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Speculating on Fiction

Anyone who knows me and knows me well, knows I love science fiction and was, up until a few years ago, a SF reading machine. That is, until I got jaded by the then up and coming authors writing books that weren’t just door jambs, but were a trilogy in one volume. I simply lost interest in wading my way through these novels. Some had good ideas, but mostly, it was recycled ideas, being reused and tweaked, but without adding anything new or relevant to the genre. I felt like I had read it all before.

People kept telling me you should read so and so, but so and so had written something that was, to me at least, a pale imitation of something Clarke, or Asimov, or what Heinlein had written 10, 20 and 30 years ago. These new authors, to my mind had (a) never read the authors that had come before them or, (b) had, and were cherry-picking ideas as their own. I didn’t know what was the bigger of the crimes.

Because of my hiatus, however, those new authors from the 80s and 90s have, in turn, been replaced and supplanted by another set. Some emerging from the most unlikeliest of places: Bristol for one — yeah, go figure. Then there’s a whole clutch of writers that have popped up on my radar hailing from across the planet, which is great news for Spec-Fiction.

Now, I feel like I can begin to dip my toe(s) back into the Spec waters and, hopefully, find myself a good space opera, or flight of fantasy.

So, dear reader, do you have any recommendations for me, anything grab your attention lately?

TBR: The Pile of Doom!

My TBR pile is beginning to feel like the dreaded ‘slush’ pile of my junior years when, working in London for one of those companies, we use to take 1 to 5 unsolicited MS home at a weekend, and skim read them. Most were soooo bad, you couldn’t get past ten pages without rolling your eyes heavenward. But, still, diligently, you made copious notes and dropped them back off on the secretary’s desk, Monday morning.

Why am I equating my towering TBR pile with the slush pile of by gone years? Because, I’m shirking reading anything from it. I blame it on the hot, hot, hot weather we’re having this year. If I thought July was hotter than hell, I forgot August could be worse. It was 31 degrees this morning at 8 am at freaking 8 am people! The humidity is to blame: it’s 98%.

So what, I hear you say so, it means instead of staying at home (and reading, like any normal person might do) I’ve been sneaking off to the mall and I keep buying new books. What’s worse, my book-radar is broken, and I keep buying naff books based on creative and or suggestive titles, or neat colourful covers and, because I’m not taking the time to read the first chapter, keep coming home, starting said new book(s) and, being utterly deflated when I start struggling because said book is soooo boring.

I use to be really good at this. I had a finely tuned and well honed radar, and with laser sights, homed in on this or that great book with unerring accuracy. Not any more, I seem to be drawn to every dud the bookstore has to offer.

So I’ve made myself a promise. I will not slink off to the mall to hang out in the AirCon confines, or sneak into the nearest bookstore. I’ll make do, sweat it out on the couch in front of a decrepit fan, and read each and every book in my TBR pile, dutifully.

Especially since I have a signed copy of Louise Penny’s GLASS HOUSES staring at me from the bottom of the pile. I mean, how could I keep ignoring it, right?

Movie Review: True Grit (2010)

Genre: Western
Director: Ethan and Joel Coen
Writer: Ethan and Joel Coen
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin

Premise: After an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) murders her father, feisty 14-year-old farm girl Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a boozy, trigger-happy lawman, to help her find Chaney and avenge her father. The bickering duo are not alone in their quest, for a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) is also tracking Chaney for reasons of his own. Together the unlikely trio ventures into hostile territory to dispense some Old West justice.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

This version of True Grit — a remake of the John Wayne version (1969) — stars Jeff Bridges in the role of Rueben (Rooster) Cogburn, the Marshal hired by the true hero of this story, Mattie Ross. Wonderfully played by the very able, Hailee Steinfeld. Who, for my part, outshines her male counterparts. They certainly play second fiddle to her, as she steals every scene she’s in.

Whether she’s out smarting them with legalese, as in the scenes where she is horse trading with Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews)—who owns the stables where her father bought ponies—to bargaining later in the film with both Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and the leader of the outlaw gang, “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). None survive her verbal wrangling, as she bamboozles them into doing what she wants for the most part.

The dialogue is authentic, true to the times, and downright droll in places. So much so that I laughed out loud at the deadpan humour. Again, in the two scenes where Mattie is bargaining with Col. Stonehill to not only buy back his ponies, but make reparations to her for the loss of her father’s saddle and horse, we see her verbal shenanigans leave the man in a shambles. Priceless!

You immediate take to and root for Mattie, and, as the film progresses, begin to see the Marshall, and wonton drunk, Cogburn, in a different light, as he slowly thaws and takes to Mattie and her brand of innocence. But it is the grit she shows us, that makes us believers.

The scenery itself, and the weather conditions play a subtle role throughout, as the broad open vistas and seemingly desolate landscapes breath reality into the groups trek to find Tom Chaney, and the Ned Pepper gang. It’s stark, bleak, and unforgiving out in the wilderness, reminding us that this is no glorified Hollywood version but still, Mother Nature’s glory is beautiful in the raw.

The performances are credible, believable, even enjoyable given Mattie’s ability to talk everyone into and out of most situations. Jeff Bridges gives an excellent performance as Cogburn—a crotchety and dogeared old man, who, in the end, shows himself a hero by saving Mattie’s life.

Matt Damon gives a credible performance as the third wheel of the group, playing the Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, who’s been on Tom Chaney’s trail for months, after the outlaw shot and killed a Texan Senator. Almost as gruff as Cogburn, the pair share a few verbal spars that are entertaining and laced with some dark humour.

As are the scenes in which Cogburn is interrogating the outlaw pair, Moon and Quincy. It’s this dark humour throughout that off-sets some of the more brutal violence. And keeps it tempered to within limits that shock but never glorify.

As true to the book as I’ve seen any movie be, True Grit hits all the right notes, tells the heartwarming and yes, heartbreaking story of Mattie, and what she went through to find her father’s killer. A true story that does not shy away from the realities of the times it was set in.

Rating: 8.5 / 10

Top 5 Villains

Hosted by Shanah of the, Bionic Book Worm, this week’s Top 5 Tuesday is: Villains more interesting than the Hero.

So, I’ve seen lists with Voldermort in first places, someone who will always readily jump to mind. But I’m going to do my best to comb through all the books I’ve ever read, and try to remember 5 of the more memorable villains who, quite frankly, overshadow the hero for all the wrong reasons.

No. 1 — Alec D’Urberville (Tess of the D’Urbervilles)
Author: Thomas Hardy (1891)
To quote: “I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad, in all probability.
Come on, this guy lures an innocent 16 year-old into his house, rapes her and then, makes her think everything is her fault. Not only that, he plays mind games with her. Strong stuff!

No. 2 — Prof. Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes)
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle (1893)
Sherlock’s arch nemesis is, without a doubt, one of the most single-minded, cunningly evil masterminds to ever have been written. Ruthless and vindictive, he will stop at nothing to bring down Sherlock and anyone who gets in his way, better watch out!

No. 3 — Norman Bates (Psycho)
Author: Robert Bloch (1959)
Who can forget the movie, never mind the book. Which has another psychotic murderer who not only murders his mother, but her lover too. And, as we also know, preserving his mother for good measure.

No. 4 — The White Witch (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe)
Author: C.S. Lewis (1950)
When I read this book as a child, and didn’t fully understand exactly how despicable the White Witch was, till I reread the novel later. It was a stark revelation to be reminded what this woman/witch did: she killed Christmas, turned people to stone and banished all hope and happiness from Narnia.

No. 5 — Nurse Ratchet (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
Author: Ken Kesey (1962)
Yes, we have to have at least one monstrous woman amid all these male villains. Ruling over the inmates of a mental institute, this nurse wields absolute power through fear, humiliation and abuse over vulnerable patients, supposedly in her care. Everyone remembers the movie.

Honorable Mentions:

Sauron, from Lord of the Rings, he, of course, like Voldermort, has to be in anyone’s list of baddies because he is evil incarnate.

So, dear reader, who are your favourite villains?

The Woman Who Married a Bear

I missed First Impressions Friday, as I had an unexpected trip to the hospital … at 8am in the morning. So I’m posting this today in catch-up mode.

Thursday evening, I started reading John Straley’s The Woman Who Married A Bear (1992) — which I had bought last weekend, you know, because of the title, and who wouldn’t right? And I had planned to talk about it Friday. But, as Friday and Saturday came and went, I didn’t get back to reading the book again till yesterday afternoon.

First of all, let’s start with the back cover blurb, which has all the right ingredients to grab your attention:

Cecil Younger, local Alaskan investigator, is neither good at his job nor great at staying sober. When an old Tlingit woman, unimpressed by the police’s investigation, hires him to discover why her son, a big game guide, was murdered, he takes the case without much conviction that he’ll discover anything new. But after a failed assassination attempt and the discovery of previously missed evidence, Younger finds himself traveling across Alaska to discover the truth in a midst of conspiracies, politics, and Tlingit mythology. High drama meets local color as Cecil Younger works to uncover the motive and identity of the killer.

Now, let’s talk about what I’ve read so far, and my first impressions of a book that should be so much more, but isn’t.

I’ll start with the character of Cecil, a protagonist without (so far, I should point out) one redeeming feature. His wife has left him, and for good reason, he drinks … he drinks constantly. So how this character is a functioning person at all, is beyond me. But, stretching credulity aside. This deadbeat character is tasked with helping an elderly Tlinget woman find out the truth about her son’s death—because, somehow amid all the drugs and drinking, he works as an investigator.

Which is another way for the author to spend endless pages talking about Cecil’s background and upbringing, as if this makes it all okay to be a deadbeat, asshole. We also get more than enough colourful descriptions of each and every town, person, and disreputable establishment in Alaska. Complimented with endless descriptions of what the weather’s doing every five minutes

Yes, I know the weather is changeable in Alaska, I just don’t need to be constantly reminded of it.

So far, things are not looking up for Alaska nor, may I say, Cecil, who is just a self centred, pain in the ass. I had high hopes for this one based on reading the first chapter but, sadly for me, it’s been all down hill since then.

I’m struggling to find a reason to continue reading this one. I might, only because it’s short  at 288 pages. And not because I care about any of the characters, but because, in the end, I’m hoping the author does deliver on the promise to share some stories about Yupik and Tlinget culture and myths. The reason I bought the book in the first place.

A full book review will follow, if I manage to finish this one.