MatthewSean Reviews

Book reviews, movie reviews, and other writing

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

Book Review – The Wonder – Emma Donoghue

Book Review – The Wonder – Emma Donoghue

wonder

Facts:

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

Book Description:

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

Book Review:

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

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

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

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

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

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

Book Review – Children of God – Mary Doria Russell

Book Review – Children of God – Mary Doria Russell

Children-of-God

Facts:

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

Book Description:

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

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

Book Review:

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: 3.5 stars out of 5 stars

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

Book Review – History of Wolves – Emily Fridlund

Book Review – History of Wolves – Emily Fridlund

history_of_wolves

Facts:

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

Book Description:

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

Book Review:

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

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

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

Overall: 3 stars out of 5 stars

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

Book Review – Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson

Book Review – Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson

mistborn

Facts:

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

Book Description:

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

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

Book Review:

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

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

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

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

Overall: 2.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – By Gaslight – Steven Price —

Book Review – By Gaslight – Steven Price

Book Review – By Gaslight – Steven Price

by_gaslight

Facts:

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

Book Description:

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

Book Review:

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – In the Darkroom – Susan Faludi —

Book Review – In the Darkroom – Susan Faludi

Book Review – In the Darkroom – Susan Faludi

darkroom

Facts:

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

Book Description:

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

Book Review:

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

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