Book Synopsis: ‘We have all been more or less to blame … every one of us, excepting Fanny’ Taken from the poverty of her parents’ home, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with only her cousin Edmund as an ally. When Fanny’s uncle is absent in Antigua, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive in the neighborhood, bringing with them London glamour and a reckless taste for flirtation. As her female cousins vie for Henry’s attention, and even Edmund falls for Mary’s dazzling charms, only Fanny remains doubtful about the Crawfords’ influence and finds herself more isolated than ever. (Adapted from Goodreads)
2007 Movie Synopsis: At age 10, Fanny Price is sent by her destitute mother to live with her aunt and uncle, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. As a child she was often made to feel that she was the poor relation but by the time she reaches 18, and in the absence of her uncle who leaves on a business trip for an extended period, she begins to enjoy herself. When Henry Crawford and his sister Mary become neighbors to the Bertrams, opportunities abound. Edmond Bertram falls in love with Mary but she wants to marry a man with money, not someone destined to life as a clergyman. Meanwhile, Fanny’s love for her cousin Edmond prevents her from accepting Mr. Crawford’s proposal of marriage. (From IMDB)
Themes Explored: death, destitution, family relationships, romance, comedy of manners, classic novels, social mobility, primogeniture, town versus country, rags to riches
Review: First published in 1814, Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s third published novel. The novel focuses on the story of Fanny Price, beginning with her impoverished family sending her off to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle at the age of 10. Several screen adaptations of the novel exists; however, only the 1983 version truly captures the tone of the novel. Part of the problem with adapting Mansfield Park to the screen lies with the iconic notion of an Austen heroine. Lizzy Bennet from Pride & Prejudice, Emma Woodhouse from Emma, and Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility all possess a strong independence streak coupled with a deep conviction about their places in the world. Anne Elliot from Persuasion and Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey, while not as fiery, eventually come into their own. However, Fanny Price does not fit with this model of fierce independence fitting for the period and social structure. Fanny represents a significantly meeker and rather bland heroine. Nearly all movie or television adaptations of the novel try to make Fanny into a slightly less independent version of Lizzy Bennet and this character change does not work within the confines of the narrative. The 2007 ITV adaptation is, by the far, the most egregious adaptation.
Mansfield Park follows the life of Fanny Price after she comes to live with her wealthy uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. Fanny’s mother, Lady Bertram’s sister, married down, socially speaking. Mr. Price, a sailor, drinks excessively and can no longer work due to a disability. Desperate to make ends meet, Fanny’s mom convinces her sister to raise Fanny. Once at Mansfield, Fanny endures continual abuse from by other aunt, Mrs. Norris, a busybody who runs the estate. While Fanny is shy and unassuming, the Bertram daughters, Maria and Julia, are obsessed with marrying above their rank and wearing the latest fashions. Tom Bertram, the heir, spoiled by wealth spends most of his time drinking. Edmund Bertram, the younger son, plans to enter the clergy. Due to her impoverished state, Fanny grows up shy and deferential with only Edmund as a real friend.
Like other Austen novels, Mansfield Park examines a young woman trying to find her place in the social order. Fanny eventually determines her social status through marriage. As women could not enter a profession, only marriage could raise them or lower them down on the social ladder. Fanny’s mother fell downwards, her aunt Lady Bertram and her cousin Maria do fairly well by marrying. While the marriages of others have been formulated based on beauty and family connections, Fanny “earns” her marriage based upon her pure character. Virtue is Fanny’s defining feature and the one factor that determines her fate.
Austen makes the point in this novel that country life can also have an element of corruption, which makes this her most socially aware narrative. Sir Thomas Bertram leaves the narrative for nearly a third of the story in order to tend to business interests in the Caribbean. The Bertram’s own a sugar plantation, which, given the time, uses slave labor. This fact comes up when Fanny asks Sir Thomas about the slave trade. As the man of the house, Sir Thomas serves as the moral compass, more or less. When he leaves, the family goes astray.
In a highly mobile world, like the one that existed in 1814, where people move from Bath to London to the country every few months, it becomes nearly impossible to know anyone’s character since most of their lives occur out of your view. As such, sincerity becomes a crucial quantity. The possibility that someone might be acting is a sincere paranoia when deciding upon a marriage partner. Fanny’s withdrawn nature and shyness makes her proper young woman, but also provides an excellent defense against dishonest suitors. This behavior also serves to highlight the differences between Fanny and the Bertram sisters. While Fanny does her best to stay consistent with her values and upbringing, Maria and Julia change their personalities based upon whom they are trying to impress. Unsurprisingly, Fanny ends up living a more fulfilled life than the ones her cousins chose. In a world where virtue mattered, Fanny reigns supreme.
Part of the problem with Mansfield Park lies in Fanny’s relationship with Edmund. They live in the same house and are, essentially, “siblings”. Once they reach adulthood, Edmund begins looking for a wife, as befits his station in life. Fanny does not attract many suitors due to her impoverished state. Indeed, if she cannot find a decently well off husband, Fanny faces a life of uncertainty as her social station rests solely on the good intentions of her uncle and cousin. Fanny and Edmund eventually end marrying each other and this outcome is supposed to make the reader to feel uncomfortable. Edmund chooses Fanny after his first choice turned out to be lacking in character. Given Fanny’s virtue, their shared history, and her devotion to him, Edmund marries her instead. Unlike Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park is not a romantic novel. Instead, it is more an expose on society’s views on home life, virtue, marriage, and sincerity. Fanny never really had an option in life due to her station and Edmund wanted a respectable wife. By society’s standards, they made a perfect pair.
Now, onto the movie. Billie Piper, mostly famous for being in Doctor Who and Secret Diary of a Call Girl, plays Fanny Price. Jenna Redgrave and Douglas Hodge portray Lady and Sir Bertram. James D’Arcy and Blake Ritson (most famous for playing Mr. Elton in the 2009 version of Emma) portray Tom and Edmund Bertram, with Michelle Ryan and Catherine Steadman as Maria and Julia. All in all, this is a fairly solid cast with enough talent to make a compelling adaptation. However, the screenwriter seemed to have forgotten to read the novel when writing the 2007 adaptation. Given the short run time of 90 minutes, a majority of the narrative was cut due to time constraints. Unfortunately, some of these changes hurts the underlying integrity of the story.
Nearly all of the action take place on the grounds of Mansfield Park. None of the other locations explored in the book make an appearance in the movie. This includes the neighboring Rectory of Mrs. Grant where the Crawford’s reside, the cottage of Mrs. Norris, the estate of Mr. Rushworth, Sotherton Court, and the Price family residence in Portsmouth. While these deletions shortened the run time, cutting out the action that occurred there really hampered the development of all the characters.
Billie Piper played Fanny too modern and tomboyish. The Fanny depicted in the novel would never run through her Uncle’s house or look like her hair had never met a comb. Part of the problems lays with the script, which cut out ninety percent of Fanny’s dialogue. This version of Fanny did not have a lot to say and was relegated to background with a stone-faced expression or simpering on cue when needed to show “emotion”. During the climactic scene where Fanny opposes her Uncle Thomas’ wish for her to accept Henry Crawford’s proposal, the character was so marginalized I could not believe this version of the character was capable of pleading her case so passionately. Edmund Bertram’s best scenes, unfortunately, did not occur with the heroine, but with Mary Crawford. His best scene occurred when ending his infatuation with Mary.
Of all the performances, Michelle Ryan’s portrayal of Maria Bertram came the closest to the character’s depiction in the novel. When on screen, Ryan dominated the scene and demanded the viewer’s complete attention. Unfortunately she did not have nearly enough to do in this version.
In this version of Mansfield Park, most of the young women tend to display a rather out of period amount of cleavage. Billie Piper, who plays Fanny, has bleached blonde hair that grew during production. Towards the latter half of the film, the roots do not match the rest of her hair. Given the time, a lady from a respectable household would not possess multi-colored hair. In addition, Fanny always wears her hair down, which is a style only appropriate for young girls. A young woman who participates in social events containing non-family members would wear her hair up. Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram both sported rather unsightly mops of hair more appropriate for members of a boyband than members of the British aristocracy.
Perhaps the most egregious decision was to cut out Fanny’s trip to Portsmouth, where her parents and siblings live. Sir Thomas sent Fanny back to Portsmouth in order to induce her to marry Henry. This scene plays a pivotal role in the novel since it solidified exactly what Fanny would be giving up if Sir Thomas kicked her out of the family. Instead of being sent away from Mansfield to Portsmouth and witnessing poverty firsthand, in this version the Bertram’s merely leave her behind when they go to London. Being left behind at a huge estate, with servants at her beck and call, did not have the same power as the trip to Portsmouth. After years of waiting on everyone hand and foot, having an estate all to oneself would seem more like a break from responsibility than a lesson on poverty. This change that does a disservice to Fanny’s characterization and robs her of a critical moment of development.
Other than the name and the characters, this version of Mansfield Park bears little resemblance to the novel. As long as you are not expecting an adaptation of the novel and merely want to watch a decent semi-accurate costume drama, this version is okay.
Mansfield Park, Penguin Classics, 2003 reprint, ISBN: 9780141439808
Mansfield Park 2007 Movie
Synopsis: Jazz Bashara is a criminal. Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent. Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first. (Goodreads)
Themes Explored: science fiction, moon, science, space travel, crime, father issues, religion, fear, corporate greed, Robin Hood complex, gravity
Review: Full disclosure, I did not finish this book. I made it about halfway through and could not force myself to keep reading. Though I did read the last chapter just to know the ending. Given Artemis only has 305 pages, the narrative did not quite live up to the description. As a sophomore novel, Artemis, unfortunately, struggles to live up to the phenomena of The Martian. While The Martian focused on “hard” science fiction, Artemis combined science speculation with a pseudo Robin Hood storyline. I think Andy Weir writes excellent science fiction; however, he tried a little too hard with Artemis.
Part of the popularity behind The Martian, Weir’s wildly popular debut, was making an astronaut stranded on Mars a relatable protagonist. In probability, Mark Watney’s voice may just be a fictionalized version of Weir. In Artemis, Weir takes the same jokey personality and tries to jam it the body of Jazz, a blunt talking “brilliant” young woman. The results are spotty at best.
The main premise revolves around Artemis, mankind’s first and only city located on the moon. Fittingly, Artemis occupies the Sea of Tranquillity region where Apollo 11 landed. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin serve as the unofficial first founders. Unsurprisingly, this lunar city’s main income comes from a vibrant tourism economy. Approximately 2,000 people permanently live in Artemis.
Weir excels at world building, which is the saving grace of this novel. His descriptions of Artemis make the city jump off the pages and seem both familiar and foreign. A massive complex of five sphere-shaped, multi-storied, domed buildings called “bubbles” connected by tunnels form Artemis. Some bubbles contain more resources and opulence than others. To save space, the city has a sophisticated layout of hallways rather than streets. Give the tourism industry, numerous resort hotels, casinos, theaters, restaurants, boutique shops, and luxury apartments take up some of the floor space. For the workers who upkeep the city and provide service to the tourists there are various living quarters, which range from palatial to coffin-esque.
Since Artemis exists on the moon, all entrances and exits are hermetically sealed: the city complex, vehicles, space suits, the Apollo 11 Landing Site Visitors Center, the train, etc. Any exiting or entering from outside the complex must occur through an airlock.
The narrative focuses on, Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, a 26-year-old Saudi Arabian woman whose father moved her to the moon at age six. Due to the difference in gravity, children under six cannot live on the moon and expectant mothers must return to Earth to give birth. Jazz fails the final test to qualify for the stable job she needs because she neglected to inspect her space suit. Since she failed this entry exam, Jazz returns to working as a lowly porter and lives in the least desirable housing (aka a coffin-esque apartment). However, Jazz conveniently knows a brilliant billionaire who exploits her poverty, lack of ambition, and porter status to try her hand at a major crime as a way to get rich quick.
As a science fiction novel, Artemis works due to the great scientific explanations woven into the dialogue and descriptions. On the crime thriller front, the narrative falls flat due to a lack of suspense and poorly constructed characters. Jazz is supposed to be a smart whizz kid, but she has no formal education of any kind and keeps committing stupid infractions that make her seem less than capable. A super intelligent science whizz would know to check a space suit before wandering out into the open. All the characters suffer from one dimensionality and most of the attempts at humor come across juvenile. For instance, Jazz, a Muslim woman raised by a devout father, constantly talks about her breasts, other body parts, and all of her sexual dalliances. Even though she turned her back on religion, this dialogue seems rings a dissonant note. Reading some of Jazz’s dialogue made me think the character was originally a male and switched to female at the last minutes. Actually, given the characterization, Jazz works better as a male.
Here are some prime examples of Jazz’s dialogue. Remember, she is 26 years old, supposed to have a genius level intellect, and everyone complements her on being clever:
Switch the genders and the tone of the dialogue seems more believable. Given the lack of characterization, Jazz seems lazy, callous, selfish, unscrupulous, and incapable of speaking without vulgarity. Now women possess all these characteristics just like men; however, I find it hard to believe that a Muslim woman raised in a devout household would become so obnoxiously crude.
While the crime part of the novel really slowed down the narrative, the scientific explanation moved along at a great clip. After reading the first couple of chapters, I concluded that Weir’s main writing challenge is creating believable human interactions, or even characterization, between men and women. In an unsurprising turn, the most believable character in the narrative is a smart but socially clueless (male) scientist who struggles to make sense of other people’s thoughts and behaviors. Building believable characters takes a lot of work and experience. Hopefully Weir’s character development will improve over time. I do hope he keeps writing because he excels at writing science fiction. The world building and scientific explanation are the strongest aspects of the story and the passages that really shine all involve descriptions of this magical lunar colony. All things considering, no matter what subject his sophomore novel covered, it will always pale in comparison to The Martian. Hopefully novel number three will recapture some of the magic.
Artemis, Crown, 2017, ISBN: 9780553448122
Synopsis: Amber Patterson is fed up. She’s tired of being a nobody: a plain, invisible woman who blends into the background. She deserves more—a life of money and power like the one blond-haired, blue-eyed goddess Daphne Parrish takes for granted. To everyone in the exclusive town of Bishops Harbor, Connecticut, Daphne and her husband, Jackson—the beautiful philanthropist and the confident real estate mogul—are a golden couple straight out of a fairy tale, blessed with two lovely young daughters.
Amber’s envy could eat her alive–if she didn’t have a plan. Amber uses Daphne’s compassion and caring to insinuate herself into the family’s life, the first step in a meticulous scheme to undermine her. Before long, Amber is Daphne’s closest confidante, traveling to Europe with the Parrish family, and growing closer to Jackson. But a skeleton from her past may undermine everything that Amber has worked towards, and if it is discovered, her well-laid plan may fall to pieces. (Goodreads)
Themes Explored: jealousy, classism, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, narcissism, weight management, real estate, corporate espionage, suspense, thriller, mystery, destitution, manipulation, ageism, death, dyslexia
Review: Ladies, the man of your dreams is one backstabbing, pseudo-friendship away! Ever looked at a man and gone, woah, I wish I was his wife? Well you are in luck. According to Liv Constantine, all you need to land your dream guy is a size 4 waist, blonde hair, narcissism, self-hatred, a gym membership, a chip on your shoulder the size of the Titanic, and a pathological hatred of children. Enter the newest thriller novel dying for a movie adaptation, The Last Mrs Parrish.
Honestly, this book reads like a rejected psycho thriller meant for the big screen but ends up playing on the Lifetime channel at Noon. I read, a lot. I try to finish every novel I start, mainly due to pride. It’s a problem, especially when the narrative drags. Anyways, The Last Mrs. Parrish reads like a cross between Gone Girl , Fatal Attraction, and Fifty Shades of Grey, only without the novelty or the disturbing erotica.
Coming from an impoverished background in Missouri, Amber decides to move herself up the social ladder and sets her sights on Daphne and Jackson Parrish, a wealthy couple living in Bishops Harbor on Long Island Sound. With a single minded focus, Amber seduces Daphne into friendship by pretending to have a deceased sister and then starts moving in on Jackson. Amber brutally manipulates anyone who comes between her and her ultimate goal of becoming the next Mrs. Parrish. Approximately halfway through the narrative the point of view switches from Amber to Daphne. Suffice to say everything is not as it seems.
First of all, I enjoy reading about complex characters with questionable goals. However, Amber Patterson, the antagonist, takes the crown for most insufferable character of 2018 (so far). She makes mental snide comments about her coworkers, despises children, and is jealous of Daphne’s dead sister. Her sole motivation for destroying Daphne’s life is that her childhood sucked. Really. The first fourth of this book details in excruciating detail Amber’s bitterness and hatred of everyone who is even slightly better off than her. There is absolutely nothing likable about Amber. Everything she does is mean spirited, small minded, and full of hatred. Amber comes across as a caricature of a Disney villain. All she needs to seal the deal is a scene offering Daphne a poisoned apple.
Second, the novel presents Daphne in two lights: 1) as a passive wife and 2) as a master manipulator. Apparently Daphne wants out of her marriage and sees Amber as the perfect out. Her grand plan for driving her husband into Amber’s grasping arms? Going from a size 4 to a size 6. Oh and wearing unflattering swimsuits. Yep. What a mastermind.
Not that Jackson seems worth the effort. Other than money and good looks (because only drop dead gorgeous men are wealthy), he has no redeeming qualities. I do not enjoy writing negative reviews. Writing a book takes a lot of effort and willpower. However, lazy writing and poor characterization derails even the most compelling of plots. A strong villain needs a good reason for existing. Moaning about the pain of life and how unfair it can be when someone else has more money is not a strong enough reason to drive a plot forward. And a random corporate espionage plot thrown in at the last moment further confused the narrative.
Finally, the novel ends with the idea that severe domestic abuse is an appropriate punishment for extreme social climbers. Yes, Amber has no redeeming qualities. But ending up with an abusive narcissist who believes in marital rape seems a tad extreme. I finished the novel with the distinct impression that domestic abuse is simply what some women deserve. I did not enjoy this reading experience.
The Last Mrs. Parrish, HarperLuxe, 2017, ISBN 9780062688163
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.