MatthewSean Reviews

Book reviews, movie reviews, and other writing

Book Review – Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien — July 2, 2017

Book Review – Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

Book Review – Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

thien

Facts:

Book: Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Author: Madeleine Thien
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2016
Read 473-page hardcover edition in June 2017.

Book Description:

In this sprawling fictional epic, we follow the lives of two generations of an intertwined family. The first generation is living through China’s Cultural Revolution, led by Chairman Mao, while the second generation then experiences the uprisings around Tiananmen Square.

In addition, we see the family’s connection to Canada, with the young girl Marie growing up and trying to understand her family history, including her father, who left them suddenly and went back to China.

Book Review:

Canadian author Madeleine Thien, whose family has Chinese roots, has written a beautiful and grand novel exploring family, culture, politics, and music. Thien’s skill is in crafting a thoughtful and moving story that develops characters the reader cares about, who are placed in some difficult times in Chinese history.

The novel, winner of the Giller Prize and Governor General’s Award, is broken into two major parts, the first covering the period of time during the Cultural Revolution, and the second covering the time leading up to the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Looking at the novel, although all of the characters are written in a unique and interesting way, the plot definitely picks up speed and pace in the second half. This building of suspense leads to a more exciting time for the reader in this second half, and looking back, the first half of the novel did feel a little slow and drawn out.

The novel does have some fantastic quotes and ideas worth thinking about long after the closing page. For example, Wen the Dreamer says:

“…it’s foolhardy to think that a story ends. There as many possible endings as beginnings.”

All the characters that were conceived and written about by Thien were well-described and believable. These were people the reader comes to care about, and we wanted to know what happened to them. Thien, who is not a writer for the faint of heart, does a good job creating intense, suspenseful, and sad plot lines, which also means some of our most beloved characters succumb to sad endings. These are difficult scenes to read, but create some of the powerful sections of the novel as well.

One of our anchors in the book is the young Marie, who grows up in Canada not understanding her prior generations in China, and who comes to understand why her mom and dad are the way they are, through her own research and experiences. That being said, Marie is not the “main character” as such, and one of the great truths about this book is that there is not one or two main characters, but rather many.

At times, understanding and remembering all of the intricate connections across this family can be difficult, and a family tree would have been helpful at the beginning of this book to remember how the dozen or so people all relate to each other. Thankfully some great online resources have good diagrams to help with this.

Overall, this novel had multi-dimensional, complex characters, who were all shades of grey. Nobody was all good, or all bad. The plot was inventive, dramatic, and emotional. Thien has a great ability to write a sweeping novel that also teaches a lot about what it may have been like to live through these intense periods in 20th century China. Albeit a few minor challenges, this is still definitely a book worth reading.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King — May 28, 2017

Book Review – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King

Book Review – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King

on_writing

Facts:

Book: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Author: Stephen King
Genre: Memoir
Year of Release: 2000
Read 291-page paperback edition in May 2017.

Book Description:

In this part memoir, part advice book, prolific author Stephen King provides a toolbox of writing tips and advice, as well as reflections on his life as a writer, before and after he made it big.

Book Review:

This book was broken into two main sections, the first half being the memoir, and the second half being the tips and tools on writing.  Although there is some overlap in the two sections, the organization of the book is useful, and provides us first with an overview of King’s life growing up and developing into the successful author he is today. After this, we then get into some of the recommendations King has for any writer.

The memoir section was fascinating, with King filling us in on his biography from childhood. King’s style and knack for humour comes across as well, and we are treated to many amusing anecdotes, often that have connections to the art of writing. He focused on those elements of his life that are connected to being a writer (and reader), which makes sense since developing writers are his audience in this book.

A later section telling us of how King’s life changed when he was hit by a car while walking also provides a lot of nuance to the reader, and King’s observations at this time also provide the prospective writer with things to think about in the context of the importance and cathartic release that writing can provide.

The writing tips section is the meat of the book. There have been many writing tips books, but this one is extremely valuable. King is not afraid to share advice that he thinks works, even if it won’t necessarily work for everyone. King provides great ideas, comments, and justification for why he gives the advice that he does. There is great feedback and thought here which can and will improve the quality of one’s writing, and not just in the horror or sci-fi genres.

The one thing that did detract from this book was the fact that at times, King’s flexible and loose organizational style made the book difficult to follow and collect advice from. For example, a summary of the advice in one small section of pages, or even sub-titles and headers in the large advice section of the book, would have helped from the developing writer’s perspective. This is a small issue of course, as the key is the advice itself, which is useful and practical.

 

Overall, this is an extremely valuable and helpful book for any writer, whether established or just developing their skills for the first time.

Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera — May 23, 2017

Book Review – Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera

Book Review – Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera

Signs

Facts:

Book: Signs Preceding the End of the World
Author: Yuri Herrera
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2009
Read 114-page paperback edition in May 2017.

Book Description:

Mexican novelist Yuri Herrera has written a novel that takes place on both sides of the Mexico-USA border. Traveling from her home in Mexico is Makina, a young woman who has been taught from her family how to survive the macho Mexican culture around her. Makina must travel across the deserts and smuggle herself into the USA, following a very dangerous path, so that she can locate her brother. She needs to bring him a message from her mother, and also deliver something from a Mexican gang as well. Along the way she encounters dangers, violence, racism, sexism, and her own doubts.

Book Review:

This novel was a fascinating tale, told in sparing yet powerful detail by well-known Mexican author Herrera. Although the novel is only 114 pages, it packs a powerful punch. There are numerous themes to explore in the novel, from Mexican culture to the power of the underworld to racism and sexism in America.

Another key theme is the power of the young woman Makina, our protagonist. Makina is described as a strong, unflinching, and confident person, and is able to fortify herself against challenges and face difficulties in Mexico, on the border, and in the USA. Herrera does a great job telling a story that is fast moving and focusing on a character that is interesting. This works, and makes the story enjoyable, easily read in one day.

The only downside was that in some ways, more detail would have been nice for the reader. Of course, the quickness of the novel allows us to ingest this in one meal, and then sit back and ponder the themes for ourselves.

Herrera’s poetic, lyrical style is translated effectively by Lisa Dillman, who received awards for her work.

This is definitely a great novel to read, for those who enjoy Mexican literature, or for those who are just starting out and would like to try something from Mexico.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons — May 13, 2017

Book Review – Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Book Review – Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Watchmen

Facts:

Book: Watchmen
Author: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Genre: Graphic Novel / Comic
Year of Release: 1986-1987
Read 384-page hardcover omnibus edition in May 2017.

Book Description:

It is 1985, and crime has increased in New York City, with the risk for WWIII and a nuclear conflict on everyone’s mind.  It is a worrying time in the world.  In this alternate history, Vietnam was won by the American forces, and Nixon retained power. With global forces pushing towards a dangerous war, retired superheroes are considering their role and what should be done. However, someone is out killing and framing these retired legends from the 1950s and 1960s. They must each determine who they reach out to, and how they react, to what is going on around them, and how it fits in with the wider global pressures.

Book Review:

This mid-1980s dark graphic novel was rated a Times top 100 English novel. Reading through the graphic novel, one can definitely see why it became a cult classic, and why it was the recipient of many awards. It is well-deserving of praise and admiration.

The graphic novel Watchmen has numerous themes contained within, many overt and many subtle, which requires re-reading and reflection. Writer Alan Moore has utilized great skill in writing a variety of political themes, and reflecting many of the concerns and issues that were felt leading up to the mid-1980s and date of publication. Moore and artist Dave Gibbons do a fabulous job translating political, cultural, and sexual themes into a world of intrigue, action, and drama.

Characters are developed and fleshed out nicely by Moore and Gibbons. The artwork is amazing and creative, and the structure of the story is unique. The graphic novel was structured in a new way, unlike comics that came before it. Furthermore, the decision to weave in supplementary material in the form of “made up” newspaper clippings, articles, and journals in between the chapters, as well as weaving in another related comic book tale about pirates within the main narrative of the superheroes, was a truly intriguing and complex structure. Although at times the additional comic book tale actually got in the way of following the exciting action and drama of the main story, which was distracting, it was true that it was very much connected in theme to what was going on, and thus was a unique storytelling tool.

The story is fast moving, and this graphic novel is hard to put down, as we see the various characters in this tale all with their own stories, but then all converging together as the plots come together. Even minor characters who aren’t vital to the main story come back as required, and at sometimes interesting times in the background.

The artwork is truly beautiful, with sequences on Mars and in NYC in the final couple of chapters very vivid and intense.

The final sequences in NYC are stark, but the conclusion of the story is very political, complex, and certainly not clear-cut. The fact we are left with a lot of moral ambiguity, and not a “happily ever after” ending, makes for a satisfying end to a strong graphic novel.

Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein — May 8, 2017

Book Review – Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein

Book Review – Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein

code_name_verity

Facts:

Book: Code Name Verity
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Year of Release: 2012
Read 343-page hardcover edition in May 2017.

Book Description:

Two best friends, Maddie and Julie, are working for different areas of the Allied forces in World War II.  When their plane goes down in France during a critical moment in time, they are separated, neither one wondering if the other is alive or dead. Julie finds herself held by the Germans, and Maddie is being hidden by Allied sympathizers in a French town under German control.

While the two figure out what to do about their situations, a tale of friendship and courage emerges.

Book Review:

This WWII story marketed at an older teenage audience has gotten rave reviews on Goodreads and similar websites. Although I can definitely see the attraction of the novel, I had mixed thoughts about the work by author Elizabeth Wein.

One element of the novel I enjoyed was the fact that it was told in two parts, by each of the two main characters, based on their points of view, and what happened to them before, during, and after the plane crash. This was an interesting way to tell the story, and reveal what happened. As we read the second part, we learned things that we thought we knew from the first part, but that were wrong after all. Wein did a nice job of misleading the reader in some places, and creating some tension by doing so, as we weren’t sure what might happen.

That being said, there were some obvious “clues” interspersed in the first part of the novel, where specific lines and items were underlined. These were later used by the Allied forces as clues from Julie from her time in prison. There were some logical plot holes with how she was able to keep getting permission to write these clues, long after the value she was providing from her tale was over. There were several additional issues with regard to logic in the  plot and storyline which detracted from the novel.

Wein also did a good job creating some memorable characters, in particular Maggie and Julie. It was enjoyable to read about two female lead characters who did not have romantic relationships with males in the novel. This decision by Wein allowed us to focus on the female leads and their many strong character traits. Furthermore, their friendship was well explored and very interesting.

One additional item which may be detracting from the fast-paced nature of the novel was the scenes, particularly early in the novel, where a lot of dialogue and detail was provided on plane mechanics and operations. Although this would be valuable for someone with that specific set of interests, at times the level of detail was a little much.

The climax of the novel, without giving it away, was truly shocking. Although the scene again had some questionable elements in it that didn’t make a lot of sense (when did Maddie become such a good shot?), the scene itself was definitely intense, emotional, and surprising, and Wein made a strong decision to have this in the novel.

Overall, although this novel did suffer from some problems, it did pull a punch.

Overall: 2.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia – Mohsin Hamid —

Book Review – How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia – Mohsin Hamid

Book Review – How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia – Mohsin Hamid

mohsin_hamid

Facts:

Book: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2013
Read 228-page hardcover edition in April 2017.

Book Description:

In his third novel, Mohsin Hamid uses the unique style of a self help book to tell a fictional tale of a man growing up and living his life in a country very much like Pakistan of today.  The man has a number of experiences, including moving from a rural to urban environment, encountering a beautiful woman from his village who he is emotionally tied to his entire life, and experiencing education, employment, and eventually the development of his own business amongst the dangers and exploitations in the city around him. This is a novel of the rise and fall of a man, and the lessons learned at all stages of life.

Book Review:

This was a truly fascinating novel, with a very unique structure indeed. Told in the guise of a self-help book, and told in the second person, we are being directly addressed throughout the novel, as “you then do this, you then do that.” The author has chosen this style in order to try and teach us lessons through this fictional tale, similar to the lessons we tend to learn in the self help genre of today. This unique structural approach made the novel enjoyable to work through.

The novel was a quick read, with the main character and the characters around him very intriguing indeed. The reader wanted to learn more and wanted to understand what was going on and how the relationships within the novel would evolve over time, and over the life of our main character.

The plot of the novel was also well-crafted, with a pacing that allowed the reader to continue turning the page with interest, and not feeling bored. Overall, the story was a fascinating one, and the lessons that came out every chapter were practical and interesting for the location and time period the main character found himself within.

That being said, the final chapters were a great way for us to break away from the majority of the book and the focus on making money, to see the main character learn more about the real meanings of life, including love, building lasting friendships and relationships, family, and leaving a legacy through people.

The author has succeeded in writing a novel that is creative and thoughtful.

Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Hanging Tree – Ben Aaronovitch — April 23, 2017

Book Review – The Hanging Tree – Ben Aaronovitch

Book Review – The Hanging Tree – Ben Aaronovitch

hanging_tree

Facts:

Book: The Hanging Tree
Author: Ben Aaronovitch
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Year of Release: 2016
Read 294-page paperback edition in April 2017.

Book Description:

In the sixth book of his Rivers of London series, author Ben Aaronovitch takes us back into the life of Constable Peter Grant, a man who is developing his magical skills as an apprentice under DCI Nightingale, in a special division of the London police.  Grant’s relationship with a river goddess, Beverley Brook, is developing nicely, and things are well in his life.

However, when a family member of Beverley’s is implicated in a murder that has magical properties all over it, Nightingale and Grant investigate. And their work takes a total turn to something even more intense when the Faceless Man and Leslie return to London, with a vengeance. They leave a wake of destruction as they search for a priceless magical artifact, and it is up to Grant and Nightingale of the Folly to stop them.

Book Review:

This was a fantastic book, and probably one of the best in the six-book series. Aaronovitch has really his his stride here, and has created a near-perfect novel in his creation. There has been much world-building in the previous novels, and he hits the ground running with this novel.

What works so well in this outing is that Aaronovitch chooses a perfect balance of action and excitement within a new detective story, plus the inclusion of earlier investigations with returning characters, like Leslie, The Faceless Man, and others.

Aaronovitch also balances the action and the detective work with information on the personal life of Peter, talking about his family life and his interesting relationship with a river goddess.

The one downside to the novel was less time devoted to Nightingale and especially Molly, intriguing characters who got less of the limelight in this outing. It’s true that there are now many characters to try and fit in with each outing, and as such we have to perhaps be prepared for that to happen. Molly is an interesting character though, and hopefully we see and learn more about her in book seven.

In any event, this novel was a fun, adventurous, funny urban fantasy, and Aaronovitch has done a great job continuing to develop this world and create engaging stories.

Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry — April 8, 2017

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry

Book Review – Days Without End – Sebastian Barry

days_without_end

Facts:

Book: Days Without End
Author: Sebastian Barry
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2016
Read 259-page hardcover edition in March 2017.

Book Description:

Thomas McNulty is a teenager from Ireland when he is forced to escape across the ocean to America, due to famine. He searches for a better life, and finds himself involved in the Indian Wars and the American Civil War. Enlisting in the army gives him some purpose and a means to survive, however he must also cope with the notion of killing other young men, and deal with the racism others around him feel towards Indigenous Americans and African Americans.

At the same time, he befriends a unique individual with Indian blood named John Cole, and the two form a very close and special relationship, that evolves into mutual love as they both go through war together, and as they adopt a young Indigenous girl who had been orphaned during the Indian Wars. His atypical family allows Thomas to explore his internal identity, and get in touch with his emotions, all the while war and violence rages in the country around him.

Book Review:

This is a fantastic read, written by the Irish novelist Sebastian Barry, who has clearly done research for this book, but has also derived inspiration for the novel from his son who came out to him as gay several years before.

Barry does a great job narrating this in the voice of Tom McNulty, and the language and writing really is in the voice of a soldier from the 19th century, telling us his story

Barry has managed to create a novel which has intimacy, emotion, and closeness, within a very unusual family structure for the day. We get a real sense of Thomas McNulty’s feelings and even his own exploration of his identity as a cross dresser. It is fascinating to watch him (and John Cole) explore their relationship, as cross dressing entertainers, but with Thomas going the extra step of wearing his dresses in their shared home and calling himself Thomasina. The same-sex relationship that Thomas and John have, and the gender identity explorations that occur, are enjoyable and interesting to read about, particularly in the context of the time period.

Contrasting these emotional and thoughtful scenes of family and love, Barry also has brutal scenes of violence and racism. Thomas and John are not immune from this, and are involved in the slaughter of huge numbers of Indigenous peoples, many of which are unarmed women and children. Thomas comments more than once that this carnage seems pointless and confusing, but he follows orders, as all the young soldiers do. But is this right? Are they guilty of serious crimes, and what does this mean for them when they go home after the war? Why do they keep going, keep pushing on, listening to orders from senior officers to wipe out the Indians? These questions that the author brings to the forefront, all the while the violence continues, are excellent things to think about. Barry is successful at showcasing the violence of these wars in American history, and the implications to the Indigenous populations.

He also takes the opportunity to showcase the racism and horrific treatment towards African Americans, as his main characters then have to go through fighting in the Civil War. Barry looks at the north versus south philosophies through the eyes of common soldiers, keeping the viewpoints focused on bloody battles occurring at the front lines. This is a good approach, as it makes the reader realize how awful these historical truths are, and makes the reader wonder why they happened.

At times the novel does seem to get a little bit off topic from the real focus of examining the purpose of war, violence, and contrasting that mess with the love and admiration of Thomas and John for each other. However, for the most part the novel stays true to this laser focus, and when it is focused in this area, it succeeds.

Clearly Barry has succeeded in creating a novel that not only has a lot of violence and war in them, but creating a unique novel, where the manic characters have a queer identity, even if being gay or trans was not a possible label in this day and age. Seeing the unique family structure these characters put together, and seeing how they perceive what goes on around them, allows this novel to explore topics with a fresh perspective.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Space Merchants – Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth — April 7, 2017

Book Review – The Space Merchants – Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

Book Review – The Space Merchants – Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

space_merchants

Facts:

Book: The Space Merchants
Author: Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth
Genre: Science Fiction
Year of Release: 1952
Read 154-page hardcover edition in March 2017.

Book Description:

In this classic dystopian science fiction novel, we are treated to a troubled world, where society’s masses are controlled by the whims of corporations and their sharp marketing plans. It has become easy to get the majority of the population to mindlessly think they need something, and buy it, without question.

Expert marketer Mitch Courtenary is asked by his company President to come up with an ultimate plan. Encourage flocks of humans to travel to Venus, to colonize the planet. The challenge is that Venus is a barren wasteland of a planet, and it will be an uncomfortable life there. For a skilled marketing executive of course, this is all in a day’s work.

However, when competition comes to Mitch from within and outside the company, he starts to see how humans really live, and he must decide what he will do, both for himself, and for others.

Book Review:

This novel is a classic piece of dystopian literature, and though it was written in the early 1950s, it mainly stands the test of time. The novel has some issues with sexism and gender roles that one wouldn’t expect today, and that felt clunky and out of place. However, other than that, this novel does a great job of predicting a world that feels very possible, in our age of consumerism and capitalism. In fact, in some ways one can see a reflection of 2017 society in this novel, at least on some level. The authors have done a good job of predicting what the future looks like now, and what it may look like in the future.

The novel has an interesting plot which takes us from the corporate world of skyscrapers to the dirty, filthy, mining world occupied by humans just trying to make it through life. Classism is showcased by the authors through the plot very successfully. The plot and the messages and warnings it tells are definitely the strengths of this novel. The scenes in urban America, Costa Rica, and the moon contrast nicely and keep the story moving. (Although the opening couple of chapters did feel a little bit slow.)

The characters are somewhat interesting, although the novel isn’t quite as strong in this area. Some of the characters feel undeveloped and there actions don’t always seem to make perfect sense to the reader. Although we have a strong sense of Mitch as the main character, the other characters often seem to be hanging in the background, yet they play various roles in the novel where it would be nice to have a little bit more understanding and substance to them.

Overall, the novel is a great dystopian read, even 65 years after its original publication. It has timely and valuable lessons for humanity, which makes the reading a valuable experience.

Overall: 3.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – A Darker Shade of Magic – V.E. Schwab — March 11, 2017

Book Review – A Darker Shade of Magic – V.E. Schwab

Book Review – A Darker Shade of Magic – V.E. Schwab

darker_shade_magic

Facts:

Book: A Darker Shade of Magic
Author: V.E. Schwab
Genre: Fantasy
Year of Release: 2015
Read 400-page hardcover edition in February 2017.

Book Description:

This fantasy novel, which opens a new series by V.E. Schwab, tells the story of four London’s, who all exist in parallel to each other. Only some citizens are aware of the different London’s and can travel across them. One such person is Kell, who officially is an Ambassador for the King and Queen of Red London, but unofficially also likes to trade magical items with people who do not have access to them, despite the fact this is illegal.

When Kell ends up getting into some serious trouble , and has to fight for his life, he is joined by a surprising ally, Delilah Bard, who agrees to help him despite her usual approach of staying alone as she pickpockets her way through life. These unlikely allies have to work together to keep the London’s safe, and stop some dangerous and powerful people from causing destruction with a powerful magical object.

 

Book Review:

Schwab definitely has a talent for writing interesting urban fantasy, and using fresh and new ideas to tell stories. This novel, and opening of a new series, was no different, with a mix of interesting characters with magical abilities, unique settings with 4 very different London’s overlaid on each other, and even a mix of swords, guns, and ships all battling for attention. Schwab does have a great imagination, and it shows in her setup of this new universe.

That being said, a couple of things that were unfortunate in this novel was that the characters themselves, and even the setting to a lesser degree, felt underwhelming and under-utilized throughout the plot. I was left at the end wondering about how these various London’s worked, and wondering more about the feeling in the various London’s. I felt the plot and story that was told didn’t give me as much of an insight into them as I would have liked. Furthermore, I often felt that the characters in the novel were not very complex and as developed in their relationships with each other as I would have liked. Many of them felt a little bit flat, such as one of our magical arch enemies in the novel, whose character felt under-explored, and his nebulous relationship with our main character Kell was left too under-stated.

One thing that was clear about this novel was it was the opening of a series. As such, there was a lot of “set up” in the novel, setting up characters and plot points that would be covered in later books. This led to a slow start in the novel, and the novel felt slow in some parts, almost as if we were watching the stage being set for later novels in the series. Thus, this first novel of the series did indeed suffer for that.

Although there was a lot to be interested about in this novel, and the idea of multiple London’s in an urban fantasy tale is a great premise, there was much about this novel that felt sadly undeveloped.

Overall: 2.5 stars out of 5 stars