Thursday, 30 January 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Meet Chekhov's Motorcycle

I Frankenstein has reportedly got a 5% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and by the time I got to the end of Jack Ryan, I was wishing I'd watched that instead. 

It's a dumb movie that doesn't even dare to be stupid, because stupidity might have involved entertainment. Yet another franchise wannabe (and only the third time they've tried to get this party started) that thinks it needs to be an origin story for its name character. The last time I saw something with this much origin, at least it was funny. So we see Jack Ryan as an analyst. But before that we have to see how he had to overcome a terrible injury. But before that we have to see how he was a heroic marine who analysed while he was leading troops that adored him. But before that we had to see how he was inspired to become a marine by 9/11. Ah, damn. That's like about twenty minutes of movie for something which was a goddam line of dialog in the doorstep sized books by Tom Clancy. The man who created the character and would happily spend twenty pages writing about how to home-make a pistol silencer never thought that Jack Ryan's teenage helicopter accident rated more than the occasional mention while he got on with the PLOT.

Weirdly, Jack Ryan as a guy sitting around in a bank snooping on his colleagues and ratting out their financials to the CIA almost looks interesting, partly because Chris Pine has such a serious talent at being a smooth-talking dick-bag that he can really sell the character as a slick snake in the grass who's just letting everyone get ahead of him so that he's got a clear line on the backs he's gonna stab. Sadly, the CIA is so tragically understaffed that they wind up with no alternative but to send him to Moscow to sniff out the truth behind some financial scamp-ery only Jack Ryan is smart enough to understand.

He's met on arrival in Moscow by a lovely enormous Ugandan goon, who takes him to the best hotel in town and then tries to shoot him in the head while he takes in the view from the balcony. Fight-age ensues, with the lovely suite winding up looking like six metal bands have been staying in it for the past eight years, and the lovely Ugandan gets all drowned, partly because he has a skull made out of something which can withstand smashing right through a bidet and so there's nothing for it but to hold him in six inches of water for a while. Jack Ryan is understandably upset by this turn of events, which fall short of his expectations of high class hotels and Ugandan goons in general. 

That, of course, is not the problem. You're the villain of the movie. You send your goon to collect the man who's come to investigate you, and you allow as how it would be nice if he fetched up all dead. So the cunning plan hatched to give fruit to this aim is to pick him up at the airport, leaving behind your business card with the airport police who have video of you doing it. Then you take him to the fanciest hotel in Moscow, where he's been checked in, on your villainous boss's account, in the swankiest suite they've got. And then, when he's standing in the middle of that drinking it all in, you shoot him in the head, getting blood all over the place. The only thing missing is tattooing the body with "Cherevin woz here" and leaving a gloating video on continuous loop on the suite's TV. 

Not that this is quite the problem I first thought it would be, because the various super villains hanging round Moscow have access to resources the rest of us can only dream of. Jack phones his CIA handlers and they have the room sanitised within three hours, good as new, smashed tiles matched and everything. Since we know the CIA  in Moscow is almost comically understaffed, there's plainly an outsourcing agency made of Polish plumbers on call for anyone with these problems, so presumably they'd have been getting  a call from the villains if everything had gone according to the plan.

Jack now flexes his mighty mental muscles against Cherevin himself. As played by the director, Kenneth Branagh, which really does give home court advantage to the bad guys, doesn't it? Watching Branagh's scenes with, well, everyone, is like watching Albert Einstein teach chimps algebra. It's not that everyone else is being effortlessly outclassed; it's that they don't even seem to know it's happening. The one big exception is a chunk in the middle when Branagh is one to one with Keira Knightley; just having him in the room seems to have reminded her that she has more to her than the world's most breathtaking jawline. If they could have played the rest of the movie at that level….

Cherevin has a plan to destroy the USA by causing a run on the dollar, which somehow will work better if it happens at the same time as terrorist incident. This would be alarmingly stupid in any movie; it's ADVANCED stupid in a movie which took the time to open with the attack on the World Trade Centre, an atrocity which had almost no impact on the value of the dollar despite happening at the heart of the US financial district during business hours. About the only thing I can say in favour of this plot is that we finally have something which is actively dumber than the plot of Salt, and I didn't think that was going to happen in my lifetime.

Jack Ryan, of course, saves the day. It involves a motorbike chase, punch ups, a bomb that can't be defused in time, a comical idea of how explosions work, and a protracted scene where Jack just analyses things almost at random until magically he's figured out who the sleeper cell in the USA have to be just in time to chase them through New York on a convenient motorbike which we saw in the first twenty minutes and should have known we hadn't seen the last of. 

Through it all,the two great constants are that the only good scenes have Branagh in them, and that Chris Pine is troublingly good at playing a testosterone addled cretin. It's hard to pick out a truly stand-out moment of dickery, but my provisional favourite is Jack Ryan's approach to rescuing Keira Knightley while she's sitting in a moving vehicle and he knows she's got a light bulb stuck in her mouth. Cherevin's explained all this to Jack, including just how horribly Keira is going to fare if for any reason there's a jolt to her jaw that would cause the bulb to break. So Jack jumps on the moving car and wales on it with an iron bar, causing it to crash into about three other vehicles and bending it badly enough that Cherevin is trapped in the wreckage. Either Jack Ryan knows he's got an unlimited supply of miracles on tap at all times, or he's just the most reckless dickhead in the world.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Anchorman 2; I have some bad news

The original Anchorman is apparently a cult classic, though I've never seen it. So I have no idea if Anchorman 2 is funnier if you've seen the original. My bet is, probably not, because half the time it didn't even seem to be connected to itself, let alone anything else. Anchorman 2 is not so much a movie as a whole mess of things getting tried one after another. You don't like this bit? Never mind, maybe you'll like the next bit. Rinse, lather, repeat until it's over. 

The one really good bit comes right at the end, when parody versions of every "fact-based" tv product in existence meet for a duel to the death. It's not so much that it's funny, as that it turns into a parade of guest stars. First Sacha Baron Cohen is there as the BBC, then it's Tina Fey as - actually I forget what they were supposed to be, then it's Liam Neeson as the History Channel ("It's news, but older…") until finally Marion Cotillard is swearing and apologising as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. There's a moment in one of the Batman movies where the Joker shakes his head and asks rhetorically "Where does he get these toys?" and I was doing the same head movement and wondering where Will Ferrell gets all these guest stars?

Anyhow, buying them all donuts meant there wasn't a lot of money for a script, and so the movie's all over the place. Everyone's going to be laughing their heads off at ten minutes of it and everyone's going to be annoyed with another ten minutes; just a different ten minutes for any given person, so you wind up with the cinema laughing quietly all the way through instead of all at once at the big pay-offs.

Which is fine, I guess. It was that or 47 Ronin, and at least when Anchorman 2 was ridiculous they were doing it on purpose. In a way, the biggest problem is that the movie's too true to be funny; it's parodying 24 hour news, and since 24 hour news has by now gone beyond parody, all the stuff we're shown doesn't seem like a stretch any more. 

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Ann Leckie: Ancillary Justice

Sometimes, reading SF, you feel like the writer is holding back the really good stuff; you're being shown a slice of a larger world, and the little bits around the edges seem far more interesting than the bits in the centre of the action.

There's a lot of that in Ann Leckie's curious Ancillary Justice, another project in my continuing experiment with buying SF books which get good reviews in the Grauniad and turn out to be harder work than I expected. There's a honking great big interstellar empire in the middle of the plot of Ancillary Justice, but the hints we get about the neighbours make the ominous alien Presger and simply mysterious Gerentate and Rrrrr seem more interesting than the centrepiece Radch (about half way through, increasingly fed up with unpronounceable names, I started to wonder if the Radch was supposed to suggest the Reich).

The background to the book is that the Radch dominate their whole end of the galaxy, more through lack of a better plan than anything more reasonable; you start out trying to secure your borders, and realise that there's no end to securing your borders. Meanwhile, your aspiring middle classes realise that there's gold in them there annexations, and the expansion becomes not just a matter of security, but the indispensable engine of economic growth. Fast forward a thousand years and the whole process is up against the buffers and falling apart on the inside, which is where we join the action.

I always wonder about a thousand years of social stasis, a recurring trope in SF and Fantasy. It's even odder when one character has spent a thousand years in hibernation - actual stasis - and is completely unmoored in contemporary society because of changing fashions and linguistic drift. Odder still when the engine of the plot is differences in the empire's one-person multi-bodied ruling class about the way society is run; whether to preserve the dynastic aristocratic elite or make openings for strivers.

Wait, do a record scratch there, and lets go back to the idea of a one-person multi-bodied ruling class, because that gets to the heart of one of the key schticks in the book; the notion of identity being shared across lots and lots of bodies. The narrator is one body from a unit of zombie soldiers maintained by a vast military starship; once bordering civilisations have been absorbed into the Radch empire, the prisoners of war get their personalities wiped and their bodies put to work as drones for the ship's AI; the Ancillaries of the title. The ancillaries have no minds of their own, and don't have those pesky emotions which make some soldiers into war-crimes waiting to happen and the rest of them into armed conscientious objectors - it's a continuing problem for modern armies that no matter how hard you train your men, most of them will still shoot wildly in the air rather than aim at live human beings. Similarly, the Emperor of all Radch is distributed over hundreds or thousands of bodies, simultaneously providing redundant backup and distributed command and control, so that Radch has no succession issues.

Which is all very well in theory, but the book is largely about how it breaks down in practice, with individuality and personal interest edging their way into the components of all the hive minds, and undermining the great notion of consistency and perfect administration.

The jarring quirk in the novel, from moment one, is that Leckie wants the Radch to be a genderless society, with its members indifferent to gender distinctions and bewildered by societies that preserve them. The way she chooses to foreground that is to have the narrator refer to every character as "she". It starts out being disorienting, becomes annoying, and eventually stops being noticeable, but obviously I'm part of the problem Leckie was trying to solve, because it was ALWAYS distancing; absent the sense of something so socially fundamental in my real world, I could never get my head round any of the secondary Radch characters. The outsiders were easier to follow, largely because they only ever presented one at a time, but once there were three or four unpronounceable Radch interacting on the page, I'd start losing track of who was doing what. Which can be a problem in a book where a lot of the action is subtle intrigue based on nuances of social standing. This particular problem is hard; the only other time I've seen it done was in an SF short story by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro where every character had a gender neutral name and she managed to dodge using any pronouns at all for the whole story.

And it's not like Leckie didn't already have a distancing problem; her narrator is an emotionless robot stooge for an artificial intelligence, after all. 

Overall, it was pretty tough going, and I'm not sure about the pay off. The first half of the book is at least confident; Leckie is cutting between the surviving ancillary's quest for revenge and the events 20 years before which sent it off on its rip-roaring rampage of revenge; but halfway through the book, the flashbacks run out, and the narrative jolts into a strange pace where months are tossed aside in a paragraph and then a tea party will take a chapter, all while the narrator gets closer and closer to her showdown with the big bad. Which is jarringly Hollywood compared to the quieter and more grounded action scenes of the first and second acts of the book.

It's a trilogy, it turns out, and winds up feeling almost like an origin story for a continuing series about two wacky aliens; she's an emotionless revenge-fuelled robot; she's a thawed out aristocratic space popsicle a thousand years out of time; together they fight …. the whole damn universe or something.


Thursday, 16 January 2014

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters; comes with free King Kong and Return of the Jedi mini-remakes

Like a lot of today's movies, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters has an idea you could write on a beermat. Hansel and Gretel grow up. And together ... they fight crime. Nah, just kidding, they hunt witches. It's such a cool idea, I'm not surprised the team was able to get a movie deal to make it real. Neither was I surprised when it turned out that they didn't necessarily have any ideas BEYOND the big idea. 

There's a plot of sorts, with an origin story munged into one of those end of the world plots where a boatload of witches are collecting plot coupons to become unspeakably powerful. But it's mostly a clothesline they could hang cool set pieces from at suitable intervals. Hansel and Gretel are forever waking up from their latest concussion to discover that since they hit their heads, everything's changed. The last time I saw a movie depend on that so much, they at least had the sense to play it for laughs.

For something this silly to work, it has to be hilarious and have leads you can root for no matter how silly it all gets. Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton just about pull it off, although Hansel is not exactly a role written specifically with Renner in mind, or indeed with anyone in mind (Famke Jansen, who played the big bad witch openly said she only did it to pay her mortgage). And while Arterton is an unsung treasure, she seems weirdly fresh faced to be bought as the grizzled Renner's sister. It seems to have been easier to get her to do American than it was to get Renner to do British so that their accents would match, and no-one seems to have considered for a second that they should both sound German like the rest of the cast - even though the sardonic 21st century wisecracks would probably have been funnier in German accents.

It's a movie which revels in anachronism from the moment the action starts; the town of Augsburg is having its children kidnapped by witches, and we open on a milkman crating up milk bottles with hand drawn pictures of the missing children on them. Hansel and Gretel carry 21st century firepower in 14th century packaging; the gun nuts could have a field day grumbling about how primers, brass cartridges, lever actions, belt feeds and pretty much everything else they're carrying haven't been dreamed of yet, while the rest of us look on in awe. 

It's at its funniest when it's cheerily self-aware; I loved it that Hansel has diabetes because of being forced to gorge on sweets by the witch who captured him as a child. 

And, as I said in the title, it comes with free mini-remakes. There's a troll who's mostly CGI over a real actor; when he lurched on, I thought finally Andy Serkis is letting someone else get some work. Then ten minutes later, he runs to Gretel's rescue and Kongs her off to his lair. Most of the action is in the deep dark woods, and the witches whizzing around on their broomsticks through the trees are just like the speeder bikes in Jedi. Bonus, no Ewoks.

It's all good messy fun. Nothing even remotely like high art, but fun in spots and never terrible. I couldn't help suspecting that it would have been a better action movie if it hadn't been made in a 3D version; setting up all your action beats to work with the jumping-outta-the-screen-atcha which is all 3D can really do makes for bad staging. And apparently it made enough money that it'll be back one of these days in a sequel. With any luck, they'll have found some new jokes in time.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Sherlock: There's something about Mary

It seems like I keep on having to write about three things really being just one. Sherlock's short run of three episodes just turned out to be one very long episode. Which itself turned out to be just an interlude before we resume the story we got at the end of the second season. Moriarty isn't dead after all. Neither was Sherlock. I'm beginning to wonder whether anything we saw in the second season finale will still be real by the time they get round to making a fourth season. "Well, John, the reality is that we made London up completely as part of a complicated plot. Also, there is no BBC. And gravity's just a ruse."

The BBC take on Sherlock Holmes has always been an odd duck. Of course you've got the Cumberbatch, lord of all awesome and in Sherlock the titular crown prince of all media's high functioning sociopaths. That does rather tend to white out everything else around it (As Sherlock himself said in the third episode just now "Oh, someone was talking and it wasn't me, so I probably just filtered it out."). But the odd thing about it is that it's a ratings monster produced at eye-watering cost and they only produce it in chunks of three episodes at a time, the equivalent of six US TV hours allowing for ads. Just as you've got the chance to get used to looking forward to it, it's gone again for a year or more. 

Which makes it almost idiotically daring that the writers burned up the first two episodes specifically to maximise the punch of the third. The first was dominated by a heroic refusal to answer the question of how Sherlock got off the roof at the end of the second season(three different explanations offered, and I refuse to believe that I'm supposed to buy any of them). There was a mystery to solve about a terrorist plot, but that was practically a shaggy dog story; oh look, it's a terrorist underground plotting to blow up the Houses of Parliament with a tube train; a terrorist UNDERGROUND, geddit? Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what were you saying there about Watson having a fiancée? Is he going to sulk at Sherlock indefinitely? 

The second episode was the world's looniest best man's speech, ostensibly to showcase all the elements of the murder of the week, but really about the unstoppable bromance of Sherlock and Watson and how to fit a real live woman into the middle of it. 

And having danced around and joked for the fans and generally had a hell of a time, the third episode started paying all that stuff off, showing us that all the throwaway moments of the past three hours had been parts of a jigsaw puzzle we'd didn't even know was there. And it worked. By the time we got to the punchline, I was about two feet closer to the tv than I'd been at the beginning.

Yes, it's silly and the characters are practically cartoons, but the writing's so good and the actors throw themselves into it so hard that you get carried along with a big smile on your face right up to the moment that you've got a lump in your throat. 

Only six TV hours every year or so? When I think about it, we should just be grateful they can do that much. 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Ben Aaronovitch: Broken Homes

Oh, Lesley, how could you?

Yeah, spoilers, but with the current page views for all three previous Peter Grant blogs standing at less than 100, somehow I can't imagine that I'm wrecking anything for a significant percentage of the book-reading public.

Broken Homes is the book that hammers home once and for all that Aaronovitch is writing one great big book on the instalment plan. Yes, there's a central mystery plot, and yes, it gets sorted out along the way, but the real action is in the master plot. 

Detective stories often have a slow rumble of character development going on in the background, as the characters get older and the wear and tear builds up from one case to the next. The Peter Grant stories are unusual - for me anyhow - in the way that the background plot is steadily becoming much more important than the mystery on the jacket notes. On the one hand, you've got the never elucidated back-story for Chief Inspector Nightingale, which is mostly just blurs and suggestions (and a recurring opportunity for Peter Grant to make Hogwarts jokes). On the other hand, you've got the Faceless Man, yer ackshul series villain, up to god knows what and still one step ahead of the plods. And finally, you've got poor Lesley, who's been having a horrible time since the very first book and now…..

Well, yes, let's not tear the arse out of the spoilage. It's a pretty dramatic twist, and I have to say it's a good one; you don't see it coming, and yet once it hits, it doesn't seem like a cheat. So well done, as usual.

Peter Grant continues to be good company as a narrator, endlessly digressing into the details of police procedure in a way which illuminates not just the nature of modern day policing but his own character as well; for all that Grant tries to sound cynical and disillusioned about the bureaucracy, he still comes off as a true believer in the ideas behind all the rules and regulations.

The book plot; well, as with all the other books, it's more about Aaronovitch unpicking some aspect of London and hanging some magic off it than anything else; this time it's high rise housing and the way in which somehow semi-privatisation has actually managed make a public sector idea even worse than it was.

But as always, the real question is not whodunnit, but what are these crazy kids going to do next. 

Thursday, 9 January 2014

American Hustle; the uncomfortable sight of the 70s.

If, like all right-thinking people, you cheerily idolise Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence on the strength of their work in Enchanted (or Junebug) and Winter's Bone, you're going to find American Hustle a little weird to watch. Amy Adams spends most of the movie only just inside a succession of wrap-around dresses, and Jennifer Lawrence spends quite a bit of time courting a wardrobe malfunction as well. I think I was supposed to be happy that two smart attractive women were strutting their stuff so confidently, but mostly I just felt a bit uncomfortable, as if the girl next door had just shown up to do a stripper-gram. It's nice and everything, but I just don't think of you that way….

Over on the other side of cast, Christian Bale grew a paunch specifically for the role, and Bradley Cooper got himself a perm; none of which made me in any way uncomfortable, because I've become accustomed to the idea that making yourself look ridiculous is part of the way that actors make you think they're serious about their art.

It was all about evoking the spirit of the 70s, so David O Russell must be delighted at the glee people have found in pointing up all the post-70s artefacts that found their way into shot anyhow. I was there for the 70s, and it didn't seem so ghastly at the time, but my word, the patterns. The chest-hair. The colour combinations. It was a dark, dark, garish time in our sad history. Well, America's sad history. Here in Mexico, being broke and Catholic kept most of us from looking ludicrous.

American Hustle would make a great double bill with The Hoax, a movie from about seven years ago where Richard Gere played a guy who conned a publisher into thinking that he was the authorised biographer of Howard Hughes. They're both 70s set movies about con-men called Irving with complicated love-lives. They're also both movies which are well acted and get the period look right, but are never going to be classics.

Where they differ is that Gere's Irving doesn't really get away with it, and Bale's Irving kind of does, at the cost of a trail of destruction which ruins everything around him. Also, American Hustle has a much beefier cast. Robert de Niro has a cameo. Both Richard Harrow AND Eli Thompson from Boardwalk Empire have cameos; as soon as Jack Huston appeared I started waiting for him to kill everyone around him, whereas I had to wait for the credits to find out that that had been Shea Whigham hiding under the world's most terrible blond wig. And Jeremy Renner is there, with a pompadour that almost deserves a separate credit. Man, people had a lot of hair in the 70s. Though they don't seem to have had a lot of brains anchoring it.

The unexpected thing is that American Hustle is a film about political corruption where the nicest character is a politician. Jeremy Renner's Carmine Polito is too good to be true, and yet completely credible, and the other politicians sucked into the trap come across as affable knuckleheads just doing their best; the real villain of the piece is the FBI. In principle all of this is based on the real-life Abscam sting operation, but unlike most "inspired by true events" movies, American Hustle cheerily admits it's all about a good yarn by opening with a title card saying "Some of this actually happened". But at a time when everyone is hating politicians full time, it's thought-provoking to have some of the characters saying that it's terrible for the FBI to go after politicians and undermine what little faith people still have in the system.

Sad to say, for me the hero of the piece is Louis CK's Stoddard, the dull FBI supervisor who tries to rein in the whole lunatic farrago with well meaning anecdotes about ice-fishing; we never do hear what happens at the end of those stories, which are supposed to get Bradley Cooper's ambitious lunatic to calm the hell down. I wonder if the DVD will have a special feature "Stoddard's childhood".

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Christopher Brookmyre: Where the Bodies Are Buried, etc

The thing to do is download a sample of Where the Bodies Are Buried and decide whether you like it enough to ignore the problems with the style. Then buy yourself all three books in the sequence; Where the Bodies Are Buried, Where the Devil Drives and Flesh Wounds, because they hang together so tightly and get you so caught up in the central characters that you're going to wind up reading all three in a matter of a week or so.

They're not good books, exactly. The plots are a bit contrived (and go completely against the repeated mantra that Scots criminals don't do subtle) and Brookmyre is developing a terrible knack for writing dialogue that sounds more like human resources' summary of a conversation for the purpose of an employment tribunal. That's sad, because his early stuff crackled; it wasn't any more like what people actually say in conversation, but at least it was funny. 

Despite that, I read them at a gallop, because despite the style problems and the plotting issues, the central characters feel like people. Well, some of them do. Glen Fallan, general purpose omni-menace, feels like Brookmyre's take on Bubba Rogowski. The big selling point is his protégée, Jasmine Sharp, who ought to come across as some kind of Enid Blyton character but instead has an affecting and sensible backstory. When we meet her, she's struggling to keep it together in the aftermath of losing her mother to cancer, and Brookmyre gets across with real force the way in which a life can fall apart in the run-up and aftermath to a parent's death. Jasmine makes sense, and the way in which the first book's plot shakes her out of the slump and gives her life a new direction feels credible as it's happening; there's a happy ending which makes psychological sense even if it's sort of potty as a crime narrative.

The second book picks that ball up and runs with it; Jasmine's not just scraping by as a private investigator, but making a go of it, and somehow Brookmyre sells the idea that she'd be a secret weapon for larger firms full of middle-aged retired cops. Send in a half trained 20 year old actress and no-one will see it coming? I dunno how realistic it is, but for the purpose of the book, it sounds plausible. By the third book, she's just getting a little bit too bad-ass, so part of me is hoping that there won't be a fourth book; the third book wraps up with a bow all the backstory conflicts and bad consciences hobbling the characters, and it's hard to see how Brookmyre could maintain any real tension with that sorted out.

Aside from the style problem, I think my big grump has to be the mystery plotting; everything turns out to be about grudges from long ago in each of the three big mysteries. Normally I don't actually care about the mysteries in mystery books; I'm reading them because the crime-busters are amusing company, and I'd be hard put to tell you what the mystery actually was a week after I've read most of them. But reading three books back to back, I couldn't help noticing that it was always a matter of middle-aged people having their pasts catch up with them. You don't HAVE to have the mystery echo the preoccupations of the main characters; it's just as much fun if it doesn't. You could even argue that it provides a bit of contrast. But Brookmyre didn't go that way.

Also, Brookmyre cheats terribly with his misdirections and timing. So much of the mystery in each book depends on flashbacks not being to when you think they're supposed to be, that I suspect he's made the books impossible to adapt for TV, where the chronology is always much more obvious once you can see the characters and what age they're made up to be.

Still, I don't feel completely stupid; I worked out the twist in the middle of the second book well before it was revealed. And every book has some genuinely affecting set pieces, whether's it Jasmine's grieving at the beginning or Catherine McLeod's moment of truth in the third book. They were worth the time and money, for all the problems.