Posts tagged ‘top 5’

03/03/2011

My top 5 greatest series of books ever – Science Fiction

This is a series of posts that I’ve been saving for my birthday and seeing as I turn 33 tomorrow, it’s finally time for me to enjoy my treat.  Books mean everything to me.  My own private collection numbers in the hundreds of books and covers both free walls of my bedroom.  In addition to being a real pain in the backside when I move apartments, they have become my anchor and are my most treasured possessions.

So now that I’ve established my immense bookwormishness (yes that’s a word even if I did make it up) lets talk about some specific books.  Just like my lists of good and bad movie there are a few criteria to get on these lists.

1: There has to be a minimum of two books in the series.  Singular books that make a large enough impact on me will be dealt with on their own in the future.

2: They have to have had a profound emotional effect on me.  That means that simply being entertaining isn’t enough. A good book entertains.  A great book moves you.

Just like with my movie posts I will be keeping the spoilers to a minimum.  But unlike those posts I won’t be linking to any wikipedia articles.  I could but all that would do is make my not ruining the surprises kind of redundant. So that done let’s begin the count down.

5: The Empire of Man by David Weber and John Ringo

Prince Roger MacClintock, Heir Tertiary to the Throne of Man is pretty much just a clothes horse.  Even his bodyguards think he’s a waste of genetic material and nothing at all compared to his mother.  But someone thinks he’s worth assassinating…

Those three short sentences sum up the first few chapters of the first novel in this amazing series of books perfectly.  When I picked up the first book in the series a few years ago I really had no idea what I was letting myself in for.  These books simply blew me away.  Starting as what I thought would be a kind of royal intrigue action novel, they quickly became the single best heroic fiction I have ever had the good fortune to read.  David Gemmell for all his talent never even came close to this.

So how to explain what makes these so great.  Well there are the characters who vary from hilarious to heartbreaking.  They include Nimashet Despreaux, one of the Princes bodyguards who in my 28th year taught me a new lesson.  That you can fall hopelessly in love with a literary character.

Then there’s the action.  The battles are so beautifully described that you’re right there with the B company of the Bronze Barbarians of the Empress’s Own.  Fighting off Atul in the jungles of Marduk or fighting off vast, seemingly endless hordes of bronze age warriors in the ruins of Voitan.  But even when you can see and almost smell the blood, the authors somehow make it hurt horribly every time one of the company dies.

But for me what makes this series stand out is that it shows why a touch of barbarism in your blood is anything but a thing.  They touch on the simple truth that any healthy society needs those few who can fight for and out of  honour and loyalty.  They’re the ones who keep everyone else safe in their beds.

I really can’t recommend this series of books strongly enough.  Get them, read them.  If you do, I bet you won’t be able to stop yourself from dancing around the room when the universe finally finds out why you don’t pock with a MacClintock.

4: Dragonriders of Pern by Anne MacCaffrey

Set in a world where dragons are real and a deadly thread like organism falls from the skies, these novels are a wonderful combination of high adventure, political intrigue and intensely emotional moments.  How to describe this series…imagine a half a dozen love stories being told in parallel. Add a deadly threat which could wipe out humanity in a very short time without the dragons to fight it off.  Now mix in beautifully written characters and an even more beautifully crafted world to set all that in.  There you go that’s the Dragonriders of Pern in a nutshell.

Over the years I’ve heard these books labelled as chick-lit with dragons and dismissed by hard sci-fi fans as mere fantasy.  Personally I think that both of those descriptions do serious injustices to something which is actually very special.  Though that said, I can see where they come from.

You see Anne MacCaffrey excels in creating incredible female characters.  They always jump put of the page at you.  This I think is because she makes them flawed.  Some are scared.  Some are damaged or jealous or vain.  Then she balances that with some redeeming factor in a way that may not be precisely realistic but is ultimately extremely powerful. But having read and indeed written chick-lit I can say that these books are not chick-lit.

Nor are they fantasy.  Of course if you say the word “dragon” people will automatically think “fantasy”.  But in these books the dragons are genetically engineered and Pern is a lost/forgotten human colony in a distant part of the galaxy.  So nope not fantasy either.

But what they are is emotional.  Back in my very late teens two books in particular from this series helped me to survive the stresses of being transgendered, lesbian and chronically ill, Dragonsinger and Dragonsong.  They were the first books to move me to tears.  Not just once but several times over the course of each book.  Sometimes from sorrow but also from sheer joy.  They were a wonderful healing experience to read and to this day, remain my favourite way to touch base with myself, when I feel the need to.

3: Star Trek: New Frontier

It’s Star Trek dear reader but not as we thought we knew it.  Charting the experiences of the Starship Excalibur and her very eclectic crew, as they explore a new part of the Trek universe, these books really surprised me.  I’ve been a fan of the Star Trek pocket books since my childhood.  They’ve always been an enjoyable way to join the crew of your favourite starship on new adventures.  But the New Frontier series was something completely new.

For the first time ever, here was a series that dealt with a starship and crew who had never factored in a major way in any of the television series.  Instead we had all new characters mixed with a few guest characters from random Next Generation episodes.  We had a new part of the galaxy, which came complete with new dangers.  And we had a new Starfleet captain, MacKenzie Calhoun, and boy was he new.

Some of what puts this series at number three in this list can be summed up simply in two words, fun and excitement.  Calhoun is a captain of the James T. Kirk school.  He punches hard and often.  He’s aggressive, confrontational and completely undiplomatic.  His chief engineer is a pansexual  polyamorous hermaphrodite and his security chief is something like The Thing from The Fantastic Four.  But far more bad-tempered and even tougher.  With a crew like that it’s hardly surprising that chaos and excitement follows them in every book.

But in addition to the fights, the battles and the back stories there are also love stories.  Parent/child relationships and constant comedy.

But what really gets this series onto this list is the drama filled love triangle formed by a hermaphrodite alien, a vulcan doctor and a human officer.  It is drama filled.  But it is surprisingly positive and is never anything less than a joy to read.  Oh and I challenge anyone not to end up fancying Burgoyne 172, the chief engineer.  Talk about your characters who transcend gender and sexuality. Wow.

2: Deathstalker by Simon R. Green.

Set in a universe where a galactic empire has become decadent and cruel, this series chronicles the efforts of Owen Deathstalker to remove the Empress from the throne and clear his name.

These novels are epic.  Think Star Wars then double or even better triple the scale and you’re somewhere near the sheer grandeur of this series.  They’re filled from end to end with brilliant characters, most of whom want anything but to be heroes and most of whom are hiding multiple secrets. The universe is rich and diverse.  With everything from high-tech future gladiatorial games to a world of farmers whose lives get  both literally and figuratively ripped apart by war.  Or how about a world inhabited by nothing but artificially intelligent homicidal stuffed toys?  Then there are the fights…

…actually the battles while well written are the least important thing in these books for me.  What I love most is the unrequited love story between Owen Deathstalker and Hazel D’Ark.  Almost from the very beginning, you are told that this love will ultimately lead to Deathstalkers downfall. But it’s knowing this and wondering how that drove me to keep reading, even after my favourite character had died.  But we’ll get to her later.

These books really aren’t hard science fiction.  By this I mean the science in them may as well be magic.  They use energy weapons that take minutes to recharge between shots  and so rely instead on swords in ground battles.  But aside from that remarkably little of the technology is really explained and the reader is left to fill in the blanks with their own imagination.  It works extraordinarily well in this case.

But never doubt for a moment that these novels aren’t beautifully crafted.  They are, with some of the most perfectly worded descriptions I have ever read.  They are works where everything combines perfectly to create a near flawless whole.  The descriptions lend weight to the characters, who in turn fill out the universe in way that the descriptions for all their detail and beauty never could.

Speaking of characters and the reason why this set of novels is here, my favourite character and incidentally my favourite science fiction villain of all time.  Empress Lionstone XIV, but I prefer to think of her by her nickname, The Iron Bitch.  Simon R Green achieved with her what very few writers have ever managed for me.  He created a character who makes me anxious every time she appears on the page.  She is devious, cunning, cruel, sadistic and utterly unpredictable.  Basically the perfect sci-fi villain and on her own makes reading this series of books well worth the effort.

1: Dune by Frank Herbert

I am of course speaking here about the original books, not the sequels and prequels based on his notes but written by his son.  Though I do enjoy those books also, but I tend to treat them as simply being well informed fan fiction rather than true sequels or prequels.  Anyway I won’t even try to go into the story of Dune here because I simply can not do it justice.  Instead I’m going to talk about what Dune means to me.

The first novel of this series, Dune, was literally the first science fiction novel I ever read.  To say it had a lasting impression would be like saying that molten iron is hot or that beagle puppies are cute.  Accurate but an insanely massive understatement.  Frank Herberts Dune series is nothing more or less than the yard stick by which I judge every book I read.  And more they are what I aspire to, but know I will most likely never achieve, even after decades of practice as a writer.

They are a flawless masterwork of world-building and storytelling.  Nothing, not even and I know this is almost sacrilege, Lord of the Rings comes close.  His characters inspire, revolt and terrify, sometimes all at the same time.  His descriptions are so powerful that you can sometimes feel the sand of Arrakis under your feet.  To this day when I smell cinnamon all I can think of is Herberts description of Spice.

I could easily write about Dune for hours and end up literally boring a few of you to tears.  But instead I will leave you with a final thought.  Science fiction can be described as an exploration of possible futures where science is just like now a means to advancement.  In Herbert’s future some technology is machine based but some is made from humanities own flesh.  In Dune he forces his readers to wonder what technology truly is and more importantly what it might end up costing us.  In doing so he somehow makes me equally long for and fear that future.

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24/02/2011

Movies I wish I could see again and again – Horror Movies.

While there are many movies that I loathe there are far more that I adore.  So as a companion set of reviews to my “Movies I hope I never have to see again” posts I will also from time to time post a list of movies I consider to be wonderful.

There are only two rules to make it onto one of my favourite movie lists an those rules are very simple.

1: The movie has to have had a general cinema release. That’s it.  I’ll end up dealing with straight to television or DVD movies on their own at a later date.

2: They have to be a movie which I have or would have paid to go see at least twice in the cinema.  The would have simply because so many of my favourite movies are significantly older than I am.  Not a difficult feat when you consider that as an art form film is over a century old.

Just as with my lists of bad movies I won’t be giving much in the way of a synopsis with each entry.  If you’re unfamiliar with the movie and interested I will be including in the movie title a link to its Wikipedia page, at least where one exists.  (I will also be adding these links to my older movie reviews also.) These will be about why I think they are the best of their genre.

So we shall begin today with a treat for myself, my second favourite genre.  Horror movies.  I have almost no horror movies in my DVD collection.  This probably strikes the people who know me well as odd when they consider how I truly adore them.  But I have done this quite purposefully.  Horror movies are my illicit viewing treat.  Something which I use very occasionally to reward myself with.  But despite this I have seen a huge number of them.  In this list I will share with you my top five horror movies and though they are numbered one through five in all honesty it’s virtually impossible for me to set them apart.

Enjoy.

5: Alien

Typically unnerving shot from the 1979 classic.

Released in 1979 this is the movie that has gone on to fuel half of my teenage and adult nightmares. It’s set on a huge but somehow incredibly claustrophobic spacecraft where the crew are being hunted down one by one by an alien creature which they have accidentally set on themselves.  Though really if you haven’t seen this movie by now where have you been for the last 32 years?

There are two things which really make this movie one of the best of its type .  First the cast are top-notch.  In there you have Tom Skerrit, Ian Holms, John Hurt and best of all Sigourney Weaver who was a virtual unknown in film at the time.  As a cast they just work.  By the time everything starts to go wrong for the characters you actually care a lot for them.  This is in part due to the great, real feeling of everything said in the script.  But mostly it’s down to the brilliant performances by the entire cast.  Ian Holms especially is wonderful as the sort of villainous Ash.

The second thing that makes this movie unforgettable is the atmosphere of it.  It’s dark, dingy, cramped and vaguely unpleasant throughout. This is not the bright clean future of Star Trek.  Everyone smokes, they swear and while the living areas of the ship are clean, it’s not sterile.  It’s more like the cleanliness of the average home; clean but would you really want to eat off the floors?

Then the planet is dark.  The alien spacecraft is like an erotic nightmare.  Basically to me the whole movie feels kind of like a science fiction film noir set in your worst nightmare.  And that’s without even mentioning the Alien itself and the way it’s even more terrifying when you don’t see it.

This movie is everything a good sci-fi horror should be.  It’s not wall to wall technobabble.  It’s a good human story with a brilliant script, cast and story. And even though the sequels and spin offs  are all far more thriller/action movies the original is pure horror through and through.

4: Nosferatu

A much lampooned image, but imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery so...

Released in 1922 this is the first, though unauthorised Dracula movie.  If you’ve seen any version of Dracula you already know the story but this movie even ninety years after it was shot is still far more creepy than any of the others.  Not even the great Béla Lugosi could make his Dracula as horrifying to watch as Max Schreck did in Nosferatu.

While the story does deviate a lot from the novel in places, such as in how the vampire eventually dies, I have since my first time seeing it considered it the best Dracula movie to watch.  Especially with Schrecks Count Orlac creeping through every scene, a scrawny, ill-shaped creature who moves in a disturbingly non-human way.

Being silent it has no script as such but what it does have is the ability to make you start feeling anxious from the moment it begins.  And after all that anxiety, the sitting on the edge of your seat when you don’t know why combined with disquieting imagery is at the heart of great horror.

3: Prince of Darkness

The poster for one of the most unnerving movies ever made.

The second of John Carpenter’s trilogy of apocalypse horrors this 1987 release is one that I was so tempted to put at number 1.  It combines classic Satanist horror with some really odd metaphysics to give us the story of Satan’s attempt to escape into our world.  I won’t say too much about this one because it really needs to be seen to be believed.  But I will say that it was all shot through a weird lens that distorts every shot and man does it start to mess with your head eventually.

Also it has Donald Pleasance in my favourite of his roles as the head of a small group of researchers.  He really is at the top of his game in this and so is Carpenter. Leaving us with a movie which I feel is far superior to either it’s predecessor The Thing or the third film in the series In the Mouth of Madness.

2: Halloween 3: Season of the Witch

Nothing in common with the other Halloween movies but to my mind the best of them.

The only episode of the Halloween movie franchise not to include Micheal Myers as a character this one is an often overlooked gem.  It is also the movie that started my love affair with horror.  Sent into the world in 1982 this was the only attempt to make the franchise into what it had always been intended to be.  A series of horror films each of which explored a different horror theme each year.

Yes that’s right Halloween was never intended to be just a slasher movie series.

I have to say that the other Halloween movies leave me cold.  Slasher films just bore me and whenever I try to watch them I always end up drifting away to do something genuinely scary.  Like try to edit the grammar or punctuation in one of my novel projects.

But Halloween 3 is different.  It feels almost like a 1980’s attempt at an American Hammer horror set in the modern age.  Though this really is more in feeling than anything else.  The story is a bit silly, the sets vary from very normal to overblown and the villain of the piece is almost Brian Blessed-like in his over acting.

But this is all good stuff because it leaves you more open to the rare and never really expected moments of intense gory, violent horror.  This movie gave me nightmares for a year after I first saw it and to this day I still get unnerved when I see people wearing those rubber hood type Halloween masks.

1: The Omen

Simply the best.

I am speaking here of the original 1976 version here.  The 2006 version while a good movie with a strong performance by Julia Stiles just doesn’t have the same impact as the original.  But anyway this is simply the best horror movie ever made.

It was shot on a small budget with very few special effect shots.  Though the impalement and decapitation scenes are both spectacular to watch.

But this movie is not about horrific violence in the scenes.  The true horror in The Omen is all in your own mind.  Everyone involved in this movie created a piece of cinematic perfection where everything from the script to the score, the casting to even the weather winds the viewers anxiety levels up and up from beginning to end.  Speaking of the score it is the most disturbing but most beautiful collection of pieces of music ever written for any movie.

I think this is Gregory Peck’s greatest work.  Through out the movie he becomes the rock your control over your own fears is built on.  You just know that somehow he will win in the end and good will prevail.  Of course he doesn’t but that makes the ending all the worse emotionally to watch.

The Omen puts you through a ringer and leaves you in the end with a deep sense of dread that takes an age to go away.  And isn’t that what a good horror should do?

So I guess there’s only one thing left to say;

Damien, it’s all for you Damien!

03/02/2011

Top 5 Movies – Political movies.

Can you tell the difference?

Finally the Bert and Ernie of European politics have exited stage left.  Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan leave behind them a legacy which any third world dictator would be proud of.  A bankrupt country which is for now at least essentially a vassal to the largest of it’s European partners and the IMF.  So with the dynamic duo silhouetted against the sun which is even now setting on Fianna Fail’s future I thought it might be nice to look at some decent political movies.  Unfortunately most of these movies will be from the U.S. except for one glorious example, but more of that later.

5. The American President.

I have to admit having something of a soft spot for this movie. Starring Micheal Douglas and Annette Benning it’s a smart, romantic and entertaining movie.  The President is a widower but who meets a political consultant who’s trying to push a piece if climatic legislation through.  Romance blossoms, his political opponents are shown to be self-serving bastards and they end up happy ever after.

It doesn’t sound like much of a movie but it’s actually pretty funny and enjoyable. Oh and of course it does have the gorgeous Miss Benning throughout which is only ever a good thing. The two best things though about this movie are firstly the writing.  It is terrifyingly good.  Sharp, witty, intelligent but also easy to follow and to the time it was made relevant.  But the best thing is what it led to.

The American President can almost be viewed as a prequel to probably the greatest television series ever made.  The West Wing.  In addition to having the same writer who just happens to be one of my own personal writing idols, Aaron Sorkin, a lot of the West Wing cast make appearances in this movie, not least Micheal Sheen.

Look just rent this one out and watch it.  Yes it’s slushy as hell, it’s sentimental beyond belief but there’s a bloody good movie in there.

4. Primary Colors.

Ah nice to meet you Mister Cli…Tra…uh?

Loosely based on some aspects of former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s first campaign this movie is frankly brilliant.  John Travolta’s portrayal of a bumbling southern politician running for president was so comparable to the real life southern presidential hopeful that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a lot of people thought it was biographical.

Now the humour in this movie is not in any way subtle nor does it display much in the way of depth.  But despite that I think this is one of those frequently overlooked gems for one reason Kathy Bates.  Nominated for best supporting actress for the part of Libby Holden she absolutely is the stand out part of this movie and on her own is worth watching it.  Add in that it’s just a fun movie which pokes fun at one of the more benignly interesting presidential campaigns in U.S. history only makes it that much better.

3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Jimmy Stewart at his very very best.

This movie is American schmaltz at it’s best.  James Stewart plays Smith who literally does go to Washington as a Senator.  I’m sure you’ve seen this movie at some point soI won’t go into the plot more than that.  I will say the following.

This is Frank Capra’s greatest movie, forget “It’s a Wonderful Life” this is THE Capra movie.  Watch it as if you’re living in the 40’s and 50’s and it’s easy to see that it was a hard-hitting movie for its time with a real potential for controversy.

Stewart is simply wonderful in this part and to this day I do not understand how he is remembered better for what is a mediocre Christmas movie instead of this piece of flawless political Americana.

2. House of Cards.

The man Machiavelli calls “The Guvner” Francis Urquhart.

Yes I know this is a television series not a movie but I simply couldn’t write this list without including the work which gave us the immortal line “You might very well think that; but I couldn’t possibly comment.”

This series was and is the pinnacle of British political film.  The main character Francis Urquhart played by Ian Richardson is at once the most loathsome and yet human character I have ever had the pleasure to watch on a screen.  It’s all about his machinations while he tries to rise to the leadership of the ruling political party of the day and ends with one of the most visually shocking moments in British television history.

Watch out for this to make a repeat appearance when I start on Top 5 television lists.

1. All The Presidents Men.

An amazing display of acting by both actors and my all time favourite movie fo both of them.

This is THE American political movie.  It covers the first seven months of the Watergate Scandal.  Starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as Woodward and Bernstein this is an utter tour de force for both actors and I believe to this day represents the best screen work either of them has ever done.

I won’t go into great detail on this movie because I really hope you will go and watch it and as such I don’t want to colour your experience.  But watch out for such insane attention to detail such as the phone books which no longer existed at the time the movie was shot being reproduced to make the movie as authentic as possible.  Watch out for Ned Beatty and the brilliant F. Murray Abraham acting at the very top of their game.

Even though you will, unless you’ve spent the last 40ish years living under a rock, know how the story ends and yet somehow it manages to keep you permanently enthralled.

Well lets put it this way the first time I watched All the Presidents Men I started watching it bursting to pee and when it ended two hours later I was still bursting to pee.  It is just that good.

Now go enjoy.

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