Monthly Archives: March 2003

Prey, Michael Crichton

Harper Collins, 2002, 367 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-00-200554-9

Experienced genre critics just looove to review Michael Crichton’s novels. Rather than spend any time finding interesting things to say about the book’s strengths and weaknesses, it all too easy to dust off the old list of Crichton’s failings (provided free of charge to anyone who subscribes to the shadowy Criticaluminati! organization) and simply riff on that.

But that would be lazy. And whereas laziness has always been a hallmark of the reviews on this site, I have already discussed Crichton’s motifs several times before. It’s not as if anyone cares, but I thought I’d do something different this time around.

It’s not as if I wasn’t tempted, though. Prey is just begging to receive the full Crichton Treatment. Once again, a promising new technology (nanotechnology, to be precise) is meticulously described in luscious detail, and then exploited for cheap thrills as everything goes wrong, protagonists are threatened and the survival of the world is at stake. Bibliography provided. Added bonus reactionary points are given since the the evil characters are from a corporation and the wife of the narrator is a baaad mother. Boo!, said the peanut gallery.

But let’s tackle something else. Crichton’s unfailingly clear writing style, for instance. (Hey, when so many of your novels have been adapted by Hollywood, it’s tempting to deliver something that can be transformed in a screenplay in a few hours) Told from a first-person viewpoint (which I believe to be a first in the Crichton oeuvre), Prey flows along with nary a slowdown. It’s only after reading the first hundred pages that we come to realize how much hasn’t happened by then. (If you’ve been paying attention, though, you’re already far ahead of the protagonist. Moody personality? Ah-hah! Weird dream? Ah-hah! Disintegrating electronics? Ah-hah! The clues accumulate… even though a few of them are ultimately revealed to be meaningless even at the end.) The novel quickly rushes to its second act, a little marvel of quirky suspense that, for a while, almost makes us feel as if this is the best thing Crichton has written since Jurassic Park. This impression passes as soon as we move in the third act, a silly possession thriller that can’t be bothered to be any more original than a catwalk fight. (Though it features a nifty sequence inside an MRI machine)

Through it all, Crichton’s sceptical attitude (once again) makes a perfect foil for the subject he tackles in Prey. The dangers offered by nanotechnology, once we put aside the unconvincing features of the “evil bugs” in the novel, are obvious. Crichton’s well-worn contention that unrestrained technological development can be devastating seems obvious in light of the craziness of the late-nineties “Internet Gold Rush”. At least there wasn’t any possibility of destroying the world through the Internet. Things may very well be different with nanotech.

Still, one wonders why it’s so hard for Crichton to adopt a more balanced approach. Why do all of his novels have to be cautionary tales? Why can’t he present a more balanced approach, once in a while? Granted, his shtick is well-worn and has proven to be rather effective as a tool to get on best-seller lists. But as a true novelist, however, Crichton doesn’t inspire a lot of faith in his range.

But that’s sliding a little bit too close to the standard rant about Crichton. Truth be told, Prey‘s subject matter is more immediate than Timeline, and if details of the execution are troubling (including some of the technical details for knowledgeable readers), the overall readability of the book does a lot to distract anyone from being too critical. Flaws and all, Crichton remains of of the most reliable suspense novelists around, and Prey merely confirms it.

Rising Phoenix, Kyle Mills

Harper Choice, 1997, 486 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-101249-1

I recall being rather impressed by Kyle Mills’ second novel, Storming Heaven, a fun thriller animated by a vast conspiracy, a chilling sect inspired by Scientology and good-old-fashioned police work. It wasn’t particularly original, but it was very well executed and featured an interesting protagonist in the character of maverick FBI agent Mark Beamon.

For the same reason, I was hesitant to pick up Rising Phoenix, Mills’ first novel also featuring Mark Beamon. Had the second volume featured enough spoilers to ruin the first novel? Would this first effort measure up to the standards of the second book?

As is turns out, Rising Phoenix is a different book. First, it’s not spoiled by Storming Heaven. The two stories are very distinct, and it’s almost an accident if they both happen to have the same protagonist. Certainly, no major events or secondary characters cross over in more than a passing mention.

Furthermore, whereas Storming Heaven had a run-of-the-mill concept helped by a great execution, Rising Phoenix is closer to an original premise given life in a very ordinary fashion.

It starts as a nationally-renowned preacher gives carte blanche to an assistant (as it turns out, a sadistic ex-policeman with a record of excessive brutality) to solve, once and for all, the drug problem in America. The operative then goes and executes a plan near and dear to his heart; poison a substantial fraction of the Columbian drug supply with a deadly spore. One whiff of the poisoned material and the poison starts to act. Two weeks later—goodbye, drug user.

Terrorism by any other name, this action quickly strikes fear among the drug-using population of the United States. Given the latency period, it’s nearly impossible to quickly detect the contaminated shipments. Thousands quit their nefarious habit, drug prices shoot through the roof, Columbian drug lords go nuts and several citizen applaud the gesture. This uncommon ambiguity is further heightened when the preacher has remorse, drug lords dispatch their operatives to catch the poisoner and the government has to do something to stop the health catastrophe.

It’s up to special agent Mark Beamon to investigate the case and catch the culprit, a culprit who turns out to be an old acquaintance of his. And this is where Rising Phoenix takes a departure from a fantastic premise over to a hum-drum thriller. It’s almost as if Mills didn’t know what to do with his initial concept and had to stick in a hero to bring back law and order. It’s not as interesting as seeing an unconventional plan do some ambiguous good, mind you. A bit like Vince Flynn’s Term Limit, it’s as if the authors had to de-fang their initial idea with something closer to what the general public is able to stomach.

Oh well. At least the novel is competently written. While the concept of “poisoning America’s drug supply” may sound dubious at first, Mills makes it uncommonly believable. He also paints his characters with some skill, though the image of the antagonist is muddled though inconsistent heroics. The other letdown is the way in which an interesting political debate is toned down in favour of more straight-up police thriller mechanics. Then again, this is Mills’ first novel: some flaws are to be expected, such as the unfortunately confusing action scenes and the imperfect characterization.

But what Rising Phoenix clearly does establish is Kyle Mills’ potential as a thriller writer to watch. While both of the novels I’ve read from him so far have had flaws, they still remain good examples of capable genre novels. Worth a look.

Fatal Voyage, Kathy Reichs

Pocket, 2001, 420 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02837-5

I have made no secret, in past reviews of Kathy Reichs’ novels, of my decidedly mixed feelings about her literary output. While I’m more than happy enough to read an American writer setting stories in my quasi-native Quebec, I was rather less enthusiastic about the lack of originality and the awful contrivances of her plotting. Alas, Fatal Voyage, keeps most of the problems and few of the qualities of Reichs’ previous books.

This time, rather than steal the plot of her novel from French-Canadian headlines, Reichs is a touch more original by using a plane crash as her initial situation. As the novel opens, protagonist Tempe Brennan is in the middle of a debris field, looking dispassionately at body parts strewn across the North Carolinian landscape. As an official investigator for a disaster response team, her efforts to understand what has just happened go awry when an unidentified body part complicates her investigation. The item doesn’t fit anything else on the plane; where has it come from, then?

If you’re familiar with the old joke about an airplane crashing in a graveyard, you’re already far ahead of Reichs’ protagonist. Furthermore, chances are that you’re already half annoyed by this plot cheat. But don’t be too exasperated yet; in typical Reichs fashion, it quickly becomes apparent that her daughter might have been on the plane and that the partner of her good friend Andrew Ryan was also on the plane, escorting a dangerous criminal. Anyone else would say that these are two coincidences too many, but this kind of lazy plotting is, in fact, routine for this author. But wait; there are other howlers later in the book.

The biggest plot cheat is that the plane crash ends up being a sideshow to another, rather less interesting story about a decades-old mystery, a secret society and a bunch of killers hiding corpses in the North Carolinian wilderness. Add to that a rather dull romance and this is one Fatal Voyage where we’re constantly asking ourselves if we’re there yet. As vicious hillbillies threaten Brennan with all sort of bad things, it struck this reviewer that her untimely disappearance wouldn’t be an entirely unwelcome event.

Even the usual reliable standby of the series -the Quebec setting-, disappeared almost entirely from this particular novel. Save for a brief scene, Brennan spends the whole novel in Carolina, with only the (coincidental) presence of Sûreté du Québec policeman Andrew Ryan as a reminder of the usual setting of the series.

What’s worse is that the novel is dull. Fatally dull. The age-old conspiracies are underwhelming, the hillbillies don’t amount to much of a menace and there’s a definite sensation of having seen this before.

In fact, without being so nasty as to accuse Reichs of outright plagiarism, the opening few scenes of Fatal Voyage are very, very similar to James Thayer’s Terminal Event, which also featured an investigator taking a look at a crash scene. The various possibilities about what brought down the plane are also similar; missile, organized crime bomb, political terrorism, etc. While it’s entirely possible that Reichs has read Terminal Event before working on Fatal Voyage, I’d rather blame similar plotting than idea stealing (there are only so many ways a plane can be brought down, after all). Plus, the novels evolve in entirely different directions. Weirder synchronicity has happened before.

But it doesn’t change my perception of Fatal Voyage. Filled with implausible happenstance, kept away from distinctive Quebec and dull above everything else, Fatal Voyage is best avoided. For that matter, I’m starting to think that Reichs’ oeuvre itself is best avoided. It’s not as if there aren’t better writers out there.

Goliath, Steve Alten

Forge, 2002, 416 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30064-8

(Read in French as Goliath, translated by Marie Claude Elsen)

It must be a rotten time, in these early years of the twenty-first century, to be a techno-thriller writer. For decades, the Cold War provided a stable framework in which to set tales of global domination and intrepid freedom-loving heroes. Then, during the nineties, relative global quiet allowed them a few good years of stability battling drug cartels and (then) fictional terrorists. But even as the Bush administration seems to be engaged in a long campaign to secure everyone’s New American Century (whether they want it or not), techno-thrillers are being strangled by the incertitude. It’s no longer possible for anyone to depend on geo-political alliances that will last more than a few years, or long enough for the novel to make it to paperback. Anything can happen, and since November 2000, it seems as if just about anything has.

No longer is it possible to write an explicitly post-September-11 novel taking place in 2009 in which Baghdad is destroyed by American nuclear weapons. Or rather; it might have seemed like a good idea when I started reading Steve Alten’s Goliath, but it didn’t seem nearly so amusing by the time I finished it, as real bombs were falling over the real city, killing real people despite unreal news reports. But let’s not turn this into (yet another) dreary case of literary criticism turned political diatribe Truth is, there’s a lot to like and to skewer in Goliath, even when you shove aside the politics and the economics of starving techno-thriller writers.

Take, for instance, how Alten stuffs his usual motifs in his latest novel. It’s not enough for “Goliath” to be an incredibly powerful submarine being controlled by a renegade scientist and a pre-sentient artificial intelligence. The submarine is shaped like a Manta Ray, and its smaller submarine drones look like… sharks. After Alten’s previous Meg and The Trench, which featured giant sharks and impressive underwater wildlife details, it’s not as if he’s stretching.

This being said, Alten has obviously read a lot of military thrillers: his heart is definitely at the first place and so is his imagination. While the technical exactitude of the novel often seems stretched beyond any reasonable measure at times, Alten is first and foremost an entertainer, and he certainly delivers the goods. The opening chapter features the spectacular destruction of an American carrier group, and the action scene that details the escape of the sole survivor is as exciting as anything I remember reading in the genre recently.

Alas, Alten isn’t as skilled when comes the time to add Science Fiction in the mix. The SF-themed sections of Goliath, featuring yet another AI that flips out and wants to eradicate humanity, read like an intentional take-off on Frankenstein (Oooh, that lightning-strikes scene! It’s ALIIIVE!) mixed with a bio-mechanical monsters that seems poorly stolen from the the awful movie VIRUS. Everything’s just too easy to this mad scientist, able to design several Manhattan-sized projects single-handedly. (I can only guess it’s true when they say that being evil gives you extraordinary powers.)

There are also problems with the narrative arc of the novel. The background relationship between protagonists Rochelle Jackson and Gunnar Wolfe are mostly useless, and so is Jackson’s presence in the opening of the novel. Alten succumbed to the usual lure of making everything interconnected, making the universe of his novel look much smaller than it ought to be.

But sacrificing plausibility, be it in domains like military technology, scientific accuracy, characterization or geopolitical politics, can be forgiven if the result is interesting. And for all of its faults (and the slight last-third lull), Goliath delivers the goods when it comes to pure reading fun. So maybe, despite changing geopolitics, there’s hope for techno-thrillers after all. If the current world situation doesn’t make any sense, maybe they don’t have to either.

Turning Thirty, Mike Gayle

Flame, 2000, 350 pages, C$14.99 tpb, ISBN 0-340-76794-4

I know it’s fashionable among some genre readers to deride “general” fiction as being, somehow, un-cool. I should know; I’ve been there. When you’re used to star-spanning wars, far-reaching conspiracies, intricate murders and a bunch of dungeons and/or dragons, why even care at all about boring “relationships”? I get enough of that in my own life, thank you. What doesn’t help is the (oft-justified) sense that a lot of that so-called “mainstream” fiction are merely navel-gazing exercises by pretentious artistes with, er, deficient story-telling abilities. Life is too short; why bore myself with a dull three-hundred-pages meditation on how being single sucks? I could write such things myself.

But genre readers should also be the first ones to warn others against hasty judgements based on clichés and hasty generalizations. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, for instance, meets most of the prerequisites for general, mainstream fiction… and yet it proved to be a hilarious and impulsively readable account of modern life. Mike Gayle’s Turning Thirty is in the same tradition, down to the oh-so-fashionable iconic cover design that manages to convey its “not your parents’ gen-lit!” hip attitude.

Turning Thirty begins as its narrator manages to undergo the easiest break-up in the history of mankind. Officially single, bored with his life in fast-paced New York, lined up for a job in Australia, he decides to take a short sabbatical back in his hometown back in England. A few weeks at his parents’ place, a few reunions with old friends, some time off until it’s time to start his new job in Australia… it’s a good plan, if it wasn’t for one slight detail: the clock is ticking down to his thirtieth anniversary, and his sort-of-early-mid-life crisis is ticking along with it. An ex-girlfriend will complicate things… but then again, this sort of thing wouldn’t be worth reading if it didn’t feature tons of complications.

Fortunately, Gayle can write as well as Fielding (sigh; I need a bigger data sample. I really should start reading some Nick Hornby) when it comes to presenting the complexities of today’s younger adults. He does so from a male perspective, granted, but it doesn’t matter much one way or the other; it would be highly presumptuous to consider Turning Thirty as an examination of what it means to be thirty in today’s western democracies, but the novel is peppered with flashes of recognition that will be shared by most. (Even die-hard geeks like me get a chance to nod their heads as one character maintains that the last three hours of “Babylon 5” were the best thing ever broadcast on TV.) The dry British tone is just distant enough to offer something new to North-American readers.

While the protagonist’s lack of decisiveness can be annoying (and depressing) at time, Turning Thirty is easy reading; just sit down on a sunny afternoon and turn the pages. There are plenty of laughs, plenty of good turns of phrases and plenty of plain good fun. I wasn’t terribly impressed by the wimpy resolution (which doesn’t seem solidly motivated), but plenty of room is left in the epilogue to suggest that the likely couple will get to snoggle a lot once the final page is turned.

All told, this is one worthwhile non-genre novel. Deftly mixing romantic pains, growing-up concerns, a heavy dose of nostalgia with assorted musings on modern life, Turning Thirty is the kind of novel worth reading, worth sharing and worth discussing. Not perfect, but good enough that it doesn’t matter.

The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, Lawrence Block

Dutton, 1994, 293 pages, C$31.95 tpb, ISBN 1-874-06147-5

(Read in French as Le Blues du Libraire, translated by Robert Pépin)

Writing a novel about the virtues of books is clearly an exercise in preaching to the converted, but then again, so is going to the church to hear a sermon, and I haven’t heard anyone complaining about that lately. Some of the best crime mysteries I’ve read over the past year have been John Dunning’s “Cliff Janeway” mysteries (Booked to Die and The Bookman’s Wake) if only for the sheer love of books exhibited in those novels. The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams is another title in the same vein, about a protagonist who loves books.

Now, I’m probably showing my ignorance of Lawrence Block’s entire oeuvre by comparing The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams to Dunning’s diptych. A cursory glance at his entire output so far, courtesy of Amazon.com, shows a number of other novels starring Bernie Rhodenbarr, the protagonist of the novel discussed here. For all I know, those are all better books.

But if they are, I’m impressed. The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams is the perfect example of the evening time-waster, the kind of novel fit to be read in a single sitting. It features, conveniently enough, a ex-con bookseller who’s trying to stay straight even ten years after his last conviction. But like an addiction to liquor, thievery is hard to resist, especially when events are driving him to desperation: It’s not easy being a used book seller in New York. When his landlord drops in to confirm a vertiginous hike in building fees, Bernie is at a loss. But when an alluring hint is dropped about a rich couple being away from their apartment for months, well…

That’s barely the setup of the novel, mind you. Once Bernie dons his cat-suit for the first time in a decade, trouble just keeps on piling over him. He’ll discover a body hidden in the empty apartment, puzzle over a locked-room mystery, realize he’s been set-up, answer to the police, perform a few “exceptional” services and discover unsettling links between his predicaments and his landlord. Plus, yes, he will trade Ted Williams as he’ll piece together the mystery.

Some crime novels are written to heavy metal, some to Latin salsa and some to classical opera. This one is closer to cool refreshing jazz, seeing how comfortable it all feels. Bernie may often omit crucial details in his narration, but what would be unforgivable in another context seems almost inconsequential here as we’re swept away in Bernie’s tale. It’s useless to be picky about the way the narrator lies to us: The details don’t matter very much (in fact, I can’t even remember whole chunks of the plot even days after reading the book), but the atmosphere definitely persists. The matter-of-fact way Bernie describes his illicit escapades hides a variety of procedural details in plain sight, allowing us inside Bernie’s head as he goes through other people’s houses.

A subtle humor permeates the book, including a discussion about the sexual orientation of famous mystery protagonists. Few will be surprised to see a cat being part of the tale. And all throughout, the carefree, easy-going narration of Block/Rhodenbarr just helps the reader turn the pages away. It ends, classically enough, with Bernie rounding up the usual suspects and giving them the straight story. It’s all very amusing.

One doesn’t have to love books, or cats, or baseball to like The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams. It’s a perfectly respectable mystery novel on its own. Just relax and be swept away.

Tears Of The Sun (2003)

(In theaters, March 2003) Though Bruce Willis has been moving toward John Wayne territory for a while, this is the film that will solidify his image as the newest tough elder/actor/warrior. We’ve seen Willis in other movies, and here it doesn’t take much more than a moment to get a full grasp of his character’s professional weariness. That, in itself, works wonders to boost the believability of Tears Of The Sun, a war drama that may no be all that credible, but with such an earnest message it’s hard to pooh-pooh. Released scant weeks before the start of the Iraq War, this is a film that seems to espouse the “New American Century” party line of vigorous military intervention in face of atrocities. Is this reading too much politics in what should be an action movie? Hey, movies do not exist in a vacuum, and this is only truer in these troubled times. In case anyone misses the allusion during the film, it closes with the famous quote “the only thing required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Too bad that it’s so inconsistent in its execution: There is something wrong in seeing Monica Belluci’s carefully-sweaty cleavage featured in a film where mammary mutilation is used as a manipulative element. There is something weird in seeing an experienced military officer throw everything in jeopardy on flimsy motivations. There’s something incongruous in ending a dour military film with an orgy of fuel-air explosions. There’s something dumb is seeing someone make a phone call from the deck of an aircraft carrier as planes are leaving. There’s a lot to like in Tears Of The Sun (terrific combat sequences, lush cinematography, Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci) but also a lot of elements that don’t fit in nearly as well. This isn’t a pleasant film, but its biggest mistake is that it still tried to be so.

Poolhall Junkies (2002)

(In theaters, March 2003) From the first few frames, it’s obvious that Poolhall Junkies tries to be very very cool. It often tries too hard, but that’s a common enough flaw in movies by a rookie actor/writer/director. In this case, Gregory ‘Mars’ Martin (or is it “Mars Callahan”?) turns out a film that’s a lot of fun to watch despite small flaws here and there. For one thing, this is a film about pool. Yes, billiard. There have been other movie on that theme before (and they’ll all come to mind during this film) but for fans of the sport, this alone makes this film essential. A celebration of hustling in all of its forms, Poolhall Junkies is a not-entirely-successful blend of genre (some parts seem taken from American Pie, crime thrillers, romantic comedies and sport dramas) but the rewards offered by the film are numerous, including a fantastic cameo by Christopher Walken and some very cool pool tricks. The rest of the acting talent is a mixture between the old pros (Chazz Palminteri and Rod Steiger in a tiny role) and newcomers with things to learn from the pros. Some moments are, for lack of a better expression, too self-consciously cool –with unintentionally amusing results. (“I’m going to get my brother!”) This won’t matter much for an audience looking for new independent films, pool coolness or a diverting time out: Poolhall Junkies will fit the bill. Don’t miss it; it’s an update of classic pool material by a filmmaker exhibiting considerable promise.

The Hunted (2003)

(In theaters, March 2003) By now, we’ve seen so many movies about escaped psycho ex-special-forces fugitives that we can dispose with exposition. And that’s exactly the path taken by The Hunted, a film that feels like a snappy adaptation of a lengthier novel. It cares so much about its audience’s comfort that it even features Tommy Lee Jones in the exact same role he’s played in half of his movies for the past decade. It’s strictly hunter-hunted stuff (appropriately enough), but executed with a brutal flair that doesn’t flinch as blood sprays under the cool north-western drizzle. The final battle is particularly punishing, as the two lead characters keep on bashing each other with a variety of painful instruments. There’s nothing nice or cool about the violence in The Hunted, and that alone sets it apart from most run-of-the-mill thrillers. Alas, it’s not nearly enough to make it memorable. The bare-bones script has intriguing elements, but they’re quickly forgotten in the rush to the conclusion. Some characters, such as most of the female characters, appear for a scene or two and then quietly disappear in the background. It’s enough to make anyone wonder about a bunch of presumably deleted scenes. (One scene that should have been deleted, however, is the one where a massive manhunt is interrupted as both lead characters take the time to fashion knives from rocks and scrap metal. Hey, no kidding.) In the end, The Hunted may be brutal, but it’s not much more than that.

A Short Victorious War (Honor Harrington 3), David Weber

Baen, 1994, 376 pages, C$7.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-87596-5

By this third volume of the Honor Harrington series, readers know what to expect, and for Weber not to deliver would be cruel given the exciting setup suggested by the title: war! Once again, we will see protagonist Honor Harrington battle against impossible odds and triumph after numerous obstacles. What can I say? It’s a best-selling recipe. Weber has already won the hearts and the minds of most of the military Science Fiction readership.

Avoiding ennui may be slightly harder for readers not entirely devoted to the military-SF sub-genre. It’s all good and cool for Harrington to unleash considerable whup-ass on her adversaries, but after three volumes, it gets to be tiresome.

Let’s see: Once again, the eeevil Havenites socialists (grrr!) are on the warpath. They think they can simply wage a little war against Manticorian allies, win it in a flash, bolster their treasury and quieten domestic dissent in the process. Naturally, there is one slight unpredictable factor in their plan: Honor Harrington, who has recently assumed command of the battlecruiser HMS Nike. She’s mean, she’s tough and she’s got a score or two to settle with the Havenites. Alas, she’s also stuck around Pavel Young, another old adversary who also has a score to settle with her…

At least A Short Victorious War manages to widen the scope of her actions. Whereas the action of the first two volumes was focused on one-on-one naval battles, this third entry shows us not only part of the action behind Havenite enemy lines, but expands Harrington’s field of command to encompass a small fleet of ships. It also delves a little bit deeper in the political and diplomatic ramifications of her career, expanding the credibility of the universe she evolves in. Obviously, Harringtons’ future adventures should evolve beyond the strictly military aspect, and this third volume is a promising development.

On a personal level, this is also the book in which Harrington comes to grip with her injuries of the previous volume. It is also the novel where She Gets Some (and, surprisingly enough, the one who gives it to her doesn’t Get It by the end of the story). Her cadre of friends and influential allies is strengthened; I was particularly enamoured by Michelle “Mike” (ugh) Henke and the growing influence of the Earl of “White Haven”.

Fortunately, the readability of Weber’s prose here is still as good as anything else he’s done; it helps enormously that Harrington is a wonderful character; the interest of A Short Victorious War diminishes sharply whenever she’s off-screen. (Hence the consequent lull in the middle of the book, though it can also be blames on the necessity to place all pieces in play for the last big battle) It also seemed to me as if he also managed to improve the pacing of his strictly military action scenes; the ending of this third entry is improved by some personal stakes in the final battle.

All good, then, for the series. As you may infer, I’m still wishing for a greater variety in the plotting; those big final battles are getting tiresome, especially when there’s no doubt as to how they’ll turn out. Still, the series keeps most of its interest, and all signs point to an expansion of the series in latter volumes. Bring on the fourth.

Dreamcatcher (2003)

(In theaters, March 2003) Take a large blender, stuff in as many Stephen King novels you can, set everything to puree and let it spin. Then let the result rot for a few weeks and you’ll have the main elements of Dreamcatcher. The saving grace of the film is how it manages to polish a trash B-movie script that teeters on the edge of parody and -somehow- transform it in a horror film that looks as if it can fool some of the audience in thinking it’s actually any good. Gleefully mixing psychic powers, childhood friendships, evil aliens, explosive parasites, nutty soldiers and a large dose of phallic imagery, Dreamcatcher plays a lot like a drunken send-up of the Stephen King oeuvre. Alas, it never even seems to realize how ludicrous it is: Director Lawrence Kasadan puts a professional gloss over the whole production that visually sets it apart from most of the B-movie schlock out there. There are plenty of gory moments, CGI critters and yucky scenes, so all will not be lost for horror fans. But others may wince at the dialogue, the literal representations of elements so familiar to King’s symbolism and the atrocious ending. Dreamcatcher is seldom dull, but it’s even more rarely satisfying. Morgan Freeman is wasted, but his eyebrows turn in a memorable performance. In some ways, this film will be remembered –as a train wreck of a movie, a gloriously gonzo mishmash of ill-fitting parts and a liberal rip-offs of other works. It’s a bad film, but a spectacularly bad one.

The Core (2003)

(In theaters, March 2003) Let’s first settle one detail: Yes, The Core can be tremendously stupid at times. Even I, quite willing to give the film every chance it asked for, nearly lost it completely at the geode sequence. Scientific mistakes abound, and that’s not even counting the numerous times where the special effects completely misinterpreted the script (I can accept the Coliseum being destroyed by huge lightning strikes, but seeing it explode? Ahem.) And yet, and yet, despite the predictable nature of the plot (Who dies next? Take your pick. Or don’t, because it’s already obvious.), the early silliness (so, what, they had a whole convention of pacemaker-wearing people?) and the dull characters (D.J. Qualls as an elite hacker. Ergh.), I found a lot of things to love in The Core. For one thing, this is exactly the type of city-destroying disaster film I feared they wouldn’t be made in the wake of the September 11th events. (Though, times changing as quickly as they are, shuttle crashes and tragic Frenchmen have acquired a very different resonance in between the production of the film and its release.) Second on my list of warm and fuzzy feelings about the film was the variety of (often poorly integrated) cool scenes, from seeing the Golden Gate Bridge get it to a few nifty camera shots. Finally, and this may be my biggest yay-movie sentiment, The Core is a straight-up shot of Golden-Age Hard-SF. You know; the genre where humanity’s cleverness is its own biggest virtue, evil characters see the errors of their ways and disaster is narrowly averted. The kind of stuff I like. Even despite whatever misgivings I may have about the rest of the film.

Basic (2003)

(In theaters, March 2003) There’s a fine line between a good and a bad twist ending, but Basic stepped over the line well before its final few minutes, roughly at about the time it becomes obvious that the film will make absolutely no sense. Good twist endings allow you to go back and watch the film in an entirely new light, but no such exercise is possible with Basic. This isn’t a Rashomon-like exercise in truth-telling… not when everyone’s lying with radically versions of the story that have no reasonable reason to exist. Don’t bother trying to make sense of the film; smarter people than us all have tried and failed. (Can anyone explain the sudden closet fight/kiss? I mean; really?) Oh well; at least John Travolta is a lot of fun to watch throughout, perhaps the only reason anyone would have to sit through this mess. The headache-inducing cinematography is filled with rain, thunder and lighting, making this film best enjoyed at home rather than the theatre. It’s a measure of how the film squanders its potential that it features two of the most attractive women working in film today (Connie Nielsen and the luscious Roselyn Sanchez) only to stick them in deeply unattractive outfits. Not to mention the waste of such actors as Samuel L. Jackson (in what amounts to a quasi-cameo), Taye Diggs or Harry Connick Jr. A lot of missed opportunities here, in a film that ought to have been much better. It’s still quite entertaining -the ending alone makes it all seem pretty cool-, but it could have been much, much better.

Blood Work, Michael Connelly

Warner, 1998, 498 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60262-0

Anyone with the slightest interest in how badly Hollywood can botch a book adaptation has to take in account Clint Eastwood’s 2002 take on Michael Connelly’s Blood Work. While I’m sure this is hardly a unique case of a screenwriter savaging an original work, BLOOD WORK has the particularity of featuring not only a completely new ending (a common enough event in cinematic adaptation) but a brand-new villain! Indeed, the identity of the serial killer is switched from one character to another from book to movie, along with the villain’s family name just to make things even more confusing. The result, as you may expect, is a bit of a mess, bringing down a rather good novel to the level of a predictable crime thriller.

In light of this, reading the novel after seeing the movie can be a very interesting experience.

The initial premise stays the same, mind you: A convalescent detective (Terry McCaleb), recuperating from a heart transplant, is asked to investigate the murder of his very own organ donor. Mix in a romantic entanglement with the client, (the sister of the donor), a steady accumulation of clues as well as a sadistic serial killer who just won’t quit and you’ve got yourself a delicious little crime thriller.

Alas, other aspects are decidedly less endearing. The various nauseous double-entendres about hearts, blood, love and whatnot are tiresome, and so is some of the romance between McCaleb and “the client”. Feel free to be queasy as you see fit.

Also less successful is the exasperating ending, which was thankfully shortened in the movie. Rather than wrap up the book in a timely fashion, we get an entirely new act in isolated Mexico. The movie’s wrap-up may have been indistinguishable from dozen of other movie shoot’em ups, but at least it had the merit of being over in five short minutes.

Fortunately, Connelly’s writing is fluid enough to make even a padded ending still feel interesting. His writing is crisp, flows well and has an eye for detail. The novel usually hits its stride whenever it turns to the purely procedural elements of the plot. Our protagonist’s forays in the workings of the organ donor system, his careful examinations of crime evidence, his intuitive leaps of logic are easily the most fascinating elements of the book.

It adds additional interest that McCaleb is a convalescent detective. Unlike the usual manly, two-fisted private detectives that usually drive crime thrillers, McCaleb needs a driver, can’t get too worked up and has to consult a medical specialist before engaging in strenuous activities. I’ll bet you haven’t seen that elsewhere in crime fiction. The biggest difference between the book and the film, and the biggest mistake made by the film, isn’t the ending or the different identity of the serial killer, but the nature of the changes made to McCaleb. Whereas he’s a portly forty-year-old in the novel, production concerns dictated that the protagonist of the film became none other than seventy-years-old Clint Eastwood. (It’s hard to say no when he’s also directing the film) This completely modified the impression left by the story on-screen, where we’re more liable to worry about Eastwood slipping and breaking a hip than having a heart attack. The various action scenes gratuitously thrown in the script also didn’t help the film’s credibility given the condition of the protagonist. One thing is for sure: you won’t read about McCaleb firing a shotgun at a speeding car in this novel, no sir!

None of this matters, of course, if you’ve never seen the film. All in all, you’re still better off reading the book. The story slowly gives way to a pretty cool twists (which most seasoned readers will see coming, but is still pretty nifty nonetheless) and the wealth of procedural details is fascinating in its own right. Blood Work is worth a look regardless of the movie tie-in. After all, it surely doesn’t come across as any surprise to learn that the book is usually better than the movie, right?