“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.


Weekly Movie Reviews: Jun 25-Jul 1, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

I was excited to watch The Edge of Seventeen because it got great reviews. Going into a movie with a lot of hype usually leads to disappointment regardless of how good it is, but there are rare occasions where a movie manages to live up to your expectations. Fortunately, this was one of those occasions.

The tagline for this movie is “You’re only young once… is it over yet?”, which pretty much sums it up. Nadine (Hailee Steinfield) is a high school junior who already finds her life unbearable enough – her dad has been dead for a few years, her mom is self-involved and doesn’t care about her problems, her brother is handsome and popular and can’t understand what she’s going through, and she has a crush on somebody who doesn’t seem to know she exists. To make things worse, her best (and only) friend starts dating her older brother so now she doesn’t have any friends either.

The plot of this movie doesn’t really matter. It’s a coming of age story, but what makes it unique is the visceral exploration of what it’s like to be a teenage girl and it does a better job of it than any other movie I’ve seen. The combination of thinking the world revolves around you but being crippled by self-esteem issues, the constant need to define your identity, post-pubescent hormones that you haven’t gotten used to yet pushing you in directions you would never normally go – I didn’t think they could be represented in film so well. The credit goes to both Hailee Steinfield and writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig (in her directorial debut), and I expect even greater things from both in the future.

Other Movies Watched

5 Centimeters per Second (2007)

Makoto Shinkai is one of Japanese animation’s most famous names – Wikipedia describes him as a “director, writer, producer, animator, editor, cinematographer, voice actor, manga artist and former graphic designer”. We’ve been meaning to watch all of his movies, but the recent release of the critically acclaimed Your Name pushed us into action. We’re watching the movies in the order they were released, and 5 Centimeters per Second is his third film. It’s only an hour long and it’s a series of three connected short films set a few years apart and focusing on a boy named Takaki as he grows up. It’s a bittersweet story and it pulled me in emotionally without me noticing until the end. I highly recommend it.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Romeo + Juliet was one of the earliest movies my husband and I tried to watch together, but I wasn’t a fan of movies back then and found it too cacophonous and overwhelming. It is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, set in modern California with a soundtrack of modern songs. The dialogue, however, is not modern – it all comes directly from the play, sometimes interpreted quite creatively. The Montagues and the Capulets are reinterpreted as bitterly feuding Mafia families, the weapons are guns with brand names like “Sword” and “Dagger”, and so on. Romeo and Juilet are played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, and I can’t think of better casting than that, especially in the mid-90s. The whole movie rests on them, and they’ve both been fantastic actors ever since they were young, they make the archaic dialogue sound completely natural. It’s still a pretty cacophonous and overwhelming movie, but it’s also brilliant.

Big Night (1996)

Stanley Tucci co-wrote, co-directed (in his directorial debut), and starred in this movie about two Italian brothers Primo and Secondo (played Tony Shalhoub and Tucci, respectively) who organize a big party involving a famous musician in a bid to save their failing restaurant. I thought this would be one of those feel-good indie dramas, but it’s not really about the restaurant, it’s a serious exploration of the immigrant experience (the movie is set in the 1950s) and the relationship between the brothers. Primo is fiercely proud of his cuisine, his culture, and his talents, whereas Secondo is more pragmatic and tries to integrate into American life a little more. Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci both do a fantastic job, and the rest of the cast (including great actors like Ian Holm, Allison Janney, Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini, and co-director Campbell Scott) are excellent too. Also, if you look closely, you can spot a young Liev Schreiber in one of his earliest roles.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)

This is Makoto Shinkai’s second movie (and first full-length movie) after his solo effort Voices of a Distant Star. It’s set in an alternate history where Japan was divided into two occupation zones – Russian and American. We follow three friends, Hiroki, Takuya, and Sayuri in the American zone who are captivated by a tall tower on the Russian side and promise each other to fly to it to see what it is. When Sayuri disappears one day without saying goodbye, Hiroki and Takuya grow apart and abandon their promise, but three years later, Takuya can’t just let it go. The only complaint I had about this movie was that the pacing was a little slow. After we watched it, my husband described it as “a mix of Studio Ghibli and Evangelion”, and I think that’s spot on (in a good way). The plot and the younger versions of the characters reminded me of a lot of Ghibli movies, especially since it centered so much on flying, and the worldbuilding and older versions of the characters seemed like they could fit comfortably in the Evangelion mythos.

Hollywood Homicide (2003)

Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett play LAPD detectives investigating the murder of a up and coming hip hop group in a crowded club. This is a pretty standard buddy cop comedy and it pokes fun at cops, LA culture, the entertainment business, and so on. Harrison Ford’s character is a real estate agent and Josh Hartnett’s character is a yoga teacher/aspiring actor, and they both have a little bit of trouble keeping their off-duty lives out of their jobs. I was hoping that director Ron Shelton would make this movie as engrossing as his sports films, but, despite being fun, it turned out to be fairly unmemorable. Maybe I would have been more impressed with this movie if I hadn’t seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys, but Shane Black fills this niche way better.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

I knew before we watched this that the Austin Powers movies weren’t really my type, but they’re a cultural phenomenon and I wanted to get around to watching them someday. If for some reason you haven’t heard of them, they’re James Bond spoofs (based mostly on the 60s Bond movies, with a healthy dose of hippie culture mixed in), written by and starring Mike Myers (in multiple roles). I’m glad we watched a bunch of the Connery Bond movies before watching this, I got a lot more of the jokes. But overall, the humor is pretty crude and much of it comes from taking a joke so far that it’s so much past the point of not even funny anymore that it’s supposed to become funny again, I guess. I’m glad I watched it because now I can get references to it, and we’ll probably watch the other two movies eventually, but not because they’re good.

I would have put this below Michael on the list based on enjoyment, but at least this movie knew exactly what it wanted to be and succeeded, whereas what Michael wanted to be was unfathomable.

Michael (1996)

This is a terrible, terrible movie about two tabloid reporters who investigate a claim that the archangel Michael has been living in Iowa for a few months. To their surprise, it turns out to be true, but the real Michael is hardly angelic – he chain smokes, he picks up women everywhere he goes, and he’s played by John Travolta. For some reason when I watched this movie, i almost felt like I was watching a movie from an alternate Earth where everyone was operating under a different set of assumptions than our Earth, but I can’t be more specific than that the movie felt off somehow. The actors do a fine job with the material they have, and I know Nora Ephron is a good director usually, but this was a dud.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Jun 18-24, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Two Days, One Night (2014)

I’m not sure where I heard about this Belgian movie (Deux jours, une nuit), but it’s been on our list for a while. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a woman about to go back to work after medical leave for depression. She finds out that her boss asked her colleagues to vote to choose between firing her and receiving a bonus, and they chose the bonus. Her boss agrees to hold the vote a second time, and she has one weekend to persuade her colleagues to change their vote.

From reading the description, I thought this was going to be a comedy-drama, but it turned out to just be a drama, and much better than I thought it would be. Sandra is still dealing with her depression and anxiety, and going around persuading people to give up money so that she can still have her job is not something that is particularly helpful to her mental state. Marion Cotillard was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her work in this movie (despite it being a foreign film that wasn’t nominated for any other Oscars) and she does a great job of putting you in Sandra’s headspace – it’s not the most comfortable thing but makes her infinitely relatable. The rest of the characters in the movie also seem like realistic people, and you think you’re just watching people react to each other in a uncomfortable situation, but by the end, a satisfying story has sneaked up on you.

I found out while doing research for this review that the directors, the Dardenne brothers, are well-known for making great movies, and I will definitely be watching more of their work.

Other Movies Watched

Genius (2016)

Genius tells the story of the relationship between famed editor Max Perkins (who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway) and idiosyncratic author Thomas Wolfe. Perkins recognizes genius in Wolfe’s long, rambling work, and he is willing to put in the time and effort to publish it, and the two of them embark on a profitable (but sometimes all-consuming) partnership. Colin Firth is great at playing dependable and reassuring characters, and he’s in his comfort zone playing Perkins. Jude Law is also well-cast as the charming, manic, selfish, incorrigible Wolfe – he’s played similar characters before (like Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley). I loved that this movie was about writing books, and a lot of the best scenes were about the business of editing and figuring out what words made sense. I’m probably biased there, but even if you don’t love books more than anything, it’s still a solid historical drama.

Twister (1996)

Twister follows a group of storm chasers led by about-to-divorce couple Bill and Jo Harding as they try to launch some new instrumentation into a tornado. It is described as a “disaster film” on Wikipedia, but I don’t really think the term applies since the protagonists actually want to be where they are – it’s not something they are unwittingly caught up in. I’ve watched this movie before, and it still holds up. I particularly love Helen Hunt’s character Jo, who plays a smart and competent (if somewhat obsessive) scientist – I think she’d get along well with Ellie Arroway from Contact. She’s also got great chemistry with Bill Paxton, and it makes you actually invested in their relationship. Some of the movie is a little cheesy, but it’s mostly just fun with a group of lovably eccentric characters.

The Constant Gardener (2005)

I’ve enjoyed the other movies I’ve seen based on John le Carré’s books (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Tailor of Panama), they are quiet and thoughtful spy movies with interesting characters. The Constant Gardener is in that same vein and did not let me down. Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a British diplomat living in Kenya. When his wife is killed in suspicious circumstances, he tries to find the perpetrators while reexamining their relationship and the things she kept from him. It’s as much a movie about a relationship as it is about a conspiracy, and both are very well done. Ralph Fiennes is fantastic as Quayle, the setting of Kenya seems more authentic than other movies and lends a great atmosphere, and the storytelling is slow but powerful.

American Ultra (2015)

Jesse Eisenberg stars in this movie about Mike Howell, a small-town stoner who is (unknown to himself) a product of a failed CIA experiment to produce covert operatives. When the CIA decides that he is a liability and needs to be exterminated, he proves to be a hard person to kill as all his old skills kick in. This is a pretty ridiculous and over-the-top movie, but it’s also a lot of fun. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart (who plays his girlfriend) play the stoner couple to perfection, and their chemistry keeps things grounded even when everything is exploding around them. American Ultra reminded me a little bit of Zombieland – it’s has a similar tone of campy/goofy/scary with actually likeable characters.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

We’re slowly but surely going through all the famous buddy cop movies of the 80s, and Beverly Hills Cop was next. Eddie Murphy plays Detroit cop Axel Foley who visits Beverly Hills on “vacation” to try and solve the murder of his friend. Foley is a talented detective but he’s also willful and has a problem with authority, so he runs afoul of the local law enforcement pretty quickly – until he actually finds something, anyway. Eddie Murphy has great comic timing and makes Foley lovable instead of obnoxious, and the rest is a pretty typical buddy cop type movie. Also, I’ve been familiar with the “Axel F” theme from the soundtrack for over a decade, and I finally got to see where it came from!

Dune (1984)

I read Dune a long time ago, and as much as it hurts to admit it as a die hard science-fiction fan, I didn’t like it very much, despite its classic status. I did enjoy the worldbuilding, though, so I was cautiously looking forward to watching this movie. We follow Paul Atreides (played by Kyle MacLachlan), a young man from a noble family, as he overcomes his circumstances as the victim of a conspiracy and eventually rises to greatness. It’s a pretty weird movie, the characters aren’t quite relatable (they were faithful to the book in this regard), and the set and character designs can be pretty uncomfortable. It is unique though, and I’d happily watch more movies in this universe if they had made any.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Jun 11-18, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Ocean Waves (1993)

Ocean Waves was the only Studio Ghibli movie that I hadn’t seen – it was made for television and didn’t involve any of the big Ghibli names, but still. We were going to watch it a few months ago, but realized that it was being released in Blu-Ray in the U.S. soon, so we decided to wait for it.

Taku Morisaki is on his way back to his hometown of Kōchi for his high-school reunion. On the flight, he reminisces about his high school days, and in particular, his friendship with Yutaka Matsuno and Rikako Muto (who he thought he glimpsed at the train station earlier). Most of the story is told via flashback, although there is some present-day story as well (similar to Only Yesterday).

The movie is well-made and tells a heartwarming story. I’d read various reviews saying that this movie wasn’t as good as the other Ghibli movies, but I think it’s still pretty darn good. The animation style is a little different, and it doesn’t fit Miyazaki or Takahata’s styles exactly (this was the first Ghibli movie not directed by one of them), but it has a little bit of Miyazaki’s warmth and Takahata’s focus on ordinary people. I also really liked the protagonist, he was unusually outspoken and that endeared him to me.

Other Movies Watched

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot stars Tina Fey as Kim Baker (based on Kim Barker, who wrote the memoir the movie was adapted from), a rookie journalist sent to Afghanistan in 2003 to cover the war there. At first, she is overwhelmed by culture shock but soon manages to carve a niche for herself. I assumed this movie would be more like War Machine – mostly comedic, but it actually had quite a bit of heart, helped along by the always lovable Martin Freeman. It reminded me a little bit of The Hurt Locker, which also deals with how the weirdness of the War on Terror changes people. Tina Fey is perfect for the role of Baker, awkward and uncomfortable with herself at first, eventually growing into someone formidable.

 Cop Car (2015)

Two kids find a seemingly abandoned police car in the middle of nowhere and decide to take it for a spin. However, the car isn’t actually abandoned, and the local sheriff who owns it (played by Kevin Bacon) is willing to go to any length to get it back. Cop Car is a quiet movie with a small cast of characters, but it packs a lot of punch. It’s got a great atmosphere, set in a bleak, dusty town in the middle of nowhere. It’s well-paced and trusts its audience to a degree that most films don’t  – it’s intensely focused on the current situation and lets you fill in all the backstory on your own with only a few hints. The two kids who play the protagonists do a great job, too.

Play It to the Bone (2000)

I’m not a big sports fan, but watching Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham and Tin Cup made me way more interested in baseball and golf, respectively. So, I was excited to watch this movie about Cesar (Antonio Banderas) and Vince (Woody Harrelson), professional boxers and best friends who are about to face each other in the ring for the first time. The entire movie is set over a single day as the two friends drive to Las Vegas for the match, so it’s both a boxing movie and a roadtrip movie. As I expected, Shelton’s direction makes the boxing far more engrossing that I would’ve expected, grounding it with some great character development ahead of time. However, I wasn’t a huge fan of the character of Grace, the woman who drives Cesar and Vince to Las Vegas, and has dated both of them – she seemed too much like Annie from Bull Durham, but not as good.

Imperium (2016)

Nate, a young (and somewhat nerdy) FBI agent, is recruited to go undercover and join a white supremacist group suspected of stealing some radioactive material. This movie isn’t that good but Daniel Radcliffe gives a fantastic performance. I still kind of think of him as either Harry Potter or someone who plays weird/shifty characters (see Now You See Me 2 and The Gamechangers), but he’s really believable as an American FBI agent playing things straight. The movie is somewhat cliched, but I did appreciate its attempts to cause some conflict for Nate by showing that white supremacists are people too, and you can find things to like about them just like everyone else (like sharing a love of classical music). It’s nowhere near as good as American History X, though.

Minions (2015)

After watching the two Despicable Me movies, we had to watch Minions. I expected it to be flashy and fun, but pretty shallow, and that’s exactly what it ended up being. It’s set a few decades before the other movies, when the Minions come out of hiding to try and find a new master to serve. Their first choice is Scarlet Overkill, the first female supervillain, and they are thrilled when she accepts them into their service. But when their first mission goes wrong, she turns out to be a terrible master. Summarizing this movie isn’t easy, when I think back to the plot, it doesn’t really make any sense – it’s definitely a movie made just for kids and not both kids and adults. But it’s entertaining enough while you’re watching it, so I guess that’s good.

The 5th Wave (2016)

Chloe Grace Moretz stars in this movie about a teenage girl trying to find her younger brother after a catastrophic alien invasion. The 5th Wave is a solid entry into the teen post-apocalyptic movie genre (e.g. Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games) and it’s not very good, but my husband and I both love the melodramatic teen drama genre for whatever reason, so we enjoyed watching it. It has all the hallmarks of the genre: two love interests, one who is brooding and mysterious, and the other who is cute/boy-next-door, teenage soldiers fighting, a surprising lack of adults making decisions, characters needing to use basic survival skills even though there’s advanced technology, and so on.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Jun 4-10, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

I first heard about Hunt for the Wilderpeople when I was reading about the upcoming Thor movie, which is also directed by the same person (Taika Waititi). I was excited about it from the minute I read about it – I’ve been enjoying non-American movies more and more recently, and it seemed like it would be an enjoyable kind of quirky.

Ricky Baker is a orphan with a history of getting into trouble, and the only family that will foster him live out on a remote farm. To his surprise, his foster mother is kind and patient, and he’s actually found a real home – at least until she dies suddenly. Now child welfare services wants him back, and through some unfortunate circumstances, he ends up on the run with his curmudgeonly foster father Hector (Sam Neill) in the bush. His child welfare services offer, Paula, takes his escape personally, and a intense manhunt commences.

This movie reminded me a little bit of Moonrise Kingdom, although without all the Wes-Anderson-ness. It’s funny and cute and full of heart, and the actor who plays Ricky is amazing. Sam Neill hasn’t really gotten that much better with children than he was in Jurassic Park, but that’s exactly why he’s so good in this role. I highly recommend this one!

Other Movies Watched

Akeelah and the Bee (2006)

Akeelah Anderson has always been great at spelling, although she tries to hide how smart she is from her classmates because she’s afraid of being bullied. Her teachers and principal notice her talent and push her to compete in regional spelling bees to have a shot at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. I liked this movie a lot – it’s a typical underdog story, but I found it a more realistic portrayal that similar movies. Akeelah has to overcome her own self-doubt and embrace her ability and who she actually is rather than trying to fit in. The cast is great too – Angela Bassett plays the mom and Laurence Fishburne plays the curmudgeonly mentor, but Keke Palmer absolutely steals the show as Akeelah.

Run Lola Run (1998)

I remember enjoying this movie when I first watched it more than eight years ago but I didn’t remember any details about it. I’m always fascinated by the idea of little decisions having a big impact on how things turn out, and Run Lola Run is probably one of the movies that examines this best. After receiving a panicked call from her boyfriend, a small-time criminal, Lola has 20 minutes to acquire 100,000 marks and get them to him to prevent his boss from killing him (literally). The movie shows us three iterations of her 20 minute run and how each turns out. It’s a fast-paced movie, there are a lot of details to pay attention to (as is often the case with this kind of story), and it’s just very well done. Watch it!

The Nice Guys (2016)

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang writer/director Shane Black is back again with another black comedy neo-noir buddy cop movie set in Hollywood, and it’s almost as good. PI Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and enforcer Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe) encounter each other (violently) while investigating different angles on the same case and eventually decide to team up. This movie is set in the 70s, and that’s actually a big part of its atmosphere – it doesn’t happen to be set in the 70s, that fact defines its identity. The comedic elements are funny and the characters have heart, especially thanks to March’s (precocious, of course) daughter Holly. I would have liked it more if it had been a little bit more serious, but it’s still a good movie.

Despicable Me (2010)

I wasn’t expecting a lot from Despicable Me based on the trailers, but it turned out to be surprisingly good. Our protagonist is Gru, an aging supervillain who is trying to pull off the biggest heist of his life. In order to retrieve the shrink ray (needed for the heist) that a rival supervillain stole from him, he adopts three young girls from a nearby orphanage. They turn out to be more than he bargained for, and his whole life turns upside down. The three girls are absolutely adorable, and it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with them. Without them, the movie wouldn’t be anywhere near as good, even with all the great voice actors.

Despicable Me 2 (2013)

Newly retired supervillain Gru and his three adorable daughters are back. Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League as an undercover agent to foil a dastardly plot involving a serum that turns anything that drinks it into ravening monsters. In addition, he also has to deal with eccentric AVL agent Lucy Wilde, his daughter Margo’s first crush on an entirely unsuitable boy, and the resignation of longtime employee Dr. Nefario. These movies aren’t deep, but they’re cute and a lot of fun. I particularly liked Dr. Nefario’s role in this one. Lucy annoyed me in the beginning, but she grew on me by the end.

War Machine (2017)

War Machine is a satirical look at the war in Afghanistan through the eyes of General Glen McMahon, who is sent to command the NATO forces and help “win the war”. It is a thankless job in a very complicated situation, but McMahon is idealistic to a fault and believes that he can really make a difference. I wanted to like this movie more than I did – the actors do a good job, especially Brad Pitt, who plays the protagonist. Ultimately it seemed directionless and more like a farce than a satire – everything is so over the top that it doesn’t end up saying anything consequential.

Weekly Movie Reviews: May 28-Jun 3, 2017

The Fighter (2010)

I’ve enjoyed director David O. Russell’s other movies (Three Kings, American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, Joy) quite a bit, so I was pretty excited about watching this movie. I was not disappointed.

The Fighter is biographical sports movie about boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). Micky is managed by his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) and trained by his half-brother, former professional boxer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). As he keeps ending losing the fights they secure for him, he realizes that he needs to choose between his career and his family, as painful as that may be.

As usual, Christian Bale steals every scene he’s in as the crack addicted Eklund who spends his days making trouble and talking up his former glory. This is really Mark Wahlberg’s movie though, and he’s great at playing the sympathetic underdog. I also liked that the movie ended on a high note without losing any complexity – often movies that deal with family conflict end up being too saccharine and neat, but this wasn’t one of those.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Winter’s Bone stars Jennifer Lawrence (in her breakout role) as Ree, a tough teenager from a poverty-stricken family who needs to find her missing father in order to avoid her family being evicted from their home. It makes total sense why she was cast as Katniss in the Hunger Games movies after this performance, her character in this movie is very similar (dealing with poverty, taking care of her family because her mother has checked out mentally, willing to do whatever it takes to keep her family safe). It does pack a lot more punch because this seems like a real story set in our world, and it’s scary to be exposed to a world of such uncertainty and loss. This isn’t always a pleasant movie to watch, but it’s well worth it.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

This movie tells the story of Ron Woodroof, an electrician who contracted AIDS, and his business (the titular Dallas Buyers Club) which helped make medication that hadn’t gone through the long FDA approval process available to dying patients. Matthew McConaughey (who plays Woodroof) and Jared Leto (who plays trans woman and fellow AIDS patient Rayon) absolutely steal every scene that they are in. The movie reminded me a little bit of Erin Brockovich in its style and tone, although the content is very different. I also appreciated that the movie wasn’t on a crusade for one side or another, it did not portray what Ron was doing as noble or purely altruistic. Ron is definitely the protagonist and he believes in what he’s doing, but it also shows the other side, such as Ron having medical issues because of untested new drugs.

127 Hours (2010)

Based on a true story, 127 Hours is about canyoneer Aron Ralston who was trapped by a falling boulder for over 5 days and ended up cutting off half his arm to escape. It’s a pretty intense and sometimes unpleasant movie, but it’s very good. James Franco plays Aron Ralston and he gives one of the best performances of his career. Director Danny Boyle has the tough job of making a movie about a guy who doesn’t move for over five days interesting, and he rises to the challenge with aplomb. He uses memories and hallucinations (which the real Ralston describes as highly accurate) to keep things paced well, and he utilizes interesting techniques like split screens to keep your attention focused. This movie might make you queasy if you’re squeamish, but it’s definitely worth a watch.

Chronicle (2012)

I’d heard great things about Josh Trank’s debut, Chronicle, for a very long time but we only just got around to watching it. It’s a found footage movie about three high school boys that find a mysterious object in an underground cave and end up getting superpowers. It ends up being a somewhat typical superhero movie, but the perspective it’s told from makes it unique. I was hoping it would end up being more of a coming of age story that happened to involve superpowers, I think that would have made it even better. That’s not the route it took, but it’s still a terrific and original film.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

This movie is based on the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York socialite who was a terrible but beloved singe who gave many performances, including one at Carnegie Hall. Meryl Streep plays the main character with pathos (and picked up her 20th Oscar nomination for it). Her Florence is sad and somewhat delusional, but she’s also passionate and generous and you can see why so many people are willing to lie to her just to see her happy. Hugh Grant is also terrific in his role as Florence’s husband – they have a complicated relationship and he makes it look easy. The end of the movie was a little too dramatic for my taste and seemed to undermine the characters it had built up, but overall I enjoyed the movie.

Public Enemies (2009)

I was sure I’d like this movie since Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) directed it, but I found myself underwhelmed. Johnny Depp plays famed bank robber John Dillinger and Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent tasked with tracking him down. The acting was good, and the movie was clearly made with attention to detail, but I couldn’t get invested in either of the main characters and I didn’t care what happened to them. The ending seemed to want me to feel a lot of emotions that the rest of the movie failed at setting up. The most compelling character was Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie, played by Marion Cotillard but the movie is not really about her.

“The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North

Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope become an unexpected favorite of mine and I’ve been looking forward to reading more by her. It seems like she writes about people with extraordinary abilities living in the modern world (under her Claire North pen name, anyway, I haven’t read her other work), and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August also follows that pattern.

Harry August is what’s known as a kalachakra or an ouroboran – whenever he dies, he ends up being reborn as the exact same person in the exact same time, and he repeats his life over and over again. As the name of the book implies, we follow Harry through his first fifteen lives. It’s written like a memoir, it’s in first person, and tends to jump around all over the place, just like a person telling a story.

One of the things I loved about both The Sudden Appearance of Hope and this book is the way that the person’s abilities are explored. I’ve read/watched many, many books and movies about people with unique abilities, and almost no one is portrayed as using them in a realistic way, and the psychological implications of the powers are rarely explored, too. Other than these Claire North books, the only other portrayal that makes sense to me is Steven Gould’s Jumper series. The Cronus Club and the kind of amenities they provide for their members, and most of the the ways that Harry spends his lives make total sense – I could see myself doing that, too.

Even though Harry August is special, the book is not really about that, it’s a fairly simple story with a fantastic backdrop. I don’t want to say more about the overall plot because the slow reveal is part of what makes the book great. The first half of the book seems to be Harry just recollecting random snippets of his lives, but it all falls into place in the second half. That made for a focused and tight story, which I did enjoy but part of me also wished the whole book was Harry just talking about his various lives without much of a point because that was so interesting too.

I’m excited that I have two more Claire North novels to go – Touch and The End of the Day. And after that, maybe I’ll start reading her Catherine Webb and Kate Griffin books!


The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Redhook, 2014 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“The Summer Dragon” by Todd Lockwood

Todd Lockwood is one of my favorite fantasy/science-fiction illustrators, and I especially love the covers that he did for the Memoirs of Lady Trent series (which are all about dragons – see here and here for cover images!) When I found out that he was writing a new fantasy series featuring dragons, I was pretty excited to read it.

Growing up on a dragon aerie, Maia has long looked forward to having a dragon of her own, and this might be the year. She’s old enough to start training a dragon, and there are more dragons qits than are needed to fill the usual government quota – even if they are at war. The routine yearly visit from the Dragonry to pick up their qits gets complicated when Maia sees the Summer Dragon, a symbol of an ancient faith suppressed by the empire. And to make things worse, the empire’s enemies are targeting aeries, so Maia’s home has suddenly become a dangerous place to be.

It took me a while to get into this book (as with most books written from a first-person perspective), but I ended up liking it quite a bit. Maia is a terrific protagonist, she’s smart, stubborn, and brave. Her stubbornness drives much of the story, and sometimes it makes her a little bit insufferable, but that’s okay because most people are. We see all the other characters from her perspective so they’re not as developed as her, but they’re still fairly nuanced. Some characters seem like standard archetypes at first but end up surprising you later.

I enjoyed the worldbuilding, there are layers of history that all interact with each other in a realistic way, and that makes the world feel lived in, rather than just being there to support the story. There’s a lot of political intrigue, which I love in fantasy, and I thought it was well done here. The plot is mostly predictable, but there are a couple of interesting turns that I didn’t see coming. One of the things I appreciated was that even though the book featured a teenage protagonist growing up in an isolated area of the world, Maia didn’t actually have to leave home or go on a long journey to find adventure, she did it while having her home and family nearby. Oh, and of course I have to mention the illustrations, there are several of them and they’re by the author, so they’re fantastic.

I’m looking forward to reading further books in the series. I hope the next book comes out soon!


The Summer Dragon by Todd Lockwood (The Evertide, #1)
DAW Books, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


Weekly Movie Reviews: May 21-27, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun is adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard about Jim Graham, a boy who ends up going from living in luxury in Shanghai to being separated from his family and becoming a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp for years. It’s directed by Steven Spielberg, who outdoes his usually brilliant self.

Jim is played by a 12-year-old Christian Bale, and he’s probably the best child actor I’ve ever seen. He perfectly plays a sheltered and precocious kid who tries to survive the (often horrific) events around him without anyone to support him, doing his best to stay sane with a sort of nervous energy. There’s something extra stark about viewing war through a child’s eyes – Jim doesn’t really care who wins or what the political implications are, or if something is morally right, he just wants his life to be predictable and at least living in an internment camp gives him that. The supporting cast is wonderful, especially Jim’s quasi-protectors, John Malkovich as Basie and Nigel Havers as Dr. Rawlins.

Spielberg’s best known movies about World War II are Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, and those are both very good, but I think Empire of the Sun outdoes them both for its unique perspective and near-flawless execution.

Other Movies Watched

The Prestige (2006)

I loved The Prestige when I first watched it, but I barely remembered it. After re-watching it, I think it might be Christopher Nolan’s best movie so far. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are stage magicians and bitter rivals, both fiercely dedicated to their craft. When Borden debuts a new trick that Angier cannot figure out, he goes to extreme lengths to do better than him. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman do an amazing job of playing their insanely obsessive characters, and David Bowie is fantastic as Nikola Tesla. I don’t want to spoil any of the revelations in this movie, but I think they’re all genius (I know it’s from the book, which I also liked, but the way they’re revealed in the movie is genius, too). This is the first time I’d watched the movie after I knew what was going on, and there’s a lot of foreshadowing that I didn’t notice the first time around – that’s part of what makes the movie so good, you’d just be annoyed if things came out of nowhere.

Logan (2017)

Ever since I watched the trailer for Logan (with that great Johnny Cash cover of Hurt), I’ve been really excited to watch it. It didn’t look anything like any other X-Men movie (or any superhero movie, really). It ended up being even better than I wanted it to be, it’s definitely one of the best superhero movies ever made. It’s set in a 2029 where mutants have stopped being born, Logan works as a luxury chauffeur, and Professor X has a degenerative brain disease and is in hiding. And the movie isn’t about changing the past, or fighting a big bad enemy that wants to destroy the world, it’s an intimate drama about a slowly dying Logan having to protect a new mutant from an organization that wants her dead. Every detail about the movie is terrific – the acting (including the young girl who plays X-23, Dafne Keen), the atmosphere, the pacing, the action. Watch it, it’s the perfect send-off for Jackman’s Wolverine, and just might be the first superhero movie to make you cry.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

I’m a big fan of Westerns, but I hadn’t watched many of the classics from the 50s and 60s. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly stars Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach as the titular trio – a bounty hunter, an assassin, and an outlaw. They’re all after a treasure buried in a remote cemetery and are racing to get there. But it’s the middle of the Civil War, and they have to get past both Union and Confederate troops, as well as each other. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, it’s slow and takes a while to build up, but it’s an epic. Most Westerns I’ve watched centered around a hero saving a town from a villain, so it was nice to see a different kind of story – with such great characters too! The incorporation of the Civil War was good to see too, it helped ground the movie in history. I’m looking forward to watching more of Sergio Leone’s work.

Singles (1992)

Singles is a romantic comedy about a group of 20-somethings who live in the same apartment complex in Seattle. It reminded me a lot of Reality Bites, it was about slightly older people, but it had a similar structure of focusing on a single couple (Linda and Steve, played by Kyra Sedgwick and Campbell Scott) while also telling the stories of a few of their friends. I’ve enjoyed most of Cameron Crowe’s movies, and I thought this one was pretty good, too. All of the characters are different in terms of profession and lifestyle and that made the movie seem like it was telling a larger story about a generation (although the secondary characters were more dramatic than in Reality Bites). Also, Matt Dillon’s character is in a band, and the rest of the band is played by members of Pearl Jam (before they got famous), so that was fun to watch.

Battle for Terra (2007)

I haven’t watched a lot of indie animation, so I was looking forward to watching Battle for Terra. Our protagonist is a rebellious alien girl, Mala, who lives an idyllic life on her home planet. Her home is suddenly invaded by an unfamiliar hostile force – humans (who are looking for a new home to terraform after destroying Earth, Mars, and Venus). Both species require different atmospheres, so a war seems inevitable, unless Mala and the human pilot she saved can figure out a way to stop it. This movie is pretty simple and can get preachy on occasion, but I thought it was really cute. It doesn’t shy away from depicting war as horrible, but it also shows people (sentient beings?) rising above their instincts. Plus, it’s original sci-fi with interesting worldbuilding!

The Wizard of Lies (2017)

Robert De Niro stars in this TV movie about Bernie Madoff, a legendary stockbroker and investment advisor who perpetrated the largest financial fraud in history. I was hoping to see details about the fraud, but the movie ended up being more of a family drama, and it focused mostly on the week the scandal broke, with some flashbacks. The cast is great, but they don’t have that much to do, it seemed almost like a documentary, I guess that requires its own kind of good acting, though. Overall, The Wizard of Lies didn’t make much of an impression on me, good or bad.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

I’ve been skeptical about the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast ever since it was announced, even though I enjoyed the recent live-action Jungle Book. The animated version is one of my husband’s favorite Disney movies, so we’ve watched it together a couple of times. The remake is definitely well-made, it has great production value, the music is mostly good (Emma Watson was obviously auto-tuned, which was hard to listen to), and the acting was good, but I didn’t think there was any good creative reason for the film to be remade. The Jungle Book actually told its story in a new way, but this movie was too faithful to the original to be interesting. Also, the auto-tuning was awful – they should have either cast someone who could actually sing, not auto-tuned Emma Watson (even if that made the song sound different), or dubbed Emma Watson’s singing voice.