Monthly Archives: October 2006

Why Should I Cut Your Throat?, Jeff VanderMeer

Monkeybrain, 2004, 335 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 1-932265-11-2

Jeff VanderMeer has finally hit critical mass in the past few years, with the publication of a few books by major publishers and widespread attention from the SF blogosphere. Naturally, this “overnight success” only counts if you haven’t been paying attention. If that’s the case, his nonfiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? is ample occasion to catch up on VanderMeer’s career so far.

The pieces included here roughly cover four types of writing: Convention reports, autobiographical pieces, reviews and criticism. In a stroke of editorial genius, convention reports bookend the three other sections, offering an evolving portrait of VanderMeer. From the brash young man who storms into Atlanta’s Georgiacon 1990 finding fault with everyone he meets, to the seasoned pro who spends a good chunk of 2002 on the road with family and friends, this book could have been subtitled “Evolution of an Author” if the current “Excursions into the worlds of science fiction, fantasy & horror” wasn’t descriptive enough.

The book works better if you already know and admire VanderMeer’s other publications. The book’s first section is about the writer and his work, and is filled with references to his existing bibliography: A lengthy article alone details the problems that VanderMeer had in realizing his vision of City of Saints & Madmen with a POD publisher: an odyssey of several years and nightmarish efforts. I found it fascinating, but then again there’s a copy of the book sitting on my shelves. Knowing all about VanderMeer’s work is much easier now that he’s being published by major publishers such as Tor and Bantam Spectra, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the rest of the book. It helps that VanderMeer writes with clarity and enthusiasm: Chances are that even if you only know the outline of his career, you ‘ll be able to follow along.

Most of the VanderMeer-specific references become less important in the latter two sections of the collection anyway: The “Reviews” section should be of interest to any literary fantasy fan, with short takes on a variety of pieces from various SF&F novels to individual issues of magazines. As a reviewer, VanderMeer is well-informed and fearless: as a result, it’s perhaps easier to enjoy his take-down of Martin Scott’s Thraxas than his admiration of M. John Harrison’s Light. But he certainly knows what makes a story tick, as demonstrated by his even-handed considerations on China Miéville’s The Scar and Iain M. Banks’ Look to Windward. A trio of “Read This!” pieces for the New York Review of Science-Fiction offers quick take on a variety of topics.

The “Criticism” section is hit-and-miss, though I suspect that this has more to do with my lack of knowledge in classic fantasy literature than to any failing in VanderMeer’s own pieces. To his credit, he has managed to convince me that I should have a look at Edward Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet. Unfortunately, he hasn’t managed the same trick with Angela Carter in either of his lengthy appreciations. I was rather more inspired by the polemics “Horror: Alive or Dead?” and “The Death of the Imagination?” —though I came away from the latter convinced that I suck as a reviewer. Not that this will ever stop me.

But let’s go back to the convention reports, because they’re the pieces who glue the book together. Four report, four stops along the way of VanderMeer’s career. I must admire his guts in allowing the first two convention report being republished presumably as-is: Sometimes, they read much like a lengthy version of “Here’s What I Hated During My Summer Holidays”. VanderMeer takes potshots at a bunch of people, is dismissive of the convention scene and can’t figure out what he has in common with those people. But those are the adventures of a young writer: The latter two reports are far more generous, and reflect VanderMeer’s growing stature in the field. What’s more, all reports are very well-written, and the first two contain their moments of laugh-aloud hilarity. They say things that may occur to anyone stuck at bad conventions and even lousier panels. No fantasy convention, after all, can withstand the scrutiny of a non-fan.

With time, VanderMeer has become somewhat more diplomatic, though not entirely so: A look at his current on-line presence shows that he remains blessedly candid about what he dislikes and channels the more outrageous stuff through his “Evil Monkey” alter-ego. Why Should I Cut Your Throat? is not just a glimpse at his growth as a writer, but it’s the kind of book fit to transform any existing reader into a fan. I may never know as much about fantasy as VanderMeer does, or ever write anywhere near his level, but I’m glad that he’s out there figuring it out and showing the way. With luck, we’ll get another non-fiction book collection from him soon.

The Omega Game, Steven Krane [Steven Swiniarski]

DAW, 2000, 387 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-88677-907-3

Here’s a question for the avid readers in the crowd: Do you have books “that got away”? Not necessarily books that were never returned by borrowers, or books that were destroyed in various disasters, but books that you wished you had read but somehow missed your chance to buy, borrow or otherwise acquire.

For years, there was one book that got away from me. At the time where my ability to read far outstripped the money I had left after paying the mortgage, I couldn’t purchase everything I found interesting and even using the library wasn’t a surefire process. I would browse in bookstores and think really hard about the books I wanted to purchase within my budget, rejecting even some of the most intriguing ones.

That how, for years, I remembered considering a thriller in which participants were stuck on a desert island, playing a game that they scarcely understood. I couldn’t, of course, remember the title or the author. And so it seemed destined to remain, especially given the short shelf-life of paperback thrillers.

But fortune struck late this month, as a trip to a new department store revealed a selection of discount paperback novels, one of which being Steven Krane’s The Omega Game: Exactly the book that had gotten away from me so many years before.

The premise was exactly as I remembered it: Our protagonist wakes up in a hotel room, in a luxurious establishment overlooking a tropical beach. He has no memory of how he ended up in that hotel room. The hotel has twenty rooms, and every guest is in the same situation. Worse: they all discover signed copied of an agreement they can’t recall making. The agreement is a set of rules:

  1. I am a player in the Game.
  2. The players must participate in the Game
  3. The players may agree to change the rules
  4. The players must obey the rules or forfeit.
  5. The winner of the Game is the last player who has not forfeited.

And that’s it. Savvy gamers have already recognized this open-ended game as a variant on what is sometimes known as “Nomic”: games designed to test the concept of rule-making itself. But as a premise for a thriller, this is crackerjack stuff: Anything can now happen. Those who got a thrill out of the Survivor TV shows will love this book.

And Krane certainly doesn’t shy away from cranking up the tension. A few pages inside the novel, one of the twenty players is found murdered. What if “forfeiting” the game meant something more than walking away? As our protagonist tries to make sense of the situation, it also becomes obvious that some players definitely know more than others… and this information asymmetry does nothing to help the situation from slipping into barbaric hysteria.

The first hundred pages of the book live up to the premise and the years of anticipation waiting for this novel. The mystery is thick and intriguing, and if the twenty players aren’t all gracefully introduced (or even all that compelling), the narrative energy of the novel compensates for everything else.

The problems come later, when the premise of the situation must be explained and when the intricate potential of Nomic is pushed aside for more conventional thriller mechanics. It’s almost inevitable that the explanation, while satisfactory on a base level, strips away some of the intriguing possibilities suggested earlier in the novel. It also feels as if the story is lessened by an excursion far from the hotel: by breaking unity of place, Krane sets himself up for a diffused impact. Worse is the very abrupt ending, which pulls off a neat logic trick but fails to follow it up by a denouement: a number of character threads are left untied in favour of a final punchline. An epilogue certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

And yet, generally speaking, The Omega Game fulfilled my expectations, even those stoked by years of thinking the book had gotten away from me. It’s an intriguing thriller, and if it may not be the best conceivable take on Nomic, I certainly enjoyed the attempt… and wouldn’t mind seeing another one, by Krane or another.

Left Behind, Tim LaHaye & Jerry B. Jenkins

Living Books, 1995, 342 pages, US$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-8423-4270-2

I can confirm the rumours: I was seen reading Left Behind on OC Transpo buses in October 2006.

You may ask why someone like me, devoid of any churchgoing sympathies, would want to read one of the biggest religious bestsellers of the past decade. The answer would be something like “know your enemy”. Or, at least, being able to discuss the phenomenon from a first-person perspective. I may not care all that much for the American evangelical movement, but my loathing for people who feels comfortable dismissing books they haven’t read is even worse —especially when it’s so easy to find a copy.

A bit of historical background may be useful for those few who don’t know anything about the “Left Behind” series: Starting in 1996, this twelve-book epic describes the “End Times” following the Rapture. As the first volume begins, a small portion of the global population has simply disappeared, provoking no end of questions and theories. What our characters come to understand during this first episode is that this is indeed the End Game and many adventures lie ahead. Our four series protagonists are introduced in this volume, along with an Antichrist named “Nicolae Carpathia”. The book concludes with the formation of a “Tribulation Force” vowing to fight evil, make the world safe for Jesus and keep the readers entertained for the next eleven novels.

The “Left Behind” series has since grown into a gigantic franchise, with 40+ million copies sold. Aside from the dozen original novels, there are now three prequels, two spin-off series, a teen adaptation, audiobooks, a graphic novel, a video game and even three movies starring Kirk Cameron. Media empire? I report: you decide. The series has certainly attracted its share of controversy, becoming yet another subject of contemplation in the endless debate about religious fundamentalism in the US. Reading it is almost a political statement. Lambasting or dismissing it seems almost de rigueur in the well-meaning secular circles I frequent.

But never mind the controversy: What about the book? you ask. Is it any good?

Well, no.

But that doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting.

Like it or not, the Rapture is a big fun idea. Science Fiction itself has used it a number of times, sometimes literally (Heinlein’s Job), sometimes not (Robert Charles Wilson’s The Harvest, still fascinating fifteen years later) but often in a jokey, quasi-satiric fashion. Seeing true believers take on the subject has an added interest. What if the devout just disappeared? How would people react to the sight of people going poof in the air? For all of its faults, Left Behind is most enjoyable when it deals with the repercussions of this scenario. Intriguingly, it suggests that children (from conception to about six years of age) get a free pass to Heaven: Pregnant women find themselves with flat bellies (though what happens to the non-foetus part of their pregnancy is left unmentioned), maternity wards are emptied and there’s a curious lack of reaction from befuddled parents. More confusingly, it also suggests that the Catholic pope is also taken along for the ride, which raises questions of doctrine I’m not even equipped to touch. On the other hand, the novel stays quiet about what happens in non-Christian nations, an oversight that is probably corrected in the latter novels.

But whatever enjoyment I took from the novel was derived from the more explicit Science Fiction details. As a thriller, Left Behind is limp by design: though the characters are flawed in interesting ways (they were left behind, after all), LaHaye and Jenkins are holding their punches for latter volumes. It doesn’t help that the geopolitical background of the story is less than convincing. Not only does it feature a scientist who can magically hydrate deserts or a divine miracle in which Israel escapes a massive Russian nuclear attack (!!!), it also presumes that when the Antichrist will come waltzing in, he will be able to seize control of the world through the UN without anyone else objecting. (On the other hand, the inevitable scene in which the Antichrist is revealed to be, well, the Antichrist, is pretty well-done in an over-the-top fashion.)

But that still leaves me struggling to find something better to say about the book than “Eh, some good fantasy bits.” If I can find some interest in the series, then it may not be any surprise to find that the true believers would enjoy it as more than a think-toy. Yes, I could rant on and on about the nonsense of the novel, the poor writing and the rise of militant evangelism as exemplified by this series, but why bother? These points were made elsewhere. As for me, I’ll simply find a way to marvel at how some SF bits can unite both science-fiction fans and fundamentalist Christians.

On SF, Tom Disch

University of Michigan Press, 2005, 271 pages, C$28.95 tpb, ISBN 0-472-06896-2

There may be two Tom Disches.

The first is the one I (very) briefly met in person at Readercon in July 2006. A gentle giant teddy bear of a man, erudite and polite, a shining example of a literary intellectual who has aged well. Look at the back of On SF, and you will find his picture. (One that, I hasten to add, has an eerie resemblance to another person I know, a senior bureaucrat in the Canadian federal public service for whom I served: That may explain my instinctive trust in Disch from the first moment I saw him.) This is the same Disch whose LiveJournal blog features poetry and anguish at the state of the world.

But this is not the Tom Disch who wrote this collection of critical essays on Science Fiction. No, that Tom Disch is on the front cover of On SF: Full dark beard, mean stare, tattooed arms crossed in defiance. Disch as a hell-raiser, as someone who’s not going to play by the overly permissive rules of genre criticism. The book’s subtitle raises the stakes: “A last judgement on the genre from science fiction’s foremost critic.” The book’s first essay (“The embarrassments of Science Fiction”) further drive home the point: SF, argues Disch, is a branch of children’s literature.

And bang: we’re off.

Later on, he offers the following statement of intention, which I can’t help but quote at length:

Ideological silliness is an affliction more tolerable in the young, and, for reasons I’ve tried to lay out, exactly the same may be said of a taste for science fiction. This is not meant to be my way of abjuring the field or declaring that I am not now nor have I ever been a science fiction writer. I have been and I continue to be. I will even go on reading and reviewing the stuff, as long as some small portion of what is published continues to suit my taste. But I won’t act as a booster for the genre as a whole, which has become, as a publishing phenomenon, one of the major symptoms or, if not a causal agent in, the dumbing-down of the younger generation and the lowering of the lowest common denominator. [P.36]

Yes. Yes, even if I’m in that SF-afflicted generation. It’s good to have perspective. I’m willing to consider the idea: SF as a dumbed down branch of children’s literature? Please tell me more.

And Disch does. Coming from a more literary sensibility than many of SF’s authors and critics, Disch pulls no punches and can rely on an impressive set of references to make his point. Having written a number of now-classic SF novels, Disch has the credibility and the knowledge to criticize the genre as an insider. His take-downs are merciless and insightful: The two-part evisceration of Whitley Strieber’s “Alien Abduction” books may be taking on an easy target, but the quality of the argumentation is astonishing. One sometimes get the impression that he’s slumming by using his vast intellect to dissect inconsequential subjects. His overview of the early-eighties horror field, “The King and his Minions”, exemplifies overkill.

But my problems with the book have more to do with what’s omitted than what’s included. Sure, Disch overuses the unfamiliar expression “hugger-mugger” a few times in close proximity, but that not’s nearly as annoying as a lack of references for when the reviews were written. A partial list of acknowledgements at the very end of the book provides a number of dates, but not for all pieces. It takes away part of the pleasure of the book: As every piece begins, we have to guess the historical context and make sense of the references. Hopefully, readers will have a good memory of the eighties…

I’m not necessarily saying that the book is dated: Disch’s criticism is solid and can be enjoyed even when his subjects have practically vanished from culture. But his pieces should have been grounded with easy date-and-publication credentials: the context would have helped the flow of the pieces.

Still, that’s a minor issue: even with it, we’re left with an uncompromising book of SF criticism. Like his once-classmate John Clute, Disch understands the genre like few others and doesn’t pull any punches. The next time I meet him, I’ll know the truth: There’s really only one Tom Disch, and he’s not going to be satisfied with children’s literature or easy excuses.

Protect and Defend, Eric L. Harry

Berkley, 1999, 649 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-16814-X

Eric L. Harry’s Protect and Defend is so much fun to read that it takes a while to realize that it’s largely insane.

Up to a certain point, that’s not really a surprise: Harry’s first two novels, Arc Light (a post-nuclear war thriller) and Society of the Mind (a techno-thriller starring killer robots), both distinguished themselves by plot elements that, really, were pretty far out there. In comparison, Protect and Defend‘s opening salvo of anarchistic violence seem pretty tame. Even when Russia is taken over by anarchists, when China decides to take extra territory for itself and when NATO forces must intervene in Siberia to stop hordes of Chinese soldiers, it almost seems ordinary.

Harry’s crisp matter-of-fact prose style accounts for much of this comfort: After reading plenty of military thrillers with unconvincing writing and even worse characters, it was something to a relief to find competent storytelling. This may not be great literature as scholars understand the term, but in terms of big thick military thrillers, this really isn’t all that bad. Harry isn’t a serving military officer, and this may explain why he’s able to deliver a full-fledged military adventure (complete with tactical maps) and yet still carry along his civilian readers to the end.

The characters are familiar, but not unpleasantly so: The iconoclastic commanding officer with a penchant for intervening too closely; the teenager who learns to be all he can be thanks to the military; the well-meaning regular guy suddenly thrust into a position of power; the bright young female reporter chasing a story; the evil mastermind behind the radical movement… it’s all familiar but so well-done that it’ll take a while for you to slam on your mental brakes and scream “Wait a minute! This doesn’t make sense!”

And indeed, in the flurry of the opening pages’ slam-bang succession of action, terrorist assassinations and wide-scale chaos, it’s easy to forget that Harry’s opening act is far-fetched enough to be senseless. Anarchists organizing long enough to ferment political unrest? Taking their cues from a supreme leader? Someone’s using the word “anarchism” without quite understanding what it means…

What’s more, the thought of Russia descending in anarchy bears no resemblance to the Russians’ historical flirtation with authoritarianism. But Harry needs to kneecap his imagined Russia so that it can’t defend Siberia against Chinese invaders, so it may be best to overlook that particular objection.

Still, seven years and at least three geopolitical contexts after the book’s initial publication, it goes without saying that the geopolitics of the novel are no longer valid: Its “global anarchist threat” seems quite amusing in this era of fundamentalist terrorism. On the other hand, Protect and Defend has survived a great deal better than many of its 1999 contemporaries. The thought of American going head-to-head with China during the Siberian winter still carries along a chill: One could imagine this novel, retooled slightly, being released today. Of course, one would then have to account for why a gun-shy post-Iraq USA would gladly charge to defend a piece of frozen Russian soil against an enemy that can actually attack with more than IEDs… But that’s the kind of detail that techno-thriller writers are born to explain.

The overall impression that carries through the book is that the Siberian military action is fabulous, while the Russian political subplot is almost embarrassingly weak. By the time the Russians are joyously starving to death in the streets under benevolent anarchistic laissez-faire, enough is enough and the whole edifice of the novel nearly crumbles on its weak foundations. Worse is the disconnect between the military side and the political repercussions on either the domestic US front or the wider worldwide scale. The final epilogue, lightly borrowed from the end of Society of the Mind, is similarly disappointing: But then again, I place little trust in the “Great Man” theory of politics, especially when in veers in predestination.

On the other hand, the military engagements are described with a good deal of vividness and sympathy toward the characters stuck in those atrocious conditions, as long as you can learn to ignore the larger context. Fans of Tom Clancy (including those who were disappointed with the broadly similar The Bear and the Dragon) will appreciate the good military action and take refuge in generally familiar characters. They’ll just have to learn how to deal with the wonky geopolitics and the preposterous developments.

A Sound Of Thunder (2005)

(On DVD, October 2006) Believe the hype. Or, in this case, the cries and lamentation of scorched viewers around the world as they warn you to stay away from this piece of trash. Knowing that this was (briefly) released in theatres is the only thing that separates this film from the usual straight-to-video crap. If a big budget was involved in the production of this film, you won’t know it by looking at the screen: the special effects are some of the worst in recent memory (oy, that rear-projection!), and the film’s overall look is nothing to cheer about. The actors aren’t much better, with cut-rate performances (to use the term loosely) by Edward Burns and Ken Kingsley. But worst of all is the script, which manages a decent opening before floundering in “time waves” tripe and the usual “pick them off one by one until only the hero and love interest are left” structure. (Worse: the shape of the ending is visible one hour early, and it keeps going well after the point has been made.) Cutting away all that’s bad about the film would give you a meagre five minutes’ worth of acceptable material, but nothing more. Had the filmmakers been more self-aware, there may have been some camp value to this. But it ends up with all of the sophistication of a 50s monster movie, except without the excuse that they didn’t know any better. To think that it sullies a classic SF short story…

The Prestige (2006)

(In theaters, October 2006) Yes, I just spoiled a good part of the film by classifying it as “Science Fiction”. One wouldn’t think, for instance, that SF would apply to a tale about feuding magicians at the turn of the nineteenth century: But by telling you that Nikola Tesla is involved and that the film is adapted from the novel by renowned SF author Christopher Priest, I’m not exactly revealing anything that can’t be deduced from the movie poster. Yet The Prestige is such a sure-footed piece of cinema that I could tell you the ending right away and you would still enjoy the entire film. It gives you enough clues to figure it all out, sometimes through heavy symbolism, but the way it’s all put together is nothing short of amazing. There’s some serious skill at work here, from the direction to the set decoration to the writing: At some point, the film delves into three levels of flashbacks yet still makes perfect sense, playing back and forth with dramatic irony, multiple diaries/narration, fascinating details about the stage magic industry and a wonderful small role for David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. Though the take-no-prisoners ending relies too much on its tricks and not enough on its emotional content, there’s a lot to like here. The images are gorgeous, the acting is fun (fans of Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman will not be disappointed), the direction is slick and the story is mesmerizing.

The Order (2003)

(On DVD, October 2006) Weak stuff, very weak stuff. While there’s something interesting in the idea of someone who burdens himself with the sins of others (hey, I was raised a good French Canadian Catholic, you know?), it’s certainly not a limp effort like The Order that’s going to fulfil that potential. Bad pretentious dialogue is actually one of the film’s lesser problems: the lack of interest in what’s going on is far more damaging. There is little here that we haven’t seen anywhere else: even Constantine was a lot more fun to watch. The actors don’t even try to improve things: It’s worth noting that once-hot Shannyn Sossamon has slunk back in obscurity since this last big-budget effort, which isn’t completely surprising given the lack of screen presence she exhibits here. If there’s one thing saving this film from complete collapse, it’s the beautiful cinematography and the sometimes-competent camera work: It may be a boring horror film, but it’s also a very pretty one, and that’s at least something to raise it above the usual scary-Catholic snoozefests. Weak comforts for a weak film.

The Fourth Bear, Jasper Fforde

Hodder & Stoughton, 2006, 383 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-340-83572-9

First, a quick note to existing Jasper Fforde fans who may still be wondering if The Fourth Bear is worth reading: Yes, it is. As a follow-up to The Big Over Easy, it’s seamless. You won’t be disappointed. Go get it.

But chances are that there are no existing Fforde fans who are still wondering if they should pick up The Fourth Bear. Fforde’s fiction is so unique, so inimitably his own that he tends to attracts a cult-like following. Better yet: his books have a pleasant consistency of quality that makes it hard to quit once you’ve enjoyed one. After a highly successful quartet of meta-fictional novels featuring detective Thursday Next, Fforde side-stepped into an alternate universe of “Nursery Crimes” with The Big Over Easy: The Fourth Bear is its sequel.

As with the previous volume, Jack Spratt’s universe is a highly unusual combination of sentient animals, nursery rhymes brought to life, unique crime-fighters and strange sporting pursuits such as competitive cucumber-growing. Jack Spratt, constantly underfunded and underestimated, finds himself suspended after a regrettable incident featuring the Gingerbreadman, and must be discreet in investigating the disappearance of a golden-haired reporter last seen going into a house with three bears.

The beauty of Fforde’s fiction is how he manages to cram jokes, ideas and plots in the same space. A telling cover blurb (“Great not just because it’s very funny but also because it works properly as a whodunit” —Observer) highlight that despite the ridiculousness of Fforde’s invented universes, his plotting is rigorous and holds up to elementary scrutiny. Indeed, The Fourth Bear is his best mystery yet: I found myself reading along for the plot as much as for the jokes, especially when it veered from crime novel to thriller. The ending itself is a solid piece of suspense and action writing.

But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t jokes, of course. Among other things, Fforde spends an inordinate amount of time setting up a multi-barrelled pun so awful that even the characters in the novel remark “It seems a very laborious set-up for a pretty lame joke, doesn’t it?”, followed by “Yes, I really don’t know how he gets away from it.” [P.320]. More familiar puns, such as “the right to arm bears”, make a better impression and form the backbone of the plot. At least Fforde partially redeems himself by coining the word “thermocuclear”, not as a typo, but as a punchline. And I’m not going into that whole porridge smuggling subplot, or what happens when Dorian Gray becomes a used car salesman. Add to that an series of numbered Plot Devices that the characters can see coming, and the meta-fictional games of Fforde’s previous fiction aren’t all that far away.

But jokes aren’t all that worth remembering about The Fourth Bear. In terms of characterization, Fforde delves a bit deeper into Jack Spratt’s own history, giving him a bit of marital strife when his wife learns that he’s a Person of Dubious Reality. Meanwhile, the relationship between his assistants Mary Mary and Constable Ashley gets upgraded one notch, leading to a laugh-out-loud scene in orbit that’s too good to spoil.

I’m pleased to note that the “Nursery Rhyme” aspect of this novel is a bit lighter than in The Big Over Easy. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the concept: It’s just that as someone who grew up in an all-francophone household, my comptines are not quite the same as the ones taught in English: some of the references in the series fly way over my head, and that feeling of being left out of some jokes didn’t seem as strong in this second entry. (Although some of Punch and Judy material is very British and would benefit from a bit of contextual reading: Fforde attempts riskier humour than usual with those characters, and some of it approaches bad taste.)

Overall, this is a smooth read, easily as good as the author’s previous novels. That Fforde is writing deliriously funny novels is one thing: That he’s able to do so with regularity (at the rhythm of one novel per year since 2001) is even more astonishing. If you haven’t jumped on the Fforde express yet, go back to The Eyre Affair and work your way up: If you like the first book, chances are that you won’t be able to stop from reading them all.

The Marine (2006)

(In theaters, October 2006) For once, the trailers weren’t lying: If you thought that dumb action movies starring bodybuilders went out of vogue with the end of the eighties, take heart in this renaissance. The Marine is exactly the type of movie where stuff blows up real good, allowing the hero to escape with only nanoseconds to spare. The plot is as simplistic as it can be (robbers kidnap hero’s wife; chase ensues) and the action never attains a superior level of interest, but the film proves to be relatively enjoyable on its own terms. The car chase is particularly fun, and the dozens of explosions never get old. What helps is the film’s self-awareness: It’s stuffed with small inconsequential scenes that almost act as self-parody, from a car-shop discussion on the inappropriateness of minivans to the villain flirting with the heroine in the middle of a chase. Small nonsense touches such as an Iraqi “Al Quaeda compound” with tanks and the South Carolina Highway patrol force using a high-performance sports car as a cruiser (!) add to the fun. Two of the film’s best gags come from a mirror glance and a small musical cue, both meant as references to classic films. Robert Patrick chews scenery like he’s enjoying the raw taste of it, while John Cena doesn’t have to do much but look stoic. Still, what keeps The Marine from being considered a classic guilty pleasure is that despite the potential of its elements, it keeps holding back on its own insanity. Worse: it’s never entirely tonally consistent, goofing up by (for instance) making a bad guy somewhat sympathetic before killing him thirty seconds later. Oops. Action fans craving some old-school payback action will find a lot to like here, but I suspect that the film will have no cross-over appeal for anyone else.

Flags Of Our Fathers (2006)

(In theaters, October 2006) History is fine and war history is even better, but mixing the two is a risky prospect. The battle of Iwo Jima was due for a post-Saving Private Ryan retelling. Unfortunately, his Flags Of Our Fathers often feels like the mash-up between two or three movies that might have been better left separated: First, you have the spectacular historical recreation, depicting men at war with the realism that only CGI reconstruction can provide. This section of the film is easily its highlight: It’s tense, chaotic, confusing, exhilarating and feels extraordinarily real. The famous raising of the flag itself is excellent, even if it’s not quite what we expect… and definitely doesn’t mean the end of the fighting. But this war drama is only less than half the film. The other almost-half of the film follows some of the flag-raisers as they’re brought back to the United States in an effort to promote War Bonds. While more thematically interesting, this section of the film is generously spliced in between the war fighting, giving the false impression of a deeper structure pulling it all together. Finally, the rest of the film is dedicated to a contemporary framing device that gives context, but also an unfortunate dose of on-the-nose “Greatest Generation” melodrama. And though, taken separately, most of Flags Of Our Fathers‘ segments are skilfully executed, their union somehow feels lesser than the sum of its parts. Part of it, I suspect, is that the filming took place simultaneously with another film, Letters From Iwo Jima, telling the same battle from the Japanese side of the events. Maybe we’ll have to wait until that film to drawn our conclusions… or maybe we’ll be able to mix-and-match segments from two films in order to tell four stories!

The Departed (2006)

(In theaters, October 2006) We’ve been waiting a long time for the 2006 Oscar contenders and now that fall is here, they’re finally starting to come out of the woodwork. First up: A gritty Boston-flavoured remake of the fabulous Infernal Affairs by none other than Martin Scorsese. For once, the remake is worth it: The plot beats remain intact but the sequences are generally different, the Boston setting infuses every character and the dialogue is beyond delicious. While the impact of the concept is wasted on Infernal Affairs fans (I do miss the conference table scene), the pieces of this intricate double-cross game are moved with skill and the film-making aspect of the end product is very slick. Mark Whalberg and Alec Baldwin are flashy with their aggressive dialogue, but even they take a second role to the combined star power of Matt Damon, Leonardo Di Caprio and Jack Nicholson: For once, the hype is real and the actors truly live up to their reputation. This may or may not be Scorsese’s best film since Casino, but it’s certainly in the top list for 2006.

Death Of A President (2006)

(In theaters, October 2006) I’ll say it right away: Don’t expect too much from this film. Yes, it’s about George W. Bush getting killed, but leftist members of the audience ought to calm down and take a chill pill, because this film is about the least partisan film one could make about such an event. Executed as a mock “documentary from 2008” relating events in 2007, Death Of A President fails to deliver on the promise of its title. Yes, the president is killed, and Stuff Happen. But despite touching upon themes of restricted civil liberties, anti-Muslim profiling, violent activism, class warfare, racism, the war in Iraq and other contemporary issues, the film seldom delves deep into its subject. That makes it a thematic failure, but worse yet is the increasingly irrelevant dramatic tension of the film, at least in its second half. The first half, before the shooting, effectively cranks up the tension and shows how the situation spins out of control. The second half, unfortunately, is reset into a whodunit that never completely works, especially given how the identity of the assassin is revealed to be someone who barely blips up earlier in the film. It doesn’t help that, for all of the mesmerizing quality of the archival footage cleverly cut into scenes specifically shot for this film, the film never feels completely authentic as a documentary: The tension feels artificial, the talking heads are obviously actors and the amount of information withheld until late in the film goes contrary to what we expect from non-fiction pieces. Too bad: For all of the nerve of the film’s premise, one would have thought that the filmmakers could deliver on their promises.

Making Comics, Scott McCloud

Harper, 2006, 264 pages, C$28.95 tpb, ISBN 0-06-078094-0

Though I’d like to doodle a bit better than I currently do, I really don’t ever intend to make comics. The entire field remains half a mystery for me even as a reader: though I’m always game for good graphic novels, I’m not what you’d consider a comics fan. I go in comic book shops to get what’s recommended to me. A generic book called Making Comics is definitely not a book for me.

But this is Scott McCloud’s Making Comics: the usual rules don’t apply. Over the past decade, I’ve found myself recommending his magisterial Understanding Comics to all sorts of people: it’s such a lucid book that it can ring a sensitive chord for all storytellers and a bunch of readers as well. His follow-up, Reinventing Comics, struck a bit too close to risky speculation and suffered for this overreach: It still reads very well even today, but you can feel the world moving away from it. In Making Comics, McCloud tackles comics from yet another angle: that of a creator speaking to other creators, taking the opportunity to reflect upon the craft and the state of the art. But civilians shouldn’t worry: It’s fully accessible (even compulsively readable) for all readers, regardless of doodling skills or lack thereof.

Here, McCloud offers a fascinating look into the mechanics of comics, approaching the question as a excuse to explore craft and touching upon the techniques implicit in this particular art. The book opens on a long but fascinating overview of what the artist can choose to include on his pages. Later subjects of contemplation include character design and perspective (along with their emotional impact). The short discussion of tools boils down to “whatever works for you”, though it offers a good look at McCloud’s own process. The book finishes with a good pep talk about making it in the world of comics and a discussion of styles that classifies comics artists in four distinct categories: Classicists, Animists, Formalists and Iconoclasts.

Limiting this book to “just comics” is a mistake. Comics artists may be the only ones who really understand how “making comics” requires a lot more than simply drawing abilities. Perhaps the clearest example of this is to be found in the “Facial Expressions” chapter, which details in unsettling detail the basic “palette” of human emotions and how they can be combined to make up the wide variety of expressions. (Within days of reading this section, I ended up independently discovering Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “The Naked Face”, which also deals with the work of Paul Ekman. Fascinating stuff, with plenty of tangential implications.) Other standout moments include a primer on decoding (and replicating) human emotions through body language: If you think that comic book artists are simply people who draw things for a living, they may have a thing or two to teach you about how to act. Everything is connected, suggests McCloud: Making good comics is also about understanding oneself, understanding others and understanding the world. Just like all art.

And that, ultimately, is why Making Comics is such a surefire hit for all creators, regardless of their chosen method of expression: Everyone who makes something meant to evoke human emotions, from prose to sculpture to comics to acting, is trying to understand, replicate and manipulate the world with their imagination. Making Comics is, like McCloud’s first two books, an exhilarating read for everyone interested in artistic expression. When it clicks, it’s as if the mysteries of the universe recede just a bit further. Now that’s my definition of a recommended book.

As for the inevitable question “Is it better or worse than McCloud’s other books?”, there are only a couple of suggestions to offer: The trilogy is a complete set and it’s useless to try to pick a winner or a loser; It’s become a rule of life itself that nothing will ever touch the brilliance of Understanding Comics; Making Comics will find its niche as a valuable resource for budding comic artists; I found myself reading Making Comics with the same intellectual pleasure than the two other volumes; I also caught myself re-reading whole chunks of it while writing this review; I recommend the full set, but would start off new readers on the first volume.

Catch A Fire (2006)

(In theaters, October 2006) One of the best things about suspense cinema these days is how it’s finally going global: Syriana, The Constant Gardner, Lord Of War… and now this film, which follows the true story of a South African family man as he becomes a radical and starts fighting against his own government to bring down Apartheid. The movie works wonders in putting viewers in someone else’s shoes and making his situation understandable. By the time our once-shy protagonist straps on the AK-47 and decides to fight for what’s right, there isn’t much doubt in our minds that he’s doing the right thing. Amusingly enough, this 1980-era movie now feels more relevant than ever as twenty-first century western society seeks to differentiate between freedom fighter and terrorist: the line may be thinner than anyone expects, and Tim Robbins’ sympathetic portrait of an Apartheid enabler serves as a further reminder that what’s wrong is often perceived as being necessary. While a fairly restrained and intimate drama, Catch A Fire is not without its share of good moments and powerful sacrifices: Our protagonist eventually comes to lose everything that’s dear to him through a combination of being at the wrong place at the wrong moment, and being unable to accept submission. Well-done, well-told and well worth seeing.