MatthewSean Reviews

Book reviews, movie reviews, and other writing

Book Review – Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport — December 11, 2017

Book Review – Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport

Book Review – Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport

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Facts:

Book: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Author: Cal Newport
Genre: Non-Fiction
Year of Release: 2016
Read 263-page hardcover edition in December 2017.

Book Description:

In this business non-fiction book, computer science professor Cal Newport discusses the concept of deep work versus shallow work. So many knowledge workers in today’s business environment are trapped in hours of shallow work per day, answering emails and attending meetings. Meanwhile, the true “deep work” that is value added and moves new ideas forward does not get done. How do we change this?

Newport explains these terms in detail, advances the argument that deep work is paramount to an individual and to an organization, and provides rules for more focus on deep work.

Book Review:

This was a fantastic book that showcases how to write a business book right!  In place of a lot of unnecessary jargon, Newport uses case studies and examples of real people, past and present, to present his arguments and prove his theories. Newport’s examples really help us understand the facts behind his points, and understand why his case for deep work makes sense.

Newport also provides a variety of great practical lessons and solutions for readers, so that knowledge workers can take actual practical concepts back into their workplaces and personal lives, and try them out. Rather than read about abstract theories that may or may not apply easily, this book lays out some great steps to take to get on the path to deep work. Lessons around email management and reduction, more efficient and less frequency of meetings, and the need for focused, quiet, “deep” work, are provided, along with the case that fractured time constantly checking inboxes and social media are causing disturbances to moving concepts forward. This is detrimental to individual career advancement and to the organization as a whole.

Overall, this is a fascinating, insightful, and useful book, and one which the reader can jot down some of the helpful tips and tools (and rules) to try, and work towards achieving more deep work in their workplace.

Well Done!

Overall: 5 stars out of 5 stars

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Book Review – The Ashes of London – Andrew Taylor —

Book Review – The Ashes of London – Andrew Taylor

Book Review – The Ashes of London – Andrew Taylor

ashes_london

Facts:

Book: The Ashes of London
Author: Andrew Taylor
Genre: Historical Fiction
Year of Release: 2016
Read 482-page hardcover edition in November 2017.

Book Description:

During September 1666, the Great Fire ravaged London. Nearly destroying the entire city, the fire caused mass confusion amidst a politically sensitive time.

One of those living through this frightening time was Marwood, son of a disgraced man. Marwood is trying to maintain a quiet life out of trouble, when the government and Crown asks him to investigate a serial murderer, who has taken the opportunity of the Great Fire to begin killing.

While Marwood investigates, the young Catherine Lovett is trying to escape an arranged marriage with a nobleman from another rich family. Her well-to-do aunt and uncle don’t care about her opinions, and so Lovett takes the opportunity of chaos during the time of the Fire to run away.

Marwood and Lovett see their stories slowly intertwine, as they both face dangers and trials.

Book Review:

This novel was in part historical fiction, part mystery, and part thriller.  The two main characters were somewhat interesting, and we learned some facts about them, although not quite as much character exploration as would have befitted a book of this size. For example, we learned a fair amount of Marwood’s father and past life, and how he was caring for his father who was suffering from ailments of old age, however it would have been nice to really get a clear sense of Marwood’s emotions and feelings. Often this description felt a little cold and distant, rather than close and emotional.

From a style point of view, the author chose to use first person when telling the chapters about Marwood, and third person when focusing on Lovett. This was an interesting decision, and made the novel enjoyable to read, and easy to differentiate and go back and forth between the two characters and stories.

The setting was very apt for a thriller, with the backdrop of the Great Fire of 1666 a strong place to set this story. Descriptions of the fire and the characters reacting to the situation in London added to the flavour of the novel.

The plot of the novel was fairly fast-paced, and enticed the reader to keep reading and learn more about what was going on, both in the lives of the main characters and regarding the investigation of the murders.

Overall, this was definitely an interesting novel, and something enjoyable to read particularly if wanting to read a mystery / thriller set in the Great Fire of London.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins —

Book Review – The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

Book Review – The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

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Facts:

Book: The Girl on the Train
Author: Paula Hawkins
Genre: Thriller
Year of Release: 2015
Read 317-page paperback edition in November 2017.

Book Description:

Rachel is a lonely commuter, heading from the suburbs to London every day for a boring job. She loves the time she spends on the train, looking out at people living in their houses, carrying about their day. She has grown fascinated with a couple she sees from afar, thinking their lives are perfect, much better than her recently divorced circumstances.

However, when she sees something briefly, but shockingly, she decides she needs to get involved in the situation involving this couple. When she does so, she finds herself involved in a serious police investigation, and begins to wonder why she can’t remember everything about a fateful day in the recent past, and whether she has done actual harm to these people.

Book Review:

This was a fun and fast read by debut British novelist Hawkins. The thriller was definitely exciting, and the jumps between the different character points of view, the jumps back and forth through time, and the short chapters, made this a novel that the reader wants to read through quickly, to find out what is going on, and who did what.

Hawkins does a great job demonstrating the enjoyment to the reader of multiple characters who are not black and white, and instead have shades of grey.  She also does a great job creating several unreliable narrators, so that we as the reader don’t know who and what to believe.

Overall, the plot moves fairly quickly, and we are motivated to keep reading and find out what happens next. Deep character development doesn’t really occur here, in favour of the focus on a suspenseful plot, but that’s for the most part okay in this thrill ride of a novel.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Wonder – Emma Donoghue — November 4, 2017

Book Review – The Wonder – Emma Donoghue

Book Review – The Wonder – Emma Donoghue

wonder

Facts:

Book: The Wonder
Author: Emma Donoghue
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2016
Read 295-page hardcover edition in October 2017.

Book Description:

Nurse Elizabeth Wright, trained by Florence Nightingale herself, is sent from her hospital post in England for a small village in Ireland, to work a special, two-week assignment. There is a young child, Anna, who has mystified the village, by living through a four-month fast, that shows no sign of stopping. Some think it is a miracle of God. Others think it a farce. It is up to Nurse Wright to supervise and monitor the young girl, and determine what is going on. However, Nurse Wright finds herself in a complex situation, trying to find the truth, and not sure of who she can trust.

Book Review:

This was a fantastic story by Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue.  The plot is fast-paced throughout the majority of the novel, with many twists and turns that motivate the reader to keep reading, and find out just what is going on with Anna.  The setting is beautifully set and described by the writer, and helps us as the reader feel like we are right in mid-19th century rural Ireland.

The novel has a great opening, which sets up the main character and helps us understand her motives and backstory. However, throughout the novel we learn more about Nurse Wright, which helps us to understand her motivations and concerns better, and the writer’s skill at revealing information about her in pieces, throughout the story, is well-executed.

The novel also has a great closing, which contains surprises as well as elements we may have expected about the overall issues of the plot.  The novel’s middle section is interesting, although in some places the action does slow and the story gets a little bit monotonous. This is a minor complaint though, because usually the reader is left wondering what is going to happen next, or has opportunities to learn more about the main and secondary characters that surround Nurse Wright and Anna.

Overall, this is an enjoyable and interesting novel, well worth the read.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Children of God – Mary Doria Russell — October 15, 2017

Book Review – Children of God – Mary Doria Russell

Book Review – Children of God – Mary Doria Russell

Children-of-God

Facts:

Book: Children of God
Author: Mary Doria Russell
Genre: Science Fiction
Year of Release: 1998
Read 438-page paperback edition in September 2017.

Book Description:

In Russell’s sequel to The Sparrow, we see two parallel stories playing out as the novel opens.  One is the ongoing life story of Father Emilio Sandoz, who is back on Earth after a traumatic and harrowing ordeal on the planet Rakhat, where a doomed expedition made first contact with alien races.  Meanwhile, Sofia, the crew member who was left behind, must struggle to cope while living in an alien community, and find ways to help the Runa people, who she feels responsible for.

Father Sandoz, who wants to leave the faith and focus on getting his life together, nevertheless helps the Jesuits prepare for their second expedition to the planet.  However, he gets pushed into greater involvement, and must find a way to help the people of Rakhat, and perhaps help himself, as well.

Book Review:

This novel was the sequel to the powerful, award-winning novel The Sparrow, and as such had a lot to try and live up to. The Sparrow had amazing writing, well-developed characters, and tragic conclusions. How was the author going to move the story forward and keep the reader as excited and moved as she did with the first novel?

The novel definitely was successful in advancing the storylines of the two main characters from the first novel, Sofia and Emilio.  We see Emilio continuing to struggle, and we see how Sofia moves forward, pregnant and on Rakhat, the only human adult left.  The author does a great job bringing their conflicted emotions to the surface, and writing several powerful scenes for each of them, that made the reader empathize and feel for these characters.  Furthermore, moving the novel between Earth and Rakhat, between Sofia and Emilio, was a great way to create two connected threads, which eventually come together in the last quarter of the novel. Although both threads are interesting, the plot developments in Emilio’s world tend to be more action-oriented and easier to read, versus the chapters on Rakhat, which were sometimes overly political and difficult to follow.

Supporting characters were interesting and somewhat developed, although in general the new characters in this novel weren’t quite as intriguing and didn’t have as many poignant scenes as the characters from the first novel.

The sequel does a nice job of bringing up the central questions and conclusions of the first novel, and pushing the envelope further.  The plot allows us to further explore questions of religion, culture, and politics, and the author succeeds in creating a novel that is worthy of consideration.  Unlike a quick and easy read, this requires the reader to think carefully while reading, and consider the issues she is putting forward for us. At times the issues can be missed, and careful concentration is required when reading this novel.

Although it can be complicated at times, the novel is worthy of reading, and has a satisfying conclusion, one that is complex and has shades of grey.  Although The Sparrow is the better novel, this sequel is worthwhile as a further exploration.

Overall: 3.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – History of Wolves – Emily Fridlund — October 9, 2017

Book Review – History of Wolves – Emily Fridlund

Book Review – History of Wolves – Emily Fridlund

history_of_wolves

Facts:

Book: History of Wolves
Author: Emily Fridlund
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2017
Read 279-page paperback edition in September 2017.

Book Description:

Fourteen year old Madeline lives a quiet rural Minnesota lifestyle, in a family that is very quiet and predictable.  She has few friends at school, but is drawn to the outcast Lily and eccentric Mr. Grieson.  However, when Mr. Grieson is removed from school due to possession of child pornography, Madeline does not know what to make of the situation.  She moves forward when a new family moves in across the lake.  She becomes familiar with the Gardner family, and eventually takes to babysitting their young son Paul.  However, what happens next will throw the rest of Madeline’s life into a tailspin.

Book Review:

This was a very interesting novel, and in terms of writing, was powerful and well written by Fridlund.  The author does a fantastic job of using language to paint stark visuals of winter in rural Minnesota and to showcase equally stark portraits of characters that are flawed and hurting.  Fridlund’s ability to tell the story in different timelines, and show our main character’s thoughts and feelings over a few time periods in her life, was successful and created a powerful narrative. Fridlund definitely has skill with writing strong and emotional prose.

The negative piece of this story centred on the two main storylines that it involved. One storyline involved Mr. Grieson and Lily and the other involved the Gardner family. Although both storylines involved Madeline, and I suppose you could argue that was the reason to include both, the challenge for the reader was that these two arcs were entirely unconnected otherwise.  Which arc was the most important, and which should we be focusing on?  It became clear the Gardner story is what the novel centred on, which then made us wonder, what was the point of the other storyline?  In some ways it was confusing, particularly the last chapter.  In other ways it detracted from focusing on the main storyline, which also had elements of confusion to it.

Although this novel definitely had strengths, the confusion of the plot and how it all held together took away from the book.

Overall: 3 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson — September 6, 2017

Book Review – Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson

Book Review – Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson

mistborn

Facts:

Book: Mistborn
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Genre: Fantasy
Year of Release: 2006
Read 647-page paperback edition in August 2017.

Book Description:

In this first novel of the Mistborn series, author Brandon Sanderson introduces us to a struggling world. The Final Empire controls the population, the majority of which is enslaved and serving the ruling nobility class. The Lord Ruler, alive for millennia, controls the population by forcing them to bow to his wishes and his religion, while also controlling the key powerful mineral on the planet.

However, some are beginning to fight back. X has been living in difficult circumstances her entire life, being mistreated by a thieving gang who needs her to get jobs done. However, Kelsier finds her and saves her from this group, seeing potential mist born qualities in her. When he shows her how her talents work, that she can use metal to enhance her abilities, she is opened up to a new world, including fighting against the Lord Ruler. Kelsier gathers together a crew of believers to try and stop the evil Lord Ruler and release the world from perpetual prison.

Book Review:

This was definitely the first novel of what was to become a strong series for well-known author Brandon Sanderson. The advantage is the ability to be very creative and engage in some fun and unique world building, which occurred here. The disadvantage which often happens, and which happened here, is that the world building did in some instances creative a lengthy novel that didn’t always have a quick pace to it, particularly in the first 2/3 of the story. Although the world building is necessary for later novels in the series, the disadvantage fr the first novel is that the plot is somewhat slowed down as things are described and set up.

In terms of characters, Sanderson does do a nice job of creating some memorable, complex characters, including main female protagonist, X, who has grown up fast but who we also see come to terms with becoming an adult in this novel. There are some nice character development plot points covered with X. Kelsier and his brother also have a complex and interesting relationship, that is shown in a variety of fits and starts, including some surprises later in the novel.

In terms of writing style, a negative feature for the novel was the fact that many words and scenes felt constantly repeated, to the point of distraction. For example, there were several scenes at “balls” which were held by the nobility class to build and learn about political alliances across Houses.  However, some of the scenes became rather repetitive after awhile, and furthermore when going and leaving these balls, there were often paragraphs where the word “ball” was used numerous times, over and over again. It made the language feel quite clunky and almost annoying to read at times. Although this might be a minor complaint, it was a noticeable distraction for the reader which serves to pull them out of the story itself, which is not a good thing.

Overall, although this novel had some interesting plot points and characters, there were several issues with it in clear view. There are definitely other fantasy series out there…

Overall: 2.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – By Gaslight – Steven Price —

Book Review – By Gaslight – Steven Price

Book Review – By Gaslight – Steven Price

by_gaslight

Facts:

Book: By Gaslight
Author: Steven Price
Genre: Mystery / Historical Fiction
Year of Release: 2016
Read 735-page hardcover edition in July 2017.

Book Description:

In this historical fiction, we go back to the late 1800s London, where detectives and criminals operate by gaslight, in the mists and shadows of night. There has been a ghastly murder, and the London detectives investigating the case are being assisted by famous American private investigator William Pinkerton. However, Pinkerton is assisting because the murdered woman has a connection to a suspicious and mysterious man his father had long been searching for: Adam Foole. Pinkerton and Foole circle each other in London, realizing they may have to work together for a time, while watching out for one to double-cross the other.

Book Review:

This was an enjoyable and descriptive novel by Canadian author Steven Price. The author has done a great job in describing an evocative setting, and making us feel like we really are in the mists and gaslights of London. Price is at his best when he is describing setting and having his characters walk through the workhouses, streets, and alleyways of  the London of this time period.

The storyline and plot was also an interesting one, with two strong protagonists that both have their strong suits, their points of mystery about them, but also their drawbacks. Price has created great conflict between the two characters and has added enough confusion and doubt that it leaves the reader wondering who is on the moral high ground, if anyone.

There are several scenes that take place in the past, that allow us to learn more about the backgrounds and motivations behind the two main protagonists. Although this was useful and provided good information, a few of these sections felt a little too drawn out, and probably could have been edited for length, given the size of this novel.

On that note, although the novel was enjoyable overall, the length of the book was in some ways unnecessary, and some additional editing probably could have helped speed up the pacing and increase the tension for the reader.

That being said however, this was a great mystery based in a great late 1800s London, a perfect setting well-described by Price.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – In the Darkroom – Susan Faludi —

Book Review – In the Darkroom – Susan Faludi

Book Review – In the Darkroom – Susan Faludi

darkroom

Facts:

Book: In the Darkroom
Author: Susan Faludi
Genre: Memoir
Year of Release: 2016
Read 463-page paperback edition in July 2017.

Book Description:

In this intriguing and thoughtful memoir, journalist Susan Faludi recounts her childhood with a very difficult, angry, and emotional father. Faludi had long been estranged from her mysterious father, an immigrant from Hungary to America, who had taken on many roles including mountaineer, photographer, adventurer, film-maker, and family man. However, when she receives a message from her long-last father, now back in Hungary, that he is coming out as a woman, and has already undergone surgery, she launches into a long investigation to uncover the truth behind who Stefi really was, and is.

Book Review:

This memoir was a fascinating look not just at a family, but also at many other topics, including Hungarian culture and history, immigration, photography, WWII, and transgender identities. Faludi has succeeded in using journalistic and research skills to not only tell an emotional story, but also to bring a lot of education to readers on the above topics. It was a surprise and a treat to have this memoir spread its storyline and cover a lot of ground that I was not expecting. Faludi does a good job of weaving it all together through the lens of her complicated father.

The memoir also succeeds in terms of telling a very unique tale. Of course all lives are unique, but often it is easy for one to think of a minority group like the transgender community as a group of people that all thinks and acts the same way. Faludi describes her conversations and meetings not only with her father Stefi but also with others from the community, and through these descriptions and interactions, we see a very diverse community indeed, who do not all think or act the same way. This knowledge is helpful and true.

Faludi also does a great job by painting a very real picture of her father. It is not all good or all bad. There are some very noble and good things to say, and some frightening stories of Susan growing up as a child. She puts it all on the table, and we get a very complex and multi-faceted character sketch of her parent.

One challenge with the memoir was that even though there were many topics and characters referenced, at times it didn’t all weave together perfectly. Certain key characters, like Faludi’s brother, were briefly mentioned but never spoken with or described in any length, and no reason for this (even if there was a legitimate one), was provided.

Overall however, this was a fascinating glimpse into a long life of a complex person, and the relationship over time of a daughter and her parent.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Movie Review – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) — July 2, 2017

Movie Review – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Movie Review – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

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Movie Synopsis:

In this sequel to the original Disney / Marvel production, our Guardians of the Galaxy return again. We see our heroes acting a little less than the standard heroes, with Rocket having stolen objects from the mysterious and powerful Sovereign species, leading to a spectacular chase and escape. Meanwhile, Peter has had an interesting encounter with a powerful man who claims to be his biological father, finally returning to him after all these years. However, Gamora and Drax begin to question his father’s motives, and it appears the Guardians, including Little Groot, may need to work to save the universe yet again.

Movie Review:

Watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was definitely a treat in many ways. The cinematography, special effects, and music were absolutely spectacular. The shots of the Ego planet for example were out of this world, with beautiful colour and creativity splashed across the planetary vistas. Director James Gunn and his team have done an amazing job, hands-down.

The ensemble cast has also down a great job for the most part. There are so many wonderful characters to explore in this film, and one of the challenges is actually ensuring that everyone has adequate screen time to fully develop character arcs and relationships. This challenge became clear, because one of the downsides of the film is that in some cases there is only some basic character development or relationship development occurring, in favour of the main story arc of the tale, a classic son / parent tale with Peter and his father. This story arc feels somewhat contrived and not at all unique, and James Gunn, who also wrote this screenplay, doesn’t appear to have created anything very new here in terms of the overall plot.

Another problem for the film relates to the fact it feels somewhat predictable and repetitive compared to the first one. When Guardians of the Galaxy was released, it felt very fresh, funny, and original, with an enjoyable selection of 70s and 80s music. This second film sometimes feels very forced, as if we are really trying to be convinced that the characters are having a great time with each other. Further, it is in many ways a case of “been there, done that” with this Vol. 2.

Overall, this is still a fun and enjoyable movie, one that is worth watching. However, it does feel a little like we are back for another entry of something that is not quite as original the second time around.

Overall: 3.5 stars out of 5 stars.