Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Sword of Shannara - Terry Brooks

Herein lies the heart and the soul of the nations, their right to be free men, their desire to live in peace, their courage to seek out the truth. Herein lies the Sword of Shannara.

Shea Ohmsford doesn’t know it yet but he’s the most important person in the world. As the last descendant of Jerle Shannara he’s the only person capable of wielding the Sword of Shannara, an ancient weapon that can destroy the Warlock Lord. Unfortunately this makes him a target, forcing him to flee home and confront his destiny.

It will be obvious to anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings that this is close to a carbon copy for the first few hundred pages. Shea is joined by a disparate group of heroes consisting of humans, elves, a wizard and a dwarf and it’s easy to recognize their parallel counterparts in LOTR. Allanon is clearly a Gandalf remix as Balinor is for Aragorn. Palance is a mix of Denethor and Theoden, Stenmin is Wormtongue, Orl Fane is Gollum. Shea and Flick Ohmsford are Frodo and Sam, Menion is Legolas, Hendel is Gimli, etc.  As well there are various plot points that are similar as well. There’s a chosen one, a reluctant hero, a fake death, a dangerous lair and a magical device capable of defeating pure evil.

But while Tolkien clearly inspired aspects of plot and character, Brooks does put his own personal spin on the story. There are a variety of settings accompanied by good description that creates solid imagery for the reader. As well, the backstory for this world is only hinted at but is enough to understand a cataclysm befell Earth thousands of years ago and shows that previous decisions are responsible for current events.

The story is fast-paced and keeps the reader on their toes as circumstances can change within the space of a paragraph. That said at times it’s at the expense of character growth. Menion seemingly falls in love in the space of several days and there’s no reunion scene with Flick, Allanon and Eventine after the elf king’s rescue which could possibly have been a great scene. Several times throughout the story the plot will leapfrog over what appear to be great setups for dialogue or exposition that could further the plot. These missed opportunities are a shame considering how many characters Brooks has that require good progression and development. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

"Lost City of Z" Trailer

I thought it highly amusing that shortly after finishing the book a trailer came out for a movie based on Fawcett's life and adventures. It will be interesting to see how accurately they stick to the original story. From the casting it looks like they're going to stick with one of Fawcett's earlier adventures.

Friday, December 02, 2016

The Lost City of Z - David Grann

Percy Harrison Fawcett, renowned Amazon explorer, was most famous not for his many expeditions and contributions to the mapping of the Amazon but for his disappearance. Having departed along with his eldest son in search of the fabled city of “Z” in 1925 he was never heard from again. His absence resulted in various rescue expeditions with most invariably vanishing into the jungle, possibly leading to the deaths of up to 100 people with no one any closer to discovering the fate of Percy’s last expedition. Cut to 2009 when journalist David Grann also falls under the spell of Fawcett and the Amazon. He too lands in the jungle, determined to find out truth.

Much like “Into Thin Air”, author David Grann divides the book up into his own adventures and a history of Fawcett’s. This helps provide a background on the explorer as well as the challenges and perils of the Amazon.

Fawcett is a surprising character and largest than life. He was apparently the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Professor Challenger in “The Lost World”. On expeditions he appeared practically immune to the diseases and illnesses that plagued his companions. Luck and speed helped bolster his reputation, earning him a Founder’s medal and a well-respected name among the Royal Geographical Society as an Amazonian expert.

His travels though were interrupted by World War I and he spent years planning and dreaming of finding traces of a lost civilization in the jungle on the same scale as Machu Picchu. All the while he’s getting older, technology is shrinking the world and he’s being slowly but inexorably pushed out of his field by men with degrees in the emerging field of modern anthropology.

The book was engaging despite the interruption in narrative to switch between Fawcett and Grann’s stories. It was also interesting to see how expeditions and the jungle changed over time due to the evolution of technology and modernization. While not every question was answered, Grann provides a satisfactory ending that would surely have pleased Fawcett himself.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"Arrival" (2016)

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist and university professor trying to teach a class when news breaks that a ufo has touched down in Montana, causing no little amount of panic among her students, her mother and humanity in general. She seems unphased though and images hint at a tragedy that may be taking up more space in her thoughts. 
Despite her preoccupation though she’s contracted by the military to help communicate with the aliens thanks to her translation skills. Joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) she must learn their language in order to find out why they’re here. Timing is everything though as eleven other ships have landed all over the world with eleven other governments trying to do the same thing Banks is. 
The aliens are well-conceived in that they are so ‘other’ from what we are. Their appearance, their speech, their language and the way they perceive the world are entirely differently. They aren’t a facsimile of humans in any way. 
As well, beautiful cinematography is paired with an evocative soundtrack but those aren’t the reasons you’ll want to rewatch this. There’s a twist at the end that will make you think and without giving anything away the circular theme found throughout was appreciated as was the communication versus action aspect of the story.
The pace does slow down in the middle considerably which accompanied by long shots and a lack of physical action made the film drag. Also, Renner’s character felt wasted. It would have made more sense for his character to be a fellow linguist than a theoretical physicist as his skills aren’t utilized to the same level as Banks’. Seeing them collaborate over language would have made their bond more believable as the chemistry between the two was lacking.
If you’re interested in a sci-fi story that will cause discussion after the film, try this one on for size.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Into Thin Air - Jon Krakauer

“There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.”

Jon Krakauer, journalist for the adventure magazine Outside, was hired to document an expedition to Mt. Everest in 1996. What he couldn’t know was that by the end of the expedition, eight people would be dead and he would be left with a very different story than what he originally planned.  

We begin with the victory of Krakauer summiting the mountain, quickly followed by ominous words that presage what’s to come. But instead of heading straight into the disaster we know is coming, we’re given a history lesson on Mt. Everest instead. The book provides a mass of information on the dangerous of climbing and what summiting Everest requires in terms of equipment and fortitude. It also touches on Mallory and Irvine and Hillary and Norgay, building a solid foundation on the history of the mountain and how climbing has evolved over the years. Today it’s a commercial operation where inexperienced clients can add to the risk of climbing, endangering not only themselves but also guides and Sherpas.

In stories where the outcome is already known the ‘what’ becomes less important than the ‘why’ and ‘how’. Before reading this book I already knew it involved death and that things were going to go very wrong for a large number of people trying to ascend the mountain. This left me to discover the details around the larger story. Told in hindsight, it creates a growing anxiety as an accumulation of small problems and mistakes leads our climbers towards a slow but inevitable plod towards doom. It was unnerving, knowing some of the people I was reading about would never go home, that I was essentially reading about ghosts.  

Finishing this book I was left with one question. What is a human life worth? I already knew the story was a tragedy but I had no idea how the actions of some climbers would horrify and depress me. The actions and mistakes made along the way were one thing but to discover that climbers were left for dead, that others passed them by on the way to the summit or believed they were beyond help was sickening. It seemed callous and possibly criminal to make no attempt at saving a fellow climber and human being. The excuses made in the book were myriad. “We didn’t know them.” “It’s dangerous to help others at this altitude.” “I was worried for my own life.” But at what point does someone become culpable? They may not have had an active hand in their deaths but what if they could have been saved? Krakauer on other dwell on this, second-guessing themselves, wondering what might have been.

“The plain truth is that I knew better but went to Everest anyway. And in doing so I was a party to the death of good people, which is something that is apt to remain on my conscience for a very long time.” 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Eagle has Landed - Jack Higgins

"Well, let's put it this way, you'll be a major by nightfall or dead."

No one knows the story how of a group of Germans invaded Britain for the sole purpose of kidnapping Winston Churchill. All that remains is a concealed gravestone dedicated to a unit of Germans paratroopers in a British churchyard. The truth is a closely guarded secret by the citizens of Studley Constable, a village that was the epicentre of the most daring raid of the entire war. 

Having never read Higgins before, I had no expectations in reading this book. But I can honestly say this was a poignant, entertaining and exciting read. As a result I can't wait to read more of his works.

There's a variety of characters, all with depth, personality and a derth of needs and wants. Surprisingly enough, the majority of the story is told from the perspective of the antagonists. This is counter to what you would normally expect. Much like "Bel Canto" and "House of Cards", the writing convinces the reader to essentially sympathize with the villain(s) of the story.

Also, in most stories the tension is derived from not knowing how it all ends. This has all been avoided here as the book was written as frame story, meaning we already know how it ends. This can often be a risky idea as it often deflates interest but if done well, it draws readers in by focusing on how and why events end the way they do. Instead of concerning themselves with the end of the story, readers are more interested in the journey/middle. 

Truthfully the majority of the action takes place in the last 50-100 pages but I was never bored or frustrated by this. Higgins slowly moves the playing pieces into place. He slowly builds the plot, interweaving plotlines until you can see the inexorable disaster looming in the distance, forcing the reader to continue, already knowing the outcome.

If you enjoy WWII stories filled with intrigue and like a bit of a twist on the traditional 'hero' story, check out this book. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Annotated Les Miserables: Weeks 10 & 11

So....about three years ago maybe four, I decided to try and read this monster. I failed, more than once. But now I'm back and more focused. I've even got a schedule going. And considering how I started off posting annotations I thought I should see it through. 

If you're planning on reading this book for yourself I would suggest not reading any further if you don't want the book to be spoiled.

Start from the Beginning

Tilbury - A light, open, two-wheeled carriage, sometimes with a top, sometimes without. It was developed in the 19th century by the Tilbury company in London. They were coachbuilders. The vehicle was considered fast, light, sporty and dangerous. 

Gig - Also called a chair or chaise, it's a light, two-wheeled cart pulled by one horse. Travelling at night they would usually carry two oil lamps known as gig lamps. Traditionally it's more formal than a village cart or a meadowbrook cart. A light gig can be used for carriage racing. 

"To journey is to be born and die each minute."
"All the elements of life are in constant flight from us, with darkness and clarity intermingled, the vision and the eclipse." 

File:Palais-de-justice-paris.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Palais du Justice - Among the oldest surviving buildings of the former royal palace. The justice of the state has been dispensed here since medieval times. It was also the seat of Parliament from the 16th century to the French Revolution. It was reconstructed between 1857-1868. 

Bishop's Palace - Built in 1675 it was built by Mansart, the same man who was an architect for Versailles. It now houses the Goya Museum and holds the largest collection of Spanish paintings in France. 

Obsequiously - Characterized by or showing servile compalisance or defence; fawning; obedient; dutifulpontiff

Pontiff - A bishop; any high or chief priest; the Pope aka the Bishop of Rome

Florid - Very fancy or too fancy; having a red or reddish colour

Theramene - The tutor of Hippolyte from the play "Phedre"

Jean-Baptiste Racine.PNG
Jean-Baptiste Racine - (1639-1699) A French dramatist and one of the three great playwrights of 17th century France. The other two being Moliere and Corneille. Racine mostly wrote tragedies and he was accomplished at writing in alexandrine verse. His plays are very sparse and there is little action on stage. 

Phedre - A French dramatic tragedy in five acts, written in alexandrine verse by Jean Racine. It was first performed in 1677. The story was pulled from Greek mythology and the play didn't do well in its initial opening. This is because a rival group staged a play with practically the same story. Racine stopped writing plays after this work until commissioned by the king.

Peroration - To conclude a speech with a formal recapitulation; to speak at great length, often in a grandiloquent manner; declaim

Wheelwright - A person who builds or repairs wooden wheels. These tradesmen made wheels for carts and wagons. 

Enfant-Rouges - An orphanage where the children were dressed in red, the colour of charity. 

Mardi Gras - Part of Carnival celebrations. It begins on or after the Christian feast of the Epiphany and culminates right before Ash Wednesday. It translate directly to "Fat Tuesday" and reflects the practice of the last night of eating rich, fatty food before fasting for Lent.