10-6 with the first playoff win in Saints history, then tanked to 7-9. We couldn't win the one game that we needed to win to get into the playoffs. We all know how that turned out. Payton took over a post-Katrina team that was 3-13 and in disarray, finished with a 10-6 record and took the team to the NFC championship for the first time. Then, he tanked to 7-9 and we couldn't win one game that we needed to put ourselves in control of the last playoff spot. So why do I think this team will be any different from Haslett's team?

Look at the talent. We've got one of the best quarterbacks in the league -- a luxury the Saints have only had once before in franchise history, when No. 8 was under center. The difference is that Drew Brees also has some talent around him. He's got a line that doesn't allow many sacks, so despite those first few games, he's not running for his life like Archie Manning.

We're stacked at running back. Pierre Thomas' performance in the final game against the Bears really showed that he does have what it takes to be a great running back in this league. Aaron Stecker played like a beast in the few games that he started toward the end of the year. Reggie Bush, while certainly not nearly as good as advertised in my opinion, can do some good things for us given the right situation, which brings us to the big question mark -- that bruiser running back that will open Bush up. Deuce McAllister is one of my favorite players ever, and no doubt a great running back. I hope to see 26 back on the field and doing all the things he does again next year, but in the real world, a second knee surgery doesn't bode well for a running back in the NFL. Can Stecker or Thomas be that guy if Deuce can't return to form? I guess we'll see.

An offseason look at the receiver position might not be a bad thing. We've got talent there already, but I wouldn't mind having one more playmaker out there. David Patten did some good things late in the season, and of course, Marques Colston is the man. Lance Moore and Terrance Copper have been pretty solid as the four and five guys. Beyond that though, I think there's room for improvement. Devery Henderson had way too many drops, many of them key drops. Our first round pick Robert Meacham appears to be a bust, not even suiting up for a game in his first season. On the bright side, Billy Miller looked pretty good at tight end in the last few games, and maybe he can step up if Eric Johnson goes elsewhere in free agency.

Kicker is a no-brainer. Olindo Mare must go. He had a lousy year and then got injured. We punted several times from inside the 35 because we didn't trust him to make a 50-yarder -- the very reason we brought him in. Martin Gramatica did a solid job filling in, going perfect in his few attempts with one impressive 55-yarder. Is he the long-term solution? I don't know. I'd definitely like to see some new kickers, particularly young kickers, trying for the job in camp.

Defensively, though, is where we have the most problems. Up front, we're pretty solid. Those guys were the only real bright spot on the defensive side of the ball. Our linebacking corps is average. I'm a fan of Scott Fujita, but I also wouldn't mind seeing us look at strengthening the position more. In the backfield, we need lots of help. Jason David was obviously not the answer. He was burned at least once in most every game he played this year, and there were, of course, the spectacular failures in a couple of games. I know the excuses, that he's switching from a zone defense to a man defense and needs time to adjust, but I really didn't see any improvement through the course of the year. He started the season getting burned and finished the season getting burned. I think we're fairly solid on one side with Mike McKenzie, and we've got a few promising young safeties in Josh Bullocks, Roman Harper and Chris Reis who might develop into really good players. But I'll be very disappointed if our first-round pick this year is anything but a defensive back.

Looking back at the season, it was a mixed bag of elation and aggravation. At times, the team looked poised to turn things around, at others, you wondered what happened to that team that was out there last year. There was no consistency at all. In truth, this looked like a team searching for an identity. A team that's been historically horrible that underwent an amazing transformation last year. A team that, perhaps, came into the season buying a little too much of their own hype and believing that they were a little bit better than they actually were. Certainly, most of us fans did. I believe that this season will serve as a reality check. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: Historically teams that have unexpected success have a down year the next year. It's part of the process of becoming an elite team. We're not quite the championship team that we thought we were, but I don't think we're too far away from it. We'll make the adjustments in the off-season, shore up some of our problems, hopefully get all of our injured players healed and back at full strength, and next year's squad will look a lot more like that 2006 team. So, even though I got burned before, I'm going to make that prediction again: Saints in the Super Bowl in 2009.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Review: "Empire of Ivory" by Naomi Novik

“Empire of Ivory” marks the fourth installment of Naomi Novik’s entertaining alternate history series that places dragons in our own world in the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

The series focuses on Temeraire, a Celestial dragon usually reserved only for members of Chinese royalty, who was captured while in the egg by British Navy captain William Laurence and bonded with the captain, taking him from his beloved Navy and into Britain’s Aerial Corps.

Now, the British dragons are decimated by a flu-like illness that has taken the lives of many dragons and is keeping most of the rest grounded. Temeraire seems to be immune to the disease, and the corps’ surgeons suspect it’s due to something he encountered on his recent travels. The clue sends the pair to Africa in a race against time to find the cure, both to save the lives of the other dragons and to get them back in the air before Napoleon realizes his advantage and can mount an attack.

But the untamed wilds of Africa are fraught with danger, including a group of natives who have a dragon army of their own and are determined to wipe out the slave trade — a goal that Laurence and Temeraire wholeheartedly agree with, though they can’t quite convince the tribe of that fact.

Over the course of the four books, Novik’s story has evolved from a blend of fantasy and history-based naval adventure in the style of Patrick O’Brien into a more far-reaching tale. There are dark undercurrents running through this book that make statements about equality (for both people and dragons), biological warfare and the line between duty and doing what’s right.

The strength of Novik’s work continues to be characterization of the dragons, particularly Temeraire. By giving them real personality and motivations, she’s able to make the reader forget, at least for the time you’re reading the book, that dragons aren’t real.

Some fans may be disappointed by the jarring ending which leaves Laurence and Temeraire in a great state of uncertainty. It does feel a bit like this is the first half of a longer book, but at the same time it provides a powerful hammer-blow to punctuate the actions that they’ve taken late in the novel (which I won’t reveal here for obvious reasons.) It leaves much unresolved and the reader hanging on the edge, and if you hate cliffhanger endings, it’s probably best that you wait for the next volume coming this summer which should tie up the loose ends.

With “Empire of Ivory,” Novik continues to entertain, while also managing to offer some serious social commentary. It again proves that she’s one of the best and most promising new writers in the genre.