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Christopher Farrell (Cupertino, CA USA)

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The Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger, Expanded and Revised Edition
The Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger, Expanded and Revised Edition
by Stephen King
Edition: Hardcover
13 used & new from CDN$ 76.60

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars OK, so what's the deal here?, Nov. 15 2003
Although I don't care for the horror genre Stephen King usually writes, I have still been convinced for a while that he is in fact a good writer and as The Dark Tower series has been getting a little press recently it drew my attention, and of course as a big Tolkien fan I was curious after learning it was inspired to some degree by the Lord of the Rings.
Now, knowing who Stephen King is, I was hardly expecting some Tolkien knock-off obviously. But I was expecting coherency. This book is, quite frankly, very poorly-written. Things happen (like the Slow Mutants) for absolutely no reason and have no impact on the plot, characters, or tension level, and feel like some sort of gratuitous wandering monster in a D&D game. A key and mysterious character of Jake is handled very poorly, never generating any interest or sympathy and the relationships are never developed; Jake's eventual fate is unmoving and unsatisfying (ok, sorry about this but I'll break it to you: Jake dies. I think. But it's hard to care too much as this section is poorly-written and the relationship between Jake and the Gunslinger never really is as compelling as I think the author thought it was).
But, that's not all. The book clearly comes in two parts, and are completely disjointed; the first part could, in fact, be safely deleted in its entirety. The flashback sequences are often jarring and disconcerting. The book often gives you the feeling of simply being jerked around, as the author is witholding information because he simply can't think of a better way to generate tension.
Now, there is some good stuff in here, mostly in the realm of atmosphere. The whole post-apocolyptic "is it earth or not?" is fairly compelling. Jake's origins are facinating to consider, if meaningless in the scope of the book because they are never developed. The setup surrounding "19" is interesting, although again there is zero payoff. On balance some neat stuff, but it just doesn't go anywhere.
Anyway, I am torn as to whether to bother with the second book. I'm told the series improves dramtically, and there was some stuff in the first book that I'd like to see where he's going with. On balance, though, I really don't want to get sucked into a massive 5-book epic that I'll end up reading simply out of spite to see how it turns out. So I dunno. I'll probably end up reading more, but as of now it's against my better judgement.

The X-Files: The Complete Eighth Season [6 Discs] (Bilingual) [Import]
The X-Files: The Complete Eighth Season [6 Discs] (Bilingual) [Import]
DVD ~ David Duchovny
Offered by gold_star_media
Price: CDN$ 49.99
8 used & new from CDN$ 30.74

3.0 out of 5 stars The X-Files becomes slightly above average, Sept. 22 2003
Well, actually I don't know. I don't watch a lot of other TV.
For me, the infuriating thing about Seasons 8 and 9 is how close things came to working out, how nearly the X-Files came to transitioning from Mulder/Scully to Dogget/Reyes and perhaps keeping the franchise alive for another 7 years to the delight of fans, but it was not to be. What went wrong?
People have said that Mulder & Scully were so central to the X-Files, it couldn't survive without them. I don't actually believe this; I subscribe to the holistic view that it was a combination of the writing, acting, characters, production, and above all, subtelty and attention to detail. We could have lost Mulder & Scully, but with Skinner, The Lone Gunmen, CSM, Krycek, and so on, and with the same quality of writing as in seasons 4-6, the show could have gone on.
One problem was Dogget & Reyes' more extreme characters. Dogget is more of a knee-jerk skeptic, while Reyes is an unquestioning believer. One of the key reasons Mulder & Scully worked so well is that they worked in different shades rather than completely different attittudes. Mulder always bought into the science thing, and always tried to prove his theories to Scully in her scientific terms. Scully was willing to believe when the evidence was presented and the theory sound. Reyes and Dogget didn't have this common ground when first introduced and were much more two-dimensional.
It didn't then help that the rest of the elements slipped. The writing is far less sharp or consistant than previous years. The dialog and plotting lacks subtelty. The series lacks the wonder, the joy of the unknown that made previous years so appealing. They're still good at the scary stuff, but for me anyway the scary stuff was always just one piece of the puzzle.
What for me was disappointing was to look at the last few episodes of Season 9, when Dogget and Reyes finally start to gel, finally are starting to look like they might carry the show, the writing finally starting to tighten up again, and some of the subtelty is returning. Mulder and Scully are finally being left in the rear-view mirror and the show is getting on with it's life ... but too late.
A lot of little things went wrong this year for the X-Files, and it took too long for things to right themselves. It could have been done - if, for example, Scully had simply been sidelined instead of being put through the torturous (and, quite frankly, not particularly plausible) gyrations of Season 8, perhaps they could have had a clean slate and gotten back to where they needed to be (hey, I love Scully too, one of my favorite characters ... but sometimes you have to do things you don't want to). Perhaps if they had focussed more on Dogget and Reyes right away, bringing those characters more into focus, things would have been better.
But, it was not to be. Season 8 is still far from bad, but it isn't as good as any previous season, even Season 7 (which while it lacked consistancy, and had more klunkers than ever before, at least also had more stand-out episodes). I don't think it's even as good as the short-lived and lamented The Lone Gunmen, which had issues but was entertaining and I would have rather seen that show survive than the X-Files at that point. Season 8 still has some of the great visuals we've come to expect, but it's a transition season. If we knew that the X-Files was transitioning *to* somewhere, that would be OK, but we now know it retrospect that it's not, Season 9 is the end of the line.
So anyway. I'll be buying because I love the X-Files, and I'm a completist. That being said, I'm not thrilled about the money I'll have to spend, nor do I recommend this season with much enthusiasm. I think long-time X-Files fans will want this for their collection, but I doubt I'll be going back to watch these episodes as often as other seasons, as there are no true classics here to match "The Post-Modern Prometheus", "Kill Switch", "Jose Chung", "Gethsemene", "Squeeze", "Die Hand der Verlitzt", "Three of a Kind" and so on.

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 7
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 7
DVD ~ Patrick Stewart
Price: CDN$ 68.66
13 used & new from CDN$ 23.99

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Beginning of the End, July 17 2003
I have recently finished my trek through Star Trek, watching the entirety of Season 7 on DVD. Through 6 seasons, Star Trek managed to survive inconsistant writing and some questionable acting because it had flair, imagination, unquenchable optimism, and a core of very good actors. Season 7 of Star Trek: The Next Generation is where the Star Trek franchise largely lost its grip, though, and the deterioration process has continued (and even accelerated) right up through Enterprise.
OK, so we'll get it out of the way ... the series finale, All Good Things, is quite good. Everything that we've come to love in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and of higher quality than many odd-numbered Star Trek movies. Despite what the fanpeople might say, however, this episode alone is *not* worth the price of the set (duh), partly because the plot is still a bit contrived unfortunately, but mainly because no hour and forty-five minutes of television is worth what they're asking. So what else do you get?
Primarily, you get more episodes in the "unwatchably bad" cateogry than in any other Star Trek: TNG season. It starts right out of the gate with Interface, which features Geordi behaving like a total moron given alien possession only kicks in about every 3rd episode. We also have the horrendous and inexplicable Force of Nature, the awkward Homeward, the poorly-written and badly acted Sub Rosa, and the (again) poorly-written, tedious, and insufferable Journey's End (despite the emotional pull of a nice ending for Wesley and the reunion of with the Traveller). Bloodlines is terrible and utterly contrived, and Emergence is simply pointless.
To see how far Star Trek has come, it's instructive to look at two episodes that are actually pretty good, Lower Decks and Thine Own Self. Both have good imaginative plots, and Thine Own Self features Data heavily, who everyone likes. Both could have been great, but are significantly flawed in execution - in Lower Decks, the entire Alyssa/Crusher plotline is entirely pointless and simply serves to make the episode more tedious. This is a shame, because both the Sito/Wharf and Lavelle/Riker relationships are very well-done with a nice emotional resonance - somthing Star Trek may only have achieved in this episode - and the 10 minutes wasted with Alyssa could have been much better spent here. Or with Taurik - it's nice to see a Vulcan struggle with the interpersonal relationships, and his dillemas have potential - but he ends up getting short shrift to a worthless subplot which serves only some misplaced sense of symmetry. This episode is well-written, acted, and directed, and with tighter execution and a firm editorial hand, this is a best-of-Trek type episode. Likewise, Thine Own Self; this wants to be two episodes, but apparently the writers didn't have enough ideas and didn't really care, so they just crammed both ideas into one episode, even though they are not even tangentially related; you keep waiting for Troi and Data to link up in some way, but the two plotlines remain confusingly and completely seperate. And since when does becoming Commander require only passing some sort of wierd Civil Service exam? And despite all this, the episode *still* takes forever to really get going. Sadly, despite these problems, these two episodes still rate amongst the best of Season 7.
Interestingly, a few of these episodes have almost direct counterparts in The X-Files. It might be instructive to watch Sub Rosa back-to-back with The Ghosts Who Stole Christmas, or Thine Own Self with The Post-Modern Prometheus. They aren't as exact parallels as with, say, Cause and Effect and Monday (which I mention in my ST:TNG Season 5 review), but they are close in spirit, and to see the professionalism and skill of the X-Files team in every aspect of their show up against a Star Trek outfit that always had writing problems, uninspired directing, and a lack of attention to detail is, well, interesting. These are both similar big-name, big-price box sets, and Star Trek is just having trouble competing on the technical aspects. Now, I won't deny that Star Trek is still Star Trek and your average Star Trek viewer is not going to be genetically predisposed to become an X-Files junkie ... but for me, it makes the high price of the Star Trek box sets hard to justify. Or you can compare Geordi's utterly unconvincing response to the loss and strange return of his mother in Interface to the so-real-it's-scary writing (if not always acting) of Sheridan's similar loss in Babylon 5's Revelations.
Most of the rest of the season tops out at about average. Liasons, Dark Page, Gambit, Masks, Firstborn, Bloodlines - all episodes of solid mediocridty. None are terrible, all are watchable, even marginally entertaining - but basically don't gel. The performances are often uninpsired, the pacing is off, and the writers usually can't come up with enough material to fill 45 minutes so they have to resort to extensive ues of technobabble or irrelevant 5-minute openers. There is usually one idea, and it seems like when it doesn't quite work out as well as they hoped, they just "ship it" anyway.
Now, there are a handful of solid episodes this season that are up to the standards of previous years. Parallels is by far the best episode of the season, simply because the writing is solid, it is skillfully and consistantly executed, the relationship between Wharf and Troi is touching, and it has a nice element of classic Star Trek wit without going overboard. The pacing is right, you don't sit around for the first 10-15 minutes of the episode waiting for somthing to happen as in Thine Own Self, Interface, Dark Page, or too many other episodes in the Star Trek franchise to count (including virtually every episode of Enterprise). It is a skilfully done whole, and it helps that Michael Dorn and Mirina Sirtis can in fact act, even if their characters are usually appallingly underwritten; when they're given good plots, as they are here, they are very good. It's frustrating to give this the title of "best episode" by dint of lack of egregious flaws, but that's all it takes at this point (even so, it is quite good).
Otherwise, Lower Decks is probably the best of the rest, Phantasms is pretty good, as are Attached, The Pegasus, Lower Decks, Thine Own Self, Genesis, Eye of the Beholder, and Preemptive Strike. Not an extensive list. Both Attached and The Pegasus are amusing because their conclusions feature fundamental character-altering revalations - and yet everything is back to normal the next week.
So to answer my own question, this is in fact the first season which for me the answer is "no" - this isn't worth the money. If only it had some commentary tracks (if somebody would just explain what the heck they were thinking in Sub Rosa, I'd pay money for that), I might reverse my opinion; it's close. I give it 3 stars for the stunning series closer, of course, and the handful of decent episodes and the fact that after all that, it still is Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Picard, Data, Wharf, and Troi are sympathetic charcters (it's a particularly strong "Wharf" season, and the poor guy has been given such short shrift in previous years). But it's also priced very high, and this year has a lot of episodes of truly stunning mediocrity.

Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook: Core Rulebook I
Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook: Core Rulebook I
by Monte Cook
Edition: Hardcover
38 used & new from CDN$ 18.14

3.0 out of 5 stars A lot of good stuff, some (significant) holes, July 11 2003
D&D 3E is a massive improvement over previous editions in a number of ways ... D&D has finally embraced skills, a big plus; a lot of the arbitrary and annoying restrictions of previous editions have been eliminated; the whole thing has been streamlined greatly at a fundamental level (there is still a lot of rules grit - attacks of opportunity anyone? - but this has always been the case, and by using a much cleaner and less arbitrary basic system, the game is now more intuitive).
The problem with D&D 3e is that it requires a *lot* of work on the part of the gamemaster. This is not a ready-to-play game by any stretch, unlike WotC's Star Wars d20, say. You have to go to some lengths to create a campaign setting, and realistically you're going to have to throw some of those arbitrary restriction back in. Why? Because D&D 3e has some significant imbalances, and you're likely to be playing with one player who is going to be looking for rules loopholes to create an unbalanced character. A big culprit here is the multi-classing combined with the fact that many classes are front-loaded with a lot of cool abilities at first level, so it's not unusual to find characters with 3 or 4 classes so they can cherry-pick low-level abilities from each. This is not only aestetically displeasing and unbalancing, but makes it impossible to keep a coherent character vision. The prestige classes are a cool and interesting feature, but are for the most part egregiously broken and, in the words of a fellow-player, "pure munchkinism".
Another complaint of mine about the system is that characters are simply too hard to make distinctive; the only real tool you have is this problematic multi-classing, and that is at best a blunt instrument. The Feats are a very cool concept, but not well-balanced with respect to each other so many will simply never show up (and characters who are not Fighters and Wizards acquire them far too slowly to be of much use in distinguishing characters). Characters of some classes (notably Paladins, Monks, Druids, and Barbarians) are going to be essentially indistuinguishable from each other - an 8th level Monk is pretty much an 8th level Monk, and the variance will be quite small. I find the list of which skills can be bought by which classes unduly restrictive and occasionally bordering on the nonsensical. The restrictiveness of the class sytem, and the stereotyped nature of the classes and lack of advancement choices, is to my mind the most significant failing of D&D 3e. Some classes are now almost acceptably flexible: the Fighter has a huge number of choices with all their bonus feats, even if the basic class concept of a heavily armed and armored fighting machine can't be fundamentally altered; Wizards of course have a massive spell list, and can specialise in various schools; Clerics now can pick from a dozen or so dieties, all of which serve to flavor the class; and Rogues have immense numbers of skill points and a wide variety of skills. But if you want somthing a little more specific or flavorful, you're stuck with cookie-cutter classes.
Anyway, from a pure systems standpoint, the d20 system is fundamentally a good one, but from a pure gaming perspective it has been done better by other games. I actually like Wizard's Star Wars game better, as it addresses many of the problems I've mentioned here; but that doesn't help you much if you hanker for heroic fantasy. D&D 3e is cool, better than previous editions (often significantly), and is popular because it is so open-ended. It has rules for everthing, and a bazillion skills, feats, spells, monsters, magic items, etc. - everybody is going to find a cool idea in here somewhere that they're ready to run with. All those options don't always work together, though, and the choices are sometimes odd, so be aware that the gamemaster is going to have to do some work for D&D 3e to be truly robust.

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 5
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 5
DVD ~ Patrick Stewart
Offered by discounts
Price: CDN$ 59.99
12 used & new from CDN$ 30.04

4.0 out of 5 stars Some great eps, but inconsistant, April 9 2003
Previous reviewers have hit the high points of Season 5, which include Inner Light (best ep of the year and one of the best in the entire series), Time's Arrow, Damrok, and Ensign Ro. There are also a run of pretty good episodes, including Ethics, Disaster, The Perfect Mate, and A Matter of Time. Even when you take another step down to the average stuff, such as Unification, Cause and Effect, Silicon Avatar, Violations, The Next Phase, and so on, it's reasonably engaging SciFi fare that while I can joke about the writing, I still enjoy.
However, there are also a slightly uncomfortable number of episodes here that range from boring and/or obvious (Hero Worship, Connundrum, Cost of Living, Power Play) down to the truly awful (The Game, The Outcast). What's with the kids? So many episodes in this season have small children as central or major characters, it gets a little tiresome at some point. I thought Star Trek: TNG had gotten past that phase with the departure of Wesley. And what's with alien possession thing? A lot of those eps also, given it's not exactly a great plot device. At least the holodeck seems to be out of commission for a while.
It's interesting to see the texture - much like Seasons 3 and 4, Season 5 starts out with a so-so cliffhanger resolution, but then picks up with a number of very strong episodes - only to fade hard and fast in the middle, but redeem itself with generally strong final episodes.
So as with some previous seasons, I have to sigh, and say yes, as a Star Trek fan, I'm glad I have this season, which has some very nice highlights and eps that are fun to watch. But, as I work my way through the new DVD releases, I am always shocked at just how uneven the writing is; especially in light of the new standards that have been set by Babylon 5 and especially the X-Files (compare Cause and Effect, an episode I thought was good at the time, to the X-Files Season 6 episode "Monday" - same premise, almost exactly the same general idea, but see how much more skillfully it's executed by that show). A somewhat unfortunate feature of Season 5 is the preponderance of "soft" episodes, episodes that focus on characters and ideas more than plot. Sometimes (The Inner Light, The Perfect Mate, The Masterpiece Society), their efforts are very impressive; then they turn around and churn out Ethics, The Game, The Outcast, or The First Duty, which feel more like being beaten with a club. Then there are episodes like Power Play, in which things happen for the sole reason that they have to happen to set up later things. Entire scenes are frequently wasted with worthless technobabble, a tradition unique to Star Trek that continues to this day, and that they could afford to lose. Opportunities for real character exploration are routinely missed. Episodes with dual plot lines rarely support each other.
So as I say, I'm a bit conflicted. A few really good eps; it's impossible to say too many good things about Inner Light or Darmok. Many solid ones, a few terrible ones; inconsistent writing even in episodes that generally succeeed; not a terrifically consistant season. I'm still happy with my purchase, but realistically these DVDs remain too expensive in my opinion, and I wish they had been a bit cheaper or better.

The Man Who Fought Alone
The Man Who Fought Alone
by Stephen R. Donaldson
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
19 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Book 4 in the series, but works as a standalone, Nov. 4 2002
I have to admit, I had an awfully hard time getting started with this book. I'm a big fan of Stephen R. Donaldson, and with his recent books I realise I have very high expectations and I'm always afraid that this is where he is going to lose his edge and start going downhill.
It hasn't happened yet, though. This series of mysteries (The Man Who Killed His Brother, The Man Who Risked His Partner, The Man Who Tries to Get Away, and now The Man Who Fought Alone) is another great series, stylistically quite different from any of his other books. I find it a bit hard to describe: the previous books in the series have been almost-parodies of stock detective-book plots; stock plots that Donaldson has injected with his own unique (often dark) perspective, effectively combined with a frequently light attitude that can really be quite humorous. The Man Who Fought Alone is more straighforward and less humorous than previous books, although the overall feel of the book is a bit lighter as Axebrewder starts to bring his life under control. Donaldon has managed to work the martial arts theme quite well too, with a look inside the world or martial arts competition which is both interesting and manages to develop good characters. This is what always draws me to Stephen R. Donalson's books, the wonderfully textured and developed characters, each with their own strengths and foibles and, well, character that really stands out in a genre that is not know for such things.
Now, the start of the book is a bit slow, and it's overall not quite as tight as previous entries in the series. The first few chapters will probably have a few long-time Donaldson fans rolling their eyes a bit as old Axebrewder goes on his lengthy "woe is me" bit. After this slightly rocky start, though, the book really does take off and it thoroghly engrossed me. It's not quite the best in the series, but the series is quite good and The Man Who Fought Alone is highly recommended. I'm glad that it looks like the whole series is being re-issued in hardback under Stephen R. Donaldson's real name (they were previously published under a pseudonym, Reed Stephens); they've been hard-to-get for some time and given his success, this is long overdue.

X-Files: The Complete Sixth Season (Widescreen Collector's Edition) [6 Discs] [Import]
X-Files: The Complete Sixth Season (Widescreen Collector's Edition) [6 Discs] [Import]
DVD ~ David Duchovny
Offered by momox ca
Price: CDN$ 49.99
10 used & new from CDN$ 25.25

5.0 out of 5 stars Many awesome eps, a turning point for the show, Nov. 1 2002
Season 6 features a definite change in character for The X-Files. It features probably the best collection of standalone episodes in any season to date, including Triangle and How The Ghosts Stole Christmas - two of the best eps the show ever produced - along with Dreamland, Arcadia, Three of a Kind, and The Unnatural. No other season has more of my favorite episodes, or such a great collection of one-offs. On the other hand, it does also have what I consider the second-worst episode ever, Agua Mala (second only to the dreadful Home), and the whole conspiricy arc becomes somewhat incoherent post-X-Files-movie. The two new occasionally recurring characters, Spender and Fowley, never quite gel or reach us the way Dogget and Reyes eventually would. Fortunately they don't get that much screen time. It seems that the show just hit the point where we knew enough about the Syndicate that they no longer were dramatically effective - which was clearly inevitible - and nothing stepped in to fill the hole they left behind.
After this season, the best episodes are always the stand-alone ones, non-arc episodes, while the continuing backstory eps fade into the margins. That's OK; for me, very few of my all-time favorite X-Files episodes are conspiricy-related ones. I love the Post-Modern Prometheus, Bad Blood, Jose Chung, Kill Switch, etc., and if you agree with me, there is a *lot* to like in Season 6, with some amazingly well-written, well-acted, well-directed, great-looking shows that set new standards for television; really the X-Files at its peak, stuff that makes even the best of Star Trek or Babylon 5 look amateurish. But, there is some loss in consistancy with the faltering of the backstory, so I'd judge it doesn't quite have the consistancy of Season 4 or Season 5. Still, overall Seasons 4-6 of The X-Files really are all of tremendously high quality and get the highest recommendation from me.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 4
Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 4
DVD ~ Patrick Stewart
Offered by discounts
Price: CDN$ 59.99
17 used & new from CDN$ 22.82

4.0 out of 5 stars Solid but not as good as Season 3, Oct. 7 2002
I must admit I remained oddly unmoved by the selection of episodes in ST:TNG Season 4. After a much better-than-expected experience with Season 2 (in part thanks to the direction of Rob Bowman, later of X-Files fame), and of course the absolutely top-notch first half of Season 3, Season 4 seemed to feature a run of solid but unspectactular episodes that just didn't venture much outside the Star Trek: TNG comfort zone. The difficulties with the season's opener, the finale for the Season 3 cliffhanger, presages the writing problems that are to come. Not that there aren't quite a few enjoyable episodes; Data's Day was very good of course (a personal favorite), as was The Drumhead, and I liked Night Terrors, cheesy as it was. Although Family didn't resonate much for me I must admit, it did dare to try new things, and I liked it enough for the attempt. But, this season is where Star Trek:TNG really found it's groove, and I'm not entirely sure this is a good thing. Even the episodes that Rob Bowman directs (after a 3rd Season absence) completely lack his usual visual flair, being subsumed into the Star Trek formula.
Anyway, it seems to me to come down to the ugly matter of cost. Would I like to own this set? Absolutely; I enjoy ST:TNG as much as the next guy, and there were certainly episodes I enjoyed here. But I'm glad I borrowed it from a friend instead of paying the asking price, which I find a bit steep. I'd have gladly paid half the price for a "best of" set a la Farscape, but I just can't justify shelling out the big-time cash for a season that, while achieving consistancy, does it at the cost of not having the top-notch eps.

Band Of Brothers
Band Of Brothers
DVD ~ Damian Lewis
Price: CDN$ 31.49
19 used & new from CDN$ 25.44

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Flaws in the book are magnified, Sept. 9 2002
This review is from: Band Of Brothers (DVD)
Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose's book on E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne, is an interesting and engrossing read for those who already have some background on WWII. But, sadly, it's not history - more of a reminiscience by a few select members of the company. Ambrose uses appallingly few other sources to back up the narratives, tends to focus on the stories that are convenient, and generally takes the stories of the veterans without skepticism. Nontheless, in book format, that's OK, the book has merits to make up for it, and Band of Brothers (the book) succeeds.
Band of Brothers (the miniseries), though, is shorn of its "fireside chat" style and is throwing you into the midst of this narrative and tries to convince you it is fact, that it can convey what it was like to be there; but it can't. It can't both because the underlying history is too sugar-coated and unreliable in general (there are exceptions, of course), and because the characters have no emotional resonance. They got the blow-up sequences down (leftover effects from Saving Private Ryan, presumably - the looks is almost identical), but the writing is uneven, being unable to make the transition for the storytelling style of Ambrose to real drama with any elan. You never really get to know more than a few of the characters the way the title might suggest, and there is no sense of jeapordy since we always have an instinctive sense that the characters we get to know are those that will survive, since they told their stories and contributed primarily to Ambrose's book.
Despite my generally negative feelings, there are some good spots; the one episode that stood head and shoulders above the others was the Bastogne episode; even its calculated and gimmicky ending couldn't damage an otherwise excellent narrative, one where all the exposions complimented the excellent character work instead of being the main attraction (this episode was not in Ambrose's book).
To boil it down, I supose, impressive explosions do not make good drama in and of themselves and neither do they convince you of the nature of war; the miniseries has lost the sense of its title. While good in spots, overall this does not have enough to recommend it.

Atonement: A Novel
Atonement: A Novel
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Hardcover
83 used & new from CDN$ 0.87

4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant in spots, some overall issues, April 8 2002
This review is from: Atonement: A Novel (Hardcover)
The first two parts of Atonement are brilliant.
Part One features an inside look at a somewhat benignly dysfunctional early 20th-Century upper-class British family. There are segments written from the point of view of virtually every family member, and McEwan manages to powerfully convey the lifestyle and attitudes of not just the Tallis family, but of a segment of English society that really resonated for me. With the exception of a couple of minor passages that are a bit overwraught, the writing is wonderfully efficient, with everything having a place and importance, but with an effective pacing that isn't hurried.
Part Two features the experiences of one of the main characters (Robbie) in France, 1940, during the Dunkirk evactuation. This experience is apparently based on the letters from actual participants, and it shows in a real authenticity that makes it hard to believe that the author really *wasn't* there. This section really is better than a lot of non-fiction writing on the war, and like the first section, really manages to capture a time, place, and a real person caught in it.
Part Three is where the novel starts to fray a bit at the edges. We get another wonderful descriptive bit with the main character, Briony, and her experience as a nurse in a wartime hospital. But, it also starts to reveal what I believe is the key weakness of the book, and that's in the characters. All the wonderful setup done in part one (and to a lesser degree part 2) starts to fail to pay off here, as the characters seem to have been cast by their experiences in the first part - their development seems to abrubtly stop there despite just entering the primes of their lives. There is a scene between Briony, Robbie, and Cecilia that feels especially contrived. As it turns out, perhaps this particular scene is *supposed* to feel contrived! But that leads us too...
The last part (only about 15 pages!) is the most intruiging and also, to me, the least successful. Because as it turns out, despite the quality of the writing in the first sections, Atonement is a gimmick book. There are significant signals as to the nature of the novel throughout the first 3 parts, but it's unlikely to be enough to reveal the truth to all but the most attentive of readers. I think most will clearly realize that it's a novel-within-a-novel (and McEwen does some really interesting things here, with the style of the different sections undergoing important changes as the novelist-within-the-novelist matures), but there is more, and it's that "more" that causes some problems in interpreting the book. As it turns out (trying here to be somewhat circumspect), the novel is not *about* Atonement, it *is* Atonement, and is really *about* the writer's craft. The details of this "surprise ending that makes you rethink the entire book" not only really didn't work for me, but actually caused me to devalue the novel as a whole and walk away somewhat unsatisfied. When Atonement was "about" the trauma of growing up as a girl in a repressive English household in a repressive society, or the struggle for survival in a war zone or sanity in a hospital treating the mass of war wounded, it had power for me. When it turned out to "just" be "about" an application of the writer's craft, it lost a great deal of its resonance (and it seemed to needlessly aggrandize the power of the writer, although I suppose this point is open to interpretation - perhaps this just reflects Briony's desparation). Anyway, there was just no emotional payoff on all of the really powerful events many of the characters experience, just a small intellectual one on the nature of writing, and not being a writer myself, all of a sudden the relevance of the book to me seemed to rapidly fade. Regardless of how good the first 300 pages were, it's the last few that leave the lasting impression.
This ending is somewhat unfortunate, because after a slightly slow start, the book is frequently very well-written and really did keep me engrossed through most of it. And the meta-nature of the novel within a novel is a very interesting premise that is well-executed until the very end.
So I do recommend this book for the brilliant work in the first two parts, and part of the third - they really are that good. And the novel-within-a-novel format is well-executed and interesting. It's just a shame that the payoff is an intellectual unravelling of threads and motivations and analysis of writing rather than somthing with real emotional power.

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