“The Witchwood Crown” by Tad Williams

I was really looking forward to The Witchwood Crown after I got back into the world of Osten Ard earlier this year with Tad Williams’ excellent short novel The Heart of What Was Lost. It’s properly doorstop-sized and it follows a bunch of characters from the original Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy!

It’s been about thirty years since the events of the previous books and Osten Ard, ruled by High King and Queen Simon and Miriamele,  has been enjoying peace and stability. Things have been growing steadily worse as the terrible war of the Storm King begins to fade from memory – several kingdoms are facing internal political strife, contact with the Sithi has been lost, and Utuk’ku, the dark queen of the Norns, has woken and once again plots the destruction of humanity.

We follow several protagonists across Osten Ard as events come to a head: Osten Ard’s monarchs (and our old friends) Simon and Miriamele, their grandchildren Prince Morgan and Princess Lillia, other people from the Hayholt including the chancellor Lord Pasevalles, court members (and also old friends) Tiamak and Count Eolair, Norn engineer Viyeki (who we last met in The Heart of What Was Lost), his human concubine Tzoja and half-human daughter Nezeru, a couple of characters from the grasslands of Thrithings, a servant of the Duchess of Nabban, a mysterious Norn-hunter named Jarnulf… I might be forgetting some. This is an epic story affecting the whole world and it’s told through people living through events in a bunch of different places, and only the readers know the whole story of how they may all be connected.

I expected to plow through this book and stay up all night reading it but it was actually slow going. For the first few hundred pages of the book, it didn’t seem like anything was happening, I felt like I was reading a slice of life story, except not as interesting because it was actually about twenty different slice of life stories and we didn’t stick with any viewpoint for enough time for me to develop a real investment in the characters. The last third of the book is much better paced; things start to change rapidly, we get answers to burning questions, and we start to see all those disparate threads come together.

Another thing that disappointed me was how the characters from the first trilogy had aged and how that impacted the plot. Simon and Miri are old and grief-stricken from the loss of their son a few years prior to the events of the book, they seem almost unforgivably gullible to have not noticed all the trouble brewing around them – not a good quality for monarchs. Their grandson and heir Prince Morgan is utterly insufferable, he’s spoiled and petulant, and Simon and Miri don’t seem to know how to deal with him at all – everything they do is obviously going to fail, and I don’t know how they don’t realize that. I’m not saying this is bad writing, in fact it’s probably realistic that Simon and Miri aren’t going to be good at politicking or dealing with people that don’t have the inherent drive to be good (like Morgan), but it’s not very much fun to read about our old heroes being incompetent.

Other than those two (admittedly major) gripes, I thought The Witchwood Crown was a pretty good book. It’s certainly more nuanced the the original trilogy. I’m especially glad that the Norns are being given some definition and not just treated as faceless villains; between Tzoja, Nezeru, and Viyeki, we get a variety of perspectives into their culture and motivations. The prose is good, of course. And by the end of the book, I was intrigued by most of the plotlines enough to eagerly await the next book.  I hope it has better pacing and more competent characters, though.


The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams (The Last King of Osten Ard, #1)
DAW Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


Weekly Movie Reviews: Aug 6-12, 2017

I usually order the movies I review in descending order of how good I think they were. Unlike most weeks, this week’s movies were all really good, so take this order with a grain of salt.


Favorite Movie of the Week

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Hail Caesar! follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio executive and “fixer” at a movie studio in the 50s. As he considers a lucrative job offer with much saner hours and duties, Mannix has to deal with a dozen different impending disasters involving both issues with movie production and the personal lives of his contracted movie stars.

I used to not be big fans of the Coen Brothers (I know they’re incredible directors but I didn’t connect with a lot of their stories), but the more films I watch, the better I like them. Hail Caesar! is a lot of fun, especially for someone who watches movies as much as I do, it’s a real tribute to Hollywood. The cast is one of the best parts, even minor roles are played by terrific actors, and it includes George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and a lot more. Plus Alden Ehrenreich, who I’d never seen in anything before but now I’m a fan and I think he can actually play young Han Solo in the upcoming Star Wars movie (I’ve been skeptical about anyone being able to pull that off).

I liked pretty much everything about this movie – it was well-paced, well-acted, funny, had a great atmosphere, and had a lot of variety (I especially loved the musical that Channing Tatum’s character was filming). I thought George Clooney was especially amazing, he played a complete airhead so well that I kept forgetting who he was.

Other Movies Watched

Take Shelter (2011)

Curtis (Michael Shannon) starts to have intense dreams depicting an apocalypse and has to decide whether to protect his home and family or to seek treatment for mental illness. This movie was written/directed by Jeff Nichols (Loving, Midnight Special), who I was already a fan of before this movie cemented it. Most of the drama in this movie comes from Curtis’s internal state and Michael Shannon is amazing at generating real tension just from a facial expression. Jessica Chastain is great as Curtis’ wife as well. This isn’t relevant to most people but Take Shelter was set and filmed within 20 miles of where I live, there was even a scene filmed in a local Oberlin shop!

Matilda (1996)

I’ve seen Matilda before and I love the book it’s based on (and Roald Dahl’s writing in general), so this was a comfort-watch. Matilda is a young genius with an obnoxiously awful family who mostly just ignore her and make fun or her. When she’s finally allowed to go to school, she finds friends and a lovely teacher, but makes an enemy of the loathsome principal, Miss Trunchbull, who hates children and is happy to show it. At first Matilda is helpless but eventually discovers that she can fight back pretty effectively. The movie doesn’t exactly follow the book but it gets the spirit across and it’s one of my favorite book-to-movie adaptations. Danny DeVito is the director, the narrator, and the actor playing Matilda’s dad and does all three well.

The Descendants (2011)

After his wife is seriously injured in an accident, Hawaiian lawyer and land baron Matt King (George Clooney) must reconnect with his two daughters and come to terms with his less-than-ideal relationship with his wife. George Clooney is fantastic in pretty much everything he’s in, and he was the perfect person to play King, he imbues him with enough warmth and cluelessness that you can’t help but sympathize with him even as he tells you he’s been avoiding his family for years. The Descendants fits the pattern of quirky family dramedy quite well but it’s really great at it and I’m already looking forward to watching it again someday.

Rudo y Cursi (2008)

We are fans of Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna and decided to watch this movie purely because they both star in it (and it’s directed by Alfonso Cuarón’s brother). They play two brothers who work on a banana plantation until they are discovered by a talent scout and given the opportunity to become professional soccer players. Going into the glamorous world of soccer isn’t an easy thing though, and the siblings’ love/hate relationship only complicates matters. This is a witty comedy that finds humor in believable characters getting themselves into believable situations. It pokes fun at a lot of things – soccer, celebrities, corruption, gangsters, multi-level marketing, and more, and it’s all genuinely funny. Apparently this is one of Mexico’s highest grossing movies and I can see why.

Short Term 12 (2013)

After watching Room recently, I read that Brie Larson was cast on the strength of her performance in indie movie Short Term 12 so I wanted to watch it. Grace (Brie Larson) works at a residential treatment facility for troubled kids alongside her boyfriend. Her childhood was pretty screwed up and she’s able to relate to and form a good rapport with the kids that she supervises, but she still has issues reconciling with her own life. Short Term 12 is mostly flat and unpretentious and all the actors do a great job. I thought it captured the atmosphere of the facility well. I thought things wrapped up a little too neatly at the end given the messiness portrayed beforehand but that’s only a minor flaw.

Wild (2014)

Wild is based on the memoirs of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who set out to hike solo for over 1,100 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail after her marriage ends badly. Wikipedia describes this as a “survival” film, which brings to mind movies like 127 Hours or Everest, but this is nothing like those, it’s a story about self-discovery. Reese Witherspoon plays the main character and Laura Dern plays her mom; they both picked up Oscar nominations for their roles for good reason. I enjoyed the unique structure of this movie, we see pieces of Cheryl’s past as she thinks about them and they’re often not complete scenes. I thought it was a very natural way of showing what someone was thinking without seeming like exposition.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Jul 30-Aug 5, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Summer Wars (2009)

Summer Wars is the second movie by Mamoru Hosoda of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time fame. I wasn’t expecting it to be my favorite movie of the week after I watched it, but it’s grown on me and I like it even more in retrospect.

Kenji Koiso is a quiet high school student and math prodigy who is minding his own business when a school-mate asks him to travel to a remote town and accompany her to her family reunion to help with some things. It turns out that the thing she wants help with is pretending to be her fiancé (of course, it’s an anime). But they soon have bigger problems when an unknown hacker attacks the virtual world that much of the world’s infrastructure depends on and Kenji is framed for it.

Summer Wars is both cyberpunk and slice-of-life family drama and I never thought those two genres would be combined and even if they were, I didn’t think it would work so well. The movie is set in a rambling old estate and the scenery is gorgeous, but the virtual reality is a complete world as well. And all of the characters seem equally at home in both worlds. The family reunion scenes were painfully accurate and even though there were dozens of characters I never felt lost. The main arc of the story is a little predictable but who watches movies for the plot?

Other Movies Watched

Rudderless (2014)

Billy Crudup plays the grieving father of a college student who finds demo tapes of the music his son wrote and ends up forming a band. Rudderless is William H. Macy’s directorial debut and I’m looking forward to seeing more films from him; I thought it was a very poignant movie. Original music for a movie usually isn’t that memorable, but the music was consistently great – I would buy their CD. Billy Crudup shines in his role which is a good thing since the movie revolves around him (he has apparently stuck with the guitar since his role in Almost Famous). His primary band-mate is played by Anton Yelchin; he’s delightful as always but seeing him in a movie about the death of a young man was sad.

Wonder Boys (2000)

Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), an English professor and writer, is having a pretty bad day – his wife leaves him, he finds out that the chancellor of the university (Frances McDormand) is pregnant with his child but she’s married to the head of his department, his editor (Robert Downey Jr.) is in town to check on the progress of his manuscript, and one of his students (Tobey Maguire) just committed a crime that he’s an accomplice to. Wonder Boys is based on a Michael Chabon novel and it’s an excellent quirky character drama. I’m not sure why it’s not more well known – I only found out about it because the “Satan’s Alley” fake movie trailer in Tropic Thunder (starring Robert Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire) was based on their roles in this movie. It’s got heart, it’s funny (especially to me because I knew a few English majors at Oberlin), the cast is terrific.

The Song of Lunch (2010)

We watched this movie after Room because we really needed something else to watch to recover from how uncomfortable it was, and The Song of Lunch was less than an hour long. It’s an adaptation of a poem about a man meeting an old flame for lunch, starring Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. There’s not much dialogue, Alan Rickman reads the poem (it’s a monologue from his character’s point of view) as the scenes from it are acted out. I was skeptical of the whole concept, I thought it would be too artsy, but it was actually great. Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson can do no wrong and they knock this one out of the park.

Room (2015)

I’ve been simultaneously dreading and wanting to watch Room for a while. Five-year old Jack and his mother Joy have been confined to a single shed for all of Jack’s life; his mother was kidnapped when she was 17 and imprisoned ever since. Joy is determined to give him as normal of a life as she can and lets Jack believe that Room is the entirety of the world with every object in Room having its own story. Eventually they escape but adjusting to the real world proves to be harder than they thought. Room is a good movie but it’s really depressing, it does a good job of making you uncomfortable. Some of the things the characters did didn’t make sense to me, but it told a coherent story and balanced whimsy with the horrendousness of its situation well. I’m glad I watched it but I never want to see it again.

The Perfect Score (2004)

A diverse group of teenagers decide to break into the company that administers the SAT to steal answers for their upcoming retest. Along the way they realize that there are more important things than SAT scores (like finding someone to date). This movie is pretty predictable, but it’s got a good cast that includes Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson (now I know why Captain America and Black Widow get along so well in the Marvel movies; they apparently stole SAT questions together). It’s definitely trying to echo Breakfast Club vibes but it’s nowhere near as good. If you’re a fan of teen movies, definitely watch this, but if you’re someone that just watches a movie every few weeks, it’s probably not worth your time.

Reign of Fire (2002)

As a fan of fantasy, I was really excited about watching this movie – a post-apocalyptic world that’s being terrorized by dragons, Christian Bale, and Matthew McConaughey! Christian Bale plays the leader of a small settlement that’s just trying to survive, an impressively buff and head-shaven Matthew McConaughey plays the leader of an American military expedition to wipe out the dragons’ ability to reproduce. The movie just wasn’t very good, it was passable as a alien-invasion/monster type movie, but it did nothing unique with its premise at all – the worldbuilding was practically non-existent. Plus the characters weren’t very believable, they seemed to be driven entirely by what the plot needed them to do.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)

When motorcycle stunt driver Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) finds out he has a son, he’s determined to provide for him, even if it means robbing banks. Eventually he ends up in the path of rookie policeman Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). I think saying any more than that would be a spoiler, but even though The Place Beyond the Pines is about a criminal and a cop, it’s more like an epic family drama than anything else. It probably doesn’t deserve to be at the bottom of my list this week but I felt a little betrayed by it because it started off so well; it pulled me into its world and the mood it was setting. It reminded me a little of Drive or Hell or High Water – both of which were flat and not very dramatic, relying on their atmosphere and characters to make you care. Unfortunately, by the end, I felt like I was watching a soap opera and the movie’s tone seemed more pretentious than anything else. The acting was impressive though and I enjoyed the cinematography.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Jul 23-29, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Your Name (2016)

We’ve been working up to watching Your Name by watching all of Makoto Shinkai’s other movies first, and we’ve finally watched all of them! We actually ordered a 4K Blu-Ray of the movie from Amazon Japan since it won’t release here for a while and we’re not sure if it will be in 4K even when it does (side note: ordering from Amazon Japan is amazing, it got here in two days even though we selected regular non-expedited shipping).

Mitsuha, a high school girl living in rural Japan, and Taki, a high school boy living in Tokyo, have been having strange dreams of a life that’s not their own. Eventually they realize they are swapping bodies with each other at random and strike up a friendship by leaving messages on each others’ phones. I thought the entirety of the movie was going to be about the body swap (although I couldn’t imagine Shinkai just doing a plain high school hijinks movie), but there is a lot more to it.

Your Name is unquestionably a Shinkai film, there were things in it that reminded me of elements from every one of his previous movies. Unlike his previous work though, this one is very well-balanced. All of his movies have been good but I would describe them as melancholy or bittersweet whereas Your Name has a bit of everything – comedy, tragedy, drama, emotional moments – and does it all well. It’s currently the highest-grossing anime film of all time and I can definitely see why.

Other Movies Watched

Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001)

Amélie is a quirky French romantic comedy about a woman that decides to make the lives of those around her better but struggles to connect with people herself. It was one of the first movies I watched when I moved to the U.S. (I was used to Indian movies and remember being shocked that a movie could talk about orgasms so blatantly). I hadn’t seen it since then and I have been looking forward to seeing what I’d make of it when not so wide-eyed. It was just as good as I remembered it being, although I had a different perspective on most things. Pretty much everything about this movie is excellent, I can’t focus on any one aspect above the others, I loved it. Watch it!

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)

Makoto Konno is a teenager who inadvertently gains the power to go back in time. At first she uses her powers for frivolous things that improve her life – doing well at tests, avoiding embarrassing accidents and so on, but she soon realizes that her time leaps are affecting people around her as well, often in bad ways. I thought this movie was great, Makoto is a fantastic protagonist, she’s energetic, curious, tends to leap (often literally) before she looks. She was a lot more identifiable to me than most other Japanese characters; I especially liked that her two best friends were boys and it wasn’t portrayed as weird. I’ve always had a slight bias towards stories about the ramifications of time travel and this movie handles that very well. It ended up having more romance that I would have liked towards the end but I loved it anyway.

The Sea of Trees (2015)

I’ve been wanting to watch The Sea of Trees ever since I learned about Aokigahara and it’s reputation as a “suicide forest” in an anthology I read earlier this year. Matthew McConaughey plays Arthur Brennan, a suicidal American professor who travels to Aokigahara to end his life. He meets a Japanese man who has been lost in the forest for a couple of days and helps him search for a way out. I have mixed feelings about this movie, there’s a lot of good things about it – Matthew McConaughey’s acting, the beautiful cinematography, the stark and eerie atmosphere, but I felt let down by the end. I think the flashbacks to Arthur Brennan’s life before his trip to the forest were supposed to make me feel more sympathetic towards him but they bored me and took me away from the parts of the movie that I was enjoying.

Hitch (2005)

Alex “Hitch” Hitchens (Will Smith) is a consultant that helps men get noticed by the women they like. Despite dealing with love all day long, he’s happily single and intends to remain that way. Sara Melas (Eva Mendez) is a gossip columnist who is cynical about relationships, right up until she meets Hitch anyway. A standard romantic comedy ensues. I wouldn’t have wanted to see this movie if Will Smith wasn’t playing the protagonist, he’s charismatic and lovable in most things that he is in. The movie itself wasn’t that great and the characters seemed to be doing whatever the plot needed them to rather than being consistent, but I remained entertained.

Four Lions (2010)

Four Lions is a satirical comedy about four British Muslims who decide to become jihadists and commit an act of terror. I think this is actually a well-made and well-acted movie (it stars Riz Ahmed, who is terrific in everything that he is in) with great details (I especially liked how the South Asian characters kept switching to Hindi/Urdu), but I just wasn’t interested in what it wanted to say. It portrays the protagonists as incompetent and for the first two-thirds of the movie, we follow their escapades as they make blunder after blunder. I don’t usually enjoy movies whose sense of humor involves the audience laughing at how dumb people are (even if it’s about an edgy subject like terrorism) and I found it boring. The last third of the movie gets a bit exciting and has some heart, and I wished the entire movie had been that way.

Judge Dredd (1995)

I’ve never read any of the Judge Dredd comics, but I’m a big fan of the recent Dredd movie starring Karl Urban. I’d heard that the original movie starring Sylvester Stallone was pretty bad but I wanted to see it for myself. And yeah… it’s terrible. It’s a paint-by-numbers late 80’s/early 90’s sci-fi action movie, a bit like Robocop/Total Recall/Demolition Man, except that those movies are actually great. Dredd is a generic action hero without much personality. He’s got the pithy one-liners that people love to put in a certain kind of action movie and he occasionally says “I am the law!” and that’s about it. Even the actors seem to know they’re in a bad movie and don’t push themselves too much.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Jul 16-22, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Léon: The Professional (1994)

Unlike the rest of this week’s movies, I’ve watched Léon before so I feel slightly bad about giving it the favorite movie of the week, but it’s just so good! I’m a fan of Luc Besson in general, and although I haven’t seen some of his movies, this one has to be his masterpiece.

Léon (Jean Reno) is a professional assassin (or “cleaner”) who lives a ordered and quiet life in New York City. When a family living next door to him is murdered by corrupt DEA agents, he reluctantly takes in the sole survivor, precocious 12 year old Mathilda (played by 12 year old Natalie Portman in her debut). Léon is a little slow and not used to sharing his life with anybody and Mathilda is young and starved for emotional attention. They make an unlikely but deadly pair, especially after Mathilda persuades Léon to make her his apprentice.

It’s hard to describe what I like about this movie because everything about it is just right. The neo-noir atmosphere, the unconventional but compelling relationship between Léon and Mathilda, Gary Oldman’s over-the-top but terrifying performance as the villainous DEA agent Stansfield, Jean Reno’s subtle portrayal of Léon… I could go on for a while. Natalie Portman’s acting deserves special praise, though, she makes you simultaneously uncomfortable and want to take care of her.

Other Movies Watched

The Anthem of the Heart (2015)

Jun Naruse talked constantly when she was a child, but after innocently telling her mother about seeing her father with another woman leads to their divorce, she is cursed to not be able to talk without extreme pain. In high school, she’s a quiet girl with no friends, but that changes when her teacher appoints her to the committee putting on a community outreach event. The other three members of the committee slowly become her friends, especially a boy named Takumi. I loved this movie, I thought it was a fairly standard romance in the beginning, but it didn’t go where I expected it to go at all. Although this movie centers around Jun, all four teenagers have their own satisfying growth arcs. My husband is a big fan of the anime series’ that the writer of this movie is involved in so I’m going to have to check those out.

Easy A (2010)

To get out of spending the weekend with her friend and her weird hippie parents, high school student Olive Penderghast lies to her friend about having a date and losing her virginity. The rumor quickly spreads, and Olive soon finds herself in the business of pretending to have sex with her classmates and dealing with the consequences. I thought this movie was fantastic, it’s clearly inspired by John Hughes (and has several references to his movies), and it’s got a lot of heart. Emma Stone steals the show as Olive, she’s smart, charming, and pretty. Unlike a lot of teen movies, this isn’t about social acceptance or teen angst, Olive is someone who is perfectly happy with herself and she solves her own problems – I found that very identifiable.

The Garden of Words (2013)

We’re continuing to go through Makoto Shinkai’s movies, and this 45 min movie (is there a name for a movie that short? I’d call it a novella or a novelette if it was a book) was next on our list, and the last one before his new critically acclaimed movie, Your Name. It tells the story of a 15 year old boy and a 27 year old woman who become unlikely friends after meeting in the park. I think Shinkai is in his element when he’s focusing on just a couple of characters, and this is one of his best movies so far. The characterization is fantastic, not much happens in this movie, but the payoff rests on coming to terms with yourself and your feelings, rather than anything external.

True Grit (2010)

Fourteen year old Mattie Ross is determined to avenge her father’s death and hires the U.S. Marshal with the meanest reputation around, Rooster Cogburn, to hunt down the killer, hired hand Tom Chaney. LaBouef, a Texas Ranger who has also been hunting Chaney for a while joins them in their journey. I love Westerns and I’ve been on a bit of a Hailee Steinfield kick recently, so this movie was right up my alley. I’m not always a big fan of the Coen brothers’ style, they’re often flat and cold, but this doesn’t suffer from those flaws. The central trio (played by Hailee Steinfield, Jeff Bridges, and Matt Damon) are all excellent and even though the characters don’t often like each other, they still form a tight bond. I can’t believe Hailee Steinfield was only thirteen when this movie was made, her composure is admirable.

The Frighteners (1996)

The Frighteners is one of Peter Jackson’s pre-Lord of the Rings movies. Former architect Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) has gained the ability to see and communicate with ghosts after a car accident. He uses this to his full-advantage, getting his ghost friends to haunt rich people’s homes to drum up business for his paranormal consulting agency. But when a real monster starts killing people, Frank is the only one equipped to help, and he’s in way over his head. Any movie starring Michael J. Fox doing something that can be described as “hijinks” or “shenanigans” starts off at a pretty good place, and this movie definitely qualifies. It’s very campy and the actors seem to be having great fun with their parts (especially Jeffrey Combs, who I know from various iconic Star Trek roles but have never seen in a real movie before). Don’t expect it to be anything like the Lord of the Rings movies, though.

American Dreamz (2006)

American Dreamz is a satire centered around a TV show clearly based on American Idol. Hugh Grant plays British host/judge/producer Martin Tweed, Mandy Moore plays all-American contestant Sally who is prepared to do anything to win, Sam Golzari plays Omer, a member of a terrorist cell who loves showtunes and ends up being a contestant, and Dennis Quaid plays the President, whose chief-of-staff pushes him to judge an episode of the show to improve his public image. I’ve never seen American Idol, so some jokes probably went over my head, but most of the movie takes place outside of the show. It’s a mediocre movie, although sometimes it was pretty funny. Dennis Quaid’s quasi-George W. Bush was especially good. It’s also got some heart from Sam Golzari’s character, and Hugh Grant is lovable even when he’s a bastard, and those two made the movie somewhat better.

The Circle (2017)

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) gets a customer support job at the Circle, a technology company that’s kind of like Google and Facebook and Amazon combined. Its culture is insidious and soon starts to take over her life. This movie sounded terrible when I first heard about it, despite the impressive cast and Tom Hanks producing it. But as someone who writes software for the web professionally and is concerned about digital privacy issues, I had to see it. It was actually worse than I expected it to be, its tone does not work at all and it seems confused about the kind of story it wanted to tell – it shifts suddenly between being a satire, a thriller, a drama, a dystopian-future movie and so on. Emma Watson was not a good choice for the part of Mae (I loved her as Hermione but haven’t liked her in anything since) – she’s stiff and her accent is wrong (my husband had to tell me she was playing an American, I assumed she was a British expat), and she makes it impossible to connect to the character she’s playing. The rest of the cast is pretty good, but the movie is too bad for them to be able to save it.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Jul 9-15, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

No Way Out (1987)

Navy officer Tom Farrell (Kevin Costner) gets a new job as one of the aides of Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman). At around the same time, he starts a relationship with Susan Atwell (Sean Young), a beautiful woman who is unhappily involved with a powerful man. His work and personal lives collide violently when Susan is killed right after he leaves her house one night, and he is put in charge of the investigation to find her killer.

No Way Out is one of the best kinds of movies, it surprises you in a good way. You watch it and for most of it you think it’s a pretty average movie and that it’s a competent thriller but some of the things it’s doing just don’t make sense. You wish that writers would be a little more detail-oriented, but you’re used to movies that don’t get the details right. And then by the end, you realize that the wool’s been pulled over your eyes and the movie has used your expectations of it to hide its brilliance in plain sight. The story is not anything new, but the way it’s told is.

Kevin Costner does a fantastic job as Farrell – he’s intense but likeable, and I read somewhere that this was the movie that launched his career as a leading man. Gene Hackman is terrific as always, and Will Patton was amazing too, he really added subtlety to a character that could’ve easily been over the top.

Other Movies Watched

Get Shorty (1995)

Chili Palmer (John Travolta), a mobster/loan shark based in Miami flies to Hollywood to collect on a debt and decides to try to make a career out of producing films. He falls in with horror movie producer Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), who he’s also supposed to be collecting money from, and discovers that he has a natural aptitude for the movie business – it’s not so different from what he knows. I’m not entirely sure how to describe this movie, I guess it’s sort of an action-comedy and it’s pretty great. It’s got a dry sense of humor (which I love) and the characters are mostly just archetypes, but it makes the ridiculous look normal and even desirable. There’s murder, mayhem, and at least six different agendas in play at any given time, but it all works fantastically well. I’m looking forward to seeing the sequel, Be Cool where Chili takes on the music business.

Boys on the Side (1995)

Jane (Whoopi Goldberg), a perpetually unsuccessful musician, decides to move from New York to Los Angeles in the hopes that she will get better work there. She answers an advertisement from Robin (Mary-Louise Parker) who is looking for a driver to drive to San Diego with her. Along the way, they pick up Jane’s friend Holly (Drew Barrymore), and despite their initial differences, all three women become friends. The first half of this movie is a standard roadtrip movie (although self-aware, the characters even reference Thelma and Louise), and the second half turns into a more serious movie about friendship and consequences. It was a lot more heartfelt than I thought it would be and I would definitely recommend it, especially if you like movies like Steel Magnolias or even Singles or Reality Bites.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

I like that Hollywood is making more media influenced by anime (the excellent Pacific Rim, the upcoming Death Note), I’ve found that anime often tells stories with characters and ideas that other media rarely explores. Although I haven’t seen the original Ghost in the Shell movies and series, I’ve been looking forward to watching this movie. Scarlett Johansson plays an anti-terrorism officer, Major Mira Killian, who is the first person with an entirely manufactured body – only her brain is human. While tracking down a skilled hacker, she comes to realize that she may not be who she’s always believed herself to be. I enjoyed this movie, although I didn’t love it, its world felt a little too CG and generic. I also liked that the movie was set in Japan and it handled the issue of Scarlett Johansson playing an originally Japanese character very well.

Forever Young (1992)

After suffering a terrible loss, military test pilot Captain Daniel McCormick volunteers to undergo cryonic freezing as part of a top secret experiment. He is meant to be frozen for a year, but World War II breaks out and the experiment is mislaid as a result of the chaos, so he ends up accidentally being revived in the 90s instead. This is a pretty standard sci-fi movie of the era, complete with a cute kid and his family, a chase scene involving running from the government for no apparent reason, and a very convenient ending (also it was written by J.J. Abrams back when he was still credited as “Jeffrey Abrams”). The actors are great, though, and they make the movie seem better than it is – especially Mel Gibson as Daniel and Elijah Wood as the kid, Nat.

Barely Lethal (2015)

Hailee Steinfield plays Agent 83, a teenage spy and assassin who has been trained from birth as part of a secret government program. When she finally graduates and is sent on field missions, she uses her newfound freedom to watch teen movies and fantasize about high school, eventually faking her death to attend high school for real. Of course, high school is scarier than she thought it would be. This movie is all over the place, and if you think about the plot even a little, you’ll realize it makes no sense. But, Hailee Steinfield is a great actress, and her charisma makes this a pretty fun movie. And I did like the teenage boys’ absolute lack of personality other than being objects of desire, it was a nice subversion of the usual tropes (although I’m not sure if the movie did that intentionally or if it was just bad characterization).

Les Visiteurs (1993)

Les Visiteurs is a French movie starring Jean Reno and Christian Clavier as a 12th century knight and his servant who end up modern-day France after a spell goes wrong. I was excited to watch this movie, I’ve loved Jean Reno in everything I’ve seen him in, and I assumed this movie would be good because it had an American remake and a couple of sequels. I ended up being disappointed, though. It’s not like the movie is bad – I think it knows what it wants to do and does it well, but I don’t have the same sense of humor that it does. I think it’s somewhat realistic in that modern-day humans would in fact find people from the 12th century somewhat disgusting, but it’s a dedicated comedy and doesn’t actually examine any of that.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Jul 2-8, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Set It Off (1996)

Frankie Sutton is fired from her job as a bank teller after her bank is robbed by someone who she happened to know. After her efforts to find a new job fail due to the bank’s refusal to give her a recommendation, she ends up working at a janitorial service with her friends Stony, Cleo, and T.T. All four women need money for various endeavors but feel like they are stuck in a cycle of poverty that they can’t get out of. Eventually they decide to use Frankie’s inside knowledge and rob a bank so that they can make a better life for themselves.

Set It Off is directed by F. Gary Grey, who also did Friday and Straight Outta Compton. He’s really good at making his characters believable, and that’s in evidence here as well. This movie is not a heist or a caper, it’s a serious story about four women who truly believe that robbing a bank is the best option they have because they feel like they have tried everything else. I’ve seen comparisons to Thelma and Louise in various reviews, and yes, both movies have female friends committing crimes together, but Thelma and Louise were bored, not desperate.

Pretty much everyone in this movie gives a terrific performance, especially Vivica A. Fox, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, and Kimberley Elise as the four central characters. John C. McGinley’s cop character was portrayed almost as sympathetically as the main characters – they’re not really going up against each other, they’re going up against society.

Other Movies Watched

The Lost City of Z (2016)

The Lost City of Z is based on the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett and his search for an ancient lost city in South America. It takes a lot of liberties with the original events but it tells a captivating story. It’s set over almost two decades, following Fawcett as his fascination with his hypothetical city increases and how he struggles to balance it with the realization that his family feels like he has abandoned them. Charlie Hunnam does an excellent job as Fawcett, his portrayal is complex and nuanced, and I didn’t exactly like the character but I understood him. I wasn’t familiar with Fawcett’s story so the ending of the movie came out of nowhere, but I liked it after I got used to it.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011)

We’re going through Makoto Shinkai’s filmography fairly quickly (see last week’s reviews), and Children Who Chase Lost Voices is up next. After a boy named Shun saves schoolgirl Asuna from a monster and is found dead soon after, she and her teacher Mr. Morisaki make their way into the mythic land of Agartha, where it is said the dead can be brought back to life.  This movie is beautiful and it reminded me of several Ghibli movies (especially Castle in the Sky), both in its animation style and storyline. It’s well told, but it was a little too melancholy to be emotionally satisfying. Shinkai’s other films share the same melancholy but it works better in his more romance-focused films.

Warcraft (2016)

I was pretty excited about this movie because it’s directed by Duncan Jones (director of Moon and Source Code, which are both great sci-fi movies). And unlike Assassin’s Creed, the last video game movie I had high hopes for, it’s pretty darn good! I’ve never played any of the Warcraft games but I found the story compelling. A tribe of orcs fleeing their dying planet invade the world of Azeroth, and the king of Stormwind must figure out how to respond. The movie starts out from the orcs’ perspective and establishes that they’re just people too, with their own individual desires, and it keeps that theme throughout – both men and orcs have good and evil within them, and the conflict is not black and white. I would gladly watch a lot more movies set in this world if they were all this good.

I Am Not A Serial Killer (2016)

John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) is a teenager from a small Midwestern town. He’s a clinically diagnosed sociopath and he has a set of rules that he rigidly follows in order to keep himself from following his violent desires. But when a serial killer starts operating in his town, he has to do something about it, even if it means breaking all his own rules. I don’t usually watch a lot of movies with horror elements, but this is based on a book written by Dan Wells (who I know from speculative fiction writing podcast Writing Excuses). It ended up being a much better movie than I thought it would be; it seemed more like a drama than a horror movie, the protagonist isn’t constantly in danger, and even scenes that you think will end badly mostly end up being fine. Max Records (who is apparently the boy from Where the Wild Things Are) and Christopher Lloyd are both great in their roles, giving their characters humanity at the oddest moments. I’m not convinced that John is a sociopath, though; he might think he is, but he cares too much.

The Secret of My Success (1987)

Brantley Foster, a farm boy from Kansas, is determined to do well and rise quickly at his new job in New York City. When the job falls through at the last minute, the only work he can find is in the mailroom of Pemrose, the large corporation that his uncle manages. Undeterred, he vows to be successful and soon finds that the mailroom offers a lot more opportunities than he originally anticipated. The Secret of My Success was pretty funny, it reminded me of a screwball comedy from the 30s/40s, although it also had some slapstick and physical comedy. I find young Michael J. Fox irresistible, especially when he’s playing an upstart, and he makes it impossible to not like the movie.

Wild Wild West (1999)

Jim West (Will Smith), a cocksure Army officer/gunslinger is forced to team up with Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), a U.S. marshal/inventor/master of disguise to save President Ulysses S. Grant from an evil ex-Confederate inventor who was unhappy with how the Civil War turned out. I knew this movie was going to be terrible before we watched it so I was mostly watching it for the tropes and ridiculousness. I would never call it anything approaching a good movie, but it’s still got some enjoyable qualities. Kevin Kline is a great actor, and even though he’s underused here, he’s still got great comic timing. The genre of the movie was interesting too, it’s got some steampunk/weird Western elements to it, and I don’t think those were all that popular when the movie was made.

“Red Sister” by Mark Lawrence

This review of Red Sister is long overdue, I read it way back in April but never got around to reviewing it since I was already backlogged on reviews. Luckily, it’s one of the best books that I read this year and I still remember it very well.

Red Sister follows Nona Grey, a young girl accused of a heinous crime and sent away from her home. She ends up at the Convent of Sweet Mercy, where children with the right heritage are taught to be deadly killers and powerful mages. She finds more than just a place to live, she is truly challenged for the first time, she uncovers parts of her personality she never knew had and makes friends closer than family. But Nona’s considerable talents and violent past put her in the middle of long-simmering power struggles within the church and the empire, and she makes quite a few enemies as well.

This book is one of my favorite sub-genres of fantasy, the coming of age and training of the main character. Most of Red Sister is set entirely in the convent, which seems likes it could get boring fast but ends up being utterly riveting. Nona is a great protagonist –  she can be pretty intense at times which makes her both scary and vulnerable, she’s got an interesting backstory, and she reacts like a real person to the things that happen around her (unlike many fantasy characters). It is a pleasure to watch her slowly transform from a mistrustful and hurt young girl to the confident and formidable person that she is at the end.

The most unique thing about this book is the way it depicts female friendships. I can think of a bunch of different books that have great male friendships (Riyria’s Royce and Hadrian, the Gentemen Bastards’ Locke and Jean, to name a couple) but I really can’t think of many books that draw attention to women who are friends. Red Sister doesn’t just focus on them, it makes them the core of the book – Nona’s friendships drive her to grow, provide a source of tension (without melodrama), and make for some pretty heartwarming moments. Yes, there’s a lot of intrigue and action, but none of it would matter if we didn’t care about these relationships so much.

I also really liked the world that this book was set in. It reminded me of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth books – it’s a world that’s slowly dying, and the people living in it now that have access to technology but any understanding of how it all works has been lost for generations.  So far, the state of the world hasn’t made much of an impact on Nona’s life, but I assume it will become more relevant in the next two books.

I can’t wait for the next book, Grey Sister, to come out! At least I haven’t read most of Mark Lawrence’s other work, so I have something to tide me over.


Red Sister by Mark Lawrence (Book of the Ancestor, #1)
Ace Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“The Guns Above” by Robyn Bennis

I’ve been binge reading the Dresden Files for the last month, and whenever I read a long series that I get really into, I almost invariably dislike the next book I read because it can’t compare to the bond I’ve built with the characters I’ve spent so much time with recently. The Guns Above is one of those few books that put the “almost” in the previous sentence, because despite the odds, I really liked it.

Josette Dupre has just become the first female airship captain in the history of the Garnian military, promoted for her distinction in battle by direct order of the king. This doesn’t sit too well with the the general in charge of the ongoing war and her new command ends up being an untested and probably dangerous airship. To make matters worse, she is ordered to take the general’s nephew, Lord Bernat, along as an observer on her mission to and she knows that his job is to report her behavior unfavorably no matter what she does.

This book reminded me a lot of the Shadow Campaigns series by Django Wexler – they have a similar technology level (minus the airships), and both are about women who are soldiers above everything else. The airships and how they work are described in loving detail, and it helps make the world feel lived-in. The plot is fairly basic, but it feels exciting because there’s a lot of action that’s very well done and uses the airships in ways unique to their design.

I am often skeptical of steampunk books because I’ve read a few of them that are great about describing the technology and world, but don’t do a great job with the characters. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that characterization was one of this book’s biggest strengths. All the characters seem like normal people, admirable in some ways, deeply annoying in others, and very relatable overall. Bernat is an insufferable jerk and never really ceases being one, but the author somehow manages to make him lovable somehow. Josette is witty, courageous, and determined to a fault, but the flip side of that is that her single-mindedness makes her pretty scary and/or mean on occasion. And even though she is relentless in the air, she’s still vulnerable when facing people with the power to take away what she loves. Both Josette and Bernat are both viewpoint characters, which is fun because for most of the book, they’re never more than a few feet from each other and so we’re getting wildly different perspectives on the same events in real time.

The Guns Above is the first of a series, but you wouldn’t know that from the ending, it tells a complete story without any cliffhangers. And it’s a debut novel, which I wouldn’t have guessed from how polished it is. I’ll definitely be reading further books in the series.


The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis (Signal Airship, #1)
Tor Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows” by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is not my usual genre, but one of my reading goals this year was to diversify my reading by reading at least ten fiction books that were not science fiction or fantasy When I saw it on the LibraryThing Early Reviewers list, I requested it because I’m interested in the Indian diaspora and I figured it would help get closer to my non-genre fiction goal (I’m doing terribly, including this one, I’ve read two so far this year).

Contrary to the title, this book is not erotica (although it does contain some). Nikki, a young British woman from a Punjabi family, works part-time as a bartender (to the consternation of her family) while she figures out what she wants to do with her life. To earn some extra money, she signs up to teach creative writing at the local Sikh community center. Due to a miscommunication, her students (mostly widows who are not expected have a social life) show up expecting to learn basic English skills. The class seems like it is heading into disaster but when Nikki’s students accidentally find a book of erotica that she bought as a joke, the ice is broken and the class transforms into a space where her students feel comfortable expressing ideas normally deemed taboo.

I didn’t know anything about the Sikh community of Southall, and the author does a good job of setting the atmosphere and making it feel like a whole world unto itself that I was interested in learning more about. The book alternates between the point of view of Nikki, who is modern/easy to relate to and Kulwinder (the woman who hired her), who is more traditional.  This helps readers understand Nikki’s students better as well since we have an outside perspective about the same events that Nikki is reacting to.

I didn’t find Nikki to be a compelling protagonist, I couldn’t get a sense of who she was as a person. She doesn’t have a lot of agency, most of the book is just her reacting to events happening around her. Even the evolution of her class is pretty much entirely driven by her students, I didn’t see what she contributed to it. I’m also not a big fan of romantic subplots unless they’re done very well, and the one in this book was fairly generic, and it had a bunch of drama around my least favorite trope – people refusing to talk to other people. Actually, the rest of the drama around Nikki’s students wasn’t very interesting, either, mainly because the characters didn’t draw me in enough to care what their secrets were. However, Kulwinder’s story and growth arc brought the book up a notch, it’s a little melodramatic but she’s a more unique character and that helps.

The book is interspersed with examples of erotica produced by Nikki’s class, which also helps liven the book up a bit and provides some humor. Overall, I thought this was a pretty decent book, although I didn’t love it.


Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
William Morrow, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.