You In My Arms

01/07/2013 § Leave a comment

As darkness falls across the room
The ceiling turns from white to blue
The walls bleed from red to black
And I turn over on my back

My arm outstretched to hold your head
We lie together on this bed
We talk about our days and lives
And look into each other’s eyes

Then suddenly our voices fade
Thick with sleep from a long day
It’s time to let our passions rest
Though I place my hand upon your breast

Just feeling your chest fall and rise
Watching sleep steal across your eyes
Happy, content, finally at ease
With you in my arms I’m finally at peace

Grace

07/03/2013 § Leave a comment

The pregnancy had taken quite a toll on Grace.  Morning sickness visited her almost every day. And even on the days that didn’t start with the familiar feeling of nausea, she still felt tired and weak, as if she was carrying a heavy burden.

She didn’t remember pregnancy ever being this difficult.  Not with Beth, Tyler, Jake, or even mischievous Alex.  She loved all her children dearly, and counted them as blessings from the Lord, but now her faith was beginning to waver a little as she began to wonder whether her fifth child was going to be more of a curse than a blessing.

Grace was nagged by this constant sense of guilt.  The constant sickness and fatigue had left her bedridden on too many occasions, and she was beginning to fall behind on her housework.  She tried to ensure that her children kept up on their schoolwork, but this task was becoming more difficult as the pregnancy wore on.

Worse still, she felt that she had been neglecting her husband.  She hadn’t always felt like cooking, and an increasing number of her efforts were far from stellar.  He hadn’t complained, or even said anything to her, but she could tell that he was a little disappointed.  She hadn’t felt like having sex since the beginning of the third trimester.  She felt ugly and grotesque, and wondered how he could still desire her in this condition.  He always told her she looked hot, and he seemed genuinely hurt as she rebuffed his attempts to be with her.

When she thought about how she had treated him, she began to cry, suddenly overwhelmed with hormones and the ghastliness of her behavior.  It was a miracle he hadn’t left her, she thought, and the mere thought of him leaving her for someone else—someone better—made her cry even more.

She had often ignored him, being preoccupied with her pregnancy and accomplishing the most basic parts of her daily routine.  And yet he hadn’t even uttered a word of complaint.

***

About two months after the pregnancy, once it was clear that the Marcus was going to be just fine, Grace put her plan in motion.  She called up her mother-in-law and asked her if she could watch the children.  She spent several hours planning and cooking her husband’s favorite meal.  She set the table for two, with a small bouquet of daisies and a couple of white tapered candles in the center of the table.  She took a long bath, put on her best perfume and that little black dress she knew he loved.  She fixed her hair and prettied her face.  And when her husband walked in the door, she gave him a kiss that he would remember on his deathbed.

***

Even in the post-coital warmth of his arms, the thought still haunted her, and so she asked him, “do you still love me?”

He replied, “Grace, I know the last couple months have been rough for you.  I saw what you had to deal with.  I saw how you were always sick and fatigued.  I know that it’s not easy to take care of the house and kids, and even me, when you’re always feeling sick and tired.  I know you didn’t feel like you deserved my attention, and I know that you wondered how I could still want you.

“But even though this pregnancy was difficult for you, I knew that you still loved me.  You weren’t always able to show it, but I knew that you still loved me.  You were just going through a rough time.  I know you felt like you were being neglectful, like you weren’t doing everything you should, but I knew that you were doing your best.  And that’s why I’m still so very much in love with you.”

And with that, the guilt that Grace felt simply melted away.  She stretched up, kissed him on the lips, then rested her head on his chest and drifted off to sleep in the comfort of his embrace.

Goodbye, Fringe

26/02/2013 § Leave a comment

Fringe may have been the best show on television in the last ten or so years.  There are a lot of contenders for this title, of course, and many shows would be equally deserving of claiming the title of the best show of the past decade.  However, Fringe holds a special place in my heart.

I’ve watched Fringe from the very first episode, thanks to the prodding of some college roommates, and I enjoyed it immensely throughout its run.  The first episode was crazy, creepy, a little frightening, and so incredibly interesting.  The rest of the first season stuck to that mold.

It’s probably just as well that Fringe focused most of its attention on the sci-fi/horror side of story-telling because, initially, the cast was just not very good.  Anna Torv, an Australian, had a very difficult time managing her accent, and so her line delivery tended to sound stunted (in a manner not at all dissimilar to Poppy Montgomery in Without a Trace).  Joshua Jackson always seemed sarcastic when delivering lines, and appeared more angsty than his character was written.  Since the show revolved primarily around these two actors, the show could be a bit rough to watch at times because neither Torv nor Jackson were quite ready for lead performances.

Fortunately, though, Lance Reddick was able to bring about an emotional intensity as Broyles, and his intensity and command helped keep the show from becoming too cartoonish.  More importantly, the show also had John Noble as Walter Bishop, Peter Bishop’s (Jackson’s character) dad.  Noble did most of the heavy lifting for acting performances during the first season and a half, and that made the show tolerable.  Noble also provided the emotional core of the series, and offered at least two dozen award-worthy performances during the series’ run.

As time went on, though, both Torv and Jackson grew into their roles, and by season three Fringe looked to have one of the best ensembles on television.  Jackson softened his character’s bluntness and angst; Torv began to seem American, and did a much better job relating the emotion and drive of her character, Olivia Dunham.  The chemistry on the show from season 3 onward was simply impressive, and helped to cement the feeling that Fringe was indeed its own universe where Olivia, Peter, Walter, and the rest belonged.

The sci-fi and horror elements of the show were undoubtedly its hook, and the show remained quite true to it.  Fringe had a tendency to rely on its hook in earlier seasons in order to retain viewers’ interest, but as time went on, the sci-fi hook took a back seat to the relationships between Olivia and Peter, and, later, Peter and Walter.  While Dunham was the series ostensible protagonist at the beginning of the series (a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer or any other Whedon-esque series), her initial lack of acting range is probably what relegated her storyline to the back burner.  Instead, Peter became the series’ focus towards the middle of season two, which was about the time that Joshua Jackson had grown comfortable with the role of Peter.

With Peter as the series’ focus, the show’s narrative was able to take off.  Fringe focused less on its case-of-the-week structure (the series was quite wedded to this structure early on, and thus the series felt more like a sci-fi version of a CBS cop show instead of the groundbreaking Sci-Fi series it eventually became) on began to focus more on mythology.  It was revealed that the earth existed in a multiverse, and consequently there were multiple earths.  It was also revealed that Peter was from a different earth and that Walter and his former partner William Bell (portrayed by the excellent Leonard Nimoy, one of Fringe’s many superb guests) had crossed over to another earth.  It also turned out that Olivia had special powers that enabled her to cross over to other earth, and that she had these powers because of experiments that Walter had performed on her when she was young.

As the mythology grew, Fringe gave incredible backstories to certain parts of its larger narrative.  The Pattern, which played a key role in developing early mythology for Fringe Division, gave way to the multiverse, and then later a collision between the two earths and a potential war between them.  The Observers, which were initially a side point meant to propel the story forward in season one, got their own backstory in later seasons, and eventually became the main antagonists of season five.

Throughout this all, Fringe remained a very human story.  Walter, in particular, served as a lesson for the consequences that result from human pride and arrogance.  In fact, Walter is often used, perhaps unintentionally, as a critique of Science, and scientism.  In fact, Fringe often made a point of noting that Science is neither wisdom nor ethics, and that curiosity is often not sufficient justification for experimentation.

Fringe also made a point of exploring the nature of love throughout its run.  Peter’s relationship with Olivia is certainly the main focal point, and Fringe often seemed to harp on the idea that love should be seized since you never know how long it will last or how many times it will present itself.

Peter’s relationship with Walter also focused on the nature of love as expressed through the father-son relationship.  Some of the most thought-provoking and emotionally devastating scenes in the entire series occur between Walter and Peter, who often have to come to terms with how they rationalize their own selfishness as love, and decry each other’s love as selfishness.  And yet, by the series end, it is quite obvious that Walter and Peter love each other, perhaps more than either can quite realize or even adequately express.  Seasons four and five often return to this well, though it is found consistently throughout the series, and the emotional resonance of Noble’s performances make it quite clear why he was the soul of the show, and why he was tasked with the heavy lifting.

Fringe also spent some time exploring the nature of identity, focusing not only what makes us human, but also what makes us individuals.  The dual-universe storyline serves as an impressive narrative apparatus for exploring the concept of individuality, and most of the relevant narratives usually brought up an implicit nature-versus-nurture debate.  When, for example, Olivia crossed over to Earth-2, she met her Earth-2 self.  The point that the show makes, on many occasions, is that Olivia is essentially the same person on both sides, as it were, but because each Olivia grew up in different environments, they are quite different in many respects.  Torv does an amazing job handling this performance, and the differences between her characters are more subtle than one might initially realize.

In keeping with the idea of asking what makes us human, Fringe introduced the Observers to help explore the answer.  Towards the end of the series, it is revealed that the Observers are actually humans from Earth-1 who managed to find a way to control evolution, ultimately breeding superhumans who were not tied to the whims of emotion, but were instead logical rational creatures.  This train of thought plays out in a large number of poignant and occasionally humorous ways.  More impressively, though, Fringe embraces the fact that is the messiness of emotion that makes us human. While it might be hackneyed and cliché to say this, love does really conquer all.  And it is this theme which makes Fringe’s final scene so heart-breaking but ultimately uplifting.

 

Book Review

18/01/2013 § 1 Comment

A Throne of Bones by Vox Day

A Throne of Bones is a long, remarkably dense work of fiction.  That it is well-written and compelling helps to hide this fact, especially when you read this in the Kindle format, for once you start reading, it is very difficult to stop.  As such, the sheer entertainment value coupled with Vox’s need to constantly propel the plot forward at a rather fast clip (much like what you would expect from the TV show 24), makes this book seem shorter than it is.

I will not attempt to summarize the plot, as a) I don’t want to reveal spoilers and b) doing so would almost be a novel unto itself.  Nonetheless, the plot of this book revolves primarily around war, and most of the subplots revolve around this as well.

What makes this book both an entertaining and fascinating read is that Vox draws on his rather tremendous depth of knowledge and literary theory to create a world that is quite imaginative and “realistic,” which is in turn populated with characters that are interesting, sympathetic, and multi-dimensional.  The book’s presumable protagonist—Marcus Valerius—though good, is quite human.  He is cunning and intelligent, though his inexperience often gets the best of him.  He has self-doubts, and is occasionally ignorant of a good number of martial truths, but still manages to prevent self-doubt from ruining his abilities to lead.

Most of the remaining characters in the book are similarly three-dimensional, and often sympathetic.  Corvus, for example, comes across as a hardened military man who loves his family, and is somewhat flummoxed by the realities of politics.  He loves his city and his house, but seems almost blindly tied to tradition.  Nonetheless, he is an honorable man who acquits himself with dignity when dealing with foreign emissaries (his interaction with Lord Silvertree is a rather memorable example of this), and his honor ultimately compels his death.

The same tri-dimensionality is found with the Aulus Severus, one of the story’s antagonists.  At first, he appears to be a representative progressive thought (progressive used in reference to 21st century American politics), but as the book goes on, it becomes clear that Severus is a very shrewd politician.  One of the major conflicts of the book revolves around the idea of extending Amorran citizenship to outsiders from other provinces.  The traditionalist view, held by Corvus and others, is that this will be detrimental to Amorran culture.  Severus’s view is that this will help ensure by giving the provinces a stake in the future of Amorr, even if the culture is weakened.

Interestingly, Vox’s development of female characters is most interesting.  His two main female characters—Fjotra and Severa (the latter being the daughter of Aulus Severus)—begin as studies on the extremes of female characters.  Fjotra is practical and wise for her age, although hilariously naïve.  She is often kind, and somewhat reserved.  Severa is passionate and foolish in many ways.  She often follows her heart (read: tingles), and is very manipulative.  At first, these characters seem rather one-note (especially Severa when she attempts to attain the power of the Goddess), but as the story progresses, these characters become considerably more human.  For example, Fjotra falls for the Red Prince and becomes quite infatuated with him, and also acts short-temperedly towards one of the mages sent to accompany her to battle.  Severa’s behavior, though, is best understood as the result of having a somewhat indulgent father.  Fundamentally, these characters have very human motivations, which lead to the result of the reader having sympathy for them.

The good news, in all this, is that Vox has created some rather compelling characters.  Basically all the major characters that appear in the book, as well as a large number of side characters, are three-dimensional and fully-bodied.  It is quite enjoyable to spend time with them.

Furthermore, Vox has created a very compelling fantasy world.  His knowledge of history, particularly military history, gives this world a very realistic feel.  What’s amazing about this accomplishment, is that Vox draws on a rather disparate lot of history.  The Amorran realm appears to be based on the Roman Republic, the Lutece realm appears to be based on sixteenth/seventeenth century France, and the Dalarn appear to be based on eleventh century Norsemen.  Furthermore, the church is obviously based on the Catholic church, probably around the time of the Medici.  These disparate historical elements are then blended together for an incredibly unique and seemingly realistic feel.  Couple all this with traditional fantasy elements, such as magic, dwarves, elves, mages, goblins, orcs, and merman, and you have yourself a very interesting world.

Vox also allows his rather unique worldview to shine through.  The scene of Corvus’s reunion with his wife, Romilia, is a rather touching celebration of marital love.  The scene of Corvus in the Senate allows Vox to demonstrate his views of politicians (“It seemed that, in politics as well as in battle, men tended to think primarily about the consequences intended, never stopping to consider the unintended ones”).  There are generally similar touches like this throughout the book, and Vox’s general view of the world presents an interesting change of pace from the utopic progressive visions generally found in modern fiction.

Finally, one other notable feature of this book is that a good portion of the plot conflicts are moral conflicts, which make the conflicts meaningful.  The characters are not random actors that exist simply as plot devices.  Rather, they are characters with their own beliefs, motivations and moral codes.  Whether you agree with any given character’s motivations or not, you cannot deny that any given character’s motivations are what make the story so compelling.  In fact, the constant moral conflict found with Marcus Valerius is what makes him such a compelling character.  Watching him struggle with him adjusting his theological studies to the real world of war causes you to sympathize with him.

In all, A Throne of Bones is a very good read.  It is incredibly entertaining, and stands as a happy and enjoyable alternative that not only inhabits so much of modern fantasy, but modern fiction as well.  Vox has written an undeniably engrossing epic, and I do not think that comparisons to Tolkien’s works are undeserved.  It is, I suppose, given the remarkable quality of this book, that it is more than possible that Vox is unable to top this effort as he continues on in this series.  However, if this book ends up being the worst book in the series, then Vox will have done quite well for himself indeed.

Grade: A

Book Review

18/01/2013 § Leave a comment

A Magic Broken by Vox Day

In a word, this book is entertaining.  It was simply a blast to read, as Vox propels the plot along, without stopping to waste time on unnecessary dialogue or exposition.  It is basically the literary equivalent to a movie trailer.

The basic plot revolves around a man named Nicolas (astute readers will recognize him as Theurdic in A Throne of Bones) and his mission of finding and a recovering an elfess.  A secondary plot revolves around a dwarf named Lodi who is on a mission to recover some captured dwarves.  This ultimately leads him to discovering the elfess, and capturing her for herself.  Ultimately, though, Nicolas recovers the elfess for himself, but not until after revealing himself to be a mage.  There are some other intriguing plot points that exist to make the story a compelling mystery, most of which involve prostitutes and politics (but I repeat myself).

Overall, the book is a very short read.  Dedicated readers can knock it out in less than thirty minutes.  The story, as mentioned, is quickly paced and thoroughly enjoyable.  This book definitely works as a teaser of sorts, though it can stand alone as an entertaining story.

Grade: A

Book Review

14/12/2012 § Leave a comment

The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs

I grew up reading John Bellairs children’s novels, which I found to be pretty engrossing.  Bellairs was extremely adept at setting a mood and developing characters, but his plots tended to be formulaic.  Nonetheless, they worked for me.  I was revisiting his children’s novels for a writing project when I stumbled across The Face in the Frost.  According to Wikipedia, this was his first book, and his only adult novel.  Reportedly, Bellairs was inspired to write this after reading Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy.

As far as the story goes, it is certainly Tolkien-esque in plot structure.  Prospero is the Frodo character, and Roger Bacon is a blend of the Samwise and Gandalf characters.  Bellairs does invert Tolkien’s fantasy plot ever-so-slightly by having Prospero go to the mountain to reclaim a magical globe in order to destroy it, instead of it being given to him.

This journey starts out innocuously enough.  Bellairs starts the story at Prospero’s house and makes deft work of setting and character background, and introduces some rather hysterical character elements to the story, such as a talking mirror that can broadcast television shows from the future (the setting appears to be the middle ages in a small European country, possibly an alternate version of Ireland or Scotland, that is close to England).  After moving quickly moving through the back story, Bellairs takes the story straight to the action, with Prospero get scared by a couple of supernatural elements.  Bellairs is in his element here, setting the mood.  He’s not as good with action, so the story progresses fairly quickly through a variety of vaguely dark and frightening settings.

Roger Bacon comes to visit Prospero, confirms that there is indeed quite a bit of black magic targeting Prospero, and so they escape on a model ship from a bottle, and they do so by shrinking themselves.  Once free, they head south to visit a library to see if they can figure out what’s going on.  They run into one of the southern kings, get some advice from him, and set off again.  They come across the villains lair, which has been burned down.  They assume their quest is over, but get separated by some black magic as they prepare to go back home.  Both Bacon and Prospero independently decide to head north to mountain where the magical amulet is being held.  They eventually reunite after a series of dark, mood-setting scenery.

The story is rather convoluted and ends weirdly, but successfully, with Prospero magically overthrowing the evil wizard.  In all honesty, this is a terrible story that’s extremely convoluted and occasionally nonsensical.

Nonetheless, the book is still an entertaining read because Bellairs generally sticks to his strengths, which are setting, mood, and character development.  Bellairs is simply fantastic at building an overwhelming feeling of doom throughout the course of the book, which tends to make the reader feeling a little panicky and leery of what’s coming next.

He also is able to create compelling characters.  The interaction between Prospero and Bacon is developed extremely quickly, yet the reader is able to feel a sense of camaraderie with these characters (and a handful of other side characters as well), and quickly gets a feel for the beats that flesh out these characters.

Bellairs’ ability as a world-builder is partially related to his ability to set the mood because he tends to create worlds that lend themselves to darkness.  He manages to convey massive amounts of macro-information about the world in which the characters find themselves by mentioning just a handful of interesting details and letting the readers fill in the blanks for themselves.  It’s not a gift that many writers have, which makes it extremely enjoyable to read.

In all, this book makes for an entertaining but confusing read.  If you grew up on Bellairs’ children novels like I did, this book is definitely for you, especially if you find humor in the absurd and freakish.  If you simply enjoy reading books by someone who creates compelling characters and worlds, this is the book for you.  If you want a coherent story, you’re probably better off looking somewhere else.

Grade: B

Movie Review

06/11/2012 § 1 Comment

Looper

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a killer for the mob.  The movie is set in 2044 and 2074, which is when time-travelling has been invented.  You can never go to the future, at least according to the movie, a simple fact of time travel that the mob exploits by sending their marks backwards in time to be killed by loopers like Joe.  The reason for this turn of events is two-fold:   first, the government has basically begun tracking citizens (making it impossible to dispose of a body without getting caught); second, the government has banned time travel.

The plot contrivances are necessary to advance the story, and frankly the plot serves mostly as set-dressing for a broader exploration of certain themes, the most notable of which is love.  In the beginning of the movie, Joe is motivated by love for France.  He saves up all his money so he can retire there and enjoy life in France.  His drug addiction threatens to undo this, as does his loyalty for his friends.

Old Joe, played by a surprisingly sympathetic Bruce Willis, is also motivated by love, albeit in the form of revenge.  Once Joe gets his loop (a fairly complicated plot device best explained by watching the movie), he moves overseas, gets high as balls all the time, and runs out of money.  He eventually moves to Asia and joins a gang, stealing from everyone to support his drug habit.  Then he finds the love of a good (and hot and young) woman who cleans him up and redeems him.  Eventually he is tracked down and sent to have his loop closed (this is basically when the mob rounds up their loopers to send them back to their young selves to be killed, with a huge payday to match).  In the process his wife is killed, which prompts Old Joe to break free, head back to the past, and avoid getting killed by his younger self, all in order to kill off the boss that was supposed to kill him.

It’s during this time that the movie shifts gears.  Originally, the movie focuses on how Young Joe is going to avoid closing his own loop in order to live happily ever after (though the logic of the movie’s universe would suggest that this is nonsensical for obvious reasons; once you go back to the past, you can’t return to the present, and you won’t be able to pick up where your old life left off, and you’ll always have to be on the run).  This leads Old Joe to track down his eventual killer in the hopes of preemptively killing him as a child, thus altering his future.  Logic seems to break down, but the movie provides a neat explanation through some subtle dialogue that prevents further distraction.

At any rate, Young Joe is not at all on board with Old Joe’s decision because this means giving up his dream.  This touches on another theme:  how people remain constant over time.  Both Old Joe and Young Joe are very selfish, which is why they don’t cooperate with one another.  But it is only by their (his?) constant selfishness that they even meet at all.  Anyhow, in the process of trying to preemptively kill his killer, Old Joe sets the stage for the main point of the movie.

As Old Joe tries to kill off his would-be killer, Young Joe baits him by tracking down a potential target and guarding him.  This leads Joe to meeting Sara, played by the always excellent Emily Blunt.  Sara is distrustful of Joe, but in time gradually accepts him and they bond.  Sara has a child named Cid, and there’s a lot of contrived backstory to their relationship that is better seen than explained.  Cid has telekinetic powers, which is what enables him to track down and kill off loopers and the mob in the future.  Young Joe defends him, even though it means his eventual death, and comes to realize that if he defends Cid from Old Joe, he may stave off the problem altogether.  Some more plot contrivances occur, involving some very entertaining action scenes with Bruce Willis, a la Die Hard. Eventually Old Joe tracks down Cid and tries to kill him.  Young Joe catches on in time and attempts to shoot Old Joe.  This fails, naturally, and so Young Joe decides to bow his own brains out, which naturally kills off Old Joe in the process and ensures that Cid survives.  The movie ends with a voiceover about destiny and how a single decision can have great impact.  It’s reminiscent of Frost’s “The Road Less Travelled.”

In all, the film is complex, a little self-contradictory, and over-reliant on plot devices to explore themes.  Nonetheless, it is incredibly entertaining, and quite thought-provoking.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Jeff Daniels, and Emily Blunt are all quite fun to watch.  The movie is action-packed; the dialogue is crisp, clear, and subtle.  The story is believable enough, and the overarching themes—destiny and love—are presented in a very thought-provoking way.  For all of its weaknesses, this is still a very good movie.

Grade: B+

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