Monthly Archives: February 2008

Duma Key

I know what you’re thinking. Goddamn, man, do you even remember how to read?! As it happens, I do. I mean, it’s only been three weeks, right? And, being a Stephen King novel, it was pretty darn long, too. But these are basically candy-ass excuses; the truth is, I’ve just been busy with a lot of other things, and therefore reading slowly. I think it is somewhat unlikely that I’ll read 50 books this year, if things keep going the way they are; right now, for example, I’m on track for a mere 36. But, we’ll see!

Plus, I think I have a subconscious inclination to savor Stephen King books, as though each one is probably the last he’ll ever publish. This is almost certainly not the case, and yet it’s the mindset I’ve been stuck in for at least three years now. Well, as much as I don’t want it to be, I think that I could be satisfied if Duma Key actually were the last one. It was just really good in a way that I can already tell will be difficult to express. I think what really got me was how personal the scope of the story was. I mean, maybe it was personal to King, but that’s not what I’m saying, as I’d have no way to guess it. Rather, despite that it spanned a century and irrevocably altered the fates of three families, everything that happened was vital and immediate and kept me engrossed on the behalf of protagonist Edgar Freemantle.

Following a horrific construction-site accident, Edgar leaves his first life behind for an extended stay on Duma Key in Florida, where he hopes to take up drawing, recollect himself, and discover what’s left of him. He could never have dreamed of the talent he will find, and far less of the power with which that talent is imbued or the slumbering evil that inhabits the southern half of the island. Luckily, he also finds real friends to help him through the many trials that lie ahead, some far more dreadful than the accident that brought him to Duma Key in the first place.

Hey, look, it’s a jacket cover! (At least, that’s the kind of thing I imagine that they say.) One of the many cool things about Stephen King is how he effortlessly glides between genres. If you take away the spooky demon-ghost lady and the supernatural paintings, you’d still have the core of one of those feel-good dramas about people putting their lives together again after vast adversity, like what I imagine Stella getting her groove back must have entailed. I have insufficient interest in that kind of story to seek it out, but here it is, right in the middle of my horror novel. By and large, I approve of this; mostly because it provides depth and breadth to what would almost certainly otherwise be a dry well by this time. King understands what terrifies us, sure, but he also understands our essential humanity; as far as I can tell, he always has, and that’s what keeps bringing people back to him, not any temporary frights in the small hours of the night.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

Most of my video game time[1] lately has been spent perusing the Orange Box for A) a Half-Life 2 experience that doesn’t involve sparkles flying across my screen[2] and B) an improved gamer score. It has been quite good to me on both counts, and hooray for that. The task has been spread out over so many months, though, that when I finally finished the other new content on the disc, I forgot that completed games get reviews! That is a little bit embarrassing, and the moreso because this is coming a few days out of order. But so be it, I have no other choice at this late date!

So, right, in the summer of 2006 I downloaded the first incremental sequel to Half-Life 2 from Steam and played it, and other than whatever bizarre video driver conflict I was having, it was extremely fun! Episode Two took rather longer to come out than I had originally heard, and by the time it finally appeared, I needed a refresher. (And a higher gamer score.) So that explains the delay since I got access to this newest sequel. (Well, and Portal, which is its own kind of awesome excuse.) Anyway, I got refreshed and voila, time to play! Which I did.

Directly following the climactic destruction of City 17 at the end of the previous game, Gordon and Alyx are forced to continue their journey to deliver the stolen Combine data on foot. The trouble with this plan is that the bad guys have some pretty brutal new assets for making our heroes dead, and since they’re on the ropes right now, they seem willing to throw almost all of their effort into preventing the success of the resistance. Along the way, there’s a friendly garden gnome, ever more antlions, gut-wrenching drama, and a promise that Aperture Science[3] will feature heavily in Episode Three. These really are the best first-person shooters on the market for storyline; they blow Halo clean out of the water.

[1] Not all; there’s Halo on Thursdays, for example.
[2] Thanks, PC gaming!
[3] Also, whenever Episode 3 is released, I bet Portal will have a sequel at the same time. Which would be fantastic.


mv5bmtiwmdgwodc5nl5bml5banbnxkftztywmjqzmdm4-_v1_In keeping with a longstanding Shards of Delirium tradition of only watching movies in alphabetical order[1], when I finally made it back to a theater yesterday, I saw Juno. It was exactly the sort of slice-of-life plot outline that traditionally keeps me well away from the theater, right down to the overly twee tagline[2]. And yet there was something about the previews and later the overwhelmingly positive reviews that said to me, “this one, this one you should go and see anyway.” Then, after finally getting around to seeing Jumper (alphabetical order, remember?), I did!

Juno MacGuff, possessed of the life-slice in question, is a junior in high school with rock & roll aspirations, delightful taste in Dario Argento films, smart-ass sensibilities… and a fetus. This last part and more specifically her choices about it, falling rather more outside society’s accepted norm than her other qualities, is the driving force behind the film’s plot. Despite being a sweet and funny (and at one point jarringly melodramatic) story, I don’t think there would have been quite enough there to really draw me in. (Slice-of-life = ew, on average; always has, probably always will.) But the acting! The acting was fantastic. Every supporting character[3] added real depth to Juno’s story, Michael Cera was his usually sweet, bumbling perfection, and Ellen Page… Every so often, you get to catch a movie right at the beginning of someone’s career and realize there’s a good chance that this actor is going to be something special. Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures, or Natalie Portman in The Professional. Ellen Page’s turn as Hayley in Hard Candy was another such watershed moment for me, and the only surprise behind her outstanding job as Juno yesterday is that the mainstream recognition is coming so soon. Mark my words, she’ll be even better in five or ten more years.

[1] Discussion topic: when did you first notice that habit? Don’t be shy! You might be surprised by everyone else’s answer!
[2] In case you were unaware, the tagline has been provided practically forever in the mouseover text of the movie’s title link. And eventually, even all of the archives will have this feature, after which some portion of this footnote’s truth value will be purely of historical interest.
[3] Well, okay, not so much Juno’s friend or Juno’s babydaddy’s friend. But two out of a dozen or so is an acceptable loss ratio, I say!

Jumper (2008)

First I was lazy, then I was busy, then I was distracted, then I was sick. Like, a lot sick. Stupid flu. I bet if they’d had the right shot available this year, I wouldn’t have gotten it, is all I’m saying, and then I’d only have three excuses instead of four. (Plus more money, but that’s a separate issue.) Anyway, these problems have conspired to prevent me from finishing a book in practically ages, so I’m alright on that front, but I have seen a couple of movies, one of them weeks ago. So that part is embarrassing, but I shall rectify the issue via a quick review now!

Jumper tells the story of a guy who used to be Anakin Skywalker, but instead of having a lightsaber and a pregnant girlfriend, he can teleport around and also his girlfriend isn’t pregnant. So really, life would be fantastic, since he can steal whatever he needs with no hope of being caught[1] and there’s no child support to worry about. Except his girlfriend notices little inconsistencies in his story like how she last saw him trapped under a frozen river like ten years ago and how he has an awful lot of money for not spending much time at a job and how people want to kill her because she knows him. Which is a pity, life being so great otherwise.

Well, and there’s one other fly in the ointment, I suppose, in that Samuel L. Jackson runs (or at least runs the operational end of) an organization of Paladins who have been hunting down Jumpers for centuries. They claim that this is because only God should have the power to be everywhere, but even a first-year Jesuit could easily point out that the Jumpers are only one place at a time, and anyway God made them that way, right, so what’s the big deal? Clearly the truth of the matter is that Sam is still angry about the time when the kid cut his arm off and pushed him off a building, and he invented this centuries-old underground war out of whole cloth to cover the revenge angle so it would play better to the audience. Which I can understand all of except the part where he actually thought anyone would buy the conspiracy in the first place, because, come on! What did those Jumper dudes ever do to y’all, seriously? If you were Bankers instead of Paladins, yeah, that would be one thing.

I approved of all the nifty teleportastic special effects, and of the awesome location shots, and that they dunked Rachel Bilson in a lake[2], and even in a Little Engine That Could kind of way I approved of them setting themselves up for a sequel. I cannot bring myself to approve of the plot, or really even of using the word ‘plot’ in conjunction with the shooting script that ended up on film. That would be going a little too far. But it had eye candy and humor; even the intentional kind, from time to time. I hope it turns into a cult classic, now that I’m thinking about it, because that would be a pretty fair outcome.

[1] and he doesn’t really need to spend any money on gas or airplane tickets in the first place, such that he could probably go legit as a one-man shipping company, but at least that never actually happens, because holy wow, it would have been boring.
[2] Seriously, prune skin aside, if I had my way that girl would never be dry.

My Own Kind of Freedom

My-Own-Kind-of-Freedom-coverDespite a relative lack of reviews of his books due to the timing of my having read most of them before I started here, I like to think it’s no secret that Steven Brust is one of my favorite authors. And I’m positive that it’s no secret that Firefly is one of my favorite TV shows. So, you know what would be cool? If Brust were to write a Firefly tie-in novel and get it sold and start off a chain reaction of new book farm awesomeness. I mean, probably most of the authors would not work out that well, so there’s that, but I love the characters enough to put up with almost anything out of said hypothetical book farm other than bad character depictions. And believe it or not, that dream may have been closer than you think! However, not all dreams can come true, and nobody ultimately published the novel that he wrote a couple of years ago. Which would be where the story ends, in tears and bloody recriminations, except that he’s self-published it under the Creative Commons license, and you can read it whenever you want, for free. That’s cool except for the lack of future novels and his not getting paid, which he really should be.

My Own Kind of Freedom is tidily short novel set in the nebulous months between the end of the series and the movie, Serenity, and informed by both. Except for being slightly too long for that, it feels very much like an episode of the show, and in all the good ways. A standard shipping run turns quickly dangerous when Jayne and Mal have a parting of ways and Jayne is left free to make another attempt at collecting the reward on the head of the Tams. And, one problem never really being enough to stymie the crew of Serenity for long, unfriendly faces from Mal and Zoë’s past are popping up in the single unfriendliest place the Unification War had to offer the both of them. (And if this summary isn’t enough to get you going, it’s because you haven’t watched Firefly yet. And you really should! So go ahead. I’ll wait.)

Brust’s plotting and typically spare prose are a known quantity by now. His characterizations shine as brightly as if the entire story had been written in Firefly’s script room and then performed by the cast, voices and often images being piped directly into my brain. The story is dense, also a known quantity of Brust’s; the man loves to write just enough to let you figure out everything that’s going on, instead of providing it all to you, piece by piece. All of these are positive things, from my perspective. The only flaw, if you can call it that, is that I’ve been once again reminded of just how little access I have to a universe that could have been mined for years of entertainment. There’s time yet, though. Look how Star Trek turned out.


In yet another thriller for the internet age, Untraceable finds the FBI cybercrimes division in Portland working to track down a murderer that carries out his crimes in full public view over a streaming video website. Naturally they must find him and stop him before he can kill again, but they are stymied at every turn by moderately plausible technobabble about hacked Russian DNS servers and rapidly changing IP algorithms, so they must ultimately rely on old-fashioned police work involving witness interviews, basement construction-age estimates, and so on. It is at heart a boilerplate genre film, indistinguishable in most ways from dozens or hundreds of other thrillers, all of sufficient workmanlike quality to provide an entertaining distraction without really standing out years or even months later.

There were two important distinctions from the mold, however. The first was a Saw-like twist on the murders themselves. After setting up his death traps, the killer tied their activations to the number of connections open to the streaming video site. If people were not watching, nothing bad would happen to the victims. So he was able to split responsibility with a monolithic and voraciously thrill-seeking public that has long since been anesthetized to images of violence. And the second was the depiction of Diane Lane’s lead investigator. It wasn’t that she was a capable woman who was really good at the technical side of her job and simultaneously good at taking care of herself. Hollywood does that all the time, these days. What impressed me was that the script didn’t make a special note of these qualities in her. In a way, I feel like by pointing it out myself, I’m reducing the awesomeness of them not having done so; but it’s such a rare thing that it struck me, and I want to hand out the kudos in the hopes that this becomes as common as the tough, capable chick that everyone feels a need to mention just how tough and capable she is in today’s cinema.

I was a little disappointed by it not being the kind of plot you could really unravel and solve in advance, and also by only minimal discussion of the sociology of Americans inherent in these traps garnering enough viewership to kill their victims. But I really like to figure things out in advance, and I’m really interested in the kinds of things that we’ll collectively, anonymously accept that we would be horrified over in more individual situations, and I can’t really fault the writer for having a different focus. Certainly my overall impression wasn’t reduced by these omissions.

Also, despite being a Tuesday afternoon, there was a pretty girl in the theater. So, that’s alright.

Y: The Last Man – Paper Dolls

So, I notice that my Y reviews are getting shorter over time. I figure this is in part because it grows harder to avoid spoilers as a series grows in length, and in part because Brian K. Vaughan is doing his level best to delay a conclusion to the series. (Well, in point of fact, it already has concluded or will have within just a few weeks. But I mean as of the time of the current collection, Paper Dolls.) I should hasten to point out that this doesn’t bother me. As long as the main sequence story as well as the flashbacks and digressions remain interesting, as they certainly did here in Volume 7, he’s welcome to take all the time he could possibly want.

And anyway, the plot has certainly thickened. Yorick’s quest to find his girlfriend continues to falter in interesting ways, although the quest he shares with Dr. Allison Mann and Agent 355 to bring males back to the world in time to prevent extinction may be coming to a head soon. Along the way, visits with the modern Catholic Church, 355’s past, Ampersand’s history and current whereabouts, and a drop-in by an old enemy serve to keep things popping. And there’s still plenty of time to bring all the outstanding elements to a boil. As has been the case ever since I finished the first collection, I really can’t wait to see where this is headed.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Sequelitis provides another glimpse into the depths of the review bucket, in which I find that my voice still sounds basically the same, at least to me. Three years and more gone, I saw National Treasure and was a little embarrassed to have enjoyed it. I mean, I still am. The plot and most of the characters were paper-thin, the acting was fine but not enough to inspire much loyalty, and Disneyfication was clearly present. Despite all that, it also had an undefinable element of fun to it that pretty much resolved all the other issues. And I should give Disney the credit for that too, despite that it hasn’t really happened as often as it used to in their heyday. Anyway, who doesn’t want to watch an Indiana-Jones-style treasure hunt through deadlily implausible traps? No one, that’s who!

Therefore, it was pretty easy to talk myself into willingness to watch National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Goofy traps and treasure: check, not allergic to Nicolas Cage: check, expectation of fun: check. And I got more or less what I expected. A plot that was perhaps two or three sheets of paper in thickness, in which Benjamin Franklin Cage 1) receives word that his great-great-grandfather may have been involved in the assassination of President Lincoln and 2) must therefore find the lost city of Cíbola to clear the family name. And the only way to accomplish that, of course, is to find the Presidential Book of Secrets, in which the current President leaves notes and drawings and possibly poetry for later Presidents to read and learn from, all the way back to George Washington. If none of that makes sense to you, well, that’s not really the point. I’ve already guaranteed goofy traps, and the goofy treasure is pretty well covered just by virtue of Cíbola being the object.

I was disappointed by my perception that, come the end of the movie, Grandpappy Cage’s innocence had not been so much established as declared by fiat. Paper-thin plotting is fine, but you can’t just toss out the paper without finishing it, you know? Other than that, I got exactly what I expected, and what I expected was maybe not good, but it was good enough.

The Lies of Locke Lamora

I know it’s early yet, but this year is treating me excellently for books. I suppose the most important factor is the stack of recommendations I sift through these days, which in many ways has been a factor in the improvements my reading list has seen over the past year and more. But both of today’s book and Cryptonomicon have been more frequently and more widely recommended than the average, which I figure therefore makes a bit more difference than usual. In any event, if I read the best quality of books of my life in 2008, that’ll be awesome, and if I don’t, well, that’s probably fine too. The fact that they’re better is all to the good.

I’m holding my cards pretty close to the chest here, right? There you are, asking hopefully out into the void, “Chris, how did you feel about The Lies of Locke Lamora? If you’re just going to refuse to take a position, what good is any of this?” And I mean, yeah, you’re right, I really do need to learn to take a stand on these things. Anyway, one thing I liked about it was Locke Lamora himself. It’s been kind of a while since I’ve been so attached to a character. He’s like Danny Ocean without the inherent Clooney smugness, or maybe like Vlad Taltos without the deep and potentially unlikeable personality flaws. Another thing I liked was the last hundred or so pages of constant adrenaline. I cannot tell you the last time I was so excited at work. (Plus, the rest of the book was in no way boring, so make no mistake there.) Yet another thing I liked was the inherent lyricism of the title. I mean it, just try to say it out loud without feeling like you’re presenting poetry.

As for things I didn’t like… I’m really having a hard time. The only thing that springs out at me is a couple of times late in the book where expositional history of the city was presented just in time for it to be extremely relevant to the present plot. And even that seems like an unreasonable complaint; if he were a person telling me a story, I would expect him not to think of that kind of thing until he suddenly realized it was about to be relevant and that he hadn’t told me yet. Y’know? So there’s that, and it’s still pretty much all I have.

See, and all this talking about my feelings bullstuff has made me skip actually describing the book, in which Locke Lamora and his criminal gang wander around the grimy fantasy setting city running cons long and short on rich people and on their enemies, never suspecting the far longer and deeper con that they’ve been caught in the middle of. It’s really good stuff, and you should be sure to read it.