Monthly Archives: December 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling

Raincoast, 2000, 636 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 1-55192-337-8

Another Potter movie, another Potter book, another review where I struggle to find something to say.

At this point, I mean, what is left to write? Amazon.com lists no less than 4 198 reviews for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire alone. It’s been read, reviewed, pirated, plagiarized, parodied and pilloried by thousands of people, most of whom are much smarter than I am. What else is there to add to the critical carnival?

Not much except for my own impressions, most of whom boil down to “eh, I liked it.”

The fun part with the Potter book so far, of course, is that even with the enormous hype, the mainstream spoilers, the merchandising, the myth-making, it’s possible to just sit down with the book and read it fresh, reasonably confident that it’s still going to be a worthwhile read.

And so this fourth volume begins like the others, as Harry is spending the last days of the summer with his evil mundane (er, muggle) relatives. Before long, through, it’s back in the magical world, back in Hogwarts, and back in unspeakable peril as The-One-Who’s-Always-Coming-Back is, well, coming back. As Harry and cohort are now 14, this leaves ample opportunity for more conventional teenage drama, including the dreaded “whom shall I take to the ball?” question. The budding romance between Hermione and Ron advances a bit, but not as much as Harry’s funny feelings for Cho.

If, like me, you’re reading along with the movie release schedule, you won’t be surprised to see that the fourth film left out a lot of background material from the book. The entire house-elf subplots are gone, along with bits of characterization (such as Harry’s anger fits) and smaller, more amusing moments. The journalist character, dropped in mid-film, is present through the whole book. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire isn’t exactly a fast-paced page-turner, but at least it keeps the considerable charm of the series so far: reading the book is like slipping in old comfortable slippers.

Not that it’s all fun and games, of course. Harry and his friends may just want to pass their exams and have fun with each other, but they’re stuck in a situation not of their own choosing. As this instalment makes it clear, the whole Voldermort situation has a rich political history, with shades of McCarthy-like witch-hunting (ahem) and complex personal histories. Among the book’s new characters is the newest Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody, a man with a rich past in special operations… The higher authorities of British magic also get a bigger role this time around, leading this “children” book in very adult places.

The Potterverse also expands significantly in this instalment, with the arrival of foreign wizards in Hogwarts. It’s been a stated wish of mine that the very English magic of the Potterverse be expanded to take in account foreign flavours of the supernatural, and so we here get a glimpse of magic as performed in France (Beauxbatons) and Eastern Europe (Durmstrang). If we’re lucky, we may get to see a little bit more of the world in subsequent volumes.

The big plot segment of this volume, though, is the Tri-Wizard tournament, which purports to find a “best” wizard through a contest of magical abilities. You probably won’t be surprised to learn who wins: While the Potter series may be charming, it becomes somewhat contrived at times. In fact, the big finale is likely to engender questions like “wasn’t there an easier way for the villains to reach their objectives?” Harry himself is curiously passive (although less so than in the movie) and exhibits better networking than magical ability.

But (making “bla-bla-bla” sign with hands), none of that really matters to anyone likely to read book four of the series. Perfectly pre-packaged to fans, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire delivers on its promises and expands the series in a satisfying fashion. No further comments are required.

(Well, maybe another: This didn’t deserve to win the 2001 Hugo Award. But I digress.)

I am Jackie Chan, Jackie Chan & Jeff Yang

Ballantine, 1998, 398 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-42913-3

As I write this, it looks as if Jackie Chan’s reputation in Hollywood has been wrung out: Despite a pair of successes with the Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon series and the promise of a third Rush Hour, Chan’s other western films have not impressed anyone: The leaden and faintly creepy The Tuxedo was followed by the pointless The Medallion, which was trashed by critics and went unseen by audiences. Seeing this almost-criminal waste of talent, one can’t really fault Chan for heading back to Hong-Kong and more favourable projects.

And yet, if you ask around, you will see that Jackie Chan remains, if not a household name, at least a well-known action cinema icon. There’s a good reason for that: From 1985 (POLICE STORY) to 1994 (DRUNKEN MASTER II), Chan starred in a handful of films that can justifiably be called action classics. What’s more, Chan mastered a unique screen personae based on a mixture of goofy charm and jaw-dropping stunt prowesses. Chan reliably became his own brand, uncopyable by anyone else.

But this success was a long time in the making. Born in 1954 Hong Kong, Chan was enrolled at a very young age in a small academy with rough living conditions, an apprenticeship that taught him the skills and will to succeed in latter projects. Many years of further struggles within the Hong-Kong film industry eventually led to a number of lucky breaks, and then to the global super-stardom that we know even today.

It’s no surprise if most of his autobiography I am Jackie Chan (as told to Jeff Yang), is spent describing those early hungry years: While Chan’s latter success-story is known to most, his apprenticeship is more mysterious, and here well-described in evocative anecdotes. As Chan acknowledges, his tutelage would easily be classified as child-abuse in the West, but he’s visibly proud of his training and the skills he developed during this period. As a reader, it makes for fascinating and cringe-inducing reading. On one hand, the atmosphere of Hong Kong during the sixties and seventies is well-pictured; on the other, his memories don’t seem fun at all. (Neither do most of his American adventures, but that story isn’t new.)

Anyone who has heard Chan in interviews know that his English is hardly perfect (late in the book, he even allows himself a crack at how, with the upcoming rise of China, everyone will have to learn Chinese; whether he means Cantonese or Mandarin is not specified); in this context Jeff Yang’s work in translating not just the words and stories, but feel and context of Chan’s life becomes even more admirable. The book reads breezily as if it was a monologue by Chang, enlivened by reconstructed conversations. It flows well, and provides just enough background information to tie everything together, from Chan’s family story (an incredible adventure in its own right) to the particular context of Hong-Kong movie-making.

As this is an autobiography, what’s missing is Chan’s darker side, even though he does acknowledge a number of mistakes and youthful indiscretions. One supposes that Chan’s rumoured womanizing and early-year excesses will be more evenly described in unauthorized biographies. At least Chan clears up the various organized-crime rumours concerning his departure to Golden Harvest. (Hmm… also missing is an index for the book.) A complete list of his injuries and films (those he can remember, anyway: Hong-Kong produced films by the truckload in his early years) completes the book.

Obviously, this book is for Jackie Chan fans, especially those who already have a rough idea of his career and movies. There is often a sense that Chan is working himself up to the story that fans really want to hear, and the looser focus on his successful years makes it a bit difficult for non-fans to figure out why Chan is such a legend. Reading the book alongside a DVD player and a stack of his greatest hits is not a bad idea.

As for Chan himself, I’m willing to bet that his eclipse is temporary: In addition to the long-rumoured RUSH HOUR 3 project, you can bet that despite his advancing years, Chan will not be refused much in Hong Kong studios. If Americans don’t know what to do with him, let’s just enjoy what he does on his home court.

Tricky Business, Dave Barry

Putnam, 2002, 320 pages, C$35.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14924-4

Regardless of what’s actually in Florida’s water supply, its place at the problem child of American states is, by now, quite secure. It’s always been, really, but its 2000-2005 temper tantrums, what with hanging chads, repeated hurricanes, Terry Schiavo and assorted weirdness, have made its weirdness unassailable, even from Texas. Is it any coincidence if Florida has also developed the funniest school of crime-fiction writers? This is unlikely to be a coincidence.

Dave Barry, of course, has no reputation to establish: The Pulitzer Prize on his mantelpiece is license enough to write whatever he wants. But beyond the award-winning humour column and the best-selling humour books, there is always time for something else. After Big Trouble, whose underrated movie adaptation you may have caught at one time or another, Dave Barry tries a second full-length crime novel with Tricky Business. The result is as pleasant as anything you may imagine from Dave Barry, but I can’t shake the stray thought that it may be better experienced… as a movie.

Not that it’s unworthy as a book-bound piece of fiction. As with Big Trouble, it slaps together an ensemble cast of unlikely Florida residents in a crime caper novel whose madcap nature emerges full-blown during the last half of the novel. In Tricky Business‘s case, all characters eventually converge toward a floating casino, the Extravaganza of the Seas, where a high-stakes robbery is about to take place. There can’t be that much money involved without organized crime, and there can’t be organized crime without police presence. Add to that a pair of seniors out for a night of fun and a mediocre rock band headlined by a guy still living with his mother and you’ve got the ingredients required for three hundred pages of fun.

And fun it is, or at the very least unpretentious beach reading. Tricky Business may not score all that high on the laugh-o-meter, but it’s hypnotically readable in less than an evening: The chuckles are constant throughout and the protagonists are drawn with some skill. The novel isn’t equally successful with all characters (the bad guys, most notably, are flat and not particularly well distinguished), but we don’t need them to go through the novel.

As far as the plot is concerned, this is a novel with a lot of movement, but little overarching plot: People move frantically to get on board, and then from one end of the ship to the other as the bullets start flying, but readers without the patience to piece together an intricate whodunit shouldn’t worry about keeping track of who’s doing what. Tricky Business takes place on a single day (you’re unlikely to spend any more time reading the book itself) and ends as sweetly as would befit a comic novel.

Not that anyone seriously reads Barry for the plot. In terms of jokes, Barry makes the most out of a flatulent character and an “Action News” station whose newscasters are a bigger danger to themselves than valuable news sources. The rest of the novel is a lot more sedate despite the sex and violence sprinkled throughout. Tricky Business is entirely safe to read on the bus: you’re unlikely to be raked with laughter from one page to another.

But don’t let that discourage you from picking it up if you’re in the mood for a little criminal silliness. While it’s certainly not better than the rest of the Florida school of comic crime-fiction (Carl Hiassen and Laurence Shames are generally more dependable), there’s still enough in here to keep anyone interested. Why not wait for the movie adaptation and buy the paperback?

The Golden Age Trilogy, John C. Wright

SFBC, 2003, 848 pages, US$17.99 hc, ISBN 0-7394-3965-0

(Omnibus containing The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant and The Golden Transcendence)

Whew. Whoah. Wow.

It’s difficult to be coherent after reading through The Golden Age Trilogy, John C. Wright’s bravura debut performance. A dense idea-a-page vision of a far future where no certitudes remain, this trilogy is a challenge in more ways than one: Packed with concepts, it will defy critics, exhaust readers and make fellow SF writers whimper in despairing envy. I loved it without reservations, but history will note that it took me five months to read it from the first to the last page.

For someone who reads SF for its heady mix of ideas, philosophy, speculations and intellectual daring, The Golden Age Trilogy is a dream come true. It comes close to Charles Stross’ Accelerando in sheer density of new ideas, and I never thought I’d write this so soon after reading Accelerando. I note with some humility that The Golden Age Trilogy predates Stross’ masterpiece (and Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes, with which it has a number of speculative similarities) by two years, leading me to wonder how I could have missed the series when it first came out.

Not that the wait didn’t have its side benefits: Originally published by Tor as The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant and The Golden Transcendence in 2002 and 2003, The Golden Age Trilogy was republished in an omnibus edition by the Science-Fiction Book Club, and there’s little doubt in my mind that this is the preferred edition of the story. While the trilogy has natural breaks in the action that allowed for a three-volume split, it was really conceived as a single story.

In a few words, The Golden Age Trilogy is post-singularity science fiction in which our protagonist, Phaeton, discovers decade-long gaps in his memory. Upon investigations, he is very clearly told that he himself placed those memory locks, and that dire things would happen if he chose to override them, up to and including bankruptcy and existential exile from the “Golden Oecumene” in which he lives like a god. It goes without saying that he’ll become too curious for his own good, especially after convincing himself that the very existence of the Golden Oecumene is at stake.

There’s a lot more to it, though. Fully half the fun of The Golden Age Trilogy is in discovering the wonderful world of the Oecumene, which has long since been freed from most human problems. Thanks to neural modifications, universal omnipotence and careful eugenics, death is extinct, crime is literally non-existent; police enforcement has been delegated to only one individual. Post-humans have immesurable IQs, multiple avatars, fabulous dwellings, all-powerful AI assistants (House AI “Rhadamantus” is one of the book’s highlight) and infinite possibilities for entertainment or achievement. But not all is well in paradise, as Phaeton discovers. For instance, there’s the curious matter of extra-solar exploration, quickly abandoned after only one failed colony…

From the very first chapter, The Golden Age Trilogy has the scope and inventiveness of the very best science-fiction. Wright writes with verve and seemingly bottomless invention: There are enough ideas here to fill a trilogy of trilogies. The characters of the story effortlessly move within a world where post-humans are only one type of intelligence (watch out for those sophotechs!), and where everything we know (including notions like gender, bodies, reality, memory, and so on) are infinitely mutable. In one mind-twisting sequence late in the first book of the trilogy, Phaeton breaks the memory locks and causes people across the entire solar system to remember what had been forbidden. Whew! Elsewhere in the trilogy, a stairway to heaven is climbed down, nanotechnology is used to all purposes and a mile-long spaceship acts as a MacGuffin. The first volume takes place mostly in enhanced reality (with occasional cold glimpses of raw environments), but the second puts Phaeton smack down into good old mortality, with compelling results. The third volume is almost too wild for words, ascending and switching between levels of reality with post-human glee.

This isn’t your father’s science-fiction, and yet the trilogy is infused with classical concepts. Wright is smarter than his readers and isn’t shy about proving it: His prose style has a classical rigour and sophistication that is surprisingly pleasant to read. As character conversations essentially amount to legal arguments, it’s easy to be swept along with the cadence and vocabulary of a style whose roots go straight to Latin and Greek literature: The prose is only a part of it.

Then there’s a surprising amount of comedy: Daphne, Phaeton’s wife, is blessed with an increasing number of great lines as the story advances and she assumes the mantle of the pragmatic reader stand-in. (On the other hand, for all the infinitely changing nature of the Oecumene, it’s all too easy to picture Phaeton as the square-jawed hero and Daphne as the swooning love interest.)

The Golden Age Trilogy is an impressive achievement. It’s not light reading, through. Daunted by the length of the book, the density of the prose and the overall lack of narrative drive (I wanted to know what happened next; I just wasn’t in a hurry to find out), it took me five months of reading, sometimes only a few pages per day interspersed between other books, to make my way from one cover to another. This isn’t a book made for casual beach-side entertainment: Wright is after meatier intellectual objectives. The future of the human race, the philosophical point of continued civilization and the very nature of the truths we hold to be self-evident are all discussed here, sometime in labyrinthine detail.

Generally speaking, the first third of the book is the most worthwhile: There’s a glorious spirit of discovery to Wright’s imagined universe, and the sheer density of concepts to grasp all at once makes for high-intensity reading. The two other thirds are a bit more talky, a bit less surprising, a bit too twisty for their own sake. They’re still enjoyable, but by the time the story reaches its conclusion, it’s entirely acceptable to mutter dark sentiments of will-you-finish-the-story-already?

It also strikes me that my idiosyncratic reaction to the book, exhausted, sometimes exasperated but satisfied and definitely awed, is unlikely to be shared by other readers. I can imagine some readers giving up on the book. Looking around the web for other critical assessments, I see that a number of other readers were more baffled than satisfied.

This, in turn, may serve to explain why the series as a whole, and the first book in particular, didn’t get the level of acclaim that such a blockbuster series should have earned. None of the books got anywhere close to the Hugos or the Nebulas. Perhaps their profile was too slight to earn a nomination. Perhaps, given the close-knit nature of the books, people were waiting for the final volume to make an assessment. Per
haps everyone spent months reading them. Whatever the reason, I think that The Golden Age Trilogy will find a place in the genre’s history as one of the first true Science-Fiction books of the twenty-first century. If there’s a rehabilitation to be made, it starts here: While not perfect, this is the good stuff; this deserves to be read widely. For those who can handle it.

Fallen Dragon, Peter F. Hamilton

Warner Aspect, 2002, 630 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-52708-4

One of my pet notions lately has been the thought that civilization is a by-product of excess capacity. A group of people scrounging for food and shelter doesn’t have time for philosophy, art and leisure. It’s only with a little bit of redundancy, of waste, of unused potential and free time that we build the things that make like fun and comfortable. Hence my discomfort at concepts such as “efficiency”, “just-in-time inventory”, “outsourcing” and “return on investment”: By cutting away the so-called fat, you end up without a reserve and, eventually, in a constant state of emergency.

A projection of this unease in the future does nothing to qualm my fears: It goes without saying that our first space colonists will live a hard and uncomfortable life, even if Earth manages to solve its own problems. The implacable laws of “efficient” economics will see to that. With Fallen Dragon, Peter F. Hamilton pushes this notion to a logical dead-end, imagining far-flung colonies whose existence are made economically viable by organized piracy.

It’s not called piracy, of course, just as “outsourcing” and “service fees” are never called “being greedy”. In Hamilton’s grim future, “asset realization” is the process by which the multinationals who financed the colonies (or bought back their establishment contracts) invade the colonies and take all the valuables back to Earth to line the company coffers. At regular decade-long intervals, heavily-armed ships descend upon colonies, establishing rule of law and scouring the planet for low-volume, high-value loot. It’s all scrupulously legal, of course. But try telling that to those who don’t agree with the practise.

Our protagonist is one of those, and he’s arguably in a position to do something about it: As a squad leader in the corporate appropriation forces, Lawrence Newton is having an increasing amount of trouble rationalizing what he’s doing. A number of flashbacks tell us why. The only reason he’s hanging on for one more mission is the conviction that the Thallspring system has something very interesting hidden on its surface. Little does he know that this very thing, this fallen dragon, is going to make life pure hell for him, his squad, and the entire practise of asset realization.

After the massive Night’s Dawn Trilogy, Peter F. Hamilton is almost taking a break with the relatively slim (!) Fallen Dragon. But at 630 pages, there’s enough space in here for two novels, and that’s almost what we get: A first story, military SF-style, about piracy on faraway colonies and a well-organized resistance to the pillaging. Then there’s another novel, crammed in the last third of the book, about something much closer to space opera than to economic extrapolation. Some readers are bound to be annoyed by the unsuccessful melding between the two stories; perhaps Hamilton, in his hurry to get to his “fallen dragon” concept, ended up writing a longer and better military-SF story than he expected. It’s certainly far more interesting that the type of military SF self-consciously published by, ahem, Baen: Hamilton’s not a veteran himself, and his prose gets straight to the dramatic point of the scene without too many acronyms in the way.

What’s interesting about Fallen Dragon is that even if, in retrospect, you can see how the “fallen dragon” of the last act influences the rest of the novel, many of those influences seem dull and frustrating as they happen: The action is often interrupted by lengthy chapters describing the protagonist’s personal history, and they are certainly not vital to our understanding of his situation: A few selected flashbacks might have worked far more efficiently than an entire parallel storyline. But then again, Fallen Dragon may also have been better without its titular dragon.

This doesn’t detract from the reading pleasure offered by Hamilton’s prose. He may never use just one word when three can fit, but Fallen Dragon, like his previous books, is easy to read and not without its share of good moments. The gadgetry alone (what with its rather-destructible “skins”) is worth a look. While I was never totally convinced by the rationalization of colonial asset realization, it does make a horrible sense in the same fashion as suicidal economic practises like outsourcing and subcontracting seem to do: If it’s twisted and brings short-term gain to someone, you can guarantee that someone will be desperate enough to try it. Especially if there isn’t any excess capacity available.

The Business, Iain Banks

Abacus, 1999, 472 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-349-11244-4

My previous reading experiences at the hands of Iain (M.) Banks have been of the hit-and-miss variety: For every decently entertaining The Algebraist, there’s been a pointless Inversions. As a writer, Banks enjoys an excellent reputation, but it takes a special kind of reader to appreciate his various stylistic tricks. Invariably, discussing his books is more interesting that actually reading them.

The Business is the first “Iain Banks” novel I’ve read. The author, aware of the divide between mainstream and genre SF fiction, has long encouraged the thin pretence of dual careers by having the SF stuff published with the M initial. The Business, taking place in modern times, has no need for the squids-in-space M.

But don’t assume that Banks’ SF-molded mind is too far away from the genre. The Business is written with an outlook on, well, business that will immediately feel familiar to the geekerati. It takes place in our world, with a few “what if?”s carefully placed here and there to make things interesting.

Consider, for instance, the titular Business, a gigantic, secretive holding company whose lineage predates the Vatican. As the novel begins, The Business (never named, always designated as such) is ready to close the deal on one of its most ambitious project so far: The wholesale acquisition of an entire country in order to gain a seat at the United Nations. The woman on the case is Kate Telman, a high-level executive whose final investigation eventually reveals something a bit more disturbing to the Business’ interests.

You would expect, of course, The Business to be evil in the way most fictional corporations are evil. But as Kate explains (perhaps disingenuously), a corporation doesn’t survive more than two thousand years by being pure evil. In fact, her company seems unusually enlightened in these days of corporate malfeasance: The Business has learnt, often at great cost, that it has to be accountable in every respect: Its financial books are open internally, and its promotion mechanism is said to be democratic. (Though how that works with promises of advancement made to Kate isn’t all that clear) The “buy a country” project isn’t particularly welcome by some of her colleagues, who see it as a toy more than a serious endeavour. All told, The Business seems fairly benign; fans of conspiracy theories won’t find much more in this novel than a lovely put-down of their worst instincts. [P.116-117]

In fact, The Business is as unremarkable for what it doesn’t contain than what it does. Fans of conventional thrillers or over-plotted potboilers may be surprised to find out that for a mystery novel (sort of), The Business is surprisingly sedate: There are few gunfights or car chases in this unconventional novel where a Ferrari is used primarily as an over-revving hand trap.

But what The Business has in abundance is SF-tinged bits and pieces. Hints abound that the world of The Business is not quite ours: while this doesn’t take the novel into the alternate-history sub-genre, it reinforces the notion that Banks’ protagonist is looking at her universe with a geek viewpoint. (None too surprisingly, it’s a portrait of the world that feels a lot more plausible than the one espoused in other conventional thrillers.) Kate studies technological advances and tries to fit The Business’s business in that uncertain future. Every ten pages, there’s a neat idea or a cool concept. Eventually, one learns to forget about the plot (or lack thereof) and simply enjoy the slide-show of inventive stuff.

Best of all is the limpid prose, which places no barriers between the reader and the author. The Business‘s deceptively simple style is a testament to Banks’ technical abilities, enthralling through background material and a plot that doesn’t kick in until quite late in the book. A subtle humour runs through the entire novel, dovetailing with the strange and wondrous details, such as the entirely explainable teeth-extraction incident that opens the book.

As for me, it’s as if I had discovered Banks and re-discovered his initialled counterpart, in a mode reminiscent of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and other geek-friendly mainstream literature. The Business may be a bit slight compared to Banks’ other books, but it work well and leaves a pleasant memory.

No Plot? No Problem!, Chris Baty

Chronicles Books, 2004, 176 pages, C$20.95 tpb, ISBN 0-8118-4505-2

For the past four years, I’ve been happily setting my Novembers aside to write a novel in thirty days. Yup, it’s a bit insane, but that’s the whole point of the National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo): Taking thirty days of one’s life and saying “to heck with everything else; I’m writing a novel”. I may not be perfectly sane, but neither am I alone: Over forty thousand people now participate in Nanowrimo, churning out thousands of words for the sheer fun of writing something. In 2005, over 714 million words were written by Nanowrimo participants, the equivalent of a small library.

In some ways, those words are all the fault of a guy named Chris Baty, a San Francisco-area freelance writer who, in 1999, came up with the thirty-days novel concept. Nanowrimo went on-line in 2000: By 2002, it became an international phenomenon. But no good deed can escape the attention of a tie-in non-fiction book, and so No Plot? No Problem! is Baty’s portable guide to writing a novel in thirty days, a distillation of inspiration, tips and anecdotes from Nanowrimo participants in 50,000 words —not-so-coincidentally, the suggested word-count goal for a Nanowrimo novel.

Chances are good that you’ll never read a Nanowrimo novel, but that’s not the point: For most Nanowrimo participants, the whole exercise is about finally fulfilling that “one day, I’ll write a novel” life objective. Different participants will approach the exercise differently, of course: Some will simply start writing fan-fiction and see where their whims take them. Others (like, ahem, your reviewer) will spend eleven months planning ahead, thinking about themes, stuffing characters, structuring a plot on a gigantic sheet of paper, writing an outline and doing research in preparation for thirty days of pedal-to-the-metal writing. Any approach is fine by the Nanowrimo rules, which are surprisingly lenient on all but one crucial aspect: At least fifty thousand words in thirty days.

As you can guess, Nanowrimo is a mixture of silly seriousness and serious silliness —an approach that is well represented by Baty’s prose style in No Plot? No Problem! As Baty explains, the serious part of Nanowrimo is committing to a tough fixed schedule. Once you’re writing, though, anything goes: You can be as silly as you want to be because what you’re writing is not really meant for immediate public consumption; it’s perfectly acceptable to rush through difficult parts and fix the problems in post-production. The hectic schedule of Nanowrimo is such that it doesn’t allow time for doubt, indecision or self-consciousness: The inner editor gets locked in a box for the duration of the exercise. Editing is only suggested later, much later.

While the “official” Nanowrimo offers tremendous moral support from like-minded people, No Plot? No Problem! is meant to allow anyone, regardless of month, to participate in the madness. Through inspiring passages and a bit of cheeky irreverence, Baty makes an unpretentious mentor in matters of speed-writing. The basics of Nanowrimo are not very complicated, so the book’s biggest asset is in its inspiring passages as it reassures the reader that the goal is within reach of everyone with sufficient willpower.

Past Nanowrimo participants already know that Baty is an amusing writer, and the tone of his regular emails to the Nanowrimo crowd survives intact to the printed page. Clear, direct, often laugh-out-loud funny, No Plot? No Problem! perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the exercise. Obviously, this is a book that will first appeal to wannabe writers and baffle everyone else. That’s fine. In fact, I’d be worried if regular people went nuts over the entire thing: Novel-writing, after all, still carries a mystique that No Plot? No Problem! Does much to puncture. Shh; don’t tell anyone.

Reading the book is enough to give you a jolt of good old literary determination: Having it at your side as you prepare for Nanowrimo is heartily recommended. It’s almost impossible to read parts of it and not grit your teeth is steely determination: Bring on those thirty days! We’ve got a novel to write! Boy, I can’t wait until next year! (In the meantime, though, I’ve got a novel to edit…)

From Hell, Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

Eddie Campbell Comics, 1999, 572 pages, US$35.00 tpb, ISBN 0-9585783-4-6

In the world of sequential art, From Hell is a classic for a reason: As a thick 550+ pages paperback, it represents what many artists and critics envision when they speak of “graphic novels”. Exquisitely well researched, created over a number of years, tackling a difficult subject with skill, From Hell also achieved considerable success by just about any standard. It sold well, immediately earned a permanent place on most lists of essential graphic novels and was even adapted in a film released in late 2001. The film wasn’t particularly good, but that’s the way it goes with just about any adaptation. It’s far better to focus on the graphics novel itself.

Writer Alan Moore spent years learning all he could find on the subject of “Jack the Ripper”, the infamous serial killer who terrorized London’s seedy Whitechapel area in 1888. Consciously picking a royal conspiracy theory as a dramatic framework on which to hang a number of historical details, Moore produced a massive story that tackles a lot more than simply Jack the Ripper. Elements of mysticism, secret societies, psychological drama and police work all infuse From Hell with a vitality that has ensured its success. You can’t read it and avoid being stunned by the result, which is every bit as complex -in its own way- as a meaty prose novel.

From Hell starts leisurely and ends just as slowly, eschewing typical dramatic structure in order to delve more fully in the tapestry of 1888-era London. The main character, so to speak, is royal doctor William Gull, a man whose visions of a greater future dovetail nicely with an assassination edict delivered by Queen Victoria. From Hell is as much a psychological study of the life of a man than it’s a thriller about a serial killer.

The attention to detail is astonishing, a fact best appreciated when perusing Moore’s voluminous Appendix 1: “Annotations to the Chapters”. Nearly every page of From Hell is accompanied with notes on sources, reference and suppositions. (The best way to read those notes is to glance at them periodically as you make your way through the novel.) This thirst for precision is carried over to Eddie Campbell’s black-and-white line illustrations, whose deceptively draft-like nature hide a tremendous amount of period detail. I’m not a far of that particular style of artwork (it can be difficult, at times, to distinguish characters or even to appreciate the amount of effort put into the drawings), but the art’s rough quality can be a relief considering the novel’s frank depiction of violence and sexual activities: From Hell is a graphic novel in all senses of the expression.

Moore never pretends to offer “the” solution to he Ripper murders: He’s quite up-front, in the Appendices, in stating that he just picked the theory that offered the most dramatic interest. One of the book’s best passage is Appendix 2: “Dance of the Gull Catchers”, an illustrated essay in which Moore describes the various theories that have emerged over the years about Jack the Ripper, and the particular mania that afflicts all Ripperologists –including Moore himself. In twenty-four short pages, Moore reflects on the nature of murder, the appeal of Rippermania and how the “gull-catchers” are condemned in digging a pit from which nothing will ever emerge.

As for the novel itself, well, it’s a masterpiece. While the art isn’t particularly impressive or innovative (the entire layout remains rigidly faithful to a classic nine-by-nine comics grid), it creates an impression of doom that’s hard to shake away. What’s more remarkable is how it deals with complex and difficult subjects in a way that seldom feels exploitative –and this despite an entire twenty-four pages murder sequence that may be too gruesome for many readers.

In the end, it’s the quality of the writing that makes the whole thing stand together. Don’t pre-judge the novel based on the film, which is so hilariously mis-adapted that it could be a warning for all writers signing away their derivative rights. From Hell isn’t particularly pleasant, but it’s deeply impressive. Not simply worth a look as “a graphic novel”, few will dispute its place as an authentic piece of criminal literature. Bookstores should have it shelved alongside Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Syriana (2005)

(In theaters, December 2005) Close the books on 2005 and put this film at the top of the class. Syriana is the kind of film we don’t get often enough: A densely-told geopolitical thriller whose understanding of the world actually seems to be relevant to ours. Resemblances with 2000’s Traffic are not accidental: Oscar-winning scribe Stephen Gaughan here takes on the additional mantle of direction, and the result is a film that places a surprising degree of trust in the viewers’ ability to follow the story. A meaty mix of power, money and weaponry, Syriana studies the web of middle-eastern oil dependency through five interconnected stories, zapping here and there around the globe to show how everything is linked. This isn’t for the easily distracted, the incontinent or the casual “show me a movie” crowd: the plot moves in short sharp vignettes, often beginning and ending in mid-action. The plot has the satisfying quality of a good novel; have a look at the fabulous screenplay (generously made available on-line) for a reading experience not unlike a crackling thriller. What’s more, the film is ably supported by a number of good performances, though it’s George Clooney’s bearded and paunchy “Bob” that leaves the biggest impression. There may not be all that much conventional action here, but it’s more than offset by the sizzling intensity of the film. On the other hand, much like Traffic, this is the kind of film that can’t really be re-watched again with the same impact.

King Kong (2005)

(In theaters, December 2005) It dawned on me, halfway during this no-expenses-spared third version of the classic King Kong, that I didn’t really care about any possible variant of the basic premise and even less about one that gets excited about gorilla-on-blonde action. Oh, I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy it: After all, there’s plenty of action, some spectacular special effects, a number of intriguing details and slick directorial skills. But the story is too familiar to be of interest, and further leadened by self-indulgence. For a film like this to last three hours is nonsense: There are no contiguous 60 seconds of this film that couldn’t have been trimmed to 40 or even 30 seconds. Despite a lovely historical recreation, the opening New York segment belongs in another film. Several of the action scenes never know when to quit. Worse; the undeterred excess of the film is symptomatic of what feels like a rushed finish to a blank-check project: This is particularly visible in comparing the impeccable CGI for Kong versus the amateur-hour rear-projection work during the ill-conceived stampede sequence. But most frustrating of all is the lack of focus in a film that goes here and there without even slowing down to ask itself fundamental questions such as “can a human be thrown around without having her neck broken” or even “how the heck can one be carried through frosty New York in an evening dress without spending her time bitching about the cold?” It’ll remain a wonder for the ages that a film costing more than two hundred million dollars can’t even bothered to take in account simple observations. The film isn’t bad (chances are that I’ll go through the Special Edition DVD weeks after its release), but it’s frustrating to see that much effort result in such imperfection.

The Last Jihad, Joel C. Rosenberg

Forge, 2003, 335 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34643-5

Regular readers of these reviews have already figured out my centre-left politics. Not that it’s any surprise: I’m a French-Canadian, after all. What they may not know is that I was a moderate right-winger for a good part of my teenage years, seduced by techno-thrillers and alternate-universe military fiction in which the US invaded whoever it wanted. All good fun… until the real world caught up with the fiction and delivered a disturbing techno-thriller starring a sub-par president.

In many ways, though, this initial love of military thriller hasn’t completely left me. My bookshelves have all of Clancy’s novels in hardcover, along with quasi-complete runs of Stephen Coonts, Dale Brown, Larry Bond, Harold Coyle and others. I’m always interested in new military thrillers, even if the past ten years have been somewhat disappointing in that sub-genre.

The Last Jihad first popped up in the supercharged atmosphere of early 2003, appearing in hardcover as bombs were raining on Baghdad. A quick paperback edition followed scarcely six “Mission Accomplished!” months later, stamped with the “New York Times Bestseller” label and laudatory quotes by such right-wing luminaries as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Oliver North.

The reason for the excitement was simple: The Last Jihad begins with an attack on the President of the United States, an attack that is eventually tracked back to Iraq. I’m not spoiling much (the book has sequels, after all) if I say that it ends with a nuclear flash over Baghdad. As a ripped-from-the-headline marketing coup, the gang at Forge books (the thriller imprint of SF/Fantasy publisher Tor) knew that they had a winner on their hands and milked it as they should. It helped that Rosenberg is supremely well-connected in right-wing talk radio and religious circles.

The left-wing’s reaction was predictable. A number of scathing reviews followed, including the much-quoted Washington Post review which -after a few mild compliments- stated that “[Rosenberg’s] writing, however, is harder to forgive, for it is an act of terrorism on the reader’s brain.” Ouch!

But, hey, I report; I decide: The surprise is that the first half of The Last Jihad isn’t bad at all when put alongside other books of the genre. The attack on the president is vividly described, and the crisis management that follows the attack feels appropriate, especially in the shadow of 2001-09-11. While the writing is a bit clumsy and the characters are taken straight from the right wing’s pantheon of heroes (the tough president; the successful businessman; the shadowy operative that kills; the woman that shoots), it moves at a rapid clip and has the advantage of a comforting earnestness. The technical details are convincing despite a few gaffes (“Canadian president Jean Luc”?? [P.74]). Rosenberg even indulges in a fake-out death that makes no sense but made me laugh for its unabashed manipulation. Even the incidental jabs at Carter and Clinton (coupled with a hilarious passage about the success of Bush’s presidency) are amusing in the avowed ideological context of the novel. (Playing with rigged dice is fine if you know how they’re rigged.)

Unfortunately, things turn sour in the second half of the book, and not for the reasons you may think: Simply put, the novel runs out of steam and plausibility. As our super-businessman protagonist magically turns into a top-notch special operative, he gets trapped into a firefight that seems to go on for a hundred pages. Romance also rears its head —never a good sign in a thriller. Pages of uninteresting minutiae overwhelm the book’s momentum, eventually leading to the jaw-dropping sadism of the finale. (Pop quiz: You have identified a ballistic missile launch site in the middle of a city. Do you destroy the launch site with a precision guided missile, or do you nuke the entire city?) Some religious content makes its way into the narrative. Everyone who tries to stop the final US jihad against Iraq is arrested, shut up or converted. The Drudge Report makes an amusing cameo on page 252-253.

By that time, though, my amusement with the novel had noticeably paled. Even with only three years’ worth of hindsight in Iraq’s true military capabilities, The Last Jihad is hilariously paranoid. While my soft spot for thrillers carried me through the first half of the book with ease, the story’s own limpness couldn’t do much to sustain this early initial impression. All told, I’m not likely to keep reading the latter books in the series. (Apparently, neither are Forge’s editors given how the third book, now featuring explicitly religious content, was published by a speciality Christian publisher.)

King Kong (1976)

(In French, On TV, December 2005) Some childhood memories should be left alone, and the seventies remake of King Kong is certainly one of them. Another look at it, post 2005-King Kong, only serves to make the Peter Jackson effort look good: The script is even more tedious than the 2005 version and the special effect really haven’t aged well at all. (Here’s a piece of trivia for you: It won the “Special Visual Effects” Oscar in early 1977. The next winner in that category, of course, would be Star Wars.) Fortunately, there are still a few good things about the film: Jessica Lange (in her screen debut) still looks hot thirty years later, Jeff Bridges is delightful in an early role as a shaggy photographer and the World Trade Center is prominently featured. The opening sequences have a charming feel to them as a petroleum expedition is efficiently dispatched to The Island. Things start to sour soon after, as the film grinds down to a halt to go through all of the expected plot points. King Kong himself is a disappointing man in a suit, even if said man is Special Effects legend Rick Baker. It adds up to a fine piece of seventies blockbuster entertainment: Sometime tedious, sometime earnest, occasionally fun, but certainly not something that escapes its context.

Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)

(In theaters, December 2005) There is no doubt that this film exists for a specific reason –to show, through the example of Edward G. Murrow, that people of good faith can gang together to expose the truth. Great. Fabulous. Unfortunately, I had the feeling that Good Night, and Good Luck. preaches solely to the already-convinced: Yes, McCarthy was a bad, baaad man. And then what? As a period piece, this film approaches parody through black-and-white cinematography, typewriter clacks, smoke-filled scenes, casual discrimination and in-show advertisement. Director George Clooney (who also turns in a good performance, though not as much as David Straithairn) it playing a very specific type of cinematic game here, one that charms but doesn’t do much more. If it’s easy to admire the intent of the piece and mutter a heartfelt “right on” at some of the message, it still doesn’t feel urgent or all that compelling. It takes more than a message, even a message with which you agree, to make a film that deserves to be seen.

Dans une galaxie près de chez vous – Le film [In A Galaxy Near You: The Movie] (2004)

(On DVD, December 2005) I would have seen this film earlier had I thought it had potential to be good. Fortunately, it’s only slightly better than I expected: a lame collection of jokes about Star Trek strung together in colloquial French-Canadian may be fun for a five-minute sketch, but it starts grating at the sixth minute. Some moments aren’t too bad, but most of the film doesn’t even try for internal coherency. Some silliness is good, but most of it is grating. Worse are the film’s last-act foray in dramatic territory, which never really work. The actors at least try to have fun, and some of it comes through despite everything else. Fans of cheap B-series SF comedies may come to grudgingly appreciate the whole thing. The DVD comes with English subtitles that gamely try to translate the wordplay and allusions of the original dialogue.

The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (2005)

(In theaters, December 2005) Once upon a time, I suppose that this film may have been special. But coming in on the heels of an excellent half-decade for fantasy films, it ends up looking like the latecomer who doesn’t know when the party has moved on. Through no fault of the source material, this first Narnia feels rehashed, dull, familiar and even a little pointless. Kids will flock to it, of course, especially given the you’re-so-special plot of the film (“Welcome, humans! Stick around and we’ll flock to your feet!”) Whatever religious subtext there is to the film is scarcely noticeable, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of originality. The special effects hold up, of course: Though everyone else will focus on the Lion, I was particularly taken by the beavers, surely the finest CGI beavers since Men With Brooms. Otherwise, well, the film sputters on fumes of better things. The faun is creepy, the final battle is obvious (Though I thought, for a while, that they would use effective air support) and the kids are sometimes annoying: No small surprise if I wanted to cheer for Tilda Swinton’s White Witch throughout the movie –at least there’s a character who knows what she’s doing. As for the rest, hey, if fantasy’s your thing, you won’t find any purer (read; ripped-off) material this year.