Harry Potter at 20

Quite a lot can happen in twenty years. When I think back on my own life in the last two decades, I marvel how much it’s changed. In the last twenty years, the following has happened: I got married, moved to a different state, bought a condo, had two kids, sold the condo and bought a house, changed companies six times, gone through half dozen cars, lost two cats, gained one dog, written several first drafts of novels, self-published one, and read an untold number of books. 

Seven of those books were the Harry Potter books. 

The last twenty years were not quiet for J. K. Rowling, Jo to her friends, celebrated author of the Harry Potter books. From that fertile mind sprung seven books of the Harry Potter story, which in turn spawned eight feature films, at least three side books such as Tales of Beedle the Bard, one of which has now spawned a new feature film, which is the first of a planned five, plus a two-part play that is essentially the eight Harry Potter book, not to mention a copious amount of ancillary writing that appears on the official Harry Potter website, Pottermore. Hundreds of characters, dozens of locations, scores of magical spells, potions, charms, and encantations, all in the course of twenty years. 

And then there’s that little thing about Rowling getting married and raising a family. 

I was in books when Harry Potter emerged on the scene. At the time of the first book release in the US, there was little to no fanfare. It was just a book. I worked for Borders Books & Music back then, and our initial stock of the Sorcerer’s Stone was a whooping three units. But despite the fact that there wasn’t the worldwide media buzz that all things Harry Potter generates today, you could still tell that there was something special happening. Those three units were always sold out. Without fail, when someone would request it, a quick search for the book in our database would show that, yes, once again, the book was out of stock. It came up in morning team meetings, and then in emails from the corporate headquarters. Something was happening. 

It wasn’t long before the publishing phenomenon that became the full Harry Potter franchise was in full bloom. Bookstores were hosting wizarding parties, and opening at midnight for the release of each new book. By the time the releases hit the mega frenzy they would become, I was out of the book industry, and working my way through corporate America. But I went back to the bookstore for those release parties. Not to buy the book, mind you, though of course I did. No, my interest was drawn far more by the crowd and the excitement and anticipation and overwhelming exhilaration a buyer displayed when they got the book in their hot little hands. There was the sense that you were witnessing something special that would not be matched again for a very, very long time, if ever. 

It’s hard to overstate the impact Harry Potter, and J. K. Rowling had on the publishing world. Certainly, there had been huge publishing successes, and books that sold out in record numbers despite anyone’s expectations. Books like The Bridges of Madison County and Angela’s Ashes stayed on bestseller lists for years. But Harry Potter was different somehow. The way I saw it was in the children. Kids, who otherwise might not be interested in reading, were picking up Harry Potter books willingly. It was not uncommon to see a child with a Harry Potter book plunked down in the middle of the Children’s Section, plowing through page after page, while their parents continued to shop. These same children would be a quarter of the way through the book before it had even made it to the cash register. Harry Potter, perhaps more than any set of books before it, got children reading. Willingly. 

And why not? Who doesn’t want to feel special the way Harry did? Who doesn’t want to think, when they are young, that the hospital made some kind of awful mistake, and that the people who are raising us that we call “mom” and “dad” are not really our parents, but that we are the scions of extraordinary people, and that we are called on to do extraordinary things? Literature is full of these stories. From Little Orphan Annie to Frodo Baggins, from Ender to Sparrowhawk of Earthsea, across the spectrum, literature of all kinds is filled with instances of outcasts reaching for something higher. 

And, of course, with success come critics. They come in all forms and flavors, from those with legitimate gripes to those who are simply after a money-grab. There was the person who sued Rowling for supposedly stealing the idea of “muggle” for use in Harry Potter. There was Ursula K. Le Guin, who didn’t decry Harry Potter but didn’t think it was all that original, wishing Rowling had done more to acknowledge those who came before. It was a fair gripe, considering her own fantasy series had an orphan wizard learning how to live in his world predated Harry Potter by decades. But while there’s certainly merit to the idea that Harry had progenitors, but it cannot be said that Harry Potter was derivative. There is simply too much packed into the million plus amount of words to describe it as derivative. Some critics had nothing better to do than to bash it for being simply commercial escapism and not aspiring to something higher. Those critics are full of stuffing. They spend countless hours and wasted breaths decrying the wasted opportunities of the written word, yet are incapable of contributing anything worthwhile to the very body of literature they deem themselves experts in. They can, proverbially, pound sand. And what would a book about witches and wizards be without concerned parent groups having those books banned, ostensibly because of concerns their children would become wiccans or satanists?

I was not without criticisms of Harry Potter as I read it. From some unimaginative descriptions in the early works (the “deluminator” was, in the first book, described awkwardly as a “light put-outer”), to the speed of some of the action scenes that I had to read again because they went too fast for me to take it all in (of course, that could be, I sheepishly admit, my issue), to the editorial largess that crept into the fourth book and continued to until the end, to the unpleasant read that was The Order of the Phoenix, I certainly had my own issues with aspects of the narratives. In the case of The Order of the Phoenix, watching Harry go through that awkward, hormone-driven, mopey, unpleasant teenage period was simply not fun. I realize all teens go through it, and if you’re charting a story arc that starts when the boy is eleven and continues until he is eighteen, you are required to deal with it. But I didn’t really care to read it. 

However, these things are minor annoyances in a grand, monumental achievement. When taken as whole, the world, story, characters, and villains are some of the most memorable in all of literature. I still maintain that Dolores Umbridge is most insidious villain in the last fifty years of literature. She is the Nurse Ratchet of the wizard of world and she’s absolutely horrifying. It is no mean feat to create such memorable moments such as the kind found in nearly every chapter in every single volume. 

Twenty years goes by fast and slow. For Jo Rowling, the time spent crafting the Harry Potter works must have been both a great toil and positively a blur. I can state from experience that waiting for each one to be released was a toil, and reading was a blur. But, looking back, I can say that I witnessed something incredible, something, yes indeed, magical. For many writers, Rowling is the embodiment of the “unicorn”. A struggling, single mother, writing in cafes in Edinburgh to keep warm, strikes it big with a sweeping epic magical fantasy that turns her into the most beloved children’s author since Mother Goose. The real life story is a magical epic in and of itself, one in which any author, especially those still struggling, would use the Cruciatus Curse to be in. But while we can’t all share in that kind of success, we can say we were witness to something that we may never see again in the publishing world. And that’s okay. Because, while the anxious eagerness of the wait for each new book may never come again, the joy of discovering the magic for the first time will never leave. And few things were more enjoyable than watching my own eleven year old devour the books, one right after another, with the same hungry anticipation that we all had we began the journey Jo Rowling set forth for us twenty years ago. 


Movie Review: “The Jungle Book”

MV5BMTc3NTUzNTI4MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjU0NjU5NzE@._V1_SX640_SY720_I won’t keep you in suspense: I loved this movie. I was looking forward to seeing it for some time, really since I saw the first trailer. I have a weakness for movies that take place in a jungle. Yeah, that sounds weird, I realize that. But I grew up seeing Disney’s animated Jungle Book in the theaters (perhaps for a fifteen year anniversary, maybe?), Romancing the Stone, and the movie with the best jungle opening ever (and maybe the best opening ever, period) Raiders of the Lost Ark. Explorer/adventurer movies suck me in, even when they’re so-so, as in The Mummy.

I had to take my biases and try and put them aside to really get a sense of how well Disney’s newest version of The Jungle Book works. And boy-howdy, does it ever work.

The story takes most of its cues from the animated version, from the characterizations of the animals, to some of the songs (though it’s not really a musical), all the way down to Mowgli’s red loincloth. So much of what is in the move is inspired in some way by the original animated feature that it doesn’t feel like you’re meeting a brand new person, but rather catching up with a childhood friend who has now reached adulthood. The world is larger, the dangers more real, the stakes are higher.

Just like the original, the primary conflict is that Mowgli, an Indian boy orphaned in the jungle as an infant, has been raised by the wolf pack. He’s not as swift or strong as the other wolf cubs, but his “mother”, the wolf Raksha, played by Lupita Nyong’o, raises him as one of her own and is fiercely protective. With good cause. The tiger Shere Khan is anxious to find the small boy, and kill him. For Mowgli is a man cub, and a man cub will eventually grow to be a man. And man brings nothing but death to the jungle whenever he comes. Man’s superiority is because he knows the secret of the “red flower”, which is how the animals of the jungle think of “fire”. It doesn’t matter that Mowgli has been in the jungle all his life, and that he has never learned to make fire. He is man, and man must die. One would think all the animals fell that way about Mowgli, but he is still a cub, even though he man, and though they may fear the tiger, none of them like Shere Kahn. When Shere Kahn calls the wolf pack out for breaking the law of the jungle about man, Raksha calls him out for his own lack of law in that he kills for pleasure, not just for food.

This single conflict propels the action, with heart-stopping chases, flights through the trees, and a climatic fight between Mowgli and Shere Kahn that will leave you panting. All the actors put in fine performances, especially Ben Kingsley as the black panther Bagheera, Bill Murray as Baloo the sloth bear, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, and Christopher Walken, who’s take on King Louie is somewhere between Robert De niro and Marlon Brando, and manages to be pitch perfect as the king of the Bandar-log. But the greatest performance is that of Idris Elba as the homicidal tiger Shere Khan, who turns in a stunning vocal performance. I was reminded of Heath Ledger as the Joker, because whenever Shere Kahn wandered onto the screen, I grew genuinely scared I had no idea what he might do next, only that his next action would scare me.

But perhaps the greatest achievement is how the movie was filmed. If you wait until the credits are over, you’ll see that the last line is”Filmed in downtown L.A.” That’s right, the entire movie was filmed as bluescreen, with all animals and environments added later. It’s a stunning visual experience (the mudslide scene in particular is mind-blowing), and shows what can be done with CGI technology in the hands of a filmmaker who knows how to tell a story. Movies such as the Star Wars prequels were criticized in part for relying too heavily on digital wizardry. But that was not their issue. Their issue was a problem of storytelling. Screenplay author Justin Marks and director Jon Favreau know the fundamentals of storytelling. In their hands, the story is safe, and the medium to tell it doesn’t matter. As such, a nearly completely CGI movie is just a story to be told, and they tell it in a visually beautiful and breathtaking way.

Book Review: “Made To Kill” by Adam Christopher

81ufyzQWMuLMade To Kill” is a book by Adam Christopher that I really wanted to enjoy. Like, *really* wanted to enjoy.

Alas, I couldn’t even finish it.

There have been a lot of reviews for this book that praise it lavishly for marrying two genres into one good, old-fashioned, B-movie pulp fiction novel. Which is exactly what Christopher is going for in “Made To Kill”. The concept is deceptively simple: What if Raymond Chandler had written science-fiction? It’s an interesting thought, considering how notoriously down on the genre of science fiction Chandler was. In 1953, Chandler sent off a really fantastic letter to his agent regarding science fiction. It’s too fun not to include, so here it is below:

(Source: Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler)

6005 Camino de la Costa
La Jolla, California

Mar 14 1953

Dear Swanie:

Playback is getting a bit tired. I have 36,000 words of doodling and not yet a stiff. That is terrible. I am suffering from a very uncommon disease called (by me) atrophy of the inventive powers. I can write like a streak but I bore myself. That being so, I could hardly fail to bore others worse. I can’t help thinking of that beautiful piece of Sid Perelman’s entitled “I’m Sorry I Made Me Cry.”

Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It is written like this: “I checked out with K19 on Aldabaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Brylls ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was icecold against the rust-colored mountains. The Brylls shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.”

They pay brisk money for this crap?


It’s Chandler’s love affair with detective fiction and his loathing for science fiction that inspired Christopher to combine the two in a single story.

The main character is Ray Electromatic, the world’s last robot. He (it?) just happens to be a private detective in 1960’s Los Angeles. But, due to some basic reprogramming, he now operates more as the world’s last robotic hitman than detective, though being a private detective certainly has it advantages. It lets him move around, ostensibly investigating private cases for clients, but actually killing people for money instead. In this endeavor, he is assisted, if not guided, by Ada, a supercomputer that acts more as an operative handler than a receptionist, though it’s as a receptionist that Ray imagines her in his mind (circuits?). The book opens in a way that has become synonymous with the beginning of a hard-boiled detective novel, a dame walks into the office.

There is so much material in the basic premise that could have been mined for gold. A robot investigating crimes: how does he relate to people who can’t get over the novelty or fear of being questioned by a robot? How does he react when faced with a situation that would willfully go against his base programming?  How does he handle himself in a bar fight or a high speed car chase? Or is he perhaps his own vehicle?

Christopher wastes these and other opportunities by making the character a reprogrammed killing machine. Clearly he’s playing against Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. Because Ray is a robot, he has no feelings to feel. He’s simply carrying out instructions as fed to him by Ada. Even when stumbling into a weird variation on the commie-Red-Scare motif, around which most of the primary plot takes place, there are no emotional reactions from him. Because our character is nothing more than a thinking piece of metal who kills people for a living, we have no accessible way to empathize with him. He is an anti-hero who is not interesting.

Therein lies another major fault with the book, the distinct lack of character development. Any possibility of making the character of Ray, or his situation, interesting is completely overlooked. A good example is how Ray’s memory works. He runs on a data tape system (this is the ’60s, after all). He has twenty-four hours of data tape, and a battery that lasts on a 24 hour charge. Essentially, if he is not back at his office by midnight, he turns into a pumpkin. This offers so much potential that is missed. The opportunity to turn this into a “Memento” style mystery, where the character must relearn things again each day, could offer such a complex and twisting narrative that you cling on every word, wondering what mystery will be revealed next. Instead, every morning, Ray is filled in on the day before by Ada, then sent on his merry investigative-cum-murderous way. If Ada is filling Ray in at the start of every day, why bother having the prop of a data tape in there at all? Even if Ada feeds Ray bad information for her own purpose, and I suspect maybe she eventually does, it still does not make the characters any more compelling than a hunk of walking metal. 

Perhaps the book picks up as it moves along, redeeming itself in the final act. I gave a good 100 pages before I gave up looking for reasons to continue it. 

Much of what Christopher is going for is striking a balance between the noir and the fantastical, while keep things from becoming so heavy they sink the book. But in the end, it simply a boring read, with little interesting in the way of character development, to keep you asking “What happens next?” Instead, as we see Ray go and ask another person another question, we ask ourselves, “Who cares?”

The answer is, “Not me.”

TV Review: “And Then There Were None”

I’ve been posting nothing but photos everyday for the last three months, it felt like I needed to get back to some posts with more than three words. And the perfect way to do that is to post a review of a TV mini series that hit Lifetime about a month ago.

And Then There Were None is the most recent adaptation of the Agatha Christie book of the same name. (Historical note: actually, before it was called “And Then There Were None”, it went by the more disparaging title of “Ten Little Indians”, which in turn was not the original title. The original title substituted the N-word for “Indians”.) It was commissioned for the 125th birthday of the First Lady of Crime.

If you’re not familiar with the story, if you come to it with no advanced knowledge of the story, then it ends up being an edge of your seat thrill ride. It’s slow moving to be sure, but at no time does the pacing impact the enjoyment of viewing. Rather, it is a slow burn where each scene ratchets up the tension from the scene that came before. The visuals are lush and dark and moody, as if Guillermo del Toro decided to direct a locked room mystery. Despite it being grounded in reality, there are ghosts and phantoms and haunting memories that plague the characters almost as much as the killer does. These manifest as visuals within the series, some of which are truly frightening.

And there is a killer. If you have read the book or seen the stage version, you already know how it ends, though the endings of the book and the stage version differ significantly. I had seen the stage play many years ago when a high school put it on for a summer theater program. It had been so long, I thought I misremembered the ending, but then the killer is revealed, and my memory was vindicated. And yet, even if you know the ending, that knowledge is irrelevant in this version. This version hues closer in tone to the book, and that, plus moody direction and a wonderful cast, are what make this rendition so special. When your cast includes Sam Neill, Charles Dance, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, to name a few, you know you’re in for a treat.

That is because the story is all about character. Each one has been lured to an island retreat, only to find they are being hunted for their supposed crimes. Each one must face who they really are and acknowledge their failures before facing down an unknown Grim Reaper. Some of these characters admit their transgressions openly, while others hold on to their secrets to the bitter end. The characters are wonderfully drawn and portrayed by the cast, with most having multiple layers motivating them. There are subtle points to the characters past, hints of homosexual desires for example, and there are not so subtle motives as well. Greed for fame or fortune or fidelity are all on full display. One of the magical things about this version is how it keeps you guessing about the characters, and their pasts, right up to the last moments.

But the true fun comes when the final credits roll, and you back it up to the beginning and start all over again, this time noting all the interactions, hints, and little gestures that betray the characters. I’ve watched it twice already. I’m contemplating a third.

Movie Review: “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens”

Just to make sure I really got the full experience, I’ve seen this film twice. And this review will be largely spoiler free, and made upon my own careful reflection of the film. 

I’m probably going to get trouble with this one. But here it is: Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not a great movie. It barely qualifies as a good one.  Is it better than the prequels? Yes…and no. From a movie-making perspective, including directing, acting, and writing, yes, it’s light years better. From a storytelling perspective it’s a dud.

The storytelling failure of this one is in what it fails to do. The primary purpose of the canonical and eventual nine movies that are “Star Wars” is to tell the story of the Skywalker clan. (I’m leaving the forthcoming “Anthology” movies out of this.) Lucas started with chapter four in 1977 because it was the only story he thought he could get made at the time. And because he was unsure if he would make another, the original Star Wars (now called A New Hope) was a complete story arc unto itself. With its unprecedented success, Lucas was able to make the next two movies, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. These three movies completed the storyline of a young Luke Skywalker and his attempt at redeeming his fallen father. They closed the loop on that segment of the Skywalker clan storyline.

The prequels were an attempt, sixteen years later, to tell the first part of the story of the Skywalkers, the impressive rise and spectacular fall of Anakin Skywalker. Yes, the execution was clumsy, to say the least. Who, after all, finds a dispute of trade routes and intergalactic bureaucratic red tape interesting? Lucas does, as do legions of Star Wars fans who are fully immersed in the world and cannot see past the world to the failings of the movies. I can’t help but think that, were the prequels only books and not movies, they might have been compelling reads. Compelling books do not always translate into compelling movies, as book narratives and cinematic narratives often require different components to work. The Lord Of the Rings is a perfect example of this. 

The Force Awakens does virtually nothing to move the next story arc of the Skywalker clan forward. Luke Skywalker, in this film, is really nothing more than a MacGuffin. This movie is less about moving the canonical story to the Skywalker clan forward, and more about crafting a multi-million dollar love letter to the most famous franchise is modern history.  The result is a film that borders on pastiche, a fan-film made with high-priced camera equipment, yet with the same super 8 mindset. The plot is a rehash of earlier plots, the characters are recycled from old parts, and the story is stale as a result. There are plot holes in this movie big enough to choke a space slug. 

To a degree, it feels as though JJ Abram and Lawrence Kasdan are trying too hard to make a movie that atones for the prequels. This is a noble idea, but the road to the Dark Side is paved with good intentions. I’m reading a lot of reviews that say it’s the best Star Wars movie since Empire, and that the order of movies, from best to worst, now goes 5, 7, 4, 3, and then the prequels, which are all mostly equally bad. I would disagree. I think this movie sits solidly between Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi, with Jedi, for its problems with teddy bears, exceeding this one easily in quality. 

It’s not for lack of trying on the part of the filmmakers. JJ Abrams does what he does best, which is to create a film of ridiculous kinetic  energy, with the crazy skin-of-their-teeth escapes and near misses that you might find in the last two Star Trek movies. There is a scene with monsters that escape from the cargo containers on a freighter that reminded my of Chris Pine being chased across a snowscape by beasts you can’t quite fathom. The high-octane nature of this movie is too much, and the JJ Abrams influence cannot be ignored. Stormtroopers do not fall down when hit by a blaster blot, they fly backwards as hit with a 400 pounds steel bar. Settings do not explode under blaster fire without bodies sailing end over end to accentuate the destruction. People are not cut down by lightsabers, they are impaled mercilessly and left to die. And for the first time since the original ’77 movie, we see blood. And it’s not Walrusman blood, it’s human. 

There is a decided lack of newness to this movie that is sorely missed. With each new Star Wars film, the viewer could count on new ships, new aliens, new settings, new equipment. The Force Awakens skips most of that, with only a handful of new items, including a mean-as-cat-shit looking lightsaber and a beachball droid. The ships are largely as they were in previous films. You have X-Wings, TIE Fighters, a Star Destroyer, and a transport with wings that fold upward upon landing.

Not to seem that I hated the movie, it does have some shining moments. It has the best flight sequence for the Millennium Falcon of any of the movies, as well as the best droid of any of the movies. BB-8 may very well be the best new character period. And as lightsabers go, none are sacrier than Kylo Ren’s, with its laser crossguard.

In the end, however, the return of origin characters and a rehash of older plots does not make a great movie. It makes one hell of an homage, and with inside jokes such as Rey saying, “This ship made the Kessel Run in 14 parsecs,” and Han replying testily, “It was twelve.”, the movie feels like a fanboi’s daydream, and little else. 

Book Review: “The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins

girl on trainThe last of the books I snarfed down at the end of this summer was “The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins. This was the “it” book of the summer, the one everyone was talking about and that everyone couldn’t put down. It was supposed to be the page-turner with the twists you couldn’t see coming. And so I too engulfed this one to see what everyone was talking about.

Truthfully, if I had to sum the book up in a word, it would be “meh”.

It’s hard to give too much of a plot summary without giving too much away, and while I, unlike the rest of the world, did not think the book was all that and a bag of chips, I still don’t wish to spoil it for those you enjoy these things more than I do. Or as my wife would describe it, “everyone else but you.”

Fair enough.

The essence of the plot, then, is that a woman named Rachel, down on her luck and sipping gin and tonics from a can while taking the train back and forth to London, fantasizes about what the people in the houses behind the tracks do, the kind of lives they lead. Her own life has fallen apart and she takes a kind of solace in the lives these fantasy people lead in her head. She has even given them names, since their real names are unknown to her.

Then, one day, she sees something as she’s staring through the train window, something that turns her fantasy on its head. At that moment, her life changes from fantasies about these people to an all out obsession about what she saw. An obsession so deep, she risks her life and livelihood, and perhaps darkest of all, her integrity to get close enough to discover the truth.

It sounds like an enthralling premise, doesn’t it? Critics have been using the term Hitchcockian to describe it. It does have a certain “Rear Window” quality to it, that strange voyeuristic quality of Jeff Jefferies looking out his back window and seeing something he thinks is a murder. But that’s were the comparison ends. It starts with a voyeur and turns into a study of a life in freefall. In that regard, the book actually became hard to read. As the main character made bad, then worse, then catastrophic decisions, I wondered how much longer I could read until the unraveling of her life became too unpalatable. It never quite got there, but it came really darn close.

The plot relies largely on what the New York Times referred to as “unreliable narration”, meaning you can’t trust what the narrator is telling you. Except that you can. The narration flickers between three narrators, all of the women, all of whom are involved in the plot. Each one has their quirks and problems, each has moments of fooling themselves, but that’s really all they’re fooling. Unreliable narration only goes so far, and when at least one of the characters is a blackout drunk, you can readily expect that their memory will be a bit, shall we say, fuzzy.

Another of the devices used to confuse the reader is a jumbling of the timing of the scenes. The cutting is designed to bring the reader back and forth and possibly add some confusion, but a careful reading will show that each chapter is timestamped. You get a certain anticipatory feeling as you near the time when you know that the precipitating event happened, and that you’ll finally get to see it, feeling like maybe you’ll be surprised by what’s around the corner. But you aren’t.

Or at least I wasn’t.

Also, the book was written in the first person present tense. Don’t get me started.

The climax doesn’t twist nearly as much as everyone had been claiming it did. I found myself unsurprised at the ending, indeed, hoping for something different. I was disappointed when I was right. Of the four books I’ve reviewed in the last few days, having gulped them all down like a thirsty man in a desert, I’d have to say that “The Girl On The Train” was my least favorite.

Sorry everybody.

Queue up the backlash. 

Book Review: “Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland” by Ace Atkins

wonderlandI needed something to cleanse the mental pallet after Lou Berney’s “The Long and Faraway Gone.” It was such an intense read, the way Berney knifes the reader in nearly every single scene, that I needed to visit some familiar friends. Queue up Spenser.

Since Robert Parker’s sudden death in 2010, Ace Atkins has been carrying on the Spenser tradition with the blessing of the estate. Hand picked to keep Spenser going, Atkins has written four Spenser books thus far, and will likely keep going for the foreseeable future. The first one, called “Lullaby”, I reviewed here. It wasn’t a bad book, so I thought I’d give “Wonderland” a try.

Doesn’t hurt that I got it on remainder.

This time, the client is Henry Cimoli, the owner of the Boston gym where Spenser and Hawk used to (and still do) box. He’s being muscled out of the condo he owns so that a Las Vegas casino developer can move in and build. The novel explorers Henry more than I remember Parker ever doing, and Atkins mostly nails him. There is of course the usual cavalcade of characters that Atkins likes to bring to the stage, and to a certain extent, this feels like Atkins is trying to prove to the Parker faithful that he knows the Spenser work so well. Despite the fact that the book is chock full of characters Spenser has had contact with in the past, the characterizations largely work to the novels advantage.

There is one exception. The relatively new player in the on-going adventures of Spenser is one Zebulon Sixkill, the American Indian that Spenser has taken under his wing to train as a private investigator. This relationship feels forced, as if Atkins picked up a leftover character from the Spenser dinner table and decided to do something with him. In the final Spenser book by Parker, “Sixkill“, we’re introduced to “Z”, as Zebulon has come to be called, but there is nothing to indicate that he’ll be a continued or recurring character. I’m not sure if this is Atkins taking liberties, or whether any of Parker’s notes indicate that Z will continue, but in this case, it feels forced.

As a crime novel, it’s a good one. The plot is more complex than the ones Parker used to set up, at least in the later Spenser novels. Spenser’s sarcasm is present, though more muted than it was in “Lullaby”, which isn’t a bad thing. “Lullaby” felt a little over the top with the hard-boiled quips. Spenser is still sarcastic in “Wonderland”, but he never ventures down the path of snarky. The prose is not as lean as Parker’s was, but then again, few hard-boiled novels written these days are as lean as Parker wrote. Parker, self-admittedly, loved dialogue because it “chew[ed] up a lot of pages.” One could look at this as being lazy, but I find that Parker’s style was such that the plot, characters, and danger were all conveyed convincingly through dialogue, and sometimes dialogue alone. A great example of how this works is through the Jesse Stone novels (which I highly, highly recommend).

After the last page is done, Atkins still isn’t Parker. They’re tough shoes to fill. But Atkins does a nice job with most of the characters and the location of Boston itself. Spenser will continue to live on, and in Atkins hands, that’s not a bad thing.

Movie Review: “The Martian”

the-martian-posterRarely do I make a point of going to see a movie on opening night. There are few that I want to plan my schedule around. But after reading Andy Weir’s relentlessly readable debut “The Martian“, and after seeing the commercials and trailers for the movie version for the last few months, I knew I’d have to crave a slot in my calendar to fit it in.

And I’m so glad I did. Holy cow, what a movie.

For the uninitiated, the premise of the book and movie is that, in a near future when mankind has made successful exploratory missions to Mars, one mission goes wrong. A powerful storm descends upon the mission and they are forced to abort the remainder of the mission. But in the effort to get to the evacuation ship, one crew member, Mark Watney, is struck by debris from a collapsing communication array and lost to a gust of Mars-strength wind. With his bio-monitor returning nothing, the remaining crew members blast off from the red planet, leaving the body of their fallen comrade behind.

Except that Mark’s not quite dead yet. And having been presumed dead and left behind, he’s now stranded on a planet that does not support human life. This then is the crux of the story: how to survive on a uninhabitable planet for the three years it would take for NASA to mount a rescue mission? That is, presuming he can figure out how to contact them in the first place.

The book was one hot read that I opened on a Friday over Christmas and didn’t put down until I finished it that Sunday. Given that I essentially unhinged my literary jaw and swallowed the book like a python, I couldn’t wait to see the movie.

Is it a fully faithful adaption of the book? Of course not. What movie is? The book is one life threatening sequence of events after another. As Scott Kelly once said, “Space is hard.” In the interest of time, there was simply no way to put every single struggle that Mark Watney, the titular Martian, has to overcome. The movie would be four plus hours. As it stands, the movie clocks in and two hours and twenty-one minutes, not a short stretch by any means.

The key for director Ridley Scott, then, is to focus on those things that are the most dramatic. And there are several. Anyone who has read the book will tell you that the challenges range from the of farming potatoes in Martian soil to deliberating starting fires inside the habitat (or “HAB”), from rovers with short battery life to the lack of water, from the lack of food to the unbelievable dust storms–the list goes on and on. These, and a few others, are more than enough to fill one film.

Scott does a remarkable job with the material, making sure we are in close with Matt Damon’s Mark Watney so that we can feel Watney’s plight, and then offering huge sweeping visuals to remind us of just how alone Watney is. He keeps the pressure on, allowing victories over overwhelming odds before throwing another problem at Watney. In some ways, the approach reminded me of how James Cameron treats his characters, throwing as much as he can at them to see what they’re capable of. The narrative toggles back and forth between Watney’s attempt to survive in the red wasteland and the key players at NASA who are trying to figure out how to get him home, struggling with their own boundaries, knowing that they must push past them if they are to save Watney.

Matt Damon is the perfect choice for Watney, conveying as he does so well the likability of the character, letting us feel his fear when things go bad, feel his excitement when he solves another life-threatening problem, and feel his tense sense of near-relief when he’s on the verge of being rescued. He keeps his spirits up by focusing on each task at hand and by making occasional light of the situation. There’s a gentle sarcasm to the character that never veers into snarky or nasty, but is always just on the precipice of defeated, without falling into that crater. Damon has always done a marvelous job of allowing the audience into his characters, eliciting empathy from the viewers, whether he’s trapped on Mars, hunted by the CIA, or being rescued by Tom Hanks.

The other standout for me was Jeff Daniels as NASA Director Teddy Sanders. If you boil the NASA Director’s job down to brass tacks, Teddy Sanders is a paper-pusher, the highest paid account in the building, with whom the buck stops. Each decision regarding the rescue mission goes through him and the weight of each decision is evident on his face. He keeps up the steely-eyed resolve even as some of decisions are not the popular ones. But someone has to be in charge, and Sanders is that man.

There are many great performances, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Jessica Chastain, and Benedict Wong. Even actors who are given very little to do, such as Kristen Wiig and Sean Bean, stand out, making the most of the material at hand. (There is a “Lord of the Rings” joke in there that had me on the floor.)

You could boil this movie down to the simple catch-phrase of “Apollo 13 on Mars”, but that does it a disservice. Is it as good as “Apollo 13“, to which it will likely be compared? Probably not. “Apollo 13” is one of the finest films of the thirty years. But Ridley Scott and crew know how to deliver tense, riveting entertainment, and I was on the edge of my seat even though I knew how the film would end. It’s helluva good film and one of the best you’ll see all year.

Book Review: “The Long and Faraway Gone” by Lou Berney

Right after reading “Third Rail”, I jumped into Lou Berney’s gut-wrenching “The Long and Faraway Gone“. And when I say guy-wrenching, I mean knife plunging into the gut, then barbs opening at the tip, and then twisting all around until your digestive tract is the groundest of ground meat.

long and faraway goneOstensibly a mystery, the book opens with a movie theater robbery prologue that leaves your legs wobbling before moving forward with the story proper. Picking up a couple of decades after the opener, we follow one of two main characters, Wyatt, as he comes back to the city of the prologue and face to face with doubts and demons that filled him before he left, being the only survivor of a brutal slaying.

At the same time, the book follows the story of Julianna as she wrestles with the disappearance of her big sister Genevieve, who vanished around roughly the same time period as the movie theater robbery. She’s been trying to find out what happened to her sister. It’s become an obsession for her, costing her money, and even potentially her job.

The book is, essentially, two separate stories that barely overlap and where both could just as easily be a book unto their own. Why Berney felt compelled to collect two crime stories, each with its own arc, into a single book is unclear. It gives the book volume, and allows the narrative point of view to flicker back and forth without staying with one character the entire time. Perhaps it’s out of a desire to avoid point-of-view reader fatigue that the individual arcs are combined.

Does it work? Sure, well enough for the stories. The tension Berney builds is at times intolerable and you beg for the release of a scene change. He invests the reader in the obsessions of these two primary characters so that you root for them to find the answers they’re looking for. Each chapter examines the characters, both as they are now, and how the events of their earlier lives have made them into who they are. But each examination draws on the sorrow and madness of the pivotal moment of their youth, and with each examination, Berney gives the reader another rabbit punch to the kidneys.

As Wyatt and Julianna crisscross the city trying to dig just a little deeper into their wounds, there grows in the reader the hope that perhaps they will cross paths. But if you’re expecting them to find each other, join forces, and help resolve each other’s quest for answers, you’ll be left wanting. Wyatt and Julianna intersect briefly, and then part, each continuing to pursue their own obsession.
Somehow, this theme of partial satisfaction was the major theme that emerged for me while reading. As I neared the end, I realized that neat answers will not be handed out like pretty little presents left under the tree. This feeling of partial satisfaction is overwhelmingly what the reader feels by the end. Wyatt and Julianna both find the answers to the questions they have been asking, but the answers provide no solace, no real closure. Maybe they have been asking the wrong questions. Or maybe life is messy and unsatisfying and sometimes the answers you get don’t get you anything you need or hope for.

Berney offers the reader only a slight small satisfaction that the protagonists never get. It’s contained in the final two chapters, which feel more like a concession to the journey the reader has taken more than a requirement of the story. By the end of the book, I was exhausted and when I closed the last chapter, I felt like I had read a powerful and moving statement on the human condition. And I was happy to leave it in the past and not look at it again.

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