MatthewSean Reviews

Book reviews, movie reviews, and other writing

Book Review – The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood — February 12, 2017

Book Review – The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood

Book Review – The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last

Facts:

Book: The Heart Goes Last
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2015
Read 308-page hardcover edition in January 2017.

Book Description:

In a near future where unemployment has skyrocketed and crime is everywhere, Charmaine and Stan are living in their car, with Charmaine working a menial job as a waitress in a shady bar to make just enough money to eek out a living. Stan and Charmaine both wish their lives were better, but the economy has fallen apart.

When an opportunity knocks to join a pilot project, where you share a house with another couple, and each of you takes turns, one month in your house, then one month in prison, they jump at the chance. Promises of a better life and stable work and comforts are too good to pass up.

But when they are in the closed community, Charmaine and Stan start to see their lives unraveling, and how the project was not what they intended.

Book Review:

This dystopian novel by the talented Canadian author Margaret Atwood was a fascinating read. The main characters Charmaine and Stan were interesting to learn about, particularly in the opening sections of the novel. Atwood did a nice job of allowing the reader to really get into each of the main character’s minds early on, and get a sense of who they were, and what they were thinking. We also got the treat of hearing thoughts they each had about their relationship and sex, which they didn’t share with their spouse. These insights were fascinating in looking at how the married couple was dealing with difficult situations of the near future.

The main characters, along with other characters in the pilot project, were definitely interesting, as we got to know them. However, one downside was that at times it felt the characters were not necessarily consistent. For example, Charmaine seems very kind, calm, and even somewhat simple at the beginning of the novel. However, later on she finds herself in a job where she is committing all kinds of actions that one doesn’t necessarily see her character carrying out in the beginning. For example, her relationship with a man she meets in the project, and her job in the prison, both seem surprising departures from what we know about her at the beginning of the novel.

Overall, the plot of the novel was exciting, and the pacing of the novel made it a fast read. There were lots of great themes to consider in this dystopian future created by Atwood. Although at times the characters did not always feel consistent, overall this was an interesting read for those who enjoyed dystopian literature.

Overall: 3.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was — January 17, 2017

Book Review – Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was

Book Review – Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was

moonstone

Facts:

Book: Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was
Author: Sjon
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2013
Read 147-page hardcover edition in January 2017.

Book Description:

In 1918 Iceland, the island is facing a variety of challenges. Incoming political change with Denmark. The prospect of the Great War occurring in Europe. Volcanic eruptions on Katla. The spanish flu outbreak. And most importantly to 16-year-old Mani Steinn, the continued development of the cinema.

We follow young Mani as he explores the cinema, his passion, and as he goes through his life in Reykjavik as a closeted gay person, unable to come out, and with only an elderly woman as his family.

As change ebbs and flows across Iceland, we see how Mani’s life changes with it, in this poetic novella from Icelandic author Sjon.

Book Review:

This was a fascinating and very lyrical story about a country and character of mystery. The author tells the story in a way that is very poetic, with a number of quotes and a couple of photos placed in the tale that add to the richness of what is being told.

We get right into the head of the main character, and see how he feels growing up very much alone in the capital of Iceland, feeling very much an outsider, but working with those feelings and putting his passion into the cinema, which has arrived recently.

As Mani discovers sex, the cinema, and deals with challenges including the spanish flu, understanding his family background, and homophobia, we learn more about what it was like to be in this time and space.

The author does a great job painting a picture of the character and the setting, through very poetic and flowing prose.

Although at times this was a little hard to fully understand, and it almost felt too short, it was definitely well worth the read.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters —

Book Review – The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

Book Review – The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

paying_guests

Facts:

Book: The Paying Guests
Author: Sarah Waters
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2014
Read 566-page hardcover edition in November 2016.

Book Description:

 

It is 1922 in London, post-WWI, and Frances Wray lives with her widowed mother in their large house. However, because of the death of Frances’s father and brothers in the war, and their lack of financial resources, Frances has had to lay off their servants, conduct the cleaning and cooking herself, and now bring in renters to the upstairs rooms. These “paying guests” are Mr. and Mrs. Barber. As Frances gets to know this couple, she starts to form an unlikely friendship with Mrs. Barber, while wondering that something may be a little strange. However, when things truly start to unravel, Frances Wray and Lillian Barber have many quick decisions to make, decisions that will have lasting repercussions.

Book Review:

This lengthy novel by Sarah Waters was an enjoyable, fascinating read through 1920s London.

Firstly, Waters does an incredible job of setting the scene for us. We truly feel we are in an old mansion in 1920s London, and as the reader we can feel the emptiness of the house, feel London post the Great War, and feel what the characters are feeling in this time period. This is all thanks to the great description and the thoughtful dialogue, which makes us want to keep reading to learn what happens next.

In addition, Waters has created some fascinating characters. The four main characters, who all live in this old house with so much history, all have peculiarities of themselves. Waters does a great job bringing the plot to a slow boil, sharing details and surprises about various characters throughout the novel. The mystery / police drama this book takes on halfway through is also effective, as is the exploration of various relationships in the novel. There are some great twists and turns as the plot evolves, and I won’t give anything further away to avoid spoilers.

The one slight detraction for this book is that when considering the characters from the beginning, middle, and end, particularly Lillian Barber, one gets the feeling that things are a little bit inconsistent. For example, Lillian seems very free-spirited and independent in the beginning of the novel, but in the middle and end she seems to become less so. Part of this may be due to the circumstances she finds herself in, but part of it seems a little out of character.

This is a minor complaint though. Overall, the strong characters, interesting plot, and wonderful descriptions of London in the 1920s makes this a historical fiction that is well worth reading.

 

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald —

Book Review – H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

Book Review – H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

h_is_for_hawk

Facts:

Book: H is for Hawk
Author: Helen Macdonald
Genre: Memoir
Year of Release: 2014
Read 306-page paperback edition in December 2016.

Book Description:

In this memoir, the author combines the exploration of her grief at the sudden death of her father with the decision to acquire a new goshawk, a difficult to train bird of prey. As the author rears this young bird, she throws all of her energy into the process, while also considering how it relates to the management of her grief.  She also takes the time to explore her family history and her past fascination with birds of prey.

Book Review:

This memoir by Helen Macdonald truly had some thoughtful insights, and some spectacular scenes.

There were moments within some of the chapters, when the author was describing the training of the goshawk, where we were literally feeling the excitement she felt seeing it soar through the skies of rural England, or the fear she felt when perhaps it had flown away and left her very much alone.  These moments of exhilaration or fear, when they came, were well written and were a testament to how the author could draw the author in.

Furthermore, the chapters where the author explored her grief, whether through the sometimes strained relationships she had with friends and family, or how she worked through her grief in step with the training of the goshawk, was a fascinating thing for the reader to think of.

That all being said, the one thing that detracted from the book was that at times the memoir felt a little bit disjointed. There were some sequences specifically to the goshawk, very few specifically to the grief the author was working through, and sometimes they didn’t flow smoothly or connect well.  Furthermore, there were several chapters devoted to a historical trainer of birds of pray, Mr. T.H. White.  Although the author makes it clear this historical character was important for her, at the end of the day it made for some dull reading to be frank, as the readers did not sign up to read this memoir to learn more about this individual. It served to detract somewhat from the overall story of the author’s life during this time period.

Overall, the memoir had some exciting and thoughtful moments, but also had some slower sections that took away from the overall quality of the piece.

 

Overall: 3 stars out of 5 stars

Movie Review – Arrival (2016) — December 18, 2016

Movie Review – Arrival (2016)

Movie Review – Arrival (2016)

arrival

Movie Synopsis:

When a number of strange alien ships begin landing in various places around the globe, and they do not communicate or engage in any behaviour whatsoever, linguistics expert Louise Banks is called in by the American army to try and make contact with the aliens at the ship in Montana. She works with another scientist to try and understand the aliens and make sense of their strange language, while also trying to work with other experts around the world. However, as time ticks, and public fear escalates, various governments begin to express the need to take more decisive action against these alien ships. Banks works to overcome the grief in her own personal life and focus on understanding these alien lifeforms before things get out of control, which could spell disaster for the aliens and humanity.

Movie Review:

This was an absolute fantastic film, hands-down.

Firstly, the story, taken from a short story by Ted Chiang, was absorbing and unique. It was unique in the sense the story was intelligent rather than the usual “shoot em up” alien film with violence everywhere. It was absorbing in the sense that there were a variety of twists and turns throughout, particularly some major surprises for the audience towards the middle and end of the film. Without giving anything away, the plot twists are amazing and very satisfying when you as a viewer realize what is going on.

Secondly, director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) has done a fantastic job with putting together a thoughtful film that has scenes of action but many scenes of character development as well, and scenes where the audience is challenged to understand what is going on. Subdued cinematography (by Bradford Young) and music (by Johan Johannsson) was thoroughly successful at building tension and creating both beauty and suspense.

Thirdly, the acting in this film was superb. Amy Adams plays Louise Banks with poise and grace, portraying the grief the character feels as well as the strength when she is able to focus on what she knows best, linguistics. Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker turn in strong performances as a scientist working with Banks and a thoughtful army leader (turning stereotypes on their head, kudos to the writers and director).

Overall, this was a fantastic film. Although it sometimes felt a little bit long, with a runtime coming in just under 2 hours, this was pretty much a perfect film, and definitely not suffering from the problems of science fiction film Interstellar, which was way too long. In conclusion, this film is definitely worth seeing.

Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars.

Book Review – Church of Marvels – Leslie Parry —

Book Review – Church of Marvels – Leslie Parry

Book Review – Church of Marvels – Leslie Parry

churchofmarvels

Facts:

Book: Church of Marvels
Author: Leslie Parry
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2015
Read 308-page hardcover edition in November 2016.

Book Description:

In three separate narratives taking pal e in New York at the turn of the 20th century, we see a variety of strange occurrences and interesting characters begin to come together over the course of several days.  First, a man named Sylvan finds an abandoned newborn baby while cleaning pit privies at dark. Secondly, Odile has come over the water from Coney Island to search for her sister Bella, who has mysteriously taken off and left the cirus where they both work. Thirdly, a young woman named Alphie wakes up in a frightening insane asylum, and tries to determine why her mother-in-law and husband sent her here, and how she may be able to escape.

As the three stories develop, we start to learn frightening truths and begin to see how three separate stories converge together.

Book Review:

 

This novel had some definite successes for first time novelist Parry. First off, she did a fantastic job of creating some truly frightening scenes in the asylum. The asylum scenes were creepy and disturbing, creating a tone that fit the feeling of this dark novel perfectly.

Furthermore, there were a number of main and secondary characters in this novel that were unique, interesting, and worth exploring. Parry did a great job creating a complex storyline that brought them together in unpredictable ways, and adding some layers of diversity and thoughtfulness to the story.

However, a downside to this complex story was that at times the narrative moved forward in a slightly slow fashion, taking away from the page turning feel that appeared particularly in the ending sections of the novel.

Parry did a great job illustrating the setting of New York City in 1900 in her writing. There were some very descriptive moments where we could definitely picture what was going on and how things looked at this time.

The closing of the novel was interesting and complicated, which made sense given the storyline we had read. In some ways it left the reader a  little bit unsatisfied as there were many characters who needed some time for a closing, and not all of them had adequate time for us to see what had happened to them. Also, the closing particularly for one of our main characters seemed surprising and didn’t feel right after everything that had happened.

Overall, this was an interesting, dark novel, if not one that had some flaws with pacing and some inconsistency.

Overall: 3 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne — November 6, 2016

Book Review – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

Book Review – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

harry_potter_cursed_child

Facts:

Book: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Author: J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne
Genre: Fantasy
Year of Release: 2016
Read 327-page hardcover edition in October 2016.

Book Description:

In the newest entry to the Harry Potter universe, Rowling has teamed up with John Tiffany and Jack Thorne to develop a play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

This script for the play, which opened in July 2016 in London, focuses on the story of Harry’s youngest son Albus Severus Potter, 19 years after the last events of the Harry Potter book series. We see family strain as Harry tries to connect with his distant son, who is in his early years at Hogwarts. Albus is not like Harry in many ways. To Harry’s chagrin, he has also befriended Scorpius, the son of Draco Malfoy.

However, things become very serious when Albus and Scorpius try to do something good, but it leads to major problems that could see the existence of the entire world put at risk, and with evil powers that were thought destroyed rising again.

Book Review:

For the most part, this was definitely a successful new entry into the Harry Potter universe. Rowling, Tiffany, and Thorne do a great job providing some insight and commentary on the characters we love, while at the same time focusing the story on two main characters from a “new generation,” namely Albus and Scorpius.

The decision of the authors to make Albus and Scorpius quite unlike their fathers in many respects adds intrigue, amusement, and realism to the plot. The two teenagers and their unlikely friendship are interesting to read about and observe, as it develops through the course of the novel. The sections on the feelings behind Albus’s actions, and the clear sense of humour that Scorpius has, are some of the stronger points in the book.

It is also enjoyable to read about some of our favourite characters, and see where they have ended up nineteen years after the last novel. The authors do a nice job of weaving these characters into a new plot and new adventure, along with new characters.

Although learning about old characters makes sense, one downside to this book was that some of the plot advances on the basis of tools that we have seen in prior Harry Potter novels. Devices such as using polyjuice potion to sneak into a room, or using a time turner, are things that have been done successfully before. Although it makes sense we will see some spells again, there were large sections of plot that felt a little bit repetitive in terms of how they advanced.

The structure of the book is written in play format, and although it feels a little choppy to delve into at first, you quickly develop a good flow and rhythm in the reading, and the story unfolds in a very fast paced way.

Overall, this is an interesting and fun adventure to add to the Harry Potter universe, and reading this makes one want to see the play.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Face of a Stranger – Anne Perry — October 30, 2016

Book Review – The Face of a Stranger – Anne Perry

Book Review – The Face of a Stranger – Anne Perry

faceofastranger

Facts:

Book: The Face of a Stranger
Author: Anne Perry
Genre: Mystery
Year of Release: 1990
Read 345-page paperback edition in October 2016.

Book Description:

This detective novel by British author Anne Perry is the first William Monk book. Detective Monk wakes in the beginning of this novel to find his memory completely void due to an accident with a coach. He has no recollection of who he is, what he was working on, and any other details of his life.

He spends time recovering with his sister and her family, before he gets back to work, investigating a dangerous and highly sensitive murder of a man from high society. As Monk investigates, he realizes he needs to step carefully, given the power family of the murdered man, and the realization that failure or stepping in the wrong direction of political and family intrigue may lead to the end of his career.

Book Review:

Like many series’ of mystery books starring a detective, this first William Monk novel started out somewhat slow, with a lot of setup for the main character and the setting, Victorian London.

Although the novel started out slow, and a big reason was setting up characters and plot, unfortunately this novel really did feel a little stretched out, with it not picking up until much later in the novel. The slow pacing of the novel was almost painful for the first half to two-thirds.

The storyline itself, the murder of Mr. Grey, was an interesting one, with some complexities and political and familial intrigue that added value to the investigation by Monk. The fact he had many characters to interview, both family and otherwise, provided the reader with many suspects to consider as interviews occurred and evidence was slowly uncovered. One issue with the writing was that it sometimes felt a little repetitive, because Monk went back and interviewed people multiple times, over and over. After the first couple of interviews, a third and fourth interview, while it may sometimes uncover a new nuance for the murder investigation, felt a little bit old for the reader.

In summary, Monk was an interesting character, and perhaps in later novels the focus will be more on the investigation and less on repetition and set up and introduction of him as a character. This novel unfortunately did feel that way, and as such was not a great start to this well-known series.

Overall: 2.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Making a Break – Thursday Knight —

Book Review – Making a Break – Thursday Knight

Book Review – Making a Break – Thursday Knight

mcnally

Facts:

Book: Making a Break
Author: Thursday Knight
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2016
Read 183-page paperback edition in September 2016.

Book Description:

This collaborative novel is written by a collection of 21 authors from a Creative Writing class in Winnipeg, Canada. The pseudonym Thursday Knight was based on the fact the creative writing class took place on Thursday evenings at the McNally Robinson bookstore classroom in summer 2016.

In the novel, two main protagonists, Stanley and Eve, are suffering through marital issues. They jointly agree to a separation of eight months, where they can reflect on the relationship but also live their own lives and adventures. After the eight months, they will then come back together and discuss whether they should get back together, or make the separation a permanent one. Along the way, amusing, surprising, and emotional moments occur for both of them.

Book Review:

 

Bias warning: I was one of the students who wrote this collaborative novel! Chapter 7 is my work, and I was very proud to have my first piece of work published! The class did a great job working on this project, and the outcome was terrific, with the book selling out and getting on the bestseller list for two weeks at independent bookseller McNally Robinson in Winnipeg, Canada!

The bias being noted, I can now make some comments on the novel 🙂

From reading the book, it is quite clear to the reader that there are many different authors that utilized different styles. This can sometimes be a little bit jarring, as styles and topics change suddenly from chapter to chapter. That being said, the reader knows that this is a collaborative novel and so this is expected given how this book was produced.

The main characters are interesting and are well explored by the authors. The decision to incorporate a medical condition ensures that the novel is not only about comedy and romance, but also about drama and stress. This is a great element in the novel. The adventure in the novel takes on a more intense flavour because of the medical condition that is being faced in the novel.

Although the conclusion is somewhat predictable given many of the things that occur, particularly with Stanley, the last chapter is comedic and brings everything together very nicely.

Overall, this is a fun novel that is quick to read and has real charm.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr — October 29, 2016

Book Review – All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

Book Review – All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

allthelight.jpg

Facts:

Book: All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2014
Read 530-page paperback edition in September 2016.

Book Description:

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this novel centres on two protagonists in different places of Europe who come together through radio technology. Marie-Laure grows up in Paris, a curious 12 year-old who is close to her widowed father. Marie-Laure is absorbed in the braille books her father buys for her when he can, but when the pressures of Nazi Germany push towards Paris, they evacuate to the coast of France, and to a small village to live with her reclusive uncle, who has powerful radios in his attic. Meanwhile, young Werner is a German orphan who is a talent for technology and science, and is recruited into an academy and military service in order to use his knowledge for the Nazi regime. However, he begins to feel more uncomfortable with his place in the world, as he sees how people act and are treated around him.

This powerful novel is the story of two young people whose lives intersect during the backdrop of WWII.

Book Review:

Although there are many WWII novels in existence, author Anthony Doerr has done a great job of creating something new, and also writing in a way that is fast-paced, where the reader is excited to turn every page and find out what happens next. The plot device of radio communication was a great way to explore some important settings, themes, and subject matter in fresh and new ways.

The main characters of Werner and Marie-Laure were well explored by Doerr, and his ability to probe into their minds, give us a sense of their thoughts, feelings, and fears, created a believable and harsh tale for what it was like to be a teenager in WWII, on both sides.

Doerr does an interesting job of weaving the stories ever closer together, while at the same time finding the right balance of related storylines for minor characters that are connected to Marie-Laure or Werner in some way. Everyone who appears in the novel is interesting, very well thought out by Doerr, and delivers a message of some kind.

The overall novel is a fantastic exploration of the impact of war on these teenagers, and explores themes of loss, fear, and grief. This is an emotional and powerful novel, and is written beautifully.  Well done!

Overall: 5 stars out of 5 stars