Monday, 25 July 2011

Review: Constructing Green Lantern

Constructing Green Lantern by Ozzy Inguanzo (2011)

Books about what goes on backstage of film productions are often fascinating–at least, for those who don't mind seeing the magician reveal his secrets.  Constructing Green Lantern covers the design work that went into the creating the look of the 2011 summer blockbuster Green Lantern.  It's a very pretty to look at book with lots of illustrations of how the various props, costumes, and CGI characters evolved, though one does come away with the impression that filmmakers with very big budgets sometimes over think their creations to a ludicrous degree.  Do we really need to have a specially designed employee badge that we'll never see?  Must we give a name to a CGI alien who we never meet?

The only major flaw of the book is that it's obviously a market tie-in with the release of the film, so on one level it acts as an advertisement for Green Lantern.  As such, it's highly unlikely that the entire story is there or that the reader will see much of what hurdles had to be overcome or what could and did go wrong.  Me?  I'm waiting for the 25th anniversary DVD re-release commentaries when the cast and crew no longer feel obligated to stay in promotion mode.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Review: Flashman on the March

Flashman on the March by George MacDonald Fraser (2005)

The twelfth installment of the Flashman papers continues the memoirs of  Sir Harry Flashman*; famed hero, decorated officer of the British Army, one of the most outstanding figures of the Victorian era and a complete fraud. 

This time, the year is 1867 and Flashman, on the run from the Mexicans after the execution of Emperor Maximilian and an irate Austrian nobleman whose daughter Flashman deflowered on the boat trip to Trieste, makes his escape by agreeing to escort a shipment of silver to General Napier, who is leading the British expedition to free a party of Europeans held captive by the Emperor of Abyssinia.  It seems a safe enough job–until Napier tells Flashman how delighted he is to see him.  This can only mean one thing:  Sir Harry is up to his neck in trouble again. Before he knows what's happening, he's on a secret mission to secure an alliance with a local queen with the queen's usurpation-minded sister as a guide while dodging bandits, unfriendly tribes, and the forces of an emperor who makes Caligula look like a study in reason and sanity. Could things get any worse?  Of course they could.

Flashman is one of the most brilliant creations in historical fiction.  When George MacDonald Fraser brought him to life in Flashman (1969), he did such a marvelous job of "editing" Sir Harry's "long lost" memoirs that many perfectly respectable historians reviewed the novel under the impression that it was a genuine historical find.  This is particularly surprising when you consider that Flashman was not, in fact, created by Fraser, but was lifted from the novel Tom Brown's Schooldays where Flashman was the cowardly bully at rugby who was expelled.  Fraser then took up the question of what happened to Flashman after expulsion and we learn that young Harry soon joined the British Army, won the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan, and went on to become one of the greatest heroes of his age–that is, until the old scoundrel wrote his memoirs at the age of ninety when he reveals that it was all an utter lie and that he was, in fact, still a bully and coward as well as a rake, thief, and general scoundrel who happily spent his time fornicating when he wasn't running for his life while crying like a baby.  Still, Flashman may be a poltroon, but he's no idiot, so he manages to show remarkable wit and resourcefulness as he gets mixed up in some of the greatest wars of the century while bedding most of its notorious women.

Flashman on the March is the last of the novels completed by Fraser before his death in 2008 and shows that even in his 80s he hadn't lost his touch.  Flashman is still the anti-hero who is still capable of charming the reader, Fraser still loads the book with incredible detail backed up with copious footnotes that often correct Flashman's "errors" and we get a page-turner of a comic adventurer wrapped around an obscure yet fascinating episode of British Imperial history as well as a portrait of one of the worst monsters ever to sit on any throne in the form of Emperor Theodore of Abyssinia.  The only criticism I have is more backhanded praise in that with his neat turns of phrase and attention to detail, Fraser makes the book a slow read because the reader is constantly tempted to re-read passages or pop off to the Internet for a bit of independent research.

Sad to say, we will now never know what happened to Flashman at Rorke's drift or how he ended up in Mexico or what fills in any of his other missing adventure.  Unless, that is, someone else takes up the job of editing Sir Harry's yet unopened packets of memoirs.
*FLASHMAN, Harry Paget, brigadier-general, V.C., K.C.B., K.C.I.E.: Chevalier, Legion of Honour; Order of Maria Theresa, Austria; Order of the Elephant, Denmark (temporary); U.S. Medal of Honor; San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth, 4th class; b. May 5, 1822, s. of H. Buckley Flashman, Esq., Ashby, and Hon. Alicia Paget; m. Elspeth Rennie Morrison, d. of Lord Paisley, one s., one d. Educ. Rugby School, 11th Hussars, 17th Lancers. Served Afghanistan 1841-2 (medals, thanks of Parliament); chief of staff to H.M. James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak, Batang Luper expedn, 1844; milit. adviser with unique rank of sergeant-general to H.M. Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar, 1844-5; Sutlej campaign, 1845-6 (Ferozeshah, Sobraon, envoy extraordinary to Maharani Jeendan, Court of Lahore); polit, adviser to Herr (later Chancellor Prince) von Bismarck, Schleswig-Holstein, 1847-8; Crimea, staff (Alma, Sevastopol, Balaclava), prisoner of war, 1854; artillery adviser to Atalik Ghazi, Syr Daria campaign, 1855; India, Sepoy Mutiny, 1857-8, dip, envoy to H.R.H. the Maharani of Jhansi, trooper 3rd Native Cavalry, Meerut, subseq. att. Rowbotham's Mosstroopers, Cawnpore, (Lucknow, Gwalior, etc., V.C.); adjutant to Captain John Brown, Harper's Ferry, 1859; China campaign 1860, polit, mission to Nanking, Taiping Rebellion, polit, and other services, Imperial Court, Pekin; U.S. Army (major, Union forces, 1862, colonel (staff) Army of the Confederacy, 1863); a.d.c. to H.I.M. Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, 1867; interpreter and observer Sioux campaign, U.S., 1875-6 (Camp Robinson conference, Little Big Horn, etc.); Zulu War, 1879 (Isandhlwana, Rorke's Drift); Egypt 1882 (Kassassin, Tel-el-Kebir); personal bodyguard to H.I.M. Franz-Josef, Emperor of Austria, 1883; Sudan 1884-5 (Khartoum); Pekin Legations, 1900. Travelled widely in military and civilian capacities, among them supercargo, merchant marine (West Africa), agriculturist (Mississippi valley), wagon captain and hotelier (Santa Fe Trail); buffalo hunter and scout (Oregon Trail); courier (Underground Railroad); majordomo (India), prospector (Australia); trader and missionary (Solomon Islands, Fly River, etc.), lottery supervisor (Manila), diamond broker and horse coper (Punjab), dep. marshal (U.S.), occasional actor and impersonator. Hon. mbr of numerous societies and clubs, including Sons of the Volsungs (Strackenz), Mimbreno Apache Copper Mines band (New Mexico), Khokand Horde (Central Asia), Kit Carson's Boys (Colorado), Brown's Lambs (Maryland), M.C.C., White's and United Service (London, both resigned), Blackjack (Batavia). Chmn, Flashman and Bottomley, Ltd; dir. British Opium Trading Co.; governor, Rugby School; hon. près. Mission for Reclamation of Reduced Females. Publications: Dawns and Departures of a Soldier's Life; Twixt Cossack and Cannon; The Case Against Army Reform. Recreations: oriental studies, angling, cricket (performed first recorded "hat trick", wickets of Felix, Pilch, Mynn, for 14 runs, Rugby Past and Present v. Kent, Lord's 1842; five for 12, Mynn's Casuals v. All-England XI, 1843). Add: Gandamack Lodge, Ashby, Leics.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Review: Biggles Works It Out

Biggles Works It Out by Capt. W E Johns(1951)

The legendary pilot takes on a gang of international gold hijackers in Algeria. 

Revisiting a childhood fictional hero is a problematic thing. Oftentimes what one thought earth-shaking is revealed for the dross that it is and the brilliant character one looked up to proves to be a cardboard collection of tics and catch phrases.  But other times, the experience is much more pleasant, such as picking up a Biggles book for the first time in nearly thirty years. 

Captain W E Johns's aviator hero, James "Biggles" Bigglesworth,  has delighted readers young and old since his introduction on the pages of Popular Flying in 1932.  Despite most of the 200 odd books and stories being out of print, copies are fervently sought by fans and collectors with copies changing hands for as much as $1,000. 

Biggles Works It Out isn't the best of the series.  It belongs to that awkward "air detective" phase that never quite matches the thrills of when Biggles and his mates Algy, Bertie, and Ginger take on the Germans in wartime or fly off to some exotic locale to deal with deviltry.  It also doesn't help that Biggles leaves most of the heavy lifting in this adventure of Algy and Bertie as they deal with recurring villain Von Stahlhein and murder-bent Tuareg tribesmen.  Biggles himself stays behind to co-ordinate the action and only comes in himself in literally the last chapter to sort out the mystery. 

A first time reader will also find the characters a bit thin, but bear in mind that they were written to be met again and again over many books, so their characterisation is cumulative.  You have to read a number of the books to get the full flavour.  And I can't think of a more pleasant way to pass the time.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The comma conundrum

How to use the Oxford Comma according to the Oxford style guide:
As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used – especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and’: 
 They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.
There are some cases where the comma is clearly obligatory: 
The bishops of Canterbury, Oxford, Bath and Wells, and Salisbury.

But still the controversy rages.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Review: The Coming of the Ice

"The Coming of the Ice" by G Peyton Wertenbaker (1926)

A 20th century man is given immortality, but at the price of spiritual stagnation.  Worse, the woman he loves and the scientist who discovered the process are killed in a motor car accident, so our hero is forced to live out his days alone until the world itself dies in the grip of a new ice age.

When Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories in 1926, he saw science fiction as a teaching medium; a way to prepare the public for the fantastic world to come.  Because of this, the idea behind a story was often allowed to overwhelm the story itself until the end product is little more than a dessicated shell of a plot.  So it is with "The Coming of the Ice".  This brief tale has a certain pathos, but the narrator is so detached and expects us to be so enthralled by the roster of future events that author never regards it as necessary to truly engage our attention with more than superficial romance and conflictless incident. 

A story more famous for it's illustration than for itself, "The Coming of the Ice" needs to thaw out.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Review; A Canticle For Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller (1960)

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Western civlisation contracted to such an extent that its only outposts were monasteries like Iona on the outer edges of the known world.  There the monks preserved what little was left of Classical learning against the day then the shattered world healed itself until ready to use that knowledge once again.  A Canticle for Leibowitz tells the same story, though in Walter Miller's novel history repeats itself after a nuclear war and the civil unrest hurls the human race into a new dark age.  Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as a trilogy of novellas, Canticle follows the adventures of the brothers of the Albertian Order of St Leibowtiz; a monastery somewhere in what was once New Mexico dedicated to preserving what books could be salvaged from the holocaust and founded by Isaac Leibowitz, a 20th century Jewish electrical engineer who converted to Catholicism after the war and was hanged as a "booklegger" by a Luddite mob bent on destroying all knowledge.

Reflecting its magazine origins, the novel is split into three parts.  The first follows a young novice who with the help of a mysterious old man discovers the ruins of an ancient fallout shelter containing relics of St Leibowitz, which turn out to be a shopping list and a blueprint of an electronics schematic.  The second involves a visit to the monastery by a scholar wishing to study their book collection, which places the Order in the middle of a war between rival empires.  And the third sees the world rising out of barbarism to a new civilisation capable of interstellar travel, yet doomed to repeat the cycle of the previous society in destroying itself by nuclear fire

A Canticle For Leibowitz is one of those books that are genuine science fiction classics, but don't sit very well with sci-fi fans.  It is very much science fiction, but it doesn't deal with the usual spaceships and ray guns, nor does it gallop about in a romantic post-apocalyptic world.  Science fiction compliments itself as being a genre of ideas, but those ideas tend to be very secular and even materialistic.  A novel that revolves around ideas that are not only Christian, but Catholic and which treats Christian ideas with respect rather than as an adolescent punching bag  is a rarity only seen at that time in the works of C S Lewis and James Blish.   It's a novel where the question is posed throughout as to how one can reconcile God and Caesar and where an abbot faces a world where people believe that the only evil is pain and that society is the only thing that determines whether an act is wrong or not and he reacts with justifiable horror at such moral husks.

This is not, however, a dry polemic or apologia.  This is a story of wry humour and of imperfect men struggling with faith in a very imperfect, even brutal, world.  Many chapters are flat-out funny while others have a poignancy such as a story where one of the main characters is Lazarus, raised from the dead by Christ 3500 years ago and commanded to wait for His return.  Many modern readers may be put off entirely by the subject matter or that lack of melodrama, but if that causes them to pass over Canticle, then the loss is theirs.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Family Month

The Szondy family is taking a month off so we can catch up with ourselves, so posting is going to be a little light.  I'll check in when I can, but there are lawns to mow, fish to catch and beer to drink.  And if there's enough beer, the lawn and fish can look after themselves.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Happy American Independence Day

American Independence Day
The Quill & The Keyboard