Archived entries for reviews

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

I’m fairly unemotional and not easily moved, but Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is one of those rare books that has captured my heart and managed to claim a high spot in my favourites list, alongside The Time Traveler’s Wife*, Les Misérables and Animal Farm.

Susanna Clarke is the best bits of authors such as Tolkien, Pratchett, Austen, Gaiman and Rowling all rolled into one – a kind of book geek’s dream team. Her writing style is amazingly lucid and eclectic in the best possible way. As I was reading the book the images flowed so clearly in my mind that I said to Jenny last night “if they ever make a movie out of this, I’m going to die”. Well sound the bells, because I discovered this morning that the movie is scheduled for release in 2010. Every aspect of her writing, from the use of archaic spelling to the thoroughly well-researched depictions of the Napoleanic Wars, is deeply imbued with style and gravitas.

Gilbert Norrell, etching by Portia RosenbergSet in a version of 19th Century England where magic was once prevalent but has subsided with the disappearance of the Raven King, the story revolves around the two eponymous magicians, Norrell and Strange. Norrell is a bookish control freak, obsessed with trying to revive English magic through academic study, whereas Strange is a talented natural magician driven by Norrell’s monopoly on the library of magic books into learning through doing. Working against them both is a malevolent fairy whom Norrell summons during a spell that he casts in a desperate attempt to win influence from the political sphere.

These characters, plus a wonderful supporting cast, all have a rich humanity about them which complements the plot without resorting to stereotypes, and each is attended by an equal measure of success and failure as befits their personalities. Especially sweet is the relationship between Strange and his wife, Arabella.

Jonathan Strange, etching by Portia RosenbergThere are so many more positive things that I could write about this book, but if there is any one criticism that I could make, it is that I wish Clarke or her editor had exercised greater restraint when it came to the liberal use of footnotes. Quite often one will find themselves reading a long, rambling side story footnote which, while intending to enrich the context of the events that are occurring, ends up distracting the reader by breaking the flow of the narrative. Tolkien at least had the courtesy of putting all of his “additional material” into an appendix, and Rowling didn’t bother publishing any of it at all.

Overall, this is a stunning debut novel, and I couldn’t recommend it any more highly.


* Co-incidentally, the edition I have includes an introduction by Audrey Niffenegger

Buy Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

Review: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Neil Patrick Harris as Dr. HorribleFirst things first: don’t buy the hype. The concept behind Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is not original (it’s an idea recycled from one of Director Joss Whedon’s Buffy episodes) and neither is the story (it’s an almost shameless rip-off of Austin Grossman’s “Soon I Will Be Invincible“). It’s also important to keep in mind that its creators cobbled this together while trying to work around the writers’ strike, that the cast and crew worked gratis, and that Whedon funded it from his own pocket to the tune of more than US$200,000. Sounds like a disaster, right? So why is it so bloomin’ popular, and why haven’t you heard of it until now?

I came across this after geek hangouts all over the Internet went ballistic over a surprise guest appearance by Felicia Day, singing “Still Alive” alongside Jonathan Coulton at the Penny Arcade Expo. I had no idea who she was or why she was so popular with the fans (other than that she’s a girl) so I looked her up, and that’s when I came across Horrible. It had an impeccable geek pedigree thanks to Whedon, famous predominantly for his work on the Buffy and Firefly TV series, but it also held great promise because of the incredible kitsch potential of its lead, former Doogie Howser M.D. star, Neil Patrick Harris.

He doesn’t disappoint. Harris delivers a pitch perfect Dr. Horrible, with just the right amount of camp to endear us to the character, and his lovelorn alter-ego, Billy. He carries the whole show, delivering a wide-ranging performance that runs the gamut of musical genres from broadway musical to metal/rock. As for the other characters, I thought Captain Hammer (Firefly’s Nathan Fillion) was a bit too over the top, and Day puts in a reasonably sweet turn as Penny, the love interest.

The dialogue and lyrics are very clever, but it helps if you know a bit of geek. Characters casually drop phrases like “B.T.W.” which would probably go over your head if you haven’t spent the requisite amount of time on Internet chats or discussion forums.

The show is split into three acts, with the first definitely being the strongest of the three especially if like me, you’re not very knowledgeable of the Buffy universe. Apparently the cameos are plenty, with various Buffy writers, and even Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar, appearing in the final act. It’s pretty short, with each episode clocking in at under 15 minutes, but forty-five minutes is probably about as much of this style as I could tolerate anyway. So while it’s somewhat disappointing when it ends, I still felt satisfied. It was nothing more than the briefest glimpse into the character; any more and it would be too much of a good thing.

IMDB link | Buy DVD from Amazon | Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog - Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Acts 1, 2 & 3

Movie review: Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008)

Nicole Kidman and Hugh JackmanIt’s not that Australia is bad; the problem with this movie is that it was merely good when everybody expected it to be great. Whether from a sense of patriotic pride, fondness for director Baz Luhrmann’s previous works, or a natural curiosity about that “down under” country, people were expecting an epic. It’s not clear exactly when it stopped being just another movie, but it might have been related to the hype generated by its ties to Tourism Australia’s advertising campaign, turning it into the focal point for a swell of global interest in our Great South Land.

Despite actually being quite epic in length at a bum-numbing 165 minutes, it was quite entertaining throughout, with reasonably interesting if not particularly likeable characters, and of course the beautiful Australian landscape. But the pacing was terrible. My friends and family shared the same criticism, whether they liked or loathed it: the movie seemed to end every 45 minutes or so. Either the movie’s overall story arc was weak-to-non-existent, or else the sub-plots were too complex and elaborate. Or both, I can’t decide – I was too busy enjoying the scenery to be paying attention to things like the story…

It wouldn’t be a Baz Luhrmann movie without movie and music cross-references. In Australia, this is comes mainly from the song “Somewhere over the rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. After you get over the groan-inducing pun on “Oz”, it’s not a bad fit. As I discovered during some cursory research on the history, it turns out that Oz was released not too long before the events depicted, and would very likely have been at the front of Lady Sarah Ashley’s mind. However, it’s bordering on comical when you have a ship full of Aboriginal orphans all humming the song a-capella as Darwin is bombed. (My wife will probably want me to mention that in spite of this, musically, it was still very beautiful.)

So in summary: don’t watch this movie if you’re expecting a character or plot driven story. Treat it like a scenic bus tour, catching various sights and sounds with the occasional interesting bit, and you’ll enjoy it so much more.

Australia on IMDB

The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers

The Anubis Gates, by Tim PowersI picked up this book based on recommendations from random internet folks commenting on The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. Both books use time-travel subtly, such that the reader isn’t distracted by mind-numbing technical descriptions, and aren’t plagued with plot holes caused by miscreants such as the grandfather paradox, but that’s where the similarities end.

The Anubis Gates chronicles the adventures of Brendan Doyle, an English professor inadvertently caught in the intrigues of a cabal of sorcerers seeking to restore the Egyptian gods to the power and glory that was stolen from them by the Christians. Add a dash of the supernatural in the form of magic and unsolved paranormal phenomena, and a dose of historical fiction provided by a roster of notable 19th century figures including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron and Muhammad Ali (no, not the boxer), and you should have a book that’s brimming with possibilities.

In spite of this, I found the book to be unsatisfying. Whereas every paragraph of Time Traveler’s Wife was an essential part of the story, I found myself thinking several times that certain sections were added just to reinforce the point that there is only a single temporal continuity. Pacing and characterisations were uneven, with some side plots – e.g. the beggar clown-king Horrabin’s quest for power through an alliance with one of the sorcerers – receiving way too many words for way too little pay-off, and the much more interesting character of Jacky, a.k.a. Elizabeth Jacqueline Tichy – who dresses up as a beggar boy to avenge the death of her fiancé – given woefully little space.

I also have an aversion to historical fiction that treats the supernatural as real. For example, while I generally think well of the movie The Prestige, it still troubles me that the cleverness of it stems from what is essentially a deus ex machina plot device (I won’t give it away here for those who haven’t seen it). The book makes much of sorcery as a dying art, probably to do with the waning power of the Egyptians. However, the way Powers describes it, with various occult paraphernalia and constantly iterated explanations about the effects (or lack) of magical power, is to magic in fiction what scientific descriptions about quantum theory and the like are to other books about time travel.

So despite its rambling nature and lengthy descriptions of even the most pedestrian events, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle still holds the spot as the best “fiction set in historical England” that I’ve read. Oddly, because it’s not one of my favourite genres or anything, I have yet another book in my “unread” pile that’s set in a similar period: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, my copy of which, I discovered just now, features an introduction by Audrey Niffenegger! God, I’m having another one of those Truman Show moments…


Buy The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers

Tomb Raider: Legend


This is the first Tomb Raider game I’ve played since the very first one way back when. The consensus from a few internet reviews that I read is that I haven’t missed much. Legend is the first Tomb Raider game produced by Crystal Dynamics, who were given the franchise to resurrect after the supposedly abysmal Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness. They took the pre-existing Lara Croft, with her aristocracy and disinterest in anything other than archaeology, and added a new back-story, which is fed to the player a piece at a time by the game’s narrative structure. As one who appreciates game stories as much as the regular variety, I liked the extra depth that this brought to both the character and the game.

While I readily admit that the developers did no disservice to the character design of Lara, I wonder if my wife should be more worried that I’m even more appreciative of the quality and variety of level design, and the attention to detail shown in ways such as the change in Lara’s character animation during the cocktail party scene. I’ve had several “wow, look at that” moments… and not all of them for Lara! I’m only about 1/3 of the way through the game so far, but the experience has been the closest that I’ve felt to being immersed in environments that are believable, and participating in a story that is as exciting and compelling as a movie. The recent Prince of Persia games, which I also greatly enjoyed, had great level design and presented an exquisite fantasy world, but it always felt very dry and sparse to me, and not just because it’s set in a desert, and the Prince is a self-absorbed, narcissistic loner. I can’t think of any better way to describe it, except maybe that the environments lacked soul? Crystal Dynamics have done an excellent job of creating a vibrant, lively world. (I’d also like to give a quick mention to Deux Ex, which features an awesome futuristic Hong Kong.)

The quality of the game is also apparent in the way that I’m choosing to suffer intense nausea just to play it. One of the problems with Tomb Raider: Legend is that the camera often swings around wildly and uncontrollably, making my eyes and inner ear have arguments in my brain about the gymnastics that are(n’t) supposedly happening. On a side note, the Wikipedia article on motion sickness mentions that drinking soft drink helps. Maybe that’s why the stereotype of gaming geeks usually involves a bottle of fizzy somewhere, because apparently, motion sickness is quite common.

Now I just have to try and get through the rest of the game without throwing up. Pace myself, that’s all I have to do. It’s supposed to be a pretty short game anyway. I’ll do a follow-up post if there’s anything worth writing about that I haven’t mentioned already, but I think I’ve already gushed enough!


The lego figurines (or “minifigs” in the vernacular) are the creations of Justin R. Stebbins. You can find more pictures at his Website, Saber-Scorpion’s Lair.

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