MatthewSean Reviews

Book reviews, movie reviews, and other writing

Book Review – 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari — February 21, 2021

Book Review – 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari

Book Review – 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari

Facts:

Book: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Genre: Non-Fiction
Year of Release: 2018
Read 339-page paperback edition in February 2021

Book Description:

In his third book, Harari focuses on the present, and expectations we will face as homo sapiens in the 21st century. The 21 chapters provide that many lessons on an array of topics. Readers of his prior works will be familiar with some of the discussion around artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and information technology advances. Harari goes further however to explore what the human species really is, and how we will evolve over this century, and what it means for how we adapt to life.

The book looks at economy, politics, religion, technology, and the meaning of life, and how all of this will continually evolve and change over the 21st century. How can we prepare as individuals in this ever changing world?

Book Review:

As with his prior books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, Harari has done a masterful job with 21 Lessons. This book is very engaging, with strong scientific analysis and persuasive arguments of what the world is and will be in the 21st century.

Harari has done a great job organizing this into 21 chapters that are bite-sized, but nicely linked from one chapter to the next. He closes each chapter nicely summarizing his points and then linking it directly to what the next chapter will be exploring. The result is a digestible, understandable format for the reader.

Harari does a great job exploring a range of critical topics and using a variety of examples to make his points. Chapters are on a variety of diverse subjects, from Religion to Big Data to Meaning to Science Fiction, and many more in between. The majority of them give the reader reason to pause and consider the ramifications of these subjects on the world around us, and on our own lives. This is the hallmark of a well-written book in this field.

My one dissatisfaction in the book is that Harari spends a lot of time focusing on all the problems and concerns for the 21st century. There are often not satisfying solutions or even suggestions of solutions to the various risks and concerns we will be facing. To be fair, I don’t know what they are, and it is a tall order to ask for all the answers here. The book is a great analysis of challenges, risks, and concerns, and at times some solutions and ideas to solve them are provided. I just wish more of them were provided at key points.

Overall though, this is a fantastic book by Harari, and like his other books, they are thought-provoking, insightful, and timely for the inquisitive reader who wants to understand our species and our world.

Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Morning After – Chantal Hebert — February 13, 2021

Book Review – The Morning After – Chantal Hebert

Book Review – The Morning After – Chantal Hebert

Facts:

Book: The Morning After
Author: Chantal Hebert
Genre: Non-Fiction
Year of Release: 2014
Read 300-page hardcover edition in February 2021

Book Description:

Award-winning journalist Chantal Hebert takes readers back to the fateful day of October 30, 1995, when Quebec nearly voted Yes in a referendum. Hebert delves into the political leaders on the yes side, and the no side, through detailed interviews and analysis, to find out what people were thinking and planning in the lead up to the referendum. Hebert also focuses in on what would happen the morning after, if a Yes vote had been returned.

This political account offers a diverse range of opinions, analysis, and observations from different perspectives.

Book Review:

Hebert has done a great job collecting valuable insight and commentary from political leaders of 1995, and recording it for present and future generations that want to understand what happened in this moment in our history. The 1995 referendum was an intense time, and almost ripped the country a part. It came after much constitutional talk over the past couple of decades, and this book is a great review of the environment and political climate, as well as the stressors leading up to voting day.

Hebert does a great job reviewing the rifts and fractures in both the Yes and No sides, demonstrating that there was not much unity among the leaders on either side. Although it’s hard to predict what would have happened after, in the event of a Yes vote, Hebert does a great job getting the opinions of the variety of leaders she interviews, as well as putting her own analysis into the mix. At times it feels like there isn’t quite enough detail on all elements of the story, for the most part this is a useful and educational book.

The structure of the book is interesting, with Hebert breaking it up into chapters for each of the people she interviewed. The organization is thoughtful and the closing sections describing some personal stories of each political leader are interesting.

Hebert has co-interviewed her subjects with Jean Lapierre, and together they have done a great job.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Becoming – Michelle Obama — February 9, 2021

Book Review – Becoming – Michelle Obama

Book Review – Becoming – Michelle Obama

Facts:

Book: Becoming
Author: Michelle Obama
Genre: Memoir
Year of Release: 2018
Read 428-page hardcover edition in February 2021

Book Description:

In this memoir from 44th First Lady Michelle Obama, the first African-American First Lady in the White House, we get a sense of what life was really like, not only during her 8 years in the role of First Lady, but also all the years that led up to her and President Obama entering politics and eventually the White House.

The memoir is a very open, moving and revealing account of life, from childhood all the way up to and including Michelle Obama’s viewpoints on the polarization and racism that marked her family’s time in the White House and what happened immediately after which the election of Trump.

Book Review:

Michelle Obama has done a wonderful job writing a thoughtful and caring memoir that opens the readers eyes not only to common questions about what life in the White House must be like, but also a window into the former First Lady’s thinking process and challenges she had to overcome. Her explorations of racism and sexism in 21st century America (and beyond the USA) are powerful and relevant, making this a timely memoir for all to read.

After having just read Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land,” this was a timely read, and it was interesting to read Michelle Obama’s memoir, issued two years earlier. While there is not as much on government policy, there is more on raising children in a political environment, and the challenges of building a solid relationship when both partners are very busy with work. Family is explored beautifully here, both immediate and extended family.

Michelle Obama also does a good job through the course of the memoir explaining where the one-word title comes from, and the Epilogue helps her to bring it home and really define what it means to her to become. This was a great conclusion to the thoughtful prose.

The story of Obama’s life was told wonderfully here, with a great balance between her immediate family growing up, her extended family and friends, her husband and two children, and also herself and her beliefs and feelings. A lot of the narrative is devoted to childhood, teenage years, college years, young adulthood, and then life before getting to the White House. There are many lessons learned and great observations about life in these sections, and it is a narrative that propels the reader forward. The pages devoted to the White House are more focused on the first term as opposed to the second term that the Obamas were in the White House, and a little more detail and observations in those later four years would have been great. That being said, when the writer leaves the reader wanting more, that is a good sign.

Overall, this is an inspiring memoir, with a page-turning feel to it and one that leaves the reader hopeful for change and a better future.

Well Done!

Overall: 5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – My Brother’s Husband, Volume 2 – Gengoroh Tagame — February 3, 2021

Book Review – My Brother’s Husband, Volume 2 – Gengoroh Tagame

Book Review – My Brother’s Husband, Volume 2 – Gengoroh Tagame

Facts:

Book: My Brother’s Husband, Volume 2
Author: Gengoroh Tagame
Genre: Fiction – Manga, Graphic Novel
Year of Release: 2017
Read 352-page paperback edition in February 2021

Book Description:

In the concluding volume of the series, we continue to follow Mike’s three-week adventure in Japan, where he is spending time and staying with his brother-in-law Yaichi, and Yaichi’s daughter Kana. Mike has come to meet them after the death of his husband Ryoji, who was Yaichi’s twin brother. Ryoji never felt comfortable to share his sexual identity with his family, and his untimely death has left many unanswered feelings for everyone.

In volume two, Mike continues to enjoy time and visiting with the family of his now deceased husband. Meanwhile, Yaichi learns many lessons about what it means to be gay, and explores feelings of regret and sadness over not staying in touch with his twin brother who moved to Canada to be with Mike.

As the day of Mike’s departure back to Canada grows closer, and Kana becomes more sad at the prospect of her uncle going back to his home, they continue to learn and grow together, about the meaning of family.

Book Review:

Similar to volume one, this concluding volume was an absolutely fantastic graphic novel / manga from writer and artist Gengoroh Tagame. The skill with which he employs is truly breathtaking, with fantastic art and great character interactions through the dialogue.

There is great emotional resonance in this book, which is subtle and smooth. Rather than be overly prescriptive with the message, the direction Gengoroh Tagame took was to layer messages around homophobia, the damage covert and quiet homophobia takes, and cultural lessons, in a very subdued way. The result is a thoughtful approach that the reader can learn from on their own, through the measured pace of the entire book. This is a very respectful approach for the reader, with the assumption the reader will pick up on the lessons and understand them as they move alone the thoughtful book. It is successful.

The characters of Kana, Mike, and Yaichi are all written with humour, elegance, and complexity. Watching the interactions and adventures between the three, and the supporting characters, is fun and enjoyable. At the same time, the story itself as a whole is very emotional and touching.

It truly is a sign of success when at the conclusion you would long for more stories and follow-up on the characters. Another sign of success is feeling that you enjoyed the book, you learned something valuable, and that you have shed a tear for these wonderful characters.

Well Done!

Overall: 5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Book of Longings – Sue Monk Kidd — February 1, 2021

Book Review – The Book of Longings – Sue Monk Kidd

Book Review – The Book of Longings – Sue Monk Kidd

Facts:

Book: The Book of Longings
Author: Sue Monk Kidd
Genre: Fiction – Historical Fiction
Year of Release: 2020
Read 418-page hardcover edition in January 2021

Book Description:

This historical novel tells the story of Ana, the forgotten wife of Jesus. We meet Ana as a teenager, living with rich parents but with little rights as a female. When she is betrothed to an older man which is clearly done as a simple business transaction to benefit her father, she finds a way to escape from the plan, but not without cost to her future.

During her struggle for freedom, and her ongoing goal of being independent so she can pursue her writing and find her voice, she meets a man named Jesus, who she is astonished to see actually treats women, the poor, and the sick with respect.

The novel shows us what happens when she marries Jesus and enters his home as his new wife. The joy and the heartache, as she finds her voice, in turbulent times.

Book Review:

Sue Monk Kidd has written a fantastic historical novel, one that is very respectful of the Christian belief in the wisdom and goodness of Jesus, yet also one that challenges Christianity with new concepts and ideas. The novel does a fantastic job of taking the principles and values that Jesus spoke about in Christian tradition, but challenging by bringing in themes of feminism. The main character of the novel is Ana, and this focus on the wife of Jesus is a fantastic way for us to see these events through a woman’s eyes. More importantly, we get to know an amazing and strong character, Ana, who strives to make a difference in the world and ensure that her writing and her voice are heard and not forgotten.

The author has done a great job of creating powerful, memorable characters, particularly Ana and her strong aunt Yaltha. These two women have adventures, voice their goals, and make things happen around them. The love story between Jesus and Ana is powerful, and of course the ending of the novel is poignant and dramatic. The way Sue Monk Kidd has crafted the plot to explain where Ana was during those few years of Jesus’s ministry was clever and made sense.

The novel is equal parts plot and character development. We learn about the history of these times, with the novel clearly written froma well researched perspective.

Overall, this is a thoughtful, enjoyable, and touching novel, one well worth reading, to consider the Christian religion in a new way.

Well Done!

Overall: 5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Death Without Company – Craig Johnson — January 24, 2021

Book Review – Death Without Company – Craig Johnson

Book Review – Death Without Company – Craig Johnson

Facts:

Book: Death Without Company (Walt Longmire Volume 2)
Author: Craig Johnson
Genre: Fiction – Mystery / Western
Year of Release: 2006
Read 271-page paperback edition in January 2021

Book Description:

A Basque woman, Mari Baroja, is found poisoned at the Durant Home for Assisted Living. As Sheriff Walt Longmire begins investigating, with the help of retired Sheriff and fellow resident of the Durant Home, Lucien Connally, he realizes that he needs to dig deep into Baroja’s past, to uncover a motive that goes far back.

Longmire and Deputies Moretti and Ferguson are also working with a new Deputy who has recently joined the team on a trial basis, Santiago Saizabitoria. It is a good time for an additional set of hands, as the death of Baroja and subsequent investigation lead to an increase in threats and violence in Absaroka County, as the murderer tries to achieve their ends and hide their crimes.

Book Review:

In this second volume of the Longmire series, Craig Johnson has found himself on more sure footing in his writing. The plot is complex and expansive, and we are starting to learn more about the back stories of the various characters. Johnson has done a good job of balancing a fast-moving narrative where we see the characters trying to solve the series of crimes, with scenes devoted to character development and interaction. The deep friendship between Longmire and Henry Standing Bear is well-developed in this novel, and Johnson overall seems to have an interest in creating complex characters, including the Native Americans near Absaroka County, not wanting to get bogged down in the usual stereotypes. As a whole, Johnson builds more layers in the characters in his second novel, and it creates increased buy-in for readers, not only for this novel’s outcome, but in wanting to read future books in the series.

Johnson has this book take place over about a week during the holiday season. Due to all the crimes, we don’t see much about Christmas and New Year’s, however he does an exceptional job describing Wyoming during a sustained blizzard. The description of the cold, ice, and snow provides for a great setting to this mystery, and we really do feel like we are in the storm along with these characters.

The introduction of new characters, particularly Santiago as a new Deputy, is also a high point in the novel. Johnson weaves humour throughout the novel, combined with great doses of western nostalgia that are part of this genre but also feel fresh in Johnson’s hands.

A couple of slight critiques to this novel. There were so many various plot threads and pieces in this book that it was sometimes hard to keep them all clear in the mind, and understand how they all connected to each other, and how they all closed off in the end.

On the whole though, this was a great novel and makes the reader look forward to volume three with Longmire and the gang.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – A Promised Land – Barack Obama — January 21, 2021

Book Review – A Promised Land – Barack Obama

Book Review – A Promised Land – Barack Obama

Facts:

Book: A Promised Land
Author: Barack Obama
Genre: Fiction – Memoir
Year of Release: 2020
Read 706-page hardcover edition in January 2021

Book Description:

In this first volume of a two-volume memoir focusing on his time in the White House, President Barack Obama shares his personal observations from the events that brought him to the White House, and then through his first term.

This thoughtful account provides readers with a seat from the heart of decision-making and action. From the global financial crisis that was already erupting when Obama took office, to other foreign affairs crises in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the difficulty of dealing with a polarized political climate, we learn how Obama thinks through problems and works with others to solve them.

The memoir also brings insight into how Obama, and his family, handled the move into the spotlight and in the White House. It also shines light into the racism Obama encountered as the first Black president in the United States.

Book Review:

This detailed account encapsulated all the things a powerful memoir should be. Obama’s voice was strong, telling us a factual account but from his personal point of view. We got a sense of how he thinks and feels through this large volume. The sense of humour is also strongly felt in the memoir, which adds to the enjoyment of sitting back and reading about world events and American politics from a president’s point of view.

The memoir is well organized, in a roughly chronological way, but also by theme, so we can see how various events and subject matters evolved over the course of his first term. Some events took longer to unfold, while others happened quickly, and adequate time and space is given to the critical events that readers will want to know about. Broader themes like racism are also covered throughout the book, since this is a sad reality faced by Obama and his administration again and again.

The first 200 pages of the just-over 700-page memoir is devoted to Obama’s childhood, education, early career as an Illinois politician, and then campaign for the presidency. This is a great decision, as it allows us to really understand what drives him and why he wanted to attain the highest office in the land. We also gain insight here, and throughout the memoir, over the impacts to his marriage and to being a father, when one is pulled in so many directions as a politician, and particularly as a president. Obama doesn’t hide the challenges and stresses, and this feels honest and very human.

Obama’s gift for writing is clear, but in the writing itself, many other qualities come forward as well. In particular is his modesty. He gives much of the credit to his staff and other politicians around him, and is quick to acknowledge the good work of others. He is also quick to minimize his achievements, such as completely downplaying his Nobel Peace Prize. This allows us more insight into his character, and reminds us why he was, and is, such an inspiring figure in modern times.

Well Done!

Overall: 5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Leviathan Wakes – James S.A. Corey — January 5, 2021

Book Review – Leviathan Wakes – James S.A. Corey

Book Review – Leviathan Wakes – James S.A. Corey

Facts:

Book: Leviathan Wakes (Series: Expanse, Volume 1)
Author: James S.A. Corey
Genre: Fiction – Science Fiction
Year of Release: 2011
Read 563-page paperback edition in December 2020

Book Description:

In the future, much of our solar system has been colonized and explored by humanity, with permanent settlements on the moon, Mars, and in the asteroid belt and moons of Jupiter and Saturn. However, there is a very uneasy peacetime that is constantly broken by violence. Earth and Mars are the two super powers, who hold dominance and sway in the solar system. They have mutual distrust and have negative views towards the “Belters” who live and work in the asteroid belt. Meanwhile, the Belters look down on the privileged Earthers and the violent Martian colonies.

We explore this future through the eyes of Detective Miller, a Belter on the Ceres station, who is assigned a mysterious case. He is to try and locate a missing young woman, Julie Mao, whose rich parents back on Earth are looking for. She has gone missing somewhere in the Belt.

Another person we are following is Executive Officer Jim Holden of the Canterbury, a water hauling ship. He is from Earth, but has been working in the Belt for years.

Both Miller and Holden find themselves crossing paths after a dangerous attack on the Canterbury, which leads to Holden and several of his crew escaping with their lives – barely. But why did this attack happen, who was behind it, and what was their motivation? And what does it have to do with Julie Mao?

Book Review:

This was a fantastic opening novel to a new space opera science fiction series. Like classic space operas from the past, we get a great mix of action, space sequences, and character development. In this series however, we get a great taste of a future which is not perfect, but rather quite messy, not unlike our current times. It has just expanded beyond Earth and is now in other parts of the solar system. The setting and descriptions are harsh, dark, and messy. This feels like a dystopian future of some kind, but one where humanity still somehow advances and explores.

The adventure, space battles, and excitement are balanced very nicely with character development and relationships. We get to know several characters quite well over the course of the novel, which increases our commitment to the novel. There is also a great mystery feel that is woven into the science fiction, as Holden and particularly Miller continue to try to solve the strange situations going on around them.

The book starts off with great energy, and holds the readers attention throughout. The ending becomes more difficult to understand, as the authors move away from very clear narrative in favour of adding some elements of alien technology and bio-engineering into the storyline. This may become more clear in the second volume of the series, but it made things a bit confusing at this juncture to fully understand and imagine how and why this was happening.

That being said, the novel did have an exciting conclusion that made you want to read book two of the series. This is a great statement to make about the beginning of a series, and thus overall, this novel is definitely a success.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Circe – Madeline Miller — December 27, 2020

Book Review – Circe – Madeline Miller

Book Review – Circe – Madeline Miller

Facts:

Book: Circe
Author: Madeline Miller
Genre: Fiction – Mythology
Year of Release: 2018
Read 394-page paperback edition in December 2020

Book Description:

Circe, the daughter of Helios, God of the Sun, is quickly revealed after her birth to be a very different and unique being. She is unlike her siblings and unlike her father in many ways. When it becomes clear she has different beliefs, combined with her witchcraft abilities, Zeus and Helios agree to banish her for all eternity to a remote island by herself.

Circe will not take this lonely desolation lying down, however. She hones her skills with witchcraft, learning about herbs and nature. She befriends animals around her. And she comes into contact with mortals and gods who come to the island from time to time.

Despite being banished, she continues to make dangerous enemies, who do not like to see a unique goddess achieving power and going on her own path. She must take care to protect herself and those she cares for.

Book Review:

This retelling of ancient Greek mythology into a series of tales surrounding the mysterious goddess Circe was a fascinating novel. Miller has done a great job re-imagining what is known about Circe and building this into a feminist narrative, one which is centred on Circe herself, rather than men and male gods around her. The novel feels new and fresh even though it is speaking about stories we may have heard or read about in the past. The plot at times feels a little disjointed, almost like short stories as opposed to one novel, but this is a minor point.

The main character of Circe is an intriguing character, and Miller has done a great job of allowing the reader to spend time with her, understand her many sufferings and pain points over the centuries, but also to see where she builds a source of strength. This character examination is woven well

Much of the novel takes place on the remote island that Circe is banished too. The island is also well described by Miller, and we get a great sense of the life Circe lives here, the nature and animals around her, the household where she lives, and her garden of herbs.

The secondary characters that surround Circe at various points are enjoyable to read about, and having them described and analyzed from Circe’s point of view keeps the novel focused on her, which is a great decision by Miller.

This is an enjoyable take on Greek mythology, and well worth reading.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon — December 22, 2020

Book Review – The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Book Review – The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Facts:

Book: The Shadow of the Wind
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Genre: Fantasy
Year of Release: 2001
Read 487-page paperback edition in December 2020

Book Description:

In 1945 Barcelona, citizens are picking up the pieces from long years of war. Daniel Sempere, still mourning the death of his mother, works with his father in their bookshop. His father takes him to a mysterious cemetery of forgotten books, where Daniel finds a novel called “The Shadow of the Wind” by an obscure author named Julian Carax.

When Daniel decides to investigate Carax and try to find other books by the author and learn more about him, he encounters strange barriers to his search. When people come to him overtly and tell him to back off, it inspires his curiosity even further, and he is pushed into a mystery that may prove much more dangerous than he expected.

Book Review:

The world created by Spanish writer Zafon in this “novel within a novel” was beautifully rendered. Zafon’s ability to describe the setting of Barcelona, and other European locations, in the first half of the 1900s, is truly powerful. The reader gets the sense they really are there, amongst old and gothic buildings in Barcelona in these decades. Zafon creates intrigue and mystery successfully in his descriptions.

The novel within a novel concept was fascinating and made for an interesting story for the reader to follow. Leanring more about Daniel’s life and the characters around him, along with the people in author Julian Carax’s life, made for a plot that was a woven tapestry that slowly began to weave together into one connected story over the novel. It was complex, and although at times it felt confused, it came together very nicely in the last 100 pages. Zafon is to be commended for this creation.

Zafon is very lyrical in his writing. He writes powerfully about the human condition, and topics of loss, love, grief, and living life through one’s own mistakes, are all covered through the cast of characters. The novel is a fantastic exploration of deep themes but also populated with memorable characters that are enjoyable to read about. These are people we do come to care about, although at times they make choices that feel a little surprising. Although perhaps that is closer to the mark for the human condition: people often surprise us.

Although this novel sometimes felt a little bit confusing in the middle stages, it came together nicely in the end, and had a powerful and action-packed closing 100 pages. This is well worth the read!

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars