MatthewSean Reviews

Book reviews, movie reviews, and other writing

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

Book Review – Sudden Death – Alvaro Enrigue —

Book Review – Sudden Death – Alvaro Enrigue

Book Review – Sudden Death – Alvaro Enrigue

Sudden_Death

Facts:

Book: Sudden Death
Author: Alvaro Enrigue
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2013
Read 272-page hardcover edition in February 2017.

Book Description:

In this mystical novel with shades of magical realism, Enrigue portrays a 16th century tennis match between two unique and historical characters, an Italian painter and a Spanish poet. Infamous historical figures come to the gallery to watch this important and deadly tennis match. At the same time, the novel explores some important historical battles and truths that occurred in Europe and Central America in the 16th century forward, particularly as it relates to several infamous Popes and Papal political figures, as well as Aztec Emperors and how they dealt with Spanish explorers.

Enrigues uses a variety of writing styles, including speaking directly to the audience from time to time, to bring these disparate ideas and strands together.

 

Book Review:

This novel by Mexican author Enrigue had a truly unique structure and style.

There were times where this novel really demonstrated power of thought and idea. Two examples of this was when the author spoke about the back story to the two tennis players and how they met, and the homoeroticism that was present. Another example was early in the novel when the author spoke directly to the audience about how the most powerful thing about a writer writing a novel is that readers get to read and interpret. There were some thought provoking comments written by the author on these points that really provided for thinking on the part of the reader, which is everything you can ask for in a good novel.

However, the problem with this novel was that there was such an array of characters from different places in the world, different time periods, and going through different stories and plots, that it often became difficult as the reader to understand the connections and keep up with what was happening. Although there were some interesting notions being shared, at times it was a lot of work to keep everything together, and truly see how the various stories intertwined.

Although this novel had a lot of promise, it also suffered from unnecessarily complicated structure, along with a plethora of characters that didn’t always have a clear role in the grand scheme of the novel itself.

Overall: 2.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead — March 4, 2017

Book Review – The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

Book Review – The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

underground_railroad

Facts:

Book: Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2016
Read 310-page hardcover edition in February 2017.

Book Description:

 

Cora is a young slave on cotton plantation in Georgia. When she meets a slave by the name of Caesar, she finds an opportunity to escape the horrible conditions she lives with daily. This leads her to discovering the underground railroad, which in this world is a literal rail system built underneath the ground to provide a means of escape for black slaves to the north or west.

However, when Cora’s old slaveowner begins sending bounty hunters after her, Cora must continue escaping dangerous situations, and learn more about the dangers of prejudice and racism that exist in different states along the way.

 

Book Review:

A really strong novel is one that makes the reader think and keep thinking, even long after reading the final page. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is one such novel.

The author has done a tremendous job at bringing to life a treacherous, tragic truth of human history. The journey of Cora, as she tries to escape a cotton plantation to find freedom, and further escape other tortures along the way, brings to life the horror of slavery.

The author has a large cast of characters around Cora, some other slaves, some trying to help with the underground railroad, and some very wicked villains. By bringing the various  characters together, the author succeeds in telling a story from a variety of angles, and really drilling home the true horror and crime of slavery in America.

The author also expands the story canvass and succeeds in painting the ugly case of how the American Indigenous population was slaughtered as European colonists and then Americans took the land from Indigenous people while decimating the population.

Further, the author’s ability to weave fictional elements into the novel, starting with historical fact but then using the concept of a real underground railroad, made for a unique and interesting reading experience. The reader was left wanting to know where the railroad would take Cora next, and what the different states would be like.

The writing style also assisted in making this a fast read. The language was powerful, moving, and disturbing, which created a poignant plot that also told dark truths about slavery.

The author had a real knack for using language to say powerful lines, and there were many powerful quotes from the novel, for example this scene when Cora was acting as a black slave scrubbing the deck of a ship coming to America:

“There had been no kidnapped boys swabbing the decks and earning pats on the head from white kidnappers. The enterprising African boy whose fine leather boots she wore would have been chained belowdecks, swabbing his body in his own filth. … nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world. And no one wanted to hear it. Certainly not the white monsters on the other side of the exhibit at that very moment, pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting.” (Page 116.)

Another example of powerful learning and language: “The land she tilled and worked had been Indian land. She knew the white men bragged about the efficiency of the massacres, where they killed women and babies, and strangled their futures in the crib. Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.” (Page 117.)

In conclusion, this amazing novel is highly recommended for all to read, especially in this day of uncreased racism and prejudice, where we need to be reminded of the damage, danger, and disgusting places humanity has been, and ensure we continually try to move forward, and not go backward.

Well done.

Overall: 5 stars out of 5 stars