Top 5 Classic Children’s Books About Dogs

A selection of classic children’s literature that explores the bond between man and dog.

The Call of the WildJack London

Call

Inside every dog beats the heart of a wild wolf. First published in 1903, Call of the Wild  explores the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890’s through the viewpoint of Buck, a dog stolen from his family and sold as a sled dog. Buck grew up in the lap of luxury on a large plantation with a loving family. The new, harsh Alaskan environment forces Buck to fight for survival. He gradually sheds domestication and reverts to a feral state. London spent about a year exploring the Yukon, which gives The Call of the Wild an immediacy and authenticity that makes the story timeless and engrossing.

The Call of the WildScholastic , 2001, ISBN: 9780439227148

Old YellerFred Gipson

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Dogs and humans form incredibly strong bonds that can turn tragic. Originally published in 1956, this story occurs in the 1860s and centers on a “dinghy yellow” dog adopted by young Travis Coates on his family’s Texas ranch. Old Yeller proves his value by saving various family members from every imaginable peril. Strong and courageous, Old Yeller proved protected Travis’s family from any sort of danger. But can Travis do the same when tragedy strikes poor Old Yeller? Like many children’s books,  Old Yeller explores the circle of life and the lessons learned along the way. Both the 1957 movie and the book are real tearjerkers. 

Old Yeller, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001, ISBN: 9780060935474

The 101 DalmatiansDodie Smith

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Before the two beloved movies (the 1996 live action version and the 1961 animated one), there was the book, originally published in 1956. The orginal story deals with some darker themes than the sanitized Disney narrative. Pongo and Missis (Perdita in the movies) lead a lovely life with their human owners, the Dearlys. Cruella de Vil, the Dearleys fur-fancying fashion plate neighbor, decides she wants Pongo and Missis’ puppies to make a spotted coat. When the fifteen puppies are kidnapped, even Scotland Yard is unable to find them. Pongo and Missis decide to take the matter into their own paws, much to the chagrin of their owners. Even children who already know the story of Pongo, Missis, their puppies, and the evil Cruella de Vil, will enjoy reading the book.

The 101 DalmatiansBarnes Noble, 1996, ISBN: 9780760704066

Where the Red Fern GrowsWilson Rawls

Fern

Published in 1961, Where the Red Fern Grows explores the bond between Billy and his  two Redbone Coonhounds, Old Dan and Little Ann. Billy comes from a poor family and all he desires in the world is a pair of good coon dogs. Since his parents cannot afford to buy him the dogs he wants, Billy sets out to earn the money himself. Old Dan had the brawn and Little Ann had the brains, and Billy trained them to become the finest hunting team in the valley. Glory and victory awaited them. Heartbreak and sadness came as well. Where the Red Fern Grows is an exciting tale of love, adventure, self-reliance, and the joys of hard work. The 1971 movie is excellent as well. 

Where the Red Fern GrowsYearling , 2000, ISBN: 9780375806810

Lassie Come-HomeEric Knight

Lassie

The rough-coated, extremely loyal Collie Lassie first came to life in a short story published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1938. Later, Eric Knight expanded the tale into a novel and the rest is history. Lassie is Joe’s prize collie and constant companion. One fateful day, Joe’s father loses his job, which is the family’s only income source. To make ends meet, Lassie must be sold. Three times Lassie escapes her new owner, and returns home to Joe. Then she is taken to the remotest part of Scotland, a journey too long and arduous for any dog to make alone. Lassie has other plans and will not let geography come between her and Joe. For the longest time, Lassie Come-Home served as the benchmark for books about the challenges, love, and loyalty between a dog and his/her human family. Fun fact: the hyphen in the title refers to a phrase “come-home dog,” which means a dog that runs away and returns to her/his original owner, no matter how many times she/he’s sold or how far away she/he’s taken. (The 1943 movie is a pretty faithful adaptation.)

Lassie Come-HomeHenry Holt and Co., 2003, ISBN: 9780805072068

Rosalie Ham-The Dressmaker

Synopsis: A darkly satirical novel of love, revenge, and 1950s haute couture. After twenty years spent mastering the art of dressmaking at couture houses in Paris, Tilly Dunnage returns to the small Australian town she was banished from as a child. She decides to stay to care for her ailing mother and her exquisite dresses prove irresistible to the prim women of Dungatar. Through her fashion business, her friendship with Sergeant Farrat—the town’s only policeman, who harbors an unusual passion for fabrics—and a budding romance with Teddy, the local football star whose family is almost as reviled as hers, she finds a measure of grudging acceptance. As her dresses begin to arouse competition and envy in town, causing old resentments to surface, it becomes clear that Tilly’s mind is set on a darker design: exacting revenge on those who wronged her, in the most spectacular fashion.  (Adapted from Goodreads)

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Themes Explored: historical fiction, Australia, Australian fiction, haute couture, killer fashion, fashion, dressmaking, murder, memory, revenge, death, madness, insanity, romance, Australian culture, fire, sexuality, infidelity, coming of age, mother-son relationship, alcoholism, Jazz, The Blues.

Review: Imagine Tim Burton’s imagination crossed with a 1960s Doris Day film and you might come close to the enticing oddness of this novel. The Dressmaker is a Gothic-comedy novel written by the Australian author Rosalie Ham. Set in a satirical 1950s Australian country town, Dungatar, the narrative is divided into four sections, each named after a different fabric that symbolizes the events in the story: gingham, shantung, felt and brocade.

Long ago, in a small forgettable town, a terrible accident split society apart. A young girl finds her life irrevocably changed when she is bundled out of town in the back of a police car. Dungatar, Australia never changes. Everybody knows everyone else’s business and has for their entire lives, their parent lives, and so on. This little town exists alone, thirty miles away from the nearest doctor. The resident pharmacist doubles as the local, self-appointed sin assessor and uses his concoctions to dole out punishment for his neighbors’ sins. Everyone’s mail is steamed opened by the postmistress, who keeps anything that she fancies. The elite, high-class family barely keeps one step ahead of crippling debt, and everyone in town indulges in illicit sex.

Then a bus arrives and Miss Myrtle “Till” Dunnage returns home to care for her mother, “Mad” Molly.  Tilly arrives with her Singer sewing machine and decades of couture dressmaking experience— having studied at the emerging fashion houses of Balmain, Balenciaga, and Dior. Most of the townspeople welcome her back with stares, silence, and general ill will.

All around town are reminders of Tilly’s damaged childhood. The oppressive schoolhouse ruled by Miss Dimm; the Pratt’s dreadful department store; sinister Mr. Almanac’s chemist shop; and the downtown dump, presided over by the cheerful McSwiney clan, including the handsome eldest son, Teddy.

Once news breaks that Tilly knows fabrics, everyone wants a makeover. Ham does not disappoint in this regard — in fact, the makeovers occur several times, always accompanied by high drama and hysterics.

These makeovers form the best parts of the narrative. Ham has real gifts for infusing life into Tilly’s creations, you can almost see the ladies of the town parading around the dusty streets wearing Parisian high fashion. All the venues to showcase this finery comes in the form of dances, social club gatherings, weddings, funerals, births, and a tragic, baroque, and rather macabre production of Macbeth.

The revenge theme underlying the narrative proves a little problematic. Seeing the folks of Dungatar get their comeuppance provides a modicum of pleasure. Other than Tilly, Teddy, Molly, and the Sergeant, all the other characters exist as cardboard villains who show no remorse for their fiendish ways. Their punishment is pure camp, ingenious and specific to each person.  

Ham gives Tilly a bleak, oppressive past to justify her town wide vendetta. Keep in mind this book toes the line between Gothic and satire. All the characters are greatly exaggerated caricatures. Sometimes Ham goes a little too in depth with describing the sexual activities of the characters. The Dressmaker is not for everyone. If you enjoy movies like Best in Show, Intolerable Cruelty, Raising Arizona, America’s Sweethearts, and The Big Lebowski, there is a strong possibility you will like the dark humor of The Dressmaker.

The Dressmaker, Duffy and Snellgrove, 2000, ISBN: 9781875989706

Top 5 Worst Book-to-Screen Adaptations

Not a definitive listing, just the ones I currently find the most egregious. 

Anne With an E (2018, TV)

 

 

I am a purist in that I think movie or television adaptations of well-loved books should stick as close as possible to the source material. The first season of Anne With an E stuck fairly close to the Anne of Green Gables book. Parts of the narrative were changed for dramatic effect, with mixed results, and to add some realism to the story. Season 2, which just aired on Netflix, used the book more as a suggestion. Other than the character names, nearly none of the events of Season 2 occurred in the book or are altered beyond recognition. Part of the problem is the series creators’ decision to insert modern morals into the story, which changes the underlying tone of the narrative. Instead of a sweet story about an orphan who finds a loving home, Anne With an E turns Anne of Green Gables into a feminist, bisexual awakening narrative. Apparently everyone on Prince Edward Island at the turn of the century struggled with sexual identity and easily fall prey to unconvincing scammers. Married women transform into shrieking shrews and two girls of a similar age cannot have a close friendship unless they harbor romantic feelings towards each other. When taking a story from one form to another, some artistic licence is expected. However, I am not a fan of screenwriters who rewrite a well-known classic in order to create a commentary about modern sexual morals. If the series creators wanted to explore suppressed sexual mores in turn of the century Canada, they should have created an original series in lieu of shoehorning their message into an adaptation of a classic. Fans of the book series should stick with the 1980’s Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea for a faithful adaptation of the story. 

Anne of Green GablesSignet Book, 2003 (reprint), ISBN: 9780451528827

Eragon (2006, Movie)

 

 

I love this book and all the sequels. The narrative follows a young boy who lives in poverty with his Uncle and cousin. One day he discovers an unhatched dragon egg and his life changes forever. While the books are not the best written fantasy, they are enjoyable and keep the reader engaged. Unfortunately, the movie falls flat. The screenwriters took the main points of the story — boy finds dragon egg, goes on adventure, meets people, fights battles — and threw out everything else. Instead of a straight forward adaptation, the movie crams in dramatic elements from the first three (the 4th book had not been published when the movie debuted) books and develops none of the characters. Random supporting characters show up with no explanation, offer some truly horrific exposition, and then disappear. The CGI budget was blown on creating the dragon and everything else carries a B-movie level quality. If you have never read the book, then the movie has just enough plot to make an enjoyable enough fantasy flick. Otherwise, steer clear. There is a reason why the movie flopped.

EragonAlfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2005, ISBN: 9780375826696 

A Wrinkle in Time (2018, Movie)

 

 

The first book in a quintet, A Wrinkle in Time follows the adventures of Meg Murray through time and space as she searches for her missing father. Charles Wallace, her younger brother, and Calvin, an admirer from school, accompany her on this journey. The book explores religion, faith, superstition, family, sibling love, adversity, and the ties that bind families together. This remains one of my favorite childhood books and I still reread it on a fairly regular basis. Unfortunately, the movie took the name of the characters, some plot elements, the title, and threw out everything else. Alex Murray is turned into a deadbeat father who does not understand morals or ethics until his teenage daughter explains them to him. Calvin’s admiration for Meg’s intelligence and non-romantic interest in her (the romance angle does not develop until book 3) is turned into a puppy-love/infatuation that involves him saying “I love your hair” about a half dozen times. This is supposed to be “inspiring and body affirming” since Meg has curly hair in the movie, in the moment, it just seems stupid. The underlying Christian themes of the novel are ignored and replaced with a vague “love is good, the light always wins, avoid the dark” new age voodoo-tinged religious philosophy. Last, but not least, Mrs. Whatsit, Who, and Which, broadly hinted at being Angels/Cherubim in the books, are turned into ambiguous “servants of the light” who serve no master and turn up when “they feel a disturbance”. This unnecessary censorship of religious themes robs the movie of a significant amount of the emotional and moral heart of the book. It is impossible to replace the Christian themes in the narrative with bumper sticker self-affirming power quotes without leaving a giant hole behind. I left the movie feeling depressed and saddened that the screenwriter chose to turn this amazing book into just another run-of-the-mill “girl power/self-love” fantasy movie of middling quality. 

A Wrinkle in Time, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017 (reprint), ISBN: 9781250153272

The Hobbit Movies 

 

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

The Hobbit is a self-contained children’s story set in Middle Earth. JRR Tolkien wrote a mostly lighthearted tale about a young hobbit who longs for adventure and ends up in over his head when a wizard comes to call. For fans of The Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit is a short addendum that fleshes out some of the vaguer references woven in throughout the main narrative in the trilogy. The book would make an excellent standalone movie, possibly two. Three movies proved exhausting, both to the narrative and the fans. Instead of doing a straight adaptation, Peter Jackson threw in a bunch of on-the-head references to the original movies and created new characters in order to appeal to the “female” audience. This included an overly long and completely illogical Elf-Dwarf love triangle. By the third movie, Jackson seemed to have given up and allowed the narrative to succumb into farce. All three Hobbit Movies are both over long and completely forgettable. (More in depth review here)

The Hobbit, Houghton Mifflin, 2002 (reprint), ISBN: 9780618260300

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011, Movie)

 

 

The book tells a darkly depressing tale of Lisbeth Salander, a women on the fringes of society. She survived a traumatic childhood, grew into a troubled adult, and shuns modern life as much as possible. When mutual interests align, she teams up with journalist Michael Blomqvist in order to research a decades old missing persons case. Two cinematic adaptations of the novel exist, a Swedish version starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist, (2009) and the American version starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig (2011). The American version is quite bad. There is a lot of gratuitous sex scenes that add nothing to the narrative and the ending is dramatically changed, for no good reason. The change to the ending robs the narrative of the emotional payoff from the book and changes the arcs of the next two books. I would watch the Swedish version if you want a faithful adaptation of the book. (I did a longer review of the movie here)

The Girl With the Dragon TattooKnopf , 2008, ISBN: 9780307269751

Ant-Man and The Wasp: A Review

  • Director: Peyton Reed
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lily, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena
  • Screenplay: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers
  • Music By: Christophe Beck
  • Cinematography: Dante Spinotti
  • Running Time: 118 minutes
  • Premiered: July 6, 2018 (USA)

Synopsis: As Scott Lang balances being both a Super Hero and a father, Hope van Dyne and Dr. Hank Pym present an urgent new mission that finds the Ant-Man fighting alongside The Wasp to uncover secrets from their past. (From IMDb)

Possible Mild Spoilers

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Review: When Ant-Man first came out in 2015, Paul Rudd seemed an odd choice to play a superhero. However, Rudd infused his character, Scott Lang, with a nice sense of wholesomeness, which is ironic since the movie opens with Lang leaving jail. After the stand along film, Ant-Man appears in an extended cameo in Captain America: Civil War but not in any of the Avengers films. Ant-Man and the Wasp explains why Lang and the gang do not hang out with Captain America and company.

Ant-Man and The Wasp starts two years after Lang’s adventures in Captain America: Civil War. Lang (Paul Rudd) has three days remaining of house arrest; he made a plea bargain to avoid jail-time for aiding Steve Rogers against Tony Stark. While Lang tries to stay mentally stimulated at home, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) keep experimenting with ways to rescue Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), Hank’s wife and Hope’s mother, from the quantum realm. They seem on the brink of success when an unexpected roadblock throws a wrench in the plans. Scott reluctantly agrees to help, even though he could go to jail for a long time if caught. This leads to the most amusing part of the film with Scott trying to stay one-step ahead of the FBI while also helping Hank and Hope.

Back at the transportable Pym Lab, Hank and Hope finally built a “quantum tunnel” device that will allow them to enter the quantum realm and rescue Janet. However, once knowledge of the device becomes known, black-market arms dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and the mysterious Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a woman who phases in and out of reality, both attempt to steal it for various reasons.

Under the guidance of Hank, Scott and Hope suit-up as Ant-Man and the Wasp to keep the tunnel out of the wrong hands. This endeavor proves easier said than done. Michael Pena, T.I., and David Dastmalchian return as Lang’s ex-convict friend group and business partners. They founded a security company (X-Con Security) because ex-cons cannot find decent paying jobs. No more Baskin Robbins for these bad boys.

While I enjoyed the film overall, I felt the protagonists had too many villains. There are the Southern Gun Runners, the Ghost, and the FBI all chasing after Lang and Hope for various reasons. Alliance change on a dime depending upon who has what information. While all the backstabbing and running around led to some fantastic fight scenes, none of the villains felt well developed. The FBI agent Jimmy Woo, played by Randall Park, served more as comedic relief than an actual, threatening antagonist. Neither of the two actual antagonists, Ghost and Sonny Burch, offered any real threat to Lang and Hope.

Ghost merely seeks vengeance against Pym for the death of her father. Sonny Burch wants Pym’s technology in order to make weapons and earn a lot of money. Agent Jimmy Woo keeps trying to prove that Lang periodically escapes from house arrest. All three plots converge at the climax of the film, but the first act of the narrative it felt overly chaotic. Part of the problem with these three antagonistic narrative arcs is the lack of suspension. None of the villains feels like a real threat, just more like buzzing annoyances. The most suspenseful and life-threatening scene occurs during the end credits. My main problem with superhero films is poor motivation and character development on the part of the antagonists, a common complaint I have with nearly all the Marvel films. When the hero possess “superior” abilities due to nature or technology, the villain needs to possess similar abilities or even more in order to provide a credible threat. For some reason, the Marvel films seem to struggle with creating credible, well developed antagonists.

Laurence Fishburne pops up in an extended cameo playing Hank’s former colleague. They do not like each other. Michelle Pfeiffer also appears in an extended cameo scene. She does an excellent job with the limited material she is given. In Pfeiffer’s defense, Janet is more of a plot device than a character in this film. The narrative strongly hints that Janet will play a critical role in any future installments. 

Rudd, Lilly, and Douglas’ give excellent performances. Hope’s character developed well as she takes on the identity of the Wasp. I felt Lily’s portrayal seemed more nuanced in this film than in Ant-Man.  I think it is impossible to dislike Paul Rudd in this role; he just fits the character perfectly. Rudd delivers excellent one-liners in a natural way, a lot like my brother does in normal conversation, and makes Ant-Man seem larger than life. I could easily see the character of Lang existing in the “normal” world.   Douglas could probably act everyone under the table. He plays the part of the exasperated scientist exceedingly well and has excellent chemistry with Lily and Rudd. Hannah John-Kamen, as Ghost, does a serviceable job of playing a tormented, troubled antagonist. However, I felt the character could use a little more depth and development in order to feel truly threatening.

Overall, Ant-Man and the Wasp sticks to the action-comedy roots of the first film, creating genuine laughs and several truly enjoyable car chase/ant chase sequences. While ­Ant-Man may not be the most popular character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he is definitely the funniest.

Check out the trailer:

Jurassic World-Fallen Kingdom: A Review

  • Director: J.A. Bayona
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, B.D. Wong
  • Screenplay: Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow
  • Based On Characters Created By: Michael Crichton
  • Music By: Michael Giacchino
  • Cinematography: Oscar Faura
  • Running Time: 128 minutes
  • Premiered: June 22, 2018 (USA)

 Synopsis: When the island’s dormant volcano begins roaring to life, Owen and Claire mount a campaign to rescue the remaining dinosaurs from this extinction-level event. (From IMDb)

Possible Mild Spoilers

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Review: I remember the first time I saw Jurassic Park. It was shortly after my tenth birthday and my mom rented a beat up VHS copy from the library. Once the film started, we realized that mom had rented the version for people with low vision. Having a narrator intone “the dinosaurs have no eaten Nedry” took some of the magic out of the viewing experience. On the other hand, I will never forget the film. All in all, I loved Jurassic Park. Few other films spawned such iconic sequences like the “objects in mirror are closer than they appear” scene so perfectly parodied in Toy Story 2. Twenty-five years on, the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park still look hyper realistic and showcase the CGI brilliance of Steven Spielberg. Like most sequels, Jurassic Park II & III lacked the magic of the first one and are mostly forgettable. Then Jurassic World debuted in 2015 and breathed some new life into the franchise.

Directed by J.A. Bayona, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom serves as a direct sequel to Jurassic World. This film sees Claire Dearing (Bruse Howard) and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) return to Isla Nublar to save the remaining dinosaurs from extinction due to an active volcanic eruption. During their journey, they uncover a huge conspiracy plot that threatens the entire human race. Since the events of Jurassic World, Claire and Owen broke up, though the reason why is never stated. Claire starts and runs a dinosaur-rights non-profit lobbyist firm with the intention of getting the US Federal Government to pay for an expedition back to Isla Nublar to save the dinosaurs. She does not find a lot of sympathy from the Senators and Congressmen/women. Swashbuckling animal-behavior specialist Owen went off the grid and spends his time building a cabin on a lake in a non-specified location. Ron Swanson would be proud.  

Claire finds an ally in Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), the manager of Benjamin Lockwood’s fortune and business ventures. Mills flies Claire to Lockwood’s Northern California Mansion, shows her a diorama of a new dinosaur habitat on an unspecified island owned by Lockwood, and promises to fly her out to Isla Nublar to save whatever animals she can corral. After emotionally shaming Owen into joining her, Claire also brings along paleo-veterinarian Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and computer super genius Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), the younger, nerdier comedic relief. Once they land on the island, everything falls apart and the main plot of the film begins to unfold.

Two questions underlie the main narrative of all the Jurassic films: what are the ethical limits of human tampering with nature and what obligations do we owe to reanimated, formerly extinctic creatures? In this film the moral and ethical consciousness comes from Dr. Ian Malcolm-a cameo appearance from Jeff Goldblum-when he speaks at a Senate hearing that bookends the movie. Other than two scenes, which criminally underutilize the brilliance of Jeff Goldblum-the narrative only skates over the ethics of saving deadly animals with no natural predators. This lack of ethical and moral discussion hollows out the main message of the film.

Perhaps the worst part of the narrative is that Claire and Owen seem like completely different characters from the ones depicted in the first Jurassic Park. Anyone who brings an itinerary on a first date will also ask some probing questions before embarking on a potentially life threatening expedition. Yet Claire takes everything Eli Mills’ promises at face value and never asks the next question, such as, “how will we get the dinosaurs off the island?” Then she comes to the island with no protection, no firearms, and a passive aggressive Owen. Regardless of your positions on firearms, if you were going to an island populated by giant, deadly dinosaurs, you would want a gun of some kind.

Owen, on the other hand, seems to have become a generic action man cliché. He raised Blue from birth yet seems completely fine with her dying a fiery death. Claire and Owen still play off of each other quite well but the quick thinking witticisms in the first film is missing from their dialogue in this one. Regardless, Owen is still the type of person I would want to take with me on a suicide mission to an exploding volcano.  Franklin and Owen have the best scenes together since they are complete opposites. Where Owen is an action man who is prepared for every occurrence, Franklin is more comfortable behind a computer screen than interacting with nature. Paleo-veterinarian Zia Rodriguez does not need a man, can save herself, suffers no fools, and knows how to do a blood transfusion under traumatic circumstances.

As a villain. Rafe Spall does an adequate job making Eli Mills come across as a corrupted idealist. Really all of the characters play second fiddle to the dinosaurs. And J.A. Bayona pulls no punches with his vision of Jurassic animals run amok. Bayona mainly does horror films and brings this element to Fallen Kingdom. Of all the Jurassic films, this is the only one that truly delves into the monster aspect of dinosaurs. The cinematography focuses on dark, moody colors that emphasize shadows and illusion. When a dinosaur pops around the corner, it is quite frightening. Moving the action from an isolated island to a gothic mansion in Northern California makes the action sequences tighter and the stakes higher. What would happen if dinosaurs escaped into urban America? A true Jurassic World would occur. You do not have to wait long since Jurassic World III will explore this very occurrence. Overall, this film is a solid addition to the Jurassic franchise, if slightly less intellectual than the first Jurassic World. Also, B.D. Wong needs more screen time. His character ends each film rushing out of the lab carrying eggs and DNA samples. As the only character to appear in all the Jurassic films, it is time for him to get a bigger on-screen narrative arc.

Movie Review: Tomb Raider

  • Director: Roar Uthaug
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu
  • Screenplay: Geneva Robertson-Dworet & Alastair Siddons
  • Story by: Evan Daugherty & Geneva Robertson-Dworet
  • Music By: Junkie XL (as Tom Holkenborg)
  • Cinematography: George Richmond
  • Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
  • Premiered: March 16, 2018 (USA)

Synopsis: Lara Croft, the fiercely independent daughter of a missing adventurer, must push herself beyond her limits when she finds herself on the island where her father disappeared (From IMDb).

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Review: Debuting in 1996 as a slightly pixelated collection of jagged polygons in a PlayStation game, Lara Croft firmly embedded herself in the pop culture as a sexy female India Jones type character. This computer game archaeologist sex symbol has more magazine covers than any supermodel, more actress have played Lara than actors portraying Bond or Batman, and, with the two Angeline Jolie helmed films, more box-office takings than any video-game adaptation in history. This new version of Lara on the big screen came about due to the rebooted 2013 video game, which re-branded Lara from teenage fantasy to a grown-up adventure hero. Instead of archaeologist barbie supermodel is a gritty, realistic take on the Lara story.

Lara Croft-played by the great Alicia Vikander-lives a hectic life as a bicycle courier in east London. After uncovering clues to her missing father’s (Dominic West) whereabouts, Croft embarks on an adventure to unlock the mysterious tomb of Himiko — the “mother of death”. Lord Richard Croft managed to leave a series of elaborate clues for his daughter, which launches her on a globe-trotting mystery.

Tomb Raider achieves its objective in taking Lara Croft from the rather campy Jolie movie depiction to a more realistic and believable character. This Lara relies on her street smarts to get by and shuns anything to do with her upper class upbringing. Instead of a college education, Lara learns everything she needs to survive on the streets and in the ring at her boxing gym. Ever since her father disappeared five years earlier Lara turned to the streets to deal with the emotional turmoil. One day she stumbles across a box of her father’s research and starts to put the clues together about where he went. She convinces Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to come with her. His father had ferried Richard Croft off to his unknown location and also disappeared five years ago. When they arrive at the island, they discover Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) leading a team of indentured people trying to dig up the tomb of Himiko.

I like Lara Croft, even though I never played the games I did enjoy the Jolie films. One thing Tomb Raider has over the Jolie films is realism and a better narrative arc. While the Jolie films could fall into absurdity at times, this film stays firmly rooted in reality. The mythology behind Himiko arose from a misunderstanding about disease and germs, not the mystical arts. Tomb Raider stays firmly rooted in the present.

My main complaint about Tomb Raider is the poor education of Lara. She comes from a very well-to-do family and has a vast quantity of resources at her disposal. The character supposedly possess a superior knowledge of archaeology and the mythology of the ancient world. Yet this version of Lara barely finished high school and never went to college. For all her street smarts and quick witted repartee, Lara suffers from a lack of education. Everything she knows, she learned from her father but never took her curiosity to the next level. Lara Croft is usually marketed as the female version of Indiana Jones but this version is not his intellectual equal. I have no qualms with female action stars and Vikander does an excellent job. But this version of the character is not as intellectual as she needed to be in order to sell the archaeologist-adventurer hybrid.  

Walton Goggins, as always, plays an excellent villain. Mathias Vogel leads a ragtag group of thugs and a bunch of down-on-their luck sailors turned indentured diggers. Vogel takes orders from a mysterious boss and cannot leave the island until he uncovers the grave of the Mother of Death. His efforts prove unsuccessful until Lara and Lu Ren show up and he forcibly makes them help. Ever since appearing on the television show Justified, Goggins keeps popping up in increasingly larger budget films, usually as a bit player. This appearance is one of his first as a main character. He does an excellent job with his rather two dimensional character.

Overall, Tomb Raider is an solid film that could have been better. All the actors do and excellent job, the plot makes sense, and the action sequences are well executed. The problem is that the version of Lara does not seem any different from any other generic female action heroine. While I enjoyed watching the movie and will probably buy the DVD, I cannot really remember any stand out scenes or memorable action sequences. It came across as a “been there, seen that” film.

Tomi Adeyemi-Children of Blood and Bone

Synopsis: Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zelie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls. Everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope. Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good. Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers—and her growing feelings for the enemy. (Adapted from Goodreads)

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Themes Explored: death, magic, fantasy, family, religion, tribalism, pain, emotions, destruction, depression, sibling relations, jungle exploration, angst, mythology, teaching, training, weapon training, realism

Review: Following the pattern of most young adult fantasy novels, Children of Blood and Bone follows the adventures of an angry, but deeply vulnerable, young woman hell bent on bringing down an evil monarchy. Children of Blood and Bone presents a fantastical world set in an African inspired setting. I picked up this book based solely upon cover and I came away with mixed feelings.

Take away all the fantastical elements and Children of Blood and Bone, follows a basic revenge tale. Zélie is a maji, a person meant to wield elemental magic for the benefit of the people of Orïsha. Years earlier during Zélie’s childhood, the King of Orïsha ordered a raid that killed most of the maji, including her mother, and subjugated the survivors. Due to their distinctive white hair, maji cannot disappear into the general population. They and their families live in fear.

Princess Amari and Crown Prince Inan live in the luxury of the royal palace. The King raised them to become cold, overly logical, and to put the good of Orïsha above themselves. After a cruel act causes Amari to reassess life, she escapes from her gilded cage with a mysterious scroll. Zélie and Amari become unlikely allies and journey across Orïsha. Unfortunately, Inan is tracking them in order to prove himself a worthy heir.

As a character, Zélie vacillates between cold and bratty. One trend in modern young adult literature is that characters are meant to be “inspiring” if they survived some traumatic experience and bring it up all the time. In this case. Zélie watched her mother die, which is quite traumatic. However, Zélie allows this event to completely dominate her life to the detriment of her other familial relationships. Both her brother and father suffer because Zélie refuses to grow up a little bit, admit that losing her mother scarred her forever, and move on to other things. I get the feeling that the author intends for Zélie to come across as a Katniss Everdeen type character. But Zélie whines an awful lot. While teenagers experience existential angst-I certainly did and still do on some occasions-experiencing it and reading about it are two different things. Reading about angst on a continual basis drags the narrative down in a negative way. For a supposedly inspiring character, Zélie dos not possess an abundance of positive character traits. Zélie does not experience much character development in this book, she just goes from bratty without powers to incredibly arrogant with powers. Hopefully her likeability will even out in the next installment.

Princess Amari and Prince Inan fulfill the typical royal stereotypes. Amari is the pretty princess with an unseen spine of steel. Inan represents male physical perfection but allows self-doubt and paternal disapproval rule his emotions. Even though they both play rather significant roles in the narrative, neither of them stands out in a memorable way. Other than Zélie, none of the characters possess strong development arcs.

The one things that makes Children of Blood and Bone an enjoyable read, in my opinion, is the world building. Inspired by Africa, the world of Orïsha contains jungles, savannahs, mountains, and valleys. Each place includes different tribes, cultures, and animals. Few fantasy novels takes place in Africanesque places, so the novelty is cool. I enjoyed all the different location descriptions and the exploration into the mythology of the maji.

As a fantasy novel, Children of Blood and Bone reads a lot like nearly all other young adult fiction out at the moment. Take away the fantastical Afican setting and the narrative could take place anywhere. However, as a first novel, I think the author did a decent job of making her characters come together. Tomi Adeyemi’s strength lies in the world building and the mythology of her magical system. Hopefully the next installment will smooth out some of the rougher edges in the narrative.

Children of Blood & Bone, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2018, ISBN: 9781250170972

Movie Review: The Rider

  • Director: Chloe Zhao
  • Rating: R
  • Starring: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau
  • Screenplay: Chloe Zhao
  • Based on the Life of: Brady Jandreau
  • Music By: Nathan Halpern    
  • Cinematography: Joshua James Richards
  • Running Time: 104 Minutes
  • Premiered: April 15, 2018 (USA-Limited)

Synopsis: After suffering a near fatal head injury, a young cowboy undertakes a search for new identity and what it means to be a man in the heartland of America. (From IMDb)

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Review: Like all artistic endeavors, independent films can go one of two ways: either phenomenally good or painfully bad. The Rider falls somewhere in between. A deeply moving film with a sympathetic lead, The Rider is set in South Dakota and depicts the hard life of the rodeo circuit and what happens when career threatening injury occurs. Unlike most films, independent or otherwise, all the actors in are amateurs and depict lightly fictionalized versions of themselves. This film toes the line between drama and docuseries.

In April 2016, Brady Blackburn was thrown off a bronco at a rodeo. As a bronco rider, these falls occur rather often, but time something different happened.  The horse trampled Brady and one of its hoofs connected with his head. Shockingly, he never lost consciousness. But he requires extensive surgery, a plate insertion into his skull, and the realization that he probably will never ride in the ring again. This sets of the main theme of the movie, depicting the struggle that happens when your entire way of life and self-identity falls apart.

The film takes place in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Reservation, though this was not apparent until I googled it afterwards. Brady Jandreau (who plays himself as Brady Blackburn) did not give a lot of thought to telling his story on screen. Living out on the windswept plains of South Dakota, Brady spent most of his childhood around horses. He was rode his first horse at 15 months old; by 12, he was breaking wild horses, and by 20, he had built a solid reputation on the rodeo circuit riding broncos. By 22, he experienced the terrible accident that ended his bronco riding career and launched the beginnings of the film. Brady met filmmaker Chloe Zhao went she came to the reservation to make her debut film. After hearing Brady’s story, she decided to turn it into The Rider.

Unlike normal three act narratives, The Rider follows Brady’s life during only one act. With a metal plate in his head and doctor’s orders never to return to the saddle, Brady finds himself wandering around the reservation with little to occupy his time. In a cruel twist of fate, Brady’s brain damage given him a strange symptom: one of his hands occasionally locks into a clenched fist, physically unable to let go of whatever he is gripping. This leads to some problems when he tries to make some extra money training horses for some local ranchers.

While trying to figure out his life, Brady also has to deal with his kid sister, Lilly who has Asperger’s syndrome, and his closest friend, Lane Scott, a former rodeo rider who was in catastrophic car accident that left him in a rehab facility, paralyzed and mute. Brady’s dad spends most of the movie drinking away the rent money.

This film is not exactly entertaining. The Rider is a neo-Western that sits somewhere on the line between fiction and documentary. After watching immersive film, you will leave either thinking it was awful or you will be an emotional wreck. Visually, the movie is stunning. South Dakota is full of stunning landscapes, gorgeous windswept plains and the towering mountains. The gorgeous natural beauty of South Dakota is juxtaposed with the depressing poverty of the Indian Reservation. All the scenes involving Brady at home showcase the ugly side of crippling poverty and the few economic opportunities available for injured cowboys without a high school diploma.

The film ends on a very depressing note. In real life, the actual Brady had a few positive things happen to him after the events depicted in the film. He got married, had a kid, and started a successful small business. None of these events are depicted in the movie. Overall, this film was a gorgeously shot film, all the more impressive given the nearly non-existent budget. Going with nonprofessional actors infuses the narrative with an earthiness and originality that comes from not having any experience pretending to be someone else. The downside is a lot of the dialogue feels both rushed and slow due to poor timing. As independent films go, The Rider is confidently shot and a solid sophomore attempt by Chloe Zhao. Just do not expect a happy viewing experience. You will feel a deep, crushing sadness over wasted potential and young lives forever ruined.

Kate Quinn-The Alice Network

Synopsis: Two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.

In 1947, during the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. When Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she is recruited to work as a spy. Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve has not heard in decades (Adapted from Goodreads)

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Themes Explored: unplanned pregnancy, spy networks, espionage, historical fiction, World War I, the Great War, women independence, relationships, redemption, freedom, life after war, torture, depravity, evil

Review:  World War I does not receive the same scrutiny as World War II. I can count on one hand the number of books I have read set during World War I, which is a shame because this time period holds some fascinating social changes. During World War I, aka “The Great War”, the governments of the world still fought wars a like they did in the mid-1800s.  A lot of the modern war infrastructure of today came from innovations that occurred between World War I and World War II. Fictionally, World War II offers more opportunities due to superior documentation and significantly more analysis about the social and economic upheavals that occurred. Whenever I come across a book dealing with WWI, I get rather excited because of the rarity of fiction stories set during the 1910s. The Alice Network explores the aftermaths of both WWI and WWII through a split narrative.

In 1915 Eve Gardiner is an unremarkable young woman with an urging to do something important with her life. After catching the eye of a military espionage trainer, Eve joins the ranks of the Alice Network, a real espionage ring run by Alice Dubois in Lille, France during WWI. Eve is a determined and complex character who refuses to let others define her based upon her gender and speech impediment. Given her plain looks and stutter, Eve goes undercover in a posh restaurant during the German occupation of northeast France and must lie through her teeth to survive. 

Years later, Eve drowns out her nightmares with a heady mixture of alcohol and bitterness. One day an American socialite named Charlotte “Charlie” St. Clair walks into her life, wanting help in figuringwhat happened to her cousin Rose during World War II. Eventually, the two narratives merge into one time period, but first there is a lot of Charlie’s self-pitying behavior to work through before anything exciting occurs.

Eve’s story easily overshadows Charlie’s search to find her cousin. Female secret agents sneaking around under the enemy’s nose makes Charlie’s road trip to find her cousin quite boring. The two narratives read like the author could not decide what type of story she wanted to tell: a thrilling and terrifying historical espionage adventure or an overly complicated love story with a never-ending journey across France. 

In 1947 Charlie has a problem: she is a woman with intelligence. We know this because Charlie states numerous times that she knows mathematics, but the narrative never shows Charlie putting this knowledge to good use. Charlie also gets herself expelled from the upper crust Bennington College due to an unwanted pregnancy out of wedlock. Her domineering French mother hauls Charlie off to Europe to keep an appointment at a Swiss clinic that will dispose of the “Little Problem”. En route to Switzerland via France, Charlie decides to ditch her mother and track down her beloved cousin Rose instead. Rose disappeared without a trace during WWII. Like most of Europe after World War II,  Rose is a refugee amid a horde of displaced persons, but Charlie is determined to find her. Because all of life boils down to a “solve for X” equation.

After blackmailing Eve into helping her, Charlie sets off on her French countryside adventure. In alternating chapters with different world wars as backdrops, we follow Eve’s exploits with “the Alice Network,” in 1915 and Charlie’s attempts to find Rose in 1947. Along the way, both women experience some character growth and wardrobe changes. Charlie sheds her 1940s “New Look” style of full skirts and petticoats for slim black slacks and a chic striped sweater. Eve learns to stop swearing at everyone.  One thing that does not change is Charlie’s arrogance and immaturity. For a supposed “intelligent broad”, Charlie struggles to accept the fact that she wrecked her reputation and her father’s respect by getting pregnant out of marriage. While society was changing, respectable families still shunned pregnant unmarried women.

Charlie spends nearly the entire book bemoaning her fate in life, her “horrible” mother, the “Little Problem”, her overbearing father, and her expulsion from college. She never really accepts responsibility for her poor decision making. This gets rather exhausting to read on repeat for over 250+ pages. Given her immaturity, her romance with Finn-the dashing, 30ish, Scottish ex-con who works for Eve-seems implausible. Why would a grown man with war scars-physical and psychological- want to date a pregnant, whiny teenager?

The heart of the narrative comes from a fictionalized version of the true story of the covert Alice Network, through which fearless men and women infiltrated the German encampments in rural France. Lili, the ringleader of the Network in the novel, is based on a real woman who was called a “modern Joan of Arc.” Responsible for dozens of operatives and tons of sensitive information, Lili asserts that the Germans will never find her, as she is “a handful of water, running everywhere.” Eve finds Lili amazing and looks up to her as a mentor. This relationship between Eve and Lili is the most complex in the narrative and the least developed. Unfortunately, the author spends more time on the Charlie and Eve relationship than the Lili and Eve dynamic. Even though the Lili and Eve relationship is a much more interesting character study and the only plot point that makes the narrative engrossing.

Overall, The Alice Network presents a good depiction of the changes in society during World War I and World War II. However, the split narrative style of the book makes it hard to care for the characters as neither Eve nor Charlie have enough time to become truly three-dimensional people. The first half of the book drags a little but the action picks up in the second half. If you can make it through the first twelve chapters, the rest of the book makes up for the slow drag. If you are looking for a slightly different espionage thriller, The Alice Network is worth looking into.

The Alice Network, William Morrow Paperbacks, 2017, ISBN: 9780062654199

Top 5 Films That Should Have Been Better

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)Arthur.jpg

  • Director: Guy Ritchie
  • Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey
  • Synopsis: Robbed of his birthright, Arthur comes up the hard way in the back alleys of the city. Once he pulls the sword from the stone, he is forced to acknowledge his true legacy – whether he likes it or not. (Adapted from IMDb)

Bite Size Review: I love the King Arthur Legend. It is my main literary obsession. I read every fictional adaptation of the story I can find, I read all the historical explanations, and even peruse the few scholarly articles written about the legend. Every time a movie comes along, I feel a brief moment of delight that quickly turns to dread. None of the Arthur films, in my opinion, does the legend justice. In this adaptation, Ritchie attempts to tell a more parsed down and gritty version. However, his execution falls flat. Some weird Mage with no name and a bevy of personal snakes replaces Merlin, even though snakes usually side with villains in the original legend. Snakes have never been associated with Arthur in a positive manner. Vortigern Pendragon (Jude Law) turns into a demonic despot who draws power from some weird hags who live in the moat under the castle. Eric Bana is completely underutilized as Uther Pendragon. Charlie Hunnam, while a good actor, just does not have the gravitas needed to elevate the material. If Ritchie stuck to one version of the legend and added in some mystical elements, then this movie could have captured the spirit of the story. This is yet another mess of a movie that degrades an amazing legend, which deserves so much better. (Best Arthur Movie is still Disney’s Sword in the Stone (1963), an adaptation of the first half of The Once and Future King by T. H. White)

Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, & Blonde (2003)

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  • Director: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld
  • Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Sally Field
  • Synopsis: Elle Woods heads to Washington D.C. to join the staff of a congresswoman in order to pass a bill to ban animal testing. (From IMDb)

Bite Size Review: I lost brain cells watching this film. The first Legally Blonde contained an excellent message: never let the world define you and if you want to conquer the world while wearing pink, then go for it. Elle Woods elevated herself from intellectually unchallenged rich girl with no direction to a strong, independent, and driven lawyer. She rose above everyone’s low expectations and fulfilled her potential. Then they made this movie and regressed the character back into a purposefully low intelligent bimbo. The plot is something straight from the reject pile of the Lifetime network. Instead of making Elle into the intellect powerhouse hinted at in the first film, the screenwriters reduce her into an animated Malibu Barbie with a briefcase. Apparently, Elle can either be a good lawyer or feminine, but not both. Reese Witherspoon recently announced that Legally Blonde 3 just entered pre-production. Hopefully it will follow the vein of the original Legally Blonde and just ignore the mess of Part 2. Witherspoon and Elle both deserve better material. 

The Expendables 3 (2014)

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  • Director: Patrick Hughes
  • Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Mel Gibson
  • Synopsis: Barney augments his team with new blood for a personal battle: to take down Conrad Stonebanks, the Expendables co-founder and notorious arms trader who is hell bent on wiping out Barney and every single one of his associates. (From IMDb)

Bite Size Review: The gang gets back together…..sort of. Stallone forged a career out of playing himself. Rambo, Rocky, and Barney are pretty much all the same character. The Expendables 1 & 2 worked because Stallone stuck to a tired and true format and gave people what they wanted: just enough plot to explain the extended action shots and trademark catchphrases. Statham and Stallone play off each other well and their chemistry keeps the narrative from falling into caricature. Now I do not watch The Expendables for deep philosophical discussions. I watch them because I just want to see some old fashion action adventure featuring all the action heroes I admired as a kid. The Expendables 3 broke the mold of the first two movies by having Lee Christmas (Statham) and Barney (Stallone) end their partnership right before a big job. Barney embarks on a recruitment mission to bring in some new blood, which turns into an overly long and unnecessary montage highlighting the new recruits’ skills. Then they botch the job and Barney has to call in the old team to rescue the new idiots. Really this film could solve insomnia. It trades the old school action-my only expectation for the film-for an extended exploration into aging and sentimentality. All I wanted was to see Stallone and Gibson try to out action hero each other. Instead I got Ronda Rousey dropkicking some random guy while wearing a tight dress.  

Serena (2014)

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  • Director: Susanne Bier
  • Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Rhys Ifans
  • Synopsis: In Depression-era North Carolina, the future of George Pemberton’s timber empire becomes complicated when he marries Serena. (From IMDb)

Bite Size Review: After making magic in The Silver Linings Playbook, Hollywood seemed determined to make Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence into the next power couple of the silver screen. After Playbook, Joy, and American Hustle, Lawrence and Cooper seemed capable of achieving the dizzying heights of Hollywood royalty. Then they made Serena. It went straight to DVD, so if you have never heard of it, that is why. Based off an excellent novel of the same name by Ron Rash, Serena follows a timber titan (Cooper) who marries a social climbing psychopath named Serena (Lawrence). The novel starts slow and builds into a dark, thrilling exploration of Serena’s ruthlessness and murderous tendencies. In the book, Serena is an immovable force of nature with a single-minded determination to secure her husband’s empire. In the film, despite Lawrence’s best efforts, Serena is not a believable character. She has melodramatic emotions and plot twists forced upon her with no depth or thematic resonance. Her behavior is inconsistent and the screenplay never reveals why we should care about her. Even more frustrating, Susanna Bier both over-directs and under-directs, sometimes in the same scene. A melodramatic score, shoddy camerawork, and slow motion montages of people riding horseback and lovemaking by candlelight overpowers the first act. As the narrative gets darker, Bier abandons this romantic style for a dour and depressing tone for no discernible reason. All the actors look pained and secretly hopeful that no one will ever see this disaster.  My recommendation: leave the movie in the $3 bin and read the book instead.

Rampage (2018)

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  • Director: Brad Peyton
  • Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman          
  • Synopsis: When three different animals become infected with a dangerous pathogen, a primatologist and a geneticist team up to stop them from destroying Chicago. (From IMDb)

Bite Size Review: This film is an excellent case study in how to ruin potential. The premise, while utterly ridiculous and unrealistic, could have turned into a great piece of escapist King Kongesque action. However, the screenwriters forgot to write a plot. Dwayne Johnson is clearly capable of a making an A grade level action flick. Rampage is a C level movie, and I am feeling generous. Transformers has better developed characters than this movie. Yes, Transformers. It physically pains me to write that sentence. I cannot even remember Dwayne’s character name in this movie. It is just Dwayne running around flexing his amazing biceps while Jeffrey Dean Morgan pops up at the weirdest moments with an overly affected Texas accent. Naomie Harris’ character supposedly knows what is happening to all the animals. Too bad her character has the dimensionality of a piece of cardboard. I did not go to this movie expecting an Oscar worthy experience. However, I did expect something with more plot development than “Dwayne Johnson fights gorilla”.  

Neal Stephenson-Seveneves

Synopsis: What would happen if the world were ending? A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.

Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown . . . to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth. (Adapted from Goodreads)

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Themes Explored: science fiction, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, genetics, reproduction, moon apocalypse, hard science fiction, NASA, International Space Station, death, destruction, family relationship, survival, prepping, end times, end-of-the-world, space exploration, evolution, genetic bottlenecks.  

Review: What if the moon broke apart without warning? How would life on Earth change? How would society react? Economics, governance, the rule of law, privacy, security, and everything in between would change. After the moon explodes, some nondescript scientists figure out that chunks of the moon will pummel Earth within two years and leave the planet uninhabitable for thousands of years. In a bid to save humanity, world governments unite to get as many spacecraft as possible into orbit, where some select people can ride out the apocalypse and procreate. Seveneves goes into detail, sometimes excruciatingly so, about how humanity keeps going when the Earth turns into a giant fireball with no tides.

Some unexplained phenomena– probably a black hole – breaks the moon into seven large fragments. After a few months of “normalcy”, the moon chunks bash into each other begin breaking in half. A media-friendly astronomer named Doc Dubois, a slightly younger version of Bill Nye the Science Guy, calculates the rate of collision and decides to fall in love (not kidding). Based on these numbers, Dubois determines that a deadly storm of moon debris will rain down as meteorites on the Earth within two years. Dubois calls this upcoming event the “Hard Rain”. All life on the planet will die a fiery and painful death. Then the Hard Rain will pummel the world for the next millennia. All qualified humans get to go try their hands at space life and everyone else can either go underground or die. 

Using the International Space Station-nicknamed Izzy-as a starting point, the governments of the world create the “Cloud Ark,” an intricate archipelago of satellites and modules–essentially tiny islands in the solar system–where the remaining members of humanity learn to survive. Imagine Interstellar mixed with John Carter of Mars and 2001 Space Odyssey. 

When the Hard Rain eventually arrives, about 300 pages in, seven billion people die incredibly quickly. Then the narrative forgets Earth, which is now burning, and focuses on the cobbled-together space ark. In this spinning island in the sky, the last 1700-odd members of the human race need to figure out how to survive and procreate. Back on Earth, everyone is either dead or living underground like moles.

Stephenson’s focuses on every single aspect of the moon’s explosion and its aftermath starts becomes a rather overwhelming after awhile. After a point, you just want to skip ahead. Then the two-thirds of the book focuses on the physics and logistics of living in space: working, sleeping, procreating, and the dangerous of cosmic rays. Stephenson goes into great detail about perigees, apogees, the perils of six degrees of freedom-three for position,three for velocity- and all the horrors and brute facts of life in low gravity. If it cannot be recreated on the Ark, then everyone must learn to live without. A bunch of people in a cooped up space leads to a lot of disagreements, political tensions, and cannibalism once the agriculture sector part of the Ark fails.  

The space station ends up being populated by the worlds most determined, overly talkative science geeks. Given the title of the book, the coolest characters are all women: Ivy, the unflappable station chief; Dinah, the robot expert; and Tekla, the sarcastic and overly combative Russian cosmonaut. When Ivy is replaced by Markus Leuker, things take a turn for the worse on the Ark. Stephenson does not spend enough time on the human part of the story, at least in the first half. Near the beginning, it is reported that Doc Dubois-the most developed male character-fell in love with a schoolteacher, but the reader does not witness this happen. When humanity is trying to build the Ark, a spacewalker is cast adrift and someone on the space station talks to him over the radio until he dies, but the reader does not witness this conversation. One of the female character’s boyfriend perishes in an act of sacrificial space piloting that helps assure everyone’s long-term survival, but she seems completely fine with his sacrifice and emotionally healed within a couple of days.

Due to a series of misunderstandings, unspoken expectations, and political maneuvering, nearly all 1700 humans on the Ark end up perishing. Only eight women end up surviving, only seven of whom are fertile. These seven women, the seven “eves”, end up procreating at an impressive rate and secure the survival of the human race. Given that this is science fiction, one of the surviving women is a geneticist. Each of the women are given the option of altering their gene code and creating their ideal human, hence the birth of seven “unique” races. This leads into the second half of the book, which explores life on Earth 5,000 years after the seven eves repopulated the space Ark.   

By the time I made it to the 5,000 year time jump, I really just wanted the story to finish. The new seven human races make a more compelling narrative, in my opinion, than the first half. Even though I just spent half my life reading the first half of the book, the second half ends up rehashing all these events anyways. While I enjoyed the premise of the book, Stephenson spent way too long explaining the technical aspects of space life to keep me engaged with the narrative. All 

 Stephenson’s characters are vivid and terrified: they bicker, cry, and perform heroic deeds. But Stephenson chooses to spend all his time describing  highly technical space gadgets instead of delving into the emotions of people who are literally watching the world burn. How would you react if everything you knew suddenly ceased to exist? For the rest of your life, all you will know is the inside of a rotating piece of metal among the stars while the Earth burns. Once you arrive at the snail-paced last third of the narrative, there are lots and lots of lavish descriptions of imaginary machines, city-sized orbiting habitats, giant pendulums, “sky trains”, and a merman city somewhere in the Marianas Trench.  I skipped sixty pages in the middle of the book and did not miss anything important.  After finishing this book, I wish Stephenson had written two separate books: one exploring the Earth leading up to and directly after the “hard rain” and the other one exploring the new civilization that sprung up after the planet finished burning. Both narratives combined together meant neither got the character development needed to actually care about the outcome. If you have eight-to-ten hours to devout to reading, this book will either fulfill your hard science fiction craving or lull you into a deep sleep. 

SevenevesHarper Collins, 2015, ISBN: 9780062190376

Life of Chaz

Welcome to My Life

The Renegade Press

Tales from the mouth of a wolf

What's She Reading?

Because the only thing better than reading is more reading.

Unabashedly Poetic

A blog about life

Life of Chaz

Welcome to My Life

The Renegade Press

Tales from the mouth of a wolf

What's She Reading?

Because the only thing better than reading is more reading.

Unabashedly Poetic

A blog about life

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