Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Arrival: Mostly Disappointing

Book Review: Arrival by Ted Chiang
Version: Library Paperback

I wasn't able to get to the theater to see the movie, Arrival, so when I saw that our local library had on order a new copy of the book on which the movie was based, I immediately requested it. Boy, was I surprised.

First of all, there were only two requests for the book, so I got it as soon as it arrived. I even got to safely stretch the binding for reading, to give longevity to the book.

Second, only a small sliver of the book is what the movie is about. The book was originally published as Stories of Your Life and Others, a compilation of short stories previously published by author Ted Chiang. The story on which the movie is based is "Story of Your Life." It's buried between the many others. The book was re-titled and relaunched for the launch of the movie, Arrival.

Chiang is supposed to be this imaginative science fiction author. He is imaginative. But much of his writing reminds me of the material from the 1950's. Mostly because of the language. Robots he calls automatons, for instance.

Other parts of his writing are quite interesting. He has a computer science degree and is a technical writer, and a couple of his stories reflect his breadth of knowledge and vision in technology. None more than in "Story of Your Life," where he details humans trying to interact with aliens and learn their very complex language. It was an interesting tale, although it ends abruptly when the aliens up and leave and the author does the same with the story. Very disappointing. I haven't seen the movie yet and I hope the movie has a more satisfying ending.

Others of his short stories have similar endings. The first story involves the Tower of Babel and the Babylonians hiring miners from other nations to climb their tower and break through the vault of heaven. It has a very dissatisfying ending, which extends from a very non-scientific view of the world. I might rather call it fantasy or mythology fiction rather than science fiction.

Part of my problem with this book is that I didn't understand that it was an unconnected collection of short stories. Titled Arrival, I thought it was a novel. As I read what I thought were chapters to a single story, I became confused when the stories didn't connect. I looked again at the book cover - at the back - and then realized it was an anthology.

What I found once I had read "Story of Your Life" was that Chiang isn't really my kind of science fiction writer. Perhaps you will like his stories and find him perfectly wonderful as a writer. I'll leave that up to you. All I can say is, I was disappointed in the way the book was marketed on the cover and in the works between the covers. It's his only work that I've read.

It is worth noting that Chiang has won multiple prestigious speculative fiction awards. Considering the limited number of works he has published (15 short stories, novelettes, and novellas as of 2015, according to his Wikipedia page), it may be worth delving into more of his works before making a final judgment. Let me know if you have had a different experience reading Chiang.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Silk Tree: A Story You Have to Read

Book Review: The Silk Tree by Julian Stockwin
Version: purchased ebook

For a long time, the origins of silk fabric was a deeply held secret by the Chinese. Many myths and legends were held to be true, deepening the mystery. Julian Stockwin's The Silk Tree tells the fictionalized tale of two intrepid souls who sought out the truth in the hope of returning to their homeland with seeds from a silk tree to make themselves rich beyond their wildest dreams.

It it set in a time of Byzantine Emperor Justinian, after the fall of Rome and the rise of Constantinople as the center of the western world, before the West had contact with China. Christianity had been established as a dominant religion, and our two heroes left the West as two intrepid monks in search of truth, seeking to learn of the lands to the east. At the time, little was known about how silk or spices got from the East to the West, or where they even originated. So our heroes were traveling purely in ignorance, not even sure they would find a route let alone complete their quest.

The Silk Tree takes you on a far reaching, wide ranging journey through mysterious lands and among strange people through the eyes of an educated Greek businessman and a forlorn Roman soldier escaping the invading hordes who have reached Constantinople but eventually find themselves down on their luck but come up with a brilliant scheme to tap the considerable resources of Emperor Justinian to fund their travel. In the process they find themselves where they never expect to reach, a land that considers anyone from the west a spy looking to steal their secret and deserving of death. And while there, they discover the real source of silk and a way to sneak some back. Their journey home is long and perilous and full of surprises. In their century, under such circumstances, it's not certain they will ever even reach home. And thus, your journey beside them is as much an uncertain adventure as it is for our two very likable heroes.

When I first learned of the book, I had one impression of what the story would entail. And so when I began reading the story I expected it to unwind quickly and solve the mystery, letting out the secret early and then resolving the conflict over time. Not so. Stockwin builds the mystery through a good portion of the story, letting you find the truth with the our two heroes and uncover the wonder of the world in their eyes as they journey. It's a wonderful telling of their discoveries. We all know where silk comes from (or it's easy to find out by googling it), so that's not the issue in this story. The question is, how did growing silk get from China to the West? Who brought it out of hiding into the light of the world? This is a telling of that tale.

Julian Stockwin always does meticulous research for all of his stories. While many of the characters in The Silk Tree are fictional, including the two main characters (our heroes), others are real. "In the West accounts generally agree that it was two monks who returned from China in AD 551 with the secret of silk," Stockwin told me in a quick chat as I prepared to write this review. "I have this from three sources. However these documents vary in their details, each providing tantalizing references and with no one version standing out as definitive. My tale is based on these." So this tale is authentic, although specific details may wander from fact as all historical fiction does. "Where we do have verifiable historical information I have taken some pains to ensure veracity. Many of the characters in The Silk Tree did exist and it was fascinating researching their lives."

Stockwin lived in the Far East and visited many of the places in the story. His details as in all the books he writes are vivid and lend authenticity and immediacy to the tale. You will find The Silk Tree an enjoyable read, a wonderful place to immerse yourself, whether it's on a cold winter night by the fire or on a hot summer day on the beach.

The Silk Tree has been available in the UK, Australia, and other markets for a while but just became available in the U.S. late this summer. Wherever you live or travel, it's worth picking up.

"The genesis of the story came from a visit to a bazaar in Istanbul," added Stockwin, "when Kathy (his wife) was haggling with a merchant over a silk scarf, and I idly reflected on just how silk came to the West. Then I did some research and realized I had a story I just had to tell." I think you'll find it a story you just have to read.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Inferno: Not What I Expected Yet I Was Still Pleased

Book Review: Inferno by Julian Stockwin
Version: Purchased

Inferno wasn't what I thought it would be. Author Julian Stockwin broke some expectations with this novel, but when I got to thinking about it, his decisions to break them were sensible. In the end, I was pleased.

Inferno is the seventeenth novel in the Thomas Kydd series, which has been an age-of-sail series about a British naval hero's rise from seaman class to captaincy and knighthood. They are tales of adventure as well as tales of personal experiences based on historical moments, which result from precise research. Thus, I was looking for another tale of Captain Sir Thomas Kydd doing great daring deeds.

However, the Thomas Kydd series is also about Britain's struggle against Napoleon's attempt to conquer all of Europe. And Inferno hewed true to that story line, involving Kydd but not focusing on him. In fact, other than that Kydd appeared at the beginning and end of the story, and briefly in the middle, this book was hardly about him at all.

Inferno really is a tale about Britain's struggle to keep Napoleon from closing the European commercial market to them and uniting with Russia to seize all of Europe's navies to finally beat the British Navy, which commanded the seas. Between defeating them on the sea and defeating them economically, this would have meant Napoleon finally conquering Britain, which was all that stood in Napoleon's way of world domination.

Central to Napoleon's plan was working with Russia to take the Danish navy, and Britain had a brilliant plan to ask the Danish government to temporarily hand over their navy to Britain to deny Napoleon the key final piece of his plan. But the Danish king wouldn't hear of it. Even when British soldiers landed and surrounded the capital of Copenhagen and threatened to reduce it to rubble.

Stockwin's brilliance is in using historical detail to bring authenticity to his stories, and he does so in Inferno. You will thoroughly understand both sides of the dilemma and the horror of this battle from this story. It is a riveting tale told through the eyes of his characters, involving both fictional and real people from those times.

While I will admit to being disappointed initially that this wasn't much of a Kydd story, I came to admire Inferno for being a fine piece of well-crafted historical fiction told in the Thomas Kydd universe. Kydd and Kydd characters do show up from time to time in the story, and Kydd fans can enjoy that while enjoying Stockwin's attention to detail and being true to history.

Monday, October 03, 2016

The Fever Code: The Well Rounded Back Story to The Maze Runner Series

Book Review: The Fever Code by James Dashner
Version: Public Library

I finally finished the series - the three originals and the two sequels, and it was all a great read!

The Fever Code (2016) takes off some time after The Kill Order leaves off. One character from the latter book survives that story (DeeDee), although you don't find out about who that is until about halfway through the former.

The Kill Order was about the initial purposeful spread of the Flare by government forces to reduce the population after the Sun flared and made the Earth unsustainable. But the virus morphed and ran beyond the government's ability to control it. The Fever Code is about the government's effort to find a cure for it. Or so you as a reader and the main characters are led to believe.

If you are a fan of The Maze Runner series (The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials, The Death Cure), you likely wondered about the back story on all those interesting characters. The Kill Order tells that story, too. We meet Thomas, Teresa, Newt, Minho, Alby, Gally, Chuck, and others for the first time. Also Aris and Rachel. Jorge and Brenda, too. We also meet the minds behind WICKED for the first time. And it brings us right up to the moment Thomas emerges from the cage into the Glade. This is how the Maze was built, how Thomas and Teresa help create it, and how the kids got there.

Just as with its predecessors, The Kill Order is a well written, well paced, well told sci-fi thriller in the young adult genre pitting innocent teens against the scheming adults. The kids are made to believe they are part of an effort to find a cure for the Flare, but along the way they begin to wonder if they are just being manipulated, if this isn't all some sick effort by morbid adults to torture them. And one young man's acquiescence to help the adults to help save humanity becomes a drive to save his friends. This is the second prequel to The Maze Runner series, through which this theme eventually runs, but everything in this book is set up before Thomas's mind is wiped of its memories. And you learn here the subtext for Thomas's motivations for the story lines to follow.

I'm a big fan of Dashner's series. His characters are well rounded, the plot is well thought out and developed, and the setting is amazing. I read through it in a few quick days. While most of us began by reading The Maze Runner (because it was published first), if you're new to the series I would begin with The Kill Order and read it order that the story unfolds, following up with The Fever Code, then The Maze Runner, and so on. That way it all makes sense. However, if you want to make the adventure a bit more mysterious, begin with The Maze Runner series and then pick up the prequels to fill in the back story. Any way you do it, the five books are a great read. The Fever Code was the perfect bridge between.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Tom Clancy Commander in Chief: Powerfully Entertaining Read

Book Review: Tom Clancy Commander in Chief by Mark Greaney
Version: Public Library

The next novel in Mark Greaney's Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan series is Commander in Chief. When you look at the Russia of Vladimir Putin, you see a vivid reflection in the plot behind this spellbinding 2015 novel.

In this story, the Russian president is named Valeri Volodin. He has many ambitions, but many of his plans have failed, thanks to world economic sanctions and the dropping price of oil. The Russian economy is in free fall and the oligarchs who support him aren't happy - aren't happy enough to consider deposing him. This calls for drastic actions on his part.

Volodin begins a series of bold underhanded attacks around the world planned to boost the price of oil. Of course, they are made to look like the actions of others, but the United States has an inkling who is really behind them. And U.S. President Jack Ryan and independently his son, Jack Ryan, Jr., who works for a CIA-tied security consulting firm, work to figure out all the twists and turns and conflicts behind the actions to prevent more world chaos.

Knowing he hasn't much time to please the oligarchs who have threatened him, Volodin decides to hedge his bets by trying to secretly move his multi-billions in cash to offshore accounts. He hires a hedge fund manager he can trust and who doesn't work for the other oligarchs to move his money quickly and quietly, sending along his most trusted security agent to make sure his money stays his. But Jack Ryan, Jr., and a host of other security consultant characters, track them down with the goal of boxing in Volodin while they can still track his money.

The biggest contest, however, is a chess match Volodin has set up in Eastern Europe between members of NATO, as he threatens to invade Lithuania and Poland, recognizing the unwillingness of NATO members in Western Europe to defend its newest members against a battle they refuse to accept is certain to happen. And President Ryan must decide whether to commit U.S. troops alone in defense of NATO allies or give in to Volodin's misadventure. Jack Ryan, Jr., and his colleagues are sent in as intelligence assets, putting their lives further at risk, too.

Commander in Chief is detailed, well written, and suspenseful. The characters are well drawn and the scenes are vivid. As a political thriller, it's a top notch read and in today's geopolitical world, it's totally believable. If you've read Greaney's Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect, which preceded this novel, you will know what a powerfully entertaining read this novel is, too. I'm happy to say that I highly recommend it.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect: Relevant Riveting Read

Book Review: Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect by Mark Greaney
Version: Public Library

Tom Clancy novels have a habit of ringing true to the events of the day. As I read Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect, the North Koreans were testing more ICBMs and nuclear weapons, and here these very actions were appearing in the words I was reading in this excellent novel from October 2015, written by author Mark Greaney. (Note: Tom Clancy passed away in 2013.)

The main plot is a young North Korean dictator who wants to exert power and enhance his own prestige by building a bigger, better nuclear missile program. To do so, he must break through world economic sanctions and blockages of ships delivering parts, and he needs a new source of income to afford it all. His Chinese neighbors help him discover a wealth of rare earth minerals buried in the North Korean fields, and the dictator moves heaven and earth to extract it and refine it, with the help of a North Korean intelligence leader and a new minerals management official - both under threat of death by attack of hungry dogs, including their families, if they fail. U.S. President Jack Ryan knows he must thwart this effort at any cost to protect the U.S. West Coast from North Korean missile attack, and with the help of the CIA and a private consulting company of ex-CIA agents, including the president's son, they expose the dictator's scheme and foil the dictator.

This is one among several Tom Clancy novels in the familiar theme of CIA analysts and operatives living a life of danger preventing world chaos and imminent danger to American interests. They are good quick reads, well paced, and thoroughly believable owing to their detail and how closely they track to current events. In this case, it was a Tom Clancy franchise novel written by author Mark Greaney.

It isn't one of those thoughtful, feel-good books or even something you will leave thinking a great deal about afterwards. But it is a relevant, riveting read that, given free time, you can knock off quickly. I enjoyed what is likely a very good look at life inside North Korea and the thrill of the chase.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Nominations for the National Book Awards Announced

Nominations for the 2016 National Book Awards were just announced. There are four categories, with 10 nominees listed for each category:

  • Fiction
  • Non-fiction
  • Poetry
  • Young People's Literature

Winners will be announced on November 16. Congratulations to all the nominees. See the complete list at the National Book Foundation site here.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Summer Reads Lists

Just found an article in Google News headlined as "The books critics say you should read this summer" (via Quartz blog). Take a look and let me know what you think. Any titles you'll be picking up for your bookshelf this summer?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Chasing the Last Laugh: More Documentary than Interesting Read

Book Review: Chasing the Last Laugh by Richard Zacks

This will be a short review. I found this book tedious reading. Although I was once a fan of Mark Twain and, in fact, have a collection of his works, this biography of his latter years came off for me as more documentary than interesting narrative.

At the end of the 19th century, Mark Twain was once America's best paid author. But through faulty investing and a senseless trust in those who handled his money, Twain fell on hard times. His wife Livy had a rich inheritance and Twain spent through a good part of that as a result, but she felt honor bound to pay back their debts, even as they faced the embarrassment of bankruptcy.

This book is about the solution Twain and a close associate devised to help pay off their debts and earn money to live on. And that was a year long trip across the United States and to Australia, New Zealand, India, and other parts of the world on a speaking tour, where Twain could entertain audiences with his wit and wisdom. It gets into very specific detail about his debts, their causes, and those who tried to help him overcome them.

In all fairness to the reader, I didn't finish the book. It was a depressing read and I found it not humorous as his writings often were. The detailed accounting of his life's miseries and setbacks dragged me down. I suppose it was important to tell the whole story, but it wasn't my kind of read.

Mark Twain was an American original. Knowing about his later years probably makes this an important read, if you can wade through the detail and get through the morbidity of his failures. But then you lose the sense of the mythological humor figure that was Samuel Clemens. In this case, you aren't chasing the last laugh at all.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Sleeping Giants: Science Fiction, Mystery, and Not So Thriller

Book Review: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (Library Copy)

I haven't read a good science fiction since The Maze Runner series. The back cover sells Sleeping Giants as "Reminiscent of The Martian and World War Z," but believe me, Sleeping Giants isn't anything like The Martian. I can't speak for World War Z, having not read it. It also sells itself as a mystery, but it doesn't get to the mysterious intensity of the The Maze Runner stories.

Clearly, the science fiction is apparent in this book. There is much mystery in the book, too. There is the strange giant hand discovered in the beginning of the story, and the giant forearm a bit later on, plus the rest of the body parts, not to mention the overall purpose of the "sleeping" giant once they put everything together. The entire story surrounds a small team of researchers from academia, the military, and a leader we even unto the end of the book know nothing about, all trying to unwrap the conundrum that is this ancient alien battle bot that as we read on learn has enormous powers. Neuvel handles that story line deftly.

In the sense that it involves an indestructible robot sent by aliens that is meant to ensure peace, that is there for defensive purposes, not offensive, and that we are strung along until near the end of the story to learn of its true purpose and power, Sleeping Giants really is more like The Day the Earth Stood Still. In that it involves no interceding alien being spokesperson, it falls short of that classic film - either version.

This book has lofty goals and meets many of them. It is interesting. It's characters are multidimensional and likable, even the enigmatic leader. The main plot behind the story is even mildly possible. The narrative style is unique, using memos, interviews, lunch discussions, phone conversations, and other inventive techniques to tell the story. Unfortunately, as much as it succeeds it also disappoints. For one thing, he fails to finish the story. It suggests that there may be more than one sleeping giant, yet we are never provided even a glint of that part of the story. We are told that the purpose of the sleeping giant may be to defend against alien invasion, but we are never allowed to witness that prospect. And worst of all, Neuvel doesn't resolve the dilemma of the characters - we leave them in limbo. Perhaps he is going to resolve this in the sequel. But even so, Neuvel should have written an ending, a conclusion from which the sequel might spring.

I guess my conclusion would be that Sleeping Giants was definitely a science fiction and a mystery - an interesting read, even enjoyable for the most part - but with missing elements and no ending, it was also a no thriller. As the first part of the Themis Files series, let's hope it gets better from here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pan: A Fantasy Voyage of the Imagination

Movie Review: Pan (2015)

I'm tired of movie retreads. But I wasn't tired of the Pan remake of the classic Peter Pan story. It was imaginative, colorful, fluent, evocative, and most of all, it was fun. For all ages.

This version of the classic Peter Pan tale tells the story of Peter's origins. He is an orphan, left as a baby on the doorstep of a nunnery in World War II London. The nunnery runs an orphanage, and the orphanage sells the young boys to pirates, who arrive in the night to drop down from sailing ships in the sky to take them away to Neverland. In Neverland the boys are "freed" to mine for "pixem" (fairy dust) on behalf of the most famous and fearsome pirate of all time, Blackbeard. But when Peter's mother left him at the nunnery, she left him with a small token around his neck: a tiny pan or flute that proves that he is no ordinary boy. He's a foretold boy who can fly, who will save the inhabitants of the island.

Lifted up to Neverland with other boys one night, Peter is taken to Neverland to toil away on Blackbeard's behalf. And the battle to save Neverland and kill Blackbeard begins. Along the way, Peter meets Hook, an adventurer who befriends the young lad, and Tiger Lily, who protects the fairies from the pirates. When it is discovered that Peter can fly, the conflict between Peter and Blackbeard is set up and the battle between them begins, with Hook and Tiger Lily at his side against Blackbeard and his band of merry pirates.

The acting in this film is superb. Hugh Jackman is barely recognizable but brilliant as Blackbeard. The film introduces Levi Miller as Peter, commanding in the role for one so young. Garrett Hedlund is Hook, surprisingly likable for the scourge of a character he is usually portrayed. And Rooney Mara is Tiger Lily, a beautiful but fearsome tribal princess sworn to protect the fairies.

The staging, the set decoration, the visuals, the color, the effects are all wonderful. Even the flying sequences are accomplished effortlessly. One example of the brilliance of this film is that gunshots are seen not simply as gun flashes with shot flying but as bursts of powdery color. The fairies are winged sparkles of color. The tribe's encampment is a concoction of colorful wigwams and tents and tree houses, almost carnival like. The Neverland island is an amazing amalgam of jungle-like rain forests and caves. Mermaids are beautiful swimming creatures with shimmers in their tails. And the crocodiles are giants that can leap through the air. Neverland and the trip there are a fantasy voyage of the imagination.

In Neverland mythology, the boy who can fly comes to kill Blackbeard. And Blackbeard is intent on mining the entire island of pixem, which rejuvenates him, the last part of the island not yet mined being where the fairies live, hidden. And so the final epic battle is between Blackbeard and Peter, who doesn't believe he can really fly. But when all of Neverland is at stake, Peter's faith in himself is put to the test. Ships fly, fairies fly, crocodiles fly - oh why, oh why, can't I?

I've seen a lot of the Peter Pan films and I think this is one of the best. For sheer fun and imagination it tops all the others. Pan makes for a great evening of family entertainment. Watch it on DVD.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Victor Frankenstein: Campy, Hokey - Still, Not Your Typical Frankenstein Remake

Movie Review: Victor Frankenstein (2015)

Enough already of the movie remakes! Victor Frankenstein is one of those. Hollywood is hurting for good scripts - I get it. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Victor Frankenstein features James McAvoy as the named character, now as the rich-kid medical student who doesn't feel fulfilled by his medical studies and is failing, so he decides to go off on his own and research bringing the dead back to life. Daniel Radcliffe is his sidekick, a bumbling but brilliant hunchback picked up from the circus, who creates chaos during an act that results in a death. Hunted down for that murder, Frankenstein gives the Radcliffe character the name of his "traveling" roommate, Igor, and invites him to be his assistant. Turns out the hunched back comes from an abscess along "Igor's" spine, which Frankenstein removes and then straightens his spine. Lame excuse to give Radcliffe the Igor name to fit in with the Frankenstein franchise (sorry, pun not intended, but we'll keep it).

What is unique about this version is that instead of just working on a re-animating a human, this story begins with Frankenstein attempting to reanimate other dead animals first. Also new, Frankenstein and Igor are pursued by a policeman driven by evidence from the death at the circus that leads him to believe someone is toying with nature, against his puritan beliefs. In some ways, he is almost a caricature of Sherlock Holmes in his methods and his intensity. It isn't until Frankenstein presents his findings before the royal medical society, fails, and is driven out of London that he moves to a remote location that Frankenstein pursues the re-animation of a human. Igor has given up on the effort for moral reasons, but then suddenly has a change of heart and seeks out Frankenstein again.

All of the elements of this story converge at the coastal location as a strong storm approaches from the sea and Frankenstein attempts to bring a human form back to life using lightning. Igor arrives in time to assist, while the police officer arrives in time to try to stop him. I won't spoil the ending other than to comment that the closing was hokey.

There is a love interest in the story, Lorelei. Instead of being for Frankenstein, Lorelei is for Igor. That's totally different, as is the entire story being told from Igor's perspective.

I've never been a fan of "monster" stories, of which I would label any Frankenstein story. This version was sufficiently different to make it a diversion, but parts of Victor Frankenstein were so campy or hokey as to make them a distraction. So I can't recommend this film wholeheartedly. Perhaps come Halloween, if you want a silly monster movie for the fun of it, this one would make a good chuckle.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Room: Creepy and Scary Yet Also Brilliantly Told

Movie Review: Room (2015)

Room is both creepy and scary, yet it's also intelligently told not as a horror tale nor as a thriller. It delves deeply into the experiences of the victims of a pedophile kidnapped as a teen and the son who is birthed as a result of her imprisonment as a teen.

The film begins simply enough showing the mother, Ma , and her son, Jack, living a normal seeming life in a small apartment. There's a bed and a bath and a kitchen. As the story expands, so does your sense of their isolation. The only window in the room is a skylight. They exercise there, play there, do chores there. But never do Ma and Jack ever leave the room. Food is provided. And while Jack wakes up in Ma's bed, you find that when Jack goes to bed he sleeps in the bottom of the wardrobe. When the pedophile Old Nick shows up, there's an electronic series of tones, and Ma puts Jack to bed. Old Nick then gets into bed with Ma.

Jack's toys are simple. They are the occasional books, some of which are beyond his reading age. Others are toys he has made out of everyday objects, like egg shells and toilet paper rolls. Ma tells Jack stories, and they imagine a world beyond that of their small room. But you then realize, Jack has never seen anything or anyone outside the walls of what turns out to be a backyard shed.

Never sensationalized, Room is adeptly told with realism. Theirs is a world of isolation and terror. Old Nick comes for his predatory sex, although you never really see that - it is implied. Then one night Jack is awake and emerges from the wardrobe to find Old Nick in bed with Ma. He quietly walks over to the bed to investigate and Old Nick wakes up. Curious about Jack, he talks to him and Ma wakes up and attacks Old Nick. "Don't ever touch Jack!" Old Nick rolls over on her and nearly chokes her, demonstrating his dominance. He angrily leaves and turns off the power to the room. It's winter and the room gets cold. Very cold. It's then that Ma comes up with her plan to help Jack escape.

Jack is courageous as he pulls off Ma's escape plan. Never having seen anything outside the room, Jack is exposed to a seemingly limitless world, overwhelming to his senses. But Jack is strong. And Jack brings help for Ma. But their struggle is only half over. For while Ma coped with her imprisonment and bringing up Jack in their isolation, now freed she must cope with their freedom and the implications of their confinement and the violence and shame of their life with a pedophile. It's a long, enduring journey. And in the end, it is Jack's strength that rescues Ma.

With extreme sensitivity, Room brilliantly tells the story of their journey. While I don't recommend this film for every audience, it is a story well told for many. I can now see why it was nominated for and won so many top awards. It will help you understand what families go through when a child is kidnapped and is years later rescued.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Ex Machina: Intelligent AI Movie with a Potent Surprise at the End

Movie Review: Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina isn't so much a robot movie as it is a movie about artificial intelligence (AI). It just so happens that this AI has a body and so takes the form of a robot. And so the whole plot for this movie revolves around AI consciousness issues. And it explores those issues intelligently and with a potent surprise at the end.

As the story begins, the main character, Caleb, wins a company competition to spend a week with his reclusive boss, Nathan, on a top secret project. To what purpose? As the smartest, most adept company programmer, it's his job to determine if Nathan's latest AI model, Ava, can pass the Turing Test and appear totally consciously aware.

The setting is a secure remote location that is so removed from civilization, access requires arrival by helicopter and a walk along and across a river. Nathan immediately sets boundaries, like providing access to only certain rooms of the underground bunker by swipe card. And Caleb interviews Ava behind a reinforced-glass barrier. Throughout the interview process, Nathan watches by video - in fact, there are times Nathan watches Caleb by video when Caleb isn't at all aware of the surveillance.

As Caleb interviews Ava, he asks a series of questions to determine if Ava is actually thinking on her own or she is merely acting on an algorithm that mimics individual thought. Pretty soon the question isn't just whether Ava can think on her own, but whether Ava "likes" Caleb. And the questions continue to morph as the interviews progress.

Ava has control over the bunker power and turns it off occasionally, using the short power outages to say things to Caleb while the sound is cut to Nathan. She creates doubt in Caleb's mind whether Nathan is telling Caleb the truth. When Caleb has finally had enough, he creates a plan to escape with Ava.

But then we discover that as much as we think we know what's going on, we find new twists to the plot, twists the lead to a real surprise.

I have to say, this is one of the creepiest AI movies I have seen. I'm not all comfortable with the idea of developing AI to its fullest extent as it is, and Ex Machina does nothing make me any more comfortable with the idea. As a story, it's a brilliantly executed bait-and-switch, not that you aren't expecting twists and turns, but more that you aren't expecting what you finally get.

This movie obviously isn't for kids. Teens will probably lap it up. Techies and geeks will likely love it. If you like science fiction/mystery and technology and are interested in the idea of artificial intelligence, likely you will like Ex Machina, too. But I'm betting you won't see the end coming and it's really worth seeing the movie just for that surprise.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Kill Order: Full-on Apocalyptic

Book Review: The Kill Order by James Dashner

I'm not a fan of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic literature, although I did enjoy reading The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials, and The Death Cure, all part of the Maze Runner series. But The Kill Order is the prequel to that series that tells what led up to the three-part series. This book is full-on apocalyptic.

It's full of rich detail like Dashner's other books, has a main male teenage hero who has crush on a female teenager, and he's fighting a foe - in this case, it's the Flare, the virus set off by the multiple governments that survived a solar flare that roasted Earth. That's where the comparisons end.

The story begins as humans attempt to rebuild their lives after the massive solar flare and then are without warning attacked by an unknown force with darts laced with the virus that will become known as "the Flare." Everything sinks into chaos afterwards as the virus spreads out of control and our main characters, with the aid of two adults who have rescued them after the solar flares, try to find the unknown force to get answers. It takes a downward spiral from there as the characters fight off memories of the effects of the solar flare and then a never-ending zombie-like horde of sick people affected by the virus. It gets down right ugly.

Unlike the Maze Runner series, this book has no happy ending. It's actually quite a depressing read with few high points. At first I thought the main character, Mark, would turn out to become Thomas, and his love interest, Trina, would become Teresa, in The Maze Runner. Sadly, no. Then I thought perhaps one of the minor characters, a child named Deedee who is immune to the virus they rescue during the book, would become Teresa, but I think not.

As I read this book I found myself liking it less and less, unlike the other books. It's well written, don't misunderstand me, but a story that drags me through despair and gives me as a reader little hope for the characters and then in the end snuffs out all hope is not my kind of reading. Perhaps it had to be that way to lead the reader into the world that created the scenario behind The Maze Runner series. But I would have felt better off without it.

Dashner's next book coming out at the end of September is The Fever Code, which is book five, another Maze Runner prequel. I bought The Kill Order - I don't plan on buying this next installment.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Death Cure: A Satisfying Conclusion to the Maze Runner Series

Book Review: The Death Cure by James Dashner

What a great conclusion to the Maze Runner series was The Death Cure!

I bought The Death Cure after watching The Maze Runner and The Scorch Trials movies. After being disoriented by reading The Death Cure, because it didn't seem to connect with what I saw in the movies, I began reading the series from scratch. I'm glad I did, because while the movies track generally with the books, the movies diverge from the books in some significant ways and the books are - as is generally true when comparing movies with their original books - much better.

As interesting and compelling as The Maze Runner and The Scorch Trials were, The Death Cure didn't proceed or end in the way I expected it to. And yet, it ended in a totally satisfying way. Well, there was the way Dashner dealt with Newt, which I didn't find satisfying. And I would like what happened to Teresa to have been different. But Thomas's end was very satisfying, as was Minho's. And what happened to Rat Man was equally satisfying. I thank Dashner for that.

The movie version of The Death Cure is supposed to release in February 2017. I have read some speculation of how it will treat the characters considering the departures the other movies took from their original books, and I have my own theories. I believe the screenwriters will bring the movie arc back to its original plot as the others did, even if it departs from it in other ways. But there will be a significant departure that I won't conjecture on here. It relates back to the relationship between Thomas and Brenda and something significant that occurred near the end of The Scorcher Trials movie.

Ah, but this is a book review. Back on topic. The story line moves into a more zombie-esk extreme tale in this last book of the trilogy, which brings Thomas, Minho, Newt, and the other survivors to Denver. I'm not a fan of zombie stories. But the ending of the story more than makes up for this strange diversion from the tale.

On the whole, The Death Cure fits in nicely with the other two parts of the series, and if you enjoyed them you will enjoy this final piece of the puzzle. I look forward to seeing the movie when it comes out in 2017 and seeing how the filmmakers bring that version to conclusion. I hope it is as successful as the book.

As a fan of The Maze Runner and The Scorch Trials, I can highly recommend The Death Cure. Enjoy!

By the way, I thought the fourth book, The Kill Order, was another sequel. It isn't. It's actually a prequel to the series, and I'm reading it now. I'll review it, too, once I finish it.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

The Scorch Trials: So Good I Didn't Want to Put It Down

Book Review: The Scorch Trials by James Dashner

I finished reading The Scorch Trials by James Dashner in two days, it was that good.

The Scorch Trials is book two of The Maze Runner series, in the young adults genre. Its subtitle is, "The Maze Was Only the Beginning." Dashner wasn't kidding. Whereas The Maze pitted twenty or so teen boys and a teen girl against a series of tests they weren't really expected to solve and deadly beasts called Grievers, The Scorch was a trial of teens against nature, infected humans called Cranks, and a series of trials they were expected to solve. And the story began to fill in a series of mysteries only begun to be surfaced during The Maze.

Dashner paced the novel well, presenting interesting new characters as well as bringing along past ones, stringing along the reader to the very end through a series of hoops and loops through the narrative thread that kept you guessing, much as each of the characters were kept guessing. Although this is clearly science fiction or fantasy or speculative fiction, it could just as easily be a mystery or thriller. And never once was I tempted to put the book down, other than the need for sleep. Honestly, I was so interested in resolving the mystery and conflict, I desperately wanted to get to the end of the story, to help get the characters to safety, as much as the characters themselves wanted to reach the end of the trials.

There are two more books the series: The Death Cure and The Kill Order. I can't wait to get to them, next. I know they will be as solid reads as the first two. Actually, I can't wait to finish them. Dashner is that good of a writer.

Do yourself a favor and read this series. You don't have to be a young adult to enjoy it. Put yourself in the place of these characters and enjoy the journey.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Maze Runner: Starting from Scratch

Book Review: The Maze Runner by James Dashner

I like lots of different kinds of books. Mysteries, science fiction, biographies, for instance. Adult and young adult. My daughter thought watching The Maze Runner movie would be interesting, so we found it at the local library and watched it. It was quite exciting. Then The Scorch Trials came to theaters and we had to catch it. It was entertaining as well. That hooked me on the series.

I bought the next two books in the series, The Death Cure and The Kill Order. As I started reading The Death Cure, I immediately felt lost.

Movies don't always track well with their original books. No big reveal there. And this was the case with picking up a book where its movie version left off.

To reorient myself for book three, I had to begin at the beginning, and so I found a copy of The Maze Runner at the local library and started from scratch.

There are parts of the movie that track well with the book. Main character Thomas's arrival and disorientation. His brotherly relationship with Chuck, his opposition from Alby and Gally, and his leadership qualities and incorporation as a Runner. All as examples. There are, however, larger issues of disagreement between the movie and the book. Details of the map room, the discovery of the Griever hole, how Teresa affects the whole Gladers community, and how Thomas and Teresa bring the Gladers out of the Maze.

The biggest divergence is in the conclusion. The Maze Runners the book ends before the movie does. And the movie has the Gladers remaining inside a building after they leave the Maze rather than being taken on a bus ride. It's after being in the building that they escape on their own.

I have yet to begin reading the second book, The Scorch Trials. I suspect The Maze, the movie, picks up some of the story line of The Scorch Trials as the end of its movie.

As a book, I really enjoyed The Maze Runner. It was well written, well paced, featured interesting characters, and was totally believable. The main characters were likable and sensibly created and realized through the narrative. Even minor characters were realistic and well placed in the story.

Dashner even managed to build a language for the characters that allowed them to speak like the teens they were without being offensive or foul, while still giving them an outlet for angst or anger or frustration in a setting that would have surely needed emotional venting.

At the same time, the narrative was at times visceral and provocative, portraying a scary world in which kids were unleashed in a deadly future, expected to perform in a game-like world to save their lives in a scenario in which - they knew not - that they likely couldn't win.

Manipulated to lose their memories and then sent into a test ground, the last two teens were released into a group of other youths to set off the final test. A test they had themselves set up. And in the final test, everyone in that group would either succeed or fail in the attempt. Live or die.

It was a compelling read from beginning to end. A journey of faith in the author to bring you to the end in one sane piece and in the characters to help you retain your faith in humanity.

Now I can't wait to begin reading The Scorch Trials and then the next two books. Their book reviews to come.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Another Voyage, a Different Dream: Sailing Yarn of the Mind

Book Review: Another Voyage, a Different Dream by Richard Twillman

I began reading this book with one perception and ended it with quite another.

As a fan of sailing adventures - in particular, Napoleon-era age of sail sagas - I love a good sea yarn. More recently I've enjoyed more modern tales of sailing adventures, recently reading The Vega Adventures by Shane Granger and now Another Voyage, a Different Dream by Richard Twillman.

Another Voyage is really quite another voyage. It starts out with a young man who loves life aboard a beautiful sailboat, where he lives, by and large by the circumstances of his life. When that is threatened, he decides to take off for parts unknown and - he hopes - undiscoverable. But then he meets up with a man and woman who take him on a different kind of voyage than he could ever have imagined. It gradually changes from a sea adventure to an escape into mysticism, which in the end saves him.

Author Twillman takes the reader on a well-crafted journey across the sea, among tropical islands, and through the mind. At times you aren't certain where he is headed, but you want to keep reading to see where he will take you, moved by his narrative and the images he paints through his vivid language.

If you like a good sea tale, or if you enjoy sailing yarns, this book would be a good read. If you're into  voyages of the mind, you likely will enjoy this read, too. It's available both on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.