MOVIE: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Cat on a Hot Tin RoofYear: 1958Rating: Not RatedLength: 108 minutes / 1.80 hours While I understand the ease of adapting stage plays into movies, the result still feels a lot like watching a stage play on the big screen. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) is no exception. Adapted from the Tennessee Williams play of the same name, this movie boasts a few big names like Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. I think this movie probably wouldn’t have been as notable unless it had these names tied to it in some way. After all, there’s a reason why we still remember these writers and actors today. Even if Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starts slow, the increasing amount of twists and reveals makes for an entertaining movie. I think part of my issue with the slow start might be with Elizabeth Taylor’s acting. It felt to me like she was reading memorized lines and didn’t put much emotion or effort into her performance....
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VIDEO GAME: Super Mario Odyssey (2017)

Super Mario OdysseyYear: 2017Rating: E10Time Played: 20+ hours As is the case with many Nintendo systems, Super Mario Odyssey marked the mustachioed plumber’s arrival on the Switch, much like Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy did for the Nintendo 64, Gamecube, and Wii, respectively. Taking cues from all its predecessors, Super Mario Odyssey is a gorgeous platformer with plenty to do, almost to its detriment. It’s clear a lot of attention to detail went into this game, but it’s also evident that Odyssey is a celebration of Mario’s history as Nintendo’s de facto mascot. The fact that you can now play as many of Mario’s enemies is a fantastic mechanic that is as unique as it is timeless. Odyssey uses the improved graphics on the Switch to create stunning worlds that are just itching to be explored. The music as well is perhaps some of the best in the franchise, with the theme to the Wooded Kingdom being...
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BOOK: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains (2010)

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains Year: 2010 Author: Neil Gaiman Length: 83 minutes / 1.38 hours As I’d realized in previous works of Neil Gaiman’s that I’ve read, he excels at (at least) two things: short stories and fairy tales. One could argue that the latter is a subset of the former, but longer works like Stardust cause me to separate the distinction. Perhaps this book was made all the more magical by its audiobook production. Not only did the author himself read it, but it was accompanied with some great atmospheric music to enhance the mood produced by Gaiman’s words. I missed the illustrations this book sports, but I think the words can speak for themselves. In terms of a fairy tale, The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains manages to contain the usual flare of morality and truth against a backdrop of riches and mysterious wonder. I’m almost surprised there aren’t more authors writing modern fairy tales...
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VIDEO GAME: Undertale (2015)

Undertale Year: 2015 Rating: E10+ Time Played: By the time I had the chance to play Undertale (on the Nintendo Switch, no less), most of the surprising revelations about its battle system were already spoiled for me. Regardless of knowing the unique playstyle for this game, I tried my best to play by the counterintuitive methods that set this game apart from others of its genre. And while I didn’t get the true pacifist ending for some reason, it was still an enjoyable and humorous game. Despite its somewhat shorter length, I still think making it any longer would have ruined the tight storytelling. Now, Undertale is by no means a perfect game, and I’m sure the diehard fans of this franchise will hate me for saying this. The visual style was pretty good for a retro throwback, but it felt inconsistent from place to place, almost like it didn’t know if it wanted to be 8-bit or 16-bit. Similarly, the fantastic music and audio...
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VIDEO GAME: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (2017)

Mario Kart 8 DeluxeYear: 2017Rating: ETime Played: 5+ hours Just like how Mario Kart 7 expanded on the core gameplay mechanic of the Mario Kart series by adding gliding and underwater features in its tracks, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe goes a step further and removes the confines of gravity from the franchise. This core change to the Mario Kart formula results in a lot of genuinely unique courses that couldn’t have been possible in previous games. To top everything off, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is presented in gorgeous high definition while also including all the downloadable content from the Wii U version at no additional cost. With a variety of new courses, as well as classic racetracks enhanced to the Switch’s advanced graphical capabilities, I was glad to finally see some representation in this franchise from characters outside the typical Mario franchise. Representative characters and courses from the Zelda, Animal Crossing, and Splatoon franchises felt like welcome additions and perhaps even the...
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BOOK: Peter Pan (1911)

Peter Pan Year: 1911 Author: J.M. Barrie Length: 302 minutes / 5.03 hours I didn't grow up with Peter Pan as a child. The fact that I'm reviewing this book when I'm 34 merely highlights this oversight. I didn't even get into this story through the animated Disney version. Again, another oversight. About the only reason I know anything about Peter Pan is through the 1991 movie Hook—which I remember quite fondly. At this point, finally getting around to reading the source material was refreshing even if I already picked up most of the pop culture references this book inspired. While I didn't grow up with Peter Pan, I can see its merit. I'll probably even read it to my daughter when she's old enough to understand it. What's perhaps the most notable quality of this book is how its randomness almost makes sense. Do you know how kids make stuff up but have a logical sense about their creations? Well, Peter Pan has plenty...
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VIDEO GAME: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (2018)

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Year: 2018 Rating: E10 Time Played: ~45 hours I grew up playing the original Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo 64. I loved being able to play as a variety of characters across some well-known (and perhaps less well-known) Nintendo franchises. With each iteration of the series, I’ve enjoyed seeing new characters representing new and classic games join the roster. However, even if I can understand cutting some characters as the series moved forward, it was still a disappointment when I couldn’t play as my favorites in subsequent entries in the franchise. This is why I was hyped up for the release of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. For the first time, I was able to play as a staggeringly large number of characters. The fact that (almost) everything from previous games made it into this one made it feel like this was a celebration of the history of video games and not just a party brawler. And while I didn’t bother...
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BOOK: Breach (2018)

BreachYear: 2018Author: W.L. GoodwaterLength: 368 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM THE PUBLISHER*** It’s always interesting to see an alternate take on history where fantastical elements can help explain some mostly banal events and activities. In Breach, the reader is offered a glimpse into the top-secret realm of magicians in military espionage. Most of my knowledge of Cold War Berlin is based on pop culture representations, so there wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary here that would scream of historical inaccuracies. If anything, Breach almost felt like it could have been an extension of the Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts franchise with how well it integrated history and magic. While there was perhaps a bit too much browbeating over women’s role in society during the Cold War, the pacing, twists, and characters were excellent. It was a little difficult to tell the timeframe of this book, but I assumed it was probably in an alternate 1950s, based on the context clues. Of course, with the pacing of a...
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MOVIE: I Lost My Body (2019)

I Lost My Body Year: 2019 Rating: R Length: 81 minutes / 1.35 hours Some movies can only be done with animation. Whether it’s the fantastical or alien nature of the content or the visual aesthetic trying to be achieved, animation is pretty flexible with what it can do. Enter I Lost My Body (2019), which is a prime case study in the power of animation. Sure, this could have been done up in realistic CGI, but then it would probably be more in line with the horror genre than the “slice of life” (har har) we have on display here. Either way, I have never seen an entire movie centered on a severed hand trying to get back to the body that lost it…until now. With hints of Homeward Bound (1993) and The Addams Family (1991), I Lost My Body plays out in parallel with the strangely-relatable severed hand and the flashbacks of the whole body, Naoufel (Dev Patel). At times heartfelt (even in...
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BOOK: How To (2019)

How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems Year: 2019 Author: Randall Munroe Length: 307 pages I’ve been a fan of Randall Munroe’s work for quite some time. This artist of the xkcd webcomic certainly has a sense of humor that I appreciate, so I looked forward to his latest book, How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems. While his previous book, What if? covered hypothetical scenarios asked by the users of the internet, How To takes a somewhat opposite approach by using extreme science to do the most basic things imaginable. If you’re looking for simple answers, this isn’t the book for you. While it’s fun to think of the most complicated way to (for example) be on time, often the joke goes on a little too long as the exact science behind the absurdity is explained. There were times I felt I was reading a textbook instead of a humorous treatise on how to cross a river. Even though I...
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BOOK: Wizard and Glass (1997)

Wizard and GlassYear: 1997Author: Stephen KingLength: 1,656 minutes / 27.6 hours When I started reading Wizard and Glass, it became abundantly clear why The Waste Lands ended with a cliffhanger. While it would have been nice to have a short conclusion at the end of The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass needed a small amount of framing. That way, it didn’t become a book entirely devoted to a flashback. Granted, the large majority of this book is a flashback, even to the point that I’d consider it to be a prequel. Fortunately, Roland’s backstory was something that desperately needed to be expounded upon in this series. I know most writers are discouraged from using flashbacks, but in the context of a more extensive series, Wizard and Glass is an integral part of understanding how the Dark Tower universe works. Plus, Stephen King can get away with a lot since he’s so well established. In the end, this book works well because it...
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BOOK: The Eternity Code (2003)

The Eternity CodeYear: 2003Author: Eoin ColferLength: 414 minutes / 6.90 hours After the last two adventures in the Artemis Fowl series helped to reunite the titular character with his family, it was entertaining to watch him strike out on his own. This was for no other reason than to prove he has the criminal chops his family name is known for. While decidedly middle-grade to young adult in tone, The Eternity Code is still an entertaining read. One might need to have read the previous two volumes to know who all the main players are, but at least the story is strong enough to carry the reader through to the conclusion without too much hassle. While I appreciated the “on top of it” style Artemis had in Artemis Fowl, I could also enjoy the cracks of vulnerability in his façade present in The Eternity Code. After all, Artemis is merely a teenage boy, and it helps to ground him in reality when...
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MOVIE: The Irishman (2019)

The IrishmanYear: 2019Rating: RLength: 209 minutes / 3.48 hours At almost three-and-a-half hours long, The Irishman (2019) might seem like a daunting movie to sit through. However, much like Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019) gave Quentin Tarantino the space to make the movie he wanted to, Netflix seems to have allowed Martin Scorsese to create the film he wanted with little-to-no interference. Consequently, the 3.5 hours of this movie could have probably stood a bit of a trim, but the pacing is so well done as to make the time fly by (similar to another movie of epic proportions, Lawrence of Arabia (1962)). One of the most significant strengths of this movie appears to be its de-aging technology. While it’s still a bit on the edge of the uncanny valley, the main actors did look significantly younger than their current ages during the flashback sequences. Instead of relying on look-alikes and teaching them the mannerisms of these incredibly talented actors, Scorsese...
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BOOK: Shadow of the Hegemon (2000)

Shadow of the HegemonYear: 2000Author: Orson Scott CardLength: 365 pages It’s almost fitting how the follow-on book in the spin-off series to Ender’s Game takes the same tactic as Speaker for the Dead and transforms itself into a completely different genre. While Speaker for the Dead and its sequels still maintained a level of science fiction for the Ender saga, Shadow of the Hegemon pivots into a political thriller with almost no hints of sci-fi to be seen. The strength of the characters helped make this transition relatively smooth, but it still highlights how these child-aged individuals hardly have any child-like qualities. While the Shadow saga certainly needed to start out focusing on Bean, I did appreciate how Shadow of the Hegemon developed many of the supporting characters. For the first time in both series, I felt like the reader was able to know Petra and Peter while also seeing what Achilles was capable of accomplishing. The results of bringing back children...
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MOVIE: Knives Out (2019)

Knives OutYear: 2019Rating: PG-13Length: 130 minutes / 2.17 hours One of the most under-utilized genres to date, a good mystery movie is hard to find these days. This is partly why Knives Out (2019) is such a joy to watch. With plenty of twists and turns—and a murderer that subverts all the numerous tropes of the genre—this film is almost on the edge of self-aware satire of mysteries on the whole. This is partly why I found Knives Out to be delightfully amusing: the absurd nature of some of the genre’s most tightly-held motifs were playfully subverted for a couple of genuine laughs. Of course, part of the problem of Knives Out being so self-aware is that it is inevitably predictable at several key moments. Depending on how far ahead a viewer can deduce the solution to a critical piece of evidence might determine how predictable it is for them. I did appreciate that there was always one piece of the puzzle...
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MOVIE: An Education (2009)

An Education Year: 2009 Rating: PG-13 Length: 100 minutes / 1.67 hours I’m not sure how I missed this film when it first came out. I suspect it was because I hadn’t started making a point to see all the Oscar-nominated films of that year—and 2009 bumped that number up significantly from five to ten. At any rate, I’m glad I eventually came around to it as it was a delightful—if not mostly generic—coming-of-age story. The only modern and recent example I can think of that equates to An Education (2009) is Lady Bird (2017), and I loved that film for similar reasons. As someone who generally grew up feeling “older” than his peers, I could relate to Jenny (Carey Mulligan, in her best Audrey Hepburn impersonation). There’s a point when some teenagers like Jenny think they’ve figured out the “rules” of life and are therefore ready to jump into adulthood with both feet. This is definitely where the titular “education” comes in. It's both...
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BOOK: Pandora’s Lab (2017)

Pandora’s Lab Year: 2017 Author: Paul A. Offit Length: 471 minutes / 7.85 hours Science is an interesting realm. The public would sure like to think that all scientists are dedicated to finding the purest form of some scientific concept and modifying it to benefit society. However, some things become readily clear: not all societies are the same, and science can be abused. If anything, some of the worst scientific discoveries of the last few centuries were made with the best intentions. Unfortunately, more often than not, the full science wasn’t brought to the table, and plenty of people suffered because of it. Enter Pandora’s Lab, a selection of a few of the worst scientific discoveries and the stories behind what made them go awry. Each of the scientific discoveries covered in this book had slightly different negative impacts on the world, but the reason why they became so notorious is almost ubiquitous. Science is no place for emotion, so finding quick fixes for something by...
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MOVIE: One Piece – Stampede (2019)

One Piece: Stampede Year: 2019 Rating: PG-13 Length: 101 minutes / 1.68 hours It’s interesting how different Japanese franchises handle their 20th-anniversary movies. In the case of Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You (2017), a nostalgia tactic was used to bring in those viewers who might not have seen a Pokémon movie since the anime started airing back in 1997. Two years later, and another well-known anime (or at least it should be well known) has a movie that celebrates the 20th year of its animated series. One Piece: Stampede (2019) takes a somewhat different tactic here and embraces everything that turned it into what it is today. While anime movies rarely interact with the canon of the series they’re based on, it is essential to note that the author of the original manga did help create the story for Stampede. The reason why this is important is that this movie was able to bring together 20 years’ worth of extraordinarily overpowered and unique characters in a way...
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BOOK: Quiet (2012)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking Year: 2012 Author: Susan Cain Length: 639 minutes / 10.65 hours While it’s taken me a long time to finally get around to reading this book, most of what Quiet presented was what I had already known by living my life as an introvert. I will applaud this book’s ability to help society realize how ubiquitous the introverts that comprise the population are. Quiet also helps show what our needs are in this world that prizes the traits of extroversion over anything else. Even if there are many times where I have to put on my “extrovert suit,” it helps to know that there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert. Perhaps my only qualm with this book is how anecdotal the evidence is. Whether it’s stories about famous introverts (which can be inspiring) or younger introverts who are being brought up by parents who don’t quite understand the strengths of the introvert type, Quiet uses a lot of case...
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MOVIE: Hero (2002)

Hero Year: 2002 Rating: PG-13 Length: 107 minutes / 1.78 hours After the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) in most of the worldwide markets, it’s no wonder that a film like Hero (2002) would make an appearance. Capitalizing on the choreography and visuals that brought Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon success, Hero takes these acrobatic battles to the next level, even to the point of them becoming ridiculous and semi-cartoonish. Add to this the deliberate color theming for each of the film’s different sections, and Hero almost becomes a piece of art in its own right. It’s almost a shame that there haven’t been more movies like this in the years since. While some of the CGI hasn’t aged well since 2002, and the acting can sometimes be too flat or too over the top, the story is still entertaining. The language barrier did make it slightly confusing at times, but the twists were top-notch. It did help to have the “framing” of the throne room to not only show the...
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MOVIE: Senna (2010)

Senna Year: 2010 Rating: PG-13 Length: 106 minutes / 1.77 hours I’ve never been much of a fan of NASCAR racing, mostly because I knew that Formula-1 existed. While I haven’t paid much attention to Formula-1, it was interesting to watch the documentary on Ayrton Senna, especially with how it was put together. Most documentaries will intersperse interviews and other pieces of ancillary information to support the main narrative. Not Senna (2010). Consisting almost entirely of video clips recorded at the time he was racing, Senna is a fascinating look into this racer’s life that benefits from hindsight to piece the video clips together and the full story. The sheer amount of skill and mechanical prowess it takes to race Formula-1 cars at top speeds is what gives this film its initial entertainment value. Added to that, we have the charismatic personality of Ayrton Senna, whose whole goal in life was to be the fastest driver around. He didn’t care about the politics of the...
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BOOK: Cribsheet (2019)

Cribsheet Year: 2019 Author: Emily Oster Length: 642 minutes / 10.70 hours As a new parent and an engineer, I am skeptical when so much advice about raising a baby comes from hearsay or anecdotal evidence. So many controversial topics abound in the early years of a child’s life that I wanted to make sure I was basing my decisions off the scientific data instead of mere wives' tales. Fortunately, Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool exists. Unfortunately, it has merely proven to me that there haven’t been enough rigorous studies to show any causal relationships to make my parenting decisions any easier. Similar in the tactics of Zero to Five (whose author was a science journalist), Cribsheet takes the experience of an economist and pits it against the studies that have been performed to determine which of them are legitimate enough to be trusted. In most cases, it seems that plenty of research into the benefits and detriments for children (and parents) merely...
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MOVIE: Blood Diamond (2006)

Blood Diamond Year: 2006 Rating: R Length: 143 minutes / 2.38 hours For years, I had heard about Blood Diamond (2006) from a variety of different viewpoints. Many friends would mention it about either Leonardo DiCaprio’s accent, the tense action, or the diamond industry as a whole. After a while, I made it a point to eventually see this film, even if I wasn’t sure when that would be. It took a while, but I did eventually have this chance, and I’m glad that I took it. Sure, Blood Diamond is a little difficult to watch in the sense that there are aspects of the African diamond industry that are straight-up human rights violations. However, it is important to know these things are going on to become informed about our world. The fact that there have been (and likely still are) child soldiers being brainwashed by ruthless rebels to overthrow the governments in Africa is a sobering thing to watch and a heartbreaking realization when you see how it...
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BOOK: The Fifth Season (2015)

The Fifth Season Year: 2015 Author: N.K. Jemisin Length: 927 minutes / 15.45 hours It’s been a while since I’ve read a fantasy book with such a unique magic system in place. I truly enjoyed the amount of thought that went into a world where the main source of power was that of the earth itself. From magma to solid obelisks, the ability to control the vibrations of the planet (either to amplify or dampen) had an interesting and logical follow-through in its characters and storyline. I’m honestly looking forward to eventually starting the next book in the series since the world was built so well. It’s no wonder that it ended up winning the Hugo Award for that year. While I suppose The Fifth Season is also partly a pseudo-post-apocalypse story, it was only shown in small snippets and references here and there. Consequently, this would make this story almost “modern fantasy” in comparison to some of the classics. Additionally, this would explain some...
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MOVIE: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams Year: 2010 Rating: G Length: 90 minutes / 1.50 hours Every once in a while, ideal conditions align to preserve a piece of ancient human history. Time and the march of civilization have destroyed plenty of important artifacts of our past, but occasionally something happens that protects this history for future generations to find. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), the audience gets a breathtaking look into an amazing discovery that has a cultural impact stretching back eons to the origins of our species. It’s a shame that most will never be able to visit this cave, but this documentary is practically the next best thing. Interspersing first footage and high-quality video of the cave, the music and narration in this film create a mesmerizing quality as we are introduced to cave drawings and other artifacts that haven’t been seen by human eyes in a very long time. The expansive nature of the art and the level of preservation are quite awe-inspiring. I...
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BOOK: Get Thee…Back to the Future! (2019)

William Shakespeare’s Get Thee…Back to the Future! Year: 2019 Author: Ian Doescher Length: 215 minutes / 3.58 hours Having already listened to the audiobooks for the Shakespearean versions of the original Star Wars trilogy, I was curious to see how another beloved pop culture film would fare with the treatment. Get Thee…Back to the Future! had a bit more of a challenge when compared to the Star Wars stories. First, as the plot is set in (relatively) modern times, much of our technology had to be “explained” in Shakespearean format (e.g., a car is “a horseless carriage born on fumes of gas and flame”). At least the Star Wars stories seemed to fit in the Shakespearean timeframe a little better. Despite this clash of modern and medieval, the transformation into Shakespearean form does end up working. I’d probably compare this to some of his comedies like Taming of the Shrew, 12th Night, and Much Ado About Nothing, if for no other reason than the comedy...
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BOOK: The Waste Lands (1991)

The Waste Lands Year: 1991 Author: Stephen King Length: 1,090 minutes / 18.17 hours Before I got into reading the Dark Tower series, I saw the movie adaptation. It’s honestly what inspired me to get into the books. While I was a little disappointed with The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three showed me the series’ true potential. Moving on from my favorite book in the series, we have The Waste Lands. It's sort of a mash-up of the two earlier books in terms of characters and plot points. However, it's ultimately less than the sum of their parts (and that’s mostly due to the ending). What strikes me with The Waste Lands is how it could have been better than it was. Those who have seen the movie version of The Dark Tower will recognize a lot of scenes, if not a huge chunk of them. I can see why they cut the two most interesting characters from the film, especially since everyone ends...
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MOVIE: Chocolat (2000)

Chocolat Year: 2000 Rating: PG-13 Length: 121 minutes / 2.02 hours Chocolat (2000) is one of those movies that I was aware of but hadn’t watched until recently. While it received a Best Picture nomination, I don’t think it was up to the level of the winner for that year, Gladiator (2000). Nevertheless, Chocolat is a charming story that lies somewhere between Footloose (1984), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), and Babette’s Feast (1987). What’s maybe a little odd to me about this movie is how I thought Johnny Depp would have a more prominent role in it, since he covers almost half the movie poster. Instead, it’s more a bit part that comes in about half-way through the film. While the conclusion of Chocolat is practically telegraphed from the start, it was still entertaining to watch the townspeople warm to the newly arrived chocolatier. Despite most of the characters might feeling a little one-dimensional, they are so fully fleshed out in the one or two qualities that make them distinguishable that you can’t help but enjoy...
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BOOK: The Daylight War (2013)

The Daylight War Year: 2013 Author: Peter V. Brett Length: 1,607 minutes / 26.78 hours I’m glad to see that it only took two books for Peter V. Brett to cut down on some of the extraneous flashbacks and exposition in the Demon Cycle series. While whole chunks of The Warded Man could have been cut with nothing significant lost in the process, and The Desert Spear had what appeared to be an unrelated storyline that weaved through the narrative, The Daylight War has a minimal amount of this “fluff.” Granted, there is still some amount of world-building that helped to explain yet another aspect of this setting, but it’s minimal in comparison to its predecessors. Additionally, I already knew this series was an adult fantasy from my experience with The Warded Man and The Desert Spear. These are tame when compared to the third entry in the series. The sex in this book made the previous two look like nuns in comparison. Sure, it...
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MOVIE: Heat (1995)

Heat Year: 1995 Rating: R Length: 170 minutes / 2.83 hours It’s interesting to go back and watch something by Michael Mann after seeing his later work. I enjoyed Collateral (2004) and considered it to be a well-directed film. Of course, there’s deliberate pacing and acceleration of Collateral that drew me in. Unfortunately, this biased me somewhat when I sat down to watch Heat (1995). Stylistically, both are fairly similar and use similar locales. However, at almost three hours long, some of the pacing in Heat made me think that it could have used a bit of a trim in the first half. I understand the deliberate nature of the buildup of the first half, with each event introducing some core tenet of the main characters that come to fruition by the end of the film. It helps that there’s a good bit of action early on, but until the twist that happens about half-way through occurs, the comparison to the pacing of the second half makes the early part of this movie...
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MOVIE: As Good as it Gets (1997)

As Good as it Gets Year: 1997 Rating: PG-13 Length: 139 minutes / 2.32 hours I’m not sure how it’s taken me this long to sit down and finally watch this movie. I’ve enjoyed other films by James L. Brooks, like Terms of Endearment (1983) and Broadcast News (1987). If anything, As Good as it Gets (1997) is almost like the end of the trifecta of Brooks films, considering how well-received by critics they are. When it comes right down to it, the appeal of these movies is the characters. There’s a heart and realism rarely seen in comedies (most of which resort to stereotypes and fart jokes to get a laugh). As a more intellectual comedy, As Good as it Gets manages to bring together three unlikely people and push their boundaries to grow as characters. Of course, it’s somewhat easy to do this with abrasive characters like Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson). After all, actively trying not to be a jerk is great growth potential. Additionally, other characters grow through their...
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BOOK: BlacKkKlansman (2014)

BlacKkKlansman Year: 2014 Author: Ron Stalworth Length: 352 minutes / 5.87 hours As someone who lives in Colorado Springs and calls this town my home, I was intrigued by Ron Stalworth's story after watching the 2018 Spike Lee movie based on the undercover investigation into the local Ku Klux Klan. Sure, I didn’t live in the Springs during the period covered in this book, but I did have enough understanding of the town to know the locations referenced throughout. To think that I live close to some of the areas that could have been affected by cross burnings or other Klan events is a little eerie to me, mostly because it’s something I rarely think about. For those who have seen the movie first, this book covers everything that made it to the big screen but also adds some details about other events not directly linked to the Klan (but were still relevant to the discussion of race in the area). I’ll admit that Colorado...
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MOVIE: Spider-man: Far from Home (2019)

Spider-man: Far from Home Year: 2019 Rating: PG-13 Length: 129 minutes / 2.15 hours After the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019), there were still plenty of questions that remained. While still part of Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Spider-man: Far from Home (2019) attempts to grapple with the outcome of such a pivotal film in the superhero franchise. As was the case with its predecessor, Spider-man: Homecoming (2017), Far from Home shows the audience the impacts of the other films in the MCU in a way that’s personable and relatable. After all, it’s easier to connect with a “friendly neighborhood Spider-man” than with a multi-billion dollar playboy. I did appreciate the emotional depth of this movie, especially considering how Tom Holland handles the role of Peter Parker. From grieving over the losses of Endgame while also trying to move forward with his life, Peter has plenty of growth opportunities throughout this film. That being said, Far from Home seems to hit almost...
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BOOK: How to Tell Fate from Destiny (2018)

How to Tell Fate from Destiny: And Other Skillful Word Distinctions Year: 2018 Author: Charles Harrington Elster Length: 320 pages I’ve written blog posts and recorded vlogs about writers who seem to rely on spell check to make sure they’re using the right word. Most of the time, they probably didn’t have an adequate editor to review their manuscript and thus didn’t check whether or not they were using the right word (even if the wrong word is spelled correctly). With the state of the printed word slipping year after year, a book like How to Tell Fate from Destiny should be a standard reference on any writer’s desk. Although, many of the words covered in this book are slowly changing due to idiomatic circumstances. It is slightly encouraging to see examples provided in this book from reputable sources (like well-known newspapers and magazines) that still have these common errors in their writing. If anything, these examples prove how difficult it can be to distinguish the correct...
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BOOK: Red Prophet (1988)

Red Prophet Year: 1988 Author: Orson Scott Card Length: 733 minutes / 12.22 hours Continuing from the previous book in the Alvin Maker series, Red Prophet flashes back and shows certain events from a different point of view before driving forward into some fascinating alternate history. I continue to enjoy the fantastical elements brought into American history, even to the point of explaining how certain famous historical figures were the way they were. Although, if you know enough history, you’ll realize the fates of some of the characters presented in Red Prophet (William Henry Harrison, for instance) might not need the foreshadowing missing from this text. While Seventh Son managed to set up this alternate history and establish some of its rules, Red Prophet delves into the action and excitement that comes from some of the more “kinetic” talents of these characters. Once the plot catches up with where Seventh Son left off, I was hooked. The interactions between Alvin and the Native Americans were quite interesting, and I found everything up until the climactic battle to...
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MOVIE: Aladdin (2019)

Aladdin Year: 2019 Rating: PG Length: 128 minutes / 2.13 hours When the animated version of Aladdin came out in 1992, I was seven years old. As a young boy, I could finally relate to the titular character since the focus of this Disney film wasn’t as much on the “princess” as it was on “Prince Ali.” Consequently, this film has remained one of my favorite Disney films over the years and is one I have mostly memorized after repeated viewings in my childhood. As such, I was partly looking forward to this live-action adaptation due to my love of the original. The other part of my anticipation was because Guy Ritchie was directing it (and I’ve loved plenty of his earlier works). Having now seen this version of the rags-to-riches tale, I’m in this weird “uncanny valley” of storytelling. Because I have the original memorized, this version of the story was close enough to be predictable but not a word-for-word re-enactment, which is what I found...
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BOOK: Seventh Son (1987)

Seventh Son Year: 1987 Author: Orson Scott Card Length: 547 minutes / 9.12 hours Having loved Orson Scott Card’s Ender Saga, I decided to start into another of his series, Tales of Alvin Maker. I was used to his science fiction writing, so I thought it would be interesting to see how he handled semi-historical fiction. For the first book in a series, Seventh Son certainly has its strengths and weaknesses. It’s clear this book came on the heels of the Ender Saga, as there are a lot of parallels between characters and motifs that I just couldn’t ignore. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing by any means. While the history of colonial America is the setting of Seventh Son, the fantasy elements added to it made for an interesting read. I did appreciate the distinctive “good vs. evil” conflict between the Makers and the Unmaker, even if it’s a little too tried and true. At the very least, while the religious characters had...
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BOOK: Ember Falls (2016)

Ember Falls Year: 2016 Author: S.D. Smith Length: 234 pages Being a fan of children’s series like The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as a lover of rabbits (owning two Flemish giants as pets), I was glad to get back into the Green Ember series with the second book, Ember Falls. Obviously, as this series is mainly geared toward children, there were a few points of the plot of this second book that I either predicted from the start or could see coming from a mile away. In any case, the world building that continued with this book was top notch, despite certainly feeling like a “linking” part of the series. While The Green Ember could stand on its own and laid the groundwork for the books that came after it, Ember Falls certainly needs its predecessor to make sense. It also seems to rely on the next book in the series to reach some conclusion. This is an issue that often arises in book...
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MOVIE: Shazam! (2019)

Shazam! Year: 2019 Rating: PG-13 Length: 132 minutes / 2.20 hours As far as self-aware movies go, I think Shazam! (2019) is the best example from the genre of comic book heroes. Deadpool (2016) might have been more “meta,” but Shazam! hits all the bits that make comic books popular to kids, especially young boys. As a fan of self-aware films, I would have seen this movie anyway. However, with Zachary Levi in the lead role, I absolutely had to see it. I’ve generally been a fan of his work from Chuck and Tangled (2010), so seeing that he still has his comedic timing in shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and movies like Shazam! is encouraging. In terms of plot, the premise is somewhat weak, but the pitch is something akin to “Big (1988), but as a superhero film like Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017).” In fact, there’s at least one scene in a mall that winks so hard at this reference, I was afraid it...
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BOOK: Nightflyers (1985)

Nightflyers Year: 1985 Author: George R.R. Martin Length: 247 minutes / 4.12 hours Those who are familiar with George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series may be lamenting the end of the semi-faithful Game of Thrones television show. In the time we’ll all have to wait until the next Song of Ice and Fire book comes out, there are other little stories from this author to satiate our appetite. Nightflyers is a short novella by Martin that also seems to be hinging itself on the success of Game of Thrones, albeit in the science fiction genre instead of high fantasy. Considering how verbose Martin can get with his works, it was almost refreshing to read a story that was so focused and short. Granted, even though Nightflyers is science fiction, all of the notable George R.R. Martin elements were present: mainly, sex and violence. Depending on your tolerance of these elements, I can say that they’re at least naturally integrated with this...
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BOOK: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2008)

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die: 5th Edition Year: 2008 Author: Steven Jay Schneider Length: 960 pages As a movie aficionado, it was only a matter of time before I picked up this book. At the time, the 5th edition covered most of the films that were out at the time, but I do realize there are more recent versions of this book that include some of the latest hits of the last decade. Not one to use this book as a simple desk reference, I took the time to sit down and read through the reviews of these 1,000+ movies. In the time since buying this book, I’ve managed to increase my percentage of films seen, but there’s still a long way to go. Even before I started reading this book, I had already seen a good portion of the movies mentioned, many of which won critical awards for their achievements. With a concerted effort, I’m now sitting at 42% of these 1001 movies...
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MOVIE: Vice (2018)

Vice Year: 2018 Rating: R Length: 132 minutes / 2.20 hours It’s a little weird to me how a director like Adam McKay has gone from directing movies like Anchorman (2004) and Talladega Nights (2006) to entertaining exposés like The Big Short (2015) and Vice (2018). Sure, I can see how his comedy background could lead to the razor-sharp wit used to educate the movie-going public about the 2008 mortgage crisis and the former vice president, respectively. It’s evident the Academy likes his new style as well, as both The Big Short and Vice were nominated for Best Picture. While I liked The Big Short a lot, Vice certainly had its moments. I’ll give props to Christian Bale for his ability to mimic Dick Cheney’s mannerisms in this role. Sam Rockwell was also pretty great as George W. Bush, but I couldn’t get past Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld. I also appreciated the tongue-in-cheek “false ending” in Vice, as it was probably one of the funniest moments in the film. Just like how learning about the mortgage crisis was...
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BOOK: Kaleidoscope (2018)

Kaleidoscope: Keeping the church from becoming a museum Year: 2018 Author: Kurt Trempert Length: 226 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM THE AUTHOR*** In Kaleidoscope: Keeping the church from becoming a museum, Kurt Trempert uses the metaphor of the kaleidoscope to examine what an incarnational church looks like when compared to some of the stagnancies arising in the modern American church. This book addresses many issues and criticisms the church faces in the contemporary era. They're covered in a way that shows not only what’s perhaps behind these shortcomings, but what can potentially be done to fix them. Of course, this then begs the question, who is this book’s audience? Is it for those who run their local church, or the congregation of said churches? Content-wise, I didn’t have many issues with what was presented here. Most of my qualms had to do with the formatting, including right-align text, the font, and lack of indents. Since it was consistent throughout, I eventually got over it. I would...
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BOOK: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (2019)

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill Year: 2019 Author: Abbi Waxman Length: 352 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** I’m not sure if The Bookish Life of Nina Hill is a millennial romantic comedy or a hipster romantic comedy. Either way, I did enjoy reading it, mostly because the formula for this genre is relatively straightforward and predictable. It probably helped that I could relate to the main character, or at least her introverted nature. The supporting characters were a bit quirky and fun as well which just added to the entertaining nature of the narrative. At the very least, I could see something like this becoming a movie, even if it was only released on cable television. Since the copy of this book I read was an advanced reader copy, I’m sure some of the errata like missing book images at several section breaks and a few backward quotes near the end will be fixed for the final product. Content-wise, I did find...
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MOVIE: Alita – Battle Angel (2019)

Alita: Battle Angel Year: 2019 Rating: PG-13 Length: 122 minutes / 2.03 hours With the plethora of successes that the comic book movie has seen over the last decade, it’s a little disheartening to see the Japanese equivalent fail to make much headway. There are just as many interesting and action-packed stories from manga and anime that deserve the treatment given to comic book movies. Instead, busts like Dragonball: Evolution (2009) and Ghost in the Shell (2017) have shown that live-action adaptations are challenging, especially when there’s already an animated counterpart. This was why I was excited to see Alita: Battle Angel (2019). While many manga/anime film adaptations fail to grasp the feel of the source material, Alita appeared to be a passion project for James Cameron. The fact that Robert Rodriguez directed this movie helped as well, considering how well he brought the graphic novel Sin City to the screen in 2005. Of course, he also directed Spy Kids (2001), which was colorful and full of fun action. In the end, I found Alita to be somewhat...
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BOOK: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame Year: 1831 Author: Victor Hugo Length: 1,136 minutes / 18.93 hours Victor Hugo is one of those classic authors who I’ve hesitated reading because his stories tend to have a lot of details that don’t necessarily add to the plot. Sure, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is no Les Miserables, but Hugo’s style made this book perhaps a little longer than it should have been. Either way, now I know a lot more about the architecture of Notre Dame Cathedral. Despite all this, the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is timeless in many ways, not the least of which centers around its titular character. While modern stories are vying to be inclusive and diverse, Victor Hugo managed to write a story in the 1800s that not only included a disabled individual but racially diverse characters (at least for France) as well. The fact that both are sympathetic protagonists helps cement Quasimodo and Esmerelda in my mind. They’re both persecuted in their own ways;...
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BOOK: Artemis Fowl (2001)

Artemis Fowl Year: 2001 Author: Eoin Colfer Length: 281 pages With the movie adaptation of this book coming out in a few months, I figured the premise of Artemis Fowl looked interesting enough that I’d want to read it before seeing the film. After all, a child genius going up against fantasy forces sounded like it would be entertaining. Overall, this was true. Granted, this book starts one of those classic Young Adult series that’s actually meant for children, so I can forgive a bit of its bathroom humor—but only to a point. Still, I found the fusion of modern technology and fantasy elements to be the strength of this book. Much in the vein of the science fantasy genre, Artemis Fowl uses scientific principles and concepts to explain the numerous phenomena connected to creatures like fairies, dwarves, and trolls. It only makes sense that these creatures would evolve technologically along with humanity. Being able to explain how these creatures could remain undetected for thousands of years was nearly...
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BOOK: Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire (2018)

Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire Year: 2018 Author: John August Length: 411 minutes / 6.85 hours Having already read Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon, I decided to go back and read the book that kicked off this series. While I already knew what had happened in Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire—as the sequel frequently referenced it—I still appreciated reading the details myself. I had a few questions and concerns that I hoped this book would address, and only about half of them were answered to my satisfaction. Still, I did enjoy this Harry Potter and Boy Scouts mashup, even if it is literally that. In the sequel, I definitely got the Harry Potter vibe, but I fully realized the almost 1-for-1 influence of the J.K. Rowling series on this series when I read this book. Unsuspectingly powerful main character with a unique physical trait? Check. Overachieving female friend? Check. Somewhat bumbling male friend? Check. Different groups categorized via...
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MOVIE: The Favourite (2018)

The Favourite Year: 2018 Rating: R Length: 119 minutes / 1.98 hours What. The. Favourite. For those of us watching all of this year’s Best Picture nominees, The Favourite (2018) is certainly the token “artsy” film of the set. It felt like it was following in the footsteps of last year’s Phantom Thread (2017) in that the set decoration and costume design were exquisite, despite the—let’s face it—weird characters. Regarding the plot, though, I did find The Favourite to parallel the events in the 1950 Best Picture winner, All About Eve. While its art is on full display for all to see, The Favourite is a bit more than how it looks. Aside from the aforementioned set decoration and costume design, I have to applaud this movie’s cinematography. I’d wager that it’ll win in these three categories, but the cinematography stands out because it’s so different from most films. Heavily utilizing wide-angle fisheye lenses, as well as copious amounts of natural light (perhaps as an aesthetic homage to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), which also shares a somewhat...
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BOOK: The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006)

The Girl Who Played with Fire Year: 2006 Author: Stieg Larsson Length: 1,115 minutes / 18.58 hours Despite some of its weaknesses, some of which were due to my reading it via audiobook, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a great book. In its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, some of these weaknesses were addressed, but others manifested in their place. Again, these faults might be attributed to the audiobook format, but are fairly minor when considering how fantastic the story is as a whole. In fact, I probably like The Girl Who Played with Fire more than its predecessor. Of course, part of this was how events in the first book carried over to influence the plot of the second. In the first book of the Millennium series, I didn’t realize just how much sex was in it. This was mostly because of the rape scene that made everything else seem tame in comparison. In this book, the sex is still there, but there’s so much of it...
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BOOK: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Year: 2005 Author: Stieg Larsson Length: 980 minutes / 16.33 hours For many years, I was hesitant to read this book, mostly due to a few intense sequences that I saw in the David Fincher film adaptation. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be subjected to them in book form any more than I had been already. Fortunately, these scenes were quite a bit more tolerable in the book, mostly because the descriptions weren’t nearly as visceral as watching them on the big screen. I’m only now kicking myself for waiting this long to read such a fantastic book. While the book and the movie diverge in a few spots, I can see the reasoning behind the differences. When it comes right down to it, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a showcase for its titular character. Lisbeth Salander is tough, smart, and an overall entertaining individual to follow. While it takes quite a while for her to...
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BOOK: Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia (2009)

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia Year: 2009 Author: Brandon Sanderson Length: 406 minutes / 6.77 hours You know, it’s difficult to review a book that already highlights its flaws in the text itself. Part of me wonders if the reviews from the second book in the series were bad enough to warrant this kind of meta self-awareness. In the end, while Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia does take the time to address these weaknesses in its story and characters, it still doesn’t excuse the fact that they’re in there in the first place. These winking soliloquies seem to gloss over the fact that the book knows what’s wrong with it, but instead decides to gloss over it with self-reference instead of fixing the root of the problems themselves. By this point in the series, I have come to terms with its middle-grade silliness and occasional bathroom humor. I loved the rule-breaking first book in the series, only to become annoyed by this constant...
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MOVIE: BlacKkKlansman (2018)

BlacKkKlansman Year: 2018 Rating: R Length: 135 minutes / 2.25 hours The idea that an African American could become a member of the Ku Klux Klan is silly enough that it became a joke on Dave Chapelle’s television show. Of course, this movie isn’t a comedy sketch, as it is based on true events. Obviously, there were plenty of elements in this film that were likely fictionalized to make the story more “Hollywood,” but it’s still an interesting story, nonetheless. Part of the trick of this movie, though, is that it treats itself almost like a half-modern documentary of the KKK as well, which makes it seem like there wasn’t enough source material to make an engaging plot. Another part of me was interested in this movie for its setting. Living in Colorado Springs, it was interesting to me that certain landmarks and places in town were referenced, which merely added realism to the story as it was presented. From NORAD and Fort Carson to...
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MOVIE: Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Bohemian Rhapsody Year: 2018 Rating: PG-13 Length: 134 minutes / 2.23 hours It's difficult to hate a film that's filled with so many great songs. Fortunately for Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), almost all of Queen's greatest hits are pulled out and strung together to cover a rather large timeframe of 15 years. Of course, like most musical biopics, it does tend to hit the same notes as predecessors before it. Perhaps this is merely due to the "rock and roll" lifestyle, but I couldn't help but see similar situations in films like De-Lovely (2004), Ray (2004), and Walk the Line (2005). While the cultural landscape has changed a lot from the 1970s and 1980s until now, some of the film's "reveals" that would have been a little more shocking (i.e. Freddie's homosexuality) were perhaps lessened due to the fairly famous end of this talented singer. That being said, some of the lyrics of these well-known songs take on a strikingly more poignant context during the recreated Live Aid concert in...
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BOOK: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (1993)

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print Year: 1993 Authors: Renni Browne and Dave King Length: 237 pages Even though this book was published 25 years ago, its advice for aspiring authors is timeless. From those just starting to veterans still polishing their craft, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is perhaps even more relevant today than when it was initially released. After all, the pre-eminence of self-published authors has spawned a plethora of poorly-written and amateur works that seriously need some form of editing. On the plus side, the more self-published authors who take the advice in this book and put it to good use, then perhaps there will be less of a stigma against them in the future. Breaking down the editing process into 12 distinct parts, this book shows the reader—through numerous examples—how a lousy piece of prose can be edited into something much more palatable. That being said, there are a lot of examples, some of which take up multiple pages. Occasionally, the errors...
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BOOK: A Closed and Common Orbit (2017)

A Closed and Common Orbit Year: 2017 Author: Becky Chambers Length: 690 minutes / 11.50 hours After the refreshing sci-fi The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, I was ready to follow the crew of the Wayfarer to their next adventure. Unfortunately, the sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit, decided to take a path more akin to The Godfather Part II (1974). Instead of following the main characters of the first story, this sequel delved into the new life of the AI now known as Sidra, while also interspersing a quasi-related prequel story of one of the new characters introduced in this book. Fortunately, these two stories were well paced against each other. Even though I feel readers could pick up this book without having read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, there are certainly a few details about the diverse races found in this universe left out of this book—probably for the sake of brevity. This didn’t necessarily detract from the enjoyment of A Closed and Common...
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BOOK: Dreadfully Ever After (2011)

Dreadfully Ever After Year: 2011 Author: Steve Hockensmith Length: 287 pages While the original Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a combination most people never knew they needed, apparently making it into a trilogy was the next logical conclusion. Combined with the prequel, Dawn of the Dreadfuls, Dreadfully Ever After puts the series to rest with a sequel that seems to re-hash a lot of similar ideas presented in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but with enough connection to the prequel and at least one or two original ideas that helped to round out the characters. These new ideas were logical extrapolations from the events that concluded Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so they weren’t necessarily shocking, but still entertaining to pull the thread nonetheless. I think, overall, I prefer the prequel and sequel to the original Austen/monster mashup. It probably helped that both were written by the same author, who was essentially writing fan fiction based on the idea that this romantic classic could be combined with the undead. Dawn...
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BOOK: The Black Star of Kingston (2015)

The Black Star of Kingston Year: 2015 Author: S.D. Smith Length: 160 pages Immediately after I finished reading The Green Ember, I picked up this short story/prequel and read through it in one sitting. I had become pretty well invested in the world created in The Green Ember and wanted more of it before diving into the sequel, Ember Falls. While The Green Ember mentioned a story of The Black Star of Kingston in its main plot, I have to say that I wasn’t as impressed as I would have hoped. Sure, all the things that made The Green Ember great were mostly present in The Black Star of Kingston, but it felt a little…underdeveloped. Once again, the strength of the plot and characters helped provide entertainment as I read this story. However, without a more comprehensive understanding of the lore of this series, I wasn’t quite sure where this story fits in with the rest of the canon. I knew it was a prequel...
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BOOK: Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones (2008)

Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones Year: 2008 Author: Brandon Sanderson Length: 425 minutes / 7.08 hours Earlier this year, I read Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians and absolutely loved it. Consequently, I had high hopes for the next book in this series, Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones. While there was still the same amount of self-awareness and humor in this book, it felt a little…off. Perhaps I should have read these two books closer together, but I had some trouble coming up to speed in the beginning and wasn’t entirely sure why the “goal” of this book was to find Alcatraz’s father. In any case, Sanderson’s world-building is still in top form here. Of course, the “cute” way that this series was self-aware when I read the first book was a bit more annoying this time around. It almost felt like every chapter had to have a soliloquy, even if it didn’t link itself to where the plot was at the time—which often broke the...
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BOOK: The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

The Red Badge of Courage Year: 1895 Author: Stephen Crane Length: 315 minutes / 5.25 hours War is an ugly thing full of death and destruction. While most books written today bemoan this fact and complain that wars should never start in the first place, what do the individual soldiers handle a war that they didn’t even start? Set in the Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage is perhaps the best representation of the growth of a soldier from a deserter to a courageous fighter. Our intrinsic fear of death is what motivates so many of us to do the things we do to survive. Overcoming that fear and charging headlong into battle does take a measure of courage usually not present in most people. Stephen Crane does a fantastic job weaving the story of a young man who has to learn what it truly means to earn the titular “red badge of courage.” His prose is almost poetic as he describes the landscapes,...
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MOVIE: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Year: 2018 Rating: PG-13 Length: 94 minutes / 1.57 hours Growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I did spend a fair amount of time watching PBS. From Sesame Street to Bill Nye, one of the shows I would frequently watch was Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Plenty of friends had raved about this documentary, so I finally decided to sit down and watch it. Let me state that most people will probably cry at one point during this movie. After all, there was so much heart present in Fred Roger’s life and profession that you can’t help but be touched by his ministry. This documentary was a little eye-opening in the sense that it took something from my nostalgia and made me realize how groundbreaking it was. I don’t recall the more “serious” episodes, but watching clips where subjects like assassination, racism, and war are all presented in a fashion that children can understand them is astounding. Fred never...
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BOOK: Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon (2019)

Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon Year: 2019 Author: John August Length: 384 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** As a Boy Scout that grew up in northern Colorado, I was a little surprised to read a book like this that was able to combine the supernatural elements that would fit well in the Harry Potter universe with the pseudo-military structure and trappings of the scouting program. Of course, I’m also kicking myself for not writing these books myself first, because the two elements combine so well that the fusion is natural and fun to read. The icing on the cake was having the main character go to a summer camp with a “Redfeather Lake” and a layout that seemed suspiciously similar to the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch that I regularly visited when I was a scout. Coming in on the second book of this series, I didn’t feel too out of the loop with what had happened in the previous...
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BOOK: The Astronaut’s Son (2018)

The Astronaut’s Son Year: 2018 Author: Tom Seigel Length: 232 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** While the modern landscape for space exploration is expanding in ways that are very exciting, it’s interesting to read a story set in the early 2000’s that actually accomplishes something that hasn’t happened in decades: landing on the moon. And yet, this part of the plot of The Astronaut’s Son takes a minor role when compared with the primary thrust of the story. Sure, I would have thought that there would be plenty of things to occupy an astronaut’s time in the lead-up to a significant accomplishment, but apparently, there’s plenty of free time to explore the validity of a conspiracy theory. I’ll admit that I never thought that there would be Nazi sympathizers in the space program, but The Astronaut’s Son brings up a few interesting and perhaps semi-plausible ideas. These are explored via the main character’s investigation as to whether his father’s sudden death would was truly due to a...
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BOOK: The Invasion of Heaven (2013)

The Invasion of Heaven Year: 2013 Author: Michael B. Koep Length: 416 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** Every once in a while, I come across an idea so original that it makes me stand up and take notice. These are the ideas that make me wonder why nobody had thought of it before. While the execution of the concept might be stylistically similar to other authors, the core of it is purely imaginative. For the most part, The Invasion of Heaven is such a book. The idea that art can literally affect a person’s mental and/or physical reality is quite a novel concept. Even if the style might be a little bit toward Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, The Invasion of Heaven is still original enough to stand on its own. While I did mostly enjoy this book, there were a few curious choices that soured my experience. The handful of formatting/proofreading errors aside, and ignoring some of the pacing issues (some...
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BOOK: When God Winks at You (2000)

When God Winks at You Year: 2000 Author: Squire Rushnell Length: 240 pages A few months ago, I received an e-mail from my mother that passed along a suggestion from my grandmother that I read this book. While not a long book by any means, my wife and I read a story each night after dinner and finished it in a few months. Basically, this collection of inspiring stories goes so far as to suggest that all the fortuitous coincidences we experience in our lives are evidence of a loving and all-powerful Creator. As a Christian, I did see most of these stories as supernaturally-influenced, even if my scientific mind was skeptical at times. Separating the coincidental with the God-influenced can be difficult. While some stories seemed like mere coincidence, there were still quite a few contained in this volume that had no other explanation other than God showing off what He can do. Collected into a few different categories, many of these stories had...
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MOVIE: Kingsman – The Golden Circle (2017)

Kingsman: The Golden Circle Year: 2017 Rating: R Length: 141 minutes / 2.35 hours Back when I saw Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I was familiar with Matthew Vaughn's previous directorial work (like Kick-Ass (2010)), so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised at how much sex and graphic violence was involved. I was quite impressed by the church fight sequence, but everything felt so over-the-top and ridiculous that I couldn't take it seriously. Flash forward to its sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017). This time, I came in with a slightly different understanding that made me enjoy this movie quite a bit more than its predecessor. I think the fact that The Secret Service was somewhat derivative of the "coming of age" stories in films like Men in Black (1997) and Ender's Game (2013) was why I wasn't necessarily wowed by it. However, with the origin story out of the way, The Golden Circle managed to hit the ground...
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BOOK: My Little Ikigai Journal (2018)

My Little Ikigai Journal Year: 2018 Author: Amanda Kudo Length: 128 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** A few years ago, I had heard a little snippet about Ikigai and thought it was a great way to focus a person's life. Essentially, Ikigai is the Japanese concept that combines four qualities of a person's passion and concentrates them into a productive and meaningful life. The four tenets of Ikigai are the things a person loves, the talents where the person excels, the individual's worldview, and a recognition of where the person can make a difference in the world. At the center of all four of these ideas is the concept of Ikigai. This book is a handy journal that provides some exercises for the reader to help them consider these aspects of their life and how they can find their Ikigai. Each page either has an encouraging quote that ties to one of the four Ikigai pillars or a question for the reader to fill...
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BOOK: Ajax Penumbra 1969 (2013)

Ajax Penumbra 1969 Year: 2013 Author: Robin Sloan Length: 109 minutes / 1.82 hours As I said in my review of Sourdough, I absolutely adored Robin Sloan's debut work, Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore. Since Sourdough didn't necessarily sate my appetite, I found Ajax Penumbra 1969 to be a light snack that brought me back into the world created by Sloan. Acting as a bit of a short story/novella prequel to the first book, Ajax Penumbra 1969 still maintains the themes common in Sloan's work: mainly, the combination and juxtaposition of analog and digital technology. In this case, the reader just happens to come across this dichotomy in 1969. Following the titular character from the first book, Ajax Penumbra 1969 gives the origins of this mysterious character as he searches for answers and eventually ends up in San Francisco at a little 24-hour bookstore. The following mystery and intrigue are what I would expect from such a story, but the inclusion of the budding technological aspects of the late 1960's helped to...
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BOOK: The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)

The Time Traveler’s Wife Year: 2003 Author: Audrey Niffenegger Length: 1,058 minutes / 17.63 hours I find myself somewhat conflicted between two mediums whenever a book is made into a movie. On the one hand, I truly enjoyed The Time Traveler's Wife (2009) when I first saw it. While the book the movie was based on has a lot more material, it became obvious that a lot of this material could easily be cut for the movie and very little would be lost in the narrative. Despite this material (which I'll get to in a bit), the book is lavishly and poetically written and was a joy to read. With a main character who can time travel, I'm having a tough time determining if the foreshadowing in this book was brilliant or just a bit too heavy-handed. I'm also not sure if I even like the main characters themselves since they're essentially the definition of "white privilege" (with all the trust funds, alcoholism and casual drug use,...
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BOOK: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014)

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet Year: 2014 Author: Becky Chambers Length: 863 minutes / 14.38 hours One of the biggest qualms I have with a lot of modern science fiction is that it’s not nearly imaginative enough. I believe most of this stems from the fact that modern sci-fi authors were influenced by franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars, where even the aliens are basically humanoids with different skin color. In The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, author Becky Chambers takes a great leap forward for sci-fi by exploring what it would be like to work on a spaceship with a variety of different species. Needless to say, there are plenty of “cultural” adaptations that one would need to make in such a situation. Unfortunately, because the characters are so interesting, the main plot takes a back seat for the majority of the book. Instead, the reader is treated to a series of almost “episodic” moments between the crew that act as excellent exposition,...
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BOOK: The Way of Kings (2010)

The Way of Kings Year: 2010 Author: Brandon Sanderson Length: 1258 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM THE PUBLISHER*** I’ve only recently started reading Brandon Sanderson’s books, but I’ve liked what I’ve read so far. I started out with Warbreaker, which was a relatively light fantasy novel when compared to the hefty tome that is The Way of Kings. While I loved the moderate pace that Warbreaker moved at, I instinctually knew that most “high fantasy” books are usually bogged down with exposition and world-building. The Way of Kings is certainly a “high fantasy,” which makes me wonder if perhaps Sanderson tried to do too much in this first volume of his newest series. The Way of Kings follows about three main storylines but could have potentially gotten away with two of them, even if the one that could be easily cut—the Soulcaster theft storyline—had some of my favorite characters in it. I could also see the plotline being pared down to the one following Kaladin (who appears in each of the...
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MOVIE: Deadpool 2 (2018)

Deadpool 2 Year: 2018 Rating: R Length: 119 minutes / 1.98 hours At what point does the fourth wall stop? I only ask this because there’s a point where an audience member will have to know not only the plot of the film that started the franchise, but the subsequent reactions to the film, the complete history of comic books, and the entirety of the lyrics to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Major-General’s Song” to understand the references. While Deadpool (2016) maintained that sly balance between knowing winks to the superhero genre as a whole and being an actual superhero film, Deadpool 2 (2018) almost went toward both extreme ends in order to maintain its balance. There were plenty of references and little sight gags that will leave true fans of the franchise pausing their Blu-rays for years to come, and I certainly did appreciate some of the meta-humor, but only to a point. Strangely enough, Deadpool 2 felt more like a superhero film than its predecessor, which seems odd as it...
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BOOK: Wish Upon a Sleepover (2018)

Wish Upon a Sleepover Year: 2018 Author: Suzanne Selfors Length: 208 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** While the story of “stone soup” has been around for a long time, and traversed many cultures, apparently it needed another re-telling in the form of this book. Wish Upon a Sleepover is a pretty standard middle-grade book that seeks to teach a number of lessons about judging others while managing to create some interesting characters with unique and modern quirks. It is through these characters—and not necessarily the primary protagonist—that any child who decides to read this book can learn how to interact with others. The irony is that the central protagonist is probably better described as the antagonist of the story. Even though this book is stated as being appropriate from children from grades 3 to 7, as a result of this somewhat broad range of ages, it seems to be more geared toward the low end of the range, while having characters from the upper...
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BOOK: The City of Brass (2017)

The City of Brass Year: 2017 Author: S.A. Chakraborty Length: 533 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** In S.A. Chakraborty’s debut novel, The City of Brass, we find some of the standard tropes that seem to be the foundation of the Young Adult genre. There are snippets of works like Harry Potter and Twilight that seem to leak through, their influences helping to shape the world that the author has created. However, while some of these tropes might be tired in any other setting, they are used to great effect here, as the author has created something grounded in culture and traditions that helps to enhance the fantasy world that lies just beyond our own. While I did enjoy reading this book overall, there were a few weaknesses. The start of the story was action-packed and hooked me right from the get-go, but then the section leading up to the second half of the plot seemed to be bogged down with lots of exposition and world-building. It also...
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BOOK: Mildred Pierce (1941)

Mildred Pierce Year: 1941 Author: James M. Cain Length: 601 minutes / 10.0 hours It’s almost uncanny how timeless the story of Mildred Pierce remains to this day. I could easily see a similar story set in 2009, immediately following the housing crash—instead of following the Great Depression. Of course, this also is an unsettling reminder that many societal structures haven’t changed much since the 1940’s. The patriarchal society that existed then still exists to an extent today, which is troubling because of the increased difficulty women have in trying to get ahead in life, especially after something like a divorce or bankruptcy. The fact that the titular character was able to overcome these limitations speaks to her talent as much as to her luck. The most noticeable differences between the Hollywood version with Joan Crawford and the source material of this book mainly come down to the amount of suggestive/objectionable material within it. This is likely due to the book’s slightly more pulpy origins, combined with...
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BOOK: The Ghost Script (2018)

The Ghost Script Year: 2018 Author: Jules Feiffer Length: 160 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** When I received this book in the mail, I opened it up and was suddenly surprised. First, I suppose I didn’t realize this was the third book in a series. Second, I thought the rough sketching of the cover was an aesthetic choice, but it seemed to permeate the entirety of this graphic novel. Since these first impressions took me for a loop, I had to warm up to the idea of this book before I sat down to read it. Even despite my initial misgivings, The Ghost Script is an enjoyable and quick read with a visual style that somehow works, even despite its “rough” characteristics. Part of me almost wished the book was a little longer, but I suppose if I read all three pieces together, I’d get the length of a book I usually look for in a graphic novel. As it was, I...
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BOOK: A War of Gifts (2007)

A War of Gifts Year: 2007 Author: Orson Scott Card Length: 145 minutes / 2.42 hours Side stories are a somewhat odd occurrence in the literary world. They’re essentially like the “deleted scenes” from movies: they don’t add to the plot, even if they are interesting by themselves. A War of Gifts is a side story to Ender’s Game that finds the reader back at the battle school during Ender Wiggin’s training period. While Ender’s Game is a tight piece of science fiction, with no room for a Santa Claus sup-plot, A War of Gifts does require some knowledge of the source material in order to understand this sub-plot. I am always in awe of Orson Scott Card’s ability to take some of the most basic ideas and make them the most profound, most philosophically-intriguing debates. In the case of A War of Gifts, we have a fundamentalist Christian who was taught that the more commercial aspects of Christmas (like Santa Claus, for instance) are...
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BOOK: The Gunslinger (1982)

The Gunslinger Year: 1982 Author: Stephen King Length: 440 minutes / 7.33 hours With the recent release of The Dark Tower (2017), I became interested in the book series that inspired the movie. I already knew the books would likely take a different direction from the film, and I was prepared for them. Up until now, I’ve enjoyed many of King’s other works, including The Shining, On Writing, and The Green Mile. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy The Gunslinger; it’s more that most of his books have not been part of a larger series. I still want to know what happens in the next book of the Dark Tower series, so The Gunslinger certainly succeeded in that aspect. Stephen King’s talent for description is in high form here as he crafts a world unlike our own but still linked to it via the wandering boy, Jake. Considering King’s background in describing all sorts of evil creatures and villains, the calm and calculating “Man...
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BOOK: The Essex Serpent (2016)

The Essex Serpent Year: 2016 Author: Sarah Perry Length: 464 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** It’s been a while since I’ve read a book as profound as The Essex Serpent. Perhaps it’s because they don’t write books like this anymore. While written in the last few years, the style of The Essex Serpent is distinctly Victorian. It holds callbacks to the greats of gothic literature, including the physiological studies of Frankenstein and the back-and-forth letter writing of Dracula. All the while, the ever-present gloom of the muddy and foggy Essex shoreline hides the eponymous serpent just outside the reader’s view, providing anticipation of its reveal. Is the Essex Serpent real or is it a figment of so much imagination? Of course, in staying with the Victorian style, the book does suffer somewhat in readability. The vocabulary and description are certainly more voluminous than modern volumes, but my biggest qualm seems to be more along the lines of the seemingly endless talk that occurs in the first half of...
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MOVIE: The Greatest Showman (2017)

The Greatest Showman Year: 2017 Rating: PG Length: 105 minutes / 1.75 hours I can honestly say there aren’t nearly enough musicals in Hollywood anymore. The Greatest Showman (2017) certainly helps to fill in the gaps between these occurrences, and with a subject that easily lends itself to the musical format. I really enjoyed the songs and choreography, as well as its message of inclusion and being unashamed of who we are. All that being said, there was still something a little off when infusing pop music and modern dance moves with the 1800’s. It kind of works, but it also doesn’t immerse the audience in the historical aesthetic. While the story of P.T. Barnum’s (Hugh Jackman) rise to wealth and fame (or infamy, depending on the viewpoint) was entertaining enough, so much of its presentation seemed to have the “Hollywood coincidence” to it. Events lined up in such a way that I wondered if they really happened or if it was artistic license. This is also...
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BOOK: Zero to Five (2018)

Zero to Five Year: 2018 Author: Tracy Cutchlow Length: 247 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** As an INTJ who is preparing to have kids, I’ve found a lot of advice that seems to be hearsay and old wives tales. As a scientist, I don’t particularly care for “tips and tricks” that are based on emotional responses or limited data sets either. Enter Zero to Five, a book that attempts to gather together the scientific research done to identify the positive and negative methodologies used to raise kids from birth to five years old. Some of the results are not what you’d expect. Of course, many of the snippets of advice contained in this book keep reiterating the same points: empathy, communication, and problem-solving. Early on in Zero to Five, I was engaged with the format and the narrative, but as the book dragged on, the repetition of the same themes became tedious. It also felt like the references to studies and research that were...
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BOOK: Double Indemnity (1936)

Double Indemnity Year: 1936 Author: James M. Cain Length: 197 minutes / 3.28 hours This classic piece of noir does what some might consider impossible: making an insurance salesman interesting. Of course, planning to commit insurance fraud makes the scenario much more interesting, even if it follows some of the basic tropes of the genre. Because the story is so short, only lasting just over three hours of audiobook reading, I feel the movie adaptation was able to include everything that made this story so engaging. I do think the ending was improved in the film, though, as the story’s ending felt a little disjointed from the narrative. What made Double Indemnity so enjoyable was how the main characters were so sure they’d get away with the crime they were about to commit. The details of the fraud were so thorough that the reader is almost convinced that nothing could go wrong. When the aftermath starts to unravel, that’s when the story began to get...
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BOOK: Chasing Hindy (2017)

Chasing Hindy Year: 2017 Author: Darin Gibby Length: 285 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM THE AUTHOR*** I’ve read a few legal thrillers over the years. From John Grisham’s Runaway Jury to Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, the excitement of the case is usually matched by the excitement surrounding the legal proceedings. Darin Gibby’s Chasing Hindy certainly fits the bill for a legal thriller, but perhaps with a little less polish than the big hitters in the genre. Even so, this book certainly kept me engaged and interested throughout, which is the mark of a good thriller, no matter what sub-genre it belongs to. Plus, even if the subject matter could have trended into “preachy” territory, Gibby manages to put the opinions about the environment in the subtext, and not in the reader’s face. While I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys this genre, I do have a few problems with it. First, the main character, Addy, is an interesting character, but I kept...
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BOOK: The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

The Brothers Karamazov Year: 1880 Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky Length: 2,239 minutes / 37.32 hours As is usually the case with Russian literature, The Brothers Karamazov is a daunting read. These thick tomes are usually on lists of books you should read, but picking up such a large volume and consuming its contents can be quite intimidating. Even the audiobook version (which I used for this review) clocks in at almost a full work-week of listening to get through it all. Still, those who manage to take on this herculean task are likely to be rewarded with an engaging story that covers a wide variety of topics to include (but not limited to) religion, marriage, communism, fatherhood, and (of course) brotherhood. Having already read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I found The Brothers Karamazov to be more along the lines of Law & Order. His former book was a tight and well-paced examination of guilt, even in the face of necessity and wealth distribution. The Brothers Karamazov,...
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MOVIE: Ant-Man (2015)

Ant-Man Year: 2015 Rating: PG-13 Length: 117 minutes / 1.95 hours In the never-ending array of superheroes feeding into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to support such franchises like Captain America and The Avengers, it can be difficult to make some of the B-tier and C-tier heroes seem interesting enough to devote a whole movie to them. To ensure each movie feels different from its predecessors, certain unique attributes must be applied. Whether it’s the sci-fi-themed Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) or the mind-bending visuals of Doctor Strange (2016), each film requires a gimmick to make it work. For Ant-Man (2015), it’s comedy. If you approach Ant-Man as a standard superhero film, you’re likely to be disappointed. There are almost too many off-hand references to much of the MCU to make anyone not familiar with the vast array of movies lost and confused. Plus, the hero’s “origin story” in Ant-Man is almost par for the course. However, if you watch this film with the understanding that it’s more similar to comedy/caper/heist films than a superhero film, you’re likely...
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MOVIE: The Post (2017)

The Post Year: 2017 Rating: PG-13 Length: 116 minutes / 1.93 hours At this point, I just wonder if every movie Steven Spielberg makes that has anything to do with war (Schindler’s List (1994), Saving Private Ryan (1999), War Horse (2012), Lincoln (2013), Bridge of Spies (2015)) is just automatically given a Best Picture nomination. Don’t get me wrong, Spielberg has made a lot of quality movies that should be recognized and awarded. The question is more about the state of Hollywood films. Is there nothing else out there by up-and-coming filmmakers that would supplant a Spielberg film in the nominee list? Don’t even get me started on Meryl Streep’s nominations, either. Of course, in part due to the all-star power of Spielberg, and the leading roles filled by Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, The Post (2017) is a movie that builds its tension right until the very end. Despite a somewhat slow start, the stakes are never higher when the ambiguity of publishing classified documents is taken all the way to its logical conclusion. The...
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BOOK: The Infinet (2017)

The Infinet Year: 2017 Author: John Akers Length: 410 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** After reading plenty of sub-par first novels from aspiring authors, The Infinet was a breath of fresh air. I was also pleasantly surprised that this book was written during a National Novel Writing Month, thus proving how useful the NaNoWriMo challenge is for people to get their stories out there. In the five years between the writing and publishing of this book, it looks like a lot of care went into polishing it into the entertaining and brilliant book that exists today. There are plenty of things that The Infinet gets right when it comes to speculative science fiction. First, it doesn’t dwell on the details of the “hard science,” but it does mention the concepts in passing. As far as I can tell, the ideas presented here are accurate, which is key for this genre. Secondly, so many authors put their personal biases into their narratives, which can sour the experience...
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BOOK: Don Quixote (1605)

Don Quixote Year: 1605 Author: Miguel De Cervantes Length: 344 minutes / 5.73 hours Aside from the “Cliff’s notes” version presented on the TV show, Wishbone, I knew enough about Don Quixote to be dangerous without having actually read it. After all, this book has spawned such words and phrases as “tilting at windmills” and “quixotic,” as well as a Broadway musical. But how does this 17th-century classic hold up in today’s world? One would argue that chivalry was already dead by the time it was written, so it’s not likely to be an examination of chivalrous attitudes and how they’d benefit society. As far as I see it, Don Quixote is a bit like a romantic comedy in the vein of William Shakespeare’s plays. Probably the first-ever recorded instance of a dedicated live action role player (LARPer), the character Don Quixote borders on that line between comedy and tragedy. If I were to give a medical explanation for his actions, it’s either severe delusion...
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BOOK: The Body Snatchers

The Body Snatchers Year: 1955 Author: Jack Finney Length: 400 minutes / 6.67 hours Most people know this book by its numerous film adaptations, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978), Body Snatchers (1993), and The Invasion (2007). In fact, I like to think that many facets of this story have become a part of popular culture, including the replication “pods” and Donald Sutherland’s scream in the 1978 film version. While the source material is inherently pulpy, a result of the genre and the era in which it was published, there is an entertaining quality to the story that has allowed it to survive for so long. Simple in its execution, but brilliant in its reveal, The Body Snatchers builds up an inherent distrust of the people surrounding the main characters as they investigate why everyone seems “off” in this small, California town. While the full explanation of the aliens’ presence and purpose is relegated to an enormous information dump more than half-way through the book, it nevertheless contains some interesting ideas...
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MOVIE: Blade Runner – 2049 (2017)

Blade Runner: 2049 Year: 2017 Rating: R Length: 164 minutes / 2.73 hours Back when I first heard about a Blade Runner (1982) sequel, I was skeptical about its quality. Sure, the ending was a little open-ended, but it stood by itself quite well. A Blade Runner sequel coming out mere years away from the original’s futuristic timeline of 2019 seemed just as ridiculous. The one redeeming factor that eventually led me to think this sequel would be any good was that Denis Villeneuve was tapped to direct it. While I’ve liked Villeneuve’s films as far back as Prisoners (2013), I’ve really become a fan since his Best Picture-nominated Arrival (2016) revealed how well he can do science fiction. Of course, Blade Runner isn’t really science fiction. Sure, it has the trappings of a futuristic society, but at its core, the movie is a noir. The plot and aesthetic of noir is considerably different than that of sci-fi, but Villeneuve manages to merge the two...
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MOVIE: Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi Year: 2017 Rating: PG-13 Length: 152 minutes / 2.53 hours After the success of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015), director Rian Johnson had to strike a fine balance in the following sequel, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017). Since The Force Awakens was essentially a flashy, rehash of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), The Last Jedi needed to separate itself from the predictable path already laid out in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Unfortunately, the formula employed in Empire Strikes Back has become so integral to sequels that deviating from it could prove to be disastrous. While I’m curious where Episode IX will go from here, I hope it builds upon what Johnson has done here. The tensions of war helped drive the characters into interesting moments of growth, defiance, and desperation, but much of the story was well wrapped up by the time the credits rolled. The real balance of this film came from paying homage...
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BOOK: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001)

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents Year: 2001 Author: Terry Pratchett Length: 395 minutes / 6.58 hours For many years, I have heard of Terry Pratchett, but have never read any of his work. This came to light in 2015, when Pratchett died, and many fans of his work came forward to express their condolences. At that point, I hadn’t considered reading any of his work, but the outpouring of love for the recently deceased author made me reconsider. Consequently, I added some Pratchett books to my “to read” list and eventually chose The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents for my first foray into the written world of Terry Pratchett. I certainly picked well, as it won the Carnegie Medal in the year it was written. I was a little worried that I would be lost coming into the Discworld series at anywhere other than the beginning, but since this book was written for children, it made it simple to ease into the...
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BOOK: Artemis (2017)

Artemis Year: 2017 Author: Andy Weir Length: 539 minutes / 8.98 hours After reading Weir’s breakout work, The Martian, I looked forward to his next novel, Artemis, with rapt anticipation. The scientist in me appreciated how Weir made a realistic setting with realistic science an approachable and entertaining endeavor. The writer in me liked how he kept the tension throughout the plot of The Martian at a consistent level. Consequently, I had high hopes for Artemis and wondered if he could outdo himself (or at least match his previous success) considering how highly regarded The Martian ended up being for him. Between the two books, Weir seems to have created a style that consists of three elements: accurate science, event-driven plot, and a racially diverse cast of characters. In Artemis, we now find ourselves on the moon, where a colony has been created and sustained for a few decades. Weir conveys the science involved with such a feat naturally and realistically. The exploration of this science...
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MOVIE: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

War for the Planet of the Apes Year: 2017 Rating: PG-13 Length: 140 minutes / 2.33 hours There’s something special about the final film in a “prequel trilogy” that almost defies explanation. It acts as a springboard to the original content while also tying up all the loose ends that presented themselves in the previous installments of the trilogy. Since the source material is well-known, a viewer can deduce how it will end, but not necessarily how it will get there. In this sense, movies like Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) share a common theme as links between the new and the old. Similar in tone to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), War continues the escalating conflict between the titular apes and the now-endangered humans. Unfortunately, because it places Caesar (Andy Serkis) as the primary protagonist of the whole trilogy, the “savior” parallels are a little too heavy-handed here. Heck, they should have titled it Passion of...
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MOVIE: Baby Driver (2017)

Baby Driver Year: 2017 Rating: R Length: 112 minutes / 1.87 hours There are so many “heist” films nowadays that it’s practically its own genre, with all the tropes and clichés that go with it. Consequently, when I learned that Edgar Wright had directed a heist film, my interest was piqued. Best known for his parody comedies, Shaun of the Dead(2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and The World’s End (2013), the film of his I have enjoyed the most is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010). His style is distinct throughout these films, which is what I was hoping for in Baby Driver (2017). While Wright’s visual style is present in Baby Driver, it is muted, almost in the background of the standard heist framework. With an almost 1980’s undertone, Baby Driver takes many cues from its predecessor, Drive (2011). Both feature an almost silent heist driver as the main character and plenty of entertaining driving sequences that are practically ballet on the boulevards. Fortunately, both films also focus on the characters, and not so much on the heist, giving...
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BOOK: The Legend of the Three Roses (2017)

The Legend of the Three Roses Year: 2017 Author: Jason Hubbard Length: 509 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** After reading plenty of sub-par independent authors recently, I was pleasantly surprised to have the opportunity to read The Legend of the Three Roses by Jason Hubbard. With a slick cover and good chapter header graphics, the book looks good, but how does it read? I’m a stickler for proofreading, and I found maybe one or two errors in the entire manuscript. Again, good so far. There were a few confusing spots near the end that could have used either chapter or scene breaks, but overall, the book was solid. What made me truly enjoy reading The Legend of the Three Roses were the characters. I can forgive a lot if the story is engaging, but if I find the characters annoying or illogical, I’ll usually force myself through. This book was not the case, as it had both an immersive story and setting,...
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MOVIE: Noah (2014)

Noah Year: 2014 Rating: PG-13 Length: 138 minutes / 2.30 hours If there’s any filmmaker more controversial than Darren Aronofsky, I’m not sure who it would be at this point. Interestingly enough, while most of his films are rated “R” (or higher, like the uncut Requiem for a Dream (2000)), I think Noah (2014) is the first time one of his films has been at the PG-13 rating. Since most of the controversy of his movies comes via the content that would make it R-rated, it’s interesting that the controversy with Noah is more along the lines of how Aronofsky filled in the gaps and created a dramatic narrative inside the Biblical story of Noah. As is always the case with an Aronofsky film, Noah is a beautiful spectacle of filmmaking. Even if the landscapes of Iceland helped create this stunning setting, certain dream-like sequences and moments speak to the art that Aronofsky can evoke on the screen. The setting of the pre-flood world is believable, and most of the costumes...
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BOOK: Forest Dark (2017)

Forest Dark Year: 2017 Author: Nicole Krauss Length: 290 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** I’ve read a lot of books this year, but very few of them I would consider “literature.” Forest Dark is the rare exception. The flowery language and high-concept imagery invoked in this book would certainly make it a prime candidate for some art-house film. Author Nicole Krauss doesn’t just tell a story (or two) in this book; she crafts them out of the very essence of the human condition with expertly chosen words. There’s little to no “fluff” in this book, which somewhat explains it somewhat shorter length, especially considering it’s two stories in one. While I am not Jewish, the two, intertwining narratives in Forest Dark pull out the cultural identity from two very different characters. From an aging man who wants to make a legacy without relying too much on his heritage to a woman who has been given an opportunity to use her skills as...
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MOVIE: Wonder Woman (2017)

Wonder Woman Year: 2017 Rating: PG-13 Length: 141 minutes / 2.35 hours Wonder Woman (2017) is a triumphant movie that shows the comic book genre doesn’t have to be dominated by men. Unfortunately, because it took so long getting here, I can’t help but draw comparisons to other works that came before it, making Wonder Woman seem derivative. In fact, had this movie come out eight years ago, it would have made Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and Thor (2011) look like they were copying it. As it stands, though, Wonder Woman feels formulaic, even if the superhero is a woman instead of a man. I will grant that some of the jokes come at the expense of the “fish out of water” character of Diana (Gal Gadot), playing on her naïveté of the “modern world” for laughs (a la Thor) but with a more sexualized context because she’s a woman. There were a few missed opportunities to add depth to the character via these circumstances, the interaction with Chief Napi (Eugene Brave Rock)...
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BOOK: Welcome to the Monkey House (1968)

Welcome to the Monkey House Year: 1968 Author: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Length: 686 minutes / 11.43 hours Much like short story anthologies by a single author (see Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors and Ray Bradbury’s The Golden Apples of the Sun), Welcome to the Monkey House is both quintessentially a collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s biting wit and satire as well as an exploration of other genres not often associated with Vonnegut’s style. Fans of Vonnegut will likely have already read some of these short stories (like “EPICAC” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”), but some of the other stories might have been missed and for a good reason. Overall, Welcome to the Monkey House is a fantastic set of stories, but a few of them fail to have the impact to make them memorable. Granted, these stories are few and far between, and help to break up the well-written social commentaries presented in “Harrison Bergeron” and the titular “Welcome to the Monkey House.” Vonnegut’s ability to show the slippery slope of such...
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MOVIE: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Year: 2017 Rating: PG-13 Length: 137 minutes / 2.28 hours When it comes to the films of Luc Besson, it’s often hit or miss. Sure, he’s directed many successful films, like Nikita (1990) and Léon: The Professional (1994), but some of his recent fare like The Family (2013) have left me disappointed. One of his best films is the sci-fi space opera (literally, even), The Fifth Element (1997). When I learned that he would be returning to this genre with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), I certainly had high hopes for it. After viewing it for the first time, I can unquestionably say that my expectations were certainly met. Because Valerian has a French comic book series as its source, some of my qualms with this film might lie with the source material, and not the director. Some may recall the originality that came from another French comic book adaptation in the form of...
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BOOK: Napoleon’s Glass (2017)

Napoleon’s Glass Year: 2017 Author: Gillian Ingall Length: 308 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM THE PUBLISHER*** While I received this book from the same publisher as Cale Dixon and the Moguk Murders and The Women of Cho: Heart and Seoul, I wasn't expecting anything good. However, I can attest that the author’s note at the beginning about how many people helped her edit this piece of historical fiction merely shows that the book could have just as easily been self-published. Sure, there are still a smattering of proofreading errors, and the punctuation seemed to be consistently lacking or against the American style I’m used to (It should be double quotes for all dialogue, in my opinion), but the story itself is quite solid. Put in the framework of a series of letters from a French noblewoman, Napoleon’s Glass puts a personal spin on the events of the downfall of Napoleon’s empire at the hands of the Russians, as well as other European turmoil that happened afterward. Despite some episodes being...
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BOOK: Machine of Death (2010)

Machine of Death Year: 2010 Author: (Various) Length: 452 pages The concept is simple: a machine takes your blood and spits out a card with the means of your demise printed on it. In this collection of short stories, a variety of authors explore what this truly means for individuals, as well as society as a whole. Based off an idea by Ryan North (author of “Dinosaur Comics”), this anthology has plenty of different approaches to the concept that a machine could predict how a person will die. However, many of these ideas hit upon the same concepts and social implications, making the whole thought exercise seem redundant by the end of the book. Part of me felt the idea itself was a little derivative of Death Note, but with a more ambiguous set of constraints. Each of the short stories included in this anthology had some unique twist on the idea, ranging from humor to romance to horror. Still, every author tended to agree:...
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BOOK: Inferno (2013)

Inferno Year: 2013 Author: Dan Brown Length: 1,033 minutes / 17.22 hours In this, the fourth installment of the Robert Langdon series, Dan Brown has continued to successfully marry science to art, albeit with the same tropes and trappings that occur in the book’s predecessors. With Inferno, we get the same race across Europe explored in Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code, with the ambiguity of the antagonist’s motives that fueled The Lost Symbol. All throughout this adventure, the now-standard “female who is an expert in her field” accompanies Langdon as he tries to unravel the mystery and save the world. Langdon continues to be part Indiana Jones and part James Bond, that’s for sure. Utilizing the standard “temporary amnesia” plot device, Brown refines his style while also increasing the stakes. While previous books in the series had potential impacts on the local and national levels, Inferno takes the antagonist’s plan to a global scale. With the main character as talented with memory...
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MOVIE: Get Low (2009)

Get Low Year: 2009 Rating: PG-13 Length: 103 minutes / 1.71 hours Despite its PG-13 rating, Get Low (2009) is about as wholesome a movie as there ever was. Loosely based on a true story of a man who wanted to have his funeral before he died so he could hear what people would say about him, the simplicity of this classic plot relies heavily on the characters within it. From the crotchety hermit to the struggling funeral parlor owner to a town full of rumors and gossip, the implication that Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) has done something terrible drives the narrative forward to its logical conclusion. The two standout performances in this movie come from Robert Duvall and Bill Murray. Duvall’s Felix Bush is as cantankerous and stubborn as they come, and he fully plays up the fact that nobody likes him. Of course, it makes sense that 40 years of carrying the burden Felix has carried would affect a man like that. On the other...
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BOOK: The Golden Apples of the Sun (1997)

The Golden Apples of the Sun Year: 1997 Author: Ray Bradbury Length: 338 pages While I know Ray Bradbury is a great science fiction writer, before I read this book I only knew of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, both of which I’ve read. In this collection of short stories, Bradbury shows he’s not just a writer of sci-fi, but of other genres and ideas as well. That being said, his strength certainly lies in science fiction, even if these stories are a bit dated from their original, 1950’s publications. Either way, most of the stories contained in this collection were quite short and could be easily read in those brief moments in between life’s activities. Many of the stories reveal the political ideologies of their time. From the threat of nuclear war to the unknown of interplanetary travel, these themes continue to pop up throughout this book. Some of the stories are a little abstract, but there are enough solid pieces to make...
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MOVIE: Frozen (2013)

Frozen Year: 2013 Rating: PG Length: 102 minutes / 1.7 hours It's hard to deny the worldwide phenomenon that is this movie. While I'm sure parents now twitch any time "Let it Go" comes on, the fact of the matter is many factors led to the success of this film. Starting in the mid-2000's, Disney saw they had a problem and set about trying to fix it. By rehauling how they told stories, and how they approached the characters in these stories, they soon were back on top of the animation industry (while Pixar continues to be content pumping out Cars sequels). Stunning visuals can only get you so far in a Disney movie, and Frozen (2013) certainly takes the cake when it comes to visualizing snow and ice through computers. What makes Frozen work as a story is its complexity. No one character is completely good or completely bad, each having their faults and limitations, as well as their good intentions and personal desires. This...
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BOOK: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1965)

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Year: 1965 Author: Robert A. Heinlein Length: 852 minutes / 14.2 hours Certainly well ahead of his time, Robert A. Heinlein remains one of the definitive writers of the science fiction genre, even today. In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein covers such topics as artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial colonization, and interplanetary warfare. Even today, most of these subjects are accurately depicted in the narrative, even if some of the technology has advanced past where it was thought to be in 1965. Part of me is almost jealous at Heinlein’s ingenious use of Earth’s gravity well, and I know any attempt I might make to replicate the idea will merely seem derivative in comparison. As is the case with some of his other works, Heinlein makes many socio-political statements via his writing. His stance on taxes, revolutions, and independent governing bodies is a critical section of the plot in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and I can certainly...
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MOVIE: Trainspotting (1996)

Trainspotting Year: 1996 Rating: R Length: 94 minutes / 1.56 hours As someone who has never done drugs, I have no way to know what the experience of being high on heroin or cocaine is like. Fortunately, I don't have to do these drugs to get an understanding of the sensation. In the early years of film, most movies about drugs were usually cautionary tales (as was the case for Reefer Madness (1936)). By the "free-loving" decades of the 1960's and 1970's, drugs were more acceptable but often were seen in a comedic context (a la "Cheech & Chong"). The societal excess of the 1980's and 1990's beget an epedemic of harder drugs like heroin and cocaine. Consequently, we started to see more films that would glamorize drug use, but would still show the consequences of extended use of these harder drugs. Perhaps the most famous film that fits in this category is the hard-to-watch Requiem for a Dream (2000), which really played up the "consequences" part. A few...
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BOOK: A Boy and His Bot (2011)

A Boy and His Bot Year: 2011 Author: Daniel H. Wilson Length: 280 minutes / 4.67 hours Daniel H. Wilson knows how to write about robots. From How to Survive a Robot Uprising to Robopocalypse, he has taken the same material and re-packaged it in different forms. The tongue-in-cheek “guide” of How to Survive a Robot Uprising was more entertaining than the journal-entry styled Robopocalypse, but mostly because of its humor. In A Boy and His Bot, Wilson takes his knowledge of robots and wraps it in a children’s fantasy book. Somehow, this method worked better than the two books I’ve already mentioned, leaving me entertained and educated, but with a sincerity of story that was heartwarming. Taking cues from works like The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland, A Boy and His Bot immerses the reader in a world entirely comprised of robots. Via the stranger-in-a-strange-land approach, this book explores the many characteristics and traits that make robots different from humans. Often, these quirky characters have a lesson about robotics embedded within...
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BOOK: How to Survive a Robot Uprising (2005)

How to Survive a Robot Uprising Year: 2005 Author: Daniel H. Wilson Length: 186 minutes / 3.1 hours As a precursor to Robopocalypse, How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion takes a humorous approach to educating the reader about the capabilities and limitations of today’s robots. Similar in style to Where’s My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived, How to Survive a Robot Uprising uses the humor of preparing for the end of the world to poke fun at the limited possibility that we’d eventually be destroyed by the robots we use to make our lives comfortable today. With my background in robotics (my Master’s Degree was in Mechanical Engineering with a focus on Robotics and Design), I quickly realized how Daniel H. Wilson was writing this “guide.” Robots are powerful and useful machines, many of which can perform actions much more efficiently and accurately than humans can, thus leading to our swift and inexorable demise. However, by...
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BOOK: The Null Prophecy (2017)

The Null Prophecy Year: 2017 Author: Michael Guillen Length: 424 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** As far as “end of the world” books go, this one is a new take on the apocalypse genre. From my knowledge of space weather and its effects on our world, I can say that aspects of this book are entirely plausible. That being said, I have minimal knowledge of the quantum vacuum, so I have merely chalked the plot points surrounding it to magical hand-waving to get the story to go where it needs to. While I would have enjoyed an apocalyptic story that didn’t blame humans for their own destruction, The Null Prophecy only met me half-way. What often comes across as “preachy,” the occasional mentions of green energy doing more harm than good do bring up an interesting point: in our race to solve the fossil fuel crisis, have we considered all the consequences of these newer energy-producing methods? When it comes to advancing the technological...
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MOVIE: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Beauty and the Beast Year: 2017 Rating: PG Length: 129 minutes / 2.15 hours When it comes to the Disney live-action remakes, there are a few things to consider. While some plots are drastically different from their originals, like in Maleficent (2014), others gained plots that were light or non-existent, like in The Jungle Book (2016). When it comes to adapting Beauty and the Beast (1991), the fact that it received a nomination for the Best Picture Oscar speaks volumes of the story that already existed. Consequently, little has changed with the general thrust of the live-action remake, but it added many details that helped to round out the plot. Not only was Belle’s (Emma Watson) past explained a little better, but the turning point in her relationship with Beast (Dan Stevens) was much more natural than it was in its predecessor. I will also admit that the ending, while still the same outcome, carried a much larger emotional impact (something closer to that of...
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BOOK: Thing Explainer (2015)

Thing Explainer Year: 2015 Author: Randall Munroe Length: 64 pages Growing up in the 1990’s, one of the defining books that helped me understand the world around me was David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work. Using “cartoonish” drawings of plenty of everyday (and not so everyday) machines, I gained plenty of useful knowledge that probably led me to eventually earn my Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering in 2009. While Macaulay’s illustrations were straight forward enough that they didn’t need explanations, some concepts around today certainly need some words to help gain an understanding of the way things work. Enter Randall Munroe, famed “xkcd” webcomic author and an all around smart guy. In late 2012, he published a comic that described each of the systems in NASA’s Saturn V rocket with simple words. Described as “U.S. Space Team’s Up Goer Five,” the concept of using shorter, more common words to explain complicated concepts came to its full fruition in Thing Explainer. Using the thousand most common words, Munroe...
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BOOK: Android Karenina (2010)

Android Karenina Year: 2010 Author: Ben H. Winters and Leo Tolstoy Length: 541 pages Despite struggling through both Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, I was pleased to find the most lengthy of these “monster classics,” Android Karenina, was a fast and engaging read. If anything, it proves to me that I can’t grasp Jane Austen’s writing style nearly as smoothly as I can Leo Tolstoy’s. Part of the ease of reading Android Karenina probably came from knowing the original plot ahead of time a little better than I did for Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. And yet, the real reason is more visceral than that. What Android Karenina’s predecessors attempted was to take two vastly different genres and mash them together in the hope that the combination would interest readers. Where Android Karenina succeeds where the others have failed is that the addition of the steampunk/science fiction genre enhances the story. Adding zombies or sea monsters...
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MOVIE: Aliens (1986)

Aliens Year: 1986 Rating: R Length: 137 minutes / 2.28 hours While I’m sure a Ridley Scott sequel to his smash-hit, Alien (1979), would be fantastic by any stretch of the imagination, the choice to go with similarly-successful James Cameron in the director’s seat helped to keep the franchise from becoming too stale. Of course, with a sequel appearing seven years after the original, Alien had plenty of time to rest on its laurels before the follow-on film came along. Watching Aliens (1986) with the knowledge of James Cameron’s other work, it soon becomes apparent that this movie is all his own. After all, if I told you there’s a James Cameron film about space marines invading an alien world to eliminate an alien threat, many of you would think I’m referring to Avatar (2009) and not Aliens (1986). In the original Alien, much of the focus of the film is on survival, let alone how to defeat such an unstoppable creature. For Aliens, the...
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BOOK: The Lighthouse Keeper (2017)

The Lighthouse Keeper Year: 2017 Author: Cynthia Ellingsen Length: 380 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** I’d love to call this book “cute,” but I’m afraid Kip would toss me into Lake Michigan. That being said, part of me now wants to go out, get a nautical compass tattoo on my arm and buy a dilapidated lighthouse to restore. I don’t usually read “romance” novels. Of course, I'm not sure I could even consider this book in that genre since it had so many other aspects to it, but I almost immediately fell in love with the characters and the setting. The story came to life in my head, even to the point where I started mentally casting the movie (probably Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Evans, and Reese Witherspoon for starters). While the main premise that started the plot seemed a little unbelievable (why would this insurance company have a lien on a house that isn’t insured by them?), the story has a ton...
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MOVIE: Power Rangers (2017)

Power Rangers Year: 2017 Rating: PG-13 Length: 124 minutes / 2.06 hours In one of the many gritty reboots of a nostalgic 1990’s franchise, I didn’t have much expectation for Power Rangers (2017). The original show was pretty campy, with a tried-and-true plot structure that didn’t change much from episode to episode. In fact, I probably couldn’t tell you the specific plot of any of the episodes. They’d usually follow this format: the main villain would go about trying to obtain some goal via their minions/henchmen, the Power Rangers would morph and fight the minions/henchmen, the minions/henchmen would grow large and start destroying everything, the Power Rangers would call their Zords out to battle, and (finally) the Zords would combine into the Megazord and the foe would be vanquished. While Power Rangers did follow some of the structure of the television show format, it also managed to create characters with some depth and background to them. From a disgraced football star to an autistic teen...
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BOOK: The Da Vinci Code (2003)

The Da Vinci Code Year: 2003 Author: Dan Brown Length: 454 pages What a difference three years makes! Even though it contains all the same tropes and motifs that Angels and Demons did, The Da Vinci Code eliminates the fluff and focuses on the strengths of these individual pieces to create an enthralling adventure through Christian history. I will admit that I first read this book because I was curious about the controversy that surrounded it. While Dan Brown is a fantastic storyteller, and many of his connections and links to Christianity made sense, I still maintain that, at its core, The Da Vinci Code is just well-written fiction. This time around, Robert Langdon is much better suited for the task of finding the “Holy Grail” instead of being a glorified Roman tour guide. His expertise in symbology certainly helped to drive the plot forward, even if it sometimes was in a misleading direction for the sake of a twist. I did appreciate how, even...
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BOOK: The Tracker (2017)

The Tracker Year: 2017 Author: Chad Zunker Length: 336 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** As I mentioned in my review of Hard Road, I’m starting to find myself genuinely enjoying the thriller genre. The pace is almost frenetic, the action is exciting, and the stakes are always high. The first book in the Sam Callahan series, The Tracker is all of these tropes and clichés, but it also has much more. While most thrillers have protagonists who are older and have plenty of life (and tactical) experience, The Tracker decides to go much younger with the main character. Granted, this choice works because Sam Callahan has already lived a lifetime out on the streets and managed to escape its clutches and now considers himself better in spite of it. Even though I appreciated the depth of the main character, part of me felt ripped away from the action each time the book went into “flashback mode.” Sometimes these sections would cover many...
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MOVIE: John Wick – Chapter 2 (2017)

John Wick: Chapter 2 Year: 2017 Rating: R Length: 122 minutes / 2.03 hours As far as sequels go, I was looking forward to the second installment of the John Wick franchise, mostly because I was interested to see how it would take the genre-defying changes it made in the first film and expound upon them. While you don't need to know much of the plot of the first movie, other than knowing John Wick (Keanu Reeves) was the best professional killer ever, and now he’s trying to live a peaceful life in retirement, one could almost wonder if the first film was even necessary. Plot-wise, John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) provides a much more interesting storyline instead of just an accidental mistake made by a stupid kid of a mob boss. Unfortunately, while the plot is much improved, the action seems a little stale. Sure, Wick’s “dance of death” remains an impressive sight to behold, but now the camera is starting to trend back...
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MOVIE: John Wick (2014)

John Wick Year: 2014 Rating: R Length: 101 minutes / 1.68 hours I’ll be honest and say that I initially thought this film was just another action movie. Of all the action movies that come out these days, there wasn’t much that intrigued me enough to spend the time with this particular one. However, after some of my friends were raving about it and I saw a few YouTube videos describing why it was so great, I decided to give John Wick (2014) a chance. To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. This film was not just another action movie. In fact, it was quite exemplary in its breaking of traditional action movie tropes. The most noticeable difference this movie has compared to other action films is its camerawork. Ever since The Bourne Identity (2001) changed the action movie genre, the cameras have been quite shaky, and the action is, therefore (increasingly) hard to follow. Not so with John Wick. The smooth and...
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BOOK: The Infinite Lawman (2016)

The Infinite Lawman Year: 2016 Author: E.M. Lockaby Length: 380 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** I do have to admit that the cross-genre Cyberpunk/Western novel, The Infinite Lawman was an interesting idea. I hadn't seen these two genres combined before, so the combination certainly had an original feel to it, at least initially. There were certainly a few moments where some of its sources showed themselves, but the strength and pace of the story helped to alleviate these concerns. Although, if this is the first book in a series, I'm not entirely sure where it can go from here. Before I get any further into my review, I did find it odd that the margins were so enormous on this book. The page numbers were also all on the same side of each page (in the gutter for the left-hand pages), and the font was quite small (so as to fit in the small space provided by the enormous margins). I can only assume...
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BOOK: Amped (2012)

Amped Year: 2012 Author: Daniel H. Wilson Length: 522 minutes / 8.7 hours Having read Where’s My Jetpack? and Robopocalypse from Daniel H. Wilson, I had some high hopes for this book. Clearly, Wilson has a depth of knowledge about current and upcoming technologies that allows him to write succinctly both non-fiction and fiction. He can fuse the science with either humor or action and maintain an accurate sense of it without having the details bog down the plot. In Amped, Wilson explores a world where humans use technology to assist their bodies, either to overcome a disability or to overcome their humanity. Unlike Robopocalypse, which was primarily a collection of intertwined vignettes, Amped follows a single individual through the effects of a fear-filled society charged by an inferiority complex. While the main thrust of the plot is about mental augmentation, there are mentions of other exciting technologies, including self-driving trucks and mechanical exoskeletons. Overwhelmingly, though, the brain-altering technology is the focus, as it hurtles...
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BOOK: DreamLync (2015)

DreamLync Year: 2015 Author: K.A. Black Length: 122 pages I initially had my doubts about this book. There have been plenty of stories written about the challenges and cautions of a simulated society. From The Matrix (1999) to Sword Art Online, the blurred lines between the real world and a digital one are well within our reach as a global community. And while books like Ready Player One certainly have a nostalgic feel to their plotlines, DreamLync manages to flip the concept on its head and show how hard it is to pull oneself from a heavily digital social experience. While I would argue that the timeline for this book would be in the next 20-30 years, instead of more than 100 away (just look at Her (2013) for example), the same interpersonal problems will likely still exist. Told via the almost forgettable "everyman" John Adams (not to be confused with either U.S. President), DreamLync shows the reader a world that could easily be ours (without...
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BOOK: Goldfinger (1959)

Goldfinger Year: 1959 Author: Ian Fleming Length: 509 minutes / 8.48 hours For many years, I was aware that the James Bond series of books did not follow the same order as their respective films. Given the action/adventure spy thriller genre these books were written in, it is possible to mix them around and still have a good understanding of what’s going on, even if some of the references made within the novels could only be understood by having read the previous books in the series. In some respects, it is disappointing that the film franchise didn’t capitalize on a continuous narrative that the books provided. If the stories are out of order, then it 's hard to build up the constant battle between James Bond and the Soviet spy agency, SMERSH. Fortunately, since I had read a few of the first books in the James Bond series, I could appreciate Auric Goldfinger’s connection to the organization. That being said, I seemed to have jumped...
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MOVIE: Moana (2016)

Moana Year: 2016 Rating: PG Length: 107 minutes / 1.78 hours Let's get one thing straight: computers are incredible. Each successive year that passes, I find my eyes blown away at the amazing capabilities of computers to create the kind of imagery found in movies like this. From hair and water effects to some of the more supernatural aspects, the visuals of this film are quite commendable. Sure, Zootopia (2016) looked good too, but since its characters weren't human or in a "human" environment, it was difficult to see just how amazing the visuals could be. But this was likely due to Zootopia having more focus on an interesting plot instead of stunning effects. I am impressed that Disney has taken the leap to another non-white "princess" with Moana, but much of the cliche trappings of this type of film are out in full force. If I were to tell you Disney made a coming-of-age movie featuring the main character with an animal sidekick, a mute...
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BOOK: Dragon Airways (2016)

Dragon Airways Year: 2016 Author: Brian Rathbone Length: 202 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** A book filled with equal parts fantasy and steampunk, Dragon Airways delivers on the promise of flying the skies on the back of a dragon. Brian Rathbone does an expert job of fusing diesel engines and magic stones in this exciting story. Not only is the setting interesting, but most of the characters are quite engaging as well. Because of this, Dragon Airways was a pleasure to read, and I voraciously read every page that was available to me. While I did thoroughly enjoy reading this book, there were a few things that made it a little difficult to follow along. First, some of the minor characters weren't that well-developed (or non-existent after the first few chapters), which made it difficult to know who they were, especially when some of them had multiple names and titles assigned to them. Secondly, I minimally understood the layout of the world...
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BOOK: Where’s My Jetpack? (2007)

Where's My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived Year: 2007 Author: Daniel H. Wilson Length: 221 minutes / 3.68 hours Some of the best science fiction ever written was strangely prescient with its predictions on how the world would advance, technologically. One of the best examples of this was Jules Verne in his story From the Earth to the Moon. Not only did he figure out what it would take to get away from Earth's gravity, he predicted that the launch site would be in Florida. Ever since then, we have looked to the authors of science fiction to tell us what could be possible in the future of tomorrow. Unfortunately, some of these predictions weren't quite realistic. While jetpacks and moon colonies sound cool in the pages of a fictional book, they just aren't practical in reality. Still, our childlike wonder and innovation tried its best to create what the science fiction authors of yore dreamt up. In Where's...
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MOVIE: Hell or High Water (2016)

Hell or High Water Year: 2016 Rating: R Length: 102 minutes / 1.7 hours It's interesting to me to see how the current social climate in this country can mold a film into a Best Picture Oscar nominee. I've probably seen this same scenario a number of different times, but the reasoning behind it is what brings Hell or High Water (2016) into a different category. There have been tons of heist films, and often the robbers have a tight connection, like that of brothers. Heck, The Blues Brothers (1980) essentially did the same basic plot but with "putting the band back together" as their way of "saving the ranch." Partly because this film seemed so quintessentially Texas, I couldn't help thinking it was a toned down version of another Best Picture Oscar winner No Country for Old Men (2007). With last year's Best Picture Oscar nominee, The Big Short (2015), showing how many honest Americans were swindled by the greed of banks, it's no wonder that...
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BOOK: The Fifth Witness (2011)

The Fifth Witness Year: 2011 Author: Michael Connelly Length: 836 minutes / 13.93 hours In the fourth installment of The Lincoln Lawyer series, The Fifth Witness follows Mickey Haller as he navigates another murder trial. This time, the real scenario of the foreclosure crisis is brought in to help set the stage for the trial. Using a historical event like this helped to bring the story together in a way that felt more real and relatable than the previous entries in the series. Most Americans I know who were affected by the housing market crash would certainly be entertained by this story of corruption and underhanded dealings, if for no other reason than to justify how screwed up the system is. Gone from this part of the series is detective Harry Bosch, who I felt distracted from the main storyline centering around Mickey Haller and his court battle in the previous two books of this series. This time, it’s all Mickey. What helped to make...
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BOOK: The Lincoln Lawyer (2005)

The Lincoln Lawyer Year: 2005 Author: Michael Connelly Length: 696 minutes / 11.6 hours While I saw the movie before listening to the audiobook, I must say that I still really enjoy the main character. He's one of those guys you love to hate, but he's trying so hard to do the right thing, even if it means defending a scumbag who deserves a lot worse. Of course, since I had seen the movie already, I had an idea how it was going to end, but couldn’t remember the specifics. Perhaps that’s a measure of a great crime drama: all the misdirection makes it difficult to know “whodunit”, allowing future rereads to be enjoyable. But, back to the main character, Mickey Haller, I think one of the reasons this book was a breeze to listen to was because the main character’s POV is so well written. You can tell that he has some baggage from his father, which is partly why he defends everyone, regardless...
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BOOK: The Rook (2012)

The Rook Year: 2012 Author: Daniel O’Malley Length: 1,066 minutes / 17.77 hours One of the nice things about listening to audiobooks from my library (via the Overdrive app), is that I can pick up a book and listen to it without really knowing what it’s about other than a title and a cover. In this way, I often have no preconceived notions about the book other than first impressions. At this point, all I’m giving up to “read” the book is the time it takes me to listen to it, and I have plenty of that driving to and from work every day. Since I had no idea what this book was really about, I was surprised at how humorous it was. If I were to combine a few, better-known series together, I’d say this is X-Men mixed with James Bond, with just a dash of Jason Bourne all blended together in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. An odd combination, I know. But somehow, it...
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BOOK: Hard Road (2013)

Hard Road Year: 2013 Author: J.B. Turner Length: 322 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** I’m finding that I really like the thriller genre, and books like this convince me that it’s the most exciting genre out there. Practically from page one, the pace is set and is blindingly fast. There’s no time to rest when the fate of the nation is at stake. Equal parts Liam Neeson from Taken (2008) and Tom Cruise from Jack Reacher (2012), Jon Reznick is skilled beyond measure and I wouldn’t be surprised if this novel is made into a film of its own. That being said, I don’t really know why this book was called Hard Road other than all the driving that takes place in it. J.B. Turner manages to keep the reader in the dark about much of the plot that thrusts Reznick into a race against time and terrorists until about half-way through this book. While this was an impressive feat, part of...
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MOVIE: Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures Year: 2016 Rating: PG Length: 127 minutes / 2.12 hours I often jokingly refer to my job as being a "rocket scientist." While it does involve rockets and space, it isn't nearly as "down in the numbers" as the jobs portrayed in this film were. I've worked with a lot of people over the years in this technical field, and my opinion has always been that, if somebody is competent enough to do the job, we should hire the most competent people to do said job. Even though this is a statement against nepotism and just knowing the right people in the right places, what this film has shown me is that it's not nearly that simple. In terms of competency, I will not judge you by your gender or your race, as long as you show you can do the work and not be a burden on the team. However, even though people are highly qualified, they have had the deck stacked against...
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MOVIE: Jaws (1975)

Jaws Year: 1975 Rating: PG Length: 124 minutes / 2.07 hours Back when I first saw this film as a child, it scared me quite a bit. Later, when I watched it again for the first time in a while, it didn’t scare me as much, but it certainly was thrilling. Now, having read the book it was based on, I have a fuller and more in-depth understanding and appreciation of all sides of this classic story. With the knowledge of what was missing in the movie from the book, I thought it would detract from the viewing experience. Instead, I found that the book and the film covered two very different aspects of the story, each expertly done for the utilized medium. In the book (which was released a year before the film), we find that the shark hunt is not only a matter of public safety but also infused with the politics of the island of Amity and the personal drama of a cuckolded...
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MOVIE: Pacific Rim (2013)

Pacific Rim Year: 2013 Rating: PG-13 Length: 131 minutes / 2.18 hours When I first saw the trailer for this film, I became really excited. One of the staples of anime is the "giant robot" subgenre, of which Neon Genesis Evangelion and Gurren Lagann are certainly the classics. And while Pacific Rim (2013) wasn't an adaptation of an anime, it got my hopes up that it could be done well enough that we could see live action versions of these aforementioned anime. After all, adaptations to live-action from anything animated tend to be very difficult, so this would be a step in the right direction. I do have to say that this movie delivered what it promised. Something like a mix between Godzilla (1999) and Real Steel (2011), the premise was a little bit closer to Independence Day (1996) than I initially thought it would be. The visuals were stunning and the fight sequences were both immense and intense, never letting up with the action as...
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BOOK: Modern Romance (2015)

Modern Romance Year: 2015 Author: Aziz Ansari Length: 374 minutes / 6.23 hours I was honestly surprised by this book. As has been the case with most comedians and the books they have written, I expected this to be a bit of an autobiography in the veins of Bossypants , Yes Please , The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith, and Idiocy , and Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Instead, I was presented with a book filled with data, analysis, and information about how modern relationships work when compared with the relationships of past generations. Having gone through some of this “Modern Romance” myself, I could certainly relate to the information being presented, nodding my head in agreement as things I noticed suddenly had explanations pinned to them. But it wasn’t that the book was not an autobiography that surprised me, it was the humorous way that Aziz Ansari managed to present this subject matter, while also maintaining high scientific rigor. If I were...
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BOOK: Blood Brothers (2016)

Blood Brothers Year: 2016 Author: Rick Acker Length: 380 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** Even though I don’t usually read books in mid-series, I’ll make an exception for a book I receive for free. Fortunately, I was able to deduce what happened in book 1 of the Dead Man’s Rule series just based on the context of the characters’ interactions. In fact, I’d probably like to read Dead Man's Rule, since it sounds like it was a pretty exciting plot. Of course, I’ve found legal thrillers like this one to be pretty stand-alone, which helped me really get into its engaging, if not somewhat predictable, plot. What I found most interesting about Blood Brothers, was the Christian undertones it took in its narrative. These moments helped to flesh out the characters, but only once did it feel like the reader was being browbeaten with some ideology. The infusion of realistic Christian characters was a pleasant surprise, especially considering that their beliefs did...
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MOVIE: Jason Bourne (2016)

Jason Bourne Year: 2016 Rating: PG-13 Length: 123 minutes / 2.05 hours Back in 2002, The Bourne Identity redefined not only the action film aesthetic but the modern spy thriller as well. While some elements of the Bourne films have been good for action films, others are now trite and cliché. If you were to break down the “Bourne formula”, these four elements could be used to make any action film in the “Bourne-style”: Car chases with spectacular driving in “common” vehicles Brutal hand-to-hand combat using everyday items Shaky camera movement during action sequences “The chase” where eventually the protagonist gets away, achieves his objective and escapes into the shadows once again Because the Bourne films are so formulaic, I found Jason Bourne (2016) to be no different. That being said, the film was still a fun and intense ride to watch. Now nine years later from the last in the “true” Bourne storyline (we’ll just forget that The Bourne Legacy (2012) happened), technology has vastly improved, making this film seem...
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BOOK: Quarter Share (2007)

Quarter Share Year: 2007 Author: Nathan Lowell Length: 250 pages In a genre that often relies too much on inventing new and spectacular foreign worlds, Nathan Lowell’s Quarter Share certainly has a down-to-earth feel. There were a number of times reading this book where I had to remind myself they were sailing through deep space, and not across the Pacific Ocean. That being said, Quarter Share is an incredibly immersive look into the life of a lowly sailor who has the gumption to make something of himself. The realism of the setting and situations certainly makes this science fiction story quite believable. I do have to laud this book with the ability to be as close to wholesome as one can be without the entire plot being labeled “childish”. Unfortunately, this also ends up being one of my main qualms with it. Most of the characters don’t really have any flaws and the conflicts and situations that would arise from being together for long periods of...
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MOVIE: Now You See Me (2013)

Now You See Me Year: 2013 Rating: PG-13 Length: 115 minutes / 1.92 hours The key to a great heist film comes in three stages: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. Wait, that’s the key to a great magician’s illusion. Actually, here’s the real trick: both are very similar in structure. Each requires a setup of events which lead to an amazing reveal, followed by an explanation of how the heist/illusion was performed. In Now You See Me (2013), both the heist and magician genres are found to be so closely related that it was nice to see them meld together so well. In a page ripped straight from Robin Hood, the main characters justify their thievery by stating that their actions are to right the wrongs done to the general public. Of course, when a movie uses CGI to enhance the magic of the actors, it’s just that much more fun to see how they are able to pull off each heist using...
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BOOK: Echo of the Boom (2014)

Echo of the Boom Year: 2014 Author: Maxwell Neely-Cohen Length: 478 pages ***THIS BOOK WAS RECEIVED FROM A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY*** From the title of this book, I would have expected it to be about the aftermath of an apocalypse-inducing event. If anything Echo of the Boom is a misnomer and the book should be titled Prelude of the Boom. The cover also doesn’t give much into what it’s about, other than the four different points of view which are followed throughout the narrative. While I did eventually like the book, it took too long to get there (some of the occasional typos didn’t help me get into it either). With the characters’ motivations unclear from the start, it becomes obvious about 150 pages in that nothing is really going to happen in this book. Instead of having any driving force propelling the characters forward, it’s more accurate to describe this book as a nearly 500 page rap battle. Each character has their own track, living their...
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MOVIE: Ernest & Celestine (2012)

Ernest & Celestine Year: 2012 Rating: PG Length: 80 minutes / 1.33 hours While the visuals of CGI-animated films can be quite realistic and stunning, there’s something to the simple, drawn lines of a classically animated piece. Often, the realism of CGI is actually a bit of a detriment as any human characters will start to fall into the “uncanny valley”, wherein our minds reject the characters because they’re close to being human, but there are still elements that can’t be captured and our minds pick up on these flaws. Granted, I will admit that the classical look can still be obtained with computers, but it’s nice to see every once in a while, especially with the proliferation of new animation studios. Part of the challenge of standing out amongst the large number of animated films comes in the visual style used in the animation. With Ernest & Celestine (2012), the visual style doesn’t try to imitate any successful studio (like Disney), but instead attempts to recapture...
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MOVIE: X-Men – Apocalypse (2016)

X-Men: Apocalypse Year: 2016 Rating: PG-13 Length: 144 minutes / 2.4 hours I’ll admit that I was excited for this film, mostly because I was somewhat familiar with its premise. I grew up on the X-Men: Evolution TV show, so I knew that the defining arc of that series was none other than the Apocalypse arc. This may have actually spoiled the movie for me, because it wasn’t quite in line with the plot I knew. Sure, Bryan Singer returned to direct this penultimate piece of the X-Men franchise, but there were just a few things that bugged me about this movie. First off, one of the elements of the previous prequel films I liked and appreciated was the inclusion of historical events and people into the storyline. This way it felt like an alternate reality not so far removed from our own. While there were loose elements of this present, it wasn’t nearly as integrated as it had been done in the past. Add...
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MOVIE: X-Men – First Class (2011)

X-Men: First Class Year: 2011 Rating: PG-13 Length: 132 minutes / 2.2 hours While prequels always hold the distinction of being the one type of movie that you know how it will end, seeing how they get there is certainly entertaining. Much like the Star Wars prequels gave us a point before the original trilogy to learn more about the background of the characters, the X-Men prequels manage to do this, but with a much better result. My only major qualm with prequel trilogies is that, while the mainstays of the franchise were there in terms of characters, the only ones who maintained their actor from the first set of movies were relegated to cameo appearances. This is only heightened by my opinion that the original X-Men trilogy’s cast was perfect in almost every way. That being said, with the prequel trilogy now complete, the younger cast has definitely grown on me as well, James McAvoy’s Xavier being my favorite of the prequel group. Because X-Men: First...
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MOVIE: Divergent (2014)

Divergent Year: 2014 Rating: PG-13 Length: 139 minutes / 2.31 hours While The Hunger Games really cornered the market in the "young adult dystopian future" category, many authors jumped on the bandwagon to cash in on this phenomenon. I'll admit that many of these series that got movie adaptations I had never heard of before and likely will not see/read. The Divergent series, though did stand out as the top of "the rest". It can be difficult to create a dystopian world, especially one that's at least somewhat set in our current one. The CGI-modified Chicago looks pretty good for a city that's been through what it has, but where the computer imagery really comes to shine is in the dream sequences. I would have liked them to be a little more obvious so the audience isn't always guessing if it's a dream or not, but that's part of the charm, I suppose. Having since read the book this was based on, I do have to say that the director...
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MOVIE: Miracles from Heaven (2016)

Miracles from Heaven Year: 2016 Rating: PG Length: 109 minutes / 1.81 hours Normally, I'm pretty hesitant to watch any movie that's overtly marketed as "Christian." The truth of the matter is, while I'm a Christian myself, these types of movies normally make me cringe at how cliche they are. When their message is continually shoved down our throats, it's hard to focus on anything else. I am all for inspiring stories of faith, but when the main thrust of your plot feels like a poorly written after-school special, it's hard to take seriously. Case in point: I really didn't like War Room (2015) not only because of the aforementioned qualms with the genre as a whole, but also because the characters and their actions felt completely unbelievable (and for a film about belief, this was a big no-no). Now, as you're aware of my stance on these types of movies, please note that I prefaced this with "normally". There are some films in this...
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