From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler- E. L. Konigsburg
Synopsis: When suburban Claudia Kincaid decides to run away, she knows she doesn’t just want to run from somewhere, she wants to run to somewhere — to a place that is comfortable, beautiful, and, preferably, elegant. She chooses the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Knowing her younger brother Jamie has money and thus can help her with a serious cash-flow problem, she invites him along. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: Technically this story does not take place in a library, but I love this book so much I chose to include it anyways. A library does appear in the last fourth of the book, so close enough. Everyone, at one point in childhood, dreams about running off and living somewhere exotic. Places like museums and libraries always feel like another world since child only visit them during school trips or parent mandated family time. As such, these building hold a mystic wonder over children and pulls them into the grips mystery and imagination. Adults just do not experience the same feelings. This book deals with a young girl looking for something different, a place to live that differs drastically from her ordinary suburban existence. Kongisburg really captures all the conflicting emotions and desires that pre-teens experience without wallowing in overly developed existential angst.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Walker Books Ltd, 2003 (reprint), ISBN: 9780744583274
The Invisible Library-Genevieve Cogman
Series Synopsis: Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities. Along with her enigmatic assistant Kai, she is posted to an alternative London. Their mission – to retrieve a dangerous book. However, London’s underground factions seem prepared to fight to the very death to find her book. A simple mission soon turns into a reality hopping adventure that could change the course of history. (Adapted from Goodreads
Review: Libraries? Dragons? Alternate worlds? What is not to like? I practically grew up in a library; I still lurk around in my local branch weekly. Any book that combines fantasy characters and crime solving librarians will eventually appear on my to-read list. The Invisible Library Series is a frothy and light adventure read; this is not the next Game of Thrones. However, the story pulls you in and keeps you engaged until the last page, which I consider the highest form of writing achievement. I actually ran out to the bookstore after finishing the second book because the library did not have books three and four. If you want a fast, but enjoyable read, I would recommend this series. I will complete a more thorough review later.
Thursday Next-Jasper Fforde
Series Synopsis: Thursday Next is a literary detective who goes inside books from her futuristic time-travel world. In this universe, England is a republic; George Formby is the first president, elected following Operation Sea Lion (the mooted Nazi invasion of Great Britain), occupation, and liberation. There is no United Kingdom, and Wales is the independent “Socialist Republic of Wales”. The Crimean War is still being waged in 1985, Russia has a Czar, and the Whig Party exists in the House of Commons. In this world, the most valuable resource is the written word and people will kill for a manuscript. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: The Thursday Next series deals with the ability to use literature to travel into innumerable other worlds. Each world bears just enough semblance to reality to not feel foreign, yet just enough differs to not feel right. Fforde’s heroine Thursday Next is a literary detective, tracking down forgeries and unauthorized manuscripts in a world ruled by literature. If you enjoy reading classic literature, this series winks and nods to all the revered masters of the past. Picking up on all the in jokes adds an enjoyable element to the series. I also enjoy reading about slightly weirder versions of reality, especially ones obsessed with literature. My one problem with this series is I think Fforde dragged the story on just a little too long; the series should have ended with book five. Overall, the Thursday Next series is a perfect read for lazy days– a great escape and a grand adventure.
The Thirteenth Tale-Diane Setterfield
Synopsis: Reclusive author Vida Winter’s collection of stories are as famous for the mystery of the missing thirteenth tale as they are for the delight and enchantment of the twelve that do exist. The enigmatic Winter spent six decades creating various outlandish life histories for herself — all of them inventions that have brought her fame and fortune but have kept her violent and tragic past a secret. Now old and ailing, she at last wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. The Thirteenth Tale is a love letter to reading, a book for the feral reader in all of us. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: The Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield’s debut novel, pays homage to the classic romantic gothic mystery novel, specifically Rebecca and The Woman in White. For a debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale shows a lot of promise. The narrative, plotting, and world building showcase the earliest emergence of a competent gothic genre author. As with most debut novels, the bad parts stand out more than good. Aurelius is an incredibly predictable stock character, and Setterfield rushes the ending in an attempt to tie up all the dangling subplots. One problem with using classic gothic romance as a guide is that the ending becomes apparent within three chapters. While I like the originality of the narrative, the book loses appeal because the plotting and characters become predictable almost immediately. Once you know the ending, the book loses a lot of it re-read allure, mainly because there is not enough descriptive material to let the narrative consume your mind while reading. Overall, this is a quick, enjoyable read suitable for summer vacations.
The Thirteenth Tale, Atria Books, 2006, ISBN13: 9780743298025
The Great Library Series–Rachel Caine
Series Synopsis: What if the Great Library of Alexandria survived the test of time? Now a ruthless and supremely powerful entity, the Great Library exists in every major city, governing the flow of knowledge to the masses. Alchemy allows the Library to deliver the content of the greatest works of history instantly—but expressly forbids the personal ownership of books. Printed books are worth millions and numerous people risk their lives to smuggle them outside the Library’s all seeing eyes. Jess Brightwell believes in the value of the Library, but the majority of his knowledge comes from illegal books obtained by his family. His family sent Jess to spy on the Library, but his loyalties are tested when he finished training and enters the Library’s service. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: This series rewrites history and imagines a world where the Library reigns supreme. All earthly governments must bow down to the supremacy of the Library or face certain death. Most of the other series on this list cast the Library and librarians as heroes. This series views them as the villains. I like this series for the pure inventiveness of the story; it seems slightly plausible that a malevolent library could rule the world. Priests ruled the world back in the old ages; a library can certainly turn evil in the future. As a young adult series, the narrative falls into a couple of the tropes common to this genre. All teenagers are brilliant and the (older) adults are incompetent idiots. Unless they are on the side of the teenagers, then they have some modicum of intelligence. None of the characters possesses much dimensionality: there is the maverick hero; the tough girl; the damsel-in-distress-with-a-steely-backbone love interest; the jaded teacher; the damaged genius; and the mismatched couple who come to realize they really love each other despite their differences. Over the course of the three books, none of these characters really change or become more fleshed out. My one major gripe with the series is the overtly political undertones. As a rule, I tend to dislike books that push a particular political agenda because I feel this pulls me out of the story. Unless the book is written to make a point (which this one was not), I should not be able to tell your political viewpoints after reading a piece of fluffy popular fiction. Despite this, this series is enjoyable because I like the absurdity of a malevolent library bent on world domination.
Synopsis: After spending a night with the girl of his dreams only to become just friends, a man gets the opportunity to travel through time and alter that night over and over again until he gets everything perfect (From IMDB).
Review: In recent years Netflix has taken on the personality of an independent movie theater. They release a lot of content that would not otherwise make it out of the studio storage locker. Netflix announced plans to release eighty original films this year. Hopefully some of them will match the quality of the Netflix original television shows. So far, in my opinion, most of the Netflix movies lack the strong writing and characterization of the television narratives. However, I am glad that Netflix is providing an outlet for movie directors and writers to get their work produced. Given the tightening margins in the film industry, most major studios prefer to rely on proven hits versus cultivating new talent; which is how every hit movie nowadays seems to span endless sequels and prequels. Without Netflix, a lot of solid, middle of the road movies would never reach an audience.
When We First Met would never have gotten released by a major studio; which is how it ended up on Netflix. While this movie seals the death knell for romantic comedies, I am glad Netflix bought a comedy and not another dark, depressing drama. Do not misunderstand, I appreciate a well-crafted drama. However, Netflix’s online movie inventory carries a lot more dramas than light hearted movies. It says something when the most uplifting and encouraging movies are filed under “Kids” or “Christmas”. Apparently, only kids can watch heartwarming and inspiring films. Adults seem regulated to depressing science fiction or melodramatic cop shows. So, while When We First Met does not leave a lasting impression, I am glad it exists.
Ari Sandel’s When We First Met is a modern romantic comedy, visually pleasing yet emotionally empty. If a cupcake came to life and started a romance with a two dimensional cookie, this would be their story. Surprisingly, most of the charm comes from Adam Devine’s rather endearing performance as Noah. Outside of Pitch Perfect, most of Devine’s work exists in the genre of “underachiever-loser bro with a bad mouth”. Seeing him play a relatable character in an uncharacteristically clean movie was a pleasant surprise. He does sing, but in the passionate way any music lover would while banging away on the piano. Devine turns Noah into a believable romantic lead. Too bad the writing lets him and the rest of the cast down.
This movie combines Groundhog Day and every teenage love drama into one gloriously underwritten narrative. Noah and Avery meet cute at a party on Halloween. They spend a fun filled, PG rated night at Avery’s house. (Which is a refreshing change. Not everyone jumps into bed with each other on the first date) Noah goes home. Three years later, Avery is marrying Ethan. Now fully depressed at not having the girl, Noah discovers the photo booth at the Jazz Club works like a time machine. Voila! Noah travels back to that fateful Halloween party repeatedly until he gets his relationship with Avery right. In between these attempts, he receives a lot of advice from Avery’s best friend, Carrie.
Who is Noah? Who is Avery? We will never know as the scriptwriter apparently decided not to give the characters any depth. Noah dropped out of business school for an unspecified reason and now plays the piano at a Jazz Bar. Avery organizes charity events. For being the “perfect” girl, not a lot of substance went into creating Avery. She has no interests, no skills, and no personality. Alexandra Daddario’s sole purpose in the film is to look pretty and alternately kiss Devine and Robbie Amell. For a film about unrequited love, Avery does not inspire soul-searing passion. She is Noah’s dream girl, but even he knows nothing about her. The film focuses solely on Noah and his obsession with Avery yet never fleshes out the reasons for his devotion.
Noah’s friend Max comes across as a last minute character addition, which is disappointing since Andrew Bachelor had potential to portray a much deeper character. Robbie Amell has nothing to work with other than look good and smile. His character, Ethan, is Noah’s romantic rival, yet he has no real depth. Ethan has as much personality as a strong wind. Shelley Hennig portrays Carrie, Avery’s best friend and the only other character with some personality. Carrie plays off Noah much better than Avery and at least possesses the briefest hints of a personality.
This movie managed the internal time travel logic competently, with one glaring exception. In one timeline, that version of Noah inexplicably knew his colleagues’ names and a foreign language, even though every other timeline goes out of its ways to show how Noah is lost in his own life. Each time he arrives to a new alternative present tense he learns a little bit more about himself. However, that one timeline jump seemed a little out-of-place when compared to the other versions. It was refreshing to see a time travel movie show likely genuine reactions. For instance, when Avery and Carrie decide Noah’s insider knowledge about their lives mean he is a stalker, proceed to bludgeon him with a shrubbery, and have Ethan tackle him in the doorway. I could see all these reactions occurring if someone I did not know showed up knowing all kinds of personal details about me and my friends.
Unlike most modern romantic comedies, When We First Met really deals with Noah trying to figure out who he is and realizing that he does not need to change to get the girl of his dreams. Noah’s journey, eventually, ends with him valuing not only his own happiness, but also that of Avery, Max, Carrie, and possibly Ethan. Noah’s friendships and his passion for music are more important to him than trying to force a romance that just does not work. Once this realization, the movie becomes more palatable. Unfortunately, the film just does not have any depth to the narrative, which is a common problem with modern romantic movies. If the rest of the characters possessed fully fleshed out personalities, When We First Met would have made a stronger impression. Overall, while not a great film, I did feel entertained. As such, the film succeeded in its purpose. I hope Ari Sandel continues to make these kinds of films and that his future films feature a stronger narrative arc and character development.
HIMYM Synopsis (2005-2014): A father recounts to his children, through a series of flashbacks, the journey he and his four best friends took leading up to him meeting their mother. (IMDB)
Friends Synopsis (1994-2004): Follows the personal and professional lives of six 20 to 30-something-year-old friends living in Manhattan. (IMDB)
Review: I have wasted a lot of time watching television sitcoms. During college, everyone I knew obsessed over How I Met Your Mother. Having never seen the show, I did not share that enthusiasm. Then I attended summer school. Anyone who takes college classes over the summer knows that campus life dies between the months of May and September. Those of us still crawling around the dorms during the dead time tend to spend a lot of time alone, usually watching television. After hearing about HIMYM all year, I succumbed and watched the show. A couple of years later, my brother’s girlfriend (now wife) kept rhapsodizing about Friends. Having also never watched that show, I took her advice and tuned in once it debuted on Netflix.
Friends and How I Met Your Mother follow the lives of a group of 20ish to 30ish friends as they navigate life in the Big Apple (New York City). In Friends, the main anchoring relationship revolves around Ross and Monica, the siblings. Marshall and Lily, the college lovers turned married couple, provide the heart to How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM). Neither show would have quite worked without these relationships to anchor the fantastical elements of the narrative arcs. After watching both shows, each one offers a unique perspective on growing up and figuring out life. However, of the two, Friends offers a more realistic examination of young adulthood in a big city and, I think, stands up better over time.
I am probably one of the only people who felt the HIMYM finale made sense. First of all, it is just a sitcom, so all the teeth gnashing over the finale seems anticlimactic. Second, HIMYM really deals with Ted’s relationship with Robin, not the ubiquitous Mother. HIMYM revolves around Ted, a frustrated architect, looking for love in all the wrong places. He is joined on this adventure by Barney, Marshall, Lily, and Robin. Barney and Ted bump into each other in a bar and stay friends. Marshall went to college with Ted; they then shared an apartment upon graduation. Lily dates Marshall and is the de facto third roommate. Robin bumps into every one at a bar and joins the friend group. In typical sitcom fashion, Ted meets Robin, they like each other, and the show keeps them apart for nine seasons. All nine seasons function as a long flashback of “older” Ted telling his kids about how he met their mother, hence the show’s title. The show ends with the “mother” dying and Ted running back to Robin. While this ending seems like a cop out to most fans of the show-based upon all the internet reviews, it fits with the overall narrative arc of the story. Ted pretty much only wants Robin; but she did not want children and he did. He found someone else who wanted kids, and once she died, decided to pursue his first love interest.
Despite his entertainment value, Barney is the weakest link in the HIMYM friend group. Granted, Neil Patrick Harris give an energetic performance and easily steals every scene due to his natural charisma. However, Barney stays relatively unchanged for all nine seasons. He is the consummate womanizer, always chasing a new, young model every evening. Given his good looks and smooth talking, Barney charms nearly everyone who crosses his path. While his backstory makes Barney’s outlook on life reasonable, he barely matures over nine seasons. The show ends with him realizing there is more to life than younger women and booze. Over the course of the show everyone else matured and he managed to remain the same. Barney is the living embodiment of style over substance.
Marshall and Lily met in college, fell in love, and have stayed glued to each other ever since. They provide the emotional center of the show. Everyone else bounces their crazy love lives off of them and are secretly jealous of their stability. Lily teaches kindergarten and Marshall wants to save the world as an environmental lawyer. However, this does not pay the bills and he ends up going corporate. The show would not work without them as they function like the pseudo parents to Ted, Robin, and Barney. Whenever the rest of the gang needs advice, they inevitable end up talking to Marshall and Lily.
Narrative wise, the show rises and falls with Ted’s outlook on romance. Some seasons he is overflowing with joy and in others it is the doldrums. The show was not shot in front of a live audience and the production value increased concurrently with viewership popularity. There were complex dance routines, lots of celebrity cameos, and entire episodes dedicated to finding the world’s best burger. However, I feel the show falls flat in that the characters never really feel like they moved on. The characters at the end of the show do not feel that different from when they started. I think the greatest mistake in the narrative was the over reliance on sex jokes. Barney’s routine gets old really quickly and Robin and Ted have little compunction about jumping into bed with their respective dates.
Friends debuted in 1994 and became an enormous hit. This show revolves around Monica, Chandler, Joey, Rachel, and Phoebe trying, and failing, to fulfill their full potential. Writing wise, I think Friends has stronger characters than HIMYM. Mainly because they are memorable and familiar, I think most people have encountered a Phoebe and a Rachel at some point in time. Unlike HIMYM, Friends does not revolve around one person trying to find romance. Instead the show followed a standard format every week with one “A” plot and two “B” plots. This allowed for all six actors to be equally highlighted and have all six characters grow in the “A” storyline over 10 seasons.
Monica and Ross are siblings. For most of her teenage years, Monica suffered from weight issues. Then she lost all the weight and became a chef based upon a throwaway line from Chandler, who was Ross’s college roommate. She lives in a glamorous and incredibly tidy apartment with Phoebe. Then, one day, Rachel, a friend from high school, reappears into Monica’s life. Rachel was running away from her own wedding and ends up living with Monica. Ross, a paleontologist, has nurtured a crush on Rachel since high school. However, his pregnant wife just left him for her female lover and he does not feel quite up to pursuing Rachel. Chandler lives across the hall from Monica and Joey moves in with him. As a struggling actor with few prospects, Joey relies on Chandler to cover most of his expenses. Phoebe is the crazy hippie friend who somehow manages to walk the line between funny and creepy. Over the course of ten seasons all six friends experience heartbreak, professional setbacks and achievements, and other growing pains.
Unlike HIMYM, Friends filmed in front of a live audience. Shooting on a closed set versus a live set does not impact the storytelling too much, but it does impact the delivery. The cast of Friends had to rehearse numerous times before filming the final take so that they could maintain character during audience reactions. Since HIMYM shot on a closed set, the cast did not have to worry about live laughter. Multiple times throughout the season the cast clearly struggled to keep from breaking out laughing while filming. Friends had simpler storylines due to the shooting logistics, but every character up with equal screen time.
The reason Friends remains such a popular series lies in the strong writing. Everyone can relate with unrequited love, growing up, feeling attracted to toxic people, and problematic relationships with parents and siblings. My one gripe is that Ross and Rachel would never get together in real life. Their relationship never felt quite as strong as the other couples. Ross is insecure and incredibly clingy, while Rachel fluctuates between codependence and borderline stalker. For two people who keep declaring their love for each other, Ross and Rachel certainly sleep with a lot of people. By the last two seasons, you want them together just so they stop talking about not being together.
One point of contention, how can Monica afford such a plush apartment on a Chef’s salary? And how did Rachel help with rent when she worked at the coffee house? In real life they would need maybe three other roommates to make rent. Phoebe is the ethereal character who never seems quite all there yet, also, manages extremely lucid answers on occasion. How she paid rent on a masseuses’ salary is also mysterious. Only Chandler and Ross, in the beginning of the show, had believable enough jobs to justify their apartments. Not a true critique, just a pet peeve about television sitcoms and housing arrangements.
Overall, I think Friends beats How I Met Your Mother in terms of storyline, plotting, and character development. All the Friends’ characters grow up and readjust over the course of the show. The HIMYM characters seemed caught in a never ending loop of existential crises. Ted, while relatable, gets rather exhausting to listen to over nine seasons. Nevertheless, both shows are enjoyable and somewhat relatable. Though I am not in a rush to watch either again anytime soon.
Synopsis: Set in a world where fantasy creatures live side by side with humans. A human cop is forced to work with an Orc to find a weapon everyone is prepared to kill for. (From IMDb)
Review: Lord of the Rings meets Bad Boys meets Die Hard is the best way to describe this film. Will Smith (Daryl Ward) plays a LA cop counting down the next five years until he can retire. Joel Edgerton (Nick Jakoby) portrays the first Orc, yes orc, to become a cop under the LAPD diversity program. For some reason Jakoby ends up working with Ward, a situation neither of them appreciate. Over the course of a few days they encounter a cursed Elven weapon, an Orc gang, and fellow officers with a cliched agenda. Can Ward and Jakoby put aside their shallow differences and come together in time to save the world from apocalyptic destruction? Maybe.
Let me begin with: I love the concept of this film. Elves, Orcs, Fairies, and Humans having to fight for dominance in a grungier version of Los Angeles? This is two of my favorite genres smashed together into a glorious mess. Max Landis (the screenwriter) crafted one of the better urban fantasy film ideas in recent years. The film opens with Jakoby and Ward hitting a rut in their co-working relationship. Before they can iron out the kinks, a new threat arrives: Leilah (a criminally underused Noomi Rapace), a psychopathic elf sworn into service to the cultic Dark Lord. Leilah is seeking Tikka (Lucy Fry), a young trainee elf who stole her magic wand, which radiates destructive energy. When Ward and Jakoby put Tikka under their protection, they embark on a game of cat-and-mouse. The happy trio have to evade corrupt cops, Leilah and her ruthless cronies, a Latino street gang, and superfluous operatives of a Federal Magic Task Force.
Unfortunately, Landis excelled at the idea and struggled with the execution. Science fantasy movies tend to focus more on fantasy than science; which is fine, it is fun to watch a slightly wackier version of real life. However, Bright masquerades as a science fantasy film but is really a thinly veiled social commentary dramedy. Most of the narrative focuses on the superficial differences between Ward and Jakoby. All the conflict begins when Jakoby fumbles an arrest and puts Ward in the hospital for weeks. Ward, understandably, resents Jakoby. Like his colleagues, Ward deeply distrusts Jakoby and suspects him of having divided loyalties. Although the majority of the LA police force want Jakoby expelled, Ward, for an unexplored reason, does his best to cooperate with his new partner, shooting incident notwithstanding.
While the fantasy setting presented an interesting way to examine cultural differences, the racial undertones were overly stereotypical to the point of verging on caricature. Snooty elves rule the upper echelons of society and lord their wealth and status over less deserving beings. The orcs cultivate a thuggish motorcycle gang aesthetic and sneer at the ‘unblooded’, a badly explained coming of age ritual that appears to be a cross between a bar mitzvah and a prison brawl. The broader fantasy setting is, sadly, unexplored. Hints of a wider mythology peek through in the form of a centaur traffic warden and the silhouette of a solitary dragon floating above the LA skyline. Due to the weak world building and over reliance on stereotypes, the narrative’s attempts to tackle racism and police brutality through allegory fall short. While the allegory is conventional at best, the execution comes off as misguided, dubious, and incredibly sanctimonious.
The narrative also suffers from a similar case of under development. Magic users, the ubiquitous ‘brights’, are regulated by federal law and magic wands rank up there with armed nuclear weapons. Why magic requires federal regulation never comes up, even though how that happened would make a more compelling story. When Jakoby and Ward stumble upon a glowing wand, they embark on an exhausting gritty chase sequence. In between frantic scrambling across LA and trash talking each other, they must outwit one dimensional Latino gangsters, an orcish death cult, and a relentlessly psychopathic band of macabre ninja elves. While hints of solid action emerge momentarily between the pandemonium, the narrative is dragged down by stilted dialogue.
Smith and Edgerton do their best to infuse some magic into their ill-defined characters, but charm only goes so far. Sadly, the supporting cast might as well be mimes. That might have actually improved the film since most of the dialogue actually detracts from the narrative. Fry as Tikka has no distinguishable character traits or dialogue. Her main “feature” is looking scared and quivering in the corner. Tikka’s connection with Ward and Jacoby comes across as painfully contrived and emotionally hollow. Rapace, as the antagonistic Leilah, is given even less to work with. Her whole role consists of evil expressions and killing people in increasingly inventive methods; which is a shame since Rapace plays morally ambiguous characters exceedingly well. Yet the narrative would not have suffered if Leilah never appeared. Ike Barinholtz and Jay Hernandez appear in briefly unmemorable supporting roles. Édgar Ramírez and Happy Anderson popup as two random FBI Magic Unit agents who solely exist to drive the plot forward and are given nothing to do. They literally spend the entire time driving around in a fancy car, mumbling into walkie talkies, and looking concerned.
To David Ayer’s credit, the narrative clips along at a steady pace; which helps camouflage the numerous illogical plot twists and half-formed ideas. Ayer and Roman Vasyanov, the cinematographer, create some striking visuals that illuminate this dystopian version of LA in heavy shadows and dusky colors. I got the impression that Ayer and Vasyanov attempted to combine the aesthetic of a gritty cop movie with Game of Thrones, but struggled to weave the two together. Overall, Bright deserves some praise for sheer originality and the audacity to combine two popular genres into one hallucinogenic kaleidoscopic of a narrative. However, for a fantasy movie, the narrative lacked the “magic” factor. The move ends without answering any questions, including where did magic come from, why does it need regulation, how does magic work, and why are there no elvish police officers? A sequel has already gotten the greenlight, though without screenwriter Max Landis. Hopefully the next iteration will answer some of the lingering questions and give the actors more believable dialogue.
*This is a review of all three books
Themes Explored: revenge, torture, magic, politics, wizardry, tragedy, death, fulfilling potential, love, hate, past mistakes
The Blade Itself (Book 1): Logen Ninefingers, infamous barbarian, has finally run out of luck. Nobleman Captain Jezal dan Luthar, dashing officer, and paragon of selfishness, has nothing more dangerous in mind than fleecing his friends at cards and dreaming of glory in the fencing circle. But war is brewing, and on the battlefields of the frozen North they fight by altogether bloodier rules. Inquisitor Glokta, cripple turned torturer, would like nothing better than to see Jezal come home in a box. But then Glokta hates everyone. Enter the wizard, Bayaz. A bald old man with a terrible temper and a pathetic assistant, he could be the First of the Magi, he could be a spectacular fraud, but whatever he is, he’s about to make the lives of Logen, Jezal, and Glokta a whole lot more difficult. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Before They are Hanged (Book 2): Superior Glokta has a problem. How do you defend a city surrounded by enemies and riddled with traitors, when your allies can by no means be trusted, and your predecessor vanished without a trace? Northmen have spilled over the border of Angland and are spreading fire and death across the frozen country. Crown Prince Ladisla is poised to drive them back and win undying glory. There is only one problem – he commands the worst-armed, worst-trained, worst-led army in the world. And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is leading a party of bold adventurers on a perilous mission through the ruins of the past. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: My introduction to fantasy literature began with JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia, and Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time Quintet. I set a high bar for my fantasy fiction. Granted I have never written a book, though I am trying, so anyone who manages to complete one deserves praise. However, some fantasy narratives work better than others. The First Law Trilogy takes place in a medieval world similar to the Dark Ages, just with magic and no protestant reformation. Abercrombie manages to build a world that seems both familiar and foreign, which does make the narrative easier to digest.
I started reading The First Law Trilogy since it kept popping up on all the “best” fantasy series lists. The series started out decently but I really struggled to finish. Normally, I quit reading books if I do not like them, but I wanted to know the ending so I gritted though the narrative. Since fantasy fiction forms the cornerstone of most of the books I read, I tend to judge world building, underlying philosophy, and magic systems with a critical eye. In my opinion, building a realistic world takes more skill than developing strong characters. Abercrombie writes fairly well-developed characters. Everyone has a reason for existing and generally fulfill their character archetypes. In that regard, this trilogy does make for an entertaining read.
The action takes place in the central realm called “the Union”. The Union is besieged by savages and orcish type monsters from the North (not a direction, the name of the continent), the Gurkhish Empire to the south, mercenary bands from Styria in the south-east, and the crumbling Old Empire in the far west. Essentially, The Union exists in a state of perpetual war and lacks strong leadership. Dog-eats-dog adequately sums up the philosophic underpinnings of this series. Everyone looks out themselves and rarely offers help with no-strings attached. Of all the characters, Logen-the barbarian-comes across as the most sympathetic character. He at least tries to help others, even when his efforts generally cause more problems. Bayaz, Glotka, and Jezal attempt to improve their own lots in life through manipulation, blackmail, and the chopping off of fingers/forceful dentistry.
Magically speaking, the mystical system in this trilogy does not receive a lot of attention. Most of the “magic” explanation reads like an afterthought. Abercrombie never really explains “the first law” and why magic fell out of prominence. The entire magic system and corruption of the Magi boils down to an argument between two arrogant men in the distant past. This argument led to a meltdown in the magical community and the Magi faded out of existence. Then Bayaz shows up, waves his fingers in the air, mumbles some stuff and magic suddenly reappears. Bayaz is not a great character. He disappeared for centuries and then reappeared only to reveal that all the events in the books occurred due to his long ago manipulations. He is either a hero or the world’s worse seer. All the bad or good things that occur to the main characters all originate with Bayaz’s actions. While thematically interesting, this ploy makes the other characters’ decisions meaningless. As a master puppeteer Bayaz maintains surprisingly little control over his puppets.
From a world building perspective, Abercrombie manages to fit in every fantasy trope possible. Crumbling Old Empire, Northern Aggression, Southern Aggression, terrifying Orc Monsters from a Distant Land, weird Magic Creatures, Sword Fights, an Old Decrepit King, a Weak Crown Prince, and a scheming Privy Council, just to list off a few. Every fantasy novel contains one of these tropes since they form part of the backbone of the genre. However, I do not think Abercrombie managed to make them believable. As I was reading the books, I could predict each twist and turn. Read enough books in any genre and you can accurately guess how the story will unfold. Real writing genius lies in taking those predictable concepts and making them interesting. Maybe I just struggled to connect with the books, but I thought the world building in this series verged on fantasy paint-by-numbers.
Overall, The First Law Trilogy delivers a fast paced, extremely violent, and foul mouthed version of the medieval fantasy narrative. If you are looking for an easy read that does not push too many literary boundaries, this is a respectable series. While I personally did not enjoy these books, I can understand the appeal. These books belong in the “pop fantasy” part of the genre. They are not high literature, so do not expect Tolkienesque prose.
Themes Explored: regret, magic, mistakes, pride, love, forgiveness, fantasy, magic, youthful rage, good versus evil, antihero, redemption
Summary: Cadvan of Lirigon, one of the most powerful Bards of his time, has been exiled from the School of Lirigon for a grievous crime that unleashed the power of the Bone Queen. Isolated and guilt-ridden, he is burdened by memories of his dealings with the Dark. Meanwhile, across Edil-Amarandh, a number of disturbing events suggest that the Bone Queen may not have been successfully banished, as was previously believed. The Light is under threat, but does Cadvan have the strength to face the Bone Queen again? (Adapted from Goodreads)
Every person comes in shades of grey and white. No one is completely pure or incapable of committing serious crimes. It all depends upon the circumstances and who you are at that moment. This novel asks the question what makes someone evil? And what makes someone good? Several years prior to the events in The Bone Queen, Cadvan, a bard of the light (i.e. a magician/wizard), became involved in the “dark arts”. As a young impressionable man Cadvan falls under the spell of an older “hull”, in this world a hull is a bard who sold their soul to the darkness. Under this hull’s instructions, Cadvan learns the forbidden side of magic. Unfortunately this knowledge fuels Cadvan’s ego and stokes a great fire within him to prove his superiority to every other bard. In particular, he wants to prove his superiority to Dernhill, his perceived rival at the School of Lirigon. To prove this fact, Cadvan decides to call up a spirit from the Shadowlands (a place similar to purgatory). Instead of controlling this being, Cadvan loses control and unleashes the Bone Queen on the world.
The events in the novel pick up several years after Cadvan’s exile from the School of Lirigon. He know lives as a humble cobbler in a small, forgotten part of the world. Then terrible things begin to happen. People start having terrifying dreams. Others disappear. In the parts of the world brimming with magic the Shadowlands begin to blur with reality. Long dead souls start walking the streets at night. Then Dernhill arrives at Cadvan’s door asking for help. The novel picks up steam once Cadvan and Dernhill team up. They start as rivals and slowly become uneasy allies. As they race around trying to figure out what happened, they slowly heal from their past wounds.
Philosophically, The Bone Queen deals with the concept of redemption and second chances. Does one bad decision make you a bad person? Can an evil person commit a selfless act? Is anyone really redeemable? Do badly behaving people really change? All of these questions underly the more fantastical elements of the narrative. One of the draws of fantasy fiction is the ability to examine deeper philosophical questions in a world outside of everyday reality. Readers can relate with Cadvan and Dernhill since we all struggle with the concept of “good” versus “bad”. However, one drawback is Cadvan can verge between moody and overly self-pitying fairly quickly. Moping is no more fun on the page then it is in real life.
World building wise, Croggon effortlessly expands on the political side of the world depicted in the Chronicles of Pellinor books. As a prequel The Bone Queen works on expanding the political cracks depicted among the characters in the original series. Fans of the series will recall that the Chronicles of Pellinor depict a conquered world with the various survivors trying to figure out what happened and how to survive. This book shows why the Bard Schools managed to fall prey to corruption and greed. Even if you are not a fan of the original series, The Bone Queen is an enjoyable character study. One major drawback is that the narrative moves rather slowly and the ending feels anticlimactic. However, I do not think these drawbacks diminish the readability of the book.
The Bone Queen, Alison Croggon, 2017, Candlewick Press, ISBN 9780763689742
I had previously published a Top 5 Romantic Novel list in 2015. This is my list for 2017. The only constant is The Deception of the Emerald Ring; which I clearly like quite a bit.
1. Pride and Prejudice-Jane Austen
I am not sure what all I can say about this novel other than that I think it is the best romantic comedy of manners ever penned. Nothing beats the witty banter between Lizzie and Mr. Darcy, though Eleanor and Edward from Sense and Sensibility come close. There is a reason why this novel has remained a solid favorite for such a long time; it is unrivaled in its exploration of the romantic dynamics between men and women. Obviously social norms have changed since the days of Jane Austen, but the social satire and insightful comments remain relevant.
What this novel illustrates is that a “romance” story does not require overwrought sex scenes in order to create tension between the man and the woman. My main problem with the majority of modern romance novelist is that they focus more on erotica than romantic tension. A well-written narrative detailing the evolution of a relationship can be compelling if the banter between the characters is believable. Austen’s writing is gloriously detailed and the characters are fully developed.
As I have previously written, a lot of movie adaptations of the novel have missed the point of the story. While it is a romance and the tension between Darcy and Elizabeth is the main narrative arc, the heart of the story is about family and societal expectations. If you take out all the other subplots and rework the Bennett family dynamics, as done in the 2005 adaptation, the point of the narrative changes. Lizzie only came to respect and love Darcy because of his actions after Lydia ran off with Wickham. Darcy only came to appreciate Lizzie after she proved herself to be his equal in every way. Take these events and elements away, and the story is reduced to an empty and hollow “romance”. Without societal and familial expectations, Darcy and Lizzie’s tensions would have never arisen. Austen’s writing has stood the test of time because societal and familial expectations are the one constant that exists across all generations.
2. Gone with the Wind-Margaret Mitchell
First published in 1936, Gone with the Wind remains one of the best fictional explorations of the American South leading up to and directly after the Civil War. The story is set in Clayton County, Georgia, and Atlanta and depicts the struggles of young Scarlett O’Hara. Growing up as the spoiled daughter of a well-to-do plantation owner, she finds herself having to claw out of the poverty she finds herself in after Sherman’s March to the Sea.
Alternating between a coming-of-age and romantic narrative, the narrative explores Scarlett’s rather abrasive approach to romance. Scarlett is not a nice woman; she is manipulative and cruel. However, she is also passionate, somewhat loyal, and has a deep-seated drive to persevere regardless of her circumstances. Not that Rhett Butler is much better; he is a slick, silver-tongued con man who views Scarlett as a challenge. Somewhere along the way, their combativeness turns into romantic attraction and tragedy soon follows.
If you have never read the book, it is worth the time investment. The characters are beautifully developed and the narrative is excellently paced. Mitchell’s depiction of pre-Civil War American South is stylized and she glossed over many of the less than savory details of life at that time. Given that the focus of the story is about Scarlett’s relationship with Rhett, the glossy sheen to Society is not that big of an issue. According to literary legend, Mitchell meant to write a sequel but never quote got around to putting pen to paper. I love this book because the story is quite compelling and unique; no other characters quite live up to the iconic Scarlett and Rhett. As of 2014, Gone with the Wind is the second favorite book of American readers, just behind the Bible. More than 30 million copies have been printed worldwide.
If you have never seen the movie, I highly recommend doing so. It is a wonderful example of how to adapt a novel for the silver screen. Plus Clark Gable is absolutely gorgeous as Rhett Butler.
3. Shadow of the Moon-MM Kaye
MM Kaye is an author I never hear anyone talk about. My mother introduced me to her books and I think they are excellent. Kaye was born in India; her father was an intelligence officer in the British Indian Army. Most of her novels deal with the tensions between the Indians and the British Raj in the 1850s. Shadow of the Moon is primarily a romantic story with a subplot exploring the political and societal tensions between the British and the Indian populations, specifically the events during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
Born in India but raised in England, Winter de Ballesteros fondly remembers her days in India and wishes to return. Her chance to return comes when she is engaged to the significantly older Conway Barton, the drug-addicted and dissolute Commissioner of Lunjore. Since she requires an escort to guarantee her safety, Captain Alex Randall reluctantly takes her to her fiancée. He vehemently disapproves of the match and is very cognizant of the unrest brewing in India. The novel follows the evolution of Alex and Winter’s relationship.
Shadow of the Moon is both a wonderfully written work of historical fiction and a beautifully told historical romance. Winter is a plucky heroine and Alex is a worthy hero and the payoff at the end is worth the read.
4. The Deception of the Emerald Ring-Lauren Willig
I love Lauren Willig. Her books are fun, airy, and contain just the right amount of drama and passion. The Deception of the Emerald Ring is the third book in the 12 part History of the Pink Carnation Series; however, it is my favorite. Willig uses a split narrative in the book, so there are two concurrent stories occurring.
During the modern day, Eloise Kelly has gotten into quite a bit of trouble since she started researching the Pink Carnation and the Black Tulip-two of the deadliest spies to haunt the streets of 19th century England and France. Not only has she unearthed long buried secrets, she is also seeking out her own romantic adventure with Colin Selwick. Little does she know that she’s about to uncover another fierce heroine running headlong into history.
When 19 year old Letty Alsworthy quickly weds Lord Geoffrey Pinchingdale-Snipe, she is thrust head first into a dangerous ring of spies, a game of mistaken identities, and an unexpected romance. Geoffrey leaves Letty during the honeymoon due to urgent business in Ireland. Letty quickly discovers Geoff’s disappearance and, not to be outdone, steals away on a ship bound for Ireland, armed and ready to fight for her husband and to learn a thing or two about spying for England.
What I really appreciate about these books is Willig’s passion for authentic historical detail and her ability to write charming love stories. Her series is the perfect read for lovers of romance, history and adventure.
5. Redeeming Love-Francine Rivers
My best friend recommended this book, after she heard about from a book club she attended once. I think it as a heartbreaking and lovely story. Redeeming Love is a historical romance novel set during the 1850s Gold Rush in California. The story is greatly inspired by the Book of Hosea from the Bible; while you do not need to have read the Book of Hosea to enjoy the novel, I think knowing the events of Hosea adds a great level of complexity to Redeeming Love. The central theme of the narrative revolves around the redeeming love of God towards sinners.
During the California gold rush in 1850, men sold their souls for the chance to strike it rich and down-on-their luck women sold their bodies for a place to sleep. Angel was raised to expect nothing from men except betrayal. Due to a situation outside of her control, she is sold into prostitution as a child and survives by keeping her hatred of men alive. What she despises most are the men who use her and then leave her. The years of abuse have caused here to become empty and dead inside.
Then she meets Michael Hosea. An honest, God fearing man who feels called to help Angel. Against his friends’ advice, Michael marries Angel and loves her unconditionally. Despite Angel’s bitterness and extremely low expectations, Michael slowly defrosts Angel’s frozen heart. However, Angel must fight her greatest enemy in order to achieve happiness, herself. Years of prostitution have given her overwhelming feelings of unworthiness and fear. And so Angel runs backs to the only life she has ever known.
In this story, Angel represents all sinners who can see the truth but struggle to except it. Michael represents the believer who chooses to obey and trusts that God will work everything out in the end. Not that Michael is perfect, far from it in fact. He has his own share of problems to overcome. I always enjoy reading this little gem and think it is one of the best Christian Romance novels.
Synopsis: When Callum Lynch explores the memories of his ancestor Aguilar and gains the skills of a Master Assassin, he discovers he is a descendant of the secret Assassins society (From IMDb).
Review: Personally, I have never played the Assassin’s Creed video games; though I did watch my brothers play one of the numerous versions. As such, I do not have much understanding about the video game story or characters. I know enough about the Assassin’s world that I could give an accurate description of the animus. Thank you Wikipedia fan pages. Once the trailer debuted, I knew I wanted to see the film because I am always willing to watch unique science-fantasy stories. I should preface this by saying that I hold movies based off video games to a different standard than other science fantasy films; someone will always express displeasure over the big screen adaptation. Few video game movies ever live up to the hype and expectation; Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was at least comical. However, I am a fan of the Prince of Persia movie. Going into the Assassin’s Creed movie, my only expectation was to be entertained.
Instead of doing a straight adaptation, Ubisoft decided to create a new narrative for the movie. While the story contains elements from the video games, the film contains new characters and narrative arcs. After the murder of his mother, Callum Lynch embarks on a life of criminality and constant subterfuge. Thirty years later, the past finally catches up with Callum and he is condemned to death row. Callum is legally dies after a lethal ejection. However, he awakens the next day to discover that a shadowy organization called Abstergo Industries saved him. He soon discovers that Abstergo’s motives are far from altruistic and they forcibly enlist him into an experimental research initiative called the Animus Project. Created by Sophia Rikkin, the Animus Project allows people to enter a virtual world and relive their ancestor’s memories. Thus imprisoned, Callum is promised release if he cooperates and willingly enters the Animus. Once in the Animus, Callum relives the memories of his centuries-old ancestor, Aguilar de Nerha an Assassin during the Spanish Inquisition.
Abstergo hopes to use Callum’s ancestry to uncover the location of an ancient and powerful artifact, which Aguilar hid in the 15th century. However, Callum uncovers some information on his own, including the true identify of his captors. This leads to the main conflict of the movie: Callum attempting to keep Sophia from uncovering his ancestor’s centuries old secret. While the plot is not in any way realistic, the film is nonetheless enjoyable. The film contains all the elements of a modern day science-fantasy action flick: frantic action sequences, intriguing science-fiction concepts, beautiful cinematography, and world building.
Unlike other video game movies, Justin Kurzel injects Assassin’s Creed with a level of artistry that previous video game adaptations lacked. The film is beautifully shot and is visually pleasing to watch. Fans of the original game will appreciate the polished parkour chases and hand-to-hand combat sequences. Kurzel wanted the film to feel authentic and shot about 80% of the film, including stunts, extras and locations, on camera without using CGI. The film also features a 125-foot drop that Michael Fassbender’s character takes and it is not CGI, a real stunt man performed the drop. This marks the first time in thirty-five years that such a dangerous stunt was performed. As a result of these directorial decisions, the film feels much more grounded and realistic; which makes it slightly more believable.
I would say the main weakness of the film is the lack of a struggle between a hero and a villain. Kurzel, apparently, did not want to present either the Templars or the Assassins in the roles of protagonist or antagonist. In his view, both sides make legitimate arguments. While this is a good concept on paper, it does not translate well on screen. A movie about a centuries old struggle between two organizations requires a hero and a villain. Otherwise, the story becomes bogged down with heavy-handed narrative manipulations intended to make both sides appear sympathetic. Which, unfortunately, happened in this film. In the video game, the Assassins are the “heroes” and the “Templars” are the villains. The director and the screenwriters should have appreciated this fact and made the main characters more likable and hero like.
Callum and Aguilar are both depicted as remorseless killers. The main difference between the two being that Callum committed crimes in order to survive while Aguilar pledged to sacrifice his life for the Assassin Brotherhood’s cause. While the narrative creates a good contrast between the pair, their differences are used as a kind of benchmark during Callum’s journey of self-discovery and not as a point of dramatic tension. Unfortunately, the film only reveals minimal glimpses into Aguilar’s life during the Spanish Inquisition, which was the biggest missed opportunity in the narrative. Since the film is all about uncovering Aguilar’s secret, I was surprised the narrative did not spend more time in his timeline. Callum’s journey follows the familiar hero story; a reluctant person discovers his true purpose and attempts to redeem himself by embracing a higher calling. While Aguilar’s story revolves around a frantic stream of action heavy vignettes with minimal nuanced character development. The result of this is that the story lacks a deep emotional connection to the main character because the audience does not have a reason to care about Callum/Aguilar succeeding against the Templars. A character driven film needs a compelling hero.
Unfortunately, most of the other characters in the film suffer from a lack of development. Very little screen time is devoted to exploring character backstories or the overarching Assassin versus Templar conflict. Other than Fassbender, Marion Cotillard receives the second most screen time and development as Animus Project director Sophia Rikkin. Sophia is more fleshed out than the other supporting characters, but is still rather forgettable. Cotillard is an extremely talented actress, but she was given a complex character. Instead of being a fully defined character, Sophia is used more as a symbol for the ambiguous moral area that flits on the outskirts of the otherwise black and white conflict between the Assassins and Templars. She is neither good nor bad, just confused and trying to do what she believes is just. Perhaps the most electrifying scenes occur when Cotillard shares the screen with Jeremy Irons, playing Sophia’s father and Abstergo CEO Alan Rikkin. Regrettably, Irons’ role is more of a cameo and his appearances are brief. Ariane Labed is underutilized as Maria, a member of Aguilar’s order. Labed appears in the first major action scene and is not given any development beyond an illusion that she is intimately connected to Aguilar.
Overall, Assassin’s Creed is definitely one of the best video game based films to be made at the moment. Lara Croft is getting a big screen reboot, hopefully it will surpass the quality of the previous adaptation. Like I stated above my only expectation was to be entertained, and the film did not disappoint. Regardless of the problems with the narrative and characters, the film was a solid science-fantasy adventure. Thankfully, the film never dragged so I did not find my mind wandering and focusing on the flaws. If you are a die hard fan of the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise, then you will probably be disappointed in the film. However, if you are simply looking for a solid science-fantasy film with decent acting, then the film delivers.