Sharpe's Rifles

By Bernard Cornwell

I think that my introduction to the Sharpe novels came from Wikipedia, of all places. I was reading the Horatio Hornblower article, which noted near the bottom that it had inspired Bernard Cornwell's series. Being a pretty big fan of the Hornblower series, I put the Sharpe series on my list as something to check out. The series comprises 24 books, and it was a little difficult to figure out which one to start with. The first written was Sharpe's Eagle, and the first in the main character's chronology is Sharpe's Tiger. This one, Sharpe's Rifles, is the first in what I gather is considered the "main" series--at least, the copy I picked up has a big "1" on the spine. In any event, supposedly each novel stands more or less on its own, so the particular starting point may not matter much.

Having finished this first volume, I can see the comparison to the Hornblower novels. Both Richard Sharpe and Horatio Hornblower are British military officers during the Napoleonic Wars. Both suffer from a lack of the wealth and influence common to officers of their day--consequently, both are relatively socially awkward. Both turn out to be brilliant commanders. They're even relatively close in age. Both series feature historical scenery and a lot of action, and the novels in each are fun and easy to read.

On the other hand, there's also a fair amount to distinguish Sharpe from Hornblower, the most obvious point being that Sharpe is in the Army rather than the Navy. Clearly, that means a difference in milieu--battles on land instead of at sea--but there's a difference in culture as well. One thing that Forester commented on often in his series was the relative indiscipline of sailors in the Royal Navy as opposed to the strict rank and file of the Army. Despite an attempted mutiny at the outset of Sharpe's Rifles, that discipline is quite apparent. And it makes sense--when your life and the success of your mission depends on your entire group being able to maneuver in exact formation, to line up across from your enemy and keep standing there, shoulder to shoulder, while being shot at, well-trained and tightly disciplined soldiers are necessary. It gives the characters in Sharpe's Rifles a harder edge than the ones in the Hornblower novels. Too, a battle at sea doesn't leave much visible evidence--ships sink and debris soon scatters. When the smoke clears after an infantry battle, the bodies of fallen soldiers and scars on the land and buildings stay around, and it's exactly that sort of scene that this novel opens with. All of this combines to give Sharpe's Rifles a gritter, more hard-scrabble feel than anything in the Hornblower series.

As I mentioned, I found this book to be quite enjoyable, and a pretty quick read. I'll definitely be continuing the series, and I look forward to discovering more about the life and adventures of Richard Sharpe.

Started: 1/16/2010 | Finished: 1/22/2010

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Cordelia's Honor

By Lois McMaster Bujold

A while back I solicited recommendations for some new reading material. I'd just finished reading Thomas Pynchon's V, which was difficult and, I thought, pretentious, and ultimately unsatisfying, so I asked for something fun and easy to read, preferably science fiction, since I hadn't read anything in that genre in a while. Several people recommended Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, with this book as a good starting point. I looked into it a bit, finding that the series is well-regarded--indeed, various stories in its collection have won four Hugos and two Nebulas--as well as quite extended. I then more or less forgot about it for the next year and a half.

Earlier this month, as so often happens around this time of year, I found myself with some Borders gift cards that I'd received for Christmas and a reading list that had inexplicably grown over the past year. (I read 14 books in 2009, and probably heard about 20 or so that caught my interest.) Consequently, my nightstand got more cluttered and my lunchbreaks got more interesting. Also a little longer. Anyway, one of the books I picked up this year was, as you might guess, this one. Cordelia's Honor comprises the first book in the Vorkosigan series, Shards of Honor, and its sequel, Barrayar, which were, somewhat interestingly, not written consecutively--Barrayar was, from what I can tell, actually the eighth book written in the series. It's actually a little surprising to me that the two novels were written so far apart, because there's such a strong continuity between the two, and the style seems identical. Reading them together it feels almost more like one continuous novel than two separate works.

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, though. What did I actually think of these books? Well, they were easy to read and fun, so on that level they were successful. But I can't quite decide whether or not I thought they were good. I found myself a little... annoyed isn't quite the right word, but perhaps a little disbelieving at some of the characters' motivations and behaviors--people kept having personal interludes at what seemed like really inappropriate times, and often the characters just didn't feel very natural to me. And there was a lot of what felt like social commentary from the author, but presented in a way that felt kind of clumsy to me. On the other hand, I found the story compelling enough that I finished it in just over a week and a half, and am finding myself very much interested in continuing the series. And although it struck me as a bit silly at times, the setting and characters seem to resonate with me in ways similar to the way that David Eddings' Belgariad did when I was a kid or the way the Horatio Hornblower books did more recently.

In a lot of ways, reading this series was like slipping into a well-worn pair of jeans or some nicely broken-in sneakers. It was comfortable and maybe kind of comforting. So I guess I'll be picking up the next omnibus, Young Miles, at some point. I have to chip away a bit at that stack on my nightstand first, though.

Started: 1/4/2010 | Finished: 1/15/2010

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It's Complicated

At first glance, you'd expect this to be just the sort of movie I'd hate. The plot revolves around a divorced couple who end up having an affair, which generally means that it will be full of the sort of humiliating scenes I have so much trouble watching in sitcoms. And it stars Meryl Streep, who is one of my least favorite actresses of all time. So when the movie was over and I didn't hate it, I have to admit to being a little surprised.

It turned out that there were far fewer uncomfortable scenes than I initially expected. And it seems that in light romantic comedies, Meryl Streep is capable of reigning in her self-indulgent "I AM STREEP" performance tendencies. (Come to think of it, she was pretty decent in Defending Your Life as well.) What's more, when it was getting it right, the film managed to portray some (dare I say it) complicated relationships quite deftly, not to mention some truly funny moments.

The problem, though, was that the script just had too much in it. As much as I enjoyed John Krasinki in his role as Meryl Streep's soon-to-be son-in-law, having the movie focus on him to the extent that it did took the focus away from what really mattered in the movie. In fact, having his character in the film at all was pretty unnecessary, as well at least one of the central couple's children. Talking about it with Juliette afterwards, we both ended up comparing it to Something's Gotta Give, which was a very similar movie but with a much tighter script. Which makes it all the more odd, considering that the same woman wrote and directed both movies.

I also found Alec Baldwin's performance to be a little too smirky--sort of Bill Murray-esque but in an inappropriate context and with less charm.  And both Juliette and I agreed that all three of the kids' performances were pretty poor. Still, despite all that, I expect that there are a lot of people out there who will love this movie.

Viewed: 1/1/2010 | Released: 12/24/2009 | Score: C+

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