John Grisham-The Rooster Bar

Synopsis: Mark, Todd, and Zola came to law school to change the world, to make it a better place. As third-year students, they realize the game is up. They all borrowed heavily to attend a third-tier, for-profit law school so mediocre that graduates rarely pass the bar exam, let alone land decent jobs. After learning that their school is one of several owned by a sleazy New York hedge-fund operator who also owns a bank specializing in student loans, the three know they bought into The Great Law School Scam.

Perhaps there is a way out of this mess. Maybe there is a way to escape their crushing debt, expose the bank and the fraud, and make a few bucks in the process. First they have to quit school. Leaving law school a few months before graduation would be completely crazy, right? Well, yes and no . . .(Adapted from Goodreads)

Themes Explored: law school thriller, legal thriller, mystery, banking fraud, student loans, American Bar Association, legal education, lawyers, attorneys, immigration, bankruptcy, despair, depression, fraud, bar tending


Review: Law School and Medical School in American represent the two most expensive education decisions anyone could ever make. As with undergraduate degrees, law degrees vary in quality depending upon the ratings tier of the University and if it is a private or public institution. On average, private Universities cost more than public ones. This year (2018), law schools report that the average student loan debt for graduating lawyers range anywhere from $24K to over $170K. However, this range only includes the effects of scholarships on tuition and exclude living expenses. Add in living expenses, which vary by state and city, and you need to double (sometimes triple or quadruple) the average costs. That means, on average, law students graduate with anywhere from $48K to $340K in student loan debt.

Take a moment to examine the toll of student loans on the average graduate from Harvard Law School. A Harvard Law graduate who paid full price, with no scholarships will graduate owing between $297,548 and $322,348. Under the standard 10-year repayment plan, this would balloon to a repayment amount of $400,000 or $550,000 under a 20-year plan. Obviously, people attend law school with the hopes of making a nice return once they enter the working world. Current estimates are that starting salary for a lawyer, working at a corporate firm, is $160K, with a median of $135K. Lawyers employed at smaller firms or government jobs can expect salaries between $45K and $90K. Of course, this all rests on the assumption that these newly minted law graduates can pass the Bar Exam. If you do not pass the Bar, good luck paying off those loans.

In The Rooster Bar, John Grisham tackles the darker side of the law school dream: people who attend subpar law programs and graduate with crushing debt they can never repay.

Honestly, unless you can get into a top 50 (possibly top 70) law program, the debt load should deter you from accepting an offer from a low tier school. Sadly, Mark, Todd, and Zola failed to do their research before accepting offers of admission to the Foggy Bottom School of Law (this is a fake school). Foggy Bottom is an actual neighborhood in Washington, D.C. and the perfect name for a sleazy law school. In this story, Hinds Rackley owns a network of for profit law schools. His ownership remains hidden under a mountain of shell corporations, including Varanda Capital, Baytrium Group and Lacker Street Trust. In addition, Rackley also owns several private student loan companies including Quinn & Vyrdoliac and Sorvann Lenders. These shady dealings have made Rackley billions of dollars. (Grisham borrows heavily from the Wells Fargo fraud case when explaining Rackley’s financial capers)

Once Mark, Todd and Zola figure out that the Foggy Bottom admission marketing sold them a rotten bill of good, they realize that completing their studies is pointless. After witnessing several ambulance chasing lawyers soliciting clients at the courthouse, our three heroes figure out that nobody ever asks if these hustlers actually passed the bar. Therefore, Mark and Todd open their own practice, with offices located at the bar where Todd works.  Zola heads to the hospital to drum up clients in the ER waiting room. The owner of the Rooster Bar, Todd’s employer, lets them use the apartment/office upstairs and use the address on their bogus business cards.

In the hectic world of traffic and municipal courts, anyone with half a brain and a decent suit could easily pretend to be a lawyer. Someone would eventually catch onto the charade and oust the pretenders, but some enterprising individuals could pull off the charade for a while, especially in busier courthouses. Mark, Todd, and Zola choose to leave school and become ambulance chasers after the tragic death of their bipolar classmate Gordy Tanner. After Gordy leaps off the Arlington Memorial Bridge, the three friends decide evade their loan officers and prove their dead friend’s crazy conspiracy theories. Gordy was the first one to link Rackley to both the law school and the student loan program. For three kids with bad grades and low LSAT scores, they prove rather savvy. They set out on the mission to bring Rackley down. The rest of the book deals with Mark, Todd, and Zola hustling to get clients and prove that Rackley knowingly provides student loans to people who cannot afford them.

Somehow this trio remains somewhat likable all while they are buying fake IDs, breaking every rule ethical rule in the book, falsely signing on to a class-action lawsuit inspired by the Wells Fargo customer-fraud settlement, and evading immigrant officials (in Zola’s case). Grisham makes some decent points about the state of legal education in American. Taking out a mortgage worth of loans on a degree from a middling-at-best school is a terrible life decision. Sadly, a whole loan industry has emerged that preys on naïve people with subpar grades looking to boost themselves up in the world. Someone attending a low tier law school has no business taking out 200K+ in student loans, they will never pay them back.

I like Grisham; Skipping Christmas (the inspiration for the 2004 movie Christmas with the Kranks) is one of the funniest books I have ever read. However, The Rooster Bar lacks the edge and wit of his previous legal thrillers. Todd and Mark are so interchangeable they might as well be the same character. Zola only exists so Grisham can make a heavy-handed argument about American immigration policies. While Mark, Todd, and Zola definitely have some intelligence, they just do not seem like the type of people who can drop out of law school and then con their way into a class action lawsuit. If they were that smart, how did they end up at Foggy Bottom School of Law in the first place? Overall, this is not one of Grisham’s better novels. It drags a lot in the middle of the narrative and none of the characters are overly memorable. Except for Rackley. If you are a fan of Grisham, then you might like The Rooster Bar, if not, I would suggest reading some of his earlier novels.

In the author’s note, Grisham states that his inspiration for the novel came from an article in The Atlantic called The Law-School Scam. It is an expose on for-profit law schools and makes an interesting read.

The Rooster Bar, 2017, Doubleday, ISBN: 9780385541176

James Michener -Chesapeake

Synopsis: In the early 1600s, young Edmund Steed desperately seeks to escape religious persecution in England. After joining Captain John Smith on a harrowing journey across the Atlantic, Steed makes a life for himself in the New World, establishing a remarkable dynasty that parallels the emergence of America. This extraordinary tale intertwines stories of family and national heritage, joining together Quakers, pirates, planters, slaves, abolitionists, and notorious politicians, all making their way through American history in the common pursuit of freedom (Adapted from Goodreads).

Themes Explored: fiction, historical fiction, American history, founding of America, history of Virginia, Quakers, pirate, religion, religious persecution, Native Americans, death, life, family, slavery, tobacco growing, pirate attacks, the American Revolution, the Civil War, Emancipation, the Watergate scandal, poverty, industry, literary fiction


Review: Outside of college literature classes, I am not sure how many people read James Michener anymore. He wrote three of the bestselling novels in the 1960’s, after a string of successful books in the 1950’s. Michener exploded onto the literary scene in late 1947 when Rodgers and Hammerstein turned his first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, into a smash hit musical and then a blockbuster film. By the 1970’s Michener perfected the art of the “saga” novel and twice ascended to the top of the bestseller list for the biggest selling book of the year. Centennial was the best-selling hardcover novel in America in 1974. Chesapeake was the number one selling hardcover novel of 1978. Both books did similarly well when released in mass market paperback.

A majority of the events of the novel occurs on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, specifically around the Choptank River. Devon Island is fictional; buts its approximate location would lie immediately north of Todds Point, about 3 miles southeast of the southern tip of Tilghman Island. Michener lived in St. Michaels while he wrote Chesapeake. The Quaker Meeting House that Michener refers to in the book, is actually Third Haven Meeting House, built in Easton in the 1680’s. It is the oldest Quaker meeting house in the United States and is still used occasionally to this day.

The Chesapeake Bay is a unique body of water in the world. Fed primarily by the Susquehanna River, the Bay has a mixture of salt and fresh water which changes concentrations with the seasons. The vast expanses of brackish water hold numerous amounts of shellfish and finned fish (based on personal experience, it also smells terrible when it rains). Wading birds and waterfowl inhabit the salt marshes. Along with the three main families followed in the novel, the Bay plays an important role in the narrative.

Michener begins the book by following the lives of the Powhatans, Choptank, and Nanticokes from the late 1600’s to the modern day (approximately the 1970’s, the decade Michener wrote the book). A Susquehannock man named Pentaquod ends up finding a new people on the eastern shore who establishes the dynasty whose descendants we follow throughout the book. The book continues with dramatic subplots detailing conflicts between Europeans, Indians, and Africans. Chesapeake follows follow three families: the Catholic Steeds, the Quaker Paxmore’s, and the godless Turlock’s as they navigate through piracy, sea travel, slavery, plantations, war, and the United States in Post-Vietnam. 

Over the course of the book, Chesapeake covers four hundred years of history. Michener divided the novel into fourteen “episodes”, each with their own chapters. The first seven episodes concern the settlement of the Eastern Shore, first by Pentaquod, a peaceful member of the Susquehannock tribe. The Steeds settle on Devon Island and become landed gentry. While the Turlock’s occupy a lower socio-economic class and come from a long line of indentured servants. The Paxmore’s are Quakers who fled New England to escape religious persecution. Finally, the fourth family, the Caters, are the descendants of slaves. Michener uses these families as a way to explore how different belief systems shaped the evolution of the American Eastern Shore. Environmentalism underlies most of the narrative. Devon Island ends up eroding, despite the Steed family making every effort to keep it afloat. Three main themes play out over the course of the book: slavery, poverty, and industry.

As the book deals with the settlement of the Eastern Coast, slavery is an overriding theme. The wealthy Steeds become great landowners and one of the biggest slave owners in the colonies. Whereas the Paxmore’s become the first proponents of emancipation; the Choptank Quakers’ Association was one of the first religious organization to ban slavery. One of the main characters, Cudjo Cater, is captured in Africa and enslaved on the Steed plantation. He eventually buys his freedom and settles into the nearby township with a wife. However, the Cater family is forever affected by slavery, even after emancipation. Right before and during the American Civil War, the Paxmore’s form the Maryland part of the Underground Railroad to help escaping slaves reach free territory in Pennsylvania. All these tensions and struggles affect all the families in numerous ways throughout the centuries.

Poverty is illustrated best through the lives of the Turlock’s, who inhabit the marshland on the riverside. While they are the family most attuned to nature throughout the book, they live in a one bedroom shack originally built in the 17th century, and the adults have sexual relations within eyesight of the children. By the end of the book, several members of the Turlock’s pulled themselves out of poverty. By 1978 the head of the Turlock family is a wealthy real estate broker. Outside of the marsh, the other poor location is the area of the town called “The Neck”, which held all the freeman housing. Compared to the rest of the coast, the living standards are greatly reduced in The Neck.

Industry is explored in how each family chooses to build their life. Pentaquod settles on a clifftop which he considers paradise. Edmund Steed builds his familial estate on Devon Island. His descendants eventually own thousands of acres and flourish economically, at least until the Island erodes away. After being banished from Massachusetts, Edward Paxmore, a Quaker carpenter, constructs his house on a cliff overlooking the Choptank. With the help of the Indians, Edwards eventually learns to build boats out of necessity. Once he masters the art of building ocean faring vessels, his boat business becomes highly successful. The Caters struggle economically for a long time, until Big Jimbo Cater becomes a cook for an oyster harvesting skipjack. Through this job, he eventually saves enough to buy his own skipjack, employs his family, and becomes a successful captain. The Caveneys, who emigrated from Ireland during the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s, easily assimilate and become central characters in the boating business subplots. Each family, in their own way, showcases how  hard work and determination can lead to success.

Religion runs underneath all the main themes in the book. Michener presents four religious perspectives in the book: Catholicism, Quakerism, Native American Mythology, and Atheism. Each family acts based upon their own religious beliefs, though the strength of the families’ convictions weaken with each generation. However, religion does not play as big a theme in the novel as the three listed above. Overall, Chesapeake is a great saga novel of a type that is not written today. While Michener is now highly degraded in literary circles, his books represent a great snapshot in history. He covers a lot of time in each novel but does not linger overly long on any one time period.  At 1,024 pages (865 for the hardcover edition), Chesapeake requires a time commitment to get through, but it is a great read.

Chesapeake, 2003, Dial Press (first published 1978), ISBN: 9780812970432

James Patterson & Bill Clinton-The President is Missing

Synopsis: An unknown threat looms large over the United States. Uncertainty and fear grip Washington. There are whispers of cyberterrorism and espionage and a traitor in the cabinet. The President himself becomes a suspect, and then goes missing. (Adapted from Goodreads)

Themes Explored: cyberterrorism, politics, fiction, political thriller, mystery, terrorism, death, loss, high stakes parenting, espionage, grief, trust, betrayal, backstabbing, father daughter relationships. 


Review: Funnily enough in order to write book reviews, one needs to read books. I finally finished one! Hence, a book review. Please try to contain your excitement.

The President is Missing deals with a turbulent three days in the life of U.S. President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan. He receives a threat from an unknown source with a threat of massive proportions. This thrusts President Duncan into a conundrum: tell the U.S. citizenry about the threat and cause widespread panic or neutralize the threat and deal with the repercussions later. Complications arise when Duncan discovers a traitor amongst his six closest allies. Who betrayed him? Can he save America from a threat so severe the nation may never recover? Join John McClane as he races to save the world from a dangerous villain. Wait, never mind this is not Die Hard. Join President Duncan as he wishes he were John McClane while he races against time to save America from a dangerous villain.

Duncan checks all the criteria of a Hollywood action hero: he is a former governor of an unnamed southern state,  an Iraq War vet/POW, former army ranger, retired semi-professional baseball player, law school graduate, suffers from a debilitating blood disorder (he cannot be too perfect after all), and his (brilliant and beautiful) wife died of cancer. His female vice-president does not like being upstaged by her boss, who she describes as a “war hero with rugged good looks and a sharp sense of humor”. He can do no wrong, except for a hair trigger temper. However, he has a reason for his anger. The Speaker of the House wants to impeach him for no reason! No, not because he conducted a clandestine affair with a female intern, but because he spoke on the phone with Suliman Cindoruk, the world’s most wanted terrorist for-hire. Heaven forbid.

Obviously, only Duncan can save America from a cyberattack. This means slipping away from the Secret Service and meeting two foreign cyber terrorists at Nationals Park. These two cyber terrorist wannabes are having second thoughts about the virus they wrote for Cindoruk. Nicknamed “Dark Ages”, this modern threat will bring the US to its knees. All bank records will be wiped, the electricity grid will go down, water will cease running out faucets, air defenses will fail, Alexa will stop buying things on Amazon, and lots of lonely people will be unable to connect on Tinder. Whose behind this threat? Russia? China? North Korea? Someone else?

Like all good action heroes, the president sneaks out of the West Wing, disguises himself with makeup with the help of a famous actress, and then meets a mysterious person in the nosebleed section of Nationals Park. No wonder nothing gets done in Washington, the President is too busy foiling terrorist plots single handedly!

The title is rather misleading. Duncan never goes missing; he lies low for a bit and spends most of the narrative surrounded by his Secret Service security detail, other aides, and various officials. He narrates most of the book, which would not work if he actually disappeared.

A sexy, pregnant, female, vegetarian assassin named Bach stalks an unknown target throughout the book. She and Duncan eventually meet up during the last fourth of the novel. Do not worry, the President does not defeat her. He allows the Secret Service to take one for the team.

After some interesting but predictable twists, the novel ends with the president foiling the computer virus at the absolute last second and delivering an earnest televised address, where he promises to uphold every policy President Clinton ever supported. At regular intervals during the narrative, Duncan intersperses his action sequences with some folksy homilies regarding police shootings, race relations, gun control, and U.S. relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Other than the policy suggestions and the fact that a bowling alley is in the basement of the White House, I am unsure what exactly Clinton contributed to the narrative. I did notice that nearly all of President Duncan’s advisers, aides, and Cabinet Members are highly attractive women. Clinton must be daydreaming. Imagine Die Hard is actually a docu-series with John McClane as President and you have the entire character development of President Duncan and the plot of the novel. Duncan is the ultimate political maverick with the body and reflexes of a superhero, every politicians’ dream. If you have ever read a James Patterson novel or any kind of political thriller, The President is Missing does not hold many surprises. It is an interesting story but also so generic it is forgettable once you reach the end.

The President is Missing, 2018, Little, Brown and Company and Knopf, ISBN: 9780316412698

Movie Review: The Meg

  • Director: Jon Turteltaub
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Jason Statham, Bingbing Li, Rainn Wilson, Robert Taylor
  • Screenplay: Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, & Erich Hoeber
  • Based on the Novel By: Steve Alten
  • Music By: Harry Gregson-Williams
  • Cinematography: Tom Stern 
  • Running Time: 113 Minutes
  • Premiered: August 10, 2018

Synopsis: After escaping an attack by what he claims was a 70-foot shark, Jonas Taylor must confront his fears to save those trapped in a sunken submersible (Adapted from IMDb).


 Review: Everyone wants to make Jaws but few will succeed. I spent a year of my life working with fossilized shark teeth and learning about prehistoric shark hunting behaviors. Laying aside scientific reasoning and accepting pseudo-science in the movies takes a lot of effort. In this case, the pseudo-science did not make logical sense and cardboard has a stronger personality then any of the forgettable characters in this film. However, as a mindless monster film, The Meg lives up to its promise: lots of cheesy action and a shirtless Jason Statham.

The Marianas Trench is the deepest known point in the world’s oceans located in the western Pacific Ocean about 124 miles (200 km) east of the Mariana Islands. This crescent shaped trench is roughly 1584 miles (2,550 km) long, 43 miles (69 km) wide, and 6.8 miles (36,070 ft or 10.9 km) deep. For an idea of scale, if we dropped Mount Everest (29,029 ft) into the Trench, the peak would be more than a mile beneath the surface. Instead of ocean floor, what if part of the Marianas Trench’s floor was actually a layer of gasses and silicon created by hydrothermal vents. If another layer of ocean existed even deeper than the Trench, what kinds of aquatic life would exist?

This is the question the fictional underwater research facility, Mana One, seeks to answer. Spearheaded by the visionary Chinese oceanographer Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao) and his brilliant daughter, Suyin (Bingbing Li), Mana One uses state-of-the-art high-tech submersibles to dive into the Trench. They hope to discover an ecosystem filled with unique species and an ancient world hidden for millions of years. Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson), a brash American billionaire, funds Mana One and stops by the facility to watch the inaugural dive.

Without any contingency plan in place, the team dives into the Trench, discovers a layer of gas instead of a real floor, and then experience trouble. Funnily enough, the unseen ancient world includes more than cuddly fish. In fact, the Trench hides a Megalodon (the titular “Meg”), 75 feet of dark, angry, pre-historic shark that no one thinks could possibly still exist. Unfortunately, the submarine’s bright lights attract the Meg and the trapped researchers find themselves clinging to survival in an area of the Ocean with little hope of rescue. Jessica McNamee plays Statham’s characters ex-wife, who happens to be the captain of the submersible.

Enter Jonas Taylor (Statham). Statham takes on the role of Jonas Taylor, a deep-sea rescue diver haunted by a complicated rescue five years earlier when he had to leave a submarine full of sailors to die. Doctor Zhang goes looking for Taylor as he is then only diver capable of making such a deep dive and rescue the crew from the Megalodon. One problem, Taylor gave up diving and not sits on a beach in Thailand drinking beer every day. Of course the excessive beer consumption has no effect on Taylor’s physique, he still sports a rock hard eight pack and 9% body fat.

Regardless, Taylor has no interest in helping Dr. Zhang. Until Zhang reveals that Taylor’s ex-wife is one of the research members. Because Taylor and his ex-wife had the most amiable divorce in history, he comes to China to rescue her from a watery grave. Suyin, Zhang’s single daughter, strikes up a romantic flirtation with Taylor based solely on seeing him shirtless. The rescue mission goes as smoothly as possible. Naturally, the shark escapes the Trench and the research team must race against time to keep the Megalodon from wreaking havoc in the modern oceans.

Two things really dragged the narrative down, terrible dialogue and no character development. The dialogue felt like a bad facsimile of how the screenwriters thought scientists talk. A heavy-handed amount of exposition made all the characters seem significantly less than intelligent than their professions would imply. Taylor communicates in typical Statham grunts and menacing glances.

Development wise, all the characters lack depth. When a major character dies, no one bats an eye. Taylor and his ex-wife interact more like brother and sister than former spouses. None of the supporting characters stands out in any way; they just exist in the background until the plot requires their death or scientific expertise. Stronger dialogue and more thoroughly developed characters would have elevated this movie from run-of-the-mill popcorn flick to an exciting deep-sea thriller that happens to include a shark. You end of cheering for the shark because the narrative does not make you care about of the characters.

Jaws can keep swimming; The Meg works as a lightweight summer blockbuster but will soon fade into television movie obscurity.

A Simple Favor. The Review.

  • Director: Paul Feig
  • Rating: R
  • Starring: Blake Lively, Anna Kendrick, Henry Golding
  • Screenplay: Jessica Sharzer
  • Based on the Novel By: Darcey Bell
  • Music By: Theodore Shapiro
  • Cinematography: John Schwartzman
  • Running Time: 117 Minutes
  • Premiered: September 14, 2018

Synopsis: Stephanie, a mommy vlogger, attempts to uncover the truth behind her best friend Emily’s sudden disappearance. (Adapted from IMDb)


Review: How well do you know your friends? A Simple Favor twists adult friendship and motherhood into a dangerous concoction of secrets, lies, sexual liaisons, and perfect gin martinis. Based upon Darcey Bell’s debut novel, A Simple Favor explores the dark underbelly of human psychology. Thematically similar to Gone Girl, this film takes a more satirical look at the murder mystery genre. While a gorgeous movie to watch (the French music added a great exotic element), the cinematography choices felt more akin to something the Lifetime Network would produce. Feig, a comedy director, seemed to struggle with whether he wanted to make a satirical murder-mystery or an arthouse  black comedy. The end result falls somewhere in between.

The delightful Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie, a widowed mother who fits the textbook definition of helicopter parenting.  To fill her time between school volunteering gigs and mothering Miles (her son), Stephanie maintains a rather creepy “mommy” vlog watched. The intentional over production of her vlog adds a nice dimension to her perfectionism streak. Stephanie’s husband, Davis, and half-brother, Chris, died in a car accident, and leaves unclear which one is Miles’ father (the book answers this question). As a single mother, Stephanie struggles to connect with other women and has few friends. Enter Emily, the exotic, high-powered mother of Nicky, Miles’ best friend.

Portrayed by  Blake Lively, Emily is a statuesque, stiletto-clad fashionista who presents a cool, prickly demeanor to the world. Emily looks down on everyone and makes sure they know her opinion. The rather homely Stephanie struggles to understand why such a glamorous individual would deign to invite her home for drinks. Stephanie wears 10-pack animal-print socks from Target and Emily struts around in couture, hardly a Best Friend match made in heaven. Blake Lively is the only actress whose wardrobe I actively covet. She always looks amazing and does not disappoint in this film. The masculine inspired suit look does not look good on most women, but Blake pulls it off effortlessly. Her wardrobe mirrors the feel of the movie: cool, polished, but with a rotten surprise in the middle.

Plot wise, the twists where definitely different than the ones presented in the book. Narrative wise, the story follows the one in the novel fairly closely except for the ending. I think the movie has a more realistic ending than the novel. One of the biggest changes is that Emily and Sean (her husband, played by Henry Golding) financially struggle. In the book they have a lot of money and Sean works on Wall Street, not as a failed novelist turned literature professor. However, this change did add another layer of depth to Emily’s behavior. Golding, the lead actor from Crazy Rich Asians, struggles slightly with this role. This is only his second role in a film, ever, and the lack of acting experience makes him come across as slightly wooden. I would have liked to see some more depth of emotion in some of his scenes, especially in the ones where Emily sexually manipulates him. But I think Golding will grow into a great actor, he has the looks and the style, now he requires more experience to work on effectively emoting.

When Emily still disappears several days after asking Stephanie to watch Nicky (the “favor” in the title), things take a sinister twist. This results in Stephanie playing amateur sleuth and tapping her mommy network to search for clues. Using her vlog, Stephanie starts sharing the story of Emily’s disappearance and viewership starts spiking. Desperate for clues, she ends up visiting Emily’s office and runs into the haughty fashion designer Dennis Nylon, played with over-the-top flair by Rupert Friend. Then the police get involved and start turning everything on its head. Emily turns out to have a dark past and everyone realizes how little they actually know her.

A neighborhood of fellow-stressed out parents (Andrew Rannells, Aparna Nancherla and Kelly McCormack) function as a pseudo-Greek chorus. They represent the middle ground of parenting between super mom Stephanie and the cool Emily. Bashir Salahuddin portrays the world’s most affable detective, in the book this character was an insurance adjustor. His exposition is interspersed with Stephanie’s vlog entries. The backgrounds where Stephanie films provide a subtle commentary on her emotional state. Kendrick nails the sickly-sweet/naïve personality.

My biggest complaint with the movie lies in the screenplay. It dragged in the middle and did not keep the revelations tight enough. Most of Lively’s dialogue involved liberal doses of the F-word, which rather diluted her supposedly glamorous and sophisticated exterior. In my opinion, the excessive swearing did not add much to the character. Modern films seem to equate female “viciousness” with vulgarity and the result always feels disingenuous. The Emily in the movie is actually more unlikable than the version in the book.

Overall, A Simple Favor works due to the acting talent of Kendrick and Lively. They play against type and their chemistry works. I think the film falls short on the whodunit angle. Even people who did not read the book could probably figure out the ending well before the big reveal in the third act. Feig needed some tighter pacing in order to make the narrative more climatic. I hope Kendrick and Lively team up again in the future.

Mile 22-Movie Review

  • Director: Peter Berg
  • Rating: R
  • Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Lauren Cohan, Iko Uwais, John Malkovich
  • Screenplay: Lea Carpenter, Graham Roland
  • Music By: Jeff Russo
  • Cinematography: Jacques Jouffret
  • Running Time: 94 Minutes
  • Premiered: August 17, 2018

Synopsis: An elite American intelligence officer, aided by a top-secret tactical command unit, tries to smuggle a mysterious police officer with sensitive information out of the country (From IMDb).

Mile 22.jpg

Review: If you have watched any form of action film released in the last twenty years, the plot of Mile 22 becomes painfully obvious after twenty minutes. Mark Wahlberg and Paul Berg reunite for their fourth film together, first one based on an original script and not a quasi-biographical narrative. Previous collaborations include Lone Survivor (2013), Deepwater Horizon (2016), and Patriots Day (2016), which all depict real life events. I like Wahlberg, he oscillates between drama and comedy without feeling out of place in either. Unfortunately, Mile 22 failed to achieve much originality, it felt more paint-by-number than new and exciting.

Mile 22 depicts an elite covert CIA team that deploy only when all other options fail. If they fail, no one is coming to save them. Mark Wahlberg plays the leader, Jimmy Silva, a walking lethal weapon with a bad attitude. A hard-bitten agent and assassin, Jimmy never misses a to speak in aggressive rapid-fire tones about history, violence, nuclear weapons, his ex-wives, and so forth. Part way through the film a home-movie type montage of Jimmy’s childhood plays. The main problem with Jimmy is the lack of character development. Supposedly, Jimmy suffers from anti-social behavior and extreme anger. Wahlberg portrays Jimmy as a ball of rage who speaks in hard, clipped tones. Only problem, even perpetually angry people experience other emotions. Ben Affleck portrayed a similar character in The Accountant (2016) with better results.

The movie opens with Jimmy and his team bursting into a wood side suburban home that actually hides a Russian sleeper cell. This raid results in a frenzied ambush, glimpsed through low quality surveillance images monitored by a tech squad headed by Bishop, who is played by an underutilized John Malkovich. These hackers track the health of each team member as a method of tracking who lives or dies. He events of this mission set up the main narrative arc for the rest of the film.

A mystery agent, Li Noor (Iko Uwais), turns himself in to the American embassy of his home country claiming to know the location of a stolen Cesium shipments. While never identified, the host country seems like a harder, edgier version of South Korea. Li stored the information on a self-destructing disc, and has the unlock code. The disc will self-destruct in eight hours. In order to ensure his survival, Li will only reveal the code if Jimmy and his team escort him through twenty-two treacherous miles to a plane bound for America.

Jimmy’s team includes veteran agent Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan), who struggles with the realities of her profession. She has a daughter and an ex-husband who is divorcing her and moving on with someone named Linda. Alice’s main emotional development involves a lot of crying, cursing out her ex- over the phone-even though the new divorce software shuts down her communication with her young daughter as punishment for dirty language-and shouting at Jimmy. Cohan, from “The Walking Dead,” makes the most of a poorly sketched character. Ronda Rousey plays a meaner version of herself. None of the characters experience any real development and do not stand out in any memorable manner.

Berg chose to use a shaky cam, machine-gun style in order to get across the grittiness of the characters. The editing and dark cinematography makes some of the action sequences difficult to follow. Iko Uwaism, who plays Li, is a top notch martial-art star. Unfortunately, the script only gave him on martial art-esque sequence and never used his skills again.  The jumpiness of the camera combined with the jumbled narrative arc made a lot of the action sequences overly hard to follow.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is the depiction of modern warfare elements, combining boots-on-the-ground soldiers with high-tech, drone support. The plot stay current by including Russian hackers as a the secondary antagonists. While the script contains some good moments, they fail to shine amongst the jumble of everything else. Finally, viewers need to suspend a lot of disbelief that an ultra-secret, off-the-book team of commandos conduct all-out guerrilla warfare in broad daylight on a busy city before countless cameras while also staying completely undetected. Mile 22 contains a strong cast that is let down by a weak script and a twist you could see coming from miles away. This film was meant to serve as the launchpad for an action trilogy helmed by Wahlberg. I do not think that plan will happen.

Kevin Kwan-Crazy Rich Asians

Synopsis: When Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, she envisions a humble family home, long drives to explore the island, and quality time with the man she might one day marry. What she does not know is that Nick’s family home happens to look like a palace, that she will ride in more private planes than cars, and that with one of Asia’s most eligible bachelors on her arm, Rachel might as well have a target on her back. Initiated into a world of dynastic splendor beyond imagination, Rachel meets Astrid, the It Girl of Singapore society; Eddie, whose family practically lives in the pages of the Hong Kong socialite magazines; and Eleanor, Nick’s formidable mother, a woman who has very strong feelings about who her son should–and should not–marry. (Adapted from Goodreads)


Themes Explored: relationships, money, class differences, love, family, maternal-son relationships, marriage, sacrifice, wealth, boredom, power, inferiority, insecurities, real estate investing, fashion, luxury goods, Singapore culture.

Review: Instead of Prince Charming, Cinderella meets a rich, good-looking heir to a real estate empire. One caveat, she has no idea that he is insanely wealthy. Crazy Rich Asians takes the basic Cinderella plot and supercharges it into the 21st century, with hilarious results. I think I am the only person in America who has not seen the movie yet, I wanted to read the book first.

Crazy Rich Asians succeeds as a story due to the universality of the narrative, all the events depicted could occur anywhere to anyone. All the world building and Singapore specific details set the story apart from other modern “Cinderellaesque” narratives. In this case, “Cinderella” is Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American NYU economics professor who comes from a tough childhood. Her mom, a single mother, raised her alone while hopping between low paying waitress jobs while trying to get a real estate license. When the story starts, Rachel’s boyfriend of two years, Nick Young, attempts to persuade her to visit his family in Singapore. For the entire two years they have dated, Rachel always assumed Nick, a fellow adjust professor, came from a similar middle-class background and he never corrected this misunderstanding. However, marriage is on his mind when Nick invites Rachel to come with him to Singapore to meet his family and attend his friend’s (Colin) wedding. Rachel soon realizes that Nick is a little more financially stable than she expected-to say the least.

The narrative unfolds through three people’s point-of-view: Rachel, Nick, and Astrid. Astrid is Nick’s cousin and is the “It Girl” of upper class Singapore society. Of all Nick’s family, only Astrid knows about Rachel and has met her a couple of times in New York. Like most of the family, Astrid exhibits a larger-than-life affinity for shopping, has a stubborn streak, and a lot of heartbreak. Her husband, Michael, comes from much humbler beginnings and  feels inferior in Astrid’s world. Her relatives do not help matters by treating Michael like the family’s personal IT department.

Michael and Astrid have the most complicated relationship arc in the book. Their subplot explores class differences, insecurities, and how massive wealth can negatively influence familial relationships. I think this particular subplot serves as a nice reverse of Rachel and Nick. Whereas Rachel and Nick built a strong relationship based upon mutual attraction and compatibility, Astrid and Michael used money and sex to shore up the holes in their relationship. As with all things built upon illusion, the foundation cracks and everything comes tumbling down. Not that Astrid remains down for long; she is too resourceful to let a relationship failing hold her back.

Helping Rachel navigate the social and fashion culture of Singapore is Goh Peik Lin, her former roommate from college. Peik Lin comes from a wealthy family, not as rich as Nick but still insanely well off. Armed with a full wallet and a lot of sarcasm, Peik Lin plays fairy godmother and makes sure Rachel fully knows what to expect in this weird new world. Since Rachel knows only minimal details about Nick, Peik Lin and her family go on a fact finding mission to find out as much as possible about the Young family and if they are good enough for Rachel. Peik Lin is Rachel’s best friend and does not want her getting hurt or marrying someone who will not appreciate her accomplishments and intelligence. Several times throughout the novel Peik Lin keeps Rachel firmly attached to reality and passes along her stealth intelligence about Nick.

Nick’s mom, Eleanor Young, serves as the primary antagonist. A woman with strong convictions, she does not want Nick marrying the “wrong” type of girl, which includes anyone from Taiwan, mainland China, and a poor background. An ABC-American Born Chinese-economics professor does not quite match Eleanor’s vision of Nick’s future wife. This results in Eleanor doing her best to sabotage Nick’s relationship with Rachel and makes it quite apparent that she does not approve.

While marketed as a comedy, the book serves more as a drama of manners with some comedic undertones. The heart of the book, the romance angle, takes a backseat to the intricacies of navigating an unfamiliar world. Unlike most of Nick’s family, Rachel works. In Singaporean culture, as depicted in the book, all the women Rachel’s age get married and then stop working to raise the kids. Rachel expresses her desire to keep working, which sends shock waves through Eleanor and the other matrons of high society. A lot of backstabbing, catty ex-girlfriends, and bored socialites looking for a thrill follow Rachel throughout her short stay in Singapore. This week does not quite go as Nick planned.

Overall, I liked the book. It took me a couple of chapters to get involved in the narrative; I was expecting a different type of story. Kevin Kwan built a world both familiar and alien at the same time. Familiar in that we all can relate to meeting a significant other’s family and the anxieties that brings out in everyone. Weird in that most of us probably do not live in multi-billion dollar mansions with butlers and chauffeured high-end sports cars. The story works because of the familiarity and feels fresh due to the setting. While not a laugh-out-loud comedy, Crazy Rich Asians presents a subtlety comedic look at the absurdity of super wealth and neurotic families. The movie, based upon the trailer, adopts a more comedic tone than the book. 

Darcey Bell-A Simple Favor

Synopsis: It starts with a simple favor—an ordinary kindness. When her best friend, Emily, asks Stephanie to pick up her son Nicky after school, she happily says yes. A widow and stay-at-home mommy blogger living in woodsy suburban Connecticut, Stephanie was lonely until she met Emily, a sophisticated PR executive whose job in Manhattan demands so much of her time. 

Emily doesn’t come back, doesn’t answer calls, or return texts. Stephanie knows something is wrong—Emily would never leave Nicky. Terrified, she reaches out to her blog readers for help. She also reaches out to Emily’s husband, the handsome, reticent Sean, offering emotional support. Then, she and Sean receive shocking news. Emily is dead. Soon, Stephanie will begin to see that nothing is as simple as it seems. (Adapted from Goodreads)

Themes Explored: death, deception, friendship, family, relationships, motherhood, blogging, mother-child interactions, fashion, sexual relations, grief, genetic sexuality attraction, childhood, widowhood, reputation, restlessness


Review: Full disclosure, I read this book based solely upon the movie trailer. I wanted to know the ending before the movie debuted. Ever wonder what you neighbors get up to all day? According to this book, if your neighbor is a woman, they are probably blogging about motherhood or contemplating murder. You never know what goes on behind closed doors.

In this debut novel, an insecure woman with a dark past become friends with the narcissistic, glamorous couple next doors and finds her life irrevocably altered. Darcey Bell, the author, spends her days teaching school. Given the rather unflattering portrait of motherhood Bell depicts in this novel, you really wonder which parents she used as an inspiration for her characters.

A Simple Favor jumps between three different characters’ point of view: Stephanie, Emily, and Sean.

Stephanie, a recent widow, spends her day’s blogging about “mommy” issues and raising her young son Miles. She tends to overshare all manner of anxieties on her blog. Her husband and half-brother died in a tragic auto crash a year earlier. Feeling lonely and in need of adult friendship, Stephanie forms a play-date friendship with fellow Connecticut mom Emily, a busy publicist for a top Manhattan fashion designer. Emily’s son Nicky is best friends with Stephanie’s son Miles. While stunning, Emily’s beauty covers a dark edge that manifests as an unusual fondness for serial-killer movies and Patricia Highsmith novels. The two women share a common dysfunctional past: estrangement from Midwestern parents. During the first half of the novel, the narrative mainly focuses on Stephanie’s’ point of view. Once Emily disappears, the POV shifts between her, and her British Wall Street trader husband, Sean.

Emily is deeply wicked, bordering on psychopathic, while Stephanie is highly naïve but desperately wishes to appear edgy. Sean comes across as weak willed and deeply afraid of his wife.  As the plot advances, Emily becomes a fascinating character whose sole goal in life is to illegally cash in on a multi-million dollar insurance policy and live the rest of her life in exotic locations with her son and husband. In the middle of carrying out this scheme, a body is located in a lake in Maine, which may or may not be Emily.

Once Emily disappears, Stephanie jumps into “mom” mode (called “Captain Mom” in the book) and begins mothering Nicky while starting a sexual relationship with Sean. Stephanie is her own worse enemy, and even worse, extremely boring. The only person who ever loved Stephanie was her half-brother Chris, they led an extremely un-sibling like relationship. Over the course of the novel, while all these terrible events keep occurring, Stephanie maintains a constant stream of hyper-happy content on her dreadfully sugary blog aimed at moms.

While the novel contains some interesting aspects, the narrative feels too familiar to other recent novels. Gone Girl contained a similar premise and better pacing. A Simple Favor falters due to the lack of a sympathetic character. Sean, Emily, and Stephanie have no likable characteristics. Reading about a bunch of narcissistic and self-centered people ruin each other’s lives is a rather belabored task. If you have ever read a book dealing with insurance fraud, the “twist”  is not shocking or unexpected. Too many other authors have already told this story for A Simple Favor to stand out from the crowd. Overall, Darcey Bell possesses some storytelling talent. I hope that she keeps writing and her skills at constructing a compelling mystery will improve.  I think the story lends itself better to a movie than a full-length book, mainly because a visual telling will cut out many of the self-reflective passages that drag down the pacing.

A Simple Favor, Harper, 2017, ISBN: 9780062497772

Movie Debut: September 14, 2018 (USA)

Top 5 Robin Hood Films

Robin Hood is a cool character. He steals from the rich to give to the poor, all while swinging through trees, leading a merry gang of outlaws, and evading the infamous Sheriff of Nottingham. For such a neat character with a fantastic legacy, Hollywood manages to make a lot, A LOT, of disappointing movies based on Hood’s legend. In honor of the new Robin Hood movie coming out this November, here is a list of the best Robin Hood movies to date.

Disney’s Robin Hood (1973)

  • Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
  • Rating: G
  • Starring: Brian Bedford, Phil Harris, Roger Miller
  • Screenplay by: Larry Clemmons
  • Story Sequences by: Ken Anderson, Vance Gerry, Frank Thomas, Eric Cleworth, Julius Svendsen, & David Michener
  • Music by: George Bruns        
  • Art Direction by: Don Griffith
  • Film Editing by: Tom Acosta & James Melton        
  • Running Time: 83 Minutes
  • Premiered: November 8, 1973 (USA)


Synopsis: The story of the legendary outlaw is portrayed with the characters as humanoid animals. (From IMDb)

Review: Regardless of who plays Robin in any live action film, in my mind Robin will always look like a cheeky fox. Walt Disney’s animated Robin Hood recounts the story of the famous outlaw and Little John, here depicted as a fox and a bear respectfully. Robin Hood and Little John are uninhibited, mischievous pranksters that “rob the rich to feed the poor” and make Prince John’s life incredibly complicated. Dressed as rather unconvincing female fortunetellers, they pilfer Prince John’s money, jewels, hubcaps and even the royal robes off his back.

Robin counter balances his outlaw antics with his compassion for the impoverished peasants of Nottingham, whom he tries to help. His romance with Marian resembles school-age infatuation instead of “grown up” love. Given that this is a kid’s movie, the romance angle is age appropriate. In a nice touch, Maid Marian keeps a cherished picture of Robin in her tower room-his wanted poster. True love indeed.

I watched this movie so many times as a kid that I had all the songs memorized. A good Robin Hood movie needs to toe the line between drama and comedy because the premise of the story is slightly fantastical. This version works because the narrative is not overly serious but interjects enough comedy to counterbalance the darker elements. In my opinion, none of the live action versions have quite managed to capture the absurdity of the story amongst the social commentary.

Robin Hood (2010)

  • Director: Ridley Scott
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Matthew Macfadyen
  • Screenplay by: Brian Helgeland, Ethan Reiff, & Cyrus Voris
  • Music by: Marc Streitenfeld  
  • Cinematography by: John Mathieson
  • Running Time: 140 Minutes/ 156 min (director’s cut)
  • Premiered: May 14, 2010 (USA)


Synopsis: In 12th century England, Robin and his band of marauders confront corruption in a local village and lead an uprising against the crown that will forever alter the balance of world power. (From IMDb)

Review: I actually enjoyed the angle this movie took with the Hood story. Robin does not know the meaning of the word merry. Try misery instead. He has lived on his own since he was six years old and found a pseudo family in King Richard’s army. After Richard dies, Robin finds army life rather unbearable. Robin masquerades as a Knight by the name of Robert Loxley and rides to Nottingham, where he keeps up the facade, leads the Loxley household, and plays husband to a feisty Marion. This story combines elements from Robin Hood, Braveheart, and every stolen identity movie ever made.

After playing several paunchy characters who walk and talk a lot, it was fun to see Russell Crowe return to form as a flag carrying, battle hardened knight. In this version, Robin becomes a revolutionary theorist and the narrative implies that he invented the Magna Carta. Robin is a lionhearted patriot and opposes French aggression with a passion. He does not steal from the rich and give to the poor but demands that all the people of the land, rich or poor, deserve to have a say in creating the laws that bind them. The movie could have been better, but I still enjoyed it a lot. One thing I wish the movie focused more on was the tension between Robin and the Sheriff. If you blink, you will miss the Sheriff’s appearance in the narrative. 

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

  • Director: Michael Curtiz & William Keighley
  • Rating: PG
  • Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone
  • Screenplay By: Norman Reilly Raine & Seton I. Miller
  • Music by: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
  • Cinematography by: Tony Gaudio & Sol Polito
  • Running Time: 102 Minutes
  • Premiered: May 14, 1938 (USA)


Synopsis: When Prince John and the Norman Lords begin oppressing the Saxon masses in King Richard’s absence, a Saxon lord fights back as the outlaw leader of a rebel guerrilla army. (From IMDb)

Review: No list about Robin Hood could be complete without including Errol Flynn. The original action hero, Flynn paved the way for all the action stars of today. He swung through trees, saved countless women, and dominated the screens with masculine vitality. This version of Robin Hood follows Howard Pyle’s Merry Adventures of Robin Hood narrative.

When King Richard the Lionheart is captured, his scheming brother Prince John plots to reach the throne. This outrages Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), the bandit king of Sherwood Forest. Rounding up his band of merry men and winning the support of the lovely Maid Marian, Robin accuses Prince John of treachery. When the escaped Richard returns covertly to England, Robin joins forces with him to prevent Prince John from taking the crown. As an older film, the narrative focuses mostly on dialogue than action sequences. The film contains the hallmarks of a 1930’s movie: rapid-fire, rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, the aristocratic accents, and “formal” stage acting that can feel stilted. If you enjoy movie history and the evolution of swashbuckling action sequences, I would recommend watching at least one Errol Flynn action adventure. At 28 years old, both Errol and Taron Egerton are the two youngest actors to portray Robin Hood in a Hollywood movie.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

  • Director: Kevin Reynolds
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Alan Rickman
  • Screenplay By: Pen Densham and John Watson       
  • Music by: Michael Kamen
  • Cinematography by: Douglas Milsome
  • Running Time: 143 Minutes/ 155 Min extended
  • Premiered: June 14, 1991 (USA)


Synopsis: When Robin and his Moorish companion come to England and the tyranny of the Sheriff of Nottingham, he decides to fight back as an outlaw. (From IMDb)

Review: In his heyday, Kevin Costner dominated the silver screen. This version of Robin Hood tells a decent story and would rank higher if Costner had nailed down a consistent accent. His accent varies between lower class English, pseudo-Australian, and some weird American-British hybrid, sometimes all three occur in one sentence. Apparently, the accent proved a point of contention between Costner and the director.

After being captured by the Turks during the Crusades, Robin of Locksley and Azeem, a Moor, escape back to England. Azeem vows to remain until he repays Robin for saving his life. The Sheriff of Nottingham murdered Robins’ father. Then the Sheriff helped install Prince John as king while Richard is overseas fighting the Crusades. Robin returns home, vows to avenge his father’s death, and win Richard’s throne back. Maid Marian, Robin’s childhood friend, cannot help him, so he escapes to Sherwood Forest, joins a band of exiled villagers and becomes their leader. With the help of this merry band, Robin seeks to cleanse the land of the Sheriff’s nefarious intentions.  Costner does a decent job with the role.

The one redeeming feature of this narrative is Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham. The Sheriff’s use of the “dark” arts demonstrates his evil core. At the same time, the Sheriff gets the best one-liners in the film and Rickman definitely out acts the rest of the cast. Rickman portrayed creepy exceedingly well and breathed some great, malevolent life into the role. With some tighter editing and a better accent for Costner, this film could have been significantly better.

Ivanhoe (1952)

  • Director: Richard Thorpe
  • Rating: Approved/ TV-G
  • Starring: Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Fontaine
  • Screenplay By: Noel Langley, Æneas MacKenzie, & Marguerite Roberts
  • Based on the Novel By: Walter Scott
  • Music By: Miklós Rózsa
  • Cinematography by: Freddie Young
  • Running Time: 106 Minutes
  • Premiered: February 20, 1953 (USA)


Synopsis: A knight seeks to free the captive King Richard and put him back on the throne. (From IMDb)

Review: While not a traditional Robin Hood movie, Ivanhoe still tells a great “Hood-esque” tale. Ivanhoe, a worthy and noble knight, the champion of justice returns to England after the holy wars. He finds England under the reign of Prince John and his henchmen and finds himself being involved in the power-struggle for the throne of England. Will justice prevail and will all fair ladies in distress be rescued? A classic film, Ivanhoe contains everything you want out of a medieval tale: jousting, outlaws, betrayal, romance, a witch trial, and divisions between Jews and Christians.

Ivanhoe occurs in 12th century England and deals with jousting tournaments, outlaws, a witch trial and divisions between Jews and Christians. The book and movie increased interest in romance and medievalism and greatly influenced current perceptions of Richard the Lionheart, King John, and Robin Hood. (Do not expect historical accuracy, it is Hollywood after all)

The modern conception of Robin Hood as a cheerful, patriotic rebel/outlaw arose out of Ivanhoe.

“Locksley” became Hood’s title in the novel and stuck around ever since. This title came from an anonymous manuscript – dated to the 1600s – that used “Locksley” as an epithet for Robin. Ever since, Robin Hood from Locksley transformed into “Robin of Locksley”, aka Robin Hood. (There is a village called Loxley in Yorkshire.) Robin’s familiar feat of splitting his competitor’s arrow in an archery contest appears for the first time in Ivanhoe. Even though Robin does not play a major character in the film, Ivanhoe is worth watching due to its influence on the Hood legend. In addition, it is a great classic Hollywood epic, a win-win in my opinion.

Melissa Albert-The Hazel Wood

Synopsis: Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. When Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get: Her mother is stolen away—by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother’s stories are set. Alice’s only lead is the message her mother left behind: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.” (Adapted from Goodreads)

Themes Explored: magic, destiny, identity, mother-daughter relationships, death, life, after life, fantasy, nature vs nurture, rage, anger, friendship, fairy tale, marital abuse, poverty, imagination.


Review: The Brothers Grimm would probably approve. The Hazel Wood delves into the terrifying underbelly behind Once Upon a Time and Happily Ever After. Do not read this expecting Disney Princesses, Fairy Godmothers, and Handsome Princes. This story instead displays the dangers of fairy tales. If everything and everyone you loved disappeared into the fairy world, how would you react?

The Hazel Wood refers to two things: the secluded estate of a famous author and the location of living nightmares. Half-dark fairytale, half-psychological horror, Melissa Albert’s debut novel is not a lighthearted read. The protagonist possess more anger than the Incredible Hulk and has a smart aleck mouth that would make Deadpool proud. While marketed as young adult, I think this book definitely falls on the older side of the spectrum. Readers younger than sixteen might miss the allusions to previous dark fairy tales and the language definitely verges on “mature”. Content wise, The Hazel Wood marks a nice change of pace from the candy floss fluff of Disney fairy tale princess. (Not that there is anything wrong with Disney, sometimes you just want a twisted fairy tale)

Seventeen-year-old Alice Crewe and her mother, Ella, live fast and loose. Plagued with misfortune, they move fast when their luck runs out, moving throughout the continental US from small town to big city in an effort to stay one-step ahead from trouble. Once in a semi-stable life in upper class New York, their luck finally runs out. Alice’s maternal grandmother, the reclusive author of the cult book Tales from the Hinterland, dies in the Hazel Wood, her estate in upper state New York. Shortly afterwards, Ella is kidnapped. Ella’s last words to Alice are a command to stay away from The Hazel Wood, yet Alice has no choice but to mount a rescue mission, even if it kills one of them.

In a fit of desperation, Alice enlists the help of her classmate, Ellery Finch, who also happens to be a die-hard fan of her grandmother’s book. Soon reality and fantasy start to collide and characters from the ruthless Hinterland start terrorizing Alice and Ellery. Is the Hazel Wood a doomed estate or a doorway into an elusive and deadly fairyland? Alice must decide if she is willing to enter another world in order to save her mother and find out the truth about her family.

Based upon the description of the Hinterland, it sounds a lot like a much deadlier version of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. Odd creatures, weird prophecies, mysterious cabins, and “story” characters haunt the realm. Albert spends little time on exploring the other-worldliness of the Hinterland. Other than some weird time manipulations and a “reality refugee” bar, this other world does not seem much different from any other twisted fairyland. Albert only focuses on the terrible parts of fairyland. There is never a moment where she allows the reader to explore the Hinterland. No wonder or happy conclusions exist in this world. Perhaps the biggest drawback to the narrative is the lack of hope. Everything revolves around Alice’s severe rage and anger at existence. This does make the story a little hard to get through at points as unrelenting darkness becomes tiresome.

Part of the magic of fairy tales, even the twisted ones, revolves around the message of hope versus evil. Even in the darkest moments, hope exists for a better outcome. The Hazel Wood does not believe in hope. Only evil or ambivalence seems to exist in the Hinterland. Poor Alice cannot catch a break. Before the advent of the written word, fairy tales existed in an oral tradition as a way to teach morality. These tales exist to show the consequences of bad decisions but also the redemptive power of forgiveness and second chances, neither of which seem to exist in Albert’s world. I think this robs the story of a third dimension and makes it hard to root for Alice since there does not appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Overall, I enjoyed The Hazel Wood. Stylistically it reminded me a lot of the Brothers Grimm, Alice in Wonderland, and Diane Setterfield’s novel The Thirteenth Tale. Lack of hope aside, the narrative is one of the more original young adult fairy tales to hit the shelves in recent years. I hope Albert explores the Hinterland in more detail with the sequels. Meanwhile, be careful what you wish for, the story never goes the way you want.

The Hazel Wood, Flatiron Books, 2018, ISBN: 9781250147905

Chloe Benjamin-The Immortalists

Synopsis: If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life? It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes. The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality. (Adapted from Goodreads)


Themes explored: puberty, sexual awakenings, mysticism, fortunes, sibling dynamics, self-hatred, parental hatred, destiny, magicians, immortality, longevity.

Review: Literary fiction, supposedly, refers to novels with literary merit, as opposed to commercial or “genre” fiction. A lot of mainstream critics and publishing houses consider literary fiction the “serious” version of the novel. Style wise, literary fiction generally has more character-driven plots and a slower pacing. Depending upon on your reading preferences, this either makes these novels moving and profound or less exciting than reading an encyclopedia.  Popular versions of literary fiction includes The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Goldfinch, Lord of the Flies, and 1984, to name a few.

The Immoralists falls under this category. I chose to read this book because the premise sounded interesting. However, I soon regretted this decision. Despite my best intentions, I could not finish this book.

For starters, the novel opens with a detailed description of one of the main character’s pubic hair. The opening sentences revolve around a young girl’s pre-pubescent body. None of these details add anything to the story and do not add anything to the character. One current trend in literature, especially “smart” stories, is explicit exploration of human anatomy, specifically reproductive organs. This theme has been explored by writers since the dawn of language, oral and written. If authors truly want to shock readers, write a novel without a sex scene. Unless you read children books, nearly every adult story nowadays deals with sex in graphic details, regardless of it adds anything to the plot. Chloe Benjamin could have started this book a million different ways. A description of pubic hair and the emerging female body set an odd tone to a story supposedly about children figuring out their destinies.  

Except for the opening chapter, the book is divided into four sections, one for each child: Simon, Karla, Daniel, and Varya Gold. They all dislike their parents and want to escape the confines of their Jewish middle class upbringing. After over hearing some older boys talking about a physic, the Gold children decide to pay this mysterious woman a visit. This woman tells the four kids when they will die. Afterwards, their relationships with their parents and each other change inexplicably. Once their father dies, they all go separate ways. Some choose more responsible paths than other.

The first section of the book deals with Simon, the youngest. I stopped reading the book about a third of the way through Simon’s story. He is an angry, resentful young man who dislikes all his siblings, except for Klara. His mother, in his opinion, treats him like a slave and he hated his father, even more so now that he is dead. Simon moves to San Francisco on a whim and become enmeshed in the 1980’s gay scene that existed in the city at that time. Benjamin then writes an explicit, extremely graphic and detailed account of Simon’s first sexual encounter with another man. I stopped reading at this point because I really have no desire to read about homosexual sex, especially in pornographic detail.  

The premise seemed really cool. However, the book only deals with the whole “immortal” theme for about a paragraph in the opening chapter. What else I read was no different than any other book dealing with sibling relationships and how childhood squabbles turn into adult fissures. Benjamin clearly has some writing talent and a market obviously exists for this type of novel. I am clearly not a member of this target market. Any book that begins with a description of pubic hair is unlikely to keep my attention.

The Immortalists, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018, ISBN: 9780735213180

Movie Review: Skyscraper

  • Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han
  • Screenplay By: Rawson Marshall Thurber
  • Music By: Steve Jablonsky
  • Cinematography by: Robert Elswit
  • Running Time: 102 Minutes
  • Premiered: July 13, 2018 (USA)

Synopsis: A security expert must infiltrate a burning skyscraper, 225 stories above ground, when his family are trapped inside by criminals. (From IMBd)


Review: Finally a movie that celebrates the world’s greatest unsung hero: duct tape! Nothing keeps things together quiet like duct tape, if it is not working, just add more tape. Skyscraper is a tribute to previous disaster films, including The Towering Inferno (1974) and Die Hard (1988) (which my brothers contend is the greatest Christmas Movie ever made). Like The Towering Inferno, Skyscraper involves a burning high-rise filled with dastardly men intent on killing Dwayne Johnson.

Dwayne Johnson portrays Will Sawyer, a security assessor, and former FBI hostage rescue specialist. The billionaire developer of  The Pearl, the titular skyscraper, hires Will to check out the security system in order to secure insurance for the building. Shortly after Will and his family become The Pearls’ first, temporary, residents, the building mysteriously goes up in flames. Will, trapped outside the building, must battle flames and a group of bad guys to save his wife and children. At one point only a giant roll of duct tape holds him together, and causes him to utter the best line in the film: “If you can’t fix it with duct tape, you haven’t used enough duct tape.” Johnson shared that he wanted to make a tribute film to The Towering Inferno and Die Hard, and he succeeded. Skyscraper borrows heavily from the aesthetics of Inferno and takes the climax from Die Hard. The duct tape pulls the two together.

After getting hired to assess The Pearl, Will arrives in Hong Kong. One physical aspect of Will is a missing leg. Will’s prosthetic leg should win an award for the hardest working supporting character/multipurpose appliance. Over the course of the film, Will jumps off a construction crane; is battered, bruised, and burned in various scenarios; and pulls a Tom Cruise stunt from Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol by climbing up the side of the building, only Will uses duct tape instead of Ethan Hunt’s special gloves. Through all this, Will’s prosthetic leg goes above and beyond the call of duty and proves quite useful in several sequences. Part of the subtleties of the narrative is that Will is missing a leg but it never hinders him in any way. He can still save his family, outsmart some badass bad guys, climb up a building, and jump off a crane, the prosthetic actually proves more helpful than a real leg would in several scenes.

Sarah Sawyer, Will’s wife, is no shrinking violet. Played with unforced authority by Neve Campbell, Sarah is a Navy combat surgeon who knows Mandarin and martial arts. In an unprecedented casting decision, Campbell is only two years younger than Johnson. It was refreshing to see a movie where the husband and wife characters actually looked like a real couple. The “wife” character in such films rarely gets a real profession and is usually significantly younger than the hero. Sarah can more than hold her own and proves a capable partner for Will.  

While not a complicated film, the narrative structure includes a satisfying symmetry: husband and wife help save each other, and then team together to save the kids. The Pearl is a beautiful building, with a rainforest and waterfall halfway up and owner’s quarters on the 220th floor. Chin Han portrays Zhao Long Ji, the owner of The Pearl. As supporting characters go, he does not have a lot to do other than walk around and act important. This is a Dwayne Johnson film, so nearly all the action revolves around his character.

Rawson Thurber, the director, keeps the subplots to a minimum and stays focused on the action at hand. This is a movie about a burning building. As such, most of the film revolves around character trying to get in/get out of the building or trying to determine what starter the fire. Anything not directly associated with the burning just wastes screen time. As his first dramatic film, Thurber does a great job keeping the action on point and the narrative from straying from the main point. He also wrote the screenplay. Writing gripping screenplays takes a lot of effort, the line between “awesome” and “campy” is easily blurred. Thurber mainly shoots comedy films, which is a different writing skill set than drama. For the most part Skyscraper was a fairly tight script. One area I though Thurber struggled with was exposition. Some of the dialogue laid on the exposition a little too thickly, especially with the cop characters who uttered some phrases that seemed out of place. I will not go into details so as to not spoil the narrative. Hopefully Thurber will work on this and his next drama will have a tighter script.

Overall, Skyscraper is a solid, character driven action film. If you like The Towering Inferno, San Andreas, Die Hard, and any other film in that genre, Skyscraper is a worthy addition.

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Forever Young Adult

Musings on Books and movies

Young Adult Money

Musings on Books and movies

Books for Christian Girls

Musings on Books and movies

Fawn & Fern books

YA Fantasy and Historical Fiction Book Blog

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