Rin Chupeco- The Bone Witch

Themes Explored: fantasy, paranormal, young adult, coming of age, witches, Geisha, death, life, resurrection, mentor-mentee relationship, sibling relationships, politics, hunting, magic, necromancy, ghosts

Synopsis: When Tea accidentally resurrects her brother from the dead, she learns she is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy means that she’s a bone witch, a title that makes her feared and ostracized by her community. Tea finds solace and guidance with an older bone witch, who takes Tea and her brother to another land for training.

Review: In her new home, Tea puts all her energy into becoming an asha-one who can wield elemental magic. But dark forces are approaching quickly, and in the face of danger, Tea will have to overcome her obstacles…and make a powerful choice.(Adapted from Goodreads)

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Review: This story combines Memoirs of a Geisha with every zombie-vampire-ghost-monster movie ever made. I started this book with no expectations and came away with mixed feelings. Few of the young adult fantasies I have read utilize Japanese culture as a background. The geisha theme plays a strong role in the evolution of the character Tea. The Bone Witch imagines a world where different witches possess various powers, with bone witches having the power over life and death. As a result, the bone witches, or Dark Asha, must deal with discrimination and outright hatred. However, they perform necessary tasks that keep terrors away, so the villagers begrudgingly accept the bone witches existence.

Tea comes from a family of witches. Two of her sisters possess power over water and healing. One of her brothers, Fox, joins the local army and sets off to fight an unknown enemy.  Fox comes home in a coffin. Overcome with grief, Tea feels a quickening in her power and raises Fox from the dead. Scared, the villagers view Tea and Fox as abominations. Another bone witch, Mykaela, feels the disturbance in the “dark” and discovers Tea. Mykaela takes Tea on as an apprentice. Fox tags along since he is neither dead nor fully alive and needs Tea to keep him alive.

 Bone witches train to raise monsters called daeva, kill them before they regenerate, and harvest the magical stones found in their innards. This process repeats every seven years. Soldiers, called Deatseekers, and other routinely die from daeva ripping them apart, though the book usually glosses over the gore. Under the tutelage of Mykaela, Tea studies hard and sacrifices much to learn her craft, even though she’s shunned for the kind of magic she can wield in some circles. Tea studies at an “asha-training” house and must master the fine arts of entertaining. This includes dancing, singing, music, combat, and history/politics. Each asha completes this training over the course of several years in order to, eventually, entertain wealthy clients at the various teahouses and private parties held throughout the kingdoms. Influential asha serve as political advisors, bodyguards, and, sometimes, the spouses of kings.

Each asha must build up a collection of hua, gowns that seem similar to traditional kimonos. These garments contain magic woven into the fabric that enhances the asha’s beauty and grace. About 2/3rds of the book deals with Tea’s life at the asha house and her emerging power. As this is a young adult novel, Tea, naturally, contains the most talent and power ever seen in the kingdom. Combined with teenage willfulness and arrogance, she presents a formidable challenge for her instructors. As Mykaela’s health fails from years of overextending her magical abilities, Tea soon finds herself to thrust into real responsibility before anyone thinks she is ready.

Narrative wise, the chapters alternate between Tea as an apprentice from ages 12 to 15 and her exile. By the age of 17, Tea lives as a hermit in caves on a distant beach. A bard, who feels more like an investigative journalist, finds her so he can tell her story. Over the course of their conversation, Tea describes her childhood, raising Fox from the dead, her apprenticeship, and her plans for revenge. During her seven day conversation with the Bard, Tea raises numerous daeva from the dead to create a monstrous army, her uses for them left unanswered.

A unexplored love triangle (because all YA novels seem to require triangle-shaped love affairs) emerges between Tea, Prince Kance, and his cousin Kalan. Thankfully, the romance angle takes a backseat and comes across more of a well-developed crush than romance. Kalan, the battle hardened 17 year  old, felt like a false character. His age and depiction do not mesh, I pictured him as a battle hardened 30 year old not a teenager.

Anyways, Tea and Fox remain the two focal characters. While Fox is technically dead, he shares a unique relationship with Tea. Since she brought him back to life, he became her “familiar”. His life “energy” ties in directly to Tea’s magic. Due to their sibling relationship before his change in body temperature, Fox and Tea have an affectionate but slightly combative dynamic. He chafes at the boundaries of his new reality and attempts to develop a life outside of the asha house. However, he also accompanies Tea everywhere and serves as her voice of reason, when she chooses to listen. By the end of the book, Tea and Fox no long talk with  each other.

The world building is beautiful. Chupeco dedicates long passages to creating the multicultural yet strongly Japanese tinted world. By the end of the book, more questions exist than answers. Why the daeva exist, Tea’s exile, her great betrayal, why she wants revenge, and her estrangement from Fox all remain unanswered mysteries. Hopefully these mysteries will receive answers in the sequel.

Finally, despite the excellent world building, not a lot happens in this novel. As in nothing happens until the final two chapters. Most of the book revolves solely around Tea’s apprenticeship and the world of the asha houses. While I enjoyed the book, the lack of answers and minimal action made the narrative a bit of a slog to get through. However, I am intrigued enough to read the sequel.

The Bone Witch, 2017, Sourcebooks Fire, ISBN: 9781492635826

John Carreyrou: Bad Blood-Secrets & Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

Themes Explored: fraud, technology, cult of personality, Steve Jobs, Apple, Silicon Valley, healthcare, healthcare startups, medical technology, innovation, investing, venture capital, fraud, nonfiction, crime, true crime, business, mystery, scientific innovation, science, blood testing

Synopsis:  In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood testing significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison (Oracle Founder) and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at more than $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work.

A riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a tale of ambition and hubris set amid the bold promises of Silicon Valley. (Adapted from Goodreads)

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Review: American culture celebrates the underdogs, brilliant inventors, and, more recently, the college dropout geniuses who become billionaires. Silicon Valley celebrates three main startup personalities: Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook). All three dropped out of college and built highly successful technology companies.

Other regarded founders include Travis Kalanick (UBER), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google/Alphabet), and Evan Spiegel (Snapchat). All these founders created massively popular products that revolutionized their industries.  

One problem.

All of these brilliant founders were male.

Silicon Valley and the technology sector at large have salivated waiting for a female technology founder to emerge from the shadows. Enter Elizabeth Holmes, a brilliant (then) nineteen year old with a needle phobia and plan to revolutionize the world of blood testing.

Modern medicine requires blood testing; it is the primary way to diagnose diseases. Usually doctors draw several vials of blood in order to conduct multiple tests. For people who hate needles, blood testing is an unpleasant, but necessary evil. Holmes envisioned creating a system that can run upwards of 1,000 tests using only a pinprick of blood drawn from the finger. Due to contamination issues, all blood for testing come from veins in the arm. 

While attending Stanford University, Holmes filed a patent for a wearable patch that could adjust drug dosages and notify doctors of variables in patients’ blood. Soon afterwards, Holmes dropped out Stanford to start her company, Theranos (derived from a combination of the words “therapy” and “diagnosis”). She soon moved on from the patch and decided to focus on making blood testing cheaper and more accessible to consumers. Originally, Holmes envisioned putting a Theranos machine in every persons home.

Almost immediately, Theranos raised millions of dollars.  By December 2004, the company raised over $6 million from investors and earned a valuation of $30 million. After Series B and C fundraising, Holmes raised $45 million in venture capital. By June of 2012, Theranos headquarters moved out of a rented basement office into the former Facebook corporate building. Significant news coverage in September 2013 allowed Theranos to raise over $400 million in investments and earn a valuation of $9 billion.  As Holmes held majority stock options, was CEO, and Chairman of the Board, she soon found herself the toast of Silicon Valley.

 The first female billionaire technology founder finally emerged!

Theranos received such significant investment and valuation because Holmes claimed to have developed devices to automate and miniaturize tests using microscopic blood volumes. Theranos dubbed the collection vessel the “nanotainer” and the analysis machine the “Edison.” Early skeptics criticized the machines since Holmes refused to have her equipment undergo outside testing and peer review. After severe scrutiny, Holmes allowed the Cleveland Clinic to complete a validation study of her technology.

In March of 2016, a study authored by 13 scientists appeared in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. The authors determined that the Theranos technology contained fatal flaws and delivered unreliable results. Edison Machines could not recreate two identical tests from the same sample. Even though the technology did not pass a peer review test, Holmes launched the product into the consumer market. She inked deals with Walgreens and Safeway to roll out the Theranos machines in the respective stores “wellness centers”. Early pilot programs for the product did not go well and doctors routinely complained about the lack of reliable test results.

Elizabeth Holmes, as portrayed in this book, does not come across in a positive light. She desperately wanted the world to see her as the reincarnation of Steve Jobs, and took to wearing a black turtleneck and black pants, in homage to Jobs’ famous ensembles. As she read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, Theranos employees guessed which chapter she finished based upon the leadership mantras she espoused.

Still, Holmes is not the only villain. Theranos’s second-in-command, Sunny Balwani, holds a lot of blame. Sunny was not only the second-in-command, but also Holmes’ boyfriend. A fact they chose to hide from investors. (Most investors like to know if the CEO is sleeping with the COO)

Yes. Silicon Valley’s first female billionaire hired her boyfriend.

Over the course of the book’s narrative, Balwani’s behavior ranged from petty to vindictive. He harangued employees about the number of hours they worked and used security footage to track their comings and goings. Holmes and Balwani encouraged employees to work on the weekends and not pursue interests outside of work. At one point, after a round of resignations, Balwani and Holmes held a company wide meeting where he declared that “anyone not prepared to show complete devotion and unmitigated loyalty to the company should ‘get the f*** out.’ ” Holmes then declared that she was building a “religion” and distributed copies of The Alchemist to everyone.

Despite the promising facade Holmes painted in multiple interviews, the technology simply did not work and continually produced erroneous results.  Holmes is currently facing a criminal trial for wire fraud. This book is a fascinating look into the cultic world of Silicon Valley startups. Despite the success achieved by multiple college-dropouts, not everyone who chooses to leave school early is going to reach billionaire status. Rolling out a slightly underdeveloped app is much different from debuting a flawed medical device that could result in people’s death. Watch the news for updated information about Holmes ongoing legal woes.

Jennifer Lawrence is portraying Holmes in the upcoming movie adaptation of the book.

(As an aside, the most successful startups tend to be founded by people aged 42 and above. Shockingly, experience and industry knowledge tends to pay off over the long run.)

Bad Blood: Secrets & Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, 2018, Knopf Publishing Group, ISBN: 9781524731656

Anthony Bourdain-Kitchen Confidential

Synopsis: A deliciously funny, delectably shocking banquet of wild-but-true tales of life in the culinary trade from Chef Anthony Bourdain, laying out his more than a quarter-century of drugs, sex, and haute cuisine. (Adapted from Goodreads)

Themes Explored: nonfiction, culinary arts, celebrity chef, haute cuisine, food preparation, sex, drugs, rocknroll, Rockstar chef, French cuisine, Italian cuisine, methadone, cocaine, heroin, parent child relations, leadership, growing up, Culinary Institute of America, Tokyo, New York, France.

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Review: Take one New York chef, add drugs, brandy and blood and mix until finished. Ever wonder what goes on in the kitchen while you wait for service? Anthony Bourdain dispels any notions of the gentleman chef or civility on the line. Most of the stories Bourdain shares occurred in the 1980’s and 1990’s and he ends the book by noting that kitchen culture has changed a lot since his drug fueled misbegotten youth. Beware of chefs with long knives and noses full of coke.

Anthony Bourdain depicts the cutthroat world of restaurants and professional cooking in all its theatrical, gory glory. Kitchen Confidential took Bourdain from just another chef to the international celebrity he enjoyed right up to his death earlier this year. Young Bourdain pulls no punches when depicted his life in the bowels of the kitchens of numerous failing restaurants across New York.

Like all battle hardened generals, Bourdain details the blood-stained, sweat-sodden working life of cooking combat. His litters the book with numerous military metaphors. These illusions to military lingo include the loyal  ‘crews’ or ‘brigades’ that he forms in his kitchens and his approach to cooking: like it is a full-scale military invasion, just add garlic, fresh never crushed.

During one memorable sequence, Bourdain describes reenacting the opening scenes from Apocalypse Now with his sous-chefs while enjoying a heady mix of dope, amphetamines and overwork. After, or during, the end of the dinner shift, as a finale, all the chefs would recreate the famous napalm blast by emptying half a pint of brandy over the range and setting it on fire in a dramatic whoosh. Shockingly, the restaurant eventually went bust.

Approximately ninety-nine percent of the restaurants where Bourdain worked went bankrupt. While he eventually rose up the culinary ranks and became the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, a mid-range faux French joint, he spent most of his career stumbling from one failing kitchen to the next. In one ill-fated chicken joint he rubbed shoulders with the Mob, who were desperate to help their just out of jail buddy became the next Colonel Sanders. Despite the Mob guys best efforts, Billy’s the chicken joint never posed much of a threat to the Colonel. One failing restaurant belongs to some suburban dentists turned ill-fated restaurateurs, thankfully the restaurant did not feature a molar theme. This young, brash Bourdain never stood in any danger of cooking on daytime television with his name stitched on a pair of pristine whites. The raging heroin addiction probably slowed his career down by a few years.

While Bourdain clearly loves to cook and holds the industry in high regard, he also takes umbrage with a lot of the seedier parts of the job. This is not a cuddly kind hearted chef scrambling eggs on a sound stage. This guy gets pumped up on whatever the busboy managed to score downtown and then begins chopping, dicing, and cussing for twelve straight hours. The bones of the book began as an article in the New Yorker called Don’t Eat Before Reading This, where Bourdain discussed  why you should never order fish on Mondays (except at specialty seafood restaurants) and why mussels are a terrible dish to order since they sit around stewing in their own juices all day. Between this book and some reports I read from the health department, I cringe about eating out ever again. Who knows what those wacky chefs get up to in the bowels of the kitchen.

Bourdain freely admits that a lot of his culinary adventures did not always lead to fabulous outcomes. There are some great accounts of chucking chateaubriand in the deep-fat fryer to give it a nice crust. Some steaks would be cooked an hour ahead of service and then re-heated by throwing a slick of sauce just before sending it out to the customer. Sometimes the blood on your plate did not come from an animal, well not the four legged kind.  Bourdain and crew considered cuts incurred during service as a badge of honor and would spray as much blood as possible across each other and the kitchen in general. Some lucky customers probably had a nice side of Ecuadorian, Peruvian, Dominican, Mexican, French, and/or American blood garnishing their dinner. Vegetarians, vegans, and people who like well-done meat are considered odd and a source of ridicule. Anyone who ordered a well done steak would find themselves digging into the grisliest, rangiest piece of meat available. Since the customers requested well done meat, Bourdain and crew had no compunctions about serving the least appetizing cut.

Literary speaking, Kitchen Confidential does contain several faults in the narrative. There are a few long winded discussion about the state of the New York restaurant business in the late 1980’s.  There are also some lovely discussions about the coked up, sex adventures of multiple members of Bourdain’s revolving door of associates and friends. His wife Nancy must have been a saint. Be aware, Bourdain pulls no punches and uses a lot of cuss words and vividly describes the pseudo-sexual relationships between all the line cooks during service. The main morale of the story is never trust a fat chef, they clearly do not work hard enough.

Woven between all the descriptions of personal failure, Bourdain explains why restaurants fail, why giving elegant dinner parties at home is not adequate preparation for opening a restaurant, and the need for a super organized head chef due to the extreme logistical requirements of managing restaurants. He also includes a helpful segment on what types of knives and kitchen equipment everyday chefs should invest in to make restaurant quality food at home. Plating is important people. Patterned plates look tacky, stick with solid colors. Garnishes make all the difference, Bourdain also includes list of high quality ingredients to use to elevate your entrees.

In an act of premonition, Bourdain describes in glorious, rapturous detail a trip to the restaurants of Tokyo. Les Halles operated a branch in New York, Tokyo, Miami, and Washington, D.C..  Bourdain went to Tokyo to help the executive chef master the art of French cooking. As this is his first visit to Tokyo, Bourdain describes everything in glorious detail. He dedicates several paragraphs to describing the meal of his life and walking off the beaten path to try as much Japanese cuisine as possible in one week.

During one of the more reverent parts of the book, Bourdain profiles Scott Bryan, a great chef, a food innovator, and a figure of stature among foodies, something Bourdain never aspired to achieve. In the end, Kitchen Confidential showcases the dark, lurid side of professional cooking. Though he admits that the kitchens he sharpened his knives in no longer exist due to the rise of celebrity chefs and increased interest in the cooking industry. This is a book best served cold with a nice bourbon on the side.

Kitchen Confidential, Ecco/Harper Perennial, 2007 (reprint), ISBN: 9780060899226

 

Movie Review: Crazy Rich Asians

  • Director: Jon M. Chu
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina
  • Screenplay: Peter Chiarelli & Adele Lim
  • Based on the Novel By: Kevin Kwan
  • Music By: Brian Tyler
  • Cinematography: Vanja Cernjul 
  • Running Time: 120 Minutes
  • Premiered: August 15, 2018

Synopsis: This contemporary romantic comedy follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s family. (Adapted from IMDb)

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Review: About a month after everyone else, I finally saw Crazy Rich Asians. I am glad I read the book first since the movie leaves out a lot of important information. However, I enjoyed seeing a romantic comedy where both lead characters have believable jobs, no explicit sex scenes, and the over-the-top fun that every romantic comedy requires.

Based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel, Crazy Rich Asians tells the tale of Rachel Chu, a Chinese American economics professor (played by Constance Wu), who travels to Singapore to attend a wedding with her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding). They have dated for a year and this is the first time Rachel will meet Nick’s family. He did nor prepare her. She has no idea that the Young family is an extremely wealthy and prestigious “old money” family. Nick is must adapt to Chinese culture, conniving ex-girlfriends, and, even worse,  Nick’s mother (Michelle Yeoh), who is adamant that he  must marry a woman with stature.

The Singaporean society depicted, per the title, revolves around obscene wealth, status, and extreme expectations.  Some characters literally throw money in the air. Surprisingly, the camera tends to linger for several extended moments on shirtless men, a rarity in romantic comedies. While the film features an all-Asian cast, the narrative avoids Asian stereotypes. One the characters is an over-the-top gay man, whereas the same character was much more refined and subtle in the book. I wish the screenwriters had depicted Oliver more like he was in the book. Refreshingly, this Hollywood romance featured a heroine who does not require saving by a man. If anything, Nick needs rescuing from Singaporean society. Rachel loves her life, and she and Nick have a healthy, respectful relationship. In between all the couture fashions and extreme wealth, the narrative contains an underlying message about loving yourself, staying true to your principles, and addressing problems about dignity and class.

Hollywood has churned out some truly atrocious romantic comedies in the past fifteen years. Personally, I think the romantic comedy genre peaked in the 1960s. Crazy Rich Asians manages to avoid a lot of the modern clichés found in romcoms. The story is not wildly original (it is basically Cinderella) but the pacing and narrative are well presented. Modern romcoms have an annoying tendency of portraying the heroines as rather bumbling individuals just waiting for a man to solve their issues. Not Rachel Chu. She is capable, clever, and completely in control of her life. She may temporarily suffer from the extreme combativeness of Nick’s family, but she never falters. Rachel is a well-drawn, down-to-earth heroine who, while not totally relatable, is an aspirational character, and Wu plays her perfectly.

A lot of the other women in the cast are great, if underdeveloped. Yeoh adds some depth to Eleanor, the ice queen of Singapore. The Eleanor in the movie lacks a lot of the development and three dimensions of the character in the book. A lot of the Elaenor and Rachel relationship is condensed in the movie and loses a lot of the nuance. Gemma Chan portrays Nick’s glamorous cousin Astrid, who must navigate the complexities of a marriage where the wife is rich and the husband is not. Astrid plays a major role in the book and her entire story line is condensed to under fifteen minutes of screen time. While Gemma does a great job playing Astrid, the screenplay deprived Astrid of all her character development and emotion. I hope the second movie gives Astrid a better character arc.  Awkwafina provides the comedy as Goh Peik Lin, Rachel’s wealthy college buddy. Ken Jeong play her father to great comedic effect. Goh Peik Lin is a much more serious character in the book and I felt the movie made her more into a caricature than a fully developed person. Though Awkwafina and Jeong had a nice on screen chemistry.

The movie presents an interesting take on the difference in American and Chinese culture. American culture is presented as the prioritization of career, ambition, and happiness over family. Whereas Chinese culture is shown as emphasizing family first, career and happiness are distant seconds. Both arguments greatly over simply both cultures, but it is still an interesting discussion.

At the heart of the story is the everyday hardships, joys, and difficulties that arise in families. For Rachel, family is a source of sustenance. Raised by her single mother, Rachel has always had the full support of her mother in all her endeavors, both professional and romantic.  Nick’s family is a clan that expects him to serve as pseudo-prince in waiting. He views his family fondly but also as a golden prison from which he wants to escape. For Nick’s mother, family represents a fortress built to repel invaders like Rachel, a “poor” Chinese-American who will never be Chinese enough to fit in. Nick’family is actually a lot crazier in the book, the movie versions are rather tame. 

 A couple of key sequences from the book—the bachelor party on a barge and the bachelorette party on the Indonesian island—are quite rushed and glossed over. The script tends to range from extremely humorous (the sharp-witted preface, a game of mah-jongg depicted as mortal combat; one-liners like “A lot of children are starving in America”) to heavy handed (a partygoer heckles Rachel with “Hey, Cinderella, what’s the matter, you’ve got to return your coach at midnight?”). I wish the humor had stayed more consisted throughout the whole film. The book is not funny in a laugh-out-loud manner, so the screenwriters tried to inject some over-the-top moments to mixed effect.

However, the film’s appeal transcends the flaws. The film is equal parts trendy and endearingly old-fashioned. I would recommend reading the book since the movie cuts out a lot of important background information. But you do not need to have read the book to enjoy the film. Crazy Rich Asians succeeds because it does not try to be anything other than a story about a guy who loves a girl and the compromises they make to have a successful relationship.

Now, where can I find a good looking, wealthy real estate heir?

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

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Review: Law School and Medical School in America 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 excludes 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 (yay for compound interest). Obviously, people attend law school with the hopes of making a nice return once they enter the working world. Current estimates are that the 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 marketing team sold them a rotten bill of goods,  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 live in 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 to evade their increasingly persistent loan officers and prove that their dead friend’s crazy conspiracy theories were correct. 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 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. 

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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)

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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).

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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)

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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

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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)

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