MatthewSean Reviews

Book reviews, movie reviews, and other writing

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry — April 8, 2017

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry

Book Review – Days Without End – Sebastian Barry

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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

Movie Review – Front Cover (2015) — March 11, 2017

Movie Review – Front Cover (2015)

Movie Review – Front Cover (2015)

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Movie Synopsis:

A gay fashion stylist who is still trying to figure out his place as a gay person and a Chinese-American living in New York City is told to work with a famous actor from China, who is in town to do some filming. As he spends more time with this man, they begin to grow very close, despite their differences, and they end up both going on journeys of self reflection and discovery.

Movie Review:

This independent film which won several awards at film festivals definitely has charm, intelligence, and grace, as it explores numerous subjects. The sensitivity with which Director and Writer Ray Yeung covers two men exploring their sexuality, their culture, and their developing feelings for each other is truly successful.

Main actors Jake Choi and James Chen also do a nice job playing Chinese men who both have challenges when it comes to really understanding who they are and how they can live comfortably in the world they inhabit. As they explore these questions together, the audience is treated to both humour and tenderness, and the film is definitely successful in this way.

The scene where the two characters spend time with Ryan’s parents, who also live in New York City, is truly an example of well executed comedy, and everyone can relate to this scene to some level, although certainly not to the extent that Ryan has to, given his situation. The audience was laughing throughout the opening of this extended scene, yet later there were tears flowing when the scene evolved to the touching one it became involving the older generation. This showcases the success of the directing, acting, and writing.

Overall, the film also succeeded for having a very practical ending as well, one that was believable and was not a perfect, happy ending, but one where everyone still made decisions and learned something.

This was definitely a fascinating and enjoyable film, looking at two Chinese men and their understanding of their own sexualities and cultures. The diversity of the film, and the focus on characters who were not straight white males, was definitely to be celebrated.

Well Done!

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

Book Review – Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was

Book Review – Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was

moonstone

Facts:

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

Book Description:

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

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

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

Book Review:

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters —

Book Review – The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

Book Review – The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

paying_guests

Facts:

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

Book Description:

 

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

Book Review:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – I’ll Give You the Sun – Jandy Nelson — March 31, 2016

Book Review – I’ll Give You the Sun – Jandy Nelson

Book Review – I’ll Give You the Sun – Jandy Nelson

giveyousun

Facts:

  •    Book: I’ll Give You the Sun
  •    Author: Jandy Nelson
  •    Genre: Fiction
  •    Year of Release: 2014
  •    Read 375-page hardcover edition in March 2016.

Book Description:

In her second novel, Jandy Nelson tells the story of twins Noah and Jude.  Twins who were once very close, but are now estranged as 15 year olds.  The novel tells us, from alternating time periods and both perspectives, how this came to pass.  It also tells us the story of the complex relationships they had with both of their parents, and the untimely death of their mother.  As the two characters learn more about themselves, they begin to see that getting past their difficulties and emotional trials may require the help of their twin sibling.

Book Review:

I started out reading this novel with high hopes, given the high ratings on Goodreads and Amazon for this novel.  And although I may not be the target audience for this novel, being someone in their mid-thirties, I was still excited to read this.  However, I must say I didn’t have the same positive experience as so many other readers.  Of course this is just my opinion and experience!

The overall premise here was fascinating, in terms of looking at how the relationship between twins changes over time in the teenage years, and how challenging issues of growing up, being LGBT, and losing a parent can impact teens.  These concepts were great starting points for the novel.  Furthermore, some of the scenes that were written truly were touching or funny, leading to laughing out loud or even tearing up a couple of times.

That being said, the overall execution by the author seemed confusing.  The overall lessons learned for the novel, or what the author wanted us to take away from the novel, seemed somewhat mixed.  For example, one of the lessons that seemed to be pushed by the author was that following your dreams must be done, no matter what the consequences, such as focusing on your new dreams at the expense of spending time with your children.  I may be over-simplifying the story, and I don’t want to give too much away for those who plan to read the novel, but some of these types of lessons seemed surprising to push forward, and sometimes they contradicted other lessons or themes in a way that was unclear and did not add up.

Although it is definitely believable that the twins in the novel could have a falling out, it was in some ways unbelievable the extent they both went to take certain actions that alienated them against each other.  Further, the ending of the novel, where the truth came out on both sides, the fact their didn’t seem to be hurt feelings or further alienation, even for a little while before reconciliation, didn’t seem to be the way most teenagers would react in emotionally heated situations.

In addition, the fact that all loose ends and all sub-plots of the novel were tied up so smoothly and neatly, seemed a little unbelievable and too convenient.  Even in books marketed to the young adult audience, there are often loose ends, and life is not looking perfect, and that is ok, because it is reality.

Finally, a small point here.  The idea of alternating the narrator between Noah and Jude, and alternating back and forth in time from when they were 13-16, was a fabulous idea.  However, it was unfortunate the author did not choose to do more time and narrator changes throughout the book.  Each section was sometimes 100+ pages long, meaning there were only a few changes from narrator to narrator and time period to time period.

Although it definitely has to be said that many people highly enjoyed this novel, to me it seemed full of contradictions and unbelievable plot points.

Overall: 2 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review -More Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin — March 9, 2016

Book Review -More Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

Book Review – More Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

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Facts:

  •    Book: More Tales of the City
  •    Author: Armistead Maupin
  •    Genre: Fiction
  •    Year of Release: 1980
  •    Read 340-page paperback edition in February 2016.

Book Description:

The second book in the series, Maupin further explores the lives of his eclectic cast of characters from San Francisco.  Michael continues to pursue love, and possibly a former flame; Mona looks for her family roots in a most unlikely place; Mary Ann finds love on a cruise ship and ends up in a complex adventure; and lovable Mrs. Madrigal reveals a hidden truth about herself.

Book Review:

This was a fantastic collection by Maupin. Similar to the first novel, this book has a large number of short 2-3 page chapters, as they were originally published in the newspaper in this format, before being collected up into novel collections.  The style and format of the writing allows the reader to get swept up, and it’s easy to read this novel in just a couple of sittings.

The readability of this is also a testament to Maupin’s skill at capturing the San Francisco of this time period.

He has created a collection of complex, interwoven characters, who have their own dark sides and issues, but who come together and support each other, much like real life around us.  This focus on true to life characters makes the novel believable and all the more compelling.  For those who are looking for diversity, and what it was like to be an LGBT person (or ally) in the San Francisco of the 1970s, this is an especially appropriate book.

The plot and story lines are interesting, dramatic, and adventurous.  It may be true that sometimes the drama is a little over the top, but at the same time, it generates laughter and suspense as well.  This was a particularly fun read while lying on a beach in February, which is when I timed my reading of this book.

Although there are a number of light hearted moments and fun characters in the novel, Maupin does a great job of covering the more serious issues as well with regard to life, including health issues, the meaning of life, a person’s place in the university, transgender topics, and LGBT inclusion.  Maupin is not one to shy away from bringing up important topics, and weaving these into a fun story with a great cast of characters is a cause for celebration of success.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars.

Movie Review – The Danish Girl (2015) — December 31, 2015

Movie Review – The Danish Girl (2015)

Movie Review – The Danish Girl (2015)

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Movie Synopsis:

This drama, based on the lives of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, revolves around the changing nature of the marriage between these two talented painters in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the early 1900s. The relationship is stretched, challenged, and changed as Lili explores and comes to understand her gender identity and begins her journey as a transgender pioneer in a world that doesn’t understand and is full of transphobia.

Movie Review:

This was a fantastic film that brought to the screen an emotional story focusing in on two characters struggling with different sets of circumstances. Director Tom Hooper does a nice job portraying the emotions of the characters inside the time period of the 1920s and 1930s in Denmark and France.  His ability to bring the art world to life, and showcase the scenery and architecture of the time, particularly of Denmark, brought additional vibrancy and beauty to the film.

Actor Eddie Redmayne does an amazing job portraying Lili, who is coming to understand her gender identity as a woman, and working to live her life with this understanding, despite the many challenges and setbacks she faced. Redmayne does an amazing job bringing forward several poignant and emotional scenes, which allow the viewer to get a glimpse of just how difficult this was for Lili. This kind of film can also be used as a means to bring greater understanding to the diverse transgender community today, and the continued efforts at understanding, acceptance, and equality.

Furthermore, Alicia Vikander does an impressive job playing Lili’s wife Gerda, and we see equally powerful scenes where Vikander is trying to understand what Lili’s transition and identity means for the person she loves, and what it means for her marriage as well.

Both Redmayne and Vikander have great chemistry together and do a wonderful job bringing this passionate and emotional story to life.

The only issue that this drama suffers from is that it sometimes feels slightly lengthy in duration, with some sections feeling a little too stretched out. Other than that however, this is a great film and one that is sure to generate discussion and further awareness.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars.

Movie Review – Pride (2014) — November 24, 2015

Movie Review – Pride (2014)

Movie Review – Pride (2014)

pride

Movie Synopsis:

In this film, based on a true story, a group of young gay and lesbian activists who are fighting for equality decide to head out for rural England and support striking miners by raising funds and letting people know about their cause. However, they encounter difficulty when some people in the mining town do not appreciate the support of people who are so different and so outside the mainstream.

Movie Review:

This was a fantastic British film, equal parts lively comedy and emotional drama.

The film was a great way to learn more about early gay and lesbian rights in 1984 England, and also learn more about the time during Margaret Thatcher’s era when miners were on a bitter strike across the country for almost one year.   The writers did a wonderful job weaving in the historical facts combined with more personal elements that may have been more loosely based on fact.

The film included real life stories of real life characters, and they were brought to the screen by an amazing collection of actors young and old. The ensemble cast was fantastic, and helped create an electric feel to the story that was educational, fun, and moving.

This was an emotionally powerful movie. There were sharp points when people said some pretty nasty things about lgbt people, and yet it’s all part of the historical reality when it comes to the evolution of lgbt rights. It is important we learn from stories such as these, and when we can see how lgbt rights fit into other groups and their rights as well.

Overall, this was a funny, thoughtful, and touching story, and can be enjoyed by a variety of audiences.

Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars.

Movie Review – The Imitation Game (2014) — September 10, 2015

Movie Review – The Imitation Game (2014)

Movie Review – The Imitation Game (2014)

imitation_game

Movie Synopsis:

In this movie inspired by true events, mathematician Alan Turing is brought into the employ of the British forces to try and decode secret German messages and help turn the tide of war during WWII. However, as Turing works, his unorthodox approaches and different personality mean he will have a difficult time building a team and getting the support from leadership he needs to fully develop a potential solution through to conclusion.

Movie Review:

This was a great film that provided a wonderful insight into secret activities that happened during WWII. The storyline focused on the activities of Turing and his colleagues during WWII, and while some artistic license may have been taken, the result overall is a fairly good portrayal of what some of the action looked like, well still giving the viewer a cinematically enjoyable experience.

It also highlighted some of the challenges of the time, and provided insight into how people who were different were treated. For example, Alan Turing’s personality was likely the result of autism, and because that was not acknowledged or diagnosed, Turing was never given support or understanding. Furthermore, the way Turing was treated post WWII, when his homosexuality was discovered, was both disturbing and cruel. The film did a nice job showcasing the sad realities of how society was when it came to mental illness and lgbt issues.

Acting in the film was fantastic, with Benedict Cumberbatch delivering a superb, powerful, and emotional performance in Alan Turing, and Keira Knightley portraying a sensible and smart Joan Clarke.  Supporting cast members also did a fantastic job.

Overall, this was an enjoyable, eye-opening, and informative film into the actions by a group of people that helped turn the tide in WWII, and the unfortunate after effects that saw societal exclusion hurt one of the heroes post WWII.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars.