MatthewSean Reviews

Book reviews, movie reviews, and other writing

Book Review – Winter – Ali Smith — March 6, 2019

Book Review – Winter – Ali Smith

Book Review – Winter – Ali Smith

Facts:

Book: Winter
Author: Ali Smith
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2017
Read 322-page hardcover edition in February 2019

Book Description:

Ali Smith continues her seasonal quartet with book two, Winter. Following up on last year’s Autumn, this novel continues a melancholy current look at the United Kingdom. Considered as one of the first post-Brexit novels, Winter looks at several characters coming together in an old home with secrets and stories for a bizarre Christmas.

Arthur is getting ready to head home to his aging mother’s home for Christmas. To make matters worse, his girlfriend has broken up with him, destroying his laptop during their last fight. When he gets out to his mom’s house, he finds her in bad shape, seeing visions. Now, four very different people get together for Christmas, and the different strains of individual lives and the Brexit environment of the UK will create a powerful dynamic.

Book Review:

Ali Smith has done her usual great job creating a novel that feels very poetic and lyrical, exploring complex and layered themes. Smith is at her best when connecting ideas and themes with thoughtful prose. Smith has a unique style that feels very poetic.

Themes of this second novel in the seasonal quartet, are very much connected to the cold, lonely, barren landscapes of winter. Smith has channeled some Charles Dickens but also her own style, as she explores winter. Smith does an amazing job as she explores magic and ghosts around the Christmas season, the exploration of family strain and disagreement at Christmas, the family meal (and feud) at Christmas, and the larger themes of Brexit, racism, and political strain in the UK and wider world in 2017. Themes on an individual level, a family level, a larger global level, and how they relate to winter as a season, are explored beautifully.

Smith also does a nice job of creating several unique individual characters that are funny and that have interesting dynamics between them. Smith has a varied cast, with pros and cons for each character. These are believable characters, who we sometimes get frustrated with, and sometimes really enjoy

Although sometimes the plot moves a little bit too slowly, which may due to the more poetic structure of the novel, as a whole this is an enjoyable novel that feels as cold as the title. Smith’s seasonal quartet continues to be well worth reading.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

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Book Review – Brief Answers to the Big Questions – Stephen Hawking — March 5, 2019

Book Review – Brief Answers to the Big Questions – Stephen Hawking

Book Review – Brief Answers to the Big Questions – Stephen Hawking

Facts:

Book: Brief Answers to the Big Questions
Author: Stephen Hawking
Genre: Non-Fiction – Science
Year of Release: 2018
Read 231-page hardcover edition in February 2019

Book Description:

The last book authored by Stephen Hawking, and finished right before his untimely death, this book focuses in on Hawking’s thoughts and answers to large, fundamental questions that shape our universe.

How did it all begin? Is time travel possible? Is there other intelligent life in the universe? Will artificial intelligence outsmart us? Can we predict the future? Should we colonize space? These are just some of the many thoughtful, probing questions that Hawking addresses in friendly, humourous, science-based, but understandable essays.

Book Review:

The renowned scientist Stephen Hawking has inspired many with overcoming ALS and going on to live a full, energetic, and successful life in the top of his field, astrophysics. He has discovered much, and helped set the ground for future researchers. In this book, following up on others including the bestselling A Brief History of Time, he focuses on answering some large, broad questions that have impacts across humankind.

For the most part, this book is successful at providing plain language understanding to the lay person on a variety of complex topics. Many of them have been explored in movies, television shows, and novels, and Hawking does a great job connecting those ideas while speaking from the perspective of the science behind the concepts. Hawking is at his best when he relates the material in such a way that we as a lay person understand, and when Hawking uses his trademark humour, it gets the point across even further.

There are some areas of the book, and some questions, which are more complex, and which don’t quite reach every lay person. This reader struggled with a couple of chapters, particularly the ones on the science behind what is inside black holes. At times there was a bit too much complexity and not enough connection to the lay person and humour.

That being said, taken all together, this book was a success and did a great job of showing us inside Hawking’s inspired and intelligent mind, and bringing us closer to some critical ideas and knowledge that shapes humankind’s history and future.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Brave New World – Aldous Huxley — February 2, 2019

Book Review – Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Book Review – Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Facts:

Book: Brave New World
Author: Aldous Huxley
Genre: Dystopian Ficton
Year of Release: 1932
Read 235-page paperback edition in January 2019

Book Description:

It is the distant future, and through genetic and social engineering, a perfect society has been created. There is a strict caste system where the alphas are genetically superior to the lower levels of society, and employment and benefits are aligned accordingly. However, through conditioning, the pleasures of open sexuality and entertainment, and the drug sona, everyone is happy with the way of the world.

However, there are some who question. For Bernard Marx, the world is not perfect, and there are things worth considering carefully. When he gets a chance to go to a savage reservation where limited numbers of people still live as humanity once did, he will learn much about differing societies, and what he really wants out of life.

Book Review:

This classic dystopian by Huxley is a fantastic novel that makes one think critically. Even though it was written almost a century ago, the themes are completely relevant to today’s time, perhaps even more relevant. Huxley’s commentary on a group of people controlling the power of a society, and the idea of genetically engineering superior humans, is relevant, thoughtful, and at times disturbing.

The plot of the novel does a great job of exploring these themes. Although at times it does get bogged down slightly, the plot is exciting and makes us wan to turn the pages and find out what happens next. There are a couple of scenes where one wishes Huxley had spent more time with, such as at the Savage Reservation.

The characters Huxley develops are well defined but also complex, and not fully sympathetic. This helps create a novel that is challenging to the reader. It is interesting to see how the main character Marx develops and changes as the novel proceeds, and how the society he questions still has some control and hold over him, both before and after his trip to the Reservation.

The conclusion of this novel is thought provoking and certainly satisfying in that it doesn’t just provide a happy ending to what we think should or may happen. The conclusion makes us challenge what the future of our society may be, and what we want it to be. Huxley was a visionary with this 1932 novel, extremely relevant in 2019.

Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – John le Carre — January 25, 2019

Book Review – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – John le Carre

Book Review – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – John le Carre

Facts:

Book: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Author: John le Carre
Genre: Mystery / Crime
Year of Release: 1963
Read 219-page paperback edition in January 2019

Book Description:

Considered one of the first modern spy novels, this fast-moving story takes us in front and behind enemy lines, following the former British spy Alec Leamas, who has decided to defect to the Germans/Russians during the Cold War. Or so he wants them to think. In reality, he is on his last mission, before he can finally “come in” and retire for good.

But this is a complex and multi-dimensional mission, that is going to be extremely dangerous for him to get out of.

Book Review:

This was an intense crime novel that truly did change the way people thought about spies and espionage. John le Carre has done a great job writing a novel about two morally ambiguous spy agencies. There is not necessarily a “good” and a “bad” side. There are good and bad people on both sides, and in both agencies. And both sides engage in questionable behaviour and even questionable ethics to try and achieve their ends. The success of this novel was in bringing some of these themes to light in a thought-provoking way

The author did a nice job bringing to life several main characters who had various unique and interesting traits, positive and negative. Although at times the book did feel a little bit sluggish, and it did feel we didn’t learn quite enough about some of them, there was big payoff at the end when we learned a lot about a few of them, and when we saw the plot unfold completely.

Similarly, although at times the reader may have been a bit confused about the plot and some of the finer details being discussed; and although at times some of the characters were doing a lot of speeches and talking and there was less in the way of action; overall the ending chapters were a great pay off to explain what was going on and provide some key action and excitement for the readers. It also helped clear up any confusion that may have been present

One point to keep in mind, and this was a product of the time the book was written in, was that the cast was mainly white males (likely straight), and the couple of females in the book were not necessarily strong characters. This lack of diversity was annoying, but again may have been a sign of the times when this book was written

Overall, this was an enjoyable and historically important book in the development of today’s spy novel.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Girl in the Spider’s Web – David Lagercrantz —

Book Review – The Girl in the Spider’s Web – David Lagercrantz

Book Review – The Girl in the Spider’s Web – David Lagercrantz

Facts:

Book: The Girl in the Spider’s Web
Author: David Lagercrantz
Genre: Thriller
Year of Release: 2015
Read 531-page paperback edition in January 2019

Book Description:

It has been some time since journalist Mikael Blomkvist has seen young hacker Lisbeth Salander. He has to admit that at the same time as missing her, he is also seeing frustrating changes in his magazine, with a larger media company buying a significant group of shares, allowing them some say in the decisions

But when word comes out that a strong female hacker broke into the USA government , Blomkvist knows that something is going on. And then, Blomkvist gets a call from a top computer programmer / designer, who recently quit from the private sector, and who is feeling threatened with death from an unknown gang.

It looks like Blomkvist and Salander’s paths are due to cross again, as they both encounter a dangerous mix of criminals, shady companies, and corrupt government officials and police.

Book Review:

Author Lagercrantz has taken on the role of writing in the exciting, nail-biting Lisbeth Salander series, after the unfortunate passing of Stieg Larsson, the writer of the first three novels. Although it’s hard to follow the pace set by Larsson, and impossible to copy his style, Lagercrantz does a good job of developing a fast moving plot and narrative. Although it is a slow in a couple parts early on, the storyline eventually gets moving quickly and there are a few twists and turns along the way.

On the plus side, Lagercrantz does a good job building on the stories of the characters we have grown to love and enjoy. We learn new things about main and secondary characters, although some of the critical characters from the past are quite absent from this outing, such as Ms. Berger. That being said, other secondary characters like Inspector Bublanski do get some nice development which was enjoyable to read about

Lagercrantz does a good job when focusing in on the actions of the two main characters. They have settled into a calm relationship in this novel, where they don’t talk much, and when they do connect, it’s usually serious. We understand that seems to be harder on Blomkvist than Salander, and the author does a nice job of showing this.

On the negative side, in addition to being slow in places, at times the novel feels like it loses momentum and forgets to cover the basics. Sometimes it is even the simplest things that are missed, making you wonder if the author and editor just didn’t care about the details, preferring to just look at the big picture story?

For example, on page 235-236, there is a short scene where two characters meet for a meal. They sit down, they talk, and they proceed to have their quick meeting, without ordering anything and without eating. The character who arrives first has wine, but the second character has nothing. And the waiter never seems to show up to take an order or find out what the second character even wants to drink. This is a very illogical scene, and brought me right out of the dialogue between the two characters, because it just didn’t make sense. Although the food and drink is secondary t the dialogue of the plot, it still needs to be there for the scene to work! These kinds of illogical instances occurred more than once, and they were frustrating

That being said, this thriller was an enjoyable book, and a nice sequel to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy

Overall: 3 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Leonardo da Vinci – Walter Isaacson — January 14, 2019

Book Review – Leonardo da Vinci – Walter Isaacson

Book Review – Leonardo da Vinci – Walter Isaacson

Facts:

Book: Leonardo da Vinci
Author: Walter Isaacson
Genre: Biography
Year of Release: 2017
Read 531-page paperback edition in December 2018

Book Description:

Following up on other biographies of great geniuses, such as Steve Jobs and Einstein, Isaacson has written his latest detailed biography on the great Leonardo da Vinci. Isaacson makes the case that Leonardo is truly one of the greatest minds of all time.

Certainly not infallible, as Isaacson is quick to point out, Leonardo nonetheless was centuries ahead of his time, in a vast array of art and science disciplines. From painting, design, and architecture, to hydrology and anatomy, Leonardo became an expert in numerous fields, simply by always remaining curious and always learning.

The biography includes thoughtful text and beautiful sketches, maps, and art. Looking at both his accomplishments and life lessons, to the social and cultural realities of his time, with some inclusion of Leonardo’s personal story, this is a detailed account of the life of a legend.

Book Review:

Biographer Walter Isaacson has done an incredible job researching, exploring, and expanding on the life of Leonardo. This is someone who most people know a little about at minimum, and yet this biography is a way to learn so much more about Leonardo, but also what he can teach us in the 21st century.

Isaacson does a nice job at finding a way to bring a lot of material (Leonardo left huge volumes of journals still surviving to today) to a manageable sized biography that is acceptable to a wide readership. Although it would have been nice to learn a little bit more about certain aspects of Leonardo (example: I was curious to learn a little bit more detail into his personal life), Isaacson does a great balancing job overall.

This biography is fascinating, with great information that showcases the talent of Leonardo based on his sheer variety of subjects. The biography gives the reader an opportunity to learn about better known aspects of Leonardo, like the Mona Lisa and his flying studies, but also lesser known aspects of his work, like other paintings and art he engaged in, and the conflict between his belief in peace (even being a vegetarian on moral grounds) versus his willingness to engage in war studies for one of his patrons.

Isaacson does a nice job devoting chapters to various time periods throughout Leonardo’s life, including some limited time looking at Leonardo’s upbringing, and the fact he had limited formal education. It serves to show us how incredible Leonardo was, and looking at his overall achievements, how ahead of his time he was. One of many examples was Leonardo essentially understanding and pointing out Newton’s first law, which would not be discovered until much later.

Isaacson points out that one of Leonardo’s issues was that he tended not to follow through and finish items, and that he didn’t publish any of his works, despite keeping detailed, meticulous journals. This often meant others had to “rediscover” things centuries later that Leonardo had already come across in his own studies. Isaacson also points out, however, that perhaps this decision to be flexible and not focus on publishing findings and specializing in one area allowed Leonardo’s mind to more freely wander and discover, allowing his imagination, creativity, and genius to flourish.

Isaacson does a great job of providing a case for Leonardo’s genius, and his humanity. The final section providing life lessons from Leonardo that we can consider for ourselves in the 21st century is a great conclusion. This is an absorbing biography of a fascinating individual

Well done!

Overall: 5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Exit West – Mohsin Hamid —

Book Review – Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

Book Review – Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

Facts:

Book: Exit West
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2017
Read 231-page paperback edition in December 2018.

Book Description:

In this timely novel, magical realism and fantasy seamlessly crosses reality for people fleeing the war and violence of their homelands. Our two principle characters, Saeed and Nadia, are in a troubled, unnamed country, but have begun a tentative series of dates, getting to know each other. Life and work goes on in this place, despite the violence and fighting.

One day, terror breaks out, and they are forced to scrape by and survive. Eventually, they begin to hear about people escaping for other, safer places to live. Some by regular means of transportation, on foot or by boat. But in other cases through magical doors that take people far away.

So begins their journey as they try and make an escape for a safer place to live. The adventure, both during and after, will be sure to change them.

Book Review:

This is Hamid’s fourth novel, and he has returned with strength and imagination in this enjoyable and incredible book.

Exploring such critical and timely themes as immigration, refugees, and how we treat people different from ourselves, Hamid has done an exceptional job weaving these concepts into a readable narative of two people that we care about.

Hamid has a very sparing style, not wasting a lot of verbage. This is again a short novel, similar to other books he has written, and yet it packs a punch. It almost leaves us wanting, curious of details left out, and as the reader we are able to then perhaps imagine some of those ourselves. The fact that the reader wants to do this is a sign of success in the novel.

The two main characters are complicated and interesting. The differences between Saeed and Nadia are fascinating to read and think about, yet what draws them together is also something to dwell on.

The plot is fast-paced and vibrant, with well-described settings throughout and a great balance of practical 21st-century fiction with a touch of fantasy and magical realism thrown in to add overall mystery. It creates a unique novel, but the issues and characters are real.

Overall, this is a great novel and one worth reading. It forces the reader to learn, and more importantly, to think about the importance of acceptance and diversity, which are so critical in these days we live in.

Well done!

Overall: 5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 – Edited by Karen Joy Fowler and John Joseph Adams — January 2, 2019

Book Review – The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 – Edited by Karen Joy Fowler and John Joseph Adams

Book Review – The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 – Edited by Karen Joy Fowler and John Joseph Adams

Facts:

Book: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016
Author: Edited by Karen Joy Fowler and John Joseph Adams
Genre: Short Stories – Science Fiction and Fantasy
Year of Release: 2016
Read 293-page paperback edition in December 2018.

Book Description:

This collection of short stories from a variety of North American authors is a sampling of the finest in science fiction and fantasy creativity for 2016. From dystopian to utopian, from bleek to pleasant, from science fiction to fantasy, this is an inspiring and thought-provoking collection from a diverse array of authors.

Book Review:

This collection of science fiction and fantasy stories has something for everyone. Although there is great diversity in terms of author and in terms of themes and plots, there is also some smart consistency that editors Fowler and Adams have developed. The majority of the stories feel very relevant in the 2016 time-era, which feels very politically unstable and with a general lack of comfort and security with where the human species is going these days. Fowler and Adams have done a nice job selecting stories that, while diverse, often play on these themes and make us think.

Every reader is different, and there are bound to be a few stories in each collection that do not speak strongly to you. There was no exception here, with a few stories not particularly enjoying or interesting

That being said, there are several stories that deserve a shout-out in this review:

  • Interesting Facts (science fiction, by Adam Johnson) had a great reflection on the realities of cancer in the 21st century.
  • The Mushroom Queen (fantasy, by Liz Ziemska) was extremely creative and both fascinating and frightening in an odd way.
  • The Duniazat Jinni (fantasy, by Salman Rushdie) involved a fun exploration of a jinni dating.
  • Things you can Buy for a Penny (fantasy, by Will Kaufman) about a frightening, magical man at the bottom of a well.
  • Rat Catchers Yellow (science fiction, by Charlie Jane Anders) about cats, futuristic gaming, and managing dementia, another modern theme in our ever-aging population.
  • The Heat of Us (fantasy, by Sam J. Miller) exploring LGBT* themes.
  • And finally, The Great Silence (fantasy, by Ted Chiang) that was stylistically different and fun

As seen above, there is a nice array of science fiction and fanatsy short stories that could be called “stand outs” and that explore relevant, modern, thoughtful themes through the themes of these genres

Whether new to these genres, or someone who already enjoys them, this is a great collection of short stories to be enjoyed and think about.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Epic of Gilgamesh – Unknown – Translated by Stephen Mitchell — December 13, 2018

Book Review – Epic of Gilgamesh – Unknown – Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Book Review – Epic of Gilgamesh – Unknown – Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Facts:

Book: Epic of Gilgamesh
Author: Unknown, this version Translated by Stephen Mitchell
Genre: Classic Poem
Year of Release: Approx 1700 BC
Read 208-page hardcover edition in December 2018.

Book Description:

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, we have what many say is the earliest surviving great work of Literature. The ancient Mesopotamian poem tells of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, a famed walled city.  Gilgamesh is notorious for his strength and power, sometimes using it to the detriment of the citizens of Uruk.

In the first half of the epic, another strong man who lives in the woods, Enriku, makes love with a priestess, and becomes aware of his humanity. He leaves his animals and heads to Uruk, where he challenges Gilgamesh. Although Gilgamesh wins the fight, the two become close friends. They eventually travel to the Ceder Forest to attack a beast. While they win, the gods are angry, and Enriku becomes ill and dies.

In the second half of the epic, Gilgamesh is distraught over the death of his close friend, and it leads him to go on a quest to seek out eternal life from the gods themselves. Gilgamesh looks for answers, and gets close to uncovering either eternal life or a fountain of youth, but it slips through his fingers, and he must return to Uruk without.

Book Review:

This epic poem is considered a famed work of literature, and is quite fascinating to read in this day. Even though it was written thousands of years ago, many of the novels and plays we enjoy today have close ties to some of the themes brought up. Searching for eternal life and youthfulness, the closeness of two friends going on an adventure, the fighting of a dangerous monster, the involvement of gods in human affairs, and the quest narrative, all are explored in countless pieces of literature all through time. However, this is such an ancient poem that it can be considered one of the sources, one of the first to set out these themes.  Connections to The Bible, Beowulf, Shakespeare, and many other modern narratives are clear, and it creates real fascination to read this ancient work.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu are interesting characters, and clearly this very close male friendship, near erotic in many ways, is a great relationship to read about and follow. The poet does a great job of creating emotion and passion throughout the epic, as the characters first encounter one another, develop the friendship, and then lose each other.

The poet does a great job creating two major sections to the epic, and although it is considered an epic story, it is a quick read to see what happens to Gilgamesh. The poet is creative and does a great job creating imagery for the reader.

There were a few repetitious sections, although that may have been a stylistic choice. The translation from Stephen Mitchell allowed for this poem to be easily accessible and readable for the modern reader.

Overall, this classic poem is well worth reading.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars


Book Review – Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro —

Book Review – Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

Book Review – Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

Facts:

Book: Remains of the Day
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 1988
Read 304-page paperback edition in November 2018.

Book Description:

In this thoughtful, calm novel, we learn about the esteemed and experienced butler Mr. Stevens, who worked for many years in the employ of the famed Lord Darlington. However, much has changed in England leading up to and then past World War II, particularly when it comes to the need for large houses with numerous servants. Mr. Stevens now works for an American owner of Darlington Manor, now that the former Lord Darlington has passed.

When Stevens is given several days off and the use of the Ford, he takes the opportunity to drive across England to appreciate the landscape. Furthermore, he decides to look up a former head housekeeper, that he worked closely with over the years, Miss Kenton. She eventually left after marrying at an older age, but has recently written to Mr. Stevens.

As the novel plays out, we start to learn much more about Stevens and his character, the truth about Lord Darlington, and what will become of Stevens and Miss Kenton.

Book Review:

This novel, written by famed author Kazuo Ishiguro, received large volumes of praise for its melodic tone and thoughtful prose. The praise is well-deserved.

Ishiguro, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Man Booker Prize, is so skilled when it comes to writing a novel in a lyrical style. This is no exception. Ishiguro does an amazing job getting the reader right into the head of our main character Mr. Stevens. Through his memories of his past, we start to learn what it was like to be a butler in a large household during the early-mid 20th century. We see the ups and downs.  We really begin to feel like we know and understand Stevens and the people around him.

In addition, Stevens portrays a variety of character traits that we wouldn’t expect in people today, but perhaps were sadly present in people of the “serving class” in this time period. Stevens is more than willing to forgive some of the things Lord Darlington may have said or did in his time, even going so far as to equate any disagreement as disloyalty and not something appropriate for a mere butler. Stevens, and his father before him, who is also a butler, prove fascinating characters, as we get into the mindsets of these hard-working, tough men who also feel they should remain in their place.

We also see a great contrast with Stevens and Miss Kenton over the years. We see ups and downs in their relationship, and we also see a lot of rigidity, and difficulty in communication at times, perhaps due to their serving stations in life.  The plot of the novel slowly moves towards the reunion of Stevens and Kenton at this later stage in their lives, and Ishiguro does a nice job creating a tension while Stevens remembers the past, as he drives to see Kenton.

The novel, although a bit slow at times, is overall a great exploration of themes of class, change, and evolution in 20th century England, as well as a more personal and individual theme of how one man ages, and looks back on a life of choices, and non-choices.

Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars