Saturday, February 18, 2017

Book Review: Pericles the Athenian

Rex Wagner's 196 Historical novel, Pericles the Athenian follows the famed Athenian leader from the end of the Persian War to his death during the early years of the Peloponnesian war.  Told from the point of view of his friend and contemporary, the philosopher Anaxagoras, the novel works to describe how a man managed to lead Athens from it's near destruction at the end of the Persian War (Greece vs. the Persian Empire), into becoming the head of the Athenian Empire leading up to the Peloponnesian war (the war between Athens and Sparta).

This was my fifteenth book on the list of 36 Historical Novels set in Ancient Greece since January of last year, and although there was a lot I liked about it; Wagner is writing about an era in which we don't have a lot of primary sources to refer to and the fact that Athens at the time tended to exile any leader who got too powerful makes Pericles story quite the interesting one, I did feel at times that the book worked better as a textbook, or perhaps as creative non-fiction, rather than a perfect story on it's own.

An interesting read, but not one I would suggest as a starting point for people interested in the topic.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Book Review: The Great King

The Fourth in Christian Cameron's Long War series, The Great King has its protagonist, Arimnestos of Plataea return from his trips abroad as pirate and trader and returns to key events in the Persian War, including the buildup to the battle at Thermopylae and it's immediate aftermath and a in depth look at the naval battle at Artemisium (which has been covered far less often in popular culture).

The first half of the book focuses on the Olympic games of 484 BC, wherein Arimnestos witnesses just how close to fracture the Athenian and Spartan factions are in the face of the Persian empire, and the second half of the book begins with with a trip to the court of King Xerxes which looks like a trap even in the planning phase, and then the naval battle at Artemisium.

Much of what I've loved about the series continues here, with Cameron building his protagonist into a leader and father (sorry for the mild spoiler), rather than simply warrior, and a closer look at exactly how embassies and naval battles worked. The mission to Xerxes is in response to the Spartans killing his envoy (the whole "THIS IS SPARTA!" bit from 300) as you couldn't actually kill political envoys without having to send envoys of your own in response/apology.

Although not as complete a story as the previous three books (it definitely leads directly into the fifth book of the series, Salamis), The Great King is an engrossing look at the war from the ground level and definitely has me interested in completing the series.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Oscar 2017: Best Picture Nominees pt. 2

Having now seen the second third of this year's Best Picture nominees, I'm pretty happy with the results and am really looking forward to the final three films on my list for the awards this year.

Denzel Washington's Fences (written by the late August Wilson's as an adapted version of his own1987 Pulitzer Prize winning play), is a story of a black family in 1950s Pittsburg that begins simply and moves quickly into an incredibly powerful drama.  The two leads, Washington and Viola Davis play Tony and Rose Maxson, a couple who have been together for nearly two decades and are currently facing difficulties with their teenaged son Corey.  The story is intense, the acting is top notch and the film is well worth the watch.

Hell or High Water
Set in the Texas Midlands, Hell or High Water is a crime film with aspects of Film Noir, Westerns and Thriller merged together in an engaging story of two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who set out to rob a number of banks in order to right a wrong perpetuated against their recently deceased mother.  Jeff Bridges plays a local ranger tasked with tracking the robbers down and the film works as a smart thriller set in an environment where virtually everyone sides with the criminals rather than the law.

If you've seen the trailer for Lion, you've already got a pretty good idea of what the film is about; a young Hindi boy named Saroo ends up lost on a train, lives homeless in Calcutta and is eventually adopted by a couple in Australia.  Years later he begins to track down his own origin, attempting to find his way home.  What I will say about the film is that although it sticks directly to the story I was expecting, the plot is well paced, the acting is wonderful and the musical score by Dustin O'Halloran and Hauschka may be my favourite this year. A really, really good movie.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Book Review: A Victor of Salamis

William Sterns Davis's A Victor of Salamis is both the 13th book I've read on my continuing journey through Ancient Greece via Historical Fiction, and the second oldest (published in 1907, it is only beaten by Homer's Iliad, which to be fair, is not a bad statement for any book taking place in the Ancient World).

The book follows an Athenian named Glaucon the Beautiful, who spends the novel conveniently finding a way to be personally involved in every major conflict and event of the Persian War (he even briefly meets Arimnestos!) while being found guilty of a crime he didn't commit and working throughout to save his wife from being forced to marry the very man who betrayed him.

Ok - I'll admit the story is pretty simple, action-based and and kind of a mash-up of The Fugitive and Forrest Gump. But putting all that aside, it's a fun read, a great intro to the broader points of the Persian war and even features Simonides in a strong supporting role. Although I would suggest many other novels off of this list to be read for a better read, A Victor of Salamis is a pretty great introduction to the players and events of the Persian War.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Book Review: Spirit in the Wires

Charles de Lint's 2003 novel Spirits in the Wires is one of those delightful fantasy novels that works both on it's own merits and as an interesting look at how we viewed The Internet in the early 2000s. The novel, based in his fictional city of Newford, connects Christy Riddell, a renowned folklorist (and regular Newford supporting character) to two women, Christianna Tree and Saskia Madding, both of whom come from strange beginnings and are about to go on a journey that melds the World Wide Web with de Lint's faerie mythology.

In the novel a virus has struck the Wordwood, a popular website that works like a sort of sentient Wikipedia, and has been mentioned in any number of de Lint's other works over the years. Initially shutting down the website, the virus mutates and soon regular users of the site disappear in a sweeping world-wide event that connects the novel's primary characters with a number of others from de Lint's world.

The story works as a journey, but travels back and forth between three groups, giving the reader a number of well-developed characters to follow and some pretty amazing wonders along the way. I don't want to get into too many specifics as much of the fun of the novel comes from the various twists and turns of the plot, but it is definitely well worth the read.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Oscars 2017: Best Picture Nominees pt. 1

Before the Oscars had been announced this year I had already seen both La La Land and Moonlight, and within the week of nominations I'd added Hidden Figures to my list.

La La Land - having really enjoyed Damien Chazelle's Whiplash last year, I have to admit I had been looking forward to La La Land months before it came out. The story focuses on an actress and a jazz musician who meet and fall in love while pursuing their professional dreams. The songs and dances are fun, the references to classic Hollywood films (and specifically musicals) are great fun for the film buff, and the simple storyline of the film made for a great viewing, I'm not sure how well it would stand up to a rewatch, and it didn't knock my personal favourite musical of 2016 (Sing Street) off of it's perch, but La La Land was a fun, frenetic film that basically had "Oscar Contendor" watermarked on every frame.

Moonlight - Barry Jenkins moonlight follows a young gay man named Chiron through three periods of his life, the beginning of adolescence, teenager, and as a young man, and examines how he interacts with his friends, society and culture. To date this is my favourite of the Best Picture nominees as the story was quite strong, the acting was incredible, and the film was an incredibly immersive experience. Well worth the watch and heartily recommended.

Hidden Figures - This was a delightful film that showed me some history I had been entirely unfamiliar with (not unlike The Dish (2000), director Theodore Melfi's film follows three different wormen working in three different departments at NASA during the early 1960s and told three pretty great stories.  A fun film with an important story to tell.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Oscars 2017!

Last week the announcements went out, and as per usual I'm now going to dedicate the next month to watching all of the fancy films recommended to me by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I figure that as I spend the rest of my year watching various super-hero, monster and robot films, I can spend a month catching up with some pretty great drama.

This year I started with two Best Picture nominees already in my hand, having seen both La La Land and Moonlight before the nominations had gone out, but that leaves me with seven films to see, Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Lion, and Manchester by the Sea. I do try to work my way through the other categories with varying degrees of success (Production Design usually requires me to see one new movie, while Best Documentary Short goes unseen every year).

I made it out to see Hidden Figures with the family yesterday, and will post a review on it tomorrow.

Short version - It was pretty darn great!